Posts by admin.

Who Wants Extra Credit?

The Bar Mitzvah is an important rite of passage–that most secular Jewish boys in America do not really like. Most secular Jewish boys wind up pressed into religious instruction as an additional commitment after school and on Sundays, possibly to keep us from watching more TV. Most parents have to strike up a deal that you HAVE to go to Hebrew school at least until you are bar mitzvahed.

hebrewgreatneck

Fun!

Bar mitzvah has somehow become a verb when it’s really a noun.

I had a b’nai mitzvah. As a tail end of the baby boom, I had to share my bar mitzvah, because there were a LOT of kids at Temple Israel. There was a Friday night bat mitzvah, my b’nai mitzvah, followed by a kid whose parents opted to use the Temple’s caterers, so his was Saturday afternoon. All they had to do was walk down the hall to the catering hall. We drove to a country club that is now a gated community.

Anyway, our temple had a Hebrew High School. Originally, it was in a former private residence that had fallen to ruin. Behind it, they built, in 1973, the Youth House. It is a testament to the intersection of poured concrete and 1970s colors. I recall a very large gimmel adorning a red or orange door. To make it hip, there was a kitchen with kosher pizza and Coke cans with Hebrew writing, to lure us into Judaism. Or lure us further.

For some reason, I actually went to Hebrew High School, beyond the mandated bar mitzvah. A lot of us did. I enjoyed this more than the horrible two years with Rabbi Mayerfeld, who clearly hated children with a passion (see previous blog post for my vitriol).

Although, for some reason, I also grew weary of it and skipped a year. I was “welcomed back” with the notion that I would somehow make up that year by writing a special paper about Ethiopian Jews. That was a lovely fiction. I never wrote the paper, and I graduated with my classmates anyway. Frankly… they needed me a lot more than I needed them. This was extra credit time. Were they really going to turn away a nerdy kid who took Hebrew AND Yiddish classes?

The t-shirt is from this era. It was sold around Great Neck. The spelling, to me, is more Yiddish than Hebrew, actually. I think they even allowed this as gym wear. It’s a collector’s item nobody wants. Today in Great Neck, it is much more likely that kids would wear this shirt in Farsi, which I now hear every single day. A fascinating and foreign language I shall never learn.

The Hebrew High School was a good experience, though. We had teachers who clearly were too young to teach mixed in with kindlier older teachers, none of whom I wanted to see harmed in any way. Except for the time when one old idiot insisted that my Aunt Mary was really Aunt Miriam. Hello! No one ever calledher thatn. He though Mary was “too Christian.” It turns out her Hebrew name was Marya or MIriam, but she thought that sounded too Jewish. Even her legal English name, Molly, was “too Jewish.”

We had one earnest young woman who taught us about Jewish thought. Another was a no-nukes hippy who taught the class, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Jesus But Were Afraid to Ask.” Because many Jews never learn anything about Jesus outside of Ben Hur (a great Jewish movie, about a gay Roman, his Jewish boyfriend, and Jesus). We also had a comparative religion class in which we almost brought a Roman Catholic priest to tears. We decided that the Holy Trinity and statures didn’t make sense if you claim to be a monotheistic, non-idolotrous religion.

Over all, it was a good experience. I am still not very observant, but I hvae a lot of Jewish thought in my head because of the place. My brother couldn’t be bothered with anything past bar mitzvah. My mother, of a good orthodox family, was never given any Hebrew education. My father forgot a lot of stuff. I am a nerd who reads, so Dad declared me the “religious authority” because I know that you pray for rain on Shmini Atzertet. I also know which sauces go best on falafel.

Mandatory Gym Uniform

So… when you get to Junior High… if there are still junior high schools… you have to wear a gym uniform. And if I hated gym in elementary school, I really liked it even less in junior high. We were requierd to wear the Great Neck North t-shirt and either gym shorts or sweat pants.

I have a very vivid fall memory of me freezing my butt off on the track, outside on a chilly October morning. We weren’t supposed to wear sweatshirts or jackets, either. Just t-shirts. Whose idea was this?

In third grade, I had come to dislike PE so much that I always wore shoes on gym day, because you can’t wear shoes  on a gym floor. Just sneakers. Then, by January, I started to dillydally in the library. After our turn in the library, the boys were sent to gym and the girls returned to Mrs. Kravitz’s class.

Must-have PE fashion!

greatnecknorth

Must have PE fashion!

So from January to June, I successfully skipped gym. I was eventually caught by a fourth grade teacher with a weak bladder, who wondered who I was when I was on the wrong floor of the elementary school. Grades 4-6 were upstairs and she had never seen me before.

So, the jig was up. The coach had no idea who I was. As a punishment for both of us, I had to go to TWO gym classes in fourth grade. He was forced to remember who I was and mark my progress. This story reached a semi-legendary proportion, as kids in OTHER SCHOOL knew “about the faggot who skipped gym.”

I blame this on same-sex gym class. I didn’t really like gym again until high school. In the winter months, we had co-ed gym. The girls were far less competitive than the boys. So then, I took the gayer sports–fencing, vollyball, gymnastics, and badminton–all in this t-shirt. I was very skinny and the shirt was like robe half the time on me.

But in junior high, my attitude about PE reached the zenith of ennui. All I really remember about gym for those three years was freezing in my overly large mandatory gym uniform.

MORE Tony Quotes

“I have my delusions, but they’ve never been delusions of grandeur.”

“With enough duct tape, —- would’ve been a good lay.”

Goodbye to a Good Cat

Nero my beloved black cat died last month, age 15 and a half. Everyone has a cat they love, and every cat is unique. So everyone thinks their cat is the best.

When I entered my cousin’s home 15 and a half years ago, she said, “By the way, we have eleven cats in the house.” Actually, it was three cats and eight kittens. Nero and his sister were part of a litter of six, who lived underneath cousin Beth’s bed.

When I went to see the kittens, Nero came right out from under the bed, made a bee-line to me, and crawled right into my palms, just about filling them. So, I like to think that he pieked me.

Over the years, Nero had a variety of health problems,  but put up with the poking and prodding. Some of it was quite intense–the radiation treatment for his thyroid, the hematoma that had to be cared for after scratching away at his ear. Nero made a fan of his master’s friends and of his vets. It’s amazing how much he put up with, including daily insulin shots for his diabetes.

A lot of people don’t understand that cats can be quite as loyal as dogs. Nero often vied for my attention against his sister Diana, often licking her butt until she moved from the spot he wanted. After she was gone, Nero got a little bit needier, following me from room to room. Sleeping most of the time, but liking that I was always someplace nearby. Nero also made his needs known, reminding me constantly  that dinnertime was every two hours.

Black cats get a bad rap and have often suffered horribly for the color of their fur. Nero crossed my path for years, and I feel like I was the luckiest guy for a decade and a half. He was a furry little friend who saw me through good times and bad, and was always glad to see me.

Especially at dinner time.

Note to Governor Paterson

Let’s assume that everyone criticizing you is “racist.” Does this mean you can never be criticized by anyone other than your “own race?”

Ridonculous.

Please note that Mr. Obama is criticized constantly and he never turns into a crybaby, claiming that everyone is racist (even when they are). And as a rabid liberal, I find hiding your incompetency behind “racism” disturbing and immature. On the other hand, it’s a guarantee that Cuomo will beat you in a primary.

Finally, a Stolperstein for Cilly Stiebel

Today is the UN’s International Holocaust Rememberance Day, as it was today, 65 years ago today that Auschwitz was finally liberated. Auschwitz is often synonymous with the Holocaust, and with just cause. It was the largest of the concentration camps built by the Nazis, and 1.1 million people were killed there.

By coincidence this week, I received an email from a man in Frankfurt who works with the group that puts Stolpersteine in German streets. Also known as “stumbling blocks,” these are memorials put into public spaces to commemorate people who were deported and later murdered by the Nazis. I had written to them in 2007 before my trip with Eric to Germany, but I never heard back, until this week, when this man asked me if I was still interested in a Stolperstein for Cilly Stiebel.

And who is Cilly Stiebel? She is my boyfriend’s grandmother’s grandmother. I discovered her name while doing genealogy research, and she was the nearest relative left behind when the family left Frankfurt am Main. She was either too old or unwilling to leave, and maybe they couldn’t get permission for her to leave. Within two years, she appears on the Nazi’s “Minority Census” in a Jewish nursing home. In 1942, all the residents were deported to Terezin, where she died two weeks later, in her early 80s.

So, imagine your own infirm grandmother in a nursing home being herded up and sent to a concentration camp to die. It’s hard to imagine it, Yet this happened all over Germany, as many of the people who couldn’t get out wound up in this situation. “Luckily,” another cousin of Eric’s told us that her grandparents escaped this fate because they died before the deportations, but they were so poor they are buried in unmarked graves in their town’s Jewish Cemetery, kept decent only by the good graces of the one Christian man in town who wants to remind them that yes, the Holocaust happened there too, even in a small Rheinland town.

Before I did my genealogy work, for myself and Eric, I never thought my family suffered any Holocaust deaths. And, in time, I found that most of the relatives my parents had in Europe were in fact killed. And then doing Eric’s genealogy, I found that 10 relatives died in Terezin, including his great-greatgrandmother, and another  10 in Auschwitz, and one each in Sobibor and Izbica. The tales are tragic. One man gets stir crazy hiding in a Dutch home in the countryside. He goes for  a walk and is immediately spotted, winds up in a death camp. Another one is arrested and the Matthausen records claim, “shot while trying to escape.” A patent lie, and yet they are recorded meticulously by the Nazis. And how awful it is to hear an 89-year-old cousin tell us that her 9-year-old sister died of starvation in the Riga Ghetto, her parents helpless to do anything about it, and later dying in Auschwitz themselves. Also horrible, the uncle who disappears and there’s no record of what happened to him.

But in all of this horror, there are glimpses of humanity and survival. One cousin tells us of the neighbors who left them food in a basket on the doorstep in the dead of night–good Christian friends who risk being publicly shamed for “helping Jews.” We all know about the recently deceased 100-year-old  Miep Gies, the woman who saved Anne Frank’s diary after risking her own life helping keep the families she hid fed for two whole years. We recently reconnected with cousins of Eric’s in Israel via Facebook, who tell us that their ancestor saved himself by literally walking over the Pyrenees to Spain to save him from being rounded up in France, where he escaped initially from Germany. And so, an ignorance of our own personal relationship to the world’s most horrible genocides are replaced with a horrible new knowledge, but also, connections to family members and people separated from us temporarily by history.

And, finally, there will be some sort of memorial for Cilly Stiebel, out  in front of the address where she once lived. Not exactly a tombstone, but also not hidden away in a cemetery, either. A stumbling block of reality for passersby on the Ostend of Frankfurt.

Movie Review: Avatar (derivative, from the makers of Tylenol)

The good news is that in the latest Cowboys-and-Indians movie, Avatar, the Indians won. The bad news is that this film sort of takes every genocidal theme, allusions to 9/11, and strains of Celine Dion, and gives us the U.S. Army vs. blue nature-loving aliens.

James Cameron has created some beautiful, luminous images of an alternate planet where the intelligent life doesn’t totally disrespect the planet (as we do), and if we could have a dialogue-free film, I might have liked it more. But, the film degenerates to the usual good-vs-evil simplicity, all the way down to a final mano-a-mano duel with everything but a countdown-to-zero clock.

Luckily, I did not have to pay to see Avatar, since I used the free movie-nights offered through my local cable provider. As a Facebook friend said, who was boycotting the film before it opened, watching colonialism in action is not enjoyable. And, watching an apocalyptic attack with shades of the Twin Towers falling and seeing animals on fire? Just not something we need to see. It’s an anti-colonialism movie laden with “destruction porn.”

Of course, with 2 hours and 40 minutes to fill, watching a careful study of negotiation, etc., doesn’t have “BLOCKBUSTER” written all over it, does it? So it’s a lot like Terminator. And Titanic. Here, instead of Jack, we have Jake, and strains of “My heart will go on…” weaving in an out. Enough to notice it.

And, if the humans need oxygen masks to survive the planet’s atmosphere… why is it that they are so often not wearing them?

A lot of the themes in Avatar could have been more interesting if there was a good way to explore them slowly, maybe as a TV series, with 90 percent less violence. It is explained to us that the Earthlings are looking for “Unobtainium,” which turns out to be a real scientific term, but here just seems ridiculous. Also, this takes place 144 years from now… yet everyone uses 20st Century terminology? If the producers were able to make up a whole language for the Na’vi people, then why couldn’t they make the army unit stationed on Pandora have some more interesting futuristic dialogue. A bit more exposition of how bad things are back on earth would also be sensible. I’ve seen enough sci-fi in my viewing history to know that a good “backstory” told in the start of the film would work a long way. Instead, this is just a high-minded cartoon, which is unfortunate. But, it’s the number-one box-office seller of all time now, so what do I know?

Well, I do know that Americans like special effects and explosions, and they abound here.

Film Review: Lemon Tree

I saw The Lemon Tree at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival this past weekend, starring Hiam Abbas (Syrian Bride, Satin Rouge) as a middle-aged West Bank resident who tends to the grove of lemon trees her father planted dccades ago. Unfortunately (and unrealistically), Israel’s defense minister moves in next to her, on the other side of the border fence. The Secret Service determines that the 150 trees are a threat, and the State of Israel moves to cut them all down, first, fencing them in.

Lemon Tree explores the futility and anguish of people who are separating themselves and others, while also looking at the bigger problem of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Salma (Hiam Abbas) winds up hiring a lawyer and the case goes as far as the Israeli Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a media storm brews up then a reporter from Yehudiot Aharanot accuses the defense minister of “being afraid of a few lemons.” In the course of the film, we see the grove fenced off, but Salma sneak in daily to keep the trees alive. We see the border guard in the tower feeling sympathetic toward her, as does the minister’s wife; we also see the Israelis invading her home and tossing the place after her grove is used to attack to the minister.

What we also see are the constraints on personal relationships, and potentional good neighbors. Mira, the minister’s wife, clearly feels bad for Salma, as does the guard in the tower. We see the strains of Mira and her husband Israel; we see how Salma’s merely going into a roomful of men is seen as provocative. Salma is also rebuked for a potential romance with her lawyer–widows seem to be expected to be remain unmarried and unloved if they lose their husbands early. We also see how both mothers in the film feel disconnects with their offspring–both have children in Washington, DC. Salma has daughters closer by, but they don’t seem to visit. And while Salma is entitled to compensation from the Israeli government, she is reminded by a influential man in her community, “As you know, we don’t take their money…” So, the film shows people on both sides who have to subvert their natural impulses due to a variety of social, political, and religious constraints.

Director Eran Riklis has created a dynamic yet simple story that deserves a wider audience. Given that his last film with Hiam Abbas, Syrian Bride, was distributed in theatres, hopefully this one witll be as well.

Religious School Report to Parents

Okay, here are my Hebrew School report cards. Mrs. Rutner was my first teacher. I love how things are rosy, followed by “but.”

“Seth is quiet in class but he seems to be absorbing the oral language nicely.”

“Seth is making very fine progress in every area. Please encourage attendance at Junior Congregation on Shabbat.”

“It was a pleasure to have Seth in my class. Promoted to grade Bet.”

The next year I was taught by septuagenarian Mrs. Kaplan.

“Seth has made considerable progress. He shows effort and interest.”

“Seth has show much improvement in all areas. He should practice reading to improve his speed. [Where was I going?] He should do his homeworl more regularly.”

“Seth has made good progress. However he could do better. Comes unprepared.”

This woman promoted me to Gimel, but the LOWER, dumber track. I skipped two Sunday classes in a row and while she made sure to actually take me into a windowless storage area to give me some extra attention… it didn’t work. But her reports are somewhat pleasant.

I was then handed over to Mssrs. Zapinski and Gerlitz. Loved the former, hated the latter. Mr. Gerlitz told tall Zionist tales to prove a point, when he could have just told the truth. Let’s see what they had to say:

“Seth could easily get good marks–if he were to do his homework. [E.Z.]“

“He seems very happy with his studies, though his marks don’t reflect it.”

What the hell is that supposed to mean, and where is the plan to make me a good li’l Jewish student?

The following year I was graded by Mr. Gerlitz, although I recall a man who taught one of the other subjects. He was the son of another teacher (hence his uterine credentials gave him qualifications?), and he would sweat a lot. Possibly a pedophile.

Mr. Gerlitz reports in broken English:

” A very smart guy, but very lazy to do his work. Seth is not attending enough the Sabbath Services.”

For some reason, Mr. Gerlitz did not include any remarks for the second and final reports that year. I suspect he was spending too much time at Sabbath Services, and very lazy to do his own damned work.

For the fifth and sixth years, there are no narrative, but here’s how I fared gradewise. For some reason, Hebrew Language is not on one report, but I was doing “good” in Torah, “very good, good, and then fair” in Jewish Living, and then Good and then Excellent in History.”

In the next marking period, my marks for Hebrew Language suddenly appear, “fair, to good, to fair again.” Never unsatisfactory, though. The following year, when that bastard Rabbi Mayerfeld was in charge, I am listed as “Fair minus, and then twice as unsatisfactory.” And yet, within ten months, I flew through my Haftarah and Torah portions. Why? Because kindly Mr. Zapinsky was my tutor. And, I had to share my torah and haftarah portion with another kid, and at the last minute, I got the harder, second half because I was told the other kid was not as smart as I was.

So, how the hell did I go from “unsatisfactory” as per the “rabbi” who told the entire class that Mr. Rutner, the principal, thought I was “illiterate,” to being “the smarter of the bnai mitzvah” pairing?

Furthermore, let the record show that during that final year of Hebrew junior high school, I got “Excellent” in every single other subject–Torah, Jewish Living, and History.

I just hope that Hebrew Schools are much better today than they were back when I was a little kids surrounded by vicious homophobic social-climbing semites, and hte horrible teachers with no qualifications who babysat them three days a week for two or three hours.

Ultimately, the problem was this: I was sent to Hebrew School by parents who expected the teachers to teach me, but Mom was unable to help since she received no Jewish education, and Dad did what he could, but he worked hard and couldn’t do it all. And the teachers didn’t really reach out much to the parents.

By the way, I have done a lot of Jewish education, and I am pretty well versed in some things, and not others. But I still wish my Hebrew were better, and that Ulpan weren’t so expensive.

Why Seth Cannot Midaber Ivrit: Still VERY Angry About Hebrew School

So, another Yom Hakippurim Hazeh has rolled into town, and I find myself not  atoning for all of my sins, or some of yours, or fasting. Instead, I just had a snack and then plowed through more stuff here at Breezy Blossoms–my ancestral home since 1966.

Most of it is very pleasant: greeting cards from my first birthday, old photos I thought we lost, and then came the Report to Parents from the Religious School of Temple Israel of Great Neck. And it all comes back to me.

Hebrew School: Where adults who know something about Hebrew, Judaism, or Jewish History come to a school and completely don’t relate to the children they are supposed to be teaching. Most of the teachers were simply not good at teaching. Some even seemed to hate the children. Some in particular I think just hated me. The horror of Hebrew School for me was that by fourth grade, I already was the “class faggot” because of my poor performance in gym. But somehow, word of this spread to the other kids in the Hebrew School who were not even in my elementary school. This guaranteed my complete and utter pillorying as a big fag by the time I got to Junior High School, which was certainly inspired by Dante’s Inferno for Teens ™.

I digress. There were clearly two teachers I think were very nice people who loved teaching. There was Mr. Zapinski, who truly seemed to love the children, and was fairly patient with them, and even once let us take turns listening to his pacemaker after one kid heard it ticking during  a test and was convinced this dear old man was going to explode. “You should listen to it–so you know there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

There was also Mrs. Rutner, who was a truly lovely, maternal woman married to one of the most fuckingly sarcastic educators I ever met–he was the principal of the religious school. By the time I reached my fifth year there, I was struggling horribly in Hebrew. Around the time you are 11 and a half, they suddenly get interested in seeing if you are going to make it through your Torah portion at your own Bar Mitzvah. I could barely read a random Hebrew paragraph out loud, and Mr. Rutner (his real name) was so sarcastic, as if it were completely my fault that I was not fluent in Hebrew. I am as mad as he was. I should have become fluent in Hebrew. I should be able to read every Facebook update my cousins in Israel write in Hebrew. Instead, I only understand every fifth spoken word. All I can say in Hebrew with real certainty is “not now” and “I don’t know.” That might come in very handy at the El Al interrogation before you board the plane. I was able to read a word in Hebrew, and they let me board.

What annoys me most about Mr. Rutner–his real name–is that he was so nasty. There was not an ounce of compassion, or any thought to want to help me improve. Five years into the game, he wonders why I am not doing well at Hebrew? And to make matters worse, he shares this deprecating attitude about me with Rabbi Mayerfeld, not a rabbi from our Temple, but someone with the title Rabbi who was our teacher in the fifth and sixth years, who would openly mock me and taunt me, completely on his own initiative–nothing I did–in front of the class, telling them that the principal thinks I am a Hebrew illiterate. So, when the person who is there to teach you is a role model for the other bullies in the class, do they expect me to be running Mosad?

I don’t know if these two men are alive, but I hope they are in hell. Now, Mr. Rutner I hope is in the Jewish Hell where you go to the Second Avenue Deli and they are out of everything except sardines. I hope Rabbi Mayerfeld (his real name) is in Catholic Hell, where he is force to spend his days in an Irish Pub or something equally Goyish. I think Protestant Hell is too good for him–for them, Hell means flying coach, always. I say Catholic Hell because they mean business–those medieval woodcuts make it look pretty bad. Pretty-bad.

The other problem was my parents. First, my mother: She was raised orthodox, so she never sent for any religous instruction because girls didn’t need to know Hebrew or Halachah. If you can light candles on Friday night, keep a kosher kitchen, and put up with no electricity one out of every seven night, you get an A. This resulted in my mother lighting candles on Friday night and then serving us bacon or sausages before I was sent now and then to Junior Congregation on my own. On-my-own. My mother only went on the High Holidays, where she would hector us in whispers to pray louder. “Let’s hear it!” she would hiss between whispers, to which I dangerously replied, “Why aren’t you singing?” Because she didn’t know. And when I first learned Hebrew and was ecstatic to learn about how verbs were conjugated and nouns declined, Mom made it clear she didn’t want to hear about it. Because she couldn’t appreciate it.

I am giving a major pass to my Dad because he worked very hard and had a disability, and while  we never once went to Shabbat services together, he did go every single Sunday we had Hebrew school to go to the weekly breakfast with the rabbi, a wonderful, learned man who made the group read the books during the week and then discuss the Jewish meaning over a bagel.

Also, it was the 1970s. I watched an awful lot of TV, and helicopter parenting was not yet invented.

The really sad thing is that I should have become fluent in Hebrew, and those first six years should have been a lot more nurturing, instead of more of the same. Luckily, I actually continued onto the Hebrew High School, where I liked the remaining students a lot more, and we had younger teachers who actually felt they had a mission, and were encouraging of the students. Except for one older jerk who decided that my Aunt Mary should be called “Aunt Miriam” even though that was not her name. We also had the nonsense earlier on of my teacher telling me my Hebrew name wasn’t possible. This put my mother into Missile Mode, and she made it know LOUD AND CLEAR that she very well knew her father’s name and that I was named for him. They stopped fighing it after that. It was probably part of the cultural imperative to make our Yiddish given names more ivrit chaya–Living Hebrew. In the 1960s and 1970s, emulating modern Israel seemed preferable to Yiddishkeit. That was wrong. Not only was my mother right, but I have seen my grandfather’s ship record and naturalization, and he had a good Hebrew name with a Yiddish pronunciation. How dare the Hebrew School tell me and my mother the name did not exist? This is also the Hebrew School that sent us home telling our parents to vote for NIXON. Believe me, if you want to send my mother’s head into a low orbit around the Earth, talk to her about how great Nixon was.

More on this later: Excerpts from my Hebrew School report cards.