Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Oysters 'R' In Season;
Academic Year Begins;
Jews to Welcome 5760
By Henry J. Stern
September 1, 2009
Today is the first of September, and that has always been a calendar day of some significance to me. It falls midway between my birthday and New Year’s Day, thus dividing the year into three trimesters. More importantly, today is the first day of the month in which the academic year begins. That is memorable because I went to five schools for seventeen academic years, and my children went for twenty-six years (from Jared’s first day at nursery school to Kenan’s graduation from medical school).
The month is particularly significant to us because the Jewish holidays Rosh-hashana and Yom Kippur usually take place in late September, sometimes ending in early October. The Days of Atonement, from the first to the tenth of the month of Tishri, the first month under the lunar Hebrew calendar, are a period for repentance, reflection and renewal. Observing the Holy Days helps to give a person the sense of making a fresh start, with the sins of the old year forgiven by God’s mercy. My theology is very weak, but I know it is a good thing to take the time to evaluate your own behavior, and to try to improve it in the future.
It is a great leap to go from what is holy to what is traif (not kosher), but there are other associations with the month of September. This the month when the Blue Point Fish Market, which was located (at least, in the 1940s) on Dyckman Street just east of Sherman Avenue in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, posted a large sign: Oysters ‘R’ in Season. Proud that I could read it, I was naturally curious as to what it meant, so I asked the fishmonger. He explained that it was all right to eat oysters in months that contained the letter ‘R’, but not in the other months of the year. I first wondered how the oysters knew when they were in season (and therefore at risk of being plucked from their beds). Nor could I fathom what the letter ‘R’ had to do with an oyster, except that it was the last letter in the word.
On checking the calendar, I found that every month from September to April contained the letter ‘r’, while May, June, July and August did not. Years ago, when freezing food was not widespread, it was considered unsafe to eat oysters in the summer because they might be spoiled by the heat. There is, however, another reason to avoid summer oysters. The hot months are the time of year when oysters spawn. During that time their bodies (underneath their shells) become thin and flabby from the strain of reproduction, and therefore less desirable to eat.
We didn’t eat oysters anyway because they weren’t kosher, and my mother wouldn’t know what to do with them if they were in the house. The same went for other types of shellfish; once I brought a live crab home from Chinatown, and had to bring it to the Harlem River and restore its freedom. (Now, many years later, I’ve come to enjoy oysters. The oyster casserole served at the Chinese restaurant, NY Noodletown, at 28 ½ Bowery, on the corner of Bayard Street, is particularly good. One portion serves two people.)
This extended digression was inspired, in part, by an email announcement we received while we were thinking of oysters. The New York Harbor Day Oyster Festival will be held on Sunday, September 13, from 2 to 6 pm, on Pier 84, a recreational pier on the Hudson River at West 44th Street, just south of the Intrepid. The event is sponsored by the Hudson River Park Trust, the city-state agency responsible for designing, building and operating Hudson River Park, and NYC & Company, a nonprofit organization that promotes business and special events in New York City.
To return to the glories of September, the month also provides needed relief from the heat of August. The city’s pools and beaches close, so that the Commissioner is relieved of the anxiety of worrying about drownings. No matter how often people are warned to stay out of dangerous waters, some will enter them and be swept away. Landlubbers consistently underestimate the hazards of waves and rip tides, but the ocean is not a large bathtub.
September also marks the return of the psychoanalysts from their Cape Cod vacations. This is a relief to many who have spent August without the benefit of their services. It may inform a few of them that they can get by with other means of support.
And no former Parks Commissioner could fail to point out the start of the magnificent display of fall foliage, as the leaves turn, many from green to yellow and then to red. Any of our large parks is a wonderful place to watch the changing landscape. Though it might be a pleasant excursion, it is not necessary to travel to New England to watch the leaves change color.
For millennia, the numbering of the months has presented an anomaly. September clearly derives from the number seven, but it is the ninth month of the year. The same inconsistency applies to October, November and December. When was the New Year changed from March to January, and why was it done?
Starting the year in January does not make enormous amount of sense from a naturalist’s point of view. March, the month of the vernal equinox, is a more logical time for the year to begin. It is in March that spring arrives, plants start to grow, and animals come out of hibernation. Nothing special happens in January; it is a cold and bitter month, except in the Southern Hemisphere, where it generally marks the hottest time of the year. Two other months have been renamed: July, which honors Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE), was formerly Quintilis (the fifth month) and August named for Augustus Caesar (63 BCE – 14 CE), was formerly Sextilis (the sixth month). Julius was Augustus’ granduncle. The two months were each given 31 days, so no other month would be longer, and the pair honoring the emperors would be equal, and back to back. Prior to the name change, Sextilis had only 29 days, which is the same as our short February in leap years. February had no imperial or heavenly sponsor. It was named for the februa, the Roman purification ritual, which was held on February 15, just one month before the fateful Ides of March.
September marks the change of seasons and the renewal of work after summer vacations. People should look around and contemplate the passage of time and the fresh opportunities offered each day. It is human nature to be so preoccupied with the rituals and demands of daily life that we do not pay attention to the larger picture. This variety of observations about this month, with its generally moderate climate, is intended to help our readers sit back and think about the world and our small place in it.
StarQuest #590 09.01.2009 1169 wds