This is part nine of our series on Childhood.
The Reason That We’re Here
by Karina Wolf
They don’t do decaf anything in Dublin—so I have coffee-induced ADD and the childhood memory doesn’t start in my hometown, Cherry Hill, NJ.
So. 52 Clanbrassil Street bears the only heritage landmark sign I can think of that announces the home of a fictional character: Ireland’s most famous Jew, Leopold Bloom, lived here.
Outside the terraced brick house, my father begins to sing, lustily, “The Jews Have Got Their Irish Up”:
They won’t be singing aile aile, they’ll be swinging their shelaillies just like they did in old Dublin town.
My father is a Brownsville, Brooklyn Jew, born at the start of the Depression and saddled with a poverty mentality and a set of Elaine-Stritch-sings-Stephen-Sondheim cultural allusions that I can’t begin to parse. Maybe he didn’t live in a shantytown but it does seem like his parents ‘lost’ him on purpose in Prospect Park one time because they couldn’t afford to support their youngest child.
Cultural ignorance works both ways: my dad’s not aware of anything in the popular imagination past, say, Ava Gardner, and even though he’s seen The Departed, he doesn’t understand the cultural stereotypes perpetrated by this Sammy Fain tune. (In the song, the Jews take on the fiery irrationality of the fighting Irish.)
Does it matter? The thing about my dad is that he loves Ireland more than any O’Donnell or McCarthy researching his family tree and getting misty over the color green. My dad loves the gray skies and the smoked salmon and all the museums devoted to words and the people that manufacture them: the Borstal Boy and James Joyce and Bram Stoker are equally revered. The rain makes him giddy. He makes more noise than the twelve Jews* that still reside in Dublin. (*approximate population)
Really the reason we’re here in the former Jewish quarter of Dublin is the result of my parents’ short-lived marriage. Thirty-two years ago my parents were joined in a shotgun wedding that resulted in, well, me, an unbaptised daughter who’s continually reminded by her Jewish friends that since her mother didn’t convert, she’s not a real Jew anyway. My mother had a religious awakening and the parents split up pretty quickly after that. Years later, they are friends and have come over to visit their expatriated daughter.
Conversations I have about being Jewish while in New York City: zero, or the occasional exchange in which my heritage is rejected as half-breed and ersatz. I was at a bridal shower recently and my friend Amanda from Brookline was looking around nervously. “What’s the matter,” I asked. “There are no Jews here,” she whispered.
“Um, hello, sister.” I waved at her. “You claim me when you want me but I’m shunned when you’re doing a head count.”
“You know what I mean,” she said dismissively. “I get nervous when the gentiles do a shower. They just have those little sandwiches.”
This is all getting to my childhood, I promise.
Conversations about being Jewish in Dublin: several per day, wherein: I explain that Catholicism and Judaism are not the same thing really, I attend mass with an ex-boyfriend and the priest reminds the crowd of the Jews’ guilt in the death of Our Lord, I graciously accept observations that I look like Anne Frank, Bebe (or “Babe”) Neuwirth, and any other Levantine-originating celebrity whom Hibernians call to mind when they meet me. Point being: here I am a Jew, or a “Jewess” as the locals say.
The Irish-Jewish museum displays a map that lists the Jewish population of each county in the Republic of Ireland. When in County Leitrim, for example, I double the Jewish population. In Dublin, maybe because there are more Nigerians, Poles and Roma gypsies than Jews, I have become—at last—an emissary for my father’s people.
As such (or maybe as a New Yorker with psychoanalyst father—although that’s really just Esperanto for Jew, isn’t it) I have taken on the role of Kinsey-like anthropologist slash therapist for the various Irish I meet. They delight in my Americanisms: I can wear pajamas in public, talk above a discreet murmur, say the phrase “dickless asshole”—act, in short, like one of Jeff Lebowski’s bowling buddies—and they still respect me as a “class woman.”
A poet here said that the Irish reveal their secrets if drink is taken or when talking to a stranger. A woman has been forced to accept the fact that her partner is cheating on her: she’s found his personal ads on the internet and he is sleeping with men, women, trannies and who knows what else. The poor lady has become fixated on the principal Other Woman and started stalking her all over town.
Amidst these naked confessions, it only seems fair that I share something as well. “What’s something that you wouldn’t tell just anyone?” a friend asks me. I’m hard-pressed to find something—in New York I’m likely to be the most reserved person in the room but here I’m the most candid. Is there something I’ve never told anyone?
Well, here it is:
I don’t have a lot of memories from when my parents were still together, so this one must have taken place between ages 2 and 4. We lived on Abington Road and I spent most of my time digging holes in the front yard convinced that I would strike oil or tunnel to the other side of the planet (I remember feeling a little concerned about the molten core that I’d heard was at the center of the earth but I kept excavating and finding only grimy, rust colored clay). Maybe it was the position of squatting down while I was toiling; in the middle of my labors I felt a pressure in my bowels. A trip to the toilet—for number two—was urgently required.
I dropped my digging spoon and tottered over the potholed front lawn.
My father always said, “What does a Jew from Brooklyn know about keeping a nice lawn?” This was probably inspired by the daunting perfection of the lawn of our neighbors, the Kinkers. Mr. Kinker mowed daily so that he could tap golf balls into a glass on the strip of the green that ran between my parents’ house and his. The putting zone was intimidating. Until I reached the backyard, the division between the properties was clear only in the palpable disapproval of the Kinkers when I wandered onto the wrong side. Then they’d squint at me and pretend to shape their hedges as I shuffled past. “Watch the grass, dear.” Mrs. Kinker would advise.
The front door of the house was locked, and I rang the doorbell but there was no answer. I tapped at the panes of glass and peered through the curtains hanging over them, hoping one of my parents would notice my discomfort and let me in. No dice—I couldn’t see anyone in the kitchen. I ran the gauntlet to the backyard and was confronted with an unyielding back door.
I really had to go. Well, I’d encountered no one on my way back. I sat down in the boggy squooshiness that was our yard, pulled down my pants and assumed the intently yogic expression of dogs balancing on a curbside. Just as I was about to find some relief, I heard:
“Oh, no you don’t!” Mrs. Kinker had glanced over her fence and came bounding off her porch. “This is not the place! Why don’t you go inside?”
What had seemed eminently practical became instantly shameful. I couldn’t think how to explain why my parents hadn’t heard my knocking or the chiming door bells or pounding at the back door. Mrs. Kinker marched me from the backyard to the front and then, finally, one of my parents descended from upstairs to let me in. I’m imagining—this may be a fiction—that they had been upstairs getting it on. So, there’s some truth and reconciliation for my parents in Camden County, and in County Dublin.
Karina Wolf is a writer living in New York with her dogs, Luca and Barry Manilow.
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Part One (John Gruen)
Part Two (Will Hubbard)
Part Three (Lucas Stangl)
Part Four (Daniel Murray)
Part Five (Danish Aziz)
Part Six (Elisabeth Reinkordt)
Part Seven (Rachael Bedard)
Part Eight (Bill Barnwell)
This is part nine. The last part debuts on Sunday, and boy is it a whopper.