Saturday, July 1, 2017

Tale 5: Chosen Family - Episode 4 - Complete Rough Draft

To the modern eye, the minor Jewish fast days would seem trivial and stupid, probably because they are. Not Yom Kippur when we're held accountable for our sins, nor Tisha B'Av when we commemorate the destruction of the two Temples - the double singular event that occurred on the same day and define modern Judaism, but Ta'anits like Tzom Gedaliah the day after Rosh Hashana ends to commemorate the assassination of a governor of Judah three millennia ago,  or Shiva'Asar b'Tammuz, which on the one hand is the day Moses broke the two tablets. But that's not the reason we fast on Shiva-Asar b'Tammuz. The reason is that this is supposedly a day when terrible things keep happening in Judaism. It's not the day of the Temple's destruction but the daily sacrificial offering ceased to be brought because the walls of Jerusalem were breached! It's the day the Roman General Apostamus, my god, burned a Torah Scroll! It was the day an idol was erected in the Temple!

It's impossible to have any idea how significant or trivial these events seemed at the time, but with the distance of twenty-five hundred years, this all seems a bit much. If you affixed a fast day to every Jewish tragedy of that importance, when would Jews eat?

But the tenth day of Tevet, Assarah B'Tevet, is the stupidest. It's apparently not enough to have a fast day for the destruction of the Temple on the Tenth day of Tevet, we need a fast day too for when the walls of the city were breached. Fine enough. It also commemorates the two days before. The eighth - Shmoneh b'Tevet when the Bible was first translated into Greek, apparently thereby etoliating the Bible of its divine spirit emanating from the Hebrew original. That seems debatable, but one can understand why this would be a tragedy as it would strip Jews of their of sole dominion over their holy book and cause Christian dominion over them. But the kicker is the ninth - Tisha b'Tevet, of which the text of the Shulchan Aruch literally says "Something happened, but we do not know what it was."

The Jewish calendar frankly needs some updating. To have fast days for the assassination of Gedaliah and Apostatamus burning a Torah Scroll is seriously unprioritized when there's no fast for the Shoah or the Alhambra Decree. But whenever fast days occur, they result in a fate against which all Jewish mothers strenuously warn and fight against like a dybbuk at the door. Eat, you'll have low blood sugar." "You're just mad because you have low blood sugar." "I told you not to play sports or do your homework or give that presentation when your blood sugar is low!" The symptoms of the dreaded low blood sugar include cold sweating, dizziness and headache, rapid heartbeat, slurred speech, and muscle twitches. But while every Jewish mother secretly believes her child is about to die, none think it'll be from that. What they're really looking for is personality changes, confusion and irritability, anxiety and inability to concentrate, and to keep their children from these future-damaging symptoms, they're willing to tolerate an extra thirty or forty pounds on their growing boys, which causes them to dread that they've traded their children's long-term health for prospects at overachievement.

But on those fast days, Hashem unleashes the Holy Terror of Low Blood Sugar, adolescents fighting, not understanding directions, interpreting every comment as a personal attack, striking at the dark heart of our insecurities as people and a people. Even for the non-Orthodox, there seem to be more food commercials on Yom Kippur than any other day of the year. Fast days are not meant to be pleasant, they're meant to be solemn - a remembrance that the world is not the pleasant place we hope, and by paying the price of our portion of happiness on those fast days, we will be that much more prepared when inevitable tragedy makes its presentation.

Unlike Shiva-Assar b'Tammuz, which takes place in July, the January dusk is mercifully early. Nevertheless it falls on a Sunday this year. The kinder are all home with nothing to do, and Mama Freylik just has to get the kinder over thirteen to five-fifteen. Lots of games with all the kinder together, lots of singing, lots of promises that they'll have a great dinner. Rinah, seventeen and on the way to the Chuppah herself in a few months, is clearly too tired to properly function. Avigail, fourteen and much too strong willed to get a shatkhan at eighteen, and is snapping at Mameh today for making her do chores that would ordinarily be Rinah's. Yitzhak (or Tzakhi), just barely Bar Mitzvah age, is throwing a ball around the house when she isn't looking.

The rest are not Bar-Mitzvah age yet, and require from Mameh all the focus of a day that she would normally stress eat her way through. Zohar is four and has her third bad cold in six months and again needs somebody to run out and get her medicine, Hephzibah is six months, crying and particularly colicky today, Sasson is eight and always in trouble - today she's shouting at Zohar for getting snot all over her, Tirtza is eleven and painfully shy so she needs Mameh to be a friend to her, Yuval is ten and always tormenting Tirtza, and if seven year old Zemirah doesn't stop singing soon Ori will throw his Streimel at her.

But most important is Simcha, who has to be kept reading. He's the only child she knows what to do with. The moment he stops he's going to snap at whoever is nearest to him and point out everything he thinks is wrong. So who can blame her that when he steps outside, she locks the door?

It's four o'clock and Bethany just came back to her house from a twelve-hundred calorie burger, wet fries, and shake at Mel's Drive-Inn with some girl friends from both her Church and school. They go outside with some ice tea and chocolates. It's supposed to rain later, but seemingly as always, it's a seventy degree day.

With her are her three besties from San Francisco Friends, who go on this beautiful day to the back porch and sit around the wooden coffee table. Alenna Gwynn, descended on her father's side from William the Conqueror and on both sides from Charlamagne, Zara Stewart, whose great-grandfather changed his name from Stern and whose grandfather on the other side still thinks Hitler was a great man, and Vicki Jewel, whose white mother risked everything to marry Rufus Jewel in Alabama, and after Rufus was sent to prison, risked everything again to await his release in San Francisco where they might start over. Bethany doesn't know this, but Kristina exploited the opportunity of Bethany's distraction to sneak off with a grad student from UC Santa Cruz.

While Bethany's been volunteering at her mother's shelters, Alenna's been taking classes at Berkeley for college credit, Zara's been seeing boys and psychiatrists, and Vicki's been smoking weed and listening to jam bands. The friendships of teens are always unstable, and by the summer they'll have completely broken apart, going their separate ways on life's tributary rivers only to reunite in the massive post-college river of ennui within the vastly expanded cliques and hookup networks of single  young adults.

Yes, Alenna takes these classes at Berkeley, but even at Berkeley, a young woman requires good luck, and Alenna has it yet again - the good luck of a Berkeley history class taught not by one of those Senior Professor Great Man History Wasps who teaches two classes a year for the privilege of hitting on his co-eds who need good grades because his brother is a general or investment banker and he needs to show himself he amounted to something, but by a one-year appointment forty-something woman who seems to have taught five introductory American history classes in a different state every semester for the last twenty years. She was born to terrible poverty, usually in Flushing but occasionally in Kentucky, but in three decades, she'll be honored as one of the great pioneers in her field for her dozen separate books on the otherization of female bodies in Edwardian bordellos. She's been divorced for ten years and since then raised two sons alone. The older is nineteen and already in jail for six months, having beaten up the abusive new boyfriend of his ex.

From Professor Farbissheim, Alenna learns that history is not shaped by men of natural genius who rise above the din to shape our destinies as a puppet does marionettes, but that these men have to make an extra effort to gain control over the rest of us, and world history is therefore senseless oppression, marginalization, and otheriztion, whose insidious biases we all are unwittingly conditioned to accept as the inevitable human state of being when the subversion of them would be shockingly easy if only we decided that what we view as unchangeable human nature is little more than normative bias. And we therefore become conditioned to perpetuate our captivity, even through our very languages, which ingrain in us subliminal dismissals of the capabilities of certain kinds of bodies and the mental capabilities they house.

There are two students in the class who object to her rendering of human events in the most vociferous of manners, grinding the class to a halt at every meeting to explain why the teacher is wrong. One is a short Phi Beta Kappa Jewish boy with glasses who sits in the front, another is a tall Alpha Epsilon Pi Jewish boy with a backwards ballcap who sits in the back. The very way which they object quietly seems to Aleena, to Dr. Farbissheim, to a narrow majority of the class's students, as confirmation of the Professor's interpretation. And it's all this which Alenna is so eager to share with them - all three of whom feel sudden awakenings to possibilities they until this moment could not imagine, fears they could not express, and rage for which they had no outlet. All of which come out of frustrations which, even after Aleena explained them with all the confidence of a teenager who feelings tell her she's a master of her subject, Bethany was unsure she ever felt.

But for both Zara and Vicki, they once were lost but now are found. They will wake up tomorrow with the realization seeping into their pours that this, finally, explains everything: the beginning, the end, the whole of their lives and struggle from the mouth of their recalled time to the present moment - and even if it's not true, they feel the flame of hope burning particularly for them for the very first time in their young existences. Their humiliations have a name, their suffering has a meaning, and they can direct their struggles toward the day when life exists as an experience better than to be endured. Every day, a new piece of subconscious wiring rebuilds itself to the specifications of their new beliefs, assumptions they didn't even know they had are questioned and knocked down with new assumptions to replace them.

"Fucking Korvehs." Simcha says under his breath.

Alenna's father, Colonel Gwynn, never had a son. After Cold War stationings in Okinawa and Checkpoint Charlie, he'd finally brought his family home to California in the summer of 1989 to find out that had he'd accepted his promotion and transfer from Berlin to Frankfurt, the job would have turned into a walk in the park. But Alenna was eleven and this American girl with fluent German and Japanese needed at least a semblance of proper American upbringing with baseball, rock'n roll and a decent hamburger. He'd have rather applied for a transfer to Fort Hunter Liggett so he could live back in Pismo Beach where his sister and nephews still are and relive all the swell memories of hanging out at Claras with the Johanssens, but his younger daughter had all sorts of special needs,  So a slack off post as chief of the Army Camp Parks with a house in San Francisco would have to do. He minded very much the decadent lifestyle of San Francisco. He wondered and worried to no end how it would rub off on Alenna, but thus far, there seemed no evidence of it.

"A man who has a lot of sex is a player but a woman who does is a slut."

"History is told from the point of view of the man."

"Everything good is the point of view of the man - man-made, man-kind."

"Ochen vey these nafkehs!" Paying attention to him with half an ear and eye the whole time, Bethany's heard him but doesn't know what Korveh or Nafkeh means, though she should be able to guess; Vicki, half-black, trains herself to always notice who's around her, and sees that Simcha mouthed something with a pissed expression but didn't hear what he said; Zara doesn't notice anything, she generally doesn't until it comes under her eye, after which she can't ever forget what she notices; while Alenna has the single-minded hawk focus of a person who organizes the world into goals and trivialities.

"Magazines tell us we're supposed to be thin."

"Movies tell us we're supposed to be whores."

"We won't have the futures they have."

"We'll get paid less."

"If we work we'll still be expected to take care of the children."

"When they're violent they help each other cover it up."

"How do they even get away with this?"

"It's just conditioning."

"Didn't anybody ever think to themselves before now that this was fucked up?"

Alenna is, as always, ready with her answer. "Somebody in my class suggested that monotheism evolved for men to justify making women into hostages."

At this moment Simcha runs over to the locked door which he can't open, he pounds on the door nobody in the house hears over the din of nine other children, so he hurls his volume of the Shulchan Aruch at the girls, which sails past the heads of Alenna and Zara onto the middle of their deck table.

"FUCKING HURS!" (this word they understand)

Before any dialogue can take place, Simcha leaves the house as quickly as he can, kicking the first car he sees on the way in the way out - which was of course Bob's.

"We should really follow him."

"Are you joking Beth?"

"Somebody should make sure he's doing alright!"

"He just kicked your father's car!"

"Who knows what'll happen to him out in the city?"

"Did you hear what he said?"

"There's a big rainstorm happening soon!"

"Tell me you would still say that if you weren't conditioned to care for men who treat you badly."

Point to Alenna. She shuts Bethany up and spends the next 90 minutes asking Beth about this freakishly strange family next door and marveling how anyone could possibly believe and do screwed up things like these people.

Ninety minutes later, the clouds are exceedingly ominous. Bob's at a conference, Mary's at Church, and right before Rinah comes outside to find Simcha for Upfastenzoch - the break fast meal, she notices the door was locked. Ordinarily, setting the table was her job, but after lots of yelling back and forth, Mameh gets Tzakhi to set the table and Avigail to help her in the kitchen. All Mameh needs of Rinah is to go outside and get Simcha - not always the easiest job, but usually not much hardship.

He's not there, and Avigail takes a minute to steel herself to ask these Goyim if they've seen Simcha.

"If you're looking for your brother he stormed off ninety minutes ago after calling us whores and kicking Beth's father's car!"

"Alenna don't."

"Do you know where he went?"

"Why would we?"

"Alenna, seriously stop."

Rinah goes inside, Mameh is busy cooking.

"Hawt ihr zogn im?"

"He'll be in in a minute Mameh."

Mameh was cooking, Tateh was davening, Avigail was helping Mameh, Tzakhi was setting the table, Bubbeh went home seven weeks ago, and everybody else was too young to go out looking for him unsupervised. After dinner, Mameh needs to go out to get medicine for Zohar and Hepzibah and needs Rinah to help watch everybody.

"Excuse me. I'm really sorry to interrupt you but it's important. Did you see which direction my brother went?"

"Why is this our problem?"

"Alenna shut the fuck up."

"Excuse me?"

"Rinah, I'm so sorry this is happening. Is there anything we can do to help?"


"Simcha's a diabetic and he insists he won't eat on fast days. If he doesn't eat soon he could end up in the emergency room."

"Will he die?" (Zara and Vicki chuckle at that, Vicki reluctantly)

"Whatever you need, we're going to help you find him."


"I have the keys to my Dad's car. We'll go looking for him."

"No we won't!"

"Alenna either you're going to help me find him or get out of my house!"

"Bye kids." Alenna seems to be down the stairs before she even says that.

"Don't worry, we'll find him. Do you have something kosher we can give him to eat?"

"I don't know what to say Baruch HaShem, Hold on."

Rinah gets an Elite Shocolad Chalav and tells Mameh that Simcha went over to the Feldmans, which strikes Mameh as a bit weird because as far as she knew, Dovid Feldman and Simcha hated each other. Alenna gets the keys, makes a quick look in the front to make sure Mom's car isn't there, and grabs an umbrella. It begins to rain, and in five seconds, the drizzle becomes a storm.

For forty-nine minutes, they comb the blocks of Haight-Ashbury. Bethany sends them into various places -  restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, the rock clubs. Some of them they can't even get into for being underage (my god what has Haight-Ashbury become?) and it's hard to explain to bouncers what distinguishes an Orthodox Jew who dresses in all black, wears a weird hat, has weird sideburns and a pathetic excuse for a beard from 50 other punks and hipsters who frequent every one of these places. Zara thinks this is absurd, Vicki this is fruitless.

But on minute fifty, they prevail on Bethany to at least take a break. Let's just park outside of Koshland Community Park and chill for a minute - and there he is on the stone wall of its Learning Conservatory - a natural flower garden built specific for high risk, high needs youth. Rocking back and forth in the rain, his teeth chattering, his nose bloody - who knows if he was punched or just gets them occasionally, chanting to himself.

Bethany immediately gets out of the car with the umbrella and the Elite Shocolad Chalav, and without prompting, holds and cradles him underneath the umbrella. And rather than fulfill his religious obligation to recoil from her touch, the boy whose name means Happiness Happiness cries into Bethany's side for twenty-five minutes. They did not speak again for nearly six weeks.

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