When My Daughter the Conscience was in third grade her teacher took a census of how many of the great religions of the world were practiced by her rainbow coalition of gifted and talented kiddies. When it came time for Conscience to chime in, she said None. Teach, assuming no for none, and thereby concluding that Conscience was behaving refractorily, pressed the issue. After a mini Who’s on First between Teach and Tochter, it was finally understood that Conscience wasn’t being disrespectful, that she had, in fact, answered the question, that she was, bless her heart, an atheist. This perfectly reasonable answer sent shockwaves through the class; none of them, Teach included, could understand, let alone tolerate, having a disbeliever in their midst.
As Conscience ate a solitary lunch that day, she was approached by a self-appointed delegation of two, one the daughter of a reformed rabbi and the other a full-fledged papist, who got inquisitional with her. They wanted to know how Conscience could possibly explain existence absent god. Who, after all, had made her? Mistaking religious bullying for a thirst for knowledge, Conscience gave the two devout dumbkopfs a lesson in reproductive mechanics, for which trouble she was rewarded with an invitation to the Principal’s office.
In “The Passing of Grandison,” the Colonel, pappy of the scion simpleton who initiates the action that propels this screwball tale of high-IQ slaves and low-lumen massas, added to paternal affection a considerable respect for his son as the heir of a large estate. He himself had been “raised” in comparative poverty, and had laid the foundations of his fortune by hard work; and while he despised the ladder by which he had climbed, he could not entirely forget it, and unconsciously manifested, in his intercourse with his son, some of the poor man’s deference toward the wealthy and well-born.
If you were to swap out Mammon for metaphysics, the Colonel (think Eugene Pallette1 ) for me, and Scion for Conscience, the dynamic of the relationship still holds true. It goes without saying2 that I was muy proud of how Conscience had spoken truth to power and had stood unwavering against the category five headwinds of dogmatic intolerance but, unlike the Colonel, whose ambivalence stemmed from a laughably lame sense of class shame, my ambivalence, which subverted my state of kvellaciousness, derived from the much lower chakra feelings of inadequacy and envy; inadequate because I was pretty certain I wouldn’t have had the testicular fortitude to stand up against the harmonious, worry-free, pig-ignorant sectarianism3 of the class, and envious because I wished that I had had as solid a support system to rely on (as Conscience) when, at a young age and in a messy and solitary set of cartoonish meditations on the nature of good and evil, I wrestled with the question of god’s existence.
When I was a tyke on the Lower East Side, there were three delis I frequented, each for its own specialty. On Essex between Hester and Grand, along the same block where Hollander’s and Guss’s vied for sour pickle supremacy, Isaac Gellis was the place I went whenever I yearned for a perfectly grilled, snappy tube of kosher, garlicky, mystery beef; on East Broadway, near the confluence of Essex and Rutgers, next door to Cheap Naftali’s storefront, was my deli of choice for steamy, peppery pastrami; and when it was french fries I had a jones for, I always hightailed it over to the southeast corner of Rutgers and Madison, where the spuds were crisp and greasy. Unlike the other delis, clean and bright fress4 palaces, this one was dim, gloomy, cavernous, and almost always empty except for the regulars, a group of gaunt and sallow older men who always sat round the same table in a back corner, drinking Red Rose tea in glasses wrapped in napkins, slurp-sipping the dark, steamy brew through sugar cubes vised in their mouths, which made them look as if a rictus of cruel malignity [had] lit up greyly their old bony faces.5
The fries there were not the uniform yellow matchsticks from the McDonalds of yore that had taken their bath in bubbling beef tallow, or the snappy, slightly golden, double-fried duck-fat frites ubiquitous now in brasseries from Wiliamsburgh to Walla Walla. The finished product from my deli came out of the fry-o-lator crisp yet pliant, creamy to the bite, the color (courtesy of the Maillard effect) of burnt umber. In gentrified New York, those fries live now only in my memory, but if you’ve ever been to Montreal, to The Main or Chez Schwartz (Charcuterie Hebraique) on St. Laurent, or Lesters on Bernard in the Outremont, just down the block from Cheskies, the heimishe bakery that makes a killer apricot hamentashen, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
One summery day between kindergarten and first grade, I snuck over to the fries deli with my Puerto Rican friend Myrtha because, craven sluck that I was, I didn’t want to be seen with her (another story entirely). She really wanted to taste the fries I had been raving about.
We bellied up to the counter and gave our order. The counterman reached into a vat of water, pulled a pair of peeled potatoes out of their brine, dried the spuds off, stuck them in a gray metal contraption attached to the wall, and pulled down on the handle. Perfectly cut fries flew out from the bottom. He popped them into a basket and lowered it into the foaming fat.
When he was satisfied they were umbery enough, he lifted the basket out of the cauldron, angled it at forty-five degrees, banged it a few times on the fry-o-lator’s stainless steel lip to shake off excess oil, and tossed them into brown-paper kraft lunch bags. He sprinkled the contents with kosher salt from a battered aluminum shaker and neatly folded the tops — at the precise moment when the bags sprouted glorious grease blossoms and I began to salivate like a bloodthirsty giant getting the scent of a fee-fi-fo-fum English-munn.
I had been going to this deli since forever, but I had never noticed until this day, as the counterman handed over his ur-artisanal fries, that he had a series of tattooed numbers running along the outer side of his left forearm.
Seeing this left me curious, confused, disturbed. Here’s why:
As far back as I could remember, every summer Sunday the parentals would schlep my brother and me to Brighton Beach. After we spread the blanket, got down to our trunks, and tipped our toes in the Atlantic, we would reconvene at the blanket for our picnic lunch, during which the Womb would go on a nonstop play-by-play of the passing parade with special emphasis on the Bad Element and their heathen signifiers, prominent among which were huge crosses, sometimes adorned with bright red baubles, always anchored by a hanging Yushka,6 as well as gaudy, vibrant tattoos of (again) Yushka, also hearts — pierced by Cupid’s arrow and emblazoned with platonic shiksa names like Claudette, Myrna, and Gilda — birds of prey, and snakes, of course, those malign reptiles responsible for our expulsion from the Edenic Garden. And every time one of these pagan peacocks strutted by, my Womb would make crazy-eyes contact with me and say, A Jew is never allowed to get a tattoo. Do you hear me, Rob-it?
How could I not, since you’re screaming it at a distance of mere millimeters — the whole of the microscopic personal space you allow me, would have been the grown-up version of what I was thinking, which, by this time, I knew better than to even attempt to articulate in my straitened kiddie-speak, and so instead I just nodded my head in affirmation.
And I had taken to heart what the Womb had hysterisized to me about adorning the body in ungodly ways, which is why, that very evening, over a dinner of skirt steak, Del Monte Spanish rice, and Kounty Kist peas and carrots, I asked the Father-Mother straight up to explain to me why, if tattoos were the fleshly ornaments of idol worshipers, did the yid counterman at the deli have numbers etched in his arm?
Womb and Seed went silent, and solemn.
It was when they started talking again that I first learned about the six million, about Auschwitz and the tattoos, about never forgetting, and, most importantly, why it was always necessary to see everything through this existential, binary, algebraic expression — whatever the fuck it was, was it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?
When you’re six or seven years old, it’s all one not-so-big picture. The physical boundaries of the world — its frame — ran east down Grand as far as Columbia and the Hillman Houses, north to Delancey, west to Essex, and finally east again, to Rutgers as far as Madison. It was a world that included the three delis and three movie theaters, two Loew’s named for their locations on Canal and Delancey and the Apollo on Clinton, between Stanton and Delancey, by the police station and the entrance to the Williamsburgh Bridge, over which we would sometimes go by bus, either to visit the Men in Black branch of Papa’s mishpucha, or to take a trolley from the terminus into deepest, darkest Ebinger’s Brooklyn for blackout cake with the Womb’s shetl trailer-trash limb of the family tree; it was a busy world filled with pushcarts and pickle barrels, a melting pot Tower of Babel where the blather of Slavo-Español-Yiddish-Italiano filled the air.
This tiny phenomenal world provoked whatever meager, maladjusted meditations pinballed around in my doofy little anima. Since I was a peewee solipsist (is there any other kind of peewee?), my obsessions revolved around questions of peer group relativity: Why did Larry Burke get a bigger portion of baked beans than me, when both were doled out, one right after the other, from the same ladle, wielded by the same schlub manning the sultry steam table behind the vaporous glass, along the chrome, tri-rail line of the Garden Cafeteria, and what did that say about me? How come every time Herbie Mondschein opened up a pack of Topps Baseball Cards, a treasure, a Jackie Robinson card or an Al Rosen one, stared up at his smug punim, while I felt sweepstakes-winner lucky if my pack of scrubs came complete with a piece of flat, crappy, ossified bubble gum, and what did that say about me? Or in an issue of elemental importance, why, when Marty Stitchel punched his spaldeen, did it fly off his fist and carry, carry, carry, sometimes the length of the whole block, or at least seemed like it did, while when I made contact with the same high-bounce ball, I was lucky if it reached first base on a lazy fly, and what did that really say about me?
The obvious answer was that these broody ruminations reflected how I saw myself in my Lilliput world — that even though my physical address might have been 57 Suffolk Street, psychically I had already made myself uncomfortably to home in a tiny, underlit, poorly ventilated studio in the basement of the Inferiority Complex.
And while this retreat still placed me squarely on the kiddie continuum, albeit unusually close to the wackadoodle end of the spectrum, learning of the six million sent me plummeting through a black hole; it filled my already verschimmelt head with dread and confusion, setting me apart from my feckless contemporaries, who were concerned only to recap the latest episode of The Lone Ranger or prove whose tzitzit fringes were longer, because in addition to having whatever latest humiliation I endured at their little hands looping around inside my skull, I now had to deal with the thought of spectral Nazis hunting me down — a⚡⚡hole storm troopers, their German shepherds growling, straining at the leash, lurking round every dark corner of what used to be my tenement heaven.7
And because learning of the Holocaust coincided with my matriculation into the first grade of ortho elementary school, the six million hung over my head like the Spear of Destiny8 as I worked my way through the five books of Thou Shalt Not, which we began reading, in the original, on my very first day of school.
Even on that first pass through the book, the up-and-down, hither-and-yon tale of the trials and tribs of the wandering tribe had me wondering how this roller-coaster narrative squared with what had gone down in Europe like just ten years earlier.
Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, is bought by Potiphar, captain of the palace guard; Potiphar’s wife gets the hots for Joseph, he rebuffs her, she screams rape, he’s carted off to the hoosegow; Pharaoh has a nightmare — seven fat cows swallowed by seven emaciated ones, seven plump stalks of grain swallowed by seven sickly ones; none of his soothsayers can interpret it; he calls on Joseph; Joseph sees seven years of fat followed by seven years of lean; Pharaoh chooses ant over grasshopper, stores much grain, Egypt weathers the drought; as his reward Joseph’s extended family is invited to resettle and prosper in Egypt’s land; they do, prompting the natives to jealousy; old Pharaoh dies, new Pharaoh, a savvy politico, is sworn in, and, as one of his first acts in office, enslaves the Jews, puts them to work building pyramids and sphinxes. 9
Four hundred years later soothsayers warn of a Jewish savior; Pharaoh orders the killing of all Jewish-born boys; Moses’s mom puts him in a baby ark and Bithiah, Pharaoh’s barren daughter, finds him among the reeds; Moish, now three, a literal prince of the household, grabs the crown off Grampy’s10 head; advisors advise killing the kid on the spot; Jethro the Midianite, Moses’s future pops-in-law, one of Pharaoh’s trusted advisors, slows that chariot down by suggesting a test — ice or fire; two bowls, one containing a deceit of diamonds, the other a fry of hot coals, are placed before the child; if he picks up a diamond, he dies; as he’s about to grab a bauble, the angel Gabriel steers the hand to the coals; unsere Moish grabs one and mouths it; the net result — he lives but has a stutter to his dying day.
Moses grows up, kills an Egyptian, is exiled, meets a burning bush, and based on the conversation he has with it, heads back to the castle and says to the Pharaoh, in what becomes his signature phrase, let my people go. Pharaoh says no, God says what? and visits ten plagues on Egypt until Pharaoh finally sees the light, says his god is god, and caves; the Jews flee Egypt; they have no time to leaven bread, bake Matzoh instead, and a holiday is born — that, along with the fact that the Angel of Death, as he glid cross Cairo offing first borns, passed over any house with lamb’s blood splashed on the door frame (the ur mezuzah); Pharaoh has second thoughts, rounds up his army, chases the Jews; God splits the Red Sea, the Jews cross; as Pharaoh’s army tries the same thing God lets the waters subside and Pharaoh’s army gets drown-ded.
The Hebrews get the Torah and the Ten Commandments, wander forty years through the desert, take over Canaan aka the Promised Land, killing all the natives; God even halts the sun on the eve of the Sabbath so Joshua can fit the battle of Jericho and have the walls come crumbling down.
If God could orchestrate the Exodus, the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, the genocide of Jericho along with the rest of the Canaanites, I wondered why he just sat back and let my distant (in both senses of the word) relatives, along with those of my classmates, get marched into Zyklon B showers and then incinerated (which I knew from the chute in my building is what you do when you take out the garbage).
This conundrum opened up the first serious fault line in my faith. It was a gnawing question I could not answer for myself and, for obvious reasons, could not raise with any of my peers or parentals.
And the title of that movie was A Skeptic Is Born.
1 Pallette played Popsie to Henry Fonda’s Hopsie in the Preston Sturges cynically perfect rom-com, The Lady Eve.
2 I use this phrase only to demonstrate its absurdity — it goes without saying is by necessity always followed by the saying of the thing the phrase claims can be glossed over because of its obviousness, but that then must be uttered or how else could we agree or disagree with whether it really does go without saying?
3 Their volkischegemeinschaft-itude, so to speak.
4 From the Yiddish, by way of the German fressen, meaning to devour food, to pig out, the gerundial form of which is fressing.
5 James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; yet more proof you can get almost anything you want on the interwebs. I had been searching for a hard-boiled reference to the rictus grin — I seem to remember both Chandler and Hammett using it — but I came up with this instead and figured, why not class up the joint with a quote from a biggie.
6 Once in a blue moon while teaching Talmud a rebbe would stumble into the name Joshua ben Joseph ha-nozri, this last word meaning the Nazarene, referring to Jesus of Nazareth, who, before he became a messiah was a scholar. Rather than choking on the words, the rebbe would belch out Yushka with a guttural disgust reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune speaking to, or of, a contemptible, craven adversary not worthy of either his time or his blade.
7 Is it any wonder then that when I saw Attack a few years later, I identified on a chromosomal level with Pfc. Bernstein who, during the Panzer counterattack, just before a joist falls from the ceiling, breaking his leg, he sticks his roach of a stogie in his mouth, puts on his best Brooklyn, and says, Those everlovin’ mamzers are trying to kill us?
8 In the world of supernatural booshwah, the Lance of Longinus, the spear that pierced Yushka of Nazareth on the cross, is called the Spear of Destiny. In this ooga-booga universe, Hitler is reputed to have seen a relic of the spear in Vienna at the Hofburg Palace. The loopy legend tells us that the sight inspired him to take on the burden of his Kampf and was the inciting incident for his starting Der Zweite Weltkrieg: he just had to get his hands on the juju that he believed would allow him to conquer the whole damn world.
9 The latest archaeological evidence based on lots of primary sources, including stele and graffiti on the inside walls of the pyramids, indicate that none of this is true at all, that there were probably no Jews in Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter during the Bronze Age when the pyramids were built, and that they were built by a group of 1600 to 2000 privileged workers who lived in cities surrounding the building sites and — based on the faunal evidence of cow, lamb, and goat bones, the discovery of the remnants of large bakeries, and large dining halls — were well fed and well paid.
10 Purportedly Amenhotep II.