I just came home from walking the dogs. It’s time for lunch and I have my home-made split green pea soup in the refrigerator, but I pick up one of my housemate’s coconut cookies instead. We share sweet goodies because we both love sugar, chocolate, cake, and ice cream, especially when the slightest anxiety hits, or when I need more energy. The truth is, I originally picked up a mandarin and promptly misplaced it. Went around looking for it, and when I couldn’t find it, I reached for the cookie.
From an early age I used food to rebel against the rigors of orthodox Jewish tradition and authority of any kind.
On a school trip to Washington, DC, as the bus waited for my high school classmates to file in, I, already seated on the front seat, watched as the driver unpacked a cheeseburger he’d picked up for lunch. In our home we never mixed meat with dairy. I noticed how much bigger a cheeseburger looked compared to a hamburger. As he ate, juices from the meat and yellow cheese crept down his chin, which he didn’t bother to wipe away. He bit into the cheeseburger with gusto, clearly enjoying himself, and I thought to myself: Wow, that must taste good!
Back home, I said to my mother: “Mom, have you ever wondered what a cheeseburger tastes like?”
She looked at me in horror: “Never!”
“I’m not asking if you ate it, I know you wouldn’t, I’m just asking if you at least wondered what it tastes like.”
She stared at me as if I’d suggested dead caterpillars for an afternoon snack. “Never!” she repeated. “How could anybody even ask such a question?”
There it was. How could you even ask such a question? How could you be curious about things like that? You can ask how a book or movie ends, you can ask where your best friend bought that dress or even what color looks good on you. But a cheeseburger?
I couldn’t stop asking. Wanted desperately to find out what sex with a man felt like (masturbation gave some clues), curious about sex between two women or two men. Just asking these questions was unkosher. Since we kept kosher, you couldn’t get hot dogs in ball games no matter how much your mouth watered. You couldn’t get an ice cream soda after eating a meat sandwich. You couldn’t eat in an Italian restaurant, and don’t even THINK about Chinese food.
I noticed that my mother was right, nobody else seemed to ask those questions in the orthodox world, including my friends. They were special people voluntarily, even happily, living inside special boxes. Life outside those boxes meant as little to them as life on Jupiter. They couldn’t understand my curiosity and I couldn’t understand their lack of it.
How could you rebel like this? was met by my own amazement: How could you not?
One afternoon, when I was about 12, I went into a drug store and bought a fruit candy. It didn’t have the U on it to designate it was kosher and I didn’t care. It’s candy, for God’s sake, I thought to myself.
I leave the drug store, but someone is running after me. Jacob Stepansky, blonde, short, wearing glasses big as goggles, stops me in my tracks: “Eve, do you know that that’s not kosher?”
Caught by a pipsqueak spy. “It isn’t?” I ask in consternation.
He shakes his head emphatically. “I think it once had a U but then they removed it, I don’t know why.”
“Wow,” I say, “thanks for telling me. I’m gonna throw it away as soon as I get home.”
He remains standing, looking at the candy in my hands like it’s pig blood. I look around, as if searching for a trash can. Luckily, I don’t find one.
“Thanks for telling me,” I nod again, turn away, and keep on walking. But his eyes burn through my back to directly scrutinize my heart, where he’ll find that I’m a liar, sinner, and basically the worst kind of heathen imaginable.
In my senior year in a religious high school, I ate ham and cheese. Not because I was curious how they tasted, even I never wondered about that. You couldn’t even think about it, never mind imagine a sandwich like that in your hands. But by then, the box had gotten way too small for me, I was bursting through the seams.
The Six-Day War in the Middle East had just happened, Israel won mightily, the UN was busy issuing anti-Israel resolutions right and left, and the school principal, thin-faced Dr. Eliach, came in and said: “Everyone’s going to demonstrate in front of the United Nations this coming Sunday.” He looked round the class. “Who’s not coming on Sunday to the demonstration?”
I raised my hand.
“Eve,” he said, “if you don’t join the march, you don’t graduate,” and he left the classroom.
“He can’t do that,” my friend Marty comforted me at the break, “it’s illegal!”
On Sunday morning I joined the class in the march by the United Nations. Dr. Eliach saw me, nodded, passed by, and instantly I left the demonstrators, joined by friends Marty and Jack.
“Where you going?” they asked.
“Lunch,” I replied. “At the Automat.”
Horn & Hardart had its Automat right across Grand Central Station, not far from the UN. We settled down at a table and went to get our food. Goody-goody cowards that they were, they inserted their coins and pressed the buttons by labels saying Egg Salad Sandwich and Tuna FishSsandwich. Jack, big and heavyset, also pressed the button by lemon meringue pie. The machine whirred and turned, the small transparent plastic screen rose, and they reached inside.
I swallowed hard, then pressed the button marked Ham and Cheese Sandwich. The plastic screen rose, inviting me to remove the sandwich and put it on my tray. I also wondered about lemon meringue pie but wasn’t sure I’d be alive to eat it.
When I brought my tray to the table the boys’ eyes popped out of their heads. They looked up at me with respect, at the same time squirming a short distance away so that if lightning struck, they wouldn’t be hit by accident. I bit into the sandwich, munching carefully. My first taste of ham. My first taste of meat and dairy together. My first taste of ham and cheese. Things couldn’t get much worse.
Nobody said anything; I can’t remember what we talked about. But we all knew I’d left, gone abroad to a different country, a Gobi-like desert where no Jew survived. They respected that, but had no plans to follow.
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