Showing posts with label .W A I L S. Show all posts
Showing posts with label .W A I L S. Show all posts

Jun 12, 2019

Hell Breaks Loose

I’m in this new building in Jerusalem to observe a Torah class for Crypto-Jews (wrongly referred to as marranos) and to see how I can help two of them with the odds and ends of daily life.

With only five minutes before class Rabbanit Raquel, who is both teacher and guidance counselor, gives me a quick lowdown on Miriam, a young Colombian woman, and her mother, Señora Lopez.

Miriam is doing brilliantly. Her mother (Raquel turns a palm up then down), not so well. She’s terrified as ever and now, she’s also bitter. You understand.”  I’m about to say I don’t understand when Miriam flies into the Rabbanit’s office. I hold my arm out stiffly for a good Anglo handshake. Miriam laughs, hugs me, and leads me by my hand to the classroom. Miriam has long loose hair and bracelets of yellow beads on her chubby wrists. The bracelets click as we rush inside.

In the back of the room at a three seat table Miriam presents me to her mother. Señora Lopez wears her hair in a noose of grey braid. Arms marshaled across her chest, she hears my name, says acidly, “Ud. viene de Nueva York” (“You come from New York”), sighs, and turns away to the desk up front where a pile of books waits with Raquel.

The Rabbanit swaps to reading glasses, bookmarks with her index finger a large tome, and looks up.

“I said last week I want questions, challenging questions. If I don’t get them, I’ll sit down in this chair and stop teaching.”

She points to a void where her chair should be. The class laughs. The class is twenty adults from Latin America, two from Spain, one kid erecting a Lego monster on the Rabbanit’s stolen chair, and me.

I have to concentrate hard as the Rabbanit teaches, in Spanish, the Purim story. Her accent is castellano, same as the professoras who taught us the language in our public high school. Each professora, and most of our class, was Jewish. One teacher, Señora Wislitzsky, took us on a class trip to a fancy Spanish restaurant on Park Avenue, where we ate the rice, shellfish, and pork sausage dish called paella. In our Jewish archdiocese of Flatbush Brooklyn, not a single kid had been taught to abstain from chowing down on that perfectly treif stuff.

Miriam passes me a candy. She takes such fervid, galloping notes our desk shakes, and her mother booms out question after question. She interacts passionately, as though the Rabbanit were discussing today’s news rather than news of nearly 2400 years ago.

“Exactly how much time is there from one part of the story to another?” asks Miriam’s mother. The Rabbanit turns to the white board behind her and bullets and dates the events.

Here’s Esther, unhappy winner of a macabre Miss World contest appalled at her prize – she’s booked to marry the boorish king of Persia. Here’s Queen Esther spilling the beans to her husband and Haman, his prime minister: she is in fact, a Jew. If Haman’s plan to destroy every last Jew goes down, so does she.

Dates are written in red, events in black. I see that Esther hid her Jewishness for five years and think “got it, let’s move on,” but this class of Crypto-Jews, in hiding for five centuries, is stunned. Miriam’s hands fall limply over her pen. Her eyes are fixed on the timeline.

Her mother smacks our desk, then like pistols, fires both index fingers at Rabbanit Raquel. “Why did Esther tell? That king,” she yells, “will bury her on fire.”

I expect the Rabbanit to laugh, to explain that Esther lives, that Purim is joyous, a real holiday. Instead, Rabbanit Raquel picks up her book, marks it with a post-it, closes it, and looks up at Miriam’s mother, “.”

When Miriam whispers to her mother, “It ends well for the Jews” her mother shoots back, “but not for us.”

We break. From a tray onto the snack room table where her mother and I have been waiting, Miriam unloads three lemon sodas and three tall glasses of ice. Her mother holds an icy glass to her forehead.

“How easy it must have been to grow up Jewish in New York” she says. There is jealousy in her voice, and menace.

“No,” I reply.

I ask Señora Lopez how she knew her family was Jewish. Her reply is animated.

“My grandmother lived with us. She spent all day Friday cleaning the house and making sure we bathed and changed into clean clothes. By the afternoon she had a pot of beans and potatoes on our hearth. I wasn’t allowed to touch it. No one was allowed to touch it. On Saturday all my aunts and cousins came for lunch. Only then did my grandmother take this special stew off the hearth and serve us.

“She never ate pork, and she never let us eat it either. In fact we ate no meat. One of my friends from school asked her if we were so poor we could only afford vegetables. My grandmother lied, ‘My belly has never been able to tolerate rich foods, so I never cook it and I never serve it.’ That way no one was suspicious when we didn’t eat pork.

“And our names.” Señora Lopez looks at her daughter. “Outside she was Maria, inside, when the family was alone, we called her Miriam.” She pauses, “A name in our family forever.”

Miriam picks up her mother’s thread. “But we didn’t know what it all meant. I started looking on the internet, and found a rabbi in Colombia. When we told him about the Shabbat stew, he grinned.”

I look around. There’s the Lego kid in his yarmulke. On the streets of Jerusalem every day I see thousands of Jews who wear fun masks on Purim, few who wear the disguises of half a millennium.

Miriam must think I’m bored; she shifts the conversation. “Tell us about New York. To go to sinagoga on Shabbat, to fast on Yom Kippur in the open, to buy matzos in a shop – it’s true, right? In New York you buy your matzos in a shop?”

I don’t know what a volcano I’m leaping into. Stupidly, I tell the women the truth.

“My family never went to sinagoga, not once; we watched TV on Yom Kippur same as every other day. But yes, you could buy matzos in the supermarket, which my mother did. We had matzos and we had bread on Passover – both.”

I tell them more. I confess honestly that I was well educated in the civil rights movement but learned about the holocaust accidentally from a TV show, which made me vomit. I tell them my beloved cousin wonders if she was given a Jewish name. Was her mother? Her father?

This all sounds ponderous to me. I want to entertain the two women with funny stories.

I tell them I had the lead part as the Easter bunny in our elementary school play. In Spanish, I sing for them Here Comes Peter Cottontail. I recall my aunt’s yummy meat and cheese lasagna and confess I still miss that forbidden mix. I tell them that at age twenty-one I made embarrassing mistakes at a renowned rabbi’s Passover Seder, the first Seder of my life.

I am about to tell them the dumb things I did at that Seder when I see that Miriam’s mother has turned the color of lava. And now it’s too late.

It’s too late to explain that’s it’s not our fault. It’s been five generations since anyone in my family knew Purim or Passover; we’re not unusual. We’re programmed to throw away what Miriam's family  has struggled to preserve.

Señora Lopez shakes her ice violently, then bangs her glass on the table and opens her mouth to speak. I brace myself. Now I know, when she does speak, hell will break loose.

Jun 3, 2019

Superman's Gym Bag

I’m just over five feet in kitten heels which is what I was wearing the night Mercury flew past me in a CVS pharmacy in a Brooklyn slum. The man, in muscle, was twice my weight. He ran faster than I drive. But when a cashier yelled “Catch that guy!” I jumped him.

I had him around his alpha neck. In retrospect, it must have been hilarious to see a woman in a velvet cape riding this Hulk piggyback up the makeup aisle, out to the parking lot, and dumped, like Superman’s gym bag, on the blacktop. I was all shook up. I was not  particularly safe living in New York.

A decade later I flashed on that cape as I waited one freezing Shabbat afternoon for my elderly neighbor, Mrs. M., to drain a last drop of Kirschwasser from the only household item to survive her Warsaw girlhood, a red lead crystal aperitif. She had disturbing news before Shabbat from a more elderly friend vacationing in Antwerp. A doctor there refused to treat the woman’s broken rib, because, give him H for honesty, she was a Jew.

“Can you believe it?” Mrs. M. asked. I almost said, “You have trouble believing it?” But she was slumped forward, shoes off, her stockings bunched at the toes. It was no time to get mouthy, and it was not the right time to tell her what just formed in my mind, seemingly from nowhere but in truth subterranean years in the making. I would sell my house. I would pack up my furniture, my books, my clothes, and my cat and I would move to Israel, before I lost the choice.

Late after Shabbat was over I peeked through the shutters. The lights in Mrs. M’s bedroom were still on. I turned up the heat, wrapped myself in heavy blankets, and plopped down to make a list of all the things I needed to do to move my New York body and soul to Israel.

At first I thought the abnormal screams were icicles scraping my windows, until I realized they were coming from further outside. In my bathrobe, with no brains and an old flashlight, I threw open the door to my backyard.

On the winter limbs of my only tree swung three skeletal raccoons, raving, howling, staring me down.

My house was sold to an optimistic young couple who planned to expand it and fill it with children. One morning in early spring I handed them my ring of keys.

Later that night I stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion and handed my paperwork to an immigration counselor from Uruguay. Hysterically, we conducted my State of Israel citizenship interview in Spanish. I signed there and there, received a suitcase full of rainbow writing papers and brochures, and have not left Israel’s tiny boundaries since.

Mar 17, 2019

Heavy Rain

It’s taken five weeks to track Betty from ICU to rehab, until last night after Shabbat our visit-the-sick and elderly (Betty is both) listserv confirmed that her smashed eye and hip are healing. Rehab it is.

There’s only one bus that services her facility from mainland Jerusalem. In a loop it goes, and goes again. Today is the first day of heavy rain. The bus shelters in Israel are made of tiny grille work, so you can watch for your bus. The rain ricochets mud through the grille onto my face. The kid who spent every summer at Brighton Beach finally acquires freckles. There’s something odder. It takes me time to find my glasses but when I do I see it. A doorless red booth with a bygone phone and a woman, leaning against its wet glass, speaking Russian on her mobile.

The rehab ward clerk tells me Betty’s room number in English, and although it’s only an easy left she gesticulates as if I will be walking to Lebanon. I arrive at Betty’s door just as it’s closing behind a twinkly nurse’s aide, who, pulling on hospital gloves, polls the patient, “You made pee-pee? It’s okay, it’s okay.”

Two men in scrubs wait too. One is necklaced by a stethoscope and carries a chart. The other pushes a cart of tubes and tubing, a phlebotomist. The phlebotomist is Arab, I can tell by his accent and red gold wedding ring. Both are chumming away about, this I do not miss, kiduri regel – soccer, which annoys me. Is Canada not the second most humongous country in the world? Is hockey, therefore, not more important than playing basketball with your feet?

As I’m framing my case in Hebrew, Stethoscope is paged and rushes off. Wedding Ring exchanges seats with a newspaper, holds it up, and reads.

Page one center features the female Arab doctor in Cleveland. I’ve read what she threatens to do to Jews. Having an Arab read it three feet away makes me feel, who knows why, embarrassed. I watch Wedding Ring’s response. The lines and colors on his face shift, from engrossed to bewildered, to appalled.

The door to Betty’s room opens. The perky nurse’s aide says coast is clear and tells him something that must be funny. Wedding Ring looks up at her. She asks him slowly, “Do you feel sick?”  He says nothing. He covers his face with his hands and with the downward gravity of despair, slumps in his chair, like a patient not in rehab, but hospice.

Dec 17, 2018

No Chance

1.
Tuesdays I volunteer to teach English to tenth grade kids.  For breakfast before I catch the bus to their school I’m having an egg, yogurt, and a YouTube harangue from an American university freshman. The interviewee jack-hammers her dogma: no one she deems a fascist has the right to speak on her campus. She makes quite clear that top ranked among fascists would be me, Lady Occupier of Jerusalem. Her hair is different, but her indoctrinated speech, her militant pitch, I heard decades ago, my freshman year.

The introduction to my campus was an oily, torch lit rally against the university administration by students masked, outlaw style, in paisley scarves. They chanted damn the fascists close it down, damn the fascists close it down.

A leader of the march was Paul; grad student in philosophy, Jew, and the boyfriend of my roommate Margo. The school did not close down, and the next weekend I found myself standing next to Paul, paisley snaking from his belt loop, waiting for the next spin in a night of international folk dancing. With the last stomp of a Balkan line dance (felt boots, sash, fur cap), the emcee queued an Israeli song. Paul said, “Oh ick,” lit a cigarette, studied its dirty smoke, and finished his thought, “There is no Israeli folk dancing. It’s all stolen from real cultures.” 

I was too green, too cowed to reply. It would be years before I’d learn that a likeminded European fascist, who pruned all but two twigs from Paul’s family tree had said, propemodum, the same thing.

Now Paul’s analogue, this woman on the internet, laces into me; me with spilled yogurt and icy feet, my socks having slipped off and gone missing in my little apartment in Israel.

2.
The door to Natalia’s English room is locked. I grab a chair and sit in the hallway. A collection of female teachers and students is entertaining a chubby bruiser of a baby. They hand him around, make him say goo-goo words, and coo when he does. Here comes Natalia. The whole school wears sweats and jeans but Natalia dresses for winter Pushkin style, in slate cashmere and jet beads, with a bracelet of dozens of tinkling keys. 

“Whose baby is this?” she asks. 
A student kisses Bruiser’s fat cheek. “Ours,” she replies, and hands him to Natalia. Natalia makes a fish mouth and pumps the baby’s cheeks, “Do like this.” The whole group goes goldfish. When Bruiser gets it, his fan club goes wild.  

Two things happen as Natalia carries the baby to me. First, my face, a smiley emoji, is about to crack. Second, a male teacher, short with a short beard, shouldering a stuffed brief case on one arm and a diaper bag on the other, locks up the science lab, spots his son, and beaming, accepts his baby from Natalia’s arms.

Two of my favorite kids pop up around me. They pick up cold from our lesson last week; we are learning comparative and superlative.

Maya, a large boned girl, the tallest kid in the class, says. “I have decided,” she says, “The best job for me will be to program computers.”

Daniel, whose hooded eyes make him look sleepy but whose brain wins marathons, pushes aside his long bangs. On his third finger he wears an onyx ring engraved in silver with a Magen David.

“Computers? I’m a technophobe. That would be my worst job.”

“What would be your best?” I ask, amazed at this kid’s vocabulary.

“My best would be to get married.”

Maya rolls her eyes. “Getting married is not a job.”

Daniel yawns, “It would be for my wife.”

I’m caught between needing to teach and impatient to know how these kids think. “Comparative! Superlative!” I insist.

“It would be the very worst job for my wife because she’d have to do the maximum amount of work. I will do the least. Is that how you say it?”

“You have the least choice in the matter Daniel,” says Maya. “You will be an engineer or your father will be most happy to kill you.”
She’s put her finger on some button because Daniel starts to retaliate, but Olga’s keys clang, her door opens, and in Hebrew she says something to my duo that scoots them inside.


Throughout each lesson, from day one, I’m aware of how much I love these kids. Today I’m also aware how the world will rip them apart.  I get through the hour with the fake energy of a depressed comic. When the bell rings, I make believe I have to sneeze and bury my face in my hands.

3.
Instead of a direct route to the bus stop, I detour through a weedy park. Its hills remind me of a small Riverside Park, except here no one will crack a bottle and lob it at my head.  

At a turn near the sliding pond I give up and drop onto a bench. I cover up my mood by making believe I’m consulting my cell phone. An elderly couple, the woman steadied by her husband’s arm, asks me in Hebrew if I need help. I say I’m looking for a bus. They ask me, which number? and I say randomly, fifteen.  They sit on either side of me, pull out their phones, and find apps with all the gazillion bus lines in Israel. They say, “One second, one second. We’ll find it.” They click this key and that, “One more second; almost got it.”

I want to tell them not to be kind. I want to tell them that Bruiser will not grow up, that Daniel will never marry, that my duo, living in this country the world detests, will not live long enough to have jobs. I want to tell them that none of us has a chance. I sob.  

The woman pulls me to her, tight and close. “Why are you so worried?” she asks. “We’ll find your bus.” 

Sep 17, 2018

Gun Up Close

The weather system in Israel is summer. In late October when the temperature drops below 80, parents bundle kids in winter jackets. After the first rain, the smallest toddler wears winter boots, sometimes a scarf.

In Ulpan (intensive speed Hebrew class), a woman from Sao Paolo sits to my left and a troupe of refugees from Lyon to my right. When Gabrielle is called on to recite she sounds like soft slippers turning tiny pirouettes. Translations between Brits and Yanks conflict. What is a car bonnet? Why would I need the services of a clark? Outside, winds kick up; strong rains follow.  Instinctively, we students, from myriad natal cities with apposite weather systems, applaud. 

Shabbat afternoon the cobblestones are wet, but that doesn’t stop the guys in my courtyard from shooting hoops. A ball is on the rebound from the backboard. The shooter leans back in wait. It’s silent. I’ve caught the universe in microseconds of suspense.

I knock on Annie’s door. She’s new to Israel, new to widowhood; new to the breathing machine beside her armchair. For now, she’s staying with her daughter’s family. Annie raised her kids in L.A., her grandchildren are Sabras.  One grandson, Levi, is home from the Army for Shabbat. He sits on the couch close to his newly married sister. They disagree about the English translation of a newspaper article. I catch only a few words, but clearly the sister is winning. 

Other grandchildren and Annie’s son-in-law come into the living room, groggy from their Shabbat naps. Her son-in-law buttons his cuff links and tells Levi to get ready for mincha, the afternoon service. Levi’s sister punctuates the air with a final point. Levi rises, stretches, and asks his father if he should bring his machine gun to synagogue. The father considers, then nods and answers quietly, “Yup. Good idea.” The two men leave.

I have never seen a gun up close. A reaction, ten reactions, must be coloring my face because Annie is looking at me carefully. She’s a lovely, slim lady, with bright, kind eyes. She takes my hand and tells me a story from the past year of Levi’s military service.

Last winter and summer he was stationed in a hot zone – under heavy shelling, rockets, the whole works. Levi got few breaks for Shabbat and no leave for his sister’s wedding, shocking in Israel.

Annie’s daughter, Levi’s mother, would drowse at her kitchen table but she could not lie down to sleep. As night wore on, the tick of the clock above the stove, the flash of the shiny timer on the microwave, the hum of the freezer, advanced on her like assassins. This is how Annie’s daughter lived the entire time her son was in combat.

One Friday afternoon, exhausted, her hands wet from preparing for Shabbat, Levi’s mother answered a soft rap at the door. Pitom, surprise, it was her son, in uniform, armed with the same equipment I just saw leave for synagogue.

“Levi” she repeated, over and over, sobbing, then crumpled to the floor. Levi settled himself on the ground by his mother, saying nothing until she recovered.