Cheeseburger in paradise.
He seemed surprised, since we were considered advanced students. It meant what it said, he told us. We pursued, but he maintained his stoic expression. "My God," we concluded simultaneously but independently, "he believes it." To this day, I do not know how the others integrated this finding--two became rabbis--but it was my first step into a long apostasy.
Suppose none of it were true. Suppose I really could eat cheeseburgers, play punchball on Saturday, and indulge in other forbidden adolescent pleasures without guilt or punishment.
Something had always troubled me. I grew up in a multicultural apartment house in Brooklyn--ninety-five Jewish families and an Irish superintendent. None of the other Jewish kids spent six days a week in school and the seventh in the synagogue, or had most activities forbidden at home. I was certain my neighbors would not go to hell or be punished on this earth; they did not attend Yeshiva and did not know any better, "Why," I asked God, "did I have to know? Why couldn't I, in my bliss, be playing with them?" Instead, I walked by them, sweating in my wool suit, on the way to services. There they were in T-shirts, eating cheeseburgers at Wetson's.
My jealousy flared most when I stayed home ill from school and watched daytime quiz shows. Out would come blonde midwesterners with names like Jones. Nobody hated them because they were Jewish, laughed at them because they were from Brooklyn, or expected anything of them at all. They could live their lives in peace. If they screwed up, it was not "a disgrace of God"; it was a mistake. I had blundered into Sartre's theory of existence preceding essence.
God and I had a decent relationship. I knew he watched me carefully, and I acted accordingly. It never bothered me that the creator of the galaxies was now reduced to counting my cheeseburgers and bouts of onanism. If that was what he wanted to do, now that the heavy lifting of the creation was over, who was I to question? I promised to give up my filthy habit if he would grant the Brooklyn Dodgers the World Series, and he kept his part of the deal. I reneged. The following year, the New York Yankees won again, and I felt responsible. Perhaps there was a Yankees fan more devout.
The Jews kept the sabbath, we were taught, and the sabbath kept the Jews. My father worked incessantly and, if the sabbath had not obliged him to rest, he would have died very young. I did not feel grateful for the gift of the sabbath. It was the one day we were free from school, and the morning was spent in the synagogue, the rest of the day in dim light. We could read but not write, and we could watch ballgames only if we visited my uncle (I feared for his soul, but the Dodgers were my life). Worse yet, try explaining to a secular Jewish date that you can't pick her up until after sundown--in the summer.
But despite Abbaye and his imps, I did not see any options, and it was certainly easier not to think about it. College, which I entered with awe at age sixteen, was another story. I read eagerly Thomas Aquinas' five proofs for the existence of God. Even though he had the wrong God, Maimonides respected him and I welcomed any proofs. Imagine my disappointment when I found out what they were. From there, I bounced into Greek mythology class, taught by a sweet old lady who believed in the Greek gods and knew many of them personally. There I found our flood, our creation stories, our moral tales but with a much more attractive set of gods. In their world, you could eat as many cheeseburgers as you wanted, if you cut them in on the deal and did not insult them.
I approached my friend Stanley--formerly my partner in the imps and devils study group, and the smartest person I had ever met--and confessed my doubts. He theorized nervously that only religion could maintain civil order. Otherwise, why wouldn't people kill each other? I countered with the social evolutionary theory that societies that allowed mayhem did not survive. No help there.
Finally, I studied philosophy, clinging desperately to the argument from design, as if this were the best of all possible worlds. My philosophy professor used the example of a deck of cards. The odds were astronomical that the cards would fall in the order that they did but were even that they would fall in some order. A student burst into tears and screamed, "You mean it's all meaningless.?" He attempted to comfort her. "Suppose," he said, "you had been attending concerts for years, thinking there was a coded message in the music. Now you are told there is no such message. If the music is nice, don't stop listening." Her sobbing intensified.
Theory is powerful, but reality is something else. Just because there is no God does not mean he can't punish you. Did I covet loose women, booze? No, I coveted Tad's $1.29 steaks sizzling in the Manhattan windows. We only had steak rarely, and I loved it; the price was so cheap and there it was, if I could sell my soul. The dingy atmosphere was perfect for my descent. I took my contraband as far back and away from the window as I could. There were eight million people in New York, but my father was one of them and he had two million friends and relatives, at least. What they might be doing staring into steakhouse windows did not console me. The steak was tough and greasy and terror is not a good seasoning. They say your first time is often disappointing.
I had to be safely in graduate school in another state in order to eat a cheeseburger with any satisfaction. It did not disappoint. No wonder the rabbis in Israel are trying to ban ads for McDonald's. How could a just God give his chosen people hemorrhoids, hernias, and pogroms and deny them the combination of cheese and meat? When we asked our rabbis that question--in a more respectful form--we were told it was God's will. The more modern rabbis explained that dews had to practice self-restraint, as if we needed more lessons in denial. The corollary, as Philip Roth has pointed out, is that gentiles can eat, and probably will do, anything.
Now I live among the Pennsylvania Dutch, who can eat anything but manage to restrain themselves. Many have beards and long black coats and look like my relatives a generation or two back. Moreover, they have Talmudic quibbles over whether their buggies can have brake lights, their computers can be run on gas generators, their children can use in-line skates. Many of my students are born-again and think they will enter a heaven that excludes the Dalai Lama. They are shocked when I tell them that any place he winds up is acceptable to me. My Lutheran neighbors are quite wonderful, and only at funerals do they remind me that I can't join them in the after-life, but they don't really believe that. There will be coleslaw and a covered dish for all in the hereafter.
My doctor forbids cheese and meat. The Dodgers were exiled from Brooklyn years ago. Somehow, I still think it was my fault.
Martin Kellman is a professor of English at Bloomsfield College in New Jersey.