The Matzo Ball Heiress by Laurie Shapiro released on Mar 1, 2006 is available now for purchase.
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That Time of Year
The dread kicks in for me around late February. It's not just the onslaught of my spring allergies. It's also the anticipation of Passover -- that unwelcome time of year when I curse my ancestor, Izzy Greenblotz. I couldn't avoid the stupid holiday even if my cousin Jake would allow me to skip my annual obligations in the factory. In my prewar apartment building's elevator, Mrs. Minsky from Penthouse A launches the annual Inquisition as she tugs on her Majorica pearls in glee. "Whose matzos are you buying this year?" Every year this is the funniest question she's ever asked, and her powdered face flushes with self-satisfaction. There's no need to answer her. Greenblotz Matzo is not only the number-one-selling matzo in the United States, it's the leading brand in Canada and England, even in Venezuela and South Africa. Wherever there are Jews, there is Greenblotz.
I handle my widowed neighbor with a diplomatic smile. Even though it's weeks too early -- Passover is not until mid-April this year -- she wishes me an anticipatory happy and healthy Pesach when we stop at our floor.
Soon, someone will ask the question I despise most: "How does the Greenblotz family celebrate Passover?"
Since "Greenblotz, Heather" is the only Greenblotz listed in the Manhattan phone book, when reporters from New York or Hadassah Magazine can't get through to the factory, they call my home line. I never deny that I'm from the Matzo Family, which would be too weird.
This year, when a reporter insists on specific details on our upcoming seder, I'm stuck delivering the family white lies that Jake usually spins from the factory office.
Why haven't I gotten my damn home number unlisted already?
"We have a quiet evening together," I say. "Just family." How can I ever tell the truth?
Can you imagine the family that makes the millions of artificial trees for sale in Kmart not celebrating Christmas, or the Cadbury family not celebrating Easter with a basket of chocolate eggs? I'm too mortified to admit that come Passover I'm home alone in my apartment, chugging down a liter bottle of Diet Coke and stuffing my face with a Panini 2 from the Italian deli around the corner on Second Avenue. That's prosciutto, red peppers and Swiss cheese -- a quadruple no-no as far as the traditional holiday is concerned.
My take on what's kosher has always been a little hazy, but even the most wayward Jew knows that pork is never ever kosher. When I was about training-bra age, eleven or twelve, I asked my father if pigs weren't kosher because they love mud. This made perfect sense to my preadolescent mind: dirty equals not kosher. Grandpa Reuben and Dad were padlocking the metal gate on the factory entrance; Wilson was waiting patiently by the open limo doors in the late-winter sleet. Dad, who my mother insists is very, very smart, too smart for his own good -- she claims he has an IQ of 150 -- shook his head and said, "No, kid, pigs are not kosher because they don't chew their cud. Only plant-eating mammals with multichambered stomachs are kosher. Ruminants do not carry as many diseases."
"'What's a ruminant?" I asked, but Grandpa Reuben interrupted.
"Some say that God didn't want us eating animals that eat other animals. Some say that God didn't want us eating the more intelligent animals. I say a bunch of people made up a bunch of rules to give a desert tribe something to believe in." Grandpa and Dad had a rare shared laugh. They forgot that my follow-up question was left hanging, and I quietly climbed into the black limo, so out of place on the (then) low-rent Lower East Side.
Secondly on the kosher affront, eating ham and cheese together is mixing meat and dairy. Such a combination is strictly forbidden to the observant, because, as Grandpa continued his religious lesson in the limo, "If you didn't watch what you ate in the desert without a Frigidaire, you got sick."
Then there's the panini bread itself, which our customers would call hametz. Bread is not allowed for the entire eight days of Passover. This custom honors the Jews that didn't have time to wait for yeast-leavened loaves to rise the day Moses rushed them the hell out of Egypt and away from the Pharaoh's rule.
Observant families prepare for Passover by burning any hametz that may still be in the house, every last crumb. It's a curious sight to see the handful of remaining religious Jews on the East Side carrying their half-finished loaves and frozen waffles to a communal bonfire raging in a Grand Street metal trash can. Sometimes when I speed by in a cab, I spy a happy teen stoking the hametz fire with a broomstick, smiling broadly at the joy of tradition.
The plate my sandwich rests on is my fourth sacrilege. A properly observant Jew would have one set of plates for meat, one set for dairy, and a third Passover set to use once a year. But this is a dish from the same Mikasa "Tulip Time" dinnerware I bought at Bloomingdale's my first year out of college and I still use all year long. Somewhere in my mother's colossal apartment on Park Avenue is a set of special Passover dishes given to my parents as a wedding gift. They were by Rosenthal, hand-painted a gorgeous pastel turquoise blue with open-petal fuchsia flowers. Wasted beauty. Now the dishes are bubble-wrapped and tucked away in a closet. Or maybe Mom gave the dishes to charity, since we only took the set out once or twice for company when I was really young. For keeping up appearances.
As long as I can remember, the Greenblotz Matzo factory has been kept kosher under the supervision of Schmuel Blattfarb, a devout rabbi with a sweaty forehead and startlingly wide hips. I had heard about him for years, but I first met him in the ground-level office of the factory the day I got my final marks for the first half of ninth grade. My mother and I waited patiently across the desk from my father and the rabbi as they completed the paperwork for the pre-Passover inspection.
As Rabbi Blattfarb got up to sign off, his chair rose with him. He then awkwardly prized it from his hips, lowered it back to the ground and announced that his fee had just gone up to ten thousand dollars a year.
After the rabbi sheepishly said goodbye to all of us, Dad raised the window and called to our handsome Portuguese driver, Wilson, that we would be right out. We were Brooklyn bound. My mother and father were in one of the better stretches of their marriage, and she had uncharacteristically telephoned Dad with the news of my exceptional marks. Dad uncharacteristically responded with spur-of-the-moment reservations for a congratulatory communal feast at Peter Luger's Steak House right across the Williamsburg Bridge.
"What does Rabbi Blattfarb actually do to deserve that kind of money?" I asked Dad at our artery-clogging dinner.
"Just ridiculous!" my mother marveled.
"Long answer or short answer?" Dad asked me.
"Short," Mom said.
"Long," I said.
"To begin with," Dad said, "the flour and water going into the factory must be certified one hundred percent kosher, which basically means a few phone calls. Then, since Moses and his followers had no time for leavening as they left Egypt, the matzo that's specifically kosher for Passover cannot be baked longer than eighteen minutes, which is the longest time flour and water can go without self-fermentation. It's not Blattfarb's time we're paying for though, it's his name."
Although the factory still more than meets the strict standards, and has the all-important Blattfarb stamp of approval, no one in my family has been kosher at home for two generations, let alone kosher for Passover with that scrubbing-the-house-for-all-crumbs business and that bothersome third set of plates.
Even though my family's dietary habits may raise eyebrows among those who care about these things, I don't think we're alone in eating whatever we want. From my observation, the majority of Jews in America are culturally, not observantly, Jewish. Except for a High Holiday or two, they haven't been to synagogue since their symbolic ascent into adulthood, a bar mitzvah for a thirteen-year-old boy, a bat mitzvah for a twelve-year-old or thirteen-year-old girl, supposedly spiritual events, but these days more about the gifts and party one-upmanship. The bar and bat mitzvahs I've attended over many years have featured an inexplicable Italian theme with an ice sculpture of the Coliseum and a Leaning Tower of Pisa cake; fifty decorative doves flying around the room who shat all over the white-and-blue table settings; multihued cheese cubes laid out on a table so that they formed an approximation of the bar mitzvah boy's face; the same bar mitzvah boy's triumphant entrance into the reception hall wearing a crown with a Star of David orb; three hundred primarily Jewish guests doing pharaoh dance moves to "Walk Like an Egyptian"; and most recently, a reception at the Times Square ESPN Zone during which the rabbi and the cantor from the morning's services drove arcade bumper cars.
Unlike today's bar mitzvah extravaganzas, the typical American Passover centers around a toned-down ritual meal that is on par with Thanksgiving in terms of family must. According to my father, it is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the world.
Passover is a week long, but the first two days are the big communal seder days, the ones that you're supposed to spend with your extended family. True, as far as Jewish holidays go, Yom Kippur, the High Holiday when you fast to mourn the dead, is up there. But it's too morose for a lot of people. Passover is different; it's happy-household time.
But what does the Greenblotz family do for Passover? The folks who cater Passover for the Jewish masses?
For the past five years, specifically to avoid Passover, my mother, Jocelyn Greenblotz (née Kaufman), has sent herself on a variety of impossible-to-reach-her escapes that involve snorkeling, an odd new hobby for one of the world's great shoppers. These high-end adventure tours attract the richest of the rich, like the man who invented polyester and several family members of the Roosevelts. Two years ago Mom took an $18,000 expedition cruise to Micronesia, which included snorkeling in Yap -- an island, she wrote cheerily on a three-line postcard, that has currency made of huge circular stone. Last year, she joined three girlfriends from the Yap trip on a journey to the Pitcairns. This time, she cheerily wrote on another three-line postcard, she snorkeled, and nearly every islander is a descendant of the mutineers from the HMS Bounty.
You won't find my expatriate father, Sol, at a seder dinner either. Almost ten years ago, Dad legally transferred his Greenblotz Matzo family board of directors vote to me, his only child, when he left the U.S. for Bali in a sudden rush to find himself. The last time I heard from him was after the terrorist bombing of the Sari Club in Bali; he was bidding goodbye to his villa and his two teenage servants (one girl, one guy) who got paid the equivalent of $25 a month. (Apparently a good wage for Bali.) I attacked Dad's bad handwriting and chronic abbreviations, working backward like a hieroglyphics expert, and still it took me twenty minutes to fully decipher the one-paragraph letter on light blue airmail paper. (I was as proud as the guy who broke the German code when I worked out abbre was his abbreviation for abbreviating.)
Server down. Thought I'd let you know I'm abbre my stay here. I'm spook by the rise of milit Islam in Indon. Have new luv, and we've decided to move to Amsterd. In touch shortly.
As my cousin Jake Greenblotz now heads the matzo factory, he must pass himself off as a kosher, dedicated Jew. But even he leaves a day of Passover-week media tours to go home to his longtime Irish girlfriend, Siobhan Moran, and they order in spareribs and chicken with jumbo shrimp.
If word got out what really goes down in the Greenblotz family, it would be a region-wide scandal. To me, it's already a personal tragedy.
There's the damn Filofax, by the microwave. I open it to the right day. "So, it looks pretty light. A phone meeting I'm sure Vondra can cover. Sure, okay, what time do you need me to be there?"
Copyright © 2004 Laurie Gwen Shapiro
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This book was truly HILARIOUS! I could not put it down. Mazel Tov on the writer for an awesome book!
The book was very funny. I really picked it up to learn more about the Jewish customs. It was disappointing there. Some of the situation were a bit far-fetched! But the cast of characters was great and it was an easy read.
As a non-practicing, non-Kosher, non-Jewish American Princess I thought this book was terrific! I learned alot about the religious traditions that have always been vague to me. This book was very funny throughout as well.
I loved this book! It was absolutly hilarious!
The five Greenblotz cousins sit on the board of directors for the family run matzo company. However, Jake actually runs the firm while his brother handles the Florida sales and documentary film director Heather fills in when Jake needs her. The other two cousins are estranged from this trio......................................... Heather takes a Food Channel crew on a tour of the matzo factory. Later, the interviewer Steve Meyers asks Heather out. When they return to her apartment following their dinner date, he informs her in the middle of sex that his station wants to televise her family¿s Passover Seder. After throwing Steve out, Heather panics because her family avoids Seders. She dines on ham while Jake has an Irish Catholic lover; the rest of the family is worse. However, Jake informs her that their business is in trouble as the competitors are part of conglomerates that spend a fortune on advertising. They need this show and a family to go with their Seder so Heather begins the hiring process. Of course the dysfunctional Greenblotz rally around the Seder................................... This is an intriguing look at a Jewish family fully assimilated into the American culture. The story line is fun to follow as Heather struggles to understand her heritage beyond her inheritance with the Seder serving as a symbol between the old and the new. Fans will appreciate this insightful look at the de-Americanization of Heather and her family who discover there is more to being Jewish than chocolate matzo............................... Harriet Klausner