Friday, May 13, 2011

A Jewish Nazi

My father cut out the image of my mother sometime during his second marriage.  He had his reasons but I regret not being able to study the visage of the woman who had such a devastating effect on our family.

            I come from a Jewish family.  When I was a kid I attended Hebrew School four days a week until I was thirteen.  As you can imagine, I hated it.  While my gentile friends were out playing, I was wearing a yarmulke in a stuffy classroom taking instruction from a stuffy alte-kocker named Mr. Ansky.  My Bar Mitzvah brought four years of religious education to an end.

            I've never had much sympathy for organized religion.  Over time I've cobbled together a personal interpretation of the cosmos and my place in it.  That's all I need to say on the subject.

            When I was eleven or twelve I became fascinated with Vikings and Nordic mythology.  I discovered the operas of Richard Wagner and spent hours listening to The Ring Cycle.  This tied in with all things Germanic, and I was engrossed in the history of World War Two.  In retrospect I think it was about style: the Germans had the coolest uniforms.  I read everything I could get my hands on.

            Then I fell in with an older kid who was a neo-Nazi.  He had an amazing collection of memorabilia.  He had photos, documents, models, weapons, uniforms.  I found the whole Nazi mythos fascinating.   I was hooked, big time.  I couldn't get enough of it.  I can, in a weird way, understand why so many Germans fell under Hitler's spell.  He exuded a terrifying magnetism.

            I didn't appreciate the irony of being a Jewish Nazi.  I rationalized that I was a history buff.  Only in retrospect do I understand what I was doing.  I was in rebellion.  My mother was a Jew-hating Jew.  If you're not Jewish you may not understand this phenomenon.  Trust me.  Some of the most anti-Semitic people are Jews.  My mother planted in me a deep shame.  She said awful things about Jews and I developed a loathing for my ethnic identity.  I also loathed my mother.  Or shall I say we loathed one another.  That's very sad.

            My Nazi friend drew me deeper into his fantasy world.  He believed that Hitler was still alive and that an organized Nazi movement was preparing to spring forth and begin another war of conquest.  Bear in mind, this was 1960, and memories of the war were fresher than they are today.  My dad and all my friends' dads had been in the war.  They didn't talk about it and we didn't ask.  But they had been in the war.

            My acquaintance showed me letters in German that he was receiving from Argentina.  They appeared with authentic looking Nazi letter heads.  They were scary looking.  My companion told me that I could be "safe" and even "useful" if I renounced Judaism.  Meanwhile my Bar Mitzvah was only months away and I was singing from the Torah several times a week, rehearsing my portion of the reading.

            I had to get away from this guy.  He was asking me to paint swastikas on synagogues.  He wanted to beat up Jewish kids.

            When I told him I was done with all this crap, he threatened to kill me because I was now a security risk.  I believed him.  I lived in silent terror for almost six months.  I was too ashamed to tell my dad.

            I remember this scene so well.  Dad and I were sitting in a booth at an ice cream parlor called Jack And Jill's.  The owner created monstrous castles of ice cream.  The premium super-duper top of the line sundae was called The Empire State Building.  It was two feet high with buttresses of wafer cookies and whipped cream, topped by a giant spike of chocolate.

            It was a special moment, being with my dad at Jack and Jill's, but I was too nervous to enjoy myself.  I was constantly looking over my shoulder.  I watched every person who entered the establishment.  I looked so wan that he asked me what was wrong.  At last, swallowing my shame, I spilled the story.  I told him that Nazis were going to come for me, to kill me.

            He laughed.  "That's total nonsense," he responded.  "No one's going to kill you.  It's only kid stuff."

            Just like that, my father dispelled my terror.  I felt as if I had been released from a set of medieval stocks.  It was over.

            Of all the things my father has done for me, I can never forget the relief he gave me by responding as he did.  My father, in his wisdom, said exactly the right thing.  He might have gotten freaky and suggested calling the police, or talking to the kids' parents.  That would only have prolonged my misery.  That would have treated the threat as real.  But it wasn't real.
And dad knew that; he had his own finely tuned threat-gauge that seems to belong in the toolkit of fatherhood.  He quickly consulted his gauge, saw that the needle was way down on the Green
zone, and dismissed my terror as unnecessary.  I wasn't humiliated.  Dad wasn't the kind of dad who called his son a pussy.  He simply enabled me to gain a perspective on the situation, which I grasped with total instant clarity.  My Nazi friend was all hot air.  End of story.

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