Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
15. A SHORT HISTORY OF THE PENIS
The African model disrobed and, taking a seat in the middle of a circle of easels, let it all hang out. It hung unlike anything I ever saw hanging between a man’s legs. It looked like a yam, only not as yummy.
I held a stick of charcoal, but didn’t mark my newsprint pad. I was too busy staring. His penis was hairy on top, with the obligatory sack of balls draped below. But my eyes were on that tubular protrusion between the two familiar landmarks. From the root, as it drooped forward, everything was in order. It was only as the staff came to a head that things took a surrealist bent. Where was the head? The crowning pink jewel of manliness was missing. On closer inspection I could see that the flesh of the shaft fell loosely over the covered glans, sloppy like untucked shirttails over a waistline.
I wanted to tell him to tuck it in, but I was speechless. My drawing rendered the figure, captured the slant of his pose, but emasculated the model with an impressionistic dark smear between his legs.
When the model took his break, class retreated to the hallway to smoke. My friends talked about our uncut model, which turned to gossip about uncircumcised boyfriends. Cigarettes were extinguished and we returned to life drawing.
Mystery solved. So that’s what an uncircumcised penis looks like. Fine, I thought, no reason to dwell on it.
The penis is an uncomfortable topic for me. Mine had been the object of too much probing and anxiety as a child. I was born with a mild case of hypospadias. My urethra rested shy of its normal destination. The condition didn’t require surgery, but for years I had to visit a specialist. The ashen-haired doctor was large and wizened. Wrapped in a blinding-white lab coat, he sat across from me resting massive arms on a big oak desk like a god. He was omniscient, following me to his bathroom to observe while I peed, making sure everything was coming out properly. Every time I unzipped at my toilet or in a school bathroom or at some public restroom, I felt his judgmental scowl. By my final visits, I was no longer accompanied to the bathroom. Instead I’d sit opposite the doctor, the vast landscape of his desk between us, and answer his questions about my urine: did it flow out from my penis as a unified stream or break up in several directions? It was embarrassing. I knew what the doctor wanted to hear and told him as much, rather then relate the facts. I ended up wiping the toilet seat a lot, but that was worth never again having to expose myself to the doctor’s critical eye.
Penises should be zipped up, obscene and not heard. They’re funny: sort of a wrinkled Groucho Marx appendage in your pants, comical in appearance, and like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect. No wonder men have come up with short, blunt and powerful nicknames for their tender member. Bone. Chub. Cock. Crank. Dick. Dink. Dong. Dork. Drill. Junk. Hog. Hose. Knob. Lance. Meat. Pipe. Plank. Pole. Prick. Prong. Pud. Rod. Shaft. Snake. Staff. Stick. Sword. Tool. Tube. Wang. Wood. And that’s just the monosyllabic words, passing up the endless hyphenated compounds.
The penis isn’t meant for display, that’s neurotic, even pornographic. It’s a private treasure, a thing of great beauty to care and fondle and nourish alone, at least until its ready for its debutant ball.
I never gave my penis a name. Never spoke to it, manipulated it like a hand puppet or decorated it with ink and jewelry. The penis isn’t a toy, but a tool to urinate, masturbate and fornicate with, and I’ve done my share. Do I dwell on the hammer? No, I grab it and drive home the nail. It’s fetishistic to focus obsessively on a body part, but that is just what I’m forced to do.
The convergence of a bourgeoning flirtation with Jewish observance and the approaching birth of my son made it so I could think of nothing else.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
14. FORESKIN OR AGAINST
The road to observant Judaism is paved with foreskins. The bris, or ceremonial circumcision, is performed on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life. It is a covenant between God and His people.
All I know about foreskins is as fodder for bad jokes, like the doctor who makes a purse out of discarded foreskins, rub it and it turns into a suitcase. Humor dehumanizes that insignificant piece of flesh and makes it easy for me to discard. I am told removing the foreskin is no different than having a tonsillectomy, only without the ice cream afterwards. Not yet born, I already have designs on Simon’s body. He will have a bris. A mohel will dab my boy’s lips with wine and slice off his foreskin with a prayer. There will be a party afterwards with a huge spread. The family will celebrate. There’s no question, Simon will be circumcised.
Helena and I are trying to be good Jews, even if she is a lapsed Catholic and I am suffering flashbacks of my youthful internment at synagogue. But Helena is more curious about circumcision than I. Maybe if it is my penis going under the knife I would show more interest. Logically, or religiously, if we plan to bring Simon up as a Jew then he has to have a bris. It is like a fraternity hazing or initiation to a secret club. I’m circumcised, and it was no skin off of my back.
Helena researches. She takes me to some of the most repulsive sites online. I look at crying newborns strapped to gurneys as they roll through the hospital assembly line of circumcisions. Close-ups of botched circumcisions leave me reflexively cupping a hand over my crotch. This propaganda by anti-circumcision advocates is persuasive. I begin to question the wisdom of handing over my precious newborn to a stranger with a knife.
The more I read about circumcisions the more questions I have. Medical studies are inconclusive. A circumcised male is less likely to contract some sexual transmitted diseases, but poor hygiene is the most likely cause of infection. My son will not be a filthy animal. He will bathe. It’s a brutal solution, cutting away a piece of the body just because you’re too lazy to keep it clean. Wiping my ass can be a chore, but I’m not going to let my crack fester with feces or have a surgeon amputate my bum.
There are cosmetic arguments, which are less defendable. Sure, I’m familiar with circumcised penises. I know one intimately. My most pleasurable work has been done with a circumcised tool. Still, I have no problem accepting an uncut son — nothing wrong with a little diversity down there.
The only rationale for messing with millions of years of evolution is irrational, or religious. If I’m an observant Jew then God demands that my son be circumcised.
The pros and cons of a medical or cosmetic procedure are debatably, but God is not. The immovable nature of God is beginning to irritate me. Judaism first attracts us with its intellectual approach to spirituality, but that now seems an oxymoron. Faith is not rational.
The margins of the Talmud are endlessly annotated with the arguments of rabbinical scholars throughout the ages. It seems as if every facet of the religion is open to contention. Like the joke — Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question? I don’t know, why? — I think of Judaism as inquisitive and highly skeptical, admirable qualities. But delve deeper and it’s a Byzantine bureaucracy, with arcane rules and regulations. The comfort I seek in the routine of ritual is, in fact, stifling.
I may be pulling away from religious observance, but I am still a Jew. Helena can define what it is to be a Jew, Talmudic law has its own demarcation, but none of it marks me. I am a Jew. It took years of denial before I embraced my Semitic identity. I wrote a psychedelic song called “Jews to the Ovens,” when I first joined a rock band in college. In a groovy voice I sang: “It’s nineteen forty-two / Hitler hates the Jews / What’s he gonna do? / Send them to the ovens.” I envisioned red and green rolling swastikas as glowing eyes in a giant Hitler-head backdrop. The myth of the self-hating Jew is manifest in the bold dollar sign I wore on a green Lucite Star of David hanging from a gold chain as my hip-hop persona, Dollar Green; in the large pastel drawings of Jew heads with hooked noses, tiny liver-colored lips, beady eyes and horns that I gave out as birthday presents. I embraced a cartoon Judaism as minstrel show to purge the embarrassment, fear and hatred I couldn’t express growing up a Jew. But now I exclaim, “Mazel tov!” when I learn that someone is pregnant. I purged the demons of self-antiSemitism and discovered in myself a proudly Jewish man, Jewish in every way except fundamentally. Worship is a hurdle I’ve yet to clear. The desire for shared experience, which brought me to temple, is the final chapter in seizing my Judaism.
There’s just the small matter of cutting my son’s penis. Call it a circumcision, a bris, a covenant from God — there’s something perverse about the focus on genitalia. Far be it for me to question the word of the All Mighty, but if I was Abraham and had been commanded by God to kill my son, I’d be shopping for a new religion not a sharp ax. “We had a nice run, God,” I’d say looking heavenward. “If you need anyone to do some begetting, I’m your man. But this sacrifice thing, it’s so … polytheistic.”
It boils down to faith. Do I trust God to catch me if I close my eyes and fall backwards? I’ll fall on my ass and find out. It’s my ass. But tearing open a week-old baby’s diaper and slicing off his foreskin is a commitment to Judaism I take uneasily.
I’m circumcised, but by procedure not ritual. No mohel ever fondled my privates. A doctor, maybe not even a Jewish one, perhaps not even a doctor, removed my foreskin like the end of a cigar before smoking it. My Mom is Jewish, which is like being dealt the “Get Out Of Being A Gentile Free” card, one that Simon never will hold as Helena isn’t Jewish. According to the Talmud, Judaism is passed down through the mother’s line. Simon will not be considered Jewish even after the bris. He’ll have to convert — more rules and regulations.
My son’s penis versus my son’s religion, cock and Jew, like yin and yang spin through my head never forming a cohesive whole. Simon isn’t yet born and already I’m fiercely protective. The idea of allowing an unknown man bearing sharp gifts near my innocent baby is counterintuitive for a new parent, for any parent. As initiations go, the bris is a whopper, the ultimate leap of faith. Your feet never leave the ground, yet you land with a bloody penis.
Religions are essentially about faith, a trust in a higher power that confronts, communes and comforts life’s mysteries, and I honestly respect and admire people who find peace through spiritual ends. It takes wisdom to accept life’s unanswerable questions.
It’s another thing to carve a newborn’s penis into a shape more pleasing to God. The Ten Commandments apply personally. I will honor my father and mother. I will not covet my neighbor’s wife. I will keep the Sabbath holy, not kill, nor pray to false idols. I accept God’s will, and in so doing I’m the sole recipient of His wraith or blessing. But now He wants me to hand over a bounty, my baby, to Him. My son’s foreskin becomes currency to gain entrance to paradise. Why not brand him like cattle, maybe a scarlet J on his chest or a Star of David armband?
God as Hitler? It was time to seek counsel. I made an appointment to visit with the conservative rabbi of the Kane Street Synagogue.
Shmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
13. ALL MY DEAD CHILDREN
New York City-born, liberal, secular Jewish parents raised me. Roe v. Wade was the Eleventh Commandment. A good Jewish boy never questions the wisdom of his elders. Then I left home for college and began exercising my right to choose.
I chose intoxication over study, girls over grades, all with reckless irresponsibility that lead to an unwanted pregnancy.
Liz was my first girlfriend and my first abortion. There was no debate: the pregnancy would not come to term. It was a cool, clear morning as we walked the side streets, empty of traffic, to a clinic. It was quiet, uncomfortably still. The intense sunlight flattened the granite faces of the stout buildings. Everything looked real and unreal at the same time. I could hear my pant legs rub together in a loose rhythm as I walked. The sidewalk was hard beneath my sneakers. Plate-glass storefronts reflected the sun and glared at me pop-eyed. Neither Liz nor I said a word.
Ahead of us I saw a cat sleeping peacefully in front of a closed metal gate. I lurched for it. Quickening my pace to reach the cat, which offered momentary relief from the awkwardness — nerves, fear and sadness — I felt but couldn’t express. When I reached the animal, stooping to greet it, before my bare hand touched its gray fur, I stopped. The cat was dead. The gate was the entrance of a Jewish cemetery.
Liz went into the doctor’s office alone. I sat in the waiting room. She came out after about an hour. We split the bill like a Dutch treat, and walked back home. Liz told me she didn’t remember a thing. They knocked her out with drugs.
I don’t question the legality of abortion. I fully believe in a woman’s right to choose. Less absolute is what is being chosen. Abortion ends life. Whether human or merely a collection of rapidly multiplying cells, I don’t know. When the growing mass becomes sentient is impossible to answer. Abortion may not be murder, but I know something died that day.
If I learn from experience, it’s slowly. I continued to knock Liz up and then abort the fruit of our labor. Soon I didn’t even accompanying her to the clinic. I always thought I’d have as family. Who knew it would be a dead one.
There were other abortions, but I didn’t learn about them until later.
Kate found our apartment in Brooklyn, a floor-through above a shoe store called Johnny’s Bootery. Every Catholic school kid that grew up in South Brooklyn knew Johnny’s. They sold the regulation shoes that went with the required school uniform. Our kitchen overlooked a public-school playground. There were basketball courts and a tall standalone wall for handball. Every couple of months a bottle, combination lock or some other pubescent flotsam and jetsam would crash through the window. The landlord poorly repaired the damage with sheets of plastic and duct tape. From the schoolchildren marching into Johnny’s to the schoolchildren smashing our windows, there was no getting away from kids. These I could not abort.
Kate was removed from my life without the aid of a doctor. For several months after our separation Kate’s room was empty of Kate, but not her belongings collecting dust. She promised to pick up her things, but never did. I left it untouched until I got tired of looking at it and began to box stuff up.
When Kate and I broke up I was a mess. The admission of failure was more embarrassing than Kate’s blatant fooling around. As bad as we were to each other, I could only remember the good times. I loved her. I love her. I guess I always will, but like Kate prophesied: love dies if you let it. It was over. I found someone I loved and cared for, who I wanted to share a life with, and loved and cared for me. Life moves on and I had to move on with it. But I could never let go of Kate with her presence lingering in the apartment. A friend only half-jokingly suggested performing an exorcism. I decided to exorcise Kate’s physical remnants and move them out on the street if she wouldn’t come and get them.
I sat on top a mountain of colorful bras, G-string panties, thigh-high leather boots, mini-dresses, fishnet stockings, Fluvog platform shoes, latex skirts, false eyelashes, rock T-shirts, crumbled cigarette packs, bent beer caps, kiwi dolls, Keane prints of teary-eyed dogs, wigs, whips and bondage gear, torn condom packages, strap-on dildos, a galaxy of half-used makeup, band flyers, books and imitation jewelry. Then I found Kate’s notebooks.
Kate kept a journal, on and off, long before we met. I respected her privacy, never once taking a peek. But now, alone and entangled by the ephemera of our tattered marriage, I sought insight. I needed to be kicked in the balls; violently reminded of why I awoke from a deep sleep, shake the cobwebs of selected memory out of my head.
It hurt. I never suspected the extent of Kate’s dishonesty. There were several entries in which she wrote that she was leaving me. I wish she had. I wish I left Kate that dawn on the rooftop. It made me angry. It made me sad. I was in shock.
Kate wrote that she was pregnant. Kate was going to leave me and run away to start a family with one of her lovers, a guy from the neighborhood bar we called Hairdo. Later in the journal I read that Kate aborted the baby.
All of this happened years ago, as if to somebody else. I couldn’t hold the facts in the narrative of my life.
Kate and I had talked about having children. I had similar conversations with other girlfriends. For a self-confessed family man I was indecisive on the subject of starting a family. I wanted one, just not now. Now being whenever I was asked. I was too young, too poor, too inexperienced. There was always an excuse. I’m unable to make up my mind about why I can’t make up my mind — why should parenthood be any different?
Kate’s notebooks went into a large trash bag with her clothes, which I tied in a knot and pushed into a corner with her bed, dresser and vanity. Kate finally took her stuff away in a van and lost it all some time later when she couldn’t keep up the payments for the storage space she rented.
There’s a picture somewhere of a place that doesn’t exist. In it I am an old, happy man, just like I envisioned myself as a young, confused boy. My wife is close by my side and at our feet are all our dead children, an unborn family portrait where aborted fetuses rest on a bed of torn-up journal entries.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
12. OMNIPOTENT, OMNISCIENCE, AMNIOCENTESIS
My greatest fear is that I may hurt my child, that my child will hate me. There are other fears, more pressing concerns. Pregnancy is painted with romantic strokes, blue or pink color schemes, impressionist showers of tiny onsies, but the reality is more akin to the Expressionism of Edvard Munch. Each morning when I look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror I see his canvas, “The Scream.” That is the portrait of parenthood.
When a woman turns thirty-five her pregnancy is statistically more likely to include genetic abnormalities. Charted, the number of birth defects is flat until the thirty-fifth year, then that line spikes. Helena is thirty-five years old. My fear, however valid, now seems trivial. The far more powerful and overwhelming fear of God takes its place. God holds the statistical dice in His hands, shaking them indifferently before rolling them out to settle on a fate I had no control over.
Doctors are the closest we mere mortal beings come to experience the omnipotent in our temporal dealings. But unlike the concept of God, I don’t find the reality of doctors attractive. They are duplicitous, giving you a lollipop in one hand while stabbing you with a syringe in the other. Helena wants a natural delivery, which means as little intrusion from medical professionals as possible. Painkillers — or pain management as doctors market it — are the claws of the hospital machine. Once they clamp on, you’re fed into its institutional guts and under the doctor’s control. Tubes go in, monitors blink to life and, before you know it, the hospital has abducted your pregnancy. Twenty-five percent of all pregnancies in the United States end in cesarean section. I’m not a conspiracy nut, but skeptical, and, yes, a nut too. Openly suspicious of doctors’ godlike delusions, my mind is piecing together a plot worthy of The X-Files. C-sections move bodies and keep beds open for then next victim … uh, patient.
"Don’t let me take drugs," Helena says. She has a high threshold for pain, but then has never rolled a bowling ball-sized skull through her vagina. "If I ask, say no. If I ask again though … " I can tell Helena doesn’t fully trust me to be supportive at her most vulnerable. Maybe I’d tell her to shut up and kick her across the delivery room like one of my hungry cats.
We go to an OBG/YN clinic on my Mom’s recommendation. There are three doctors and two midwives. We meet with a different one each visit and build a relationship with the entire staff to insure our comfort with whoever is on duty when the water brakes. But only the doctors deliver the babies. I like the doctors at this practice. They are competent, friendly and sensitive to the often-excessive needs of first-time parents. That doesn’t save them from my wraith.
The amniocentesis is the first major dilemma of our pregnancy. An amnio is a test in which a doctor slips a long needle into the belly of the mother and sucks up some of the amniotic fluid, which has microscopic samples of the unborn baby’s skin cells. Tested it can detect any chromosomal abnormalities: whether the fetus’ spine is developing properly, if it has Downs Syndrome. And the sex of the child is revealed. Women aged thirty-five and over are advised to have an amino. But this is no routine blood test. There is a small chance that the procedure will abort the fetus. I feel the hand of God come from on high to smite our good fortune. It is not the last time God will be evoked at a crucial juncture.
Decisiveness has never been my strong point, especially when all the choices are unfavorable. Helena and I go over our options thoroughly, hoping to reveal an unforeseen bright spot.
As I see it, there are five outcomes for the test: one, no amnio and baby is born healthy; two, no amnio and baby is born unhealthy; three, amnio and baby is accidentally aborted; four, amnio and baby is healthy; and five, amnio and baby is unhealthy. By my math, that’s two-fifth good to three-fifths bad — not great odds. But I’m not a mathematician, and there are variables that I’m probably leaving out from my equation.
Still, my theoretical results don’t fill me with confidence. If we chose not to have the amnio, and our baby is born with a genetic disorder, will we love and nurture the child? If we have the amnio, and discover the baby will be born with some defect, will we abort it? And if we have the amnio, and the baby is fine but Helena has a miscarriage, can we ever forgive ourselves?
Just as I am inviting God back into my life, He crashes the party. But nothing I learn in the Introduction to Judaism class prepares me for the Creator of the Universe’s black humor. I start praying at the end of my mediation each morning. It is a conglomeration of half-ass Buddhism with half-ass Judaism, which sadly doesn’t amount to a full ass of anything. I find no solace in prayer.
Helena and I seek the counsel of our physician. She speaks as if omniscient.
"There is nothing to worry about, I’ve done the procedure thousands of times," she says. But this is our first time. “Don’t worry,” she smiles, “even a monkey could do it.”
A monkey — is my doctor telling me that she can outsource the amnio to a talented primate?
"Well, then," I snap, beginning to lose it, "can you recommend a good monkey?"
Doctors are arrogant. They’re more jaded than New Yorkers, thinking they’ve seen it all. Maybe they have. But even a good doctor forgets that, while they may have delivered a thousand babies, with or without simian assistance, for inexperienced parents it’s new and wonderful and terribly frightening.
Our thirst for knowledge forces our hand. We want to know as much about the baby growing inside of Helena as we can, so we schedule the amnio. Helena is laid out on a slab in a dim room with the dome of her belly exposed and smeared with petroleum jelly. The doctor studies the black-and-white sonogram screen and holds the largest syringe I’d ever seen over Helena’s stomach. There is no precocious chimpanzee present, but it would have broken the dire mood to have a chimp roller skate by to check in on us, wearing a cute little lab coat with a stethoscope dangling around its hairy neck.
The needle pierces Helena’s skin. Her features pull to the center of her face, like a wounded animal seeking shelter. On the sonogram I see the gray figure of our baby and the needle lowering into the black mass around it. The doctor fills the syringe with a greenish-looking fluid. “That’s it,” she says, removing the needle.
That isn’t it. A miscarriage can happen anytime over the next two days. Then we have a whole week before receiving the results of the test.
Religion asks my favorite type of question, one that cannot be answered. My problem with religion is when it tries to answer the unanswerable. Finite beings by design are unequipped to understand the workings of an infinite universe.
My sperm fertilized Helena’s egg and started a chain reaction with millions of cells multiplying and growing into our sweet, little, innocent baby. It’s like dominos set out in a great pattern, once the first one falls all you can do is watch them go. I can’t change the genetic code constructing our child. If it neglects a finger or a chromosome no personal discipline on my part can alter that. Adding something to my morning routine isn’t going to make a bit of difference to the mass of life growing inside of Helena. Unlike my doctor, I’m not omnipotent. I accept that.
Two days pass and Helena is fine. There is no miscarriage. But emotionally we are still on edge. The week creeps by until we get the call from the doctor. There were no abnormalities. The doctor asks if we want to know the sex of our baby.
Both of us want to know the sex of the baby. There are enough unanswered questions and puzzles and anxieties already related to pregnancy that one less suits us fine.
We are having a boy.
Like naming the Chihuahua puppy Poutine before buying it, knowing that we are having a boy gives the pregnancy a mental reality to match the physical one of Helena’s changing body. Helena doesn’t appreciate the dog analogy, but acknowledges that now we could stop calling our child “It.” Our baby is Simon Ezra Landau.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
10. ANIMAL HOUSE
Dad is allergic to animals, horses specifically. That didn’t stop his brother from riding, though he had to thoroughly bathe himself upon returning from the stable. Mom grew up on the Upper West Side and fearful of animals. The only wildlife she was exposed to were rats, cockroaches and disease-carrying pigeons. Fate predisposed me to a life devoid of cute and furry acquaintances. Yet from this genetic pool I emerged a natural-born animal lover. I wanted a pet, needed a companion and, with a child’s stubbornness, lobbied aggressively for a four-legged addition to our home. My parents yielded to my constant kvetching, but initiated me into pet ownership slowly. We started with the classics, goldfish. The bowlful of glassy-eyed new friends, shiny, unhappy creatures, ended belly up almost as fast as I could plop them into their watery grave. In my own Darwinian evolutionary crawl to land, I advanced to amphibious turtles, which I kept in a plastic habitat. The little turtles grew transparent wings that stretched across their limbs as if they might take flight. How wonderful! No, how tragic. Those wings were a deadly fungus. After the poor souls were flushed to their glory I bought two new turtles, but neglected to buy another aquarium. The turtles’ shells couldn’t protect them from the deadly disease lying dormant in their new home. They were infected by the same malevolent mildew and died within days.
This series of tragedies didn’t affect me. What I really wanted was a monkey. My parents countered with a cat, a Siamese Sealpoint, purchased around the corner at Fabulous Felines. I named him Monkey. He had blue eyes like me, and we worked on shtick together. He dropped the comic bombs while I set the fuse as straight man. “Chairman…?” I’d ask. “Mao!” Monkey replied with the husky voice of the breed. We were team, inseparable.
More cats followed. My Sister got Blackie, a chocolate-colored Burmese. Mom became an animal lover overnight and took in a homeless tabby we banally named Tiger. After moving to the suburbs, Mom insisted that our garage not have a door so raccoons and other wild beasts from the neighborhood could find sanctuary on cold, rainy nights. We took in a stray calico and, following our thoughtless naming tradition, called her Callie. But Monkey was my favorite. He was mine.
Dad was more of a dog person. We didn’t have such good luck with dogs. Dad loved beagles, but they loved to run away and were killed by cars for their wanderlust. Beagles are hunting dogs and need to roam. But Pinkie, our last beagle, was a homebody. That didn’t save her. There was a water pipe, with a facet screwed on top, which stuck upright in our backyard. Pinkie was leaning queerly against it. The water was gushing out and Pinkie’s mouth hung open, her tongue drooped fat and limp.
"How cute," I thought, "she’s getting a drink of water." Then I saw her collar twisted around the pipe. It was all that supported her weight, dead weight. Pinkie’s head tilted at the wrong angle, her neck snapped. Dad carried her lifeless body to the car and drove her to the vet. "She’ll be okay, right?" I asked.
If pets could survive the myriad dangers of our family home and its surrounding roads, they fell victim to my fickle love. Monkey was king, but that kingdom was uprooted from the placid suburbs and back to the city of his birth, where he followed me to art school. There I met Jasper Jones, or Jewba. He was born on the Lower East Side, the runt of a litter given away door-to-door at a Stanton Street tenement. Jewba had a fat nose on a kitten’s wiry frame. My girlfriend thought he looked Jewish. The black markings around his eyes, like thick mascara, reminded her of Barbara Streisand, then starring in the movie Yentl. Jasper became Yentl-Puss, then Yentl-Ba and finally Jewba. And with that Monkey was dead to me. Our bond ruptured as easily as handing him off to a friend, which is what I did to the cat I swore during moments of existential adolescent despair was my old friend. The last time I saw Monkey he couldn’t move his hind legs. My friend was taking him to the vet to be euthanized. Monkey stared at me from behind the bars of his old cat carrier. His eyes clouded by cataracts. Goodbye, Monkey. Hello, Jewba!
Jewba’s reign was a long one, through my courtship with Kate. Then a friend gave Kate a birthday present, a mixed-breed, mostly Chihuahua mutt. He was bought on the street for ten dollars, suspiciously the price for dime bag of heroin. A pet is a presumptuous gift, especially a dog most likely stolen by a junkie for a fix, but Kate instantly fell in love with Tequila, as she named him, and so did I.
Tequila was smart. He abandoned me before I could abandon him. One night Kate and one of her boyfriends were sleeping together on the floor of our living room. Tequila nestled closely between them. I called Tequila. His angular head perked up hearing his name. “Come boy,” I whispered. I needed a warm body to comfort me, all alone in the marital bed. Tequila stared at me with dead eyes, then put his head back down. He rejected me. I never forgave him for that.
Not long after his betrayal, we bought a purebred Chihuahua, a partner not only for Tequila but myself as well. I had no intention of buying a pet from a pet store, not with so many unwanted strays, but I made the mistake of playing with the little fellow and then Kate gave him a name, Poutine, after a popular French-Canadian dish of cheese curds and gravy over fries. No longer a cute abstraction, Poutine had a name and became part of the family — all that was left was to pay the credit card bill. Once Poutine joined our threesome, more a gruesome to me, he immediately took my side, against Tequila, Kate and her lovers. Jewba didn’t stand a chance.
By the time we moved to Brooklyn, there were three Chihuahuas and three cats living with us. The cats were larger than the dogs, but that weight advantage didn’t improve their longevity. When Kate and I separated she barely packed a suitcase, but she took Tequila. With Helena, the days of my menagerie were numbered. Only Poutine survived the great cleansing that followed the pregnancy.
Helena, a little thing herself, doesn’t share my attraction for little things. A vegetarian, she wouldn’t eat meat but had no qualms about killing animals. She once owned a pet, a dog that was miserable, snapped at strangers and had some kind of skin disorder, a foul beast. Rather than find it a new home or leave it at a shelter, she had the offending creature put down. It fit her pragmatic, if merciless, nature.
My pets had died, many dying bizarre deaths, but only one did I personally have to put out of its misery.
Willy Love was a heavy cat. He grew so large and slow that his belly swept the floor when he walked in undulating, hypnotic strokes. Willy’s fur was jet-black and gleamed like an expensive tuxedo, save for a patch of white on his chest and paws, like a starched dress shirt and spats. He was the soul brother to Jewba’s gutter punk, at least by the personalities I manifested through them. I could endlessly entertain myself spewing a fantasy dialogue between the nasal whine of Jewba’s street trash and the honey tones of Willy’s Casanova.
Then Willy stopped using the litter box. That’s misleading, he tried to use the litter box. He’d circle the thing as if gathering up the courage to enter, which I could understand. I woefully neglected my duty to regularly change that stinky litter. The box was covered and hidden in a corner of the bathroom. Willy climbed in, his face sticking out from the round entrance looking inconsequential on top of his great black mass of a body. If a cat could sweat there would have been beads the size of Ping-Pong balls bouncing off of Willy’s brow from the strain of trying to move his bowels. I just thought he was constipated. Several days of watching Willy loop around the litter box made me dizzy and so I made an appointment to see the vet.
The veterinarian looked like the personification of Willy Love, a tall, cordial black man with a barrel chest and a deep, resonate voice. He told me Willy had cancer, a huge malignant tumor in his colon. It was inoperable. With a big hand on my shoulder that felt cool as the metal examination table Willie was trembling on, the veterinarian told me to bring him in when I was ready. “He’s in great pain,” he told me. “It’d be best to get it over with.”
That night I found Willy curled up in a pile of Kate’s dirty party clothes. I sat there rubbing him under the chin, which he liked, trying to make up for years of neglect. The last time I touched Willy was to shoo him away from my lap. He joined the family after Jewba and before Poutine, unable to climb anywhere near the summit of my rocky heart. I was horrible to Willy, but I could be insane with all my beloved pets. That’s what worried me. What began as love quickly grew stale and then ugly. It could be said of my romantic relationships, too. Will my offspring also be victims of this vicious cycle?
The cats suffered the brunt of my temper. They begged relentlessly for food. Every morning, before I swung my tired feet out from beneath the warm covers and abandoned them to the cool hardwood floors, my cats were upon me with their irritating cries.
Their nimble bodies snaked around my ankles as I stumbled for the bathroom to urgently pee, even before my obsessive morning routine.
Reaching the bathroom meant passing through a narrow linoleum-covered corridor that emptied out to the kitchen. The cats had me at this bottleneck, and their attack grew in its intensity.
I’d trip over them and level the most loathsome curses at my beloved pets. I’d step over their swarming forms, finally reaching the toilet.
Yanking the lever, flushing.
Tripping down the hallway to the kitchen.
Their wailing became frenzied when they saw me take a can of food in hand and reach for the opener.
"Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!"
“Shut up!” I screamed, sounding even louder and more deranged in the quiet of the early morning. My outburst only fueled their frenzy.
“Shut up!” Spit flew from my mouth, my whole body tense, twisted into a hook, my fists shaking hysterically. The cats twitched their tails.
I’d slam the food into their bowls. “There! There! Happy? I hope you choke and die! Die! Die!” I repeated myself a lot. The cats couldn’t verbally engage me, so I had to continue the spat myself. It was pointless. There was just so much violent gesturing I could do. I started kicking them.
Cats are renowned for their agility. When I first got one I used to hold it upside down, inches over the floor, then drop it and see if it was true what they say about cats always landing on their feet. It was true. But what they never said was how much punishment these resilient animals could withstand and still come back with love.
Shouting wasn’t effective. Lowering myself to their level, nose to nose, I’d spray ugly obscenities at their meowing, hungry faces.
"Why don’t you just die? I hate you!”
Even the great Jewba suffered my abuse. But they’d just lick my nose — “Feed me!” — and keep pouring on the feline version of a Chinese water torture.
I broke. Snapping to attention, my right leg cocked backwards, I fired a powerful limb, its target the soft white underbelly of one of my bawling beasts. The unfortunate animal snagged by my kick took awkward flight. It lobbed a short distance over the linoleum floor, crash landed on its side — not its feet, so much for legend — and slid about like an air-hockey puck, bouncing off the walls several times before coming to a dead stop. I felt immediate remorse for my depraved action, until the ejected cat got up, licked its paw and came back at me like the zombies from my nightmares.
When the cats had been vanquished, put to sleep or given away, I could finally greet the new day happy. The dogs, always eager to join the pack and play, aggravated me in a wholly other way. While more easily dissuaded by my tantrums than the cats, the dogs had a line of defense even I in my madness was not crazy enough to break through. They were pathetic.
Poutine had a black belt, a master in the martial art of pitiful. I never had a chance. Chihuahuas have been bred over generations to bring out their valued intrinsic weaknesses: spindly legs, pop-eyes and palsy. Poutine added to this wretched arsenal with incontinence, a prolapsed third eyelid and chronic rawness around his anus from rubbing his butt on the ground, resulting in two surgeries to remove his anal glands. All that paled in comparison to his big guns, the weapon of mass destruction…his cry.
When frightened or hurt Poutine released a banshee-like wail. I first experienced it while walking him. A passing dog turned to smell Poutine’s behind. Poutine tucked his rump down and darted between my legs. The dog followed. Poutine pivoted and ran behind me. The leash wrapping around my legs, pinning Poutine and granting the other dog its wish to get a nose up Poutine’s ass. Poutine run out of options, there was no escape. Then he leaped straight up in the air, as far as the tether would allow, and screamed. Poutine’s masher hid behind its master with its tail flaccid between its legs. The other dog walker and I looked at one another. Where was this high-pitched siren coming from, a car alarm? There was no car being broken into. I looked down at Poutine, shaking, his watery eyes large and black.
I next heard the shrill cry one morning while putting on Poutine’s leash and pinching him accidentally. He flew up above the floor defying gravity and bellowed. I fell backwards. His shriek sounded human, like a defenseless baby.
It got to the point that if I touched Poutine in a manner he felt inappropriate he emitted a squeal, the screech, his outcry. I was shocked, shaken, beaten by a ten-pound adversary. Maybe Poutine knew he was next, about to be usurped by the new pet in town.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
9. HOME IS WHERE THE HEARTACHE IS
Helena tires of seeing me nervously pull at my wedding band. She buys me a Claddagh. It’s an Irish ring, composed of two hands clasped around one crowned heart, which symbolizes love and friendship. When worn on the lefthand ring finger, with the heart facing inwards, it means you’re committed to marriage. That’s how I wear mine, even though I’m still legally married to Kate.
When Kate and I moved to Brooklyn she turned our second bedroom into her boudoir. When I kicked her out I made that room my office, lining the walls with books, as if those walls could talk and I wanted to gag them. Otherwise, the apartment is unchanged. Helena moves in, but basically our home remains Kate’s home. It’s like a ghost image burned onto my retina, lingering, floating just out of focus. Helena starts wearing a pair of purple velvet hot pants Kate left behind. She fills them out nicely.
Our apartment is built on a sinkhole of memories, but we build a bridge across that trap to carry us from my dark past to a literally pregnant present. That bridge is assembled from pregnancy books.
Helena reads a lot of pregnancy books. They are stacked up besides our bed, on tabletops, in the bathroom, the kitchen. It’s a paper obstacle course, one that I’m not emotionally equipped to run. I would seek shelter, but no room is a safe haven from the thick tomes detailing the developing fetus inside Helena’s womb.
My Mom will be our birth partner. Helena asks her. She thinks I’ll run from the delivery room clutching my stomach. At amusement parks I’m the guy that holds the purse while my girlfriend rides the roller-coaster. I find nothing thrilling about being nauseous. But having a baby is different. For one thing, I’m stationary. With my two feet planted securely on the ground I can handle anything. And a childhood of watching gory horror movies has hardened me to whatever bloody gristle Helena might squeeze out between her legs. Only it’s not that Helena thinks I’ll puke, she doesn’t trust me as her advocate in the delivery room.
We take a birth class and practice breathing exercises at home. Helena gives me a stopwatch for Father’s Day. I pretend to time Helena’s contractions while talking her through the pain. “Good girl, good girl,” I say, massaging her back.
"You sound like you’re talking to your dog!" Helena barks.
"I’m trying to comfort you."
"If you say, ‘Good girl’ to me during the delivery I’ll stab you in the eyes."
Helena signs us up at BabyCenter.com and I start receiving weekly emails detailing our baby at the present stage in development — the brain forms, finger stubs appear, hair starts growing. I end up losing interest halfway down the long emails, before the hyperlinks offering passage to deeper information on the site.
It isn’t that I’m indifferent. I go to every doctor’s appointment, listen keenly during birthing class, rub Helena’s tired feet at the end of the day. But I feel prepared for childbirth on a more primal, biological, cellular level. Just as Helena’s body is changing, adapting to the new life growing inside of her, so is my body metamorphosing — instinctual, feral and true.
Others can psychologically explain away my expanding waistline as a sympathetic pregnancy, but I feel more like a boxer in training, bulking up for a big fight. There is no fear of the delivery room. I am not going to pace outside, like a father in a gag cartoon, with a fistful of celebratory cigars. Knee-deep in the muck, hands first on my baby, I will cut the umbilical cord with my teeth and savor childbirth with all my senses.
Helena, the youngest of seven siblings, has experience to temper instincts, as opposed to my delusions of innate knowledge. She babysat her nieces, changed their diapers, put them to sleep, quieted their cries while I was playing Operation and laughing as my patient’s bulbous nose flash red in a Milton Bradley malpractice suit.
Not that Helena is an Earth Mother. Upon learning of her pregnancy, she had me rent Rosemary’s Baby. That night we cuddled together on the couch, warm in the glow of our burgeoning family. On screen, Mia Farrow grew increasingly skinny and sickly as the demonic creature inside her came to term. “Satan is his father!” the Dakota coven applauded. Mia Farrow wasn’t paranoid — she had been raped by the Devil. Does Helena think of pregnancy as the birth of a horrific evil?
"It’s like something’s feeding off of me," Helena says.
“There is,” I comfort her.
Like Mia Farrow, Helena isn’t paranoid. There is something inside her, sucking her life force selfishly, inflating her breasts, adding pounds to her tiny frame and making her tired and irritable and nauseous. No wonder she is obsessed with any literature, pamphlet, handbook, flyer, leaflet, circular, television or radio broadcast, Web site, email newsletter, popup ad, direct mailing, billboard, subliminal message, street person’s scatterbrain rambling that relates to pregnancy, childbirth and infant care.
Helena cannibalizes all informational sources, digesting variant philosophies, fertilizing her own thoughts. By planting my seed in the fertile soil of her learnedness I expect my parenting skills to flower and bloom as bright.
But Helena never discovers the Unified Field Theory of Pregnancy. Her parcel knowledge cannot hold as a cohesive whole. There is only a series of frustrating contradictions. For every spine she cracks, for every “expert” on pregnancy, the next book, the next authority, is completely at odds with the former’s conclusions, and just as adamant of their inherent truths.
I have my own hypothesis: the more dogmatic the approach, the more dog shit that approach. There is no correct pregnancy, childbirth or infant care. Everyone wants a healthy birth and seeks humane parenting, but it’s all trail and error, mix and match, a la carte. Helena is not comforted by my breakthrough. I am passive, evading my responsibilities as a parent.
One of Helena’s books I cannot avoid is The Mask of Motherhood by Susan Maushant.
"If you want to know how I feel, read this book," Helena says, shoving the thin paperback in my hand. A commitment of not more than two-hundred-and-fifty pages is a small price to pay to win back the respect of the mother of our child. But reading The Mask of Motherhood is like a two-hundred-and-fifty pound anvil dropping on my balls.
Having a baby is a blissful event, or it should be, but I read of the unspoken isolation, the myth of having it all — the unsweetened reality of pregnancy, birth and child rearing. Mothers are prepped for delivery like marathon runners, but the race begins in earnest only after crossing the finish line. Nobody talks about that. The book charred my romantic notions of motherhood to an unpalatable cinder that was hard to swallow.
It takes me months to get through the book. I feel cold and empty when I finish it. My instinctual faith suffers a mighty blow. But where has instinct steered me, anyway? Indecision kept me wallowing in a dead-end marriage and now is dropping a needy baby into a fragile relationship.
What kind of father can my baby expect? I need only look back at the many pets I had since childhood as precedent.
"Kids are a lot like having a pet, only you can beat your pets,” I’d say, regaling friends with my wit.
Nobody thought I was funny, but it really wasn’t a joke, I guess, more a subtle way of airing a forbidden topic: my checkered past as a pet owner. Was I damned to repeat that history with my firstborn?
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
Once I had faith. I was born in Manhattan, at Mt. Sinai Hospital, named after where Moses received the Laws from God. There was never any question of my faith. I was a New Yorker. I scraped my knees in Bum Park, more commonly known as Central Park, and ate my lunch at Automats. I fell asleep to the chanting of Italian-American protestors outside the FBI regional headquarters, catty-corner and stories below my bedroom window. “Eenie meanie minie moe, the FBI has got to go!” “Hitler vowed he’d never die, came back as the FBI!” I trick-or-treated on the carpeted halls of my Upper East Side apartment building. My pulse quickened driving through Times Square when Dad ordered us to lock the doors. I ventured no further north than the American Museum of Natural History and the fossilized bones of extinct dinosaurs, no further south than a friend’s Stuyvesant Street townhouse, no further east than Queens to visit relatives who lived beneath the El and no further west than the mighty Hudson River. The City — there is only one city — was my playground, an amusement park, only one that didn’t make me puke. I was chaperoned through this funhouse by my parents, temporarily. Freedom was just around the corner, literally. That was the site of the Bentley School. My parents walked me there each morning and back home in the afternoon. My graduation gift upon completing the second grade was to commute unaccompanied to and from school. For the first time I would be allowed to cross the street solo. I knew all the public service announcements by heart: “Cross at the green, not in-between.” It became my mantra. Conquering the streets meant The City would be mine.
Then the unspeakable happened. We moved to the suburbs. It was a fate worse than death, exile. I was eight years old, lost faith, became morose and ran with a bad crowd. We called ourselves The Unholy Three. Mom came up with the name one day while bathing me. I liked the sound of it. She said it was the title of a Lon Chaney movie.
Moving to Harrison — only a half-hour north of The City — was the defining event of my young life. It ruined me. I seemed to fall apart immediately. Before I left elementary school I was diagnosed as near-sighted and prescribed eyeglasses. I was not having fun with phonetics and started seeing a speech therapist. The lush trees and thick carpets of deep-green suburban grass may have been the final resting place of the American Dream, but it was a nightmare for me. I developed hay fever, chronic bronchitis and eventually asthma. I missed the storefronts, the homeless, the traffic. Instead I got the dull repetitiveness of nature. Nervous in this alien environment, I began to obsessively pick at my cuticles until they bled. I was a four-eyed, lisping and wheezing outsider with bloody fingertips. No wonder I needed the protection of a gang.
The Unholy Three was my first exposure to a world outside of Judaism. In our group was a Christian; I think he may have even been Catholic. This friend was different. His hair was straighter, his features sharper. In his home was a large color photograph of a relative dressed like an old-fashioned soldier. The man had a stiffly proud expression, his chin slightly raised. On his head was a three-cornered hat. He wore a high collar with intricate braiding and his chest was decorated with all manner of hanging metals. The portrait was garishly framed in gold. Was this a Christian soldier marching as to war?
I was aware of a world outside of Judaism, I just never been there. New York City is called a melting pot but each of its ingredients tends to settle at its own level. During the late sixties Italians protested the FBI, but they were seven stories below my bedroom window. Other races and religions were passing forms on the street. It was only when I moved to Harrison and entered its public school system that I intermingled with the goyish masses.
Main Street Harrison is only a few blocks long, with a Five and Dime, movie house and a small shopping center radiating out from the Metro North train station. In the center of town are middle-class houses, closely packed together, with neat yards on quiet, winding streets. The further out you go from its core, the more affluent Harrison becomes. Homes and properties are larger until you reach Hidden Springs Farm, my new home.
The driveway went down steeply through a thicket of pine trees and over a bridge that traversed a marshy field with a running spring. The road, for it really was more than a driveway, terminated at an open two-car garage. It was long as a city block and much less exciting. There was no toyshop across the street or the furniture store in which I played on my first, surprisingly hard, water bed. There were four measly buildings on the twelve-acre lot: our five-bedroom farmhouse, a small one-room guesthouse, a chicken coup and a red barn besides a trickling waterfall. This paradise was my prison, or more appropriately the hell I was damned to after falling from the heavenly grace of New York City.
Harrison was split up between blue-collar families near the railroad and upper classes living on plots with fanciful names like Hidden Springs Farm. The children of the two groups mixed at Harrison Elementary School. But when I graduated to the Louis M. Klein Middle School I lost the defense of The Unholy Three. Middle school was divided into three houses and all of my friends were assigned to Houses One or Two. I was in House Three, surrounded by rough kids that didn’t need a gang named after a silent-film star to act tough. Thus began a three-year ordeal of daily beat downs and humiliations.
Abused by bullies, abandoned by the in crowd, I gravitated towards the rejects that slip through the cracks of school cliques. My group was the studious, the greasy and pimpled, orthodontist victims, the socially awkward, the mentally incompetent, the effeminate and the cowardly like myself. Our stomping ground was the only safe haven in school, the library. One of my tormenters, stumbling onto our Camelot, saw me at a round table of nerds and knighted me King of the Faggots.
The only respite came on Thursday afternoons when the majority of my homeroom class was escorted out of school to church for religious study. I began to see religion as something that could help me — my faith rekindled, if not ablaze.
That didn’t mean I wanted anything to do with my own religion. My family didn’t join a temple until we moved to the suburbs. I guess it’s what suburbanites do, like having milk delivered in glass bottles and mowing lawns. That’s how I ended up in the congregation of Temple Emanu-El.
Churches are large and imposing structures, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, which takes up an entire city block. If God doesn’t reside there He’d certainly feel at home. But I learned that an old abandoned storefront could be a church. A turned-over soapbox on a crowded street corner could be a church. But a suburban synagogue was not a church. It was uncomfortable, all sharp angles, designed abstract as the concept of God is to a young boy.
Temple Emanu-El looked as if it was made of balsa wood. Its roof waved up and down like an angry sea frozen in blond timber. Stained-glass windows depicted abstruse pastel settings like a cheaply reproduced Chagall fallen out of register. Hanging from the high rafters of its pitched roof, amorphous metalwork held the Eternal Flame. The Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark, which holds the Torah, looked like a fancy wardrobe.
Our family went to temple only on high holidays. These memories are too dull for me to summon, but I do recall the temple’s parking lot following a Yom Kippur service.
I was walking over the blacktop, pulling at my sweater collar. Car doors were open, but people were still besides their vehicles. Voices were coming from inside the cars. The radios were all on, but no one was listening to music. The news reported a surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria. They invaded the Sinai and Golan Heights on this the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
It was the Yom Kippur War, which lasted less than a month, during which Israel pushed back its invaders and occupied the territories on the West Bank.
Being a Jew now filled me with pride rather than embarrassment, at least momentarily. I was ignorant about the history of the region and its complex politics, all I knew was that again I was on the winning side. America won every war that I studied in school. I am an American. Even when Americans fought each other in the Civil War, I was a winner, having been lucky enough to be born in the victorious North. It was important for me to be on the winning team, as if that carried with it some moral superiority. But that satisfaction was short lived.
Rabbi Wauk stood at the pulpit in flowing gowns and a mash of brown hair beneath his hand-knitted yarmulke. He had soft features that were friendly yet always appeared slightly fuzzy. His voice covered the dozing crowd at the Saturday morning service like too much maple syrup oozing over pancakes.
The rabbi’s nasal sermon concerned a caterpillar that wanted to become a mustache. The little furry creature made its way onto some guy’s upper lip and was quite content to sit there, basking in the glory of being a mustache. But then, one day, the man looked in the mirror and decided he needed a change. Picking up a razor, he shaved the caterpillar off.
I didn’t get the point of this cute animal fable even Disney wouldn’t animate. Yes, the poor caterpillar wanted to be something it was not. For that sin it was cut and slashed into bloody pulp and washed down the drain. Was Rabbi Wauk telling his congregation not to strive for its dreams, be a good caterpillar or suffer the consequences?
Things got worse when I entered Saturday school. Our teachers were young longhairs who viewed God as the ideal hippie.
All the Saturdays, countless hours spent locked up in a classroom, on what should have been by juvenile right mine to roam free and play, I learned nothing about God or spirituality. I would have given up that precious frog-catching, roughhousing, vandalism time without protest if it offered me even a hint of that ethereal kick I had been seeking my entire short life. In preschool my evaluation referred to me as the class philosopher. The other kids used to gather at my locker to discuss the deep thoughts of toddlers, like poop and cooties. I was a curious child, full of wonder and primed for religious study, but all I got was marriage tips.
To lose the attention of a roomful of prepubescent boys just talk about girls. Yuck. Though it did make an impression. The only lesson I remember from my years of religious study was of these progressive teachers burdening us with preserving Judaism.
"You must marry Jewish women," came the order.
None of us cared about girls, and we certainly weren’t going to marry one, Jewish or not. It was a bit premature offering matrimonial aid to a group of boys that had yet to discover the joys of masturbation. But this wasn’t conjugal advice. This was a numbers game. Jews were assimilating, entering interfaith relationships and diluting the religion. Hitler couldn’t do it, but the come-hither flutter of a gentile’s long lashes was granting his genocidal wish, according to our groovy teachers.
I hated temple. I hated Rabbi Wauk, who carried the Torah like a golf bag over manicured country club lawns. I hated Saturday school. I hated my teachers, bearded dictators in faded jeans bulling confused children. I hated the whole concept of the Chosen People, as if God picks sides and I was lucky enough to be born on His winning team. And yet, as my thirteenth birthday approached, I decided to have a bar mitzvah.
Everyone in my family thought I was full of shit. I just wanted the money. Their doubt was understandable. I did keep a safe in my room. Not one of those tin toys with a slot to drop pennies in, but a real safe, a fireproof safe, with a combination only I knew, to safeguard my valuables — bubble-gum cards, mostly. I wished it was big enough to walk inside and close the door behind me. My Grandpa Fred taught me to read the stock index in The New York Times at an early age and I checked the Blue Chips daily. I collected coins, Xeroxed dollar bills. I made a business card: my smiling face with dollar-sign eyes bulging on a mock green bill. Money was important to me. Perhaps I even worshipped it.
But I swear to God that financial gains had nothing to do with my decision to have a bar mitzvah.
I simply didn’t want to miss out. There is nothing in Jewish Law that says a boy can’t have a bar mitzvah at fourteen or twenty or forty-five. But I knew if I didn’t stand up before my congregation at thirteen I never would. Even at that early age, I sensed that the worst thing in life is regret, and I didn’t want to look back with remorse.
That may not be the whole truth. It sounds a bit too mature. I was really just following orders, respecting the authority of five-thousand years of Jewish tradition. Once a boy enters temple the path leads to bar mitzvah. But I could have easily avoided it.
My Dad never had a bar mitzvah. His mother, my Grandma Annie, the personification of a Hallmark card granny, liked to say: “More harm than good has been done in the name of religion.” No one could say my family wasn’t Jewish — off the boats at Ellis Island, onto the Lower East Side and full of pickled food and Yiddish songs — but for us Judaism has little to do with religion.
To this day I can’t say with conviction why I decided to have a bar mitzvah. I truly don’t know. I guess it was a matter of faith. I just did it.
Despite the wisdom of sneaker commercials, just do it is not always the best philosophy. Just do it implies a lack of thought, the absence of a balanced decision in favor of jumping in, sink or swim. It’s fine for a cold pool, but dubious in terms of the bigger questions in life. But I didn’t just do it; I had to learn Hebrew first.
My Hebrew teacher rode a motorcycle. I could hear the roar of his machine as it rolled down our long driveway. From my bedroom window I watched him rest the bike on its kickstand, remove his helmet and shake out his long, brown hair. He wore a leather jacket, tight jeans and cowboy boots, and he taught me how to read Hebrew phonetically.
Besides faking my way through Hebrew, I had to write a short speech based on the part of the Torah I would be reading in temple for my bar mitzvah. I was reading the first book of Genesis, the creation myth, appropriately enough.
On the day of my bar mitzvah I stood before my congregation as a man. I read the Hebrew text from memory and recited something about new beginnings. But all I really remember was the party afterwards.
An archway of multicolored balloons swayed in the breeze above our driveway. Guest entered under it like to another world. The open garage was empty of cars and turned into an arcade, with pinball machines and a giant scroll for people to write their well wishes. The guest cottage was made into an ice cream parlor. My Hebrew teacher gave me a leather yarmulke as a bar mitzvah gift. He came to the party with a beautiful redhead as if to say, keep up the good work and God will shower you too with such rewards. It was a magical affair. I was miserable.
Being the center of attention made me feel awkward. I was swimming in a powder blue, three-piece suit that collected at my ankles like a pool of sweat. Strangers came up to me and said they knew me since I was this tall, lowering a flat hand to the level of my crotch.
There are pictures of me from the party running around with friends, drawing cartoons on the paper scroll, playing pinball and eating ice cream. It appears that I’m having a wonderful time.
One final year of Saturday school remained before I could graduate with my class, but after the bar mitzvah I felt as if there was no point to continuing my religious studies. I was a man now and it was time to leave behind childish things. I quit Saturday school, a dropout at thirteen.
I learned that Rabbi Wauk used me as a parable to inspire those dedicated students of Judaism who chose to follow through and graduate. To Rabbi Wauk I was a quitter. I lost faith.
It was an honor to make it into Rabbi Wauk’s repertoire. I felt right at home with the caterpillar that wanted to be a mustache. Only I had no intention of being shaved off anyone’s face.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
7. WHAT IS A JEW?
After yoga and meditation, I am ready to take that great leap of faith into serious religious observance. I choose to delve into my past, before the Tyranny of Cool, something familiar and fatty with smoked fish. Judaism has little hip cache. Celebrities may flock to Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, but such worship castrates the patriarchal ball-buster of our God. And while it is popular for people my age to rekindle their spirituality with a bundle of religious roots, trends are never cool. I am safely un-hip, crossing the line from my past into the future unknown. It is exciting. I have no idea what I am getting myself into.
Blocks from our apartment stands a Gothic stone church that has, for the last number of generations, been a gathering place for a progressive arm of the conservative branch of Judaism. The Kane Street Synagogue looks like the perfect fit for us. Jews congregate before its large wooden doors Saturday mornings, holding solemn-looking black books, wearing yarmulkes with prayer shawls draped over loose shoulders. They look happy.
I can be Jewish among these people. My religious studies will expand beyond my stomach. But it is all so much talk. Helena is the one who discovers that the Kane Street Synagogue offers a free “Explaining the Sabbath” class on Saturday mornings.
The price is right, and the temple is only down the street. I can be a Jew, forge a spiritual foundation for my new family and still sleep in on Saturday mornings. This religious thing is looking up.
Class is held in a building adjacent to the synagogue. Behind its double-doors is an old wooden stairway. The steps creak as I climb. It’s springtime, Passover, and the walls are whitewashed, boldly rendered scenes of slavery and plagues and matzo parading in bright acrylics outside classrooms for the children’s religious studies. The images of Moses leading his people from bondage should rally me, but I am stymied by memories of a secular childhood. I was brought up in the reform branch of Judaism, or Christianity. Our temple grew abstract and modern from its plot, the polar opposite of this ornate, stately and overtly religious site of conservative observance. But the Judaism at its core is the same. That’s what troubled me. I began to remember why I fled the faith to begin with.
In the time it takes me to reach the second floor I revert twenty-five years to a snotty wisenheimer. I want out of Saturday school to read comic books.
Each week we deconstruct a different segment of the Sabbath service, which seeps through the temple walls where it is being conducted. By the time our session is over, the service is winding down. We were invited to sit in and join the congregation for a nosh afterwards. Free food! My spiritual pursuit has come full circle.
There are only half a dozen people in the class, mostly couples. Some my age or younger, starting families and feeling that same pull towards the structure of formal religious instruction. There’s a new teacher each week. They are all learned, smart and insightful. They wear yarmulkes on their heads and prayer shawls over their shoulders. It is hard for me to hold these two seemingly disparate images together in my mind: intelligence and religion. Years of watching The 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s evangelical talk show where prayer can redirect hurricanes, warps my mind. Ben Kinchlow, Robertson’s Ed McMahon, was a bible-thumping Stepin’ Fetchit, whose smile shined bright like the blinding glory of God. Hands could be laid on television sets nationwide, curing everything from psoriasis to malignant tumors. These were certainly enterprising, even entertaining people, but I wouldn’t cheat off them in a trigonometry exam. I am prejudiced: God and brains are not compatible. While I am polite throughout class, and eat heartily when bread is broken afterwards, when home my previously held tongue rolls out from my mouth like a profane and judgmental torah scroll.
Helena doesn’t appreciate my sense of humor. She doesn’t believe I possess a sense of humor. In her opinion, I have trouble distinguishing between funny and annoying.
I need to purge myself of all irony, sarcasm and each ingrained humorist defense. Funny is a great thing. To laugh at something is to place it in perspective. Without humor, madness festers. However, jesting is both sword and shield. It slays self-importance but can also shelter against experience. I am protecting myself from religion, but what am I afraid of?
Maybe I need to get my sea legs before I take to the open waters of orthodoxy. I thought rigid observance would pull me into Judaism. I’m attracted to structure and have created my own strict system to which I adhere daily. Why not add God to my morning ritual of journal writing, yoga and meditation? A little routine goes a long way. I’m basically a lazy person. My practice anchors an aimlessly drifting life. Once done, I can sink back into the couch before the glowing totem of television. Do I really want a spiritual foundation upon which to build a family, or am I seeking the smallest kernel righteousness to satisfy a hunger in my soul? My appetite for religion is easily sated by feeding it the menorah Helena and I bought for our first Hanukkah together. I am happy to light the candles and bathe in the warmth of token Judaism, our prayer downloaded off the Internet and broadcast through tinny speakers on my computer.
After Sabbath class concludes we are told about a more in-depth course. “An Introduction to Judaism,” which meets one night per week for a fee. I have been suckered in a sacred con game: first one’s free. I waste time, not money! There is that sense of humor again. Helena would say I am just being obnoxious. Either way, it is time for a commitment even I can’t laugh off. My hands trembling, I write a check.
"Keep your sugar level up," chirps the rabbi who leads the class. She shakes a bag of pretzels in her hand and passes it to the person seated besides her. Our teacher has black hair that looks less wavy than unkempt. She has a crooked smile and a lazy eye, which makes it difficult to know if she is talking to you. Her clothes are frumpy and sober, and over them she wears a decorative, handmade prayer shawl.
There are over twenty people attending the class on this first day. That number will be cut in half by next week. We meet in the same building where the Sabbath class was taught, but on the ground floor, in a large room, with tall stain-glass windows and a stage in the rear. Cheap folding chairs are placed around several metal tables assembled in a square.
I watch the bag of pretzels slowly make its way towards me. People take some and pass it on. Old and young hands grab the snack. There are couples and singles. Some are from mixed marriages and want to explore their partner’s religious background. Some are Jews that have not been to temple since their parents forced them to attend as children. There is a young Japanese woman who discovered a Jewish line in her family history. There is one woman from the Sabbath class. She has the hint of an accent I can’t place. Helena thinks it sounds like the soothing voiceover in a popular coffee commercial. She is in fact a pediatrician who will be our baby’s doctor within the year.
When the bag of pretzels reaches me I want to empty its contents in a pile and devour them ravenously in a cloud of savory powder. But I am on my best behavior, take two and hand the bag to Helena. My stomach rumbles. It is early in the evening. I have not yet eaten dinner.
"You have to keep the sugar level in your blood high," the rabbi reminds us, "to remain engaged with all the work we’ll be doing." And so each week one member of the class is responsible for a light snack. If there is a way to capture my religious heart, it is through my stomach.
We begin by introducing ourselves, talking about our religious experience and why we are attending class. Some Christians from interfaith unions recall reciting comic versions of the Lord’s Prayer and other unholy satires, giggled behind Bibles in church. Our teacher ponders this with a sincerity so forced it makes her frown disapprovingly.
"There’s nothing like that in Judaism," she pronounces after a brief silence. All the students raised in the Jewish tradition quickly nod their heads in agreement. I say nothing, but it doesn’t sit right.
It hits me later that night: our teacher is full of shit. All I did in temple was mock the canter’s deep baritone. And the cornerstone of Jewish prayer — “Boruch ato Adonoy, Elohaynu melech ho-olom,” “Praised art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe” — was daily flogged, warped and spun into the silly twaddle it sounded like to my young ears. I sang it as opera, country yodel and militant march. And I was not alone. Every kid in synagogue made fun.
Our teacher is a rabbi. She studied in temples for years, and yet, during all that time, not once had some cutup playfully ridiculed the religion?
I try to keep my instinct to mock under wraps so I can learn something. The course outline is ambitious. It includes reading the Tanakah, the Five Books of Moses, and exploring all aspects of Judaism, from historical and cultural to religious. But it begins with a simple question: what is a Jew?
Good question. I have been wrestling with that same query ever since Helena took me to task as a Jew. In class, it’s posed as a multiple-choice question.
What is a Jew?
The class picks a corner of the room, each designated as one of the four answers to the question. The majority collects under the banner of People. It is the most inclusive, least religious answer. Jews are people, after all. Thousands of years huddled together in ghettos will create a common culture. This is the Judaism Helena sees me embracing, one of deli foods and Yiddish phrasings. I could see her shaking her head when I didn’t follow the crowd to that corner.
Helena is not in a People person. She sides with the second largest group: Judaism as Religion. This is the obvious choice. Judaism is undeniably a religious system of belief. But for me that definition is too narrow. It deletes large chunks of the Judaic experience. Judaism is amorphous; it has mutated into something more than religion. A Jew doesn’t have to practice the religion to be labeled a Jew by outsiders.
A few embarrassed stragglers huddled together around the Race corner. It is an understandable misunderstanding. Prejudice taints Judaism, but there’s no genetic precedent for race. The Twelve Tribes of Israel could not be corralled under a distinct strand of DNA. The rabbi says this is the only wrong answer.
The smallest group collects under Nation. It’s not really a group, more a couple. A young handsome man, who works out regularly and wears the form-hugging sweaters and slacks from Banana Republic to prove it, stands side by side with me. Helena is still looking at me and shaking her head. She thinks I’m trying to be funny. The young man is getting a confused look from his equally young and attractive girlfriend, among the ranks of the popular People’s party.
We are asked to explain our position. I have given it a lot of thought, but let my comrade speak first. “I support Israel,” he says authoritatively. I take a step away from him and share the ladies’ perplexed look.
I believe in Israel’s right to exist. But I find little Israeli that conforms to my sense of Judaism. Israelis are foreigners. The Jews I know traveled from Europe and their exodus terminated once they reached the Promised Land of the United States, New York City specifically. Israel is like the Wild West, with guns and shootouts — all this fuss for a slice of land supposedly given to the Jews by a God whose only contract is a book of dubious origins. Even in my sincere desire to embrace that covenant between God and His people, to find meaning in the life I am living and the life I am giving to my unborn child, I can never define anything as expansive as Judaism by mere latitude and longitude.
Perhaps Judaism is too big for one definition. What of those who identify themselves as Jewish, but never set foot in a house of worship — are they not Jews? Israel guarantees citizenship to Jews worldwide, yet some Israelis protest that the privilege should not be given to the less observant branches of the religion. Even Jews can’t agree on what a Jew is.
Nation is the only choice given to me that can possible contain the thriving contradictions of the Jewish people. Judaism is more than a Religion. Nor is it simply a People without any spiritual content. It certainly isn’t a Race, but even that definition has validity, if only in opposition, as it has been leveled at Jews for millennia in anti-Semitic teachings. It is time to take back control from those who would weld control, such as homosexuals do with terms like “queer.” Sure, this is loose and inflammatory play with the serious question asked of the class, but all this reverence was not Judaism either. Why not a Nation of Jews like the Nation of Islam, to me a religion that has less to do with Mohammad than with the power of a people to uplift itself. A Nation of Jews isn’t a perfect definition, but it is all I had. Religious, secular, Zionist — all kinds of Jews can carry that banner with equal pride. There is no rush of converts from the three other corners of the room. My muscle-bound fellow nationalist takes one large step away from me.
The more interested in religion I become, the less religious I am. The more involved I get with Judaism, the less I want to be around Jews.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
6. KEEPING KOSHER
Helena and I staked our relationship on shaky ground on which we laid a rickety foundation to erect a family. We sought religion as structure, providing purpose and direction, connecting us to a community to buttress against our insecurities. We look to religion as generations before us have, not for answers but for security. But we are spiritual illiterates, inarticulate in theology. We approach orthodoxy timidly. To start we try to keep kosher, which was less difficult for Helena, the vegetarian, than me the lover of pig, truly the moveable feast that Hemingway had mistaken for Paris. Shellfish may be the cockroach of the sea, but they’re more palatable when grilled with garlic. And yet I will reject this garden of tasty delights to gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven.
There are limits. I have trouble with some dietary laws. Our Brooklyn kitchen is too small for different sets of flatware and dishes, as dairy and meat shall be separate but equal in a kosher kitchen, and more problematic, a hamburger just isn’t a hamburger, unless it’s a cheeseburger.
The greater challenge is family and friends. I am mocked when I turn away a decent baked ham. My desire for a spiritual life is a set up for a punch line. But all I want is to belong.
A baby might change that. Some of my friends had already procreated. They have the warmth of a nuclear family to insulate them from the cold, indifferent outside world. That seedling of community is attractive.
Religion at its best is community. I want to find a place where I can connect, and yet I also want nothing to do with people. My adult home had became the inner sanctum that my boyhood room only hinted at. Nastassja Kinski is gone, replaced by hundreds of books, only a fraction of which I have read. CD jewel-cases are lined up by the thousands in plastic rows. Walls upon walls cement me inside a personal Fortress of Solitude. Stuff makes me feel comfortable or cool or different or something — anything rather than confronting myself. Who am I? I have no idea. Then I met Helena. And we are having a baby. This seduction of seclusion is no longer an option. The baby is as a crowbar bending back the bars of my self-imposed prison, forcing me into the light of serious matters. Yet, I am a creature of habit. It is hard to change.
For my birthday Helena surprises me with a gift of yoga classes. They are held on the ground floor of what appears to be a residential building on a side street near my apartment in Brooklyn. The house is set back from the street and behind a chain-link fence, less standoffish because of the peaceful Buddhist flyers hanging there. Each time I enter the gateway, though, a ripple of anxiety shakes me. Inside there is a small carpeted reception area where students remove shoes and change into leotards or shorts. At the rear is a door that opens up to a large studio. The studio is almost bare. A boom box sometimes plays dreamy New Age compositions and a couple of cheaply framed portraits of smiling bearded men lean against a lone shelf on a far wall. Mats and blocks are piled up in a corner. I want to run away.
An attractive woman teaches the class. She speaks with a voice that would be condescending if it weren’t so soothing. She tells us to relax, folds the class into awkward positions and asks us to reach out as if trying to grasp an elusive wish. All I see is the round face of a bearded man laughing at me behind the picture glass. I close my eyes.
I don’t expect the strenuous workout I get from yoga. For me taking a deep breath is more exercise than I’m accustomed to. I never participated in team sports. When I was a boy, I took a judo course at the local YMCA, but quit because I didn’t like getting thrown to the ground. I had worked my way up to yellow belt, which was an appropriate end to my cowardly involvement. Judo did teach me how to master the art of pratfalls, but that is hardly an aerobic activity.
Yoga is different. I begin to think this yoga a miracle cure-all. Asthma no longer tightly clamps my lungs. Even though I am drenched in sweat at the end of an hour session, I never have to stop and clear my lungs of phlegm. The odd pains in my shoulders from years hunched over a keyboard mysteriously vanish. I wake up earlier and more refreshed. Only the Tyranny of Cool prevents me from the fervor of the convert.
The Tyranny of Cool keeps me snickering at my yoga instructor’s mellow tone. The Tyranny of Cool makes me deflect my eyes when asked about my yoga practice. The Tyranny of Cool is fear. It is fear of what other people think. It is a blinder that blots out all but a sliver of life. The Tyranny of Cool is what I have to overcome if I am going to explore a spiritual path, because in the hierarchy of cool, religion rests just below nerds with pocket protectors, acne and flatulence.
Cool stagnates, but it also comforts and protects those under its spell with the armor of self-righteousness, which nothing can pierce. It slowly dawns on me, cool is cold like death and offers about as much potential.
It’s hard to feel hip when you’re twisted in half, hugging your sweaty hips with your butt in the air like a soft pot waiting for a flower. Yoga tested the limits of my journey beyond the boundaries of cool. I talk the talk. Now it is time to walk the walk, even if that walk is barefoot and stationary on a yoga mat.
Yoga begins with some preliminary stretches and ends with a cooling-off period, or mini-meditation, where the class is flat on its back, eyes closed, in what is called the “corpse position.” The teacher’s voice quietly droning: “Your … toes … relax … next … your … ankles … feel … your … calves … melt … away … ” and so on, dropping us into the void. By the time she reaches our heads I am gone. Not in a meditative state, but fast asleep. “Relax … don’t get too relaxed,” I hear a distant voice calling. But that command is hard to understand, muffled by the nasal rumble of snoring, my snoring.
But I am in a semi-meditative state. Before I fall sleep, my thoughts are entangled by esoteric puzzles of the universe. I blow my own mind.
It goes something like this: my thoughts are in my head; my head rests on the floor of the yoga center. The center is on the ground floor of a side street in South Brooklyn, the County of Kings in New York City. New York City is in the Empire State of New York, on the Eastern seaboard of the United States of America, which resides on the Western Hemisphere. That is half of the planet Earth revolving around the sun, one solar system in the Milky Way, part of infinite space. Here’s where it gets tricky. Where is space? What exists outside of the boundaries of the universe? If all reality as we know it can be placed, say, on a table somewhere, then where is that table? And so forth.
Suddenly my comprehensible life, with its familiar objects, even the very routine that bolsters me against uncertainty, shifts into chaos.
Helena signs us up for a meditation class. I need some work on emptying my mind of clutter but not consciousness. The teacher’s name is Frank. He has long dark hair that falls straight around his face. He smiles all the time and speaks in a voice that is smooth as polished wood. Frank tells us yoga is only to prepare the body for long bouts of meditation. He begins each session by ringing a small, high-pitched bell. We close our eyes and are not to open them until that bell sounds the end of the mediation, or sit. The first time we sit for a long meditation a car alarm blares outside. Frank is unfazed. Afterwards he explains that the alarm is our challenge.
My challenge is not to fart. The earnestness of the class is the very hurdle I have to clear to escape from the Tyranny of Cool. I’m simply contrary, a devil’s advocate. Say black and I’ll say white. I don’t believe in white, I’m just argumentative, which makes it hard for me to take a definitive position on anything. But I can’t debate the positive results of meditation.
When the second bell rings, and I open my eyes after a long sit, I feel uneasy, like when the house lights come on in a cinema once the movie is over. I am vaguely embarrassed as the credits roll. I feel exposed. Meditation is like watching a movie with a broken projector only the tickets are cheaper and there’s no snack concession.
I add yoga and meditation to my morning routine of journal writing. Not only do I have five pages to fill with my words of wisdom, now I had a half-hour of stretching, standing on my head and shifting through the interference of my mind. But I’ve yet to find a Jewish component to complete my ritual. I’m still not kosher with my own religion.