Ven ich ess, ch’ob ich alles in dread!
A good nosh is the answer to all of life’s problems, and, even on the rare occasions when it’s not, the very act of eating can at least help you forget about them for a while. There is perhaps no other group more food-focused than us Jews. Don’t believe me? Just look at our track record:
- Are we not the group who readily accepts folks arriving three hours late to Saturday services—coincidentally, just in time for kiddush lunch?
- Am I wrong in reporting that many Jewish families think nothing of racing through the Haggadah (skipping major chunks of the story in the process) in a collective effort to get to the Passover meal already?
- Aren’t we talking about some of the blandest food in the world? (Not to mention there’s no bread!)
If that’s not a dedication to delectables, I don’t know what is.
But the $64,000 question is this: is the power we Jews ascribe to the act of eating born of nature, nurture, or a mouthwatering mélange of both? Is our, as some might say, dysfunctional relationship with all things edible a trait that is passed down from generation to generation (not unlike a deviated septum), or is it something taught like the confidence and resolve needed to pass for a child at the movie theater until well into our teens?
Even if we Jews were born with a clean slate (well, with the exception of thousands of years worth of guilt that is most decidedly inherited), a Jewish upbringing (the “nurture” factor) alone would result in a scant few of us (on second thought, that’s most likely just the margin of error) managing to escape a full-fledged food fixation. I mean, what hope do we have? Inherited or not, the seeds are present early on, and lurking around every corner are bubbes, mummies, Temple secretaries, and other meddling maternal mavens armed with bottomless vats of proverbial MiracleGro. Even as adults, immediately upon crossing the threshold of our childhood homes, barely one arm free of its coat sleeve, the food-focused floodgates are flung wide and the interrogation begins:
“Are you eating? You’re too thin! When’s the last time you ate something? You look so pale! You’re wasting away! Here, have some kugel, I made too much! Come, sit, I’ll fix you a plate! Ess! Ess!”
Their arsenals are locked-and-loaded and the shots just keep coming. It’s almost as though instead of the Jewish matriarch’s strength waning with age, her energies are simply redirected for the purpose of fueling her continuous, compulsive culinary crusade. (They may need help opening the jar, but she’ll easily move mountains to see that you consume its contents.) It’s not long before Bubbe’s barrage or Ma’s manipulative method wears us down and we find ourselves giving in.
Is it possible that we choose to surrender voluntarily? That our waving of the embroidered white napkin is prompted by a simple desire to put an end to the campaign and move on to other topics? Sure, anything’s possible, but I can’t imagine who among us would be all that eager to discuss the absence of a nice Jewish doctor in their lives. No. More often than not, what’s really happened is that we’ve succumbed to a certain matriarchal mojo that manages to trump whatever the bathroom scale, mirror, or even physician told us that very morning; to erase from our minds the conversation we just had with ourselves on the elevator ride up or car ride over. Our resolve is dissolved and we start to think, Maybe I could stand to gain a few pounds? Either way, before we know it we’ve got a knish in one hand and a forkful of brisket in the other. I’m no scientist but, with nurturing like this, what does nature matter?
Anyway, no matter the cause, given our ardent attachment to the alimental, we Jews naturally take the consumption of the stuff pretty seriously. The expression in question proves this, suggesting that the act of eating deserves the level of hushed reverence reserved only for the most sacred of rituals. And how better to relish (kosher dill, of course!) our refreshments than to partake of them free from all distraction?
Even still, you may be wondering to yourself, “From where is this hostility coming?! Is it really necessary that the proverb employ such harsh language?!” Cut us some slack, OK? This saying’s savage statement is no doubt born of a lifetime of pent-up frustration; a lifetime saddled with a sadistic irony. We Jews must cope with the reality that our traditions (like those mentioned above) revolve around communal and often chaotic consumption. (Breaking the fast after Yom Kippur can be especially perilous!) Coupled with the fact that our dining companions are notoriously difficult to ignore, Jewish feasts are not exactly conducive to uninterrupted indulgence; a sad fate for a people with such ardor for the act of eating.
What can I say? Extreme (eating) conditions call for equally extreme language. Now everybody out! I’m feeling a little peckish.
Even after 57 years of marriage, Abe still couldn’t believe one person (in this case, his wife, Sandra) could possibly have this much to say. But one thing these 57 years had taught Abe was how to tune out his wife’s monologue to the point where her voice was no more than a faint din. (Leaving his hearing aids on the dresser helped considerably.) Vos iz ahfen kop, iz ahfen tsung, he often commented to himself while marveling over Sandra’s speaking stamina, not to mention her lung capacity. Abe was never more grateful for his ability to turn down his wife’s voice than at the dinner table. At 82, there were only a handful of life’s pleasures in which Abe could still partake, and, despite having dentures and a no-sodium diet to contend with—not to mention a pill to swallow between every bland bite—the act of eating still topped the list. With Sandra on mute, the resulting effect was not altogether unpleasant. As she read articles aloud and re-enacted scenes from the senior center, her limbs flailing and face contorted, Abe often thought it akin to watching the climactic scene from one of the those silent films his father used to take him to—only, these days, his box of Cracker Jacks was downgraded to a bowl full of watery Borscht. Abe’s skill had been honed over the years so much so that he also developed a keen sense of when to tune back into the “conversation.” And, when this failed him, he also possessed an array of neutral interjections to offer at appropriate intervals. But today, like any maven, Abe was simply off his game. …
Sandra: “Abraham Markowitz! I said, are you even listening to me?!”
Abe chose this moment (wisely or not) to speak up. …
Abe: “Sandra, can’t I have a meal in peace? I promise, I’m all ears as soon as I’m done here. How many times do I have to tell you? When I am eating, everybody can be in the ground!”
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