Archive for January, 2008

I have complete confidence in you!

immigration When I made my nightly call to my parents, I interrupted them while they were watching a TV show about Jewish immigration in the early twentieth century. My father answered the phone.

“Go back to your show,” I said.

“It’s not important,” my father said.

“Are you feeling OK?” I asked.

“I feel good.”

“I’m happy to hear that. Is the show good?”

“Yes, but don’t worry. You’re not interrupting. Is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine. Except I was crazy enough to get talked into taking a computer science class. I hope I don’t fail.”

In the thickest Yiddish accent possible, my father said, “I have complete confidence in you!”

We both recognized his comment as something a typical American father might say to his typical American daughter. What, now at age eighty-three, my father has learned to talk like a supportive therapist? We both laughed.

I chatted with my mother for a few minutes too. The day after tomorrow, she is giving a talk to junior high school students about her experiences during the war. My mother loves the rapport she builds up with the kids. “I was your age when I lost everything,” she tells them. In a voice of complete sympathy, she asks them, “How would you have handled something like that?”

The children often hug her when they leave the room. Later in the week, their teacher has them write thank you notes to my mother, and to my father, who can never bring himself to prepare remarks as my mother does. Some of the letters can break your heart. One twelve-year-old black boy wrote that he wished he could always take care of my mother.

Hob a gite nakht,” I tell my mother.

“Sleep well and stay warm!” she says.

Another day, another night. They are why I remember to pray at night. I cannot believe a wretch like me came from the best people God ever made.

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Everyone’s doing it, so me too!

Campaign buttons  How can Hillary Clinton possibly go up against Dionysus?

What qualifies me to mouth off about the presidential campaign? I don’t volunteer for any of the candidates. I don’t donate that dollar on my tax form to the U.S. campaign system. I have never seen any of the current presidential candidates in person, except for a highly adversarial Rudy Giuliani, whom I saw in the early 1990s at a town hall in Riverdale, New York. And I think I drove past Bill Clinton on the Saw Miller River Parkway one morning. All the cars around his slowed down to take a look, so maybe it really was him.

OK, nothing qualifies me to predict this early in the game — after Iowa and New Hampshire — what the final runoff will look like.

I’m calling it for Barack Obama vs. John McCain. Maybe Michael Bloomberg will play the spoiler.

Why not Hillary Clinton? You can dredge up all the negatives against her: She’s not a big proponent of transparency in politics. At least she wasn’t when she headed the healthcare commission during her husband’s first term. She cosied up to Yasir Arafat’s wife: A big no-no for Jews who care about Israel. She has that awful, flat, hectoring style of talking. She just aggrandized the role of LBJ over MLK during the civil rights era. Dumb, especially for a woman married to the first black president.

Mrs. Clinton managed to win in New Hampshire because the registered female Democrats got worried. A lot of them, I think, were leaning toward Obama. They might have figured, “I’ll vote for Obama, but the other women can vote for Hillary.” After Iowa, when, maybe, plenty of Iowan women figured the same thing, the women in New Hampshire freaked out. If they didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, who would? So they did.

Meanwhile, I think Hillary Clinton could embrace transparency, eschew extremist Palestinians and be generally more likeable and she still wouldn’t be able to best Obama. I wish this weren’t true, but I think no strongminded woman can go up against a handsome, charming man like Obama and expect to be victorious. Obama is Dionysus. People, especially women, are going to flock to him. They’re going to throw themselves at him.

Right now the only candidate who has a chance of beating him is John McCain. True, McCain doesn’t have Obama’s physical presence — did you ever notice his  71-year-old gut? True, he doesn’t have Obama’s “people-person” abilities. You can’t take your eyes off Obama. You can take them off McCain.

But McCain’s obvious trump card is his experience. Except for Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, I never even heard of any of the candidates involved in this presidential race until they announced they wanted to run. Mike Huckabee? Sorry. Never heard of him ’til about three months ago. John Edwards? Only knew him because he ran for VP last time around with John Kerry, another guy I had never heard of until he ran for president. Mitt Romney? OK, I knew he had some kind of connection to George Romney, a name I remembered from my childhood. The point is, none of these figures had any real national stature. And when they end up dropping out of the race, you won’t ever hear from them again. I hadn’t heard anything from Kerry until a few days ago when he threw his support, for what it’s worth, to Obama.

McCain is different. McCain-Feingold means campaign finance reform. McCain the former prisoner of war means a man who overcame personal suffering to become a political leader. Has the man ever said and done anything stupid? Definitely. Like the time he went to Iraq with an entourage of flak runners and military personnel and declared that he felt completely safe walking around Baghdad. I was embarrassed for him.

The thing about McCain is that he didn’t recede into the political fog once he had to leave the race the last time around. He kept his name out there without making himself a nuisance. He has thought through his ideas and sticks to them, even if they’re not popular. Not everyone’s going to agree with him about Iraq, where he thinks we’re going to be stuck for a long time. He doesn’t talk about bringing the troops home because he knows we can’t do that. And he seems to be for some kind of an amnesty program for illegal aliens. Most people don’t like the idea that immigrants who slipped into the United States illegally would get a free pass in a McCain administration, but most people also understand that our economy cannot run without the landscapers, dish washers and sweatshop workers who take on the low level jobs North Americans don’t want.

McCain is a homely old man who strikes me as sensible and politically skilled.

Obama is a devilishly handsome guy who strikes me as inexperienced and naive.

Hillary Clinton will not win against either one of them. The sad thing is, if I’m wrong, I probably won’t have the sense I was born with to keep my political opining to myself!

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Par-tay, if you can stand it!

Life of the party Do people really enjoy hobnobbing at parties?

The last time I went to a party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was in my twenties. Well, wait, there was one time in my thirties I went to a fundraising party for Tikkun, where I got to hear some literary luminaries talk about creating a progressive Jewish magazine, and where I saw Michael Lerner expatiate about, well, I don’t remember. I know he talked for a long time and said he had just shaved off a very big bushy beard because it was scaring all the eligible women away. But other than that, I had not been to a party since my twenties.

So, when a writer-pal of mine invited me to his housewarming party on West 108th Street, I wagged a stern finger at myself and urged myself to go. I implored my friends Andrea and Charles Rabinovitch to come with me. I couldn’t see walking into a place where I might know only a couple of people, if that. I am incredibly maladroit.

“You’re going to owe us big time,” they said.

Here I was, well past forty, thinking the way I used to think before I went to parties long ago: Go. Tonight may be the night you meet the love of your life. If you don’t meet him, maybe you’ll make a literary contact. Those things never happened. Never, not once.

Why, then, do I persist in believing — to paraphrase Samuel Johnson — that hope will triumph over experience?

Michael Suarez, one of my Fordham University literature professors, once urged us to take away at least one memory from each book we read. If I apply Professor Suarez’s philosophy to each event in my life — that is, if I try to walk away with at least one memory of the party I went to — I will want to remember the conversation I had with Noah,* a balding middle-aged psychiatrist. (*not his real name)

Noah was one of the few people I knew at the party because I had gone out with him when we were in our twenties. Back then he was thin and adorable, with a mop of curly black hair, and that mad Jewish look I used to love. His parents were from Poland, Holocaust survivors, and first cousins who, according to Noah, had long since fallen out of love with each other. He intimated that his father, a diamond merchant, used to have affairs, especially on his trips to Belgium and South Africa. From what I could tell, Noah came out of his family unable to commit himself to anything — not to a woman, not to any serious course of study. Too bad. Something in him was broken. Life is harsh.

I remember Noah saying many years ago that a child wants to walk in his parents’ footsteps. If your father had a bar mitzvah, you want one too. If your father served in the army, you want to serve too. If your parents survived the Holocaust, you want to survive the Holocaust too. Only you can’t because the experience is, presumably, not replicable. Consequently, children of Holocaust survivors always feel deficient because they cannot prove themselves the way their parents did. All of this made sense to me.

Going out with Noah was boring. I couldn’t make plans with him because he slept until one or two in the afternoon. When he finally made his way to the street, he had to go have a hamburger at Burger Heaven, somewhere, if memory serves me, in the West ‘seventies. I think I managed to get him to see one movie, which he complained about as being inauthentic because it was set in the 1920s and dealt in part with some feminist issues. He was smart enough to TA in math at Columbia, but otherwise knew next to nothing about history or literature. I remember too that he referred to black people as behaymes — animals. I thought he was parochial and crass and I was completely turned off. After a couple of months, I contrived an argument with him and fled.

I ran into him at a Children-of-Holocaust-Survivors lecture in the 1980s, and then in 1989 at a supermarket in White Plains. I was shopping with my son, who was about eleven months old at the time, and with my soon-to-be-ex. Noah came up to me and called me by my Yiddish name. I had no idea who he was. Five years had passed since I’d last seen him and now he was a paunchy, gray suburbanite with the wiry hair of a 60-year-old man. He told me who he was and said he had become a doctor at the psychiatric institute in White Plains. I said to him, “Who would have guessed that sleeping until one and eating at Burger Heaven were prerequisites for getting into medical school?”

I didn’t tell him I was getting divorced because I didn’t want him to think I wanted to see him again.

When he walked into the party, I recognized him right away. He had arrived with his son, a beautiful ten-year-old boy whose intelligence and love for his father lit up his little face. Noah used his hand as a rudder on the child’s shoulder to steer him through the doorway. That guidance showed a fatherly love that you do not expect to see in men who live their entire lives in a state of confused melancholia. And yet there it was: Noah, the n’er-do-well psychiatrist who, I cannot help but suspect, does not actually have a practice, ennobled by the love he and his son have for each other.

“What have you been doing for the past twenty years?” I asked Noah.

He didn’t mention a medical practice, but he did say he had gotten married late, in his forties, to a woman also in her forties. They tried to have a second child, but they were too late. “One is better than none,” Noah said. Another hint of late-in-the-day wisdom.

“I knew I had the choice of ending up as a patient or a doctor on a psychiatric ward, so I opted for doctor,” Noah said.

“If I hadn’t known you back then, I would say, ‘Oh, Noah, you are too modest,'” I said. “But I knew you, and you’re right.”

Both of his parents were gone now. I remembered that his brother’s name was Chaim. “How is he? I asked.

“We don’t speak anymore,” Noah said.

That meant a dispute over the will. I surmised, but I did not inquire.

A couple of times Noah put his hands on my shoulder so that he could squeeze past me to the snack table. It was a movement so effete, so insincerely delicate, that my old revulsion-attraction came over me. I couldn’t think of anything more to say to him. I found Andrea and Charles sitting on a low bench desperately bored out of their minds.

The three of us went to a Starbucks in the neighborhood and enjoyed each other’s company as we always do. It occurred to me that Noah hadn’t asked me anything about myself. That’s OK.

“Just in case you are wondering if there is a God,” I told my friends, “tonight is evidence that there is: He kept Noah and me from marrying each other.”

We agreed that we should go out more often, but next time we’re going to skip the party, if we’re ever invited to one again.

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They are so good to me when I’m sick

herring “Would you like a piece of herring?”

What was it? The lox I ate Saturday night? A bug I picked up at work or at shul? The minty dental floss I used before I went to bed? On Sunday morning, I woke up feeling not quite right. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get into the car and drive almost two hours north to New York City.

“Would you drive out into a storm?” my mother asked me.

My mother’s argument was undebatable. I lay down on the trusty faux-velvet sofa in the morning and couldn’t be coaxed off it until 10:00 o’clock that night.

My father is weakened by diabetes; my mother has to massage her legs off and on all day in order to quell the stabbing pains that keep her from taking her inveterate morning walk. But they hovered over me off and on all day, feeling my forehead for fever, encouraging me to eat toast and drink tea.

“In Europe when somebody was sick, the parents would go out and buy an orange,” my father said. He went to the refrigerator and cut up one of the dozen oranges in the crisper for me.

I wondered what our lives would have been like if we all had grown up in Poland.

“Our family would have been so big we could have made our own shtetl,” my mother said.

“Hitler made sure we didn’t,” said my father.

“So did the Poles and Ukrainians,” said my mother.

“No, it’s Hitler.”

My father was encouraged by my effort to sit up. “Would you like a piece of herring?” he asked me.

“Papa, I have managed to hold down whatever is left inside me, but an offer of — I can’t even say the word — is pushing me to the edge!” I said.

I am always happy when I see my father enjoy a little joke.

We are great rationalists in my family. There had to be some reason why I got sick.

“Did somebody sneeze in the last couple of weeks?” my father asked.

“At work?” my mother suggested. “In the supermarket?”

I thought back over my recent life. I could imagine any number of people sneezing, but couldn’t vouch that such an event actually occurred.

My sister Pesha arrived late in the day with a bottle of Pepto Bismol. She challenged me to a game of Scrabble but, considering I couldn’t sit up, I had to forfeit.

In the morning Pesha offered to drive my father to his doctor’s appointment.

“I can still take care of myself!” he said.

“Why can’t you let your daughter do something for you?” my mother said.

My sister sneezed.”Pesha sneezed!” I said with the full conviction of accusation.

My father smiled again. It feels good to see him smile.

On Monday morning, I still didn’t feel quite right, but I returned to the indifference of my own home.

Evenings at my parents’ house are so quiet. My mother and father sit next to each other on the smaller of the two sofas (the love seat?) and talk over the events of the day. Their children and grandchildren are the events.

“Brushka ate part of an orange,” my father says.

“Does she still have fever?”

“I think it’s better.”

“Pesha is carrying the weight of the whole family on her shoulders,” my mother says. She suffers for her youngest child who singlehandedly supports three children and a husband.

“I never saw such a spread at a kiddush before,” my father says. He is talking about the bat mitzvah celebration in shul on Shabbat.

“I’m sure you sneaked in a piece of cake,” says my mother. “You don’t watch yourself.”

My father sits with his arms crossed and doesn’t deny my mother’s charge.

“I thought for sure we would hear news that Shana had a baby,” my mother says. She knows when to change the subject.

The living room is under-illuminated. The phone doesn’t ring. The TV will sit silent until my father turns it on to watch the MyPhilly News at Ten. My parents’ American lives used to be full of phone calls, battling children and, in their later years, volunteer shul activities. It is so quiet now that I can’t get the image of a brittle piece of paper, maybe a transit visa, out of my head.

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