Oatmeal Raisin Cookies and the Jewish Problem
My friend from kindergarten, Richard Murway, still lived in Lakewood, Ohio, the Cleveland suburb of my childhood. A stranger in Cleveland, who had found photographs from the 1930s of his father in a Silver Legion uniform, telephoned, distressed, asking about William Dudley Pelley, the Silver Legion chief, since I had written about this fascist group. I suggested that he call my old friend, Richard, a retired journalist, who might have some information about the Silver Legion and its founder. With followers nourished by Depression miseries and nativist paranoia, Pelley offered some original ideas—for example, a silver shirt, not a black or brown one. I asked the stranger to mention to Richard that I planned to revisit Lakewood so that he and I could stroll the streets we remembered from touch football, Halloween doorbell ringing, snowball fights.
I telephoned Richard, getting no answer, until one day someone picked up. It was his daughter-in-law, saying, “He passed away three weeks ago.” I suppressed my usual pedantry about “passed away,” which really means “died.” This was not a moment for finicky objection to a euphemism.
Richard and I had bonded as five-year-olds, marched together around the kindergarten room at Taft School while our teacher banged out “The Star-Spangled Banner” on an upright piano, out of tune, but immaculately patriotic. We passed from short pants to knickers together and were convinced, without needing to discuss the matter, that we were the smartest kids in our grades and destined to be best friends and allies. I thought I was Number One, and he no doubt thought he was; but we both granted the other the Number Two Runner-Up Prize. I left Lakewood after high school; he worked as a journalist in Cleveland and never left Lakewood. And now we wouldn’t be strolling together on the streets we had explored, munching my mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies or the frozen chocolate Mars bars his mother sometimes gave us as afterschool fuel. I had wanted to bring up bygone matters, but: “He passed away peacefully in his sleep.”
“Oatmeal keeps you regular,” Mother said, “and the raisins, they make iron.” She knew about matters of nutrition although she wasn’t a doctor, because there would eventually be many doctors among my East Side of Cleveland cousins; she pre-knew. A future aunt to doctors, she studied Richard’s narrow white face. “You, too, Richard, have. There’s not too much sugar the way I make them, for the teeth.” Although she wasn’t a dentist, either.
A blare of mental static shook me before the words from Richard’s daughter-in-law could penetrate the noise. Richard. Richard. Passed way? Into a better place?
Right, right, but as a Jew, in due course I will merely die and wait underground for the Messiah, while Richard has finally moved out of Lakewood and into heaven.
And then I realized how much I still missed him. That first intense and unforgettable friendship had been altered by events at the time we both turned thirteen. There was a birthday party, and I wasn’t invited. His mother didn’t think my presence was appropriate, since there would be girls at the party and their mothers would be uncomfortable, now that we were entering adolescence, to see a Jewish boy with all those well-known raging Jewish hormones playing pin the tail on the donkey and blind man’s bluff. He was sorry about that, but it was his mother buying the cake and candles and giving the party.
We remained friends, but less close. I found new and more daring friends to camp with overnight in the nearby parks, steal from our parents’ stocks of alcohol, discuss the greedy issues which we shared—our dreams of ambition, fame, and girls. I still loved the boy from kindergarten. The news from his daughter-in-law was a final conclusive loss. I had planned to buy a bag of oatmeal raisin cookies for us to share. And I had hoped we could finally talk about those events from the time when we turned thirteen.
At that age in Lakewood and almost everywhere, boys and girls begin to follow a modification of the biblical injunction to put away childish things in favor of taking up immature things. Girls were begging their mothers to buy them cashmere sweaters. Boys were gathering in secret to pore over those sex instructional manuals called Tijuana bibles, “Popeye,” “Mutt and Jeff,” or “Little Orphan Annie,” straight from the forbidden land of Pornographica. When we huddled over these scriptures, Richard observed me carefully, as if I would be able to impart special secrets beyond the arousal we all felt. But just like the other boys, I limped home, my hormones ecumenical, no less confused than anyone else’s in this non-multiethnic suburb.
Old men know that those long ago griefs, appetites, and mysteries don’t die until the mouth gapes and the heart stops. Jack Mcdonald, the older boy who lived next door to our family, invited my younger brother and me to visit his house and wrestle (“rassle,” he said) on the living room floor. His house was a haunted blank to us, forbidden territory, so of course we accepted the invitation. His mother, a widow or divorced or abandoned by her husband, all the same thing for Lakewood, it seemed, busied herself with telephoning the police if our father dared to mow the lawn on the Sabbath. We called her “the old crab.”
Jack threw my brother to the floor and pulled him tight, and a sudden pungent smell arose from his pants. I pulled my brother away, and we escaped from Jack’s close, grunting, and sweaty embrace. But he never again obeyed his mother’s instructions to throw opened cans of sardines through the windows of the house next door, which swarmed with Jewish spawn and Sabbath violators. The Old Crab went on peeking through her curtains, perhaps checking to see if her husband was hiding in the den of the Christ-killers.
Our family was the only Jewish one I knew in Lakewood. Later, in high school, a boy revealed himself to me, a daring confession for him because his family was concealed within a safely generic name, Gilbert or Martin or Davis. Harold and I celebrated our shared heritage by playing tennis together at the public courts in Lakewood Park. Although he had told me the secret, he wasn’t brave enough to reveal the confession to his parents.
During those late Depression years, the German-American Bund, the Black Legion, and the Silver Shirts all had their recruits, inspired by Mussolini’s trains running on time and Hitler’s autobahn construction. Castor oil for opponents and the beard-cutting of rabbis surely would help to purify the blood of previously corrupted peoples. Activists of the Silver Legion, founded by William Dudley Pelley, left stacks of their newspapers, variously called The New Liberator, Pelley’s Silvershirt Weekly, or the Galilean, at the entrances to Emerson Junior High and Lakewood High. It promised to release America from the claws of the Devil and the Jews. I read those papers as I studied the Tijuana bibles which also appeared among the boys on the playgrounds. They both seemed to be instructional manuals. But I checked some of the facts with my father, who said, “No, Roosevelt’s real name is not Rosenfeld, meshuganeh.”
Along with the uniformed fascist movements, there were also the regular Sunday radio sermons by Father Coughlin of Royal Oak, Michigan. “Drive the money changers from the temple,” he cried in his mellifluous baritone which lifted toward a passionate tenor when inspiration carried him upward. At first, his sermons seemed innocently ambiguous. He couldn’t mean my father with his fruit and vegetable store, could he? I even had a grownup cousin far away in the East Side of Cleveland who thought it would be a good idea, whatever the idea was, because he admired the voice which seemed to echo like an organ from a chapel. “I’ll bet he sings for his wife, that one,” my cousin said. He was too busy in his chosen career as a furniture mover to keep up with details, such as Catholic doctrine about marriage among priests.
At night, after dinner, I watched my father sink into his appointed chair to read about the rise of the Nazis in Germany. In Lakewood, I felt reverberations from the boy at Emerson Junior High, back from his exchange student year in Berlin, revealing to the gathered all-school assembly, “I saw no evidence of anti-Jew action. Of course, I saw no Jews, either.” Laughter rose in waves from the auditorium, and eyes turned toward me.
My father, sighing, used to throw the paper down, climb from his easy chair, and go to the kitchen to fry chicken skin with onions. The smell was enticing, and he taught me a Yiddish word, gribben. We shared it on slices of the rye bread brought back when we made the trip to visit family on the East Side. I never told him about the Square Deal Club, for Christians only; that is, for everyone in the school except me. I never mentioned Richard’s birthday party. He still came to our house for my mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies, but when I walked him home, I stopped at the corner. On Square Deal days, I walked home alone.
After the assembly about the cultural broadening of the German exchange program, a boy I scarcely knew, vice-president of the Square Deal Club, asked me, “Gold? Honest, that’s your name? Because that’s what you people really like, is that it, Gold?”
My responsibilities for being the Christ-killer at Taft Elementary, emissary of the Devil in Emerson Junior High, the bearer of erotic contamination at Lakewood High, were heavy burdens for a kid who only wanted in life to be a good tennis player and a great poet. I had better not say it was my cross to bear.
I had already achieved an ample source of oatmeal raisin cookies from my mother and heavy petting from the girl who suddenly chose me. In that sense, I was a member of the chosen people.
In that time of the 1930s as far as Lakewood was concerned, black men didn’t exist. It was as if the clusters of black maids and cleaning women, who usually didn’t spend the night and could be seen in the early evening gathering at the streetcar stops, reproduced themselves by some miracle means, perhaps during the long way home into darkest Cleveland. Once an emergency all-school assembly was called to prepare us for the danger that the son of a maid who slept in the attic of a house near Lake Erie, the wealthy strip there, might try to enroll at Taft. The Principal, Miss Sturdevant, assured us that he would probably be peaceable, not emitting any savage war whoops, but her hectic eyes, scanning the silent and brooding Taft assembly, belied her assurance. The boy never showed up, and the crisis passed.
Entering Lakewood High, I found two-and-a-half new friends to relieve me of the pain from the dimming of that first dear closeness. Richard and I remained pals, kind of, me clinging to the familiar past, like a first love affair which seems to diminish but never quite dies. Along with memory, nostalgia is implanted in human nature.
Dion and Brendan had come along, bringing lively approval, vigorous relish in the rapidly widening world, and they seemed to consider my “Mosaic” genetics just an interesting curiosity, part of the larger world. Brendan laughed and punched my arm when I confided that the word “Mosaic,” used by Richard’s mother, made me wonder if I were glued together with little colored tiles. “Hey! You’re a bathroom floor, Herb!”
The two-and-a-half new friends were outliers in their ways for Lakewood. A Mosaic fourteen-year-old could fit right in.
Dion spoke Spanish and had been raised partly in Venezuela, where his father worked for an oil company. His father was still there, due to a job and a Venezuelan woman. Kids who lived only with a mother were rare in Lakewood. Sometimes Dion just stopped and stared out into space, keenly peering into space, as far as space goes, with a Spanish and father-lacking look in his eyes. That was my view of the matter. But once I met Dion and his mother, arms linked, swinging briskly down Clifton Boulevard, laughing and taking greedy bites from apples, and then laughing some more as I joined them. A genius is often complex—sad when staring out into space, as far as space goes, but stopping in Venezuela, happy when crunching into apples with his mom.
Brendan made thrilling silent films with an eight-millimeter birthday camera. He provided background music from records and, sweating with the responsibilities of his freely admitted genius, recited his own sound track, reading from the script he had almost memorized. Dion and I agreed that he must be a genius, just as he said, because he was a boy of his word. Just as Brendan and I were, except on the question of who’s been sneaking from the whiskey?
And Chuck? He was, for me, the half-friend. His personal claim to genius was that he was no longer a virgin. To prove it, he invited Brendan, Dion, and me to hide in the bushes near her back door, spying, or perhaps it should be called researching, when he visited his ninth grade teacher’s house, tapped thrice at the milk chute, and she beckoned him in. A tall skinny lady with severe eczema, we called her Miss Camel because of her yellowed, nicotine-stained fingers. I had noticed her watching on the edge of the playground during recess, dragging greedily from her cigarettes. Chuck also suffered from pimples (was that why they bonded?); but in his case it was the normal age for volcanic eruptions. He was also studying how to smoke, holding his cigarettes between the same two fingers of his left hand that Miss Camel used. I may have been in error and merely jealous when I suspected that the sudden deep yellowing of his fingers came from Mercurochrome.
“Do you call her Miss Camel—” (not her real patronymic, of course) “—or do you use her first name?” I demanded.
“Yes,” he said. He was blushing fiercely.
This would have been a ringing affirmation, except that it didn’t answer the question. His eczema was blazing except where the eruptions were white.
“Tonight okay for you guys? This afternoon at five?”
So there we were, huddled in a tangle of brush, hearts pounding, not even daring to whisper. Chuck tapped, their signal. The door opened, and long yellow fingers pulled at his sleeve. Chuck disappeared. And now it was proven that she had really chosen Chuck, even though he said she had.
We emerged from our hiding place, me dejected and muddled, Dion pensive and muddled, Brendan also muddled, but confirmed in his belief that Chuck should be one of us. (If only we could be one of him!) Perhaps he didn’t use her first name because she had standards and that would be going too far with a pupil from the school. Safe on the street, Dion, Brendan, and I were silent in our various separate ways, and also together, unified, friends forever, bonded in blood and envy. We were busy imagining what went on after Miss Camel clicked the door shut.
Finally I muttered, “Bet they’re just smoking,” not believing myself.
“A genius, like me,” said Brendan, his eight-millimeter film masterpiece now tasting like ashes in his mouth. What profiteth a boy if he writes and directs his film creating a world-historical masterpiece, but can’t get laid?
I clung to my typical Mosaic skepticism. “He’s not so smart,” I repeated vindictively.
“We’ll see,” said Dion, with typical Venezuelan calm. “Let’s wait.” Maybe Venezuelans had learned patience, due to their native wisdom, along with the pleasures of crunching apples with energetic and laughing mothers.
A genius . . . . not so smart . . . . . Wait and see . . . . But secretly, as we trudged homewards, our shoes smudged and leaves stuck to our pants after our behind-the-bushes crouching, Dion and I felt that Brendan had once again penetrated to the heart of things. We were virgins and Chuck was not.
Maybe, I thought, teeth gritted.
So now we were a band of Lakewood brothers—one non-virgin, one Jew, one eight-millimeter film genius, and one lucky fellow with no father to trouble him and all his mother’s attention when they shared crisp fresh apples. I was still embarrassed by my father’s accent and his habit of carrying a gleaming ball-peen hammer in his back pocket to open orange crates and strike any enemies, “antisemitten,” who might manifest themselves at the market where he loaded his truck with produce.
After recovering from our mission behind Miss Camel’s bushes, I returned to arguing that Chuck didn’t come up to other standards, apart from non-virginity. Also I clung to the hope that Richard, my first friend, my dear kindergarten colleague, could be welcomed into our unruly group of future (one current) geniuses. Richard also read books, didn’t he?
Sometimes it was tiring in Lakewood to be future geniuses. Covertly we checked each other for general poetic haggardness —not that we were competing, of course—but each of us struggled to win the contest for sinking cheeks and protruding cheekbones. The girl with whom I practiced my petting commented one September that I had gained weight over the summer and broke my heart. For a few days.
Haggardness never blessed any of us, perhaps partly due to my mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies, which I still shared with Richard, and the alcohol which we all, except Richard, bled from the family stocks, taking an inch or so from each bottle, Scotch, vermouth, gin, bourbon, whatever, only a little from each in order to avoid parental detection—also various wines—and we manfully downed reviving gulps of this concoction, in milk bottles. Richard wasn’t invited. Somehow, unjustly, he achieved our longed-for, defining, extremely poetic cheekbones, without really deserving them.
At age fifteen or so, the future geniuses were adding poundage. I couldn’t cut down my portions of Mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies; it would have troubled her spirit, and a family of troubled spirits would just add to the burdens of a world still in Depression and heading toward war.
Brendan promised that I was destined to join him in mighty achievement. I loved this new friend. In the sharp clean air of comradeship, I could almost forget the belief of Richard’s mother that no matter what I did, win the Lakewood High tennis tournament or write a poem which made the world sigh with emotion, I would still be what I was. Richard’s father concurred. Richard went along. Brendan and Dion healed the pain, and besides, other compensations appeared. Consolation, human warmth, soothing—such things are important to a teenager, who despite the evidence, may eventually become a human being.
Teenagedness had been thrust upon me along with the responsibility of representing Satan at the same time as erotic stirrings incited drastic impulses among those sleeping beauties which are adolescent girls. Donna asked me to carry her books home from school, and in the darkening chill of a northern Ohio late autumn afternoon, suddenly darted forward to press her lips against mine. It had been my first kiss, heat throbbing everywhere in my body. The next day, in the hallway near the drinking fountain, she was giggling and pointing at me as she recounted her adventure to her little group of cohorts.
One of them sought me out to ask why I combed my hair straight back. To hide my horns? In fact, it was because my father had a pompadour. And I wore shoes because everyone wore shoes, not because I had a cloven hoof. She may not have known about the Passover matzos baked with Christian girls’ blood. (Eeew.) “Just curious,” she said curiously. It was her form of teasing, like Donna’s sudden kiss.
More seriously, in the unnatural course of events, a clever, rebellious, adventurous daughter of wealth, from a house near Lake Erie, became my girlfriend and remained so for more than a normal number of years, due to the fury and frustration of her parents. Even her younger brother, infected by the family excitement, struggling through his own contrary world of adolescence, became my pal and confidant, joining his sister in defiance of their parents. For her, heavy petting was the menu, justified by our deep spiritual communion, of course, with the added pepper and salt of punishing those villains, a mother and father; but for her brother, he went all the way. All the way toward me with an avalanche of confession.
His father brought him into their garden with two clear glasses of water and a spoon. He scooped up topsoil and stirred the dirt into one of the glasses, turning it muddy. He pointed to the glass of clear water and said, “This is your mind as it was. And this,” he said, pointing to the muddied glass, “is the mind of your friend.” Then he poured some of the muddy water into the clear water.
As an aspiring genius poet, I admired the man’s gift for dramatic metaphor. That night, his daughter met me in Lakewood Park behind the tennis courts, and we did things perhaps even Miss Camel and Chuck hadn’t thought of.
One lazy Sunday afternoon, I lay on a couch in a state of normal teenage boneless dreaminess, listening to the radio, when the symphony broadcast was interrupted by an announcement that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. My mother appeared out of the kitchen, and I said, “There’s a war.”
But she had come with an imperative question. “Did Richard return your fountain pen?”
“Mother, I think we’re in a war.”
“You shouldn’t just be lending your new fountain pen to your friends. Ask for it back tomorrow.”
I was still clinging to the idea that Richard and I would always be buddies. I couldn’t bear to lose him, our shy first bonding as five-year-olds in kindergarten, our shared history of oatmeal raisin cookies, Halloween trick-or-treating, street softball, and beginning tennis; and later, when we wrote letters to each other during the war, that war, our war; and through the following years of marriage, children, careers, and distance from Lakewood, where he remained but I did not. In that youth of unquenchable appetites, I believed that the past could be preserved forever, just as we would live forever, although experience and metabolism always inevitably teach us about many losses, dire ones, until the final one.
And yet the past does really persist, really is still alive. Even if our tight near-quartet (minus the fraction of Chuck), our conspiratorial drinkers and shapers of the world’s future from headquarters in the Lakewood, Ohio, space station, never definitively cornered the market for genius, at least one of us lived up to the destiny Richard’s mother and my first girlfriend’s father discerned in me. I would always remain, although without the detail of a cloven hoof, a person of the Mosaic persuasion. In advancing age, another detail turned out to be lacking—a receding hairline uncovered no horns. Father Coughlin faded away without driving the money changers from the temple, but I would continue to attend Rodef Sholem or Temple Emanu El for weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, and sometimes companionship plus coffee and cookies after the service, although not my mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies. As to William Dudley Pelley’s crusade, the news of Franklin Delano Rosenfeld’s real name vanished from historical records.
“We’re having fun and we’re geniuses—” Brendan took thought suddenly and added, “Jews have fun, don’t they?” Then, after interrupting himself, “—and die young so everyone will know what great geniuses we used to be.”
I wasn’t so sure this was a good idea. But Brendan filled half the plan; he died young, of too much drink and ungratified stressful intention.
Chuck became a milk deliverer in Lakewood and married a widow from the East Side. Occasionally he wrote to me, proud that I remembered he was the first among us to lose his virginity.
Dion went back to Venezuela, married a few times, died middle-aged, a suicide.
Richard lived until recently, before I could visit him one last time with oatmeal raisin cookies.
It’s too late for me to die young.