When I was a kid, every morning I’d watch my father shave from my perch on the rim of the bathtub. After he washed and patted down his face, he’d squeeze body cement onto the bumpy pale wedge where his real ear used to be. Then he’d paste on his rubber ear, which gave his head a nice gluey smell. As for the prosthetic ear, it was unnoticeable, that is, until you noticed it, and then it lent him a curious air, like a man patched together from scraps and pieces.
He’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting his ear to see if he’d placed it well, and then stories about his own life would start coming: the dirt poor Depression years when his mother had to use burlap bags as underwear or diapers; how he learned to wrestle so no one would ever again pick on him because of his ear; the twenty-nine relatives who all lived in one small house in the 1930s, the whole crew subsisting on Grandpa Sam’s single salary as a tailor; how he became religious in his late twenties and so set in motion a generation’s return to Judaism. Later, around the Shabbos table, he told us Hasidic tales and epic scenes from the Bible. Truth be told, it didn’t matter what he was saying. He knew just how to pause to make us yearn for the next sentence. He was a born storyteller. Continue reading
The Bergen Record was coming to my house to do an interview for my new novel. You’d think after having spent years and years writing this book, I’d have imagined this moment, prepared for it, I’d have my patter down, my lines. Ten minutes before they came, I called my husband. “Quick,” I blurted, “tell me again why I wrote this novel.” My husband, a psychoanalyst, replied, “Tell them you wrote it to be closer to your mother.”
I rolled my eyes, laughed, and then I thought, hey, there’s a shtickel bit of truth here. In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist features a Muslim Arab man. My mother grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, which technically also makes her an Arab, even if she’s an Arabic Jew. Here’s the thing, though. Whenever friends meet my mother, they can’t believe we’re even remotely related. She can belly dance with the best of them and hunt down bargains and tchotchkes with a terrifying zeal. In her seventies she is still noticed, still the Casablancan glamour queen. In contrast, I’m happiest at a Chumash class or holed down in front of my computer in a ragged T-shirt. Also, tchotchkes don’t mean a thing to me. She is so out there, and I am so in here, in myself. Conversations were not always easy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Continue reading
It took me years to know that going to the beach had anything to do with being close to the water.
My parents only ever went to the beach when the heat became so oppressive that that staying in the small, three-room cottage we sometimes shared with another family became impossible.
My father worked double shifts in a factory and we usually set off for the beach when he came home, in the late afternoon or early evening. My mother always packed for our outings to the beach. She packed food. Usually peeled cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, cream cheese, a loaf of rye bread and oranges, with the peel already scored in quarters and, if we were lucky, some dark red cherries. She also packed two blankets and two bottles filled with tap water. I would feel giddy with excitement when I saw my mother start packing for the beach.
Going to the beach was a whole adventure. It started with a walk to the tram stop and a forty-five minute tram ride from the working class, inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where we lived. We boarded the tram armed with our blankets and food and drink.
I loved being on the tram. It was so predictable. You sat down, the conductor came around, you paid your fare and he handed you a brightly-colored ticket in return. It was all so normal. And so much of our life was anything but normal. Seven years earlier, both of my parents were still imprisoned in Nazi death camps. Death camps where almost everyone they loved had been murdered.
When we arrived at the beach my mother set us up in the treed, scrubby area that preceded the water. We really needed the blankets as the ground was rough and littered with twigs and broken branches. There were always other people with blankets and food already there. They were mostly Jews. The Italians and Maltese and Greeks and other migrants, who were also part of the large post-World War Two migration to Australia, must have had a different meeting place.
I felt happy as soon as I sat down on the blanket. I loved being surrounded by families. To me, it always felt like a party. It took away some of the loneliness of growing up with dead grandparents, dead aunts, and dead uncles. It took away the loneliness of growing up with cousins who would never be born. Continue reading
My grandfather was a Kohen, which I’ve learned (thanks to Google) means he was a Jewish priest, a descendant of Aaron. I never really knew what he meant when he told me this (repeatedly), when he was alive, only that he had been raised deeply religious. But as an adult, as my grandfather, he was more of a cultural Jew. And this was how I was raised, filtered down even one more generation. As a child, I didn’t attend Hebrew School (though one year I begged my parents to send me, just so I’d have something to keep up with all my Catholic friends who regularly attended CCD). We never went to synagogue. We’d go to Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner at my parents’ friends’ house each year (the only other Jewish people we knew who lived nearby), though I can’t remember my parents ever cooking their own holiday dinners. We celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, of course, but my sister and I only sang “The Dreidel Song” as we lit the menorah.
My grandparents lived six hours away when I was growing up, and we only saw them a few times a year, but whenever we did, it was my grandfather who would remind us about being Jewish. As a kid I’d roll my eyes when he’d tell me that I’d care more about my religion when I grew up, when I had kids of my own. I couldn’t understand what he meant. His version of religion, by that point, was socializing at the JCC and reading The Jewish Chronicle. He also was fond of calling all us Bubbelah in public – an endless embarrassment to all the cousins in our teenage years.
My grandfather died almost five years ago, so he never got to see what happened when my children got old enough to talk, to start asking me questions. (Why doesn’t Santa Claus come to our house? My youngest son swore it was because our house didn’t have a chimney. . .). It was around this time that I started to understand what he meant, about religion feeling more important to me when I got older and had kids of my own. I didn’t suddenly start attending synagogue or learning Hebrew, but I did suddenly feel the need to teach my children about where they came from. I read them books about the Jewish holidays and cooked dinners for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I bought a children’s version of the Haggadah so my oldest son could read from it at age four, when he was a budding reader, and I helped my youngest son memorize the four questions to recite. My husband, who is also Jewish and was raised more religious than I was, taught all of us the Hebrew prayer to say when we light the menorah, which we now sing in addition to “The Dreidel Song.”
When I was writing Margot, I did a lot of research about the Holocaust and the Frank family. But some of what I had to learn had to do with aspects of being Jewish that I never really learned growing up. At times I felt a little bit like an imposter, wondering if I really had it in me to write about being Jewish, when I was still figuring so much out for myself. But as I researched and wrote, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather. If he were still here now, I can just picture him saying, I told you so, Bubbelah.
In New York City, in our Upper West Side apartment, my little brother and I watched my father act out the events and characters of his youth in British Mandate Palestine. He was a pantomime by trade and a teacher of physical acting, and when he told a story he didn’t just relate it with words— he performed it with every muscle in his face, with every physical gesture in his vast repertoire. And even then, though I thrilled and laughed at his exploits, I suspected that perhaps there was something exaggerated, slightly of the grotesque, in his portrayals of the multifarious denizens of that remote, ancient city; a city on the one hand so tiny and provincial, on the other so vast and timeless and redolent of eternity. A city against whose harsh, stony face the human dramas enacted by my father stood out in sharp, colorful relief, like a commedia dell’arte performance. Tragic, hilarious, and surely daubed with a huge dollop of fancy.
Then my parents would pack up for the summer and we would fly to spend several months with my father’s family in Israel… Get in the taxi from Tel Aviv and make the hour and half drive up to Jerusalem… Arrive at the corner of Jaffa Street across from the shouk, where my uncle lives with his huge family in the house that my great grandfather built over half a century before, in the precincts of what was then British Jerusalem… Get out of the cab, and breathe the suddenly dry, elevated air… Take in the sunlight glowing pink on the stone buildings, the strange, grotesque faces and postures of the city’s colorful, multifarious denizens… and then… realize, once again… that it was all true.
The truth of my father’s every gesture, every exaggeration, every outright lie, was borne out by the details of the real city I found myself in. And when I wrote this story I tried to put myself in my father’s shoes, as he told stories to my brother and me in our little apartment in New York City— mimicking voices, adopting postures, prancing, slouching and posing. Recreating what was into what is.
I always begin like this, with Irv, my grandfather, and then I describe him, An angel on Earth, never another like him. I repeat this as I have been told, though he died long before I was born. I used to think about his life as a tree with roots reaching far into the future and encircling the past. Irv is my namesake, a hard act to follow. I can still hear my grandmother telling me at night, May you live as he did and be just as blessed. May you see those who are unseen, and hear those who don’t speak.
What she meant, I learned later, were the stories of my grandfather, and more, of the people he knew. I’m told that when my relatives sat shiva for Irv, who died suddenly at 46, leaving a young wife and two daughters who would mourn him forever, strangers came from near and far to share untold memories of him—the gifts he bestowed, the countless lives he saved, the support he’d offered through money, counsel, friendship, always without judgment and without any fanfare. He was not rich, but comfortable. As a child, I thought him a saint, before his frailty and humanness appeared to me. Still, there was a divinity about his connectedness—to the wanderers and those who found themselves caught in moments of fracture. Today, I think about how difficult this must have been for him to embrace it all, given his own complicated and pressured life. Continue reading
We grew up with my mother’s special brand of religion: Eccentric Judaism. My two older brothers and I were allowed to eat shrimp and lobster, but we wouldn’t dream of tasting pork. On Saturdays we weren’t allowed to write or spend money, yet that was negotiable, depending on our circumstances. We spent six years without a home, moving from hotel to hotel in Manhattan, always short of money. So there were times when, given that we often didn’t have a kitchen, we’d spend money on Shabbas to get food. Even Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, was malleable. We drank water and fasted until about 2 pm because that’s as long as my mother could take it before succumbing to her appetite. “Life before Torah,” my mother would say, and she invoked it whenever it suited her agenda.
In my recently published memoir, Scattered, I write of losing faith in Judaism in 4th grade, when my class at PS 111 on West 52nd put on a play about King Arthur. I auditioned for the role of Merlin the magician, after my brothers coached me for the part, teaching me to speak in a low voice for maximum gravitas. I landed it, beating out two boys.
My mother nixed it for me though, when she saw me kneeling as I rehearsed in front of the mirror in our hotel room. At the end of the play, everyone had to kneel to King Arthur.
My mother was in town for a few days that summer, babysitting her granddaughter (and my niece), while she had some time off between camp and school starting again.
One day I picked the two of them up and drove them to Brighton Beach, which I prefer over Coney Island mostly because I like being around all the Russians, our people a few generations back, but also because it’s easier to find parking there than Coney Island.
On the beach the man selling sodas from a cooler flirted with my mother. She’s still got it, I thought, which I found encouraging in a narcissistic way. We slathered ourselves with suntan lotion and committed to a time limit of exposing ourselves to cancerous rays. We squinted in the sun.
Whenever I have these moments, when it’s just the three of us, the three generations of women, I like to ask my mother questions about our family history. It’s good to pass on stories. That’s what my whole life is about now, passing on stories to the next person.
That day she told us about a family member that had escaped Russian military service by puncturing his eardrums. This weird tale of cleverness and cowardice did not faze me. In fact, it delighted me. I plucked the detail from the air and put it into the book I was writing the very next day.
My mother and my niece wandered off toward the water and jumped the waves, and then later it was just my niece and myself. The both of us squealed along with the other Brooklynites when the waves crashed around us. My mother watched us. I held my niece’s hand. We were fearless.