Life can sometimes hinge on the turn of a card—not only the gambler’s life but also the lives of those close to him. For Jodi Varon, one fateful turn changed her father’s life—propelling her into a search far from home that will lead readers to a new contemplation of family ties and lost cultural legacies.
Benjamin Varon never rode a horse and preferred his beef hanging in a cooler, but he still thought of himself as a cattleman—that is, until he disappeared after losing his meat-supply business in a high-stakes poker game. In recalling how a hardscrabble New Yorker sought his fortune in Colorado’s cattle country, Varon also relates a daughter’s quest to understand and forgive.
Drawing to an Inside Straight is a bittersweet story of growing up in Denver during the 1960s. As Varon recalls life at home with parents Benjamin and Irene—Jews of decidedly different backgrounds, he a Ladino-speaking Sephardi from New York, she a Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi from Denver’s close-knit Jewish community—she tells of a childhood nourished by pireshkes and cronson, hamantashen and challah. These stories and other culinary delights are contrasted with her father’s childhood of stolen fruit and his longing for the aromas of the Mediterranean spice markets of his ancestors.
Against the backdrop of America in the Vietnam era, and amid tales of Joseph McCarthy’s tyranny, Burma-Shave divination, domestic nerve-gas stockpiling, suburban wife-swapping, murder, and suicide, Varon offers an intriguing look at Sephardic history and culture. Behind her own story looms that of Benjamin, who transformed himself from an immigrant’s son sneaking into Yankee Stadium, to a tough GI, to a quixotic dreamer willing to stake his hard-won business in a game of chance.
Rather than cast off his European past, Benjamin embraced it, insisted upon it, tried to celebrate what was different. All the while, he was dogged by his favorite Ladino adage—“We left on a horse. We came back on a donkey”—which served to remind him of the caprices of fortune that would follow him to that fateful poker game. Varon’s story of her own journey to Spain, in search of her father’s lost heritage and his adoration of the Sephardim’s Golden Age, helps seal her understanding as it heals wounds left open too long.
Varon’s account is an insightful view of what it means to be American without losing one’s past to the proverbial melting pot, with its insider’s look at Sephardic culture and depictions of Denver’s ethnic communities that challenge stereotypes of the Anglo-American West. Drawing to an Inside Straight is a book that will make an immediate connection with readers—even those whose fathers weren’t compulsive gamblers—who struggle with mixed emotions about childhood or are in search of their own roots.