Where Religion Begins
A panel of photographs in an unadorned, oblong frame hung on the wall of the landing in my childhood home. I used to lean against a thick banister and stare at these scalloped-edged pictures. I was maybe six, seven, eight. They were tinctured, with faint wrinkles running along their middles — marks that they had once been folded, carried in pocketbooks or wallets, that these photographs had once been particularly loved. I didn’t know the origin stories of these portrait subjects or their totemic smiles. So at odd, solitary moments — when my younger sisters were put down for nap-time, or during dull strings of Sunday afternoons — I observed them with a sense of finality. They were here now, these pictures, and it didn’t matter where they had been. We didn’t ask those kinds of questions, no wheres or whys, not in my family.
In one of these photographs, there was a girl who I fancied looked like me — an older girl, with an oval face and the earnestness of a dappled time. Her eyes were pale flecks and her hair was long and straight. In reality, we had no resemblance, except for perhaps that our cheeks were both rosy, I think, though I can’t be sure; this detail perhaps the inference of a longed-for memory. But I liked projecting this mutual likeness, something deeper than film. I liked looking at her as she stood, frozen behind a dust-moted pane, positioned between a little girl and a little boy, always returning the grins that I aimed; her mouth a slight, shaded smirch.
The days of looking at those photographs — more specifically, her — ended when my father caught me staring. I was nine, probably on the way downstairs for dinner. He saw me and didn’t surprise me — I knew he was there. His hand on my shoulder, thumb between the vertex of my shoulder and my clavicle.
They’re dead, you know, he said. They were all killed by Hitler.
And then he walked on down the hall as I stood there. Averting my gaze.
I suppose that most people would think this memory to be sad, or strange, or something that represented a feeling or tension that had never existed at all. I doubt my father recalls the occurrence. It serves as a testament to the way my family remembers our relatives who perished, memorizing the contours of faces under the trappings of bromide and sodium and silver salts. The injustice of our inability to beseech their names.
My father had the burden of being the son of Holocaust survivors. His parents — or Opa and Oma, as I called them — came to England at the end of World War II. They were bewildered teenagers, now alone (death did a number on their relatives, wiping them out entirely), from families grounded in secular Western European Judaism, assimilated yet culturally prideful. Details about their respective upbringings are sparse, only that my Opa was a Yiddish child actor in Vienna, and that my Oma was originally from a city in the modern-day Czech Republic. Whatever of their Jewish traditions they had were smuggled and preserved in talismans: a glass Kiddush cup from a century ago, a set of sterling candlesticks livered with stains. And, of course, a paltry collection of photographs.
These artifacts became my Oma and Opa’s religion; these artifacts became my father’s religion. This side of the family traded in Shabbos for the institutional British Sunday family tea. They exchanged Cadbury eggs on Easter. My father never had a bar mitzvah, can’t recall if his older brother had one or not. Subsequently, he grew up to become a case study in collective consciousness; he immigrated to the United States to pursue a degree in international relations, concentrating on the effects of the Holocaust on post-World War II globalization. He grappled at what his parents could never tell him, what his parents died without the words to say. At Brandeis University, where he had been offered a scholarship, he fell in love with an American woman who later became his wife.
My mother’s Jewish upbringing contrasted sharply with my father’s: a Miami native, she was immersed in the vibrant panache of modern Jewish living. She attended the synagogue every Saturday that her parents had helped found, kept kosher, and had been on some sort of executive board for every year she was a member of the local branch of her Jewish youth group. For my mother, being Jewish was the art of living. To my father, it was a museum of sorrow.
They married and they had my sisters and me, despite their ideological differences; they fostered compromises. Dad, who ate traif — non-kosher food — used Plexiglas plates for his specially-ordered pepperoni pizza, and kept the leftovers in a separate compartment of the refrigerator. Mom reluctantly turned the lights in our house on and off on Saturdays. She dreamed that I would become a rabbi one day, and sent all of us off to Hebrew school, where I won a Student of the Year Award in 5th grade. I can’t remember my father’s face at the ceremony.
My observance of Judaism — keeping kosher, lighting Shabbos candles every Friday night, dancing on wine-soaked streets during Purim and Sukkot, and beating my hollow chest to absolve myself of communal sins on Yom Kippur — has continued to irk my father. When I travel from Brooklyn to visit him and his new wife in New Jersey, he always asks if I’m still doing that kosher bit.
It reminds me of a scene from when I was twelve, after my parents had separated. My sisters and I were in his first of many apartments, a bachelor loft, around a plastic table. My father put a fat, tubular piece of meat on my plate, transuding with yellow drops, cohesions of grease. I thought of a new word I had learned that week: jaundice.
Dad, I said, you gave me sausage.
His eyes widened, comical, unabashed. It’s a hot dog, he said, it’s Hebrew National!
I know what a hot dog looks like, Dad, and that — I nudged the air with my chin — is not a hot dog. It’s sausage.
Neither of us said anything more about it, as I left my dinner untouched.
Or perhaps this: that same year, on the linen couch of my father’s studio, we found ourselves talking about the afterlife, about how Oma and Opa had been cremated (like their relatives at the camps, it was implied), how they had no qualms about how their bodies would reassemble themselves once the Jewish Messiah came, how messiahs were only myths. They had the right idea, my father said to me. You know what I want to do, when I die? He told me not to forget this as he gestured toward his bed across the room, a sturdy sleigh-bed made of oak: When I die, I want you to not let a rabbi near me. I want you to put my body on this bed, and I want you to push it out onto the Monongahela River and let it float. I want you to set fire to some arrows, take an archer’s bow, and aim them at me. I want you to send me to Valhalla. His eyes were bright, his jaw set in challenge. His fists clenched his knees, loosened. My father thought that his declaration would send me into a religious huff, a tailspin. But I just didn’t want my father to die. I said nothing.
There are certain things we can’t say to each other, certain things we think. Chasms where all bridges break.
I write, like my father does, but in a way he doesn’t. Dad wrote books with titles like The Fruits of Fascism and The German Predicament. He writes about what facts have done to our futures, while I write about what stories do to our pasts. Certain bends on our family history sometimes play an overt role and take center stage, like my Opa did beneath a proscenium in Vienna, both long gone. My sister Melissa tells me that I’m an odd one, in the way I hold onto these things. I think that evidence shows that I might not be the odd one, after all.
I visited The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. for the first time five years ago, when I was twenty. The images were familiar, seen in textbooks and regurgitated in the shards of heritage my father maintains in his mind. Like the photographs that now hang in his house, these are pictorial injunctions on time. Like the room full of desolate, browning shoes, and the ancient words of the mourner’s kaddish — the prayer for the bereaved — that hum in the walls of that building, suspended in the moment before they can be sung. Eventually, I found my way to the room in that museum with the infamous cattle car — an actual car that once throttled toward the death camp Treblinka, now stilled in an exhibit that only evokes its repeated, terrible journey. The one where, according to Dad, my long-dead family members might have once been caged, waiting for the pretense of freedom. They were all sent to Treblinka, you know. They were murdered. They died.
I wished he was there with me.
And as I stood in the long-empty boxcar, I found the place where my father’s religion began, and where mine merely rested, waiting for just a little while.