Posts Tagged ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

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.

Curse Lifted

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

eggs & roots

Eggs In Hands photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2014)

“You didn’t have a choice about the parents you inherited, but you do have a choice about the kind of parent you will be.” Marian Wright Edelman

The curse that shaped the life of my grandmother, the lives of my mother and her brother, the life of my brother, and my own life, has finally been lifted. My brother and his wife lifted the curse, and their daughter Olivia, my charming niece, is the prime beneficiary of their heroic reversal of our family pattern, though I feel gifted by that reversal, too.

With the blessings and support of her parents, Olivia is now living in Los Angeles and embarking on a career as an actor. Whether she succeeds in her chosen profession remains to be seen, but the active support of her parents is the force that dispelled the multi-generational curse. Let me explain.

My mother’s mother Goody was born Gertrude Borenstein in the Jewish ghetto of Detroit in 1899. Her father’s last name was actually Baruchstein, but was changed to Borenstein by hasty immigration officials at Ellis Island. Goody’s parents were orthodox Yiddish-speaking Jews fearful of the machinations of the secular world of America. Goody’s father was a cantor reputed to have a voice so beautiful that whenever he sang even the cynics wept tears of joy. Goody not only inherited a beautiful voice from her father, she was such a talented and beguiling little actress and dancer, that when she was seven-years-old her schoolteacher invited a wealthy Jewish matron to come watch Goody sing and dance and act in the school variety show.

The wealthy matron was so taken with Goody’s talent and charm that she went to visit Goody’s penniless parents and told them she wanted to pay for Goody to study with the best music and dance and drama teachers in Detroit until Goody was old enough to go abroad to continue her studies with European masters of those arts, all to be paid for by this generous matron.

Alas, Goody’s parents thought the wealthy matron was an emissary of the devil, for they believed all actors and dancers and practitioners of non-religious music were vile sinners. So they sent the wealthy woman away and forbade Goody to even dabble in music and drama and dance or any combination thereof.

Fast-forward fifteen years to Los Angeles where Goody gave birth to my mother Avis in 1922 and my uncle Howard in 1926. Avis, as her mother before her, was a fine singer, dancer and actress, and my uncle Howard was a marvelous actor and singer and comedian. Both of them starred in plays at Beverly Hills High, both were Drama majors at UCLA, and both intended to pursue careers as actors despite their parents repeatedly warning them that show biz was a terribly iffy business, the life of an actor no picnic, and it would be a much wiser course for my mother to marry a doctor and for Howard to become a lawyer.

When World War II intervened, Howard joined the Army and served in the Pacific and in the occupation of Japan, while my mother abandoned Drama school the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, went to law school, married my father (a non-Jewish doctor), graduated from law school and started having babies. When Howard returned from Japan, he entered law school and eventually became a big shot entertainment lawyer.

Family legend has it that my brother and I both started singing and dancing and telling jokes a few minutes after we learned to walk, and in actual fact, both of us were high school thespians and singers, and both of us aspired to be actors despite the fierce objections and interventions of our parents. My brother persevered as an actor in college and beyond, but eventually gave up the stage to become an Internet Technology wizard while I abandoned the footlights fantastic a few years after high school and became a writer and musician and pruner of fruit trees.

At last we come to Olivia, the fourth generation of talented performers in our line yearning to become actors, and for the first time in over a hundred years there are no parental objections or obstructions to one of us at least trying to make a go of acting, with Olivia’s parents actually helping her make that go. Hallelujah.

“I have also seen children successfully surmounting the effects of an evil inheritance. That is due to purity being an inherent attribute of the soul.” Mahatma Gandhi

Can you imagine being the parent of a gifted artist or musician or actor or singer and doing everything in your power to stop your child from using her gifts? Seems diabolical, doesn’t it? Yet if you believed that art and music and theatre were evil, truly evil, how could you not try to save your child from such evil? If you believed that artists and musicians and actors were sexual predators who used their arts to seduce and molest innocent young people, how could you not try to keep your child away from such monsters?

“We are all gifted. That is our inheritance.” Ethel Waters

In 1980 I was given a big chunk of cash (big by my standards) for the movie rights to my first novel Inside Moves and I used a chunk of that chunk to make a short movie Bums At A Grave, which I wrote and directed and acted in with my brother (you can watch Bums gratis on my web site.) At the world premiere of the movie—a party at my house in Sacramento—the guests were asked to come as their favorite movie stars. To my chagrin, my parents made the long trip to attend the party, and to my surprise and delight my mother came as Gloria Swanson.

Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago in 1899, the same year my grandmother Goody was born in Detroit. Gloria Swanson’s mother was Jewish and married a Lutheran. Gloria was married six times and had several high-profile affairs with powerful men. She was a fiercely independent person best known as an actress, but was also a groundbreaking movie producer, writer, artist, and social activist, as well as a staunch Republican.

My mother’s choice to impersonate Gloria Swanson at the premiere of her sons’ movie puzzled me for many years, and by the time I got around to asking her why she came as Gloria Swanson, my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and did not remember Bums At A Grave or the party, let alone that she came as Gloria Swanson.

But now I think I know why she chose to impersonate Gloria Swanson. For one thing, my mother’s middle name was Gloria, and for all I know Goody gave her that name in honor of Gloria Swanson. But beyond the name, Gloria Swanson was the kind of woman my mother might have been if not for the family curse. Gloria Swanson’s family helped and encouraged her to get into show biz, and once she was in the biz she succeeded despite a thousand obstacles.

“The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” Arthur Miller

I will never forget the night my mother came backstage after our high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, speaking of Jews in hiding, in which I played Mr. van Daan, the character most disapproving of the high-spirited Anne Frank. My parents had come to the play the previous night and damned the performance with their faint and phony praise, but the night of which I speak my mother came alone to see the play.

My mother was always much more present and grounded and warm and relaxed and happy in the absence of my father—so much more honest and forthcoming.

Taking my hands in hers, she looked into my eyes and said, “You were great, Todd. Amazing. I don’t know where you learned all those subtle things you do, but…you’re a great actor.” Then she looked around the stage and out at the hundreds of now empty seats and added, “But you do know, don’t you, that all the other boys are homosexuals and all the girls are whores.”

“Mom,” I said, squeezing her hands, “that’s not true. Some of the boys are homosexuals and some of the girls like sex, but I’m not a homosexual and I’m not a whore.”

“You’re a child,” she said, sadly. “And school is not the real world. The real world is those Nazis coming at the end of the play and killing all the good people.”