A Brother’s Keeper

In 2004, Maurice Cohen, brother of Eliahu Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy, told me a story about love and patriotism    . . . a  story of heroism. About a man who loved his wife but loved his country more. . . so much more that he laid down his life to save it. I wrote the story and sold it to Moment Magazine. They published it in 2005.

Moment Magazine’s promotion of The Spy

In 2019, Netflix launched The Spy, a limited original series that borrows liberally from the Moment article. In the Netflix version, however, Eli Cohen is more anti-hero than hero. Here he is ruthless, inconsiderate, arrogant. Maurice spoke of a man with deep commitments, who would never willingly brutalize another human being. Somewhere between the lines of both lies the truth about the man Eli Cohen actually was.

Maurice Cohen, 2004

When I met Maurice, I instantly disliked him. He was cagey, strange. I had to accept him, even learn to like him – he and an old friend were engaged, and she was smitten. Maurice, she explained, was a fascinating man with a compelling past. “He was a spy,” she whispered, “Mossad. Retired.”

He shared his story with me, and I remained skeptical. At first.

“I could have saved Eliahu Cohen,” Maurice told me, shaking his drooped head in exaggerated shame. “My big brother. I could have stopped the hanging.” He inhaled deeply, looked into my eyes for the first time ever, and said. “I decoded his messages. I knew he was our man in Damascus, and I didn’t say a word. If I did, maybe he’d be alive today.”

“You can sell this,” he said. “It’s a story you’ve never heard.”

That was absolutely true. Even if he had embellished the story, it was saleable. And timeless.

Maurice worked for Mossad decoding and encrypting messages. His job was to receive and decode telegraph messages, which he then delivered to headquarters. He was never supposed to know the identity of the senders. He discovered Eli by a freak coincidence and told no one what he knew. Maurice was an old man plagued with guilt by the time I met him. Asking me to write the story was his act of contrition.

I queried Moment Magazine, and they were quick to send me an advance and a publication contract.

Nadia and Eli Cohen – from Moment Magazine, June 2005

Over the next several months, I became intimate with the details of Eli and Maurice’s story. Their parents’ emigration from Aleppo, Syria to Egypt; Eli’s underground activities in Egypt and their separate immigration to Israel. Eli’s great love affair with Nadia. His gift for languages, his recruitment into the Agaf ha-Modi’in, a branch of the IDF, and his subsequent transfer to the Mossad, where he was assigned, in 1963, by, to travel to Argentina. There he was instructed to establish the persona of Kamel Amin Sa’Abet, a rich Syrian expatriate hungry to return to Damascus.

A reckless risk-taker, Eli seemed fearless. Once relocated to Damascus, tirelessly smuggled valuable information from Syria into Israel. In 1965, he was caught and hanged. His work enabled Israel to prevail in their 1967 War, which they fought against the United Arab Republic, the combined, Soviet-supplied air forces and armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

Maurice (who died in 2006) carried with him deep remorse. “I should have told my mother. Or Nadia (Eli’s wife). They deserved to know. I didn’t even confront Eli. Maybe he would have come home instead of persisting in such a dangerous game.”

Eli Cohen’s story had been told and re-told. What made my article for Moment unique was Maurice’s perspective. His was an excruciating task. Duty to country required him to keep his brother’s mission secret, but his duty to family . . .. This was a story with what the film industry would call “legs.” It deserved to be turned into a film.

The week before I turned in the final draft of the essay I titled “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” while attending the Cannes Film Market, I told a producer friend what I was writing for Moment. “Let’s make that movie,” he said. “What a story!” We planned to announce our intent to make the film at an industry party the following night.

When we met for breakfast the following morning, our attorney greeted us with a small notice she’d read in Variety. Director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Sony Pictures Co-Founder/Director Michael Barker were in talks with Nadia Cohen, widow of Eli Cohen, to make a love story. Raising money for a film is a daunting enough task. We could never compete with Sony.

We scrapped our plans, and I rarely thought about Eli and Maurice thereafter. The Moment article was inaccessible online, so I couldn’t use it as a clip, and I began to doubt I ever wrote it at all.

Until my son suggested I check out Netflix’s original series about Eli Cohen. I watched the trailer and smiled. It’s about Nadia and Eli’s love story, the slant Pierce and Barker spoke about at that Cannes party. I binge-watched the show.

For the first four episodes, I really liked it. It had flaws – weak writing, absence of necessary exposition, choppy editing – but I was so close to the story that the holes didn’t bother me. Besides, it was largely the story Maurice told me to write. He was depicted transcribing messages as they beeped in from Eli in Syria. At Episode Five, when the fictional Maurice intercepts a message about the Singer sewing machine, I was sure that Moment Magazine article had to be a screenwriter’s source. I was the first to write about that incident. No one else has yet published another version.

How could I not be flattered? Someone actually paid attention to what I wrote. I Googled the essay at Moment, and there it was, on the web in a blatant pitch for Netflix. Underneath photos of the series star Sacha Baron Cohen and a link to the series’ page, the copy reads, “In honor of this Friday’s premiere, we pulled a Moment exclusive from the archives: Am I My Brother’s Keeper? 

I have my clip now.

I wish I liked the Netflix series more. There are so many omissions, so many ways the production fails to present a whole picture of the given circumstances.

In this telling, nothing explains Eli Cohen’s work. There is no end to justify his means. As the episodes progress, it must seem to the unschooled eye that he was simply an arrogant, evil man, who was used by a ruthless Israeli machine to spy on the unwitting, unsuspecting, innocent Syrians. In this version, Cohen worms his way into the confidence of the upper echelon of the Ba’athists in power and becomes a ruthless agent willing to betray everyone whose confidence he has won. He facilitates murder and mayhem. He enables Israel to take the Golan Heights. By the time he slowly mounts the gallows for his public execution, most of the audience must think he deserves to die in ignominy.

Israel comes off looking greedily aggressive. No backstory details the struggle for survival that threatened Israel from 1948 on. There is no mention of the fact that Israel’s Arab neighbors were (as they remain) sworn to eradicate the Jewish state. War was perpetually imminent. Syrians invested millions in building bunkers to hide their troops and weaponry. They armed Palestinians to wage guerilla warfare against Israelis. Syria, Jordan, and Egypt consolidated efforts to make war against Israel. In June 1967, they attacked. The result was the Six-Day War. 800 Israelis and 20,000 Arabs died in 132 hours of fighting.

Without Cohen’s intelligence, there is no telling how many days the fighting might have continued, how many more lives would have been lost.

Eli Cohen was undoubtedly a complex character. His love of country hardly justifies the hideous nature of the acts he enabled, and no patriotism could validate what his years in Damascus did to his family. I only wish that Netflix had taken the time and the care to explore his multiple dimensions. That it had allowed for more subtlety, more nuance. Then I would feel like I had contributed to a job well done.

Once More to the Lake … Again

Deep in the winter of 1957, my father moved our family to Saranac Lake, NY. A remote village burrowed snugly into the heart of the high peaks area of the Adirondack Mountains. The town turned out to be the first place where we actually stayed for more than two years. We had spent the previous nine years zigzagging the country, and somehow this was the place where my dad accepted my mother’s ultimatum: “Move again, and you move without me.”

I was miserable. Nine years old, a misfit newcomer in a closed environment, I felt stuck there. As soon Paul Simon’s voice found its way to my staticky radio, I adopted his song as my private theme. I was a rock. The granite mountains that stood steadfast on the periphery of my town were my fortress steep and mighty. Misery was the tomb in which I hid. Melancholy became me.

Saranac Lake, NY “The Little City in the Adirondacks.”

Except in the autumn.

One Sunday of every Fall, my parents would trundle their expanding brood off on a leaf-sighting tour. It was an increasingly ambitious endeavor as the family grew. I identify each of the passing years by the car we drove and the name of the youngest child.

When we arrived in Saranac Lake, my mother led our mini-caravan in our Pontiac Star Chief. That had been comfortable enough when Helen was the baby, and I was oldest of three. But by the time we got stuck at the bottom of Rockledge Road in the blizzard that welcomed us to town, the car was bulging at the seams. Mom was 8 ½ months pregnant with my fifth sibling Sarah, whose birth inspired my grandfather to give us his used Buick Roadmaster. Our autumnal jaunts were increasingly trying – crowded together in the frigate-like automobile, we fought with one another for a view out of the thickening fog on the windows that were simultaneously cooled on the outside by the early pre-winter fridigity and warmed on the inside by our multiple breaths. The ever-expanding brood acted out their frustration, showed their disdain for destination-less vehicle trips by crawling all over the adults and older kids. Someone inevitably suffered a bump on the head falling against the metal panels, diving headfirst from the backseat into the metal console in the front. Screaming and whining provided the soundtrack until, by the grace of Heaven, one or more fell asleep. Anyone seeking to escape the fray by finding a position on top of coatwear and picnic food between the parents in the front seat was likely to be frequently pummeled by dad’s fist as he shifted gears.

Ampersand Bay, Saranac Lake, NY

Rain or shine, Mom chose the Sunday that the colors had reached their peak and designated it as our day of exploration. Dad drove, and she navigated. Out the Forest Home road, under a canopy of rich golds and browns, the playful gray clouds darting among the rays of mottled sunshine. Twisting along Bayside Street or Pinehurst Road, he’d stop at Ampersand Bay. Everyone – even my hyperactive middle brother – was awed to silence by the dancing redgoldpurpleblue branches,bending gracefully over the lake then bowing back to the evergreens with whom they partnered.

“Go to Tupper, Daddy. Take us to Tupper,” we inevitably begged. And he headed back to town then west on the Lapan Highway to follow Route 3, past Crescent Bay and over the bridge with Lower Saranac on both sides of us. How is it possible this is the same lake we were just admiring in Ampersand Bay. It seemed so very far from where we rode now.

I loved those rides. To escape the noise, the presence of the crowd on my lap and at my feet, I opened my window. Oldest child privilege – I always had a window. So long as no one commanded me to close it, I sat with my arm across the wet base, my head on my arm, the wind and rain and/or dew falling into my thick blonde hair now streaming wildly behind. I imagined myself in a kinetoscope, the light and dark flickers of color dancing across my eyelids.

The arrival in close succession of Elizabeth and John, Numbers 6 and 7, necessitated buying something bigger, and we spread out in our Volkswagen van. The adventure changed abruptly – it became a sedate, customary pilgrimage. Beautiful but not so challenging.

By then I was in high school, and my escape was imminent. College. New York City. Freedom. I savored the final family forays. The Fall of my senior year, as we dutifully took our places in the roomy van, I put my head against the glass of my window and cried silently. I was sure this would be our last trip.

I felt a sting of nostalgia. Unwelcomed. After all, I wanted to believe, as teenagers do, that leaving home meant leaving my woes. Putting this closely knotted community behind was liberation from a kind of incarceration I wanted to remember as torture for the rest of my life.

But what had happened was something I was only beginning to understand. Over the years, as the color and cool of my birthday season washed away my summer anxieties and prepared me for the thrill of winter, they also smoothed my edges. I found a way to fit in, to make friends, to be a part of the place we inhabited. To love my neighbors. I would miss it.

Not long after, my uncle died in Arizona, and his widow, my mother’s beloved older sister, begged my parents to move west. They did. I flitted about the country feeding my youthful wanderlust, the product of my father’s years before. New Mexico, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Europe. A few months here, a year there. I couldn’t settle in. I missed my Adirondack autumns.

Finally, New York City. Close enough. I loved the thrum of the air, the electricity in the sidewalk, and the proximity to Saranac Lake. In eight hours or less, I could be rocked in the bosom of the gentle slopes and dangle my feet in the invigorating cold of the glacial lakes. Then, in eight hours or less, I could be far away, immersed in a life I chose to pursue. I was happy. And then I got married.

Though I felt ancient by then from the multiple displacements, I was still young. My husband was even younger, and he had California Dreamin’ in his soul. We tried living there, hated it, and then, when I became pregnant with our first child, we migrated to Arizona to be close to my family. Far too far from the East.

What saved me from languishing in the West was that I loved to drive. Every summer from the time my first-born was two, I would trundle my kids into our car and drive east. My husband hated long road trips, which freed me to stay away as long as I wanted, without the pressure to be back for his work. He would fly and meet us somewhere along the way, visit our friends and family, see the eastern seaboard historical sites for a week, then fly back and leave the driving to me. Until the children’s calendars were regulated by their school year, I planned it so that we could be in Saranac Lake when the leaves began to turn.

Those years, too, I remember by the succession of cars I drove.

We made our first trip in an old Chevy Nova. Black interior, no air conditioning, but a fuel efficient engine and remarkable staying power. Two years later, Pregnant with child #3, barely fitting behind the wheel, I planned my trip in the same car. My mother, however, insisted that if I were hell bent on making the pilgrimmage, I should at least take her Honda, half the size of my Nova, and my youngest sister. “You’ll have a/c, and you won’t be alone.”

All the way across the country, my sister and I could not stop talking about getting back to the journey through the leaves. I wondered if my incredibly well-behaved son and daughter, then aged four and two and a half, seated contentedly in their carseats rarely complaining about anything, would appreciate the ride as my rambunctious siblings did.

Olf Forest Home Road, Saranac Lake, NY

I needn’t have worried. A few minutes along the Forest Home Road, my son warbled, “Mommy, I never saw anything so beautiful in all my life.” I had to stop the car so my sister and I could sob in one another’s arms. Lord we’d missed this place.

The next time we made the trip, I drove a Chevy Impala Wagon. Each of my daughters in their infant-toddler car seats occupied half of the second seat, while my son luxuriated across the “way back.” This time, my middle child, herself nearly 4, taunted her brother, and they sparred vocally then physically across the barrier between them. My baby wailed inconsolably until they stopped. I watched them in the rear view mirror.

How strange, I thought. This is more déjà vu than I’d anticipated. My children were my siblings, and I was my mother. Young and confused by the dichotomy of my emotions. Loving them wholly, craving some freedom. Wishing for time alone but never wanting them out of my sight. Seeking the relief of familiarity in the North Country and wondering how I could have survived such a closed system.

As I pulled over, stopped the car and took in the panorama of color, I felt bolted to the ground. I did not want to move. What was this feeling? I shook the confusion out of my head and breathed deeply. Ah, brisk autumn air. The sensation passed, and a few days later we were back in Arizona.

Each year, we repeated the scenario with less fighting, more talking. The confusion never passed.

Until last month. For my birthday, my son and his wife took their daughters and me to Saranac Lake. Autumn had just begun to tease the green leaves to shy hints of reds and oranges, browns and gold. The air was cold, wet, clean. The eight-year-old, fascinated by the concept of healing woods, breathed deeper and deeper, vowing to heal anything that might ail her. The ten-year-old was impatient to get out of the car and get on a paddle board. I, of course, insisted on a leaf tour.

Driving on the Forest Home Road, with rain threatening overhead, the muted colors waving at us from behind the cloud shadows, I leaned back and listened as my older granddaughter admonished her little sister in a tone that was decidedly authoritarian. The younger girl rejoined with a statement so venomous I laughed thinking how lucky we all are she’s a kid and not a snake. But as we came to a stop overlooking Ampersand Bay, they both hushed. Everyone in the car sat in quiet contemplation. The beauty of the lake, the sylvan panoply took our breaths away.

The old emotions crept up my spine and found their way to my stomach. The old conflict in a new skin. So many words to write. So little time. I want to get back to my desk. But I never want this moment to end.

It’s different now. The confusion has lifted. I’ll be leaving again. This time, I’ll have no choice. I sigh and feel a rustle of leaves flutter into the lake. I’d prefer to stay here with them.  

Here at home.

 

Haircut Tourism

I have quirky hair. It is thick and blonde, a gift from my father’s Dutch ancestry. But it’s also unruly and willful, often kinky and frizzy, the bequest of my mother’s Ashkenazi forebears.I like my hair. It’s singularly mine and uniquely beautiful. So says every beautician to whom I have entrusted its care. But it has traditionally been a pain to tame, a challenge for those who seek to cut and style it

My aunt was the proprietor of her own salon. A talented stylist, who simply could not be bothered to do battle with my tresses, Aunt Ruth’s approach to cutting my hair was to ignore its idiosyncrasies and clip indiscriminately. I wanted long hair, but until I left home at 17, I had to abide by my mother’s edicts, and she mandated a semi-annual visit to her sister’s shop. Which is why, when I look at photos taken before my liberation, I wonder if Mike Judge saw me somewhere. I could easily have been the model for his Butt-head character.

Over the years, I have invested heavily in what appears to be the right haircut. I live in NYC, where a beauty parlor appointment can be more costly than an overnight hospital stay. Every visit is an exercise in cautious paranoia. Will the operator figure out how to navigate the territory? Will I have a mop-head when they finish?

The stylists share my trepidation. They typically spend the bulk of my time allotment fussing over where, how, why to layer and then trying to re-assign the part on a head of hair that listens to no one. After the cut, every artiste insists on straightening the hair, forcing it into flat lifelessness. Too often I emerged from the salon with hair I would not wear to a Halloween party, having paid the equivalent of a year’s salary. I remained resigned. This was the way things were.

Until I was in Taiwan two years ago. My hair got long, I shed profusely, and my hairphobic hostess was frantic. She could not stand the sight of hairs on the couch, the floor, the kitchen counter. I had to get it cut.

Quaking with fear, I chose a place close to the apartment with an American brand name. I had little faith in my choice, but I believed it was my only alternative. Branded or not, could a Taiwanese stylist understand the dangers lurking on my scalp? Would she be able to make my hair presentable?

In the salon, though neither of us spoke the other’s language, she easily grasped what length and shape I was hoping for. She spent no time at all assessing the hair but instead lavished me with a luxurious wash and scalp treatment, a neck and shoulder massage, and a delicious cup of jasmine tea. Then she went to work, studiously snipping a large chunk here, a bit there, another chunk, another bit, and in record time, she was patiently twisting the locks as she assaulted them with the blow-dryer, causing my natural curls to spring gratefully into line. When she was finished, my hair looked better than it has in my adult life. We bowed to one another, and I paid the bill in Chinese NT, an amount which, amazingly enough, amounted to less than a  caramel soy macchiato at the local Starbucks. When I offered her a tip; she declined, smiling. Tipping is not the custom, and she was proud of her work.

On two more occasions, I found myself in need of a haircut in Taiwan. For various reasons, I wound up in a different salon with a different operator each time. Invariably, I had the same experience: treatment that engendered languid comfort and a respectable haircut for little money.

This past summer, I found myself in Turkey rather than Taiwan. As before, I was there long enough that my hyperactive hair growth and insistent shedding necessitated a cut.

Had I not been schooled in Taiwan, I would have been beset by anxiety. Instead, I confidently walked to a very local spot, a tiny establishment with one chair and one sink. I had a moment of hesitation when I saw that the price of a haircut listed on the board was less than a straight-up cup of black coffee in any NYC diner. I ventured in nonetheless.

This time I was slightly more able to communicate. With roughly 25 words of Turkish at my command, I was able to explain what I was seeking. The receptionist nodded solemnly and motioned me into a chair in front of the sink. She simultaneously made a phone call and briskly, brusquely washed my hair. As she threw a towel over my head, a squat, middle-aged man appeared in the entryway. He spat a cigarette from his mouth and smashed it beneath his shoe before walking over to us. He and the woman exchanged a few words – she translated my instructions into proper Turkish. He nodded, took the towel from my head, and went to work. He snipped about, parted and re-parted my locks, brushed the hair forward, cut some more, pushed it back, snipped again, flipped it to one side and then to the other. After about five minutes, he stopped cutting, affixed the diffuser to the blow dryer, puffed air at me for a few more minutes, and grunted that he was done. In the mirror that he held briefly behind my back, I caught a glimpse of the back of my head.

The hair looked great.

This time I paid in Turkish lire, and he accepted a tip. I had to fight the nagging sense that I had stolen the haircut.

Walking back to my apartment, I wondered what it was that I had worried about all these years. What was it that made the process so damned fraught and so incredibly expensive?

American values, of course. Nothing is worthwhile if we don’t pay dearly. No one is worth anything until s/he proves successful in monetary terms. “You get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get.” We measure people by the quality of what they acquire.

The ramifications are myriad.

 

 

Sliding Back to America from the Marmara Sea

Last week, at a playground on the banks of the Marmara Sea, I stood with a stranger and watched his daughter and my grandson chase one another up and down the slide. They were laughing, enjoying the game. We were encouraged by their easy palship to attempt a conversation.

“Where you are from?” the man asked me. I faltered a moment, embarrassed.

“From the U.S., “ I finally replied.

“Ah. I am from Syria. I came here five years ago.”

Unsure what to say next, I stammered, “You are kind to speak English with me.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “I am a teacher of English. I love to have the opportunity to speak!”

“Ah.” I could have been quiet. A socially adept person might have stood there simply enjoying the mirth of our children and the sparkle of the sea. Instead, I pressed on.

“It must be difficult to be from Syria. What’s happening in your homeland must be painful for you.”

He nodded solemnly for a moment then looked me in the eye. “Well,” he ventured, with a new twinkle of mirth emerging from his own, “No more painful than being from America, I’ll bet.”

Déjà-vu.

In 1970, when I first ventured to Europe, a sweet Italian boy asked me if I were an Ugly American. I spent the next 9 weeks of my trek across the continent proving in every way could that I was not. My encounter with the Syrian English teacher was not the first time I realized I was experiencing a resurgence of what I felt about my country in my profligate youth.

“Speak to me in German,” I begged an Iranian neighbor in the courtyard of the apartment complex where I was staying one morning. I couldn’t bear to hear American English coming from my mouth as I spoke to her.

Being an American, especially being an American abroad, is indeed excruciating. Every day of the two months I stayed in Turkey I faced news from my beloved country that made me shudder. Child abuse by US officials. Refugee incarcerations. Racist slurs against respected politicians. Rallies inciting brainwashed multitudes to chant hateful slogans. Ostensible newscasters spewing toxic lies to widen the chasms that divide citizens. Threats of war both civil and foreign.

Early in the morning three days before my flight home to the States, I received an email from my airline instructing me that because of heightened security in the US, all passengers leaving high-risk areas must undergo extreme scrutiny by security personnel. I was therefore instructed to be at Istanbul Airport at least three hours prior to flight time.

I closed the email, shuddering at the thought of having to leave the apartment at 2 AM for a 6 AM flight. Shivering with resentment that my prosthetic hip would set off the metal sensors and force me to endure inevitable pat-down humiliation.

Before I could shut down my email server and go brew a cup of coffee, my news feed blasted pictures from El Paso. Twenty people killed less than a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival massacre. I sat and wept. Before my tears abated, news of Dayton. I remain inconsolable.

I am hyper-aware of irony. It underscores the absurdity of life around me and ordinarily gives me a healthy perspective on what I observe in the world. While irony often makes me laugh, it is equally capable of reducing my soul to painful shards that impair my vision, alter my hearing, infuse me with the bitter taste of helplessness.

By the time I read those three notices, my toddler grandson and I had spent 60 days frolicking in various playgrounds in our Istanbul suburb, interacting with people from all over the Middle East. I didn’t like everyone, and I am sure there were those who disliked me. Human interaction is like that. I’m not historically ignorant, and I know there have been times when I would have had a very different experience in Turkey. But this time, now, there was no threat inherent in not being friends with everyone. I never felt unsafe. No one ever threatened me with a gun. No one shouted at me that I must conform to any single notion of right/wrong. Not one person posed any kind of a threat to me or my family.

So sad. My misinformed, misguided, brain-washed fellow Americans believe that the people outside our country threaten us with terrorism. When I said I was traveling to a country that is 97% Muslim, I was overwhelmingly warned, even by my more enlightened acquaintances, to “Be careful.” It should have been I issuing the warnings. The real threat to all of us comes from our fellow Americans.

Mass shootings continue to increase. Congress continues to allow the money-wielding gun lobby to control them. The so-called president continues to sow seeds of fear and resentment that foster bigotry and violence. Politicians and our so-called liberal leadership continue to insist on radical stances instead of seeking ways to re-group and ameliorate. The mainstream press continues to whitewash the awful truth about the evil in our midst.

And we continue to allow ourselves to be bamboozled.

You are right, my Syrian acquaintance. What’s happening in America is painful.

 

A Thorn By Any Other Name . . . .

The nightmare never changed. It recurred as a terror that began just after I began Kindergarten, at age four. In each bad dream, the ominous wailing of European sirens would wake me from a sound sleep in my grandmother’s Bayside, Queens attic. As the sound of metal soles and heels marching on the suburban pavement reverberated around me, I would scream for my sisters and brothers and cousins to follow me. In German, a voice shouted from the street below. “You cannot escape a second time. We have found you. You will come with us to the camp.” I would wrest myself sweating and crying from the torture of sleep just as the uniformed robots were about to grab my youngest brother and throw him into the tank that followed their march.

Every detail of the dream was the figment of my imagination or of some phantom reminiscence. We had no television, and the only films my parents took me to see were Disney films. I search my memory for some clue as to how the sound of the jackboots and police cars found their way to my subconscious, and I find none. I do know why I was afraid of the camps.

I was born two years after WWII ended. Members of my mother’s large extended family, dispersed across the world, were just beginning to find one another. We received intermittent letters from sources I could not identify that provided cryptic updates. The word “camps” was omnipresent. So much so that when my parents sent me to Girl Scout Camp at age seven, I was sure they were sending me away forever.

The soto voce conversations about the correspondences were always dire. Like the members of my mother’s nuclear family, most of the mispacha had barely escaped. A few to the US, others to Brazil, Israel, Australia, Argentina, the UK. The displaced were the lucky ones. There were telegrams and official notifications bearing the saddest news – two uncles and an aunt gassed in a death camp with a garbled name. What a relief to learn that another aunt and uncle never suffered the same fate but were shot defending their clinic in the Stanislaw ghetto uprising. My mother would huddle with her sisters and parents in secluded corners of our communal home to read each missive aloud. I was not invited to hear, but I was an expert eavesdropper, and while I could not have told you what or who or why, I felt the effect of the camps that my mother and her sisters had narrowly avoided. Even the bits and pieces I surmised were enough to convince me I would never want to go to that place where the evil whose name was Nazi lived.

The pain, the fear, the agony of the camps bored a hole in my consciousness. As did the guilt my mother and her sisters, who never forgave themselves for running away, brought to America. I grew up wondering, as they did every day, if I might have made a difference if I had only been there.

Of course, the notion is absurd. Still, though they said – and genuinely believed – that no such horror could happen in America, they passed to me a sacred responsibility. Never again. Make sure. Never again. Be on your guard. Tolerate no persecutions.

That was the banner I carried in my heart when my cousin and I joined the marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge, when I sang my freedom songs in coffee shops, when I advocated for the end of the War in Viet Nam. Reading history made me cry. How could we enemies of oppression have perpetrated annihilation of the Natives, perpetuated slavery? The more I learned about how this country came to be, the more my inner voice chanted “Never again.”

No one in my circle of intimates ever suggested that there might be anything like comparative suffering. The internment camps that held native Americans all over the Southwest were no less horrific than those that held Japanese Americans during WWII. Inhumanity is inhumanity, Suffering is not a competition sport.

Genocide is genocide.

It follows then that a concentration camp is a concentration camp. Just because there are no gas chambers does not give a vile detention area, where children are tortured, a right to be called anything less brutal. Though the inmates of these camps are not in imminent jeopardy of extermination, ten children have died of their maltreatment.

How many deaths does it take to constitute a death camp?

Children forced to sleep on floors, left unclean, given no soap or water, encouraged to drink from toilets. Worst, children growing every day with no affection, no comfort, ripped from their parents’ love. . . .

 

 

Theresienstadt was a concentration camp. It was a showplace – a beard intended to prove to the Red Cross that the Nazis were humane. Here, like in the border camps, children died. Maltreatment, malnutrition, squalor are killers as lethal as gas and guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My people suffered great losses, yes. But we have no right to be precious about our pain. To be honest, I abhor the fact that we refer to our destruction as The Holocaust. There have been so many holocausts, murder and mayhem inflicted on human beings by fellow humans. Our losses are of no more significance than the losses incurred by our contemporary refugee counterparts.

We don’t own the torment. But we do own the imperative to fight to end our government’s insistence on perpetrating more of it. We will carry the sad karma wrought by the deplorable savagery being enacted under our flag. We must somehow take action, real action, to send this siege of evil.

The great challenge here is to stop the bickering among the converted. We must put our level heads together to figure out what that action is. We must have a unified plan, and we must cry out in a single voice.

Never Again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Road With Grandma – Part II – View from the Courtyard. . . It Seems So Simple Really

From my window, I have a world view I wish I could share with my fellow Americans.

I am currently in an apartment complex in Istanbul. On the European side. Four separate entrances to four connected but independent buildings comprise the 12-story structure that wraps itself around a large courtyard, a recreational close.

In the center of the courtyard is a very large gazebo.

With ample seating for at least 20 adults and floor space for at least as many children. Much of the day, it is occupied by mothers and a few fathers, who chat amongst themselves while their many children run exuberantly about. They are often there until well after 10 PM.

No one in any of the flats that face the courtyard fears missing the opportunity to be part of the communal scene. Each apartment faces the square, and curtains on the sliding doors leading to a small balcony are invariably open. By placing a couch set at the sliding door, inhabitants extend the indoor living space out into the world of the square. Sound carries easily. From the comfort of home, they intermittently call to one another, supervise unruly children, and engage with the flow of life below.

I imagine our neighbors wonder what is wrong with us that we are so anti-social as to keep our windows covered, our doors closed.

Solitude, then, is not the ideal here. Personal space is meant to be shared. It extends beyond our courtyard into the activity that bustles about us. On the street, in stores, at the local market one is likely to feel crowded even when there are no more than a few people nearby. Walking close to one another seems a requirement on the walkways. Driving far too close is common practice on the roads.

Life here is on a clock set for summer hours. Revels extend late into the night, and nearly nothing stirs before 9 AM, even on workdays. This is lucky for me. My need for alone time, for the wide berth of privacy, is satisfied by my early-morning sessions in the exercise room or by eschewing the sun-drenched outdoor pool in favor of the dimly lit indoor equivalent.

I adjust to what might feel like perpetual invasiveness, even when people are staring at me with great curiosity. The ultra-communal atmosphere fascinates me. It instructs me about the world to which I will soon return.

In my neighborhood in Harlem, apartments are built to ensure the most privacy one can hope for in a crowded city. They are built with an American sense of individuality. Bolted doors, barred windows help to reinforce the notion that boundaries matter.

It is a notion that is just as foreign to many of my neighbors in Harlem as it is to those here in Istanbul. Like my neighbors in this courtyard world, my fellow Manhattanville residents are from places where the house is the place to sleep. In the warm climes – in places like this part of Turkey, the Caribbean Islands, large sections of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Asian subcontinent — the cultures encourage and even require communalism. Folks often and comfortably congregate in courtyards, on the beaches, in the marketplace. In Harlem, they replace the familiar sharing places with city sidewalks, local parks, even the local grocery stores.

I have been known to grouse about the way the habits of the collective affect me, interfere with my limits. Though I crave diversity and delight in the culinary benefits these strangers have brought to my city, I also complain about the things that niggle.

Watching the courtyard below me in this very foreign place is a kind of revelation, a reminder of how fortunate I am to experience this perspective changer.

I pledge to remind myself often — at night, when I wish the noise on the street would just stop, on my block, when I am having trouble walking quickly because of the lawn chairs and hibachis blocking my way, in Whole Foods when another shopper’s cart refuses to move more than an inch from me, on my way to work when the tourists walking four abreast slow my progress from point A to B, in my own apartment building, when it is abuzz with folks iding together – that my way of living is not universally the best. Awareness and perhaps a set of earplugs should enable me to adjust my point of view.

We white Americans have made a history of co-opting, usurping, and/or obliterating all traces of Others’ cultures. Our national beginnings are fraught with murder, enslavement, criminalization of anything un-white. We have stolen food, customs, traditions, language, and culture and have forcibly replaced what belongs to others, requiring that they embrace what is ours. We have taken this imperialistic attitude to the world, earning us the moniker of Ugly Americans. And in the time of Trump, we are doubling down on our insistence that the Other be like us or get out.

I don’t like what we’ve become, we white Americans. We are a fearful, suspicious, hateful lot with little understanding of these others settling on our shores. They are not here to take anything away from us. Yet we treat them as though it is a bad thing that their difference threatens our blandness. Every American should spend a week looking out of my Istanbul window and see that there is no harm in retaining individuality if that is what we want. We might be irritated by a handful of inconveniences, but in the end, our lives are enriched by allowing ourselves to observe and grin.

Perhaps a week at my window would engender a sorely-needed American attitude adjustment. Liberals need to see that while the people of the heartland have lacked exposure, they can watch, smile and accept with the rest of us. And so-called Conservatives need to shut up and listen, taste, touch the joy that happens in this courtyard. We can all adjust.

It’s so simple. Really. You may love your hamburgers, sandwiches, and wraps, but once you’ve tasted kofta or börek, you’ll know something more delicious. Preserving tradition is fine and dandy, but it’s always a sure bet that adding something new can give your life a whole new dimension.

Judgment Call

Once upon a time, I chose to be confirmed in the First United Methodist Church. I was twelve years old and a singular outlier in a closed society. I joined, hoping that membership would foster a kind of belonging I hungered for. I needed to feel embraced and protected by a great, all-encompassing love. The Methodist Church promised me that all were welcome there. I believed.

It is clear now that my iconoclastic half-  Jewish self would not even be invited to join the United Methodist Church today. Having recently announced their decision to allow ministers and administrators to ostracize members of the LGBTQ communities, the church has tacitly granted their congregations a license to shun anyone with traits the church finds offensive. There is no way they would welcome me.

I stopped attending church and identifying as a Methodist some sixty years ago. But until the announcement, however, I harbored a feeling of warmth for what I believed were its precepts. Those I learned from my father, perhaps the noblest Methodist of them all, and they are rooted in a memory I have of a time he acted in a way that demonstrated what I still believe Christianity is basically all about. Long after leaving his church, I attributed his accepting nature to the education it had given him.

In the 1970s, my brother was about to come out to my parents. I worried at first that my father might be less than sympathetic.  

Daddy, a conservative, Iowa-born Republican, belonged to the First United Methodist Church in my small Upstate New York home town. He was known there for the dour parables around which his lay sermons were constructed and by the incongruently kindly manner with which he delivered his fire and brimstone messages to the seventh graders he taught in Sunday School. Though he treated all people with compassion and consideration, his attitude could be harshly judgmental toward people with ethical or moral standards that were not his.

From early childhood, Daddy had been taught that liquor, gambling, card playing, and dancing were sins, as was pre- or extra-marital sex. His sense of humor was corny, old-fashioned, chaste.  He allowed no swearing of any kind in his presence. I was reprimanded when I said, “Oh, gosh,” or “Jesumcrow,” the faux curses that punctuated our Adirondack lingo. In our home, there were no alcoholic beverages, no playing cards, no off-color books or art house nudes. All were banned, I assumed, because my father’s faith required that he disdain them. He seemed to have been indoctrinated by a kind of paradoxical orthodoxy. It was hard to predict how he would react to being the father of a homosexual.

In the first place, the news did not surprise him. And in the second, it did not faze him. “You are my son, and I love you,” he said to my brother. “Nothing could change that.” Not long afterward, my brother, newly mustered out of the Air Force and figuring out what to do next, moved in with my parents. The man who was his first serious partner moved in with him.

I needn’t have worried.

One evening, I arrived at my parents’ house to find my brother and his boyfriend intertwined and making out on the couch in the middle of the family room at the center of the house. More surprising than their unabashed PDAs was the fact that my father sat in the easy chair next to them watching television and eating watermelon. “This doesn’t bother you, Daddy?” I asked pointing to the lovers, who were oblivious to my arrival.

“Should it?” Daddy replied.

“No. Not at all,” I stammered. “But your religion. . . “

“My religion is Jesus Christ,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ Shall I be less open than Jesus, whose teachings define my life?”

“But the church, Daddy, won’t the church. . . .”

“The church would never defy our Lord’s teachings.” He stopped. His eyes were distant. He lifted his arms. He was in preacher mode. “The Church welcomes all.”

I accepted him at his word. And I trusted that his beliefs emanated from the doctrine espoused by the religion to which he had unfaltering allegiance. He never missed a Sunday service, never failed to participate in church programs, never refused to teach or to counsel or to take to the pulpit. He was a true believer. So I presumed – hoped – that this church, in which he had raised his seven children, was as accepting as he was.

Hence my shock and confusion when I read the church’s announcement. Traditions I was not aware of had superseded those I had inferred. Traditions of barring homosexuals from ordination, of refusing to sanction same sex marriage, of enforcing strict penalties against clerics who broke the rules and accepted the “gay life style” as a viable human alternative.

Luckily, the declaration is no more than an abstract annoyance for me. And an affirmation of my choice to leave the church all those many years ago. But what of the people – there must be many – like my father. . . the true believers, the ones who honestly see their church as the messenger of their Christ? Does this feel like a betrayal to them? Their church has rejected the notions of inclusion, of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, of refraining from a judgment that Jesus demonstrated by washing Mary Magdalene’s feet, by breaking bread with sinners, by feeding and healing the lepers.

Surely Jesus would be disappointed in this Methodist manifesto. I know Daddy would be.