(ENTER CARRYING TALLIT: SAY PRAYER, PUT ON TALLIT.)
In the beginning there were grandparents who spoke no English; only Yiddish. My mother's mother, Dora, born in Kiev, loved me so much. She would gaze at me as I sat at her table eating butter cookies topped with cinnamon. During my early teens she once said something to me which my mother translated from the Yiddish: "Melech, dyne gantser kerper sheynt vi di levone." "Melech" -- that's my Hebrew name -- "every piece of your skin shines like the moon."
There were Jewish foods, starting with the letter K: Knishes, Kugel, Kasha and Kichel, Kishkes, Knaidlach, Kreplach and Kuchen. And let's not forget the Manischewitz! (POUR SOME WINE) My father's mother, Sara, all four foot ten inches of her, was born in Odessa. She made the world's best apple strudel. I can still see and taste it as if time hasn't passed at all. My grandma lived to be 99. She outlived my father, who was her youngest child.
In deference to my grandparents, I was sent to Hebrew school. I went to Hebrew school at the end of the public school day: three days a week, three hours a day, for three years. The orthodox teachers were mean. They would shout at us in Hebrew: "Shechet v'shave" -- "shut up and sit down!" Being only thirteen years old, we thought "shave" was very funny. Meanwhile, we were eating tons of sunflower seeds and piling the damp shells in our desks. When my teacher caught me, he shouted, "Parrot food! Why are you eating parrot food?"
On the day of my Bar Mitzvah I got to sit on the throne chair alongside the rabbi, whom I had never met. I chanted from the Torah and gave a speech written by the cantor. The women, including my mother and grandmothers, were in the balcony, hidden from view. That was something I really noticed when I was up there on the stage. I couldn't see them! I remember the speech began, "My dear rabbi, cantor, parents, and friends..." After the ceremony, my aunts and uncles stuffed envelopes into my suit pockets. I got lots of money and Israel bonds. Later there was a big party for me at a country club. There was a big band and a bigger cake; and all my relatives lit candles for me. My father filmed the evening in 16 millimeter silent film, which is now lost somewhere in my brother the attorney's Los Angeles garage.
Ten years later, at age 23, I was leaving the United States, leaving the anti-Vietnam marches, leaving the modern hi-tech world to go live on a kibbutz in Israel. I didn't even know where Israel was on a map. Kibbutz life is utopian, communal farming, and very a-religious. They even raise pigs. There were some token Jewish concessions: table cloths on Friday nights and maybe some wine. I learned Hebrew, and that my Hebrew name, Melech, was taboo as a name in Israel. My teacher's face cringed when I said "Melech is my Hebrew name." He said, Lo, lo, lo! Melech means God; you will stay Meekee.
I left Israel after three years and headed for Canada to clear up my draft status with the US Government. On the way I travelled through several Eastern countries. While in Teheran one evening after dusk, I wandered near an open patio where many older men were chanting. They all wore turbans and had long grey and white beards. I walked in to listen and watch. After a few minutes one old man approached me and leaned over to whisper in my ear: "No Jews." Did I hear right? He repeated it, "No Jews", and I left, totally mystified. How did he know I was Jewish? My nose? For several years I would wonder how he knew. Finally I figured it out. I had been in a mosque. He had leaned over and in his Persian accent he had said, "No tschooze! No shoes!"
During the same trip I suddenly and unexpectedly had to return from Ind ia to Israel. I landed at the airport in Tel Aviv, wearing a long white Indian shirt called a korta, red and black beads around my neck, fifty cent handmade Indian sandals and my flowing black beard. The customs official took one look at me and stated in a heavy Hebrew accent, "Where eez teekeet out? Must have teekeet out." I said, "What, why?" He said that I could not enter Israel without a return flight. I was about to throw myself on his mercy and tell him I was a political refugee because of the Vietnam war, when his commanding officer strolled by and asked in Hebrew, "Ma yesh? What's up?" "Ain lo kartis hutzah "-- he doesn't have a ticket out. The officer looked at me and asked: "You Jooeesh? You Jewish?" "Yes," I answered. "I have family on the kibbutz (an exaggeration) and I live here", I bluffed. He gestured with a sweep of his arm: "Pass." I was home again.
Back safely on my kibbutz I met a non-Jewish nineteen year old girl from Berkeley. I was 27. We fell in love, returned to the US, had two sons. We did have dinners for Passover, the holiday of unleavened bread. One memorable one was in Gualala with the Methodist community; a potluck -- five Jews and thirty five Methodists and lots of garlic bread and spaghetti.
When my marriage ended after fourteen years, I became aware that I wanted more community in my life. So I attended a Hanukkah party in Mendocino. There was a raffle, and I happened to win one of the many prizes: a pie of my choice to be baked by the rabbi. When my name was called out as the winner, I was immediately surrounded by a dozen or more people who were saying I had won the best prize. I am now married to that pie-maker. She bakes the pies, I tell the jokes...
Three Jewish guys are walking down a street and they come to a church. A large sign in front says: "Conversions today; we pay you $100." One of the guys says, "Hey, wait here -- I'm going in to check it out". After about twenty minutes he comes out. "So did you get the money?" one of them asks. "Is that all you people ever think about?"
Earlier this year, my wife, the rabbi, and I returned to visit Israel. It had been eighteen years since I had last visited there. While there, we had to be careful, not so much of Arab terrorists, but of orthodox Jews who viewed us, Reform Jews, as a great threat to their religion. I had to be very careful to not mention that my wife was a rabbi.
The day before leaving Israel I looked for a shop that might sell me a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. My mother-in-law had given me money to buy one, and I still hadn't done it. We found a shop which employs older people, who make various things for Jewish rituals. I asked if there were tallits, and the storekeeper pointed to an upper room in back. I glanced around and then said, "I would like your best tallit." She pointed to a table nearby where a tallit was neatly folded in a clear plastic bag. A note on top stated, "Max's tallit." The woman explained that Max was an eighty year old man who weaves only three tallits a year. And they are the best. It so happens that my real given name is... Max. So I said, "this one must be the one for me. It has my name on it." I opened it up and put it on. And immediately bought it. Some months later this year, I wore it for the first time at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in Mendocino.
During the long day's services of Yom Kippur, I began to look closely at the tallit. The weave and the colors, silver and gold threads, and I felt the tassels and the fringes. I then remembered Max and felt a connection with the old weaver. I saw the beauty in the tallit and the mysterious and wonderful energy from the cloth, and for the first time ever, I covered my head in solitude and gratitude for that moment of connection.
So, what is this connection? The grandmas? The foods? The Jewish ceremonies? The trips to Israel? My marriage? The jokes? The community of friends? The holidays? (COVER MY HEAD) Maybe here, shining like the moon under Max's tallit. (LIGHTS FADE OUT)
MAX'S TALLIT; A MONOLOGUE; BY MICKEY CHALFIN;
PERFORMANCE: WAREHOUSE THEATER DECEMBER 5, 6, 1995 (FORT BRAGG, CA); DIRECTOR: LYNNE ABELS
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