Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Real Jew

Sequoia Redwoods

During this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews reflect on their past year and ask forgiveness—if warranted— not from God, but from those they've wronged. Only then do repentant Jews get their name inscribed in the Book of Life. I confess I hate organized religion, but using this as an example, one can see how religion serves a purpose: who would apologize for their stupidity if they didn't have to?

I don't know if it's because of the holidays, or because autumn's in the air, but I've been doing a lot of reflecting lately: about my mom, about life and death. I was heartened to see in the current New Yorker that Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist (not a Jew), also reflected upon these things, especially on the loss of his mother. Here is a letter from Proust that Barthes sent to a friend whose mother had just died: "When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire, place, beside you..... Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more..."

Thinking about my mom and how she died leads me to believe that, if you're lucky, death finds you when you're not looking. The older I get the more convinced I am that really old age is something I'd rather not do. The other kind, a quick death, seems preferable. For instance, Robert Schimmel, the stand-up comedian who died last week at the age of sixty. 

Here's a guy who had the roughest of lives but found humor wherever he could mine it: his long battle with Hodgkins lymphoma, liver failure, smoking pot during Chemo, with his doctors' and parents' full consent ("Man," he said on Tavis Smiley, "where were they in high school?"), married three times to the same woman—the guy made fun of it all. And then last week his daughter was driving and Schimmel was in the passenger seat and BOOM—they get in an accident. A week later he dies from complications. Seems anti-climatic after everything he'd been through, but still, death came quick.

When I was in high school, I went out every weekend with a boy named David Nathan. I wasn't allowed to date outside my religion, but since David was half Jewish (actually the wrong half, his father was Jewish, although my parents didn't know that) he was granted dispensation. The truth was he wasn't my real date, but a fake date, picking me up every Saturday night and delivering me to my real boyfriend (a Gentile) waiting for me in the park a few blocks away. 

David covered as my front man for nearly a year, during which time we hardly rose beyond the cordiality of our awkward setup. But after many rides with him I found out he was terrified of cemeteries. Every time we'd drive down Baxter Ave., he'd twist his neck and look away, sinking lower in his seat, to avoid the cemetery. He hated the thought of the dead, their very existence pressed in on him, as surely as the cold, hard ground pressed in on the dead. After he dropped me off, he'd go back to his real life, drinking with his buddies down by the river, or going out with girls, and I wouldn't see him until the next weekend, when he'd knock on the front door again and say hello to my parents.

While I was still in high school, my boyfriend and David dropped out of college, and enlisted in the army. They were shipped out to Vietnam, saw combat, but survived unscathed, and returned to Louisville in the early seventies. My boyfriend married, had a kid, divorced and moved away, but David remained in Louisville, bumming around, trying to find himself, as was the story of so many men who'd returned from Vietnam. Somewhere along the way, he bought a tavern, the Cabin Inn, in Bardstown, Kentucky. Bardstown, the home of Stephen Foster of "My Old Kentucky Home" fame, was a genteel southern town and the tavern turned out to be a success, popular with locals and friends from Louisville. David was on his way.

One night, after closing, he opened his cash register box to count the day's take, a nightly routine. But on this night, when he punched the register, the cash drawer opened quickly and hit him in his side pocket, where he kept his gun. The gun discharged and sent a bullet on an inside journey, of which I have imagined many times before, taking off through his heart, around his organs and out the other side. David reached for the top of the bar, but sunk down, down, down, to the floor. He tried to hold on, twisting his neck and sinking lower in his seat, but death found him when he wasn't looking. He was 29.

A few years ago when I was in Louisville, I went looking for his grave which I'd heard was in the Jewish cemetery. When I came upon his gravestone I was surprised at how small it was, but what surprised me even more was that the whole family was there: the father, David in the middle, and his mother. What was shocking really was that I'd had it wrong all those years before: his mother had probably converted to Judaism (why else would she be lying there?), which meant, with a Jewish mother, David had his bonifieds: he'd been a real Jew after all. If I'd known, would my life have been different? Would his? What if I'd fallen in love with David instead of my boyfriend? I wouldn't have had to lie and connive to get around my father. David and I might have married and he wouldn't have gone off to Vietnam; he'd have finished college and not been a barkeep; he wouldn't have bought that tavern in Bardstown or opened the cash register drawer that night and died.... But, then, that kind of futile thinking will get me nowhere.

 David Nathan died in 1977, at the age of 29.


  1. Charlotte, this is really beautiful... a meditative journey worthy of the Days of Awe. Send it to Rabbi Singer! love, L

  2. Thank you!! and good idea, I will...see you Sat.

  3. i have goosebumps (sp?) all over my body, never read anything about death that made me want to read more.. this is as much about death as about life. Parts of it somehow are very conforting...How can I get this to Ayala? Shana Tova.