David Sugarman is a doctoral candidate in New York University's Department of English. His fiction, nonfiction, and academic writing have appeared in Textual Practice, Tablet, The Santa Fe Literary Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
The trees on my street were not well. I left messages with the city and was waiting for word back (there wasn’t one single leaf and the spring was almost over) when Anna called. She didn’t know I’d moved to Baltimore, that I spent my days drifting across the city or watching from these windows. We made plans.
On the train I remembered her sunny little studio in Morningside Heights, and our runs along the river and picnics in the park. She used to write, in my books, little notes from their authors. To Zuckerman: It’s Friday, so call your mother. All best, Goethe.
I dozed off, expecting to sleep to Penn Station but being buzzed awake just past Delaware instead—by a text message from my sister. Hey Dave, I have some terrible news. Zeide passed away this morning and the funeral will be in Brooklyn later today. Is there any way you can make it?
She didn’t know I was en route already. I could have said No, there are no more train tickets; No, I can’t get there in time. We hadn’t been close, my grandfather and I. A somber and severe Holocaust survivor, he didn’t have much to say to his American grandson. My mother, his daughter, tried to explain this distance away: Your zeide, he was born in Poland in 1925—think about that! I thought about it and felt that he should, given his experiences, be a bit nicer.
Of course, I wrote back. Is Mom with you?
My mother’s family would be wearing black suits and white shirts; they were chasidic and devout. It wasn’t necessary that I be so formal but I couldn’t wear the things I’d brought along for my dinner with Anna, so when I got off the train in Manhattan (and while awaiting word about where and when the funeral would be held) I set off in search of some clothes.
I wandered across Midtown to the High Line, where I followed a large group of laughing teenagers into the park. I wasn’t sure of the day’s plans, and the funeral was still being arranged. I took out my phone to text Anna. Bad news, I wrote, and deleted it. Hey listen—I put my phone away.
The High Line must come as a great relief to the traveler, as it is defined by a rigid determinism: You walk in a straight line; you enter at one end and exit at another; your pace is prescribed by the pace of those around you and the view circumscribed by recent additions (ugly) to Chelsea’s curving skyline. It is, in this sense, a tourist’s dream: low-demand, comprehensible, full of food stalls.
And what is it for the local? The rusty tracks and leaning weeds made me think of Auschwitz, but I wasn’t a local any longer. I texted Anna to tell her that my grandfather had passed away.
The windows on Bleecker Street were full of summery clothes and swimsuits. They’d be changing soon, making room for fall fashions. I stopped at one especially attractive display of simple linen shirts set before a large photograph of rolling green hills. The store’s interior (Welcome to The Alps! a blonde cashier called out) was wallpapered with the same green countryside, and there were little displays of camping goods and elegant sportswear arranged alongside leather-bound journals and fine Swiss pens, conjuring images of European gentlemen in search of elusive flora.
I noted the serendipity. My zeide had lived in Switzerland for a few years, in a town full of Jews displaced by the war. He fell in love with a young woman there, also from Eastern Europe and also on her own. They had a small wedding beside the makeshift synagogue and, a year later, their first child—my mother.
Let me know if you have any questions! another blonde man called. I smiled and started towards the door until I saw, on the sales rack, a vest so similar to those my zeide used to wear that I laughed. It was a thick maroon V-neck that recalled an old photo—of my grandfather, baba, and mother out in the countryside, leaning against a wooden fence with their bicycles in the grass beside them. My grandfather’s pants are neatly pressed and his hat, a flat cap, is tipped back. He wears a white button-down beneath a dark woolen vest and is smiling.
When I got off the train in Borough Park I had a text message from Anna. I’m so sorry, David. I understand if you need to cancel, but if you want to push back dinner just let me know. My condolences to your family.
There was a Judaica store down the street from the subway and I went in to buy a yarmulke, choosing the black velvet variety my zeide and cousins all wore. I paid and put it on before walking next door, into a small kosher cafeteria for lunch.
The idea of going from the funeral to dinner with Anna was unsettling. It is an issue of ethics, I reasoned, for it is wrong to go from a funeral to a date. But that wasn’t what troubled me (such concerns can so easily be waved away) as much as a sense that my grandfather would be watching from above—watching as we dined and drank and spoke about his life, as we lingered after coffee and left as they closed—and it was unbearable that he should be in attendance, on his first evening in heaven, as I went about the business of my unhappy life.
Then my blintzes arrived, a trio of caramelized crepes surrounded by three small portions of applesauce and fried onions and sour cream. I cut into the blintz and scooped up some onions and was calmed. The pensioner beside me opened his Forverts and I felt better still—felt that complex comfort of the Jew in New York City, happily at home in his exile. With my third blintz came a rising resolve against my superstitions. Yes, I texted Anna. Let’s meet later.
The funeral hall, a wide, squat building with fiberboard ceilings and fluorescent lighting was an unfortunate place to mark the end of a life, but the mood, as I entered, was celebratory; my mom’s large family filled the hall, and dozens of giddy grandchildren ran about the small yard.
My zeide was an important figure for my mom’s family, not only because he was a father and grandfather and great-grandfather, but because he had constituted a living link to all that was destroyed by the Second World War. This hagiography created one of the great tensions between my mother and her sisters. While my aunts and their children saw my zeide as a righteous hero who’d carried the light of European Jewry onto the dark shores of America, my mother saw a man who’d shown integrity and commitment through horrific times, but who wasn’t the most forgiving of fathers. My mom had chosen to live differently from the way she’d been raised. Our family was religious, but not like her sisters’, who didn’t subscribe to “secular” newspapers or own TV sets. For my mother (and especially in light of my lapses) there had always been a question about whether she’d made the right decisions.
As soon as she saw me she began complaining about the ugly building and dismal lighting and I hugged her again. And did dad tell you? she went on. They won’t let me give a eulogy.
What do you mean? I asked.
The hall, she said. Women aren’t allowed to speak from the podium. She shook her head and pulled a hair from her sweater and I saw, as she turned away, her grief. Not only for her father, or for the choices that distanced her from her family, or for her religious uncertainties that had been realized in my eventual disavowal, but at this last awful insult—that she would not give a eulogy on the occasion of her father’s funeral.
The doors swung open and a phalanx of aunts, uncles, and cousins walked in, just arrived from New Jersey. I hadn’t seen many of them in years, and they didn’t recognize me—not because I looked older, but because of my clothes. My goodness, they said when they finally saw me, You look just like zeide! My mother turned and laughed. It’s true, she said. I hadn’t noticed but you really do. Well this vest, I began, I bought it because—they waved me off. No, they said. Just you in general. Your hairline and glasses and—they shook their heads, and I reddened on account of my hairline (a source, as it withdrew, of increasing anguish). I tried to tell them about the vest once more but we were called into the sanctuary for the service.
I learned, in the first few minutes of the ceremony, that my zeide was to be buried in Jerusalem; there would be some speeches, and then a final farewell at the airport hangar before my mother accompanied the body to Israel. My meeting with Anna would need to be delayed further and the resolve I’d discovered in my blintzes disappeared. I texted her that there wouldn’t be a burial, that I’d be going to JFK and had no idea what time all this would end. A moment later, she responded: Can you call me when you get a chance?
After the ceremony, I found a quiet room and phoned Anna, who sounded nervous when she answered. Are you all right? I asked.
Well, no, she said. No, listen. I understand if this is impossible or strange, but do you think I can come to the hangar? To the ceremony?
For my grandfather? I asked.
She told me about her grandmother, also a Holocaust survivor who had died in the States but was buried in Israel. Anna had been away at the time; she was traveling and only learned of her grandmother’s death when she got home. Since then she’d always felt—she fell silent, unable to articulate the dismay of being away when she should have been closer.
Of course, I said, of course you can come.
I rode to the airport with my uncle, a small, quiet man save the fiery speeches he delivered to his congregation every shabbat morning. He lectured (at least when I’d heard him as a kid) about the eternal threats to Jewish life—“By annihilation or by assimilation,” he liked to say. He believed that time was a line between the destruction of one temple and construction of another, so I imagined us, as we drove, somewhere within that beginning and end, all these people and places I’d thought as far apart as things in a heart can be. We were side by side and making our way to the airport.
When we arrived, we were directed to the far end of a hangar, past a dozen idling trucks being unloaded. Our group was set between a cargo container and the fenced-off runway, and we gathered into a circle as one of my uncles began shouting psalms above the din. My family prayed as planes lifted and landed all around us.
A few men approached our group. We’d be bringing the coffin to them, and they’d be taking it aboard. They leaned against the wall, smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee from styrofoam cups, and I grew aggrieved by the impudence of that styrofoam which, unlike the human body, will not come undone over time; it will remain just so while we dissolve and disappear and I considered smacking the cups from their hands until Anna arrived, stepping past the trucks to join the circle of my family. Forgetting myself, I smiled, recalling that same old gait—the long strides and hunched shoulders, as if struggling against a wind. This was the way she’d walk beside me until she’d turn to pose some problem: Do you think, I remember her asking, that potholes are like these breaks in the skin of the city? I mean, aren’t they sort of interesting?
The circle tightened as my mother stepped forward to speak, shouting above the noise (I had never heard her shout, this dignified woman) about the father she’d remember, about his quiet sense of wonder, that he’d surreptitiously read, as a Yeshiva boy in Poland, the novels his sisters were assigned in their secular schools, and how he walked, once they’d emigrated, for hours on end, looking for work but also dancing about the city as if his steps spelled out a prayer of thanks to God. On one of these walks he found his first job in America, returning that night in a crisp blue janitor’s uniform. He saved and took more jobs until he could buy a property of his own, a six-unit building in Brooklyn. He learned Chinese to speak with its tenants and Spanish for the building after, languages he tucked into the Yiddish he used at home, and I thought, as we carried the coffin towards the hangar, of a young man in Europe dreaming of a place that hadn’t been broken, and of the family he’d start, and of me. We passed the coffin to the crewmen and I turned to face my large family. We were the stuff of that past dreaming, however miraculous and however unredeemed, and I wept.
Anna looks the same, petite with pale skin and black hair. Her eyes are blue and I’m reminded how, when we were younger, she’d look up and speak softly, as if conspiring.
So we lost our reservation, she says. You still hungry?
We’re in her car, half a mile from the airport in rush hour traffic. I am, I say, and look on my phone at the restaurants nearby. There’s an Azerbaijani place a few blocks from here, I tell her.
Azerbaijani. Have you had that before?
I shake my head.
Where is it?
I’m not sure, I admit.
The restaurant, she says, and laughs.
I direct us down one street, then another, to Kavaz Kabab—The only Azerbaijani restaurant in New York City! The choice feels fitting. When we stopped keeping kosher in college, Anna and I tasted our way into the treif side by side, scouring the city for the unfamiliar. I ask her, as we are seated on the restaurant’s rear patio, if she still does this—still travels across the city to try something new.
Oh no, she says. I like to eat, but it’s not like it was. She looks, for a moment, at her menu, and then puts it down. Do you remember, at all, the first time we tried oysters?
What do you mean?
What it was like. That place in Washington Heights. The strangeness.
I do, I say. I remember we were scared.
She laughs. Like we were eating this thing that was forbidden, she says. But forbidden by whom? At that time, it was like to forsake God was still to acknowledge his presence. And that was such a weird thing—such a weird experience. Everywhere we went, we were crossing these lines we didn’t believe in. Do you remember that?
I do, I say.
And now they’re just shellfish, she laughs. And when I felt that way I hated it—how the whole world was marked by these laws we’d learned growing up and the ways we were transgressing them. But now I’ve basically forgotten those feelings, and I’ve come to miss them. I’ve been realizing lately that I liked that—the idea of being close to God through transgression.
It was a kind of devotion, I say.
Anna looks down at her menu, then up again. Do you think about it ever? It’s—it’s why I wanted to see you. And why I’d been thinking about you. I’ve been thinking about that feeling so much lately.
I shake my head. No, I say. Not me.
We park on a quiet street in Cobble Hill and climb to the top story of a brownstone, into an apartment cluttered with books and clothes. I didn’t have time to clean, Anna says feebly, and goes to get a bottle of wine. I settle on the couch and realize, as soon as I sit, just how long this day has been, and strange and fine and fatiguing.
Anna hands me a glass and after a few sips I feel even drowsier. The lighting is soft, and a pleasant breeze blows through the windows. I go to the bathroom to wash my face and come back to find Anna sleeping in her chair.
I wake, late, and have a voicemail from my mother, breathless and on her way back from the burial. She had landed in Tel Aviv and taken a taxi to the hills outside Jerusalem and I (as she speaks about the cold, how it is nearly midnight and everything is black but the tombstones and trees) recall a poem, something Anna once showed me, a poem she read in class written by Mahmoud Darwish. There is a line in that melancholy piece in which he exhorts the people of Israel to leave the land, to dig up your dead and bring them with you, and my mother talks about the stillness, how she waited for almost an hour with nothing in sight save the stones and the groves and she sees them, bearded men in black suits carrying her father. He is wrapped (despite the cold, she thinks) in nothing but his prayer shawl, and they are carrying him across the hillside along the path between the trees until it’s quiet, until the message runs out of time and Anna calls to me from the kitchen. •