Lies My Father Told Me  

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Chapter XI

   And my brother was born.
   Annie went to the hospital, and Grandpa and
Harry brought home lots of corned beef and rye and
pickles, and even lox, smoked salmon, and we ate
sandwiches till Mamma came home with George.
   Then one day we had a party, a bris. when they
would circumcise my brother. I had to stay down-
stairs with Cleo and Mrs. Champlain while the mohl,
with his knife, clipped his wings. What excitement
A party. A naming and a sacrifice, and hidden. For
an hour Mrs. Champlain tried to attach my attention
to Cleo's toys and games. And then we could go up-

   Cleo and I and Mrs. Champlain go into the kitch-
en. Mr. and Mrs. Bondy and Mr. and Mrs. Vernier
are there. And two students, Yeshiva bochers, won-
derful Hebrew words, with their black boaters, fedoras,
and eager faces. One is Abie, my cousin, Benny's son,
fifteen years old and nervous. The other, a stranger,
comes with the rabbi.
   The rabbi, with his black robes and his talis, prayer
shawl, is a very impressive man. He has long dark
payess, curling sideburns, and a small black beard.
His yarmulke, his skullcap, was obviously expensive,
though simple. He was very American. Very sure of
himself. A commanding presence. I didn't like him.
Under his gown, I felt, irreverently, there was a very
average blump of a man. Still, he speaks the word of
   And God commands respect. Even the Catholic
men, Mr. Bondy and Mr. Vernier, wear yarmulkes.
   The Jewish men stand around the kitchen table.
Uncle Benny is to the left of the rabbi. Mr. Baum-
garten is to his left again. Harry is on the rabbi's
right. Grandpa stands next to him. Harry holds the
   The rabbi has his back to me. His huge ceremonial
shawl covers his head and shoulders. A soft pyramid.
A huge mushroom with a black stock. He speaks in
Hebrew. In the tongue of Isaac, who is Israel, our
father, he asks Harry the child's name. Harry doesn't
   Grandpa answers for him, "George," and Harry
catches himself, and answers, echoing. "George."
   The rabbi dips his finger into the wine in a silver
chalice and anoints the baby's forehead.
   I am neglected.
   The baby is passed from Harry to Grandpa. Grand-
pa passes him to Mr. Baumgarten, Baumgarten to
Uncle Benny, and all the way around the table. And I
am ignored.
   Uncle Benny gives the baby to Auntie Bertha, who
takes him into the bedroom, where Annie has been
sequestered. The mother shall not see her newborn
baby shorn. Abraham's wrath. Isaac's blood.
   Boisterous Benny bounces. "It didn't hurt, eh,
   The women go off into the bedroom. I follow the
men into the dining room. They go and sit around
the table. The doctor's here too.
   There is lots of food.
   Zaideh cuts off a piece of bread, dips it in salt, and
says a prayer.
   The rabbi prays over the silver chalice; the chalice
is passed around, and everybody sips. And I am over-
   The rabbi, in his storytelling voice, starts telling
stories. "When the Bal-Shem-Tov was still a young man,
he was called before the ministers." They are long and
involved stories. No doubt, with sound morals. Slighted
by this throng, I am bored. "When the Bal-Shem-Tov
..." I go into the bedroom.
   I am in the bedroom, amid the women's rapture.
And the presents. And that smelly baby.
   Mrs. Murphy has knitted a little outfit Auntie Ber-
tha holds up the sweet little bonnet, and the women
"Ooh" and "Ah" and coo over little smelly Georgie,
with his funny fat, noseless, monkey face.
   Little Georgie is in my mother's lap. She sits on the
bed. I come to the bed. But I cannot have her eyes.
All eyes are on Georgie.
   "I don't like him. He smells."
   She laughs. "He won't smell after I change him.
Wait till he's older and starts to talk. You'll enjoy
   "I'll never like him."
   The women laugh.
   I push my way out through their scorn and go off
to my room. Cleo follows.
   The women's hats and coats are stashed on my
    Cleo tries on her mother's hat. It flops down over
her face. She takes Auntie Bertha's hat and puts it on
top of that Then she places another on top of that
And another. She stands there looking serious under
her grotesque sandwich. I laugh. I had been sad. But
Cleo was always fun. .
   Cleo puts the hats back. I sit in my chair. Cleo
climbs on the rocking horse and says, "This is a funny
birthday party."
   "It's not a birthday party. It's a circumstance," I
answer, getting the word wrong, and ask, "Do you
know what a circumstance is?"
   "No!" says Cleo
   "A circumstance is when they cut a piece of your
penis, and they give you a name, and you become a
Jew. That's a circumstance." I ask her, "Would
you like to be a Jew?"
   She answers, "No. It hurts."
   Then we get to running in and out through the
doors. There are two doorways to my room. One
leads to the hall and to the kitchen. The other leads
to the living room.
   In the living room the men are eating. The rabbi is
telling another long, involved story. It's about a man
going through the motions of prayer without feeling,
but it was not until he learned to feel his love of God
that be found God.
   Mr. Baumgarten is getting incensed. "It's not until
we are fed, that God can feed us."
   The rabbi is very Orthodox. No woman was allowed
to touch him. Women bleed. He is very pure. But boring.
   Harry's suppressing yawns. Eating.
    Cleo and I run through to my room, and again.
In the hall, by the kitchen, there is a coat stand,
with a mirror, and a seat. The rabbi has laid his huge
talis there.
   Cleo has caught me in the hall. We are giggling.
I see the rabbi's shawl, and put it over my head,
ghoul-ghost-like. Cleo joins me under it.
   Grandpa sees, and calls, "Stop that."
   Harry, ever indignant, yells out, "Somebody! Ber-
tha! Somebody, take them away!"
   Bertha leads us into the kitchen and offers us some
pudding. Cleo enjoys it. But I won't eat.
   The rabbi drones on about the Bal-Shem-Tov. "And
when the Czar came past the next morning, the sol-
dier had not budged an inch from his post. He had
frozen solid. A statue. A block of ice. And the
Bal-Shem-Tov said, to the Czar, The loyalty this sol-
dier has shown to you, this is the loyalty you must
show to God.'"
   "And when the thaw came, there was a revolution,"
says Mr. Baumgarten, the tailor.
   The men push the table to one end of the room.
Grandpa, while he is pushing, starts singing. He puts
his arm over the doctor's shoulders, and calls Uncle
Benny to him. All the men link arms, arms over
shoulders, and form into a circle. They circle, with a
stamping step, first slowly, and then faster and faster,
singing with joyous power a Hasidic song.
   The women come in, and clap to the rhythm. The
spirit is flowing. The spiritual spirit, though everyone
is a little drunk on the wine, flows freely. I sit in a
chair, watching. The women are behind me, clap-
ping. The men play ring-around-the-rosy before me.
Everyone is high, but I watch, baleful. The happy
   Harry has taken off his jacket. Now he holds his
arm in the air, the sleeve rolled back, and calls across
the circle, "Hey, Pa! My new invention. Movable cuff-
   "How much. Harry?" Grandpa laughs.
   "Only two hundred dollars."
   "All right, all right. Tonight I can't refuse you any-
   Annie is happy. Harry is beaming. I watch the feet,
the clapping, the ecstatic faces, the movement, sway-
ing, dancing. I can take no more.
   I push my way through the women. Retreat to the
kitchen, to the balcony, the music and laughter fad-
ing, to the courtyard, moonlight greeting, to the sta-
ble, to my faithful friend, Ferdeleh. Smell you. Touch
   And Cleo, faithful, follows.
   I've brought some sugar, during my retreat through
the kitchen, and feed Ferdeleh white sugar cubes.
   "That baby really smells. You're lucky you can't
smell it." I bury my nose into the horse again and
sniff. "You smell real nice."
   Cleo nestles into Ferdeleh's flank, and hums.
"Mmmm," she agrees.
   Ferdeleh starts to urinate, and I follow his example,
and Cleo too lifts her pretty new dress, crouches, low-
ering her drawers, and does the same.
   "Grandpa's drunk," I say censoriously. "He's danc-
ing with Papa. If Papa sends you to a glue factory, I'll
send that baby to a glue factory. And run away. Do
you want to run away with us, Cleo?"
    "Yes," she answers, "but I'll have to take my
   And what will we do when tomorrow comes?

    Annie sits contentedly on her bed cradling her in-
fant to her breast. Complete.
   I look on. "I want that."
   Annie turns her filled, warm eyes to me, standing
there, staring, pointing at my mother's breast
   "I want that"
   Annie laughs. "Babies nurse at their mother's
breast, not big boys like you."
   "I want it."
   Annie is amused, touched, and embarrassed.
"You're too big to nurse at my breast. You're a big
boy." .
   I put my hand on my head, and move it, level, in
front of me to demonstrate. "I am not a big boy. I'm
a small boy. Look!"
   Annie laughs and nurses Georgie.
   Georgie sucks!
   "If you want to suck at a nipple. I'll make you a
   Jealous, I point again at Annie's bosom. "I don't
want a bottle. I want that! If he can, why can't I?"
   "He's a baby. When you were a baby, you had my
   "I want it now. I want it!"
   Annie, growing angry at my persistence, pro-
nounces resolutely, "Well, you can't have it I'll make
you a bottle."
   And I turn. "No!" And I stomp from the room,
    Grandpa is in his room saying his morning prayers.
Davening, we call it. Davening, his voice croons on in
singsong. It sounds like gobbledygook baby talk, but
I know it is not. It is God's tongue he speaks.
   He wears his talis, his prayer shawl; and his
, a small leather-covered box, on his forehead.
It holds the Holy Word of the Torah, tied there with
thongs, around his head. The thongs run as ribbons
down his shoulders, along his arms, around his wrists.
He holds the ends in his hands. Bound by God's word.
To wear phylacteries is to "lay tefillin." One does not
lay tefillin till one has been bar-mitzvahed, made a
man, at thirteen. But Grandpa has already taught me.
That is not "Orthodox." That is "Special."
   Grandpa davens in his phylacteries and his talis.
   I walk in and interrupt. I pull at his sleeve. "Grand-
pa, tell Mamma to let me suck at her breast."
   Grandpa is not easily pulled away from God. He
does not hear me yet and davens on, ". . . Hebrew
Hebrew... What?... Hebrew Hebrew..."
   I tap his arm and say,"Georgie sucks at her breast
all the time. Why can't I?"
   Grandpa's eyes grow wide. He tries to continue
praying, and to speak to me. ". . . Hebrew Hebrew.
What? A big boy like you? Hebrew Hebrew..."
   "I'm not big. I'm very small. I want to. Why can't I?"
   Grandpa starts to answer again, "... Hebrew He-
brew . . . because . . ." He is losing his patience.
"Hebrew Hebrew... only babies ... Hebrew Hebrew
…" And he puts his hand over my opening mouth
so that he may finish his prayer uninterrupted.
    He finishes praying, folds his talis, and starts to un-
wind the phylacteries while he speaks.
   "Davie, you're six years old. Only babies nurse at
their mother's breasts."
   I strongly disagree. "It's not fair. Georgie does it
all the time."
   Grandpa puts down his things and moves closer to
me. He is impatient. "You had your turn!"
   Thwarted, I draw back from my grandfather. "It's
not fair!"
   "Well, that's how it is!"
   Old age is stalking us.

Chapter XII