The year that I began the study of Talmud was also the year I began my study of Playboy and first encountered the thorny issue of free will vs. determinism,1 a titanic metaphysical battle for which the kaiju analog would have to be Godzilla vs. King Kong.
Each volume of the (you call it) Talmud (we called it Gemara)2 seemed to my thirteen-year-old self to be a yard long, a foot and a half wide, printed on paper halfway between onionskin and newsprint. The main text, centered on the oversized pages, written in reasonably large, bold letters, is in a Hebrew-Aramaic combo sans diacritic marks. On either side and along the bottom, written in what has to be a six on the font scale, are the commentaries of Rashi, an eleventh-century French rabbi, who wrote in biblical Hebrew with some medieval French larded in, and the Tosafot, a compilation of the wit and wisdom of a group of rebbes who earned their medieval po-mo stripes by, among other things, commenting on Rashi’s commentary.
The study of the Talmud was a singsong kabuki, the particulars of each tractate prefaced by the Gemara says spoken in Yiddish with as much gravitas as the little pubescent pischer called upon could crackle, with the entire meditation-disputation recited while wagging the right hand in a circular digging motion, thumb in hitchhiking position, which to the uninitiated might have looked as if the hand wagger suffered from some form of dyskinesia.
To reach my rendezvous with this religious recitative, I had to yo-yo from Hell’s Kitchen down to the LES, during rush hour, in trains packed with women, all ages, all sizes, all ethnicities, but most especially Puerto Rican women, all of whom seemed to be wearing blouses that, to my horny eyes, strained to contain their curvaceous, heaving titties and wearing skirts that barely corralled their wide, wondrous hips and their tight, tight tushies.
While Rebbe Akiva and Rabbi Yochanan were advocating their legal take on what was to be done in the event one happens upon the carcass of a neighbor’s cow, said carcass situated half on the neighbor’s pasture and half on the public road, I was trying to figure out what was going on inside my pants as I relived an accidental frottagistic encounter with a woman’s generous, firm yet yielding ass as I’d squirmed off the A train at West Fourth that very morning.
How could I be judged, found wanting, if this Talmudic song and dance became the soundtrack to my vibrant fantasies? As the year went along, I found myself musing more and more, listening less and less, desiring, needing, demanding the addition of visual stimuli to augment my fantastic memories.
I started small. Literally. My first engagements with gyno-cheesecake were the passport-size likenesses of showgirls that were a daily feature of Earl Wilson’s syndicated gossip column “It Happened Last Night,” which, along with Larry Merchant’s column, was my go-to read in the yid-lib rag of choice, Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post. I would excuse myself from the daily gathering of the nukes for the invariable dinnertime Roumanian tenderloin gooble-gobble and hit the head, sit myself down on the porcelain throne, and there share an intimate moment with the peroxide blond heartthrob du jour.
But as with any drug, a tolerance is reached, and you then have to amp up the dose. Coming home, I began to stay on the D all the way to the Deuce and Sixth, hightail it into the store I got my comics from, and nonchalant my way to the tittie mag section situated over by the elevated counter on the right, the crow’s nest from which the proprietor could keep an eye on his sketchy customers, especially the ones peeping through his used t&a zines.
I loved walking into the store, breathing in the rich moldy smell of paper stacked on the dusty shelves or tied in bundles along the floor. I tingled with anticipation at what treasures I might uncover there—an Aquaman wholly devoted to the political machinations of the underwater empire of Atlantis; an exotic adventure in a faraway involving Uncle Scrooge, the Junior Woodchucks, Unca Donald, and the Beagle Boys; or, in the greatest of all possible worlds, an original Mad EC with the cover still intact.
But over by the nudies the smell of mold was overwhelmed by the stink of flop sweat and farts as adult males pulled, pawed, and perused the merchandise, each one so lost in his world of erotic wonder he had lost track of what his body was doing.
I had, as with most things, a complicated, confused, ambivalent kiddie response to this world I had injected myself into. Guilty Rob-it kept his head low so’s he just might get to ogle the oompas, maybe even get his mitts on a piece of the merch, riffle through it, descend into the valley of the va-va vooms, all without bringing attention to his chubby, underaged, overstimulated self; guilty Rob-it vibrated with fear and self-loathing, knowing he didn’t belong in this cloacal Taj Mahal of mammaries, expecting that at any nano he would be discovered and expelled from his garden of boobies.
However, the more meditative, Talmudic Rob-it had the opposite reaction to the circus of ta-ta peeper prurience he was witness to. Rabbi Rob-it understood on a molecular level that for him this was the right time and this was the right place to be, because at this particular moment in the space-time continuum it had become his life’s mission (impossible as it may have seemed) to understand the powerful force that had taken hold of him, had him living in a pheremonal fog, weighed down by a perma-hardon that necessitated his hunching his way through the world. This Rob-it, a defiant, self-righteous Rob-it, was equally convinced that even though he was the one who was as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake,3 it was these grown men, some of whom might well have been the same age as his slavo-depresso dad, who were the ones truly out of place.
Just as my voyages through Jugs Jungle were becoming untenable, Dame Fortune spritzed some serendipity juice on me: the couple next door to the parental lair, having become completely unhinged, asked me to watch over their spawn while they escaped to a gulp-and-gabble with some friends long upon a Saturday night.
Since I was a lonely, shy, and asocial Rob-it and therefore had nothing better to do, I jumped on this golden opportunity to watch Hockey Night in Canada4 and Chiller Theater as far as my shamefully dependent ass could get from the prying and disapproving augen of the father-mother.
Once the neighbor kid was deep into his REM cycle, I settled into the den, a manly affair smelling of pipe smoke. It featured wraparound built-in bookshelves along all the non-windowed walls and was equipped with both a luxurious, engulfing leather recliner and a color TV. I turned the tube on, tuned in to channel 9, and started watching Bathgate, the Gumper, and the rest of the Broadway Blues get their ass kicked at the hands of les Habitants, Win Elliott painting the word picture like the great play-by-play benshi5 that he was.
When the score hit three-zip my attention began to wander. I started checking out my employer’s library. There were best sellers by yid scribes like Leon Urinal, Irwin I’m-So-Shaw, and Jerome Why-man, an Encyclopedia Americana (this was the time of love-it-or-leave-it in Amurrica), volumes of vocational boosh-wah, and Life Magazine photo compilations themed around historical shit like wars, depressions, and commies. Boring. Just as I began considering a return to the massacre-on-ice, my eyes caught hold of a stack of zines stuffed into a bottom corner of one of the bookshelves. My boob radar started pinging like a motherfucker. I needed to check this out. I pulled out the top one—it was a Playboy. A Playboy!!! I then began to yank out one magazine after another. They were all fucking Playboys.
You have to understand, nothing like this had ever happened to me. I was experiencing what until then I had only heard about from kids that I wished I could be; the universe had finally allowed me to understand what being lucky felt like. Spread out before me was a treasure trove of the sine qua non of skin mags. Enough to keep me busy for months. Suddenly I loved this job. And just as suddenly panic overtook me like a cheetah would a hobbled wildebeest. It would be just my luck if I were to have been given this tantalizing peek into nay-nay nirvana only to leave and not be invited back again. I couldn’t let that happen. And so when my employers returned, I über Eddie-Haskelled6 them in the hopes they would have me back.
I spent the week thinking about this cornucopia of cooze so near, yet so far away. By Thursday I was convinced that it had all been a cosmic cocktease. But that Friday, upon returning home from the sabbath eve half-day study of the begats and the Thou-Shalt-Nots, the womb gave me the good news—Mr. and Mrs. Ta-Ta and Nay-Nay planned another scarf-and-schmooze and wanted me to watch over their little darlin’ again.
On the appointed eve, after Ma and Pa Playboy split, I couldn’t wait for the kid to nod out, got annoyed when he resisted greeting the sandman, was relieved when he finally sacked out and left me free to explore the boobtacular repository I heard singing to me like a siren from the den.
I grabbed myself a zine, March 1960, and immediately opened it up to the centerfold, a (literally) breathtaking pictorial of a big-breasted blonde going by the name Sally Sarell. Sally stood before an easel, a beret on her head, her tits oozing out of a paint-splattered smock. It was a portrait of the artist as Rob-it’s wet dream. As I began a study of the pictures, my cheeks flushed and my temperature rose, as did my Hebrew National.
Just as I was about to explode, I was yanked out of my erotic reverie by a shuffling approaching from where the spawn should have been slumbering. I got up, tucked myself in, and arrived just in time to witness the seedling marking his territory, spraying the parental night table with a golden shower before somnambulating his way back to bed. I looked at the puddle of pee but my attention went into deficit. I couldn’t stop thinking of Sally in the other room. I so wanted to be with my bare-breasted Georgia O’Keefe that I left the tinkle pooling on the table’s Formica top, drip, drip, dripping onto the parquet floor, figuring I’d get to it later, after my communion with Sally came to a climax. I re-nestled myself within the womblike embrace of the leather recliner and resumed the contemplation of Sally.
After Sally had squeezed my lemons till the juice ran down my leg, I eschewed Chiller Theater, where crab monsters were planning their attack on the scout troop of schlimazel scientists wandering around their irradiated atoll, in favor of further investigation into Sally’s edition of high-class nudie entertainment for men. In accord with the commonplace—I read it for the articles—I turned my hymnal to the table of contents, studied it like maybe I gave a shit and was not just kiłling time before I could revisit my afflatus with renewed vigor, and noted a short story by Ian Fleming, whose Bond books I knew from the Book Bar in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the inventory of which I would peruse on my way home from rabbinical vocational training in order to buy a precious few minutes before once again having to suck in the toxic atmosphere of La Casa de Schneider.
Reading was, for me, a chore, one that would often reward the doing of it with a heavy-duty headache for which I would drop a couple of extra-strength Excedrin and wait the ache out, having learned already at the tender age of bar-mitzvah-hood the basic drive behind all drug taking, the drive which a future Excedrin TV ad would aphorize: It’s beautiful when the pain stops.
In order to mitigate brain-pain without the aid of an over-the-counter analgesic, I developed a reading strategy: I would skim—surf some words, skip others—content in the knowledge that I would inevitably forget whatever it is I read or skimmed or skipped as soon as I put the book, or in this case the magazine, down. But as I began reading Fleming’s short story, one word led to another and before I could stop myself, before I could fall back on skim and skip, a full sentence had articulated itself before my eyes, had reached out from the page, had grabbed me by the throat and begun to throttle me. A man who cannot whistle is a latent homosexual.
And wouldn’t you know it, I was that man/boy what couldn’t whistle.
From the moment I first heard Joey Riesueno say it, then tell us what it meant, I knew that my parentals were determined to fashion me into a homo. The evidence was overwhelming. I had had two girlfriends when I lived on the LES. My mother had disposed of both of them. And for the flimsiest of reasons. My first gyno-friend was, by accident of birth, Puerto Rican, with a barmaid for a mother, who had, one cloudy Shabbos morn, accompanied her pal Rob-it to his house of worship: a sin for which she was chased, and he gulaged. My next had been a member of the tribe. But when Mom, the hard-boiled dick, discovered the both of us in our birthday suits, in a bathtub, carefree and giddy, applying temporary tattoos to each other’s nethers, all she could see was a little Lilith corrupting the fruit of her womb and so banished her from my life. This was my Garden of Eden moment, the blossoming of my shame. Soon after, I was exiled from the Garden to Goyville—Schmatta Alley on the downtown side of the Deuce—where I found no kids of either gender. Clearly Seed and Egg had hermitized me in order to more easily mold me into a homo.
Clearly, my parents had made sure that I could not whistle, which—tautologically, I’ll grant you—proved my case against them. But as panic gave way to confusion I tried to inject rational thinking into the formation of my reaction to the nuclear sentence that had knocked me for a loop. It was then I began to muse on the paradox implicit in my experience during the previous half hour, for it had been my obsession with the female form, generated by my burden of the eternal boner, that had fueled my gaze quest and resulted in the fortuitous discovery of the Playboy motherlode, which, ironically, also proved to be my generic undoing. How could one person be both incapable of whistling and yet fully able to (singlehandedly) consummate to the pert tits and ass of Miss March? This was a problem of Cartesian proportions; that disconnect between what my brain had deduced about my parentals’ disposition toward my sexual identity and how my body reacted to external physical and visual stimuli made me a poster child for the mind/body split, an animated incarnation of the Platonic form of duality.
I was at this point so engrossed in my masturbatory metaphysics that I didn’t hear the return of the partying parents, who walked in on me with the offending Playboy splayed across my lap and a dazed look on my face. If that wasn’t enough, in my tumult I had completely forgotten about the sleepwalking bubbeleh’s deposit on their end table.
I wasn’t going to be invited back there again.
1 Which dogs me like a hellhound on my trail. The OP, who loves her some Nova-type TV shit about the nature, structure, and origins of the universe, recently showed me an article in the Times Sunday Review on quantum entanglement, the theory of which is that said universe is populated with twin-paired particles separated at birth that now exist vast light years apart, but if you put any kind of spin on one twin, the other will spin in just the same way at just the same time, no matter how many galaxies long ago and far away it is from its mate; if this is a true-that theorem, then there are things in this universe that can move faster than the speed of light, which has some apparent deep implications for anyone who understands whatever the fuck it is I just wrote. Well, ever since quantum entanglement was proposed in an obscure egghead journal in the ’50s, physicists have been trying to prove the truth of it, with some seeming success except for the possibility—and here’s where the free will/determinist hoo-hah takes hold—that the settings on the detectors they’re using to prove the entanglement are subject to the settings-independence loophole: were they selected freely or were they the result of some unknown and predetermined causal mechanism that puts the whole experiment into question? A mechanism that would enable certain alternative theories to mimic the famous predictions from quantum theory and would make any attempt at proving quantum entanglement (and pretty much anything else, I suppose) a hopeless task.
2 In the ’70s there was an oddly poignant, subversive (in only the best way) commercial for Mazola Margarine that could have been written by a Madison Avenue acolyte of Howard Zinn in which a beautiful squaw emerges from a corn field, shucks an ear of corn, and speaks mournfully: You call it corn, we called it maize. (Note the past tense.) We knew all about the goodness of maize, corn, before America was America.
3 On the opening page of Farewell, My Lovely Chandler describes Moose Malloy as a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck and then, after detailing Malloy’s astounding, pimp-like getup—a shaggy borsalino, a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls for buttons, a brilliant yellow show handkerchief cascading out of the breast pocket, a brown shirt, a tie as yellow as the hanky, pleated gray flannel slacks, and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes—he then asserts that even on one of the mixed blocks of Central Ave., he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
4 Since I believed I was different, by which I mean better, than my peers, I cobbled together an identity that set me apart from them, one component of which was developing a love for Ice Hockey which none of the others listened to or watched. It didn’t hurt that players had names like Elmer “Moose” Vasko, Eric Nesterenko, and Maurice “the Rocket” Richard and his baby brother, Henri “the Pocket Rocket” Richard, or that the most famous Canadian play-by-play guy, the voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs, went by the name Fosdick Hewitt, his first named spelled like the last name of the Al Capp’s Dick Tracy parody Fearless Fosdick. (And if there could be a footnote to a footnote this one would read—I only recently, and by recently I mean the last few days, learned that Hewitt’s first name was Foster, not Fosdick, a truly disappointing discovery.)
5 During the silent movie era in Japan, the benshi were film bards charged with sitting in the rear of the theater and narrating the action while coincidentally explaining the conventions of the photoplays being peeped by the reverent but clueless audience. (For instance, when a gaijin western was sent fresh from the dream factory, the protags were distinguished by the benshi not by their white hat or black hat but by being assigned signatory names—Jim for the good guy and Bob for the bad guy, a fact that rankled because I learned it during a long falling-out with My Friend the Film Critic, whose first name was Jim. Being a superstitious, easily spooked neuron, I assumed the universe was using this cine-factoid to clue me in as to who was right and who wrong in the argument that was going on mainly inside my sick, thick head.) The benshi became so popular that, in a defining act of the po-mo sensibility, when the movie began the audience would often turn their seats around en masse and face the back of the theater, interested more in what the benshi said about the movie than in the movie itself.
6 Leave It to Beaver, an Amurrican family-centric sitcom (1957-1963), featured, as a semi-recurring character, Beaver’s big bro’s best bud, Eddie Haskell. When Eddie faced authority figures, you could practically see his nose turn brown on screen as he acted the way writers imagined a two-faced teen might in the company of adults—he projected a super-sized serving of suburban teen sycophancy. But when the authority figures dematerialized, the real Eddie came out to play. Freed from the shackles of self-serving slavishness, the gleeful Eddie presented bad boy (albeit a homogenized, safe-for-sitcom, ofay bad boy, a toothless JD the audience could laugh at but never feel threatened by).