Friday Night Dinners At Grandma´s
By GAIL NEWMAN Freelance Writer

When I was growing up, the large, oval portrait of my grandpa, Samuel Eletz, set in an ornate frame, presided over my grandma's living room on 110th Street in Manhattan, giving me the illusion that I knew him.

I didn't. But I did know my Grandma Sophie.

My grandma was very thin, with big ankles and bunions, which caused visible protrusions on the sides of her large, shiny black shoes. Summer and winter she wore thick lisle stockings of an unattractive reddish-brown hue, and she never left her apartment without a small straw hat pinned to her steel-wooly grey hair.

Her speaking voice was scratchy, heavily accented, and she had piercing blue eyes. But her smile was as sweet as a sun shower making one of its infrequent appearances.

Grandma's bad cooking reflected a lack of interest in food bordering anorexia. But since we didn't have anorexia in those days, nobody was ever known to suffer with it. Grandma could make ice-tray ice cream and simple butter cookies rather well. But food preparation and consumption took a distant second place to The Life of The Mind, in the pantheon of Grandma's likes and dislikes.

The tasteless meals generated in her narrow apartment kitchen gave evidence of this disinterest, if any were needed. My mother always attributed her tiny stature to never having been served a single vegetable during her childhood.

Perhaps Grandma's disdain for food explained her possession and reverence for a large bronze bust of Shakespeare, the provenance of which is unknown to me. Throughout my childhood, Grandma's "Shakespeare" stood like a sentinel atop the glass-fronted bookcase that commanded her living room.

I endured an endless series of Friday night dinners, during which I was served food that tasted like pasteboard in the doomed expectation that Grandma's "Shakespeare" would one day be mine. But sadly I didn't inherit him, and I wondered for years what happened to the bust.

On innumerable Friday nights, "Shakespeare" had witnessed the political haranguing that never failed to accompany Shabbat dinners at Grandma's.

The uncles and aunts came to those dinners armed with newspaper clippings to back up opinions not shared by the others, waving them menacingly at each other as they quoted editorials chosen to draw blood from the unbelievers.

At that time, one could graze through newspapers as disparate as The Journal American, The Daily Worker, PM, The Christian Science Monitor, The Brooklyn Eagle, the Long Island Press, The Sun and The Herald Tribune. So there was plenty of fodder for dinner table warfare.

On arriving at Grandma's, my uncles and my father would exchange the felt fedora hats they customarily wore for the tiny black silk yamulkes that were de rigeur for a Sabbath dinner. They aimed their hats, like so many basketballs, at "Shakespeare's" crown. Soon he would be wearing a 2-foot-tall column of grey felt fedoras, in which he reigned for the duration of pre-dinner prayers and dinner.

The food at Grandma's was so bad on those Friday nights that my mother frequently allowed me to eat a tuna sandwich before we left for the city. On an especially gourmet occasion, Grandma might produce a chopped egg, which she would split between my Uncle George and me, because of our well-known dislike of gefilte fish.

But usually there was nothing that either George or I considered edible, and once (only once) in desperation, and because everybody seemed to enjoy it so much on their fish, I asked for horseradish unaccompanied by fish. There followed 10 minutes of uninterrupted yelling and running around the dining room table until the burning subsided.

Getting to Grandma's involved taking the Q5 Bus and the E Train to Manhattan. During the McCarthy era, my father whiled away our travel time on the train by reading The Daily Worker aloud to my mother, even if she was sitting several seats away from him. On these occasions, while I died of humiliation, he accommodated the distance between them by raising his voice so she (and the rest of the train) would not miss Earl Browder's words of wisdom.

Though Daddy didn't actually join the Party, he never stopped preaching to the neighbors when he met them at his putative country club, Albert's Candy Store, which flourished across the street from our house in Queens.

"Bill's not a card-carrying Communist," my mother would say of my father. "He sends money and he goes to meetings, but that's about it."

The event I looked forward to most when we had to go to Grandma's for dinner was playing Casino with Uncle Joe afterward. Joe was fat and wheezy and was married to my mother's sister, Anne. He loved children and cooking in equal measure, and I can still see his greasy fingers making short work of a piece of turkey carcass at Thanksgiving.

Joe had been gassed in World War I and was never altogether well after he came back. But he was the only one in the family who would play Casino with me on those dismal, childless (other than me) Friday nights.

After dinner, Uncle Joe and I would steal into Uncle Abe's bedroom, shutting the door gently so we would be undetected as we did all the things Grandma's Orthodoxy forbade us doing on Shabbat. We listened to the radio, smoked Chesterfields, blew smoke rings into 110th Street and, because we were not allowed to turn on a light, played Casino by the light of a street lamp outside Uncle Abe's bedroom window.

If we heard anyone coming, we would hide our cards, fan our smoke into the street, shut off the radio, and assume masks of perfect innocence.

I always wondered if Abe knew what we were up to, but since he never actually caught us, I couldn't be sure, and 65 years later, Uncle Joe remains my favorite uncle.

Reprinted by permission of Cleveland Jewish News