Friday was Fish Day.
No, we weren’t Catholic. Growing up in the Fifties, in a small predominantly Catholic town, fresh fish was often available on Friday. Looking back, I am not sure if it was really that fresh. Yes, Lake Champlain was three miles away, but I don’t think local fishermen provided the fillets that lay on top of the ice in the Grand Union.
There was a second reason Friday was Fish Day. My father managed a department store, and Pearl’s, along with the other stores in Keeseville, was open until 9 o’clock every Friday. Dad hated fish, so my mother would make some variety of it on that night. If it wasn’t fresh, it is a frozen block or two that my mother defrosted, covered with bread crumbs, and baked along with frozen french fries. When she wanted to save time, she heated up some Gorton’s fish sticks.
Friday dinners were a contrast to our Monday through Thursday, “Father Knows Best” routine. Dad would come in the back door at 5:30 and immediately sit down at our formica topped kitchen table. We children took our places, assigned after one night of our fighting who sat where.
“That’s it!” Dad said. “Wherever you are sitting tonight will be your place from now on.”
Dad sat at the head, his back to the radiator and the yellow linoleum tile on the wall. When she wasn’t putting food on the table, Mom took her place at the foot, her back to the old white Kelvinator range cook stove with its double oven. Jay, the only son, sat to his left. Laura, the oldest daughter took her place next to Jay. Bobbie, the youngest, sat to Dad’s right. I sat in between Mom and Bobbie.
Dinner was usually chicken, potatoes and a vegetable that had been peeled off the waxed box and boiled in a pot on the stove under done. Occasionally, we would have spaghetti with Ragu. Notice I did’t say pasta. In the 1950s, the only pasta available was macaroni for macaroni and cheese and regular old fashioned spaghetti noodles. Who knew of ziti or angel hair or cellentani?
Our dinners were usually over quickly. By 5:55, Dad had pushed himself away from the table. While the children dutifully moved to their bedrooms to do homework and Mom washed the dishes, Dad headed for the back room and the television set. The local news was followed by Huntley and Brinkley. The rest of the night was filled with Perry Mason, Checkmate, and other early television shows. In those days before remotes, Dad would rely on us post-homework to change the station. This did serve an educational purpose: When Bobbie was in kindergarten, she was having difficulty learning her numbers. It was a “Eureka” moment when our family realized that Bobbie had no problem changing the channels to Burlington’s WCAX (Channel 3) and Plattsburg’s station WPTZ (Channel 5).
The Friday night late closing provided another benefit to the four Cohen children. As we had no school the next night and Dad wasn’t home to dictate what programs we watched, we ate our dinners on TV trays in front of our favorite programs. This included The Mickey Mouse Club, with our favorite Musketeers, Annette Funicello and Tommy Cole and a little later, The Flintstones. By the 1960s, both my parents worked at the store, and I was old enough to look after Bobbie as we watched Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, and Route 66.
Where did synagogue fit into this picture, especially in our Reform congregation that only had Saturday morning services for Bar Mitzvahs? Mom finally got her driver’s license in 1955, just before Bobbie was born. Driving the 30 mile round trip up and back to Plattsburgh with four children tow, especially in the winter, was out of the question. It was not until the mid-Sixties that Mom would make the trip with Bobbie and me. Although we all attended Hebrew school though Jay’s Bar Mitzvah and all of our confirmations, a traditional Shabbat dinner with challah, candles, and a Kiddish cup was not even a consideration. Dad worked, and it was Fish Friday!
In fact, it wasn’t until the pandemic that Larry and I started our own tradition. Last March, I became fully invested in baking challahs each Friday for ourselves and those friends whom we felt needed the comfort of a golden loaf straight out of the oven. We began lighting the Shabbat candles, pouring a glass of Manischewitz, and putting my cross stitched challah cover over one of the warm loaves. How could we do all this and NOT set the table and prepare a special dinner, whether we were participating in our twice-monthly Zoom services or just enjoying a quiet sheltering-in-place meal at home?
As we and our friends are vaccinated it is time to invite a couple or two or three to share this all with us. I look forward to carrying on this tradition with my children and grandchildren this summer. Yes, I have come a long way from Friday fish sticks in front of Annette Funicello and the Flintstones
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York in the May 13-May 27, 2021, issue.