Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
May 25, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 21
A goy in wonderland
By Joe Flaherty
The lamentable thing about life is that it is devoid of fanfare. Man’s odyssey more times than not is heralded by a kazoo rather than a trumpet.
The spiritual milestones of my own life have been accompanied by none of the drama one finds in the Old Testament. No seas parted, no stones rolled back, and the closest I’ve ever come to an Ark is when another longshoreman and I walked up a gangplank two-by-two.
But maybe, I have reasoned, such is the lot of being born a Catholic in Brooklyn.
Surely they do it better in Rome, where one can pass of shaving nicks as stigmata. But in my barren borough you were slapped on the ass at birth, slapped in the face at confirmation (when you became a man), and dirt was thrown over you when you departed. It was early in life that I suspected someone was trying to tell me something.
Of course, there was the trauma of Holy Communion. I spent endless months in front of a mirror flicking out my tongue, like a frog shagging flies, in preparation to receive the blessed wafer. The nuns warned me that an error on that day would be recorded in black in my fielding stats by the Scorer in the Sky. I even had foreboding fantasies that Dick Young would write a lead column in the Daily News titled “Rookie Muffs the Lord in Key Contest, Soul SEnt to Minors Indefinitely.”
So when, at an age the ripe side of mellow, I received an invitation to attend my first bar mitzvah, my spiritual curiosity was aroused. The invite came from Marty and Sheila Shaer to celebrate their son Andrew’s plunge from puberty. And what an invitation! Not one of those chintzy goyim numbers written in hand, but a document of such girth it would not fit into my svelte mailbox. The tissue paper separating the various parts of the announcement alone could have been used as a drop cloth for the painting of the Sistine Ceiling.
For the uninitiated, Marty Shaer is my friend and landlord who daily blends business and socializing at the Lion’s Head Pub. He is a visionary who sees beauty in condemned buildings, failing pizzerias, and defunct go-go joints. Politically, he hasn’t decided whether the Emancipation Proclamation or the bill to remove rent control is the most important document in the American experience. You could trust him with your wife, but never with a vacant room-and-a-half.
With gross insensitivity to the cosmic events of life, Shaer scheduled the boy’s bar mitzvah on Kentucky Derby Day. Now if the child wanted to become a man, he could have waited for the following Saturday. After all, Riva Ridge had been training for his coming-out party for three years. But Shaer assured me he was not about to bow to something which ate oats, even if they were Nova Scotia oats. Whether I liked it or not, andy was going postward on May 6.
At 10.30 Saturday morning my lady and I arrived at the Midchester Jewish Center in Yonkers. I selected a skull cap and tried to emulate Peter Finch’s dignity in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” cautioning the WASP I was with to stop calling the synagogue “the church.” Andrew said his prayer with eclat, and I found myself, like a surrogate father, rooting for him. Marty sat through it with a smug look that said it was all in the bloodlines.
The rabbi’s turn was next, and to be truthful I was not looking forward to the sermon. I spent too much of my childhood listening to abstractions about “the Shepherd and His flock” and “if you are miserable, you are fortunate, because God is testing you.” (Better he should tinker with the bastard in the pew behind me, I thought then, seeing no grace in being a spark plug.) These spiritual forays usually were interrupted by bingo game announcements, games in which the old biddies, bowing to Freud, used to shout at the priest presiding over the pills, “Shake up your balls, Father.”
But I soon discovered that the rabbi was a man to be dealt with. Taking his cue from the Torah on “the spirit of man,” he applied it to the South Vietnamese. “They have more men,” he thundered, “more equipment, more weapons than B-52s. But without spirit, it’s all for kaputz!” Good God, the man knew more than three Presidents.
Then, launching into what Norman Mailer calls an “existential career,” he gave the congregation a going over. “Many people,” he intoned, “tell me I should run this center more like a business. Some members of the board of directors even refer to me as ‘my rabbi.’ They think they own me. Me, a Holy Man! We don’t need business in the temple. Business is what you find in your daily newspaper. The other day I read where the A&P, Finast, and Daitch-Shopwell were caught giving short weight. Is this what you want in your temple?”
The Holy Man had just reduced Ann Page, the Blessed Virgin of the comparative shopper, to a hooker. I was a goy in wonderland. One circumcised though, I remembered, and a late inning redemption was not beyond speculation. If Sammy Davis, Jr., could pull it off, why not me? I whispered, “Shalom, me bucko,” just to hear how it sounded.
The rabbi then said that employers should treat employes like brothers (a Marxist with a mezuzah?), not slaves. At this point Marty seemed to slide lower in his seat. The rabbi concluded: “If one of your brothers has financial difficulties, don’t tell him to leave Westchester and go back to the Bronx, come to his aid.” He then blessed us all and told us that sponge cake and wine were waiting in an anteroom.
It was here I learned two tenets of jewish lore. First, don’t badmouth the Bronx when an assemblyman from that borough is sitting in your congregation. The assemblyman let the rabbi know that he did not represent a schlock Sodom and Gomorrah and that Westchester, in his mind, was hardly the land of milk and honey. Second, when it comes to the sponge cake and wine, many are called but few are chosen.
The reception was held in a layout called “the Fountainhead” in New Rochelle. The only way to describe the piece is to say that you could get the gout from the drinking water. Even the cigarette smoke smelled as if it had calories. As we went in, Marty approached and asked if I had understood the sermon. “The crux of it,” he informed me, “was that goyim can’t fight.”
A buffet was laid out on a circular table approximately the circumference of the Astrodome roof. I could have used the help of Supp-Hose just to walk around it. My love, a Lutheran from Montana whose idea of spiritual grandeur is the use of soft wood in kneelers, thought this feast of lox, whitefish (sculpted into a swimming position), corned beef, sweetbreads, sweet and sour chicken, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage, deviled eggs, fruit salad, gefilte, fried rice, and circular towers of break resembling the Guggenheim was the main meal. “No, my dear,” Marty patiently explained as I was downing a whiskey. “With the Irish it’s the liver, with the Jews the gallbladder.”
Meanwhile, for the kids in attendance, there was a charcoal grill in another room, serving up hot dogs and hamburgers. As my lady and I lamented our paltry past, Marty explained that this was a “modest” affair as such things go. He recalled Super Bowl bar mitzvahs, lasting a weekend, in hotels where the hosts rented suites for their guests and those where the Sunday New York Times was given to each guest as he was leaving at the end of the evening — an inky bromide to get you through the wee hours of digestive disaster.
He also said the caterer had offered him a “theme bar mitzvah.” It so happens that Marty’s son Andy is a blossoming basketball player (he reduced this old man’s lungs to a wheeze one day), so the caterer was prepared to create a basketball theme. A hoop and a net would be hung above the boy’s table, guest tables would not be numbered but christened the “Kareem Abdul Jabbar Table,” the “Walt Frazier Table,” etc., and the piece de resistance would be a waiter decked out in uniform dribbling a ball in with the cake!
Roy, an old friend of Marty’s and one of those philosophical, witty Jews who used to dissect the Dodgers’ boxscore on Ocean Parkway when I was a boy, remarked: “If you don’t want this chicken soup, a waiter comes in and stuffs it — WHOOSH!” Marty, realizing that the Lord can get nasty about such tampering with His ground rules, decided not to go one-one-one with tradition and passed on the theme.
The prelims past, we waddled to the tables for the main event. A chicken crepe, salad, rare roast beef with rice and bamboo sprouts, a green pear (“it tastes like a giant Cloret,” someone said) with chocolate sauce and ice cream, mocha cake, dessert cookies, mints, coffee, brandy, and cigars. Roy turned to me and remarked: “The Viet Cong are through. The Communists will surrender tomorrow. How can you beat a country which goes to this much trouble for a 13-year-old?”
I nobly upheld the Hibernian honor by eating, drinking, and smoking everything in sight. Andy’s presence was felt everywhere — toasts in his honor, monogrammed “Andy” menus and matchbooks. I was terrified that some mad stenciler was going to emblazon an “Andy” on my forehead.
To ward off a cholesterol clot I shook a leg to a few horas, disgraced myself with a polka, and antiquated myself with a Lindy. For safety’s sake I hid out between sets in the bathroom, where the real business of the day was being conducted. “I’m not offering you a deal,” one gent loudly declared. “I’m offering you a caveat!”
The most beautiful time of the day was when the old men gathered to do the hora with an energy and grace that amazed me. Later, in the shank of the evening (without the Sunday Times) I stood in my bathroom, like Jekyll opting to become Hyde, pouring bubbling Bromo from one glass to another. I thought of the rich, glorious Jewish experience I had missed. But was it too late? My mind kept saying: “Try it, you’ll like it.” But my stomach growled back: “You are not yet a man, my son.”
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]