Balancing Self with Religion Advice - View of Silence

Written by Jon Sindell

"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.

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"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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