My Girlfriend Is God
The news was on and a familiar unfamiliar face spoke. I was hearing voices or having a vision. Joyce had risen, at least as a human-interest story on the local affiliate. If TV existed in biblical times how it could have changed the way we worship. But, of course, it already has. “Amen,” I said to no one. It seemed appropriate.
I heard Joyce’s voice saying pretty much the same thing she said to me over the phone, only in public, to hordes, which, I think, is the dictionary definition for a group of religious revelers. Joyce’s movement appeared to have legs, thousands of them, which had followed her upstate, camping out at a mountainside community, according the the newscaster, just as Joyce predicted! Guess she wasn’t coming on to me, unless prophesy is a kind of tease. I did hear from Joyce once after she called, a letter inviting me to come up and see her some time. I read it more Mae West than Jesus Christ, because context isn’t everything, subtext is. Only the underlying theme of her correspondence wasn’t a come-on as much as commerce. It was a form letter, direct marketing, the launch of her public relations crusade.
Joyce built a website to cast a virtual net, a fisher of avatars, a portal from which to pitch the virtual word. A portrait of Joyce graced the homepage. She had lost weight. Joyce looked hot. God is love and that love had me kneeling down before my monitor to pray with one hand.
I planned to use both my hands when finally reuniting with Joyce — and other conjoining body parts. Such enthusiasm wasn’t reverent but fervent. While Joyce was looking good, she was also losing her mind, which made for an ethical dilemma: was a few moments of pleasure worth the hours of wacky sermonizing that was sure to follow? Joyce must be god if she has me pondering ethics. I don’t even know what ethics means, let along pondering. One of these days I have to get a dictionary to prop up that broken leg on my bed.
“Enlightenment can be had, for a price” the newscaster read. “An upstate cult, taking a page from the Medieval playbook of indulgences, offers spiritual points in exchange for donations. Lead by the charismatic beauty, known only as Joyce, it has found a thoroughly modern way to fleece its flock. Their business model is online. Call it e-religion. You log on, pay up and attain inner peace, all without leaving the comfort of your computer. The site is called PaPal. And they take all major credit cards.”
Despite the domain name, the religion had no connection to Rome or Catholicism, the newscaster continued, though I knew that already from my brief conversation with Joyce. Hers was an all-denominational faith. That could be a problem. I have a thing for Catholic girls.
Booting up my computer and logging onto PaPal, I donated one-hundred dollars. My email dinged instantly. It was Joyce, not personally but an automated reply from her organization. Opening the email, I was greeted by the simply declaration: “Love.” For one-hundred dollars I got love, virtual love, but it was tax-deductible.
I printed out the email and carried it around like a talisman. Good things began happening. There was a job offer, a recruiter called unsolicited, and the position paid more than my unemployment checks, which I had yet to cash because I hadn’t gotten any, forgetting to file for unemployment. I started to lose weight, but then I hadn’t the money for food after paying for Joyce’s indulgence. I noticed that I never hit a red light, but then I had no reason to not owning a car or caring for pedestrians. But still, it was as if a path had been cleared in front of me, pulling me forward, and all I had to do was follow.
My Girlfriend Is God
Elaine and I had been together for years, or it felt like years, but then when we decided to make it official there must have been a typo in the marriage certificate, because everything turned offal. I blame religion. We could have had a civil ceremony and be done with it, but Elaine was raised Catholic and, though she was no longer observant, her parents were practitioners of religion as an odds game. They saw no gain in betting on a win that wouldn’t pay off. Heaven, to me, didn’t seem a prize. It was a cloudy gated community where white was worn long past Labor Day, robes covered a multitude of sins and to top it all off everyone had wings like junior airmen. Feathers make me sneeze. So does marriage. If Elaine’s family were so wedded to their spiritual tradition why not choose a location that had been sanctioned as scared by their savior? I suggested having the ceremony in a manger.
We got married in an ornate church, with all the Bells and Whistles, friends of the bride’s family. The only concession to my family’s faith being a glass wrapped in cloth that I was allowed to step on at the religiously neutral reception site. While there I was ambushed by revelers armed with an empty chair, but my bulk proved too weighty for tradition. We fell to the floor in a pile, a Jewish pile, my parents insisted.
“I thought Jews wobbled but they don’t fall down?” said my newly minted and currently stewed father-in-law. I appreciate wit, but not at my expense, and certainly not if it mocks beloved childhood brands. Weebles, unlike relatives, never let me down. If looks could kill then mine would have maimed, as I’m myopic. The truth is I didn’t want my father-in-law dead. Why put him on the fast track to heaven when I could first milk his bank account while degrading his daughter? That thought produced a smile on my face, which he took as approval. Elaine revealed her true alliance to blood and not my watery kind when she laughed and laughed and laughed some more, even slapping me on the back to emphasize her father’s punchline, which made me lose my drink and my smile.
That was the first sign of trouble. The second was toothpaste, not as a symbol so much as a practice. I was taught to squeeze the tube from the bottom. Elaine pinched it just below the opening, which was wasteful.
“Don’t be so Jewish,” she said.
I had been planning to seduce my newlywed bride, but now she was tainted meat. Sweet nothings heated to accusations of anti-Semitism. She waved them off with her hand as if I was an annoying insect, vermin, infesting her superior airspace.
The tube of toothpaste was our Waterloo. Yes, it represented the decisive turn in our marriage, but mostly I love Abba and drop their songs into conversation whenever possible, which was another SOS with Elaine. The toothpaste lay in the medicine cabinet, a barometer of our falling love. I refused to replace it, each morning and every evening squeezing out just enough toothpaste from the flattened tube to cover my toothbrush. Elaine kept putting toothpaste on the grocery list, and I kept conveniently forgetting to buy it.
“There’s no need for a new tube,” I told her. “The tube continues to dispense more and more toothpaste, like one of Jesus’ miracles.”
“That was wine and fish.”
“Who brushes their teeth with wine and fish?”
When I came home I knew Elaine was gone. I could feel her absence. It was the closest we’d been since getting married.
She left a note written on a loose leaf of paper held on the bed with the miraculous tube of toothpaste. Elaine was leaving me. The first thing I did was go out and buy new toothpaste.
My Girlfriend Is God
Had Joyce joined a cult or was she starting a cult or was this merely the opening salvo in a subtle sales pitch? Is so, what was she selling: deliverance? Was airfare and food and accommodations included? I had to admit being perplexed. Joyce was getting under my skin. I knew this because perplexed is one of her words. It’s not in my vocabulary, and neither is vocabulary. I checked.
Confusion makes me horny. Well, everything makes me horny, so I try and best handle the physical manifestation of my arousal. That has brought upon me all sorts of trouble. I blame society and the legal system and public standards of decency and my neighbors and the hot line that was created to curb the expression my normal human sexuality. Joyce said my compulsive behavior was symptomatic of an unfulfilled need. She was then only an apprentice in the business of salvation. What I needed, I said, was a job: a hand job or a blow job or a salaried job, as I had just quit the position at the firm in which we meet. Quit being my way of saying fired because it looks better on a resume, the resume I need to write, once I learn what a resume is. If all this sounds confusing, then you’re close to understanding my sexual frustration.
Joyce, being a writer, could pen a compelling resume for me, and having a reference from a deity would look good to an employer. But what may prove detrimental to getting myself hired again is that Joyce is insane. It’s textbook. Delusions of grandeur. Once nuts were innocents, infatuated with mythical creatures like Napoleon, but today miniature Frenchmen aren’t good enough for them. They’re more ambitious. It’s a sign of the end of times. I should have said something, offered her the number of my psychiatrist, for instance, if I had one. Still, I know numbers, and it doesn’t take a saint to string together seven. A phone call, even a wrong number, would’ve kept her busy, and maybe god would have directed her call to someone who might have helped. If there was a god, but there’s only Joyce, and she’s not well and vulnerable and maybe I can take her out to dinner and a movie. We could start casual, see how things develop. No need to bring a condom. If there’s immaculate conception then it goes to figure there must be immaculate abortion.
How does one date a god? The Greeks did their fair share of cross-pollination with gods, but it was always the god who made the first move, and then their offspring came out all discombobulated. Could Joyce and I love a centaur? I was getting ahead of myself. Joyce has a mental illness, one which, like all disorders, is a point on a spectrum. At one end sits the religiously observant and on the other is Joyce. Who’s in charge of this seesaw? It’s god’s playground, but try getting an appointment. This is a question for Dear Abby or Ann Landers, but god got to those advice sisters before I could. There are the religious representatives who toil on this mortal plane, but to seek their counsel would involve leaving my house for a house of worship. That involves exercise. Curse you, god! I still had friends — bless their fallibility and listed phone numbers — to whom I could complain.
“What do you do when someone tells you they’re the messiah come to save mankind and point the way to paradise on earth?” I asked.
“Paradise, huh,” Larry said. I heard the mug of coffee clink the receiver as he took a noisy mouthful in slurping thought. Odd, because Larry doesn’t drink coffee. It’s too hot for him, so he fills his mug with Coke. “You sure it’s paradise? Because there are many false idols leading man down roads of temptation. But paradise, well, I’d be a fool not to follow. There’re virgins in paradise?”
“I think that’s Islam, and only for martyrs. Maybe there’s a different paradise for each faith.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Paradise would be just like earth, with every faith fighting it out to be the one true faith with the best real estate. No, I’m not buying that, unless…could paradise be here and now, on earth, and after we die that’s when we start living?”
“I’ve never thought about it that way.”
“That’s because you’re a pessimist. I’m an optimist. I believe things are going to get better before they get worse.”
“Meaning things will eventually get worse?”
“That’s a given.”
“You’re not helping. I’m concerned about Joyce. When somebody says they’re a god it’s usually from inside a padded cell. I think she may be depressed, or institutionalized, which is depressing.”
“You still like her.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“You do, you like her. You have a crush on Joyce. You always have.”
“I was a married man…”
“You’re not married anymore.”
My Girlfriend Is God
My girlfriend called. She’s no longer my girlfriend, but calling her my ex-girlfriend sounds morbid. But she called, so what are you going to do? Pick up the phone felt right.
“Hello?” I asked, though I knew who it was. Her name and number appeared on the display, along with a picture of us in flagrante delicto, our favorite Italian restaurant.
I didn’t answer by name because I’m old-fashioned, also I was drinking old-fashioneds and was a wee bit drunk. Call me conservative, but I prefer the formality of making introductions. “Hello?” I asked again. “This is conservative, to whom am I speaking?”
That usually throws off the telemarketers, only this wasn’t a telemarketer, it was my girlfriend, okay former girlfriend, though that’s even more morbid or morbidder, and I know where that leads: morbiddest.
She wasn’t interested in small talk, though, there was something more important to tell me. Anal? That was the first thing that came to mind, then vaginal and oral or, at least, phone sex, as we were already on the phone and, therefore, halfway there.
But there followed no heavy breathing, just Joyce’s affectless voice, a droning siren alerting me to the monotony of monogamy, our shared history, a past I was condemned not to repeat.
Good old Joyce, for that is her name, and, no, it’s not a great name, not one you’d want to cry out in the throes of passion, but we can’t change our names. Yes, of course, we can change our names. There’s a legal proceeding, but then it was legal to own slaves once. I just think it’s bad form, slaves and name-changing. You should play the hand God dealt you. Who, it turns out, is Joyce. You see, that’s why she rang: to tell me she was the savior of humanity, the messiah, summonsed to lead the people of earth to enlightenment. It was a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t talked in months.
“So, you’re no longer in communications?” I asked.
We had met at the copy machine, both employed for one of those major conglomerates that ride tall like a ship over the skyline and in which it was easy to stowaway in its bowels unseen. I was sitting on the glass and I recall exactly her first words to me: something along the lines of sitting on the glass might not be good for the machine. She was always looking out for others, even inanimate objects, like my pants. The rivets on the pockets of my jeans could scratch the glass. That’s what I thought she was implying, though obviously she was flirting. My pants weren’t down yet, as my bare ass was the intended target for the glass seat, but I did have my finger on the button. That being the button that fastened my waistband, which some would classify as a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Not Joyce, though, she went to another copy machine before I could make my move.
Joyce Van Patton wasn’t my type, at first. There was the sad association of her name with the actress, but it went deeper than that, in a superficial way. Her body was pear-shaped. I’ve had an allergy to pears since childhood. The doctor said an allergy was a hypersensitive disorder of the immune system and not a lifestyle choice. I said my parents are paying your salary, so quick the quackery. He asked me to leave the office and never return. We received a bill for services rendered, insurance paid for a percentage of it.
My head leaned into the phone, slippery with sweat in my palm, and pressed against my ear, which hurt, but worse was the pain inside my head. It was Joyce, still yammering about her revelation, her spiritual awakening, if you can call it that, being that she was not claiming to know divinity but be divine.
She was telling me the exact time and date of her epiphany. It was time-stamped for prosperity, a day that will live in theology, like I was a historian taking notes or an actuary. Where was the awe, the fear and trembling, the fish and wine? There was a plan, a purpose, as there always is with these sorts of things, a road that lead to the mountains.
“To be closer to god?” I asked.
Silence. I waited for Joyce to laugh, for her to let me in on the joke, but she played it straight. I was getting uncomfortable, which is unusual, as mostly I make others feel uncomfortable. Technology doesn’t help. Joyce called me on my cell phone. I miss the worry-bead-like fondling of the old phone cord, now neutered making me more neurotic by its absence. What can I use to siphon off the building tension? It’s always the crazy ones that go nuts.
“Are you still writing?” I asked, unsure if I wasn’t posing the question to dead air.
In a rapturous yet even tone Joyce said she was working on a series, four books that would reunite people with god. Each volume would focus on a major religion: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and atheism, which Joyce also considered a matter of faith.
“Nobody cares about the Jews,” I said, which got no reaction, so I switched to sincerity. “I’m happy to hear you’re still working on your fiction.”
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
The aliens attack earth. Our last line of defense is a deep-sea submarine, a Navy prototype that can submerge to unfathomable depths. Deep below the ocean, beyond radio contact, alone and overwhelmed, global positioning software is useless. Connection to communication satellites is impossible. Breaching the surface the ship sets a course for the United States, arriving to witness miles of coastline engulfed in flames, cities devastated and the remnants of a mighty civilization reduced to wandering bands of looters. The alien hoard systematically eliminates the population, the few spared enslaved. An alien battleship appears on the horizon, the submarine dives. Flashing-red lights ghostly illuminate the sailors as they race through the ship. Sirens scream, battle stations are manned. But the alien craft does not pursue — cannot pursue. Something about the sea, the pressure deep underwater repels them. It’s the chink in the invader’s armor. The submarine captain smiles; there is hope.
By that point in my story I’m asleep. The fantasy never plays out past the initial conflict. In bed, hugging my pillow, imagining a submersible the size of an aircraft carrier, a complete and insular sunken city. New technology enables the ship to remain under water for months, re-circulating air and purifying ocean water to drink, harvesting the bounty of the sea for sustenance. Sometimes the captain will order the crew to surface near a deserted island and stock their ship with fresh produce. They crack open pistachio shells, savoring the taste of non-processed food, a brief respite from the everyday toil of fighting a superior enemy intent on their destruction.
That’s the setup, but the plot never develops. I’m fast asleep, bored by my own tall tale, before there’s any resolution. I may lack the imagination to become a science-fiction writer, but I’ll never be an insomniac.
The phallic symbolism of the impenetrable submarine isn’t lost on me. I saved Simon’s submarine from the alien forces out to destroy it, but I can’t keep it underwater forever. I’m going to have to allow him to come up for air and engage those great powers at some point.
I’m in bed, Simon sleeping between Helena and myself, my eyes are closed and I’m captaining the last submarine in the United States Navy. Above me are hostile forces, at my fingertips toasted pistachio nuts sprinkled in salt. My crew is looking at me for direction. They’re scared, but putting up a brave front. I’m eating nuts. They wait for my orders. Do we attack? Do we run and hide? What can we do? The crew turns to face me, confronts me, demands action, but it’s too late. I’m already asleep.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
32. AND A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
We dress Simon in overalls, an engineer’s jacket, trainmen’s cap and any T-shirt that has a locomotive printed on it, accepting his lifestyle choice and making sure he looks the part. I imagine he’ll grow up and move into the Live Steamer’s compound in Griffith Park. Simon will become stout and oily, hunched over and endlessly tinkering with expensive train models, Helena and I visiting him only on Sundays when he takes us for a ride around the tracks. He’ll preach the gospel of the iron horse, baptized in steam and live his life following the well laid-out path of the rails.
Simon watches Thomas the Tank Engine videos. We buy him miles of wooden train tracks and happy engines with smiling faces and English names. On his second birthday Grandpa gives him the Thomas the Tank Engine train table, the same tabletop that he worships at the Travel Town gift shop. I covet his faith, but he has already pulled that interest into the station and disembarked. His trains are retired to a plastic storage bin on the porch. The train table is a dumping ground for house clutter.
Thomas the Tank Engine loses its divinity and becomes just another toy, no different than the dozens of cars he chews tires off of or the construction trucks that no longer whistle and roll around the house after being thrown one too many times. Simon’s curiosity now turns to documentaries on insects, rocks, shells, the ocean and space. He wants to explore the physical world and beyond, play with airplanes and rocket ships and robots. The humble train still part of his playground, but neglected like a rusty jungle gym.
I miss the trains more than Simon. I miss our Sunday morning ritual: driving out to Live Steamers, standing in line with the other families, giving Simon the dollar to slip into the donation jar and boarding one of the many trains for the ten-minute journey. I know all the members of the Los Angeles chapter of Live Steamers and many of the parents with similarly obsessed children. I miss Simon sitting between my legs, holding my hand as the train rolls through dark, cool tunnels, then back out under the hot sun past the dry dirt and tangled vegetation at the base of the foothills. "Look at the gold mine!” My color commentary the same each week as we pass by miniature ghost towns and ride beneath trees with large rubber spiders tied to low-hanging branches and columns of gigantic, plastic army ants marching below them. "Here comes the crossing signal, wave at the passing train. Look how high up this bridge is!” Afterwards, I lift Simon up to the water fountain and we share a drink. Back in the car, warm with trapped, sun-baked air, we roll down the windows, turn on the radio and drive through the park to the Gene Autry Museum Café for a Li’l Buckaroo lunch. After eating, Simon slips off for his afternoon nap. I park in the shade, crack a book and read for the next hour.
It’s over with a word. On Sunday, I ask if he’s ready to leave for Live Steamers. "No," Simon says.
No is one of Simon’s first words, after "Mama," "Dada" and, for some inexplicable reason, "Bubble." No remains one of Simon’s favorite words. He says it softly, whispers it through a smile like chanting some mischievous incantation. He says it loudly, also smiling, relishing in being contrary. He says it through tears, on the ground, working through the three stages of a temper tantrum. He says it in a panic. He says it like a song, a prayer and a commandment. When I ask Simon if he’s ready to go to Live Steamers he says no without any emotion, flat and simply, as if it’s no big deal. That’s how casually he loses faith.
I still have faith that Simon is Jewish, even if centuries of Talmudic law and my own indifference to religion say otherwise. Some might say, "You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” but I never understood the wisdom of that maxim. How can you not have your cake and eat it? You have to have your cake to eat it. Logical dictates that "you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” I am lost in semantics, which also have subtle designs on Simon.
Heinie versus Tushie.
It sounds like some third-tier act on the marquee of an old vaudeville road show. But Heinie versus Tushie is serious, an unconscious battle raging for the religious orientation of my son. Well, it isn’t unconscious to me! I discern the vague codification, the hint of gentile flavoring to the word heinie, a word that Helena uses to describe my son’s tochis.
Tushie is a bastardization of the Yiddish tochis or buttock. It is the word my Grandma used when changing my diaper. She’d wipe my behind and then blow a raspberry on my naked tush. As a child, I used it to insult the girls I had a crush on. "You got a gushy tushie!” Such a malleable word, so descriptive, it captures the glory of the gluteus maximus with onomatopoeic poetry. It is the word my son will use to describe his hindquarters.
But Simon refers to his bottom as a heinie. That is the word he hears his Mommy say. I haven’t felt so emotionally blindsided since Simon was admitted to the hospital for jaundice as a newborn. It’s like a panic attack. Heinie. Stop! Heinie. I can’t breathe!
I never thought I’d feel such proprietary about my son’s ass. Funkadelic named one of its albums Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow, but what kind of mind will my boy have if he follows a heinie? I don’t want Simon to follow his heinie to church, baptism, confirmation, confession and communion — Christianity. If I lose Simon’s butt as a toddler what other parts of his body might fall away as he develops to adolescence and maturity? Have I won the foreskin and lost the war?
Simon is Jewish. It is important to me for reasons beyond my grasp. Being Jewish and uncircumcised, Simon is not officially Jewish. His Mother is a shiksa and his penis is treif. What is Simon? Simon is Schmuish. That’s not even funny anymore, if it ever was, not with Simon calling his tushie a heinie. Simon is a heathen. A heathen is an uncivilized or irreligious person, someone who has not heard the word of God and His Bible — my son the barbarian. Simon is an infidel. An infidel is one who opposes Christianity — my son the blasphemer. Christian, Jewish, heathen, infidel — where do all these words come from? What do they mean? Why do I have to open a dictionary to speak my mind? Why does Simon have to follow the Bible to be Jewish? I just want Simon to call his tushie a tushie.
"You got a dirty tushie,” I’d tell Simon, holding him upright while Helena changes his diaper.
"Poop comes out of my heinie,” he replies proudly.
"You got a dirty ass,” Helena says, adding another dimension to my struggle.
Tushie is wounded, battered and in retreat, but not yet defeated. I have all but given up on Simon using Yiddish words to describe his body parts or his state of mind, when a visit from his Grandma initiates the utterance of a word I can’t decipher. It sounds like "I ski mountains.” I ask Simon to repeat himself.
"I ski mountains,” he says.
Looking directly and patiently at me, as if speaking to a child, Simon lifts his hand and points his index finger at me to accentuate each beat. He speaks deliberately, "I … ski … moun … tains.”
Grandma is also speaking in tongues. "I’m Iskymountains,” she says after a long day trying to keep up with Simon.
"What did you just say?”
Oysgematert, which is Yiddish for beyond exhausted. Simon is speaking Yiddish! My uncut boy is more Jewish than I am. He’s talking like a ragman just off the boat, peddling his wares on the Lower East Side. There is continuity. The Jewish line goes on.
Even the battle of Heinie versus Tushie is turning. Heinie’s Waterloo is nursery school. Helena researches the cooperative preschools in the neighborhood. They are all progressive and exclusive, with absurd waiting lists and politically correct requirements. We begin the long process of begging for acceptance, visiting open houses and sending cards praising the schools and inserting a snapshot of Simon lighting the menorah in hopes that we might fulfill their Jewish quota.
Nursery school becomes our new obsession, our religion. Helena begins night classes to fulfill the prerequisite courses necessary to apply for nursing school. She is volunteering at the Los Angeles Free Clinic. Simon is no longer content to observe the other kids at the playground, he now wants to engage with them. He is becoming a social creature. Mommy and Daddy have to pretend to be religious, go to school, work or volunteer to feel a connection to something larger, but not Simon. He just watches a group of older children hitting a tree with sticks and says, "I’m going to play with those kids,” and then he is gone smacking the tree. He is ready for nursery school, ready to leave us to solve our spiritual dilemma alone. There are too many trees out in the world to hit.
Simon is accepted at Hilltop Nursery School. Helena is changing Simon’s dirty diaper, while I hold his hands. Simon looks at me and said, "Poop comes out of my tushie.”
"Tushie, that’s a new one,” Helena says, running a baby wipe up the crack of Simon’s little, round tush. "He must have learned that in nursery school.”
Words are a two-edged sword that unexpectedly cut. Words like marriage. Helena and I still aren’t married. She continues to turn down my proposals. What is marriage but a word? We are more than a word; we are a family. Helena isn’t my wife. I call her my wife because it’s easier in casual conversation than "this woman I knocked up and live with,” but I feel vaguely dishonest when I tell someone she’s my wife. Yet, Helena is my wife as Simon is Jewish, another word I play fast and loose with. Which brings me back to the unresolved question of religion.
Helena and I start going to the Orange Grove Meeting, a weekly gathering of the Religious Society of Quakers in Pasadena. The service is unlike anything I had ever been a part of. The congregation meets quietly for an hour. There is no sermon or minister. People stand and speak when compelled, sharing thoughts both topical and spiritual. The Quakers are involved in community service, which attracts Helena, who defines herself as an atheist. There are even some Jews in attendance. I have my issues, which I admit are personal, such as any time someone mentions Jesus Christ, quotes the New Testament or sings a hymn I want to run for the door. Helena and I volunteer for its Sparklers childcare program, which provides nondenominational spiritual lesson plans for the toddlers during meeting time. Whenever one of those kids says their parents are in church I cringe. “It’s a meeting house,” I correct them. Jesus Christ and Church may only be words, but they land like bricks at my feet erecting a wall that forever separates me from worship. Still, I enjoy my Sundays there. I’m happy to meet other families and watch Simon play with the girls in Sparklers, even if now he claims to like only boys — Mommy and Grandma are exceptions. I can’t say I feel as if I belong, because I can’t say I feel as if I belong anywhere, but I’d like to belong here. Even when I feel uncomfortable hearing people talk of God without sarcasm, I know it’s important to expose my family and myself to that which cannot be explained by rational inquiry. There is something exciting about the inexplicable, and the ability to open oneself to what is beyond reason is not only reasonable, it’s enlightening.
Simon doesn’t sleep through the night. He’s finally left our bed, though still wakes in the dark and crawls in with us before dawn. He needs special care at night, a ritual to prepare him to sleep in his own bed. He loves to have us read him stories, but after the book is closed and the lights are off, Simon needs Mommy or Daddy besides him in bed. He becomes contemplative before giving up the fight for consciousness and drifting off to sleep. One night he says to Helena, "I don’t want to be Jewish.” Helena asks why. "Too many bad things happen to Jews.”
How can a child understand the torments that the Jewish people suffered over five-thousand years? Where did he pick that up? Was he mocked on the playground? Could it have been from television, perpetually tuned to the news? Helena hates the news. It feeds her pessimism. She cites medical studies that suggest watching television is harmful to the developing mind of a toddler. My old friend television is no longer welcome in our home. Who needs its anti-Semitism? But maybe the blame for Simon’s fear is closer to home. Have I sabotaged my son’s Judaism after struggling with it for years simply by spending my Sundays with the Quakers?
"Simon, you know Daddy is Jewish,” I say, "and so are you.”
"No, I’m not. I’m Christian, like Mom.”
"I’m not Christian,” Helena buts in. "I’m an atheist.”
"Grandma is Jewish, Simon.”
Simon thinks for a moment.
"So, what are you?" I ask.
"I’m just Simon,” he says.
I can’t argue with that. He is just Simon, and that’s enough.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
31. LOOSE ENDS
Where was Jean Kennedy? I was now living in Los Angeles, just like her, and a member of a cult, just like her. We had so much catching up to do. I needed to see her. I needed to see her because I no longer could form a mental picture of Jean in my mind. I last saw her over a decade ago, visiting my sister, who had moved West with her newlywed husband now teaching at UCLA. Jean’s art education lead to a career selling lighting fixtures, but she was ambitious and studied waste management. Life was ripe with potential. Jean had a boyfriend and seemed happy. When I flew back East we grew apart by miles and life, but Jean remained a person with whom I would always be close, without awkwardness or hesitation. Yes, we lost touch, but I knew she was there, that I’d see her again, even if I couldn’t remember what she looked like. Then I learned Jean killed herself.
Liz got the news from a mutual friend. I tried to contact her. I needed to hear the news from its source, but never made the connection, and was left only with the knowledge that my friend committed suicide and I couldn’t even remember what she looked like. I’d never see her again. I’d never be able to laugh with her over my crush. I’d never be able to introduce her to Helena, let her hold Simon. And now even my memories of her were dying. I searched out old photos. There were some True Detective-styled pictures I took for a photography class foundation year at Parsons. Jean was menaced by a bulky attacker. She dressed in thrift-store polyester, a Pucci knockoff. Her makeup severe, exaggerating the mock terror in her face. I found an old Polaroid of Jean wearing a black wig teased in a giant bouffant, captioned with indelible marker: "Jean Kennedy, age 20, murderer.” Liz and I had similar mug shots copied from Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. We hung our photos on the wall like the FBI’s most wanted, another Unholy Three. Then no more pictures of Jean for ten years, until one of her dancing at my engagement party. She flew in from California. I had just turned thirty and was about to travel to Canada and marry Kate.
Now I live with the ocean and mountains, the paradise of Los Angeles, beautiful weather and causal living. But something is missing. Jean is missing.
Jean’s not the first of my friends to die. Others swore they’d not live to twenty-one and kept their promise. There were freak accidents, overdoses and AIDS. From my pets to my peers, I am too familiar with funeral services. I’m lucky to have made it with only a busted knee. There is so much waste. Life is delicate and we hammer it into little bits, a pointless, tedious and sad mess. As long as you’re alive there’s hope. Things can change. I stopped being an adolescent by middle age. I’m still growing. I forged a career out of nothing, found a woman I love and who loves me and started a family. I removed myself from New York City to make a new start out West. I even tried to embrace my religion, any religion, to build a moral foundation for my fledgling family, to prevent Simon from being what he is genetically preordained to be: just like his father, lost. I could pull myself out from the ghetto of pornographic publications and into the legitimate world of trade and consumer magazines. I could even resist my natural passivity to end a pathetic marriage, finding true love with Helena. But I failed at the higher calling of religion and God and faith. It’s not that I don’t believe in a higher power, it’s just that I can’t connect with one. He doesn’t answer when I call. Why is Jean dead? What about all my friends taken so young? How about suffering on a grand scale, what’s up with that? I love God, the concept of God, but the reality of religious institutions which house Him, purports to exhibit Him, as if syndicating the ultimate Dear Abby columnist in exchange for my observance of its arcane rituals, well, that doesn’t connect. I feel like a child again, turning my bed into a fort supplied with Sweet Tarts and a pile of comic books. It made me feel secure then, but it wasn’t so good for my teeth. I feel silly keeping up with Spider-Man as an adult. I love Spidy, and I’m happy the friendly neighborhood web-slinger is still swinging through the canyons of Manhattan for those who need him, I just don’t believe in superheroes anymore. Maybe I’ll never find what I’m looking for, and maybe that’s the point.
It’s depressing to look back on a life littered with death. Jean is stuck in time, immature and unable to grow. I try to reach out to her, but there are only severed ties. My dead friends followed the Tyranny of Cool to its logical conclusion. Cool, cooler, coolest: death.
I came close to killing myself plenty of times. When I was a teenager I used to drink and drive like an amusement park ride. I smashed my parent’s car, strangers’ cars and totaled a friend’s car. Then I streamlined my self-destructive behavior with drugs, which cost less than a car and moved faster. I was even hit by a car, but that didn’t stop me from getting wasted at night and roaming Manhattan’s dark streets with sunglasses on. Still, the closest I came to deliberately killing myself was finding Kate and my friend on the roof of our apartment building. Like people who have died and been resuscitated, I felt as if I was floating out of my body. I had to leave; the rage, humiliation and sorrow was too much to deal with, and yet I couldn’t ignore it. I had to extinguish it or be consumed by it. Dealing with reality was not an option. Instead of jumping off the ledge and kissing the concrete, I chose to shut down and die another way.
There is nothing romantic about death. There is no revelation, no sign of God’s will, no transcendence, just a physical experience that extends beyond our mental capacity to comprehend. Death, like life, is too much for the human mind to manage and we feedback with metaphor, simile and other conceits in a feeble attempt to grasp what is forever beyond our reach. Birth also employs the poetic, especially if that poet doesn’t have children. The childless imbues the child as a thing of perfection, beauty and enlightenment. But parents know children are not otherworldly. Quite the opposite, they are a product of this world, wonderfully innocent but selfish and often cruel. Death, like birth, can teach us something. It makes clear that life is for the living. I may have shut down, but I was still alive and over time, difficult as it may have been, I escaped the shackles of coolness, like a modern-day Moses: "Let my coolness go!” Moses died before reaching Canaan, and while I’m uncomfortable with continuing this absurd allusion, perhaps I will never resolve my spiritual dilemma and like Moses not live to see that Promised Land. It’s a prize better to strive for than achieve. Again, maybe that’s the point.
Living in Los Angeles I am constantly reminded of Jean Kennedy and that keeps things in perspective. I live close to the Dresden, a kitsch nightclub where we shared cocktails in a round red-leather booth. The downtown skyline is visible from my front door. Jean lived downtown. When I came to visit her she was staying in a nondescript apartment complex, cars vandalized during the recent Rodney King riots abandoned outside. I looked Jean up in my address book when we arrived in Los Angeles. I thought maybe I’d drive by her place. I wanted to see her street again to jumpstart my memory. Every now and then, cruising a boulevard or passing a storefront, restaurant or bar that looks familiar, I wonder if I was there with Jean. Or are those sites memorable from television or movies or maybe it’s simply a longing for connection to a dead past. I want to pull the two parts of my life together, somehow find that string that ties everything up neatly. Since I never saw Jean’s body, never went to her funeral, can’t talk to her dead parents, never met her family in Chicago, I allow myself the fantasy that she could still be alive. There’s a chance I’ll see some middle-aged, dark-haired Irish beauty with an arty sense of style walking down the street and it’d be Jean. She’d be alive. I’d bring her home and introduce her to my family. It would be like we never parted, we’d pick up right where we left off, except that she is departed, gone, dead, a rotting corpse or scattered ashes. There’s no hope for Jean. There’s no God or religion or faith that can bring her back, redeem the waste of her death. Simon’s penis was just a catalyst, his foreskin like the red cape of a matador fanning my rage towards religion and its answers to unanswerable questions. I love God, just as I love superheroes and good triumphing over evil and the nourishing regularity of routine. Religion I cannot abide. I respect those who worship, who can find worth, comfort and direction in their mythologies. I envy them even, but for me it is just so much storytelling. I like a story with ambiguity, not one that puts a collar around my neck and leads me around like an obedient dog. I wish I could be religious, I really do, but I don’t have the one crucial tool to make it work. Faith. I have faith in my family and loved ones, in Helena, Simon, in the world and people in general. I even have faith in myself, faith in God. I have faith in art, literature and music to enrich me. I have faith in my computer to boot up when I turn it on, faith that my ballpoint pen will flow and fill the blank pages of my journal. I have faith in yoga, my daily exercises that sturdy my bad knee. I have faith in television and movies, faith in DVDs and CDs, to entertain and distract me. I have faith in food, sweets, bread and cheese to fill me. I have faith in diapers, clothing, shoes and sneakers. They all have their place in the great design. I’m skeptical by nature, but not a cynic; I have faith. But I don’t have faith in religion, which brings me to the end of my quest.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
30. ALL ABOARD!
God isn’t invited this Sunday. A year has passed since we started up with deities and synagogues and a desire to become constructive members of the community, any community. In that time we lost God, gave up on synagogues and are more isolated than ever in Los Angeles, with few friends and less relations. Our last gasp at an approximation of observance is the Ethical Society of Santa Monica.
They meet in the basement of the Santa Monica Library, only blocks away from the beach. Deep in the bowels of the library is an auditorium with rows of red-felt chairs and a high stage with a lone podium. There are a dozen people sprinkled around the room, no more than two or three seated together. Simon runs screaming down the steep incline to the stage. Stern heads, chalky faces with gray hair or no hair exposing spotty weathered scalps, turn and stare unsmilingly. The meeting has yet to begin. We take seats. Helena holds her breast like a gun aimed at Simon’s mouth ready to plug it if he let loose with another outburst.
The lecture is entitled "Humanism in Art,” which interests me as an amateur cartoonist. I’d much rather spend a Sunday morning talking culture than reciting moral myths. Ethical Culture may be my religion. Of course I soon realize Ethical Culture is not a religion. There is no God or higher power, nothing even remotely spiritual. It is quite the opposite. Ethical Culture is a society of atheists who believe in an ethical and moral commitment to their fellow man and community. A mousy-looking artist on stage for a half-hour preaches the joys of being a second-generation atheist to a roomful of committed atheists — that is "Humanism in Art.”
The crowd of seniors frequently interrupts, standing and respectfully raising their hands for the young gentlemen at the podium to repeat what he just said. The speaker is getting annoyed. Simon, who has been quietly sucking on Helena’s breast, frees himself from her nipple with a pop and struggles for freedom. Helena takes him upstairs to read some books, leaving me behind. I lean back, stretch my legs and fold my arms, enjoying the brief respite from parenthood, when the man on stage says something that makes me take notice.
"Most people in this country are what I call 'religious hedonists,’ their belief in God is solely to make them feel good.”
I sit up. That’s what I am, a religious hedonist! I am not observant enough for the religious sects, although I respect their beliefs and their rituals fascinate me, and I am too guilt-ridden to be a hedonist, although I enjoy the feast in small bites. But put the two together and that’s a faith with possibilities.
My epiphany is short lived. I could join the Ethical Culture Society and befriend these old radicals in their twilight years. Soon Helena and I would be the only ones attending monthly gatherings, our fellow congregants rotting in their plots. Then, after many lonely years, some curious young couple might surprise us one Sunday in search of meaning, but finally be repelled by the hardness of our hearing. God is dead. His temple lay in ruins. The last straw of community, with which we hoped to forge a foundation to hold Simon and ourselves up with a sense of service, is crumbling. Ethical Culture offers no community. People don’t gather round and sing songs to the absence of God.
We have come to the end of our religious road and find no God, no temple, no community, no religion, no devotion, not even of a homemade variety. I am an atheist in denial, a secular Jew, a religious hedonist, and that is a lonely existence. We want something for Simon to believe in and find nothing. Then Simon shows us the way.
Griffith Park is one of the few natural sites in the fabrication of Los Angeles. It is the largest municipal park in the nation and was donated to the city by Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith in the late Eighteen Hundreds. He wasn’t able to sell the five-square-mile plot because it was cursed. Whatever evil spirits may lurk in its chaparral-covered foothills they don’t meddle with our subcompact, which speeds through the winding roads past pony rides, a merry-go-round, playgrounds, hiking trails, bridle paths, golf courses, the Deco Griffith Observatory, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Travel Town transportation museum and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
Simon adores Griffith Park: the playground with its seesaws, spaceship-shaped jungle gyms and a sandbox larger than the concrete parks in Brooklyn. He chases frightened sheep and collides with indifferent goats at the petting zoo. The "Li’l Buckaroo,” a bed of golden shoestring French fries covered by a soggy frozen pizza served at the Autry Café, is Simon’s manna from Heaven. He can gaze for hours before the glass wall separating him from the roomful of electric trains creeping around miniature white-capped lakes painted on papier-mâché mountain-strewn tabletops inside one of the warehouse spaces at Travel Town railroad museum.
Trains, planes and automobiles, any means of transportation with an engine is an obsession for Simon. In the nature versus nurture debate, Simon falls like a Mack truck on the side of nature. I wouldn’t drive our car for the first three months we lived in Los Angeles, and I suffer motion sickness putting on my seatbelt. Helena has no interest in locomotion of any sort, and despises the car culture of California in which people use their SUVs to take out the trash. Simon discovers the wheel independently of his stationary parents, then another wheel and then three and four, and railroad tracks, and flight on an airfoil. There is no greater spot on earth than Travel Town, a graveyard of rusty steam engines inviting kids to climb all over them. Inside the gift shop is not one but two train tables competing for attention, Thomas the Tank Engine in this corner and Brio in that corner. The cash register strategically placed in the center. Punch-drunk children stagger from one side of the gift shop to the other until they pass out on the nearest train table and wash cattle cars, gondola cars, boxcars, engines, tenders and cabooses with drool, their eyes rolling ecstatically into their skulls. When I reach for Simon to take advantage of his rapturous fit and make good our getaway, he screams. His dull eyes turn fierce, he flails and falls limp to the ground in a stage-one tantrum. As my friend Alan Broadman prophesied back at Sammy’s Noodle House, Simon is exhibiting the Martin Luther King meltdown. I repel in horror, weakly giving in to his demands, and, stepping back, notice several Malcolm X tantrums and a few children in total jihad against their parents trying to forcibly remove them from their precious trains.
Travel Town, with its retired engines rising from the ground like steam-powered Easter Island totems, is only a toe stuck into the waters of bliss for Simon. The full plunge into paradise is Live Steamers. On Sundays, the hobbyists who make up the Live Steamers chapter of Los Angeles open up their clubhouse for all to ride free on the backs of their scale-model collectibles. These men are beefy and bearded yet elegantly straddle their creations puttering over acres of track. Live Steamers isn’t affiliated with Travel Town, in fact there is bad blood between the two sects. These independent train-obsessed practitioners are the embodiment of the western frontier, the last remnants of the pioneer spirit gathering each weekend from their homes in the Valley to tinker with toys. To Simon they are gods.
We park in the dirt lot and cross the befouled horse trail to the entrance of the Live Steamers’ compound. It is our first visit, ten o’clock on another bright and warm Sunday morning. The gates are open and we walk past the metal railings to herd the crowds, but the waiting area is empty. The only people present are members of Live Steamers, and they are either far off inspecting the line or riding their small engines, rollicking around the tracks. It looks like fun. Simon points to a train clicketty-clacketting past us, a trail of bitter smoke wagging like a tail trailing behind it.
I catch the attention of a grizzled man with a bulbous gut that extends over his narrow waistline and defiantly holds its ground a foot and a half in front of him. He wears a floppy straw hat that has a ring of dark grease where it rests on his head. Its brim is blackened by coal smoke. His eyes are blue and clear, his face spotted with patches of coarse white hair that grows without any discernible style. He gives us a friendly smile and tip of the hat.
"We don’t start riding until eleven,” he says, anticipating my question, then quietly enjoys the fine weather and the sharp smell of fuel in the air.
Over the man’s shoulder I can see the scale-model trains, some elevated, being worked on, others chugging around the property. There is a full-sized caboose and several old passenger cars dotting the miniature tracks, a small roundhouse, railroad crossings, ghost towns and ramshackle stations. The rides don’t start for an hour, but I ask if we may look around.
"Nah, they live here.”
I nod, smile and take Simon’s hand. We turn around slowly and follow a horse trail up into the dry foothills and look down over Live Steamers. They live here? Are these train enthusiasts so committed to their project that they have given up all connections to family, friends, community and business to oil their machines and spend their days roving on the backs of their mechanical companions? That takes faith. Simon has no time for our old gods. He is a Futurist in love with modernity, speed and machines. He prays at the altar of Live Steamers.
Every Sunday we make our pilgrimage to his church. We line up with the other parents, compelled to this place of worship by the steely will of their little Futurist children, and pay tribute to the iron gods who expose their great power and glory as they carry us through the Elysian Fields of Live Steamers. We ride through dank tunnels, over the crisscross construction of trestle bridges and past the dinging and flashing red lights of railroad crossings. We are ordered to keep our hands and feet close to our sides and refrain from any photography, as plastic figurines of hobos, prospectors, farm animals and insects stationed in shrubbery, miniature towns and whistle stops patrol the grounds. This is the final stop in our spiritual travels. We are prisoners of a cult.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
29. ROCK OF AGED
Music was my religion. I prayed on bended knees before gatefold albums, seeking knowledge in their cryptic design. My temple was a turntable, records the pulpit where I spun the good word. I first heard the gospel on AM radio. I got goose bumps listening to the testimony of C.W. McCall drawl his epic tale of rebellious truckers, "Convoy." When the renegade tracker-trailers crash through a New Jersey tollbooth — "Let those truckers roll. Ten-four!” — I got chills. That was my first religious experiences, followed by "Monster Mash" by Bobby Fuller, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s "Get Down” and the sweet utopia of "The Candy Man,” swooned by Sammy Davis, Jr. I learned of racial tolerance from Cher’s "Half Bred.” The Charlie Daniels Band repelled Satan in the South when "The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Evil could be vanquished and good triumphant.
Then radio changed. The hedonism of disco was god. My pop popped. Switching to FM only made matters worse. The format may have been free, but deejays programmed music that oppressed me. Songs like "Iron Man” by Black Sabbath were terrifying. The seesawing bent guitar notes that herald the tune, its demonically distorted vocals, it was as if the tinny speakers opened the Gates of Hell. But what did I expect from a band that darkened the day of the Lord. There was overt evil on the airwaves. The more ambiguously titled Led Zepplin, Rush and AC/DC in time also proved enemies. Their likenesses crudely painted on the backs of the jeans- jackets worn by the bullies who beat me up.
I turned away from the wickedness of radio and sought sanctuary in my parent’s record collection. Their tastes ran the gamut from show tunes to classical, but I found oddities that spoke, or sang, to my spiritual hunger. There was a lone Beatles album, probably a present from a swinging friend. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass provided aural immoral pleasures with "Whipped Cream & Other Delights.” "Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane furthered my transcendental quest. Studying liner notes, following sidemen to groups they lead, I sunk deeper into obscure worship. While friends were praising the mysticism of the Electric Light Orchestra, I was alone in my room witnessing the scratchy sermons of Lead Belly. My journey led me into monasticism, the world beyond my wax testaments was false and foreboding. I had no interest in community. It was television that brought me back, television that introduced me to an anarchist and an antichrist.
Before the local news signed off to the network anchor there was the human-interest spot, something soft and fuzzy or funny to end the newscast with a self-satisfied aw shucks or condescending ha-ha. On that fateful night the palette-cleansing segment was on a silly new musical trend out of England, punk rock.
Johnny Rotten leaned on a microphone stand like it was a scepter, but he didn’t look royal in tatters, torn clothes and hair making a mad dash from his bony head. Even on the television, beneath the snide voiceover, I could hear the band’s mammoth sound. They looked like Fagin’s boys and I wanted to be their Oliver Twist. I ignored the smirks on the news team and their condescending remarks. I was off to the record store to buy Never Mind the Bollocks … Here’s the Sex Pistols. I had no idea what that title meant, but it didn’t matter. I was back in the present. There was someplace where I could belong.
Punk rock offered a loser like me entry into a group of losers. It wasn’t much of a community, but it was mine. If I saw an art-damaged freak across the street I knew we would be friends. Instead of carrying a Bible like seminary students, we had band buttons pinned to our ratty lapels and hair unnaturally colored, Doc Martens and standoffish grins. Our experience with the divine shared sweating to a live band in a suffocatingly hot club.
There was no place to stand, and even if you could a shoulder knocked you off your footing. The Clash was arms-length on stage. I bobbed around them on the sea of bodies. I knew ever song they played from wearing out their records, but now heard it live as they shook and sweated and spit like ejaculating erections. I had a hard-on too, metaphorically. This was my illumination, shared with a congregation of slam-dancers whose eyes shined with the same revelation. The power of the music, the damageable volume, the lyrical chant of prayer — it was a religious experience. I left the show born again, saved as no temple could save me.
Misfits who communicated by fanzine and independently produced singles, broke into smaller groups, proclaiming the good word in bands with names like the Swamp Goblyns. That was my first band. I was in art school with Liz who was putting together a group. They didn’t have a drummer, so I was recruited. I never played the drums before. Nobody in the band knew how to play their instruments. It didn’t matter. When the Swamp Goblyns broke up another band took its place and I lugged my heavy kit like a cross from one illegal nightclub to the next. We were outlaws spreading a gospel that nobody wanted to hear.
Punk ran its course, a course that terminated in the malls of angst-ridden suburbia, where it belongs. It became just another pose, if it was ever anything else. The punks that I respected either grew up and moved on or died. I didn’t want to rot in the same old bars. I made up creative reasons for missing a friend’s show at some dive before dawn. Then I stopped even trying to come up with an excuse.
Once again I had lost faith, but not completely. I had my records and I listened to them religiously. It isolated me. I was a pastor without a flock and I missed the music. I missed the perspiration and the odor and the heat of other people who shared my beliefs. My music collection was reborn as compact discs. The sound was clearer, the package smaller. My world had shrunk and digitalized. It broke off into bits and bytes floating in space, apart from the spirit of community that drew me to it in the first place. I want that community back, that sense of belonging, more than I want God or a good beat that I can dance to. I want to hear the music again.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
28. WEAKENED WARRIORS
The road into Griffith Park is decorated with thousands of colorful lights at Christmastime. Drivers are invited to slowly ride through this electric wonderland after sunset. Simon can’t get enough of it. It’s like a menorah, but on an epic scale. Traditional scenes of Santa Claus on his sleigh pulled by reindeer delivering toys to all the good girls and boys of the world are erected next to surfers riding electrical waves of flashing lights, Indians squatting by illuminated teepees, body-builders lifting bright bulb barbells on Muscle Beach and even a jet plane taking off from LAX. Simon is fascinated by the pageantry. "Christmas light!” he shouts spotting a brightly decorated house as we drive home. My family always celebrated Christmas. Once we lit the menorah for Hanukkah, but our cat curiously sniffed the lit candles and burnt her whiskers. That was our last Hanukkah.
Christmas trees never hurt anyone. Simon gets Hanukkah and Santa Claus. That’s the Schmuish way. While I comfortably settle into the quasi-spiritual life of Schmudaism, Helena continues the struggle with faith that originally attracted us to organized religion. Nothing has changed. I am Jewish, as I was before when Helena accused me of not being Jewish. Simon is uncircumcised and Schmuish, with Hanukkah gelt and Christmas presents under a tree strung with glowing lights and dripping with delicate ornaments. I identify my son as Jewish without the burden of going to a synagogue — or even a deli — not keeping kosher or having a stranger cut his penis with a knife.
Being that the Schmuish population of Los Angeles is three, Schmudaism doesn’t offer the sense of community that initially drew us towards devotion. More than God, or the ritual of prayer, or the template for moral life provided by religions, Helena needs to work towards a greater good, especially after watching the World Trade Center crumble to ash from our kitchen window. God was one of the casualties of 9/11. A black cloud rose from the debris after the towers fell and cloaked Lower Manhattan, the stench of burnt jet fuel, molten steel girders and charred bodies drifting over the water and cloaking South Brooklyn like an omen. "Something terrible is going to happen,” Helena predicted. "Something terrible has happened,” I responded. "No," she corrected me. “It’s going to get worse.”
If nobody can hate like Helena, as Tony Millionaire declared, that hate has undergone a transformation since the birth of Simon. Helena’s disdain, her critical eye, her judgmental dismissal of what she deems foolish and pointless, is of another era, a more innocent time. When it’s just you, when your responsibilities stop at the border of your own skin, cynicism is easy. Helena hated because she didn’t care. Her hate was more a caustic humor. But there is nothing remotely funny about the dangers lurking in a post-9/11 world, not for new parents. Helena can no longer cavalierly sneer at life’s risks. It isn’t just her life anymore. Everything she hates — the cruelty and uncertainty of life — is now something to fear because it can strike down her baby. Helena moves from indifference to passionate motherhood, physically tied to the world by the tether of her child. All she can think about is protecting Simon from myriad dangers inherent in the life we gave him.
Helena is reborn. Her newfound spiritual commitment demands change and community involvement, not dusty scripture and a relationship with an absentee God. With her call of a social gospel my beloved Schmuadism is damned, neutered before having an opportunity to be fruitful and multiply. There is no place for silliness in Helena’s new world.
Helena makes me take an online religious quiz, a Belief-O-Matic, as branded by BeliefNet.com. It asks multiple-choice questions.
What is the number and nature of the deity (God, gods, higher power)? Choose one:
Only one God — a corporeal spirit (has a body), supreme, personal God Almighty, the
Only one God — an incorporeal (no body) spirit, supreme, personal God Almighty, the
Multiple personal gods (or goddesses) regarded as facets of one God, and/or as separate gods
The supreme force is the impersonal Ultimate Reality (or life force, ultimate truth,
cosmic order, absolute bliss, universal soul), which resides within and/or beyond all
The supreme existence is both the eternal, impersonal, formless Ultimate Reality, and
personal God (or gods)
No God or supreme force, or not sure, or not important.
None of the above
She finds this site through an atheist link and expects her results to confirm her atheism. However, Helena ranks low for atheism, only about forty percent. Her answers define her mostly as Quaker. Quakerism, like the natty dresser on the cereal box I never buy, is not a spiritual pursuit I expect to evangelistically knock on my door. I take the test and learn that I’m an atheist. That oddly angers her. She is the atheist. I am the Jew, the Schmew, someone who gives lip service to God as long as I can do everything I want to do, like eat pork and keep the Sabbath unholy. I am like the great mass of Americans who pray to a country under God and never set foot in a house of worship. I guess we’re all atheists in denial.
Helena is back on the religious track, less to pray to God than to satisfy the moral obligation that consumes her after Simon’s birth. She seeks a community of like-minded individuals to change the world. We became weekend warriors on a new quest for religious fulfillment, one that not only lays a moral foundation but builds upon it, a calling for social action, actively participating in helping those in need.
The first and most obvious point of entry is the Unitarian church. "Come to get married, stay to worship,” reads the banner on the Unitarian homepage. "I got married by a Unitarian minister,” I remind Helena, "and you saw how well that turned out.”
If Helena can seriously consider the lengthy and complicated process of converting to Judaism, I can spend a couple of hours in a church. But the spirit of Jesus clings to churches like the odor of raw onions and chopped liver did to my Grandpa Fred’s rubbery lips. I cannot bring myself to worship Jesus Christ, a nice Jewish boy with some radical ideas about the relationship between man and God that got him nailed to a cross, but a stranger to me. I believe in playing the cards dealt and mine have a Star of David design on the back with King Solomon leading the face cards. Jesus was my muse as a young scribbler bored in school. I decorated my first apartment with cheap Christian tapestries bought on Fourteenth Street. Jesus was an affectation, an infatuation, but never a serious affair. I am Jewish, Schmuish, whatever. The J word, but I’m not that J word.
My palms are sweating and slipping over the steering wheel as I drive the family downtown to the Unitarian church on Easter Sunday. I’m reminded of forcing myself out of bed to set out for some dead-end job that I hate. I don’t want to do it, but willingly accept my fate. Unlike those miserable days making copies in the mailroom, filling containers with salad at the Red Apple deli counter and working stock at a liquor store, I don’t have to go to church. I have no financial commitment to church. I am scared of church. It is not a place for Jews, Schmews or my family. And yet here I am, on this sunny Easter Sunday, driving my family to a Unitarian church to observe the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Good Friday is a holiday I can celebrate: it’s the day we got Him. That’s a bad joke. Going to Easter services is just a joke.
We park in the church lot, a chain-link fence around a cracked asphalt square, and walk across the street to a decrepit stone building. It is early morning, but loud music blares from dark, open windows down the block. People are lingering on the corner and trash collects in the gutters, festering in the hot, still air. I am shaking, but not because of the bad neighborhood.
The church is of Southwestern design. We enter into a shady and cool courtyard and are greeted by two friendly women. They give us name-tags and prayer books, which I hold awkwardly. In a side room off of the chapel a table is set with coffee and cookies. There are several round tables with empty chairs. I give Simon a cookie, refusing to take the sweet bait. I will not be won over that easy.
The worshippers collect in small clusters like debris orbiting the sun of free food. Homeless men wait for the meal promised after the service. They are dirty and smelly and solitary in their squalor. Equally isolated but cleaner, are a group of elderly men, thin and dressed in worn workmen’s clothes. They are reading communist newsweeklies.
Standing out, as I image we do, is a young, fresh-faced couple. The woman wears an Easter bonnet. They are the only people not working for the church that are smiling. There is also a lesbian couple, middle-aged Spanish women with hard square faces and blocky short bodies. They are speaking to the minister. The minister alone looks as if he belongs. He is tall, reverent, with well-coiffed white hair and a long, ornately embroidered robe that appears to have a cross on it, but the design is so busy that any number of symbols and signs could be excavated from its decorative muddle if need be. If I look hard enough I’m sure I could trace a Star of David, but I don’t want to.
We take seats in the back for a hasty exit. I am not going to bail on Helena, but Simon is likely to find the proceedings boring and vocally protest. The service begins with a candle-lighting prayer. The minister asks if anyone in the congregation wants to come up and light a candle for a sick friend or loved one. A tall man stands up and carefully makes his way down the aisle of metal folding chairs to the pulpit. He is uncomfortably thin, but the free meal isn’t likely the impetus for his visit. He wears a dirty plaid shirt buttoned to the collar, still with plenty of breathing room around his scrawny neck. The shirt is tucked into dirty gray trousers without a belt. Oversized plastic sunglasses cover his regular eyewear and a majority of his long bony face, which is hairless, except at the chin where a gray beard hangs low and looks ironed flat. The freak aesthete turns to the congregation, a long match between his extended fingers. He holds it like a torch before speaking, "I light this candle for the English-speaking, the Spanish-speaking, the Korean-speaking and sign-language-speaking people — may they all get along.” Amen.
Helena leaves me alone in the back of the church when Simon gets antsy. There is a back room where the children play with a wooden Noah’s Ark and menagerie of plastic animals. Someone is reading them stories from the Bible. Nothing approximating religion occurs where I sit. Easter is the topic of the sermon, naturally, but as an emblem of renewal. Poor Jesus is shut out.
And so am I. Freaks, rejects, losers, seekers and bums all impatiently wait until the service is over and the food served. These are my people, a community with which I can connect. The name Jesus Christ is never invoked, but Jesus is lurking between each word and every gesture of the service. I can’t blame Jesus for my discomfort. It is the smell. There is an odor of decay to the church, which is rundown and neglected like buildings of poverty, but the reek is more profound than physical. It comes up from the floorboards and seeps through the walls filling the air with a heavy decrepit aroma that makes me gag. I recognize that scent; it followed me from suburban temples to city synagogues and now across the landmass of the United States to tap me on the shoulder on Easter Sunday, jabbing its malodorous fingers up my nostrils, down my throat, stirring up my stomach acids, making me sick. I have no appetite for the table full of free food after the service. Strangers come to introduce themselves, bend over Simon and tickled his chin. I feel nauseous, religion like an allergen. I want to get back to my nice Schmuish home.
But Schmudaism is just another lie; another stinking pile of garbage that I pretend smells like fresh bagels. Religion is a carcass that only exhibits a sign of life when flogged by
its miserable followers too bereaved to acknowledge its passing. Religion is appealing when I don’t try to be religious, but once I open up those pearly gates, once I try to walk on water, raise the dead or simply turn water into wine and bathe in good spirits, I feel lame, lifeless and dirty. I believe in God, but religion isn’t God. I don’t know what God is. He’s not the cartoon that filled the margins of my schoolbooks, the vengeful ruler of the Bible or the being of love and forgiveness offered by Christianity. He’s not Mohammed or Buddha or the Great Calculator that scared my schoolmate. He might not even exist, but I like to think God does, and so I do. What ego, what chutzpah: God exists because I think He should. Religion exists, but I don’t think I like it very much. Stubbornly I hold firm in the belief that religion can be meaningful as ritualized group therapy, moral compass and helping hand out to the community. It’s just an empty gesture to me.