Happy What?

by Mark Pontoni   May 26, 2020

I spent a chunk of my childhood living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood outside Cleveland, Ohio.  I went to the local Catholic school, and so despite being a decided minority in my neighborhood, I had very little interaction with the Jewish kids who lived around me.

It won’t surprise those who know me that I was a insatiably curious kid.  This was no doubt due to the importance of education in my house.  There were eight children in the family, and for many years, each child who could read was responsible for bringing something to the dinner table to discuss on a rotating basis.  I would be lying if I said I could remember for how many years this went on, but I do have clear memories of sitting around the table set for ten and discussing whatever that day’s sibling had found in the World Book Encyclopedia.

It was that same curiosity that came alive when at age 12 I started doing a Cleveland Plain Dealer paper route.  Getting up at 5:30 to deliver papers before school was an important community service at that time.  If I was ever late getting up by even 20 minutes the phone would start ringing.  Startling a  household of 10 into consciousness at 6 a.m. does not bring favorable consequences.  It was an easy lesson to learn.   It wasn’t the paper delivery part of the job, however, that stoked my curiosity, it was the door-to-door collections I had to do each week.

You learn real quickly that knocking on a Jewish family’s door after sundown on Friday to collect money is NOT a way to earn a tip.  You could earn a stern lecture in a hurry, but no tip.  But it was those collections (done often on Sundays, much to the dismay of my parish priest) that gave me the opportunity to learn at least something about my neighbors and their religion.   Two people on my route took a special interest in my curiosity.  When it was time to collect, I had to plan extra time for Mr. Appel’s house and for Miss Hershberger’s house.  It will certainly seem like an abomination in today’s paranoid, scared world, but from ages 12-14 I got invited into their homes and we would chat…sometimes for over an hour…about a wide range of things.  The paperboy, after all, was a GREAT source of gossip.

Every once in a while the topic would turn to religion.  I had gone to Catholic school my whole life and I don’t think we ever missed mass in the time I lived at home. But I wasn’t the most compliant Catholic from a theological standpoint.  I had questions.  Lots of questions.  I recall in 8th grade being threatened with expulsion because I wrote a research paper questioning whether Jesus was married or not.  (I didn’t even have Wikipedia to copy from!)

So given the chance to sit in Miss Hersberger’s living room and discuss Jewish practice and beliefs fit perfectly into the mundane routine of knocking on doors to collect $1 for a week’s worth of deliveries.  Despite those conversations and all I learned, I never really had a Jewish “friend” until college.  I was in grad school at the University of Michigan and spent a lot of time with Jerry who, unlike me, had held devoutly to his religious beliefs long after I had abandoned mine.

Because of my experiences as a paperboy in Cleveland, I knew about all the Jewish holidays that come each fall and so in the first semester that I met Jerry, I was going to show him how worldly I was and I wished him a “Happy Yom Kippur.”  Jerry rolled his eyes.  “Oh, my Gentile friend, you know what Yom Kippur is, right?”  Showing off my sophisticated knowledge of Judaism I said, “Of course.  Atonement.”  Jerry signed.  “Fair enough…so tell me, what is so happy about that?”   I explained I was just trying to respect his faith, blah, blah, blah, and then asked him, “well, ok.  What AM I supposed to say?”   He told me just to say “Have an easy fast.”  Perfect.   The way we practiced Catholicism, there wasn’t a lot of fasting, but I imagined it would be hard, so now I had something to say that wouldn’t offend someone going through it.  Spending 24 hours without eating and asking forgiveness for your sins doesn’t warrant a “Happy” anything.

Which brings me to Donald Trump.  You knew this was about Trump, right?

While my friend Jerry was very patient with my well-intentioned but misdirected wishes for a Happy Yom Kippur, I wonder if all those families who lost children, spouses, and parents fighting for the United States will be as patient with a Commander-in-Chief who tweets out “HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY!”

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