My mother has been known to make Thanksgiving dinner on any night but Thanksgiving. She expertly microwaves the local kosher butcher’s turkey, stuffing, spinach soufflé and noodle kugel in, oh, May or March. But never on Thanksgiving. No, on Thanksgiving, for as many years as I can remember, my family goes to a movie and dinner at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan.
Every year, my 86-year-old Orthodox Jewish maternal grandfather, my Zady, takes the Amtrak from Baltimore to New Rochelle, N.Y., arriving around dusk on the night before Thanksgiving. He’s easy to spot on the track, with his endearing shuffle and a book-usually by Henry Kissinger or about Israel-weighing down his bag. He’s a looker, at 5 feet 3 inches tall, with a little bit of blond hair and manicured nails. He always looks sharp, wearing a suit and a matching fedora with a feather. “Hello, hello!” he shouts as soon as he see us.
On Thursday, as the afternoon football games kick off, we drive to Manhattan for a matinee. Sometimes a neighbor-perhaps bringing logs in to roast chestnuts over his fireplace-will look puzzled as we pile into the car in our holiday best. Maybe his child will ask us if we liked the Macy’s parade. “We’ll let you know when we read about it in tomorrow’s paper,” jokes my father as Zady climbs into the passenger seat.
Zady doesn’t want to hang around the house in Larchmont all day. He wants to see a movie in the big city. Neither local cinemas-Mamaroneck or Larchmont-will do. He wants the real thing: an Upper West Side multiplex.
One year it was The Piano . Zady fell asleep after a half hour. “Why can’t she talk?” was his critique of Holly Hunter. He loved Glory : “very exciting.” Malcolm X and Shine didn’t go over as well, at least the parts he stayed awake for.
We thought Liberty Heights was a sure bet for this year’s choice. Zady lives in Baltimore and thinks that city’s No. 1 son, Barry Levinson, is “a genius.” But a few weeks ago, he told us that he’s tired of Levinson pictures, he wants to see something hip, something “being written about”: The Insider .
Also this year, Zady asked for tickets to the new Jackie Mason show, Much Ado About Everything! , for the night before Thanksgiving. He’s been talking about it for over a month. “We can probably still get you and your sister a ticket!” he insists. We have politely declined the invitation.
Zady always treats us to the movie and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. Popcorn is off limits-it would hardly pass any rabbi’s kosher test. “Don’t even think about it,” warns my mother as my sister and I joke about smuggling in the buttery contraband.
One time, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, Zady picked up a real looker in a mink coat. But he tossed her phone number once we got to the car because she was a (gasp) shiksa.
Over dinner, we traditionally discuss the year’s movie. Our old standard restaurant was Lou G. Siegel’s on 38th Street in midtown, until it closed a couple of years ago-an event that Zady hasn’t quite gotten over. The-slice-of-Miami-in-Manhattan restaurant had vats of pickles, cole slaw and challah rolls on the table-which often ended up in the napkin-lined purses of frugal patrons.
Much to Zady’s delight, there were plenty of lovely bachelorettes in every corner. Sometimes he even got their digits-area codes were usually Atlantic City, Miami, Palm Springs, the occasionally exotic Jerusalem. (Zady has been known to throw a great wedding party-he’s been married three times, not including the one in Phoenix, Ariz., which the whole family flew out to attend, but he called off at 6 A.M. But that’s another story.)
I spent a good deal of my childhood in the ladies’ room of Lou Siegel’s. All the mirrors and free cosmetics were enough to keep me entertained during the after-meal praying. As far back as my toddler days, grandmas were scouting out potential future daughter-in-laws: “My grandson is going to be a nice Jewish doctor. I should get your number from your mother!”
After Lou Siegel’s closed, we tried the restaurant in the Roosevelt Hotel. My mother remembers it “trying to be upscale” and decorated “in all red.”
I remember my dessert being flambéed at Levana Restaurant, on West 69th Street. Zagat’s describes it as having “the most imaginative glatt kosher food in New York.”
We can all say mazel tov that Moshe Peking, a midtown kosher Chinese restaurant, closed. The experience was really too tasteless to share.
This year, we’re returning to our favorite, our very own Le Cirque 2000: Tevere 84 Italian Glatt Kosher on East 84th Street, a restaurant with a little bit of an intimate feeling that’s even pricier than Levana. The stone walls and large Renaissance paintings somehow mask the kvetching at a neighboring table. The place feels homey. All the kippas and wigs sort of blend in with the Tuscan countryside atmosphere.
We always order the minestrone soup (“Make it hot!” demands Zady). And the chefs, such good sports, even pad the menu with a “turkey special” including stuffing and sweet potatoes. But who needs it when you’ve got glatt kosher veal parmigiana without the cheese, and dairy-free tiramisù?
I once attended Thanksgiving dinner at an ex-boyfriend’s house in California. His ancestors actually crossed the continent in a covered wagon and they still have the sourdough starter to prove it. His mother made gravy, stuffing and something involving marshmallows that I had never seen before. She even made the crust for the pumpkin pie-with lard. Not a Jew. My mother has once made a cheesecake; it was praised by the dinner party guests for being “low fat,” with its cottage cheese and skim milk ingredients.
In early December, my mother often cooks a typical Thanksgiving dinner. She’ll even make cranberry sauce from scratch. Maybe she feels residual guilt as she leafs through last week’s magazines, thick with holiday recipes.
“Why can’t we have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving like everyone else?” I sometimes ask with Norman Rockwell visions of grandeur. Why can’t we have a typical feast? It sure seems to make our friends and neighbors feel comfy and nostalgic on their day off work.
“Why would you want to be like anyone else?” she responds.
Zady always leaves on Friday, in time to be home before sundown, the start of Shabbat. He hops the train around noon for the four-hour ride. He gets back in his huge silver Cadillac, the only make of car he has ever owned, and navigates the deserted streets of Baltimore. Usually, his buddies at his synagogue have missed him while he’s been in New York, he’s a daily fixture at services. He’s also got to get back to work, selling advertisements for Playbill . And there are always ladies waiting.