Those of you who watch this space might also know that I’m a transplanted Southern man, born (though not necessarily raised) in Raleigh, North Carolina, when North Carolina was a much more southern state, and, long ago, even a state in the Confederacy. With all the migrating within the US, the southern-ness of Raleigh is now quite dilute. Cary, a bedroom community next to Raleigh, even has a sizable Indian community, with at least two Hindu temples. As I am a great fan of India, that’s a thrill. It means there are lots of Indian restaurants and Indian groceries—and Indian people. That adds significant vibrancy to the color and texture of the place.
This story is not, however, much about India. In my circumspect
way, it is about the simple, elusive feeling of being at home. Here in New York, I teach Transcendental Meditation to all manner of people. In that line of work, I am as likely to meet someone from Serbia or China or Australia as I am to meet a native New Yorker. The world lives in this city, and when New York laughs or cries, the world feels it. Remember how the world reacted on that fateful day in September, 2001?
Kindly allow me to give a little more background. My grandfather landed here in New York in 1910 from Warsaw, Poland. He started a family, a knitting mill, and was a successful builder in Westchester. In 1938, they moved to Raleigh. I will likely never know why they left New York, because there’s no one alive who’d know. I am the last of our tribe.
My grandfather didn’t seem that Jewish to me. My late maternal uncle told me that Papa spoke Hebrew fluently, but I never heard him speak it; though in their house, he and Nana spoke Yiddish, especially when they needed to hide their topic. On the Friday evening service of my bar mitzvah, after I’d finished reading from the Torah and the Haftorah, he stood with me on the altar. He faced me squarely, placed his hands on my shoulders and spoke for an eternity while the congregation waited silently inside Temple Beth Or on Hillsborough Street. I remember only one item of all he said. It’s this: “Remember, first be an American, then be a Jew.”
At that tender age of 13, by Jewish law I was about to become a man. That’s essentially what bar mitzvah is all about. Yet this little man had no idea what Papa meant by those nine words. The term bar mitzvah means “son of the commandment.” The young Jewish man, on reaching age 13, is entitled to participate in all the aspects of adult Jewish life.
“There’s only ten commandments. That’s nice for [Moses], because there’s hundreds of things you’re not supposed to do. Why are there only ten commandments? … Maybe God had pity on Moses because Moses had a bad back. ‘See these heavy tablets, Moses? Just bring a few down.'”
The Wollmans were a family of Reform Jews, then the most liberal of the three specific branches of Judaism. My mother and father were married in Miami Beach by a rabbi who likely had no idea that my mother was Catholic, because her maiden name was the very Jewish “Margulies”. My father never sat through any of the Rabbi’s sermons, preferring instead to step outside for a Lucky Strike. I was duly confirmed as a Jew a few years after becoming bar mitzvah, so something must have taken hold.
Nothing meant very much to me in those days. I had no strong spiritual underpinnings. Though I hung out with Jewish friends during my early college life, the more formal, traditional aspects of being Jewish lost their grip on me as the complex atmosphere of early 1970s University of North Carolina overwhelmed me. It was a large school then, a veritable universe of people, and that just shattered what little self-confidence I had.
But after all the trials and tribulations, there is one aspect of Jewishness which has not left me. That is the marvelous cultural capital of the Tribes. Given my early circumstances, only divine intervention could have saved the remnants of my Jewish soul. I spent seven years at an episcopal elementary school. We had church services every school day in a real church that was part of the school building. Before I understood that I was a Jew, I had sung “Onward Christian Soldiers” a few dozen times. I learned the Catechism despite my protestation to the school’s headmaster, Father Rosenthal. I said to him, “You know I’m not of this faith.” He replied, “You’ll learn it anyway.” At some point, I had the thought that Christianity was not for me. When the shoes don’t fit, you don’t buy ‘em. I didn’t.
Here’s how divine intervention stuck its hand in my works, how what I think is the best part of being Jewish—the great sense of humor, the schtick—found its way into my life. I assembled a complete collection of Allan Sherman LPs. I bought every album he turned out and learned just about every song on each one, by heart. I still know most of the early classic songs. The cover of this one still gets to me, because it shows Allan’s beautiful 1962 Lincoln Continental sedan—one of my all-time favorite cars, the very car my grandfather drove.
On weekends, my father’s attorney Ed Friedberg used to drive to our house in his Lincoln Mark IV. The three of us, Ed, my father, and I listened to Jewish humor skits in that car, from a couple of collections titled “You Don’t have to be Jewish” and “When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish.” Those laughter-filled afternoons inside the big, leather-upholstered Lincoln were very happy, even joyous moments for us. My father was the happiest I ever saw him. He loved my ability to faithfully mimic the heavily accented Yiddish of the voice actors. He took to calling me “Berkowitz”, a reference to one of the characters who spends thousands on scuba equipment, dives into the sea, and encounters a man in the deep wearing only swimming trunks. Berkowitz begins to wonder why he spent so much money. “How did you get down so far wearing nothing but a pair of swimming trunks?” Berkowitz asks the man. “Idiot! I’m drowning,” comes his reply.
This element of humor was the saving grace of my childhood. God must have ordained it. I’d never have survived without it. The struggle my parents lived is now a memory. My mother was my father’s caretaker in his last years. After he died, she said to me, “You know, I think your father started to love me a little in those years.” I held some hope that she’d remarry and find real love, but that didn’t happen.
The humor, the energy, the warmth of the Jewish people, the strong drive for social justice, and the chutzpah that sustains people who have lived through great darkness, those have somehow remained with me. On occasion I come face-to-face with them, as if I’m meeting a part of myself again and being reminded of it all, lest I forget.
We Jews recognize each other, sometimes with only a silent knowingness, a deep familiarity which stems from this distinctive shared culture. I think this is especially true of Jews who inhabit the southern parts of the United States, where we are so much rarer than we are here in New York City. In NYC we are 13% of the city’s population, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, according to Wikipedia. When you think about it, it’s astounding. Jews are so numerous in New York, and their mannerisms are so identified with the big city, that a generalization has emerged: anyone from New York is Jewish even if they’re not, or so the story goes.
I’ve lived in Manhattan among this diverse population for three years plus. Hasidic Jews in full regalia sometimes stop me on the street. They ask, “Are you Jewish?” After several aggressive, almost contentious encounters, I’ve learned to say “No” because otherwise things get very involved (and I usually have somewhere to be). One young guy followed me almost to my office, insisting all the way that I should put on the prayer shawl he held out to me. Sometimes I wish I could just say, “Of course, I’m Jewish,” and feel that almighty hallelujah as the missing piece of my puzzle falls from the heavens and lands in that tender old spot, the one with all the jagged edges. That ain’t gonna happen. Liberation requires time and work.
Mind you, Jews anywhere are liable to be intense, energetic folk, powerful folk, who stick to the program and get what they want. That’s how we’ve emerged triumphant, or at least intact, through all the trials the world gave us. Jews are tough.
And Jews in New York are tougher still. At an office supply store I visited to buy some refills for a Parker ballpoint pen, an older man behind the counter came out. He moved quickly. He scrupulously avoided eye contact with me. He wore a black yarmulke, the little skullcap Jewish men typically wear inside the synagogue. I knew immediately that our interaction would be brief. He said, “They discontinued those eight years ago.” More quickly than anyone can say “Amazon”, he showed me a pair of Parker refills, stuck them in a small paper bag, took my money, made change, and I was off without another word from him.
Though some Jews have this intensity naturally, many in New York may develop some degree of it. The concentration of people, the sheer density of humanity here creates a pace, a hurry, a relentless drive toward the next thing, whatever it may be, such that people don’t even know they’re in a hurry, let alone why. They just are. It’s how they live.
Head south to Philadelphia, and the New Yorkness just goes away. I was mildly shocked when I visited Philly for the first time, just a short while ago. The big city I imagined Philadelphia was seemed small, slow, even quiet—a nice place with a few big buildings, some historic structures, and 1.5 million souls. When we needed directions, a man reached out to us. He patiently explained our position and the directions in clear English. Astonishing. Philadelphia felt almost southern the day we were there, though it’s certainly in the northeast corridor of the US.
That brings me back to the place this story really wants to go.
I met someone recently who was to be one of my TM students. She spoke only a few words before I knew she was both southern and Jewish. I discovered that her birthday is quite close to my late sister’s. The structure of her face reminded me of a Jewish friend. She showed a softness that’s rare among women in the city.
Meeting her brought on a massive case of deja vu, and then some. I have never felt such a rich confluence of emotions: the joy of childhood; the sweet security of innocence; the warm memories of the older people in the Jewish community in Raleigh; and a high quotient of familiarity. I had a brief, very comforting, quite luxurious moment of emotional affluence. For a moment, everything was right with the world. For a moment, I was really at home with myself, right there on the eighth floor at 654 Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, one of the largest concrete jungles ever created by man, a place where, day after day, I walk among thousands of people who will forever remain unknown to me.
I have been in love, really in love, only a couple of times. The first was a woman who turned up seven years after we met in college. Though she spun my head around, she wasn’t a nice person. But nice didn’t matter. I was trapped, equating sex with love. She explained as we parted company: “Here is all the love I’ve ever wanted. I just can’t reach it.”
The second time? To make it very simple: I’m still trying to make my way around the remnants of what I feel for him. My recoveries come very gradually. My simple life can turn damned complicated in a moment. My attractions, though rare, span the map.
Both of those experiences were unique and distinctly different from each other. Never during either of them did I have anything like that recent moment of emotional affluence.
Sometimes a gang of ants appears near my cat’s food bowl. They come right out of the wood floor and gather ‘round a nugget of cat food there. I don’t have the heart to kill them. Everyone’s gotta be someplace. Everyone needs a home.