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.

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This Is a City!

Coming from a modest background, we never went anywhere growing up.  Besides New York, New Jersey was the only state where my feet had touched ground.  And that was just one time.

Because of this limited experience, New York was the very definition of “city” to me.  We didn’t have even basic cable TV.  We didn’t know from the Travel Channel.  I thought all cities were like New York in scope and scale and sound and smell and so forth.

Anyway, as it happened, some college friends decided to take a day trip to Boston, about a three-hour drive from our upstate campus.

We had lots of fun walking around the Freedom Trail and the Public Garden and the Faneuil Hall.  Boston is pretty and compact and quaint and historic.  A sweet town.

My friend Karen asks me, the first-time visitor, for my impressions.  So I say to her: “Boston is so cute!  It’s just like a little city!”

And then she, the seasoned traveler, informs me: “This is a city!  Boston is a major city.  One of the largest in America.”

Astonished by the thought, I didn’t know what to say.  In that moment, my world got bigger and it got smaller too.  Who knew?

© 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.

Life Is a Cabaret

Amazon.com is streaming a new series, The Man In the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dicks novel that imagines a universe where Hitler won the second world war and the Third Reich encompasses the United States.

To promote the show, Amazon has decorated a working New York subway car with nazified American symbols, for example, the seats are wrapped with a version of the American flag that replaces the familiar fifty stars with the Nazi Iron Eagle.

I can’t tell you what it must feel like for some elderly Holocaust survivor to step into that car and be surrounded by images reminiscent of those that once terrorized their youth and continue to haunt their dreams.

But I can tell you this.  Some while back, I was in the audience enjoying a production of Cabaret, the musical depicting Berlin during the years in which the Nazis came to power.

All of the sudden, in a single beat, the orchestra and the company went completely silent as red ceiling-to-floor banners bearing the Nazi swastika loudly unfurled throughout the theater.

Instantly, I rose from my seat with the intention of running toward the exit.

While it took only a moment for me to regain my sense of time and place, my response had been visceral, automatic.  And I am born in America, many years after the Shoah.

So, this advertising, we can argue about free speech until the cows come home, but such a stunt seems very cruel indeed.

The MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) standards call for maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all customers and employees.  Yeah, right.

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Irma!

Mrs. Scherz is from my childhood.  She is now re-married to Mr. Schwartz.  They are in their 70s and have the New York Jewish thing going in a big way.

This takes place at my mother’s funeral.  At the cemetery.  It is silent.  Mrs. Scherz is shoveling the dirt and quite vigorously when Mr. Schwartz calls out:

“Irma!  You don’t have to do the whole thing by yourself.”

The words, the accent, the delivery; it was a perfect moment in the midst of a most dreadful day.

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

The Tenement Life

The Tenement Museum in New York is dedicated to preserving immigrant life on the Lower East Side during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The highlight is to tour the restored apartments and businesses of past residents and merchants.

Normally, I would be very excited to visit such a landmark.  It is my favorite historical period and location.  My grandparents, Jewish immigrants who came to America from Europe with very little money and even less English, worked in the New York sweatshops.  This is the story of my people.

Now, you may know how quickly I get bored to look at great artworks or ancient artifacts.  But, to explore a house museum is a completely different thing.  I really enjoy to see how the people lived and worked.  Especially the Jewish people in turn-of-the-century New York.

But, I do not need to visit a museum to experience tenement life.  I do not need to leave the “comfort” of my own home.

All through the summer and fall, I had a termite infestation inside my apartment.  Now that it is winter, I have not had hot water in over a month.  And when it rains outside, also it rains in my living room.

Who needs a museum?  Already I am living the tenement life.

© 2015 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.

Parking Perils

Palo Alto just approved a permit program for parking on downtown residential streets.

Usual story.  Downtown workers don’t want to pay for parking in city garages so they park for free on nearby streets.  This leaves the actual inhabitants of those streets with no place to park.

So starting soon, documented downtown workers and residents will need to purchase permits to park for more than two hours on the designated avenues.

Time will tell if the new system is successful, but right now there is a lot of griping about the cost of permits and such.

It reminds me my graduate school days when I was living a run-down neighborhood where the long-term residents resented the transient students.

Most of the homes were triple-deckers with street space for maybe two or three cars; fewer after a snow storm.  Each home could hold three families or as many as twelve students.  You do the math; even in a low-income area, parking was very competitive.

To exacerbate matters, the townies felt they “owned” the spots in front of their homes.  And they were very protective their “property”.

If a car driven by a non-resident of the building should start a maneuver to park, out would rush a screaming maniac swinging a baseball bat.

I couldn’t say if the bat was intended for the car or for the driver.  I never hung around long enough to find out.

Turns out survival of the fittest makes for a very effective no-cost, no-bureaucracy parking system indeed.

© 2014 Jaclyn Schrier. All rights reserved.