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The Chametz Boys

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

When I was 11, I was the only one of my neighborhood friends who went to yeshivah. They all attended public school and then went to the Talmud Torah on Hendrix Street. 

My Talmud Torah friends and I rarely talked about school, religion, or life, but we all loved discussing baseball.   

We loved everything about the sport: playing it, watching it, trading team and player cards, knowing all the statistics better than we knew facts about our own families. I never knew, for example, the birthdate of my cousin Feivel, or where he was born, or exactly how old he was. But I knew everything about Mickey Mantle, including that he came from Oklahoma (an exotic “country” to us) and how extraordinary his baseball achievements were, especially in light of his being stricken with osteomyelitis. 

No one knew or cared then about his personal problems, just that he was voted MVP, won the Triple Crown Award, batted .356, and hit 52 homers in 1956, an extraordinary athlete. Plus, he wore number 7 on his uniform, so that meant he understood the importance of Shabbos. (Just kidding.)

But, seriously, how could you not love such a guy or his teammates, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek or Bobbie Richardson, baseball warriors all? They played their hearts out with skill and passion, and we loved them for it.

Several days before Passover one year, one of my friends suggested that we all go to Yankee Stadium for a game. We grew thoroughly excited at the idea, and we all agreed to go. But we knew we could only afford to sit in the bleachers, where seats then cost about a dollar. My friends wanted to go on Yom Tov itself, but I convinced them to hold off until Chol Hamoed, the holiday’s Intermediate days, when work was permitted, so that we could all go together, and they agreed. 

I couldn’t wait for the day of the game to arrive.

Game day was a scorcher, 93 degrees in April at the first pitch, but who cared? We were traveling together on the subway from Brooklyn to a major league baseball game in the Bronx to see our beloved Yankees, and for me, a chance to see the great Mick. 

My mother, may she rest in peace, had made me a great Passover sandwich: egg salad on matzah, which she broke in half so I could feel like I was eating two sandwiches. It looked so good at home that I couldn’t wait to open it at the stadium. But when I saw what my friends were eating at the game, I was, frankly, you should pardon the pun, less excited: they’d bought franks at Yankee Stadium, and franks and more franks, and I was quite jealous. 

Still, we were all in the moment, sitting together at Yankee Stadium, the sounds and smells of a live baseball game filling our senses, and I eagerly awaited the appearance of my hero, Mickey Mantle, who would play centerfield and bat fourth, as usual. 

We couldn’t wait for the game to begin.

I stole glances at the hot dogs and buns and sodas my friends were enjoying, and I felt unhappy. But as they munched contentedly on their stadium hot dogs, I excitedly peeled back the tin foil that covered my egg salad matzah sandwich. When I took it out, however, holding half of my matzo sandwich in the palm of my hand in the noonday sun, both ends of my sandwich sloped downward, a soggy matzah mess. 

My friends looked at my wilting matzah sandwich and laughed out loud, elbowing each other and pointing to my sad matzah sandwich. I could only look at their buns and dogs and sigh jealously. They smirked, enjoying their hot food, and I sheepishly grinned, embarrassed at my own matzah and yellow egg-droop-sandwich and warm canteen water. 

In the end, none of it really mattered as all of us got caught up in the excitement of the game and watched the great Mick and his Yankees destroy the opposing team. 

The Cleveland Indians were the ones who really wilted in that game, and although my funny matzah sandwich was the butt of 11-year olds’ jokes for a few hours that day, we all glowed from the brilliance of the Yankees play in general, and the Mick’s in particular.

That was a happy Pesach indeed.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

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A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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The Rising of the Dough

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I’m in Cheryl’s kitchen.  It’s fitting.  In the nearly 17 years we’ve lived no more than a mile from each other, she’s been in my kitchen only a handful of times because she’s allergic to my cats.  She gets miserable, and quickly, and symptomatic in a big, wet, unhinged kind of way.  So I’m in Cheryl’s kitchen, again.

I know this kitchen well.  Each summer since we’ve lived so close, I’ve taken care of her house when Cheryl and her husband and two sons go away for two months, to a Jewish camp in the Poconos where she’s director.  Every day for those nine or 10 weeks I take in and sort their mail, flush all the toilets, feed the goldfish, check to make sure there are no mice camped out in the laundry room, water the plants, and generally make sure things are up and running.

But now it’s the other side of summer, and Cheryl has been home from camp for about a month.  It’s a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, and I’m back in the kitchen; after having let myself in with my own key all summer, it’s always odd to have to knock, again, when I visit.  Each autumn, in the week before Rosh Hashanah, I go to Cheryl’s kitchen and we bake challah together.  To be precise, she leads me through the process, step by step, while making four or six of her own loaves at the same time.  This has been going on since I moved into the neighborhood in 1988, two years after Cheryl and her family.  In fact, I used to live so close to them that I could efficiently walk home and get some work done between risings of the dough.

So you’d think that after baking challah with Cheryl for 17 years that I’d have learned how to bake it on my own.  I’m sure I could have picked it up, but early on I made a conscious effort not to: If I knew how to make challah on my own there’d be no need for me to do it with Cheryl, and I like the ritual.  I play dumb, and it works.  I like knowing that I can count on Cheryl, that this is something I share with her and no one else.  I like to depend on her for this (even though I assert a tiny bit of my own culinary independence by making my challahs with one-third whole-wheat flour).

I always forget to bring an ingredient, too: Salt, maybe, or raisins, or egg yolks for the shine, any of which she lends me.  Cheryl has huge, industrial-sized vats of poppy seeds, which she shares, and she’s the only person I know who owns, let alone uses, baking parchment (which, after it’s been in the oven, and the edges are browned, always looks like it was meant to be written on in Hebrew).

It’s not like Cheryl isn’t a good teacher; she is.  I met her, in fact, when she taught the adult bar and bat mitzvah class I participated in at the Hillel at The University of Pennsylvania.  Not having been a bat mitzvah at the usual time, I’d determined to pay myself back  and do it before I was 30.  My bat mitzvah was one of those big “M” memorable days, the type that become mythic and you pass down to your children.  As I recited my portion I was totally unaware of my surroundings, of my minyan of friends who were there, of Cheryl, who was leading the service in the nasal voice that I now recognize as her davening voice – all that existed was me and the words.  I was totally alone, while simultaneously unaware of the circle of well-wishers surrounding me, a pretty Zen experience for a nice Jewish girl like me.

For as long as Cheryl has had sons, first Jonathan and then Ari has been part of our challah baking.  Whichever boy was old enough – but young enough — to want to help his mother and her friend bake challah would stand on a stool on the other side of the kitchen workstation, and help measure ingredients, or pour them in, or mix.  He would receive his own clump of dough to play with and, as we did with the real challahs, separate off a tiny portion and burn it according to tradition, an attempt to replicate a sacrifice that makes baking holy.  The first time Cheryl let each son knead the clumps of dough that would be used for the actual challahs has been a rite of passage, like the first time you play Candyland with a child without holding yourself back so you don’t win.

So we measure.  We mix.  When the dough becomes too difficult to mix with a spoon, we use our hands, getting in up beyond our wrists, and the smell of liberated yeast hangs over us like a cloud in a beer garden.  We let it rise. We punch it down, and we knead it.  Kneading is a funny business, I think; we give the dough mixed messages: We abuse it, beating it down with our fists, and we coddle it, encouraging it to open up like a flower, to unfold and reproduce itself.  We give it time to breathe, and in spite of its apprehension that we’ll beat it down again, we ask it to rise.

We flour the countertops so the dough won’t stick when we roll it out.  And then we braid it.  To this day, I have not gotten the hang of rolling out three long dough “snakes,” then weaving them together in a motion that feels like when you turn the ropes in double Dutch, and finally tucking the ends securely underneath.

“Show me how to do it again,” I tell Cheryl.

“You mean you forgot from last year?” she says.  “Ari, you remember how to do this from last year, don’t you?” She teases me.  She shames me.  We do this every year; it’s as predictable as my commenting that the poppyseeds look like ants.  Cheryl makes a face I’ve seen many times, a sort of lip pursing that might make you think she was disapproving.  By the time I met her mother, Bea, and saw her make that precise look, I had figured out that it was a disguise, a one-style-fits-all crusty cover to keep back the tenderness.  Neither Cheryl nor her mother exude tenderness like other people you’d automatically peg as “sweet”; if you were in a room full of people you didn’t know, and you were hurting badly, they probably wouldn’t be the first ones you’d think to turn to for comfort.  But you’d have made a mistake.

“Come on, just show me,” I say, and she does, demonstrating how she takes three strands of my dough and braids them evenly, and I remember the motion from when my mother used to do that to my hair when it was so long I could sit on it.  Cheryl does this deftly, and the dough responds to her touch, knowing it had better or else.  Then she starts to unbraid my challah, so I can do it myself, and I stop her.

“Just leave it,” I say.  “I’ll do the other loaves myself.”

“Sure you will,” she says, knowing as well as I that in the end, she’ll rescue me.  Cheryl will do whatever has to be done to help me turn out challahs that will impress my family and friends, challahs that have beautifully browned crusts and are soft and sweet inside, perfect for spreading with honey and wishing a “sweet new year” to everyone around my holiday table.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania.  At the moment she is teaching journaling and creative-writing classes to people with cancer, and she’s working on a project that she hopes will be published as The Breast Cancer Journaling Workbook.

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