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Thursday, May 22, 2008

God's Little Darkroom

I don’t remember how I met him, maybe he approached me, maybe I approached him, Yosef was a very cool guy for an Orthodox Jew. He talked the hip lingo, didn’t cop a self-righteous attitude as many did, loved science fiction, and collected vintage Citroens. Yosef was part of some Citroen collectors club so there were four parked in his driveway, some spilling over into the front lawn. He wasn’t a diamond dealer, he was an astronomer who worked at Griffith Observatory. If all Orthodox Jews were as hip as he was, well…

“You know, Andy, Citroens are pretty far-out cars, they have the most amazing pneumatic system that protects them. Let’s go see ‘Barbarella’ tomorrow night, man. It’s playing in Sherman Oaks, I’ll drive”.
“Barbarella, huh? Does Miriam know?” Miriam was his wife.
“No”, he smiled sheepishly. “We’ll tell her we’re going to the Observatory. She hates astronomy”.

Miriam didn’t hate astronomy, she hated everything. A cold, unfriendly Catholic girl who converted to Judaism, Mary, I mean Miriam had “NUN” written all over her. With no makeup on and her shawl around her head instead of a habit, Miriam didn’t resemble a Jewish wife so much as she did an angry nun. And acted like one, too.

It wasn’t unusual, though. After hanging out at Chez Yosef on the Sabbath I got to meet a few of their friends, who were either: a) Jewish ex-hippies who got on the rehab train from acid, speed or heroin; or, b) they were converts to Judaism. So when you met a Nordic-looking kid named Moshe Johnson, you shouldn’t be surprised.

I didn’t mind them at all except when they acted like they knew Judaism better than I did.
Yosef’s wife Miriam was like that.
“That’s not the way you hold a menorah”.
“You can’t be alone in a room with a married woman. It’s in the Torah”.
No it’s not, Mother Superior. I went to Hebrew school while you were eating pork out of a can, you stupid bitch. Out of respect for Yosef I kept my mouth shut from her.

When Passover came around Yosef invited me to come to his Seder (festival banquet). He practically begged to the point of embarrassment, so I gave in.
“Besides”, I said, “It’ll probably be safer than the Chabad House (UCLA campus Jewish institution) Seder I went to last year. The frat house next door was staging a Redneck Night:”
“That sounds funny”.
“No, it wasn’t”, I said, “After the Seder some drunken frat guys were following me down the sidewalk blathering about beating up some Jews”.
“That’s terrible! Baruch Hashem (praise the Lord) you’re safe.”
“The sidewalk was poorly lit and I was by myself. I was pretty scared, and to this day I hate college fraternities”.
“Well, we’ll protect you. I give you my guarantee this will be the safest Passover you’ll ever have. The most enjoyable, too”.

It wasn’t. I met Yosef and Miriam’s friends, some looked like they were visiting and some looked like they were now living in the house. Moshe Johnson was there, and then there was some guy everybody was excited about seeing.
“Herschel’s here! Herschel, when did you get back?”
“I got out on Sunday. They wanted to release me on Shabbos, but I said no”, he said, lifting up his arm to take off his jacket. All I focused on was the tracks on his arms. Herschel was a junkie, who with his sleepy eyes looked like he was still loaded. He always wore a large overcoat and beret. Junkie.

There was Freyer, the Johnny Cool Jew with dreadlocks, resplendent in shorts, sandals and the ever-present tallith under a green t-shirt. Tallith is a prayer shawl that married men wear when they pray. Well, he wasn’t married, and you don’t wear it as a clothes accoutrement 24/7. But all the girls loved him.
“Ooooh, Freyer, when are you going to Israel?”
“Oh, Freyer, will you make the blessing? Yosef won’t mind!”
Even Yosef thought Freyer was a posey little tool but had too much class to spit it out. But he’d get a little snatchy some times.
“Ahhh, Freyer”, Yosef slyly appraised the bad Hebrew hippie outfit, “I see you’ll be working in a nice Shabbos hat with those sandals, huh?”
“Far out, Brother”, Freyer would insincerely drawl. Trash.

Yosef and Miriam had a cute little boy, Mendel, three years old, and a little girl, Chana, two years old. Chana was a show-off and being the youngest got all the attention. I liked Mendel immediately. He was always asking me questions.
“How do you know my abbah (daddy)?”
“Did you stop taking drugs, too?”
“I can count in Hebrew. Wanna hear?”

Miriam had a new friend, a fat, surly black girl (Leah) who wore the same ugly scarf around her head as her. She also disdained makeup like her mentor, and I suspected there was a little more going on, too. I had the nauseating notion that she was now living in their home. Now that Miriam had a sneer sister it was a waste of time trying to befriend her.
“It’s time to set the Passover table, Leah”, Miriam coldly commanded.
“Can I help?” I offered.
“No thank you”, Miriam said, not smiling.
“You’re not taking a mitzvah (holy deed) away from us, okay”, Leah grumbled angrily. I think this was the only thing she ever said to me. For the rest of the time I was there she just kept grumbling quietly about everybody to Miriam, and refused to speak to anyone else. It was astounding how dysfunctional all of these hippie Jews were with their new found gift of God.

The Seder went okay. No, it was irritating, I’m sorry. Freyer sang so loudly he drowned everyone out. Herschel almost passed out in his matzos, and Leah kept grumbling in Miriam’s ear. I wanted to be home and in bed reading Raymond Chandler. The only thing that kept me there was Mendel, whose huge brown eyes kept darting around the room. He couldn’t ask the Four Questions which the youngest in the house is supposed to sing. It was Chana’s job now, and she struggled through it for seven agonizing minutes. Everybody thought it was cute. Leah didn’t smile until Miriam made it okay for her to smile.

Once the Seder was over I was fixing to leave. Moshe Johnson was asking Yosef more questions about Jewish traditional laws in his hippie way.
“So this cat was rapping to the Rabbi, and-“
“Andy, where are you going?”
“I’m going home, it’s been great. Thanks for having me as a guest, I enjoyed myself, and-“
“You can’t go home now”, Yosef ran up to me. “You drank too much wine and it’s very late. Please stay, we’ll go to shul (temple) together tomorrow. Stay!”
“Yes, Andy!” Miriam yelped. “Please stay!”
What the fuck does she care whether I stay or go? I looked over at Leah and she was still cleaning off the table with an angry look plastered on her fat, black face.

It creeped me out: ten people sleeping on the floor of the living room like a hippie commune. I just wanted to shoot myself in the head.
So the lot of us prayed in the house, same area where we slept, is it starting to get claustrophobic for you? Then we walked five feet to the dining room for lunch. Same people, same little house. By one p.m. I was getting a little freaked out by the commune environment, so I escaped to the back yard.

I watched Mendel digging up worms excitedly. Leah walked over and freaked out.
“Mendel, no digging on Passover, it’s a Yom Tov (holiday)”. She sneered at me.
“Oh, okay”, Mendel sighed. Leah trotted away. He looked up at me.
“Listen, Mendel”, I said to him, “the reason you can’t dig around here is because there’s buried treasure in the back yard.”
Mendel’s eyes lit up. “There is?”
“Yeah! There’s gold, diamonds, sparkling jewelry of every color you can imagine. You can’t dig it up because then burglars will find out”, I gave him my best Treasure Island rap.
“Wow!” He ran away all excited. I stretched my legs out on the back yard lawn staring up at the trees. In two minutes Miriam’s face replaced the trees.

“What kind of garbage are you telling MY SON? Who do you think you are filling his head with your vile lies? “ She screamed at me, the cords in her neck bulging like cables. “I want you to stay away from my boy!”
That does it. I try to have a little fun with some kid and I get my ass handed to me by a lesbian pseudo-nun with pretensions of being a Jew. Fuck her.
“Okay”, I said half-heartedly, “I’m sorry-“
“Sorry won’t cut it! You’re filling Mendel with impure thoughts! Such rubbish! You know what I think? I think you must be some evil spirit sent to test us from Satan!”
Okay, that did it, my Judaism questioned by some trendy Cross banger. I turned. “Gee, I’m sorry. Maybe I should be a junkie with a yarmulke and dreadlocks, and-“
“GET OUT OF MY HOUSE! NOW!!!” she screamed.
“Yeah, fuck you, too”, I grumbled, imitating Leah. Yosef was nowhere to be found, probably in the bathroom jerking off thinking about Barbarella or something like that. I was finally booted out of the commune. And that’s all it took.

Months later I ran into Yosef, once, twice, etc. He was always trying to invite me over to another religious function at his creepy house. After the third invitation whenever I saw him I would duck out of sight from him. I liked him, actually, he wasn’t a bad guy. After all, it’s not like he put the fear of God in me. No, he put the fear of religion in me.

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