Do Me a Party Favor
I’ve often remarked that, when I look over at my father, nodding off under a synthetic, white blanket on his suburban Philadelphia sofa at around 8:30 pm, I sometimes catch myself thinking, “This man has killed people. He has run through the acrid desert and has put unnatural holes in people.”
He fought in the Six Day War — only a year into his 3-year compulsory army service — in 1967. He came to this country in 1972 and Israel told him to get his hairy brown ass back there in 1973 to don the uniform once more in the Yom Kippur War. They’ve stopped calling, and I don’t think he’d answer the phone if they didn’t. If they’re done with him, he’s more than done with them.
Having an Israeli Staff Sergeant for a father in the Philadelphia ‘burbs sounds like the perfect recipe for an offbeat sitcom and, indeed, at was, at times, a humorous way in which to grow up. One time he drove my sister and I two hours into the Pennsylvania hinterlands to tour the Pepperidge Farm cookie factory. He got hopelessly lost and, when he finally resigned himself to the unpleasant fact that he had to ask someone for directions, he approached a plaid-shirted, over-alled elderly man and loudly asked him “Where is the Poppand-ridge Farm Factory?” and my sister and I collapsed into a heap of hysterical, tear-stained laughter in the back-seat of the Buick. My father got back in the car and drove us straight home, never saying a word.
He threatened to flip our mattresses upside-down if we didn’t wake up at whatever time was appointed and, of course, he followed through. Instead of frightening us, we thought it was hilarious and cackled with delight even as our bodies hit the wall next to our beds. We nearly peed ourselves at the dinner table one night when he told us that he needed to get his “license-driver” renewed the following morning. Looking back, I’m kind of surprised that he didn’t kill us all.
We knew he was unusual, but how much of that was because he was a stranger in a strange land or because he was just strange we didn’t really know. I mean, maybe all Israelis are like this. Maybe none of them are. How would I know? I’ve never been there. And I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to go. I’ve done my tour-of-duty; it was called my adolescence.
I thought that, when I became a father, I would have this kind of unique, unbreakable kinship with him; a newfound reverence for his parenting style, for his unbridled affection, for his probably uncommon emotional intelligence considering his background and the times in which he was raised. Coming of age at the same time your country was coming of age was to grow up culturally traumatized; and he probably in other ways, too. The stories about the discipline he received from his explosive father (being chased around and whacked repeatedly with a men’s dress shoe) are told laughingly, but one wonders how funny it was, or is. Instead of being drawn closer to him in fatherhood, I look at our experiences as siloed, other, almost having nothing to do with the other. My relationship with my son might be an exact mirror of that between my father and me; or it might be the polar opposite. I’m embarrassed to say that I wouldn’t know which was true.
My father never laid a hand (or a shoe) on me in anger, except for once when I had said too much and he poked me in the stomach, hard, with one of his kosher sausage fingers and I cried for probably an hour; so surprised and hurt I was at this sudden, weird form of disciplinary physical contact.
In the days of bell-bottoms and bowl-cuts, we had our birthday parties at the house. The dining room was always decorated with streamers and a matching plastic tablecloth and paper plate-and-cup sets. There was pizza and cake. Early on, my mother baked. By the time I was probably eight or nine, that stopped and store-bought was good enough.
My father was in charge of the entertainment because, well, he was entertaining. Back then, I just thought, “Oh, it’s just my father doing a magic show, or organizing a backyard game of GaGa” — an Israeli ball game that is like Dodgeball but with more potential for concussions and blood loss —but to my friends, and to the parents who maybe hung around for longer than 30 seconds, watching him in action must have been akin to viewing an act on Coney Island. Because it wasn’t just what he was doing, it was how he was doing it. He was extra before that was a thing. He was other in a way only a brown immigrant in suburbia can be. The white neighborhood mothers must have been very excited by, and palpably terrified of, him. I can only imagine that is how my mother — timid, reticent, conservative — must have felt as this fur-covered, olive-toned shark-man in a shirt opened practically to the waist with a fro that made walking through standard doorways practically impossible — must have felt the night she met him.
As the magician, he was charming and zealous. As the GaGa organizer, he was ferocious and animalistic; screaming at us gangly, Caucasian seven-year-olds in our backyard.
“KICK IT!!! BE AGGRESSIVE!!! GO GO GO!!!!!”
When it came time for the parties to end, the action was just beginning, for that was the moment when my father would descend into the basement and emerge with the party favors that would be the talk of the town for weeks, the send-off take-aways that would keep my friends eager to return to our home on May 12th, or thereabouts, the following year.
Sometimes, he would come upstairs to the gaggle of excited, sweaty pre-teen boys (girls never made it to my at-home parties, thankfully for them) with the favors covered with a sheet or a cloth, which he would dramatically pull off to actual gasps. Yes, people really do gasp in real life, particularly little boys, when their eyes feast upon
Fire-bellied newts one year.
And, the capo di tutti i capi: frogs.
Yes, what was once a plague upon the Pharaoh himself was now a fucking party favor. At a Jewish boy’s birthday party.
I never, to my knowledge, had any conversations with my father about what would be given out and, as far as I can remember, he started this practice of live-action giveaways himself, with no input from anyone else. However it got started, it became legendary, and I have to believe, without much paranoia or hyperbole, that May 12th was one of the most despised days among our community by the parents of my elementary school friends. Fortunately for these families, I am guessing that most of the party favors — acquired at a shitty local pet store that smelled like an old hoagie left inside a drain pipe for three weeks in August — passed on with relative efficiency, except for Gary’s frog, which lived for approximately 15 years. Old Anton, a South African boy who had a bit of a speech impediment, ran out to his mother’s car when she arrived to pick him up from one of these fetes screeching, “Mummy! Mummy! Look! Kewbs! Kwebs!”
I saw her face behind the steering wheel; she did not look enthused.
I remember conversations with my father about my poor self-esteem — these conversations happened later in my life, like toward high school-age — and I’m not altogether sure that my father, who thought everything he said and did was great, particularly grasped the concept of poor self-esteem. He was not the best-equipped person to handle this particular problem, and his method for addressing the issue was to simply tell me how great everything I said and did was. I wonder, though, if he knew early on that I felt some kind of self-hatred, and the animal party-favors were his way of trying to get kids to like me.
Kids did like me, though. Yes, I was bullied and called “Gay Gabe” and hit on the bus, but I had lots of friends who thought I was funny and therefore worth having around. But I don’t know if he saw that, or if he just saw a sad little boy with anxious eyes who wanted something to belong to.
Or maybe Israelis are just strange.