Sidney Gross (1941–2016)
The western omelet at Childs restaurant was my first and most traumatic experience with non-kosher food. That happened against my will, although my ultimate conversion was accomplished voluntarily. It came about through a transitional door which I cannot totally understand—eating Chinese food, or as we who should have been more sensitive to ethnic slurs used to say “eating Chinks.” As most people are aware, every genuine Jewish neighborhood contains a Chinese restaurant. My part of Bay Parkway had several, the longest lived of which went by the name of Taeng Fong.
All the while that my father was alive, we were never allowed to eat in a Chinese restaurant. Indeed, my father was terribly upset when Taeng Fong opened in a storefront formerly occupied by a tire store. But after he died, when I was fifteen, my mother allowed me to join my friends who used to eat lunch at Taeng Fong before the Saturday matinee. In those days, you could get an entire lunch served up for fifty cents if you ordered right. This included soup, all the fried noodles you could eat, egg rolls, chow mein, tea, and fortune cookies. It was a welcome change of pace from the kosher delicatessen, but like all Chinese food, it left you famished and roaring for a substantial dinner by the time the movie let out at five.
Since I was a relative newcomer, my initiation into the world of Oriental cuisine was conducted by my cousin Irving. Irving was a year older than I and ever so much wiser in the ways of the world. I took to chow mein immediately since I have always been crazy about cooked onions. Weaning myself from the prohibitions about non-kosher food was another story. For the first couple of times, it was like wading into a cold surf. I ordered only the vegetable chow mein amid funny glances from the waiter. I reasoned that since vegetables are pareve (they go with meat or dairy) no harm was being done to my insides. Somehow, of course, I neglected to consider the fact that the kitchen wasn’t kosher. Eventually I made the transition to chicken chow mein and then beef. The final step was shrimp. There were kosher and non-kosher chickens and cows, but there was no such thing as kosher shrimp. To eat shrimp was to make a definite break with tradition, which I didn’t make until I was nearly sixteen.
At long last my mother herself was won over to Chinese food. Once a month or so, she would take my brother and me to Taeng Fong for dinner. These meals were more elaborate than the Saturday afternoon variety and involved the use of finger bowls, which I saw as the height of elegance.
As the restaurant prospered, it instituted a carryout service. You could call ahead and would find your food waiting by the cash register when you arrived. We only lived a block from Taeng Fong’s. If I hurried and if the traffic light on Sixty-fifth street was with me, I could get the food back to our apartment while it was still hot. This meant that we didn’t have to compromise ourselves by heating it in our kosher pots. The dishes? My mother solved that one neatly enough with paper plates and plastic forks. As soon as we finished eating, the offending plates, utensils, and containers were carried down the hall to the incinerator room and burned. The window was opened to air out the dining alcove, and who would have guessed what we had done?
Once Chinese food had gotten its metaphorical foot through the door of our apartment, all sorts of other “catastrophes” followed: pizza, veal parmigiana, real (not kosher) bacon, and many other forbidden delights. To the end, though, we never mixed meat and milk in the same meal. Traditions fell with a vestige of carryover from the stricter past. Looking back now at how we stopped being kosher, it must have been a major upheaval in my existence. It’s something of a lukewarm comfort to realize that life and values were as volatile back then as they are today.
See also: How We Stopped Being Kosher, Part 1