Hey, Jew, Don’t Make It Bad
Does telling children they’re hated make them mishear lyrics and, eventually, horde Viagra?
CREDIT: Justin Gabbard
A close friend of mine passed away last week. Her name was Lisa, and she had been battling cancer for some time. Her death was not unexpected, least of all by me; I expect death, even when it isn’t expected.
My son didn’t take it as well. He’s 5 years old, and he began having nightmares that very night. He was afraid I was going to die, or that my wife was going to die, or that he was going die.
I needed to ease his worry. I needed to calm his fears. I needed to reassure him that life doesn’t end abruptly, that death doesn’t usually come unexpectedly, that we were all going to live for a very long time.
“I may not be the best person for this job,” I told my wife.
The trouble, of course, is that I believe exactly the opposite to be true. Life, wrote Hobbes, is nasty, brutish, and short. He was optimistic. More often it’s nasty, brutish, and long. And nobody, quite literally, gets out alive. People like to describe birth as beautiful. I’ve been present at two births now, and I’m not sure I agree. Where others see a beautiful, innocent baby entering the world, I see a prisoner being forced into a prison cell, the steel door slamming shut behind him.
“Let me out of here,” he shouts, “I’m innocent!” The brutish guards laugh and walk away. Later, a doctor comes by and removes his foreskin.
This world, I mean.
If anything, I want to apologize to my son for having brought him into this world; now, somehow, I was supposed to reassure him he wasn’t going to be leaving it anytime soon.
“Maybe you could talk to him instead?” I asked my wife.
“I did,” she said. “He needs to hear it from you, as well.”
And so, one morning, after another night of nightmares, I made my son some breakfast, strapped him into his car seat, and drove him to school.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. “I want to talk to you about Lisa.”
* * *
We are born astride a grave, wrote Samuel Beckett, the light gleams an instant, then we have our heads shaved, are forced into cattle cars, crammed into gas chambers, buried in mass graves, and then it’s night once more.
On the top shelf of my bedroom closet, all the way in the back, I have a bottle of Viagra. I don’t have erectile dysfunction; I have a mother who is a second-generation survivor.
It’s not quite as dramatic as that—her father, my grandfather, was shipped out of Poland by his parents before he could be shipped into any death camps. He did, though, lose most of his family, and I was told the stories. All of them. The Brothers Grimm were never so grim. The horror stories didn’t end at home. The official policy of my elementary-school yeshiva was that television is the tool of the Evil Inclination; but when NBC aired a nine-and-a-half-hour miniseries called Holocaust, viewing was mandatory.
“Can it happen here?” I asked my mother after Hour Nine.
By the way: fuck you, James Woods. I’ve wanted to say that for a long time.
“Of course,” she said. “To be a Jew is to be hated.”
This made me a very nervous child. When non-Jews befriended me, I silently wondered if they would hide me in their attics or report me to the authorities. Every ordinary frustration—every movie that opened on Friday night, every store that closed just as we arrived—I attributed to classic Jew hatred.
You know why Nabisco puts gelatin in their food?
You know why Miami Vice is on Friday night?
Don Johnson hates Jews.
I even misheard lyrics, finding anti-Semitism where there was none. Bob Marley? Nazi:
“Old pirates, yes, those rabbis,
sold us to the merchant ships. ”
Sure, Bob, blame the Jews for slavery.
Ray Charles? Nazi:
“Everybody was Jewish, you could bet your soul,
They did the boogie-woogie with a study roll.”
Study roll? Is that a Torah? Asshole.
“Flash is fast, flash is cool,
Francois sez fas, Flashe no Jews.”
I didn’t know what “Flashe” was, but whatever it was, it was fun, and Jews were clearly restricted.
Perhaps that’s why now, 30 years later, I’m writing this genocide book, a book that laughs at those who commit genocides as well at those who seem to revel in the memory of them. At those who victimize, as well as at those who would be lost without their victimization. Maybe telling children that they’re hated isn’t the best way to raise healthy children. The telling is clearly not for the child’s benefit. They grow up expecting death. They grow up anticipating hate. They grow up without Bob Marley. And they grow up not knowing what to tell their own children about being Jewish or about being hated. Or about death.
Which brings me back, finally, to the bottle of Viagra on the top shelf of my closet. I’m no idiot. I’ve seen the Holocaust movies. I’ve heard the stories. Prisoners buying food with cigarettes, trading Marlboros for bread, Camels for soup, Gauloises for freedom. So when I got the email a few months back—“50 Generic Viagra for $40, No Prescription Needed,” I thought, what the hell. Nobody smokes anymore. Next Holocaust, you want out? You want bread? Trust me—dick pills. There’s also a half-a-pack of Camel Lights back there. Like the lottery says, “Hey, you never know. But you know a genocide is coming.”
* * *
“You see, buddy,” I said, “we all, you know, we kind of knew that Lisa was, you know, going to die.”
“And that’s the way, you see, that, I mean, when people die.”
He was eating a blueberry muffin. He seemed OK. Maybe he didn’t care anymore. Maybe he was over it. What was my role here? What could I possibly tell him? How could I explain death and mortality and the cruelty of existence to a child? Cancer? You think cancer’s bad, kid? Cancer’s nothing compared to mankind.
“Well, you see, people don’t just die.”
“No. Not usually. Lisa was sick for a long time. We knew she was going to die. But I’m not sick. And Mommy’s not sick. And me and you and Mommy and your little brother are all going to live a very long time, and nobody is going to bother us and nothing bad is going to happen. OK?”
Ohhhhh. Lying. That’s my role.
That I can do.
“Does that help, buddy?”
“You know what, Dad?”
“What is it, buddy?”
“I think I like the chocolate muffins better.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”
How becoming a father drove me away from Judaism—and my daughters into the Episcopal Church