My mother was a hillbilly from Tennessee by way of Indiana, my father was and is a Jew from Schenectady, N.Y. I’m not sure I’d have known I’d be forever split between gentile and Jew had they not divorced when I was 2 years old. Thereafter I was a Jew on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other weekend, and my mother’s the rest of the week. Jew days in my father’s apartment, across the river from my mother’s house in Scotia, near Schenectady, meant Spaghettios, kosher salami on Triscuits, and, on holidays, chopped liver at my Aunt Roslyn’s. It seems to me now that the rest of the time we went to the movies, although I can only remember two, Excalibur and Hair.
My goyishe mother also took us to the movies. She found a job baking cookies and brownies for a concession stand at our town’s movie theater, rehabilitated by a band of hippies who didn’t want to peddle corporate candy. My fourth summer, while my mother baked, I played in the theater. On the sunniest of days I sat in the dark eating warm cookies and watching reverently as the hippies threaded the two movies they owned through the projector, over and over: Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Harold and Maude. This constitutes my early Jewish education.
I was a pale child. Nobody cut my hair, so I went off to kindergarten like a little chubby Ramone, hidden behind a thick brown curtain that hung down to my eyes in front and my shoulders in back. The other kids asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I refused to answer. Around December I tried to explain my complicated yet-clearly-superior holiday situation. While the other kids would receive presents only on Christmas, I’d be getting gifts for nine days (Hannukah plus December 25), although, given the Tuesday/Thursday schedule, several of those days would have to be crammed into a few evenings, between Spaghettios and R-rated movies.
This was a lot for my classmates to absorb. My hair was unkempt and my clothes were dirty (I insisted on sleeping in them), and my mother sometimes dropped me off at school in a belching rusty blue Plymouth that looked like a rotten blueberry. So obviously I was poor, maybe even poorer they were. But nine days of presents? Was I a liar? Were my parents thieves?
My parents provided another conceptual dilemma. There were a few kids whose fathers had simply left, but at the time not a single one of my 25 classmates had parents who split them, mothers on Monday with whom they watched Little House on the Prairie and fathers on Tuesday with whom they watched The Paper Chase.
Plus, I was “Jewish.”
Or so I claimed. For the fall of my first year of schooling this ancestry provided me with minor celebrity, until it came time for Christmas vacation. On one of the last days of school that December, Mrs. Augusta asked a student to volunteer to explain Christmas. A girl named Heather shot her hand up and told us about the baby Jesus and Santa Claus while the rest of us stewed, since this was an answer we all knew, and we wanted Mrs. Augusta to love us. When she asked if anyone could explain the Jewish holiday of Hannukah, I raised my hand and she smiled, since the question, of course, had been meant for me alone. I stood. “On Hanukkah,” I declared, “I get extra presents.”
Mrs. Augusta kept smiling. “Why?” she asked.
“Yes,” she said, “and what does that mean?”
“What does what mean?”
I had never heard of “Judaism.”
My classmates, until that day free of that ancient sentiment that, I’d later learn, had prompted whispers and unhappiness when my Jew-father had moved onto Washington Road, began to giggle.
Mrs. Augusta tried to help. “What else do you do on Hannukah?”she asked.
I beamed. I knew this one: “I eat gelt and chopped liver!”
Giggles grew into guffaws, as kids parrotted me, special emphasis on gelt. It was a stupid word they had never heard before. “Gelt.” “Gult.” “Ga!”
Oh, Mrs. Augusta! She tried.
“Now, now. Doesn’t anyone have a question for Jeffrey?” Silence. “About being Jewish?”
Bob Hunt raised his hand. This would not be good. The rumor was that he had actually flunked kindergarten, so this was his second time through, and he was older, dangerous. For Halloween he’d been Gene Simmons, of KISS. If only I had known then what I know now about the American-Jewish tradition of “Who’s a Jew?,” a campy little game that is, in truth, a self-defense training maneuver intended to prepare you for encounters with goyish hostiles such as Bob Hunt. Who’s a Jew? Gene Simmons, for one. Han Solo, Fonzie, yer mother.
Bob’s question: “Yo. Sharlet. What’s gelt?”
“Gold coins?” I tried.
“Jewish people eat gold?” (And thus the endless cycle of anti-Semitism keeps on turning.)
“I mean, chocolate?”
Mrs. Augusta frowned. She had expected Maccabees and dreidels. Instead she was getting gelt, which she had never heard of. I was making a mockery of “Judaism.” “Which is it?” she asked. “Chocolate or gold? It has to be one or the other, Jeffrey. It can’t be both, can it?”
How to say that it can?
Like this: “It—it comes in a golden net,” I said.
“I think he means candy,” Mrs. Augusta fake-whispered to the class, winning their laughter.
I sat down. Mrs. Augusta decided to smooth things over with a song, “Jingle Bells.”
Bob Hunt leaned toward me, fake-whispering just like our teacher: “Candy-ass.”
I didn’t know what this meant, but it was clearly two things at once, and not good at all. Thereafter I resolved to be halfsies. I could not be fully both Jeffrey and Jew, chocolate and gold. If anyone asked, I decided, I was half-Jewish, on my father’s side, and he didn’t live with us anymore.
Reprinted from Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between by Jeff Sharlet. Copyright 2011 by Jeff Sharlet. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.