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From Gefilte Fish to Banket
By Mary Jane Pories '78

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Calvin alum Mary Jane Pories '78 shared her life journey at a Homecoming chapel in February. The following is a transcription of that talk:

Father God, we need you here this morning and we expect forgiveness and we expect you to surprise us. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Good Morning. My question to you, is did you expect to be here? I was talking to my friend Marcie just a moment ago and she said, "You know I just kind of glanced at the chapel schedule, and I realized, "Oh hey, it's Mary Jane in chapel." That glance at the schedule this morning changed her plans and she decided to come. Look around you. I don't know if you expected to be here, in this place, in this chapel, at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this year, this moment, sitting next to these people. The point is, you are here.

I know I didn't expect to be here. But because I drive a Camry, I made it—very dependable car. I graduated from Calvin College in 1978; well actually that's not completely true. My friends graduated in the spring of 1978 and then I graduated in December, kind of by myself. And then a number of years later, because now years don't matter anymore, I graduated again and I knew fewer people and now as soon as I pay those loans off I intend to come back and see what you are offering and do it again. It's been a lot of fun but I didn't expect to be here either. Our expectations are not always aligned with God's plans.

I entitled my talk "From Gefilte Fish to Banket." You may be saying to yourself, "What's a gefilte fish?" Or you may not care. I am going to tell you anyway—you're here. Gefilte fish is made by taking fishmeal and mashing it all up and forming it into a sort of disgustingly shaped log and putting it into a kind of a jelly. It's all the color of cement. Then you serve that to people. That's a Jewish delicacy. Later in life, I moved here and found people cutting things up in kind of the shape a disgusting log that smelled sort of like almonds and called it "banket." And that to me is equally disgusting. That may not appear like a lot of change in my life however…

There has been a lot of movement in my life and I want to thank God for that. In preparation for today, when I was thinking about that progression, I thought about my journey through surprise with God. That's what this morning is about, expecting God to be here and expecting the surprises He has for us for a reason. This is not an accident that each one of us is here this morning.

In 1960, I was four and we were sitting in our home and there was a Christmas tree and my father was reading from Luke. He was reading the Christmas story. Now it's not that surprising to find a family reading from Luke on Christmas Eve, except that we were Jewish. It was a little bizarre. There was a menorah off to the side on the credenza. The candles were all burnt down and our gifts had been opened—eight days of fun. Now we were celebrating Christmas it was just terrific. In fact, I wondered for a minute what other holidays we might get into. My father started reading the story from Luke and just before he did he said to us, "It's no one's business that we're Jewish. You may not tell anyone we are Jewish. Because of that, you need to know these stories and we need to have a Christmas tree. You see that everybody else on the block has a Christmas tree. So, if we are going to fit in, we need to have a Christmas tree too and you need to know this story." So he started reading the story. The problem with me was as he was reading the story, and I love stories, it seemed different than all the other stories. It seemed true. At four I couldn't really talk about that, I just had a sense that somehow this story was different and I remembered it.

You see my father grew up in Germany, and when he was nine, he escaped. Sometime before that he was wearing a yellow armband and he remembers saluting Hitler in the streets of Munich. In the summers he used to go and play at a farm in the countryside, in a town called Sheyern. That stopped. The travel stopped. Lots of things stopped. His parents got frightened, but he was nine. For a young boy, it was an adventure. He thought the bright yellow armband was cool. One day my grandfather came home and my father, and his sister and his mother were all gone. The house was empty. My grandfather discovered they had all been put on a train. They were on a train for the concentration camps and if it hadn't been the fact that my grandfather fought with the German resistance and made some good friends that were Catholic, he wouldn't have been able to get false baptismal papers made up that said they were Catholic. Fortunately, too, there was some confusion with the train and the train was intercepted halted near No Man's Land. My grandfather caught up with the train, and was able to find them. He told the authorities, "You have the wrong people. These people are not Jewish. They are Catholic." My father and his family escaped to Brazil in 1939.

The family lived in Brazil for about a year. My grandfather was a pretty resourceful guy. That's important. I mean God is well and good, but you better help out, right? They were starting over and they had no money, even though they had been wealthy in Germany. My grandfather said to my grandmother one day, "I have gone and bought an apartment in the fanciest section of town." She was all upset. She couldn't imagine he was being so frivolous with what little money they had. My grandfather then went shopping. He traveled to all the garage sales and picked up what he could set out as trash on the tree lawns. I call them tree lawns. Nobody seems to know what that means. Let me explain. You have a lawn. You have a sidewalk and another lawn near the street. That's your tree lawn. People put stuff out there to throw away. The items he found there he took, fixed them up, put the finished pieces in this apartment and sold it for an exorbitant price. Because it was in the wealthiest part of town, he made a lot of money—enough money to get them to the United States. I don't think that's what they expected. In fact, I'm sure they didn't expect it. I was told this story at a young age too. Because of that, because of that fear, I was told, "You may never tell anyone you are Jewish."

So I didn't. I was obedient, at least in some things, and so I did not say a word. But then, because we weren't allowed to talk about our faith, that opened the door to other things. We had people from a lot of faiths come visit our house and I listened to their stories. I remember one time I was swimming with my sisters in a lake in upstate New York. My mother came running out and said "Get out of the lake and get dressed. I'm going to have you baptized." We were on summer vacation swimming in a lake, but we listened. We toweled off, got dressed and went over to an Episcopalian church. It was a Wednesday. The priest opened up the church. It was dark and cold inside and it was just us—my mother, the priest, me and my sisters. We had a little ceremony and we all got baptized. That was kind of strange. Unexpected. We got that little sprinkle thing and then we back to swimming again, back to summer vacation. I wondered if it wouldn't have been easier just to have the priest come to the lake.

Later we moved to Cleveland, Ohio. We moved in the middle of eighth grade. This might be hard to believe but I was not a cool kid despite by tall, blonde, good looks. In Cleveland, at Byron Center Junior High School, I met an Italian girl named Lisa. Now, in my mind, Italians were supposed to be Catholic. She was Christian Reformed—go figure. I asked her about it but I don't think she knew either. I don't think she had expected to be Christian Reformed. But, she asked me if I would like to go to church with her. Well that sounded awful, why would I want to do that? It meant I couldn't sleep in on Sunday. I was not interested. But then she said "We always have bagels after church." That was a like a wakeup call from God. Okay, maybe there is something here. I should check out. So in ninth grade I did.

You see, I really started going to church because I was hungry, literally. I started going to church, because my mother would often forget to cook. She was busy. Now, you don't have to feel sorry for me, I'm fine. My mother was the kind of person who didn't make a list when she went to the grocery store so she would come back from the store with five bottles of ketchup and no milk. That's where a list pays off. Anyway, my point is, to get an invitation to eat anywhere was an instant "yes" in all caps. So I went and sat through church and it was boring like I expected and then Sunday dinner was great, with bagels and eggs. They had the same thing every day for four years, toasted bagels and scrambled eggs. But it was good, really good. It was always there and it was the same thing. That too was good.

When I went to church it was always the same minister. Also good. In fact he's in Grand Rapids now, he is over at Fuller Avenue-George Vander Weit. I would sit in church even though at first I did not enjoy it and then I went and ate and that was nice. But what happened is the longer I went to church and ate Sunday brunch with her family, the more I got to be treated like family. That meant I was hugged and loved and prayed with and I was yelled at and disciplined and sent home. You see, Lisa and I liked to make a blue Cream of Wheat. It's not hard to make. It's just Cream of Wheat with a little food coloring. If you want to write that down it's really a lot of fun. It's more interesting than plain white Cream of Wheat. But anyway, Lisa and I would get into trouble for that and for playing music too loudly and all the rest of the stuff you get in trouble for. It was then that I started to notice a pattern. I started to notice the stability, the constancy. I started to listen and you know when you listen in church its a lot less boring; it really is. And I started to make connections. I discovered the story. You know what I'm talking about, right? You see whenever you come in during the middle of the story you don't really know what's going on, but if you stay in the story week after week, and you know the story of the congregation, and you know the story from Scripture, and you keep hearing it, and you start making connections, and things are repeated, the story starts to make sense. I discovered the story of Lisa's family too. They weren't perfect. They did lots of yelling. I mean they had strong emotions about things, but there was no doubt in my mind ever for a moment with that family that they loved each other, that they loved God, and that they loved me. They made a lot of mistakes and they'd admit it. But they loved each other, and they loved God and they loved me. And that pattern and that story didn't change. Members of the church started to know my name and I kept going back to church each Sunday.

When I got to be a senior in high school, I started thinking about my future. I knew it was bleak and I was right. I mean I wasn't allowed to tell anybody who I really was and my grades were poor. I was however eating well. It was at this point I decided that I should become a Christian. Well, as you can imagine, that was met with shouts of joy from my family. I probably should've thought a little more about how to deliver that message. Hindsight. My family didn't know what to think. You know how it is when people know you well—they have a way of discounting things. So after the initial shock, they figured that it wouldn't stick. They figured it was just another fad like the blue Cream of Wheat. Then I announced I wanted to go to Calvin. Lisa, my best friend, had decided to go to Calvin College and… in all my research it was the only school I had heard of. Here's how my research went. "Hey Lisa. Where are you going to school?" "Calvin?" "Well okay, that'll work."

Apparently my family had different plans. They said they had never heard of Calvin College. My father said, "Tell me a little bit about that school." I said, "Well it's a Christian liberal arts"...okay, well that's about as far as I got. He said that he would pick a school for me. Actually he said, "You will absolutely not attend a Christian liberal arts college. We will not talk about it again and there is no possibility. Ever. Never. Thank you for bringing it up. I hope we will remain close." He then said that I should apply to other schools, and he gave me the names of these other schools and the applications. Again let me say that I think obedience is important, but I did only fill out the application to Calvin. I accidentally lost all the applications. I mean I really did only fill out one application for this Christian liberal arts college up in Michigan. He continued to say "no, absolutely not." Then I wanted to visit. I just didn't quit. You know, looking back, I'm a little appalled at my own audacity.

At the time, my father was a doctor in Cleveland, and he taught at Case Western Reserve. What I didn't know is that he decided to go out and start a search concerning Calvin College. One day he came home and said to me, "Okay you can go. You can go to college at Calvin." I couldn't believe I was hearing my father say this to me. I was ready to go back to that lake in upstate New York and get baptized all over again. He said, "Yeah, I found out that two of my medical residents are graduates of Calvin and I called them in to my office and talked to each one of them." Then he said, "If that's what Calvin produces, you may go. Those are two of the best medical residents I have." That's all it took. And suddenly the door swung wide open and I was here, at Calvin, standing among the tallest people in the world.

We used to have chapel in the Fine Arts Center and when we all stood up to sing a song, I couldn't see. I took my mother with me on that first visit. You need to know that I am the tallest member of the family. She's 4-11, on a good day, and the two of us just looked at each other, because we couldn't see anyone else. You see, she's Jewish too, she's a Russian Jew. She's was more open than my father about religious issues. She wanted to take her daughter to college, and was willing to see this new place. She loved me and accepted my choice. Today, my father sees himself as a Catholic, my mother is leaning more towards Judaism, my older sister practices Judaism, my nephew has his Bar Mitzvah in May 2003, I am a Christian, the sister after me is a Christian, my fourth sister is an agnostic and the fifth sister is a Catholic and my brother has Buddist leaning. I pray a lot and I am grateful.

When I got to Calvin my freshman year, there were some things I didn't know. Banket was one of them. I am telling you guys that is not good food! I am sorry; I hope I am not offending anybody. I also didn't know about the Christian Reformed culture. I started vacuuming one day. You see Saturday night we had people over in our room; I was in Noordewier at the time, and there were popcorn kernels all over the floor. The next thing I'm about to tell you has never happened to me before or since. I thought I should vacuum. It didn't occur to me that the fact it was Sunday should make a difference. I started vacuuming and instantly there was a SWAT team, helicopters, you name it in my room. In Noordewier, in 1974, you apparently should not vacuum on Sunday. I didn't know that. Now I did and I was surrounded. And I said, "Oi Vay!" I blew my cover! And that's when people knew I was Jewish. I am proud of it. And I am very proud to be an alumna of Calvin College.

Maybe you didn't expect to be here this morning, but God expected you. Go in peace.

Fishladder, Inc.
Mary Jane offers interactive workshops for corporations as well as improv classes for adults and kids

River City Improv
Calvin alumni improv troupe

Homecoming 2002
Photos and screensavers of the Airband acts

Virtual Tour
See how the campus has—and has not—changed

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