Savannah Morning News Sunday column
Sun., Aug. 30, 2015
With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, coming up, we are reminiscing, we are talking food because in between the religious significance of the holiday, the trips you may or may not take to the synagogue or to the river to throw away pieces of bread as symbolic gestures of ridding yourself of accumulated sins over the year, there is eating, there is dinner, there is a gathering of friends and relatives, new and old, Jewish or not Jewish.
“Your brisket is the best,” I say to Sylvia Dane, remembering the juicy, succulent and moist meat dish with the beautiful dark brown gravy. “Definitely not ausgetrikent.”
Ausgetrikent is a Yiddish word Sylvia taught me. It means dry, withered and juiceless, kind of like my mother’s brisket, may she rest in peace. Ah, but Sylvia’s. Her brisket makes you want to leave the table and drift into the kitchen to lift just another piece, another morsel, from the pan.
But Sylvia, to her credit because no one wants to give up a compliment, is quick to correct me.
“I may have cooked it, it may have become known as my brisket, but it wasn’t my recipe,” she says.
“The original recipe belonged to Bailee Kronowitz,” a well-known and loved Savannah cook, artist and personality who passed away five years ago.
That may be true but the Yiddish, the stories, the chuckles, the Brooklyn accent (still as thick as the day she arrived in Savannah decades ago) all belong to Sylvia who still holds forth and still writes thank you notes with her return address on the envelope reading, “The Great Dane,” which reminds her of another story.
“You know David, right?” she says of David Collison, one of the trainers at the Jewish Educational Alliance. “Every time I used to come into the gym with my walker he would announce, ‘The great Dane and her gold Cadillac is here.’”
Sylvia is 97 and still peppering her conversation with Yiddish, the language writer Leo Rosten calls the Robin Hood of languages because it steals from the linguistically rich and gives to the fledgling poor.
Sylvia’s grandparents came from Lithuania. Her grandfather, who lived in lower Manhattan, sold newspapers, pickles pulled from barrels and herring. After his death Sylvia shared a bedroom until she was 20 with her grandmother, who spoke Yiddish.
“The floor was red linoleum,” Sylvia said. “I’d say, why red? She said red is a passionate color.”
Moving on to her mother, she said, “Every day when I got home from work it was to a message that said, ‘If you don’t come here immediately there won’t be a Fanny Finklestein. Come over, eat something,’” and then, because we both knew that wasn’t entirely true, she grinned, slowly, slyly.
“Now when my grandson calls the first thing he says is, ‘Je t’adore’ (I love you) and I say, ‘Don’t shut the door.’ Between him and my granddaughter, I hit the jackpot as a grandmother.” And then for good measure she throws in, “Shep nachas,” Yiddish for deriving pleasure and “gutskeit,” used to describe someone who is good, sincere.
For a while Sylvia was commandeered into teaching Yiddish in Savannah or at least helping to form a class. She and David Rosenzweig, who ran a grocery store with his brother on Bull and 40th streets, and Izzy Karp were in the class, “although the only Yiddish Izzy knew were the words to Yankee Doodle Dandy. But I interrupt myself,” said Sylvia, moving on to another subject.
Every week Sylvia still talks to three friends she met in first grade in Brooklyn, Sylvia, Lillian and Roslyn. “PS 48,” she said. “Then I went to Seth Low Junior High. Then Utrecht High School. We lived at 1829 66th street in Bensonhurst, but I was born at 388 S. First Street in Williamsburg. All in Brooklyn. And I can still count from one to 10.”
One of these friends volunteered at a library until she turned 90 when she thought it might be time to leave.
“So they said to her, ‘If we pay you, will you stay?’ My friend said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow at 9.’ She just recently quit. She’s 97 and a half, six months older than me. I never let her forget that, either.”
Sylvia never learned how to drive. “Why would I?” she asked. “There was a bus stop at every corner.” She likes people, “but with politics I could get nauseated.” And when she can’t remember a name she looks for her telephone book for a memory nudge.
But can she remember her first phone number?
“Sheepshead 3-1179,” she rattled off, faster than you can say, “Please pass the brisket.”