Volume 20, Number 2

Diet of Worms

Earl Coleman

I’m 92. I’m getting fat. I pay no attention to what I eat. My wife says I pay attention to nothing except my writing, reading and movies. Why not? We learn life from art just as we learn art from life.

My wife forgot to mention when I’m not at my computer I’m editing, re-examing everything I’ve lived, written. Or else I’m eating or sleeping. I’ve probed the decades, written a memoir. I’m a veiled character in all my stories, novels, sometimes my poetry. I’m captive to the back there. That epoch commands my concentration. Why the gravitational pull—because there’s no understanding of where we are on the map without tracing the route traveled? The how we got from there to here?

My doctor applauds my artistic diligence but tells me that’s no way to guarantee longevity. Fat is risk. At my age risk is unseemly as well as dangerous. He tells me I must lose pounds of me. To put a number on it twenty-five sounds right. I complain that concerning myself with diet makes it seem to my conscious mind that I, my own protagonist, am in danger from a surfeit of food, when so much of the world has so little, dies of hunger. My greed! And that fastens my concentration on dangers past I’ve known or lived. He enjoys my social turn of mind and conscience but tells me stressful memories, dreams will help lose weight, better than a stroke which might destroy my muscles, deprive me of my productivity. But they can’t do the job alone. I must reduce. I promise him I’ll slim. Survival is key.

Easier said than done, with so many delicious edible available. I disappoint myself, ashamed, if only to myself, of all my creature comforts offering themselves to me. There floats to me a memory of a movie I’d seen fifty years ago or more, whose name I can’t remember, try as I may, with Akim Tamiroff, Mischa Auer, Frederick March, or so I believe. Old friends who had met up, who had all served a short spell in jail for the crime of being Jews in Hitler Germany. They’re in a restaurant, at liberty pro tem, and pool enough money to have a meal. They are remembering the ecstasies of eating eggs. “Little eggs,” Auer recalls them, as if these eggs of some halcyon past lie before them on their plates. They laugh ensemble, their fantasies allowing them to taste those marvels in their minds, if not in their seats. I think the movie doesn’t specify whether those wonder eggs were poached, or hard-boiled, fried, an omelette. Eggs! A surrogate for being free, normal, life returned to them, the way it used to be, when, even poor, un-egged and unemployed, one had the bonds of closest friendship, linked by a common political language, struggle in the causes they embraced.

The memory disturbs. We’re talking diet here, not politics! I need only lose some weight, not reconstruct the '30s and my danger-packed adventures in the struggles on the streets, or memories of the times.

I make the effort. I cut my portions down. Skip dessert. Nothing works: for all my trying I can point to losses not of pounds but ounces. I’m uncomfortable reminding myself that I’ve lived high off the hog, so to speak. The underlying message of my my doctor is that splurging on self, hogging too much of a good thing, can kill you. And now I haul around with me the memory of Mischa Auer and his little eggs. And Jewishness, wrong time, wrong place.

Whoa! The notion stops me. Wrong place!? Which place is right? And time? Was it safe to be a Jew in the New York slums in which I grew, where the Black Hand and the KKK scrawled graffiti on brick walls: “Kill Kikes”? Henry Ford had printed and disseminated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic fabrication, Roosevelt turned around a ship of Jews who sought asylum and sent them back to concentration camps in Germany. In 1947 a storm was unleashed with the release of Gentleman’s Agreement with Gregory Peck, dealing with the blatant anti-Semitism of Darien, Connecticut, USA. The right place? There is none.

Wait! Am I writing about food here, or religion? For me to write about religion objectively would be patently impossisble since I’m an atheist. One might ask then—how am I affected? Because I may disclaim my Jewishness, denounce religion, reject going to synagogue – no matter. To the workaday world I am a Jew, and to the sinister world of haters I’m a Jew. But wait – I have to lose twenty-five pounds. Is all of this related in any way?

I become obsesssed with it, this connection between food, politics, loss of weight, which leads always to survival, all of us in this boat together as they say. Then back to garden variety anti-Semitism, a life-denying notion, like so many hater formulations. Indeed—go back to 1521 and the Diet of Worms and read Luther on the “Jewish question.”

There floats to me the movie The Sorrow and the Pity, a documentary by Marcel Ophuls, released in 1969, in which the ordinary citizens of Nazi-occupied Clermont-Ferrand fingered Jews for the Vichy government to collect shipments of them, bound for Auschwitz. Anti-Semitism in France! Here’s food, good wine, bad politics.

I tempt myself with goodies no longer. I home-make marror, the roots of horseradish, and chazaret, romaine roots, both “bitter herbs” direct from the Passover seder, symbolising the bitterness of slavery under the Pharaoh. Wait—do I celebrate that service, non-believer though I am? Of course. Do I believe the heavy preaching? Of course not. I have my private yes and no. I acknowledge, don’t accept.

I have these bitters for supper only. What do they do for me? They force my concentration on this odd admixture I’ve dreamed up. And since one can’t eat very much of bitters I reduce. Oh, not by leaps and bounds, since it’s the only meal I try, although I cut down on breakfast and lunch as well. But some of my poetic romanticism likes this road I’ve chosen, apt.

Today I have achieved the loss of twenty five pounds on the nose. Perhaps I’ve saved my life. How narrow is my scope. No more than that—just mine, my life?

In the world back in the '30s of my memory, sometimes we placed a premium on our involvement with the human race, not just Darwinian armaments, the battle for survival tilted toward the powerful. We’ve lost all that along with our identity, the property these days of mailing lists and credit cards and brands. Today we read the blogs and ads to tell us who we are, no compass of our own The human need for eggs, the hunger even for our arts no longer vital for our own survival.

My personal experiment has slimmed me, true, but I’ve changed more than that. I see, assimilate, add to my lexicon. Each bit of culture, customs, mores, phobias, are linked to every other bit. The rulers of the media attempt to separate these artifacts of culture. That “separation” works no better than apartheid. Food and politics. Identity, survival. Rue as Point of View is time wasted, but bitters are for memory.