Name one regret. A friend’s idea of dinner party entertainment. We don’t refuse, though we should, knowing the pall this friend’s games tend to cast. We’re to go around the room, three couples, six close friends, and tell aloud one thing for which we’re sorry. But it’s impossible to stop at one: thus invited, the regrets tumble into a person’s head, one after the other, a sour train that brings down the previously good mood. Still, one rings clear in my mind, more insistent than the others: I didn’t travel to Baltimore from New York to celebrate the publication of Rabbi Melman’s memoir.
I was his ghost writer, so, really, it was my party, too. I had planned to go, but then my boss at the publishing house had assured me that I didn’t have to make the trip, that there would be another opportunity closer to home to mark the occasion. But there wasn’t. And I knew my absence hurt the rabbi, who had been so proud of the book, so eager to show me off as his co-author, because he wasn’t in touch with me after that. Not ever again. It was ten years in the past already, and still it was this that pushed to the fore when the regrets crowded in. My refusal to stand with him in front of his former congregation, to clap with them and have them clap for me, must have diminished his joy at the achievement. A man who had suffered so much, a Holocaust survivor, and I had robbed him of a piece, however small, of his happiness.
But I was at least partly justified, wasn’t I? It wasn’t just the inconvenience and expense, though those were the reasons I gave to myself then and to my friends now. No. I didn’t want to be there. It might not have been rational, it might not have been reasonable, but I really didn’t want to see him again. Not after the way he behaved when I travelled to Baltimore to interview him.
“You drive,” Rabbi Melman said through the driver’s side window when he picked me up at the train station. “It’s very nice, this car. You’ll like it.” Before I could say yes or no, he slid his large body into the passenger’s seat of the shiny black Lincoln Continental.
I hesitated just a moment, then folded my umbrella and got in behind the wheel, the ultra-soft leather seat still radiating his warmth. It worried me to take responsibility for the car, so new-seeming and expensive, but I was glad not to have to put myself into an old man’s hands in a downpour.
“You know how to drive such a car?” Rabbi Melman asked. “You know where is the wipers, the position for the seat, the brake, everything?”
“Yes, yes, I’m a very good driver.” The rabbi was a big man, six-two or six-three, whereas I, barely five-feet-two, had to thrust my arms a long way out to reach the controls. I adjusted the seat with ease, the smooth electronic mechanism pulling me forward until my chest almost bumped the steering wheel. I found the windshield wipers, but none of the knobs I twisted would activate the headlights. It was ten in the morning, but dark as dusk and raining heavily.
“It’s here,” Rabbi Melman said. “Let me to show you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can—”
He leaned across me to the far side of the steering wheel, the age-spotted dome of his head looming suddenly under my nose. I pressed back in the seat, but not far enough back to keep from feeling his breath, raspy with effort, on my neck, or the brush of his black overcoat sleeve against my breasts. Apparently oblivious, he turned the dial on the same handle that controlled the wipers, and the headlights sprang to life. Then, he began a backwards retreat, his body filling the space, his outstretched arm last to follow.
Half-way to his own side of the car he began to tip, the arm jerking down, his startled head going up. He caught himself on my leg. I felt the meaty fingers dig into the fabric of my raincoat and skirt. I also noticed that they seemed to linger on my thigh just a moment too long, kneading it.
I kept my eyes forward, not sure what to do. Did what I think had happened really just happen? Had this old man, the rabbi, the Holocaust survivor, just pawed me? Surely not.
I stole a glance at him, face-forward now in the passenger seat with his hands on his knees, ready to go. His round face was lit up, not with a look of lechery, but with the joy of a kid about to set out on a much anticipated outing. I must have been mistaken. He was just trying to keep from falling.
Rabbi Melman had looked skeptical the first day we met at the publishing house’s offices in New York. This child is going to help me write my memoirs? I was thirty, but was carded for my baby face every time I ordered a drink.
The rabbi was right to be skeptical, though not because of my age. Before being assigned to help him I knew almost nothing about the Holocaust, or, for that matter, Jewish history, ritual or religion. I couldn’t have explained the difference between Succoth and Shavuot. With the exception of my ex-Catholic maternal grandfather, my family on both sides was Jewish. I had been brought up a Christian, however, by my mother, an adult convert who embraced Christ with the fervor of one who felt that her life as well as her soul had been saved. She had raised me and my older brother from our early adolescence in a fire and brimstone fundamentalist church in northern New Mexico, far from our family in Queens and on Long Island. But even if she hadn’t I doubt I would have known much about Judaism. My relatives were all atheists. They ate gefilte fish and pot roast on Passover, but any ceremony was a rush job, if they performed one at all. Though I had heard my grandmother mention the High Holy Days, what those were I really had no idea—and if she herself had ever celebrated them, it was before I was born, when her once-observant parents were still alive. I had not even inherited the Jewish culture and lefty politics that defined my family members’ identities, as I would have had I grown up in New York. I was so ignorant of Jewish history that until “Holocaust,” the miniseries, appeared on television in 1978, when I was ten, I had never heard of the event. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood that the program was based on anything real.
Rabbi Melman had been visibly suspicious, a little surly even, at the outset. But I had done my homework. Before meeting him, I had read several histories of the Holocaust, as well as Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl and World of Our Fathers. On a vacation not long before I’d also visited The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. My questions must have been the right ones because as we proceeded, Rabbi Melman relaxed.
Under his gruffness, I found the rabbi charming; his bantering tone suggested that he liked me, too. It troubled me that he’d had to travel up to Manhattan to meet me, a man in his early nineties, however robust he might look. When I suggested that we conduct our next interview at his home, he almost chortled with delight, although not, it was apparent, over the opportunity my visit represented for his book. “You won’t regret the trip!” he exclaimed. “You come to Baltimore, I promise you, I’ll cook for you a feast! All the best Jewish food. I can make it. Matzoh ball soup. Gefilte fish. Chopped chicken liver. I’ll feed you so good, like you never ate before!”
I put the car in gear and drove as Rabbi Melman directed me, left, then right, through an ever more modest succession of neighborhoods. I liked the car. It prowled the wet pavement, muscular and assured, barely hinting at its power. I didn’t like so much that as I drove, he kept shouting instructions at me—“Put the blinker! The blinker! You have it already on? Don’t forget the brake!”—and I was relieved when we stopped in front of a two-storied house, car and most of my temper intact.
The house surprised me, after the opulence of the car, which turned out to have been a retirement present from his congregation almost ten years before. Though clean, the place was small and worn. For two decades he had lived there alone, after the death of his second wife, and nothing inside had been updated since at least the seventies. In the living room, books and small glass tchotchkes filled two floor-to-ceiling bookcases on either side of the door; a rose-colored Victorian sofa and two pale green wing chairs were crowded by glossy dark side tables decorated with doilies. There was a thick smell of something—camphor, perhaps, mixed with mentholatem and a waft of roasting chicken.
When I called to propose a date for my visit, he had pressed me to spend the night. He had plenty of room, he kept saying, it would be a nice vacation for me. I’d resisted, unwilling to commit to two days rather than one, but I hadn’t been sure. Staying over would have given me more time to interview him. I was curious, too, and thought it might help me in writing the book, to know how he lived: yeshiva bucher, rabbi, orthodox vestige of the old country. Now I was glad I hadn’t agreed to stay. The thought of being stuck in these cramped, musty rooms overnight made me queasy.
Rabbi Melman led the way through the house to the back, through the kitchen to the dining room, turning on lights as he went. The table had been set with a white lace cloth, paper napkins, jelly jars for glasses and two plates with scratched gold rims and a spray of pastel flowers in the center—someone’s “good china” from a century before. True to his word, the rabbi had prepared a Jewish feast. It wasn’t unlike any I had seen before, having been invited to share in a few elaborate Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinners in the recent past, but it was unlike any I had ever eaten on an ordinary week-day—or at ten-thirty in the morning. There was the promised matzoh ball soup, the gefilte fish with pink horseradish, the chopped chicken liver. There were boiled potatoes, hard boiled eggs, a bowl of briny maches herring, herring in wine sauce, beets with chopped herring and onions, several bagels, the flat poppy-seed studded bread called petzel, and an apricot strudel on the kitchen counter for dessert. A chicken, Rabbi Melman informed me, was roasting in an oven in the basement. The only thing he hadn’t made was brisket, for which I was deeply grateful. A small eater, I wasn’t sure how I was going to consume enough to satisfy him and keep myself from getting sick.
The rabbi piled my plate with food and then, as soon as I had taken a bite, shoved a dish toward me, insisting that I help myself to another serving. If I refused, he said, “You don’t like it? This is good Jewish food!” I took small forkfuls of each delicacy, trying to enjoy the taste, which was uncommonly good, without making enough white space on the china for him to fill it in with more.
“You have it a boyfriend?” Rabbi Melman asked me, forcing another slice of hard-boiled egg onto my plate.
“Yes,” I said, drawing out the word, a jokey Who wants to know? implied in my tone. I had to suppress an impulse to add his tell-tale “it” to my reply. “I have a boyfriend.”
“He’s Jewish, your boyfriend?”
I arched an eyebrow at him, wondering where this was going. “Yes, he’s Jewish.”
“He keeps kosher? He goes to shul?”
“No. He isn’t observant.”
“Oh, well then. I know a nice Jewish man. Forty, a lawyer. A very good man. A member of my shul since he was a boy. I’ll introduce you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But really, I have a boyfriend.” Evasively, to hide my annoyance, I dropped my eyes to my plate, where a few last gobs of herring lay in a puddle of rose red beet juice. Almost seconds after we’d met in New York, Rabbi Melman had started in on me about not being Jewish because I wasn’t observant. I’d laughed it off, but it nettled me. Then, as now, he’d touched a nerve. Once on an American Jewish Congress trip to Israel with my grandmother when I was eighteen, members of the group had made it clear to me that, despite belonging to a Jewish family, embodied by the secular but to me very Jewish grandmother with whom I was traveling, they did not consider me to be Jewish because I had been raised a Christian. I’d been unaware before then of the contest over Jewishness by Jews—that Orthodox did not countenance Conservative, Conservative did not countenance Reform, that one Jew did not think another Jew was a Jew because she did not do this or that or because she did. I did not know that most Jews, whatever their other disputes, agreed that “Jews for Jesus” was not just an oxymoron, but a chimera. Their judgment stung, those strange Jews (Jews the rabbi would not have thought were Jews) on that trip to Israel. At first I thought, Fuck you, so I won’t be a Jew then. The obscenity and the defiance were both new to me. And for a few years, I stuck to the resolution. Then I veered the other way. In my mid-twenties I revolted, gorge rising in both body and soul, against the faith my mother had imposed on me, declared myself a Jew and returned to New York. But I meant to be a Jew in the way the rest of my family had been Jews: by culture, politics and expressive shrugs of the shoulders. After an adolescence and young adulthood steeped in worship I did not want anyone’s God to tell me what to do.
Rabbi Melman shrugged, and tore off another piece of petzel. “Maybe it’s time for a change.”
I laughed outright at him, shaking my head at him in half-mock exasperation. He had chutzpah. That was undeniable.
The rabbi grinned, his round face radiating impish pleasure. “Have some more chopped chicken liver,” he said. “I made it for you special.” He pressed one shoulder toward me as he spoke, his hand carving the air so close to me that his fingers almost brushed my arm.
“Rabbi,” I said, almost begging. “I love the food. It’s delicious. But if I eat one more thing I’m going to burst!”
“No, no, a little more. Food like this, you don’t get every day.”
“I have to save room for the chicken, don’t I? And the strudel?”
“The chicken! I forgot almost the chicken. But that we have later, for lunch. And now, we go for a drive. I wanted you should see the front with the water, very beautiful, but with the rain, maybe somewhere else is better. And the crab houses is no good—treyf, if you know it, the word. Not good for a Jew to eat. The mall, maybe. We have it here a very nice mall.”
“But the interview,” I protested. It was a slow process, and I wanted to get the work done so I wouldn’t have to make another trip unless I chose to. He was eager to tell his story, desperate, in fact, to get it recorded before he was too old to remember, but he obstinately refused to understand what I meant when I talked about the necessity of details or making the experience real for his readers. They shot at me. I ran to the woods. It’s enough I think.
“Later! It’s just a little while that you’re here. I want to show you a good time!”
Only a handful of cars were parked in the lot at the mall, so we had our pick of spaces close to the entrance. I hated malls, with their tedious sameness and the hopelessness of finding an exit when I wanted to leave, and this one struck me as particularly tinny and overbright. It was April, but it had that haunted quality of malls after the Christmas rush.
We wandered down the wide central corridor, past empty benches and rows of potted plants, too green to be real. Pleated tissue paper Easter eggs in the pale blues and pinks of baby bunting hung from garlands every few yards down the length of the ceiling. The sound system played a collection from the Eighties. I thought I recognized Cindi Lauper, and then, for certain, “Ninety-nine Red Balloons.” The music sounded far away and attenuated, as if piped in from a station that was almost out of range.
“You want maybe to go with me to Ukraine?’ the rabbi asked, pulling my arm through his and patting my hand into place on his sleeve. The fabric was damp, and I curled my fingers away from it slightly. “I go this fall. We have a good time, I promise you.”
I looked sideways at him. Just what was he proposing?
“I’ll show you the village where I was living, where was mine father’s house. A Gentile lives there now, in a new place that was built afterward. Maybe I can even find again the building in which I was with three other families in the ghetto. That was Lvov. You want to come with me, I buy you a ticket.” He squeezed my hand with his arm, pressing it so hard against his side that I could feel the swell of soft flesh padding his ribs.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
It was one of the strangest offers I had ever gotten. Did he envision that I would accompany him as an assistant? Whatever he had in mind, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by refusing outright.
“Can we go in here a minute?” I asked. We were approaching a housewares store, and the opportunity to change the subject was too great to pass up. I needed a garlic press, one of those stupid little things that it took forever to get around to buying in the city. Now seemed as good a time as any.
The rabbi followed me inside, keeping close to me as we went up and down the aisles. The lights here were so glaring, so perfectly calibrated to illuminate, that the lettering and logos and testimonials on all the boxes seemed screamingly embossed. Rows of stainless steel pots, replacement coffee carafes, toasters, stem ware, water purifying pitchers and Osterizer blenders shouted for my attention as we moved past, and my irritation rose, along with the panicked desire I always felt in places like this to get out. Finally, I discovered a wire rack of utensils against the back wall.
“Nine ninety-nine for a machine to squeeze the garlic?!” the rabbi said when I pulled down the model I wanted. He had seemed subdued since entering the store, perhaps as overwhelmed as I was, and this was the first thing he’d said in five minutes. “It’s a crazy price, this one. You want it anyway?”
“Yes,” I said. “I want it. That’s what a garlic press costs.”
He shook his head, slowly, resignedly, as if there was no speaking sense to me, no way that he could see to address this failure of thriftiness. Maybe, I thought, watching his dismayed face, he was calculating what I might cost him as a companion on a trip to Ukraine. “Okay, then. I wait for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll try to be quick.”
While I paid, he stood at the edge of the store, between the cash registers and the yawning bright space of the corridor, his head slightly bent, his hands in the pockets of his gray overcoat. I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for him. Under the harsh lights, he seemed smaller than before, the scalp under his thinning hair age-spotted, the skin over his forehead stretched and shiny. His loneliness rose up in front of me, so palpable that it seemed to stand next to him, like the specter of a second person.
It was still raining when we emerged from the mall’s double glass doors. The rabbi had an umbrella, and we shared it as we crossed the pavement. I slipped a hand under his raised elbow on the umbrella side, so he wouldn’t feel compelled to put an arm around me to pull me under its shelter if I walked with him on the other.
I had driven from the house to the mall, and automatically unlocked the driver’s door for the return trip.
As soon as I started the car, I reached for the lights, but Rabbi Melman was quicker than I. He gave me another of his impish smiles, and then he leaned all the way over me to turn on the wipers. And again, he fell, though more awkwardly this time, since he had to make himself. His fingers dug into my thigh as before, kneading it.
“Rabbi,” I said sternly as he righted himself. “What do you think you’re doing?” There was no question: I knew where the wipers were already, as well as the lights. The first time may have been an accident, but this was not. If there was any doubt at all, his face dispelled it: he was grinning, his slightly discolored teeth gleaming in the rain-washed light. Strangely, I wasn’t furious, not even upset. He looked too pleased with himself, too conscious of his own bad behavior. I had led a sheltered life in the church, where even kissing before marriage was frowned upon, but before her conversion my mother had been a hippie. We had lived on communes and with rough, hard-drinking men. Drunk or sober, a little slobber from men was to be expected, even from the ones you generally liked. I had learned at a young age that the best thing to do, most of the time, was shrug it off.
“I was just making sure you should find the wipers,” Rabbi Melman said, still smiling, but a little more sheepishly now.
I laughed, surprising even myself. Somehow I just couldn’t be angry. He was a lech, maybe, but there was more to it than that. He didn’t think of himself as an old man, I realized. In his mind, he was thirty, as vigorous and viable a suitor for me as an any. Though if he had been thirty, I would have told him to drop me off, there and then, at the train station.
I drew a breath, instead, half laughing, half sighing. “Time for lunch, right?” I asked, though I wasn’t at all hungry. “And then the interview.”
“Right,” he said, rolling the “r” so strenuously, it was like a small motor about to turn over. “Lunch and then the interview.”
He looked at me, and flashed the same wicked grin. “You sure you don’t want to spend the night? You saw mine house. I have it plenty of room.”
“No, rabbi,” I said, stern again, but unable to keep the levity out of my voice. “I don’t want to spend the night. I have to get home.”
The rabbi had left the chicken roasting on low heat in a small electric oven in the basement. The smell greeted us when we opened the front door, overwhelming the other odors and making the house seem much more inviting than before.
Rabbi Melman took my dripping coat, then looked significantly at the bag containing the garlic press. “You know it how to cook?”
In the kitchen he gave me a large fork and sent me down to see how the bird was doing. The stairs were wide wood planks, painted gray, with a rough board railing held together by obvious nails. The ceiling was low—so low that I felt compelled to duck, though, short as a I was, I was in no real danger of hitting my head. Like the rest of the house, the room was clean, but cluttered. A bare bulb hung on a wire over a chrome-legged table topped with gray linoleum. Against the far wall stood a second refrigerator, someone’s ancient cast-off by the look of it. A faded curtain on a string hid a closet, and piles of boxes crowded the concrete floor. The walls were carved directly out of the earth, though the lower part had been lined in some places with plywood and in others with cardboard. Streaks of damp corrugated the paper’s surface.
I crossed the narrow landing below the stair to the shelves that held the oven. The bumpy ridges of a braided rug padded the concrete underfoot. I wondered if he sat down here, at the linoleum-covered table, under the bare bulb, to eat sometimes. I found the sense of darkness beyond the bulb hard to tolerate even for the few minutes it took to check the chicken. There was a window up high, just below the ceiling, but it was dirty and covered with vines from the outside. In the rain, it was no more than a gray smooth square above the rough walls.
The chicken’s leg moved easily when I gave it a tug, but the skin across the breast was still pale. I turned the oven’s dial to 425º to brown it, and hurried upstairs.
“A few more minutes,” I said to the rabbi. He was wearing a blue-checked apron around his waist and had set all the same food as before out on the counter. He stuck the petzel in the oven to warm, leaving a trail of poppyseeds behind him on the floor, adjusted the heat under the matzoh ball soup, then turned to peel two cucumbers for a salad. A bottle of sweet Manishewitz sat on the table. He’d dug out two wine glasses to replace the jelly jars. He was humming.
“Can I do something else?” I asked.
“You can chop something maybe? An onion?”
He gave me a knife and a cutting board. The knife hadn’t been sharpened in some time. I struggled with the dull blade, forcing it through the white onion flesh, but managed finally to cut respectable rings, and then smaller pieces. Tears poured down my cheeks.
He chuckled, though not unkindly, when he saw me. “Here, here.” He turned on the water in the faucet and motioned me over. “It’s a good trick. You put your eyes close to the stream, and the water, it takes out the sting.”
I moved past him to the sink. I knew this trick from my mother, and was dubious about its efficacy, but bent down anyway. The water was cool, and its mist gave me some relief. I didn’t let it run for long, however. I was too conscious of the view my position gave him.
When I turned around, he was at my elbow. The back of my neck tingled, with alarm or the simple shock of close flesh, tiny fingertips fluttering on the skin.
“This one, you can put it on the table,” he said. He handed me the salad and a bottle of store-bought Italian vinaigrette.
As I took the bottle I slid back a little so we wouldn’t touch, but I didn’t mind really if we did. He was just a lonely man enjoying a woman’s presence in his kitchen: someone to cook for, someone to eat with. I could give him that.
“And now maybe you can check the chicken again?” he asked.
I wasn’t crazy about going back down to the basement. The bare bulb and crude stair and earthen walls gave this one an especially crypt-like quality. Still, I went. He was old enough, obviously, that going up and down stairs was not the best thing for him. As I descended, I gave my skirt a jerk to release the clingy fabric from my tights. It had grabbed hold of my calf when I slid backwards along the metal band clamping the linoleum countertop to the wooden cabinets.
“It’s done, I think!” I shouted up the stairs. “You have a plate?”
“A plate, a plate, of course I have it a plate.” A giddiness had crept into his tone.
“Well, bring it then, won’t you?” I was feeling a little giddy, too.
He came half-way down the stairs with the plate, his round head and big body bunched to clear the lintel. A very unprofessional giggle escaped me. He might resemble an ogre, I thought, but he was sweet underneath.
“It looks good!” he said, spying the chicken. “You are a good cook!”
I hadn’t been sure the chicken would be edible, cooked for so long on such low heat, but it was. When we pulled it apart, the juice ran in white streams from the bone. My mouth watered. Unexpectedly, I found that I was starving. I didn’t even mind that the rabbi gave me a second helping of salad, or an extra spoonful of beets with chopped herring and onions.
Rabbi Melman sat back in satisfaction, a smear of chicken grease on his cheek. I picked at the bones on my plate. I wanted to crunch through them as I always did, but was afraid he might find this a bit savage.
“I have it a girlfriend,” he announced suddenly. “She goes with me to Phoenix, but she doesn’t do it anything. To cook, to clean. She doesn’t know it. I have also to pay for everything. It’s no good, I think. Maybe I need it more a maid than a wife.”
I laughed at his candor. I wondered which job he would have like to offer me.
“What was your wife like?” I asked.
“Anzia.” I reached over and dragged my tape recorder off a nearby dining chair, where I had set it that morning. With my thumb I clicked it on. If I didn’t segue into the interview soon, we would never get started.
“Anzia. Beautiful, so beautiful. Green eyes, I remember. And she could cook! Even with just a little something from the ration line, she could make a good meal. But those were hard times. It was the occupation already. The Russians, I mean. For the wedding, we had it nothing. Usually, the woman, she makes a dress, a long coat, sometimes, to wear for the ceremony. There’s a big feast. But Anzi didn’t have it. I didn’t have it. If I could, I would make the celebration myself, but I had it nothing to give her.”
He shook his head. I waited for more, but when the pause stretched into definite silence, I launched another question. “Did she—?”
He interrupted me. “You want to see the jacket what I wore in the concentration camp?”
“You still have it?”
“Of course. After the liberation, I made sure to keep it. I have it now in the basement. You would like to see it?”
“Oh,” I said, “if you don’t mind, I certainly would.”
“Okay!” He pushed his chair back. “Come with me this way!”
He made for the basement door, where he stood aside to let me go first. At the top of the stairs, with the dank cavern below me, I was gripped by a sudden, fierce anxiety. Do I really have to go down there again? I hesitated, momentarily frozen in place, feeling as if he was asking me to descend into a grave. But that was irrational, crazy even, and he was right behind me, so close that if I turned sideways I would scrape against his stomach. I held my skirt and stepped down. The boards reverberated in my feet as he followed.
Half-way to the bottom, panic flared again, flooding me. I shouldn’t be going into the basement with him. I shouldn’t be here at all, alone with him in his house. What was I thinking of? He was so much bigger than I. What did I know, really, about what he might do? Maybe he didn’t have the jacket at all, but was just trying to lure me into a trap.
But I wouldn’t be able to get by him now. His breath came in loud puffs through his mouth as he descended behind me. And if I could slip past, how would I explain my sudden bolt up the stairs? Would I just grab my things and run out of the house into the street?
Then I saw the table, the oven, the refrigerator and light bulb, the little space filled with boxes, and I told myself to stop being silly. There was nothing to be afraid of. For one thing, if he’d wanted to attack me, he could have done it before, upstairs. We had been alone in his house for hours.
I stood to one side as he crossed the concrete to the curtained closet. My heart was beating too hard, but the worry had passed. Really, it was ridiculous.
His arm swept the fabric aside, revealing a rope sagging under the weight of close-packed clothes on hangers. His hand went straight to the center of the mass. With a flourish, he pulled the jacket out and held it against his chest, the wire hanger jutting below his chin.
“The winter woolens,” he said derisively. “We had it a different one in summer.”
It was very clean, without a stain or tear. A crude star, formed by two triangular swatches of yellow fabric, was sewn to the blue and gray stripes over the heart. Only the rectangle of muslin below the star was ripped, half the inked numbers missing.
I wondered if he had taken it to the dry cleaners, and, if he had, what they had thought of it. Had they known what it was?
I wondered, too, as my pulse slowed to a regular beat, if he had brought other girls down into the basement to show it to them.
“You weigh how much?” he asked.
I hesitated. “One-twenty,” I said, though this was five pounds less than the truth.
“And how tall? Five feet?”
“So you can imagine it. You see I’m a big man. Six-feet-one inches and I’m weighing two-hundred-twenty, two-hundred-twenty-five now. But I used to fit this.” He smoothed a sleeve over his arm to show me. The cloth stopped at least three inches above his wrist. His chest and belly framed the body of it like a wall.
I wanted to touch it, but somehow I didn’t dare. It was as if I expected it to burn me.
He seemed to have little sentiment about it, although I knew that this couldn’t be true. Why had he kept it all these years? I remembered what he had said during our first meeting about fleas and lice and bone-penetrating cold. I imagined his wrists protruding from the sleeves, his body barely covered during the harsh Polish winters. As a memento the jacket could only conjure bitterness. Everyone he cared about, including his wife Anzia and his small daughter Sara had been killed.
“At the end of the war,” he said, as if reading my mind, “the Red Cross, they wanted I should give them mine jacket in exchange for a suit. Everyone that was coming to them was giving this. No, I said. I will keep this and you will give to me the suit.”
“Why did they want it?” I asked with effort, trying to remember what I was there for.
He batted his hand backward, swatting away the question and the Red Cross at the same time. “From me they are not having it. That’s all.”
He wasn’t articulate about his reasons for things. I knew that already. His tone suggested something sinister in the organization’s demand, something suspicious, but camp uniforms were filthy. That was evident even in photographs. In all likelihood the Red Cross didn’t want DPs running around with these contaminated garments, spreading lice and probably typhus. But whatever their motives, this much I understood of his: Even then, during the liberation, he was anticipating the deniers. When anyone questioned his experience, he would produce the jacket to silence them.
Even so, didn’t the sorrow of his loss fill him every time he looked at it? It didn’t seem so, not if his placid face, looming above me with the jacket still balanced across his chest, was any guide. He didn’t, in fact, seem to feel any great emotion about anything that had happened to him. He spoke of his experiences matter-of-factly, without drama or emphasis, though telling them was itself a passion, had become his life’s work. Perhaps this was the real point of keeping the jacket: it evoked all his past. No words could express the reality of his experience as vividly as the sight of this one object. It’s enough I think.
“You see now what I’m talking about,” Rabbi Melman said. “It was only getting work in the sorting station that saved me, the place to separate the people’s belongings: shoes this way, shirts that way, a pile for the jewelry, and so on. You could find sometimes a little food in the luggage, hide it before anyone saw. If not for that, I would be a stick. I would break in half, like this.” He made a snapping motion with his hands, angling his chest back so that the jacket wouldn’t drop to the ground. “I was only about the same size as you. Tall, but skinny, so skinny. You want to try it? It would fit you, I think.”
“Sure,” he said. He pried the top button through the hole. The jacket sprang free from the hanger. He held it out for me, by the shoulders, giving me access to the armholes, as any gentleman would, holding a lady’s coat.
I was blank for a moment. “I....”
He smiled, his usual elfin beam, and gave it a jerk. A smell of chicken and onions floated around him like an aura. “It’s no problem. Try it.”
“All right.” I didn’t know what else to say. It didn’t seem right to try it on, to wrap myself in this object, imprinted with suffering, but I couldn’t refuse either. He was offering it to me. He wanted me to take it.
And it was just a thing, after all. Five pieces of fabric, stitched roughly together. The Red Cross may have tried to collect them, probably meaning to destroy them, but there were thousands still in existence. I had seen them in the Holocaust museum.
My right hand glided into one sleeve of the jacket, the left into the other. He tugged the material into place over the shoulders, adjusted it so it would sit snugly. I turned toward him, and he buttoned it. The wool was heavier than I expected it to be. It smelled of earth and moth balls. The coarse material prickled my skin, even through my cardigan.
“You see?” he said. “Like it was made for you!”
I couldn’t breathe. My rib cage felt as if wet concrete had been poured into it and was now beginning to set. There was no mirror in the basement. Would I have looked at myself if there was? I didn’t want to see my own face above the stripes. I was afraid I might cry. I wanted to take the jacket off. I wanted to hug it to my body to keep myself warm. It felt like a garment I might have bought in a boutique on Bleecker Street.
Rabbi Melman looked at me expectantly.
I stretched out my arms, just to do something. The sleeves hung an inch or so too far over my wrists, but that was all. “I can’t believe you wore this,” I said. “I can’t believe you were so thin.”
If it was less than he wanted from me he didn’t show it. “It’s incredible, this thing. Yes. What one set of human beings could do to another.”
When he said that it occurred to me that his experience was not completely unfathomable to me, that I understood it, at least a little. Maybe it was presumptuous to think so, maybe it was wrong. Or maybe it explained in part the sympathy Rabbi Melman and I seemed to feel for each other. I could not grasp the enormity of the horror, or the sheer unrelenting terror, no, but the hardship, a small portion of the suffering. I had been raised in near poverty in New Mexico, in dirt-floored hovels dominated by volatile autocratic men. They were penny ante dictators, but terrifying in their own right, in the small scale world of a child: one of them, in a drunken fit, smashed up our few sticks of furniture, gave my mother a black eye and a split lip, then closed out the evening by firing a pistol at my brother as he fled across a field. I had lost people, too, such as my father to suicide and my step-father to an equally abrupt, violent death. I had some small inkling of what it took to survive in difficult circumstances: the way you shut down your emotions, toughened your heart because you could not toughen your actual skin, became keen-eyed and resourceful.
I unbuttoned the jacket and pulled my arms free. He wanted to transfer his history to me. I could feel it, his willing his story to pass to me so that I could carry it forward, not just in the pages of a book, but pressed into my flesh by the rough cloth of his jacket, seared into it. And indeed, I could see them in my mind, a telescoping line of Jews marching toward me out of the past, the rabbi at their head, all of them wearing this coat—not as he had worn it in the concentration camp, but as it appeared now, cleaned and pressed, an emblem of survival, his determination as a Jew not to be destroyed. A wedding garment, almost, held out by him to me.
We stood a moment in silence, the cloth bunched between us in my fingers, and then I handed it back to him. He slipped it onto its hanger. Shoving the jacket back into place in the closet, he pushed the tight cluster this way and that, arranging the hangers, until the stripes barely showed in the welter of other clothes. He flipped the curtain closed and tugged its folds into place so that they covered everything underneath. Then he turned back to me, smiling. “So you see now,” he said, clapping his hands together, “what is what.”
I nodded. I wanted to say something more to him. I wanted to express to him the thought that was running like a mantra through my mind, but I held it in. It embarrassed me, making me shy, as, after the fervency of my fundamentalist upbringing, any too fervent thought tended to do. I followed him up the steps to the kitchen, instead, letting the sentence pound in my head like feet on the stairs behind us.
I never felt so Jewish in my life, Rabbi. I never felt so Jewish in my life.
Upstairs the dining table was still littered with the remains of our meal, and without thinking about it, I immediately set about clearing it. I stacked the plates together, piled them in the sink, swept crumbs and shreds of chicken from the lace tablecloth into my palm.
“You want it some coffee?” Rabbi Melman asked.
“That would be lovely,” I answered. I opened the cabinet under the sink to scrape chicken bones from our plates into the trash, then wrapped the remaining meat, still clinging to the carcass of the bird, with plastic and stowed it in the refrigerator. There was enough left for him to have it for his dinner.
I noticed the strudel on the counter. “Why don’t I slice this for us, too?” I found two small plates in the cupboard, and a knife in a drawer. The apricot jam oozed out of the pastry as I cut into it.
He’d placed two cups and saucers on the table, and was pouring hot coffee into them.
I set a slice of strudel at each of our plates. “Shall we continue with the interview?” I asked as we pulled in our chairs.
“Ya!” His fork bit into the dessert, scattering flakes across his plate and the table. “Ask me what you want!”
I set the tape recorder between us.
He still had a smear of chicken grease on his face, and I felt an urge to reach out and wipe it off with a paper napkin. Instead, I tried not to look at his cheek, redirecting my attention to the questions I had written out in my notebook: What did you hope to do after leaving the yeshiva? Do you remember the day the Germans marched into your village? When did you first become aware of what the Nazis intended for the Jews?
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly, with an easy kind of intimacy. We talked until the light faded, and by the end, I had gotten the rabbi to supply most of the missing parts of his story. My success should have been calming. Instead, I felt shaken. I needed to do something, positive and definitive, to acknowledge the sense of connection I had experienced in the basement. I needed to go to temple, or to Hebrew school, or spend a summer on a kibbutz in Israel. At the very least, I should pull out the Shabbos candles the Lubovitcher Hasids had given me in Washington Square Park one afternoon a few years before and which were still stowed in my bedside table. At the time I had thought I might use them, but my boyfriend and I usually went out on Friday nights, and after a while I had given up the idea.
The thought that I couldn’t just go home and carry on as I had before frightened me. That saying oy gevalte and “I’ll take my bagel with a schmear” was not going to cut it any more. Encased in that jacket, I had been struck by the realization that, yes, I was Jewish, but not, after all, Jewish enough. But what was I supposed to do about that? I no longer believed in God. The thought of devoting any more of my life to ritual made my skin crawl. My idea of Sunday morning—or Friday night, if it came to that—was Wallace Steven’s “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/ Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair”. I could barely stand to visit a cathedral for the architecture, bolting after a few minutes for the sunshine on whatever square it had been built. The handful of times I had been in a synagogue, I had remained silent during any participatory parts, unable to mouth words I didn’t believe, and had to suppress the same violent urge to flee.
Rabbi Melman made it easier for me at the train station. It had stopped raining, finally, and just before sunset, the sun had broken through, washing everything in silvery early evening light. He got out of the car with me, both to say good-bye and to take over the driving. I stood on tip-toe to offer my cheek to him, but instead of giving me a peck as I expected, he turned his head so that our mouths would meet. The firmness of the movement and the way he ducked his chin left me in no doubt that he had done it on purpose. His lips smeared mine with a rubbery smooch. It was only then that I felt repelled, sickened, almost unable to believe his audacity. I didn’t say anything. I just waved to him as I crossed the pavement to the station doors, got on the train, and rode back to New York. But every clicking mile left me more and more annoyed. He had behaved outrageously, and I hadn’t done anything to pull him up short. Clearly he’d gotten the wrong message when I failed to slap him after that second “slip” in the car.
I sat there fuming, but then, as the white stoops of Baltimore receded, the anger, too, started to ebb. The picture came to me of him standing alone in the yawning bright space of the mall, and a sudden feeling of tenderness welled up, displacing the outrage. He meant no harm. I knew that. He’d gotten carried away, yes, but only so far. I remembered the giddiness that had overtaken both of us in the kitchen. Perhaps I had encouraged him. Maybe my openness was at fault, the lack of a professional enough sense of skepticism and detachment. Once, in college, when I got lost in the suburbs outside Minneapolis on the way to a friend’s house for dinner, I did what a country girl would do: I pulled up to a house, chosen at random, to ask for directions. The people were kind and helped me, but the mother of my friend scolded me sharply, Never never do that again! They could have been anyone! Maybe he had mistaken the warmth I had genuinely felt toward him for flirtation. Or maybe it had been a little bit of flirtation, one human being with another. I had the improbable sense of having been swept up in a love affair, briefly sweet, but untenable.
Out the window, the last light flashed on fields and a white farm house as the train traveled north. He had been trying to convert me, I realized. To his cause, to history, to a more fervent Judaism, so that Hitler should not win. The burning ambition of his life, and understandably so, was to ensure that Judaism and the Jews themselves endured, to add to their ranks as many as he could. But I did not want to be converted. I would not be. My kind of Jewishness would have to be sufficient. Given the place from which I had started, it was conversion enough.
A new conviction took hold, rising with another wave of revulsion. I would finish the project. The rabbi would have a book to tell his story to the world. But I was not going back there. I was not going into that basement again. Not ever. He could keep his desire to claim me for the faith, as well as his rubbery smooches, to himself. If anyone asked, including him, I would simply say that I didn’t feel comfortable being alone with him.
Anna Cypra Oliver is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, ASSEMBLING MY FATHER (Houghton Mifflin, 2004; Mariner Books, 2006). An essay and a reproduction of one of her oil paintings–the first time her artwork has been viewed publicly–are forthcoming this fall in the New School publication, The Inquisitive Eater. Other essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, dislocate, and Chokecherries. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota (1997), and now lives with her husband in New York City and Connecticut.