If only my father had had the courage to throw back his leonine, Talmudic head in what the goyim, the ethical goyim, would call a frenzy of legalistic rage, point his forefinger out the door, and say unto me with the ossified implacability of all the ages, “Avek fun mayn tir, depart this house, you jazz singer, you,” while my mother sat weeping in the corner, smashing every Yossele Rosenblatt 78 in his cantorial record collection;
If only a shelfful of Talmud had caved in upon me one day, leaving my goyisher kop forever addled;
If only Tradition had barfed me forth onto the dry sands of Western civilization, I could have grown up into a big shot, a contender: a stammering, nattering, chest-pulling Jewish intellectual with nothing on my mind but social justice and yellow-pubed shiksas, the hero of a thousand novels.
But on account of my sins, on account of my sins I was pulled out of the dress rehearsal for the Major C.H. Douglas Collegiate Institute Christmas and New Year’s Gala, participation compulsory if you wanted to pass music, just as I was stepping into the spotlight. Blacked up like a pair of Passover shoes, a derby hat clutched to the heart of my red vest, my payes tucked up inside a curly wig, I was in the middle of the chorus, the solo chorus of “I Want A Girl (Just Like the Girl),” when into the gym comes Khaim Mes, the president of the burial society, hopping and twitching and flapping his arms, ignoring the screams of the teacher to run right up and grab me in full sight of twenty-five other giggling minstrels.
“A mission of mercy,” he yelled to the teacher, then motioned me down so he could whisper in my ear. I was just gone thirteen, so addicted to pimples and hard-ons that my glands lacked the strength for growing, but Khaim barely came up to my shoulders. I shook my head. I knew what he wanted—the shul was one man short of a minyan—but for once I was helpless: I’d davened at home, and this rehearsal was life or death.
Khaim was getting ready to cry. They were all Christians here, especially the teacher. An educated man, reads notes and shpilt piano—the back of the hand, the front of the boot, wouldn’t do. Khaim was wringing his hands, his dentures en pointe at the end of his tongue, while Mr. Dee, the teacher, tapped his baton and cleared his throat like a teacher. Khaim waved him off and sucked his teeth back in. He was desperate. He looked me up and down like an Orchard Street tailor, leaned forward and yanked a handful of shirt from the waist of my pin-striped pants, tugging at it with both hands until the pressure reached my neck and I had to bow before the buttons popped off.
This was my chance. Khaim had relaxed his grip and was making with his tongue like I’d just offered bare tit. I snapped to attention, Khaim’s tongue cut a stripe through my burnt cork and greasepaint. He still hadn’t uttered a word, and I smirked down as if to ask, “Whatcha gonna do about it, Jewboy?” preening myself on my regular guyness until I noticed my right front tsitse, one of those ritual fringes that I was sick of explaining, lying flush against a pinstripe, like an arrow in the eyes of the uncircumcised.
The teacher was silent. He was the nervous type, his nose had started to bleed. Even the kids weren’t laughing. Khaim was too agitated, and also too old, and most of their parents owed him money. It was up to me.
I took a giant step forward, the better to distance myself from Khaim and the chorus, pulled my stomach in, my shoulders way back, started twirling the fringe like a zoot-suit watch chain, and burst, triumphantly, into “Got the World on a String.” What with the laughter and applause—all guaranteed, 100 percent spontaneous—I knew I’d arrived where I was meant to be, and I don’t mean a high school gym. Fuck high school. By this time next year I’d be the toast of Broadway, the chocolate-covered matzoh of my people’s aspirations. Mere coincidence that I, too, was the son of a cantor? That I, too, was starting out in blackface? That I’d seen The Jolson Story seventeen times? Vus far a tsifal, a kavincidents? Every Chanukah and Dominion Day, whether you liked it or not—and who couldn’t like it? It was good for the Jews; whether you’d seen it or not—and who hadn’t seen it? Who was it, wasn’t going to shul, wouldn’t give a couple of bucks to help support our institutions? Every summertime and winter, whether we were suffering from hay fever or catarrh: special, one-night-only, charity’ll save you from death, THE JOLSON STORY, in our air-conditioned, newly renovated—didn’t Khaim bring some chairs from his furniture store? And old Mrs. Grynszpan with the homemade ceramic ashtrays?—Community Center! vivat, zul lebn, it’s a jolly good cellar—the basement part of the shul, right next to the mikve used only by my parents and Khaim’s wife, Shmiley’s mother, and the dead (Monday and Friday, men; Tuesday and Thursday, women and dishes; corpses on demand): The Jolson Story and a second great hit, all proceeds to the synagogue and Israeli orphans. The Jolson Story and Sword in the Desert. The Jolson Story and Yankel der Shmid. The Jolson Story and Grine Felder, that classic of rustic yidishkayt whose author once lived in Calgary and had even married a local girl in 1919. Twice a year, every year, since I don’t know when—it’s no wonder I was already farJolsont in gantsn.
And by the time I hit “I’m in love,” the last line of the chorus, I realized that I was: with showbiz and lights and the unquestioning approbation of people I didn’t like, with myself out-front and my destiny. I was paralyzed with exultation. The kids were all clapping, Khaim’s face was covered with tears, even the teacher was shooting me a thumbs-up with the hand that wasn’t pinching his nose. By them it was practically the Second Coming, but what did they know? My personal Promised Land lay yonder, garbed as a cowgirl in the girls’ gym, practicing “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”
Since I walked into her house right after she moved down from Calgary—she was one of the new Jewish girls Shmiley took me to meet—and saw her standing in the kitchen in white knee socks, her hair pulled back, eating Cheez treyfene Whiz straight from the jar and smiling shyly to meet me—bits of Cheez Whiz clinging piously to her braces—from that second on, the rest of my life was nothing but commentary. The Lord was my shepherd, my father was my father, but Sabina Mandelbroit was It, a Jewish girl with the brains of Einstein and the breasts of Phryne. My bowels were stirred and refused to come to rest. Pustules conquered my cheeks; I suffered from strange upset stomachs. An afflatus rose within me, fueled by the Song of Songs: “Your braces are like a mirror of Solomon, no chewing gum has dulled their surface.” I would have left father and mother to get to her, I would’ve given God a rain check. To win the heart of Sabina Mandelbroit, I would have bitten off my tongue, passed it through the fire to Moloch, and sent the ashes to Father Divine.
Jolson rescued me within a week. I must have walked by her house six hundred and thirteen times already, pretending not to see her, when Sabina came out on the second of July, the day after we’d watched The Jolson Story from opposite ends of the same room, and asked if I was walking maybe downtown. It was all I could do to grunt. All I can remember is getting down on one knee in the soda shop next to Louie Yankelovitch’s movie theater—I was drinking water from a take-out cup—and gazing over the top of a tulip glass into the glorious face of Sabina Mandelbroit herself. “There’s only one way to tell you how I feel,” I said, and I gave her the chorus to “Banks of the Wabash”—the only part they sing in the movie—then stood up and announced, “My name is Asa Yoelson and I love you. I sing with my father in the synagogue.… Oy, the synagogue!” and out I ran, like Asa from the burlesque house, throwing a whole dollar bill at the table, not even looking to see where it landed. What if she was laughing ’cause I looked like a jerk? I groaned under Yankelovitch’s marquee, pretending to chain-smoke for almost twenty minutes. Finally she came out, limping a little and without her knee socks. She took my hand. She spoke. “They made me clean up the puddle, you bastard.”
Her sister put out for Shmiley—“Hairy tits,” he told me—and they never spoke again, but Sabina and I were in love; we used to smooch on the weekends, when her parents went to Calgary for cultural pursuits. They were in Calgary and we were in the basement, just the two of us and her father’s Dylan Thomas records. I wouldn’t turn off the lights or touch the record player; God, it was a sin already to listen shabbes, but I knew I was just as guilty as she was. She’d, uh, take off her blouse if I let her wear my yarmulke. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, quid pro quo or something out of nothing? I don’t know. All I know is we were in each other’s arms, half-clothed and dreaming, her breasts cupped under my hands, my payes atwirl in her fingers, arguing about whether my father had killed Dylan Thomas in his goddamned Brooks Brothers prayer shawl.
O God, the way the Cheez Whiz used to cleave to her braces. She had to brush her teeth if she wanted a kiss. Boyfriend or no boyfriend, treyf was still treyf and I wasn’t going into that mouth until she hauled out the Listerine and made with the shvenk, because everything that lives is holy, but some of it still isn’t kosher.
Yisgadal ve-yiskadash. I was getting ready to sit shiva for at least half my virginity, when heavier than usual flurries kept Sabina’s parents from the Calgary Cultural Judaism Association’s annual Music Is Music pre-Chanukah event: highlights from Wagner’s Ring-cycle in Yiddish, just to show how big we could be.
Forget about sexual frenzy, it was the sidelock stuck in Sabina’s braces and Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light. We didn’t hear the car pull up or the house door open. Sabina’s knee socks were balled up in the middle of the floor; I’d opened my shirt to reveal a fringed, ritual undergarment, and we were trying to see whether Sabina could use my skullcap for a brassiere cup. Sabina’s parents were both psychiatrists, and by the time they finished laughing there was nothing left inside my pants but a wilting, weeping willow sapling of shame. Light a yortsayt lamp for rebels who have failed? I was smart enough to relish the chance to get caught.…
So I sighed there in the gym’s imaginary spotlight, amid the laughter and applause, the nudging, murmured acknowledgments that maybe I wasn’t such a crankshaft after all. I stood there and sighed, trying to recall some Psalm of Thanksgiving for all the goodly benefactions of God and His Jolie, when Khaim Mes took advantage of the quiet and ran up to me again, pulled my head down by the ear, pressed his temple to my cheek and shouted up into my eyeballs. “Your father, in the shul, dead.” I was so well trained, I didn’t even blink. It came out like the air from a punctured tire. “Borukh dayan emes, blessed be the true judge.” Then I went cold. There were black lines around everything, like in stained glass windows. Khaim caught me by the sleeve and we dragged off home.
Copyright © 2010, 2014 by Michael Wex