Passover was on March 30 the first year I ever celebrated it. I remember it was a stormy spring in Los Angeles. Rainwater roared through the city aqueducts. I had never witnessed so much rain in Southern California before. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion, and everything seemed so vibrant and clear — grief has a way of transforming the most mundane sights into something memorable.
What was truly memorable for me was Passover — the Seder plate and Elijah’s cup were so beautiful in their form and meaning. My boyfriend, Tuvia, and his family took care of me after my mother’s death. Though I was grief-stricken, I helped Tuvia’s mother put together the Seder plate. She explained the symbolic foods to me and kept grabbing my face to tell me she loved me. “Ach! I love you, Mameleh.” It wasn’t easy to smile, but I tried. I helped Tuvia’s father make the salmon croquettes and the chopped liver — these were both foods we made when I was growing up, as well. Tuvia’s sister was in charge of the matzoh balls. She rolled each dumpling with care and placed them into the chicken broth to simmer. I poured out the jar of gefilte fish into pretty floral bowls. It was a different brand of gefilte fish than what my grandmother ate but looked and smelled much the same — gelatinous and fishy.
The year was 1991. I was only two months into my 20th year when my mother died. Her death felt sudden, even though she had been sick since I was in the third grade. First, she had a stroke under anesthesia for an umbilical hernia. After that came more strokes and grand mal seizures. Then in 1985, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her cancer hung over my high school years like a dark shadow.
Then again, it wasn’t the only darkness I had to deal with. My high school was located in a small, rural town in the Upper Midwest. The people of this small town could never be described as friendly, especially to those they considered outsiders. My family was made up of swarthy foreigners with thick accents — there was little to no chance of fitting in.
Perhaps most appalling to our neighbors was that we didn’t go to church. I was harassed almost daily on the school bus for this offense. The children of churchgoers were especially cruel. They told me AIDS was my fault for not being a believer and that I’d be punished at the end of days. The tone of their words was so hateful I shudder to think on it too long. They wished my family and I all get AIDS and burn in hell. Because of this, I still cringe whenever I hear the expression “Minnesota Nice.”
However, their favorite insult was to call me ugly. The townsfolk were all of Nordic, Germanic, and Finnish descent. They said my dark brown eyes remind them of shit. My darkest brown, thick hair reminded them of horsehair. My hourglass figure seemed to enrage everyone — girls and boys alike. A waist to hip ratio that was too feminine in a very masculine revering part of the country. My large aquiline nose was an ugly witch’s nose, of course — originality has never been a priority in the country. One boy, in particular, liked to sit in the seat before mine and call me ugly all the way to school — nearly a two-hour bus ride. This was how I began most of my school days in small-town America.
One evening watching late-night TV with my father, a Woody Allen movie was featured on one of the three channels we were able to get in with rabbit ear antennae. My father said Woody Allen was an ugly Jew. I noticed that Woody and I had a few features in common — the same features kids at school teased me about. Meanwhile, I didn’t think Woody Allen was ugly — his large, soulful, puppy-dog eyes had me fully beguiled. And he was smart. I had never heard anyone, outside of my family, talk about famous composers: Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart, Russian literature, and the philosophers of existentialism before. There weren’t any boys in rural Minnesota like Woody, I was sure of that. I decided to hold out on boys, until I found one like him. When I told my mother I had a crush on Woody Allen, she looked concerned. This was long before he became a controversial figure. Her concerns came from a deeper place.
My mother didn’t want me to associate with Jews. This was easy to accomplish when we lived in Two Inlets, Minnesota, but no longer so easy when we moved to Los Angeles. My father was given an apartment in the La Brea Towers as an art studio by his long-time employer — the prominent businessman and art collector Louis Warschaw. I got a job at the nearest bookstore in the Farmer’s Market on 3rd and Fairfax Ave. I spent all day with the Jews of this very Jewish neighborhood. I started dating someone Jewish. My mother became frantic: “They’ll get you by association!” She cried. I didn’t understand. I assumed her illnesses were beginning to affect her emotionally.
I began to dream about Jews, especially about the Holocaust. One night my roommate found me standing on my bed, clawing at the wall and crying. I dreamed I was in a gas chamber. I asked my Jewish friends what they thought. They were surprised to hear that I wasn’t Jewish. They had just assumed I was. I told my boyfriend, Tuvia, that my grandmother had a small, old book in her room with a Star of David. He thought it was strange and then confessed that he sensed something about me from the moment we met — something he called Yiddishkeit. My mother told me she had a crucial detail to tell to me — a secret. She’d call and ask me to come over, but she’d begin sobbing and said she was too afraid when I got there. I waited by her bedside for hours, but she never did tell me her secret.
Then suddenly, she died. I was on the phone with my brother when it happened. I heard my beloved mother yell out my name with such desperation it haunts me still. After that, she stopped breathing, and my brother slammed down the phone. I raced to the hospital, but she was already gone.
The following week, we had her body cremated. She demanded to be cremated. One of the only demands she made in her whole life, so we honored it. I watched her simple wooden coffin enter the flames of the crematoria oven. My heart began to race. I felt I was going to vomit. I went wild with horror and grief and ran from the building. Outside, gasping for air, I inhaled the sweet scent of my mother’s burning body through the smokestack. I thought I was going to faint. My father came out to check on me. He turned his head to look at the wreaths of smoke rising from the crematorium and shook his head. Perhaps it was because of all the Holocaust reminiscent imagery of this moment, but from that moment on, I knew I was a Jew and that I had a connection to the Holocaust.
We went to celebrate my mother’s life at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Ave. I ordered my mother’s favorite matzoh ball soup, with one colossal matzoh ball in the bowl. Plenty of gentiles eat at Canter’s, of course, but my father’s choice of restaurants didn’t escape my newfound hunches about my Jewish ancestry.
When we got back to my parent’s apartment, I went directly to my mother’s dresser in her bedroom. She kept her hairbrush in the top drawer. I loved the scent of her hair — natural with a hint of perfume. I wanted to smell the scent of her hair before it could disappear. I noticed a small, yellow-with-age envelope beneath her brush. I opened it. Inside was my mother’s Displaced Person’s card issued by the Allied Forces and her liberation papers from Bergen Belsen — it was on this document, I first saw my mother’s real last name: Silverberg. There were more documents. All bore the stamps of various Jewish agencies, including HIAS.
I called Tuvia, and we immediately went to the Museum of Tolerance, which was nearby, to have the documents authenticated. I cried when the young, orthodox archivist told me they were real and that I was Jewish. “C’mon, it’s not so bad,” he attempted a joke. Then Tuvia took me to his Rabbi at the Chabad in Westlake Village. He called me a talented investigator but jumped back two feet when I unwittingly tried to shake his hand.
I discovered I was a Jew on March 9 — a week after my mother’s death. With my return to Judaism, I felt I was finally at home in the USA and, most importantly, within myself. Everything made sense — my grandmother’s Star of David prayerbook, Woody Allen, my Holocaust dreams, my soulful, haunted mother, the way I look, why we didn’t go to church, etc.
I also began to understand my mother’s demand to be cremated. I believe that she suffered from survivor’s guilt and wanted to join her many Jewish relatives and friends, whom she lost to the gas chambers and the crematoria of the Holocaust. It was a form of homecoming for her, as well, after decades of hiding her Jewish ancestry.
My first Passover, my first Seder, was the most spiritual and profound ritual I had ever participated in. The Exodus story felt befitting to my story, and when we read how Moses didn’t know he was a Hebrew, everyone looked at me. “Just like you,” they said. “A Jewish soul, a Yiddishe Neshama, always finds her way home,” Tuvia held my hand. We broke matzoh and drank wine in the warm glow of the candlelight, although the wound of my mother’s death hurt me deeply, I felt such love and gratitude and something I’d never felt before: belonging.