Tag Archives: Jewish food

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.

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A Taste for Herring

by Jonathan Paul Katz (New York, NY)

Herring started out as a childhood favorite. Thus, I never thought I would think of it as anything more than a comfort food.

I was introduced to herring by my grandfather, who loved to stock the house with dark bread and pickled herring on his annual visits to our family in New York. I tried it and loved it: the sweet and sharp acidity of the brine, the fleshy fishiness of the herring, and the way the whole thing stood so nicely on the toast.

One bite at six turned later into one piece of toast with herring on it, which then turned into a passion by the time I was in high-school. I loved pickled fish of all kinds, and that mythical childhood herring was right on top.

When I visited my grandparents in Israel, my grandfather and I would eat herring together in our strange South African and Ashkenazi Jewish ritual: him daintily and elegantly, and me with my crumb-scattered American abandon. Herring was simply the taste of childhood glee.

And then I dated a young man in college. I will not go into all the trauma he put me through during and after the relationship. It could have been worse, but it was not good, and for several months I sought paths away from an increasingly harmful relationship. I felt increasingly controlled emotionally by him, and there were moments of physical control, as well, and I lashed back to protect myself, my Judaism, and some of my favorite foods, as well.

As it happens, he did not like herring.

I found this out while he followed me as I shopped for Passover. We stood in the aisles of the supermarket near my university where there was a Passover selection for the neighborhood’s Jewish population. I stood there and saw jars of kosher-for-Passover herring, free of pesky (and chametz) malt vinegar, on the top shelf of the fridge.

“Look!” I told the boy. “Herring!”

“Ugh,” he said, “my dad likes to eat that stuff. Do you really have to buy it?”

I thought of all the things I didn’t like that I did for him. Public displays of affection, mayonnaise, and things far worse. I reached over to grab a jar, and was relieved to find that he refused to kiss me after I ate any herring.

I broke up with him that Passover, although the ghosts of the trauma of that relationship still nag me six years later. And somehow the taste of herring became associated with that relationship. Not from the fact that it was something that caused conflict, but rather because it was the taste of me making a decision for myself, regardless of his input.

In the months that followed, as I nursed my psychological wounds, I ate a lot of herring. On bread, on matzah, in salad, and even in pasta. Every Kiddush at a synagogue, I found myself helping myself to herring. Even now, I cannot resist.

Herring is now the taste of freedom and strength, and not just that of happy childhood memories beside my grandfather. Of course I eat it because it is delicious, but it is also a reminder that I am still autonomous and strong. And, boy, does autonomy taste good.

I think my grandfather would be proud. He died last year, but that taste for herring that he inculcated in me is still alive.

When he is not guzzling herring, Jonathan Paul Katz is a civil servant and writer living in New York City. He writes Flavors of Diaspora, a culinary blog focused on Jewish food throughout history.

 

 

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