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I was talking on the phone with my friend Jane the other night when she said something which stopped me in my tracks. Frankly, I don’t even recall the exact statement. All I remember are those three deadly words …”Jews like us.” (Jane and I are obviously both Jewish). My God … there it was again! After all these years! That horrible onus! Jane, how could you say such a thing? I trusted you! I thought you were my friend!
You see, I’ve always had this … thing about being Jewish. Of course now that I’ve “matured,” I’ve gotten over it. But while I was growing up, being a Jew was nothing short of a curse. In the beginning, I didn’t even know that it was my Jewishness that was causing my problems. I just knew that something was terribly wrong.
For example, back in elementary school, when I liked certain girls, they didn’t like me back. No, they liked self-assured, blond-haired guys with straight noses … guys that played baseball and football after school (while I was “studying”).
But it was when we moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles that things really got bad. It was in that golden state that I got my first taste of terms like “kike,” and “Jewboy.” Oh, how they hurt — right down to the quick. Once, some guy in junior high actually called me a “matzoh head.” Needless to say, I was devastated.
Another bad thing about my new domicile was that, while in Cleveland, the Jew/goy ratio had been fairly even. But in California, it seemed like there were no Jews at all. If they were around, they must have been in disguise. But by that point, I didn’t want Jews for friends anyhow! Nossir, I wanted athletic guys … guys who swore and spit and could act tough! Guys named Chipper and Terry and Buzz. Surely, those were my kind of people. I didn’t want any more friends named Hymie and Pinkus — those soft, little boy/men who already had mustaches and fat, drooping earlobes and wanted to grow up to be scientists.
I adjusted to my new situation by becoming rabidly anti-Semitic. I cultivated exclusively non-Jewish friends. I loved going over to their houses. I loved my own house because it was big and spacious and very non-Jewish. A long, sleek, California-modern house, with a pool and everything! This was definitely not the house of a Jew … no sir!
Still, whenever we’d go to visit my relatives, the magic would instantly vanish, and I’d be back in those homes with the dim, gray hallways and the depressing floral wallpaper. Back with the aunts and the grandmas oozing onions and melancholy. You know — the ones who constantly pinched your cheeks and kept telling you that you were a genius.
I tried with all my might to create a new persona. I straightened my hair with an extremely smelly substance called “Perma Strate” that my poor mother had to travel to the Negro section of town to purchase. I practiced sucking in my cheeks to overcome the roundness of the face. On a good day, if I tried really hard, striking the proper pose in front of the mirror, I could manage to look almost like Tony Curtis, (nee Bernard Schartz) who I didn’t realize was Jewish!
Still, no matter how many preventative measures I’d take, suddenly, out of the blue — horribly, unexpectedly — it would come: “Hey Jew!” “Hey you … Gee-yew boy! God, the sound of it!
Paranoia rapidly set in. Like if somebody would say, “You want a glass of orange juice?,” what I heard was orange Jews. Or if somebody asked, “What’d you eat for lunch?,” I heard … Jew eat? It was horrible.
Oh Lord, there were a million reasons to hate being Jewish. Moles with little hairs growing out of them … fish breath … soft arms … smacking lips … your grandmother picking food off your plate … songs in a minor key (I’ve always hated minor keys. Give me major anytime!) … people zuuppping their soup, and — worst of all — the dreaded chach-ing sound (for those not in the know, the sound I am speaking of resembles someone trying to eject an olive pit stuck in the back of their throat). And then, there were always the “six million.”
You didn’t really think I was going to forget the six million, did you? My God, how could I? That’s all I ever heard about! Would we ever be allowed to forget? Absolutely not! We were constantly reminded of how our people had suffered. What’s more, we were told that we would continue (for some inexplicable reason) to continue to suffer for their suffering … and on and on and on, ad infinitum. Moreover, we subtly were encouraged to feel guilty if we didn’t keep suffering. For a true Jew, life equaled suffering.
Damn those six million anyhow! Because the truth is that there were twelve million people killed in the Holocaust. Do you hear me?! Twelve million is the correct figure!! Besides, you didn’t hear Catholics or Christians carrying on about their six million. No, they went on with their lives. Only the Jews seemed determined to suffer, and keep on suffering.
Still don’t think I have a case, eh? You want more reasons? OK, fine. How about the fact that goys got to celebrate Christmas, while Jews had to observe Chanukah. Goy guys had d—s. Jewish guys had dongs. Goy girls had c—-s. Jewish girls had pupiks. Goys said “Shutup!” Jews said “Shah!” Goys said “Sonofabitch!” Jews said “Oy vey!” Goys p—–d and s—. Jews made sissy and doody. When goys passed gas it went braaap! When Jews passed gas it went phuudd. When goys spit, it went ptttttt-ding! When Jews spit it went chachhhhh-pooey!
See what I mean? There’s that horrible chaching sound again. Truly, that bloody sound is the blight of the Jewish life! At least, my Jewish life. In fact, right this very minute, I feel the overwhelming urge to make some Jewish sounds. I’m sorry, but I simply must. Ready? OK, here we go. Chaccchh! Chaachhhhh! ……Challah! Chatzah! Chooey!……Matzhey! Schotzy! Yahtzy! Plotzy!……Zuck, Zuck…ZUCKERMAN! (oh God, help me — I can’t stop)…SHMATA! SHMECH! SCHMAGEGGY!……OY! OY! OY
YOYYOY!…..NNN….NNNNNN…NACH! ……NACH, NACH, NACHAS!!! CHHAAAACCCCCHHHHHHHHH-PTOOEY!!
Ah, there. Now I feel better.
By the time I’d reached my late-20s, I’d moved out of my anti-Semitic phase and into my I-don’t-care phase. By then, it’d turned out that a lot of a lot of cool people were actually Jewish. People you didn’t expect — like Carey Grant, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas and Robert Redford. In fact, it even began to be sort of cool to be Jewish. Apparently, lots of goy girls actually wanted to marry Jewish guys! But a lot of good this did me. Where were all these Jew lovers when everyone was yelling “Jewboy” and “matzoh head!”?
Because of my negative feelings about being Jewish, I’d managed to stay out of a synagogue since my bar mitzvah. However, recently, I had an occasion to attend a Friday night service. I wish I could tell you that it turned out to be a wonderful experience, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Basically, it was just as depressing as when I was a kid.
Still, the evening wasn’t a total bust because of a very interesting character who I encountered. He was this little old man who had been stationed at the front entrance of the synagogue. He was obviously there to direct people — to give them information.
As I watched, people would come up and ask him a question … things like, “What time does the service start?” or “Where’s the bathroom?” Easy stuff. Yet to each and every question, the man’s reply was identical. He’d scratch his chin, look skyward for a long moment — then he’d turn back to the questioner and reply, “I really don’t know.”
I found this quite perplexing. Here was a man who was purportedly in a position of knowledge — minor knowledge to be sure, but knowledge nonetheless. And yet each questioner was given the exact same answer: “I don’t know.”
I found this to be absolutely incredible! There he stood, not knowing. Was he ashamed? Was he embarrassed? No! Worse, the temple-goers accepted his flagrant not knowing without so much as batting an eyelash … as if not knowing was the proper response to the questions of life!
Soon, I came to see The I-Don’t-Know Man as a symbol for the entire Jewish predicament. For really and truly, they did not know. Still, upon reflection, I decided that I admired The I-Don’t-Know Man. For to stand there … not knowing … and yet to persist — surely this was an act of the utmost bravery! For this act alone, you had to admire the Jews. In spite of all odds, they always persisted.
Despite such humanitarian sentiments, I still couldn’t get that hideous phrase out of my head. “Jews like us.” It haunted me. It invaded my dreams. So last Saturday, I decided to wander down to the Fairfax area of Los Angeles (known to locals as “The Borscht Belt”). I guess I wanted to try to cure myself once-and-for-all by experiencing as big a dose of Jewishness as possible.
When I got there, the first thing that hit me were the smells. All those incredible smells! And the faces. They all looked so wonderfully … ethnic. I don’t know, maybe I was in a weird mood, but I felt a strange new sense of camaraderie with everyone. Somehow, I wasn’t bugged by the old women who shook their fists at the honking motorists as they jaywalked … ever so slowly … across the boulevard. I didn’t even mind the all-black clad, dreadlocked men with the horrible B.O. slouching in front of Chabad House. Even the old lady with the mustache pushing the shopping cart piled high with bottles and rags looked terrific to me. I smiled at her, hoping she would forgive me for rejecting our people for all these years. But she just eyed me suspiciously and clucked her tongue. Go, ahead, old woman — be suspicious! I love you nonetheless, for you are my sister, you splendiferous old bag!
In Canter’s deli, I ordered a corned beef on rye while basking in the glory of My People. My God — a roomfull of Jews. It was amazing! Then, I glanced at the table across from me, where a very obviously non-Jewish couple sat. You know … sort of imitation Brad Pitt/Michelle Pfeiffer types.
I stared at them in horror. Good Lord, how could I have ever wanted to be one of them?! That girl, with her stupid ski nose and her ugly little flared nostrils. And the guy, with his dumb cheekbones and those ridiculous paper-thin earlobes! Hah! What pathetic earlobes!
Go ahead, eat your eggs-over-easy, you disgusting goy dimwits! Go on, talk about how many miles-to-a-gallon you get in your stupid BMW, you repugnant heathens, for nothing you say matters! You are made of corn flakes. White bread. Lime jello. Spam. You are mere fluff! You are but dung for me to step upon and crush with my powerful, thick Jewish heels! You offend me to the depths of my soul, you foul, plastic goyische swine! I curse you! I spit on your graves … for you are already dead!!
I looked around at the Jews. Those wonderful, noisy, gobbling Jews. Zupping their soup. Nacccchiing and chaccching to beat the band. They were beautiful! And yet, there was something peculiar about them. A certain quality.
At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then the proverbial lightbulb went off. The difference in the Jews was that they appeared somehow to be waiting. But waiting for what, I wondered?
But of course! How could I be such an ignoramus! They were waiting for the Messiah! Oh, I doubt if they even knew that they were waiting for Him, but clearly, that’s what they were doing. There was absolutely no doubt about it! Sure, the Christians were waiting too, but the difference was that the Christians knew He was coming, so they waited with a sense of joy. The Jews, however, waited suspiciously!
Right then, for some reason, I thought of The I-Don’t-Know Man. And then, quite suddenly, I had this … realization. In a flash, I knew who he really was. Yep, you guessed it. The I-Don’t-Know Man was really God — the Messiah Himself — come back to save mankind!
What a clever disguise! What wonderful irony! It was absolutely, incredibly, fantastically perfect!
Tears flooded my eyes. I wanted to jump up, waving my corned beef and shout it out loud. Hey everybody! He’s back! No more waiting! No more shame! No more guilt! No more self-loathing! No more suffering! Oh please people! If you’d just stop chaccching and kvetching for one second, you’d see!
But I didn’t say anything. I knew they’d just think I was crazy. And you probably do, too. But consider for a moment. Who says that God’s got to come back with all that thunder and lightning and stuff? No way. I say He’d come back incognito! Hey, if they’d killed you the first time, you’d wanna check out the turf before making the Grand Entrance again, wouldn’t you?
As I walked back to my car I felt like I was floating. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Yes, my dear friend, Jane … “Jews Like Us” indeed! Those wonderful words — which had once seemed nothing less than the laughter of the devil — had been transformed into words of Divine Inspiration!
As I drove home, my mind was going a million miles an hour. I already had the first act finished by the time I got over Laurel Canyon. I could see it now. Definitely high-concept. It would be a forty-million dollar budget at bottom. Spielberg would direct! De Laurentis would produce! It’d star Robin Williams as the I-Don’t-Know Man, Barbra Streisand as The Woman With the Mustache, and Eddie Murphy as the men’s room attendant who finally convinces the world that the Messiah has returned.
Hey, I know what you’re thinking, you sneaky sons-of-guns. Well, forget it! I’ve already registered it with the Writer’s Guild. And my agent has four meetings set up for this coming Monday.