This is the beginning of something that I am tentatively calling “Time Travel to Charnow’s Deli.”
I’m longing for an adventure. In the kitchen I can travel to my childhood, but I want to go beyond that. I want to eat in my great-great grandmother Tzivia’s kitchen, I wan to shop in my great grandfather’s kosher deli. I want to recapture my childhood–all the people who are gone–and a generation before that. I want to time travel to when my family first came to America, to connect to the family members who died even before I was conceived.
I never learned how to be Jewish. I am jealous of Jews who know what to do on the sabbath, who know how to have a seder and light the candles on Friday nights, who have a favorite recipe for Hanukkah latkes. (Ok, ok, so I do have a favorite potato pancake recipe but it came to me from my Lithuanian-Catholic grandmother, not from my Russian-Jewish grandmother.)
I don’t think I’ve ever stepped foot inside a synagogue. It seems like such a mystical, surreal place to me, yet my rational brain tells me it’s probably as mundane as a church. The insides of a kosher deli, now that I can imagine! I’ve been in plenty of those. But Charnow’s Deli and Joseph Charnow, the founder of the deli and my extended Jewish family, were both long gone by the time I was born. Joseph Charnow, Ancestry.com tells me, died in 1937 three years before my mother was born. We thought he’d been dead for a long time before that. Grandma, little Ruthie, was an orphan from the time she was a toddler, that’s what we thought. Now where would we have gotten that idea?
“I never heard Grandma mention her father–not once, ever,” my mother said. “I thought he died when she was a little girl.”
When she was a little girl. Before she went to live with Aunt Irma, who, family lore has it, wanted little Ruthie to iron her son’s underwear. That’s what my mother said my grandmother said.
The story, it turns out, was not quite so simple. It all started back in Russia, back in Belarus, back in the shtetl, back in the nineteenth century. The story really starts with Tzivia and David, my grandmother’s grandparents.