My grandmother was an immigrant. And now I am, too.
At my Jewish day school in Houston, along with Bible stories and lessons on monotheism, my first grade teacher taught me tales about America. I was particularly struck by the famous words of George Washington: “I cannot tell a lie.” I was only seven years old, but when I heard that story about Washington, I felt like an outsider. I knew I didn’t come from that kind of American. I spent much of my childhood with my paternal grandmother, Bashy, a Lithuanian immigrantand a woman who never told the truth. Had Bashy cut down the cherry tree, she never would have admitted it. She would have blamed the goy next door, who like all goyim was a drunk.
Bashy’s sonmy father Max Applebecame a fiction writer, thereby turning making things up into his profession. His metaphors and rhythmic sentences delighted critics, but to me as a child, they were inaccessible. The stories that fascinated me were Bashy’s. While my father closed himself in his study to write books, Bashy told me about her life. I knew most of her stories were highly exaggerated, or weren’t true at all, but it didn’t matter. I listened to Bashy while I played dress up in her yellow-and-turquoise flowered skirts. She told me about the Old World, the dirt roads, her pet goats, and the haystacks she hid in during World War I. I put on Bashy’s panty hose, and the sweaters she claimed to have beaded herself. I wore her lipstick, and the gold high-heeled shoes that were so beautiful, she said, the women in shul tried to steal them off her feet.
As she aged, Bashy became not only an immigrant, but a savior. She gave homemade sponge cake to the hungry mailman and the tellers at her bank. Bashy fed me too, and kept me safe from American drunks, whores, and killers on the loose. She protected me from the hazards of the modern world like battery-powered toys and Barbie dolls in short skirts. Bashy taught me to be afraid of everything, from car radios to toaster ovens to air conditioners. But she was lax about one thing, because she liked it as much as I didthe television. And so my own fantasies came to be: I wanted to be Love Boat’s Julie McCoy, not little Bashy on the boat to America with her hair braided like challah, her shoes lined with hidden jewels, her pockets stuffed with recipes for black bread and strudel. My ultimate fantasy was to meet and marry Ricky Schroder, the blonde star of Silver Spoons. I understood that the chances of encountering Ricky in my day school were slim, and Bashy kept me up to my ears in Judaism. I needed a change, so I requested a move to public school.
Lovett Elementary school, where I began fifth grade, was just across the bayou from Bashy’s house. It was a three minute walk, at most. My older cousins had gone to Lovett, so Bashy knew the school, and she knew Mrs. Smith, the principal, whom she’d regularly supplied with homemade dill pickles. On the first day of school, Mrs. Smith, an energetic black woman with crimped curls and dark lipstick, greeted me and Bashy. Bashy and Mrs. Smith embraced like old friends. Then Bashy pushed me in front of her pot belly. “This is my Snookie,” she said.
“Hello there, Snookie,” Mrs. Smith said. “Welcome to Lovett.”
I wanted to say that my name was not Snookie, but Bashy didn’t let me get a word in. She had her hand on my shoulder, and was out to make sure everyone at Lovett would know the most important thing about me. “My granddaughter is Jewish. She eats kosher,” Bashy declared.
“Okay,” Mrs. Smith said. “She can bring her own lunches.”
“And Snookie speaks Hebrew,” Bashy said, way too loudly.
I could daven well for a cowgirl, and I’d picked up some words in day school, but I did not speak Hebrew.
“Well that’s why she’s so quiet,” Mrs. Smith said. “She doesn’t understand a thing. We’ve got other kids here from Israel.”
Mrs. Smith walked away from us, and when she returned, she had two Israeli boys with her, Gur and Yaniv. “We’ve got a new student from Israel,” Mrs. Smith said. “She doesn’t speak English.”
For what I did thirteen years later, I blame that moment of shame at Lovett, when I hid behind Bashy’s knit skirt, sprinkled in challah crumbs and smelling of mothballs. I was embarrassed, not because my grandmother was lying through her false teeth, but because I couldn’t speak Hebrew.
I knew an Israeli school was not going to be the same as my Houston day school. I wasn’t expecting well-mannered kids walking from room to room in single file. But I assumed that elementary school was more or less the same everywhere.
I was wrong. Not only were there no orderly lines, there was an outright stampede of kids in the hallway. To make matters worse, the youngest and least coordinated of the children, too small to carry their backpacks, pulled packs on wheels, like airplane luggage. With every step down the humid hallway I felt the plastic wheels smacking into my ankles. Children pushed past me, trying in the traditional Israeli way to be first.
I was far more lost than Tom on his first day of school. And ten days later, when Tom’s first grade teacher, Iris (who had aroused my suspicions when I saw her wearing a shirt with the word “sexy” spelled out in rhinestones across her breasts) called a parents’ meeting, I wasn’t in better shape.
Iris had the dry, jet-black hair of a cartoon witch, fingernails and teeth yellowed by tobacco, and the waistline of a sixteen-year-old model. She spoke fast Hebrew, so I missed just about every other word she said. I didn’t quite understand what Iris’ lesson plans were all about. She was going to teach reading, writing, and math, I got that. I trusted Tom would explain the rest to me, and so I tuned Iris out. I spent the rest of her lecture daydreaming about history, in particular family history, which I began to understand was like a cat running in circles after its own tail. I had come to the disturbing realization that I was turning into Bashy. Not only was I an immigrant, but I was just as uncomfortable with Tom in a Tel Aviv elementary school as she had been when I went to Lovett. I proved it to myself. Before I left the meeting I walked right up to Iris to let her know my son was special. I didn’t have to tell her that Tom spoke Hebrew, as Bashy had done with me. Instead, I told her in my heavily accented version of the Hebrew language, “Tom speaks English.”
It’s fair to say that Tom (and I) adjusted well to his new school. For fear of being a complete Bashy, I stayed out of Tom’s way as much as possible. I tried not to make grammatical mistakes in Hebrew when I spoke to his friends, and when the opportunity arose for me to reenact one of Bashy’s all-time greatest performances, I resisted, though it took all of my might.
I was home writing one morning, when I heard too many sirens. Something wasn’t right, so I called a friend to ask if she knew what was going on.
“There’s a lockdown at Segel,” she said. Apparently a terrorist was trying to infiltrate the school.
My Tom! I said out loud. And then I heard Bashy. I was back in fifth grade at Lovett School. It was an election day, and the school was a polling station. To obstruct the voting process, someone had called in a bomb threat. Lovett was evacuated. While the police investigated, the students were sent to the field outside the school where we sat by class in single file. The children were all quiet and well behaved, even the kindergarteners. Everything was calm and quiet until an old woman in a bright pink sleeveless dress came running onto the field. She crossed right though the police blockade without stopping. Her arms were waving in the air, the loose flesh swinging from them like hammocks. The wind blew her dress so it clung to her thighs. And she was screaming, My Snookie! My Snookie!
The bomb threat had been a hoax, but that didn’t matter to Bashy. She had the most heroic story of all to tell: She had saved my life.
With that memory of being humiliated in front of the entire school, I overcame the impulse to go save Tom. It was hard. I stripped down to my underwear so I wouldn’t be tempted to run out the door. I sat on my hands. I ground my teeth until I gave myself a terrible headache. It felt like hours passed, though in reality within 15 minutes I knew that the suspected terrorist had been nothing but a man with a backpack who was in a hurry.
I didn’t pick Tom up when the terrorist drama was over. I waited until the end of that school day. And I didn’t mention anything about the lockdown. He didn’t either, until that evening after his shower. As a sort of afterthought he said, “We had to go inside today during recess because the police said there was a terrorist.”
“Were you scared?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Tom said. “It was nothing. Don’t worry, Mama.”
“I don’t worry,” I said. Then I turned my head to the side, raised my chin a bit, and gave the world a haughty look, just the way Bashy did when she lied.