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Chasing The American Dream

September 06, 2005


I guess it’s only natural that the older I get, the more distant I become from the foundation from which I was built. And once in a while, it’s refreshing to take a trip back down memory lane to remember the people, places, and events that helped make us who we are today. I took such a trip this past Labor Day weekend.

My father has been gone now for 13 years. The closest person I have as a father figure, and perhaps the closest link I have to my childhood memories of dad (mom divorced dad when I was but 3), is my “Uncle” Barney. I’d be willing to bet that we all have an Uncle Barney in our families. I was reading just last week about Amanda’s “Uncle” Fred. Uncle Barney and Uncle Fred have a lot in common.

Barney is not a true blood relative, but is as close to the real thing as one can get. He and dad were best friends. Inseparable. Barney says he’s my godfather although I didn’t think we had godfathers in the Jewish religion. Barney is a sparkplug of energy. He’s 5’ 4,” bald, and has a pretty thick Brooklyn accent. He grew up in a strict Jewish Orthodox household. He has a huge heart and personality even at the age of 81. He looks 60; he cooks, drives, exercises every day, plays golf daily, and reads. When dad came down to visit every year, Barney would come, too. Man, so many side-splitting laugh-riot memories.

And so I traveled west to Naples to visit the venerable one. Each visit with him is indeed like a trip home for me. I tell Barney what’s happening in my life and he gives me fatherly advice. We cook, we dine, we play golf, and we share stories of dad and wish he was with us. I think one of Barney’s last goals in life is to make me a true Jewish boy. I’ve told you previously that I’m Jewish in faith but never really grew up practicing the faith. Our family was weird. We celebrated Christmas and got Easter baskets from our grandmother. I can’t read a word of Hebrew. I remember going to religious school on Saturdays for a year or two but that’s about it. Heck, I even married a Catholic girl, remember?

But Barney does his best to teach me my Jewish heritage each time I visit and this visit was no exception. I actually attended an orthodox service. Talk about a fish out of water! I immediately noticed two things. First of all, I was probably the youngest person in the ‘congregation’ by a good 20 years. Secondly, there was some really nasty smell emanating from the back of the room. Something was cooking in a crock pot, and the smell was actually making me nauseous. I couldn’t imagine what was in there, but I wanted no part of it.

I was surprised to see that the Rabbi was young. Probably late-20s. Luckily for me, he did a nice job of explaining in English, the passages he read in Hebrew. I felt lost as it was during the two-hour service so every little bit helped. But I *was* given the honor of holding the Torah. As I stood up there, I actually felt a connection with these people and with the religion I am supposed to be a part of. It was a feeling I’ve not often felt in my lifetime. It was actually quite joyous.

But joyous quickly turned to horror as I was surprised to learn that we were to all partake in the Kiddish, or after service meal. Yup, you guessed it. Some of that mystery Kosher meat was dumped on my plate. It was called Cholent. I think it’s pronounced CHULL-unt. I have no idea what it was nor did I want to. Thankfully I was able to damper the pungent aroma and taste with plenty of Challah bread and Manishevitz wine. Ooh, I can still smell that stuff now as I write this. Blecch.

But truly, my weekend with Barney was very special. Every visit with him is; and I know that the sand in the hourglass is running low. After all, he’s 81. I’m not sure where I’ll get these precious memories of my past when he’s gone. For now, I’ll enjoy the visits to their fullest, Cholent or not, because I think I need a shot of roots to remind myself of who I really am away from this crazy mixed-up world.


  • I'm glad you did that. As non religious as I am, I still think getting back to roots is something we all eventually need, and something we all eventually do. Stay in contact with Barney, he may not be family, but he's a connection to your past. Learn as much as you can and embrace it.


    By Blogger Mari, at 11:44 PM, September 06, 2005  

  • Glad you've got a sense of national context, however minimal. And remember, learning is the one thing you can always do...

    By Anonymous Esther Kustanowitz, at 1:19 AM, September 07, 2005  

  • Not all Catholic girls are like that (your ex) ;)

    When I was 9 years old I wanted to be Jewish so bad. I started reading all about it and my mother just let me be. I slowly strayed back to Catholicism. I believe it's a constant journey to realize who we are. You're lucky to have Uncle Barney.

    By Blogger catsteevens, at 2:33 AM, September 07, 2005  

  • my parents have both made tapes (i wish they were video rather than audio) while they reminisced about their childhoods, relatives (of the, for me, great-great variety, their school days (through college), how they met, my dad's wwii experiences and what mom did while he was away, stories about me as a small child and their ambitions, dreams and sorrows. my dad died in in '96, but my mom, at 86, is still very much alive. i'm glad i have these tapes, and i will love being able to pass them on to our kids at some point. you might talk to uncle barney???

    By Blogger ropedncr, at 9:36 AM, September 07, 2005  

  • rope -

    That is a fascinating and beautiful idea.... about the tapes. How truly wonderful it must be to have them and listen to them.

    By Blogger catsteevens, at 1:27 PM, September 07, 2005  

  • You are very fortunate to have your "Uncle". I have several of these relatives that are "uncles", and actually, I have more "aunties" than I can shake a stick at.

    I understand exactly where you are coming from when it comes to what I call, "stories from home". My great-grandfather(who taught all of us boys how to talk like sailors in his very proper high German accent, all of which I remember-ha ha!) was recording family conversations back in the 1920's and 1930's that just amaze me. Conversations with people who are long since dead, some born in the middle of the 19th century, some of whom still had accents from the old country, all of whom are my roots.

    And I too have had the actual experience like yours with Barney. My "uncle"-actually Great Great Uncle Bill was, in his day, an Irish tough/streetfighter/hard drinking/IRA supporting/Union leader and father who was, to say the least, a wild man. But as he got older, and as I had the good fortune to get to know my grandma's "Uncle Bill", I got to see a lot of who I am, and I got to hear the stories of when he was a kid, growing up in Montana at the turn of the century.

    It's gifts of love like this that help us write our own myth, and keep our own legends alive. Always treasure them.

    By Blogger Geoffrey Hirschfeld, at 7:24 PM, September 08, 2005  

  • I think we are all like a jigsaw, made up of many pieces. I like to keep contact with all my pieces but unfortunately only have my equivalent of your Uncle Barney now. When I am in Dublin I am a plastic Paddy, Scotland a Jock etc. Uncle Barney sounds a gem! :)

    By Blogger Miladysa, at 11:48 AM, September 09, 2005  

  • When I was in England, I spent time at an Orthodox synagogue. It was foreign to me, but I slowly got used to parts of the service and even learned to vaguely follow along from various "landmarks" in the service.
    I'd often have Cholent for Shabbat lunches. Essentially, they throw lots of ingredients (meat, veggies, potatoes etc) into a slow cooker and turn the pot on before the sabbath is in. You're not allowed to actively cook during the sabbath, but letting a slow cooker go is apparently ok.
    When I had it, I quite liked it, and it smelled wonderful. Perhaps the synagogue's cooks weren't as skillful. The brits are, um, known for their cooking.
    Glad you enjoyed the experience though.

    By Blogger Gatsby, at 7:46 PM, September 09, 2005  

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