Maybe it started with a ham sandwich.
The Hillel Academy basement cafeteria, 1991. I eyed Melissa sinking her teeth into an Entenmann’s chocolate donut and Shani licking off his fingers the spice of an Israeli snack mix. On the wall above their heads: the symbol of a nuclear fallout shelter.
I snuck a bite into my sandwich, rye bread with a tongue of red pepper and a slab of the pink stuff. Before I could swallow, however, Helen, a portly Russian émigré, shouted in indignation, pointed her finger.
“Hey! That’s ham!”
I immediately threw out the sandwich.
“I know,” I said. “I hate ham.”
I secretly wondered if she was jealous.
When I told my friend Aharon that my family name used to be Schwartz, he said, “Used to be Schwartz—sounds like a Borscht Belt act.” This is how I’d like to imagine myself, had I been at the Catskills hotel where my dad worked in the late 1970s, after emigrating from Romania. How marvelous it would have been, I thought, to be a part of that exalted, schmaltzy tradition. Aharon and I were in the cafeteria of a writing residency in Vermont. He advised me to play up the Jewishness in my writing. My father’s father, an active member of the Communist Party in its early days, changed the family name from Schwartz to Szilágyi soon after the Holocaust. (Szilágyi is the Smith of Hungary.) My grandfather didn’t want his children to know their Jewish heritage and though my grandmother fought him, fiercely, so that they would, my father didn’t really understand he was Jewish until he was bar mitzvah age. Neither of my parents knew that they were Jewish until that age when all those wretched feelings of not belonging truly blossom. They were different, they knew, but it was mysterious.
It was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society that helped my family out of Romania and into the United States, getting my dad a job decorating Borscht Belt ballrooms and, later, my mom a job at an Israeli bank. My great-grandmother Margaret, already settled in Borough Park thanks to the Jewish community, had been the family’s sponsor. And so when the time came for my mother to come over, they had a big Jewish wedding, just for my great-grandmother and her friends. It was a show. An appeasement. My great-grandmother survived the Holocaust by hiding under a pile of bodies and Communism by belting out the Internationale louder than anyone and now she was in Brooklyn going to shul with a little lace head-covering pinned to her coiffure. My father had to get a circumcision.
Speaking of violence.
For much of my life, I never really felt Jewish. Not in New York, where Jewishness is so integrated into the community. Maybe a little in Montreal, dating a French Canadian boy whose boss joked that he shouldn’t date Jews. And who soon after dumped me. But that was just a tiny wrinkle in a long ambiguous string of secularity. One of my roommates at the time was confused, pointing out I’m not observant, so why should it matter. Well, my half-Jewish, half-Lutheran other roommate countered, it’s not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of ethnicity.
It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle that I really felt like a Jew. First it was an anthropological feeling. As if I had to explain myself because, surprisingly, many Northwesterners have not met real live Jews. There was a discomfort that was very difficult to pinpoint. It starts with my unusual name, which makes some people titter nervously. For a while I stopped mentioning the Jewishness. It was easier somehow. I could pretend I descended from some obscure Hungarian countess and no one would know. But the lack of belonging started to tug at me and at my husband, a Chicago-born Jew.
At a party in Capitol Hill, a cosmopolitan-enough neighborhood in central Seattle, we idly asked: where are Seattle’s Jews?
“Oh,” said a woman. “They like to hide.”
Something in her voice rankled. It was the wording of it. The “they” and the “like” and the hiding. Even the blasé “oh”—was it an attempt at world-weariness? A dismissal of our question? She explained that a gunman shot six women, killing one, at the Seattle Jewish Federation in 2006. She explained that she’d worked for many years at a Hebrew school, which, she seemed to insinuate, gave her intimate knowledge of the community. She went on to complain about her weird Orthodox employers.
The fact of the shooting in Seattle, the fact of the woman’s attitude, added another layer of discomfort, but it emboldened us to be more forthright about our Jewishness. When we moved out of a third-floor apartment to a little house, we lit our Hanukkah candles by the living room window, and a man knocked on the glass, asking us for ten dollars. Welcome to the neighborhood? We wondered if it was the candles or just a light in the window. We learned the man did that to all the newcomers in the neighborhood and relaxed, slightly, feeling less targeted, at least in that specific way. All the same, we don’t celebrate Hanukkah by the window anymore. Which is sort of the whole point of that candles-in-the-window tradition, isn’t it? A display of survival?
I mentioned this feeling of Jewishness to my paternal grandmother and she sent us, as a house-warming present, a purple mezuzah. We really hesitated about putting it up. Would that make us a target again?
In fact, after we installed the mezuzah, we started getting bizarre junk mail from credit card companies addressed to “Jacob Thejeweler.” Google only led us to Jacob the Jeweler, the infamous diamond-dealing criminal of Bukharan Jewish descent. We kept the accumulating pile of junk, unsure of whom to show it to, if anyone.
The Romanian man who offered to sell my parents black market antibiotics and syringes was proud to report that during World War II, Romania was the only country that did not kill the Jews. It was 1995, the first time my parents had returned to the Old Country since the 1970s, now with two children and my paternal grandmother in tow. A family pilgrimage. In hotel lobbies, my parents told my brother and me to keep quiet, don’t speak English, lest we get charged the highest rates. They were already getting charged more for their Bucharest accents. Everyone everywhere angling.
But my miserable brother’s lymph nodes were golf balls and we were in a small town and it was the middle of the night and pouring rain and this guy, hearing the young American’s complaints, offered to help. My parents followed him in his car to a clinic, where simply the appearance of a smoking doctor with a disconcertingly large goiter scared my brother back to well-being. That black market man’s claim, that Romania didn’t kill Jews, brought a wariness to my parents’ faces that in retrospect I interpret as: yeah, okay, this guy is why we left.
I’ve long been ambivalent about my Jewishness. My maternal grandmother was a staunch atheist while her husband quietly, by himself, lit the candles every Friday night. One Rosh Hashanah my grandmother suggested we eat pork. She wasn’t thinking about it, I’m sure, in any kind of malicious or spiteful way, because she isn’t malicious or spiteful. For us Jewish holidays are just nice family dinners and she happened to be craving pork roast.
I’ve got sacrilege on both sides. My other great-grandmother, Laura, followed this dictum: if it tastes good, it’s Kosher. She snuck smoked pork into her cholent, which went into the village oven over the Sabbath. It’s a family story celebrating irreverence, enjoyment of life.
Oh, that old holiday joke: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.
On that trip to the Old Country in the summer of 1995, we visited Baia Mare, home of my great-grandfather. We found a synagogue with one old man inside. He brought us into his office and immediately got on the phone to get another old man to come see us. He wanted to figure out the family connections. There was an excitement, it also seemed: the rare wonder of the returning Romanian Jew. Young Jewish people are just not in Romania. The ones who did not leave are very old. Or dead.
“Your feet hurt?” the elderly rabbi said in Romanian to his equally elderly friend who was reluctant to leave the house. “Walk on your hands.”
You’d do anything to keep going, wouldn’t you?
In Satu Mare, we visited the Jewish cemetery. There, the “Soap Monument” memorializes victims of Auschwitz, those whose bodies Nazis used to make soap, who could not be given proper burials. In 1946, a rabbi performed funeral rites on such soap. Sixteen of my grandmother’s cousins were among the 18,863 deported from the area in 1944. The few survivors did not include my grandmother’s cousins. I put the numbers here for concreteness, but somehow they are numbing. Somehow, instead of illustrating the gravity of it, they dehumanize. The concrete numbers are gray. They taste like ash.
Satu Mare felt sleepy, with few people out. Perhaps it was a Sunday, which would explain the especial sleepiness. The gate to the cemetery was open, so we strolled right in. The tombstones crowded together—some had been toppled—but eventually my grandmother found a mausoleum full of stone plaques. There was the Soap Monument. We stood in silence some minutes, setting rocks beneath the plaques. My grandmother gulped a sigh, and I backed out of the building, roaming the cracked narrow paths overgrown with grass. My family followed.
The wrought-iron gate stood locked. My father rattled at it, to no avail. We wandered the perimeter of the walled cemetery in search of another exit, thinking we had somehow gotten lost. If there had been another exit (I can’t remember) it was also locked.
I panicked. We were locked in a graveyard! No one knew we were there.
Here in a graveyard in the country where a man claimed Romania was the only country that did not kill Jews at the memorial for tens of thousands who could not be properly buried beside a row of broken, toppled tombstones, we would die.
My father was more resourceful, thankfully, and helped my brother scale the stone wall closing us in. Then he hoisted himself over. I can’t remember what we talked about in the interim.
What I remember is silence, a faint buzz of summer insects, the wobbling flight of honeybees. What I remember is the terrible heat of the August sun, trying to take shade against the cemetery wall, the sense of vegetation closing in on me, coiled blackberry thorns, spiraling vines, the dust of the stone wall, the uncertainty of my place in the world. The uncertainty of our exit strategy. The anxious wait for their return.
Photo © Michael Podlasek Kent.