Slave Trader. Murderer. National Hero?

Columbus coloring pageThis is how, years ago, I demonstrated to my children the concept that Columbus Discovered America: I stood up, turned away from where they sat eating dinner, turned back, and—with an arm raised in triumph—declared, “I have discovered this table!” And then I sat on my daughter.

Sometimes I think I would be good at homeschooling.

I’d be good at the subtext part, anyway: teasing out the flaw in the idea that a place isn’t “discovered” until Europeans discover it.

The text part, well . . . I’d have to look that up. What I vaguely remember from my childhood was that, after an arduous journey, Columbus, the first European to cross the Atlantic, landed in North America, shocking the folks back home by not falling off the edge of the world they had presumed flat.

Half a minute of internet research reveals that, almost 500 years after Leif Eriksson had first crossed the Atlantic, Columbus made it not to North America but to the Caribbean Islands (which he thought was Asia), and everyone back home had known since Aristotle that the earth was round.

1492? Yes. But was the ocean blue? Doubtful.

Ten more minutes of internet research put me off my breakfast. Columbus presided over and/or perpetrated the worst stuff you can imagine people doing to other people. Selling native girls (I mean girls—9 or 10) into sexual slavery. Cutting off the hands of natives who failed to produce their quota of gold dust. Burning people alive for trying to escape, or sic’ing dogs on them, or cutting off ears, noses, legs. And I’m sparing you the gory details.

On the one hand, Columbus Day is but another example of a tradition that persists although it obviously conflicts with pretty much everyone’s moral system—including that of the people who promote it. How many elementary school teachers could even bear to read about the behavior of the man whose Xeroxed picture they annually ask their students to color in?

On the other hand, there’s hope. Public opinion does change; we do learn. Hawaii, South Dakota, Alaska, and Oregon do not celebrate the holiday. Berkeley, California, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, and so did Santa Cruz, Minneapolis, and Seattle. New York State’s kindergarten curriculum now suggests that teachers at least “Explain that native people were already living on the continent where Columbus’s ships landed.” The high school curriculum recommends teaching Columbus’ voyage as a “turning point.” I guess you could argue that’s like calling the Holocaust a “turning point,” but still, it’s better than teaching the voyage as a triumph and the explorer as a hero.

An element of hero worship persists, however. New York City’s official celebration begins with a solemn wreath-laying at the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle. And then there’s the parade—“the world’s largest celebration of Italian American culture,” according to the event organizers. This year, its 70th, the parade will feature 35,000 marchers and attract over a million spectators.

How much irrefutable historical evidence will it take to undo that?

I say, keep the parade. Keep celebrating Italian Americans. Just turn the whole thing around, and head south down Fifth Avenue to 23rd Street. There, at the entrance to Eataly, lay a giant wreath of bay leaves at the orange-Croc’d feet of a far superior exemplar of America’s Italian heritage: Mario Batali.

You’ve heard of Batali, right? He discovered olive oil.

Wishing You a Truly New Year

challah

Photo by Matt Klein. Challah by me.

Every year in the synagogue of my childhood, we started our Hebrew lessons over again. There were too few of us to divide into two classes, so every fall, to accommodate the (doubtless) one new student, we’d begin back at the beginning with the alphabet, pronouns, a few basic nouns, and an article or two. Needless to say, I never got very far. Of “Rosh Hashanah” I can translate only the “Ha,” which means the; Google can do the rest: “Rosh” means head and “shanah” means year.

For Jews, it’s the head of the year again. If it’s not marked on your calendar, you can tell from the challah. Usually the loaves are straight—knotty with braided strands, tapered at the ends, but straight. For Rosh Hashanah, you make them sweeter and you make them round.

Judaism adores symbols. The noun “shanah” comes from the verb “shanah,” which means repeat. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the circle of life, the cycle of the year. Round and round, over and over it repeats: Grandpa intoning at the head of the table with his prayer book. Grandma dishing out her celebrated matzoh balls. My kids veering between respectful and silly. All the guests wishing each other “Shanah Tovah”—a good year—as they part. My husband at the front door reminding the kids to go back and thank Grandma before we leave.

We’d just gotten home when my daughter announced that she was 45% Jewish. I thought she was doing some complicated math involving the fact that her grandmother grew up Episcopalian and then converted, but . . . no. She meant that she felt about that amount Jewish. Jesse volunteered 0%—he can be a bit doctrinaire—and then, reconsidering, upped it to 5%. Presumably on account of the matzoh balls.

From a Jewish perspective, of course, Lena is 100% Jewish because I, her mother, am a Jew. In terms of education, participation, and belief, she’s none. She does not go to synagogue or Sunday school; she knows no prayers; she equates God with Santa Claus: two things her classmates believe in that she knows are pretend.

I get why I feel Jewish, despite my lack of belief. I was bat mitzvah, after all. I learned how to say “Mother” and “Father” and “I” and “you” in Hebrew class every year.

But what makes Lena feel Jewish? Could it simply be dinners like these, cousins’ bar mitzvahs, and the persistent and aggravating lack of a Christmas tree? Do kids just naturally want to belong to groups?

I may have underestimated the power of these forces. Still, at the head of the year 5775, I believe I can report that such power can diminish over time.

Back in April, Lena told me about an exchange with a friend who kept trying to bond with her over Easter. “I mean, really” she said that she said to this girl, “I’m Jewish—remember?” Six months ago, in other words, Lena felt so Jewish she figuratively slapped her forehead at the idea that someone wouldn’t know that essential fact about her.

Today, “45%.” I won’t try to do the fake math, but maybe her self-image is shifting slightly. And as I look back on Rosh Hashanah dinner, it strikes me that all of our percentages are changing.

We didn’t dress up as much as we used to. Adam wasn’t forced, or even asked, to wear a yarmulke. His father didn’t harangue him about going to synagogue the next day or try to get us to let the kids go. Because of my determination to be more vocal (and less equivocal), everyone at the table—both family and family friends—knew clearly where Adam and I and our kids stood on issues of belief and belonging, God and Torah. And, for the first year I can remember, nobody said anything to Noah (now almost 14) about when or whether he would be bar mitzvah.

Hebrew is a fascinating language; I wish I’d gotten farther along. I even have a couple of Hebrew grammars on my shelf from lapsed later-life resolutions. Most of the vocabulary is based on what they call triliteral stems, three-letter roots. For “shanah”—year and repeat—that root is shin, nun, hay. Which is the same as for the word change. Change and repeat and year, all essentially the same word.

I love that. The hands move around and around the clock face, unchanging, and yet, every time they pass the same spot, time has passed. Things have changed. So, yes, there I am still placing my round challah on the dining room table, still standing quietly while my sister-in-law lights the candles, still sipping the wine after the blessing. There I am, celebrating a Jewish holiday, the same way I have for years and years.

And yet, at the same time, I am gently but firmly moving away from religion, and leading my children away too. Seated around that holiday table, we may look like we’re back at the beginning again. But we’re not in the same place at all. The year is, in fact, new.

Shanah Tovah.

Canning Notes for Next Year

photo (2)Every year for at least ten (to judge by the date on one dusty jar that I can’t bring myself either to open or to throw away), I make and can salsa and sauce with tomatoes from our garden. Every year, I have to remember how all over again. Same goes for buying school supplies and baking birthday cakes and filling out tax forms—all the seasonal skills that my brain buries deep in long-term storage. I mean, I have the recipes. It’s the timing and the rhythm I lose.

Although this memory problem is not improving as the years pass, I am getting better about preparing to forget. Last fall, for example, after our annual big trip south for Thanksgiving, I sent myself an email alert for the following November with instructions like “make sure the kids do their homework BEFORE the ride home” and “bring Mom a bread basket” and “MORE DISH TOWELS.”

And so, as this year’s canning season winds down, I am preparing a little cheat sheet for 2015:

  1. Although their sheer quantity and inexorable ripening may appear aggressive—even hostile—your tomatoes are not your enemy. Remember the years when, due to blight, you had to buy tomatoes at Indian Ladder Farms, beg heirloom beauties from a kindly green-thumbed librarian, scrounge the culled crops at the Co-op. Remember the year you ran out of pasta sauce.
  2. Everything in your kitchen is about to get wet. Move the damn library books.
  3. Your children and your husband will continue to regard the kitchen as a place in which to locate snacks and meals. This is a perfectly normal misapprehension, which should be corrected gently, if possible.
  4. Even things that are taking forever to cook will eventually burn.
  5. Yes, you’ve done the math, and no, canning your own sauce and salsa does not make actual economical sense, especially if you factor in your billable hourly wage. Or the minimum wage.
  6. Speaking of which, it’s OK to send your husband to Subway, where they put pale pink sliced “tomato” on your children’s subs, so that you can stay home and wrestle with 100 pounds of true tomatoes. I’m not sure why, but it is.
  7. Swim goggles will keep your eyes from watering when you slice onions. For best results, however, you have to put them on. (Note: Aprons also work better when donned.)
  8. Jars of sauce should be left on the counter “to cool” until your backache subsides or until your next dinner guests notice them, whichever comes second.
  9. If you think you smell something burning, you’re right.
  10. MORE DISH TOWELS.

If you’d like to try canning your own salsa, you can find the recipe here. Feel free to call my red phone for advice, but do it soon: birthday cake season is fast approaching.

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