Friday, September 16, 2016


She wanted to.  She didn't know how.  When she married my father, orphaned at four, who probably didn't know how either, she bought, or someone gave her, The Jewish Cookbook.  It started with instructions on how to make chicken soup: "Take one old hen..."

My Aunt Celia, my father's oldest sister, did know how.  She lived across the street from us, and she made kishka and slivovitz and pickled herring, and bought live chickens from the kosher butcher.  So there were new pots and dishes and silverware to buy, dedicated only to meat or to dairy food, because the Jewish people never "simmered a calf in its mother's milk."  My mother, the softest heart who ever lived, faithfully plucked and salted and rendered and separated, until Aunt Celia surreptitiously appeared at our back steps to ask for a ham sandwich, which of course we didn't have.  By the time I was five, and had any memory of this, my mother used one pot and one set of dishes, and gave my Aunt Celia anything she wanted if we had it.  Somehow her sweetness moved the butcher to give her the finest meat, the freshest chicken, free chicken feet for chicken soup, free liver and kidneys "for the cat" we didn't have, free gristly, marrow-y bones for the finest vegetable soup I've ever tasted, or ever hope to taste.

My mother had been raised, during her important teenage years, in Cuba, where she went to Catholic school and learned the Jesus fables, Christmas carols, how to be a Christian without being one.  Always she had a fondness for the stories of the mother and the child, the birth in the stable, the softness and gentleness of most of the story.  Here, in Staten Island, where she lived as a married woman, she longed to belong to something, some religion, but my father, the cranky prizefighter orphan, mad at God for good reason, disdained the Temple, acted badly there the few times he came with her, threw the rabbi down the stairs of our apartment -- could I be remembering this right? -- when he came for a donation.  So we had no religion in our house, really, and my mother's dealings with God, if she had any, were her own, and strictly private.

In her last days, a local rabbi visited her in the hospital, and at her funeral, told me how he had admired her "courage."  She had told him that she knew she had cancer, but pretended she didn't know to let us go on telling her that she'd get better.  He told me that she was "so brave" that he used her as an example of courage to his congregants.  She would have liked that, I think, though maybe not.  She was so private, lived through us, was proud of us, though rarely, if ever, I think, proud of herself.

She was buried Jewish, of course, in a plot where she would be next to my father, and t o us, her daughters, if we wanted to be there.  But our lives went on in their own ways.  My baby sister was cremated when cancer took her life.

There's a spot dedicated to me, if I want it, in a fancy suburban cemetery, miles away, next to my own husband and daughter, already there.

So what is "Jewish," anyway?  It's a long, long, long history of being "the other," a bone-deep idea of a God who's all-too-human, a feeling of difference and belonging, an almost uncanny ability to "know one when you see one," though the supposed outward signs are missing.  My loving, emotionally lonely Mommy must have wanted to belong to that, to something, but all she could belong to

I hope that, in the end, that was enough.

I have been wanting to write about my father, but something stopped me, and in stopping me, stopped me from writing all together.  Not writing is not breathing.  All writers know this.
Having said it, why couldn't I  type “God and My Father,” or even “Food and My Father,” and begin?
It has always seemed to me that authors who fill their pages with recitals of the vagaries, cruelty, chicanery, faults and foolishness of their fathers, and their mothers,  haven’t done the main work of a writer: to make stone soup, to make the unfathomable events of our lives have meaning.
Why did my father do the things he did, why was he as he was?  I’ve turned that sow’s ear over and over in my mind.  He was unknowable to me then; he is unknowable to me now.  And yet my memory of him is as powerful as a Rembrandt painting.  He was the force, the drama that drove my childhood.

The story I wanted so much to tell about him was scary and funny, but somehow touching too.  It took place at the table – almost all my childhood memories were at the table – and it was the day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of all.

These are things my father liked to eat: sour cream, sour cream with jello, sour cream with everything,  (“Sour cream is good; jello is good; sour cream and jello are good.”), corn on the cob with butter (he’d eat the kernels and then suck and chew the cob he loved it so much!), crumb cake (he would eat the crumbs and leave the rest to us), marble cake (he liked to carve out the chocolate part; we got the rest), Whitman’s chocolates that my Uncle Fred brought every Friday night, courting my pretty Aunt Rosetta (my father got first dibs, the nuts and Jordan almonds).  In our house
he was the Monarch, the Emperor of the table..

When he was little, his family was so poor that he took mamaliga sandwiches to school for lunch.  What was mamaliga?  A kind of cornmeal mush, I thought.  My father never enjoyed Christmas -- and yes, we celebrated Christmas; my mother loved Christmas -- and disdained his gifts.  His
usual comment was: “I don’t want anything.  You wasted your money?”  But one Christmas, out of ideas,  I surprised him with a dish of  homemade mamaliga, or what I thought was mamaliga.  He did a double-take, and laughed out loud, thanking me with genuine good humor --not his usual mood at all.

My mother was a stupendous cook; my father ate hugely, competitively, fought for the best piece, the biggest part, the gristliest soup bones.  Of course, the only time in the calendar that good Jewish men, bar mitzvah-ed or no, are not supposed to eat is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when God opens the book of life and inscribes the names of those who will make it through the year, and those who will not.

We were far from religious.  My mother would have liked to be a Temple lady, but my father would have none of it.  The few times that he consented to go, he acted badly, spoke too loud, criticized, did whatever he felt like doing to express his boredom and disapproval.  We had little money and the Temple needed money; maybe that was why he felt so uncomfortable there.
But on Yom Kippur my family -- my mother, grandfather, Aunt Rosetta, even my little sister and I -- tried to fast, or give the appearance of fasting, eating surreptitiously, feeling guilty, not really knowing, any of us, what God would think of us for flouting His commandment.

Not my father.  He sat at the table as he always did, eating lustily, smacking his lips.  But this year, the year that I remember, he suddenly pushed up from the table, waving his fork at heaven, saying, “See, God, see, I’m eating.  Yum, yum, yum!  What’re you going to do about it?”
God did nothing.
My longtime writer friend Rita Lakin once told me she’d read that any courage a woman had came to her from her father.  My father stood up to God like a mountain, taunted God, dared him to take vengeance.  How brave was that?  We, leaning back for fear of a thunderbolt, were awed.

I look at that memory now, and father was an orphan, his mother dead when he was four, his father when he was twelve, just short of his bar mitzvah, the velvet cap and miniature torah scroll still in its box.  There was the stepmother, the mamliga, the marriage at nineteen, the two girls, the whole household, the hard, hard work supporting us.   The one place he was the Master was that table.

Afterwards, when we saw that God didn't strike him dead, we laughed about it -- not where he could see us, of course -- and those of us who still remember still laugh, touched, sad a little.
I will never be as brave as him.  But I do like sour cream with everything.