February 28, 2008
The Nazi in the hot tub
Seven-hundred Jews gathered at the Orange County Hilton in Costa Mesa two weekends ago for a three-day teach-in called LimmudLA, and at one point in the intense, round-the-clock learning and shmoozing, suffering from what Philip Roth once called, "Jew on the brain," I just needed a break.
I headed for the hotel hot tub.
There were a few Limmudniks already there, and one man with his back to me, lounging in the bubbles. I stepped in beside him, said my requisite, "Ahhhhh," then turned to say hi.
And noticed -- I could not not notice -- that his chest was covered with a large tattoo of a swastika.
The man was big, maybe 6-feet, 250 pounds. And when I say there was a swastika on his chest, I mean it was blue black, inked in one-inch wide lines and went from nipple to nipple. My first thought, of course, was, "Maybe that's the Navajo swastika." My second was, "Please let that be the Navajo swastika." My third was, "No, that's not the Navajo swastika."
One of the Jewish women in the Jacuzzi was talking to him, but he had moved away, and I could only make out his last sentence to her: "Thank you for not judging me."
Then he got out, hitched up his large, baggy bathing trunks and split.
The woman was a photojournalist named Naomi Solomon. She was tending to her baby as her husband, Yehuda, enjoyed the waters. The other men in the hot tub and I marveled at her ability to lead a calm conversation with the man. I asked Naomi how she broached the subject.
"I just leaned down and asked, 'Um, is that a swastika on your chest?'" she said.
Children and parents who came down to the hot tub saw the man and went to the pool instead. Soon the others left, and I was alone, pondering the whole weird affair.
Then he returned. Now it was me and him, alone.
I tried to channel my inner Naomi Solomon.
"I'm Rob," I said and stuck out my hand.
"Don," he said, and we shook.
"You do know, Don, that there are 700 Jews in this hotel all weekend?" I said.
"Yeah, I found that out," he said. "It's ironic."
Then Don and I talked. He joined the Aryan Brotherhood while in prison in Arizona. There are no tattoo parlors in prison, so the inmates attach a pen and needle to the motor of a Sony Walkman. They make ink by burning hair grease in their lockers, scraping the black char off the metal and mixing it with shampoo.
The Brotherhood did his chest. Don inked his own left arm -- shoulder to wrist -- with a devil-in-flames design, capped with the Goth-script words, "Seize the Day."
"I want to get it off," Don said of the swastika.
In prison, he said, the tattoo identified him as a member of a gang not to be messed with: "It saved my life." Outside, it's been a problem.
"They would have removed it for free when I was on parole," Don said, "but I couldn't get to the place from work. Now they want $1,600."
He said a friend of his who couldn't afford the removal took a belt sander to his chest and ground away the first few layers of skin.
"I'll get you the money," I said, without a second of hesitation. "I can walk into the hotel lobby and raise it in 45 seconds."
"I'll find you a dermatologist in Phoenix; I'll set it up. All you have to do is show up."
Don, according to Solomon, said he was no longer a white supremacist. But, he told her, he still didn't like Jews.
The man had a tense, unsettled energy. He was twice my size, and we were alone in a hot tub at night, practically naked. It didn't seem the place to explore his ill will toward the Jewish people. I just wanted to keep things practical.
We set a time to meet later and exchange numbers.
At the appointed hour, Don wasn't anywhere to be found. I didn't know his room number or last name, and I tried in vain to find him.
In the meantime, telling the story to others at Limmud, I had raised enough in pledges for Don to get his swastika removed, get lipo, a facelift, a ranch house in Encino -- whatever he wanted. But Don was gone. I laid out the whole story to Jessica at the Hilton front desk, and she passed my e-mail and phone number on to all the guests registered from Phoenix, but they claimed never to have heard of Don.
At breakfast that Sunday morning, Ethan Ward, one of the kids from the Jacuzzi, said he came up with the perfect title for a story, "The Nazi in the Hot Tub."
He appeared in a public place, where we Jews had freely gathered to learn and celebrate our Jewishness. He was the asterisk at the end of the sentence, the shattered wine glass at the wedding. Yes, he said he wanted to erase his error. So he was a complicated asterisk.
But the world we live in is complicated as well. Just this week, there's been a resurgence of the anti-Semitic Hungarian Guard in Budapest and of anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine, even as, at the Academy Awards, an Austrian filmmaker won his country's first Best Foreign Film Oscar for a movie, "The Counterfeiters," that forces his countrymen to confront the Holocaust.
French Jews are hiding their kippot under baseball caps, while the country elected a pro-Israel descendant of Jews to the presidency. Muslim extremists marched through the streets of London carrying signs reading, "Get Ready for the REAL Holocaust," this week, while Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom issued an unprecedented appeal to world Jewry for closer relations.
In Sderot, the citizens of Israel faced more rocket attacks in their tenuous struggle for existence; in America, the leading Democratic candidate met with Jewish groups to declare his unwavering support for the Jewish state.
It turns out there is something eternal and topical about the ancient wedding ritual of breaking the glass at the wedding, of the Jewish reality being forever black and white, of the Nazi in the hot tub.