I grew up on brisket—and chicken schnitzel, and chopped liver. My father’s parents were kosher butchers, and I grew up in that shop on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. As a toddler, I even teethed on baby lamb chops. I was partially raised by those grandparents, so their Eastern European culture was embedded in me, along with the assimilated atheism of my 50’s-hip parents.
When I married, I married a man whose family was also deeply steeped in Eastern European Judaism, with a very strong strain of Zionist socialism. While he was much more culturally Jewish than religiously so, once our son was born, I went on a crusade the change that. I yearned for tradition and conventionality. Tired of being an outsider to the greater Christian American culture and to the tinier sub-culture of mainstream American Judaism (and even more tired of the minority status of coming from a broken home with a father who was a bookie and a mother who was a serial marryer) I went full bear into the world of Synagogue life. I joined committees, learned to read a bit of Hebrew, celebrated every single holiday, and dedicated myself to living the most conventional life-style I could imagine. And accomplish it, I did. (Sort of. One really has to be raised in that milieu to be a complete insider.)
Later in my 25-year marriage, I went further—leaving the Conservative congregation to embark on a long period where I studied with a Kabbalistic Rabbi, world renown for his credentials, and admired (albeit begrudgingly) among all branches of Judaism for his brilliance. I became one of the few in the inner sanctum of his students, delving as deeply as I was able into the esoteric world of Jewish meditation. And after my divorce, I went back to a university to get my long delayed degree, in Religious Studies. My Brisket Era was over. I was now enthralled with Buddhism, Hinduism, and other forms of spirituality, although still seen through the filter of Jewish spirituality.
I met a man, the most unlikely partner: A Chinese-American, born and raised in Hawaii, and almost ten years younger than me. He has zero interest in religion, and little interest in philosophical pursuits. He is the antithesis of everything my life had been, except in the vital areas. He is incredibly loving, incredibly kind and hysterically funny. He is also utterly practical and yet incurably romantic. Plus, he can fix anything! No one in my family could do more than screw in a light bulb! There is no adopting his culture; it would be impossible and futile. But it still is a force in our lives, no question. There is also no question that we come from totally different worlds. Food being the most daily manifestation of that.
In my background, food is not only a cultural issue; it is inextricably part of Judaism—even among the non-believers. That is because non-practicing Judaism is a 20th Century phenomenon. Up until then, Jews were segregated and had no choice in being Jews and living as Jews. It was only among immigrants to the US that Jews had the ability to live assimilated lives; to choose whether to practice the laws of the religion—laws that are centered on eating habits. To my man, food is purely cultural but no less critical. And so, there is a clash of cultures right there. The foods he grew up with are anathema to my heritage– pork being, actually, only the beginning. There is also shellfish, and other prohibited foods. Even the Chinese methods of cooking are prohibited. (For example, it is considered a sin to prepare foods in a way that is cruel to the animal in Judaism. Chinese cooks prize the freshest animals, even if that means cooking them while still alive.) Thus began my Rice Era. Rice, although in no way exotic to European Jews, was never considered a necessity. Nowadays, in our family it is a must, to be served at every meal. (Unless the meal is mainly noodles.) Which brings me to the Tamale phase of my life.
Before I talk about the Tamale Era, I need to backtrack a bit, because this is a tale not merely of food eras, or even of cultural eras, but of economic eras of my life.
The Brisket Era was my time for economic growth. My first generation parents were working class, but on the cusp of solid, middle class. We lived in nice apartments in good parts of the city. I grew up going to schools that were safe, that provided an excellent education, and among kids who generally went on to college. While we couldn’t afford fancy vacations or luxuries, I had everything I needed and several things I wanted.
And then, when I married, we were both professionals. We bought a house in the suburbs and travelled. Our son went to expensive private schools. We had excellent medical coverage. I remember at one point, I was aware that I literally had no worries, other than those associated with daily relationships or associated with work situations, and with those about my child—as any parent has. Let me repeat that: I knew no worry. True, I was young, and very foolish. But it also speaks to the fact that I saw few limits and lived a basically sheltered life. The Brisket Era was safe and abundant, almost to the end.
I ended that Era after my mother died. Literally on her death bed, she told me not to seek a divorce. I didn’t listen. So, even as I stayed in that Brisket Era culturally for a while following my divorce, its days were numbered, and, economically anyway, they were over. I didn’t fully realize that then, but who does? Who really sees the end of eras? Besides, they don’t usually suddenly stop, but rather, slide away.
The Rice Era is so different. I married the Chinese man. We have great love and tons of laughter. But I soon left the Brisket world altogether, for a world of wonderful Chinese relatives with names like Auntie Kat and Uncle Gum, of a (delicious) Forbidden Kingdom of foods, of trips to San Francisco and Honolulu. A world in which Gung Hay Fat Choi replaced L’Chaim, and, not least, a world of working class economics. I no longer work, and my husband is a blue-collar worker at a huge satellite plant. I have gone back to my grandparents’ time—one of minimal health coverage, of pinching pennies, and of no hope to change any of that. But like them, we own some income property: Six small units in a somewhat marginal area. And that’s where my Tamale Era comes in.
The property we own and live in is in an area that is mostly Hispanic. All of our tenants (with the exception of one Filipino family) are Mexican. Some are legal, and I am pretty sure some aren’t. I don’t care at all. They are great tenants and really nice people. I enjoy living among them. Also, they are all part of a loosely extended family; i.e., they are all related to each other, somehow or other. And here’s another little twist: Two of the households are members of an obscure religious sect—I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s their own version of Christianity, but it is kind of austere. The women cover their hair and wear long skirts; they don’t go to church but have weekly bible readings. And here’s the weird part: When they found out I was a Jew, they were almost, well, adoring! I mean they kissed me and hugged me. I think I know what they believe about that, but I choose not to dwell on it. Whatever. They are sweet people regardless. And the majority of the tenants are pretty secular.
Here’s what I appreciate and enjoy about living among them: They have tons of extended family with lots of kids who visit and live with them. They love their children to death, and are non-judgmental about others. Very much live and let live. Their lives are workaday, and not easy, yet they have a great capacity for fun. They barbecue all the time in our building, and whenever they do, they bring us plates of Mexican dishes, which they keep on the less spicy side for our sakes. Practically every month, I hear a Mariachi band approach our little courtyard from down the block—for someone’s birthday or anniversary. The band ends up right here, playing their live music. It’s an exciting sound—I never get tired of that live ranchero music. And then, neighbors from all around wander in to enjoy the music and get a Corona beer and a plate of food. All are welcome—from the elderly women in black to our neighborhood gang banger with his tats, shaved head and baggy pants. (I have been told that, “Isn’t it nice that we have OUR little gang banger to look out for our street?”)
And this time of year, near Christmas, they make those fabulous tamales. Last year, the women taught me to make them too, and I taught my son. It has become a new tradition for me—Christmas tamales. A new Era. Salud!