Monday, August 17, 2009

The Feast

The Holy Rosary Italian Festival, which started in 1912, is Jersey City’s oldest continuing Street Fair. The church and the festival, are in the heart of in the downtown neighborhood once known as The Italian Village. The Holy Rosary Italian Festival—oh some call it La Fiesta Italiana, but I like the term, The Feast—is an annual Tradition and something to treasure. It only happens here—oh, I’m sure similar events happen in other places, and I’ve been to a few in New York, but they are touristy gimmicks compared to our authentic Feast.

I go every year. Usually one night suffices. This year I went four of the five nights.

The crowds seemed bigger and livelier. The energy level was higher. There were a lot more vendors—from Monmouth to Brunswick, both sides of Sixth street were packed with vendors and The Feast spilled over onto both sides Brunswick. Some of the organizers told me that they did a lot of social network marketing, Facebook and such, which increased interest.

The food is incredible—which is a given. Aunt Mary’s Rice Balls—renamed Holy Rosary Rice Balls this year—are so good they might have to be declared illegal. There was Pizza, Zeppole, Sausage & Peppers, Meatball Heroes, and Italian specialties like Peaches in Wine. I guess those are the usual suspects. But the food choices were expanded beyond the Italian items. There was a polish food stand, courtesy of St. Anthony parishioners, which had excellent potato pancakes and hot dogs. Another stand had fantastic hamburgers. Maybe I kept coming back just to try something else. Aunt Mary’s Rice Balls, which are in a class by themselves, but everyone there did their best to live up to her standard. Eating, drinking (there was a full bar, but also a superb lemonade stand) and talking with friends and neighbors enjoying the Summer Night—few pleasures compare.

The other attractions, like the games of chance—through a beanbag and knock down the milk bottles were accounted for—and a lovely elderly woman selling religious items. But there were new attractions too, like air-brushed T-shirts, temporary tattoo parlor, booth selling clothes and jewelry. For the first time, there were edible souvenirs, fresh mozzarella being pulled in front of our eyes, cheeses and salamis available. Another booth sold “Italian Souvenirs,” like an I Survived an Italian Father T-shirt. I know some friends who would love that shirt, now that they’ve completed a few years of therapy.

Every year The Feast is enjoyable, but this year was even more fun. The joint was hopping. A lot of activity filling your peripheral vision—one moment you see something entertaining, then you turn your head and see a familiar face. There was more zing in this year’s edition of The Feast.

In the courtyard in back of Holy Rosary Church, a lot of the older folks hung out. There was a full-service bar and the money wheel—people place dollar bills on numbers on the table, the wheel was spun and the winner got their money back. On Sunday night, the crowd was entertained by a guy singing Karaoke Sinatra. The Italian Desert Table, also located in the courtyard, deserves special notice. I know I keep saying the best, but let me get my Bible because I will swear to the Lord above, absolutely, without question, the best cream puff ever in the history of pastry. Make that the entire history of desert. I was told this was actually a St. Joseph Zeppole, which I’ve had before. The are Zeppoles filled with custard and Traditionally eaten on March 19th , the Feast of St. Joseph. However, the pastry part was fluffy, not really Zeppole like, or maybe an incredibly fluffy Zeppole. I had one Friday Night, woke up Saturday wanting another. I think I dreamt of these cream puffs.

Families who still live here attend and those who used to live here come back. For those with Jersey City roots, in mid-august, they return to their ancestral homeland party on Sixth Street. New generations have adopted the Tradition. I have a cousin—she and her husband moved to the neighborhood just after 911—they are now in their mid-30s—and by mid-decade had moved to the suburbs with their two young daughters. They always come back for The Feast. Neither of them are Italian. The Tradition is the same for them as it was for another family I hung out with for a good part—a meatball sandwich, rice balls and cream puff—of an evening. Three generations were represented, the older matriarchs ranging from 60 to 80—they’re Italian, Jersey City born and bred, and every one of them could not remember their first Feast because they were still in diapers. They’ve been every year since.

Parishioners of Holy Rosary participate in special masses for Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Rocco—any one interested is welcomed to join—but it seems that even the spiritual rituals of The Feast are augmented by the secular fun on Sixth Street. It’s pretty hard to beat a sausage sandwich and cold beer on a hot summer night. I always think that just as I’m enjoying my sausage and beer that fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years ago, another guy in the same spot was doing the exact same thing, and getting the same respite from thinking about his troubles and tribulations.

The Feast vibe is always good, don’t get me wrong. But this year, the vibe was more fun than ever. It was friendlier. Maybe it’s because now we have Obama as President—Bush never ceased to aggravate us—he killed enthusiasm for just about everything. Or maybe it’s the recession the previous president bequeathed us—everyone is taking a stay-cation this Summer and you can’t beat the affordability of two dollars per rice ball. Or maybe, it was just that the rain finally let up—seems every week this Summer we’ve had more days of rain than not, especially Weekends—why not get out and enjoy the weather before the Summer is gone.

Saturday Night, there was a covers-band that seemed to concentrate on Disco and 80s hits, not my favorite genre. I think it was “I will Survive,” when I noticed the women in the Wines of Comobasso booth and in the Polish Food Stand dancing. The Band brought up a friend who then sang “Glory Days.” Everyone put their hands high in the air and waved their arms back and forth. You simply cannot get more New Jersey than that. The set ended with a tribute to Woodstock. The guitarist tried and sort of succeeded in channeling Jimi Hendrix by playing the “Star Spangled Banner.” Laughing, cheering, singing along—it was hilarious, subversive, absurd—in short, ironic—and yet, undeniably Patriotic. Amazing how the passing of four decades can not only change our attitudes towards music—and public displays of irony—but redefine how we express love of country.

Every hour or so, 50/50 raffles were held. Parishioners go through the crowds selling 50/50 tickets. For each drawing, half the money collected for the drawing goes to the winner and half goes to the church, second prize, a free pizza at Carmines Pizza Factory on Brunswick. Carmine Colassurdo, his family was instrumental in starting The Feast in 1912 and he is has been quite active in organizing and executing the event, as was his father, Mike, now retired in Florida. For one of the drawings, which Carmine was announcing, he had his father come to the stage to pick the winner. Both these men have been at The Feast every August since they were infants and I just thought about, seeing them together like this, how Traditions are carried on by seemingly minor incidents like this one.

The sense of obligation Tradition invokes can sometimes seem like drudgery. Some years the holidays can’t end soon enough. All Traditions are not as simple as that of The Feast and maybe that grandiosity of other Traditions results in the occasional feeling of drudgery. The Tradition of The Feast, it’s about fun. The warm, sweltering air, having a beer and a sausage sandwich, seeing friends and neighbors, the simplicity of it—the pure ‘basic’ core—is a large part of the very special appeal it holds.

Friday Night was unforgettable. The purpose of community vividly came to life for everyone there. It’s been about a month since Jersey City Detective Marc Anthony DiNardo was killed in the line of duty. The story of this bloody shootout and his death made national news. The Detective was a parishioner of Holy Rosary, he was baptized in the church. His three children were baptized in the church. On Friday, a special presentation to his wife, Mary was planned. But the widow was there for a presentation of her own.

Plaques, which were first blessed by the pastor of Holy Rosary, were given out. The first went to Mrs. DiNardo, given by the Deputy Police Chief of Jersey City, in memory of her husband. Then she took the microphone to give out the next set of plaques, to the men and women of the police force who helped her through the ordeal following her husband’s passing. As the DPC explained, five officers were assigned to help her through the situation immediately after her loss. They helped her navigate through the myriad estate issues—insurance, benefits from the Union and City, as well as guarded her from excessive media scrutiny. They gave her and her children space to grieve. After she gave out the plaques, two children from the Parish read original poems. The community might feel compelled to again recognize the wife of a fallen hero, but Mary needed to recognize the ones who helped her.

It was as low key as it sounds, and the low-key but heart-felt presentation was utterly appropriate. There were very few tears. I imagine everyone personally involved has shed about as many tears as humanely possible. The acknowledgement was moving and touching, but what actually made it so moving and touching was that the Parish of the Holy Rosary and the Jersey City community at large, shared this moment together, shared it with her. And, she shared it with us. Everyone was part of it. The context of the Tradition of the Annual Feast enhanced the poignancy. At some point, no matter how dreadful the tragedy, everyone must move beyond grief. This seemed like a step in that direction, and Feast attendees took that step with her. Tenderness was felt by everyone there, and it was expressed in the form of Mary, publicly—before her friends and family; before her congregation and her community—thanking other officers. Tenderness defined this moment. The moment transcended The Feast, even though it was The Feast that made the moment possible. It was as if the best part of our humanity was suddenly revealed. I doubt anyone there will ever forget that feeling. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish.

Then, Eric DeLaura Nolan, from Tutta Notte Entertainment, came on and sang a Frank Sinatra song. “Winners.”

Here's to the winners - lift up the glasses /Here's to the glory still to be/Here's to the battle, whatever it's for/To ask the best of ourselves, then give much more.

At least a third of the Audience knew the lyrics and sang along. When the opening lyric of “Lift Up The Glasses” was sung, we raised our glasses, as Tradition requires.

For more on the
History of The Feast, click here

For more on
Rice Balls, click here

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