My dad was crazy (turns out my mother is too), but I am grateful for a few things they never taught me.
Number 1: because my dad grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Hartford (he went to high school with Normal Lear and Charles Nelson Reilly, remember them?) my dad never taught me to be anti-Semitic. He once told me that the reason so many Jews owned businesses was because no one would hire them. He never really explained why that was so, just that it was wrong. Not the part about them owning their own businesses, the part about no one hiring them.
I didn’t even know about anti-semiticism until I was 12 and went to see the movie Fiddler on the Roof. We were living in L.A. at the time and my Aunt Elaine and Uncle Stan took my sister and me to see it. Then we spent the night with them.
I was so upset about the movie could not sleep. I sobbed the entire night. I could not understand why the Russians were so mean to these people. What had they done to deserve it?
When I was very young, my dad was a professional opera singer. He sang in churches and synagogues. The Christians sometimes didn’t want to pay him; they expected him to sing for “the love of God.” My dad would tell them that the love of God didn’t put food on the table. The Jews would pay him, however, even though they were not supposed to touch money on Shabbos. Naturally, he preferred to sing in the synagogues. This may explain why my parents never sent us kids to church. It also explains why I thought bagels were a type of Italian food.
Number 2: my parents never taught me to be racist. We never talked about this; it was a given. People were just people. Before I was born and my brother Guido was very little, a neighbor came over for a visit. His name was Mr. Brown.
“Mr. Bwoun is bwoun all over!” Guido exclaimed.
My mom thought it was hilarious.
I grew up on military bases and went to the schools on post. Truman had desegregated the armed forces in 1948, so the schools on post were integrated. I didn’t know anything about busing or “separate but equal” or any other such nonsense. I did learn about busing in 1972, however, when we moved to Inglewood, California. We were bused to a school in Ladera Heights, which was a much better part of town. So for me, busing was a good thing.
My best friend when I was ten was a girl named Sheryl Little. Her dad was not in the military, but they lived nearby. Her mother was my Girl Scout leader. I spent a lot of time at Sheryl’s house. She had a huge poster of Malcolm X on her wall and she told me he was her uncle. She also told me he had been murdered by a jealous husband. My mother insisted that Sheryl was wrong and that Malcolm X was not her uncle, but I found out it was true when I read his autobiography in high school. Why did my mother lie? Was she trying to protect me? Sheryl’s story about how her uncle had died was not the truth either, so I guess her parents tried to protect her too.
Number 3: my parents never taught me to be homophobic. My Uncle Stan came out of the closet after my Aunt Elaine died, and no one in the family thought anything about it. Apparently they were not surprised.
Remember the “don’t ask don’t tell” debate in the military? My dad and I watched a piece about it on 60 Minutes. Afterwards he said: “Why is this such a big deal? If the guys are doing their jobs, leave them alone!”
Number 4: finally, my parents never taught me to be a prude about sex. (My husband is especially grateful for this one.) In fact, my parents never taught me about sex or even talked about it. The only dirty joke I ever heard my dad tell was this: Two guys are in a bar and one says to the other, “Is that Hortense over there?” “No,” says the second guy, “she looks pretty calm to me.” It took me years to figure it out.
My parents never said sex was dirty, or even that I was supposed to wait until I got married. When I was in elementary school during the hippie era I wrote “make love, not war” all over my notebook. I really had no idea what it meant. My parents never said a thing. They probably knew better than to make a big deal about it because they knew I didn’t know what it meant. If only parents today would adopt that attitude instead of getting so upset over every little thing that might hint at sexuality. No wonder the Europeans think Americans are uptight about sex.
My mother once confided that she and my dad had sex before they were married. This would have been in the mid 1950’s when birth control was not easily available.
“What did you use for birth control?” I asked.
“We prayed,” she answered.