May 24, 2013
When Jewish Upon a Star
Posted on Dec 2, 2011
By Mr. Fish
Back in the summer of 1982 I asked my mother if we had any Jewish ancestors. She was making a grilled cheese sandwich using Velveeta, Land O’Lakes butter and Wonder bread at the time, the question no less crazy than if I’d asked an Eskimo if he had a surfing gene. I was probably wearing the yarmulke that my high school art teacher, Mr. Applebaum, had given to me and holding “Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle” by Simeon J. Maslin, which I’d gotten for Christmas.
“Not by blood,” she said, “but definitely by punch line.” Then she told the parable of Benjamin J. Holtzhacker and the Captive Audience.
When my mother was in the second grade back in 1951, her teacher took some time before winter break to go around the room and ask her students to take turns naming a favorite holiday tradition that they enjoyed with their families. This was in early December and the classroom was done up gaily in silver tinsel and pipe cleaner candy canes and cardboard Santas. Little Billy loved watching a model train circle the base of his Christmas tree while blowing real smoke. Margo felt like a Yuletide queen sitting atop her father’s shoulders while her family caroled with members of their church congregation through the center of town. “How are Christmas trees and black men alike?” asked my mother when it was her turn, momentarily freezing the forward momentum of the class activity.
“I beg your pardon?” said her teacher, trying to fit the non sequitur into a nonexistent slot in her head.
“How are Christmas trees and black men alike?” asked my mother for a second time, her face as bright as a freshly halved onion. Nobody said a word. “They both have colored balls!” shouted my mother, turning to wink at Benjamin J. Holtzhacker who had told her the joke and was hiding his head in the back row. My grandmother was promptly telephoned and my mother was sent home as if she’d suddenly come down with communism and was in danger of infecting the entire school population.
Then, in mid-September of 1982, the Israeli army surrounded the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and made it impossible for anybody to leave. Then it gave the green light to the Christian Lebanese Phalangists to enter the camps at night and, beneath the incandescent light cast from a thousand Israeli flares, to massacre upward of 3,000 people inside. Then I decided, for the sake of saving mine and Moses’ and Sid Caesar’s and Lenny Bruce’s and Mort Sahl’s and Noam Chomsky’s and Susan Sontag’s and Gloria Steinem’s and Naomi Klein’s and Sarah Silverman’s people from succumbing to the derogation of a negative stereotype, that the State of Israel and the spiritual integrity of Judaism were two completely different things.
“You don’t look 21,” said Derek, as I was about to get on the train bound for New York, just as the breeze blew back my hair revealing that I’d shaved my hairline back 2 inches from my forehead. “You don’t look any older—you look like somebody who’s lost a bet!”
“It’s a comedy club,” I said, reassuring him, “it’ll be too dark to see how old I am.”
“You’ll be standing in a fucking spotlight, you jackass!” he reminded me, making me recall a quote by Mark Twain.
If God had meant for us to be naked, we’d have been born that way.
Three hours later, I took the stage, squinting hard beneath a light bright enough to suggest interrogation, and did my best to assimilate into the questionable murkiness of my own intentions to find and hold an audience captive.
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