I spent a lot of time growing up perfecting blending in. My parents were hippies. Stretch that definition out a bit, pull at all the cliches, tug at the stereotype and let me know when you’re there. All the things you’re thinking I could mean…yes. I also grew up in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, a stronghold of working class, blue collar, Italian Americans. Pizzeria on every corner country. The outside of my world lived by a very different set of rules than the inside. To further complicate the issue, I’m half Jewish. There were 38 kids in my graduating elementary school class. 32 were Italian. There was one Jewish kid. No outcast sob story here. I was always well liked, a good student and thanks to my athleticism, easily accepted by all. But kids don’t want to be different; that comes later. Tradition wasn’t a thing my parents trucked in and my Mom had abandoned her Judaism long before I came of age. Sure we went to my Grandparents on the holidays, but they were social, not religious, functions, often most memorable for the bizarre and contentious relationship between my Uncle and my Mom and Grandparents. In answer to the four questions on Passover, my Grandpa would simply reply, “Things were tough all over”; seder concluded. Mom did have us light Hanukkah candles, her one act of faith. But with apologies to Jews everywhere, as a little boy Christmas TKO’d Hanukah Mike Tyson style in seconds flat. Similarly, Italian cuisine crushed the competition. And uncomfortably, there was a casual antisemitism always floating in the air. I never knew what to do with that. It was wrong, but I never fought like maybe I should have. I didn’t even understand it, or what being Jewish really meant and most of all, what it meant to me. It was easy to let it slip away. After all, my name is Johnny Giacalone. The world is fond of reminding me that to most people I look like the love child of The Sopranos and Goodfellas. I never had to say anything, everyone assumed, even more as I got older. Most times even after telling people I was half Jewish they’d forget, often referring to me as being “SO Italian”. And, my ex was Italian, and we doubled down on the traditions our parents had relinquished. I wasn’t fully without Jewish influence. There was my godmother Eleanor, a big player in my life. And most of all, my exceptional Grandparents. I summered with them in Long Island, and was very close with them growing up. I don’t wish to rob them of anything. They gave me so much, including, what I believe to be a cultural Jewish sensibility. Still, if I try to think about what things Jewish did they impart, my first thought is Grandpa showing me, with great importance, all of the Mel Brooks movies. The most Jewish thing about me to this day is my sense of humor. Harrison Ford, another half-breed, was once quoted as saying “As a man I’ve always felt Irish, as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish.” I toy with what lines are drawn in my person. Since my Grandmother passed, I’ve never had the opportunity or cause to celebrate the holidays. But this year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I asked Mom to go for dinner at Brent’s Deli in Thousand Oaks for a little Jewish soul food and introspection.
When I pick Mom up in Thousand Oaks she greets with an account of the physical ailments currently plaguing her. That, and her oh so familiar, welcoming, immaculate, scenic apartment triggers memories of Long Island and my Grandparents growing up. I am instantly in the right mind frame. We take our seats in a booth at Brent’s Deli. Modern, open, inviting. It looks like a cleaner, remodeled New York Deli, only like many things out west, supersized. A bowl of pickles is placed on the table like bread might be at other establishments. I instantly gobble one. The sweet and sour, crunchy and juicy flavor explodes my tastes buds. It’s a great pickle. I think about eating the whole bowl. I think, “why don’t I eat more pickles?”. My holidays may have been easy on religion growing up, but never on food. It didn’t matter which side of my family you were eating at, food was prepared as though an army might casually stop by at any minute and we’d be ready. As a kid I am not sure I could even discern between the Jewish holidays, but I knew the food. My Grandmother Dorothy was never a good cook. She was a quintessential 50’s housewife in the mold of canned vegetables, overcooked dry meats and potatoes. Pizzeria on every corner, but in Long Island Grandma cooked me Chef Boyardee. The holidays were different. She cooked traditional Jewish faire, and at that she excelled. I had plenty of favorites, most which I haven’t tried in years. We order soups to start, me Matzo Ball, Mom, Kreplach. Then Karsha Varnishkas, and Stuffed Cabbage to split. I try to order a glass of Manischewitz wine for a hoot but they only sell it by the bottle. There’s a lot I’d like to try, but the portions aren’t small and none of this food would ever be described as lite. To drive home the point, Mom tells me Grandpa was fond of saying if you have Matzo Ball soup, you’ll sleep well at night. Eastern European in origin, this is food from people of cold weather stock, not farming, sunshine state California.
Mom’s a good sport and up for the adventure but makes no secret of her general disdain for, “Jew food”. She’ll often joke how heavy it is and everything cooked, “dead-dead”. Her own culinary renaissance came later, with help from my Italian Grandma. But as we eat she grows more involved, animated about these flavors from her youth, Grandma’s cooking and ancient recipes. I pepper her with questions about her own experiences growing up Jewish and did any of the religion or culture ever take hold? She relates a tale of being a little girl in synagouge with her father and grandfather. They attended a conservative Jewish temple, where men and women were always separate. But my Grandmother was home, busy caring for her own mother, stricken with Parkinsons. My grandfather explained the situation and on this high holy day, Mom, she guesses between 4-6, sat with the men. She gets lost in the retelling of this hypnotic memory of all these men, and their tallises (prayer shawls), swinging and swaying as they prayed. Above them an artists depiction of heaven on the ceiling. The Hebrew chanting. It’s a magical and powerful vision for her and story for me. I’m lost in it as I sample my Matzo Ball soup. Mom asks if the neshuma is at the center. A new word to me, I always called it, “the stuff at the center of Grandma’s Matzo Balls”. Apparently it means “soul” in Ashkenazi Yiddish and was; chicken fat (schmaltz), matzo meal, egg yolk, salt, pepper. I ask why Grandma included it and Mom says “probably how she learned to cook from her mother”. Brent’s Deli does not have it. The broth is flavorful and the Matzo Ball fluffy, not hard. But Mom and I both agree Grandma’s was better. Mom taps her Kreplach, (ground meat in a sorta thick dumpling ) with a fork, “like a hockey puck”. It’s heavy and tasty but again we conclude, Grandma’s was better.
Grandma’s was better is the theme of the meal. No offense, Brent. And Mom and I even wonder if all these years we sold Grandma Dorothy and her culinary abilities a little short. The Kasha Varnishkas, (kasha and noodles – farfelle pasta in my experience) is a little dry. Mom says Grandma’s had plenty more onions too. The Stuffed Cabbage, (spiced ground beef wrapped in cabbage in a sweet and sour tomato based sauce – my favorite as a kid) feels unbalanced. Mom’s diagnosis, overcooked cabbage and too sweet sauce, lacking the sour contrast. She tells me my sister has Grandma’s recipe. I haven’t had this food in twenty years. Rye bread and mustard sit on the table. I have a weird epiphany. I’m a mustard guy and always have been. New York is, too, a mustard town. Go Yanks! I’ve never taken to mayo, and am often confused by it’s cold cut pairing popularity. Only sitting here, investigating my roots, do I make the connection it’s related to the Kosher diet.
“When did they stop keeping Kosher?” is one of the many questions I ask. “After their parents died”, is the answer. “Before that we’d only go out to eat Chinese food, but after, they’d bring take out in”. Best demarcation line in history. Grandpa stopped going to temple on the holidays cause they moved and in Long Beach the temple charged and it got too expensive. Seders shortened. Slowly, my Grandparents had become secular Jews. I keep after my Mom about herself. She says the Old Testament fire and brimstone God was never her style. And she never learned Hebrew, so temple was over her head. She talks about the things she did take away; the importance of education, welcoming the stranger, caring for the least among us. But then times were-a-changing; Civil rights, Women’s rights, the Vietnam War, sex, drugs and rock and roll. My Mom became a hippie, and we end at the beginning. Where I come in. The worlds not so far apart, Mom recounts how much the Jewish and Italian sides of my family were very similar and always got along. “They’d collectively wring their hands and look at me and Dad, like, what are we gonna do with them?”.