Jewish Journal

Mother Knows Best

A daughter dissects her mom's "wacky" eating habits.

by Beverly Levitt

Posted on Jun. 27, 2002 at 8:00 pm

The writer's mother, Celia Levitt, left, and aunt, Dena Tarr, became vegetarians in their teens.

The writer's mother, Celia Levitt, left, and aunt, Dena Tarr, became vegetarians in their teens.

My mother is 85. But she doesn't look a day over 70. She takes no prescription drugs, no hormones; her memory is razor sharp. And she's never been in the hospital a day since I've known her. But she wasn't born yesterday. In any sense of the word.

When I was growing up I had no idea how enlightened Celia really was. All I knew was that she wasn't like the other moms.

What was I supposed to think when folks uttered expletives behind her back? "Health Nut!" "Health Food Freak!" "Food Faddist!"

I remember my embarrassed apologies, which I'd utter with a small giggle, when my friends at Melrose Avenue Elementary poked inside my lunchbox and found nary a chocolate chip cookie, potato chip or even a white bread, packaged cheese and bologna sandwich.

If they only knew that at home our milk was raw, our eggs fertile; our bread bulged with brown, grainy nuggets. But I wasn't talking.

The last thing I got when I left for school wasn't a chocolate doughnut. It was a shot glass full of vitamins with some freshly squeezed juice. And the worst part, my breakfast bowl wasn't filled with blue and green marshmallows floating in a sea of snap, crackle and pop. We had to wait a full 20 minutes while mom patiently cooked our oatmeal, then topped it with blackstrap molasses (never sugar), raw butter (never margarine), unsulphured raisins and organic cheddar cheese.

While Celia was busy telling me "I was what I ate." I spent most of my waking moments wishing I could have bagels and lox for breakfast on school days, and delicatessen with sweet rolls on the weekends. And just once, a real sandwich in my lunch instead of a pita filled with veggies, sunflower seeds and hummus. Did my mother even care that I was the kid sitting alone on the bench while all the other lunches got traded?

It wasn't my Grandma Fradel's fault. She was a good kosher housewife who cooked typical Ashkenazi food, much the same as her mother and grandmother in Vilna, Poland had before her. She and Grandpa Charlie moved to America in 1914, with a short stop in Philadelphia and Atlantic City before settling in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Okay, Los Angeles 94592.

Celia and Dena were 5 and 8, respectively. To their delight, in Los Angeles they could bask in the sun all day without their clothes sticking to their bodies from the humidity or their arms annoyingly itching from mosquito bites. (Pesky critters weren't allowed west of the Mississippi in those days.) Most of all, they loved the California fruits and vegetables, especially oranges and avocados, their favorites to this day.

Mom remembers the Breed Street Shul on Friday nights as a great social event, second only to Brooklyn Avenue on Thursday nights, when all the mamas schlepped their children while shopping for Shabbos. She and Dena loved getting dressed up, taking turns helping Fradel push the shopping cart up, choosing kosher chickens and freshly baked challahs, waving to their friends, begging Fradel for an ice cream cone. Since they didn't have enough money to go to the movies, Brooklyn Avenue was their entertainment.

Celia was still in grammar school when Dena came home from a lecture, her cheeks flushed, raving about the amazing man she'd just heard. She asked her baby sister if she wanted to go with her the next night; she'd even offered their ushering services in exchange for free admission.

The lecturer was groundbreaking nutritionist Gayelord Hauser, who mentored movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson (gorgeous into their 80s) about diet and lifestyle. It wasn't very long before Celia and Dena were meeting holistic doctors Henry Beiler and Linus Pauling; famed chiropractor Bernard Jensen; Paul Bragg, who opened the first health food store in America and popularized nutritional products such as his liquid amino acids, which mom still pours over just about everything. But their biggest heroine was nutritionist and best selling author, Adelle Davis, who convinced them to become vegetarians at ages 13 and 16, respectively.

They felt lucky to be living in California. If they saved their avocado pits and brought them back to the mom and pop grocer, he gave them a penny for each one. Fradel didn't know what to make of her daughters, but since fruits and vegetables were less expensive than meat, she didn't complain too much. Of course Grandpa Charlie, tired and hungry from working as a scenic artist at Warner Bros. all day, wasn't too thrilled; so Grandma would whip up his own meal of flesh.

Since all of Celia and Dena's friends were interested in diet and health, they went on group hikes to Griffith and Hollenbeck parks, and they continued going to more lectures. God was in his place. All was right with the world. Until Milton Levitt spotted Celia on a date with his friend and felt compelled to literally sweep her off her feet. Little did she know that her salad days were about to come screeching to a halt.

Since Milton was her only beau who owned a car -- a 1930 Ford roadster with a rumble seat -- he proceeded to wine and dine her. They drove downtown for dinner at Clifton's Cafeteria, the Chili Bowl, the original Canter's and Cohen's. They saw movies at the Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood, went to dances at the Jewish Community Center and Palomar Auditorium, swimming at Bimini Pool and Ocean Park, where Milton insisted on jumping off the high diving board.

Celia had hardly been outside B.H.

She tried luring him to her lectures, her hiking, her vegan-eating activities, but he preferred playing baseball and chowing down his mom's Ashkenazi cuisine. And he was used to getting his way.

Celia learned how to make Fanny's brisket and carrot tzimmes, chopped liver and matzah ball soup. But in her heart, and, when left to her own devices, she'd slip some salad -- go heavy on the avocado -- on to his plate.

Six decades later, Celia and Milton just moved into a brand new condo in Beverly Hills (the other B.H.) and are never home when you call them. For the past three decades, Dena has lived in La Costa and Oceanside in beautiful houses crammed full of supplements. She got her master's in psychology at 70, and was a marriage and family counselor for a decade. They are all in perfect health.

Celia and Milton are still very much in love. This October they will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. Celia is a 99 percent vegetarian. Milton loves meat. She even lets him eat it once in a while.

As for their three children -- oops, I gotta go, I have just enough time to take my 17 supplements before dinner.

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