Archive for December, 2010

Oy, Tannenbaum

December 24, 2010

Yesterday David and I met with our havura — a group of six couples from our synagogue who get together once a month — officially to discuss Jewish themes, but mostly to eat and laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Then David and I came home and trimmed our Christmas tree.

We bought the tree last weekend. We drove out to Coventry, in the hilly, wooded western part of Rhode Island, and tramped through a huge tree farm to find the one we liked best. We’d put off trimming it until our kids were home. I’m glad we waited. Trimming the tree is a family tradition. This year while we strung the lights, we lit a fire in the hearth, sipped port and listened to the same ridiculous Reggae  Christmas cassette we put on each year for this occasion. The ornaments are a mixture of old whirligigs saved from David’s childhood trees, new, hand-blown glass globes we have added through the years, and personal decorations, like the Farohar angel Sophie fashioned for David’s Zoarastrian mother.

When Eddie the mailman stopped by with our delivery, he gestured at the tree and wise-cracked to David, “Don’t tell the rabbi!”

I’m pretty sure he knows, I wanted to tell Eddie. And if not, I’m certain he’d understand. But not everyone would, and I understand that, too. We’ve had a tree in our house for many years now – long enough for it to have become a cherished tradition for our children. But I remain deeply ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I was only willing to divulge my plan to one or two members of the havura. And on the other hand, once we were home and the kids were helping David string the lights, I though of how grateful I was to have reached this season.

I wrote about this whole business several years ago, in Seven Days. Here’s what I had to say.

Oy, Tannenbaum

To tree, or not to tree? That is the question in homes like mine, where I am Jewish and my husband is not. Our situation is hardly unique. According to recent estimates, fully one-third of married American Jews have non-Jewish spouses. Hallmark cashes in on this trend with a cheerful card showing a house with a Christmas tree displayed in one window and a Chuanukah menorah in another. But for lots of families, accommodating this season’s competing claims isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as the card’s interfaith image might suggest.

In our case, for nearly two decades the Christmas tree question sat quietly in the corner of our marriage: always there, but never discussed. Since we always celebrated Christmas at the home of David’s parents, I could easily disavow the tree we trimmed there as belonging to the Christensens. And I was more than willing to do just that.

I preferred not to think about David’s modest desire for a tree, which paled beside his willingness to have a Jewish wedding and to give our children a Jewish education and my last name. Better not to remember the first year of our marriage – the only year we had ever stayed home for the holidays – when a beautifully bedecked evergreen brought the smell of winter into our Los Angeles apartment. Easier not to dwell on the realization that ever since the kids came along and I started feeling more seriously Jewish, the notion of a tree had been sitting less and less easily with me.

I never took the time to examine my tree aversion. But the longer I harbored it, the more attached to it I grew, and the gladder I was that geography and family were making it easy for me to keep it under wraps. I had always assumed this respite would only last as long as David’s parents hosted us for Christmas. But the crisis that finally forced me to find out what the tree really meant to both of us was my mother’s final illness.

I had flown to New Jersey to spend December caring for her. I had left David and the kids in Vermont with eight sets of little packages, one for each night of Chanukah, and the assurance that they would follow what had become our family’s inalterable holiday itinerary – Christmas in Rochester with the Christensens, and New Year’s with the Horowitzim in Montclair. But two days after I arrived at my mother’s, David called to tell me his parents had offered to come to Vermont to help out while I was gone. And as long as everyone would already be together, it only made sense that they should celebrate Christmas there, in our house, with a tree.

His words galled me. Here I was, absorbed in the heartbreak of figuring out which foods might be smooth enough to slide past the tumor in my mother’s throat, and he was changing his plans in Vermont? Here I was worrying about unplugging Mommy’s oxygen long enough to let her safely watch what would no doubt be her last Chanukah candles, and he was broaching a topic he knew I preferred to avoid? Crazy with self-pity, I heard his proposal as some sort ofcoup d’etat – the very worst form of betrayal.

But to David, this adjustment in arrangements seemed only reasonable. While I panicked and fumed, he quietly and logically laid out his position, absolutely certain that justice was on his side. He reminded me how far he, an adamant atheist, had come in accommodating my desire to raise our children – his children – in my religion. Compared to their four hours of Hebrew school each week, our daughter’s bat mitzvah and the Passover seders we all celebrated together, the Christmas tree he would put up was pretty insignificant. Wasn’t it?

“It’s not a logical issue,” I explained. “It’s a gut issue. Will you explain to your parents how uncomfortable I am with the idea of having a tree in my house?”

I was hoping that once my in-laws understood the situation, they would veto the tree idea. But I also knew that even if they did veto, David would try to override their vote.

“If you do end up having a tree,” I said, “will you at least get rid of it before I come home? I don’t want to see it there.”

“Are you sure?” He sounded hurt. “I thought it would be sort of nice to leave your presents there, so they’d be waiting for you when you got home.”

I could almost taste the sweetness of his vision: his home, his tree, his family reunited, gifts for the woman he loved. If I had allowed myself to linger a little longer in that moment, I might have also understood why this image meant to much to him. Though David raised without religion, his family did share some long-loved traditions, and one of their most treasured was Christmas. Our children, who had grown up spending the holiday with their grandparents, cherished this tradition as well.

“My parents have no objection to your lighting a menorah in their home,” David argued, his voice tense. “So why should you object to their having a tree in yours?”

“This is too much for me to think about right now,” I said.

What is a Christmas tree, anyway? Ancient Pagans observed the winter solstice with green branches symbolizing rebirth. Five hundred years ago, Germans decorated their homes on Christmas Eve with “Paradise Trees,” hung with apples representing sin, communion wafers signifying forgiveness, and roses in remembrance of the Virgin Mary. To many devout Christians today, the tree connotes the cross. But for most Americans, including my very secular in-laws, a Christmas tree is merely a Christmas tree: fun to decorate, pleasant to enjoy and a great centerpiece for exchanging gifts.

What the tree meant to the Horowitzim was a lot more complicated. The fact of the matter was that our adamantly Jewish family – like my mother’s adamantly Jewish family before us – celebrated Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, we hung our stockings on the mantle. Every Christmas morning we awoke to a miracle of gifts. And every Christmas afternoon we tucked into roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with wreath-shaped ice cream moulds for dessert.

After my brother and sisters and I married out and started spending Christmas with our gentile in-laws, the Horowitz celebration of stockings and gifts and wreath-shaped ice cream moulds shifted to New Year’s Day. We took to calling it, with some self-deprecation, “Fake Christmas.” But for all our Christmas exuberance, real or fake, we drew the line at public displays. We never strung lights on our house. We never hung a wreath on our door. And we never, ever had a tree.

“It seemed like a fair compromise,” my mother said the next morning, as we discussed the crisis in Vermont. “We did it for the children. So you wouldn’t feel deprived.”

But a tree? “A tree isn’t necessary,” she declared. “A tree makes a very strong statement about the identity of the household.”

What we did among ourselves was one thing. Just because we liked candy canes didn’t make us not-Jewish, or Christmas a Jewish holiday. But this nuance was likely to be lost on our neighbors. It was vital to demonstrate that everyone on our street wasn’t exactly alike – that our family, at least, had not bee subsumed by the dominant culture.

For my parents especially, helping to raise the first generation of post-Holocaust Jews, being the only house on the block without Christmas lights was an act of defiance, a message to the world that centuries of persecution and murder and forced conversions hadn’t succeeded in wiping us out. That we weren’t trying to “pass” as non-Jews. That we weren’t the sort of people who considered our own long-beleaguered, minority religion so ritually impoverished that we had to go borrowing someone else’s traditions – although that was, in fact, precisely what we were doing, behind closed doors.

No doubt, our anti-tree fervor was also fueled by an unstated sense of shame. Okay, so maybe we had succumbed to this big, beautiful, goyishe holiday. But did we also have to advertise the fact?

These were the rules with which I’d been raised. Being good meant abiding by them – or at least appearing to do so. I had always been proud of the comfort my mother took in the level of Jewishness in my home, and I could see that David’s unexpected readiness to change the rules now, as she lay dying, struck her as a bad omen. Maybe we were raising her grandchildren as Jews while she was here to watch, but what would happen over her dead body?

Her position hardened as the day wore on. But as my panic receded and my thinking became clearer, I moved oh-so-slowly in the opposite direction. Freed from the grip of her anxiety, I started seeing David’s point of view. I began to understand that a tree – which came so loaded with difficult and confusing implications for the Horowitzim – was, for the Christensens, simply evergreen and ornaments: beautiful, beloved and essential. What we were dealing with here, I began to realize, wasn’t some crafty encroachment on undefended territory, but a variation in styles of celebration – just a bit of tinsel on a bough. Why should something so benign make everyone lose so much sleep?

David was still indignant when he phoned that evening. He called my anti-tree attitude selfish, hypocritical and intolerant. However, he went on, he and his parents understood how hard things were for us in New Jersey, and they didn’t want to add to our stress. So his parents would only stay in Vermont while the kids were in school, and then they would all drive to Rochester for Christmas. The status quo would stand, for now. But David assured me, quite firmly, that this accommodation was only temporary.

All this happened many years ago. Since then, we have had many trees. And although I still feel squeamish about inviting Jewish friends into my home while the tree is in place, I have also learned to enjoy it – and attitude that’s bolstered, ironically enough, by my growing certainty of myself as a Jew. I light Sabbath candles with my family on Friday night, lead prayers and read Torah in the synagogue – things the Horowitzim never did. I know who I am, and don’t need the absence of a tree to remind me. And if our tree confuses our neighbors about the identity of our home, they can always come inside and get to know us.


Soup for Rain

December 16, 2010

Here’s a bit of something from a new work in progress. Don’t ask me where it’s headed because a) I won’t tell, and b) even though I believe I know, I know better than to believe this belief. I have been having fun writing it, though, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it. Even if it is just a fragment of a larger entity that may or may not ever exist.


Soup for Rain

Place 1 kosher pullet (about 4 lbs, quartered), 2 large carrots (peeled), 3 large onions (sliced), 4-5 stalks celery (including leaves) and 6-7 pints water (enough to cover) in a large pot.

She’s upstairs, Rain. The recipient of this soup. Sleeping the morning away in the extra bedroom, the one we call Andrew’s Room, even though he hasn’t spent more than a dozen nights there, and none in the last year. Last I checked she was snoring peacefully, her brown hair was fanned across the pillow, the tip of her thumb just touching her lip, sunlight streaming through the open slats of the wooden blind and falling on her cheek. Lying on her side with her knees drawn up, her body beneath the covers was just an undistinguished lump, the gentle swell of Rain’s belly was invisible. Though a floorboard creaked under me, she didn’t stir. Maybe she really was sleeping that deeply, or maybe she just wasn’t ready to face me. Either way was fine by me. I wasn’t ready to face her, either. What would I say to her, this strangely-named girl I’d never heard of before yesterday, this future mother of my first grandchild? Of somebody’s grandchild, anyway. If not mine, someone else’s.

Cover partially.

This recipe is in my blue loose-leaf notebook, the one I bought thirty years ago, when I was right out of college and had just started cooking for myself. The blue cloth cover has faded in the shape of the curved edge of the hutch in our Vermont living room, where the notebook sat for the two decades we lived there. Stuffed inside the notebook are yellowed clippings from the Sunday New York Times magazine, index cards written out by friends whose cooking I complemented, hastily jotted notes dictated by my mother when I called her in a panic (How many onions in the latkes? How do you season tongue?), and a smattering my own creations, titled with ironic, insider-jokes (Fascist Beer Stew, Canoes of Pleasure, Better Than Yo Mama’s Meat Balls) and the date on which Jake put down his fork, rewarded me with his most loving look, and offered his highest praise: Better write this one down, Ellie.

Bring to a boil.

Other than the lump in the bed, the only other sign of Rain was the backpack she’d left in the middle of the floor – purple, filthy, a miniature rubber chicken and a frayed string of beads dangling from a zipper pull. A dented flower-power water bottle clipped to a side-loop with a red karabiner. The bag was stuffed to capacity and zipped tight. Was she sleeping in her clothes? When I went into the bathroom after her last night, I noticed she hadn’t left so much as a toothbrush on the sink. Did she not own one? Or was she trying to be as unobtrusive as possible? What had I been thinking, inviting her here? What had she been thinking, accepting?

Add salt and pepper to taste.

I began by filing these recipes more or less chronologically, and then added new ones to the empty backs and bottoms of existing pages. At some point, when I was underemployed and overly ambitious, I numbered the pages and created an index. With that, the arbitrary became unalterable, meaning Pot Roast, Perfect will forever follow Artichoke Dip, Andrew’s, which will be permanently paired with Pancakes, Buckwheat, in a logic as sacred and inscrutable as Tarot cards laid on a table. Or as the series of events that have resulted in to this stranger sleeping in our son’s unused bed.

Cook 1 1/2 hours over medium heat.

Let her sleep, I figured. She obviously needed it. And I needed to keep busy while she did. But doing what? What would I be doing if there weren’t anyone sleeping upstairs? Checking my email? Pretending to garden? Considering cleaning? The truth is, these days there’s very little I have to do, and even less that I want to do. Every now and then before he leaves for work, Jake asks about my plans for the day. I thought I’d prune the forsythia, I’ll answer, as if that were enough. I need to buy milk. And he’ll say, Sounds good, though we both know it doesn’t.

Remove brown fluff from the top as it accumulates.

Of course, I created the index about 25 years ago, and since then have added dozens of recipes. But did I number the new pages or amend to the index? Of course not. The truth is, though, it doesn’t matter. I know how to find the recipes I use. All five of them: my mother-in-law’s walnut pie, Auntie Priti’s Pork Vindaloo, Andrew’s third-grade teacher’s special spaghetti sauce, my mother’s latkes, and this soup.

I’ve made it more times than I can count, and know the procedure by heart. And even if I didn’t, at my age, recipes are no longer the magical formulas I once held them to be. I know the basic principles and, more importantly, the pleasures of improvisation. And yet, I would never even consider making the soup without first opening my blue notebook to this well-used page, with its familiar brown specs mottling my mother’s round, even cursive and that ancient water drop blurring the “c” in her underlined heading: Mrs. Ginsburg’s Chicken Soup.

Remove chicken and retain for other uses, such as chicken salad.

“You’re really going through with this?” Jake asked as I drove him to the airport.

“I’m his mother.”

“Wait for me. We’ll go together.”

“When? When you get back you’ll be teaching. And then something else will come up. You won’t have the time.”

There was a bigger conversation here waiting to happen, about a lot more than just what I’d be doing while he was away. But he had a plane to catch, and here we were at the airport, double-parked among the rubber cones and wooden barricades of the drop-off-only zone. In another minute the cop in the SUV idling at the curb would stroll over and tell me to move on. We climbed out and walked around to the tailgate. Jake slid out his wheel-on and he put his arms around me.

“I’ll make the time,” he said.

“I’ll be okay,” I told him. “It’ll be an adventure. When you come home we’ll compare stories.”

Strain soup, retaining only carrots, cut into small pieces.

What would I be doing if the stranger upstairs were my own child? If I were a good mother, I would make chicken soup. Luckily, I had a chicken, not to mention celery and carrots. Onions I always have. I went to the bookcase and pulled down the blue notebook. I laid it on the table and opened it to the right page.

I carry the chicken to the sink and slit open the plastic bag, careful that the liquid runs down the drain. It smells a little ripe, so I run tap water over it. Held bird neck-hole-up, the sad, plucked wing stumps facing me, the bird looks so life-like, that is, so dead, that I am overcome with unexpected regret. I’m sorry, bird, I silently mouth. And as I the syllables form in my lips, a wave of guilt wells up inside me, a flood of feeling that goes far beyond the cold creature in my hand.

Put into containers and cool in refrigerator overnight. Next day, remove fat from the top.

I’m sorry, I repeat, this time meaning much more: fifty years of accumulated sins, thoughts I never should have thought, words I ought not to have said, deeds I wish I could undo. The bird is dead and it’s the wrong time of year, but the ritual pulls me. Raising the chicken higher, I move it around and around, making three slow circles over the sink, reciting aloud the words of kaparot. “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement.”

So absorbing is the procedure, so sad this chicken, so great my sins, that I don’t hear the footsteps on the stairs or notice the presence drawing closer, don’t even realize there’s someone standing behind me until I’m startled by her voice, frightened and frightening.

“Can I ask what you’re doing?”

This soup can be frozen in plastic containers for future use.

Little Grandma

December 3, 2010

I’ve been rummaging around in old photographs again, and recently came across this one, taken in the house in Montclair, New Jersey. I’m guessing it’s around 1966. My mother is standing with her back to the camera. The woman on the far right is her younger sister Linda. To Linda’s left, in apron, is Big Grandma, my mother’s mother. The tiny woman on the opposite side of the counter, with her hand on her chin, is my father’s mother, Little Grandma – after whom my novel, Little Grandma’s Mirror, is named.

Studying this picture, I got to thinking about what was going on in my mind more than a decade ago, when I started writing the book. The idea at the time was to tell the stories behind the different heirlooms I’d inherited from my parents and grandparents. I could have started anywhere. So why did I begin with this relic from my father’s mother’s apartment? Why, for example, didn’t I start with something from my mother’s mother? Her life was so much more high-profile. Which I guess is the point.

Both my parents grew up in Elizabeth, and their mothers (both widows for as long as I could remember) still lived there. Little Grandma lived in an apartment building with a buzzer that let you in the front door and an elevator that carried you upstairs to a hallway that in my memory always smelled of boiled chicken and onions. There wasn’t much to do when we visited her. We could gaze at her Chinese sculpture of a dog with scary teeth and eat the ice milk she sometimes served. She and my father exchanged news about family members we didn’t know. Sometimes they talked politics. Once, when Nixon was on TV, she famously said, “Give me a gun and I’ll go down there and shoot him. I’m an old lady. What can they do to me?”

Big Grandma still lived on Harding Road, in the same house she and my grandfather bought in the early 1930s, when it was just built – one of the first houses in new neighborhood. On one of the front windows you could still see the crude self-portrait our mother had scratched into the glass with a pair of scissors. Across the street was an elementary school with a basketball court. Walk down the sidewalk and you’d come to a hitching post shaped like a horse’s head. If you went into the broom closet you could find the cart of wooden building blocks our mother and her sisters had played with. The piney built-ins beside the fireplace housed a treasury of albums filled with photos our grandfather had taken — and developed — of his daughters. In the summer we sat on the screened-in front porch. Decades before it became a national obsession, the summer drink of choice on Harding Road was iced coffee. I was too young to drink it, but thrilled at the sight of the white milk bouncing and swirling through the brown liquid as it cascaded over the ice cubes.

The conversation at Big Grandma’s house often revolved around her most recent or forthcoming trip to Israel or the Soviet Union or somewhere in the United States as a  fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal. Unlike Little Grandma, who seemed to rarely leave her apartment or to know many people outside the family, Big Grandma had friends whose names were in headlines and gave speeches that stirred people to give generously. Her shelves were stuffed with books on Jewish and Israeli history and politics, and her walls were covered with plaques acknowledging her service and framed photos of her with people like Golda Meir and Ben Gurion.

Big Grandma’s parents and three oldest siblings emigrated to the U.S. from Russia, but she and eight more children were born here – Big Grandma around the same year that Little Grandma came to this country, at the age of 15.

Once, when I was in high school, my mother suggested I interview Little Grandma. “Someone should get her story on tape,” she said, “Before it’s too late. She has a real story to tell.” But I was a little bit afraid of my grandmother, and shy about approaching her. And anyway, I wasn’t all that interested.

Little Grandma died in 1976, the summer after my first year in college. It wasn’t until much later, though, that I realized how little I knew about her, and recognized the opportunity I’d missed.

What I do know is that she was born in Zbarazh, Galicia, in either 1892 or 1894, depending on whose version you believe. In Zbarazh there was a grandmother who “cried so much she went blind,” and perhaps a stepmother. The name on her immigration papers was Goldie Schacter. Schacter was her mother’s name. Her father’s name, Mestel, didn’t appear on her papers because her parents had never had a state-sanctioned wedding. After she arrived in the States she lived on the Lower East Side with friends from back home. They were very good to her, letting her sleep on two chairs pushed together, and giving her a pair of shoes for her birthday. She worked in the Garment District, sewing lace trim on women’s underwear. During the course of a strike she got into a tussle and was arrested for kicking a cop.

My father’s father was also from Zbarazh. He ran a window-washing business in Jersey City, I think with his brother. At some point he moved to Elizabeth and started a company of his own. I think.

There were tragedies in her life. She had family members who didn’t make it to America, including a brother who got turned back at the border because of an eye disease. He and his family all perished in the Holocaust, except for one cousin who jumped off the train, hid in the forest, and eventually made his way to Canada. In the middle of the war years, my father’s father died of cancer. And there was another tragedy, which no one ever talked about. I learned the story from my mother. We were standing in the pantry, folding laundry warm from the dryer. From the way she told me, one on one and in a whisper, and because I’d never heard the story before, I concluded it was clandestine information, and never asked any more about it.

The shadow Big Grandma cast over Little Grandma made me want to give Little Grandma her due. And knowing so little about her story freed me to invent my own.