Ellen Umansky is the author of The Fortunate Ones, a novel released last week about the fate of a Chaim Soutine painting left behind in Vienna. Ellen will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
My mother purchased the dishes to use poolside. They were plastic and brightly colored, a rainbow of plates that nested into each other. I remember countless summers spent by our pool, polishing off little English muffin pizzas my mother made and served on those plates, as I read my Trixie Belden mysteries, and books like When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit and Summer of My German Soldier.
We moved from New York to Los Angeles when I was six years old, and lived two miles up a twisting road that snaked high in the hills. The pool was kidney-shaped (that was how my parents described it, and how I took to describing it with great confidence, though I had no idea what a kidney looked like) and jutted over a sun-bleached canyon. We heard the cries of coyotes at night. I can only imagine what that must have been like for my parents to have moved to this foreign landscape — for my mother especially, who grew up in a small town in Northern Westchester, where her father helped establish the local synagogue.
We were Conservative Jews, raised in a fairly traditional Jewish household. We kept kosher at home, with two sets of dishes for milk and meat. Every year my mother turned over the kitchen for Passover, clearing out the chametz and taping off cabinets that we couldn’t use for eight days, and pulling out another set of dishes. But our adherence to kashrut was by no means steadfast. The meat we ate outside the home didn’t have to be designated kosher. And while all swine and the mixing of milk and meat was verboten, seafood was somehow acceptable. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of going to a raucous seafood restaurant called Gus’s in New York with my grandparents where we all wore bibs as we cracked open lobster shells and sucked out the meat.
At some point, our odd keeping of kashrut was codified in the dishes we used. We no longer had two sets of daily dishes, but three: one for milk, one for meat, and those colored plastic plates for treif.
My mother would pull out the plastic dishes when we brought in Chinese food (what is that mysterious meat in hot and sour soup? Who really knows!). They graced our table the time my older brother requested lobster for his birthday dinner and my mother pulled out the stops, buying live lobsters and setting them in our bathtub for the afternoon before boiling them in a huge pot in the kitchen, Annie-Hall-style.
It made no sense. Why have a designated set of non-kosher dishes? If that’s the case, why even keep kosher? I was a sensitive child, attracted to rules. For a couple of years, I studied the ingredient lists on candy and gum wrappers, looking for the OU‑P symbol, eliminating anything from my diet that contained corn syrup. (My decision, not my parents’.) Later, I argued with my mother about the hypocrisy of claiming that we kept kashrut at all; we have a set of dishes for food we’re not supposed to eat! Why do we do this? I remember saying, standing in the kitchen with her.
“It’s true,” she said, and she shrugged. She was not easily riled up or dissuaded. I’m sure she returned to whatever cooking task was at hand, making sweet apricot chicken for the dozen or so people who she’d regularly have over for Friday night dinner. “But that’s the way we do it.”
I’m married now, with two kids of my own. We don’t keep two sets of dishes (or three), but in the tradition of my family, I too follow certain dietary rules: no pork or mixing of milk and meat in the house, and, for me, not outside either. The thought of a cheeseburger still makes me twinge. As I get older, the logic of the way we kept kosher makes sense to me. We might not have adhered to all the rules, but we were conscious of them. Every time my mother reached for the non-kosher plates, she was making a decision, thinking about what we were eating, how we were nourishing ourselves. And that awareness might not be everything, but it matters.
Those plastic dishes are long gone, I think. My mother passed away last year, and my stepfather still lives in the house on the hill, filled with her things. My brothers and I haven’t had the heart to go through her belongings yet. But I am tempted to look for those dishes the next time I am in Los Angeles, just as I wanted to buy this familiar set I spotted on eBay. Here we are, colorful in all our contradictions, the dishes say to me. We are imperfect, but we try.
Ellen Umansky has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short-story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp. She has worked in the editorial departments of The Forward, Tablet, and The New Yorker.
- Elissa Altman: Treyf Comes to Maine
- Roger Horowitz: My Grandmother, Bertie Grad Schwartz
- Lois Leveen: Romeo and JewLiet, or: A Jewish Novelist Walks into a Shakespeare Play
Ellen Umansky has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including the New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short-story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp. She has worked in the editorial departments of several publications, including the Forward, Tablet, and The New Yorker. She grew up in Los Angeles, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.