When I was a little girl, and even a not so little girl, I was in love with my mother’s autograph book. It was a plain-looking book, stiff, with a kind of puffy, brown cover, raveled brown lacing through gold studs, and thin, thumbed-over pages with blots on them, again brown, brown as age spots. The scratchy writing in it had long round loops, Palmer’s Method I think, the t’s at the ends of words not crossed but upturned like cut barbed wire, the letters as unlike my wild American loops as the ornate John Hancocks in the Declaration of Independence were from either of ours.
Inside were clues to a life that wasn’t mine and a girl who went to a school named P.S. for Public School, and Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, far from my midwestern William T. Sherman Grade School, my Steuben Jr. High, my Washington High. P.S., like the end of a letter to a world I tried to imagine. And the names in that book—Moe and Claude and Dutch. Dutch! Not the Davids and Michaels, the Jimmys and Lindas of my neighborhood.
My favorite autograph rhyme in this book went like this: Mit mazel, mit glick/ May you never be sick./ Your fellow Grad-U-8. I remember this rhyme as if it were a Roses are Red. I know the first line is Yiddish, but its literal translation (with luck, with happiness), will never fully recover the world that existed for me only around the edges, a kind of emotional spice, horseradish maybe, or honey, a relish of double meanings and tears, dismissal, mockery and joy, placed around words that were just words and even nonsense then to me. The Hebrew poet Bialik compared translation to kissing through a handkerchief, and perhaps he has a point. Still I may not get the love just right but I do bear the imprint of that embrace.
Yiddish, for the European Jews, was the secular language of home, a tongue both intimate and shameful, an embarrassment, a pleasure, a second-class mongrel speech of immigrants, women, children, exiles—a private language familiar to anyone who lives in a kind of ghetto—and like those of other marginal peoples, charged, doubled up, speaking out of all sides of the mouth but seldom straight, a toughness with all the love and powerlessness leaking through. Landless, it lived there in the body, in food, sex, jokes, and song, in pettiness and affection, in nostalgia and contempt, in small delights and great diminishments. It could convey the sneer without chancing the punch, its mouthing best suited to nuance and gesture, to the drama if not the whole show. Hebrew, on the other hand, was the language of great seriousness, the one the men studied and prayed in to God. Yiddish therefore was the language of comedy and domesticity—great emotions played out on a small and darkening stage.
But I was an American. What could I know of this world? My parents’ marriage was almost a mixed marriage in itself, religious and non-religious, my mother the daughter of Ukrainian Russian immigrants, born a year after they sailed past the Statue of Liberty, that other Mother of Exiles. Exiles and immigrants now, and poor—an old story—though my grandfather had been the son of the town’s banker, manufacturer of sugar sacks, who escaped the tsar’s forced conscription, which for Jews could be over twenty years or could be forever. Bribed the officer, another old story. Crossed the ocean in steerage. I sigh over these stories, bewildered both by their heroism and their commonality, their ordinariness.
And my grandmother, the daughter of a miller, who missed her beloved birch trees and wheat fields, who loved poetry and sang songs of the Ukraine. The Oo-cra-een she called it, sounding to me like a lullabye of loss, a crying softened to an echo across a solitary, pine-rimmed lake. The Oo-cra-een she’d say over her treadle sewing machine, her days given up to sewing for rich people and raising her children to be Americans.
They were non-religious Jews, these grandparents, my mother’s folks, who, romantically, as adolescents, used to meet in a Russian cemetery at night to talk of revolution, to print leaflets for a speaker hunted by the authorities. And my grandfather, the brawniest of the group—I forever see him as a thick, balding peasant, happy on his Northern Wisconsin lake, a string of fish held out proudly to the camera, his grin sweet and tough, and his sweaty skin, I remember, a mildewed mixture of alcohol and honey—my grandfather agreed to bury the printing press somewhere in the ground, and when questioned by the police, couldn’t remember where. Such bravery! Such trickery! Though I know my grandfather, lifetimes later to become a bootlegger, really couldn’t remember where.
My father, also from the Ukraine, one of the many little towns around Kiev remembered in silence—don’t ask—could have come from another world altogether. The son of a singer, a cantor, a chozzen, and the grandson of a line of religious singers, he entered America as an orthodox Jew, selling vegetables on the streets, carrots his first word of English, mixed with the Spanish he learned in Mexico City. My mother married him, she said, for his dancing and his (adopted?) Spanish looks. As a child I learned Besame Mucho and La Cucaracha along with God Bless America, Heartbreak Hotel and Tubby the Tuba. However, the Yiddish comedy records of songs and stories, and the popular entertainment of America, were the unlikely spiritual bond that brought the many mixtures of my family’s lives together.
The observance of religion was not the glue, although I remember my father’s orthodox shul, the men in prayer shawls up in front, bending and moaning, davening, a praying sing-song that sounded to me, in back of the curtains with the women and the children, like another kind of crying, the voices both funny and foreign yet the collective chant alive to memories my body understood somewhere in its childish folds. Some upturned note, some plea, some barely hidden sob like a kind of blues, in as scale of notes that hurts with pleasure to hear its stately arch. The missing notes in a minor scale, the swerves, the flattened thirds– Inside those aching spaces in the music suddenly fly all of history. And although I did not pray—in what language would I pray?—something entered in.
The women and the children behind our partition made some kinds of sounds, prayerful and obedient ones, chastising and complaining ones. Dressed in their immigrant best, swollen feet red and dented, I remember, where the shoes cut into the soft puffy flesh of my mother’s feet stuffed into wedgies. Wedgies, an appropriate name, or was it a private one? Oy, my aching feet, a mild complaint really, addressed to no one in particular, almost audible with affection as she’d try to rub away the lines that cut along the edge. And I knew she hated being there, a foreignness that wasn’t hers either, while my father and his brothers harmonized up front with the rabbi. The Neverly Sisters I used to call them, without thought to the joyous hodge-podge of style, the blend of the sacred and profane. Maybe we are all some kind of joyous mixture. Maybe that is our salvation. Or maybe that is our loss.
A tzimmes, was that my heritage, my special Americanness , a mixture, literally a dish of mixed cooked vegetables and fruit, slightly sweetened, the word also implying a mix-up, a mess, a big deal (“So don’t make a whole tzimmes out of it!”)—like the American idiom of getting into a stew about something. Don’t take it so seriously, this background that could have put you into that other oven. A homely expression, but then isn’t home the source of our belonging to a culture? Ah, hak mir nisch kon tchynik! Don’t pound on my teakettle. Don’t bother me. Your life is a tzimmes, a mish-mosh, a meshuggene mixed-up thing, you crazy mixed-up kid, which I was. Where did I belong?
Food was part of it. Food more than food. Along with trips to the A&P and to the Piggly-Wiggly, stores that have now, for the most part, disappeared along with an older America, I remember being dragged into the butcher’s shop, sawdust all over the floor and headless chickens hanging crazy on the walls. If today on the flame of the gas range I accidentally singe the hair on my arm I can suddenly be back inside the tiny butcher shop on Center Street, the acrid smell of singed feathers mixing with the wet stub of a chewed-on cigar and the butcher’s bloody white apron afloat on his belly. A blowsy place, that butcher shop, though once inside I would beg for a penny to buy a gumball from the old machine near the door, hoping for a red one. Then I’d squash it in my mouth and I’d nag again to leave, sawdust sticking to my shoes, the wet and burning stink still crammed inside my nose, a disappearing world forever locked somewhere inside me.
And out into the air and down the dirty blocks to Guten’s Delicatessen we would go. Or on Sundays my father would bring home the bagels and the lox, the corned beef and pastrami, and the heavenly smoked fish soaking their sweet oils through the brown waxed wrapping and even through the bag. Smoked fish I adored, after the bones were threaded out and the eyes lopped off, though I ate my bagels without lox, toasting them like a proper American and spreading cream cheese and sometimes jelly. Lox always seemed somehow indelicate to my girlish sensibility, like the inside of a mouth, like the color of thick wet lingerie. And halavah, my brother’s favorite treat, that sweetened slab of honey and ground-up sesame seeds, I couldn’t swallow. To me it had the taste and feel of sawdust, like a butcher shop inside a nutshell, more pain disguised as joy. Ack! Phooey! And I would spit it out, making huge dramatic choking sounds all around my big brother.
Spitting and noisy body sounds were not a tabooed form of behavior around the neighborhood. Three spits against the Evil Eye, poo-poo-poo (or, in my mocking ironic family, ptooey-ptooey-ptooey) could be heard in front of churches and after saying good things about someone. “He’s healthy, my son, kin-ahora” (without the Evil Eye), or some other ancient curses, their once living meaning having passed into ritual. A choleria, pronounced in my family as ah-chollery, usually said in anger and exasperation, hand clapped to the side of the head, meant “to hell with . . . “ but literally wished the receiver to get cholera. “A pox on you,” I guess, is the nearest translation. I heard a lot of this wishing for cholera around the house, and even translated my ball-bouncing rhyme, one-two-three-O’Leary, which I really thought was one-two-three-O’Larry (after, of course, my big brother Larry), to one-two-ah-chollery, a bouncy sing-song chant without the slightest understanding of its source. And so I’d sing about cholera and I’d sing about love, moving from one to the other as if that slide had no stop-signs, no boundaries.
What was tabooed was sex, although you could never tell it from all the jokes and all the dirty songs sung in Yiddish, the double-entendres, the puns, the secret meanings, the honking, explosive laughs. Laughing till their kishkas (intestines) hurt—that was a familiar sound of Jewish homes, along with anger, the number of Jewish comedians an indication of this particular response to pain and paradox. And, although the humor was rich with the vibrant stuff of the physical world, my house was one of closed doors and mouths washed out with laundry soap. Not uncommon the immigrant wish for their children to inhabit a middle-class life, a puritan proper world, though their relationship to its models was ambivalent. So I heard more the language of the body, the abundance, the sheer fleshiness of it, the life spilling out of its corsets. And I heard lip service to the Christian proper world, a wink and a muddy embrace.
Fat Sophie Tucker swaggering her bulk, not hiding her love—You’ll miss your big fat mama/ Some of these da-a-a-a-ays—a kinship with the black blues singers, their exquisite sadness and their exuberant joy. The great Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher parodied in Mickey Katz’s Minnie the Flepper (flapper) to rhyme with schlepper, on one of my parents’ favorite 78s, and how I remember the hysterical laughing, the whole body singing along. It isn’t just the repressed sex that laughter understands, but so many other worlds of oppression, so many worlds we all couldn’t have.
Yet what they did have they loved with fierce affection. My father and the other working men who would gather in their lantsmen (countrymen) and businessmen halls, dark serious photographs on the walls, to play pinochle and drink a little schnaps. I can still hear them in that drafty brown room, too impure to be a sepia kind of memory, snapping the cards down with an Ah-ha! and a Nu, so whaddaya got? Bupkes! (beans) would be the reply. Peanuts! And then the disgusted speaker would throw up his hands and smile. So do me something? he would say. And my father, chain-smoking Pall Malls, thick-veined, with sleeves rolled up, would take the pot and laugh. Oh how they loved the few joys they were allowed, these men who loved boxing and wrestling matches on TV. It’s fixed! my mother would cry from the kitchen. What are you watching that crap for? Ah, c’mon, whaddaya talking? She’s telling me it’s fixed, he’d mutter to the set. It’s fixed!! she’d yell all over again. And back and forth, a comfortable song. And complaining to the kitchen, Talking to you is like talking to the wall. Yet the photo they framed from Jack Dempsey’s big restaurant, their arms around each other, at home in some world.
How I hated the familiar fights, their broken record. And how I miss it, sort of. How I ran away from that world and its complicated love. And how I miss it, not belonging anywhere that I can name, except often, it seems to me, to complication. To an imprint, to an outline, to a fossil, a tattoo. What they understood I did not want. And what I now understand contains their disappearance, their unlucky happy joys. Their anger and their pain. It is hard to belong to tears, even if they are sweet, even if they are bitter, and even if accident and history (the same thing?) already wrote most of their lives.
Standing to the side of the freshly dug grave, my right arm around my mother, my left hand around a prayer book I can only read in phonetics, I join the chant. It is a dark winter day, though the snow has begun its tiny thaw. Yisgadal veyiskadash. I am saying the prayer for the dead, the Kaddish over my father. The tears I also do not fully understand blur the syllables I do not know, though the sounds are as familiar as a heart-beat. My brother, who I have never seen cry, is to my mother’s right, his body shaking unfamiliarly.
Other voices join in, a few other mourners in this roped-off area on this unexpected day. The chant does not get louder yet I seem to hear whole centuries of sound filling the barren landscape, words that now talk to me without translation. I feel as if I am standing on the edge of a desolate cliff down which a few broken roots slant downward to some bottom which I try but cannot see, and though I look and I look the ground keeps receding. I say goodbye to my father while the chant continues it eerie beckoning, and I hope that somehow all the voices will go with him, my voice and my mother’s and all the voices lost in history, though he cannot hear them and I cannot know.
Rochelle Nameroff was born in Wisconsin, educated at the Universities of California and Iowa, and is a teacher, editor, writer, music lover, and feeder of the feral cats who live under her house.
*An earlier version of this story appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Journal.