My mouth watered for a BLT — that is, once I knew what it was.
For the longest time, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in the Bronx, I believed it was a train. Yes, really. There was the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit), the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) and this other train I never came across called the BLT. Probably ran in Staten Island or some other place in New York, I figured.
This went on until my freshman year at NYU, when my best friend, Irwin, took me to his favorite diner, a burger joint a block from the 42nd Street Library.
I ordered a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on rye, my favorite in nonkosher restaurants. Irwin ordered a BLT, his favorite.
“Why’d they name it after a train, Irwin?”
“Named what after a train, Shelley? What train?”
“Your sandwich, Irwin.”
“Shelley, BLT stands for … Oh here, taste it!” I couldn’t refuse.
“Sort of tastes like pastrami, Irwin, only better!”
“Bacon, Shelley, bacon! It is bacon you are chewing, my friend: B, bacon, L, lettuce, and T, tomato. BLT!”
At that moment I could hear in my head the strident voices of a Jewish chorus lamenting my transgression in Yiddish: “Gevalt geshrigen!” “Vey iz mir!” — classic Yiddish permutations of “oy vey.”
“You know, Shelley, I hope no one from your father’s shul sees you eating this shit,” Irwin said with a chuckle. I nearly threw up. I looked frantically in all directions and took off for the subway thinking,“If Dad hears about this, I’m screwed!”
Back home that night, I asked Dad if he would help me understand something in the Torah that troubled me. He was delighted. After all, he loved discussing Torah more than life itself. My request nearly brought tears to his eyes.
“So, Shelley, what is on your mind? How can I help?”
“Dad, I know the Torah forbids us to eat any chazir, any kind of pork product. But what happens if you do? It’s not like stealing or killing somebody, is it?”
“What? What? You ate chazir? Is that what you are saying, Shelley? You know what the Torah says about that. And you are the son of a rabbi!”
“No, no, Dad. I didn’t! I didn’t eat it,” I lied. “I just want to know what happens if you do.”
Dad believed me. He quieted down, licked his lips and in his soft-spoken rabbi voice said, “Shelley, don’t scare me like that. Besides, with chopped liver, who needs bacon?”
Bacon, Shelley, bacon! It is bacon you are chewing, my friend.
I went back to that burger joint. Through the window, I watched the burgers simmering on the grill as I smacked my lips. My sequestered Jewish life in those days felt like I was living in a building without doors or windows. Everything was kosher or treyf, according to Jewish law. To me, it appeared there was no room for flexibility or compassion in my world when it came to religion.
I talked to my pal Saul about all this. His dad was a rabbi, too. He counseled me: “Shelley, your dad is an Orthodox rabbi, for Christ’s sake! If anyone from your synagogue sees you eating this treyf, it could cost your father his job!”
But the next day, I just could not resist. I went back and, before entering, peered into the burger joint. No one looked familiar or Jewish. So I went in and I did it. A rare burger and a Coke. Well, it was scrumptious! Crusty on the outside and yummy on the inside!
I wiped my mouth, tiptoed out and headed home.
That night, I could not sleep. “I am turning 18,” I mused, “and I’ve got to be my own person. I have got to stand up to my father, tell him the truth, no matter what!”
But that wasn’t going to be easy. He had an awful temper, and his look alone, with those glaring eyes, could paralyze a cockroach in its tracks. But I made up my mind.
The next day, after dinner, I got up the nerve and asked to speak with Dad again. I walked into his study, breathing hard, but resolute.
“Dad, I have to fess up.”
“Dad, I have to tell you the truth.”
“Nu!? Nu? What is it? Please, not about chazir again!”
“Dad. Yesterday I went into that restaurant on 42nd Street and I ate a hamburger, a treyfeh hamburgher.”
“You whaaaaat? Didn’t we lay that to rest already?”
Moments passed in silence, Dad shaking his head in disbelief and looking mournfully at me.
I thought: “Now what? Is Dad going to start screaming at me, or slap me across the face, or lecture me?”
Then the words of the Talmud drifted through my mind: “He who embarrasses his fellow in public is tantamount to shedding blood.” My eating that treyf hamburger for all to see could have really hurt my dad.
Dad looked up from behind his desk, his brow furrowed, and said, “Shelley … How’d it taste?”
He smiled and never said a word about it again. It was that loving, compassionate, patient and humorous side of him that could defuse any serious difficulty, and warm one’s heart.
The memory of the righteous is a blessing.