At the Corner Deli I'll spread knowledge, comment and the exchange of ideas through discussion of topics of the day, history or whatever moves me to write. The views, fantasies and delusions I write about are tinged with the Jewish spark of my memories of places like the Ashkenaz Deli on Morse Avenue in Rogers Park, Chicago -- a place where you could come and discuss anything. So please, kvell and kvetch a little.
It seems to me that almost every Jew I know suffers from terminal anxiety. And why not? With a history filled with tsouris we've probably developed a Yiddishe mutation: a W-strand on our DNA for "Worry." Forget Murphy's Law. Chances are his real name was Murphosky and his family taught him: "If anything can go wrong, it will."
Picture it. First day of school. September, 1950-something. Eighty-two degrees. I was polished, brushed, dressed, breakfasted, and school bagged ...
Finally, the bus "honked." I dutifully wiped off my seat in the back to avoid ... what? Mad cow disease? ... and took my place next to squirmy Ricky Di Pietro. "Hey!" he said, during a backward squirm. "Some creepy guy in a green station wagon's following us at, like, two miles an hour! Now, he's waving! Look!" I didn't have to. The hairs on my neck "recognized" daddy's "wave."
You think it's a coincidence that a Jew invented Valium?
So, dear readers, I bring you The Ten "Commandments" of Jewish Worry. However, as I was worried that all 10 at once might lead to WO (Worry Overload), I'll give them to you in smaller doses. This week five. Next week, the other five (assuming we all make it until then).
ONE: THOU SHALT REMAIN IN CONSTANT CONTACT
"Phone Home" was said by E.T. (but no doubt Steven Spielberg heard it somewhere). Minimum contact for a Jewish parent and child is every single day, twice is better. Once, contact failed. After contacting the usual suspects, my parents called a) my aunt in the Bronx, b) an ex-boyfriend I last saw at his Bar Mitzvah, and c) the morgue at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. The Medical Examiner tracked me down. "Your parents called looking for you. The message: 'Please show some rachmunas (compassion) on us and call already?!'" I was 24.
A friend, Harry Lechter, told me: "My mother-in-law wants 'the kids' to check in twice a day. When we're traveling, she has a map with pins so she can track us."
TWO: LATENESS SHALL BE PUNISHABLE BY TWO SCORE OF SUFFERING (AND HOCKING)
To a Jew, "late" is five minutes before anyone's due.
I still see my mother's face peering from a window at midnight if I wasn't home from a date, as Dad sat in a chair, dressed, for when the police arrived. When I got in at 12:20, Mom gave me "the basic silent look" for two days which she felt was equal to her 20 minutes of worry.
THREE: THOU SHALT ASSUME A TUMMY ACHE IS A TUMOR (to be on the safe side)
For many Jews, including me, it's quite normal to assume that a splinter of the toe could be a (shhh) early warning sign.
When my son was born, not only did I check fingers and toes, but his blood type - to start listing potential donors, just in case. When he was two, his pediatrician wrote on his chart: "MOTHER: LUNATIC" which might've been due to the fact that I thought a hernia in a toddler might be malignant. Of course, what the doctor didn't understand, was, the minute we become Jewish parents another cultural mutation kicks in - W-Ray vision (Worry-Ray) otherwise known as, "Wait ... is that spot getting bigger?"
As such, my son has had everything on or near him removed: moles, warts, beauty marks ... and a few people with post-nasal drip.
FOUR: THOU SHALT GET NO SATISFACTION
"Is anything OK?' asked the waiter." So goes the old Borscht belt line. Trust me, the worry-kvetch is still alive and "unwell" among some Jews. Especially in restaurants. I have heard the following in more forms than the Goldberg Variations, from family to the famous.
"We have to move to a different table. We're 100 yards (to, from, away) the air conditioning! Pneumonia, I'll get."
Like a Yiddishe "Goldilocks," in any situation Jews have only two possibilities: it's too hot or too cold. Too hard or too soft. Nothing's just right.
The most "capable" kvetchers can find something wrong with everything, everywhere, every time.
*You: "How about taking a drive on Sunday?" *Them: "Sunday! Every meshuganah's on the road! Who drives on a Sunday! Nobody!"
*You: "Aunt Rose, that dress in Bloomingdale's window's perfect for you." *Them: "For one affair? Retail, yet? And when I need groceries? What, I should snack on silk? "
*You: "My boss chose me to close that big deal in San Francisco!" *Them: "They have the most crooked street in America there and a gazelle you aren't. You could tumble down, like Jack and Jill - splat."
FIVE: THOU SHALT FORCE FEED ALL CREATURES - AT LEAST A PIECE OF FRUIT
The remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served us nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. - Calvin Trillin.
Most Jews aren't happy unless they're: a) offering food; b) eating food; c) discussing food:
"Oy, such delicious bobka! I can hardly walk from that brunch!"
Worry over the next meal starts after cake from the preceding meal: (Sigh!) "So ... did you take out the lamb chops for dinner?"
"My mother's from the school that the minute you walk in the house you have to eat," said "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Susie Essman in a 2003 interview, describing her mother Zora. "She asks, 'What can I get you?' and if I say, 'Nothing,' the question just continues. One Thanksgiving, there were only six of us, and she had two 20-pound turkeys - plus brisket. Not to mention the eight sides and 15 pies and cakes. And halvah. I went on stage that night to do stand-up and I just read the menu from her dinner."
When I spoke to Mama Zora, she took umbrage. She never served brisket!
So there you have it: The first five commandments of Jewish worry - not in the Biblical sense, of course, but from the "common sense" we've picked up while wandering and running. Meanwhile, dear readers, you could use a break ... a week at least. But don't worry! You'll get all ten. We counted.
My personal favorite came to me from comic and writer, Bill Dana who told me, "I had started earning enough money by writing 'The Steve Allen Show' to get my own New York City pad. I called to tell my mother. 'Ma, wait till you see it! It's in a great neighborhood. You enter and there's a kitchen level and you take three steps down to a living room area, then you step up right to my nice-sized bedroom and bath. Then you step back down from the bedroom to the living room, then two steps down to a den with steps up to a lovely garden behind glass!' Nothing. Then after a minute, she finally said ... 'Don't fall.'"
I personally know nine Jewish people who, despite 2,000 satellite stations, keep all of them set to one: The Weather Channel. I believe that many Jews are closet climate-junkies. They sit, like zombies, staring at dew points and wind chill factors - in Katmandu. And not only do they take it personally, but they feel it's their business to warn their nearest and dearest to "be prepared."
When I had my first apartment, if there was lightning on the Eastern seaboard, I was warned to unplug everything with a cord, and store enough bottled water, canned food, and flashlights to rejuvenate the Dead Sea, feed a small African nation, and light up the entire city of Pittsburgh.
When Amy Borkowsky's mother heard that a foot of snow was expected in "outlying" areas of New York City, she left a message warning her to wrap a scarf around her face ... because "that man who climbed Mount Everest lost his entire nose."
If an adult child is "not in" on schedule, it's normal for many a Jewish parent to assume: "she's tied up"- literally. More than eight minutes late, and the alert goes up to "lying somewhere dead on the streets." Officially considered to have "gone missing," Nancy Grace must be notified.
But my friend Adele's mom takes the prize for paranoia. When she heard on the news there was a demonstration scheduled at a Manhattan embassy, she called her married daughter in New Jersey. "Mamala, when you go to the store in Paramus, don't go near Manhattan." Just in case ...
You've no doubt noticed in the preceding two "commandments" that there's one primo "Jewish Law of Probability:" If it happened to anyone, anywhere, anytime, better to figure, 99.9% -- you could be next. " After all, if it happened to Uncle Myron's mishpocha's neighbor's son's barber -it could happen to you!.
My late mother heard a report on famine in Africa on the same newscast that mentioned a tsunami brewing near Sri Lanka. At 10 pm, she arrived at my apartment followed by three men from the World Wrestling Federation, schlepping the entire frozen food aisle of "Costco." Just in case. But my late father had her beat. When Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, were photographed robbing a San Francisco bank, I received the following call: "Your mother and I noticed Patty had on a Pea coat - like yours - and we read she's 5'3" - also like you. Promise us, darling! Until she's captured ... stay away from banks.
The "What if" factor was coined by my friend Harry Lechter. "What if ... " is a concept his wife lives by. Newton's Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, is replaced by the "Nu ... What If Law: For every action there is an unequal, unjust, and unexpected reaction.
I leave you with the master, Neil Simon. In his Brighton Beach Memoirs, Mama sends her son out for a quarter pound of butter twice a day. When he ask why not a half pound once a day, her answer? "Suppose the house burned down this afternoon? Why do I need an extra quarter pound of butter?" Nu??
True, just in case, to everybody else may be a little meshugge. But for us Jews, "just in case" has been "the case" - far too often. Indeed, those three little words may be one reason we Jews are still around -- to worry - and to laugh.
Marnie Winston-Macauley is the author of Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother" and the award-winning "A Little Joy, A Little Oy" 2008 calendar. Her 2009 calendar can be pre-ordered on Amazon.