Center of the Universe (63)
I’m sitting at the center of the universe. But it’s not at the corner of Bolinas and Sherman. And Rev. Kang is nowhere in sight.
A casual glance encompasses a long, narrow body of water and both of its mountainous banks. On the left — where white houses, some single-family, most small apartment buildings of five or six stories, run from the water into the foothills — is Jordan. Further south on the left, beyond a shipping facility, those five giant cranes, is Saudi Arabia. On the right, just beyond the farthest crag, is Egypt and 150 miles beyond that, at Sharm al Sheikh, the Gulf of Aqaba opens into the Red Sea, which Moses parted as he led the Jews out of bondage, headed for Canaan, which is what this place was, more or less, before it became Israel. Way different universe, and certainly not the center where I’m usually seated, in the back room or Table 10, on a Sabbath. But who’s to argue, in our newly proven multiverse, that I’m not there, too?
My universe started in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in Kohler Clinic, a spanking new hospital funded by toilet money, where I was born to a funny-talking white lady from Memphis — but not that Memphis, not the original one in Egypt, over here, the other one, back across oceans, in Tennessee — who was raised, in the 20th century, by her black “mammy,” later summoned to Wisconsin, in the 20th century, to ensure a next-gen white princeling got a good start, which promptly set off the neighbors — white, mostly German stock — who said this is not what they came to America for. And soon vituperations had turned into threats and driven the aged nursemaid home to Memphis and our little nuclear on its trajectory: Chicago, Minneapolis and that all-time melting pot of New York City, where nonetheless we resolutely huddled with our own — white Catholics, mostly Irish or Italian surnames — fearing blacks who weren’t cooks or mammys, scorning, amidst their historic migration, Puerto Ricans who weren’t our school bus driver and — to bring it all full circle, here in their universe — making fun of the kids with the knitted coasters pinned to their heads.
Words have meaning in Israel, and Judaism is, as others more erudite have observed, a religion based on words. In which case, I should clarify I don’t mean “their” in an exclusive way — I’m for the two-state solution and, along with more than half of Israel (if you count the left and the Israeli Arabs who refused to vote), against Netanyahu. (Already, of course, I’m in over my Catholic-schooled head.) But that I feel the need to append such a caveat seems to me exactly why the Jews needed a place in the first place. Because everybody who’s not a Jew — which is roughly 99.8 percent of the world — likes to make fun of the kids with the coasters on their heads.
And too often the game has gotten way out of hand — as it did in Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain, where followers of the Prince of Peace barricaded Jews in their places of worship and set the buildings afire — when they didn’t burn them at the stake. Or Edward I’s England, where the Jews were run out of the country — but not before being robbed penniless. Or Imperial Russia, where, as you might recall from the Hollywood musical, they were subject to regular, government-sponsored pogroms. Massacres, by any other name. Or, more recently, when the Third Reich scaled the hate machine and, via modern scientific management methods, gathered up half the Jews of Europe and gassed them — with the modern scientific objective of reducing that piddling .2 percent of the world to zero. It seems to me that’s exactly why guys like Churchill and Truman felt pangs for not doing more (beyond joining a war for their own survival), for turning away boatloads of refugees and a blind eye to murderous — mass-murderous — news (in what is surely a lesson for our xenophobic times).
Did I forget to shout out those Charleston tiki-torchers chanting “Jews will not replace us”? There’s a parallel universe in the present-day US that believes the same old shit as the Inquisition-era Spanish and Edwardian English and Nazis: that behind it all, behind the child sex slaves in the basement of a DC pizza joint, no less than the procession of brown-skinned hope-seekers at our southern border, the bad behind the bad — and, most especially, behind their own grinding sense of fear and failure — are (you guessed it) Jews.
So while I’m bitterly opposed to Netanyahu — a racist and bully and probably a crook even before he got up Trump’s ass (and vice-versa) — I’m enthusiastically for Israel. All the more so after spending a month here. I’m also for Jews. And I can’t help but reflect that if this shaggy-dog story about a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant in a small, strange American town is really about journeys, about trajectories (better word — takes the agency out, puts the random back), then here at this confluence of Semitic states, of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, of Arabs and Jews, Cain and Abel fighting over the Cain and Abel book, bedazzled by the land and people, enthralled with the very idea of the place, Israel, its fundamental justice and ongoing exigency — if not (again, a caveat) the intransigence and cruelty of some of its leaders — ashamed of the punkass from Sheboygan who’d dared to make fun, this, as a husband and father of Jews, is one of mine.
I’m sitting at this center of the universe, 6,000 miles from the other one, ten hours into the future, when there’s a transmission from a sister. I may have mentioned in my last dispatch that the Gary thing was heating up. In the meantime, it seems as if it’s boiled over.
Gary’s in the hospital.
He’s also out of his apartment, not to mention his car. And, so far, none of the latest job inquiries has paid off. Flo’s been doing her best to help. And, of course, the sisters are making sure he’s well fed. But his last morning in his home of 18 years he woke up finding it difficult to breathe and walk and his swollen leg even more so, with his heart was going pitty-pat, except sometimes it was skipping a pat, or maybe a pitty, and that felt worst of all — existentially speaking. So Gary made the call, and the ambulance took him to Marin General. And the docs said we’d better keep you overnight, and later said better make that two. And by the time he shuffled back into the sisters — according to the text I got from Soy after midnight — he was looking much better than the last time he’d walked in.
Post-hospital, Flo had popped for a room in that San Rafael motel with the Basque restaurant. But that wasn’t sustainable, budgetarily. In the meantime, I had four bedrooms, three baths in Fairfax, my house, that was vacant while we were in the parallel universe. And believe me, I’d been thinking about it. Which is to say, I felt pangs of my own. And just about the time I was going to say something to Roni, she said something to me. We told ourselves that, by not immediately offering up a bedroom, by holding back till the last minute, till he absolutely needed it, we were putting pressure on our friend to broaden both his employment and apartment searches. Tough love, of the gentlest kind. But mostly, being both uncertain of the efficacy of tough-love and away for 27 days, we put off thinking about it, telling ourselves we had till the end of March, when Gary’s lease-extension would run out. Then we discovered that, due to some unaccounted-for time differential between universes, or our negligent misunderstanding, the lease had run out March 28.
And Gary was in the hospital.
There’s a large museum in Jerusalem, a hilltop cluster of buildings, gardens and sculpture called Yad Vashem, an effort by Jews and Jewish culture — on behalf of the world — to reclaim the individual humanity of those destroyed in the Holocaust, innocent victims and freedom fighters alike. “It wasn’t six million who were killed,” goes one quote on the wall. “It was one Jew at a time.” In every respect — emotionally, historically, artistically — it’s a most beautiful reclamation that, deep down, speaks as much to the fundamental good of humanity as to the specifics of humanity at its worst. And an afternoon at Yad Vashem (the name means literally a monument and a name) leaves a mark. But the most curious of Yad Vashem’s effects was it made me think of my friend, neighbor and frequent dinner partner Gary, who is not a Jew and doesn’t seem to be much of a practicing anything — other than a fellow human being. After Yad Vashem, I didn’t have to convince Hoffman either. I DM’ed Gary to tell him where to find the key.
If it makes him feel better, moving into our house, I suspect it makes me feel better still — at the very least, relieving my guilt. Because early on in the crisis, I’d promised Gary I’d help in almost any way I could — except, I added, I didn’t want a roommate. That was my red line. I explained I needed quiet and privacy, so I could get into my writing trance. I explained that the kids come back from time to time, and friends and acquaintances visit (pretty much anyone I encounter — from players in the band, any band, to a Garden District parking lot attendant — is likely to receive an invitation) and anyway the guestroom downstairs intersects with my music studio. Which I’m in the process of reactivating, if slowly, but I certainly don’t need any added barriers to composing the perfect pop song. Fuck it, I said, that’s my red line. No roommates.
And then I saw it from a different universe.
On Tchernikhovski Street, in the throbbing heart of Tel Aviv, it takes a minute to realize that on the stereo in Photohouse — since 1936 the premier Israeli photo archive and now retail store — is the voice of native Texan, singer, songwriter and died-young alt-country hero Townes Van Zant. He’s followed by SoCal’s Tom Waits, doing his original version of “Ol’ 55,” a hit for the Eagles. And then by Tennessee’s Man in Black.
When I mention to my new Israeli friend Mark, whose parents brought him here from Russia when he was six-years-old, that it feels good to be in a place where you don’t at any minute expect a joke or dig or dumb comment about Jews, whether it’s about being cheap, pushy, chicken or racist towards Palestinians, he says a wise thing, for a 34-year-old. He says, once you don’t have to worry about being discriminated against for being a Jew, you’re discriminated against for being a Russian Jew or Polish or Yemenite or Romanian.
Roni and I met Mark and his fiancé Tom (pronounced tome, like a book) when we were at adjacent tables at a sidewalk cafe and both of us ordered, and consumed, what the English menu had translated — in a description all the more horrific for its pith and plainness: spinal cords. I leaned over and asked him what he thought. On top of his native Hebrew, he spoke English muy perfecto and further tipsy chatter led to a series of invitations — by Mark to drinks immediately afterward; by me to come stay with us in our house. Later in the week another dinner and drinks invitation from Mark and Tom was followed by a promiscuously upgraded (and alarmingly well-received) invitation from me to host their wedding at our crib in Fairfax — with, I pitched hard, a most scrumptious Italian feast catered by our friends at a restaurant down the hill called Sorellas.
The trajectories get more incalculable by the minute.
Gary’s been out of the hospital and living in our house for two weeks when we get home. When he had asked me on the phone if he could do any house or yard work while he was there, I told him, no, that his number one job was getting a job. The night after we got home, watching together as Rachel Maddow struggled to make us feel better about the rubber bullets in the Mueller report, he’s telling me his friend who got a job at BevMo says the pay is shit. All these jobs, he says, the pay is shit.
I don’t know if Yad Vashem is wearing off, or 6,000 miles is beyond its gravity, but I’m starting to think about some new trajectories for our friend.
Ten common misunderstandings I’ve been reminded of by folks who’ve inquired about our explorations:
1. No, Israelis are not all Jews. Seventeen percent are Muslims. Two percent Christians.
2. They aren’t all so-called “black hats”— religious types with hats, beards, earlocks (payos) and, for women, headcoverings. Sixty-five percent of Israelis say they aren’t religious at all.
3. Their country does not shut down on the Sabbath (Friday night into Saturday)—among many other things, the bars and restaurants are full and jumping.
4. If the word kosher signals to you food that’s boring or weird, note that Israelis’ restaurants are overwhelmingly not kosher. In Tel Aviv, more than 90 percent are not (which is a whole lot of restaurants). And they’re as inventive and fun and delicious as any contemporary joint in SF or NY and nearly as likely to serve pork.
5. Their country is not as hot as you think. Much of the year, most places, it’s as temperate as the Bay Area, to which it is proximitous in latitude. But even in summer, it’s cooler than Texas.
6. The Jews of Israel aren’t all the ornery “deli man” of pop culture cartoon. In fact, none of them are. That’s a New York thing — maybe. And even there it’s more or less shtick, and fading fast. Israelis couldn’t be more kind, friendly and accommodating.
7. The women, by and large, are heart-meltingly beautiful.
8. The men, my beautiful wife assures me, are handsome.
9. In the parts of their country we visited — which did not include the walled-off Palestinian territories or Gaza, with the draconian checkpoints, deadly crackdowns and, from the other direction, Hamas and Islamic Jihad missiles (next time) — it feels about as threatening as downtown Fairfax.
10. In Tel Aviv, 65% of Jews voted against Netanyahu. In the country as a whole, counting those who boycotted the vote, less than half supported him. Their parliamentary system thwarts the will of the people at least as much as the electoral college thwarts ours. So they’ve got their hate-monger-in-chief. We’ve got ours. Along those lines, I’d also like to correct a common misunderstanding about American Jews: by a large margin, they don’t like Bibi either. (Or, for that matter, DonDon.)
I don’t have to tell you I fell in love. But, like all lovers, I want you to fall in love along with me. Which is when, again, I run up against those “politics.”
True, my knowledge and experience are pathetically limited. And, like all lovers, my judgment is clouded — in part, I’m in love with Israel and in part, perhaps, with my own trajectory from a huddled childhood. But I abhor the day-to-day treatment of Palestinians almost as viscerally as I abhor putting Mexican and Central American kids in cages (much as I abhor rockets out of Gaza and Lebanon). Still, in a region where death by stoning is a sentence for gays and adulterers, hand-chopping for thieves and you can be beheaded for not much more than protesting — as 37 Saudis were this week, following a mass trial — a region of repressive, bloody Egyptian, Sudanese and Saudi dictators (among them, the in-your-face murderer of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi), of religio-fascist Ayatollahs in Iran, an aspiring dictator in Turkey, in a world, for that matter, of Donald Fucking Trump, who sucks up to such tyrants, who aids, abets and emulates them and pretends to believe when they say the Khashoggi thing was just a terrible accident with a bone-saw, how is it that one of the region’s smallest states and ninth most populous, the one more or less real democracy — real as anything in the vote-suppressing US — solitary beacon of any kind of freedom and opportunity in the area, as well as historic refuge for the most oppressed people on Earth, a country where even amid Netanyahu’s worst oppression, the muzzein — in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat — regularly and freely calls out to Muslims, who regularly and freely assemble, even as the storefront synagogue next to us on Deganya Street joyously belts a chorus of “Lecha Dodi,” gets all the shit?
(I never liked Pink Floyd anyway.)
The perfect union has yet to be perfected, in any universe — certainly not at this roiling black hole of Abrahamic competition within a glint of historical time. So, in 2019, not surprisingly, 71 years after the founding of Israel (when Rev. Kang, by the way, was 20), which triggered an all-out assault by four neighboring Arab states, which came after Britain had wrested the land from the Ottomans in World War I, the Ottomans had invaded it on behalf of Mohammed 600 years earlier, the Crusades had “reclaimed” it for Jesus, the Romans torched its capital, Jerusalem, to end the Judean Rebellion, after the Babylonians had captured it centuries earlier, before the Persians overthrew the Babylonians, and long after Moses, if you’re a believer, or someone or something else, if you’re not, led the Israelites into the Sinai and environs of modern-day Israel in the first place, brutality is widespread, a simmering civil war among Semite siblings, and within all their myriad factions, for that wisp of map that, little more than 71 years ago, the Brits (after the Greeks) had been calling by the old Roman name for the land of the Philistines: Palestine.
Of course, 71 years after the founding of our dealio, these would-be United States, we were still arguing over the kidnapping and enslavement of West Africans — and fixing to fight it out in a four-year fraternal conflagration that would fell more than 600,000. At the same time, 71 years after our founding, the US was still engaged in genocide, grand larceny and fraud against native Americans. And all of these are injustices that remain unresolved, original sins unatoned, more than 171 years later, as African-descended Americans are murdered and imprisoned by law enforcement at vastly disproportionate rates, and American Indians, in contradiction of solemn treaties, continue to be denied their full sovereignty, while facing systematic slaughter from the poverty and disease that arise from that disempowerment. And in Israel, 71 years after that nation’s founding as a place where the half of Europe’s Jews that hadn’t been annihilated might go — well, if they were lucky — it is tragically true there is also conflict and injustice.
And yet, amid the bad, amid the very bad, the hopelessness and deadly imperfection, I see good. Amid the bad, I would argue, as one who, for all his gaping ignorance, has now seen more than his fair share of history’s curve, is a wobbly, but unmistakable, trajectory toward the good, made manifest in odds and ends of daily forbearance and intermittent months of peace. It’s not much. Not enough. And yet. As a Baptist prophet from Atlanta put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And I believe in the Jews.
I don’t have to tell you folks with the cross tattoos that Jesus was a Jew — a brown-eyed, brown-skinned, longhaired, shit-disturbing Hebrew of the lowest birth and highest order. And on a spring Sunday every year for most of the last 2000, churches and tchotchke stores have celebrated his rising from the dead with some odd symbology, involving a rabbit who lays PVC eggs and a feast of baby sheep meat.
In a signal event for our transduction into the family, this year, for the first time, we were invited to share the sisters’ lamb. It came in the form of a text from Sonia during our last day in Tel Aviv: “Will you be back for Easter?” Well, it wasn’t exactly a full-blown invitation. It augured a forthcoming invitation, and for me functioned as a kind of save-the-date, while allowing the sisters to hedge their bets. Roni wasn’t so sure, thought I might be jumping the gun, typically. But when we got home I was excited to discover I wasn’t.
Easter dinner at the Soy-Molloy compound — the 2.5 houses, surrounding a vegetable garden, three blocks from the restaurant, that hold John, Soy and their two kids (when they’re home), John’s five-year-old grandson Trent (on weekends), John’s sightless mother Rina, along with Maria and Kang — has to rank among the rarest of honors — even for an avowed holiday-hater like me. I knew Gary was a regular at these things — the sisters are always quick to attach the unattached. But in 15 years of friendship, we — hardly unattached and definitely a handful — had yet to make the leap. When the venue was shifted the night before to their closed restaurant — “because John invited his new band” — I confess I was a smidge deflated and wondered, as an insufferable narcissist, if it secretly had to do with me.
The front door of the restaurant was padlocked, and the curtains in front drawn, which indicated to me they’d either moved it to yet another location and decided not to tell us or that we should go around to the fire-door in the back. I was happy to hear George’s cackle atop a murmuring crowd as we approached.
We brought Jack Daniel’s — for cackling George, per Sonia’s request — and, for the sisters, two bottles of the fancy mailing-list-only wine, dressed in the winery’s fancy tissue paper, for which we could never find an august enough occasion. We also represented for the Jews, bringing a box of Streit’s Matzo in honor of Passover, which this year overlapped with the Christian holy day. It turned out it wasn’t just that John had invited his new band, he’d invited other musician friends — the one I knew was Barry Sless, a longtime local guitar-slinger who’s a regular at the restaurant, as well as in a bunch of Dead spinoff bands (not Dead tribute bands, but groups with Phil or Bob or some of the New Riders) — and Soy had invited Flo and, of course, Roni and me. And like the last scene of a corny movie, there was Gary and Kang and Maria and Rina and, when everyone saw Heather and her husband Adam pass by, rolling their baby Jack, en route to Peri Park, Soy insisted they join in. And later Steve showed up, after his Easter gig in Crockett. And, later still, Wendy, not a little exhausted from ten-and-a-half hours bartending up at the Meadow Club. And I can’t remember who I’m leaving out, but there we were.
It was wonderful. Though just like any holiday get-together, there was the odd spot of trouble. Sonia thought that, fueled by the Jack we’d brought, Uncle George was being a little casual in his care of the Jack that Heather and Adam had brought. And when I went out to the parking lot with John and Barry, in view of the back room, to inhale some of George’s famous pot, Roni reported that the Kangs immediately set to clucking disappointment in Portuguese.
Sonia said they’d get over it.
And as the camera pulls back from the bustling back room, his favorite place in the universe, a credulous pilgrim from Sheboygan realizes an even deeper truth: he believes in family.
Music up: Brazilian jazz on the Sonos.
Title: The End.