Sunday, January 22, 2006

Bless His Ass

My youngest brother was born when I was about eight. In a time when mothers were still held in hospital for about a week after they gave birth and a gentleman of the cloth visited every second day. When nurses still called my mother Madam and my father was firmly invited to a compulsory chat with the family-planning advisor. I remember my parents finding that discussion a source of enormous mirth although my own experiences did not cause me to agree that children are the kind of blessing where quantity always counts more than quality and that only a typically delusional goy from a typically dysfunctional family could ever think otherwise. Indeed, if they had invited the blessings already produced by the union instead of my father, my youngest few siblings would most likely not be facing any of their current difficulties (or much else for that matter).

In a large ward, in the next bed to my mother, lay a black woman who had just suffered a miscarriage. Her husband, a big gentle Jamaican of the finest kind was considerately rubbing her back, holding her hand and comforting her in ways I had never seen my parents connect. My surreptitious but enthralled staring must have caught his attention because he interrupted his petting session to call me over and offer me a sweet. My father, ever alert when the possibility of straying arose, hastily jumped up to tell the man I didn’t want what he knew to be a non-kosher candy. The point of coyly hiding the fact that I would not eat it because it was not kosher I still do not know, especially since my peyos and enormous kappel made it quite plain anyway. My children proudly explain they only eat kosher and do not seem to suffer unduly for it.

The man beamingly welcomed us both and in his wonderful islands singsong asked me if I know my Bible. My father’s self-satisfied smile precluded me voicing my well-earned hesitations.

“So tell me dis, boy. Who kill a lion widde jawbone of an ass?”
He could have been speaking Island Arawak for all I understood. I stared at him blankly.
“Go on boy, you tell me. Who was it kill a lion widde jawbone of ass?”
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation ended although I do know that I had the urge to go to the nearest empty bed, climb in and pull the covers over my head.

What stops this story being my party piece is the sobering knowledge that even if I had been able to decipher his question I would have been unable to answer because I no idea what he was on about. In the school I went to and in the family I lived, the Bible was no story. It was most certainly not read for enjoyment. Moreover the story of the Bible is not told in narrative form except to toddlers. Certainly any tales with Dalilahs in are resolutely squashed; as incidentally are any references to pregnancy and intimacy of any sort.

I won’t forget the day a boy in my class asked the Rebbe why we only have to perform a bris on boys and not on girls. This was no call for FGC, rather a proof of biological naïveté. The Rebbe struggled to imply something that would not count as him teaching the boy shmutz but would still serve to jog his memory. He could not because the kid was obviously obviously genitally clueless. The reasonable thing to do would have been for the Rebbe to tell him to wait after the lesson and have a couple of quiet words, but perish the thought. The entire class was a titter and I have no doubt the place behind the toilets in the playground was busy the next playtime.

I know there were boys in my class to whom learning and being good came naturally. For them it was a pleasure to know at what age Yocheved begat Miram and how many times the word 'if' occurs in any given parsha. They were proud to be able to inform Daddy, over the Shabbat dinner table, how the Abrahamic bris was the catalyst for all the holy abstinence of future generations. The fact they had no idea what they were spouting deterred them not an iota. Me? I was staring out of the window dreaming of belonging to a religion where guys killed lions widde jawbone of an ass.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Epicurious

I do sometimes enjoy the holiday season. I find myself swept along by the, acknowledgedly phoney but still comforting, piped cheer that I, as one unfettered by the present-buying mania, can uniquely and wholeheartedly enjoy. Still every now and then I am rudely reminded that, as within our little bubbleworld, I am sometimes more like a tourist than a citizen in this temporarily cheerful landscape.

We orthodox Jews do not celebrate start of the new year in January. There are those that claim that we don’t really celebrate anything at all, in the sense that our friends and neighbours from outside the community do. I think even the most fervent chassid will agree that, spirituality aside, our festivals are marginally less colourful and miles less fun than the secular variety. Although it is true, spirits, albeit of vastly differing sorts, do feature highly in both universes. The other thing the two holidays have in common, in our consumer societies at least, is the obsession with food. Indeed for the New Years lunch I attended with my goyish colleagues I had the specially briefed chef prepare, under the beady eye of a highly unsanitary looking mashgiach (kosher supervisor), the very same festive salad my wife served with the meat on our New Years eve:

In a dry pan over a low flame toast a big handful of pine nuts, shaking continually until they are evenly and lightly browned then stand them aside to cool. Add some light frying oil to the pan and fry off some cubed crusts of bread or challah to get some really crispy croutons. Leave aside to cool as well. Next, deseed half of a large and very red pomegranate into a salad bowl filled with baby spinach leaves - well washed and shaken dry. In a vinaigrette shaker or small container with a lid pour 5 tablespoons each of light cider vinegar and sunflower oil, 1 tablespoon of runny honey, a pinch of mustard powder and some roughly ground black pepper then shake hard. Mix together the croutons, nuts and salad. Pour the vinaigrette over just before serving and you have my wife’s perfect Rosh Hashana salad.

Almost perfect I should say. My younger boy refused to eat any of it because his well-meaning teacher had taught him that if he ate vinegar at all, from Rosh Hashana until after Yom Kippur, he would have a sour year. Cretin! Although I might be tempting fate here, I do have to point out that I did eat it then and it does not seem to have had any adverse effect on my year, although a purist might argue that this might have been the year my star finally shot out into orbit had I only declined those greens. Indeed it would not be the first time my religion crashed with my career and the fact I have managed to carve myself a niche and earn my way only serves to make me wonder sometimes, as I lie in my single bed at night, what I might have become had I gone to university at sixteen as I wanted, instead of the Yeshiva I passionately disliked but my father chose for me.

The mashgiach, sporting his festive melancholy, came over to me as I ate. He must have seen in me a kindred spirit and having finished preparing for me an utterly unappetizing looking plate of cold-cuts he had come to see how his raison d’etre there that night was doing. My company took one look at him and hastily vacated the area leaving me to finish my salad in the company of a fellow heeb.
"Is that all you are eating?" He leered at my plate through smudged spectacles.
"Yes," I replied stoically and prepared to explain why. He did not wait.
"Can I have your meat then?"
"Yes," I replied, "why not? You’ve already got my goat."