“Home Away from Home”
“Abigail has always felt abandoned,” Léo Bronstein, my father’s best friend, once said. Léo was a sort of godfather to me and said this after he read the earlier version of my Confessions of a Young Philosopher (forthcoming).
Although 1038 Park Avenue at the corner of 86th Street, and 1245 Madison on 90th Street, sheltered what certainly looked like a happy childhood – I always had the sense that these times were interludes, truces called, in the larger landscape of catastrophe.
At 1038 Park Avenue, my mother captured a German spy ring and won the War. The superintendent, Mr. Z., was repairing the radiator when he chanced to look up at my mother and observe that it would be good “when Hitler gets here.”
European born, mother naturally paid attention. She wondered why a man with that opinion never let tenants take their own suitcases and trunks down to the storage room in the basement but insisted on carrying them down there himself.
Not many days after that conversation by the radiator, mother passed two middle-aged Germans on the stairwell, ringing an apartment doorbell on a lower floor. “Guten tag, Grossmutter,” they smiled over-genially at the middle-aged woman who opened the door. The trouble was, she wasn’t old enough to be their grandmother.
Mother naturally paid attention. Actually, she went down to the corner of Park Avenue, memorized their New Jersey license plate, wrote it on a piece of paper as soon as she could, got on a bus and went directly to the midtown office of the FBI. They made a raid. Sure enough, Mr. Z had a short wave radio in the basement. He may have been in contact with the U boats stationed beyond New York harbor to sink our troopships as they sailed for Europe. In any case, he disappeared for the remainder of the War – perhaps taken to the volley ball camp for enemy agents. Mother saw him after the War on 87th and Park. She said he gave her “a very sour look.”
If you put that together with a peculiar background sense of which I’ve recently become aware, of having been a nonsurvivor in the runup to the Holocaust in Germany in the 1930’s — put to death in one of the less well-known ways — you can figure why “home” felt to me abnormally fragile. One becomes afraid to love, afraid to trust, or anyway afraid to be attached to places.
A journalist, whose report from Jerusalem I read today, writes that the streets, usually alive with celebrants of the Jewish holidays, are eerily quiet these days. Arab kids in their early teens are knifing Jewish kids of the same age. Hatred of that degree of intensity and violence is learned, not “provoked.” Or at least the ordinary human reflex identification with one’s age-mates must be unlearned. According to the columnist, the international media reports knife attacks in such a way that defense becomes offense, survival becomes aggression.
One pictures analogous journalistic scoops at Auschwitz:
“SS guards forced to resort to Zyklon B [the death gas] to cope with sneak attacks from Jewish captives.”
Being Jewish is out of style. Not with God perhaps, but with journalists.
This is disorienting because the medievals were right about Jerusalem. It is the navel of the world. When you’re there, the puzzle pieces of “identity” – that much pondered thing – slide into place and become picturable. Things become more solid. I even understand the grammar of the objective case (when to use ‘I’ and when to use ‘me’) when I’m in Jerusalem, which normally I don’t.
Probably, though, it’s harder to get clear on the objective case when you have to keep looking behind you for 13-year-olds ready to die for the after-life rewards of having put a knife in you.
What’s this got to do with “home”? Is “home” a place? Is it the earthly Jerusalem? Or is it a heavenly Jerusalem, more like a state of mind?
Normally I draft this weekly column at a local Franco-Tunisian café, where I count as an habituée. I like the feel of the real world around me when I ponder a topic. Even if the tables in my vicinity are occupied by young couples in crisis, or middle-aged divorcees on a first date, or seasoned ladies letting their hair down “only with you, my dear,” I can fold that into my writing process and it doesn’t bother me.
This time, however, there was a family group that took seats directly catty corner from my table, whose proximity I found intolerable. The father seemed a bit threatening, though in a muffled way, the young mother passive, the children wary and cowed. Although, as a group, they chatted and laughed with each other — piercingly at times — to my ears the chatter and the laughter were not sincere, not truthful and not accurate. The sounds were unbearably misfitted, as people can sit in clothes that don’t fit, or speak in accents that hurt, or even have flesh that doesn’t sit right on the bones.
People in cafes are profoundly aware of each other and I think the grownups knew they were throttling my thought waves. I did not trouble to hide it (even muttering to myself irritably) and got up as soon as I could, to finish the draft at home.
Whether “home” is a place or a state of mind is unclear: but without doubt,
home is a way to be.
To be what?
Sincere, truthful and accurate.
Home is permission to be all that.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion…For how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Ps 137
Thanks Brian. Interesting how this hits home. The verse, the words, bring fresh tears to my eyes today — as they must have done on that day!
Abbie, I love your “tales”. Absolutely fascinating, interesting, intriguing with descriptive
adjectives that allow me to be there! I was in awe of your mom’s observational skills and
bravery in following through to pursue righteousness. Your literary genius carries out her
dreams and your dad’s ideals. You are blessed!
Mo — an appreciation like this is matter for rejoicing. I know mother is pleased.