Searching for Leo Burke: My Sundays in a Jewish Kitchen

When I was very young, my parents lived in a modest, one-bedroom apartment in Vegas.  I have grainy images in my head of a crib, a black and white TV and faded curtains blowing in the desert breeze.

The property managers of the complex were an older Jewish couple named Rose and Leo.  My dad, from time to time would give Leo a hand around the property in exchange for some help with the rent.

At some point, perhaps while painting over graffiti or replacing a sink, Leo inquired of my Dad as to why there was never any family around to visit us. Unlike our neighbors, we never had older, familiar beings dropping in on Sundays to share a meal.  Truth was, my parents kept us away from extended family. They had not had great childhoods, and didn’t want to expose us to what they felt were not good people. So it was just the 4 of us:  Mom, Dad, little brother Mark and me.  No grandparents, aunts or uncles around.

“Why don’t you let Rose and I be the kid’s grandparents?”, Leo offered.  My Dad thought about it and agreed.  Multi-generational influences was something my parents wanted for us…just not from their sides of the family.

So, every Sunday became the day that we would go to the Burke’s. Even after moving out of the apartment and into our home across town, we would venture over for breakfast with our adopted grandma and grandpa.

Instead of eating fluffy pancakes made with cheap Bisquick like Mom would make, we had crispy latkes: fried potato thins topped with applesauce or sour cream.

In place of breakfast sausages there was lox: cold smoked salmon served with capers.

A bowl of tzimmes:  chopped fruits and vegetables simmered with nutmeg and a little sugar.  Instead of hash browns, there was kugel, a baked potato and egg noodle casserole.

Muffins were replaced with apfelstrudel: warm pastry dough wrapped around a filling of apples, cinnamon and raisins.  Babka bread or challah with honey.  Rose would pour orange juice in a blender for 20 seconds to froth it up for us kids.

When I turned 13, Leo would no longer hug me, preferring instead to shake my hand.  You’re a man now David, he said, and while a bar mitzvah, seder meal or Hebrew school was not in my future, he wanted me to know that I was an adopted part of his tribe.

As we grew older, the visits to their house slowed in their frequency.  Teenage friends and desires took the place of my grandparents, which I’m sure happens to most at that age. Rose and Leo passed away not long after college ended for me and I moved away.

My last image of Rose is of her in a housecoat sitting in an armchair in her living room, laughing out loud.  She also make a blanket for me by hand with this label attached.  I still have the blanket to this day:


I wish I would have spent more time with them in later years.  I could use a hug from Rose, a smile from Leo and to steal a homemade raspberry linzer cookie.


PS:  Here’s a link to a great latke recipe