A Southern Kaddish |
by Terry Barr

My Uncle Sonny’s last meal was stuffed cabbage rolls. As a guy with a very Jewish stomach, I find that strangely comforting. Ironically, my Uncle Sonny wasn’t even remotely Jewish. But he was doomed to die later that night of a blood clot to the brain, and had been transported home that morning on the authority of his doctors who sensed the end and wanted him to exit the world on familiar ground.

I didn’t know that doctors thought such things back in 1939. Maybe they were more compassionate then. Maybe they were more realistic about their chances of keeping someone already doomed alive. Uncle Sonny had rheumatic fever and had contracted pneumonia that week. His poor heart couldn’t take the stress, and of course the brain clot finished him.

In those last few hours, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother to have her only son back home. Did she know he couldn’t last? Did she imagine the end, or deny it like I would have? How does a mother cope with the lingering hours of a dying child, not knowing when the end will come, how horrible, or peaceful, it might be? And what about my mother, just six years old then, seeing the last day of her big brother’s life? He was twenty-one, a college student. Can a six-year old realize the gravity of this situation, this life or death experience? Whatever else my mother remembers, whatever else she felt, she clearly recalls this scene:

“When he got home that day, my mother asked him what he wanted her to cook for him. Without hesitation, he said he wanted Ida Rosen across the street to make stuffed cabbage rolls. He adored her stuffed cabbage. So my mother called Ida, and she went to stuffing cabbage. He ate his last meal around 6:00 that evening.”

Again, I think of my grandmother: did she resent the fact that when she offered to cook for Sonny that he turned her down and asked for a meal from the Jewish neighbor across the street? When he died later on, did she remember that his last request was for another mother’s cooking? Did she harbor any resentment toward her son? Toward Ida Rosen? Toward Jewish food or toward the Jews themselves? Or is this simply my own attempt to understand and feel empathy for a family and situation that touch me so deeply, even though I didn’t know my uncle or Ida Rosen?

Is it my further reconciliation with and apology for betraying my upbringing and declaring myself Jewish?

My mother tells me that I am very much like Uncle Sonny. He loved movies; he kept journals; he was the first in the family to attend a university—the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He was a writer and a scholar—an artist and a would-be architect.

“But he was so fragile,” Mom says. “And the doctors really couldn’t do any more for him.”

He left everyone behind. But he also left a message.

I’m amazed when I think of this place and time: Bessemer, Alabama, in the 1930’s. Bessemer was a mining town, a suburb of Birmingham surrounded by hills full of ore and limestone and nurtured economically by US Steel and TCI. Bessemer was dominated early on by Scotch-Irish immigrants, but if you check the city directory back in the 20’s and 30’s you’ll find other names—many of which you might not expect or even be able to pronounce. Names like Boackle, Koikos, Contorno, Carnaggio.

And like the Rosens who owned I. Rosen, a fine clothing store on Bessemer’s most elite street, Second Avenue, near other Jewish businesses like Erlich’s Department Store, Pizitz, Picard’s and just up the street, The Kartus Korner. Other Jewish families in town—the Sokols, the Leftkovits, the Cherners, the Sachs, the Greens, the Becks, and the Beckers—were enough to service two religious congregations for many years. One of these, Temple Beth-El, lasted until the late 1960’s, though services were conducted by lay leaders by then. The building still stands on Sixth Avenue and 17th Street. Though the Holy Faith and Apostolic Temple now meets there, the recently uncovered Hebrew letters still announce what it used to be.

I drove past the building last week as some sort of service was ending. I marveled at how when I was a kid, I knew that catty-cornered from the synagogue was St. Aloysius Catholic Church. But out of blindness or ignorance, I never saw the building from which I catty-cornered-viewed St. Aloysius. Many of my friends attended St. Aloysius and were of Italian descent. My mother’s family was Methodist, the religion I was raised in. My father’s family was Jewish, the religion I knew little-to-nothing about during my early life. No one told me about Bessemer’s Jewish synagogue, its Jewish life, until my mother, prompted by my question as to whether she and Dad had experienced any anti-Semitism in the city, surprised me with this knowledge just over fifteen years ago. When she began listing all the Jewish family names, I was even more stunned at my own ignorance and naivete. It never occurred to me that these people were Jewish. It never occurred to me to even consider that they were Jewish. Outside of my own father and grandmother and a few other extended family members living in distant Birmingham, Jews for me were a lost, nonexistent tribe.

“No, I never saw any anti-Semitism in Bessemer. People here treated the Jewish families well.”

“But how many Jews were there, Mom?”

And then she showed me. We drove around, my mouth literally open the whole time as I saw things I never knew existed. Jews living all up and down the neighborhoods of Bessemer.

Today as I see the open Hebrew letters of the former Jewish house of worship, I wonder if Bessemer’s citizens know what they’re seeing. I want to know if they ever did. Are my mother’s views on the minimal-to-non-existent anti-Semitism in Bessemer accurate. I hate to doubt her, but could she really have known what her friends and acquaintances said out of her presence? Could there really be no anti-Semitism in a city which, at least through the 1950’s and maybe for a few years after, had posted along US Highway 11 (for decades, the main highway leading from Birmingham into Bessemer), a sign from the United Klans of America “welcoming” everyone to Bessemer? A sign right next to the ones posted by the Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis club?

As I flinch and quake in that twilight zone between belief and disbelief, fear and denial, she then tells me this story, the story of the Jewish engagement party that she, my grandmother, and Miss Ida Rosen gave for Miss Ida’s cousin and her Yankee-Jewish fiancée.

“So, Miss Ida calls my mother one day and tells her about this engagement party. That fifty or so New York relatives will be attending, not to mention all the Rosens from around here, and the other friends and neighbors whom she wants to invite. ‘Mrs. Terry,’ Ida says, ‘What kind of party should I throw to welcome everyone?’ So my mother thought for a minute, and then she got it! ‘Ida, let’s have a good old-fashioned Southern barbecue!’”

Apparently Miss Ida sang out, “That’s a great idea,” and so the plans started.

According to my mother—who herself had just gotten married (this was the early 1950’s)—she and my grandmother began formulating the menu for this summer barbecue which would be held on the grounds of the new Rosen estate on Clarendon Avenue, a street that seemed more like a boulevard, divided as it was by a landscaped island that ran eight blocks of that street’s length.

They ran the menu by Miss Ida, who approved it all with gratitude and pride. I don’t know how religious any of these Jews were. I do know that the Bessemer’s synagogue was Conservative. Certainly not every Jew in town kept kosher; many attended the Reform temple in Birmingham. But for the engagement party, no dietary restrictions would be followed.

The menu:

Iced shrimp

Cole slaw

Potato salad

Grilled chicken

Pork spare ribs

Beef brisket

Homemade peach ice cream

How you respond to this menu is surely a test of whether you can be Southern and Jewish. Or at least it puts you on the road to reconciliation.

And now imagine this: a pastiche of Black maids and white female socialites grilling and basting meat for hours in the hot Alabama sun. Imagine the churning ice cream machine—hand-cranked—in the thick Alabama humidity.

Imagine the joy.

“Everyone ate themselves silly, too,” my mother says today, her fondness for this memory as apparent as anything I’ve ever heard her say or seem to feel. “Those Yankees ate like they had never tasted anything so good before, and you know that they hadn’t either!”

A good old fashioned Southern-Jewish barbecue, in 1950’s Bessemer, Alabama, co-hosted and planned by Miss Ida Rosen and my grandmother and mother.

“And your Daddy was there too, eating ribs and ice cream and helping to clean up after!”

As much as I get pleasure from hearing this story, I know the other Bessemer, too. I grew up in the civil rights era when schools were being desegregated, when boycotts of downtown businesses, public pools, and amusement parks left all of us tense and afraid.

And yet, how does this tension and fear explain that in the 1940’s Norman Lefkovits won the award for best Christmas lights display—an award given annually by the Bessemer Chamber of Commerce? That a “shochet” ritually slaughtered chickens in neighborhhods on Sixth and Clarendon Avenues? That the Bright Star, a James Beard-award-winning restaurant, started by a Greek family back in 1908, still thrives today? That a cedars of Lebanon club existed within fifteen driving minutes from downtown Bessemer?

I wonder: at the time of this engagement party, did anyone outside this celebratory fold know what was going on at the Rosen estate? That rich Jews and others were mixing religions? That if you casually drove by, you’d see white and black women serving together? I know that the Klan marched through Bessemer from time to time, but on this day, no marches occurred, no crosses were burned. Life went on, if not smoothly, then at least comfortably for many.

Of course, eventually things changed. I don’t know if any Jewish families still live in Bessemer. My father died twelve years ago. Mr. Buddy Sokol, the last Jewish man I knew of who lived in Bessemer, died just a few years later. The Beth-El cemetery between Bessemer and Hueytown will be perpetually maintained, or so I’ve heard. I suppose that gives me comfort. It also brings me back to my Uncle Sonny.

What made him want stuffed cabbage rolls for his last meal, and did he know that this would be his last meal? How did he develop such decidedly Jewish taste buds? Not even my Dad liked stuffed cabbage, at least to my knowledge, though I also know that in my lifetime, no one ever prepared that delicacy for him. I never had it until I tried it at New York’s Second Avenue Deli. I buy it frozen, too, at my local Publix market here in South Carolina, though they seem to carry it only at Passover.

Of course, someone else, when I ask for it, always prepares it for me: my mother-in-law, an Iranian immigrant. For years, I wondered how and why she knew to make this delicacy. Never a cook, she was formerly the Superintendent of Education for all of Tehran’s public schools. And yet one evening, while my wife and I are visiting, she serves us stuffed cabbage rolls instead of the usual Persian rice-stews, and I eat like there’s no tomorrow.

Like I’ve never tasted anything so good before.

Years later, my sister-in-law announces her own discovery.

“Both of Mom’s parents were Jewish. Apparently everyone knew that the Moazed family was Jewish back then, and it seems that our great-grandfather was a rabbi!”

Of course, this both explains a lot and makes me deeply happy. And without talking about what it all means or exactly which laws we might be violating, my wife, her mother, my daughters, and continue to relish good Southern barbecued pork ribs too. In fact, I just prepared two slabs for all of us last night according to the same recipe my mother’s mother handed down to her.

I smile as I talk to my mother about these foodways, even if the memories are tinged with sadness and longing for what has passed.

For all who’ve passed, like my Uncle Sonny whom I’m sure I would have adored—a man who, I’m told was very much like the man I’ve become.

And maybe this was clear even when I was a boy, developing tastes beyond my Southern home. On occasion, my grandmother would look at me closely, would call me to her side. I know that in her last years her memory could get clouded, though she never totally lost her presence—never developed dementia of any form. She’d call out to me and I’d come. Like everyone else in the family, she referred to me as “Buddy.” But I’d come to her even when she saw someone else.

Even when she called me “Sonny.”

Terry Barr is a Professor of Creative Writing at Presbyterian College in
Clinton, South Carolina, and lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and
two daughters. He has had essays published in Steel Toe Review, Four Ties Lit Review,
Orange Quarterly, The Golden Triangle, Marco Polo Arts Magazine,
Poetica Magazine, Prime Number, The Montreal Review, American Literary
and moonShine review.