Wednesday, September 9, 2015

800 Words: Simcha

It would seem that the entirety of the Tucker Family Lifestyle is predicated to, built upon, and leading towards, the Simcha - the event at which 200 guests come together from all walks of Jewish life. Once every few years, people gather from all around the USA, from Israel, from Europe, from Argentina, to descend upon a place once every so often to celebrate a milestone among milestones - the wedding, the Bar Mitzvah, the birthday party, the anniversary.

Hyde, that most goyish of places where I went for high school, used to upbraid such milestones as meaningless and hypocritical - surely, they reasoned, there is nothing worth celebrating about living to such a milestone without having achieved anything. No Jew would ever think that - living is in itself an accomplishment, one whose attainment is by no means assured. Recent genetic research shows that the altered genes of trauma survivors pass on to the next generation, and as the Holocaust clearly left these particular descendants with a significantly reduced capacity to handle stress, there is more worth celebrating in living on than we ever want to admit. And if it weren't, people in our family (families?) wouldn't make such a priority out of showing up.

Six languages can usually be heard across the tables - English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, and French. The Jewish world, such as it is, is present at these things. Inevitably, something memorable happens that impresses itself upon the family lore. People tell me now that since my cousin Joe died, I'm clearly the next family historian. I'm a bit young for the role, and as somebody told me (I think my Aunt Debbie), I'm an historian the way TMZ is. But it's a natural role for me, and particularly a natural role for a writer, however mediocre. To write a play about Judaism as I'm currently doing, I don't really need to invent anything, all I need to do is be a stenographer for all the things I see in my parents' house.

It tries to exist, deliberately, somewhere between high art and sitcom camp. It's as much Everybody Loves Raymond as Eugene O'Neill, or as much Strindberg as Arrested Development. But if you want to find a much better precedent for it than anything I could write, read Chekhov's short story: Difficult People - a story of tremendous suffering, in which the suffering all can't help seem a little ridiculous and funny. It makes light of dark and dark of light in that ambiguous manner that we in America usually don't understand. Shalom Aleichem thought the story was so Jewish seeming that he asked Chekhov for permission to translate in Yiddish, and Chekhov, broad-minded and warm man that he was, immediately agreed to it - imagine what Dostoevsky or Turgenev would make of that request...

As autobiographical as it at times seems, the play I'm writing should, in no way, be construed as non-fiction. It is supposed to be, at least, an archetypal Jewish family with many of the archetypal characters whom you find in contemporary Jewish life and the tensions that simmer between them.  It, fortunately, happens that so many people in my family dovetail quite nicely with these archetypes. Most of the characters are not based upon specific members of the family, but based on composites of them, composites which also include many people I knew growing up in Pikesville, and, God forbid, I used some of my own imagination as well. Needless to say though, everybody's going to think it's about my family - so sure, it's about my family...

It's so fascinating to go to the houses where friends grew up and see how they became the people they did. There's no way to draw a direct line, and yet everything you see speaks volumes. The other day, I went to the wedding of my oldest friend in Baltimore, or at least the oldest friend I'm interested in remaining a good friend to. When you see the gorgeous Carroll County farm landscape in which he grew up, with its grapevines and sunflowers and rolling hills, you can't mistaken how he grew up to be an artist when there is so much gorgeousness in the landscape simply begging to be painted. It was an incredible experience to see; and yet happy as I was to see two good friends get married, I'm quite sorry to say that the wedding personally brought me little joy, as I experienced a series of extremely uncomfortable realizations about my romantic life which drove me to get drunk for the first time in a year-and-a-half and smoke a bit of weed as well. When I came out of a very disturbing high at three in the morning, I realized that everybody who was camping at the farm had gone to bed. I, not planning on staying over, had not brought a tent, and I froze on a bale of hay only twelve hours after I sweltered in 90 degree heat from playing the violin while sweating through a black suit and a long-sleeve black shirt - because if there's anything Jews understand less than the outdoors, it's outdoor weddings.

I'd have left then, but my suit jacket was stuck in the building where they got married, which was locked up for the night. I stayed until eight in the morning, hoping that anyone would wake up, but sadly, nobody did. So I cut my losses and went back to my parents house to get as much sleep as I could before having to be ready for the wedding at four. Saturday was certainly a joyous event, and surely those involved deserve all the joy in the world, but not for me. I suddenly was left questioning the values that brought me to this place. Values which I don't agree with, values which in three years have perhaps caused me to love and chase as many wrong things as I did from decades being around in Pikesville.... I am nothing if not a born dramatist...

Sunday was as Simchedik as the night before was agonizing. Politicians, buildings, and whores all become respectable after reaching a certain age. And now that I'm getting closer to middle age, perhaps I'm getting a little more respect from a family that never quite knew what to make of me (that's frankly putting it mildly). Maybe they're finally growing accustomed to me, or I to them. Or maybe, for whatever reason they've found, they've decided to view me with a little more respect. Who knows? But, fundamentally, my brother was getting married. It was the most happiness my family, a family as prone to depression as any family that manages to stay together in spite of it all, has experienced in many a year. Jordan, the one family member seemingly not much affected by the angst of the rest of us, is the one of us who finally got to the Chuppah. Even the moment Jordan was married, all I could think of was that line from Beethoven's 9th: Ja - wer auch nur eine Seele/Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle/Weinend sich aus diesem Bund! - Yes, let join anyone who can call one soul his own on this earth! Any who cannot, let him go away and weep alone.

Leaving aside the somewhat sexist implication of the wording and the fascist implication of the sentiment, it's pretty much what all people who've been unlucky, or ill-suited, in love, have to do sometimes. And as I thought of it, a kitschy single tear came to my eye that I had to wipe away. It was a surprisingly dry-eyed affair - even my mother, the world champion waterworker, seemed very nearly dry as a bone. Yet, for nearly the whole of the time of the rest of the wedding, such thoughts barely entered my mind. Jordan has said to us, many times, that above all else, we all need to try to be happier in this family. And for one weekend at least, we at least 99% succeeded. If we can get to simchas more often, maybe all the baggage was worth it. Perhaps these values, which have caused me so much trouble for so long, may turn out to be the right ones in the end.

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