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  • The Bear
  • Beulah Amsterdam (bio)

In the dim forest cabin, a brown bear stared at me. He sniffed my suitcase. I froze.

The bear looked at me with his deep black eyes. We gazed at each other. No longer afraid of him, I felt a close connection. I watched as he explored the small, rustic room, pawing at the door mat and the bedside rug.

Exhausted from the morning's hike, I lay down on the wrinkled white sheets. The bear lay beside me, his body as long as mine. His warm energy flowed through me.

When I woke up from this strange dream, I thought of Harry, my boyfriend in my freshman year of college in 1955. He was a big bear of a man with bushy eyebrows and a head of shaggy brown hair. We met in the City College cafeteria. I was circulating a petition to reinstate my English teacher who had been suspended when he refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Harry asked me some questions and then signed the petition. After that he'd stop me and ask how the petition was going. When I learned that he was a poet, I found him attractive despite his pot belly and double chin. I looked for him in the cafeteria. He was usually engaged in a political conversation and I'd sit down and listen. Five years older than me, he was wise, knowledgeable, and articulate.

One evening, I accepted his invitation to meet for Chinese food. Over wonton soup he said, "I'm a card-carrying member of the Communist party." When I just nodded my head, he continued, "Does that bother you?"

"Why should it?"

"Guilt by association. You could get into trouble."

"I'm not worried."

"You might someday lose a job like your English professor."

"I'm a long way from that."

"In our police state, you don't know what could happen, what they could do to you." [End Page 7]

He went on to tell me how hundreds of artists, including Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, and Pete Seeger had been blacklisted. Harry was incensed that Howard Fast, author of one of his favorite books, Spartacus, was blacklisted, his career destroyed.

Before we parted at the subway, Harry invited me to his apartment for Sunday lunch. On a sunny fall day, I found his small fourth-floor walk-up flat in Harlem. He answered the door wearing a red-and-white striped apron. I'd never seen a man wearing an apron.

"I'm still basting the ham," he said.

I was confused because he knew I was Jewish, and he was too. I avoided non-kosher foods like ham because part of me felt deeply Jewish. As a part-time atheist, I didn't believe in staying kosher. But pigs were filthy animals full of disease.

These thoughts swirled through my head as Harry opened the hot oven in his tiny kitchen. A large hunk of meat, studded with maraschino cherries and pineapple, sat in a roasting pan. Using a big spoon, he scooped up the liquid at the bottom of the pan and poured it over the meat. "It's almost done," he said.

I sipped Chianti while he made a green salad and set the table. When he took the ham out of the oven and began cutting a huge slice, I said, "That's way too much for me."

Lifting up the plate he said, "This is for my neighbor."

I followed him down the hall, where a little old lady with white hair opened her door. She beamed when she saw Harry. Wearing a necklace with a gold Jewish star, she spoke with a Yiddish accent, "You know how much I love ham."

Back in his kitchen, the ham smelled so good, and I was salivating. Harry set a plate of food in front of me. I relished the cherry and the pineapple and gingerly tasted the ham. It was juicy and sweet. I loved it.

On days I didn't have to go to my part-time job as a dental assistant, and he didn't have to...


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pp. 7-12
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