His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Ten

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 10. Enjoy!

Chapter Ten

IMG_2489The trip to Altoona was uneventful, or, as uneventful as long trips can be with small children. We left Brooklyn at 6:30 in the evening, partly because I wanted to get some work done in Altoona during the next day, and partly because we figured the kids would sleep in the car. They did, eventually, at about eleven o’clock and after more songs, snacks, bathroom stops and stories than I cared to remember. I had brought along a collection of Jewish folktales that my parents had given the kids for Chanukah. I was surprised to read in the back of the book that many of the stories had Chasidic roots and some were even attributed to the Baal Shem Tov himself. The kids particularly liked one story about an illiterate shepherd boy who can play the flute but can’t read a word of the prayer book. He goes to synagogue and is devastated to realize that he can’t pray. So instead, he plays a song on his flute to God. The other congregants are scandalized by his impropriety, but in the end the boy triumphs when the rabbi declares that the music he made with the flute was a prayer that went straight to God because it came from the boy’s heart. It seemed to sum up what I had read about Chasidism, with its embrace of the poor and uneducated masses and allowing everyone access to God through expressions of heartfelt joy.

It was a long trip, almost seven hours with all the stops. When we finally got to the hotel, checked in, carried in the sleeping kids and the bags and pillows, Simon and I had collapsed in our bed and fallen right asleep. I still hadn’t found the right opportunity to tell him the details about yesterday’s meeting with Sarah Gelberman.

In the morning, the first stop was the town clerk’s office. I left Simon back at the hotel with the kids, on their way to the heated indoor pool. Altoona was a small city in Western Pennsylvania, not far from one of the Penn State campuses, which had reached its zenith during the height of the steam railroad’s dominance in industry in the forties. While there was clearly an effort towards rehabilitation going on, it was also clear that the downtown had seen better days. The city clerk’s office was located in a small, nondescript municipal building downtown that, according to the sign in the lobby, housed Altoona’s Department of Taxation, the City Manager, the City Solicitor, The Purchasing Department, the City Inspector, the Zoning Department, the Water Authority and the Water Billing Office.

The clerk’s office was on the second floor, up a wide staircase. A black door with a brass sign next to a water fountain announced, “City Clerk.” I opened the door and entered a large, drafty room. Inside was a row of chairs facing a low railing. Behind the railing sat a middle-aged woman at a battered metal desk, entering information into a computer. The rest of the space behind her was taken up with rows and rows of filing cabinets and steel shelves of boxes labeled by number. In one corner was another woman, also working intently at a computer. On the left was a bank of offices, to which the frosted glass doors were closed. Sunlight filtered in through dingy arched windows at the back of the aisles. The woman at the front of the room looked up at me, her teased blond hair and red lipstick the brightest things in this drab room. The nameplate in front of her computer informed me that she was Mrs. A. Romero.

“May I help you?” she asked politely, glancing back at her screen.

“Yes, hi,” I began. “I’m doing some research and I need information on a former resident of Altoona.”

“Alive or deceased?” she asked mechanically.

“Alive,” I said.

She cocked her head slightly, looking in my general direction. “Well, honey, if the person is alive there is very little I can do for you, ‘cept what’s public domain.”

“Yes, I know. That’s fine. That would help. What I’m looking for specifically is a teaching certificate.”

She frowned, looking quickly over her shoulder to the row of offices behind her. “Now, this isn’t about a lawsuit of some sort, is it?”

I smiled, trying to look as innocuous as possible. “No, no, not at all. I’m a genealogist, trying to track down some information for a client, whose grandfather used to live here. It’s a surprise for his birthday, so I can’t ask him directly.”

Pushing her chair back from her desk, she looked up at me with interest. “Well, isn’t that the sweetest thing. My husband is working on his family tree. It’s a lot of work, but soooo interesting. Now what’s the name of this former Altoona resident of yours?”

“Jack Gelberman,” I said.

A smile broke out on her face. “Gelberman? And you say he was a teacher? A man in his mid-seventies or so, it would be?”

I nodded, holding my breath. Could she have known him? That kind of coincidence only happened in books.

“Why, honey, that must be Mr. Gelberman who taught at the high school. I’m a local myself. My Dad came out here to work for the railroad. Sometimes it still just seems like a real small town. Sure I knew him, a sweetheart of a man, quiet but so kind and thoughtful. Always had a word of encouragement, always believed in his students. I had Mr. Gelberman myself for basic science, so many years ago. And then my daughter had him for physics. That was his specialty. I was terrible at science, but Tina, my daughter, she was a very good student. He was one of her favorite teachers. How nice to think of him again after all this time.” She sighed and continued. “Tina became a teacher herself, you know, and I think it was in part because of the example of Mr. Gelberman. He was never too busy to help a student, never made anyone feel stupid, even people like me who didn’t understand a thing. He was so smart, he probably could have been a great physicist, but no, this was what he wanted, to teach high school for his whole career. Don’t know how he had the patience. Here, come on in.” She raised a latch in the railing and a portion swung out to allow me to enter the inner sanctum. She patted the empty chair next to her desk. “Sit down. Let me pull his file.” She got up and walked to the back of the room while I made myself comfortable. “Such a small world, you know. Let’s see, where would it be?”

Her description of Jack Gelberman sounded a great deal like Mrs. Freiburg’s description of Nossen Shlomo. A good man, a mensch, kind and compassionate, but quiet, not leadership material, not ambitious.

She continued looking, talking to me while she searched. Her voice floated back to me from between the cabinets and through the shelves. “I remember his son Nathan, he graduated high school with my little sister. Is it Nathan asked you to do this research?”

“No,” I called back to her. “It’s his granddaughter.”

“How absolutely sweet. Which one? Ah, I think I found it here.” She reappeared from behind a file cabinet, carrying a manila folder.

“Sarah.”

“Sarah. Yes, I remember Sarah. They moved a while ago, around the same time Mr. Gelberman retired I think, but I remember the grandkids. You know, they sort of stuck out around here, but boy were they cute. I remember running in to him at the playground. I had taken my grandkids, and he was there with his. Such a sweet man, so good with kids.”

She began to tell me about her own grandchildren, but I wasn’t listening. I nodded and oohhed and aahhed appropriately when she showed me the framed pictures of them on her desk, but I was too busy processing the information that Sarah Gelberman had been born and lived here in Altoona. Why, then, would she not have told me her grandfather had lived here? She must have known. And what did Mrs. Romero mean by telling me that they stuck out around here? Was she referring to Sarah’s bright red hair? Did all of Sarah’s siblings have the same color hair? Red hair was not common, surely, but it wasn’t that remarkable.

“So would you like to see the teaching certificate?” she asked, pulling me out of my reverie.

“Yes, please.”

She opened the folder, pulled out a yellowed certificate, and handed it to me. There it was, actual documentary proof of Jacob Gelberman’s existence. Holding a document was very different somehow than reading something on a computer screen. According to the certificate, he received a B.A. in physics from the Penn State campus in State College, Pennsylvania, in 1952. He’d continued at Penn State, getting an M.A. in physics and finishing the requirements for a teaching license in 1954. Those dates would jibe with Sarah’s information that he had been a Holocaust survivor, because it would have meant that he had arrived here at the latest around 1948. He’d worked at Altoona High School from 1954 until his retirement in 1996. The certificate also listed his previous places of employment before he began to teach. Between 1951-1954 he worked at a Seltz’s Shoe Emporium as a clerk, and before that, beginning in 1947, he worked at B. Solomon and Son’s Grocery. So he had probably arrived in 1947. It looked like a typical immigrant’s story, arriving with nothing and working at non-professional jobs, getting an education, and landing in the middle class. As a teacher he would not have been wealthy, but his family would have been comfortable, and he would have a nice pension for his retirement years.

It was all interesting information, and helped add to the picture I in my mind of Jack Gelberman. The most interesting bit of information though, was what was listed on the line next to “place of birth.” The handwriting was cramped and hard to read, but it was clear enough that I could make out the words, Chalisz, Poland. I knew from my reading that Chalisz was a variant spelling of Halizch.

I had to hold my breath for a moment. Even though I hadn’t wanted to share my doubts with Simon, in the back of my mind I’d been plenty concerned that Sarah Gelberman was leading me on a wild goose chase. But here it was, evidence on an official document. It still didn’t prove beyond a doubt that his grandfather was the Halizcher rebbe, but all evidence was pointing in that direction. How many other Jack Gelbermans of just this age could there have been from Halizch, Poland? Then again, there were still plenty of questions. I needed definitive proof, but I also needed a plan. In the meantime, I asked to see his voter registration information.

“I can’t tell you who he voted for,” she said laughing, “but I can tell you the first time he was on the voter registration rolls. That I’ve got right here.” She turned to the computer and got to work. “Been a registered voter since 1956. If he was a Republican, he would have helped get Eisenhower elected. But if you don’t mind me asking, how does that help you? Maybe it’s something I could tell my husband.”

Great, I thought, win her over by giving her a lesson in genealogy. Whatever works. “If I know when he first voted, it might give me some idea of when he became naturalized. It takes five years to become a citizen and be eligible to vote. We know from the employment records that the latest he could have arrived in the U.S. was 1947. So he should have been eligible to vote as early as 1953. Why the gap? It’s probably not significant. Either he wasn’t interested in voting until it was a presidential election, or he had just not gotten around to it until then. What it gives me is an approximate date of the latest possible time he might have arrived, which in this case I didn’t really need that since I had his employment history, but it can still be useful. And it also gives me a good estimate of the earliest time he might have arrived. We don’t know anything before 1947. If he had been a registered voter earlier than ’53, we’d have to assume he had been in the country before ’47. In this case, however, either he wasn’t interested in voting, or he really did arrive right around the time he appeared here in Altoona and started working for the grocer.”

“Wow, that’s clever!” she exclaimed. “I have to tell Anthony! Thanks for the tip.”

While I had been discussing voter registration with Mrs. Romero, the other half of my brain had been hatching a plan. This next part wasn’t going to be easy. Mrs. Romero seemed so nice, I hated to be devious. But devious I would be.

“It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much. You’ve been so helpful to me.” With as much casualness as I could muster, I said, “He seems like such a nice man, from everything I’ve heard about him. And did you know Mrs. Gelberman too?”

She smiled again. “Not well. She passed away some years ago. But she was lovely too, like him. She used to volunteer a lot, at the library, and with the Red Cross when they did blood drives, things like that. Always trying to help. Not as quiet as her husband, but still a private person. I think she also went through the war. You know. A terrible thing those people must have lived through. We don’t have a whole lot of people of the Jewish faith here, but those who are here are good people. The town made a real effort after the war to welcome the refugees and helped them get settled.”

“Were there a lot of them that came here?”

“No, not that I know of. I think just a handful of some young, single people like Mr. Gelberman must have been back then. People without families, who could make fresh starts in a place like this. Gave them opportunities to work and learn professions. We should all take such good care of each other, you know. It was a nice thing.”

“Did the Gelbermans ever talk about their experiences, that you know of?”

“Oh, no, never, not in public anyway.” She sighed. “It wasn’t done. You know, today nothing’s private anymore, with those talk-shows about sex and scandals and all, but once it wasn’t considered polite to talk about people’s tragedies and sorrows. As far as I know, and I didn’t know them well, they never spoke about it publicly. Still, Altoona was a small town then, and we all knew. There weren’t many foreigners, and with those accents they stood out. We just knew they’d gone through something terrible, but I can’t tell you what exactly. I didn’t even know he was Polish until I saw that teaching certificate just now. We just thought of him as European, maybe Austrian or something. Tina once told me that during a blood drive at school she saw his arm—he had those numbers there. She was real upset about it. But he always took care to wear long-sleeve shirts, even in the summer, didn’t want people to see, I guess. Didn’t want to call attention to himself. What people do to each other in this world, it’s terrible.”

Trying to steer the conversation back to Mrs. Gelberman, I asked, “So did they meet here in Altoona?”

She pinched up her face, thinking for a moment. “Well, that I can’t tell you, honey. I would have been in grade school then, I didn’t know them or anything about them yet. It’s possible, though. Maybe they met at the university.”

Time to go in for the kill. “But even if they met elsewhere, they might have gotten married here.”

“Possibly. Maybe. I don’t really know. It doesn’t look like he lived much of anywhere else since he got here, but who knows.”

“So, if they had gotten married here, their marriage certificate would be on record here with you.”

Wagging her finger at me, she smiled. “You’re a cute one. You know full well I can’t show that to you. As long as he’s alive, and he’s not the one asking for it, it’s against the rules. Invasion of privacy.” But she laughed nicely, to show that she wasn’t offended by my attempt. “Sorry, honey.”

“I don’t want to invade his privacy. It’s just that if I could see his marriage certificate, I might be able to find out his parents’ names. And that would be a big help in getting on with the research for Sarah. That is, for his birthday. It would lead me to the research I need to do in Europe about his family.” I decided to play it for all it was worth. With her husband working on his own family tree so she might understand. “The information on his marriage certificate is the key to the whole thing, you see.”

She cocked her head and looked at me sideways. Quietly, with a glance at the other woman in the back of the room, she said, “You know I can’t.”

“I know.”

“I shouldn’t.”

“I know.”
“It’s against all the rules.”

“I know.”

“No, I really can’t. I could get into big trouble.”

“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Okay, I’m glad you understand.”

“Absolutely. Positively.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry for asking. Sarah will be so disappointed. But it’s not fair of me to ask.”

“I wish I could help.”

“I know. I appreciate it anyway.”

“No, I just can’t.”

“I know.”

Silence. Checkmate. She sat still, checking her nail polish finger by finger, then swiveled her chair and looked at the woman at the other desk, who appeared completely engrossed in her work. She got up from her chair, took an index card and a pencil, and went to the back corner of the cavernous room, on the side far from where the other woman sat. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear the click of her heels as she searched for the right cabinet. The sound of drawers opening and closing echoed through the room. After a few moments of silence, punctuated only by the other woman’s tapping on her keyboard, I heard the heels coming closer. Mrs. Romero came around the corner of a row, and headed back to me.

“Well, then,” she said. “No, no record of that. Sorry I wasn’t able to help you.” As she spoke, she passed me the index card.

I glanced at the paper and saw that she had written the following:

                        Mother – Basya Marcusevich

                        Father – Nathan S. Gelberman

That was it! A direct connection to Yosef Yehudah, the Halizcher rebbe. Mrs. Freiburg had told me that one of Yosef Yehudah’s daughters was named Basya, and that she had married Nossen Shlomo Gelberman. Nathan was the English version of Nossen, which Jack must have thought was more appropriate for American documents. The “S.” had to be for Shlomo. And it was looking very likely indeed that Jack Gelberman was really the grandson of the last Halizcher rebbe, despite the stories that neither he nor his brother Leib had survived the Holocaust. This was amazing. With this information, it would be relatively easy to access further documentation. I looked up at Mrs. Romero, wanting to express my gratitude. But she had turned her attention to a pile of papers next to her computer. I coughed softly, hoping she would look at me. But she kept her face averted, absorbed in her papers.

“Thank you so much,” I said.

“Enjoy your stay in Altoona,” Mrs. Romero said stiffly, dismissing me.

***

The minute I got back to the hotel Simon relinquished responsibility for the kids. All signs indicated that he was extremely stressed and not happy to be here, stuck in a hotel room in Altoona with the two kids. They had already gone swimming, and visited the mini-golf across from the hotel.

Before I could even fill him in on my productive morning, he held up a hand and said, “Abby, not right now. I’m not in the mood for any of that. There’s something big going on at work, which don’t forget is the thing that basically pays all our bills, and I need to deal with it. Just let me be.”

Realizing that it wouldn’t be wise to respond with what I wanted to say, I turned the t.v. on for the kids, who were delighted at this special treat. A little bit of Cartoon Network wouldn’t scar them for life.

“Okay, Simon, give me ten minutes and the kids and I will be out of here.”

But he didn’t answer. He had plugged in his laptop and portable printer, and was already connected to the hotel’s wireless. It was clear he was mentally back at his office, even if he was physically in Altoona. “Okay, I’m here,” I heard him say into the phone.

I sat down on the bed and made some notes in my file about this morning’s events. What a lucky break I’d had. It would have been glorious if I could have gone on-line myself, but there was no way I was going to attempt that now.

As soon as I was done, I gathered the kids and we went back downtown to tour the Altoona Railroader’s Memorial Museum. Instead of being grateful or thanking me, Simon gave me a dirty look as we left the room, and barked at the kids to be quiet while he was on the phone.

The kids were enthralled by the museum. Caleb loved anything to do with trains, and Hannah had a great time playing store and house in the re-created storefronts and period rooms of Altoona history. In the heat of the moment, I bought them both train whistles in the museum gift shop, which I knew I was going to sorely regret later. On the way back to the hotel, I stretched out our time by taking the kid’s to MacDonald’s, another special treat. If you can’t break rules once in a while, why have rules to begin with? Filled up on chicken nuggets and fries, and after the whistles were confiscated, the kids fell asleep during the ten minutes it took to get back to the hotel. I called the room on my cell phone, but it was busy, so Simon must still be dealing with work. I called his cell, and left him voicemail that we were outside the hotel in the car, and that I was going to wait for a while to give the kids a chance to sleep. I knew that if I tried to put Caleb into the stroller to get him upstairs, or even if I carried him, he would wake up and never go back to sleep. Hannah I couldn’t carry anymore anyway. And if they didn’t sleep this afternoon, we were in for a rough evening at services. So I sat in the car while they slept, reviewing my notes and figuring out how to proceed. As I went through everything, I realized there were still more questions than answers.

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Nine

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 9. Enjoy!

Chapter Nine

IMG_2224I was upstairs with Caleb when I heard the doorbell to my office ring. We had rigged it so that I could hear the bell wherever I was in the house. Caleb was mid-tantrum, refusing to wear anything to the park but his favorite fire engine red shorts, despite the fact that it was a cold autumn day.

It was probably someone selling candy for the local public school, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. But you never know. I opened the window in Caleb’s room and leaned my head out. Looking down, I saw a head of bright red hair. My lucky day.

“I’ll be right down,” I yelled. She titled her head up, squinted, and waved.

I took a deep breath. “Caleb, you may not wear those shorts. End of discussion. If you do not put on pants, you will not go to the park.”

Caleb crumpled, deflated. “Can I wear my Batman costume?” he asked.

Another deep breath. “If you wear pants and a sweatshirt underneath, yes, you may.”

He jumped up and put his arms around my neck. “Thank you, Mommy. Thank you!”

I kissed him. “Bye, Cabe, I gotta go now. Go get dressed, and Ronit will take you to the park. Love you.”

“Bye, Mommy,” he answered, busy looking through his drawers for just the right pants and shirt. “Love you too.”

***

I opened the door to my office and let Sarah Gelberman inside.

She nodded her head in greeting, nervously tucking her hair behind her ear as she seated herself on my couch. Luckily this time it was clear of toys.

Before I could even stall with pleasantries while I decided how to approach our conversation, she began to talk.

“How is the research going? What have you found about my grandfather?”

Taking a seat across from her, I studied her demeanor. She seemed to be earnestly interested, but what was the nervousness about? “It’s going well,” I began. “I’ve found some information, but it’s just getting going. I told you it would take some time.”

“Yes, I know, but I’m so excited.”

“I understand. What I don’t entirely understand though is why you didn’t leave me any way to contact you. I need to be able to get in touch. Without a way to contact you, I can’t do the job.”

She chewed her lip. “Okay, well, it’s just that I’m a student, you know, so it’s hard to find me. I’m not in a lot. Classes, studying, you know.”

“Don’t you have voice mail? Or an answering machine?”

“My roommate doesn’t always give me my messages.”

“A cell phone?”

“I don’t keep it on much. Too expensive.”

“So give me your parents’ number. It’s policy,” I lied, opening a file folder. “I need to have a contact number and address in my files.”

She thought for a moment. “Okay, okay, sure, no problem. My address is 47 East Second Street. The phone is 673-9136. 212.” She proceeded to give me her cell number as well, and watched as I wrote the information into my file.

“So what have you found out?” she asked.

“Well, I’m in the process of tracing your grandfather’s family tree. Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting information about the Halizcher rebbe Leib Mendel and his family, so I’m working on it from both ends. The two family trees still haven’t met in the middle, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. I just haven’t come up with the documentation to prove anything yet. And until I do, I can’t find out anything about your father’s brother. But I’m making progress.”

“Okay, sounds good,” she said. “How long do you think this is going to take?”

I shrugged. “Hard to know. Another week or two, at least. It depends how complicated it gets. If I need to contact people in Israel regarding records of Holocaust survivors, it could take much longer. I thought you said there was a lot of time.”

“Yes, yes, I know. I’m just excited.”

“Are you sure there’s no rush, Sarah?” I asked, trying to catch her eye. “Has something changed?”

She was skilled at avoiding eye contact. She kept her eyes firmly focused on her right leg, which she swung up and down over her left knee. “No, no, really. I’ve just never done anything like this before. It’s cool.”

I gave her a brief report on the information I was collecting, and the ways that I was going about collecting it. I told her about my attempt to learn more about Chasidism. I even told her about my visit to Borough Park, though I left out Mrs. Freiburg’s name and any mention of Arieh Freiburg. It was clear that Sarah Gelberman did not completely trust me, and I certainly did not yet trust her. Not revealing my sources was something I had learned long ago, and it seemed especially fitting in this situation. Despite the fact that she was the client, I didn’t want to give her any more information than necessary until the story came together.

When I finished filling her in, she thanked me and laid a thick envelope on the table.

“I haven’t gone through the original money you gave me,” I said, surprised.

She nodded. “It’s okay. In case you have to do some traveling. In the end, if there’s anything left over, you can return it.”

“I really don’t need more for a while,” I said. “You’ve paid my retainer, and given me an advance that will cover quite a lot of travel.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay. My parents. You know. This way they’re sure you’ll have enough to keep going. Won’t stop in the middle, that kind of thing. It’s okay.”

I looked at her, again to no avail. Her gaze was firmly focused on a stain on the carpet. Someone was going to have to give this young woman some lessons in eye contact. “I wouldn’t stop in the middle. That’s not how I work,” I replied. “Worse comes to worse, I would just call you. Your parents could send a check.”

“It’s okay,” she repeated. “No need. They feel better this way.”

“Okay, then,” I said, shrugging. “Tell them not to worry.”

I walked her to the door, promising to provide an update in a week.

“And remember,” she said, as she turned to go, “It’s supposed to be a surprise. You can’t contact my grandfather, or do anything that will clue him in that something is going on.”

“Don’t worry,” I said to her, smiling my most reassuring smile. I’m quite discrete.”

“I know,” she answered. “That’s what I’d heard.”

It was only afterward, as I was entering my notes from our conversation into the computer that I realized I had never asked her why she told me her grandfather had lived in New York City and not Altoona. What kind of researcher was I! So much for my fantasies — I would never have made it as a real P.I. Not only that, there were countless other questions I hadn’t asked her as well. Like, for example, if her father had any other siblings who might be able to supply more information. In fact, come to think of it, I’d done most of the talking, and I hadn’t learned anything new from Sarah Gelberman at all.

I was furious at myself for not being focused and prepared. I opened a new document, and began typing a list of questions for Sarah Gelberman. No more fooling around. If I was going to do this, I had to do it right. And if there really was something weird going on here, I had to find out. When I finished the list, I printed it out and put a copy in the file folder labeled “Jack Gelberman.” That made me feel a little bit better. The next time I talked to her, I would be ready to ask questions and hear answers.

I dialed the phone number she had given me, hoping to leave a message for her to call me as soon as she got home. If not, I would just keep calling, even if it meant trying her by cell phone on the ride to Altoona. I was bound to get her eventually. Instead, after three rings I got a message from the phone company telling me that this phone number was disconnected. I had felt like an idiot a minute ago. But now I felt like an absolute moron.   And what’s worse, a gullible moron. Needless to say, the cell number wasn’t active either.

That was when I remembered the envelope on the table. Inside was a stack of hundred dollar bills. One hundred of them, to be exact. I know, because I counted. And then I counted again, and added it to the money she had already given me. She said her parents were funding this. Still, it was a lot of money to spend on a birthday present.

***

Simon arrived in time for an early dinner before we set off for Altoona.

“I can’t believe you talked me into this, Abby,” he grumbled as he picked out a suitcase from the hall closet.

“Oh, come on Simon, we’ll have a grand adventure, off into the unknown,” I said, throwing toys and books and snacks for the kids into canvas bags. “Who knows what we’ll discover. It will be fun.”

“With this particular project of yours, it’s certainly true that who knows what we’ll find. Whether or not it will be fun remains to be seen. I’m just worried — it’s seems like there’s more here than meets the eye.”

“It seems so innocent on the surface. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for the weird stuff, for Sarah’s hinkiness and for that Arieh guy’s creepiness.” I tossed tapes and a cassette recorder into the bag, along with Hannah’s favorite coloring book. “I’m hooked, though, whatever it is. I want to know what’s going on.” And I hadn’t quite gotten around to telling Simon all the details of my meeting with Sarah this afternoon. I had left out crucial items, like the money, and the fact that Sarah had given me fake phone numbers. It wasn’t that I wasn’t going to tell him, but it was a just a matter of when and how. The timing would have to be right.

Simon’s disembodied voice floated down from the bedroom. “I do too, but in a sort of distant way. I’d be happy reading about it in a book. Not seeing it unfold right up close. I don’t want you to get caught in the middle of something ugly or dangerous.”

“Hey, Simon, pack the kid’s toothbrushes and toothpaste,” I yelled back at him. “And make sure I took my toiletry bag. If it’s still there in the bathroom, please pack it. Thanks. Anyway, how could this be dangerous? And ugly, sure, a lot of the research I do touches on things that are ‘ugly,’ but I’m only the researcher. It doesn’t affect me.”

There was silence as we each continued to pack. I went into the kitchen and grabbed packs of juice boxes, then checked that the kids’ pillows, jackets and sleeping bags were by the front door.

Simon came down the stairs with his bag. “Let’s just hope that’s true in this case, Abby, let’s just hope that’s true.”

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Eight

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 8. Enjoy!

Chapter Eight

IMG_2275Thank God for friends. Was there a prayer for that, I wondered.   Sometime during the night, while I was occupied with other matters, Leah e-mailed me the name and phone number of the Reform rabbi in Altoona. She had also given me the name of Altoona’s Conservative congregation and a link to their website. What was even better was that she knew the Reform rabbi, Rabbi Greg Bergman, personally—they had studied together at a rabbinic conference a few years earlier—and she promised that she would call him today and give him the head’s up on my call. Good friends, especially reliable ones, were truly something to be thankful for.

I was going on a hunch that if Jack Gelberman had really lived in a small city like Altoona, it was likely that he had been a member of a synagogue at one time. That wouldn’t necessarily have been the case in a big city, but small cities without large Jewish populations were different. And since his children and grandchildren seemed to still be Jewish, then the chances were even greater that he had at least belonged to a synagogue when his children were young. Contacting the two local synagogues seemed like a good place to begin gathering information, and might provide useful leads onward.

Sometimes genealogical research was like archeology. There were so many layers of sediment to dig through. I’d do hours of research to find out someone’s mother’s maiden name, but that was only in order to get to the next layer, like the mother’s birth certificate or place of birth, or her mother’s maiden name or her parents’ marriage license. Every new bit of information led to another generation, another town, another trail of records. And there were often major roadblocks, especially when I worked for Jewish clients. Countless records were destroyed during the war. And even before the war, there were many inaccuracies and false turns. For example, from as early as the 19th century it had been illegal in Poland not to record a birth. But often people who lived far from registry offices would wait until there were several births to register, so that siblings born years apart would be registered together. The fall of the Soviet Union had been a big boon for genealogists, as previously closed archives were opened to researchers. It was frustrating work, but also exhilarating. Getting that elusive piece of data was a great rush.   It was always worth the work.

Occasionally I would promise myself that the next time things were slow, I would research my own family tree. It was crazy that I knew so little about my own family, given the skills and experience I had gained helping other people with theirs. I knew the websites to check, the libraries to visit, the books to read, the agencies to contact, the questions to ask. Yet there was something frightening about beginning the journey toward my own origins. I knew too well the kinds of surprises I stumbled across in other people’s family trees, and I wasn’t sure I was prepared to deal with whatever I might uncover in my own. Most than likely there was nothing—as far as I knew my family was a run-of-the-mill average Jewish American family of Eastern European descent. I had one great-great-great grandfather who had fought in the Civil War, one grandfather who had escaped the Tzar’s army, and one great-grandmother who had been a vocal E.V. Debs and Margaret Sanger supporter. In fact, family legend had it that that same great-grandmother had come to the United States alone at the age of sixteen because she had run away from the marriage her Chasidic father had arranged for her. All of which was interesting, but nothing too out of the ordinary in the annals of American Jewish history. Perhaps my reluctance had more to do with the disappointment I would feel if my family was simply ordinary. One thing I never wanted to be was ordinary, or typical. So I didn’t know which would be worse, to find some horrible surprise in my family tree, or to find none. All in all, better to not even do the research, at least not yet. I didn’t have a free moment to begin, anyway.

I had promised Hannah that I would take her and Caleb to the library after school, so there was a lot to accomplish in a short time. I got started by tackling one of the books that Rabbi Springer recommended, A History of Chasidism by Rabbi Nissim Rudowsky, filling up index cards with notes and questions. When I put the book down two hours later, my head was swimming with more questions than I had had before beginning to read. Chasidism was a fascinating topic, and I was learning a lot. There was so much I hadn’t understood about the place of Chasidism in Jewish history, and how far back some of the roots of this pietistic movement reached. Nor had I understood how much Chasidism influenced the rest of the Jewish world. Today they were seen, at least by modern, liberal Jews like myself, on the one hand as a quaint, anachronistic, sometimes even embarrassing minority within the Jewish world, an ultra-religious fringe that reminded us of where we might have come from, and just how far we had come. And on the other hand they were seen as a dangerous, threatening group of Jewish fundamentalists with a right-wing political agenda and unethical business practices. But of course, Chasidism was not simply old-time-religion, Jewish style, rather it was a specific expression of Judaism and Jewish spirituality that had its origins in a certain place and time in Jewish history. Today Chasidism seemed removed from the other branches of Judaism being practiced in the United States, and yet so many of the songs we sang in synagogue, the stories we told our children, and the spirituality we sought came out of Chasidism.

The other thing I was learning was about the devastation the Holocaust wreaked on Chasidism. I knew that Jewish life in Poland had been irrevocably destroyed, that a whole world and way of life had vanished. But I hadn’t understood up to now what that meant. Poland had been the central home of Chasidism since it was born in the 18th century. Among the hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust had been a great many Chasidim. Whole dynasties like the Halizchers were wiped out, complete histories were erased and family trees came to abrupt ends. Chasidism had had to be rebuilt, almost from scratch, after the war. The remnants of communities regrouped and rebuilt. Some rabbis had survived, and they gathered followers around themselves once again. Today Chasidism was thriving like it never had before. But the horror and magnitude of what had happened during the Holocaust was overwhelming. It didn’t matter how much I already knew about the Holocaust, how many books I had already read. It was still incomprehensible, beyond the imaginable.   And the faith in God and in human beings which so many had continued to show was also incomprehensible. And yet, if Jack Gelberman really was Yankeleh, the Halizcher Rebbe’s grandson, why had he turned his back on his past? Why had he let his grandfather’s followers believe for all these years that he was dead? What had happened to his faith during those terrible years in Europe? And why hadn’t he passed his story on to his children and grandchildren? If I did manage to put together a family tree for him, would it be as great a surprise as Sarah seemed to think it would be, or would he be upset or even angry to have his past dug up? And then back to that important, disturbing question—why did Sarah tell me her grandfather had lived in New York City, and not Altoona?

I lay on the couch, absorbed in thought for some time longer. Finally, I made myself get up. It was eleven o’clock, and I needed to leave in half an hour. It was time to call Altoona.

I asked to speak to Rabbi Bergman , identifying myself as a friend of Rabbi Brown’s, and his secretary put me right through.

Rabbi Bergman , or Steve as he asked me to call him, possessed a deep, melodic voice. I wondered if it was a natural attribute, or a skill he acquired in rabbinic school. I bet no one ever fell asleep during his sermons.

I had a story prepared about why I was doing this research, but at the last minute I decided to just explain the real reason, without going in to too many details. To my great delight, he knew Jack Gelberman.

“I’d be really happy to help you however I could,” Steve said. “It sounds like a nice thing for his granddaughter to want to do for him. But I don’t really know that much about him. And you realize, of course, that what I can tell you depends on what you’re looking for. There are things that would be inappropriate for me to share about a congregant, of course.”

“Yes, sure,” I answered. “Like attorney-client privilege.”

“Something like that,” he said.

“I’m just looking for basic, public-domain kind of information, things that could lead me to other information. Just trying to track down his family tree, nothing sinister or mysterious,” I said, thinking I should have crossed my fingers when I said those last few words. It was hard to lie to a rabbi. “You know, since he came from Europe after the war, it’s hard to find those records.”

Steve cleared his throat. “Look, services start at eight Friday evening. I’ll be at the synagogue from around seven on. Why don’t you come by and we can talk a little bit. If I can help in anyway, I’m more than happy to. Okay?”

Great—eight o’clock services. Caleb and Hannah would be basket cases, and Simon himself would be undoubtedly annoyed. But I said, “Sure, that would be great. I really appreciate it. Um – just one quick question now, to make sure I’m not barking up the wrong tree entirely.”

“Okay.”

“I take it the Jack Gelberman you knew has moved out of Altoona.”

“Yes, that’s right. He retired and moved down to the West Coast of Florida a few years ago.”

Bingo! I took a deep breath, contained myself, and said calmly, “Great, see you Friday then..”

“Okay, good.”

Altoona, here we come. Better remember to check out some books on tape when we were at the library this afternoon. It was going to be a long ride.

***

The Committee didn’t meet on a regular basis, but we tried to get together as a group at least every other month. It was difficult, since everyone had complicated schedules. Some of the Committee members I saw and talked to on a regular basis, like Leah and Bird. Some I rarely saw outside of our get-togethers. But the group had a life of its own, like the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Individually, we were just a bunch of friends. But as a group, we were something amazing, a tightly knit organism of strong, intelligent, interesting women, as necessary for each of our existences as air and water.

Tonight we were meeting at Bird’s place. Bird was the daughter of former sixties flower children. Her brother was named Cloud and her sister was Sky. Thank goodness they stopped having children before they got to Frog or Grass. Bird and her partner Lydia lived in a spacious, airy, sun-filled loft in a part of Brooklyn known as DUMBO, the area Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It was a semi-industrial area that was also home to many artists and other urban pioneers. Their loft, decorated eclectically but with great care, had once been part of a thread factory, and its enormous windows offered panoramic views of the Hudson River, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Lydia’s collection of Yoruba art was displayed on glass shelves that wrapped around a center supporting column, and their collection of 19th century glass toilet water bottles was arranged around another column. Their many books were arranged alphabetically on bookshelves that covered whatever wall space was not taken up by the windows. All the furniture was either black or a soft, buttery cream. Every book was in its place, and there was no clutter on any visible surface. I knew Bird and Lydia well enough to know that it wasn’t just because there were guests–they really lived like this. Then again, they had no children.

Besides Leah and Bird, the Committee consisted of Meg, a documentary film-maker and professor; Emma, an ob/gyn who was getting married next summer; Claire, who worked in international banking and was pregnant; and Lucy, the director of a center that provided refuge and legal aid to battered women, and who had recently adopted a baby with her partner Amy. With the exception of Lucy, who was living in Northampton, Massachusetts, we had all wound up in the New York area in the last few years.

Bird put out some bowls of chips, salsa, and dips, along with sliced vegetables and freshly prepared endamame. I grabbed a chilled bottle of my favorite beer, Brooklyn Brewery’s Chocolate Stout, and hopped up on a stool.   How wonderful to be out in the evening just for fun, not for work, not something connected to the kids, just for myself. It was a treat whenever Simon and I got our acts together enough to go out on a date, but this was something I missed too, getting to go out on my own and see my friends.

As everyone arrived, clusters of conversations sprang up while the Mets and the Yankees slugged it out on the radio in the background. Bird and Leah were both serious baseball fans and had to have the game on. Claire asked me pregnancy questions, and I tried to allay her fears. She looked great, better than I ever did in either of my pregnancies. As a matter of fact, she looked better pregnant than I looked any day. Some people just had all the luck. She was a few inches taller than I, but looked even taller in her orange platform slingbacks. During the day Claire dressed buttoned-down corporate, but after hours she was something else altogether. She was one of those women who could make any crazy old outfit look like a new fashion trend.   Her shoulder-length curls were swept up in a loose knot at the top of her head.   She wore a tight-fitting orange and gray striped tube dress that showed off her new curves and bulging torso, and silver bangle bracelets. The woman had guts. During both my pregnancies my wardrobe consisted of three choices of black leggings, one pair of blue stretchy overalls, one black jumper and one denim jumper, and an assortment of over-size T-shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, and Simon’s discarded button-downs.

I couldn’t help ribbing Claire about what her pregnancy was doing to her breasts, which she herself normally described as concave. “You look great in that thing,” I said, “but I know the real reason you’re wearing those tight-fitting outfits, my dear, and it’s not to show off your belly.”

She smiled and wiggled her torso. “Hey, this is the first time I’ve had ‘em, so I might as well flaunt ‘em. Now I know how you girls feel. The only problem is, I can’t get a bra that fits right. I don’t even know what size I am anymore.”

“Yeah, and it keeps changing, too. Wait and see what happens when you start nursing!”

“Well, I’ll need nursing bras, but I need some good bras for now.”

“I’ve got the place for you. You’ve got to come with me to Miss Sylvia’s and meet the ladies. They’re the best fitters around.”

“Name the date and I’m there.”

Soon Bird began to produce an intriguing array of bowls and platters and dishes, and we heaped our plates before moving over to the sitting area. Bird was a great cook, having had to learn to fend for herself at an early age while her parents were otherwise occupied at rallies and sit-ins. She had prepared a do-it-yourself kind of meal that involved tortillas, caramelized red peppers, grilled vegetables, shredded cheese, whole cloves of roasted garlic, refried beans, brown rice, sautéed tofu, and salad, along with various salsas and sauces. The objective was to create your own fantasy vegetarian fajita. It was going to be messy, but delicious.

For some time there was only the sound of slurping, chewing, chomping, and swallowing. One of the things that amazed me when I first got to know this group of women was that no one in the group was afraid to eat. Up until I met them, I had only known women who were scared of food. In high school I learned that it wasn’t feminine to be hungry, finish the food on my plate, ask for seconds or eat with gusto. Instead, mealtimes were battlefields, during which every bite was a possible sabotage of the body-image we were supposed to aspire to in order to be attractive. Until college I hadn’t known that eating disorders were diagnosable and could be treated; I had thought it was simply normal for women to deny themselves food or to binge and purge.

The coffee table filled up with empty plates, and the room began to buzz with conversation. When it was my turn to give an update, I found myself telling them about Sarah Gelberman and my forays into the world of Chasidism.

“Chasidism, of all the things, Abby,” exclaimed Meg. “What’s the pull for you? Sounds like there’s something.”

I answered, “It’s interesting, a whole new world and familiar at the same time. I’m getting a crash course in a slice of Jewish life I know nothing about.”

Bird got in to lawyer mode, ready to challenge me. “What’s familiar about them? Is this some kind of back-to-your-roots thing? What do you have in common with a bunch of Jewish fringe radicals, these sexist racists who have some of the worst business practices when it comes to real estate in New York City.”

Leah, defender of the faith, jumped in. “Whoa, let’s hear it for multicultural sensitivity. Any other thoughts on the subject, Bird?”

Trying not to sound defensive, I said, “Come one, there’s all kinds. Some may be abusive slumlords, but just like in any group most are good people. And they’re not all one group anyway. There’s lots of different groups, and they don’t even all like each other. As for them being sexist, it’s not for me how they live, but you have to see it in context. It’s not sexist, just different.”

“All right, maybe,” conceded Bird. “It would take a lot to convince me there’s anything interesting or worthwhile about Chasids, but okay. I don’t know everything.”

“Just don’t tell your clients that,” Leah said, trying to interject some humor. “Like with any other group, stereotypes are stereotypes, and there are so many misunderstandings. And yeah, what happened in Crown Heights in ’91 brought a lot of ugliness to the surface, but it’s also about two groups, both of whom feel they are beleaguered and no one will cut them a break, trying to survive and even thrive in a small amount of space.”

“Okay, fine. Still, you have to admit there are some extreme aspects to the way they live their lives,” said Emma. “Last weekend a colleague had a Chasidic couple who were doing IVF. Saturday was going to be their day, nothing you can do about that. The commandment to be fruitful and multiply takes precedence over the commandment not to violate the Sabbath. So they got special permission from their rabbi to do the procedure on Shabbat, and they stayed near the office in a hotel Friday night so that they wouldn’t have to violate the Sabbath by driving. Okay, so far, so good. But when it was time to do the procedure, they realized that it wasn’t okay for the doctor to be doing what she had to do, since they knew she was Jewish. So they reached a compromise that the husband was comfortable with—the doctor could do the specialized work that only she could do, but they would ask for the help of a non-Jew sitting in the waiting room, and that person would be the one to turn the lights on and off and press the buttons on the sonogram, and do those kinds of things that constitute work that can’t be done on Shabbat.   Well, thank God there was someone in the waiting room who didn’t mind helping. But the whole thing was insane. What they can do, what they can’t do, getting the rabbi’s stamp of approval on everything.”

“Does your practice have a lot of Chasidic patients?” I asked.

“Yes, a good percentage. We’re talking about a group that puts a huge value on being fertile and multiplying. I see women who have had ten, twelve children. Can you imagine? The bigger the family, the better, and the more boys, even better. I’ve had to comfort women who have just given birth to their first child, a girl. And women who have just had their eighth, ninth, or tenth daughter, and still no son. And the worst is when for some reason they are not going to be able to have any more children, and they haven’t yet had a son. You can’t imagine the heartbreak.”

She was right, I really couldn’t imagine it.

“I saw a great documentary recently about them,” said Meg. “ It seems like a nice way to live in a lot of ways, in terms of the way the community takes care of itself. They seem to really support each other and do for each other in all sorts of ways. That’s something few of us experience today, that close sense of community and community support.”

“That’s true,” Emma agreed. “Lord knows we could all use more of that. But it’s a downside too. There’s not a lot of independent decision-making going on, not much room for divergent thinking or behavior. There’s a lot of looking over one’s shoulder. It’s intense social pressure.”

“What about the whole ritual bath thing? How can you justify a belief system in which women and women’s bodies are considered impure?” Bird asked.

Leah waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t buy into that perspective. Mikveh can be a beautiful, empowering thing. It’s not about physical impurity, it’s about ritual impurity. That whole issue is misunderstood. It’s about being re-born and emerging in a new spiritual state. I take people to the mikveh for conversion, or before a wedding, or to mark the end of something significant like chemo, and it’s very moving. As for the issue of monthly mikveh visits after menstruation, I hear that for religious couples having to abstain for a certain amount of time each month is a great aphrodisiac. Judaism isn’t anti-sex. After all, it’s a mitzvah to have sex on Friday nights. The Talmud actually says that women are entitled to be sexually satisfied by their husbands. It’s more about letting women have their own space while their have their periods, having ownership over their bodies and the rhythms of their cycles. That may sound archaic to us, but it’s pretty progressive when you think how long that’s been around.”

Claire laughed. “It sounds like it’s the kind of thing that depends on whether it’s a choice or an imposition. When I don’t want it, I don’t want it, and no one has the right to force me, but when I do, I don’t want some rabbi or priest or politician telling me I can’t. Right? ”

We all nodded.

“That’s the problem with so many of these religious systems, it’s other people telling you what to do,” she continued. “They’re boundary issues, who’s in, who’s out, how much can the system tolerate. Dylan wants to have this baby baptized, but I don’t know, I just can’t pledge my allegiance to the Catholic Church. My parents will be upset if we don’t, but how can I promise to raise this child a Catholic when I’m such a non-believer myself. I have no problem with being spiritual, with God per se, but I have problems with the church.”

Bird said, “Well, sweetheart, I was raised with no religion, and look how I turned out. Scary, huh?”

“You know what our problem is?” Meg asked. “We’re getting too dam old. We’re closer to forty than twenty. I used to be the young prodigy on the Film School faculty, as cool as my students, and now I’m starting feel like their mothers. They’re so young, and hip. I don’t even know what hip is anymore. That’s what’s scary. Who cares about religion, no offense Leah, but what about our lives? Where are we going? How are we getting there?”

“We are not old!” I declared.

“We’re here, that’s where we’re going,” Claire said.

“No complaints,” said Emma. “Though I hope I won’t have a hard time getting pregnant when we finally start trying.”

“Have you ever looked around the video store and seen how many new movies have been made or written or produced or edited by people we went to college with?” said Meg. “It’s getting depressing. I want my one big break before I’m forty.”

“I want to find a publisher for my book. And find a great guy,” said Leah.

“I’m pregnant,” said Bird, and we turned to look at her. “Surprise!” she continued, smiling. “Donor number 376, my lucky number.”

No one said anything for a moment, and then everyone started talking at once, offering congratulations, dispensing advice, and asking for details.

When it was time for dessert, Bird brought out a gorgeous marzipan covered birthday cake full of candles for Meg and Emma, who had birthdays three days apart. We carried the cake, champagne, glasses and some blankets out into the hallway and up a rickety metal staircase to the roof deck. When we were all settled into the various unmatched beach chairs and chaise lounges that Bird and Lydia had scavenged, and wrapped the blankets around ourselves, Bird lit the candles. The lack of streetlights in this industrial neighborhood and the many darkened warehouses made the stars above appear especially bright. The East River looked deep and forbidding at this hour, like it concealed many secrets, but beautiful at the same time. The Manhattan skyline glittered garishly in front of us, rebuking the dark Brooklyn waterfront.

“What a gritty little piece of paradise you’ve got here, huh, Bird?” I said appreciatively.

“Let’s each make a wish,” said Meg, “And see if we can make it come true in the next twelve months. Don’t you think we can have some power over our lives?” She handed each of us a lit candle. “Come on, let’s say our wishes aloud, one by one, so we can help each other make those wishes come true. I’ll go first. I wish to find a distributor for Moon Dance.” She blew out her candle and licked off the marzipan that clung to the bottom. “Go on, you next Emma.”

“Hum.” Emma bit on her lip, thinking. “Okay, I have two wishes. I wish to get through my wedding without destroying my relationship with my mother or Mark’s mother, and I wish to get my article published. Okay, three wishes. To be pregnant by this time next year.”

“Not a bad list. Let’s see,” Claire said. “I wish that by next year at this time I will have gotten the hang of this motherhood thing and will have figured out how to balance it all.”

I laughed. “Good luck.”

“My turn,” said Leah.

“But we know what you wish,” said Meg.

“Maybe I’ll surprise you,” she retorted. “Ha. I wish for peace in the Middle East. The end of hunger. A cure for AIDS.” We laughed. “Well, I do. Okay, and someone to enjoy those good days with.”

“I wish for Lydia to get a big job that’s she bidding for, and I wish to make gobs of money between now and next year, so that I can take time off when the baby is born and not feel guilty or poor,” said Bird.

“You’re not allowed to wish things for other people,” said Meg. “Against the rules. Go again. Though you do get some points for being a better spouse than anyone else here!”

Bird shrugged. “Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m terrified about being pregnant, and I hope everything will be okay for me and for the baby. I hope I’ll be a good mother. I hope I’ve made the right choice. I hope it won’t resent having a test tube for a father.” She blew out her candle.

Everyone looked at me, waiting to hear my wish. “I don’t know,” I said. “Do you ever wonder when your life is really going to start? I feel like I’m just waiting until something really happens, but nothing ever does. I guess I wish for the adrenaline to start pumping again, to feel like I’m doing something important, to feel like what I do matters. You know?”

“Abby, how can you say that? You’re working, you love what you do, and you’re in the motherhood trenches. You’re raising two amazing kids,” Bird said.

“Yeah, but I keep feeling like I’m waiting for my real life to begin. Like I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go. Little things are interesting, sure, and my kids are great, but it’s so contained, so manageable, so safe and routine. No highs, no rushes, just another day.”

“What’s wrong with that?” said Leah. “It sounds pretty great, actually. No high peaks, but no deep valleys either. That’s not a bad thing. You have a lot to be thankful for.”

“Leah, no sermons, please,” I said. “I’m not talking about values or objective reality. I’m talking about how I feel.”

“I know what you mean,” said Emma, “You want to soar.”

“To breathe pure oxygen,” said Bird.

“To star in your own movie,” said Meg.

“To be the heroine of your own life,” said Claire.

I leaned back and looked up at the stars. “To be spectacular.”

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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Some Good Books, Summer 2015 Edition

It’s been a great summer of books so far. Here is a roundup of six of my most recent reading adventures. With this edition of Some Good Books, I’m introducing a new feature in my book reviews – a rating system. I don’t want to get too competitive with this. I don’t want to hurt any writer’s feelings (I know how it feels!). And most of all, the books that I review are – with perhaps a rare exception – all good books and all worth reading.  So I’m going to use a rating system of three, as follows:

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying 

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

I suspect that most books will be in the ©© – Great Book category, and that only a rare book will be ©©© – Amazing Book,  but we will see.

Early Warning, by Jane Smiley ©©

41vsJlW27nL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_This second book in Smiley’s trilogy about an American family, following Some Luck, did not disappoint. In fact it was, once again, a distinct pleasure. Like the first book in this series, each chapter is another year in the life of the Langdon family, seen through the experience of one of the extended family members. This volume begins in 1953 with the family now far-flung across the country and only a small handful still left in and around the family farm in Iowa. What was once a nucleus of a family working together to eke out an existence on the land is now a loose collection of related but diverse groups creating their own  narratives, including the next generations of the family. Their encounters with the events of the post-war years spin out in a myriad of ways, and yet there are still threads that connect them deeply to each other, often in surprising cross-generational ways. As in Some Luck, Smiley’s writing can at times seem deceptively prosaic, but the powerful beauty of this family tale shines through as the characters move through their encounters with love, loss, deception, desire, vulnerability, and all of that which makes us who we are in a constellation of others.

Mislaid, by Nell Zink ©

51PsntlX17L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I loved the premise of this book, perhaps even more than the book itself. The title is indeed clever. But where it may disappoint (more on that later), it is still worth a read. The plot is a challenge to the easy binaries that make up our collective narrative. Identity and self-representation, sexuality and race, are all thrown into the mix and stirred together into a murky stew. As an adolescent, Peggy aspires to be a man and believes herself to be a thespian, later corrected to lesbian. So she goes to an all-women’s college in rural Virginia, complete with a deeply metaphoric swampy lake of hidden dread.  There she meets an instructor, a louche, penniless gay poet from a local wealthy family. They jump into a sexual relationship, get married, and have two children, a son and a daughter. Because what else would one expect from a lesbian college student and her gay professor (get it, Mislaid??)? Jumping ahead a bit, she leaves him and takes just the daughter with her. The daughter is a blond, wan little girl, but somehow Peggy manages to convince everyone that they are black, so that she can successfully hide their real identities and not get found by her husband. The characters are rich and complex, but without totally spoiling things, I’ll just say that the story gets too easily gift-wrapped up with an unbelievably redemptive happy-ever-after conclusion in which everyone gets let off the hook. Still, definitely lots here to discuss and dissect.

The Sunken Cathedral, by Kate Walbert ©
51zlMF2ZtZL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_The main character in this novel is anxiety, of the particular New York City kind. The many human beings who inhabit this novel are secondary to the free-floating anxiety that runs through the pages of this book. Anxiety about extreme weather, about a changing city and its changing neighborhoods, about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, about growing old and isolated in the city, about finding a way to have a meaningful life in the middle of urban anonymity – all these kinds of anxiety run through this tale. And yes, it made of an anxious reading experience. I wanted more – I wanted the characters to rise up out of the anxiety – but they did not. And yet the idea of a mighty city being at the mercy of forces beyond its control, and thereby being reshaped by forces both within (economics and changing demographics) and without (flooding as a result of climate change) are powerful metaphors for aging. The two main characters, Marie and Simone, are French immigrants who survived the war to come to the United States as young women. Close friends who have both now outlived their husbands and launched their children off into the world, they decide to take a painting class. The others who people this book are their neighbors, their children, and those they meet in the painting class. As New York submits to excess water it cannot control, the lives of these two stalwart survivors too are battered by forces outside of their control.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson ©©

41EzuQhyFfL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_This book came highly recommended by someone whose taste in books I respect, and so I dove in. But I admit that I was surprised to like it as much as I did. This story tells the tale of the 20th century through the character of Teddy, first a beloved young boy in England, an aspiring poet, then a pilot in the war, and later as a husband, father, and grandfather. Surprise is indeed a major element in this tale, as Teddy’s life continues to unfold in unexpected ways. Surviving the war, when so many British pilots did not, is one of the main elements that makes Teddy who he is. Having accepted the idea that he might never have a future, he has to figure out how to live in that future. Again and again, he encounters situations he never expected to have to face, and manages to find a way through. There is nothing remarkable about Teddy, yet his kindness and compassion make him a character worth caring about. And then Atkinson plays with us, taking away what she has just given us readers, and poses the very writerly question: what if? What if indeed. That is the question that the writer wrestles with in the privacy of his or her own head, the very core of writing fiction. Writers do not generally expose this question to the reader. But Atkinson puts the question right out there and asks us to wonder along with her: What if…

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson ©©

41wEB2EBqOL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This novel came before A God in Ruins, which was written as a companion to it. But I read them the other way around, and so my reading of this one is informed by having read them in this order. The characters in Life After Life are much the same as in A God in Ruins, though with different focus. The novel centers around Ursula, Teddy’s older sister. Teddy himself appears at certain moments, as do other members of their family. But Ursula is the main attraction. Like A God in Ruins, this novel is a tale of the 20th century told through the story of one person, in this case Ursula. Born in 1910 on a snowy night when the doctor can’t through to the house, she is miraculously saved. Or is she? In fact, she dies before she can draw her first breath. Or does she? Throughout her life, Ursula dies, over and over and over, coming to various experiences and ends, or not. Through the life, or lack thereof, of Ursula, Atkinson explores the ideas of chance and destiny, of the impact that one person has on the world and those around him or her, and the question of what can happen if just the slightest change is made in one’s routine. If “a” happens, does it necessarily lead to a life of “b”? But if one can avoid “a”, then can one avoid “b”? One small act can lead to life of utter misery, or even death, while a different and equally banal act can lead to life of joy. It is the eternal question of the road not taken, and an exploration of how one small choice can cause a life to cascade into a completely different future. Though this kind of device could become kitschy or even annoying in some hands, Atkinson manages it masterfully, and creates a captivating reading experience in which it’s hard to put the book down.

 The City of Devi, by Manil Suri ©©©

41KUOSX-YCL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Looking for a Bollywoodesque post-apocalyptic novel set in India complete with Hindu gods and goddesses as well as superheroes (and if you’re not, why aren’t you?!)? Look no further. Just want a great, absorbing book with compelling characters and an unusual plot? This won’t disappoint. This volume, the third in Suri’s trilogy based on Hindu deities, manages to combine both absurdly, almost comically, exaggerated and deeply universal human elements. Told from the point of view of two very different but (as it turns out) related characters, this moving tale unfolds after havoc has been wrecked on the civilized world. A 9/11-like event has occurred on an international scale, creating worldwide instability. Unfettered capitalism, power grabs, religious-based and political-based terrorism, and the undoing of the technological infrastructure have combined to create a desperate situation in which two strangers, Sarita and Jaz, both set out to search for their missing loved one, becoming entangled along the way. Beyond its over-the-top backdrop and its frenetic pace, at its core this is a story of love, survival, and the universal need to create connections.

Coming Up…

Looking forward, the Man Booker Longlist was recently announced. My next edition of book reviews will focus on titles from that collection.  So far, I’ve read 2 and they have been quite good indeed.  In the meantime, happy reading.

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Seven

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 7. Enjoy!

Chapter Seven

IMG_1197Mrs. Freiburg lived with her son and daughter-in-law on a quiet street that intersected 13th Avenue, the main shopping street of the area. Their cavernous new house stood on a lot that once held two houses joined by a common wall. Like many of the Jews in this neighborhood, they had torn down a structure that once contained four modest apartments and rebuilt to accommodate the needs of one large, wealthy family.   As families in Borough Park continued to expand, more and more houses were being torn down and rebuilt. As if the double-parked cars did not make it difficult enough, each block had multiple construction projects going on at any given time, making the narrow streets even harder to maneuver. I drove around the block several times until I finally found a parking spot.

There was something odd about the streets here, with enormous, expensive houses going up next to humble multi-family homes and neglected apartment buildings. Unlike other run-down areas, people who could afford to move out were choosing to stay. Jews who lived a traditional lifestyle had fewer choices about where to live. They had to be within walking distance of their synagogue, since driving cars was prohibited on Shabbat. And Borough Park was a full-service neighborhood for observant Jews, with its kosher restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, and butchers, its wig shops, religious bookstores, its schools and synagogues. In Borough Park, you could leave your car for free at a meter on Saturdays, but not on Sundays, a reversal of the usual New York City parking regulations. Sunday was the big shopping day here, when Jews from all over the tri-state area packed the streets looking for kosher groceries and delicacies, deals on clothing and shoes, and religious items and books. Luckily it was a Tuesday; otherwise parking would have been absolutely impossible.

As I walked from the car to Mrs. Freiburg’s house, I had a strange feeling, like someone was watching me. I didn’t know how to explain the feeling, which up until that moment I thought only happened in books. I reassured myself with the thought that even though I had taken care to wear a long skirt to this meeting, it was still clear that I was not from this community. I was probably just providing someone with a glimpse of otherness. Still, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling.

I turned to go up the few steps leading to the Freiburg’s door, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a young man. He was dressed like most of the other men in the neighborhood, in a black suit and white shirt, with a black hat on his head and a full beard. More than that I couldn’t make out. There was certainly nothing exceptional about him, or about his presence on the street behind me. Except that as I turned to get a better look at him, he lifted his head and looked at me right in the eye. I was able to see enough under the brim of his hat to detect a scowl and a flash of anger in his eyes. Having made eye contact, he quickly averted his head and hurried away down the street. The glance unnerved me; I knew that these men did not normally make eye contact with women, certainly not with outsiders, and certainly not on purpose.

Before I could think more about who he was and what his look meant, a young woman opened the door. She motioned for me to come in, not meeting my eyes. Since her head was averted, it was hard to see what she looked like, other than that she was dark and young, probably in her early twenties. She wore a highly tailored brown wool dress and dark brown stockings. Her hair was pulled back in a large gold-colored clip at the back.

“You’re here to see Mrs. Freiburg?” she asked, though it sounded more like a statement than a question. “Mrs. Marcus, yes?”

“Yes,” I answered, though technically I was Ms. Marcus, not having taken my husband’s last name. Mrs. Marcus was my mother. Whatever.

“Come with me.”

She led me down the narrow hallway into the living room, a spacious but spare room decorated in white and gold. On one wall there were what I took to be family photographs. Besides the photographs, the only other decoration was a large painting of a Chasidic rabbi, though I couldn’t identify which one. My education hadn’t progressed that far yet.   The bookshelf was full of dark, hardcovered books with gold writing that looked to my untrained eye to be Hebrew but could have been Yiddish. The room was attractive, yet somewhat lacking in personality.

I was expecting a frail, old woman, still in bed recovering from surgery. Mrs. Freiburg, however, sat in a gold brocade easy chair, looking very well indeed. She was a good-looking woman in her mid-seventies, her champagne colored hair perfectly coifed and her blue knit sweater and skirt set sufficiently modest but obviously well-made and expensive. I assumed the hair was a wig, but what did I know? For the most part, all I knew was some second-hand information and lots of stereotypes. It was amazing that I had spent most of my life ten minutes away from this Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park yet except for an occasional excursion over here to buy kosher-for-Passover cakes, a babka for Shabbat, or the annual lulav-and-etrog-buying trip, I had virtually nothing to do with it or with the people who lived here.

Mrs. Freiburg welcomed me warmly, as if I myself might have been a long-lost relative. After the introductions were conducted and I took a seat on the couch across from her, Mrs. Freiburg offered me a choice of teas. There must be a conspiracy to deny me coffee, I thought to myself, as I politely opted for mint. She turned to the younger woman, who had stood in the doorway during the introductions, and instructed her to prepare the tea.

“That’s my granddaughter, Rivkie,” she said, as soon as the young woman left the room. “I am so lucky to be living here with my grandchildren around me. Shmuel has nine children, each of them a blessing. Do you have children?”

“Yes,” I answered, grateful for the choice of an opening topic. “My daughter Hannah is four and my son Caleb is two.”

“Wonderful ages, wonderful. And I am sure they are blessings to you. I myself have three children. In those days, who could have nine children! So many children died young, never mind being able to feed so many mouths. But here in America, anything is possible. And my son, thank God, is a good provider. He owns an electronics store here in the neighborhood together with my middle son, Nachum. Such a good business. I don’t understand half the things they sell, but they do a good business. He has a good head, Shmuel. Mail order, people from all over the country they write to him, on the computer. My third son Aaron, also he has a good head. But not for business. He’s the scholar. That’s Aaron who studies with your Rabbi Springer. A nice fellow, a good neshama. Rabbi Springer has been here a few times for Shabbos. ”

“All boys,” I commented inanely, not sure how to get around to the subject I was here to discuss.

A dark shadow passed over her face. She sighed. “I had a girl too. My first-born. Rina. They got her. We were on our way to freedom, so close to the border. But they got Rina. I saw the whole thing. A mother should never know from that. She was only a baby.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said softly. “I apologize, I didn’t realize–”

“No, no,” she said, warmly. “It’s important to remember. And it’s part of the story you came to hear. The boys, they were born here, once we were safe.”

At that moment Rivkie came back into the room, carrying a tray. “Come, Rivkie. Meet our guest.”

Rivkie approached us and set the tray down on the table. “Hello,” she said stiffly, still not meeting my eyes.

When Rivkie left the room, Mrs. Freiberg poured us each a cup of tea and offered me a cookie, which I accepted.

“I apologize that Rivkie was less than welcoming,” she said, sighing. “You see, this is complicated for us. I agreed to see you out of respect for Rabbi Springer, who has been a good friend to my son and has been a guest of this family many times, and who is a mensch. But not all my family is in agreement that I should speak to you.”

“I’m sorry to put you in an uncomfortable position,” I said.

“No, don’t worry, there are some nice things about being the family matriarch. And the rebbe said it was all right. Still, well, you know, people can be stubborn.”

“May I ask what the issue is?”

Mrs. Freiburg opened her mouth to speak, paused, and closed her mouth. She looked down at her fingers and sighed. Then she looked up at me again with a determined look in her eyes. “There are memories some of us don’t want to bring up again. Memories that are best forgotten. Things we learned about people we would rather forget. Sometimes, in desperate circumstances, the best that is in us comes out, and sometimes the worst. It was a tragedy what happened to the Halizchers. Some think it is best to leave their memories undisturbed, to remember only the good and not question what happened. And some are still angry, even so many years later. So to talk among ourselves, that is one thing. But to talk to someone not from among us, well, that is something else. We do not do it often, or easily. But the rebbe said it would be best to talk to you. It may upset an old man to know that he is not part of that family, but if your research does help you find his long-lost brother, then truly a mitzvah has been done. The rebbe has a caring heart. If there is good to be done, he believes it should be done.”

“May I ask, who is this rebbe you’re speaking about?”

“Yes, yes, of course you may ask. My husband, alav hashalom, was not raised in a Halizcher household. His family were Naidover Chasidim. Like the Halizchers, the Naidovers were for the most part destroyed in the war. But a remnant survived, or got out beforehand, like us. After the war we rebuilt and grew once again. It was a beautiful thing, the rebuilding of the Naidovers. I have always missed some aspects of being a Halizcher, but it was really not a choice, since first of all my husband was a Naidover, and anyway there were no more Halizchers. You see, the Naidover rebbe, zikaron livracha, got out just in time, and made it to Eretz Yisroel, where he died. His son became the next rebbe. We are small compared to some of the other groups of Chasidim, but we are growing all the time. There were some very difficult years, much darkness, and hope was a luxury, but here we are.”

“I appreciate your willingness to talk to me. I understand that this may be difficult.”

“Yes. But that is my choice. I made it, and my family will have to respect that. Besides, I’m a sick old woman. Who can say no to me?” She laughed. “You see, there are some nice things about getting old. Sometimes I get my way.”

I smiled back at her. I had a feeling she often got her way.

“So let us begin. I understand you’re doing genealogical research for someone who thinks he might be related to the Halizcher rebbe, zikaron livracha. It’s funny, for so long American Jews tried to run away from their roots, and now everyone can’t wait to find them again.”

“His granddaughter is my client, actually,” I explained. “This is supposed to be a surprise, so I can’t ask him questions myself. It makes my research more complicated, but interesting. So first I’m trying to learn about the Halizchers themselves.”

“Interesting it may be, but fruitless. You see, it’s impossible that anyone from the family survived.”

“You’re probably right, but you never know. There was so much confusion during those years, I understand. And miracles happened.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “Miracles certainly did happen. I will tell you what I can, and who knows.”

She folded her hands in her lap and took a deep breath. “I was born in a shtetl near Halizch. My parents were followers of the Halizcher rebbe. He was a good man, he was known far and wide for his compassion and his wisdom. People came to him with their problems, there was no lack of problems, and he would offer hope, and remind people to find the joy in life. It was said that just a glance from him could cure a broken heart. The glass was always half full, you know what I mean? To everything there was a silver lining. He had a loud but melodic, sing-songy kind of voice, and a big beautiful smile. He was a scholar, but it was said that even moreso his grandson was a scholar.

“This grandson was the son of the rebbe’s daughter, Basya. He had four daughters, and he loved them all. Never a word passed his lips about not having a son. Even that he turned in to a positive, he would say, ach, what son-in-laws God would sent to him, what a gift to have daughters. There was Ruchel, the eldest, then Basya, then Sura, then Chaya Esther. Ruchel and Basya married brothers, Yitzhak and Nossen Shlomo Gelberman. Sura and Chaya Esther never had a chance to marry, poor souls. Chaya Esther was the baby, the child of her parents’ old age. Such a beauty, only a young girl when the war began. She never got to grow up. Ruchel too was a sad story, despite the rebbe’s optimism. Yitzhak was a chasid at first, a wonderful scholar, but he got introduced to other ideas that turned his head. He became a Zionist, and left for Palestine with Ruchel when I was still a young girl. I barely remember her, though one thing I do remember is that everyone used to joke how Ruchel and Yitzhak looked so much alike. They both had flaming red hair, like it was on fire. Like they were on fire with the idea of Zionism.

“Once, twice, a letter came from them, life was very difficult there for them, and then that was all. It was assumed that they died. They were never heard from again, as far as I know. It was so painful for the rebbe and his wife. No one knew how to comfort them.

“What did help was that Basya and Nossen Shlomo had two sons. There were more, but they died as babies, which was not uncommon then. But those two were like miracles from the Almighty. One more beautiful than the other, and smart, so smart. Which was good, because there were some doubts about Nossen Shlomo. A mensch, he was a mensch, yes, but it became clear that he was not the right material to be the next rebbe. He was a quiet man, reserved, shy, nothing special as a scholar. He was a devout man, a true chasid, righteous and devoted to God, devoted to his father-in-law, but… But. You know? A follower.

“The sons were Leib Mendel and Yaakov Chaim. They were both a little bit younger than I, so they must have been born around 1926, 1927. They were close in age. Very competitive, as children can be, but good boys. And Leib, the Chasidim said the light of Torah shone from his eyes. They were like two little princes, the boys. The rebbe’s grandsons! How he adored them. Leib was brilliant. Before he even became bar mitzvah he was giving discourses on Talmud and Torah, explicating fine points that even scholars didn’t understand. He was a gifted speaker, and people would come to listen to his words of Torah. But his singing, oh his singing. The rebbe loved to have the boy sing in his beautiful, clear voice, it was like it reached right up to heaven. Nothing could bring joy into the hearts of the Halizcher Chasidim like the boy Leib’s singing. Shabbos with the Halizchers was something special. Seudat shlishi, the last meal before the end of Shabbat, oh, the stories that were shared, the songs that were sung.” She sighed. “But he never became bar mitzvah. He never grew up, he never became the next rebbe. Such a tragedy.”

“What exactly happened?” I asked. “I’ve only heard bits and pieces.”

“The Holy One acts in ways we don’t always understand. We were rounded up and taken to the ghetto in 1941. I was already married by then and my husband found a way out for us. I hated to leave my parents and my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t know what to do. But I wanted to grab any chance I had to live, and for my baby to live. I went to the rebbe and I asked him what to do. He told me to stay. He said that we belonged in Poland, that it was our home. America was the treifa medina. America was not a place for Jews, it just ate them up and spit them out, that we would lose our Judaism there. That whatever happened, it was in God’s hands. I left anyway, with a heavy heart that has never healed. It was not easy for me to go against the rebbe’s advice. It was not easy for me to leave my family. I never saw any of them again. My mama. My papa. My sister Yehudis. My baby brother Aaroneleh.

“But more than anything, I remember those piercing blue eyes of the rebbe’s when he told me stay. I have never seen eyes like that again. The only one in his family who had those eyes was the grandson Leib. Not any of the daughters, though Chaya Esther had blue eyes they were not the same deep blue, and not Yankeleh. Just the rebbe, and Leib. They were eyes that ached when you ached, cried when you cried, yet never gave up hope, never succumbed to despair. They were like deep wells of compassion, love, and faith. I remember looking at his eyes that day. I thought I saw a tear slide down his cheek as he spoke to me, but I couldn’t be sure. Once I realized that I wouldn’t listen to his advice, I couldn’t look him in the eye again. I looked away as he continued to speak to me, feeling like I was betraying him. I will always ask myself if that is why my baby Rina died, was that my punishment? And yet, I survived, and here I am, with my family. You see? There are things I don’t understand. Many, many Chasidim died there in Poland, including all my family, even my little nephews, while some Jews survived. Some rabbis encouraged their people to get out. Some encouraged them even to fight back, to join the partisans. But not the Halizcher rebbe. He died in Treblinka, doing good and helping others until the moment he died, it is said. It is said that he died smiling, singing to God a song of rejoicing. But they all died, and that was the end of the Halizchers.

“The grandson could have been saved, the Halizchers offered the rebbe their money and somehow got the boy a visa, but the rebbe chose another path. It would have shown a lack of faith in God, perhaps. Perhaps he thought that the best way to fight back was spiritual resistance, to support his people by showing how strong his faith was. He was put in an impossible situation by his Chasidim, you see, because if he had accepted their money and the visa, it would have shown them that his faith was less than perfect.”

“So you don’t blame him for what he did?’

“Blame him, no. It is not for me to judge such a man. Could it have turned out differently? Yes, of course. Could my family have survived? Who knows? We barely did, my husband and I, and we were young and healthy. But one cannot ask those questions about that time. What happened, happened. For a reason, though we don’t understand the reason. It’s not for us to question, just to keep doing good and believing. That we are here today shows that despite the lives lost, we won. Our belief in God conquered in the end, you see,” she said, with a wry smile. “The Halizchers did not survive, as a group, true, but enough of us did so that we could replant ourselves here in America, and in other places around the world. We are stronger than ever, and growing all the time. More and more Jews are coming back to Judaism. Every day we are closer to yamot ha-Mashiach, the days of the Messiah.”

She seemed so sure, but for my own peace of mind, I just had to ask. “And you’re absolutely sure, there’s no way any of them could have survived. Not Leib, and not Yankeleh?”

“No, it’s impossible,” she answered. “Impossible.” She was distracted momentarily by something behind me. When she turned back, she looked down as she spoke, not meeting my eyes.

“But how can you be so sure?” I asked.

“We would have known,” she answered. She looked up at me again, but it was as if a curtain had been pulled over her eyes. The small measure of familiarity and trust that had grown during our conversation vanished. Her animated warmth was gone. Suddenly I sat before her as a complete stranger. I didn’t understand what had just happened. I thought I had been sensitive and polite. Had my questions been too insistent? Had the conversation been too emotional? What invisible boundary did I cross? “We would have known. Such a thing would not have been able to happen without anyone knowing. We would have known.”

Before I could think how to respond to this statement, or the sudden chill in the room, I heard movement behind me. A bearded young man in traditional Chasidic garb walked over to Mrs. Freiburg and put his hands on the back of her chair.

“It’s time for you to rest now, Bubbe,” he said.

“This is my grandson, Arieh,” Mrs. Freiburg said. “Arieh, this is my visitor, Mrs. Marcus.”

He looked at me, nodded, then quickly looked away. I was startled to realize that he looked just like the man who had been behind me on the street. But of course it was so easy to get the men here mixed up, as they all dressed in a manner indistinguishable to an outsider like me. There wasn’t anything that would make him stand out in this neighborhood, except for the slightly menacing look on his face. He looked brooding and angry, and it felt like his concern for his grandmother might have something more to do with getting her to stop talking to me than making sure she didn’t tax herself. Even Mrs. Freiburg seemed uncomfortable around him, and I wondered how long he had been standing in the doorway listening to our conversation.

“Thank you so much for your help,” I said, as I got up. “I’m sorry if it was difficult for you.”

“No, no, thank you for coming and spending time with an old lady,” she said graciously. “If there is anything else I can do —”

Arieh placed his hands on his grandmother’s shoulders, effectively cutting her off mid-sentence. “I will walk you to the door.”

Without touching me, he hurried me out of the room and to the door. As I stood in the hallway putting on my jacket, he spoke.

“I hope you got what you needed. My grandmother is a generous woman who cannot say no, not even to sharing her nightmares. But I must ask you not to come back and not to call her again. It is too much for her. Talking about her life before she came to America gives her bad dreams that don’t go away even in the day. We must not let her dwell on those years. She is too frail.” He opened the door to let me out. “I thank you in advance for respecting this. And I also must tell you that you are barking up the wrong tree. You will not find anything useful for your research here. Many assimilated American Jews who know nothing about Chasidism, or even anything about being Jews, long for a connection to their Jewish past. If they find a photograph of a Chasid in the family album, they think they must be related to some glorious Chasidic dynasty. It is all just dreams, just fantasy, nothing more. If they were truly related, they would know, because they would still be part of their community.”

I knew he wanted me to leave, but I couldn’t let his last comment get by me without a comment. I turned back to him. “Do you mean to say that if somewhere in the family tree an ancestor was a Chasid but left Chasidism, that person has no right to claim a common heritage? Or do you mean that no one from Chasidic roots ever left Chasidism? You can’t really believe either of those things.”

Arieh looked out to the street beyond me, as if I did not exist. “Good-bye, Mrs. Marcus,” he said. “It is time to go home.”

About that he was right. It was time to go home, time to go back to my own family, my own neighborhood, and my own bad dreams.

***

The smell of garlic and olive oil filled the kitchen. Ronit was at the sink, rinsing broccoli. Borough Park was only ten minutes away, but I felt like I had just returned from a trip to a country where I didn’t know the language or understand the culture. Usually went I went to Borough Park I returned with a warm nostalgic feeling, like I had just dropped in on my family’s past. I would stroll 13th Avenue like a time-traveling tourist, benignly soaking up the atmosphere, looking at the elegant but modestly dressed women with their large, well turned-out families, pushing double carriages and strollers, all the girls or all the boys in a family often dressed in different sizes of the same outfit, older sisters pushing strollers or holding the hands of little boys in pigtails who had not yet received their first haircuts. I would make my purchases, enjoying the superficial, fleeting connection to a life that might have been mine if my ancestors had made different choices. Today, though, nothing about Borough Park felt benign. I left the Freiburg’s house with an unsettled, apprehensive feeling. Arieh Freiburg had stood at the door as I walked to my car, giving me the distinct impression that he wanted to make sure I really left.

Caleb jumped up when he saw me come in, and grabbed me around the legs. Hannah was on the couch, looking at a book. She would pay attention to me when she was good and ready, but Caleb was already excitedly recounting the details of his afternoon. There would be time to go down to my office after they had gone to bed.

“Hi,” said Ronit, starting to steam the broccoli. Her wavy brown hair fell over her shoulder and she swung it back out of the way while she worked. “You’re early. Did everything go okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” I answered, trying to unwrap Caleb from my torso so that I could take off my jacket and set down my bag. “I was in Borough Park. Interesting experience.”

“Oy, they’re nuts,” Ronit said. For Ronit, everything about Judaism was black and white. Anyone religious was nuts, and anyone secular was normal. Orthodox and Chasidic were the same for her, there were no gradations and no contours. She had never encountered liberal Judaism before coming to the United States, and still didn’t know quite what to make of it. Never having met a woman rabbi, she was fascinated by Leah, though not enough to ever come to synagogue with us. “No really, they’re nuts. They just do whatever the rebbe tells them. They don’t think for themselves. They’re very simple-minded, weak people who need all those rules to help them live their lives, because they can’t think for themselves. The rebbe tells them to vote one way, they do it. At election time they fly over to Israel from Brooklyn and elect the most right-wing, religious candidates, then fly home to Brooklyn.” Her eyes flashed with intensity as she spoke. “They should stay here and mind their own business. We don’t need them or their votes.”

“That’s not true.   The woman I saw today was definitely not someone who is either simple-minded or unable to make her own decisions. You can’t judge like that, Ronit.”

She smiled. “I know, I know. What do Israelis know about American Judaism. Right? Anyway, Simon called, he’ll be home around nine. He’s at a client’s, but you can get him on his cell phone. I did a few loads of laundry – everything is folded on top of the dryer. I’m going to finish up dinner, and then Shuki and I are going to see a movie.”

“Ah, the joys of being young and childless. Thanks so much.” Never mind Simon, what would I do without Ronit in my life?   “Ronit, you are the best!”

She shrugged, embarrassed by my effusiveness, and bent down to hug Caleb, who was now busy sliding magnets under the refrigerator. “The best for the best!”

I sat with the kids while they ate their dinner and told me about their day. As I cut up apples for their dessert, Hannah regaled us with information about the different kinds of apples in the world — Macintoshes, Delicious, Jonathans, Macouns, Granny Smiths, Empires — and the differences between them. Her class was doing a unit that was strangely entitled “Cows and Apples” – the joys of sending children to a progressive school with a creative curriculum. She was excited about next week’s class trip to an apple orchard, and ran to get the note that she had brought home.

“Please, Mommy, please come with us. They need some parents to come. Please, please!” she cried.

“I’ll try my best. It would be fun, sweetie,” I answered reassuringly, trying to figure out how I was going to fit a day of apple picking in to my schedule.   If Hannah wanted me to go, I had to find a way to swing it. Another good reason why fictional P.I.’s never had any children — they wouldn’t have been able to take a day off for class trips. After bathtime it was time for dinosaur stories and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, followed by hugs, kisses, more hugs and kisses, and some stern good-nights. At last I was free to go downstairs, where I threw myself on the couch. Just five minutes for myself, before I got up to set the table dinner, round two.

Although what I knew about Chasidic life held little appeal for me, there were certainly things I could appreciate. I liked the idea that Rabbi Springer had spoken about, of the blurring of the distinction between “holy” and “profane,” of recognizing the sanctity and miraculousness of everyday life. I had been struggling lately with the question of what it meant to raise ethical children, and how to teach the children about what is sacred in life.

When I brooded over questions like these, Simon tended to think I had too much time on my hands. He was raised in a Yiddish-speaking, Workman’s Circle socialist family, where religion was the opiate of the masses, something that educated people left behind as soon as possible. I, on the other hand, had been raised in a moderately observant family that had belonged to a Conservative synagogue until the rabbi took another position and the board refused to interview any women for the job. In protest, my parents dropped their membership and joined a Reform synagogue, where they have been happy members ever since. When Simon and I had first discussed moving in together, he reluctantly agreed to keep shellfish and pork out of the house, and when we got married he agreed to join a synagogue. Since then, while he still complained that I took it too seriously, he had discovered that there were many worthwhile aspects to the Judaism that his parents had rejected wholesale. Over the eight years of our marriage we had achieved a comfortable balance of observance and had created holiday traditions that felt both connected to the tradition and at the same time wholly ours.

And yet, there was something surprisingly attractive about this world I was starting to learn more about, in which the rules were set for you, and in which certain questions weren’t asked. It must feel very safe and comforting to be part of a community like those the Chasidim created. But then I thought of Arieh Freiburg, and a chill crept up my spine. The questions I had asked were innocent enough, though granted perhaps painful. My purpose in going had certainly been harmless. So why had Arieh been so antagonistic? Why had my presence and my questions been threatening? What else was going on that I didn’t understand?

I heard the door open, and Simon walked in, interrupting my thoughts. After he took off his tie and washed up, we sat down to eat, and I filled him in on the day’s events.

Simon expertly twirled his pasta around the fork, then held the fork in midair. “Abby,” he said in exasperation.   “Are you sure this case is a good idea? It sounds like there are things going on here that may be bigger than you realize. And you don’t even know who this Sarah Gelberman really is. For all you know, she could be some nefarious criminal.”

I laughed. “Simon, really, she’s a kid. Granted, she may not have told me everything, but she’s not dangerous. And I’m sure Arieh Freiburg is just suspicious of all outsiders. I probably made him uncomfortable because I’m clearly not one of them, and a woman to boot. They’re taught not to deal with women who are not related to them.”

“Really? And you know that because…” Simon answered, the pasta still uneaten on his fork. “The truth is, you have no idea. You have no idea who this Sarah Gelberman really is, and you have no idea what the deal is with this Arieh Freiburg. They’re not all just the nice old-world Jews from Sholom Aleichem stories. They’re people too, and some of them may even be bad guys.”

I was in no mood for a lecture. “Simon, come on. I’m not a babe in the woods you need to protect. I think you’re getting me confused with Hannah.   Eat before your food gets cold.” I helped myself to more wine, and replenished Simon’s glass while I was at it.

“Abby, I care about you. Okay? I’m just concerned. You know nothing about Sarah Gelberman, and you know nothing about the Chasidim. You’re jumping in to a whole world you don’t know, a world very different than your own.”

“Different, yes, but they’re Jews, for God’s sake Simon, different than us, but more like us than not.”

“Are you sure about that? Are you really willing to say we have more in common with the Chasidim than we do with our non-Jewish colleagues and friends, people who live in the same world we do, who went to the same schools and live in the same neighborhoods? Can you really say that we have more in common with the Chasidim, just because we both happen to call ourselves Jews? We’re practically two different religions.”

“No, I don’t agree. It’s just two different ways of getting to the same point.”

“Which is?”

“Which is, living as good ethical people, trying to figure out what we’re here on this earth to do, and hoping for a better future.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Where’s your natural cynicism? Not that I have anything against them, but I sure don’t have anything in common with them.”

“Maybe not, but in Nazi Germany, both you and they would have been rounded and put into concentration camps together just because you were Jews. Hitler didn’t care whether you wore a kippa, or a streimel, or went bareheaded.”

Simon put down his wineglass and looked at me, shaking his head. “No need to get dramatic, Abby. Just promise me you’ll do what you can to find out more about Sarah Gelberman. Okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll do my best.”

We ate in companionable silence for a few moments. I could tell from the furrows in Simon’s forehead, and the way his eyebrows were going up and down, that he still had more to say on the subject but was trying to control himself.

Finally, he said, “I hope you realize that this guy may not even be remotely connected to anything Chasidic. It may have just been his romanticized fantasy of what an authentic Jewish past would look like, something to make the grandchildren proud of their roots. You have to consider this.”

“Consider it considered,” I answered. “Now let’s change the subject. Want to go to Altoona, Pennsylvania this weekend?”

Simon looked at me quizzically, his mouth full of pasta. “Oh, no, Abby. What’s in Altoona?”

“I hear it’s got some great tourist attractions. Haven’t you always wanted to see the Horseshoe Curve? Caleb and Hannah would love it. And it would be beautiful at this time of the year. Think farm stands, fresh cider, apples, pumpkins —”

Having chewed and swallowed, Simon interrupted me. “Altoona, Pennsylvania is about six hours from here. That would be a fun car ride with the kids, and really worth it just to get the same cider and pumpkins we could buy at any farm stand in a sixty mile radius of New York City, not to mention at the Greenmarket in Grand Army Plaza, and not to mention at the Coop itself. Yes, I’d like to see Horseshoe Curve, but not badly enough to drive six hours to get there, otherwise I would already have done so. So out with it, woman, what’s in Altoona?”

“Sarah Gelberman told me her grandfather retired to Winter Park, Florida, after having lived in New York City for years before that. I found a man —”

Simon interrupted me. “Wait, that’s the mystery right there! What’s he doing living in Winter Park? Jews don’t retire there. That’s in yenevelt, the middle of nowhere. Jews retire to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, maybe Sarasota, but not Winter Park. Something’s not right.”

“As I was saying,” I continued archly, “I found a man by that name living in Winter Park, but he never lived in New York. He lived in Altoona.”

“No way, Abby, no way. No. This is insane. You seriously want to drive six hours, with a two year old and a four year old, just to find out, just to find out what exactly? That maybe a man by this name, who may or may not be the grandfather of someone who may or may not be named Sarah Gelberman, once lived there. That’s crazy. What about the internet?”

“The internet isn’t good for everything. For the information I need now, I need to talk to real people, not a computer. I need casual conversation. I need to go to services at the local synagogue. And we need to leave very early in the morning on Friday so that I can get there before the county clerk leaves for the day.”

“No. No. No way. Sorry, Abby. You know I want to be supportive, but this does not sound like a reasonable plan. I have a lot going on at work, and I can’t take off Friday. This one is just a no. Go by yourself, take the train, rent a car, but no, sorry, we’re not going. End of conversation.   Okay?”

“Okay.”

Simon and I finished the meal amicably, talking about the kids and Simon’s day at work. I opted not to go down to my office until the morning, though I did manage to place one crucial phone call before Simon and I retired early. We sat in bed together watching N.Y.P.D. Blue and then turned out the lights to focus on more pleasant matters.

The next morning I made reservations for two adults and two children at the Altoona Day’s Inn.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Six

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 6. Enjoy!

Chapter Six

IMG_2493New York knows how to do libraries. The resources that are available for free, for anyone who wants, are staggering. The Internet, as wonderful as it is, has not yet replaced the role of the libraries in my life. The libraries of New York are my home away from home. There are specialized branch libraries for dance, music, black culture, and business, not to mention libraries where you can find the latest mystery novel. But the main reading room in the New York Public library on Fifth Avenue is one of my favorite places in the world. The big airy room, with its rows of oversized polished wooden tables, green reading lamps, ceiling murals and comfortable chairs is pretty close to heaven on earth. I am still awed each time I enter and look at all the different people sitting earnestly at the tables, reading, writing, and going through the stacks of books in front of them. I always wonder how many books and articles and theses are being written right before my very eyes. Hats off to those 19th century philanthropists who had the foresight to build these buildings and endow the public library system. And it’s not only Manhattan. In Brooklyn we have our very own network of libraries. I am lucky enough to live right near the awe-inspiring Grand Army Plaza library, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Across the street from Prospect Park, around the corner from the elegant Brooklyn Museum, bordering the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, and facing Brooklyn’s reproduction of Paris’ Arc D’Triumphe, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is a grand and majestic building. After ascending the stairs to the entrance, you encounter inlaid marble floors in the oversize lobby. Every time I visit I am reminded of descriptions of ancient temples, and I don’t think the reference is coincidental. Surely the library was built as a temple of knowledge. It was the public libraries, along with the city’s once exemplary public school system and city public university system, which allowed generations of immigrants and the children of immigrants to rise into the middle class. However, as I walked out in the glare of daylight with seven of the books on Chasidism that Rabbi Springer had recommended in my backpack, I had to smile. Because the knowledge being worshipped by the planners of the library was most certainly the classical knowledge of Western civilization, Greek, and Latin, mathematics and Shakespeare, and not the history of groups of Eastern European Jews who dressed in odd clothing, spoke Yiddish, and clung stubbornly to their particularism even as Enlightenment spread across Europe.

Walking down the steps, I stopped to watch a group passing in front of me along Eastern Parkway. There were about eight of them, dressed in modestly long blue plaid skirts, light blue long sleeve shirts, dark tights, and sneakers. Clearly they were wearing a school uniform, but it wasn’t Catholic school. This group of girls was all white, and almost all had dark shoulder length hair with the exception of one red-head and one dirty-blond. Though they talked and laughed with each other, they spoke quietly and acted in a manner that seemed designed to not call attention to themselves, different from the way most young teenagers behaved in public. I watched them as they continued down the street towards the Botanic Gardens. They were almost certainly Chassidic, and probably from Crown Heights, a neighborhood very close to Park Slope in actual distance but otherwise worlds away.

Despite its proximity, I had never actually ventured in to the neighborhood dominated by the Lubavitchers, the followers of the late Chassidic Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. Like me, they were Jews, but in some ways they felt like another species altogether. As an outsider, their Judaism looked foreign, so different than what I was familiar with. Their world seemed insular, closed off from modernity, and limiting, especially for women. But I realized that there was a great deal I didn’t know about who and what they were, what motivated them to make the choice to live by ancient values that the world around them had abandoned. This group of girls looked so different than their non-Chasidic peers, with their chaste long skirts and sleeves and noticeable lack of anything resembling popular culture on their persons.

Then I had to laugh at myself. Here I was pretending to myself that I was a big-time modern woman, with an important career, yet in reality I was under-employed in a non-career job of my own fabrication that I was able to do during the hours that my kids were either in pre-school, with a baby-sitter, or asleep. So much for a brave new world. When I was younger I fantasized about doing something exciting, like being a spy or private eye. I saw myself changing identities, keeping secrets, and working on the side of truth and justice. Instead, I grew up, went to grad school, got married, and started a career that got put on the back burner once I had kids. If I ever wrote a mystery novel, I would make my character childless. It’s very convenient to be a P.I. when your hours are your own. I probably shared as much in common with the women those girls would grow up to be as I did with my college classmates who had delayed having children in favor of their careers.

First I finished up the paperwork and billing for a small job I had done for Bird, another member of The Committee. Bird was a lawyer and often sent work my way. This was an easy job for me, but the results were not going to be easy for Bird’s client. She had asked me to track down a long-lost cousin of the client who was left an inheritance by the client’s late father. On his deathbed the father had made the son promise that he would find the cousin and make sure he received the inheritance. Proud to show off my research skills, I succeeded in tracking down the young man. He was living on an organic garlic farm in California. Only in the end, the client wished I hadn’t done such a good job, since it turned out that the inheritance included an admission of paternity from the late father, along with a great deal of money and stocks. Great way to meet a new brother.

The easiest thing would have been to just call Sarah Gelberman’s grandfather and talk to him. But this was supposed to be a surprise. That meant that there was a great deal of basic information I didn’t have. Sarah had provided me with her grandfather’s date of birth and approximate date of arrival to the United States. According to what she had told me, her grandfather, Jack Gelberman, arrived at the age of 18 in 1947. She said that he had been in a concentration camp, but she didn’t know what happened to him between Liberation and 1947. He didn’t like to talk about it. Sarah had told me that he had lived in New York for many years, but currently resided in Florida. Vu den, as my grandmother would say, where else? He had one son named Nathan, who, if he was really related to the Halizcher Rebbe, would have been named after Nossen Shlomo Gelberman, who married Yosef Yehudah’s daughter, and would therefore have been his father.

I got up from my desk and went to the dry erase board on the wall. It was time to make a tentative family tree, despite all the blanks. Sarah Gelberman (b. 1981), Nathan Gelberman (b. 1955), Jack Gelberman (b.1929). Then I drew a dotted line from Jack to Nossen Shlomo, and put the symbol for woman next to his name, for the wife who was, for the time being, nameless. From her I made a line to Yosef Yehudah, born 1879 according to one of the books I had checked out from the library. Nossen was certainly old enough to be Jack’s father. Was it was possible that Jack’s real name was Yankeleh? Yankeleh was a Yiddish diminutive for Yaakov, the Hebrew version of Jacob. Jack was sometimes short for Jacob. It wasn’t such a stretch. The next time I talked to Sarah Gelberman I would ask. In one of the books recommended by Rabbi Springer I had read that Nossen had a son named Yaakov Chaim. And interestingly enough, the social security information I had requested on-line about Jack Gelberman in Florida had come through, and that had him recorded as Jacob H. Gelberman. The “H” could very well stand for Chaim, since in English Chaim could be just as easily spelled Haim, or even Hayyim. Transliteration was a subjective art. Then again, his middle name could simply be Howard, or Hugh, or Humphrey.

The information led me to another on-line business that allowed me, again for a price, to request credit information on Jacob H. Gelberman. The point of the exercise was to get information about prior employers and residences, which could lead me to information that would be useful in trying to create his family tree. That information had just come in, and was staring at me from my computer screen. The problem was, as opposed to what Sarah had told me, this Jacob H. Gelberman never lived in New York City. Before moving to Florida, he had lived in only one other place in the United States, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he was employed for many years by the Altoona Board of Education. Either there was mistake, or Sarah had been less than straightforward with me. It made no sense to me why she would lie, nor did it make sense why she wouldn’t have told me where her grandfather lived before retiring in Florida. If this Jacob H. Gelberman was the same man, then her father would been born and raised in Altoona. It was time for Sarah Gelberman to resurface and answer some questions.

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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Some Good (Audio) Books – Summer 2015 Edition

I’ve been doing a lot of long distance driving lately. It’s not my favorite activity, and I’ve been getting bored of the usual music and podcast combo that generally keeps me engaged enough to get where I’m going. So I decided to try a new method and listen to some books I wouldn’t actually take the time to read. Memoirs sounded like the perfect fit.

I would normally argue that there’s no difference between a book you read and a book you listen to, but five audiobooks later I’m changing my tune.  Just like ebooks allow for certain capabilities not possible in a printed book (i.e. embedded links or, yes, audio), the same is true for an audiobook.  Done well, and in particular when read by the writer, an audiobook can provide a unique experience.

I decided to go with memoirs because I love stories about people – what makes them tick, what made them who they are, what they care about, why they care about it, how they become who they are. There’s always something to learn from hearing someone reflect back on their life. And what a bunch I chose – two actor/comedians, one writer, another actor, and one singer-songwriter. All famous people with public personas.  Listening to their stories of self was like being intimately immersed in these five very different people, or at least, the parts of their stories that they chose to share publicly.

So here is a review of my recent reading, or, well, listening, experiences.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

51xednLHwiL._SL150_This book has interested me for a while, but truthfully, never enough to make me actually want to take the time to read it. But listening to it while driving to western Pennsylvania and back was definitely a worthwhile experience. We all know Tina Fey is wickedly funny and smart. Bossypants showed off both these part of Fey, and filled in a lot of her background along the way – how she got to be the Tina Fey we know and love. She shares some information about her formative years, and talks about the experiences that have mattered to her. There’s some delicious behind-the-scenes discussion about her time at SNL and 30 Rock. Her descriptions of the ways that sketches got created, and what she and her colleagues found to be funny and why offered great insights into comedy. The best was when she discussed the experience of creating her version of Sarah Palin. Other moments are poignant, like when she talks about being a mother, or passionate like when she talks about being a woman in comedy, or complex, like when she talks about body image issues. Her intelligence and drive to succeed shine strongly through her narrative. The best part though is that she narrates the audiobook herself, and, you know, she’s  Tina Fey. When you listen to this audiobook you get 5 hours and 35 solid minutes of Tina Fey talking to you. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

512QYi8RoLL._SL150_Naturally, after listening to Tina Fey recount her adventures at Second City and then SNL, the next audiobook choice had to be her friend and colleague, Amy Poehler.  Yes Please, thankfully narrated by Poehler herself, was definitely the perfect companion book. Poehler lets loose a little more than Fey does, inviting guest speakers to read and talk as part of the audiobook experience, and being, at times, not entirely diplomatic about her opinions (and that is not criticism – bring it on!). Her parents have a few cameo appearances, as does Seth Meyers and a few others. She really had fun with the concept of doing an audiobook and it was appreciated by this listener. It was fun to hear another perspective on some of the same events that Fey narrated in her book. Again, as in Bossypants, I really enjoyed hear Poehler talk about being a woman in comedy – with lessons easily applicable to other fields – and what got her to where she is today. She talked about her childhood and family, about her marriage and her children, letting us listeners in just enough to make us relate to her and to care.  It’s hard to imagine that this loosely stitched together collection of often wonderfully irreverent anecdotes would have held up well as a regular book, but in audio format it was a great way to get across a bunch of highways in upstate NY and back home again.

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

41z0LNwINUL._SL300_I was sure this one was going to be a home run. Keret is a great writer, and how exciting to get to learn more about Keret the person. And it is indeed a great book qua book – audio or not. Keret’s signature quirky humor is in evidence, and it’s even more powerful when he’s writing about his own life and not just a fictional one. In his typical terse style he shares glimpses of his childhood, his teenage years, his marriage, his son, his parents, and his career.  He is the child of Holocaust survivors, a fact which greatly shaped who he is, and a cynical, conflicted Jewish Israeli who both loves his country and struggles with its legacy. The slices of his life that he shares may be framed in short chapters, but they are dense in their complex mix of the mundane and the profound.  This memoir seems like a great collection of short stories until you remember that he’s actually talking about his own life. The only disappointment, and it is a significant one in an audiobook, is that Keret did not narrate the book himself.  That may be too much to expect given that it’s a translation, but the narrator was not properly prepped in Hebrew pronunciation. Each place name or expression that he mangled was a jarring disruption in an otherwise captivating story.  This is a powerful memoir, but given the narration should probably be best experienced as a good old regular read and not as an audiobook.

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming

51jAVEiZFEL._SL300_This gets top marks in this batch of books.  It is, first of all, a seriously good memoir. Though it could have used a little editing (sorry, I can’t help it) it is a compelling story and wonderfully told. This isn’t just a “how I became the great and famous me” kind of narrative. Instead, using a construct of “then” and “now” episodes, he contrasts events in his childhood with an ongoing story in his adult life, both of which revolve around his sense of self and identity. The bonus is that Cumming narrates the book himself and oh – that voice!  That accent! He’s a fine actor and he knows how to use his voice to great affect to tell his story.  And what a story.  There are two mysteries at the heart of this book, one about himself in relationship to his abusive father, and one about his elusive and absent grandfather. The two parallel tracks work together beautifully, so that at times it was possible to forget that this was the story of a famous actor and to just experience a compelling tale of love and abuse, acceptance and anger, coming of age, and coming into one’s own.

A Natural Woman: A Memoir by Carole King

51s1b3hLFNL._SL300_I am a huge fan of Carole King. I was raised on her music by my parents who identified with her scrappy Brooklyn, Jewish background. She even went to the same high school as my father. I have all her albums, including “Really Rosie,” and loved the broadway show based on her life story. But the book is disappointing. Her story itself is interesting, as in “nice Jewish girl makes good” and her experience in the music industry, especially in the early years of rock and roll, is fascinating.  There are some great details along the way, like the fact that she was a freshman at Queens College with two other Jewish kids who also liked to sing named Artie Garfunkel and Paul Simon. She certainly had admirable amounts of pluck, chutzpah, and self-confidence that got her far.  And to be fair, the story she tells isn’t all one of happiness and success – she is open about some of the painful details of her life.  But Beautiful is in serious need of a strong editorial hand, or a better ghost writer. It is cliched and way too long, and even the interesting parts are so poorly written that they come out sounding trite. And as much as I love King’s singing voice – and there are some highlight moments throughout where she breaks into song by way of illustration – this is one case where the author does no favor to the listener by narrating her own story.

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Five

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 5. Enjoy!

Chapter Five

IMG_0592I stretched and rolled over. Another day, another dollar, or at least a good attempt. But not yet, not just yet. I couldn’t face getting up just yet. I pulled the blanket over my face. A few more minutes…

A large, heavy moving object landed on my stomach. “Morning, Mommy,” declared Hannah. “Time to get up!” She peeled the blanket back from my face and kissed my cheeks, ears, and nose. “Up, up, up! Mommy, Mommy, up, it’s morning.”

“So it is, so it is Hannah-girl. I’m getting up. Just give me a minute. I have to tickle someone first.” My hand shot out from the blanket and reached for her stomach. She jumped off me, onto Simon. He groaned.

“Is it Monday?” he asked sleepily.

“Yup, Daddy, it’s time to get up. Can I have waffles for breakfast?”

I sat up and brushed my hair off my face. “Okay. Hannah, go get dressed. I’ll be downstairs in a few minutes. Come Simon, let’s get going.” I gave him a little shake. Mornings were always a negotiation between us, who would go downstairs first and serve breakfast, and who would get to take a shower before coming down. I envied the families I saw on television, where the mother always managed to be neatly dressed and ready before everyone else, standing happily wide awake in her spic and span kitchen, serving breakfast, making everyone lunch, and then kissing each family member good-bye as they left for work or boarded the school bus. Never mind that she then probably went upstairs and downed Prozac. Never mind that those mothers didn’t seem to have lives or careers of their own. Never mind that in Brooklyn our kids didn’t go to school in school buses. Never mind all of that—I never felt that I measured up to that paradigm of motherhood perfection.

Simon moaned again. “Got that meeting. Can’t be late,” he croaked in a sleep-thickened voice. Simon was not a morning person.

I sighed. “Okay. Jump into the shower. I’ll go make breakfast.” I was wearing an oversize t-shirt, but that wasn’t going to make it. I got out of the warm bed, pulled on the nearest pair of sweatpants, and pushed my feet into clogs. “Let’s go, bugaboo,” I said to Hannah. “Come on Simon, get yourself up. Tea is as good as brewing already.”

I headed down to the kitchen. Caleb was apparently still asleep, but I knew he would make his own way down as soon as he woke up. The sun was streaming through the kitchen windows, making the granite counters glow. The kitchen looked warm and welcoming and cozy, despite the detritus of last night’s dinner that hadn’t gotten completely cleaned up. I popped some waffles into the toaster and put up the kettle for Simon’s tea. I prepared a bowl of grapes and cantaloupe for the kids, and for myself, my morning favorite, plain nonfat yogurt with granola, raisins and half a banana.

Hannah rushed in and jumped onto her stool at the counter. Today must be a special day—she wore orange, red, and yellow striped tights, a green velour dress, and her pink hi-top sneakers. Around her neck she wore two strands of shiny plastic beads, one purple, one gold, that my mother-in-law had sent her from a New Year’s Eve gala she had attended last year. Her curls were going in every possible direction. She was an original, my daughter.

“So what’s the big event?” I asked, taking the waffles out of the toaster.

“Today is club day,” she replied. “Zoё and I have a club, and today we’re inviting other people to join. So we decided to dress up to show how nice it is to be in our club. You know, so people will understand about our club.”

“What kind of club is this?” I asked.

“You know, a club people join. That kind. Then we’re all in a club together.”

“Hmm.” I gave Hannah her waffle and a glass of milk, and took a seat across from her. “But you’re not going to exclude anyone, right? You know, that could really hurt someone’s feelings if you didn’t let them join the club.”

Hannah sighed, deeply injured by my complete lack of faith in her. “Oh Mom, of course I know that. Anyone can join our club. Even Bad Jason. But he’ll say it’s dumb and he won’t want to join.”

We ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, concentrating on our breakfast. The day ahead of me was going to require some careful juggling. Hannah needed to be picked up from preschool, and Caleb had his Mommy-and-Me music class this morning at the synagogue. Hannah was going to a birthday party in the afternoon, and I had to stop and buy a birthday present. There were very few fruits and vegetables left in the fridge, so I had to go to the Coop at some point. I had hoped to be able to take Caleb to the park in the afternoon after his nap, but I wanted to find time to get some work done. There were phone calls to make, e-mail to send, and websites to visit.

Simon came downstairs, showered, shaved, dressed and ready to meet the world. He carried Caleb, still half asleep, in one arm and his briefcase in his other hand. “Look who I found!” he announced.

In the short time since I’d left Simon upstairs, he had gotten himself ready to face the world. He was a good-looking guy, with close-cropped dark hair that emphasized his big, brown eyes, thick eyebrows, dramatic cheekbones, and mouth just slightly too big for his long face. He was starting to lose the battle against a receding hairline, but as I often told him, it just made him look more handsome and dignified. Tall and on the verge of being gangly, he still had the same build as when we first met, and it made him look younger and more athletic than he really was.

Noticing me looking at him, he smiled. “My tie okay?”

I nodded. “Just fine. Good choice with that shirt.”

Caleb suddenly gained full consciousness and bounded out of Simon’s arms. “Mommy!” he yelled, jumping into my lap and just as quickly abandoning me for a stool.

And so begins another day.   For several minutes there was peace and calm as everyone ate their breakfast and continued to emerge into full wakefulness. The morning sunlight filled the kitchen with a warm, golden glow. Now that I was wide awake, I was excited to start the new week. Yesterday had been a mellow day. We had guiltily popped in a video for the kids when they woke up at seven, and had gone back to bed for an extra hour and a half. We had gone out for brunch and then taken the kids to see a puppet show. We hadn’t done any errands, and although I was going to be paying the price for that all week long, it had made for a low-stress day. I hadn’t even gone down to my office to work. It felt great to be a family. I loved them all so much that when I really stopped to think about it, it scared me how much. On Shabbat Leah had given a sermon about noticing everyday miracles, and it was at moments like this that I could understand what she was talking about. This was a miraculous moment, this calm, happy breakfast we shared as a family on a beautiful fall morning. My children were miracles, and so was my marriage. I couldn’t imagine what it would have felt like to have lived through the times I was now researching, when families were uprooted and torn apart, when people were tortured and killed simply because they were Jews. What would I do if God forbid, as my grandmother would say, I ever lived through times like those? Would I insist that we stay together as a family, no matter what, or would I find a way to save my children, even if it meant sending them away?

It was hard for me to imagine having the kind of faith in God that the Halizcher rebbe seemed to have had, and I wondered if he later regretted his decision. My family was already here when World War II broke out. But at about age nine or ten, I went through a period when I read everything I could get my hands on about the Holocaust. Having been safely born in Brooklyn, I was fascinated by what the Jews had gone through in Europe. I devoured books like When Hitler Stole Pink Blanket, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Upstairs Room until I started having so many nightmares that my mother decided I should take a break and read Caddie Woodlawn and Little Women instead.

Simon’s hand on my shoulder brought me back to the present. “I have to get going,” he said. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I answered, smiling at him. “I was just thinking that your tie is actually crooked, come to think of it.”

“Believe me, I know what you’re really thinking,” he answered, smiling back. “You think I don’t know, huh? You’ve got all the symptoms of being totally caught up in work. Just remember, it’s only work.”

I laughed. “And you’re one to talk.”

“Well, it takes one to know one. I’ll see you tonight, probably around seven. I’ll try not to be later than that. Can you pick up my drycleaning?”

“Okay,” I answered, making a mental note to add that to the day’s rounds.

“And remember to call the dentist to make an appointment for Hannah.”

“Okay.”

“And if you get a chance, I think we’re low on diapers.”

“Okay. I’ll do my best. I do have to get some work done today too.” As I spoke, I noticed that something in the room stank. I wrinkled my nose.

“Yeah, Caleb needs to be changed,” Simon said, and kissed me goodbye. He hugged the kids, grabbed his jacket and briefcase, and headed out. “Have a good day. Good luck with the research.” The door closed and he was gone, his tie still crooked.

I sighed again. One dirty diaper to change, dirty dishes to do, and I still had to take a shower, get dressed, and get Hannah to school. Just then Caleb lunged for a piece of cantaloupe and knocked over Hannah’s glass of milk. The milk ran across the counter, down Hannah’s dress, and onto the floor.

Hannah screamed. Caleb wailed.

I grabbed a towel and wiped up the milk while Hannah and Caleb threw accusations back and forth. With one hand, I extricated Caleb from his stool, despite his complaints that he hadn’t yet finished eating. With the other, I pulled Hannah out of her soaking wet dress.   That I managed to get anything at all done, that I managed to have a functioning brain with which to think, that was the real miracle.

 ***

When I called Rabbi Springer’s office in the morning, I was lucky enough to actually reach him. When he heard what I wanted to talk to him about, he asked me to meet him for coffee at 3:30. As he was about to go out of town, it was now, or wait two weeks. Getting there meant re-adjusting my schedule, but thankfully Ronit was flexible.

I got out of the subway at Broadway Lafayette and walked up Broadway, observing the crowd. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm, and the street was full of people wearing black. There were black-clad NYU film students, artist-mothers in black leggings wearing black picking up children in black Gap jeans from school on their way home to their white lofts, and cigarette-smoking high school students in black Doc Marten’s, a group of high-fashion Italian tourists eating ice cream in expensive black designer-wear. Not a lot of business people walking around at this hour of the afternoon. I felt conspicuous in my purple sweater, but at least my pants were black.

I turned on to West Fourth Street, following Leah’s directions. Except for the blue flag proclaiming “Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion” that fluttered in the entrance to the building, there was nothing conspicuous about the rabbinic seminary. The modern red-brick building looked like the NYU buildings surrounding it, another anonymous academic space. The only thing that gave some hint that something different went on here was the little bit of stained glass from the seminary’s chapel that jutted out of the corner of the building.

As I approached the building, I could see a small man with a full head of gray curls. That had to be Rabbi Springer. Rabbinic students were entering and leaving the building behind him, nodding reverentially as they passed. The students looked clean-cut and well-scrubbed. There was probably not a pierced nostril among them, another thing that would make them stand out among the NYU students in the neighboring buildings. It still made me laugh to think that Leah actually went to rabbinic school and became a rabbi. In fact, she’s a great rabbi. She liked to do things her own way, which had made me think that rabbinic school might not be for her. But she had sailed through it, winning prizes in Hebrew and Bible and Homiletics. For some reason that neither she nor I understood, it was only with men that her ability to succeed was severely challenged.

“Rabbi Springer,” I said, putting out my hand. “Abby Marcus.”

He was, as I’d already observed, a small man, but rather broad and muscular. Leah had told me that his other passion, next to Chasidism, was Karate. Seeing him, I could believe it. His clear eyes and ruddy cheeks radiated good health, his handshake was strong and firm, and his broad smile indicated a sincere eagerness to make my acquaintance. His gray curls bobbed up and down as he enthusiastically shook my hand. In the middle of the curls was a small, blue knit kippa with flowers and doves embroidered around the edges. It would have been hard for a casual observer to pigeonhole him but the jacket, with its elbow-patches, was a dead giveaway that he was an academic.

“Nice to meet you, Abby Marcus,” he said in reply, smiling. “Which will it be? Caffenation or a nice glass of wheat grass and beet juice? What’s your vice? Pleasure or health?”

I sensed that he would have preferred the wheat grass, but since he had offered a choice, I was going for the caffeine. We walked around the corner to the nearest Starbucks, where I ordered a double expresso. My intuition about the rabbi’s own preferences was confirmed when he ordered a cup of steamed soymilk. I didn’t actually know you could steam that stuff. I insisted on paying, since, after all, he was doing me a favor, and we sat down at a back corner table. I proceeded to tell him about my encounter with Sarah Gelberman and subsequent research into the Halizcher Chasidim.

“I like puzzles, and good stories, and it sounds like you may have both here,” he said, sipping his soymilk. “I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Halizchers, the tragic way that a proud dynasty came to a tragic end. You know, I assume, that the world of the miraculous is an important element in Chasidism, especially the branch that the Halizchers were part of. Of course, anything is possible, but for one of the direct descendants to be alive today would certainly verge on the miraculous. Then again, that would be quite fitting.”

“I realize that it could just be an old man’s fantasy,” I said, “but my job is to determine if that is the case or not. This requires genealogical research, but I also need to find out more about the Halizchers. It isn’t a matter of pure research and documentation. I’ve learned that there are a lot of dead-ends in genealogy, but if I have a good sense of context, I can often find other avenues for information that weren’t obvious. Does that make sense?”

Rabbi Springer smiled. “Absolutely. I’m a big believer in reading between the lines myself.”

I smiled back. “Great. But I don’t know much about Chasidism in general, and certainly not much about the Halizchers. I don’t really know where to begin. I need a crash course.”

He swallowed some more of his soymilk and cleared his throat. “Here’s the short version. Chasidism was founded by Israel Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. It was a populist movement within Judaism, a way to make Judaism accessible and meaningful to the masses. Not everyone can be, or should be, a Talmud scholar. Chasidism came along and said that was okay. Not that Talmud wasn’t of critical importance, but that it wasn’t the only way to connect to God. In some sense, it was like an early reform movement. Chasidism emphasized joy, prayer, and meditation. It allowed room for the nonrational, the mystical, the mysterious.   The Baal Shem Tov was first of all a healer and a miracle worker. In fact there is a debate among scholars right now about whether or not those legends about the Baal Shem Tov that portray him as a simple man of the people were true at all or were simply fostered to help him gain popularity. There is a minority of scholars, myself included, who think there’s a possibility that he may have been more educated than is generally believed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are others who believe he was actually illiterate. In any case, as Chasidism spread through parts of Eastern Europe, suddenly poor, miserable rural Jews, just barely eking out existences between one anti-Semitic act to another, were dancing and singing and even having divine visions. They were experiencing moments of ecstasy, losing themselves in prayer and letting go of their reality. It was powerful stuff. Gave birth to many incredible stories, and songs, and melodies. And of course very threatening to other Jews, who hated them and tried at every turn to stop the spread of Chasidism. Jew against Jew is not just a 20th century phenomenon.

“The rebbe became an almost exalted figure in Chasidism, a saint. The rebbe was thought to have special powers of communication with God. The Besht was the first, and after him, his students kept it going. Eventually, there were many groups of Chasidim, each with their own different outlook. Some of the groups came to truly hate and vilify each other. From the outside they may look alike, but I’m sure you know of the fighting that goes on even today between the Satmars and the Lubavich in Brooklyn. But I’m getting ahead of myself.”

I paused in my notetaking, my need to understand outweighing my fear of sounding ignorant. “It sounds cultish.”

“Yes, in a way, in the sense that it grew on the strength of charismatic leaders. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t today, a cult. It gave people some hope, a sense of optimism, a reason to keep going. Yet it was within the confines of traditional, Torah-based Judaism. It was just another interpretation of what it meant to serve God.”

“What does that mean, ‘Torah-based Judaism’? From your description, Chasidism sounds like it might have been less strict than traditional Judaism, more forgiving of ritual lapses with its emphasis on joy. Yet today us non-traditional Jews look at the Chasidim and see the far end of the spectrum. For us they’re the strict Jews, the very religious.”

Rabbi Springer smiled. “Yes and no. Strictly observant, yes, absolutely. But from the perspective of joy, not as a burden.   So many people think that Chasidism is just extreme Orthodoxy, the most religious on the scale of religiosity, but that’s not it at all. In some ways, the Chasidim are part of the world of the ultra-Orthodox, or the Haredim. But they are not by themselves on that side of the spectrum. There are many Haredim who are not Chasidic. It’s not like the more Orthodox you get, the closer you get to Chasidism. For the Chasidim, the idea was that one prayed with joy, that one kept the mitzvot joyfully. It was thought that with every mitzvah that was kept, we would be one step closer to the day when the Messiah would come. That’s why today you see the Lubavich, who are the most involved in issues of Outreach, doing things like mitzvah tanks and stopping people on the street to lay tefillin or telling women how and when to light candles. They fervently believe that the mitzvot that all Jews do count, and bring us yet another step closer to the coming of the Messiah. Does that make sense?”

I frowned. “Maybe. I feel in over my head.”

“Well, you’ll do some follow-up reading. Don’t worry about getting it all. People spend their lives trying to understand this. And even myself, while I learn from and am inspired by Chasidut, I myself am an outsider. After all, I’m a Reform rabbi, and an academic, who has happened to make the study of Chasidism my field. I may be a Chasid in my heart, but to them, I’m just a voyeuristic academic. If you ask someone who is Chasidic how you can learn about Chasidism, and what books to read, you’ll be told that no book can really do it justice, that you have to live it, day in and day out. Every book written by an ‘outsider’ misrepresents them, and books by insiders, no offense, you’d never understand.   But more on books later. Let’s talk about the Halizchers.

“They were based in Halizch, hence the name. As I’m sure you know already, Halizch was a little shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, sometimes in Russia, sometimes in Poland. I’m sure you also know it no longer exists, having been wiped off the maps by the Nazis. The Chasidic groups are like branches from a tree. Sometimes sons or son-in-laws or grandsons take over and become the next rebbe. Sometimes it’s a distinguished student, though generally only in the case where there is no capable son or son-in-law. And sometimes a new branch begins, and a student becomes the rebbe of his own group. Now, the first Halizcher rebbe was Leib Mendel, born in 1855, who had been a student of Yoel Shlomo, who had been a student of Yisrael Eliezer haLevi, who had been a student of Dov Baer, otherwise known as the Maggid of Mezritch, who had inherited the mantle of leadership from the Besht himself. It was Leib Mendel who moved the center of Yoel Shlomo’s group to Halizch after his teacher’s death, thinking that life might be better there for the Jews. Leib Mendel was succeeded by his son, Yosef Yehudah, but you see, Yosef Yehudah had only daughters.

“It was a problem,” he continued, “Because there was no son to take over. Three of them died in the Holocaust, two of them before they were even old enough to marry. But before that, the other two married two brothers, which was much more common than today by the way, one of whom was Nossen Shlomo Gelberman. From what I’ve gathered, it was understood that the mantle of leadership would pass through his line when the time came.   Apparently he was no great scholar, no great leader, nothing like his father-in-law, and certainly nothing like his grandfather-in-law, but there you are. Maybe he would have grown into greatness if he hadn’t been killed in Treblinka, in 1942. But he died when he was only around 35, and that was it. The last of the bunch.”

I tried to absorb all the information, but there was so much of it. I hoped that I wasn’t going to miss something crucial. I had noticed, though, that Rabbi Springer used the name Gelberman, so maybe my client was really connected to these people somehow.

“And what about any children he might have had?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.   That’s an interesting footnote to the story. Nossen had two sons, Leib Mendel, named after the great-grandfather of course, and Yankeleh. Leib, who was the younger son, was just a boy, but had already developed quite a reputation as a scholar and a charismatic leader. It was fairly clear that he was being trained by his grandfather to take over one day, maybe even in place of his father. Sometimes leadership skips a generation, if the generation in between is weak and the elder generation can live long enough to wait it out. But both boys died, along with Nossen, in Treblinka in 1942. You mentioned over the phone that Leah already told you that story, so you know that while at least one boy could have been saved, no one was, and they all died. And that was the end of the Halizcher Chasidism, for all intents and purposes. What a terrible shame. The Halizchers went to great trouble to arrange a visa and safe passage for the boy. All their hopes were pinned on his survival, so that there might be a leader for them someday.”

He sighed. “That’s pretty much it. But don’t forget that I am a rabbi and a professor, and that being the case, I’m going to recommend some books and give you homework as promised. What I have told you here only scratches the surface, and if you are anything like your friend Leah, then I am sure that you don’t like easy answers. It sounds to me like an interesting puzzle and one worth solving.”

Rabbi Springer reached into the inside pocket of his tweed blazer and pulled out a reading list. “These are books that will give you a good introduction to the history of Chasidism, the main players, so to speak, and a bit more of an idea of what’s it all about.” He handed me the reading list and I took a quick look while he continued to speak. “I’m happy to help you as much as I can, but my only condition is that you must keep me informed. This is too interesting not to know how it turns out eventually.”

“I promise,” I said.

“Good. Now for more homework,” he continued. “I am going to send you to see a friend of mine. Well, his mother. There is a man in Borough Park who is kind enough to let me study with him from time to him. His mother, Mrs. Shaina Freiburg, grew up in Halizch. Her family were Halizcher Chasidim. She is worth talking to. You never know what byway leads to what new road. She is a lovely woman, and it will be a mitzah for you to go visit her as she is recovering from hip surgery. I spoke to her already, and she is willing to meet with you.”

I wasn’t sure how productive that meeting was going to be, but who was I to doubt? I thanked Rabbi Springer for his help. “Before we leave, though,” I asked, like a good student, “I see that on the reading list there is nothing here actually written by the Baal Shem Tov. Is there anything among his writings that is translated into English, something accessible but central to his ideas? Or do you think that his ideas are not accessible enough? I’d love to read anything, just to get even a vague idea of the man who began all of this.”

“Oh, no, that’s not possible,” said Rabbi Springer. “You see, the Besht left no original writings.”

 

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series: Part 1, Chapter Four

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 4. Enjoy!

IMG_2475The saxophonist and the clarinetist were going at it, playing away at breakneck speed.   The fiddler joined in, showing off her virtuosity. Their bodies swayed back and forth to the music as the singer belted out her song. The concert hall filled with the raucous, earthy sounds of Yiddish wedding music. People got up from their seats, clapping their hands to the beat. Simon looked at me and smiled, his big brown eyes lighting up with delight. Klezmer was Simon’s favorite music — he said it spoke to his soul. These were the songs he remembered from his childhood, growing up surrounded by Yiddish-speaking grandparents and great-aunts and uncles. So this year for his birthday I got us tickets to see the Klezimites, a band of young, hip American Jews who had discovered a dormant passion for Yiddish and Yiddish music. The band members looked as downtown as you could get, with their black jeans, high top sneakers and multicultural caps, but they definitely had old Eastern European souls.

Looking around at the audience, I marveled at what a funny creature the New York Jewish community was. The concert was taking place after sundown on a Saturday night, so as not to exclude or offend any traditionally observant Jews. And there were indeed some in the audience, as evidenced by the kippot sprinkled here and there, and the few women with covered hair.   Some of the older audience members nodded along and smiled nostalgically like they really knew all the words. But the majority of the audience was young people, in their twenties and thirties, who, like me, had discovered klezmer music as adults. I had grown up with some Yiddish expressions mixed in with standard English, but certainly no real Yiddish substance and no Yiddish culture. Here we were, paying money to come hear the music that our grandparents had loved but that our parents had rejected as old-fashioned and embarrassingly unsophisticated. As the Jewish community aged, Yiddish was supposed to be a dying language and Yiddish culture replaced by homegrown American Jewish culture and Israeli imports. Yet Yiddish was experiencing a revival of sorts among young Jews, who were studying it in universities and in summer programs, and who were infusing Yiddish music with new life.   Ronit, our Israeli au pair, could not understand the attraction to this music at all. For her, Yiddish was the past, the European ghetto from which Jews had escaped. Whenever we played a klezmer CD at home, she would cringe, then politely apologize.

The band was playing a slower song now, and the audience got resettled in their seats. I didn’t understand the words, but the melody and the sound of the language was calm and comforting. At the end of the song, the clarinetist explained that the song was about a mother reassuring a child that everything will be all right, that no harm will come. Then he introduced the next song, a Yiddish poem that the band had set to music. The poem described a town in Poland, where everything was beautiful in the spring when the flowers came out after the long barren winter. The author of the poem had died in Treblinka, and the song was dedicated to the poet. The audience was suddenly still as the hauntingly beautiful song filled the hall. The vocalist sang in a deep, throaty voice that reached right into my gut and filled my eyes with tears. Sensing my change in mood, Simon squeezed my hand.

As the band sang, I thought again about my new mystery client, Sarah Gelberman. The poet and so many others had died, but some had survived and went on to build new lives. Sarah Gelberman was an example of the strange new world miracles that resulted from the upheaval of the war. A fully modern American descendant of a renowned Chasidic leader who, like the author of the poem, died in Treblinka. But the story that Leah had recounted bothered me. If Leah was right, and experience had taught me that she usually was, then there was something important Sarah Gelberman wasn’t telling me. But on the other hand, lots of strange stories came out of the Holocaust during the years right after the war. Rumors and miracles abounded. There were South American sightings of those said to have died in the camps. Elijah the prophet was said to have visited those in the camps and gave them messages of hope. Spouses and siblings were joyously reunited. Others who suposedely survived never surfaced again. Even now, long-mourned relatives were still turning up after many years, alive and well. And from a time of such chaos and crisis, how could it have been otherwise? So maybe the rebbe’s grandson had in fact survived. What proof was there that he had really died? Were there any witnesses? I pulled my notebook and pen out of my bag, trying to do so without Simon noticing so that he wouldn’t chide me about always having my mind on work. While the band played their mournful tunes, I wrote down as many questions as I could think of. Some I needed to ask Sarah Gelberman, when and if she got in touch again. And some needed good, solid research in order to get answered.   It was time to get moving on my new case.

 ***

When we got home, Ronit was sitting on the couch fast asleep, a book open on her lap. Simon gently shook her shoulder to wake her up. She jumped up, embarrassed, and reported on the evening. The kids had gone to bed calmly and happily. The last time she had checked on them, Caleb was on the floor on top of his blanket, at the foot of Hannah’s bed. We thanked her, and she went down to her apartment. Simon put the kettle on to make some tea, and I went upstairs to peek into their bedroom. Caleb had moved and was now curled up at the foot of Hannah’s bed. He was such a faithful puppy; he adored his big sister. I just hoped that someday Hannah would appreciate him, and more than that, I hoped that they would always be close.

When I came back downstairs, Simon was sitting at the counter. He had a mug of tea ready for me. I was dying to run downstairs and get to work, even though it was almost midnight. But I knew Simon was looking forward to a nice, relaxed night together upstairs. Making me a mug of steaming herb tea was one of Simon’s classic romantic overtures. I was actually an unrepentant coffee drinker, but Simon knew me well enough to know that while I love the taste of coffee, part of the reason I drank coffee was to stay awake. When he didn’t want me to stay awake too long at night immersed in my work, he would make me a cup of tea. I looked at the mug and I looked at Simon, and we both laughed. We knew each other so well at this point that we both knew exactly what was the other was thinking. Simon sighed.

“All right, Abby, all right,” he said. “I saw you scribbling away in that notebook of yours at the concert. I know that if I invited you upstairs right now, you might go through the motions, but your mind would be somewhere in Eastern Europe.”

I immediately felt guilty, as Simon’s main complaint in our marriage was that I never made enough time for our relationship. But my main complaint was that he wasn’t realistic about what our life was like now that we had two children. No other parents of young children I knew had any time for their relationships. Forget sexual fantasies — for most mothers of young children the best fantasy of all was a good night’s sleep.

“I just have some questions I want to get answered. Then I’ll lay it aside and call it a day. Okay?” I replied, looking into those deep brown eyes that had made me fall in love with him way back when.

He nodded. “What can I do? A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. Just promise me that if I fall asleep, you’ll wake me up.”

I agreed, and he leaned over and gave me a long, sweet kiss, reminding me why it might be worth it to not work too long. Then he got up, and taking his mug, went upstairs. I took my tea, and went off in the other direction, down to my office.

 ***

I could access my office two ways. During the day, when the kids were home, I would say good-bye, walk out the front door, go down the stoop, and re-enter the house through the ground floor entrance. But at night, I used the internal staircase that connected the ground floor with the rest of the house. When the house was originally built in 1864, the ground floor was the kitchen and the servants’ quarters. Now my office occupied the front half, and the back half formed a small apartment where Ronit and her boyfriend Shuki currently lived, rent-free. Though we missed the rental income, this arrangement greatly reduced our childcare costs.

In the dim light of the hallway, I unlocked my office door and entered. The light from the answering machine flashed red. I pressed the button to listen to the messages, and Leah’s voice floated into the quiet room. “Listen, I was thinking about your question, and I have someone you should speak to. His name is Rabbi Springer. He’s one of the foremost scholars on the history of Chasidism. Eccentric guy, but brilliant. He knows a lot more than I do about the Halizcher Rebbe. I studied with him in rabbinic school, so feel free to use my name. Good luck, and let me know what happens.” She proceeded to leave me his phone number.

Tomorrow I would call Rabbi Springer. In the meantime, it was time to lay out a game plan. I sat at my desk and made lists on index cards. I scribbled down ideas and drew arrows. On other index cards I wrote questions. Next in line was the computer. There were people I would need to wait until tomorrow to contact by phone, but no one ever sleeps in cyberspace.

I don’t like wild-goose chases, and I had my suspicions about Sarah Gelberman. There were facts to be verified. I went to whitepages.com and first checked New York City. There were a few Gelbermans, but no Sarah Gelberman was listed anywhere in the five boroughs.   There could be a lot of good reasons that she wasn’t listed. She could live in one of the New York suburbs, anywhere in the tri-state area really, and could have still easily made her way to me. She could be a college-student in the area, and wouldn’t be listed if she lived in a dorm. She could be sharing an apartment with friends, and the phone could simply not be in her name. She could be living at home, and the phone could be listed in her parents’ names. Or, she could have an unlisted phone number. I chastised myself for letting her go without leaving me her contact information. For possible future reference, I printed out a list of all the Gelbermans with New York City phone listing, just in case, but I was already frustrated that I hadn’t easily found her.

Next I checked for any Jack Gelbermans. There were none listed in New York City, though there were two J. Gelbermans, a Jeremy, and a Jill.   I directed the search to Winter Park, Florida, and bingo – there it was! Jack Gelberman, just where Sarah had told me he lived. Well, at least she told me the truth about that. I printed out that listing as well.

With that information, I was able to go to another site and request the social security number of Jack Gelberman. The Social Security Administration wouldn’t give out that information on people who were alive, but there were private companies who weren’t obligated to play by the rules of the Federal Government. I had an account with one of these companies; they were quick and reliable, if not entirely ethical.   All I had to do was give them someone’s name, address, and agree to have $24.95 charged to my VISA bill. Twenty-four hours later, I would have the number. I wasn’t sure I’d want someone to be able to get a hold of my social security number so easily, but I was glad I was able to get the information I needed.

Then it was time for Jewgensearch.com, a genealogy website.   One of the amazing features of Jewgensearch.com was that it allowed users direct access to an on-line genealogical database. This database had actually been created by the Mormons, for whom genealogy has a strong religious component. Many Jews were able to research their family trees courtesy of the Mormons, who were working on creating an enormous database of everyone who was living or had ever lived. However, they had not yet managed to include absolutely everyone, and I was unable to find Gelbermans who seemed to be related to my new client.

A search of Chasidic-related websites proved to not be much more fruitful. I did not uncover anything about the Halizcher Rebbe, though I did learn a little bit about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. If the Halizcher Rebbe had been even a quarter as charismatic as the Baal Shem Tov, he must have been quite a man. I became entranced by a website dealing with the miraculous healing powers of the Baal Shem Tov and when I next glanced at the clock it was 2:30. Turning off my computer, I stacked up my pile of index cards and went upstairs to wake Simon.

[To be continued…]

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Another Kind of Normal: A Personal Reflection on the Marriage Equality Ruling

Larry and BrianOne of the first things I did after getting the New York Times text alert about the Supreme Court Marriage Equality decision was to call my cousin Larry. It was an instinctive reaction. No matter that I was navigating my way to Newark Airport to make a flight, and that I had to call work to launch our prepared response to the ruling – my first thought was to call Larry.

In 1980, when I was a senior in high school and he was a sophomore in college, Larry and his family were visiting me and my family in St. Petersburg, Florida over Christmas break.  We went out to a bar one night (I was only 16 but the drinking age then was 18, not 21, so whatever…). It was a memorable night. We sat at the top of a hotel on the beach in a weird revolving bar. Car lights twinkled below us as the bar moved on its axis. And Larry came out to me.

I don’t remember his words, but I remember their power. I remember feeling honored that he had told me, like he had just entrusted me with a fragile piece of himself. I remember hearing the pain in his telling. And I remember thinking that whatever his actual words were, he had essentially asked me to be on his team for whatever lay ahead. Neither one of us yet had the language for this in 1980, but later I would come to understand that he had asked me to be an ally.

I was sixteen at the time but he was not the first person to have come out to me, and he would not be the last.  The first time had happened months before when a beautiful boy I met in a summer program confessed that he actually just wanted to be friends, because he really preferred boys to girls.  My heart was broken for a day or two but healed quickly, and a close friendship developed.

In the hyper-liberal part of Brooklyn where I had been raised, homosexuality was a visible part of the landscape. Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, the neighborhoods of my childhood, were havens for writers and those seeking sexual freedom from the 1930’s on, and the intertwined literary and gay histories were still in evidence during the gentrifying 1970’s in which I grew up.  (Fun fact: Thomas Wolfe wrote “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” while living on my childhood block in 1935).

Growing up in my house, in that neighborhood, gay was just another kind of normal. My pediatrician was gay. One of my friends had two moms (even though it did admittedly take me a while to figure that one out – at age 5 I didn’t understand why the mommy and her friend shared a bed). My parent’s next door neighbors, on their block of restored 19th century carriage houses, were a gay couple who regularly came over for dinner with my parents.  The couple whose backyard was opposite my parents were also a gay couple, one of whom came over sometimes in the evening to give us all haircuts.  A number of the teachers in my school were gay, including one of my favorite teachers who I once ran into and had a friendly chat with as he was leaving a gay bar in the West Village. For the sake of history I would like to think it was Stonewall – it was definitely on that block – but that particular detail might just be too good to be true.  In any case, all of this is to say that in my albeit unusual Brooklyn childhood, gay wasn’t “other” – gay was my neighbors, my doctor, my teachers, my friend’s parents, my cousin, my friends.

When I was asked, years later, to step in at the last minute as rabbi in Fire Island Pines for the high holy days, a primarily gay community, it felt like home. Creating a life filled with people of different sexual identities has just been the way it is, a comfortable way to live.  Being an advocate for gay rights has always felt natural and right, the honorable, ethical thing to do. As a Jew and as a rabbi, it has felt like a moral imperative and like the living out of my Jewish values of according dignity to all, and the deep belief that all are created in the image of God.

None of this is to say that I’ve always gotten it quite right. There’s been lots of learning along the way.   But I have always tried to show up in ways that matter in both my personal and professional lives.

As a rabbi this has meant marrying gay couples well before it was legal, or enabling the legal marriage of a couple who had already been together for 42 years, or changing language in liturgical and ritual publications to create inclusivity and healing, or making sure that illustrations in books for children depict a wide range of types of families, or being part of a group attending a death so that a beloved gay elder did not pass out of this world alone.

And when New York State legalized gay marriage and Larry asked me to officiate at his wedding to the most wonderful man several years ago, I could not have been more happy and overwhelmed with emotion.

Yes, I know that the fight for LGBTQ rights is not over just because the Supreme Court has legalized marriage equality. My young adult children have challenged me about my excitement over the ruling, arguing that we shouldn’t be so excited because there’s still so much work to do. They’re right that there is certainly much work left to do to bring about full equality, and much hate, fear, and discrimination still to overcome. The rainbowizing of Facebook profile pictures by tens of millions, both gay and straight, doesn’t mean the battle is over.  All of this is true.  But this is an amazing moment, a formerly incomprehensible achievement.  It may have seemed inevitable to those born into an era in which every tv show seems to have at least one gay character and tumblrs exist of cute same-sex prom photos, but this moment was unimaginable thirty-five years ago when Larry came out to me. It was unimaginable twenty-five years ago, and perhaps even ten years ago.  Massachusetts, the first state to do so, only legalized marriage in 2004.  It’s ok to pause, take a deep breath, and appreciate how far we’ve come before we get back to work.

IMG_1894In a text last Friday morning, a little while after learning about the Supreme Court decision, Larry and I remembered that night years ago in that weird bar on St. Pete Beach. I asked him: Imagine if someone had told our teenage selves that someday I would legally officiate at your legal wedding to your wonderful legal husband, under a chuppah, with your friends and family in attendance. We could not have comprehended that reality in 1980. But how much pain would that knowledge have wiped away? How much doubt, how much shame, how much self-destructive behavior, for so many? It is truly incredible how much change has happened just in the course of our adulthoods.

Because of my parents’ example of acceptance and openness, because of the school I went to and the neighborhood in which I grew up, because of the people I was lucky enough to meet in high school and college and on into adulthood, gayness has always been woven into the fabric of my life as another kind of normal. Because of the Jewish community I grew up in, and the rabbinate that I’m a part of, acceptance, tolerance, and equality have been framed as core sacred values, ideals of holiness. And now, with this victory, hopefully that will begin to be true everywhere, for everyone. We know that there are still rights to be fought for and minds to be changed.  But with this Supreme Court decision we have taken a huge leap forward into a new normal, not just for those of us who grew up in the rarified air of 1970’s liberal Brooklyn, and not just within the ethical framework of Reform Judaism, but all over this country, in states blue and red, in homes of every faith, stripe, and color of the rainbow.

 

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