Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is that Ritalin in your pocket, or are you just too oblivious to see me?

Happy New Year!  It's not too late to say that, right?  It's still January.  Well, I'm finally getting back into the mental groove of normal life after the holidays.  My Christmas lights are still up, but I don't plug them in anymore.  Progress!  Despite the fact that I've been doing it for years now, celebrating Christmas - with all of its complicated logistics- still requires some getting used to.  You see, I'm Jewish.

You'd probably never guess that based on my stellar church-attendance record, or periodic blog references to my Protestant faith, or by a lot of other superficial criteria about me.  My father was a Hungarian Jew, born and raised in Budapest.  He was a Holocaust survivor, in fact. I was raised Jewish and spent much of my young life in the synagogue and Hebrew school. I studied Judaism in college. Some of by best friends are Jewish. Although my faith has taken me on a different path spiritually (maybe a topic for a different day), I self-identify, ethnically, at least, as quite Jewish.

You wouldn't know it by my English surname. My maiden name, on the other hand, would reveal my ethnicity quite obviously . . . if you happen to be a genealogist with special expertise in 19th century Jewish communities that resided along the Hungarian-Ukraine border. Otherwise, you'd probably have no idea.

My first name, on the other hand, is about as Jewish a name as a woman can have, as one translation of the Hebrew means "Female Judean," or "Jewess," as it were. But in post-Biblical times, it's a reasonably common name across the Western Hemisphere. At least it was in 1950.  When I was born nearly 20 years later, my immigrant parents apparently hadn't gotten the memo that "Jennifer" was now the "J" name of choice.

My name was also sort of popular in the 1980's, during my teen years, when virtually every teen-age-coming-of-age-sex-romp movie featured a hot girl (usually named "Jennifer") whose best friend, sidekick, and "wing woman" was a fat, nerdy, ill-complected, sarcastic girl with my first name. As it turns out, my immigrant parents were not only old-fashioned, but also prophetic. But, as you know, I digress . . .

My fair skin and blue-green eyes probably wouldn't clue you in. The photos from my children's baptisms would throw you off the trail entirely. If you happened to be around at the right time, you might overhear me utter some rather obscure Yiddish expressions. And you might then accuse me of being some sort of Judeophilic ironic hipster. Okay, maybe not.  No one says that.

More likely than not, you don't actually lose any sleep at all over whether or not I'm Jewish.

That is, unless you are also Jewish. From experience, I can tell you that Jews in my little patch of America enjoy playing a game I'll call, "Is S/He Jewish??" For full effect, when you utter the name of this game, you have to tilt your head to one side, scrunch up your face, and sound incredulous.

Several years ago, Saturday Night Live featured a skit depicting a game show parody entitled "Jew, Not a Jew," of which the object, as you might guess, was to correctly identify pictured celebrities as Jewish or not. The skit was hilarious; and to one in the know, it was easy to see the affectionate ribbing of an ethnic tradition.

The real-life game starts something like this.  You see someone on TV or meet someone who, for some subtle reason or another, leads you to think s/he might be Jewish.  But the observable facts would suggest otherwise.  Or vice versa, you meet someone who you would swear was Jewish by every standard you can think of . . .but for the fact that he's a Catholic priest.  And you grow curious.

The game, I believe, is an inevitable byproduct of being part of a minority group that "blends." There is a very basic truth about human beings, and that is, we find comfort in connections between ourselves and others who are like us in some meaningful way. Especially when we feel alone. So when you grow up Jewish in a mid-sized factory town on Lake Erie, as I did, with one small synagogue that serves an entire county, you want to know who the other Jews are . . . in case you have to borrow some gefilte fish . . . or not feel like a weirdo.

Like any game, this one has some rules, or more like traditions. You probably won't ever play, for example, while seated in a New York City synagogue on Yom Kippur. There's no sport in that. Unless you notice that the Torah scrolls are being carried by an Asian-looking man wearing a sombrero. And then you grow a little curious.

The real fun is when, some Friday evening, you meet a blond-haired football player from South Dakota named "Chris Goldsteen" who bothers to point out that "it's 'Steen' with a double 'e.'" He tells you about his recent fishing trip, which reminds him of a story from his childhood. You've got a lot on your mind, so while he shares his story, you drift off and start thinking about nail polish remover and calling in your Concerta prescription refill. But you suddenly snap back into the moment when you hear Chris say something that you swear sounded like "Grandma danced the hora at my bar mitzvah reception." You have a hard time believing this guy had a grandma, much less a bar mitzvah; so you quickly decide that you heard wrong, and what he really said was, "Damn that whore's wine-bar mitts and pass interception!" Now, that makes sense to you because Chris follows football. . . and you don't.  Abruptly, Chris looks at his watch and announces that he's sorry, but he has to run.  He has to get to the bakery before it closes and be home before sundown.  You follow his gaze as he glances over to his car that you notice has broken headlights.  You nod sympathetically, and mutter that you understand; you have to get your car fixed too.  You part company.  Chris jumps in his car and drives off. . . as he flips on his fully functioning headlights.  "Sweet Home Alabama" blares from the car stereo.  You wonder why this guy - who looks like someone who should be headed for a frat party or a strip club - would be racing off to a bakery on Friday night, like a Jewish housewife in search of a challah for the Sabbath.  Wait. . . could . . . he. . . ?  Broken headlights, the Sabbath, sundown, Dancing Grandma, wine-swilling whores, a guy named in honor of The Man from Nazareth . . . called to the Torah on his 13th birthday. . .in South Dakota. Your overstimulated brain is trying to make sense of all this paradoxical information in order to understand who it is that you just talked to; and, without thinking about it, you feel your head tilting to one side, your vocal chords tighten, and your face scrunches up. You ask out loud to no one, "Is he Jewish???

And with that, the game is in full swing. You ask your friends what they know about him. You take informal opinion polls from your Jewish friends and from your really observant Secular-Humanist-with-Goddess-Worshipper-Leanings friend who's married to a Jewish guy. You look him up on Facebook in hopes that his page is public and that you'll find there a picture of his dancing grandma or, perhaps, a picture of a whore in a football helmet, wearing wine-bar mitts. You ask your friend, the Jewish guy's wife, what the hell "wine-bar mitts" are because, if such a thing exists, she owns a pair.

You hope you'll see something that helps you answer that all-important question. And soon too, because your face is starting to hurt from all the scrunching.

It's kind of an odd thing that we do, when I think about it. I mean, really, who cares? We're not supposed to care what people are. It's not really PC to care. It's sort of unamerican. When we're that curious about whether or not someone is Jewish, and we eventually learn the answer, we are inevitably like the dog who caught the bus: Great! So . . . what? After all, there aren't too many legitimate contexts in which one must know the ethnic/religious background of a total stranger. So why do we do it?

Let me say here that I think we ALL do it; it's not a habit peculiar to those of a particular ethnic or religious group.  Regardless of how we define ourselves, we all meet people at times and wonder, is this person like me?  As I mentioned, I think connection is one reason. But in the bigger picture, I believe, identifying other members of "our group," however that group is defined, helps us to understand who we are, where we stand, and how we might look to the world.  The dirty little secret in this, is that sometimes it's not connection we seek, but rather distance. When we meet someone we admire, like, look up to, we are delighted to learn that we a share a common background. When we meet someone we fear, dislike, or don't understand, we would perhaps prefer to learn that we have nothing in common with them.  To learn that this person with whom we don't identify is actually more like us than we'd care to recognize, forces us to reconsider our definitions of ourselves and others. 

So what does all this have to do with ADHD, you ask?  Well, because ADHDers do it too, and since I have been diagnosed with ADHD, I have almost a reflexive urge to mentally run through the diagnostic criteria anytime I run into someone who seems a little too chatty, scattered, jumpy, wistful, impulsive, tardy, forgetful, messy. . .I could go on and on.  Literally, I could.  But I'll try not to.

When I scrunch up my face for a round of "Does S/He have ADHD," sometimes I want the answer to be "Yes!"  I want Steve Jobs to have had ADHD.  I like the idea that my brain might have had something in common with his brain.  On the flip side, some people really annoy me.  I might think about someone I have found very annoying and run that person through my mental screening test.  I will sometimes conclude that yes, this person has ADHD, or something like it.  And then I'll mentally give them a "pass" for being annoying.  In fact, once I conclude that someone has ADHD, I might come to admire that person's spontaneity and energy and decide that he isn't annoying at all. 

Unless I don't like that person, in which case, I might prefer to continue thinking of that person as an inconsiderate idiot.

Is this nice or fair or how I want to be treated or how I want to treat others?  Definitely not.  But it is - as am I - woefully human.

Much like it's possible to be a Jew who loves Jesus, I suppose it's entirely possible for someone to have ADHD and also be an inconsiderate idiot. But I don't want to ponder that one too hard.  The potential ramifications of this possibility are just too awful to contemplate . . . when the end goal of the identification game is to fit everyone into a neat and tidy box. 

Recently, my son was watching a video on YouTube that made him belly laugh harder than I've ever heard him laugh before; the boy has never been much of a laugher, so I had to inquire.  My son explained that it's a video by Ryan Higa, who I learned later is a young video producer, film student, and Internet sensation.  I'd never heard of this guy before, but I was definitely curious to know what my son found so funny.    Mr. Higa's video and all the others that I've viewed since then, reflect a modern style of comedy - fast-paced, disjointed, ironic, pointed, and sometimes just plain silly, that I just didn't know what to make of.  My son knew what to make of it - just watch and laugh hysterically.  But I'm a little old school, and although I enjoy irreverent comedy more than just about anything, my first thought about Mr. Higa's work was Well, this is just stupid.  This nonsense is everything that's wrong with kids and America today!  And by the way, you kids get off my lawn . . . and take that crazy Higa boy with you!!! 

But my little guy insisted that I keep watching, so I did.  This was my chance to have mom-and-son time that didn't require me to do anything hard.  He showed me video after video, and before not too long, I was laughing my head off.  This guy is so stupid. . . but hilarious! 

As I continued to watch his videos, something happened.  Whenever we take a step back from our own assumptions and prejudices, interesting things happen.   I began to appreciate how not stupid Mr. Higa's work is.  In his videos, I saw a quick and agile mind--the ability to humorously connect things that have no obvious connection; to mentally be in many places at once; to physically perform many characters at once; to turn a simple phrase in such a way that it elicits delight from word nerds like me and my boy; to poke rather sophisticated fun at some ridiculous stuff.  Hmmm. . . this is all starting to look rather familiar. I found myself now watching the high-energy, fast-talking Mr. Higa through diagnostic eyes:  Does he have ADHD??

So I did a little checking.  I learned that the rumor, at least, is that he does.  Higa has a series of videos entitled "Off the Pill," which, allegedly, are videos that he creates when taking a break from his Ritalin prescription.  Having seen several of the "Off the Pill" videos, I'd say it's quite plausible.

On the other hand, I have not seen Ryan Higa's medical files.  I know nothing about him other than what is written in his online bio, that he seems like a super smart young man, that he makes some really entertaining videos. . .and that he makes my son laugh really, really hard, which is a joy to any mother's ears.  I like him.  I think he makes a nice role model for my boy, an aspiring filmmaker himself.  Now I've got these two boxes in front of me, one labeled "Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Creative Genius!" and the other, "Stupid Anti-Intellectual Foul-Mouthed Slacker Youngster."  I choose not to force Mr. Higa into either one.  Maybe, instead, I'll use the boxes to finally put away my Christmas lights.

Speaking of Christmas lights that still need to be boxed up, this holiday season marked an anniversary for me.  New Year's Day 2012 was exactly ten years since my father passed away.  I've been thinking about him a lot.  Like now. My father was a very charming, and very short man - only 5' 2".  But what he lacked in height, he more than made up for in opinionatedness. 

One of his most passionate opinions was about Gene Simmons.  Yes, that Gene Simmons.  Gene Simmons, the famous and infamous, founder of and front man for the legendary rock band, KISS.  The painted-faced, tongue-wagging Demon, who wore crazy platform boots and had young ladies tossing at him more panties than can be found in a Victoria's Secret warehouse.

My father hated that guy.  I'm not just speculating or exaggerating.  My father would say, "I hate that guy!"  My dad was a very compassionate and open-minded man, generally speaking.  He wasn't a hater.  I know he hated Hitler - that went without saying.  And he hated a couple of talk-radio personalities.  But that was about it.  And then Gene Simmons.  I'm not sure exactly why Gene Simmons ended up on Dad's Top Five to Despise, but anytime KISS came on TV when I was a kid, I dreaded the upcoming hour because I knew I would have to listen to a diatribe about how "That Guy" was stupid and ignorant, and how his nonsense reflected everything that was wrong with kids and America today.  If we had had a lawn, surely Gene Simmons would have been ordered off of it.  My dad had nothing whatsoever in common with that obviously drug-addled, tone deaf, narcissistic moral degenerate now shoving his freakishly long tongue into his band mate's ear.  Or did he . . . .

A guilty little "secret" about me is that I love "reality" TV.  A couple of years ago, I discovered "Gene Simmons Family Jewels," a show that follows the home and business life of Gene Simmons and his family.  Now, I'd never really been up on my "KISS," so when I first sat down to watch "Family Jewels," I knew next to nothing about that guy.  But the show amused me.  And surprised me.  Mr. Simmons looks like a "grown up" now, more or less.  He's a successful entrepreneur and loving family man, more or less.  His long-time partner, now wife, Shannon Tweed, is witty, charming, bright, and interesting.  The Simmons children are every bit as charming and bright.  The show doesn't portray a chaotic life of an out-of-control rock maniac, but rather the life of a successful man with a sharp mind and quick wit, deep affections, vulnerabilities, and yes, some "issues."  Who knew!

As I watched multiple episodes of this show, something started to nag a me.  There was something familiar about that guy.  His facial expressions. The way he carried himself.  The style of his humor.  The tone of his voice and the way he teased his lady and talked to his beloved children.  It really bugged me.  Who does he remind me of??  OMG, he reminds me of Dad!  And then I felt the muscles in my neck flex.  My face got all scrunchy.  Is Gene Simmons Jewish?!?!

Well, it may be common knowledge to people who are up on this sort of thing, that the answer is "yes."  But I did not know this, and when I finally watched an episode that confirmed my suspicions, I nearly hit the floor.  Not only is Mr. Simmons Jewish, but he was born in Israel--as Chaim Witz--the only son of his . . .wait for it. . . Hungarian mother, who was herself a Holocaust survivor.  Mr. Simmons is college educated with a degree in education and has been employed as a school teacher among other very respectable, nonrockstar-like occupations.  He abhors alcohol and speaks with great affection, in Hungarian, with his precious mom. 

My dad would have LOVED that guy!!  But for an astronomical disparity in size between their respective bank accounts, along with a few other minor distinguishing details, my dad could have been that guy!  If I could find a way to travel to The Beyond, then back, I would . . .just so I could tell my dad all this and watch him plotz.  Because even the most loving and respectful child enjoys informing her parents, once in a while, that they had it wrong.

Whenever we shove people into boxes, we usually get it wrong.  Maybe not all of it, but at least some of it.  What we assume we know about people based on their origins; affiliations; appearances; physical, psychological, or neurological conditions, tells only a tiny fraction of anyone's story, including our own, and out of context to boot,  When we shove people into boxes, we certainly do them a disservice; but we limit ourselves almost more than anyone else.  We restrict ourselves from experiencing the richness that comes from knowledge, understanding, and communion with people who are like us, sort of like us, or not at all like us.  We shut our eyes to self-reflection.

When the time comes for Mr. Simmons to pass from this world, I hope he and my dad run into each other in the Afterlife.  I'll bet they would share some great laughs over heavenly chicken paprik├ís and pastry.

I just hope, that whatever they talk about, they steer the conversation far from politics.  If my dad knew some of Simmons's politics, he would absolutely hate that guy.