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A Cut Above

(Published on Israelisms.com - 2000)

So there I was standing face to face with the butcher of Minsk. He was decidedly on the plump side - my mother would have described him as gezunt* - the kind of man you could imagine gorging himself on an oversized bowl of cholent** on an icy winter's day. He had small, beady black eyes, that looked rather lost amongst his other large features, especially his forehead which was broad enough to land a small aircraft. His chins were plentiful, as were the tufts of coarse body-hair that sprouted up his chest and neck. His ruddy cheeks and fiery complexion lead me to believe that I was at the mercy of a volatile, bibulous character. As I stood before him, nervously shuffling from one foot to the other, I had a vision of him, a few years earlier, fleeing Belarus with a bottle of vodka in one hand, and a meat cleaver in the other.

My mission was simple. I had come to buy meat. Well, let me rephrase that. My mission was seemingly simple! For what kind of extraordinary skills and intelligence are necessary these days to purchase the flesh of hapless beasts? Gone are the days of tracking and hunting down bison with sharpened sticks no larger than an after-dinner toothpick. Nowadays, cows quite readily seem to lay down their lives so that we might buy their frozen body parts in supermarket cemeteries for our daily repasts. But I digress...

The reason my mission was fraught with difficulty was, obviously, because this is Israel - the country where everything from depositing a check to buying a pair of socks requires great resources of inner strength and fortitude. Indeed, "simple" has only one meaning in Israel and that is to describe the intellectual capacity of her politicians. Purchasing meat by contrast is anything but! Consequently, I had come prepared for every eventuality.

My recipe, which had traveled down the line of my female ancestry for three generations, called for a cut of meat known as "brisket". I had no intention of settling for anything less. I had purposely asked my Israeli neighbors for the Hebrew translation of such a word and their blank reactions would have lead you to believe that I had asked them the very meaning of life itself. Desperate, I consulted my dog-eared Hebrew/English dictionary and came up with the Hebrew equivalent of "breast of beef". I was intrigued. For one thing, I'd never known that cows had breasts. Udders yes, but breasts? Frankly the image was rather alarming!

After serving a picky Israeli woman who had taken what seemed like three hours to decide on the number of schnitzels she required for her dinner party, the butcher of Minsk turned his attention to me.
"What do you want?" was his typically Israeli, polite refrain.
Feeling rather intimidated by the sheer size of him (and his proximity to sharp instruments of mass destruction), I cleared my throat and swallowed hard:
"I would like breast of beef please."

It should come as no surprise to you to hear that our dear friend, the butcher of Minsk glared back at me with a look of total incomprehension. I wondered whether perhaps I'd mispronounced the word breast, and was almost tempted to grab my own to get my point across! I decided against it. All I could think about in my desperation was the vision and succulent taste of my mother's delicious brisket thinly sliced in my favorite wine sauce...

Suddenly, from behind the meat counter, a large, rolled-up chart was produced as if our friend had temporarily transformed himself from a butcher into a magician. With much aplomb, he unfurled the glossy poster and held it up before me. Pictured thereon was a photograph of a poor, unsuspecting cow. Some genius of bovine biology had taken a marker and carefully demarcated and numbered each section of his torso so that confused shoppers could point out the cut of meat they required. The two of us poured over the chart like two explorers searching a map for hidden treasure. But my not knowing the one end of a cow from the other, least of all where it's breasts were located, brought us no closer to uncovering the riddle of the brisket.

By now our friend was getting impatient and I was bristling with frustration.
"Breast of beef! Breast of beef! Breast of beef!" I yelled in Hebrew, totally out of control (in other words, behaving like your average Israeli citizen), "For %$#@ sake all I want is a piece of brisket!"
And would you believe it, our friend, the butcher of Minsk's face, suddenly lit up with an expression of sudden comprehension.
"Why didn't you say you wanted brisket?' he asked, clearly flabbergasted and just a little irate.

Sometimes, you just can't win.
(And by the way, it's cut number three!)

* Very healthy looking, well fed in Yiddish
** A thick stew