Wake Up Call


When I was 16, I met a handsome guy with a perfect shiny black pompadour who told me his name was Alan Conti. Three weeks later he confessed that his real name was Alan Waldman. He was Jewish, not Italian, and had been afraid I wouldn't go out with him if I knew he was Jewish.

Years later I told the story to my friend Doug Kahn, who asked if I continued to date Alan.

"Of course," I said, "I had a big crush on him. And he was in hairdressing school, so he did my mother's and aunt's hair when he came over. By then, despite my family's prejudices, he had inveigled his way into their hearts."

Doug's double takes were always swift. "He imbagled his way?"

By the time I met my first husband, who was also Jewish, I was interested in converting.

I studied with a rabbi who kashered Frank's Sodas and the Foremost meats in downtown Philadelphia.

When I said it'd really be hard for me to give up bacon, it became clear that orthodoxy was not my deal, and the good rabbi sent me to a reform rabbi for a more shallow finish.

I wound up marrying two Jews; subsequently, though, not simultaneously.

And that is how I got my immersion in Jewish food. Except for an aunt, my first husband's family members were poor cooks. On Fridays, his mother, who kept kosher, would make meat loaf stuffed with a hard-boiled egg, and she would roast a chicken.

Trouble was she'd begin this meal at eight in the morning and leave it in a 200-degree oven all day to "keep warm," while she prepared the soup and other side dishes for the Shabbas meal. By the time we got it, it looked like those fake foods you see in shop windows.

His aunt, however, knew that slow cooking was for certain cuts like brisket.

Thankfully, we went to her house on holidays like Passover, where we'd enjoy her briskets braised the day before and rested before being sliced and returned to the pan juices for a final brief cooking before being served. It was always fork-tender and flavorful. My mother-in-law would bring the two dishes she did really well: Prakas, thumb-size, sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage rolls; and sweet-and-sour meatballs, with a jar of grape jelly melted in the gravy, for the appetizer table.

My second husband's sister was an elegant Jewish cook.

At her gracious home, I enjoyed wonderful farfel-stuffed turkey and a noodle kugel I still think is the best I've ever had. She lightened it with stiffly beaten egg whites so that it was more like a soufflé, and it never left you with a leaden tummy.

By the time my eyes first lit on my third husband, who, like my first mother-in-law, was blue-eyed and blond-haired, I mistook him for an Ashkenazi Jew. He turned out to be Italian, and his mother, who lives in the largely Hassidic town of Lakewood, New Jersey, calls herself an Itali-yenta. Let's say she makes great meatballs and gravy and leave it at that.

But a cousin came back from Rome one time and said, "Guess what? We are Jewish. I found the family name in the crypt of a synagogue inscribed in the 14th century."

And reading Anita Diament's The Red Tent recently led me to the realization that I feel some sort of connection between Judaism, food and the significant men in my life.

Now fallen away from all religions, I nevertheless like to celebrate the holidays of the so-called Christian-Judeo traditions, knowing they are all culled from even earlier cultures.

When my children were growing up, we sometimes lit a Menorah on one side of the room and a Christmas tree on the other, causing some confusion for my son.

Somehow, my daughter Stacey Gold was able to integrate the celebration of all these traditions and got a kick out of the time we made a sit-down pot-luck Seder for 17 people, only four of whom were Jewish. They told me my carrot tzimmes was the most authentic they'd had outside of their grandmother's. Stacey read the four questions, deepening her voice to what she considered a boyish register.

Things come full circle.

Even though I never gave up bacon, I now seek out kosher meats whenever possible. With Empire kosher chicken available in most Valley supermarkets, and Segal's Seventh Street deli butchering good cuts of beef and veal, we eat well at will.

Last summer I attended a dinner in Kraków's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz.

On my first visit there in 1990, under Poland's then-changing government, it was still a stark and lonely space, eerily quiet. Only the smaller of its two synagogues was open at the time. The congregants had saved it from Nazi destruction by dismantling it and burying the pieces to resurrect it again after the war.

I had met people from the Jewish American/Polish American Committee. They were in Poland for the ceremonies commemorating the hundreds of Jews massacred by their Polish neighbors who, on the orders of the Nazi guards, herded them into a barn and torched it on July 10, 1941, in Jedwabne. An acquaintance of mine from Poland's Solidarity period, historian Jan Gross, had researched and written the book Neighbors, which told the ghastly story. A friend of mine, Krzysztof Knittel, had been commissioned to write music for the commemoration concert the night before.

Arriving last summer in the square I remembered so bleakly, I was ecstatic to find it filled with cafes and outdoor umbrellas, cars, beautiful people and wandering musicians. Life throbbed, bubbled, raged like an unstoppable flood.

During the present war between the Palestinians and Israelis, I often think about that night and Michel Jeruchim of Paoli, Pennsylvania, who lost his family at Auschwitz.

I remember how he could describe, with tears in his eyes, the mystical beauty of my Polish friend's music, and how excitedly we all spoke about the future, and regretfully and openly of the past.

I imagine that if we could get enough groups of them to sit down together at long tables to eat each other's food, they might one day be able to let go of their animosities. Feeding each other bagels and bulgur instead of bullets might make them see each other as human once again.