Herbie, Bruce, and I were the Three Musketeers – one Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jewish – who were always together. We played on the same teams, hung out at Avery’s and Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, threw rocks at the freight trains that rumbled through the woods by Willow Brook Park, blew up trash cans with cherry bombs we had saved from Fourth of July, and watched Nancy Blithe take off her clothes from the top of the oak tree that grew on the side of her house.
On Sundays we went our separate ways. I went to St. Anthony’s for mass, had a big family dinner, and went for a ride in the country. Herbie went to the Methodist church on Corbin Avenue, stayed for prayer breakfast with his parents and sister, and listened to the Red Sox game in the back yard. Bruce went to the only temple in town – the biggest religious institution in New Brighton, built by Hyman Rosenthal in 1890, and maintained by his generous trust fund. – but of course did not go there on Sundays. We never asked him what he did, or why Jews didn’t worship on Sundays like everyone else, and waited until Monday after school when we could play together again.
Our parents did not mix. The Birnbaums, Swansons, and the Parlatos travelled in different circles. Bruce’s father was a clothier who owned a shop on Franklin Square and he and his wife Sybil socialized with the other Jewish families in town – haberdashers, shoe store owners, pharmacists, and tailors, all of whom did a brisk business, sold quality goods at reasonable prices. They gave none of the Christian families any cause to jape or insinuate especially because they went out of their way to fit in.
Herbie’s father was a banker – a mid-level manager, Assistant Vice President of Banking Services. He didn’t have his own office but sat in the middle of the vast hall of the New Brighton Bank Building, another Victorian institution that had been built in the heyday of the railroads and hardware, both of which put New Brighton on the map. He was the bank officer you saw when the tellers could not handle your request or solve your problem. Mr. Swanson, always trimly dressed with a starched shirt, silk tie, and modest grey suit, never disappointed. He was friendly, accommodating, and understanding.
My father was a doctor and travelled in the professional circles of surgeons, dentists, and a lawyers. His practice was restricted to Italians, no different from the Polish doctors who cared for factory workers from Silesia and made house calls on Broad Street; or the West End physicians whose clientele was exclusively old New England money.
New Brighton was that kind of town in the Fifties – divided by religion, nationality, and profession – but no one seemed to find it awkward or disruptive; which is why Bruce, Herbie, and I thought of ourselves as pioneers, a small band of mixed-blood brothers who stuck together.
All three of us resented being dragged to religious services every week. I had to put up with Father Brophy who sniffed and snorted through the confessional lattice and prompted me to confess my dirty thoughts; and with Father Mullins who was outraged at the sinfulness of his flock. “We all will certainly perish, but you, Generation of Vipers, apostates, and sinners who have turned your back on Jesus Christ, will spend eternity in the fires of Hell”.
Bruce said that there was something sad and depressing about Friday services at his temple. Jews were always begging forgiveness, demanding atonement, rocking and mumbling. There were no windows in the temple, Bruce said. It was a kind of sacred crypt where only Jews were allowed. The rituals of the Torah, the Hebrew incantations and references to a mighty and fearful Old Testament God were scary. Stepping out into the bright Spring sunshine was like escaping a dark underwater cave and taking a breath of fresh, clean air.
Herbie had the least to say about church. There wasn’t much to tell, he said. The pastor never harangued, nor were there any creepy rituals. His church, like most Protestant churches were devoid of Catholic accoutrements – no horribly disfigured and bleeding Jesus on the cross, no statues of the saints, no stations of the cross, no incense, chanting, or communion. It was boring, he said, compared to the stories Bruce and I told.
“Why don’t we start our own religion?”, said Herbie. “It could be weird like the Black Mass and we could call up the Devil”. Herbie said that he had read all about black masses in a comic book and he would go to the library and find out more.
The Black Mass, Herbie said the next time we met, was a ceremony celebrated during the Witches' Sabbath. It was designed as a parody of the Catholic Mass. The idea was to profane the host, and although there has been no agreement on how hosts were obtained or profaned; the most common idea is that they were profaned by means of some ritual related to sexual practices.
Herbie, for a 12-year old in conservative New Brighton, Connecticut already had some weird ideas about religion; but they were not invented. They were practiced by primitive tribes everywhere. He liked the Ghost Dance of the Klamath and Modoc Indians who prophesied an apocalypse and a return of the dead. When this happened, Herbie had read, zombies would walk the earth eating the living and setting up a Kingdom of the Dead.
The Aztecs performed ritual human sacrifice to appease the Thunder God, and after a dagger was plunged into the heart of the vestal virgin, her body was tossed off the high catafalque into the crowd who cut her open and ate her still-beating heart.
Africans slaughtered chickens and read of horrible disasters in their entrails; and to ward off disaster they dressed in the feathers of roosters and made necklaces out of dried chicken feet.
Cannibals who lived on the banks of the Zambezi River and impaled the heads of their eaten enemies on poles. Tribes in the Congolese forest did fire dances to invoke the Evil Spirits of the Universe, and their high priests could summon the Devil and be possessed by him.
We set up our altar in the old shed by the abandoned railroad tracks, and we got ready for our first ceremony. Herbie was to be the High Priest who performed the rituals, and we were to be his acolytes. He gave us orders. Bruce was to get a chicken from the kosher butcher on Murray Street to be used in the ritual sacrifice. I would bring as many crucifixes, medals, and religious statues as I could find in the house; and Herbie would locate the sacred texts we would use in the ritual sacrifice.
The Catholic paraphernalia was easy. Every room in the house had a crucifix, a sacred heart, and pictures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. My mother was so religious that she had homemade a font for holy water and put it next to a mini-altar she had arranged in her bedroom. She bought the smallest birdbath she could find, circled it with dried flowers like a crown or wreath, and filled it with holy water consecrated by Father Murphy who said that what he was doing was not exactly legal, but that Jesus would understand.
The chicken was harder. Mr. Katz would never give away a chicken, let alone to Bruce Birnbaum; but Bruce convinced Leo Katz, Butcher Katz’s son and our retard classmate, to steal one. “Live would be better”, said Herbie, “but a dead one will do”.
Herbie read up on all the Satanic rituals, Black Sabbaths, and invocations of Beelzebub that he could find. He found texts on divining, exorcism, and summoning; and he put together a black mass combining bits and pieces of all the scariest and unholy practices he found.
We darkened the shed by covering the broken windows with black construction paper. We built an altar and placed an upside-down crucifix in a circle of burning candles. We set up Devil’s crèche and put the smallest devil figure we could find into a cradle we made out of twigs and straw. Bruce and I were given ancient Satanic texts to chant while Herbie performed the ceremony.
We invited all our friends to come, and on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day of death and damnation, said Herbie, we held our first ceremony. Herbie was magnificent. He chanted, passed his hands over the candles, genuflected backwards, made the sign of the cross – not Catholic nor Orthodox, but the Devil’s sign which started at his crotch, stopped at his forehead, then tapped his shoulders.
As Herbie did his final genuflections and incantations, Bruce and I raised the volume of our chants and repeated Ave Satanas, the Latin for Hail Satan, over and over and louder and louder. As the chants reached a crescendo, Herbie picked up the ritual knife (my mother’s boning knife), and inserted it into a cut he had already made in the gut of the chicken. “Hail Satan”, he said, reached into the chicken, and pulled out the entrails. He turned to the congregation – five kids from Mrs. Linder’s sixth grade – and held up the bloody guts for all to see.
The girls were freaked and ran out of the shed. The boys felt they had to stay, but were clearly creeped out by Herbie who looked demonic. He showed his teeth and bloody tongue (red gumballs), swirled his cape, stared out of his cowl, and made inverted signs of the cross with long black fingers (his mother’s black, formal kidskin gloves).
Word quickly got around about what we had done; and neither parents nor priests were going to take this offense lightly. I had to go through special re-education sessions with Father Brophy. He made me write down holy passages on the blackboard like Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea, and repeat them 100 times. He made me hold a crucifix high above my head until my arms ached and made me kneel on the stone floor until I lost feeling in my legs.
“Do you feel the flames of hellfire now, Ronald?”, he said. “Do you smell the sulfur and brimstone? You so badly wanted to be in the company of the Devil, you will now be his consort for all eternity”.
Here he paused, perhaps reflecting that I was only a child and that his vocation was to save souls, not to damn them. “Unless you pray for forgiveness to Almighty God, his son, his mother, and all the saints in heaven.”. This went on for a full month, three times a week, in the sanctuary, on the altar, and in Father Brophy’s cloakroom. After a week I was sick of the smell of incense, after shave, and votive candles, but no matter how apologetic I was to him and my father, I had to continue.
Bruce got off lightly. In the first place, Jews don’t believe in the Devil or any of the Christian nonsense Herbie and I had to put up with – the virgin birth, for example, and all the other ‘miraculous’ stories we had told him about. Yet Rabbi Cohen understood the sacrilege in our Black Mass regardless of its Christian origin. An inversion of a fictitious fable is what, exactly, he wondered, but he was stern with Bruce in public to keep up the reputation of the Jews in New Brighton and his stewardship of the synagogue.
Herbie got sent to Christian camp that summer, an evangelical retreat run by Pastor Hutchins, a wild-eyed Pentecostal from Iowa who ran the camp like a gulag. He knew that the children sent to him had sinned and would sin again if not for his ministrations and counsel. Aside from a few games of badminton and hot dogs on Saturday, Herbie and his fellow campers suffered through morning prayers, endless Bible study, the fire-breathing sermons of Pastor Hutchins, and had to sleep on straw ticks with no pillows for penance.
Needless to say we never celebrated a black mass again, and went dutifully to church and synagogue for another few years until we all went away to school and could do pretty much what we pleased.
I lost track of both Herbie and Bruce Birnbaum until relatively recently when I found Bruce on Facebook. As luck would have it he lived in the Washington area and we arranged to meet. He was married, with adult children, in good health, and looking forward to retirement. I asked him if he remembered the black mass, and of course he did.
“Funny you should ask”, Bruce said, because I ran into Herbie Swanson’s sister not long ago. Remember how we inverted everything, crucifixes upside down, genuflecting backward, and making the sign of the cross from crotch to forehead? Well, he inverted an inversion and got real religion. He is Father Swanson, the head of a millennial cult in Montana. They believe that the East Coast will soon hive off from the mainland, and sink into the ocean to join Atlantis. Nuclear war with the Russians will ensue, and the only survivors will be the faithful of Herbie’s Church of the Renewed Universe who have lived and propagated for a hundred years in underground warrens waiting for the nuclear dust to settle”.
Bruce said that religion had never been that important for his family. Although they kept kosher and went to temple, his father felt that the rabbis were a bunch of charlatans just like every other priest or prophet. They kept up appearances, but did not believe. Bruce dropped away from religion even farther once he left home and became a secular Jew who never gave up his fidelity to the Jews, but abandoned Judaism.
I fell somewhere between Bruce and Herbie. I was never religious – how could I be after all those childhood and adolescent years being harangued, hectored, and threatened by Fathers Brophy, Mullins, and Murphy? I became convinced, however, that if one had to choose a religion, it should be a pagan one. Our flaccid, watered-down, politically correct and largely secular services were nothing compared to Aztec ritual sacrifice, African animism, and Asian theatrical worship. I could only imagine what it must have been like for an Indian in Mesoamerica, perhaps at Monte Alban, surrounded by mountains and plains, exposed to thunder and lightning, with a belief in the immanence of the gods, participating in a ritual sacrifice. It would be the apotheosis of life, death, and spirit. It would be all-consuming, transforming, and elating.
All of which goes to say that religion is never neutral nor ever absent. Whether one practices traditional religion, rejects it out of logic and reason, becomes evangelical and ecstatic, inverts it into Satanism, or dallies with the philosophical aspects of belief, we are all religious to some degree. I have always argued that there should be a ‘None of the Above’ category on the Census form to describe those who are spiritually casual and indifferent to religion. However in all these years I have never met anyone who is totally and completely indifferent. Most people have a seat somewhere in the revival tent.