The Holocaust was always shadowing his life.
November 6, 2013
A VG Serial: ToxiCity
Matt’s mother covered her eyes with her hands and made the blessing over the candles.
“Amen.” Georgia, Matt, and Matt’s father said together.
“There.” Evelyn Singer dropped her hands. Small-boned and delicate, she would have looked younger than her seventy-seven years had it not been for her white hair coiled into a bun.
“Let me help, Evelyn.” Georgia followed her into the kitchen. “I’ll open the wine.” Since Matt hadn’t been able to break away until the last minute, Georgia ran into Sunset for a bottle of kosher wine before coming down.
“Don’t bother, Georgia. I’ve got it.”
Matt had brought Georgia to his parents’ home in Skokie at least half a dozen times, mostly on Friday nights, but his mother still treated her like a guest. It wasn’t because Georgia didn’t know the rituals. She learned the Hebrew blessings quickly and enjoyed reciting them. Matt knew what it was. So did Evelyn. Georgia was a goy.
He heard the cork pop. Then, “Leo, Matt, it’s time to wash.”
He’d taught Georgia how to perform the ritual that few Jews bothered with any more, and he watched as she poured water from a pitcher over one hand, then the other, and murmured the blessing.
Back in the dining room, they sat in silence until Matt’s father recited kiddush, sipped the wine, and made the blessing over the bread. He broke off three pieces, sprinkled salt on them, and passed them down the table.
It was a chilly night, and Matt looked forward to matzo ball soup and brisket. He hoped the comfort food would anchor him; he hadn’t had much appetite lately.
His mother ladled the soup. A refugee from Germany, she’d come to America at sixteen, the only member of her family to make it out. His father’s family had emigrated a generation earlier; as a result, Matt had grown up as familiar with Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz as gentile kids were with Disneyland. His parents didn’t dwell on it, but the Holocaust was always there, shadowing his life in a way that only other Holocaust children could understand.
“Leo, I saw something I didn’t understand a couple weeks ago,” Georgia said between sips of soup.
“What was that, sweetheart?” His father, small but still wiry at eighty, was more gracious than his mother. His eyes twinkled when he looked at Georgia, a fact not lost on any of them. Matt knew the feeling was mutual.
“When Matt and I went to synagogue, some of the men put their tallises over their head, stood in front of the synagogue, and sort of moaned or hummed. What was that all about?”
“Ahh,” Leo said. “The Duhan. It’s a special addition to services on major holidays.”
“Not to be disrespectful, but it kind of looked like a Halloween stunt, with the men dressed up like ghosts.”
Leo chuckled. “You’re not far off. The men you saw are the descendants of the high priests of the early temple. They’re called kohanes. They performed all the sacrifices, services, and rituals. Aaron was one. We honor their memory during major holidays, by asking their descendants to usher God’s presence into the synagogue. Like they did years ago. “
Georgia leaned an elbow on the table. “So how do you get to be a kohane? ”
“You’re born that way. People with the name Cohen, or Kahn, or some variation of it probably have a kohane in their family tree.”
“Oh.” Georgia sipped her wine.
Like a rookie fresh out of training camp, Georgia wanted to be in the game right away. But no one could absorb centuries of traditions and rules in a few months. His mother rose and headed into the kitchen.
Matt grinned at Georgia. “Remember the Vulcan sign from Star Trek?” He formed a “V” with his hand, spreading two fingers on each side with a space in the middle.
Georgia’s eyes narrowed, as if she thought he was putting one over on her. “Yeah?”
“They say that Leonard Nimoy got the idea for it from the Duhan service. The Kohanes are supposed to hold up their hands that way underneath their tallit.”
Her eyes widened.
“You know, your mother’s great uncle was a kohane,” Leo said.
His mother came out of the kitchen with the platter of meat. “You mean Uncle Moritz?”
“He went straight to Palestine from Germany. One of the early settlers.” His mother turned to Matt. “You remember, dear. They always send us New Year’s cards. His grand-son, Avi, your second cousin, came to visit a few years ago.”
Matt remembered a scrawny kid in glasses who was more interested in the dope he could score than family ties.
His mother sat down and passed the meat. “I hear Avi’s married now. Living in Tel Aviv. He’s got some kind of high tech job.”
No one replied.
“So, what’s with you two?” Leo asked after a silence.
Matt looked up.
“Look, Leo.” His mother laughed. “He looks like a deer caught in the headlights.”
Georgia pressed her lips together.
“I meant your work, Matt,” Leo said.
Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
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