1524 c/o Dave Erlewine

Horned Heads

Last summer, a year after my Bar Mitzvah, Dad began insisting I go to services with him on Friday nights. Those were the only weeknights he got home from his law firm before I fell asleep. Fridays, he'd get home by 7:00, eat whatever Mom made for dinner, and have the two of us in the car by 7:45, the synagogue by 8:00.

The synagogue was never lit up enough so walking through the parking lot always felt weird, like someone was about to jump out at us. There were only about 20 of us most Friday nights, including the rabbi and the young guy who played the guitar and stared over our heads while we sang along to whatever he sang. Often, during services, Dad glanced down at the book in my hand to make sure I was on the right page, that I was reading from left to right, that my finger was trailing the words being spoken at us, in Hebrew or English, by the bored-looking, bearded Rabbi.

On the rides home, Dad played classical music and insisted on rolled-up windows and silence. At around 10, when the garage door rumbled shut behind us, he let me stay up, insisted really, so I could listen to him, out on our deck, discuss the Jewish plight.

He told me about his visit to the Holocaust Museum in DC the month it opened, how they had laid out piles of the actual shoes from feet that never walked out of the showers or crematoria, how they had actual soap created from Jewish skin, how their pictures of emaciated people in black and white contained too many smiles.

He talked about pogroms, where Jews were surrounded and murdered by marauding groups, where one of our distant relatives, a 12-year-old named Jacob, was slammed head-first into a brick wall by two other boys, boys who days before had played kickball with Jacob at school, while their fathers screamed at them to do it harder because the kike's horns were keeping the boy alive.

Often I got the sense Dad was disappointed that I didn't get more upset at his stories. So I began shaking my head or grunting or mumbling "bastards." I did this even though I couldn't understand how he talked about things happening to Jews in 16th century India or 18th century Russia like they happened to family friends.

The last Friday night he invited me onto the deck, he seemed sullen and tired. He sat there, looking at the trees behind our fence. After a few minutes, I asked if he was okay.

He glanced over. "Outstanding."

I tried not to look at my watch or think about getting up to my room, locking the door, and jerking off.

"Do you remember the Moers and what they did to us in 1524? Is anything I tell you even resonating?"

I smacked a mosquito on my wrist, killing it. "Yeah, something disgusting."

He pushed his glasses up to his face. "In 1524, on the bullshit pretext that Jews were tampering with the pepper trade, they attacked the Jews of Anjuvannam, burning their homes and synagogues." He cleared his throat. "No doubt, while the homes turned to rubble, the animals raped Jewish wives in front of husbands and children."

I waited an appropriate and respectful time and then hissed, "over pepper, the cocksuckers." The way it came out, the emphasis was on the word "pepper," and I cringed at the falseness of my outrage. I glanced at Dad, seeing a look of disgust pass over his face. He looked back at the trees. A few minutes later, I got up and went to my room. I flipped through all the channels and then turned off the TV. I jerked off halfheartedly for a few minutes. I thought about looking out the window to see if he was still sitting on the deck. I yawned and thought I'd wait a minute to check.

I woke up at 2 a.m., underwear at my knees, realizing for the first time ever I'd fallen asleep in the middle of jerking off.

The next Friday, he didn't come home before services. That night, around 10:00, the garage door rumbled open and a few minutes later I looked out the window to see him out back staring at the trees. I stood there, trying to imagine myself living in India in 1524, eating dinner with Mom and Dad as they broke down the front door and dragged us out by our hair and beat us while others set the house aflame. I closed my eyes to keep the image but couldn't. I tried to remember how it had felt in fifth grade when Mom yanked my hair for getting kicked out of Hebrew class. Then I thought about all the times I'd thanked God for not giving me a real Jew nose or how I'd felt sick for hours after seeing a spray-painted swastika on the side of an abandoned building one morning on the way to school.

I thought about going down to the deck and asking Dad to tell me more about how he'd been picked on as a kid for being Jewish. Hadn't he said something about a girl breaking up with him in junior high after her dad found out she was dating a Jew? I stood there long enough to question whether that story he'd told had been about him or some other relative. Did I want to spend the next few years of Friday nights on the deck? Did I need to hear more stories about pepper shenanigans in 1524?

The next morning, after breakfast, I went outside to play street football, all but rolling my eyes when during a time-out the thought passed through my head that centuries ago in other countries such boys might have bludgeoned me.