Friday, October 17, 2008

A Taste For Brisket

So? How many are you having for dinner?”
“About twenty.”

That's part of a telephone conversation between mother (me in Chicago) and daughter (Jill in Los Angeles) regarding plans for Rosh Hashanah '08. The only thing odd about the dialogue was the reversal of traditional roles. For it was my kid doing the balabusta-ing and me making plans to go to Myron and Phil's restaurant for dinner.

As I listened to my daughter’s menu, I wondered how this came to be. How did I – a woman who placed cooking Jewish for a crowd at the bottom of her list of favorite things, who was not a member of any synagogue, and who took a goy for a second husband – spawn a child about to shove a multi-pound brisket in the oven?

Jill’s embrace of her religion is easy to explain. She has a son, and since public schools in Los Angeles are chancy, she enrolled him in Temple Israel of Hollywood. A natural networker and compulsive organizer (that, she got from me), Jill was recruited to head committees and produce events. News of her output spread, and Reboot, an organization for creative young Jews, invited her in. She soon found the Jewish thing – its positive influence on her son, the camaraderie, and the stamp of identity comfortable and positive.

Her sister, Faith, on the other hand, who lives in Boston, is Jewish in the way I am -- culturally (we like Jewish food and humor) -- but is absent from organized worship. In fact, Faith is so relaxed with her religious identity that she worried not a whiff when creating her infamous rock opera “Jesus Has Two Mommies.”

Enough about the kids. I grew up in the 1940s in an immigrant Chicago neighborhood (see my memoir, “The Division Street Princess”). My Zadie and Bubbie lived down the block and aunts and uncles were also a stone’s throw. (Of course, stones were never lobbed back then as you could knock somebody’s eye out!) And like many who were part of the mass migration from Russia in the 20s, my parents cared more about making a living than worshiping a God who neglected them back in the Old Country.

We had a shul, the Galician on California Blvd., but my family attended only during High Holidays. In the woman’s section, I'd give my Bubbie’s papery cheek a kiss before rushing outside to run wild with my cousins. I did try cheder because my brother was attending bar mitzvah classes and didn’t want to be left out. I lasted one week.

My high school years' High Holidays were spent with my Roosevelt classmates standing outside a temple on the northwest side of Chicago. I recall perspiring in a lamb's wool sweater, woolen skirt, matching jacket, and pantyhose. My family held no membership there, which was fine, as I didn’t plan on entering. Kibitzing on the steps with friends was genug.

Despite my lack of religious cement, at twenty-two, I did marry a Jew. He grew up in a conservative household, and was bar mitzvahed, but had no desire to return to the synagogue. And since our daughters never expressed any wish to become affiliated or study Torah, we didn’t join.

It wasn’t until our chicks left the nest that I felt bereft and believed a connection to Judaism would help me repair. My husband cooperated and we landed at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. It was there I met its charismatic rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, who recognized my hunger and encouraged me to join the board. My husband and I attended Saturday morning services and I began to study for a bat mitzvah. At fifty-one, I stood before 300 friends and relatives to read from the Torah.

This is where the colorful memories switch to black-and-white. The first hint something was amiss was when I saw the tape of that memorable experience. My husband, who has a beautiful tenor voice, participated in the service. When he was at the bimah, he appeared confident and happy, but when I took center stage, his eyes focused on the ground. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts.

All the time I believed we were bonding on Saturday mornings, he was trying to figure an escape route. As much as I'd like to make him the bad guy, I was as much to blame for the failure of our thirty-year-marriage. I preferred to push our problems under the rug, while he was gutsy enough to destroy the covering.

We separated, divorced, and today remain friends. Although our relationship repaired, my connection to JRC was still frayed. When I returned to the synagogue as a single woman, I felt weepy. The congregation continued to welcome me, but I didn't like being a third wheel and my predicament was an unspoken shonda.

My current husband, a lapsed Lutheran, has no interest in his religion or mine. He's accompanied me to bar mitzvahs, and he'd have no problem if I wanted to join a synagogue on my own. But for me, the thrill is gone. This I can't blame on Husband #1 for if I had enough desire, I could surely trump those sad memories.

Perhaps the hunger will return at some point in my life. After all, at age 70 I'm on the down side of the mountain and a connection to spirituality might be a worthy companion. But for now, I can get a vicarious thrill from Jill's Jewishness. And, if I'm lucky, she'll freeze a bissel of brisket for my next visit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Under House Arrest

While some women may lust for a diamond bracelet, like the $5,000, 14K, white gold cable number pictured on the left, I have my eye on a less flashy cuff. It’s that gunmetal gray ankle monitor also pictured on this page.

Why, you may ask (and you’d be dotty and uncooperative if you didn’t), would I prefer a radio transmitter unit fastened to my foot when the diamonds would look fetching on my wrist? And, the bobble would surely elicit gasps of “Oooh, let me see!” or “How gorgeous!” or “What’s the occasion?”

Here’s my explanation: if I wore the ankle monitor, I could truthfully respond to invitations with a shrug, a finger pointing down to the band, and the line, “Sorry, not allowed to leave the house.” Of course, I’d have to come up with some reason I was under house arrest. But surely, with my imagination, and my love for tech products, I could suggest something pilfered at the Apple Store and no one would question me further.

If I told the truth to potential hosts – that I’d prefer never to leave the comfort of my own home – they might think me a recluse and classify me with some of the famous sequesters pictured on this page; i.e. Marlon Brando, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, and J.D. Salinger.

Of course, those celebrities had their own reasons for preferring isolation. They may've wished to escape the attention of fans (not my problem), unable to tolerate other humans (don’t take it personally), or have some psychological disorder that causes them to hide away (let's not go there).

For me, it’s quite simple. Within the walls of my casa, I possess every amusement, convenience, and food to make me happy. Why would I ever want to leave? Come; take a tour (then promise you’ll skedaddle because if I have to chat with you, I won’t be able to enjoy my toys). See, there’s my iMac desktop and PowerBook laptop. If I get bored with one, I can trot over to the other. In the wicker basket adjacent to the couch are copies of the New York Times and paperback of the day ("Talk Talk" by T.C. Boyle). The TV remote can put me in touch with my on-air news source, CNN, the entire Law & Order franchise, and premium channels. A short walk to the kitchen finds enough goodies in the fridge and pantry to keep my tummy satisfied for the rest of the year. And if we run out, there’s always Peapod to truck on over.

I’ve even eliminated the need for a health club with my treadmill and weights, plus earphones that hook to the basement TV. Okay, so my downstairs gym is absent of socialization; but it also removes the vision of all those young, toned bodies that frequent the locker room and cardio studio of my former club. Now, it’s just little ole me huffing and puffing. And when I check myself out in the full-length mirror, I look okay compared to, let's see, the wood-beam columns in the space. (Actually, now that I’m measuring, those timbers are looking pretty slim.)

No matter -- you get the picture. So the next time you’re inclined to invite me out for an evening of enlightenment, dining, or companionship, save yourself the effort. I sincerely appreciate the thought, but you see, I’ve got this thing on my ankle…