I was actually a pretty stiff kid with a boner for following the rules while I was growing up – drinking didn’t start for me until I was 23, although I certainly made up for lost time in the five years I engaged in a more “par-tay” lifestyle. I’ve given up the sauce for the most part after the beginning of last year, however, as I came to realize that all it did was make me a depressed mess, which should have been apparent after the countless nights curled in the back of a friend’s car, eating White Castle and weeping, which is a decidedly not-awesome way to conduct yourself, kids. But you live, you learn, and you figure out that White Castle doesn’t need a salt-water garnish to be mind-blowingly delicious.
That said, there was one time I drank before I was of legal age. And that one time, I got tanked. A form of tanked that wouldn’t be beaten again until many years later, when I apparently thought that drinking four or five mind-erasers would be a good idea. Which, for the record, is decidedly not a quality life choice.
As would become my M.O. later in life, I was out in my suit, getting my awesome on. What would not become a regular part of my funtimes experience was the setting: I was in the basement of a synagogue after my friend’s Bar Mitzvah, in the time between the ceremony and the party. On the table in the room sat freshly-cut challah bread squares and cups of what I assumed to be Kedem grape juice.
Kedem grape juice was, and remains to this day, my favorite grape juice. It’s just perfect. The problem at that time was that you could only get it at the supermarket at Passover, which meant I could only enjoy it once a year. And while my mom would stock up with those glass bottles of delicious juice like we were preparing for a juicepocalypse, I have never been one to believe in moderation: if it was there, I drank it with gusto.
When I saw the bottle labeled “Kedem” on the top, and saw cups of purple liquid, I just assumed that it was the grape juice I loved so much, and well outside the period of that night that is different from all other nights, no less. Now, before you think I was just an idiot, I should point out three things: first, the bottles for Kedem Grape Juice and Kedem Grape Wine are different, but not so different that it would make me take pause and look closer at them to see what the deal was.
Secondly, and more importantly, while the labels are obviouslydifferent, I figured that the specialized label identified it as a special, temple-only version of the stuff. A “variant cover”, if you will. I was a comic book nerd in the 90’s, we were used to the same product being repackaged with special foil covers, so why should it be different for juice? Finally, yes, I was just an idiot.
I started drinking the little cups of what I assumed were juice, and when I thought that everyone had their first glass, I started taking seconds. And thirds. And tenths. I drank as many of the little glasses as I could get my hands on, figuring that if the mainly Jewish people at the reception could have my precious Kedem every week, they may be bored with it, so my Irish Catholic self could enjoy it without taking away from anyone else’s experience. And drink I did, as if I was never going to be able to drink the stuff again.
Until the Rabbi came over to me.
“What are you doing? Why are you drinking so much of that?” he asked, an eyebrow raised, pointing at the purple deliciousness that was starting to run in short supply. I should point out that he didn’t ask it in any way other than as if he was concerned that he had a little drunken future alcoholic in his midst, and that maybe I needed help.
“I’s love Kedem!” I said, slurring my words, shocking myself. I hadn’t been exactly talking up a storm with my fellow Bar Mitzvah-teers, instead occupying myself with the consumption of my “special juice”, so my imperfect diction was a surprise.
“I see,” the Rabbi said, concerned. He ushered me aside, and sat me down, looking at me with eyes that betrayed his heartbreak at seeing a child in such dire straights. “How often do you have it?”
“As often as I can, but it’s only out during Passover, so usually just then. It’s great!” I exclaimed, still not putting two and two together, despite sounding like Barney on The Simpsons. “But when it’s available, my mom stocks up!”
“Your mother buys you wine?!” the Rabbi asked, as if I had just told him, well, that my mother was buying me copious amounts of wine, I guess. I mean, that is the sort of thing that should raise a few flags, so it makes sense.
“Wine?” I asked, confused. Then it all came rushing to me, like I was Neo learning kung-fu: the slurred speech, the warm-n-fuzzies in my chest, the fact that I felt super-goofy… I wasn’t comfortable swearing even in my own head at that point, but if I was, that would have been a HOLY CRAP WHAT HAVE I DONE moment if ever there was one.
“Oh, no!” I gasped, the horror of the situation kicking me square in the emotional junk. “No, sir, I thought that was juice. Kedem grape juice. What I love is Kedem grape juice, and what my mom buys for me is Kedem grape juice.” The adrenaline, along with the shame I felt for drinking in the house of worship for a religion that wasn’t my own, was kicking me out of my drunken stupor and into ‘explain all the things’ mode. “I don’t drink. I mean, I’ve had a sip of wine here and there at family functions, but it always tasted bitter and made me feel like I was chewing on cotton, so the fact that there is alcohol that tastes like juice is a new thing and comes as quite a shock to me!”
The Rabbi went from concern to confusion to amusement while I was rambling like a drunken dope. The further I got, the faster I spoke, which is never a good thing because I speak far too quickly to begin with.
“I am really, really sorry, sir,” I said, approaching light-speed and tears all at the same time. “My behavior has been entirely disrespectful of you and your temple, and even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I feel awful about it!”
I was huffing and puffing like I had just run a marathon, which I suppose I had, emotionally. I was the “good kid” – polite to a fault, friends with almost everyone, and tried to do the right thing no matter what the situation was. The fact that I assumed that I appeared to be one of those kids who people look at, shake their heads and muse to themselves where the parents went wrong, when my parents were awesome and did everything right, filled me with a fun cocktail of dread and depression that would later come to be known as ‘tequila’. And the fact that the Rabbi was now chuckling did painfully little to ebb that tide.
The Rabbi stood up, turned to the table where the challah was sitting on a plate, and offered it to me. “Here,” he said, kindly, “have a few pieces of this while I go get you some water.” I ate the bread, and my thoughts turned to things like ‘What if this is, like, rum cake or something? Can they do that? What if all the things I love have alcoholic analogues and I could end up drunk at any moment?!’ I swallowed the mouthful of bread in a cartoonish, over-dramatic fashion, and continued my freak-out.
The Rabbi came back with a glass of water that would be comically oversized in Shaq’s hands, and I quickly drank it down. My breathing was coming back to normal, but my heart still seemed like it was going to explode out of my chest like something out of Alien.
“How’re you feeling?” the Rabbi asked, amused at the situation.
“Better, sir,” I said, worried that the next words out of his mouth would be a condemnation of my actions and that I should never darken the doorstep of the synagogue again, which would be a giantproblem as I was supposed to go to another Bar Mitzvah at that very temple again in two weeks.
“Good,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “Be sure to drink some more water when you get to the party, it’ll help.” I was confused – where was the yelling? The Gandolf-esque ’You. Shall. Not. RETURN!’ that would ruin my life forever? Wasn’t he mad that some stupid kid came into his temple, drank a ton of their wine, and acted the fool in his house of worship?
He looked into my eyes, and realized the litany of thoughts that were going through my head, if not in word than at least in tone. “You made an innocent mistake. And Kedem grape juice is the best, so I understand your enthusiasm. You’re okay, and as long as you learned something from the experience, it’s not a big deal.”
A series of thoughts flashed in my head. ‘Not a big deal? Isn’t this how people end up in gangs and jail? Didn’t I just destroy any hope I had for getting into college? Isn’t my life ruined?’ Then, like Jean Valjean after the Bishop tells the police that the silver wasn’t stolen and that Valjean had forgotten to take the gold candelabra, I thought that maybe I wasn’t doomed. That this one mistake didn’t have to change the course of my entire life. I should have also thought that I was being super-melodramatic and making far too many pop-culture references, but I wasn’t at that level of self-awareness yet.
“So,” I said, carefully choosing my words, “I’m not banned from coming back here? Because a lot of my friends go to this temple and I wouldn’t want to miss any of their Mitzavah-ing.” Yes, even at that age I turned nouns into verbs, so if anyone had hopes that I would give that up eventually, keep on dreaming.
“Of course not!” the Rabbi laughed. “Anyone who was as contrite and apologetic as you were for a silly mistake certainly isn’t the sort I’d turn away at the door. That would be stupid.”
The weight of the guilt I had felt eased enough that I could look the Rabbi in the eye, and saw someone who wasn’t only showing an insane amount of kindness to a kid who wasn’t even a part of his congregation, I saw a guy who felt overwhelming relief that I wasn’t some troubled child who needed his intervention. I was just an idiot.
My friend’s mom called out to me, telling me that it was time to head off to wherever the party was being held. I thanked the Rabbi, and walked to the door, feeling infinitely better than I had moments before.
“See you soon!” he shouted after me, his voice betraying his relief.
A few weeks later, I was back at the temple, watching another of my friends become a man in the eyes of the Jewish community. After the ceremony, I went downstairs, as per the usual, to enjoy some challah. “Challah at it”, if you will. (Insert rimshot here, obviously.)
The Rabbi saw me downstairs, and came over to say hello. After we exchanged some pleasantries, he asked me if I had noticed what was on the table.
“I only looked at the bread, sir,” I laughed. He smirked, and waved his hand in front of the drinks on the table.
“That means you missed the most important thing,” he said, and indicated in a very Price Is Right fashion that on that table was both Kedem grape wine and Kedem grape juice. I went wide-eyed.
“SWEET!” I whisper-shouted, because this was still a place where people went to pray and I wasn’t going to be that guy. I looked at the cups, and the woman pouring drinks behind the desk, and approached her.
“Hi,” I said. “Would you mind pouring me a glass of the grape juice, please?” She smiled at me. “Oh, it’s these glasses, sweetie”, she said, pointing at a not particularly clearly defined set of cups. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a bother, but could you pour me a fresh glass? I don’t want to accidentally grab the wrong thing.”
She looked up at me, puzzled, but I guess the Rabbi gave her some sort of knowing nod to do as I asked. She smiled, and poured me a cup of the juice I had been longing for. Thanking her, I took the glass and began taking slow, measured sips of the drink, savoring it.
“Good stuff?” the Rabbi asked.
“Very much so. Thank you!” I said, smiling. Any residual worry that I had totally embarrassed myself, my friend, and both of our collective families left my mind as the Rabbi smiled and walked away. I did end up having about ten cups of the juice, killing the bottle almost single-handedly, and wouldn’t have another embarrassing incident at a Bar Mitzvah until I inhaled two balloons worth of helium to see how high my voice could go which ended up leaving me sitting in a chair in a blackout for 15 minutes, but I think I was the only person who knew about that until just now. Actually, just forget that I brought that up, okay? That’s how the internet works, right? Cool.