April 27, 2005

Matzoh Sandwich, World's Fair 1965

In 1964 and 1965 the World’s Fair was in New York. For kids in junior high school, taking the subway from the Bronx down to Manhattan and then across to Queens to see the General Motors and Ford and GE pavilions with their wholesome, button–down visions of the future – when we’d all be eating rehydrated meals and commanding positronic robots who did our household tasks – was a perfect day trip during Easter vacation. An early adventure in dependence, negotiating an unfamiliar, hour–plus subway ride at age twelve or thirteen, with a little spending money in our pockets and no adult telling us we couldn’t see the same exhibit twice.

Easter was also Passover, so there was the question of what to do about lunch. I came from a nonreligious background but a traditional social set. We didn’t keep kosher, but we observed the basic ceremonies because everyone around us did: matzoh on Passover, bar mitzvahs at age thirteen. My mother made me a brown bag lunch, partly because the sandwiches sold at the fair would be on leavened bread, but also because we didn’t have much money. She made me two delicious–looking sandwiches — on matzoh.

(By the way, in order to appreciate this story you have to accept the fact that, unlike most Americans, I was raised eating liver and love it. It’s my favorite food to this day. Especially chopped liver. As a puny, undersized kid, one of the few foods I could be counted on to gobble down heartily was a chopped liver sandwich. To see me through a long day’s travel – and for the sheer treat of having my favorite delicacy -- my mother lovingly packed me two.)

But the idea of eating sandwiches on matzoh in full public view made me writhe inwardly. All the crowds around me would be eating regular food, hamburgers on buns, bread sandwiches, while I’d be sitting in shame with a pseudosandwich made of hard, brittle cracker. They’d see it and they’d know. It would be like wearing a yellow star.

Even my two companions had been granted dispensation from Passover restrictions for the more joyous holiday of the World’s Fair. One of them had blithely brought a sandwich on bread. The other, whose family was a good deal more “religious” than mine, had been slipped a couple of dollars for lunch — tacitly, not a matzoh lunch.

All morning I carried the brown bag in my sweaty hands, sitting on the subway and walking around the fairgrounds. I could smell the pungent, oniony chopped liver inside. My mouth was watering, craving B vitamins and iron.

Then lunchtime came. We sped our walk toward an outdoor cafe where my friend with lunch money had decided to buy a couple of slices of tantalizingly normal, not–kosher–for–Passover pizza.

Walking fast toward that oasis, I stopped and looked into the bag. I knew what was in there, all too well. Two big, beautiful portions of chopped liver — between slabs of embarrassing matzoh. But how could I be the only person eating matzoh on the whole terrace of happy pizza–and–burger lovers?

Trotting up the small flight of terrace steps to catch up to my friends, I tossed the brown bag into a trash can.

“What happened to your lunch? You gonna buy something?”

I shrugged. “Nah, I’m not hungry.” I had money for exhibits, not for lunch.

Immediately, I had half–regretted throwing my lunch away. My mother had made it for me, my favorite food. It was like throwing away a favorite record album or an autographed baseball. A self–deprivation like refusing a free movie ticket or an ice cream soda. But I wasn’t about to be seen in public eating that weird ghetto food, that stingy bread of the oppressed. My stomach growled for the rest of the long day as I subsisted on cola and water.

I’ve never told anyone about it till today.