How I Learned To Drink
Long before I discovered Bloody Marys and martinis, I loved Manischewitz Concord grape wine
I can still remember with resounding clarity all these years later the note of horror in my mother’s voice the first time she called me and I sounded audibly drunk. I must have been in my early 20s, I was living in a dark little apartment all the way over on the less genteel reaches of the Upper East Side, and had come home after an evening in which much alcohol had been imbibed. I was delighting in the feeling that being drunk gave me—that floaty, nothing-can-get-at-you sensation of being freed from the usual confines of your mind. I was happy being drunk, and I suppose this—as much as the fact that I was slurring my words—is what took my mother aback.
“You sound drunk,” she said, in a tone heavy with accusation.
“Really?” I said. “I think I am.”
There was silence for a moment, reverberating across the wire like a scream.
“Daphne,” she said. “Jews don’t drink.”
It was a statement, not an implicit question, a categorical imperative born of ethnic pride and a hierarchical sense of differentiation: Jews don’t drink. It was something other people—goyim, to be exact—did, to their detriment. It was something people like us didn’t do, to our betterment.
True, there was Purim, the one holiday when Jews were encouraged to drink to the point of muddledness—until they could no longer distinguish between the heroes and the villains of the Purim story, between the phrases “arur Haman” (cursed is Haman) and “baruch Mordechai” (blessed is Mordechai). And there was the 3-week period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Simchat Torah in which wine featured in a more consistent way than it did at any other time of year: Wine was served with yontif dinner and lunch, as it was on Shabbos, to fulfill the kiddush requirement but also as a festive touch; it was almost as if we were briefly transformed into French folk who didn’t consider a meal complete without an accompanying glass of wine. It always surprised me that we didn’t incorporate wine into our weekday meals after its being in such regular attendance throughout the yontif lineup, but as soon as they were over, it went back to putting in an appearance on Shabbos only, leaving those few holidays as the exceptions in a largely teetotaling religion.
No, to drink was to fall out of Jewishness into a sea of unruly impulses and ungovernable behavior. Who knew what I might take up next?
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I grew up in a religiously observant home, one where the laws of kashrut and Shabbos were rigorously adhered to and cocktails were unheard of. We ate something called Smokey Bear cookies instead of Oreos, for instance, because Nabisco didn’t specify vegetable oil in their ingredients and there was the chance Oreos contained animal fat. In the 24-hour period from Friday night to Saturday night when Shabbos ended, we didn’t use electricity—no phones, no lights, no TV or music. Friday night was the one night the family in its entirety—my parents and the six of us kids—sat down to eat together; the rest of the week my parents ate on their own in the dining room while my siblings and I had dinner in the kitchen. It was an odd, slightly upstairs/downstairs arrangement, true to the Victorian coloration of our family life, but it highlighted the totemic significance of those Friday night dinners.
The table was always beautifully set—my mother was stronger on aesthetics than she was on providing a feeling of familial warmth—with a linen tablecloth and napkins, flowers, good china and stemware; the last included matched water glasses and wine glasses. The chandelier glistened, the sterling silver cutlery and candlesticks gleamed, and the very atmosphere seemed to shimmer with anticipation. The kiddush benediction my father made before the meal called for the first introduction of booze into our weekly menu. This took the form of a bottle of Manischewitz when I was very young, although in later years when the manufacture of kosher wines came into its own we moved on to the more sophisticated Israeli label of Carmel, which in turn was succeeded by other labels like Yarden and Kedem.
Man O Manischewitz! What a Wine! That’s how the tag line of the TV and radio commercials for this generic wine went, blunt as could be. I liked everything about Manischewitz’s Concord grape wine, from its deep burgundy color to its cloyingly sweet taste—like a heightened, fermented form of grape juice. I liked that you didn’t have to get used to it, the way you had to work your way into a fondness for other adult libations, from Scotch to coffee. Its taste was immediately appealing, whether served up in little white paper cups at a synagogue kiddush after morning services on Saturday or in a large silver goblet that was passed around for everyone to take a sip from at the dinner table. I even liked the definitive stains it used to leave on everything, from the tablecloth to my best Shabbos dresses, letting you know of its presence.
Jewish laws around wine and wine-making are complex, having been refined and codified over centuries by the rabbinate so as to ensure maximal sanctity for this beverage. The regulations governing kosher wine basically stem from a fear of drinking leading to a letting down of the guard between Jews and non-Jews (and from there leading to a breaking of the taboo against intermarriage). Accordingly, my family’s non-Jewish help weren’t allowed to handle the wine bottles; these were always taken out of the fridge and placed on the table inside a silver container by my mother. (The exception to this rule is wine that is boiled, called “yayin mevushal,” which can be served by non-Jews.) I eventually moved on from Manischewitz and developed an affection for some of the lighter white wines, which were served on Friday night and again at Shabbos lunch. I don’t remember there ever being more than two bottles opened at a single meal, which suggests very restrained amounts were imbibed since we were a large family and there were usual several guests in attendance as well.
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There were a few other times of the year when wine was featured at meals, mostly having to do with Jewish holidays major and minor, ranging from Rosh Hashanah to Shavuot. The Passover Seder, of course, called for drinking four full cups of wine over its duration, but I remember many of our guests opting for grape juice after the first two cups, fearful of the stupefying effects too much wine would have on them. There was one regular Seder guest, my mother’s close friend Hilde, who would barrel her way through the four cups of wine with great application; she would invariably end up a bit tipsy at the Seder’s end, much to my mother’s visible annoyance. Indeed, I think of Hilde to this day as one of the few robust drinkers among my parents’ acquaintance but I’m sure she only appears to me in this light by contrast to the feeble level of inebriation around her.
There was also one dessert on my mother’s very repetitive Shabbos menus—written down by her on white notepads every week for our cook, the faithful Iva, to put into effect—that was memorable for me in part because it called for a splash of alcohol. The dessert was a very good, nondairy chocolate mousse, made with egg whites rather than heavy cream, and the liquid in question was Schnapps. I always thought Schnapps referred to a particularly potent kind of German liquor but have just discovered, after looking it up on Google, that in fact, although German in origin, Schnapps “can refer to any strong alcoholic drink” and that “its appearance and taste are the same as eau de vie.” Perhaps this explains why I had so much trouble locating a bottle of Schnapps when I tried to duplicate the chocolate mousse recipe as a young woman living on my own and insisted to various bewildered liquor-store owners that I was looking for a very specific drink..
The only other exceptions to Shabbos and holiday wine were the discreet bottles of liquor that were housed in a small wine cabinet that was built into one of the bookcases that lined my father’s study. This cabinet lit up when you opened it, to my childish delight, and usually contained one or two gift-wrapped bottles of wine cordials or Chivas Regal that had been brought by grateful dinner guests as well as a bottle or two of the plum brandy known as Slivovitz and the occasional bottle of whiskey or port. When my Belgian grandmother came for visits from Israel the collection expanded to include a bottle or two of Bols, the bright yellow eggnog drink she favored.
Singing is a potent therapeutic tool—that’s why I started leading a weekly sing-along for cancer patients