My great-grandmother, Helen Posner, came to this country in 1901 from Sochaczew, a railroad junction 30 miles west of Warsaw. Widowed in her 40s, she was shuttled upon her arrival with varying degrees of concern and dispatch among the apartments of her six adult children. In the late 1930s, it was my grandmother Sadye’s turn to take her in. Helen moved to Sadye’s three-bedroom apartment in Richmond Hill, Queens, above the dry-goods store Sadye ran with her husband, Morris, and Helen became the strange bedfellow of my mother, Sandra, then 9 years old. They played checkers and cards; they listened to Jack Armstrong on the radio; they read the funnies. When my mother had nightmares about losing her legs after seeing Kings Row, Helen sat up with her until sleep came.
Even in the 1940s, my mother said, Helen was still a griner, a newcomer. She came green, stayed green, and died green, when green was still uncool. My mother’s favorite Green Helen story is about movie-going: At the RKO Keith’s, in Flushing, the two roommates would buy tickets and a box of nonpareils, watch a newsreel or two about the war, then take in a double feature. Later, over dinner, Helen would retell the newsreels in Yiddish for Sadye and Morris, who had stood all afternoon selling white blouses and black slips. But when it came to the features, her retellings were all her own. It was all one story, the break between films merely another intermission. An afternoon split between Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mrs. Miniver would be told as a sweeping epic of a tummler who grows up to be summoned to the White House, where he meets with Roosevelt while bombs are falling over the Minivers huddled in their shelter, who emerge to daven in their ruined church and potchke with their roses. Jimmy Cagney dissolved into Greer Garson; wisecracking hoofers wore stiff upper lips. To Helen, the movies were chaotic and unpredictable, no more or less, say, than getting on a train at Sochoczew and off a steamer at Castle Garden, or moving from Abie’s to Reizl’s to Sadye’s. Life was like that.
Perhaps for Jews life has always been like that, fractured and disrupted. We tell ourselves that Jewish life comes in cycles: from sunset to noon to nightfall; from harvest to frost to spring lambs; from birth to brit to bar mitzvah to marriage to (your middle-aged milestone here) to death. But most of the time life doesn’t feel cyclical. It’s rent by gap years, layoffs, and divorces. The pale, freckled faces that depart bear no resemblance to the bald, pink-mouthed strangers who arrive.
Take Simchat Torah morning, when Jews everywhere run circles around the Torah, rejoicing that ends turn into beginnings. We’re here for the double bill, and it’s all one story, this triumphant story of ours. V’zot habracha, we chant, this is the blessing of God’s man, Moses, bidding farewell; bereishit, we continue, in the beginning. Our technicolor Torah is an epic of blessings, a feature fit for God to watch in his heavenly balcony, over and over again.
I think about Helen, and I think, life isn’t like that. Torah’s not like that. It’s more like this:
God’s news for Moses has not gone down well: You will die on the mountain, and you will not enter. It must be a pretext, thinks Moses, it’s outrageous. He implores the earth and the heavens, the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, to take up his cause, but for naught. The earth turns over; stars twinkle and blink. Surely the sea will plead for me, O Sea!, Moses thinks, but his roar is lost in the crashing waves. When Israel supplicates for Moses’ life, the angels Zakun and Lahash, in latex gloves, snatch up their words.
It’s not life he’s jealous of; it’s the land. Moses tells God he’ll go as a nobody. “No way,” says God. “You’re royalty.” I’ll dig a cave under the Jordan, Moses says; “No way,” says God. “A crossing’s a crossing.” At least let my bones go up, like Joseph’s, Moses says. “At least Joseph called himself a Hebrew,” says God. “But you? When the daughters of Jethro called you Egyptian, not a peep. No way. I’m putting my money on Joshua.”
God’s made up his mind; the countdown begins. “Six hours to live!” says God. I’ll live as a beast, says Moses; I’ll prey and scrounge. “Forget it,” says God; “that’s five.” Then as a bird, picking at rags and sipping at puddles, says Moses; silence, except for the angel Michael, weeping. I’ll defer to Joshua, I’ll be taught by him, says Moses. “Make me believe it,” says God. “That’s three.” Not even a hand or a foot? asks Moses, incredulous. “Don’t be ridiculous; that’s two,” says God.
He’ll try what always worked before; quote God back to himself. You have said, says Moses, I singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor–but God cuts him off. “Been there, done that,” says God. “One more.” In the hour of his death, Moses’ soul wails brokenly, as only souls can. His thirsty soul, which marched through the desert when other souls soaked in the hot tubs of Gan Eden, his faithful soul that never grumbled and never looked back. “No,” cries his soul, “I won’t go, I can’t,” but Moses can’t stand the crying. As soon as he says, “There there, go rest, dear soul,” she’s in a kimono, flitting to heaven.
Then God knows: Never again would there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses. Never again, face to face. Never again, the bargaining and bullying, the wrath and forgiveness, the turning away and turning back. Never again, to be held in the cleft of pleasure, in Moses’ eye, showing far more than God had intended, than God thought he should.
Then it comes to God: He will sit on a rock and grieve for seven days.
And while he grieves it returns to him, the radiant face, in darkness and wind, in a welter of soot, in whelming waves. “Let there be light,” he says, and there is light. He tastes it now, the bitter water Moses turned sweet, and he gathers the waters into a sea. In each eye of the shepherd, a burning bush, “a great light for day and a lesser for night.” A tiny ark adrift in the Nile, “let the waters swarm.” Moses, a father of sons, and he brings out trees and fruit and seed.
In his ear, the plague of buzzing and bleating—gnats and goats, frogs and cows, oxen and sheep—so he makes them all, those who crawl and those who creep.
Through his mind flows a river of blood; he makes hydras and krakens.
From a leprous hand, drawn out of a cloak, from scabs and boils, he fashions flesh, smooth and firm, a shoulder, a calf, a buttock, a breast, and makes them one and one.
Six days, and the heaven and earth were completed, and all their array. He sits for one more day, and holds the new world close and still, as if Moses, too, had made it.
This is what I once told a congregation, at a festive Simchat Torah dinner, that the creation of the world was God’s shiva for Moses. It was not what they came for, and out of step with the klezmer and the schnapps and the candy apples. But they’d gone on to decaf, and they sipped and considered. Afterward, one polite man said I was “idiosyncratic.” Well, my middle name is Helen. Let’s say I’m Helen, my grandmother, in the middle, which is just where the endings are, though Helen never seemed to notice.