I’ve started blogging specifically about the book on my author website here, which is partially my excuse for neglecting this blog. My other excuse is that Josep and I have been communicating a lot off-blog because of the craziness around the Catalonia referendum, and our on-blog communication tends to be inversely proportional to our off-blog communication. But I did write an op-ed in the Times of Israel about Catalan independence here.
In my (off-blog) recounting of my trip to the USA in February, I told you about a bittersweet encounter with my paternal grandfather, who I call Zadie (Yiddish for “Grandpa”). He died yesterday morning in his nursing home at the age of 90, and I want to tell you some more about him.
His name was Alvin (Al) Shames–Avraham ben Yacov Yitzchak v’Dina. He was born in Denver, Colorado, the only boy among three sisters. He didn’t tell me much about his childhood, but I know that his mother died when he was eight, and his father was away a lot, so he was basically raised by his two older sisters. Zadie’s family was traditionally Jewish, if not very observant.
He studied engineering at the Colorado School of Mines not far from Denver, and got his Master’s at Penn State. My Bubbie tells that her mother had a cousin living in Denver who was sick, and though my Bubbie’s family was very poor, her mother sent money to support this cousin. The cousin said that one day she would repay my great-grandmother’s kindness. Years later, when she had regained her health, she saw a young neighbor–Al Shames–waiting at the bus stop and asked him where he was going. He told her he was moving to Columbus to start his first job at Battelle Institute, and the cousin said, “Oh, I have family there!” (Just in case you thought “Jewish geography” is only a recent popular sport. 😉 ) She gave Zadie the contact information for Bubbie’s family, and when he arrived in Columbus, he gave them a call. Bubbie is the one who answered the phone and invited him to drop by.
I am blessed to be the granddaughter of two sets of couples whose lifelong romance is the stuff of legend. They celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary this June.
They look awfully serious in that photo, but they were a hilarious couple. He teased her constantly. (If you ever wondered where I got my mischievous streak…) On one occasion when they were still dating, he disappeared for a while, and when he finally showed up again my Bubbie asked where he’d been; he told her he’d been in jail, and she believed him! Another time, after they were dating for a while and it was clear where things were going, he took her out to go dancing, and on the way to the bus stop, he told her that he had a gift for her. He took out a jewelry box… and inside it was a watch. She thanked him and put it on, and they kept walking. A few minutes later, he said, “I have something else for you…” and handed her an engagement ring.
(Might I note that Eitan also used a decoy–a box of chocolates–to throw me off when he proposed to me?! Those tricky Denver boys! One of the things I liked about Eitan when I first met him was how much he reminded me of Zadie.)
Bubbie and Zadie raised four children–a girl and three boys, of whom my father is the second-to-youngest–in Columbus, surrounded by cousins, uncles, and aunts. They always dreamed of moving to Israel, and when my dad was 9 or 10, they got on a boat and sailed across the sea to live in Hertzliya. Unfortunately, life here was very hard on them, especially the distance from family, and after three years, they returned to Columbus. In the time they were here, however, Zadie was an engineer for the Israel Aircraft Industries and was involved in the development of the Kfir.
When my dad was a teenager, Bubbie and Zadie decided to send him to a religious Jewish high school in Cleveland. I recently found a letter Zadie wrote to him during that time tucked among old photographs. He wrote that it was very hard for him to send my dad away to a boarding school at such a young age, but that he was confident that it was the only way my dad would have a good Jewish education. My dad’s experience at the school was difficult socially, but he did absorb a great deal of knowledge and fondness for Judaism, and became religious, starting to observe kashrut and Shabbat strictly. Bubbie and Zadie followed his example and started observing kashrut and Shabbat, too.
Right after my dad graduated high school, they moved to Long Island, New York. My dad went off to medical school at Boston University, where my parents met, married, and had my older sister. Then they moved down to Long Island for my dad’s residency–and that’s where I was born.
Zadie nicknamed me “Different Kid”. He said at the time that it’s because I was so different from my sister; she was outspoken, full of energy, and in charge, while I was quiet, pensive, and shy. My family moved to Pittsburgh when I was still a toddler, so I have no memories of living in New York; but my dad says hardly a month or two would go by without one of us making the 8-hour drive (!) to visit the other. My earliest memories of Passover Seders are from their dining room, the table set with Bubbie’s fine china, Zadie leading the Seder in his white kittel, humming over his matzah ball soup. (He always hummed while he ate, and usually started off with “B’teyavon, gvirti!“–“Bon appetit, my lady!” in Hebrew–to my Bubbie.)
They missed Israel dearly and visited it all the time, especially after we made aliyah. Zadie loved everything about Israel: the people, the language, the food, the sunshine, and of course, the sense of being at home.
He would take great delight in visiting the shuk, the open-air market in Rehovot or Jerusalem, sampling succulent summer fruits and Middle Eastern pastries.
I’m pretty sure he was the one who first made an acquaintance with Gloria Mound of Casa Shalom (who, as I’m sure you recall, passed away herself earlier this year). I believe he took an interest in crypto-Judaism and conversos even before I did.
He was an honored and well-loved member of his community in Long Island, serving for a while as president of the local synagogue. I have vivid memories of that synagogue–the scent of his cologne lingering in the wool of his tallit, mingling with the smell of wood varnish from the benches and old leatherbound books. He and Bubbie were also very active in Jewish and Israeli philanthropic organizations like the UJA, Hadassah, Yad Sara and Yad L’Kashish, contributing and volunteering. Judaism, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel were deeply, deeply important to him.
He began to suffer from dementia and other health issues several years ago, and was in a slow decline from that point forward. He and Bubbie had to move to Florida to an assisted care facility close to where my uncles live, and last year he was moved to a nursing home. The separation was very hard on my Bubbie. They’d been living together for almost 65 years.
The last two times I visited him he was not very verbal, and I was told he might not remember me. But when I walked in the room two years ago, he positively lit up and said, “It’s you!”
I wrote this poem shortly after my last visit with him in February.
To my grandfather
At Rosewood Health and Rehabilitation Center
I am the ghost of a little girl
With wide blue eyes and tangled blond hair
Doing cartwheels in the backyard
He searches me for her
As I ask him if he remembers
The copper tea set in the basement
“I don’t want to cry,” he gasps,
Reaching out to me
Through a fog of jumbled memories
But he cries.
I had never seen him cry before.
He is the ghost of a man
Who hummed while he ate his matzah ball soup
Who sneaked up behind my Bubbie washing dishes
And put his hands on her hips
And then walked away, shoulders shaking
In silent mirth
When she squawked her protest.
A man who made up songs
About his baby grandsons
And walking to the bank.
Now he lies in this nursing home bed,
Drained of color and joy and words and memory
Except the memory of love.
This he fights for with everything he has,
Clawing breathlessly through the fog
To make sure I know.
“I always loved you,” he chokes.
“Did you know that?”
“Did I show it?”
Of course you did.
I fill the silence with stories about Seder nights and succah decorations.
He listens with glistening eyes.
“My little girl,” he murmurs.
“I turned thirty last week,” I smile
As if that makes any sense
In this physical universe we occupy together
“You were special,” he says.
I hold his hand.
We bask in the Florida sunshine.
I tell him that in Israel
The anemones are blooming,
And the almond trees.
“Are you happy?” he asks.
I surprise myself by answering immediately:
“Yes, I’m happy.”
And I think I mean it.
My last glimpse of him,
In a nursing home chair,
Surrounded by sterile white walls
And with nothing but a curtain
To mark his privacy.
His eyes are sad.
I don’t want to remember him like this.
I want to remember him
Playing w a l k I n g v e r y s l o w l y
And holding comfy contests at bedtime.
I want to remember him pinching my ear
And growling “God love ya.”
I tear myself away,
A smile still plastered on my face,
And I walk swiftly down the hall
Not looking back.
I don’t think I really understood the depth or power of his love for me until almost everything else was gone. I realized then that that love is something that has nurtured me since before I can remember, and will continue to sustain me for as long as I live. Jews say of the deceased, zikhrono l’vrakha, “may his memory be a blessing”; his memory is one of the greatest blessings of my life.
I think I’ve been sufficiently mushy about our friendship in recent months, including in our 10-year-friendversary post and my 1-year-book-birthday post. But I was flipping through a book of quotes by Rebbe Nachman of Breslev today, and, well, there was one that jumped out at me from the chapter on friendship…
It says: “The world was created in such a way that the pieces you need to complete yourself can be found with your friends. Be his student, and he will be your student.” (Likutei Moharan 24, 7)
It reminded me of a line you wrote in the foreword to LtJ: “…She has always been the teacher, and I have always been the student.”
Not so, my friend.
I have learned more from you than you can imagine.
Thank you for being you, and I hope you’ve been having a wonderful day! Wishing you a year of good news, joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment.
So… I’ve got a few “something-versaries” either recently past or coming up. You and I had our tenth “friendversary” two months ago; next week is LtJ’s 2nd “blogiversary” (frankly I can’t believe it’s only been two years!!! So much has happened!!!); and tomorrow is my 20th “aliyaversery.”
It’s hard for me to believe I’ve done anything for 20 years, except be alive. Maybe. 😛
But it’s true: on December 16th, 1996, I stepped out of a plane and descended a mobile staircase onto the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. Some people around me knelt and kissed the ground. I did not feel like kissing anything.
I was nine years old at the time and had just left behind the only life I’d known to immigrate to Israel with my parents, older sister, and two younger brothers. “Aliyah” literally means “rising up,” referring to the elevated spiritual status we achieve by being in the Holy Land. But I think you already know that. 🙂
It’s a story I usually only refer to in passing. I don’t talk about it much. I mean… it was a long time ago. I’ve spent 2/3rds of my life in this country, and if you were to ask me if I feel more American or more Israeli, I’d say I feel more Israeli.
The truth is, though, that the experience of immigrating from the USA to Israel was the formative event of my life. The story of my aliyah is basically the story of how I became who I am today.
I don’t regret a thing, and I am very grateful to my parents for bringing me here. I don’t think I ever would have had the courage and stamina to make this choice as a parent. We had a comfortable life in Pittsburgh. My parents owned a two-story house with a big basement and a huge front and back yard. We were part of a close-knit community of religious Jews in Squirrel Hill; we had a religious Jewish day school, Hillel Academy, just a ten-minute walk away. My dad was a physiatrist (rehabilitative medicine physician) making a very comfortable living, and my mom taught karate to women and children in the community. There was no reason in the world to leave–except Zionism. My parents believed all Jews should live in Israel and planned to make aliyah long before I was born. So I grew up knowing that it was something that would probably happen in the distant future, and when it finally started to materialize, it didn’t come as a shock.
I remember our first few months in Israel in kind of a haze. I had been taught to read and pray in Hebrew at my school in Pittsburgh, and some extremely basic conversational skills, but it was not enough to understand what was going on in the classroom or to have meaningful conversations with my peers.
Even harder than the language barrier was the culture shock. Introversion is… not tolerated very well in Israeli culture. It’s a very social culture, everybody all up in each other’s business. And my classmates interpreted my shyness as snobbery. I made a few English-speaking friends, but most of my classmates either ignored or actively teased me in the first few years. I remember feeling “other,” and intensely lonely. I went from easily the top of my class in Pittsburgh to doing literally nothing in the classroom. Most days I brought along a book in English and read instead of even trying to understand what the teacher was saying.
It was really, really tough. I cried often. I missed my friends and my old life terribly. I fought with my parents and siblings regularly. There was a period I spent 15 minutes every morning throwing a tantrum and screaming at my mother that there was no point in going to school and I didn’t want to go.
This is why I don’t talk about it much. It makes me very emotional to remember how hard it was. (I neither confirm nor deny that I cried several times while putting together this post.)
It didn’t help that I’m highly sensitive, which meant that relative to other children my age, I experienced emotions and relationships very intensely… and that I had already had a history of depression and anxiety. I was seeing a psychotherapist regularly from second grade up until I made aliyah. About a year after aliyah, my family went to a “family therapist” for a few sessions, but other than that, I didn’t have professional emotional support. When I look back on that period, I see that I developed some creative coping mechanisms, using fantasy and creativity as an outlet for my loneliness and sense of helplessness.
As you’ve probably guessed, one coping mechanism I developed was writing. I kept a daily journal of my thoughts and experiences, starting a few weeks before the aliyah and ending in the summer of 1997. Six months later, I started another diary, which I wrote in every day all through 1998. I also received a hardcover notebook for my birthday that year which I started to use as a poetry book. I still have all three of these, and they are among my most treasured possessions.
At age ten, just a few months after making aliyah, I wrote my first chapter book. It was called “To Keep the Peace” and recounted the adventures of yours truly and my real-life British friend Shareen, who, upon learning that the USA and the UK were about to go to war with each other, flew to London and Washington D.C. to convince the Queen of England and then-President Clinton not to fight. It was ridiculous and beyond adorable. And looking at it from a psychological perspective–how awesome was I? I gave myself agency and freedom and the power to cross oceans and change the world through fantasy and creative expression. What a wonderful coping skill!
After writing that book, I had a definitive answer when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up: an author.
With the gift money I received for my bat mitzvah, I purchased a computer, which was a pretty standard thing to do with bat mitzvah gift money, but the thing I was looking forward to most about it was fairly non-standard: I wanted to start writing my first novel. And that’s exactly what I did. At age 14 I completed it, and a few months later, completed another novel I had started writing in the meantime. When you and I met four years later, I had already penned five full-length novels. An Ancient Whisper is my sixth.
Over time, my grasp of Hebrew improved, and I learned to find my place within Israeli society.
…Usually off in a corner, having deep philosophical conversations or geeking out over books with my little group of friends while everybody else giggled about movie stars and boys. (Somehow I suspect you will relate, Hamlet. 😛 😛 😛 )
I was in eighth grade when the Second Intifada broke out, and was volunteering for OneFamily, an organization that assists terror victims, as it was tapering off. So my entire experience of high school was on the backdrop of some very grim and scary things going on. For my part, it had the effect of strengthening my connection to Israel. That sense of solidarity I write about, the way Israelis cope with terror, helped me feel a part of something, and helped me understand very deeply why my parents had brought me here. This is my people, this is our land, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
By ninth grade I was fully functional in school, and did very well on my matriculation exams despite the fact that I received no accommodations whatsoever on account of my status as an immigrant. (Back then we were expected to be completely functional in Hebrew 5 years after making aliyah. The law has since changed–had I come just a few years later, I would have been eligible for all kinds of accommodations–and I am super pissed off about it. 😛 ) (It makes literally no difference to my life. My scores were excellent and I never needed them anyhow. BUT IT’S NOT FAIR!!!) (Okay I’m done)
Basically… I grew up with one foot in each world, struggling to make the transition to the new one while clinging nostalgically to the old one. Reading my writings from that period is kind of heartwrenching: there’s this girl, on the seamline between childhood and adolescence, facing an upheaval in her life that was too big for her to fully comprehend, simultaneously finding relief in her rich imagination and criticizing herself for having her head in the clouds.
Story of my life in a nutshell.
A couple quick announcements before I go:
1) Today is the last day you can download Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism for free! Don’t miss out!
2) *ahem* Speaking of my novels… if you’re subscribed to my newsletter or you follow my other blog, you already know this, but I haven’t announced it here yet: my debut novel, An Ancient Whisper, is scheduled for publication by Kasva Press this coming fall! It’s about an American Jew of Sephardic-Moroccan descent and a Catholic Spaniard who team up to research their families’ respective histories… only to discover that their pasts are inextricably linked. Woven into their narrative is the story of their ancestors in late 15th-century Spain: a Jewish family that runs into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition, and the Christian family that comes to their aid. For more information and updates, make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter.
Before I begin, I have some excellent news: Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism is now available on Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide! (Don’t worry about the book cover image, it’ll get there.) This was not true last night, and trust me, I checked, so apparently it went up especially in honor of Josep’s birthday. 😀
Josep himself has no recollection of this, but in the first year of our friendship I pulled off a little stunt in honor of his birthday, which involved giving his e-mail address to around a dozen friends and family and asking them all to “spontaneously” write to him to wish him a happy birthday.
…I am not exactly sure what by what feat of logic I arrived at the conclusion that this was a good idea. 😛 If he had done something similar to me, I probably would have been equal parts pleased, flattered, and mortified. (Then again, maybe that was the desired effect? 😛 ) I think the idea was that I wanted to show him that no matter how lonely he may feel, he has a group of crazy Jews on the other side of the Mediterranean (and a couple on the other side of the Atlantic…) who think he’s great and would love to meet him, for no reason other than the fact that I think he’s great and am so pleased to know him. (Which, in my very humble opinion, is about as good a reason as one could possibly have.) Still, apparently it did not occur to me at the time that it might be a little bit… ah… intrusive of a gesture. As I said on this occasion last year, “No one brings out the bossy, nagging, meddlesome, embarrassing-in-public, you-never-call-you-never-write-I’ll-just-sit-here-in-the-dark Jewish mother stereotype in me like my beloved Christian friend.” And trust me people–you don’t even know the half of it. 😛
In any case, he was very gracious about it, and still maintains that he thinks it was sweet of me, even though he was clearly so traumatized by the incident that his memory blocked it out. 😛
Well! Tradition is tradition, and today is Josep’s birthday again, and it is my solemn duty as his one-and-only stereotypical-Jewish-mother-friend to rally his ever-growing fan base to wish him a happy birthday. I’m not handing out his e-mail this time 😛 but you are most strongly encouraged to wish him well in the comments below. Especially if you happen to have taken part in the Great Birthday E-mail Invasion some nine years ago. (You know who you are. 😉 )
(Seriously. Do it. Now.)
And as for you, my poor victim–I hope you are spending today surrounded by people who love and appreciate you, and that this year brings with it many blessings, opportunities, and positive developments for you and all those you care about. Sending you all my best wishes on this day and always. 🙂
So… most of you know Josep primarily as the pseudonym at the top of every post and not much else, and for all intents and purposes he is happy with that. I leave out personal details because he’s a fairly private person who doesn’t like to have much of an online presence. When I presented him with the idea of turning the “informative” part of our correspondence into a blog, he wasn’t opposed, but not exactly enthusiastic either. I recently asked, “Aren’t you pleased to be used as a literary device for the sharing of knowledge and understanding between different religions and cultures?! 😛 ”
Accordingly, I just want to share with you that today is his birthday, and… let’s just say he could really use some good wishes right about now. I would be very grateful if those of you who read and enjoy the blog, including those of you who are shy about commenting, could wish him well in the comments, and if you are so inclined–let him know what this blog means to you… so he can be consoled that the exploitation of our friendship for my dastardly exhibitionist purposes is at least beneficial for some. 😉
Bon aniversari, Josep. Thank you for your friendship, and for inspiring me to write this blog.
I was going to write Part II of the Passover series, but I think it’ll have to wait.
You may recall me mentioning that my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly before my trip to the USA. So, she passed away Monday night.
I would probably write about how Judaism deals with death and mourning, but right now I’m just feeling even more strongly what I wrote in that letter. My heart is perpetually broken, and there is nothing like losing a family member halfway across the world while you are deep in Passover preparations and trying to entertain your kids (who have been on vacation since Sunday. Thanks a bunch, Ministry of Education) to emphasize how unnatural and painful it is to be so far away from your family. I am so jealous of my Israeli friends whose families can converge within a few hours when something like this happens. The Jewish mourning practices–on which I’m sure I will elaborate eventually–are really very sensitive to this need for family to mourn together, and to be with friends and loved ones, without necessarily needing to speak. Funerals and the surrounding customs provide a context for your grief, they surround you with your loved ones, there’s a catharsis. That is what can’t be fulfilled by the miracles of modern technology. I couldn’t attend the funeral. I couldn’t be there to hug my mother and grandfather and sister. I wasn’t even able to be with my father or brothers, who are here. You know how much I struggle with the pain of distance even without the added pain of loss. It’s agonizing, Josep. It truly is. It makes the process of grieving ten times more painful.
It sounds so cliche to say my grandmother was an amazing lady, but she really was, and there is so much to say about her, I can’t even begin. I think you would have loved her, and she you. You would have talked about Shakespeare and both of your world travels over a glass of fine wine. The “chai” necklace I mentioned (the gold one in this entry about Jewish symbols) is around my neck, and I think that symbol really embodies so much of what she was–full of life, to the very end. She used to wear that necklace all the time, and when I was a baby I would always play with it and put it in my mouth, so she decided she would give it to me when I got older. She gave it to me before my wedding day. A couple months ago when I spoke to her on FaceTime I was wearing it, and she pointed out that I was fiddling with it exactly the same way… I hadn’t even noticed 😉
I was lucky to get to say goodbye to her. Three weeks ago, I was at her apartment in Florida, and we talked about her life and her family. “You come from a long line of strong women,” she told me, “and I see that spark in every one of you.”
When time came to part for the last time, she held both of my hands, smiled, and said, “We will be in touch. Forever.” I started to cry. She told me not to, and we hugged.
I inherited her smile. I can only hope to emulate some of the positivity and joyful strength of spirit that shined from that smile.
I loved her very much, and I miss her, and I am a total mess and I have no idea how I’m going to survive this holiday. Honestly I have no idea how I’ve survived to this point, either.
Anyway. That’s why part II is postponed for now. I hope I’ll get to it sometime during Passover. If not… there’s always next year.