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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pass the Lamb and Gefilte Fish

Religious holidays bring back memories of family at their best and their worst, being together and sharing food with a dash of feud.

My Greek relatives took turns hosting holidays: Christmas at our house; Thanksgiving at my uncle’s and Greek Easter at my aunt’s home in Chicago’s South Shore. Greek Easter is typically celebrated the week after American Easter.

I recall entering my aunt’s house exclaiming, “Christos Anesti,” (Christ is Risen), hugging my cousins and enjoying the warmth of family bonds and our reunion after our last holiday together. Like my Catholic friends, it was our tradition to fast before Easter and then gorge ourselves during a huge celebration feast on our Easter Sunday.

The Greek banquet of spring lamb, mounds of creamy mashed potatoes, authentic Greek salad tossed with black olives and feta cheese accompanied a bounty of side dishes laden across a long, narrow dinner table. I always tried to sit next to my handsome blonde, blue-eyed cousin who I had a secret crush on.

We crowded around eagerly, gobbling the food to fill us from our week of food sacrifice. Even though we overate, we always left room for the desserts, including my favorite powdered-sugar cookies (kourembiathes). And of course, the adults drank ouzo, Greek liqueur.

We looked forward to these family events with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. What would our cousins look like since Christmas? What was the latest gossip? At what point would our mother and her brother have their annual argument which was part of the holiday ritual as well?

They had fought for many years, and a truce of sorts was declared for the sake of family during the holiday meals. The peace lasted throughout dinner, and then on cue the predictable and loud argument erupted. They had contrary opinions on just about everything, and neither would give in to the other, remaining in a standoff until the next family gathering.

This ritual after the hearty, celebratory meal, was re-enacted at the next family holiday dinner. We cousins understood these family feuds and looked forward to being together for the next disarmament scheduled later in the year. The coolness would last until then.

After my marriage, my Easters became Passovers. For me, Passover rituals seemed solemn compared to the joyous Easters I remembered. During the Seder, we gathered to honor the Jews liberation from persecution and their suffering while enslaved.

I felt a distant sympathy, but I couldn’t relate to the strangeness and unappetizing gefilte fish, unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

I missed the celebration of my original family’s Easter holiday, even with my mother and her brother sniping at each other.

I participated in the ceremony out of respect for my in-laws but really didn’t identify with the occasion. I came from another tribe and heritage.

Though the traditions represented a contrast of cultures with their own customs and foods, the families did have some other "rituals" in common.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law didn’t get along either, and the strain was pervasive through their cold silences. The official Passover ritual was a brief respite from their ongoing differences, and they eventually couldn’t keep their dislike contained. It too was predictable.

It wasn’t expressed loudly like my Greek relatives. After the meal, the women would separate from the men and gather in the kitchen for clean-up. By this time, they could no longer tolerate being around each other.

It was there that the dispute would be acted out as criticism and complaining usually over small things. Like my original family, my acquired family understood these matters and accepted them. It was part of the ritual of sharing food and feud. Opah! Oy Vey!

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Gefilte fish for Passover photo by Alex Ringer

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Like a Lion...Out Like a Lamb

Rites of spring at Yale Elementary School in Chicago in the ‘50s came with its own rituals. My fifth grade class was selected to decorate the student hallway bulletin board.

Eagerly, armed with scissors, glue, felt and some thumbtacks, we created a felt lion and furry lamb covered with cotton balls along with paper cut spring tulips and dandelions to welcome spring to cold Chicago.

It was a major display that everyone passed, and we were proud of our “craftsmanship” and creativity to usher in spring. In some aspects, it was the “early seeds” of my marketing career to create eye-catching ads and promotions (little did I know).

I’ve been thinking of all the rituals and symbols we attribute to spring and welcome: spring break, spring cleaning, and “spring forward” with daylight savings time.

Specifically in my life, spring displayed itself gloriously with daffodils and lilacs when I lived in downstate Illinois along with annual “baby” asparagus shoots and rhubarb stalks in my vegetable garden; cherry blossoms, azaleas and robin’s eggs in D.C. and Virginia; and now orange blossoms and cactus flowers in Arizona.

Growing up in Chicago, spring meant coloring Easter eggs and the delight of emptying an Easter basket filled with chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. It also meant a new outfit for church, including an Easter bonnet, gloves and patent leather shoes.

I wore my first “nylons,” hosiery with seams (signaling a passage from girl to woman) similar to a boy going from short pants to trousers.

I couldn’t keep the seams straight on my skinny legs, but I was thrilled to wear them thinking of the glamorous actresses posing in their fashionable, elegant stockings.

Spring also meant late winter storms and blustery winds as winter belted its last “roar” before it allowed gentle spring rains and plants to come out of their slumber, allowing the new born “lamb” to replace the fierce lion of winter.

Spring is a time of awakening, shaking off winter’s doldrums and allowing new growth to emerge. The seasons of our lives imitate these cycles, prompting us to shed our winters for new life.

We are in synch with life’s patterns when we remove our winter coats to embrace the warmth and gentleness of spring’s “lamb.” 

My grade school’s felt lion and furry, cotton lamb still make me smile and remind me that my life is full of seasons to welcome.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Lion photo by Jean Scheijen
Daffodils photo by Nick Pye
Easter Eggs photo by Alexandar Iotzov
Toy Sheep photo by Ula Kapala

Sunday, March 14, 2010

St. Paddy's Day

As a feature reporter for an NBC affiliate years ago in the Midwest, my assignment was to visit local pubs in central Illinois and interview Irishmen drinking and toasting on St. Paddy’s Day. A no-brainer, right?

My camerman and I thought we had an easy day ahead and expected to wrap the St. Paddy’s Day story up early so we could enjoy the holiday.

We entered one Irish bar and started conversations with the “revelers,” clanking their green beer mugs together, shouting “Erin Go Bragh” (an Irish blessing used to express allegiance to Ireland) and breaking into choruses of “Danny Boy.”

Everything seemed traditional Irish. I was raised in Chicago where the river was dyed green for the occasion, and a parade paid honor to the many Irish communities that live in the windy city.

As I walked from one drinker to the next, I found many nationalities: Germans, Scots, Dutch, Italians and assorted heritages, but not one Irishman among them.

OK, so we picked the wrong bar randomly. As the night wore on and we hit a number of pubs, I wondered if I was going to meet any Irish drinkers (or at least those who would admit it) in central Illinois.

That night as the bar voices got louder telling jokes and singing Irish songs, no one I talked to claimed to be Irish. I was baffled, and it was turning into a long night.

Astonished, I never did find one. My only choice as a roving reporter was to flip the story assignment to: There are no Irish in central Illinois’ drinking establishments on St. Paddy’s day (not much fun), or go generic and show people having a good time on an Irish holiday.

For one day wherever we are, we can all be Irish, gulp green beer and sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” And that’s no blarney.

Here's to a long life and a merry one

A quick death and an easy one

A pretty girl and an honest one

A cold beer and another one!

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Clover leaf photo by Sarah Williams
Paddy's Day drinking kit photo by Steve Ford Elliott
Green Chicago photo by daisygrl7
Irish leprechaun photo by Chris Chidsey

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Meet the Immigrant Neighbors Circa '50s

I was raised with immigrants, first, second and third generations in Chicago in the mid-50s.

They were many shades of white: German, Polish, Irish, Swedish, Italian, Jewish, and Greek. Our parents spoke more than one language; but as their children, we were Americans and English was our common language with each other.

There was Johnny whose living room displayed a treasured Lionel train set and whose Irish Catholic mother cooked cabbage we could smell a block before we got home from school to the three-story apartment building with an alley on the side where we played “kick the can” and threw balls against the brick wall.

The alley between the two old apartment buildings was where deliveries were made by the ice man (a block of ice placed in a refrigerator box to keep food fresh for a couple days); the Fuller Brush man selling hardware goods door to door; and the fascinating “ragman,” a tinker with a cart of bartered trinkets, pots and pans, a mobile tradesman who carried everything from thread to bracelets, whatever he picked up along the way.

Carol of Swedish descent lived in the apartment above ours. Her mother was a maid and brought home clothing discards from the affluent family she cleaned for. The oversized dresses became great make-believe garments for Carol and me to play “grown-up” ladies as we giggled at how we looked in them. Her mom made great Swedish meatballs.

In the apartment across from Carol lived Sandy, an aloof, beautiful German blonde girl whose dad loved watching wrestling on TV while drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Sometimes I would sit in their living room and watch along with them though I knew nothing about professional wrestling.

Allan who lived in the apartment beneath us kept to himself. People whispered that he was adopted but never spoke of it in front of him as if it were something shameful to not know who you came from.

Ronald, one of the Polish kids, was the leader of the rest of us. He was mean and often caused trouble. He intimidated the others and used the basement “catacombs” as the hideout for his followers.

From the back of the apartments we could see a house’s yard with grass and trees. It was Nancy’s house. I thought she was rich because she lived in a house and had her own bedroom. I always felt like she was “looking down” on the children who lived in the apartments. We played together for awhile but ultimately went our separate ways after an argument about the famous cowboy star of the time, Roy Rogers.

The neighborhood started to shift as a new ethnic group moved in, and everything changed. The new neighbor Belinda was a mulatto, a colored girl with braided pigtails all over her head. Much to my mother’s chagrin, we played together.

Cadillacs replaced Chevies in front of the apartments, and the cooking smells were from foreign southern foods (collards and gizzards).

The white immigrants quickly sought other residences and fled to new suburbs in homes funded by GI bills from soldiers like my dad who served in WWII.

Though our parents told us not to play with the Wops, Polacks, Potato Heads, and worse ethnic slurs, we were children and we only had each other, so we ignored our parents’ prejudices and made the best of living in a true “melting” pot of mid-century Americans.

Looking back it was a rich experience about diversity, food, culture, language; and I appreciate having lived it and how it shaped my acceptance of what we now label cultural diversity.

Today I marvel at diversity again in my college classes of minorities, some becoming a majority, including Hispanics, Native Americans, African Americans, Middle Easterners, and fewer Caucasians than before.

Once again I see the fear of the people who migrated ahead of them and the struggles for the new Americans to win their place and make better lives for their families as the immigrants of Chicago did so many years ago.

The cycle repeats itself.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

See more "Growing Up in Chicago" posts in "Erana's stories."

Chicago sign photo by Nick Pepito
Cadillac photo by Andrew Beierle