(Sapphire, author of Black Wings & Blind Angels: Poems and Push: A Novel)
Jew Boy: A Memoirby Alan Kaufman
Jew Boy tells the story of a child in the Bronx growing up in the complex shadow of his mother's survival of the Holocaust in Europe. Physically abused by a woman whose horrifying experiences have left her emotionally scarred, Alan Kaufman is forced to deal with the demons haunting his mother as he struggles uncomprehendingly with his Jewish identity. He escapes… See more details below
Jew Boy tells the story of a child in the Bronx growing up in the complex shadow of his mother's survival of the Holocaust in Europe. Physically abused by a woman whose horrifying experiences have left her emotionally scarred, Alan Kaufman is forced to deal with the demons haunting his mother as he struggles uncomprehendingly with his Jewish identity. He escapes from his crazy home life to the school yard, only to find one kind of savagery exchanged for another. He experiences the first pangs of adolescent sexuality, undergoes the ritual of an American bar mitzvah, and re-creates himself as a mindless football fanatic on his high-school team, joining in its sadistic rituals and drills. In one of the high points of his narrative, he hitchhikes across the United States and, on the way back, hops an eastbound freight train that brings him face-to-face with the very phantoms he had sought to escape. Kaufman's odyssey finally takes him from an Israeli kibbutz and the Israeli army to his descent into alcoholism on the streets of New York, until at last, finding in poetry the gift that is true to his being, he also finds sobriety in San Francisco.
Kaufman's coming-of-age account is by turns hilarious and terrifying, written with irreverent humor and poetic introspection. Best of all, its authentically American voice, with its headlong energy, joy, and sensitivity, call to mind the best of Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. Jew Boy touches on themes rarely explored in American writing-the pain, guilt, and confusion of American-born children of Holocaust survivors, and what it means to be a Jew in post-Holocaust America. But above all it burns with the universal humanity of a brilliantwriter embracing the gift of life with a fierce passion that will leave no reader untouched.
Alan Kaufman, author of The New Generation: Fiction for Our Time from America's Writing Programs and Who Are We?, is the editor of the anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. His writings have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, Tikkun, Tel Aviv
* , Witness, and other publications, as well as in many Web 'zines, including Tattoo Jew, of which he is the editor. A former editor of Jewish Frontier, he is the founder and editor of the controversial magazine Davka: Jewish Cultural Revolution and has performed as a spoken-word poet in the United States and abroad.
* "Kaufman's bravado memoir is a glorious fusionary work mixing and matching Henry Miller's direct and outrageous wit with Kerouac's sharp observational eye and vernacular rhythms." David Meltzer
* "Powerfully moving and a delight to read." Jack Kornfield
(Sapphire, author of Black Wings & Blind Angels: Poems and Push: A Novel)
- Fromm International Publishing Corporation
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.70(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)
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The Purple Jew
IN SCHOOL HE was average, inconspicuous, his somewhat silly face obscured behind thick-lensed black horn-rimmed glasses through which his walleyed stare rushed at you like some bizarre, near-blind cave fish from the ocean depths. But when the eighth period bell shrilled, Bruce Weiss rushed from our world into the pages of an animated Marvel comic book surreality with the zeal of a Kali-worshipping thug. Ordered to slay in the name of his panel-strip paradigm, he would surely have done so. A fan of Spiderman before most had ever heard of the troubled superhero, he emulated the wall-climber in every detail, down to a perfect imitation of the webhead's neurotically obsessed alter ego, Peter Parker. But after a time Bruce Weiss came to know that there could be only one true Spiderman in the world, and so he invented a hero for himself to inhabit: Voodoo Kid. And in a brilliantly tailored superhero costume he skulked about the neighborhood, performing deeds of mayhem and mischief that my brother, Howard, in his role as Bruce's personal cameraman, captured on an 8-millimeter handheld Bell & Howell. The footage was to be used in a forthcoming Voodoo Kid flick.
In fact, Bruce displayed a keen knack for cross-promotion. There was also a hand-drawn and inked Voodoo Kid comic, self-published on mimeograph, as well as a Voodoo Kid plastic toy model made by Bruce's father, Bob Weiss, a professional illustrator who not only aided and abetted his son's fantasy world but encouraged Howie and I to become comic book collectors.
Fatherand son inhabited a dingy one-bedroom that had been converted into a workshop for their capricious pursuits and where they talked aloud of the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and Doctor Strange as if they were blood relations. Supposedly there was a Mrs. Weiss somewhere, but one never saw her: Howie and I presumed her dead, murdered for her failure to indulge Bruce and Bob's obsession.
Atop every available inch of dusty furniture surface posed handcrafted plastic models of superheroes, ranging from Spiderman to Superman to Daredevil. At a kitchen table spread with inkpots, drawing pens, and large panel boards, Bob drew the strips he published in "underground zines" out of San Francisco, all containing a grotesque superabundance of dripping snot, drooling lips, and penises of exaggerated sizes with human faces. Along the walls his rare comic archive filled enough shoeboxes to pack a store; these jostled for space with unmailed stacks of his personal newsletter, Bob's Comix World, which posted tips on rare comic book editions alongside fees of up to two and three hundred bucks per "collector's item."
Bob, his massive girth settled in a creaking chair, wiped his clammy face with a soiled handkerchief and said: "As you see, there's a lot of bread to be made in this comic collecting business."
To get rich, he explained, one simply hunted in secondhand stores or in the closets of one's own friends and relations for first, second, and third edition issues, stole or bought them, and preserved the booty in individual plastic sleeves he had bought for a nickel apiece from the Bronx Hobby Shop on Jerome Avenue. The treasures were then stored at room temperature in shoeboxes or manila folders marked with the series title and the numbered sequence. For example: Avengers #1-9, or X-Men #6-15. The most prized issues were either the first edition or else that issue containing the origin of the superhero's transformation from an ordinary mortal into costumed avenger.
I loved the grandiosity of the word origin; longed for a day when I would be so famous that young boys in obscure places would speak of my "origins" as something exotically remote, fabulous.
Sometimes, though, the origins of a particular superhero appeared only incidentally in a publication series of a different name. For instance, the first appearance of Spider-Man, containing the tale of his origins, debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15 in a trial run for only one issue before fan demand led to his very own series. Needless to say, possession of such an item was tantamount to ownership of the Lost Ark.
My personal hero was Captain America (origin in Avengers #4), whose red, white, and blue leotards symbolized an American essentialness I desperately craved as the son of a French-Jewish Holocaust survivor. Divorced from the realm of common American experience, not only by her accent but by her survival of an historical event of such extreme savagery and magnitude that it made the violence-prone Bronx seem rather innocent, I felt estranged from the country of my birth, ambivalent about my own origins. But Captain America, who had risen from a twenty-year frozen sleep after an earlier career in WW II as a fighter against the Nazis, understood quite well, it seemed to me, about gas chambers and mass graves. This brought him closer to my experience than other characters.
His boy sidekick, Bucky, had been blown up midair over London during the Blitz while trying to defuse a Nazi buzz bomber. In despair, Captain America dropped into the North Atlantic, where a glacier encased him. Two decades later a team of researchers thawed him out, still garbed in his red, white, and blue togs. As he came to, his old despair raged as flesh as a minute ago. Dazed, he found himself trapped between the present and the past, unsure, historically speaking, of what era it was or his place in itmy predicament exactly.
Bob held out as a reward for all this collecting that once our stock had grown fat, we could haul it off to a comic book convention to sell or swap. Not only could we make thousands of dollars, but through smart trading we could consolidate our holdings and multiply their value.
"Where are the conventions held?" I asked, amazed.
"All around the country," said Bob. "Boston, Miami ... it depends on the collectors' associations. But don't worry. I'll be glad to rep you. I'm sure I can cut you some great deals."
That settled it. Bob next showed us how he constructed plastic model superheroes, this a full decade before their like would roll en masse from a factory conveyor belt. For Captain America's basic form he used an existing model of a Roman gladiator and with a soldering iron and the melted wire of a clothing hanger such as my mother used to hit me, slowly, patiently sculpted muscles and mask. I shivered to see my hero emerge from the same painful instrument used to punish me. Bob's power struck me as Godlike. With slow, patient applications, he painted Cap's costume. He then fashioned little mask wings and Cap's shield from loose bits of plastic, wire, and opaque enamel paints. He had brushes of such delicacy that you could paint an eyelash on the head of a tiny figurine. He showed us a brush with a single hair. "Look at that," he said, turning it before the light, a tightrope across which dreams and heroes walked against a backdrop of dirty Bronx kitchen walls perspiring with gleams from a naked ceiling fixture.
Bruce, dressed in mask and cape, led us on a Voodoo Kid film shoot. I was to play an FBI agent on Voodoo Kid's trail. For the role, Bruce lent me a jacket and Bob calmed my unruly hair with a smelly layer of Brillcream. I recoiled from the touch of his pudgy fingers but held still, for he was the key to my future comic book millions.
Out we slipped into the dingy, almost completely deserted streets. Our first stop: an alley where I took up the camera, while Howie and Bruce leaned their heads close to privately confer. Bruce then sidled over, his silly grin showing through the mask's mouth hole. "OK," he told me. "Whatever happens, just make sure you film it all, and don't stop shooting till I say quits."
He showed me how to hold the camera, which buttons to press. He then poked his head from the alley, looked left and right, and said: "All's clear! Action!"
I raised the camera.
Now Howie appeared, a villanous Hindu mystic swathed in a turban fashioned from a beach towel that read: Nathan's Original Coney Island Hot Dogs. Scowling, he swaggered to a row of big aluminum trashcans, pulled one out, hoisted it over his head, and hammed an angry face for the camera. He then turned and heaved the trashcan through a first-floor residential window. The glass exploded with a shattering crash. The camera shook in my hands.
"Why!?" I shouted.
"Keep shooting!" cried Bruce. He charged the lens, leaped onto Howie's back, and began to ride him around the alley as Howie hammed and growled. In the meantime, a shocked, angry old crone poked her head from the shattered glass and screamed: "What the fuck is going on out here?! Police!! Police!!"
"Keep shooting!" Bruce spit.
"No way!" I shouted, and ran.
Bruce and Howie caught up with me about six blocks later as police sirens wailed past.
"Oh, you blew it! You blew it!" Bruce ranted in despair. "Look at that! We could have filmed police cars and cops with guns drawn! You blew it!"
"Well, I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't want no trouble."
Howie shook his head with a sad smile. "You know how much money they'd pay for a scene like that in Hollywood? And we could have had the real thing for free."
"Well, all right," said Bruce. "Let's do the next shoot. We have to go to Townsend Avenue."
We zigzagged through the streets, hugging walls to avoid the patrol cars that were out there searching for us. On Townsend Avenue we slipped into a tall, swank building with an intercom system. Bruce rang every bell and a cacophony of voices called "Who is it?" and "Yes?" Finally, one stupid enough just buzzed and we got in.
We rode the elevator to the roof, stepped through the exit door. The sooty Bronx stretched in an ugly labyrinth before us. We could see Yankee Stadium and the nearby Bronx Courthouse. It all ended at the 149th Street Bridge in hazy smog from which the only escape seemed death's route, straight up into heaven.
"There it is," said Bruce. He approached a box that he unpacked and pulled out a dummy of sewn-together pillows dressed in a mock Voodoo Kid outfit. The dummy exactly matched Bruce in size.
"Howie! Take the camera and when I say to, shoot!"
Bruce lifted the dummy, placed its "hands" around his neck, and said, "Alan! Tie it up!" I tied the dummy's hands by attached strings that I knotted around Bruce's throat so it hung with its head on his chest.
Bruce shouted, "Shoot!"
"This," he said, speaking to the camera, "is my sinister double, sent here by my archenemy, Krockton, to slay me!" They wrestled back and forth furiously, director and doll, against the filthy backdrop of the city, Bruce and his mirror image rolling on the hot tar, slamming into air vents, Bruce's skull now inches from a ventilation fan's decapitating blades. At one point he hung so far over the roof's ledge that I grabbed his leg to save him.
"No," he gasped, "get out of the picture! Keep shooting!"
Finally, the deadly duel ended, though somewhat inconclusively.
"So, who won?" I asked.
"It's not over," he panted, unmasked. He frowned at my impatience. "Howie, take Alan with you. You know what to do."
"C'mon," said Howie with kindly tolerance. We charged down the fire exit stairs, ten flights at least, to avoid residents. Out in the street, we crossed the road to have the broadest possible view of the entire building. Howie hoisted the camera. "OK!" he shouted through a cupped hand. But nothing happened. Bruce couldn't hear. Technical problem. "Alan, yell with me."
"Okaaayyyy!" we howled in unison.
At that moment the heads of Voodoo Kid and his deadly double appeared locked in ferocious combat, and then the air was pierced by a savage scream as the puppet Voodoo Kid plummeted to earth, where it landed on the head of a boy walking a bicycle, who happened to be passing by and fell to the ground. Howie of course kept shooting with a steadfastness that I could but admire. I was already halfway across the street, shouting, "Are you OK?" as I dodged past slowing cars. I helped the dazed boy to his feet.
"What the fuck is this?" he hissed, pushing off the fake Voodoo Kid.
"We're filming a movie," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, yeah? Well, what the fuck, man!? What the fuck!" He lifted his bike, spun the rear wheel, which ticked with undamaged gears, sighed with relief, looked at the doll on the ground and then up at me, and then at Howard across the street who, unbelievably, continued to shoot, and said: "Stupid shit, man! Stupid shit!" and continued on his way.
Bruce rushed from the building, arms outstretched, fingers splayed, voice issuing pointless, neurotic proclamations and directions: "Keep calm! Everyone just keep calm! Help is on the way! Let's get an ambulance for this man. I saw the whole thing!"
"Bruce," I said dryly, "the guy's already took off. Forget it."
Across the street, Howie doubled over with laughter, howled. "Did you see Bruce's hands? His fingers? Just like Peter Parker, like SpiderMan! Bruce, you're nuts! You are Spider-Man!"
The first thing I would need as a budding comic book collector was investment capital. So I got a job for two afternoons a week in the local stationery store. My mother fully approved of this, and even my father nodded and yawned at the supper table and said: "Oh, yeah? That's good. It's good to work."
But at work I found it difficult to understand instructions or to concentrate on tasks. The shop was narrow, crowded to the ceiling with cheap toys, greeting cards, notebooks, etc., and there was nowhere to sit. The owner was Mr. Shwab, a pudgy bald man with a very pink face who wore the same short-sleeve shirt and bow tie, day in and day outthe shop stank of his perspiration. He explained to me at great length how to find things on the shelves and in the stockroom, and my head even nodded with a kind of dim comprehension, but the instant he stepped away I forgot everything. Consequently I stood frozen to my spot, ears burning with shame and heart thumping as he called out with weary impatience: "Alan? Are you going to bring me the Number Two pencils I asked for? Our customer is right here waiting." This drove me to make a desperate rush at the shelves, where I pulled out rolls of crepe paper as boxes of rubber bands tumbled to the floor and the customer's precious time was wasted to the loud drumroll of my heart, and finally the stationer was at my elbow, whispering in a huff: "Here! The pencils are here! Just follow the code the way I showed you." I groaned: "Ohhhhhhhhh! That's where it is," flooded with the relief of sudden insight; but moments later darkness again descended and I waited, hands in pockets, dreading the next customer.
Once my mother came in, expecting, no doubt, to find her boy genius perched on a high stool behind the cash register, ringing up sales with a smile and exchanging pleasantries with the customers while directing a battalion of clerks rushing about with No. 2 pencils behind their ears and the owner seated in a chair behind the counter, beaming with contentment. Instead she found me hiding timidly behind a revolving display stand of Magic Markers in a side aisle.
"What are you doing back here?" she asked, disappointed. "Why aren't you up front, helping Mr. Shwab?"
"This is where he wants me," I lied.
"Go," she said crossly, "introduce me to your boss."
He had no time for small talk, was busy with a customer, but my mother's voice droned on as Shwab nodded stiffly. I heard her say the words "He's brilliant" and "a little Einstein." Shwab's face looked unconvinced, but he offered a tight-lipped smile. She cooed effusive thanks. He apologized for being so busy. A week later I was fired.
Collecting my fifteen bucks, I went up the street to work for the other stationer, who hired me at half my former salary. However, I fared better in this establishment. The owner, Mr. Caspetti, a slender man in his late thirties who wore casual Italian sportswear like my father, wasn't interested in the quality of service so much as the quantity of turnover.
The stockroom was an insane, disorganized mess: there were rubber bands mixed in with pencil sharpeners, rulers entangled in kite string, loose-leaf binders so long in their place that weak lightbulbs had burned their silhouettes into the cheap paper lining the shelves. I joined one of a small army of incompetent elves working "off the books."
The other boys on my shift were Tony and Buzzy. Tony was a slight Italian boy who showed up for work in a paint-spattered black T-shirt bearing the faded words Triumph Motorcycles. I would have given my life to own such a garment. Buzzy was a freckled, chubby Irish boy with a flattop crew cut and a lower lip that protruded stupidly. Naturally, Tony was our leader.
Our jobs were to watch admiringly as he worked and say, "Gosh, Tony," and, "Boy, you got that figured out all right." Our worshipful incompetence fueled his performance. He responded with kind reassurance to our effusive and constant apologies.
"Aw, that's OK. Look, this is how you find it ..." and we would listen, nodding our heads intently, but as soon as the lecture ended, our minds again went peacefully blank. Why bother to learn? Tony would do it.
Mr. Caspetti seemed glad for the arrangement. He never once came to the back of the store to check on our performance. When things were needed from the stockroom, Tony found it and we brought it.
"Howzitgoin back dere?" Mr. Caspetti'd ask with a brief, indifferent sidelong glance as I handed him the requested pen or box of paper clips.
"Great!" was all I said, and to the back I dutifully returned. I made fifteen dollars a week, no questions asked, as Tony hunted through the stationery jungle and I gasped with amazement when he found what I had been searching for.
Thus, armed with cash, in no time I discovered with Howie a local network of secondhand book stores in which to shop for collector's items. These stores presented to me a new and revelatory world all their own. Their old, dated bookwares wore an air of decrepit abandonment. Those displayed up front were considered valuable not for their heroic rarity but for their lurid ambiance, such as Collected Works of the Marquis de Sade and Mass Murderers in America. I would open the de Sade book a crack, quickly skim a page or two of whipped white skin, shackled hands, pert breasts, pleas for mercy, gasps of pleasuresnap it shut and, ashamed, make a quick red-faced tour through the world of mass murderers, gaping at black-and-white photos of naked corpse torsos bound tight with fat-digging rope and electrical tape, and crisscrossed by slash wounds with gaping, black abrasions. Blood always appeared black in such photos. Sometimes the victim's face was shown, eyes closed, dark-ridged, a kind of simple smile on lifeless lips. The faces of the mass murderers were horrible in their averageness. I could have been perusing a photo album of postal workers or stationers. And they were all, as a rule, male.
The back shelves of such stores belonged to stag magazines and comic books. No archaeologist excavating ruins experienced more intoxication than I flipping through these low-priced stacks. If I found a coveted first issue, my hand trembled and my eyes lowered furtively as I handed over to the unwitting proprietorusually a pimply or unshaven overweight man with a listless masturbatory gazethe ten or twenty-five cents it cost. Then my brother and I ran down the street shrieking with ecstatic disbelief that we had actually acquired an Amazing Fantasy #15 or an Avengers #4 such as we had first seen at the Weiss's.
At home we slipped the precious find into a plastic sleeve and stored it away in an appropriately marked manila envelope. We even had a card index, each issue marked with an identifying number and chronicling the comic's name, issue number, date, author, illustrator and fettle: Fantastic Four, issue #7, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, mint condition.
Also at this time I began to draw a comic strip of my own: The Purple Jew.
One morning I took out some paper and colored pencils and drew the origins of my own hero, with balloon boxes for him to speak in. He was a poor Bronx boy, went the narrative, walking up the Grand Concourse, minding his own damned business when suddenly for no reason a gang of teenagers beat him to a pulp. They left him dying on the sidewalk. No one came to his aid, though traffic flowed by and pedestrians stepped around him. By nightfall, he still lay there, about to die when, suddenly, the voice of God broke the silence. "Jim! Jim! Stand up!" said the voice of God. Jim stood up, miraculously all right. "I have saved you for a special mission," said God. "You will fight evil! You will be my champion, a modern Jewish knight, with the strength of a lion and the prowess of a cat, and you will wear purple fighting togs bearing the Jewish star on the front. You will be: The Purple Jew!"
I drew all through the morning while my mother slaved over pots steaming with boiled potatoes, corn, broccoli, and a meatloaf baked in the oven. Despite the intense heat, I drew on, oblivious.
"What is this, Able? A cartoon? You should only do your math homework with the same kind of patience. Four hours you've been sitting there. Enough already. Go outside. Play! There's not so many days left in the summer. Then school starts and, believe me, you won't have time for your cartoons!"
"I'm OK, Mom," I said abstractedly, "thanks." My disposition grew kindly. I felt well disposed toward everyone. A pleasant sense that I had been blissfully emptied spread through my body. My smile was genuine.
"What's this?" asked my father when he shuffled in for lunch, dressed in white T-shirt and boxer shorts, his house slippers slapping on the floor. His thick fingers isolated a page of panels and his brow wrinkled. A slow, condescending smile spread over his face as he read. "The Purple Jew?" he chuckled in disbelief. "Do I read correctly? The Pur-ple Jew?" enunciating each separate syllable slowly to better savor the preposterous whole.
"Whatzamattah wit it?" I asked sullenly, my vision deflated. "It's a comic book. I'm gonna try to publish it."
"Publish? Tee hee hee! The Pur-ple Jew! Hee hee hee hee! Sure, you'll publish! Sure. Tee hee hee! Sure. Tee hee! The Pur-ple Jew? but I received this stiffly, said: "That's right. The Purple Jew."
That he read comic books, was something of an early aficionado himself, familiar with Superman, Captain Marvel, and Batman, lent his devastating weight to his sarcastic critique: here was yet another world, like that of sports or of the streets, the nature of which I just didn't "get" according to him, but which, of course, he did.
Still, I had gone about my collecting in deadly earnest, inspired by Bob Weiss's confidence in its lucrative benefits, worked hard to save, and felt myself to stand on more solid ground than I had ever before, so I said to this man who had never, according to my mother, succeeded at anything: "You can laugh, but I'm gonna make a lot of money from the comics. You'll see!" And this sent my father into paroxysms of laughter, as though it was all too much for him and he couldn't bear a single minute more. "You'll see!" I repeated, voice rising angrily. I stood up, gathered my papers together, tears springing from my eyes. "I'm gonna collect comics, become a millionaire, and draw my own comic books! That's right! The Purple Jew will make me rich!"
When I left him, he was close to choking.
And that's how summer went. Absorbed in collecting, drawing the Purple Jew, shooting films, and tolerating my father's constant gibes. Ridicule lurked in other quarters, too. When filming we avoided the schoolyard, the potentially painful contact with other kids our age who wouldn't understand. They were beginning to trickle back from summer vacations in greater numbers as fall drew near.
My life became an adventure imagined by the writers and artists of Marvel Comics. Each week's newly purchased issue explained me to myself. Lying in bed on my side, with flies buzzing in the blast-furnace heat of the room, I stared at ... no, fell into each panel on the page, where I experienced life in the character's ink-sketched skin and lived more intensely than I could ever hope to as myself. Reading Captain America, I felt like him: knew myself as stiff around others, unable to relax, haunted by a painful, private sense of special destiny. Like him, I fought against the phantoms of the Nazi past, and like him, the battle took place entirely in my own mind. We each mistook the present for the past and the past for the present. Like him, I had lost a dear loved one when I was just a childhis loss was his young sidekick, Bucky; mine, my own mother, who even before I was born watched her own childhood and faith in humanity murdered when she was still only a child.
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