Monday, June 25, 2012

Resurrecting Levine

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?"

Resurrecting Levine

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 Levi?”

“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 legs?”

“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.

Read on next week for Part 2.
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Monday, June 11, 2012


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 watch me
Hang here
Swing here
Choke here

I listen to their cries below me.
Muffled, anguished
“Where is God?” an old man screams

Their empty eyes stare at me
Begging me,
Looking to me for answers
To their ancient riddle
Their timeless prayer
“Where is God?”

Is he inside our dying bodies?
Is he in our enemy’s large, animal hands?
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.
My lungs silently gasping for breath

He is skin and bones and hope and horror
He is change and sorrow and fear and life
He is my future, my past
He is my language, my story, my epitaph
He is my God; He is my people
He is my reason for hanging

“Where is God?” they shriek
Watching me hang here
My people ache

“Where is God?”
“God is here
Hanging from the Gallows.[1]

[1]  The last line is a quote from Elie Wiesel’s memoir  Night, p 69

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