Read an Excerpt
Kasher in the Rye The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16
By Kasher, Moshe
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2012 Kasher, Moshe
All right reserved.
Part One: Genesis
“The Dayz of Wayback”
I was born ugly. Babies are ugly. At least I’ve always thought so. Little pruny creatures. Shooting down the birth canal, the final seconds of prelife bliss tick to a sudden stop and a gross little thing is bungeed into the world. Leaving behind the vaginaquarium floating bliss of yesterday, it pops into the world. Here comes Baby, covered in gel and matter, wrinkles and blood, shit and life juices. I’ve always imagined a mother looking down and in the first millisecond thinking, “Goodness, what is that?” But before she even has a chance for that thought to shoot up her synapses and reverberate in her mind, the doctor smacks Baby’s bottom and the little one shrieks its first cry. That cry, quick as sound, quicker, jams itself into its mother’s ears, derailing that first repulsed thought. It circumvents her brain. It shoots into her heart. Mommy forgets all about that first thought when she hears that wail. Her only thought now is, “My son!”
My mother never heard that wail. My mother is deaf.
My shriek flew up to her ears and, finding two broken, swollen drums, ricocheted back and meandered around the hospital room looking for somewhere to roost before it impotently spilled onto the hospital floor.
And though her second thought no doubt was a loving one, I’ve always wondered if that first “Eww, gross,” thought didn’t make it to my mother’s brain and, planting itself deep inside her, make her ask, years later, “What is wrong with this kid?”
My earliest memories are of flying fingers. Flesh-colored strings zapping through the air, signifying meaning. I didn’t realize my first word was “spoken” in sign language. How would I have known that wasn’t just how everyone talked?
I didn’t realize my mother was deaf, but I did realize that if I cried when she wasn’t looking, it made no difference to her. If I wept in view of her, her face would screw up in compassion and she would reach down and scoop me up to make me feel okay again. I took this information and imprinted it into my brain.
As early as I can recall, adults have been telling me there was something wrong with me. I was passed around, adult to adult, each one throwing their hands up and declaring, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him either!” Adults talked about me like that, right in front of me, all the time, as if my mother’s deafness somehow applied to me by association. I’d spend time in the mirror, trying to figure out what was looking back at me, what weird alien thing I was.
According to my mother, I was born out of control, a feral kid, wild at heart and physically unable to handle the energy and ferocity of my own body. If you could see my little Jew body now, you would find that very difficult to believe.
I’d snarl and snap, I’d bite and foam, I’d shake with anger when the slightest thing didn’t go my way, and my body would seize in convulsions of rage and uncontrollable emotion.
Frightened, my mother sent me to a therapist. I was four years old. That is a demarcation point in my life. I was booted into the therapeutic garden and left to wander, entering an old rusty gate guarded by the ghosts of Freud and Jung. Being told, still wet from the womb, that you need therapy, it almost makes a boy feel broken.
Oh, and my mother and father are both deaf.
People are always fascinated when I tell them that.
“They are both deaf?” they ask, winding up for a dumb question: “What are the odds of that?”
I suppose they imagine two lost deaf people wandering across the land with a sign in hand reading: DEAF LONELY HEART SEEKS MATE!
Having no experience with deaf people, folks usually assume they are rare as unicorns and that only magic could bring two of them together.
The real story is less magical, more practical.
In 1967, the World Games for the Deaf preliminary trials were held in Berkeley, California.
All the way in Brooklyn, New York, Steven J. Kasher, my father, the deaf, sickly son of two Jewish communists, was determined to make those games. Lord knows why. My father was hardly an athlete. He was a slight, scrappy, monkey of a boy, a shock of jet-black curls wrapped around his head like Art Garfunkel’s long-lost evil, dark-haired cousin. Nonetheless, my father walked into the living room and announced to his family that he was hitchhiking to Berkeley and that he’d be leaving that afternoon.
His mother, my baba, Helen Kasher, wrung her hands with worry.
She hated when he left New York. She hated when people left her.
Baba was raised in Hungary, the first of five children raised by a mighty Chassidic patriarch, my great-grandfather Zeidi. Zeidi was the undisputed leader of the family, a chicken butcher by day, a Torah scholar by night, a saint by apocryphal family history. Zeidi isn’t a name, by the way. Zeidi is just the Yiddish word for “grandfather.” But in my family, Zeidi wasn’t just someone’s grandfather, he was Grandfather. He was Zeidi. As far as I know, everyone called him that, including his wife. Sounds like their sex life was rockin’. Give it to me, Grandpa!
His daughter, Helen, seemed to be the only one who was not convinced of his beneficent grandfatherness. Sometime in the 1920s, Zeidi sailed to America alone, waving good-bye from a ship’s bow vowing to send for everyone soon. I imagine a sad man with patches holding together his oversized suit playing a plaintive song on the fiddle behind Zedi as he yelled down to my baba and the rest of the family.
“I’ll see you all soon!” he’d cry as the ocean brined the sides of the ship. “In the meantime, there will be some really exciting news coming from Germany soon that should keep you guys busy!”
For years Zeidi struggled alone in Brooklyn to kill enough chickens to send for the family. Unfortunately for him, every chicken throat he slit further cut the cord of connection to his oldest child, my grandmother.
And as she saw the world around her fall into ashes and all of Europe go septic with anti-Jewish infection, all she was able to see was that her father left her.
By the (nick of) time that Zeidi brought the family over, the gulf between them was more profound than the space between New York and Hungary.
To the shock and horror of the family, the second they stepped onto American soil, my grandmother threw a pair of pants on and declared herself free of the shackles and poison of religion. She cursed the Torah. She decried Judaism and all other faiths as divisive and archaic. She joined the American Communist Party and marched for civil rights. She vowed never to have anything to do with Judaism again. Then she married my grandfather, a Jewish, Yiddish novelist, Duvid Kasher.
Hardly the huge anti-Jewish rebellion she’d been planning.
My grandfather was a quiet, thoughtful man whose hands shook with the reverberation of the things he’d left behind in Poland. He was a writer who had chewed on Yiddish prose in coffeehouses in Warsaw with legends like Sholem Aleichem. He moved to America to escape the horrors and left behind the linguistic fluency that defined his career. He left a scholar; he arrived an immigrant.
When they had my father, their endogamic, muddied, closed-circuit DNA code zapped my father’s nervous system, leaving him deaf and addled with Gaucher’s disease, a rare disorder that strikes eastern European jews almost exclusively. An ironic proof to my baba that Judaism literally was poison.
Nonetheless, my father was born a fighter. Not expected to live past the age of six, he gave everyone the finger and did what the fuck he wanted. A scrappy firecracker, my dad took control of every room he was ever in. He sparkled with charisma. He was electric. My father was like a king.
The Deaf King.
So when the king stepped out onto the field of the World Games for the Deaf trials and dusted his hands off, my mother’s jaw dropped.
A week later she left a note on her mother’s kitchen table: I moved to New York. I’ll be okay.
And that is how two deaf people met and made me.
Seven years later, an old brownstone co-op building in Queens housed a family on the edge. In a one-bedroom apartment were my mother, my father, my big brother, David, almost four years old at the time, and a nine-month-old baby, handsome and charismatic as hell for an infant, but simmering with latent drug addiction, learning disabilities, and violent tendencies.
I was lying in my crib wondering when I could get out and start smoking and listening to hip hop when my older brother leaned in to say hello. I smacked him in the face.
“Why did he hit me?!?” David wailed.
“He must be angry already.” My father laughed.
Oh, Ha Ha, Father.
When no one was looking, I somehow made my way out of the crib and climbed down into the bathroom.
In there I found an array of pretty things: brightly colored makeup kits and glittery perfume bottles. My hand stopped on a Liz Taylor’s “White Diamonds” bottle. I grabbed it and wrenched the labial cap off the thing. I took a gulp of perfume. I kept gulping. The fact that I took a sip of perfume makes some sense to me. A baby smells a pretty thing and tries to see if it tastes pretty, too. The concerning detail is that I polished off the bottle. That night was my first night in a hospital due to out-of-control drinking. Out of control. That’s how my mother always described me. She’d sign, “You were just always out of control.”
Apparently my father was, too. My mom told me stories of how scared she was, of how he threw her around, but to be honest, I never believed her. It wasn’t until years later, when I started throwing her around myself, that I thought there might be something to the story.
My father, the charismatic lightning rod of our family, sometimes burned, sometimes exploded.
Sometimes, according to my mother, lightning struck.
My father would spend hours in his studio, painting enormous canvases with rich oils, trying like hell to get his demons out in the painting. He’d gone to art school and was an emerging talent. The deaf beatnik painter from Brooklyn. It was a backstory gallery owners salivated over.
But my dad also raged. He also fumed and yelled. He also grabbed my mother by the hand so hard he broke her fingers. Seems like my dad might’ve been born angry, too.
In the spring of 1980, when I was almost a year old, my mom took us on a two-week vacation to California. We never returned. These days, stealing your children away across the country like that would be considered an abduction. But back then the Fathers’ Rights Movement was barely gaining steam, and my dad was mostly powerless to do anything but sit there and wait for us to come home.
Twenty years later, after his body caught up with him and he sickened and died, I found a wall calendar in a pile of his stuff as my family and I did that sick divvying of the loot that happens when someone dies. There in the square for April 18 was my father’s unmistakable handwriting, packed with flourishes and loops. Even his scribble had pizzazz. The box read:
April 18th: Bea and the boys leave to California
Each day we were gone was crossed with a big X. Each day ticked off in anticipation of seeing his family again. Eventually, I imagine, he realized, sick to his stomach:
“They aren’t coming back.”
Eventually, the X’s stopped. When the X’s stopped, my life in Oakland began.
We moved in with my grandmother straightaway. My mother’s mother, Hope. There was never any question of going back. In my family, divorce was a kind of sacred rite, passed down from matriarch to matriarch. My mother is a third-generation divorcée, which means that my great-grandmother left her husband. Divorce in 1917 was likely to turn a respectable woman into the town harpy, but the holiness of the divorce rite was so deeply embedded in her genetic code that even witch burnings and convents couldn’t keep my great-grandmother married.
My grandmother’s heart fluttered when she saw us tumble onto her doorstep, bags in hand.
“Finally,” she said, “you’ve come to your senses and left that fucking man. I’ve said it a thousand times, all men are pigs.” She looked down at my brother and me, “Except you boys, of course.”
My mother had come home.
My grandmother burned all of her life with unceasing resentment toward my grandfather, a man named, appropriately, depending on who you ask, Dick.
Anytime his name would come up, my grandma’s knuckles would go white with rage. “That bastard, that piece of shit. An abuser that’s what he was, an ABUSER.”
My little soft-palate mind registered, “Do not be an abuser.” Check.
Despite the endless fires of hatred that burned for Dick the Dick, my grandmother seemed to nonetheless have another flame burning for him. As far as I know, she was never with another man the entire forty years of her life after leaving him. She arranged her life neatly to live without romance, replacing it with poisonous resentment. That resentment bubbled over and then trickled down onto my brother and me, anointing us with holy oils, crowning us the princes of a man-hating coven.
About the time we arrived in Oakland, my mother started to notice there was something wrong with me. Or perhaps that was when my mother started looking for something to be wrong with me. Most likely it was a combination of the two. My grandmother had found the courage to leave Ol’ Dick through the support of a therapist she’d seen in secret for a year prior to her divorce. She impressed upon my mother that the only way through the trauma of her relationship with my father was to find a therapist.
She went, and that cemented my mother’s deep and abiding belief in the power of analysis. My mother believed in therapy the way that people believe in Jesus. It was simply infallible. It contained all of life’s answers. It was perfect. So when I began showing signs of the rage that would later come to define me, there was only one thing to do. Send me to therapy.
Therapy became, in my house, more than just a source for answers. It became a third parent. It was the pant leg of the father that I didn’t have around to tug on and ask for something when my mother refused me. When my mother’s characteristic franticness kicked in, she was intractable. If she decided something was correct, it would remain correct until the peacemaker of a therapist would step in. My mother, tired of being told what to do and when to do it by my controlling father, became addicted to being right. She was sure she was right, even when she knew damn well she was wrong.
If my mother and I were engaged in an argument about, say, the blueness of the sky, and she swore with gasping incredulity that it was, in fact, green, all I had to do was wait until we went to family therapy to settle the score.
I’d begin, “Dr. Therapist, my mother insists the sky is green.”
“It is green,” my mother would snarl.
“You see what I mean?” I’d point to my mother helplessly.
Dr. Therapist would step in. “Now, Bea, you know that the sky is blue. It is blue.”
“It is blue,” my mother would repeat like she had been hexed by Obi-Wan Kenobi.
And that is how we found the truth in my family growing up.
My first therapist was a man named Ruben, who had white hair and an extensive collection of turtlenecks. To this day I cannot think of psychoanalysis without picturing turtlenecks.
Therapy for a four-year-old is different from regular therapy. Mainly, it involved Ruben sucking my penis while convincing me not to tell my parents. Just kidding. Ruben therapy was actually Nerf sword fighting: a Ruben-invented form of play therapy or, as it is commonly known, bullshit.
Six-year-old therapy looked like this: Ruben would hand me a Nerf sword and I would beat him as savagely as I could around the legs, buttocks, and genitalia. Then I would leave and Ruben would, I assume, take notes on my form:
WEEK ONE: Subject Moshe Kasher. The boy seems to have acute aggression issues and takes immediately to the swords. One note, he is slightly better than me at Nerf swords. Must remember to protect groin.
WEEK TWO: Forgot to protect groin. Aggression continues. Subject will likely calm down by next week’s session if past participants’ behavior is any predictor. However, if the aggression continues at this level, I will exert myself physically in order to show the boy that I, too, am a man with power. Therapeutically this is known as alpha exertion.
WEEK THREE: No change in aggression. Alpha exertion unsuccessful. MUST PROTECT GROIN!
WEEK FOUR: Pain. Only pain.
Ruben eventually told my mother that I was beyond help and I was too angry for therapy to work. What bullshit. I wasn’t too angry. I should have killed him for saying so.
To combat my anger and energy, my mother and I never left the house without her first strapping a leash around my torso. I wish I were kidding.
Every morning, when it was time to leave the house, my mother would strap a four-point harness on my back and explain to me how the day was to go.
“No running in the streets, no hitting strangers, no hitting me, got it?” she’d repeat infinity times over infinity days. I didn’t got it.
Most days, we’d leave the house and immediately my mother would have to yank me back from playing in traffic or biting a woman’s vagina or whatever other mess I got myself into. I was unusually horny as a toddler.
As a result, there was a lot of yanking on the leash. The heavy resistance of the weight of my young body at the end of the leash gave my mother confidence and assurance that I was there, and as a result, she paid a little less attention to me with every tug.
But one should never doubt the tenacity of a four-year-old boy with severe behavioral issues. Or at least, one should never doubt the behavioral issues of a four-year-old boy with behavioral issues.
I’d chew on the leather of the strap, enjoying the tangy “almost jerkyness” of the thing. One day, after being ignored too long and gnawing a bit too much, I broke the leather in two. Freedom. I stared at the two ends of the thing with giddy excitement. This was my chance to ruin everything. I loved doing that.
I scanned the traffic to see how likely getting run over would be should I break across the street. I eyed the strangers to see if any of them looked enough like snatch-and-grab kidnappers to take the risk of running toward them, screaming, “Quickly, to your van! Take me, I’m yours!”
This was my only chance to make a break for it, and I needed to maximize the amount of trouble I could get into in one movement. All the passersby looked benign and boring so I decided to dash into the streets. I shot out from behind my mother and hurled myself toward the street where the bliss of oncoming traffic awaited me.
I could almost feel the impact of the car, the screams of horror, the looks of pity. Everyone would be nice to me. Women, or at least busty young girls, would throw themselves at me. People would pay attention to me! This was my moment. I was close, twenty yards, then ten, when the one sound that could’ve put a stop to my freedom run stabbed through the air: my mother’s hyena-like, piercing, unintelligible scream. Like a garbled banshee, my mother shrieked and everyone stopped. Pretty young couples looked at each other with disgust. Dogs yelped and ran in circles as if an earthquake were coming. Old men’s eyeglasses shattered. Young men clutched their throbbing heads in agony. The deaf wail stopped me in my tracks. I don’t even know why she used the fucking leash.
I felt tied to her even when the leash wasn’t on. My job as the son of deaf parents was not just to be a son but, rather, also an ambassador of deaf culture to all of the boundary-less idiots of the world.
“Now, can your mother read?” a ranger asked us once as we pulled into a state park, handing me the maps she was sure would baffle my mother.
“Yes,” I replied, handing them back over to my mother defensively, “she is deaf, not retarded.”
It seemed, though, like everyone else was. Some people shot me looks of pity when they saw me walking down the street, signing to my mother. I got looks of heroic admiration from other people.
People would ask me questions about my mother and my childhood right in front of her as if she didn’t exist.
“Is she speaking English when she talks?” they’d ask, blissfully unaware that I might not be interested in answering their trivia about what my life was like.
“No, actually, it’s Crypto-Cyrillic. My mother is from the faraway past, sent here to warn us all!”
People we didn’t know at all would come up to us and ask about our home life like it was their right to know and my duty to tell them. My entire life was like a cute baby that complete strangers could coo over and play peekaboo with. I didn’t know what to make of any of it. I just knew it was not normal.
When your parents are deaf, nothing is normal. Everywhere you go, you are treated like retarded royalty. I walked around in a constant state of embarrassment, mortified when my mother was speaking, anxiety ridden that she would begin speaking when she wasn’t.
My mom’s voice humiliated me. It made everyone uncomfortable when they heard it. I hated everyone. Even the lady at Taco Bell.
I loved Taco Bell more than anything, and my mother used it as a bribery tool for good behavior. She couldn’t afford to take us out to eat, but she would offer me Taco Bell as a kind of desperate bargaining chip, especially after the little debacle at her friend Dimitri’s house when, upon discovering a small hole in the seat of my pants, I ripped it wide open and then ran into the living room, bent over, with my head between my legs, and exposed my anus to a group of her friends while screaming, inexplicably, “Cat! Cat! Cat! Cat!” After that, the money for Taco Bell was made manifest by the sheer desire to avoid such humiliation. Poverty shrank in the face of the anal cat dance.
As she harnessed me up for another outing, she’d make the big offer, “Now, we are going to go out, okay? If you behave yourself and don’t piss on anything, or take off any clothing, I’ll take you to Taco Bell afterwards.”
Mostly this wouldn’t work because as soon as I arrived where I was going, I would forget about the promise of zesty ground beef and pull my pants down to expose my zest instead.
But sometimes it did work and I waited to hear the magic words, “Welcome to Taco Bell, can I take your order?”
I’d step forward to order for us both, but my mother is a proud woman, unwilling to let me do for her what she felt she could do herself. She’d push me back and start ordering in her deaf voice.
Deaf voice is, in fact, speech. Years of intensive speech therapy are required to turn the primal scream ejaculations of deaf people into the approximation of actual words that well-educated deaf people bring to the table.
I understood my mother perfectly. The only problem is that when deaf voice meets hearing ear, the hearing ear gets afraid that chimpanzees are attacking it and cannot distinguish the words. Every word sounds to them like a scream: “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!”
“Welcome to Taco Bell, can I take your order?”
“RAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!” my mother replied, a confident smile on her face.
“I’m sorry, what?” The poor minimum wager looked a little scared.
“RAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!” my mom yelled again.
At this point the girl just tried to guess.
“Okay… um… three chicken burritos? Is that it?”
Humiliated. Taco Bell was my place, but I just wanted to run away. I pushed to the front and blurted out the order, to the consternation of my proud deaf mother.
“Three beef tacos and cinnamon twists.”
My mother grabbed a handful of bills from her purse and pushed them onto the counter.
Ms. Taco Bell looked down and her face scrunched up in confusion. “Um… I’m really sorry, but we don’t take food stamps here.”
The girl behind the counter shifted uncomfortably and looked at the line forming behind us. “You know what? Just take it. It’s on me.”
Like I said: royalty.
We were alone in Oakland, the three of us sleeping in my grandmother’s living room. My mother couldn’t get work. The whole system is stacked against deaf people. Would you hire one?
Every woe my mother had, she found a way to blame on my father. Vocally. Loudly. He was responsible for her every difficulty. My mother would feed us a shitty meal or say no to us when we wanted candy and she would point east and sign, “Your father!” This kind of poisoning of the parental well had little effect on my brother, who had a pretty clear memory of his relationship with my dad. But for me, my mother was able to morph the image of my father into a kind of evil specter, floating behind us at all times, snatching fun things from our fingertips.
When my father would send holiday gifts to my brother and me, my mother would itemize them, and if David received even one more chocolate than I did, my mother would hold them out and yell, “See? Your father loves your brother more than he loves you!” Those words would gut me. Unable to understand the little pettiness of ex-lovers (having hardly taken any at that point), I just assumed my mother was telling the truth. I didn’t understand why he loved David more. Well, I guess David always did have a stronger chin than me.
Really, David had a stronger everything than me. He was the firstborn son in a Jewish family, and he played the hero right, according to biblical character arc. Somehow, my big brother was born with the tools to navigate right down the churning white water of my parents’ river of anger. I just drowned. He was born a quiet statesman, perfect. The perfect son. The perfect student. The perfect Jew. He was everything I wasn’t. While people looked at me with microscopes trying to figure out what was wrong with me, they only ever pointed to what he was doing just right. It wasn’t his fault. He was playing the role that made him feel safe in the insane world we were both born into. In fact, on quiet nights, David and I would huddle together and wonder how this was our life.
Meanwhile, my mother’s resentment against my father grew the worse our circumstances got.
The poorer we became, the more she openly slandered him, the more she hated him. When his mother, my baba, Helen Kasher, got sick with Parkinson’s, my father wrote my mother pleading with her to let me come to New York to visit and see her before she became too far gone to speak. My mother wrote back informing my father that no visitation had been agreed to and, therefore, I would not be coming for a visit. As a result, I have no memory of my baba. No memory. Just wisps and phantoms.
Eventually the imaginary enemy of my father held us back so badly financially that we got on welfare. That’s where those food stamps came from. Food stamps and government assistance. Jews on welfare. That’s rare. Like seeing a leprechaun. If you could’ve caught us in the wild, we would’ve granted you wishes. By the way, this was old welfare. Back before it had been filtered to prevent shame. These days the food stamp is just an allusion to a bygone era. Poor families nowadays are simply issued a discreet-looking card, impossible to differentiate from a credit card in order to maximize dignity. What bullshit. Underprivileged, poverty-stricken youth have it so easy these days. In my day, the food stamp was an actual stamp, humiliating and bold. Light colored so as never to be mistaken for actual money (we poor people didn’t have that). It was larger than a regular dollar—like a Confederate note. MC Hammer’s face was on the twenty-dollar stamp, looking back at you, grinning with huge white teeth. Every time my mother busted them out, it was a trail of tears, the white note screaming to everyone, “Poor family here! Sneak a glance while you can! They can’t even afford fooooooood!”
It might as well have been Kermit the Frog hopping out of my mother’s wallet in a top hat, dancing a soft shoe, singing “Welfare!” What a travesty. When the public assistance department found out that we were Jews, we were assigned a counselor to deal with the trauma. Then we were given a plaque and a private entrance to the back of the welfare office in order to avoid being seen by other members of the Jewish community.
Of course I wasn’t just Jewish; I was mega-Jewish. I was Yiddish. When I was seven, my father and the justice system informed my mother, to her smoldering disappointment, that she would have to allow my brother and me to return to New York for visitation.
I reluctantly returned to the city of my birth to visit the man who abused, the man who didn’t love me like he loved my brother. I was angry, of course I was. I also worshiped him a bit, of course I did.
I went back to New York to find out that, in my absence, he had become a member of a Chassidic sect, the Satmars. My father had always been enamored of the Chassids. His childhood was marked by weekend trips to Zeidi’s house, staring at his gnarled, arthritic hands as they swept across the pages of the Talmud, looking for secrets hidden in the deep codex of the law.
Somehow, the order and austerity of Zeidi’s world seemed pure and righteous to my father even when he was just a boy. So, when all the order left his life overnight, when his entire family slipped through his fingers, my father turned deeply into the religion his mother had thought she’d neatly left behind.
He had gotten remarried to another deaf woman, named Betty Drummer, who had been raised behind the steep religious walls of the Satmar community.
The Satmars are among the oddest and most insular of all the Chassidic groups. I’ll say that again. Of all the Yiddish-speaking, society-rejecting, gown and fur hat–wearing Chassidic groups, the group my father married into was the most bizarre and outside the lines of society. It would be like being among the fattest groups of Walmart shoppers.
Normally, a person from my stepmother’s family would never have been allowed to even consider marrying a person like my father—a beardless painter who didn’t read Hebrew, much less speak Yiddish.
But Betty had been married before and not to a nice man, so the fact that my dad was Jewish and increasingly observant was good enough for the odd Council of the Elders of Zion, who approved of the match. Betty, unlike my mother and father, has a powerful strain of hereditary deafness that shot straight through her genetic code. Betty and her sister, Barbara, are both deaf, as are all of their children and grandchildren. Their brother, Heshy, can hear, as can all of his children and grandkids. Painted down the female line of the Drummer family was a deaf gene. In the Satmar community, the pool of eligible men willing to marry a divorced deaf woman, guaranteed to birth other deaf kids, was a little small, and thus, my father was happily welcomed into the family.
As soon as they married, my father found the order he’d been looking for, the order he remembered. The 613 laws of the Torah explained everything to him, kept him whole, kept his volatility in check.
Now my father wasn’t exactly a full-on Satmar Chassid. To be that, he would have had to dive into the deepest of deep pools of religiosity. He was more like an affiliate. Like a fella who does work for the Mafia but isn’t a made guy. Regardless, my father quickly became a very, very religious man. He put down his paintbrushes and never touched them again, his artistic desires sated by religion. Or who knows, maybe his spiritual needs were just being fulfilled by painting while they waited for the Torah. All I really know is my dad turned into a Chassid.
And so six weeks a year I would have to become a Chassid myself.
My father drove me straight from LaGuardia Airport to the Chassidic Jewish barber in the Borough Park district of Brooklyn and plopped me in front of him with a look that said, “Fix this.” The fat Russian Gulag barber looked at my head with disgust.
“Why you cut off your payos?” he asked, contempt in his voice.
Payos, the Chassidic side locks, are very important to the Satmars. It’s through those wacky sideburns that God is made aware of how abjectly devoted you are to him. I mean, you are willing to make yourself look completely ridiculous for him. This pleases the Lord.
“I’m sorry,” I explained to the complete stranger/barber. “You see, my family is in a complex religiosocial situation. In my mother’s household, I’m mostly secular, thus the payos make little sense. But when I come to New York, I feel a deep shame that I’m not aesthetically pleasing to you, a bewarted pogrom survivor that I’ve never met before, and the rest of your judgmental ilk.”
Actually what happened is, I’d mutter, “Dunno,” through red-faced shame and wait for my spiritually painful haircut to be over and to receive the closest approximation of a biblical hero hairdo possible from my California bowl cut.
Then we’d jump back in the car and drive to Sea Gate, my hell away from home. If you get off the F train at the last possible stop and then walk past all the Coney Island fun and past all the people of color (yikes!) and through a gate, then through a time portal to pre-Nazi Europe, you get to Sea Gate. A little shtetl in Brooklyn. There I lived among first-language Yiddish speakers who, despite their families having been in America since the 1930s, spoke with European accents. They never spoke to anyone who was not Jewish. I, Moshe Kasher, was as close to a non-Jew as any of them had ever met. They pleasure-read in Yiddish. I didn’t even know the Hebrew alphabet.
Sea Gate was a citadel of isolation, a strange village of identical penguins waddling around, looking busy. Chassids are always busy. No matter what, they are in a hurry. I was a secular kid from laid-back California, takin’ it slow. Of course, that was when I wasn’t freaking out with angry temper tantrums. Everyone looked and acted the same, and thus, I stuck out, hard. Around me swirled the world of the ultrareligious, and I tried desperately to stay on the ride, to look cool and collected, to not scream with difference. I tried to make friends.
In Sea Gate, the Ultra-Orthodox kids and the really religious kids played dodgeball games. Essentially, English speakers versus dead-language enthusiasts. The pasty old-worlders should have been rather easy to bean, as their legs were slightly atrophied from years of study in the yeshiva by day and high-chicken-fat meals by night.
This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to become a local hero because my secular sports skills made us neighborhood champs. But I was chubby and out of shape. I got winded and then I got blasted by the ball while cries of “Hit the goy!” reverberated in my mind.
Somewhere around that time I found a well of fear to jump into. I felt so different, I ached. I’d been in therapy for years at that point and I was only seven; I just knew something was fundamentally wrong with me. I became obsessed with the fear that someone would figure all of this out and expose me for the broken piece of human machinery that I was. I was terrified of everything. My feral snarling slowly started to give way to a pool of fear. I transitioned smoothly between angry out-of-control kid into frightened out-of-control kid. I was seven years old and I was sure I was shit.
My father didn’t help much. When he saw how lost I was in Sea Gate, he sent me to a Chabad (another, slightly more user-friendly sect of Chassidism) day camp to “learn the ropes” of Chassidic Judaism. This is the equivalent of sending your illiterate, developmentally disabled child to Yale rather than Harvard and grinning at the concession you’ve made. He just didn’t get it.
“Don’t worry about the kids making fun of you, just act like you know what you are doing.”
“But Dad, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t pray in Hebrew, if I don’t know Hebrew,” I’d shoot back, hoping against all odds that logic could save me from another day of mouthing along to Hebrew prayers, my prayer book upside down, hoping no one noticed I wasn’t saying anything at all.
“I don’t know how to be hearing either, but I fool people every day. You just act Jewish like I act hearing.”
My dad had a kind of pet obsession with how “undeaf” he appeared to be. Until the day he died, he was convinced—no matter how many times his questions and queries were answered with “Huh?”—that he was fooling them; that despite his mangled Charlie Brown’s teacher voice, no one ever noticed he couldn’t hear.
He always had a sort of odd resentment toward the deaf community, rolling his eyes at the sincerity of its struggles for equality. They were, to him, more or less naive bumpkins who wished they could be as smart as he was. Yes, he was deaf, but he wasn’t deaf like that. He considered himself above essentially every deaf person in the world. My king-like father had a king’s ego, too. One of his favorite jokes was to hold his face in shock when he looked in the mirror and scream, “I’m beautiful!”
Well, he sort of was beautiful. At least his wives thought so. While I had been in Oakland, my father had been busy. I met my two new siblings on my first visit back to New York. My brother Aron and my sister Hinda were born in quick succession after my father and Betty had married. They were respectively three and four years younger than I, and both deaf. I was, at this point, essentially surrounded by deaf family. My brother and grandmother were the only hearing people I knew. Your normal was my abnormal. I spent my early childhood being “not quite.” I was Jewish, but not quite. I was hearing, but not quite. I belonged in my family, but not quite. However, back in Oakland, I was quite white.
To most of the students in the Oakland Public School System, I was white boy. That was my nickname at school. Well, to be fair, that wasn’t my nickname, it was our nickname. I and every other white male student, and there weren’t very many, shared the well-thought-out, hypercreative moniker: white boy. That was on the good days. On the bad days, when things weren’t going as well at home for my black buddy, or maybe because I was being just a little too white, I became honky or cracker or white bread or white chicken bread or bitch.
I tried calling a kid nigger once. Once. I was in third grade and was fighting with a kid named Darryl, who was yelling out a rapid-fire machine-gun assault of:
So I got mad. A man’s not perfect, especially when he’s a boy. It seemed only fair at this point for me to let loose the rumbling slur from the recesses of my nonexistent Confederate roots. Nigger. All activity stopped.
Darryl’s face fell; he looked more sad than mad.
“You can’t say that, dog. You’ll get killed!” Darryl seemed to be warning me more than he was threatening me.
“But what about all that honkycrackerwhitebreadwhitechickenbreadbitch stuff?” I asked, confused.
Darryl welled up with compassion and he explained the rules to me.
“That’s different,” he said. “You’re white.”
Then he punched me in the stomach.
“I guess that’s true,” I admitted, groaning in pain.
I felt like shit and slumped off the playground, determined that I’d rather be a honkycrackerwhitebreadwhitechickenbreadbitch than a racist bitch. So that was my first and last time calling someone a nigger.
Later, when I became black, I would often call people nigga, but that was affectionate and a reclamation of the word. Actually, technically it was a re-reclamation of the word, as it had already been reclaimed by actual black people. My people, whites who wished they were black, then re-reclaimed it from them and used it among ourselves, proving that white people could use the word in a cool, friendly way.
Speaking of words, it was around then that I figured out what my main and only weapon would be from that point out. My big fat mouth. I slowly started sharpening my tongue on the whetstone of Oakland Public Schools. If I couldn’t win all the fights, I’d certainly win all the rounds of verbal sparring. People fucked with me so I learned how to fuck right back. I started to hone the questionable skill set of the class clown. In short, I became an asshole.
I met Richard Lilly in first grade. He was one of the only white kids in my class, and we became best friends instantly. How kids become friends in that personality-less time in their lives is beyond me. What did we find in common?
“Hey, I have an incredibly small white penis; do you?”
Somehow we forged a connection and were inseparable from then on. Maybe our connection was subconscious. His family was as fucked up as mine, but we never talked about it like that.
Richard lived with his grandmother, too. His dad was an alcoholic, his mother was a crackhead prostitute. We were two deeply troubled white kids trying to keep our heads above water.
Richard’s dad was that kind of handlebar-mustached, fluffy-haired, Cadillac alcoholic who would drive us around, smoking with the windows up as we gagged and coughed, overdramatizing our disdain for smoke just like the antismoking campaigns at school had taught us to.
“I’m literally dying back here,” Richard choked, grabbing his throat, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.
“You kids shut it, or we don’t get dinner tonight.”
We shut it.
We stopped by a transient hotel on Martin Luther King Street in West Oakland, and Mr. Lilly turned to us with a smoking cigarette butt hanging from his lip. “Wait here.”
He got out of the car and crossed the street to a strung-out blonde in a miniskirt who was pacing back and forth like she was in a hurry, but she clearly had nowhere to be.
“That’s my mom,” Richard said flatly. I could tell questions were out of the question.
I peered across the street to see Richard’s dad yelling at her. Richard turned red. I watched as his dad pulled out his wallet and handed her some cash, which she snatched and then scurried away. Then we went to McDonald’s.
Richard never quite got around to telling me about how his mother’s life affected him, but in retrospect, I realize it played out in his antidrug bravado. He was the poster D.A.R.E. child—he drank the antidrug Kool-Aid and preached the gospel. A success case.
“I think drugs are disgusting and I’m never fucking doing them,” he told me out of nowhere, under the covers at a sleepover later that night. I nodded and suggested we throw things at cars from his grandmother’s balcony.
We collected eggs and oranges from his kitchen and crouched behind the balcony, hurling stuff at cars as they drove by, him with increasing ferocity, me with my best friend’s interests at heart.
“Get In Where You Fit In”
Oakland in the mid-eighties was a very interesting place to be white. The real murderfest was just about to begin there, and East Bay gangster rap was about to hit. In a few years, rappers like Too $hort, Spice One, Tupac, E40, and the Dangerous Crew would become my mentors, my Eckhart Tolle, my Rilke. Rather than The Power of Now, I would study the power of Freaky Tales, the filthy anthem of Too $hort explaining the ins and outs of male-female love relations:
“I knew this girl, her name was Tina, bitch so dumb we named her misdemeanor. Cuz it had to be a crime to be that dumb, I took her to the house and she let me cum in her mouth.”
So my mother and grandmother hated men, and my philosopher kings and mentors hated women. With no one left not to hate, I spent my early years reading Gloria Steinem while imagining ejaculating on women’s faces in disdain.
Of course, I never would have been allowed to listen to Too $hort when I was eight and nine years old had my mother not been deaf. Luckily she was, though, so for all she knew, I was listening to Brahms.
Richard would sneak over and he, my brother, and I would blare X-rated rap albums with my mother in the room, unaware of a thing, often turning to us and exclaiming, “I can feel the bass, I love it!”
We grinned as Too $hort explained how Nancy Reagan had given him a blow job:
“She licked my dick, up and down, like it was corn on the cob.”
“I like the bass, too, Mom,” I’d snicker.
Those songs were how I learned about the birds and the bees. Or rather, they were what I chose to listen to. In typical Bay Area hippie mother fashion, my mother was hardly shy about teaching us about sex. The harsh “we don’t talk about that” boundaries of the 1950s were supplanted by porous, “I’m your buddy” parenting. I’m not saying I would have preferred an emotionally distant mother who never told me anything about sex other than that masturbating would make hair grow over your eyes and make you go blind, but it would have been nice to have had it as an option. My mother would be much more likely to cheer me on if she caught me jerking off, delightedly signing, “It’s natural!” as I came.
Tuesdays were sex talk nights. Every horrid Tuesday, my mother would call my brother and me away from whatever we were doing and gather us for a humiliation session.
“Boys, come in here!” my mother would yell from the kitchen.
We’d run in breathless, hoping for something cool.
Shit. The blue book.
Boys and Sex was the name of the blue-covered manual from which my mother would read to us. For hours every Tuesday, we would pray for comets to hit the house and take us out of our misery as my mother droned on about “orgasms” and “rectal insertion.” As she talked, our disgust turned to a buzzing sleepiness. Somehow, she took all the fun out of it. Never has a nine-year-old been so thoroughly bored by sex.
At the end of every chat was the same question, “Are either of you gay?” If there is such a thing as being too supportive of homosexuality, my mother had it. We got the distinct impression that not only would it be okay if we were gay, it would be preferred.
“Are either of you gay?”
“No, Mom,” we’d explain again, “we still aren’t fucking gay.”
Swearing around my mother was nothing but a thing to us. We’d just wipe at our faces like we were dabbing barbecue sauce away and mutter the F word from behind the veil of our hands. If she didn’t see it, she didn’t know it happened. Mostly we did this for each other, to see how many swear words we could add into our conversations without being caught. My mom had some kind of preternatural ability to know when we were doing this, though. She was like the blind superhero Daredevil whose other senses were heightened when he went blind. But rather than using her powers to lock up criminals, my mother used hers to bust us when we were being assholes.
“David does like sucking an occasional dick, though.” I laughed from behind the back of my hand.
My brother and mother slapped me at the same time.
“Stop with the cussing-behind-your-hands crap.” My mom was about to begin a familiar admonishment.
“Being gay isn’t funny. It’s not a joke. It’s just like me being deaf. Would you like it if people laughed at me for being deaf?”
“No, Mom,” we’d repeat as one, “we wouldn’t.”
“Now”—she’d settle back in—“are either of you gay?”
“No, Mom, we aren’t,” we’d chant, “but we wish we were.”
It was at this point that I’d just zone out and stop listening. I would transcendentally leave my body and float to East Oakland and imagine Too $hort telling me all about pussy. Now that’s sex ed.
I learned to jerk off, too. A couple of years after my mother first cracked the blue book, I got my hands on a copy of Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. In it, I read about how he would steal away to his hot New York roof and stare at the silhouette of his neighbor’s body while he played with his dick in bliss. Up until that point, despite all the long-winded lectures from my mom, I thought masturbation, or “touching yourself,” was when you put your hand down your pants while watching TV, à la Al Bundy. But I could sense, in my reading of the passage in The Basketball Diaries, that he was doing something different and I studied it carefully, again and again, until I found that ancient bit of limbic, instinctive wisdom that tells man to constrict his hand into the shape of a vagina. I stole away to the bathroom for hours daily to try my new trick. I was eleven years old and unaware that there was such a thing as ejaculating. Quite happy with the sensations I’d found from using my new “pussy hand,” I’d simply lube up and jerk off for a while and then pack my little dick back in my pants and go on about my day, awaiting the next time me and me could be alone together again.
Richard was kept apprised of all these sessions as he had recently learned the wisdom of the “tube hand” as well. We would talk on the phone about different techniques. It was very gay, which would have made my mother proud, but we were too young to know it so it hardly counted.
Then, one day, I was happily in the midst of my stroking when something started to go very wrong. My arm started to tingle and then go numb. My latent Semitic hypochondria immediately rang alarm bells. “Oh my God, I’m having a stroke. The bad kind, not the good kind.”
I wanted to stop but I couldn’t as the terror and the ecstasy rushed into me. Trickling waterfalls of electric sand filled my arm and then back to my dick and then back to my arm. It shot through every square inch of my body and set my scalp on fire. My toes curled. My world changed.
I called Richard immediately to report the results.
“Dude, you just keep going until it happens. I’m not sure if it’s good for you or not but it feels… I can’t describe it.”
Richard was excited to try. “Hold on the phone, I’m gonna go into the bathroom and try it, I’ll be right back.”
I waited as I wanted to hear his supplications as he thanked me for changing his world. Ten minutes later I could hear him bray from the background:
He returned to the phone, “Wow, dude. Wow. I’m gonna go do that again, but my grandma wants to know if you want to come over for dinner.”
“What, was she there when you did it? ‘Oh, now that you’re done jerking off, ask if he wants dinner.’ ”
“Shut up, dude, she told me to ask you earlier. Yes or no, I really want to go try again.”
“Yeah, okay, perv, I’ll see you tonight, have fun jerking off in front of your grandma.”
“Fuck you.” He laughed and hung up.
Dinner over there was always pretty good. They were American gentile-type people, not Jewish hippies on welfare, and therefore, the meals were a lot cooler. Meat and potatoes kind of things with Jell-O for dessert, contrasting with the tempeh rice torture device waiting for me at home with a side of cool disappointment for dessert. I leapt at the invitation.
After gentile dinner ended, Richard’s dad lit a cigarette and his grandmother looked at me and said, “Richard, don’t you need to tell your friend something?”
I looked around, confused. “Uh-oh, are you gay, Richard? I’m okay with it if you are.”
Richard’s dad coughed. “I told you there was something wrong with the kid, Mom.”
She looked at me with compassion, turned to Richard, and said, “Tell him.”
Richard shifted in his seat guiltily. “We are moving to Lafayette.”
Lafayette was a suburb of Oakland but was so phenomenally wealthy that you’d never know by looking at it. Apparently, Richard’s grandmother had liquidated her assets and bought a home there to set Richard up for success and, I suspect now, to get him away from his mother.
“But we’ll still be best friends. I mean, you can come over all the time.”
I paused, considering. This sucked.
Excerpted from Kasher in the Rye by Kasher, Moshe Copyright © 2012 by Kasher, Moshe. Excerpted by permission.
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