In Hebrew studies, which took up half of our elementary school day, we devoted ourselves to the close reading of the Tanakh1 with commentaries, as well as the Shulchan Aruch — the code of Jewish law. In third grade our Virgil, tasked with guiding us through the dark forest of the Jewish do’s and don’ts, was Rebbe Chaim Kurzrock. His face, permanently shrouded in a five o’clock shadow, was framed by a wide-brimmed black hat that gave him the appearance of a shtetl gunslinger from the tribe of the bad guys. Kurzrock was well over six feet tall, well over two hundred pounds, and was possessed of a slap that could turn a nine-year-old into a protoplasmic tuning fork resonating to the pitch of pain. That slap would rattle our bones, wobble our kishkas.2 So when slap-happy Kurzrock spoke, we listened.
And because it was never too early to mortify body and soul so as to instill a more perfect Talibanic Yiddishkeit in his charges, before summer had faded, before Ha’shem had sealed our names in the book of life or the book of death,3 even as we yet wandered through the hairless desert of our latency, Kurzrock enthusiastically laid on us the myth of the beating of the meat.
As memory serves, when Charlton Heston is off on his Ten Commandments walkabout, the now leaderless yids begin to second-guess the whole he-is-the-one true-God spiel. Hedging their theological bets, they allow Edward G. Robinson4 to appoint himself high priest of the cult of the newly minted Golden Calf.
When Charlie descends with the twin tablets upon which Jehovah had etched his top ten Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Nots and witnesses the orgiastic dance of the idolators,5 he loses his mind for what he is doing and hurls the slabs at the Dionysiacs. At the moment of impact, the celebrants feel the earth move under their feet, they feel the sky tumbling down. A great fissure opens and swallows them.
With the calf melted, and the abominators off to Gehenna, the remaining yids build an ark to house the tablets and to mark the covenant between themselves and Yahweh.
The volcano god is not satisfied with this gesture. He decrees that his chosen volk must wander the Sinai Desert for forty years to expiate their sins. Only then will they be allowed to pass go and collect Zion. But in a surprise twist the Almighty has a change of heart. If his beloved congregants can observe all the rules he has laid down for the Sabbath two weeks running, he will relent and let them gain early admission to Canaan.
This is where Onan cums in.
Kurzrock told us that while Onan daydreamed in his tent during the waning moments of that second fully observed Shabbos, he was possessed by a dybbuk. This malign spirit provoked Onan to do something awful, something filthy, something mysteriously genital-oriented. Because of what Onan had done, Kurzrock emphasized, Jehovah slew the transgressor and re-decreed the wandering as well. Our forebears shuffled through the Sinai for the full forty before they had walked off the twin transgressions of idolatry and self-abuse6 to Adonai’s satisfaction and could finally cross the River Jordan, cleanse the Holy Land of its indigenous goyim Canaanites, and claim it for the one, true chosen people of the creator—us.
The recess bell rang, and while all the other buchers7 bolted, I remained seated, in a state of waxy flexibility. After who knows how long, but less than twenty minutes (the length of recess), a sharp noise roused me. I somnambulized down the stairs and out the doors, like a gorky Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The cool September air refreshed me and I soon realized I was starving, which had (has) always been my default response to anxiety. I made a beeline for the Gabila’s Knish Cart parked by the playground situated between the two buildings that constituted our humble house of midrash. Normally, I was no fan of the squarish Gabila Knish. I found the filling pasty and brick-like, and the thick, thermal-textured, turmeric yellow dough that enclosed it bland and aesthetically displeasing. But I was too hungry and there was absolutely no time for a round trip to the Knisheria I favored on New Utrecht Ave.8 And so it was any knish in a storm. The guy pulled one from the heated tray, cut it in half horizontally, slathered it with good deli mustard, slapped the two pieces together, and bagged it. I grabbed the battered aluminum salt dredge affixed to the cart with fraying sisal, and showered the inside of the bag with NaCl. I went to the corner store and bought a Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry, after which I made myself to home on a nearby stoop and chewed both on my knish and on the lessons learned from the fable Kurzrock had burdened me with.
For almost six decades this was my myth of the myth of Onan. Then I went textual and I was shocked to discover that the story of Onan took place in Genesis, where, it is written, Onan, son of Judah (who, along with his other brothers, sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt), had entered into a Levirate marriage with his sis-in-law (Tamar) after his brother (Er) had bought the farm, the mortgage paid by Yahweh, whom he had displeased. Were Onan to knock Tamar up, as he was expected to, the children would be raised as the spawn of Er. Onan wouldn’t abide by such backwards bullshit, and so, as he was about to cum, he pulled out, preventing his jizz from taking a swim up the fallopian tubes to their appointment with insemination. This defiance brought the murderous wrath of the Almighty down on his keppeleh (and originated the go-to form of Catholic contraception).
The real myth of Onan—pre-Exodus, pre-Sinai—clearly didn’t go the way I remembered Reb Kurzrock detailing it. What other Basic Building Blocks o’ Bob, I wondered, had been piled on the shifting sands of false memories?
As I voyaged through the bits and bytes that made up the ROM of my weltanschauung, I pretty soon, like almost instantly, found myself a pube hair’s width from an existential crisis that threatened to Titanic-ize my psychic ship. But as I was preparing to sink into an ocean of despair, I experienced one of those rare moments when I successfully pulled off the trick of grace under pressure. I asked myself a simple question: So fucking what? What did it matter whether anything or everything I ever knew or thought I believed was derived from untrue shit I had either made up or misremembered in some mondo-fahrcocktah way. And the answer was obvious—it made no difference at all; so it made me no never mind whether I had been taught the story of Onan as I thought I had or had dreamed it up. Either way this tale of auto-carnal crime and punishment was the bedrock foundation for my endless guilt about nearly everything I’d done, or had even thought about doing en la arena carnal, since the moment it had magically or post-hypnotically or delusively interjected itself into my naïve, defenseless, unsuspecting superego.
And nothing as simple as a fact would ever change that.
1 It consists of the Five Books, The Prophets, and some assorted other holy writ and could legitimately be referred to as The Whole Megillah.
2 When I was a kid our daily dinner — Rumanian tenderloin, frozen fries, and Del Monte peas & carrots or Green Giant Niblets — began with my pops downing his nightly shot of J & B Scotch (the schnapps of choice in shtetl households), after which he would fill a glass with seltzer from the cobalt blue siphon (we had a case delivered every week), and down that as well. Before we broke challah in earnest, he would encourage me to swig some fizzy water as well, explaining that Drinking seltzer is good for the kishkes, Rob-it, by which he meant that seltzer somehow acted as Drano for intestines mucilaged with shit, the inevitable result of a diet free of fresh vegetables and roughage. And in the I Spit on Your Grave spirit of Ashkenazi cuisine — if we can get past the irony that the last two syllables for the Hebrew word for European Jews is nazi — kishka is also the name of a deli appetizer (also called stuffed derma or Jewish haggis), which gets its burnt sienna color from copious amounts of grated carrot and paprika, and counts among its other ingredients onions, garlic, paprika, and matzo meal all bound together by gallons of schmaltz, stuffed inside the large intestine of a cow, boiled, sliced, griddle fried, and sometimes drowned in gravy. No amount of seltzer, J & B, or simvastatin can unclog your kishkes if you indulge in a daily diet of dee-lish kishka.
3 Which happens on the high holy day of Yom Kippur, pronounced yahm-key-pooor by the goyishe talking-head newsmen tasked with informing Amurrica that the yids had survived another year and were once again fasting, beating their breasts, supplicating their god to spare them because, they believed, on this day God would decide who shall live and who shall die — kind of like Jewish Christmas only Yahweh Claus’s only gift, should he choose to bestow it, is to let you live another year.
4 In Cecil B. Bazoo World, Eddie G., the only known Jew in a cast of thousands, played Dathan the Pharaoh’s house Jew, overseer and governor of the enslaved chosen people, who during the entirety of the Exodus plays bad angel to Moses’s good and uses every hiccup along the way to the land of milk and honey to urge the return to bondage. And this was not the first time Cecil pulled this kind of shit. The only notable tribal member in Samson and Delilah — Hedy Lamarr—was cast as the villainess of the piece. On another front, I recently told My Colleague the Born-Again Frum Screenwriter the story of Hedy — how she made her biz bones by appearing in her birthday suit in the 1933 Czech romantic flicker Ecstasy; how she was married to a yid arms dealer who abused her and sold said arms to the Nazis; how she fled Europe and became a star in the States; and most importantly, how she used her brilliant, autodidactic noodle to develop, with a fellow refugee, the technology that eventually led to the development of Bluetooth and wireless communication. Without missing a beat, Frum said, And that’s why they call her Hedy, which is why they pay him the big bucks.
5 For no other reason than this phrase contains dance of, I am brought to mind of the delirious montage in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind in which Dorothy Malone, the drunken, spiteful, lovesick nympho daughter of an oil baron, enters her boudoir, puts a hot platter on her hi-fi, slips into a comfortable, flowing, overbuilt piece of lingerie, and proceeds to perform the dance of the single scarlet veil; as the gyrations of this color-by-Technicolor Salome build in intensity, a nihilist smirk fixed on her scarlet lips, her salacious swaying is intercut with her world-weary pops trudging up the outsized staircase of the family manse, stroking out, and tumbling back down as the inevitable climax of what My Friend the Film Critic joyfully dubbed Dotty’s Dance of Death.
6 At the time I didn’t know self-abuse from self-medicate, though I later learned both had the ideal addictive qualities to seamlessly mesh into my twisted young adulthood.
7 I always assumed it was spelled bucher and referred to the books we studied in yeshiva, derived from the Yiddish buch, but according to the Google, specifically the wiki-answers, it is spelled bocher, means boy, and refers to the young ones who find themselves chained in bondage to the books of holy writ in the Mines of Midrash.
8 A knish (or two) was my womb’s reward for surviving the weekly appointment I had with Dr. Bernstein, Boro Park allergist and husband to my uncle’s wife’s (Aunt Gertie’s) sister. My weekly torture began with multiple stabbings using short-needled syringes, followed by his packing my nasal passages with medicated cotton so tight that the young, obese, nose-breathing Rob-it was certain he would suffocate, and which concluded with a half hour under a burningly hot sunlamp as the womb sat over me with a look of annoyed concern. The ordeal was ostensibly intended to desensitize me of my horrifying histaminic response to almost every carbon-based foodstuff, life form, and derivative.