Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week, to coincide with the time of year, it's Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living by Daniel M. Jaffe, in which the author explores a multitude of aspects of gay-Jewish life.
From the collection, Lethe presents the story 'Telling Dad', which you can either listen to, or read below:
“Sorry to hear about your Dad. You Jews don’t got wakes, do you?”
The plain white sheet fastens itself too snugly around my neck; moist thighs stick to the leather seat; shorts ride up in a gradual, subtle attempt to constrict my crotch. The warm, slow-moving air wandering in through the open window sports the familiar fragrance of shaving cream, hair tonic and Pat’s Old Spice cologne. So very Dorchester. Old Boston.
“You don’t get to see him again?”
“Just the pine box.”
“Strange. Live and let live. What do you want done to you?”
Some long, some short black combs cluster in the lavender water of the glass Brylcreem jar. On a dusty ledge beside the cash register, a few pieces of Bazooka bubble gum soften in the sunlight. In their red, white, and blue wrappers they lie scattered like rejected offspring of the red, white and blue barber pole twirling outside.
The crowd roars on the old television reflected in front of me. The unframed tube still sits on that rickety platform in a corner behind the barber chairs. Growing up, I watched baseball only through Pat’s mirrored wall.
“The Sox are doing okay this season. At least they’re keeping their socks up.”
The first time I heard that stale attempt at humor, I giggled. Dad and I were both excited at my first barbershop haircut. “You’re a big boy of five, now. Time for a real man’s haircut. Just like Daddy.”
Dad hugged me on his lap. During the scissoring, he read to me from Tales of the Old West while I studied pictures of the cowboys. The sheriff looked like Dad—stern with a thin face, trim mustache, thick eyebrows, bushy sideburns. Then, as we sang “Hinei Ma Tov,” my favorite Hebrew song, I hardly minded the buzz of the electric razor.
“Remember that time your Dad bet me on the World Series?”
I smile for the first time since the interruption of last night’s kiss. Unable to ignore the shrill ring of the telephone any longer, I retrieved my tongue, smiled apologetically, and picked up the receiver. “…Okay, Mom, I’ll come home…. I know he didn’t mean to…. Okay.”
“Remember?” Pat repeated. “Only time I ever seen your Dad bet. He won, too. Ooops. Sorry for the nick.”
That sting. The same sting I felt sitting in this chair six years ago. Having just arrived back in Boston that morning for Passover, I decided to get a trim before Dad finished work. I was proud of those long, thick, Samsonesque locks, but a trim would make it easier on Dad, and on me.
For the most part, the seder was typical. Dad didn’t like the way I chanted the kiddush, the blessing over the wine. We engaged in our annual argument over the virtues of Sephardic versus Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Hebrew prayers. I registered my standard complaint that many of the ceremonial readings during dinner had nothing to do with liberation from bondage; Dad defended the unfathomable symbols of “the way it’s been done for generations.”
The only unusual aspect of the evening was Dad’s refusal to leave my hair alone. “Never when I was a boy did we wear such long hair.” Tug. “Only the maidlach, the girls.” Pull. “You should get it cut.” Yank.
I was not in a mood to expose my privacy then.
The next morning in synagogue, Dad wore Grandpa’s prayer shawl, shockling—swaying back and forth—as he prayed, the way his father used to. Even though we prayed in a different synagogue than the one Dad had attended as a boy, he still sat in the back, on the left, just where he and Grandpa used to sit in their synagogue.
When the new cantor introduced an Israeli melody for one of the traditional prayers of the service, Dad refused to learn the tune. He nearly stormed out in a huff when a woman stood before the congregation and opened the ark where the Torah resides. “It’s just a small change, Dad. Women are getting rights. Times are different.”
“Some things we don’t change. A little change here, a little change there…soon you don’t recognize anything anymore!” He agreed to stay through the service so that he could complain to the rabbi afterwards.
That was not the time to tell him.
Lunch was on the table when we walked in. He grumbled through the potted meatballs and potatoes. “What’s this?” he asked Mom, pointing to a chocolate-iced cake.
“It’s all right. No milk. It’s parve.”
“Of course! Thirty-five years I’ve been making Passover. I know which foods are allowed. It’s a new mix. Manischewitz.”
Dad ate applesauce.
That was not the time, either. I waited until after his nap. We went for a walk.
“You sure surprised me when you bet on the World Series. It was a great Series, wasn’t it?”
“That was months ago, half a year. Why now?”
He smiled and clasped my shoulder. “You think your father doesn’t know his own son anymore? Something’s troubling you, right? You want to talk about something, I can tell.”
“I knew it. You can live far away at college, but you’re still my boy. So tell me. A difficult course?… A mean teacher?… A girl maybe?… You turn red. That’s it, isn’t it? I told your mother when you started college that soon you’d be bringing home a maideleh to make your mother jealous. You have a little girlfriend and you want to invite her home? No prob—” He stopped and raised his hand to the side of his mouth, hiding his words from no one in particular. “She’s Jewish?”
“Dad, there’s no girl.”
“No? So what’s the problem?”
“It’s not a problem, Dad. It’s….” Blurting was the only possible way: “There’ll never be a girl.” I explained as best I could. I had been rehearsing this speech for years.
“First your hair, now this. It’s not our way. It’s goyish. I never heard of anyone Jewish this way.”
“You’re right, that was a good World Series game. I always liked the Sox.” He mumbled, “Only once I bet. Six months later, look what happens.”
“Dad, we’re not talking about the World Series.”
“That’s all we’re talking about. It’s the most important thing in baseball. That’s all you talked about today. I heard nothing else! Only baseball.”
Pat finishes dabbing the nick with an alcohol-soaked cloth. “Baseball’s what all the customers want to watch. It’s part of what a barbershop’s all about. Some kids say I should change it to a ‘hair salon,’ nix the TV, and hire a woman barber. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Just different. Can’t get used to it.”
For six years, Dad refused to discuss the issue. I knew what was going through his head, all the religious prohibitions and condemnations. I tried to talk to him about it, but whenever I did, he left the room. So I wrote him letters explaining that I was violating only a minor proscription, not a major commandment, certainly not one of the Big Ten. The rule was put there to keep the ancient Hebrews separate from local peoples so they wouldn’t lose their identity. I’m secure in my identity. I keep kosher, go to synagogue, pray.
He never responded. It’s not that he ever stopped discussing baseball with me or refused to talk about academics or forgot to remind me of an upcoming holiday. He just never commented on the important issue.
But he always tugged my hair.
With a talcumed rag, Pat dusts off my face; flecks of hair drop to the floor like so many bomblets. “There you go. Looks neat, but it’s still awfully long. I mean, for a funeral. Sure you don’t want me to cut it shorter?”
“Your Dad never could get used to it. He told me once that he thought you looked okay with it, just that it was different from his picture of you. It’s not the way he knew you when you were a kid. That’s why he razzed you.”
Finally, a breeze blows through the open window. The sheet gently billows, thighs slide a bit, shorts stop their climb. I twist the barber chair to face the TV, and I watch the baseball game for a few moments.
“Okay, Pat, maybe just a little shorter.”
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