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Jab, Jab, Hook, Hook

A New Yorker finds his inner Jew

by
Dan Klores
July 02, 2024

Kurt Hoffman

Kurt Hoffman

The first time I denied being Jewish was more than 60 years ago, walking to the PS 225 schoolyard in Brighton Beach. Recently bar mitzvahed, anything but “a man,” I was confronted by a bearded rabbi, who ran out of the tiny corner synagogue searching to close his minyan for an afternoon prayer session. “Sonny, sonny, you Jewish?” I paused, a sign of some combination of respect and fear. “Come inside,” he pointed. “We need to pray, we need a minyan.”

My calculations were rifle quick. I could finish the three-block walk to practice my layups or sit in a shul with old men speaking a language I couldn’t understand. Later, we would call such a dilemma, a “no-brainer.” “No,” I shot back, already on the move, “I’m not Jewish”—a bald-faced lie to a rabbi.

This was the beginning of what would become a lifetime of pondering two questions: Could I be a good Jew and pay no attention to any of the religious aspects? What even is a “good Jew”?

During my first year of Hebrew school, age 10, it was obvious that the moreh didn’t appreciate my humor. After I placed two Spaldeens inside my T-shirt and yelled “titties,” he smacked me with his ruler. Later, he forced me to swallow my Topps baseball card chewing gum by twisting my tongue to the point of gagging.

Revenge would soon be sweet. I joined a pack of older nonbelievers, hiding behind parked cars across the street, firing snowballs at his head when he finished for the day, starting his walk to the subway El. Following my first semester, I majored in playing hooky for the next three years. Instead, I’d go to the afternoon center to play ball. One day, Murray Weiss, the new kid from Israel, accidentally broke my two front teeth. Arriving home with a face covered in blood resembling my favorite middleweight, Carmen Basilio, I was forced to explain to my parents why I hadn’t been studying the Hebrew alphabet. The entire next year, I ingeniously soaked my report cards in warm water to write over my failing grades and forge my father’s signature.

I was soon to be paid back. Yahweh seemingly had enough.

In December 1962, two weeks before my bar mitzvah, the rabbi, joined by the kinder hazan, called me and my parents into a closetlike office for an emergency meeting to deliver devastating news: They had, for the past six months, given me the wrong haftorah to study. Victim to the rare “two Saturdays during Hanukkah rule,” I had to start from scratch. My folks were annoyingly reverential; I was furious.

With the clock ticking, fury and panic caused a fever of 103. I somehow made it through, well enough to serve up my own version of payback yet again. At the nighttime party, my parents’ 30-something friends dry-humped on the dance floor to a third-string Herb Sherry band. Mikey Kaplan, the 16-year-old public school crazy from my building, who had been left back so many times he was in my class, had other thoughts. He locked the moreh in the basement, then lit up cigars for the rest of us sitting on the dais, puffing away as if Red Auerbach was defeating Wilt in the playoffs.

Don’t get me wrong. There were some parts of the rituals I liked. I couldn’t wait for my grandmother’s Shabbos dinners. She’d slip me a shot of Seagram’s in my Coca-Cola to wash down her kasha varnishkes, latkes, and baked apples.

Grandma shared another ritual with her sole-surviving son, my father Al—a WWIl vet of lwo Jima and Okinawa, who then sold pots and pans door to door in “the colored neighborhoods.” They shared a strong belief in the following script.

Daddy: “You can’t let them get away with calling you a name.”

Grandma: “They all hate us.”

Daddy: “Punch ’em first, jab, jab, hook, hook!”

The first time I heard it, I was in shock. “They ‘all’ hate us? Grandma, are you sure? What about my friends from Second Street Park, Tony Ciarmello and Jimmy McQuade? What about Bernadette Guadabasso, who I just played ‘seven minutes in heaven’ with? What about my blood brother, Butchie Riken, the son of Pete, the super up the block?”

“What did you say?” she snapped.

“My blood brother. Butchie and I pricked our fingers, rubbed our blood together and then later that night even prayed, on our knees, to the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

“What!” she screamed.

Jab, jab, hook, hook. This time, a real smack across my head from Grandma Molly, who then pleaded: “Don’t ever tell your father. He’ll have a heart attack.”

Even before that hit, I did have a sense that I might have crossed a line. My allegiance to Jesus as my God didn’t feel quite right. It was the next year, though, during the autumn of Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Mazeroski’s World Series homerun to stun the Yankees, when the unspoken walls began to crumble.

It was then that I learned that not only weren’t we the majority; we were nothing, according to the census. Jews were less than 2% of the global population. This earth-shattering fact first took hold when Barbra Grey, blond and blue-eyed, quiet, who sat next to me in my fourth-grade class, announced she wasn’t Jewish or Catholic, but Protestant, a big word I had never heard.

Grandma: “They’re the most.”

Daddy: “They hate us, jab, jab, hook, hook.”

The lessons and chatter about Judaism, pride, Israel, and the Nazis were constant. I rooted as hard for the Israelis to win the 1956 war, glued to the morning TV news, as I did for Duke and Gil Hodges to hit one out.

Daddy: “Look what they’ve built out of a desert.”

Grandma: “The Arabs couldn’t do this.”

Daddy: “Israel must survive. Jab, jab, hook, hook.”

The sadness and stigma of the camps were omnipresent. The numbers as neighbors, shopkeepers, the old men and women sitting on the boardwalk, with winter blankets over their laps, hoping for sunlight in the eyes, listening to soothing waves of the silent ocean, understanding what only they could, words such as “forgive and forget” an impossible affront to their souls.

And then in 1967, I arrived in South Carolina, having never been on an airplane before, a Jewish star from Grandma around my neck. I was to register as an undergrad at the University of South Carolina, the only college that accepted me, my addiction to hooky having continued in high school, resulting in grades ranging from 0 to 40 my senior year. It was there that I learned that so many of the generalizations, stereotypes, and ignorance weren’t all myths.

“You a Jew?”

“What’s a Jew?”

“You a religion or a nationality?”

“You’re a dirty Jew!”

Jab, jab, hook, hook.

“Only a Jew would shuffle a deck of cards like that.”

Jab, Jab, hook, hook.

I’d win ’em all, except the time my antisemitic redneck taunter didn’t stay down after my first two punches, got on top of me in the parking lot outside my favorite dingy bar, and started to choke me. I could feel my face turn blue and was gasping for air, saved only when an old friend, the first Black guy ever to play for the Gamecocks, pulled him off me. In spite of having a sore Adam’s apple for a few weeks, I didn’t feel so bad—since I had knocked out his front teeth.

After flunking out of college, I went into the Army Reserves, active duty at Fort Dix in 1970. I was not exactly “built for rules and regulations”: night watch, fire watch, kitchen duty, the rifle range. The drill sergeant, Dennis St. John, a returning Vietnam veteran, instantaneously spotted my “poor attitude.” Due to a clerical error, which he, this western Pennsylvania hero, defended, the badge on all my uniforms misspelled my last name, and I would be forever known as KLOBES. He would have a field day with this mistake. They may have taken the “R” away from me, but they, from the brass down, had no legal choice but to allow me, one of only two Jews in the company of 300, to attend Shabbos services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings—an escape I relished to catch up on my sleep.

Drill Sgt St. John: “Klobes, you want to go to Jew services on Friday nights, you better run your Jew ass off!”

ME: “Yes, Drill Sgt, yes, Drill Sgt.”

And run I did: seven-mile force marches through the Jersey swamps, four days per week with 37 pounds of equipment on my back, an M-16 strapped over my shoulder.

Drill Sgt St. John: “Klobes, you Jew bastard. I’m going to make you suffer.”

ME: “Yes, Drill Sgt. Yes, Drill Sgt. Yes, Drill Sgt.”

Then, one day, I had a private one-on-one meeting with the base rabbi.

ME: “Rabbi, I can’t take it anymore.”

RABBI: “There is nothing I can do.”

ME (to myself): STRIKE ONE.

I was back in South Carolina during the summer of 1972, rooming with two rugby-playing towheads, one, the son of a German neo-fascist lifelong Congressman from the Cleveland suburbs, the other, the great- or great-great-grandson of Rutherford B. Hayes. One supported Nixon, the other George Wallace. “So, Danny,” Cleveland posed, “l just heard about six million. Is it true?” This was the summer of the Munich massacre.

Five years later, while metamorphosing into a serious-minded graduate student, I was writing my first book, Roundball Culture: South Carolina Basketball. I did a taped interview with a key member of the U.S. Olympic team, the squad that had been robbed of the gold medal against the Russians, and he told me, explicitly, “The next day, after all the Israelis were murdered, one of our assistant coaches blandly offered, ‘What’s the difference, it’s only 12 less Jews?!’”

I chose not to use that quote. I was too young and gutless. This coach went on to be the head man at a major NYC-based Catholic college before spending years as an assistant to an NBA championship team. He’s dead now. I still have the tape of my interview.

Things started turning around. In the mid to late 1970s, while in graduate school for American history, where I received all A’s (OK, one B), I took a job teaching college-level history to U.S. Navy personnel aboard a nuclear missile destroyer traveling the Mediterranean. I was single. When the ship would hit port, I traveled to Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, etc., never Israel. Called a “dirty Jew” by a rotund chief petty officer in the mess, I trounced him with combinations. They transferred me to another ship.

This is when I began to wonder about settlements, about Arab families uprooted, young Israeli soldiers pulling Arab fathers, grandfathers, mothers from their cars at border crossings. Of course, the murderous actions of Arafat and others made me sick, but I still found myself asking, quietly: Was Israel’s creation in 1948 a bold and necessary idea, but shortsighted in some ways? Would there be a better idea for my people in the years to come? Could there be a Gandhi-like leader? Was peace possible? Could Jews feel safe in a ‘two-state solution’?”

And the questions weren’t only about Israel. In 1980, my aunt—50 years old, riddled with cancer—lay hours from death in a small room at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn. Her husband had abandoned her, and her 18-year-old son moved in with my parents. My father and I sat at her side, her face gray, her breathing a struggle. An Orthodox rabbi walked into the room, offering to say a prayer. My father, recognizing the old man was a peddler, answered “No, no, not now.” The rabbi sneered, “it’s Jews like you that ruined the Temple.” This, from a guy, supposedly on the same team! I wanted to smack him, but instead shouted, “get the fuck out of here.”

ME: (to myself) STRIKE TWO

Soon after, I would get it together and enter the workforce, move back to the city and launch my first business in crisis communications, marketing, and PR. I quickly became “a success,” representing legendary institutions, businesses, and individuals. My company was thriving.

I got married, to a Jewish girl. Abbe was raised by parents who took part in the High Holiday rituals, more for their own social standing than for their Judaic beliefs. They bought “tickets” to Temple Emanuel—a far cry from the tiny shuls of Brighton Beach. When our first son was almost 3, Abbe felt, as did many other Upper East Side moms, her family’s synagogue would be the ideal place for Jake’s nursery school. I shrugged and agreed, a bit tired of her sudden interest that we, as a family with a baby now, had to adopt a more “religious” life. I also failed to start making the obligatory calls to the influentials to get Jake admitted early enough.

Thankfully, fate intervened. On an early Friday morning, I got a phone call at home, from then-Gov. George Pataki, offering to help. At first, I thought it was a joke. I had never spoken to him in my life. And I’d been a lifelong Democrat as early as I could remember. The Stevenson-Kefauver headquarters had been on the corner of my block on Brighton’s 7th Street. And one of my closest friends was Andrew Cuomo, who had just thrown his own hat into the gubernatorial ring, running his campaign from my offices. Pataki had heard about my family dilemma from a mutual friend, the lawyer/power broker Eddie Hayes.

ME: “Well sure, Governor, you’re so kind, but you know I am a Democrat.”

GOVERNOR: “l know, but I hear you’re a great guy, and the rabbi is a good friend of mine.”

ME: “Governor, let me tell you, if Jake gets in, I’m still going to do all I can to get Andrew elected, but I’m voting for you.” We laughed.

He called back five minutes later with the bad news.

GOVERNOR: “Dan, I spoke to the rabbi and confidentially he told me that Jake didn’t do well on his interview.”

There would be no admission to the kindergarten.

ME: (STRIKE THREE)

The sting of this message wasn’t all bad once the hurt subsided. But Abbe was enraged. She wrote the man of God directly, firing off a scathing letter—after which she freed me, in fact all of our growing family, from any more Jewish rituals. Jake ended up at the JCC on the West Side, our three boys all got bar mitzvahed, the services at our home. But we had no further conversations about the holidays, Shabbos, Yom Kippur break fast, contributions, donations, lectures, congregations.

Still, I never disconnected entirely. In the mid-1980s, I represented the intellectual and moral giant Elie Wiesel, who had been shunned from the Nobel Peace Prize. A few years later, I brought the courageous Russian dissident Natan Sharansky, freed from his nine-year imprisonment inside a Soviet gulag, to a joint session of Congress.

But when I was asked by a friend, a deputy mayor under Giuliani who was a mover and shaker in the Jewish communities, if I would meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in New York, things took a different turn. He made it clear his primary mission in America had nothing to do with the image of Israel, but was instead about raising money from the Jewish community. The whole meeting was, to put it bluntly, a turnoff.

Sept. 11 renewed my pride in being an American. I watched the Towers fall at home with Josh Isay, formerly Sen. Chuck Schumer’s chief. From that day on, a decal of the American flag brags on my car window, and my right hand proudly covers my heart when the national anthem plays. My three sons all do the same prior to every basketball game in which they competed, from childhood through the Ivy Leagues.

Two years later, as the world permanently changed for the worse, after the lies of WMDs were exposed, and the suicide bombers identified, I had an idea for a new film: a four-hour, two-part documentary on the rise of antisemitism in America. I had already directed a number of award-winning docs, four of the first five premiering at Sundance. The sixth won a Peabody. So I had what to recommend me.

I visited with a longtime, very savvy and smart decision-maker pal at HBO. He was “a big Jew.” The quarterly from the Council of Foreign Relations adorned his office coffee table. My pitch was simple: Antisemitism is raging on college campuses, in Black America, boardrooms, neighborhood bars, and the radical right. He was intrigued, until I added what I thought was a critical and necessary storytelling component.

ME: “We can’t tell this without exploring the role of Israel, and how anti-Israel feelings are a big part of the rise in antisemitism.”

HBO Exec: “I speak to kings and queens of Arab countries, and they tell me that they love Jewish people. We just need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem.”

ME: “That’s nonsense.”

HBO Exec: (His face, so red, I thought I’d have to give him the Heimlich maneuver). “We’re not ready for this, Dan.”

Last August, Abbe and I went to France. Our son’s basketball team from Brown was playing a series of exhibition games throughout the country. Day one, we walked through Le Marais. I was overcome. Sure, the neighborhood had priced out most of the working-class Jewish residents, but the remnants, stores, cobblestone streets, terraces, the feel of the elderly, lingered. It was an enclave of togetherness, emotion, and pride. I ran from a young Hasid hawking a donation for rolling tefillin.

Abbe and I strolled to the garden behind an ancient synagogue, where the names and birthdates of 500 children were immortalized on bronze plaques. None was older than 5. All were taken away and murdered by the repulsive antisemitic Nazis and collaborators. For what? For purification of “Jewish slime”? I cried, walked to a jewelry store and bought a chai.

The next day, my Hasidic friend, who happened to be from Brooklyn and was constitutionally unable to stop selling his wares, approached me again. I laughed, and said, “No way.” He laughed, and this time I told him, proud as proud can be:

ME: “l bought a chai yesterday.”

HASID: “See, it’s getting to you.”

Six weeks later, the deranged acts of pure evil, supported by the ignorance of countless millions, led to a global explosion that declared Hamas terrorists to be freedom fighters, chanting “Death to all Jews,” mixing woke dogma with baseless moronic cliches of history by people who can’t spell nor care about Buchenwald and whose knowledge of “colonialism” originates from a movie. I told Abbe I was heading to Israel, to volunteer, to wash toilets if needed, to teach school, to work in an office, or to fight. She and my sons rebelled.

These atrocious acts of violence and cowardice are all too familiar. They haunt every Jew—from the Romans to Egyptians to Gobineau to Goebbels to Hitler, to Farrakhan, to the naive dummies of PC, Occupy Wall Street, Defund the Police, and the Squad. Was my father right? Do they “all” hate us?

Not all, but way too many, is my conclusion. How smug and pious and despicably dishonest are the Gallup poll politicians who don’t have the balls to attack antisemitism without equating its poison to “Islamophobia”? What did the so-called “good Germans” do? Who’s next, right here in America after the Jews? They are.

Temporarily “banned” at 74 from going to Israel, filled with bursting pride, I purchased 150 Jewish stars from a jewelry designer in Israel to send as holiday gifts to friends and to trustees, advisers, and donors of the Charter High School in the Bronx I opened less than three years ago. The gift would come from me and Earl Monroe, my friend and the namesake of the school. The card read, “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” the first proverb I learned in the third grade. The list of recipients included the likes of Horowitz, Baronofsky, and Gorowitz, but also Flynn, Molloy, Drury, Cuomo, Walsh, Powell, et al.

When I arrived at the UPS counter in Bridgehampton, armed with the full mailing list, 150 Jewish stars packaged, and all notes written, I had an uneasy feeling. I opened one of the boxes, and there was a string of Hebrew words staring up at me. The two male clerks in charge of the shipping were quiet. All of a sudden, I grew cautious—another “silent denial.” What will they say? Will they sabotage my efforts? What’s my reaction going to be if one of them even smirks?

I wasn’t being asked to join a minyan or jump onto a “lulav bus” outside of Penn Station, or put up my fists. But I was being asked to stand up for myself, and my people.

ME: “These are Jewish stars. Wanna see?”

I stared at them straight in the face, thinking of my father, whose “lessons” didn’t do me much good in the larger realm of character development. But they did help me in that moment, as I understood who I had become: A proud, revitalized Jew.

Jab, jab, hook, hook.

Dan Klores is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and playwright. His essays often appear in The New York Times and countless other publications.

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