Monday, May 26, 2008

Porgie And Bass

Snapped the other day at our local Whole Foods.

The guys behind the counter didn't seem to get it.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stairway To Unleavened

Now there is a certain hurdle that men have to surmount if they’re interested in converting to Judaism.

There’s really no two ways about this one, either. Either you do it or you don’t. It’s kind of a deal-breaker.

Chances are that if you were born in the United States when I was, this hurdle was negotiated early on. Without asking your permission, in fact.

There’s even a movement now of men who look back in anger at what was done to them and actively try to reverse it via a complex system of weights and pulleys and…

Well, we needn’t continue.

The way I look at it, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. And there’s no point in closing the barn door after the horse has gone. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

However, even though I had already fulfilled this requirement, it was still necessary for ritual purposes for the skin to be broken and blood to be drawn from the, er, sacrificial site.

I was of two minds about this, not that this was going to be a Santería style bloodbath or anything. On the one hand, I was a little anxious about anything sharp getting close to this particular neighborhood. I had, I will confess, grown accustomed to it.

On the other hand, I felt a little flattered that so much attention was being paid to something that I had struggled in vain to interest people in for so many years.

At any rate, I kept my appointment and met with a fellow who apparently had experience in these delicate matters. With some trepidation, I watched as he applied a numbing agent to this most unnumb of areas. Then with a small scalpel, he pressed forth as gently as possible and made the tiniest of pricks.

(That’s just an expression, you understand. I’m definitely all man and the faint aroma of Old Spice wreathes my head like mosquitoes at a summer picnic.)

Having been witness to this action, the man looked up at me and said with a faint smile that seemed born of experience:

“Welcome to the tribe.”

The Lubavitcher had wrapped my arm in the tefillin before I knew what was happening.

Rush hour commuters barely gave us a glance as he fitted more leather straps on my head and led me in reciting a prayer. I tried to keep up with him as he went about the ritual, checking to see if any other parts of me were getting wrapped up in anything else.

Like a magician pulling off a tablecloth and leaving the plates intact, the Hassid finished the prayer and removed everything with a practiced flourish, almost as if he’d finished giving me a haircut.

He told me that what I had just done would bring me closer to G-d, which may have been true, but as I glanced at my watch and noted our rapidly depleting timeframe, I realized that it was bringing us no closer to Lou, or Elvis for that matter.

As I stood there dizzy, another fellow nods over at me and says, “You know, if you really want to do it, take it all the way, you have to go Orthodox.” I nod back groggily.

The wife then casually mentions that this was the first time I had ever worn tefillin and so everyone gets excited again, joining hands as we dance in a circle and sing Mazel Tov:

Simen Tov u Mazel Tov u Mazel Tov u Simen Tov!
Simen Tov u Mazel Tov u Mazel Tov u Simen Tov!

Here’s the interesting thing, though:

One of the commandments that a Jewish boy is expected to keep once he becomes Bar Mitzvah is to put on tefillin.

So, in essence I was having my Bar Mitzvah on a New York streetcorner, across the street from Radio City Music Hall.

Not to mention the fact that it was more or less 39 years late which, for me, was positively prompt.

It wouldn’t be a Bar Mitzvah without music, of course, so it was off to the TV studio where we witnessed the rare spectacle of Elvis Costello doing two old Velvet Underground songs, Beginning To See The Light and Femme Fatale.

Here comes two of you,
Which one will you choose?

One rarely knows who they really are, let alone who they may become. Anything can happen, depending on the time and the place. Sometimes you just have to ride it out and keep quiet and let the gifts come to you.

Well I’m beginning to see the light.

For instance, if we’d walked the same route through Times Square one week to the day after this, we’d have run into two nearly naked women from PETA showering in the street to protest the fact that it takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat.

The Naked Cowboy even showed up at one point to join them in naked solidarity.

How does it feel to be loved?

I daresay the day might have gone very differently.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sh'ma, He's Making Eyes At Me!

In recent months, the synagogue that we belong to has been vandalized.

There was spray-painted graffiti and a fire that later proved to be arson.

It’s difficult for me to believe that these kinds of things still happen, let alone where I live. I was suddenly reminded of a moment in the ceremony that ended in my official conversion. The rabbi asked me if I was willing to commit myself to the lot of the Jewish people, whatever that might mean at any given time.

In other words, if I accepted whatever came along with identifying myself as a Jew.

And I remember feeling a little shiver at that moment, because I knew what it meant. This was no longer playtime. There could be unwanted consequences that came along with this, depending on the place and the moment.

And, although these attacks were not personally directed at me, they were, in a way. Someone had made a judgment about me without ever having met me, decided that they hated me for reasons that had nothing to do with who I was.

And I thought: this conversion thing has always been bashert.

Because how inevitable was it that, when the time came to declare my allegiance to a particular faith, I would pick the one that would result in more people hating me?

I could see the two Lubavitchers waiting to pounce on me at the end of the block, the remaining gateway between us and the television studio. If we could navigate these waters briskly and quickly, we would soon be joining the select audience who’d managed to flatter their way into Studio 8-H, the home of Saturday Night Live and occasional renegade productions such as this.

As we arrived at the busy corner, carried along with the human undertow that only New York provides, I could hear a voice ask me, “Are you Jewish?”

Now I understood that for all intents and purposes, this confrontation was going to be no different than a hundred other hectorings by fundamentalists. They believed that the only genuine way to be Jewish was the Orthodox way, just as the fundamentalist Christian believed I would go to Hell, or the committed Catholic condemn me for not genuflecting.

And normally I would not listen to any of them for very long.

But I had made this commitment, you see, to identify myself as a Jew, regardless of the consequences.

And so I said, “Yes.”

I was immediately asked if I would be interested in putting on tefillin, the small boxes containing scripture that you bound to your arm and head with leather straps. It was a Jewish ritual I had never performed before, meant to focus the mind on holy things.

And I was here, at this time, in this place.

I looked to the wife for guidance. She shot me a pleasant look that nevertheless read, “You’re on your own, kid.”

I honestly didn’t know what would happen next, what I would say next.

I looked at the wife again. This time we tried to read each other’s faces, looking for evidence of what the other one thought. We had places to go, people to see.

I glanced again at the Passover! pamphlet:

Would the world be any different if any one of us had not been born?

There had been so many times I’d wished I hadn’t been.

And then suddenly, wordlessly, we’d decided.

“OK,” I said.

But we were born.

And there I was, smack in the middle of the New York Metro Area, suddenly face to face with these leather straps.

Well, it was New York.

Next: Stairway To Unleavened