Outings with my in-laws tend to resemble the zanier type of Yiddish Comedy. Everyone talks at once, all on different subjects. When conversational threads do converge, they typically devolve to bizarre iterative repetitive chants.
“Go left on Union Turnpike.”
“Yes. Union Turnpike.”
“What do you mean, go left on Union Turnpike?”
“I mean, turn left, on Union Turnpike!”
“What’s Union Turnpike?”
“The road you need to go left on!”
“I should go left on Union Turnpike?”
“Yes! Go left on Union Turnpike!”
“OK, OK, I’ll go left on Union Turnpike. Where is it?”
“You just passed it.”
“I passed what?”
“Union Turnpike again! What’s all this with Union Turnpike?”
“You were supposed to go left on it!”
“I was supposed to go left on Union Turnpike?”
“Why didn’t you tell me so in time for me to make the turn?”
No shit. That is an actual conversation that happened in the car a couple of years ago on the way to a restaurant whose name no one knew in an area of Queens with which no one was familiar, but which had come highly recommended be one of my mother-in-law’s friends.
I should note that this conversation had my husband at the wheel, my MIL in the front seat, my BIL sharing the backseat with me, and it was a THREE-way discussion. Not including me, by the way, because I was working so hard to avoid laughing out loud in the back seat that I had tears streaming from my eyes.
So last night, I rang my MIL from the pub to wish her Many Happy Returns of the Day, and confirm our plans to pick her up this afternoon to go to a steak house – that we’d been to before, thank God – out on Union Turnpike. At this point, she tells me that some other friend of hers has recommended a “really good” dairy restaurant and is wondering if we’d prefer to go there instead. I should note here that my MIL is an Orthodox Jew, and for the Orthodox, the world of restaurants is separated into three kinds: establishments that serve meat, establishments that serve vegetarian food, and establishments that serve treyf (foods that are not acceptable, seafood, pigs, cheeseburgers, etc.). The “dairy” restaurant is usually a vegetarian restaurant that also serves fish. So she has no idea what the name of this place is, or exactly where it is, but it’s supposed to be Very Good and she is open to relocating her birthday lunch.
I flashed back to the Union Turnpike conversation, which involved a trip taken under very similar circumstances, shuddered, and suggested that the steak house would be just fine with us.
My husband gets hoovered into this Yiddish Comedy with very little provocation, and is prone to moving the plot and dialogue forward aggressively. Or, as is more likely the case, stalling the conversation in one spot while the engine races and the wheels spin, aggressively. So as we pulled up to his mom’s house this afternoon, I said (in the vain hope of defusing this in advance), “The restaurant is on Union Turnpike.”
“Union Turnpike?!?” he said.
“Yes. Union Turnpike.”
“The restaurant is on Union Turnpike?” he said.
“Yes. No, dammit, I’m not doing this,” I said. “We have the GPS, you need to pay attention to it, which I know will be difficult, because as soon as all four of us get in the car, three will be trying to talk at any one time. Try hard to listen to the directions.”
We picked up his mom and headed out. Just as the GPS sang out “Turn left on Union Turnpike” his mom cut into the conversation. I cringed, expecting to be shot back into the Time Loop and having the Marx Brothers debate about this road. But what she said, instead, was
“Oh, look. There’s that Russian shul.” (shul = Yiddish slang for a synagogue).
My brother-in-law, Dennis, slumped down in his seat. “Oh, no. She’s about to tell that story about the whips.”
This attracted my attention instantly, of course. Whips? My venerable mother in law is telling a story about whips? And she’s doing it often enough that it makes Dennis groan that he’s going to hear it again?!?
Like I said, pure Yiddish Theatre.
I had sworn not to get into any of these scenes, because they hurt, but I couldn’t help it.
“What?!?” I said.
“She’s going to tell that story about the whips” Dennis said, at exactly the same moment his mom said “Oh, yes! They have a whip!” and exactly the same moment my husband said “Union Turnpike?”
I told him he still had a mile and a half to go, and said “What’s this with the whips?”
So we hear about my husband’s other brother’s recent trip to town for the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur), and how they went into this Russian shul that was in a converted movie theater to see how it had been done up in the renovation. And yes, they had whips there. For purposes of atonement.
Let me interject here that the common meaning of “atonement” for Jews involves long, tearful apologetic phone conversations or e-mails, and sizeable checks written to a variety of charities. The nearest thing to a physical experience is when everyone stands in the synagogue and recites the list of sins (see a previous post for this) and lightly thumps themselves on the breast while doing so. Dramatic displays and loud chest-thumping are reserved for the bar mitzvah kids, who do it to show how cool they are. Because they’re 12, and life is hard then.
So whips in the synagogue was a totally new one on me.
My MIL clarified that this is some custom (to that shul? to Jews from whatever town in Russia? it’s not clear). “You atone for your sins with the whip.” she said.
“They keep whips around so you can flog yourself?” I said.
“Oh, no!” she and Dennis cried. “They do that for you.” she added.
“Where is Union Turnpike?” my husband interjected.
“Damn Union Turnpike,” I said. “Are you telling me that people go to this shul to get whipped? In public? And that the shul keeps people on hand to deliver floggings?”
Oh, yes, they assured me. And what’s more, my BIL Michael decided to try it out for a lark. He confessed to them that he’d overeaten at dinner the night before. And they whipped him.
“Thirty-nine times” my MIL announced, in a satisfied tone.
This immediately launched an peripheral debate – not with me, because I was losing it again in the backseat and just trying not to shriek out loud – but with my husband, BIL, and MIL. The issue at hand was that the Torah – evidently – specifies forty lashes for a sin. And Michael had only gotten thirty-nine. He’d been short-changed. And the question was “Why” – was it because the guy lost count? was it because they didn’t know the rule? was it because they took one off for some mysterious metaphysical reason?
I’m dying in the back. I’m having a hard time getting past a synagogue in Queens dishing out public floggings, and the fact that my BIL decided to participate on the spur of the moment while sight-seeing, but everyone else is having a hard time with the question of the number of lashes.
As I said, Pure Yiddish Comedy. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, read it and weep.
*A brief editorial note: All of the above is 100% true, natural, and un-enhanced by any artistic or editorial license. No, really, I am not making ANY of this up. And remember that my MIL was celebrating her 92nd (ninety-second) birthday. That just somehow makes it all worse.