Book Review: Treyf

Elissa Altman’s memoir shines light on an unorthodox upbringing.

Bacon (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Is our metaphorical Jewish communal tent wide enough to encompass Jews who are substantially outside the mainstream? After much literary meandering around remembrances of her life and family, that’s the question author Elissa Altman seems to be asking in this remarkable, beautifully written memoir, Treyf.
Neither Altman nor her family can be described as run-of-the-mill people or ordinary Jews. Her paternal grandfather was a “fireand- brimstone Orthodox cantor,” while his son, her father, often prepared bacon and eggs for his family’s daily breakfasts and took his wife and child to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant every Sunday night where they feasted on spareribs, shrimp in lobster sauce and “burnished fried rice speckled with tiny cubes of red meat the color of blood.”
Her father, Altman writes, was an advertising executive “who was obsessed with Clint Eastwood, Chopin and British equestriana to the degree that by the time I was nine, he had taught me to name every part of an English bridle, hauling me out at parties to show our inebriated neighbors what his daughter, who had never been near or on a horse, knew.”
Her mother is a frustrated performer, “a loud, confident, Ethel Mermanish singer” who had a TV show for one season and performed at the once-famous Copacabana night club in New York City in the late 1950s.
Then, she married Elissa’s father and her singing became restricted to cocktail parties in their apartment building. She would sing with people gathered around, urging her to perform.
“This was my mother – not dowdy and old-fashioned like my friends’ mothers – but stunning, a beauty that made my father the envy of every man in the building.”
The author describes herself as an “outlier.” That is the basis for the book’s title, as treyf means much more than non-kosher food. It also can refer to people who are outside the pale of Jewish normality, Jews whom other Jews consider to be unclean, undesirable – untouchable.
The cover photo, showing the author, as a child, sitting on Santa’s lap, tells us all we need to know.
Nonetheless, treyf in its dietary guise is a constant in the book, and pork and other non-kosher delicacies apparently have been and are constant sources of nourishment in her life. Her family’s love of those forbidden foods may not be entirely based on their taste buds but at least partly on her father’s subconscious need to repay his Orthodox father’s failure to show him even a smidgen of paternal love.
From an early age, Altman says she understood that she preferred girls to boys, the love that many traditional Jews consider “treyf.”
Eventually, she finds her way to cooking – and writing about cooking.
“I am forever on the outside, looking in, forever searching and looking for an anchor.... So I cook; I cook to feed them and to nourish them. I cook to feed and nourish myself. I cook as a way to crack open the shell of acknowledgment that I crave... I cook as a way to sanctity and peace.”
Feeding people makes them and her happy, she writes, recalling the many nights after her family had disintegrated that Gaga, her maternal grandmother, would cook for her and became her surrogate parent, providing her “with sustenance and love.”
Now, she lives in rural Connecticut, accepted, completely assimilated into America. She lives with a woman she says she loves and is a successful writer. She should be happy.
Altman, however, seems to be saying that there is something missing in her life.
“Belonging everywhere, I now belong nowhere,” she writes.
“On this night, I stand in my Connecticut kitchen, in our house, with my Catholic wife in the next room, listening to my father’s favorite Chopin Etude, our dogs asleep at her feet. I am safe – finally safe – even as I yearn for him, and for Gaga, and for Grandpa Henry, and for all who came before me.
“To know who I am; to remember where I came from.”
Let’s open that proverbial tent flap to Altman and others like her who are Jewish “outliers.”
Accepting her may facilitate her efforts to understand who she is. She may come to realize that eating pork – the ultimate forbidden food – is a subconscious way that many Jews reject their heritage.
And she may also learn that no matter how much non-kosher food she consumes, she is not treyf. ■ Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week.
His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.