Friday, December 26, 2008
Tales From The Old Country and Beyond, Part 35
When we were living in North Carolina, my mom would visit us quite a bit. We'd built our house so that there was essentially a little mother-in-law unit on the first floor. The idea was to make it comfortable for her to come by whenever she wanted. I'm a momma's boy through and through, what can I say? My mom even bought a lot a block away from my house with the vague intention of building a house of her own. The neighbors loved her. There was a Jewish widow across the street she would kibbitz with and a Polish couple next door who would always invite her over for coffee when she was around.
But I don't think she would have ever moved down there. One time I was at the grocery with her on a Sunday morning. She'd put a bottle of wine in the cart for dinner with my in-laws (who did move to NC). But you can't buy liquor of any kind, including wine, on Sunday before 12. It's a state law. The grocery clerk pulled the bottle aside and didn't even say why. I told my mom the rule. "What?" She shouted out in the checkout line. She was pissed.
On the drive home, my mom went on and on about what she perceived was this affront to her civil liberties. "This place is just like Poland. Same trees. Same everything. Same stupid, dumb Christians." My father, had he been living, would have undoubtedly said the same thing.
If Christianity had been a Hollywood movie, my parents would have given it two emphatic thumbs down. My parents hated Christianity. They hated churches. They detested priests and pastors. If they saw a religious collar on a man, they couldn't hide their revulsion. They were highly suspicious of anyone who went to church regularly. This hatred was endemic to Jewish Eastern European culture. It's embedded in Yiddish language from the slang for a dummy, goyisher kopf, which means the the brains of a Gentile, to the slang for a group of teenage Gentile boys, schootzim, or dirty ones.
Christmas was jokingly called Kratzmas, a word that when said aloud almost always included a facial expression of disgust.
You could go on and on about how bigoted this all was. My view of this hatred was not that it was justifiable, but completely understandable. I'll start explaining this with an expression in Yiddish, Goyisher mazel, literally the luck of a Gentile. If a Jew possesses such a thing, it's truly magical. Nothing, absolutely nothing bad can happen to him. In contrast, Yiddisher mazel, is nothing anyone wants. It means you are doomed no matter what you do.
In Eastern Europe, a Gentile could ruin a Jew's life in an instant. The churches reflexively spread anti-Semitism in their Sunday sermons, constantly reminding their followers that Jews killed their savior (you'd think that after 2000 years they'd practice a little Christian forgiveness). Government routinely used Jews as scapegoats for anything and everything that was wrong in society (this is oddly still true in many of these places even though Jewish populations are essentially non-existent). Under such a constant barrage of hate and not occasional violence, how could you not develop a hatred of Christianity?
When my parents went into their tirades about Christianity and its stupid followers I accepted it for what is was. Payback. I knew they weren't alone. All of the greenhorns I knew had this hatred.
One time the pianist and outstanding Chopin interpreter, Arthur Rubenstein, came to Milwaukee for a concert. On the drive from the airport, his host, knowing Arthur was from Poland (born into a wealthy Jewish family from Lodz), asked if he wanted to see the pride of Milwaukee's South Side, the twin gold-leaf painted domes of St. Stanislau Polish church (shown above). Arthur Rubenstein demurred, saying, "I've seen a lot of Polish churches." I'm certain what he was thinking was something along the lines of, "I'm a Jew and this fool wants me to go see a place where anti-Semitism is born and bred? You've got to be kidding."
I don't think either of my parents ever went into a church until about 1973 when a friend of theirs invited them to the confirmation of their son. By then, they had developed the equanimity to do this. And while my parents hated Christianity until their dying days, some of their more casual friends - not close ones - were Christians. They were the exceptions to the rule. My mother would single them out calling them voyle Christs, good Christians. There was a certain far off pensive tone in her voice whenever she said those words that conveyed the sentiment that the world had wonders beyond understanding.
That all said, they were dead set against any of their children going into a church for any reason. It was more than a hatred of Christianity that fueled them in this case. There was always the fear that somehow in the confines of a church, a child's mind could be twisted. A child could walk in a devout Jew, but those priests were tricky devils, and that child might walk out praising the name of Jesus. In my teens, I would regularly sing in churches, often masses and other Christian works. If you're interested in classical music and are a singer, that's what you do. Most classical vocal music is about Christ.
I never told my mother where I was and what I was singing. She would have been mortified. Sometimes I'd try to make up for my deceit; during practices instead of singing "hallelujah" I'd sing the words "holy roller." I know my mother would have been quite pleased. My father would have beamed and said, "That's my boy."