“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to teach him Torah, to teach him a craft, and to teach him in the performance of good deeds. Others say: to teach him how to swim as well.” [Talmud: Kiddushin 29a]
“In this great country,” says Cohn, a tailor with thick fingers, “you do a mitzvah, you’re a looser.”
Sarah at the stove and the boy eating toast look at him.
“In the Daily News,” he points, “This landlord, he took care of his tenants; they call him a looser … a shlemiel, a shmuck.”
The boy looks at the story then down at his toast: “Loser Papa, loser; ‘zz’ not ‘ss.’”
“Loozer! Gut!” Cohn knows how to say ‘good,’ but ‘gut’ sounds more like what he means. “In America, kind and honest is a loozer.”
He turns to the full page picture of Mickey Mantle watching the ball disappear, “But sport! Americans love sport. So, I teach you to svim,” the boy looks, Cohn corrects, “Swim … I teach you to swim, I could, for once, do a mitzvah and be American.”
“He’s too young,” says Sarah, handing Cohn his coddled egg on challah leftover from Shabbos. This morning in darkness they left East 13th Street, and in a truck like refugees the farmer took them from the Long Island Railroad to ‘Bungalows by the Sea,’ reminding Cohn of fisherman huts on the Baltic where his father, of blessed memory, threw him in the sea and let him sink or swim. But Cohn has a pamphlet from the Henry Street Settlement how to teach children to swim in America. And today, before all the rest, the gantse mishpokhe arrive, he has the whole blue cove, the beach, the dock just for him and the boy and the mitzvah of swim.
“You’re old enough to lern to svim,” Papa calls as he trots down the stoney beach.
“Learn to swim, Papa,” corrects the shivering boy. But Cohn does not stop to fix his English; he wraps his big hand around the boy’s, and together father and son wade into the freezing high tide ocean.
Cohn stops ankle deep. He is not on good terms with God, but he holds the hopping boy, closes his eyes and is grateful they’re here, safe enough in this ocean, and the mitzvah should be done. “Amen,” he says out loud, and they wade on. The cold burns up the boy’s legs to his shvantz, and he folds. Papa yanks him up. The boy marches; will not let himself be pulled.
Cohn wades chest deep; looks at the boy almost to his neck, at attention like a cossack, like he learns in the Scouts at the Y. So American; that ‘r’ sticks in his throat and always will, no matter how often the boy corrects. All Cohn did was ask how to pronounce c-l-o-t-h, and like a little professor, standing over the kitchen table with his tongue between his teeth: “Not ‘clot,’ Papa; it’s ‘cloth,’ ‘cloth,’ ‘cloth.’” And ‘thimble,’ and ‘math,’ and ‘then.’
And then, crossing Second Avenue, the boy his face in a book, Cohn says, “Be attentionful!” And the boy shmeyklt; Cohn can’t think of the English, a little mean smile it means. Like Americans come in his shop, polite, businesslike. Then Cohn talks, and to them what comes from his mouth to them is funny like a Catskill comic. Cohn is a serious man, a mensch he hopes, not a clown. But in this great country, a clown draws business, so he swallows his shame, lets them laugh, and pockets their money. For this reason, as well as for being a thick fingered tailor, and his parents in an oven, Cohn is not on good terms with God.
He looks at the boy up to his neck in the freezing, his lips clenched, no mean smile now. Gut! Make him a shtarker.
Cohn squats like the picture in the pamphlet from the Y, hands on knees, tuches low, “Gedon!”
The boy hates that he understands, like it’s a different language, not just wrong English. He jumps on Papa’s back shouting, “Get on!” starts to slide off and grabs around his neck.
“Don choke!” Papa gasps, “Gedoff!”
Years later, “Gedon’ ‘Gedoff,’along with ‘Donchoke,’ ‘Grebit,’ and a few others, become mainstays of the growing boy’s mimicry of Papa’s laconic commands, a croaking chorus, a sure thing with guys in high school, girls in college, then couples at dinner parties. Their laughter contains the condescension of the successfully assimilated, and allows him to feel part of them. And many more years later, at Papa’s funeral, through breaking voice, he croaks to the tearfilled laughter of his sisters and everyone, who tell him “It was just what we needed.” And decades later, at seders and simchas, he repeats the shtick like an archivist preserving a lost dialect, ‘Hengelsh’ he calls it. His sisters still laugh: “That’s how Papa was.” His middle-aged children and their partners laugh indulgently or cringe, and one granddaughter confronts him: “It’s disrespectful, like talking ghetto for a Black person, like stereotyping. Jews don’t talk like that anymore, if they ever did.” She’s fifteen; he likes this one best. But he keeps imitating Papa so she’ll remember, he hopes, until she misses him and gets interested in her ancestors.
Papa rights the boy in the water, swings him behind his back, “Holdon!” and pushes off in breaststroke spurts he learned long ago from a Litvak lifeguard in Klàipeda. The water burns the boy like winter wind down 13th Street. He shivers against Papa like the baby monkey in Tarzan and the Huntress.
“Let go your legs and Keek!” Papa corrects himself, “Kick! ”
On command the boy lets go; his legs float up, he chokes, then pulls his cheek against Papa’s head, and breathes deep, picturing Tarzan chased by a huge snake, Johnny Weismuller, Olympic Champion, legs cutting water like Papa’s scissors cutting cloth. So he does like Tarzan and kicks Papa.
“Frrog kick like a frrog.”
Papa’s back presses against his chest. He never felt Papa’s skin before, his hairy back, his muscles, hard and twisty, not like Ma’s soft chest. And warm; he holds closer. But feels like a baby or a girl, not manly. He pushes his chest away from the warmth, flattens his palms against Papa’s shoulder muscles, and kicks like a frog like Papa. He can’t stop shivering.
Cohn swims with the boy on his back, strong, easy, like when he was eighteen in Kláipeda. The ocean is a relief from land, English, the shop, America. He turns them toward one of the ropes that bind the shore to the dock, rocking on barrels, flashing in the sunlight in the rippling blue cove, white gulls fishing from the fleecy sky.
But the boy, spitting salt water, still shivering, sees only depths pulling him down.
Cohn grabs the rope. Thicker than he thought. Gut, hold him better. But prickly. He doesn’t know the English for khemp. A breeze blows the dock in; the rope sags under water. Cohn kicks harder, lifts the heavy khemp, grabs the boy’s arm and swooshes him around against the rope.
In deep water, by himself, holding the rope, face to face with Papa, the boy thinks for the very first time, “‘Grebit,’ like a frog.”
“Now, lie akhross”
The boy blanks; Papa spins him across the rope, first under his shvantz, but his head sinks, so Papa drags it up under his belly, scratching skin. He flails, grabs the rope.
“Dthog pedal und keek!” Papa shouts what it says in the pamphlet from the Y, “Like a dthog,” he yells, “Dun be afraidy.” Then with fatherly calm and authority, as correct as he can make it, “Pedal and kick!”
‘Dthog’ evokes Lassie saving the drowning girl, hair waving, legs bending, pulling, pushing. With one arm the boy holds the rope, and tries paddling with the other. It keeps his head up. Then one leg, let go, paddle and kick hard on the rope, sucking air, fighting panic.
“Kop hends,” needs no translation.
Cohn feels the rope tighten; the tide out going, pulling the dock away from the shore. The khemp now can hold up the boy. He will be afraid, Cohn knows, but don’t steady him. The pamphlet said first in the shallow, hands under belly and chest, teach there to paddle and kick, then go deep. But for him, right to the rope no coddling, soft like eggs. He should feel fear, like the edge of a knife, that’s gut. In Pirkei Avot or somewhere it says, ‘Make fear your friend.’
The boy wants to stop, grab the rope, but he’s more afraid of shaming Papa than he is of the ocean, so he kicks like Tarzan racing away from the giant Anaconda, snapping like the monster under his bed. He breathes deep, floating almost, the rope like a snake undulating under him, like Anaconda, he’s riding Anaconda … Not even Tarzan…
Anaconda disappears, swims away so fast he doesn’t feel it until he’s sinking, choking, searching for up. He screams into water the prayer when you’re dying: “Sh’maaaaaaaa!
Anaconda cuts across his scratched belly, yanks his prayer into air and light.
“Gut!… Gut! Again! Gedon. Pedal and kick!”
He leaps for Papa’s arms, but Papa swings him across the rope, “Be a man!” And backs away.
Years later this manliness, rough taught in varying toxicities, at the beach, at shul, and, God help him, at school, ceases to serve him. He learns to cook, do the laundry, promote women, share his feelings. But, some old ways — correcting people, male gaze, the need to win — remain, like tidepools, like like Papa insisting on ‘Gut,’.
The boy now knows the game. He presses his scratched and stinging belly into Anaconda, holds his breath, feels it coming, lets himself sink and sink until Papa pulls him up, smiling like 100% on a math test,
“Guuuut! Gut, Boychick, Gut!” Cohn sees now the boy can balance on the knife edge of fear. This, he thinks, is why the rabbis say teach your son to swim.
Papa starts to swim away. “I got to rrest on the dock. You stay … Prrektice!”
“Practice, Papa, practice;” he can correct and swim at the same time. He watches Papa swim to the dock on his back, practicing ‘Prractice,’ though that ‘r’ will never not stick in his throat.
The boy paddles and pulls himself around on the rope, away from the dock, facing the cove, and beyond, the angry fatherless ocean. To steady himself he stares at the stone jetties reaching into the white caps calming the water in the cove like Ma embracing his baby sister. Dappled ripples make flashes on his arms. He’s not shivering anymore; like Papa said, ‘You get used.’ Cousin Marty comes today; does Marty know how to swim? A red crab falls from the sky onto a huge rock emerging from the tide; the white gull that dropped it grabs the crab on the bounce, and stabs its beak into the broken back.
A yell from behind; he looks to the dock, but Papa is over there holding the rope, waving and smiling, his chest shining above the water. And over here he, the boy, Papa’s Boychick is swimming alone in the vast deep ocean.
A decade later, in high school, on Rosh Hashanah, stoned, the rabbi telling again about Abraham and Isaac, bound to the altar, he falls as if possessed into the instant when Papa pulled the rope out from under him, drowning, screaming to God.
For an instant.
And then he smirks, ‘shmekhlen’ Papa calls it, and hears again, ‘Fearr is a knife’ and ‘Make fearr you frriend!’
But then, years later, he stands in shallow water, his thick hands under his own son’s belly and chest, he mimics, “Pedal und keek, pedal und keek,” which makes the boy giggle in spite of his fear.
And Papa, holding himself above the rope, so young, his black hair gleaming, his eyes a little vague without glasses, calls in his beautiful dialect, “Kombeck, Boychick! Kombeck to the rrope, mentschele! ”
But the boy turns away, toward the gull still dining on crab, and keeps swimming,
keeps swimming ….
a b Strimling has published in Contemporary Midrash, Arthur Waskow’s New Menorah, Sh’ma, the Forward, and several anthologies including National Jewish Book Award nominated Mitzvah Stories, which he co-edited with Ellen Frankel and others. His performance, All That Our Eyes Have Witnessed, based on interviews by Academy Award and National Book Award winning Anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, toured synagogues, JCC’s and theaters for five years. He is Magid haMakom of Congregation Kolot Chayeinu. He lives with Cantor Lisa B. Segal in Brooklyn NY and Penobscot ME.