Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tough as Boots

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for November is called "Alpha Mom." A parody of this song will one day be featured in "Guitar Hero - Al Yankovic North American Tour." I'm hoping for either "Alfalfa Mom" or "Balfour Aplomb," the latter being a reference to the great composure of the Englishman who facilitated Israel becoming a Jewish state. I'm just throwing those out there. The ball is in your court now, Weird Al.

Anti-Semitism in the Upper Peninsula and Why It's My Fault

Like most small towns, Houghton, Michigan didn't have a particularly robust Jewish community in the early 1980s. When you're the only Jewish kid in school, you have to be tough as boots. I learned early on that if a classmate said something hurtful like, "You killed Jesus," the correct response was to gnash my teeth and scream, "That's right I killed him! That's right I killed the son of God! Who's next?!" As the saying goes, a lamb has to grow claws to survive among rams.

When we lived in Houghton I had a neighborhood friend named Wilhelm Greuer, and I absolutely idolized him. He was a year older than me, and by the age of 8 he was printing and distributing a home made newspaper, The Houghton Bugle. The Bugle featured Wilhelm's opinion pieces ("Walter Mondale is Way Rad") and my own guerilla journalism ("School Closes on Certain Days When There's Lots of Snowing Sometimes Sometimes.") Wilhelm was also responsible for the comics section, but since we didn't know how to print anything other than text, they were more like miniature screenplays:

(Charlie Brown and Lucy are standing. In the background there is a straight line, representing the horizon.)
CHARLIE BROWN: Lucy, how old are you?
LUCY: A woman never reveals her age.
CHARLIE BROWN: What year were you born?
LUCY: 1979.
CHARLIE BROWN: Then you must be five.
LUCY: You blockhead!

I liked to spend as much time as I could at Wilhelm's house. When I wasn't scouring the Wall Street Journal for headlines that we could plagiarize, I would run my hands over their furniture, hoping to pick up loose pieces of his sister Frederika's straight blonde hair, which I had an inexplicable desire to touch.

Wilhelm and Frederika were first generation German-Americans, and based on our limited discussions about World War II, it was clear that their family didn't really buy in to the whole blame game thing. Wilhelm once told me that the Holocaust, while regrettable, happened because the Jews kind of got in Hitler's way.

Okay, I guess that makes sense. Wilhelm was older than me and smarter than me, after all, and I didn't see any reason to doubt his logic. Why point fingers? Hitler was inconvenienced, one thing led to another, some unfortunate stuff happened, and now everything is fine, here we are, and isn't that Frederika's hairbrush over there?

Really, the only thing that came between myself and the Greuer family was my own gluttony. Mrs. Greuer kept a silver canister of fancy German Gummi candy out on their living room table. I asked about it politely, and she told me that it was imported and that I was not allowed to have any.

The phrase "not allowed to have any" needed further clarification. At my house, leaving candy anywhere it could be seen, smelled, or reached by stacking chairs and climbing on top of the refrigerator was an open invitation to eat it. If my parents had candy that wanted to live to see the sun go down, they would place it in a safe deposit box and hide the key in a bee hive. 

Meanwhile, the Greuer's weren't just displaying a 3-pack of SweeTARTS. This was luscious, multicolored imported Gummi candy, in a silver canister no less. I knew it was off limits. I knew that if I stole the candy, I would be reinforcing whatever stereotypes I assumed they had about me, but in the end, it didn't matter. I pinched those German Gummis, twice in fact, and Mrs. Greuer caught me both times. So yes, dear EVERY JEWISH PERSON NORTH OF THE MACKINAC BRIDGE, I am the reason none of your neighbors like you.

The next year we moved to Milwaukee, presumably so my family could escape the stigma of my sticky fingers. There were plenty of Jewish kids in my new school, but we lived in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. The closest thing to anti-Semitism that I experienced was when one of the McDevitt boys would drive by me and yell "Read the Torah!" out the window of his car. Then he would turn around in a cul-de-sac, and drive past me the other way, yelling, "Read the Torah!" just to reinforce his point. I wasn't really sure if that was intended to be an insult or paternal advise, akin to "Stay in school! Get a library card!" But read the Torah? Didn't he know I wasn't old enough? Maybe because I was so tough as boots he assumed that I was 13 instead of 9.

Too Dirty for Apple
When the newest Hard Taco album became available on iTunes about a month ago, I was startled to discover that the iTunes Store had slapped the "Parental Advisory" sticker on the album and deemed 18 of the 19 songs to be Explicit. Boo! (As in "Boo, I'm scary!" Not as in "Boo, I'm crying!" It was just Halloween, after all, not Valentine's Day.) What makes these songs explicit? The leading theory, dear EVERYONE WHOSE EMAIL ADDRESS I KNOW, is that they are too sincere and charmingly personal for anyone under 40.

With warmest regards,