Creative writing started early for Velvul. One day, Yeti’s brother brought an old typewriter for Velvul to play with. “Oh, this is not a gift,” Uncle Moe proclaimed, “I am selling it to you.” Velvul objected, “But I don’t have any money.” Moe then asked, “Do you have anything in your pocket now?” Velvul reached into his pants and found a penny, which he pulled out and proudly presented. “This is the deal,” Uncle Moe announced, “from now on, whenever you see me, you have to give me a penny for the typewriter. Is it a deal?” The young boy handed the coin over to his uncle and began banging away at the keys. From then on, Velvul always made sure he had a few pennies in his pockets at all times, just in case he ran into Uncle Moe.
Razel’s father, Sam (affectionately called Schmuel), provided Velvul the training for a healthy, if not offbeat, sense of humor. Grandpa frequently had funny toys and puzzles for Velvul. The straw Chinese finger trap could keep the young boy occupied for hours, until he finally figured out you had to push your fingers together to lessen the tension. One time, Schmuel brought Razel a housewarming present: a porcelain statuette of a dancer in a flowing gown. “Oh, dad, that’s marvelous! It matches the one we already have on the bookshelf. I never thought I’d ever see another one like it. We could use them as bookends.” She ran to the shelf to show her father the twin, but the space it had occupied was empty. He had snuck it out when she wasn’t looking, wrapped it and gave it to her as a gift. Razel shot her father an irritated look, but he just smiled at his prank.
Keeping people amused (and off-guard) pleased Schmuel. He told a litany of riddles immediately followed by the punchline without giving the unwitting victim a chance to respond. “Why can’t they keep Jews in jail? They eat lox!” “What do they use to make bagels in Japan? Jew dough!” One had to be careful responding to one of Grandpa Schmuel’s promptings. He would jump to the window and shout, “Oh, look! A piecost!” If people did not think things through, they inadvertently asked, “What’s a piecost?” Schmuel’s face transmuted to a self-satisfied smirk. “What’s a piecost? About two bucks.” Other things to avoid questioning: a henway, a cop-do, a potfer, and a buttworth.
While Schmuel enjoyed the role of family comedian, his daughter Razel couldn’t tell a joke properly if her life depended on it. The humor gene appeared to have skipped her generation. However, Velvul’s favorite story his mother told was “The Boy with the Golden Screw.” Once there was a boy born with a golden screw where his belly button should have been. The mother took her son to every doctor in town, but none of them knew what to do. Years later, a new doctor arrived in town, so the mother took her boy with the golden screw to see him. The doctor took one look and said, ‘Of course. I have just the thing.’ He pulled a golden screwdriver from a drawer, started turning the screw, and it began coming out. After a few more turns, the little boy’s butt fell off.
Razel’s mom, Rosa, did not fit the mold of Jewish grandmother. Whenever she had to grudgingly care for little Velvul, she wrapped her blazing red bouffant in a pastel silk scarf, put the top down on her long, pink convertible (with pointy tail fins), donned her rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses, and took the boy for long drives. Sometimes they went out into the country to walk in cow fields (avoiding the ‘pancakes’), sometimes they went to play Bingo in smoke-filled halls, once they went to the airport parking lot, but they never took the big train to the big toy store or the big restaurant. In fact, Velvul never saw Rosa eat anything at all. Even at the Bingo hall she only sucked on butter mints. His time with her taught him patience and appreciation for long drives with the top down.
Although Jewish Holidays were spent with the family, Velvul never really learned what it all meant. People simply went through the motions but did not bother to explain any of it to him. He hated the tasteless flat bread they had to eat at Passover, but the few sips of sweet wine helped. Rosh Hashana (pronounced ‘rushashuna’ by the family) involved wearing that silly, little cap and spending hours of sitting in synagogue while other people babbled in undecipherable Hebrew. Yom Kippur meant not eating for a whole day. What torture! Why did people do such stupid things intentionally?
No one ever explained to him what being Jewish meant. The family observed the rituals year after year (and next year in Jerusalem). All Velvul heard from people outside the family was that Jews were hated and persecuted just for being Jewish. Again, with no accompanying logical explanation. Why would anyone want to be part of a group that no one liked and that involved silly torture traditions? On his very next visit to Grandma Yeti’s house, he asked her why everyone else hated Jews so much. “Well…,” she hesitated, “Other people think Jews are bomb-throwing anarchists who are too smart and hold most of the world’s wealth and only lend their money out at exorbitant rates of interest.” Her face crinkled into a smile to suggest they should move on to some other, less uncomfortable subject. He had no idea what the words ‘anarchist’ or ‘exorbitant’ meant, but he intended to look them up later. All he learned was it might be better not to let anyone else know that he was Jewish.
Velvul began to worry that others might find out he was an exorbitant, anarchist Jew, and he obsessed over the consequences of being discovered unexpectedly. He subsequently learned the funny-looking little box on the front doorpost (called a mezuzah) indicated a Jewish family lived there. Velvul pried it off when no one was home and threw it away, hoping the neighbors would then accept them as a regular All-American family.
When Velvul first heard about the concept of G-d (or G_d, if you prefer), a spiritual crisis ensued. To begin with, Jews apparently have some sort of difficulty with the name of their overlord because they are not permitted to write it out or say it. If a Jew wants to address the heavenly one, they say ‘Adonai’ instead of pronouncing either of the two Hebrew variants. A bright child’s first introduction to this concept is overwhelming. There’s a person–who’s not really a person–living in heaven–but not in the sky–who created the whole world in six days about five thousand years ago. The dinosaurs Velvul learned about were supposed to be over sixty million years old. The math just didn’t add up! No one knew what this ‘person’ looked like, and all they had to go on were books written over two thousand years ago, way before cameras were invented. Painters have fashioned their own renderings—in their own images—but it was all made-up nonsense to Velvul. The long-dead dinosaurs were more real to him.
When people in his family prayed, he had no idea what to think. He never felt the faith in a supreme being that others talked about. Only a void existed in the place normally reserved for belief and religion. But Velvul knew it was important to other people, so he never questioned it out loud. He frequently wondered how they could be so oblivious to something so obvious to him. Dinosaurs—real; G-d/G_d—made up.
Up next: Class (Velvul gets schooled)