Wednesday, September 30, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur: Beth Tfiloh Part 3

My brothers and I have often observed the odd fact that the Tucker family is one of the only families in Pikesville who exist in a parallel Jewish universe. In our family, being descended from Holocaust survivors on one side, and conservative Yiddish revivalists on the other, the clock has turned back two generations. Everybody in Pikesville we've ever met is either more Jewish than secular, or more secular than Jewish. It often seems as though the Tucker residence of 1505 Woodholme Avenue is the only place in America where people can be Jewish and American in as precisely balanced a way as they were in 1954.

The families of most American Jews were here by 1922, but the Tuckers only came to America in 1947 as part of a miniscule band of Yiddish greenhorns who didn't know anything about America and were among the few survivors the most apocalyptic tragedy in the Earth's recorded history. Everything that was true for previous Jewish immigrants was compounded exponentially for them. If previous Jewish immigrants had memories of traumatic days when Pogroms killed a few friends, then they had memories of traumatic years in which Nazis and Communists liquidated their families and anyone they ever knew. Unlike the Jewish immigrants of a generation or two before, was no large community of European-born Jews from which to draw solidarity. There were only a couple hundred traumatized Yiddish-speaking families who could never understand what it meant to be American and erase the crippling anxiety that what happened there could happen here at the drop of a hat.

Previous generations of Jews had long since come upon the choice which every Jew eventually makes: Assimilation or Segregation? Be American or Be Jewish? In the Tucker family, we've tried to capture that abandoned goal that eluded everybody else: the third option - not assimilation, not segregation, but association: Be completely of the secular world, but be a Jew within it. There is no God, and He gave us the Torah and Mount Sinai. Hold Judaism and Americanism in complete equilibrium.

It's obviously a losing battle, and there are no words in the English language to describe the sheer delicacy of the dance that requires of a Holocaust family: how do you appease traumatized parents who insist on talking to you multiple times a day and knowing your every action lest they think the unthinkable has happened again? How do you negotiate an American world of privilege that knows nothing about the fortitude it takes to survive the obliteration of your entire culture? How do you explain to those who chose assimilation that when the next Hitler comes, he'll come for you too? How do you explain to those who chose segregation that when the next Stalin comes, their ostentatious pride will make our persecution all the easier?

But what other option was open? We were a family with flashes of brilliance and instability in roughly equal measure, who had no guidance for how to negotiate the transition from Jew to American with any kind of soft landing. Assimilation was a huge brain drain on Jews - today's Jews are clearly not as intelligent as they were fifty years ago. The most gifted Jews saw how much better their lives would be if they fully gave themselves over to American life, and the alleged choice between Judaism and America was no choice at all. Most of the ones left over were the mediocrities, the smart but not too smart people who could make a good living and provide for their children, but most of the extraordinary have long since left the Jewish gene pool for a greener, more shiksadik gene pool.

Had Jack Tucker been born in 1916 rather than 1946 and grown up in New York or Chicago rather than Baltimore, he could have been anything at all: a businessman of great repute and renown, a player in Broadway or Hollywood, an intellectual at the Partisan Review or Commentary, an eminent doctor or scientist with an academic post. All that would have been required of him was to become more American than Jewish.

But the tide that carried Jews to the peak of American achievement had already started to ebb in his generation and has only continued to ebb ever since; and even at its strongest undertow, the tide rarely if ever reached Baltimore. For Jews as anyone else, Baltimore was the town of the underdog. In New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, you could go about your life with flash and panache, but even in its best years, that was never Baltimore's way. Our way has always been to keep buggering on in spite of it all - quietly see to our responsibilities knowing that greatest rewards are always to be found in more prosperous places than here.

The only true option left to Dad was to pick up where American Jews of the previous generation left off. His younger brother, born in Baltimore rather than Bialystok, was smart but not quite brilliant like him. But he was also a more balanced, happier type of person, who always radiated well-being. He located the slightly more modest storehouse prizes that my father never quite did by becoming one of Baltimore's best private practice doctors and putting an emphasis on American rather than the Jew.

But the storehouse prizes which should have been Dad's were things he would never quite find. He got a PhD at the University of Chicago at a time when the professors included Saul Bellow, Hans Morgenthau, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and Bruno Bettleheim, but Dad looked those gifthorses in the mouth and decided they were almost complete bullshit. He was there for the '68 Chicago riots and could have fallen in with the residue of the UChicago crowd that was still there from the era of Bernie Sanders, but all he saw was Hippie Conformity. He went to study in Romania in 1969, right at the ascension of Caucescu and right after the Prague Spring - a period when only the greatest students in America could get into Eastern Europe. While there, he never met Bill Clinton, but he associated with a number of people from the same circles Bill Clinton associated with during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford - but he thought they were all unbearable social climbers. He often dreamed of going out with a good college friend to Hollywood and trying to become a screenwriter or producer, but the dream was never to be.

When you grow up in a Holocaust family, you are in a family whose situation is so unique that you cannot possibly give yourself over to any crowd, and clique, any party. When you see the party going on, all you can see is the conformity, all the loss of critical faculty, all the surrender of will, that leads to fascism. When everything can become a potential weakness in dark times, you become the worst possible critic of your own situation.

Given the circumstances, he emerged with the best option available: Put slightly more emphasis on the Jew than the American. Teach your children Hebrew and Yiddish, marry into a neoconservative Likudnik (Herutnik?) family, provide for the family as Zaydie did - just enough money for untrammellable security, and leave it to another generation to hopefully claim the prizes that were never yours.

By all evidence, he had won the genetic lottery and birthed a still more brilliant son than he. But whom could they possibly entrust with the onerous responsibility of educating this obnoxiously precocious little shit?

My parents were extremely unimpressed with Beth Tfiloh Community School. During my years at Schechter, they often told me the story of why they picked Schechter over Beth Tfiloh, where my family had been members since the mid-60's. When they saw Beth Tfiloh, the kids seemed like ignoramii. The elementary school kids could not answer the most basic questions about Judaism, but at Schechter, the kids were speaking full sentences in Hebrew. It was quickly decided that Schechter, allegedly the school for the overachieving Jewish kids, was the place for me. Perhaps they told me this story with a bit of regret, but that regret would be quickly dispelled a few years later when i ended up at Beth Tfiloh.

Orwell was right, nobody can look back on their childhood and say that it was completely unhappy - but even so, mine should never have been as close to that as it was. I came into Schechter with the interviewer telling my parents that I might be the most gifted kid they ever came across, I graduated nine years later with the principal making a big deal to the entire crowd about how my journey through Schechter was such a struggle. Which is exactly what every fourteen year old wants to hear said about him in front of an audience of hundreds. 

Schechter was not a great school, but it took great pains to act like one. The hallways of the school were inevitably lined with the dioramas and creative projects of its students - many of which were clearly so beyond an eight-year-old's capability that they were clearly done by the parents. Schechter loved such displays, because they could sell prospective parents on the idea that to be accepted at Krieger Schechter would be like conferring a benediction of your child being a prodigy. 

Schechter would delight in assigning projects that clearly could never have been done by any student - there were many examples of this, but I'll simply pick the most notorious that every Schechter student of my era remembers all too well: the War Report, which every seventh grade student viewed as just a piece of hazing that they had to get through. Every student had to pick a twentieth century American war and answer eighteen questions about it: What were its causes? Who were its principal actors? How could it have been avoided? What was the Jewish involvement in the war? etc. etc. etc. - any one of which could have been done as a Doctoral Thesis.

I, of course, never finished the War Report. I barely remember starting it... The point of these projects was never to teach Schechter students anything - a quarter-century later I still doubt many teachers at Schechter could have taught their way out of a paper box. The point was to build the school's formidable reputation up to the larger community. Perhaps, I suppose they reasoned, one day their reputation would be good enough that they could attract the donors and faculty they needed to truly create the great school Schechter pretended to be. 

In two subjects, Schechter was truly as good as its claims - Math and Hebrew. These were the two important subjects at Schechter - Schechter had the correct priority in this way: What would distinguish them from Beth Tfiloh was the quality of its Hebrew learning, what distinguished them from every other school was the quality of its math and science achievements. No matter what background they hail from, a community that prizes achievement will always drive its children to achieve in math and science before any other subject - because these are the subjects in which achievement can be truly quantified. For Math and Hebrew, they didn't just hire the Jappy wives of doctors who needed something to fill their days, they procured people with real knowledge of the subjects - they tried to do the same in Science, but they almost inevitably fell short, and my years at Schechter had a revolving door of eccentric science teachers that made Hogwarts' problem with constantly changing Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers extremely familiar. 

As a 'precocious' five-year-old autodidact whom it became quite clear was nearly impossible to teach as the years went on, I began Schechter knowing nearly as much about Math or Hebrew as I did when I left. The truth is, I was an autodidact from the earliest age, and after nine years there, I learned very little at all. I don't quite know why I stayed, because it's not like Schechter caused me much but social misery either. Some of the kids at Schechter were not unintelligent, and I'm still somewhat friendly with some of them, but I've long since ceased to be good friends with any of them except my best friend from those years, who moved away when we were only 11. Even so, these kids were a lot like me in one crucial way: almost all of us were spoiled upper-middle-class twits who had no real feeling for how much other people had to sacrifice to give us our comforts. 

Their parents were relatively smart people in white collar jobs who found parroting the facts they read fairly easy, so their children in turn found such assignments just as easy. Schechter students were so uniform in their background that in childhood, many of them had almost indistinguishable personalities from one another. In such a uniform place, the natural urge of kids to draw blood from a kid who draws outside the nine dots becomes that much more pronounced.

I was only beaten up a very few times thank God, and to my astonishment (and shame) there were a number of kids who got picked on even worse than I. One kid, the son of Soviet immigrants, had it so bad that for a while it became a daily recess activity for every boy in my grade to dogpile on him - there weren't more than ten of us, but that was still more than a thousand pounds of weight.. I would flatter myself and say that I was nicer and smarter by waiting until the top of the dogpile, and then as a joke I'd briefly jump on and then get off after two seconds. But who was I kidding?... If memory serves, he later told me that the activity only ended by his hiding out on his own in the woods adjacent to the playgrounds.

In retrospect, another boy in my grade clearly had some form of Autism, and the kids in the grade gave him true hell. As small children, we were close friends, but as it became clear how dangerous it was to be around him, I dropped him like a hot potato. The girls were scarcely better to one another, one friend of mine broke down in tears because the other girls in the grade started calling her a slut without even knowing what the word meant. But I don't think I kid myself in saying that among the guys it was particularly worse in our grade, because the lead bully was the nephew of the Middle School principal. I have no way of knowing for sure, but in retrospect, I think it's entirely likely that that kid came from a physically abusive household. And even if the rest of them did not, I do wonder if some of the behavior which every kid and parent noticed in their families might have constituted a consistent diet of verbal abuse in one case, or perhaps abuse through neglect in the case of another. But what it ultimately meant is that the ringleader, at least in the minds of his peers, could go to town on all of us with near-absolute impunity, and we had to follow along or else risk worse things.

Years later, when we were all in college, I got to know that bully again - he still had a horrible temper, but even so he was clearly a reformed character by that point, and we became friends of a type. In a weird way, we got on very well, and in retrospect I think it was because we both felt that life had passed us by while blessing so many of our peers. All the peers we kept in touch with were overachievers thriving at Ivy League or equivalent schools with seemingly unlimited futures. Meanwhile, he was a stoner hippy at a State School, and I was an underachiever who had to start college a year late because I was held back at a disciplinary boarding school. 

Nevertheless, as those years went on at Schechter, I found the situation more and more unbearable, and my mental health was clearly deteriorating. My best friend had to move away, the girl I'd had a crush on since being a little boy (and from what I can recall, a mutual crush) was similarly miserable to me and transferred out before serious damage was done to her. The kids left over by the last few years were people to whom I might as well have spoken in piglatin for all the good it did me to be friends with them. Some were even nice to me - sometimes at least..., and counted me their good friends, but much good it was to do me or I them... In my last two years at Schechter, it was a Wonder of the Age that I was not hospitalized. 

The security of a life where everybody's the same is always helpful for those for whom it holds true, but for those whom it isn't, it's a bit like hell on earth. I had arrived at Kreiger Schechter at the age of five, being told virtually every day of my life by people who were not my parents that I was the most gifted child they'd ever met. By the time I left Schechter at 14, I'd learned that I was so stupid that I could not even complete the most basic assignments that perfectly normal kids, or perhaps slightly dense ones, kids could complete with aplomb.

I've talked on this blog many times about how bizarre it was to be diagnosed with a learning disability when just a few months previously you were still feted like a child prodigy. Things that happen so early in life can never be made sense of. What I do know, and what I blame, is the culture of the community in which I was raised. If you exhibited talent, you would be praised to the skies and spoiled horribly so that you could earn your Jewish community all the prizes in the storehouse. But if there was anything about you that might be considered challenging or compromising the achievements of the overachievers, you were cast aside like gum on the sole of a shoe. Schools like Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh High School were Potemkin Villages, too small to know how to accommodate anybody but the kid guaranteed to bring honor to the organizations that taught them. If you were a straight-A student piled with extra-cirricular activities, Schechter and BT would do everything within their power to assure that you had it made for life. If you were anything less than that, these institutions didn't care a figleaf about you. According to too many to keep my young ego in check, I was poised to become their leading light - and by the time I left, I was their not so secret shame.

I suppose it's worth asking, why did it take my parents so long to get me out of these schools? Well... I suppose they didn't think they had any better options. They may well have been right - public school might have let me branch out in ways that Schechter and BT never did, it might have set me free and let me indulge my interests in a way that such a tight cirriculaa as Jewish Day Schools had never could. But then again, who knows how many ways I could have fallen through the cracks to a place much more ignominious than any I'm currently in. By the time there was trouble, it would have been a burdensome task, perhaps an impossible one, to get me into another private school, and every year thereafter made that goal still more impossible. By the time I was of age to look at magnate schools, I was probably too anxiety-ridden to withstand the pressure of an audition, and had I been rejected I might have utterly collapsed. By the time it was clear I needed to leave, the only options available were schools for troubled teens.

Predictable people flourish in predictable environments - my brothers both loved Schechter, and the vast majority of their closest friends are still the ones they made in their childhoods, which might have been idyllic but for having to live under the same roof as their extremely disturbed older brother. But while there is only a chance that an unpredictable person will succeed in an unpredictable environment, there is pretty much a guarantee that in a predictable environment, an unpredictable person will wilt and burn out.

And so, in those last two years at Schechter, I became nothing short of psychotically violent in ways of which the memories will continue to haunt me every day of my life. Every day, I remember my horrible sins from those years, and I tremble, my face twitches in every direction, I sometimes hyperventilate, and my chest freezes with terror at the monster I was and worry could be again. Occasionally I feel as though I might be able to vomit the horror out of my stomach, and yet I know it will never be purged. I try to calm myself by chanting over and over again “I deserve happiness, and I will be happy.” If it works at all, I generally have to chant it eighty times in a row. But a large part of me believes, or perhaps knows, that neither half of that mantra is true.

Until that age, I was utter bully fodder - trapped in a small school with angry students and angry teachers who saw fit to punish me for the fact that I couldn't sit still and do what I was told because I was too busy thinking thoughts no nine-year-old was mature enough to think. The more I was told to stay on task, the more anxiety ridden my young self became, and the still harder it became to concentrate or get anything done. The learning difficulties alone were surmountable, so were the anxieties, but the two of them together in a heinous cocktail were lethal to any forward progress in my life - and I often wonder if they still are.

But my early puberty endowed me with muscle mass of a college student when I was barely Bar Mitzvah age, and did I ever use it. I fought back with all the rage that built up in me over that long, excruciatingly long, childhood. It doesn’t matter whether or not I did unto others what was done to me. No matter how many years go by, I am still a perpetrator of acts of violence. And nothing will ever make that not so.


It is one of the unfortunate ironies of mental illness that everything about it seems like manipulation. The brain of a mentally unwell person possesses an extra dimension unknown to the mentally sound mind. The very fabric of reality has torn so that there is no self of which one can speak, only many selves locked in the same body. A mentally ill person can say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I might kill myself or hurt someone else” and mean it entirely as a warning for pity, and yet at the same time, coerce the person he tells this to to accede to his often irrational demands. Such is the ultimate tragedy of mental illness. It can lead people to horrific acts for which there is no possible forgiveness, and yet the sane part of the brain, all the more sane and self-aware for keeping watch over the illness, can’t help but be horrified by what the sickness has wrought. I don’t know how many violent people are eaten alive by memories of their crimes. All I know is that I am devoured by a remorse I can never quench.

Nothing will undo the fact that when I was 13, I picked up a series of 8 year old children by the neck. Nothing will undo the fact that when I was 14, I helped to hound the girl at summer camp who might have become my first love into something resembling a nervous breakdown, for which she had to be sent home, because I couldn’t get along with her best friend, and my interactions with this friend occasionally turned violent. Until this year, I never saw or heard from that girl again. Nothing will undo the fact that I used to get violent with the girls in my classes as often as the boys - enough times that I’m sure I can’t recall them all. Nothing will undo the fact that I once held a butcher knife up to my father, or pulled my mother’s hair, and nothing will undo the fact that I took so much of that rage out on my younger brother. The fact that he is now one of my closest friends makes it all the more horrific to recall, and recall it I do every day of my life. These, and so many others, are the scenes which my mind has endlessly relived. No matter what the circumstances that led to such actions and made me feel justified at the time, there is no forgiveness for them, even for someone so young as I was. Bad things happened to me, and I transferred those bad things and quite a bit more to others. One day, the dirty laundry from those years may be aired, and I will have no right to do anything but accept whatever blame comes my way. When I’m sixty-four, I will still be the assaulter I was when I was fourteen. Knowing what I’m capable of, how can I, how can anyone, have a normal job, a normal relationship, a normal family? How can I, knowing the monster I was, ever call myself a decent human being? How can I ever be sure that what I believe is morally right, knowing that I’ve acted as I have? The solid footing of knowing my reality has long since turned to ash, and all my dreams often turn into nightmares of the public reminders I might encounter should they ever come true.  

Is there not enough rain in the sweet heavens to wash my hands as white as snow? Is there no acceptance, no peace, no transcendence, no joy, no love, possible for a man who acted as I have? However different I think I am today from the terror I once was, the question is always present: can I ever be that monster again? And what right have I to act as though I have any more moral authority than the monster I once was?


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