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The Meshuganeh Mensch

November 11, 2009 | by Melanie Chartoff

I'm a nice person. But I'm on a mission to be even nicer.

As our Yom Kippur sunset dipped into dinnertime this past September, and I dipped challah into brisket gravy, I realized that one day's abstinence, one day of asking forgiveness, and one measly repentant fast, followed by this all-you-can-eat at my East Coast aunt's, would simply not be enough to atone for the groundswell of guilt I was now bearing.

People have felt abused by my generosity and I feel terrible about that.

Not because I had ever deliberately harmed anyone, nor betrayed anyone's trust. On the contrary, I tend to be menschy to the point of meshugeneh, People often say, "No! Please, stop giving me so many gifts and so much money!" for my acts of largess. Yes, people have felt abused by my generosity, and I was feeling terrible about that, too.

I always play by the Yom Kippur rules, of course. But at the end of the day the sacrifice was small.

Oh, I've never done anything so commonplace as lying or thinking ill of others in my alone times. I've never struck anyone, and if that strikes you as expected, I have often been struck dumb by others' insanity and could easily have retaliated. I have the patience of Job, and it's a job in this society, believe you me. I never badmouth competitors. I've never even rolled through a stop sign or yellow light. I’m nice.

I was feeling shame for passively committed deeds...offenses I was simply not aware I was perpetrating. Such was the enormity of my retroactive survivor's guilt.

See -- I've let my cell phone die. During many a long night it was fighting for its life -- at 3% of capacity silently screaming, begging to be plugged in. I ignored it. I was fast asleep recharging my own battery, heartless inhumane wretch that I am.

I've never had a root canal. Certainly I have driven others to and fro, but what's worse is I've had moments of "there but for fortune go I" relief that their pain wasn't mine. I'm horrible.

I've never broken a leg. Of course, I've never gone skiing, or white water rafting either, which always seemed like 'asking for trouble' in my opinion, so I have suffered that loss to compensate. OK, those cancel each other out.

Just by having lived five decades, having had no root canals, no appendectomies, I have no right to joy. Whine as I might, no true tragedy has yet befallen me...not that I'm asking, mind you! You see, just simply by being alive, I have been rabidly consuming -- air, (at least I’m filtering contaminants, protecting others’ lungs) water, food and far too much space.

If we're grading on a curve in these tough times, by just doing nothing out of the ordinary-living in a modest cottage on 1/8 acre in sunny Southern California, eating three or four square meals most days, driving an antique, classic car -- a 2004 Prius with stickers, that allow me to use the carpool lane and park for free in several American cities, I’m egregiously, extravagantly endowed.

Certainly I've always had the quotidian quantity of self flagellation most of our clan carry, especially those of us in comedy and the arts, driven to extremes of overcompensation by our parents' past hungers and admonishments, handed down from their parents and so forth and so on. You may assure yourself I feel victimized by my guilt at unconsciously victimizing other things. But more active penance than self-abuse was required for my heinous misdeeds.

So, until Chanukah this year, I’m doing a preventive repentance. I want to live in a No Smoting area in the year to come. I’m spending a month of giving up things I love, and doing positive things I’d rather not do. Examples:

I weaned myself off my challah habit last week—that’s why they call it Halloween, you know. I never waste a glass of water. I drain every drop. (Remember-- drink your water...the people in California are dying of thirst.) I never waste food—remember people everywhere lack it. And get this: I’m working out every day til I actually perspire. And, boy, are my biceps bulging. I’ve also cut back on punning and alliteration by 2/3’s—an enormous change and a relief to those who follow me.

I’m expressing constant humility, and feeling so much better about what a great gal I am. By the eight days of holidays in December, on this regimen, I should be fully atuned, atoned and abuffed…

Shofar sho good.


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