The 60s are beguiling. I don’t mean the 1960s. I was born in 1959 and couldn’t say ‘permissive society’ back then, let alone live it. I mean being in my 60s, an age that seems, so far at least, to be dramatically different from its younger sibling. In my 50s I was just a mature adult, not especially different from what I’d been before. Now, as I slide toward my 62nd birthday, I consider mortality, think about pensions, look at obituaries to see how old the deceased were, consider how old my heroes were when they died (often younger than I am now) and bathe in memory and nostalgia. And few things trigger thoughts of times past as vehemently as food.
Back to those not so permissive 1960s. My dad was a cab driver—Jewish, naturally; from Hackney; where else?—and took me along to White Hart Lane every second Saturday for home games, and to few a local away ones. Arsenal of course, but as the late, truly great Peter Cook said, ‘the smell was awful’, West Ham, and Chelsea—shame on you Giles Fraser.
After the games, as the splendid green of Tottenham’s holy fields faded into the cloak of dusk, we would drive to my grandparents, Dad’s mum and dad, for Shabbos dinner. Not Shabbat. We were Ashkenazi and this was before the Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew became dominant in the diaspora. Shabbos. We weren’t at all religious, proven by the fact that we’d been driving to watch football.
If my dad had a rabbi, he wore a white shirt with a cockerel on the front; also, these sabbath dinners should really have been on Friday rather than Saturday evenings. Post-sabbath, so to speak. For me it was even more confusing, because I was the product of a mixed marriage. So, it wasn’t religion as such, but it was faith. Family, friendship, tradition, culture, community. Faith.
There, in this little flat in Stoke Newington I’d sit down to a feast that seemed as foreign to me as Sheffield Wednesday for a semi-final game. I was British all through. Bacon-eating, milk-and-meat-mixing, non-Kosher-consuming British. Yet here on Saturday nights I’d be taken to the dining rooms of Odessa and the Pale of Settlement, to gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls (we called it kneidlach), brisket, roasted chicken, and latkes. Not at all the Mediterranean Diet but very much the eastern European diet. Spend any time in Ukraine, Russia, or Poland and you realise that much of Ashkenazi cuisine is as Slavonic as it is Jewish.
There would be prayers over the wine and the bread, my grandfather would pronounce on something or other, and then the game would start. Not the referee’s 3pm whistle but something rather similar in a way. I can’t claim that we were discriminating, that fine wines were drunk, or that the food was even especially good. That, however, isn’t really the point. It’s not the quality of the table but that there was family seated around that table. A people whose recent ancestors had fled pogroms and oppression, who had lost so many in those regular slaughters and then in the genocidal filth of the Shoah, sat in safety and pushed up their cholesterol count with those they loved and trusted. That was—yes—faith at is finest. Somehow, God knows how, they had survived history. Yes, God did and does know.
Now, half a century later I sit my large, warm, comfortable Toronto home and share a much more delicate and subtle meal with my Canadian, non-Jewish wife, who until she met me knew very little of Jewish working-class life in North-east London. How could she, why would she? But she knows me and, for some reason, loves me. So, I, now an ordained cleric in the Anglican Church, and Bernadette, a serious Roman Catholic from an Anglo-Indian family, share food, drink much better wine, and experience what may seem a different form of faith and community but is in fact almost identical. Because it’s based and built on love and trust.
Coronavirus cuts its way through what we’ve assumed to be normal, rips at families, dents health, and even steals lives. It is a bastard! We will not, however, go gently into that dark virus and one of the links in the chain of goodness and resistance is the symbiosis of food and faith. My grandparents are gone now of course, as are my parents, and their siblings—even my dad’s brother who played for Spurs reserves and was offered a contract by Norwich City when they were in the Third Division South—if you don’t know what that is, look it up. Gone but not forgotten in my 60s memory and in my 60s love. ‘Let the boy eat’, my grandma used to say about me to my dad. Yes, let us all eat. It’s matter of faith.