25 Oct Won Ton Soup, Egg Rolls, Spare Ribs…..Wait!!!
Sunday night dinner at a Chinese restaurant; spare-ribs, wonton soup, chicken chow mein, fortune cookies, and orange slices. In the 1950s and 60s it was a hallowed tradition shared among Jewish families across North America. And so, it was for my grandparents, three sisters, and me, a somewhat withdrawn and ponderous nine-year-old, sitting at the Chinese restaurant on Horace Harding Boulevard in Little Neck New York.
The following morning, I would head to the Solomon Schechter School of Queens where each day we would learn Hebrew, Jewish laws and rituals, and chant the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after meals) upon completing our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Ring Dings. Every Saturday I attended shule and, at least, one week each month, I spent Shabbat at the home of my Uncle, Rabbi Myron Fenster, of the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, where Shabbat Dinner on Friday night and services on Saturday morning were followed by Knock Hockey and Monopoly upstairs and stickball in the alley with my cousins.
This particular Sunday evening, I sat at the Chinese restaurant staring at the slivers of pork swimming in my wonton soup and began to ponder. It just didn’t make sense. How could we be one kind of Jew at one place (we had a kosher home) and a different kind of Jew in another place?
And so, without warning, and certainly without any thought of the long-term/ consequences, I pushed my chair back, stood up and yelled at the top of my lungs “You’re all goyim!” Clearly, my grandparents and sisters along with all the other Jewish families eating spare ribs that evening were caught off guard. There were lots of ways this could go – and not many of them were good.
But my grandfather, Pop Max, was an extraordinarily gracious and kind man. He stood up, put his arm around my shoulder, dug into his pocket, gave me a $10 bill and said quietly: “There is a kosher deli around the corner, why don’t you get yourself dinner there and we’ll meet afterward.” It was a moment in time 58 years ago, but it is still so clearly etched in my consciousness. Without question, it was a moment that framed a spiritual path forward for me. That evening was the last time I knowingly ate non-kosher food. It was definitional–as was my relationship and my love for my Pop Max who was so instrumental in my life in so many ways.
David Raphael is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Grandparents Network