May 9, 2002
It happened fast, like swerving out of the way of a stray cat.
I was driving toward the valet parking kiosk of a fancy-pants department store in Beverly Hills. As I approached, I saw clusters of press and well-dressed young women gathered to attend a charity brunch. A Mercedes was coming to a slow stop.
I don't know what made me do it; I took a sharp left, veering away from the valet kiosk and into an adjacent public lot.
In an instant, I saw how I must look with Big Blue, my electric-hued 1995 Ford Taurus. We had just taken a trip to the desert together, and only one of us had bothered to shower. The windows were grimy. Newspapers and books-on-tape cluttered the passenger seat. Gum wrappers filled the ashtray.
The trouble wasn't purely cosmetic. You can't wash a Taurus into an Audi.
You can't squeegee away the middle-class vibe. What option did I have? I could practice Buddhist nonattachment and the loving self-acceptance preached to me by my groovy, leftist, Joan Baez-humming parents, or I could practice swerving away from the valet line without hurting anyone.
What happened to me? I'll tell you. It was a sudden, violent attack of Car Shame.
A friend of mine from high school, a woman I hadn't seen in years, invited me to the brunch, an event she organized to raise money for her foundation benefiting women's causes. This is a social-register type person, a woman who grew up in a penthouse and seems to gather friends that are equal parts stunning thinness and enviable success.
The last time I felt Car Shame I was probably in high school, waiting for my mom to pick me up in our VW bug that had to be pushed to start. Just when you think you've conquered something, a rich girl from high school and the sight of dozens of feet in Jimmy Choos and a Beverly Hills department store and a slowly stopping Mercedes bring it all back. It was downhill from the valet swerve. I was "brunching" next to women whose handbags cost more than my rent. I was the only diner at my own International House of Shame.
"You should be proud of your proletariat roots," said my dad over the phone, when I told him about the unexpected onslaught of Car Shame. "Parking across the street was a shonda and a hora," he added. A shame and a disgrace, he translated.
You see my dad has just enrolled in a Yiddish class. He's one of two students in a class he finally found up in Northern California, where he lives.
"Yiddish is the greatest. I'm dedicating my life to learning Yiddish," he explained. My dad's a mechanic who has gone back to the local junior college to get a paralegal degree, take computer classes, and now learn Yiddish. "There's a Yiddish saying, 'A Jewish thief steals books.' It's a metaphor. Our culture is all about learning for learning's sake. That's one of the things that's so magical about our culture."
"Dad," I said, returning to the topic of my shonda, "I had to walk up to the entrance. That probably looked weird."
"Duh. Anyone with any seckel (wisdom) would know you parked across the street," he pointed out.
According to my dad, I was only temporarily swept away by vanity and the need to fit in. It was only natural. "Now, back to Yiddish, my new obsession."
And so went our regular Sunday call, toggling between the beauty of Yiddish and the blemished face of my Taurus.
"Yiddish has the best expressions," he went on, quoting some, calling me shayna punim (pretty face). "I never got into Hebrew, but Yiddish has so much color, so much history. Now the only people who speak it are alter-kackers."
My mother speaks Yiddish. I had a sudden flash, a memory of my mother and grandmother in the car, speaking Yiddish so my brother and I wouldn't understand what they were saying. We must have been jealous, because not long after that we came up with one of those bizarre sibling languages only we understood. The only word that remains is "supracodiva," a word describing the person in the family everyone hates. In our family, there was always a rotating supracodiva, so I guess it was useful vocabulary, the way Eskimos need all those words for snow.
Growing up, my mom probably felt about her Yiddish the way I felt about my Taurus, like it was embarrassing, like it made her different, like she wanted to park it across the street and walk. Meanwhile, my 58-year-old dad is sitting with the other studenten every week, just trying to chase down the piece of his culture that most resonates.
"Language is the vehicle of a culture. It expresses what's unique," said my dad. The vehicle. And without knowing it, he drove home his point. "Talk to you next week, Terescela."