Waking Over Call it Sleep

I’m the closest thing to Jewish in the class even though
at best I’m only one-eighth, according
to my English mother, who insisted the shadowy figure
of her granny was a Jew since nobody knew
her origins and everybody talked as if something had been
hushed up, shameful, and of course
everything about her hawk-nosed face was unusually dark ,
especially the ringlets of her unruly hair,
or I suppose you could count the fact that I’m married
to a man whose grandparents arrived
at Ellis Island from what is now Ukraine only three years
after Henry Roth, yet none of these
students has the sekhl to know their teacher is a shiksa
and our group is as goyish as pork chops
but they’ve all been children, and they love this novel,
they know what it’s like to be
speechless, powerless, afraid. Nobody needs me to explain
the terror of what lies beyond
the front door and what lies within, and the paralysis
that comes from never knowing
when to dash outside or stand by the window behind
the blinds. One year, while we were reading
Ginsberg, I knew I’d have to describe Kaddish
though I’d never even heard it
recited, but I gave it a go, saying in passing that only
1% of our city’s population is Jewish
which was when Heather quipped: Of course, they’re all
in Hollywood making millions from
trashy movies. I put down my book and didn’t move — you
could hear the whirr of the elevator
down the hall. When I spoke, I said, That was a very
offensive comment — and I realized I was
shaking, after decades of holding forth in linoleum-floored
classrooms. It wasn’t like the times
I’ve heard someone saying wet, meaning wetback,
which are both despicable terms
and I argue those too, but this time it was as though
I’d been slapped full in the face, called
sheeny, kike, and I swear that tears came to my eyes
though I couldn’t cry out gevalt, help,
“Take that back, you ignorant little bitch.” The tension lasted
beyond the ten-minute break which
I loosened to twenty, and not just for the smokers. This time
I’ve handed out maps that highlight
Galicia, Brooklyn, Tysmenicz, the Lower East Side, Avenue D,
and 9th Street, and a list with explanations
of terms: Passover, Ashkenazi, knish, shul, and pogrom. We talk
about Friday night and the candles,
and everyone is right there in the room with Roth and with me
and with my husband who joins us
after the break to tell about the man’s life with his duck farm
and his goyish wife and his writer’s block, and
I begin to wonder if any of these students with family from
Monterrey or Laredo will some day learn — as
a friend of mine did last year — that a great-great-great-and-beyond
grandfather came over from Spain to escape
the Inquisition, and if it will happen — as my friend Raul told me
it did — that in the lighting of candles
with the relatives gathered for a first Shabbat, an elderly aunt
in the corner will begin to sigh
and to weep, and when they press her, ask her what’s wrong,
she’ll tell them she’s suddenly
remembering an abuelita who covered her face with her hands
every Friday night to greet the Divine,
the Shechinah, and who every week sent one grandchild
to buy candles. A child, I’m thinking, who
wore a silver cross around her neck and had never heard
judía de mierda hurled in her face
with the auto-pilot contempt of the six girls who chanted
at me in the bathroom once during
second grade, as they pointed at the color of my striped
dress: Blue, blue, you’re a Jew,
but I didn’t get it — I thought they were saying jewel.

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