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From Orthodoxy to Bacon in Five Uneasy Steps

February 22, 2014
by Judith Bernstein Back Jewish StarSTEP ONE: INTERMARRY My father Nahum and his ten siblings grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents had emigrated from Russia in the late 19th century, and my father, the youngest, was born in 1908. His father Charles ran a restaurant in the neighborhood. When he died young of a heart attack, the whole family pitched in to keep the business going. The boys worked as busboys and the girls as waitresses on Sundays and holidays. The widow Hannah apparently ran both the household and the restaurant with what my father called “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” On Saturdays, when the restaurant was closed for shabbat, the children were rounded up to go to shul accompanied by their mother. So my father was well acquainted with the religious tenets of Orthodoxy, and with the gastronomic side of Judaism as expressed in the restaurant’s specialties: brisket of beef, noodle kugel, smoked white fish, and chopped liver on rye. What he never encountered, as his family kept kosher and observed the laws of kashrut, were shrimp scampi, oysters, honey-baked ham, or BLT’s. My mother Maxine had a very different upbringing. She came from a small family of Conservative Jews. (Unlike today, back then the Jewish denominations were very distinct in their religious observance.) The family went to synagogue on the major Jewish holidays but didn’t keep kosher. Unlike my father’s Orthodox family, they rode in cars or buses on shabbat and used electrical appliance as needed. The sisters went to public school but also attended Sunday school to learn Hebrew and Jewish history. They were raised in the Jewish faith, but somewhere along the line they went “astray.” Both sisters developed a great appetite for the forbidden fruit: shrimp, clams, bacon and pork. Their desires for such food were satisfied in clandestine outings paid for with money scrimped from their weekly allowances. They also hankered for all-beef, non-kosher hotdogs, even though kosher hotdogs from Nathan’s on Coney Island were known as “the world’s best” and readily available at Jewish delis. With a nine-year age gap between them, my parents’ paths wouldn’t ordinarily have crossed, but like many unmarried Jewish young people in the 1930s, they frequented resorts in the Catskills. According to my father, they met at such a resort when my mother intruded on a racketball game he was playing by strolling blithely across the court. My father, who rarely raised his voice in anger, was mightily annoyed and told her in an unkind tone to get off the court. (My mother never acknowledged this incident and had some other, less dramatic account of their meeting.) I never learned how Nahum and Maxine went from anger to ecstasy, but in the late 1930s they began dating. As things got more serious, the issue of “inter-marriage” came up. Marriages between people from different branches of Judaism were not forbidden, of course, but couples were generally expected to choose one denomination for their futures — so my mother gave way and agreed to an Orthodox wedding, to join an Orthodox synagogue, and to keep a kosher kitchen. Their wedding presents included two sets of dishes and silverware, one for meat and the other for dairy. Years later, I wondered if my mother had confessed her secret cravings for oysters and clams before their marriage. If she had, I have always suspected, I might never have been born. STEP TWO: ENTER THE ARMY My father served in World War II as an officer in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the precursor to the CIA. My mother and I lived with him in a small cottage on Catalina Island in California, where the OSS was based. My father trained spies to go behind enemy lines without being caught. We had a secret last name, “Burney,” as all OSS identities were to be hidden. I don’t know if keeping one’s religion a secret was part of the ground rules. I doubt that there was a kosher butcher or a New York-style deli on Catalina Island, and I don’t know if there was a rabbi to conduct services for Jewish soldiers. For some odd reason, my father served as an assistant to the Protestant chaplain and learned many Christian hymns, which he later sang us to prove that he had that job. For two war years on the island, they abandoned their kosher kitchen and did not strictly observe shabbat. When they returned to Manhattan in 1945, they joined a Conservative synagogue at my mother’s urging. For my father, there were enough familiar traditions and core beliefs similar to his Orthodox upbringing to make him comfortable. By this time, the widow Hannah had died, and her children were free from her scrutiny of their religious observance. STEP THREE: MOVE TO THE SUBURBS After my brother and sister were born in the early 1950s, we joined legions of city-escaping families who thought a better life called for trees, lawns and golf courses. I didn’t think so. I loved New York City’s 24-hour street life: the Italian ices, the art auctions I went to with my mother, and the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. We moved to Harrison (Westchester County) in the early ’50s and settled into a pink, sprawling fifteen-room house. Soon the search for a synagogue began. There was no Conservative synagogue in our town, so we initially joined one half an hour away. Religiously speaking, things were the same as in the City. But with such a large house, my mother no longer did the cooking and cleaning. We hired a live-in Negro couple who had migrated from the South in the late ’40s. Somehow, the separate dishes for meat and dairy were stored away and replaced by a new all-purpose set. My mother coached our cook in the art of preparing pot roast. On Sunday mornings, my father went to the local Jewish deli to pick up our traditional brunch of lox, cream cheese, bagels, smoked whitefish, and tongue (which I loathed). And so in suburbia, my family’s culinary taste ranged from noodle kugel to southern fried chicken. Harrison was an odd mix of Catholic families of Italian origin and Jewish families recently moved from the five boroughs. There were also some Protestant families, but most of their kids went to private school. At that time, the public schools were decidedly sectarian when it came to Christmas. All students were required to attend assemblies featuring Christmas carols and maybe even reenactments of the Nativity. We Jewish children did take off from school for our own holidays, but still were required to attend the annual Christmas pageant, which involved singing carols. My parents said it was okay to sing them, but other Jewish families forbade their children from joining in: “God will strike you dead if you sing carols with words like ‘Christ the Savior is born.’ ” Of course, singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” was okay since it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jew. Celebrating Christmas at home was out of the question, and my father had no tolerance for such lame imitations as a Chanukah bush. My mother told a cautionary tale: When she was very young, she hung a Christmas stocking only to find lumps of coal in it the next morning. Her father had no tolerance for observing other religion’s rituals. So no tree and no stockings for the Bernsteins; we stuck to our Jewish traditions. STEP FOUR: JOIN A REFORM SYNAGOGUE In the mid-1950s, when I was 11, I made friends with a Jewish girl in my class and asked if she went to Sunday school. “I sure do”, she answered, “and I really like my teacher. Our synagogue is in an old mansion and my classroom was once a bedroom!” The town where the synagogue was located, Rye, adjoined Harrison and it would only take five minutes to get there. Excited by the idea of going to Sunday school with my friend, I blurted out at dinner: “Guess what! There’s a synagogue right here in Rye and my friend Ellen says it’s really cool. Can we go there too?” Nahum looked somewhat grim and Maxine appeared more receptive. “I know about it, Judy,” my father answered, “but it’s a Reform synagogue and we’re Conservative Jews.” Of course, I wanted to know what difference that made. My father pointed out that Conservative services were more traditional, with texts of important prayers written and recited in Hebrew. In Reform synagogues, there was a lot of English. Men were not required to wear tallit and yarmulkas. And there was more freedom to interpret and discuss scriptures like the Torah in a contemporary context. My mother said that she would welcome the more modern approach, as well as the temple’s close location. She pointed out that Reform Judaism was still rooted in the Torah and the Talmud, but innovations in the services might make us kids more enthusiastic participants. We were prone to wriggling, and during the long evening and daytime services of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, we took too many bathroom breaks out of boredom. With a shorter service and more English, hopefully our involvement and attention span would improve. My father said he would think about it. A few months later, he arranged for a “trial” visit to shabbat services and a few of the Sunday school classes. Then he summoned us together and announced that we would soon join the Rye Community Synagogue. He didn’t go into an explanation of his decision, but instead described the unique house and grounds as well as the library, which had really impressed him. “Well, of course”, I thought to myself, “Reform Jews are also ‘people of the book.’ ” So it came to pass in 1953 that Nahum and Maxine and their children went from Conservative to Reform. STEP FIVE: CAN YOU EAT JUST ONE PIECE OF BACON? Just because we joined a Reform synagogue didn’t mean that “anything goes.” Still no Chanukah bush, and no bacon. However, when I was in high school, I often accompanied my parents to dinner at a French restaurant in New York City before we headed to a Broadway show. I noticed that my mother often ordered shrimp cocktails and oysters rockefeller, and one night I asked to try my mother’s shrimp. It tasted wonderful, and on our next restaurant outing, I asked if I could order shrimp for myself. My father looked at my mother, who nodded yes and announced, “You can eat whatever you like when we are in a restaurant — shrimp, bacon, pork chops — but not at home.” I had never even tasted bacon or pork chops, but since the rule was “outside the house it’s okay,” I asked one of my Christian friends if she had bacon for breakfast. When she said, “Sometimes, but especially on Saturdays,” I promptly invited myself over. I loved bacon’s tangy, crunchy, greasy flavor and texture, and went to work on my mother. “Please, please can we have bacon at home? Only for breakfast and just once a week?” She kept refusing, emphasizing that my father had gone along with our denominational changes over the years, but that this was asking too much. Finally, I went directly to my father and asked for a reason why bacon was from a “dirty” animal when in modern times, there were meat inspections done by the government to make sure conditions were sanitary. He claimed that only kosher meat plants were inspected for cleanliness and for how the animals were treated while alive and while being slaughtered. He had me there. But then I remembered that we didn’t keep kosher! So if our lamb and steak came from sheep and cows that might not have lived or died under the best of circumstances, then why draw the line for pig products? Being a trial lawyer, he admitted that I had a good point. Some weeks later, my mother announced at dinner that we were having a special breakfast on Saturday that would include Canadian bacon. “Why Canadian?” we siblings asked in unison. “Because I’ve tried it and its really far superior to the usual American bacon. If your father has been so generous as to tentatively agree to a trial run, he might as well eat the best bacon there is!” My father declared that the Canadian bacon was a real treat. And so our family tradition became bacon-and-eggs on Saturday mornings, and lox, bagels and whitefish on Sunday mornings. I don’t know how Nahum explained his culinary and denominational compromises to God, but to his family, he was now a model of flexibility. And to this day, I seek out Canadian bacon for my Saturdays and savor the Sunday ritual of smoked salmon and cream cheese on poppyseed bagels, hold the tongue. Judith Bernstein is a writer who belongs to Ohr Tzafon, a Reform synagoguye in Atascadero, California. Her brother is a cultural Jew, celebrating both Christmas and Passover, and her sister is a member of a shul that sees her on major holidays.