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Monday, August 9, 2004   |    Fiction

What Would Sammy Do?

by Jeff Barnosky

How I Became a Kabbalist

As far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to be Jewish. Walking home from Catholic school, trying to memorize the Hail Mary, I’d pass by the cabstand where all of the kids from Akiba Academy read Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Scholem, Ozick and other names I was too ignorant to recognize. They argued over deconstructionism, the death of Freudian analysis, and whether or not Winona Ryder slept with Paul Westerberg. All I could do was recite the names of all the popes in chronological order and all of that other good-Catholic-boy bullshit. I also had another, more important reason. Her name was Liana Goldstein, She had beautiful rings of curly hair, wore tortoiseshell glasses, and wouldn’t have a thing to do with me unless I converted to Judaism.

I was standing in the middle of the synagogue with my priest, Father Franz of the Holy Virgin Catholic Church in Conshohocken, when I first admitted to the world that I wanted to be a Jew. Father Franz smoked Parliaments two at a time and spent most of his life looking for a text of the Kabbalah translated by some genius prophet whose name he would never speak.

The walls of the synagogue trembled with the weight of the velvet paintings of Moses. A giant statue of Henny Youngman sat next to the mural of Kafka playing poker with dogs. Father Franz lit another cigarette. I wanted him to give up his search once and for all, just retire to a small little priest’s retirement home where he could study Judaism in peace. But I could never say that. Father Franz trusted me too much for me to break his heart. When I was in the eighth grade, I won a citywide contest for the best bust of Dan Quayle made entirely out of pierogies. Father Franz took one look at it and sobbed tears of appreciative joy.

Suddenly, we heard a bass beat, then a full band playing what sounded like the introduction to “The Arsenio Hall Show.” The lights in the synagogue went out and we saw green lasers shoot around as smoke filled the place. From above, we heard a voice boom:

“Ladies and gentleman, the B’nai Abraham Synagogue proudly presents: Spiritual advisor to the stars and common people alike, Rabbi Max Konisberg!”

Rabbi Konisberg jumped out of the shadows, fist pumping into the air and looked for the crowd of worshippers that had gathered for him.

When he saw us, his face dropped, the music stopped, and the lights went back on.

“Please,” Franz said. “Just let me look for five minutes.”

“It’s scramsville time, Franz,” he said. “You can’t see it.”

Franz turned around, trembling with anger. I felt the frustration emanate from him.

“Hit the bricks, Franz. You’re just a bunter, a real ring-a-ding. Plus, you’re not Jewish, and you’re a priest. And you’re a junkie. And you’re a bad priest who doesn’t believe in God.”

All of the Rabbi’s charges were accurate, though only a few of Franz’s closest confidantes knew that he spent most of his nights mainlining a mixture of peach Snapple and melted Snackwell’s Vanilla Crème cookies with the syringes he got by claiming he was diabetic.

“It’s for me,” I said suddenly.

They both turned to me. Suddenly, I felt the whole weight of history in my lungs.

“I want to be a Jew,” I said.

“You don’t start with the Kabbalah, kiddo,” the Rabbi said.

“You don’t believe in God,” Father Franz said.

“I want to know. I want to learn. I have… yearnings.”

“He wants to get laid,” Franz muttered.

“Well, that’s reason enough,” said the Rabbi. “But let’s pick this party up, I have appointments with Lohan and Kutcher this afternoon.”

Then I was taken into a back room, dark and cobweb-ridden. That is all I’m allowed to say. But now, I know some things.

* * *

The Kabbalah, as seen through the supposedly brilliant translation of Sammy Davis Jr., is not a book or a text, but a collection of stories, parables, fables, and teachings passed down through time and put into (according to the back cover’s blurb) “stunningly beautiful form by the Candy Man.” I do not know how to put into words the complexity before me as I flipped through pages. I don’t know, because I truly don’t know. The thing simply made no sense to me, rested in front of me with almost indignant impenetrability, baiting me with the esoteric intricacies of its nature.

There are stories of Dean, stories of Frank, stories of Sammy himself. But none of them made even the least bit of sense to me. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of one of the stories:

I tried to make Frank hep to the crazy nowhere that this twirl wasn’t my bag, especially her tiny charlies that didn’t make my bird stand up and salute the flag, you dig? My pitch was bombsville so I had to act like a big-leaguer not a bum or else they would have thought all of those other chicks were beards. That night was coo-coo crazy. Dig, this chick turned out to be a real barn-burner and when we started the old hey-hey, I knew she was a real live gasser. I grooved with her for a while then had what the French call Le Petit Mort, or The Big Casino.”

And on and on the stories went, rambling, digressive, and profoundly brilliant. I couldn’t yet begin to comprehend. I quickly realized that Sammy had written something more than a guide or a spiritual text. He had written a blueprint for finding truth and meaning in life.

The Rabbi gave me a list of select people to whom I could show the text. Franz wasn’t on it.

* * *

At 18, after an entire lifetime of search and struggle, I had finally found a spiritual guide that led me through the dark nights of searching, fulfilled my need learn the true story behind the Hollywood gossip, and increased my ability to get laid.

Walking home from the synagogue, I decided not to see Franz for a while. I couldn’t take the heartbreak in his eyes when I told him that I couldn’t show him the book. Plus, Rabbi Konisberg had just set me up with an agent from I.C.M. Apparently, a new startup cable network called The Red Bracelet wanted me for a reality show that would follow me as I learned, loved, and got in touch with my inner Candy Man. Could I do it? Yes, I can! The real question is: What would Sammy do?

During his first year of school, Jeff Barnosky believed that each of his teachers was Bea Arthur in disguise. Especially Mr. Roberts. He lives in Philadelphia, he dies in Cleveland and he questions the true nature of all existence in Toronto. He's been published in McSweeney's, Pindeldyboz, Exquisite Corpse, and the late, much missed Haypenny.