This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples comes from The Very First, the chronological first of my Atlantic City books, a mix of historical fiction, social satire, and spoof. This is from the opening of Chapter 3, “Sparky’s Americanization Begins.” Sparky’s dream is to be a real American girl without compromising her faith or customs, but at the beginning, she’s not so sure she can adapt to American life. Cinni meanwhile is also having a hard time understanding the world her new friend comes from.
Sparky watched Cinni’s various friends drifting out of the Tuna Paurlour as it started getting dusky. The last two who remained were R.R. and Max, who were hanging out by the jukebox. She felt hunger pangs as Cinni devoured a huge bowl of tomato ice-cream she’d just ordered, and as R.R. and Max wolfed down some candy they’d bought from a vending machine.
“Would you like a bite?” Cinni offered. “It tastes nothing like tomatoes. Surely not everything in the world is off-limits to you.”
“My family’s not as strict as the Orthodox about keeping kosher. We don’t need an extra-special hechsher on our dairy products.”
“Oh, so you could eat something that was kosher enough. As long as you knew all the ingredients were okay, it wouldn’t matter if some rabbi blessed it.”
“That’s not what a hechsher is. We bless our own food before we eat it. We don’t need someone else to make it kosher through a blessing. Someone watches over the food as it’s being prepared, or puts a seal on it to let us know all the ingredients are okay. It’s the same when a restaurant gets approval to advertise as kosher.”
“So what exactly makes food not kosher? I know you people don’t eat pork, bacon, ham, or shrimp.”
“I can eat a lot of things. I just can’t eat milk and meat together, and I have to wait three hours between meat and dairy. German Jews wait three hours, and Dutch Jews wait an hour. The people in Eastern Europe wait six hours. And it has to be cooked in kosher equipment. I can’t trust the plates and utensils here.”
“But you have to eat something. I’d like to take you out to see a movie, and you’ll starve if you don’t eat nothing.”
Sparky examined the menu. “Do they have paper plates?”
“What for? This is a nice diner. Can’t you just trust that they wash their dishes and utensils well enough?”
Sparky thought for a minute. “If something becomes not kosher if there’s a mistake, sometimes you can fix it. You have to put it into dirt nine times and then boil it in very hot water. Do they have any new utensils?”
Cinni couldn’t believe the things Sparky believed in. “They’ll think you’re nuts if you ask them to do that. How do you intend to eat at my house?”
“My family brought their own plates, cups, utensils, and cooking equipment. We have four sets of them. One is for milk, one is for meat, one is for milk during Pesach, and one is for meat during Pesach. My father shipped our furniture and household items ahead of us. I guess they’ll arrive soon.”
“I’m sure they’ll think you’re nuts, but I can ask them to cook a tuna steak in your strange way. I am dying to take you to the movies, and then we can go to the amusement park. It’s actually gonna be shut down for the night by the time we arrive, but I know the older girl who works there during the evening shift. She stays behind to sneak people in after hours.”
While Sparky’s jaw was still hanging open over this last piece of information, Cinni went to the kitchen to request the cook prepare a tuna steak wrapped in two layers of aluminum foil. Remembering what Sparky had said about keeping all the utensils and cooking equipment separate and not trusting unknown food, she added that the steak had to be plain. The cook looked at her as though she were crazy, but obeyed her orders.
When the steak was brought out to Sparky in the foil, she said something in a language Cinni guessed must be Hebrew. Then she picked it up with her hands and started wolfing it down. She periodically wiped her hands with napkins. Afterwards, she said something else in Hebrew.
“You’re the only person I’ve ever met besides Laura who prays over her food. At least Laura prays in English.”
“I have to say a blessing over food, and thank God afterwards. It’s like stealing from God if you don’t give thanks.”
“Okay, now you’ve done your thing. It’s time for us to go to the movies. Then we’re going to the amusement park, and then I’ll take you to a salon. I know one that stays open late. That haircut you’ve got makes you look like Shirley Temple with black hair. And that hairbow looks so babyish.”
“What’s wrong with that? I like her movies. And I think she’s about the same age we are.”
“Exactly. She’s not a little kid anymore, even if she ain’t a teenager yet. By keeping that little kid haircut, it makes her look like she’s stuck in childhood. People don’t take you seriously if you look like a little kid past childhood. And I can tell your hair ain’t naturally curly like mine.”
“I used to have long hair,” Sparky admitted. “My mother wanted me to have a new haircut for America. She said I’d look like a moviestar with short curly hair.”
Cinni shook her head. “I ain’t met your mom yet, so I don’t know what she’s like, but I can tell you she was wrong about that. All the glamourous women wear their hair wavy and a bit above the shoulders. Me, I love my hair long, and I’d love to teach you how to look fashionable with long hair after yours grows back enough.”
“Your hair is very long. Have you ever had a haircut?”
“Not since five years ago. Me and my two sisters had the measles very badly. The doctor told our parents to shave off all our hair. It’s the same reason some people burn bedsheets and toys that came into contact with a sick person. I still remember screaming as they took away all my hair. I’d have to be nuts to want to go through that again. My hair is staying long.”