The Zelinsky’s: A Very Jewy Christmas
What you get when you mix the Cooking Channel with Fiddler on the Roof, a laugh track, a visit from a Holiday Spirit, and a recipe for Salami & Eggs Fried Rice!
‘Twas the night before Christmas and something’s cooking in the Zelinsky kitchen. KARINNE ZELINSKY 41, Mom, Wife, sometime Actress sits at the kitchen table habitually smoothing down her stick-straight honey-butter blond hair (courtesy of Blaise from Cheveaux D’Or Salon and Blow Bar). Across from her is LILA ZELINSKY 13, and JED ZELINSKY, 10. One glance at the full lather of dark curls that loftily tumble from Lila’s head makes it clear that Like Mother Like Daughter clearly does not apply. Jed hunches over a Sports Illustrated and twists sections of his curly mop into tight spirals he demands to know why they have to wait so long for their dinner? The three of them are hungry and bored as ETHAN ZELINSKY 43, Dad, Husband, Lawyer-by-trade and Chef-by-hobby, moves around the kitchen in a series of quick and ungraceful lunges. He grabs ingredients, frenetically stirs, and clumsily chops, as if possessed by the spirit of a one-armed chef riding a sugar high.
Ethan presents the food he has been preparing for most of the afternoon to his family. “So what did you make this year, Dad? Dan-Dan noodles? dumplings? Ask Lila and Jed. With a dramatic, somewhat herky-jerky flourish, Ethan uncovers a wok and offers it to his wife and kids to inspect. “It’s the 11th Commandment to have Chinese Food on Christmas, right?” Which prompts Karinne’s line: “I don’t know why can’t we just go to the Chinese restaurant like our ancestors did before us?” to a fading laugh track
Zelinsky family sitting around a table that is laden with steaming-hot Chinese dishes; glossy heaps of Chicken & Broccoli, Sweet & Sour Beef, Ma Pao Tofu, Fried Rice, Garlic String Beans all served on colorful platters and bowls. Ethan hands each person a red and green Christmas striped paper plate. They pass the platters, serve each other and themselves, and then they dig in. Karinne delares her love for Christmas, and then a conversation begins about how wonderful Christmas is. Lila notes how everyone is in a good mood, Jed mentions something about how great it is to have no school, Karinne marvels at the a-ma-zing sales, and of course Ethan rhapsodizes about the food, but then somewhat guiltily adds “My grandfather Yudl would be doing somersaults in his grave if he saw this scene”
Karinne doesn’t understand this, her grandparents were aces with chopsticks and happily participated in Chinese Restaurant Christmas Eves until the end. “My Grandpa Ben always ordered the same things every Christmas Eve: Shrimp Szechuan and Orange Beef” She says mistily.
Lila thinks for a beat and then says “Dad, your Uncle Moishe in Brooklyn probably wouldn’t be too into our Christmas-loving traditions either”
Jed agrees, but thinks that Moishe’s fat grandson Yitzchok would totally be into the Chinese food feast Ethan just cooked up. And bets that he would inhale Karinn’s eggnog cheesecake afterwards.
And to that Ethan raises his glass, says “L’Chaim!” – and they clink glasses.
And what happens next is scarcely to be believed, but for the magic of television! Perched on a stool in the dark corner of the room appears an old pious Jew is traditional garb, payes (sidelocks) and a long gray beard which he rhythmically drags his fingers through.
The Zelinsky’s all stare at the old Jew and then each other in shocked confusion. He breaks the silence and tosses off a “Nu? You don’t know who I am?” in Ethan’s direction. More confusion ensues, Lila is yelling “Yiddish ghost! Yiddish ghost!” Jed pulls out his phone and starts taking video. Karinne squints and strains to make out the old man. Ethan is trying to figure out if he looks familiar.
“Ach! I’m Yudl” he says accusingly.
As Ethan revealed earlier, his grandfather’s name was Yudl. Zayde? He asks fearfully. “No, you shaygetz. I’m Yudl your grandfather’s grandfather”. As if reading their incredulous minds he tells them that the four of them said his full name out loud: Yudl ben Moishe Yitzchok and then said L’Chaim (to life) and clinked glasses. “nu, so here I am, but to be honest, if you want the emes, I wish I didn’t come” he says disapprovingly as he scans the tabletop. He focuses on the hill of Salami and Eggs Fried Rice in the center of the table. “Treyf! Chazer!” He spits out.
Ethan gets defensive: “Not pork! It’s salami and eggs fried rice” and he marches into a pedantic description of the salami and eggs his mother would make for him every Sunday night and how he incorporated it into a popular Chinese American dish. The kids groan. Lila appropriates some Disney Channel-style snark: “Really, Dad? You’re boring the Yiddish ghost!”
Reb Yudl launches into a rusty diatribe about how in his day Jews spent Christmas hiding and trembling in anxiety. “And to see you celebrating like a goy!” The Zelinsky’s are appalled, they all yell out at once in protest:
“This is America! We live in New York!”
“What’s a goy?”
“It’s not like we have a tree, or anything”
“Chinese Food on Christmas for American Jews is a tradition. Because it was only the Chinese restaurants that were open on Christmas for the non-participants.” Of course this comes from Ethan.
With a dismissive sweep of his hand in the direction of the Jewish-Chinese-American Feast, Reb Yudl is undeterred in his disapproval. His accent is heavy, his voice is brittle, but he bitterly soldiers on:
This is not the way of our forefathers, this is not the ways of our sacred tradition, you vant holidays—ve got plenty! You don’t have enough to celebrate so you take theirs too?! America is such a place that Jews are free to celebrate Christmas- Vat do you eat on Easter? A salami ham? (roar of a laughtrack)
The Zelinsky’s are still in their same places around the table. The untidy scraps of the Chinese feast and the clutter of used chopsticks, cutlery and napkins that litter the table tell of the several well-fed hours that have passed. Reb Yudl sits at the table, clutching a glass of tea, it signals a softening of his stance. Ethan has finally found an audience for his discourse on Chinese food. Reb Yudl listens, rhythmically nods his head as he drags his fingers through his long beard. He lifts a wiry eyebrow every so often. The kids are zoned out on their devices and Karinne is underlining a script.
Ethan tells Reb Yudl about how Cantonese-style Chinese Food typically has a sweet and sour flavor profile, uses a lot of garlic and onions and over-cooks the vegetables to a comforting tenderness. Perhaps the kind of food you can relate to, Reb Yudl? And while yes, there’s plenty of pork and shellfish to be had in Chinese cuisine, there’s never any mixing of meat and milk together…because there is no dairy in Chinese cuisine.
Reb Yudl’s sigh comes from his depths. He looks around the table at Ethan and his family and tugs the corner of his mouth into a twinge of a smile. Yes, he says at last. Yes I understand, why not make a celebration out of every time your family can be together, say a few brochas and enjoy the delicacies that are served so plentifully in this land. Why not? Life is too short and is hard enough.
Ethan smiles widely and is visibly relieved and says… and besides how can I not celebrate the celebration of the world’s most favorite Jew?
Big laugh and then applause. Theme song and credits.
Zelinsky family voice-over: For more information on Jewish- American-Chinese Christmas Recipes please visit: www.Reciperachel.com