Tales of My Childhood #6
I tell people I'm Jewish but the truth is this: My mother was Catholic. My father was Jewish. That makes me, technically, Nothing. When they wed, my mother dropped most of her identity as a Catholic and never regretted it. My father was kind of a minimalist Jew. He went to shul on the High Holy Days but few other times. He did not formally belong to any synagogue. He did not hesitate to eat ham or bacon. He spoke about thirty words of Yiddish…but then so did my mother, having picked it up around him and other Evaniers. My mother's brisket and latkes could hold their own against any cooked by a pure, certified-as-Kosher Jewish Mother.
Another truth is this: Religion was not very important in our house. We had one prying neighbor lady who was always asking me questions about my family. Did we dutifully pray before every meal? No prayers were ever uttered in the our home. Did we routinely read The Bible? Nope. My mother had her childhood Bible, more as a keepsake than a reference, but it was almost never opened. Which holidays did we celebrate? Any holiday where you got gifts and/or ate a lot of food.
It all worked fine for us but it bugged the heck out of that lady and certain other onlookers. As I've mentioned here, my parents' mixed marriage was at first frowned-on by friends and relatives on all sides. The rise in acceptance in interracial marriages and now gay marriages shows the world moving in one direction: It doesn't matter who consulting adults marry as long as they're happy. Today, a Jew marrying a Catholic would scarcely elevate any eyebrows. When my parents wed though, it was like — as my father once put it — a penguin was marrying a gopher. (In the penguin-gopher analogy, I never figured out which was the Jew and which was the Catholic. If I had to guess, I'd guess the penguin was the Catholic because it looked more like a nun.)
After a short while, both sides of the family came to accept that Bernie and Dorothy were married and they had this great kid…and that, by God, was that. But there were some lingering resentments and feelings. My immediate family was more Jewish than not and my father's side occasionally asked, ahem, why I wasn't in Hebrew school? Or why I wasn't working towards Bar Mitzvah? The truth was that given the emotions that had surrounded their marriage, my parents didn't want to open old wounds — a wise move but not one that my Aunt Dot and Uncle Aaron could fully endorse.
Aunt Dot (for those of you not taking notes on these articles) was my father's sister. Uncle Aaron was her husband. They were slightly more devout Jews than my father and they feared for my soul or the family lineage or I don't know what they feared for. I think maybe my alienation from a world that expects everyone to have a neat, understandable religious label. "The boy should be something," I heard Aunt Dot say to my father once when they didn't know I could hear. "At least, expose him to it."
They campaigned intermittently and not without results. My father finally agreed and then my mother agreed with my father: Mark would be enrolled in a Sunday-only Hebrew school. I was not there to work towards a Bar Mitzvah; not unless I suddenly was seized by the passion to be a full-fledged Jew and insisted. But I should at least learn what it was all about and make up my own mind. There would also be some move made to expose me to Catholicism so I'd understand that side. Uncle Aaron consulted his rabbi and got a recommendation for a Hebrew school not far from my home.
Immediate Problem: The school had two classes, each of which was held from 10 AM to 2 PM on Sunday morning. One class was for kids aged 7-9. The other was for 10-12. Into which class should 10-year-old Mark go? I was a newcomer to these teachings so obviously, I should go in the Beginner class, right? But that might be embarrassing because I'd be in with the "little kids."
A lot of my classmates at weekday school were in the Advanced class so obviously, I should be in the Advanced class, right? But that might be awkward since in the Advanced class, it was presumed you already knew all the stuff you learned in the Beginner class and I hadn't taken the Beginner class.
There was so much discussion about this topic that they even asked me what I thought. I thought I should not be in Hebrew School at all but if I had to be, I should start in the Advanced class. I figured it would get me out of this ordeal sooner. It was decided that I'd go into the Advanced class and that I'd make a special effort to read certain books that might bring me up to speed.
It was horrible. The Advanced class was taught by a young, angry Israeli man named Avik who took an instant dislike to me and my lack of Jewish purity. I kind of thought of him as an anti-semi-semite. He was fierce and militant about his faith, and quite intolerant of those who did not share his ferocity and militancy. After my first day there, he went to the lady who ran the school and told her I should not be in his class. She responded, "You think he should be in the Beginner class?" and Avik replied, "I think he should not be in this school at all." Well, we agreed on that but not much else.
The principal lady told him he was stuck with me so for the next month or three, he did what he could to make my learning unpleasant. However fast I tried to bone up on what I'd missed, it wasn't fast enough for Avik. The man was filled with rage on a wide variety of subjects and as for his sanity…well, let's just say he was a few Jews short of a minyan. In class, in front of my friends, he'd pepper me with questions he knew damn well I couldn't answer.
At first, I tried responding with a joke but that only made him madder. At times when he began yelling at me, I would just get up and walk out of the classroom. The facility we were in was a nursery school during the week so I'd go out and sit on the edge of the sandbox. I'd just sit there and wait 'til class was over and my father came to take me home. I tried to tell him about The Problem With Avik but he just kept telling me to work a little harder.
"In this world, you've got to learn to get along with people." That was my father's oft-given advice…and good advice it was. But what do you do about people who angrily refuse to be gotten along with?
It got really bad in the portion of class where Avik taught us Yiddish and Hebrew. I happen to have an utter inability to learn any foreign language. You could teach a giraffe to speak Russian before you could teach me. Go ahead. Try it. See how you fare.
In regular school at different times, I studied Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and I think one or two others. The reason I kept changing is that via intense, short-term memorization I was able to get through the tests in each class, after which my mind immediately jettisoned all I'd memorized. So I'd get through Beginning Spanish and then when I passed that and moved on to the next level of Spanish, I wouldn't remember two words of Beginning Spanish…so I'd switch to Beginning French and start all over. I was rotten at all of them and that included Yiddish and Hebrew. Especially Yiddish and Hebrew.
Avik would ask me a question in Yiddish (or Hebrew; I could never tell the difference) and when I couldn't answer him, he'd ask it again, only louder. And then louder and louder. One time as he hit around the fifth level, I said to him, "You seem to be misunderstanding the problem. I can hear you just fine. I just don't know what any of those words mean." He screamed at me and ten seconds later, I was outside sitting on the edge of the sandbox.
There were actually a few decent weeks there because Avik was away — in Israel, of course — and his substitute was a decent guy who didn't loathe me because I did not fit his definition of a good, young Jewish boy. Whatever I did learn well enough to remember, I learned during those weeks. But then Avik returned and it was back to the sandbox for me.
Finally one day, things reached the meltdown level. We were supposed to bring in money to donate to a fund to plant trees in Israel and my parents had given me two dollars for that. I had it in my wallet along with three dollars of my own — three dollars I'd earmarked for the purchase of comic books and my other (brief) passion of the time, Topps baseball cards. Avik came around with an envelope and when I pulled the cash out of my wallet, I pulled out all five dollars, put two in the envelope and started to put the other three back in my wallet. Avik suddenly grabbed my hand with the three bucks. "You are holding out," he said. "Your parents gave you five dollars to donate and you are trying to keep three for yourself." He then snatched the three dollars away from me and jammed it into the envelope.
I told him he was wrong, that my parents had only given me two for the donation, and pointed out how almost everyone else was only giving two. He called me a liar. I told him to go call my parents and they'd verify they'd only given me two dollars for the cause. He said something like, "I don't have to call your parents. I know your kind, passing yourself off as a Jew. You are not a Jew! You will never be a Jew!" Then he said something about how my father could not possibly be a Jew either. If he was, I would have been in the synagogue with him every week and I would have entered Hebrew School when I was younger and would now be two years from being Bar Mitzvahed.
There was more, including nasty words about my mother who had gone no further as a convert to Judaism than learning how to cook a great brisket, but I'd had enough. I charged from the classroom…and this time, I didn't stop at the sandbox. I barged into the office of the principal lady, told her what had happened and that Avik was insane and also that he'd stolen three dollars from me. The woman phoned my parents, verified that I had indeed been given two dollars to donate, and she suggested they come over immediately so this incident could be properly discussed. Then she led me back to the classroom and in front of all the other students, told Avik to give me back my three dollars and apologize.
Avik protested that I was lying. She said, "I spoke to his father. Mark is telling the truth." Avik started screaming what I think were actually curse words in Yiddish or Hebrew. Whatever they were, they were directed at me and my father and even at the school for allowing me in. Then he threw the envelope with the money down, stormed out of the classroom, got into his car and went elsewhere. My classmates cheered me because I'd won. I even got my three dollars back.
The administrators of the school called a hasty meeting to discuss what to do. They weren't certain if Avik had quit but just in case he hadn't, he was fired and I received an official apology from the school, not just for the $3.00 brouhaha but also for the way he'd treated me in general. They urged me to please, please stay in the class and learn with Avik's replacement but by this point, my parents had arrived — at the school and also at the realization that putting me into it was a serious parenting error. My folks left it up to me to stay or leave…and I gave it careful consideration. I thought it over for almost a sixteenth of a second.
That was the end of me and Hebrew School…an experience I never missed. But it was not the end of the story of me and Avik.
Three months later, I was with my mother at a very large Kaiser Health Clinic where she was going for some medical matter. We had an hour to wait so I told her I was going to take a walk around the building. A few corridors later, I happened to notice a man glaring at me and realized it was Avik. He started walking briskly towards me and yelling something, not necessarily in English.
I turned and ran a bit, looked back, saw him still striding purposefully towards me and I ran some more. I finally found a Security Officer and told him a strange man was coming after me. Avik saw me pointing him out to the Security Officer and he turned and fled. And that was the end of the story of me and Avik.
It was also the end of my Jewish indoctrination. Soon after, I received my glimpses into Catholicism. That didn't turn out much better except that I convinced everyone in even less time it was not for me. I'll tell you about that in the next installment in this series. Or maybe the one after.