Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Historical fiction, holidays, Judaism, Religion, Secondary characters, Sparky, Writing

A Competing Fast and Feast (Happy Fourth of July!)

To mark the Fourth of July, I decided to present Chapter 26, “A Competing Fast and Feast,” of Movements in the Symphony of 1939. Enjoy!

Cinni’s eyes were wide with delight as she browsed the crates, boxes, baskets, and stalls of a panoply of fireworks in the parking lot of Gregory’s Groceries. “I wish I could buy this entire supply. Every year we have leftovers, but I can’t resist buying new stuff. You can never have too many fireworks.”

“Ain’t you afraid you’ll burn yourself or blow your hand off?” Sparky asked. “They’re like colored dynamite.”

Cinni added a pack of twenty multicolored Roman candles to her oversized shopping basket and moved on to a stall hawking sparklers. “My daddy’s trusted me with ’em since I was three. He’d never let me do anything really dangerous.”

“This seems a colossal waste of money,” Gary lamented. “Fireworks aren’t a necessary item like food, clothes, and housing. They look pretty for a very short while and then disappear forever.”

“Didn’t you buy Juli flowers and candy?” Cinni selected sparklers in red, blue, orange, silver, green, purple, dark pink, white, and yellow. “Those ain’t necessary items either.”

“I bought Juli more lasting gifts. Flowers wilt too soon, and chocolate is eaten even quicker.”

Cinni moved on to a huge crate overflowing with bounty and tossed five thick, densely-packed bricks of fireworks into her basket. She shifted her basket to the other arm and looked around for Barry, shaking her head when she found him sitting on the grass, a bored look on his face. “You don’t know what you’re missing without fireworks. They’re so fun, and these are a lot simpler than fancy ones in public shows. What did you do for Holland’s independence day?”

“Holland doesn’t have a lot of national holidays,” Sparky said. “We celebrated New Year’s Day and the Queen’s birthday. All the other public holidays are Christian.”

“There’s no independence day for The Netherlands,” Gary said. “Germany doesn’t have one either. All their public holidays are Christian as well, except for New Year’s Day and Women’s Day.”

“Golly, you have a holiday all about women? I wish America had that holiday.” Cinni set her basket down, pulled a piece of caramel taffy out of her left skirt pocket, and popped it into her mouth.

“It’s associated with Communism, so it hasn’t caught on in most countries.”

Cinni picked her basket up. “This stuff’s getting heavy. I wish I’d brought a wagon.”

“No one told you to buy nearly so many fireworks. Are you sure you can afford all this?”

“My daddy gave me five bucks, and it ain’t like I’m getting fancy adult fireworks.”

Sparky and Gary joined Barry on the grass while Cinni went inside to pay. Unable to help herself, Cinni skirted past the checkout and hightailed it into the ice-cream aisle. She lingered long and hard over the richness of the choice before finally selecting five bricks of red, white, and blue ice-cream, two boxes of blue Italian ices, and a baker’s dozen each of red popsicles and chocolate bars. Cinni struggled under the weight of her loot as she headed to the checkout.

Before she got into line, Cinni spied a fat loaf of chocolate bread with chocolate chips on the rack of discount baked goods. She grabbed it and put it in her basket before anyone could steal it. The last items added to her loot were a few candybars next to the cash register.

“Six dollars and eighty-five cents,” Gregory informed her.

Cinni dug out the five-dollar bill her father had given her and produced two more dollars of her own. The fifteen cents in change consisted of an 1895 Barber dime and a 1911 Liberty Head nickel. Cinni was always delighted to find coins that weren’t minted anymore, though she wasn’t a serious collector.

Gary’s eyes widened when he saw Cinni emerging from the store with a nearly overflowing basket. Without saying anything, he took the basket from her.

“Thanks. This stuff’s really heavy.”

“It wouldn’t be nearly so heavy if you hadn’t bought so much extra stuff,” Barry said as they started walking. “Did you have enough money for all this?”

“I only had to pay two bucks of my own, and I got some neat old change.” Cinni pulled a piece of grape taffy out of her right skirt pocket and tossed it into her mouth. “After we have lunch, we need to get stuff for our Fourth of July picnic. Your mom’s welcome to come too. You can’t object to celebrating this holiday, since it’s totally secular.”

“We’ll have to check the calendar,” Gary said. “The Seventeenth of Tammuz is coming up really soon. If it coincides with the Fourth of July, we won’t be able to eat anything till nightfall.”

Cinni shook her head. “How many fasts do you have? I only knew about Yom Kippur before I met your family, and you’ve done four more besides that.”

“There are six everyone’s obligated to.” Gary smiled down at a tortoiseshell cat. “Only firstborns have to do the fast before Pesach. My religious school teacher in Amsterdam taught us to remember them mnemonically. The long and the short, the boy and the girl, the black and the white. The Seventeenth of Tammuz is the longest fast, and the Tenth of Tevet is the shortest. Then there are Tzom Gedaliyah and Tzom Esther, named for people. Yom Kippur is white and Tisha B’Av is black, referring to their respective moods of happiness and sadness.”

Cinni jumped one-footed over a chalk drawing of a dragon. “How can anyone be happy fasting all day? Depriving yourself of food is depressing no matter what.”

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

“We’re happy because we’re purifying ourselves, and it’s the long-awaited high point of the year. Tisha B’Av is the saddest, lowest day on our calendar, and when it’s over, we immediately begin a seven-week countdown to Yom Kippur. Each day, each week brings us higher and closer, just as there are seven weeks of getting lower and lower between Shavuot and Tisha B’Av. You might understand better if your religion had fasts.”

“As boring as Methodism is, I’m glad we don’t gotta fast. My Babushka Ksyusha has really strict, long fasts in the weeks before Easter and Christmas. Orthodox Christians ain’t allowed to eat any meat, fish, dairy, eggs, wine, or oil.” Cinni kicked a pebble into a gutter. “Religious fanatics do a whole bunch more fasts. It’s safe to say I’ll never convert to that denomination.”

“So you don’t think we have the most fun religion anymore?” Barry asked.

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem

“Judaism’s a lot more colorful and neat than Protestantism, but I don’t like being stuck in any house of worship for a few hours once a week, and I’d wanna chew my arm off long before a fast ended. Praying also never appealed to me. If I wanna talk to God, assuming he or she exists, I’ll do it on my own time, in my own words, not by mindlessly repeating boring words someone else wrote hundreds of years ago when I’m ordered to.” Cinni knelt to pick up a penny and put it in her left skirt pocket. “My favorite parts of the Bible are the stories, not boring lectures from prophets, lists of laws, and repetitions of stuff that already happened. That book needed a much better editor.”

“There’s a lot more to religion than prayer services and holy books,” Gary said. “You just haven’t found the right spiritual home yet. Not everyone’s lucky enough to be born into a religion that feels like coming home. Or it could be the right faith, just not practiced in the way which most fits with who you are.”

“Like how your mom left Orthodoxy?”

Vespasian and his army on their way to destroy Jerusalem

“The style of Orthodoxy she was raised with isn’t representative of the modern, mainstream Orthodox world. Barry, Kätchen, and I got a very misleading view of Orthodoxy because of her bad experience. Now that my family attends a Neolog synagogue, I realize there’s a very wide variety within Orthodoxy. My mother was raised with a rigid, rote, colorless, overly strict style. It’s a wonder her parents gave some of their kids German names. Her sister Ruchel broke away too, but in a different way. We should always strive for a happy medium between strict rigidity and an overly secular, anything goes lifestyle.”

Cinni itched to know just which direction Mrs. Small’s sister had gone in, but dared not pose such a personal question. Gary might be the most intelligent, well-spoken one in his family, but he was so shy, modest, and old-fashioned. If Ruchel had become what adults sneeringly called a fallen woman, Gary would never admit it or provide any details. Besides, Cinni cared most about getting her treats into the freezer before they melted, and stuffing some down her throat. It was always the right time to indulge her sweet tooth.

***

Mrs. Filliard and Lucinda were eating bonbons and gossiping in the living room when Cinni and the Brandts came in. Lucinda shook her head at the excess contents of the basket, while Mrs. Filliard hung her head in her hands.

“How quickly the princess has forgotten what it was like to have the wolf at the door,” Mrs. Filliard said. “Did you have enough money to pay for all that? Your overindulgent father only gave you five dollars.”

“I’m no dummy. I always carry extra cash in case I’m tempted by other stuff.”

“Unless your father has a miraculous recovery, it’ll just be me one day.” Mrs. Filliard took a sip of tea. “I’m not saying this to sound mean and unfeeling, but that just might be the thing that finally wakes you up and makes you grow up. You’ll have no choice but to learn about the value of money and the importance of budgeting. Someone as proudly working-class as you ought to know how foolish it is to waste money on fireworks, ice-cream, and chocolate bread.”

Gary hurried off to the kitchen to put away the frozen food.

Mrs. Filliard dropped a sugar cube into her teacup, then drizzled honey in. “I don’t expect you to have an adult, mature mindset when you’re not even twelve yet, but it’s not like you’re in first grade. You’re more than old enough to understand some important things and not be so impulsive. Things like candy and firecrackers are special treats saved for last, after you’ve bought important things you need.”

“Then how come you don’t mind when Aunt Lucinda blows so much money on shopping? You can’t claim she needs designer clothes and jewelry from Paris, Italian wines, Persian rugs, and British furniture.”

“I have a rich husband, and it’s my way of taking my mind off my unwanted marriage.” Lucinda helped herself to a strawberry bonbon.

Mrs. Filliard ate a caramel bonbon. “I want you to go to A&P with me next week. With any luck, you’ll learn a thing or two about appropriate grocery shopping and spending. As I’ve told you many a time, being a junior grownup is about far more than having a bustline, reading advanced books, and cursing.”

Cinni rolled her eyes when her back was turned to her aunt and mother. There’d be plenty of time for boring, unavoidable adult responsibilities when she was older, but for now, her number one priority was having as much fun and being as carefree as possible.

***

After a lunch of an egg salad sandwich with bacon and Velveeta, three thick pickles, a bowl of potato chips, chocolate egg cream, and a chocolate popsicle, Cinni headed into the guesthouse. Gary and Barry were respectively reading Taylor Caldwell’s historical saga Dynasty of Death and Newsweek magazine on the living room davenport, while Mrs. Small knitted a green shawl on the loveseat.

“Where’s Sparky?” Cinni asked.

“In the kitchen, washing dishes,” Mrs. Small said without looking up from her knitting.

Cinni wrinkled her nose. “I hope I have enough money for a maid or onea them new-fangled dishwashing machines when I’m an adult. Housework is so boring.”

“It’s a necessary obligation of running a successful household. Someone has to do it, even if no one normal enjoys such tasks. When I was a girl in Hamburg, my mother made dusting, mopping, sweeping, and washing dishes into fun games for me and my seven sisters.”

“But not your brothers?”

“It’s that way in most homes. I thought to question many things about how I was raised, but not that aspect.” Mrs. Small glanced down at her knitting pattern. “Men and women have different roles. It doesn’t mean we’re unequal where it really matters.”

Cinni decided not to pursue this line of conversation any further. Mrs. Small was no closer to changing her way of thinking than she’d been when they met, and there was little Cinni could do about it but keep planting seeds and wait for them to take root. She was old enough to know most people didn’t radically change overnight because of repeated lectures. Real, lasting change had to happen naturally, over a long period of time.

“Anyway, Mrs. Small, would you like to join my family’s Fourth of July picnic on Monday? We’re also going to a parade in the morning.”

“I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to celebrate that holiday together this year,” Mrs. Small said. “It coincides with Tzom Tammuz, a minor fast. Fritz said he told you a little about it today.”

Sparky came into the living room and had a seat on the davenport.

“The Seventeenth of Tammuz marks the anniversary of the walls of Jerusalem being breached by the Romans,” Gary said. “It’s also when the first Ten Commandments were broken, and several other calamities. We’re not allowed to listen to music either. The fast only lasts from dawn to dusk, so we’ll be able to eat with you at night and watch fireworks.”

Detail of Hayez painting

“In that case, you oughta buy picnic grub for dinner,” Cinni said. “We’re roasting it on a bonfire during fireworks.”

“I don’t see the harm,” Mrs. Small finally conceded. “We’re allowed to cook on Tzom Tammuz, even if we won’t be able to eat the food till dusk.”

Cinni pulled the last piece of taffy out of her right skirt pocket and slipped it into her mouth. “Wonderful. We’ll expect you there as soon as dusk falls. I guarantee you’ll have a great time on your first Fourth of July.”

***

Cinni awoke bright and early on July Fourth and hurried to her wardrobe for a light red sundress with a white and blue firework pattern. Once she was dressed, she got on her knees and pulled the stash of candy out from under her bed. Sam, ever the modern-day Puritan, had already gotten up, put on her dour clothes, and gone downstairs for breakfast and her first prayers of the day.

“Want any, Spark?” Cinni asked as Sparky went behind the changing screen. “Some of it’s probably kosher.”

“I’m not eating anything till lunch, and even then I can only eat a very light lunch,” Sparky reminded her. “At most, I can have a glass of water or some nuts if I feel weak and faint, just to give me enough strength to continue fasting.”

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, by David Roberts

“But you will go to the parade with me, won’t you? They always throw candy from the floats, and you might catch some kosher candy.” Cinni popped a handful of coconut jellybeans into her mouth.

“Today begins three weeks of mourning practices, which includes not listening to live music. My family ain’t as strict about these prohibitions as the Orthodox, but we still follow most of them.”

Cinni ate a handful of cherry gumdrops. “But you worked so hard to become a real American girl. You have to celebrate the Fourth of July. We’re having a big barbecue and picnic in the backyard with the Holidays, the Vallis, and the Hitchcocks. Then we’re having all sorts of fireworks when it gets dark, and roasting dinner on a bonfire.” Cinni rubbed her stomach before she ate three pieces of peppermint fudge.

Sparky emerged from behind the screen, wearing a knee-length dress with red, white, and blue stripes. “What time is the parade?”

“It starts at nine and lasts till eleven-thirty. The sooner we get there, the better seats we’ll nab.” Cinni tossed a few caramels into her mouth. “It’s standing room only for people who arrive late.”

“I’ll wait for you in the library. If I see you eating, I’ll be too tempted.”

Cinni helped herself to a big piece of raspberry fudge before putting her stash of sweets back under the bed. Eating all those treats had taken away a lot of her appetite, but there was always room for more. After almost starving to death, she could never get enough food into her stomach, and didn’t care if she became more than just twelve pounds overweight when she was older. There was a lot of happy medium between twenty or thirty extra pounds and being as massive as Mrs. Seward. Besides, a larger waistline automatically meant a bigger bust, and she longed to be the biggest of all her friends.

In the kitchen, Cinni pulled up a chair between Babs and her father and piled her plate high with red, white, and blue pancakes. There were also red, white, and blue waffles, but she’d get to them after finishing the pancakes. Cinni dumped a huge heaping spoonful of whipped cream on top of her pancakes and liberally smothered it with colored sprinkles. The last additions to her plate were five big spoonfuls of blueberries.

“You need to save room for lunch,” Mrs. Filliard said. “We also can’t dally over breakfast if we want to get to the parade early enough to find good seats.”

Cinni shovelled the first forkful of pancakes into her mouth. “Food doesn’t sit in the stomach for hours. It moves around and does scientific stuff to help the body work.”

“I’m shocked your family celebrates the Fourth of July,” Urma pontificated from the other side of the table. “You seem the type to hate anything patriotic.”

“We’re not mindless jingoists like you,” Mr. Filliard said. “And we reject the ridiculous mythology passed off as American history. But that doesn’t mean we hate our country and refuse to celebrate this holiday. We just do it in a different way. Life isn’t an either-or choice, but composed of a beautiful patchwork quilt of many shades of grey.”

Urma growled and resumed eating her humorless grey, clumpy porridge.

“Will your family be joining us at the parade?” Lucinda asked. “Atlantic City’s parade can’t possibly hold a candle to the festivities in D.C., but ours is nothing to sneeze at. We’re not a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere.”

“My father will be in the parade,” Elmira said as she put waffles on her plate. “He always marches with the Marines, in his full dress uniform.”

“My grandpa George Filliard also marches in his uniform,” Cinni said.

Babs put three more waffles on her plate and dumped whipped cream and blueberries on top. “Our Praprababcia Tatjana’s on a special float for widows of Civil War veterans. There ain’t no living Civil War vets left in this city, but there are a number of widows. Prapradziadek Damian died twenty years ago, so we never met him. The men in our family don’t live nearly as long as the ladies.”

“That’s because women are superior to men,” Cinni said with a smirk. “They talk a good game about being the superior sex, but that’s just pretending to hide what they’re really all about. They might usually be physically stronger and legally allowed to do more things, but women are stronger where it really counts.”

Urma took a sip of milk. “That just goes to show how often you read the Bible. It says right there in the Good Book that men were made to rule over us. Thanks to Eve, we lost the chance to be immortal and live in paradise on Earth. Men were created first for a reason.”

“Because you always make a rough draft before the final masterpiece, with all the mistakes erased.” Cinni ate her final forkful of pancakes and plopped five waffles onto her plate.

Urma glowered at Mortez for laughing. “You’re supposed to take my side against these heretics. I keep hoping you’ll someday see the light.”

“How are the Filliards heretics?” Mortez asked. “They go to church every week and celebrate all the major Protestant holidays. You act like they’re atheists or twice a year churchgoers.” He took a bite of waffles. “I keep hoping you’ll someday wake up from this ideological insanity and return to the normal, fun person you used to be.”

“That so-called insanity is called being a proper Christian. Some days I think living in this secular household is making you even more irreligious than you already were.” Urma shot daggers at him with her eyes before pushing her chair back and dumping her bowl in the sink.

Cinni shovelled the rest of her breakfast down her gullet as swiftly as possible and ran up to the attic for her phone-shaped purse. Though she didn’t plan to go to any stores, it was a convenient way to keep the candy she caught, and carrying a purse made her look older and more sophisticated.

Cinni and Sparky got into the Model A with Cinni’s parents and Babs, while Lucinda, Elmira, Stacy, M.J., and the Smarts took the seven-seater Renault Vivastella. Cinni didn’t envy Sparky’s parents and brothers, attending a religious service and fasting instead of having fun on a holiday.

The Filliards’ two cars pulled out of their driveway simultaneous to the Vallis’ beaten-up old Model T, the Holidays’ dull green Terraplane, and the Hitchcocks’ latest luxury car, a sapphire-blue Bugatti. Cinni waved out the window to them.

Cinni scrambled out of the car as soon as her father found a parking spot two blocks away from the parade’s route. She and Sparky grabbed folding chairs and pillows from the trunk of Lucinda’s car, which was wedged between the Model A and Terraplane, and ran to stake out a perfect spot. Violet and Mandy sat to their left, and Tina sat to their right.

At nine sharp, a fife and drum corps marching in troop steep started down the street, outfitted in black tricorn hats, white wigs, white trousers, and red Colonial coats.

“Didn’t the British wear red coats?” Sparky whispered.

“My daddy told me military musicians in that era wore the opposite regiment’s colors,” Cinni said.

Following the costumed musicians came a float bearing firefighters, decorated with red, white, and blue balloons and streamers. Just as Cinni had said, they threw candy to the crowd. Cinni, Tina, and Violet leapt up to try catching as much as they could, and kept rooted to the spot. Even more candy came from the second float, carrying police. Sparky waved at them but didn’t try to catch any candy.

Behind the police float came a brass band, and then a float with Boy Scouts. Henry was on the left side, facing the girls. Dan was on his left, and R.R. and his brothers were on his right.

“The Pinkertons hate Boy Scouts so much,” Cinni whispered to Sparky. “Their folks put them in it to keep ’em outta trouble. If only they knew just how much more trouble Ralphie and his brothers get up to within Boy Scouts, and what they’re really doing when the rest of the troop is on camping trips.”

Following the Boy Scouts’ float were floats for 4-H, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, Future Farmers of America, Children of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames of America, Luther League, YMCA, and YWCA. Cinni, Tina, and Violet collected many handfuls of candy from all these floats.

An equestrian unit came down the street after all those floats in a row. Next up was a marching band accompanied by a color guard performing with flags, sabers, and rifles.

“Ew, it’s my least-favorite float.” Cinni looked dismissively at the overly made up young women clad in bathing suits. “It’s bad enough our city hosts that stupid Miss America pageant, but there’s a local beauty contest every Fourth of July too. I’d rather win a contest because of my smarts, not how good I look in a swimsuit or evening gown.”

“You’d never win anyway,” Violet said. “Even if you used a girdle to try to hide your true size, you have to tell them your weight. They also might think you ain’t really white ’cause of your Polish and Russian blood. Some people are really goofy about that and only count Western European ancestry as white.”

“Exactly. I’d never apply for a contest with such dumb rules or want to be judged on my appearance.” Cinni wrinkled her nose at the next float, featuring past winners of the beauty contest. “There ain’t no beauty pageant for men.”

“This is the worst part of the parade,” Tina said as the baton-twirling majorettes came into view. “Mickey’s sister Tabbi is in that silly group. Her dream is to become the school’s lead majorette, as though it takes any talent to twirl a damn baton. She wants to be a professional majorette when she’s a grownup.”

“What’s Tabbi’s birth order?” Sparky asked.

“Sixth or seventh,” Cinni said. “I always forget if she or Donny comes first, since they’re Irish twins.”

“Aren’t all the Carlsons Irish twins?” Violet asked. “They’re more like Irish whatever you call thirteen kids born at once.”

“Not all of ’em are only a year apart,” Tina said. “It’s more like thirteen, fourteen, fifteen months. Tabbi and Donny are the only ones less than twelve months apart and in the same grade.”

Next came a fleet of vintage cars, bicycles, motorcycles, firetrucks, horse-drawn stagecoaches, buggies, and wagons. All the drivers and passengers were outfitted in costumes matching the vehicles’ respective eras.

“I’d love to drive onea them old cars when I’m an adult,” Cinni said. “It’s too much to hope I’ll ever have enough money to own one, but playing pretend one day a year would be fun enough.”

Following all the vehicles was the float with widows of Civil War veterans, holding large framed pictures of their husbands in uniform. Cinni’s ninety-nine-year-old great-great-grandma Tatjana Modjeska was on a chair with red, white, and blue cushions and bunting. Though most of the widows were elderly, there were a few unmistakably young women.

“Are they all on the right float?” Sparky asked. “Or is this float also for widows of soldiers from other wars?”

Cinni wrinkled her nose. “A lot of really young women married old coots who fought in the Civil War to get their pension money. I’d never be so desperate for a husband I’d marry someone old enough to be my grandpa. If more women were allowed to work and keep all their money, we wouldn’t see so many convenience marriages.”

“You should jump at the chance to marry a rich guy,” Violet said. “Being rich is the best feeling in the world. How can you want to stay working-class your whole life?”

“My daddy says we’re upper-working-class, which is a lot better than being poor like we used to be. I’m used to living fairly simply, as big as our house is.”

Next up were veterans of the Spanish–American War, the Philippine–American War, the various conflicts in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Great War which had ended in 1918. Many of Cinni’s friends’ fathers were in the lattermost group, and Henry’s father, a West Point graduate and general, carried the flag.

“Wasn’t your father in that war?” Sparky asked Cinni. “He’s just the right age.”

“He had to register for the draft, but was never called. There were more than enough guys serving for him not to be missed. He says that war was little more than a family feud that got outta hand, not a morally justified war like the Civil War.”

Cinni’s paternal grandfather, Captain George Filliard, appeared on the horizon, holding the flag and leading veterans and current servicemen who hadn’t been in any wars. Jasper was also among this group, marching in perfect formation with the other Marines and bearing a normal expression instead of the unsettling one he usually did.

Last up were the women who served as ambulance drivers and nurses in the Great War. Cinni rankled at how they were made to appear last instead of mixed in with the other veterans.

The final float carried local dignitaries, who threw taffy, candybars, caramels, and bubblegum. Cinni scrambled to retrieve as much as possible. Though her purse was already bulging from this morning’s loot, there was no such thing as too much candy.

“Hungry yet, Spark?” Cinni asked as they made their way back to the car.

“It’s not too bad, but I’m glad I can eat a light lunch.”

“You’d never wanna fast even part of the day if you almost starved to death like I did.” Cinni moved her purse to her other hand. “I can’t wait to start shovelling grub down my mouth.”

***

Cinni’s family and neighbors returned with her grandparents, her great-grandmother Bogda Radlenska and her sisters Natasha and Rimma, and Tatjana in tow. Mr. Hitchcock muttered under his breath about low-bred habits when Cinni’s relatives parked their cars on the lawn.

“Would you care to lend your oversized garage?” Cinni asked. “That thing’s as big as a small house, and at least four of your cars could be moved onto the driveway.”

“That’s another vulgar, low-brow habit,” Mr. Hitchcock said. “People of means never park their cars in a driveway. They always keep vehicles safe in a locked garage to avoid thieves. The wealthy never seek to emulate vulgar bourgeois or working-class habits.”

“Then why are you joining our picnic?” Babs asked.

Mr. Hitchcock tipped his cream-colored fedora to Tatjana as she made her way into the backyard on the arm of Cinni’s maternal grandma Krystyna Radulska. “My wife and daughters wanted to come, and it’s my duty to accompany them.” He looked dismissively at Butler Reagan, dressed in a pale yellow polo shirt and blue cotton trousers. “If I’d had my way, Douglas wouldn’t have come here either. Servants aren’t supposed to be best friends with their employers.”

Cinni skipped into the backyard, where her grandfather Lech Radulski was filling the wide stone cooking pit with charcoal and small pieces of firewood. Her father was resting in a cushioned teal lounge chair, sipping ice water, a shade umbrella over him. For a brief moment, Cinni couldn’t help but wonder if his heart really were worsening. Then she pushed it out of her mind and went to find a folding chair around one of the wooden tables Mr. Valli and Mr. Holiday had lugged in.

She watched with hungry eyes as Mrs. Filliard and Lucinda cut up several watermelons, while Mr. Valli filled bowls with potato chips, pretzels, and popcorn. Cinni leapt on the biggest watermelon slice and began ravenously devouring it. The macaroni salad, potato salad, and tomato salad Babs and M.J. brought out didn’t interest her. She hated the texture and taste of mayonnaise, and tomato salad was a boring healthy food, the kind that had no place at a picnic.

Sparky’s stomach growled as the scents of chicken, hamburgers, hotdogs, corn on the cob, beef ribs, corndogs, sausages, and shishkebab with mushrooms and zucchini floated through the air. She filled with relief when Gary and Barry emerged from the back door of the guesthouse, carrying a plate of watermelon slices with a cup balanced on top, a bowl of tomato and cucumber salad, a pitcher of ice water, and a bowl of roasted peanuts and popcorn.

“I wish I could join your picnic,” Gary said as he set the watermelon and water on Sparky’s table. “It’s no fun having to fast in the summer, particularly on my first Fourth of July.”

“Can’t you even have lemonade or iced tea?” Lucinda asked. “It seems cruel and unusual to prohibit drinking anything during a fast.”

“Even water is prohibited, unless one is very weak and nauseous. Does Methodism really have no fast days at all?”

“There are four fasts a year, none of which I remember, plus Good Friday,” Mrs. Filliard said. “I doubt anyone in our church, even the minister, observes them. Some Methodists also abstain from meat on Fridays just like Catholics. Had my parents made me do any of that, I would’ve joined the Unitarians or Quakers as soon as I turned eighteen, this neighborhood’s majority religion be damned.”

“So you don’t believe in your own religion?” Barry asked. “Then why attend a Methodist church, or any church?”

“It’s just part of conforming to this neighborhood’s majority culture and mainstream American society.”

“But you just admitted you’d find another church if you were unhappy with your birth religion, and don’t follow most of your religion’s laws anyway.”

Mrs. Filliard began cutting a cantaloupe. “Going to church every week is an unavoidable obligation of decent society. It’s a social club for most people, not something they passionately believe all the theological details of. All Protestant churches seem the same to me, and Methodism just happens to be this neighborhood’s majority denomination. It could just as easily be Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Dutch Reformed as far as I’m concerned.”

“No wonder Cinni’s so opposed to organized religion,” Gary said. “She copies your example. You might make her attend church every week and celebrate Christmas and Easter, but she sees you care less about religious observance.” He went off to talk with the elders.

Barry looked around furtively for several very long moments before grabbing a small slice of cantaloupe and pushing it into his mouth. He chewed as fast as possible while Sparky looked on with wide eyes.

“I’m hungry,” he whispered. “The only fast days I feel a connection to are Yom Kippur and Ta’anit Esther. All the others seem so irrelevant in the modern era. I ain’t looking forward to Tisha B’Av in three weeks.”

“Will your folks beat you if they catch you eating during a fast?” Cinni asked.

“No, they don’t believe in corporal punishment.” Barry grabbed a piece of honeydew and popped it into his mouth. “Why should I care about the walls of Jerusalem being breached or the first Ten Commandments being broken thousands of years ago? I care even less about the other supposedly tragic events that happened on this day.” He ate another piece of cantaloupe. “We’ve been doing just fine without a Temple for almost two thousand years. It wasn’t right for the Romans and Babylonians to destroy both of them, but that doesn’t mean we should keep treating it like the greatest tragedy ever. Our people adapted to life without it.”

Cinni’s mind raced as he walked over to Robert Valli. Based on what Barry had just said, she had new hopes of someday being his girlfriend. There wasn’t a very big leap between rejecting minor fasts as outdated and dating Gentiles. But right now, Cinni had far greater priorities, like calling dibs on a hamburger coming off the barbecue. Holidays were a time to eat and eat and eat, not engage in deep thoughts and daydream about her future.

***

Early fireworks began illuminating the sky as the adults cooked dinner over several bonfires and the cooking pit. By now, Tzom Tammuz was just about over, so the Smalls were able to join in with their own kosher food. Sparky hungrily sat by her family’s bonfire and inhaled the delicious scents of chicken, potatoes, and hotdogs.

“Thank God I can eat again,” Barry said as he grabbed a foil-wrapped potato with his left hand and a hotdog on a long stick with his right hand. “It wasn’t fun having to fast on the Fourth of July. I hope these days don’t coincide next year too.”

“Sometimes these things are unavoidable,” Mr. Small said. “It’s part of modern life.”

“We’re supposed to live in this world, not be of this world,” Mrs. Small said. “Commitment to Judaism always comes first, even if it’s not easy. If our ancestors had given in to the temptations of secular society when the going got a little tough, we might, God forbid, have been born into non-Jewish families, or families who only had a superficial cultural connection to Judaism. A chain with weak links easily breaks.”

Cinni gobbled a chicken breast with her bare hands as she kept her eyes on the darkening sky. As soon as she finished dinner, she’d start setting off her fireworks and lighting her sparklers. “Sometimes we watch fireworks over the Boardwalk, but this is just as good of a place to see them. It’s also a lot less crowded here, and we’re guaranteed a seat.”

“How do they do that?” Gary marvelled as the sky filled with blue, silver, red, and green. “It’s a beautiful combination of art and science.” He took a bite of a corndog covered with hot mustard and pickle relish.

“There are special names for the different types of pyrotechnic effects,” Mr. Filliard said. “I don’t know them off the top of my head, but I’ve read about them.”

Cinni finished her chicken and reached for a sausage on a stick. “I’m glad I ain’t the one responsible for setting them up. I ain’t got the kinda math and science smarts for that.”

“It’s not that difficult,” Lech said. “You just need to set them up in the order and direction you want to fire them. Once you do it enough times, it becomes easier and easier.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Gary said. “I’m not interested in playing with gunpowder and dynamite, though it’s very pretty to watch.”

After finishing her sausage, Cinni grabbed a large potato, cut it in half, and smothered it in hot melted Velveeta, salt, and maple syrup. Mrs. Filliard hung her head in her hands.

“That looks like it tastes disgusting,” Barry said.

“I like creating unique flavor combinations,” Cinni said as red, blue, and white fireworks exploded. “Sometimes I mix sweet stuff with lunchmeat or tuna fish.”

“Men don’t want a fat woman,” Mrs. Filliard said. “It’ll also be harder to squeeze yourself into a girdle when you’re old enough, and larger clothes are more expensive because they use more material.”

Cinni licked her fingers. “I’m never wearing a girdle. That’s a barely-updated version of the corset. Modern girls only need bras.”

“Believe it or not, corsets weren’t the rib-crushing, organ-displacing torture devices you modern girls think they were,” Bogda said. “Most women didn’t tight-lace or sleep in them. They were just another part of our daily wardrobe and provided wonderful support. I often miss corsets, and wish they were still manufactured. Girdles and brassieres just don’t do the same job.”

Mrs. Filliard was bright red. “Babciu, we’re in mixed company, and not in private! Decent ladies never discuss such matters openly.”

“Being a lady is highly overrated. Women have much more fun.” Bogda speared a marshmallow and held the stick over the bonfire. “I said nothing overly revealing or personal, unless you think it’s unseemly to acknowledge the existence of undergarments.”

Mrs. Filliard shook her head and went over to the Vallis’ bonfire.

Cinni speared three marshmallows and roasted them with her left hand while eating a piece of chocolate with her right hand. “You wanna try setting off some Roman candles, Spark?”

“Where are they?”

Cinni pointed. “All you do is light ’em and wait for the magic to happen. We’ll do sparklers afterwards, when my hands are free.”

Sparky carefully picked up a long stick with a flaming end and walked up to the sand-filled buckets stuffed with Roman candles. She lit them as quickly as possible, not wanting to linger in case they started going off too soon.

The sky filled with a rainbow of colors shooting out in all directions as Cinni ate her marshmallows sandwiched between two big pieces of chocolate. Not to be outdone, the Holidays and the Vallis hurried to their own firework displays and began setting them off. On command, Mr. Hitchcock muttered loudly about how vulgar and common this was, and how much this part of the neighborhood had changed for the worst since he was born.

“I wish tonight could last forever,” Barry said as he lay on his back and gazed up at the multicolored pyrotechnic show, when he was sure his parents were well out of earshot. “The only reason we’re allowed to join in the end of your party is because it’s a celebratory occasion, even if it’s not a Jewish holiday. I hate the Three Weeks so much. The worst part for me is not being allowed to go swimming during the hottest part of summer.”

“You can get sprayed by a hose or stand in a sprinkler,” Gary said. “Swimming isn’t a basic life necessity.”

“No, but modern swimming’s a lot different than it was in the ancient world. It’s not like going to a decadent Roman bathhouse. Pools are an easy way to stay cool and prevent overheating.”

Cinni reached into a metal tub full of ice cubes and pulled out a frozen chocolate bar. “What else ain’t you allowed to do?”

Barry sighed. “It’s more like what we are allowed to do. We can’t get haircuts, listen to live music, cut our nails, buy or make clothes unless they’re for a later celebration, eat meat, drink wine, wash clothes or wear freshly-cleaned clothes, plant shade and fragrance trees, or remodel or expand a home. We stayed so long in New York after we immigrated last year because of the Three Weeks. Our parents thought it’d be easier to observe the prohibitions there.”

“Since when do you feel this way?” Gary asked.

“It comes and goes.” Barry picked up a piece of watermelon. “They’re not so much religious doubts as not wanting to be so strict all the time. Why can’t I eat a piece of fruit cut with a knife from an unkosher kitchen or leave my head uncovered? Sometimes I don’t think there’s much difference between Conservative or Neolog Judaism and Orthodoxy.”

Cinni licked her popsicle stick and threw it on the grass. “Enough talk about boring stuff. Let’s light sparklers.”

Sparky, Barry, and Gary followed her to the basket of fireworks and selected two colors each. Cinni lit them with a small burning stick before choosing her own colors and holding them to a bonfire. Now this was a perfect way to close out the Fourth of July, being together with friends, having a full stomach, and watching a beautiful array of dancing colors in the night sky.

Posted in Atlantic City books, Names, Secondary characters, Writing

Character name changes should never be forced

If you’re observing Yom Kippur in lockdown, may you have an easy and meaningful fast despite being deprived of going to synagogue and being with other people!

I recently took a short break in prepping the paperback production of the book formerly known as The Very First (always the title I’ll think of it as) to start work on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next (also always the title I’ll think of that book as). Despite this delay, I have confidence TVF will be ready for its print run soon.

While going through TVN, I began thinking about how many of the Polish characters’ names are kind of boring. Not that that makes them bad names at all, just that they were chosen by a teenager in the pre-Internet age. While naming tended to be more conservative in the old days (i.e., the same small pool of names vs. a wider variety), it wasn’t super-unusual to encounter a name outside the Top 100.

Knowing now that it was extremely uncommon for Polish Jews to have Polish names, I added the detail that the Polańskis and Robleńskis got those surnames from ancestors who converted to Judaism.

A crit partner several years ago thought the explanation/defense of Polish first names is a bit overdone. I took her advice and reworked that aspect so it doesn’t sound so heavy-handed and run into the ground.

All that really matters is that the Polańskis are a modern family who feels it’s important to prove they’re just as authentically Polish as the Gentiles. That includes mostly having Polish names and not speaking Yiddish. They don’t want extra ammunition for persecution.

I changed the names of Krzyś’s older sisters Bogda and Filipa to Salomea and Faustyna, and while those are lovely names, they felt wrong immediately. While Bogda was never particularly developed, Filipa later becomes an important character as Samuel Roblenski’s second wife, the late-life love match he was denied in his first marriage. I can’t think of her by any name but Filipa!

Bogda, however, is also the name of Cinni’s great-grandma, and I’d prefer to avoid confusion by having two secondary characters with the same name. Bronia sounds close enough, and I’ve always liked that nickname for Bronisława.

I also changed the name of Kryzś’s uncle by marriage from Lech Gold to Bruno Lerner. Lech is already the name of Cinni’s grandfather, and Gold was a lazy, thoughtlessly-chosen surname. This guy’s the biggest intellectual in the family, the only one with a Ph.D., working with rare books at the National Library. I also intend to develop him into a more important secondary character, so he deserves more than a placeholder name.

Likewise, I’m changing the surname of Bruno’s adult stepdaughters from Szymborska to Saperstein. Too many names of Gentile origin in the same family feel implausible. It’s pretty obvious I wasn’t socialized in the Jewish community, since I genuinely didn’t know how unusual it was for most people to have surnames native to the host culture!

Bruno’s kids deserve more original names than Zalman and Luiza too. They were originally Solomon and Liza, and later changed to the closest Polish equivalents. Again, nothing wrong with either name, but not chosen carefully, and hardly the kinds of names an intellectual would give his kids.

I played with changing Cinni’s mother’s name to Carine, but that felt instantly wrong. Instead, I changed her birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina, her legal name became Caroline, and her nickname went from Cairn to Carin. One of her great-granddaughters is later named Karyn in her honour, so I couldn’t stray too far.

I’ll admit I was hesitant about keeping her name because it’s now a sexist pejorative. I immediately stop reading when someone calls a woman a “Karen”! If she’s done something legitimately bad, call out the specific action instead of using a slur that terminates thought, shuts down dialogue, and encourages more insulting of and presumptions about a stranger you know nothing about!

The best time to change a character’s name is early on, before you’ve had a chance to become emotionally attached to it. It’s also much easier to change if you’ve had a story shelved for a long time, or this is a secondary character you never got to know very well.

If it feels wrong, you’ll immediately sense it. And if it feels right, that new name might as well represent an entirely different character, nothing in common with the one bearing the original name.

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—Resisting assimilation

Copyright Jüdischen Museum Im Stadtmuseum, Berlin;
Yad Vashem Photo Archives 5409/3083

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Christmas- and Chanukah-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

It’s now the eighth night of Chanukah, which coincides with Christmas Eve, and the Smalls and Filliards are having a joint holiday meal. Cinnimin’s mother tries once again to talk the Smalls into adopting secular Christmas symbols, but they steadfastly refuse.

Mrs. Filliard helped herself to more pierogi. “Are you sure you don’t want to put up a Chanukah bush and a few secular decorations? The Christmas season ain’t over till January seventh, Russian Christmas. Even many people who ain’t Orthodox celebrate Twelfth Night on January sixth with special foods.”

“We’ll never celebrate Christmas,” Mrs. Small said. “It’s your holiday, not ours.”

“Chanukah is about resisting assimilation,” Gary agreed. “The Maccabees fought against the Seleucids’ attempts at introducing Greek customs, language, and religion into Judea. If our ancestors had given in and accepted foreign religion and culture, we’d be as much in the dustbin of history as the Seleucids are now. The holiday is about so much more than the oil lasting for eight nights instead of only one.”

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—Holiday decorating begins

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Christmas- and Chanukah-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

This is the opening of the chapter, when Sparky Small (birth name Katharina Brandt) and her older brothers start realizing just how predominant all things Christmas are during December in their new country. It’s particularly hard to avoid because they live with a Methodist family.

Sparky, her brothers, the Filliard girls, and Elmira came home from school on the first day of December to a wreath on the door and Mrs. Filliard and Lucinda unpacking all the Christmas ornaments and decorations. Six crates stood in the center of the living room, while small boxes, coiled-up strings of lights and other decorations, and individually-wrapped ornaments were all over the davenport, chairs, side tables, loveseat, and Lucinda’s new turquoise velvet Ottoman. A black and dark green plaid, circular cloth was draped over the back of the davenport, and a green metal object which somewhat resembled a bell was off in a corner.

“You’re just in time to help us with decorating the tree,” Mrs. Filliard announced. “Michael should have it very soon. He was supposed to be back by now, but it’s just like him to inspect each and every tree instead of sawing down the first big tree he sees. If he ain’t back soon, Pietro might have him arrested for trespassing.”

Gary could barely disguise his horrified expression. “Kätchen, Otto, and I must respectfully decline your invitation to decorate a tree, but I’m more concerned about Michael trespassing to get your tree. Did you really send him onto someone else’s property without permission?”

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Food, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—A joint holiday celebration

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

There have been a lot of religious conflicts during December 1938, as young immigrant Sparky (real name Katherine) and her family are inundated with symbolism of a holiday they don’t celebrate, and a variety of responses to their refusal to adopt Christmas as a secular holiday “everyone” celebrates. However, Sparky’s family has agreed to come together with their hosts the Filliards for a joint celebration of the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit 10 lines.

Painting by Yelena Flerova

The Smalls had brought schnitzel, Kartoffelpuffer, chicken soup, brisket, candied carrots, bolussen, applesauce, and, best of all, plenty of Berliner Pfannkuchen, while on the Filliards’ side of the table sat roasted goose with stuffing; dried fruit compote; mushroom soup; gołąbki; pierogi stuffed with chopped mushrooms and mashed potatoes; kotlety; stuffed mushrooms; mazurek stuffed with dried almonds, chocolate, and apricot jam; chocolate sernik; zefiry; and several heaping platters of cookies. There’d be more than enough for everyone.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Mrs. Filliard said as she cut into a gołąbek. “You’ve been generous to share your food, and oughta taste some of ours in return.”

“Perhaps next year, we can cook by your recipes in our kitchen,” Mrs. Small said.

“It’s ‘with,’ not ‘by,’” Gary gently corrected her. “You’re making the mistake of directly translating a German expression into English. Sometimes being too literal results in improper English.”

“My mother and I made that mistake too, when we were learning English,” Mr. Filliard said. “That expression translates from Russian the same way it does from German, and it took a long time for me to realize I wasn’t being grammatically correct.”

Kartoffelpuffer are German latkes; bolussen are Dutch sweet rolls; Berliner Pfannkuchen are jelly doughnuts. Among the traditional Polish and Russian Christmas foods, gołąbki are cabbage leaves wrapped around a savory filling (usually including meat); kotlety are small, pan-fried meatballs; mazurek is a sweet, flat cake; sernik is cheesecake made with quark; and zefiry are similar to meringues.