I'm staring at the coffin, plain, wood, filled, when she walks into the sanctuary. I can feel her as her heels pad softly against the flat brown carpet. The weight of the air shifts. Particles gather around me, closing my throat. All I can smell is my wife on her clothes. It's as if their pheromones mixed together just to taunt me. My body heaves forward. I try in vain to blow out stale fearful air, but her presence suffocates me. The word lover whispers in my ear from some unknown voice as I tightly close my eyes. I'm sure the congregation thinks I'm holding back tears for her. I am. I'm not. I don't know. I've never felt jealous in my whole life. I've never understood the nights my wife would cry in our bed or on the floor because she felt I was keeping some dark secret. For her, jealousy lived just under the surface, a constant threat to our marriage. Her crying pissed me off so much; I fantasized about hitting her, just to shut her up. Every time I thought we we're okay, she'd start to question me. We were trapped in a constant cycle.
Yet somehow, we had an open marriage. Well, open for her. Women came and went from her life. I had one rule: she had to tell me. Sometimes, we'd be driving in the car or sitting in bed, and she'd ask, "Don't you worry?"
"These women? Don't you worry I'll fall in love?"
"Fall in love?" I found this question laughable. "I'm confident in us. You won't fall in love." I never believed for one minute that she'd fall in love with these women. Why would she? Women were her friends. She could easily fuck them and keep that friendship. It never crossed my mind she'd fall in love.
I open my eyes and tilt my head back to look over my shoulder. She's taking a seat in the pew a few rows back. I see a tear running down her cheek. "Why are you crying?" I want to scream. "You can't cry. She's my wife. My wife! This is my grief. Why are you here?"
My heart beats faster and faster. I know why she's here. I know that it's her grief too, and I hate it. I hate that I let this happen. I hate that I have to share. I hate that I can't fucking breath. I hate that she had to die for me to feel this.
I look at the coffin. I look back at her. She cocks her head to the side and gives me a sad smile. My heart speeds up more. I blow out air. I stand up.
This story was part of a writing challenge proposed by my American Jewish Lit professor in grad school. After reading Bernard Malamud's short story from 1955, "The Angel Levine," about a Jewish black angel who saves an old Jewish tailor in order to get his wings. The story looks deeply at Jewish identity, posing the question: what makes a Jew? In turn, my professor asked, "where did this angel come from? What was his life when he was alive? Was he born Jewish?"
I grew up during the Harlem Renaissance,
the son of an entrepreneur who made his money opening speakeasies in Jungle
alley. Jazz musicians, homosexuals, bohemians, and upper class whites flocked
to his establishments. In 1926, when I
was four-years-old, we moved to a Hamilton Heights brownstone. At the time
(although much has changed) Hamilton heights was a desirable neighborhood for
affluent whites, and my father’s success with his speakeasies sprinkled
throughout Harlem allowed us to live among whites. I remember the whiteness of my neighbor’s skin
was odd to me. It’s not that I’d
never seen white folks; I just always assumed they were curious creatures with
stringy hair and colorless faces. Our first week in our house, I watched the boy
next door kick his pale legs against the steps. I’d never seen a white boy with
shorts on before.
“Mama! Mama!” I screamed out into our shiny new kitchen.
She came running into the living room. “What
“Look Mama. Look at that boy.
What’s wrong with him?”
“What do you mean, what’s wrong
with him? He’s sitting on the steps. Whew, boy. You scared me.”
“But, Mama. His legs…he got white
leg disease.” My mother just stared at me trying not to laugh.
“Child, that boy is not diseased.
Look at his face. What color is his face?”
I paused and studied his light
brown hair and pale pale skin. “White.”
“ So, if his face is white, what
color are his legs?”
“Brown.” I answered confidently.
She cocked her head to the side
and let out a laugh. “Why would a white boy have brown legs?”
“Cuz everyone’s got brown legs
Mama. Everyone.” I replied stubbornly folding my arms around my body.
“You think Miss Wineblatt’s got brown
“Yes.” I answered defiantly, now
secretly embarrassed by my fears. I suppose my mother’s employer, a wealthy
Jewish society lady, did not have brown legs.
Despite my father’s success, Mama
insisted on working. My mother, a
proponent of Prohibition, found the speakeasies distasteful, so even after my
father provided a comfortable home for us, she stayed attached to an old Jewish
spinster on the Upper West Side. Mama worked for crumbling Miss Wineblatt for
as long as I can recall. She cleaned her
apartment, did her cooking, and helped her shop. I was never sure who needed the other one
more. My father begged Mama to act like a respectable lady and stop living at
the beck and call of some old Jew.
However, Mama refused. Miss
Wineblatt was getting on in age, and Mama couldn’t bear the thought of Miss
Wineblatt stumbling though her vast apartment alone. Plus, she didn’t need no women of ill-repute,
who hung around Pop’s lap-joints, ruining her days. At least, Miss Wineblatt had some class.
Miss Wineblatt’s class, in my
young mind, was questionable. Her
clothes never seemed to fit and I swear I’d see her drool into her lunch as I
watched her eat. Plus, Mama and Miss
Wineblatt fought constantly. “Oh Mother
Wineblatt” she’d scream, “You gotta listen to me when I talk!” She’d scream in a bellowing voice when Miss
Wineblatt insisted on doing anything independently of Mama. “You can’t be
wondering around this apartment, half-dressed, someone might see you. “
“I do whatever I want to do
Ella.” Miss Wineblatt would scream back. “You’re always pushing. I maybe be
old, but I’m not dead yet. You should be so lucky that I die.”
Then she’d look over at me with her wrinkly
face, and place her tiny vein-filled hand on my cheek. “Look at this boy. Levi,
such a boy. With a good Jewish
name. You should be home with him, not
pushing me around.”
I winced when she
said my name. Even at four, my name got strange looks. Levi did sound like a Jewish boy and not a
black boy from Harlem. However, after years of working for Miss Wineblatt, Mrs.
Ella Anderson grew to love the foreign sounding names the Jewish community bestowed
upon their children. She thought Levi was lovely and respectable, so that‘s
what she named me. Pop might have
argued, but he’d found if he let Mama make her own decisions, she’d stop making
decisions for him.
For years, I taught Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir, Night, in my community college classroom. Night is the story of Elie and his father's life inside the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is spare, heart-wrenching, and honest. He tells the tale of a people moved from humanity to degradation and the unraveling of relationships caused by such inhumanity. Many times, broken relationships were that of fathers and sons, but they were also broken relationships with G-d. Elie struggles to hold onto his relationship with his own father while, at the same time, despairs over the violent breakdown of his relationship with G-d.
While teaching, my students and I found ourselves stopping at the same passage:
A young boy is arrested and hanged by the Nazis for not giving up his superior who was planning a revolt. The entire camp stood helplessly by as they watched this young boy die slowly. While death surrounds them everyday, the boy's death beats them down. His hanging even shakes the guards.
Beyond my classroom, this passage propelled me into my graduate research. However, the one piece missing from the conversation was the perspective of this Jewish boy slowly dying as his Jewish community powerlessly watches.
So, I wrote what I imagined his was thinking:
Swinging from nowhere
Darkness engulfs me.
They are forced to
I listen to their cries
“Where is God?” an old
Their empty eyes stare
Looking to me for
To their ancient riddle
Their timeless prayer
“Where is God?”
Is he inside our dying
Is he in our enemy’s large,
Is he in the men
watching their sons
Turn into monsters?
Is he in the elderly languishing
Back into children?
A teenager’s eyes meet
mine: my tongue hanging from my mouth.
The other night, I was putting the Great Rabbi to bed. He's a bit fearful of the dark, so I've put a rooster nightlight in his room. As he was climbing under the covers, he said that he wanted to talk about the Guardian rooster. So, I told him to tell me about it:
The rooster guides me through the dark shadows of the wicked.
" Huh?" I thought. Did he really just say that. So, I asked him if he wanted me to write down what he had to say about his Animal Guardians.
He asked me to share it on my blog. So, here it is word for word. It is unedited. I did not change any words. I did not write any of it. All I did was transcribe his words:
My Dear Animal Guardian
By The Great Rabbi
The Rooster guides me through the dark shadows of the wicked.
The Lion guards me from the medieval
The mighty Whale will guide me through my dreams
And my destiny.
And the Dog will guide me through the cities,
And the religions
And the Mankind will guide me through my life.
And G-d will guide me through my world
And my universe.
The brave Penguin will guide me through the Greek snow,
Ice, water, earth and metal gods.
And Myself will guide me through my home
Through my hope
Through my friends
Through my love
Through my school
And again, through myself.
The Gorilla will guide me through venom, bad feelings and any bad chances of life.
And I forgot, what about the books?
They guide me through almost every single thing in life.