Archive for November, 2017

Being Jewish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

My therapist asked me if I would be willing to let go of the concept of good and bad. I suppose good and bad might be two concepts, but since we can’t have one without the other, I’ll go with good and bad being a duality. I told my therapist I was certainly willing to try to let go of the concept of good and bad, and for the last week I have been hyper-conscious of my use of those two words, as well as my virtually reflexive good/bad judgments about events and things and people, including little old me.

As an editor of my own work and the works of others, and as one who has endeavored to help many people with their writing, I would say the one word that writers use most profusely and to the detriment of their writing is it. Indeed, if you want to improve your writing in almost no time, take a recent page of something you’ve written and circle all the its and replace them with words the its are standing in for. I think you will be pleased by how much more interesting and informative your prose becomes.

I bring up it because, though I’ve long known and suggested to other writers that using words such as bad and good in our writing is almost always less effective than using more incisively descriptive words, I now realize that in my thinking and feeling and talking, I constantly use bad and good instead of saying and feeling and thinking what I more deeply feel and think.

So ever since my therapist asked me if I was willing to let go of the concept of good and bad, whenever the words bad and good come up in my speech and thoughts, I replace them with words that come closer to expressing the feelings I was trying to express with those more general words.

For instance, this morning I had an email from someone in Los Angeles who was curious to know why my book Buddha In A Teacup is not readily available in libraries in Los Angeles. I did some checking and found my correspondent was correct: Buddha In A Teacup is a non-presence in most Los Angeles libraries. I did some further checking and found that Buddha In A Teacup is only available in a few libraries scattered across America.

My initial reaction to this information was This is bad. But because I am retraining my brain/mind/spirit to replace bad with more incisively descriptive terms, I came up with, “The absence of Buddha In A Teacup in thousands of libraries across America made me sad for a moment, but the absence of the book in libraries isn’t bad or good. The absence of my book in libraries is in the nature of things at this moment in time.”

“There are two kinds of comedy. One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

For reasons I can’t readily explain, letting go of the concept of good and bad seems to be making me more comfortable with being Jewish. As I explained in my last two articles, my recent return to therapy after a thirty-year hiatus has prompted me to delve into and accept that I am Jewish despite not knowing my mother and her ancestors were Jewish until I was twelve, and despite not knowing until I was forty that my mother’s lifelong pretense of not being Jewish profoundly shaped my self-identity.

This delving into being Jewish has prompted me to write articles about my discoveries and share those articles with you. Writing and posting these articles has been exciting and scary and funny and fascinating. I’ve had several responses from other people who did not learn they were Jewish until they were adults, and I’ve had responses from people who have always known they were Jewish who told me, in so many words, “So what else is new?”

And now that I am retraining my brain to replace good and bad with more specific descriptors, I have, on several occasions, found myself being Jewish, which is unlike any feeling I’ve ever had before. Being Jewish, in the way I’m being Jewish, is so deeply satisfying I’m tempted to say the experience is reminiscent of satisfying sex, but that would be misleading so I will resist the temptation.

What do I mean by finding myself being Jewish? Here’s a for instance. (By the way, the preceding sentence fragment feels ultra-Jewish to me, at least the way I hear myself saying Here’s a for instance.) I’m having a conversation with Marcia about the menu for our upcoming vegetarian Thanksgiving supper with Bill and Sally and Sal. As Marcia and I converse, I’m aware of a subtle shift in my accent and the enhanced ease with which words are coming out of my mouth. This shift is so subtle, I don’t think Marcia realizes, as I am realizing, that I am being Jewish. What’s more, I can feel that as I am being Jewish, I am wonderfully relaxed and, dare I say, more sure of myself. Yes, I dare say I hear a confidence, an ease of expression, and a different grammar defining my speech—a Jewish grammar accompanied by a slight Jewish accent and a full-body enjoyment of being Jewish.

What is Jewish grammar? You’re asking me?

Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist who is a pioneer in the field of neurobiology, frequently talks and writes about how the words we repeatedly use/think to describe ourselves to ourselves and to other people, create templates in our brains that dictate many of our subsequent thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In other words, if I tell myself “I’m a terrible singer” a hundred times a day for ten years, I will probably not pursue a singing career. Oh I might pursue such a career, but chances are better I will become an electrician or the owner of a hat shop.

Who knew that letting go of the concept of good and bad would result in my having several enjoyable experiences of being Jewish? Maybe my therapist knew.

Until now, I haven’t told anyone about these “Jewish moments” because part of the fun is feeling Jewish without making a big deal out of being who I am. Which reminds me of something numerous Buddhist teachers have said about meditation, and I will paraphrase what they said using what might be called Jewish paragraph construction, if there can possibly be such a thing.

So you meditate for twenty minutes every day for several years and you sometimes wonder, “Is this daily meditating doing me any good? Might my time be better spent reading cookbooks or vacuuming?” And then one day you’re at the grocery store and some schmuck shoulders you out of the way and snatches the magnificent zucchini you were just about to get, but instead of saying or thinking, “What a schmuck!” you are hardly bothered at all and you send loving thoughts to the schmuck as he hurries away with the zucchini you wanted, and then you return your focus to the remaining zucchinis, and there, partially obscured by a somewhat battered zucchini, you find a zucchini every bit as firm and beautifully shaped as the zucchini the schmuck stole from you. And you are struck by the realization that meditating every day has helped you become more accepting and tolerant and unattached to outcome, and the schmuck ceases to be a schmuck and becomes a human being with a character disorder.

Whether meditation is doing you any good is another question entirely because the concept of good is a tricky one, just as the concept of being Jewish is a tricky one. What’s so wrong with things being a little tricky? Isn’t life, after all, a little tricky? And isn’t Jewish paragraph construction, if there is such a thing, characterized by questions that are in themselves also answers?

So It Turns Out…Part Two

Monday, November 13th, 2017

Todd & Casey

Todd & Casey

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

Part One of So It Turns Out…arose from my recent opening to, delving into, and accepting that I am Jewish. What does that mean? It means, among many other things, that I was born to and brought up by a Jewish woman who spent her entire life pretending she wasn’t Jewish; and one of the results of her subterfuge, though I didn’t have a conscious inkling I was Jewish until I was twelve, was my intense attraction to other Jewish people.

My friend Colin, my best friend in elementary school, a psychoanalyst now, wrote in response to Part One, in which he figures importantly, “What’s interesting is that over the years, as you have come to embrace your Jewish identity, it has become much less a part of my identity.”

But here’s the thing, Colin. Before I can embrace my Jewish identity, I have to allow that identity to emerge. My Jewishness has been sequestered deep inside me and disallowed in my waking life for nearly seven decades. Your Jewishness was never hidden. You were openly and proudly Jewish, so it makes sense that in the course of your long life, no longer living in a predominantly Jewish environment, you might evolve away from largely identifying yourself as Jewish. But you would never deny that you emerged into this life Jewish and spent your childhood in an openly Jewish family.

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

In the year before Colin turned thirteen, he began preparing for his bar mitzvah. And I, still unconscious of my Jewishness, helped him study and rehearse for the ceremony that would initiate him into manhood in his Jewish community. I learned to sing and recite some of the lines of the ceremony in Hebrew, though I had no idea what I was saying. I also had no idea why I was so interested in what Colin was undergoing, but I was eager to be part of the process and he seemed pleased to have me as his occasional audience.

In a recent exchange of emails, Colin asked me if I remembered much about his Bar Mitzvah.

I replied: My mother and brother attended with me. I remember my brother and I were given yarmulkes to wear, which I thought was very cool. I remember you on the “stage” with three men, all of you in white robes with stripes and prayer shawls. I recall you were a little tentative at first, your voice wavering, and then you settled in and were wonderfully audible. I remember you carrying a big scroll, and I worried you might drop it. I can see your face. You were serious and focused. It’s a beautiful memory. I remember afterwards there was a big spread of food, and I remember there were trays of shot drinks, and some of the boys were sneaking them. I remember how excited and happy everyone was, and I didn’t want to leave when my mom was ready to go.”

Colin replied: One of my few visual memories of that day I became a man in the Jewish community is you wearing a yarmulke in a manner that exposed the fact that you were a guest in the Jewish community.

So while Colin was becoming a man in the Jewish community, I was still a boy and only a guest. Yet I felt I was something more than a guest. I felt giddy, as if I had snuck past the guards into an exclusive private party where, for a brief time, I got to be in a wonderful forbidden place full of fascinating people.

Last week during therapy, I was overcome by the sensation of being encased in a chrysalis that was no longer big enough for me. As I struggled and squirmed in my old carapace, my therapist encouraged me to break free.

“But I’ll be huge,” I said, fearfully.

“Good, be huge.”

“But I might be too big. What should I do?”

“Maybe you don’t have to do anything. Maybe you can just be big.”

But if I’m big, if I become who I really am, then people will notice me and discover I’m Jewish, and if they know I’m Jewish…

I entered therapy this time to deal with extreme anxiety that has been hampering my life for the last two years, and in the course of exploring the sources of my anxiety, my Jewishness has emerged as an important ingredient in the recipe of who I am.

My mother was a terribly anxious person, and some of her anxiety undoubtedly sprang from a lifetime of fearing she would be unmasked and exposed as Jewish—and I know I inherited my tendency to be anxious from her.

Twenty-seven years ago, when I was forty and in therapy for the first time, I underwent two rage release processes developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. In the moments before my second rage release process, I had an extraordinary experience. My first rage release process had been incredibly revelatory and helpful, so I was looking forward to this second bout of battling old demons. As my therapist and I were about to begin, I was overcome by the terrifying sensation of being squeezed tightly from head to toe, as if caught in a massive vise. I could barely breathe.

My therapist had me lie down on the floor and give voice to what I was feeling. The pain was so intense I curled up into a fetal position and clenched my fists and groaned to release the terrible pressure inside me.

At the height of my suffering, my therapist pointed at me and said loudly, “What is that?”

And without the slightest hesitation I shouted, “I’m Jewish!”

And the moment I spoke those words, I knew—I didn’t think or imagine—I knew German soldiers were going to kick the door down and kill me.

At the age of forty this was wholly new information for me. I had never suspected, not for a minute, that I carried in me a fear of being captured or killed by German soldiers. Where did such fear come from? My mother was born in Los Angeles. Her parents were born in Michigan. Her grandparents were born in Poland and came to America long before World War I. Yet I believed that saying out loud, “I’m Jewish!” would result in my death at the hands of German soldiers.

Twenty-eight years later, sharing this experience with my current therapist, I recalled when I was in high school and had the role of Mr.Van Daan in the play The Diary of Anne Frank. My character was one of several Jewish people hiding from the Nazis in an attic in a house in the Netherlands. I most vividly remember the end of the play when our hiding place has been discovered and the Nazis are coming to get us.

The actress playing my wife, Gail Land, a Jewish gal in real life, looks up at me as I slowly descend a flight of stairs. We can hear the approaching sirens—the Nazis closing in on us. And I am no longer in a play. I am a Jew about to be dragged out of hiding and taken to a concentration camp where I will surely die. I freeze in terror.

Now I hear Gail whispering urgently to me. I look down at her. I am shaking so violently it takes me a moment to realize she is mouthing the line I am supposed to say. So I come back into my teenaged body in California in 1966 and say the line and the lights fade out and we are engulfed in darkness.

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.