Uncle Tom Jew

In the seconds between shoving my third and fourth White Castle-sized pork sandwich down my throat, I yelled across the lavishly appointed basement toward my host. He and his wife had invited fifty Twin Cities WASPs, and me, to watch Mike Tyson’s pay-per-view, main-event boxing match in Las Vegas against heavyweight Frans Botha on their wide-screen television.

I was more interested in the undercard fight for the junior cruiserweight championship belt between the Brooklyn-born Ethiopian Jew Zab Judah and Wilfredo Negron.

“Hey, Jim, call me when the Hebe’s fight comes on,” I said from the kitchen. I then turned toward the Minnesota crowd waiting with empty buns on paper plates for their own turns at the buffet.

“Zab Judah is the only Yid champ left!” I said loudly to no one in particular but to everybody specifically. “Naturally, they’ll never make the Hebe the headline bout, the Nazi bastards!”

Someone handed me a Budweiser, my fourth of the night. “Well, I usually don’t do this,” I said, laughing, as I popped the top. “I’m not from a drinking people, you know. It’s right there in the Old Testament, Genesis, Chapter Four in the book of Shmeckel: ‘And God gave Moses the bong, and it was good. And He said if thou shalt spill the bong water on the carpet, it shalt reek for seven generations…’ ”

The kitchen exploded. “I missed that one in Sunday school,” a blond woman said, laughing the hardest.

As usual, I was enticed by her Crest smile, the way she laughed at my jokes like they, or I, were deeper than I was letting on. The delicate little gold cross on a chain hung over her turtleneck, indicating she was as forbidden to me as I was to her. This was my kind of woman. When asked why I went out only with non-Jewish women, I had a stock reply that further outraged or cracked up most any audience I was able to gather.

“Jewish women hate me,” I said that night, as I often did. “I think I remind them of their annoying Uncle Morty, the schmuck at the Seder table with the stupid hundred-year-old Borscht Belt jokes. They want lawyers from Plymouth, not writers living in the middle of the city. As Abbie Hoffman said, ‘You go for the gelt or you go for broke.’ They don’t want to go for broke.”

In my more self-righteous moments I likened myself to an Abbie Hoffman—a troublemaking Jew. I hadn’t gone what I considered the easy route of a suburban-bred Twin Cities Jew. I wasn’t a lawyer or orthodontist trained at the University of Minnesota. I hadn’t been a member of Sigma Alpha Mu, the Jewish fraternity known as the Sammies. My generation of Minneapolis Jews had almost all gone for the gelt, eventually ending up in a house with 2.3 kids in Twin Cities’ suburban gilded ghetto.

I viewed them from afar as judgmental and ignorant. In my professional life as a reporter and writer, I took pride in being as secular as I was “objective”—even when my work touched on religion. One of my biggest stories was breaking the news in Rolling Stone that Bob Dylan had converted back to Judaism. I’d scored an interview with Rabbi Manis Friedman, the Minneapolis Hasid who’d brought Dylan back into the fold. Even then, I held myself above the Twin Cities’ Jewish community. I was better than them.

Of course, I was the one judging, projecting my own despair and need to belong back at them. I saw how they took care of each other when someone died: the shiva, the food, the communal tears. I wondered narcissistically who would mourn me. Though I pretended not to care, I did. Outwardly, at least, I wanted to emulate my heroic Jewish outlaws; I wanted to join the spirit of people like the ones enumerated by Kinky Friedman, the mystery writer and founder of a country and western band called the Texas Jewboys.

From Moses, Friedman had said, “a long line of Jewish troublemakers followed—Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Abbie Hoffman—who were spiritual beacons in a [gentile] world.” Friedman believed that Hoffman, Marx, and Bruce also served as lighthouses for frightened Jews who for millennia would “shun trouble, avoid at all cost confrontations … we who look in our mirrors [and] are mildly surprised that we’re still here.”

Now, that was me. I felt like an obsolete pinball machine whose spare parts hadn’t been made. I was also a self-deluded fool. Standing here, outraging my audience, I was no Jewish outlaw like Abbie, throwing bills to the floor of the Stock Exchange. At best I was a Vegas lounge act.

Unconsciously, I threw in a joke to the crowd in the kitchen, a Henny Youngman one-liner:

“Why do Jewish husbands always die before Jewish wives?” I asked.

“Because they want to.”

The room erupted. I reached for another beer.

I was shticking like Milton Berle on crystal meth, using a speed rap I’d developed at college parties to get a group of gentile women to encircle me. If they were laughing at my rap, I figured, they couldn’t ogle the sensitive guitar player singing Grateful Dead tunes in the living room. In Minneapolis—at concerts, ball games, dinner parties, the theater during intermission, walking along the street, or standing in a virtual stranger’s kitchen eating trayf (nonkosher food)—I delighted in outraging the gentiles. I was engaged in shtetl shpritzing, Jewish jazz.

Did my non-Jewish friends perchance want to see my horns, I’d ask, or the yellow stripe running down my back? And gee, I’d throw in, sorry about killing your Lord and all that, it was a party, things got out of hand, he didn’t chip in for the Last
Supper’s tip.

“Shpritzing?” the blonde at the party asked.

“Surrounded by other Jewish wise guys, usually at a diner or deli, you just shoot out jokes as fast as you can and everybody tries to top you,” I said, staring at her. “When they were young, Lenny Bruce (né Leonard Schneider), Rodney Dangerfield (né Jacob Cohen), Jerry Lewis (né Joseph Levitch), and whatever Jewish comic was in town shoehorned themselves into a booth in a Brooklyn diner and shpritzed faster than Chuck Yeager flew. Shpritzing was the Jewish right stuff. Henny Youngman claimed that Jerry Lewis even shtupped a woman in the candy store’s phone booth without missing the beat of his jokes. Now Lenny, there was a Jew considered a shanda fur di goyim.”

Nobody asked what shtupping was, but the blond woman said, “I heard of Lenny Bruce, he was in that REM song about the end of the world. What is a … shalen goy …?”

“A shanda fur di goyim is the worst thing one Jew can say to another—it means you’re such a rat bastard that you make all Jews look bad in front of the goyim.” They all laughed. Christ, the gentiles loved being called goyim to their faces by a crazy Jew.

How could I make such a spectacle of myself and talk such trash, be such an unmitigated ass, I wondered briefly, a suddenly conscious current of self-loathing making me want to crawl out of my skin. But I quickly repressed the noxious feeling that mocked who I had become during the last two decades—a buffoon who despised who he was and where he’d come from.

Even when I was a kosher-keeping and religious youth, studying Hebrew and Aramaic harder than anyone I knew, I’d tried to get away from my ancestry and be just an American kid.

As split inside as Cain and Abel, I’d had plans to be a rabbi, yet I’d always wanted to fit in, to assimilate. I didn’t want to be just a “normal” kid but rather a brave outlaw. So I was the bookie for my tenth-grade class, taking bets in the lunchroom on Friday for that Sunday’s game before heading home to prepare for Shabbos.

I’d totaled four cars, been arrested for big-ticket shoplifting at fourteen, had my license suspended at seventeen. At school I wrestled and played hockey, punching and flipping gentiles on their backs to middling success, but at least proving I was no weakling Jew. Only later did I realize that this was about asserting my masculinity. I felt that as a Jew my manhood was always in question. Just as most Jewish women are revolted by the stereotype of the JAP—the Jewish American Princess—I was repulsed by perceptions of the weak, pale yeshiva boys Isaac Babel wrote of, “studying in fright in the shtetl, with spectacles on [their] nose and autumn in their heart.”

Even when I’d believed, I’d often pulled against my Hebraic side in the great assimilation tug-of-war. At Jewish summer camp, I always had a great time with the kids who hated being there in the first place. I’d wear a tallis, a prayer shawl, if I had to go to synagogue. It looked like a funky scarf. But as for putting on and wearing tefillin, the black prayer-box phylacteries bound at the head and arm? Kish mir in tuchus. Kiss my ass. The last time I’d donned the ridiculous-looking straps had been at camp. There, I remembered my overwhelming thought each day as I prayed, a fourteen-year-old bound into these goofy straps and boxes on my arm and atop my head: I’m glad nobody at school can see this.

Even now, when I’d make an occasional and strained effort at being a good Jew, I wouldn’t put on tefillin. It made me shiver to think of wearing something that was as much a feature of anti-Semitic caricatures as it was a religious object.

The last half-dozen years of attempted assimilation since my divorce had been the worst. Some people learn their life lessons by running into a brick wall once before learning to go around; I often crashed a hundred times before I figured out what was wrong. I never thought of the ancient joke that applied to me: Why are you hitting yourself on the head with a board over and over?

Because it feels so good when I stop.

***

“I don’t want to miss the Hebe,” I reminded some strangers in the kitchen.

My own offensiveness—and what it said about my lack of self-respect—was more than counterbalanced by the flattering attention of an all-gentile, all-American crowd laughing at the outrageous goofy Jew playing the shtetl idiot for their amusement. Still soaking in the laughter, I continued to hang in back where the cohost Celeste was ladling shredded pork from a steaming silver kettle into mini-Wonder Bread buns.

“Didn’t eat today, Neal? Would you like another?” she asked, but before I could say yes, she grew stricken. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. Pork. I should have had another dish!”

I wondered if she even would have known my religion if I hadn’t made such a spectacle of myself. “Don’t be silly, I’m a pork slut,” I responded, piling my paper plate high.

“I didn’t know Jews could eat pork,” said Celeste as she watched me snarf my fifth sandwich in one bite. “Don’t you go to hell? No, wait—Jews don’t believe in hell, right?”

“Anybody Catholic here?” I asked, an equal-opportunity mocker. A few hands in the kitchen went up. “I think priests should get married so they’d really know what hell is.”

Rim shot. I felt a brief shiver of hating myself, but everyone was laughing again. And then the tug from the other side, the long-ago-educated-in-Judaism side. “Jews have hell,” I said defensively. “It’s called Gehenna. And actually, Celeste,” I said, pork juice dribbling out of my mouth, “I didn’t taste pig until I was twenty-one. I almost became a rabbi.”

“You? I don’t believe it.”

“No shit. Me a rabbi. Sagely telling everybody what to do. Like they need any help. My sermons every week would have been the same nine-word history of the tribe: ‘They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.’”

I was a Jewish Uncle Tom. And for almost two decades, I’d been busy reinventing myself, reinforcing the worst stereotypes of Jews and the community. I’d once taken that community to my heart like a precious birthright but then tossed it away like worthless fool’s gold. My Judaism hadn’t retreated; it had evaporated.

“I was knockin’ on heaven’s door my senior year in college when I realized I believed in heaven and God only half the time. I’d have become what I always loathed—one of those self-righteous rabbis who’d tormented me for the previous fifteen years,” I said.
“God, I’m stunned,” Celeste said. “I mean, I’ve only met you a few times but, um, I always thought you were just, pardon me for saying … a clown. Like that’s what you wanted to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” she said, recovering nicely.
“In Yiddish, it’s called shtick. This is my shtick.”

“So you decided to play a full-time clown instead of a half-believing rabbi?” Celeste said, needling me as she tried to figure out the equation.

“Hey, the hours are better. The only thing I have in common with Jews is that I don’t like to work on Saturdays.”

The kitchen crowd had gathered around again as I continued to shtick in earnest, and I didn’t hear Jim yell to me from the front of the room when Zab Judah was heading from his dressing room to the ring, led by his entourage of black Jewish friends and family. It would have been a rare and happy sight for me to see a Jewish boxing champion. Yiddishkeit. Lore.

In my role as a Jewish Uncle Tom, I also told the usual, sickest, most outrageous Jewish jokes I knew to non-Jewish friends—my only friends. I told those jokes, the ones only Jews supposedly can tell, but never in a roomful of non-Jews, even if they were getting paid for it.

“Why do Jews have such long noses?”

“Because air is free.”

Or:

“How many Jews can you fit in a Volkswagen?”

“47,293. Two in front, two in back, and 47,289 in the ashtray.”

I wanted to belong.

Then I heard Jim’s voice cutting through the din of the crowd and the giant television. The host was a swell-hearted, brainy guy who I knew didn’t harbor a single racist or anti-Semitic thought. But now he’d been pushed and revved by an earlier riff of mine about Jewish boxers and my continuing blasphemous references to my people.

“Hey, Neal!” he yelled over fifty gentile heads. “The Hebe won!”

He suddenly looked as horrified as his wife when she offered me a pork sandwich. He waxed relieved when I laughed louder than anyone in the room.

My shtick seemed to bring out the worst in people. After I riffed to a woman with the sorry-to-have-killed-your-Lord routine, she nodded in agreement and made a reference to “Jew people” that clanged against my ears. “Wow,” she said, “that’s weird. I’ve never said ‘Jew people’ before.”

Only later, while reading Professor Michael Burleigh’s acclaimed The Third Reich: A New History, did I understand that I was actually encouraging people to be anti-Semitic. Hitler’s obsessions, Burleigh wrote, “concerned an abstraction dubbed ‘the Jew’ rather than actual Jews.”

Jew people.

***

A few minutes before the Tyson bout, two familiar faces from my high-school class entered the basement. Bob and Judy Schwartz. She wore a diamond as big as the Ritz. He worked as a money manager and drove a BMW convertible. I shouted across the room, “What are you doing here? I’m supposed to be the only Jew here!”

Bob laughed, not sure what the joke was.

“Don’t be a shanda fur di goyim!” I yelled, wishing I could call out instead to everyone else in the room. Hey goyim, I’m a goy! Don’t think of me that way, like the Schwartzes! I thought their material life was gaudy, but deep down I wanted to be part of a community, invited to bar mitzvahs, brises, shivas, and be proud of my birthright.

I couldn’t have been more insulting to the Schwartzes if I’d called Bob a schmuck on a stick. But neither knew Yiddish, I remembered from their short stints in elementary Hebrew school. They were the kind of Jews my age who lived in massive suburban houses and seemed to work in what they always referred to as “financial services.” The kind I knew called African Americans schvartzes, Yiddish just this side of “nigger”; when they ran into me with a date (I’d later hear) they had called her a shiksa, an epithet just a bit up from the curb from “whore.”

They saw themselves as holy Jews, but they had never embraced any sense of Yiddishkeit, the essence of the religion beyond their prayers, encompassing every tale that swelled Jews’ hearts with pride, from Moses receiving the Torah to Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodger who sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series right here in Minneapolis because it was Yom Kippur.

All that had eluded the Schwartzes in their inexorable trek to the suburbs. I had escaped Minneapolis’s shtetl, specifically to study back east with Rabbi Jacob Neusner, the Orthodox professor, because he was—and still is—considered the country’s most brilliant Jewish academic scholar. From there, went my announced plan to my family, I was going to Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati, where I’d be ordained. Then I’d return and try and make these Jews from my hometown finally think, to try and show that having a Yiddishe kopf meant more than knowing where to get it wholesale.

Calling them a shanda fur di goyim was a terrible thing to say to the Schwartzes, and I felt a wave of physical revulsion at my own rudeness. Thank God they were so ignorant of Yiddishkeit. Still, my enmity was pretty obvious.

Perhaps it was out of pure jealousy that I didn’t want to be associated with the Bob and Judy Schwartzes of Minneapolis. They weren’t torn as I was between the gentile world and the Jews; they seemed to feel no painful tug. True, I thought they were as phony as paste pearls, but how was it that they were able to become Americans in a way I never could and still retain their status as “good Jews”?

My stomach suddenly churning, I waved my host over to tell him I had to leave before the main event. Jim looked upset, thinking he’d angered me earlier, and whispered, “I’m sorry about calling Zab Judah a Hebe. I don’t know where that came from. I’ve never used that word in my life.”

“I know where that came from,” I said, waving off his remorse. “I put that word in your mouth. I made you say it.”
I left the house in silence, feeling queasier by the minute.

My father’s entire family had been machine-gunned in Russia and buried in pits, most of them still alive, by Hitler’s advancing Einsatzgruppen, or death squads. Not that I didn’t care about that stuff: To the contrary, I was obsessed with every aspect of the Third Reich, from the Final Solution to irrelevant minutiae concerning whether Hitler’s niece slept with the Führer and then committed suicide, to the dimensions of a can of Zyklon B, the gas dropped in the concentration camp “showers.”

No longer did I chant Torah in front of a congregation I loved, as I’d done growing up. Instead, alone, I now studied with rage how Franklin Roosevelt ensured the slaughter of millions of Eastern European Jews, first by not allowing them to immigrate to the United States, then by refusing to bomb the train lines that ran directly into Auschwitz, even though American planes were firebombing other train tracks only a few miles away.

I didn’t have anyone Jewish I respected to talk to about it, even if I’d wanted to.

I made my obsession a joke, like I was a Civil War reenactor or member of the Flat Earth Society. If asked why I had the entire Nuremburg trials on tape, I’d laugh about how they should rename the History Channel, my favorite station, the Hitler Channel. I told friends that whenever I was depressed, I’d watch some Nazis get hanged, and I’d perk right up.

My fascination was perverse. I had no idea what I got out of this singularly horrible thing in Judaism—collecting such seminal texts on the war against Jewry as Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, atop a collection of virulently anti-Semitic literature. I’d think of the old comic-strip character Pogo and his famous line, “We have met the enemy—and he is us.”

No matter which side pulled harder in my personal tug-of-war between Jew and assimilated American, I was now finally sure of one thing—I was about to be pulled into the mud pit in the middle where the losers end up.

After slinking away from Jim and the boxing party, I walked into the rain, away from my car, and toward the Mississippi River. I sat on the bank, the mud seeping through my jeans. And then it hit me; just as I was gathering enough strength to lift myself out of my own humiliation and self-pity, the beer and pork sandwiches came up violently, angrily. I kept heaving until there was nothing left, and then again and again, until I was unable to stop gasping and began praying to a God I hadn’t believed in for decades to let me catch my breath.

Afterward, I pulled up my sleeve to check my Alfred E. Newman watch, the one that the college students I occasionally taught loved to pass around, saying the kitsch was so me. I took off the idiotic timepiece and chucked it into the Mississippi. I was so tired of being me.

Suddenly, another wave of nausea keeled me over onto all fours. I was a shanda fur mir, a scandal to me. By exiling myself from my own tribe and lusting to be anyone, anything else at all, I’d in fact become nothing.

Weeks later, I was on a plane from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. I sat down next to a Hasidic rabbi, not knowing at the time that in talking to him I would have one of the most mind-quaking revelations of my life. “Do the Hasidim believe in reincarnation?” I asked Rabbi Manis Friedman.

He looked at me and smiled. “I believe you can be reincarnated in your own lifetime.”

Adapted from SHANDA by Neal Karlen. Copyright (c) 2004 by Neal Karlen. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.