CHAPTER 10 - INTERIM YEARS OF PEACE
Shalom means hello, good-by and peace. The next three years were blessed with peace. During the first summer to follow the trial, Maria allowed me to take our son to a camp named Shalom in central Florida where I worked as a head counselor.
Bobby was now four years old, and he was allowed to sleep with a cabin full of slightly older kids while I was in the next room. The little guy proved to be a real champ at water skiing.
The camp was nearly all Jewish, but Bobby’s mother didn’t seem to mind. She even flew him up to be with me. At the time I was more interested in fishing, hiking, canoeing and other campy things than in theology. Of course, every few weeks when a new batch of kids would show up, I’d be tempted around the campfires at night to spin yarns of the reincarnation of Sabbatai Sevi. There were many questions about the scar on my neck. It was more fun to spook the kids about being the gilgol of the Mystical Messiah than to tell them about a lousy old cyst. Whenever I got to the part about sword being placed over Sevi’s neck, I loved to send chills down their little spines by running my hand along my own long, wide and hideous scar.
Everybody loved me because I was such a scary storyteller. I had a tale about everything. One night I terrified the campers by letting them know about how it was that Big Foot had killed and eaten three kids the summer before. When I finished all the gruesome details, I slipped away to the wood shop and then carved two giant wooden feet. That same night I canoed across the lake and, with the false feet strapped to my own, went about making giant footprints all over the sand on the far shore. When the campers rowed over the next morning, you could hear screams of terror for miles around as they ran for their boats after finding the proof that Big Foot did indeed exist and stalk the area. Bobby participated in the whole plot and he loved it (though I did eventually tell the kids what I did).
My relationship with Maria was rapidly improving, and I tried once again to get her to come back. At one point she agreed to date me with our son at Disney World; but when the big day arrived, she backed out after having undergone a major battle with her mother about it. For months it seemed as if our first date was just around the corner, but somehow we never quite managed to pull it off.
My hopes for a sailboat were vanquished by all the legal bills but (with Bob Finnerty’s assistance) I was able to afford a new lakefront townhouse in Homestead.
Many Jews will attend services when they move into a new community. They hope to meet fellow Jews, or if single, to meet Jews of the opposite sex. I was no exception. Contrary to what I had heard about earlier K.K.K. activity, there were Jews in the South Florida town, but most of them were thirty years my senior.
While there were no young beauties at the Homestead Jewish Center, I quickly grew to appreciate the old men of the Saturday morning service. For all the theology that I had written of, and for all the religious history that I had mastered, my skills in Hebrew prayer were weak. With their help, this would change.
The old-timers were like parent figures to me. Two congregants grew to be my favorites, Morris Levy and Harold Markowitz. Each did whatever he could to nourish my complete return to the traditional Jewish fold, but the spiritual soul of the congregation was Michael Klein, the handsome, thirty-year-old acting rabbi.
Mike had been blessed with a yeshiva education, but he still thought highly of my somewhat heretical book. In fact, Mike was the only one there that I even told about the book for the next three years. With time we became the best of friends.
On alternating Friday nights, Bobby accompanied me to the synagogue. Often the boy would fall asleep in my arms right after the wine from the Kiddush prayer would knock him out. But after a few weeks there, the little guy asked Mike for permission to lead the congregation in the Shema. Most people were sure that I had put him up to the request, but truth was that Bobby thought of the idea all by himself. When he sang for the congregation, the old folks instantly fell in love with their new young cantor, and Bobby soon found that he had a job. A month later the boy had memorized a longer Hebrew prayer called the Viyahavta and a few weeks after that he had added the Kiddush blessing over the wine to his repertoire. After each performance he’d be sure to personally shake every congregant’s hand. You might have thought the little politician was trying to run for president of the synagogue.
Maria continued to mellow, extending my visitation rights from the biweekly schedule originally agreed upon to two out of three weekends and then to nearly every weekend. What she could only suspect but was apparently unconcerned about was that Bobby was now in synagogue for an average of 12 days per month including Friday night and Saturday morning services plus Sunday school. Although she would later claim that her flight schedule kept her too busy to take her son to church, the fact was that she still had no interest in religion. Thus the boy was constantly exposed to one side of the religious picture. True, Theresa always had on The 700 Club or the Praise the Lord Hour when her grandson was staying over, but Bobby just plain tuned that stuff out completely.
It was a great arrangement for me. The time I spent with my son was quality time. Bobby was receiving a tremendous Jewish education for a child of such tender years. There was only one problem. He was always at my house on weekends, so I never dated.
Bobby wasn’t unaware that his mother might be less than happy about all that he was learning. He would answer her questions about attending synagogue or going to Sunday school, but he’d always be careful not to raise the subject of religion himself while over at his mother’s. When served bacon by his mom, he’d hide it in his socks or throw it down the toilet when his mother wasn’t looking rather than start a fight over the kosher dietary laws. He was, in effect, becoming a new Morrano or secret Jew in his own mother’s home.
A year flew by and I still hadn’t seen a Jewish female under the age of sixty-five in Homestead. Occasionally I’d meet someone Jewish in Kendall, the area that I worked in during the day, but none shared my interest in religion or seemed worth a trip back in the evenings. At last I decided that if I couldn’t find a proper Jewish wife, I’d make one.
The most common place people meet before getting married is in an academic setting. Knowing this, I managed to land a teaching position at the South Dade Adult Education Center in Homestead. I preferred a job teaching science, but none was available so I had to settle for an ESOL class where immigrants were taught English as a second language. On my first night there, I was impressed by the beauty of a number of Korean girls. Another teacher told me that they were all married to servicemen at the Air Force base nearby. “The girls marry the soldiers overseas and then divorce them soon after they get to the States. All they want is American citizenship, but what they get is American poverty. Most of their cases are tragic.”
There was one girl that particularly caught my eye that first night. She didn’t look a day over fifteen, but she was an exquisite beauty who wore an orchid in her long, flowing jet-black hair. Ok Chu Kim had been her Korean name, but now she called herself by the name of Kathy.
The girl didn’t speak much English, and at first I thought that she was too young for a thirty-four-year-old man to approach. Even if she were eighteen, I reasoned, she’d have to be some serviceman’s wife.
After class each night for the next two weeks, I could think of nothing but the girl with the orchid. When I finally did speak to her, I learned that she was single, adopted by her sister’s Army husband, and twenty years old. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to ask her for a date.
It was true that I had been determined to convert someone, but a girl who could barely speak English would be almost impossible to bring over. To be a Jew wasn’t a matter of having someone pour water on your head. There was a vast body of knowledge for a convert to digest and a multitude of laws to accept before appearing in front of a Bet Din or rabbinical tribunal. And yet, as each night passed, I knew that I was falling more and more in love with her. Kathy wasn’t actually in my class, but she was in the adjoining room. One night her teacher was out, and I found myself covering that class as well as my own. There was Kathy before me, still with a flower in her hair. I started teaching with nothing but the girl on my mind, then turned and asked her how to say “I love you” in Korean.
“Nanune tongshina sarong hamnida,” Kathy said in a quiet voice. I gazed at her with longing eyes and then said loudly, “Nanune tongshina sarong hamnida!” All the other Korean women in class began to roar with laughter but Kathy just lowered her eyes with embarrassment.
My God, I thought, If I marry this girl, I’ll be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Everyone at school knew that I was nuts about her, save Kathy herself who thought I was only joking in class. She saw me only as a funny-looking, bald old man with a slight potbelly and a good sense of humor.
After two months of trying my best to avoid her during the break between classes, I finally found myself seated at her table making small talk. She was telling me about her career plans, but I was fixated on her lips. They were, by far, the most provocative that I’d seen anywhere. When I could resist no longer I asked her for a phone number.
Kathy was somewhat surprised by my actions but not offended by them.
“I give phone number,” she said, “but you must ask big sister permission date me. Suki say O.K., is O.K. Must give older sister respect.”
When I called later that night, sure enough Suki got on the phone. “How olda you?” she asked. I told her, and then was hit by her next question. “How muchee money you make?” The amount was high enough, so Suki gave her blessing for a first date.
I finally sprang for a babysitter that Saturday night and picked up Kathy at 8:00 P.M. She was living in a rundown part of Homestead. There were junked cars and barking dogs all over the area, but Kathy was dressed to kill in a beautiful blue gown. True to form, an orchid adorned her hair. Her perfume quickly enhanced my obsession for her. We went out for a dinner at the Holiday Inn where I did all the talking while Kathy pretended to understand.
After dinner I took her back to my home to meet Bobby. The boy was still awake, waiting for his customary bedtime story. When he first laid eyes on my date, he fell for her just as I had.
“Wow,” he said, “My dad told me you were pretty. He sure knows how to pick ‘em!”
At first Kathy just watched as my son snuggled up to me in bed. I decided to read the Biblical story of Ruth. Then, enchanted by the tale, she climbed in and put her head on my other shoulder while I finished the book. Bobby soon fell asleep and now Kathy and I were left gazing at each other face to face.
She began to see me date as a loving father, something that she’d missed during the past few years in America. I knew that I couldn’t hold onto her by reason of my looks alone, for I wasn’t exactly the best looking man on Earth. As a psychology major, I also knew that most women are subconsciously attracted to a father figure, so I decided to play that angle to the hilt. Kathy was a little girl who needed someone to protect her and to teach her all about the strange new land that destiny had led her to. I wanted to be the man who could satisfy those needs.
I didn’t push my luck that night, but behaved as a perfect gentleman and soon drove her back to Suki’s apartment. As I went to kiss her good night, I was still afraid that I’d wind up with another problem marriage if I continued to see her, so I warned her, “If you want to date me again, you’re gonna have to become Jewish, like the Ruth we read about tonight.”
“I ask Suki for permission to become Jewishee,” Kathy promised.
“Is she a Christian?” I asked.
Although she would, in later years, become a Christian minister, on that night Kathy’s answer was, “She Buddha person. In my home in Korea, some Christian persons, some Buddha persons. Some both. Suki probably not mind if we have Jewishee person, too.”
Our next date featured a trip to meet Rabbi Hoffman at Temple Beth Am, a large Reform congregation. I arrived at 6:30 P.M. that Monday, and once again my love was dressed in a beautiful evening gown. The problem, however, wasn’t that she was overdressed. The problem was that she was wearing a huge gold cross around her neck and two gold cross earrings!
“You can’t wear those to meet the rabbi!” I exclaimed.
“Why not? They pretty! They real gold! My old boyfriend buy them for me!” Kathy said emphatically.
“Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus,” I told her. This Kathy did not like. Not that she cared at all about Jesus, but it was a shock for her to learn that her gold was no good.
“Look,” I told her, “If the only problem is that your jewelry is no good, I’ll take you to Luria’s on the way to the rabbi and buy you something gold there, something more appropriate.” With that we drove off to the jewelry store where I purchased a necklace with a lovely gold Jewish star and the Ten Commandments engraved on it. Kathy loved it but was less than totally satisfied because I had failed to replace the earrings, too. Still, she was content enough to begin her instruction that night.
The conversion program at Beth Am was twelve weeks long with mandatory classes and service attendance each week. Kathy’s English wasn’t up to the speed at which the rabbi taught and though she tried hard, she got little out of the classes. I wasted no time before proposing, and I spent hours after each session attempting to explain what the rabbi had said. Still, all she understood was that Jews believed in One God. Jesus was neither that God, nor His Messiah because he had failed to bring peace.
During the spring break, I took Kathy and my son up to Disney World for a quick vacation. When we returned to Homestead, it was time to make a Passover seder.
I did all I could to set a proper seder table. I was anxious to explain the meaning of the meal, but it was obvious that Kathy was rapidly growing bored by the whole ritual. In fact, by the looks she was sending my way across the table, I could tell she was more interested in a little affection than in learning about my faith. At any other meal I would have been flattered. But this was something sacred and important to me, and I was disturbed by her attitude. The next day I called Rabbi Hoffman and told him that despite Kathy’s completion of their program, and despite my desire to see my love’s conversion so we’d be free to marry, I couldn’t honestly sanction her entry into the Covenant of Abraham. I needed to see that her comprehension of the faith was more in line with what I expected of a proper Jewish wife. The rabbi had himself once been fond of a Japanese girl. He understood the cultural hurdle that I had to get my fiancée over, and he was pleased by my sincerity. Hoffman wished us both well.
Kathy was mildly upset when she learned that I had flunked her on her Jewish studies, but I told her that all wasn’t lost and that I still loved her. The solution to our problems, I said, was to return to the Homestead Jewish Center where most of the prayers were in Hebrew and where I hoped that she would learn what Judaism was all about by way of a more traditional service. Kathy had a gift for studying languages, and so it was that after a few weeks those around her were startled to find that she had memorized the prayers and was singing in Hebrew better than many of the old women that had been there for years.
The Korean’s desire to learn the ancient tongue wasn’t all motivated by a pure love for the faith. No indeed, for truth was that she had grown jealous of Bobby who was receiving so many accolades because of all he had mastered in Hebrew.
Although she was twenty, Kathy was like a child in many ways. I noticed that she quickly grew upset whenever she felt I was giving the boy more attention than she was getting. “You didn’t tension me!” she would tell me while ready to cry like a little girl. Then, too, there was quite a row until I decided who got to sit next to me in the car. Bobby had always held the honored position before I started dating her. Now she sought to replace him, and the boy was concerned that I loved someone more than him. I felt like I was always walking a tightrope between the two. I would tell them things like, “I love each of you as I do my two legs. I wouldn’t want to get along without either of them and I wouldn’t want to be without either of you.” A hundred times the answer would be given and a hundred times they would ask the same question the next day. I certainly knew that I was loved. By the way, Kathy got to sit next to me in the car. It wasn’t that I loved her more than my son. I didn’t know whom I loved more. What I did believe was that Bobby would never forsake me, but there were millions of other guys out there who’d give their right arm to get a knockout like my girl. I couldn’t afford to take the chance of losing her, for I feared that any balding, scar-marked, slightly potbellied man like me who could land a girl like her was more than a little bit lucky. She was a prize well worth holding onto, even if it would take another year or two to mold her into the kind of mature woman that I needed for both wife and stepmother to my son.
Eight months after Kathy began to attend services in Homestead, she registered for a Bat Mitzvah class. By now her English and Hebrew were both vastly improved as was her attitude about Judaism. Again she was entered into a conversion program at Temple Samuel where Rabbi Farber immediately appointed me as the teacher. After three trips back to see the rabbi, Farber found her to be a walking Jewish encyclopedia, and he made arrangements to have her appear before a Conservative Bet Din. There was by this time so much competition between Kathy and Bobby that the two would often sit in the car and fire Jewish trivia questions back and forth at each other. Both knew far more than the average (non Orthodox) adult male Jew did, and I got more than my share of nachus (pleasure) whenever the two would try to impress me by their vast knowledge. At synagogue each week I was congratulated by all for being a great teacher, and it was because of my two beloved students that I was appointed Sunday School Director.
In early March, 1983, Kathy passed her exam before the tribunal with flying colors and received her mikvah or ritual immersion. We were married on March 25th. The wedding was a small affair, perhaps forty people being in attendance. We spent our honeymoon in Vail, Colorado, during the spring break, a week later.
For much of the remainder of 1983, all went well. I joined the Coast Guard Reserves and earned a commission again. Kathy, not content at being just a cute housewife, soon proved that she had a gift for math as well as language. She began college and, in short order, was knee deep in calculus. The future seemed bright, but what we were enjoying would soon prove to be only the calm before the storm.