I grew up in a large and fractious family, where no one quite got along with anyone else (at least, not for very long) but where the motto all the same was “Family above all.” Given that my family was Orthodox Jewish, we didn’t so much talk about the ethos of family as the sovereignty of mishpocha, which is Yiddish (or Hebrew, depending upon how one pronounces it) for “an extended tribe of blood relatives.”
Our tribe was more impregnable than most, in part because both my parents had escaped Hitler’s Germany with their families in the 1930s and were especially leery of outsiders. They had survived by pulling inward, sticking together in the face of a virulent enemy, and tended to regard people beyond their immediate circle as suspect until proven otherwise. Another factor that fueled their guarded approach to the world was that our immediate family, by sheer virtue of its size, constituted a group sufficient unto itself. There were six of us kids, three girls and three boys, plus two adults: Why would we need to cultivate friends to swell our ranks?
Even though I was a frightened and dutiful child, I early on realized that the way out for me was through the door of friendship—looking to outsiders for nurturance and intimacy. This took some resolve on my part, since my mother’s message about seeking out friends was inevitably a derogatory one (“You and your friends,” she’d say to me, as if she were remarking upon a bad habit, “you don’t need so many friends”) and neither of my older sisters seemed inclined to develop the kind of close extra familial relationships I went looking for.
I began by chatting up the Italian neighbors who lived next door to us during the summer months at our house in Atlantic Beach on Long Island. My family’s insular policy of mishpocha and more mishpocha was particularly pronounced during summer, when my mother regularly filled up the house with a gaggle of relatives from Israel who mostly talked in a language I couldn’t follow. I already felt cut off from school chums and restless in the company of my siblings.
So it was that one hot afternoon I began talking to Dolores Buzzelli, who was weeding the well-kept flower garden that bloomed in the space between our houses. I was a 10-year-old looking to expand my horizons, and Dolores was a mother and housewife who responded positively to my mix of outgoingness and loneliness—or perhaps to the fact that I was the only occupant of the big house next door to step out and make contact. Dolores’s husband, Bob, was an airline pilot, which detail I found fascinating in contrast to my father’s amorphous businessman affairs, and there were two good-looking children, a boy and a girl. Within days I was over at the Buzzellis’ more often than not, marveling at the way things were done in their neat, contained house.
I was especially taken with the pride of place given to the dinners Dolores whipped up every night in her pretty blue-tiled kitchen, meals that usually included pasta made authentically al dente. Everything revolved around the act of cooking, with Dolores standing at the stove, striking up conversation with Bob and her children as they drifted in and out of the room. I especially loved watching Dolores make meatballs and spaghetti or her zestfully seasoned Bolognese sauce, flavored with herbs she grew in little pots on her windowsill. I think it was particularly fascinating to me because my own mother never cooked—all our dinners were made by Iva, our cook—and as a result there was no sense of occasion around the preparation of meals. They were done under the radar, although I liked to perch near Iva and watch as often as I could. I didn’t know any other families who had a cook, and although it might have looked like a luxury, I yearned for a mother who made meals instead of simply writing up menus for someone else to execute. It seemed like the normal, nurturing, motherly thing to do and made me feel like there was yet something else wrong with my family that set us apart from others.
I spent hours observing Dolores, watching her as closely as if I were preparing to become an Italian chef myself (I loved the smell of roasting garlic but rarely got to savor it at our house, because my father didn’t like it). I would stay around to help her set the table with a brightly checked cloth and ceramic dishes while chatting about people in the neighborhood. But there my participation ended. You see, I couldn’t actually partake of the Buzzellis’ dinners, because my family kept kosher and, tempted as I was, I didn’t dare go against the many injunctions that I had been raised with.
And then one day, inspiration struck. What if I could get Dolores to cook her wondrous meatballs and spaghetti for my family, providing her with pots and pans from our kitchen (kosher law dictates separate cookware for meat and dairy) as well as all the ingredients? First, I asked Dolores whether she would be willing to try such an experiment if I could get my mother to agree to it. Amused—or perhaps touched—by my passion, she signed on.
I then presented the plan to my mother. She was in the habit of opposing most things I expressed a desire for and was fairly vigilant about our religious observances. I thought she would be against the idea on the grounds of its possibly messing up the ornate laws of kashruth. But something in her must have responded to the lengths I had gone to—and perhaps she herself had had her appetite whetted. She was amenable.
A few days later I brought everything that was needed next door, and Dolores set herself to making a dish that she was infinitely familiar with but that I knew would taste revelatory to me and my family. Sure enough, Dolores’s meatballs and sauce were highly flavored in a way Iva’s food wasn’t, and my family—including my father, who seemed to have momentarily forgotten his aversion to garlic—devoured every last speck. Although everyone in the family appeared to like it, no one seemed particularly curious about the meal or the Buzzellis in general. In some immediate, culinary sense, the experiment was a resounding success, but in another, larger sense, I felt like a solitary voyager between two planets, that of my Orthodox Jewish family and that of the Italian Catholic one next door.
The decades have passed, and both my family and the Buzzellis are long gone from that leafy block in Atlantic Beach. I, meanwhile, continue to cultivate friendships, both old and new, never having forgotten how good it felt to forge a sustaining connection with our neighbors that summer in the mid-1960s—how it helped open up the world to me. Although my parents have died, I maintain close links to some of my siblings and remain in touch with all of them. But somewhere along the way, I translated my mother’s notion of mishpocha into a more extended concept than she intended, with results that have enlarged my circle and enriched my heart—allowing me to step into other people’s lives the way I stepped into the Buzzellis’ blue-tiled kitchen long ago.
About the author: Daphne Merkin is a novelist and cultural critic. Her essays have been published in two collections, Dreaming of Hitler and The Fame Lunches. Her latest book, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression, is out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February 2017.