Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Tod Goldberg. His new novel, Gangster Nation, is available now from Counterpoint Press. 

This is Tod’s second appearance on the program. He was the guest in Episode 320, which aired on October 12, 2014.

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9781612481364-1I met Lori Horvitz several years ago at an artists’ residency, where she was writing this book, then tentatively called “Dating My Mother.” She read the title piece, about her recent break-up with a woman whose eccentric restaurant behavior rivaled that of Lori’s mother, who once responded to a bug in a bowl of soup by saying, “It’s pepper. Just eat it.” The piece was sad, not only because it was about a failed romantic relationship but because the mother in the title died young, when Lori was in her early twenties. I was moved by Lori’s struggle on the page to disentangle herself from a dysfunctional way of paying homage to her mother by unconsciously choosing to date women who resembled her.

 

On Super Tuesday, after a blast of last-minute organization, Rick Santorum won the North Dakota caucus. I spent a strange and happy chunk of my kid-hood in the city of Minot, barely an hour from the Canadian border, and I attended the St. Leo’s parish school downtown, just blocks south of the Souris River and the giant red neon sign of the Bridgeman Creamery. Because this was also a time when my parents happened to be grassroots crusaders in the anti-ERA, anti-secular humanism textbook battles of the late 1970s, I feel a sense of déja vu to see Santorum win in North Dakota.

This is another way of saying I watch him win and feel about ten years old.

Family Truth

By Summer Block

Humor

Occasionally, I am Jewish. I am Jewish when watching Woody Allen movies. I am Jewish at delis and bar mitzvahs and seders and synagogues. I am Jewish when talking to a good-looking Jewish man. But I am never Jewish at Christmas.

What do I mean? It’s simple: my father is Jewish; my mother is not. By any reasonable standard then that means that I, along with my younger sister, am half Jewish. But somewhere along the way, my family simply decided that a mixed marriage meant that half of the children would be Jewish and half not. In other words, I am Jew, and my sister is a Gentile. The most remarkable thing about this conclusion was the ease with which it was accepted by everyone.

The origins of this strange myth are easy enough to trace.  My sister is the less “Jewish-looking” of the pair, with blue eyes that inspired envy in my childhood, fair freckled skin, and a charming Muppet nose. Growing up, her hair was a glittery translucent blonde above near-invisible eyebrows. Though no one would likely mistake me for Middle Eastern, as often happens with my dark-complected father, I do bear some traces of the Semitic – darker, curlier hair, brown eyes, and a nose that, if not prominent, would still be a challenge to fashion out of felt. In temperament, too, I have always been said to favor my father, and as a young child I consciously patterned my behavior on his amiable reserve and dispassionate intellectualism, while my sister shared my mother’s open heart, ready emotions, and inexplicable comfort with hugging. Does all that mean, then, that I am Jewish and my sister is not? Of course not: obviously none of us thinks this is actually true, but still, it’s an amusing thing to believe.

As an adult, I’ve adopted a dubious new schema. Instead of representing the Jewish half of my family, I have simply decided to be Jewish about half the time.When that handsome man asks me if I’m of the tribe, I usually respond by saying “Well, my father is Jewish,” a statement that is technically true but intentionally misleading when spoken by someone who was in fact baptized as a child. In fact, I grew up attending Christian churches—albeit progressive L.A. churches, laid-back, friendly, non-judgmental places that were a lot more about acoustic guitars and drum circles and scruffy beards and singing “Kumbaya” than sending anyone to hell–but churches just the same.

So why do I lie? Some of it, no doubt, is just the desire to appear different, or interesting, or ethnic, probably stemming from my time as the only non-Latino white person in my elementary school, who when everyone else brought tamales and kimchi on Diversity Day had to content herself with scones, a weak alimentary link to a long-ago English past.

But also, I like Judaism, I find it interesting. I like reading about whether or not giraffe meat is kosher, or about mechirah, the part during Passover when you pretend to sell all your dogs to Gentiles. Now I don’t keep kosher or pretend to sell dogs personally, of course, but it’s a great concept just the same.

About ten years ago, my father began listening to the late-night radio hosts Art Bell and George Noory on the 10pm-2am show “Coast to Coast AM” and Whitley Streiber on the weekly “Dreamland” podcast. On these shows, callers report their direct experiences with the dreadful and the fabulous, while self-appointed experts (including a panoply of UFOlogists) opine on the hollow earth, alien implants, reptoids, astral projection, the Planet X, and the “coming global superstorm.” Over time, this harmless habit became a veritable obsession. My father now listens almost every night, then rises the next morning to fill my inbox with emailed links to sites advertising time machines and powerful magnetic healing devices.

Through it all, though, my father has remained as I’ve always known him to be—intelligent, rational, and bemusedly skeptical—but these traits are hard to square with his newfound enthusiasm for the Freedom of Information Act and its promised disclosure of the government’s secret Roswell files.

“Look, Dad,” I said, “I know you think all this alien stuff is funny, but do you actually believe it?”

“I believe it because it’s funny,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, but seriously, do you think all this stuff is true?”

My father looked at me and said, “You know, truth just isn’t that important to me.”

Apparently it’s not all that important to me either.  Anyone who has seen me nod appreciatively at a klezmer concert in July would be surprised to visit my home in December. Because despite any Jewish proclivities, I love Christmas. I love Christmas as much as I’ve ever loved anything, and I love every part of it, from the carols to the gingerbread. I have five labeled tubs of Christmas decorations in storage, and every year I drag them all out, then go buy a tree, design cards, hang wreaths and stockings and mistletoe, bake cookies, and make gifts by hand. I love Christmas—yes—even more than I love pretending to be Jewish.

This year my eighteen-month-old daughter is just beginning to get in on the action; she takes candy out of the Advent calendar, says the word “tree” on command, and kisses all of the Christmas ornaments individually every morning.

Recently one of my friends, a scientist, asked me whether I would tell Beatrice about Santa Claus and flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole when she was older.

Now we are a family that believes in science, in progress, in telling it as it is. We don’t use baby words for bodily functions or tell confusing bird-based myths about sexual practices – but Santa? Hell yes we’ll do Santa. We’ll do Santa like you’ve never seen.

“You don’t think it would be better to tell her the truth?” my friend asked.

“You know,” I told him, “the truth just isn’t that important to me.”

 

A photograph often tells a thousand words, or so it’s been said.When you add poetic verse to animated images and the inquisitive eye of both Erica Lewis and illustrator Mark Stephen Finein you find yourself victim to the backward realities and ideas that lurk inside the book titled, Camera Obscura.Memories are ingrained in our minds but are subject to change upon our re-telling or remembering them, but a photograph cannot morph or change into an altered version of reality. While a photograph can age and the shape and images can fade, that moment in time stands still. In examining how a memory can be kept alive or reinvented is discussed in the pages of illustrations here, all while remaining safe in the creator’s mind. Images actually reside in the receptacle of saved images the mind keeps tucked away.  This hybrid work of art and poetry asks us, the memory-makers to look closely at what we hold so dear.  What is real and what is imagined? Do recollections through art (written and photographed) stand the test of time? Do they outweigh the memories in our mind? How and why we recount stories the way that we do? How accurate are our re-telling of stories or viewing of old photos can be when we lose the organic nature of each simply in the re-telling.

“Are you Jewish?”

Believe it or not, I get asked that a lot.

Yesterday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a pair of Lubavitchers approached me on the street, shofar in hand, and mumbled under their breath (as they do):

“AreyouJewish?”

I stopped.

“Why do you want to know?”

The young man, adorned with a scraggly beard and side locks said nothing, but a tiny smile raised from the corners of his mouth. He waved over a third Lubavitcher, an older gent, from across the street as if to say: “We got one!”

Our mini-minyan was in place.

Black Hat #1 opened his siddur and pointed me where I should begin to read the blessing.

With an apologetic smile, I said, “I’m sorry. I can’t read Hebrew.”

“Then you can repeat after me.”

So I did.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leshoma kol shofar.  Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higianu la’zman ha’zeh.”[1]

Then Black Hat #2 began to blow.

A few minutes and 100 varied blasts later, we all wished each other L’shanah tova and I went on my way to the Red Hook IKEA.

* * * * *

“But are you Jewish?”

My great-grandparents were married in Northern Poland, near the ever-changing Lithuanian border, in 1915.

A few years later, Walter and Sophia Wayner were America’s newest Polish Catholic immigrants. They settled in Connecticut and soon after, my first-generation American grandmother, Edith Stephanie, (aka “Georgie”) came along.

She converted from Catholic to Anglican to marry my grandfather, Ralph, and they had six kids, one of whom is my father, who converted from Anglican to Catholic after marrying my devoutly Catholic mother.

Every year, Dad and I shop for my mom’s Christmas presents together. It’s our annual “Daddy-Daughter Day”; a tradition we’ve had for as long as I can remember.

My mother gives us a list that usually looks like this:

  • Clinique perfume
  • Jewelry
  • New nightgown
  • Latest Danielle Steele novel
  • L’eggs (Suntan)
  • Peanut M&Ms
  • Gum

A few years ago, I thought I would mix it up and break my mother out of that darn Danielle Steele rut. I thought she might get a kick out of Carl Hiassen. So my dad and I were in the Barnes and Noble parking lot and just about to get out of the car when, for whatever reason, I asked him:

“What was Grandma’s last name? I mean, before they Americanized it?”

“I don’t know, Waynerowski, Waynerowitch. Something like that.”

And then under his breath he snarkily muttered,

“Polish Catholic my ass…”

I nearly gave myself whiplash.

I had just moved across the street from a hip Upper West Side Reform synagogue and Friday night people-(read: Hebraic Hottie)-watching was my new favorite pastime.

“Are you kidding me? You mean we could be Jewish? Do you know how that opens up my dating pool in New York? I can finally join JDate! That’s awesome!”

My mind began to spin with scenarios of Sephardic spooning with tantalizing ‘Tribe’smen. I had been attracted to Jewish men, culture, men, food, men, humor, men, tradition, men and men for as long as I could remember. I was ecstatic!  I could finally legitimately pepper my language with exotic words like Nu! And Oy! And Mishpocha! I would get into a schmozzle with a yenta who talked about my zaftig tuchas and how I would end up with a pisher if I didn’t cut back on the number of hamentashen I was noshing.

I would be a shiksa goddess no more.

My father looked at me with a sharp and uncharacteristically violent glare. He seethed through a clenched jaw:

“We. Are. Not. Jewish.”

It was said with such a note of finality, that I knew that I daren’t push the issue.

But boy did it get me thinking.

* * * * *

“So you’re not Jewish?”

Walter and Sophia were married during what was then, The War to End All Wars. As we all know from innumerable World History classes, just as that war ended, tens of thousands of people began to flee Eastern Europe because a small group of disgruntled German soldiers, led by a young punk named Adolf, decided the world would be a better place if it was Judenfrei.

The Jewish tradition to change one’s name after a change in nature dates back to the Biblical times when Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel. It’s also an old Jewish superstition to change the name of a sick man in order to “change his luck.”

So it comes as no surprise when Lev Davidovitch Bronstein became Leon Trotsky, Israel Isidore Baline became Irving Berlin and “Wojnerowicz” became “Wayner.”

They were so easily assimilated.

Does it prove that Walter and Sophia were Jewish, though? No. Of course not.

It was highly suppositional at best.

However, my father’s knee-jerk reaction did inspire me to write a film (fictional) about it.

* * * * *

When I gave an early draft of the screenplay I had written to my mother, she called me the moment she finished reading it. She was in tears. She loved it. She asked me:

“Would you like your grandmother’s menorah?”

WHAT????????????????

Turns out, Walter and Sophia Wojnerowicz-turned-Wayner had brought their “Polish candelabra” with them to America…

…and a pair of candlesticks.

My mother had salvaged them from the discard pile when they packed Georgie up and sent her to a nursing home, riddled with Alzheimer’s.

* * * * *

(Pause for me to reel once again from how weird that was…)

* * * * *

“So you are Jewish?”

I’m never sure how to answer that question anymore.

“Yes. Well, no. Actually, I don’t know. Maybe?”

When word got out that I was researching the subject, my father’s side of the family closed up tighter than a Kosher deli at three o-clock on Friday. This is a group of people who commonly refute things written by ‘those’ idiots at the ‘Jew’ York Times.

I have been forbidden to write about any other family nuggets that have leaked from my grandmother’s loosening lips as long-repressed memories are finally being released. I’m also not allowed to talk about it to my Dad or his side of the family, except as a total piece of fiction, and under no circumstances am I allowed to mention it to my grandmother.

It bothers me, though. I want to know. I’m dying to know.

Regardless of the answer, though, I don’t think it will change much for me. I’m not Religious. God knows I’ve tried all sorts of Religions (note the capital “R”) and nothing really fits. I’ve basically settled on the wagon wheel theory of God – so many different spokes bound together and all of those spokes leading to, essentially, the same place.

However…

On the one hand, it would feel amazing to have been a part of the crowds of well-dressed Jews on the banks of the Hudson on Tuesday night, as they performed the Tashlikh. It would be fun to hang with mychallah-back girls in the ‘chood. It would be a mitzvah to go down to my bubbe’s retirement home and convince the residents to vote for Obama – and to do so as part of a project so hilariously named “The Great Schlep.” (Be sure to click that link.  You owe it to yourself to watch Sarah Silverman’s video plea.  I just couldn’t make it embed itself on this page.)

But on the other hand, I don’t want to be like Seinfeld’s dentist who converts just for the jokes.

As a person who grew up extremely white and culturally devoid, I find my xenophilic tendencies overpowering at times. Maybe this is just the latest phase of my ongoing passion for the “other” and once I become a part of it, I will throw it away like so many other things before it.

And yet, I still can’t help feel that this might be something bigger than that.

* * * * *

“AreyouJewish?”

When the Lubavitchers have asked me that question in the past, outside of their Mitzvah tanks on Union Square where you can lay tefillin and pray in the park, I’ve always shaken my head and gone on my way.

I don’t know why I stopped yesterday.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been inventorying my life lately. I feel like it’s time to slow down a little, reflect on all the major changes that have happened over the past several months and start anew.

Come to think about it, it’s about this time every year that I tend to look back on things and reassess. I’ve always associated it with a new school year, I guess. Instead of stocking up on No. 2 Dixon-Ticonderogas and pristine spiral-bounds, I prefer to take stock and wipe the slate clean.

Reinvent. Rinse. Repeat.

I don’t know, maybe it is a Jewish thing.

Maybe I’m meshuggenah.

Or maybe it’s just because that Sephardic sidewalk studmeister was totally and completely



[1] Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has blessed us in his commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.  Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.