The Word Mavens Take a Road Trip

When we say “road trip,” you might imagine a scene from Thelma & Louise, when Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis take off in a ’66 Thunderbird after shooting a rapist. Or maybe Easy Rider, when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda set out on their motorcycles in search of America.

Sorry to disappoint you. Ours was not a wild and crazy escapade. It was an overnight trip to Merrick, NY –  or as they say out there, “Lungggg Guyland.” We ventured over the Verrazano Bridge and out the Belt Parkway to the epicenter of Jewish New York. We were invited to give our book talk – based on our Dictionary of Jewish Words – to the sisterhood ladies.

Here’s our report from the road:

What a spread! We walked into the mirrored synagogue social hall and were reminded of all those elaborate New York weddings. We weren’t disappointed. Those ladies really know how to throw a party. This one started with butlered hot hors d’oeuvres. “Try the spicy Mexican roll-ups,” our hosts urged us. “The hors d’oeuvres are the best part.” Along with a big bowl of fruit-laced Sangria on the cold buffet, there were bottles on wine on each table. Since we needed to be coherent to present our program, we didn’t imbibe – unlike some of the guests. Dinner featured hand-carved turkey and corn beef and an array of salads.

Of the 73 meals we’ve eaten as guests of sisterhoods, this was the winner. It was a far cry from some of the senior centers we’ve played, where they charge the members $2 for soup and half a tuna sandwich.

The bagel controversy: As long as we were going to New York, Ellen wanted to bring home a dozen bagels. Ellen would never concede that the Yankees are better than the Phillies, but she will readily admit that New York bagels are superior to anything available in our neighborhood. In the Philly suburbs, we mostly have national chains where the unbaked bagels are delivered frozen and then baked by dubious bagel authorities.

We asked our hosts where we could get a good bagel. Our question almost sparked a riot. The audience members fought amongst themselves, arguing over which bagel place was best.

“Don’t go to Bagel Cafe. The bagels are too big and not as tasty. Go to Bagel Shop.”
“I once went to Bagel Shop and they forgot my cream cheese.”
“Bagel Shop doesn’t know from cream cheese, and you have to ask for your bagel to be toasted.”

We went to the closest place. We thought it was fabulous, and we were overwhelmed by the selection. They had bialys, gluten-free bagels, flagels (flat bagels for sandwiches), rugelach, coffee cake and more. They had three kinds of lox, herring, Israeli salad, and four kinds of cream cheese. We asked them if they’d drive 130 miles to cater parties in our neighborhood. We bought a dozen bagels to take home and they were delicious. The Word Mavens will concede bagels to New York because the Phillies will win the World Series next year.

The retired shmoozers: We sat down to enjoy our bagels shmeared with lox spread, and it was like being in episode of Seinfeld. Two retired guys were holding court in the back booth, discussing in great detail the best way to carve a Thanksgiving turkey. Of course, we listened in, and found out that “it’s better to cut the whole breast away. Then you can slice it on the plate.”

Thanksgiving dinner conquered, they turned to reminiscing about their mother’s cholent (a slow-cooked stew made of beef, beans and potatoes.) Cholent is not a word you hear every day, but they were talking about it with such affection that you would think they had eaten it for breakfast that morning. One man rhapsodized, “If only I could have her back to cook one more pot of cholent for me…”

We were so inspired that we looked up the recipe. Simple ingredients. Not too many spices. It seemed lackluster. Apparently, the missing ingredient is having it cooked just for you and presented with love by your bubbe.

Who knew New York was another country? We know that holiday observances and traditions vary widely among Jews. Much depends on where you grew up and how your family celebrates. For example, Sephardic haroset (the chunky paste on the seder plate) often contains Mediterranean fruits like figs and apricots, while the Ashkenazic version uses apples. But who knew there were parts of our country – Long Island, we’re talking about you! – whose natives don’t know from shnecken or rugelach – two delicious bite-sized pastries that vary in shape and filling?

We know New Yorkers talk funny, but they were mystified by some of our talk. We asked if they pronounced the traditional Jewish noodle pudding “kigel” or kugel.” They never knew there was more than one way to say it! In this great debate, our Long Island audience unanimously voted for kugel – the pronunciation that originated with Jews from Lithuania and is most common today. It’s how they spell it in supermarkets and delis. “Kigel” was the way Jews from Galicia, a region of southeast Poland and part of Russia, pronounced it.

Connecting with our landsmen: Many of our ancestors come from Russia, and we always wanted to see Brighton Beach, the section of Brooklyn where Russian Jewish immigrants settled in droves. We detoured off of Ocean Parkway to make a pit stop here on our way home. We were the only people speaking English as we walked along the avenue and stopped in the food markets. You know we went straight for the food. We came home with:

  • a dozen potato knishes that were made with a flaky dough – unfamiliar but delicious.
  • Lox cut the Russian way – thickly and in squares. Our families said we should have bought more.
  • Meat kreplach (still in the freezer so the jury is out).
  • Russian-label chocolate bars. We couldn’t read the ingredients, but they were gobbled up.

By noon, after 24 hours of road-tripping together – shmoozing, laughing, eating and kvetching about the hotel beds – we were glad to be headed back down the Jersey turnpike toward home.

But we’re looking forward to our next road trip.

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5 Responses to The Word Mavens Take a Road Trip

  1. Casey Hirsch says:

    I loved this! Read like a mosaic!


  2. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for sharing a terrific day in the places I come from.


  3. Lisa Marks says:

    Loved reading about your road trip and I could hear all the “voices” of the people you spent time with. I think you need a small film crew next time to video your talk and all the interactions you have.
    Are bagels better in NYC?


  4. joann antanaitis says:

    You were right on the mark. Growing up in Long Island was one big eating orgy. I do miss all those wonderful eats( that’s why I was so pudgy growing up) Your story brought all of my memories racing back.Yum,Yum!! Where are you traveling next?


  5. Sue Katz says:

    Definitly a paucity of “good” bagels in Santa Fe. We always indulge on the east coast ’cause there’s only one bagel bakery here and some people go to Albuquerque to buy them.


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