New York, 1964: I have just descended concrete steps into a clammy hole in the ground with my Grandma Bernie for my first subway ride. Born Basya Shapiro in 1905 in a Russian shtetl near the Neva River she was the last of her family to be born in Russia, landing at Ellis Island in her mother’s arms. She holds my hand tightly as we push into the crowded car which had just roared into view with an unholy squeal. “Hold on to the pole, Nettie!” As we flew into the darkness, the racket was deafening and I remember looking up at her calm expression and thinking, “my grandmother is the bravest woman in the world.”
Los Angeles, 1967: It’s Christmas Eve and my little brother is complaining about the lack of a Christmas tree in our apartment. We do have two large socks taped to the mantle, to be filled with hard candies, tennis balls, and other odd junk in a vague approximation of whatever Gentile kids might get in their stockings, a compromise my mother says is only in place while Jeffy is still little, and I should help her find his shoes and warm coat. Our dad brings round the station wagon parked a few blocks away and we pile in the ‘back-back’ with our pillows and blankets. We’re going to visit Christmas! We drive over Coldwater Canyon to the Valley and tour through residential Sherman Oaks and Valley Glen, marveling at the colored lights, the five pointed stars, Santa sleighs with reindeer, nativity scenes and holly wreaths. We fall fast asleep on the drive home and have to be carried back inside.
Los Angeles, 1973: I have spent every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday for the past five years determined not to learn Hebrew and live out my fantasy of being a juvenile delinquent while maintaining good grades at my regular school. Despite my best efforts, I have been taught the Hebrew for “Be quiet, please,” and, for some reason to this day I know the word for ‘Horse.’ I also learn my HafTorah and portion for my Bat Mitzvah in February. After the ceremony I have a legendary party in our living room. My Dad has rented a jukebox, pushed our furniture against the walls, and made himself scarce. The event is catered with cold cuts and sodas from the Carthay, my grandfather’s deli. No adults allowed except for my cool twenty-five year old aunt, who keeps punching the buttons for the year’s big song–Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly’–making slow dancing obligatory. As I said, legendary.
Santa Barbara 1978: Freshman year, my dorm is populated with blonde party girls and tanned surfer boys. I am a miserable wannabe punk rocker with no tan and a slightly transgressive burgundy streak in my chestnut hair. I eat dinner alone and read poetry on a ratty couch in the lobby. It’s the start of Winter Break and most of the dorm has already gone home. A tall older student approaches me. He has very dark skin and speaks formally with a lilting accent. “Where are you from?” he asks me. “Hollywood,” I tell him. He is Samuel, from Nigeria. He asks me why I haven’t gone home to celebrate Christmas with my family. I tell him that my family’s holidays don’t start until after Christmas this year. His eyes light up like all the potential of foreign exchange has come true for him in this moment and he says, “Ah! You are a Jewess!”
Paris 1979: My Eurail Pass, orange backpack, and battered copy of Lonely Planet Guide to Europe have landed me in front of a funky rundown hotel in the Marais. The book said it was cheap, clean, and owned by an eccentric Algerian woman who painted the walls red, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and drank mint tea, all of which turned out to be accurate. I arrived late at night to find another solo traveller, a brown-haired Swedish girl, talking to the owner sitting in an enormous velvet chair. There was only one room left, but it had a double bed and if we didn’t mind sharing it, she could offer that. We agreed, and went upstairs with our things. I noticed that her last name sounded like a version of ‘Greenberg,’ and I asked her about it. Sure enough, her grandfather was a Polish Jew who escaped to Sweden at the beginning of the war. For some reason we got to talking about the Diaries of Anais Nin, and she made an observation that has stayed with me: through all her erotic bohemian adventures in ’30s and ’40s Paris, how is it that Nin never mentions the Nazi occupation, the Vichy government, the deportations of people she must have known? It’s as though she had lived outside of history. We went downstairs to take our landlady up on her offer of sweet mint tea and cookies and discovered that she was Jewish too, and so was her petite Morroccan maid. The four of us stayed up late, practicing Jewish geography.
Moscow 1982: The Russian capital is grey and covered in snow, but there are colorful flags from the Soviet Republics lining Tverskaya Street into Red Square. It’s the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Republic and even Castro is making an appearance. I am staying in a massive empty hotel with my English husband. We bought a cheap package tour from an English company more known for budget holidays in the sun. Only four hours by plane from Heathrow! Apart from a ‘Winter Festival Dinner’ at the hotel on December 25th, we are left totally alone to wander the city. I have a personal tradition, whenever I travel, to see if I can find an old synagogue. In Corsica, there was a small one up a narrow staired street. In Matagalpa, I heard there was one, but only found a Jewish family who told me it was long gone, and that they travelled to Managua for the High Holy Days. In Moscow, I was expecting a modest building or even a storefront, but what I found at 10 Bolshoy Spasogolinischevsky Lane was quite the opposite. As we entered the grand foyer, a man excitedly greeted us asking where we were from. When my husband said, “London,” he smiled delightedly, threw a yarmulke on Roland’s head, pointed me in the direction of the women’s balcony, and dragged my stunned and non-Jewish husband directly into the sanctuary. I think it was good for him.
Los Angeles, 1990: I’m in a small theater rehearsing a new play. It’s a large ensemble and the cast is made up of young actors from around the country who’ve come to LA to have a stab at film and television. I’m the only one with screen credits. The greenest of us is a young girl with the thickest Western Pennsylvania accent. She’s a natural talent and a total sweetheart. We’re all a little stressed, as it’s dress rehearsal, and she and I are getting ready in a room no bigger than a utility closet. Actually, it is the utility closet. The producer nervously pops his head in and asks if he can bum another cigarette from her (they’re both chainsmokers). “Thanks,” he says “Fifteen till curtain,” and disappears. “Again?” I ask her. He’s an okay guy, a little annoying, and the kind who’s always asking to borrow something. She moves in conspiratorially close and whispers to me, “I know, right? He’s such a Jew.” I lift my eyebrows and whisper back, “So am I.”
Los Angeles, 2003: I’m in my backyard with my extended family and friends celebrating my oldest son becoming a Bar Mitzvah. We’re eating Mexican food and cake while a Klezmer trio switches between Mazurkas and Norteñas. The small kids run after our cats and relatives and friends catch up with each other and congratulate Pablo. English and Spanish intermingle, and then, to my amazement, my aunt Alegria starts conversing with my friend Gigi’s parents in Judeo-Arabic. Both families had left Morocco, it turns out, one settling in Manaus in the Amazon and the other in Paris.
Porto, Portugal, October 2023: My second non-Jewish husband and I arrive in Spain on October 7 for the Empreinte Circle, an annual retreat of bra retailers hosted by one of our favorite vendors. After an educational weekend with our lingerie compatriots, during which I struggle to not be overwhelmed by the terrible news coming from Israel, we continue our vacation in Madrid, Lisbon, and finally Porto. I’ve heard there is an old synagogue built by an Iraqi Jewish family in the 1920’s and completed in 1938. The guidebook said the sanctuary had tiled walls and “was not to be missed.” We walked a long way from the city center to find it. There were two armed guards in front with bullet-proof vests. They were not allowing visitors in at this time, and tersely directed us to move along.
Ellis Island, 1906: My Grandma Bernie Shapiro didn’t come to New York alone. Between 1903 and 1906, a bloody wave of pogroms swept through Tsarist Russia, driving hundreds of thousands of Jews to New York in particular. Thousands were murdered in hundreds of incidents throughout the Jewish Settlement area (the “Pale”).
When I think of the desperation they fled, and the lives they built–which is my life–with nothing in their pockets but their Jewishness–I can only bow my head.
Am Yisrael Chai
עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי