There is no “The Presbyterian Book of Why”, nor is there “The Protestant Book of Why.” You won’t find “The Shaker Book of Why” anywhere, not even in quaint, dusty shelves of the public library in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. To my knowledge, there is no “The Methodist Book of Why”, though there are “Why Do Catholics Do That?” and “Why am I Catholic?” which, I think, are asking, and attempting to answer, very different questions than “The Jewish Book of Why.”
I loved this book when I was a boy. You can see from the image above that the cover has a kind of knurled texture and I loved running my anxious little fingers over the uneven, undulating surface of the blue cover, then sliding my fingertips along the gold of the words, tracing each letter.
I liked the way the book smelled.
“Why did I like the way this book smelled?”
“Why did my anxious little fingers do that?”
“Why did I obsess over this book and not the early ’60s National Geographic magazines, lined up like skinny, yellow soldiers on the bookcase?”
Those questions — like so many others — had not yet been written. Had not been asked. Questions in our house, asked by me, were routinely answered by my mother with, “Oh, Gabriel.”
The book had illustrations. I remember the page that I turned to most frequently — the question this page answered was, “Why does a person’s hair turn white?” and the image that accompanied this particular question was of a middle-aged man standing in the middle of a street while a car comes barreling toward him, its headlights ablaze in a flash of white — the man has both arms outstretched in front of him, as if his braced arms can stop the hurtling sedan, racing, meteor-like towards him.
That, apparently, is how hair turns white: you face down a sound barrier-breaking Ford Galaxie in the middle of City Avenue, shit your pants, and you become Steve Martin.
Now you know.
I used to spend a lot of time on my stomach upstairs in the playroom, shag carpet with burgundy, brown, and navy shapes beneath my belly, staring at that picture. I wanted white hair when I was a child, and I was overjoyed when I found one in my head when I was around ten or so. And I had never even come close to being run over by a car. I excitedly told Robert, my barber, about the hair one day at his shop. He responded by pulling it out.
I want to know things, about why you eat scrambled eggs and a sweet pastry every morning for breakfast — how did that start? I want to know why you adjust your glasses by pushing against the bridge instead of lifting up the side of the frame with your right hand. Why you wear dresses, but not skirts. Why did you turn that way instead of going straight? I want to know why you picked those shoes, and why you wear your hair like that if it constantly gets in your eyes. Why is your hair white. Was it follicles doing their thing in the natural order, or was it a showdown in the street with Detroit steel.
Why do you stand there and take it? Why.
I suppose I want you to know things about me, too. That, after all, is why I write, isn’t it? Make some noise, scratch some itch, let you know I’m in here, upstairs in the playroom, on my stomach, touching that burled blue hardback book cover, treating it as if it were the Talmud itself; a tome of the unknowable, the tomb of the unknown.
After a Jewish person dies, they are to be buried within 48 hours, white hair or not. No embalming fluid, wrapped in a plain white sheet, placed in a coffin of the thinnest, softest, meanest quality wood (no, it’s not because we’re cheap) so that the coffin will disintegrate faster and our bodies will be returned to the earth as efficiently as possible. At the shiva, cover all the mirrors in black cloth, bring cold cuts, say, “We suffer in silence” at the doorstep of the bereaved. Don’t be too boisterous, don’t be too sad, don’t tell bawdy stories, don’t draw too much attention to yourself, don’t stay too long, don’t eat and run, don’t ask why.
My grandfather had a massive heart attack while he was putting on his tie in front of the mirror in the hallway of his condominium one morning in August of 1992. My uncle was visiting that morning and started CPR on his father but, well, if you don’t have an AED around, CPR doesn’t actually work.
“Why do we teach CPR if it doesn’t actually work?”
He was so handsome. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up; perfectly attired, knew everything about menswear, fabric, fashion, neckties Windsor-knotted just-so, golfed all the time, relaxed and confident, a sly, slightly-pained half-smile in every picture, ever. I wanted to be like him; just not mean. Why was he so mean?
Well. Don’t ask why.