Sunday, June 13, 1971. I was seventeen years old. My high school commencement was days later, on Thursday June 17. On this evening, my Aunt Minnie — my father’s youngest sister — and her husband held a pidyon haben for their newborn grandson at their house. A pidyon haben, or “redemption of the firstborn son,” is a Jewish ceremony wherein the father of a firstborn male — here, my cousin, Mark — redeems his son by giving a kohen (a priestly descendant of Aaron) five silver coins, thirty days after the baby’s birth. Aunt Minnie had recruited Izzy the Barber, whose family heritage qualified him to serve as the kohen. My father’s family had never been particularly observant of Jewish ritual and the ceremony seemed to me like something out of the 19th century.  To consummate the ritual, my cousin Mark handed Izzy several silver coins and received his infant son in exchange.  The observance of ritual was a rationale for a large family get together, I suppose.

Izzy had a long history with my father’s family going back to their old neighborhood in North Philadelphia, where he had a barber shop. Apparently, his shop is where Freedman males got their hair cut. In family conversations, Izzy the Barber was frequently confused with my Uncle Izzy, my father’s older brother.  In family chats, when someone referred to “Izzy” a Freedman would query, “Our Izzy?” and the response would be: “No, Izzy the Barber.” I don’t know how many times I heard that conversational sequence growing up: “Our Izzy?” — “No, Izzy the Barber.” It was like dialogue out of Seinfeld!

My high school commencement later in the week passed without observance.  The graduation ceremony was held in the morning at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.  I chatted with my social studies teacher, Mr. Finkelstein, in the Academy ballroom.  “I expected so much from you at the beginning of the school term,” he said.  “I remember you got the highest grade in the class in the economics test I gave last September.  Then your performance fizzled out.  What happened?”  Then: “Do you have college squared away?”  “Yes,” I said, “I’ll be going to Penn State.”    Immediately after the graduation ceremony, I went to work.  It was a day like any other.

My parents had attended the commencement and later, in the evening, my father said: “I listened to those speeches the top honors boys gave.  You’re as smart as they are.  You should have been up there on stage giving a speech.”  My father had attended Central High School, but quit in the tenth grade, in 1920.  On occasion, he mentioned how he and his mother had to meet with Dr. John Louis Haney, one of Central’s celebrated past principals, officially denominated President of the Faculty.  My father never reached his potential.  Did I, like Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman, feel guilty because I recognized a responsibility that I could not fulfill, the responsibility to redeem my father’s empty life?

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Notice the parallels with my 13th birthday.  No bar mitzvah.  Nothing.  Just parental discord and attack by my aunt.  I was always ignored. 

But this became fodder for my creative transformation!  My writing became my redemption!

As a boy, even as a child, I was thrown much upon myself.
Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography.
To be sure no one was aware of him. The family was entirely absorbed in . . .
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis.
. . . the continuing “ordinary cares of life.”
Martin Gregor-Dellin, Richard Wagner: His Life, His Work, His Century.
Thus it came to pass that I . . .
Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography.
. . . an invisible scourge . . .
Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold.
. . . was always going about with some castle in the air firmly built within my mind.
Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography.
A seventh child, eight years after the last-born, I . . .
Arthur Rubinstein, My Young Years.
—fortunately or unfortunately—
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis.
. . . rang the bell at the gates of life as a belated and rather unwanted guest.
Arthur Rubinstein, My Young Years.
The family . . .
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis.
. . . were but . . .
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop.
. . . used to him, it seemed; they suffered him among them . . .
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.
. . . while he, for his part, . . .
Leo Tolstoy, Boyhood.
. . . simply detached himself from the cold and unrewarding world and retreated into phantasy.
Frances Donaldson, P.G. Wodehouse.
Such was Wagner’s response to a deep existential need—his means of escape.
Martin Gregor-Dellin, Richard Wagner: His Life, His Work, His Century.
His dreams . . .
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel.
. . . obscure and ambiguous . . .
Henry James, In the Cage.
. . . dreams of transcendence—
Richard Schickel, They Sorta Got Rhythm.
. . . had always been Houdiniesque: they were the dreams of a pupa struggling in its blind cocoon, mad for a taste of light and air . . .
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel.
. . . yet enjoying in some curious way . . .
J. Moussaieff Masson, The Psychology of the Ascetic.
. . . the glory of its aloneness.
Roger Zelazny, Auto-da-Fe.
Through his sensibility and charm he was sought after as a friend. . . . But what he was searching for, and never found, was real spiritual involvement with another person.
Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear.
“I shall surely leave the world with my great longing to have seen and known a man I truly venerate, who has given me something, unsatisfied. In my childhood years I used to dream I had been with Shakespeare, had conversed with him; that was my longing finding expression.”
Cosima Wagner’s Diaries (Friday, May 26, 1871).

eggs and sausages