December 11, 2003
Jewish Mom for the Straight Guy
When my father informed me he had scheduled a business trip to Los Angeles and was taking my mother with him about a month after I moved out here, his timing seemed less than coincidental. Both of my parents had been anxiously phoning me on a daily basis since I left New York. The real reason they were coming was to make sure I wasn't living in a crack house, or at the very least had the decency to choose a Jewish crack house.
Truth be told, I needed them. After all the work that went into finding a suitable apartment and automobile in Los Angeles, I was growing increasingly listless about settling in much further. Even when the weather got colder and I struggled to sleep without a quilt, freezing each night felt preferable to braving the crowds at Bed Bath & Beyond.
Still, I had to be careful what I wished for. From the first minute my parents arrived at my new apartment, my mother began scrutinizing every square inch. As she wandered about steadying crooked picture frames, frowning at price tags and toeing carpet stains, I felt as if she and I were co-starring in the rejected pilot episode of "Jewish Mom for the Straight Guy."
But their visit was not entirely without generosity. When my father told me he was bringing a housewarming gift, my mind immediately raced with a few tantalizing possibilities: That waterbed I've been fruitlessly asking for since I was a kid? Not likely. A new car? In my dreams. A welcome mat emblazoned with the family name? Hope there's a lot of willing Wallensteins on eBay.
So when he handed me a gift-wrapped package about the size of a cigar, I was completely confounded. Removing the wrapping, I unsheathed a mezuzah, the slender religious object Jews affix to their doorposts containing a scroll with excerpts from the Torah.
"It will watch over you," my father suggested.
The mezuzah was about more than providing a surrogate guardian, I realized. My decision to move out of New York City had only accelerated their long-compounding anxiety over my fading religious identity; despite Los Angeles' heavy Jewish population, I imagine they pictured the city filled entirely with blonde heathens named Heather intent on eternally altering their bloodline. If my parents could fit Mount Sinai itself on a handtruck, they would have had it wheeled into my apartment. A mezuzah was a more practical choice to serve as a constant reminder of my Jewishness.
Had I wanted to distract my parents into forgetting about posting the mezuzah, I probably could have gotten away with it. But like every Jew, strands of guilt are coiled into my DNA's double helix as tightly as a Chasid's peyos.
On my parents' last day in Los Angeles, they stood by as I fastened the mezuzah into place outside the front door of my apartment. Much as I would like to say the spirit of Moses himself swelled within my soul, the hammer, nails and wood actually brought to mind the crucifixion of Jesus.
"Can I ask what you're doing?" a voice called out from down the hall. My parents and I wheeled around to glimpse the neighbor I had never met who lived three doors away. As if Central Casting had dispatched Hot, Young Los Angeles Neighbor to the never-ending sitcom that is my life, a striking blonde stuck her head out of the apartment, presumably prompted by the banging outside. My parents and I exchanged a helpless look. How were we going to explain a mezuzah?
She ventured out of her apartment for a closer look, which afforded me the opportunity to get a closer look at her blue eyes and tan legs. Fairly certain my parents would not spontaneously combust at that moment no matter how much I might will it, I instantaneously decided they would help me charm her. I turned to my father and asked him to explain the mezuzah, which he did with surprising gusto. I was then reminded of a fact I often forget: my father is also a man, and no man is immune to a friendly, attractive woman.
"Would you like us to install one for you next?" I asked. "Free of charge."
She laughed and even came into my apartment for a quick tour. My parents nervously milled about, watching their worst nightmare unfold in front of their eyes as I flirted with a neighbor who was way too blonde to be Jewish. When she scribbled her phone number on a Post-it before leaving, they simply ignored what transpired in sullen silence.
Not another word has been spoken about the mezuzah since that fateful day; I'd imagine in their mind I might as well have nailed mistletoe to the door. My mezuzah had indeed blessed me, but not in the way they had intended.