by Mitchell Waldman
Marty’s a misfit. Doesn’t fit in here nor there, only somewhere in between.
It all started with the dreams, dreams of being trapped inside one of those cattle cars, bodies pushing, pressed against him so he couldn’t move until the train jolted on the tracks, jostling him and all the others together, the smells of urine, body odor and shit everywhere, inescapable, overwhelming, making him nauseous; his muscles and bones aching from standing so long; his mouth dry, parched; people whimpering, crying, howling in pain all around him; and voices whispering in question and fear. The heat stifling, the wheels crunching below the floor, car shaking, the darkness surrounding them as they headed for who knew where.
And there were the images of all the dead, naked, emaciated bodies stacked up like cords of wood and then tossed into the orange glowing fire by large clumsy hands of people whose faces he couldn’t, didn’t want to see.
Waking in a cold sweat, breathing fast, and sitting up to escape the dream, because that’s what it was, right, a dream? Nothing but a bad dream. His mother unable to console him, and he unable to communicate what it was all about, the terror of the dream.
Ever since he was a small boy, three or four, as far back as he could remember. When he had no idea what it all meant. And continuing, still, today.
Sitting up in bed, his partner, Lana, rubbing his back, wrapping her arms around him in the middle of the night, speaking soothing words as he described the scenes inside his head. The terror.
The dreams won’t go away, seem so real, color his mornings, fading some during the days, but returning some nights — he can never tell when they might appear, is helpless in his attempts to fend them off with meditation, medication, or any other pre-sleep rituals. They’re a thread that runs through his being, that has run through his whole life. Whether he accepts the religion or not. They are always there, the horrifying images always in the back of his mind.
The stacked bodies. Among them probably some of his relatives, the ones whose names he would never know, the children who would never grow up to be his great-uncles, great-aunts or cousins, his people, who’d been murdered for what?
Where was God at the time? On an extended lunchbreak? That was the kicker. The thing he couldn’t get past.
Maybe someone can explain it to him, because, for the life of him he can’t figure it out. Not at all.
Walking through the days of his normal life. Driving to work through rain, snow, and glaring sunshine, parking in the garage, logging into his work computer. And on the weekends, cutting the grass, working in the garden. Going to the grocery store. All the normal things. Entertaining his grown children and their spouses, playing with the grandkids. Watching ballgames on television. Going on long drives in the country with Lana, singing tunes from the radio and holding hands.
But always there are the images, the nightmares that wake him in the middle of the night.
Even driving past the tall smokestacks of the glue factory he goes by every day brings up the feelings, the thoughts, the horrifying gray plumes of smoke pouring out of the top of its top, dark, gray and white, expelled into the clear blue sky on a warm, sunny day.
“Do you think you need to see someone?” Lana asks.
“No,” he says, “there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s who I am,” to which she nods in silent understanding, kisses him on the cheek, pats his shoulder.
Remembering those days of childhood, walking two days a week after dinner to the temple for his Hebrew School class, walking by the side of the highway as the sun was setting on the horizon, a chain link fence between him and the speeding cars, feeling the dangerous swish of air as they passed by so closely. Then, later, walking back after class in the dark, hearing the whirring of the tires, everyone going somewhere, faceless, to places unknown.
And on Saturday mornings walking with a gang of neighborhood boys, also in Hebrew School training for their eventual bar mitzvahs, to the weekly Sabbath services while most of their parents stayed in bed asleep, or got up in their bedclothes and robes, and made coffee, lit up cigarettes in their kitchens, while their boys sat in rowed chairs holding prayer books, yarmulkes on their heads, and recited the ancient Hebrew prayers that they didn’t really understand.
Sitting in their Tuesday and Thursday evening classrooms of twenty-some odd other modern boys, all (except for a few) there because their parents wanted them to be. Listening to Mr. Katzenbaum talk about the history of Israel, the Six-Day War and the heroic feats of Moshe Dayan as the Jews crushed the Arabs, another miracle that God bestowed on his chosen people to crush the threats of yet other oppressors. Another group trying to beat down the world’s historic punching bag — the Jews, our people. After the Romans, the Poles, the Russians, and who could even mention, not even in whispers, the Germans. Six million. It was unthinkable, unspeakable, the systematic plan to wipe an entire group of people tied together by a religion. Terror. Horror. Unthinkable.
“But never forget,” Mr. Katzenbaum said, “don’t let anyone ever forget,” he said, closing his book for the day as the bell rang, and the boys would collect their books, and head out of the classroom and walk back in the dark in a small gang, joking and mimicking the man at the head of the classroom.
“Well, at least he didn’t play any of his corny Hebrew folk songs on his accordion today!” one boy — Stuart Fineman — said, and the others all cracked up, one shouting, “Yeah, at least!,” as they walked in their pack, picking up rocks on the side of the road and throwing them toward the highway, over the swishing, speeding cars. And sometimes throwing them dangerously close to the vehicles which seemed like large toys speeding down the black and white lanes lit by the overly bright lights through the endless darkness.
He seemed like part of the group then, one of the boys, none of them serious about the classes, just doing what was expected of them, except for a couple of the students — Freddy Friedman, for example, who sat in the front row, yarmulke pinned to his tight brown curls so it wouldn’t fall off — he being one of the few that went to such lengths as it was a conservative temple, no yarmulke or “kippah” necessary except on Shabbat services — he, the teacher’s pet — hanging on the teacher’s every word, writing diligently in his notebook.
The same Fred Friedman who Marty would come across again later, in his college days, at a party where Friedman would be talking Philosophy, passing his bong around, eyes wide, seriously explaining what he thought of Aristotle, Kant, and Aquinas, then breaking into laughter all of the sudden as the last hit finally caught up with him, rolling his head as if it might come free from his body, his long, tight brown curls staying in place on the top of his head, the days of Mr. Katzenbaum’s class and one-sided teachings long forgotten, the pinned yarmulke long gone from the top of Freddy’s head.
As a kid, Marty recalled fasting on Yom Kippur to be cleansed of the past year’s sins (what was that about?), standing in the theater rented out by the temple (and where he would later work as an usher, pull back the red velour-covered rope to let the throng in to see the opening of The Godfather), praying with the crowd, while the rabbi and cantor led the services, old men with talluses and women with their heads covered, and boys like him dressed in miniature suits and ties, holding their prayer books, watching the older men davening to the cantor’s gymnastic contortionist singing chants. And hearing the rabbi’s words during the sermon, lecturing that a Jew who observes only the High Holidays but does not observe on a daily basis, light the candles and attend the weekly Shabbat services is not a real Jew.
At which point Marty thought of his weekly dreams of terror and thought, No, Rabbi, you are wrong about that, that is nothing you can take away from me with your words, whether I believe what you tell me to believe or not.
And now, in his neighborhood, on Saturday mornings, as he drives on his errands, he watches the Orthodox Jewish men walking to temple with their gray or navy blue conservative suits, white shirts, and ties, and the small colorful yarmulkes pinned to their heads. And the women with their dark clothes and head coverings, walking behind with the children dressed in their Saturday best. Driving past feeling like he has no idea who these people were, alien-seeming, almost. Where had they come from?
During the week he works like everyone else. It’s eight hours a day, staring at a computer screen eight hours a day, not really living but not dying either, sort of in a suspended state of existence. But it’s a necessity, a “living.” And in those hours, just as when he was growing up, he tries to fit in, pretending he’s like the rest.
At work there are a couple Orthodox Jews he works with, Sam Edelstein and Robert Bielman. With them he sometimes make Jewish references, trying to express his common heritage with them, but feels like a fraud, a poser.
He gets embarrassed when the High Holidays come, not really observing the Jewish faith, and in not taking time off — thinking how Sam and Robert would see it, if they saw it at all, remembering that rabbi, so long ago saying, “If you observe only the High Holidays...” thinking who wants to be a “real” Jew, anyway, and who is he — still mad at the man’s nerve, so many years later — to tell him who he is or isn’t?
It’s why all the antiquated religious rituals no longer make sense. Rituals for what?
And when the Christmas holiday approach, pretending, too, that like the majority he is one of them. Waiting for the cashiers to give him his change as he checks out and, with a smile, say, “Merry Christmas,” never knowing how to respond.
He’s apart from all. Fitting in neither here nor there. But it’s all those people he’d never know that he carries around with him at all times, that he dreams about. So, while the religion keeps him apart, keeps him feeling that he doesn’t belong, it’s all those ghostly faces in his head that keep him tied to them, to his Jewishness.
And one night he has a different dream. He’s rubbing his old wrinkled hands together to fight off the cold, lying on a cold hard surface in the dark, up high in a bunk, with a thin, torn piece of fabric covering him, having trouble sleeping with the brutal cold and the noises of others all around him, coughing, mumbling, bodies shifting in the night and, sometimes, screams.
Curling into a fetal position to fend off the involuntary shaking, shivering of his body. And finally drifting off to sleep, dreaming of a place that he’s not familiar with, a place where he’s a little boy in a room filled with things he does not recognize — a large flat rectangle on the wall emitting colorful moving images like a film, pennants on the wall — a soft bed beneath him, his eyes closed, his body warm, covered by blankets, with the feeling of a full belly, something that was significant, that he hasn’t known for so long, the gnawing in his belly constant, a chronic condition.
And he dreams that boy is sleeping, dreaming silently, until he dreams of a shocking scene: stacks of bodies piled on top of each other like wood, and one hand reaching up from between the bodies, crying out from the silence, in a murmur, “Help me, help me, Dear God, help me!” and “Don’t forget me, my name is... Jacob,” the hand waving, waving, a slight movement like a small tree branch moving with the wind, then stopping, retracting down beneath the heap of humanity, gone, never to be seen, to be heard from, again.
Copyright © 2021 by Mitchell Waldman