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A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

I love and am drawn to all things Jewish: the Scripture, the history, the culture, the traditions, but most of all, to my wife Donna. And just like the story of how Donna and I fell in love, my interest in all things Jewish began as an intriguing curiosity and blossomed into a full blown love affair.

There are so many things this goy could share about a life divided between the Chosen People and, well, the "not so chosen" (just kidding--I really don't think of us gentiles as "not chosen," but that's another discussion.) As you will soon find out, I love food, so what better place to begin.

Pink roses of the Favorite variety. Photo: Flickr/Eddie Van 3000

In a Jewish deli, if the man at the counter asked, "Would you like lox or smoked salmon with your bagel?" a non-Jew would most likely miss the obvious cultural twist in his query. Before falling head over heels in love with Donna, I would not have known that lox and smoked salmon were different words for the same fish. The truth is that before meeting Donna at Georgia Tech in the late 1970s, a bagel and lox were as foreign to me (and Atlanta) as snow in winter. Biscuits, not bagels, were the mainstay of southern breakfasts. Of course, living in the South in those days, we were used to being the last people in America to partake of such modern inventions as color television or the rapturous blend of lox, cream cheese, onion and tomato on a toasty round miracle.

Thankfully, this is less true today now that superhighways and franchising have brought more northerners into the southeast with their wonderful sensibilities and palates. One of those Northern immigrants is the Long Island girl that I married. When she arrived in Atlanta, the pinnacle of cuisine rose 5 feet 6 inches and had curly brown hair. My passion for food paired with her ability to cook is as magical as raisins in warm hallah … or schnecken … or babka … well, you get the idea. In fact, my latest nickname for her is "evil food genius."

We both love family and food and Georgia Tech football and vacations at the beach and, oh, did I mention food? The one thing our blended families have always shared is an authentic enjoyment of food. My mother was and is a wonderful cook. And one of my sisters is an accomplished chef, a graduate of culinary school. The rest of the clan is one cake short of an eating disorder.

Food has always been a common focus in our families, one place where our different cultures converge. The shared pleasure of bread and drink touching each tongue smoothes the edges between our cultures and worldviews. Not permanently, of course; but enough to offer a foretaste of shalom in the present.

I remember once, early in our marriage, Donna invited both families over to our house for brunch. The centerpiece was a lox platter, and it was a thing of beauty. There was every imaginable accoutrement including baskets of assorted bagels and breads and a dozen or so other delicacies. At the time of this event, bagels were only just beginning to pop up in the Atlanta area, so this lox platter was the first my Southern family had ever seen.

big plate of lox
A big plate of lox. Photo: Flickr/ShellyS.

When my mother arrived, she gravitated towards the table and then asked about the fish on the platter. Upon hearing the word "lox," she said, "Oh, you mean, smoked salmon."

Donna and I exchanged glances, and she said, "Why, yes, of course."

Nothing big. Right?

In the beginning we thought that my mom was just trying to associate a known thing in her world with this new thing from Donna's world. But this was not the case. A game of word-switch began. Whenever Donna would have a brunch at our house and would make a lox platter, or whenever Donna was asked to bring this particular fish to a brunch at my mom's house, my mom would refer to it as smoked salmon. If Donna or I would call my mom to ask if we should bring lox, she would reply, "Wonderful, please bring some smoked salmon."

Donna and I marvel that this word play continues to this day. It's silly, I know; but we don't know if it's an oblique way to change how we refer to it because to her it's incorrect, whether she feels "unqualified" to use the word, whether the word's obvious ethnicity offends her, or what. What fascinates me the most is this little, tiny word-tug-of-war that has lasted for the past 26 years. We say lox. She says smoked salmon. She says smoked salmon. We say lox.

I know it's funny in both a ha-ha and in a strange sort of way, and trivial and unimportant in others, but I see it differently. I interpret the word "lox" as a Jewish identifier. This tiny word represents a small measure of Donna's Jewish identity. Not all of it, of course; but an important part. And because I feel this way, I want to go out of my way to protect the symbolic nature of this word for this wonderful fish, especially because, in this age of the erosion of Jewish identity, holding on to this seemingly insignificant word holds greater weight.

I see this little Jewish word "lox" as a single rose by a fence along a country road. The rose is beautiful and fragrant. Many drive by but never see it, busy with their lives, in a hurry to get to their next stop. But the rose is there, warming in the sun, living, breathing and precious. I appreciate the rose's beauty, delicateness and smell. To me, loss of identity can happen in so many little ways. Too often we are so focused on the big things that we lose sight of the fact that it's probably the thousand little things that go missing, that break off and die, that nobody ever notices. And in the end the many little things add up to the bigger loss.

Perhaps if Shakespeare himself were married to a Jewish woman he would have written instead, "Lox by any other name would taste as salty and delightful."

A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Yiddish for "gentile," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.
Ken Hall

Ken Hall works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an informatics scientist and strategist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Emory University. Ken lives with his wife Donna in Atlanta.

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