Promises to Keep
The following excerpt from my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate (published today in hard and soft cover by The Feminist Press) introduces the protagonist, Zach Levy, at the age of thirteen when he makes the promises that will shadow him for the next twenty-five years. Zach is the son of left-wing Holocaust survivors, Rivka, a still-traumatized mother, and Nathan, a stalwart union man, both of whom have tried to protect their only child from the tragic details of their wartime experience in Poland. A bright, inquisitive child, Zach keeps revisiting an old family album in search of new clues to his parents’ past and intrepidly questioning his father about each snapshot. In this section, which unfolds around the time of his bar mitzvah, Zach takes seriously the challenge of determining what sort of Jewish adult he wishes to be and how to define his relationship to the state of Israel. He also makes a promise that years later will precipitate a profound personal crisis when he grows up to be an ACLU lawyer and falls in love with an African American activist (and a liberationist-type Baptist)—an otherwise perfect choice for him but one that flies in the face of his vow to his mother. Ultimately, the novel raises many issues of immediate relevance to Jews today—the struggle to find oneself on the ever-widening spectrum of Jewish identities, the complex ways that “Jewish values” can be realized in the world, the impact of intermarriage on Jewish continuity, and the tension between personal desire and responsibility to one’s people.
In 1963, the year leading up to Zach’s bar mitzvah, Rabbi Goldfarb assigned his students a paper on “any issue related to tzedakah,” the Hebrew word that means both charity and justice. Because the James Meredith case was in the headlines and Nathan’s union had marched in civil rights demonstrations, Zach chose to write about race and justice. He began with the Supreme Court ruling that ordered Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi, then described the riots that erupted in response, and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett’s decision to send state troopers to bar Meredith from the campus. Zach ended his paper with President Kennedy dispatching US Marshals to protect Meredith, the first African American ever admitted to Ole Miss.
“For justice to be served,” Zach wrote in conclusion, “each of us must take a strong stand against bigotry and speak out like the Hebrew Prophets of old.”
Rabbi gave him a B+ with the notation, “Fine writing, solid research, good understanding of American law (I predict a legal career). But, given that this was a Hebrew school assignment, could use more Judaic references and parallels to Jewish law and ethics.”
The Meredith case was still on Zach’s mind when, while paging through the photo album a few days later, he was captivated by the picture of his father and a friend, rackets crossed, posing in their tennis whites on a court in a glass conservatory with potted palms and French doors opening onto a garden.
“Were black people allowed to play tennis in Kraków?” Zach asked.
Nathan, watering the plants on the windowsill, muttered, “I don’t remember any black people in Kraków.”
“Who’s the guy you’re with at the indoor court, the man with the pointy beard?”
Nathan snapped off the brown stalks on the geranium plant. “Yes. Leo Henschel.”
“Could Jews play tennis with regular Poles or only with other Jews? Were you allowed to join gentiles’ clubs? When the Nazis came, did they . . .”
The watering can came flying across the room, his father after it. “Stop with the pictures already, god-dammit!” Nathan grabbed the album and slammed it on Zach’s head. “I’m sick and tired of your fucking questions!”
The shock was worse than the pain. Zach had been yelled at before, sent to his room without dessert, but he’d never heard his father swear and neither of his parents had ever hit him. His head was throbbing. Even his hair hurt. “I just wanted to know about life in Kraków . . .”
“Forget Kraków! Kraków’s a piece of shit. It’s a dead place!”
Noise being no small event in the Levy household, Rivka, who was in their bedroom, could not have missed her husband’s railing, the thud of the album, nor the crash when he slammed the door, yet she never emerged. Perhaps she was afraid Zach would ask her the obvious next question: If Kraków was such a terrible place, why did Nathan look so pleased on the tennis court, and why was she smiling so brilliantly in front of Wawel Castle?
Zach used to think only Catholics believed babies were born guilty until Rabbi Goldfarb pointed to Exodus 20:5, which said the sins of the father are visited on their children unto the third or fourth generation. If God was going to punish Zach for something his parents did in Poland before he was born, he felt he should know what it was. And if they hadn’t committed any crimes, he wanted to know that, too, so he could enter manhood on his bar mitzvah day with a clean slate. Nathan’s outburst was the first of many, a new development in his personality and a source of great distress for his son. The Eames Place Synagogue was riddled with nonbelievers, Jews whose gods were labor leaders like David Dubinsky and Harry Bridges. Though Nathan attended services regularly, prayer was just prologue to the Oneg Shabbat reception where he loved to schmooze with his friends and enjoy a shot of schnapps and a slice of honey cake. His seat in the sanctuary could as easily have been a rocking chair on the porch of a general store.
Rivka’s spiritual life puzzled Zach even more than Nathan’s did. She seemed to believe in God only to blame him. After the war, she held firm to the principle that divine intervention was a pipe dream and Jews must be responsible for themselves. What kept us alive as a people was our loyalty to our traditions, she would say, and therefore every Jew—Democrat, Republican, Communist, Socialist, or Atheist—must maintain the rituals and customs of our ancestors. It was Rivka who had insisted that Nathan, believer or not, play the traditional male role at the Sabbath meal and attend services; that a mohel, not a doctor, circumcise their son; that Zach be Jewishly educated so he would qualify to marry a woman from any denomination, even the Orthodox.
But despite all her efforts to ensure his bona fides, Zach felt like a Jewish impostor. Ashamed of his mother’s disdain for the Almighty and his father’s sacrilege, he faulted himself for collaborating in his parents’ charade of a Shabbos. On Friday nights, Rivka would prepare traditional dishes (chicken soup, brisket, tzimmes, and kugel) and say the blessing over the candles, and Nathan would bless the challah and wine (always Manischewitz Concord Grape). But once they finished dessert (usually apple strudel), Nathan would repair a chair or write a letter and Rivka would pick up her mending or turn on a lamp. On Saturday, she would give her husband and son their haircuts, all of which was forbidden on the Sabbath because Jewish law considered such activities to be “work.” The closer his bar mitzvah day loomed, the more troubled Zach was by his parents’ infractions, until one Friday night, he looked up from his chicken soup and accused them of hypocrisy.
“I can’t understand why the two of you keep blessing a God you don’t believe in.”
Nathan smiled. “We believe in him. We just don’t trust him.”
“Papa, I mean it. Why say all these brachas if you don’t think God exists?”
“We say them for the frummers,” Rivka murmured.
“She means the Orthodox Jews who died in the camps,” explained Nathan. “She saw women save up crumbs so they could say the motzi. She saw them risk their lives to light a thimbleful of oil when they couldn’t get a candle for Shabbos. One of her friends got caught with a schmatta on her head bentching—saying the blessing over the light—and a Nazi bastard cut out her tongue to make a lesson of her. Your mama watched people go to their deaths with God’s name on their lips. It’s for them, she wants us to say the brachas.”
On the Friday night before his bar mitzvah, Zachariah Levy came to the Sabbath table expecting nothing out of the ordinary—it wasn’t his parents’ habit to mark big days with fanfare—so he was astonished when, at the end of the meal, his mother brought out a cake. More surprising still, after he blew out the candles, his father came over to his chair, planted a dry kiss on his head, and delivered a speech.
“Your mama and I are very proud of you, Boychik. You’re a good student and a good boy, and tomorrow you are going to be a man, so tonight we want to talk to you about the kind of man we hope you will be. We decided I’ll talk first,” Nathan said, and raised his kiddush cup. “I want you to be a mensch. Treat people right. Respect everyone no matter who they are or where they come from. Remember they’re doing the best they can, even if they’re not always nice or polite. Try to be sympathetic to the parts of their life you’ll never know.”
Zach didn’t understand how he was supposed to sympathize with things he didn’t know about but Nathan made more sense as he went along. “You told us you want to be a lawyer. If that happens, you should represent the workers, not the bosses. Argue for the poor people who are trying to make a better life for themselves, not the powerful people who already have more than enough.”
Nathan took a sip of wine then lifted the cup even higher. “One last thing: if the world goes crazy again, promise me you’ll fight back and not be afraid. You get what I’m saying? You’ll fight. You’ll be a mensch, okay?”
Zach said he would.
His mother’s pre–bar mitzvah entreaty would prove to be far more challenging. “I want you to promise to marry a Jewish girl,” she said, when his father sat down. She pulled her chair a little closer to Zach’s but stayed seated. “Tomorrow you’re going to become a man and too many Jewish men are marrying out. I’m worried about what’s going to happen to us. Suddenly, the goyim like us—too much for our own good, if you ask me. Gentile girls, they want Jewish husbands. It’s nice to be accepted for a change, but intermarriage isn’t good for the Jews. For us, it’s the beginning of the end. If we keep watering ourselves down, we’ll evaporate and it won’t be the anti-Semites who got rid of us. It’ll be us who did it to ourselves.”
His mother wasn’t asking Zach to be religious. He could have faith or not, she said, as long as he had babies to replenish the Six Million. Every Jewish child was “a nail in Hitler’s coffin.” So, for that matter, was every loaf of challah, potato latke, square of matzah, or triangle of hamantashen that appeared on a Jewish supper table. Each proved to the world that we’re still here, eating what Jews eat and doing what Jews do. When a member of the tribe won, as Rivka called it, the “Noble Prize,” it reminded the world that Jews are not just sad survivors, we’re smart, we excel. Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk were as much nails as they were “nobles.” Helena Rubinstein and Estee Lauder, Jack Benny and Fanny Brice, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Rubinstein, all testimony to Jewish endurance and excellence. Also nails. But the only sure way to deny Hitler a posthumous victory was for Jews to marry Jews and give birth to more Jews and teach them their heritage. Pride may be a sin but Jewish pride was a survival skill.
“Promise me you’ll marry a Jew,” she repeated. “And raise Jewish children.”
At services on the morning of Zach’s bar mitzvah, Rabbi Goldfarb gave a sermon about Hillel, the first century Talmudic sage. A gentile once came to Hillel and said, “I will accept Judaism if you can teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one leg.” Hillel replied immediately, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary; now go and study it.”
Rabbi said the gentile’s request reminded him of Americans’ tendency to demand quick and easy answers. “I often hear people say things like, ‘Cut to the chase,’ or, ‘What’s the bottom line?’ or, ‘Just give me the bullet points.’ They want their information pre-chewed and spoon-fed. They’re busy; they only have time to read the digest, not the full report, the Cliffs Notes, not the play. But life is too complicated to be reduced to a few sentences. Even Hillel’s distillation concludes with, ‘go and study it,’ a direct order to go deeper.
“That’s my message to Zach Levy, our bar mitzvah boy, but also to all of you,” Goldfarb thundered. “Study it, whatever your ‘it’ happens to be. Ponder it deeply. Live life at a deeper level. Give it the time it deserves. Don’t make major decisions while standing on one leg. Ask yourself the big questions: ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What really matters?’ ‘What kind of Jew do I want to be?’”
On their walk home from synagogue, Nathan seemed pensive most of the way, then put an arm around Zach’s shoulders. “It’s called the Golden Rule, that message Hillel told the gentile. What you hate, don’t do to no one else. Remember that, Boychik.”
Zach hated to contradict his father but—“I think you have it backward, Papa,” he said, gently. “The Golden Rule says, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Hillel says, ‘Don’t do.’”
“It’s the goyim who got it backward,” Nathan said. “Their Golden Rule could lead a person to do terrible things to someone else. What if I don’t want a Christian to do to me what they want done to them—get baptized, for instance? You follow me? Don’t do protects the weak from the strong. Our rule is more . . . nuanced.”
Whenever a new word popped up in his father’s vocabulary, Zach knew Nathan was back at night school secretly taking English lessons. But Zach, having just been declared a man, wasn’t thinking in nuances, he was grappling with his rabbi’s questions: Who did he want to be? What really matters? He had made a vow about the kind of mensch he would strive to be, the kind of woman he would marry, the kind of children he would raise. Shouldn’t he also commit to being a certain kind of Jew? Clearly, he could never fulfill the 618 commandments that the Torah demanded of Jewish men. Nor could he promise to be a believer. Then again, if he didn’t believe in God, who would he beg? Who would he blame?
Simply by being born in New York City in 1950, he was a different kind of Jew than his parents. By 1963, they had been living in America for seventeen years yet still acted like guests in their own country. Especially Rivka, who was always on her best behavior for fear of committing “a shande fir de goyim”—a gaffe that might humiliate her, cast shame on the Jewish people, or provoke the anti-Semites. Her advice to Zach, the few times she gave it, ran to simple axioms: “Keep a low profile.” “Don’t attract attention.” “Always be vigilant.” On the one hand, she thought America was the best country on earth for a Jew. On the other hand—wasn’t there always another hand?—tomorrow morning Uncle Sam could turn on his adopted nieces and nephews and start a pogrom—reason enough to support the Jewish State.
When Zach was thirteen, Israel was only two years older yet already a solid bulwark against his parents’ lingering fears—a sovereign Jewish nation with a government, army, navy, and air force powerful enough to fight future Cossacks, fascists, or Nazis wherever they might rise up. Rivka said they would move their family to Tel Aviv if things ever got scary in the Bronx. And this time they would get out before it was too late. America was their country but Israel was their homeland and if the going got tough, it would be their refuge.
Having never seen a ghetto or a Gestapo roundup, the idea of Israel as a haven had no resonance for Zach. His relationship to the slice of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean was as muddled as his relationship to God, and his parents were no help in sorting it out. Rivka’s views on Israel ranged from unconditional love to knee-jerk paranoia. She said it was smart for Jews to have a state of their own but stupid to call it the Jewish state, and suicidal to advertise its mission as “the ingathering of the exiles.” As if America wasn’t good enough for us. Besides, if every Jew in the world “made aliyah”—moved to Israel permanently—it would no longer be a sanctuary, it would be a target. Rivka wanted American Jewish organizations to quit bragging about supporting Hadassah Hospital or Hebrew University or the Israeli Defense Forces. She said Zach should love Israel from a distance and not make a fuss about it.
“The goyim already accuse us of divided loyalty,” she told him. “If they knew we were sending so much money to help build the Jewish state, they might put us in camps like they did with Japanese Americans during the war.”
Still, she always deposited her grocery change in the blue-and-white tin box emblazoned with a map of Israel, and when the box felt full, she would open it with a tiny key, tally its contents, and send a check for that amount to the Jewish National Fund with instructions to plant trees in the Negev in memory of her slaughtered relatives. Zach couldn’t help noticing, however, that she kept her little tzedakah box behind the big box of kosher salt, and not out in the open where their Czech plumber or Hungarian building superintendent might see it.
Zach also couldn’t help noticing how many of those JNF certificates his friends received: “A Tree Has Been Planted by the Rubin Family in Celebration of Simon Persky Becoming A Bar Mitzvah.” Zach got the fewest certificates of any boy in his Hebrew school class, a reminder, as if he needed one, that his parents were his only living relatives, his friends his only family. (He felt less aggrieved after his classmate, Mitchell Saperstein, went to Israel for spring vacation and reported back that he couldn’t find his trees because there were no plaques. Apparently, in keeping with the collectivist ideology of its founders, Israel’s forests belonged to the whole Jewish people.)
Israel also elicited contradictory views from Zach’s father who, in one breath, would declare Zionism “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people” and trumpet Israel’s Labor Party government as the standard setter for all Socialist states while in the next breath, would call for a world without nationalities, flags, and borders. Zach knew for sure that his father was back in night school when Nathan paraphrased Robert Frost: “Israel is the place where, when we have to go there, they have to let us in.”
By the time he went to bed that Friday night before his bar mitzvah day, Zach Levy had made four promises to his parents: that he would grow up to be a mensch, marry a Jew, raise Jewish children, and tithe ten percent of his earnings to help keep Israel safe so it would always be there if a Jew needed it.