I was struck by a thunderbolt yesterday afternoon. The shock of realization was brought on by my reading of yet another online diary entry that conjured up the tired and trite image of the ‘nice Jewish’ upbringing that evidently every American who has immigrated to Israel was blessed to have experienced. The collective American Jewish memory is comprised of flash backs to bonfires at Jewish summer camps, sneaking cigarettes at Hebrew schools, making Jewish friends, dating Jewish girls and being entertained by cool, young, sandal-wearing Rabbis.
This nice, clean, sanitized reality is about as foreign to me as a Catholic Mass. The omnipresent “community” has the most stringent standards for acceptance. I am but the son of a rabble rousing, professionally eclectic, father and a beautiful, funny but not elegantly educated mother. As such, my Jewish passport was never stamped. And my family lived a slightly cracked life – off the Jewish map.
And so it went. Somehow, we managed to be-bop our way through, just the six of us. At some point, we rambled into Cliffside Park, New Jersey for a spell. While my siblings and I never entered the pearly gates of the Bergen County J.C.C., we made the most of our time swimming for the Paramus Red Waves.
One of our coaches, tickled by the site of a Jewish kid on his swim team, proudly reminded me that Mark Spitz was too a Red Sea Pedestrian (my term, not his). I excelled in freestyle, tolerated butterfly, banged my head doing backstroke flip turns and swam in circles while struggling with breast stroke – being pigeon-toed may have worked for Jackie Robinson but it did nothing for my form.
My folks did an admirable job scouting out this rather charming borough, whose notable residents have included singer Gloria Gaynor, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, Grammy-winning rapper Remy Ma and figure skater Oksana Baiul.
Still, Cliffside Park was at the time overwhelmingly Roman Catholic – as was Public School #4, where I endured for three years. While the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County was providing the next generation with a solid foundation in Jewish values, I was fighting my way through the hallowed halls of 279 Columbia Avenue.
My curriculum included in-class fist fights with a lazy-eyed Jehovah’s Witness. Extracurricular activities featured taking on a gang of snarling 8th graders, sons of longshoremen one and all. While this rag tag horde had the necessary malevolence to bully the meek, pale, slight, Jewish kid in their midst, they needed a good C.E.O. to streamline their operation. Not surprisingly, then, the leader of this coterie of mostly Italian ruffians was a guy by the name of Matthew Israel.
It was there and then that my dad taught me to assume the stance, flick a jab, unload a right cross, keep my arms up and to, most importantly, “knee him in the nuts!” Most of my juvenile skirmishes ended in draws, with one visit to the police station thrown in for good measure. For a guy with a funny name from a land far away with bad posture who wore coke-bottle glasses I held my own admirably. I never got used to the sick feeling that came with the realization that I was about to have to defend myself. Still, learning to not let anyone tread on me is a lesson that I’ve taken with me everywhere ever since.
Life where the Jewish GPS transmits no signal wasn’t all bad. At around the same time that I kicked a guy named Frank in the balls, I fell in love with a classmate named Franca. I vaguely recollect that her father owned and ran a pizza place in the neighborhood. While time ravages some memories into vagueness, I can confidently state with utmost clarity that any verbal interactions I had with her were strained, awkward and brief.
I also made a couple of good friends along the way, Adrienne and Mike. I used to sleep over at Adrienne’s quite regularly. I can still recall on Sunday mornings, when Adrienne was in Sunday School, his mother taking me along with her on errands. While most of her interactions with the local shopkeepers were in Italian, I always got the distinct impression that she warmly regarded me as a bit of novelty: a kid her son’s age whose parents didn’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Over the next few years I would wander back onto the Jewish map, join congregations, take Jewish Studies courses, make Jewish friends and date Jewish women. Still, while I was increasingly among my co-religionists, I wasn’t of them. I just couldn’t quite tune in to the American Jewish zeitgeist. Woody Allen playing the neurotic, insecure, intellectual, fretful nebbish is funny and often times hilarious. In real life, associating for too long with too many nervous, self-obsessed types proved to be mentally taxing, emotionally draining and generally boring.
And so I continued a family tradition by embarking on just one more journey. Aerosmith once sang that “Life’s a Journey, Not a Destination”. True enough. Still, another lyric from another band better sums up my tempestuous, contradictory yet all together healthy relationship with Israel and its good and gracious citizens:
“I’ll never lose affection
for people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
in my life, I’ll love you more.”