Elissa Altman never fails to feel a frisson of recognition when Friday night approaches. That misty weekly stumbling into Shabbat opens and closes her extraordinary new memoir, “Treyf: My Life as an Orthodox Outlaw.” In the first pages of the book, Altman is driving back from the Berkshires on a crisp fall Friday evening to the home she shares with her wife in Newtown, Conn. In her trunk, there’s a freshly slaughtered pig—perhaps the first animal in the pecking order of foods forbidden to eat by Jewish law. But Altman’s memory of a very different kind of Friday night persists: “The sun begins to set slowly and I remember that it is Shabbos,” she writes, “and the prayer I spoke nearly every Friday night during my childhood summers echoes in my head—it’s been 40 years since I learned it—and I whisper it to myself: Thy Sabbath has come.”
“Treyf” is Altman’s second book-length memoir, and in it she traces the Yiddish word for “unkosher” to the biblical book of Leviticus, which lists prohibited, or treyf, foods. On the face of it, so many of the foods that Altman and her family have loved to indulge in are, strictly speaking, treyf. In the book, Altman’s father, Cy, the son of a dour Orthodox cantor, gives in to his guilt-ridden affinity for treyf by frying up bacon and Spam. That kind of fare bonds Altman to her father, who also surreptitiously takes her to lunch in expensive Manhattan restaurants where she eats oysters and whole lobsters.
Altman’s first book, “Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking,” chronicled her early relationship with her now-wife. Altman met Susan Turner, a Catholic 10 years her senior, online in 2000. Altman’s story of their courtship is buoyed in “Poor Man’s Feast” with recipes she and Turner make, ranging from dishes as basic as salami and scrambled eggs to the more foodie-oriented braised lamb shanks in red wine.
Altman does not include written recipes in “Treyf.” It’s a book born of olfactory memory—a book that captures a unique Jewish epigenetics. “There were no recipes—nothing was written down by [my maternal grandmother] Gaga,” Altman said in an interview. “Purely by virtue of the fact that she was in my childhood home is why I learned to cook. I didn’t get it from my mother or my other grandmother.”
Altman’s depiction of her beloved Gaga, and the food Gaga cooked, poignantly demonstrates how food is love for her. Although the concept is overly familiar, Altman performs a kind of literary CPR on the phrase. In her capable hands, food becomes refreshingly synonymous with love. And that love mingles with the sensuous details of food preparation. “Gaga,” said Altman, “was one of the most natural cooks I’ve ever known. Love was simply associated with the fact that she said, ‘What do you want me to cook for you?’ It was pure love and nurturing.”
Altman has a complicated relationship with her food-averse mother, Rita, who starved herself to rail thinness, was a singer who appeared on television during the 1950s and later modeled fur coats in a New York City showroom. In addition to chronicling Rita’s fraught relationship to food in “Treyf,” last year Altman also embarked on writing a yearlong series of articles for The Washington Post aptly titled “Feeding My Mother.” In those monthly columns, Altman balanced the challenges of coming to terms with her difficult mother while properly nourishing her. She writes: “Ours has been a lifetime of contradiction, paradox, incongruity, and argument: My mother is the bright to my dark, the thin to my heft, the tall to my short, the food-fearful to my chronically famished.”
Altman asserts that another theme driving many of her family stories—stories she said she has spent a lifetime contemplating and “ultimately unraveling”—has been her encounter with the Holocaust. “I lost a number of family members in the Shoah,” she told me. “People my paternal grandfather left behind when he ran away from home in Eastern Europe in 1905 and immigrated to the United States.”
Altman catalogs the various instances in “Treyf” in which shame rears its head. “It’s the shame of being a person raised in a devoutly Jewish home and making a break like my father, which caused him so much anguish,” she said. “It’s about my grandfather leaving his family and then losing them in the Shoah. For me, it was once the shame of being a lesbian—attracted to women as a teenager when everybody was dating boys. Writing helped me overcome that shame, and cooking allowed me to nurture myself as well as to be nurtured.”
Shame also comes into play in the way “Treyf” portrays her father as a modern-day converso. For example, for a year Altman’s father says the requisite Mourner’s Kaddish for his father in the musty basement of their apartment building. Only Altman knows that her father is still drawn “to the sanctity…that tortured him; …he choked on hot tears as he chanted like the dutiful son he was, ignoring the portion of the law that also commands that the Mourner’s Kaddish be said in a synagogue.” Years later, Altman would learn that her father also secretly prayed the daily morning service until the day he died.
At the end of “Treyf,” Altman slips into a synagogue in midtown Manhattan on Shabbat to say the kaddish. The amber-like scene ties together many of the themes in “Treyf”: The Moorish-style architecture reminds Altman of the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion. There is the idea of praying surreptitiously. Judaism’s lachrymose history. And there is the ever-present hush of the Sabbath that continuously animates Altman’s Jewish soul.
A version of this article first appeared in Tablet Magazine.