Thursday, August 24, 2006

Kung Jew Fighting

When I was 13, my mortal enemy was a classmate named Jim.

Jim had the intelligence of a small aquatic creature, yet he managed to get under my skin and torment me through the hell known as junior high. Jim was big, stupid, and a bully. His favorite thing to call me was a "dumb Jew."

This all happened after I had moved to a new city where I had no friends, at an age where children are attuned to inflict special cruelties upon their peers. I ended up at a school that was in all ways inferior to my previous institution — academically, facilities, and fellow students.

Jim was simply the apotheosis of everything bad about being 13, and his constant use of "dumb Jew" hurt less from its intended meanness than from the fact that Beavis & Butthead had gotten me upset.

When I tried to explain that indeed, I was a Jew, but certainly not dumb, and, furthermore, that for him to call me a "dumb Jew" was kind of like a wheelbarrow accusing him of being a "dumb Christian," all Jim could say was, "I'd rather be that than a dumb Jew."

Our exchanges went like this:

You dumb Jew!

Jim, you're a retard.

I'd rather be that than a dumb Jew!

Jim, you're a retard with a half-inch penis.

I'd rather be that than a dumb Jew!

Jim, you're a retard with a half-inch penis whose future includes a career in garbage disposal, permanent virginity, and death by age 30.

I'd rather be that than a dumb Jew!

Sensitive artist in training that I was, I had a thin skin, and being one of the only Jewish kids in all of that neck of suburban Chicago, I could not call upon reserves of the like-minded or like-tormented, there was only so much of this I could take. The other kids picked up on this, and taunted me as well — not that they were anti-Semites as much as they were typical children.

You're kidding! You mean Jesus was Jewish?

Jim and I came to fisticuffs on several occasions, with one memorable occasion when I narrowly escaped a serious beating when Jim and four friends with chains pursued me on bikes from school one afternoon.

Fortunately, as seventh grade morphed into eighth, Jim became a pariah of sorts, as his enormous stupidity became a burden and his taunting was exposed as a pathetic refuge for the most disliked of adolescents, the uncool.

However, Jim's descent into loserdom didn't mean I was popular or even liked. A kid named Kevin seemed to have it in for me, in the way that big dumb bullies have it in for nerds. Midway through eighth grade, Kevin started calling me names, threatening me with violence, etc. Kevin was over six feet tall, and hulking, with a long face that already seemed to bear the scars of alcohol abuse.

I took all his insults with gritted teeth. But one time, in the locker room, he called me "Jew boy" in front of my classmates, and I was left with no alternative to tell Kevin to fuck himself. (Couldn't let that pass in front of others, no way).

Kevin was big, but slow, and telegraphed his punch worse like Morse code, and I easily ducked underneath it. I tacked him, knocked him to the floor (face first), and bloodied his nose before the gym teacher broke things up.

Nobody called me names after that. It was like kicking someone's ass in prison.

That was the last fight I've ever been in, 27 years, several addresses, and dozens of pairs of underwear ago. Why, then, would I bring this up now? Is it Mel Gibson's recent anti-Semetic rant? Could it be the desire of several million folks in the Middle East who want me dead?

Not at all. Of late, my life has been partitioned into boxes of stress — work, home, family, erectile dysfunction. I've been taking trips for personal business, spending my nights figuring out my mother's move, and trying to keep wife out of the evil clutches of Joshua Bell.

And lost in all of this has been my writing (careful readers will notice the long absence of new Bookfraud entries or similarly authored posts on other blogs). My writing has suffered, and it bothers me. But why? And why am I a writer?

It can't be said that before my family made its way to the Chicago suburbs my life was perfect. Still, growing up I was surrounded by fellow tribesmen who knew what kosher meant, what was involved in a bar-mitzvah, and didn't think there was anything weird about yarmulkes. Better yet, I went to school with Jews, played baseball at the Jewish Community Center, went to summer camp with Jews, hung out with Jews. I only heard "Jew boy" and "kike" on television.

Then came the move, and my religious upbringing became my defining characteristic. I went from being one of the guys to being a Jew.

What did Jew write?

Not to overdramatize: I hardly spent my adolescence friendless. But I was marked different, I felt different, and I have really never fell easily into cliques or made friends ever since.

Sure, I'm a grumpy, cynical, misanthropic pessimist, and I probably would have been all those things had I stayed ensconced in the little Jewish bubble I spent my first 13 years. (After all, things at home weren't exactly perfect).

But I doubt I would have felt the extreme alienation that marked my teenage years. Philip Roth, to cite the most obvious example, writes about being a stranger in one's own homeland.

Seventh and eighth grade was like the you-know-whos wandering the desert for 40 years, forcing me to become observer as much as participant. I would watch people closely. I read a lot. I became suspicious of others, and wondered what really motivated them. Stories started fomenting in my head, stories about what made them tick, and what weird things lurked behind the facade of their normal lives.

In other words, I became a writer.