The Joy Menu #61: Tale
If he had lived a fabulously long life, my grandfather would have turned 95 fifteen days later.
Today, when I put on the recording, I can hardly hear my father’s voice—it’s soft, muted, wet. I don’t remember his voice being this way, and when I check on earlier recordings, it’s not.
It’s January 22, 2017. He still has six months to live. Five, if you count the days exactly and don’t round up (I like to round up). Four if you only count the time he’s able to talk, walk, bathe, stand up on his own.
In this iteration of my interviews, I’m trying to understand my grandfather’s experience as a boy in the Johannesburg ghettos of the 1920s.
My grandfather, Jack, was born there in 1922, 28 years before my father was born nearby. He died when I was 13, and I’ve come to recognize that I will not only lose my father’s stories soon, but his as well, as his stories are in part carried inside my father—or some of them, at least—like long-folded letters on frayed paper with faded ink.
“When I was in London,” I hear myself tell my dad on the audio file. “The Jewish area, Brick Lane, was so small. Was the neighborhood where Jack grew up like that?”
I know Brick Lane because I lived nearby when I was a student in London. Back then, uncertain how to study what I really wanted to study—my father, his family, our muddled and migratory lives—I’d become fascinated by the half-buried Jewish history of the (then Bangladeshi) neighborhood and had invented a project related to the literary history of those Jewish-British forebears in the form of a study of the work of a writer who lived there.
One day, I joined a “Jewish East End” tour of the area. In fact, I tagged along on a Jewish day school field trip—one of my father’s cousins had left South Africa with his sons and wife and, as she was British by birth (and passport), they’d settled on the west side of London. One of his son’s school groups was taking the trip, and I’d invited myself along.
This is what it was: a South African-born boy, his British mother, and his father’s cousin’s American-born son—who happened to be living nearby—walking from curry shop to pub to crane their necks towards door frames and buttresses, overhangs and window panes to decipher small engravings in Yiddish, or faded cut-outs of David stars, while a tour guide explained “what it was like here for Jews back then.”
These cross-sections aren’t unusual for my family. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. Maybe it’s just the way we compounded the diaspora—spreading out from Lithuania and Russia and Poland into South Africa and Israel and the US, only to boomerang back to Europe again.
That day, as I looked at the blonde head of my cousin-once-removed (the construction itself a reminder of what becomes of families tossed into the winds of diaspora) I couldn’t help but think: we could have both been raised in the same soggy ghetto outside Vilnius.
If sociopolitical (and sociopathic) factors hadn’t interceded, making Lithuania untenable a hundred years ago—and later, making nearly all of Europe inhospitable—then we almost certainly would have lived together underneath similar door frames and buttresses, overhangs and window panes, our lives engraved in Yiddish and (perhaps unfaded) Star of David cut outs.
So it is that these alternate lives—both those lost to history (like Jack’s), and unlived because of history (like mine and my cousin’s)—pull on me. Like stolen goods I can’t reclaim, I at least can file a police report to mark their theft. (Or newsletter, as it were.)
That same year, I remember the professor who ran my graduate program, when I struggled to haltingly explain to him exactly what it was I really wanted to study, his voice dripping with the dismissive sarcasm invented by the British to exported to all their territories (along with tea and chips and shame and famine): “Oh, how worthy.”
Worthy or not, few forms of imaginative inquiry feel as valid to me, as meaningful, as important, as hearing recounted—or reconstructed—such family memories. Jack’s childhood in Doornfontein. Bluma’s in Hillbrow. My mother’s in Queens. My father’s in all the places documented in these pages.
Somehow, they are also my own.
It’s all a mental game, an exercise. I want it to be a novel. I want it to be a film. I want to climb into the imagined scene and be there, breathing the salty-scented air, feeling the hot dust sting my eyes, hearing the mumbled mix of Yiddish and English and slang, seeing the skittering bochur kicking rocks as they wait for their mother’s to call them in for dinner…
But it’s just a game of telephone.
“Was it small?” I ask. “Like Brick Lane?
“I don’t know how big it was, but, you think it’s a big as a kid but it’s probably a very small area. You know? I’m sure we can find it on the map.”
In the background, I can hear my mother asking a question. I’m trying to squeeze into the moment and she’s asking me where something is. “What, mom?” I hear myself say, annoyed.
“But what was it like?” I plead.
My father continues: “There were a lot of little houses…find the photos and you can see. There are pictures of them sitting outside the house, on the porch, hanging in the street, Jack with his little ball…”
I hear us both laugh. Even now, Jack is always in his sixties to me; the idea of him playing in the street with a ball seems pastiche. I can hardly bring myself to see it.
I type in Doornfontein on Google Maps.
My father, again: “Yeah, look at that. Probably just fifty houses.”
“Were there other ethnic groups squeezed around, or was it just Jews all alone in their ghetto?”
“Mostly it was poor whites. There was no mixing, even back then. The Blacks lived elsewhere, and the Indians. So clusters of poor white folk in their little groups: Afrikaners, Englishmen, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Lebanese, I don’t know… All those little ethnic communities.”
“So not too different than it would have been in the US or England.”
“Not at all. Jews hanging on, able to be almost white.”
We study the map. I try to see what it was like. I try to feel it.
“When we were growing up there were Portuguese, Lebanese, some Spaniards, some English—but it was all the bottom rung; not exactly intellectuals.”
“Right. Who needed to move 7,000 miles away to start a new life.”
“Exactly. And everything was small, the population was very small. The entire country was tiny.”
And that’s it. My father’s memories shift from Jack’s to his own. That’s all I got that day.
Less than three minutes of memories, spread across a six and a half minutes, recorded one quiet Sunday in a small apartment in Beachwood, Ohio, six months before my father would die (or five, or four).
If he had lived a fabulously long life, my grandfather would have turned 95 fifteen days later. What could he have added to the tale?
Onward toward creative joy,
"Worthy or not, few forms of imaginative inquiry feel as valid to me, as meaningful, as important, as hearing recounted—or reconstructed—such family memories. . . . Somehow, they are also my own."