Father’s Day: The allure of fishing

My father and I were fishing a snowmelt lake in the High Sierra, and I was on the shore, deciding whether I should throw back the little trout I’d just caught. 

It was something my father and I had always wanted.

We had vacationed in the woods every summer since I was 3 years old, fishing in lakes accompanied by pine shade and a place to doze off. We weren’t as avid as the anglers who wore rubber waders and inner tubes and treaded into the middle of the lake where the big fish were, but we fantasized about catching a native trout, a breed natural to the lakes, something truly American. 

It was our 23rd summer in the woods. and we had only ever caught rainbow trout, the descendants of hatcheries. Although technically native to the West Coast, rainbows are now spawned in warehouses and reintroduced into lakes and streams to support the region’s sport-fishing economy. My father and I wanted to catch a brown, brook or golden trout, species that, although native to the Sierras, are rare catches. It would be a trophy whatever its size, though we would never have it mounted. 

My father and grandfather aspired to be real “American” dads.

We daydreamed about what it would taste like with slivered almonds and pats of butter. 

We were doing well this particular day, so well in fact that we didn’t have time to net every fish. We stood a few yards apart, reeling in rainbows simultaneously and yelling for the net only when we thought we’d hooked a big one. It was drizzling, and the fish thought each droplet was a resting fly. I pulled in a pan-sized one and gently flung it onto the dry shore, watching it bend and flop in the pumice (local fishermen call this technique “corndogging”). I unhooked it and washed it in the water’s edge, expecting a familiar rainbow flank, but instead found mottled gold with blooms of scarlet. Twisting, it gave me a sidelong glance, as if to size up someone who can’t see what’s right in front of them. 

I knew that, like a rainbow, this too was a trout. My father was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, and although he has become less observant, he instilled in me the most important philosophy of kashrut: that an animal should not feel the pain of its own death. He would never try hunting, but he also knew fishing was different: There are no rules in the Torah regarding the killing and eating of scaled fish. Thus my father, a thoughtful doctor, learned the sport and shared it with me, his only child. It has long been, and probably always will be, one of my favorite activities. 

On this particular day, however, I found myself regretting my cast. I was holding a thing that needed mercy. Although catching native trout was legal in that lake, I knew that this thing, whatever its species, was one of the last of its kind. I didn’t want my father to suffer the dissonance I was feeling, of choosing between a dream and a feeling, though I know he would have chosen the latter. 

I guided the fish’s snout into the water and felt it sidle out of my hands. 

My father and grandfather aspired to be real “American” dads. My grandfather was a Polish Jew who charged Nazi tanks on his horse. He married my grandmother in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. The war was raging, the shtetls were gone. No ligaments tied the couple to the bone. They chose Brooklyn. My bubbe worked a cash register, and my zayde sewed, though he was not a tailor; he made clothes in a room with no windows, but always wore a suit and tie. He took my father to Fourth of July and union parades, and although he didn’t have the time or the means to take his kids on vacations in the woods, he wanted his sons to know that he was equal parts Jewish and American. Although he wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver, he strived to be what he believed was the “all-American dad.” 

My father had been a bookish and queasy kid, but he eventually taught himself to love fishing, camping, wrestling and grilling. He wanted to be the father his father had wanted to be. I now realize that their concept of American fatherhood had something to do with self-reliance, with teaching one’s children that the world was truly theirs. My father and I devoted our summers to the High Sierra, listening to bluegrass and finding bliss in the glacial sting of early mountain mornings. He cleaned the trout himself, slicing open the fish bellies and scooping out their innards with his bare hands. He reminded me that, not too long ago, humans survived this way, and that I should know where my food comes from.

Once, he found a sac of orange caviar inside a female trout. The eggs slid out of his hands and popped and frothed down the drain. With his eyebrows furrowed, he wrapped the fish in foil and put it in the freezer, separate from the rest. He had to lie down and listen to the pines creak in the late afternoon. 

My father could never separate the self from the act. If American fatherhood is about self-reliance, Jewish fatherhood is about reliance of the self, of teaching one’s kids to remember that feelings, not dreams, make a successful person.

Florida: Schoolboy on break

Eager to make a catch, any catch he can,

he grips the rod and sets eye on the bobber;

imagining the strike, he wants to reel it in

to see what’s lurking in the water.

The intracoastal avenue is calm

until bridge jaws open to let a tall mast pass;

he loves the clap of wake on concrete wall,

he hates the shrimp blood on his hand. Time

swells, he’s an empty raft, God’s floater.

But then the rod bends, he pulls, reels, electrically alive,

and there’s joy in blood, I smell it in his voice,

the puffer fish ballooning now so fast

it’s like a ball dolphins nip for play, to get a toxin high,

and it blinks, unique in air, common and afraid.

From “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish” by Joshua Weiner. Copyright The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.   

Joshua Weiner’s most recent book is “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish.”  He lives in Washington, D.C.

VideoJew’s VideoGuide to L.A. #5–Jew vs. Wild

VideoJew Jay Firestone goes native in this episode of VideoJew’s VideoGuide to Los Angeles

Baja community begins where the land ends

Waves rush over a pebbled beach as the tensions of city life melt away. The Mexican sun hangs languidly overhead, bleaching colorful kayaks stacked along the shoreline. Hovering far off in the deep blue skies, parasailors are dwarfed by the arriving Carnival cruise ship that will soon drop anchor off the rocky coast.
It’s easy to understand why celebrities like John Wayne, Desi Arnaz and Bing Crosby were drawn here — yet kept it a secret for nearly 20 years after the 1956 opening of The Palmilla, the area’s first resort catering to sportfishing enthusiasts.
Located at the tip of Baja California, Cabo San Lucas is at the western end of what has become a 20-mile corridor of hotels and gated communities known collectively as Los Cabos, bookended in the east by the airport-adjacent town of San José del Cabo. The tiny fishing village has given way to beaches lined with luxury hotels and a notorious nightlife, but the laid-back seaside attitude still hangs in region’s salty air.
World-class golf courses, sportfishing, scuba diving, horseback riding, hiking and desert tours are all popular draws, as Cabo enjoys 350 days of sun annually. From December to April, gray whales migrate here to calve their young, and this year’s addition of the Cabo Dolphins center to the Cabo San Lucas marina adds the opportunity for visitors to swim with Pacific bottlenose dolphins (reservations are required).
Since tourism continues to boom here, drawing upward of 1 million guests each year, construction projects are part of the backdrop along the corridor, much like the Vegas Strip.
Many of the 100,000 permanent residents are retirees from north of the border, so this decidedly Mexican resort destination has an increasingly American sensibility. A plethora of U.S. retail chains and restaurants — including Johnny Rockets and Hard Rock Cafe — have set up shop in area malls and shopping centers, and even lox is now readily available at the local Costco.
Once the secret of Cabo was out, it seemed that there were few surprises left. But in the last year a very visible and increasingly vibrant Jewish community is taking shape where the land meets the sea.
While the exact number of Jews living here is not known, a communitywide Passover seder earlier this year at the Villa Del Palmar attracted more than 100 guests, and Shabbat services on the last weekend of each month routinely draws between 30 to 50 people to a donated third-floor space in the contemporary Puerto Paraiso shopping center.
Los Cabos is such a boomtown it has few natives. Jews attending community events hail from all over — America, Israel, Argentina, South Africa and other Mexican states. But the diversity has led to some communication problems.
“Israelis here don’t speak Spanish, and some Argentineans don’t speak English. So there’s no one language [that we have] in common,” said Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, who has conducted religious services in Cabo San Lucas over the last year. “When I give a dvar Torah, I don’t know what language to use. I do half English and half Spanish usually.”
Polichenco, director of Chula Vista-based Chabad Without Borders, says U.S., Israeli and Argentinean employees at Diamonds International have been spreading word about the religious services, as well as Adriana Kenlan, an English news broadcaster on Cabo Mil Radio.
But the person he credits with being at the forefront of Jewish organizing in Los Cabos is David Greenberg of Senor Greenberg’s Mexicatessen.
Greenberg, a 37-year-old L.A. native who grew up in the Conservative movement, came to Los Cabos in January 1992 to consider whether he would attend law school and never left. He knocked around in construction and restaurant management jobs and spent three years as a consular agent for the U.S. State Department. But after meeting Jim Sutter, the two became business partners and decided to open an upscale New York-style deli together in Cabo San Lucas. After getting pointers from Art Ginsburg of Art’s Deli in Studio City, the pair opened the first Senor Greenberg’s in the Plaza Nautica in October 1997, followed by a second location at Puerto Paraiso in September 2004.

“Next thing I know, I’ve got another restaurant, I’m married, I have a son,” said Greenberg, whose Mazatlan-born wife, Karla, converted through the University of Judaism.
As if his life wasn’t busy enough already with 11-month-old Joshua and a third Senor Greenberg’s scheduled to open this month in Plaza Gali near Cabo Dolphins, Greenberg is working hard to establish a Jewish presence in Cabo.
Real estate developer José Galicot, who is based out of San Diego and Tijuana, has provided the funds for Polichenco’s visits, he said. But that money was only intended as a stopgap and will dry up at the end of this year.
“It’s going to be up to us to see it through to 2007,” said Greenberg, who added that he expects developing a self-sufficient community here will be challenging.
Securing a permanent space at Puerto Paraiso for the Baja Jewish Community Center is the next step, he said. Hebrew classes, as well as Spanish lessons for Israelis, will be offered there, in addition to religious services. As far as future spiritual leadership, Greenberg hopes to track down a retired rabbi who would want to spend Jewish holidays in Cabo. And then there’s the matter of finding a Torah that would be stored at the center.
A Torah scroll already exists in Los Cabos, at the five-star Marquis Los Cabos, some 20 minutes east of Cabo San Lucas, where Mexico City-based proprietor Jose Kalach has set up a prayer room in his hotel, complete with a small ark. But the Torah is intended primarily for the Kalach family’s personal use. Hotel guests and wedding parties can use it, but a written request must be filed with the hotel at least one month prior. Since the sanctuary is attached to a conference room, scheduling conflicts can make availability less certain.
Opened in 2003, this Condé Nast gold list hotel was designed by Jewish Mexican architect Jacobo Micha, who modeled the hotel’s open-air arch entrance after El Arco, or the Arch of Poseidon, a famous 200-foot natural passageway at the tip of the Baja peninsula that travelers can walk through at low tide. Statues of winged angels stand at the ready in the hotel’s entrance and throughout the property (photo below).