We are Jews. We Bring Food. We Sit.

We are Jews. We Bring Food. We Sit.

“My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but I shall go on living.” Pablo Neruda

I went to pick up my friend for a movie and her 30-year-old son was found dead in bed minutes before I got there.  I have to process another senseless death. There are orphans and there are widows but there are no words for parents who lose a child.

Senseless deaths always stir up the questions of faith and fate for me. I guess it must help to believe god has a plan in the face of tragedy but that saying never works for me. It helps to have a tradition – a set of rituals to go through at a time when your brain shuts down, a religious structure to follow, to get through the unthinkable.

I am very close with my friend. I knew the son that passed away – but not the other kids or shocked family members who had started to arrive. I said to my other friend who was with me. “I’m not sure that I should be here now.“ She said “We are here for a reason. We are Jews. We sit.” That is our tradition.

This is a pretty religious Jewish family and they will follow the laws strictly. Jewish people believe in a season of sorrow. We take a lot of time to mourn and heal our souls. Normal life seems over and it is a struggle to deal with the new reality. We need time. The mourning rituals are about the great value that we place on the life of each person.

I didn’t grow up understanding the Jewish traditions and the death ritual seemed bizarre to me. After a funeral service you go back to the house and laugh and tell stories about the person who passed away. Everyone is eating, deli platters and dry Jewish pastries. In fact, every Jewish event in Brooklyn, came with a deli platter. – the births, after the bar mitzvahs and the deaths. There was some weird cycle of life familiarity when I saw them bringing in the platters of corn beef, turkey, coleslaw, potato salad, pickles and lox of my childhood and family events.

It is an ancient custom for loved ones and friends to visit the mourners after the funeral.  The mourning period is called shiva and it means seven. The mourners sit and have visitors for seven days. It is a time to remember and tell the stories. They sit in my friend’s house which carries her son’s spirit so  that the memories will come more easily. It is important to do this to let the family know he will be remembered in our hearts always. Bobby  would have wanted us to be laughing. Bobby would have loved the stories.  It is emotionally and spiritually healing to have mourners and friends around for this time. If you are religious, you sit on small stools, to show that something has changed and to be close to the earth.

The first meal after the funeral is the most important. It is brought by friends and family. You must eat now to affirm life. You must eat because it signifies that you must go on.

We have a prayer that we say called the Mourner’s Kaddish. It is not in Hebrew but in Aramaic, which was the language of the people at that time. It has been said for centuries and there is some comfort in that link to the past. Praying is not easy for me, yet I have no problem saying this one since my mother passed away. I say it and talk to her at the same time. We have the same conversation each time. She says ”What are you doing in temple on such a beautiful day?”

But I also say it for other people who have died. I said it last week for the people in Charleston. I said it and thought however painful and unfair life can be, I hope their families can find a way to make their life good again. Not to forget their loss but to go on different than before.

I will say it often now for Bobby and his family, for the HUGE empty space in their hearts and for a sorrow so big it feels like it will never go away.

Fly safe Bobby

JAZ

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The Delicatessen – Growing Up In New York

The Delicatessen- Growing Up in New York

“As I see it, there are two kinds of people in this world; people who love delis and people you shouldn’t associate with.” Damon Runyon

I just saw Deli Man. a documentary film that chronicles the delicatessens that opened up in the twenties on the lower east side of New York City. . They started as German restaurants. As the Eastern European Jewish immigrants began coming to America they brought the foods of Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Poland and Russia. The film tells the stories of  the rise of the delis and the Jewish immigrants. Their success and technology erased the old traditional urban blocks with everything you need run by mom and pop storefronts and delis on every block. In the 1930s New York had fifteen hundred Jewish delis. Now there are about twenty left. As the Jewish population assimilates and we all become foodies, we don’t just eat Jewish food anymore.

In other cultures  such as Mexican, Italian and Asian, there are always new immigrants coming in and cooking and wanting the food from their countries. There is no more Eastern European Jewish culture. The ones who live here have assimilated and the Holocaust took care of the rest. The Deli Culture is dying out.

There were two or three small delis on a block where I was growing up. There were larger deli restaurants as well. The people who worked in the delis had been there forever. They were the old timers and warranted a certain amount of respect. There was a kind of familiarity that the waiters and waitresses had – like they knew you for your whole life, even if they didn’t. They could be funny, mildly insulting and roll their eyes while you ordered everything on the side or asked for the fat to be cut off the corn beef.

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I was brought up on natural and health foods at a time that no one was. People who ate like this and exercised regularly were called heath nuts. Now they are called normal. Everyone that I knew except my family was eating Wonder Bread, Hershey Bars, Frosted Flakes and drinking Cokes and lemonade.There was no Whole Foods or McDonald’s.

We had fruit and vegetable stores so we always had plates of fresh sliced fruit and vegetables after school – not that anyone wanted that, but it was there so we ate it. We made our own candy out of peanut butter, raw coconut and honey. It was definitely more fun to make it with our hands than eat it. Our package desserts included Fig Newtons and something inedible called halvah. (It wasn’t till I went to Turkey that I found out that when it was served fresh it was delicious.) I thought Fig Newtons were inedible also. I can’t believe they are still around. We had some green herbal thing in a salt shaker that they tried to pass off as salt. We drank orange juice and we could have had a V8 instead of the cokes we longed for. We ate meat that was very rare, sometimes it looked right off the cow – blood for the blood. I don’t think I ever ate brisket until I was much older and to this day I do not like potted meat (in Yiddish gedempte flaisch)

We did not eat out because the kitchens were dirty and unsanitary in most restaurants – according to my father. It was before the rating system and they probably were. We did not use aerosol sprays because he said there was a hole in the atmosphere – something only he knew about so I was sure it was untrue. We did not have a car because it caused pollution and had to ride our bikes everywhere or take public transportation. Everyone else had cars. I was sure he was wrong about that as well.

But for some reason, delis were ok. I never asked why. Maybe it was the food of their childhood, their parents who I never met, the lower East Side of Manhattan – food they knew. We could have knishes, blintzes, sour pickles from a barrel, frankfurters, muenster cheese, peppery roast beef and they would let us order a chocolate egg cream. Occasionally we would have pastrami and corned beef sandwiches on fresh rye bread.  We ate a lot of smoked fish. Those small smoked golden white fish  had a lot of bones but they tasted good and I guess they were cheap. We were not rich and lox was expensive even then. My mother would buy a ¼ lb of lox and could easily feed six people on bagel and lox sandwiches that were mostly cream cheese. I think those neighborhood delis probably kept me alive because there was not much I was eating at home. I stopped in one every day.

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We could not have salami or bologna because “we didn’t know what was in it and there were probably chemical additives”. I grew up bringing ham sandwiches to school for lunch and lying and saying it was bologna because the Jewish people in my neighborhood did not eat ham. We used to eat Lithuanian black pumpernickel bread. I dreamed about having white bread sandwiches like everyone else. I’m not much of a bread person now unless I see that black whole grain bread of my childhood and then I can eat the whole loaf. Mayonnaise on meat still grosses me out and I’ve lived in California for a long time.

The other foods in the delis were weird to me. “What is that?,” we would ask. Stuffed kishka – skin – ew really?), chopped liver–yuk, , gribenes – fried chicken skin -uh, schmaltz, -chicken fat – gross, borscht – beet soup, (I cannot eat beets in any form), kasha –buckwheat, kreplach – dough floating in soup with liver and onions in it, kugel -noodle pudding, matzoh balls – dumplings made from matzoh that were really big and heavy), tzimmes – root vegetables and varnishkes – pasta with kasha. It all sounded awful and I’ve never liked it. But when I see it and smell it now, it always reminds me of my mom and the stories she would tell of how her mother made those foods.

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When I turned thirteen years old,  I started having summer jobs and my own money. I began going to diners, coffee shops, Italian and Chinese restaurants. I drank cokes. I ate pistachio nuts with the red dye on them that got all over your fingers, red M and Ms (we grew up in fear of red dye #2 and BHA and BHT – which was a preservative in packaged sugar cereal),  Bonomo Turkish Taffy – the kind that was really bad for your teeth and Carvel swirl ice cream cones.  I was rebelling. But NY delis were always around. You could smell the food as you walked down the street. It was the comfortable smell of my childhood and I thought it would always be there.

With the demise of Delis and  the Yiddish language comes the loss of our Eastern European cultural roots. With the pursuit of complete assimilation into American culture, and the absence of new Eastern European Jewish immigrants, we lost our history and we are losing our food.

I did not pass on the cultural traditions and Yiddish phrases of their grandparents to my children. They don’t know about their life on the lower east side of NY in the thirties and forties. They don’t know the stories from Yiddish theatre and vaudeville that my mother used to tell or the Eastern European melodies I heard growing up.  They don’t know the old Jewish comedians, the Borscht Belt, the Catskills or that we were the people of the clarinet. But they do know a good pastrami sandwich and a black and white cookie and that Nate and Al’s Deli makes a delicious chicken soup when you are sick.

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Fly safe,

JAZ