When I was a kid I hated that I had Jew blood in me. My brother often checked out large library books about World War II and left them lying around open to photos of concentration camp corpse-mounds. He also bought a lot of comics set in World War II: Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury and His Howlin’ Commandos, Weird War Tales. Every so often the Jews would make an appearance in the panels as background for the tales of heroic American conquest, and they’d be emaciated and hollow-eyed, penned up in filthy cells or jammed like cattle into train cars or lined up meekly for the gas chamber. That’s what the Jews were, as far as I knew. Thin gray prison-clothed victims.
Why didn’t they fight back? I wondered. It made me angry. How could they just line up to die?
My father had been raised in a strict Orthodox home, but by the time he met and married a shiksa, my mom, he had become completely irreligious (unless you’re a big fan of irony and want to count his passionate adherence to the theories of religion’s most famous critic, Karl Marx, as religion). There were no traces of Jewish life in my upbringing, and even if my father had lived with us I don’t think it would have been different. There were no traces of Jewish life in his tiny apartment in Manhattan, either, though I subconsciously came to think of everything in the apartment as Jewish, from the relative lack of furniture to the fact that he kept his small black-and-white television in the closet, rarely watching it, to his crude cinder block and board bookcases, to the yellowing Ellis Island photos in the hollow of a cinder block of his mother and father, to the persistent smell of garlic, to the giant jar of wheat germ in the refrigerator.
Occasionally my father would take my brother and me to see his mother, our grandma, and it was like venturing to the very source of the garlicky strangeness and unfamiliarity that permeated everything in my father’s apartment, like going to the very heart of Jewness. I was frightened of her. She had a strange accent and was tiny and hunched and impossibly old. My father, perhaps wary of revealing to my brother and me that he was a good deal older than my mother, had always tried to evade our questions about his age by saying he was “a googol” (which he explained was a number far larger than a billion). It was one of those slippery pieces of childhood info that you neither fully believe nor disbelieve. But if he was a googol, his mother, the stooped woman who constantly forced mysterious and complicated Old World food on me, must have been infinity.
“Eat! Eat!” she implored. The bowl of homemade soup in her ancient veined hands roiled with thick gray noodles and gristle. I clamped my lips tight and shook my head no. No, no, no.
When I was around her I wanted to go back home. Back to my Chips Ahoys and Spaghettios. Back to television sit-coms and baseball. Back to my painless solitary hours in my room. Back to the nerf-soft confines of my daydreams. Back to the Cardboard Gods.
I had no idea that the one Cardboard God who seems to have made the most visits to me, with five, had a Jewish father. Just like me. (Just like Skip Jutze, too, according to Baseball Almanac. And just like Ryan “The Hebrew Hammer” Braun.) I doubt I paid much mind to any of the five 1975 Dick Sharon cards that came into my life, except perhaps to become mildly annoyed that the guy kept clogging up my new packs with his repeating self. (I doubt I even noticed the shadow of the Topps photographer visible in the picture, possibly the only time one of the medievally anonymous artisans responsible for creating the Cardboard God universe appears in any form in one of their images.)
As far as I knew there were not, nor never had been, Jewish baseball players. I knew from studying the baseball encyclopedia who Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg were, but I didn’t know they were Jewish. From what I’d seen from my father Jews couldn’t even throw a baseball. They were also generally uncoordinated and pale. You’d hear them from time to time slipping and falling in the bathtub. They drove cars slowly and jerkily, their citified shoulders tensed. They listened to classical music and wore thick glasses and button down shirts and ties. They had jobs with titles so long they were impossible to understand.
They were certainly not the dashing figure presented above in quintuplet. Dick Sharon’s chiseled jaw, his drooping Marlboro Man stache, his steely gaze and swaggering body language and smile: they all exude dashing athletic aptitude and confidence. On the back of the card, Sharon is described as a “sure-handed flyhawk.” I doubt I even really understood what this meant, but it probably sounded to me like something that could have been used to describe one of Sgt. Rock’s brave men or one of Sgt. Fury’s colorful and able Howlin’ Commandos. I focused my twisted attention on imagined heroes battling for victory and glory. In these imaginings the Jews were barely there at all, just figures in the background, weak and capitulatory. I tried to believe I had nothing to do with them.
Why didn’t they fight back? I still wondered sometimes, unable to completely get them out of my mind. How could they just line up to die?
I’ve learned some things since then. I learned my father’s oldest brother, Joe, joined the Navy soon after Pearl Harbor and saw heavy combat in the South Pacific. I learned my father’s other brother, Dave, joined the Navy too, as soon as he was old enough, and when my father was old enough he also joined, all three of my grandma’s sons away from her embrace, prepared to fight. There is a picture from that time of her with my father and my Uncle Joe, both home on leave. My uncle looks Dick Sharon-dashing in his tailored combat-used sailor uniform, while my daydreaming scholar father, barely out of his teens, looks in his baggy ill-fitting standard issue sailor uniform like he is moments away from inadvertently tripping over something. In between them stands my grandma, low and thick, indestructible. She had raised the family by herself, her husband unable to contribute even before he wound up floating in the East River. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to experience the hardships she had to go through, losing one of her children in infancy, leaving her parents and the whole world she grew up in to come to a strange country, toiling long hours as a housecleaner to keep her family from starving, her husband gone silent and strange, living through the grisly death of her husband, soldiering on with love. Fighting back. In the photo she exudes pride and also this overwhelming sense that she would make you very, very sorry if you ever messed with her family.
As for my dad, the war ended before he ever saw combat, but he tells a story about a camp boxing match in which he was pitted against the largest man on the base. He suspects that anti-Semitism was behind the obvious mismatch, the match-makers hoping to enjoy a nice quick Jew-beating. He says he never even saw the first punch. One moment he was standing there and the next moment he was on the ground. He got up. Soon he was on the ground again. He got up. Then he was staring at the lights above the ring again. He got up. Then he was kissing canvas again. He got up. Finally officials had to step in and end the match because of my father’s refusal to stop fighting.