Skin Deep

“Imma,” she says in her ‘I’m going to tell you something incredibly insightful now so you better stop what you’re doing and focus and make sure your phone is on hand to record this’ voice, so naturally, I turn.

“I know you’re not going to believe this, so I’m telling you now you have to trust me that it’s true.”

I nod and put the phone down.  I’m pretty sure this is going to be one of those ‘let me tell you what happened on the way home from school’ stories, maybe a bit Mulberry Street-isque, but nothing I can’t breeze through on this typical, absolutely ordinary day.

“My friend told me white people are better than black people.”

Woah.

Stop.

I know she’s looking at me, expecting some sort of response…and I know she thinks this an important conversation based on how she prefaced it…but I am stuck with her words swarming through my mind because for some reason…I AM NOT PREPARED.

*

My first clear understanding of how white people who aren’t racist can sometimes get stuck staring down the barrel of racism came from an incident involving my little sister, my mother and the neighbor one lovely afternoon on our front stoop.

The neighborly conversation was interrupted by my sister’s investigative reporting on the color of skin.

“Mommy,” she said in all her innocent glory as she scrutinized the neighbor, “Why is her skin brown?”

My mother froze.

There was only a slight pause before the neighbor very gently squeezed my mother’s hand and took over.

She said something or other about the color of blood and how it’s all the same on the inside.

I don’t really remember that.

But I can still feel that pause.

And here I am in that same damn pause.

*

I must have gasped because she’s assuring me that she knows…but like, really knows, that this girl is wrong.

She knows that people are people and we are all part of the human race.

She knows that what makes you better are your actions and what makes you above are your reactions.

She was really asking me why people are racists…more importantly, why a fellow second grader who is her friend, is a racist, and I have so many answers and all of them are sort of my fault because I have not done enough to fight it.

I am not a racist, yet I hear racist conversation in the park and don’t respond loudly enough.

I am not a racist, yet I live in a community where the ethnic diversity is mind-boggling nonexistent.

I am not a racist, yet my city segregates residents and calls it ‘absorption’.

I am not a racist, yet I say nothing when my son’s ganennet mixes up the names of the children of Ethiopian descent and laughs it off because she “can’t tell them apart”.

Oh, I cringe.

I cringe when I hear complaints that “Ethiopians” are hanging out in the park and breaking ‘our’ public benches.

I cringe when my son asks if the street cleaner who greets us every morning lives where all the brown people live.

I cringe when my daughter and her friends refer to children born in Israeli hospitals to immigrant parents, (just as she was), as Ethiopians.

And I cringe when I find myself pausing that long, uncomfortable pause.

I don’t want to cringe.

I want to shout.

For some reason, I haven’t had the urgent need to shout because I somehow thought this was not my problem because I am not a racist.

I have the ‘right’ color skin so I never really felt racism.

I never had to fight for the right to be treated as just another human being.

I need to start fighting and it needs to start with that pause.

Because what I remember most about that day when my neighbor stood up for herself was that it felt like she was defending something.

The color of skin is not something we need to defend.

The answer to a little girl’s question should not have so much weighing on it.

And I will start right now.

For Baltimore.

For Tel-Aviv.

For the world we all share.

Grown-up

I guess I’m a grown-up now, I think, as I sit here translating her words in my head, then translating my words before I stumble them out of my mouth and into the air where they embarrass me by screaming out “FOREIGNER” in this big room that can’t possibly hold the emotions she so casually throws at me with each word I am poorly translating in my overwhelmed brain.

I guess I’m a grown-up now.

Grown-ups sit in chairs built for little girls and stare across a giant desk and listen politely as big things are said.

Grown-ups can handle acronyms with A’s and D’s and H’s Boggled together with the shake of a wrist.

Grown-ups don’t think anything is wrong or that it’s anyone’s fault.

Grown-ups can be parents first and people wracked by guilt second.

Grown-ups can accept.

Grown-ups can get up and walk home briskly, make pizza for their children, reach out to another grown-up for help, and use the entire World Wide Web to understand exactly what it all means.

So here I am.

A Grown-up.

A gut-wrenching, soul-ripping, broken-hearted Grown-up.

Here lies a Grown-up…curled up on the couch…surrounded by crumpled tissues and words like psycho-didactic and evaluation and letters like MOXO and ADHD…

Here lies a Grown-up…feeling defeated by a system…mocked by fate…winded by the constant curveballs she always seems to miss…

Here lies a Grown-up…wishing with all her might that her not-yet-grown little vulnerable girl…could have been handed the card that this grown-up never knew…the one that didn’t make things difficult…the one that paves the path with rainbows and unicorns and never gets so dark and so scary that she hesitates…

Here lies a Grown-up…trying to breathe…to get the air she needs…so that she can open the door with a smile…and greet her wonderful, beautiful baby girl…with all the grown-up things…that will turn her into…the best kind of grown-up…any grown-up can be.

A Poppy Seed Cookie

“Ok, ok,” she said in what I think might have been an annoyed kind of tone.

“I’ll show you how. Come downstairs later and you can watch me. But I don’t know amounts…just watch…just watch.”

Later, I watched.

Her tiny hands, even smaller because of the arthritis that kept her fingers curling in, worked at a steady pace.

I took out my notebook.

I watched.

3 eggs…1 (glass) cup oil…1 (glass) cup orange juice (plus a splash or two)…1 teaspoon (small pile in middle of palm) baking soda…no that’s 2 teaspoons…1 tablespoon (big pile in middle of palm) salt…poppy… don’t forget the 1/2 cup poppy…handful flour…no two…three…three handfuls…mix…more handfuls flour…mix again…another handful…flour until doughy. Drop spoonfuls…medium sized…then shape them into ovals…stick a fork in each one…you have to do this…it’s important…bake until you can see the tiniest bit of brown on the bottom – no more.

“See?”

She smiled and we brought some of them upstairs and put the rest in plastic bags in the freezer.

That first Rosh Hashana, I made a triple batch of them.

We ate some on the chag. I put some in plastic bags in my freezer. The rest, I brought to my brother.

“Taste it,” I insisted. “It’s just like Bubby’s. I watched her.”

He put them in plastic bags in his freezer.

And then years passed. A lot of years. Too many years.

And today I thought of them…fleetingly.

I almost missed it.

But then I added some things to the list.

Orange juice…poppy seeds.

I pulled out my notebook…I measured…I mixed…I added a bit more flour…mixed some more…and I made sure to poke them all with a fork…and I took them out as soon as I saw the slightest tinge of brown.

I bit into the first available one.

The memories flooded me…poured through me relentlessly…and now I sit, with poppy seeds stuck between my teeth…and my heart full of a past begging me to let live on these pages.

So I write…

…about a car full of kids, traveling for forever until the sounds and smells of New York waft through the windows and suddenly no one is cranky anymore and everyone seems to have too much energy for one seven-seater van stuffed with at least ten people.

We’re finally here, but we have to work out the parking first. The driveway is never empty – no matter what year it is, and no matter that we are expected. Someone runs upstairs to announce our arrival and plead for help with the tricky navigation.

After circling the block too many times, we’ve squeezed in and now have to figure out how to squeeze us and our luggage out.

It happens somehow, and we race up the front stoop and across the porch, through the doors that squeak, up the stairs that creak, careful to skip those three steps that are mere triangles attempting to stand in for a gradual turn as we stumble through both the door to the living room and the door to the kitchen and suddenly stop in our tracks because at the end of the day, this is foreign.

The language is foreign, the people are foreign, the neighborhood is foreign and we are looked at here and made to feel like we are foreign.

“Ma?”

She always calls out to her mother in question form…and follows it with words jumbled together that make no real sense but we know it means she’s saying hello.

It smells like fried onions – never garlic – mixed with industrial cleaning agents and a hint of pine from an aerosol can.

It sounds old…creaking and cranking and gravelly voices speaking in tongues…and it’s maroon and orange and brown…but there’s some green and blue and even pink if you take a step back and really look for her little artistic touches.

When all our senses readjust to accommodate all…all THIS…we focus on her.

She’s smiling…not too broadly, but enough to put us at ease. She half hugs us all because there’s something in her hands because she’s always doing things when we arrive.

It’s late and we really should go to sleep, but first, we need a little something to eat.

There’s marble cake in the pantry, and popcorn and chips…chocolate mints in the fridge…and yeast cake in the freezer…and always plastic bags of frozen poppy cookies…mahn kichelech…but we never say it like that because it doesn’t come out sounding right.

We drink weird soda…Half & Half or 50/50, depending on the era…and we split up for sleep.

There’s the orange room…the one my mother used to share with her grandmother…and it still smells like her, especially in the closet where a lone dress hangs.

The blue room is the boy’s room, even when the girls sleep there. The laundry line hangs out the window and when all the beds are pulled out, it’s like a giant trampoline.

The living room is sometimes the favorite…when you get the bottom of the pull-out couch…because then you’re sleeping under the table. The sheets are shiny brown and you know it’s going to be a slippery night.

Then there’s the little room.

It’s off the master bedroom and there’s no real door. The piano is stuffed into the corner and covered with bags of old clothing. The bed has a pile of linens and blankets on it that slowly goes down as everyone chooses a spot and settles in.

I stretch out on the bed, my legs raised slightly above my head, and I know that I will wake up in middle of the night feeling like I have been folded in half and have to rearrange my body on the lumpy bed quietly as my Zaidy snores and my Bubby’s breath whistles through the air.

We wake up early in the morning.  Zaidy is already sitting at the dining room table after eating toast and cottage cheese, or stale cake dipped in milk, and Bubby is bustling around the tiny kitchen because, of course, it’s Erev Pesach…or Erev Sukkos, depending on the year.

There’s only so much we can do to stay out of the way, but we manage to do it all each time.

The porch game is the best. We step out onto the old, crumbly porch that’s off the room that’s off the master bedroom, and we play something we don’t know is called chicken. We have to venture away from the wall and slowly walk across the porch. It takes a good five minutes to get to a spot deemed far enough by the others, and less than a second to be back against the wall on more stable ground. We know someone is going to fall straight through the floor and die on the porch below. If not this time, for sure next time.

One year we arrive to find a new, smaller porch attached to the house made of something safer like iron or something, so the game is over.

We explore the attic. It is so scary. Scarier than the porch. The stairs are wooden and you have to lean over the banister to pull the string to turn on the light. Sometimes that part is too scary so we go up in the dark.

The rooms are gigantic and there are treasures we’d love to play with if we didn’t keep hearing ghosts.

We have to come up here if the bathroom is occupied downstairs. We try our best to avoid it. Sitting on the toilet in the corner, behind lines of laundry, not sure if you had locked the door but unable to run across the massive room to check, you do your business quickly and only wash your hands for like a half a second.

The bathroom downstairs is normal in size, but the claws on the tub and the sloping floor that makes you feel like you might go flying head first off the throne and have to be rescued with your underwear around your ankles is almost as scary as hearing the drums in the attic while you’re trying to remember whether or not you locked that too-big bathroom door.

I live the days out with little care.

I don’t know that the cow’s tongue I see unrolled on the counter will affect my taste for certain delicacies for the rest of my life.

I don’t know that I will remember the washing machine in the kitchen, or the way twenty people will shift around so that the kitchen door will open so that another family of ten can wiggle in and go looking for treasures in the pantry and the freezer.

I don’t know that the sights and smells and sounds that I am experiencing are embedding themselves deep in my soul and creating memories strong enough to make me stop in my tracks and forget to breathe.

All I know is that I am at Bubby’s house, and I am starting to feel a little less foreign than I felt when it was dark outside and the day had been long and I didn’t really want to sleep in a human sandwich-making bed and think about falling off the house with the porch.

A little piece of poppy just won’t come out on its own as the memories wist away and I pick at my teeth thoughtfully.

I once called my grandmother, at the insistence of my mother-in-law who feels strongly about that sort of thing.

Hallo?

Hi Bubby, how are you?

Who is this?

It’s Bracha…you know, from Israel.

Ah! Bracha’le! How are you?

I’m good. How are you?

Oy, Bracha’le, you don’t have to call. Your mother tells me everything.

Ok, Bubby. Have a good Shabbos.

But now, as my house fills with the smell of something old and precious to me, I think that maybe I’d like to call again…before it’s too late.

This is not a eulogy…this is a memory…one that I’d like to share with my Bubby, who still has a freezer full of treats that have the power to melt me and turn me into the child I thought could never live again.

Du Bist A Nazi

Du bist as Nazi, du bist a Nazi!

I turn in horror.

He’s a little boy.  Maybe four years old.  His blonde hair curls at his ears…his blue eyes sparkle with the sort of mischief I should expect from a little boy at the park with his friends without supervision.

And the other boy…three years old…sweet…innocent….wild at times…especially when he’s found candy…but mostly beautifully kind and generous, knows he’s been called something and doesn’t like how it feels.

He sticks his tongue out.

Ani Lo!  Ani David Simcha!

Another smirk.

Du bist a Nazi!

Now I know I heard right.

I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know what to do.

I look at him with what I know can be a scary look, and lower my voice.

MA amarta?

He backs away, laughing, and runs off with his friend.

Du bist a Nazi.

I can’t explain this.  He’s a little boy.  He doesn’t know what a Nazi is.

And my little boy…he doesn’t know what a Nazi is.

But now he’s been called one.  And I am tormented by what I know is much bigger than this.

He’ll grow up, my little boy, and he won’t remember the incident.  Hopefully, he’ll remember how I gently reprimanded him for sticking his tongue out at  other kids, how I always reminded him that he needs to be careful not to hurt other people’s feelings and how he needs to treat everyone with the respect they deserve just by being human.

My little boy will know that I try to accept everyone and maybe he’ll try to do the same.  He’ll know that we don’t group people together by how they dress or what school they go to.  He’ll know that we believe in breaking boundaries and reaching out across the divide to love and cherish our fellow-man.  He’ll know that his mother cringes when people fight and that she cries for those who can’t see past their differences.

He’ll grow up, my little boy, and make the choices to be the kind of man he thinks he should be.

There will be a blond man with sparkling blue eyes out there somewhere…and I hope he can make choices as well.  I hope he can learn to discard what he hears at home and see the world with the same carefree way, knowing that he can always choose to look at someone who looks like my son and say something derogatory, nothing at all, or maybe…something that can unite us again.

For now…I sit with the voice of a little boy inside my head…reverberating pointless hatred and anger…and try desperately not to cry.

Can’t I Be The Mom I Want To Be?

They told me kids grow up too soon…so I feel a little guilty right now…

Because it doesn’t seem soon enough to me…

I don’t know if I was made to pick up toys all day…have my skirt used as a tissue…field questions about witches and monsters…listen to never-ending whines about everything and anything…all as I desperately try to maintain a cool I don’t know exists and refrain from losing it completely.

I’m sitting on the couch now…because both kids are in school…and I’m supposed to be looking for a job…but I don’t want to.

I want to have my mornings to myself.

I want to be able to clean the house without anyone climbing under me or walking all over a damp floor with muddy shoes or taking all the toys out at once…undoing everything I’ve done.

I want to go to the supermarket by myself and not have to bribe anyone with candy while I try to push a cart too heavy already with only a package of tissues and a child in it.

I want to exercise without having to put a child or two in front of a screen and then shower with the door closed for once, not having to strain to hear if everyone is still alive.

I want to cook without someone reaching for my knife…insisting on helping me…tasting the tomato paste with dirty fingers…demanding to be fed NOW…and whining about how boring it is when no entertainment is provided on demand.

And then I want my kids to come home to a hot meal and a warm hug.  I want to have a smile on my face and a clear mind, ready to listen to everything.  I want the strength to gently change their tone and remind them how to speak.  I want a clean floor to spread out on…playing games together…building castles…racing cars…with laughter.  I want to help them brush their teeth…comb their hair…cuddle up with a book or two…or three…and finish the day with hugs and kisses.  Then I want to sit down with my husband…my best friend…and enjoy an evening together.

This summer showed me how I am when I am in a constant state of responsibility for another person – especially little bored persons.  I am not happy with how I reacted.  I am full of guilt and remorse for wishing things about my children I know I don’t really mean but don’t know how much I might.  Mostly, I feel guilty for wanting them to grow up already and take care of themselves.

So I’m procrastinating…and writing this instead of a resume.

I love my children.  I really, really do.

I love them so much that I don’t want to ever have to compromise on how I raise them.

I just don’t have another solution.

I’m scared I’ll have to sacrifice the kind of childhood I desperately want them to have for money.

That makes me sick to my stomach.

Summer. Yay.

Summer vacation is hell.

We started off on the right foot.  There were projects and outings and waaaaaay too many movies…and then we had to go to bed and figure out something new and exciting for Day 2.  I’m going out of my mind.

I’m starting to appreciate a little something I have always loathed and tried to pretend never happened.

My mom works in a summer camp.

Works as in still does after over 30 years…

Every year we would pack up our lives and travel however many miles we were currently living away from the Great Jewish Migration to the Catskills and join the flock.

The trips were painful.  There was vomit.  There were complaints.  There were cries.  There was pee – sometimes at rest stops…sometimes – not.  There were bedbugs in motels…truck drivers at 3am…and a certain smell I just can’t describe.

Then camp would start…and there were rules.  You HAVE to stay with your bunk.  You HAVE to play this game NOW.  You MUST had fun and you MUST sing at the top of your lungs and try to get everyone to look at you.

I genuinely hated summer camp.

For one, it was hard to balance life as a camper and the daughter of a staff member.  I never felt fully part of anything.

Then there was the fact that this particular camp is the epitome of Beis Yaakov and I was fighting that tooth and nail.  Let’s just say there was a bit of a conflict of interest between what I thought was true and what they demanded I believe.

So with much heartache, punishments and stamping of feet, the two months would pass until we would finally get back to real life and I would pretend I didn’t have to go the next summer.

I still hate summer camp.  If I meet people from there I shudder.  If I hear a song, or a cheer – or worse, the alma mater – my heart starts pounding and I look for a way, any way, out.

But now I understand my mom and can appreciate – and wish for – the kind of summers she had.

Her laundry was done for her.  She didn’t have to cook.  She didn’t have to take care of her kids.  She got access to the pool when she wanted.  She had a mother’s helper when the kids were too young to sleep in the bunkhouses.  She had air-conditioning and a fridge/freezer with plenty of ice pops.  She never had to answer a bored child’s cry.  She never had to discipline a child (except to send them to them to the head counselors if she found someone hiding out in her room) and she never had to try to get everyone out on an excursion and try not to have it end with tired, pouting kids.

Good one, Mother…thanks a lot.

Next summer, I’ll send you my little girl and you can let her experience the hell I did while I sit back and enjoy my summer.

Let’s Paint A Memory

The street is cobblestone…pretty, yet inconvenient for weary little feet and stroller wheels.

It’s been a long morning.  Breakfast was nice, sitting at an outdoor cafe on the street overlooking mountains, sipping freshly squeezed orange juice and laughing just because…and then walking along the road with all the shops, pretending to be first time tourists visiting the holy city of Tzfat as we shared the beauty of our land with our children…and now the Artists’ Quarter…narrow cobblestone streets lined with display windows where you can find intricate pieces of art, magnificent paintings… sculptures… glass work…jewelry…hand-made wonders nestled high up in a little city of art surrounded by a little land of majestic proportions that takes my breath away.

We told her about this place weeks ago.  She’s been so looking forward.  On the train, as we passed neatly plowed fields…she asked about the artists again.  And then, when the sea came into view and she had to look away because the sun hitting the endless blue was blinding, she wondered about what kind of pictures they made up on the mountaintop, way too far for an impatient five-year-old who wanted to get off the train already.  On the last leg of our journey, the bus climbing up the mountain on twisting roads as the sun went down outside the window she was pressing her nose against, she leaned back, her head resting on my shoulder, and thought about what she was going to see as she sucked her thumb and twirled her hair around and around her little finger until her eyes closed and she fell asleep.

And now, here we are…and she’s tired…because she walked so much…and because she didn’t have her own bed to sleep in last night…and because she’s only five and we haven’t stopped at a playground even though we said we would…

Her little feet drag on cobblestone.  She shrugs her shoulders when we point out all the beauty surrounding us.

Then she sees him.

It’s a small shop.  His paintings are average for this little street.

He is sitting in front of a canvas.  He is creating a small souvenir someone will purchase as a memory of their visit here.  He barely looks up when she steps in and stands behind him.

She watches him, quietly, for a long time.

I am ready to move on.  I call for her.  She is transfixed and doesn’t hear me.  But he hears and he turns to me, and to her, and sees something in her eyes he must recognize.

He smiles at her.  He holds out his brush and asks her if she would like to paint.

My little girl very slowly nods and accepts his brush.  She holds her head still as she gently presses the brush to the canvas, bringing it down ever so carefully as he looks on.  She takes a step back, ready to hand the work back to him, but he shakes his head at her and tells her to continue.  And then, stroke by stroke, my little girl paints a memory.

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Her eyes are bright.  Her cheeks are flushed.  She steps back from her work with pride.  As she hands over the brush, he smiles at her again.

“You’re going to be a great artist,” he says.  And nodding knowingly at me, he adds, “I can tell…I can tell…”