Shmoozing With the Word Mavens


Day of winter a blip on the weather calendar
February 1, 2016, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Twenty-three inches of snow ago, we were feeling pretty smug. We were proud that we didn’t waste money on a January vacation to the Riviera Maya like some of our friends did. We were glad we didn’t prepay for discount lift tickets at Jack Frost, whose ski trails were bare. We wondered whether anyone was buying the marked-down mittens and scarves at the post-Christmas sale when it was 70 degrees outside. We felt bad for the kids who wouldn’t have a snow day and the TV weather anchors who had to fake enthusiasm for a seven-day forecast of nothing but mid-40s temperatures and gray skies.

We thought winter would never come, that it would be like a magical fairy tale: We would wake up one day, after a few months of mild weather, and it would be April. All the cherry trees that prematurely flowered, the daffodils that poked up tenuous shoots, and the fat birds that just gave up trying to fly south because it wasn’t that cold anyway would be proven right. We had just skipped over winter.

Whenever we selfishly felt happy for the unseasonable warmth, we also had a pang of guilt about the polar bears and the shrinking ice caps. We would worry about the ecologically damaged world we are leaving for our children, but we enjoyed running errands in just a sweater.

We read the Jan. 19 Inquirer article reporting that 2015 “was by far the hottest year in 136 years of record keeping. For the most part, scientists blamed manmade global warming, with a boost from El Niño.”

This was all before our big snow.

IMG_5384Like most people on the East Coast, we were ready. We moved the shovels from the garage to the back door. Even though we have food stockpiled in our pantries that could take us through any emergency, we joined the throngs of neighbors at the supermarket to buy bagels, potato chips, and a hunk of brie. Then it started to snow and blow, and it kept up for a day.

We monitored the snowfall on the backyard patio table. We had never put it away because we knew that winter wasn’t coming this year. Until last weekend, it stood dry and lonely. As the snow fell, the table’s unobstructed, flat surface became a reliable measuring spot for the blizzard. The more than two feet of snow turned it into a vast white banquet tablecloth. Its chairs became large, marshmallow lumps.

As the snow fell, we hunkered down inside, making pots of soup and chili and using up the leftover bananas to make banana bread. We read books, we watched TV, and we knitted three more balls of yarn on the huge fuzzy afghan. We uploaded the photos from last year’s vacation, deleted 1,003 emails, and cleaned out the kitchen junk drawer. We drank three bottles of wine and binge-watched the first season of Fargo.

As the snow piled up on Saturday, we scrolled through Facebook photos of kids who were excited to play in the snow and of tiny dogs that had to go out even though the snow was over their heads. This was the rare time when we were glad to have neither kids nor dogs begging us to go out.

By Sunday, the snow had stopped. We ventured outside to offer moral support to our husbands’ efforts to shovel the driveway. We unburied the cars and started the engines. We admired our neighbor’s new snow blower, bought when the blizzard was first forecast. We had cabin fever, and by 1 p.m., we ventured to the supermarket, just to have somewhere to go, but it was cleaned out of all the good snacks.

TV weather people were happy to report that last weekend’s storm dropped a season’s worth of snow in two days. We weren’t happy, but we did enjoy staying in our pjs and having a good excuse not to leave the house.

Maybe we’re just optimists, but we believe that last weekend’s snow was just a blip on the weather calendar, that it is not the start of a long, cold winter. The robin perched on the huge snow bank and the budding pussy willow bush are telling us that spring is right around the corner. We’re certain that in a few days, Punxsutawney Phil will agree with us, too.

This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday, January 29, 2016.



Svelte, Shmo or Spatula: Will the Real Yiddish Word Please Stand Up?

 

After 15 years of writing and speaking about Jewish words, we think we have a decent Yiddish vocabulary. But our audiences often surprise us with Yiddish words that are new to us, like feinshmeker. Huh? That’s how one woman described us. It means we don’t “put on airs.”  That’s good because we pride ourselves on being haimish (unpretentious).

But it’s even more confusing when the word in question isn’t Yiddish at all, like spatula.

shmuck6

At one of our book talks, we met a woman who grew up thinking that the word spatula was a Yiddish word. It was what her Yiddish-speaking Bubby called for when she was baking rugelach. It was an unfamiliar word to a child who only knew from spoon and fork, so she assumed that spatula was another one of Bubby’s foreign words. We imagine that if an Italian grandmother asked for a colander to drain the spaghetti, her grandchild might make the same mistake –and think colander is Italian.

Another woman grew up thinking that the word traipse was Yiddish. Traipse means to drag, plod, or trudge along, to wander all over the place. It is not Yiddish; its origin is unknown, although our online dictionary lists shlep, a certified Yiddish word, as a synonym. To us, traipse sounds like treif, the Yiddish word for food that isn’t kosher. These two words can only intersect in a sentence like this: “We traipsed all the way to Chinatown for an order of pork lo mein.”

shmuck4

Some people think the word svelte is Yiddish, but we wouldn’t make that mistake. Svelte sounds tall, thin, blonde and Swedish to us. We learned that it’s from the French (svelte) and the Italian (svelto), both of which mean slim or slender. We are way more familiar with the Yiddish word zaftig, which literally means juicy. It describes a full-bodied, voluptuous, rounded woman.

Everyone’s using Yiddish these days. A Walmart ad describes a shopper laden with packages as shlepping through the store. Martha Stewart refers to herself as the maven of home décor, and everyone from congressmen to CEOs use the word shmooze to describe chatting with their co-workers.

We get upset when people misuse Yiddish words, like what happened with shpilkes. It literally means “pins,” and it describes impatience and nervous energy. A child with shpilkes has ants in his pants. So imagine our surprise when a non-Jewish newspaper writer described the late Sen. Arlen Specter as a “politician with real shpilkes.” We suspect the writer was looking for the word chutzpah, because Specter was known for being a fierce fighter for the causes he believed in.

The worst offender in recent memory is Donald Trump, who said that Hillary Clinton “got shlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Besides the fact that his comment was totally rude and inappropriate, he turned a vulgar Yiddish noun for male genitalia — shlong means snake — into a verb. One doesn’t get penised by someone. It would have been more correct and a lot more polite to say, “She got klopped in the last election.” (Klop is a Yiddish word that means to smack or hit.)

Like English, Yiddish has a lot of nicknames for male private parts. Putz not only means penis but can also refer to someone who is not worthy of respect – worse than a jerk.  Putz can be a verb, it means wasting time or fooling around, as in “Stop putzing around with that stupid video game.” Shmuck is another one of those dirty Yiddish words. It means penis, but it also refers to someone who allows himself to be taken advantage of, as in: “I was a shmuck to wait an hour for her, and she never showed up.”  A shmuck is worse than a shmo, shnook or shlemiel.

When we presented our book talk (about writing our Dictionary of Jewish Words) in Harrisburg, a woman in the audience told us this story: She was waiting in line to renew her driver’s license in the PA capital building – not far from Amish country – when the woman ahead of her in line put her baby seat up on the counter. The clerk leaned over, clucked at the baby and said, “What a cute little shmuck.” The mother smiled and looked pleased. Our Jewish friend was stunned. What kind of a compliment was that?

We wondered that too, so we did a little research and found out that in German – and in Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a dialect of German – shmuck means jewel or ornament. It’s a term of endearment. Maybe that’s what the clerk meant.

In fact, we know it’s true, because we saw “mock schmuck” on a sign outside a costume jewelry store in Berlin. And if you know anyone with the last name of Shmuckler, it’s probably because their ancestors were jewelers.shmuck

When shmuck migrated to Yiddish, it came to mean “the family jewels” and took the leap from jewelry counter to slang for a body part.  In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten (the father of all word mavens) wrote, “I never heard any elders, certainly not my father or mother, use shmuck, which was regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo.” We know that if Leo Roston had heard Donald Trump’s rant – and abuse of Yiddish – he would have plotzed.

 

 

A note about spelling Yiddish words: why we write shlong rather than schlong 

Indeed schlong seems to have more oomph than shlong. It is longer with that extra “c.” But when we wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words, we took a cue from Gene Bluestein’s book Anglish/Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature, in which he points out that the “sch” sound is a basically German approach. In Yiddish, the “sch” sound is made by the letter shin, which means that the “sh” spelling is technically more correct than the “sch” version. We did list them both ways in the book, so you could be sure to find your schmendrick –even if we spell it shmendrick.



Swimming in the Shallow End of the Technology Pool
January 4, 2016, 1:33 pm
Filed under: technology | Tags: , , , , , ,

Every now and then we find ourselves asking questions that prove we’re not as hip or as with it as we think we are. And undoubtedly, when our kids read this, they’ll tell us that nobody says hip or with it anymore.

We love new apps, gadgets, and conveniences, and we marvel at the things they can do, but we don’t fully trust them. We spent decades dialing the phone, putting family photos in albums, and getting up from our chair to change the channel. No wonder swiping, clicking, and streaming can sometimes confuse us.

If we still don’t understand how Adele’s big new song can travel from England and come out of our tiny clock radio, how can we possibly comprehend how money can fly wirelessly through the air from our bank account into yours?

We’re most familiar with the old-fashioned ways of getting stuff done, so even though we use modern technology, we sometimes talk about it in outdated terms. Here are some questions that don’t need to be asked anymore, but we just can’t help ourselves:

Do you need directions to my house? That’s what we asked the painter when he called to set up a time to meet. We forgot that he’s probably been using Google Maps on his phone for years. He can even navigate around a traffic jam, change his route to the one that’s “2 minutes faster,” or look at a street view of our house before he arrives. We use the Google Maps app, but we still keep that torn, awkwardly folded map of Pennsylvania in the glove compartment. Just in case. technology6

Did you get the message we left on your answering machine? What we actually did was leave a voicemail on our friend’s cellphone. She doesn’t even have an answering machine. With her cellphone, our friend can retrieve our message while standing in line at the pet store; she doesn’t have to wait until she gets home to her kitchen. One of us still has an answering machine hooked up to her landline phone, and if the light is blinking once a month, it’s cause for excitement.

Do you have a deposit slip for that check? We transfer money between our accounts electronically, and we’ve used ATMs all over the world, but we still write and deposit the occasional paper check.technology3

 

Handing it to the teller is the only way we can be certain that it will go into our account. When one of our children asked how to best deposit a paycheck, we handed her a deposit slip. She ignored us and googled “how to put money in the bank,” downloaded the bank app, and took a photo of her check.

Our 20-something daughter paid her share of lunch by using Venmo to send $8.50 to her girlfriend. When we go out to lunch, we each put a $20 bill on the table and ask the waiter to bring us change in singles so we can leave a tip.

Do you have your train ticket? We can’t help but ask our kids this question before they head off on a journey. Inevitably their answer is, “I have it in my email on my phone.”technology

We trust electronic confirmations but only so far. When it comes to our own travel, we print out the confirmation and also scrawl AF383C on a scrap of paper just to be sure. We also print out our concert tickets and hotel reservations — just in case someone asks to see them.

Did you write down your password? Our son was alarmed that we keep a small address book filled with screen names and passwords on the desk right next to the computer. There’s an app for that, he told us. But what if our phone is dead? How will we get to the app? We keep a spare copy of our passwords in a Word document on the computer, but what if the power is out? That’s why we have to write it in the little book.

Sometimes it’s not our words but our hand gestures that give us away. Scribbling in the air is the universal sign to tell the waitress to bring the check. But when one of our husbands swirled his index finger in a circle as he said “I’ll call you,” he dated himself. To him, making a call involved putting his index finger in the corresponding hole on the phone and rotating clockwise — seven times. His childhood phone number started with letters GR7-3892 (for Greenwood), but he can’t call it anymore.technology 2

Our adult children are totally immersed in technology. They grew up with it so they have no other frame of reference. We had to explain to them how television used to have only three channels, how when you made a typo it was on the page forever, and that a quarter to 10 is 9:45. We like to think of modern technology like a swimming pool. We’re all having a great time, but while they’re frolicking in the deep end, we’re wearing swimmies and hanging on the rope — just in case.

 

 

This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, January 3, 2016



Lots of Valuable Stuff
November 2, 2015, 11:29 am
Filed under: family | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Cleaning out our parents’ and in-laws’ apartments and houses — when they’ve downsized, moved, or died — has made us vow not to put our kids through the same task. It is so difficult to sort through a lifetime of possessions. Why did our parents save all this stuff?

Some of it is “valuable” — the breakfront filled with Waterford crystal dessert bowls and sets of bone china. The shelves lined with Lladro figurines, candlesticks, and souvenir plates from their travels. Then there are the books: stacks and stacks of paperback mysteries. Glossy coffee table books on baseball and spies. A book of golf jokes. A set of encyclopedias from 1964, in case you want look up the Soviet Union, typewriters, and cassette tapes. clutter3

 

We already have more than enough. We each have three sets of dishes. We don’t have an empty wall on which to hang their art. When we get flowers, we have 10 vases to choose from. We do want to keep the photo albums, the vegetable dish we always used on Thanksgiving, and the candlesticks from Israel, but we don’t need another dining room table.

When we called in a cleanout service, they gave us depressing news: Only a few items had resale value. Would we take a few hundred dollars for the entire lot? They would be willing to haul everything away if we “donated” it.

clutter 6

After these sad chores, we were determined to reevaluate our “treasures.” We, too, have too much stuff, and we set about to sort it. We started by offering some of the items to our adult children. We were overjoyed when one child found space in his tiny apartment for the teak wood kitchen table that had been waiting for him in the attic for 23 years.

We were sure none of the kids would want the old set of encyclopedias and we could safely throw it out. But then one son thought he might like to cut out and keep some pages, like the one with flags of countries that no longer exist.

But not enough of our stuff has found a home with our children. What can our daughter do with a crystal vase and Lenox china for 12 in her rental apartment?clutter

Our kids aren’t sure what they’ll want in the future. “Hang on to that bookcase,” they tell us. It’s our decision to keep that old bureau, because down the road it will be perfect for a grandchild. That’s why we put it in the attic.

We’ve pared down the children’s books we’re saving to one plastic tub of much-loved favorites. The kids forced us to hold onto their Beanie Babies — waiting for the collectibles market to rebound.

clutter 5

When we came across the electronic chess set in the basement, which still sported a $99 price tag, we wondered — throw or keep? We found it on eBay for $2.50, so we’re proud to say we put it in that week’s trash.

We look forward to the day our children have established homes of their own. We imagine we’ll pack up their stuff and ship it to them — “Honey, a package arrived for you. Did you order Boy Scout badges, meteorites, old baseball cards, souvenir Playbills, and some old textbooks?”

It’s easy to understand why our parents kept all their stuff. It’s hard to pare down a lifetime of memories. Although not valuable, each item has value because of the memories attached. When one of us decided to clean out the attic, she was sure the clutter belonged to her husband and kids. It turned out that the charity run T-shirts, suitcases, and newspaper clippings were hers — mementos of her travel, work, and accomplishments.

We’ve made some progress on the clean-out front, but there’s definitely more to go. We’ll admit that we’re never going to move into a Tiny House or get joy from living simply with only 100 possessions. After all, the children’s photos on the mantle and their grade-school ceramic projects number at least 47. This doesn’t include the file we keep of their hand-drawn Mother’s Day cards. This is valuable stuff, and there’s still room in the attic.

This essay originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, November 1



We Still Look Forward to Halloween
October 7, 2015, 3:14 pm
Filed under: holidays | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Halloween is just around the corner. We aren’t planning to dress up and go trick or treating, but we still look forward to the holiday for many reasons…. not just nostalgia for the days when our kids would dress up and go trick-or-treating.

Ellen has a box of twinkle lights and Halloween decorations squirreled away in the attic. This weekend she’ll haul it downstairs, and you’ll find her outside sweating and struggling to set up her fabulous outdoor display. She goes a little overboard because she doesn’t do Christmas lights, but she does do Halloween – with strings of white ghost-y lights in the trees, an electric spider, and reflective bats lining the walkway. Even though her kids are grown, she wants to keep her reputation intact as the nice lady at the end of the block who decorates her house for the neighborhood kids.

Joyce has one Halloween item that she brings out every year – a witch candy bowl that cackles when you reach a hand in.  witch bowl

 

Last year, she was missing all of the Halloween excitement – helping the kids choose costumes, decorating the house, chairing the elementary school Pumpkin Fair – so she made a lonely trip to the store and bought last-minute, 50% off Halloween tchotchkes that weren’t even good enough to save for this year. She’ll be back in the Halloween aisle on Oct. 30.

Candy appeared in the supermarket the day after Labor Day. We noticed because we had to hold ourselves back from buying bags of snack-sized Kit Kat bars. Who are we kidding? If we bought those tempting so-tiny-that-eating-one-doesn’t-count candy bars that early, we would only have three left to give out on Halloween. candy

 

But when the week of Halloween finally comes and we are ready to purchase candy, we have to decide whether to buy the candy we hate (Sour Patch Kids, Warheads, or Sweet Tarts) so we don’t eat it, or the candies we love (York Peppermint Patties, Mounds bars and Snickers.) Who are we kidding? We bought both.

When we were kids, we loved all the sticky candies (Turkish Taffy, Jujubees and Jujyfruits), but now the thought of pulling out a filling or breaking a tooth from a bad bite frightens us away from buying those choices. That bite of Turkish Taffy could cost us $675 to re-glue the crown on our left front incisor.

A quick search online clued us in to this year’s “hot new costumes,” which aren’t that new: Star Wars, Disney princesses, and Superman are popular.  After our city hosted Pope Francis last weekend, we have to admit, we did like the Pope outfit for your dog.pope dog

 

Group costumes are in style, too, but to wear these, you have to have a group – a fraternity, a crowd of housemates, or drinking buddies. We each have only one husband– hardly a group.  And we have enough trouble dressing him up to go to a family wedding. We downsized and googled couple’s costumes. We’ll have a hard time convincing our husbands to be a giant sombrero-wearing taco (we’d be the salsa) or the sword-bearing, leather thong-wearing hero from Game of Thrones, but they might not mind being the bagel with lox to go with our cream cheese.

Photo from Huffington Post

Photo from Huffington Post

 

These days, when homeroom moms are requested to bring in carrots and hummus in place of cupcakes for a birthday celebration, we will not be browbeaten into giving out toothbrushes to the trick-or-treaters. We want to be known as the house that gives out the “good stuff.” But we are also aware that there are now peanut-free tables in school cafeterias. We don’t want to make our neighbors with food allergies miss out. There’s a national campaign to mark houses that are giving out allergy-friendly treats with teal pumpkins. We probably won’t paint our pumpkins teal, but we want to be inclusive so we’ll also be giving out Twizzlers, bubble gum and spider rings.

We’re excited for Halloween. We love to open the door and see the cute little kids in costumes. We encourage them to take more than one, even if their parents admonish them to, “Say please! Take just one.” We even like the fourth-grade boys who grab a big handful and the teens who can’t resist dressing up “for just one more year” to collect a bagful of candy.

So after dinner on Oct. 31, we won’t head upstairs and get into our pajamas like it’s a regular night. We’ll hang out downstairs waiting for the doorbell to ring, because Halloween isn’t just a regular night.



Time to Relive the Favorites of Summer
July 6, 2015, 9:47 am
Filed under: calendar, family, Jewish mothers, summer | Tags: , , , , , ,

This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, July 5.

When we were kids, summertime meant: “Go outside and play.”

Hopping on our three-speed Schwinn bikes gave us freedom. There was no need for helmets, no stranger danger. We could ride to the drug store and get a milkshake at the soda fountain. We could pedal to the playground, where we would find a friend, swing on the swings, and hang out till dark.

When we heard the jingle of the Jack and Jill ice cream truck, we’d grab a few coins from our allowance and run outside to be first in line. Then there was the decision to be made between the chocolate éclair and the Firecracker pop.

Our cousins lived nearby. Together we’d listen to the latest 45s, read Mad magazine, and play Monopoly and gin rummy while the aunts and uncles sat around the dining room table and talked. As the sun went down and the kids started to whine — “Are we ever going to have dinner?” — Uncle Sid would lumber outside, drag the grill to the patio, douse the coals with lighter fluid, and pull out a package of Hebrew National hot dogs.

Ellen, age 10 (left) and her sister Susan, 7, swimming in Barnegat Bay.  and my sister Susan is on the right, swimming in the bay. I'm 3 years older, so I think I'm 10 and she's 7?

Ellen, age 10 (left) and her sister Susan, 7, swimming in Barnegat Bay. 

On family trips to the shore, we would race to the sand while the adults unpacked the car. No sunscreen, no hats, no shoes. We’d sunburn and peel, sunburn and peel, throughout the summer. We couldn’t wait to jump into the ocean, no matter what the temperature.

Then we got married and had children. Our kids gave us a reason to do our favorite things all over again.

We joined the community pool because we wanted to sit on the edge of the pool and chat with the other moms from the neighborhood while our kids splashed around. We wouldn’t take the plunge until they begged us to put our heads under water so we could see them do a handstand.

If the ice cream truck arrived right before dinnertime, we didn’t deny our kids because we wanted ice cream, too. We’d stand in line with them, helping them choose and then we’d ask them for a bite.

We brought our bikes out of the garage, filled the tires with air, and bought a baby seat for the back. This time around, we all wore helmets. When the kids graduated to two-wheelers, we taught them to stop at the stop signs and watch out for cars. We’d bike along the West River Drive or ride with them to the variety store to get a fresh bottle of bubbles or a new balsa wood glider.

When our children were young, we loved going to places like Sesame Place and Hershey Park. With a brave face, we’d climb the stairs of the tall water slide to show the kids it wasn’t scary. We enjoyed the Muppet musical stage show as much as they did. Closer to home, we’d watch them wheel a mini shopping cart through the Please Touch supermarket, purchasing play food and empty boxes. At the Franklin Institute, we would lead the way down tight, dimly lit passageways through the chambers of the heart. We always enthusiastically boarded the huge indoor locomotive for the 10-foot ride.

Joyce, age 5, playing with her hula hoop on the lawn of her apartment complex.

Joyce, age 5, playing with her hula hoop on the lawn of her apartment complex.

We wanted our kids to spend time with their cousins, but now it involved coordinating calendars around summer camp schedules and family vacations. It required advance planning: We’d drive miles to each other’s houses for a barbecue or plan field trips to a Phillies’ game, an amusement park, or the beach so we could all be together.

Now our children are grown. We don’t yet have grandchildren. We have no excuse for childlike behavior, and we miss it.

When we hear the ice cream truck’s song, we still get excited, but we don’t run outside. Instead, we open the freezer and pull out a Haagen-Dazs dixie cup with a little plastic spoon tucked into the lid. Sitting at the kitchen table eating it brings back fond memories.

Now we have bicycles with comfy seats and 18 gears and we love them, but by the time we load them into the car and get the water bottles, suntan lotion, and bike helmets, we’re exhausted. It doesn’t help that when we’re riding, our husbands constantly warn us, “Car! Car!” They aren’t quite as bad as those “professional cyclists” in head-to-toe Spandex who zoom past and shout, “On your left!”

At the beach, we wait until the ocean temperature is nice and warm before we wade in. We look out for jellyfish, stay where the lifeguard can see us, and reapply SPF 100-plus when we get out of the water.

We wanted to check out the new Please Touch Museum, but we couldn’t find a kid to rent. We didn’t get into the building until recently when we attended a fund-raiser there. We saw the carousel but we couldn’t ride it.

When Frozen came out, we didn’t want to go alone to the movie theater to see it. We felt out of the loop with all the Olaf lunchboxes and Princess Elsa pajamas. Who is Elsa and why is she so cold? The next time our kids came home, we forced them to sit on the sofa and watch it with us on Netflix so we could see what all the fuss was about.

When a business trip took us to Orlando, we couldn’t resist going to Universal Studios. It wasn’t embarrassing to wait in line for the Harry Potter and Spider-Man rides without children in tow, but when we climbed aboard the flying couch for the Cat in the Hat Ride — “2 adults, please” — we felt like showing photos of our kids to prove we weren’t stalkers.

It’s not that we’re not having fun anymore; it’s just grown-up fun. Perusing the list of specialty summer cocktails and ordering the lemonade vodka freeze is pretty darn fun. So is going to the movies any night of the week without having to hire a babysitter. So, hey, ice cream man, please wait. There’s a middle-aged lady chasing your truck down the street.



You Say Wonton; I Say Kreplach
June 25, 2015, 11:09 am
Filed under: ethnicity, jewish food | Tags: , , , , , , ,

This essay appears in today’s edition of The Forward – on their beautiful newly redesigned on-line Food section. Here’s the link or just keep reading below: 

 

 

“Pumpernickel is Jewish; white bread is goyish,” said comedian Lenny Bruce in the early 1960s, asserting that Jews instinctively categorize everything as Jewish or not. We agree, especially when it comes to food.

Fast-forward 50 years. Much has changed on the culinary landscape since Bruce got arrested for using the word shmuck onstage. These days, we are just as likely to eat chicken tikka masala as a corned beef special and to order our salmon atop sushi rice instead of a bagel — but we do have fondness for foods that evoke our bubbes’ kitchens, foods that are honorary members of the Tribe. This might explain why the two of us eat chopped liver but not liver paté. Why we make egg salad but not deviled eggs.

Almost every country has a doughy pastry filled with potatoes, vegetables or meat. The Spanish empanada , the Indian samosa and the Italian calzone are all cousins to the knish. Given a choice, our order is: “One kasha knish and one mushroom knish, please.” Knishes make an appearance at many a Yom Kippur break-fast and bar mitzvah cocktail hour, but they weren’t always saved for special occasions. At the turn of the last century, Jewish immigrants brought knishes to work in their lunch boxes, just like Irish workers brought their meat pies, explains Joan Nathan in “Jewish Cooking in America.”

the knish display at Lipkin's

the knish display at Lipkin’s

When summer comes, cold soups are on the menu. We remember when borscht, that magenta-colored beet soup, would make an appearance on our childhood dinner tables. The grown-ups would swirl in a dollop of sour cream, and we would cringe in horror as they slurped down the brightly colored liquid.

In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, potatoes and beets were plentiful — hence latkes and kugel (yay!) and borscht (nay!). Leafy greens were few, with the exception of sorrel. That’s why borscht has a cold green cousin named shav. These days, cooks combine spinach with sorrel to make shav, but we don’t know anyone who actually eats it.food

Thanks to CSAs (community-supported agriculture programs), farmer’s markets and the bounty of our summer gardens, we have no shortage of vegetables. It’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t have gazpacho on its menu. We often order it. Tomatoes, cucumbers and red peppers trump beets any day.

Anyone who has sat through a Seder has had a Jewish macaroon, the ubiquitous Passover sweet. This flourless, chewy, ball-shaped cookie is made with ground nuts, shredded coconut and egg whites. We buy them at the supermarket and eat them straight out of the can.

We wouldn’t have thought to add the adjective Jewish to macaroon until a few years ago, when the classy French-accented macaron stole the spotlight. These elegant, brightly colored meringue-and-almond sandwich cookies come neatly arranged in doily-lined boxes from fancy bakeries. They cost five times as much as the kosher cookie with the similar name, but you’d never confuse the two once you’ve tasted them. And you won’t find a food truck cruising your city selling Jewish macaroons.macaron

Gefilte fish also has a fancy French cousin — the quenelle . Both are made with chopped fish but then they swim in opposite directions. Quenelles are held together with breadcrumbs, gefilte fish with matzo meal. Quenelles are fancy; they can be served with lemon sauce and nestled next to a grilled scallop. Gefilte fish are dumped from the gel onto a lettuce leaf and dressed up with a carrot curl. We found a recipe for quenellesin “Larousse Gastronomique,” a bible of French cuisine; our recipe for gefilte fish is scrawled on a food-stained 3×5 card that Aunt Miriam pressed into our hand at Passover in April 1986.passgefilte

We would never ask the deli guy for a half-pound of smoked salmon. We call it lox, which is the Yiddish word for salmon. You can distinguish the two by the company they keep. Lox is served atop a bagel shmeared with cream cheese. If you’re fancy, you can add a little red onion and a slice of cucumber. Smoked salmon sits alongside brown bread triangles. It is fancy, so it’s served with capers and lemon slices.

Texas barbecue is described as meat cooked “low and slow” — which sounds just like the way we cook brisket. Brisket is a particular cut of beef; how you cook it and what you serve it with determines its ethnicity. If you rub it with spices and smoke it over mesquite, it becomes a cowboy brisket sandwich, served on a paper plate alongside beans. If you roast it on cut-up onions and potatoes, put some ketchup on top, cover the pan with silver foil, and put it in the oven for hours, it becomes Jewish holiday fare, served on a china dinner plate beside kugel. Much like the Friday night roasted chicken, there’s nothing uniquely Jewish about brisket — except that we say so.

We have a lot to say: When we wait in line at Starbucks for our tall skim lattes, we want to tell the barista that the jar of biscotti on the counter is mislabeled. We call it mandelbrodt.

 




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