Thursday, January 12, 2006


Matrilineally Meshuggah

Crazy Jew
A cold Friday night in Los Angeles, December, 1984. I’m standing in line alone for Godard’s Alphaville at the New Beverly Cinema, already having devoured the entire oeuvres of Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut and Pasolini over the last few months. Chatting briefly with each couple or group ahead of me is an Orthodox Jew in full regalia–shoulder-length sidelocks and bushy beard to the belly, a wide, fur-brimmed hat and an overcoat that looks way too warm for the weather even though it’s probably below 50 Fahrenheit (hey, that’s cold for LA). He seems to be selling something. As he gets closer to me, I hear that he’s asking people if they’re Jewish. Everyone is answering yes.

I wonder for an instant if he’ll do something crazy if I say no, but I say it anyway, even though I can feel that the rest of the crowd is silently urging me to say yes even if it’s not true. He looks interested. He explains that it’s Shabbat, and that it’s already past sunset, and that he can’t operate any machinery after sunset due to Shabbas law, even a light switch; so would I please come with him to turn his lights on for him? Oh, and the heater, too? And possibly the oven if his housekeeper forgot to do it, which she can do from time to time. His house is just around the corner. I can see the couple ahead of me silently urging me not to do it, but I tell him I will, thinking I’m about to have another multi-culti adventure in LaLaland-- I’ve been seeking these out on a regular basis since recently moving down from ultra-segregated Bakersfield (yup, that shit still happens, but not by law...) to go to UCLA.

“You’re sure you’re not Jewish?” he says.

I give him a look as if to say, What, you think I’m stupid?. “I have a Jewish grandmother,” I say, “but I’m not.”

“Your father’s mother?” he asks.

“No, my mother’s.”

He rolls his eyes and makes a hacking sound as if he’s going to spit at me. “Then you’re Jewish!” He hits his forehead, hard, with an open palm, and bugs his eyes out at me. By this time I’m sweating, and beet red under my black beret and long hair. I hear someone in the line snicker. In fact, the whole crowd is chattering animatedly now, their feathers all ruffled by the excitement. “I’d advise you to speak with your grandmother, son,” he goes on. “She must be meshuggah not to teach you any better.”

The people in line quiet down as he storms off.

“Good for you,” says the woman in front of me, a forty-something art maven type with a grinning rock-n-roll has-been guy on her arm.

“Why?” I ask.

“He comes here all the time.” Of course, I have to answer that I’m surprised I haven’t seen him before, that I am there all the time, just to show her how well-read I am in the literature of international film. “He says he’s looking for a Shabbas goy, but I think he’s some kind of pervert. Did you see that he was only asking the young pretty guys?” I hadn’t noticed that at all, but I got what she was saying. “Yeah, I’m sure he’s some kind of freak. I’ve seen the way the other Chassids look at him–as if he’s crazy, you know, like they want to stay away.” She pauses. “Did you really not know that the maternal line defines who’s Jewish?” I shake my head sheepishly. “Oh, well, I’d do what he told you even if he was crazy. Ask your grandmother about it. It’s quite interesting.” I ask if she’s Jewish. “Yeah,” she says, “Can’t you tell? I could tell you were the minute I saw you. I always do: Jews all have a little crazy in their eyes.”

the Krayeshka family in Russia
Well, I knew for sure that my grandmother’s family was crazy–but all sides of the grandparental quadrant were, in there own ways, the other three being Greek, Scottish and English, so I couldn’t blame the Kray (formerly Krayeshka) family’s craziness on their Jewishness alone. But the fact that my grandmother didn’t even find out that she was Jewish until she was sixty (I was fifteen then), due to some digging done by her niece, may have quite a bit to do with my grandmother’s particular insanity–a slow, quiet, burning type of madness that stealthily and steadily stalks the family.

My Grandma's older siblings
I can easily imagine what might have led her family to keep this integral part of her identity from her, even if I can’t quite understand it. They were Ashkenazi Jews who fled Kiev during the pogroms of the early 20th century, and when they got to America, they saw that Jews (at least those who were not rich) didn’t have such an easy time here, either. The two children were nearly teenagers, so they could not be protected from the sadness of what their people were going through–had been going through for millennia–all over the world.

Then lo and behold, another child comes. An American. Born on the very American soil of a grape farm outside Fresno, California. And she will be brought up a gentile because she will obviously have it far better that way. They are a light-skinned, fair-haired family, so it will be easy to blend in.

Ann Kray (ctr), 1925
But I’d bet keeping that secret from my grandmother was not easy for any of the family to do, not easy in the least, and I’d bet it drove them all mad, just as it did my grandmother, even though she didn’t know about it. I’d bet the overall mood in the household was, to use a euphemism that has often been used to describe both me and my mother, “high-strung.”

My grandmother’s own strange little life in that nest of secrets and lies must have been full of worries that all revolved around her, none of which she could pinpoint, all of which she could sense. It must have been a lot like my own homelife, in which everyone’s worries revolved around my sexual identity. At least I finally figured out who I was. My grandmother never did. When she found out she was Jewish, her only response, bless her vague little heart, was a bemused, “Oh, hmmm. I thought I remembered seeing those funny candlesticks they have when I was a really little kid, but I thought I must have seen it in a movie.”

Ann Kray, Shaver Lake, ca. 1938
In fact, by the time I got to know her, my grandmother didn’t seem to care much about anything. She was very “whatever”–ahead of her time in that way, since that is many a person’s automatic response to anything the least bit challenging these days. She didn’t seem to have any opinions about anything except a few things that pertained to her personal upkeep and food or television preferences. On the other hand, she was fun to be with for me and my sister (took us shopping all the time, too!), and laughed a lot; but my mother tells me that she was really only like that around us kis. She tells me that when she was little, her mother spent entire days, for days at a time, sobbing face down on her bed. When I was a kid, every once in a while, I would catch her cussing out my grandfather with a lot of hissing and a damning sound in her voice that made me hide under my covers at night.

She was more open, though, about the copious arguments she had with my aunt, five years younger than my mom, who lived in the house, and did so until the day my grandparents were carted out of there by the authorities because my aunt had neglected them all the way to death’s doorstep. She was fifty-five at the time, and a completely stagnant human being. She most definitely has OCD (my mom says she did things like wash her hands till they bled when she was little, and I could write a whole book about her other compulsive behavioral habits), and probably some manic-depression, too, but of course she never got treated, or even looked at. Back in the 1950s, when she and my mom grew up, solid American immigrant stock didn’t cop to unnatural progeny by taking them to invasive charlatans such as psychiatrists.

Throughout my childhood, when I saw her the most, my aunt Carole was a silent, shadow-like, affectless character. My mother says that, after the incident, once my grandparents were ensconced in a safe, clean place where they keep sick, old people till they die, my aunt lashed out at her about a cacophony of family concerns with a focus and rancor that she had never expressed, and that it was extremely scary. Sad to have to nearly kill your parents to let off a little steam, huh?

l-r, my great aunt Grace Kokinos,
grandpa John Kokinos and
Grandma Ann, World's Fair, 1939

They are dead now. It didn’t take long in that safe clean haven for that to happen. My grandfather and his sisters told us loads of wonderful stories; that was what he was all about, so we know a lot about the Greek side of our family–more than any other, really, since my Dad’s parents were/are (only one’s dead) extremely reticent WASPS. More than any other relative, I wish I’d been able to talk more to my maternal grandmother, even though I don’t think she would have been capable. Certainly not at the end. At the end, she grew her dyed hair out long and shaggy and wore her dirty housedresses with nylon anklets out to Denny’s for the Senior Slam breakfast, just like any other crazy old lady. Crazy old ladies generally can’t tell a person much of substance. But neither can angry young ladies or stewing middle-aged ladies or seniors who have simply turned themselves off because there is too much built-up pain to deal with–and my grandmother was all of these before she became a crazy old lady.

Her own mother, I have heard (or did I make it up?), moved to a small outbuilding on the farm at some point and spent the last several years of her life willfully bedridden–just to show how angry she was at the world, I guess. That’s a rich one. In fact, this whole story is incredibly rich and I’d like to write a novel about it–because fiction is really my only option here. My grandma’s niece, Rose, nearly drove herself insane finding the very scant evidence that she did. She’s still alive though, unlike everyone else that was involved. God, maybe I should go up and talk to her about it. I don’t know. Let me think about that one. It might be a great idea; then again, it might be an utterly mad one.

In order to save my own sanity, I detached myself from my family–all sides except my dear sister–for a good long time in my twenties and thirties. My mother and I have only recently reconnected and become truly good friends–due in no small part to the fact that she was a ROCK and GODSEND during my recent year of cancer and chemotherapy. But what brings us even closer is having outlived the madness that has sucked at us all our lives like the sea does at limpets as they cling to rocks.

Not that we’re models of sobriety and balance or anything. Then again, I wouldn’t want to be all that sane; it just doesn’t look all that fun. I mean, come on, we’re Jewish–and that art maven at the New Beverly Cinema all those years ago was right, I’ve noticed it myself–we all have a little crazy in our eyes.

Okay, now I’m fascinated; most likely to be continued in some form or another soon...

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WHat a good post and thanks for the honorable mention. YOur life sounds like mine without the Jewishness. I mean the madnesss and me separating myself from my family. Glad you have reconnected with your Jewishness. ANd the Fridays mention--I started a new thing called Jewish Fridays for everyone and I even have an icon everyone can put on their page. it links back to my other blog that is dedicated to my conversion. hope to see you around again..
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