The loud pop of a semi-automatic rifle shatters the quiet of a still winter day. The sun is shining through the motionless branches of bare trees in a large wooded area, reflecting off the sunglasses of a slender, dark-haired German. He takes aim once more, then fires.
Just a few yards away, a slightly round, white-haired man lifts his weapon to his shoulder and eyes the target in his scope. This man, however, could have come from a Central Casting file marked "Hasidic Jew." He's wearing a black hat, and his peyos — the long sidelocks of hair that Orthodox Jewish men grow — are wrapped around his ears to keep them out of his way.
He squints, steadies his arms and fires. Moments later, just several yards away, the German sets his sights on his quarry, exhales deeply and squeezes his trigger, as he's been taught to do.
No, it's not a scene from Inglourious Basterds — even if they did see the film together. The setting is Cheatham County, Tenn. The two men, who've wandered off to indulge their mutual love of AR-15 assault rifles, have become unlikely friends. The German is filmmaker Gandulf Hennig, whose well-received Gram Parsons documentary Fallen Angel was a highlight of the 2006 Nashville Film Festival.
And the other man? That's Bill Bernstein, your run-of-the-mill right-wing, Ivy- and Oxford-educated, Orthodox Jewish East Nashville gun dealer and online provocateur. He's extremely opinionated, yet calm and unflappable. Soft-spoken, yet outspoken. A tad shy, though never one to shy away from a good debate. And one of the more eccentric and polarizing individuals you're likely to meet in the Bible Belt's buckle.
Bernstein does not suggest the stereotypical "gun nut" of anti-handgun straw-man arguments — a yahoo itchy to open fire for the hell of it, anytime, anywhere. That's not to say he doesn't share much in common with those who fall under that umbrella. He thinks Obama is a disaster. He agrees with Rush Limbaugh. (He has no opinion of Bill O'Reilly because he hasn't owned a TV in many years.) He loves goading liberals, and if the Tennessee legislature proposed to let kindergarten teachers pack heat in the sandbox, he would probably offer an MNEA discount.
But his calm demeanor, grad-school vocabulary and dry wit aren't typical of the breed. He's a progressive's worst nightmare — a hard-line, pro-gun Tennessee conservative who doesn't come off like a country bumpkin or raving lunatic. At least not in person.
When asked why people should have guns, he replies, "The bigger question is, 'Why shouldn't they?' Guns do lots and lots of different things, just like any tool. Some provide self-defense, some provide sporting opportunities, some provide hunting. ... Whatever activities that particular gun implies, people should have the right to do that."
As for gun-control legislation, he says, "Every gun restriction has been a failure at the purpose, which was to lower crime. There has not been a single measure that's been proven to reduce crime anywhere. Statistics are clear on this. ... The only thing it does is it gives politicians more control over people's lives, and that's a bad thing. And criminals are not deterred by this."
Don't even ask him about the hot-button topic of Tennessee's so-called "guns in bars" legislation.
"God, it is not 'guns in bars,' " he says, with almost an audible groan. "The law was never about guns in bars. In fact, specifically, it excluded any place you had to be 21 to get into. That's a bar. It's about guns in restaurants that serve alcohol. The law already exists that you cannot be consuming alcohol and in possession of a gun. And the feeling was that if that's illegal, why would you make somebody leave his gun in his car if he's just going to go eat dinner with his family? Because it's more likely that the car will be broken into and the gun stolen than if he has it on him."
Many of Bernstein's ideological opposites say that even though he hasn't swayed them, he's an unusually reasonable — and well-reasoned — advocate. Some who find his views intolerant nevertheless find him surprisingly tolerable. To others, that only makes him more infuriating. They say he's an online bully who fires off bellicose provocations on the East Nashville listserv just to bait people.
Either way, Bernstein has a stockpile of something pro-gun advocates have often lacked, ironically enough: rhetorical firepower. And at his headquarters, he puts his muzzle where his mouth is.
The nondescript brick building at 1048 East Trinity Lane, just a couple of blocks east of Metro Nashville Police Department's East Precinct, is mostly known to locals for the beloved meat-and-three Southern Bred. But along the building's right side, next to Dynamic Creations hair salon, is the Eastside Gun Shop. If you open the door and find the iron security gate locked, that means Bill Bernstein is back in his office doing paperwork, making calls or stirring up trouble on the Internet.
It's usually only a few seconds before he buzzes you in. He's 48 years old, medium height with a mild middle-age paunch. Though he appears to be in average shape for his age, his mostly white hair and nearly solid white beard suggest someone several years older.
Step inside his gun store, and it's clear that his extensive education — undergraduate work in English and classics at Vanderbilt, graduate work at Oxford, the University of North Carolina and Penn — didn't include any courses in interior design. Eastside Gun Shop is the retail equivalent of a post-college slacker's first bachelor pad.
His threads aren't any flashier. Each day, it's the same uniform: black yarmulke, black pants, black sport jacket, black shoes and white shirt, under which can be seen the tassels of his talis koton, a poncho-like religious undergarment. It's the standard male wardrobe for the Hasidim, a strictly observant sect of Orthodox Judaism.
The store's counter features a glass display case with a variety of handguns, among them a full-size 1911 .45, a Glock 27 and a Heckler & Koch (which Bernstein jokingly refers to as "Hitler Cock"). To the left of the munitions display is a paper target with a human silhouette. Further to the left, a small sign hangs on the wall, featuring a photo of Barack Obama and the NRA logo. The caption below reads, "Firearms Salesman of the Year."
Cerebral and pious, Bernstein is not the type to obsess over clothes or posh decor, mundane concerns of the material world. What he does obsess over is guns. Stick around Eastside Gun Shop, and you'll find Bernstein is not alone.
To your typical gun-averse liberal, the almost erotic infatuation some customers exhibit toward weapons seems perverse — the product of violent fantasies, maybe, or at least phallic insecurities. And to be sure, there's the occasional guy who leers at the merchandise like he's checking out the latest Barely Legal at the Purple Onion.
But for the majority of the almost exclusively male clientele — who ooh and aah over Bernstein's various semi-automatic pistols, revolvers, shotguns and military-style rifles — a less deviant but no less passionate impulse emerges. More than anything, these gun lovers' adoration recalls the way guitar collectors geek out over a '59 Les Paul, or motorcycle freaks effuse over a BSA Gold Star.
It's an analogy that Bernstein acknowledges, and one that partially explains his fondness for guns.
"Let me show you this 1911," Bernstein says to a customer. "This is a Citadel, made in the Philippines. Every time I get one they're better than the last one. Excellent slide-to-frame fit. Feel how smooth that is."
The customer, a slim 60-ish man who plays bass with a couple of old-school country acts, takes the pistol in his hand. "Wow."
"Feel the trigger? I've had Colts that didn't feel that good," Bernstein says. He sounds like a kid strumming a '61 Strat at Gruhn Guitars.
The customer's eyes zero in on an AR-15 on the wall. "I ain't ever shot one of these," he says, walking closer.
"You've never shot one?" Bernstein says in mild disbelief. "Oh, they're real pleasures. No recoil at all. They're loud as hell. You can feel the breeze coming out of them, but against the shoulder there's nothing. I took our rabbi's 60-year-old mother-in-law, who had never shot a gun before, out shooting, and of all the guns we shot, she liked my AR the best."
For every five or six customers who wander into Eastside Gun Shop and reinforce gun-owner stereotypes — older, conservative-looking white males with rural accents, younger black males — someone will walk in defying such preconceptions.
On a late winter afternoon, two twentysomething men walk into the store. Sporting clothing that splits the difference between college kid and hippie, they look like guys you'd see at a Dave Matthews concert. They both have longish hair, and one seems to be toying with white-boy dreadlocks.
As if on cue, they start discussing the previous night's concert by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio at the Ryman. Descriptors like "awesome" and "killer jams" enter the conversation, and they mention that they're in a band of their own. They're looking for a particular handgun, a Sig P238. Bernstein doesn't have one, but he calls another store to ask if they carry it.
After the men leave, the unimpressed Bernstein pokes fun at their weapon of choice, the way a Harley dealer might dis someone asking about a Yamaha. Then he pulls back. Maybe he feels he was a little hard on them. "I'm sure it's a fine functioning gun for what it's designed for," he says.
Another afternoon, a man walks in, hoping to buy a gun he saw the previous week. He's Shawn Hancock, a 38-year-old country music video editor, and he looks like a typical East Nashville music type — someone more likely to sip coffee at Bongo East than shout down Jim Cooper at a town hall meeting.
He's obviously looking for something that isn't there. "Damn," Hancock says, dejected. "You sold the P226 too?"
"It went this morning," Bernstein replies.
"Someone bought that shotgun today too, right?" Hancock asks, already sensing the answer. "Because I came in with cash in my pocket."
"Yeah, about an hour ago," Bernstein says.
"And I came ready," Hancock says, tugging on a wad of cash in the pocket of his jeans.
"I can help you out of that," Bernstein says, perking up. "Take a look at that Mauser."
"I don't want it," Hancock fires back, playfully pouting.
"You don't want the Mauser?" Bernstein says, his tone suggesting Hancock would be a fool not to buy it.
"No," Hancock says.
"Geez!" Bernstein exclaims. No use. Hancock isn't biting.
Though a fiscal conservative, Hancock describes himself as socially liberal. He never thought he'd own a handgun, but some shady incidents near his neighborhood, around Fatherland and 14th, changed his mind. He says Bernstein made him think hard about whether he really wanted to own a handgun.
As Hancock recalls, "I said something like, 'I want a handgun, in case I need to shoot someone in the leg.' And his immediate response was, 'Don't buy one. If you're not ready to put him down, then don't have a handgun.' That's paraphrased."
"God, I'm so smart," Bernstein says, chiming in. "That's exactly right. I would say that today. ... No one wants to shoot someone. But are you prepared to shoot somebody?"
That's probably not a question Gandulf Hennig heard much before meeting Bill Bernstein. And yet he's become one of Bernstein's close friends, not to mention a steady, locked-and-loaded shooting companion. The saga of how a German filmmaker and an Orthodox Jewish gun dealer wound up in Middle Tennessee shooting AR-15s began when their paths first crossed two years ago.
Hennig, who grew up near Cologne, Germany, and spent most of his adult life in Berlin, had been living in Nashville for a couple of years at the time. While working on Fallen Angel, he'd spent time interviewing people in Nashville, and eventually he decided the city would be a good home base. (He's currently working on a Merle Haggard documentary slated to run on PBS' American Masters series in July.)
The motivation for Bernstein's move to Nashville was a little less grand. Given the slim job prospects in his chosen field, the Bronx-born classics scholar was working as a paralegal at a big Philadelphia law firm — "the worst job I ever had," he says. As his wife Heddy drove him one morning, he witnessed something that dramatically altered his life path.
"I see this old fat bum down at the end of the block," Bernstein says. "And as I'm watching him, he proceeds to lean over a fire hydrant, drop his pants, and have projectile diarrhea all over the sidewalk."
That in itself didn't bother him. "I'd felt like doing that myself many times," Bernstein says. "But what bothered me was that everybody walking by pretended like nothing unusual was going on. And I said to [Heddy] right then, 'That's it, we're leaving.' "
That was 1992. Fourteen years later — after a short-lived career as a carpet salesman ("Very difficult for a guy who was shy"), nine years in the mortgage business and several more home-schooling his son — Bernstein opened Eastside Gun Shop. If not for Gram Parsons and a homeless guy with the runs — and their mutual enthusiasm for firearms — the two men might never have met.
"I grew up in a completely gun-free country," Hennig says in fluent but accented English. "Only cops and robbers have guns where I come from. So I was somewhat interested in them. It was almost exotic to me, and I think a friend told me, there's a gun store around the corner. So I went and visited him, and we made fast friends right away. He's very interested in German culture, and I'm quite interested in American culture, so we just hit it off."
If you were a screenwriter pitching this story to Harvey Weinstein, you might say, "A heartwarming tale of reconciliation in which a Jew and a German help heal a nation's psychic wounds." Grandiose? Yes. Simplistic? Certainly. Absurd? Why, of course. (So much so that you might just sell it.) Still, Hennig says he got a startling lesson in their cultural differences the first time Bernstein invited him over for dinner.
"I wondered why he didn't pick up the phone when I was running late on a Friday night," Hennig says. "Well, it was Shabbat dinner. I didn't know that." On the Sabbath, it's forbidden for Orthodox Jews to talk on the phone, ride in a car or conduct business, to name just a few of the proscriptions.
"That shows you how little Germans know about Jewish culture," Hennig says. "If you go to school in Germany, you get taught a lot about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and of course that's all important and good. But we somehow neglect to tell our kids what [Jews] actually are, beyond being victims."
For Hennig, who is completely nonreligious, the experience was eye-opening. "It was just an amazing experience to me," he says. "It was really nice, how they invited me into their home, and explained everything to me, all the ritual stuff. Which is still really interesting to me how you can spend that much time of your day, every day. But that's a different subject."
Bernstein's other invitation was far less holy. "Bill asked me if I wanted to go to some property where you can legally shoot in the woods," Hennig recalls. "I crack myself up thinking about that because it's so against anything I was raised on. And Bill brought assault rifles, so we were firing AR-15s."
The absurdity of the image is not lost on Hennig. "I felt like this is really like Monty Python," he says. "A German and a Hasidic Jew standing in a forest in Tennessee and shooting assault rifles together. This is just too weird to be true. And I tremendously enjoyed it."
Given the pleasure Hennig takes in shooting guns, he must be a right-wing NRA type, right? Wrong. "I am neither pro-gun or anti-gun or anything like that," he says. "I'm just more like the kid in the American candy store, where guns are freely available. I guess it's like an American going to Germany and going 180 miles [per hour] on the Autobahn."
His own politics, Hennig says, skew liberal. "I wouldn't say [Bill and I] disagree, because we don't argue over things," he says, "but we have different worldviews on a lot of things." He even betrays a slight twinge of lefty guilt over his newfound hobby. "You kind of know something's wrong with it, but since it's so freely available ... I don't have a — what's the expression? A dog in the fight?"
Since they're so vastly different — upbringing, politics, religious beliefs — you might suspect they'd butt heads. But that's not the case.
"It's never a problem," Hennig says. "Not because we don't go there, but because we both like debating, I guess. And that is something — if I may be the European smart-ass for a second — that I feel I am kind of missing in this country more and more. It was always, America is a great country, and you can stand for whatever you want. And now it's like you're either with us or without us, depending on what side you're on.
"That is something that I tremendously enjoy: that I can have a friendship and an active intellectual debate with somebody like Bill, although we know we will never be on the same side of the fence. We like each other more for that."
Not everyone on the other side of the fence shares Hennig's sentiments. In various corners of cyberspace, Bernstein has earned a reputation as an extreme right-wing agitator, promoting his views with commentary that runs the gamut from articulate to inflammatory to downright offensive.
As much as he likes to razz lefties, Bernstein has been known to poke fun at the hardcore paramilitary-wannabe crowd. Over at tngunowners.com, where some members lust after weapons used by Navy SEALs and such, Bernstein ruffled some feathers when he listed an ad for a classic deer rifle he was selling: "Winchester 30/30 lever-action deer rifle, used by Army snipers in Panama." Though he was obviously joking, he was booted from the site for false advertising.
But on the East Nashville listserv, where the readership is far more ideologically diverse, Bernstein has become a notorious lightning rod. With nearly 5,000 subscribers, the neighborhood message board serves mostly as a place to sell guitars, find lost dogs, talk about area restaurants or get the name of a good plumber. When political topics come up, though, a small but very vocal minority of members starts sparring. And Bernstein, who posts under his own name, is often in the center of the fray.
Never shy about displaying his considerable knowledge, Bernstein often infuses his posts with historical context and dry humor. He'll pontificate about the Manchu Dynasty's opium problem, or offer lengthy expositions on the history of capitalism.
But when he goes for the jugular, he's far more succinct. In a recent thread about health insurance, one commenter bemoaned the phenomenon of some grandmothers having to eat dog food. Bernstein's response: "Dog food? That sure sounds better than the shit sandwich the Dumocrats are serving up these days." When the topic of right-wingers comparing Obama to Hitler came up, he replied, "It's obviously false. Hitler was surrounded by competent people and was able to achieve much of his agenda."
A couple of belligerent Ted Nugent quotes Bernstein used as taglines were the last straw for many listserv members. One post featured the sign-off, " 'That Obama's a piece of @##$, and I told him to suck on my machine gun.' — Ted." Another Bernstein comment featured the following farewell: " 'I said to Hillary: Why don't you ride one of these, you worthless whore.' — Ted Nugent."
Frequent listserv contributor Mike Adkins, an East Nashville landscaper, isn't shy when expressing his feelings about Bernstein. He writes, "Closet racist, hateful, not well-informed, ignorant, fearful, given to lash out in an immature moronic fashion when presented with simple questions. ... There's a lot of folks around here doing positive things that merit a story, not fucking Bernstein. I say this with a sense of sympathy towards him."
Another regular commenter who goes by the name of "landotter" shares similar sentiments: "He's a religious fundamentalist arms dealer who pushes fear and racism, then offers weapons as a solution to that which he foments. Can you imagine the attitude towards him if he was a fundie Muslim? Might be a bit different. Giving him more exposure is shameful."
Asked if he's racist, Bernstein says, "The only people that are bothered by language that might be racial are people that are unsure whether they're actually racist or not, and they're afraid that they might be. People that know that they're not, really aren't bothered by it. People that are actually racist aren't bothered by it either." His adversaries would undoubtedly point out that he didn't answer the question.
So is he racist? Bernstein admits that one day shortly after the store opened in 2006, he had a couple of black customers in what he describes as "ghetto attire," and that he felt threatened at first. "But you know it went fine, they were OK, and they left and I never had a problem with them. It evolved into, not what people look like, but how do they talk, and how do they present themselves. In neighborhoods they live in, if they dressed like you and me they'd probably get beaten up on a daily basis. ... It's a state of mind, not a color."
And he's felt threatened by white customers too, including a couple of skinheads who come in from time to time. "I think to myself, if I met these guys in a dark alley, it would not bode well for me," he says.
He says he has plenty of regulars who are black — some older, some retired Metro cops. He gets Asian, Hispanic, even Arab customers. He's become friendly with one of them, a Muslim from Yemen. "Hey, they're here because they're trying to get away from all that crap in the Middle East," he says.
And the Nugent quotes?
"Personally, I think Ted Nugent is a nutjob," Bernstein says. "But he's our nutjob. ... It's fun to have people saying stuff that most people might think, but are generally too polite to say it. It's a naughty pleasure, if you will. ... [It's good for] a little shock value."
And does he think Hillary Clinton is a whore?
"They all are." he says. "If you're a politician there's a certain amount of that that you have to be."
To be sure, Bernstein has supporters on the East Nashville listserv — folks with pseudonyms like Wryker, King Jack, Rembrandt and Grizzly Reeves, who share either his political views or his twisted sense of humor. But more fascinating are the ideological opposites who have developed friendships with him.
"I can easily say I disagree with almost every political position he has, but I'm still one of his biggest fans," says web consultant Laura Creekmore, who started the listserv almost 10 years ago. "He really comes off as a curmudgeon, on the listserv in particular. Several people have said he's going to be upset [when the Scene story is published] because word's going to get out that he's a softie. And he really is.
"I first emailed with Bill several years ago when he was causing some ruckus on the listserv, and I had to email him and say, 'You know what? You've got to tone it down.' And we had a really nice conversation. He comes across personally as a very reasonable person but he has this habit of putting these inflammatory posts on the listserv. I really think he just likes to stir things up. And he's really good at it!"
Creekmore even got together a collection of donated baby clothes when Bernstein and his wife were expecting their third child. "It was really funny to meet somebody in person that you've had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with," she says, "but to meet them at a very human moment of their life. I guess all that is just to say I see beyond the gruff exterior and I love Bill," she says, laughing.
Guitarist, songwriter and hardcore vegetarian Damon LaScot, who stirs up his own share of controversy on the listserv, shares a similar fondness for his ideological nemesis. "Let's see ... can I opt for 'love to hate him'?" writes LaScot, who posts under the name "tradershort." "Aside from the fact that he is a dead ringer for NY Times columnist Paul Krugman, Bill is an Orthodox Jewish, gun-totin' redneck from the BRONX! To me, he is a complete and total enigma ... and I gotta admit, because he is so unique, I gotta like him."
Bill Bernstein: lovable curmudgeon, or fear-mongering, racist reactionary? Seeking answers, we followed him someplace even more sacred than his gun shop or rifle range — home.
It's Saturday, Feb. 27, the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, and the Bernstein family is preparing to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. In the kitchen of a blue 1970 split-level ranch in Bellevue, Bernstein's wife Heddy is busy preparing hamantaschen, the traditional pastry named for Haman, the Purim story's chief antagonist. Like all married Orthodox women, she wears a head covering, and between her attire and her unadorned yet appealing appearance, you could almost imagine her preparing dinner over a wood-burning stove in an episode of Little House on the Prairie.
Daughter Gertrude, who will turn 17 in April, is doing homework at the kitchen table. (When boys from school come to visit her, Bernstein likes to say to them, "I've got a shotgun and five acres of land. You won't be missed." The boys don't always get the humor.) Son Viktor, 15, strolls in from his bedroom, where he's been on the computer. At about 7:30, everyone gathers at the table. Gustav, who's 3-and-a-half, comes and sits on Heddy's lap.
Heddy passes out copies of the Megillah, the biblical narrative of the Book of Esther that includes the story of Purim, and then distributes graggers, small hand-held wooden or plastic noisemakers. The Purim saga, simply put: Haman wants to kill all the Jews, but Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai, manage to foil the plot. During the reading of the Megillah, it's traditional to shake the gragger at every mention of Haman's name (and there are many).
A guest asks Heddy why she has no gragger. "Germans are known to be very staid," says Heddy, whose father was 4 when his family left Germany in 1940, among the last Jews to escape. "So there's an ongoing joke that when they hear the name 'Haman' they just," and she knocks the table with her hand.
Bernstein begins reading from a small rolled scroll. Like most Torahs, the Megillah Bernstein is reading has no vowels. (In Hebrew, the vowels are made up of dots and lines that appear under the consonants.) When Bernstein gets held up on a word or mispronounces something, Viktor, who's reading along on a version that has vowels, corrects him. Gustav, who has Down syndrome, gets restless and whines periodically, and Heddy patiently caresses and soothes him.
Thirty-one uninterrupted minutes later, Bernstein finishes the story. Heddy starts bringing out trays of hamantaschen in a variety of flavors: marzipan, poppy seed, cherry, strawberry, blackberry and lekvar (prune butter). After a guest says how much he likes the poppy-seed version, Bernstein laughs and says, "Don't take a drug test after this."
While Heddy is serving food, Gustav climbs up on Bernstein's lap. "This little guy is so cute," Bernstein says, beaming. "A little tired and crabby though." Heddy explains that Gustav is still recuperating from some oral surgery he had a couple of days earlier.
Somehow the topic of Inglourious Basterds comes up. "Unfortunately, someone here isn't interested in seeing it," Bernstein says, looking at Gertrude.
"I'm sorry, I would rather not watch people getting hurt and getting blown up," she fires back.
"But they're getting hurt in German," Bernstein says.
Soon Bernstein mentions that on Sunday, the family will go to a Purim carnival at Beit Tefilah Chabad, the Bellevue synagogue where he worships.
"We are?" Gertrude asks, surprised.
"We'll have dinner here and then show," Bernstein says. Then he turns to the guest to explain: "The thing on Purim is to drink a lot. That's kind of important to the holiday."
"So Rabbi's going to get wasted?" Gertrude asks in disbelief.
"No," Bernstein says. "I'm going to get wasted. And then I'm going to go. That's a lot of fun, because you show up and you can say anything."
"You want me to drive?" asks Gertrude.
In unison, her parents shout, "Yes!"
Though Bernstein worships every Saturday morning with Rabbi Teichtel at Beit Tefilah Chabad, he says he doesn't really buy in to the Lubavitch strain of Judaism to which that group belongs. "It's a geographical issue," he says. "I live in Bellevue, that's what opened up, that's where I went."
So is he Hasidic?
"It depends on how you want to cut it. I'm sort of Hasidic. But most people that look like this," he says, pointing at his clothes and beard, "would not live in a place like Nashville. In fact, when I said I was going to move here, I had friends say, 'I would never move to a place like that.' There's a huge fear of the outside world, which I don't share."
He describes his religion as "a weird mishmash of practices and outlooks. Some things I consider myself very modern on. Some things I'm probably fairly right-wing on. We don't have a TV in the house, which is kind of a right-wing Orthodox position. But I don't do it so much because of that. I do it mostly because I think TV is for idiots."
And most Hasids would never send their children to public schools. Gertrude goes to MLK Magnet School, Viktor to Big Picture — both public. (Viktor was home-schooled through eighth grade.)
There's no telling whether Bernstein's religious fervor had anything to do with it, but it's hard not to be struck by the closeness and warmth of his family. A 17-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy, at home on a Saturday night for a religious ritual, with nary a hint of complaint or restlessness?
"We worked very hard at that," Bernstein says, "What you're seeing is the result of a lot of work."
Of all the blows the family has faced, none was harder than the news that the Bernsteins' newborn had Down syndrome. "I was terribly anxious right after he was born and we got the diagnosis," he says. "I was almost nonfunctional."
The diagnosis wasn't a complete surprise. An ultrasound during Heddy's pregnancy revealed that there were some markers for Down syndrome. "They said we could go ahead and do the full genetic scan," Bernstein says, "but there would be some danger to him by doing it. And I thought, let's say it comes up, then what? Then you make the decision whether to terminate the pregnancy.
"And I thought about that for a brief second, and first off, that's a problem for Jewish people to do anyway. We don't believe in that. But more than that, life is very wonderful. And to deny a person that is, to me, unthinkable."
In the end, Bernstein welcomed the child and his unique traits into the crazy quilt of his home life.
"We knew he was going to have disabilities," Bernstein says. "You know, the other two have disabilities too. Viktor is never going to be a basketball player. Gertrude is never going to be a country music star. They don't have that kind of talent. That doesn't mean their lives are worthless."
It's an unseasonably warm Sunday morning in early March, a welcome respite from the worst winter Nashville has seen in 30 years. In other words, it's a beautiful day to whip out weapons and light shit up.
Which is exactly what draws Gandulf Hennig and Bill Bernstein out to Tennessee Clay Target Complex. But what draws the two men to each other is far more intriguing.
Spend some time with this curious duo, and it becomes apparent that, more than anything, it's their similarly twisted senses of humor that bond them. Clearly, they've found a perfect audience in each other — a German who can poke fun at his ancestors' grim legacy, and an extremely religious Jew who can joke about Hitler.
Hennig even downloaded "Hava Nagila" as a ringtone for calls from Bernstein. "I thought he'd think it was funny, and he did. But I'm standing in a long line at the post office one day, and had forgotten about it, and the phone rings and starts going, 'Daaaa Daaaa, dah-dah-dah,' " he says, mimicking the song's melody. He got some curious stares.
And curious stares aren't in short supply here, either, as the two men take turns shooting at orange clay targets flying across the sky — Henning with a Mossberg 500 12-gauge, Bernstein with a Browning SX Skeet. Though the two men share a sartorial single-mindedness about the color black, they couldn't look more incongruous. Bernstein is in typical ballistic-rabbi mode: black pants/black sport coat/white shirt/black shoes. Hennig, meanwhile, looks like he just stepped offstage at Springwater: black leather jacket, black jeans, black Chuck Taylors.
Under the leather jacket is an olive green T-shirt with an image of a fighter jet and the words "COMMIE KILLER — Better Dead Than Red!" Though it's what's known in hipster rock circles as an ironic T-shirt, the irony is lost on the clientele here. "I wear it to a shooting range, and people say, 'Hell yeah!' " Hennig says, laughing.
As the morning eases into afternoon and the two men begin packing up their rifles, the conversation turns once again to the time they went to see Inglourious Basterds together. Hennig says that in the scene where Hitler and his fellow Nazis are getting an ahistorical Big Payback from the Jews, all Bernstein could do was make comments about the guns they were using. "And when the girl shoots the young German Audie Murphy type guy, and he shoots her back, Bill said, 'That's what happens when you carry a .25. You need a bigger caliber.' "
Bernstein remembers the scene well: "She shoots him like five times and he falls down, but he doesn't die, and he has enough life in him to turn around, get up and shoot her instead. That's what happens when you carry ... actually, it was a .32, a PPK .32."
And much like Basterds director Quentin Tarantino, Hennig and Bernstein have concluded that maybe there's some therapeutic value in facing that gruesome chapter of history with gallows humor.
"When I go into the office here to pay, Bill calls it 'reparation,' " Hennig says.
"And sometimes I call it, 'paying it forward for the next time,' " Bernstein jokes morbidly.
The Jew and the German laugh as one.
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