My father is Jewish and my mother a Catholic Italian, so religion didn’t play a very big role in their courtship (much to both their family’s chagrin), or in their marriage (can I say much to my delight? Probably not a good idea, so scratch that). With my diverse and particular family history I had some experience being “stuck in services”. Whether I was saying shana tova or buon anno it was all the same. Happy New Year….let’s eat!
Having been on both sides of the religion and holiday fence I can see that there are many similarities. Jews and Italians alike gather around a table, go to church/temple, are exhausted for a week afterwards and everyone regardless of their ethnic or religious background complain relentlessly. Too much cooking, too much company, too many dishes to clean, not enough time in the day, kids who get sick, in-laws who can’t cook, husbands who don’t do enough, blah blah blah. It’s part of the tradition in both cultures and I both love it and look forward to it.
There were many similarities between the time spent in church and at temple. First there was the fidgeting. All of us cousins fidgeted. There were 9 of us at church and 8 of us at temple. We giggled at the wrong moments and our giggling always got stronger and more uncontrollable at which point an aunt or uncle would shoot us a look and the giggling ceased without a word being uttered. It didn’t matter if it was my Jewish Aunt Esther or my Italian Aunt Adele…THE LOOK was THE LOOK. It meant “knock it off” and it was recognized in all religions.
Priest or Rabbi, the guilt was always front and center. You just can’t be a good Catholic or Jew without being told to feel guilty about something. My Jewish relatives listened to the Shofar blown during lengthy prayer services, ate holiday meals and refrained from work. It’s wasn’t much different for my Italian relatives. They listened to Frank Sinatra, ate holiday meals and refrained from work too.
For the Jewish holidays we went to my Aunt Rose’s house where we had to “open the door” for someone…I think it was Elija and for the Catholic holidays we went to my nanna’s house where she would gladly open the door to anybody with an appetite. My Italian mother’s motto: If I don’t recognize it, I’m not eating it. My dad’s motto: If I can’t spell it I’m not eating it which made the holiday a bit daunting with things like scungilli, calamari, and baccala being served. It’s not surprising he stuck with the shrimp.
The dining room tables in each home were huge and beautifully turned out. The food was wonderful, the wine sweet for the Jewish holiday and homemade for the Italian holiday. The marching orders were also similar: women in the kitchen, men in the family room. Or as I later came to realize, women cooking, serving, cleaning up. Men were eating, watching television, snoring on the couch. All my cousins were happy to be under the radar and not asked to do anything but to sit quietly at the table. Thankfully, it was never quiet at the table. There was conversation and no hand held devices. AlI we were asked to do was eat, which we gladly did. No cell phones, no tablets, no gameboys. We made eye contact. We ate, we drank, we spilled, we ate some more.
It doesn’t matter what is being served: brisket or linguini with clam sauce and can you even believe that my father now eats calamari? The similarities are what bind all of us: family, the eating, the drinking, the coming together, and even the walk to church or the ride to temple. Even the fidgeting is a happy memory for me. And to this day, my father still attempts to put his American Express card in the basket when it comes around at church. And guess who is giving him THE LOOK? ME! Talk about role reversal.
I wonder if the reason none of the cousins in either family – Italian or Jewish, were asked to help much was because the adults knew that soon enough our time would come to serve 20 plus for the holidays. That time is here and now it’s these same parents, aunts and uncles who sit at our beautifully turned out tables, with wine and amazing food while we cousins prepare, serve, clean, and of course, complain. (I’ve raised the complaining part to an art form). The people around the dining room table may change as some have passed on but the tradition is the same and I don’t ever want it to change. Well, I take that back. There is one thing that had to change… at least in my house. There is no such thing as women in the kitchen, men in the family room. If you can eat, you can clean up. Some change in the tradition is a good thing. Let’s eat!