I read this story from the stage of the Great Falls Word Festival at the Shea Theater, in October, 2018, just days after the fatal shootings at the Shul in Pittsburgh. Click the elefant's shtam to see the video.
photo: Nashad Abdu
This is a story about a gust of wind. It is a story about disappointment. And it is not the story I was planning to tell you tonight, so please forgive that I need to have pages to keep me on track.
During WWII, Jews in Budapest were brought to the edge of the Danube, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot dead, falling into the river below. This is the very short version of how my grandmother's shoes were not left on the bank of the Danube river.
In 1921 a neighbor brought my family warning just minutes before soldiers crashed through their front gate looking for Jews to harm. When a soldier climbed the ladder to the attic where they hid, my grandfather (a pious Rabbi) held aside his beard to contribute a breath. He blew out the candle and decades later in a kitchen in Brooklyn I was told the soldier, who must have been afraid of the dark, went away muttering about a squirrel. My grandparents, their children, and the neighbor who warned them all, lived. And the breath that snuffed out the soldiers candle brought a voice to my grandfather's ear that he took as instruction from an angel of God. He left for America a few months later and within two years my grandmother sailed from Hamburg on a ship named The Majestic, in steerage for a week with six children, in order to join him.
You get the point. We are survivors. We turn ourselves towards life.
This is not the story I planned to tell you tonight. But after the shooting at the Tree of Life shul in Pittsburgh it is the one my DNA commands I tell.
When I was a second grader I carried a menorah to school for show and tell. I lived in a rural town, there were only five Jewish kids in the entire school. Like every American kid with a television set, Charlie Brown and his gang had taught me the true meaning of Christmas and I knew all about Rudolf, Santa, and the Abominable Snow Man. I learned Christmas carols at school. Naively and without considering there might be consequences, I stood in front of the class and held up my family's menorah, which still had colored wax from the candles we'd lit the night before.
All of a sudden, before I could say a word about the Macabees, a little girl stood up in the back of the room, pointed right at me, and started screaming at the top of her lungs. It is the first reference I remember hearing of the Holy Ghost, who was called upon to strike me down, dead on the spot, because the Jews, and I, had killed Jesus.
I could not have been less prepared for this, and our teacher clearly wasn't prepared either because she sent me out into the hall where I sat alone in my cubby, hugging the menorah to my trembling chest and trying not to hear the hoof beats of Cossacks (always so near in the imagination of a Jewish kid whose Bubbe tells stories of hiding). I have no idea what the teacher said to my classmates. I was eventually fetched from the hall during a penmanship lesson and no one looked up from their paper as I slid into my seat. The boys stuffed snowballs with rocks and used me for target practice at recess.
That night at bedtime my mother taught me Yiddish phrases to throw back at the schoolyard bullies (an elafants shtam aroyf deyn tokhes, may your nose grow like an elephant's trunk to blow up your ass). I never said it aloud, but reciting this curse in my head made me laugh inside, the laughter itself a kind of self-protection.
Many years after my grandmother told me the story of the soldier and the candle and the breath of destiny in the attic, I discovered that my grandfather had written a death bed confession, a viyduy, apologizing to my grandmother for bringing her to America, a place which deeply disappointed him because the cultural atmosphere was morally unclean for an observant Jewish family. He lamented coming to this country and was sorry he could not live to return them all to Europe. He died in 1933, six years before the Nazi's drove their tanks into Poland. If he had lived he would have thanked the angel that whispered in his ear to emigrate. Almost all the family who stayed behind were lost in the war, we say lost, but really they stepped out of their shoes and were shot on the bank of the Danube River, or sent off on trains to die by Nazi design.
All sorts of people have a story like my family's, a story of events so terrible it would cause them to leave behind home, family, livelihood, even the graves of their ancestors. All of them having heard the voice of some angel on the wind imploring them to save themselves by going. No matter the risks or hugeness of the unknown. No matter the possibility of disappointment.
The Holy Ghost never did strike me down, and there are now over a thousand descendants who name my grandparents as their own. I don't know how to end this story and the clock has run out, so do this thing with me: put your hand over your heart and listen through your fingers to the beat of your own life thrumming through this muscle which is the size of your fist. Take a breath with me.
Yes, you feel it too. You get the point, we are survivors, we turn ourselves towards life. L'chaim