The other day, during my usual doomscrolling, I came across a post that brought me up short:
It was an op-ed from the Jewish newspaper The Forward from 1924 with the headline, “Why Don’t We, Jews, Eat Pie?” Before I even bothered to read the article, I took umbrage. (Great job, 1924 Forward headline writer!) I, a Jew, eat pie. I even bake pie on occasion. My immediate family, all Jews, also eat pie. My grandmother, a Jew, passed down exactly four recipes, one of which was for a pie. On Thanksgiving, I have observed both the Jews and non-Jews in my extended family and detected no major differences in pie consumption.
And then I actually read the thing. The author, Clara Zinovitz, noted that you never find pies in Jewish bakeries. And as I went back through my memories of visits to Jewish bakeries, I realized this was true—except if the bakeries were Israeli and had Middle Eastern hand pies. But they never had sweet American pies.
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Zinovitz noticed that young Jews didn’t avoid baseball and jazz, the two other pieces of what she considered the great American trinity. She discussed her observation with “a foreign-born young man of thirty who arrived here at the age of twelve.” He had his own theory:
Jewish baked goods are notoriously dense, either hard and brittle or stuffed with fruit and nuts. “All this,” the young man says,
is solid stuff. When we eat one of them our mouth crunches; we grind our teeth; there is life in them. But America likes easy, gliding foods. They want everything to slip into their mouth straight through the throat into the stomach and intestines. A lazy sort of eating.... I suppose the same holds true of pie. It’s too tzekrochen for us. It gives us no opportunity to exercise.
And here I was thinking my ancestors just liked to suffer. But maybe that’s the same thing as exercise?
(Another latter-day reader of Zinovitz’s essay had his own theory: Jewish bakeries didn’t have pie because pastry crust back then was made with lard. And now it occurs to me that a butter crust would also violate kosher laws if you tried to serve it after a meaty dinner. But I’m not sure why they couldn’t use Crisco, which had been invented in 1911.)
My family has been in America between three and five generations. We have assimilated. My great-grandmother, for whom I was named (we share a Hebrew name and an English first initial), spoke no English. And I speak maybe ten words of Yiddish. “Tzekrochen” is not one of them; I looked it up just now and learned that it means “crumbly.”
Over time, through family pictures, you can see us learning that dessert is a treat to be enjoyed instead of a reason to grind our teeth. Images from the ’40s and ’50s are particularly instructive. My mother’s family came over earlier than my father’s. By the ’40s, almost everyone had been born in America, the land of baseball, jazz, and pie. In a series of home movies of weddings and Passover seders, everyone is smiling as they eat. They talk. They laugh. They enjoy one another’s company. I know from stories that many of them are chocoholics. They are American!
Photos from my father’s family from around the same time tell a different story. All the adults, even those who had been born in America, grew up speaking Yiddish, an argumentative-sounding language that suits people who find perverse pleasure in grinding their teeth during dessert (just try saying “tzekrochen” and then look up “Yiddish curses”). They remembered being poor. My mother’s family had recently been poor also, but my father’s family were Old Country poor, which is different: in the Old Country, if you were a Jew, you would always be poor. If you wanted to stop being poor, you had to save all your money and cross the ocean to a new country where you had to learn a new language and maybe be poorer than you were when you started out, and everyone would treat you as though you were a little bit stupid. (In the 1940 census, my great-grandmother Anna is listed as “Enna.” I find that detail delightful, actually, because it shows the way she or my great-grandfather spoke, but also irritating: for God’s sake, American census-taker, you don’t trust an immigrant woman to spell her own name for you?) Maybe as compensation, my paternal great-grandparents learned to speak with their faces, like silent movie stars. They did not like my bubbe’s family. As they walk my grandfather down the aisle, you can almost see the little thought bubble over my great-grandfather’s head: “What are you doing, you schtunk?”
In America, however, there was hope. And pie. And cake made with soft flour and butter and sugar. And mushy white Wonder Bread that made bodies strong 12 ways.
In the photos taken a generation later, at my parents’ wedding, all is joy and professionally straightened teeth (my father’s uncle Harold, the baby of the family and the only one born in America, became a dentist; his brothers put him through school laying bricks and building houses) and tuxes with ruffled raspberry shirts. We were all Americans now. My two sets of grandparents didn’t like each other much, but they sure as hell smiled for the camera like they did. There’s a photo of my dad trying to smash cake in my mom’s face, but they’re laughing because it’s a fluffy white American cake that won’t cause any serious injury.
Sometimes we still eat the old tooth-grinding food. It feels punitive, like high holiday services or the Passover diet, a reminder of past suffering. But we carry bits of it still, mostly in our snobbery about bagels: they must be boiled, because true bagels are always a little tougher to chew than the circular rolls some people try to pass off as “bagels.”
I think, though, that Clara Zinovitz is not entirely right about pie (which, by the way, she refers to as “that covered sandwich of fruit”). Pie still has crust. If it’s a good crust, it’s still crunchy. It’s not all an easy glide through the digestive tract. It’s true, it’s still easier to eat than mandelbrot. But that crust... it’s like that voice that lingers so far in the back of my mind, I can barely hear it anymore. It’s really more of a chorus, the voices of all the ancestors I never met, who came over from the Old Country. They say, “Aimee—what kind of name is this Aimee—let’s say Aimele, at least that sounds more like a real name—whatever you do, remember this: The cossacks are always coming. Don’t get too comfortable.”