I’ll end this first blogging experience with a nod to a neighbor. We pass often. Each life has people like this; satellites that maintain polite orbits—especially in a city no one’s truly alone.
Such acquaintanceship is akin to blogging: Note this entry’s looseness, its casual constructions, much more familiar and less demanding than any in my novel, Witz. Also note that I don’t know you. We are passing. These words are a nod…
The neighbor’s name I don’t know either. I call her Tape Woman, and H. does and D. does, too (H. and D. are close friends).
We call her Tape Woman because she—a white woman, older—binds thin strands of black electrical tape around her head. Above a robe of layered garbage bags, her face is sectioned by lines of this adhesive, rendering her in appearance the idealized offspring of a Jewess and a zebra, or a walking-talking-to-herself Bride of Frankenstein who’s misapplied her tefillin (phylacteries).
It’s tempting to think that the number of lines wound around her face signify something: that some form of numerology, or body modification cabbala, might be involved.
Three lines of tape (above eyes, under nose, on chin) could mean one thing. Four lines (above eyes, under eyes and over nose, under nose, on chin) could represent another. I imagine hermetic wisdom, salvific messages, prophecy being communicated. Perhaps the lines of tape symbolize the pillars of the universe, according to the rabbis: prayer (tefilah), charity (tzedaka), and repentance or return (teshuvah)?
D. says passing Tape Woman on the street (Brighton Beach Ave.), or boardwalk, means two days of bad luck.
H. swears she went to school with her daughter.
So she’s crazy. And is frequently harassed and insulted, in Spanish and Russian (when she murmurs to herself, she murmurs English). But once she did something—action, a physical act—that healed me, that gave me to myself more whole and alive.
One spring afternoon, taking a break from the book, I walked the boardwalk toward Coney. Tape Woman stood on a bench, flinging out her hands in a feeding gesture. But her hands were empty and the birds, expecting a feeding, only circled and squawked.
She clenched her hands again, gripping the wind.
And then again she flung out her hands and again the birds, more maddened than me, shrieked with disappointment.
This was writing. A parable for writing.
There is no feed, there is no feeding—books being mere fantasies or lapses. I am a crazy old lady, too—all writers are and all readers are birds. And the only truth is shrieking.
This second blogpost is about two experiences with two “cemeteries.” The first made it into my novel, Witz.
Years ago I was living in Prague — I was 21 — not quite earning a living writing articles for a Jewish newspaper about Jews in Eastern Europe. Problem was, there weren’t any Jews in Eastern Europe, besides: Russians who moved west to defraud with import-export; Hasidic emissaries from New Jersey and Brooklyn; and old people (Holocaust survivors). I was writing about the Holocaust, about the Holocaust’s legacy, approximately six decades later but for an insatiably interested public. I told an editor I needed new business cards. She suggested a new title, “Dead Jews Correspondent.”
I covered the memorials and monuments, the synagogues rebuilt after the fall of communism with money from Long Island, democratically elected governments that destroyed cemeteries — clearing land for hockey stadiums and hospitals.
One day a man I’d interviewed for an article about Holocaust survivors and healthcare — a very kind and understandably strange man who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and who offered me tea and his granddaughter’s email address — died. I went the next afternoon to his funeral; then, on the way out of the cemetery, stopped by the grave of Franz Kafka. Why not? This is what you do when you’re at the New Jewish Cemetery at Želivského.
I stood facing the grave and read the inscription — the headstone is not the original; the original is rumored to have been stolen and sold to the West by Czechoslovak communist functionaries and remains lost to this day — I noted the plaque that memorialized Kafka’s three sisters (Gabriela, Valerie, Otilie), who died in the camps. I can’t remember any thoughts — I’ve never had a thought in a cemetery.
After a moment an Asian tourist approached the grave and stood alongside me snapping photos. Then without saying a word he handed me something plastic and white.
He said, in English, “For head.”
He was making me wear a yarmulke.
He touched his head, touched my head.
I’d already taken my yarmulke off, stuffed it in a pocket.
I felt like explaining that I was a Cohen — of the caste of priests, who must keep pure for future service in the rebuilt Temple. Forget not wearing a yarmulke, my biggest transgression was being in a cemetery at all. I was being defiled, technically speaking. I wanted to yell at him, “I am being defiled, technically speaking!”
I went home.
The next week I wrote a section of Witz that treats Kafka’s grave to a Kafkan fiction. A man tries to gain entrance to the cemetery that holds the grave but is prevented, at every opportunity delayed and rebuffed. I called the section “The Grave.” At the end I say the stones that mourners place atop headstones — to mark their visit, to memorialize concern — are, in effect, the yarmulkes of headstones.
Last year, back in the States, I took a bikeride on the boardwalk, from Brighton Beach to Seagate.
On the pier at Coney, a huddled group. They stood at the edge, about to empty ashes into the water.
Afterward a few hung around.
I asked a man what happened and he said his friend—the man in the urn—killed himself two weeks ago.
I didn’t ask for details but Marco said, “He was a lifeguard. He loved swimming and movies.”
He said, “The ocean is the biggest cemetery in the world.”
As I turned to leave he repeated, “Biggest cemetery in the world, biggest cemetery in the world.”
All life comes from water. And if you don’t believe science you at least believe that water was created before Man—wasn’t actually created but divided: the waters above separated from the waters below…. What was most depressing about living in Europe—in Europe’s east—was being so far from an ocean. But I disagree with Marco. Europe is the biggest cemetery in the world.
So it’s summer again—or almost. The calendar only belatedly confirms what the bare arms and legs knew weeks earlier. But I’m writing this inside—I’ve been inside too much lately.
I live in southern Brooklyn, 11235—Brighton Beach, on a beach block—and from my window can glimpse about an inch, an inch and a half, of brackish water. I say “water” because it’s not ocean, it’s the bay. Another misconception? People come to the beach, spread their blankets, point to the land just across from them, rising from the murk of Lower Bay, and say, “Look at Staten Island.”
They’re looking at New Jersey.
People. Summers in the Seagate-Coney Island-Brighton Beach-Manhattan Beach nexus mean crowds. Half of the city making its Q Train way to my beach come Saturday AM. Bringing their foods, their beers, and so their trash. Their ethnic radio: bulletins in Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Urdu. Also bulletins in English. And the many jellyfish they leave behind—the used condoms in every color and design (ribbed jellyfish; tickler jellyfish; that most beautiful but tacky species of condom that glows in the dark, which brings to mind a favorite term from high school biology, “bioluminescence”).
Summer serves even to relocalize the locals: by June characters who’d spent September through May shut-in, emerge, taking a brief vacation from their televisions and neuroses.
As for me, I turn thirty in September. That was a difficult sentence to write. I still think of summers as breaks from school: as recess. I’m thinking already, “I better not be assigned a class with Mrs. Falk” (but Mrs. Falk must be retired by now; hopefully her straight blonde wig’s retired, too).
My novel, Witz, was published in May. It is my third novel—after Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, and A Heaven of Others—by far my longest, most ambitious. But it’s only now that the work’s begun—the work of talking about it, of writing about it; it’s a job for a shadchan (a matchmaker), or a masochist. I’m going to write two more of these ruminations for you—about literature and incipient summer, about the lives of both in Brooklyn South.
Witz is the story of the Last Jew in the World. And, given its terminal theme, it attempts to be something of a terminal text: a Jewish book that, if it doesn’t end all Jewish books, at least ends certain recent trends of Jewish bookery. It says dayeinu—“enough”—to kitsch, to Holocaust revisionism, to Europe.
When I think about what inspired this book, what made this book—what this book both springs from and reacts to—I think of every Jewish book ever written: Abravanel’s to Zweig’s. But I also think of the Brooklyn beach. Witz is 800 pages long, long on words in a dozen languages. Reading to the end is like riding the subway to Coney; the terminus, the end of the line—you have to have patience; understand that the ride becomes the destination. Come over the bridge—Liberty and Ellis Island to your right—pass under that half of Brooklyn that’s only Manhattan’s dimmer reflection, then surface for the midlands of Midwood, the oxidized service yards and factory ruins. Soon the wind salted by waves, the jingling of games like the creaks of bolts on an unserviced amusement, the swirling lights that signify as half fun, half siren…. I want Witz to compel in that way, to demand that commitment—to attract people from citified comforts to a place, a timeplace, whose sentimentality contains its own criticism: Because it’s forgotten for Manhattan’s winter, there is crime down here, and grime, and there are lunatics. I wanted to write a book that, being seclused, turned readers—visitors—into archaeologists and hedonists, kids. I wanted to write a book that was like Coney Island….