Delivered at Peace Voices 2016, recognizing the voices of Greenville, South Carolina.
I was born from a womb of confusion.
An American Jew. A Jewish American?
I can never get it straight.
We were poor Jews.
Five people in two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen, and a living room.
I slept with my apnea-snoring grandmother until I went off to college.
A Beatles-crazed only child of an off-the-boat family.
I was born into English at school, Yiddish at home.
Hebrew National hotdogs.
Never Oscar Mayer.
Talmud by day. Chaucer by night.
Holy days surrounded by thick-accented relatives,
Who pinched cheeks and adulated me as the first fruit of Columbus’s paradise.
They wept over family that was marched off to gas chambers and crematoria.
Shuddering with guilt over what more they might have done to save them.
My grandfather spent every penny ransoming relatives from Hitler’s grasp.
He was a well-dressed, shiny-shoed womanizer.
My Uncle Joe. He married frigid Aunt Rhoda.
My Uncle Joe. The only one who ever took me to a ballgame.
(The Sox, remember, won the pennant in ’59.)
My Uncle Joe. He traveled from Gary just to entertain me,
Until the day he embezzled too much from the IRS.
My Aunt Minnie. Succeeded in the diamond trade, but never was lucky in love.
My Aunt Minnie. Family whispered that she never got over losing my dad to my mom,
So she played Scrabble with him, instead.
My Aunt Minnie. I suspected her of being strange.
My Aunt Minnie. She hated dogs.
My Aunt Minnie. We named our puppy in her memory, Minnie.
I was fathered by a flag-flying army colonel.
Everything by the numbers, everything empirical, everything perfect.
My father, the seat of intellect.
He won first prizes for me by doing my science projects and essays.
Once, he even wrote me a great paper on Silas Marner.
“Daddy, what if someone found out?”
“Nonsense,” he would answer.
My father, the arbiter of culture.
He impassively changed the channel
Just as the Beatles debuted on Ed Sullivan.
We watched Lawrence Welk.
I was born to a Jewish mother.
Smothered me with love,
Then threatened to withdraw it every time I stepped out of her line.
Forbade me from making friends with kids she thought were dangerous.
Later on, she did it with girls, too.
I dated clandestinely.
I lost my virginity on my wedding night.
I spent a lot of time alone and lonely.
I was born to a mother who spoke in euphemisms.
Women were never “homely.” They were “handsome.”
Men were not “gay.” They were “special friends.”
And masturbation, if it ever came up, was delicately called “relieving yourself.”
I was a castrado.
Every day mother was tormented by my live-in grandmother.
Mother once beat me for saying that I didn’t love the mean old lady.
But, mother smiled, spoke sweetly, and took it for thirty years,
Then exploded in wrath the day after the old lady died.
I was born to a mother who defended the faith.
Despite eight years in seminary, I don’t claim to do it any better.
Her kitchen was the bastion of faith,
Where food was a final defense against assimilation.
“Beware of the things that goyim eat,” she would say.
They are all “spoiled.”
Fried chicken – spoiled.
Wonder Bread – spoiled.
Cream gravy – spoiled
Rare steak – spoiled.
Grits – spoiled.
Barbecued anything – spoiled.
Chinese – OK. It’s a Jewish thing.
My mother suffered from Xenofoodia.
It was her legacy to me.
Finally unfettered, I cook and eat as I please.
But, if you find me OD’ed on rare roast beef, don’t blame it on my mother.
She paid her dues.
She defended the faith.
Now I am suddenly an old man, more decades behind me than in front,
And I have yet to figure out the oxymorons and confusions of a muddled and befuddled coming-of-age.
O, could I only be fourteen again, eat something that wasn’t spoiled,
Listen unimpeded to the Beatles,
And contemplate my imminent redemption.
WILUDI, AKA Marc Howard Wilson, is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org