Irv was raised by a very religious mother. I have no idea if his father was religious, his father’s wishes never seemed to come into play. The home my father and his little brother grew up in was ruled by the strict orthodox laws of Judaism, in their most brutal and austere form. The family was kosher, and regulars at the little synagogue at the narrow, church-like, white painted First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill where the father swept the floors for a few copeks a week. The poor mother, who could often not feed her family, insisted on giving charity every week, which she paid out from the coins in her little Tzedakah (“justice” “mercy” “good deed” “fairness” “piety” “alms” or “charity”) box.
The synagogue sent Jewish transients to their house to board there overnight, as a way of generating a little income for the poor family. These were Jewish hobos who traveled looking for work during the Depression. Apparently many were drunks and they’d piss out the windows or literally throw their shit around like drunken chimpanzees. When they caused too much of a ruckus Irv’s mother would scream for him to run and get Eli, who lived nearby. Eli would come over and bodily throw these bums out in the street, administer an enraged warning or a thrashing, depending on the needs of the situation.
In the army corporal Israel (his name was actually Azrael, but the army didn’t make such distinctions) remained as kosher as it was possible to be as a grunt. He lived on side dishes during meals when they served pork. As an adult he kept more or less kosher, although not strictly so, by any means. He ate Chinese food, for example, but always beef or chicken. He didn’t stop his wife from frying up some bacon for the kids whenever she liked, though he was never tempted to taste it. “I’m so hungry, I could eat pork!” was one of his stock phrases. He never did, until, one night, and to my great disappointment, somehow, he tasted a little Szechuan pork and found it delicious (which it was). He never tasted it again, to my knowledge.
He explained the laws of Kashrut (“kosherness”) to my sister and me in a memorable way. He summed them up as laws of mercifulness. It was exceedingly cruel to boil an animal in its mother’s milk; this was the reason Jews didn’t eat diary and meat together. Kashrut insisted that animals must be slaughtered as painlessly as possible, he explained. Though years later I’d see a chicken slaughtered in this manner by a farmer in Israel and the way it ran, without its head, plowing the dirt with its neck, did not make it look like a very painless way for a living bird to become a delicious chicken dinner.
As a boy Irv was taken to the small shul regularly and no doubt endured the endless services there, rising, being seated, rising, being seated, rising. I can picture his mother looking on from the women’s section of that sexually segregated congregation, boring a hole in the side of her son’s neck with her stern gaze. I imagine the services in that tiny synagogue must have been as dry and stultifying as some of the worst services I’ve endured over the years. My father’s religious upbringing was devoid of joy, as mine would be, to the extent I endured my Hebrew School days.
He never tried to impose his religious views on his wife. She was a proudly secular Jew and had no use for the superstitious rituals of the orthodox. It went beyond that, really, she couldn’t refrain from colorfully expressing her complete disdain for their ignorant ideas, rigid ritualism, small-minded prejudice, and mostly, to her, their mind-numbing, self-righteous stupidity.
My mother came by these views honestly. She got the beginnings of them from her mother, who had fallen under the spell of the Marxists who came to the Ukraine right after the revolution and established a Jewish Youth Group for the Jews of the Vishnivetz area, spreading the message of cooperation, universal brotherhood with fellow workers and hope for a much better future in a world justly ruled by workers. Of course, this movement lasted only a short time. Within a few years all of the Jewish fellow workers in Vishnevitz would be slaughtered by their Ukrainian fellow workers, at the urging of their fellow workers from Germany.
My father, to his credit, never challenged my mother on any of this. Partly, I suppose, because he agreed with most of it. For her part, my mother never gave him any grief for going to synagogue on the High Holidays, though it was understood that she wouldn’t be caught dead rising and being seated hypocritically during the endless proceedings. My mother also participated robustly in the Passover seders every year, usually as the host and chef for two large gatherings. The story of the exodus from slavery to freedom was meaningful to her, even if all the rituals and prayers were a little tiring.
The moral and ethical essence of every religion is how mercifully its adherents apply the mostly merciful teachings of their holy books. The good of all faiths share a similar worldview, it has often been noted. Their god teaches them to love justice and mercy and to help others as much as they can. Their teachings command them to overcome their worst impulses, exercise restraint and strive to be better people. There are many religious people who are wonderfully compassionate examples of a higher spiritual awareness.
Other deeply religious individuals take time out from other good works to put non-believers to the sword, excommunicate them, burn them as heretics, torture them, disembowel pregnant heretics and send their unborn children to hell with them. These murderers always believe they are doing God’s will, as insane as it indisputably is, for example, for followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to kill each other over the language the other Christian sect chooses to pray to their mutual Messiah in.
Jesus, I always imagine, is weeping in heaven over the behavior of the more insane of his followers and the trillion dollar church industries claiming to carry out his merciful teachings while endorsing many forms of human cruelty. It’s unfair to judge all religious people on their sometimes rabid leaders or on the acts of a few million of them over the centuries, perhaps, but– hell, life’s unfair.
“Well, as President Kennedy said, ‘life’s unfair,'” my father used to say.
Dig it. Whatever else you can say about the incomparable adventure that is life, it is unfair. The most important ingredient of a religious life, or any life, for that matter, it seems to me, is love. Without love you get the Crusades, violent Jihad, the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years war, etc. I can hear my mother snarling about the murderously self-righteous of all religions, ignorant fuckers happy to kill to prove how all-merciful their imaginary God is.
My father shed most of the trappings of his religious upbringing over the years. By the time he was in the hospital, waiting to die, he expressed no religious feeling at all. I asked him, that last night of his life, if he wanted me to say kaddish for him after he died. He shrugged, told me it meant nothing to him one way or another if I chanted the mourners’ prayer of praise to God (in Aramaic, a language nobody alive understands) for thirty days after his death, or for a year, as the orthodox do. He assured me he really didn’t give a shit about kaddish, or any other religious matters. I believed him.
The following story illustrates the depth of my father’s final belief about religion as well as any story I can think of.
While he was becoming increasingly bitter and pessimistic during the last years of his life, he came to more and more regret the lack of intimacy with those he loved, as he sadly reported from his death bed. He explained that he had never seen affection shared in the home he grew up in. “I had no idea how it was even done,” he croaked. He was always affectionate to animals, playful with young children he encountered.
“He always loved small kids and little dogs, probably because they posed no threat to him,” my sister once observed, astutely.
As often happens in life, my parents found an inventive way to find the love and intimacy that was so hard for them to achieve with their own loved ones. Interacting with strangers, being loved unconditionally and showing the children of these strangers unconditional love, was a blessing they shared with a young couple who had repudiated their own parents when they were born again into fellowship with Jesus.
My parents had been volunteering to help teach reading for the first grade class of the teacher who had taught both of their grandchildren. They had both been impressed by this dedicated teacher’s kindness, and the way she instilled care and cooperation in her young students. They went to read books to the children in the years after their grandchildren attended her class. They also helped the children crack the code of reading, working with them one on one or in small groups.
“She’s a lovely woman,” my mother told me once, “and she has created a very kind atmosphere in the classroom. The kids really treat each other remarkably well and I have to credit that to her.” I could tell there was a punchline to this compliment on the way.
“But I have to say, in terms of teaching the children math, and reading, or anything, really, besides how to treat each other– which I’ll grant you is also very important– she seems to be a moron.” And she described with illustrations the parochial stupidity of this very kind woman.
“Plus,” said my mother, laying down the trump card, “she’s a born again Christian.”
My father was uncharacteristically subdued in the face of this opinion. He basically agreed, but to him, it seemed, the social development piece was more important than the lack of skills this experienced teacher imparted.
In any case, at some point they met the parents of one of the more learning challenged kids. My mother had told me about this kid she was working with, beautiful, and very sweet, but seemingly incapable of grasping anything when it came to reading. The letters of the alphabet seemed to mystify this little sweetie completely. To my surprise, my parents soon became close friends with the parents of this young born again Christian girl, often visiting them at their home.
They were very loving to the young girl from school and her younger siblings, bringing them presents, spending a lot of time with them. My sister contrasted this to their less effusive relationship with her children, their only grandkids. Another of those surrogate situations, clearly, trying to get right with strangers what was difficult or impossible to accomplish with actual loved ones. I heard some stories about this young born-again couple over the last few years of my father’s life.
For one thing, the couple did not talk to their own parents. Their parents and they had disowned each other, they were no longer in contact. Their parents, clearly, were determined to go to hell, and there was nothing the young couple could do about that. The time they spent with my parents was clearly cherished by them, they always made my parents feel at home, and treasured. My mother chuckled over what a good-natured imbecile the husband was.
“They were arguing with us once about evolution. You know, born-agains believe that humans and dinosaurs lived together 6,000 years ago, when God created the Garden of Eden. I was laying out the theory of evolution, and the time frame, the millions of years over which all these changes took place, all the scientific evidence and Lisa kept shrugging it off as secular humanist propaganda. When God is on your side, you know, the sky’s the limit in what you can believe and God will provide the facts, if facts are even needed in a life of blind faith. So Lisa is making these ridiculous arguments and she calls on Hector, who was in the kitchen, for some support.”
“And Hector sticks his head out from behind the kitchen wall, with a banana in his hand and half of it in his mouth and says ‘you’re not going to convince me that I came from a monkey.’ And he looked exactly like a monkey. Even Lisa cracked up, it was too perfect.”
“He did. He looked like Curious George,” said my father “except without the curiosity. He’s a delightful guy, but as closed minded as they make them.”
This closed-mindedness, the ultimate fatal flaw in anyone who’d cross my father’s path, it was the one thing impossible for him to tolerate, seemed no obstacle to a loving relationship with this young couple. It was kind of mind blowing, but at the same time, having no dog in the fight, I felt glad they at least were sharing this love with people. A net gain for all involved, I figured.
My parents never reported any overt attempts to convert them. They spent many a pleasant time with them. I never met them, or was particularly interested in meeting them, but I regret that now. They would play a disturbing role in my father’s final hours and I’m sorry I wasn’t on hand to do as Eli would have done with guests in his aunt’s home who insisted on their God-given right to fling dung.
When my father was suddenly hospitalized, six days before his death, they came to visit him at the hospital– on the last, or possibly second to last, day of his life. I wasn’t there when they arrived, sleeping late the day after our long conversation on the last night of my father’s life, as far as I can recall. My sister was there, unfortunately I was not. My father was very weak, hardly able to speak. They arrived with a group of people from their church, including the kind but stupid first grade teacher my parents had volunteered to teach reading for.
According to my sister, who cannot be doubted in this account, they formed a circle around my father’s bed. They prayed to Jesus to accept his soul and they had my father, a lifelong Jew, secular humanist and lifelong scoffer at the doggedly defended superstitions of other religions, agree that he would allow Jesus to be his personal savior.
“They made him accept Jesus Christ,” my sister told me in horror, “and he did.”
I tried to reassure her that he’d been too weak to put up a fight, that he was trying to be kind to them, but the image disquieted me greatly too. I told her I wished I’d been there, to kick them out of his hospital room. The nerve of those fucking fanatics!
“He accepted Christ as his personal savior,” my sister told me, aghast.
I suspect the old man was philosophical about this acceptance of an imaginary savior. Maybe he was hedging his bets. I’m sure when he looked into those expectant, loving faces he thought, “yeah, what the fuck, sure, Jesus, yeah, OK.” He probably nodded, which caused a ripple of horror to go through my sister. She was in too much grief at the moment to do more than cringe in horror.
The proof of the depth of their dedicated, if superficial, Christian charity would be seen soon enough. Not once did they visit or contact my mother, the grieving widow. Not in the days immediately after my father’s death or at any other time during the last five years of her lonely life as a widow. They did not seem to give a shit about saving my mother’s soul, now that my father was tucked safely by the bosom of his personal savior.
My father, with his large, funny persona, had apparently been the drawing card to this loving relationship. It would not be the only time my mother would be abandoned by those dear friends who had been so close with the couple. My father, for his part, would not be in the least bit surprised by this betrayal by avowedly religious people.