My Karma Ran Over My Car, Ma

When my mother called from America to give me the news (I’m in Israel trying to be spiritual), I was in the middle of a scrumptious Sushi dinner (kosher of course) with my gay boyfriend.

She begins with, “Um, I don’t know quite how to break this to you, but I have some kind of bad news for you.”

Well, at least it wasn’t bad news about people, or else she would have used her special terminology for that.  So I knew it must be some material thing.

“So,” I said, finishing my mouthful of rice and raw fish, “what’s going on?”

“Your can was stolen,” she says resolutely.  I burst out laughing.  My car was stolen.  OK, Universe, what else are you going to fling at me?  I already found out with an unpleasant bang that I have bedbugs (yes, BEDBUGS, ugh), and that is foremost in my mind right now, since I am phobic about creatures climbing on my body at night when I am sleeping, sucking my blood.  FUCK.  Compared to that, having my car stolen is a laughable piece of cake.

I mean, WTF?  It’s only a piece of metal and plastic and assorted other material junk cobbled together.  Yeah, yeah, it’s only two years old.  Big fucking deal, I have about $6,000 in equity on it, so it it gets totaled I’m in the black for a down payment on another one.

Oh.  I haven’t told you the story yet.

OK.  So when I go to Israel, which is several times a year, my dear cousin is kind enough to let me park it in his apartment complex lot.  It’s a big lot, and nobody ever objects.  And his apartment complex is in a nice neighborhood with a low crime rate, so it’s safe enough.  Or so I thought.

But.  Some scallawag criminal type had the forethought to steal a dealer tag, take off my wonderful vanity tag that says AZAMRA, which means “I shall sing” in ancient Hebrew, from a psalm by King David composed 3000 years ago more or less, and put his nasty dealer tag on instead.  So this ain’t no random joy-rider.  It’s a professional, is what it is.  And how the dude gained entry to the car is a mystery.

OK.  Next scene: either this same thief, or his designee, gets totally shitfaced drunk in the middle of the day and decides to go somewhere via the high-speed beltway around the city which will remain unnamed.  He’s cruising in the passing lane when he PASSES OUT and the vehicle (MY vehicle) rolls to a stop, blocking the passing lane.

A random ambulance in cruise mode happens to come along and sees this vehicle stopped in the passing lane and decides to investigate.  They pull up alongside and lean on the siren.  The driver of MY car wakes up abruptly and STOMPS on the gas, resulting in a game of caroms, bouncing off of and sideswiping FOUR different vehicles before crashing into a police cruiser that had blocked the road up ahead.

Said policeman gets out and makes the guy, who is still alive and conscious, blow for alcohol level, and the guy blows 0.5!  That, my friends, is officially incompatible with life, except for professional drinkers whose livers are all tuned up.  So of course the dude is now in jail.

Unfortunately, two of the people he hit are in the hospital.  I know nothing about their condition, but send them healing juju and apologies that even though I personally had nothing to do with it, it WAS my car after all that plowed into them at high velocity.

Now I’m dealing with the intricacies of trying to manage a car theft and subsequent use of the car for criminal activities and vehicular battery, and the fact that my car is impounded in a police car pound, from 6,000 miles away.  My cousin is acting as my agent, which is a good thing for me but a pain in the ass for him.  Many questions remain unresolved, and I wonder if answers will bubble to the surface as the facts unfold.

Strange things have already happened, such as, when I called my insurance company to open a file and give them the police report, I discovered that a certain attorney (for whom? the crook? an ambulance chaser?) had called it in and a case was already open.  I didn’t know that unauthorized people could get access to one’s insurance company.  Well, now I do.

At least this has lightened my mood up (except for the people who were injured), because it seems that just when you think the Universe is out to get you (bedbugs), you find out that….the Universe is out to get you!  So I may as well give over being depressed and find something to enjoy, because you never know what’s going to happen next.

Searching For the Missing Me

I am sitting in the kitchen of my beloved friend R_, who was on the same flight with me when we made Aliyah (emigrated) to Israel in 2007.  We didn’t meet on the plane because he was in such ecstasy at moving to our real home country that he didn’t notice anything around him.  He was in a haze of love and joy.  I met him about four months after our arrival.  He was hanging out laundry on his mirpesset (balcony), and I recognized him from the flight.  His place turned out to be exactly one block from mine, and my seat-mate on that flight happened to live exactly one block from him!  The three of us became the best of friends.  R_ has become my support system and champion in my struggle to free myself from the toxic, strangulating tentacles that have torn me from my real home country and dragged me back to America, which otherwise holds no attraction to me.

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R_’s living room

I had to take a break from my parents and America, because I found myself consumed with rage, which is a very unhealthy emotion.  I developed high blood pressure and heart palpitations, and was having terrible heart pains that woke me out of sleep.  They were so intense that I could not even move to call an ambulance, even had I wanted to, which I didn’t.  I would have been just as happy if a heart attack carried me off, out of the misery of my life there.

So I suddenly announced that I was going to Israel for three weeks, for a break, causing immense consternation on the maternal side of things, and resignation from the Dad side.  I needed a breathing spell, and specifically to breathe the air of the Holy Land, just to be here, even if all I did was to hang out with my friend R_ and walk around the shuk, inhaling and imbibing the sights, sounds, smells, and spirit of the place.

Bride and groom playing in the shuk

Bride and groom playing in the shuk

Practically as soon as I got off the plane my Israeli cell phone started ringing:  “We’re so glad you’re back: now everything feels normal again.”  I have a place, and my place is here.    My family of choice lives here.  I feel surrounded by love here.

R_ and I went yesterday to visit the tomb of the Baba Sali, a holy man who was said to have brought about many miracles in his time.  Here it is customary to visit the tombs of great and wise people (like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Samuel, etc.) to bathe in their energy and pray for whatever needs prayed for.  We don’t pray to the person, for that is idol worship, but instead we pray for the spirit of that holy person to intercede for us in Heaven so that our prayers will be heard.  I had, and still have, a lot to pray for, so we went to the Baba Sali, because I have a special connection with him.

Baba Sali lived in our times, and came from Damascus to Morocco to Israel, where he settled in a tiny village called Netivot, which is located in the Negev desert right on the border with Gaza, just south of Sderot, which is a town that has been rained on with so many thousands of missiles from Gaza that every bus stop has its own bomb shelter.

Why do I feel safe here?  Right now, at this very moment, Russia is funneling terrible weapons into Syria, which in turn is passing them on to Hezbollah (the terrorist arm in Lebanon), Iran is arming Hamas in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon, and all of them are fighting among themselves.  It’s a virtual certainty that they will attack Israel at some point.  On Monday and Tuesday this week the air raid sirens went off in every town in the Land, and everyone was supposed to drill taking shelter.  Nobody did, because Israelis are used to being the objects of the aggression of our neighbors, and we realize that only G-d can save us, since we are a country the size of Delaware, so we go on with our lives and our prayers, and of course we hope that rockets won’t fall on our houses or our children, but we rely on G-d to be our shelter.  No Westerner can understand that.

But that’s not what this blog entry is about.

It’s about the terrible conflict that tears me apart, and keeps me from living the life I love, the life the holds out the possibility of real spiritual redemption.  It’s about the conflict between kibud av v’aim, respect for father and mother, which is one of the Ten Commandments.  The letter of  halacha, Jewish Law, interprets this to mean that one is obligated at minimum to provide shelter, food, and clothing sufficient for one’s parents’ needs, but I have a hard time with leaving it at that.

Although my mother severely abused me emotionally, psychologically, verbally, and at times physically, and my father was a codependent facilitator, I still have difficulty separating from them completely, because I continually hope that they will magically become the parents I have always desperately wanted and needed:  loving, caring, nurturing, and deserving of my love and respect.

In fact, in my adolescent confrontational phase, before I picked up and left home at age 16, my mother would scream at me, “You have to love and respect me because I am your parent.”  And I would scream back, “If you want me to love and respect you, you have to earn it,” to which the dear mother would generally reply with a stream of obscenities and a smack across the face, if she could reach me.

So why, after four years of blissful content in Israel, did I rush to their side when their time of need arrived in their old age?  And what has kept me there, in total isolation and spiritual desolation, for two and a half years?  Unconditional love,  blind even to ongoing abuse?  Kibud av v’aim?   Or that desperate primal hope that one day I would awaken to find them magically transformed into my real parents, the ones who dropped me off here on this alien planet 59 years ago?

I just don’t know.

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My Mother and Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish

Some non-Jewish people know what Kaddish is.  Some Jewish people also know what Kaddish is.  I would guess that more Jewish people don’t than do, because of the secularization of the Jewish people due to the Holocaust and subsequent rush to blend in with whatever dominant culture we found ourselves washed ashore in, those who escaped the ovens.

Kaddish, for those who don’t know, is a Jewish prayer that is an integral part of observant Jewish life.  It is best known as the “prayer for the dead,” although death is never mentioned in the prayer itself.  It is, in fact, a joyous song of praise, enumerating the awesome powers and grace of the Almighty.  It is indeed said at Jewish funerals and at each of the three daily communal prayers, on behalf of the departed, for eleven months.  But it is also said many times during each prayer service, as a marker that divides the different segments of the service.  There are wonderful mystical reasons for this, having to do with elevating the congregation up through the layers of world upon world that lead to complete unification with God.  Most religious Jews don’t know these things, but say the prayers by rote.   Much knowledge has been lost in the years of our physical and spiritual exile.

My parents are among the first-generation children of immigrant parents from Russia and Poland who escaped the Holocaust as children, and had no religious background whatsoever.  Correction: my father’s father was the child of a Hassidic rabbi from Prussia, and his mother was the daughter of a rabbi in the Ukraine.  Both were sent out of their respective countries as children, experiencing exploitation and multitudinous horrors on their way to New York City, where they met and became members of the Communist Party, rejecting their religion out of bitterness; so my father was brought up without religion, to endure antisemitism on a strictly genetic/racial basis.

My mother was raised in a mildly religious environment, but it never really rubbed off on her.  She came away with a few legends and fears, but quickly learned how to cook pork ounce she was out of her culturally kosher home, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

My mother likes to throw things out.  She threw out her rudimentary Judaism once she was free of the parental home.  She likes to keep a tidy house, so she throws out anything that seems out of place.  She has thrown me out many times.  I have kept coming back, out of a childish wish that she would all of a sudden become the Good Fairy Mother, but that has not happened yet and as she is 86 and I am nearing 60, I don’t think it is likely to happen.

My mother has two sides: childlike, and childish.  Her childlike side is quite charming.  She is filled with wonder at a pair of redbirds on a bush, deer in the yard, a squirrel sitting on a railing eating corn she has put out for it.  She adores her cat with something approaching sexual love.

On the other hand, when tired or vexed she will burst into childish tantrums, cursing and belittling, mocking, slamming doors and kicking the dog.  And throwing things out.

The other day she was in a childish mood, a mild one, and concentrating on throwing things out.  She can’t throw me out at the moment, because she needs my help with my invalid father, but she can throw his things out, and that’s what she was up to.  I happened along just as Allen Ginsberg’s volume of poetry Kaddish was hitting the dust bin.

“Why are you throwing that out?” I asked.  I noted that their once voluminous library seemed to have shrunken, and wondered how many old friends of my youth had gone the way that Kaddish seemed destined.

Kaddish,” she shuddered, twisting her face in horror.  I got it.  Kaddish, the “prayer for the dead.”  Death is lingering around our house now.  In a way it is a marvel: every new day a gift, if my father is still living.  Nevertheless it is a spectre hovering, palpable to all.  I understand: Kaddish is an unwelcome resident here.  I fished it out of the waste basket and dusted it off.

“I’ve never read this,” I remarked.

“Take it,” she said. “Get it out of this house.”

I did.  I took it to The Studio, my father’s old studio where I now reside.  And began to read.  On the first page, Ginsberg is mourning his mother’s death, pacing his living room and saying Kaddish aloud, alone, which is something one is never supposed to do because the prayer is so powerful it could be damaging without the power of ten people to say it.  But there he is, the power of his grief holding him safe in his living room, crying out loud the poem of God’s greatness to the Universe.

His mother died of insanity.  It struck her like a brick to the head when Ginsberg was a young child, and he spent his childhood accompanying her on trains and buses from one institution to another, until she finally ended up in Bellevue, the end of the line, and when countless shock treatments failed, the lobotomy.  She quickly grew old, and died at the age of 60.  My age.

He never gave up on his mother, and he never stopped loving her.  His family spiralled into collective dysfunction around her.  But it seemed to me that somehow he was able to extract, and treasure, the remnants of the delightful, dignified woman his mother once was, and carry that in his heart always.  It made me smile and cry.

I have never been able to feel that way about my mother.  Perhaps it has something to do with the stories she likes to tell about how I was such an idiot as a baby to climb out of my crib and fall onto a radiator, necessitating a trip to the emergency room; or another time, when, at seven months of age I disrupted dinner by climbing into a cupboard and getting hold of a bottle of Tabasco Sauce, which I somehow got all over me, burning my skin and prompting another visit to the emergency room.

These things, and more, might explain why I recoil at her touch, and why I break into a cold sweat at the sound of her voice.

Reading Ginsberg caused me to go inside and feel what I would feel when at last my mother dies (which is not likely to be for a very long time, given the longevity of her branch of the family, who often live to be 100 or more).

What did I feel then, when I went inside?

Relief, yes.  And grief: for the mother I never had.