Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The Higher You Jump" By Ira Goldstein - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"The Higher You Jump"


Ira Goldstein

I drove half an hour from Staten Island, New York and landed somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Each time it shocks me. At around 50th st. and 14th Ave, in Brooklyn, I begin to spot men and boys in long black coats, knickers and black hats with wide brims. There are curls descending from each side of their hats. They all walk fast knowing exactly where they are going. Many are talking to themselves or to God, I suppose. Today I am visiting a Hasidic family to evaluate the gross motor skills of one of the children. I am a Physical Therapist.

I find the street and number and ring the bell. A small boy comes down a set of steep, rickety, wooden stairs and opens the door. He stares at me for a few seconds accommodating his eyes to the strange creature from the outside world. He then runs upstairs and a large man in the usual black and white attire invites me up. He calls his daughter Yikvah into the room. She is a one of ten children, the other nine remain in the kitchen eating squares of potato, onion and spices, fried to a crispy brown on two sides called "Potato Kugel" I recognize the look and the smell from my childhood apartment in the Bronx where everyone was Jewish and most were from Eastern Europe: The smells of Kugel, chicken soup, knadels and blintzes came through cracks in the walls and up through the dumbwaiter, a shaft that ran from the basement where Frank, the superintendent manned the large twisted rope that pulled a big two tiered box for collecting garbage up to the sixth floor and back. 

The mother sat at the end of the table feeding an infant. Her hair was wrapped in a rag, or if I remember what my mother used to call it in a teasing way, a babushka. She looked worn and tired. All the children looked up from the table without smiling except a little girl about five who managed a coy grin. I nodded to them all and followed the father into a large barren dining room with shiny wood floors and an immense oblong black table in the middle. There was a library against one wall filled with over sized books with Hebrew lettering. Above it a picture of an old rabbi with a long white beard holding a Torah stared out at me.

Yikvah was very shy and reluctant to come out of hiding from behind her father. I could see her frightened eyes peeking out from behind his pant leg. She was wearing a dark blue dress and black shoes. He said something to her in Yiddish and her eyes widened. She gripped his pants a little tighter. I can speak and understand a little Yiddish since that was the my grandmother’s native language from a shtetl in Galicia an area between the Ukraine and Poland. I shared a room with her throughout my childhood. I haven't used the language in a long time and believe I may have forgotten it. I try a little :

"Kim ahere" I say, which is something like "come over here." She hid a little deeper into her father's black pants.

"Kim Veer shpielen ein bissen"[come we'll play a little], I said in a friendly manner.

Something happened on that attempt: the little Yiddish I knew started coming out German. I was a soldier stationed in Germany for two years where I practiced the language often since it gave me an advantage with the frauleins. I had one German girl friend who allowed me to come home and meet her parents. After a while I was invited often and honed the German to at least first grade level.

" Commin sie auf [come out] I shouted, I didn't want to spend the day there. The father looked at me strangely.

"I was in Germany, forgive my Hitler Yiddish." I said in a slightly provocative but friendly manner.

He smiled while looking at me askance. Then he addressed his daughter again and she came out of hiding. She was a beautiful little girl about eight years old with big dark brown frightened eyes. I tried to get her to hop and skip but she just stared at me. Then I did a few jumping jacks but she just kept staring. The father coaxed her lovingly, then showed her: He jumped up and down, his chains and tsfillin, a prayer bead that winds around the waist, were bouncing off of his huge stomach, his pants raised up his leg as he lifted his arms over his head, his shirt came out of his pants and his skull cap shifted sideways.

"Sehr Gut "I smiled , the language coming out German again. Again I apologized.

"Does that make you nervous" I asked.

"As a matter of fact it does " he answered.

"I'll get the Yiddish after awhile" I offered. He didn't respond.

The little girl was difficult to test but between her father and I ,we relaxed her enough to get some information. I noticed that she had difficulty balancing over each leg and that her hips were slightly turned out.

"I'll put her on once a week; she's pretty good but could use a little direction." I said relieved that she participated enough and that I could carry out my role of determining the need for Physical Therapy.

"So you can't put her on twice?” he said, his palm turned upward his shoulders hiked. It was an endearing gesture and question that brought back memories from the Bronx. Sayings like: "What’s the matter you can't say hello?" or "Oh its too difficult to kiss a mother?"

I thought it over. " Sure, I'll put her on twice a week" I said controlling my urge to hike my shoulders up and say : "So once isn't enough for you."

"Would you like a little Kugel?" he offered.

"Yes, I would, thank you." I said

I sat down with the nine children and the father at the table that took up the entire kitchen. The wife, still weary looking, handed the baby to the oldest son who I learned was getting married that weekend. She scooped a slice of Kugel from a large rectangular aluminum pan and served it to me.

"Ess" he said, "enjoy."

The taste was so familiar, delicious but missing salt. Salt was evil in our family because my grandmother had high blood pressure and all food was devoid of it. Now I wondered if high blood pressure was common amongst Jews.

"Delicious" I said. "If I eat this I'll have some more Yiddish words," I kidded.

"Have another piece." He said.

"With two pieces I'll be fluent in Yiddish.

"Go ahead then , we'll have a big conversation.”You are in good shape, I was watching you jump around trying to get Yikvah to react."

'"I play basketball and have been for my whole life. It keeps me in shape." I said.

"Good for you" he said looking directly at me. "Do you pray?" he asked, out of the blue.

"I've been praying for one thing: that I dunk the ball once before I die," I said jokingly.

"That's what you pray for!" he said, suddenly serious.

"You've got something better," I joked in my now Yiddish inflection. "You know," I continued, that when you dunk a ball you are closer to God. Think of it, you're about eleven feet in the air!"

"Be serious, you ask God such a thing?" he said quizzically.

"I am serious. God wants us to have joy, to use our bodies. When you develop your body to the point of flying you are honoring God."

"Oy" he said, somewhat disgusted. “Have some more Kugel."
"No thanks. I have to go" I said.
I wanted to ask him what he prayed for and what he thought about Martin Buber,  women's liberation and the secular - orthodox struggles in Israel and the trials of having ten children and how he felt about me having a Catholic wife but I had two more calls to make; it was late afternoon, I'm sure the light was changing and Shabbus, the Sabbath, was just a few shadows away.

No comments:

Post a Comment