Every August we went to Israel for a month. The summer I was ten the Knesset had voted to disband the government and hold early elections. I was looking forward to another afternoon at the beach, where the concrete kiosks and lifeguard towers were splashed with campaign posters, and politicians would be handing out brochures and ice cream. But first there was lunch at my grandparents.
"We don't like him," my grandfather was saying, sandwiching an oily hunk of whitefish between two crackers.
"We? Tell me, Shoshana," my father said to my grandmother, who was serving the soup. "Why do you let Chaim speak for you?"
"Here he goes and starts," said my grandfather.
"She's not a modern woman?"
"Avi, don't start," said my mother.
"But Chaim," my father grinned, "what if she's not loyal to you? How do you know, for example, she doesn't secretly vote for B-, or another of the capitalists?"
"What capitalist?" my grandmother said. She finished ladling out the broth and took the seat next to mine at the yellow Formica table. My father told her. "Oh, him." She wrinkled up her nose. "We don't like him. Pheechs."
"You see?" said my grandfather.
"Are you paying attention?" my father whispered to me.
"Pheechs," my grandmother said again. The sound made me laugh. "Have you seen him on the news? His nase? I was talking to-"
"Be quiet, Shoshana," said my grandfather.
"You be quiet," she said, sticking out her tongue. She stared at us. "Nu, for what are you waiting?"
We started eating.
My father nudged me and said, in the conspiratorial whisper that I loved, "You don't know this, but your grandmother is what we call a classic anti-Semite."
For a few moments all you heard was my grandfather's slurping and the high buzz of the transistor radio in the kitchen.
"Why isn't there anything inside the soup?" I mumbled, staring into my half-filled bowl of cloudy broth. In America, we had noodles, carrots, chicken necks.
"Your grandmother learned to cook in the camps," said my father. He pretended not to notice my mother's look. "Salt was a luxury." He cleared his throat. "Evidently."
"It needs salt?" said my grandmother.
"It's fine," said my mother.
My grandmother put her arm on mine. "Do you want some matza to make it thicker?" she said.
"No." I tried not to stare at the blurry green numbers on her forearm. My chest started pounding. "Safta," I said, "what did you eat at Auschwitz?"
"Quiet," said my grandfather.
"Why shouldn't he ask?" me father said.
"He should be quiet while we're eating."
"Eat, eat," my grandmother said, winking at me. "I'll tell you about it later."
That night, my mother put me to bed in the room she used to share
with her sister. "Is it true Safta Shoshana is an anti-Semite?" I asked her.
"Who told you that?"
"Abba did at dinner."
"Of course she's not." She laughed. "He was joking."
"Why isn't this idiot asleep?" my father said, stopping in at the door on his way back from the shower. He was wearing a towel around his waist.
"Did you tell him my mother is an anti-Semite?"
"Your mother is an anti-Semite."
My mother shook her head at me. "He's being funny. Go to sleep." She stood up.
"Is that why she didn't marry Jerzek?" I asked.
"Jerzek!" my mother said. "Who told you about Jerzek?"
"They spent the afternoon talking Auschwitz," my father said.
"Beautiful. Now he'll have nightmares."
"It's important he knows what happened," said my father.
"He won't be able to sleep," my mother said.
"Go to sleep," said my father. "Tomorrow you can go to the beach alone."
I sat up in bed. "Why didn't she marry him if he saved her life?" ("Your grandfather was a beautiful man when he was young," my grandmother had told me that afternoon. "He was tall, he stood up straight, like a soldier. His hair was brushed back in waves. He looked like a Pole, like an aristocrat. Whenever there were stairs, he took them three at a time!")
"You can't force things like that, my little lamb," my mother said. "She liked Jerzek, but she didn't love him."
My mother hesitated. She looked back at my father, who was still standing in the doorway. "She knew Jerzek from before," she finally said. "He reminded her-he was old-fashioned." She covered me with the blanket. "Now, your sabba, he escaped to Russia and joined the army. He was modern. He wasn't religious."
"Was Jerzek religious?" I said.
My mother looked at my father. "Was Jerzek religious?"
"He had a religious nose."
Suddenly my mother was angry. "Enough, I'm sick of it," she cried. "Why can you only see the worst in people? Why do you have to say such ugly things?"
"What are you yelling?" My father's voice remained calm. "Anyway," he shrugged, "you're telling me it's not true that your mother-?"
"My mother survived Auschwitz," she hissed. "What did your mother ever do?" She shoved her way past him without saying goodnight.
My father looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
A month ago, when the doctors said my grandfather needed an operation
to remove a tumor in his stomach, he sat in his favorite chair and
cried. It was the first time he had ever cried in front of my grandmother.
I know this because she told me so on the phone. "It was awful,"
she said, whispering because he was in the next room watching television.
"You can't imagine what it's like. How awful. A man like that!"
Two weeks later, my grandfather died
of complications from the surgery. It was a windy and cold Friday
afternoon in Baltimore, and quickly turning dark. I wanted to do
something. Someone told me about Shabbat services held in the basement
of a church nearby, so I walked there. It was the first time in
my life I'd gone to services alone--I only go for Bar Mitzvahs
or weddings. But I wanted to feel connected, I suppose, to hear
Hebrew, or to mark this day as different. When I walked in, the
service had already begun. It was a windowless cellar filled with
round banquet tables and stacked chairs. At one end of the room,
there was a half circle of students from the college across the
street, about ten girls and two boys, wearing blouses, long skirts,
trousers, jackets, and chanting. I took a prayer book and yarmulke
from the stack and sat at the end of the row.
My grandfather would be proud to know that I could barely follow the prayers. I have inherited his disinterest in religion. But when it came time to say the Mourner's Kaddish, I alone stood in that basement, surrounded by strangers, and listened to the words. Later, I noticed several of the girls staring at me over their books, though they turned away when I caught them.
After the service was over, I rose and left as quickly as I could. I knew that the girls had seen my tears and I sensed that one or two of them might try to comfort me, but I didn't want to be comforted. Not by these girls. They were nice Jewish girls, freshmen and sophomores, probably. Good in the sciences, well dressed, from clean homes. Polite, quiet. Frizzy hair, freckles, pale blemished skin. Those who weren't overweight were excessively thin, and hunched over. Most of them wore glasses.
It's important for me to say this: I don't, as a rule, find Jewish girls unattractive. But when they're ugly and they're Jewish, I can't help but see something Jewish in their ugliness.
My grandfather asked to be buried in the only non-religious cemetery
in Israel. He didn't want a rabbi present or prayers said. The cemetery
is located on the grounds of a kibbutz in the north, near the border
with Lebanon. This is as close as Chaim Kahana ever came to his
agricultural dreams. He never lived on a kibbutz, but rather spent
his life operating a series of small businesses: fruit markets,
souvenir shops, a car rental agency. He remained a Communist, but
in party affiliation only.
My mother brought a videotape of the funeral back to Los Angeles with her, and we watched it together when I came home for Thanksgiving. This cemetery is an oddly lush place, bursting, like an overgrown garden, with wild flowers and thick purple bushes that brush against the gravestones. After the pine casket was lowered, people stood around the grave and made speeches. My mother spoke first: "In times like these, we're lucky when sons still bury their fathers."
My grandmother is a tiny woman. She was wearing a gray overcoat and large sunglasses, which made her face look even smaller. She looks disoriented on the tape, surrounded by people who tower over her, by Israelis who come to funerals in jeans and sandals. Even my short mother appears tall beside her own.
Standing off to the side is a group of women my grandmother's age. Like her, these widows are wearing heavy coats on a warm day, and they look unsteady on their feet. A few feet behind them is a round little man, bald, wearing a beige suit. He's got a brown fedora in his hands.
"Look at Jerzek," my mother said, pointing her chin at the screen.
"That's Jerzek?" I said. "He's still alive?"
"He doesn't die. He must be more than ninety now."
I froze the image with the remote. "He's not so terrible-looking," I said.
"Look at how cute he is," said my mother. "With his stomach and his head the same shape exactly."
I walked up to screen to get a closer look. "His nose isn't even so big."
My mother laughed. "What did you expect?" she said. "A trumpet?"