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Authors: Alan Zweibel

Clothing Optional

For Robin, Lindsay,
Sari, Adam, and Cori


Many of the things in this book actually happened. Some of them didn't. When real people's names appear, most of those real people weren't there, someone else probably was. Except, of course, in those instances when the actual people actually
there. Understand?

Pearl Blankman


I am a seventy-eight-year-old woman who has witnessed quite a few miracles during my stay on this planet. Phenomena that defied all odds and exceeded all realistic expectations at the time they took place. But finding a cure for polio, putting a man on the moon, and the fall of Communist Russia were simply run-of-the-mill incidences when compared with the most jaw-dropping occurrence of all—that Alan Zweibel, a veritable illiterate when he was a student in my high school English class, became a professional writer. In fact, after reading the following pages, I am convinced the achievement lends proof to the adage that if you give a chimpanzee a typewriter along with an infinite amount of paper and time, it will eventually write a collection of short pieces entitled
Clothing Optional.

Astonishingly enough, these stories held my interest. Some even amused me. I'm at a point in my life where I can use a good laugh. My husband passed away in April, so I tend to seek out anything that will bring a smile to my face and help me forget my Gerald's waning months, when the new kidney proved to be as faulty as the one it replaced. So when I found myself giggling while reading “Comic Dialogue,” “I Saw Your Mother's Ass,” and “Letters from an Annoying Man,” I actually forgot they were written by an older version of the same kid whose parents were told that his best chance of getting through four years of college was if he went to a two-year college twice. Likewise, when I read the more poignant entries, like “Notes from a Western State” and “Happy,” as well as Alan's moving tribute to his friend and mentor Herb Sargent, I had to remind myself that the only previous time I'd witnessed even a semblance of sensitivity was when he didn't pull
wings off of a fly at the senior picnic.

“Do people change?” I've asked myself. Perhaps. We've all heard that as a student Einstein failed math and then went on to become, well, Einstein. Similarly, Alan Zweibel failed English and then went on to become, well, Alan Zweibel—a writer of modest renown who managed to break two of his toes when he dropped the Distinguished Alumnus Award our school gave him a few years ago on his foot.

Still, I'm impressed with Alan's accomplishments. They serve to reinforce my faith in the capabilities of the human spirit—how a person can combine a great deal of determination with just a modicum of talent and end up being one of the greatest overachievers of his generation. It restores my belief in God and convinces me that it's just a matter of time until the meek inherit the Earth.

Mrs. Pearl Blankman
Hewlett, New York

My First Love

When the editors of this fine publication asked me to write a Valentine's Day piece recalling the glory of my first love, I found the assignment to be both nostalgic and harrowing, given the many competing loves that emerged at approximately the same time in my then young life. So, after much soul searching, the best I could do was narrow my list of loves down to two choices—my ardent passion for women and my equally fervent feelings for the Old Testament—and combine the two in this heartwarming story titled “The Day I Got Caught Playing with Myself in Hebrew School…While Thinking About Abraham's Wife Sarah.”


Johnny Carson became the new host of
The Tonight Show.
John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Cuban missile crisis brought us to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. And I was an eleven-year-old Hebrew-school student at Temple Beth Shalom on the South Shore of Long Island.

Three afternoons a week I was carpooled to this house of worship ostensibly to learn about the history of my people. My teacher was an elderly Old World gentleman named Rabbi Nathan Levitats, who spoke English pretty much the same way that I spoke Chinese…miserably. Still, he taught us Bible stories, and because the Hebrew name for Alan is Avraham, which is also the Hebrew name for Abraham, I immediately felt a special kinship with that Old Testament figure known as “the First Jew” because of his belief that there was only one God.

Genesis 14:22
“And Avraham said, ‘I lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the God of all Gods, the possessor of Heaven and Earth.'”

But little did I know, oh, how could I possibly have known, that Abraham and I would also share a similar taste in women? That I, too, would fall for Sarah. The beautiful…

Genesis 15:14
“Behold, Sarah art a fair woman to look upon.”

…yet barren…

Genesis 15:16
“Sarah was barren.”

…wife of the first Jew. A woman whose very name, on this particular October day, caused this particular Hebrew-school student to have a missile crisis of his own.

Now, up until this point, my schoolboy crushes were exclusively of the secular kind, which included but were not limited to female classmates, teachers, the school nurse, the librarian, the lady in the attendance office who gave us passes when we were tardy, the lady with the moustache who sat on that wooden stool behind the cash register in the lunchroom, the vice principal, a crossing guard, and three women on the school board.

And yes, there were two other women. Two other visions of feminine pulchritude whose beauty and grace caused this Hebrew-school boy to stand up, sit down, and make his skullcap spin like a revved-up dreidel. One was Dale Evans, the wife of the very popular cowboy Roy Rogers. The other was Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of the incredibly handsome thirty-fifth president of the United States. The eleven-year-old Avraham Zweibel loved them both. But there were problems. Dale was married to a western hero who could shoot me while riding on a horse named Trigger. And Jackie was married to the most powerful man on the face of the Earth, who, with just one phone call, could have J. Edgar Hoover dress me up as a woman and have his way with me behind the Jefferson Memorial. Besides, neither of them was Jewish—a detail that would've killed my immigrant grandparents faster than you can say “Yossel, zip up my dress, put on your hat, let's go downstairs, take the #2 bus, transfer at Flatbush Avenue, get off at Brighton Beach, maybe have a bite to eat, then walk to the water's edge and drown ourselves in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Enter Sarah. The beautiful, barren wife of the first Jew. She was perfect. Not only was she of our tribe, but according to Rabbi Levitats she was wise and understanding, and the eleven-year-old Avraham Zweibel admired those traits in a woman. Plus, at this point in time, Sarah's husband had been dead for more than three thousand years—so really, who would I be hurting?

And so what if she was barren? I was only eleven and I knew that fathering a child before I finished sixth grade would be problematic considering all the homework I usually had. So this was perfect—What's that, Rabbi Levitats? What are you saying?

Genesis 17:15
“And God said unto Avraham, ‘As for thy wife Sarah, I will bless her and she shall bear you a son and thou shalt call his name Isaac…'”

Oh, so she wasn't barren after all. The Almighty himself actually got an assist on that play, which I think was very nice of him—although it probably didn't take that much effort. My guess is that anyone who took only seven days to create everything that existed would be able to kick-start that ghost town of a uterus without breaking a sweat. Good thing I found out now, though. Sure, I'd
Sarah. Given the opportunity, what red-blooded Hebrew-school student wouldn't have jumped at the prospect of achieving Old Testament immortality by marrying into such a family and forever being referred to as the first Jew-in-law? But as far as fathering her next child—What's that, Rabbi Levitats?

Genesis 17:16
“And Avraham covered his face and fell upon his knee and asked the Lord how a child could be born to a man who was one hundred years old and to a wife who was ninety.”

Okay. So Sarah was ninety. And I was eleven. Fine. So I'd learn to live without some things. I'd always thought that solid food and direct sunlight were overrated anyway. The important thing was that I loved this woman, so I just sat there thinking and thinking about this withered object of my Hebrew-schoolboy affections when—

Genesis 22:2
“And the Lord said unto Avraham, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a sacrifice upon the mountain I tell thee of.'”

Abraham was taking the kid out of town to kill him! Great! What better time than now to make my move on his ancient wife. So the eleven-year-old Avraham Zweibel saw himself setting off on a trip of his own, back to the biblical town of Canaan, where I came upon a small hut, knocked upon its door, and heard the soft voice of my Sarah say from inside, “Is that you, Avraham?”

“Well, yes and no,” I answered. “I am Avraham Zweibel. But feel free to call me Alan,” I told her as she opened the door with the spunk of a woman two years her junior.

I entered Sarah's home and was immediately taken by how truly beautiful she was when she pointed to the gift I'd brought for her and asked, “What is that?” And oh, how beautiful she looked when she laughed, when we
laughed, when I said, “Something that you are not,” as I handed her a spring chicken.

So now that the levity portion of our date was satisfied, I switched gears to show Sarah that, despite my youth, there was also a sensitive, softer side that I had to offer. “Where is thy husband?” I asked.

I could see the tears begin to well up when she said, “He took our son to the base of a mountain where he plans to tie him to a wooden stake and stab him to death with a hunting knife.”

“With all due respect,” I said, “that doesn't sound like good parenting,” before putting my arm around her and drawing her trembling body closer to mine.

“Oh, Avraham Zweibel,” she said, still weeping. “How you understand me so.”

“That's because I care, Sarah,” I answered while fumbling with the knot on her robe.

“But the one thing I do not understand, Avraham Zweibel, is what

“It is what we call a zipper, Sarah. Shall I show thee how it works?”

“Oh, yes, Avraham Zweibel. There is so much I can learn from you, Avraham Zweibel. Oh, Avraham Zweibel. Oh, Avraham Zweibel—”

“Avraham Zweibel? Avraham Zweibel?” How odd. Sarah suddenly sounded different. Her voice had somehow just turned manly. Almost like that of an old, astonished, Old World Hebrew-school teacher.

“What are you doing?” asked Rabbi Levitats in a tone similar to the one I suspected Isaac used when he saw his father come at him with that hunting knife. Needless to say, I was terrified.

“I'm not doing anything, Rabbi Levitats,” I said, all the while praying that since this was a Reform temple the man would mark this incident on an incredibly liberal curve.

“Well, see to it that you aren't” is all he said before walking back to the front of the room.

What a relief. A modern-day miracle that spared the tumescent Avraham Zweibel from the ultimate humiliation—and taught me to keep my mind from wandering during Hebrew school. Or, at the very least, to limit my wanderings to the exploits of the seven original astronauts.

As for me and Sarah, well, let's just say that our romance was short-lived. I went on to finish my schooling, embark on a career, and start a family, while my beautiful Sarah, an Old Testament creature of habit if there ever was one, opted to remain exactly where she was in the Bible. So our paths didn't cross again until my youngest daughter, Sari, was Bat Mitzvahed. And her haftorah was, I swear, the story about Abraham taking Isaac away to sacrifice him. And throughout the entire service, the Torah readings, and her speech, I was blushing, just a little.

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