When I was a kid growing up in Anchorage in the 70s I always knew there was something different about my mom. She talked loud and fast and everyone said she had an accent though I could never hear it myself. She wore clothes she made herself but since she never used a pattern everything she made turned out to be a poncho. She looked like the Outlaw Josey Wales.
Of course if you have a weird parent sooner or later that weirdness is going to transfer to you. For me, it started with the strange and foreign foods I would bring to school. Sometime in third grade I discovered I was the only kid in Turnagain Elementary who had a bagel in his lunch box. The other kids had no idea what a bagel was and assumed my mom was punishing me for something by sending me to school with the World’s Most Tasteless Doughnut.
Some of the most puzzling moments were when I realized we actually spoke a different language at home. It resembled English but it was sprinkled with certain words that no one in the neighborhood had heard before and that I had only heard on shows like M*A*S*H and All in the Family.
Once in grade school I tried to explain to my teacher Mrs. Hill a character in a book I was reading. I said, “He’s a shlemiel.”
Mrs. Hill said, “A what?”
“A shimmel?” she said.
“No, not a shimmel, a shlemiel. You know, a shlub, a nebbish.”
“Honey, are you ok?”
A week later I’m in speech therapy. No, I’m kidding. Mrs. Hill didn’t send me to speech therapy but she did probably think I was having a seizure.
After a while all these little moments of being different started to wear on me. I was already smaller and weaker than all other kids but now I was eating food no one else would touch and speaking gibberish. Were we from another planet? I had a vague idea this was all connected to New York City where my mom grew up but the only experience I had with New York was watching the skyline during the opening of Taxi.
Then one day when I was 10 or 11 I was reading this little book of stories my mother had given me. The first story was called, “Remembering Needleman” and it began with this line, “It has been four weeks and it is still hard for me to believe Sandor Needleman is dead. I was present at the cremation and, at his son’s request, brought the marshmallows, but few of us could think of anything but our pain.”
I started laughing uncontrollably. I was the funniest thing I had ever read. The book was “Side Effects” by Woody Allen and I could not put it down. I had never seen writing like this before but at the same time it felt like it was written just for me. I remember laughing non-stop until somewhere around page 30 when I stopped suddenly, looked up, and said, “Waitaminnit! Are we Jewish? ARE WE JEWISH?!?!”
I ran downstairs to my mom.
“Are we Jewish?”
She looked at me like I just asked if we were made out of rocks and railroad ties. She said, “Of course we’re Jewish.”
“But I thought we were Baha’i.”
The story I was raised with was that a few years before I was born my mother had converted from Judaism to the Baha’i Faith and had moved to Alaska as a missionary. I had no idea that you don’t stop being Jewish any more than you stop having shingles. Once you get it you got it for life even if the only time you see it is when you’re under stress.
The strangest thing of all was that everyone else seemed to be as clueless I was. My mother was never known as The Jew of 29th Street. If anything, she was known as the Crazy Lady from New York who Talked to God. (This is true. The Catholic kids next door always peeked over the fence when my mom was stomping around the back yard yelling at God. Their mother, Mrs. Dugan, used to tell them that Mrs. Currington had a very special relationship with God and that was why she could use certain words when she talked to him that no one else was allowed to use. Later, in high school, I heard Peggy Dugan using one of those words but she wasn’t talking to God so she may have found a loophole.) No one around me knew the cultural references of Yiddish, bagels or my mother’s constant reminiscing about something called “locks” which I later discovered is spelled “Lox.”
It’s been 40 years since I first read “Remembering Needleman” and discovered why my mother and I were so different from everyone else. I’ll never forget that moment. I wish everyone could have a moment like that. It was one of the few times in my life when just for a second the world made sense.
My son and I have talked a lot throughout his life about his grandmother and what she was like. Once, many years ago, he asked me if he was Jewish. I said, “No, your mom has to be Jewish for you to be born that way.” Then he said, “But genetically the blood of the Jew runs in my veins, right?”
I said, “The Blood of the Jew? You think you’re some kind of Jewish Highlander? There’s no Blood of the Jew. If your mom was Jewish then you’re Jewish. That’s it. If you want to convert you can but it’s going to require a lot homework and I think we both know how you feel about that.”
Is there a moral to this story? Yes. Talk to your kids. Tell them where you’re from and why you are the way you are. If you don’t they’re just going to make stuff up and tell their friends that you’re crazy and speak in tongues.
And that’s the kind of story we’d like you to bring to our next show: I Didn’t See That Coming – Stories of surprises.
Tell us about a time when you were caught off guard. What happened? How did it change you? Did it force your life to take a sharp left turn or did it just make you see things a little differently from then on?
The rules for stories are below but you know the kind we’re looking for: true stories that happened to you that still mean something to you days, months or years later.
Remember to practice out loud on friends and pets and keep it under 8 minutes.
I hope to see you at our next show on Thursday, March 24, 7:00pm at the Roy St Coffee and Tea.