culture/multiculturalism · Hispanics/Latinos · homosexuality · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · race/racism · Shabbos/Shabbat · teaching · writing

Challah Con Platanos

Here’s a very short play I wrote for a “Multicultural Jewish” writing contest. I didn’t win. The ending’s kind of abrupt. It was in my earlier days when I wasn’t writing so much. I was trying to give the readers a good indication of what my Shabbat meals were like.

The curtains open to a dining room in the home of the Katz family, Riverdale, New York, in the spring of the year 2007.

There is a large wooden dining table in the middle of the room. The table is covered in a blue table cloth. There are eight chairs. Four of the chairs are folding chairs while the four other chairs are made of wood that matches the table. In the corner of the room, there is a smaller table, no bigger than a stool, covered by a silver tray with two candleholders positioned atop it. The two white candles in the candleholders stand unlit. There is a box of matches on the tray.

As the curtain rises, Moriah Katz, a young woman wearing a hat, a bright pink dress shirt, a long brown linen skirt and matching brown Saucony sneakers, walks into the room towards the candles. Moriah lights the candles, covers her eyes and murmurs the blessing so softly, it is not heard. After she finishes, she fusses with the utensils on the table.

MORIAH, looking up from the table, to the audience: I didn’t realize I was Dominican until I decided to become Jewish. Before that, I was just a boring old, first-generation American with a penchant for arroz con habichuelas with a side of platanos. You know, basically, I was just like everyone else in New York or so I thought. I didn’t realize what I was getting into until I realized that every Shabbat, I was the strangest person at the table.

A young man, Moriah’s husband, Moishe Katz, wearing a colorful kippah and a black suit with a bright blue shirt, enters the room. He walks behind Moriah who seems so lost in thought that she does not seem to see or hear him walk into the room. He hugs Moriah from behind.

MOISHE: Honey, I think the Weissberger-Bergers are hungry. Is the table all set?

Moishe leads a young couple about the same age of the Katz couple to the table from the living room (off stage). The young woman, Bracha Weissberger-Berger, is wearing an elaborate large black hat, a stylish white blouse, calf-length black and pink silk skirt and black four-inch open-toed heels. Her wedding ring and engagement ring are prominently displayed on her left hand. The young man, her husband, Yaakov Berger, is wearing a black suit with a white shirt, black shiny shoes and a black knit kippah.

MORIAH: Thank you so much for coming over for Shabbat dinner! We finally got everything unpacked and it’s so nice to have everyone over.

MOISHE: Yes, well, we’ve washed and said hamotzi so let’s get this show on the road. Wait until you see what we have for dinner!

YAAKOV: Those are some great sketches in your living room, by the way. That drawing of the man, though….

BRACHA: …the naked man!

MORIAH, smiling: Well, he’s not completely naked, is he? He is wearing a leaf!

Yaakov and Moishe laugh.

BRACHA: Oh, Moriah, it all smells so great. What is it?

YAAKOV: Yeah, Moishe, what’s that funny thing I saw next to the washing cup?

MOISHE: Oh, that? That’s yucca! If it looks like a big brown root thing, that’s because it is. By the way, we’re having yucca with some garlic and onions tonight.

Moishe leaves the room to bring in a dish.

BRACHA and YAAKOV exchange a glance.

BRACHA: Wait, so what’s Yoooou-kaah?

MORIAH: Don’t worry, you don’t eat the outside raw or anything because it’s laced with cyanide. The inside’s okay though once you boil it. It’s just something my mom used to make me all the time growing up in Washington Heights.

Bracha and Yaakov are quiet for a moment before anyone speaks.

YAAKOV: Well, I didn’t know that you grew up in Washington Heights. Do you know Rabbi Levy at Breuer’s?

MORIAH: Uh, I grew up on the other side of the Heights.

BRACHA: Oh, then you must know Rabbi Lamm who teaches at Yeshiva University?

MORIAH: Well, no, you see, I grew up on the other, other side, you know, like those streets between Audubon and Broadway.

Bracha and Yaakov both widen their eyes and shake their heads.

Moishe walks in holding a white tray filled with food.

MOISHE: Well, here’s the first course.

YAAKOV: What is it?

MORIAH: Well, it’s gefilte fish, Yaakov.

YAAKOV, pointing at his dish: No, I mean, that thing on the side, it looks like a banana.

MORIAH, looking up into the air and shaking her head in exasperation: IT IS NOT A BANANA!

MOISHE: Excuse my wife, she gets upset when people call platanos, bananas.

MORIAH: Because they’re not!

BRACHA: Plata-what?

MOISHE: Platanos. You know, plantains? They’re like green or yellow starchy, um, almost bananas. MORIAH can fry them, bake them, boil them. It’s amazing! They’re even Kosher for Pesach.

YAAKOV: Really?

MOISHE: Oh, yeah, Moriah eats tons of yucca and plantains over Pesach. You know, she has a really hard time giving up rice and beans.

MORIAH: I just don’t understand eating that much potato in one week. Moriah sighs dramatically. We need to move to Israel so I can eat rice and “legumes” over Passover.

Moishe glances at Moriah sympathetically.

MOISHE: It’ll be okay, honey. So, Bracha, Yaakov, tells me that you’re a teacher? Moriah’s a teacher, too.

BRACHA: Yes, I teach Judaic Studies at the SAR Academy in Riverdale.

MORIAH: Oh, really, I hear they’re great. Very child-centered.

YAAKOV: Where do you teach, Moriah?

MORIAH: 11th Grade English at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School. Bracha and Yaakov look at Moriah blankly. You know that giant building behind Lincoln Center? It’s a public high school but it resembles a prison actually, what with the metal detectors and all….

BRACHA: Oh, so you teach in…(Bracha gulps dramatically.) a public school?!

MORIAH: Oh, yeah, it’s great. I mean, the kids are amazing. Some of the gang members are a little scary but some of them are actually very nice. We invited a whole bunch of my kids to the wedding. You ever seen Rabbi Avi Weiss break-dance?

MOISHE: Yeah, one of her students, Reggie, was break-dancing with Rabbi Weiss at the wedding. It was so great. Reggie’s long dreads would fling up and down, all over the place, as he was dancing.

YAAKOV, incredulously: Er, well, um, wow! That must have been some wedding.

MOISHE, wistfully: It was, it was.

BRACHA, in a worried tone: But the school’s safe, right? I mean, most of the kids you work with are from the Lincoln Center area near the school?

MORIAH: Oh, yeah, well, the metal detectors keep most of the weapons out but most of the kids are from Harlem and Washington Heights. I mean, I’ve only been attacked once and the girl was really just a deranged Honors student. There is one kid who lives right behind the school…in the projects.

YAAKOV: Wow, the projects! That’s scary.

MORIAH: Oh, the projects are okay. I lived with my grandmother in the projects for two years. It was a great two-bedroom apartment right off Chelsea Piers, downtown. The only problem is people, or maybe their dogs, peeing in the elevator. That can get really nasty. Plus this one time, this kid was kidnapped.

Yaakov and Bracha exchange a glance. Moishe shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

MOISHE: Well, anyway! My four-year-old sister did the cutest thing yesterday. She sent me these cookies in the mail the other day that she had baked with my mother.

YAAKOV: Wow, a four-year-old sister. There are four of you, right? You must be twenty years older than your sister!

MOISHE: Yeah, I am. There’s little Necia, the four-year-old and then there’s Batya and Joseph, who are a little closer to my age.

BRACHA: What’s that like? Having a little sister so young?

MORIAH: Well, in Spanish, Necia means “brat.”

YAAKOV: Doesn’t it mean miracle of G-d in Hebrew?

MORIAH: Trust me, we accept the Spanish translation in Necia’s case.

MOISHE, nodding: Necia likes to scream.

MORIAH: Yeah, honestly, in my family, you were lucky if they allowed you to talk. If you screamed like that, you didn’t make it to your fourth birthday. Actually, my nickname was Necia. I didn’t scream. I was just trying to talk here and there.

MOISHE: Moriah has a hard time with Jewish kids.

MORIAH: I’m just that I’m having a hard time processing. So, if the kid dances around at shul and screams at the top of its lungs to get its point across, you call the kid “creative”? That stuff doesn’t fly at a Catholic church. If you whisper at church, you’ll probably be labeled a future prison inmate or be reminded that there is a fiery hell awaiting you in the future.

BRACHA: Oh, um, so, how many siblings do you have, Moriah?

MORIAH: Oh. Moriah pauses dramatically. I have, I guess, about ten siblings. I’m the oldest of eleven or is it ten? I can’t remember.

BRACHA: Wow, so am I, isn’t it great living in such a big family?

MORIAH: Well, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t met them all.

Yaakov and Bracha share a confused look.

YAAKOV: Oh, why not?

MORIAH: Well, I only have three sisters on my mother’s side. Everyone else is on my father’s side. I told him I was going to give him condoms for his birthday.

Bracha, who was taking a sip of water, chokes on her water.

YAAKOV, loudly: You did not!

MORIAH: Oh yes, I called him in the Dominican Republic and I said, “Papi, you need to stop having kids. You’re not even sure how many you have anymore. You lost count. This needs to stop.”

Moishe sighs with a smile as he gets up from the table. He starts taking some bowls away to the kitchen.

MOISHE: Anyway! I think I’ll bring out the rice and beans. Moriah’s arroz con habichuelas are amazing. She makes this green goo for the beans that is really delicious.

MORIAH, laughing. It is not GREEN GOO! It’s called recaito but Goya sells it without a hecksher so I make it fresh.

YAAKOV: Oh, really? What goes into it?

MORIAH: Oh, a little bit of everything! Onions, garlic, green peppers, cilantro, basil, um, parsley…. I can’t remember what else but we put onions and garlic on pretty much everything.

BRACHA: Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. Sounds kinda spicy.

MORIAH: I don’t know if it’s spicy, but I store it in the fridge for when we make beans.

BRACHA: Do you eat rice and beans often?

MORIAH: Oh, yeah, it’s amazing. When I was growing up, if my mom didn’t make rice and beans, I didn’t even consider it food. I said mom, soup is not food, salad is not food, and spaghetti is not food. I never understood Americans eating salad as a meal. Actually, I never understood eating salad BEFORE the meal, either. We eat salad on the side.

Moishe returns.

BRACHA: Wow, so a lot of things must be really new for you.

MOISHE, laughing. Oh, you have no idea. She just had squash for the first time last week. Now, she’s addicted!

MORIAH: It’s definitely a culture shock. We had to go to premarital counseling because Moishe and I weren’t communicating. I would ask him constantly, “Are you sure you’re angry?” You know, because when Dominican people are angry, we yell, we throw things, we jump up and down, you know? You can’t miss it. I would say, “Moishe, you don’t even look angry.” I mean, he really didn’t. He would just say, really calmly, “I’m upset.” I mean, who announces that they’re upset?

Moishe laughs and Yaakov joins him.

BRACHA, shaking her head: Oh, that’s terrible.

MORIAH: Oh, yeah, it was pretty bad but we got through it. We meet each other halfway.

YAAKOV: How did you do that?

MOISHE: Well, you know, instead of saying, “Honey, is there anything for dinner?” I will say, “Honey, did you make dinner?” If I asked, “Is there anything for dinner?” She’d say, “I don’t know, look in the fridge.”

MORIAH: I don’t understand all those indirect questions. I mean, why not just get it all out? I can’t even talk to his Bubbe. Everything’s an indirect question. Moriah mimics an accented voice, impersonating Bubbe. “So, what do you think about children?” Just ask me if I’m pregnant and have out with it!

YAAKOV: Well, isn’t that a little blunt?

MOISHE: I used to think it was blunt, apparently, it’s just being direct.

The doorbell rings.

BRACHA: Who would be ringing your doorbell on Shabbos?

MOISHE: Oh, it’s probably Moriah’s sister and Moriah’s friends from college.

Moishe disappears to answer the door off stage.

BRACHA: But it’s so late. Why didn’t we wait to make Kiddush?

YAAKOV: Are they staying over? Isn’t this a one bedroom?

MOISHE: Don’t worry, BRACHA. They’re not Jewish. Moriah’s little sister just loves challah. The friends…I think it’s the grape juice.

MORIAH: Yeah. It may seem pretty strange but actually, my friends that are coming over are Christians. My sister, well, she’s Wiccan.

BRACHA: What’s a Wiccan?

MORIAH: Well, I guess it means she’s a witch.

YAAKOV, drops his silverware with a large clang: OH.

MOISHE: Yeah, I was telling my rabbi about how we were having all these people over. He was so surprised and he asked, “But where are you going to put them all?!” I told him, Rebbe, they’re not even Jewish. They just take the subway up and back down. Inviting non-Jews over for Shabbat dinners is great because you don’t have to worry about how they’ll get home or where to put them.

YAAKOV, in a surprised tone: Do you have non-Jews for Shabbat dinners often?

MOISHE: Of course, her students and friends come over all the time.

BRACHA, breathlessly: You mean, the gang members?!

MORIAH: Oh, they’re not ALL gang members but let me tell you about the time, I ran into two of them with little bandanas on with five of their friends. They were in the big elevator with me and a whole bunch of people at 181st Street. I was really annoyed because they were calling each other gay.

BRACHA: Uh…

MORIAH: Yeah, I told them to stop and that as far as I was all concerned if they were talking so much about being “gay,” they were probably all “gay.” I also asked them politely to stop embarrassing all Dominicans by acting so stupid in public.

YAAKOV: Weren’t you scared?

MORIAH: Of what? They all laughed. I keep telling them to stop calling each other gay. Don’t even get me started on the “N” word. They do it on the subway in front of other people and I know what people are thinking.

BRACHA: What are they thinking?

MORIAH: “Oh, look at those black and Hispanic kids, they can’t control themselves!” People think it says something about the whole “race,” not just these specific teenagers. I think people would respond the same way if they saw someone with a kippah doing something inappropriate, “Oh, look at those Jews” but I don’t know if people see that often.

BRACHA: Well! This has been quite a Shabbat meal.

MOISHE: Oh, but we’ve only just gotten started! We still have to bring the yucca out!

Moishe hurries out to the kitchen.

From the kitchen off stage, running water is heard. Moriah’s sister, Mar, is washing her hands.

MAR, loudly: Did you guys sing Shalom Alechem yet? There better be some challah. You guys better not have eaten all the challah!

The End

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15 thoughts on “Challah Con Platanos

  1. Love it, ending and all! Though you should continue it, would be fun to meet the sister and friends.

    We also have weird food, though less weird. I don't like ashkenaz food so it's dafina instead of cholent, my own fish recipe, vobla (Russian salted fish), chicken masala curry, etc. And always tea and not the crap that everyone drinks, the real stuff.

    I never got the whole salad thing either, waste of space.

    Don't really have that many non Jews over but not religious and OTD, plenty. One of my friends gradually went completely OTD, I invite him over and he enjoys it very much. I had a mutual friend over, the two of them used to be good friends, and I asked how come he doesn't invite the OTD friend for shabbat. He said he feels weird because the guy's OTD. WTF?! Not like he became a nazi or something!

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  2. You know there is no real botanical distinction between bananas and plantains, right?
    My husband spent his childhood in Colombia, so I had to learn how to make tajadas (and arepas, sancocho, arroz con coco, tamales… people are usually confused when they eat at our house, like “aren't you shluchim? where's the kugel?”) and I learned that in the process.

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  3. So, as I'm sure you know the texture, the flavor, and such are very different. Plantains are not bananas, bananas are not plantains. Perhaps, I would concede that plantains are a type of banana (as I call it “a banana cousin”) but they are not the same. Plantains have to be cooked, bananas don't.

    And for some reason, some frum people have almost passed out when we served them. I mean they get these really dramatic disgusted faces. It's intense. I try to remember that I make the same face when I see potato kugel.

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  4. My husband's mother (obm) was Cuban, so to honor that heritage I made the following meal for the Shabbat dinner we hosted at our home for out-of-town guests the night before my daughter's bat mitzvah:
    Chicken made with bottled Mojo sauce (Kof-K hechsher!) [black bean veggie patty for vegetarian friends], white rice, Cuban-style black beans, challah (of course), mixed green salad (I wanted simple and easy), meringue cookies for dessert (idea of my sister-in-law who says they are sometimes called “Cuban kisses”). My husband wanted to make fried platanos, but I vetoed the idea because I didn't want to have to clean up the spattering mess from the frying or have anything that wasn't fast and easy and we were expecting over 30 people (although only about half made it due to a snow storm that canceled plane flights).

    In a nod to my heritage, sometimes I cook Chinese stir fry for Shabbat dinner. But I've only done that when it is just my family: I don't make “weird” Shabbat meals for guests. I have invited Jewish friends for Chinese food on other evenings though. Sometimes when we have Chinese food for Shabbat, my husband tries to do Hamotzi with soy sauce instead of salt—to which my daughter says “Soy sauce does not go with challah, Dad.”

    Once when we invited minyan friends for Shabbat lunch and had meat cholent and kasha varnishkes, one of them remarked more than once “This meal is so traditional!” I'm not sure what she had expected. When we had invited her family to a Sunday brunch meal another time I think we served the standard “Jewish American” brunch of bagels and lox.

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  5. I appreciate how you put “weird” and “Jewish American” in quotes where both of those phrases in the context you used belong.

    As I’ve written many times, it really gets me that when we talk traditional Jewish food, we mean Ashkenazi/Eastern European food. When people make a Sephardic meal, no one calls it Sephardic or they add “traditional SEPHARDIC Jewish meal.”

    By the way, when I had my first Sephardic meal I thought I really like this, it tastes like the stuff I grew up eating, now pass the rice!

    The first time I had kosher pareve flan at a restaurant, I cried. When I can find the foods I grew up eating at home at kosher restaurants I get really sentimental. When my Jewish Dominican friends get together, we cook Dominican food and it’s almost like going to a Dominican restaurant. Of course, there are a billion Chinese kosher restaurants. And yeah, I’ve heard they’re not authentic (and I totally understand because I miss my Chinese best friend’s dad’s homecooking—he was a chef) but I would put up with an inauthentic Dominican kosher restaurant. I’d settle for ANY Dominican kosher restaurant.

    I am one of those people who likes eating the same thing every day and I love the food I grew up eating. I also love pasta, sushia, sweet and sour chicken, squash kugel, etc. But when it’s time to cook comfort food for Shabbat or for Thanksgiving, I make rice and beans. I find it hilarious that this falls under the “weird Shabbat meals that shouldn’t be made for guests.” But because of this issue, I’ve gotten into the habit of telling people: this is what we will be having for dinner or lunch. I appreciate it because I sure as well would have liked to know that all they were serving was potato kugel and fried chicken or deli meat—both which I don’t eat.

    I like challah best with honey. (I got my friend hooked on eating it with recaito, the major ingredient in Dominican beans.) In fact when it comes to “TRADITIONAL JEWISH FOOD,” the only JEWISH food I can think of is challah. Are there any other “foods” in the Torah? I make traditional Jewish food every Shabbat. It’s called (Dominican American) Jewish food. No nod to my heritage, I just eat what I like when I like it.

    An authentic Jewish meal involves: challah, grape juice and food. How did I go from pressure to assimilate in one culture (American) to pressure to assimilate to another (Eastern European Jewish)?

    I hope people are serving the foods they like, not the foods they think are “authentic Shabbat food.” It is after all YOUR Shabbat table.

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  6. Debbie, that kind of thinking is a pet peeve of mine. Why would I give guests what they can eat at home? Not to mention that I detest gefirte fish and Ashkenaz cholent.

    You know what traditional Jewish food is? BBQ meat!

    For my vegetarian friends I make stir fried rice or vegetables with tofu.

    btw, it's because of this kind of thinking, when we went to all you can eat Thursday at Essex, one of the choices was cholent and kishka! And it was mostly gone! What kind of a moron pays $20 to eat cholent on a Thursday?!

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  7. Perhaps I gave the wrong impression that we usually cook classic Ashkenazi food for guests. The main reason I don't cook Chinese for guests for Shabbat is that it is just too hard to do for a lot of people on a working day. For my own family one or two dishes is fine, but I'd need to have at least three or four dishes plus a soup for guests. Which means a couple of hours of chopping alone. That's why I have only cooked Chinese for guests on a Sunday night or secular holiday like New Years eve.

    When minyan friends had a new baby this summer we brought over a meal of pareve fish paella and dairy flan. But we gave them a choice of various dishes and that is what they chose: we didn't just spring it on them.

    Taking about “traditional Shabbat meals” reminds me of being amused that a friend's child thought my family might not eat meat, I think because he was so surprised that we served Dairy meals for Shabbat dinner and Shabbat lunch. His family is what I would consider to be a typical American Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox family. I expect that they always have meat on Shabbat.

    We did not initially serve them meat when they moved to the area because of worry about differing kashrut standards. My husband was friends in high school with the husband's sister and his mother had told my husband that her son had become pretty frum and probably wouldn't eat at our home. (Turned out not to be the case, but the mother might have also assumed that our home was totally treif since the home of my husband's grandmother whom he lived with in high school was not kosher.) Anyway, we don't eat meat that often and we don't always have meat for Shabbat. I guess he didn't notice that we had eaten meat at his house before. Since then we have had them over for a meat Shabbat meal. But recently he made a comment again suggesting that we might not eat meat. I think our Dairy Shabbat meals made a big impression on him.

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  8. I read this and my mind jumped to…how many times do I have to repeat that I'm from New York and how many times, no matter how do I repeat that do people look surprise to hear I was born in America? Yeah, it's amazing what people will tune out when they're NOT LISTENING.

    Plenty of my friends do dairy meals on Shabbat…we're lactose intolerant so we have done parve meals but we usually advise people first because as you note, people assume they're getting meat. The worst is when someone comes over and doesn't tell me they're vegetarian! We cook very, very few vegetables.

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  9. When I was growing up, shabbos meals were usually spagetti with marinara sauce, along with our challah and grape juice. This was not cultural, rather, because it was easy for my dad to make a spagetti dinner after a long day at his office. He was a single dad with a small child, so all of our meals were by default either out of boxes or cans, with shabbos being the exception. It's one reason why I loved shabbat so much, growing up. Real food? Sign me up!

    This is probably why I have absolutely no attachment to any kind of shabbos food as “traditional” vs “weird” – Ashkenazi food usually falls into the “weird” category for me, actually.

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  10. I also hate it when I don't know about a guest's dietary restrictions. These days I always ask. Some people are afraid that they are imposing on us if they tell us what they can't eat, but honestly I enjoy being able to be an extra-considerate hostess and I take it as a challenge to culinary creativity when faced with various restrictions (It's like cooking during Pesach when some people forget about all the normal foods and dishes that are perfectly fine to eat and end up eating disgusting things like Kosher l'Pesach “noodles”—I tried some once out of curiosity: blech!) Also, it is embarrassing when guests can't eat a lot of the food, so telling me about restrictions ahead of time is doing me a favor.

    Last Thanksgiving a friend of a friend came and we didn't know that she was gluten intolerant. We could have easily made some of the chestnut/wildrice/fruit stuffing without the bread if we had known. In fact, we are doing that for my cousin (who just found out about her gluten intolerance) for Thanksgiving this year. At least I had on hand some pareve sorbet to offer our guest as a dessert alternative since the other options all had flour.

    I still remember years ago inviting a college friend who was a real meat-and-potatoes kind of guy to our home with his girlfriend (now wife). Luckily, we had not yet added the meat to the mushroom sauce when they arrived and we found out that the girlfriend didn't eat red meat.

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  11. Had an “interesting” moment once. Guest came over on Friday to bring a bottle of wine, or beer, don't remember. He dropped by while I was making dafina, right as I was about to add rice with toasted almonds. Apparently, he's allergic to almonds and didn't bother informing me about it.

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