CULTURE SHOCK: BAGELS VS. BISCUITS
Love knows no religions, no country or state boundaries or even different upbringings. Love can just happen to the most unlikely pairs and somehow, someway, it works for them. My parents were such an example. Theirs was a marriage between a Yankee Jew and a Southern Belle.
Sam Singer came from a family with Russian Jewish roots. His parents were both from the Kiev area of Russia and had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s so Sam was a first generation American who grew up in Pennsylvania and New York City, the heart of the North. He quit school early to help support the family and so did not have much of an education.
Martha Sugg could trace her ancestry back hundreds of years and her line includes some famous people. Her ancestors came originally from England and Scotland, but lived and died in North Carolina for generations. Their roots grew deep in the Southern soil and her family was steeped in the Southern culture and lifestyle. While Martha did not attend college, she did graduate high school, but loved to read and reading is always enriching in so many ways. She was also a talented artist and even wrote a book which I published for her posthumously: “Aquilla, Indian Captive”.
World War II changed the lives of millions of people and set about events that would not have happened otherwise. It was due to this war that Sam, in his army uniform, happened to be stationed in Durham, North Carolina, in the early 1940’s.
Martha was there too, working at a job, possibly also in connection with the war effort. There was a dance they both attended. They met and dated. Often, the uncertainties of war and all that it implies, heightened senses and made people more aware that lives could be changed all too drastically and quickly. Perhaps it was this or whatever reasons, Sam and Martha were married on February 6, 1943.
Can you imagine the shock experienced by her family when she announced she was going to marry this soldier none of them had met? Not only that, but he was a Yankee. In the South, this was still a dirty word and DamnYankee was all one word. They weren’t still fighting the Civil War, but the memories of the atrocities done to their people and land at the hands of the Northerners were not so easily forgotten. Add to this the “Jewish” factor and they had to be totally perplexed. After all, they had never actually ever seen or met a Jew. What were they like? Did they have horns? A Jew was as foreign a thing as an alien from outer space and probably just as frightening. ‘What was Martha thinking?’ had to be going through their minds.
However, once they actually met Sam, their misperceptions changed and they embraced him when they realized he was just like any other man, except perhaps for his accent.
Meanwhile, just to show that ignorance and prejudice wasn’t just on that side, Sam’s family were at first quite aghast when told that he was bringing home a Shiksa from Tobacco Road! [Shiksa is a Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman. Tobacco Road was a play derived from a novel that was popular around this time, but depicted the South as nothing but dirt roads, shacks and poor white people]. Martha did get quite annoyed with the ignorance of so many people in New York. She felt quite insulted when they would ask her if they had schools or things like washing machines or even indoor plumbing. Many had never been to the South and were clueless. However, she would just say that yes, they did have all those wonderful modern contraptions.
So Martha was just as much an “alien” to them as Sam was to her family. Again, once they met her, they too came around. Still, there were so many differences between them, how could they possibly make it work?
Not long after their first child, Lynn, was born, Sam had to go overseas. Martha took Lynn back to her home in North Carolina and stayed with her family for the five years it took for the war to finally be over and Sam could come home for good. So Lynn had a very Southern upbringing for her first five years. After that, she and her siblings, Jeff and Marcia, were reared in Elmhurst, Queens, New York. But every summer, all or some of them would make the trek down South for a visit. Whether by train, bus or automobile, Martha had to return to her roots to soak in good times with her own family and rejuvenate herself for the rest of the year she spent in that foreign culture of the dreaded North. She stayed there for Sam because she loved him and that is where he made his living, but she never truly belonged, like a captive wild animal having to live in a zoo. While her physical being was there, her heart was always in the South.
This odd couple did, however, create some very entertaining verbal experiences for us kids especially. When misbehaving, we were often threatened with a “potch in the tuchas” which was a slap on the butt. Sam would say “stood in bed” when he meant he was sick and didn’t get up. He mentioned a place we thought was fictional, “Pennsyltucky” but I later learned there actually was an area that was called that. He bandied about many Yiddish words learned from his own home life that we too learned long before many of them became mainstream. A “clutz” was a clumsy person; a “kvetch” was a whiner or as a verb: to complain; “meshuggenah” meant crazy; “mespocha” was family; “shlep” meant either to steal or carry as a heavy load; “alter kocka” was an old man; “kibitz” was to kid around; “schmatte” was an old rag or dress; “schmo, schmuck, shmegege” were words for fools or idiots and “shnoz” was a big nose. These were just some of the words we learned. He would sing a little ditty about “feet up, pat him on the pippick, let’s hear him laugh”, “pippick” being the stomach.
Sam would call my boyfriends “Chaim Yankel” instead of their names (not to them directly of course). It means basically Mr. Nobody. I could only assume it was because he didn’t much like them and couldn’t even bother to remember their names. He called my girlfriend Tracey “Dickless Tracey”. He thought that was funny. I did too actually.
Because Yiddish and German are similar in many ways, Sam could understand the German spoken in old World War II movies and we enjoyed that he could translate for us.
In later years, I dubbed the TV series Bonanza as “Ben Yenta and the Whole Mespocha”. “Yenta” in this sense meant busybody more than matchmaker because Ben Cartright and his family were always getting involved in everyone else’s predicaments.
On the other hand, we grew up hearing many quaint Southern expressions: “in the short rows”, eating “high on the hog”, “as slow as molasses in January” and more. My favorite one of her sayings was when she was very annoyed at something and she’d say, “It just makes my a$$ want to chew tobacco!” It defies explanation.
When faced with a situation Martha didn’t much like, she would often say, “I can’t be bothered with that!” It reminded me of Scarlett in Gone With The Wind who puts off hurtful things by ‘thinking about it tomorrow’. It was definitely a discussion ender! Sadly, I find myself using that expression at times also. They say we turn into our mothers so I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise.
On those years when we would all travel in our car to North Carolina, Sam would wake the kids up in the wee hours of the morning so we could get out of Manhattan before the traffic picks up. So around 4:00 a.m. we would have to eat or drink a little something before being loaded into the backseat of the car where we usually went back to sleep. Unfortunately, this created the perfect situation for carsickness and Sam would often have to stop the car to let a sick kid puke by the side of the road. Marcia was especially prone to this and so hated that part of the drive.
On time, we were in southern New Jersey and the sun had finally risen in the sky and everyone was ready for a real breakfast. As we turned off the highway, Martha exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t wait to get some freshly squozen orange juice!” No, that’s not a typo. She said freshly squozen and we all laughed riotously over this obvious malapropism and then had to figure out what the real expression should have been. After some discussion, we decided “fresh squeezed” was correct, but frankly, we loved her way so much better. After that, it was always freshly squozen for us!
Another time, also on one of our road trips south, she came up with another jewel that just shouldn’t be forgotten. At a certain point, the billboards begin proclaiming the upcoming business establishment of Stuckey’s, a well known roadside store in the South. The name probably rhymes with ‘lucky’, but my mother pronounced it as if it rhymed with ‘cookie’. Every mile at least, there is another billboard: “Stuckey’s – 5 miles!” “Stuckey’s – 4 miles!” “Stuckey’s – 3 miles!” “Stuckey’s – 500 feet!” They wanted to be very sure you didn’t miss this place and it wasn’t even all that great. We did actually stop there once. No one was very impressed. Sorry, Stuckey. Once you pass this Stuckey, they start advertising the next one: “Stuckey’s – 50 miles!” You get the picture. Apparently they had a HUGE advertising budget. Finally, Martha was so tired of these signs, she proclaimed, “I’d like to stick a stick up Stuckey’s tooky!” [Tooky being her Southern pronunciation of tuchas]. We all cracked up and remember this every time we think about Stuckey’s or long road trips.
Martha would often ask me to get her a pin (rhymes with sin). I would dutifully look around her sewing items and bring back a pin out of the pin cushion.
“No, I need a pin,” she would tell me again and I would say, “This is a pin!”
“I need a writing pin,” she clarified.
“You mean a pen,” I would correct her pronunciation making it rhyme with ‘men’.
“That’s what I said, pin,” she would answer saying it exactly the same as before. I shut up and found her a pen. This happened often.
Sam could be much the same. When he came down South, he had to learn a whole new language almost. My husband and I were talking with him one day and he was ranting about the Kudzee vines that were taking over. Phil gently said, “It’s Kudzu” (pronounced correctly with a zoo on the end).
“Yeah, that’s what I said, Kudzee,” Sam replied and kept talking. We gave up trying to get him to see the error of his ways and so to this day, it’s Kudzee to us and we remember Sam fondly because of it.
Growing up in this multi-cultural home had its effect on me also. While in North Carolina on our yearly vacations, I would say something to my cousins such as ‘dawg’ for dog or ‘bawl’ for ball. They would laugh hysterically and says it’s ‘dahg’ and ‘bahl’. I was so embarrassed and it made me feel so out of place. But then, it got worse. One day in art school in New York, I said something about a foster home pronouncing it like ‘fahster’.
“You mean ‘fawster’ don’t you?” one of my classmates asked.
“That’s what I said, foster.” Everyone laughed at me. They wanted to hear what other words I said wrong (in their eyes) and ‘chocolate’ came up. I said ‘chah-co-loht’ to their ‘chaw-co-lawt’. I couldn’t win no matter where I went. My words, like so many other things, were a mish-mash of Northern and Southern.
When I first moved to North Carolina, people would often say, “You’re not from around here, are ya?” I would have to ‘fess up that I was indeed from the notorious New York. “Yeah, I thought so,” they would say. “You talk funny.” Now that I’ve lived here a long time, I rarely get that question anymore. I’ve changed my ways.
While we were still dating in North Carolina, Phil and I went to the movies to see “Blazing Saddles”. It is full of Yiddish words and sayings, most of which I knew which was funny in itself to me. However, they got to one part that really got to me because I thought it was only used in my own family. Mel Brooks and another person were dressed up as Indians and were sitting on their horses on a hilltop looking down at the last wagon in the wagon train trailing the others with a black family in it. Mel simply says, “Hmm. Schwartzes.” Well, I was laughing so hard at this I couldn’t even answer Phil when he wanted to know what was so funny. I was also the only one in the entire theater that was laughing at this. I was almost on the floor with hysteria.
Later, I explained. While I was growing up, the adults would talk in whispers about ‘the Shwatzies’ as I heard it which may have just been my mother’s southern pronunciation. It just means black in German or Yiddish and it was used to talk about black people without them knowing it. I don’t think it was meant in any derogatory way and I quickly figured out what it meant. But I had never heard it used anywhere else until that movie. Anyway, I thought it was amazing that it was more common than I realized.
Another great story we have is this one about Martha again. Lynn married a man whose mother, Katie, was also from Russia and while she had been in this country since she was a young girl, she still spoke with a very heavy accent and was difficult to understand, much like my grandfather, Pop. So one day, Katie meets her son Seymour’s betrothed and her family. Later, he told us what she said about Martha.
“Mahta iz veddy nice, but she spicks mid a hacksent!” Seymour roared with laughter and said to her, “And you don’t?” It’s all about what you’re used to.
Martha may have lived a long time in the City, but she never relinquished her accent either.
Differences in speech weren’t the only ones between my parents. There was also food. New York is bagels, pastrami, Chinese, Italian and more. The South is fried everything, vegetables cooked with fat back, country ham and biscuits. The food at our Store was strictly New York, but my mother tended to cook food like she had grown up with and he had to learn to eat it. Biscuits were fixed at most meals. However, to her credit, Martha did learn to cook many dishes that Sam liked. She fixed corned beef and cabbage at times, blintzes, arroz con pollo and matzo ball soup. My mother came to love Chinese food and on many a Sunday we had that. I’m pretty sure she never got Chinese food in Smithfield, NC!
Fortunately, I asked my mother to show me how to fix a few of the dishes she made that I especially liked and pimento cheese was one of them. So many times I would drop in to her house and she would have fresh pimento cheese made and it was so delicious especially on fresh bread. I later learned to make matzo ball soup and fed both of these to my husband and son who grew to love them also. One of our favorite meals now is just that: a combination of pimento cheese sandwiches and matzo ball soup – what a culture clash that is, but boy, it’s so good!
For me, it was so strange to go from the city environment to a place where grass and trees are everywhere, where you go barefoot the whole time, where there’s a lake to swim in, where people have horses, cows and chickens right down the street, where the town is only a few blocks long and everybody knows everybody else and their entire family history, where no one locks their doors or cars, where you catch June bugs and tie a string to their legs, where you wind through acres of tobacco or cotton to get to the forbidden river where you weren’t supposed to be, where some of your cousins worked in the fields to make money, where the movie theater cost $.50 which included popcorn and a drink, where Fred’s was the best place for a hot dog, where you had to snap the peas and beans that were going to be served for dinner, where you hung clothes outside to dry, where you could climb the chinaberry tree, where the days were hot, but the evenings cool, where the sky was Carolina blue and the air pure, where the tallest building was maybe three stories, where you play cards all day sometimes, where mosquitos, bees, wasps and spiders abound, and where there was an abundance of love from all your family that lived there.
Then, after a week or two of this, I would return to the land of skyscrapers where the air was filled with soot, the sidewalk hard and hot in the summer along with the roads, where grass and trees were hard to find, where pigeons crapped everywhere and were about the only wildlife you saw, where many of the people were foreign from different countries, where it was hard to make friends, and where the streets were considered dangerous.
I was always glad to be back in own little room, but I was often saddened and depressed when first arriving back in the city. Having seen both places, I always felt that I wanted to get out of New York one day and eventually I did. It was the best move I ever made. I returned to the South, my second home, met the best husband and have had a great life. No regrets.
Don’t get me wrong: I had a lot of good times in New York and will talk about them in another story, but I didn’t belong there in the long run. I appreciate my Jewish cultural history even though I don’t practice the religion. I think I’m lucky to have experienced both sides of the coin so to speak, but in the end, I opted to be thrown into the Briar Patch and I love it here.
When my sister’s husband heard I was leaving New York, he said to me, “Why would you want to leave here? [He hated the South and was a die-hard New Yorker]. “New York has everything! Museums, Broadway plays, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty!”
I’d already been to all of these things and they were great, but how many times can you do it? Besides, all he ever did was work and go bowling. That’s it. He’d never been to a museum or play in all his life! When I pointed out that he didn’t take advantage of any of the things that the city offered, his answer was, “But it’s there if I want it!”
Maybe so, but where I am now has everything I want.