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Nova Lox Bagel, Cream Cheese
when you don’t really feel like celebrating the birth of this nation
There is a certain kind of American that is always in search of a culture. Sometimes they rely on being from “The South” or a “New Yorker”. It comes from generations of assimilation and a desire to be “American”. Whatever the first immigrant in your family came with (traditions, pidgins, recipes, rituals, stories, songs, skill legacies, family names, mother tongues) were weathered away by a need to appear as though they belonged.
Maybe your people were not given a choice and had no way to appear as though they belonged, forced to pass down every morsel of your beginnings by disguising them, whispering them in the dark, recreating culture from the remnants they were allowed.
Obviously, assimilation was only possible for some, their skin privilege, education, wealth, and influence guiding them through every obstacle to their new “belonging”, stripping away every remnant that spoke of a homeland.
So, the “certain kind” are the white ones, the passing ones, the privileged ones, who were born here. In this instance, the Ashkenazi Jews with “good” noses and anglo names. Not everyone had grandmothers who made Kugels and briskets. Some of our grandmothers made reservations. Some of our great-grandfathers drove a car halfway to shul so they could be seen “walking”. Some of our mothers grew up with Christmas trees. The Yiddish gone, Shabbat became Friday night or a Saturday luncheon.
Maybe the food you come from has few roots. Maybe you cook because you are the first to do it in generations. Maybe you make the same thing every Passover because you want there to be a family recipe. Maybe you are the only one writing any recipes.
Maybe there are a few foods that your grandmother gave you. Maybe you find yourself most Jewish at a deli, asking the man behind the counter if the Lox is good today, as though he’d ever say “no”. Maybe you have very strong feelings about bagels and love the word “Schmear” because it feels like it belongs to you. Maybe your father still brings up the time that your grandmother made it abundantly clear that it was Nova, not Lox. Maybe you grew up knowing that there was a difference, but not why it mattered.
Maybe you didn’t really want to be an American anyway. Maybe American “culture” is all about taking from us, from others. Maybe you can’t understand what made your people surrender so much of themselves for a country that never really wanted them. Maybe everything about America makes you wish you came from elsewhere. Maybe this “holiday” celebrates something you feel no pride in.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if you grew up feeling Jewish. Maybe culture has a way of making itself. Maybe a Nova lox bagel with cream cheese is evidence of something personal, generational, indelible. Maybe for you, it is something else.
Today, it’s a toasted everything bagel, smeared with a thick layer of cream cheese (schmear) on the bottom and a thin spread at the top (to hold it all in place). On the bottom half, the capers in the schmear, the nova on the capers. On the top half, the cucumbers in the schmear, the onions on the cucumbers.
Today, it’s the hope that this country can still become something better without erasing, persecuting, and condemning what makes us each different. Tomorrow it has to remain about righting the wrongs that American culture has wrought, has fought to preserve, and stubbornly refuses to admit. Every day, you have a choice about the culture we make.