My father often told me a story about his older sister Rose and the neighborhood sprecher.
In 1918, my Aunt Rose lay feverish and weak, barely aware of her mother wiping her brow with a cool cloth. Even my Grandma Anna was beginning to lose hope. That’s when they called in the sprecher.
At this point in the story, Dad would explain that sprecher meant “speaker.” I never learned Yiddish, but some of his words stuck; this one particularly. And it has influenced me in more ways than I’d realized.
The sprecher’s role in the Jewish immigrant community was to sit by the bedside of a seriously ill loved one, to hold her spirit within her body with his words, to not let it fly away, to fight death itself with his own spirit.Read More
Some time ago — certainly more than a year — a good friend suggested I read The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado. My friend Tom has impeccable taste in books, music and… well just about anything. So, I immediately bought the book and put it on one of my shelves among the many other to-be-read books in my library.
Let’s face it; one of the facts of a bibliophile’s life is that her library contains an inordinate number of books she is looking forward to reading. (And, of course, she has a library rather than a home, where every spare wall is covered with bookshelves, and scores of overflow books are piled next to her bed, on her kitchen table, in her bathroom and just about everywhere else.)
I’m delighted to say I finally got around to reading Lagnado’s memoir this week. Tom was right; it’s an elegant and eloquent work that absorbed me with its personal poignancy and fascinating universality.
Depending on where the mutable borders were drawn at the time of various births, Read More
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.
The following is an essay I wrote for my old website a few years ago. In the wake of the horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s L’Simcha Tree of Life one month ago — and the the current political atmosphere that has given permission for such hate to come out of hiding and act on it — I find this piece a poignant reflection of the innocence I was once privileged to feel. While the essay is about the Jewishness of my writing, it’s also a declaration of who I am, and reinforces my determination to not be cowed by the haters. And, yes, I still believe that most people are good and kind, and that we can find our way out of this current climate of hate and divisiveness — if we work together.
As I wrote that title, I hesitated. While the statement “I am a Jew” has a proud heritage of defiance and strength, I can almost hear my grandmother warning me, “Be careful, sweetheart, what details you ask others to focus on about you.” But then, she came from a time when being Jewish was a double-edged sword that gave us the protection of belonging to a rich tradition and community, while separating us out for ostracization and exclusion from society as a whole. I’m lucky to not be living in the era of her youth.
Or am I being naïve and foolish? Given the ghettoizing of women writers which implies that somehow our work is not as significant as that of our male counterparts, am I taking a chance by saying that not only I am a woman, I am a Jew? Will I now be relegated to second, or even third-class status in the literary hierarchy? Will I now be considered only as a Jewish female writer? Was William Faulkner “merely” a Southern male writer? Or, Thoreau nothing more than a New Englander tree-hugger? Why is it necessary for me to publicly dismiss my roots, out of fear of having my art and writing less respected?
Such a lovely honor. Yesterday, just before the Yom Kippur afternoon service, Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum handed me a copy of this poem which I had given her some time before, and she asked me to read it near the end of the concluding service. Her request surprised me, because I never thought of the poem as having any religious aspect. (Of course, I was pleased.) When I wrote it, I was thinking about the decisions we make daily about the life we choose to live. She felt it was appropriate for the concluding service of the day. How interesting and rewarding it is to have my work fed back to me, changed by a reader’s interpretation and perception (especially a reader I respect so highly), so that I see it anew. Thank you, Rabbi Peg.
I’m not sure when I last wrote. At least a year. No, it was more like a year and a half, except maybe for a couple of essays and one or two very short poems. I’m not talking about the reviews and features that currently represent the bulk of my livelihood, but my core writing. The novels, stories, poems and essays that reach through my throat into my gut and haul out my voice through my heart.
I write because pouring myself out onto the keyboard is how I have always tried to make sense of a senseless world. I don’t understand the pain we cause each other, the hate, the distortion of love. War and tribalism. Walls between individuals, between tribes and nations, that are built up brick by brick over years of preconceptions and propaganda. So I create stories to try to help me find the right questions to ask that might yet explain the inexplicable. Perhaps, I can also use it to try to navigate my way through the morass of this new world that now envelops me.
I write because through words, through Story, I have long discovered myself. So I shall write with the hope of rediscovery, not of the woman I am or have been, but this new woman I am now forced to become. Without my compass, without the living breathing other soul who lived within me, by my side, facing each morning as a new adventure to be shared.
Where do I start? At the end? That’s one simple sentence. Three words. Daniel is dead. In my novel The Winter Boy, I wrote, “How people die shapes our world.” Read More
I don’t know what I believe about a God. I find it difficult to accept an all-powerful being who is, at the same time, able to dwell in/be the entire universe and, yet, anthropomorphically dabbles in the second-to-second trivia of 5 billion individual human lives on a flyspeck of a planet, when that planet is just one among billions upon billions, in our one insignificant galaxy.
My faith is rooted in the connection we can make when we meet another person, when we hold a child or fully experience a mountain vista.
Yet, I am now part of my temple’s woman’s Torah study group. Not only part of it, but the facilitator for our first session, and our rabbi – Peg Kershenbaum — asked me to write a prayer to start our first meeting. As Rabbi Peg wrote to me, “The traditional prayer begins in the standard way (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe Who sanctified us by commandments and commanded us) and ends ‘to engage with the words/matters of Torah.’ La’asok b’divrei Torah. The word engage is the same word as that used for earning a living or actively plunging into a project or transaction. We roll up our sleeves, flex our muscles and sharpen our intellect and dive into the fray!”
How was I to write a prayer that would be true to who I am, if I don’t really believe in the kind of God that is represented in the Torah? After many hours of conflict and contemplation, this is what I came up with:Read More