Real Mensch

menschI was thirteen when I realized I wasn’t Jewish.

Sure, there were lots of hints. I went to Catholic school. I was baptised and had done my Holy Communion. I’d been forced to admit my sins at confession, during which I re-enacted for the priest and the horrified audience of parents and families how much trouble one got in at my home when they said the words “fuck it.”

Plus, I felt guilty about everything I did that felt remotely good.

On top of this, there were constant reminders that I was of Italian and Irish heritage. My mother’s maiden name was McFarland. My dad shouted curses in bastardized Neapolitan, vulgarities which would mark my first foray into second language acquisition. We ate pasta at least twice a week, a ubiquitous piece of bread in our free hands to act as sauce sponge. Moreover, my father adored everything Italian: movies, books, basketball coaches.

Still, the fact that I was not Jewish never sunk in until the age of thirteen, when I did my Confirmation and all of my friends were having Bar Mitzvahs.

Now, if you have any experience with these things, you know that there are advantages to both. As a Catholic, I didn’t have to sing in front of a huge group of friends and family, so I totally won out in the overall avoidance of public humiliation. That said, the party afterwards clearly swung in the favour of my Jewish comrades.

As far as I could tell, Bar Mitzvahs were summed up in one event: an older person smothers a yarmulke-donning twelve-year-old boy, pinches his cheeks, passes along a few tidbits of wisdom mixed with good-natured self-deprecating jabs, says one or two things in Yiddish, then hands him a substantial amount of money in an envelope.

My confirmation party was pretty sweet. We had meatballs, and I think I got a watch.

We lived in a neighbourhood primarily made up of Jewish families. There were some households with a Jewish and gentile parent, and there were surely other gentile families, but the primary demographic was Jewish. Our babysitters were Jewish, our friends, enemies, and teammates in street sports were often Jewish. Therefore we pretty much grew up Jewish.

As a result, the four kids in our house ran around like very short old Jewish people. I understood all of the jokes on M*A*S*H before I was twelve years old. My sister wanted to be a Rabbi when she was ten and consulted the Torah in times of strife. My brother, who cursed like other kids breathed, once thoughtfully referred to an older woman who had yelled at him for smoking in the woods, “a Yenta.” And when he did, the other three of us nodded in sagacious agreement.

By the time I was twelve, the four kids in my family were familiar with the Jewish High Holidays. We knew to say “l’shana tova” to our friends on Rosh Hashanah and mock them mercilessly with candy while they fasted on Yom Kippur. Everyone in my house has celebrated Hanukkah.   

The influence was evident in the language we kids used. We would commonly exclaim “oh mano-shevitz” when vexed. We offered a hearty “mazel tov” to anyone who was celebrating a victory, large or small. We were “verklempt” without irony and we referred to ourselves as “goys.” And to be called a “mensch” was amongst the greatest compliments one could receive. We got away with cursing by simply saying bad things in Yiddish: “Shtup you!” or “You’re such a shvantz” or “Dad, don’t be a Kvetch.”

This was all to the joy of my mother who, from sheer exposure to the other neighborhood ladies, herself morphed into a small Jewish lady. She even went so far as to own a deli and play Mah-jong, thus causing a hundred ancestors in Ireland to raise a posthumous eyebrow.

As much as we enjoyed being raised in a Jewish household (with the added benefits of having Italian cuisine and Christmas), it seemed to aggravate my father. This was for no reason other than linguistic. My dad seemed intent on raising four kids fluent in Italian (starting with the curses) and when we turned instead to Yiddish, he did little to hide his consternation. So when my six-year old brother would come out with an “Oy vey…” My dad would sigh deeply.

This didn’t seem like anything special to me until I got a bit older. It was just the way it was, it was my neighborhood, these were my friends. But as I got older I realized how many benefits there were to growing up with this cool cultural perspective. I believe I owe a great deal of my sense of humor to my Jewish side. Also, I was introduced to lox and bagels at a very early age.

Over the years, I’ve happily kept in touch with my Jewish side. I have delivered a prayer to the Wailing Wall for a friend, and have held a chuppah for another friend during his wedding. I have my own yarmulke. And being called a mensch will absolutely make my day.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this because I’m heading home for Christmas and will be in our old neighborhood. I’ll see old friends and neighbors. They’ll smother me with kindness and attention and take good-natured self-deprecating jabs at themselves. Maybe I should bring my yarmulke.

Anyway, that stuff always make me a bit nostalgic.

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