Friday, September 25, 2009

So, I'm a Jew

We get so much from our parents, don’t we? My mother taught me a lot of things. I remember walking on 52nd street with her and it was maybe a shoe store that was being picketed. We walked around and she said – not being one to avoid a forthright opinion – “Never cross a picket line.” After all, my parents started out being Lefties, although at least my father became much more middle of the road in later years, since he could learn from experience.

And then there was Leon, who was a tall very light skinned African-American as we now say, who would be a bartender – a bartender! – at some of my parents parties. They were modest affairs, and really hardly warranted a bartender, but people drank more then and I think it was far cheaper to get help, and I guess it was classy. We kids loved Leon. What a nice man! We asked my mother if Leon was white or black. She explained that Leon would probably be “passing over.” “Passing over” was leaving the black world and entering the white world. As I understood it from my mother, this was just a process that would bring on a kind of we’re all equal world. What a great way out of discrimination! The blacks would just become white. I didn’t quite know how that would work, but since my mother said it, I had to take it seriously.

Then there was the fact that we were Jewish, but from as secular a background as you could possibly have, befitting political Lefties. My father wasn’t Bar Mitzvahed, his father hadn’t been Bar Mitzvahed, and sure enough neither was I, much to the consternation of my maternal grandfather. The legend is that my father’s grandfather said that all religion brought in the world was strife, so he wasn’t having any of it. A doubtful story that I heard only later on.

We should have some religious training, though. I remember my parents talking about it. “How about RS (Rodolph Sholem)?” asked my mother. So we were trotted off to reformed Sunday School at RS in North Philadelphia somewhere for two years, unwillingly but obediently, where there were kids we didn’t know, and they didn’t seem very manly to me, and a teacher who tried to get people to go to Saturday services by saying, “Who went yesterday?” What dorks, I thought, without knowing the word “dork”. Later on it would be Sunday and we were no longer going to Sunday School and Bobby and I would be out beside our house playing Kicking Goals with a football, and I would look around at the sun and this big beautiful 12 foot hedge that divided us from the street, and I would think, those poor people who have to be inside on a day like today! It’s so beautiful and this is so much fun! And then I’d kick.

Later on, on some Friday afternoons we would go to the home of Itzhak Sankowski and together with about seven or eight other boys, Bobby and I would listen to old Jewish stories. It was something that we couldn’t really get into, tell you the truth, but we did it. It didn’t make us any more Jewish. We had gone to a Quaker school, Friends’ Central, for four years and learned some about Christianity, and later on at Harvard I studied philosophy and history and learned a lot about Christianity, and you pick up that stuff in all sorts of places in America, so in the end I think I know as much or more about Christianity as about Judaism.

I spent one year at Ardmore Junior High in 9th grade, after we moved to the suburbs, and there weren’t many Jews there, maybe a few. But I went out for all sports and probably shattered the stereotype for some of my classmates. In basketball I got the nickname “The Nose,” although my nose isn’t all that prominent. I made a self-deprecating remark at some point, and Charlie Newsome, as Catholic as they come, said to me, “Your nose isn’t any bigger than anyone else’s.” Charlie invited me to come with him to some local church dance where there were no Jews at all. I felt out of place because I didn’t know anyone, but that was OK, at least I wasn’t left out. You just don’t know where you’ll find the righteous gentiles.

At Lower Merion High Jews from Bala-Cynwyd Junior High merged with the gentiles from Ardmore and we had an integrated group of friends, some Jewish and some not, and it didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference. Sports and intelligence were the issues. I think that age is very central to a certain kind of identity, and I really liked our group and its lack of religious identity. I never have gotten over feeling like a Lower Merion guy. I didn’t want to ever be part of the RS type of crowd, and I didn’t want to go back to the Ardmore kind of crowd. I was very happy where I was, and I was reluctant go to away from high school to college; we had a great class and that is where I felt I belonged, playing sports and playing poker and drinking and trying to get a start with girls. God, it was a great time!

In freshman year at Harvard I remember telling Sandy Stidham, from Episcopal Academy in Philadelpia, that I didn’t identify that much as a Jew. Well, said Sandy, since other people looked on me as Jewish, maybe that was a pretty strong sense of identification. I protested that I didn’t feel it that much, and he just told me the same thing again. Sandy was reputed to be really smart.

One evening in college I was walking with my roommate Kenny Nahigian and by that time I had my first real girlfriend, Carol King from Reading, PA. Kenny said, “Doesn’t it feel good to have a Jewish girlfriend?” I said, “What do you mean.” He said, “Well, doesn’t it just feel good?” I said, “No, not really.” I loved Carol, but I really didn’t like the fact that she was Jewish so much. I never did marry Carol, thank god, it would have been a disaster. Small town Jews? Not for me. For me it’s smart Jews, funny Jews, Jews with good ethics, urban Jews, I guess.

I wound up marrying an Irish-French girl from Gloucester, Mass. That didn’t work well at all, I’m sorry to say. Then I married an Irish (Irish-American, of course) from Southern California, also very secular, and we live in Berkeley where people are both Jewish and not, and I belong to the Claremont Hotel gym and pool club, where there is the typical Jewish and non-Jewish mixture, pretty much like in Lower Merion or at Harvard. It feels very comfortable to me. I play poker with other pediatricians, and you have to be either Jewish or Asian to play, with one exception, and under 5’10”, mostly, which is what pediatricians usually are. And we have a house in Maui (where I am as I write this), where there just aren’t many Jews. I’d like a few more, but I don’t think about it much, really.

Then the other night Ann and I went out to eat and afterwards I took her to Lappert’s Ice Cream, a Hawaii institution, where the buttermilk percentage is 16-17%, as compared to 10% at Bascom-Robbins, which they advertise proudly. Two scoops of chocolate for Ann to be in heaven. An older lady with a middle-aged couple was ahead of us, and since she was having trouble both hearing and tasting and choosing, the guy of the couple very nicely said, “Why don’t you go ahead of us?” I thanked him and Ann got her chocolate, and we started to amble out to wander and go to the car. Thy guy then looked at me and said, “Shana Tovah!” Surprised, I said the same back to him – as a kid I didn’t know this was what you said at Rosh Hashonna for “Happy New Year,” since it’s Hebrew and not Yiddish, but I learned it later. I had to laugh. Shana Tovah, for Christ’s sake.

Earlier this week Ann and I had found it necessary to get a local lawyer here on Maui, so we hired Joel Richman, an ex-hippie lawyer from Massachusetts. It felt good to have a Jew as a lawyer, I have to say. I told him the Shana Tovah story and he, dumbfounded, said, “Did you have a sign around your neck?”

No, just hadn’t crossed over yet. It’s a good thing I enjoy being Jewish.

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