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Wolves at the Door

My brother and I carried our shared past in different directions

Lawrence Levi
January 06, 2009

One of my mother’s most vivid early memories is of the Nazis trying to break down her door. She was five, and the door was the big, heavy front one on the house she was born in, a few yards from the Arno in Florence. It was 1944. As she tells it, the Nazis, who were occupying Florence and had ordered the evacuation of her neighborhood, pounded on the door for some time, while she, her mother, and her older sister cowered inside the house. (Her mother was part of the Resistance; her father, a surgeon in the Italian army, had died in Africa two years before.) But the door held, and the Nazis eventually went away.

Things were different for my father. Unlike my mother, he was Jewish, and in 1943, when he was nine, he, his parents, and his older sister left their home in Milan for a mountain village farther west. The village was called Valmosca, meaning Valley of Flies. It was no longer safe to be Jewish in Italy, so with the help of a colleague of my grandfather’s they lived under a fake surname in Valmosca until the end of the war. My father says that, despite frequently going hungry, he basically enjoyed his two years in hiding, because it was the one period in his life when he got to spend a lot of time with his father. (They went blueberry picking together.) One day the Nazis came to their door. His mother let them in, and when they entered the kitchen, his father yelled at them to keep their dirty boots on the rug—couldn’t they see the floor had just been cleaned? The Nazis checked the family’s forged papers, found them to be in order, and moved on.

My parents met in the medical library at the University of Florence when they were students there in the late 1950s. Before they married, my mother converted to Judaism to appease my father’s family. (Her own mother had moved to Los Angeles by then.) In the mid-’60s they moved to New York City, where I was born and raised. We weren’t observant. Growing up, I was as ignorant of the clichés of New York Jewish life as I was of Judaism’s substance, and though my older brother and I were sent for a year to Sunday school at an Upper West Side synagogue, my only memory of it is a day I now know to be November 20, 1977 (I was seven), when a TV was rolled into the basement room where my class was held, and we watched hours-old news footage of Anwar Sadat shaking hands with Menachem Begin on the tarmac in Israel. My father, who was dropping me off, wept.

My brother and I have always been close—we were born just 15 months apart—yet his interest in, or at least awareness of, Judaism has always been keener than mine. When he was in sixth grade and I was in fourth, I read an essay he wrote for school about our father’s father, titled “The Life of an Italian Jew.” The pride that came through in that title and in the essay surprised me; I’d never thought of putting the words Italian and Jew together. When he was 12, my brother told our parents he wanted to be bar mitzvahed at the Wailing Wall, because the bar mitzvahs of his classmates had more to do with materialism than with belief. I respected his reasoning, but as a burgeoning atheist I was baffled: why would he want a bar mitzvah? In Israel, a couple of days after the ceremony, my father and brother went to visit Masada. I’d come down with something, so my mother and I stayed behind in our hotel room with an issue of Newsweek. (I remember reading a profile of Richard Pryor, having to ask what the phrase “pleasures of the flesh” meant.)

When I was 12, I told my parents I didn’t want a bar mitzvah. They suggested that I should, because someday I might regret not having one. I assured them I wouldn’t. (I don’t.) I was in my fourth year at an Upper East Side boys’ school, where we recited the Lord’s Prayer every morning and sang Christmas hymns every winter. I had spent six summers at an athletic camp in Maine where all the campers went to church every Sunday; the Catholics were driven to a Catholic church, while the rest of us walked to a Baptist one nearby. The only time I recall my Judaism coming up at camp was when an older camper named David Cleary grinned down at me and said, “Kike.” Like the kid in Salinger’s “Down at the Dinghy,” I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it was supposed to hurt.

Apparently it wasn’t exposure to conflicting religions that led me to atheism, as that exposure didn’t affect my brother’s beliefs. He didn’t attend the boys’ school I went to, but he was with me all six summers at camp, and he accompanied me to that Baptist church even after his bar mitzvah. (I remember little about my mornings in church, aside from the crushing boredom, but it occurs to me now that I’ve probably spent more hours of my life in churches than in synagogues.) Since then, our respective convictions haven’t wavered: my brother married an observant Jew and sends his daughters to a religious school; I married a Catholic and hope my two-year-old son will make his own religious choices. My parents seem more puzzled by my brother’s path than by mine. But the subject tends to come up only when we’re making plans on a Friday or Saturday.

Recently Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York was quoted in the New York Times as saying, apropos of Bernard Madoff, that “what it means to be a religious person is to be terrified of the possibility that you’re going to harm someone else.” That sentiment, with its echoes of Buddha, the Torah, and Christ, is something I can get behind. (Of course, one could substitute “secular humanist” for “religious person” and make the same assertion.) My admiration for so much Jewish thought is wrapped up in my mind with my father’s years in hiding and my mother’s feeling pressured to convert. I’m also reminded of a scene in a horror movie that I watched at far too early an age (11, to be precise). In An American Werewolf in London, the Jewish protagonist has a nightmare in which his home is invaded by Nazi werewolves. Before his eyes they slaughter every member of his family. The night I saw the movie with my parents and my brother, I couldn’t sleep. Back then, I didn’t know why.

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