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Authors: Elissa Altman


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Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple


Published by Berkley

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Elissa Altman

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

New American Library and the NAL colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

The author gratefully acknowledges and thanks the publishers of
Tin House
for permission to reprint
The Plot
, which appeared in a slightly different form in
Tin House
(Fall 2014).

The author wishes to extend grateful acknowledgment and thanks to the Camp Towanda family for the use of a portion of its Friday Night Sabbath prayers.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Altman, Elissa, author.

Title: Treyf: my life as an unorthodox outlaw/Elissa Altman.

Description: First edition. | New York: New American Library, [2016]

Identifiers: LCCN 2016004831 (print) | LCCN 2016005274 (ebook) |

ISBN 9780425277812 (hardback) | ISBN 9780698182127 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Altman, Elissa. | Altman, Elissa—Childhood and youth. |

Jews—New York (State)—New York—Biography. | Altman family. | New York

(NY)—Biography. | BISAC: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY/Literary. |


Classification: LCC F128.9.J5 A526 2016 (print) | LCC F128.9.J5 (ebook) | DDC


LC record available at

First Edition: September 2016

Jacket photograph courtesy of the author

Jacket design by Sarah Oberrender

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however the story, the experiences and the words are the author's alone.


This is a work of memoir, which, as Mary Karr has noted, is an act of memory rather than history. The events and experiences rendered here are all true as the author has remembered them to the best of her ability, and as older stories were related to her over the years. Some names and circumstances have been changed in order to protect the privacy of individuals

For all those who came before and helped guide the way, and for Susan, my heart and


leishig or milchig?”

It is 1995.

A middle-aged Hasidic antiques dealer on Second Avenue opens a splintering mahogany box and removes a tarnished silver serving set: a knife, a fork, a spoon.

We stand face-to-face in our respective uniforms: me, in paisley Doc Martens boots and a pilling, mauve Benetton sweater with broad, rounded shoulder pads that make me look like a fullback. He, in sober black pants, black vest, black shoes, black suede yarmulke, and a white-on-white chain-patterned shirt stained with the sweat of devotion, his tzitzit—the fringes of his prayer shawl—dangling beneath his fingers. A plume of graying black hair cascades up and out of his collar.

“It's very nice,” he says, holding the fork up to the light
streaming in through the windows, “but I see this pattern a lot. It's from the Kennedys.”

•   •   •

fter dating for five months, my parents married in 1962. My father was sure he had found the love of his life, and his future; my mother was sure she had found a way out of her parents' house, and her future.

They were both right, and they were both wrong.

I was born nine months later, almost to the day. My father tells me this story for years, from the time I am old enough to understand what the words mean, and probably even before: that I was conceived on their wedding night, hours after their ceremony was presided over by Rabbi Charles Kahane—father of Jewish Defense League founder and crackpot firebrand Meir, murdered in 1990—and the kosher reception held at Terrace on the Park, overlooking the sinkhole that was Flushing Meadows, site of the World's Fair two years later.

“It all happened very fast,” my father explains.

•   •   •

efore he married my mother, my father was engaged five times, each time to a woman his family deemed unacceptable.

“Treyf,” his mother said to me as she recounted the story, tipping her chin in the air and rolling her eyes: one was too big, another too short, another cross-eyed, another crazy, another not Jewish.

: According to Leviticus,
unkosher and prohibited
, like
lobster, shrimp, pork, fish without scales, the mixing of meat and dairy. But also, according to my grandmother,
imperfect, intolerable, offensive, undesirable, unclean, improper, filthy, broken, forbidden, illicit, rule-breaking

A person can eat treyf; a person can be treyf.

“And then,” my grandmother said, “he met your mother.”

She folded her arms across her ample breast and heaved a long sigh.

My mother.

My tall, blond, fur model, television singer mother who I watched men trip over themselves to get to at the 1960s and 1970s Queens, New York parties of my childhood.

When she met my father, a sack-suited, wing-tipped ad man specializing in postwar Long Island real estate, she had recently ended a relationship with the composer Bernie Wayne. Somewhere between Bernie and my father, there was someone I will call Thomas, a tall, Jewish, French-speaking, Sorbonne-educated beatnik who had purportedly once lived with Nina Simone, and whose diamond-dealer father had been knighted by the king of Belgium. When I was ten, my parents brought me along to one of Thomas's legendary Saturday night Upper East Side cocktail parties, where I careened around the crowded apartment from table to table like a pinball, narrowly dodging the suede-patched elbows and lit Gitanes of the other guests. Invisible and unsupervised, I managed, just as the party was getting under way, to eat an entire block of pâté de campagne, a bowl of cornichons, and a round of stinking, oozing Époisses. An hour later, I writhed on Thomas's bathroom floor like a snake and was comforted by
some of the other guests while my parents went to get the car: the
Hollywood Squares
comedian David Brenner, who lived across the hall, rubbed my back; two hookers wearing matching black vinyl thigh-high platform boots and crushed purple velvet hot pants sang me a folk song with a cheap nylon-string guitar that one of them had brought along; and a long-haired man who claimed to be the drummer for Chicago scratched my head like I was a puppy. Forty years later, I can see the black-and-white octagonal tiles on Thomas's bathroom floor, and I can feel the stiff nylon weave of the polyester shag rug burning my neck.

my mother's mother, Gaga, whispered to me as she mopped my forehead the next morning, while my parents slept soundly in their bedroom across the hall.

•   •   •

fter their wedding ceremony, after the blessings were made by my paternal Grandpa Henry, a fire-and-brimstone Orthodox cantor, after the chopped liver was eaten, the gefilte loaf sliced, the Manischewitz Heavy Malaga poured and the hora danced, my parents drove to their honeymoon at the most modern of the upstate New York kosher borscht belt hotels, the Nevele, with their silver serving set locked in the trunk of their rental car. They had made it; they were finally legitimate. They had stepped on the glass, jumped the broom, leapt the chasm between freedom and conformity, adolescence and adulthood; they had done exactly what was expected of them.

Every member of my father's family had the same set of silver—a Gorham service in the Etruscan Greek Key pattern—as
if it was a shining periapt acknowledging their validity and confirming their eternal place in the clan. As a young child, I was regularly seated on a beige vinyl kitchen stool near the sink, while Gaga methodically polished the pieces; the process hypnotized me, and I watched without blinking how she tied a silk paisley kerchief around her nose and mouth like a bandit on
, poured the thick pink Noxon onto a soft rag and massaged each utensil until it shone, silver and glowing and bright as a pearl. I was mesmerized by the pattern's simplicity, and would hold the tarnished spoon on my lap and trace the design with my tiny index finger: it was nothing more than a straight line that flowed forward, then reticently coiled back on itself. It turned and moved forward again, repeating over and over without end. My father's family didn't arrive at Ellis Island from the old country with a family crest, and so we adopted the Greek Key as our own; it became ubiquitous, gracing everything from the edges of our linen tablecloths to our bath towels to the border around the hood of the English Balmoral pram my parents pushed me around the Upper East Side in when I was an infant.

A gift to my parents from my father's sister and her husband and his sisters—Gaga called them
fancy people
; there was no love lost in either direction—the family silver bore witness to every tribal event that took place in our home from the early 1960s into the 1970s: tense Mother's Day brunches and prim Thanksgivings. Funeral luncheons and birthday parties crackling with rage. It graced a decade of sweet Rosh Hashanah tables, prawn-filled cocktail parties, solemn shivas when well-meaning Catholic neighbors carried in trays of cheese-stuffed shells floating in
meat sauce; holiday parties where bacon-wrapped water chestnuts and party franks were served with potato latkes; and Yom Kippur break fasts where we set upon platters of sable and lox like a drowning man grabs for a life preserver.

When the parties were over, the only things remaining were invisible coils of gossip, and the ancient family furies—the confidences breached, the grudges held, the forbidden flaunted and waved like a victory flag—that were spoken of in hushed tones and hung in the air like crepe paper streamers. Gaga waited until the last guest departed, plunked me down on the stool next to her, dumped the silver into the sink, and I watched in silence as she scoured away any trace of what had been eaten and what had been whispered, rendering it perfect and clean and kosher for the next occasion.

,” the Hasidic man says to me again, pushing his black plastic glasses up the bridge of his nose: “Do you know? Fleishig or milchig?”

Meat or dairy?

If I can assure him that the silver had been used in a devout home, where separate sets of plates and silverware are restricted for dairy and meat dishes, he won't have to go to the trouble of koshering it for a Jewish customer wanting to buy it. He won't have to put the set through the lengthy process of
—boiling the pieces while keeping them from touching each other so that every bit of the silver is exposed to the cleansing promise of the water, like baptism in a river.

I don't know what to say, given all the years of meat lasagnas and pork dumplings and shrimp cocktails that the silver has served
during my parents' ill-fated marriage. After sixteen years, their relationship ended in the late 1970s, not in a modern Manhattan divorce court like in
Kramer vs. Kramer
, but in front of a
beth din
—a quorum of three Orthodox rabbis—who agreed, after some Talmudic debate, to grant them a
, a kosher document of marriage severance from husband to wife dating back to the days of Deuteronomy, and without which even the most assimilated Jewish couple, having gone through an American divorce court, is still considered married according to Talmudic law.

“Aha,” he gasps, holding up the knife, flecked with a tiny, hardened drop of dark red jam. He removes his glasses, holds his jeweler's loupe up to his eye, and confirms it with a combination of Talmudic reasoning and authority: “We don't eat jam unless it's with blintzes and blintzes are dairy. Therefore,” he proclaims triumphantly, “milchig!”

The last time I saw my parents' silver serving pieces in use was when I was ten, the night of my father's fiftieth birthday in 1973 during an ice storm—
ice storm; the Rick Moody–Ang Lee ice storm when New York nearly came to a standstill—when the delivery boy from the local deli couldn't get his truck up the street to drop off the trays of food that my mother had ordered for what was supposed to be a grand surprise party. It was a bust; there was nothing to eat. Grandpa Henry called just as we were all starting to hide behind my parents' black silk couch, and I jumped up to answer the phone. My father walked in, exhausted, his Harris tweed overcoat caked with melting slush, his woolen driver's cap wet and dripping, and everyone yelled
and my grandfather said that he wouldn't be there because it was the Sabbath.

“Tell him for me I'm sorry, Elissala dahlink,” he mumbled in his thick Yiddish accent, and then he hung up.

“He always goes to all your sister's parties,” my mother snarled, “whether it's Shabbos or not.” She pulled him into their bedroom where they fought behind closed doors while the hungry neighbors downed glasses of scotch and I raided the fridge and produced a beige melamine platter of overlapping sliced salami, intermarrying the Oscar Mayer with the Hebrew National like a Unitarian Venn diagram. I put it out with a jar of Gulden's mustard and half a loaf of my mother's crumbling Pepperidge Farm diet white bread that I judiciously sliced into points, the way I had once watched Julia Child do on television. With no sign of the deli boy, the neighbors left and returned with whatever they could exhume from their refrigerators and cupboards: Polly from across the hall made Jell-O salad with cubed lemon-flavored Brach's marshmallow Easter bunnies unearthed from the bowels of her candy cabinet. Carole from two flights up defrosted a pound of chopped meat under a waterfall of steaming bathwater and made Swedish meatballs with a container of milk she procured from the vending machine in the basement. My mother's best friend, Inga, came back with a small boneless ham that she had basted with glaze under high heat until it resembled an overgrown Halloween candy apple. By seven o'clock, I pressed my ear to my parents' bedroom door, and the shouting had slowed—they were spent and exhausted—while my father's boss was on his fifth Dewar's and playing my little wooden bongo drums in the living room and freezing rain pelted our windows. Wearing a fez and with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel like Tom Jones, my father's best friend, Buck, hacked at the ham's
candy coating with the tip of the silver knife while Harry Belafonte's
Jumbie Jamberee
played in the background. We all gathered around while my father sliced his birthday cake, which was decorated like the real estate advertising pages of
New York Times
and had been sitting on our terrace in the December cold for the better part of a week.

Twenty-two years later, I stare out the window of the antique shop, watching the traffic barrel down Second Avenue. I can taste the gummy Swedish meatballs thick with curdled milk and the Easter bunny marshmallows in the Jell-O salad. I can smell Buck's Paco Rabanne, and see him in his Glen plaid Sansabelt trousers, chipping away at Inga's candy apple ham. The antique dealer will never know that the little speck on my parents' wedding silver set is not jam, but a stray bit of petrified pork glaze, hardened when my parents were still married and Nixon was still in office.

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