Heroes have their eagles,
mine is a ring-necked dove,
a star lost over the roof,
a winding alley ending at the port of Acre,
no more, no less.
Where I left myself, a happy child,
I say to that self: Good morning.
( I wasn’t a happy child at that time,
but distance is a skilled blacksmith
who can turn worthless iron into moonlight.)
– Mahmoud Darwish, Mural
Like the ring-necked dove, I’m mostly alone, and like a star, mostly shooting away. But I am also that alley laying itself down, winding this way and that as I drop and set stones, skipping across their newness in the night. Still I struggle, though, trying not to lead myself to the safe ports of my land — exits signs out of the city, the state, the country, highway ramps, airport runways, fierce goodbyes.
The problem now, though, with distance, that skilled blacksmith, I know, is that no matter where you go or what time it is, you’re never all that far from yourself. Neither across time, nor across space. As I grapple with identity (harder when it’s my own), I see so much in such a small word. I won’t go so far as to say I didn’t see it before. I think I did. I was me on an island in the Pacific, navigating the tides of youth alone, and me again fluttering between colleges — and, oh — me again popping in and out of different countries, mapless. That’s also me mumbling through my life in Ukraine, and then, again, there I am with rubles in my wallet, perogi on the stove, buried in books in Russia. Me again, or still, from before and now, existing in both directions, coming and going, from a nondescript cubicle at 15th and M or the beaches of Hawaii, in the cold of Michigan, wandering through Riga at 4am, on a train, in a plane. Speaking another language, too, I’m not far from myself. Even when I’m told I’m wrong about my heritage on a road with no signs, when I’m taken into a new home, a whole new world, there I am still, caged, even if I’m told I’m free — no, I’m still here. And there. There I am demanding notice of myself, protesting despite myself. Possibly a little altered in translation from afar, looking in or back, I’m still dressed in my solitude, and my quietude — teeming with the crowds of myself.
One day after many, I walk down a dirt road in Ukraine until I come across a bench where I can wait to catch a bus home. In Ukraine, public transportation is actually privately owned. Men with tea-filled paper cups in one hand, kopeki in the other, and cigarettes in their mouths swerve their mini-vans down dirt roads, stopping wherever they are flagged down. I considered myself lucky to find what had been a Soviet bus stop. Above my head, there is a mural of children at play in the summertime, pieces of the sun crumbling to the ground, the hammer and sickle still there. An old woman, the only other person in sight, comes toward me.
“Where are you from?” she enquires, moving closer, investigating the foreign territory of my face.
The woman is soft with me, but invasive, her own face crumpled onto itself with what I came to recognize as defeat followed by a dull acceptance. I thought about the question for longer than someone else might. I considered all the other possibilities, the non-answers. “I’m American,” I settle. I settle because it has got to be so clear, as obvious as day to anyone else, to anyone here. Perhaps, but objective, it turns out, it is not — I’m Other.
“You’re Polish!” she demands, raising her eyebrows. It’s still hot in early fall in Ukraine. The brown grass is creeping over from the edges inward, and the green grass, concentrated, is still holding out. “No,” I say unconvincingly, but the reality is that I, in contrast, happily conceded immediately — oh, to be someone I’m not! My heart was somersaulting with delight.
For that moment, I was not me. I thought, so briefly, that maybe I didn’t have to be ever again. That is, until I did. What I’d grow to realize through my travels and my life abroad was that I would never outgrow myself, nor take on someone else. Nor would it matter if I could trace my birthmother’s ancestry to someplace else, to follow the Jewish in her, or the Jewish in my father, or recreate a history through what my grandparents would or wouldn’t tell me before passing. The knowledge wouldn’t make me Other, better, stronger, or rooted. Wouldn’t explain or quiet the crowds of myself. I would always be me. In that same vein, I realized, slowly, that it didn’t matter what my two sets of Jewish grandparents said, with or without “documents,” but, if played right, I wouldn’t have to be Mine.
– On the Construction of Memory-
The starting place is often the most slippery — finding the moment there was a click — when my identity settled and I moved forward to ‘become’ Jewish. Oh, right, and to write about it concisely, moving forward from enlightenment as if this class or any other made it suddenly clear. That’s slippery, maybe impossible, and would probably be a lie. The truth is that my Jewish identity has never been clear, my memories Jewish and not Jewish, my body also, Jewish, not Jewish. So I’m starting in the middle, when I found myself meeting with my rabbi with nothing to say — just seemingly endless tears. Because I was quitting. Because, I realize now, my God is a God of words. My God is poetry. I find Him in the abyss, in my own exile, confusion, separation. I felt zero connection to other Jews. Following this, I went on Birthright (and rebelled), I joined two more Jewish classes, began working at New Israel Fund, and, later, the American Jewish Committee. It seemed the majority of my crowds were jumping up and down with their kippot, shining, demanding recognition.
My rabbi directed me to more books, wrote me a list. He looked at me cockeyed. He looked, frustratingly and obviously just concerned. There I sat, demanding my Jewishness and making it ridiculously obvious that I didn’t even like the Jewish community. I still can’t imagine his position. But what he did do, and all he really did, was remind me what Israel means. “You are supposed to struggle with God,” he said, simply. I didn’t think I’d have to struggle THAT much. And struggle I did. And do.
I am an only child. I have a disaffected Jewish father and an unaffiliated, but haphazardly spiritual, stepmother. My birthmother, adopted by Jews, though, of unclear “origins” herself, left before I was a year old. To Kenya. Then to Las Vegas where she still lives, a blackjack dealer. Then she had her tubes tied. Final. I can’t remember much from my childhood — my memories blur more than average people’s. I certainly can’t remember anything before age 5, but really more like 7 or 8. I’m told I always stayed away from other people. Later, in an old garage, I found little combat boots, what I wore instead of sneakers. I must have felt I needed them to traverse my world. I learned that I stayed in corners, even in my crib. I sang myself to sleep; words, even before I had them, have always been my life, and my sustenance.
My life growing up was mostly secular. Occasionally we celebrated Chanukah, of my stepmom’s volition, and with my third set of grandparents, adopted, Christmas. At home we had a Christmas tree that we sometimes put up and we had an ancient looking menorah (I don’t know where it came from). Every few years we would light the candles for one night, sometimes two – no one knew a prayer, but there was the light, brief as it was, unlikely to last even then! My father has no interest in tradition or religion. Nor does he have anger. Just complete apathy. My stepmother is the opposite, no real religion, but a true yearning to be better, to be involved in the world. My parents fought, loudly, constantly, police would come, police would go. I guess it’s a big deal. They weren’t married, but they started a company together. They were gone a lot. Many afternoons I would climb the kitchen counters, taking handfuls of sugar from the cupboards because there was never food in the house. Later, my stepmom would yell at me for the grainy trails I would leave around the kitchen. Evidence of my misbehavior.
At some point we went from saving all our bath water to being able to afford boarding school. It’s unclear to me when it happened. I was sent to Hawaii. I’m hesitant to talk about it or my childhood, out of fear of getting it wrong. There’s something about Hawaii — just the word itself has this power. Immediately the mood is all sunshine, warm water, plumeria flowers, dancing, earthly peace. Aloha. Aloha — yes — there’s my starting point. The word is almost exactly the same as Shalom. Hello. And Goodbye.
Rachel Grossman graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Language and Literature before spending three years in the former Soviet Union. Having spent two years in Ukraine with the Peace Corps and one year in Russia for graduate school, she now lives and works in Washington D.C. in International Development. She’s always on some sort of a journey, spiritual or physical, loves rainbow knee high socks, and inventive cooking. An aspiring vegan, and full-time vegetarian, she is otherwise known as the Heebavore. You can read more at: www.heebavore.com.