I had never thought about my identity as both a Jew and a Texan until my grandparents told me their stories about growing up in South Dallas in the forties.
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For Jews, everything begins and ends with food. A few years ago I pulled out the book of family recipes compiled by my grandmother. Nestled in between the gefilte fish, the Onion Soup à la Teton Science School, and the Harvey Wallbanger Supreme Cake from 1960 (hint: Orange Supreme cake mix, vodka, and Galliano) was a recipe for hamentashen. Hamentashen are basically sugar cookies folded into a triangle around jam, poppyseed, or prune filling, but put these few ingredients together and you have an amazing combination. Given their addictive powers and that my great-grandmother Sara had contributed the recipe, I had to give it a shot.
After a cloud of flour, orange juice all over the floor, and lots of sticky fingers, the real magic happened when I brought the cookies over to my grandparents’ house. Bubby and Ducky—“bubby” is Yiddish for “grandmother” and “ducky” is what happens when you let your grandfather pick his own nickname—almost never talked about anything that happened before 1948. That’s when they met, all because my grandmother flipped a coin with her friend for “the tall one” on a double date. Other than that, I knew practically nothing.
But as soon as Ducky bit into that hamentashen—his mother’s recipe—it was a flashback to Dallas, 1943. At that time many Jews lived in South Dallas, congregated in a couple-mile radius filled with gossip, grandparents from the Old World, and onions frying in greasy schmaltz. Ducky held the cookie closely and told me how his grandparents would yammer in Yiddish while he ate warm hamentashen in the kitchen. I had never known he understood or spoke any Yiddish beyond the obligatory words like “putz,” “goy,” and “meshugenah.”
When they had first moved to Dallas from Omaha in the thirties, his grandparents had lived in the back of their secondhand tool store, Giller’s Tool Shop, on Deep Elm, on a block with many other Jews. Once business had picked up, though, they also picked up and moved to a house on Forest Avenue (in what is now one of the poorest areas in Dallas), where Ducky sometimes spent time in the afternoons. If Grandma Anna wanted chicken for dinner, she would phone the local shochet. The shochet would walk from his shop, also on Forest, to her house and make his way to the backyard. Picking out a chicken from Anna’s brood, he would hold it firmly by the neck and slit its throat in one quick swoop, as required by kosher law. The knife, covered in blood, was then balanced carefully between his teeth, red dripping down his long, white beard as he plucked feathers from the upside-down bird.
The neighborhood was full of characters that were equally intriguing and alarming. Sam the Schlepper, the neighborhood bum. Or Ruby and Rocky Goldstein, who each owned pawn shops. Bubby and Ducky’s neighbors had inhabited the same houses for years, and almost everyone’s grandmother lived with them. A hamentashen in hand, Bubby explained to me that her own grandmother, who didn’t speak a lick of English, only Yiddish, lived with them while she was growing up. After walking home from school, she would find her grandmother drying noodles for chicken soup by stretching out the dough on their beds before slicing it finely. Apparently, the soup was the best she’s ever had.
But it wasn’t all as old-fashioned as my great-grandma’s chicken-noodle soup. After we finished the cookies, Bubby pulled out a photo album from the late thirties that I’d never seen before. Taken from the society page of the newspaper, here was a picture of her parents, Bob and Bobby, talking to the band leader while dancing at the Mural Room, at the Baker Hotel downtown. Bob looked dashing in his tailored suit, and Bobby (named for her bob haircut) beamed radiantly on the dance floor, wearing a knit dress and a pillbox hat with pom-poms over her blonde hair. As a kid, I’d heard that Bob (or Pop, as he was known in his later days) had owned a drugstore, and that Bubby used to go there and make herself a big ice cream sundae, read all the comic books, and play the pinball machine for free.
What I didn’t know was that Pop had also owned four liquor stores on a block cattycorner from Union Station, on Houston street in downtown Dallas, all called Liquor Doctors: Good and Bad Liquor. Later, he opened another Liquor Doctors on Cedar Springs that offered curbside service. The employees, dressed as doctors and nurses, would stroll out to the cars and dispense “medicine” six days a week.
Of course, once Bubby met Ducky, neither of them spent much time in Pop’s stores. On dates they would slide over to Keller’s, sneaking cigarettes in between bites of burgers and swallows of beer. These times were usually when the South Dallas Jews and the Highland Park Jews would get together at Robert E. Lee Park, on Turtle Creek, for high school dances.
My dances at Highland Park High School were usually in a gym, complete with strobe lights and teenage boys trying to show off their breakdance moves. When I was at HPHS, there were probably a grand total of about five Jews that were, ahem, definitely not part of the popular crowd. (I didn’t do much for our image by wearing glasses and bringing books to read at football games, where I played clarinet in the marching band.) By the time I had arrived in Dallas, in 1984, most of the Jews had left Highland Park and South Dallas and spread out over Richardson and other suburbs. Downtown Dallas was no longer a mecca for elaborately themed liquor stores. And South Dallas had become synonymous with a much more dangerous kind of ghetto, one filled with poverty, drugs, and crime.
In this new city, the idea of a Jewish world was completely foreign to me. I also had a hard time imagining the grandparents I knew in that world. Bubby and Ducky loved barbecue brisket and pork ribs, said “purdy” for “pretty,” and spent the summers lying poolside and occasionally escaping to Mexico like most good Texans. Sitting with my grandparents and faced with the evidence of photographs, I realized for the first time that their grandparents hadn’t said “y’all” but had instead spoken Yiddish. Their families had eaten kosher food and sat in shul every Saturday. They had attended Forest Avenue High School with many other Jews and been the popular kids in their local B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.
Sure, my family went to temple on High Holy Days, and sometimes we had Passover seders. But the highlight of them was not the religious experience. Instead it was making fun of the way Bubby read the passage about the rabbis, starting with “Rabbi Eliezer” drawled “Raayb-eye Elly-ay-zher.” By the end of the page, we would all be laughing so hard that our heads were down on the table and tears were streaming from our eyes.
As evidenced by our seders, I grew up close to my grandparents’ childhood homes but in an entirely different world, one without an Old World element or even much of a Jewish influence. It’s a common feeling for kids of immigrant families. After several generations, we’re separated from our roots not only by time and distance but by ignorance too. For the first time, I started to wonder what it meant to be both Jewish and Texan.
The closest I came to any kind of Jewish community were Sunday morning brunches at a place called Gilbert’s, on Preston Road, that is now closed. Instead of tortilla chips, you were served a plate of sour pickles. Biting into the crisp spears as a kid, I would listen to Ducky’s mother talk about her week, order some matzah ball soup and half a Reuben, and wait apprehensively for all of my old relatives to come over and pat my cheeks while the din of Yiddish and the scent of good food filled the air.