Above: Sidney in his “Gene Autry phase”
Sidney Gross (1941–2016)
In my youth, life had a certain rhythm like the clackity clack of a subway train—the same schools, the same small stores, the same apartment. Now, customs and institutions that should by right be taken for granted are subjected to continual change: professions become obsolete; shopping malls are built in residential areas; streets are widened into highways; currency becomes inflated.
The food we ate was one of life’s constants and surely a very intimate one. Every day we had eggs for breakfast, some form of broiled meat for lunch, and “dairy” for dinner. Along with the food, since our house was kosher, were our two sets of dishes, glasses, and utensils. They were milchig and fleischig, for dairy and meat. They could never be confused because each had its own distinctive pattern. Furthermore, they were stowed in separate cabinets so they could never even touch. Our meat came from the kosher butcher across the street, the fruit from the fruit man on Sixty-fifth Street, and everything else came from what in those days passed for a supermarket. Kosher food was one of the stronger ties that bound me to Judaism and New York. When my eldest cousin got married and moved to suburban New Jersey, our whole family scoffed. “What’s he moving out there for? Why, he’ll have to drive clear back to Brooklyn to buy kosher meat.” And that’s just what he did until the kosher butchers themselves went out to Jersey.
Because the laws of kashruth were an intimate part of my life, my first transgression was very painful and absolutely involuntary. It occurred when I was perhaps ten, right before the start of the new school year. I was always one of those kids who couldn’t wait to get back into the classroom come fall. Summer vacations bored me stiff, because there was never any meaningful work to do.
It was a family tradition for my mother to take me shopping for new clothes every year just before school started. Besides wall-to-wall shops in its neighborhoods, New York had absolutely marvelous shopping districts in downtown Brooklyn and throughout Manhattan. One of these meccas in the city was the area around Union Square. Before I was born, I’m told, Union Square was the retail center of Manhattan. As the bigger stores moved uptown to Herald Square, only those of a certain, shall I say, schlocky character remained behind. On that fateful day, we were bound for one such place—Klein’s. My fascination with Klein’s extends no further than its unique sign, which I passed every day in the years that I attended Stuyvesant High School. “S. Klein on the Square” it read. And below these words was a gigantic carpenter’s square, which was illuminated at night.
But this story is about food, not about Klein’s. If you got out of the labyrinthine fourteenth street station at the Klein’s exit, you emerged in front of Childs, one of a famous chain of restaurants. Childs was an ordinary restaurant–it was not kosher–but this was where my mother decided to eat on this special occasion. Neither of us felt any qualms about going there. It was as if the dietary laws only applied to inanimate objects like our house or our dishes, but not to our persons. We saw nothing wrong with a place like Childs, although I know that in our kosher days we never went as far as eating in a non-Jewish ethnic restaurant. If it was Italian or German, it was out, but if it was American fare, that was all right. I won’t attempt to justify this curious logic; that was the way we lived.
Once seated in the restaurant, my mother said to go ahead and order anything I wanted as a good start to the school year. Even when given carte blanche, my tastes have always been modest. I’ve always had a penchant for eggs and was fascinated by the varieties listed in the omelet section of the menu. Perhaps it was because I was in a Gene Autry phase, but for whatever the reason, I settled on something called a western omelet. Coming as it did with salad and bread and costing fifty-five cents, it just had to be something special!
When it was brought to the table after what seemed an eternity of waiting, I literally blanched. It was obvious on visual inspection that my western omelet contained HAM. Ham was for me the epitome of traif (non-kosher food). You could eat anything else and still consider yourself a kosher Jew—but not ham. My thoughts turned to pink pigs wallowing in the mud (I’d never actually seen a live pig), to their ugly snouts and small sly eyes. The pig was unclean and no doubt smelly. I grew quite nauseous.
I told my mother I didn’t want to eat the omelet. This must have been a first for me, since I was overweight as a kid and ate at the drop of a hat. On her side, Esther was undoubtedly embarrassed both for her lack of knowledge of western omelets and at the thought of having to send food back to the kitchen. She insisted that I eat it.
The story of Hannah in the Old Testament flashed before my mind. Hannah and her children died rather than eat traif. Had Judaism sunk this low in the twentieth century that people would eat ham without a whimper? I screamed and cried. I made a scene of the kind that kids are always making in restaurants. My mother was firm, and I ate the omelet. It sticks in my craw to this day. And I never went back to Childs again.