Outside my cloistered yeshiva, I found a new social order and a friend who, unlike me, was trusting enough to submit to someone else’s authority
The first time we hypnotized Norman, we made his body stiff like a board. We lifted his head while his feet were on the ground. Then we lifted his feet while his head was on the ground. Then we hung him between two wooden chairs, with his head resting on one, and his heels on the other.
We were just following orders. There was a general acknowledgement among us ninth-graders that we walked in the shadow of Joe Bower’s genius, and so we did as we were told. As a recent yeshiva refugee, I knew authority when I faced it. But Joe Bower—a tall boy with a thin brown mustache, a digital watch with a calculator, and an unnerving air of quiet competence—was compellingly different from the rabbis who had populated my life until then.
In the early days of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud thought hypnosis was the key to his patients’ unconscious. But he was a mediocre hypnotist, and often his patients would look up at him after his strenuous attempts to subdue them and, wide awake, shrug sheepishly.
Joe Bower had no such problem. When he turned to hypnosis, Joe’s only challenge was finding a volunteer, and really all he had to do was ask. Norman, sweet-natured stoner and irrepressible pontificator, stepped forward.
In Joe Bower’s stuffy attic we lit the candle and switched off the light. We settled into a tight circle, Norman and Joe facing one another, the O’Bannon twins and me rounding out the space between them. Joe’s resonant voice filled the room.
“All right Norman, I want you to relax,” Joe said. By the time Joe counted backward from 10, Norman—quietly sitting, all bushy brown hair, zits, and peach-fuzz—was gone.
The first time Joe did this, the O’Bannons and I sat stunned, looking at each other. Surely Norman was pretending. Surely he and Joe had planned this in advance. But Joe was no joker, and Norman, with first his left, then his right wrist attached to imaginary helium balloons, was too earnest to fake it so thoroughly.
The giddy exhilaration I felt when I realized that Norman, arms floating above his head, strawberry rolling paper still peeking out of his shirt pocket, was not with us anymore—that he was entirely under Joe’s sway and would do his bidding no matter how ridiculous—this exhilaration was deeply flecked with relief.
I was in the midst of a rocky transition from yeshiva to public high school. Desperate to enter the broader world that I encountered nightly on TV, I had spent my last full year at yeshiva tearfully lobbying until my parents’ resolve to cloister me away there finally broke. We made a pact doomed to failure: no swine, no shiksehs, no Friday-night football games.
The day before school began, three black-suited rabbis visited our small living room. Rabbi Mayer, the yeshiva’s headmaster, brought the two newest members of the faculty, young bearded men who sat awkwardly on our piano bench—site, through the years, of monumental battles with my parents over my resistance to practice. The men came to entice and cajole, to convince me that this would be the most exciting year yet at yeshiva, and to certify that the fate of the Jews depended on my decision. I nodded obligingly, but it was clear their power had faded. The more their mouths moved, the more desperate they seemed, making the pitch to an inwardly defiant and mostly uncomprehending adolescent. I emerged from the meeting absolutely in control of my destiny.
This feeling lasted one day. Then I was lost amid my new school’s confusing sway. Yeshiva hadn’t prepared me for the rigorous social demands of public school, the uniquely distorted hierarchies, the ceaseless, awkward flirtations, the ebb and flow of a social world not shadowed by Talmudic debate.
How much nicer it was to self-hypnotize during afternoons at home, to lose myself in the fantasy of miraculous transformation that characterized so many of the TV heroes about whom I obsessed: Steve Austin, a man barely alive, was given bionic strength after a horrible aeronautic accident; in The Incredible Hulk one had only to make David Banner a little angry and he’d quickly turn into a bright green Lou Ferrigno; and most impressively, somehow Henry Winkler, a short, slender Jewish fellow, for a time had us all convinced that he was a seductive Italian street tough.
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, but in Israel cancer patients have appropriated the tradition to celebrate beating the disease