I once knew a rabbi who was known for being much more of a philosopher than a fundraising congregational leader. At all of our monthly meetings, at which we were supposed to discuss the PR services I provided his temple, we would instead linger for hours over intense dialogue in his library shelf-lined office inspired by the book Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin that he had given me because he thought I would find it interesting. The reason he thought I would find the foot thick tome interesting was because I had told him that all my life I loved hanging out in my Jewish friends’ homes. There was something about the constant chaotic chatter and warmth of their abodes; the way they let their warts and all humanity hang out transparently in public; and the way they seemed to embrace our more complex and shadowy sides of life like sensuality with vulnerability, honesty and humor that made me find comfort in their presence. Of course today I realize I was attracted to the culture of my Jewish friends and their families because they seemed the opposite of my own Catholic upbringing in which you simply didn’t air your dirty laundry or your innermost feelings outside of the household no matter what. To me, hanging out with my lifelong friends the Hetzels, in a living room crowded with newspapers, dogs, candy boxes, loud toilet flushes, books that went on for miles and lots of heated intellectual conversation that sounded like arguing was just the tonic my aching-to-express-fully heart needed. While I was reading the book the rabbi had loaned me, I would often tell him it all made perfect sense to me to which he would reply, “You’re more Jewish than half the Jewish people I know.”
So, it’s no surprise that today, I constantly seek out a version of the comfy Jewish living room – one where you can hunker down without any airs in any old clothes you’ve swiped from your drawers and eat a good meal surrounded by good conversation. One where lazy time and a flutter of activity not driven by a to-do list but by the constant hustle and bustle of alive and awake minds thrives, even if the bodies those minds occupy are currently slumped over a bowl of gargantuan matzo ball soup.
Last week on our first trip to Greenblatt’s Deli in L.A., I sunk down on my plush brown faux-leather booth seat and told the Cute Gardener I wanted to come back forever, as we grew old, bringing newspapers to camp out with under the stark, pale yellow lights.
It had all the essential ingredients to make my heart sing in that Fiddler on the Roof kind of way, including:
-thinly sliced pastrami melding creamily with a slip of Swiss cheese and tangy Russian dressing
-big fat pickles that were crisp, cold and refreshing rather than too sour
-adjacent wine bar with high end bottles aligned like jewels reminiscent of the perpetual gaiety of holiday seasons
-cheaper Reisling by the glass to sweetly accompany my sandwich
-rye that was soft in the middle but harder on the crust
-cooking staff who made no bones about talking loudly across the dining room at each other because everyone was really supposed to be a part of one big dining family so why pretend to shush just for the customers
-drunken suburban college boys with eyes bigger than their stomachs ordering half the menu at ten p.m. because everyone knows where the best comfort food in town can be found
-nonchalant pony-tailed waitresses who talked back to said drunken customers with soft yet firm voices quietly guiding their decorum
-couples long in the tooth who’ve probably been coming for years, tooling around on their iPads while eating big slabs of double chocolate cake
-deli case stocked with black and white cookies, meats, breads and salads to go and large bowls of pudding
-super intimate atmosphere that’s different from the more cafeteria or traditional restaurant styles of Jewish delis in the area—I literally felt I was sitting in someone’s house with staircases leading both up and down from the area where we sat and ate
I think I feel a short story brewing that will take place in a Jewish deli and will require lots of live research in my new favorite pseudo-den.