When I heard serious Jews are seriously upset Madonna, yes, that one, has proclaimed herself “an ambassador for Judaism,” I realized it was time to dust off Yetta, my dead mother, as “The Real Ambassador for Judaism.” That is, if you’re not counting Woody Allen’s mom who took up the whole sky for her remonstrations in “New York Stories.”
I mean, whatever was Madonna thinking? You can only push ecumenism so far.
Let’s pray Madonna logged some sincere “Day of Atonement” synagogue time this weekend, rending her fashionable garments and beating her, um, delusional breast for being such an egomaniacal affront to ordinary Jewish people everywhere, and probably her Catholic brethren as well. Maybe she even went to church, basking in some fluorescent bulb-lit inner conviction she’s one of the Chosen. Whatever. I am sure if Yetta, my mother, were alive, her only reaction to the thought of Madonna as “an ambassador for Judaism” would be the all-purpose Yiddish term of opprobrium, “Feh!”
And if Mama were especially livid, she might append “Trayfe,” and wrinkle her nose in derisive scorn, indicating the ultimate wrongness at work here, like bacon defiling a Kosher kitchen.
As far as pop music goes, my mother’s claim to fame was once shopping at the same supermarket as Bruce Springsteen, whom she wanted to be Jewish in the worst way so she could pray for his divorce to marry him off to me, a veritable yearning of hers. While it was important to her for my future husband and/or boyfriend to be members of the Tribe (but not Cleveland Indians as she was a Yankee fan), actually she was neither all that religious as a Jew herself nor necessarily fond of loud, thumping music that made parts of your body twitch.
However, my mother had what seemed like a personal relationship with the Man Upstairs, warning my brother and me God would strike us dead if we misbehaved and brought shame and humiliation on our family. As it turns out, Mama was descended from rabbis; her grandfather really was a rabbi in the old country. And her parents, Sarah and Max, emigrated to America from Poland and Russia, and were, at least, religious, one step up from observant.
They kept a Jewish home in the Lower East Side. Grandpa Max, who for some reason couldn’t practice his learned profession, whatever it was, in the so-called Promised Land, sold plastic-tipped shoelaces from a little pushcart on the streets of New York, while Sarah, or Bubby as we later called her, was a wonderful seamstress who hand-made my entire toddler wardrobe. Max died when my mother was 16 and she went to work to help her family out, thus dashing her dreams of someday becoming a lawyer or a fashion designer. These are some of my maternal roots.
On my father’s side, his parents got divorced. Indeed, it’s possible my paternal grandparents, Rose and George, invented divorce in the New World, at the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, there was a longstanding family rumor my father’s father was a furrier, which made me queasy – all that dead-animal karma on my head. Years later, some relative or another revealed he was actually a mailman with quite a wandering eye. My father recalled being taken to the park as a little boy by his father, who visited “The Park Lady.” Ahem.
Officially, Yetta left the building, as they say, back in 1989. So I’m not sure how aware my mom was of Madonna, originally christened Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, birth date Aug. 16, 1958. Although, unlike me, Mama did watch her share of television. I’m so TV-impaired, my fond friend, “Freddy from Fresno,” not his real name, periodically quizzes me on TV show content, as a compassionate gesture so I won’t be deficient with respect to the true American experience.
Growing up, we were the only Jews on our street in white-bread West Long Branch, N.J. Briefly, I wanted to be Catholic. I was aware as a child, though, how Hollywood seemed to have a history of celebrities converting to Judaism. When I was a little girl, it was Sammy Davis Jr. and Liz Taylor, among others. “See,” Yetta, my mother, gloated, “Everyone wants to be Jewish. You’re so lucky!”
She meant it. Eventually, I would come around to my mother’s viewpoint, when I met a young woman who had actually converted to Judaism so she could play Mahjongg. A Madonna for her time.
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