Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Navigate to Community section

Trading In His Chevy for a Cadillac

My father’s luxury car and my battle against Satan

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
June 17, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

My father all his life lived with the deprivations and the small-time pleasures afforded to a rabbi and school principal: meals of smoked whitefish, blintzes, and sour cream at dairy restaurants; pastrami, chulent, salami, and a Heineken beer in a frozen mug on shabbes. He never much aspired to greater luxuries—or so it seemed.

Every 10 years or so, he would spring for a new Chevy—and it was a Chevy Biscayne, mind you, the bargain-basement model of all GM cars: no air conditioning, no chrome, vinyl seats, only two tail lights in the back instead of the three for the higher-end Impala and Chevy Caprice. My father’s car when I was very young was a light blue ’59 Chevy with gigantic tail fins that looked like cat whiskers. The only frill was an AM radio. It was a source of rabbinical pride, as if to say, waste not, want not. It was the world to come that mattered—the eternal, the transcendent, the everlasting. Olam hazeh—this world, in the language of the holy rabbis of the Mishna—is a mere prozdor, a corridor for the world to come.

This is something that I discerned both from and about my father even when I was quite young. He had a different relationship to material things than most people did. For the most part his money and his love flowed easily toward me and others and he was content with what he saw as his place in the world as husband, father, rabbi, and provider.

My father didn’t possess his possessions. Nor did they possess him. He watched over them, stewarded them for the imaginary “next” guy. To him, there was always a “next guy”—a pitcher had a catcher.

About the time I got married, I sensed my father, though happy for me, was intensely sad and I feared he would go into a depression. “Why not have an analysis, Dad?” I asked.

“Analysis … what for? All is well,” he replied. “And besides,” he added—not in these exact words, because he was far more well-spoken and sophisticated than that, “it’s for rich big shots who don’t know who they are. I know who I am.”

“It will help you have a bigger life,” I persisted. “It’s like living in color—Kodachrome, Dad. Besides, we’ll have a better life together.”

I referred him to an analyst affiliated with the institute where I had been studying, a gentile, an Italian, a former U.S. Marine, no less. The rabbi and the Marine, they hit it off. They admired each other instantly. It’s a stereotype, but Jewish men often admire Italian men for their virility and Italians admire the Jews for their erudition and scholarship.

As in most analyses, the inadvertent, unexpected tangent becomes the central topic. “What kind of car you driving, Chaim?” the analyst asked my father early in their experience. “A Chevy,” he answered. The analyst, Ted, gave him a look that said something like, “This is the beginning of the 21st century; you still want to be driving a Chevy?”

“It’s reliable, cheap, dependable,” Dad said in that earnest Mr. Goodwrench sort of way when called upon to defend the status quo.

“Is that the car you want?”

“No,” he confessed, “it isn’t the car I want. I actually want a Cadillac.”

“Why don’t you get a Cadillac, then?”

My father paused and reflected. He was momentarily lost for words.

Solemnly, earnestly, my father launched into the apologetics of everyman’s life: “My mother, my mentors, my teachers, they would not approve. My father, Abe,” he continued, “was an immigrant housepainter and wallpaper hanger who couldn’t even dream of driving the Chevy I have today. It would have been a Cadillac to him.”

Though my father’s parents were decades long in the ground, they lived on and on. In the language of psychoanalysis, they were his ego ideals, internal objects to please. They still had immense power over him, to bless, approve, and admire him—and he them.

But there was one more wrinkle, and this was of most interest to me.

My father explained to his analyst (and to me): It was simply not the way of rabbis to drive a Cadillac unless you were some kind of Madison Avenue rabbi type such as those churned out by the “Seminary” or HUC. “My rebbe and my chaverim, his rabbinical friends, would disapprove,” he said flatly, referring to a man who lived close to his heart and who represented all that was right and just and good. “They may not say something directly, overtly out loud, but they will inwardly denounce me as a pontofele rov literally, a rabbi with slippers—a rabbi who is soft on Satan and yields to the yetzer hora, the evil one who brings man to sin—not a real man, much less a real rabbi.”

My father was now faced with a crisis. He needed to please his mother, his father, his rebbe, but he had reached a point where he might just have to please himself—but could he? A psychic house divided. This human crisis fell right into the fertile crescent of psychoanalytic work.

I was unequivocal: “I think you need to get the car, Dad. It’s what you want.”

“You think so?” he asked like a kid anticipating a bright red bicycle for Christmas. I would bring him color brochures, extolling the Sedan DeVille: a stately navy car pictured near a verdant green golf course, whitewall tires and fancy hubcaps.

“But why do you want me to have this?” he asked me. I mumbled something about how it would give me pleasure to see him happy in something shiny, but I was overly invested in this car thing and I scarcely knew why at the time.

My father’s car when I was very young was a light blue ’59 Chevy with gigantic tail fins that looked like cat whiskers. The only frill was an AM radio. It was a source of rabbinical pride, as if to say, waste not, want not.

I had been raised in the semicloistered atmosphere of my father’s rabbinic household and yeshiva. I say “semi” because we were part of the world of culture, too. My big sisters had posters of Donny Osmond and David Cassidy in their room and my parents, in a nod to the times, bought them green shag carpet and a deep wood Decca hi-fi turntable. I remember when I was 7 in 1971, some of my big sisters beamed Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” throughout the house. My father frowned, but he put up with it. Women were allowed more. (They all later turned out to be quite pious.) They had a big room with flowered wallpaper (it looked like the studio of The Mike Douglas Show). By contrast, my little brother and I had an austere, parsimonious room with a $12 phonograph (to play Jo Amar and Shlomo Carlebach records), blue-gray industrial carpet, and bare walls, save for an image of a 19th-century Jewish sage—something for a seminarian, out of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Consciously, I didn’t mind these disparities. I longed to be like Dad. He was different from other dads in a good way. He worked for the Lord and as he saw it the Lord looked out for him. It’s not that Dad was some kind of sidewalk preacher, but my father absolutely believed he had a personal relationship with the God of Israel and the God of mankind. He had a duty to serve and serve he did, teaching His word. He officiated at religious rituals and occasions, the words of Torah and the ancient rabbis flowed easily and always from his heart and from his lips. Between us there was no daylight. His God was my God.

But as I got even just a smidgen older, say like 8, I had mixed feelings. It all could be true, I thought, as I would listen to him preach or teach. I was proud to be part of a family of rabbis and learned men, and to be counted among the Lord’s children, but at the same time, it was not as exciting or even inviting as my father made it out to be—at least at that age. It seemed to me that while Jefferson Airplane and David Cassidy were not the right answer exactly, the world might have been made for something more exciting than Psalms and rabbi-ing and ministering. But what exactly was life about?

That question has different answers at different times, but the only answers I had were prefabricated and formulaic: Life was about the next world, piety, Torah study. No, life was about this world, a hot rod, a muscle car, and a pretty brunette.

In the meantime, desire built in me by the hour. The lusts I had as a young man seemed limitless to me—too much for anyone I knew and too much for me. I had to play a good game as the son of a rabbi—I certainly knew the tone of being Jewish—but deep down I was a redneck who wanted his pizza and a motorcycle and a girlfriend named Trixie who worked at the Dairy Queen.

Sons often don’t realize this, but fathers grow and evolve at the same time they do. My father’s wishes, desires, and entitlements developed over time. Though his faith was constant, his personality and philosophy were always under revision.

I could scarcely know it then, but in my father’s Cadillac conundrum were my own issues with materialism. What does a Jewish man do with his wants and needs, not to mention lusts? I was hungry for a verdict, a rabbinic ruling so to speak.

In trying to force his hand—“Yes, Dad, you must get the car”—I missed a chance to feel him, to imaginatively place myself in his head. The question of pleasing himself decentered him (as it did for me as well) and brought him to trepidation. If he didn’t please his mother and father and the Lord, who was he? What would become of him?

I joked about the Caddy to my friends: the leather seats, the power windows, why these were like the honeyed fleshpots of Egypt. While Judaism has no beef with wealth per se, that big Cadillac engine smacked of Satan.

But this was serious. My father had his whole life been in the employ of the Lord, charged with a mission: to safeguard and rescue the Jewish people through education. It was a calling to save and he would in turn be saved as well. My mother, too, who had survived the Blitz in London possessed the mental framework of rescue.

Now in the analyst’s office, he was being asked (and, by extension, so was I) to consider life not in terms of being saved—Oh Lord, please save us!—but in terms of being pleased.

I confess that after many years, this notion frightens me deeply. I will hide behind ideology, psychoanalysis, the Monroe Doctrine—anything, but consider a world where I would be permitted (or permit myself) to please myself. The prospect makes me both dizzy with pleasure and nauseous at once. Such a world would begin with theft and end with debauchery; I would damage everyone, even the name of the good Lord, and I would be shunned by Him and His people for all eternity.

At that time of my father’s “Cadillac question” I was drawn to a novel that frightened the daylights out of me. It was An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I was astonished to find that Dreiser understood something about my position. His novel centered on Clyde, the son of a sidewalk preacher who yearned for—well, everything. He wanted and wanted and wanted. Yes, preacher’s kids are perhaps more materialistic than most. They hear their parents preach the gospel of sacrifice and sacrament, but they pick up all that their fathers and mothers disavow.

I had to play a good game as the son of a rabbi—I certainly knew the tone of being Jewish—but deep down I was a redneck who wanted his pizza and a motorcycle and a girlfriend named Trixie who worked at the Dairy Queen.

No Sedan DeVille, no money, no woman was enough for Clyde. No sooner did he get the farm girl pregnant than he went after the shapely, high-society Sondra Finchley. In a fix with the farm girl who no longer appealed to him, he plotted to have her finished off on a boat ride on the lake. At the last minute he backed away from his plan, but nevertheless, he accidentally hit her with his camera. The poor girl lost her balance, which caused the small boat to capsize. Clyde tried to save her, but he couldn’t and she drowned. Though technically innocent of murder, he wasn’t believed and was summarily sent to the electric chair.

So this, I believed, is what happens. Satan sells you a Cadillac and you lose your soul and your life and you wind up in the electric chair. I was haunted by this but I could not reach the “pious, proper” conclusion. There was no way that I would reject the material things I wanted—no, needed.

Satan had to be put in his place. He had to be proved wrong in order for me to live. And who better to fight Satan than the rabbi himself. If a father teaches his son to please God, then he might teach him also to please himself. The yetzer hora be damned! You can get the car and still have a soul—maybe an even better soul. That was my hopeful thinking.

The Cadillac came, all right. The navy Sedan DeVille sat a little out of place in front of my father’s attached rowhouse in dowdy Kew Gardens Hills. We reverently touched the hood ornament and the Cadillac logos on the steering wheel and other places, but like Adam who tasted the forbidden fruit, we were convinced that nothing had changed. Nobody got sick or died. Shrimp didn’t appear on the menu and Dad did not—heaven forbid!—start to flirt with the woman down the block. The Cadillac corrupted nobody: Chaim 1, Satan 0. Game, set, match.

I got my verdict, my rabbinic ruling, and one would think that would have settled it, but a verdict on Satan can never be settled for eternity. For me, a new struggle with Satan was to begin—one of my own. Despite his destructive powers, I wanted and needed him right next to me—I bought a big red Suzuki motorcycle—but only small portions did I accept from him. (No Dairy Queen girl for me!) So far, we’re in a dead heat. Me vahlgar nisht arum oif fremder garten: One doesn’t wander in strange gardens where he doesn’t belong. But one is allowed to take a walk. Or even go for the occasional drive.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.