Book I Excerpt: Memories of My Jewish Childhood
My mother takes my hand and we begin the long walk to Grandma’s house. It is an especially long hike for me, at five years of age, anyway. Down the long winding back road behind our red brick apartment building, under the fire escapes and past the dark cold institutional laundry room. It’s shorter this way, she says. This road is a kind of driveway, with parking spots on the building side, chain link fence covered by privet hedge and ivy hiding private homes on another street. What is a private home, I ask excited, not really caring. I am excited because we are going to Grandma’s. That means noodle soup and pletsela and apple cake. It’s not pie it’s cake, I am repeatedly told. There is a difference, even if it looks like pie. Pletzela are cookies made from leftover cake dough.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, Grandma will save me one of those teenchy little yellow eggs that she sometimes finds in the chicken, and cooks in the soup. If I am good, I get to eat the little yellow egg. I am not exactly certain just what that little egg is doing in the chicken. And what has happened to the shell and the gooky stuff? Maybe, I can watch the magical incantation of the lighting of the Friday candles for the Sabbath, Grandma’s head covered by a shawl as she rocks back and forth nearly inaudibly mouthing that familiar supplication. Maybe Grandpa will come home early from shule, and play with me. Not really play, like other days, because that would not be proper, but tell stories and hold me on his lap. You don’t play on the Sabbath, I know that. We have reached the end of the austere red brick city of Parkchester, the macadam walkways and chained in lawns, and we are almost there.
Then that last turn around the corner, real houses, a normal street, and there is the Kosher butcher beneath the apartment in a taxpayer Mommy calls it, a two-story storefront with living space above, hence the name, she explains patiently, teacher for the moment; it pays for the taxes on the property, or something, she answers my insistent curiosity impatiently. I’m not certain just what a tax is, but fearing yet another lecture, keep this to myself, but I know this place. This is where Grandma gets her chickens. I go with her sometimes on Friday morning, when I am staying with Grandma and Grandpa, when there is no one else to watch me. Today, there is no school, and so I am with my mother. It is a special day for me. No nursery school, just my mother and me, just girl time, my mother calls it. Girl time is all there is for us with Daddy still away. So we are going to Grandma’s house for dinner. The shop is closed now, because it is almost sundown on Friday, and soon the Sabbath will begin. My mother squeezes my hand, and we walk faster, swinging hands back and forth, bouncing a little as we walk. Every so often I find myself in the midst of an uncontrollable skip.
I glance in the darkened window, and think about my last visit there with Grandma. In the back of the butcher shop, is an old man with a long black beard, wearing a white coat that comes nearly to his ankles. Only his once highly polished black shoes show beneath the blood spattered coat, covered with the fine dust of many feathers. Feathers are all over the room, large medium and small fluffy wispy ones. The only job this man has, except for the ax thing, is to remove the feathers from the freshly killed chickens. In my naiveté I do not realize that a living creature has been killed just for my dinner. Grandma chooses the one she likes in the magical hidden back room, and he whisks it away with a flourish, its head, complete with pointy yellow beak, and long lolling neck flopping behind, and begins his job. I look from face to face, in order to gauge the mood of my compatriots, and both Grandma and the chicken flicker are serious, their faces austere and expressionless. They seem to be somewhere else in time and place. I watch, fascinated, as feathers fly in all directions. Soon it appears to be snowing gray chicken feathers, like when you shake one of those glass snow scene balls that hold the piles of papers down on Mommy’s desk. Grandma looks at my awed face, my huge eyes, and laughs, her entire body shaking with mirth. I join her, and soon, we are all laughing, including the stern-faced chicken flicker. The feathers stick to our wet faces, and cling to our clothes.
The entire time, they speak in that strange guttural language, Yiddish, that I hear most times when the entire family is together at Grandma’s house, or when Grandma and Grandpa are there together, and my mother. I recognize a lot of words, and understand some of it, but I cannot speak this language; the sounds get tangled between my tongue and my lips. I do believe that they laugh a lot, and they also argue, and scream at each other, a lot. Mommy says that this is because they love each other so much, but their loud voices frighten me, loud noises always frighten me. Sometimes I feel the need to hide under the dining table, already set for dinner, where I retire with a plate piled high with pletzela or apple cake when things get too loud for me. The ancient white embroidered table cloth hangs down almost to the floor, hiding me completely. No matter what happens, I feel loved, as long as there is cake left on my plate.
The bearded man in the long white coat carefully places the yellow egg with the small package of gizzard, neck, heart and liver, into the chicken. He throws in a few extra chicken livers, after a few murmured words from Grandma, shaking his head, yes. Grandma is going to make chopped liver. I feel a great smile taking over my body. My mouth is in a continual state of juiciness, as I think about the different delicacies that await me. He unrolls a length of reddish brown paper from a thick brown tube, and deftly spreads it on the huge wooden table, wrapping and folding and turning the chicken until it is a neat package, tied with a length of twine cut from a massive ball of the stuff that sits on a steel pipe attached to the table. He pulls two wiry-looking yellow three-toed chicken feet from somewhere under the paper, and wraps them separately. Grandma smacks her lips, and he smiles. Later, Grandma, Grandpa, my mother and all the uncles will fight over those feet. They will lick them and suck them and chew on them, with lots of noisy gusto. The thought makes me shudder. Don’t they know where those feet have been walking, and in what? Have they never been to the zoo? He takes Grandma’s large shopping bag from her, and carefully shoves the wrapped chicken down into the depths of it. After many polite exchanges of pleasantries and formalities, good wishes and blessings for all of their kin, alive and dead, they nod to each other, and we take our leave. My last sight is of him sweeping the shop, and once again he is enveloped in a cloud of soft feathers, like someone just shook the glass ball again.
Now, we go home to begin cooking. If I am lucky, Grandma will make an apple cake, and I will get to watch in awe as she peels the apples in one long fluid motion, leaving a single long curling strand of apple skin, which I am then permitted to eat. Then, I get to watch her make the dough for the crust. I stand close to the large wooden table, balancing, trying not to touch the surface. My nose barely reaches the top of it. She first makes a huge mound of flour, measures exactly one half of a jelly jar, the ones with the puffed out bottom, of sugar, onto the middle of the pile. Then she takes her fist and makes an indentation in the center of the pile, cracks an egg into that, and adds a dollop of oil. How much do you add, Grandma, I ask, making apple cake recipe notes in my head for the future, when I will make my own cakes, or maybe I will just tell Mommy about it so she can make some of those awesome cakes for us at home. A szhmenia, she says matter of factly. A szhmenia? I ask. What’s that? That’s how much you add. Isn’t that what you asked me, she says with surprise? Well, Grandma, I ask, what exactly is it, how do you know how much it is? Grandma holds her hand out, and places her thumb against her other four fingers which are all together, and she says a little bit testily, THIS, is a szhmenia. It’s just like a bissel, but different. A Szhmenia, she states emphatically! She takes my own small hand and attempts to place my uncooperative fingers in the correct position, finally giving up, kissing first my small hand on the inside and then closing it into a fist, on the knuckles, then the top of my head. Don’t worry, momala, a szhmenia is just a szhmenia. Oh, I answer aspiring to exude knowledgeability and wisdom, as if this was something I should have always known, that was automatically a part of my inherited store of knowledge.
She rolls out immense sheets of dough the size of the kitchen table on which she is rolling them, spreads them on even more immense cookie sheets, fills them with her suddenly appearing mixture of apple filling from an immense glass bowl, and covers it all with another sheet of dough. Great quantities of these filled cookie sheets materialize, and are rotated in and out of the steaming oven until every counter and table space is covered with the now cooling tins. It is as though she is being helped by the Sorcerers Apprentices, who are juggling and carrying apple cake cookie sheets instead of pails of water. She sprinkles them with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Later, as the odor of apples, sugar, cinnamon and cake fill the apartment, intoxicating me with their joyous promise, I watch as she cuts square after square, and I am speechless with wonder because each one is the exact size as the last, and she piles them on platters in two three, four five layers, towering creations of architectural and gastronomic delight. Grandma is a sculptor.
Later, the pungent comforting odors of chicken soup and apple cake mingling in the air; grandma begins the task of making noodles for her soup. She repeats the mounding of the flour, and the punching of the center, and the breaking of the egg, this time, eggs, but there is no sugar. Once again, she punches and kneads and finally rolls it all out with her long worn wooden rolling pin, and then the best part. She takes a long heavy knife from a drawer, and begins slicing noodles, so thin and fine and even, that I wonder how she is able to do it, but suddenly there is a mound of ultra fine noodles, chopchopchop chopchop, which she throws into a pot of boiling water. I take reams and reams of mental notes for my future. It looks so easy, Grandma, I say, do you think I could do that? Grandma smiles, and moves on to the next task, the chopped liver. Sometimes, when I stay over, grandma has a giant pot boiling on the stove, all night, and the strangest smell comes out of it. What’s that cooking all night, asks the nosy visitor, wrinkling that same freckled turned up nose? Gefilte fish, says grandma, smacking her lips. Do you remember that big fish, the carp, swimming in the bathtub yesterday? That is him, she says. I experience a moment of sadness for the executed fish. Sometimes, when grandpa is not there, she grates horse-radish and beets and mixes them together with vinegar, to put on the top of the cold fish cakes. Usually grandpa does this. I shudder, because I haven’t yet developed a taste for this particular delicacy, along with pickled herring and sliced onions in cream sauce.
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