Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tale 5: Chosen Family - Joshua - First Half Rewritten in the Extreme

Brazilians have Carnivale, New Orleans and the French have Mardi Gras, Russians have Shrovetide, Germans have Schmutziger Donnerstag, Sweden has Semla, Lithuana has Uzhgavenes, Indians have Holi and Duwale, Iranians have Norwuz, Japanese have Higan. Every corner of the world seems to have a Vernal Equinox Festival whose origins predate Purim by hundreds of centuries. Drinking, dancing, dressing, a bacchanale of life to usher in the new spring's regeneration when the noumenal world of No End becomes so full of light and essence that it has to contract some of its enduring majesty into empty space so that, in a divine leap, the shattered, phenomenal realm of sense and sensibility can grow in the hope that some essence of it can yet again leap back to the world of no end. 

"For fuck's sake don't bring your friends to this."

"Nu? Why not?"

"It just encourages Tateh. Nu?"

Every weeknight after mishpocheh dinner, they'd talk for a few hours in the Katz basement, and she now spoke to in secret to her secret best friend more than to any school friend, not a secret for her sake, but a secret for his. Even with their family's detente, how would his mishpocheh react to knowing that Simcha was spending every free moment in the almost windowless basement of an halakhic shiksa. Meanwhile, Kristina had taken up with a thirty-two year old junior professor at Berkeley named Dan Krentzman and was rarely seen around the house anymore. 

"He wants to make a scene. He wants the whole city to see this and know we're here. Nu?"

"But it's gonna be fun!"

"Nu? Who cares? It's just going to end badly for everyone. Nu?"

Bethany loved Simcha, just as she did all her friends, she just wasn't sure she could stand him. He seemed to think nothing of being so cynical, so stubborn, so argumentative, indeed, he seemed to love it. He acted as though making fun of everything she loved was the most generous thing in the world a person could do for his or her friends. And he more negative he was, the more need she felt to court his approval. She couldn't stand him for making her seek his approval, she couldn't stand herself for needing him to support her, and she couldn't stand him again for making her feel the need to be supported by him. And yet she loved him, as though there was instant understanding of the rules of a game that was as utterly strange to her as it was completely familiar to him. This inner irritation was utterly new, and gnawed into her intestines like termites into trees. For her life's first time, she had to confront that not only did she disapprove of someone she loved, but that this person may disapprove of her too, yet still love her back. Around Simcha, from Simcha, because of Simcha, love was suddenly intermingled with dread, pettiness, anger, belittlement, cynicism. Would love, could love, ever feel the same again? 

On week 1 after they started hanging out, while Ian Greyling is in the bathroom he says:  "Don't get mixed up with him, nu? He's an erotoman and a shikker!" Week 2, Alenna and Vicki are in the next room and he says: "Nu, don't invite your yenta friends too often while I'm here. They don't like me nu? and I wouldn't like them if I knew them better." She saw Vicki hesitantly enter the room as he finished the sentence and had to wonder for weeks if Vicki'd heard. Week 3, he says outright to Kristina "Nu, all Bethany's other friends play at being korvehs, but you're the real thing! Nu?"

By the end of week 4, Simcha'd said nothing particularly embarrassing. But it's Purim, it's Alamo Square Park, it's time to get so drunk you don't know the difference between Haman and Mordechai. All Bethany has to say to her friends is there'll be free hard liquor and 90% of San Francisco Friends High School show up, and so will half the adults from the Church of the Holy Fellowship. Not that UU's celebrate Fat Tuesday, but when Bethany tells Mary that Rabbi Freylik's terrified nobody'll show up for Purim, Mary suggests that the Freyliks can turn their Purim party into a combination Purim and Mardi Gras, Bethany makes sure Simcha tells Rabbi Freylik and Simcha's Tateh jumps at the suggestion. 

Ordinarily, charedim, even Chabadniks, would wretch at the idea of an interfaith celebration. But for Chabad, these are no ordinary times. The 92-jahr-alt Rebbe has been unable to talk for two years, he had a stroke while praying at the last Lubavitcher Rebbe's graveside that left him completely paralyzed on the right side. The fact that he dwells on with seeming permanence and one foot in the world to come leads to ever greater speculation that Der Rebbe is the Moshiach. Never mind that the Moshiach should probably be do more than be able to sit silently in a wheelchair. 

Nobody's in charge of Chabad right now and every Rabbi is too busy jockeying for position to do much oversight. Every Lubavich shaliach has to make his own rules. Rebbe Freylik has big plans for whatever new regime comes when the Rebbe ascends to Olam Ha'Ba, and this is the perfect reason summon allies. If no guests show up for the Purim party, Ori's gotta explain to them why they travelled across the country for a party so small. Nu? What they don't know about who shows up can't hurt? Deh Kad'sh Bar-khoo always looks out for us and even if we don't admit it, these schkotzer idolworshippers really seem like nice people. These ahkoo'im promise they won't bring meat, and they're even gonna bring their own liquor, cuz all dey do is trink. They don't even celebrate deh Mardi Gras. No goyisheh brokhes, no crucifix, it's almost like deh goyim respect us! They gonna pay far deh jazz band, fah deh masks, fah deh hula hoops, and fah deh beads. Maybe Hashem really does like these people, half of deh members are married to Jews! Nu? So even if a hundred or two goyim show up along with three or four Jews, we tell the ander schlichim it's to bring the intermarried ones back to us. What reason to complain? Nu? 

Mary brings everything. She even offered to pay for kosher catering, but the Freylik's don't trust the kashrut of any caterer in town. She ate before and insists to the Freyliks that they should have to do as little as possible on their own holiday. They won't let her cook but she can at least set up the tables and bring out the food. Seven trips from the Freylik house to the table to bring out Rebbitzen Freylik's unbelievable meals. Hamentaschen of course, but also phyllo rolls, prune cake, poppyseed roll, falafel salad, something called mujaddara, potato pancakes - sorry, latkes, eggplant and chickpea stew, potato and mushroom dumplings, and challah. They're just unbelievable.

The goyim come with their liquor in addition to Mary and Bob's own, and place it on a second of the two tables which Bethany and Kristina brought out an hour ago with a blue tablecloth which they bedecked with white flower pedals to give the decorations an Israel color scheme. It's not like the Freyliks don't drink, and before Rabbi Freylik comes outdoors for the Purim celebration, he takes a shot of whiskey, vodka, and Schnapps each with Rabbi Weiss - who moved from Crown Heights to Ma'aleh Adumim in 1978, Rabbi Grossman who was born in Berlin and now operates Chabad Kansas City, Rabbi Schwarzberg from Buenos Aires, Rabbi Kleiner who's basically lived his whole life in a Montreal Yeshiva, and Rabbi Shemtov who was born in Moscow and now runs Chabad DC. But when they go outside, each of them bring a different flavored bottle of Manischewitz to put on the table. Nobody over the age of 17 touches it. 

Mary's eye immediately focuses on one of her more tactless UU congregants, Jamie Rosenstein, who arrived early and carried a brown paper bag from which she took nothing out. After twenty five minutes, she brings out what's clearly a sandwich with meat. Mary interrupts her conversation to tell Jamie to take it inside. "They have such a beautiful spread here. Why don't you eat this instead." But I paid for this sandwich"  "Just eat it in my house?" "Come on, just a minute, let me take another bite and I'll throw it out." "I'm sorry you have to take it in." "But." "The Freyliks are kosher and we can't let you unkosher meat around their food." "Come on Mary. Is it really so terrible to bring outside food here?" "Yes, it is. Now go inside! Please?" 

Jamie Rosenstein goes inside, directly past Bethany's classmates Noam Bar-Kherev and Tariq el-Mofty. Rather than finish the sandwich she puts it back into the fridge and goes directly back out for the hamentaschen and the latkes. Noam's father is an internist who occasionally refers his patients to Bob Katz and whose mother Maureen has gained eighty pounds since being swept off her feet at the University of Wisconsin by Eitan Bar-Kahan. Eitan now carries on with his Puerto Rican secretary and Maureen knits crochet for future grandchildren. But Tariq's father, a Palestinian Christian named Gabriel, is a third-generation multinational businessman. During the '48 Nakba, Gabriel was in school in Cairo with the other sons of Arab businessmen of distinctions, with Kings, their ministers and diplomats, and even their musicians and movie stars. Tariq's older brother will convert to Islam after getting kicked out of medical school for cheating while his Jewish friend who gave him the answers was held back a semester. But here in San Francisco, Noam and Tariq eat the humus and falafel their mothers make for them, they both listen to the same Middle Eastern musicians like Abdul Halim Hafez and Lydia Canaan, and they catcall the same hippie girls on the same streets. 

Today as ever, they pick mercilessly on Vladimir, Volodya, Kostovetzky, knocking over Volodya's plate of eggplant and chickpea salad so it gets all over his pants and telling him to go over to the Chabadniks to pray it off. In ten years, Volodiya will be worth $108 million dollars, his parents work for him, and he dates four women at a time while Noam is trying to make it as a filmmaker in Hollywood living on his parents dime and Tariq is an LSE grad school dropout who organizes protests and lives with in a 80 square meter London flat with seven others.   

In the late 80's, Volodya's parents get work in San Francisco lab technicians. In 1987, his mother Tatiana was denied the valedictory prize in her biochemical doctoral program in spite of literally perfect grades. Her advisor, Dr. Nikolayevich, would praise her work to the heavens but always go out of his way to berate how 'cheap' she was with showing how she did it, so he didn't know how she always got the right answers to all the questions on his tests and 'for all I know you're using witchcraft.' 

All four of Volodya's grandparents, from not particularly credulous middle class families in Vilna and Minsk, were deemed enemies of the people - as they all knew they eventually would be, and mercifully compelled by Stalin's population transfers of 170 million people to relocate in 1941 only as far as Tashkent - capital of Uzbekistan, where their parents made sure to speak to Volodya's parents only in Russian, as did the parents of their Uzbeki, Chinese, Korean, Harbin, native Polish, native Ukranian, Crimean Tatar, Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian, Turkish, Meshketian Turkish, Kurdish, Hamsheni, Karapapak, and Lazesi classmates.. 

But if antisemitism was in fact the reason Tatiana didn't become valedictorian of her year at the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, it was quite ironic since both Tatiana and her husband Yosif met each other because they both secretly became devout Orthodox Christians in their first year at Tashkent State Technical University. Tatiana's father died in 1942 at the Battle of Stalingrad, but Yosif's father rebuilt himself as a essential factory inspector for the Tashkent Communist Party and was therefore a militant atheist. The official wedding was militantly secular, and a secret second wedding without the knowledge of parents happened in the bell tower of Tashkent's Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin.  

Thereafter, both Yosif and Tatiana, doubtless with a few strings pulled by Yosif's father, were accepted to Bauman Moscow Technical University, where Tatiana was at the top of their class, and Yosif somewhere in the top 70%. In 1988, to Yosif's father's devastation, they came over to America with the ten year old Volodya and settled in the Richmond District with all the other Soviet Jews, where they were not particularly popular on account of adorning their apartment with many ikons of the Theotokos and a giant reproduction of Rublev's Old Testament Trinity. They wanted Volodya to have a Christian education, but they were horrified at the poor science program at St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy, so they swallowed their pride and sent them to the weak liberal Quakers at San Francisco Friends. Yosif got a job at a laboratory where he was fired for incompetence, perhaps unfairly for a man who didn't speak very good English, and eventually made his living as a cabdriver who was not always entirely sober. Tatiana became essential in her lab at Genentech at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was treated as a chief researcher in practice even if not in name, and was the driving force behind there Herceptin, a breast cancer drug which was her pet project, the work of ten years, a thank you to the chain-smoking mother who insisted that Tatiana be the best in all she did. 

When it came to Volodya, they insisted that whatever he did, he too had to finish first. Academically, that's exactly what he was at San Francisco Friends. Socially..., not yet.. Yet by 2004, when Volodya's a tall and thin tech gazillionaire who dresses in all black with thousand dollar leather shoes and a different girlfriend for every day of the week, he's not sure if he ever felt about any of them one-eighteenth the fervor he felt for the swarthy and statuesque Arundhati Maji, at this point an ectomorphically tall, studious and shy girl whom everybody discovered just last week was Ian Greyling's most unexpected conquest. After reconnecting with her on social media in 2006, he would marry the swarthy and statuesque Arundhati in late 2008 after courting her with flowers and whirlwind trips, and in late 2016 they'd divorce. Arundhati was facing Volodya when Noam knocks the plate full of eggplant into his crotch with juice that spills down his leg. Volodya tearfully runs into Bethany's first floor bathroom to cry in as much secrecy as he can, humiliated in front of the love of his young life. But it barely registers to Arundhati while she's talking to the 'Maryams', Maryam Tayebi and Mariam Mardirosian, who saw nothing of it. Arundhati herself could barely stop herself from crying that whole week, her hookup five months earlier with Ian Greyling at a lab partner session being the current subject of everyone's gossip. The teacher's pet of the class might never get her reputation back, forever branded as slut by the hounds of San Francisco Friends, and were it to get back to her father, there would be a whirlwind to reap. 

Arundhati's parents raised her to be what they thought was the perfect American girl. Her parents were Bengali Christians who began life as Untouchable Hindus, subject as children to additional indignity of crossing with their families by foot from what would become the Bangladeshi part of Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta to its Indian part in the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947. Their families only emerged from refugee camps in the mid-50's when Evangelical missionaries offered them housing in exchange for conversion. The more Christian the Majis became, the more opportunities and money Christians gave them. In the 70's, they had enough money to come to San Francisco, where they ran an Indian restaurant and were in the front rows of San Francisco Evangelical Free Church every Sunday. They decorated the restaurant with all the Hindu icons which they and especially their parents so loathed. They tried to be far more Christian than Indian, because above all, they wanted to be American. In the restaurant, they always played the same Ravi Shankar record, but in private, they always played Gospel and top 40 radio. Arundhati was to get the best possible Christian education, no evangelical school for her, and to be a perfect learned and perfectly chaste student with not a year elapsing before she would become a wife and a mother - a plan which no doubt would have pleased Volodya very much had he been able to win her ten years earlier. Arundhati, however, wanted to be a veteranarian, and eventually became an endocrinologist. 

Little did Volodya know that if Arundhati's thoughts were with Ian Greyling, Mariam Mardirosian's thoughts were with him. A plain American-Armenian girl of average height and weight whose parents were always screaming at the top of their lungs. Both of his parents were survivors of the systemic Turkish genocide of 1.5 million Armenians. Her father, on his fourth marriage, was freed by Americans from Treblinka, the place where his mother and sisters were gassed after being forced by Stalin to relocate in '44 from Armenia to Crimea, where they were captured within a matter of days by Nazis who presumed them to be Jews. With no family left, Davit Mardirosian made his way to America in 1949 after living for four years in a West German refugee camp, he was still only twenty-two. Mariam's mother came over with her family as a seven-year-old in 1957 from Eastern Turkey, Armenian emigres finally fleeing their reluctant country after the Istanbul pogroms of 1955. Her mother, a nurse on her second marriage, was hardly a shrinking violet, and both Mardirosian parents would sometimes go to work in long sleeves and sunglasses. For forty years, Davit, who had to learn new languages many times in his childhood, was a high school history teacher of great distinction at San Francisco Friends. As a survivor of the world's worst modern genocide and the son of survivors from the second-worst, he probably spoke to every school, every college, every community organization, maybe even every place of business, in the Bay Area about his experiences and was given every community leadership award San Francisco, Oakland, and especially Berkeley, could possibly offer.

Without telling any of their classmates, Mariam lived at the luxuriant house of Maryam Tayebi, her Iranian classmate whose parents would even pay her way through grad school after Mr. Mardirosian broke his daughter's college fund to pay his many alimonies. Mohammed Tayebi was a devout Shia Muslim as a university student, and then became a multi-millionaire oilman because his father Hossein worked as a chief technician for a British Petroleum oil rig and gave lots of information to BP and the CIA about Mohammed Mossadegh's orders when he Nationalized Iranian Oil. Upon Hossein's death during the 1963 White Revolution, the devout Mohammed was rewarded by the Shah for his father's loyal service with shares in the National Iranian Oil Company numbering roughly 24 million dollars in today's money. Mohammed never worked a day again, reading the message to avoid Mosques quite clearly. By the time the Ayatollah returned, Mohammed was safely in San Francisco, happily married to Ann Brundage, who was working in the Peace Corps in Tehran when they met in 1976, shortly before the Peace Corps was ejected from Iran. 

Simcha wants to be anywhere else but here, in part because he's ashamed of wanting to be nowhere else but here. 

After all the commotion is over, Noam and Tariq emerge from Bethany's house with Jamie Rosenstein's sandwich. 

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