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Tell Your Son
When I was a child in Baltimore, Maryland, I imagined that from the highest point of the arc of my swing I could see the Pyramids in Egypt. I believed that when two people fell in love, they sang arias to each other. The deep green forest where fairy tales happened really existed, and history, remote and vivid as fairy tales, took place there, too. Time was measured in seasons, and it went in circles. I had been born after terrible events, but there had been a happy ending. I would grow; nothing else would ever change. In April I was just a month short of seven years old. Almost everyone I loved lived in Baltimore, and I would live there, too, forever.
My mother steered our blue Plymouth down the serpentine road through Druid Hill Park's great lawns. We sped past huge specimen beeches and maples with young, transparent leaves, and empty baseball diamonds cut into red Maryland clay, past the zoo's brick reptile house where my father took me to observe the python and the boa constrictor. The last sunlight turned the spring grass golden green. In the back seat, my younger brother, Jonathan, and I tilted with the curves; I concentrated on trying not to squash the bow of my beautiful new yellow, smocked, hand-me-down dress. Up front, my father balanced on his lap the special Passover nut torte my mother had baked for the Seder. We were late my father accused my mother. She had taken too much time brushing my hair, and, as usual, had misplaced her car keys and sunglasses. My stomach churned, and I prayed that they wouldn't start yelling.
We careened around the reservoir, its pale water reflecting the evening sky. Beyond the reservoir's ornamental iron railing, I saw the grand, square block of Chizuk Amuno, my grandfather's synagogue. We were almost there. My father turned and smiled at us. "Tonight there is a full moon. Passover begins in the middle of the Jewish month, on a full moon. It commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, when God delivered the Israelites."
My mother spun around a curve, and my father turned forward again and clutched the precious nut torte.
My brother looked at me, puzzled. "Delivered where?" he whispered.
"Not delivered. Saved," I told him. Almost two years younger than me, Jonny had turned five a month earlier; for seven weeks a year he seemed to be catching up with me. I did not mind putting him in his place. He regarded me suspiciously. I explained: "Sometimes delivered means saved."
The synagogue's copper dome swelled green and sacred in a city of gentile spires. My grandfather, Adolph J. Weisgal, whom we called Abba — Hebrew for father, had been the cantor of that synagogue forever. My father, Hugo Weisgall, wrote operas; he also conducted the synagogue's choir. When he was in his twenties, he had added an extra "1" to his name because, he said, it made the spelling more authentic. Forgetting about my sash, I sat on the edge of the seat with anticipation now, both pleasant and anxious. The sun had almost set, and Passover was beginning.
We passed in front of the synagogue and turned down Chauncey Avenue, where my grandparents lived. With the happy thrill I felt whenever I saw somebody who belonged to me, I recognized my grandfather walking to evening services, dashing and immaculate in his double-breasted gabardine suit, Borsalino hat, and his cane. He saluted us with his cane. My mother stopped the car and took the cake. My father got out and opened the back door on my brother's side. "Come with me, Jonny," he said, then looked at me and hesitated. Girls and women traditionally did not go to the short service before the Seder; they stayed home preparing for the feast.
"Daddy, I'm coming, too!" I declared, sliding across the seat.
My father glanced at my mother and smiled. She had not had time to put on her lipstick, and her beautiful face, with her brown eyes and dark hair, looked unfinished and harried. Everybody said I looked like her, but my hair was blond and naturally curly, while she relied on permanents. "Nath, do you want to go to services? Park at Papa's and walk back with Deborah."
No, I prayed. Say no.
My mother shook her head no, delivering me.
I scrambled out of the car. Abba hugged me perfunctorily, his mind already on higher things. Proudly, I took my father's hand, and with the men I went to shul. Shul — from the German for "school" — was what we called the synagogue; in Jewish tradition prayer and study are synonymous.
We almost never came in by the shul's grand front doors; we used the stage entrance, instead, a street-level side door on Chauncey Avenue, but this soft evening, my grandfather decided to walk around the corner to the front. A stately flight of white limestone steps the width of the building rose from the sidewalk to a portico with three sets of double oak doors. Abba climbed the long stairs vigorously. He was in his sixties and carried his cane for decorative purposes only.
The synagogue was practically empty, but Abba strode down the center aisle past rows of walnut pews as if he were a great tenor and the seats were filled with adoring fans. He had detached himself from us; he strode ahead like a king, conscious of his gift, and he greeted effusively the few men who had already arrived. He shook their hands and bowed and smiled, and they did adore him. We followed him, greeting the men, too; my father was only slightly less grand than Abba. I was terribly proud. As God visited his anger onto generations of children, he visited his love on generations of Abba's children, too, and adoration filtered down to me. Surosky the butcher, eyes rimmed red, big hands chapped red, smiled with his fleshy lips and murmured, "Beautiful." I smiled gently and bobbed my head.
I rarely saw the synagogue from the floor; usually, I went straight upstairs from the stage entrance to the choir loft. The choir loft was at the front, next to the balcony, set off by a small proscenium like a box in a theater overlooking the stage of the bimah, the wide, low platform, like a stage, where the rabbi and cantor stood. It was dark now. The open dome made the synagogue seem like an opera house. I gazed at the bimah. I loved the arches and columns of richly veined purple marble, the heavy blue velvet curtain, embroidered in gold, that covered the ark, the ornate brass lamp of the ner tamid, the eternal flame, that hung above the ark. The rabbi's lectern was of white marble, the cantor's of olive wood.
Daddy, Jonny, and I sat in one of the pews near the front. Abba mounted the steps to the bimah and disappeared through a small door that led to his study, which I thought was his dressing room. He appeared a few minutes later, having exchanged his hat for a yarmulke. At tonight's quick service, which the rabbi did not even attend, Abba did not wear his robes, and it had the air of a dress rehearsal. He stood at the rabbi's lectern and counted to be sure there was a minyan, a quorum of ten adult men.
My father found a prayer book, turned to the appropriate page, and handed it to me. I took it solemnly. The book was sacred; if you were careless and dropped it, you had to kiss it to apologize. In Hebrew school I was beginning to decipher the Hebrew letters and learning to read their sounds, which was considered more important than understanding their sense.
"Hugo! Move over!" Uncle Freddie, my father's brother, seven years younger, waited impatiently in the aisle until we made room for him. He was taller than my father and thinner, and he had more hair. They both had big mouths and round, pale blue eyes that got bigger and wilder when they took their glasses off. Freddie was a lawyer; he defended the poor who were accused of crimes, and he represented Negroes fighting for their civil rights. He understood injustice. He sang first bass in the choir and cracked jokes. He was married and had children of his own, but Abba yelled at him as if he were still a bad boy, always in trouble, always wrong. I adored Uncle Freddie. "How are you, doll?" he asked, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze. "You look gorgeous." Audaciously, he fanned a big vaudeville wave at my grandfather, who nodded haughtily in acknowledgment and reproof.
Abba cleared his throat and began chanting at top speed. He chanted faster than any man in the world, and this evening, especially, he was in a hurry to get home and begin the real singing at the Seder, the feast of Passover. But he could not resist a melody.
Our music was full of melody; it was unlike any other synagogue music. It was not wailing and melancholy but grand and operatic — I knew; my father had run an opera company, and I had heard a lot of opera. In our synagogue, each season and holiday had its special tunes. Abba had brought his music with him when he came with his wife and two sons to this country in 1920 from Czechoslovakia. His father had been a cantor in central Europe, as had his father before him. Abba sang the music they sang and the songs they had written. He had saved the music from destruction; it had nearly been annihilated in the war, shot, starved, and gassed. This synagogue was one of the few places where it survived.
A tune caught Abba's fancy. He had started to skim the prayer, but its lovely line seduced him. He tilted his head back and sang, and my father and my uncle took his cue and joined in and harmonized even though there was not supposed to be a choir at this service, even though there was hardly anybody to hear their singing. Abba was a tenor, my father a baritone, my uncle a bass. Their three strong voices echoed in the empty building and rose up into the hemisphere of the synagogue's dome. I could almost see them playing, dancing up there with the seraphim and the messengers of God. Singing connected them to each other and to the past and to the future; it was as real and mighty and unattainable as God. Their brave, holy noise seemed to me the most wonderful thing in the world. With all my heart, I yearned to add my own voice to it. It was a music of men's voices, though; men sang in the choir, men sang in my family.
"The Lord shall reign forever and ever," Abba read in his accented English at the end of the service. It was one of the few verses we recited in English.
"The Lord shall rain forever and ever. And that's why the ball game was canceled," Uncle Freddie leaned over and whispered to my brother and me. That's what he always said, and each time it seemed funnier; part of the joke was wondering whether Freddie would come through. Jonny and I tried not to crack up. Freddie watched the two of us trying not to laugh and began to laugh himself. Daddy glanced in our direction and attempted to disapprove, but he couldn't help smiling. For us, even for my father, Freddie's incorrigible irreverence in the presence of God and Abba made bearable their arduous requirements.
* * *
"What language does Abba speak best?" I asked Daddy — who spoke every language with no accent: English, German, French, Hebrew, Italian — while we waited for my grandfather to collect his hat and cane after the service.
"None," he answered.
"Is it German, or English, or Hebrew?" I insisted. "Or all of them?"
"None of them." He took my hand as we left the shul.
"Then what do you speak best?" I answered my own question confidently: "All of them."
The full moon rose huge and golden through the linden trees and over the roofs of the row houses. God, I thought, had chosen a full moon for the night the Israelites escaped from Egypt. My brother and I ran on ahead of the men, racing. My patent leather Mary Janes gleamed in the streetlights and skidded on the sidewalk. My corkscrew curls, which my mother had painstakingly arranged, bounced disheveled against my shoulders. I ran as fast as I could. I had long legs, and I always won. Our cousins were waiting at the house; they couldn't be trusted to behave in shul.
I felt the eagerness of an audience and the nerves of a performer, both. Tonight, for the first time, I was going to recite the Ma Nishtana, the Four Questions, which the youngest child at the table is supposed to ask. I was the oldest grandchild, but the youngest person who knew Hebrew. What is the difference between this night and all other nights? Why do we eat matzo, unleavened bread? Why bitter herbs? Why do we recline? The questions begin the Seder. They spark the telling of the story of the Exodus — this is the night God brought us out of Egypt; there was no time for bread to rise; the bitter taste of the herbs reminds us of the bitterness of enslavement; in olden days, only free men reclined while they ate — the story of the journey from slavery to freedom.
This was my debut. I was going to read the Hebrew; I was going to sing the words. My singing was going to join that play of voices — my voice, the first girl's voice. Ignoring my brother's pleas to wait for him, I ran, breathless, up the steps to the front porch of my grandparents' semi-detached house and pushed open the dark oak door that opened into a tiny vestibule. The glass-paned door to the living room was already ajar. Smells of chicken soup and turkey filled the house. Freddie's wife, Aunt Jeanne, sat alone in the living room. Thin and sexy, with short salt and pepper gray hair, she sat on the sofa, her skirt riding high on her thighs, displaying the dark tops of her stockings, and she swirled the ice cubes in her drink with her fingernail. Her long nails matched her lipstick in the color of the moment: a frosted apricot. The cuffs and hem and neck of her suit jacket were trimmed in marabou feathers dyed the taupe of the fine, light wool. She dragged on her cigarette, which she smoked in an ebony holder. "So where's my husband?" she asked in her throaty, provocative voice and thick Baltimore accent.
"He's coming," I said and asked: "Where's Mommy?" though I knew the answer. I heard her aggravated voice coming from the kitchen.
Jeanne glanced toward the back of the house. "Do you like my suit?"
I nodded. I did, very much. I reached out and stroked the marabou down on her jacket hem; I appreciated my aunt's finery. The front door opened again. Jeanne stood and twirled in her taupe high-heeled pumps. "I made it myself," she said. "I finished it this morning. Fabulous, isn't it?" The men came in, with my brother, who was pouting because he'd lost our race. Jeanne patted her flat stomach and flat rear end. My father looked away. Abba smiled. "Gutyontif," he said. "Gutyontif, pontiff," Freddie said as he kissed his wife. I had just figured out that Yiddish expression. "Yom tov," literally good day, meant holiday in Hebrew. So, good good day, I said to myself. Despite her glamorous clothes, I thought, Jeanne could never be as beautiful as Mommy, or as good a cook, but I wished that my mother could have new clothes, too.
In the kitchen, my three cousins crowded around the icebox clamoring for Pepsi. My grandmother, Aranka, whom we called Lady, regarded them as if she didn't recognize them. She wore a plain, navy blue dress and black shoes with thick heels. Her graying hair was parted in the middle and pulled back into a bun, and her strong features crowded into narrow bones. She had deep-set anxious eyes ringed with shadows; when she saw me, she smiled, like a pale sun behind clouds. I went to kiss her, but, distracted by the turkey, which needed basting, she turned her back on me. I took her affection on trust and loved her from a distance. Like a sea anemone, she shriveled with a reticence beyond her control.
"Deborah! Get those kids out of here!" My mother's angry voice cut through the clatter. She had tied an apron over her old tweed suit; it was not sleek like Jeanne's; it pulled across her stomach, round after two babies and no exercises. Her cheeks were flushed from the heat, from the effort of helping, and from frustration. Her hair was coming loose from her barrettes, but she had put on lipstick. She charged around the kitchen, circling Ozelia Potter, Lady's languid, mahogany maid. Ozelia walked with a calm that drove my mother crazy. Ozelia cut tomatoes and iceberg lettuce into wedges as if she had all the time in the world, while my mother impatiently thrust the salad platter under her chin. There was so much to do. On the counter I noticed another tinfoil-shrouded cake beside Mommy's wrapped nut torte. "Who brought that?" I asked.
"Jeanne," Mommy muttered. "She wasn't supposed to. We don't need it."
Quickly, I poured myself a tumbler of Pepsi and hustled my brother and cousins out of the kitchen. I whispered to myself the words of the Four Questions. We raced through the narrow passageways between grownups and heavy furniture. The oak dining room table had been extended with two folding tables borrowed from the synagogue. They stretched into the living room, each covered with a white damask cloth, each place set with a silver wine cup. We circled the tables hunting for our favorite cups and moved them to where we guessed we would sit.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Joyful Noise"
Copyright © 1999 Deborah Weisgall.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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