Read an Excerpt
Why are parents so inconsistent? One day we had bacon and eggs for breakfast, and the next day my mother said I couldn't go to school because it was Yom Kippur. That is the most important Jewish holiday of the year, and suddenly my parents remembered that we were Jewish. We weren't Jewish enough to go to a synagogue. And we weren't Jewish enough to fast (that means not eat any food all day), which is what other Jews would do on Yom Kippur. And we weren't Jewish enough to stop eating bacon for breakfast or pork chops for dinner (which Jews aren't supposed to eat on any day of the year). That morning I said to my mother, "If we aren't observing Yom Kippur, then it isn't really a holiday for us. So why can't I go to school with my friends? It doesn't make sense to stay home."
"Geraldine Flam, I've already told you six times," she answered. "It wouldn't be nice to go to school. Your grandparents would be upset if they knew." That didn't make any sense either. After all, my grandparents would never know. They were dead.
So there I was, sitting alone on the stoop outside my house on a Wednesday morning; all the other kids on the street had gone off to school. That made me different. On my street in the Bronx, almost everyone was Catholic, and they all kept busy observing their religion. My best friends, Ann D'Amato and Patricia Quinn, both had made their First Holy Communion. Every Tuesday they attended religious instruction, and every Friday they ate fish. They went to church every Sunday. They knew just what to do and when to do it. I wished I was Catholic like my friends. In my
family, every day was the same. We might call ourselvesJewish, but we never did anything special to prove it. Instead of feeling Jewish, I just felt different.
Mostly, my parents said we were American. My ancestors came to this country almost 100 years ago. During the First World War, my grandfather changed his German-sounding name from Pflaumenbaum, which means plum tree, to Flam, which has no meaning, to show that he was truly American.
Once my mother's family had been observant Jews. But my grandmother died when my mother was born, and my grandfather stopped believing in God that very day. The Flam. family were Reform Jews. That means they could eat or do whatever they wished. I think they were practicing how to stop being Jewish. But my father always stayed home from school on the holidays. When my parents got married, they decided not to bother with the business of religion. They said that they didnt believe in all those old traditions and superstitions anyway. "We are assimilated," my father explained. "We fit into American life like everyone else," he said. But still they wouldn't let me or my little sister Lyn go to school on Jewish holidays.
So there I was, sitting on the stoop, not fitting in at all, but rather sticking out like a sore thumb. I felt like a nothing, just like my name. I wondered what my grandparents would have said, if they could have seen me there on September 24, 1947, spending Yom Kippur on that stoop.
I seemed to spend an awful lot of time sitting there. I bet if I added up the time that I'd sat there, either talking or playing with Ann and Patty, it would have been as much as I spent sitting at my desk at P.S. 35, where I was in the fifth grade. Of course, I didn't learn penmanship or arithmetic sitting on the stoop, but I watched the people walking up and down the street and I learned from them. And I can even remember sitting on the stoop once, a long time ago, and having an astronomy lesson of sorts.
It was summer, and I was out during the evening with some of the other kids on the block. We were trying to count the stars in the sky. Someone -- I think it was Ann's older brother, Paul-told me that there was a star in the sky for every person. It seemed a reasonable idea. There are a lot of people on earth and a lot of stars in the sky.
"How do you know for sure?" I asked him.
"They taught us at church," he said. He knew that I couldn't refute anything he claimed he learned at church.
"Do I have a star?" I asked. After all, maybe Jewish children didn't get heavenly stars. Maybe that was why they often wore little gold ones on a chain around their neck.
"Of course Paul said. "Everyone has a star. In fact," he added slyly, "your star is going to fall to earth tomorrow night."
" It is? How do you know?" I asked.
"Haven't you ever heard of falling stars?"'
"How does it happen?" I wondered, puzzled.
"It gets too crowded up in the sky, and the star falls down to earth to make room for others. I saw the chart of them at church," he insisted. "Your star is going to fall down right on this street tomorrow night."
Instead of worrying that my star would fall, I became very excited. It seemed wonderful to be able to pick up one's very own star and to possess it. During the next day I spent a lot of time searching in our apartment for a small box, just the right size for a star. Eventually I settled on one lined with cotton that seemed perfect for keeping the star safe and protected. In the evening I sat outside on the stoop clutching my little box and waiting.Neither Paul nor any of his friends were about. They had gone off elsewhere to play that evening. Once I Was a Plum Tree. Copyright � by Johanna Hurwitz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.