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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

In the Grand Tradition of Grand Traditions
Charles E Accetta

In a neatly trimmed, fenced-in Southern California backyard, the blades of grass and odd patch of dandelion leaves conformed to chemical impetus by donning coats of chlorophyll green hue. The flowers and shrubs guarding the fenceline conformed in their own manner by obeying the geometric house rule of the ninetieth degree. In this setting, an old man cast in a bearing once considered regal stood facing the back of the property with his arms raised to the sky, calling out in an accent that straddled the border between Brooklyn Hasid and Back Bay provincial.

"These things are done as are always done, to the exclusion of all other ways. This is how we do them, without exception or modification. The why is forever lost to time. Just do them and be done. And then do them again. This is the prime instruction behind all of our traditions. The mindset required is of unquestioning certitude, for if we attempt to apply logic and attempt to traverse the morass of swamp-boggled free will, then we are all no better than the Reformed Jews."
The old man lowered his arms and looked down in front of him. A young boy looked up and they continued a conversation.
"What does that mean, Grandpa? What's a Reformed Jew?"
"A Reformed Jew is someone who wants to be a Jew, but doesn't want to be Jewish; as opposed to Conservative Jews, who want to be Jewish so long as it doesn't conflict with their tennis lessons."

The whoosh of the sliding door connecting the patio to the back of the house prompted the little boy to peek around his grandfather's bony, bent Bermuda-shorted legs and wave to his grandmother, who remained focused on sliding the door completely closed. The task completed, she turned and waved, smiling, to the boy, while the old man ignored the woman's entrance and continued in delivering his caustic lesson.
"Pay attention, you. I won't always be around to help you cope. Understand?"
The little boy returned his gaze back to his grandfather.
"Where are you going, Grandpa?"
"What kind of crazy question is that, boy?"
His growl missed its mark; the child's innocent expression did not waver. Leaning further in, close to the boy's face, the old man forced his mouth into a grotesquely evil shape.
"Look at me. I'm an alter cocker, a geezer. I could go like that ...," he snapped his fingers, "... at any time."

He paused for effect, allowing a silent countdown to progress, but found the liftoff aborted by a forceful two-finger tap on his right shoulder. The old man unfolded himself to full height and turned to face the boy's grandmother, a foot shorter vertically but carrying with her a hulking presence that co-opted the air rights throughout the space within his limited vision. The combination of disdain and anger that papered her face was his historical signal to fight or submit and, in either case, to submit in the end.
"What is wrong with you, George? How can you talk to a little boy, your own grandson, like that?"
"It's who I am, woman. An old Jew ... disappointed ... resigned to the fickleness of a very busy God. Why not share such a vision with the boy?"
The grandmother shifted slightly in pose and vocal amplitude, throwing a quieter change of pace to counteract his husband's aggressive stance.
"George, we're Lutherans. You're just playing an old Russian Jew in a play. Stop bringing your work home and upsetting the household." She softened her voice further to speak to the boy. "Billy, come with Grandma. Your grandfather is in character. Let's leave him alone for a bit."

The grandmother strode off toward the patio, with Billy entwined in an allemande vise, as the grandfather continued making his argument indirectly, through a pronouncement to the backyard flora.
"Bringing our work home is a tradition. Our fathers did it, even when it was only by the tracking of coal dust or cow blood into the house. For their fathers, home was work. It ... is ... what ... we ... have ALWAYS DONE!"
The little boy, in a slide-step gait, reversed his view to regard his abandoned grandfather's performance from a receding perspective. George looked back at him in a sideways stare, followed by a brief sashay step and a deep bow to close out his latest enactment. From George's right, the sound of a single pair of hands slowly clapping brought quick glances and shouts of recognition from the old man and the young boy simultaneously.
The grandmother stopped at the mention of the name and dropped her head, muttering the name, same as the others, though lacking the emphatic joy evident in their call.
"Morey ... damned Morey."
Billy squirmed and slipped free of his grandmother's grappling hold, rushing to the open space amidst the run of four-foot white PVC fencing, where Morey's wrinkled head hovered opposite, his flabby chin hanging barely inches over the upper cross-section.

As each planting season came, ever since George and Morey discovered one another, the grandmother quietly invested the ground along that fenceline side with individual species, the kind of varietals that discourage close contact by way of sticker, thorn or flowing depth. Only one contiguous open section remained, midway up the length of the backyard, a stretch of thirty inches that Grandma earmarked for the future installation of a stand of Sticky Laurel. This is where George and Billy stood, one towering above and one bobbing far below the fence top.

"Hello, young William and hello, not so young George." Morey expressed himself in a singsong English developed in the days spent skipping in the shadow of the Williamsburgh Bridge. "I heard a commotion and came running out to find you, George, teaching William how not to be a shmendrick. It's such a warming thing, this."
He reached over the fence to pat the boy's head and noticed the grandmother, caught between retreat and the rescue of her grandson. He called out to the patio.
"And hello to you, Clara. You are looking especially zaftig today."
Clara waved back politely in response to her neighbor, replying to the greeting in the monotone.
"Thank you, Morey."

Never absolutely certain what Morey meant by that term, she assumed it was yet another one of his references to her breasts. Over the years, he alternately greeted her as The Milk Maiden and All of the Girls, as in "So, Clara, how are all of the girls today? All perky and bouncy and such?"

Clara considered him a rude person in general and a disturbing influence on her husband. She did whatever she could to discourage the friendship. There was the time when Clara informed Morey that a distant uncle of George's once served as a Storm Trooper in Hitler's army.

Morey shrugged, as his way of minimizing the importance of such information.
"He was a soldier. There's nothing says he was killing Jews."
Clara countered, trying to dig the point deeper, trying to find the nerve, by pointing out that they were all on the same payroll. It didn't work.
Morey turned to George and asked, "So how many Jews have you slaughtered this week?"
George answered one question with another, this learned from his rabbi, Morey.
"Not counting you?"

Clara completed her bug-out through the sliding door and left the boys to themselves at the fence. George wanted to speak with his friend, to work on his accent and inflection, as well as on the timing of his lines. For the purpose of George's research, Morey loomed as a Library of Yiddish congress and, as a bonus, he spent years writing for the top television comics of the Fifties. Did any era ever ring more Hebraic than the Golden Age of Television? Not to hear Morey describe it.

"First, Berle fired me, and then Sid Caesar fired me. Ernie Kovacs would have fired me after that, except that his death prevented it. I've been fired by the best. So, what could you want to know that I don't already?"
He recommended George for the role in the summer stock production of "Sleepless in Belgorod," a two-act play about an old man looking back on his days of flight from the pogroms. For George, who failed to land any serious parts in the previous decade, this was a plum role. The play suffered no dearth of dialog, with three soliloquies for him in the first act, each ending on the same phrase - "at least I didn't die."

Initially, the director was reluctant to let him read for the part, but some intensive coaching from Morey helped to remove his cosmopolitan Germanic stiltedness and bring out the haimish in him, which won him the job. Now, three days before the opening of the show, George wanted to hone in on his character. For this, he needed Morey's complete attention and guidance. However, little Billy had an agenda of his own.

"Morey, who were you named after? Grandpa says I was named after William the Conqueror." Billy tripped over the last two syllables, but managed to keep his balance, to the amusement of both men.
Morey grew serious, carefully considering the question.
"Well, this should be something of an interesting surprise for you two, because I was named after the original Jewish homeland. But, I didn't like the name Israel, and I liked Izzy even less. So, I took my mother's maiden name, Morenberg, and made it into my nickname. And that's how everyone knows me.
"Come to think of it, I'm not sure if I ever changed it legally. My luck, I'll die and get a tombstone that says, 'Here lies Israel.' No one will be able to find me, except the suicide bombers."
The little boy took all of it in, looked up alternately at both men.
"Wow, you mean you can just make up a name like that for yourself? Wow."
Billy seemed distracted by his own thoughts and George saw his chance.
"Hey, Billy, go tell Grandma that Morey's been hiding his real identity all this time." He winked at Morey. "That should keep you both occupied for a while."
"Okay, Grandpa," said Billy, sent off charging up to the patio and yelling toward the house, "Hey Grandma, open up. I have something to tell you."

George maintained a protective view of Billy to be sure he made it inside, and then faced Morey.
"I'm worried about maintaining the persona. No matter how hard I try, I keep feeling myself going Gentile. I need a way to play a good Jew and hold it through two acts. Have you got anything I can use to get re-centered in the middle of a performance?"
Morey looked at his friend, silently considering the problem. Then he spoke.
"George, I grew up in a very orthodox house. I studied the Torah, asked the questions and accepted the answers that my people handed down to me. Those teachings followed with me wherever I happened to land. For me, it's difficult to understand how to deal with your issue. Maybe we should just focus on some simple principles.
"Start with the tradition of the mitzvot. Your friendship for me was a gift from God, a mitzvah. I must acknowledge that gift in turn. That is why I used what little influence I had to get you the part in this play. It was a little thing, a small kindness to express my appreciation for the good fortune I found with knowing you."
George's facial expression revealed the confused Lutheran in Jew's clothing. Morey held out his hands in a questioning pose.
"No good?"
"No, Morey. It's not what you do, as much as what you feel. How can I feel like a good Jew?"
"Well, first of all, I don't know that I'm so good a one anyway, compared to the people who taught me. Since I'm the only Jew you've got, let's try to make this work."

Morey pondered while George fretted, playing tag with the fingers on either of his hands. He was on the verge of reviving his long-gone habit of nail biting, when Morey started nodding and smiling, indicating a solution found.
"Okay, George. Now, I'm going to give you my secret to feeling like a good Jew. You must never repeat this to a soul, Jew or Gentile."

George held up his right hand in the Boy Scout salute, inferring a vow. Morey responded with a brief Fuehrer-like salute of his own, and then switched his head, first left, then right, to emphasize the gravity and import of what he was about to say. He grasped the top of the fence with his hands and pulled his face close to George's, with his eyes locked in contact with those of his friend.

"The secret is to try to do everything you can to help others without expecting any of it to work out, because it won't, and expecting everyone to hate you for it, because they will." Morey finished with an exaggerated nod of the head to punctuate the last few words with a physical exclamation, at the same time releasing his grip on the fence and shrinking down to his normal height.

George regarded Morey blankly, still holding to a place in his own existence that found Morey's world as alien as Mars. Before they could dabble further into the realm of religious synchronization, Clara joined the party, with poor Billy firmly in hand. Her lip twitched, balancing a snarl against it, and her free hand, the one not holding the squirmy boy by the collar, balled into a fist at her side and shook like a paint can mixer. She looked first at George, then at Morey, condemning both with her eyes.

"Gentleman, there is something you both need to hear, and then explain to me." She could barely shield her anger, but tried as she looked down to Billy. "Go ahead and tell them what your new name is."
The boy had to know he was the cause of some trouble, yet he maintained a confidence of spirit and purpose.
"My name is Izzy, Izzy the Conqueror." Once more, he tripped over the last two syllables, retaining the charm that protects little boys from the judgments endured by much older men. "Morey didn't want it, so I took it. It's cool."
George looked at Morey and smiled.
"I think I understand now."
"How could you not?"

© 2009 Charles E. Accetta
Note - an earlier edition of this story appeared in the October 2008 edition of Hack Writers-The International Writers Magazine

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