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Balancing Self with Religion Advice

Written by Jon Sindell

A tale of balancing who you are with trying to fit into the "in-crowd." Here's a story about a kid, his religion family and friends and guilt.

 "The word itself is an inkblot test.

So tell me, Dan: what do you think of when you hear the word Jew?" "I think, a hundred bucks an hour for free association? Uh oh, there's the look! James' patented, 'cut out the bullshit and look into my all-knowing eyes' look!  And there's the raised eyebrow! Man, I am getting the works today!"

James grinned just enough to acknowledge that I saw myself as a funnyman, but not enough to let me think I'd disarmed him.

"The word, Dan?"

"'Say the word, and you'll be free! Say the word and be like me!'"

"The Beatles," James sighed.

I was truly a pill, with my wise guy ways and copywriter's tongue.

"Now say it out loud."

 "I'm a Jew and I'm proud!"

"Good, Dan. But tell me: doyou say it out loud? At a restaurant, for instance?"

I fell into his gaze. "No," I confessed. "I lower my voice."

He measured a nod. "So tell me: what are the things that make you so proud?"

"Israel ... Albert Einstein ... Groucho Marx. And of course Sandy Koufax, possibly the greatest pitcher in baseball history, a point I'd argue in any bar in the land. "I sat up on the edge of the couch. "Did you know Paul Newman's half-Jewish?"

"I didn't; interesting. Now I want you to take a deep breath and go deeper."

"He said like Charlton Heston as Moses."

He grinned, merry-wise. "Touché, I'm a Gentile. Now go deeper, Dan."

"He said like Darth Vader." The clock's ticking hand seemed to stick in anticipation of my reply. "Shame. And betrayal. Man, that light's surrounding your head like an aura."

"We were talking about you. And football, and Jews, and why you didn't play football in high school."

"Man, it's like a confessional in here. You really should be back in the priesthood, James. Here I sit, dizzy and high on a Yom Kippur fast, and church bells are ringing in my ears!"

"I prefer the eye contact in this line of work."

"OK ... fine.But if you're gonna do your psychic bloodhound thing, I'm gonna do my patient-on-the-couch thing and stare at the ceiling 'cause I do not need your Eyes of The Ages to keep me honest.

Did you know you've got eyes like my daughter's? Six years old, and I couldn't fool her for a second. Man, she's a trip. Every word out of her mouth is Jew this, Jew that. Last Hanukkah, it wasn't enough I got a menorah and presents for the first time ever, she was all, 'Dad, let's make latkes! Dad, let's play dreidel!' And at school, every other kid makes five-pointed stars, but with her it's always the Star Of David! And it's everywhere, man! On her artwork, on her notebook, on the sidewalk in front of our house. And her mom's Episcopalian!"

"Football, Dan?"

"He sighed like Job." My head was floating like a football hanging against a blue sky. "Why didn't I make the team? Because Sammy Dershowitz was my cousin, and my dad was a con man. Listening?"

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"It's what I do best."

Which was true. It was how he got me talking so much. Ever since I was small, I've seen silence as a vacuum to be filled, like the silence at our dinner table. If I could just make my parents laugh, I felt, for the moment, at least, that everything would be all right.

"I was 13 years old, the age a religious Jewish boy 'becomes a man.' For the kids on my block, though, who were all Jewish-lite, 'becoming a man' meant cramming a few Hebrew phrases into your head for a few months, and having a bash at the Sportsman's Lodge. And even that was beyond my family's Jewishness, which basically meant bagels and lox on Sundays. That was Dad's only nod at being a Jew.

Watch this video on determining who you want to be.

 

"The neighborhood I grew up in was an assimilating Jewish neighborhood of L.A. south of the Borscht Belt, which was Old Country all the way. Smelly delis, Hasidim in black coats and fur hats, wrinkled old people with funny accents.

The kids I grew up with were regular kids, and good athletes, too. I was a decent jock, just decent, unfortunately, because being great in sports was all I wanted. My whole identity was tied up in sports. And it sure would have helped me through high school. Too many zits and too little confidence for girls, dun esk, as Grandpa would say.

"Unfortunately, I couldn't play the guitar worth beans, either. That was Harry Kahn's way out of Nerdville. All those years growing up, while me and the other guys on the block were playing baseball and football and rooftop ditch, Harry was holed up in his room, learning guitar. And when he finally came out, in time for junior high, he was the cool one, not us. And man, that little country boy could play! But I digress.

"My folks got divorced a few months after my 13th birthday. As if that wasn't groovy enough, my mom and brother and I had to move down to Long Beach." A girl outside was biking into the wind, pumping her legs like pistons. "Dad had rigged a raffle on a TV set. Oy, gevalt. You know, you must be a brilliant headshrinker, James, 'cause I grew up hatingYiddish though not when my grandparents spoke it.

But they were from Russia; what was Mom's excuse? I cringed when she spoke it. And so did my dad. Once, at the park, she was taking his picture with some people nearby. She made some little remark about his schnozz probably an affectionate comment, even and all the way home, he's scolding her. Like, 'You sound like a Jew from the ghetto!' and so on. Jesus. Anyway.

What a year the eighth grade was. I was the new kid in town, literally, and everyone in school knew each other already. It was waytoo brutal for words. I sat in back, ate in shadows, and dragged my ass back home to listen to Cream in my room. Finally, the last month of school, I made a couple of friends through after-school football.

One of them was this jock, Brad Saunders, who lived on my block. A big, tough blond kid, and an absolute monster at football. His dad was a frustrated ex-jock, and he'd ride Brad like a mule. We used to call Brad 'Butkus' for Dick Butkus, the linebacker, but sometimes we'd call him 'Butt-Kiss'and pucker our lips. He could kick your ass, but he'd just stand there smiling. A very cool guy.

"We were all gonna try out for the football team in the fall. Brad was a cinch, but he wanted us all to make it. So he decided we'd practice all summer. We practiced in the streets, in the park, on the beach ... and that led to other fun stuff: riding bikes, hanging out. I wasn't A-list, but at least I was in. They even took me to Melanie Baker's swim party. What's this got to do with my cousin?

"Growing up in the old neighborhood, my cousin Sammy, 'Little Sammy Dershowitz,' as the big kids on the block always called him, was the neighborhood nerd, worse by far than Harry Kahn. Sammy's family were Orthodox Jews, but they might as well have been from Mars. True, we were almost all Jews in the 'hood, but everyone else was a Hebrew Anglo Saxon Protestant.

And that Sammy was something. His skin was so pale from staying indoors, you could see the blue of his veins. I'd call him 'Roquefort,' and he'd stick his tongue out and say, 'Oh, wow, a French word from the boy who flunked Spanish.' And he always had that damned yarmulke on. I mean, why not just wear a sign that said Jew?

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"Sammy was Aunt Esther's kid, my Mom's big sister. Mom always made me go over to Sammy's house, 'cause she and Aunt Esther had this brilliant notion that Sammy and I should be friends. It was worse than that, they thought we were friends.

Mom was always saying, 'But you like Cousin Sammy,' and I'd say, 'You're trippin', Mom!' Which, Mom being Mom, it took two hours to convince her that I didn't know what a 'trip' was, and that I wasn't on drugs. So off I'd go to Sammy's house.

"It was like another world over there. It was always dark, since they always kept the curtains closed. Sammy's father lost family in the Holocaust, but his mother, Sammy's grandma, survived, because a Hungarian farmer hid her in his barn. But she hated opened windows, and the curtains at Sammy's were always closed. And there was serious, dark wooden furniture everywhere, and thick carpets, and thick air. Even the smells from the kitchen were thick, like Aunt Esther's brisket of beef and sweet cabbage. They had this beautiful mahogany cabinet with all their Sabbath stuff in it, blue and white china and silver goblets, and a silver pitcher engraved with Hebrew letters.

Sammy's mom was compulsive about cleaning. You couldn't even tell kids lived there. I'd go over there and have nothing to do, and I'd sit on the sofa while Sammy's little sister, Sara, played violin. She was something, a true prodigy. I'd stare with my mouth wide open while she riffed on Tchaikovsky, and she'd catch me gawking and give me this superior little 'I'm musical, and you're not' smirk. OK, I provoked her. Like, 'Hey, Cousin Sara, play Purple Haze!' So I'd just sit there, bored out of my skull, flipping through my baseball cards and waiting for a chance to go home.

Of course, Sammy didn't have any cards. Though, yeah, he actually did show a little interest once or twice, looking over my shoulder like I was handling a rare jewel, which was totally annoying 'cause he didn't know a home run from a French fry. He'd make some inane remark about how nice the team's uniforms were, or whether the photograph was set up well, then his dad would walk by and ask if I was studying Hebrew.

That was absurd and totally gratuitous, 'cause he knew damned well we weren't religious, which he'd never fail to remind my dad when he caught him washing our car on the Sabbath. But he'd ask every time, and every time he'd give me this pitying smile when I'd say 'No.'

"Finally, I'd get so bored sitting there, I'd even start playing with Sammy. And the funny thing was, he played like a regular kid. That just blew me away. We'd run around playing cowboys and Indians, and I'd corner him and move in for the kill. Then his dad would come over, and sit us down and tell us about David and Goliath or something. Man, he alwaysbrought it back to religion! A physicist, too.

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"Which brings us to back to my 13th summer, the summer after eighth grade. Everyone in my new neighborhood was a Wasp, and I mean Wasp-Wasp, not a Jewish Wasp like where I grew up. Aunt Esther would come by to visit her little sister, my Mom, every weekend.

Mom was having a hard time with the move and the divorce, and me and my brother acting out. Aunt Esther would bring a load of food, like her brisket of beef and sweet cabbage, and a box of homemade sugar cookies. And of course she'd bring Sammy, 'cause she and Mom were still under the insane delusion that Sammy and I were friends.

"So this one day, about a week before high school was gonna start, we were out in the street playing football: Brad Saunders, this huge mouth-breathing guy Mark Patterson, and a few other guys who were gonna try out for the team. I was keeping my mouth shut, like always, when Aunt Esther pulled up in her dorky little Plymouth. Then Mom got the brilliant idea of sending Sammy out to play with us. As if we were still 10. As if it didn't matter who saw him.>

"And Sammy didn't like it any better than me. He walked out toward us with his head turned sideways, like he wanted his body to go on and leave his head behind; his legs were so loose, he looked like a mime walking into the wind. Of course he was wearing his Coke bottle glasses and yarmulke, and his supercilious grin, maybe slackened a bit. When he finally got out there, he looked at me, lost, and I looked at the ground and mumbled something about this being 'Sam,' not 'Sammy',  and certainly not 'my cousin Sammy.'

So Mark Patterson narrows his eyes, which are just slits in his beefy face to begin with, and says to Sammy, 'Hey, what's with the beanie?' like it's some great joke. And Sammy just says, 'It's a yarmulke.' Just like that! Like it's just the most natural thing in the world. Like, 'Hello, I've got a contagious disease. And how are you?'

"So we choose up sides, and Sammy's on my team. What a joke. He goes out for a pass, with his arms and legs flying all around, and stands there like an idiot waiting for the ball which, of course, bounces right off his chest! And I'm dyingof shame. Brad rifles it in there again, and the ball hits Sammy in the gut and knocks the wind out of him. He doubles over, sucking air, and the guys are in stitches and I'm laughing, too. Which Sammy sees.

A little bit later my team has the ball, and now I drop a pass. So now it's Sammy's turn. 'Nice play!' he yells at me. 'Klutz!' I mean, it's not bad enough he rubs it in, he has to do it in Yiddish! So the rest of the game, Mark Patterson keeps calling me 'klutz' every chance he gets. Funnyguy.

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"So the team with me and Sammy gets creamed. Then Brad decides we have to mix things up to make the game fair, and he makes Sammy switch sides with a guy who can play. Now I'm up against Sammy. I go out for a pass, and Sammy's backpedaling like a stork on speed.

And he's guarding me close, really sticking on me, as if he gives a damn about football. Brad throws me a pass, and Sammy gets lucky and bats it away. Then he starts doing this goofy little stork dance, smirking at me like he would when I'd say something dumb about physics.

"So I go out again. Sammy comes running up to guard me, and his yarmulke falls off  and he actually stops to pick it up! You'd have thought he'd dropped the Hope Diamond! Brad zips the ball to me, and I catch it unguarded and run for the touchdown. And Sammy's teammates are pissed. Brad slaps me five and says, 'We should give the game ball to the Jewboy!' It didn't sound that bad when he said it except, he had this gleam in his eye. So I lowered my eyes and said 'Yeah.'

"Now they have the ball, and I'm guarding Sammy. They have to get to the next lamppost for a first down, and I'm giving him room, because if by some miracle he catches the ball, I can run up and stop him before he gets to the lamppost. Sammy goes out and turns around, and by some miracle, he doescatch the ball.

I come barreling in as he turns to run. I'm supposed to just touch him, that's why it's called touch. But I don't. I keep charging full speed and bury my shoulder right in his chest. His head snaps back and his glasses go flying, and you can hear his bones break when his arm hits the street.

"I'd never heard howling like that in my life. His mom comes tearing out of the house wailing like a banshee. I'm waiting to see how she's gonna look at me, but she just tears past like I don't even exist. But my mom's looking at me from the porch, standing in the shadows like a doll deflating. 'Cause she knows me. She knows. And that's the end of my football career. Three days later she ships me cross-country to live with my uncle."

"Take a deep breath, Dan."

"And do you know what I was doing, man, when my cousin Sammy was lying there on the ground, howling? I was standing there yelling, "Learn how to take a fall, man! Learn how to take a fall!"

"Shhh," James hushed. "Take a deep breath. Very good. And another."

I looked at him through blurry eyes.

"You've been holding that in a long time."

The light through the window was intensely white, like some filmmaker's version of the waiting room between life and death. My head rose above me like a disembodied Chagall fiddler } like a fiddler on the roof!

"Do you know much about Yom Kippur, James? It's about atonement in a major way. To really do it right, you're supposed to go to everyone you've wronged in the past year and tell them you're sorry."

"And you're planning to atone?" 

I stared at the wall, seeing nothing.

"Where is Sammy now?"

"Here in town, living with his parents in the house he grew up in. With his Orthodox wife and two kids: Abe and Solly."

 James returned my grin. "When's the last time you saw your cousin?"

 "In the emergency room. Mom wanted to be sure I'd see him like that."

 "I'm sorry, Dan. Our time is up."

I lingered at the doorway, but James eased me out with a definitive touch on the elbow. The waiting room was like church, full of aching people exchanging guilty glances. I walked downstairs on shaky legs. The mahogany banister was reassuring, like the solemn wooden furniture in Sammy's house.

I opened the door to the white autumn light. Hot dog wrappers and coffee cups swirled at my feet. My stomach growled; I liked the pain. Jesus was a Jew. Press a thorny crown upon my head.

I slid behind the wheel. My 6-year-old angel wanted to fast. And she'd beg for permission. I told her kids are exempted from fasting. The next day, she told her mom she was 'exempted' from setting the table because she had so much homework. But at dinnertime, she realized she didn't need our permission. She just crossed her arms and refused to eat. I begged her. "Please, darling. Just one little bite." Finally, she agreed to terms: a single mouthful of each dish on her plate.

The car drove me along. "How many roads must a man walk down?" Dylan was a Jew; an ex-Jew, that is. Would it hurt so much if he'd just stayed a Jew? That mocking smile of Sammy's dad. Why couldn't he let me be a regular kid? A plain old, regular American boy? But, noooo. That pitying smile when I'd show my ignorance of the Torah  like Sara's mocking smile when I'd stare as she played violin like a goddess. Couldn't she cut me some slack? Why was it up to me to be the strong one, when she was the one with music and a strong, loving family behind those drawn curtains?

The car turned onto the familiar street. If I'm not for myself, who will be? If I'm only for myself, what am I? Twenty years I'd spent building walls, and adding to my armor: nice wife, great daughter, good job, decent pay but I would walk naked into Sammy's house.

----

 Jon Sindell is the author of the unpublished novel Head Trips, from which Sammy's House is adapted.  For the record, he is a baseball man.

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