Witness to a Year: Diverse Book Challenge-October
In September, I left Wiesel’s story about the Rebbe’s story somewhere in the middle.
The rest reads like this.
“Later still, Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sasove, in turn a disciple of the Maggide of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. ‘I do not know how to light the fire,’ he said to God, ‘and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.’ Once again, the miracle was accomplished.
When it was the turn of Rebbe Israel of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: ‘I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.’ And it was enough.” (31)
On the next page of his book, Berger continues and describes Wiesel’s assessment. “Our connection to the past is weak; it may be distant, at a remove. All we can do is tell the story, and we must. . .” (32).
At my friend’s invitation, I settled into a stadium seat cushion to listen to a concert. The performing arts center is part of an old school turned apartment complex. The staring act was a fourteen year old singer. I had never heard of her. My father had. The repurposed auditorium across time had seated many adolescents and their families. The stage, too, had felt its share of footprints young and old. Phenoms? Prodigies? Probably not. But, no one succeeds alone, not really.
My father often mentioned what it would have been like to fit in a family with common interests such as music, to be encouraged, to not have stories be silenced or broken. He wasn’t awake when I returned after 10:00 p.m., but in the morning he had questions. Throughout the concert I had tried to take the notes of the musician like the musician that I’m not, but, that I knew my father would talk to me as though I was.
“So?” he cuts his bacon from the package. “Is it nice inside?”
I know I’ve answered this question before about the high school turn junior high turned middle school turned apartment building. “I like the apartments. They’re unique. It’s nice the people living there get some free tickets.”
“Supposedly for the noise.” I hadn’t noticed excessive noise, but maybe some shows are more disruptive than others.
I paused and scooped old coffee grounds from the filter. I repeated my notes in my head and responded, “Nice voice. Good range. Pretty tone. Rich, you know? She yodels.”
He laughed, and maybe he was remembering the section from the country music documentary on the blend with folk.
“I didn’t see much musicianship from her.” I congratulated myself on being able to use the term he applied so often to his guitar idols. “Her dad played bass. Brother had skills on the mandolin and guitar. He played lead.”
“It’s her whole family then?”
“Yeah. She said her mom even coauthors.” I walk past him at the stove into the mud room to unload my laundry to start my Sunday.
“Coauthors?” I caught his face while pulling out toast. Curiosity turned disappointment.
The prodigy, the phenom was talented yes. But, she was the face of family unity, mission, and singular story written intentionally to success. All the pieces were there to be her picture, words in her song. No pages were missing. My father always encouraged me in anything I wanted to do or to be, but that didn’t mean that his own sadness at unavailable pages could prevent other stories silenced or broken. They simply weren’t his to tell.
September is over. A new year begins. And, the memories that should have been mine will somehow always remain in closest proximity to the members of my family members’ proximity to me.
I spent all summer redoing upstairs rooms of my great grandmother’s house. Some of the improvements were for me. Others were simply practical. The act was inspired by a birthday promise over a year old.
“You can have any house improvement you want,” Dad had offered.
With all the aches and groans an old farmhouse has to complain about, I considered carefully. “I want a room for Ofir to stay in when they come.” My niece was growing. She was five. But, the request was more. At its heart my request was a gesture, one that said more than squeezing a family of four onto a pullout couch wedged between a trunk and a piano no one played. I wanted to say, “We want you here, and you’re a part of us, even when you’re not here.”
The handful of days my family can schedule to see each other calls to mind the Brigadoon type of tale the Rebbe’s tale invoked. Prayers made. Promises kept. Fragile futures. In two weeks, my brother’s family will be here. The curly rose dotted wallpaper is up and a daybed delivered. Fresh pillows and blankets unscented by dog hair wait to be unfolded. And, the room that was once my grandfather’s is cleaned of a shrine to my adolescent self. Instead, it is a play room. I peek inside each day as I step carefully down the stairs.
Still, there are pieces that while they tell stories are not imagined in play. Set next to the shelf of picture books are baby books left unfinished my mother began for my brother and I once upon a time. No other words seem right for words more fantasy than rooted truth. Atop the blocks I set my mother’s mother’s jewelry box. Ofir will find the pieces of a separate kind of puzzle when she lifts the lid to play.
With one week to wait, I follow one more recipe that lists apples and honey. Another woman at the gym mentions Rosh Hashanah. Hopeful I ask, “Do you observe?”
She shakes her head. “I didn’t know I was Jewish. My father disowned that side of his family when he tired of being peed on.
I stare at the corner where I placed the trunk. A pipe painted the same color as the wall attempts to hide behind new pillows. Inside sits a jewelry box and journals my parents barely started with mixed intent of someone as a someday reader. Although the something I have is everything invented, it still grows. My family, we’re split and our stories gap, but I hope for the Rebbe’s revelation, and it is enough.
Through verse Jasmine Warga weaves definitions of home and belonging as her individual characters’ stories. Other Words for Home is narrated by Jude, a girl who never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives. At first, everything in America seems too fast and too loud. Despite loving American movies and songs, her choices and connections somehow are not the stories that matter. Specifically Jude’s new label of “Middle Eastern,” is an identity she’s never known before. But this life also brings opportunities that help Jude to be all she ever wanted to be.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo tells the story of Emoni Santiago. She has her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support her, because her father chose to return to live in Puerto Rico. The one place she can let go is through her invention of recipes. While a story that involves food will always be a personal love of mine due to the power of storytelling in cultures through food, Acevedo is extremely talented in her use of dynamic relationships between family members and relationships between people and places. Acevedo illustrates the layers of diverse flavor as a result of our stories told to us and told by us as well as Emoni seasons her unique foods.
Diverse book reads blog posts applied to my own life
“I’m a Writer?!” May the Force Be With Me. . .
Read, Write, Talk, PLAY, SING. . . THE BLUES: unsung early literacy practices on my father’s guitar
Acevedo, Elizabeth (2019). With the Fire on High. Harper: New York.
Burger, Ariel. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom. Houghton Mifflin
Warga, Jasmine. (2019). Other Words for Home. Balzar + Bray: New York.