August 13, 2017

Hey You - A Reaction to Charlottesville

Hey, you. Little person, standing outside your synagogue or your mosque. I see you. I was you. A little different from your classmates. Carrying matzo sandwiches to school on Passover. Standing aside as the other children sing Christmas carols. Getting strange looks for the star around your neck, or the hijab covering your hair. 

I see you. I was you.

I am you.

Hey, you. Little person, surrounded by others who look like you but feel so very different. I see you. I know you. Wondering how all the other children can laugh and play with their boy games and their girl games, not feeling like you fit in completely on either side. Wondering if you'll get shunned if you prefer playing spin the bottle with people who look more like you. Wondering if you'll ever fit in.

I see you. I know you.

I'm not you but I love you.

Hey, you. Little person, walking through the streets wearing skin that is brown when everyone else's seems to be white. I see you. I know you. Wondering if it's safe, looking like you do, living in this crazy world like you do. Knowing the cards are stacked against you. Knowing you're taught you have to be better in order to succeed, and wondering if you'll ever be better enough.

I see you. I know you.

I'm not you but I love you.

Hey, you. Little people. All of you. Even those of you who don't know what I'm talking about above because you're not wearing a star or a hijab, and you do fit in with all your classmates and their binary-gendered games, and you aren't brown or black or yellow or red or purple or plaid.

Hey, you. All of you. I see you. I know you. I am you and I love you. 

And I know what you're seeing right now, any time your mom or dad or grandma or uncle turns on the news. 

You're seeing people who want to hurt each other, based solely on the color of their skin or the god they worship or the people they love. 

That is NOT OKAY.

You're seeing violence. Murder. Killings at the hands of people who might, someday, want to hurt YOU, based solely on the color of your skin or the god you worship or the people you love.

That is NOT OKAY.

You, little person, are small. The world is big and scary. But I promise you, it's beautiful, too. These people? The ones committing the violent acts? The ones with the signs and the guns and the voices? They're terrible and horrible, but they are NOT EVERYONE. They have BIG VOICES right now, but the vast majority of the world condemns their actions. Their words. 

Their HATE.

I condemn them, and as a grown-up it's my job to work hard to keep you safe, little person. Although I'm ashamed to admit I don't yet know how, I promise you: I will work hard. I will do my best to keep you safe, little person.

For I love you. We may be different, but I think difference is beautiful. I think color is beautiful. I think love, in any shape or size, is beautiful.

* * * *

Hey, you. Big person. Big, bad, white person. Big, bad, white man. You with all your sense of entitlement, your sense of being better than everyone. Of deserving more than everyone. You with your sense that anyone who doesn't look like you, feel like you, think like you, believe like you, is something less than you. 

I see you.

I hear you.

Hey, you. You, carrying the Confederate flag. You, holding your hand up in the Nazi salute, chanting words like "Seig Heil," words you probably don't even understand. You who feels like the world is set against you because there are now more people who look different, who feel different, who believe different.

I see you.

I hear you.

I condemn your racism. 

I condemn your anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

I condemn your isolationism. 

I condemn your violence.

I will do everything in my power to stop you. I may not know how yet, but I will. And you will be stopped.

* * * * 

Hey, you. Yeah, you. Mr. President. You know, the man of the bombastic Tweets and the ugly comb-over?

I see you.

I hear you.

I hear you when you refuse to condemn the racism and hate behind a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I see you when you try to spread the blame, to deflect suspicion from yourself. From your words. From your actions.

I see you when you try to change the subject from your own failings to those of another nation, when you threaten violence that will, quite literally, be the end of all of us.

I condemn you. 

Everything about you.

I will do everything in my power to stop you. I support the investigation into your inappropriate dealings with the Russian government. I support the investigation into your questionable financial background. I support efforts to impeach you for gross negligence, gross inadequacy. 

Mr. President, I am not you. 

I will never be you.

* * * *

Little people of the world, please know: we see you and we hear you. The vast majority of us love you. While a few voices raised in hate may currently be drowning out the many voices raised in love, this will not last. We will rise above, and with your help, we will build a more beautiful world.

Be brave. Be strong.

I am with you.

March 1, 2017

A Story About a Story

When I was very small, I learned about my father's brother, George. In 1959, when George was 12 and my father an adoring little brother of 6, George drowned in the Raritan Bay near my hometown of South Amboy, New Jersey.

I obsessed about this story. To this day, I'm not sure why.

Maybe it was because my grandmother talked about his blonde curls and blue eyes. I was also blonde, with blue eyes. It made me feel like maybe he and I were similar.

Maybe it was because I was a swimmer, and his tale, of swimming too far from shore, was cautionary and terrifying.

Or maybe it was because it was

Regardless, I obsessed.

My obsession showed itself last summer when I wrote a piece of flash fiction, in which I tried to resurrect George, to send him (eventually) on an adventure with a fictionalized sibling named Rosey (I couldn't write about my dad as a kid...I just couldn't...). 

It wasn't enough to exorcise my weirdo demon, though. I still think about George, a lot more than is probably normal. But since I've never claimed to be normal, and since I do have the imagination of a writer, I don't worry too much about it. 

Still. It's maybe odd.

Then today, all of a sudden, my childhood neighbor's grown daughter (I know, right??) sent me a link to almost a century's worth of South Amboy newspapers (thank you, Kayla, you're AMAZING!). I found this. My uncle is the "youngster" referenced in the top story, beside the tales of drag racing and Board of Education contract negotiations. 

It was so weird to read about my uncle, George. To read about how he died less than 150 yards off shore. That's more than a football field, but close. So very close. 

Knowing this was an event that shaped my father's life is weird; knowing how close I still feel to this boy who I never even met is weirder. It's renewed my obsession, yet again. Perhaps one day I'll write the rest of George's story. I almost feel as if I have to now. 

But for's what I wrote for George last year. I read it on stage at the Charleston Music Hall, if you can believe that. It was a crazy night. 

I hope you enjoy it.

* * * * 

The Origin Story of Midnight Rose,
Real-Life Superhero,
And Her Brother, the Great Wizard George

By Leah Rhyne

November, 1960. South Amboy, New Jersey. One square mile of taverns and churches, with blue-collar Catholics eating stuffed cabbages and sauerkraut. Rosey is eight-years-old when she ducks into the dark alley, lungs exploding with knife-cold air. All she can think is: Don’t cough. Please don’t cough.
They are coming.
Footsteps drum a Buddy Holly beat as she squats behind a pile of fetid trash, abandoned between the Broadway Bakery and Soltis Butchery. Her hands clasp over her mouth to stem the tide of exhaled air as she stuffs her head between her knees.
It works, for a moment, as her body heat warms the air she breathes, quieting her achining lungs into non-betrayal.
The footsteps pass, but circle back. Bass voices fill the otherwise silent night. “Here. No, here. She’ssss got to be here.”
The “she,” of course, is Rosey. Sweet Rosey. Eight-year-old slip-of-nothing Rosey.
She risks a peek over piles of trash, the perfume of rotting flesh almost gagging her, and sees them, standing in the dim light of a flickering streetlamp. They are three men, their suits inky-black, their hats pulled low over eyes cloaked in shadow. They are identical, and in the wavering streetlight they grow. Stretch. Fingers extend to claws. Teeth protrude from mouths and shine like golden daggers.  Forked tongues slither in and out between scaly lips.
They turn, tongues darting, tasting the air for whatever molecular flavors will betray the girl’s presence. What flavors are there, though, but the sharpness of yeast and the bitter tang of blood? Rosey has chosen her hiding spot well; the corrupt air is her security blanket.
“It’ssssss her. She already knowsssss.”
Rosey watches, holding tight to her malodorous disguise, wondering, what do I know?
“George isssss right.”
Rosey gasps, breathing in putridity and frozen air. She coughs, a tinny, hacking sound, and it’s enough.
They taste the peanut butter on her breath. The strawberry soda. They hear with ears invisible beneath low-slung hats. They see her, curls in disarray about her face, her yellow hair stark contrast to November twilit darkness.
Rosey should run from the alley, but this isn’t hide-and-seek. There’s no base awaiting her beyond the streetlamps. There is only an empty train-track littered with squashed coins and discarded candy wrappers. There is only a bay, sprawling deep and brown, waiting to drink her down.
No. Sweet Rosey will find no sanctuary by running. This she knows as well as she knows the streets of her sleeping town. This she knows as well as she knows the deeply-etched lines on her mother’s palm.
Sweet Rosey may never see those lines again.
The reptilian men smile their reptilian smiles. They inch closer, suddenly tentative, suddenly careful to silence their footsteps. They have her now. They can take their time.
Rosey scoots back on her bottom. Her PF Flyers slip on the damp cobbled stones. They are hand-me-downs from her big brother, George, three days before his death by drowning in the bay, his body never recovered, leaving Rosey with nothing but his tattered clothes and her gaping, broken heart.
Her back strikes solid wall. The wall of the bakery, infused with yeast, yes, but nothing helpful or protective. A tremulous cry pinballs around her throat, wetter than she’d like, and also more tender, threatening to escape.
Pressed against the wall, she gathers her legs beneath her. The knees of George’s hand-me-down blue jeans are torn and wet with the juice of decayed meat, their acrid scent a cloud around her. It’s not enough to hide her this time, though.
Her eyes burn as the men, the creatures, gather close, side-stepping her small barricade with identical motions as though they are one and not three. Rosey’s chin juts upward, small and sharp though it is. A tear slides from the inner corner of her eye, catching in the crease of her right nostril. The damp of twilight’s kiss condenses on her full cheeks. She is cold. She is wet. Her ears are full of thunder and blood.
She will not give in.
Her voice is small, but many big things start small. Her voice is one of them.
Repetition gives her strength. She steps from the wall. Her hands, she finds, are balled into tiny, rock-hard fists at her sides. She raises them, the way she saw George once raise his when Old Man Semasko insulted Mother. George was brave; Rosey can be brave, too.
She will not be taken.
She is Rosey. Not sweet. Not innocent. She is only eight-years-old but she has lived and she has fought. She has seen death and lived to tell the tale. She has weathered the weight of her mother’s broken heart, worn upon the old woman’s sleeve like a badge of dishonor. She will not be another loss for Mother to bear.
She will stand up to these men, these creatures with other-worldly essence oozing like wretched slime.
She will not be taken.
The creatures, with their black suits and hats, pause for a moment and smile reptilian smiles, admiring the tiny girl with Goliath strength. The girl who knows not, yet, what she can do. They watch her hold up her chin and begin her march to freedom.
The men, the creatures, allow Rosey to think she will escape. To think she will not be taken.
Until they speak to her.
“We will take you to George,” they say. “And then will you ssssssee.”
What else is left to do?
To George, Rosey will go, and tomorrow, perhaps, her mother will cry. Rosey will be another death, another drowning in the bay. Another body unrecovered.
If only they could all see: there’s no need to cry.

Not for sweet Rosey, or for her brother, George.

February 12, 2017

Washington, D.C. - Photos

I went to Washington, D.C. this past weekend for the 2017 edition of the Association of Writing Professionals (AWP) annual conference. I was there to meet my pals from, and to work at our book fair table, but I wound up with a morning to myself. Since I hadn't been to D.C. since high school (ack!), I decided to go exploring. 

Here are some of the things I saw and learned.

1. There is much to fear in humanity's past.

I went to the Holocaust Museum. The last time I was there I was 14, naive, on an adventure with my mother. This time I was 37, and by myself, and far more educated than I was before. Therefore, the museum overal didn't have the same impact on me as it did when I was so young and couldn't get past the horror of the piles of confiscated old shoes - people wore those shoes and the Nazis stole them! - but still. It's impossible to walk through this small, unassuming building without feeling the weight of humanity's violent history on your shoulders.

When you walk into the museum, you're encouraged to take an identity card from the stacks loaded against one wall. I wandered to the women section and took one (solidarity!). The name quite literally took my breath away. Seeing the name of a girl I loved fiercely as a child (though I'm sure I never showed it) beside my own name (though spelled differently) was enough to make me slump down on a bench for more than a minute to wrap my head around fate. Clearly, this was a trip I was supposed to make.

A casting of the wall surrounding the ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. Jews were held against their will in this ghetto for years. Their living conditions were appalling; work was scarce; thousands starved and died from outbreaks of disease. Yet still. Life went on in that ghetto. People lived. Children played. Young people fell in love. There were marriages. Babies. 

Life always goes on. It's our will to survive, even in the face of madness. 

A cattle car used to transport Jews from ghettos to camps, or from camps to other camps. People crammed in there like sardines, in winter, spring, summer, and fall. They were locked in for days with no food and  minimal water. Men and women stashed away together, with only a bucket for a latrine. Can you even imagine? What if you were shoved in there? What if you were alone? Or worse, what if you had to bring with you your child? How would you protect that child? What would you do to keep her alive?

Arbeit Macht Frei. Work sets you free. This was the lie posted over the gates at Auschwitz. Work didn't set anyone at Auschwitz free. The only way out was up through the chimney, and no one wanted to go out that way.

Government-sponsored lies are not a new thing. Nope. Not at all.

This is where people slept in Auschwitz, and I'm sure in many of the other camps. Hard wooden bunks that were shared with upwards of six other people. Can you imagine sleeping there? Crawling with lice? Your stomach churning with hunger cramps or, worse, the pains of typhoid fever? Can you imagine your neighbor crying out in the night for her dead husband or child? Can you imagine trying to comfort her, though you yourself are living a nightmare?

This. This is the history of me. I come from Romanian Jews. To my knowledge, my family tree goes back no further than the branch that immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, just in time. I don't know for certain what happened to anyone left behind; this tells me probably nothing good.

It wasn't just my family, though. That's important to remember. This is a piece of two walls of windows, etched with the names of Jewish villages raped, pillaged, and ultimately removed from the map by the Nazis. Just a piece of the walls. They stretched far over my head, and far beneath where I stood while taking this photo. That gives you a bit of scale, doesn't it?

2. We've made many mistakes, especially here in the United States.

This is an editorial cartoon from the late 1930s. At center, a Jewish man, being told to leave Europe for his own safety. At the end of every path? A simple reminder that there's actually nowhere to go. No one wants the Jewish man...or woman...or child.

Sound familiar?

Yeah. I thought so.

No Sanctuary In America.

Need I say more? 

Just...think of all the lives that could have been saved, if only we had opened our doors to the Jews. We'll never know what the world could have been like today, if only some of those murdered had been allowed to find refuge within our borders.

The quote by Bertolt Brecht really, really spoke to me. Some survived...and had to live with the guilt of their survival. I sometimes wonder who was luckier?

The words of our leaders (Dwight D. Eisenhower above, Jimmy Carter below) haunt me as well. We know better than what we're doing today. Our prior leaders knew. Our current one should as well. So what can we do to make things better?

This is on the wall of the display of contemporary genocide.

Please. Let's do our part to #SaveSyria.

And finally...

3. In history, I can also find hope.

The Washington Monument above and below. What a brilliant reminder that beauty still exists in the world...and that we should protect and maintain it!

It's good to feel so very small sometimes. I felt like a mouse beside the monument, and also appreciated seeing the changing colors of the white bricks over time. Time will always leave its mark, but can also enhance beauty. I think a tall white building is kind of boring; up close, the gradations of cream and grey and even gold are stunning.

Despite our many mistakes, we've built this massive memorial to the man who fought to end slavery. We have to remember that. We've seen darkness in our country. So much darkness. At least we're smart enough to honor the ones who fought for light.

Abraham Lincoln is Barack Obama's favorite President, and is one of mine as well.

It was a warm day in D.C. when I went exploring. The shaded air inside the Lincoln Memorial was a good ten degrees cooler than in the sun outside. It was a lovely, peaceful moment, and it was amazing to see many people, of many different skin tones, pausing to admire Mr. Lincoln's words. I snapped this photo because of the very white, maleness of this person...sometimes it's good to be reminded that even this privileged class of people can take a moment to appreciate the past.

At the World War II Memorial, I found my grandfather honored for his fight against the Nazis.

I also found my daughter's great grandfathers honored for their same fight. I thought that was pretty cool. The merging of two histories to create one beautiful little girl.

My father-in-law fought in Vietnam. The war (police action) was another American mistake. That said, the boys who fought and died there still deserve to be remembered, and honored. They were told to fight for our country, our ideals, and fight they did. 

We must make good decisions in the future, and we must always be ready to take a stand for what's right. But for those who are forced to fight, we must always remember: welcome them home, with love and understanding. They deserve nothing less.

I see myself in the past, the present, and sometimes even in the future. I see myself always looking for the best side of humanity, but being smart enough to recognize evil. I see myself working as hard as I can to protect the rights of every citizen in this country, and every person who needs a second chance in a new land. I see myself, most of all, as a citizen of a country that is still great, still strong, and will get through this dark time by standing firm together. Together, we are better. Always, always better.

November 14, 2016

Yes, This Matters....

This weekend, it was announced that Stephen Bannon would become President-elect Donald Trump's chief strategist. 

The internet-world exploded.

Understandably so. The accusations surrounding Bannon's history of sexism and antisemitism are inflammatory at their very best, and are indicative of a pattern of white supremacy surrounding the Trump administration.

"But it doesn't matter, not really, as long as they do a good job managing our economy, right?" 

I know some people - white, Christian people, probably - are thinking that right now. And I understand it, to a point. If you've spent your life in this country as a white Christian, you've lived a very safe life. You've probably never been challenged. A Swastika wouldn't send a lightning bolt of fear through your heart.

But though I am white, but I am also a woman, and I'm a Jew. And I'm here to tell you: the Swastikas being casually scrawled on walls around the country in the name of our upcoming President? They matter. They matter so much.

* * * *

I've written before about being a ten-year-old kid in New Jersey when some bullies vandalized our local synagogue. My mom didn't want me to see the broken windows, the antisemitic threats scrawled on the walls, but through a trick of fate, I wound up at the synagogue anyway.

I'm the only child in my family who didn't have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I quit Hebrew School that day. I could never set foot in that synagogue comfortably again, not after seeing it covered in ugly, bleeding Swastikas.

I lost my religion at the hands of some mean-spirited vandals.

But even stuck with me. It was this generalized feeling of being unsafe. In danger. Of being marked in some way, less visible, perhaps, than the yellow Stars of David worn by Jews in Nazi-occupied countries in the 1940s, but no less terrifying. 

It...stuck with me. I never forgot.

* * * * 

Twenty-five years later, the incident appeared in a book I was writing. A book that became about survival at any and all costs. A book in which I had to prove: a person can rise above the stem of hate and murder. But they cannot do it unscathed.

I promise you: every racial threat, every Swastika, every act of terror committed in the name of Donald Trump or Stephen matters.

It may take 25 years for people to deal with exactly how much it matters, but I promise you it does.

Here's what I wrote. The book's not published. Maybe someday it will be. But this is how much that incident affected me. And this is how much what's going on in our world TODAY is affecting our children RIGHT NOW.

* * * *

Chapter 2: September 1983

As Ruthie began the long walk home from school that day – the long walk that would begin her longest night – she felt a little off. A little tired. A little spinny in the head. She wasn’t thinking about boys or difficult teachers or pre-algebras test like she and her friends had discussed until she’d left them at their bus. As they squealed goodbyes out the windows and she took the first steps home, Ruthie began thinking, instead, about music.
But even that was off, in a way she couldn’t quite put her finger on. At least, not at first. The music that normally filled Ruthie’s world was from The Police or Michael Jackson or Madonna. Those voices shouted from boom boxes all around town, and Ruthie often walked home humming the songs of her generation.
But no, that wasn’t the music in Ruthie’s ears as she stepped onto Washington Road. Instead of Sting or Madonna she heard…violins. Yes, that was it. Violins, humming a mournful tune. And was that an…accordion? And a clarinet? Yes. Yes, it was.
She’d never heard this song, this music, but in that moment it felt familiar, and also terrifying.
It made her head spin, that’s what it did.
Ruthie paused, six cars whizzing past not seven feet from where she stood, and she glanced around. She thought someone nearby must have had a stereo system playing this bizarre-o music. But there was nothing, no one. Ruthie was alone beside a copse of trees in the park beside her school. They threw long shadows across the empty road.
The music was melancholy – that was a vocabulary word Ruthie loved, and she used it often – wordlessly singing of love long expired, perhaps a mother’s lament for a missing child. Ruthie’s eyes filled with inexplicable tears.
“What’s wrong with me?”
She spoke aloud to the trees, to the lone car that passed, honking, with a lackluster old horn. Ruthie waved a hand, a half-hearted gesture at best, but somehow it quieted the music in her ears. Slowly it receded from whence it came, bit-by-bit, note-by-mournful note, until Ruthie heard only the breeze blowing through the trees’ golden leaves, and the whish of tires on ancient asphalt.
“I should get home.”
Her voice echoed in the empty park. She shuddered, and then giggled, a weak, watery sound. “God, I hope no one sees me talking to myself like a crazy person. They’ll send me to the loony bin for sure. I should get home.”
With the repeated words, Ruthie found she was able to force a step, further breaking the spell created her by the unidentified music. Soon she was on her way in earnest, heading for home, which in the after-school hours was really her neighbor’s house. Her stomach rumbled with hunger for an after-school snack. An apple sliced and dipped in peanut butter sounded good. Mrs. Tilly usually had apples and peanut butter.
Or maybe her mother would have come home early from work, and maybe she could go home instead of to Mrs. Tilly’s house. Maybe Ruthie’s mother would be waiting with cookies and lemonade, and they could go to dinner later after Ruthie had finished her homework.
More likely, Ruthie knew with a sinking stomach, she would have to go next door like normal, to Mrs. Tilly, who was paid to keep track of Ruthie in the afternoons. Theirs was a quiet relationship, of long afternoons with tea and toast and homework and silence. Always silence. Miss Rachael, Mrs. Tilly’s daughter, was the loud one. Nights when Miss Rachael came home early were tempestuous ones on Orchard Street as old-woman-mother fought too-old-to-be-belligerent-daughter. Sometimes Ruthie listened to them from her own bedroom at night, wishing they’d stop, and often wishing she knew why they battled so. It was as though Mrs. Tilly wanted Miss Rachael to be something different. Something other.  
In Ruthie’s stomach, she felt the day would be tempestuous whether Miss Rachael came home or not. Something, somewhere, told her that.
Ruthie’s feet carried her homeward anyway, without thought to the direction they were taking. There were two routes home. The left-hand road would take her along the highway; the right would take her past her town’s lone synagogue where, if she’d given it any thought at all, Ruthie would have realized her feet were taking her anyway. Something, somewhere, was pulling her. Calling her. Had she only listened, she could have heard it, and she could have run. For the tempest was at the synagogue, and there, on the street, Ruthie still had time to escape. To run. To hide.
If only she had listened.
But she didn’t. She only walked, and her feet following the right-hand route, edging her closer and closer to the coming storm.
A cold breeze washed over her. The music that had given her goosebumps back at the park was long gone, but now, on a main road down which dozens of cars sped, she was overcome by the feeling that someone – or something – was watching her. Waiting for her. The hairs on the back of her neck, shorter, wispy baby-hairs that never stayed where they were supposed to, stood up like soldiers at inspection. She cast a glance over her right shoulder, then her left.
No one there but the cars on the road, the homes lining the street shut tight.
Maybe she should thumb down a ride, hurry up and finish this weirdo walk home. That would have saved her.
Instead, Ruthie sped up to a jog.
She flew down the street, backpack bouncing against butt, and tattered tennis shoes slapping the rugged pavement of the decades-old sidewalk. She turned right from Washington onto Bordertown Avenue, and she drew to a sudden halt.
Light blinded her, the sun’s clear autumn rays reflecting off the most beautiful building in the town.
The synagogue. Temple Beth Israel. The building that looked like it was made of gold.
Though her town was mostly Roman Catholic, with a few Irish Catholics thrown in, and though the town’s two churches held stately vigil on either end of Bordentown Avenue, dwarfing the synagogue with their spires and bells and their old, gothic architecture, to Ruthie the churches could never hold a candle to Temple Beth Israel. Her  golden bricks sparkled in the sunshine, especially on a day like this, with the sun a bright fireball in an azure sky. The synagogue looked as though it had been doused with glue and glitter, a child’s art project, but in the most beautiful of ways. Not gaudy, like the gargoyles on the churches, but shiny and glistening.
It blinded her, the synagogue, and she pulled to a sudden halt. The light was dazzling.
Which was weird too, all things considered, because although she’d seen it on many a sunny afternoon, she’d never quite been blinded like this. For everything glittered. Everything sparkled. The parking lot was coated with diamonds, or at least it looked like it was. Light reflected and refracted until it burned, burning, searing, tearing apart Ruthie’s eyes.
She squinted, throwing a hand up to block the sun, and through its meager shade, she was able to register that, among the glittering building and the sparkling parking lot, there were flashing blue lights. Red ones, too.
The police were there, a fire truck, too. Something bad was happening. The weird, creepy feeling that pulled her forward had a source. Like a magnet she’d been pulled to this time, this place, and something was very wrong indeed.
If only she had run.
And suddenly, as though there were a siren in her brain, one thought blazed forth in a painful scream.
Mrs. Tilly was in the synagogue.
Mrs. Tilly was in the middle of this.
Mrs. Tilly, a Holocaust survivor who never spoke of her experiences but who everyone knew had lived through the unlivable, was there, in a shattered, broken synagogue.
Somehow, Ruthie knew it was true.
And for some reason, this thought filled her with dread, but also with a feeling that she had to stop it. She had to fix things. That only she could make things right.
Now her run was fueled by fear. By the insatiable need to save her old, quiet friend.
As Ruthie ran, images as inexplicable as violin music crowded into her brain.
There was an old village in the middle of the woods. A red-headed woman in a white dress.
There was a pit, a burning pit, with naked hands and smoldering feet sticking up from the coals.
There was a man, a beautiful man, and he loved her.
But who was she?
Ruthie ran faster. Lactic acid built up, burning in her shoulders, her side, as she ran, her sneakered feet pounding the uneven pavement. She knew the path well, knew where the sidewalk stuck up from a persnickety tree root, knew where gaps necessitated ballerina leaps and bounds, and so she ran. She leaped. She bounded.
She only stopped when she reached the synagogue’s parking lot and saw the news vans. Then she staggered backward until she crashed into a man holding a video camera.
The news is here! This is bad!
Run, Ruthie! Run away!
But Ruthie couldn’t run away. She could only stare at her synagogue, broken and battered in the late autumn sunshine. The synagogue, her synagogue, whose tall glass windows now crunched beneath her sneakers, stood bleeding. There, slashed along the sparkling yellow bricks, were Swastikas. Dozens of them. They were red – dark red, the deep, black-red of drying blood. And between those Swastikas were written words, words Ruthie wished she didn’t know how to read, but she did. When you’re a child growing up Jewish in a Catholic town, and your neighbor and babysitter is a Holocaust survivor, you know how to read certain German phrases.
Arbeit Macht Frei
The sun above still shined. The sky’s cheery blue was unchanged. But Ruthie’s world went grey. It turned sideways. She wobbled on her feet, now planted atop broken glass, and her mouth fell open, then closed, then open again, a dying fish’s mouth, gasping for air.
A hand fell on her shoulder, clamping down. Ruthie screamed. She jerked. In that moment, she’d have fought for her life.
She didn’t need to, though. Not yet. Instead, the hand released, and as she turned she found herself facing the cameraman. He’d been watching her – filming her – since she crashed into him. But now his camera was off, hanging lifeless at his side.
“Are you alright, little girl?” His eyes, rimmed with thick glasses, were kind. Had the moment been a different one, Ruthie would have liked him. Or, at least, she’d have liked to explore the khaki canvas vest he wore, with all its pockets and secret compartments.
But this moment was different. Ruthie’s world was imploding, an avalanche of fear threatening to bury her. The cameraman was thus not her friend. His blue eyes were too Aryan, his pale hair to Christian.
He was an other.
An enemy.
She stared at him.
The Holocaust is happening right here in New Jersey.
A spasm of nausea gripped her stomach. She bent slightly, clutching her abdomen, and was overwhelmed with the crazy idea that the cameraman would shoot her, right there and then, if she threw up on his shoes. Of course she also knew the thought was ridiculous – cameramen don’t carry guns – but there it was. Life was different now that her temple bled, and maybe cameramen did carry guns.
Ruthie backed away. He reached out again, perhaps to steady her, but perhaps he wanted to pick her up and throw her in his windowless news van. Perhaps he wanted to kill her.
Eyes glued to his, she kept moving. She would not turn her back on him. The cameraman was not to be trusted. Walking backward over the broken windows to the battle-scarred, bleeding building, she swallowed down a flood of fear. She choked back vomit. She had to get inside, safe within the building’s four walls. There she’d be among her own kind. There would be more Jews, like her. Together, maybe, they’d be safe.
The cameraman shrugged and went back to filming, keeping his camera on Ruthie as she continued her backward trek. She stopped only when her back hit the hard, cold brick wall.
She turned. There, before her, surely having left its mark on her denim jacket, was a Ruthie-sized Swastika, as tall as she and twice as wide. It glared at her, red and gory, oozing its hatred all over the gold brick walls. Ruthie’s chest tightened. Her hands trembled. She squeezed her eyes shut, sure that if only she waited, if only she counted to ten, she’d awaken from this terrible nightmare. She’d find herself safe in bed, her mother coming into her darkened room to kiss her.
But when she opened her eyes, the Swastika remained, burned into the brick like so many bodies up a crematorium’s chimney.
She reached out a hand to touch it. She had to touch it. Had to feel it. Had to let it wash over her with its anger and its accusations. Yes. She was a Jew. She would wear this scarlet paint – this blood – with honor. With pride. She would own her fate, now that the Holocaust had come to find her in New Jersey.
The paint was dry, though. Cold. Not wet, not warm like real blood, but when Ruthie pulled her hand away she felt slick with it anyway. Dyed red, forever, marking her Jewness, making it known.
“Ruthie!” The booming voice over her shoulder froze Ruthie where she stood. “Ruthie, what are you doing here?”
Thankfully, this was a voice she knew. This was a voice she loved. The synagogue’s patriarch, tall and ample-bellied, Rabbi Portman appeared at her side, his hand taking hold of hers and pressing it down, away from the bloody wall.
“Rabbi, I just…I was walking home…and I saw the lights…so I stopped…and now I…oh, Rabbi Portman, it’s terrible.”
Keeping hold of the hand of the man who’d sat patiently through countless hours of practice for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah, she raised her eyes from the Swastika to his face. She was surprised to find his eyes wet and ringed with crimson, a shade not unlike that which somehow, impossibly, coated her fingers.
It’s spreading.
The Rabbi let go of Ruthie’s hand, opting instead to stretch an arm – a heavy arm, heavier than Ruthie would have guessed – across her shoulders, pulling the girl to him in an awkward embrace. Though the Rabbi had never, ever hugged one of his students, she felt no urge to pull away. Instead, she leaned in, breathing in the scent of him – smoked cigarettes and Wintergreen Lifesavers.
“I’m so sorry you had to see this,” said the Rabbi. Ruthie was vaguely aware that she was walking, letting herself be pulled by the Rabbi, as he continued. “The police think it was kids. Vandals. It’s nothing to worry about, not really, and I wish you hadn’t seen it, but I’m glad you’re here. I need your help.”
Ruthie raised her head from its resting place against the Rabbi’s belly, held in its place by a button-up dress shirt and an old corduroy coat, both of which stretched like sausage casing. He led her inside.
Now Ruthie’s eyes found more Swastikas, this time on the interior walls. More threats. More words. Die Dirty Jew. Kike. Rat. Pig.
At least they’d switched to English; English insults felt more familiar. She’d heard them all before. Surrounded by broken glass and vitriol, Ruthie pulled away from the Rabbi and tried hard to meet his watery hazel eyes. “Why do you need my help?”
He sighed, his graying mustache rising and falling with his breath. When he spoke, it was with the thick Williamsburg accent Ruthie knew he worked hard to keep under wraps during services. “Mrs. Tilly is here. She’s...she’s not taking this well.”
Ruthie could only nod. How could she explain that, somehow, she already knew this?
“I was hoping you could help her home? She’s been here all day, and she won’t let me move her. I know your families are close, so maybe she’ll listen to you? I haven’t been able to get in touch with her daughter.”
“She works a lot, and she has a new boyfriend I think. Based on what I heard the other night. Mrs. Tilly doesn’t like him.”
“Right. And you know that Mrs. Tilly was in the…”
“The camps. I know, Rabbi. I know. She doesn’t talk about it.”
The Rabbi nodded. “She’s in the sanctuary, by the Ark. It’s…well, it’s a mess in there. I wish you didn’t have to see it like this. I wish she hadn’t seen it. Can you help her home?”
“Yes. Yes, I can.” She tugged the Rabbi’s arm, pulling him to the thick swinging doors that led into the synagogue’s main sanctuary. The magnetic pull, which had seen her through her walk to the synagogue, the one she didn’t understand at all, was stronger here. A rope tethered Ruthie to what lay beyond the doors, and someone (Mrs. Tilly? Yes, that felt right.) waited at its far end, pulling and coiling the cord as Ruthie drew closer and closer to an end she could not yet see.
She pushed her way through the doors, doors that now were branded with the same swastikas as the bricks outside. These were different, though. These burns were real. No paint remover could ever get rid of those scars. Ruthie could see that much, anyway, as she burst into the sanctuary. Swallowing a huge gulp of air, willing her stomach to settle down, she almost stopped. She almost let fear overtake her.
But the invisible rope pulled her forward, regardless of her terror.
Every chair in the sanctuary – every single wooden chair, not a single one spared – was broken up like kindling. Some were piled in the center of the room, awaiting a bonfire that, for some reason, was never lit. It’s like it’s waiting for the Jews to come. Will it burn now that I’m here?
The room was filled, too, with the pungent odor of gasoline. Gasoline and something else. As Ruthie continued her journey, with the Rabbi’s hand pressing gently on her back and the invisible rope pulling her onward, she noted the smears of red paint splattered carelessly on the walls, lending an eerie blood-glow to the entire space.
Up front stood the Ark, open. A knife pierced the left-hand door as though it had been used for a handle. But that knife had been used for dirtier work as well. The Torah, the sacred text of the Jews, the heartbeat of the synagogue, lay un-scrolled across the floor. Parts of the ancient, acidic paper were ripped to shreds, the Hebrew words transformed to confetti. The Torah’s cover, once a lux, glorious piece of velvet and beads, with sparkling gemstones and embroidery, lay in a heap beside the scrolls, and it was then that Ruthie recognized that second odor. That foul, human odor.
She slapped a hand across her mouth. Her nose.
She gagged.
“Is that…”
“Yes. They used the Torah for a toilet.”
Ruthie shook her head, a long, silent no. She felt older now, somehow, as though the march into the sanctuary had aged her well beyond her twelve years. She would never again need to go to sixth grade, she knew. Not after seeing this, the culmination of ignorance and hate and desecration and defecation. What more was there to learn?
Ruthie was ready to leave. To leave and never return. She turned to the Rabbi.
“Where is she?”
The Rabbi sighed, and with two hands pressed to Ruthie’s cheeks, he shifted her focus to the corner of the room.
Finally, Ruthie saw her. Her neighbor. Her caretaker. Dare she think it, even her friend. They’d been through a lot, she and Mrs. Tilly. Long afternoons spent watching stories on the old black and white television. Hundreds of cups of tea. Thousands of sugar-free hard candies. They were close. Were friends. Despite knowing little of Mrs. Tilly’s past, she knew enough to know this would be devastating.
And there was Mrs. Tilly now, kneeling on the floor behind an overturned podium, praying before the shattered room. She was broken. Pitiful. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead to the ground, bending in a way no 70-something year old ever should have bent. Mrs. Tilly rocked, swaying side to side, and as she rocked she sang quietly to herself. Ruthie strained her ears, willing them to hear, and soon they zeroed in on the old woman’s rough voice, hardened by decades of chain smoking.
Yisgadal v'yiskadash sh'mei rabbaw.”
She sang the Kaddish. The prayer sung at funerals. The prayer that praised a God who allowed terrible things to happen. The prayer that was devoted in the face of devastation, defying those who would roll over and die at the first sign of adversity.
Amidst the devastation, Mrs. Tilly bowed and praised her God.
Ruthie couldn’t stand it.
“Come on, Mrs. T,” she called, her voice echoing through the broken, cavernous room. “Let’s get out of here.”