Chosen People

by Carl Reisman (Mahomet, IL)

Dedicated to my father, John Reisman, z”l, and Fox’s Deli, Rochester, N.Y.

We didn’t keep the Sabbath

but we kept going to Fox’s for smoked sable dusted with paprika,

Nova lox, golden white fish, slabs of marble halvah,

pastrami shaved onto butcher paper, hot corned beef, and bagels,

not those crappy frozen cardboard ones we had on Sunday mornings,

but the real ones, boiled, baked until they had a crust,

still warm from the oven,

bagged up, a baker’s dozen,

always told by the counter lady, honey, you got one more,

and my Dad picked another,

sesame, poppyseed or onion, never raisin.

My mother warned us not to forget the cream cheese.

We didn’t discuss the Talmud but we took

the number 73 and I was nearly trampled by a lady who wanted

the man behind the counter to get her

one of the Hebrew National salamis hanging from a hook.

I had to look past her varicose veins to see the spool of hot dogs,

kosher ones stuffed in lamb casings,

that we would broil until they split.

My father had to pick me up so that I could see the floating pickles in their barrels,

bright green, the smacking cool cloud of vinegar and dill

mixed in the steamy air with a front of

mustard, pepper, chicken fat, garlic, and salt.

My family never raised the Golem to save our neighborhood

but as the year 5729 passed into memory

my father kept up his weekly trips to Fox’ s for kugel with white raisins–

it was not as good as his mother’s and my mother wasn’t even in the running

in the kugel race–nor could they hold a candle to my Hungarian grandmother’s strudel,

filled with apples and nuts,

or more surprisingly, cabbage, soft, sweet, with caraway, pastry so thin

when she rolled it that you could see the table underneath,

at least, so he said, she died before I was born; Grandma

and her cooking had passed into legend,

and my father was always showing up at the deli, Fox’s,

or, really, any deli,

looking for the Promised Land, wanting again to feel chosen.

Carl Reisman was a professional cook and restaurant reviewer before settling down to work as an attorney in Champaign, Illinois helping out people who were injured on the job and growing vegetables in the office garden. He has published two volumes of poetry, Kettle and Home Geography, and has contributed to journals including KaramuLegal Studies Forum, and Red Truck. His work is also included in the anthology,  Lawyer Poets and the World We Call Law.  In addition, his poetry has been taught, along with that of several other lawyer/judge poets, in a class at West Virginia University College of Law on the literary efforts of lawyers. 

Author’s Note: This poem is dedicated to the memory of my father, John Reisman, who died from complications of Covid three days short of his 90th birthday.  He was born of two Hungarian Jewish immigrants, the first child to survive (three siblings died), and grew up in a cold water apartment that was poor financially but rich in the traditional Jewish foods of my grandmother’s birth country.  My father was raised practicing Orthodox Judaism, stopped practicing, tried Reform Judaism, but never really found a home in a temple after he left the one in Perth Amboy, NJ, where he was raised.  Food was the most powerful connection he had to the soul of being Jewish, and the deli is where we went to try to find the source.

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

2 responses to “Chosen People

  1. Lovely piece! I should have guessed the author had a professional cooking background – all those amazing, vivid food descriptions!

  2. Carl Reisman

    Thanks so much! I’m glad that you enjoyed the poem. It was fun to relive in my imagination the Fox’s Deli of the 1960s–it is hard to find places like that these days. I wanted to bring the reader with me on the journey back.

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