Matzo matzo matzo. forever.

Savannah Morning News

April 16, 2017

 

You can’t tell a book by the cover, right? Wrong.

The minute I saw Michele Streit Heilbrun’s book, “Matzo,” at E. Shaver Bookstore, I knew I had to have it or at least buy it to bring to my Passover Seder hosts. The name, the subject, the time of year. Iconic. And that was before I picked up the book – and felt it. Felt: not a word usually associated with a cover. Or a book. This is an exception. The front cover is textured, with all the little holes and everything (holes: imperative for the baking process). It’s a complete replica of a sheet of matzo. OK, so at 8-and-a-quarter inches the cover is a little larger than the real thing – or so I read. But who cares? It’s real enough. I could almost taste it, which is kind of weird since matzo is so, well, let’s face it, tasteless.

But really, a whole cookbook about matzo? C’mon, give me a break. Matzo, for the uninitiated, is what observant (and not so observant, such as myself) Jews eat during the eight-day celebration known as Passover – a holiday that is happening right now – when leavened bread products are verboten. Like all foods at the Passover Seder table it represents something else. Matzo is unleavened. It’s a mixture of flour and water that turns flat and hard when baked. It symbolizes the haste with which Moses and the enslaved Jews had to get the heck out of Egypt. With Pharaoh in fast pursuit, they couldn’t afford to wait for their bread to rise before they took off.  They packed their bags, grabbed their unleavened bread and got out of Dodge. Since everything seemed to turn out OK – sort of – matzo has become a symbol and a food.

Matzo is not half as exciting as charoset. This is what you put on top of the matzo. It’s a yummy mixture of apples, fruit, nuts and wine. Charoset represents the sweetness of life. Not to be left out is the maror, a stinging combination of horseradish and beets, designed to bring tears to your eyes because what is life without a little suffering, eh?

Matzo is the vehicle for both foods.

People who have been to Seders – and I’ve probably been to at least 70 (just guessing here) – will recognize the box that holds the matzo. There are several companies that make matzo but to me the most familiar is Streit’s. The name, handwritten in white, floats in an oval of red. The Streit (rhyme with right) family has made matzo in New York City’s Lower East Side since 1915, when the area became home to millions of immigrants.  When I was describing the book to someone from New York, she knew just the corner. “It’s that four-story red brick building on Rivington street, right?” Bingo.

Not anymore. Times change. Now it’s become expensive real estate and the clientele are younger people with money jingling in their pockets.  After going back and forth for years the Streit family closed down the NYC operation two years ago and moved the business to New Jersey. The area had gentrified, they couldn’t find anyone to work on the aging (and original) machinery, there was no loading docks, no parking.

Somewhere around that time Michele Streit Heilbrun, whose great-grandfather started the business, hatched an idea about writing a book of matzo recipes, a book that would expand the life of the unleavened product to include apple crumb pie, matzo tiramisu, matzo tacos (with yesterday’s brisket), matzo nachos with pickled jalapenos and matzo spanakopita. When she found David Kirschner, a high-end chef, the plan became a reality. The book is a gem.

In the process, Michele – known as Mikey – started visiting friends who had moved to Savannah. At about the same time the matzo business moved to New Jersey Mikey, who worked as a casting director in Manhattan, moved to Savannah.

“I love it here,” she said a few weeks ago at the Jewish Educational Alliance, where the Savannah Jewish Film Festival folks were showing, “Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream.”

“You couldn’t get a toilet flushed for what I bought a house here,” she said later. “When the business closed in New York it was it was the last place I called home.”

Although she never worked at the factory, she did sell boxes during Passover.

“My girl cousins and I learned pretty early on it was a business for men,” she said very matter-of-factly. “Nothing was offered to us. Such a different generation. Even so I never wanted to work there.”

But she did want to write a book.

This Passover she traveled to Virginia to have Seder with a Streit cousin still in the business. She called him her “baby cousin.” He is 42, she is 49. But she took the train. She’s not so keen on driving, she said. In New York she didn’t get behind a wheel for 16 years.

“I feel so fortunate to be part of a family that represents a little piece of history, just a nugget but still,” she said. “We were on so many people’s tables for so many years. The book makes me very happy.”

 

 

 

 

Moms and the way things used to be

Savannah Morning News

April 9, 2017

 

There are reasons we don’t delete the names of people who are no longer with us from the list of contacts in our phones, or, for those of us who still have them, hand-written directories on paper littered with names, numbers, addresses scratched out and connected by arrows. It seems harsh, unnecessary, cold. Anyway, we like the memory. Ha! Lois. Ah yes, E. Rae. Alas, Madeline.

Other things are hard to remove, too. Like the shirt with the name Fishman taped to the collar. It was my mother’s favorite t-shirt. She wore it as a nightgown. It was a holdover from when she lived in the assisted living facility and residents were supposed to write or tape their names inside the shirt. I have a few of these items and while I don’t wear them often I do like it when they come up in rotation.

Lately in a shuffle of framed photographs from a box of miscellanea – many, many photographs though a lot less lately since photos never seem to leave my phone app –  I chose a framed black-and-white one of my mother. I leaned it on the dresser in a guest bedroom. “It’s you!” said a friend who spent a few days here last week. “Like, was there even a father?” While I can’t say I see the resemblance it was – and is – fun to see my mom’s face – calm, reasonable, at peace, in control, accepting. No drama there. She liked to say, “I didn’t raise you to be this way” and “I can’t say I understand what you’re doing with your life” or, even better, “Do you know what you’re doing with your life?” but that was OK. It worked for us – more or less. We managed to make our peace.

She didn’t tell me too much of her life either. I had to hear from my Aunt Dorothy that my parents were getting divorced. I was going to school in Ann Arbor then; Dorothy was visiting cousin John. “I didn’t want to bother you,” my mom would say later.

What we carved out felt like a very different relationship than what goes on between mothers and daughters these days. These days, it seems as if many mothers and daughters talk every day. They are one another’s best friends. They don’t seem to hold back anything. They don’t hesitate to ask for help.

To people of my generation – or my crowd of friends, that’s really all I can speak of – that was not what we did. We never told our mothers – or fathers – when we were in trouble, when we were depressed, discouraged or confused. We lied. Everything’s fine, we would say when we quit a job and didn’t have another one in sight. All is well. Yes. I’m happy. I’m paying my rent, stepping out, making new friends. Yep. Life is good.

We did not talk every day. Sometimes we didn’t talk for months. When I went to Europe with a friend for eight weeks in college we mailed those little blue Aerogram letters. Neither we nor anyone I knew ended a conversation with, “I love you.”

For one thing, phone conversations were expensive. There was such a thing as a “long distance charge.” Kaching kaching. Try explaining that to someone who grew up with cell phones. Because of those three little words, we had to talk before 7 a.m. or after 9 p.m. I think Sundays were regular price or a little cheaper.  “This will cost you a fortunate,” my mother would say if I called during the expensive time or if we went over our three-minute limit.

We got around some of that. We had our tricks. When I left her house for mine in Chicago I would call. But she wouldn’t answer. She would let the phone ring. After three rings I would hang up. That meant I got home safely.

Our habits were set. From the “long distance charge” forward we kept our conversations short. She would blow a gasket if she knew how much most of us spend monthly on our phone also known as our camera/calendar/calculator/photo album/texting/encyclopedia devise.

At one point early in her dementia we would talk every Sunday morning at 10. I did the calling. But when I forgot she forgot to get upset. Then I would call and get a crazy signal; her phone was off the hook. Then she stopped answering altogether.

I’m sorry we didn’t talk more. I’m sorry I could not engage my mother about the past, this woman who was born March 1, who came into the world like a lion, who went out like a lamb. I tried. Sort of. What’s to talk about, she’d say.  My father was even worse. I couldn’t get anywhere with him. But maybe I didn’t try very hard. I was, after all, in long-distance land. There wasn’t much time or space. I was trying to find a thread to grab on to, searching to find a path, my own path. They may have been doing the same thing.  I have to believe in the end things turn out the way they’re supposed to.