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Amy Gerstler

“Schmaltz Alert” [by Amy Gerstler]

Amy Gerstler and friend

One whole loaf of bread, a baguette
sliced lengthwise in half though of course
they never say baguette in Vienna, they had
other words in that slightly grimy dark bar
where I first saw it displayed in a poorly lit
glass case next to a plate of what I mistook
for burnt chocolate cookies but which turned
out to be thin, crisp slices of blood sausage.
A jar of rubbery pickled eggs, blurred
in murky liquid sat on top of the case.
But I was mesmerized by the sandwich.
What in God's name is smeared on that bread--
I almost said--that translucent goo the color
of pus?!  For politeness sake I asked in my
creaky German What's that sandwich in
the window? Which probably came out
something like: "What is window-bread?"
but aided by my pointing, the guy behind
the bar received the meaning. He looked
as if I'd asked what beer was. That's a chicken
fat sandwich, he replied, as though to a dim
child. Yes, those were chopped raw
onions sprinkled on top of the schmaltz
which was spread thick like peanut butter.
Like so many things my mother cooked
that I gave her grief for and wouldn't eat:
liver, tongue, parts of the animal I couldn't
bear to recognize, let alone ingest--
suffice it to say I was utterly repulsed
by the python-like sandwich sold in sections
at that tavern in the land of my ancestors,
and with my friends at the table, I laughed
at it. Yet, eating to keep warm--what did I
know of that in my privileged existence? What
did I know of pogroms, Russian winters, forced
immigration, of the value of fat, its anti-
starvation richness, of using every bit of a bird,
my pickyeaterhippievegetariancollegeeducated
self refusing to acknowledge any such necessities,
wrinkling my nose at the stink of cabbage cooking,
squinting at Russian writing on the backs
of forebearers' multi-stamped passports slipped
into a photo album, their set, defenseless, nameless
faces peering at me hungrily. Once an uncle
at the wedding of his son, a skinny, hairy kid
who was marrying a Rubenesque beauty said,
"He always did go for those little fatties" as though
this was a delightful remark. Actually, he
used the term "little fatties," as a second try.
First, he said zaftig, but based on what he read
as incomprehension on my face, he figured
he needed to translate for the poor dumb
Jewish girl who didn't know her own language.
But, though I know little Yiddish, I was familiar
with zaftig, lobbed as a compliment among my
relatives to mean a well-padded, curvaceous cutie--
nobody's stomach rumbling here! An aunt took me
aside one afternoon when I was 20, advising,
you should eat more, dear, if you want to catch a husband.
I didn't bother to respond or keep the contempt
off my punim. Anyway, old friend, what I
wanted to say is that on the phone the other day,
when you said Schmaltz Alert!  to warn me
you were about to say something affectionate,
I remembered that gross, noble sandwich
for the first time in years. I thought about how
we both come from Russian Jews who fled first
to Europe, where they perfected that sandwich
as well as an ability to simultaneously embrace
and mock the excessively sentimental, and
for no good reason I found myself in tears.

-- Amy Gerstler
from the Mississippi Review (Vol. 51, issue 3)

October 27, 2023

October 21, 2022

June 14, 2022

November 19, 2021

November 17, 2021

November 15, 2021

July 09, 2021

April 13, 2021

February 21, 2021

February 04, 2021

January 10, 2020

May 24, 2015

May 17, 2015

May 10, 2015

May 02, 2015

April 25, 2015

April 18, 2015

April 12, 2015

April 04, 2015

May 24, 2014

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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