For a while, I was convinced that a chopped liver recipe could make my in-laws accept me.
It wasn’t just any chopped liver recipe, it was from Moskowitz & Lupowitz, the restaurant where my husband’s great-grandfather worked. I had tracked it down and would make it for them, and then they’d love me. They’d have to.
Moskowitz & Lupowitz opened in 1909 on 2nd street and 2nd avenue in Manhattan. Unlike the delis and fish counters that carry on the legacy of Jewish-American cuisine nowadays, the places where your uncle argues over the price of whitefish while you scarf down a foot-high pastrami sandwich, M&L was swanky. “Where all the finest Jews come to eat,” boasted their motto, which later changed to “Known to those who want the best” when they realized they might have a broader appeal. Diners would dress up to enjoy the live music, the abundant steak, and the sides of potato latkes and stuffed derma. Photos from the early years show well-dressed patrons toasting the camera, bedecked for a night of fine dining, and Jewish celebrities like the Marx Brothers or Fred Allen shaking hands with the proprietor.
Today, it’s hard for us to know what to do with a restaurant that strives for authenticity and glamor at the same time.“Traditional food” is supposed to be served by grandmothers who can’t speak English, not tuxedoed waiters placing it on white tablecloths. You’re either supposed to get dirty, delicious tacos out of a street cart, or an elevated, deconstructed version alongside fancy cocktails. M&L wouldn’t stand a chance.
But in 1920s New York, there was nothing strange about a classy dress-up restaurant that served chopped liver — that, in fact, held up chopped liver as its proudest signature dish. “By anyone’s standard the chopped liver was the jewel of the menu. Celebrities would come downtown from the Upper East and West Side just to have it,” Gary Craig, the grandson of the owner of Moskowitz & Lupowitz, told me. I don’t particularly like chopped liver. Sometimes I think I do when I spread it really thin on a strong rye cracker, and then I think about opening a can of cat food and I have to wait a few months to try it again. But when Craig emailed me the recipe, I made the whole thing, shoving it on an unsuspecting holiday party and coming home with most of the leftovers. This is what obsession does to you.
I discovered Moskowitz & Lupowitz because I’ve always been self-conscious about not being Jewish. I grew up between New York’s Upper and Lower East Sides, so all my friends and classmates were Jewish; I spent my early adolescence bouncing from bar mitzvah to bat mitzvah and longed to have one of my own (even after I realized it would involve extra homework). My husband is also Jewish, and when it became clearer that this was going to stick I had a series of small panics. Was his family secretly disappointed? Were they thrilled, but less thrilled than if I had been Jewish? What if all the acceptance and love I was feeling from them wasn’t real, or was a watered-down version of love reserved for shiksas?
Sometimes these panics would look like defensiveness, vacillating between proving I knew enough (“I, too, have played with a dreidel”) or trying to dodge obligations (“Passover again? *cough cough* I think I’m getting sick”). I didn’t feel the need to convert — I’ve never really had or missed religion — but I didn’t want to feel like an outsider. Sometimes you don’t want to belong, but you don’t want anyone to tell you you can’t.
All brides probably worry that they’ll never be good enough for their in-laws — that even if you’re everything he wants, you’ll never be everything they wanted for him. For me, this revolved around Judaism. Jaya, I imagined them thinking, might be an amazing match, but Jaya-but-Jewish would be perfect; they were just putting up with me because the Jewish version of me hadn’t presented herself. None of them actually made me feel this way. I’m positive nobody in the family gave any thought to this but me, but it rooted in my head so thoroughly that extracting it would have torn the whole thing up.
So instead, I thought about it more.
I’m not sure I’ve always been interested in genealogy, but as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed puttering in attics, which is basically the same thing. I liked finding old photo books and old clothes, making people explain them to me. I’m good at following that sort of tangible lead, and far more invested in it if it involves people connected to me. I figured that if I couldn’t give my husband and his family my own Jewishness, I could at least help them learn more about theirs.
The stories looked similar across all the branches of his family tree — great-grandparents and great-uncles coming on ships from places that used to be Russia or Poland but are now Belarus or Ukraine, settling somewhere around New York, maybe making their way elsewhere or maybe staying put. There were changed names and fudged ages, careers no one had heard of, and forgotten siblings. There were eerie photos that looked too much like living relatives. And then there was Moskowitz & Lupowitz.
My husband’s family had always known his great-grandfather had been a waiter, but this was the first time we saw the name of the restaurant, written on the bottom of his WWII draft card. It was the first time something so tangible had come out of the research, a name that might lead somewhere, and I began searching for anything I could find about the restaurant. Google revealed menus and radio jingles and photographs, and later, email address of Gary Craig. I asked him for stories and memories, anything that would make the restaurant feel real again so I could present the findings to my in-laws, proof that I cared enough to bring their past to life. They started calling me the “family historian,” and I craved more, selfishly wanting to insert myself in every corner of their past without actually embracing the religion that I’m not sure they even care about anyway.
At some family gathering last year, I decided to make my move. I printed out everything I had found about the family — immigration records, censuses, passport applications — and presented them to everyone. I expected big hugs, tears maybe, some moment where everyone recognized the scope of what I had done and the important place this shiksa could hold. That moment would solidify, once and for all, that I was as good as, if not better than, the mythological Jaya-but-Jewish. That moment never came.
The thing about ancestry is that as you watch it branch backwards, you’re reminded of how much your ancestors would have hated you. They would have hated your feminist politics and your pink hair, sure, but they also would have hated that you are mixed-race, that you lived with a man before marrying him, that you had a secular wedding performed by a friend with a chest tattoo. They were slave-owners and puritans and gender essentialists and you probably would hate them too. And yet you want to do well by them, because without them you wouldn’t be here. And your family, the ones who are alive and well, may disagree with you or be confused by the things you do, but you want to do well by them too.
But your ancestors can’t tell you who you are, because you can’t always measure yourself by your relationships to others. My husband’s family was excited to learn about Moskowitz & Lupowitz and the rest of my findings, but I felt no more or less accepted. They looked over the pages, pointed excitedly at addresses they remembered, wowed at changed names, and returned to playing with the grandkids and arguing about football. Unlike my friends, they sounded excited when I said I’d make them M&L chopped liver, but there’s no one telling me that now, yes, I am everything they ever wanted and more. There’s just “that sounds great” and “let’s make plans for brunch” and “I love you.” I am still not Jewish and they still love me, and their grandparents still would have hated me, and all I proved is that I’m stubborn enough to follow a clue.
Moskowitz & Lupowitz was part of my husband’s history, but it was also just a restaurant. It closed in 1966 as the city’s Jews, like his family, were busy moving on up to the suburbs. M&L, and the restaurants like it, were the casualties of this transition. If my husband’s family — my new family — wanted Jewish food they could go to the delis, and if they wanted upscale, well, they weren’t relegated to where the “finest Jews” could eat. They could eat anywhere, live anywhere, even in places where their sons could meet and fall in love with girls who weren’t Jewish. Girls like me.