Last year in Berkeley, Rae and I attended the Deli Summit to discuss the direction of Jewish food and deli culture, and since then we’ve been working on a way to continue the conversation. On October 12th we’ll be hosting a Shabbat dinner for the NYC Wine and Food Festival and we’ve invited friends from around the country to join us in preparing an epic nine-course meal. It only seems fitting since the Shabbat table and my Nana Lee’s kitchen are my very first memories of food and cooking—Me, sitting on the counter, her, presiding over the stove like any great chef. That sense of time, place, and ritual gave meaning to my family’s week as the Shabbat table has for so many Jews, both secular and religious. It is a place to ask questions, to air grievances, to express gratitude, and sometimes, to simply close the week at peace with a warm bowl of chicken soup. I hope this Friday’s opportunity to gather around our Shabbat table will bring to light the potential for Jewish cooking as food that we eat during special occasions and everyday at home. Similarly, we wish to inspire those attending to question the core of Jewish foodways and to strengthen their commitment to its survival.
The next day, on Saturday October 13th, along with Tablet Magazine and ABC Home we’re presenting the Future of Jewish Food, a tasting and talk with the country’s foremost practitioners, thinkers and critics. From 5:30 – 9 PM at the ABC Home Mezzanine we’ll bring together Gail Simmons, Mitchell Davis, Jordana Rothman and Josh Ozersky for a panel moderated by Joan Nathan about Jewish food in the home and then we’ll have a second panel with the deli men from Wise Sons (SF), Kenny & Zuke’s (PDX), Saul’s (Berkeley), and Mile End moderated by David Sax. Unlike the night before where the food will do the talking, this discussion is an amazing gathering of some of the finest practitioners of Jewish cooking — people who have committed themselves to examining and celebrating our rich culinary history while simultaneously innovating and moving forward the conversation about its future. With a variety of opinions and perspectives, I’m expecting a very lively conversation.
After all the eating and talking there will be more eating with a tasting of house made pastrami and smoked meat from each of the delis plus a book signing with all of the panelists.
Recipe: Twice-Baked Challah Continue reading
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, is now available.
I want to talk a little more about my family of origin. My father, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English. My father himself, by contrast, eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, then fought in World War Two, and when he returned he made a career for himself, first at the State Department and the U.N. and then in academia—he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law Schools for a total of fifty years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox Jewish friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.
There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home, and though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath for the sake of the family; my brothers and I were sent to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp), she never herself became observant, and the world in which my mother lived—the secular world—became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself, and so when he was saying Kaddish for his father in 1973 and he convened a daily mincha minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only nine at the time, already understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn—be a Jew at home, a human being on the street—and it’s only now, looking back from my vantage point as an adult, that I find something strange, or at least noteworthy, in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto.
I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I received an invitation to participate in an authors panel at Hunter College. I would describe my own relationship to Jewish practice as idiosyncratically observant, and among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that I don’t travel on the Sabbath but if I can get myself somewhere without traveling, I’m happy to engage in conduct that, while not technically Sabbath-violating, isn’t, as they say, shabbesdik. The panel was held on a Saturday, and shabbesdik or not, it isn’t particularly sane to walk eight miles from Park Slope to Hunter College and eight miles back, all to participate in an authors panel. But then my new book was coming out in less than two weeks, and when new your book is coming out in less than two weeks you tend to do a lot of things that are neither shabbesdik nor sane.
As I was walking through the rain to Hunter, I was put in mind of another such incident more then twenty-five years ago when I, about to become a college junior, spent the summer in Washington, DC, and one Friday night I was invited to a party somewhere in suburban Maryland, and I prevailed upon a friend of mine, herself not even Jewish, let alone Sabbath-observant, to walk with me to the party. It was a seven-mile walk if we followed the directions correctly, but we didn’t follow the directions correctly, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we ended up at the party at one in the morning, where we didn’t even know the host (the party was being held by a friend of a friend), and we ended up of having to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their living room floor.
What lesson can be drawn from this other than that I, at age twenty, was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to attend a party? Perhaps not much. But it occurs to me that in certain ways I was my father’s son — my father who never would have done what I had done (he didn’t like parties), but who was of a generation that, for better or worse, didn’t wear its Jewishness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in synagogue, and when he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frankfurter he would on Friday nights secretly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t travel home on the Sabbath. He’d acted similarly a few years earlier when, at Harvard Law School, he had a final scheduled for Shavuot, and he hired a proctor to follow him around for forty-eight hours, and then, when the holiday was over, he took the exam.
By contrast, nearly fifty years later, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and graduation was scheduled for Shavuot, many Orthodox Jews (and a good number of non-Orthodox Jews, too) staged a protest to get the date changed. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who himself had been raised an Orthodox Jew, was, if I recall correctly, instrumental in the protest. When I told my father about the protest, he was mystified. Ask Harvard to change graduation because of Shavuot? You didn’t ask for special treatment. The world did as it did, and you accommodated to it. There were differences in temperament between my father and Alan Dershowitz that are too numerous to count. But one additional difference was a generational one. American Jews had been one thing then, and they were another thing now.
First of all, I want to open up my week of blogging by saying how happy I am to be here and have you all be the ones who are helping me shepherd my new novel, The World Without You, to publication tomorrow. And if any of you live in New York or are inclined to get yourself there, the launch party for the book is tomorrow night, June 19th, at 7PM, at Bookcourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Please join me for cheap wine and cheddar cubes and lots of merriment. And if you are one of the few people left on this earth who still believe that Manhattan is the superior borough and you want to skip the wine and the cheddar cubes and focus solely on the merriment, I’m also reading at Barnes and Noble on 82nd Street and Broadway on Thursday evening, June 21, at 7PM.
Are you a Jewish writer? This is a question that Moment Magazine asked a number of writers recently, and it’s a question I often get asked, and by and large most writers I know who get asked this question end up bridling or being flummoxed or acting generally tongue-tied. I know I do. That’s because I’m not sure what the question means. I’m a Jew, and I’m proud to be one, so on some level by definition I’m a Jewish writer, just as I’m a Jewish father, a Jewish New Yorker, a Jewish eldest child, a Jewish basketball fan, and a Jewish watcher of The Daily Show.
But I’m not generally asked whether I’m a Jewish eldest child or a Jewish watcher of The Daily Show, and I think therein lies the rub. Because when a writer gets asked the Jewish writer question, something more seems to be going on, something having to do with the writer’s own relationship to Judaism or whether the book he has written qualifies as Jewish based on the number of Yiddish phrases contained therein or the amount of whitefish consumed by his characters. And this is where things start to feel reductive.
To take my own work as a case in point, my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, had lots of Jewish subject matter; my second novel, Matrimony, had very little Jewish subject matter; and now The World Without You has lots of Jewish subject matter again. Does that mean I was more of a Jewish writer for the first novel, less of a Jewish writer for the second novel, and more of a Jewish writer again for the third novel? That’s just silly. I’d also add that these kinds of questions serve to ghettoize a writer when good fiction is good fiction and should reach as broad an audience as possible. No one asked Cheever whether he considered himself a male writer. No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.
And now, in good Jewish tradition, I’m going to contradict myself. I’m very interested in time in fiction, and I think this interest comes in large part from my own relationship to Judaism. My last novel, Matrimony, took place over the course of twenty years, and when I started to write The World Without You I wanted to write a book with a very different relationship to time, so I set the book in compressed time, over the course of seventy-two hours.
Might I have been interested in doing this if I weren’t Jewish? Of course. But I do know that my own interest in time is directly connected to what time was like for me as a child–Shabbat starts at 6:32 this week, it ends at 7:35, there are two Adars this year so Passover is later, that kind of thing. The story goes that when I was about five and we were moving the clock forward for Daylight Savings Time, I said to my parents, “Do non-Jews switch their clocks forward, too?”
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.
In my grandparents’ homes, as in the shtetlach from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour – just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950s America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.
Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon heder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.
Sour was a pickle or sour tomato for a snack, a piece of sour rye bread slathered with schmaltz and topped with a slice of onion, a lunch of sour cream, farmer cheese and chopped radish, scallion and cucumber; or maybe a glass of ruby red borscht and sour cream, or shchav (sorrel soup) with a raw egg stirred in and chopped scallions on top. Sour was Grandma Annie stirring a spoonful of sour cream into a pot of warm milk, then pouring it into a tray full of patterned yortzeit glasses and leaving it to sour over the pilot light on her white enamel stove.
Sour was the taste of the shtetl, where a piece of sour black rye bread, a bowl of the fermented beet water called rosl and perhaps a dollop of sour cream was a day’s nourishment. After all, what could be cheaper, easier and more provident for the inevitable times of scarcity than a crock filled with sliced beets, left to ferment by the wild yeasts that fill the air? Sour was the sum of their existence.
Weekends were sweet, and so were our holidays. Sweet was the saucer of honey, the sweet-sticky teyglach and cloves-fragrant carrot tsimmes at Rosh Hashanah, and the sweet gefilte fish and oloptzes (stuffed cabbage), for Shabbes. The challah was sweet and pale yellow, with a shiny brown crust that crackled when Grandpa cut it; the prune and apricot compote was sweet (but with a touch of lemon, to remind us of the week past and the week yet to come). Sour held no place of honor at my grandma’s Shabbes table.
Sweet was spending Saturday and Sunday with my parents and extended family, cookies and rugelach from Grandma and Bubbie, cracking pecans and hazelnuts with my cousins after a big holiday meal, visits to the bakery with my father and bringing home cookies and pastries in white cardboard boxes tied with string striped like a barber pole. Sweet was going to the Saturday matinee (20 cents for a double feature, serial, newsreel and 5 color cartoons 5) with my best friend Richie and eating Black Crows, Jujubes and Sugar Daddy bars. Sweet was being allowed to stay up late so my brother and I could sit in front of the TV with our parents, watching Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx and Dragnet.
As I grew older, my life grew sweeter, more American. Instead of a giant sour pickle bought for a nickel out of a barrel of brine, my afternoon snack morphed into a stack of cookies and a glass of milk. Living in the suburbs, away from my grandmothers, we succumbed to the enticements of the mainstream and there we chose to spend our lives, eating sweet and eschewing sour, except as an occasional culinary grace note. Weeks and weekends merged into unremitting sweetness.
Now, in my 60s, I’ve come back to sour with a deeper appreciation of both its taste and meaning. Still, there is one dish, one taste memory, that haunts me: my bubbie’s marnat – chilled sweet and sour whitefish, simmered slow and long with slices of carrot and onion in a peppery-vinegary-sugary marinade that congealed into an aspic and overwhelmed my taste buds even as the fish dissolved in my mouth. Whenever I went to see her in her Brooklyn brownstone, that was the dish I always asked her to make. And to this day, try as I might, I’ve never come close to duplicating it, perhaps because I will never truly know, as all my grandparents knew, the sorrows and joys of sweet-and sour.
Earlier this week, Tom Fields-Meyer wrote about reading and thinking about books and took a look at autism and God. He has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at an event to benefit my children’s summer camp. In the midst of a lovely discussion, the rabbi who runs the camp offered a question: “What’s your book’s Jewish message?”
I stammered and stumbled a bit before I came up with an answer. But afterwards, I kept thinking about the question. I tend to come up with much more articulate responses the next morning, on my jog, than on the spot. (That’s why I’m a writer and not, say, a White House spokesman.)
Following Ezra tells the story of raising our middle son for the decade from his autism diagnosis at age three through the day of his one-of-a-kind bar mitzvah. It’s loaded with Jewish content: there’s the awkward, hilarious conversation he had with a neighbor on the walk to synagogue one Shabbat; there’s the wonderful conversation when Ezra learned about the Eighth Commandment (the hard way); and of course there’s the last chapter, detailing the days surrounding my son’s bar mitzvah celebration.
But what’s the Jewish message?
In the book of Genesis, it says God created human beings in God’s image. That means we should treat every person with dignity, respect and honor—no matter their disability, no matter what they look like, no matter how many times they remind us when the next Pixar movie is premiering (a habit of Ezra’s that can be either endearing or annoying, depending on your perspective). That also means that encountering people who are different from us—from different backgrounds, different circumstances, or facing different challenges—gives us a insight into the many aspects of the divine.
My book begins with an epigraph, a single bracha, a traditional blessing. Jewish liturgy is full of blessings recited on various occasions. Most Jews are familiar with the blessings said over wine or before eating bread. One of my favorite pages in the Artscroll prayer book lists “Blessings of Praise and Gratitude,” the brachot that are reserved for life’s unusual encounters. There’s one for seeing lightning, and one for experiencing an earthquake. There’s a particular blessing to say when you see 600,000 people in once place. (How often do you get to use that one?)
In the midst of that list, the prayer book includes a blessing to say upon seeing a person who is different. The Talmud enumerates the various kinds of people included. It praises God, mishaneh habriyot—who “creates variety among living beings.”
Blessed is God for creating all kinds of people. What better words could introduce a story about raising a child with an unusual and fascinating mind?
And what better Jewish message could there be?