Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fries, No Flies

The Hebrew characters spell the word Chai (sometimes pronounced "hai"). It means life or refers to the living God--depending on how it's used or defined. A variant, l'chaim, is the common toast in Hebrew, meaning "to life". My last name, Hyman, is also a variant on the word, meaning that my last name refers to life and the God that lives inside me.

My last name was changed to Hyman when my forebears arrived from Romania at the turn of the 20th Century, having been hunted and killed by mobs and their villages burned to the ground. Grandpa Max came to America when he was still young, quite without the English language and familiarity with life on these shores. Along the way, he changed our name.

Jewish boys and girls attend Hebrew language and culture training for several years leading up to the Bar/Bas Mitzvah, a ritual that signifies adulthood in the tribe. You learn common prayer, special prayers selected by the calendar that match the season in which you turn 13 years old, our cultural history, and the language used to read and recite scripture.

My family initially sent me to a school that was not affiliated with a synagogue, but a bar mitzvah mill that churned out celebrants by the dozens. We met in a converted store filled with school desks and blackboards under the direction of a taskmistress whose name I have blocked from memory to protect myself from recurring trauma. I love a story from Donald Barthelme in which he calls the teacher "Miss Mandible", and it will suffice for this recollection. My Miss Mandible walked behind the desks--not unlike the demon nuns that have been described to me from recovering Catholics--making sure we kept our Sephardic noses to the grindstone.

I had trouble making out the consonants, although the vowels were simple. They appeared beneath each letter, or to the side, and were few in shape and number. But the consonants! Some were uttered from deep in the throat and when you pronouced them correctly, it sounded as if you were trying to clear a bolus of half-chewed beef from your windpipe. Several characters looked exactly the same to me, which is why I sunk into depths of multi-generational despair when I confused them in recitation beneath Miss Mandible's gaze. When I went to the synagogue, I always chanted the notes to the prayers, mumbling the actual language, which seemed impossibly out of reach.

What I truly loved, however, were the short historical films we watched on biblical heroes from the Old Testament. I particularly had a crush on Ruth, the Moabite woman who said, "Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you; For wherever you go, I will go." In the film she was utterly delicious, impeccably tanned, lean, and graceful in her white robe and sandals. From then on, I was to search the continents and islands of my travels to find a woman who would commit to everlasting fidelity.

Bethlehem, as it was presented in the film, was a small village with neatly arranged little adobe houses tucked among smooth pathways that ran between desert rocks and plants. In the close-ups you could see Ruth's skin--like spun chocolate--and pleasant eyes. This a was a Bethlehem quite without scorpions, flies, and pestilence--whether biblical or otherwise.

One afternoon--for we went to Hebrew school after regular school let out--my friend David and I made a discovery that was to influence our religious training forever. Just up the alley that ran behind the Hebrew school was a cafe that sold french fries by the bag. These were no diminutive fry bags issued by fast-food joints. These were Number 10 shopping bags, brown as Ruth's skin, and stuffed to the top with hot, oily, heavily salted fries. They made for fine eating and quelled the imperious, full-body shame that rose to the heart from scripture dyslexia.

How many times did we sit in the alley, ignoring the fear of flunking out of Hebrew school, wolfing down those delightful, crisp, heavenly fries that surely God had delivered unto us? I cannot say, except that as my bar mitzva date grew near, my father was disturbed by my apparent inability to read or speak the most rudimentary of expressions required for the ritual. A private tutor was arranged, thereby wiping out the savings my parents might have made by sending me to the cut-rate, bar mitzvah factory run by Miss Mandible.

The venerable David Starr made house calls, teaching me how to perform the entire ceremony phonetically. Ever-more chubby, now entered into a lifelong struggle with my overeating, I mastered the Torah melodies, which I sung in my cherubic, bell-clear soprano voice just months from changing forever--and everyone was proud of me.

Years later, I visited Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem. There was no sign of Ruth in the crowds of Sabras who walked among the modern apartments and rumbling buses. Her descendants wore bright miniskirts, Western jeans and baseball caps, and several carried Uzi machine guns. These were tough women, who had no notion of taking an oath to follow me wherever I went.

And the biting flies, dear God, oh the flies!

No comments: