Growing up in Boonton, my knowledge of Judaism was extremely limited. My friend Karen’s father was Jewish, so I it was at her house that I had my first taste of matzo. I knew nothing except that Jews celebrated Hanukkah. The Jewish population was too small for our schools to close for any of the Jewish holidays, both then and now.
Then I met Dad. He was Jewish—sort of. His father was against all forms of religion, pointing out how many lives have been lost in wars fought in the name of religion. So his family celebrated none of the Jewish religious holidays. However, Dad was raised with some of the cultural aspects of Eastern European Jews.
The first time I visited his family in Yonkers, I began to learn about the food. His mother served lunch and among the meats at the table was tongue. Tongue! I never knew of a tongue as something other than an instrument to help us swallow, not as an actual food to be chewed. Oh my! Thank goodness there were other choices. I just couldn’t do it.
When I was asked what I would like to drink, I did not realize that requesting a glass of milk as an accompaniment to my turkey sandwich was verboten. I think everyone else around the table exchanged a look before offering me some soda. Did I drink what Dad may have had the day—Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda? That first visit was a long time ago, so I am not certain. But a celery-flavored fizzy beverage and tongue on the same day? That was almost too much newness for this unsophisticated girl. I did try the soda several times, but it never appealed to me.
As our relationship continued, I was introduced to many other Jewish delicacies, and they were always at a deli. Except for tongue, I enjoyed most of the new food. We used to take you to that nice Jewish deli in Lake Hiawatha—the one with the wiggly table and the same old lady waitress. They had great pickles and corned beef sandwiches. Dad’s all-time favorite is the #3 combo—corned beef, turkey, coleslaw and Russian dressing, which he replicates as often as possible when visiting a deli. Sadly that deli is gone, and he has never found another to replace that one.
He has introduced you to matzo ball soup, latkes, and potato knishes, and some of you even enjoy your bagels with lox, but not me. I don’t do raw meat or fish except for the time I ordered “salmon fume” in Paris, stupidly not realizing it was smoked salmon.
But the best, and favorite of all “Jewish foods” is Chinese food, which I never had until I met Dad. We used to go to the Chinese restaurant in Lake Hiawatha–the one where there was a recent murder. Like all good Jews, Dad introduce us to Chinese take-out on the weekends, and now we are continuing the tradition with a Chinese smorgasbord on Christmas Day after the movies.
As for the religion, that I learned from attending Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, where I marveled at the beauty of the language, chanting, and intriguing written words. How much those kids had to learn while balancing their studies at school. It was so impressive.
I learned about sitting Shiva from the movies and after Dad’s father died. We learned about Hanukkah after his mother died and Jamie decide she wanted us to light a menorah and play dreidel in honor of her Jewish heritage.
Finally there are the great words. Oh, so many wonderful words and expressions, but too, too many for now. Another day!