It’s Not Easy to be a Kosher Jew

 

I grew up in Berlin in a strictly kosher home.  I was often reminded by my mother that we don’t eat pork, bacon or ham.  However, my father while he was fully supportive of my mother’s kosher home, owning a non-kosher Hungarian restaurant located on one of Berlin’s main streets, did not observe the dietary laws.  Very frequently after school and on my way home, I would stop at the restaurant and do my homework in the corner of my father’s restaurant. There I was engulfed by the tantalizing aroma of Hungarian pork goulash, chicken paprikacz, paprika schnitzel and so many other mouthwatering Hungarian specialties that my father’s restaurant was famous for. Regardless of the temptations, I always obeyed my mother’s advice that we were not allowed to eat pork, ham or bacon. In fact many years later when I met someone who had eaten in the Eszterhazy Keller, he expressed great pity for me that I had missed the experience of tasting the many wonderful Hungarian specialties that were served to the guests there.

Ironically, many years later after having escaped from Europe during the war, history repeated itself in my life.  A few years after I had successfully opened my own advertising agency in New York, I was fortunate to have landed what was eventually to become my largest account in the agency. I was awarded the Polish ham industry’s advertising account, entrusting me with the promotion of their ham products in the U.S. Although no longer observing the dietary laws such as meats that have been through the “koshered” process or mixing dairy with meat, I still would not eat any kind of pork product, even while serving in the Army. My mother’s often repeated words were always running through my mind… “we don’t eat ‘ chaser’ (pork)”.  My Polish clients quickly realized that I, a nice Jewish boy, had never tasted ham and obviously never even tasted their products. Often asking me how it is possible to create campaigns for a product that I have never even tasted. However respecting my kosher upbringing, they were amused and marveled that I was able to create highly effective and prize-winning advertising. In fact, when they were entertaining me in Warsaw, they made sure that the dishes I ordered did not contain pork. My agency’s efforts in the many years of our association helped them triple their volume in sales and earned me a medal from the Polish government.

Now, after so many years, I realize what I always was aware of: it’s not easy to be a Jew and certainly more difficult if you have been brought up to observe kosher dietary laws. Just look how I missed out on the many fabulous free meals which I could have enjoyed in my father’s restaurant. And imagine that for over 35 years that I handled the advertising of Polish ham, I missed out on all the free hams available to me.  But I also realize what a special gift my mother gave me by letting me know of my kosher heritage.

 

Luckily my agency also promoted Polish vodka. Gratefully there is no restriction on vodka. No little voice from the past prevented me from enjoying a drink now and then.

 

 

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Mother’s Day

 

“Mom, I can’t talk now,” said David, “ I’m at the airport.  I’ll call later, O.K.?”

Much later, David called.

“Mom, I’m in St Louis.  Had a great interview at Washington University.  I think the job is mine.   You should see the place – reminds me of Harvard.  But I can’t talk now; I’m at the airport catching a plane.  I’ll call later when I’m home, O.K.?”

“I’m so happy for you,” I said.  “I know you’ve been looking for a position like this for a long time.”

I hung up the phone and burst into tears.

SUNY Albany, where David was professor of physical anthropology had been a disappointment for him for some time.  He took the position there as assistant professor twelve years ago only because he and his wife Paige had had an informal pre-nuptial agreement that they would always live on a farm where she could keep horses – she could not imagine life without them.  The area around Albany had been ideal for horse farms, so when SUNY Albany offered a tenure track position to David shortly after he received his doctorate, he felt obliged to take it and hoped that somehow he could find fulfillment in a department and university that he felt was lacking in certain basic essential elements such as funding and interest of colleagues.

For everyone else, David’s tenure at SUNY Albany had been ideal.  Paige had the horse farm of her dream.  As for me, an eighty two year-old widow, what more could I have asked for?  Their house was less than an hour from our Hudson River country house  – the location of frequent family gatherings  – and only a little more than three hours to New York City where I live.  For twelve years, I had taken for granted that I would always be a physical presence and actively involved in the lives of my children and grandchildren.  The sudden news that this would end was devastating.

Then I thought, “It was just a matter of time for this to happen.  I will adjust. “

I immediately turned to my computer, searched Google for the flight time from New York City to St. Louis, and read, 2 hours 11 minutes.

“It’s do-able,” I said to myself, “not much longer than the drive from New York City to our Hudson River house”.

In my head, I was already planning trips for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Vacation and birthdays.

A few weeks later, Paige was in New York City for a visit. She immediately told me that David had been offered the job, that David would accept if she consented, that they were in the process of selling their house and farm in Albany, that they were looking for a similar piece of property near St. Louis, and that she was very, very distressed about having to move.  We hugged, held each other tight, and burst into tears.

“But, Mommy,” she continued, “ we will not buy a house that doesn’t have a room where you can always come to and stay, a place that is yours alone.”

I was deeply moved.   For days afterwards, the most prominent thought in my head was, “I am a fortunate woman. I will not end life in a nursing home.  David and Paige will take care of me.”

Yet, even as I was comforted, a dark thought was lurking in my mind. What would I do in that room of my own in rural Missouri?  Was that my destiny?  Could I continue to be me if everything that defined me were ripped from my life  – the quiet moments I spend alone in Central Park, my participation in the intellectual and cultural life of New York City, and perhaps most importantly, my many New York friends cultivated through fifty-eight years of living in that city?  These troubling thoughts became a menacing presence.  Were they irrational?  Like unwelcome strangers, they disrupted even my most private moments.

A few weeks later, on Mother’s Day, my son Paul, who is an emergency room doctor currently, practicing in Wisconsin, was in New York City.  He and I would drive to our Hudson River house to spend the day with David, Paige and the grandchildren.

As usual, Paul and I chatted about family matters as he drove.  On this occasion, we talked about David’s new appointment at Washington University; how exciting it was for David; how upsetting it was for Paige; how wonderful it was for me that they would find a place with a room where I can always go and stay; how grateful I was that I would not end life in a nursing home; and how much I would miss New York City.

I was continuing on in this way when quite unexpectedly Paul turned to me and said, matter of factly, “Mom!  You don’t have to go anywhere!  We’ll come home.  I can always work in New York City.”

These words rang like church bells in my head.

Suddenly, like boulders crashing down a cliff and out to sea, all my anxieties of old age were swept away.

We arrived at our country house.  From the edge of the river where he and the grandchildren were skipping stones, David saw us coming and called up in his big cheerful voice, “Mom, Happy Mother’s Day!”

Moving To New York

I moved to Sutton Terrace on York Avenue and East 63rd St. in October 1967. My husband John had found the apartment, a short walk from Rockefeller University where I would be a postdoctoral fellow starting November 1. Although the rent for the two-bedroom apartment was $425 a month, more than four times that of our spacious six room Boston apartment, we felt very lucky. A terrace looked down on a large enclosed garden area where the children could play. As friendly doormen manned the exits to the street, it would be safe to let the children go back and forth to the garden by themselves, a tremendous boon to a busy working mother.

Amy, Andrew and I had stayed behind in Boston when John left to begin work at the New York Times. I packed up the house and arranged for movers. It was fun to have John come back on weekends to regale us with exciting anecdotes about famous writers and editors. I was full of anticipation about our New York life.

The last day at the lab was tough. I went into Dr. Nauta’s office to tell him I was going. He stood up and formally shook my hand and wished me good luck. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized an extraordinary chapter was closing. We had all shared a paradigm change in the scientific exploration of the mind. Due to discoveries in this lab, we could now chart the fine detail of neural networks for thinking. I had had daily contact with young investigators who would go on to be pillars of the new field of Neuroscience. I knew I was losing something irreplaceable.

On our last night in Boston, I took Amy, age 1 1/2 and Andrew, age 5, to the International House of Pancakes for a valedictory dinner, before taking the night train to New York. On the bus to South Station, I was appalled to discover that the antique setting on my engagement ring had vanished, uncut diamonds and all. I realized that the handle of the sturdy Mexican raffia bag that carried our travel essentials must have carried off the setting on one of the many times it had slipped over my left wrist on the way to the bus stop. Although the ring wasn’t really my engagement ring, it had symbolized my commitment. It was a family heirloom that had been given to me by my Brazilian aunt when I was nine. She had told me that it was made of uncut diamonds and was very precious. I had switched it from my right hand to my left in college when I had fallen in love with John. Later he had given me an engagement ring that I hadn’t liked so after a couple of years I had gone back to wearing the antique ring instead. Now I felt that I had lost my childhood. I showed Andrew the hole in the ring and we considered whether we should get off the bus and retrace our steps. The train didn’t leave until midnight. But it was getting dark and a search with two children in traffic would be dangerous and probably pointless. It occurred to me that the loss could represent the final break with our former life. We had been poor struggling students, now we were part of the New York literary crowd. It was appropriate for the slate to be swept clean. I wore the ring with the empty setting for years.

We didn’t sleep well on the train and were a disheveled lot when we reached the station. Instead of getting breakfast, I bought coffee, orange juice and doughnuts to go and took a taxi to the apartment looking forward to being welcomed by John. But when Andrew ran into the apartment shouting for his father, there was no answer. He had already left for work. We were all disappointed. He had not shared our vision of a triumphal family reunion to start a new life. I had wanted recognition for successfully negotiating the move and this big trip by myself. Crestfallen, I took the children out onto the terrace and opened the orange juice. A dark flake of soot floated down into the cup. I looked at Andrew and Amy and said, “Welcome to New York.”