Images of the Past and Future

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MADERA

I have a lot of vivid dreams. It is almost as if someone has reached deep inside my body, grabbed hold of my soul and then yanked upward violently, turning me inside out like a sweater. Thus exposed, my dreams take me to places I fear to go in the light of day.

Lately, I have dreamed several times of my father’s death. I wake grateful in the knowledge that he is very much alive, fearing the day when I shall dream of him and awake to find that he is just a memory.

My father is 82 years old and I am a grown-up who is very much aware of the circle of life. But, still.

Still.

Visiting my parents for Chanukah, I sat in their family room, reminiscing with my mother over old photographs in oversized albums that filled up her lap and spilled into mine. It seems all of us have been in a reflective mood since a childhood friend of my sister, who long ago was married to and divorced from my first cousin, was found dead in her apartment in New Jersey. No one noticed for a couple of weeks until the smell got so bad that the neighbors finally complained.

Three thousand miles away in California, we had heard not long ago that she was destitute, unemployable, abandoned by her two brothers and her two sons, and about to become homeless. No one knew what could be done for her and now no more needs to be done. I do not know how she died. Somehow, it doesn’t even seem important.

My sister in Texas calls my mother to talk about her childhood friend, now gone. My other sister broods about this while driving and plows right into the car in front of her. There is a lot of damage but no one is hurt, as the police reports say.

They’re right about the damage. I’m not so sure about the other part.

My mother serves potato latkes and she even makes one of them eggless so that her weirdo vegan son can have a taste of Chanukah. She lights the menorah and I don a kippa from a decades old bar mitzvah to recite Ha’nerot Hallalu and sing Maos Tzur, Rock of Ages.

The husband of my mom’s cousin, at the age of 84, announces that he will celebrate his “second bar mitzvah” in April. Although he is a member of three synagogues, none can book the simcha for the Shabbat corresponding to his Hebrew birthdate. And so, nearly four months out, he has begun preparing a different Torah portion than the one he chanted before family and friends 71 years ago.

My bar mitzvah photos turn up in the album that my mother and I are perusing. I look like a total dork in the bar mitzvah suit that cost a fortune and then had to be altered to fit. My father took me into Manhattan for the occasion, Barney’s at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street.

Photos of my sisters with their friends from elementary school and junior high. Mom doesn’t remember the friends’ names, but I do. The one standing outside the tent is Sharon. Yes, that was the fateful camping trip on which it rained the whole time. No, she didn’t live in our neighborhood; she lived across the street from the school and was a “walker” who didn’t have to face the ignominy of riding the bus. The one with the cat is Debbie, from when we lived in Wappingers Falls. That one is Vitor, the exchange student from Brazil. We trip merrily down Memory Lane until Mom picks up her dying cat and it pees all over her.

Pictures of Dad, decades younger, displaying his chest hair on the beach in Florida. Me as a teenager, with a goofy grin, holding a seashell in Myrtle Beach. My sisters, bundled up in matching hooded parkas, in the snow in front of our house. My very young looking mother in a bathing suit on a chaise lounge at the pool. Me and my grandfather at my college graduation, two months before he died.

Photographic evidence of a life so far in the past that it’s a stretch to believe it ever happened. These Polaroids could just as well be a figment cobbled together into one of my colorful dreams, more real than the real thing.

My parents are discovering that one of the hazards of aging is that everyone you know dies. Parents, siblings, friends. Live long enough and there’s no one left but you.

And as the names are erased from the paper, one by one, with only old snapshots in oversized albums remaining as a reminder, I wonder how I will manage when the very paper itself disappears and, as in my dreams, I am left with nothing but memories and black and white photographs dated AUG 65.

Suburban Food Memories – Part III

The Pizza Place

I drove past Martio’s Ole Time Pizza Parlor every day on the way to work and on the way home for about two years before I set foot in the place.  I no longer remember who or what caused me to try Martio’s.  What I do know is that, after my first meal there, I was hooked.

Much later, I learned that Martio’s had already been a Nanuet, New York institution for decades, the orange and green neon sign on the plate glass a window a magnet for local teens hanging out with friends, young couples on dates and families out for dinner.  I was none the wiser, living over in the next town, where the big deal was Perruna’s downtown or, closer to my own neighborhood, Hillcrest Pizza (and later, Paesano’s, their competitor across the street).

Located on Main Street only a block or so from busy Route 59, parking at Martio’s could be a challenge at times.  The establishment had no parking lot; you had to park parallel on the street or in one of the diagonal spaces around the corner by the firehouse.  I cannot tell you how many times I parked on Prospect Street and, just as I stepped out of my car, “blaaaaaattt!” went the fire horn, causing me to about jump out of my skin.

Once I got started with Martio’s, I’d find myself sitting at their counter at least a couple of times each week, and sometimes quite a bit more often.  They had booths along the wall, which worked great when I brought my parents or a date, but mostly I was in there alone and enjoyed watching all the action from the convenient vantage point of my perch on a stool.

I usually started out by ordering a Coke and a mushroom slice, sometimes the regular Neapolitan, sometimes Sicilian.  I’d chat up the owner, his son and the son’s fiancée while they went about their duties.  Then I’d order dinner, usually manicotti or eggplant parmigiana, occasionally a hero sandwich.  The platters would come out with two pieces of crispy garlic bread.  I’d often order a salad, which was served with cruets of oil and vinegar.  While I ate, I would watch customers come and go and listen to pizzas going into and coming out of the oven that was just out of sight, while staff yelled at each other about what they were cooking or what was 86’d for the evening.

When I finished, I would order a cappuccino and a cannoli and linger over dessert.  Often, I’d order a second coffee, not quite ready to go home yet.

When I advanced to management at my job, one of my minor responsibilities was ordering food for my section’s monthly employee recognition meetings, held in the basement canteen.  One month, I’d order fancy pastries from Pakula’s Bakery (alas, long gone)  — chocolate pudding tarts, cannoli, charlotte russe and tiny replicas of strawberry shortcakes. Pakula’s was a Spring Valley institution at least since the 1950s, when they moved to the suburbs from their original home in The Bronx.  They produced the most amazing desserts, including “yummy rummy cake” (kind of like a firmer pound cake with a hard crust and layers of rum-soaked chocolate cake), “tropical fruit pie” (cake and custard with slices of kiwi, pineapple and strawberry on top), giant brownies slathered in chocolate icing, and all the local Jewish and Italian favorites (hamantashen, rugalach, Napoleons).  It was where my bar mitzvah cake was purchased when I was 13 and where my sisters’ engagement party cakes were purchased 13 years after that.  Back in my hometown, you couldn’t go visit someone without bearing a Pakula’s box tied up in red and white string.

On the alternate months, however, I would order pizzas for work from Martio’s.  My section contained five departments and about a hundred staff, including a lot of big, hungry pressmen, so you can imagine how many pies they had to lug over to the chemical plant.  Sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, cheese, ground beef?  Yes, please.  Give me some of each.  Martio’s made good money from us in those months.  I would bring out a rolling cart and have the Martio’s people load it up in the parking lot.  It would be so heavy that I could barely push it past the assembly lines, through the narrow, winding passageways that led to the canteen in the back of the building.

Sitting at the counter at Martio’s, I could look out the glass in the center of the big red door and watch the cars come and go on Main Street and the time and temperature sign change on the bank across the street.  In the wintertime, it might read -19° F, while in the summer, it might read 105° F.  Seasons came and seasons went, but through it all, the popularity of Martio’s was a constant.

In the years immediately before I moved to California, Martio’s purchased the storefront next door and expanded it.  First, they turned it into an ice cream parlor, featuring Italian gelatos.  Then they installed a brick oven in the annex in addition to the regular oven in the old store.  All of the staff was extended family, and they would use the kitchen to cut back and forth between the two storefronts.  At busy times, the booths in the old store and the tables in the new store would all be full.

I am happy to report that Martio’s remains alive and well and serving its heavenly pizza, heroes and parmigiana dishes.  It is among the finest memories of my youth and one of the things that I sorely miss about New York.  Eating there once more would be near the top of my bucket list.

Tomorrow:  Thanksgiving or Festivus?

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Suburban Food Memories – Part II

The Diner

In the late 1970s, I was in college and my sisters were in high school.  When I was at home, we all liked to relax in the family room and play records (yes, real vinyl 33⅓ rpm ones) on my father’s old phonograph.  Among our favorites, which we played over and over again, was Billy Joel’s The Stranger.  We would muse and hypothesize about what the songs really meant and, in a few cases, what the correct lyrics were.  We particularly loved “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” with its key changes and song-within-a-song.  When Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie always being a hit “at the Parkway Diner,” we knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Plaza,” one of us would say, exchanging knowing glances with the others.

In our neighborhood, when you said “the diner,” it only meant one thing:  Don-Len’s Plaza Diner on Route 59 in Nanuet, right across from the mall.  (It lives on today as the Nanuet Diner.)  There were plenty of diners all over the place, but only the Plaza was the diner.  That’s because it was the gathering place for teens and young adults, while still being popular with families.  You could come in with a date or with your whole crowd.  It was open 24 hours a day and, most of the time, you could count on a cacophony of conversations.  When the movies let out on a Saturday night, you could barely get in the place.  Same thing after the bars closed down at 2 in the morning.  Same thing on Sunday morning, when families came in for brunch.  If you had to wait for a table, you could sit on one of the long vinyl banquettes out in the lobby by the pay phone (remember those?).  The lobby had doors at either end, one facing Nova Lighting and Gaylin’s Housewares, the other leading to the parking lot of the decrepit Rockland Plaza.  Once the county’s shopping epicenter (before the mall came in, it was anchored by W.T. Grant Co. on one end and Grand-Way on the other), by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the place had deteriorated into a series of vacant storefronts and discount stores that seemed to come and go every month or so.  Eventually, it stabilized a bit when Marshalls and Barnes & Noble came in.  But through all the changes, the Plaza Diner remained the one stalwart soldier, always ready to serve you anything your heart desired, any time of day or night.

The first thing you noticed when you pulled open the interior doors was the pastry case.  There would be strawberry shortcake, mile-high with whipped cream.  There would be a tall seven-layer chocolate cakes.  Then the cheesecakes, perhaps cherry or blueberry or pineapple.  Cannoli, giant chocolate chip cookies.  Chocolate cream and banana cream pies.

The menu was a book.  There wasn’t much missing.  Want a steak?  Pancakes and eggs?  Shrimp scampi?  A salami sandwich?  Spaghetti and meatballs?  Spinach pie?  An ice cream sundae?  They had it.  Greek, Italian, Asian and Jewish specialties, check!  (Who ever heard of Mexican in New York back then?)  There was even a note on the menu to the effect that if you didn’t see what you wanted, you should just ask and they’d make it for you if they could.

My parents took me here as a kid, and seafood was the name of the game.  Dad liked the scallops, Mom liked the whole baby flounder or a fried fish sandwich, and I salivated over broiled bluefish (which, incidentally, I have never seen in California).

On the weekends, a long, gleaming salad bar would be rolled out onto the floor.  It cost extra to get the salad bar with your meal, but I begged my father for it.  I seem to remember that there were plenty of crisp greens and salad makings, but I thumbed my nose at that stuff.  I headed straight for the noodle pudding, the pickled herring in cream sauce and the rigatoni with tuna.

When I landed my first job out of college, on the night shift, I’d head to the diner after work for cheesecake with my buddy, Bob.  Or I’d drive over there when I woke up around noontime for spanakopita because I knew a certain really cute waitress would be on duty.

I wasn’t faithful, however (to the diner, not the waitress).  In fact, you could say that I was downright promiscuous.  I’d bop over to Janet Hogan’s down in the swamp hollow in West Nyack.  In a hard rain, the whole area would flood and you couldn’t get near the place.  The rest of the time, however, they had great challah bread that was served with every entrée.  Or I’d head south on Route 303 to the Golden Eagle Diner, just across the New Jersey state line in Northvale.

When I started working day shift, I became enamored of the kosher deli in our neighborhood (described yesterday).  After I tired of that, however, I became attached to the Red Eagle Diner (known years before as the Spring Valley Diner and not to be confused with that other color eagle in Bergen County) on the corner of Route 45 and Route 59, one of the busiest intersections in all of Rockland County.  It was located next to an Orthodox Jewish bakery and an Italian barber shop, across from the old Shopper’s Paradise, later Masters, later the flea market.

Sometimes I’d stop in at 6:00 in the morning for oatmeal.  They’d heat the milk so it didn’t make the cereal cold.  The place was staffed by crusty waitresses of the old school who’d actually yell “Whiskey down!” when a customer would order rye toast.

But mostly I’d stop in after work.  They knew me so well that they’d see me walking through the parking lot and have my iced tea with plenty of lemon on the counter before I sat down on a stool.  Someone would be playing Springsteen on the jukebox as I dug into my rice pudding.  You could stay as long as you wanted and chat with the servers.

Years later, when I lived in Connecticut, I experienced pretty much the same thing at a Greek diner in Danbury.  It was more than just food.

It was almost like family.

Tomorrow:  The pizza place

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Suburban Food Memories – Part I

The Kosher Deli

I have been a vegan for only two years.  Prior to that, I was a vegetarian (sort of – I ate fish) for 23 years.  But I was raised as a meat-eater from earliest childhood, and in the halcyon days of my youth, I was a dedicated carnivore.

A few days ago, I found myself tripping merrily down Memory Lane, regaling my wife with stories of my gustatory adventures in my native New York.  As a young man just out of college, I found myself earning decent money, while living at home and having few expenses other than my car.  I didn’t have a serious girlfriend to spend my paychecks on, so I blew my cash on the thing I liked best:  Eating at restaurants.

In later years, when I had girlfriends with expensive tastes, I would leave the suburbs and head into the big city on the weekends, attending concerts and Broadway shows and plunking down piles of cash at restaurants that I really couldn’t afford.  For the first few years, however, I indulged my proclivity for cheap local places where, as on Cheers, everybody knew my name.

I went through a series of phases.  First, it was the kosher deli.  After work, I would plunk myself down at the counter and order iced tea.  Back then, most restaurants in our area served iced tea only in the summertime.  But the deli would mix up a pitcher just for me and start slicing lemons even in January.  They knew I’d drink the whole thing.

In those days, I got off work at 3:30 in the afternoon, so the deli was usually pretty dead.  There might be one or two customers or perhaps a couple enjoying a late lunch.  Often as not, however, I’d be the only paying customer in the establishment.  The manager or the one waitress on the premises would come over to chat.  On nice days, the doors would be propped open and the salamis hanging up front would sway gently in the breeze.

I’d usually start my odyssey of flesh consumption with a big bowl of chicken noodle soup that had a huge matzo ball floating in it.  The pickle bowl (both garlic sours and mild half-sours) and the rye bread with pareve margarine would appear.  While I munched, I’d peruse the menu for dinner ideas.  I might decide on a half roast chicken or sliced turkey or a hamburger (raw onion, please, never fried) or “specials” (giant knockwurst).  Dinners came with two sides, and my favorites were kasha varnishkes (known among deli aficionados as “KV”) and luckschoen kugel.  The former consisted of bow tie pasta with buckwheat groats (a little like rice pilaf, but hard to explain if you’ve never tried it) and brown gravy; the latter was noodle pudding liberally studded with raisins and fruit cocktail.  Vegetables?  Get outta my face!

Some afternoons I’d really go to town and order an appetizer in between the matzo ball soup and the entrée.  My favorite forschpeis was tongue polonaise, which is thinly sliced beef tongue smothered in sautéed cabbage, raisins and tomato sauce.  I also favored stuffed cabbage, and occasionally I’d go wild and have chicken fricassee or stuffed derma (a type of sausage — take my word for it, you don’t want to know).  The only appetizers I stayed away from were chopped liver and liverwurst.  Sorry, pâté lovers, but I found the flavor to be extremely bile, oops, I mean vile!

There were plenty of days that I stayed away from hot food (other than my beloved matzo ball soup) and went right for a sandwich.  I’d have them create whatever concoction sounded good to me.  It might be turkey, tongue and salami or roast beef, brisket and rolled beef (similar to, but not the same as, what Montréal natives know as “smoked meat”). Surprisingly, I was never particularly fond of pastrami or corned beef, perhaps the two items that most represent the essence of the New York deli.

How could I possibly have room for dessert after all that?  I’d make room.  I was a veritable bottomless pit.  Most often, I’d have a cup of hot tea with lemon and whatever pastry I could get my hands on.  My favorite was sacher torte, which is a chocolate and raspberry cake.  The deli didn’t always have it on hand, but they always had fresh apple strudel, topped with chopped walnuts and cinnamon.  It was heavenly and I seldom waddled out of there without a second slice.

I spent so much time and money in that deli that, eventually, the manager asked if I wanted to run a tab.  “No, I’d rather pay as I go,” I immediately blurted out.  Flattered as I was, I was horrified at the notion of going into debt and maybe not being able to pay my bill.  As it was, my employer paid me on a weekly basis and I always had a pocket full of cash.  Let’s keep it simple, folks.

I had a history with that deli, as it had been around since the early 1960s.  As a kid, my parents would take my sisters and me out to dinner there once in a while.  While Dad munched away on “His Majesty’s Twins” (two small sandwiches on mini Kaiser rolls, one pastrami and one corned beef), a Dr. Brown’s cream soda and apple strudel, the kids had exactly two choices:  A hot dog or a hamburger.  I always went for the Beefburger Deluxe, as it was much larger than just a hot dog (and it came with steak fries!).  That may be part of the reason that the longtime manager asked me whether I wanted to run a tab.  He knew me back in the day when I was still in school, my parents wouldn’t allow us to have soda, and Dad recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” because I was the designated water boy for the table.  (“You’re not going to make that waitress keep running over here to get us more water!”)  I would take our glasses over to the little spigot and feel put upon for being required to get up off my butt.

I made up for it after I started working.  I would darn well have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it!  Oh, but that’s not even the best part.  Want to know what a disgusting fresser (glutton) I was?  After spending a couple of hours at the deli, I’d drag myself home and take a nap until my parents showed up after work.  They were tired and often went out to dinner.  They would invite me and I would go!  I would never admit that I’d already eaten enough for a small army.

If my parents wanted to go to the deli, I’d beg them to drive to the deli in the next town “so we can have cabbage and raisin soup.”  They generally obliged.  Whew!  I didn’t want to show up in my deli a second time in a single day!  Who knows whether the staff would keep my secret or not?

A few years later, things changed at the deli.  The excellent cook, who loved food even more than I did, had ballooned to more than 400 pounds and had to “go away.”  This was long before bariatric surgery was as common as a nose job.  They told me he went to a special clinic at Princeton University.  Thereafter, my parents regularly threatened me with the same fate if I did not lose weight.

Then the deli manager and his father purchased the cabbage-and-raisin-soup kosher deli in the next town.  Out of loyalty to them, I transferred my eating binges over there.  By then, however, my deli orgies had become less frequent than my former daily romps through cholesterol heaven.  Some other local joints had captured my attention.

Over time, the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changed from predominantly Jewish and Italian to mostly Dominican and Haitian.  It’s been almost a quarter of a century now since my favorite kosher deli passed into history.

Tomorrow:  Diners I have known and loved

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Yizkor

Yizkor

A few days ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Mankowitz, posted a poignant piece about the Mourner’s Kaddish.  In the Jewish faith, this is a hymn of praise to God recited in synagogue by the recently bereaved.

I particularly enjoyed Rachel’s post in light of the fact that I have recently been thinking about Yizkor, the Memorial Service for the Departed that we Jews read at certain times of year in honor of lost loved ones.  The word yizkor is generally translated as “remembrance,” derived as it is from the Hebrew verb yizakher, “to remember.”

Unlike the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Yizkor prayer directly addresses our relationship with family members who have passed on.  My Hebrew is not very good, but the English translation mentions the fond memories of times we have shared together and the influence that our loved ones have had on our lives.  Specifically, the prayer refers to the ways in which the sterling qualities of those whom we have lost have inspired us to reach for the ideals for which they stood.

As a child, I was always told to step out of the sanctuary when the Yizkor prayer was being read.  It is a very sad prayer indeed, and I can certainly understand why some of us choose to insulate children from death, particularly references to the idea of the eventual deaths of their moms and dads.  Later, as an adult, I learned that many congregations subscribe to a tradition of having all those with two living parents step out during the Yizkor prayer.  Not just children, mind you, but adults as well.  Even old curmudgeons like myself who still have both father and mother.

On the other hand, I have listened to some rabbis pooh-pooh this tradition, encouraging congregants of all ages to participate in the Yizkor prayer.  Even the young among us have some distant relative or friend who has died, right?  And then, of course, we can always remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and our holiest day of the year.  It is a very solemn occasion on which we completely abstain from eating and drinking (even water) for more than 24 hours.  In addition to listing our sins, asking God for forgiveness and vowing to do better in the coming year, we think about the poor, the lost and lonely in our communities from whom we have turned away despite their desperate need of our help.  One effect of fasting is seeing what it feels like to be hungry, at least for one day.

Traditionally, we spend the entire day in the synagogue praying on Yom Kippur.  Around the middle of the service, after the Torah reading, we take a break to say the Yizkor prayer.  We not only think of family and friends who played important roles in our lives in years gone by, but we also acknowledge that we ourselves are headed the same way, sooner or later to fade into history.  The idea is that we shouldn’t think so highly of ourselves when we all end up moldering in the grave.

My father, who is either an agnostic or an atheist (depending on whom you ask), despises organized religion and despairs when he is reluctantly dragged to synagogue by my mother on Yom Kippur and other holidays.  This year, my mother reported, he was delighted that she agreed to stay home because they both had bad colds and they didn’t want to end up sicker.  In past years, my father would spend a short time in the sanctuary (perennially dressed in shorts, much to my mother’s dismay), then head outside to sit in a folding chair between the front door and the kids’ playground.  Before long, he’d be fast asleep.  One year, when I was down in the Central Valley visiting with my parents for the holidays, the rabbi came out and asked my father why he had left the service during the Yizkor prayer.  “Surely both your parents are not still alive!” he said incredulously.  Dad explained that it is true that his father is no longer with us, but that he was well loved and respected by all who knew him, lived a long life, and would not appreciate people saying prayers for him.  My father spoke the truth.  My grandfather harbored an even greater aversion to organized religion than my father does.  In fact, Grandpa used to make fun of me any time I donned a yarmulke or said a blessing over the food.  He felt it was all a bunch of hocus-pocus.

This year, I spent Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) with my parents, but was unable to travel to be with them for Yom Kippur due to having to work the day before and the day after.  Attending synagogue in a suburb of Sacramento, I left the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayer in accordance with the tradition in which I grew up.

Even without the Yizkor prayer, I couldn’t help thinking about family.  My grandmother died when Mom was still in her twenties.  Dad, however, had his father until the age of 62 and his mother (who died following a fall at the age of 97) until he was 73.  As fortunate as he was, and as lucky as I am to still have both parents, I can’t help recognizing the fact that I am rapidly approaching those ages myself.  And as the strains of the Yizkor wafted out of the open door of the sanctuary, I found myself thinking of how many more Yom Kippurs are left before I, too, will stand and face the holy ark with my little paperbound copy of the Book of Remembrance and tears streaming down my face.

Bones

Phone Bones

We have been out of town the past couple of weekends, once to Reno and once to visit my parents in the Central Valley.  From the vantage point of a New Yorker who transplanted himself to California 20 years ago, the distinguishing factor of the Golden State is that it has no distinguishing factor.

Even after two decades on the west coast, many notice a trace of a New York accent that lingers in my speech.  When I admit to my roots, I am typically asked where exactly in New York I am from.  It seems that I disappoint them when I don’t announce that I hail from Batavia, Binghamton or Buffalo.

“I was born in Manhattan,” I tell them, and they seem suitably impressed.  I don’t bother mentioning about starting out sharing a single bedroom with two sisters in a roach-infested walk-up in the Bronx.  Nor do I get into my parents’ flight to the leafy suburbs in the mid-sixties.

“Things must be really different back there,” is the usual reaction.  I disappoint once again when I say that, no, they’re not.  I’ve long resigned myself to the increasing homogeneity of America.  So much of California reminds me of New Jersey.  The grubby suburbs of Sacramento and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles are not that different than Passaic and Essex Counties in the Garden States.  Newark, California has a lot in common with Newark, New Jersey.

We travel the interstates, taking an exit periodically to fill the gas tank, fill our bellies, use the rest rooms.  Whether we’re in Oregon or Nevada or right here in northern California, the one thing that every convenience store, strip mall and restaurant seems to have in common is the bones.

I refer to the skeletal remains of the once ubiquitous pay phone.

I remember it well.  It was the summer before I went off to college, and my father and I were hitting balls on a tennis court at the local junior high.  I had never been away from home before, was quite immature at the age of 17 and began fretting about how I’d keep in touch.

“There are pay phones everywhere,” my father offered.

Oh, so true during the Carter administration.  In my freshman year, I lived in a dormitory that had one pay phone on each floor, in the elbow that separated the men’s wing from the women’s.  It was considered proper etiquette to answer it if you were nearby when it rang, and then to leave the receiver dangling while you went to bang on the door of whomever the caller requested.  I remember being tickled the day I heard it ring just as I walked by and it was actually for me!

Later, I transferred to a giant state university that was bursting at the seams with baby boomers.  Despite a veritable city of dormitories, there was no room at the inn and I ended up with a couple hundred other students in a decrepit single room occupancy hotel downtown.  There was an old cast iron black telephone in each room.  The phone had no dial (this was before the age of push button phones), as it received incoming calls only.  To place an outgoing call, one would use the pay phone in the lobby.  Alternatively, up on campus one could descend into the basement of the university library, where in a room near the huge bound volumes of obscure academic journals, was a bank of pay phones, complete with little stools on which to perch during one’s phone call.  For some reason, Sunday night seemed to be the time when everyone wanted to call home to Long Island.  After all, everyone was far too busy bar hopping on Friday and Saturday nights.

Somewhere in a dusty album there is a photo of my sister and her young ex-husband, newlyweds on their honeymoon, hugging each other while squeezed into the narrow doorway of a phone booth.

Phone booths!  Remember those?  Clark Kent relied on them to make his transformation into Superman.  The red ones I found throughout London when I visited in the mid-1980s were highly photogenic, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use them to make a phone call.  “You can dial that yourself,” one operator unhelpfully informed me.  HOW??!!

My parents typically spend their evenings watching television, a habit I have studiously avoided for years.  To make matters worse, they don’t have cable or a satellite dish.  Thus, they receive only a few over-the-air stations from a nearby city.  The trash that they serve up to the public makes me roll my eyes.

And so, on Saturday night, after sitting on folding chairs in the driveway to watch the stars for an hour, my wife and I found ourselves sitting on my parents’ couch, watching the first Terminator movie (1984) with my mother.  My father was in the office watching documentaries about murders on another TV.  As a Californian who endured a term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, I could not but guffaw at seeing him as a cyborg.  But it was his repeated visits to phone booths that really caused me to belly laugh.  Phone booths that not only had fully functioning phones in them, but also had phone books present (remember those?), so convenient for Arnold to look up the addresses of his next victims.

Pay phones went through slow stages of disrepair and dilapidation before they disappeared altogether.  There were a number of years during which the phone probably still worked, but nothing dangled at the end of the cord where a phone book was supposed to be.  Most pay phones seemed to be of the outdoor variety; where an actual booth still existed, the little shelf beneath the phone that was supposed to house the phone book was always empty.

When I worked as a manager in the court system, I remember making a sign and posting it on the wall of the courthouse lobby to inform visitors that the pay phone did not work and that no money should be inserted therein.  People tried anyway and lost their dimes and quarters.  I don’t know how long it had been since that particular pay phone had ceased functioning, but I do know that picking up the receiver yielded an incessant beeping and nothing more.  It took quite a lot of research, probing and pleading before I was finally able to get that pay phone removed and the empty hole in the wall plastered over.  The challenge was finding out who actually owned the phone.  None of the phone companies who I contacted were willing to take responsibility for it.  Little did I know that there were businesses that actually purchased and serviced pay phones.  I always had a vague idea that “the phone company” took care of it.  Perhaps this was true in the halcyon days before the breakup of Ma Bell.

The advent of the cell phone relegated pay phones to be just another remnant of American social history, along with the vinyl 33⅓ RPM record and the manual typewriter.

But still, like ghosts of the past, the bones remain.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

A question posted online recently captured my attention in a big way.  It went something like this:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

I was surprised when my guts began churning and a flood of emotions washed over me.  So many memories.  So many “what ifs.”  So many “if onlys.”

What would my ideal job be?  Oh, please don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else, but not that.  It’s just too embarrassing.

It sounds like a warped job interview question, something the production manager or the HR lady sadistically throws at the poor applicant in an attempt to throw him or her off kilter and assess “thinking on your feet” skills.

In fact, I was asked this question during a job interview once, many years ago.  The interviewer added “anything but the job you are applying for, that is.”  Of course.  There would be no point in enduring suck-ups who provide the obvious answer.

As a self-professed “word freak,” I told the interviewer that I have long been fascinated by etymology and would, in my dreams, be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What happened after that was not pretty.  Believing I had said “entomology,” the interviewer thought I was into insects.  As far as the OED, he told me that he had one of those on his desk.  I was sure he was lying, as I knew full well that the OED consists of 20 thick volumes.  (I had not yet heard of the compact edition.)  Then he admitted to me that he’s really like to be a rock star.

Oh.

Need I add that I did not get that job?  I’m probably better off, too.

The loaded question about “your ideal job” has been around just about forever, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.  When I was in college in the 1980s, pondering what the hell I was going to do after graduation with a degree in English and political science, the popular question (courtesy of the Richard Nelson Bolles book) was “what color is your parachute?”  Today, I suppose, we would say (courtesy of young crooner Kacey Musgraves) “follow your arrow wherever it points.”

Turn the dial on the ol’ Wayback Machine a few years earlier.  Everyone from my grandparents to my aunts and uncles to my parents’ friends and our next-door neighbors posed the same question to me at one time or another:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every kid gets asked that question.  I used to think it was a way of testing the kid’s mettle, to find out how big he or she can dream.  Or maybe it’s just a way of making small talk, an adult’s way to start a conversation with a child when the adult doesn’t really know how to relate to kids and has no idea of what else to say.  It’s the old tried-and-true.  It’s the question that’s expected.  Now that I’m an old guy, and more jaded than I like to admit, I suspect that many adults ask kids this question to get a good laugh at the outrageous response they might receive.

If a shy kid greets this question with silence, the follow-up may well be something like:  “Policeman, fireman or Indian chief?”  (In the upper middle class suburban world in which I was raised, the question would more likely have been:  “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?”)

Seriously, what is it with Indian chiefs?  I was born much too late to have heard of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, although I have vague, fuzzy memories of watching old westerns with my grandpa when I was four or five years old.

It seems like a humorous anachronism now.  Today, if you used the phrase “Indian chief,” the image that would come to my mind would be of a CEO in Mumbai.  Not a bad career choice, come to think of it.

Well, what I wanted to be when I grew up was really rather boring.  I wanted to be a librarian.

I was enamored with books and retain vivid memories of an embarrassing incident in which I walked right into the office of the director of the public library and asked him for a job.  I was ten years old.

To the guy’s credit, he quizzed me on the Dewey Decimal System, a test which I summarily failed.

“Being a librarian doesn’t mean you get to read books all day,” my mother patiently tried to explain.  Duh!  Everyone knows that.  Librarians get to push the little cart around and tell people where the periodical room is and shove library cards under that little machine with the bright light that makes a copy with the due date stamped on it.

I started telling people that I wanted to be a teacher like my Dad.  It was safer.  Also, it was less of a sissy answer.  Everyone knew librarians were old ladies with their hair put up in buns.

What I do for a living today is far more boring than being a librarian.  I am a manager in the government service.  Pass the white bread and the vanilla ice cream.

I’ve spent years as a supervisor and manager in both the public and private sectors, during which time I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect upon career paths, recruiting and the interview process.  On several occasions, I found myself in the position of reviewing stacks of job applications and then conducting dozens of interviews.  I learned to take good notes, because after a while it becomes difficult to remember one candidate from another.  Perhaps someone stands out because they tell me a funny joke, once worked as a lion tamer or show up at the interview with really big hair.  But mostly it’s just a chorus line.

These days, I consider myself reformed.  I am rarely involved with hiring anymore, and when I am, I don’t ask candidates what their ideal job would be.

For one thing, it’s too painful.  That is, the ridiculous answers you get are too painful to bear.  And you can’t even laugh!  You have to keep your serious supervisor’s face on, nod and say something profound like “Well, that’s different!”

Mostly, however, you just get boring answers about wanting to work “in the helping professions” (Query:  Is there such a thing as “the hurting professions?”) or wanting to give back to the community or to make a real difference in society.

Sigh.  My eyes grow misty as I recall the many times I’ve spewed out such chewed-over platitudes to prospective employers.  Even when it’s true, it always comes out sounding just a little bit insincere.

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s time to fess up.  My ideal job, what I’d really love to do more than anything else I can think of, is to be . . .

A customer loyalty team representative in Zappo’s call center.

Yep, you read that right.  I want to don a headset, surf the Net like a wild man in search of bargains and answers and make customers insanely happy all day/night.

And much as this is the object of my desires, I can unequivocally guarantee that I will never have this job.  More on that in a little while.

Now, why would I want such a job?  I’m glad you asked.  It’s not out of some goggle-eyed fantasy, I assure you.  I worked in a call center for years, so I know the drill.  Most of my coworkers hated it and got out as soon as they could.  I stuck around for nearly nine years.  It’s where I met my wife and it was one of the best times of my life.  I’d do it all again in a minute.

My niece works in a call center and often makes vague references to the difficult customers she is forced to deal with, the time constraints she faces on each call and the constant threat of Quality Assurance listening in with a critical ear.

Bring it on, I say!

Satisfying the customer at the other end of the phone line, even the one who has a beef with the company and decides to cuss me out, brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I am the weirdo who glories in turning the frown upside down.

But why Zappo’s?  Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  Sorry, I’ll try not to gush too profusely.

First, Zappo’s operates on a holacratic model, which basically means that it’s about the work, not about the person.  There are no titles; roles overlap and morph with business needs.  Employees get to use their skills in a variety of areas rather than being stuck doing just one thing until they get “a promotion.”  It’s about getting things done, not stroking egos.  The idea is entirely refreshing.  You can read more about holacracy here.

Then there are Zappo’s ten core values.  I will list them here so that you can get some idea of why I’ve gone a little bit gaga over selling shoes and apparel:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Be adventurous, creative and open-minded
  • Pursue growth and learning
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication
  • Build a positive team and family spirit
  • Do more with less
  • Be passionate and determined
  • Be humble

I’m told this is not for everyone, but I find it a bit difficult to imagine why anyone would not want to work for such a company.

Pursue growth and learning:  Yes!  I consider myself a lifelong student, I always want to obtain more schooling, I read omnivorously.

Be adventurous, creative and open-minded:  Yes!  No more being a square peg wedged into a round hole.  Try your latest idea without fear of failure!  Then try something else!

Be passionate and determined.  Be humble.  They’re talking about me!

There are other little things, too.  Zappo’s has a 24-hour call center, and I am an inherent night owl who enjoys working weird hours.  Switching shifts every so often to meet business needs doesn’t faze me.  I find it exciting!

The fact that the staff is always up to fun stuff like parades through the call center and silly games and contests — That’s what adds joy to one’s work life.  It’s what keeps people forever young.  That’s what builds the same kind of loyalty to an employer that the employees wish to instill in their customers.  It’s the WOW, it’s what makes their day.

So why haven’t I packed up and moved to Las Vegas yet?  There are a number of obstacles to doing that, but only one that I simply cannot overcome and will never be able to overcome.

I cannot survive on $11 per hour.

Even on $15 an hour, I simply couldn’t make ends meet.  I only wish Zappo’s had been around when I was fresh out of college, 21 years old and back home with my parents, wondering what on earth to do next.  No rent, no utilities, no food bills, nothing but putting gasoline in my rattletrap old car.  I started working for $5.50 an hour on the night shift, which even then was very little money.  If I could transport myself back to that time, and transport my parents’ home to the Nevada desert, I could happily indulge in the job of my dreams.

Those days are long gone, of course, decades in the past.  All that remains is the edges of a dream, a dream fueled by monthly “Zscoop” email reminders from Meli Gonzalez, social recruiting and engagement specialist at Zappo’s.  Like a junkie, I lap up these e-newsletters as a much desired fix.  And I try not to let it break my heart.  But it’s tough.

I know you don’t read this blog, Meli, but if you’re really out there, give an old guy a break and leave a comment telling me that a Zappo’s job paying a salary on which one can pay the bills just opened up and has my name written all over it.

Back in my day, there were all kinds of pop songs about unrequited love.  And this one is mine.

So good night, sweet Zappo’s. I’ll see you in my z’dreams.

Lessons Learned from Children While Waiting on Hold

On the phone at work today, I found myself stuck on hold for nearly half an hour with a social service agency in a county about 300 miles away.  What surprised me was the recorded message that played over and over.  Actually, it was quite cleverly done.  But what I heard sent a chill up my spine.

The recording consisted of the voices of children, both girls and boys, of various ages, many of them extremely young.  One by one, they told their stories in a single sentence each:

“I am not a punching bag.”

“I need a place to call home.”

“I can’t reach my potential without you.”

“I am not a toy.”

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

And finally, the voice of a three year old.

“I need you.”

My eyes began to tear up, so I turned to face the window.  Um, you know, men just aren’t supposed to do that, and particularly not at work.

I felt like an idiot.  There I was feeling put upon because I had to sit on hold (and was getting paid for it), while just out of sight were children in desperate need of families, whose entire lives had been placed on hold, often for years.

For a very long time I had thought about adopting or becoming a foster parent.  Something always got in the way, however.  Either I was living in a tiny one bedroom apartment or I was working a zillion hours or I was with a woman who had no interest whatever in children.  Then the inevitable happened:  I got old and disabilities caught up with me, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing a child into my life.

But dreams don’t fade away so easily.  They die hard.  So before I could close the cover on this particular book, I managed to convince myself to become a mentor with the Big Brothers program.  This was quite a few years ago, when we were living in Fresno in California’s Central Valley.  I was matched to a teenager who, despite multiple disabilities, managed to live a full and vibrant life.  This young man’s mental and emotional issues frequently threw me for a loop; he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident at the age of two.  We usually got together for a few hours on the weekend and I never really knew what he would come up with.  We went out for breakfast or lunch (his favorite was Hometown Buffet, where he could eat me under the table), went to the movies, went to the video arcade, played board or computer games.  He taught me Dungeons and Dragons; I taught him Scrabble.

More than anything else, my friend taught me patience.  He used a hearing aid and was unable to gauge the volume of his own voice.  This could create embarrassing situations in quiet places like bookstores or movie theaters.  He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and would regale me with his endless takes on theology and his beloved science fiction, often combining the two seamlessly.  He wanted to look at the porno room at the video store (and was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him in there) and, on a number of occasions, asked me questions that, um, I had to suggest that he redirect to his mother.  He never had a father.

I know perfectly well that I wasn’t much of a male role model for that year, but I guess it was better than nothing.  That’s the funny thing about kids:  They don’t judge you.  They just take you as they are.  They are appreciative of whatever time and attention you are able to give them.

They don’t care that you’re not perfect, because to them, you’re perfectly fine.  Somehow they don’t see your dents, your creases, your insecurities, your creaking bones.  They’re just glad that they mean enough to you that you keep showing up.  So you do.  Even when you don’t particularly feel like it.  Even when you want to sleep late because it’s Sunday and you were out at a party the night before.  Even when you just don’t want to deal with it today.

You get in your car.  And you go.  And you see his smile when you pull up to the place he and his mother call home in a dilapidated trailer park.

Then he gets in the car and you have to remind him to buckle up because he’s blurting out a joke that he’s been waiting three days to tell you.  It’s not even very funny, but he starts laughing uproariously and then you feel a smile slowly creep over your face and then you’re laughing too because your health problems and your messes at work and your money woes all fade away in an instant.

And you wonder who has given the gift to whom.

Oh, and by the way, they’re waiting for you.  Right now.  Boys and girls who need you desperately.

Call your county or city social service agency today.  Adopt.  Be a foster parent.  Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

“I need you.”

Impostor

I am reading a beautifully written essay on the difficulties of relating childhood memories in English when you grew up speaking another language.  Some things just don’t translate.  In fact, one could argue that events experienced in one language can no more be translated into another than apple can be translated into banana.  Barney the Dinosaur notwithstanding, if you grew up speaking, breathing, existing in purple, how is one to render the experience into green?  The phrase “lost in translation” doesn’t tell the half of it.

In the very first paragraph of the essay, I ran across the Spanish word maldito.  Instinctively, I know that this is translated into English as “damned.”  I do not know how I know this.  Somewhere between growing up in New York and twenty years in California, I inhaled it through my pores.

I do not speak Spanish.  This fact hit me hard recently when, sitting at a table full of strangers, I heard a nearby woman speak a few words en español and I responded in kind.  “Do you speak Spanish, or just understand it?” she asked me in English.  Busted!  I am an impostor, and this was her way of telling me that she knew it.

Having some knowledge of Latin roots has helped me “figure out” the meanings of many English words without having to look them up, just as Mrs. Morse promised back in tenth grade.  But recognizing bits of Latin has helped me to understand words in the Romance languages as well, first in my high school and college study of French and later, in my study of Spanish on the streets, in the supermarkets and in the break rooms of my workplaces in central California.

I remember that maldito hails from the same Latin roots as the English word “malediction,” which refers to a curse.  I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word in conversation, but I have a vague recollection of once having come across it in the works of an obscure writer named William Shakespeare.  Reaching back in my memory banks to high school days, the year after I sat in Mrs. Morse’s classroom, I sang Mozart’s Requiem with the John Jay Senior High School chorus and, what do you know, the Latin word maledictis cropped up.  It seems that, in every century, a lot of people were into curses.

Actually, the word maldito sounds to me as if it should mean “misspoken,” as in saying one thing when really meaning another.  Returning to memoir mode, as a kid I believed that this applied to most things said by adults.  To my mind, this made them “damned” liars.

Breaking maldito into its two component parts leaves us with mal (bad, evil, wrong, sick, etc.) and dito (from the Latin dictum, or “speech, spoken, told,” I assume).  As in high school, I largely rely on my memory because I am too lazy to look it up.  So if a malediction is a curse, and mal + dito = bad speech, it makes sense that “damned” is still considered a “curse word” (or “bad speak”) in some circles.  (Or so I think.  I am old enough to have been around when a kid could get in serious trouble for saying “damn.”  Something tells me that “damn,” along with “hell,” may have been laughed out of the curse word pantheon years ago.)

The Spanish language has long been a bit of an enigma for me.  One day a basic knowledge of español is my best friend, while the next I find myself flummoxed and fumbling for the correct Spanish word, much to the amusement of the person with whom I am hoping to communicate.

Back when we lived in Modesto, I loved to pull up to the self-service pumps of a convenience store, walk inside, throw a twenty on the counter and yell ¡Veinte, número uno! over my shoulder as I turned around and walked out, knowing that the correct gas pump would be turned on.  It made me feel like some kind of big shot.

Impostor, that’s me.  But I love the ability to live as a stranger in my own land.

If two women are holding a spirited Spanish conversation in the supermarket aisle, most of what they are saying will likely go right over my head.  As I maneuver my shopping cart around them, however, I will catch that one of them is cussing out her cheatin’ good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend.  As I’ve mentioned before in this space, some things you can understand in any language.

Although I happen to enjoy the mellifluous sound of Spanish, I am well aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm therefor.  It is a hot button issue here in California, where the Mexican border is just down the road a piece.  Many object to the plethora of signs in Spanish and to the way our state and federal governments feel compelled to translate everything into that language.

My father, for example, refers to Spanish as “babble” and will gladly tell you how he feels about people who speak languages other than English in public.  “You like this country?” he starts off.  “You want to stay here?  Learn the [insert invective here] language!”  I’d be a little more specific, but Dad’s colorful language is a notch or two stronger than maldito and I consider this a (more or less) family blog.

It seems obvious to me that just because two people converse in a foreign language doesn’t mean that they don’t speak fluent English as well.  Bilingualism is alive and well in California.  And I know of no law that states that you have a right to understand conversations that don’t involve you just because they happen to be conducted in public.  Our Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech is not limited to the English language.

There are those who point out that when Americans travel to other nations, they are expected to speak the native tongue, not English.  I call this the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” theory.  I poked around online to see how much validity this theory actually has.  The answer I found is “not much.”  A recent article in the Washington Post points out that English is widely spoken in 101 countries, is one of the official languages in 35 countries and is the most widely studied foreign language.  This final statistic may not seem like such a big deal until you realize that approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide are currently studying English.  Then I saw this map of the second most spoken languages in countries around the world.  I found it interesting that English is the second most spoken language in Japan (good for my nephew when he visits his girlfriend who is currently teaching there) and in Russia (presumably a lucky thing for Edward Snowden).

I am a fan of diversity because homogeneity is, quite frankly, rather boring.  It would be a dull world indeed if we were all exactly the same.  I find it fun to learn about the cultures and traditions of others and delight when they take an interest in my own.  And if I know that you speak another language in addition to English, I will make an effort to learn at least a few words of it.  And I will try to remember that there is no such thing as an exact translation.

So, yes, I may be an impostor, and I may butcher your native tongue unmercifully, but if I catch you saying something funny in Spanish in Wal-Mart, don’t be surprised if I chuckle as I walk by.

Why I Eat Matzo at Passover

Yehuda matzos

“Passover is a hard holiday,” my mother would always say.

True, Passover involves a lot of food restrictions, no eating out in restaurants, too much work cooking and cleaning and a seemingly endless procession of constipation-inducing matzos.  Nevertheless, Passover is my favorite holiday of the year, although I must admit that this has not always been the case.

As a kid, the days preceding Passover always engendered some small measure of excitement, for the food at the Seder if nothing else.  Not only was the shulkhan arukh, the festive meal, an excuse to stuff my gut, but it always ended with coconut macaroons, sponge or honey cake and some type of candy.  By the second Seder night, we’d be into the coconut covered marshmallows, the Ring-Jells (both the orange and the raspberry ones) and the “fruit slices,” which were pure sugar in hues of yellow, orange and green.  Some kids were giddy at the prospect of sipping from the Seder’s four cups of wine and pretending to be drunk, but for me it was all about the sweets.

The ritual of the Seder itself, fairly boring for most kids, was a big deal to me.  Most of the guys who I knew from school were called upon to ask “the four questions” if they were the youngest in the family; otherwise, the only really fun part was getting to stay up late.  Back then, all the kids I knew lived in two-parent families; Mother cooked and Dad led the Seder in Hebrew, often in his white kittul, offering explanations in Yiddish or English as he went along and doling out stern warnings to fidgety youngsters.  In my family, however, neither of my parents knew Hebrew.  True, you could read from the English side of the page in the Maxwell House Hagaddah, but it wasn’t the same as the mellifluous sound of the Hebrew and Aramaic.  When I was very young and we still lived in New York City, my grandfather, who lived downstairs, climbed up to the fourth floor to lead our Seder.  From the age of six, however, as the yeshiva bokher (religious school student), I was the designated Seder leader.  This meant a lot to me because, let’s face it, when you’re six years old (and eight and ten and twelve), you don’t have a lot of opportunities to be a big shot and tell the adults what to do.

The problem, of course, is that Passover is an eight day long holiday.  The two Seder nights would come and go quickly, leaving me with six more long days of eating matzo and boiled eggs, matzo and tuna, matzo and gefilte fish, matzo and matzo and more matzo.  Matzo is a hard, dry cracker that we eat instead of bread during Passover.  There is no cereal for breakfast, you have to drag matzo to school with you for lunch (and inevitably answer questions about it, particularly after I began attending a huge high school where maybe two other students were Jewish) and you come home to dinner with (what else?) the box of Streit’s or Horowitz-Margareten matzos prominently placed in the center of the table.  All your favorite foods are forbidden.  You can’t have Cheerios or toasted bagels or spaghetti or rice or baked beans or Entenmann’s chocolate donuts or even mustard, for heaven’s sake.  It would get old fast.

Kids would get a kick out of calling Passover “a crumby holiday,” ostensibly referring to matzo, but, you know (nudge, nudge).  By the fourth day, the cry of “I never want to see another matzo again!” would be heard in the land.  We’d be dreaming of macaroni and cheese, PB&Js, noodle pudding, mint chocolate chip ice cream and Oreos.  Any mention of fresh rye bread would leave us writhing in paroxysms of drool.

Four or five decades later, I actually relish the food challenges associated with Passover.  As a vegan, those challenges are many times more restrictive than they are for most of my fellow Jews.  The eggs, meat, fish and dairy that are Passover staples are out.  Unfortunately, so are the soy products and beans that constitute the primary sources of protein for many vegans.

And yet . . .

The whole idea behind Passover is reminding ourselves from whence we came.  “Slaves were we to Pharaoh in Egypt” begins the traditional narrative recited at Seders around the world.  “Why is this night different from all other nights?” the liturgy asks.  Tonight is different because we eat only unleavened bread, because we eat bitter herbs, because we dip into fancy hors d’oeuvres and because we lean in comfort on pillows.  The first two differences in that list stand in stark contrast to the last two.  The hard matzo cracker and the horribly burny bitter herbs remind us of the forced labor, the chains and the whippings, the treatment as things rather than as people that we endured at the hands of the Egyptians for 400 years (followed by another forty years of wandering in a dry and barren desert).  Today, however, we enjoy freedom and live in comparative luxury, symbolized by fancy food and relaxing like kings and queens.

“But you weren’t there!” people tell me.  “All that happened centuries ago.  You were never a slave, never had to sacrifice a lamb and paint the blood on your doorpost, never had to run out of Egypt at the last minute with half-baked crackers instead of bread.  God doesn’t care what you eat.  Why do you have to make such a big deal out of Passover?”

And yet . . .

The Book of Exodus teaches us v’higad’tah li’vinkah bayom hahu, “and you shall tell it to your children on that day.”  For centuries, people have been aware that those who refuse to remember history are doomed to repeat it.  Indeed, the very name of the Passover prayer book, the Hagaddah, means (roughly) “the telling.”  L’dor va’dor (from generation to generation), the liturgy recites, you shall regard yourself as having been personally freed from slavery.  For if the Lord had not freed us from slavery, we and our children would still be slaves to this day.  If we don’t know where we’ve been, how can we possibly know where we’re going?

The food restrictions of Passover are minor inconveniences indeed compared to being worked to death in the hot Egyptian sun.  Adhering to the Passover food rules seems a very small act of thanks to God for the miracles performed at the Red Sea and in the burning sands of the desert.

These days, many rabbis point out in their sermons that, although the Jewish people were freed from slavery centuries ago, it behooves us to consider those who continue to suffer in abject poverty right here in our own country as well as under repressive regimes around the world.  Just as when Moses beseeched Pharaoh to let his people go worship in the desert, there are still millions who are not free to openly practice their faiths in the lands they call home.  The lesson here is one of tolerance.  What right have we, as former slaves, to hold grievances against others merely because they have different religious practices than we do, dress differently or speak a different language than we do, have different sexual preferences than we do?  What right have we, as former slaves, to turn our faces away at the homeless person holding out a cup on a city sidewalk or to make rude comments about the woman in front of us in the supermarket checkout line who is paying with an EBT card?

There is no “them.”  There is only “all of us.”

There is no “back then.”  There is only “always.”

And it is with these things in mind that, with a song in his heart, this former slave gladly eats dry matzo for eight days each and every spring.