My Old Kentucky Homesite

Archive for the ‘The Oys of Yiddish’ Category

So What Did Your Grandfather Invent?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 03/08/2010

Sometimes I get emails asking me: “Who the hell are you to tell us what you think?” Well, I may not be as important to Kentuckians as Lexington native George Clooney, but my ancestors were noteworthy. After all, my grandfather discovered the sundial.

At the time, he was about 82 years old, give or take a month. Grampops was living in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, where he spent a lot of hours hanging out near the ocean. His primary interest, he’d say in his thick Russian-Yiddish accent, was “lookink at vimmen. But the sky’s not so bed, too.”

No matter how long or how often he sat out on the sand, his skin color never changed from its Eastern European pallor. “Jews don’ boin, but ve also don’ ten.” That sounded very suspicious to me, so after I voiced enough skepticism to satisfy even him —Grampops was an atheist and an anarchist — he confessed that he always dressed himself up in long winter clothing. He chuckled as he admitted that he probably looked like “a heskymo vit a sun-het.” I could see him as a sort of lascivious Nanook of the North, cruising the ladies and chewing on blubber dipped in chicken fat.

I asked him why he didn’t wear a bathing suit like everyone else did. “I got sotch a terrific chest, dey nid a semple? Believe me, brains I got. Poisonality, I got. Maybe ivven a nice face. But a body like from Charles Hetlas, I don’ got. Who nidz it? At mein age, I’ll gonna peek up dumballs?”

Still, he seemed to have a surprisingly high degree of success with Eastern European “leddies” of a certain age. My father once asked him, “You’re having a lotta dates, huh, Pa?” Grampops responded, “Mm-yah, but dey don’ all vind up vere I vant dey should.” He wasn’t talking about the bedroom; he was actually referring to his kitchen. Grampops was a sucker for homemade gefilte fish.

But I was telling you about his discovery of the sundial.

It may not be true that “behind every great man there’s a woman,” but it was for Grampops. In fact, the female in question was literally breathing down his back when he got the idea for a sundial.

“So I’m sittink on a blenkit de odder morning. Dere’s a voom’n I know a coppel towels down de byeech, an’ she kips giving me an eye like she’s maybe takink an hex-ray. So I tink, vot’s vit dis crazy goil starink at me like I’m sotch a Castle Nova?’

For Grampops, being pursued reminded him too much of his experiences with the Cossacks. He liked to think that here in America, he was in charge of all romantic liasions. This particular woman, Ida was her name, had thrown herself at him on the beach a number of times, but he’d always metaphorically tossed her back into the ocean. She was not a gefilte he cared to catch.

“So Ida gets hup and starts comink over by me, vit a vink dat I should maybe get hall egg-sided from sotch a regular Jan Mensfeel. So I’m payink no attention, playing vit de send, follink arond vit a steek. ‘Oy,’ she says, ‘dat’s some beeg tveeg you got dere.’”

Ida’s conversational gambit didn’t work. Instead, she was treated to short dissertation on sticks, and shells, and seawood, and all the other kinds of wonderful debris available there for the taking if a person was trying to avoid feminine attention. “So before you could say Jackie Rubenstein, she goes avay.”

In the meantime, though, Grampops had become completely fascinated with the shadow cast by the stick as it stood upright where he’d shoved it into the sand. “It vas just like a clock. By mein reestvotch it sad a leetle afteh vun, and lo and be hole, de sheddow sad a leetle afteh vun, too.” At two o’clock, he looked again. “De sheddow moved! An’ guess vat it sad? Not four ah clock, not three o’clock, not iffen two-thoity. Two o’clock! On de button. Ho boy, I’m feelink like a real Thomas Elvis Hedison.”

As the sun continued its journey through the sky, the shadow imitated its course. Grampops watched in amazement. At the end of the day, he took his prize magic stick home.

“So,” he told me proudly, “the next day, I got a pants’l and a piss paper, and I drew meinself a byoodiful soicle vit numbers like a clock. An’ vit a leetle Alma’s glue, I put de steek in de meedle.” Then, proudly, he positioned his contraption in the window.

“It voiked. I discovered how to make a clock vit only steek.” Grampops now had something in common with the ancient Babylonians, besides being vamped by Ida. “If I nid to know de time, I just pick at mein vindow.”

But even the greatest geniuses have to deal with obstacles now and then. “It don’ voik so good at night or ven it’s rainink,” he complained. “So ho K, I’ll batter kip mein reest votch, too ”

That’s my pedigree, and the reason why I have the right to criticize those whose grandparents did not make any earth-shaking scientific discoveries. I’d write even more condescendingly, if I had the time. But I’ve worked on this post long enough, at least according to the stick in my window.


Posted in Memoirs, The Oys of Yiddish | 17 Comments »

Nice Food

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 11/20/2009

Today, I found a sandwich shop in Lexington that serves authentic chopped liver, very like the kind I used to wish my grandmother made when I was growing up in the Bronx. My friends’ grandmothers made terrific chopped liver, loaded with plenty of onions and chicken fat and even gribenes, which are kind of like fried pork rinds except without the pork.

But Nanny’s version of chopped liver was mostly Crisco. In fact, everything Nanny made was mostly Crisco. She just shaped it differently for matzo balls, for potato pancakes, for noodle kugel. When I crossed the street to visit her for lunch, I didn’t always know exactly what ingredients would be in the food she prepared. But I did know that whatever it was, I’d be belching it up for a week.

“Why aren’t you eating that? It’s nice food. Whatsa matter, you don’t like chopped liver all of a sudden? Who doesn’t like chopped liver? Are you crazy, or what?”

“It’s mostly Crisco.”

“Very funny. Remind me to laugh later, when I loosen my girdle so I don’t hurt my sides. Whattaya talking? There’s plenty of liver there. Show me where there’s not liver. And since when did you become a food critic at seven years old?”

“I just don’t like the way it tastes.”

“What’s to taste? It’s chopped liver. How do you think it’s supposed to taste, like a Hershey bar? It’s nice.”

I always wondered: How could food be nice? It could be delicious or disgusting; it could even be beautiful or bad-looking. But nice? Food has no personality.

“You always liked my cooking. Didn’t you always like my cooking? You always liked my cooking. And you know why? Because what I serve you is much nicer than a fancy restaurant. Maybe you don’t get a cloth napkin with other people’s shmutz all over it, but by my house, you eat good. So go criticize a cafeteria and write it up in the newspaper and I’ll buy a copy and frame it over the couch. In the meantime, eat!”

I’d push my food around the plate until I was able to fool myself into thinking that it looked as if I’d consumed most of it.

“What are you, a sculptor? Eat. You need some crackers? Here, put your liver on crackers. They’ll help the poison go down, and we can both die happy.”

“I don’t like those crackers. They’re too salty.”

“That’s why they call them Saltines. What should they be, peppery? Let me see if I have some Pepperines. Or maybe you want some Chocolatechips-ines? If they made those, I’d give them to you, believe me. But all they make is Saltines, because that’s what normal people like.”

For dessert, we’d always have Jell-O. Nanny kept bowls of it pre-made in her refrigerator, lying in ambush for me. She bought boxes and boxes of whatever kind was on sale, as long as it was in the berry group. Strawberry. Raspberry. Cherry. Black Cherry. Black Raspberry. We never had orange or lemon – they were abominations. Lime, in particular, was “way too goyish; Jews don’t care for it.” No explanation given. Maybe she’d read somewhere that Hitler liked it.

“I’ve got a surprise for dessert. Guess what it is. I bet you can’t. Should I tell you?”

“Jell-O, right? What flavor?”


“They’re all red. Can’t you tell me what flavor it is?”

“What’s the difference? It’s red. Strawberry, raspberry, something like that. You always love Jell-O, so whattaya hockin’ me with flavors? It’s nice.”

“Why don’t we ever have lime?”

“I don’t like lime. You like lime? You don’t like lime. Whoever heard of chopped liver and then lime Jell-O? Tell me: how does that go together? Lime is goyish.”

“How can a flavor be a religion?”

“Listen, smart guy. If you can’t figure it out, don’t ask. Believe me, lime is plenty goyish, and on top of that, it’s gassy. They should cook it with a Tum mixed in. So don’t noodj me about lime. You want the Jell-O, it’s in the Frigidaire. You don’t want the Jell-O, leave it. Who cares, goyish or not? I buy red. It wouldn’t kill you to have a little Jell-O, but do what you want. I’m only your grandmother, so what do I know?”

I always took a bowl of the stuff. Because even though I wouldn’t give Nanny the satisfaction of telling her, I secretly loved Jell-O. I still do. In fact, the next time I stop into Stanley J’s Deli for a nice sandwich, I’ll have to see if they carry my favorite flavor: red. It goes great with chopped liver.

Posted in Food and Drink, Memoirs, Nanny, New to Kentucky, The Oys of Yiddish | 9 Comments »