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
"What do you want?" was his typically Israeli, polite
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
"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