Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Bar Mitzvah You Never Had

If you have never been to a bar or bat mitzvah (or never had one, like me), perhaps you are not familiar with the traditional Jewish celebration of a young person becoming an adult. To say there's lots of singing and dancing and food is accurate but a wild understatement. We're Jews, so we know how to party like the world is coming to an end because there are so many times for us when that has actually happened. We don't just dance, we do the hora, where we hold hands and spin in a circle to a seemingly endless degree. We don't just say prayers, we sing them and clap along in rhythm. We don't just pat celebrants on the back, we lift them up and down in a chair above our heads to music. In my opinion, to be Jewish means to have an appreciation for all things over-the-top and loud, even if one isn't over-the-top and loud oneself, because it's having an appreciation for life being lived to the fullest: not quietly, not with hesitation or reservation, not in hiding. "By living life to the fullest," Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum writes, "we justify the gift that is life." 

With all that being said...a place in New York where you can experience this very Jewish fullness of life that one might experience at a bar or bat mizvah without actually attending one is at Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side. Before last night, I had previously only heard tell of the restaurant, known for its dancing and parties, but hearing about something is very different than experiencing it first hand, as we did for JT's birthday. 

Sammy's has been on the corner of Delancey and Chrystie Street since 1929, when the neighborhood was still largely comprised of Jewish immigrants. It serves classic Jewish foods like stuffed cabbage, chopped liver, kishke, kreplach, and a host of other roasted and grilled meats (and the occasional vegetable), and every table is provided with a container that might normally hold maple syrup but is instead filled with schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat (sometimes it's goose fat). This is a leftover tradition from kosher cooking, where one couldn't use a fat like butter in preparing a meat dish because meat and dairy couldn't be mixed, so one used schmaltz instead because it was a fat with which one would still be able to cook. u

The sign above Sammy's by this point must be ancient, its mustard backdrop with red and blue Hebrew-style letters faded from years of sun exposure. And you don't walk into it, you walk down to it, into a room lit from above with fluorescent lights, whose wooden walls are pasted with a collage of images from decades past, the occasional college pennant or wedding invitation or faded, peeling photograph just barely holding on. It's almost like being in a more excitingly decorated Elks Lodge, long tables covered in white cloth smushed against walls and into corners, around which sit iron and wooden chairs tightly squeezed together. On these white tables are wooden bowls filled with pickles, teeny white plates, paper napkins, utensils and, of course, Sammy's signature schmaltz. 

When SE and I enter, most of the people in JT's birthday party have already arrived, and we squeeze ourselves like a close family onto a long table by the DJ booth. There are bottles of vodka in front of us frozen inside ice and placed inside white plastic tubs, tiny glasses for shots and carafes of cranberry juice for chasing. The DJ is maybe in his early 70s, grayish, balding and slightly frail at first sight, but throughout the night he takes us from traditional Jewish anthems like "Hava Nagila" (to which the entire restaurant danced the hora, and our party separated to raise JT--wearing a crown and a Sammy's shirt given to him by the restaurant as a gift--up and down like at the bar mitzvah he had 17 years ago) to Billy Joel's "Piano Man" to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" to The Fontaines' "Build Me Up, Buttercup" and ultimately, Flo Rida's "Low" and Nelly's "Hot in Herre." We're all soon singing along at a loud, vodka-fueled volume, instantly friendly with the other party guests, only some of whom we knew. We're literally rubbing elbows and so-and-so I just met asks me if I would like some deep-fried kreplach or a potato latke or the chopped liver, into which a large smattering of schmaltz has just been ceremoniously poured for all to see by a well-trained waiter. People dig in with gusto. That's what you're meant to do here, after all. 

Photo by Steve Silberman
Vodka continues to flow, and after a brief dance break, our entrees make our way to the table with a resounding thunk of ceramic onto plastic wood. We pile slices of juicy steak and salmon and roasted chicken, slide thick potato chips or heap mashed potatoes onto delightfully mismatched plates. I swear I could have eaten the entire plate of the salty, tender steak but alas I had to share. All the while, music continues to play, we sing, we eventually put on party hats and sunglasses, getting up to dance in a tiny space in a corner of the restaurant. The rest of the parties at the restaurant do the same, the small spaces between each of the tables becoming tiny dance floors for both older patrons in floral dresses and younger patrons in platform shoes. 

It's a sense of celebration and vibrance I have often associated with being Jewish, and it comes naturally to many of us at the table that evening. It's the bar mitzvah we never had. Without even thinking about it, I know this is the way you proceed with joy: with laughter, with singing, with dancing, with so much food you can hardly stand and, if you're lucky, with a little bit of schmaltz.

No comments:

Post a Comment