Phoenix the pyre the self-resurrected
Obscures everything ardently briefly with ash
—“Zone,” Guillaume Apollinaire
When I fast on Yom Kippur, my prayers sound like this.
In the film Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who preys upon men by using a body not her own— a body that, in the end, is unsustainable, tragic, fatal. In the final scenes, the alien peels off the skin, and looks into the confused, blinking face that is not a mirror and yet no longer a costume. It is the alien’s desire to be human and to belong to a people not its own that leads to death. Even after “she” (for me, she remained a she) is doused on gasoline, she limps away, unable to run, because she’s still holding on that skin. She is consumed by flames shortly after, without making a sound, without crying out.
I believe that Mica Levi’s brilliant score was the true dialogue of the film, the human that Johansson’s alien was attempting from beginning to end. Levi wrote in The Guardian of her experience that if “your life force is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.” The song “Love,” which plays during the alien’s attempt at making love to a man, begins ethereal and transcendent, before the strings lose their footing, slide into confusion, each chord a little more off and blurrier than the next. The effect is not eerie; it is out-the-skin itself. Listen to the song as many times as I have, and you will come to believe that outsider-nearly-in reality, that dizzy escapade into the human experience, that lack of any self-awareness to its own off-ness.
I only heard this song last year, after seeing the film and listening to the score, many times over. But I recognize myself within it, especially as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, approaches; it resembles the times I’ve fasted, the times I’ve prayed. On Yom Kippur we ask to be “sealed” in The Book of Life, a guarantee of another year on earth. We ask to come back. We ask not to be taken. We must fast for twenty-five hours (depending on the hour of nightfall); no food or drink is allowed, even water. Some wear white clothing as a symbol of purity, and some refrain from wearing any gold, even wedding rings, as it recalls the Golden Calf, a false idol, a distraction from the true focus of atonement.
This year I will pray in my own way, at home in Queens. I will light a candle for my uncle, who passed during Aseret Yemei Teshuva, as one does for their parents, because he was another father to me. I will listen to this version of Max Janowski’s arrangement of Avinu Malkeinu. I will attempt to fast the full twenty-five hours. I will pray because the mistakes I have made are truly my own and truly human, and yet there were the days, the many days, that each word of my prayers is a chord peeling off the harmonious note, choosing another that is a little too sharp, a little too close to itself. I become lost in the ashes of past lives: the days when my father revised Torah stories, when he offered up the many conflicting truths of Zionism, when I belted out power ballads on the Holiest of Holies, when the bitter winter nights of Jerusalem, though short, rendered me strange, off, out of my skin.
* * *
I am eight, and become ill over the winter break with pneumonia. I wake up from a fitful sleep, and my father is sitting by my side in the hospital. The nurses come by to read my vitals. I’m nodding off when my father pulls out a book. He thumbs through a few pages, and then reads me D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Self-Pity”:
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
That does not go down so well with me. There I am, scared out of my mind, and he’s talking about proud little birds dropping dead. Besides, I am not a wild thing; I am his daughter.
My father takes one of my hands in his, and I feel it shaking. I see that he too is scared and trying his best to hide from me. He tries again. He promises to carry me “on the wings of nesharim.” The neshar, he tells me, is the King of Birds, and the only bird in the world that carries its young on its back to teach them to fly. He tells me nesharim are the few human souls chosen to be reborn as this particular species of eagle, given the gift to soar at unnatural altitudes. He holds my hand, and says we would get well this way, together.
While I do get better, that story does not go down so well, with my Hebrew school teacher. For one class, my teacher asks us to write a short story from an animal’s point of view, based on the stories we’d studied. For example, King David was a shepherd; what would his flock have to say about him? Although we haven’t covered it in class, I choose to write about the neshar and what my father said to me.
A few days later, my teacher returns the papers to the students; unlike the others, there are no comments on my essay, only a note at the bottom to see the teacher after school.
After the others are dismissed, my teacher sits me down and explains that I’d misinterpreted a quote from Exodus. The neshar that I’m writing about is a vulture, a scavenger who feeds on carrion. The real nesharim, the ones in the Torah, were put on this earth to represent God’s promise to His People, not a singular parent’s promise to one child, whether I was sick or not. My teachers punctuates with his hand on the table that I have made a grave error, and that I should be more careful; the Torah is not be played with, after all. I break into a cold sweat, worried what my teacher will tell my father.
But as we wait outside, it is my mother who comes to pick me up. My teacher greets her awkwardly, as he was expecting my father, but then leads her inside to discuss the situation. It’s a good half hour before my mother comes out. She doesn’t say anything until we come home. My brother has soccer practice and my father is still at work, so it’s just the two of us. I’m pretty sure I’m in trouble until my mother brings out a pan dulce for me (a pink concha, still my favorite to this day) and makes a coffee for herself. I’m rarely allowed to have sweets like this. Something’s up.
We sit at the table, and for once my mother seems in no hurry to get dinner started. She stirs her coffee and asks me if I wasn’t curious what my teacher had said.
I’m pretty focused on the pastry, and eating as much as I can. I shrug and keep my head down, for fear of the wrong response, but I know my mom is watching me. She moves her chair closer to mine, and then she whispers, “We mustn’t tell your father about this.” She’s whispering when there’s no one around except for one of our birds perching on a t-stand. We have other larger parrots, but this scrawny, disheveled parakeet is a handful. I named him Rimbaud, but my mother calls him Rambo because she doesn’t like how Arthur Rimbaud’s his career ended young. She finds it impractical and illogical a choice to quit when you’re hot. What a waste of talent, she’d said. But I still liked the romance of the idea. Anyway Rimbaud/Rambo is an odd little fellow terrible at flying, overly zealous in his affection for people—once he was on your shoulder, you could not get him off. He’d die some years later on my father’s chest, clutching him until he breathed his last breath. He was my bird, but really he was father’s bird.
I click my tongue, and Rimbaud flies over, landing on my shoulder. He runs under my hair, nipping me hard on the ear. I feel a little unsteady with the rush of sugar coursing through my body. It is perhaps one of the few times my mother is so engrossed with something important, something I don’t yet understand, she doesn’t notice that I’m vibrating in my chair. Rimbaud is setting off a series of squawks.
“Your father is a good man,” my mother says to me, “and he loves us in a way that they just won’t accept.” I stare at my empty plate. I don’t know who they are, and if this includes my teacher. I watch my mother arise; she starts to make dinner. I crack open my textbooks without being asked, but I think about the nesharim, how my father told me they nested up in Northern Israel, way up, so they can keep an eye of everyone.
Later, I find there is a debate whether the neshar is based on the griffon vulture or the golden eagle, two birds knowingly devoted to their young. But that night, my mother and I say nothing to my father when he comes home and Rimbaud flies to him. I watch the parakeet dance up and down his shoulder, unable to remember whether it was my father or the bird who first made a certain arrangement of clicking noises to greet the other. My brother comes home, and Rimbaud dives bombs him. We have dinner. My brother and I clean up. We finish our homework. We all go to bed.
That night, I dream I’m sinking into some forgotten patch of swamp and cry out for my father. I’m still in the dream, sinking, when his arms go around me. I’m still in the dream, and his arms aren’t arms but silt coming over me as I’m sinking. I’m still in the dream as I realize maybe he won’t save me. Maybe he’ll sink with me. Maybe he’ll run away and start over.
* * *
I am ten when I ask my father if he believes in Zionism. He thinks about it for a while, and then he comes back with a book. He reads to me the poem “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car” by Dan Pagis:
here in this carload
with Abel my son
if you see my older son
Cain the son of Adam
tell him that I
I read the poem a few times myself, in Hebrew and then in English. I look at my father’s face; as usual, there’s a slight upturn to his mouth, a slight raise of eyebrows as he drops his eyes and looks at the poem.
Okay. I say.
What do you think? He asks.
It’s not finished.
Why is not finished?
I don’t know. Look, I’m asking you if you believe in Zionism.
What do you think Zionism is? My father asks.
I. Don’t. Know. That’s. What. I’m. Asking. You.
Why do you care what I believe? My father asks.
Because every time you tell me something new, I get in trouble at Hebrew School.
Like the Darwish book.
Did you read the poem I marked?
Yes, I read the poem, I say.
Did you ask your teacher what he thought?
He was upset I had it.
Did you share with the class?
NO, I DID NOT SHARE WITH THE CLASS.
Go get the book, he says calmly.
I sigh very loudly as I trudge to find the book. I make a racket looking for this book. I knock into the table, empty out of my backpack of all its folders and textbooks and pencil cases, sighing loudly as I do it. My father is reading the book of Pagis poems the entire time, just audibly, his lips moving quickly. I trudge back over to him, stomping my feet. I couldn’t pull this with my mother. But then again, unlike my father, she has no trouble making herself clear.
He puts away the Pagis book, and opens the Darwish collection. He thumbs through it until he finds the poem “As He Walks Away.” He reads me the following two lines:
Our flutes would have played a duet
if it weren’t for the gun.
He reads them several times, and then looks at me.
So? I say.
What does that mean? He asks.
That we’d be making music if we didn’t have guns?
Are you asking or telling me?
It just seems too easy.
Does it have to be more complicated?
I ask you about A, and you skip over B, C, D… and past Z.
What do you mean?
I’m mean I don’t know what we are talking about anymore.
My father doesn’t answer me, and reads the next stanza, very slowly:
As long as the earth turns around itself inside us
the war will not end.
Let’s be good then.
He asked us to be good while we’re here.
He recites Yeats’s poem about the Irish Airman:
“Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those I guard I do no love.”
Then he leaves our wooden ramshackle hut
and walks eighty meters to our old stone house
on the edge of the plain.
He stops reading because I am weeping.
What’s wrong? He asks.
Everything, I say, because in Hebrew school I was told Israel was a “land without people for a people without land.” And now…
Now you’re saying that’s not true.
What I’m saying, my father runs a hand over the lines, is that had Darwish not written this poem, he would not have left a record. We’d be missing part of the story.
Which story? I ask.
My father smiles.
You ask me if I believe in Zionism, he says.
Yes, I say.
What I believe in, he says, is never valuing one story over another, even if they contradict each other, no matter what pain it causes, no matter how it challenges yours. You must face all truth.
But how do you know what’s true? I ask.
Well, what is true in Yeats, Darwish and Pagis here?
I shrug, unsure, still confused.
My father smiles again. He tells me: Every time you learn another truth, there is a new need for atonement. You can’t come back like you did the first time. Everything’s different. You must face it.
* * *
I want once more to be written
in the book of life, to be written
anew every day
until the writing hand hurts.
“I Passed a House”, Yehuda Amichai
That same year, I decide I want to fast on Yom Kippur like my brother. My mother says I’m too young. I say I want to try.
My father is very stern about this, and tells me: You either do something like this right or you don’t do it all.
It’s okay, I say. I can do it.
But the first fast does not go as planned. I want to stay with my family in the synagogue, fasting and praying, but when I begin to rock on my feet, and not rock on my feet in prayer, my mother takes me home and makes me eat. I am ashamed with each bite. I am ravenous. I eat and eat too quickly, tears streaming down my face. My mother tells me I’m too young anyway, and too thin, to be going without food and water like that. It makes me feel worse.
Afterwards, my stomach begins to hurt. I am being punished because I broke my fast, and I’m terrified of the consequences. I think about trying to pray my way back into The Book of Life, and beg my mother to take me back to temple. She’s folding laundry, and tells me to take a nap. I tell her she’s not supposed to do work on Yom Kippur.
My mother gives me a look, and I step away.
Go lie down, she calls after me.
I lie down, but figure I’m doomed. I can’t talk my way out of this. No, I’ll need to do something big. Something amazing. Something that couldn’t be missed, that would turn God’s ears away from the millions of Jews around the world beseeching him to forgive them. There was only one thing to do, and I knew exactly what it was.
I snatch my brother’s new boombox, his most prized possession; he had mowed a lot of lawns to earn the money to buy it. Then I search through his stash of tapes and CDs, tossing aside Janet Jackson and Prince, R.E.M and Tone Loc, until I think I find it. I hold it up with shaking hands into the light, just make sure it’s the right one. While my insides still queasy, I feel relieved at seeing the two-word song I was looking for.
You see, true atonement is a power ballad.
Or rather, the grand gesture, saturated in torment, the power ballad is near-remorse as art, shameless and not apologetic, a crescendo-ing, octave-climbing, transcendental howl— and that kind of candor is exactly what I need to seek another year in the Book of Life.
Album: Hair of the Dog
Song: “Love Hurts.”
I sneak into the bathroom (the most secret place at the time in our house), rewinding the tape, singing my good fortune. I mean, even the name of the band is fitting; it’s Biblical, after all. Once I find it, I play it on low, whispering along with shut eyes. At least at the beginning. Then I turn it up. Then up a little more. The walls of the bathroom aren’t even shaking. This is no good. A bathroom. Inside a house. There isn’t going to do at all. This is not atonement.
I steal away outside, drop to the sidewalk out my house, tilt the boombox up and blast the song at the sky. I’ve long forgotten my mother is home, that my neighbors are home, that people are outside on the street staring at a little girl in a white lacy dress in white tights and saddle shoes, with a veil covering half-fallen off her head blaring a 1975 Heavy Metal Ballad in the midst of the Nirvana Grunge Era from a boombox half her size. But desperate times call for this. I was about to be most profoundly rejected. I wasn’t going to see tomorrow. I had failed. God and I were not good. So I howled along, accusingly pointing up at the sky, furious with this fatal decision all because I couldn’t go without food for a day. It wasn’t fair.
I’m young, I know, but even so
I know a thing or two
And I learned from you
I really learned a lot, really learned a lot
Love is like a flame
It burns you when it’s hot
Love hurts……ooh, ooh love hurts
My mother is there in front of me before I can finish the first “ooh.” She lets Dan McCafferty and I finish before the next break, and then clicks the cassette button “STOP.”
We are well acquainted with each other by this time, my mother and I. She doesn’t have to say a word; I’m already explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing after huffing through more tears.
She lets me finish. She sighs. She picks up the boombox, and brushes off the gravel that stuck to my knees from the street. My tights are torn.
“You shouldn’t take things from your brother’s room. You know better. And you shouldn’t be accusing God, especially on Yom Kippur—I can’t believe I even have to say this. Why? Just—why? Why are you like this? Why can’t you be just a regular little girl who smiles and goes to school and plays nice? Why are you always starting things?”
She drags me inside the house, and I’m sobbing and sobbing, when suddenly I run to the toilet and throw up, throw up everything I’d eaten that afternoon. I fall back, dizzy and out of tears. My mother comes in and wipes my mouth. She tells me to gargle with water and brush my teeth. I do, and spit the water right out. The sun has begun to set. She tells me it’s okay to bathe. Instead, I lead her to my brother’s room which looks like a disaster area. We clean it up together, without a word. Then I go bathe as she prepares the meal to break the fast. I come out, clean and shaky. I help her finish dinner and set the table.
It is yet another story, another truth, we do not share with my father, until now.
* * *
The Book of Life, like so much of Jewish culture, is part of a larger narrative that has survived diaspora after diaspora, expulsions and purges, inquisitions, pogroms. Yet I worry about framing the narrative(s) in one of fear and persecution. This is not how I wish to move forward. I can’t say I’ve made peace with own fears, with feeling alien in Judaism, with leaving Jerusalem—but I’m working on it. It’s strange what memories stick to you, what you come to regret, those missed opportunities you cannot forget.
I remember one night I’d gone out a girl I was seeing, who I’ll call Yael, and her friends to a bar in Talpiot, an industrial yet trendy neighborhood in south Jerusalem. Yael had done a little modeling in New York, and kept a fashionable set of friends, both sabras (native born Israelis) and ex-pats from around the world. It was a very cold January evening, with icy streets and a large amount of snow on the ground. We went to one of the few bars still open and occupied a half-circular booth. Everyone lit up as they lamented how backwards fashion was in Israel, how the food sucked in Jerusalem, that Tel Aviv wasn’t much better. They longed for New York, Paris, Milan. I was stuck in the middle of the booth, coughing into my hand from the smoke, looking around as if somewhere outside the circle was the key to getting out, when I noticed a redhead in an evening dress sitting by herself at the bar.
I will never forget this woman.
The redhead was lighting all the matches in a matchbook by letting each burn down, almost scorching her fingers, before she blew it out. Then she’d swivel around on the stool with a surly look on her face, looking at us, but never making direct eye contact. She seemed to be looking just over our heads, toward the door. I sat watching her light, burn and swivel, light, burn and swivel, until Yael asked me what I was looking at. Before I could answer, she followed my gaze over to the bar. The others watched Yael as she watched the redhead, and then Yael said, “Poor girl. We should invite her over for a drink.”
Instead, the group, now very drunk, broke into laughter and jeers. They made comments about her teased, dated hairdo, that her low-cut black dress was really too much for a bar like this, who did she think was, where she did she think was…?
I knew the redhead could hear them. I watched her turn back around and move onto another matchbook; already two ashtrays next to her were piled high with the refuse. A bartender glanced at the ashtrays with a lack of concern as he wiped down champagne flutes. Soon Yael’s friends lost interest in the redhead, and I watched them order another round. I continued to go out with them from time to time, to see Yael who gradually shrunk my world. I suppose I kept seeing Yael to forget my Arab Christian ex-girlfriend who was by that time married, with a child on the way. I kept seeing Yael because she was beautiful and witty and very, very cruel. I kept seeing her even after she told me, because of my mother had been born Christian, that I wasn’t really a Jew. I kept seeing her because I was unable to explain that the desire to be with her was the same desire that made me the most unhappy. I kept seeing her until I left Jerusalem, until I had the strength to fail, to take a chance with so many odds against me and come back to New York.
I return to Edmond Jabès who wrote in “Drawn Curtains:”
“Hope: the following page. Do not close the book.”
“I have turned all the pages of the book without finding hope.”
“Perhaps hope is the book.”
Looking back this now, on the night before Yom Kippur Eve, I still see the redhead at the bar. I wonder what happened to her. I wonder why she was there that night, dressed up for a formal engagement, without a coat or a purse. She’d left the bar pulling a thin shawl around her shoulders, shivering before she’d even stepped outside. How I’d willed her to look at me once she’d passed our table, on her way out. But she didn’t. And I couldn’t move, stuck there in the middle. I didn’t fight my way out of there, or call after her. I don’t know if she made it ever made it home, or if she had a home, or anything at all. All I know I was moved that night by something I hear in Mica Levi’s “Love,” in that wayward attempt to know someone, to feel human.
So I’ll always wonder.
And I’m still making peace with that.