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|Figure 1 |
Photo on page 36: Art, Judy and April Rosenblum (on Art's shoulders) in the early 1980s. All photos courtesy of the author.
Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.Maggie Kuhn
Six months ago, my father died in a car accident. He was a lanky guy, a fiery upstart with untamable black hair and boundless energy. He would ride his bicycle everywhere and make impertinent political comments in public when he deemed necessary, no matter how staid the gathering. Few realized that he came to marriage late, and was seventy-four. I had worried for years how I'd take care of him when his body finally caught up with his age. It never dawned on me that he might go suddenly, in prime health. I walked around the house in shock; so confused, I didn't know how to talk about it. I dreaded coming home to my equally shocked mother and brother, feeling that if I could just stay out, in the city, doing other things, I could avoid the aching feeling of our empty, lonely house.
My friends had always viewed my family with mixed delight and envy. Our house seemed an oasis of familial harmony, warmth, and exciting political conversation. They couldn't talk like this with their parents, they'd tell me when we were alone in my room. I'd nod sympathetically, trying to appreciate what I'd always taken for granted. Now the house felt shaky. Incomplete. Like a table with one leg missing. [End Page 36]
I grew up in "the ghetto"—or so people said. What this meant depended on the speaker. White kids at school said it with a sneering tone, as if the word stood for things they had the decency not to repeat. Black kids on my block said it as a statement of fact, in passing, when it was relevant to the theme at hand. Looking back, it seems profoundly particular to our moment in history that none of us seemed to know the origin, yet, of that word. It is only today that I feel a flinching irony saying: I grew up, a Jewish child, in the ghetto. Technically true, perhaps—but it doesn't feel right.
To my neighbors, of course, I was just a white kid, and to me, it was just our neighborhood. And, really, we weren't very Jewish; at least, not by the standards with which others seemed to judge. We weren't raised religious, or sent to Hebrew school. Still, when the local desegregation program placed me in a "better" neighborhood's school, where there were lots of Jews, I tried my hardest to fit in with them. They seemed really nice, and lived in such beautiful houses, and were very smart. But my family never had money to throw around (as my mother said), and I was always being made fun of for being what other kids considered poor, and having only second-hand, out-of-style clothes.
I was embarrassed to invite my friends home, and anyway, their parents felt uneasy sending them into our neighborhood. I didn't know their prayers at Shabbos dinners, and when my mom tried to teach me, the other kids told me I was doing it wrong because I said "s," like she did, where "t's" should be. It would be years before I was to learn that our "wrong" pronunciation came from my mother having actually grown up with a spoken Jewish language—that my mother's family lived life in Yiddish. When I was ten, however, all I knew was that when I leaned toward the candles and breathed out those soft "sofs" in place of Modern Hebrew's "tavs," it somehow seemed to reveal me as an ignorant, un-Jewish hick. Whenever the time approached to...