Storied Past
Tue, 12/29/2009
Growing up in a small town where there were few Jewish families, Jewish stories gave me belonging despite the fact that there wasn’t a physical community for me to belong to. Educated at Brandeis University where I was immersed in a largely Jewish student body, Jewish stories gave me pride, for there we were, descendants of the twelve tribes learning side by side. Later, as a young man who traveled alone across Europe, visiting Terezin and Dachau and picking oranges on a farm outside of Valencia to make some money, and who, upon returning to the United States spent my 20s taking buses across the expanse of America, living in a dozen odd places and working jobs across a wide spectrum of opportunities, among various people and for a range of pay, Jewish stories gave me a sense that my wandering and general aimlessness were neither unchartered nor purposeless. But there is more. For me, Jewish stories have the power to transform reality, somehow becoming active agents that alter a seemingly unchangeable truth. But then I might be different. That is, as a man whose 34 years on earth have included disavowing my faith, immersing myself within Jewish texts and teachings, and briefly studying the Talmud and Torah in the basement of a Borough Park yeshiva, as someone who in threatening and unthreatening situations alike has been guilty of both denying that I was a Jew and brazenly, perhaps even masochistically, asserting it; as a son, a brother, a friend and a stranger, as a husband and now, for the first time in my life, a soon-to-be father, Jewish stories may very well be the sole reason I exist. Let me explain. Before I was born, my parents struggled desperately to conceive a child. They visited numerous doctors and underwent various tests and procedures, all of which were unsuccessful. There were no clear answers as to why my mother couldn’t get pregnant, and there were no solutions. My parents were devastated. My mother found solace in one thing: the biblical story of Hannah. However, after nearly three years of trying all manner and means of conceiving a child, my parents resigned themselves to what they believed was their fate. They were barren. They would adopt a child. Two years later, long after they gave up on having biological children and had adopted my eldest brother, my mother continued to reflect on how God had answered Hannah’s prayers, and she continued to pray. And then somehow she became pregnant. Her doctors were shocked. It was a mystery, a biological phenomenon. But was it? Or was the story of Hannah, the sense of possibility it provided, the power that made my life possible? If so, the power of the story of Hannah, the faith that the story begat goes further, for 13 months after I was born, my mother gave birth to a second child, my youngest brother. If the idea that a story can bring about not just one life but two sounds earnest or too far-reaching, then we have found ourselves within a Jewish story — oil burning in a lamp for eight days, an ark keeping all life saved, the parting of a sea — the impossible somehow becoming real, the line between a realistic personal narrative and a larger mystical and mythical one blurred. In this vein, I would like to consider another portion of my life, a predicament in which there were no stories to guide, fortify or comfort my family or, for that matter, me. As a child, my grandfather, a twice-widowed survivor of the pogroms in Russia, moved in with my family after suffering a series of small strokes. He could no longer care for himself. He had dementia and required a tremendous amount of patience and energy. Some evenings, only a few hours after my grandfather cursed and threatened my brothers and me, calling us nobodies and treating us like vile strangers, I watched my father carry him up the stairs of our small home like a bride on a wedding night, then help him into the bath he had drawn for him. Other evenings, I witnessed my father or mother try to convince my grandfather of the day or year, that one of his siblings had long since passed away or that my brothers and I were in fact his grandsons. The responsibility of caring for my grandfather was, at times, too much for my family to handle. It caused misdirected anger and tension in my parents’ marriage, and it saddled my brothers and me with a level of unhealthy resentment for my parents and grandfather and, because my grandfather’s presence was a product of my father’s sense of loyalty and obligation, traits we were taught were inherently Jewish, it fractured our relationship with Judaism. In fact, while I studied for my bar mitzvah I did not think about what the event meant in my life as a Jew or wonder about God’s existence. Because I understood that it was the responsibilities of being Jewish that brought my grandfather, a destructive force, into our home, I hated God and that I was of his “chosen people.” Because I was a shy, introverted child, I never revealed these feelings to my parents. And as hardworking young adults tirelessly working to provide for their three sons and care for my grandfather, neither my father nor my mother had the experience or foresight to understand how living with my grandfather, witnessing and, in some ways being victimized by the slow, volatile death of a Jewish patriarch affected us. However, even if they had considered the effect my grandfather’s presence had, was there a Jewish story that could have provided them the direction, strength and comfort to deal with it? And was there one for my brothers and me? What was the model to show us how to proceed? The battle we faced was not Judah’s battle. The floods that rose around us were not Noah’s. The madness we were subjected to was not the mistaken prayers of barren Hannah. Two decades later, witnessing the holy changes in my wife’s body, awed at the sight of a sonogram and considering what it means to be a father — will I be a good one, caring enough, able to shoulder the responsibilities of parenthood? — I find myself at work on my second novel, “The Nobodies,” a story of Uri Leibowitz, an unsure young man who is his grandfather’s sole caregiver. Uri’s grandfather is suffering from dementia, and Uri must help him dress and bathe. He prepares all of his grandfather’s meals, changes the bedding when his grandfather soils it and does his best to deal with his grandfather’s senility and bouts of paranoia and rage with a calm and steady grace. But when their landlord decides not to renew their lease, Uri is left with a decision. Should he place his grandfather in a geriatric facility? If so, where will Uri go, and who will he be without the responsibilities and burden of caring for his ailing grandfather? This decision and the issues Uri confronts throughout the novel are taken from my personal experience and related to the larger questions of my identity and the identities of those around me. Some might say that writing such as this is a form of therapy, that I am attempting to deal with the demons of my past and rectify the failings of my life, both my own and those of the people who nurtured me. In some ways, this is true. I am writing this story in an effort to reclaim the love I had for my grandfather before he went mad, and I am trying to understand the burdens carried by my mother and father and my brothers and me, and how they became the baggage of our lives. But because I am a Jewish writer, “The Nobodies” also aims to be a story in the tradition of Jewish stories — the individual’s narrative being connected to our greater story. Thus, the novel raises questions that pertain to us, we who stand at the completion of the 21st century’s first decade. Who are our ancestors, what are their stories, and what are our responsibilities to them? What challenges must we take on? What waters must we rise above? What seas must be cleaved? And most importantly, what stories must we live and tell to remind ourselves and each other, and to leave our children and their children to prove that we, with only a story and some faith, can overcome all variations and degrees of madness, injustice  and hatred. Matthew Aaron Goodman’s first novel “Hold Love Strong” (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) was published last year and selected by Barnes and Noble as a Discover Great New Writers book. The paperback will be released in March. He lives in Brooklyn.