In my late teens, when the Air Supply song “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All,” was popular, I developed an allergy to wheat flour and white flour. Although it’s not as restrictive as a gluten allergy, it gave me a legitimate reason to pass on most of the foods that define us culturally. Matzo, matzo balls, latkes, challah, kugel and bagels were all out. My sisters joked that I got to “eat food out of nothing at all.”
As a result of my allergy, I’d spend most of the Jewish holidays as a young adult sitting around lightheaded, thinking about Farrah Fawcett in her red bathing suit, and wondering what the big deal was about Jewish food. My aunt Ernestine tried making me a charoset birthday cake with parsley icing one year, but it just made me feel more strange around my friends.
And so, I got to suffer through the dark ages in terms of gluten-free products. From the Middle Ages when everything had the consistency of corrugated fiberboard to today when everything tastes like a synthetic rubber automobile floor mat combined with a Ralph Lauren pillow case. (Actually, today, most if not all GF products, actually taste like the odd assortment of things in the discount bin at Urban Outfitters.)
All of this got me thinking about a theme snack for my future book club appearances. Since I’m southerner and I’m Jewish and I’m wheat-free, I’ve decided that the preferred food for my book club should be wheat-free vegetarian matzo ball soup and sweet tea. To help you host wheat-free authors like myself, here are the recipes for both the soup and the tea.
Slash’s Special BohoXO Wheat-Free Vegetarian Matzo Ball Soup
2 boxes of organic vegetarian stock (or make your own)
2 cups of water
3 stalks celery (finely chopped)
2 TB of salt (more to taste)
1 cup parsley
2 cups crushed up rice crackers
1/2 cup crushed up rye crackers
2 TB wheat free tamari
¼ cup of water
2 eggs or egg substitute
1/8 cup of rice flour
1/8 cup potato flour or other wheat-free flour
Bring stock to a rolling boil for fifteen minutes and then lower to medium heat.Combine all matzo ball ingredients in a bowl except the flour and stir well until it becomes a glob-like mass. Add flours and stir until the balls become a bit dryer. From the mass, form into testicular-sized balls (or golf-sized balls) and drop them gently into the broth. Your little globlets will be done in about 30-40 minutes. Don’t stir them too much or they will break apart and disintegrate into nothingness. Serve in costume, preferably with a lot of hot, barefoot Jewish friends around.
Slash’s Special BohoXO Southern Sweet Tea
2 cups of white sugar
1 Lipton Tea Bag
1 ice cube
1 large glass
Fill a a large glass with white sugar. Place an ice cube on top of the sugar. Place the glass in a warm room without an air conditioner for 10 minutes or until the ice cube melts. Put a Lipton tea bag between your teeth. Swigging the whole concoction down. Enjoy!
When I was writing my memoir, which is sort of a chronicle of all my failed love relationships, each morning when I sat down to write it was like spinning “The Wheel of a Shtuken Nisht in Harts.” (This is a Yiddish phrase that means a painful, miserable memory that stabs the heart and hurts like hell.)
It was a literary smorgasbord of cupid’s failures. For instance, when I sat down, I’d think, “Do I write about the time my wife and I shaved our heads three days after our wedding and I no longer found her attractive? Or the fact that my cousin ended up marrying my old girlfriend so now she’s like a bugger on the finger of my life? Or my unusual courtship ritual that involved giving girls I had crushes on elaborate and large cardboard boxes that only ever ended in eventual and awkward singledom?”
I assumed that once my book was published that I’d have purged myself of those memories and the subsequent need to write about failed love. Instead, my book has given me even more opportunities to partake in this ritual. I now blog about relationships for Psychology Today and write a dating advice column at howdoidate.com.
Hence, I get to continue to push on all my relationship bruises – usually writing about one experience until I am too overwhelmed and then moving onto the next – sometimes having as many fourteen miserable memories open at once in my browser window. Such misery is my quintessential stereotypical Jewish experience.
It reminds me of when my grandmother, who was temporarily living with my family, decided to get off her prescribed meds – about 22 of them in all. She had to get off them because they were destroying her body. She was a Leo and she took them so she wouldn’t remember the bad parts of the Holocaust. (Leo’s are ruled by the heart, but it was ironic that the first thing the meds destroyed was her heart.)
The doctors ended up replacing one of her heart valves with a pig’s heart valve – which says a helluva a lot about karma. Well, the pig valve didn’t like her meds any more than her old valve and so she started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She would sit around with a bunch of crackheads and heroine addicts and she eventually endeared herself to them. She had friends that wore leather and had deep profound scars just like her.
“I only took the meds the doctor prescribed,” she would say.
Eventually she kicked her meds, but the memories came back. One night, an imaginary Chinese man in a cape flew down into her room and took her hand. She called him “The Yellow Goy.” TYG led her to the edge of the staircase. He told her to fly away with him. I imagine it was all very romantic.
She ended up crumpled at the bottom of the staircase, bloody, crying, and wondering why all the love in her world had suddenly evaporated.
I think about her flight sometimes when I write. How, for at least a few glorious seconds, there must have been some magic in being propelled through the air with a Chinese Superman without the aid of a mechanical motor. How, letting go of such a great restraint must have allowed her to feel true freedom for the first time in her life, no matter how short the duration of that freedom actually was.
I think often about the ritual and rigamarole I put myself through to avoid the painful parts of my life. I’d like to believe that one day I’ll have purged myself of all my wonky love karma and at the end of my own staircase there will be my own Chinese Superman waiting to whisk me away with the ultimate reward – a few moments of flight without mechanical motor. Until then, I spin the wheel and purge and dream about flight.
A few weeks ago I was asked to give a keynote address at a middle school. My ever-proud Jewish mother insists on attending. As I’m waiting to be called to the stage, the principal and I start talking. He finds out my mom is in the audience. She’s been a teacher in his district for over forty years. He asks if he can go on a tangent before he introduces me. His eyes light up when he says the word tangent.
During his introduction he asks my mom to stand up and then he announces that she’s a Holocaust survivor. People applaud. This is the worst thing ever. It’s like pinning a bull’s-eye to my mom’s forehead. (If you don’t know, she’s the one in my book who reminds us each Hanukkah just as she wraps our menorah in an old rag and hides it in a mop bucket underneath the sink, “Don’t tell anyone your Jewish. They will find you. They will kill you. You will die.”) In some way, I know this is my fault. I’ve breached not only our family contract, but something more – I’ve put her survival at risk.
From backstage, I imagine my mom hunching over and figuring out how to make an exit. Finally, she stands up and runs out of the school.
When I call her afterward she says she’s sorry she couldn’t stay.
“The problem with being Jewish is they make you do stuff,” she says. I’ve heard this before. She’s quoting her favorite Jewish author, Eliezer Sobel. Whenever she wants to prove a point she turns to a certain page in his book “Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken.”
To make matters worse, Sobel is my friend, so whenever she quotes him it’s like she’s spooning on the Jewish mother guilt. “Eliezer says there are prayers for everything – upon rising, upon going to the toilet, upon eating fruit, upon smelling a new smell, upon seeing a deformed person, for baking challah, for building a sukkah.”
I mostly tune her out and this gets me thinking about the 614th commandment that was added to our already long list of commandments that reads, “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories……They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish……They are forbidden escape into either cynicism … and a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him.”
My mom says she doesn’t care about doing stuff anymore. She says she’s leaving that up to me and my nephew, Cody. She calls us The Walking Jewish Exhibitionists. Continue reading
For the past eight summers, I’ve taught creative writing at the Paris American Academy, a small school in a neighborhood dotted with plaques celebrating French heroism during World War II. The plaques are placed high on the walls: this one marks where one Resister was shot, that one reminds us of a reassuring speech of DeGaulle’s. But when I leave this neighborhood and cross a few bridges to the Marais, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, I lift my eyes to other sorts of plaques: this one marks where Jewish children were taken from their school and shipped to Auschwitz, that one remembers the complicity of the French.
The complicity of the French. My family is of Polish and Russian descent; during the early part of the 1900s, they fled their Eastern European shtetls and headed west. Those who had the money kept going to New York. Those who couldn’t stayed in France. Many of those who stayed were sent to Auschwitz during the war. The few who survived, my cousins, live in Paris.
Every summer, while I’m in France, I have dinner with these cousins, and we talk about all sorts of things: travel and books and movies, nothing too serious. They’re wonderful cooks and serve very French meals, h’ors d’oeuvres to start, cheese to finish. We sit out in their garden after and sometimes I steal one of their cigarettes.
This summer, I mentioned that I’m working on a new novel, and that one of the characters has a grandmother who survived the war in France. My cousin Francois was curious. “How did she survive?”
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t hashed out the details yet – maybe she’d been hidden by a dairy farmer? Maybe her father had been a butter dealer before the war and used his connections to save her?
“Absolutely not,” Francois said. “The Jews weren’t in the butter business, and anyway the dairy farmers were in Normandy, which was occupied by the Germans. Your character would have gone south, as close to Spain as she could. She would have stayed with subsistence farmers.”
We went back and forth on the logistics of this character’s story for a while, with Francois describing the way the police kept records of its French citizens, the way they rounded up all the Jews one night, the way they stuffed them into a stadium and then onto the cattle trains. This all happened when his mother was seven years old; she’d spent the night of the round up away from home, with her mother. When they returned they found their apartment ransacked, her beloved aunts and uncles all gone. Within weeks her mother found her refuge with peasants in the south, where she lived out the bulk of the war. Many of the people she knew died in the camps.
As the details grew more gruesome, I found myself feeling off-balance. How could I spend summers here so blithely, in a country that hunted down my own family? And how could Francois be so proud to be French, to have married a French woman, to be raising French kids? To serve me these entirely French meals? “And you’re sure this wasn’t the Germans, doing these things?” I was used to thinking of Germans as the enemy.
“No no,” he said. “It was the French.”
I paused, then said something rather impolite, especially considering Francois’s eternal hospitality. “I just don’t understand how you can live here.”
“Well,” he said, calmly topping off our glasses, like we were discussing the weather. “How is it that you can live where you live? In the USA?”
“Francois, the USA never hunted down its own people!”
“Didn’t it?” he said. When I didn’t answer, he gave me that French shrug meant to convey the unsayable. I looked away.
“Listen, all countries have their own horror stories,” he said. “And you know, it was French farmers who saved my mother, a French policeman who told my grandmother to stay away the night of the round up. French resistance members who found my grandmother her false papers. And years before that, it was France that welcomed them when they escaped the Cossacks.”
“Yes, but – but then they -” He was right, of course – but I was also right, a little.
“Then they what? Some French people were good, some were not so good. History is complicated,” he said. “It’s complicated for me, and for you, too, non?”
What to say to that? I picked up one of his cigarettes, compelled by the force of an old bad habit. France is complicated, and being Jewish anywhere is complicated, I know that. My own country is complicated, and so is the story of how I came to live there. But that night, lulled by the wine and the smoke and the cool French air, I gave in to not knowing how to feel. It wasn’t an argument I could win, nor was it one I wanted to win. What did I want to prove? France was bad? Its people were? Then why was I so happy there, with my French friends, French cousins, French summers? Why were people so gracious to me? Why had I eaten, on its sidewalks, some of the best Jewish food of my life?
I lit my cigarette, defeated by the complications and my heavy belly. So instead of solving anything, I decided to be grateful to be where I was, with the family that survived.
Recently, one of my writing students turned in a story featuring an adorable, vulnerable child whose blue eyes were “wide with wisdom” or something similarly icky. Although I otherwise liked the story, I warned my student – my entire class, in fact – against this particular cliché, the urchin who spouts soul-ennobling maxims while either bringing the adults together or putting them in their place. This child is usually between the ages of four and eight, preternaturally mature, humorless, and almost always blond. I call him the Golden Child, and he annoys the crap out of me.
After I finished teaching that day, I met my four-year-old son for lunch in the campus garden. My son is blond. My son is blue-eyed. My son has a good sense of humor, but still: my creative writing students saw us in the garden and said, kindly, that it looked like I had a Golden Child of my own. I smiled through my cringe. They were right: Nathaniel is golden, as all-American as a fourth of July firework. I, on the other hand, look like I was just crowned Miss Shtetl 2013. In other words, my son doesn’t look like me at all, and he doesn’t look particularly “Jewish.”
I have a strange relationship with my son’s all-American looks. Of course I think he’s beautiful, but I’m always surprised at how frequently people comment on his appearance, and especially how people admire him for his blondness. I’ve never been blond in my life, so before Nathaniel was born I’d never witnessed, really, the power of blond hair, even when it’s on the head of a little boy. People like to touch it, pat it, remark on its lemony highlights. People have even praised me for it, as though it was something I gave him on purpose. And more than once, people have asked me if his father is Jewish, if his father is the source of the kid’s lucky looks.
These sorts of comments bring up all kinds of funny feelings in me . On the one hand, I want to shake the person: Jews look like all sorts of things, dummy, including like Captain America over here. On the other hand, I want to acknowledge my own pride in this beautiful blond boy – blond like the Vikings, blond like the sun. And on the other other hand, I sometimes wonder if my son’s connection to Judaism will be affected by what he looks like. Already the threads feel looser in him than they are in me: no, his father was not born Jewish, and yes, the blond hair comes from his father’s side of the family.
Is it easy for me to be Jewish because I look so classically Semitic? Will it be harder for him because he doesn’t? And what does it mean that I even think about these things?
On Friday night we light candles; on Jewish holidays we celebrate with family. Last fall we ate in a sukkah together, and we look forward to doing that again. This fall he’ll start Hebrew School at our wonderful synagogue. Still, like many Jewish kids – like me when I was his age – he’d rather celebrate Christmas than Hannukah and has no real interest in being different from his friends. And unlike me, with my stereotypically Jewish face, my Jewish name, he’d have an easy time passing one day for someone he isn’t.
For the moment, however, my Golden Child is a font of dubious knowledge. “I’m not blond!” he says. “I’m brown like you!” This is patently untrue, but strangely, it provides some solace. He wants to be brown-haired because he wants to look like me, he says – because he’s my son and we’re family. How wonderful to hear him say this! Even if it’s ridiculous. My son is not brown-haired like me, but he is Jewish, like me. He loves his family, like I do. “See!” he says. “I’m just like you!”
Just like all children and their parents, he is and he isn’t. But occasionally, despite the cliché of it, he is wise beyond his years.
“Your nephew’s got it in his head that he wants to have a bar mitzvah,” my mom says. “And you’re going to have to make it happen. Your sister wants no part of it and I’m too busy.”
“I’ve got this,” I say.
Cody is my sister’s kid. He’s one of two nephews I have that are half-Jewish and half-descendants from the great Southern war hero Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States and the last president to actually own slaves. You don’t get any more “good ol’ boy” than Zach.
Cody is being raised in a low income apartment project without a father a few miles from where I was raised in Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the confederacy. Like me, he’s groomed on bacon sandwiches, NASCAR, and chicken on the bone. His mom did what my mom did. She intermarried. But then she took it a step further and became Baptist. Cody wouldn’t know a Jewish star from a rock star.
If you’re familiar with my book, then you know I had a very unorthodox introduction to Judaism. I was taught Hebrew from a rent-a-rabbi out of a Volkswagen bus located in the middle of the woods. The rabbi and his orange bus are long gone and so I send queries to all the synagogues in the area asking how someone like me can help someone like my nephew become a bar mitzvah.
Rabbi Schmuley is the only one who writes back. A week later, I’m sitting in his office telling him that I don’t understand why a kid who’s successfully assimilated would want to embrace something that’s caused so much pain to so many people in our family. I flash back to the time in middle school when I’m beat up in the empty lot by the Stromboli sisters for being Jewish.
“Inside the hearts of all Jews,” he says, “there is a self-activating-randomly-firing-super-Jew-fuse enabling our personal path to Heebdom. If we did not have this, we would have been diluted in half and in half and in half and into nothingness by mixed marriage long ago.”
He says the fuse, in Yiddish, is called the “Pentele Yid.”
“The mysterious Pentele Yid is a tiny Jew ember that is carried through the Jewish blood line – it holds our passion, our rituals, and our world famous matzo ball recipe.”
He explains that Halfies – those with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent – like Cody and I, encompass over 80 percent of the entire Jewish population. For guys like us, who barely connect to the meaning behind what it means to be Jewish, our Pentele Yid is but a tiny, cold, blackened seed, passed along to future generations. Cody’s Pentele Yid is like my own – a cigarette butt stuffed in the bottom of a Pabst Blue Ribbon can.
“Yet, for whatever mysterious reason,” the rabbi continues, “the Pentele Yid can and does ignite into flame, sometimes skipping one generation and hitting another one many years down the road.”
And it’s true, in less than a year, Cody’s Pentele Yid not only mysteriously ignites, but the heat is so intense that it singes my entire family. In less than a year, the little no-Jew sprouts into a sort-of-Jew and then blossoms into the first Jewish superhero in my family. He conquers Hebrew with a southern twang, starts Shabbat services in his mother’s house, and brings dates to the synagogue (young red-neck girls who smell like honeysuckle, shellfish, and pork rinds) who laugh with him in the back seat of my car on the way to shul. He not only wants to re-convert our entire family, he wants to convert his entire apartment complex as well.
At his bar mitzvah the two sides of my family reunite for the first time in many years. The super Jews beside the sorta Jews – my sister in a halter top beside my uncle in a thousand dollar suit and a yarmulke. It’s inspiring, heart wrenching, and profound.
How does a descendant from a slave owning good ol’ boy blossom into the first Jewish superhero my family has ever seen? Because like a heart that has been forgotten or a soul that has been misplaced, our Yid has been ignited and with it the heart and soul of my family returns.
“The Jewish soul is always inside the body,” the rabbi whispers to me after the service, “it is the individual who must follow the yearning to return to that soul when the time is right.”