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