Thursday, June 20, 2019

A blending of cultures: My cousin Vinny… and my uncle Abraham

Nick Auerbach ’14

Opinions Editor

Steve Solomon’s long running one-man show “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy” has received great reviews for its wry wit, simple yet sophisticated plot, and unique commentary on how family and culture fuse together to influence personal development. Apparently audiences leave feeling that the often self-deprecating, anecdotal Jewish humor and touch of charming Italian moxy make the show worthwhile for them to see. I have not seen the play. Nor do I want to. In fact, Solomon’s Broadway hit scares the living crap out of me. Why? Because it just so happens my mother is Italian, my father is Jewish, and I guess I’m doomed for therapy. If that isn’t enough of a psychological doozy, both my parents are lawyers…oh the humanity! I guess I never had a chance. Nevertheless, thanks Steve, thanks a lot.

While it might be easier to just not think about it at all, I am captivated by the relevance of my religious upbringing, heritage, and family dynamic when I consider how my prescribed “lenses” shape my personal experiences. However, before I can get to that I should explain what causes all this craziness, or mishegaas if you will.  It starts with a heavy, and I mean heavy, dose of guilt. Mr. Solomon and I have a cup of Joe each morning to start our days like many people do; only we’re fortunate enough to use a very special, fairly rare, blend to our steaming concoction. It’s a mixture of Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt…and adding a lot of cream doesn’t help either. Jewish guilt invokes a certain kind of neurotic contemplation about what is right, or if what I did was right, ending with the unavoidable conclusion that you are or will be wrong.

Catholic guilt is not all too different. It involves knowing (or being told) you can’t do something, doing it anyway, and realizing “I really shouldn’t have done that.” According to Temple University psychology professor and former president of the American Psychological Association Frank Farley, “guilt has been with us as long as humans have psyches, but we still don’t know definitively how it works in the human psyche or the best way to deal with it.” Great, so what am I supposed to do with all this guilt? Oh right, I’m doomed for therapy.

Guilt aside, your family helps define you in many ways, whether you like it or not. I can’t help but think of when my parents both took their cracks at teaching me how to drive. It seems appropriate for this topic.

“Stop, Stop! STOP! STOP NOW!” My dad was purple in the face, his hands braced against the dashboard, knuckles white, and I had, once again, stalled out. I was the only person I knew who had to learn how to drive a car with a manual transmission, but my parents told me it’s much better to know how to drive a stick. “A stick shift gives you more control over your vehicle. You get better gas mileage. It’s more macho. You will be able to drive heavy farm equipment.” I just wanted to be like everyone else and get my license before my 30th birthday.

In a pothole-pocked parking lot behind a grocery store my father was teaching me the many different steps involved in shifting into first gear. He was very scientific in his approach. “The gas pedal must be at a thirty-six degree angle and the clutch must be three quarters of an inch from start, while the tachometer should be moving up to ten, and then a greater incline on the accelerator is required as the clutch goes up one quarter of an inch more, and the tachometer should now read fifteen RPM’s…”

I remember my palms sweating. I step on the brake when I should be hitting the gas and I forget which one is the clutch. The car lurches forward, making a hideous grinding-choking noise, and then is still. Have I killed it, I wondered? No, it started again, and so did my father.  He was telling me all about the angles and degrees and tachometers again, and I began to hear that “blah-blah-blah” sound the teacher in Charlie Brown’s classroom makes. Eventually, I did get into second gear, and even into third, but the car moved like Herbie the Love Bug, after the Irish coffee.

My mother took me out next. She had a much more zen-like approach to this enterprise.  I was told to find the “sweet spot” where the clutch catches and she suggested that I listen to the engine to find the right place and time to shift. She wanted me to “feel with my feet,” to “breathe through my eyelids,” so to speak. She wasn’t sure what or where the tachometer was and “why do we need to see it anyway?” I managed to drive around the parking lot without stalling out, but I found my mother’s tactics a little too abstract and the car continued its “Herbie” impersonation.

I eventually learned how to drive (smoothly), and in the process I came to understand something about myself, too. My learning style seems to have developed as a product of both my parents’ teaching methods. I find that a balance of these two approaches works best for me.

Sometimes, I draw a bit more from one than the other, as I find the situation requires. I also realized that my parents’ teaching styles reflect their personalities. My father, a scientist who went to law school, is a linear thinker who depends on objective evidence and believes rational outcomes will come to those who use reason and logic.  My mother, an artist who went to law school, is a global thinker who relies on intuition and employs unusual and creative connections to solve problems.

In my 20 plus years of living, growing, learning, and feeling guilty, I’ve noticed that in order to stay sane, I try to embrace my family and my heritage. Otherwise, some kind of guilt (Jewish, Catholic, or another) will pester me until I do.


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