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Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone

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Daniel Gordon, 'July 19, 2009,' from 'Thirty-One Days'

Daniel Gordon, July 19, 2009, 16″ x 20′, C-Print, 2009, from Thirty-One Days. (Courtesy of the artist)

I should explain—if nothing else, explanation is my birthright. You’re reading the only prose of the only child of two nice, proud, broke college profs: Law (international), Philosophy (analytic), both at UC Berkeley. Though I could’ve gone to Berkeley for free, I applied only to Columbia, City College, even NYU, even the New School. I’d always worshipped New York—“the city” meant Manhattan, not San Francisco—thanks to Mom (Law, int’l), who was born and raised here and who’d always mock the Bay Area for being uncultured, or for being too calm, or complacent, or omphaloskeptic, but when Dad would wince not because he was born and raised there, rather because Mom would always get into this fit when mixing local wine and cheese with academic company—who’d brought the wine and cheese and who were very much consumed with “the local”—she’d suddenly stop and say, “except San Jose,” she’d rest her head against Dad’s, “San Jose’s been good to us.”

Dad’s Catholic in the same way Mom’s Jewish—absurdly, denyingly, not. Mom’s face is mine—the same dazed whitefish platter eyes, prune ears, and pickle beak—but so baffled and happy at being so tall atop Dad’s build that though I’m lean, I stoop, I slump, like the state of California. As for my own irreligion, it’s just the way I was raised—spared all that struggle Dad had to endure about how the Merlot turns to blood and the sustainably harvested spelt into flesh, or what Mom had to survive for feminism, radicalism, putting herself through City College, putting a positive spin on her name change.

My parents worried about conversion only as an electrical issue, whether their laptops would work on sabbaticals abroad.

All of which was why I was already nearly finished at Columbia (History, European), before ever meeting Mom’s family. It’s fitting that what brought us together was a funeral. Not a funeral, because Mom with her midterms couldn’t fly out, but a shiva. Her mother had died. Jewish funerals are always held immediately after death—Mom told me when I met her outside the Holiday Inn, Soho (she couldn’t, she wouldn’t, stay in my dorm)—immediately after, unless it’s Shabbos or “a yomtov.” My mother had never spoken to me like that. She clarified by pointing at her lobby, “a yomtov” meant “a holiday.”

The urgency of Jewish burial struck me not as honoring the dead by not leaving them exposed, but as dishonoring the living by inconveniencing their schedules.

In Manhattan, Mom and I paid our respects to her favorite bookstores—or to the sites of her favorite bookstores now closed—Café des Saints Sans-Abri was now a bank, Saigon Bistro was still greasing around, but none of its employees remembered any spicy honey pork thing ever on the menu.

So we went to this Turkish kebaberie nextdoor where Mom insisted we order extra meze only to spite, I’m sure, the quantities of food served at the shiva:

Piles of everything not vegetable or mineral. The only salads were egg and tuna, still in their tubs. Bloodless heaps of coldcuts in waxpaper. Ten commandment loaves of rye. Relatives. A sibling slew. Cousins bounced balls through puddles of diet sodas. The apartment was small, the furniture cheap, bargained me down into resenting my height. I was a skyscraper among children. My mother’s room had been turned into a hoarder’s closet, filthy with buckets and dustpans, comate mops and brooms. Plastic bags stuffed cracks. Even the halls—the peeling floors, the leakstained ceilings—were petty and rude. A new life, an oldie I’d never suspected, just a ride away—on a train I wasn’t familiar with yet, to a bus that Mom didn’t recognize.

In Dad’s family, relations disintegrated—they decomposed—between mournings. In Mom’s, everyone knew everyone—despite that family’s size, rather because of its size, which ensured a constancy of birthing and dying. Dad hardly knew the names of his cousins. Mom’s brothers, my uncles, were married to theirs. Except the eldest, a bachelor, the eldest of I’ve lost count. Sruly. Translation: Yisroel. Translation: Rabbi Israel Zevelsky—but no one called him that.

I registered him only as redfaced, redbearded, razorburned at neck. Ear hair, nose hair, hair. Cloth tie lolling from a crumpled hat. Then there was that other uncle and aunt, one of whom had contacted my mother. Which was the immediate relation, search me. The aunt, who refused to shake my hand, said, “your Bubbe,” the uncle, whose hand was rearranging his genitals, said, “she suffered.” They weren’t quite fluent in what I spoke, they halted, turned to ask Mom about something and she answered them something and then they tried to ask me: about my local shuls, about whether I’d ever met Rabbi—but as for the name they gave, search me. I was impressed by my mother’s Yiddish, by her insistence I keep my scalp uncovered. My grandfather, my Zeyde, had stayed by the same kitchen corner ever since coming to this country. Just before we left Mom went over and, because he was a photograph, he was the only other person to acknowledge her.

He frowned.


Mom flew back the next morning. Some time later the aunt and uncle called and had me over to a Shabbos dinner, which they insisted on evangelizing into a full Shabbos by having me spend the night and when I refused, went to the toilet and flipped a switch, they threw me to the curb. Rather one tossed me out, the other snuck outside and slipped me babka. I came back to the city, tossed it in a trashcan—who brings a babka on a date? but then, guilty, turned and went back and retrieved it—the decisive foil, the clincher.

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Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone