I’ve made no secret of my ambivalence regarding religion in general and my own Judaism in particular. But this week has been, for lack of a better word, kind of Jewy. On Friday I saw Footnote, the Israeli contender for the past year’s foreign language Oscar. The story of father and son academics in Jerusalem, it had the oddest tone. The music was kind of jaunty/bouncy lending it a comedic vibe. And there were some scenes that rivaled that famous and pretty hilarious crazily crowded ocean liner scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. I hate slapstick but you kind of have to watch this. I promise you’ll laugh.
But the thing was the music often didn’t match the story the movie was telling. The father and son had a strained relationship; I think the dad said about 10 words in the whole movie and seemed like one of those intensely cerebral and intellectually snobbish men who had never been as recognized as he felt he should have been. When he is mistakenly awarded a prize meant for his son, his son protects the father so fiercely that you sense he is compensating for the guilt he feels over having surpassed his dad professionally. Frankly, from what I could tell, his father didn’t deserve being treated with such sensitivity. The movie is really good, and I recommend it, but I was sort of struck by how un-Jewish the father seemed. He was resentful of his son’s success and basically looked at his work as somehow hack-ish (not a word but you get my point) whereas he clearly considered his own studies to be purer and more rigorous. “Aren’t Jewish parents always supposed to support their kids, even if it means sacrificing their own ambition?” I wondered. Then I thought, “Why should they? And where am I getting this from?” I was making assumptions based on a stereotype, a concept I totally resent.
The next day I was reading an article in the Sunday Times about Magic City, a new show on Starz about a group of Jewish gangsters in 1950’s Miami. At first I thought the show sounded kind of interesting and I was regretful that I don’t have that pay-network on my cable line-up. But as I read on I got so annoyed. None of the actors hired to play these fancy thugs is actually Jewish. One in fact is covered with a tattoo of a crucifix so large that he has to endure (and the production has to pay for) two hours in make-up to disguise it. That just doesn’t seem right. They couldn’t find one Jewish actor good enough and authentic enough to play a Jew? Then I caught myself. It’s called “acting” for a reason. Anyone should be able to portray anyone, right?
The next night I watched Mad Men and had a different kind of reaction. The viewer was introduced to a new copywriter vying for a job at the recently integrated ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. This guy was a brash, obnoxious kid, last name Ginsberg, whom Roger Sterling, the WASP, boozy lech of a company president, referred to as “the Jew.” What made me uncomfortable was how Jew-ish this guy was. From his rapid-fire speech, Brooklyn (by way of the Borscht Belt) accent and uber-aggressiveness, I found myself kind of embarrassed by him. Never mind that the show’s creator is Jewish and therefore Mr. Ginsberg falls into that safe zone of “it’s okay to portray a Jew negatively if you’re a Jew yourself,” I still felt like if I knew him I’d have to apologize on my peoples’ behalf. Does that make sense? At the end of the show Ginsberg is shown arriving at the apartment he shares with his Yiddish-accented father, announcing that he “got the job.” The dad jumps up, starts to say a blessing in Hebrew and suggests they get “two girls” to celebrate. On the one hand, Father was so proud of Son, it felt more in keeping with the way Jewish parents should be, or so we’ve been told. But on the other, I kept wondering why he seemed so “off the boat” for 1966. By then my immigrant grandparents had been living here, and assimilating, for 60 years. My grandfather went to great lengths to lose his Eastern European accent and if you met him you would never know he’d skipped behind coffins during funeral processions in his Polish shtetl for fun. He would have found Papa Ginsberg mortifying. But why would he and why did I? It’s okay for me to want a hunky, tan Miami gangster to be played by a real Jew but I’m cringing at the depiction of one I deem as too-too real?
My conflict really crystallized when I embarked on a Passover project with Niece Two. After almost killing her with nut laden muffins last summer, we’ve both been tentative about “working” together. But with three hours to kill while she and my sister cooled their heels at my place (as Niece One watched the chorus kick theirs up at Anything Goes) I thought it might be a safe time to re-approach the joint creation of a sweet treat. Between watching Alvin and the Chipmunks on HBO On-Demand as well as demanding to use my computer, she showed no interest in making Chocolate Caramel Matzoh Crunch.
The only participation I was able to coerce was in a taste test between Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate morsels and my preferred Ghiradelli 60% Cacao. She capitulated, and with her mouth filled with chocolate, deemed Hershey’s the winner, claiming the other tasted like “weird blueberries.” Why I consulted a four year-old’s immature palate, I do not know. Except I do. I wanted her to play with me and to have a little Jewish fun. After I made the super easy and fantastic chocolate buttercrunch-y matzoh I presented her with some perfectly pint-sized pieces. She took one tiny bite and rejected it flat out. As my grandmother used to say, she “doesn’t know what’s good." Nevertheless, I was so deflated. See how conflicted I am? God help me. Happy Passover. And if you’re celebrating Easter, make this confection with Saltines or join us and buy a box of matzoh.
Conflicted Caramel Matzoh Crunch
From A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, Marcy Goldman 1998
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4-6 unsalted matzohs
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter or unsalted Passover margarine
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a large (or two smaller) rimmed cookie sheet(s) completely with foil. Cover the bottom(s) of the sheet(s) with baking parchment — on top of the foil. This is very important since the mixture becomes sticky during baking.
Line the bottom of the cookie sheet(s) evenly with the matzohs, cutting extra pieces, as required, to fit any spaces.
In a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the butter or margarine and the brown sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil (about 2 to 4 minutes). Boil for 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
Remove from the heat and pour over the matzoh, covering completely.
Place the baking sheet(s) in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 350°. Bake for 15 minutes, checking every few minutes to make sure the mixture is not burning (if it seems to be browning too quickly, remove the pan from the oven, lower the heat to 325°, and replace the pan).
Remove from the oven and sprinkle immediately with the chopped chocolate or chips. Let stand for 5 minutes, then spread the melted chocolate over the matzoh. While still warm, use a knife to break into squares or odd shapes. Chill, still in the pan, in the freezer until set.
Sprinkle with flaky sea salt for a sweet/salty twist or, If you're eaters aren't allergic to nuts, top with sliced almond