Maybe I haven’t figured out why I want to be a rabbi, and maybe I never will. But I think I’ve at least figured out why I want to be a rabbi. So here’s how that makes sense.
I’ve talked ad nauseum (yours and mine, both) about wanting to go to, applying to, and getting into rabbinic school for someone who doesn’t actually start until mid-September after the High Holy Days. (Slogging through several hundred pages of Jewish and Biblical history, Gershom Scholem, and multiple versions of Hebrew for the next three months notwithstanding.)
Up to now, the nearest I’ve gotten to getting at why I’m going is a little bit of being called and a little bit of being in debt. As I’ve previously written, I can’t get away from that still, small voice urging me forward to greater learning no matter how hard I try. And I can’t get away from the feeling that, after taking 40 years of my life to join the Jewish people, the best way to fully Jewishly engage–and give back–for the rest of my life is as a professional Torah teller.
But there’s much more to it than that. More belly-lintful, messier, suckier, and a lot less clear-cut, but worth it to me in the end. I’ve shared a lot about my childhood, especially about my father–or physical absence thereof–and the (ADHD, codependent) emotional effect my upbringing had on me.
But not necessarily the most important details.
My Aunt Juanita and I corresponded about these things recently. I spent a few weeks during three childhood summers with her family in suburban New Jersey (or suburban Pennsylvania–Uncle Ron was probably the original master house flipper), and when things got really rough in my house, I spent most of my 14th and part of my 15th years living with them full time. I love them dearly, though it has been a long time since I have seen them (Uncle Ron passed, and Juanita’s daughters have long had families of their own.)
She remembered the things I share here (which I first shared with her), and told me more that didn’t surprise me. The drunken/stoned behavior of my siblings, as much as I loved them at the time, was astounding. My brother, John, in particular, used to be quite verbally an physically abusive with the women in his life. My sister, Patricia, was that way with everyone. She once knocked my grandmother’s teeth out with a paint can during a bender. I clearly remember my short, plump mother in return beating tall, athletic Patricia and flinging her bodily up a flight of stairs.
My siblings were children of the Sixties, most of their friends were high, or stoned, or totally destroyed on the inside from Vietnam. (Those who came home.) But John and Patricia had a head start. My mother’s husband was a lifelong alcoholic. It eventually killed him six years before I was born. I can only imagine the level of codependence that governed my family before I arrived in it. When I did arrive, my mother refused to let anyone tell me about my real father, and invented the outlandish fiction that her dead husband was my dad–including putting his name on my birth records. Not that I’ve ever used it, but I’m sure it would come as a complete shock to Ireland that, unbeknownst to me, I got my Irish passport in the 1990s solely by dint of a fraudulent name on my birth certificate. And my mother let that happen without comment.
So many holidays, and regular days, I recall ducking–or getting hit with the collateral damage from–plastic tumblers of iced tea thrown in anger across living rooms and dining rooms and kitchens. Trying to pry my brother’s fists off of his girlfriend’s face, or my passed-out sister off of the kitchen floor. I remember the bales of marijuana in the second-floor apartment when Patricia was dating a drug dealer. I remember John’s first adult girlfriend stoned and flopping headfirst into her mashed potatoes at the family table, with his own goose-neck collapse not far behind.
I remember my mother giving up work, staying at home, and living on welfare while she raised me. At the time I thought it was because of her health. But I believe now health deteriorated more from giving up than anything. We lived on welfare so she could make sure I was safe with my brother and sister around. Until I moved out at the age of 25–with my mom passing away soon after and the family house being sold–they, who were a full 20 years older then me, had lived most of their adult lives drunk, stoned, violent, verbally abusive, and rent-free at home.
I stopped talking to my siblings in my mid-teens, although we still lived largely in the same house. I had had enough of the verbal and emotional abuse aimed at me and my mother, and the physical abuse that they engaged in with others. Though I’ll admit there were several fistfights between my sister and me during my teens. Usually after she ambled downstairs from a night of drinking warm vodka, moaning incoherently, and banging the plaster off the walls in the attic apartment all night long, to yell at my mother, as if mom hadn’t spent the night before cleaning alcoholic vomit off of the kitchen floor.
Somehow, my mother managed to pay for parochial school for me, buy food, and keep the utilities on. Actually maintaining or fixing things that broke in the house was another story. When the second-floor bathroom ceiling collapsed to the floor due to water and squirrel damage in the century-old plaster, it stayed that way. Unfixed. Ragged. Broken.
Aunt Juanita told me her family stopped visiting in the 1970s because she was afraid for the safety of her girls. She told me the times that I did spend away during the summer, my grandmother always asked her not to bring me back to the madness. Just to keep me.
And she shared something more. She told me my siblings savagely beat my father when they found out my mother was pregnant. When she finally disclosed his existence to me when I was 24, my mother told me she had asked him to go. As it turns out, he left in fear.
Clunk. Very unsurprising, sickening clunk.
It’s hard to take in the level of selfishness and malevolence that would cause a woman’s children to beat her lover, or the level of codependence for someone to pretend that her son was fathered by a man long dead and swear an entire family and an entire neighborhood to secrecy. I’d rather have known. Had I known, not only would my life have turned out differently, but my mother would have been free.
For two and a half decades, my siblings blackmailed my mother with the knowledge of my real father. Let us get away with murder (this very nearly–in the early 1980s my sister stabbed my brother’s sleeping girlfriend in the back with a steak knife.) Let us do whatever we want. Or we’ll tell Michael about his father. This, more than anything, defines my childhood. I can reach back to any childhood memory still within my power to recall, and I can smell the hot, foul tench of it. Unlike my father, it was never absent.
I will tell you, it’s clearly a cross-generational thing in my family. This scared, ashamed, angry, impotent, unfulfilled, hateful, terrified, terrifying, lashing out behavior has a history of generations in those who came before me. My mother used to tell me of the anger and unhappiness and malevolence with which my great-grandmother, “Momma D’Arcy”, used to rule the family home. Mom married early and left to escape it, and ended up living 16 years with–and most likely covering up for–and alcoholic. John and Patricia could not have helped but to have had enormous head starts with their substance-and emotionally abusive behavior long before I came onto the scene.
Seen like this, it makes a sad sort of sense that my mother might pretend my real father never existed, see the sick, twisted demands of her adult children as a way to keep the family peace, and let things unroll the way they did. In one way or another, the behavior which I have come to characterize as generational evil killed my mother, her husband, and my sister. Kept my brother well-marinated and pause-inducingly aggressive into his sixties. And sent me into self-imposed exile.
Eight-hundred miles and almost 20 years later, the echoes of it all still live within me. The best I can do is remain mindful for the rest of my life in the way that no one else in my immediate family chose to do. I can forgive the sins of the past, but I don’t condone decisions made by adults who knew better. No matter how deeply entrenched you are in your addiction of choice, at some level you make a decision to give into your own deliciously familiar slow-death, or you take the steps you already know will lead you in different, more life-affirming directions. If I could reach back a couple of generations I would tell my mother that John and Patricia needed tough love from her, not pandering.
If only. But at least I can make the choices that my family never made. I can be the one to say enough. This stops with me. And if I’m blessed at all, I can be the one to turn the generational evil upside down, too.
I don’t have the license on unhappiness, within my family or outside of it. As Aunt Juanita reminded me, pain was not confined to my immediate family. Still, I’m far enough from the evil that destroyed my family that stories of the behavior of my siblings don’t describe me.
But I’ll always be close enough to it to know that a vigilance is necessary in my life, so that I always remember adult Michael is safe–always safe–and more than safe enough to love, and do justice, and act with mercy and kindness. Sometimes I am that person. Sometimes, as Ryan and people who have known me long enough will tell you, I am far from that person. But at least I get the story.
So rabbinic school? Yes, I’m following that still, small voice. And yes, I’m going to do my best to give back to the Judaism that has transformed my life and given me perspective to live my life truly lovingly for the first time, perhaps, ever.
But now I know I’m also doing something else: I’m responding to my origins. There’s a somewhat automatic feeling to it–as if I finally realized how hot the stove was that I was leaning on and it’s all I can do to jump away, as quickly and completely as possible. I’m ending a century-long cycle of sadness in the best way I know how, by endeavoring to make the rest of my life about the opposite. After all, my family spent so much time steeped in pain, one of us ought to spend some time steeped in love, and kindness, and faith.
I won’t be the most politic, PC rabbi ever. I’m much more in the Gonzo Judaism camp. But I will do my best to back the truck up. I can’t change the past. But If in being a Torah teller I can help another person reconsider decisions like the ones that still reverberate within me and probably always will, then I’ll know I did my job here.
You know. On earth.