Tuesday, July 21, 2015

800 Words: 50 Creative Works that Got Into My Soul - The First 20

A lot of this is repetition of stuff I’ve written about. But I’m going to get in touch with many people very soon to contribute 10 of their own to this. As for me, some of these are very familiar from other posts, others I’ve never written about. But here, should anybody care, is a personal canon:

Mahler Symphony no. 3: This piece of music is my highest article of faith - it is everything in this world - nothing human or inhuman is alien to it. Period.

Singer - Collected Stories: My second article of faith. The world of my grandparents and great-grandparents, populated as they saw the world - full of superstitions, demons, and imps, where God’s arbitrary salvation is by no means guaranteed. The lost six million cry out from their lost world in these pages. Singer is not a writer of our time, he is a teller of folk tales with no more style than the peasants and immigrants he depicts. His art is his artlessness, and that makes his writing mean more to me than anything in Shakespeare.

Golijov - La Pasion Segun San Marcos: The work that showed me I could be a composer. Golijov is the only musician whom I know speaks the same language as me - deeply Jewish, but highly colloquial and secular, classically erudite but also immersed in popular genres. He is the first, and one of the only, composers to bridge the gap between classical and popular music without making you conscious of him doing that. He is, for me, nothing less than the resurrection of music.

The Rules of the Game/The Marriage of Figaro/Uncle Vanya/Children of Paradise: Four of the saddest comedies in existence, in which everybody has their reasons. Nobody is to blame, but nobody is above blame. Each work is like its own little democracy in which everybody gets their say, gives vent to the frustrations of their lives, and is forced to understand the frustrations of others. Every character is a different person at the end than they are at the beginning, by the end, some kind of stability returns and nobody’s happier than they were at the beginning, but hopefully we’re a little wiser for watching.

The Simpsons: Talk about it’s own little democracy… The Simpsons, at least the first eight or nine years, will live forever (and seemingly will be on forever too). But it would seem that there’s a divide between people my age and people even people five years younger than me. Friends roughly my age can recite whole episodes nearly by heart. But kids Jordan and Ethan’s age, exposed to cynicism at an earlier age, more comfortable with vulgarity, never had a period where their whole view of the world revolved around The Simpsons - they seemingly reserved that for South Park, great in its own way, but not coming up to their model’s ankles. The Simpsons, thought of as vulgarity itself when it was first on, now seems a relic from a more innocent age. It is the complete show - with every human emotion and sentiment underlying the comedy in a way every one of its successors can only dream of. South Park is satire, The Simpsons is everything.

Louis CK: Comedy is the only thing that ever truly tested my loyalty to music as the most important creative consolation in this world. It’s also the only thing that ever brought me back from heavy doses of overserious music, and Louis CK has got to be something approaching the greatest who ever picked up a mic. Still not 50, it would surprise me if in 10 years he’s not viewed as the single greatest. Not only is his material funnier than everybody else’s, it’s also more serious. No comedian ever felt so human, and when you consider that he also is the single author of one of the half-dozen greatest TV shows ever made during a period when great TV grows on trees, he becomes the creator who defines the period of my early adulthood.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: The first so far on this list I’ve never written about. I have no idea what impact this slight and somewhat pretentious novel would have made on me on any period but the one when I first read it. But languishing at 21, ‘trapped’ in Prague, emotionally battered from a battle-scarred adolescence, feeling far too lonely for someone spending his 21st birthday in one of the world’s most beautiful cities; this book, with its advocacy of stoicism, its almost nihilist view of the helplessness of individuals to control their lives, and its savage inveighing against kitsch and its resemblance to totalitarianism, was like Manna from Heaven, and precisely what I needed to hear to truly begin mending in the years after I lived in a kind of authoritarian regime.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Thus far in my life, I have no patience for the stylistic headgames of Ulysses, and I won’t even try a page of Finnegan’s Wake. But Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an important book for reasons completely apart from the usual stylistic points that make people talk about Joyce. For any smart, sensitive kid stuck in a narrow place of origin which he wished was absolutely anywhere else, Portrait is an absolutely necessary read. Even if you leave, you can never truly leave it behind.

Kafka: At 33, there are three writers that stand in my soul above all others - Singer, Chekhov, Kafka - Singer, bard of the supernatural, Chekhov, bard of everyday banality, and Kafka, bard of the systems and absurdities that keep us from being the people we want to be - all three are short storytellers, and all three have no patience for art in their storytelling. All that’s left on the page is what’s relevant, which burns like fire. It wasn’t until Kafka that we see how powerless we are against forces much too powerful to be reckoned with. There’s no need for a God to blame in Kafka’s world, we’re doing fine keeping ourselves in prison without Him, and long as we stay in prison, there isn’t much need for human individuality either.

Mad Men: But what can be more individualistic than Mad Men? Leave aside the immaculate decor and focus on that central mystery: Who is Don Draper? Really? A good man or a bad man? A self-made man or an imposter? A genius or a lucky sonofabitch? Is he even anybody at all? Is he America as we once were, or is he the nightmare we all don’t want to admit we still are? This is what it means to depict human personality and individuality - a part of ourselves we can neither know nor understand, so don’t give us answers as to who a person is, just ask the question.

Janacek Cunning Little Vixen - Or are we just animals, beholden to the same nature, life cycle, milestones, needs and desires to which every animal is beholden? The only great opera ever made from a comic strip, this anthropomorphic view of the world is what both music and theater exist to show us. It tells us that we’re all doomed and foolhardy with misspent priorities, but because life always carries on with all its tragic stupidity intact, it is a magnificent thing.

Les Noces: I’ve fallen back in love with Stravinsky this year. For all his misspent later years where his music dried up into something emotionally arid, was there ever a composer, in any period, who began with so much vitality pouring from his very seams? The stuff of life, in all its teeming, disorderly vitality, is perhaps more consistently beating within the young Stravinsky’s music than in any period of Mozart’s or Bach’s, or even Beethoven’s.

Haydn Creation: And here is a piece that is about the origin of life itself. Short of Mahler 3 and Cunning Little Vixen, there is no music in all the world I love like this. Haydn’s retelling of the Old Testament’s Creation myth is life itself as it first begins.

Tokyo Story: But what comes after? Here is a small, oh so small, Japanese fable full of universal reverberations about precisely that question. Elderly parents in a small town go to visit their children in a big city, and find that their busy children have no time for them. They go home disappointed, and shortly later, one of them dies, and the children cry because they never truly got to know the person they should have known best. So simple, so artless, but so infinite.

L’Enfant et les Sortileges: What is being a child really like? This very brief opera by Ravel attempts to answer that question. A child is sent to his room for misbehaving, throws a temper tantrum, and all the objects in his room come to life. The boy stretches his imagination to its fullest height, and the more imaginative he becomes, the more he understands why he should be nicer.

Fanny and Alexander: What is being a child really like when adults don’t offer you the privilege of imagination? Fanny and Alexander seem blissfully happy in a loving though hardly perfect family where the vitality of life roams at its fullest. But when the father dies, the mother remarries soon thereafter to an ascetic, abusive, priest. Everything that was once rich and full about their childhoods is taken from them in the cruellest possible way. But life, as always, finds the most improbable of ways to assert itself. Watch the three-hour version, even Bergman himself admitted that the five-hour version was inferior.

Woody Allen: It’s a shame whenever a kid spends his formative years imbibing an artist who turns out to be such a slimeball - especially because Woody, unlike Roman Polanski, seemed obsessed by precisely the sort of moral questions that one might think his behavior would preclude. I know we’re supposed to separate the art from the artist, but I just can’t in Woody’s case. I can understand how a moral gargoyle can make Chinatown, or The Cosby Show, or Psycho, or The Ring Cycle, but for all the weakness for young women that’s scrawled around his movies, I don’t know how a man, even a very intelligent one with a capacity for deception, can make Radio Days or Hannah and Her Sisters - so suffused with warmth and human decency, so compassionate when people can’t live up to decency even as their failures are not excused - and act the way Woody has almost clearly acted. It’s just beyond my understanding.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Scene 3 - Incomplete Rewrite

(Interrupted by the entrance of Brother 2 - 23 years old extraverted and charismatic, short but good-looking, wearing ripped jeans and a tight shirt - and Brother 3 - 13 years old, slightly shy and not a little surly - along with Cousin 3 - 28 years old, dressed in a suit.)

Cousin 3: I dunno… this dumpster diving thing sounds dangerous.

Aunt: (overlapping when she sees Cousin 3 and walking over to him) Oh there he is! Let me see you.

Cousin 3: Hang on a sec Ma. I gotta go to the bathroom. (rushes off stage, barely acknowledging)

Mom: (overlapping, running over to him) Oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy, what a sight for sore eyes (gives her son multiple kisses) If I’d have known you’d be here so early I’d have had us wait to say Kiddush.

Son 2: That’s ok! We can always say it again!

Cousin 5: (finally giving a subtle glance up from her book) No you can’t, you can only say it once.

Son 2: (enthusiastically) Hey there! How are you?? You never call me anymore! (tries to hug her, she ducks the hug from her chair at the kitchen table)

Aunt: You can’t touch her now, she’s Shomer Negyia, it means no man can touch her until she gets married.

Son 2: (immediately) Yes I know what Shomer Negiya means. And that's horrible!

Cousin: It’s what Hashem wants.

Son 2: Oh really? How’s God doin’?

Cousin 5: He’s great! He doesn’t judge me the way you do.

Son 2: Oh you can’t really believe that, can you?

Cousin 5: Of course I do.

Son 2: You know, you’re basically joining a cult...

Aunt: Yeah, but it’s our cult.

Cousin 5: MOM!

Aunt: Don’t mind her, this is just her teenage rebellion. Now stop avoiding me and say hello to your aunt (kisses him on the cheek). I hear your gay now.

Son 2: Yeah. For now...

Aunt: What? Is it like a shirt that you change every day?

Son 2: That’s what the Rabbis always told us.

Aunt: But your boyfriend, he seemed so Jewish! How could he possibly be a goy?

Son 2: That's why I figured you guys might like him. He might as well be one of us!

Mom: (quietly, as if to broach something difficult) I should probably tell you, your Dad was as disappointed as I was that he isn't.

Son 2: (to Mom) Well you can always try to break us up. God knows you tried that a million times with our sister.

Aunt: So men to you are like women and you can just go through them like water?

Son 2: C’mon, be fair to me. Every one of those girls was at least as dear to me as cattle.

Aunt: And at least they were kosher cattle. 

Son 2: Well, sometimes a man wakes up and realizes he needs a bull instead of a cow.

Son 1: (entering from side) Well, you know that saying? Once you go bull, you never go back. (they hug)

Son 2: You look fantastic!

Son 1: Bullshit.

Son 2: You do! You look like a fat version of me!

Son 1: I look like a version of you without syphilis.

Son 2: Still with the manwhore jokes... I figured now that I'm out you were going to move on to asking me if I have AIDS yet.

Son 1: What's the difference? You sleep with men, you sleep with women, you're still a walking bag of disease.

Son 2: (hugs his brother, says, not entirely sarcastically) I miss you so much!

Son 1: I miss you too!

Aunt: (trying to come into the hug) Well, I just want you to know that we’re all really proud of you for coming out. Even if your gay guy’s a goy.

Son 2: Yes. The goy guy’s a gay.

Son 1: So the gay boy’s a goy.

Son 2: Yes, the goy boy toy.

Aunt: (seeing son and moving over to him) Now let me see my yeled (boy). (grabs him for a hug) Oh my god you’re so handsome.

Cousin 3: I certainly think so.

Aunt: How was your trainride? What time is your wife getting in?

Brother 2: She’s coming in with his twin, they should be here in about twenty minutes.

Brother 1: Aren’t you ever scared that she might confuse the two of you?

Cousin 3: Not really. I’m three years older than him.

Aunt: I’m your mother and once the two of you were fully grown I had to look at your teeth to tell you apart.

(enter Dad, Uncle, and Son 1)

Dad: You couldn’t have waited 20 minutes and all take a cab together?

Son 2: You can afford to pay for both…

Cousin 3: We couldn’t all have fit in one cab with the luggage; and I paid for the cab.

Dad: Well anyway, kumm tzu mir mein zohn (come to me my son) (gives his son a big hug and a kiss) Ah leb mav dir (I love you). And I just want you to know that we’re all very proud of you for coming out.

Son 2: (Waiting for it…) But....

Dad: (slaps him upside the head) YES BUT you farshtunken khaleriya (accrused/goddamn/fucking cholera/disease/curse)!… You’re going to break up with this shkotz tomorrow and I’m gonna find you a nice gay Jewish mixer.

Son 2: (diplomatically sarcastic) That’s very thoughtful of you Da...

Dad: (interrupting) You should have thought of your poor Tateh (Dad) and his farshlepteh krenks (chronic diseases)! All the nakhes he felt at hearing that his tayerer keend (dear child) had the khutzpeh to come out was korvened (ruined) when you farkuckt (shat) all over the one rule he ever set on you in your entire kalyeh yungatsch (spoiled brat) life! However long your Mameh was going to live you took ten years off her li...!

Uncle: (interrupting, stepping between them) Easy there. Anyway, everything he said but without the slap. (hugs and kisses his nephew)

Son 2: I figured.

Dad: And nu? (going up to his nephew) How’s my favorite son? If only my real kinder had half your seykhel for anything that really matters!

Son 1: (irritatedly sarcastic) Thanks Dad.

Dad: What? All I want is for you all to make money, is that such a crime?

Son 1: But all I want is to spend your money.

Dad: I know you do. That’s why you’re going to put us all in the nebekh heus (poorhouse) before you move out of this one.

Son 1: Do you promise? That would delight half of Pikesville.

Dad: (turns around to leave room before things get ugly. As he leaves, he exclaims with both hands) Ochen vey! I have a son!

(Exit Dad)

Cousin 3:  Well his kids are great. (puts arm on Son 1’s shoulder) I believe in them, even if they don’t.

Son 1: Oh go lose another million dollars!

Cousin 3: Well that’s the difference between me and my brother. When you’re in finance, you lose a million dollars every day. When you’re in computers like him, you make it.

Mom: Oh he’s not doing that well is he?

Cousin 3: Give him another few years and he’ll invent the robots that kill us all.

Son 1: And of course they’ll start with the Jews.

Mom: Why would they do that?

Son 1: I dunno, but of course that invention would beg the question: would killer robots be good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Aunt: I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes you wouldn’t make fun of our religion so much.

Son 1: Don’t mind her. (turns to his youngest brother) She’s still mad about my idea to make your Bar Mitzvah party Holocaust themed.

Cousin 3: Oy gevalt.

Son 1: The place cards would all have yellow stars on them and you could be seated at the Bergen-Belsen table or the Majdanek table.

Cousin 3: Well (shrugs), it is very creative.

Son 1: Isn’t it? I really wish everyone in this family would stop acting like they don’t hate Bar Mitzvah parties so much

Uncle: I think it’s nice to see all your family and friends together to celebrate.

Son 1: Well at my bar-mitzvah all our family and friends got together to watch Dad grab the microphone make fun of us for forty-five minutes. So I wouldn’t know. 

Mom: It wasn't as bad as all that...

Son 1: He put up a slide picture of you in a bikini when you were my age and complained to everybody about how you got fat!

Mom: I was fat!

Son 1: How can you possibly let him get away with that shit?! I told you to rein him in before his Bar-Mitzvah (points to his youngest brother). Then Rabin (Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel) got shot the day he gets Bar-Mitzvahed and Dad decides to spend another half-hour with the microphone lecturing the entire audience about Israeli history!

Aunt: That history's important! Everybody should know about it!

Son 1: It was half the Jews in Pikesville! Everybody knows about it!

Son 2: Well you're right that everybody should know. It's just a shame Dad gave such a skewed view of what happened. 

(Everybody groans and the circle breaks up somewhat) 

Aunt: (slightly raised voice) Don't start with your self-hating Jew stuff. It's an embarrassment to us.

Son 2: (voice raised more) What's embarrassing is that you build a whole way of life on lies!

Uncle: I don't want to hear this. (leaves the room)

Son 2: Sorry everybody, I know you don't want to hear that your lives are horrible mistakes, but I'm just the messenger.

Cousin 3: Dude, enough, you're not going to win this.

Son 2: Somebody has to speak for reality here.

Son 1: (puts his arm around his brother) Calm down boychik (dear boy), I'm not saying they're not delusional, but you're as delusional as they are, and thank God you've gone so crazy, or else everybody would start piling on me again about what a horrible disappointment I am.

Mom: You're not a disappointment to me. Neither of you are, I love you both.

Son 3: HEY!

Mom: Ah leb mav dir eykh (I love you too)! I just hate what your brothers believe, and pretty soon you're probably gonna spout the same khazerei (trivial nonsense) your brothers do.

Son 1: Don't equate me with him, just because I don't believe in your bullshit doesn't mean I believe in his.

Mom: Don't worry, one day you'll have a mishpokheh and you'll appreciate all the things we taught when your kinderlakh (children) get bar-mitzvahed and have their own families.

Son 2: (resentfully) I suppose you're implying that now I'm never going to have a family?

Cousin 3: Why are you angry about that? Of course you're not!

Son 2: Whatever. Families are bullshit anyway. I didn't ask to be born here, and I'll do perfectly fine if you don't want me around. 

Mom: Ken-a-horeh (that's a horror/God forbid)! Why are you so ohn dank (ungrateful)

Son 2: Don't get me wrong Mom, I'm glad to see you all, but why should you care whether or not I'm part of this family?

Mom: Because we love you, and we know that for all your meshigoss (craziness), you love us. 

Son 2: I just don't know why it should be a responsibility. 

Mom: Stop this! It's azay vi Gott hot gehaysen (the way God wants it). 

Son 2: You don't really believe that do you?

Mom: Why should it matter what I believe? Whatever you need, we'll always be there for you. I just wish you would stop threatening not to be there for us.

Son 2: Well I'm here aren't I?

Mom: And we appreciate that! You're here, and you're here (points to Son 1), and I'm just so tzufriddn (happy) that we get the mishpokheh together for the whole weekend!

Son 1: (suddenly depressed) Well, at least he's choosing not to have a family. Mom, you're just pissed because you know I’m never gonna have kids.

Mom: Shakres! You're going to be a great father!

Son 1: That's the dumbest thing you've ever said! We all know what a terrible father I'd be and no woman's ever going to take this (point to your body) on.

Aunt: Of course they are. All you need is one woman to pick you out of a lineup and say ‘this is the guy for me.’

Son 1: Oh how romantic you make that sound.

Cousin 3: That's what your Aunt did. Do you really think my Dad had any success until she glommed onto him?

Son 1: And look how well some of those kids turned out (points subtly to Cousin 5, cousin notices and shakes her head angrily).

Son 2: You all just need to get out of this Pikesville cage and into the real world. You can always join me in New York. You wouldn't believe the women up there!

Son 1: Apparently they're so hot that you decided to leave them forever.

Son 2: Well, no matter what I do, even people much uglier than you can find a woman in New York.

Son 1: And in order to find them will I have to be set up with all your sloppy seconds? I think I’ll pass.

Son 2: There are millions of women in New York I haven’t slept with.

Son 1: What about men?

Son 2: Gimme two years…

Son 1: Y’know, it really is unfair. You got the charisma, the looks, the competence. All I got was the brains and you were still the one who went Ivy.

Son 2: You still could if you wanted to.

Son 1: With my standout resume?

Son 2: Everybody lies on their resume. It shouldn’t be too hard to fake one.

Son 1: So I’m going to fake a resume to get into Columbia just to find out that the reading is all jargon and the courseload is going to give me a nervous breakdown? Even I've got better things to do.

Son 2: It’s gotta be better than living here.

Aunt: For him? Everything’s better than here.

Son 1: Oh shut the fuck up. 

Mom: Don't you dare say that, apologize right now!

Son 1: What? She made a joke, I made a joke back!

(oven dings) 

Mom: Well it appears we have a Turkey.

(everybody leaving except Cousin 3 and Brother 1. Brother 1 goes to sit at the kitchen table, Cousin 3 comes over to talk to him.)

Cousin 3: So how you been feeling?

Brother 1: The usual. It’s touch and go every day. Every time I’m happy, Dad notices it and makes sure to find a way to make me miserable again. Though I’m sure he feels the same way about me.

Cousin 3: I know you’ve heard this a zillion times but…

Brother 1: I know. I need to move out, but I gotta be ready for it.

Cousin 3: A lot of things will improve when you do.

Brother 1: If I do…

Cousin 3: You will.

Brother 1: Who knows if he’ll pay for the rent.

Cousin 3: Of course he will.

Brother 1: I don’t know that. And what happens if he doesn’t, or if he stops. I get evicted and Dad might not let Mom take me back in.

Cousin 3: That’s nonsense.

Brother 1: (agitated, slightly raised voice) You don’t know that!

Cousin 3: (calming) I’m just trying to help.

Brother 1: (exhales to collect himself) I appreciate that. Really I do.

Cousin 3: Are you taking your medication?

Brother 1: Of course.

Cousin 3: We should go in. You know I’m here no matter what if things go wrong tonight, and after tonight I’m always a phonecall away.

Brother 1: I do, and thank you for that. I can’t imagine it’s easy.

Cousin 3: Don’t worry about it. I work on Wall Street, I see bigger psychopaths every day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Scene 4: First Draft

(everybody comes into the dining room and sits down at the table, except for Cousin 5)

...needs small talk as people get to their seats: 

Dad: Where's you're daughter? Her aunt made her Matzoh Ball soup especially for her!

Aunt: She won't eat it. 

Dad: What an idiotkeh (idiot).

Aunt: (shouting so the next room can here her) Ms. Frummette, you're a member of this family so you're going to sit with every heretic at this table and you're going to like it!

(Cousin 5 comes in with a downcast look)

Cousin 3: Come on, we're not so bad. 

Cousin 5: I just don't understand why I have to be here.

Cousin 3: Because you're one of us, whether you like it or not. 

Brother 1: I don't know what the big deal is, I don't like it either but I show up because I don't have anywhere better to be. 

Cousin 5: But I do.

Brother 1: No, you really don't. 

Cousin 5: (seething) I'm so mad I have to be here.

Brother 1: So much for religious tolerance. 

Cousin 5: (gasps, inarticulately fuming as adolescent girls do) You're so annoying!

Brother 1: That's the nicest thing you've said to me since you were a little girl. 

(everybody laughs) 

Cousin 5: Don't take this personally, but I really don't like you. 

Brother 1: How can I take that personally? That's the least surprising news I've heard in years.

Cousin 5: Why do you always have to be like this???

Brother 1: This might come as a shock to you, but even if you can't stand me I really like you. You're a rebel and you've got spirit, you're not just a Jewish American Princess like my sister. 

Mom: Oy, here we go...

Brother 1: (ironically) Sorry, I'm just trying to get it out of my system before she gets here.

Mom: Wait. She's actually coming? (Cousin 5 looks down to read at her book again)

Brother 1: Oh yeah,... sorry, she told me to tell you she's coming with the Podiatrist and his daughter, I forgot... (realizing he did something bad) Sorry...

Dad: (gets up) Of course you did. (to Brothers 2 and 3 who are nearer to the door) Now help me get three more table settings. 

Brother 1: I'll get them.

Dad: It'll go faster if we get them.

(Uncle and Cousin 3 leave the room. Nobody else notices.)

Son 1: Sit down. I'll get them.

Dad: What's the big deal?

Son 1: If you get them it'll just be another guilt trip later.

Dad: We're closer to the door so we'll get them.

Son 1: You always do things everybody should do and then you complain how ungrateful we are because you do everything!

Dad: Why are you getting angry at me?

Son 1: Why do you have to say 'of course you did.'

Dad: I know, I know, I'm a horrible father, one day soon I'll be dead and you can complain to everybody else about how much I made you suffer.  

Son 1: (over this) Oh my god...

(Uncle and Cousin 3 emerge with three chairs)

Uncle: Here, we have them. 

Dad: What about the plates? (looks at son #1) 

Son 1: Alright, you go get the plates and utensils since serving your children gives you so much pleasure. 

(Dad leaves the room, noticeable pause)

Aunt: Well, I was waiting for a lull in the conversation to tell you all about our special guest tonight.

Brother 2: Oh shit...

Aunt: Helga Bernheimer is coming to eat with us tonight.

Brother 2: Oh fuck. Not that old sow. (Brother 3 laughs) 

Aunt: What are you talking about?

Brother 2: She used to come in at Schechter and Beth Tfiloh once a year to talk about the Holocaust. Every year it was the same thing. 

Brother 1: (says in mock German accent, increasingly screaming as it goes on and banging on the table) "In Auschwitz I vas sent to ze gess chembahs feefteen times everrry day! And feefteen times a day ve zaw how prrrechious life eez. Now you vill give deine money to ze Shtaet of Isrrrael und marry anderer Juden und macht schnell mit ze Jewvish babies...!!" (Brother 2 goes into fit of hysterial laughter)

Uncle: (slightly raised voice) I don't think that's funny.

Brother 2: I know you don't. 

Uncle: The Holocaust isn't a joke. 

Brother 2: Yes, if we make fun of Hitler, Hitler wins. 

Uncle: You wouldn't be here to make fun of him if he did win. 

Brother 2: Well then Thank God he lost and that people like you are here to protect us from Yassir Arafat annexing the Sudetenland. 

Brother 1: (to Brother 3 who's sitting on his other side) Well there goes the next five hours... (Brother 3 chortles) 

Uncle: Why are you making this personal? All I said was that I don't think this is funny. 

Brother 2: You were the one who started yelling.

Uncle: I wasn't yelling. 

Brother 2: This is what you do every time. You overreact when somebody offends your precious religion and then accuse everybody else of overreacting!

Uncle: It's your religion too!

Brother 2: It's my choice whether or not it's my religion and I'm not a horrible person if I decide it isn't. 

Uncle: All I said was that I don't think it's funny.

Brother 2: You spend an hour a day making Schvartzeh jokes and this is the joke you don't think is funny?

Brother 1: (to uncle) Well he is right, you do froth at the mouth about liberals like it's your job and then get offended when people might take offense to it. It's a very Nixonian tactic. 

Dad: I've told him and his father that for decades. 

Brother 1: (to Dad) Shut up Tricky Dick. 

Aunt: (Yells) May-I-Continue-Please?!

Brother 2: By all means you Bernheimer collaborator!

Aunt: Stop it! Mrs. Bernheimer is a very poor woman with no family! Her husband dropped dead forty years ago and since then she's made her living for three months every year in Ocean City selling donuts. 

Dad: I remember her donuts from when we were kids. She only had one flavor donut.

Mom: What flavor was it?

Dad: Glazed. It was the greatest treat I ever had because Mom wouldn't let me eat a donut from anybody who wasn't a Holocaust Survivor. 

Aunt: Do you mind?

Dad: Sorry, I know Mrs. Bernheimer doesn't deserve the life she had.... (under his breath) Even if she is a bitch. 

Mom: Will you just let her talk!

Aunt: I don't know if you've ever heard her speak, but we had her at a school assembly for Yom HaShoah last year, and she was just amazing. All the teachers were crying, all the girls were crying too. 

Brother 3: What about the boys?

Aunt: Well you're all little shits at that age so of course you didn't care. 

Dad: Glad to hear you were so respectful my son. 

Brother 3: I wasn't there this year, remember?

Dad: Oh, that's right. I took you down to Washington for the 50th anniversary. I never asked you, what did you think?

Brother 3: It was OK...

Dad: Just OK?...

Brother 3: It was OK.

Dad: Were you even paying attention?

Brother 3: ...I dunno...

Dad: Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what a Jewish Day School education gets you...

Mom: I dunno, it seemed like you were interested when you went. You were telling me one day all these details about the camps. 

Brother 1: He probably got those from me. I remember when I was a little kid, I read as much as I could about the camps. 

Uncle: (complimenting) Well you were always interested in Jewish History.

Brother 1: (with mischief) And I remember that I would fantasize about how I would have fought the war differently if I were Hitler. 

Uncle: Oy vavoy...

Cousin 3: Relax Dad. It's just a joke. 

Brother 1: No, I really thought about it. 

(door opens, in walk Cousin 4 and Cousin 3-wife)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Scene 2: Completely Revamped

Scene 2 (in the kitchen. Mom and Aunt are preparing food, Cousin 5, 16 and dressed in an ultra-orthodox skirt, is reading at the kitchen table, doesn’t look up.):

Aunt: What’s the balagan (commotion) in the dining room?

Mom: (dismissing it) They’re probably just breyging (quarrelling).

Aunt: (rolls eyes) Ma nishtana ha laila hazeh (Why is this night different from all others?)?

Mom: (trepid) Well,... there’s a bit of nayes (news) from the luftmensch.

Aunt: What news? You told me he was gay months ago.

Mom: Yeah but... (pointing to the dining room) he didn’t know.

Aunt: Your husband wouldn’t care if his son were gay.

Mom: Well, that’s not the tzores (troubles).

Aunt: Nu?

Mom: Well,... remember the meeskeit (ugly little guy), Robert Gold?

Aunt: Yeah.

Mom: It turns out he lied about the boy’s name, the name is Robert GOULD!


Mom: Shhhhh. Don’t let your husband hear, he'd have a heart attack.

Aunt: Lama hoo oseh et zeh (why does he do this)?!

Mom: He doesn't care. He's like a four year old, he just does vos er vilt (what he will) and he doesn't care who he hurts! (beat) Actually, remember when he was four and I was pregnant again? Well... one day, just a few weeks before I had his sister, I couldn’t find him, so I asked his brother where he was. He told me, (sincerely, with a child's inflection but not his tone of voice) ‘he went out to lunch.’ So I went bakhootz (outside) and I still couldn’t find him. I start looking down the road and still I can't see him. That was when I realized that his brother was complete serious, so I ran as fast as I could toward Main Street screaming his name at the top of my lungs and when I finally see him, he's riding his tricycle in the middle of Main Street, with stopped cars honking their horns l'olam vo-ed (forever) in either direction. I screamed at him ‘Vos denkst du ton?!’ (What do you think you're doing) And he shouts back: "I’m going to McDonald’s."

Aunt: (laughs) Wow. How did you not have the baby right there?

Mom: I nearly did. But all I know is that was the moment I realized that I would have to watch him with beydeh eygen (both eyes). (sighs) By the time I realized the other one needed another tzvey eygen (two eyes), it was too late.

Aunt: (resigned) He was always so bright.

Mom: His whole life, I never knew what to do to help. We don’t know from goyisher illuim (goyish scholars), we know from Jews.

Aunt: Couldn’t one of us help him find some of those khakhamim (smart people)? Knowing there are anashim (people) out there like him might make him happier.

Mom: Maybe we could if we tried, but why would we ever do that? If we helped him, he’d just become another ersatz (fake) goy like all the rest. He might be happier but he’d become just like his brother and vermakht (close) his kep (head/mind) on everything we do.

Aunt: You don't know that.

Mom: Look at his brother! Y’know I almost would be OK with our smarkatiner yinglach (smartass kids) becoming more assimilated if they actually assimilated. But they wouldn’t be Americans, they’re just self-hating anti-semites like every other yingeh (young) Yid (Jew) these days that goes to college. They kvetch about all the kronkites (diseases) around them and ignore that Amereekeh (America) did altz (everything) for them! From when they were kleyninkers (little children) they both did vos zey vilt (what they would) and did bopkes (nothing) to help out. They never cared that Mameh and Tateh (Mom and Dad) had no lives except taking care of them! And they both live their lives as though they have two meltzers (waiters) following them everywhere!

Aunt: Well look at your mother. You might be around forever!

Mom: Zol Gotteh Pitten (God forbid)! Anyway, I don’t think I will be. (comes right up to the aunt and says very quietly) I don’t want you to tell anybody this, but the reason I lost all the weight on that diet is that around this time last year I was diagnosed with the Lupus.

Aunt: (concerned, perhaps overly, a whisper-shout) Oh my god!

Mom: Shhh… I don’t want deh kinder (the kids) to know.

Aunt: Well, you’re obviously taking care of yourself.

Mom: But my luftmenschen can’t take care of themselves! It’s my fault for not teaching them, now they're never gonna have any kids of their own and I probably won't have any ayniklakh (grandchildren) while I'm alive.

Aunt: Zeh lo emet (that's not true). And even if it is (walks closer to her daughter) I'll have enough grandchildren for both of us! In two or three years this one's going to start poping 'em out like Tic-Tacs!

Cousin 5: Eema (Mom), I don't like you talking about me that way.

Aunt: Zeh ha'khayim shelakh (It's your life), I'm not interfering. You can peru u'revu (be fruitful and multiply) as many times as you want and we'll be happy to have as many nekheds as you give us. But who's gonna pay for them?

Cousin 5: Hashem will take care of it.

Aunt: Well I think your father is God, but you never did.

Cousin 5: Leave Abba out of this! You just don't understand because you never tried to understand!

Aunt: Mah aht khoshevet? Sheh'ha'arba shanim sheh'atid kol sheker? (What do you think? That the last four years are all a lie?) Your father and I were so happy when we you told us you wanted to be more religious! We joined an Orthodox shul, we let you to transfer to Bais Yaakov, we stopped eating out, we don't even drive on Shabbos anymore. We even got a second refrigerator! How is this not enough?

Cousin 5: Of course it's not enough!

Aunt: What did you think! We were just going to drop everything about our lives because you decided you wanted to become a fanatic? What are you gonna do one day when one of your children wants to be less frum (religious) or even become an apikores (heretic/non-believer)?

Cousin 5: I haven't even met my Bashert yet! Who knows if we'll even be able have kids?

Aunt: So what point will there be to your life if you can't? (immediately realizes what she just said and regrets it)

Cousin 5: (Very hurt, almost crying, pause) The point of my life, the point of your life, is to serve Hashem. And if He doesn't want me to have kids, He doesn't want me to, I'll find another way for me to serve him. And if he does, I'll be a better mother than you were!

Aunt: Oy. I'm sorry I said that chamoodi (my dear). I'm so sorry. (Makes a motion for a hug.) Come here. 

Cousin 5: I just want to read my book. 

Aunt: (comes up to her) Taksheev alai (listen to me). Don't be like that, I just don't want to see you tied into a decision you can't take back.

Cousin 5: Please, I didn't even want to be here, I was invited to the Rozenzweigs again to do a real Shabbat, but you wanted me here so here I am! And you and I both know this isn't real. It's just an act you all do to make yourselves feel less guilty about turning your back on Mitzvot (commandments).

Aunt: That's really hurtful. How can you say that?

Cousin 5: Just let me read!

Aunt: Seriously! What did we do to make you treat us with so much Boz (contempt)?

Cousin 5: (pause) If you have to ask that question, you clearly won't understand the answer (looks back at her book).

Aunt: (beat, sigh) Ananchnu osim et hakol bishvilkhem (We do everything for them), and then you fail them in one little way, and they resent everything about you.

Mom: (shrugs) Give her time. One day she'll be a mother and she'll understand everything you've done for her. Anyway, don't worry feininker (my dear), your mother's done very well by you. I'm the one who has to live with that I've failed as a mother.

Aunt: (immediately) That’s the stupidest thing I've ever heard! You’re the best mother in Baltimore!

Mom: No, no I'm not. I have to be around as long as I can because nobody else is gonna take care of them. They didn’t need the world's best mother, they needed a drill sergeant.

Aunt: Well, your husband certainly tried.  

Mother: And I should have let him. But he can be such a goddamn shtik drek (piece of shit).

Aunt: (shrugs) Yeah, he can be. I don't know how you're so patient with him.

Mother: I'm not, believe me, you don't see us when people aren't around.

Aunt: (acknowledging) I know, clearly somebody's had to keep him in line all these years if nobody's ever kicked the crap out of him. He certainly means well, and when you need him he’s a real tzadik.

Mother: Sometimes he is, yeah, but it's also clear to everybody but him that he's a manic depressive. He always tells me that I want him to be miserable because the times when he’s miserable are the only times I’m not.

Aunt: (laughs) Was there ever any doubt about that?

Mother: Of course not. But he's proof that you can be a schmuck and still be a great husband, great son, great father. We spent the last thirty years taking care of parents and children to take care of. And he takes care of them - everything, altz: money, laundry, food, cars, apartments, tuition.

Aunt: (jokingly) And he wants every bit of credit for it.  

Mother: Yeah, he complains about it every second, but can you blame him? All these years when his Dad was sick: stroke after stroke, screaming nightmares from both his parents for their years in the camps. All the fights in his house when he grew up and the breaking furniture.

Aunt: And still he turned out to be a mensch.

Mother: He absolutely is. He just hates every second of it.

Aunt: (thinks of something) Did you ever wonder if his dad hit his mother?

Mother: (immediately) Never. Jews yell so they don’t have to hit each other

Aunt: Nobody in my family ever yelled, my parents just sat in the living room simmering at each other for fifty-eight years.

Mother: Your family was German Jews. Your great-grandparents all got here in the 19th century and moved out to the midwest to run stores. To Yids like us, your mishpokhe might as well have been goyim.

Aunt: That’s not very nice!

Mother: You should be happy! You're a real Amerikaner! The rest of us were just aremanes (poor Jews) in the middle of a neighborhood that went schvartz after the fifties.

Aunt: We had antisemitism too!

Mother: Not the way we did! My family didn’t move out to the suburbs until 19farshtunkineh70 - in the sixties the schvartzes harassed me every day. Dad had to drive me and pick me up from college so I wouldn’t get groped on the way home.

Aunt: Yeah,... I'm sure that must have been hard. We didn’t have anything like that.

Mother: And I had it easy compared to him. Poor schvantz (prick) never had a childhood! All those years he would have to help out in his parents store, stay up late count the money, get up early to unload the stocks.

Aunt: And still he skipped two grades.   

Mother: And then he got a PhD back when getting one meant something…

Aunt: Yeah. Why does he always dismiss that so much?

Mother: He always says he did it because of the war. But I think he just did it to get away from his family. He'd have loved to go to Vietnam if it meant getting out of that meshugoyim heuse (insane house/asylum), he might have almost been more scared that his draft number wasn't high enough! But it doesn't matter, that's all thirty years ago. (sighs) I got pregnant, four months later we have a wedding with 400 people while I'm showing through my dress. And now we're alteh cockers too, his Dad's lost his mind but physically he's in better health than his son. The seizures are getting more frequent.

Aunt: I remember seeing it, it’s pretty scary. But long as you keep svelte (fit), you’ll be there forever.

Mother: There's no way of knowing that.

Aunt: Even so, how old are the banim (sons?) 26 and 24? They're still yeladim (children) they've got plenty of time to figure everything out. (beat) Anyway, I know you’ve known about him being gay for months. But how long have you known about the goyfriend?

Mom: (resignedly) From the beginning. I kept the whole thing a secret from his father until he told me to tell him, which was just this week. He didn’t want his father to know about the meeskeit either because he knew his Dad would esfreyg (interrogate) him about it until he got the truth.

Aunt: Well that’s just stupid. He should have told you everything right away.

Mom: He knew we’d try to break them up.

Aunt: Yeah, well, so what? There are plenty of gay Jews out there.    

Mom: You know him. If we tell him he can only date a Jew, he’ll go through every schkotz in New York.

Aunt: (confused) Y'know, I just don't get it... All those girls from college… Not a single shikse.

Mom: He probably shtupped (pushed/fucked) his way through the whole Hillel house.

Aunt: How did he even find time for studying with all those schnozzy meydlach?

Mom: (laughs and shrugs) I don’t think he did. He was just one of those kids who could do the reading five minutes before class and ace the test.

Aunt: (shakes head) That’s so weird. I never thought of him as the type to cut corners.

Mom: (bitterly joking) Well, apparently he still likes things uncut…

Aunt: Oy... (beat) But he was never the smart one. How did he turn out so well and your other one fuck up so badly?

Mom: (half-heartedly chuckles) Well, the other one always joked that he sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup.

Aunt: I don’t get it… (thinks about it for a second) you mean like Eysav did to Jacob?

Mom: Yeah. He keeps repeating that joke like it’s hilarious, but you know... nobody ever seemed to get most of his jokes but him.

Aunt: (as if to broach a difficult subject) Did you ever test him for some kind of autistic spectrum, like Asperger’s?

Mom: We did,... he has some traits in common, but if he has anything like that it’s mild. Between you and me, I always wondered if he had Borderline Personality Disorder.

Aunt: (aghast) Don’t say that!

Mom: (bitterly and resignedly) You’ve never really seen how bad his temper gets.

Aunt: Well I’ve seen flashes of it, and I’ve certainly heard all about it, but you should have seen the way my sister got when she was younger!

Mom: Yeah,... (knows she's broaching a difficult subject) y’know, about that, I know I'm being a Yenteh (gossip/meddler) by saying this...

Aunt: (interrupting, angrily) Don’t start with that. You have no idea what she put me through. I know everybody gets along your family. But she’s meshuggeh (crazy)!

Mom: (beat, confused look) Have you taken a good look around here?

Aunt: She hasn’t thrown away a single article of paper in thirty years! She doesn’t let anyone come over to visit her so I can't even be in my mother's apartment anymore! She’s never had a job and now that Mom is dead she moved into Mom’s apartment with only her crap for company!

Mom: That sounds incredibly sad.

Aunt: I know it’s sad, but you can’t talk to her without her blowing up. She can’t even be in the presence of mustard!

Mom: Y'know... I might regret saying this, but with your permission of course,... if you want,... I’ll…