Paisan

Mitch Ginsburg

See me on the cusp of puberty: I match my yarmulkes to my shirts, have a full rack of ties in my closet and a fancy head of hair. Every few months my mother and I go to Manhattan to get it cut. My grandmother meets us there and a big deal is made. She gives me a few bills to put in the barber’s jar. It’s embarrassing, for giver and taker alike, but it doesn’t dim my love of the place. The floors are a chessboard black and white. Playboy and Sports Illustrated share the magazine rack. But my favorite part of the whole experience comes when I’m alone on the chair, talking to my barber, Nicholas Zanetti. He’s Italian, from the Bronx. Both of us love the Yankees. We talk baseball. Current—Pagliarulo and Righetti—and ancient—Rizzuto and DiMaggio. Once he’s brushed and powdered my neck, I get out of his chair, feeling more like a man.
        Nick’s nothing like my dad. He has thick hairy arms and when he curses it isn’t a slip, it’s premeditated and prideful. “Fuck him and his family,” he says, showing me a picture from the New York Post of someone burning an American flag.
        Nick died of AIDS. He was a user. I know that today. But back then, he was all I wanted to be: an Italian American.
        Nothing could have been farther from reality. I was brought up Jewish, overwhelmingly Jewish. Don’t-eat–at-your-neighbors house Jewish. Don’t-drink-their-wine Jewish. Don’t play ball with their kids, don’t go near their daughters, don’t set a bad example. Don’t forget before whom you stand, don’t fidget in shul, don’t talk during the rabbi’s speech, don’t think about eating ice cream off the truck when it comes singing into the park, don’t forget about the gelatin, don’t forget that people died for less, don’t forget what happened, don’t ever forget, don’t ever forget, do-not-ever-forget-Jewish.
        And yet, at about the time I first kissed a girl, a light feathery peck on the lips performed at the end of a shabbes walk in camp, I adopted my own spiritual guidebook. Nick gave it to me late in the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I’d come to him to get my hair done the day before our flight to Israel. We were flying from Queens to Jerusalem along with around thirty close family members and a tight circle of friends to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah. After dropping the rolled bills, still warm from my grandmother’s grip, into Nick’s jar, I handed him a gold-lettered envelope that smelled like the leather and lipstick of my mom’s handbag. Inside was an invitation in Hebrew and English to my celebration.
        Nick thanked me and brought me in close with a hand-clasping man hug. Then he went to the coat rack and took a present out of his bag. From the shape of it I knew it was a book— I’d gotten dozens of them already, and sometimes I said things like, thank you, my father will enjoy this—but this one was different. “Paisan,” it said on the first blank page, “Mazel Tov, you’re a man now.”
        I read it on the plane to Israel. More than anything else, I remember savoring the names. Genco Abbandando, Don Tommasino, Emilio Barzini, Bruno Tattaglia, Appolonia Vitelli. I wished my name demanded the singsong of vowels. I liked the way the Godfather’s oldest son was Sonny to his American friends and Santino to his father. I practiced saying it. Santino Corleone. I had something similar with my names, but the comparison made me sick. To Nick and his kind, I was Dave or Davey. To my father and my friends from shul, I was Duvi. The name made me think of money lending and diamond appraising. I imagined myself at middle age, stooped, with one of those magnifying lenses over one eye, turning jewels around in an unsteady hand, counting thick wads of cash with a wetted thumb.
        I don’t know if this is what Nick intended, but after coming back from Israel I decided to make some changes. First of all, my name was Dave, period, to everyone. Second, on the subway, my yarmulke would stay in pocket. The silent derision was too great to bear. And third, the unkosher pizza on 188th St. was, I decided, an inalienable right.
        I’d been eating pizza regularly since kindergarten. Our Queens Boulevard place was kosher, of course. It was called Shimon’s. What else can I say? They sold falafel. They sold my sisters’ favorite, Israeli salad with tahini. From the first grade on I knew I was eating an inferior product. I felt the sting of forced segregation, of being wronged.
        I knew the language of the law. The Bible was very clear on this, very specific. Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. OK, got it. It sounds nasty anyway, this cooking of a kid in its mother’s milk. The point’s well taken. But then there’s a whole separate torah, it turns out, one we forgot to write down for a few thousand years. It’s a compilation of the opinions of the most annoying people in the world—people who spent lives arguing whether it was permissible to eat an egg that was hatched on the Sabbath—and they say that a kid in its mother’s milk is just the tip of the iceberg. Preserved in the frigid waters of tradition is the knowledge that you need two separate sets of plates, for milk and meat, that you can’t mix them during a meal, that you must wait somewhere between 30 minutes and six hours between the two, that my favorite honey-touched cereal was wholly impermissible, and that the divine-smelling concoction of flour, yeast, water, cheese and tomato sauce at Vinny’s Famous Pizza is most assuredly unkosher. This was clearly a case of scholarly reasoning gone wild.
        One day, after a shower, I summoned the moral indignation I needed. Looking in the steamy mirror I saw myself as a warrior in the armies of culinary justice, the Rosa Parks of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates.
Only thing was, I was scared. I mean, there weren’t four different places to buy challah on 188th Street back then, but still, the chance of running into someone from the congregation was not nil.
        The obvious day to break the embargo was Sunday. Problem was, Sunday was also the day of Jewish shopping. The street was packed. Saturday was of course a no-go, as we spent the whole day eating, praying and avoiding modernity. School days were a problem, too. My bus brought me back home at five thirty in the afternoon. Thank God, my mother wasn’t one of those fat powdered moms who waited for me on the corner, but I knew that she had her eye on the clock, and a twenty-minute walk each way to Vinny’s would’ve been tricky to hide. That left Friday. We got out of school at one o’ clock. My mom didn’t get home from work till four. For my sisters, that meant Days of Our Lives and General Hospital back to back. For me, it meant I could do whatever I wanted. The year before, I’d lit a fire in the fireplace and tossed in a looseleaf full of disastrous grades. I’d forgotten to open the flue. Only after I’d run downstairs, gotten the pails of sand, and extinguished the fire, did my sisters, sitting one door away, notice that the living room was choked with smoke. They would not present a problem.
        It took me a few Fridays to gather the courage. Strangely enough, I think Yom Kippur helped. I’d fasted again, my third straight year. I also felt pretty damn good about my record on the forgive-me-for-I-have-sinned list. That list runs the gauntlet. Adultery, lying, cheating, stealing, coveting. I looked around at the congregation and a lot of the men were looking guilty as charged as they bent over and pounded their chests for forgiveness, rattling the silver tiles sewn onto their tallises. Even my dad looked green. He’d hit the smelling salts each time they’d come through our section, and he, too, struck his chest in a away that produced a faint echo. According to the list though, I was in good standing. I must have been something like 290-10, which I figured kept me in the clear for the Who-By-Fire reckoning. So, in October, about three months after my Bar Mitzvah, I took a few of the rare two dollar-bills my aunt had given me for my tenth birthday, and walked through my leafy residential neighborhood and out to the slightly harder pavement of 188th St.
        I got to Vinny’s without being seen and slipped in through the open door. I’d looked in through that door a million times. On the right, they kept the pizzas in a glass display case. On the left were a bar, some stools, and a mirror. In the back, I learned, were vinyl benches and booths for people ordering pies.
        “What can I get you?” the server asked.
        I looked around and asked, “Do you have Sicilian?”
        “Yeah, it’s comin’ out in a second,” he said, tossing his head in the direction of the oven.
        I nodded, asked for a Coke from the fountain, and sat down. Everything about the place was right. The guy was wearing a white apron. His hands were dusted with flour. The tables were dressed in red and white checks.
        The server worked the pizza cutter with quick precision. “How many you want?” he asked, holding up a pair of white paper plates.
        I gave the money in my pocket another squeeze and asked for two. He looked at my two-dollar bills, held them up to the light, and then stashed them in the cash register, giving me my change in the form of smooth, worn down coin.
        I took both plates to the counter and sprinkled the slices with oregano. The first bite only proved how right I’d been. Something so good had to be righteous. It was crispy and yet somewhat chewy on the bottom, saucy and sweet and salty all at the same time in the middle, and on top the cheese pulled all the way from my mouth back to the plate. At Shimon’s the slices were flaccid. They were so wet and oily that you had to fold the slice in half and funnel it into your mouth.
        I finished the first slice in a state of reverence. But while I was drinking and getting ready for the next one, the guy brought out another pie. I’d heard the word pepperoni bandied about but had never seen the product up close. At first I shrugged it off. I wasn’t eating it. All I had in my hand was flour, water, yeast, tomato and cheese, I reminded myself. But the swinish sweetness coming off the fresh pie wouldn’t let up. Feeling queasy, I dashed some oregano on my slice and walked out the door.
        The air felt good, and I felt more American than ever, eating the people’s pizza. But I didn’t take more than three steps before spotting the googly-eyed Avi Abramowitz. He saw me immediately. My plate of pizza was at chest level. He hadn’t seen it yet, but looking around fast I saw there was no way to make it to a garbage can before he approached. Instead, like Michael Corleone on his way out of the restaurant, I just let the incriminating evidence fall through my fingers, all slow and nonchalant, just as Clemenza had instructed.
        “How are you?” I chimed when we were face to face.
        “Thank God,” he said, leaving it at that.
        There wasn’t much to talk about with Avi. He was the rabbi’s oldest son, and to my everlasting misfortune, exactly my age. My parents forced me to be nice to him, to invite him to little league games and birthdays. He went to an all-boys yeshiva and while I was trying to come up with something to say, I saw his eyes walk down my chest, to the sidewalk, and on to the uneaten slice of pizza a few feet behind me. It had fallen face-up, the perfectly fresh slice looking strange indeed on the smooth gray sidewalk.
        I thought about commenting, maybe a little insiders joke about Bal Tashchis and the wasteful things you see in this part of town, but Avi, who was a lot of things, was not stupid, and the look on his face said disappointment more than reproach.
        “Well,” I should get going,” I said. “It’s Friday and I need to get home.”
        He seconded that, nodding vigorously, saying he was just going to pick up some dry cleaning for his father, whose very mention sat heavy in my stomach for the rest of the walk.

A few weeks later, after dinner, we all sat in the kitchen. Me, my mother, my two sisters, and my parents. I could tell by my dad’s face a lecture was coming. I could also tell, by the way my mother was shifting in her chair, that it had been coordinated with her.
        “Your mother and I have decided…” my dad began.
        This was not a good sign. The last time he’d said that I’d been switched to a different school. After a long pause, he continued, “That we will be moving to Israel next year.”
        At first his words didn’t fully register. I was too busy dunking Abramowitz’s head in and out of the toilet bowl. Only when my sisters pushed away from the table and scampered up to their rooms in tears did I begin to understand.
        They, a junior and senior in high school, were not coming with us. They were on their way to college. They’d take the car, the microwave, the stereo, the TVs and the couches to their dorm rooms. The ‘we’ my father meant was me, my mom, and him.
        “Why?” I asked, trying to buy time.
        He responded with a long and familiar lecture on Zionism and the Holocaust and the incurable nature of anti-Semitism.
        “But not here,” I said, looking for a crack in the wall of his logic, “not in America.”
        He snorted in response, and his snort, the knowingness of it, gave me my teenage bearings back. “If you’re having a midlife crisis,” I said, “leave me the hell out of it. Send me to boarding school.”
        My mother stifled a smile but my father looked at me sternly. I thought he’d say something about my language, but instead, he said, “Duvi, I’m not having a midlife crisis. We’re doing this for you, so that you can grow up in a place with less”—here he stopped, searched for a word—“temptation.”

Mitch Ginsburg, a translator, journalist and graduate of the Bar-Ilan creative writing program, has translated several novels, including Sayed Kashua's forthcoming Second Person Singular.


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