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.