Monday, February 19, 2007

Wisdom from unlikely sources

One of the difficult aspects of making aliyah is the inevitable process of parting from friends and family.   Of course phones, video-chatting and the elusive promise of discount air-fares help take some of the sting out of this leave-taking... but the truth is that the physical distance can't help but impact one's most precious relationships.

Among our closest friends in Connecticut were the Rabbi of our synagogue and his wife.  Our kids were also quite close with theirs, and the proximity of their house quite literally 'right around the corner' made for an effortless, comfortable friendship.

As luck would have it, just when we were putting our aliyah plans onto the fast-track and worrying about how to begin the process of telling our friends, the Rabbi and his wife confided in us that he had accepted a 'pulpit' out of state and that they would actually be leaving before us.

I have to admit that watching them packing up their belongings and putting their house on the market was less painful for us since we were sharing many of the 'moving pains' and could commiserate with them over the things we would both miss about the wonderful community we had shared for so many years.

One poignant story from this period that sticks in my mind was related to me by the Rabbi shortly before they moved.  It occurred while the movers were packing up the truck with our friends' belongings which had been lovingly packed into countless cardboard boxes over the previous weeks.

Midway through the process of loading the truck the Rabbi walked into his house and met one of the movers carrying a large box that was obviously quite heavy.  The mover asked, "Hey Rabbi, what's in this one?  It weighs a ton!"  The Rabbi took a quick look at the code he and his wife had written on the box in 'magic marker' (to help ensure the myriad boxes would end up in the proper room in their new house) and replied, "Oh those are just some of my books."

The mover paused in mid stride... a sad, knowing smile on his face, and said "Well wouldn't you know it... my mama was right after all.    She was always on me about books.  She said 'if you don't read them, you'll end up carrying them'.  He then shuffled off towards the truck, swaying under the weight of the boxed volumes.

There are countless lessons one could take from this story... but chief among them is probably, 'Listen to your mother'.

[If my old Rabbi/friend is reading this, please know that we think of you often and miss you and your family deeply.  Oh, and in case you were wondering what inspired this post today... pitchers and catchers reported for spring training this week.   Bring it on.  :-) ]

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Posted by David Bogner on February 19, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

With warm hands... not cold (lessons in giving)

I've learned many lessons from my parents over the years, but none so important as how to give generously without the recipient(s) feeling as though they are taking. 

The 'small gestures' of support that my sibs and I have received from my parents over the years (a 'little' help with a down-payment on a house... a hand-me-down car just when the family vehicle unexpectedly dies), have been offered as casually as one might offer a back-rub to a tired spouse or a drink of water to someone who has just come in from doing yard work in the hot sun.  This is to say, the gestures are deeply appreciated, but at the moment they are given - and received - it seems so natural as to require only the most perfunctory 'thank you'  and a smile.

I should begin by pointing out for the record that my parents are two of the most positive, life-affirming people I know.  They live almost entirely in the present and completely savor the important things in life such as family, fine dining and travel, in a manner I hope to be able to emulate. 

However, this isn't to say that their generosity has never gone off into morbid territory.  Heh heh... in fact, I haven't fully gotten over the last time it did so... mostly because it was so out of character for them.  It was at one of our frequent family get-togethers (who remembers which... Hanukkah, Thanksgiving...?), when my mom sprang the ultimate buzz-kill on her unsuspecting brood:

"Dad and I were talking about this, and we've decided that we don't want any of you kids arguing over 'things' after we're gone.  So we want you all to take these 'sticky-note' pads and go around the house putting your name on the stuff you want to inherit.  That way we'll know what to put in the will."

This announcement was met with a few seconds of incredulous silence. 

First of all... I don't think there are too many people out there who relish hearing the words "after we're gone" in any conversation with their parents.  But that aside... who the hell are they to decide whether we'll fight with each other after their gone?  I mean, think about it... if they couldn't stop us from bickering while they were - ARE! (tfu, tfu, tfu) alive, they sure as heck aren' t gonna have much luck trying to play 'UN' after they've shuffled off this mortal coil at (IY"H) 120!

I don't recall exactly what anyone said said after my mom dropped her little bombshell... but I do recall that all of us rejected out of hand the idea of selecting our inheritance with sticky notes.  I also seem to recollect telling them that I didn't want to inherit anything from them, and would prefer that they spend their last dollar in the world on something they'd truly enjoy... on say, their 120th birthday!

But seriously, I don't know how many others out there have gone through similar lapses in judgment with their kids ... but if any parents are reading this, please spare your progeny some emotional trauma and avoid making a big production out of your hypothetical-yet-inevitable departure.  Rest assured... your absence will be unbearable no matter what you do or say now, so don't even go there.   

However, this isn't to suggest that you not deal with how to distribute your stuff.  Just don't ask your kids to tell you what they'll want after you're gone... it's probably best to just rely on your own observations and intimate knowledge of your family... and like my parents (apart from that momentary insanity with the sticky notes) give as much and as often as you can with warm hands rather than cold. 

For instance, if you know that one child admires art... find an opportunity to 'notice' an empty spot on a wall at their house and let them go 'shopping' for a picture or painting at yours with which to fill it.  If another child appreciates good furniture, you can always leave him/her the choice pieces in the will... but also be aware of a cheap or aging piece in their home that might be replaced by one of yours right now. 

Does one of the kids have a special love of cooking?  Take stock of your overstuffed cupboards full of pots and pans and casually ask them if they can 'help you' unclutter your kitchen. You might be surprised to hear how they have always had incredibly strong emotional associations with a particular roasting pan, cupcake tin or serving piece that you thought of only as a 'tool'.

On the other hand, jewelry can be a potential stumbling block since it is not only intrinsically valuable, but it can also have different sentimental value to different people.  Again, the best advice I can offer is to give, wherever and whenever possible with warm hands rather than cold... using intuition and intimate knowledge as your guide. 

For example, a relatively inexpensive piece of jewelry that is worn frequently may be a treasured heirloom in the eyes of a child or grandchild who associates it with the essential 'you'... while a gaudy jewel-encrusted bauble or heavy gold piece that you were always too worried or self-conscious to wear out of the house may have no sentimental value whatsoever to those you will one day leave behind.

If you know a particular watch, pair of earrings or necklace has always caught a family member's eye, casually hand it to them over lunch... not as their inheritance, but as a spontaneous gift of love.  I so enjoy seeing Ariella turn up with a 'new' pair of earrings that Zahava has given her in a private moment of love.  I know that she will always cherish not only the physical item, but also the memory of when, and how it was given.

I hope that as my kids get older and have families of their own, they will be as effortlessly generous with their children as mine were - ARE! (tfu tfu tfu) - with me.

I know that Zahava's mother would have preferred to also do things this way with all of her little (and big) treasures, but the rapid progress of her ovarian cancer barely gave her time before she passed to write up a coherent list of what each of her children and grandchildren (some not yet imagined, much less conceived) should receive.

Just remember... the one thing you have that can never be equitably divided is the real and essential you.  This is one of those odd mathematical miracles that will (with luck) bequeath to each of those you will eventually leave behind the feeling that they were the sole beneficiary.

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Posted by David Bogner on February 6, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Two truths and a lie...*

...or perhaps the other way around.  You decide:

[Today's real post has been indefinitely relegated to the 'cooling-off' file.  Sorry.]

1.  I drank my very first full cup of coffee (as opposed to taking a sip of other people's coffee and grimacing) when I was 20 years old.

2.  After a 'hazy' weekend spent in Tijuana with some sailor buddies, I once woke up with a marriage certificate stuffed in my pocket bearing my name and the name of a woman I had no recollection of ever meeting.  I haven't been back to Mexico since.

3.  I didn't have a 21st birthday.  I lost it while my ship was crossing the International Date Line.

Fellow bloggers/journalers: Feel free to try this one out on your own readership.

* shamelessly ganked from Lachlan

Posted by David Bogner on January 30, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Monday, January 01, 2007

A year of wine... not just bubbles.

Here are a few odds and ends for the first morning of the [secular] new year:

1.  I feel like I totally caved by feeling compelled to insert the word 'secular' in brackets (above).  However, I know from experience that if I didn't do it, some zealot would bend my ear about "this isn't our new year, it is 'hukat hagoyim', yadayadayada...".  Note to zealots:  Please get over yourselves.  Unless you write '5767' on your mortgage checks you have absolutely no reason to get your panties in a twist over a total stranger (me) mentioning the start of 2007.

2.  I woke up feeling a bit nostalgic this morning... not so much for those innocent days when I had to beg my parents to let me stay up to watch the ball drop on TV and have a sip of 'Cold Duck'.  OK, maybe there was a little bit of that too... but mostly I got nostalgic for those moon-bats who created a whole cottage industries around Y2K back in 1999.  Remember them?  Not the computer geeks who actually had something constructive to do to make sure all our software kept working when the big odometer turned over... but rather the self-appointed prophets who came out of the woodwork to run $eminar$ on how to survive in the howling wilderness that would be left after civilization as we knew it came to an end.  These clowns were literally omnipresent, telling us to build shelters and stock them with food and weapons... convert our savings to precious metals... buy electrical generators and enormous fuel tanks to run them.  One pundit even predicted that in the wake of Y2K Duct Tape would become the new currency!  Where are these idiots now?  What turned out to be the next big batch of snake oil they went on to sell?

3.  Zahava and I didn't manage to stay up 'til midnight last night (old fuddy-duddies' that we are), but before I drifted off I was surfing my regular reads and noted a little tidbit on 'Book of Joe' about how to make your Champagne more bubbly.  Helloooo, is this really a problem?  Is there really a chronic lack of bubbles in the typical glass of sparkling wine?  Now don't get me wrong, I'm a HUGE Joe-head and usually can't get enough of the stuff he posts, but this one just didn't speak to me.  For those too lazy to click over, the solution is to wipe down the inside of the glass with a cloth or paper towel before pouring the Champagne.  The microscopic hollow bits of cellulose left on the glass apparently "act as 'nucleation' (bubble formation) sites".  My personal take on this is that anyone who feels the need to coax excessive bubbles from their 'bubbly' probably considers it more of a prop than a beverage.   Missing the point, people... missing the point.  [shakes head]

To everyone out there who is reading this on the groggy morning of 01/01/07, Happy [secular] New Year!  Look outside and marvel at the fact that civilizations continues to purr along quite nicely, thankyouverymuch... and if there is anything effervescent left in the fridge after last night's bacchanalia, pour yourself a bit and raise your glass to a year filled with wine... not just bubbles.

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Posted by David Bogner on January 1, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A memory of James Brown (May 3rd 1933 - December 25th 2006)

The music business lost its hardest working member yesterday.  It seems James Brown, the 'Godfather of Soul', has finally taken a break after a lifetime of hard work and legendary performances.

The following story about James Brown came to me third hand via a guitar player I know:

We were playing the Jerry Lewis telethon one year in the 70's and James and his band were supposed to go on at some specific time, let's say 3:00.  All the bands were asked to arrive an hour early to be sure they were directed to the proper stage, set-up, sound-checked, etc. 

Well, by 2:00, no James, no band.  2:15...2:30...nothing.

Suddenly, at around 2:45, two extremely dirty, noisy and rusting old automobiles that looked like they came from a 1940's movie came screeching into the studio parking lot.  Out from the cloud of dust emerged six very messy looking people who appeared to have driven all night and day and slept in their raggedy clothes (which, in fact, they had).  Five of the six grabbed their instruments - guitar, bass and amps (not even in cases), drums and horns, and with a cool air mixing indifference and joy, they sachet their way into the building.  The sixth one was James, strutting behind them.

No time for a sound check, no time to even tune up.  The guitarist and bassist plopped down their amps, sharing some joke between them.  The horn players found some stage microphones.  The drummer slapped his rickety hardware together in about 5 minutes, leaving about 60 seconds until airtime.  We (The house band for the telethon) were watching the scene, wondering what the hell this unkempt and exhausted gang would do next.

We didn't have long to wonder as we were instantly blown away by the baddest, funkiest, kick-ass groove we had ever witnessed.  We just stared... all our jaws dropped.  James and his band drove through their set with passion and perfection, nailing every note, every punch, every hit, and reminding everyone why they were the best R&B backline on the planet.

15 loud and proud minutes later, the show was over.  The six of them picked up their pawn-shop-looking gear and dragged themselves back to the waiting cars, muttering something about getting to Virginia by 8:00. 

The guitar player from the telethon band (from who this story was passed) said there was a large pool of sweat on the floor and a stench that lasted the rest of the day... but also a memory of seeing the type of music and attitude born of pain and gospel truth that creates legends.

Rest well JB... you've earned the break.

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Posted by David Bogner on December 26, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, December 25, 2006

It's a guy thing

There's just something about a barbershop.  I'm not talking about those precious salons you'll find in tony, gentrified neighborhoods or the shiny plastic 'super-cuts' at the mall.   No, I'm referring to the venerated, exclusively-masculine institutions that smell of talc, bay rum and hair tonic;  A barbershop.

When I lived in the US I frequented a few different barbershops, depending on whether I found myself in Connecticut or New York City when the need for a trim arose... but they all shared these common features (in no particular order):

Storefront location - Whoever heard of a barber shop on a second floor or inside an office building?  Unthinkable!  Half the charm is the walk-in traffic and having passers-by be able to see you tipped back there in the chair.  This is a social occasion!

Old fashioned chairs -  No improvements of any consequence have been made in the barber's chair since about 1930.  They need to swivel, go up and down, recline (with reversible foot pad for ankle comfort while tipped back), and weigh roughly a half ton.  A respectable barber shop will have a minimum of two or three such chairs... even if only one barber is on duty at any given time.

Additional seating - Those who are 'on deck', as well as the inevitable retirees who congregate in barber shops to gossip, must have ample seating in vinyl seats (with chrome trim) as well as a few handy Formica side tables strewn with newspapers and sporting/motoring magazines.

Pictures - Any barber shop worth its salt must have faded photographs on the walls showing haircuts that have been out of fashion for at least two decades.  A minimum of one 'mullet' picture is de rigueur!

Barbicide (no, this doesn't mean 'killing your barber after a bad haircut') -  The counter under the mirror must have at least two vats of this mysterious blue liquid with combs and scissors soaking in them.  Never mind that the comb and scissors the barber used for you were grabbed off the counter.  Not seeing that magical blue sanitizing liquid there in plain sight is a deal breaker!

Razor & Strop - When I was a kid I loved watching the barber 'fix' the edge of his straight razor with a few confident swipes at the leather strop hanging from the side of the chair.  He did this after he had used a badger brush (or his thumb) to dab warm shaving cream on the back of your neck and behind your ears.  One of my most closely kept secrets (until now, that is) is that the only reason I grew a beard when I became observant was so I could continue letting the barber use the straight razor on my neck (front and back) without worrying that he would accidentally stray to one of the areas forbidden under Jewish law.  These days for hygienic reasons most barbers use a straight razor handle fitted with disposable blades... but finding a barber who uses an autoclave for his collection of fine old straight razors is a rare treat indeed.

Hot towels - Even if you aren't getting a shave, having a hot towel from the warmer/humidifier tossed on your face and/or neck for a few minutes gives you a whole new lease on life!  Any airline that would give me a hot face towel at the end of the flight (instead of just a skimpy hand-cloth) would have a customer for life!

Wisdom - George Burns once remarked that it's "too bad the only people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair."   Truer words were never spoken.  In my humble opinion, anyone who complains about a too-talkative barber is probably one of those sad cases who thinks he has nothing left to learn.  Along with the whole visual and olfactory experience of visiting the barbershop, one should come to the occasion prepared to soak up all sorts of wisdom... supplemented by additional commentary and sub-text provided by the retirees hanging out in the 'on deck circle.  I recall vividly going to the barbershop with my dad when I was perhaps 6 or 7 and imagining I would one day be wise enough to join the banter of these learned sages.  I still do far more listening than talking.

In the old city of Beer Sheva, not far from my office, there are at least five barbershops within a two block radius of one another that fit most or all the criteria I have listed above.  I try not to play favorites, but in truth I end up going to one in particular most of the time for the following reasons:

a) All of the other barbers seem to wander over to this shop when their trade gets slow in order to soak up the wisdom (basically catch up with the latest gossip).

b) The owner of the shop is an older Moroccan man who speaks in the slow, deliberate, richly accented Hebrew of an immigrant, even though he moved to Israel in 1964. 

c) He has two fine old barber chairs but I have never seen another barber at work there.  This means that while I wait my turn I can stretch out in the other barber chair and have a short snooze.  Inevitably the owner will pause from whoever he is working on to toss a couple of hot towels over my face and neck even if I'm just there for a trim.

d) All the barbers in the old city keep to the old habit of closing down for a few hours in the middle of the day and then re-opening from 4:30 until 7:30 or 8:00PM.  This allows me to wander over after work and not feel rushed.

e) I find myself drawn back there for a haircut when I feel news-starved, not necessarily when I need a haircut.

Guys, feel free to share... I'd love to hear about your favorite practitioners (and memories) of the tonsorial arts.  Girls, just relax... I don't necessarily expect you to contribute.  Just as we don't 'get' the 34 pairs of identical black pumps you have in your closet or your never-ending search for the perfect little formal black handbag... I don't expect you to 'get' this whole barbershop thing. 

Trust me, it isn't supposed to make sense. 

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Posted by David Bogner on December 25, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Monday, December 18, 2006

A guilty seasonal tradition

Every year about this time I make some reference to a guilty little pleasure of mine... something in which I have continued to indulge since moving to Israel: 'Holiday' music.

Growing up in New England you can't really avoid being exposed to the onslaught of holiday music that pours from every radio, television and mall loudspeaker from Thanksgiving (now Halloween) on.

I wasn't even aware to what extent I had internalized these 'classics' until I was cruising around the western Pacific on a ship one December in the Early 80s and realized I didn't miss the cold... I didn't miss the snow... I didn't even really miss eggnog back then.  I missed the Xmas music!

Remember, this was before Mariah Carrie and every other 'name' started churning out Christmas albums.  I'm surprised William Shatner didn't grace us with one of his own!

Anyway, I'd been listening to the classic seasonal music for so long that it had become like the thrill of the first pick-up baseball game of spring... the taste of sweet corn in late summer... the smell of burning leaves in fall.   In short, it wasn't December without that music!

I'm not a purist by any means.  I loved quirky hits like 'Grandma got run over by a reindeer' and 'Jingle Bell Rock' every bit as much as the more traditional 'Sleigh Ride' and 'Chestnuts Roasting on an open fire'.  And this is before I realized that a lot of the Christmas music was actually written by Jews (think 'White Christmas' by Irving Berlin')!

As I write this (at 5:55AM), Zahava is still asleep next to me and I have Vince Guaraldi's 'Charlie Brown Cristmas' soundtrack playing softly on iTunes.  She's also a child of the northeast, but I don't know if she shares my soft spot for the seasonal musical saccharine.

A recent favorite of mine is by the late Wesley Willis, a former homeless schizophrenic who attained cult status back in the 90's with his peculiar brand of song-writing. 

Here it is: 'Merry Christmas', (it also has a cute animated video).

Lastly, just so you don't think I'm a total sucker for anything seasonal... here is arguably the worst Xmas song ever recorded.  It is an amateur recording of 'Oh Holy Night' (Steve, of 'The Sneeze' called it, appropriately, 'Oh Holy Crap!') Please listen to the end as each time you think it can't possibly get worse... it does.  If you need a good belly laugh, give it a listen.

Happy Hanukkah!

Posted by David Bogner on December 18, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Monday, August 21, 2006

Holidays with Uncle Phil

With the month of Elul bearing down on us, it won’t be all that long before it’s Rosh Hashanah 5767, followed by the Big Parade o’ Yomim Tovim.

Holidays are times for families to get together.  There has been a lot written in the American press about holiday angst, and it has been the topic of several films in the last few years...but, almost without exception, the major angst-inducing holidays are not Jewish holidays.  At least, that has been my experience.  Your mileage - and life story - may differ.

When I think about family get-togethers, I tend to think about Pesach more than, say, Rosh Hashanah, or Sukkot.  Or Tisha b'Av, for that matter.  Pesach is a family-centric holiday, and Pesach was a holiday that we never failed to celebrate, even if in our own half-baked (you should excuse the expression) manner.  And when I think about Pesach, I always think about my Uncle Phil and Aunt Marge.

Regular readers of my site may remember Uncle Phil, my mother’s older brother. My first experience of loss took place when Phil took his family and moved from New York to Florida...right about the same time the Brooklyn Dodgers made their move to Los Angeles: a double whammy! It was a real trauma for me at the time, because I loved my cousins – the move meant that we would see them once a year instead of every week. I can still remember watching their car pull out of our driveway for the last time. I was five years old.

But because our visits became less frequent, they took on the aura of something special...something almost exotic. Our annual weeks-long visit to Florida meant an overnight with my cousins and the chance to sleep in a bunk bed. A bunk bed! As a little kid, I loved bunk beds, probably because sleeping in one was a once-a-year event. Summer camp, and later, college dorm living, would eventually cure me of any nostalgic affection for bunk beds...but for the young Elisson, a night in a bunk bed was an adventure.  I’d be in one bunk and my cousin Andy in the other, and we’d swap stories late into the night.

Years later it was at Phil’s house that I watched the Apollo moon landing. And it was on Phil’s boat, out in Biscayne Bay, that I learned the truth of the proverb, “Jews are a desert people. They should not own boats.” But that’s a story for another blogpost.

Phil used to run a hobby shop, selling chemistry sets, stamps and coins, and what-not. The hobby stuff eventually disappeared as the business mutated into a scientific equipment exporting firm, but I loved that little shop. What kid doesn’t love a hobby shop?

My uncle had a neighbor back in the 1980’s who worked as an artist for the Archie Comics Group. And one day, Phil showed up as a bit player in a “Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch” comic book. The name of the story (from Number 76, the November 1982 issue) was “Professor Pither’s Pill” – an innocent enough title until you realized that the Professor had a lisp. So Archie Comics was not above slipping a little excretory humor into their books if you looked closely enough.

In the story, Sabrina her own self goes walking into Phil’s hobby shop and has a brief conversation with him. And, I gotta admit, Bob Bolling (the artist) nailed Phil perfectly. Too bad all this was before Sabrina got popular enough to have her own TV series.


Phil meets Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch.

But we were talking about Pesach, weren’t we?

Those lengthy Florida vacations we took back in my Runny-Nose Days inevitably meant spending part of Passover with Phil and Marge, who would host a memorable Seder meal.  Already wound up from the excitement of seeing my cousins, I would eagerly await sundown on Seder night – a chance to drink a few sips of the Elusive Fruit o’ th’ Vine, to eat matzoh slathered with charoset, and to eat gefilte fish with a load of horseradish sufficient to water the eyes and shorten the breath.

I loved those Seders. Not that they were “ritually correct” in any significant way.  Yeah, we did the major stuff.  We read the Haggadah – well, the first half, anyway.  We ate the matzoh and bitter herbs.  We dipped the vegetables in salt water.  But I’m sure there was a lot we glossed over.  I mean, my family’s level of Jewish Observance was such that we would, like as not, order in a pizza for the second Seder – if we had ever bothered to have a second Seder.

But we always had fun Chez Phil ’n’ Marge.  One night, our cousins’ dog, an evil-tempered shtick dreck dachshund yclept Rembrandt, bit a chunk out of my kid brother’s hand.  Yes, Rembrandt: the model of the Temperamental Artiste, creating Living Sculpture.  It made for an exceptionally exciting Seder, and Bro still carries the scar.  Maybe the rotten little beast did not care for the brisket...

And, after all these years, I still carry the sense-memories.  Pesach, Rosh Hashanah - it matters not what holiday it is.  Every yontiff, as the perfume of simmering chicken soup wafts through the house and the pong of freshly-opened Gold’s horseradish attacks the sensitive nasal lining, those memories bubble up from deep inside me, and I remember with love all of those Seder meals long past.  All of those grandparents who no longer walk this planet.  My mother, SWMBO’s father, both of blessed memory.

And I think of the ones who are still with us - like Uncle Phil and Aunt Marge - keyn ayin ha-ra - and I treasure them.

Posted by Elisson on August 21, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Southern fried Yiddishkeit

Jews in the Southern United States used to be pretty thin on the ground, but they have had an impact on local culture that goes back well before today’s popularization of that famously Jewish food, the bagel.

Many regional department store chains got their start as Jewish-owned dry-goods businesses. Go to any medium-sized Southern city and you will find that there remain clothing stores with distinctively Hebraic-sounding names. Not all of these survive – in many cases, all that is left is some faded paint on the side of a downtown building, memorializing a family livelihood long gone.

When I first moved away from the Northeast back in (gasp!) 1974, I had to adjust to a whole new paradigm of Jewish life. In Houston, there was a thriving Jewish community, but it was a mere drop in an ocean of Texas gentiles. And the familiar accents were replaced by something...different. “Y’all come on over – we’re havin’ a barbecue this Shabbes. The gantzer mushpucker will be there...except for Cousin Sidney. He’s a smuck.”

Yeah, hearing that Texas accent was a little freaky...as was, a few years later, hearing Yiddish phrases spoken by people from Memphis in what was by then a familiar Southern drawl.  It became clear to me that the South had had an impact on its Jews just as its Jews had had an impact on it.

I thought of that peculiar Southern Jewish cultural amalgam as I was making breakfast one day last week.

There’s an old Romanian dish that still serves as classic Comfort Food to Eastern European Jews: Mamaligeh. The spelling varies, but the concept is the same. Cornmeal mush, AKA polenta, served up in traditional fashion with cottage cheese and sour cream. Here’s a typical recipe:

Romanian Mamaligeh

4 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
½ cup milk
2 tsp butter

Combine water and salt in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Add cornmeal in a thin stream (like falling rain), stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring constantly with a long-handled spoon. Mixture will become a thick mass and pull away from the sides of the pan. To avoid lumps, don't stop stirring until done.

Add the milk and butter; stir to mix. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Once you’ve cooked up a mess o’ mush, serve it with lashings of cottage cheese and sour cream. Delicious!

Well, a few days ago, She Who Must Be Obeyed decided to breakfast upon Cheese Grits – a Southern favorite, and no chewing required!  [no chewing permitted, thanks to jaw surgery eight weeks ago.]  And that’s when the little Lightbulb o’ Inspiration lit up above my noggin.

Grits are corn. Cornmeal is corn. So why not have Southern-style mamaligeh?

I simply substituted grits for the cornmeal in the “standard” mamaligeh recipe, lobbed in some cottage cheese and sour cream, and Bingo! A breakfast dish – also great on a Sunday evening, by the way – with roots in the Deep South and in Eastern Europe...and packed with Vitamin Y.

Yiddishkeit*, baby.

[*The word “yiddishkeit” translates as “Jewishness,” as many treppenwitz readers know.  It refers to both the religious aspect of Judaism as well as its cultural accoutrements. On the Yiddishkeit index, Fiddler on the Roof is a ten; Miracle on 34th Street is about zero.]

Posted by Elisson on August 20, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack