Literary Orphans

Birthrights by Arielle Bernstein


In August your grandmother is dead and has left your home filled with small, furious women. You realize when your brother tells you this that he is excluding you from the equation. He tells you he admires you in some ways. He tells you how impressed he is that, despite both your gender and genetic makeup, you have managed to retain a logical understanding of the world around you. He says things like “You, Sarah are different.” He says things like, “You, Sarah, never lose your cool head.”

You want to tell him that it’s an act; that really you would like to slam each and every small arm here against the wall. You don’t. You prefer to keep things quiet. Not because you feel calm but because you find such outward displays distasteful, have thought them distasteful for the longest time, ever since you were a little girl and would watch your mother parade around the home in her bathrobe singing sad Hebrew songs and crying. It made you squeamish of public displays of emotion of any kind. Consequently, you learned to lock up every feeling deep inside until the opportunity came that you could politely excuse yourself to the bathroom and have a good cry, privately. To be private, you think, is the last vestige of dignity in the modern world.

Your mother has different opinions of course. She views your desire for privacy as inhuman, unfeeling. She contends that you have always been this way. She cites examples. The time you were four and refused to let your kindergarten teacher pat you on the head. The time when you were eight and you insisted on bringing a book to your cousin’s bar mitzvah, and instead of chatting with company, sat in the corner reading for the duration of the event. How you not only refused to take Hebrew or Spanish but audaciously insisted on taking French instead, even though it had no bearing on your culture, your history. You remember how you remained quiet when you were younger. You did not explain that your decision to resist your history was a choice, a painful one at that but, ultimately, one that you did not regret. You did not explain that you never identified with your mother’s history, not the sad memories or the happy ones either. You viewed each memory, each explanation of food, songs, prayers, as the primary reason your mother has continued to bear burdens you no longer see the necessity to bear. Thinking about this even today makes you exceedingly depressed.

To this day you tell your mother time and time again that first and foremost you are an American and as an American you aren’t required to be loyal to anyone or anything. This is what freedom means, you explain to her. You are not the kind of person who is shackled to your history.

Your mother called you names in Spanish, which you couldn’t understand because you never learned the language. You went to your room and shut the door. Your mother came banging on it. You asked her to leave. She refused, continued to stand in your doorway with one hand to her breast, the other with a single drawn finger pointed at your face. You tried to close the door again. She slammed it open and stood in front of your bed until you eventually apologized for your disrespectfulness. You weren’t sorry. You were sixteen years old, smart and resourceful, the recent proud owner of a pair of breasts. All your life you have been pale and fair and think if no one asked you questions people would have no idea that you were first generation. They assumed that you were wealthy because you carried with you an air of dignity your mother called arrogance. You excelled at your classes. Your interests were vast and your talents spanned a wide array of admirable skills. You win every science fair you enter. You participate in mock trial and model UN. You play Juliet. Your mother and you fight like cats and dogs through all of this. There are plates thrown and doors slammed and your father suggests that this is a normal passing phase, like learning to walk, or losing your baby teeth, You cry yourself to sleep most nights, but you keep yourself going by planning new ways to be free. You imagine that you were switched at birth, that you are actually an orphan, a goddess, a revolutionary, a warrior, a queen.

You weren’t.

You go to Harvard College and are studying Linguistics. When you get there a lady at admissions tells you she expected you to be darker, to have a thicker accent. They expected you to want to join every minority organization on campus. Everywhere you turned there was someone with a new brochure to hand you. You couldn’t identify with any of them. You tried to explain that you liked to think about things critically, that you had spent your whole life being shuffled between boxes and that at this point you found any kind of class or religious or racial identity beyond difficult to swallow. You found them downright dangerous. You were never the type to mince words, and your parents both warned you time and time again that you were likely to acquire enemies behaving in this way. Sure enough, you discover that this is true. Members of The Latin American Student Association, Women’s Voice for Choice, and Hillel all take turns glaring at you as you walk from your dorm room to class. You don’t care. You join nonpolitical, nondenominational organizations like Scrabble and knitting, precisely because they are large, amorphous organizations with no specific political or social agenda which you feel gives you the space to breathe.

You take late night classes. One day coming home from class, you take the shortcut behind your house that you always do when a large man pulls a knife on you and demands your purse. You give it to him. You didn’t think something like this would happen because this is generally speaking, a safe place in town. That’s why you were willing to spend so much money on rent. You want to be able to walk up and down the street without worrying about getting mugged. The man in the alley takes your purse and tells you to get down on your knees and you start to panic, knowing this might not come to an end as quickly as you hoped. You think for a minute that even though this man is bigger than you, you are probably smarter than him. Feeling his big hands against your head you realize this is a poor consolation prize. You remember movies you have seen where women who are raped are questioned because they didn’t put up a fight or scream. You scream. You kick. You bite. For the first and last time in your life you pray.

Block everything. Realize you can’t block everything. Remember the tiny details. As if you are watching an old black and white film. Body parts. The idea of sex. The idea of violence.

You don’t tell your mother or father but you do file a report with the police. You remember not to shower. You remember this, because every day for the last four years of your life you have used public restrooms that provide you with helpful advice: where to get condoms, what to do in case of an STD, the correct steps and procedures in case you are a victim of sexual assault. You wished you didn’t have to read about sexual dysfunctions every time you took a piss. Now, every day, you are invited to go to events for women just like you. You go to classrooms where women with short hair and tattoos check you out and read poetry about their vaginas. You go to lectures where these same women tell you how you don’t have to be ashamed of your pussy, even though society tells you to be ashamed of your pussy. You don’t tell them you never were ashamed of your pussy, that you never saw your body as something to injure (like they tell you in self-mutilation workshop) or something you are trying to waste away (like they tell you on eating disorder day.) You like your body. You masturbate frequently. You tell yourself that you are not going to let this event change you. You dream about guns, vengeance. Nuclear explosions. Genocide. You stop reading the paper. It depresses you. You masturbate. You go on dates. You come easily and unabashedly. When you wake up your lover asks what’s the problem and you don’t know what to say. He says you twitch in your sleep. He asks if you have Tourettes. You don’t tell him it’s a bigger problem.

Your grandmother dies. She was a strong, stocky woman who believed that the world could be clearly divided into things that are good ideas and things that are bad ideas. Good ideas include marriage, Judaism, clean dishes and Law and Order episodes. Bad ideas include anti-Semitism, men who don’t open doors for women, sex outside of marriage, and children who find it necessary to sit on the floor, rather in a chair like a normal human being. She was fond of giving you advice. She told you to marry well and to learn to cook. You cry the first time that year at her funeral, partially because you miss her and partially because an event like a funeral gives you an excuse to cry. It’s August and the weather is hot and you can feel your heels sinking into the red earth and your father’s hand on your shoulder and he tells you things like, “It’s going to be ok, Sarah, It’s going to be ok.”

You aren’t sure if it is.

Your friend Lisa tells you what you need is a change of scenery. Lisa is a tough girl, tall and lanky, with pixie cut hair and a mouth you think is kind of sexy if you were into girls, which most of the time you think you’re not. She’s traveled all over the world. She wants to go to Israel this summer and she thinks you should go with her. She says it will help you get in touch with your roots. You tell her you feel rootless and she says that what you need is a spiritual epiphany. Later that week you sign up. In your statement of purpose you write facts, just the bare bones details, because even though you are majoring in linguistics, words seem difficult these days. Often, you feel like words don’t help you say anything you need to say. You have a phone interview where they test to see if you are really Jewish or not. You wonder why someone would want to fake it. They ask you if you know what a menorah is. They ask you what costume you wore for Purim. They ask you what you got for Chanukah.

You earn your birthright.

A boy who works at the library gives you books on the Middle East. He asks if you’ve been abroad before and you say no, and he gives you a pitying look as if you just told him that when you were young you were so poor you had to supplement your meals with ground up cardboard. He tells you he feels sorry for Americans who have never had the opportunity to leave the country. You wonder if he’s the type of person who feels bad for women with small breasts and families that don’t have a three-car garage. You’d hate him if you didn’t feel kind of bad for him, standing there behind the library counter, wearing a bright red nametag on his blue collared polo shirt, which falls loosely over the top rim of his ripped jeans.

You tell your mother when you leave for college that what you are most interested in is freedom. When you get to college you begin to realize how little of that there is. Even in America. You decide you need to find out for yourself. You tell Lisa you are in with the same bravado you would use if you were agreeing to participate in a murder or a heist. On the plane ride you keep your hands where you can see them. You stare intently on the little electronic map on the back of the seat and watch the little red arrows show you the trajectory of your plane. Eat chocolate pudding. Fall asleep. Wake to an image of Israeli women smiling and doing yoga on the little television located on the back of the seat. Spin your feet in little circles under your seat. This is supposed to offset chances of getting a blood clot. Look to Lisa. She is a determinist. She tells you if she is going to die of a blood clot on a plane, then she is meant to die of a blood clot. Stop making circles. Lean your head back and imagine you are getting off the plane.

When you land you are surprised that Israel is not some abstract idea, but an actual, tangible place, with real things like buildings and lamp posts and trees. You have two roommates. One is a busty, chatty redhead named Rachel who in the course of three hours has told you everything about her life, including her fear of spiders and the exact date and time she lost her virginity. Your other roommate is deaf. Realize this is going to be a long trip. Say you are tired and need to get ready for bed. Your hotel room is more like a hostel. You are too tall for any of the showers. You left your toothpaste at home.

Your tour guide is a medium height man with dark tan skin and dark hair that is speckled grey. He wears a beige hat that you thought only people on safaris wore. He is sweating already and it isn’t even 7 am. He reminds you to drink lots of water. He tells you to remember to stay hydrated. He tells you not to be concerned about security issues. He tells you this trip will be safe. He tells you not to travel anywhere alone. He introduces your tour group to an 18-year old named Zed who has long hair and a tie-die shirt and a gun slung across his lap. Your tour guide’s name is Eli. He smiles a lot when he talks and is constantly giving you maps and historical information. He asks each of you why you are here and in response people give a range of answers. Tell him you’re not sure. He gives you a pitying look and extends a hand. He whispers in your ear welcome home, Sarah. This sound will haunt you the entire tour.

Board a bus to Jerusalem. Wear headphones. Listen to Portishead. Crave cigarettes. Pretend to read. When Rachel tries to engage you in conversation, pretend to sleep. Look out the window. See deserts. See stark blue skies and sands and occasional trees. Reach Jerusalem. Feel stone beneath your feet. Feel the sun beating against your neck. Pass merchants. Look at all the tiny stars of David, the sandals, tapestries and silks. Reach the Wailing Wall. Wrap a long dark purple skirt over your jeans. Each person faces his small portion of the wall, gently tips his or her head back and forth, bowing to invisible forces like millions of those plastic bird toys dipping their beaks into water. From far away you can hear the sound of chanting and see the tip of gold dome from the Arab quarter mosque. You will not be allowed to follow this path by yourself. From up close you can see the tiny slips of paper hidden inside the stone like secret prayers. Try your own hand at it. Aim for profound. Fail. Draw a picture of a tiny owl, because it reminds you of a boy you once loved. Think about faith.

Spend all day counting the things you love on one hand as you head to Tel Aviv. Marvel at how modern everything is. Count cars as you pass. Wonder about the lives of people living inside. Go to restaurants and order expensive things off the menu. Go to storefronts and notice that there is a wall decorated with bullets. Listen as Eli explains a shooting. Go to the beach. Wear a string bikini. Feel sand under your feet. Take pictures with all the pretend friends you’ve met so far. Go to the Holocaust museum. Go into the exhibit where there are candles and mirrors, each flame representing an extinguished life. Stop off at a Bedouin village. It’s like Urban Outfitters except everything is real. There are drums and clothes and jewelry. The people who live here live off the land. And make money off tourists. They share rituals. They are Muslim. They explain that in their culture they drink tea three times at a first meal with a stranger. The first they are strangers, the second they are friends, the third they will die for you. You think this is nice. You tend to think cultures outside your own are nice, maybe that’s because you don’t have to live with them everyday. Like families. Buy a hookah. Ride a camel. Sleep under the stars. Know you are supposed to feel very spiritual sleeping under the stars like this. Wish you could take a shower.

Get woken at 4 am to hike up Masada. Climb up and up and up the narrow slope with all your fellow travelers who look tiny from the bottom of the hills, their bodies stuck to the edge of things like small, insistent ants. Reach the top just as the sun is beginning to push itself over the edge, burning very bright and red. Feel even smaller. Listen as Eli tells you about history. Only half the words stick. War. Fortress. Suicide. Grace. God. Realize you are still tired. Tired, hungry and hot. Miss home. Miss your mother. Miss your father. Miss your brother. Miss childhood. Return to ground level. Eat lunch with the group. Gorge yourself on fruit and deli meats. Get on a bus. When you wake you are at the Dead Sea.

Put your head underwater, even though you aren’t supposed to. You will always remember this sting, the feeling of salt pushing through your eyelids. The hurt. Think this is not what you wanted, what you wanted was to be free, what you wanted was to feel something stronger than yourself. Hold your breath and count to one hundred. Hold your breath and try and remember life backwards. Only the good parts. Forget the diaspora. Forget the war zones. Forget the violence. Remember the fresh cut fruit you always had for breakfast. Remember the bus ride to college. Remember the first time you made love. Remember music. Remember sex without terror, but with passion. Remember books you read and books you haven’t read and places you’ve been to and places you haven’t been to. Remember pictures on the wall of your grandmother’s house. Remember the one in the bathroom with the trees against the lake. How you always argued about which side was facing up until your convictions were gone and you couldn’t tell anymore who was right or wrong and it didn’t really matter. Come up for air and make a noise that you weren’t sure that you were capable of making: somewhere between a cry and a sigh of relief. Miss everything, even the bad parts. Start walking toward the shoreline to get a towel. When Eli asks you where you are going tell him you aren’t going anywhere at all.

O Typekey Divider

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review.  She is currently writing her first book.

O Typekey Divider

–Art by Mario Mencacci

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