At the Museum of Jewish Heritage

originally published in Identity Envy: Wanting to Be Who We’re Not (Taylor and Francis, 2007)

I had been looking forward to visiting the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust since I read about it some months previously. As I approached this new museum with the cumbersome name in Manhattan’s Battery Park, I noticed the unusual hexagonal-shaped structure with its six-tiered roof and was reminded of the six points of the Star of David and the estimated six million who perished in the Holocaust. The first time I tried to enter, the museum was inexplicably closed, so a few days later I tried again.

I wound my way through the peculiarly circuitous security leading into the museum. Upon entering the first hall I heard music and followed it to the rotunda, where images were being projected onto walls all around the large room. Color and black-and-white, contemporary and archival, the still and moving images of the Jewish experience, traditional and modern, flooded and lowed across the walls. I watched as a bridegroom smashed the glass under the chuppa, as a fiddler playing in a Polish shtetl, as well-dressed children danced and romped, as an old woman wrapped herself in a prayer shawl. Suddenly I began weeping. What was it, I wondered, what was affecting me so?

I am familiar with aspects of the Jewish tradition.

“Are you Jewish?” a visitor to my home once asked, noticing the brass menorah on my windowsill.

“No,” I answered. “I’ve just had one too many Jewish boyfriends.”

But I had to confess it is a question that has haunted me most of my life. In additional to having had several Jewish boyfriends, the preponderance of my women friends are Jewish. I have counted out the plagues at Passover Seders, eaten oily latkes at Hanukkah parties, been moved by the Kol Nidre at Yom Kippur services. I enjoy eating matzoh brie, blintzes, humantashen, challah bread, and gefilte fish. Yiddishism inadvertently sprinkle my speech. I light candles over the eight nights of Hanukkah and struggle through the prayer: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam… I confess, I’ve been accused of being “Macca-wanna-bee.”

As a teenager I carefully copied Hebrew characters from the World Book Encyclopedia onto cardboard tablets to complete my Halloween personal as Moses, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Later I bought and played incessantly Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack from the film. My sympathies for the liberated Jews were matched by my attraction to the handsome Charlton Heston.

As I wept, watching these images from a tradition that was not mine, I realized that it was mostly the music that was moving me. I did not recognize any of the jubilant folk dances, lively folk songs, solemn hymns, or other traditional melodies as they were woven around each other. There was something inviting about the lushly orchestrated soundtrack, alternately joyous and melancholy. At times the melody was carried by a lone plaintive violin or a wailing flute. Feeling both haunted and held, I hoped that in the dark no one would notice the tears streaming down my face.

Eventually I eased myself from the room and into the remainder of the museum. I was impressed by the exhibits. I consider myself a connoisseur of such museums, having been many times to the Jewish Museums in New York and San Francisco, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in D.C., and the Skirball Center and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. These exhibits were as informative and thought as any I’d ever seen. I felt a connection mysteriously troubling.

Looking out from the upper-story windows, I saw the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the harbor and realized that this spot might mark where many Jewish immigrants first set foot onto the new world. I wandered through the museum’s many vitrines and displays dedicated to preserving the history of lives lived ad lost, of families and friends, of traditions and taboos.

In the museum’s small gift shop, I noticed among the too-many tchotchkes and books on Judaica, a CD titled “Heritage: The Symphonic Music of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.” I had never heard of Michael Isaacson, who had composed and arranged the music, was conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. I fondled the CD, wondering what it would sound like out of context. Would I really listen to it in my apartment back in San Francisco? I hemmed and hawed about adding yet another CD to a collection that includes many I rarely listen to. Finally I decided to take the risk: it might make a nice souvenir of my visit.

When I listened to the music at home, I was not as moved as I had been in the museum, but I found myself listening to it more often than I’d anticipated. Unaccompanied by the evocative images, the lively klezmer melodies and stirring symphonic strings felt familiar and comforting in my small, studio apartment. The disc stayed in the my five-disc CD player for weeks. Once in a while I took it out to make room for something else, but then it would find its way back and I would again enjoy its mysterious magic.

One day I took it out of its jewel case and put it in the changer. I pressed the “play” button and the machine skipped right over it. Odd, I thought. So, I tried again. Again, the player refused to acknowledge it. I opened the player and moved the disk to another slot. Still no luck. How peculiar. It had played so many times. I tried another disk in the same slot. It played perfectly. So, it wasn’t the player. It must be the CD itself. Had It somehow gotten magnetized or demagnetized or

I took it to my friend Joan who works with audiovisual formats to see if she could figure out what was wrong. It worked fine on her player she said, handing it back to me with a shrug. I tried it again in each of the five slots on my machine. Still no recognition. Frustrated, I put the disk back into its box from time to time I’d look at it and sometimes even try it again the player would skip right past it as if it were not there none of my other CDs were similarly affected months past and I missed hearing the CD I considered giving it away or asking someone to make me a cassette tape of it but I didn’t either.

This morning I notice the CD again and without thinking took the disk from the case I pushed the button to close the tray push play and waited. As the digital display clicked by I realized the music was coming from the speakers the sounds of the disk unheard for so many months were reverberating through the apartment what had happened why had it started playing now why had it refused to play before?

Immediately I thought about my brother, three-and-a-half years younger, my only sibling. John and I have had a complicated relationship, one marked by different perspectives on the family dynamics. Our perceived closeness was then punctuated by my pulling away when the pain grew too intense. I have tried to talk to him about my feelings of years of betrayal, of his seeming inability to acknowledge me for who I really am, or even my birthdays, of me refusing to play the prescribed roles of son or brother or uncle. I have written letters, engaged in counseling sessions, made myself vulnerable, had my feelings hurt repeatedly. Are my expectations too hig? It is as if we are from different families, speak different languages. He seems to understand nothing of what I can articulate. Finally, sadly, I gave up. At this point we have not spoken in several years.

So, I was surprised to receive a week ago a two-page handwritten letter saying that he would like to renew our relationship. I read and reread the letter trying to discern what agendas might lurk between his lines. He made reference to the fact that we are both in our late 40s, reminding me that our father’s first stroke came at age 49. He talked about his sons, my nephews, Adam and Jacob, whose ages I’m not even sure of, who were curious about their estranged Uncle Jim.

John invoked our common family of origin, or “FOO” as he irreverently referred to it. But nothing he said seemed to dislodge me from my frightened irrationally self-protective stance of not wanting to have anything to do with him for fear of getting dragged back into the crazy crazy-making vortex of our family dynamics. I couldn’t explain why I was so resistant to consider responding, either to my therapist, and especially not to myself.

When I took the risk of putting in the disc and finding that it played again after being silent for so long I was flooded with feelings of hope. Hope that not everything necessarily stays as it once was. Perhaps my brother has changed. Perhaps I have. Perhaps there is a chance that we can have some sort of relationship again. Perhaps we might be able to reminisce about the traditions and the history that is uniquely ours. Not religious perhaps but over forty years of a biological connection that can be ignored, but not erased. I have been in a quandary since I received the letter.

I sit down on the couch to think listening to the soaring music. I’m swept away by its power and poignancy. When the music ends, I get up to push the button on the changer to listen to the CD again.

It fails to play.

Suddenly I realize I have my answer. The possibility of a miraculous reconciliation has dissipated. I feel my hopefulness quickly drain from me as I stand in the middle of the now silent room. Again, I consider my inexplicable connections to Judaism.

One day as I was approaching adulthood, my father said he had something important to tell me. I waited hesitantly. My father so rarely said anything of value to me.

“Your mother’s family was Jewish.”

“What?” I responded incredulous. Had I ever thought of my grandmother’s maiden name he asked he reminded me that Simon (pronounced, in French, SEE-mon) was the name shared by Carly, Paul and many other Jews.

My grandfather’s name was Burns, but it had been, he suggested, Bernstein. Why had some of his relatives, the Jewish ones, changed their name to Brandon. Why had my cousins David and Gordon had traditional Jewish weddings?

As the questions accumulated, they almost seemed like evidence. Things were falling into place. Some of my earliest memories involved raiding the refrigerator at my grandmother’s and being allowed a thimble full of Manischewitz loganberry wine. I felt nice and glowy after sipping the sweet syrupy red liquid. I never thought to question why she sorted stored a bottle of Jewish wine perpetually in her Frigidaire.

As I sought more examples from my father, my obvious pleasure seemed to stem his flow of information. I think he expected me to be horrified, that this revelation was to have been a wedge in the strong bond between me and my mother. It had, like so many of his efforts, backfired

But it served to plant a seed. One which, though it never really sprouted, certainly never died. Did it help explain my feelings at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. at Anne Frankhaus in Amsterdam, on Ellis Island, at klezmer concerts, at the Jewish Film Festival. One of my favorite days was a December 25th some years ago when I arrived in New York after a red-eye flight,  had blintzes at Veselka’s, toured the only open museum the Jewish museum, surrounded by New York Jews, and felt at home. The day ended with dinner at Carnegie Deli and a Broadway show. I felt freed from the foreign celebration of Christmas.

 I looked again at the date that my grandfather left Europe with my mother: September 1933. A few short months after the beginning of the boycott of Jews in Germany. A ruling that instigated the immigration of nearly 60,000 artists from Germany, before an estimated six million European Jews were murdered. My grandfather, a businessman and astute observer of current events, may have had pressing personal reasons for spiriting his daughter away from his wife, but there have made may have been extenuating political circumstances as well

I just read a memoir by Helen Fremont titled After Long Silence, in which the author describes her uneasy feeling being raised Catholic in the Midwestern United States. Slowly she and her sister uncovered the family secret: their parents were Jews who had escaped the Holocaust. They assumed a new identity in the new land and lied to their friends and their daughters. The book spoke directly to me, and not just because the author had another secret of her own: her lesbianism.

None of this, I realize, means anything really. But in some ways my fascination with Judaism remains an intriguing mystery to me. As if it is somehow embedded in my body. Is it in my brother’s body too?

Sadly, I remove the disc of Jewish music from the changer and press it into its case. Maybe someday it will play again. Perhaps that is the day the secret will be revealed.