Saturday, June 3, 2017

Love & Hisses








The only thing I really like about New Jersey besides the rest stops on the turnpike, is the Liberty Science Center.

When my son Zachary was 10, I took him there for a bug show.

There was a long line.

I remember the line because that was the year we moved him into Solomon Schechter Westchester from an orthodox day school. A person joined the line right behind us, a young person, and Zachary, who had not spoken one word of the holy tongue in 5 years and 110,000  dollars in tuition, turned to me, and in flawless Hebrew, said, ”Ima, mah aht choshevet? Zeh yeled o yalda?”

My jaw hit the floor. He was asking if I thought the person was a boy or a girl. In Hebrew. Two weeks at Schechter and he was even pronouncing the ‘o’ the Israeli way.

But back to the bugs.

I’m not sure how it happened, but it happened that we were front and center when we finally got to  the mini auditorium which was arrayed like a sunken living room, but with bugs.

There were insects from every continent. Zachary was ecstatic as the entomologist lifted each beetle, millipede, and winged insect into the light and into my coming nightmare.

The people behind us pushed forward.

Look how the mandible forms a piercing stylet! Did you know there are over 42,000 types of plant-sucking bugs? Can you believe that some bugs have been pestering the nebukhdike creatures around them since the Permian Period, 300 million years ago? I believe! I believe!

And then the entomologist looked around and held up his hands. “So,” he said to the hush. “I have some lovely cockroaches here from Madagascar. Who would like to hold one?”

And before he got to the “Adults only please,” Zachary already had my hand up. Meaning that he had looked at me with his sweet dark chocolate eyes full of such deep love and entitled expectation that my hand rose in complicity.

I was cuter back then, too. “What’s YOUR Mom’s name,” the entomologist asked Zachary, unctuously.

There’s a smile you make when you’re in pain. It looks like a smile, because your teeth are bared, but unlike a real smile which usually allows for a space between your top and bottom row of teeth, this smile connects those rows in a gritting down-bite, and the corners of your temples rise up and away in attempted flight.

The entomologist reached into a cloudy tank, crawling with horrifying little things.

He extracted one of the roaches. It was close to 2 inches long, and the color of what comes out of you in prep for a colonoscopy.

He asked me to hold out my arm, which, by the way, had no sleeve, and 1-2-3-4--here’s where I black out—he placed the hissing creatures—yes, they hiss, too—upon it, whereupon they scuttled upwards. Upwards.

I did say hiss, ladies and gentlemen. Apparently, the males ram their antennae into each other during mating season, causing them to exhale air through these unique breathing holes. The louder the hiss the more dominant the male.

I swear I heard, “Ssssssssssso? Whatcha doin’ tonight, Lissssssssssssssssssssa?”

Zachary was dancing next to me in complete delight. “Look at my mom! Look at my mom!”

People crowded around. The cockroaches showed off, hissing and scuttling around on those disgusting little black legs.

I got sympathetic looks from some of the moms and dads, but the entomologist was ebullient.

He poked my arm as he tickled the tushies of the little critters, sending them into turbo mode. “Sssssseeee those little holes? That’s what I’m talking about!” I could smell his pheromones.

Zachary still remembers this afternoon, many years later, and I truly believe it is the basis for his continued respect and indulgence for me and my opinions.

Fast forward to last weekend.

I have another little boy, a little blonder, with ice-blue eyes. He loves me just as hard. I am a very lucky Mommy.

This time we are in Providence, Rhode Island, at the School of Design.

The sketching room has floor to ceiling curio cabinets ungeshtupped with taxidermy, bugs on sticks, seashells, skulls and unborn matter, pickling in jars.

The only live thing is a snake in a corner tank. Of course it’s the only thing Johnny wants.

“Sure, go ahead,” says the curio intern, totally un-unctuously. “It’s a corn snake.”

It’s one thing to take a snake from someone else who is holding it. It’s another thing to DISTURB A PERFECTLY HAPPY SLEEPING SNAKE.

Cue that gritting smile again. My husband smiled back.

“Go on,” he said, standing 4 feet away.

I opened the glass door. The snake, Neetop, was coiled underneath one of those natural bark covers. He wasn’t moving. I thought that was actually scarier.

I leaned my head back and extended my arm and lifted off the bark. I think the leaning back was to protect my—face? Brain? Neck—from constriction?

Johnny was hopping from one foot to the other, ice-blues focused on the snake.

I took a breath. And then, because I am the very best Mommy in the entire world and I want my boys to think that always, I looked to see where the head was and I put my right hand a few inches behind it and my left hand on another scaly part of the body, gripped Neetop’s happily sleeping self and lifted him out of the cage.

Whap. The snake coiled itself around my wrist.

I let out a moan. Not a scream.

Even that tiny point at the tail end is pure muscle. If I weren’t so grossed out, I would have been impressed.

A few years pre-twins, Sruli and I were in Wilmington, NC, which still has the extra wide antebellum doorways to accommodate a southern belle’s dress. It’s a romantic place, and besides having the best glass of wine I ever had, the thing I still talk about most is the Serpentarium.

Apparently, it’s a world famous place. This mishigene herpetologist, Dean Ripa, PERSONALLY CAPTURED the most venomous snakes from all over the world, brought them home and put them in glass cages.

Each cage is carefully marked with a death code: the more skulls drawn on the glass (in black marker) the faster the snake’s venom will kill you.

Rattler? 3 skulls. Eastern Brown Snake which coagulates your blood as it destroys your brain function? 4 skulls. 

And one I had never heard of—the Black Mamba—which doesn’t just lie around Africa, either. It’s fast, aggressive and vicious, and can strike 12 times in a row. You will die for sure in half an hour. A five skuller.

Next to the Mamba was a story, handwritten on the wall. On one of Ripa’s early snake-khopping expeditions, a snake bit him.

Instead of letting his partner administer the antivenin right away, he lay there and dictated what was happening to him for the partner to write it down. “Ok, now my fingers are swelling up like sausages.” “Ok, now I can’t feel my feet.” “Ok, now my throat is closing.”

I, of course, know why he was so crazily brave. 

His little son was probably standing right next to him.

Meantime, my little son is standing next to me, waiting for me to unwrap the snake and hand it to him.

The snake resists this. I can't get him off my wrist.

“Mah at choshevet?” the voice hisses in my ear. “Yessssssss, you are a good mommy. A brave mommy. You can do anything. You will do anything for them. Let them look at you in wonder for just a little while longer. Just a little while longer.”

“You know. Before reality bites.”

*

Friday, January 20, 2017

Bubby Goes to Washington












Exactly thirty-nine years ago,  my Bubby, Rebbetzin Sarah Weintraub did me a huge favor.

It was January 19th, in the middle of the night.

My mother had gotten tickets for the whole family to Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, and we had flight out of LaGuardia the next morning at 6:30 AM.

And then my father, presciently, came down with a—malaise.

This rarely happened, and when my mother looked at me with worried eyes, I knew it meant we couldn’t go.
I
 thought of the boast I’d made to Rabbi Brander, the principal at Yeshiva Central Queens. The grand announcement to my entire seventh grade class. In those days, no one in my life did anything remotely political.

Not to go would have been humiliating.

And then, as the clock ticked, I thought of the one person who had slept outside in a war-torn field, as the wolves howled, so she could see her hidden children. A woman who had secretly crossed a raging river into Switzerland with a baby on her shoulders, and a little daughter held fast by the hand, right under the nose of the night watchmen and watchdogs.

A woman who knew the Torah by heart, had written her own meforash, commentary, and who the Rabbis turned to during their sermons, to check their facts. I thought of the Emunah Chapter president, who made her gefilte fish with pepper, the proper Litvishe way.

A woman who now, despite arthritis, bursitis, colitis and phlebitis, was always up  for a movie and Shimon’s pizza on Main Street and would frankly be annoyed if she found out you went without her.

It was midnight. I called, and she answered on the second ring.

“Vat?”

“Bubby, it’s me, Lisa. Daddy isn’t feeling well and we have tickets to go to the inauguration tomorrow—will you take Dina and me? We need an adult.”

“Ver are vee going?”

“To Washington D.C.”

There was a slight pause.

“Vy?”

“To see the new President, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.”

Another slight pause.

“Valter Mandel,” she repeated.

Suddenly, a Jewish Vice President.  I didn’t dare dissuade her.

My mother drove us to the airport and somehow, my thirteen-year-old self got my nine-year-old sister and Bubby onto the right plane, into a cab and directly to the Capitol Lawn.

The Lawn was cordoned off with red ribbons. Waiting on the periphery were more people than I had ever seen in my life and I grew up in New York City.

I held Dina in one hand and Bubby in the other. Suddenly there was a sound like a horn and the ribbons were cut and there was a stampede. I don’t remember anyone checking our tickets, specially ordered from Congressman Benjamin Rosenthal’s office.

We were pushed along by the crowd—closer and closer to the East Portico. It was 28 degrees, but there were so many people that we jingoistically huddled together for warmth, like penguins in Antarctica.

The energy was exciting too—remember Jimmy Carter smiling that huge smile and promising a “New Spirit?”

There he was, about two hundred feet in front of us, up on the balcony in a blue suit. Roslyn wore turquoise and it was hard to see little Amy.

“Oy, I have to sit down,” said Bubby.

I startled. Sit down? Where?

I spied an ABC-TV cameraman. He had set up a small stage about two feet high and was standing on it with his tripod.

I pushed our way over and looked up at the cameraman. Bubby sat.

This is the best part of the story: Just at that second, just at that VERY SECOND, my mother and father were watching from their bedroom. My mother had just that VERY SECOND said—“Gee—I wonder if they”—and THERE WE WERE ON ABC-TV, BUBBY, DINA and ME, as the cameraman panned around.

My mother told me she plotzed.

I don’t remember Linda Ronstadt singing “Crazy.”  I don’t remember Aretha Franklin’s hat as she sang God Bless America. I don’t remember the United States Marine Band.

I do remember having been told that when Bubby was a young woman, but already a respected Rebbetzin, she went to visit her cousin to France and the cousin bought tickets to the Folies Bergere.

The cousin told me the story. “We sat down and there was a column partially blocking the view. The dancers came out wearing nothing but black lace and feathers and kicking their legs up in their high heels. I remember turning around for some reason, and when I turned back, your Bubby Sarah had disappeared. The first thing I thought was—oh no. She is such a religious woman! She must have been offended and left! Then I heard a yoo hoo. She was waving to me frantically.

“She had found us better seats.”

I looked at Bubby, happy to be among “pipple,” as she called people.  She was sitting and looking around, and she didn’t look “kalt,” in her winter coat and Roslyn- turquoise legwarmers, even thought she confessed she always wanted a “minik” coat, but the pipple might talk.

Later, our wonderful and generous cousins from Silver Spring picked us up, took us to a nice kosher restaurant and drove us back to the airport. Now that I think about it, they are staunch Republicans, and otherwise wouldn’t have been in town.

But I was relieved to have been relieved of being a grown up.

I wonder what Bubby would make of today's inauguration.

She might recognize the authoritarian figure who seems to be consolidating power all around him. 

She might be familiar with the rising anti-semitism, and ugly talk. She would understand what can happen. What can really, really, happen.

I am a Rebbetzin now, too, Bubby. Thank you for putting my baby daddy on your shoulders all those nights ago. Thank you for holding on to little Aunt Jenny in that river even when she told you to go on ahead without her because the water was up to her neck. 

Thank you for the gefilte fish and for teaching me those Yiddish songs and for laughing at me when I was grossed out by your religious sheitl, your wig, when you used to take it off right before Shabbos lunch and stick it on top of the side table lamp. I don’t wear a sheitl.

Thank you for being a testament to the fact that gam zu ya’avor. This too shall pass, and, mercifully we shall all cross the raging river to freedom and sanity.

And thank you for taking me to that inauguration, thirty-nine years ago. Thank God you don’t have to see this one.