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 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.