August 17, 2019

Hot Dogs, Knishes and Death

A Hebrew National hot dog wrapped in a potato knish AKA hush puppy

In my final column for the Jewish Journal today, I got the chance to thank publicly many of the people who helped, inspired and supported me over the years.

Marlene Adler Marks was one of them. She was managing editor when I started at the Journal.   She wrote a weekly column called “A Woman’s Voice” in the days when there were few female columnists taking on subjects beyond family life. It was, alas, the days before the Internet too, so the column never got far beyond LA. That’s a shame, because Marlene was too good for analogue.   She always wanted a bigger readership, and her writing—original, strong, unafraid—deserved it.

Her best column was her last. She was diagnosed with interstitial lung cancer at age 52.   What a joke: she never smoked, not once. In all the times we ate lunch together, all I remember her eating was cut fruit.   She was whippet-thin, a yoga fanatic long before there were $40 T-shirts saying, “Yoga Fanatic.”   When we went to one of those fundraising banquets— which, by the way, I will not miss, not for one second—Marlene would drink a glass of red wine– and eat a fruit plate.

After diagnosis, she lived two more years:  54.

The column, published August 31, 2002, is entitled, “Oh So Sorry.”    (The Journal posted it in 2014.) Today, just before I was about to Tweet the link to a friend, I re-read it. She wrote it during the period just before the High Holy Days, so on the eve of the eve of Yom Kippur, it feels more like liturgy. She wrote about why denying ourselves the pleasure of food can only lead to regret. The older I get, the more profound, sad and funny this column is.   Here’s a taste:

Saturday is Selichot, the time when the whole Jewish world sings with Connie Francis, “I’m sorry,” and vows to do better next time. Many of us are focused on the wrongs we’ve done to others, or even to God. 

This year, however, as I contemplate in yet a new way the impact of lung cancer, there’s no one to whom I owe apology more than myself. 

Yes, many of my apologies go to me. I should have eaten more hot dogs, with mustard and sauerkraut. And even more hush puppies, which in Jewish delis are hot dogs wrapped in potato knish, served best (if not only) in New York. 

I know what you’re thinking: you were only watching your health. But if you want a hot dog and never give yourself a hot dog, what are you accomplishing? Fear of food is, I think, a crime against the soul, the shutting down of the appetite by which we show our confidence in being alive.

Read the rest here.

My new High Holiday tradition to add to the apples, honey and fasting: re-reading Marlene.



With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough

There’s a scene in the 1991 film “L.A. Story” where a waiter in a trendy eatery takes increasingly complex coffee orders from a table of Hollywood types, ending with the sublimely ridiculous “half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.”

What caused a guffaw back then might hardly merit a chuckle in today’s world of low-carb, no-sugar, gluten-free and locally sourced food preferences.

Add in kosher laws, and this laundry list of dietary restrictions can make hosting Shabbat and holiday meals a real headache.

“What we see in the Jewish community mirrors what we see in the larger community,” says Morlie Levin, CEO of Birthright Israel NEXT, which has subsidized nearly 12,000 home-hosted Shabbat meals for young alumni of its 10-day Israel programs over the past three years. “You can even get gluten-free challah now.”

In order to receive their subsidy, hosts in the program have to fill out questionnaires detailing what they served. The data show that 25 percent of the meals are vegetarian, 5 percent are vegan, 20 percent are organic and 30 percent are “local.” When the meals are meat-based, at least half of them offer a vegetarian option.

Staffers say they don’t hear many complaints about hard-to-handle dietary requests.

“My impression is that the people who host the meals are people who eat that way anyway,” says program manager Emily Comisar. “A vegetarian will host a vegetarian meal.”

In today’s society, it has become commonplace for hosts to ask guests about food restrictions ahead of time. The old standard, “Are you vegetarian?” has morphed into the broader query, “Is there anything you can’t eat?”

The change reflects a growing awareness of morally and spiritually motivated diets as well as actual food allergies.

Public relations consultant Gary Wexler was putting together a meal for a group of Jewish professionals in Los Angeles recently.

“This one doesn’t eat dairy,” he wrote in mock frustration. “This one doesn’t eat meat. This one only eats vegetarian. This one only eats vegetarian from a kosher restaurant. Is there anything I’m missing before I buy the food tomorrow???”

As someone who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, Wexler says he sympathizes. He belongs to an “empty nesters” Shabbat group that eats together one Friday night a month. While they are careful to prepare food he can eat—no legumes, low on dairy and leafy greens—there is always something he can’t eat.

“It’s become very PC and fashionable for people to ask if I have any food restrictions, especially younger people,” Wexler says. “But when they ask, what they mean is am I vegetarian. They’re not expecting some guy turning 60 to say yeah, I’ve got irritable bowel syndrome.”

Younger Jews certainly seem to be more attuned to particular eating, from those who want their produce to be locally sourced and pesticide-free to those who insist their meat be sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered. And it had better taste good, too.

“What’s changed in recent years is that many more people are presenting various food restrictions and preferences to the host with the expectation not only that they’ll be accommodated, but that the quality and sophistication of the food will be comparable to those without such restrictions,” says Rabbi Rebecca Joseph, chef-owner of 12 Tribes Kosher Foods in San Francisco.

In addition to her catering business, Joseph regularly hosts groups of up to 40 friends for Shabbat and holidays meals. Years ago the most common restriction she would hear was from people who did not want bread or dessert because they were dieting.

“We don’t hear that much anymore, but we do hear stand-ins,” Joseph says. “People who say they’re vegan or gluten-free, which often means they’re on a diet.”

While she says she would never dismiss a food allergy, Joseph says the growing awareness of such allergies leads some people to “medicalize” what are really food preferences.

“If they don’t like almonds, they think they have a physical reaction to it and they’ll say they’re allergic,” she says.

On the East Coast, Tamar Fox matches up people with hosts for Shabbat and holiday meals at Kehillat Hadar, an independent minyan in New York that caters to Jews in their 20s and 30s. Hadar has a published kosher policy that hosts are expected to follow.

Beyond that, Fox asks people whether they have dietary restrictions, and then tries to send them to appropriate hosts. It doesn’t always work, especially when food worlds collide.

“If someone is vegan, we try to give the hosts notice, but there are some hosts who can’t or won’t accommodate them,” she says. “The host might be lactose-intolerant, so prefers to serve a meat meal and can’t accommodate a vegan.”

Fox says she doesn’t get many ethically based food requests, although she recently hosted a guest who said he ate organic eggs only.

“He told me at the meal and there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” she says. “Generally I don’t hear people say they only eat organic or local. People do say, I’m vegetarian, I’m vegan, I don’t eat gluten.”

Fox says that recenty she has come across more and more people with food allergies. One person she hosted was allergic to dairy, fish, poultry, sesame oil and cantaloupe.

“That was pretty hard,” she says.

In general, Fox and her peers say they’re used to fielding such requests. It’s par for the course, especially in the under-40 generation.

Alix Wall, a personal chef in Oakland, Calif., says things have gotten out of hand. She loves to host Shabbat meals with a friend, and says the two of them sometimes don’t invite certain people because they don’t want to deal with the dietary restrictions.

“Sometimes we have to rule out certain combinations of people,” she tells JTA. “This one doesn’t eat meat, this one doesn’t eat wheat, so you’re left with nothing. You just have to throw up your hands.

“All the dietary stuff you have to deal with in the Bay Area is really annoying,” Wall adds. “Some of it is allergies, but a lot of it isn’t.”

Chalk it up to affluence, says Joseph.

“We live in a world of such abundance that we have the luxury of having a long list of things we won’t eat, and we still eat very well,” she says.

“This is a problem of an affluent society and,” referring to the Jewish community, “an affluent group within that society.”

From Fritos to Freedom

“I bet you could lose the weight if you really wanted to."

"You just need to have more will power."

"Come on, don’t be lazy."

Struggling with being overweight affects more than 75 percent of all Americans, and is a serious problem for the Jewish population in the United States. But it is not a moral issue.

I’ve always struggled with my weight. I could lose the weight but never keep it off. I remember many times getting to my goal weight and then thinking, "Hooray, now I can eat again." I usually would end up gaining all the weight back that I had lost plus more. That was always the problem with diets for me.

And it would always start with that first bite. Fritos chips. My head would say, "Oh we’ll just have one bag, you’ve been so good, it’s just this time, we’ve had a tough day, we just need to take the edge off." And then, of course, the all-famous, "We’ll get right back on track tomorrow."

The only problem was that it was never just one bag and it always led to more food — maybe not that day, but maybe later that week or the next, and soon I ended up back to my old ways of eating.

There’s the "normal" type of eater who might have gone through a traumatic or stressful experience, put on a few pounds and, when the experience passed, was able to take the weight off. Then, there is someone like me. Without realizing it, I used food to alter my state. It was a way of life. I didn’t know any other way. Did that mean I was lazy? Lacked willpower? Liked to be overweight? Didn’t care about my looks? No.

I was a grazer kind of an eater — just kind of noshed all day long. I didn’t even realize it until the scale made me take a hard, honest look.

I guess it is called an eating disorder. I remember trying to explain it to my Jewish grandmother, of blessed memory. "Vat’s an eating order?" she would ask.

I said, "Bubbe, it’s eating dis order — it means I would eat dis order of french fries, dis order of onion rings and dis order of ice cream. Now you understand dis disorder!"

Why was I altering my emotional state with food? Who knows? I believe we are all here to learn how to serve God, and part of that process is learning to live life on life’s terms, not turning to outside fixes when things don’t go our way. This is the path of emotional maturity. This is the path toward the Almighty. We are all looking for God. My overworking, overthinking, overeating, overeverything were ways I unconsciously cut myself off from God. But, on the other hand, it also has been part of the process to become closer to God.

It’s neat when you first lose the weight. I lost 50 pounds. People really get excited. "Wow, you look fantastic." "Wowee gazowee, you look awesome!"

But now I’ve been at goal weight for a long time and nobody says anything, which I can kind of understand. What are they gonna say, "Wow you look the same!"?

I remember the first time I tried eating in a different way. My kind friend suggested that I eat three meals a day with life in between.

"Life in between?" What did that mean? I have come to learn that it means life on life’s terms. Happy, sad, glad, mad, frustrated, excited — all feelings and emotions that life brings that has nothing to do with food. So the first day of my new food plan I ate my breakfast, and then a few hours later I remember feeling like I would actually starve if I didn’t put some food in my mouth. I called my friend. I told her, "If I don’t eat something right now, I’m not gonna make it!" I’ll never forget what she said to me.

"Wow, I never heard on the news or in the newspaper headlines: "Women dies of starvation from not eating between breakfast and lunch!"

As I continue to grow in my Yiddishkayt, I see that part of maturity comes from delaying instant gratification. Who knew? You mean I can say no to Fritos and step up the ladder on emotional growth?

Some people are normal eaters and can have a cookie or two. God has a sense of humor. For me one cookie was too much and 1,000 was never enough.

He used french fries, Fritos and frozen yogurt to get my attention. Now since I can’t indulge like I use to, I have to call on him. So today I say thank you God for this funny relationship I have today with food. It has brought me closer to the Almighty.

On the Sabbath, the way I related to food was avodah zora-like (idol worshipping). Why was I thinking about the dessert at "Kiddush" while the rabbi was speaking? I really had to take a look at that. How can Shabbat be about God if it is about the food? I’d try little tricks — eating perfectly in front of others and then going to town when I got home — or saying I’m just going to have one cookie, or one piece of chocolate. But once that sugar hit, I’d be making a new trail in the rug with going back and forth to the kitchen for more.

By being sick and tired of being sick and tired of my relationship with food, things have changed.

Maybe your thing isn’t food. With the overweight person it’s easier to be judgmental. But know that fat is not a moral issue.

I remember that before I lost the weight I went to see Dr. Goldberg. She said, "Part of your problem is that you push down your feelings with food. You need to express yourself. Get it out, don’t push it down. Out, out, out. Express yourself."

The next night when I was getting mugged at gunpoint, I told my assailant, "I’m feeling very angry." He put the gun down, looked at me and said, "Dr. Goldberg?"

Now that the weight is off I noticed I was shopping more. I decided to have a meeting with my rabbi. I asked him how to have a meaningful, happy, fulfilling life. He basically told me that the goal is to align my will with God’s will. I left the meeting with the rabbi and I was very moved.

"Make my will God’s will. I think I got it! Wow, this is deep. Oh, yeah. I am a spiritual giant now. Mashiach now!"

And as I was seriously contemplating aligning my will with Gods will, I drove to Beverly Hills.

So I am standing on Rodeo Drive looking at a dress in the window that I know I can’t afford and I say to myself, "How do I know it’s not God’s will? Why would God have me on Rodeo Drive? I know. Maybe I should go and try the dress on and see if it fits then I’ll know if it’s God’s will. It fits! It must be God’s will. Well, just to make sure, if the money is in my purse, then I’ll know it’s God’s will."

I put my hand in my purse and pull out my Visa Card. "Aaaah, he’s everywhere you want him to be."

You see that’s the great thing about credit cards. Now I have the dress, and God has 30 days to get me the money.

If you do not suffer from food issues, then God bless you and remember, "There for the grace of God go I." But if you are struggling, there is hope and help. If you are a friend or family member of someone who has food-related issues, keep in mind that help is out there for those who want it, unfortunately not for those who need it.

I write this in loving memory of my father, of blessed memory, Label ben Meisha, who died of a heart attack. He was overweight and diabetic and said, "If I can’t have my sugar at night, I’d rather die," which he did.

Sandy Wolshin Mendlowitz is a
writer, motivational speaker and stand-up comic. She is also a dating coach for
marriage-minded women at