Ilana Spitz Epstein

Can I have a scoop of cow-tastrophy, in a cone please?

We love ice cream so much, we had the truck come to our house.

I often think about ice cream, I rarely think about cows.

Don’t worry. This isn’t an eco-warrior piece (though that isn’t a bad thing). My thoughts generally are nowhere near that altruistic. Actually, I mainly think about food and I had been thinking about ice cream – just before I thought I was going to call it a day – at the hands of a mob of cows who were about to pin me to a fence. Now that deserves further reading!

Our local kosher ice cream truck: ‘Uncle Doovy’s’

Ice cream and Jews? Not a stretch. Jews and cows? That is a further stretch. Ben and Jerry, Baskin and Robbins, Haagen and Dazs – all nice Jews who made it big in the ice cream business in America.

Ben and Jerry were hippy college dropouts who moved to Vermont,  where it is legitimately cold well over half of the year, to sell ice cream.

Reuben and Rose Mattus started Haagen-Dazs from their kitchen table in the Bronx. The name Haagen-Dazs was meant to sound Danish – Reuben said it was because of the high quality of the dairy products coming out of Denmark. I can see his line of thinking when you consider Danish butter cookies. If you are thinking: “what is she on about?” it’s because you may have tasted Danish butter cookies that are dairy-free,  now those are just not worth the bother. Another explanation Reuben gave was that Denmark stands apart as a country in Europe that was exemplary in their treatment of the Jews during World War Two. The real hero of the Haagen Dazs story, in my mind though, is Rose; to give Haagen Dazs an air of sophistication, Rose would get dressed up to the nines before handing out free samples.

Baskin Robbins were the mavens of “more is more” – seriously, 31 flavours was the selling point! The merger of Burt Baskin’s and Irv Robbins’ respective ice cream parlors in 1945 created one of the largest chains of ice cream specialty stores with over 8,000 locations worldwide. And the “31 flavors” were to reassure customers that you had a flavour for every day of the month if you so chose (I would sooo choose!) What I didn’t know was that Irv Robbins cashed in a $6,000 bar mitzvah insurance cheque to kick off his ice cream parlour. Jews and ice cream are just a really good fit, not just because of the enterprising Jews who made a super success of it in making their ice creams household brand names. The connection is so much deeper.

For Jews who keep kosher, venturing too far from home (I’m talking outside of Israel) is daunting and requires some advanced planning tantamount to the invasion of a small country. Any time you venture more than 20 minutes outside a Jewish neighborhood, panic ensues: what if I get hungry? What if I find myself stranded in the middle of nowhere Yehemetsville and there is nothing to feed the kids (this is obviously all about the kids; if I was on my own, I would be fine – for days), who have been wailing in the back of the car for the last 5 minutes that actually feels like 5 hours? So you start ticking off your mental checklist: if I go into that local supermarket, I can buy an apple, a can of tuna and if I’m lucky they will have the kosher granola bars. Now that is a meal fit for a king!

On the other hand, what if I want to feel like a real person and go into an eatery and just go up to the counter and order and sit and just eat? Well, long before you started paying a minimum of $3 to nurse a cup of coffee, there was really nowhere to do that aside from an ice cream parlour. In fact, before every other brand in the supermarket had a kosher certification, ice cream was one of those things that you could just read off the ingredients list, and be reassured that is was kosher as long as the ingredients themselves were (back in the day, people).

For as long as I can remember, ice cream has been the accompaniment to my summers. And often my falls, winters, and springs. Every memory I have associated with ice cream is a happy one. I have the distinct memory of sitting in the back of my mother’s station wagon, facing the wrong way, a box of Breyers clutched in my hands. As the cream started melting along the seams of the box, the fear of losing even one drop of the ice cream had me wiping my fingers along the seams, licking them as quickly as I could.

‘The Good Humor’ truck playing its song was the anthem of our summers. We knew which ice creams we were able to eat and the flavours to avoid. At Baskin Robbins stores, we knew that Bubble Gum and Rocky Road were off-limits but everything else was up for grabs. Oh and Carvel! Carvel was made for Jews; soft-serve ice cream that you needed to go out to buy. You were now a real person! You could stand online with everyone else and just order – I think – anything. How cool was that?! You didn’t have to feel like an outsider, standing online, nervous as you questioned the 17-year-old pimply-faced kid who sadly was doing summer school and indentured servitude behind the counter about what flavours were kosher and then get that perplexed look of “well if you don’t know, how should I?” Carvel was as smooth as their soft-serve ice cream.

Haagen Dazs and Ben and Jerry’s: these guys are the taste of my teen years and deserve an article all their own.

For this year’s staycation, we find ourselves in rural Devon. This is what the British countryside is known for; its rolling hills, its green and pleasant land. The scenery is serene and beautiful. Outside our cottage window is a bucolic scene of English country life, never changing. I spent a whole ten minutes just watching, well, nothing much. It is green and perfect and exactly what my soul craves after what has been a difficult four months of life in the times of Corona.

On Shabbat, there were twelve of us in a cottage (yes, there was enough space), but is there really ever enough space? Twelve people, even or perhaps especially because they are close family, have a way of bogging you down. So I pre-empted it, I went on countless short walks on Shabbat, both up the hill and down the hill. And finally, to the fields above our cottage. I was a little hesitant when I walked through the field of sheep, patting myself on the back for remembering to close the gate behind me; every film I had ever seen about the countryside stressed the importance of closing gates. Virtuous in the knowledge that I was not going to be the idiot city person, I continued walking, avoiding sheep poo. Happily for all of us, the closer I got to the sheep, the quicker they got up and scampered away; my desired effect on animals of all kinds. I’m far more comfortable when they are at a distance, like behind glass, a sturdy fence or, ideally, on a screen. Next, I came to a field that had a herd of large black cows. They were at a fair distance from the path, and they were large. I mean huge. How fast could they walk really, and seriously, they weren’t paying that much attention to anything beyond the grass. I figured they will walk away too, the way the sheep did. As I ventured into the field, the first cow raised her head, then the second, and all of a sudden they were all looking at me and, en masse, they started walking not away from me but towards me. And they were walking fast; I mean really fast! And I was running for the other side of the field, running as fast I could, which, quite frankly, isn’t all that fast; especially when you consider that a herd of cows was making a beeline for me. In the near distance, there was a tiny little stream and a thicket of wood. Thinking that the cows wouldn’t cross the stream or venture into the woods, I had a definite direction. I ran and yet the cows followed me. Seriously, did you know they are just fine with woods and streams? Finally, on the other side of the trees, was a steep climb and the cow (the one persistent one) thankfully couldn’t be bothered to climb. And here I was, over a field, past a stream, up a cliff with a cow expectantly waiting below. The field, I learned much to my dismay, was totally enclosed. Now I was the one penned in, with no way out aside from the crazy cow pasture. By this point, I knew I was no match for them. So I waited. What for, I really have no idea.

Aforementioned cows, I made a post-Shabbat pilgrimage to prove the cows did exist and were not a figment of my imagination.

I thought Jews arent made for rural living. Didn’t Billy Crystal teach us anything in City Slickers? It was plain ridiculous for a Jew to face off against a cow. Sure, there are Jews on kibbutzim who do this daily, but they have military training. They haven’t lived in major cities their whole lives. Sure, there was a time – really not that long ago – that Jews lived in the shtetl and fortunate families had a milk cow. And then, later, there were Jews who came to America and set up farms. And let us not forget the kibbutzim and farms of Israel, many of which have extensive dairies. And what of Tevye the Milkman? Was he not the picture of the typical Jew, I thought? He had a cow. But he only had one cow and a lame mule. Had Tevye owned this herd of gleaming black cows he wouldn’t have had to sing ‘If I were a rich man’. I really couldn’t see a way out of the field or the situation.

Finally, I figured it was either stay in this field in rural Devon forever or face-off with the cows. My frenemy cow who had followed me into the woods was finally distracted, drinking from the stream, so I tiptoed around her. The rest of the herd, though, saw me coming, but this time I was ready. I had tied up my skirt, turned my baseball cap peak backwards so I could get a clear view of where I had to go and was in runner’s block position. As soon as the cows started to move towards me, I ran like Forrest Gump until I was on the other side of the field and then had to spend a terrifying thirty seconds opening up the gate I was so proud of closing super securely beforehand.

I survived. Just. Though I did have a nightmare of being crushed by a herd of cows with red eyes, against a firmly-closed gate in the Devon countryside.

As the kids and I stood on line the next day to buy Beth-Din-approved Magnums and Cornettos from the seaside kiosk, I wondered again: ice cream or cows? Well, I totally know my preference. Yet that said, it will be a long time before I eat ice cream and not thank my lucky stars for being alive and well, rather than ending up as a Shabbat afternoon bovine trampoline somewhere north of Dawlish Warren.

About the Author
Ilana Epstein is a dedicated member of the senior rabbinic team at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, partnering with her husband Daniel. As a Educator of Jewish history, culture and tradition, she imparts her knowledge and passion to the community. Ilana studied at Yeshiva University Stern College, where she acquired a strong foundation in her field. She was selected for the inaugural cohort of the prestigious Rabbi Sacks Scholars programme. With a deep appreciation for the beauty of Judaism, Ilana seamlessly connects the significance of small traditions to the grand tapestry of Jewish history, fostering a profound sense of belonging and understanding within the community.
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