Saturday, February 28, 2015

Are You There God? It's Me, Intermarriage (Part 2)

In Part Two of Identity Crises and Suburban Jews, we leave Margaret Simon and her intermarried parents and her search for a community with whom to identify. Now, I turn my attention to the story of two middle school boys, also on a quest for identification, also recently removed from extended family, grandparents and an urban environment. But the story of Leonard and Alan is a fantastic one of psychic powers, aliens and inter dimensional travel. Alan Mendelsohn The Boy From Mars is the story of the nerd as crypto-Jew. But even when I first read the book as a kid, I knew. I knew what the book was really about.

Leonard's story spoke to me just as clearly as Margaret's, though I didn't necessarily share much in common with either of them, on the surface of things. But it was the search for a bigger picture, the confusion at being separated from family and history, which rang true. And, as you'll see in the essay, there is something ultimately hopeful about Leonard and Alan's story.  You can go back home. You can find your people. It'll take a hell of a lot of work, but it's also a hell of an adventure along the way.

And if you've been wondering where the phrase 'Yiddish Atlantis' came from, it debuted in this essay.



Identity Crises and Suburban Jews: A Quasi-Personal Meditation: Part Two (excerpt)
By Rokhl Kafrissen

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret ends on this somewhat ambivalent note. Margaret gets her period and continues to keep up with her peer group. But her adult identity is unclear. With whom does she belong? And is twelve really too late to learn?
For the answer, I turn back to Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars and Leonard and Alan's quest for the stuff of identity.

Alan Mendelsohn, like Are You There God, opens immediately after a perplexing move to the suburbs, a few days before the beginning of junior high school. The narrator (and protagonist) of the book is actually Leonard Neeble. Leonard's parents have left Hogboro for the suburb of West Kangaroo Park, place without much to recommend it except lots of brand new tract housing. 
Like the Simons, the Neebles have also left behind grandparents. But the Neebles' move is never really explained, not as an escape from them, nor as an escape from the city. It goes without saying that the blank canvas of the suburbs is the American dream. Adults will naturally want a new house where they can do all the things you canʼt do in the city: barbecue every night, buy lots of new furniture, and play around with the remote control garage door opener.

But kids have different needs. Leonard is miserable, as furniture and barbecuing donʼt have much appeal to a twelve year old boy. In the old neighborhood, all you had to do was walk outside and you could get into a conversation, trade baseball cards, or walk to the corner and buy a comic book. 
In West Kangaroo Park, Leonard is the only kid in the whole neighborhood (aside from a few babies). Not only that, there is nowhere to walk to, besides which you canʼt walk anywhere- there arenʼt any sidewalks! In any case, no one is expected to walk anywhere in West Kangaroo Park. All the commerce is organized around shopping strips arranged around parking lots. Kid life in the suburbs is restricted to the discrete spaces of school and home, with its nuclear core, devoid of the encircling comforts of extended family and friends.
And, like Margaret Simon, Leonard has much more in common with his grandparents than he does with his parents. His parents are “dopey but lovable.”  But his grandparents are everything the parents arenʼt. They have no interest in material goods. They are part of an extended community (their apartment has a rotating group of vaguely related inhabitants) and they are an endless source of interesting information.
The distance between the two worlds, parents and grandparents, is epitomized in the second chapter. Leonard misses his grandparents (Grandfather and the Old One) and longs for them as he waits for his parents to prepare dinner. His grandmother, he tells us:
“believes that everyone ought to eat only raw food, except meat, which she believes nobody should eat at all. She spends all her time grinding up nuts and wheat berries and soybeans, and mashing them up together with honey and raisins and stuff. It tastes better than it sounds.”
Leonardʼs parents, on the other hand, are determined to make up for lost time. The move to the new house hasnʼt just put them in a new physical place; theyʼve created a new life and new values to go along with it. And the consumption of meat plays a starring role. The nightly barbecue has become a ritual, as Leonard describes it:
“I heard the back door slam twice... I knew what had happened-- my father had come out of the garage, stepped through the back door, kissed my mother, patted Melvin on the head, taken off his coat, and hung it on a hook, first taking his apron off the hook. The apron had WHATʼS COOKING? printed on the front, and a picture of a guy in a chefʼs hat standing in front of a barbecue with a big cloud of smoke coming from it. Next, my father had gone outside (that was the second slam) and started building a fire in the portable barbecue. This had been going on all summer....Besides the hamburgers or steak, we would have salad. My parents had been to a restaurant where they served this special salad with chopped hard-boiled egg on it, and anchovies, and all sorts of stuff....Before we moved to the new house I had always liked hamburgers and things like that. Now I was getting bored-- my parents werenʼt, though.”
Leonardʼs parents are obviously in their element in the suburbs, rebelling against their own parents and emulating the bourgeois, Caesar salad eating milieu theyʼre striving to enter. 

Leonard, however, sticks out like a sore thumb in his new setting. His first day at school he sits on an ice cream bar, gets verbally abused in gym class, and in general is treated like short, rumpled garbage by his tall, dim, unwrinkled classmates. 
Heʼs lost the people who matter most to him (and to whom he matters most) and it looks unlikely he will ever find a replacement in the suburbs. He is utterly alone, surrounded by parents who bear little resemblance to him and peers who ignore or despise him.  
If identity “expresses such a mutual relation in that it connotes both a persistent sameness within oneself (selfsameness) and a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others” then where will Leonard find such internal and external continuity?
The answer comes with his acquaintance with the eponymous Alan Mendelsohn. A few weeks into school they meet, recognizing in each other fellow outcasts who have no desire to fit in with the creepy clones at Bat Masterson Junior High. As in Are You There God, meeting a congenial peer group and identifying with them is necessary in the construction of identity. But for Margaret, that peer group identification isn’t followed by identification with a larger group, with a past and future. 
In contrast, Leonard and Alan will not just identify with each other, they will share a mutual quest which will bring them into contact with a different world, one where their unique qualities and unique past are appreciated, and where they are able to create a new future for themselves which builds upon their pre-suburban past.
Alan Mendelsohn has also been pulled out of his context and plopped into the suburbs. In his case, his parents have relocated from the Bronx. The Bronx was much like Leonardʼs old neighborhood, with book stores, grandparents and cobblestone streets that were more than a few years old.
Alan and Leonard donʼt have much to do in West Kangaroo Park. Leonard is so alienated from his surroundings that he literally makes himself invisible. He stops carrying his books to class or doing any assignments. His teachers are happy to let him slip through the cracks as long as he stays quiet on the way down.
Leonardʼs refusal to participate in school that is the catalyst for his identity crisis and growth. Report cards arrive and Leonardʼs parents are shocked to learn that he is failing all his subjects. He is sent to a child psychologist to get to the bottom of the problem. Due to his ongoing therapy, Leonard and Alan are able to make a school day trip to the city of Hogboro and go comic book shopping.
In Hogboro they visit an esoteric bookshop and are persuaded by eccentric bookshop proprietor Samuel Klugarsh to buy into a psychic training system. While the system at first seems to be a swindle, they soon learn that thereʼs something to it, though it's unclear at first.
The key comes from Leonardʼs grandparents. Leonard and Alan have to take a trip to the old neighborhood because the Old Oneʼs vacuum is broken and she needs to borrow the Neeblesʼ.
While Leonard and Alan are there, Uncle Boris offers to show Alan Mendelsohn his home movies. One of the movies is the feet (just the feet) of his extended family, to fourth and fifth cousins. Well, it turns out that Samuel Klugarsh belongs to one of the feet featured. Leonard is shocked, as he had never before considered Boris to be more than an eccentric whose penchant for making home movies was without value.
Through Boris, Alan and Leonard learn that there is something to Klugarsh and his methods, though he isnʼt quite what he claims to be, nor is his merchandise to be taken at face value.
Because of Borisʼs recognition and affirmation, Alan and Leonard decide to go back to Klugarsh and try again to get something a little more worth their money. Perhaps a gem, like the one Uncle Boris showed them which glowed in the presence of a psychically gifted person.
Their next encounter with Klugarsh takes them much deeper into their adventure. While their first purchase enabled them to produce certain brain waves that gave them psychic powers, they havenʼt figured out what exactly those powers are good for, aside from tormenting their dimwitted classmates. 
When Alan and Leonard tell Klugarsh that they have been able to reach “State 26” (a mental state necessary to access psychic powers), he is astonished at their progress. He insists that they buy the next level of psychic training. Itʼs called Hypersteller Archaeology and, as Klugarsh explains, it will help them find the so-called lost continents of Atlantis, Mu and Lemuria. He tells them the course in hyperstellar archaeology “... will equip you to find the everyday clues to the existence of civilizations no longer with us.” 
At this point in the analysis I have to insert myself and my story again. Alan Mendelsohn the Boy from Mars is obviously a book I remember fondly from my own childhood. As a kid who was bullied, I related to the nerd as hero and the possibility that there was an adventure awaiting me and my unique abilities. But as an adult, the story has even more relevance.
I couldnʼt ask for a better description of what it feels like to enter into the study of the Yiddish language and culture than what Klugarsh calls ʻHyperstellar Archaeologyʼ. Once I started learning Yiddish, I found it everywhere. I suddenly knew what peopleʼs last names meant. I understand what gey shlofn meant. I understood why we leyned Torah and my friends had an oyfruf before they got married.
Growing up, the Yiddish world might as well have been Atlantis to me. It had existed at one point, but the way it was remembered was through its cataclysmic destruction. And just as we have no way of knowing what life in Atlantis was like, the subtext of any discussion of Eastern European culture was that its everyday life (as opposed to its death) was just as removed and unknowable to us.

Growing up, the Yiddish world might as well have been Atlantis to me. It had existed at one point, but the way it was remembered was through its cataclysmic destruction. And just as we have no way of knowing what life in Atlantis was like, the subtext of any discussion of Eastern European culture was that its everyday life (as opposed to its death) was just as removed and unknowable to us.

Yiddish Eastern Europe became mythic, in more ways than one. Eastern Europe was't just a place where Jews lived for a thousand years, but the crucible out of which emerged the new State of Israel. The old had to be destroyed to make way for the new.
Further, Yiddish Eastern Europe was mythic in that because it was lost, it was something to which we could never return, nor would we need to. Rather, Yiddish Eastern Europe would from now on function as a mirror for contemporary society. Just like countless generations have been fascinated by Atlantis, and have seen themselves in its life and destruction, so Jews today are able to look into the mirror of the Yiddish Atlantis and see whatever they need to. 
In the latest Pew survey, 73% of Jews surveyed said that remembering the Holocaust is essential to being Jewish. Itʼs interesting to recall here that in Sally J. Freedman, the times when we see Sally identify as Jewish is when she is absorbed in her fantasies about fighting Hitler, especially when she begins to suspect that an elderly man, Mr. Zavodsky, in her building is Hitler. In her fantasies she is courageous, independent and Jewish-- but that Jewish Sally only asserts herself in response to the perceived dangers of anti-Semitism. The only time the word Yiddish is mentioned in the book is in the context of Sallyʼs stalking of poor Mr. Zavodsky, as she observes him reading the Forward.
Lingering on destruction and catastrophe and violent expressions of anti-Semitism are very much a way of engaging with oneʼs Jewishness. But this negative Jewishness, a Jewishness of reaction and fear and violence, is obviously a highly personal one, lacking in Jewish substance. Itʼs inevitable that when the Yiddish Atlantis plays a role in our cultural narrative we will start to define ourselves, and identify Jewishly, more and more through destruction than through creation.
As Erik Erikson says, the process of identification happens when the young person judges himself according to the values and typology which she perceives to be of use to the group she is identifying with and the ideology it represents. This self-interrogation is both the process by which she finds herself worthy of being part of the group and another expression of all that it stands for.
Sallyʼs recurrent fantasies about capturing Hitler are revenge fantasies, revenge on behalf of the members of her family lost in the war (Lila and Tante Rose, Ma Fannyʼs sister and niece Europe. ) In the prologue to the book we hear Sally asking her mother about them.
-“Oh, them... the ones Hitler sent away...
-“Yes” [her mother replies] “Maybe now we can find out where they are.” -“Do you think theyʼre in New Jersey?”
-”No, honey... theyʼre far away... theyʼre somewhere in Europe.”
Unfortunately, Lila and Rose didnʼt make it out of the war and Sally never gets to meet them. But the stories she makes up for herself about fighting Hitler (and going so far as to imagine him in her backyard) is her way of connecting with Lila and Rose. Sally gets to know them solely by gazing at their pictures.The fantasies are Sallyʼs way of demonstrating her continuity and sameness in relation to people she will never meet.
Sally has no idea what Lila and Rose would be like, but the way she can assure herself of their approval is to envision a version of herself (older, stronger, more glamorous) with the strength and cunning to avert the disaster that took Lila and Rose from the Freedmans forever. And perhaps, Sally is reproducing the fierce family centered ethics of her mother and grandmother, a value system which, as Iʼve shown, places the integrity of the family unit above everything else. Just like Sallyʼs mother is willing to sacrifice anything to keep her family together (she would never abandon her daughter like the Daniels have) so too Sally, in her imagined future as Nazi fighter, is willing to put her life on the line to save Lila and Rose and make their family whole again.
I was a lot like Sally when I was growing up. I did my fourth grade famous person report on Anne Frank. I even went to school dressed as her. In seventh grade I checked out a book about Joseph Mengele and medical experimentation in Auschwitz. (I didnʼt dress up for that report.) Jewish death and destruction were what I knew, at that point, of my history and I identified with it, easily, for a while at least. But as I got older I became less satisfied with a Jewishness defined by its enemies. Our so-called chosenness seemed unjustifiable if it meant being chosen for liquidation. I needed to know what set us apart and what their lives had been like, not just how they died.
Once I started studying Yiddish I saw that rather than being a distant universe without relevance to my own life, I fit easily within the living Yiddish world. In fact, I belonged much more to the Yiddish world than to the Long Island memory hole.  Similarly, while reading their Hyperstellar Archaeology book, Alan and Leonard, of Alan Mendelsohn, are shocked to find that they are mentioned by name! Lemurian sages predicted that one day Alan Mendelsohn and Leonard Neeble would travel between dimensions and do great deeds. Alan and Leonard can hardly believe the prediction could be real, but itʼs just as improbable that their names were inserted into the book before they bought it. But the prediction proves to be more significant, and real, than they can imagine.
Shortly after discovering their importance to this other world, Alan and Leonard meet a real interstellar adventurer, Clarence Yojimbo, a folksinging Venusian. Clarence instructs them that Atlantis, Mu and Lemuria arenʼt actually gone. Rather, they are parallel planes of existence which have always coexisted with our own. We think of them as ʻlostʼ because there have always been times and places when people got glimpses into the activities on these other planes. Lacking the framework of parallel planes of existence, they explained these insights as being psychic links to those ʻlostʼ continents. Alan and Leonard learn that many of the things which they take for granted, the recipe for Nafsu cola or the special ingredient in chili, are not independent flashes of genius, but are the product of these rare glimpses into the other planes of existence. While those flashes ofinsight are rare, even rarer is the ability to travel at will between the planes. But this is what Alan and Leonard end up doing.
No longer are Leonard and Alan alienated kids whose identity is constructed mostly through abusing their fellow classmates. They have entered into a new community where they have acquired enviable skills and the respect of their elders. Their final challenge is being able to travel between planes of existence. The instructions for travel between planes is at the back of their book. There are certain places where it is possible to go between planes, but there are only a few of them. Luckily, the one in the United States happens to be in their city, Hogboro. Unfortunately, itʼs located in Hergeschleimer Gardens, an establishment which, according to the phone book, no longer exists.
Once again Alan and Leonard are forced to go back to the old neighborhood, and the old ones, to take the final step in their development as skilled masters of their psychic powers. And once again they are not disappointed. Uncle Boris remembers Hergeschleimerʼs Oriental Gardens. He even has home movies of them. Where the phone book, the library, and all other adults failed to be able to connect Alan and Leonard to their past, Uncle Boris is able to serve as that link of continuity because he is old enough to remember where it was.
Thanks to Uncle Boris, Alan and Leonard get to Hergeschleimerʼs Gardens, which is now a junkyard. There they make contact with another plane of existence, though what they find isnʼt exactly as glamorous as Atlantis. What they find is Waka-Waka, a civilization so highly developed that its residents have lost the ability to defend themselves. This leaves them vulnerable to three Nafsulian space pirates, Manny, Moe and Jack. The pirates have taken over the great Waka-Waka city of Lenny as well as the most highly prized product of Waka-Waka, the three tzitzikis bushes located at the peak of the mountain on which Lenny is built. 
Alan and Leonard are welcomed by the inhabitants of Waka-Waka, and they quickly learn of the mortal terror of its inhabitants and the debased conditions they live in (they have been living in caves since Manny, Moe, and Jack took over Lenny). Even worse, their entire society rests on the rituals around drinking fleegix, a drink somewhat like hot chocolate, but brewed with tsitskis berries. Manny, Moe, and Jack allow them to have just enough berries to get by with diluted fleegix, while they keep the rest to export to other planes at a terrific profit.
Itʼs not too hard to see the inhabitants of Waka-Waka as a certain Jewish cliche- mild mannered people whose excruciatingly high level of civilization becomes their own downfall. The Waka- Wakians are incapable of protecting themselves, even from villains as patently ridiculous as Manny, Moe, and Jack. Enter Alan and Leonard. 
Aside from traveling between planes of existence, one of their only other useful psychic abilities has been mentally commanding others to take off their hats and rub their bellies simultaneously. By coincidence, this happens to be the Nafsulian gesture of unconditional surrender. In a fast paced climax, Alan devises a plan to free the Waka-Wakians from Manny, Moe, and Jack, and at the same he makes contact with a Martian emissary (Rolzup) who happens to be there at the same time. In a private audience, Alan arranges for his family to get passage away from the West Kangaroo Park suburb and back to Mars.
And so, Alan and Leonard save the hapless Waka-Wakians, punish the bad guys (shades of Sally J. Freedman hunting Hitler in Florida?), find a way home for Alan and his family, and generally end up as totally different people than when they started out.
Then Alan is gone amid a flurry of UFO sightings over West Kangaroo Park. Leonard goes back to school a changed person. Having learned who he is, and having seen where he fits in and with whom, he is less angry and more open to building friendships at his school. He joins a new gym class for outcast kids. The teacher, Mr. Winkler, is himself a marginal character. The kids learn yoga and chess and find solidarity with each other and their new skills, rather than trying to fit in with the popular kids. (Which is what most of them had been doing.)
The book ends on a happy, hopeful note. Leonard has been able to ʻgo backʼ as much as needed to in order to access his stuff of identification. He has repaired the broken chain of continuity, both by integrating the wisdom of his elders like Boris, but has also helped heal the community of Waka Waka. In this mutual process, Leonard came to know who he was and his community recognizes him as an active, important, constituent part.
Itʼs a happy ending for our fictional nerdy Jewish boys as they successfully prepare for lives as nerdy Jewish men. But earlier in this essay, I argued that the identity crises of these fictional protagonists reflects the larger identity crisis of the American Jewish community. Assuming weʼre all, to some degree, in Margaret and Leonardʼs shoes (willingly cut off from our earlier continuities), then with whom do we collectively identify? By whose criteria do we judge ourselves and in what continuity do we see ourselves as having purpose? These are just some of the questions we need to be grappling with if we're to confront the American-Jewish future head on.


  1. Fucking hell! Brilliant stuff again! And what a wonderful metaphore of wider/real trends...I think I've to find my own version of Alan ;-)

    1. Haha, I gave up a long time ago! ;-)