I was working on a genealogy project for school in the fall of 1980, when my gums began to hurt. I didn’t notice at first because I’d had a daily migraine I never bothered to tell anyone about. This was just the way high school was meant to be, I thought hazily: full of pain. There was some solace in my school research indicating that our first ancestor in America had been a French pirate of the Caribbean.
My family had decided to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) the year before, and our home was a kibbutz—an agricultural collective based on Utopian ideals where we dealt with everything like Boxer of Animal Farm: by working harder. So every day after classes, I’d take my migraine down the long dirt road to the turkey houses and clean eggs for two hours; then I’d shower and wander over to my parent’s cheder, the cramped private room where adults lived while their children shared communal dorms. We’d hang out and play Yahtzee, go up to the dining room, and then it would be time to return to the children’s house and read Vonnegut until I fell asleep. I was 12.
I didn’t want to bother anyone about my pain, thinking I could muscle through it. But one day, coming back from a dinner I’d barely touched, I sat down on the sidewalk and started to cry. My mom put her arms around me, and it all came spilling out: the language difficulty, the way I felt so stupid, the things that hurt and hurt. She took me home, gave me some decongestant, made me a cup of tea—and started teaching me Latin. This response was very like her, and actually rather therapeutic: When the present is hopelessly illogical and painful, seek refuge in the distant past, preferably in things that are beautiful and make sense.
And then Mama pulled down a volume of Adele Davis, the nutritionist who was a patron saint of hippies tired of subsisting on the Jell-o and Campbell’s soup of their childhood. After a few minutes’ perusal, she raised her head. “I think you have…scurvy?”
Scurvy was a disease of pirates and sailors that had been eradicated two centuries ago. Leave it to me to make it trendy again. I took some vitamin C, and the pain was gone by morning, but it conferred a certain street cred. Don’t tell me about hard times, buddy; I’d had scurvy. In an instant, I went from being a lonely nerd who was failing seventh grade to a badass pirate. Arrrgh.
But how on earth had I managed to pick up this antiquated ailment in the Promised Land, surrounded by fruit trees, eating salad for every meal? It made no sense. Except it did. Ours was a poor kibbutz. A small dairy and turkey farm, loquat orchard, and several acres of cotton and wheat were the only source of income for nearly 300 people. We were proud of our poverty and an aggressive ideology of macht mich stärker (makes me stronger). Corners were cut everywhere, and in winter, when food was expensive, we subsisted on cucumbers and cottage cheese, white bread and rice. And turkey testicles.
We hadn’t known about the testicles, originally. They were referred to as kurkivanim, or “navels,” so it was not until my dad held up two gristly pieces of meat attached by a tendon one afternoon and said, “Wait a sec—turkeys aren’t mammals,” that we abruptly understood what we were eating. We put our forks down, swallowed, and then picked them up again. Kacha zeh, that’s just how it is, and we were hungry.
Plus I was used to bad food. My mom, like many Second-Wavers, was almost aggressively Not A Cook. She had three kids and a full-time job at the phone company back in the States, and no time for that Feminine Mystique nonsense. We ate regular, nutritious meals: lots of tuna casserole, fish sticks, fried liver and onions. Food was simply fuel, and suffering built character. We rarely ate out, never indulged in fast food or sugar. The week before we left New Jersey for Israel, my mom had a fit of tender patriotism, and we all went to McDonald’s for take-out. I still remember lying on the park grass watching as she took a bite of her first Big Mac. She enjoyed it—McDonald’s was actually good back then—but I think it was also her last. She is a woman of principle; I prefer pleasure.
She made bread every Friday, a job I assumed when I was eight, racing home during recess to punch down the dough, then baking it after school, filling the house with its mesmerizing smell. We ate it all week; by Tuesday the whole-wheat slices of our sandwiches would be stale and crumbling. Cake was for birthdays. I staged a reactionary rebellion of my own, commandeering the Fanny Farmer with my best friend Pam so we could teach ourselves to make the cake we craved. It took us months of trial and error to master the simplest recipe, and eventually we went back to boosting Ho Hos from the corner store.
Hardly any cookware accompanied us from the States; we assumed the kibbutz would provide. It did not. We had a toaster oven of such absurd badness that we replaced it after a few months, and I learned how to make muffins. I had to use margarine (we got only a few grams of cheese and butter each week and had to hoard them carefully), but in my mother’s mind, muffins represented an acceptable compromise between bread and cake. Both of us were stalwart Anglophiles and spent many happy hours curled up on the couch with Austen, Eliot and Christie, gollupping down bite after delicious crumbly bite, dripping with even more margarine and occasionally jam.
Once I felt better, I was pretty happy on the kibbutz, gonad lunches and all. The Society of Children was top priority, always; we may not have had money for nutritious food, but there were trips to the beach, movies in the bomb shelter, hikes all over the country, and visits to Arab villages to try and broker peace with kids our age. When we weren’t swimming or playing basketball, we were dancing, building bonfires, or hunting pigeons in the wheat silos with homemade bows and arrows.
I got a good grade on the family tree I made for that genealogy project; few other students had been able to go back as far as 1750. Years later, it came out that our Philippe Girard hadn’t been a pirate after all, just a mercurial sea merchant, an importer who settled in Sainte-Domingue and ran a thriving coffee plantation until the Haitian revolution of 1791 drove him and his family to seek refuge with his brother in Philadelphia. And that’s how we came to America, though of course we weren’t there anymore. People do wander, don’t they?
It was a letdown, this glorious swashbuckling ancestor who turned out to be no more than a common slave owner. A lot of things saddened me that year: boys, algebra, Ronald Reagan, the murder of John Lennon, the first hints of disintegration of the kibbutz movement. But for one brief shining moment, I was a bona fide pirate who could say things in Latin. Hungry as hell, and obviously destined for greatness.
Aviva Rosenthal has lived in 68 different places, battled MS for 30 years, has three cats and a son named Max. She is the author of The Sunlight Zone.
Fannie Farmer Commie Muffins
2 c. flour
3 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 c. sugar
2 chicken eggs (or 1 turkey egg)
1 c. milk
1/4 c. melted margarine or butter
1 c. raisins or chopped dried fruit, optional
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Stir all dry ingredients into one bowl, wet into another.
Make a small depression in the dry, then add the wet, without over-stirring.
Stir in optional raisins or chopped fruit.
Pour into greased muffin tins. Do not use frilly paper cups; they are for the weak.
Bake 15 minutes.
Don’t share with your comrades; they can get their own.