13. January 2018 · Comments Off on On the occasion of our 39th anniversary · Categories: Olio

My Not-So-Modern Kalooki Love

I was thirteen, short the way a lot of thirteen year old boys are. Shy around girls, but interested, the way a lot of thirteen year old boys are. I was also unhappy. We’d moved to the suburbs when I was eleven and I hated it. We’d overstretched and couldn’t afford to live there the first few years. Money was a tense issue in the family. Plus I’d had my niche in the city. I was the good student – the top student in my class in Milwaukee’s lone brainy kid school – who could also take and throw a hard punch. When I wasn’t wrestling with and slugging kids in my neighborhood, I was helping them with their homework.

In the suburbs, that all got undone. I spent the first six months sitting on my hands in school, waiting for them to catch up to me. I was told explicitly by my mom and dad that in the suburbs I couldn’t slug other kids, that I had to settle differences by talking. I was too shy and laconic to do that effectively. What’s Dirty Harry without his .44 Magnum? There were no immigrants like us, no Orthodox Jews like us. If we’d been living in Roswell, NM, we’d have been taken as proof of alien life.

I did manage to find a few friends. I also managed to find pot to self-medicate my unhappiness. I was high on New Year’s Eve. My friends and I had nothing to do. One of us knew that there were some parties in the neighborhood with girls. We decided to crash a few. This effort hadn’t gone well. The friend with the party knowledge mentioned one outside our neighborhood and we biked there. This party was good. Lots of girls and they were high school freshmen, not middle school kids like us. Older women! That sounded hot to me.

It turned out the girls at this party were brainy, too. One of them, petite, was showing three of the others how to play a card game with two decks of cards. Kalooki. Probably every Jewish kid with Polish war survivor parents knows how to play this game. It’s what you played on Shabbas, even though you’re not supposed to play cards, to pass the time. How did this petite girl with big hazel eyes know how to play a game that no one in the suburbs played? The pot I was on enhanced the mystery of this girl.

I wanted to stay and talk to the kalooki girl, but my friends were intimidated being around “older women” so we left. We smoked more pot. I was so high biking home that I crashed into a flashing barrier and ended up with the front wheel of my bike in a six foot deep pit before I managed to stop. Whoa! I decided I needed to avoid biking when I was high.

I didn’t forget the kalooki girl. We met the next year in high school choir. She’d learned how to play kalooki from her grandmother. She could understand Yiddish fairly well, but couldn’t speak it. We became pretty good friends, but then I left high school a year early because I was miserable, bored and wanted adventure. I travelled. First I hitchhiked across Canada. I went to Israel to help out during the Yom Kippur War. I wanted to leave my memories of the suburbs behind and that included all my friends from that time. I even wrote a letter to one of them explaining this desire and saying good bye forever. That severing included the kalooki girl.

I’d go out with girls when I could overcome my shyness. One of them was, like me, a child of survivors. I liked the fact that we shared an upbringing, but when I found out that her father had proposed to my mom in Germany after the war, I got spooked. That was too close for me, almost like incest as far as I was concerned. I was off Jewish women for a couple of years.

My older brother was living with a non-Jewish girl off campus at the University of Wisconsin. He was desperately trying to get my parents and grandparents to accept the love of his life. I’d watch the mighty battles between them. I knew my family was never going to accept this girl.

I never brought a non-Jewish girl to my parents’ home. It was more than fear of their anger. I felt that none of the girls I went out with would understand what my parents were about. What would have happened if I had brought a girl home who wasn’t Jewish or was Jewish but wasn’t well-versed in immigrant culture? My parents would have spoken in a mix of English, Yiddish and Polish at dinner because that’s what they always did. My parents wouldn’t ever come to you, you had to come to them. Plus I was never in love with these girls. What was the point of bringing them home?

I met another child of survivors in college. It felt comforting to be with a girl with that shared experience again. Plus this one’s father hadn’t proposed to my mother in Europe. Much better! My father hadn’t proposed to her mother. Even better! But I felt she was getting too serious and I wasn’t ready to be serious with anyone.

The kalooki girl went to my college as well. I’d run into her now and then and we’d have pleasant words on the street. Then she disappeared. I didn’t know she’d left college and gone to travel around Europe on her own. I saw her on the street about nine months later. She seemed like a different person. More confident. Still shy like me, but self-assured like she never was before. I was smitten.

We went out a few times. I’d never been so at ease around a girl. We’d talk for hours on end. I was in love for the first time. One winter night we talked so much that before I knew it, it was two AM. I was hungry. We walked to a donut shop that was already making donuts for the next morning. The donuts, still warm, were delicious. Then I started to walk her home, but it was icy on the sidewalks and she was wearing slippery-soled boots. She kept falling down. I kept picking her up off the ground. Finally, I figured out that if I just held her close every step of the way, she wouldn’t fall down anymore. I walked her to my house instead of hers. We moved in together a year later.

Early in our living together I invited my parents, who lived an hour and a half away, to our place for dinner. My girlfriend announced that she was going to make borscht. This idea sounded crazy. Serving my Polish Jewish mother borscht was bringing coals to Newcastle. My girlfriend insisted. Borscht. OK, I said.

My parents sat down at our dinner table. My girlfriend served the borscht. I saw the look of indignation on my mother’s face. This girl is serving the queen of borscht, borscht? Who does she think she is? But then my mother got hold of her emotions. She took a sip with a spoon. She tasted it. “It’s good,” she said. She sounded surprised about this fact. But she was doing more than commenting about the soup, I knew. She was giving her approval of my girlfriend. My parents spoke in a mixture of Yiddish and English at the table. My girlfriend understood almost every word.

We’ve been together for over forty years, married for thirty nine years. I haven’t played kalooki with my wife or anyone else in over twenty years. But it’s a game I remember fondly.