Josh Glancy

Herring made me realise I’ve become a middle-aged Jew

Having always hated the stuff, suddenly, my DNA has kicked in and now I love it


Delicious salad of salted fillets of white herring served with ciabatta bread

December 22, 2021 09:37

Maybe it’s the accelerating effects of the pandemic, or perhaps I’ve overindulged in the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I woke up from a mid-afternoon shluf the other day to realise it had suddenly happened. Some blokes face premature balding, others turn grey before their time: in 2021 I have become a middle-aged Jewish man.

Herring was the first warning sign. It used to repulse me. No matter how it was presented: chopped, pickled, drowned in mustard, lovingly smothered on a salty Ritz cracker, I found the stuff utterly repellent. I used to watch the old men slurp it down at kiddush – grey, scaly, smelling like a Billingsgate refuse pile – and shudder at the sheer unrepentant fishiness of it all.

In my family home there was always a clear division of gastronomic labour: dad ate the chopped herring, I took on the Yarden hummus. This welcome contrast also reflected a generational gap: I was moving away from our heimishe roots towards a more Israeli-influenced diet. I was a standard bearer for the new diaspora Jew: cosmopolitan and discerning.

Recently, however, as my recessive yiddishe genes have kicked in, my father has been distressed to find his chopped herring supplies alarmingly diminished whenever I visit the family manor. Something has happened this past year. I think my body realised that it’s approaching half time and some ancestral switch turned on. Now I can’t get enough of the stuff: chopped, pickled, drowned in mustard, it’s all fishy little crack to me.

I used to wonder sometimes at how the many centuries my forebears spent in Poland and Belarus had left little or no trace on me: no language, no gravestones, no distant cousins in the Silesian marshes. I’ve never been to Minsk and likely never will. But clearly something in the old country left a mark, because a deep atavistic attachment to slimy Baltic fish has somehow seeped into my DNA.

Another thing that used to horrify me during those kiddushes of yore was the scotch; plastic thimbles of throat-torching amber liquor that the old geezers would wash down like so much apple juice, soothing their vocal chords no doubt after a rousing Adon Olam. Occasionally someone would encourage me to have a tipple and I’d try it, hoping against hope that something had changed and I could finally join the shikkers at the big boys table. But no dice.

I learned to drink beer instead. As a student I even learned to drink it properly, like a gentile. I never did master downing a pint (open your gullet, seriously?) but I was able to hold my head up high among the semi-functioning alcoholics of the rugby XV. No shame was brought upon my house. But in recent years, the idea of absorbing six pints of lager has become increasingly unpalatable. My stomach doesn’t thank me for it. My bladder exacts an increasingly punitive cost.

And so slowly but surely, as my body itself begins to season like an aged whisky barrel, the appeal of a wee dram has grown on me. My gateway scotch was Oban, smooth and forgiving. (On the rocks, of course, I’m not a lunatic.) Today I no longer grimace my way through a glass of the brown stuff. In fact I’ve begun to relish it.

Alongside the herring and the scotch, and perhaps not unrelatedly, shlufs have become commonplace, too. As a kid I struggled to ever fall asleep during the day: too many thoughts whirring and hormones buzzing. Now I can nap on demand. If I settle down with an even slightly challenging book, after an even moderate repast, what follows is inevitable: the eyes droop, the head bows, my hands clasp gently over my solar plexus, and I’m gone in seconds.

Whatever next? What will 2022 bring? Will I begin making loud joint-clicking harrumphs each time I get up from the sofa? Maybe I’ll start humming old shul favourites in the kitchen. I suppose this fate probably awaited me all along. “You rebel against your parents until you become them,” wrote the novelist Pico Iyer. “Then one day you look in the mirror and you see your father’s face.”

December 22, 2021 09:37

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