It occurs to me in this my — yikes! — 47th and perhaps final year, that I was NEVER a “Jew.” Ever. I was, am and ever will be, a “Yid.”
I used to joke around, as an adult, that I was Siouxish, but that of course can never be more than a joke unless I actually went out west, learned Lakota, learned the Sioux way of life and lived it, which ain’t gonna happen.
From earliest youth I remember hating and fearing “god,” until I was fortunate enough, at age ten, to befriend a kid whose parents were both psychiatrists and “evangelistic atheists,” and was quickly and thankfully “converted.” Going to “Synagogue” twice a year on the “High Holy Days” was my first lesson in arrant hypocrisy, begun roughly at age seven or eight, and Hebrew school was a punishment so great, so excessive that it actually beat out Summer Camp as my major “I don’t get it, why are we doing this? Why would anyone force me to do this kind of shit against my will?” line of questioning which led in due course to mistrust, fear and finally utter hatred of power, “tradition” and illegitimate authority.
Of course, being an early student of Monty Python, I became well aware of the fact that “If you can’t beat ‘em…Run away! Run away! Run away!” And runaway I did. Going off for long days of glorious solitude in the mountains after having gone AWOL from the summer camp I was forced to attend, only to return to find that – oh good heavens, no! – I was an out-law, a “bad little boy,” and my punishment would be…excommunication! I would NEVER be allowed in that particular Summer camp again (boo-hoo)!
Same with Hebrew school. With my Bar Mitzvah set for December, I began to “vanish” from Hebrew school just before the starting bell – especially on gorgeous fall afternoons when, having spent the day in “real school” (I totally understood the concept of “real school,” i.e. to teach us to read, write, do math, etc. though I was far too young to understand the sinister motives behind it all; that’d have to wait till high school), it absolutely boggled my mind that we would have to blow the rest of the day – we got out of school early, 2:15, then, when I was in the seventh grade – in order to pretend to learn some bullshit foreign language from 4:30 – 7:30 twice a week.
There was the rub. Pretend. They had us from age eight to thirteen. MORE than enough time to teach such impressionable minds both Hebrew and Yiddish. They opted for neither. The twice-a-week lock-downs were divided into two sessions: Hebrew and History. Hebrew was taught phonetically, so we would be able to read the syllables and pronounce them correctly on that “special day” when we’d be “called to the Torah” (even the girls; it was a reform synagogue, Temple Or Elohim. The Jericho Jewish Center down the road however – I grew up in Jericho, Long Island — was conservative, but not VERY conservative: girls could be Bat Mitzvahed; they just couldn’t read from the sacred Torah. And they had to go to “Hebrew” school three times a week!).
The second session, Jewish History, began with the expulsion of Abraham from Ur, continued through several thousands of years of pain, persecution, segregation, alienation and utter misery, but had a very happy ending: the erection of the State of Israel! Now, ALL Jews could be “safe,” wherever they were (yeah, like those Soviet Jews got sprung from the gulag as soon as Eretz Israel gave Moscow the cold stare). But there was one problem: poor, little, scrappy, democratic, free, life-loving Israel was surrounded by HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF ARABS who lived on huge tracts of land which, as the map did indeed show, made Israel seem like a grape on the back of an elephant by comparison.
And what’s worse, the MAIN PROBLEM was the greedy, unreasonable Palestinians and the equally selfish OTHER ARABS who lived on these huge land masses – see ‘em on the map! – but wouldn’t let the Palestinians just live THERE, and the Palestinians didn’t want to live on all that land, where everyone owned their own oil field, just out of spite and meanness and anti-semitism. So poor Israel was not only surrounded by huge enemies, “she” had enemies living in her very own cities: the PLO, otherwise known as “terrorists,” who blew up little Jewish children as they took their afternoon naps in kindergarten.
Fortunately, the Arabs were stupid, weak, cowards, and the Israelis were brave, brilliant, industrious ubermenschen who “made the dessert bloom” and took “some old spare parts” from the U.S. Military and built high-tech tanks, planes, uzis and other anti-terrorist paraphernalia.
Blah blah blah.
Finally, after a month and a half of playing hooky (my friend would say, whenever the “teacher” would ask where I was, “He’s out buying a Bar Mitzvah suit”) I penned a letter accusing my “teacher” and the whole fucking place of racism – not cause of the Israel thing, I bought that hook line and sinker, but because they claimed that Jews were “smarter” than all other people – hypocrisy, stupidity, perversion (the rabbi ran off with some young congregant, then went into real-estate, sending pitch-letters to all his former congregants, etc.) and god knows what else. Of course this led to a “man-hunt” and this and that and the other thing and my parents and I had to meet with the principal of the Hebrew school – such awesome power; how could such a position fail to corrupt? – to discuss the fact that my Bar Mitzvah was less than two weeks off and I missed the entire “semester” of Hebrew school and hadn’t met once with the rabbi or cantor to study the section of the torah I was supposed to pretend to read and chant with the proper accents and inflections.
“Frankly, I don’t think you DESERVE a Bar Mitzvah!” said the Principal. Are ALL of these folks dumb as toast? I couldn’t believe I’d heard him right. Was he offering me what the Summer camp people gave me, a discharge – dishonorable, honorable, who cares, as long as I’m free? – from the prison I so despised?
Alas, no. It was his attempt at a rhetorical device, allegedly meant to shame me or something. When I literally sprung outta my chair and said, “Excellent! I don’t want one. I NEVER wanted one!” and my father gave him his “first I’ll kick your ass for stealing five years of ‘tuition,’ then I’ll sue your ass for stealing five years of ‘tuition’” stare, the guy backed down.
My father, who though on their side, was a big-shot CEO on Wall Street with, like everyone else in the Jericho-Old Westbury-Brookville area (model for the Long Island home of Don Corleone), “unsavory business and personal connections” and not to be fucked with, gave me a choice worthy of King Solomon: get Bar Mitzvahed, and except for the high holy days twice a year, I’d never have to deal with a synagogue again, OR spend the rest of my junior high and high school years in Military School.
The almighty Principal of the Or Elohim Hebrew school began to look tinier and tinier; I was afraid he’d literally sink into one of the cracks in his chair.
So, I met with the Cantor once, got a tape of him doing the section I was supposed to read, got a print-out of the section I was supposed to “read” phonetically – both with and without vowels; modern Hebrew has vowels, but the Hebrew of the Torah did not. They never taught us this shit. But I suppose giving me two versions was supposed to help me “cheat” a little. I needed neither version. I simply memorized the goddamned tape. When the day of my “Shotgun Bar Mitzvah” arrived, I dutifully recited the Hebrew I could not understand and pretended to follow along as the rabbi moved his silver pointer across the lines of the Torah I was allegedly reading. My one small act of rebellion, which did not go unnoticed, was to look up at the ceiling as I was reciting from memory until the rabbi – a different one than the real estate huckster – elbowed me in the ribs. Well that was presumptuous of him. How did HE know I hadn’t memorized the whole damned Torah? Luckily I was a long-confirmed atheist, cause if I thought there was some mean, vengeful, jealous god actually listening to my ass-kissing recital (I assume it was kissing his ass; isn’t that what prayers are for?) it might have crossed my mind that it was possible, not probable, but possible that the all-powerful creator of this, that and the other thing, might answer back, in Hebrew of course, and then I’d really be fucked.
Hmn. I just went off on a serious tangent. My actual intent was to say that all the stuff I loved about being “Jewish” had nothing whatsoever to do with the religion, DNA or anything but hanging out with my grand-parents, great-aunts and great-uncles, listening rapt as they switched effortlessly from heavily accented English, to Hungarian, to Polish, to Yiddish, to German and back again, and eating Hungarian stuffed cabbage, brisket and potatoes, Chicken Paprikasch, Chicken soup, grieven (fried chicken fat chips; like Jewish pork rinds), bagels lox and cream cheese, Jewish/Italian style cheesecake – which I’ve had at Bonita’s; totally different from the American stuff; light, made with ricotta or cottage cheese, and with a layer of pastry on top, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Basically, hanging out in a warm old house eating great food with a bunch of extremely well-read, polyglot, kindly old people. There was just one catch: they were, or had been…SOCIALISTS! It did indeed puzzle me why such a nice bunch of old folks would be on the side of the RUSSIANS who were ready to blow us up at any minute, but I let it go. I wasn’t gonna rat them out. Though my parents would get mighty uptight when they started talking that old time European JEW commie stuff…
I was never a “Jew” at all, not even close. I was, and I suppose am, a Yid. It was Yiddish culture – along with the other mostly Eastern European cultures and languages that existed in these old Queens and Brooklyn houses beside it, and the food – NONE OF WHICH CONTAINED EVEN TRACE ELEMENTA OF BABAGANOUSH – and the socialism and intellectualism and general sense of welcoming – many of the guests were NOT Jewish: Italian, Irish and “other” neighbors invited in for food and holiday “celebrations” that were so informal it was hard to distinguish them from Thanksgiving – and most of all, the humor, the endless supply of jokes, anecdotes, and “yarns” made doubly comic by Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian, Brooklyn and Queens accents and malapropisms – all of this is what I recall with fondness and only this.
I’m a Yid, robbed of my cultural and linguistic heritage by Nazism, Zionism and American Empire.
Zionism? Bullshit! Americanism? Another passing fad. Judaism, i.e. the religion? belongs with its children, Xtianity and Islam, in the Evil Racist Misogynistic Mythology Department at some under-funded, uncredited junior college way, way, way upstate, near Buffalo.
There’s more that our recent correspondence made clear, particularly relating to language (the very reason many orthodox and Hassidic Jews so despise Israel is that, like Rich, they betrayed the language. Hebrew is supposed to be the “sacred tongue,” spoken only in synagogue or “when the Messiah comes.” That’s why Yiddish exists – well, that and other more expedient, mostly commercial reasons), Power (specifically, US Empire, Israel, England) and why I am doing whatever the hell it is I’m doing with computer code and mostly European and Yiddish (though some Asian and Native American) vocabulary words.
Ethnicities and their celebration are cool, so long as it doesn’t go beyond the language, ethnic jokes and food, music, literature, etc. Once they start talking of “bringing back the great days of yore” or “purification” – regardless of the context, it’s time to fight like hell, if you’ve a chance of winning, or “Run away! Run away! Run away!”