New Jew

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
June 7, 2011

Victor Raphael, Genesis (detail)

Nina Shepard had been a Jew for fifteen minutes. She sat at her table at the Ivy and regarded her soft-shell crab. She pushed it aside with her fork and then, setting her fork down, she reached for some bread. The bread was white and tasteless, laid unceremoniously in a basket with a napkin. Nina took a bite and set the rest on the small white plate to the left of her. She took a sip of ice tea and pretended to watch JLo at the table across from her on the patio as she waited for her mother to come back from the ladies’ room. Nina Shepard, a Jew, a Jewess she wasn’t sure, only that she was no longer Catholic, not really. That without having moved from her seat, or wandered through a desert, she became, without warning, a Jew. “Now that Poppy is gone, there is something I need to tell you,” her mother had said. She had looked down at her butter lettuce salad, folded her sunglasses, and then, looking steadily across at Nina, her mother had given her this news. Her mother, who would bring Nina with her to choir rehearsals at church, where she played in the loft at eye-level with Jesus, speaking in a voice that still had music in it, told her daughter Nina, thirtyseven, with a daughter of her own, that now that her grandfather was dead it was safe to tell her. It was safe to tell her that Poppy, Sarah, and by extension ( Judaism being matrilineal), she, Nina, were, had been, are now, and would be forever, Jews. Nina’s mother returned from the ladies room, her lipstick freshened, and, snapping her purse closed, pressed her cheek to Nina’s and said before leaving, “ It doesn’t have to change anything.”

Nina had learned about the Nazis in high school and she remembered, even now, how relieved she had been to not be a Jew. She recalled the gratitude she felt at the pristine safety of who she was. Rachel Abramson had started to cry. She had gasped at the sight of the living skeletons reaching through the fence and then later at the mountain of shorn hair. When they showed the lampshade made of skin, Rachel had run from the room. Carol Held, not Nina, had gone out to the hall to comfort her. When the film ended, Nina had felt grateful that it had, and wondered only briefly how the Jews had let it happen. She had been moved mostly by the image of a small boy, on his sleeve sewn a golden star – Juden. And she wondered who had sewn it on, if he had been so marked by his mother’s own hand. When she was little, Nina would go to church with her grandfather. She had a beautiful lavender dress and white shoes. She would tuck her small hand in the crook of his arm and rest her face on his shoulder, almost as if she were cold, never looking past him to the brightly lit room, the sun in colors through the tall stained glass windows. His skin smelled of soap and like the clove-studded oranges of Christmas. He hid small blackberry pastilles in his palm and would silently reveal each one to her, resting in his hand like a pearl, so she would sit quietly in church, the candy a sweet secret between them. He liked to sit on the aisle in the corner near the door.

Karl Shepard had been a furrier, and in his store on Wilshire, Nina would lie on the octagonal ottoman and see herself reflected in the funhouse of mirrors that surrounded it. A delicious mélange of perfumes still floating on the cool air of the store long after the women who had admired themselves in coats of mink and sable had left the store. Nina, with her eyes closed, could recognize each pelt by touch: the arrows of the fox, the deep soft velvet of the beaver. She would come after school and listen as Poppy, with a voice that had a music of its own, soft and deferential, a whisper almost, as he took the arm of each woman who had arrived in a car with a driver from Beverly Hills and brought her to the fur that had been waiting for her all along. On his desk, he kept a box of cards with notes as detailed as a doctor’s, with the birthdays of each of his clients and their preferences. Weeks before the occasion, he would invite a woman in, and they would walk the floor together to find the fur that would be hers. Like a perfect lover, he would hold the coat open and invite the woman in, the satin lining cool against her skin, the weight of the fur a sure embrace. When she had gone – lifted, ebullient – Poppy would phone the woman’s husband at work. The men would come by at the end of the day, after five on the way home from the studio. Poppy would offer them a glass of scotch and their check he would place into the drawer of his desk as if it were an afterthought. Rising to shake their hands and to nod in agreement that pleasing one’s wife was not mysterious, you only need give her what she wanted; Poppy, a trusted friend of both man and wife.

Recovering her car from the valet, Nina was momentarily disoriented by the flash of the paparazzi who camped out across the street. The car brought first was a Land Rover that belonged to a blonde who Nina didn’t recognize, and a boyfriend with pants so smallish he looked like he had eaten the side of the mushroom that makes you suddenly taller. Her daughter, Annika, would know who they were and would admonish her later for not knowing. Nina, whose car had been pulled up, stood stock still – her daughter was Jewish. The valet had to resort to honking to get Nina’s attention. She ignored the glares of the lunching women and tucked into her car, nearly forgetting to tip the valet with the five she clutched in her hand. She felt a new concern of how he would judge her if she had forgotten. She drove south on Robertson, suddenly without destination. Her daughter was at Immaculate Heart and she would not be ready for pickup until three. Distracted, Nina got going the wrong direction on San Vicente, and wondered how she could get lost in a place she had lived her whole life. She reversed herself at Wilshire, and drove east several blocks until finally she pulled over and sat in the parking lot of the 99 Cents store.

She left the engine running and tried to recover herself. “Now what?” She thought to call her husband, and taking her phone in hand stared at it like an archeological relic, as if it’s purpose was unknown to her. She set the mysterious object down on the passenger seat. She would wait until her husband came home that evening. She would tell him in their bedroom while he removed his tie and shook off his loafers. Even this seemed impossible. She remembered that her friend Eliza, who was AA, had said that in moments when you are lost you are to “do the next indicated thing.” But what was that? Nina had no idea. She started the already running car, apologizing to the passersby for the resulting scraping wail, and wanting to feel that she had some say, turned left and pointed her car north on Fairfax. Nina had been to Fairfax before, had driven through. Once after a school play of Annika’s the cast had gone late to Canter’s, which they treated like Sardi’s West. She pulled into the parking lot of the Diamond Bakery, and climbing out of the car was given a ticket by the valet, who was an Indian Sikh. His presence made her somehow feel less a stranger. Nina felt better walking, the rhythm of her feet on the ground reassuring. She stood in front of the bakery and reached to open the door. “You have such beautiful legs.” A hand lay on her outstretched arm. Nina gasped. The owner of the hand, an eightysomething woman with a voice as low as a man’s, grasped Nina’s flesh more firmly.“ I have my father’s legs,” she continued, nodding, as if this was something Nina should already know. The woman stood regarding her, waiting, Nina realized, for her to open the door. Nina stood back, and letting the woman go ahead of her, entered the bakery. Inside, it was impossible not to be reassured by the smell. Nina leaned back as the woman pulled a number from the red dispenser and felt that she had time traveled. The woman, seeing that Nina was not moving, pulled a second number from the machine and handed it to her. It was 18, and something about that seemed significant to Nina. Then, she remembered then that that was how Jews made gifts of money – in increments of eighteen…thirty-six, seventy-two. She had written a check for that amount for the Bat Mitzvah of a girl in Annika’s class. The bakery was filled with women who all seemed to know each other. The one who had spoken to Nina, instructed the woman behind the counter to slice the rye thin, indicating the same with her fingers. A woman whose hair was so white it was nearly transparent entered the store in mini-steps, a young Ethiopian aide at her elbow. The woman behind the counter tied a pink box with string that she drew from a spool. Nina caught her own reflection in the mirror, her brown eyes and dark hair. The woman could have been her mother.

Nina’s grandfather was fair. Light hair and green eyes. Nina realized at once that that is how he could have done it. How he could have gone to bed one night a Jew and woken the next morning a Christian. Nina realized how little she had known about her grandfather’s life before he’d come to Los Angeles. Only that he had been an orphan. The details had not interested her. There would sometimes be fleeting references to the war, but Nina was like most children, uncurious about a life before her own, content to be with him, the object of his attention. From his house in Hancock Park, Poppy served another clientele. In the front room, magicians would come and sit. Poppy would open trunks and, from the same fur that draped the shoulders of the women at the store, he would form cunning white rabbits fitted with springs inside. Poppy would reveal the white rabbits crafted by his own hand and make them come alive. Nina would gasp with delight when the creature would stir, though she had seen Poppy sew the puppet with her own eyes, his hand drawing the neat stitches at the store. Nina, only ever pleased and willing to be deceived by him. The visiting men would sit in the parlor of Poppy’s house and examine his wares with a keen eye, regarding them as unparalled treasures. The men who were always eager to please Nina by guessing a card she had chosen from an invisible deck, or plucking a rose for her from out of the air. When Nina’s number was called, she chose, without rhyme, a small box of cookies, and at the suggestion of the Ethiopian aide, a challah. The woman behind the counter handed it to Nina, her hand supporting it underneath like an infant, and Nina held the bag close, the fragrance rising. She felt like a child on a scavenger hunt. Stepping back out onto the street, Nina felt suddenly a rising sadness. She held the bread yet closer. Across the street, she saw through window of the Hirsh Family Kitchen, seated at the table, a group of men talking and laughing, their gestures broad and animated. The one nearest the window, smiled, listening, his head down and used a slice of challah to mop the soup in his bowl.

Nina returned to her car and drove toward the temple on Hollywood Boulevard where she had once picked up Annika after the Bat Mitzvah of the girl in her class. Annika would not be the only Jew at Immaculate Heart. Of the student population that attended daily prayer, the Jewish students made up nearly a third. Nina slowed her car into a space across the street from the temple. The building was old, and she remembered driving by in the fall when the congregation spilled out after services flanked by security guards in suits, wearing earpieces, their eyes holding an attentive view of the periphery. She had been afraid for them – so many Jews in plain sight, vulnerable to any attack. She had stopped at the light and caught herself looking at them, wondering not if, but when, harm would come. Rising from her car, Nina regarded the building. It was different than other buildings in Los Angeles because it had weight, most of LA looking as if it were built that morning. This building was large and substantial, even the trees that surrounded it seemed more deeply rooted, as if the entire structure had been transported, flora intact, from Cleveland or New York, like a Jewish snowglobe.

The doors were open, and a guard, like the one she had seen before, stood at the door as people filed in. Nina racked her brain to remember if it were a Jewish holiday of some kind, knowing as she did that Hanukah rhymed with Christmas, Passover with Easter, but she could not recall any. Still, a small assembly of people were filing in. She realized, as she watched them, that the guard had begun to scrutinize her. That he not think ill of her and her purpose, Nina crossed the street and entered with the others. When she stepped past him, he smiled and gave his head a quick nod. He did not stop or question her. When the group she had followed reached the sanctuary, she hung back. Remaining in the lobby illuminated in the half-light of the white Christmas bulbs repurposed as memorial lights. Nina started down a hall. Over an intercom she heard laughter, but she was otherwise alone. On the walls of the hallway were framed pictures recalling the temple’s history. One held a photo of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher. Another, a roofless temple filled with congregants attending High Holiday services while the then-new building was being constructed, the women wore hats with veils, coats with fur collars, coats of fur. Nina searched the photo, wondering which of the women had come to her grandfather’s shop.

“I can’t stand it either.” Nina turned to see that a man her age, dressed in a suit, was standing beside her. She started at his sudden appearance; she had not heard his approach. She made no reply, but the man took her silence as agreement. “Some primitive ritual. I mean, tell me, if someone came after your infant with a blade,” with this he made as if to prick the flesh of her arm, “would you allow it?” He answered his own question, “ No, of course not.” This time he tapped her arm to mark their shared belief. The man leaned over and took a sip of water from the small fountain set into the wall. Refreshed, he went on. “ I’m the Sandek,” he said to Nina, extending his hand to her and holding hers tight and firm, as if he has just sold her something. “I’ll hold my nephew on my own lap, while they do this thing to him.” He glad-handed her on the shoulder and then, tugging on the hem of his jacket, moved toward the door of the sanctuary. “ What do you want to bet, when he grows up, he comes after me?” He smiled thinking of it and laughed to himself. He put his hand on the door and turning back to Nina said, “ Nice talking with you,” as if they had spoken. She stood a moment longer, when the sound of the rabbi’s voice came over the intercom. She felt suddenly as thought she were late for something and, following, stepped toward the door that the man in the suit had just stepped through.

The room Nina entered was expansive, at least three stories to the ceiling. At the front, a small gathering of perhaps twenty people stood together in a loose circle, the voice of the Rabbi conversational, the group attentive. She guided the door closed behind herself and slipped into a seat at the back where she was shadowed by an overhanging balcony. She unconsciously reached for a prayer book but remembered that this was not church and the words would mean nothing to her. She saw now that at the center of the gathering was the infant, held by a young father and the child’s mother, who had the specific beauty of a woman who has recently given birth, awash in her own power and gratitude, a prayer herself. The infant was handed over to the Sandek, she had met in the hall, who planted his feet, and took the baby with an expression that betrayed only pride and satisfaction. Nina remembered herself in the days after Annika was born. They had not even chosen a name, Nina lying on her side passing hours gazing at her daughter. Poppy was already old and living at Park La Brea, and they had brought the infant to him. He had held the baby and his breath. He had closed his eyes and weighed her. It was he who suggested the name, after whom, she wondered now. Because of course he had had parents. Nina felt a weight on her chest. How had she not wondered at it: a mother, of course a father, and a home… a younger sister. A younger sister. Nina drew in her breath, mourning a child she had not known. A person does not arrive in the world a man. He was first a child, a son. Nina placed her hand on the back of the chair in front of her to steady herself, knowing at once that she has been complicit in her grandfather’s deception, playing a game with him as a small girl where he would challenge her to hide. “Quick, quick,” he would say clapping hands after her, “ They’re coming.” rewarding her with his pride and pleasure at her cleverness at tucking into the wicker hamper, the narrow closet, silent behind his heavy cashmere coats. Once, tucking into the linen closet, in the quiet of the cool dark sheets, Nina had fallen asleep. It had taken Poppy only a few more moments to find her but when he had he had gathered her up suddenly and drew her to his chest where she had felt his strong heart pounding. He had kissed her on her sleeping eyes and she had felt his face wet with tears. “Sleep maydel,” he had said to her, “Mine maydel-Gey Shlofin.” Nina directed herself to imagine the truth she had not allowed her beloved grandfather at once seeing a mother pacing in small steps in her kitchen near the stove. The woman is waiting for her husband to return from the police station. She worries the corner of her apron, drawing it to her hand in twists and knots. Finally, she is resolved. Nina sees now with breathtaking clarity as she examines her son and assessed that his wheat colored hair and green eyes flecked with gold would save him. She takes a coat that is warm, what food he can carry and pushes him with her own hand to start away. She stands at the edge of a dark forest, his infant sister in her arms, and lies to him with steady dark eyes that she and his father will come soon. But he knows and she knows that she will never come. A light gasp was drawn from the family and friends who stood around the new Jew and Nina, startled, caught her own breath. Nina rose from her seat and watched as the moyel offered a drop of wine to the infant. The mother had outstretched her arm as she unconsciously reached toward the infant, as if to stay the instrument, but in the end, had let it fall to her side, knowing, as she must, that she could not stop what lay ahead of him.

Nina stood to go. Annika would need to be picked up soon. She took silent steps on the balls of her feet, but the Sandek had seen her. He took a half step back and beckoned her to join them. She began to gesture that she must go but it was useless. He extended his hand to her and she moved toward the circle, which bubbled with the sounds of approval and the hearty claps against fabric of congratulation. She reached the Sandek and he opened his arm to her and drew her in. Nina was suddenly amongst them. The mother was to her left, retelling the story of the bris to those closest to her as if they had not been there, and they responded too as if it were all brilliant and new. There was laughter and tumult and the clean smell of starch and flowers that accompanies a celebration. The Sandek turned away from her and she thought that she would go and then he turned back and placed in her arms the infant. A mother, Nina could not help but accept the infant as an expert, making a bridge of her hand to support his head and bringing him closer to her body. Nina regarded the child, the smallest foot possible escaping the bonds of his father’s attempted swaddling. The Sandek faced her, his eyes bright, expectant and full of pride. And Nina wanted to explain that she was not part of this family and that she did not belong here, that this precious baby was not hers to hold and protect, but she couldn’t, because none of that was true.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by