Growing up in Orthodox Brooklyn, all that was forbidden to us was, by its nature, exotic. We did not have much exposure to those other than us, and by others I mean anyone not Modern Orthodox, not even to many Conservative and Reform Jews, except for a sprinkling of relatives who fell into those camps. Someone who was not Jewish at all, one of the “goyim,” took on immense fascination. Tina Bonetti (not her real name) was the mother of the only Italian family on the block and therefore the designated Shabbos goy for an entire street. I would need to wander over to her house on an occasional Friday night, for example, if my mother had forgotten to turn down the oven.
“The oven is extremely hot,” I would say, or “the lights in the basement won’t go off,” never asking explicitly on the off chance that, unbeknownst to us, she was Jewish and I was therefore asking her to perform a transgression. She would open the door in jeans, her blond frosted hair in curlers, and greet me warmly, ready to serve. I had not up to that point seen a middle aged woman in jeans and she fascinated me. My experience, by virtue of the Orthodox exclusivity where I was growing up, rendered those I had little contact with “the other” much as it was supposed to. Even products advertised on TV that were forbidden to us seemed exotic and bit strange. Twinkies, for example and anything Sara Lee.
My young adult life found me in Israel for five years where “the other” became Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. As a 19-year-old student at Hebrew University, I patrolled the perimeter of the French Hill dorms with an Israeli. He wielded the gun, I the flashlight. There was little interaction in those days between the Palestinian and Israeli students at Hebrew U. The only Palestinians we knew were those who hung out at the famous left wing cafe in the center of town, Ta’amon and at Beit Haomanim, the Jerusalem Artists’ House. An Israeli friend was dating a Palestinian but they could not find a place to live comfortably and were equally harassed in Israeli apartment buildings and Arab villages. In Israel, I distinctly experienced what it was to be part of the majority. Continue reading
Perhaps after I was born, someone sneaked into the hospital nursery and instead of snatching me, stood above me and whispered, “May You Have an Interesting Life.” The motives of this person would not have been clear, nor their intention – blessing or curse. But “interesting” is pretty much a guarantee for anyone who understands early in their life that they have been born into a world that is not their world; that they will need to exit and go forth from what they have known into the babel of many other tongues, satchel on their back, at any given moment looking both forward and back. We who have done so will forever have the understanding, the language of the insider while willingly – no desperately – at all costs – wanting to be outside.
I have not yet read Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir but when I first read her novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, certainly inspired by her strange and interesting life of having been adopted into a family of evangelical Christians, I felt that I had found my sister. The extraordinary writer, Kate Wheeler, whose past includes a stint as a Buddhist nun in Burma, has a magnificent short story collection entitled Not Where I Started From. That would be an apt title for a memoir, should I ever decide to write one.
Like Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander, I emerged from an Orthodox upbringing and am, in fact, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. Emerging and carving my own path was certainly fraught and difficult and cost a villa in the south of France worth of therapy, but it has also provided me a certain literacy in multiple points of view and in worlds that don’t typically meet and if they do, they are not always friendly.
For starters, we were Ashkenazic and my father was rabbi of a Sephardic shul. And so I grew up with a foot in each world and the very different values and priorities of those two worlds played out in my life in various ways. As a child, I knew Meir Kahana personally (he was married to my mother’s first cousin) but only a few years into adulthood, in Israel, ended up working for a left wing member of Knesset. I found myself coming to feel strongly about territorial compromise and a two-state solution while being intimate with the world of settlers. Three years ago, when my son was sixteen, I took him to Israel for his first time. I didn’t relish a trip to the West Bank, where my relatives lived, and so my sister-in-law, whom I love and respect very much despite our divergent views, concocted a five-day trip through the north of Israel. I should stop here and let you know that my brother was killed in the first week of the second Intifada and that my sister-in-law has spent the years since single-handedly raising seven kids. She told me that all of the kids, including my two married nieces’ husbands, would be coming. I assured her that I had brought my most modest bathing suit.
“Bathing suit?” she said and laughed.
The first day of our trip, my relatives made a point of finding banks of the Kinneret that were deserted, and hidden pools and parts of the Jordan river where we could pretty much be on our own. In blazing heat by the Kinneret I watched as she and all the girls meandered into the water in their clothes. (There was apparently no such restriction on the men!!!) There was no choice. I could remain outside and bake or cool off in my skirt and top. After three days of swimming in my clothes (I will state what some of you are thinking – yes there is an absurdity as clinging wet clothes are not exactly modest), I got used to it. One day a secular couple wandered into the area where we were swimming. The woman was pale and in a bikini and it stopped me. All that skin suddenly seemed superfluous. Distracting.
While I glibly tossed around story titles in my head like “My Vacation with Extremists,” on another level, what I was coming to understand was the embarrassment of riches I’ve been given in terms of a passport to cross the borders of such radically divergent worlds.
Most of my stories begin with an image or a line that arrives whole and I follow it into the dark, as if with a headlamp and supplies for a long trek, seeking to illuminate what lies in front of it, to the sides, or in the way of back story, behind.
But two stories announced their form first. One of these was “Cul de Sac,” which came to me as a theme with several variations. I imagined it as a collection of stories that loosely shared a theme, only in miniature, and envisioned these miniature narratives all woven into one short story. The relationships between the characters and the various story lines, which involved betrayal and loss, would emerge with the writing. Instead of bridges or a chorus, the pieces would be tied together in a Coda. I knew this early on.
The other, “Waltz on East 6th Street,” arrived as a Triptych and hence its three panels. While I knew the general questions I wanted to tackle, I had no idea at the outset what each “panel” would comprise.
Once I accepted and grew comfortable with the fact that for this story, the form was an important element, there was a much deeper challenge. I found myself, as I’m sure other writers and artists have, asking myself if I had a right to write this story, to even touch Holocaust material.
I am not a child of survivors. I did however grow up with many – perhaps a third to a half of my friends were children of survivors, as were many of our Jewish day school teachers. Sixth grade Talmud class would cease mid-discussion as, without any warning, something would suddenly trigger our teacher to begin a story of what he’d endured. Though we barely talked about it amongst ourselves, we all knew there was a profound difference between the parents of our American born friends and the survivors, and consequently there was a difference between us.
Those of us born to American parents seemed innocent, naive, tabula rasa. Where the stakes were high in terms of how we did in school, which spouse or profession we chose, it was clear that they were not quite as high as for our friends who were children of survivors. The Holocaust was extremely present in our day school education, from the guest speakers to the many films we were shown from the early grades on. And so it would seem that there was nothing left to wonder about. But there was everything to wonder about.
Except in the case of our sixth grade teacher, it was in whispers and innuendo that we learned of people’s histories. And one never knew where the kernels of truth lay. The true stories of the people around us were not always discussed. We might know some salient detail: “So and so can never eat blended food because of the rations in the camps” or “so and so was the sole survivor in his family.”
It was later, when I read books by survivors themselves, Ilona Karmel’s An Estate of Memory and books by Primo Levi, that the details began to take shape, and as any writer or reader knows, it is the details that bring a story to life.
It was when those details became vivid that a question began to take shape for me in a new way: How did one survive? And I don’t mean the logistics or details of what they might have had to do to survive – which was, to my mind, quite beyond my ability or right to judge, but rather how did the spirit survive in the face of such multiple trauma? And then an associated question - Did we have a right to ask our questions? Did survivors who chose to remain silent not have a right to their silence? Did we want to risk an unraveling of the very weave that enabled them to continue?
These are the questions that animate “Waltz on East Sixth Street.”
As writers we often don’t know what we know until it’s on the page. Similarly it was only when looking back at this story and at “Cul de Sac,” that I understood that, of all my stories, perhaps it was these two that had declared their form first because the material they contained was so painful, I had to be sure of its containment before I could begin.