At the start of the new school year, Tookie decided it was time to enroll Velvul at the synagogue to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah, the dreaded ceremony that all Jewish boys feared, even though he wouldn’t turn 13 for years. It meant standing with the Rabbi before the whole congregation, receiving a blessing, reading from the Torah and giving a speech (which usually began: “Today, I am a man…”). Tookie had not previously discussed this with his son because he just assumed that all Jewish boys would have to endure the same embarrassing torture his parents put him through.
On Sunday mornings, one of his parents would drop Velvul off at the synagogue for classes on Hebrew and Bible study. Fortunately, his clever mind picked up the second language quickly, although a few things about it worried Velvul: (1) It read from right to left, and if you used ink, your hand dragged it across the page (which made him realize how left-handed people must have felt about writing from left-to-right, the regular way); (2) Everything had to be male or female because no neutral form existed in Hebrew (Why is “land” feminine and “air” masculine? And why is “water” plural?); (3) One of the consonants did not exist in English, a throat-clearing maneuver that sounded like you were about to hock up a fur ball; and (4) Even though the script read from right-to-left, music still read from left-to-right, and each separate syllable read backwards as you progressed across the page. How could such supposedly intelligent people have developed such a challenging language?
One lesson included historical persecution of the exorbitant anarchist Jews, from Ancient Egypt through the Philistines, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Inquisitors and up to the Holocaust during WWII. Miss Sofer tried to discuss this very adult subject with school-aged children as best as possible. Death camps and poison showers proved to be tougher subjects than good old Bible stories. One of the other students asked, “How were the Germans able to determine who was a Jew?” The young teacher hesitated then responded, “All Jews have a tiny ‘J’ on their cells, and the Germans used a microscope to look.” Apparently she could handle Anti-Semitism and concentration camps, but the topic of circumcision was too much. A later lesson on Abraham handled that piece.
And that was the most disturbing slice of information Velvul had to absorb. As a baby, part of his penis had been snipped off as a covenant with something he didn’t even believe in. Really? They did what?! How could his parents willingly hand their week-old boy over to a stranger who lopped off a healthy piece of his skin with nothing more than a drop of wine as an anesthetic? At the next opportunity, he examined himself with more scrutiny. There it was. The scar. A ring like a border between darker and lighter. He started to wonder about this missing skin and what his penis would have looked like now if they hadn’t mutilated it without his permission. Velvul wanted answers, but he knew that he wouldn’t get them in the no-sex-talk home of Tookie and Razel.
Participating in most Jewish ceremonies seemed like a waste of time to Velvul. He had only recently learned to tolerate Chanukah, mostly for the gifts. With no belief in a supreme being, no interest in perpetuating archaic rituals, having to learn a language that hardly anyone else spoke, and the fact that he could have ended up dead in Auschwitz, being Jewish was not for him. He still obsessed over hiding his religion from others, especially those with microscopes.
About a month after the regular school year started, a new student transferred to his class. Velvul had been cleaning his glasses when the new boy walked in and didn’t get a good look right away. Besides, he didn’t really care about new students because his mind was on so many other important unsolved mysteries at that time. However, when recess came and he caught his first glimpse of Erick, it was difficult to take his eyes off the new boy as he had never seen anyone who looked like that before. Light copper short curls over a pasty-white, freckle-filled face hung above his lanky body like that Howdy Doody puppet on television. His translucent eyelashes could hardly be seen and his puckered, but parched-looking, lips curved up slightly, as if in a permanent smile. When Erick realized the intensity of the stare, their eyes met and Velvul almost lost the ability to stand. He started to wobble, and Erick rushed over to catch him. “Are you okay?” the squeaky redhead asked with a slightly tilted head and translucent blue eyes. Velvul just nodded and grabbed onto Erick for support. It took a minute or so for the strength to return to his legs.
This feeling surprised Velvul. He had never experienced anything like it before. Something about Erick, so different, so beautiful, made his pulse pound and his brown eyes lose focus. A tightness in his throat felt like a stale bagel had lodged there. “Um, thank you,” was about all he could manage before he took control and stood on his own. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Erick chirped, “I’m glad I was here to catch you. Hey, what are you doing later? You wanna come over to my house? My mom’s baking cookies.”
Velvul just nodded, not considering what his mother might think when he didn’t show up at the usual time.
Over the next month, the two boys spent much of their free time together, playing at Erick’s house or taking “hikes” (that other people might just call ‘long walks’) in the nearby park. Razel said she wanted to know who this new friend was that he spent so much time with, but Velvul did not want Erick to see his Jewish home or meet his Jewish parents for fear that his new best friend would run away screaming. He still felt very nervous about being Jewish and dreaded that anyone he knew might find out.
Sometimes the boys participated in art projects the park volunteers presented for students, making plaster of Paris sculptures or finger paintings. Velvul’s feelings for Erick grew, and every moment they were apart was another moment he couldn’t wait to be with him again.
One day after school at Erick’s house Velvul excused himself to go to the bathroom. “Hold up,” Erick ordered, “I’ll go with you.”
“Together?” Velvul inquired.
“Sure. Why not?” came the sunny response. Once the bathroom door clicked closed and Erick raised the toilet seat, both boys pulled down their pants.
Velvul took one look at Erick’s naked crotch and blurted, “What happened to your thing?” He pointed to Erick’s smoothly cylindrical, uncircumcised penis. It did not have the round, red ball at the end like Velvul’s.
“What happened to yours?” retorted Erick.
Without thought came the response, “Um, I’m Jewish?”
Velvul had never uttered those words to anyone before. He had spent his entire life trying to hide his heritage and hoped that no one ever found out about his ugly, secret Semitic ancestry. Here, somewhat exposed in his best friend’s bathroom, he had confessed the one truth he had feared revealing.
“Oh, okay. Let’s cross swords!” Erick seemed unfazed by the unholy revelation.
“Cross swords? What’s that?”
“Haven’t you ever peed with another guy before?” Velvul shook his head. This was all so new to him. “I’ll start, and you pee across my stream. It’s like crossing swords. Get it?”
Velvul got it.
Next up: Who Was First? (If I kiss you on the strikes, will you kiss me on the balls?)