Slash Cole­man is the author of The Bohemi­an Love Diaries, the per­son­al per­spec­tives blog­ger for Psy­chol­o­gy Today, and an advice colum­nist at how​doi​date​.com (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, pro­duced, and starred in the PBS Spe­cial The Neon Man and Me, which also won the Unit­ed Solo Award for best dra­ma and is cre­at­ing The New Amer­i­can Sto­ry­teller for PBS. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The call comes in the mid­dle of the night. 

Your nephew’s got it in his head that he wants to have a bar mitz­vah,” my mom says. And you’re going to have to make it hap­pen. Your sis­ter wants no part of it and I’m too busy.”

I’ve got this,” I say.

Cody is my sister’s kid. He’s one of two nephews I have that are half-Jew­ish and half-descen­dants from the great South­ern war hero Zachary Tay­lor, the twelfth pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States and the last pres­i­dent to actu­al­ly own slaves. You don’t get any more good ol’ boy” than Zach.

Cody is being raised in a low income apart­ment project with­out a father a few miles from where I was raised in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia — the cap­i­tal of the con­fed­er­a­cy. Like me, he’s groomed on bacon sand­wich­es, NASCAR, and chick­en on the bone. His mom did what my mom did. She inter­mar­ried. But then she took it a step fur­ther and became Bap­tist. Cody wouldn’t know a Jew­ish star from a rock star. 

If you’re famil­iar with my book, then you know I had a very unortho­dox intro­duc­tion to Judaism. I was taught Hebrew from a rent-a-rab­bi out of a Volk­swa­gen bus locat­ed in the mid­dle of the woods. The rab­bi and his orange bus are long gone and so I send queries to all the syn­a­gogues in the area ask­ing how some­one like me can help some­one like my nephew become a bar mitzvah.

Rab­bi Schmu­ley is the only one who writes back. A week lat­er, I’m sit­ting in his office telling him that I don’t under­stand why a kid who’s suc­cess­ful­ly assim­i­lat­ed would want to embrace some­thing that’s caused so much pain to so many peo­ple in our fam­i­ly. I flash back to the time in mid­dle school when I’m beat up in the emp­ty lot by the Strom­boli sis­ters for being Jewish.

Inside the hearts of all Jews,” he says, there is a self-acti­vat­ing-ran­dom­ly-fir­ing-super-Jew-fuse enabling our per­son­al path to Heeb­dom. If we did not have this, we would have been dilut­ed in half and in half and in half and into noth­ing­ness by mixed mar­riage long ago.” 

He says the fuse, in Yid­dish, is called the Pen­tele Yid.” 

The mys­te­ri­ous Pen­tele Yid is a tiny Jew ember that is car­ried through the Jew­ish blood line — it holds our pas­sion, our rit­u­als, and our world famous mat­zo ball recipe.”

He explains that Hal­fies — those with one Jew­ish par­ent and one non-Jew­ish par­ent — like Cody and I, encom­pass over 80 per­cent of the entire Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. For guys like us, who bare­ly con­nect to the mean­ing behind what it means to be Jew­ish, our Pen­tele Yid is but a tiny, cold, black­ened seed, passed along to future gen­er­a­tions. Cody’s Pen­tele Yid is like my own — a cig­a­rette butt stuffed in the bot­tom of a Pab­st Blue Rib­bon can.

Yet, for what­ev­er mys­te­ri­ous rea­son,” the rab­bi con­tin­ues, the Pen­tele Yid can and does ignite into flame, some­times skip­ping one gen­er­a­tion and hit­ting anoth­er one many years down the road.” 

And it’s true, in less than a year, Cody’s Pen­tele Yid not only mys­te­ri­ous­ly ignites, but the heat is so intense that it singes my entire fam­i­ly. In less than a year, the lit­tle no-Jew sprouts into a sort-of-Jew and then blos­soms into the first Jew­ish super­hero in my fam­i­ly. He con­quers Hebrew with a south­ern twang, starts Shab­bat ser­vices in his mother’s house, and brings dates to the syn­a­gogue (young red-neck girls who smell like hon­ey­suck­le, shell­fish, and pork rinds) who laugh with him in the back seat of my car on the way to shul. He not only wants to re-con­vert our entire fam­i­ly, he wants to con­vert his entire apart­ment com­plex as well. 

At his bar mitz­vah the two sides of my fam­i­ly reunite for the first time in many years. The super Jews beside the sor­ta Jews – my sis­ter in a hal­ter top beside my uncle in a thou­sand dol­lar suit and a yarmulke. It’s inspir­ing, heart wrench­ing, and profound.

How does a descen­dant from a slave own­ing good ol’ boy blos­som into the first Jew­ish super­hero my fam­i­ly has ever seen? Because like a heart that has been for­got­ten or a soul that has been mis­placed, our Yid has been ignit­ed and with it the heart and soul of my fam­i­ly returns. 

The Jew­ish soul is always inside the body,” the rab­bi whis­pers to me after the ser­vice, it is the indi­vid­ual who must fol­low the yearn­ing to return to that soul when the time is right.” 

Read more about Slash Cole­man here.

Slash Cole­man is an award-win­ning sto­ry­teller and per­son­al per­spec­tives blog­ger for Psy­chol­o­gy Today. A reg­u­lar Sto­ry­telling mag­a­zine con­trib­u­tor and per­former on the nation­al sto­ry­telling cir­cuit, he appeared most recent­ly on the NPR series How Artists Make Mon­ey. He lives in New York City and is cre­at­ing The New Amer­i­can Sto­ry­teller for PBS.