Why I am still a Jew
“Kiss Mrs. Goldberg. She brought cookies to you.”
I did, the smell of VapoRub and dusting powder clinging to my face. She put out her lips like a fish catches fishflake and caught me. I had been in the kitchen putting strips of paper into ammonia, watching the strips turn blue. When I put them into vinegar, they turn red. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. How big your little girl’s getting. And what did you learn in your new school?” That God created Atoms, and that they are all alike, put together differently. “You mean Adam,” she says, and I say No. The old ladies, my grandmother and Mrs. Goldberg talk in funny accents. Every time she leaves, my grandmother says, “She still dresses in schmatas. She thinks she’s still in the Old Country.”
I am in the fourth grade. Mama says our development is new. The streets are named after the golf course across from the cemetery. Two rows of houses are like alphabet blocks, back to back, where there were fields and horses. One horse still lives across from Island Elementary. Every day after school, kids go to pet it, and more than once some kid gets bit. I look too. But when other kids come around, I pretend I’m not interested. Then I get on my bike and ride to Barbara’s house. We spend the time until her parents come home reading comics, riding our bikes up and down her street. Her neighborhood is named after trees—Sycamore, Maple, Pine. She has stopped reading comics now and is reading about Jesus Christ. Her parents got her The Gospel According to Peanuts.
It’s late one night, later than I’m supposed to be up. Mama got me out of bed. Grandma’s up too. “Come look,” she says, “A Jewish story.” I watch TV awhile and say, Yeah, I know about this. They’re Nazis. They’re in my World History book. “Sshh,” they say. A line of corpses lies in a ditch. A line of soldiers stands above holding machine guns, and the picture is grainy, blood a dark grey. You can’t see faces. It’s downtown in some European city, signs JUDEN painted with a sloppy star, and more language I can’t understand. Tanks come down a cobbled street and people throw rocks through windows, houses are in flames. Krystal Nacht. Night of the Broken Glass says the bass voice through the speaker. WEE-ah, WEE-ah, WEE-ah. What’s that, I ask Mama. I don’t like that sound. “Sshh,” says Mama. “Those are the police. Those trucks come to carry you away.” I’m glad the policemen here don’t sound like that, I say, and Mama says, “Listen.” Then the films show black smoke, ovens emptied, people carrying stretchers. A great hand paws through a box of glasses, pins, and shiny teeth. The TV plays march music and the Allies, Russians and Americans who look no different from one another, march toward us. The camera shoots down a line of prisoners in striped pajamas, baldheaded stickmen who grab at barbed wire. The bass voice says: This Is What They Found.
Where do we come from? “Russia,” says Grandmother. Why aren’t we still there? Me, I’m from Texas. “We came over before any of this happened. Mrs. Goldberg is from Germany. She came after. She barely got out of Dusseldorf. “Did they do this in Russia when we lived there too? “I don’t remember,” says Grandmother. “I was a little girl, littler than you. I just remember the tailor shop, Papa’s shop. He came over with five other tailors to New York. We left Odessa because of the pogroms.” Programs? “Riots. Like the ones on TV.” Do we have relatives in Europe? I ask Grandma, who is holding me tight with bony hands. “Not anymore.” I’m from Texas, I say, and go back to sleep. And with my eyes shut, I see the wire fingers closed around spikes where I’ve seen them before, pricking the neck of the horse, stretched to bite.
After school we ride bikes up and down Sycamore Lane. Barbara wears a brace. Her body is thick and awkward, leaning on the handlebars, neck stuck out like a goose. She cries sometimes and prays she won’t have to wear a brace for the rest of her life. “It’s not fair,” says Barbara. I wear glasses. The doctor told me I would have to wear them the rest of my life, but Barbara says it’s not the same thing.
“I ask Jesus to help me. Who do you ask?” I don’t ask anybody, I tell her. Once I asked mother if I could get contacts, but she said they cost too much. “You don’t have a savior,” she says. “You’re going to burn in hell.”
No, I haven’t done anything wrong. “You don’t have to do anything wrong to go to hell. If you deny Jesus, you’ll never have any help. He’s the only one who can help you.” Help me do what? “Go to heaven.” I’m going to heaven, I say. I haven’t done anything wrong. Says Barbara, “You don’t understand.”
The brace hurts her, and I can see it’s true. The pads rub great red holes in her sides and under her neck. The more she grows, the more her spine curves. She wears dresses called muumuus. I don’t like dresses, but I have to wear them for school. Barbara is my best friend, even if she’s deformed. But we can’t play together Saturdays because I have to go to Sunday school on Saturdays, which ruins the whole weekend and I miss cartoons. I ask Mrs. Rosenbloom why we have Sunday school on Saturday, and she tells me we must go to Temple on the real Sabbath. We are Reformed, I say, and we eat sausage and pork chops, so why can’t we go to Sunday school on Sunday like everybody else? I tell her Saturdays are inconvenient. She sends me to the Rabbi, and he tells me we go to Saturday School because we are Chosen. “You are different.” And he smiles and says, “Don’t you want to be confirmed with the rest of your class?” I am different because I don’t care about the rest of the class. But I don’t tell him.
I go to Barbara’s house after she gets out of church. She is reading the Bible. “Do you want to go to church next week? I told my teacher about you, and she says I could bring you.” I say, Sure, if Mama lets me. We eat Saltines with jam, and look at her birds and feed them crackers. Her father bought macaws and keeps them inside a cage in the carport. Their feathers are scarlet, yellow, and blue, and their tongues are black. We try to think of other animals with black tongues. I don’t know any. “There are lots of strange animals. Horney toads, flying fish, platypuses. All different. But everybody’s blood is blue until it hits the air. Then it’s red.” Barbara’s father is a doctor and tells her these things. “Have you thought any more about Jesus?”
Don’t talk about him much, I say. I didn’t hear anything about him at all until First Grade. At the Christmas play, I raised my hand and asked who he was. I never understood why people got so upset when I asked that. “That’s because you killed Him.” I didn’t do that. Romans did that a long time ago. Rome in the World History book. “No,” Barbara said. “Jews killed Jesus because He was Christian.” That’s all? That’s why somebody killed him? “That’s why you’re going to hell.” I’m going home, I said.
I took some cookies to the horse after school Friday. It was so thin you could see its ribs. It stuck its long neck over the barbed wire and its smelly lips closed around the cookies quietly, like it wasn’t really interested, but it didn’t have anything better to do. When I was finished, I wiped my hands on my yellow dress to get the horse smell off. We studied explorers that week in World History, but the book did not tell me how I got to Texas. It seemed that people moved around to discover things and get away from people after things were discovered. Pilgrims came to America to escape persecution. They threw out the Quakers who discovered Philadelphia and Roger Williams who discovered Rhode Island. I didn’t discover anything. I was born here.
Mother washed the yellow dress so I could wear it to Zion Lutheran Church. “I don’t know what you did to it, but I had to wash it twice. Walk—don’t ride your bike. I don’t want you getting any grease on it. You have to look nice for these people, they’re strangers.” You know Mrs. Gardener, I said. At the PTA. She’s Barbara’s teacher, not a stranger. “I know her,” Mama said, pulling down the skirt, puffing out the sleeves. “Be a nice girl. Make a good impression.”
I sat through the sermon and got up and down when everyone else did, like when you salute the flag. I get up and down when they take out the Torah, but I don’t like to. When I ride on the bus downtown, I’m supposed to give up my seat to an old lady if the bus is crowded. But when everybody gets up, and then sits down in the same seat, it makes no sense. The minister read from the Bible I never heard—a thief who went to heaven. Jesus must have given up his seat on the bus. But I was not a thief. Then I went to Bible Class with Barbara.
Barbara got up in front of class and introduced me. You could see her rock from side to side inside her brace. Mrs. Gardener told the class to say Hello to Barbara’s Little Friend. Mrs. Gardener said it was a good thing to be interested in other people’s religions. Then she started talking about the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I tried listening but I looked around at the kids staring at me. All the girls were in dresses and the boys wore suits and ties like Barbara’s father. Mrs. Gardener finished telling the story and asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand.
Do they know this really happened?
“It’s the Bible, child. The Bible is the Word of God. If God said it, it must be true.” God didn’t say it, it’s in a book. Like, the history book. God can’t write. He’s too busy. “But honey, Jesus is Divine. The Bible doesn’t lie.”
I didn’t say it was a lie. I said it was made up. Like the Talking Crow and the Fox and the grapes. It’s supposed to be a lesson to talk about.
“Oh poor child, you poor, poor child … ” Mrs. Gardener started crying right there in front of everybody, pulling Kleenex out of her big flowered blouse, one after another. She seemed stuffed full of Kleenex. “Peter denied Him, three times denied Him … ” She blew her nose hard: PppFtt. “I’ll pray tonight for you to accept Him.” To the class: “Everybody, pray tonight for forgiveness … ”
There was mumbling behind me, heads turning to meet one another mumbling, a pair of clammy hands caught on one puff of one yellow sleeve, Mrs. Gardener’s face flush blubbering, kids crowding around me. Mrs. Gardener waddled up closer murmuring, “Pray, pray” until a little girl in a pink dress ran up, clinging to her skirt with one balled fist, the other hand pointing a finger, blue eyes red but dry cries, “Look at what you did! You’re going to burn in Hell in eternal torment, Christ killer!” and the boys standing up surrounding my desk, squeezing both my arms, one shouted, “If you don’t like it here, go back to where you came from!” Mrs. Gardener, blotting her cheeks, putting hands full of wet Kleenex on their shoulders pulls them apart: “Class, it’s all right, it’s all right.” She grabs my hand and pulls me to the door. “Behave,” she tells them. Behave yourselves after I’m gone.
She took me to Reverend Paulsen, the man I’d seen giving the speech at the altar. In his office he looked bigger, relaxed like he was about to play golf. He smiled at me and patted me on the head. “Now, what did you say in Mrs. Gardener’s class?” They were talking about story magic, about loaves and fishes. I’ve seen magic too. I saw a man on television make people disappear. I said that maybe magic wasn’t real, like a story. “That’s okay,” he said and patted my head again, the way old ladies do. “Don’t be upset. Kids often say things they don’t mean. You’ll all get over it tomorrow. No use making such a big fuss over this. Why don’t you just go home? I’ll tell Barbara you left.”
Okay. I walked real slow. But I didn’t go home. I walked to school to look for the horse, but it wasn’t there. I walked back up to the Piggly Wiggly and went through the whole store just for the air conditioning. The pharmacy next door was open. Mr. Rosenbloom, the pharmacist, worked there. He said Hello, and I went to look at the comics. I picked one and he walked with me to the cash register. “Wonder Woman. I used to like Wonder Woman back in World War II,” Mr. Rosenbloom said. It’s just a story, I said. She’s not really real. “Doesn’t matter, real or not,” he said smiling, shining white in his bleached pharmacy coat. “She fought on our side then. She’s still a fighter. She never goes out of style. She’s getting up in years, but she doesn’t look older. In fact, she looks better than ever.”
I passed Zion Church on the way back. The kids had been let out, but Barbara was standing in the parking lot, kicking at oyster shells with the toe of her shoe. Her face was red and wet, her chin bouncing on the pad of her brace. She saw me, and we both stopped and looked at one another. She hadn’t said anything in class and she didn’t say anything now. I didn’t know who could help her; there was nothing I wanted to do. Barbara was right when she said I didn’t have to do anything. I could go to hell or I could go home. I didn’t have to do anything.