When I finally met “my people,” I felt a little out of my depth
David Matthews, age 9, in his grandmother’s apartment in Baltimore.
On the night of my parent’s wedding, my Jewish maternal grandfather—who had refused to attend the civil ceremony—called my black nationalist father to express, in the sincerest of terms, how untenable this alliance would be. My father said, I didn’t marry you, and hung up on him. It was my mother and father against the world. That is, until the morning of June 5, 1967.
On that morning, at 7:45 a.m., Israeli Mirage III warplanes preemptively wiped out the Egyptian air force, and the Six-Day War began in earnest. The same afternoon, at a famous D.C. watering hole, my father and some cronies were tucked into a leather banquette, two or three martinis into their 80-proof lunch, when in walked my three-months-pregnant mother. In full Israeli army combat fatigues. Everything—the organ-grinder, the handlebar-mustachioed waiters—stopped. My dad’s colleagues, always up for a good one, scooted farther into the booth, elbowing each other with why don’t you join us malicious glee. My mother sat down, exchanged banal pleasantries, and ordered something to eat.
My father knew very little about his pregnant bride. He hazily remembers her as an impish, corporeal version of Modigliani’s Jeanne Hébuterne. Robin Kahn was at once restive and fey, which lent her the ephemeral air of a doe stumbled upon in the woods, the snap of a twig or scent in the wind enough to break the spell. She was in therapy, like many upper-middle-class Jews of the time, and my father found her relatively benign quirks and peccadilloes charming. He was aware that she had moved to D.C. to escape her rigidly Orthodox father (a man, my father recalls, of some renown in Jewish studies) and he had admired her willfulness. My father still smiles at the remembrance of Robin’s apostasy, her sly quip that she had given up Orthodox Judaism because there were “too many dishes to wash.”
A few months after my birth, the phone on my father’s desk rang. My mother was on the other end.
I’ll be home soon, my father answered, what’s for dinner? There was a faint echo, his words bouncing back through the receiver.
There was a silence on the other end, which made my father wonder if Robin had heard him. After a beat she replied, We’re at the airport.
Why are you at the Dulles? he asked, the hairs already going horizontal at the back of his tidy Afro.
There was that delay again, and by the time she answered, We’re at Tel Aviv International, my father knew something was definitely not right; and a beat later, when he uneasily repeated, We? and she answered—her voice and her mind four thousand and one million miles away—I’m with David, my father knew that something was very, very wrong. I spent a little more than two weeks in Israel, a retroactive sabra, until my father’s exhortations and my failing health shocked her back to lucidity and Washington. No one knows what we did during those weeks; no one but Robin.
A month after my return my father rescued me from my mother. While a friend distracted Robin at the front door, my dad hurried me (any decent messianic complex begins with the unfledged being spirited away in swaddling clothes) out the back door. From what I hear, it took a few days for Robin to notice we were gone. Within a week she had returned to Jerusalem. My father and I neither saw nor heard from her again.
David’s father, Ralph Matthews Jr., in their Baltimore apartment.
When I was nine, my father and I moved from D.C. to the home of his youth, and the home of his mother, Baltimore, Maryland. We stayed, the three of us, in her one-bedroom nursing home apartment, a calm but cramped oasis on the edge of a wealthy white neighborhood called Bolton Hill and a black ghetto. My father had been raised in that ghetto just over the border (all of one block away), when it had been a hub of black middle classdom—but times done changed. After a few years, when it came time for us to get a place of our own, my father bought a run-down house in his old neighborhood, a disintegrating shell of rotting wood and pocked plaster; there was no electricity, little plumbing and swiss cheese for flooring.
Sometimes in that house I dreamt of the mother who had left, and of the (white) life of comfort and ease she had taken with her. The local prepubescent twins, the Williams sisters, and a peripheral Bolton Hill family, the Wilders, were the only Jewish families I knew, so for me they were the ersatz Kahns. As rich as any other residents of that tony neighborhood, they seemed to me more alive, the smells from their kitchens more redolent with excitement and comfort, their hallways graced by risky abstractions. I was drawn to them, to their oblique assimilation into the American upper class. True, the Williamses were unredeemable shrews, but their malevolence was livelier than the starched improprieties of the WASPs, the professional assassins of the disenfranchised.
I could see a bit of myself in these Jewish families and in the closing credits of all my favorite television shows. I had begun to be able to discern “Jewish” names, and as a result of my obsessive TV consumption, I realized that my new heroes—Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Austin and Irma Kalish, the two Aarons, Ruben and Spelling—were not so different in temperament from myself, all of us fancying a well-timed gag and a haughty monologue. By the time I caught a late showing of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, I began to wonder how these people so far removed from my reality could be so close to my psyche. Surely I belonged in a luminous brownstone, or a quirky condominium, and not the slums of Baltimore?
As might be expected, when reality is forced to compete with fantasy, the unknown image of my mother (who, I mused, had remarried, this time to character actor Tony Roberts, and was residing in Greenwich—either Village or Connecticut, depending upon my mood) began blurring in my mind, the hatred I felt at her for leaving, and the simpatico I felt with who or what I imagined Jews to be, difficult concepts for me to reconcile. I needed an antidote to my life in the ghetto, and though I did not yet know what it would be, I reckoned that the world, and my mother, owed me as much. There was something yet, I fumed, that I could take from my mother, something she must have given me that she was powerless to rescind.
In the playground at Mt. Royal Elementary. Clockwise: David’s stepbrother, Elijah Matthews, age 11; David, age 10; David’s half-brother, Khari Matthews, age 5.
At 13, I found myself alone on the number three bus, on my way to my first day at Baltimore City College High School, A merit-based school halfway across town, attended by kids from all over the city—all smart. In homeroom, I saw one or two faces from my old middle school, and we nodded silently to each other like cons in the yard. The rest of my coevals were strangers. Of twenty kids, maybe twelve were black, and eight were white. I sat in the entirety of my “back to school” wardrobe—a pair of Levi’s blue jeans and an old Garanimals tunic—and watched a gaggle of voluble white kids at the rear of the class clamoring loudly among themselves. They were talking fast, with blurring hand motions and the intimacy—Joel! No wait! Joel: Listen, in order to maintain air-speed velocity, a swallow needs to beat its wings forty-three times every second, right?—which I imagined could only come from years of familiarity. Before the 8:40 bell had rung, each white kid had contributed some line or another from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So content and at home with one another were my fellow students that five minutes into their high-school careers, while the rest of us bluffed or cowered our way into or from socialization, they were already settled, four years and caps and gowns but a trifling formality.
The teacher read the roll, and I kept my eyes toward the blackboard, knowing that upon hearing each name, my classmates would turn and stare, no doubt to select, then commit to memory, the features and quirks that would be filleted into insults or adulation over the next four years, or the alliterative, mirthfully ethnic names that would be mispronounced and misappropriated for just as long. As my homeroom teacher rattled off the names of the white kids in back—
—a connection began to form in my brain, as the names—Messrs. Ruben, Spelling, Kalish, Pitlik—from the credits of all those TV shows that had formed the basis for my paltry understanding of the world coalesced into one big mental teleprompt and I realized: Ohhh…these are Jews.
David (center), age 9, in the park on Bolton Hill.
At last surrounded by “my people,” I felt a little out of my depth. I had been one of the whip-smart-aleck kids at middle school, but these kids seemed like mini-adults, their voices raised as though conversation was a contest and whoever could pipe up the loudest was the winner. I continued to watch them, enrapt, for the rest of that first day.
During cafeteria, I took my place at the edges of a group of the Jewish Wunderkinds and picked over my food. I chewed, eavesdropping, looking for an in, a way to advertise myself.
Okay, okay, that’s not—first of all—what he said, and second, I’ve played it—with headphones Joel, and that’s not what it says, I heard a frantic castrato voice avow. The speaker was a chubby, chalk-colored boy I recognized from homeroom, Avi Hirsch, who continued to ply his case: Okay, okay, it says “turn me on dead man,” and then it goes—Joel—”I buried Paul” is from Mystery Tour… Jesus Christ, you’re a troglodyte. This was, I felt, an area in which I had no little expertise, so I made sure to catch his eye as he rolled his gaze beseechingly among us.
He waved me in with his narrowed eyes. That’s from the White Album, I said, forcing a moment of deep concentration: “I buried Paul” is from… Mystery. Avi gave Joel a so there, and I was thenceforth included in their “Paul is dead” debate, which, thanks to a magazine my father had bought me, made me practically a forensic expert on the case. After a few minutes, the conversation came around to my particulars. What junior high I had attended; where I lived (I lied and gave Bolton Hill as my address); and then, almost imperceptibly, the night of the long knives.
And you never met her?
I played bits of my story out tentatively, casting my line out against the surface of their questions, drawing it taut.
Left to right: Khari, age 4; David’s grandmother, Mae Matthews; David, age 9.
Wow. Dana—his mother’s in Israel.
Dana’s acorn eyes widened over her tuna sandwich (they always had nutritive, handcrafted meals brought from home). Where? she asked. She was cute—a tiny Thumbelina of a girl with curly roan hair and doll features—to me, the embodiment of Leah from The Bronze Bow. I could just see her in a smart white toga with a bit of golden rope sashed around her waist.
Israel, I reaffirmed, a little more loudly, assuming the child had not heard me the first time. Covering her mouth with her hand (such delicacy! At my home, we—on those rare occasions when we ate synchronously—spoke with a view of each other’s medulla oblongatae, regardless of itinerant bits of ham forelegs or Gordon’s fish sticks), she shook her head,
No, David… where in Israel?
Err… near the, I think, down by the…
You go to a kibbutz? I went last year, fucking sun poisoning, yay, thanks for the fucking bar mitzvah present, Grandma, Adam Lipsitz, a rangy boy with pursed lips and wavy bangs interrupted.
Okay. This was like chess, and so far, I’d only played checkers. I’m trying to stay one, two moves ahead, but they know the questions as well as the answers, and all I’ve got are wringing hand gestures (cribbed from the comedian Richard Lewis, via the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) and a ghost mother. Dana is chewing her sandwich, looking ever more disinterestedly in my direction. How do I nip this is the bud? They’re comparing bar/bat mitzvah stories now, dividing their loot—stocks, bonds, promises of cars two years hence, international student exchanges—like exurban pirates. Maybe they have forgotten me and my particulars in the conversation—So where’d you go to shul? one of them asks. The warning klaxon in my ears has drowned them all out—I think I heard the question but I can’t be sure. I force an unprocessed bite of hamburger past my gag reflex and give them the only answer at my disposal:
Mt. Royal Middle School.
They all blink hard at me for a couple of seconds and then I think one of them sniggers, which I write off to junior high rivalry. Sis-boom-bah.
How’d you get a name like Matthews
I will punch my way out of this wet paper bag, yet.
My mother remarried, I say, knowing before the last syllable dribbles from my lips that I am caught.
But if you never knew her—some bright penny ventures, and then someone, mercifully, changes the subject and I catch my breath in the straw of my chocolate milk. A few lingering eyes sneak glances at my profile, but I feign absorption in one of my shiny new textbooks and count my dead. I figure I got off pretty easy—I answered at least one of their questions, even if it had been a softball, lobbed at me by a cretin with a cleft palate—shul, I tsk-tsk to myself—poor fellow is in need of a good speech therapist. By the time I finish my sandwich, I’m feeling rather optimistic about my social chances. I had ingratiated myself into their society quite nicely. We all finish our meals, and though I do not reenter the gravity of their planets for the remainder of the cafeteria period, I am not worried. This would work for me here, as it had worked for me in grade school, as it would work for me always. There was nothing more to Jewishness than there was to whiteness, after all—it was no different than saying one was one-quarter French, a little bit German, and a smidgen Danish.
Filing out of the cafeteria, I was buried a few bodies behind my new “chosen” people, when I heard Avi Hirsch say to Joel Tyberg, Jewish, yeah right—who’s his mother been fucking?