Wednesday, March 17, 2010

157 days to Bar Mitzvah: culture on the DL

My best St. Patrick’s Day was March 17, 1993. Six weeks after we moved to Seattle, the legendary Dr. Bando and I commandeered a prime table at the Dubliner in Fremont, receiving visitors for 11 hours, until last call sent us home. I stopped celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in 1997.
In 1997, St. Patrick’s Day became someone else’s party, which I guess technically it was all along. I spent part of today walking Shack past all of the Irish bars on Clement Street. It was a warm day, so they all had tables out on the sidewalk, where people held court, maybe having the best St. Patrick’s Day of their lives. I walked by with my dog. We were waiting for the Jawa to complete his weekly Torah chanting class with Cantor Roslyn Barak.

In this way, we counter-programmed the ethnic holiday, replacing the luck of the Irish with the somber, ancient sounds of chanted Hebrew.

Sandra Bullock had a basketball game today at the GenenGym, so I was charged with getting the Jawa to Temple Emanu-El in time for his 4:40 class. Part of my St. Patrick's Day, then, involved driving from Brandeis Hillel Day School to Temple Emanu-El.

On the way, the Jawa and I discussed the theoretic effects hurtling across town may have on my blood pressure. "When I grow up, I'm going to force you and Mommy to move to a small town," said the Jawa as I muttered "Good Lord," Doreen Barker-style, at a minivan crawling down Waller Street.

"You can't yell at traffic. It raises your blood pressure. Like when I argue with you. That raises your blood pressure, too."

The world slowed to a stop, giving me time to weigh my options. The drive was going well. The vibe was very "Courtship of Eddie's Father," with the classic whine of Tom Corbett's MGTD replaced by the silent efficiency of my Volvo V50 (turbo). Did I want to put that in jeopardy by pointing out the obvious? Was it worth the risk?

A father more attuned to the moment and less concerned about pointing out inconsistencies in the teenage mind would have let it pass. By now we know: I am not that father.

"You know what's funny, is that another way to help me with my blood pressure seems pretty obvious."

Sometimes you can feel eyes that you cannot see roll.

Earlier in the drive, as we dodged traffic on Portola Drive, the Jawa practiced chanting his Torah portion. Modern technology has replaced the cassette tape with the MP3 file. He had his entire portion on his iPod. He was listening to it, following along in a book, and chanting in perfect (to my ears, at least) Hebrew. It appeared to me that he was also reading his Torah portion which, even though it shouldn't surprise someone who's paid for eight years of Jewish education, which includes Hebrew instruction, still looked pretty impressive to me, whose knowledge of Hebrew starts and ends with a rudimentary knowledge of the 22 letters of the Aleph-Bet.

After a few minutes, he abruptly clicked off his iPod. "Dad," he said. "My Torah portion is six minutes and 44 seconds long." Then he stared at me, incredulously.

I wasn't sure how I was supposed to respond, because I was thinking, "Six minutes and 44 seconds? This whole thing is about six minutes and 44 seconds? That's only slightly longer than 'Spirit of Radio' (another fine musical performance by a Jew)."

"Uh," I finally said. "And that's long?"

"YES! I have to memorize six minutes and 44 seconds! That's longer than most songs!"

"You've memorized dozens of songs," I pointed out.

"Yes, but not in Hebrew."

He had me there. Still, the whole thing boils down to six minutes and 44 seconds? Contrast that to the five boxes of glass vases that arrived at our house today. No wonder I just memorized mine.

"Hey," I said after awhile. "Why don't we plug that thing into the car stereo so we can listen to it out loud."

"That's a great idea," the Jawa said. "Roll up the windows."

"Roll up the windows?"

"In case some white supremecist is nearby."

My heart broke a little bit. Forget that where we live, reminders of how far Jews have to go before enjoying total acceptance are more likely to come from organic, worker-owned co-op grocery stores than from gatherings of fundamentalist Christians (who, understandably, keep a low profile in the Bay Area). And forget that no matter how I've tried to give him a nuanced view of the world, he's learned by osmosis to default identify the boogie man, San Francisco-style.

The heartbreaking part is that even after eight years of spending his days surrounded by Jews, in a place not only safe for Jews -- intimidating Russian security guys, plus waist-high "decorative" concrete cones strategically-placed in front of the school, making assault via a truck full of explosives unlikely, if not impossible, helps in this regard -- but in total celebration of Jewish culture, he still instinctively wants to make sure the windows are rolled up to avoid getting weird looks from the general public upon hearing the dulcet tones of Cantor Roslyn Barak coming from our car.

I'd just figured that, since enough people had told me I was paranoid, or worse yet, chronically caught in the spiraling web of persecution complex, that this whole "fear of exposure" thing would end with me.

He’d make a lousy cab driver. Those guys mainline the native sounds to whoever is lucky enough to end up in their cab. One time I had a guy blasting Arabic pop music drive me to Brandeis to pick up the Jawa in the rain. And then I patted myself on the back for doing my part to further understanding in the Middle East.

But us, we're not going to drop Hebrew on an unsuspecting world, not even if its impact is softened -- or heightened -- by Cantor Roslyn Barak's golden pipes. And I found this not at all ironic, sad or frustrating a half-hour later, when Shack and I were serenaded by heartbreakingly-beautiful Irish music wafting out of every single one of the bars as we passed the time on Clement Street during the Jawa's Torah chanting class.