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Raised by Jews

Summer reading special: 3rd place fiction contest winner

Along with the cart of groceries, my mother wheels in the jangle and cold breath of the world. This kitchen is her stage, small but crowded with incident, with ingredient: flanken in butcher paper, barley, big brown potatoes, three kinds of beans.

Loose-skinned onions spill from their net, a hairy turnip tips its tail over the edge of the counter. And then, like a gun in the first act, out comes a cellophane bag of candy corn, brash seasonal cousin of licorice whips, sugar-coated peanuts. My mother sighs as she clears a space for the candy on the counter. This is one of those kitchens where you could eat off the floor. It could be a television commercial, except for the speckles on the beans, except for the thick lenses my mother peers through, except that no one in this picture is going to eat that candy corn. Look at the little girl sitting there, staring at the Technicolor sunset candy, her mouth hanging open (adenoids). Look at the long braid down my back, blouse buttoned up to my skinny neck. This is 1966, before Paskesz dreamed up kosher cotton candy. You know I’ve never tasted a candy corn, never eaten anything that particular shade of orange or with quite so many ingredients. So what’s this woman doing, dangling the forbidden artificial colors of the New World before her cholentfed daughter?

My mother, having raised her captive audience, doesn’t have to say a word. Impresario of the chopping block, she dices the onions with a virtuosity that in a better world would meet with drum rolls and applause. In this world I sit, swinging my legs to the rhythm of the knife and the bass line of the Frigidaire. The onions finally sizzling, my mother answers the kettle on the first ring and fills the glasses. For her baby she reserves the heel of the honey cake and a perfect white domino of sugar to go with her story. She breaks off a gooey piece and begins.

“You know what it is today, right?” she asks.

But I don’t. What is it today?

“It’s October, you know that it’s October, no? Almost exactly fifteen years since I came here.”

Having traveled over sea and land to this kitchen, my mother takes the long sip of sweet tea she knows she deserves.

“It wasn’t easy for me, you can imagine, a new bride all alone in this country. Deddy was working hard, not just in the radio, he was traveling, giving speeches, Denver, Cincinnati, who knows where. A man like Deddy people wanted to hear, he had what to say about Israel, about the terrible things what happened in Europe. But it wasn’t easy to get up and go to these places from one day to the next. Of course, he wasn’t a well man then either.”

Notice how we say his name, with two hard “d’s,” the word “dead” lurking in the silliness. Why? Who knows? But make no mistake — there’s nothing silly about the man himself. His absence from this kitchen and the story is important. Everything my mother says about him has its own particular tang, served in every dish she cooks up like the recipes companies put out for their own products. She feeds her family pride in their father, slipping in a pinch of worry, peppered with a bite of resentment to which she’s fully entitled.

“Only a short time I was here, maybe a month, two months. Let me see, I came right before Rosh Hashana and this was the end October, like today. I was by myself in this house where we lived in, in Queens. You remember. So I hear a knock. I don’t know who could it be. In the whole Queens I don’t know even one person. So I go to answer and I open a little the door and I see children, dressed up like Purim, but not really because they’re not Esther and Mordechai, they’re all in scary clothes. One is a ghost with a sheet, and one a cowboy, and one is… with the bones on his clothes.”

“A skeleton?” I ask all those years ago, my voice hushed.

 “Yes, a skeleton. You can imagine, I don’t know what to think, and they say something I don’t understand, ach, who knows what? It could be Chinese even. I didn’t speak too much English then. I was scared what to think they want, these little goyim.”

I gobble the honey cake to show my mother how to talk faster, so she gets past the scary part. This one I’ll get to hear the end, because the end is America. But my mother goes on almost killing me with the way she’s talking so slow, stopping every couple of words for a sip of tea while mine is still too hot.

“Then I see that they’re holding out big bags full of candy like I should take and now I understand — it’s Purim for the goyim. We have it in spring and they have it after Sukkes. I think I shouldn’t hurt their feelings, even though I know it isn’t kosher candy, so I put my hand in the bag and take a little and I put my hand in the other bag and take a little until I took from all the children, not to offend. And then I say a nice ‘Thank you very much’ and I close the door and first thing, I throw out all that hazerei.”

My mother rides her heavy Transylvanian accent on the “Thank you very much,” rolling the “r” like a slow train up a Carpathian slope, hamming up the part for her American daughter. And then she laughs, from the Olympian heights of her fifteen years of experience with the natives.

“So when I was in Waldbaum’s,” my mother continues, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes, “I saw this junk and I thought maybe I should give back some of that candy I took that time. If they knock, we’ll have what to give.”

My mother turns back to the cholent, but that isn’t the end of the matter for me, since I have all the autumn afternoon to circle the candy, ruminating on its relation to food in general and corn in particular. No trick-or-treaters came that evening. Where would they come from, in that neighborhood? You could walk for a mile in any direction before you saw a pumpkin. The next day the candy is in the junk drawer, secure against assault in its protective cellophane armor. And there it sat, out of sight but not of mind, until April, when it was finally swept away in my mother’s pre-Passover assault. They say that we are what we eat, but maybe it’s also true that we are what we don’t eat.

Okay, no trick-or-treaters. But we knew about them. We participated in this great country, we heard of its customs, thrilled to its purple mountains’ majesty. How? Mostly, I think, the Reader’s Digest, which lived in the bathroom. “I am Joe’s Spleen.” Survivors of airplane disasters. Adopters of orphans from ravaged countries. We knew. But did they know us? They should, they should. And so it happened that I sent my mother’s story to the editor of “Life in these United States,” which paid the unimaginable sum of $300. Working on the piece, I stumbled. How to explain? By the third draft, my mother was a non-denominational immigrant from “the Old Country,” grateful for the generosity of the New World. No Purim, no kosher. My mother, in this version, ate that candy and liked it. Looking up from my pad at the dining room table, I saw it unfold: She sat alone in that apartment, eating one candy corn at a time, licking her fingers between each bite.

I tried, reader. To have the story end the way I wanted it to end. To find some way to tell it. To cash in, if you want to look at it that way. One of those tries involved an M.A. thesis, called not “Life in These United States” or even “Death in That Europe” but rather “Varieties of Meaninglessness in Paul Celan and Nellie Sachs,” presented to the Department of Literature at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. This history of mine isn’t non-denominational anymore. Now it’s academic.

Like other university students, I sometimes get on a plane and go home for Christmas vacation. But where I’m going isn’t Christmas, and who could possibly think of Brooklyn in terms of vacation? Who else in this grand mid-December exodus has to do what I’m doing, changing from skinny black jeans to rumpled skirt in the redolent bathroom of the Eighteenth Avenue station? It doesn’t really feel like going home either, since my parents are living in a second-floor apartment I’ve seen only once before, the address buried somewhere in the suitcase I drag down the street, gloveless fingers frozen around the handle and the wind feeling me up under the skirt. The brick row-houses look on, uninvolved, unrecognizing.

I don’t recognize them either. This block was Italian last time I was here, but now it’s drowning in the Jewish overflow from Boro Park, the plaster Madonnas packed up and big wheels and strollers rolled in. Everywhere you look there’s another windblown sukkah jammed into a driveway or perched on a porch. Then I see the last Italian holdout, staunch in the effort to combat cultural isolation, the last Christians in a world of Jews. The birth of the baby Jesus would not go unheralded. Every window shouts its joy, the pine tree lifts its twinkling branches in Yuletide wonder, radioactive-blue deer rhythmically genuflect toward the pavement, along the roof shining choir boys lift pious open-mouthed faces to the purple Brooklyn heavens. Santa Claus commands a view from the porch, waving a plastic hand up and down the street to the black hatters and pregnant housewives, to me. He could be a rabbi, a nice, fat Rabbi, I think, as I always do, and cheer up. What if Jews kept Christmas (kept! I think, observed! Not, for instance, “celebrated”)? There would be laws about how tall the tree should be, where the angels and the pine cones should hang, the sharpness of the tree cutter’s knife, the acceptability of burned-out bulbs. My father, at the ritual meal, would give an ingenious talk on the relationship between the red heifer, poinsettia, and the founding of the State of Israel. Reb Santa would stroke his beard thoughtfully, with feeling. The next two-family house is where I’m headed — I recognize the rusting deck chair on the upstairs porch from bungalow-colony summers.

My mother’s face is confused when she opens the front door. Last time she saw me I had some hair. In the second before she recognizes me I see the face others see, the one not changed by love and watching. But then she beams and hugs me and my stiff arms go around her. Having broken her heart six or sixty times, having let my own shrivel to the size and density of an M&M, it’s the least I can do. Up the steep flight of stairs, the apartment wears garish shades of sea-green, remnants of the Mediterranean culture we’ve displaced to New Jersey. My mother grumbles to my father: “I thought she was the delivery boy from Landau.” My father laughs. My mother shakes her head to her Greek chorus: “Why does he encourage her?”

When I get out of the bath the glasses are on the dining room table, special treatment for the guest. This is where my father spends his time, now that he’s home from wherever it is men disappear to, scribbling furiously on note pads at one end of the table. A black yarmulke, the kind candidates wear in synagogues, sits pointed and shiny on his bald head. He pays no attention to us, otherwise my mother wouldn’t say the things she’s saying. She keeps her eyes on the spoon clinking the inside of her glass.

“You know, I was thinking about those girls in the camp, the D.P. camp I told you about, where I met Deddy. He was already a busy man then, collecting the names of who was alive, who wasn’t. He made a newspaper every day, one short list on one side, on the other side very long ones. You should see how they waited for that paper every morning. Like hot latkes it went.

My mother clinks. 

“The girls?” I prompt. 

“The girls, the men, everyone wanted that paper. But I was saying about those girls, how they would look at me with big eyes. I was the only one with long hair. All the other girls were coming out of the camps and they looked at me like I don’t know what. I wasn’t a skeleton like them, even though I was plenty skinny. In Bucharest we weren’t exactly living like a king. They would come over to touch my hair. Some of them asked why they didn’t cut my hair. You know what they thought. I don’t have to tell you.”

She doesn’t have to tell me. I rub my bristly scalp. My mother sighs and gets up, and then tries to remember where she was off to. “Come on. Just a short Scrabble and then we all go to sleep.” But there’s something I’ve been wanting to clear up.

“Ma, why do we call Deddy Deddy?”

 My father raises his head and then goes back to his page.

 My mother looks confused, “What should you call him?”

 “I don’t know,” I shift uncomfortably. “Tatty?” Tatty was what most of the kids in the neighborhood called their fathers. 

“No,” my mother shakes her head in disgust. 

“Papa?

 “Papa??

 “Daddy?” I venture, feeling foolish. What a strange word,

 Daddy.

 “But that is what we call him — Deddy.”

 “Oh,” I say for as long as it takes me to comprehend.

 “What?” asks my mother, staring at her puzzling daughter.

I shake my head. “Nothing,” and my heart gets a little runny at the edges. No, I conclude, I wasn’t adopted. Look at us. Could there ever have been any doubt? Under my mother’s kerchief (her wig perched now on its sightless Styrofoam head in the bedroom) and my jeans, we’re punched from the same mold: square jaw, round nose, squat peasant calves. What is it that separates us? Nothing as substantial as flesh. Nothing but a truncated vowel, the thud of a consonant. Who says that it’s the word, and not the way it’s pronounced, that’s the basic unit of meaning?

“Come on,” my mother says, giving up on me once and for all. “Scrabble.”

My mother, queen of the New York Times crossword puzzle, master of two-letter printers’ measurements and Vietnamese currency, turns the letters over to hide their secrets. We get to work. Halfway through her third turn the silence breaks. It takes a second to hear:

“‘Tis the season to be jolly,

Tra-la-la-la-la, tra-la-la-la.”

I walk out onto the porch to investigate, and then, suddenly, I’m angry. To hell with Reb Santa. I’m already talking as I lock the door behind me. “I can’t believe it — they have some kind of megaphone or trumpet pointed straight at us. And it’s after ten. Does this go on every night? I’m calling the police.”

My mother peers at the board, counting aloud. “I have 54. It’s your turn.” She puts her hand in the bag.

The wry look in my father’s eye travels straight to my gut. I see myself as he sees me, and it isn’t pretty. The crew cut, the Anti-Defamation League attitude, my American birth — but isn’t that his fault as much as mine, I want to whine. My mother finally catches what’s passing across the table and looks up, “Oh them, they don’t bother us.”

I snort. “What are you waiting for? A pogrom?” We fall into three separate silences. My mother is hurt silent, my father is shrewd silent, I’m defiant silent, but with a squeezed heart. Outside, the Christians hit a scratch and tell us to deck the, deck the, deck the. I turn, stumble into the back room, close the door and with the long practice of adolescence, fling myself on the bed and try to get miserable. But I can’t do it — something’s wrong. Am I too old? Is the room too neat? That’s it. My mother’s gotten into my things, books on the windowsill, clothes on the cabinet. I don’t like this, and then I remember why I don’t. I get up and pull the suitcase from under the bed, searching for a particular balledup sock. I find it alongside its sibling in the top drawer of the dresser, as flat and emptied as my own heart. My goodie-bag, my self-medication, having survived the drug-sniffing dogs and X-ray vision of Indianapolis International, had fallen prey to my keeneyed, sharp-nosed mother. I shut the light and lie down, waiting for the neighbors to pull the plug, my galumphing heart to settle down, my parents to give themselves over to sleep.

Finally, I tiptoe into the quiet kitchen. By the glow of the nightlight I open the junk drawer, the mother lode, where all good things come to rest. Purple-gold buds of Humboldt’s finest glint through the zip-loc baggie, nestled among rusty hardware and out-of-date Jewish Home for the Aged calendars. The refrigerator shifts gears, a radiator hisses. Outside the F train hurtles toward Coney Island, a garbage can rattling after it down the empty street. I close the drawer and sit down, uncannily alert, thinking about what it would feel like to expand my lungs with enough smoke to fill the space in this kitchen, until the walls come close as a warm blanket, until the house fits like a glove, like a shell, like a home.

Naomi Seidman is Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and is currently completing a collection of short stories. Her most recent academic publication is “Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation” (Chicago, 2006)