The city of Santa Clarita is in the very northern part of Los Angeles County where suburban sprawl vomits out onto Interstate 5. The city is comprised of the smaller communities of Saugus, Canyon Country, Newhall and Valencia, which is where my wife and I have lived for most of the last 7 years. If you’ve ever driven north on the 5 on your way out of Southern California, you’ve passed our main drag; Magic Mountain Parkway which is named for a historic and bloody act of Chaos Magick that occurred not far from where the the exit ramp stands today.
The ethnic makeup of our area is dominated by populations of Mormons and various Christian denominations. There is, however, a small Jewish population served by a couple of reform congregations, one of which shares as its sanctuary a former movie theater with a fundamentalist group. When the rapture comes, the Jews will have the theater to them selves and will finally be able to build the torah arc they’ve been fundraising for.
I've always felt a little out of place here and the feeling was partially formed by two seminal events that took place early in my residence. The first was in 2002 while I was in line waiting to pay for dog food at the local Petco. I noticed a man in front of me with a bag of crickets in one hand and a bag of goldfish in the other. Being the inquisitive and friendly guy that I am, I inquired as to what pets he was sacrificing these creatures to. His reply was, “the goldfish are for our Piranhas and the crickets are for the Pacman Frog.” My instinctive reaction was to ask if “Pacman Frog” was a cuter, more easily pronounced name for some creature with a tortuously long Latinate name or was it some new evolutionary leap? I was completely taken by surprise when my fellow animal-lover looked at me as if I were holding a small turd under his nose. A vein began to pulse in his forehead and his face burned red. As he turned his back on me he said, “I wouldn’t know about that. I don’t believe in evolution.”
Now I’m not naïve to the strongly held beliefs of fundamentalist America but for some reason I was completely surprised by his reaction. So much so that, upon exiting the store with my forty pounds of kibble, I was moved to call my liberal Jewish mommy in Brooklyn. As I watched this man walk through the heat-distorted parking lot to his bright yellow Hummer, I listened to my mother say, “Nu? And you want I should move out there to live with you?” Suddenly, I felt completely alien.
The second of these alienating events took place on Superbowl Sunday that same year. I'd gone to the local “kosher-style” deli to get snackage for my New York friends who had made the long drive up from the Hollywood area to enjoy the game with us. As I purchased bagels, lox, cream cheese and the makings for classic deli sandwiches, I noticed about a dozen traditional pastries called rugaluch in the pastry case. I asked the perky and somewhat Nordic-looking young woman behind the counter for the rugaluch and she corrected me by saying, “They’re called rugala.” Okay… I admit that I can be an asshole when my feathers get ruffled. I’m one of those people that just has to be right when he knows damn well that he is. “No, Arugula is a leafy vegetable. This,” I said tapping on the glass case, “is pronounced rugaluch.” I emphasized the Hebraic throat clearing sound that results when Jews spell anything with “ch”.
“Well, this is America,” she said with defiant zeal, “and in America we have the god-given right to pronounce things correctly.”
“Exactly right,” I thought to myself as I paid for my bagels, pastrami and tip-tongue.
Fast forward to yesterday. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen signs advertising a “Jewish Food Festival” to be held in the parking lot of an up-scale strip mall. The festival was a fund raiser for one of the local congregations and I thought, “what a wonderful opportunity to eat a kasha knish, a tip-tongue sandwich and just maybe a nice piece of noodle kugel.”
So, it was with a gurgling in my belly that I drove with Linda to the Festival. Linda, who considers herself a “recovering Catholic” and makes a mean brisket, was anticipating this feast as much as I was.
The first thing I saw from our space in the parking lot was a truck selling Italian Ices. Having been raised in a predominantly Jewish and Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, this felt like it made sense in some peripheral way and I let it slide. After paying five bucks for admission and twenty bucks for food tickets, we walked in and were greeted by a host of pizza stands, tables of hamburgers, and booths offering various crap in the way of poorly made “Judaica” imported from Israel and China. To be fair, there was a guy with a cart selling Hebrew National hot dogs and Bristol Farms supermarket was selling bagels.
I was standing in the 104-degree heat feeling terribly deflated when I spied the most bizarre sight of the entire afternoon. There, next to the Krav Magah demonstration, the Bounce House and the out of tune Klezmer band, was a booth selling temporary tattoos.
I’ve been the butt of my fair share of friendly jokes regarding my permanently inked appendages and the fact that I couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery (even if I wanted to). I was astonished at the irony of this sight. Jews consider tattoos to be signs of slavery and it’s apparently a sin to mark yourself in any way. I remember getting slapped by Rabbi Lewis in Hebrew school for writing on my arm with a ballpoint pen.
I went home tired, burnt and slightly nauseated by the sun-baked sauerkraut that I slathered on my Hebrew National quarter pound frank. I took solace in the cool of my air-conditioned suburban town home, my dogs and the comfort of my mixed ethnicity household. Hopefully in the not to distant future we will make our exodus to New York. Until that time, I’ll hold my breath and smile at my neighbors.
That’s my rant for today. It’s been festering for a while and the events of yesterday brought it to a head. To my friends down in “the City”: Please come visit.