East/West Culture Clash

Pfeffernusse Meets Imam Bayeldiby

In our Sephardic family, my marriage to an Ashkenazi was tantamount to an intermarriage—but still acceptable. For my parents and my husband’s, it was a meeting of east and west—Near East and West Germany.

We spoke French and Ladino, they spoke German. When I was first engaged, my husband- to-be enjoyed nothing so much as parading me around his old Washington Heights neighborhood in New York and introducing me to his family’s friends as his Spanish fiancée. That did not prevent their speaking to me in German despite the fact that I did not know one word. “Then you must learn,” I was told, time and again.

My mother lost no time in bewitching her son-in-law with her tantalizing, alien cuisine. Vine leaves. Eggs cooked in coffee grounds. Herring smoked by setting it ablaze in a paper bag…. To a man brought up on boiled potatoes every night of the week, who slathered whipped cream on everything, who ate a concoction called himmel und erde (“heaven and earth”—cooked apples and potatoes), and who dined on unadorned cold cuts every Sunday evening promptly at 5:45 (just after finishing kaffe und kuchen), it was a new world. He lost his soul to my mother’s phyllo-baked cheese pastries, her sesame cookies and her imam bayeldi [literally “the priest fainted”, a layered eggplant dish].

My mother was always prepared to feed at least ten people, day or night, no reservations required. Indeed our house was like a restaurant. People regularly appeared at the door, salivating in anticipation. On the other hand, my in-laws almost never had dinner guests. If you were invited at all, it was usually for 4 p.m. coffee and cake, served in exquisite Rosenthal china on an embroidered tablecloth set with silver spoons, my in-laws having been fortunate in escaping from Germany early enough to be able to bring their worldly goods. They adhered to this ritual every day of the week. (My father-in-law, a commercial artist, worked at home.)

Although I found the formality amusing at first, I learned to love the serenity and charm of the late afternoon break. My mother-in-law even changed her clothes for the event, looking as though she were about to step out to the opera. It couldn’t have been more different from my mother’s Mediterranean informality, her brightly colored dresses, her slippers and loosened girdle stays.

The differences between my in-laws and my family were particularly apparent the first time we invited both sets of parents over for Chanukah. It was decided that my mother would bring soup and leek patties and my mother-in-law her famous matzah balls—an historic collaboration like the Entente Cordiale, requiring several preliminary consultations in four languages.

As soon as my mother arrived she began stuffing my freezer with spinach pies, meat pastries and baklava which she claimed to have found, fortuitously, in her refrigerator. While my mother took over the kitchen, my mother-in-law retired to her domain—the Chanukah gift table, which she had planned out months in advance.

She filled elegant plastic plates, one for each participant, with miniature chocolate champagne bottles imbedded in rock candy, marzipan “cigars” and “strawberries”, gold and silver-wrapped cognac balls, and marzipan peasant figures with gold coins emerging from their rears. There were also bonbons (“bong bongs” as my in-laws called them), jaw-breaking pfeffernusse and an orange on each plate (for simplicity).

Next my mother-in-law joined my mother in the kitchen and concentrated on dropping her matzah balls into the soup while my mother completed her leek patties. My mother-in-law’s matzah balls were famous as a result of a graveside battle in which a relative accused my mother-in-law not only of stealing the jewelry of the deceased but also her matzah ball recipe. My husband, in his most pensive moments of existentially discussing life and death, often spoke of the necessity of writing down this recipe.

Despite a minor contretemps between the two women over whether or not the soup pot should remain covered, the dinner was marked by a lively discussion of Hebrew pronunciation— they said Oh-Maine, we said Ah-men— as well as polite appreciation for the other’s culture. Perhaps I was the only one to notice that none of us (except my husband) actually ventured across that cultural divide to eat from the others’ cuisine.

Gloria L. Kirchheimer is a short story writer whose work has been anthologized in The Tribe of Dina (Beacon Press) and Shaking Eve’s Tree (Jewish Publication Society).