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Friday, May 25, 2012

A Blog from Israel

        Last week I was too busy to write a blog entry because I was too overwhelmed with the end of the spring semester. I had to give grades to nearly one hundred students and write a few letters of recommendations before leaving for Israel, the place I still call home.
     “How could you have left all this?” my American-born daughter asked me six years ago, as the two of us were walking with her toddler daughter on Tel Aviv’s waterfront esplanade. She did not allude to only the sweet scent of the Mediterranean summer, emanating from the vapor of the powder blue transparent sea, and the golden scorching sand under that bluest of skies. Neither was she alluding to only the energy rising from the beach-goers, protected by rows of orderly placed persimmon orange, hunter green, or ultramarine blue umbrellas, depending on the section in which the bathers sat; the beach-front cafés, the hip shops, and restaurants.
      Nor was she referring just to the neighborhood and home where I grew up, our visit there being the highlight of that trip for my daughter. She mostly meant the friendships and the deep love and warmth that are revealed to me by family and friends whenever I visit my place of birth, regardless of how often I do so.
     “Life can take you to places you had not planned to be, and force upon you decisions you never thought you would have to make,” I answered her.
      This time I arrived in my beloved Tel Aviv yesterday, both excited and emotional to meet the family and friends and visit the place I missed. There are already family gatherings planned for my husband and me, as well as concerts, operas, and plays to see.
It’s a fantastic feeling returning home, as I am sure many who emigrated from their birth places sense when they visit their home towns, regardless of how assimilated they have become in the places where they chose to live or how deeply they love their adopted countries.
      For me, the anticipation when I visit Israel is always mixed with a heaviness I describe as a rock that is sitting in the center of my chest, solid and gray and defined. The rock is my past filled with tragedy: losing a husband to a brutal death, and growing up with a mentally ill mother.   I only understood the extant of her illness after reflecting on my childhood with the depth of a writer.
Next week, following the holiday of Shavuot, which is so connected with the tragic death of my husband, I’ll visit his grave in the military cemetery that is located outside of Tel Aviv proper. My husband of forty years, whom I married five years after my first husband fell in war, may join me. Regardless, my past and present will intertwine as they always do, making me the person I have become.
      My conversations about Prime Minster Netanyahu, whom Time Magazine featured on its cover, labeling him the king of Israel because of the wide coalition he managed to build, and the prospect of him making peace with his Palestinian neighbors, will wait for my next blog entry. Right now I have to prepare to go to my grandniece's Bat Mitzvah party.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012



    I’m reading and enjoying Phyllis Schieber’s The Manicurist. One of the novel’s characters, Ursula, reminds me of my mother. Like Ursula, my mother was mentally ill, and suffered major depressive episodes, dipping into psychosis at times, if not outright bi-polarity. Both Ursula and my mother were stunningly beautiful and neither was institutionalized because their husbands prevented that from happening. In my mother’s case, my father refused to have my mother separated from my sister and me, since she only suffered from her “nerve disease” (as her condition was called in the 1950s in Israel) in winter time.  In the summer, my mother thrived. In these happier times, she became a mother who cared for her daughters and was always over-protective of me.
    Ursula’s daughter, Tessa, could not come to terms with her haunting memories of her mother’s illness—at least not in the parts of the book I have completed. I, however, was able to make peace with most of my own recurring memories. Unlike Ursula, my mother did not abandon me. Still, there are names my mother called me and harsh things she told me that have been harder to process and have had a lasting effect on my own mental disposition.
     When I was a child, and then a teenager and a grownup, my mother repeatedly told me that she would have committed suicide were it not for my sister and me. I do not know if she chose life because we were rays of hope in her existence, or because she felt responsible for us as the mother of two young girls. One way or the other, I was glad she stayed alive, although I admit it is sometimes hard to think that she might have lived in misery for our sake.
     I have powerful childhood memories of her illness. The most distressing is an episode that happened in the winter of 1950, when I was six. It was an experience I fully describe in my memoir War Widow. I was standing alone on the balcony of my aunt’s apartment, watching through a glass door as my mother started to undress; her bare breast and back completely revealed. Her sisters yelled at her to do stop, their husbands being present, too. But appearing as if she was in a trance, her big green eyes like that of a stranger, she did not stop. My father, himself looking distraught, tried to stop her, grabbing her hands. But she fought him off. It was then that, sobbing, he began hitting her naked back with both his hands, trying to get her out of her spell. She quickly came back to her senses.
       I remember my terror and the sense of sorrow I felt for my father, coupled with a keen sense of understanding that I should stay on the terrace. I knew enough not to cry or be heard, and I understood that no one inside that room could pay attention to me, no matter how frightened I was. I knew I had to protect myself using an imagined shield I’d created long ago to help me cope.
      But did I think it was my fault that my mother suddenly turned into that unrecognizable wild woman and my temperate father morphed into a seemingly violent man? Did I feel helpless because there was nothing I could do to help my parents? The answers to these questions I do not have. What I am certain of is the compassion I feel for my mother and her memory.
    When she was in good health, I felt secure with her and loved. When she was well, she was the mother who put me first, who fought to place me in a better grammar school and who went to school to defend me when necessary. She made me the most beautiful Purim costumes (Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the rescue of the Jewish people in ancient Persia). Many of her costumes won first prizes in school. She was the mother who took me to buy my first bra, even though at fourteen I did not need one yet. She thought it was still important because she said she wanted me to have pretty breasts when I grew into a woman. She was the mother who took me to the dermatologist to prevent acne and to the gynecologist when my menstruation was unsteady. She was the mother who made sure that my sister and I wore the finest clothes and that we ate the best foods that our family could afford. And, in her good moods, she made me laugh with her humorous stories about her shtetl’s colorful characters, such as Motke the ganef (thief), Tzipe the pleplerke (babbler), Moishe the Kailiker (handicapped) Yankel the hoiker (hunchback), and Leib the rizikant (gambler).
    These memories, good and bad, stay with me on Mother’s Day and always.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

On Death and the Memoir

     On Tuesday evening, I attended an inspiring Fordham University celebration “The Art of the memoir,” marking the recent publication of four memoirs and a collection of personal essays written by five faculty members of the university’s English Department. The writers, including Mary Bly (Eloisa James), Richard Giannone, Eve Keller, Kim Dana Kupperman, and Elizabeth Stone, discussed the genre and read from their work. Topics included love, loss, the AIDS crisis, the Holocaust, and the experiences of an American temporarily living in Paris. During the Q&A period, Susan Greenfield, another faculty member in the university’s English Department, noticed a common death theme in all five works and asked whether death is a prerequisite for memoir writing.
     The moderator, Susan Kamil of Random House and Dial Press imprints, replied that the requirement to write a memoir is not necessarily death but a strong urge to tell a compelling story the writer must share with others. I agreed wholeheartedly. But when Professor Greenfield asked her question, it hit me that my own memoir War Widow is filled with deaths: my own widowhood and the deaths of my infant brother whom I had never seen, the deaths of my premature newborn, my brother-in-law, my sister, my parents, friends who were taken by war or disease, a former lover, the death of relatives who perished in the Holocaust and the deaths of others who lived long and productive lives.
     But my memoir is not about death; it is about strength and courage, hope, determination, resilience, endurance and triumph.
     Yet, I must admit that I think of death when I realize how quickly time is passing as I get older. But it is not the fear of death or my afterlife that preoccupies me, for I do not know if human consciousness exists after we physically leave earth.
     But what if there is an afterlife? Séance practitioners say that we can connect there with the same people with whom we knew on earth. If so, will my mother be finally happy? Will she be pleased that I defended her when my aunts spoke ill of her, or will she blame me for not doing so forcefully enough? Will my father be able to show his affection for me openly instead of waiting for me to be asleep, unaware of his kiss on the cheek? Will my sister and I be as close in heaven as we were on earth?
     And Yigal, my husband who died in war, I can’t help but wonder:  Will I finally confront him about the lack of trust I had for him because of that French woman on the beach and the other women? Will I tell him how I got even that one silly time? And what about his best friend, Aaron, who raped me when Yigal was no longer on earth? Will I tell Yigal that I resented him for having such friends? Will I tell Aaron that though I had never forgiven him, I learned to make peace with that dreadful event?
     And Danko, my powerful, charismatic married lover who was the reason I left my familiar life behind: Will I ask him why he shunned me after I had my abortion? Did I dishonor him when I aborted his child without his knowledge? Will I have closure with him there?
     But why wonder about death and the afterlife when I can rejoice at the richness of the life I have created for myself here on earth?
     Perhaps like many of us I wonder whether the afterlife, if it exists, is the place we’ll be accountable for our lives and how we lived them. That’s what a memoir is, too. It’s not just telling a story, but it’s also taking responsibility for it. It’s also the place the memoirist shapes a story and frames it the way she or he wants it framed. 

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