I was one of approximately 50 black students in a high school of approximately 1450 students. Back when I went to high school our town was predominantly white with some people of Hispanic origin and few Asians. I was aware of numerous Mormon Students in my high school, and they were known for having fun dances at their church. I was even invited to one once but declined. I don’t recall being aware of any of my fellow students beings Jewish. During high school my most memorable direct encounter with anyone Jewish was with assistant wrestling coach Larry Kluger (aka Kluger-Buddy, now performing as Lariat Larry). My previous understanding of Judaism came from assiduously reading through the Old Testament after sixth grade in a Bible I had gotten for Christmas, by which I came to understand that the whole world would be blessed through the descendants of Abraham.
I was certainly blessed through Coach Kluger-Buddy who had one of the highest strength-to-body-weight-ratios I had ever seen; I was always impressed with how he could climb a rope either holding his legs perpendicular as if sitting in a chair or upside down vertically. Through him I learned what it meant to keep Kosher when he explained why he did not want cheese on his sandwich on a stop coming back from the Reno Tournament, “You should not gird a kid in his mother’s milk.” We had time to discuss common elements of our faiths and the Old Testament during the drive back prolonged by a crash of his VW Bug into a snowbank following a skid.
Still Kluger-Buddy was staff and not a student. Maybe the Jewish students were just doing a good job keeping their cover; maybe I should have kept a look-out in the cafeteria for which students were eschewing the pig-in-a-blanket, a cheese dog wrapped in biscuit dough, a perennial favorite. I probably should have also kept track of those who took the pig-in-a-blanket but traded it with a classmate for something Kosher; they probably felt undefiled if they never unwrapped the foil.
There were moments when I questioned the cultural awareness of my fellow students such as when during Spirit Week someone suggested I come in costume as Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer, for our spirit day theme of “That’s Entertainment?” I looked at that young lady with a squinted stare wondering, “Does she even know that Al Jolson was not a black man, but Jewish?” At first, I was troubled, but then I embraced the delicious irony of a black man impersonating a white man impersonating a black man. That same week in the senior show I did my Louis Armstrong impersonation singing and playing trumpet for a very talented classmate, Cinthia Fontana, who played Dolly Levi in a “Hello Dolly” sketch. When spirit week was over, I had a somber moment when I contemplated if anyone grasped the profound irony in my spirit day costume? Maybe it was no deeper than the irony of an Italian American Catholic playing Dolly Levi in our senior show. I worried that my mimicking of black face might distance me from my fellow black students. Maybe not all were aware that Al Jolson was an advocate for black performers on Broadway, or that Louis Armstrong identified as Jewish. Somehow the Spirit Week morning-after left me questioning, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” More importantly does cultural appropriation honor or dishonor someone?
One thing I have come to understand is the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone. Sometimes the difference is proximity versus separation. The closer you are to someone the more likely you are to laugh with them and not at them. When someone is telling jokes about another race or religion and there are no people from that race or religion in the room with them, then they are more likely laughing at them than with them. Maybe the young lady who suggested that I come as Al Jolson was intuitively aware that the character of a minstrel would be offensive, if it were not played by a black person. Maybe she wanted to make sure I was not only in the room, but the one telling the joke.
That brings me back to one of my conflicts in high school, “The Merchant of Venice”. I formed one of my closest friendships in high school working with wide receiver teammate, The Stork, on our freshman Shakespeare project. However, something seemed off about that play. Did Shylock represent the Jewish heart or did his character just perpetuate the negative stereotypes of Jews as relentlessly mercenary? Shylock’s Act 3 Scene I soliloquy seems to be an appeal to empathy from Christians towards Jews, but does it compensate for the context in which it is placed? The problem was we were discussing the play without any Jews in the room to give us perspective.
I chose to recite Shylock’s soliloquy for my class because on some level I identified with it. I could have substituted in “I am a black man” and made the same appeal to acknowledgement of my humanity, “warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a white person is?” Years later after my days as a wrestler had passed and I no longer had to make weight, I wrote this parody of that soliloquy:
I am a fat man. Hath not a fat man eyes to see the pizza delivery guy coming up his steps? Hath not a fat man hands too scoop up a piping hot slice, organs gurgling juices to digest that slice, dimensions of girth and height based on prior pizza consumption, senses that detect when people stare at us as we eat, affections for the person who buys us a pizza on our birthday, passions for the culinary arts which fired pesto pizza into existence; fed with the same food that comes in a box, hurt with the same weapons like criticism and body shaming, subject to the same diseases of diabetes and heart diseases, healed by the same means of diet and exercise, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a skinny person is? If you prick us, do we not bleed from our copious corpuscles? If you tickle us, do we not laugh as our stomachs give a jolly Jell-O Jiggle? If you poison us with tainted anchovies, do we not die a thousand deaths at the commode? And if you wrong us by messing up our pizza order, shall we not revenge by ordering from another restaurant next time? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that?
Composite Photo: 1) Buff Ballerinas -Rich Croce and Patrick Kam 2) Fine Fly Flapper Floozies -Diane Cater, Eddie Daniels and Maura Methaney 3) Seductively Sauntering Sultry Saloon Girls -Geneva Kaufman, Carolyn Lunsford, Janis Wiscarson, Kelly Ghent, Karrie Andrews and Doreen Ayers