I was born and raised as the only Jewish kid in a small Nebraska town, so I was an outsider from the very beginning. Perhaps learning that role in childhood is what eventually led me into league with the radicals and mockers of the world and then into journalism, where I could stand outside and witness the action, and finally into Buddhism, where detachment is considered a state of grace. Could all this have happened because I was the only kid in my hometown who didn't believe in Jesus?
For a while, when I was a young boy, there were just enough Jews in Norfolk, Nebraska, to keep a little synagogue going above the local bakery. As I remember, you walked around behind the bread ovens and up a flight of wooden stairs to a large room with wood-slat walls. At one end of the room stood the Torah and, facing it, a few benches. I can recall the bakery smells wafting up to this makeshift synagogue on Friday nights and making it very difficult to fast on Yom Kippur....
In order to prepare me for my bar mitzvah, my parents hired a traveling rabbi, a Jewish equivalent of the circuit preacher. His name was Rabbi Falik, which may partly explain why he did not have his own pulpit and congregation, was relegated to travel by Greyhound bus through the small towns of Iowa and Nebraska, ministering to the lost Jewish tribes of the American Midwest.Once a week, the bus would stop right in front of my house, and out would come Rabbi Falik, who looked as though he belonged in a European shtetl, wearing long forelocks and a big black hat and overcoat, even in the summertime. I didn't want my friends to see this medieval-looking man coming to our house, so whenever he was due I would lure them away from the neighborhood and then make up some excuse to run back home just in time to meet the bus and rush Rabbi Falik inside.
In order to take part in the youth life in Norfolk, I had to become a mock Christian. I joined the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship and even sang hymns and carols with them at the annual Christmas vespers program. However, when the songs mentioned Jesus as "our lord" or "savior," I would secretly cross my fingers. I wanted Jehovah to know that I had not fallen for this hoax and that I was still waiting for the real messiah to come.
My parents didn't want me to feel left out of the fun at Christmastime, so every year they brought a tree into our house, which we decorated with lights and bulbs. But we called it a Hanukkah bush and always put the Jewish star of David on top of the tree. I remember taking pride in the fact that Jews had one more point on our star than the Christians did, perhaps proof that we were the chosen people. I was looking for any reason to believe.
My spiritual search began in earnest sometime in early adolescence, and at age 12 I had what might have been my first revelation. I was spending a lot of time in the News and Tobacco Store on Norfolk's main street, reading the latest comic books and peeking into the girlie magazines whenever the proprietor wasn't looking. One day I was startled by a face staring out at me from the cover of a magazine, and for a few moments I stood transfixed. Only later in life, after years of studying Taoism and Buddhism, did I realize that I had seen the face of my first guru, Alfred E. Neuman.
Alfred E. was the young absurdist prince of the Western world, the great American teenage tantric master, forever grinning at me and my generation from the cover of Mad magazine. His look is one of both detachment and bemusement as he watches over our mad, Mad world without concern, knowing that all is sham and fakery and that this too shall pass. No matter what kind of cartoon apocalypse is going on around him-the whiz-bang-crash kerplunk barrrooom of falling empires, brutal wars, and political summit meetings, important movie spectacles and significant fashion trends, and ever-increasing entropy-Alfred E. never stops grinning. And all he ever says is "What, me worry?"-the most succinct statement of cosmic realization ever spoken. The mad mantra.
Unfortunately, as an adolescent I must not have understood that Alfred's "What, me worry?" is a rhetorical question. So I often found myself answering back, "Yes, me worry." Maybe I just should have practiced Alfred's grin and the mental state would have followed me eventually.