My Family Was Divided — Over Sweet Gefilte Fish – Kveller
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My Family Was Divided — Over Sweet Gefilte Fish

I'm starting to understand why my grandmother held a grudge against her mother-in-law for so many years.

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My great-grandmother seemed like a harmless old lady. Bubbe had a bird-like face with bright, dark eyes surrounded by a dandelion puff of white hair. She was in her 90s by the time I was born, and lived alone in a subsidized senior apartment in Baltimore. Her Yiddish accent was hard to understand, so my brother and I would usually just eat the cookies she offered and smile awkwardly until the visit was over. She had a metal doorstop shaped like a dog, which I liked to look at. Once she gave me an old brooch of hers with a pearl in the center.

Yet these otherwise mundane visits were conducted in secrecy. After my family’s annual visits to Baltimore, we’d tell my grandparents we were headed back home to North Carolina, then we’d sneak off to Bubbe’s apartment first. My parents said this was because Bubbe and my grandmother — Bubbe’s daughter-in-law — didn’t get along. 

This always seemed weird to me. They were both old ladies; Bubbe was nearly 100! What kind of grudge could they still be holding? But enigmatic grudges were not entirely unfamiliar to me. There was always some member of my extended family not speaking to another, someone who couldn’t be seated next to someone else at a bar mitzvah dinner. 

The only explanation I remember getting was that Bubbe — she of the cookies and the dandelion hair — was “not nice” to my grandmother when she was a young bride, newly arrived from Poland. “She called me a greenhorn,” my grandmother would say, darkly. 

Being called a greenhorn — i.e., someone “just off the boat” — seemed hurtful, but perhaps not something to hang a lifetime of hatred on. But family grudges were like that, I’d noticed. The explanation always seemed inadequate to the feelings. She sent me a rude letter. He was smoking a cigarette. She called me a greenhorn. 

I didn’t consider the question much for the next 30 years. But recently, while doing research for a novel about a Jewish family, I came upon a concept that might help explain Bubbe and my grandmother’s lifelong animosity. It’s called the “Gefilte Fish Line.”

On the surface, the Gefilte Fish Line is about food: Do you add sugar to your gefilte fish or not? If your family came from Galicia, a historical region that includes parts of Poland and western Ukraine, you preferred a sweet-savory gefilte fish. If you were a Litvak — a Jew from territories once belonging to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — you were strictly savory. Salt, maybe some black pepper — done. 

But the culinary divide was also a cultural one (when is it ever not?), with the two kinds of fish recipes standing in for the two “kinds” of Jews. Litvaks considered Galitzianers emotional, irrational, embarrassingly old-fashioned, their sweet food cloying, fit only for children. Galitzianers in turn found Litvaks chilly and unspiritual, snobby, barely even Jewish. Among immigrants to America, this antagonism remained alive well into the 20th century, though it eventually faded into teasing before disappearing altogether. 

My grandmother was Galician. She fled Poland as a teenager in the 1930s amid rising antisemitism and found work as a seamstress in Baltimore. My great-grandmother was from the other side of the Gefilte Fish Line. She left her hometown in what’s now Ukraine in 1910 and married a boy from a nearby city, eventually raising four children in Baltimore.  

My grandmother did live up to many Galitzianer stereotypes. She was emotional and earthy, plying us with endless bagels, bananas, Italian rainbow cookies in the plastic clamshell from the supermarket, not taking no for an answer. She had big stormy feelings and a big temper. She yelled at the TV. She cried when her grandkids got a scrape. She loved a bargain and a freebie — she opened bank accounts just for the cheap plastic giveaway watches, and came home from buffets with bread rolls in her purse. Her family had been Orthodox, and she insisted on her children having a Jewish education. And sugar — oh yes, she lived up to that part too. Sweet-and-sour tongue, sweet-and-sour cabbage rolls, pockets full of butter rum Nips come loose from their wrappers. 

As for Bubbe, I only knew her as that harmless old lady. But from the bits and pieces I’ve gathered, she and my great-grandfather fit some of the Litvak stereotypes as well. They were, as my father puts it, “stiff” — a contrast to my grandmother, a full-body hugger whose embraces would leave the scent of her rose perfume in your hair for hours. They were not religiously observant; my great-grandfather was a proud atheist and a Communist. Though they were immigrants, their children were American-born. My grandfather, the only boy, became a doctor, a source of immense pride. 

Was this, the Gefilte Fish Line, the divide that caused such bitterness between my grandmother and my great-grandmother? 

It’s impossible to know for sure, but I do know that “she called me a greenhorn” must have elided a universe of unbridged gaps, misunderstandings, pain. 

So many family rifts have this elision. They all have immediate reasons — “she called me a greenhorn” — and buried contexts — “they were from very different cultures with a long-standing history of contempt.” But we can often only fully see the first part. She sent me a rude letter. He was smoking a cigarette. She thought I cooked my gefilte fish wrong. We never spoke again

Bubbe’s been dead for more than 30 years, my grandmother nearly 15. The Gefilte Fish Line has vanished, and homemade gefilte fish has largely vanished, too. The dish — once any Jewish cook’s painstaking pride — is now a gag-in-a-jar, trotted out with jokes on Passover. I like it though. Its salty blandness makes it a great vehicle for anything. Horseradish. Mustard. Wasabi. Chili crisp. I’ve never had it sweet, though. I’m curious, I guess. It once represented whole worlds, and now it’s just another jar on the shelf.

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