My paternal grandparents lived across from a canal in Long Beach on Long Island. We went to their house every weekend and—at least in the confusing palace of memory—I spent much of my childhood sitting on their porch, rocking back and forth on a glider in the shade. I remember my grandmother’s pliant arms, her strong opinions, my grandfather’s worry, his strength, his pale blue eyes. I could have listened to them telling stories for hours, and often did.
Because my grandfather was religious, it’s him that I think of first when I think of being Jewish: his broad back in his gray suit and his quiet sense of bearing the weight of the world. I often think that if he were a foul-tempered man instead of gentle and beloved, I might have had negative associations with Judaism. But my grandfather trudging off to temple is linked for me to how he was a landlord who could never bring himself to collect rent if the tenant’s child played a musical instrument; it’s linked to the poetic stories he told me about how the bluebird became blue. His Jewishness is linked with his goodness, and I see him in every talis, every yarmulke.
We tend to romanticize the past, the older generation. They sang Passover songs with so much more feeling, with more gusto than my parents. Now my parents are the eldest and they sing with more gusto than me. In that house by the canal, there were so many great aunts and uncles: dashing and troubled, sweet-tempered and oddly formal, fat and funny and weary. We miss our elders, their less polished style; their more (how, exactly?) obviously Jewish voices. We miss their more direct line to the old country—whichever country, the borders were always changing—somewhere in Eastern Europe. We miss them but we are not like them. We are more like everyone else.
Should I show my husband my work? My sister? My mother? Students sometimes ask me this. Go ahead, I say. Just don’t be too eager to listen to your family members’ opinions about your fiction. Parents and siblings bring too much non-literary baggage to their reading, so they’re not the ones to turn to for clearheaded advice. Which is a shame, I’ll be frank, because my mother thinks I’m a genius. My siblings are kind (though not uniformly) about my work. There are a few comments, over the years, that hurt at the time, that pain me less in retrospect. Here’s one that just interested me. My mother read a few stories of mine (in draft) and then asked, “Why do all your characters have to be Jewish?” She wasn’t asking this about the stories where there was a clear answer. If the story concerned Jews on the Lower East Side or a rabbi (as two of the stories in my most recent collection do), then that was fine. What she was asking was about the other stories. The ones with no clear Jewish content, where I nonetheless had made the characters Jewish. The story about the faltering marriage in Baltimore, the one about the cousins living together in a Cambridge apartment when Vaclav Havel’s press secretary comes to visit? They didn’thave to be Jewish, did they?
And the truth is, no, they didn’t. There was nothing in the stories that necessitated me clarifying their cultural heritage or spiritual lives. Still, even if I did edit the explicit mention of Jewishness out, as I did in some cases–because my mother was right it really didn’t need to be there–the characters remained Jewish in my head.
Why, exactly? I could say that I have spent my whole life as a Jew, even if as a completely secular one, and that is the lens through which I see the world, but I have spent my whole life as a woman, and I find myself able to write from a man’s point of view. I have spent my whole life as an identical twin, and I only once wrote about a character who is an identical twin. I think it has more to do with the immediate kinship that I feel with some Jews, the sense that we share a sensibility. Intelligence, warmth, self-deprecating humor, liberal politics, rugelach, books, and black and white cookies occupy the same place in our hearts. Which is to say that we highly value them. OK, well, maybe not the black-and-white cookies, not for all Jews. I can see that might be a debatable point. And everyone doesn’t share my politics, I know. But you get the idea. There’s a certain coziness I feel with other Jews, and it’s a coziness I like to feel with my characters. My characters are in a quite literal way (of course) “my people.” So, no surprise, I suppose, that they should resemble my people in a larger sense, the ones I come from and the ones for whom I feel a special affection.
In the few months since our book was published, women of different ages have come up to us with stories of their own experiences of bat mitzvah – the ceremony that marks a Jewish girl’s coming of age at 12 or 13. These stories have brought home to us in a personal way the trajectory of Jewish women’s experience in the last half-century in the United States.
Grandmothers of today’s bat mitzvah girls tell us that bat mitzvah was not available to them when they were girls. Some resented the discrimination against them, as their brothers and male classmates celebrated bar mitzvah as a highlight of the Jewish lifecycle; others didn’t particularly care. Although the first bat mitzvah took place in 1923 in New York City, it took the women’s movement that re-emerged in the 1960s and ’70s to enable women to look at their status anew, to try to create change, and to popularize the concept of a women’s coming of age ceremony.
But bat mitzvah still wasn’t analogous to boys’ ceremonies. Middle-aged mothers tell us that they had their bat mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue on Friday night, a time when a boy’s bar mitzvah would rarely be held. In this way, the girl could chant the “Haftorah,” a reading from the Prophets, and not from the Torah, the holy scroll that contains the five books of Moses, a lesser kind of honor. In fact, sometimes the reading was known mistakenly as the “half” Torah.
Nowadays, girls and their mothers in Progressive branches of Judaism take it for granted that the bat mitzvah will be virtually the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah. Girls learn how to read from the Torah – not an easy task – and some wear a prayer shawl (tallit) during the ceremony, until recently a male-only prerogative. Religious transition is rarely so tangibly or so swiftly demonstrated as the generational change in bat mitzvah observance from grandmothers to mothers to today’s bat mitzvah girls.
One of my pet peeves is the veritable deluge of prepared foods and “meal assembly” emporia that has overtaken America and seem to be spreading like a stain across the rest of the world. Walk into any store selling food, and there they sit – ready-to-heat main courses and side of every imaginable ethnicity and ingredient, indistinguishable, or so the labels claim, from home-cooked (and, of course, priced at a hefty premium over the cost of the ingredients themselves). Nor is it only the mains and sides: to see how pervasive the ready-tos have become, take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and keep mental notes of all the things you can eat right out of the container, or that pre-mix key ingredients (think cake mixes).
Even as recently as 20 years ago or so, an industrial food takeover on this scale was inconceivable, yet very much in the cards. I forget the context, but remember well reading an article in the ’90s that spoke about seasoning mixes that would enable butchers to reap higher profits from value-added, ready-to-cook steaks, roasts, and poultry. At around that same time, during my stint on Wall Street, I worked with the CEO of a company, now defunct, that pioneered treatments for cut fruits and vegetables that all but eliminated discoloration. One has only to look at the proliferation of pre-bagged cut produce to see how visionary the idea was.
What’s behind it? Obviously, from the food processors’ perspective, it’s about profits. Anything you do to an ingredient changes it from commodity to unique product, and in so doing, lowers its vulnerability to the pure-price nature of the commodity markets, taking it instead to a higher realm, where branding and marketing operate to keep prices and profits high. Never mind that the bulk of industrial food processing is based on water and sugar (including fructose sweeteners), the cheapest of additives that also offer processors the advantage of a cheap way to increase weight – both the product’s and the consumer’s (hah!).
There’s a second important financial consideration for the producers as well: labor. From-scratch food preparation requires skilled workers who can command premium wages. The workers needed to cook from mixes and industrial ready-to-heats can be had for minimum wage. Even better, machines don’t get sick or have hangovers, and a retailer can always be certain of having enough product because his distributors will have warehouses full. Once again, technology and industrial production trump competence and experience.
From the consumer’s point of view, those dishes represent savings of time and energy, but at the very dear cost of control and competence. The time issues are understandable. When I was growing up in the ’50s, moms and grandmas stayed at home and had time to shop and cook; today’s economically stressed world puts far more pressure on everyone to go out and find ways to earn money. The simple act of preparing and serving a meal has gone from pleasure to chore, and my grandmother’s pride in feeding her family as given way to a sigh of relief at not having to cook, without the guilt of having failed at this most basic of family responsibilities.
That guilt also is the driving rationale behind the “meal assembly” stores, where people can go to assemble a week’s worth of their own ready-to-heat dinners. Everything is there, pre-cooked and portion-controlled, ready to mix and match into microwaveable containers. It’s exactly the same mindset that built the cake-mix business and propelled bread machines into the appliance mainstream: here’s a way to produce a Rembrandt – or at least an acceptable reproduction – without having to learn how to paint, let alone draw.
At what cost? Monetary, certainly: the ready-tos are substantially more expensive than the sum cost of their ingredients. But more troubling, in my view, is the personal cost. I want to be able to control what goes into the things my family and friends eat. I don’t want chemical life-extenders, mold inhibitors or potentially hazardous additives (think potassium bromate) in my food. I want to decide how my food tastes, not some food chemist who’s motivated by corporate profitability targets and focus-group driven consensus. I want to know how to make the things that please my senses and those of the people I care about, so that I can encourage others to value their own competence.
My wife and I often engage in a revealing dialogue when we go food shopping together. She’ll see a ready-to that she finds appealing and say, “Ooh, let’s try that.” I’ll look at it and say, “Why? I can make it better and cheaper at home.” Sometimes we buy it, sometimes we don’t, and more often than not, when we do, it’s either too sweet, too salty, or both for our tastes (mine, certainly, since she has a far bigger sweet tooth than I). But at least we have the ability to make that choice and still have what we want.