Category Archives: Family

A Goy Walks into a Synagogue…

(This post includes many references to both Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions and paraphernalia. Rather then slow down the narrative with too many descriptions/definitions, I’ve loaded it with plenty of Wiki links to help keep all of us on the same page.)

Often, people mistakenly think I’m Jewish, which I’m sure has a lot to do with my Italian roots/looks. (They’re interchangeable, right?) Since my wife is Jewish (and therefore, so is my son), I’m frequently in Jew-heavy social circumstances. Here’s an extreme example of someone thinking I’m one of the Chosen: My son attended a Jewish pre-school, one that’s fairly observant. We all went to a Shabbat dinner one night (I believe it was a Friday), which included several Hassidic men praying, complete with tefillin, which are these little black boxes the men attach to themselves when praying, kinda like a leather Rubik’s Cube. One gentleman approached me with a smile and a spare tefillin, reaching for my arm to strap it on. I shook my head and said, “No thanks,” and his response was to nod knowingly and begin to strap it on my head! Here I was–suitless, beardless, and hatless–and this guy assumed I was a member of the tribe.

As I said, that’s an extreme example, and generally speaking, the confusion has never been a problem, per se, just a source of mild misunderstanding and amusement.

Last weekend I attended my first bar mitzvah and it was an education, believe me. It was for the son of one of my wife’s childhood friends, and it was at an Orthodox synagogue in Westchester. My wife, Debbie, was raised as a Conservative Jew (aka somewhat less rigid and observant), so a lot of the traditions and rules were foreign to her. And since they were foreign to her, you can imagine how I felt. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, I was like a (loaf and) fish out of water in that place.

According to tradition, men and women sit separately in an Orthodox synagogue, so as soon as Debbie and I entered the sanctuary, we split up. I was now flying without a net and tread cautiously into a pew. The moment I sat down, a few men instantaneously, albeit politely, pointed out that I was not wearing a yarmulke. Man, that’s Jew 101, and I started right away on the wrong foot.

The fact that I looked like I belonged made it more difficult. At one point when everyone was saying a prayer (in Hebrew), I just hummed along, and a nice gentleman handed me book so I could keep up. I gave a headshake, with a little stutter and gestured with my forefinger to my lips that he was mistaken, but since I was reflexively pulling a “Woody Allen” (right) I only looked more Jewish. Finally I took the book, opened it to pages and pages of Hebrew and did my best to learn on the spot. I couldn’t even figure out the page numbers (which were conventional Arabic numbers!). I gave up and started skimming the English sections for pointers; all I found was a passage where Moses reminded me that God’s punishment for a Jew marrying a gentile is to stone him to death. (Is this where I’m supposed to say, “Oy!”?)

I thought I could go with the flow, mimicking those around me, but the whole vibe was unusual to me. It was all very communal and relaxed, which is the opposite from what I remember of Catholic masses: no talking, sit still, kneel with your back straight, etc. Debbie says that because the services are so long (up to 3 hours), there’s a lot of latitude: there’s friendly conversation and people milling about, entering and leaving the sanctuary. To me it resembled jury duty, with everyone wandering around, killing time. For example, two guys next to me were talking about a trip to Vegas, their voices at a normal register. Man, if I had pulled a stunt like that in Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Jesus Christ himself would have climbed down from the cross to slap my wrists.

My favorite part, however—the portion of the ceremony that prompted this post—was the bar mitzvah boy’s speech to the congregation. He nervously raced through it, like all good 13 years olds do—regardless of their religion—and barely looked up from his notes. But what he said was equal parts history, tradition, gratitude, and humor, and it had “Today I am a man” written all over it. It was marvelous to watch.

Y’see, when I was thirteen, I received the holy sacrament of confirmation, which is a joke. Ostensibly, it’s the moment when a young boy or girl receives the Holy Ghost (aka the Silent Partner of the Christian Holy Trinity), but it’s more like a poor man’s bar mitzvah, something Christians cobbled together to compete with the Jews in the next town over. I was confirmed with my classmates simultaneously, all of us presumably receiving the Holy Ghost at the same moment, which is akin to a Sun Myung Moon mass wedding. What little I could remember of it was, honestly, lame, forgettable and faceless. Nothing about it felt like a rite of passage.

But what I saw on Saturday truly felt memorable—certainly for the boy-now-man and his family—and I was jealous. Call it peyes envy. (Ba dom dom tish! I’m here all week, folks. Try the brisket!)

Look, I don’t mean to refute my Christian upbringing, but let’s face it: the Catholic church hit me up with eight years of weekly masses and religious class in school five days a week and what did they get for their efforts?

I’m now an agnostic who married a Jew. (Well played, nuns. Jehovah 1, Jesus 0.)

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A post wouldn’t be complete without some popular culture, right? In the fifth season of The Dick Van Dyke Show show, creator Carl Reiner decided to treat most of middle America to its first bar mitzvah.

In a 1966 episode called “Buddy Sorrell, Man and Boy,” comedy writer Buddy (Morey Amsterdam), at age 58, takes lessons so he can finally be bar mitzvahed. The conceit is that when Buddy was 13 he was too poor to have one but now he wants to have it for his mother’s sake.

My favorite moment comes when Buddy’s lesson is ending, just as another student’s  is beginning. Listen to the football joke at the end of this clip and pay close attention to the studio audience’s reaction…

Most of the audience doesn’t get it; those that do need a long moment to process it; and what laughter we hear sounds like, “I can’t believe they just made that joke!” (The Dick Van Dyke show is rich with moments like these: intelligent punchlines followed by pregnant pauses and then genuine, heartfelt laughter.)

The episode ends with Buddy’s service, which made TV history as it was the first time a series regular was bar mitzvahed onscreen. Not surprisingly, Buddy’s speech resembles what I heard last weekend.

Debbie watched this with her jaw on the floor. She kept saying, “What did people make of this!?” We were probably underestimating America’s intelligence; hell, I’m sure a lot of the 1966 audience had seen The Jazz Singer, fer cryin’ out loud. But I’m way impressed that Carl Reiner put a kippah on Dick Van Dyke’s head.

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Toy Story’s Cloudy Bookends

When I saw Toy Story 3 a few weeks ago, I immediately recognized that the last shot of the film mimics the opening shot of Toy Story, bookending the three films with a kind of visual closure. (I have to be vague here for the sake of those who’ve yet to see Chapter 3 in the saga of Woody & Buzz.) It was a fitting ending. Perfect, really. I strongly suspected that even the clouds were in identical formation as on Andy’s wall in Toy Story.

A couple of weeks later, I took Harry to see it, Harry being my 3-and-a-half-year-old son and fellow Pixar junkie. Even though by the end of the film I was an emotional wreck (you could have picked me up with a blotter), I had enough composure to pull out my phone and snap a picture of the closing shot so I could do a handy-dandy comparison in Photoshop. Turns out I was right about the cloud formations:

As cool as it is, however, I didn’t think this qualified as “blog post” material. This was so obvious an allusion that it would be silly to devote too many words to it. My prior Pixar posts dig deeper than just comparing shots between their own films1

So I put the comparison up on Facebook, which is a great place for things light, airy and fleeting. Moments later, my wife was the first to comment:

Since she was in her corporeal form only 20 feet from me, I continued our conversation in person (call me old fashioned): “It’s so obvious it isn’t even blog-worthy.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “You could write something about that. Trust me: most people didn’t notice that clouds/wallpaper reference.”

“Really?…I betcha Harry noticed it,” I said.

“Right. Yeah. I’m sure that’s the case.”

I smelled a dare.

Let me explain a little about my son. He’s good at shit like this. He’s got a steel trap of a memory. For example, when he was 2 years old, if WALL•E were playing in another room, he could tell us what scene it was just by listening to the sound effects and music cues. OK, OK, I know I’m just a proud Dad and everyone thinks their kids are geniuses or Mozart-esque, blah blah blah, but trust me: when it comes to this kind of thing, he’s got the goods.

So, I put the Toy Story 3 still on my computer screen and called Harry into my office…

So either my kid is way too much like me or I’m onto something. But, hey, at least I got a post out of it!

By the way…when you saw Toy Story 3, did you notice the allusion?
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BACK TO POST 1 Shoot, I’ve blogged about Pixar films in relation to John Ford, Nichols & May, Schwarzenegger violence and obscure sound effects from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Parenting: This is how you do it.

My son Harry Mose graduated yesterday. Pre-school. Another rite of passage towards adulthood and independence, albeit an early one. My wife sat next to me crying and, as usual, I sat there panicking. A lot about being a parent scares me. I don’t want to damage him psychologically, and I’d love to support him regardless of what he does. But I imagine being supportive can be difficult at times and I wonder how I’ll do as Harry gets older.

Fortunately, we can learn from our elders, and the other day I found some old letters that gave me perspective and hope…

This Sanyo RD5030 and I looped beautiful music together.

1986. I was a budding young creative type, ideas flying in all directions. Despite being completely tone deaf, I had aspirations of being a part of the music scene. Then I read about the tape loops created in the 60s by minimalist Steve Reich—“music” created with multiple tape decks only—and I knew I was in business. Without hearing any of his work, I took a 1974 recording of my father and my brother, set up three cassette decks and after many late nights in the family room under headphones, made “8 Years Old.” (It’s 3 minutes of looped voices, which I’ve included at the end of this post).

I heard there was a bi-monthly late night experimental music program on WXPN, University of Pennsylvania’s radio station. Hosted by John Hudak, I listened one night and while it wasn’t my cup of tea, I sent John a copy of “8 Years Old.” (Not sure why, actually, but like I said, my head was flying in all directions those days.) He sent me this flattering postcard saying, among other things

Thanks for the tape -> It is an interesting piece/your brother’s voice from that time ago displaced -> I’ll play your piece April 21 probably in the beginning of the show

No way! I thought. I was thrilled and told my mother and my buddies. The night of his show (which began at midnight I believe), I camped out in front of the stereo, headphones on, tape recorder going. The first 30 minutes came and went without my piece playing. So did the next 30 minutes. And the next after that.

What is it like to listen to hours of experimental music against your will? Well, there’s no metaphor for it. In fact, it is its own metaphor. It’s what’s used metaphorically to describe something else that’s painful and unrelenting.

I drifted off, my hope of hearing my brother and father on the radio fading away. At sunrise, I woke up on the floor next to the tape deck. Reviewing what had been recorded after I passed out, I discovered that I had been boned.

I don’t know what I daydreamed would happen after having a 3 minute experimental tape loop play on late night college radio (fame? fortune? chicks?), but I was severely bummed out that morning. (I also had a rug burn on the side of my face.) My mother was very sympathetic, and before I left for the bus, she gave me this note. It said, in part:

      I know you’re disappointed. Understandably so. But don’t be too discouraged.
      Unfortunately, creative people pay a price for their gift. They often suffer rejection, set-backs, lack of interesting on the part of others, etc. You’re a little young to be experiencing these things—but it will help toughen you for the future.
      Remember, I love you and will always stand by and try to be supportive of the little failings and your big successes.

I kept it even though I don’t know how much it helped me at the time. (Hey, I was sixteen. I’m sure my reaction was something along the lines of, “Yeah, nice, Lady. This and 8 bucks will buy me a cassette at Strawberries.”)

But finding it the other day, my immediate reaction was, “Y’see. This is how you do it. This is how you raise a child.” Every word my Mom chose was on the money. And the thing that really blows me away is that it’s a straight line. She wrote it long-hand, in ink, and there’s not a single crossed-out word or any back-stepping. If I had to write something like this, I’d draft the damn thing in Word, and dwell on every sentence like I was Ayn Rand writing John Galt’s speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged.1  But Mom knew exactly what to write, without any second-guessing.

So, yesterday Harry “graduated,” and with every step he makes, the more excited and afraid I become. But I’m lucky that I was schooled right. Hell, when the time comes for me to write a note like this for my Boy, I’ll just grab my Mom’s note and, well, plagiarize it. Thanks, Mom!

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8 Years Old
This isn’t for everyone, but I’ll admit it has the same effect on me today that it did in 1986. After a brief introduction by my father and brother Paul (who was eight years old at the time), it’s a single phrase looped for a couple of minutes. There’s two tracks of it, one in each ear, and one is running slightly faster than the other.

The effect is that as long as the two tracks are out of synch, your head is split in half, but as they gradually fall back into synch, you’ll feel your halves come together as one, even if only for a brief instant. Like I said, not for everyone, but thanks to the iPod generation, more people are wearing headphones than ever, which is the only way to hear this.

Stephen Altobello – 8 Years Old (3:24, right-click to download)

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BACK TO POST 1 It took Rand two years to write the 70-page speech.

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It’s a Family Thing

Harry Mose at a "mixing board," Brooklyn Children's Museum, Jan, 2009



Today’s post is more of an introduction than an actual post. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but my son, Harry Mose, is picking up some of my habits and fixations (i.e. film, sound FX, putting metal objects to my ears). Here’s some evidence. Yes, the clip is 13 months old, but, hey, my posts can’t all be diatribes against a wing of the entertainment industry.




And just so you don’t think his passion or attention to detail are 100% my doing, I’d like to point out that my wife is pretty intense, too.

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“You had to be there.”

As I said in a prior post, my Pop was the funniest man I ever met—and a great storyteller to boot. And my Mother’s got both those bases covered, too. So it’s in my blood to want to tell funny stories. My schooling at their hands, however, was brutal at times.

For example, when I was five or six years old, my stories would go on and on (and on), and since I hadn’t lived much of a life yet, my stories would typically be descriptions of TV shows, say, episodes of Gilligan’s Island. And at a certain point—the point when they felt my quorum on the dinnertime conversation had run its course—they’d do one of two things:

Portrait of the blogger as a young bore.

-Start buzzing and moving their heads in a circular gesture, imitating the annoying, dull drone of a bee.

-They’d start saying, “And then…and then…and then…and then…” to remind me that my library of segue words (i.e. however, therefore, suddenly, but, next) was very limited. My stories really were single sentences, such as: “And then Gilligan broke the coconut, and then the Skipper said, ‘Gilligan!’ and then the professor had to fix the cocoanut and then…”

Now, this kind of bitchslapping when you’re six whips you into shape, believe me. By the time I was eight, I was a mini Spalding Gray.

Before you go on thinking my folks were a pair of tools, I should be clear: I’m very grateful they did this (I expect to behave similarly towards my own son); and I’ve never met two more enthusiastic listeners. They were supportive and responsive—but they were also a tough crowd.

As I got older, my Pop added a new ripple to his reactions: “You had to be there.” If I told a joke or story that sank like a rock, his immediate reaction was to say that to me. And he wasn’t saying, “F U. You just wasted my time.” He was saying, “We’ve all been there. Better luck next time.”

Later on, in my teens, I noticed that if he told a joke that tanked, he’d be the first to say, “Well, you had to be there.” He was his own toughest audience, and that was the next lesson he imparted: at any point in telling a story, if you realize you’re wasting everyone’s time, jump ship ASAP and save face with a good-natured, “You had to be there.”

Sadly, I don’t have any recorded examples of my Pop saying that to me, but here’s a quick example that caught my eye. It’s from a DVD collection of sketches from Your Show of Shows. In an interview, comedian Howard Morris talks about jazz dancer Jack Cole. It’s a dead-end of a story and a few sentences he salvages it with the five magic words—and, when I saw this, I laughed out loud and thought, “Wow. He used ‘You had to be there’ as a punchline. Brilliant.” Maybe you’ll agree, or…maybe you had to be there.

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Pop

My father, Don Altobell, will be a recurring character on this blog, so it makes sense to give him a post, just for reference. I’ll keep it brief. Some adjectives, a story or two, a few pictures.

My Pop was quite a character. A legend in his own mind, as his friends would kid him. Only child. Teenage bodybuilder. Bandstand dancer and heartthrob. Navyman. Artist. Early 60s Philly adman. Sinatra fan extraordinaire. Incredible optimist. Victim to MS. And the funniest man I ever met (and ever will meet).

He was an amazing storyteller and was most comfortable telling you about himself. Yet self-obsession has never been so likable and illuminating. By the time I was a young adult, his disease had left him nearly crippled and with a limited view of the contemporary world. You’d expect this would narrow his ability to relate to me, but that wasn’t the case. When I would tell him something about my life, he’d counter with a story from his past that let me know he knew where I was coming from.

For example, once I told him I was dating this wealthy girl and felt intimidated by her family’s pomp and circumstance. He immediately countered with: “When I was 14, I was getting close to this girl. Her family had some money, sorta hoidy toidy. She had the first TV in the neighborhood—which made her a local celebrity!–and when she invited me over, I was eager to see it. We were sitting her living room and I’m looking around, seeing if I could catch a glimpse of her TV. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more and asked her where it was. She stuck her nose up in the air and said, “Why it’s in the television room!’…Yeah, that didn’t last long.” That was Pop’s idea of advice, and it was on the money.

Sadly, the MS he had since ’63 finally inked the deal in 2006. As a testimony to my Pop’s charm, there were buddies at his funeral from every stage of his life, from childhood through to the end. How he kept those friendships alive over the decades, including the final decades where he could do little more than make phone calls from his bed, blew my mind. The older one gets, the harder it gets to keep these bonds, and, sadly, a lot of people let an illness like MS be an excuse to let a friendship die. But these guys really loved him and he them, and I know all of them would agree that they never met anyone like Don.

He and my Mother, or Piccina as he called her, were a darling couple for a dozen years or so and provided the groundwork for the man I am today. The first few years of their marriage, they’d celebrate their anniversaries by drinking some cheap champagne and tape-recording a summary of the prior year. In 1971, when I was one, my Pop had some MS-related problems that put him in the hospital, and this four minute mp3 is his description of that event, preserved on their anniversary tape.

I was 31 when I heard this for the first time (he’s 32 in the recording) and consider myself a solid storyteller—but, man, he sends me back to school with this. His timing, his humor, his laughter—just impeccable. (My Mom’s interjections and laughter are a great touch, too.) He’s self-deprecating but never self-pitying. I get the feeling that a few hours after this horrible event happened, he’d already translated it into an hysterical tale.

You may never hear a funnier catheter story.

Don Altobell’s Hospital Story (3:42, right-click to download)

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