Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and the lazy Susan

My husband saw it before I did.  It was Thanksgiving, and we’d made the drive from our house on the northwest side of Chicago to the western suburb of LaGrange to spend the holiday with my in-laws.  “Mom, why is there a swastika on the kitchen table?” he asked.  I looked to where he was pointing, and saw a wooden lazy Susan that looked like it was handmade, was an antique, and was sectioned off into quadrants with spindles of wood coming from the center, each one finishing in a right angle that, while useful as a kitchen storage unit, gave it a rather unfortunate appearance.  

“What swastika?” my mother-in-law asked, incredulous. 

“This one right here!” my husband said, his voice rising.  She looked at him, unblinking. 

“The lazy Susan,” I finally said, “it looks like a swastika.”  She walked over to the table and leaned her diminutive frame over the object in question.  

“Oh,” she said, “well now that you point it out I see it, but I never would have otherwise.”  I stood a fair distance from the lazy Susan, eyeing it from the kitchen counter, as if getting too close to it might be dangerous. Seeing the look on my face she said, “Oh, she doesn’t like it, I can tell.”

“It’s,” I began, and lost whatever it was that I’d begun to say. “I mean, it’s funny because…” and I lost my words again, resorting to sticking my hands out at my sides, palms up. “I mean, I wouldn’t go promoting it...”

“Where did you get this thing?” my husband asked.

“At a garage sale.”  What I really wanted to know was whose clever idea was it to make a lazy Susan in the shape of a symbol of tyrannical power, and more importantly, what else was up for grabs at that garage sale?

I have a long and complicated history with Judaism, which goes a little something like this: my maiden name is Cohen, I wasn’t raised religiously, and by most traditions I wouldn’t be considered Jewish because my mother isn’t – she was raised Christian Scientist, and didn’t meet a Jewish person until she went to college on the east coast, and then married one.  She divorced one too, but it still counts.

For most of my life people have not only assumed that I am Jewish, but have regarded me through that lens to explain certain behaviors - an appreciation for good pickles and matzoh ball soup for instance, and a tendency to avoid overt Christianity and the south. Over the years I’ve had various reactions to this, ranging from guilt that I don’t know more about Judaism, to anger that people would have the gall to assume anything about me based on my name. I once hung up on a teenage boy who called to ask for my financial support of a Jewish organization because it bothered me that I’d ended up on a list of prospects simply because of my name, and I was irrevocably peeved when a former boss of mine asked, on Ash Wednesday, “so when is your holiday?” My high school chorus teacher was an African-American woman who taught us negro spirituals. Halfway through "I've been 'buked and I've been scorned" she looked up from her seat on the piano bench with a smirk on her face. She turned her attention back to playing the piano, and when she looked at me again was smiling broadly. Finally she stopped playing completely and burst out laughing. "I'm sorry," she said between breaths, "but you have never looked more Jewish to me than you do right now."

By the same token, it feels wrong to have my Jewishness denied. The first winter I spent in Chicago I was surprised that the office buildings downtown don't display menorahs side by side with Christmas trees the way they do in New York, and was shocked when a coworker asked me if Cohen was a Catholic name.

Years ago I felt the need to learn more about “my” religion, (although I never felt that way about Christian Science), and kept renewing the same book on Judaism from the Bezazian branch of the Chicago Public Library before finally returning it, unread. A Quaker friend of mine once gave me a menorah that had belonged to his deceased partner, and I asked a Jewish colleague to phonetically spell out the prayer that accompanies the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. For one holiday season I observed the candle lighting tradition, and now the menorah decorates the top of our television, less a religious item than a household decoration.

One less letter and my name would have been Chen - would people have expected me to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and make Peking Duck on the weekends? The worst offense was when people told me that I looked Jewish - for those of you who’ve never met her; I look exactly like my Scotch-Irish shikse mother. How on earth can a person look Jewish anyway? I mean, I know what people were trying to get at - I wear glasses, I have curly hair that goes frizzy in the humidity, and I listen to NPR. Nonetheless, these indicators would amount to nothing if it weren’t for the name Cohen, and ever since I took my husband’s name nobody has assumed that there’s anything Semitic about me.

Now that I don’t carry the name Cohen, I feel a little nostalgic for it whenever I see it in print, and I enjoy being called Cohen by people who knew me before I was married. My husband's name is Palmer, which carries no such religious weight, although it should - the first Palmers made a pilgrimage to the holy land and returned with palm leaves as proof of their journey.

A couple years ago I accidentally learned that my father’s family had lost six of nine children in the holocaust.  I overheard my father tell this to someone else, which is pretty much how I’ve learned everything about my family, not much got passed on to my generation from either side.  Knowledge, while highly valued in my family – going to college was pretty much a given for me, and both sets of my grandparents had access to higher education, is treated like something one should already have, not something to be sought out or shared. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that my father is a high functioning autistic, and he doesn’t react well to confrontation.  When I overheard him casually answer “yes,” to the question: “did you family lose anyone in the shoah?” Anger rose up from my stomach, through my esophagus and into the back of my throat, anger that I’d gone my whole life without knowing this crucial information, and I compressed it into small, pinched statements like: “that’s the first I’ve ever heard of this, dad.” “Oh?” he asked. “Do you have a family tree somewhere with the names?” I asked. “Oh no,” he answered, with a wave of a hand, “I had one once, years ago, but I threw it away.” The person my father was talking to said:“that’s criminal,” and I was glad to have a witness. “Why did you throw it away?” I asked, gripping the stem of my wine glass as if the only thing keeping me from committing patricide was that my hands were full. “Well, that’s not so nice,” he said - the same reaction he gives when anything upsets the flow of his daily life; like when the trains are running late, or he gets overcharged at the supermarket.  “Not nice?” I wanted to say, “You know what's not nice is?  Not nice is letting your dead, persecuted relatives be forgotten.  Does the phrase ‘never forget’ mean anything to you? People purposely pass on this information to their children.  Good job, dad.” What I actually said was: “It doesn’t matter if it’s not nice, it’s important.”

That night I woke alone in the dark, my subconscious wouldn’t let me sleep, or maybe it was the spirits of my murdered relatives. 

Since then I’ve gotten some information from my dad’s side of the family, a photocopy of a handwritten family tree, with the words: “died, Hitler era”, next to those who didn’t survive.  I’ve had conversations with my second cousin Emilie, who grew up knowing some of our relatives who had numbers tattooed on their forearms.  

From our email exchanges and phone conversations, it seems like Emilie and I have a lot in common: we both love to travel, have interests in the arts, and don’t have children.  When I went to Senegal a couple years ago she connected me with a friend of hers who lives there, and we’ve brought up the idea of visiting Lithuania, where our ancestors are from.  

I’ve attended Friday night services once or twice, and while I kind of feel like a giant poser, when someone wishes me “Shabbat shalom,” it’s nice.  I’ve also become – not obsessed, but very interested in holocaust documentaries.  I generally watch them by myself when my husband is out, which sounds dark and depressing, but I just can’t imagine snuggling up with a bowl of popcorn to watch footage of Soviet prisoners being let do their deaths on the eastern front, and interviews with octogenarian survivors describing acts of vengeance and resistance with a ferocity that I have never heard in anyone’s voice.  I add the films to our Netflix instant cue, where my husband sees them, and reads the titles aloud before scrolling right past them: “Forgiving Dr. Mengele...”  “You don’t have to watch that,” I’ll say, “That’s a special movie, just for me.”

I’m amazed at the stories of individual acts of defiance; the group of prisoners who broke into an SS locker room, changed into guards uniforms, and stole a vehicle.  When they drove to the prison gate, and the guard manning it didn’t lift it, one of the prisoners shouted “what is this, how long do we have to wait?” The gate was lifted, and they drove right out of Auschwitz.  Then there was the band of prisoners who hoodwinked a bunch of SS guards into meeting them, alone, in a workshop under the premise of having a pair of boots for them to try on, and killed them one by one with an axe.  They were able to do so because they knew that since the guards were German they would keep their appointments, and would show up on time, which sounds almost like a joke.  

I was dumbfounded by the film Inheritance which follows Monica Hertwig as she tries to sift through what it means to be the daughter of Amon Goth, who was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.  It wasn’t until she saw that film that she was confronted with what her father had really done, and in a blind, ignorant rage sent an angry letter to Steven Spielberg accusing him of spreading lies.  I watched all four plus hours of The Sorrow and the Pity, whose subject is the French Vichy government collaboration with the Nazis, and all six episodes of a TV series called: Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “final solution,” hosted by Linda Ellerbee, to name a few.  

I’m not sure what I hope to gain from this inundation of documentary material, sometimes I wonder if, in all the footage I’ve watched, I’ve seen my relatives stepping off cattle cars for selection, or witnessed images of their emaciated bodies.  Sometimes I think I can guess with pretty close accuracy at what must have happened to them, but that’s not the same as knowing.
Absorbing all this visual information has done something to me, given more weight to my center of gravity, made me aware of how easily and loosely the word “Nazi” gets used to describe the most inane displays of stubbornness, and as a stand-in for curse words, and it’s made me even less tolerant of the phrase “everything happens for a reason.”

Driving home from Thanksgiving, my husband and I discussed the lazy Susan.  “I know she didn’t see it, but what if that had been my first Thanksgiving with your parents?” I asked.  “Well, at least it was a lazy Swastika.” I considered what it would be like to be blind to the unintentionally swastika shaped objects in the world.  

Tomorrow is the first night of Hanukkah, and maybe I’ll dig out the candles I bought for the menorah last year but never used, and maybe I won’t.  On Sunday, my husband and I will make the same drive out to LaGrange that we made at Thanksgiving, and despite the fact that none of us believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, we will celebrate his birth by sharing food and exchanging gifts.  I just hope the lazy Susan is gone by the time we get there.