Ethical Eating

Living in the Bay Area so many years, you come to expect everyone you meet has got some kind of dietary “preferences” for reasons of health, ethics, religion, or neurosis.  At last year’s Passover Seder, for example, one of the guests wanted to ensure the matzah balls were made with local, organic, free-range eggs.  This kind of thing.

So I was at the airport, waiting at the gate for my flight.  Most people were screen-watching, but I was people-watching.  In particular, my attention was drawn to a group of Asian men who appeared to be Buddhist monks.  Well, they were styled as such with the red robes and the shaved heads.

The junior disciples opened some brown paper bags and offered containers of food to the senior monk.  Using chopsticks, the chief brought a plain green cooked vegetable to his face — maybe spinach or seaweed or kale — sniffed, but did not eat.  He seemed displeased and whispered a few words.  The novice monks took all the containers and threw them in the trash.

Though I knew very little about Buddhism, I assumed the food could not be eaten because it contained animal ingredients or was impure in some other way.  Anyway, some of the apostles left, presumably in search of more appropriate fare.

They were not going to find any vegan cuisine at this particular terminal, and it occurred to me that this might be the last chance the elderly man would have to eat for a very long time.  The airplane’s galley wasn’t likely to have any acceptable options, and it could be hours and hours before they reached their destination of Laos or Mongolia or wherever they were headed.

Soon, the young men came back bearing several personal-sized pizzas.  The leader opened a box, lifted a slice — pepperoni — and took a bite.  In a few moments, everyone was eating and laughing.  Clearly, they had not been the least bit concerned about the rectitude (or cholesterol) of their meal.  Really, the whole episode reminded me of a commercial for the Pizza Hut.

I was laughing, too.  Partly at the irony, but mostly at myself.  We all know what happens when you make assumptions.

© 2016 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

A Hundred Dollars!

Palo Alto.

Such a wealthy town, such a fine weather; maybe it should come as no surprise that we have more than our fair share of panhandlers.

So, it happens the other day, an attractive middle-aged man, immaculately groomed and garbed, strikes up a conversation.

We talk about Houston, from where he comes, he compliments my smile, we chat about this, we muse about that, when suddenly, he asks me for a hundred dollars.

“A hundred dollars!”, I exclaim, “I don’t have a hundred dollars!”

He points to the bank, at the money machine, and tells me I can get it, right over there.

I never give money to strangers on the street.  You don’t know how they would spend it.  Besides, a hundred dollars!

© 2016 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Buying Black

Whenever we needed any sort of professional services, my parents always got a guy from the shul.  The attorney, the dermatologist, the tailor, the whatever.  Except when we needed a dog doctor or a wall painter or a hairdresser.  These don’t come in Jewish.

Apparently this is a thing.  And not only among the chosen people.  The newspaper advertises real estate agents specializing in the Chinese community.  Maggie Anderson’s Our Black Year chronicles her African-American family’s attempt to buy from only Black-owned businesses for an entire year.

And Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s Blindspot acknowledges a bias that takes the form of a secret preference for your own group rather than any active discrimination against other groups.

Sounds about right.  Much as I hate to admit it, I am one of those otherwise egalitarian people with a tendency to favor my own landesman.  Certainly when all the other things are equal.  And perhaps even when they are not.

When my parents needed to buy a car, naturally, they went to a dealer from the synagogue.  A man my mother did not like.  OK, she didn’t like anyone, but she really, really did not like this guy.

My mother never referred to the dealer as Mr. ———, as was custom for business relationships in those days.  She never referred to him as Bob, though she would call other acquaintances from the temple by their first name.  It was always “that momzeh gonif Bob ———”.  Like “momzeh gonif” was his title.

Certainly, there were other lots in the area, but again and again, she returned to the lying thief.  Go figure.

It is this kind of irrational communal loyalty that has led me to make all kinds of questionable purchasing decisions despite the clear and present danger.

Like a few years ago, an eatery called The Roast Shop opened a few blocks from my apartment.  Kosher, closed on Shabbes, the whole megillah.  The only such restaurant in the neighborhood and only one of two in town.

Not a delicatessen type of place, they advertised as specialists in roasted meats.  In either case, not really my style, especially when there are so many wonderful Mediterranean and vegetarian options within a few blocks walk.

Also, they received terrible reviews.  The Yelp, the Chowhound, the Urbanspoon, the whole internet seemed to agree they were just awful.  And yet I felt compelled to go there and waste some hard-earned money.

As soon as I entered the restaurant, I wanted to back myself out the door.  The tables were empty, never a good sign.  They had been open a couple months, there should be at least a few customers.

Still, I ordered a plate and I tried to eat.  I tried but I did not succeed.  It was truly one of the worst restaurant meals I had ever been served.  And I have been served at a roadhouse in rural Indiana.  I have been served on a shrimp boat in redneck Georgia.  I have been served by a hofbräuhaus in Baden-Württemberg.

Though I have never tasted shoe leather, I am sure it would be a close culinary cousin to this so-called brisket.  Pure gristle.  I could not cut it with a knife.  I could not shred it with my teeth.  I could not be certain it was actually meat.  Feh!

The side of cholent was both flavorless and uncooked and contained bits of gristle.  I have eaten black beans by the Mexican restaurant.  I have cooked garbanzo beans by my own hand.  Beans are never supposed to be hard and crunchy.

The side of mixed greens — this is California — was acceptable.  Multi-colored and slightly bitter.  A few thin rings of red onion.  Nothing special but nothing to complain.  It was the only thing I could stomach.

The meal was more than $24.  Absolutely outrageous.  And I didn’t even get a Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry.

The funny thing — and the point of the story — is that I kept thinking I really should give them another chance.  Fortunately, and perhaps predictably, they went out of business before an opportunity presented itself.

Anyway, so it happened, when Bernie Sanders announced he was running for President, I was immediately drawn to his candidacy.

To be fair, my attraction was based on firm political footing.  I can’t count the number of times I have said, “I’m so liberal, I’m practically a Socialist”.  In my heart, I agreed with many of his proposals, such as Medicare for all, though I thought the rich people could very well pay for their own kids’ college educations.

Also, I was impressed that Mr. Sanders’ fundraising focused on small donations from individual citizens rather than big bundles from corporate interests.  But, let’s face it, the way he talks, a Jew from Brooklyn, it makes me to feel right at home.

Alas, the way Mr. Sanders seems to shun his Jewish heritage quickly cooled my keen.

OK, maybe the man doesn’t believe, he doesn’t practice, that’s his prerogative.  But, to refer to his parents as Polish immigrants?  They were not Poles, they were Jews.  It is not the same thing.

And when he speaks about his Jewishness, he is really describing humanism, which is not a bad thing, but it is, by definition, anti-religious.  My strong sense is that he is not being forthright about his feelings.

Even so, I wanted desperately to feel the Bern.  Hillary Clinton has her pluses and minuses, but I could muster no enthusiasm.  I would watch the debates to make my decision.

Indeed, it was those debates that finally convinced me.  It wasn’t anything that either candidate said, it was the non-verbal cues.  It was the way Mr. Sanders kept making faces and laughing and wagging his finger whenever it was Mrs. Clinton’s turn to make her schpiel.

It felt annoying.  It felt disrespectful.  It felt like something I did not want to watch for the next four or eight years.

So today, as we cast our ballots in the California primary, I am not “buying Black”.

I’m with her.

© 2016 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Christmas in California

Like most regional ethnic groups, the New York Jewish people have their own special holiday traditions.  For Christmas, we eat Chinese food and watch Jewish movies.  Chinese food because the Chinese restaurants are open and uncrowded.  Jewish movies because the Jewish movies make us feel like we are the stars of the day.

Some of my Christmas-observing friends think this is a sad way to spend the “best” day of the year.  It is not.  Despite the sensory overload of the season, I do not feel left out of the festivities and I enjoy the solidarity of sharing the day with people who believe as I do.

Christmas arrived shortly after we moved to Palo Alto.  We ate Chinese at the Su Hong and saw The Garden of the Finzi-Continis at the Guild, both nearby in Menlo Park.  The restaurant and the theater were mostly empty, but still, it was comforting to keep the tradition alive and know that most of the other patrons were probably landesman “celebrating” the holiday in the familiar fashion.

The next Christmas, having spent a year in California, we were more assimilated.  We went mainstream, driving to the mega-plex to watch Titanic.  We planned to see the earliest show, but when we arrived, the place was positively jam-packed with people, the majority of whom were clearly not like-minded Jews.

Apparently, people of all faiths need to get out of the house after a few hours with the relations.

Anyway, the matinee was sold out so we got tickets for a later show and took the car to find a Chinese lunch spot.  Except we didn’t.  Find any Chinese food.  The only restaurant open for business was the always open Denny’s, where they didn’t even serve any faux-Chinese food like “Chinese chicken salad” or “Asian stir-fry”.  All in all, it was a very goyishe Christmas.

The next year, we felt a desperate need to return to our roots so we got tickets to Kung Pao Kosher Comedy in San Francisco, advertised as “Jewish comedy in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas”.  It sounded perfect.  The surprise headline performer turned out to be Margaret Cho.  Alas, her style lacked that, umm, Hebraic sensibility.

Each year, we tried a different approach, never quite recapturing that old heymishe feeling.  One year, we went to the JCC.  They didn’t have enough Chinese food for everyone — who ever heard a Jewish affair should run out of food?  A shandeh!  And if that wasn’t enough already, the projector failed in the middle of the Israeli film — alright, we all know a Jewish gathering where everyone can tell you how to fix whatever is broken but no one has any practical experience handling a screwdriver.

Perhaps no matter your heritage, no matter the holiday, things never turn out quite the way you remember.  But what could possibly be better than a new story (and a chance to kvetch a little besides)?

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Trick or Treat

I like Halloween.  I don’t know why.  Certainly, there are no happy childhood associations, though one year my mother did get a pumpkin.

Of course, we only got to watch while she did all the carving.  She wasn’t into collaboration.

If we had been of a Jesus-related faith, I’m certain we wouldn’t have got a Christmas tree.  It’s not like there would have been any presents to put under it.

In the unlikely event we did get a tree, well, I’m sure she would’ve decorated it all by herself while we were at Hebrew School or something.

Anyway, we only got a pumpkin that one time because it got smashed.  Maybe that’s just the fate that awaits all but a few lucky pumpkins come All Hallow’s Eve.  Or maybe we would have had better luck if she wasn’t always yelling at the neighborhood kids.

But still, costumes and chocolates, what is there not to like?

So, when the time came that I was both grown up and coupled up, we moved to California, to a beautiful neighborhood in Old Palo Alto, and set up a holiday-friendly home.

That first year, I was really looking forward to the Trick or Treaters.  I had done my research and knew which candy was the most prized.  I bought five times as many pieces as we could possibly need.  And none of that cheap miniature or corn syrup crap.

When evening arrived, we waited and waited, but our doorbell did not ring.  It seemed odd.  Our lights were on.  Our decorations were up.  Maybe they start later out here, I thought, we just need to give it time.

The time did pass, but our house remained unhaunted.  We tested the doorbell and resumed our watch.  We heard children running and laughing in the street.  Were these the sounds of mere spirits and not flesh and blood boys and girls?

We went outside to investigate.  No, these princesses and pirates were real live kids.  But they were skipping past our address and flocking to the surrounding abodes.

See, ours was a very posh precinct, the neighbors included Steve Jobs and Steve Young as well as other Steves less note-worthy but equally net-worthy.  Though darling, our place stood out, in a Section 8 kind of way.  In truth, many of the nearby garages dwarfed our modest home.

This was prejudice in its purest form.  The treats from our cozy cottage were just as good as the sweets from the stately mansions.  Even better!

Books!  Covers!  What are they teaching in the schools?  People, please!

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

It Never Rains

You may have heard that it never rains in California.  This is not true.  It’s just that other places, it can rain any time of the year.  But here, we have the rainy season, say October-March, and the dry season, maybe April-September.

The climate, it seemed really strange during the first year here.

We arrived in the fall and we got torrents of rain throughout the winter.  Whenever I got too homesick, I’d turn on The Weather Channel and watch the endless blizzards and think the rain was nothing to complain.

Then came the spring and every day was picture postcard perfect.  Of course, I kept expecting it would rain.  Especially the early morning as it was frequently overcast.  The ex-man would say not to worry, it wouldn’t rain.  About this one thing, he was always right.

The lack of precipitation, it does take a toll.  By summer, the hills that were lush and green had turned dusty and brown.  We adjusted, learning to set the sprinkler system just right.  Too little moisture and the grass would burn.  Too much hydration and the lawn would mold.

This weather pattern, after while it became the new normal.

Shortly following our one-year anniversary in the Golden State, I was working at my desk one afternoon when I became aware of a sound.  It was familiar, but I could not quite place it.  I glanced through the window.  The rain was falling.

I began to weep like a farmer whose crops had been saved.

Well, that was a long time ago.  A very long time ago.  And today, we got the first splash of rain for the season.  We really need it.  We’re in the fourth year of a serious drought.  The trees are dying.  I should be crying.  But, I got nothing.  I seem to be in the midst of my own dry spell.

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll

The clock said 3:17 am.  Despite enough sleeping pills to take down a T-Rex, I, like the animals, farm and pet, awoke a few minutes before the initial rumblings.

For just a moment, I thought it was the man upstairs.  His wife is away and he is having some kind of bed-breaking sex with someone who is not his wife.

I mean, it is worse than some Triple XXX movie in Sensurround.  The springs creaking.  The walls banging.  I was just about to get the stepladder and broom when my own bed started to tremble.

There is something unmistakable about an earthquake.  The way it comes up from below.  Nothing else feels like it.  This was a 6.0, the biggest since I’ve been in California.

Even so, it fell quite a bit short of the magnitude of my neighbor’s rocking and knocking.  I really hope his wife gets back soon.

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.