Read Too Jewish Online

Authors: Patty Friedmann

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Dramas & Plays, #Regional & Cultural, #European, #World Literature, #Jewish, #Drama & Plays, #Continental European, #Literary Fiction, #Historical, #Fiction, #Novel, #Judaica, #Jewish Interest, #Holocaust, #New Orleans, #love story, #Three Novellas, #Jews, #Southern Jews, #Survivor’s Guilt, #Family Novel, #Orthodox Jewish Literature, #Dysfunctional Family, #Psychosomatic Illness

Too Jewish (3 page)

BOOK: Too Jewish
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I remember right then having to force down almost half my sandwich, stuck in my throat, with milk; I'd eaten so fast. I couldn't answer him. It was a tuna sandwich. I think I'll always associate tuna salad with the Automat. A lot of mayonnaise.

"I'm trying to work my way to the top," I said finally, narrowly having escaped a good bout of hiccups.

At the time I'd been working doing deliveries to small stores in Manhattan for the company. Axel had come up with a novel idea for a luxury item when he first arrived in New York just over a year before I did. He'd been working for a furrier, and he realized the smallest scraps would be thrown away. Instead, he began designing fur-covered cigarette cases and lipstick cases and compacts that became the rage among spoiled women. Axel was a businessman as long as his novelty didn't wear off, or as long as he knew how to change with the times. He long ago had expanded from a cousin's garage in the Bronx.

"You were at the top when we were boys," he said. "We always were going to be partners." He was silent for a moment. "I have to ask you. Now don't be insulted. Why are you so broke all the time? Do you need more money? You could have a promotion. Hell, you could be vice-president."

I told him I didn't need more money. That was true. I had saved almost eleven dollars, but I didn't think I should tell him why. Axel was looking forward, not backward. He never mentioned his family in Germany. So I never mentioned my mother. She had my new address, and I had two letters from her already, but I hadn't said anything about them to Axel. My mother truly said nothing of interest. She wanted to know if I had found a synagogue for the high holy days, and that was good, meddlesome mother talk. War had broken out in Europe the day I boarded the ship in LeHavre, but she wasn't bothered by war. She didn't mention war. Life was normal for her. She had mail from a second cousin of mine in Palestine, and that was occasion for her to instruct me in what she expected from a child who had gone many miles from home.

I was saving my money because of my mother. I didn't tell her, and I didn't tell Axel.

"What are you doing about your citizenship?" I said.

"That's a strange answer to my question."

"Everything about the future is floating around in my head," I said. I didn't know how to ask him about Germany. I had left Germany agreeing with my mother, that this was a war like every other war. When it was over, I would go back and join her. It had only been a few months, but at age twenty-three those months seemed interminable.

Axel stopped eating. "Are you judging me?"

I stopped eating, too, and for me to stop eating I had to have been blindsided. "No!" I said. We were having two different conversations. "How could I judge you? You're doing everything right."

"Evidently I don't think so, or I wouldn't have been so sensitive," he said. "Do you think selling cigarette cases to rich women is the wrong thing to do when the world is at war?"

"Germany is at war," I said, knowing full well that even with Roosevelt's attitude we were not in a neutral place.

I didn't say that when we were in Germany, the government did not consider us citizens whom it wanted to conscript into the armed forces. Right then I felt like a man without a nation. As I said, Axel wasn't looking back.

"I have something to tell you," Axel said.

I expected then that he finally would tell me he was worried about his parents, that he was ready to sponsor them when they decided to come over, and then I could say,
Oh, would you like to know why I always look as if I have no money?
Instead he said, "I was badly injured before you came over. It changed everything."

I didn't understand

"You know Dave, the one my cousins call Peltzl?" I nodded. I had met Peltzl. He was a fuzzy man. "It was in his storeroom on Sixth Avenue. I climbed a ladder to a high shelf. Peltzl told me not to do it. I mean, he didn't order me not to do it, he asked me not to do it because he was worried I would get hurt. Let the
do it,' he said, and I thought that was not very nice when people were already treating Jews badly, so I went up, and I fell. A good ten feet, and onto a broken tile floor. My hip was fractured. You see how I walk a little funny?"

I'd noticed that Axel walked a little differently, but I thought of it as swagger, as if he were showing off. I nodded.

"I think I should be in the Army, but they don't want me in the Army. They can get past my being a resident alien for some reason, but they want me to be able to run. I would think the Army would have room for thinking men who can't run. Roosevelt can't run."

"We could be partners doing two jobs," Axel said suddenly. "You know, each for the other." I didn't know what he meant. He told me to wait right there, not to move. I had no idea where he was going or what he was getting, but he returned in less than two minutes with a small plate bearing what I swear was a six-inch-high slice of lemon meringue pie. I never had seen such a food before. Certainly not in Germany. There was a month's ration of eggs in that slice of pie. "Ess, ess, mein kind!" Axel said, sounding like my mother when we were young, though not like his own mother at all. He could have bought me right there to roll in a tumbrel up to a guillotine like Sidney Carton, saying I was Axel.

Really, it wasn't the pie. It was what I only can call a transcendent love between friends that made me trust Axel that afternoon. He would keep the business operating, and I would serve our new country. I would embrace our new country. We would wait. I could run and climb like a soldier.

* * *

The Army could look at Axel's body and judge him as slow, but when they used all their measures to look at my mind, they judged me as far faster than even I thought I was. They had to take my word on schooling: what were they going to do, send to Germany for my transcript? I told them I was a graduate of university. They wrote to my only reference in America, Axel, who of course said I had studied French literature at the University of Mannheim. We had agreed on this before I left, making all plans in advance, getting our stories straight because we thought censors might open our letters. I was given an intelligence test. I didn't need good English for the intelligence test, The score was 160, which seemed strange to me because 100 always had been the best a person could do, but this was America, where perfect surely could be improved upon, and my improvement on perfect sent me to Officer Candidate School. No sooner had I learned New York English than I went to Georgia. Men went there from everywhere, but Georgia was Georgia, and when we left the base, everyone spoke Georgia English, and my friends enjoyed my confusion. Though the boys from New York did not fare a lot better. "You wan' a coldrink?" meant nothing to them, either.

By the time I arrived in Georgia it was clear to me that no one ever was going to ask me to run again. I thought I shielded Axel from knowing that, but he was no fool. He knew what an officer was. He knew I could find a desk.

When I was shipped to New Orleans to await deployment, I felt right at home. New Orleans was a port city, and even if it was in the South, people talked like New Yorkers. I supposed I was a New Yorker. And as a New Yorker, I was Jewish. I didn't see much of anyone resembling a Jew in New Orleans. A guy named Ted in my barracks said he went to high school with Jews, and Tulane University in New Orleans was called Jew-lane, but he made it sound as if Jews in New Orleans were as secretive as Jews in Stuttgart. I'd changed my name from Kuper to Cooper when I got off the ship and the registrar made a mistake that I let him make because I was in America. I had a feeling that in the South a lot of Jews did such a thing for reasons far different from sloppy clerks at the docks.

I wasn't thinking about going into town that night. It was early September, and I never had experienced the kind of heat I found in New Orleans, even in Georgia, even after the sun went down. Ted was putting on his dress uniform because he had a date, and he didn't care how much he perspired. I supposed he was accustomed to that sort of discomfort from having lived there all his life, but I thought the climate was one more reason why I was a New Yorker. "Hey, you ought to come along," he said. "They've got air conditioning in a lot of the bars in the Quarter." I made him explain, though the very sound of it seemed to address my unhappiness. Dryness, coolness. At that very moment I was in nothing but my undershorts, and I could achieve neither, not even if I stepped into a cold shower. I asked Ted to wait for me. "Throw on slacks," he said. "We'll find you a girl." A Jewish girl, I said. You can just come along anyway, he said. I couldn't go out like that. "Then meet me down there." I pictured the Quarter, the Vieux Carre, as a town square, a large city block, very French, lined with cafes. It would be easy to find him. I forgot that he would have air conditioning. And air conditioning was not a sidewalk pleasure.

The Quarter, even if pared down just to Bourbon Street, was not a place where one soldier and his date can be found easily on a Saturday night. Everyone looked like Ted. Even I looked like Ted, except that I was a sad sack starting out, and a sadder sack after I had stepped into a few bars and bought myself a bottle of beer in each so I wouldn't look quite so aimless. I could walk down the street drinking from my beer bottle and throw it down into the gutter when I was finished. Now
wasn't sad sack behavior, if you asked me. It seemed soldiers and sailors came to New Orleans and picked up swagger because the city allowed us not to care if we broke glass and spilled alcohol and probably eventually vomited or urinated. I was only up to two bottles dropped intact when I found Ted, his date, and one other couple in a bar three blocks up from Canal Street. He hadn't made it easy for me, but he hadn't made it impossible, either. And the air conditioning cheered me instantly.

I knew Alan from the barracks, and Ted introduced me to his date Shirley and to Alan's date Letty. In Germany I always could recognize Jewish people, and I wondered when I got to New York whether I'd have the same accuracy. At first everyone I met was Jewish, but as I went out into the world of merchandise I would encounter Americans whose first names had no Jewish meaning, and I would guess whether they were Jewish, wait some time, and learn, yes, their last names ended in stein or berg. It wasn't clothing or anything superficial. In New York it wasn't attitude, and I was relieved. Physiognomy wasn't a great stereotype, but it was comforting.

I looked at these two girls in the American South, and I knew they were Jewish. I could enjoy New Orleans girls. I looked at them more closely, allowing myself to enjoy them. Shirley had a certain combativeness in her eyes. She didn't interest me. And then I looked at Letty. Letty had a date with Alan, but I wanted to know Letty. I wanted Alan to go away. Letty was lovely. She had big brown eyes that seemed to accept the world.

I didn't hear anything that anyone was saying. An extra chair came to the table. I wasn't paying attention, so I wound up seated between Ted and Shirley. I was no Lothario, and it was one of the smaller things I blamed on the history of the world: the government had kept me out of school when I should have been there learning about girls. So it was just as well that I wasn't right next to Letty. I could look at her across the small table. The waitress came and asked if I wanted something to drink. I'd already spent far too much on the two beers, and I'd also lost most of my senses, so I planned to say no. "It's on me," Ted said. "You have Schlitz?" I said. That much I'd learned in my year in this country. No beer tastes as German as Schlitz. No beer
as German as Schlitz. The waitress said, "Sounds like this boy never heard of Dixie, huh," trying to be good-natured, but confusing me, and then she scurried off.

"So where're you from?" Shirley said.

"He's from Germany," Ted said, "but don't worry, he's on our side."

No one said anything, and I could tell they were sizing me up, deciding whether I was a non-Jew with a conscience or a Jew with a near-tragedy. "Jewish," Ted said.

I told them that I was planning to get my American citizenship and that I'd been in this country for a year. That I got out of Germany the day Hitler invaded Poland.

Shirley asked me where my family was living. I'm sure she was just making conversation, but Ted said, "Shush." Ted never had asked, but he had picked up my mail for me. I did the only thing I could, which was act as if I hadn't heard her.

Right then the band struck up the song, "There'll Be Some Changes Made." That song always will lift my spirits. Sort of like Vinteuil's Sonata in Proust. Well, it triggers an intense response; I'm not saying the analogy is exact. I guess I'm pretending I studied French literature at Mannheim.

I could not resist. I had enough beer in me and even less interest in caring about anyone outside New York. I had nothing to lose. I couldn't have a girlfriend in New Orleans. I asked Alan if he minded if I asked his date to dance. "Sure, g'head," Alan said. I felt sorry for Letty, having two of us seem disinterested in her, one for the evening, one for the future.

It was good music to dance to, but the band wasn't playing it so loudly that we couldn't converse. I was a good dancer when I was young and naturally trim. Letty seemed pleased by me, as if I were smooth, maybe even continental.

"You're a captain in the Army," Letty said.

I was impressed. A girl could read insignia. I nodded. I wanted to impress her back. "But in real life I'm a businessman."

"In America?"

"Oh, sure," I said. "My partner in New York, he's 4-F. We both want to be good citizens. I know you understand. I went into the military, but I have to make money, too." I didn't like the way I sounded, like a rich American—and to myself like a liar—but the words kept coming.

Letty gave me a look of disapproval, almost as if she were mirroring my own thoughts about myself. "Actually I don't understand. Right now nobody
to make money except if they're greedy."

I wanted to go back in time a full minute, but all I could do was say, "It's not what you think."

BOOK: Too Jewish
7.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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