Biff America: Matzah, corned beef and tofu
It was an ethnic potpourri, an example of what is right about America.
I was in Boston to celebrate the marriage of my friend’s daughter. My mother use to warn me about Sheri Zacks: She lived two towns over from me and was Jewish, sophisticated and well developed for her age. My mum assumed all non-Catholic girls were “fast.” Since most of the girls I knew at the time were “stationary,” “fast” was fairly appealing.
Though we never really dated, she was very sympathetic when it came to the curiosity of an awkward teenager, for which I am eternally grateful.
Through the years and miles, Sheri and I have remained close. She married late in life and had one daughter, Chelsea, whose nuptials were slated to be a small affair. Since Sheri ’s husband passed away years ago, she joked that I was on standby to give the bride away. Luckily, they found someone in her tribe who, in fact, owned a necktie, so I was free to spend my time socializing and limbering up for the horrah (Jewish dance).
My mate opted to stay in Colorado while I flew back east, so I attended the wedding stag. Sheri obligingly seated me with another old friend, Mary Marie Powers. Mary grew up in the same town as Sheri — she owns several dry-cleaning shops, drinks whiskey neat and considers microbrews beers for midgets.
It was a typical Jewish wedding, with great food and tradition. The groom stepped on a wine glass, to symbolize the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (or some say it will be the last time he gets to put his foot down). We all yelled mazel tov, and the ceremony was complete. The newlyweds were carried shoulder high around the room in chairs, and the universal language of open bar was spoken.
Watching Sheri’s petite daughter being carted around the room over the groomsmen’s heads, Mary observed. “That’s why I married a Catholic fella. If those guys tried to pick me up like that, I swear I’d give ’em a wicked hernia.”
It was a great day but time to head home. I was in front of the hall waiting for a cab when I heard Mary screech to a stop in her work van and yell, “Hey skinny butt, ya want to hit a real party?”
Irish Mirth and Catholic Guilt
The Gaelic Festival is a yearly event where many of Boston’s Irish community drink Guinness, celebrate their heritage and history — and drink Guinness. It was much like Sheri’s wedding, with the exception that the food was worse, the music better and I witnessed a couple of fights. I will admit, both Mary and I felt relieved to be back amongst our own kind. Though we enjoyed Sheri’s family and friends, we both needed a dose of Irish mirth and Catholic guilt.
We strolled by stalls selling Irish crafts, visited the whisky booths (when in Rome) and killed time until the entertainment began.
Irish step dancing has been made more mainstream and popularized by Michael Flately, of River Dance fame. But long before that, it has been taught to young boys and girls in YMCAs and dance academies all over Boston. It is a high-energy, kinetic, traditional Irish dance, a combination of American clogging and kickboxing.
An archetypal Finnian instructor with an Irish lilt explained the numbers and would introduce the dancers. Several schools and dance academies with dancers from about age 4 to mid-teens performed with various degree of proficiency. The dancers were all distinctly Irish, with red, black or strawberry blonde hair, peaches and cream complexions and names like Kelly, O’Malley and Flannigan.
‘They are Wonderful People’
In the middle of the entertainment, there was a troupe, ages between 4 and 6, from (I think) the town of Dorchester. When the young ladies filed onto the stage, something was odd. Between two little Irish dolls with red hair and green eyes was a porcelain skinned Asian girl. The instructor introduced the dancers: They were Martha Parnell, Maureen O’Rourk and Erin Choy. Mary observed, “Looks like we have some tofu mixed in with the corned beef and cabbage.”
The dance was no better or worse than what we’d already witnessed. But now, it represented what makes America great, the luxury to embrace the culture, faith and lifestyle of your choice; the freedom to celebrate not only your history but also your future.
Mary dropped me off at my brother’s house, where I spent the night before flying back the next day. When I arrived, I told him, in detail, about the Jewish wedding and the Irish festival. He listened to my tale and said simply, “They are a wonderful people.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about Jews, Irish or Asians, and then it dawned on me he meant Americans.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul: The Backcountry Years” is available at backcountrymagazine.com/store.