February 9, 2006
First Person - Our Sunday Shabbos
Long, long ago, when I was a child in faraway suburban Maryland, our extended family would meet regularly at my grandparents' house for Sunday brunch. Brunch became a religious ritual for this group of secular Jews.
We weren't totally nonobservant. Every Friday night, mom would bentsch licht (light candles), but then, we wouldn't keep the Shabbos. We would drive our cars, watch TV and very rarely make the trek to services.
No one drank milk with meat. But that was not because of an adherence to kashrut. I learned to keep meat and milk separate because, "It doesn't go together," as my mother would explain. It was a matter of appropriateness, not religious observance. "You don't eat pickles with ice cream, and you don't drink milk with a steak. Here, have a ginger ale."
In this milieu, brunch took on far more significance than a mere meal. It was a time for our European-born grandparents and our first generation American parents to take the pause that refreshed -- a chance to recharge and rejuvenate with the familiar before starting another strange week in this goldene medina --America. Sunday brunch was our Shabbos.
Is that a sacrilege? I ask you, how could the family possibly relax on a Friday night?
There was too much to do wrapping up the loose ends of the week. We needed an extra day to accommodate all that activity, and that day was Saturday. Saturday was used for errands, dance lessons and commerce.
The men in our family, the breadwinners, had their eyes fixed squarely on the prize. They were staking their claim to the American Dream, and they weren't about to rest when the goyim were working. They would postpone that pleasure for one day and rest when America rests -- on Sunday.
Blue laws were still on the books. On Sundays, stores were closed. Sundays were peaceful -- you could relax, because you knew you weren't missing anything.
Everyone gathered at my grandparents' house. Right away, the men headed for the living room. They drew the drapes, because they liked dark rooms. They drank Scotch whisky, vodka and schnapps. They smoked cigars and cigarettes. They talked business, told tales of one-upmanship and traded dirty jokes. They wore suits, ties and fedoras.
The women gathered in the sun-drenched kitchen, which smelled of cinnamon, fresh-perked coffee and Shalimar perfume. They laughed and gossiped. They were gussied up in dresses, hose and pumps. They were immaculately groomed with red lipstick and manicured nails. They wore stylish hats.
As a child, I was subgender. I wandered freely between the men's living room and the women's kitchen. I would skip through the living room and sneak a maraschino cherry from my grandpa's highball. Then, I'd innocently wander into the kitchen and grab some chocolate rugala when no one was looking.
Presentation was important at brunch. "You set a beautiful table" was the highest compliment. The occasion demanded matching linen tablecloths and napkins. The table was set with the good china and silverware. The platters and serving spoons were heavy and ornate. There was a delicate centerpiece, always a tiny floral arrangement.
My people were more interested in food than flowers. Sometimes I thought of brunch as a weekly rehearsal for the seder -- just to keep everyone in shape. Like the seder, the meal was theatrical, yet predictable. Everyone seemed comfortable with the roles they were supposed to play.
The conversation was engaging and frequently hilarious. Political discussions were guaranteed to heat things up, because half the family voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower and the other half campaigned for Adlai Stevenson. Israel and anti-Semitism were evergreens. Celebrities were also a staple topic. Someone was always reporting on the latest showbiz Jew who had married outside the faith:
"I used to like Mel Brooks, but he married a shiksa!"
"So what if she's a shiksa? At least she looks Jewish."
"But she's not a Jew. She's Italian."
"She's probably a Marrano."
"You're thinking of the Spanish. They were the Marranos."
"Maybe she'll convert."
And then to prove that such optimism was warranted, Elizabeth Taylor, the biggest movie star of all time, actually did convert. She could do no wrong. She was our favorite American. "Now there's a shayna punim!"
The meal was light on the cooking. Even as a child, I helped out quite a bit. Slice a bagel. Find a platter for the smoked fish. Arrange the Muenster cheese in pretty fan-like formations. Brunch gave me a feeling of competence. Of course, it would be years before I would attempt to bake Aunt Mollie's lokshen kugel. To this day, I marvel at Cousin Bernice's artistry at sculpting melon balls for the fruit salad. Every week the menu was basically the same -- the comfort of the familiar.
Brunch in Los Angeles today is another animal entirely. It's about the new -- trying new restaurants or sampling new dishes; it's about being simultaneously casual and trendy. Now you can easily spend Sunday morning dining on dim sum or huevos rancheros.
At my grandparents' house, brunch was a safe harbor in a sea of incredible change and upheaval. Although the menu and the guest list rarely varied, the conversation was always new. There were so many new adventures that needed to be understood and absorbed, that no one had time for recycled stories.
Through our own peculiar mix of the sacred and the profane, brunch served as a bridge between the Old World and this new land that we were trying to make our own.
Ellen Switkes hosts "Cornucopia," a monthly storytelling series at the Actors Workout Studio in North Hollywood. She can be reached at email@example.com.