Saturday, May 11, 2013

Oy Vey

I grew up on a farm in the South.  The farm was an eight hundred acre cattle ranch, black angus primarily.  The South was the Florida Panhandle.  Flora-bama to some.

We were the only Jewish family in the county.  Mr. Sheinberg owned the shoe store in town. Apparently he was a single gentleman.  I have no idea how he ended up in Bonifay, Florida.  What ever you imagine a redneck southern hick town to be, that was Bonifay and then some.  We had a "colored" section of town.  There was a rodeo every October.  The parade for the rodeo winded through the one main street of town.  We had something called an "all-night sing" which was a gospel marathon that went all night long.  I remember being in homes where old grandmothers were quilting.  We fished and hunted. We spent time in the colored section at the home of our "help".  We referred to Anna as our maid.  But she was much more than that.  Anna was family, very much a parent in many ways.  I remember the smell of fried chicken and cornbread.  Grits and turnip greens.  Foods I enjoy to this day.

My siblings and I are all three years apart.  My older brother is three years my senior and my sister is three years younger.  We were shipped off to temple, or what we called Sunday school with Anna or one of the other babysitters who took care of us.  I have no idea why we went to temple on Sunday's. More often than not we went to Baptist or Methodist churches with my friends in Bonifay.  As I understand it, most activities in the Jewish religion occur on Friday nights and Saturday.  This was early and mid-sixties.  Our parents were busy with their friends.  We had our own lives.  Anyway, we would head off to Sunday school about an hour away every Sunday.  I remember very little of the experience.  I remember none of the religious aspect of it.  I went until I was twelve when we ended up moving to Connecticut.

My father had been a cattle farmer since moving to Florida fifteen years earlier.  Ivy league educated, he had the option of going into the film and entertainment business where his father, my grandfather was the president of a large movie studio.  My parents were married and moved to Florida where my dad wanted to try his hand at farming. His wedding gift from my grandfather was the farm.  In addition he was a lover of jazz, specifically dixieland.  He had lots of friends from "up north"(the New York area) who would come down and visit for weeks at a time.  They would jam out in the barn until the wee morning hours.  Banjos and Basses.  Trumpets and Trombones. Drums and washboards.  Oh and kazoos.

So, after fifteen years of farming my father decided he wanted to move back north and become a full time musician.  He moved in the late spring/early summer of 1967 while we were still in school.  Once school let out we followed suit.  We moved to Gulf Beach in Milford, Connecticut for the summer until my parents found and bought a house on Lake Phipps in West Haven at the end of the summer.  I was heartbroken and angry to be torn from the comfort of my life and my friends in Bonifay. I held on to this anger for years until I had a chance to go back as an adult.  What was I thinking?  Getting out of there was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Anyway, back to the temple thing.  I never felt "Jewish".  If anything I was more "Jew-ISH".  I had Jewish roots and a heritage.  But it was not a part of my upbringing or my culture. My folks had no commitment to religion.  Anything we did was as a token for my grandfather who was both an Orthodox Jew and......well, let's be honest....wealthy.

And so it was.  I was 12, going on 13.  I would be bar mitzvah'd. This was not up for debate.  My entire understanding of the Jewish experience stemmed from a little movie my grandfather's company made called "The Ten Commandments".  So it was off to Rabbi Mirsky in West Haven for bar mitzvah lessons...Hebrew lessons?  I don't know.  Whatever, it was as foreign to me then as it is now.

I don't recall going to the Rabbi for that long.  I do remember, not understanding anything.  Not a word.  But before I knew it, I was planning my bar mitzvah.  My mom tells me that the Rabbi had to search Jewish law high and low to find a loophole that allowed me to be bar mizvah'd on a Sunday.  There we go again.  For some reason, probably because I had no idea what the hell I was doing, I wasn't able to have my bar mitzvah on a Friday or Saturday.

The day of my bar mitzvah was the single most humiliating day of my life.  All I recall is stammering through the Hebrew words, written in English on the page in front of me.  I had to wear a suit.  It was awkward and I was embarrassed by the entire affair.  I can still see the look of horror on the faces of my family and friends as I bumbled my way through the text.  To top it off, I, who had already been told many times how awful my singing voice was had to chant the entire service.  It was cruel and unusual punishment.  Not just for me, but for my parents, my siblings, my friends.  I can only imagine what Rabbi Mirsky was thinking.

I recently had the opportunity to visit my parents in West Haven.  They live in the same house on the lake where I grew up.  I was talking to my dad and I asked him, "Hey Dad, no details...please, but was my bar mitzvah as painful for you as it was for me.

My father is going to turn 84 this year.  His simple answer, with a chuckle was, "No fucking way!".

Thanks Dad.  That's pretty much what I thought.