It wasn’t lost on me, mother, that this year on the anniversary of death, you had been gone eighteen years, Chai in your beloved Hebrew, a lifetime for me, having never met you save in the half of my genes you implanted in me when I was implanted in you.
As you aged, alone, did you wonder what became of the closest family you had after your parents were interred in the soil of Charleston? Did you ever regret not knowing, or were you comfortable that the Jewish Family Service Agency would make a selection of which you would have approved had your approval been sought.
You have grandsons and greatgrandchildren who will mourn me, carry my memory forward, but know that I do the same for you, and you never aged a day from that one when the photographer took your college yearbook photo, a grainy copy of which is tucked in my wallet and heart.
As a child I lived next door to a calendar, but not the kind mother always hung on the wall next to the refrigerator, two, one for school events and the obligations attendant on parenthood and the other for holidays, and adult social events, the important one she’d say when she thought we couldn’t hear. My calendar was Mrs. Kanutsu, the woman next door, or more accurately the aromas that would waft from her kitchen foretelling the Greek Orthodox holiday about to arrive, only a few hours after she insured that I approved of her latest creations, all of which were replete, redolent with spices my mothers would never dare use. I liked Christmas most of all, even though I was wholly Jewish then, for it meant she would let me help make the phyllo, knowing I would soon enough be rewarded with a large piece of baklava that strangely never seemed to make it all the way next door
Aunt Tzipporah hated her name, detested it really, came closer to the truth. “What the hell were my parents thinking?” she said, “like being Jewish in West Virginia isn’t going to be hard enough. On a good day I got away with being Zippy, but you try spending your Junior year in high school hearing “Hey Zipper” or having some jerk come up to you, cigarette dangling from his lip and saying, “hey, Zippo, got a light?” and you can guess why getting out of state to college, any college, was something I wanted so badly.” I told my aunt I fully understood, and she smiled, “I guess you do. It couldn’t be a party going through life with the name Shadrach Shamnansky.
Third grade, religious school kikes, us, then a backhand raised, drawn, quickly dropped, below a reddened face, sleeve pulled up 145233 in black between elbow and wrist and a tear, perched fearing to fall. Never again, and nothing more, later, same arm ruffling hair, smoke clinging to aging skin, no older when he walked in her arms into infernos then smoke rising slowly as he labored, no more free than on cattlecars shivering in winter. No hell to come, never again, not Juden. Mahogany doors opened on oiled hinges ancient scroll to be touched, here is you, me, us, always on Massada, in Vilnius. Never again kikes, dying only once.
First published in SNReview Vol. 9, No. 2 (2007)
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Even when I was briefly in Edinburgh I dreamed of walking the streets of Lisbon or Porto looking into the faces of older men and wondering if this one was my father. the father I had never seen, never known. Was the one my Jewish mother described in detail to the social worker who took me from her shortly after she gave me life. It is many years later, now, my mother has a face, discovered in the twisting path of a double helix, good West Virginia Jewish stock, Lithuania left far behind. I may someday visit Lisbon, I hear it is a lovely city, but the faces will all be alien to me, and there I will dream of my day touring the Highlands of Scotland, the Isle of Skye, and which of the McDonald’s and McAllister’s might be kin and which Tartan I can now rightfully claim is my own.
As a child, a Jewish child no less, December was always a bit difficult. We had Channukah, which no Jew would dare claim grew solely to compete with Christmas, although we all knew that was precisely what had happened.
The problem was Christmas, but had nothing to do with Jesus, or the church or even its historical teachings about the supposed role we Jews played in that story, a role for which we had been paying for two millennia.
The problem was far more basic, and all you needed to do was drive down virtually any street in any city and it would be at once apparent. Christmas-celebrating homes were decked out in all colors of lights, while Jewish homes, those few who competed, were left with a palate of white and blue, or up to nine candles, and that was a guaranteed for sure last place finish in the December game.
Over the next few weeks I shall step into more churches than is safe for a formerly Jewish Buddhist, but in Europe it seems no tour is complete without one or more churches, at least one of which will be the most beautiful cathedral in all of [choose any country you wish and inserted here.] I will take off my hat, for that is easier than the opprobrium of the faithful, I will stare at the beauty of the stained-glass, try, in some cases, to ignore its message, and hope, beyond all logic, that this group will stop at a synagogue were all of the men and women, save me will have to put on kippot or head scarves and most will vow it will be their last visit do such a heathen place, at least until they get to Antwerp or Amsterdam.
A Palestinian woman tells her son she loves him as he leaves their home
in much the same words as does the Israeli woman to her son. The Palestinian
woman would never consider these words as having anything to do with a young
Israeli. The Israeli mother would be horrified to think of speaking the words
to a Palestinian. They use these words only for their own sons, and only
to hide and calm their own fears. The Palestinian woman fears her son
could be harmed, killed perhaps, by a young Israeli. The Israeli mother fears
her son could be another victim in the Intefada. The young Israeli kisses
his mother and picks up his helmet and Uzi. The young Palestinian heads off
to the bakery where he works, always looking nervously at the border fence.
This Israeli and this Palestinian will never meet. Their mothers will never meet.
Only the words of parents will ever unite them.