I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment, without framing. I was hoping this way to approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments are meaningless without context: the grid and grids of power within which I learned. An end question: how do we change the grid of power.

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

 

I.

My Jewish mother, and I suppose my Episcopalian father, named me “Faith,” because giving birth to a Jewish child during World War II, or, as my mother called it The War Against Hitler, was an act of faith.

I disliked my name because it was hard for a small child, like my toddler sister, to pronounce. My sister called me “Thaif.” My mother would sit her down. “Say Faith,” my mother would pronounce, emphasizing the F and the TH  with a hiss and an exaggerated pursing of her lips. My sister, she of the dark, dark, eyes would solemnly eye my mother, shape her babyish mouth to mimic my mother and pronounce, “Thaif.” When I entered school in the late 1940s, there were no other children named Faith, not in my class, not in the entire school, not until eight years later when there was one other Faith in my high school.

When I moved into the larger world, people often pronounced the name Faye. The people who did this tended to be Jewish. My mother insisted I must correct people. Her public insistence (though it was my name — not hers ) that I be called by the name she had given me horrified me.

It was in high school that I began to hear: “Faith is not a Jewish name.”

People said “Faith, Hope, and Charity — that’s Christian.”

“It is not. It’s universal,” my mother would sputter.

There were many reasons that I grew up feeling not Jewish enough; my name was one of them.

 

II.

When I was GROWING UP, this was my maternal family constellation:

  • my household of two mothers, my sister, and me on Jane Street, on the western edge of Greenwich Village
  • my maternal grandmother a ten minute walk from our apartment, she in a somewhat grand apartment building on Seventh Avenue between 13th and 14th streets
  • my mother’s brother Bob and his wife, Elaine in what my mother called Jersey

 

The last time my grandmother, in her late 70s or early 80s, spent a weekend in Jersey with my uncle Bob and aunt Elaine, she and Elaine got into it. Grandma Spellman was talking about our family in Europe. Some had been button merchants, with branches in many countries; in some countries although Jews were disfranchised, they were required to serve in the military. When a boy was called for military service, he was moved to a branch of button merchants in another country. Grandma Spellman’s version of our family’s line was that in addition to the Dutch/Spanish/British connection on her husband’s side, her family was German. All German, nothing but German. My Aunt Elaine insisted she, Elaine, knew Grandma had Polish blood and Grandma flew into a rage. Both women did. I think my uncle had to immediately drive his mother and her ruffled feathers back to her apartment on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I’m not sure my aunt and grandmother ever made up, before my grandmother’s death when she was 82.

Elaine had an irreverent and acerbic way about her. My sister and I considered ourselves Jewish, though we knew almost nothing and were taught almost nothing by our humanist mother to help us be Jews. I used to hold this against my mother, but now realize that she born in 1909, the baby of four children, born to prosperous and assimilated Jews who attended Temple Emmanuel — in effect a Jewish cathedral on upper Fifth Avenue —was of a generation of Jewish girls who knew little about their Judaism). When my sister and I were in elementary school, our Aunt Elaine called us The Heathens, or The Little Pagans. She herself had been born Jewish. She did this openly in front of us and our uncle and our mother. She did it with a smile and people took it with a smile. My sister and I stilled and remained silent.

 

 

III.

Not long after we returned from living in Haiti for a year, a year of being singular white children in a Black countryside, my mothers decided we would attend services. My mother by affection had a reproduction of a Marc Chagall rabbi in her bedroom. At eight or nine years old, this was Judaism to me. We went to an orthodox synagogue on one of those Greenwich Village streets that cross like creeks from the diagonal of West Fourth to the diagonal of Bleecker and beyond to the roaring trucks of cobbled Hudson Street. I will never forget the door sucking open and the murmur of male voices inside. The oddity of our foursome standing in the entry way: an African American woman, a semitic woman, and two girl children — all four with uncovered heads. Outsiders. I remember no visible women. Places were made for us and we sat, engulfed in chants more unfamiliar than the drums of Haiti, awash in a language we could not untangle, dying for the mortification to be over.

 

 

IV.

In seventh or eighth grade my sister and I cajoled our mother into attending The Brotherhood Synagogue, a congregation around the corner from my grandmother’s apartment. The synagogue shared a sanctuary with a Christian denomination. I remember little about this experience except that I didn’t fit in, that my mother was restive during the Friday evening services, and that Hebrew School was very difficult. I was a nerdy little whiz student in elementary school, but could not discern the difference between the various Hebrew letters. I couldn’t. I would struggle in front of the other, glib students, but could not recognize more than a letter or two. Years later, this humbling experience gave me some empathy for my students with learning disabilities. My mother declared she would never return to the synagogue after the rabbi gave a sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. It did not matter one whit to her that Isaac was not actually sacrificed. Her quarrel was with a god who would ask such a sacrifice and with a rabbi and his religion which would perpetuate the story as an exemplary piece of wisdom.

 

 

V.

I went to the hotel room, one of those old and elite hotels on Fifth Avenue near 59th street. I was 17 years old and wearing my heather college admission interview suit and the cheap silk blouse my mother and I had found on a sale table at Macy’s. I had rarely been in a hotel, never by myself. Oberlin was not my first choice, but it was my only out of town choice. I had chosen it because Oberlin was a good school and I liked that it had played a role in the Underground railroad and had, I thought, been the first U.S. college to admit Black students.

When I knocked, the recruiter opened the door. He wore a suit, let’s say a three piece suit. He had pulled the small table-like desk away from the wall and set it in the middle of the room. He motioned for me to sit on one side and he sat facing me. He was tall. I was aware of his starched shirt and, disconcertingly, of the tiled bathroom within arm’s reach.

There must have been chit chat. Maybe I even revealed my admiration for the college’s early integration. Actually, he informed me, Oberlin had not been the first. Polite, I swallowed.

He said, “Miss Holsaert,” and squared off the pages in the folder before him, my papers, my grades, my essay, my application, the references. “Miss Holsaert,” he said, “You are eminently qualified to attend Oberlin, but I must inform you that Oberlin has a Jewish quota and it is unlikely that we will admit you.”

 

 

VI.

1962. Mass meeting in Albany, Georgia. The congregation is passionate and participatory and, of course, Black. I had never heard such solemn, chanted and improvised singing, hundreds of voices flowing inexorably over and under and around one another in deep, harmonious currents. Though it was late September, when NYC would have been cool in the evening, in Albany we were sweaty as well as uplifted.

As we filed out into the warm night, a woman from the congregation asked me, “Where are you from, child?”

I said New York. She asked and so I answered, “Jewish.”

She said, “Oh, you are one of the Hebrew children.”

 

 

WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD?

 

But then:

 

WITH LOVE *

 

you can hear her heart

she and her classmates

hearts under

tank tops and camis

obey their parents

whose history should but

calls them Never Again

to cone nose bombs

 

the children know their job

select their crayons with pointed tips

each girl two pert pig tails brush

sometimes at noon they might whisper

their parents’ terrible stories

their cousin who and the uncle

1940s shadow

 

where do the dead go?

 

the strange one

she is too much or too little Jew

her parents speak to the Arab bookseller

she reads books which are too old

the strange one with resolve

takes up her crayon

those Arab children will have mamas and bubbes

cooking and rousing and berating

 

hear her heart beat

urging her to take her place

but urging her to put down the crayon and walk away

by the bomb, her bomb, that is shaped like a crayon

a piece of her has walked away

and a piece of her has stayed

she writes on the grit metal jacket of her bomb

with the wax of her crayon,

writes her namethe name of the Great Grandma who died at Auschwitz

she signs in manuscript, with love.

 

* having seen a photo of Israeli school children signing missiles to be fired into Lebanon

 

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