My sister and I must have had different parents. I have come to that dubious conclusion not based on genealogy or DNA, but on anecdotal experience. Of course, it isn’t true. Heck, look at our pictures, listen to our identical laughs. Unquestionably, my mother and father were Amy’s parents, too. But when I hear her stories about growing up in the same house as I did, with the same neighbors and the same influences, I often don’t recognize the people, places or events that are so vivid in her memory. And when I tell her my recollections, she helps me out by correcting my errors. After all, she’s the older sister, and knows the truth of our past.
This isn’t a rant on my sister, whom I admire and love. Instead, it’s my acceptance of something I came to realize when I was a young journalist interviewing various subjects. Everybody’s memories are personal mythologies, our creation stories about how we came to be who we are today. So, naturally Amy and I would remember our lives together quite differently. Perhaps if we combined our memories, we would be able to create a mosaic that might come a bit closer to understanding who we are in relationship to each other. And, yes, if we could talk to the dead, to our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and to others who once shared our lives, we could probably paint a more complete picture of our past. But I don’t believe we can ever know with absolute certainty the fine details – the facts – of what happened on a certain day, whether it was 25 years ago or just last month.
That’s why I question shelving memoirs into the non-fiction section of a library or book store. Apparently, David Black, the author of An Impossible Life, agrees with me. Why else would he have given that piece of magical realism the subtitle a bobeh myseh, which is a Yiddish phrase that translates as an old wives’ tale, an untrue story or something of little consequence?
An Impossible Life is a brilliant pastiche of Black’s family history, based on his memories, relatives’ oft repeated tales, Jewish heritage and folklore, a touch of Kabbalah, and references to the Torah, with the holes filled in by his imagination. The most prominent figment is his dead father, with whom Black has an ongoing conversation throughout the book. The novel weaves these various threads into a colorful tapestry that extends from modern times back through the Holocaust, to the shtetl, all the way to the biblical Patriarch and Matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar). But it’s Black’s hard-nosed, sometimes angry, other times grudgingly tender perspectives that cut through it all, making his fictional accounts closer to truth – or at least, his personal truth – than most fact-anchored non-fiction could.
I understand that Black is currently developing a theatrical play based on An Impossible Life. Given his track record as an author and scriptwriter, whose career has been peppered with accolades, including Emmy and Pultizer Prize nominations, he certainly has the chops for it. And I look forward to seeing the story made flesh on the stage. However, a part of me would rather this fascinating cast of characters remained sequestered in my mind, where they might gestate and grow, until they and their impossible lives become part of my personal mythology.
[Note: My short story The Broken Bottle explores how personal mythology (especially related to a traumatic experience) can change over time.]
Four years ago today, my Dad passed away in his sleep at the age of 99 1/2; as usual, he had fallen asleep while reading an ebook on his smart phone. I will miss his big smile and loving presence for the rest of my life. Below is an exhibit blurb I wrote about this picture, for him, about him, about us, soon after his death.
Blessing L’Chaim To life To love To continuity of blood and love and life
I created this photograph on the occasion of my father’s 95th birthday, which was also the day of his first great-grandson’s bris. Of the many photographs I have taken, this one frozen moment has the greatest timeline, pulling at my heart with memories that go so far back and so far forward that they can exist only in my imagination, spanning far more than a single lifetime.
Generations created this moment, as I composed the image and pressed the shutter button. Generations I can know only from stories told by those who came before and are no more. Generations yet to be, whom I will never meet, but whom I hope will remember the stories told by this picture.
I was searching through my files this morning for a some notes from a trip I once took to Sable Island, a tiny spit of land in the North Atlantic. As I shuffled file folders and piles of papers, I found this poem, which I wrote at a time of personal upheaval.
I remember picking up my pen, to try to understand the difficulties I was encountering; writing is how I deal with crises or confusion. And on that day — February 18, 2014 — I found deep within me the voices (and hopefully the strength) of all the women who came before me. They are still there, in my mind and my spirit, in my words and my art, a gift of love and continuity.
I’m a Daddy’s girl. I always was; I always will be. That’s not to say that I didn’t love Mom. In fact, I trace my storytelling lineage – perhaps the most integral aspect of who and what I am – through her bloodline, not Dad’s. Still, the bond between Dad and me remains deeply rooted.
Dad and I understood each other with no explanations. Yet our discussions helped us to explore ideas in the quest to better understand each other and the world around us. In the car when he drove me wherever I was going (and later in life when I drove him), on our long walks together, during late night snacks at the kitchen table, in his basement lab where he taught me to help him when he was creating braces for his patients (he was an orthodontist), whenever we were alone, we talked. About books we’d read, or movies we’d seen, or people each of us knew… and about his childhood.
I loved hearing the stories of Dad’s immigrant family.
My grandfather Morris and grandmother Anna were from the village of Cherkas in Kiev – in the area known as “the Pale,” the only region of Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. When Morris received notice of being recruited into the Russian army, his older brother Ike smuggled him out of the country on a train. I wish I knew more about that story. (I ache for the details that I’ve lost from those wondrous childhood storytelling sessions.) All I know is that they ended up in Philadelphia, setting a pin in the map for the rest of the family.
Anna was a teenager when she left Cherkas. One day she came home and told her family she’d had enough; she was leaving. She never disclosed what had happened that day that instigated her decision. Dad was convinced that she had been raped by “Cossacks”, which is what all Russians were called by the family back then. (Throughout her life, whenever she heard the words “Russia” or “Cossack”, Grandma would spit, as though warding off the devil himself.) Anna walked from Cherkas, probably to Hamburg, Germany, where she somehow paid for her passage to America, to Philadelphia. Our family has been walkers ever since. The day she died, she went for a walk, then lay down for a rest and never woke up.
I have to let the storyteller in me fill in the vast gaps in my knowledge about Anna and Morris in the old country, and their young family in Philadelphia. Anyone who could have shared what actually happened is now gone, just as the age in which they lived is merely another story that is sometimes told well, sometimes distorted, often both, as any retelling of history is.
One such story is Fiddler on the Roof.
When I was a very young child, my family enjoyed going to Broadway shows. Back then, producers would release “house seats” for sale to the public just a few minutes before the curtain went up. (House seats are those that are saved until the last minute for VIPs such as important reviewers, backers or celebrities, just in case they show up.) My parents would sometimes send me to the box office just before a show was about to start (while keeping an eye on me from the other side of the lobby). I would stretch up on tippy-toe to look over the ledge at the lady behind the grill, and ask, “Do you have any house seats for sale tonight?” How could the cashier resist? And that’s how I got to see some amazing otherwise sold-out Broadway shows with my family – like the first run of Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel.
I remember the wonder of the show, the beautiful music and delightful dancing, and my Dad loving every minute of it. I also remember the family story that Charlton Heston was sitting a couple of seats behind us. (Heston had played Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments” about a decade previously.) So that when Tevye was speaking to God on stage, Zero Mostel would occasionally direct his plaintive cries to Heston.
But mostly, I remember my Dad’s comments afterwards about how the story of Fiddler was his parents’ story, our history. I grew up with the family listening to the LP of Fiddler, and I learned every song by heart. They became part and parcel of my understanding of where I came from, who my people were.
Depending on my time of life, different songs became important points of reference for me – including those from Fiddler. For instance, one that resonated in my early adulthood was Far From the Home I Love, a love song from daughter to father, about leaving, moving forward, yet looking back and treasuring what brought her to the point that she could leave, must leave. My love song for my Dad.
Yesterday, I relived all this in the darkened theater of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, watching the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene perform a new version of Fiddler. As a rule, I don’t enjoy revivals. Whether it’s a movie or a play, I feel that revivals are generally rehashes, and attribute their frequency to the industry’s preference for banking on a proven audience pleaser as opposed to taking a risk on a new creative venture. This was not the case with this remarkable production of Fiddler, directed by Joel Grey.
The new script and lyrics are entirely in Yiddish. For audience members like me who don’t speak or understand Yiddish, supertitles in English and Russian were projected on scrims on both sides of the stage. What surprised me was my reaction to a language I never learned. The Germanic guttural sound of it was a subliminal echo of my grandparents’ voices. Individual words flew through my consciousness, and I felt that I almost understood them. Of course, it was only a word here or there – zei gezunt (go in health) or shayna (nice, pretty) or mensch. I was still dependent on the supertitles to follow the show (except during the songs).
But it was more than the language that was changed. The production has a depth of rich, authentic textures. Visually stark, I felt as though I had a dusty, tear-streaked window view into my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ daily lives – of the emotions, connections, needs and dreams that held them in place, and the horrors that threw them out into a new cold world.
From the first strains of the song Tradition, I had tears in my eyes, remembering my Dad, wishing he were there with me. And for the poignant beauty of what is much more than another Broadway revival. This Fiddler carried me deep into myself, and yet far away to a world that is essential alien to me.
Then, when Hodl (played by Stephanie Lynne Mason) sang Far From the Home I Love to Tevye (Steven Skybell), sobs caught in my throat.
I am not religious, nor was my Dad. I often describe myself as a secular humanist. But I am proud of my Jewish heritage, wrapped up as it is in my love my family, of my relationship with my Dad, of who I am as a person, as a woman, and as an artist. I guess I will strive for the rest of my life to understand what it means when I say, “I am a Jew.” Today, I understand it as an instinctive, emotional and intellectual response to life that I often express in my art and my passions. Yesterday, it was a link to the people who came before me, and to all who have loved, laughed, danced and suffered as Jews have.
As I sat sobbing in that dark theater, I experienced Fiddler on many levels: as a veteran theater-goer, enjoying the consummate acting, singing and dancing – as an artist appreciative of a brilliantly transformed work of art – as a humanist who doesn’t understand hate or cruelty – as a descendent of Jews of the Pale who were forced to leave their homes and make new lives for themselves – as a woman who has lost the people who defined my home and is now learning to make a new life for myself – and as a daughter who was privileged to love and be loved by a father who was wise enough to understand when it was time for me to go off on my own, far from the home I loved.