Monty Python Yiddishkeit of Eretz Brooklyn Queens

I was never a “Jew.” Ever. I was, am and ever will be, a “Yid.”

I used to joke that I was Siouxish, but that can never be more than a joke unless I actually go out west, master Lakota, study the Sioux way of life and live it: not gonna happen — though I’m trying to learn Lakota.

Then again, the Jews were once the Sioux of Europe. The Sioux wanted their land back, rightfully so, for it was stolen by Europeans/Americans through cowardly slaughter, especially of unarmed women, children, and old folks, for obvious reasons: less risk and better ROI, if you factor in the cost of medical aid to soldiers, supplies, reinforcements, ammunition, not to mention futures — i.e., fertile women, infant males who would mature to warrior-status if allowed to live, the utility of even the sick and elderly to pad a body-count and exact emotional taxes on braves in the field, etc. – as The Market would demand.

Of course, it is possible that umpteen centuries or eons ago, the Sioux took this land from some other tribe, by now long gone and forgotten (though as far as I know, ownership of land is really a European/Mid-Eastern/Asian i.e., “civilized” concept). After all, according to the Bible, the Jews themselves stole the “holy land” from the Canaanites — under direct orders from Yahweh, the Ultimate Land-Lord.

“Find me someone with Canaanite DNA and I’ll file the mother of all law-suits: we’ll sue the Romans, the British, the Jews, the Palestinians, everybody!” my friend, Mike-the-Lawyer, once told me. Mike’s a brilliant guy really, and usually a good liar/lawyer, but dangerous when he goes off his meds…

The Jews merely wanted to go home. But a lot happens in 2000 years. I’m sure the original African slaves wanted to go home, but I doubt most African-Americans consider Africa, or any place else but America, the country their forced labor helped create, home.

So along comes the 19th Century, by which time most of the Natives of America were finished off and the Jews safely sequestered in European shtetls, ghettos and other concentration-camp prototypes, where they could be turned to in times of crisis and attacked by drunken, angry mobs, or soldiers, if the government of wherever/whenever needed a really good show to divert attention from its evil self.

So many exciting new ideas: Industrialism, Corporate Capitalism, Marxism, Spritism, Victorianism, Revisionism, Eugenics, Phrenology, Social Darwinism, Ectoplasm and other effluvia puked up by the cold, rational and very well-dressed corpse of Enlightenment, including that weird concoction of racism, nationalism, zealotry and all sortsa crazy shit made manifest in Zionism, then the German’s home-grown “ism” (from genuine Versailles seed), pumped on steroids, amphetamines, sour-grapes and plain old paranoia: Nazism.

(“Told you so!” sez old Bill Blake; Shelley had his own rant ready, but got so riled he gagged on ectoplasm before he could utter a word and needs to rest — in peace)

Judaism is not a “race,” whatever race actually is or implies, it’s a religion, a belief system. Only thing “Jewish” you’ll find in anyone’s genes is a kosher ding-a-ling (though circumcision is not unique to the Jews). Ethnicity’s different: it’s regional, usually entailing great differences in diet, language/ dialects, clothing styles, even physical features, but it still ain’t “race,” again whatever, if anything, race might mean.

Location location location sez da Land-Lord…

There’s more that the whole Zionism thing made clear, particularly relating to language. The very reason some religious Jews do not recognize Israel is that Zionism betrayed the language. Hebrew is supposed to be the “sacred tongue,” spoken only in synagogue or “when the Messiah comes” (or for those who believe he already came, promised to come back to fix up the mess he left behind). That’s why the patois-language of Yiddish exists – well, that and other more expedient reasons, such as racist, anti-semitic, anti-everything-not-Caucasian European/Russian violence and oppression.

I wonder if Yiddish is written phonetically with Hebrew letters so Jews could get away with stuff that might have been considered dangerous to Christian Europeans (always out for a good time; which was why, when they realized there weren’t enough Jews to go around for everyone, they took off to Africa, Asia, America where there were more than enough “heathens” to keep the blood splattering for centuries to come), especially after many Yids began leaning to the secular Left.

Wouldn’t a Marxist or Anarchist article in a Yiddish newspaper look like Hebrew to anyone who didn’t know Hebrew, and total nonsense to those who knew Hebrew — Calvinist clerics, for instance — but not Yiddish?

From earliest youth I remember hating and fearing “god,” until I was fortunate enough, at age ten, to befriend a kid whose parents were both psychiatrists and “evangelical atheists.” My conversion was quick and painless. Going to Synagogue twice a year on the High Holy Days was my first lesson in arrant hypocrisy, begun roughly at age seven or eight, though admittedly I was forced (“Fake it till you make it,” the Anonymous Ones say as they lumber up those dreadful twelve steps, and more often than not, finding the same-old, same-old at the top, jump) and Hebrew school seemed so irrelevant to anything I could ever have imagined doing, wanting to do, or having to do, that it actually beat out Summer Camp as my major “I don’t get it, why are we doing this? Why would anyone force me to do this kind of shit against my will?” line of questioning which led in due course to mistrust, fear and finally utter hatred of power, “tradition” and illegitimate authority.

Being an early student of Monty Python, I became well aware of the fact that if you can’t beat ‘em… “Run away! Run away! Run away!” And runaway I did. Going off for long days of glorious solitude in the mountains after having gone AWOL from the summer camp I was forced to battend, only to return to find that – oh good heavens, no! – I was an out-law, a “bad little boy,” and my punishment would be… excommunication! I would never be allowed in that particular Summer camp again (boo-hoo)!

With my Bar Mitzvah set for December, I began to cut out of Hebrew school just before the starting bell – especially on gorgeous fall afternoons when, having spent the day in “real school” (I totally understood the idea of teaching us reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, though I was too young to understand the sinister motives behind it all till high school), it absolutely boggled my mind that we would have to blow the rest of the day – we got out of school early, 2:15 PM, when I was in the seventh grade – in order to pretend to learn Hebrew and Jewish History, as it was interpreted by the Zionists who taught it (who better?) from 4:30-7:30 twice a week.

There was the rub. Pretend. They had us from age eight to thirteen. More than enough time to teach such impressionable minds both Hebrew and Yiddish. They opted for neither. The twice-a-week lock-downs were divided into two sessions: Hebrew and History. Hebrew was taught phonetically, so we would be able to read the syllables and pronounce them correctly on that “special day” when we’d be “called to the Torah ” (even the girls; it was a reform synagogue; the other Temple in town was conservative, but not ultra-conservative: girls could be Bat Mitzvahed; they just couldn’t approach, much less read from, the Torah; and those poor bastards had to go to Hebrew school three times a week, not two).

The second session, Jewish History, began with the expulsion of Abraham from Ur, continued through several thousands of years of pain, persecution, segregation, alienation and utter misery, but had a very happy ending: the erection of the State of Israel! Now, all Jews could be “safe,” wherever they were (yeah, like those Soviet Jews got sprung from the gulag as soon as Eretz Israel gave Moscow the cold stare).

But there was one problem: poor, little, scrappy, democratic, free, life-loving Israel was surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs who lived on huge tracts of land which, as the map did indeed show, made Israel seem like a grape on the back of an elephant by comparison.

And what’s worse, the main problem was the greedy, unreasonable Palestinians and the equally selfish other Arabs who lived on these huge land masses – see ‘em on the map! – but wouldn’t let the Palestinians just live there; moreover, the Palestinians didn’t want to live on all that land, where everyone owned their own oil field, just out of spite, meanness and antisemitism. So poor Israel was not only surrounded by huge enemies, “she” had enemies living in her very own cities: the Palestinians, known generically as “terrorists,” who murdered Israeli children as they took their afternoon naps in kindergarten.

One day, the body in the bag might be your own…

Fortunately, the Arabs were stupid, weak, cowards, and the Israelis were brave, brilliant, industrious ubermenschen who “made the dessert bloom” and took “some old spare parts” from the U.S. Military and built high-tech tanks, planes, Uzi’s and other anti-terrorist paraphernalia.

Blah blah blah. Bleh, bleh, bleh.

Finally, after a month and a half of playing hooky (my friend would say, whenever the “teacher” would ask where I was, “He’s out buying a Bar Mitzvah suit”) I penned a letter accusing my “teacher” and the whole fucking place of bigotry – not cause of the Israel thing, I bought that hook line and sinker, but because they claimed that Jews were “smarter” than all other people – hypocrisy, ethnocentrism, and god knows what else. Of course this led to a “ man-hunt” and this and that and the other thing, until my parents and I had to meet with the principal of the Hebrew school – such awesome power; how could such a position fail to corrupt? – to discuss the fact that my Bar Mitzvah was less than two weeks off and I missed the entire “ semester” of Hebrew school and hadn’t met once with the rabbi or cantor to study the section of the Torah I was supposed to pretend to read and chant with the proper accents and inflections.

“Frankly, I don’t think you deserve a Bar Mitzvah!” said the Principal.

Were all “authorities” dumb as toast? I couldn’t believe I’d heard him right. Was he offering me what the Summer camp people gave me, a discharge – dishonorable, honorable, who cared, as long as I was free?

Alas, no. It was his attempt at a rhetoric, allegedly meant to shame me or something. When I literally sprung outta my chair and said, “Excellent! I don’t want one!” and my father gave him his “First I’ll kick your ass for stealing five years of tuition, then I’ll sue your ass for stealing five years of tuition” stare, the guy backed down.

My father’s judgment was worthy of King Solomon: get Bar Mitzvahed, and except for the high holy days twice a year, I’d never have to deal with a synagogue again, or rot in Military School until I died, graduated or reached eighteen..

The almighty Principal of the Hebrew school began to look tinier and tinier; literally disappeared into his chair.

So, I met with the cantor once, got a tape of him doing the section I was supposed to read, got a copy of the section I was supposed to read – both with and without vowels; modern Hebrew has vowels, but the Hebrew of the Torah did not. I suppose giving me two versions spelled out phonetically in English was supposed to help me “cheat” a little. I needed neither version. I simply memorized the tape. When the day of my “Shotgun Bar Mitzvah” arrived, I dutifully recited the Hebrew I could neither read nor understand, pretending to follow along as the rabbi moved his silver pointer across the glyphs penned artfully across my designated section of the vellum scroll..

My one small rebellion, which did not go unnoticed, was to look up at the ceiling as I was reciting from memory until the rabbi elbowed me in the ribs. Well, that was presumptuous of him. How did he know I hadn’t memorized the whole damned Torah? Luckily I was a long-confirmed atheist, cause if I thought there was some mean, vengeful, jealous god actually listening to my ass-kissing recital (I assume it was kissing his ass; isn’t that what all prayers are for, whatever religion you’re hard-coded with by age six?) it might have crossed my mind that it was possible, not probable, but possible that the all-powerful creator of this, that and the other thing might answer back, in Hebrew, of course, and then I’d most certainly be fucked.

None of this had anything to do with theology; i.e., Judaism, so much as politics; i.e., Zionism. The stuff I actually liked about being Jewish had nothing whatsoever to do with the religion or politics, much less those of a foreign country I’d never been to but which I was allegedly more a citizen of than its native-born Arab inhabitants, but hanging out with my grand-parents, great-aunts and great-uncles, listening rapt as they switched effortlessly from heavily accented English, to Hungarian, to Polish, to Yiddish and back again, and eating Hungarian stuffed cabbage, brisket and potatoes, Chicken Paprikasch, Chicken soup, greiven (fried chicken fat chips; like Yiddish pork rinds), bagels lox and cream cheese, Hungarian-style cheesecake – much like what I’d later eat at my Italian in-law’s seasonal gatherings – totally different from the cement wheels most restaurants and diners dish out with a bro-mo-seltzer chaser: light, made with ricotta or cottage cheese, topped with a layer of pastry.

Basically, sitting in a warm old house eating great food with a bunch of literate, knowledgeable, kindly, old polyglots made for a good time when I was a kid. There was just one catch: many were, or had been…socialists!

It did indeed puzzle me why such a nice bunch of old folks would be on the side of the Russians, who were ready to blow us up at any minute, but I let it go. I wasn’t gonna rat them out. Though my parents would get mighty uptight when they started talking that old time European Yid commie stuff…

It was Yiddish culture – along with the other mostly Eastern European cultures and languages that existed in these old Queens and Brooklyn houses, the food – none of which contained even trace elements of falafel, tabbouleh or babaganoush – the easy camaraderie and general sense of welcoming – often guests were not Jewish: Italian, Irish and “other” neighbors invited in for food and holiday celebrations that were so informal it was hard to distinguish them from Thanksgiving – and most of all, the humor, the endless supply of jokes, anecdotes, and “yarns” made doubly comic by Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian accented deliveries with borscht-belt emphasis and timing, Brooklyn and Queens inflections, coinages and lingo – all of this is what I recall with fondness and only this.

Note: “Home is where you hang your hat,” said Dr. Lizardo (John Lithgow), in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. During the 1990s I taught in Queens, not far away from where my grand-parents had lived, and enjoyed talking with students about the neighborhood and how it had changed — and stayed the same. Most of these students, college freshmen who’d grown up in the area, were Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Korean, the newest inhabitants of the old neighborhood. Maybe I’ll return one day with a gun and force whoever’s living there to “Gimme back my land…”

I was never a “Jew,” in terms of religious belief. I’m a Yid. To an extent that I can be: the only “cultural and linguistic heritage” I might have identified with was wiped out, before I was born, by Nazism, Zionism and American Empire. The last living remnants of Yiddishkeit were old when I was young and dead before I reached thirty.

Zionism? Another night-mare galloping out of Europe’s bloody conscience. American Empire? Passing fad: “Look upon these works, ye mighty, and despair” and all that. Judaism, the religion?

Belongs with its children, Christianity and Islam, in the Monomaniacal Misogynistic Sumerian Mythology Department of some under-funded, unaccredited junior college way, way, way upstate, somewhere outside Albany.

Ethnicities and their celebration are fun, so long as it doesn’t go beyond the language, jokes, folk-tales, music, literature, etc. Once they start talking of “bringing back great days of yore” or racial/genetic “purity” it’s time to fight like hell, if you’ve a chance of at least getting a few licks in; otherwise, “Run away! Run away! Run away!”

Adam Engel lived for your sins -- and he lived well! -- in Fear-and-Trembling, Brooklyn, one of the last gangrenous toes of NYC not yet severed and replaced with a prosthetic gentrification device. Read other articles by Adam, or visit Adam's website.