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By Renee Sussman
Papa visited Henry at the Jewelry Exchange whenever he made the trek from the Bronx to Manhattan for his doctor's appointments. Sometimes he would bring Henry strings of copper wire he would scrounge from radios or other objects he'd find on the street. Other times, Papa would keep his street findings, often bits of metal or sheets of discarded paper, to make sculptures, paint scenes from Europe, or fix some household item. He'd had a hardware business in Vienna.
Henry always accepted what Papa brought. He'd tuck it away for future use in his small, cramped shop, already competing for space with hundreds of figurines, jewelry, and knick knacks for repair or sale to the trade. Both Papa and Henry were in the business of fixing, fiddling, and accumulating.
Papa and Henry were second cousins. Henry's grandfather and Papa's father were brothers. They'd known each other a long time through many countries. In fact, they looked alike, short, trim, with piercing blue eyes and white hair. They even both wore "keppeles" (caps).
"Nu, vos is los?" they exchanged.
Today, Papa had a mission. He held out one more metal object. "Here, take this menorah, my family will never use it," he said disdainfully.
He was right. His daughter's family was barely a family. Ritual observance was a comforting act of cohesiveness, and they had lost their glue long ago. In fact, his daughter (my mother) was headed for divorce. He blamed it on her lack of interest in the old ways.
"It belongt to my fadda, Dovid." Papa added softly, looking down at the floor during the transaction.
Not much could be seen of the floor, since Henry's "shop" was a small space crammed floor to ceiling with miscellaneous beads, jewelry, figurines, and vessels from what seemed like every chapter in man's creative history. Some items were haphazardly mixed with others on makeshift shelves; others were carefully cataloged in segregated plastic bins with handwritten tags stuck to the front. There were separate containers for plastic beads of every color, bangle bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. A brass mortar and pestle, fugitive from a pharmacy, stood somberly on a high shelf. Several colorful and complicated masks from the Caribbean islands stared blankly from a ceiling beam. Chinese mixed with African mixed with 60's pop culture. The cornucopia so overwhelmed the senses, it was impossible to focus on any one item until you were there for awhile, like eyes adjusting to the darkness of a movie theatre.
Reluctantly, Henry accepted the relic and became its guardian, his shop the perfect place for safe keeping. Inaccessible from the outside, the shop resided on the second floor behind police locks. He didn't have to do anything. The menorah simply melted into the background.
Thirty years later, our car rolled up a dark, narrow, cobblestone street to a somber row house deep in Brooklyn
Serele's house. Serele was Henry's daughter, now in her 40's. Like me, she had begun a quest to gather family information. She had found her way to my cousin in Santa Fe, who connected her with me. Tonight was the big reunion with Henry and the long-awaited introduction to the rest of the family. However, no welcome lights shown inside. We hesitated ringing the bell.
"Beeeeeepppp." We heard a faint tone but no movement inside. Finally, we began to knock. Still nothing. As a last resort, I called from my cellphone. Only then did someone respond. No one seemed to know we were waiting to enter. A young, sour-faced woman opened the door.
"I hope this is not her," I couldn't stop the thought from rushing into my head. A tall, more friendly rotund man with metal glasses quickly replaced her.
"Renee? Come in! Come in! I'm Josef, Serele's husband. She's still coming home from work; she'll be here soon."
He ushered us into a small railroad style home, with four rooms stacked in succession. The first was a foyer of sorts. Shelves of antique toys covered one entire wall. On the opposite side of the door to the next room stood a tiffany lamp crammed onto a small table already groaning with books and papers.
As we passed through the second doorway, a man sitting and reading in the second room vaguely acknowledged us and then re-entered his reverie. We sat on a small couch inches from the floor, dwarfed by the volumes of books climbing up to the ceiling. Josef kept us entertained with their wedding album while we waited for Serele. No one spoke to the invisible reading man.
Finally, Serele came home and greeted us cheerfully, "Hello! So glad you could make it. Yes, we were married four years ago," she bubbled, her and Josef gazing at each other like bashful newlyweds. "You know, when you get married so old, you want to have everything perfect," half apologizing for the opulence of the affair, spread out across the gilt pages. Her jolly demeanor lifted even the dust from the furniture and her energy lightened up each object-laden room.
Shortly, the rest of the mishpokah slowly migrated through the door, Nusha, Henry's sister, with her husband and daughter, Esther. Soon, the number of people in the small library reached critical mass. This created enough forward motion to advance a wave to the third room, the dining room. We wedged in around a dinner table that dominated the room, tolerating a dark wooden curio cabinet and several side tables covered in cloths sharing its space. Faded memorabilia, certificates, a ketubah, photographs, and folk art painted by close relatives lined most of the available wall space. The stairs to the right had an easy lift chair attached to it, although no one there was incapacitated. It seemed invisible people lived in more than one room.
We now felt free enough to move about the house. Serele showed us her small, well-stocked pantry by the back door of her dual sink kosher kitchen. Her generosity knew no bounds, "You don't have Dr. Brown where you live? Here, take these soda bottles home with you."
Everyone knew why we were there, which may have explained Nusha's very first words to me. With her coat barely off, she fixed her gaze on me and crossed the floor with singular purpose. "Do you know how my father died?" she whispered.
"He was tied to a horse's tail and dragged through the town until he was dead." She punctuated the word "Dead" with bitterness, not waiting for me to answer. This unexpected, intimate, and chilling piece of information, delivered like a secret, momentarily stunned and humbled me. I leaned against the wall, asking silently for support.
Finally, Henry and his wife arrived. He burst through the door, sunny like Serele, his white hair contrasting handsomely against his black tam beret, huge blue eyes twinkling like a mischievous elf. His wife just smiled and smiled, the perfect foil to his performance. His vivaciousness was infectious and soon the room was buzzing.
The conversation came easy. We marveled at the many family members from the 1800's, now invisible, who made it possible for us all to sit at this table together. The table reflected our abundance, staying filled with salads and desserts no matter how much we ate. About halfway through the meal, Henry leaned back in his chair and recounted the story of the menorah, unaware of me wincing slightly to think of Papa speaking about us with such disappointment.
Suddenly that menorah became the focal point of all of my curiosity and represented my deepest longing for family. As we warmly thanked everyone and left to go back out into the cold, I resolved to ask Henry if, in a few weeks, I could light it for Chanukah. What better way to celebrate rediscovering an entire branch of my family by rekindling my closeness to Papa, honoring tradition, and connecting to all my ancestors. My excitement grew as I wondered how far back that menorah had originated.
Henry beat me to it, calling the next day, "I talkt it over with my wife and we would like to give you the menorah." I could feel him smiling as he said it. Perhaps he was relieved finally to relinquish his guardian role.
We agreed to meet at his shop in a few days. Not soon enough I stood in front of the door, which was hidden behind a wall on the second floor of the exchange. He fumbled with the police locks while I fidgeted. But finally, the door that ushered in my grandfather long ago opened. About to be initiated into a secret world, I swallowed with anticipation.
I could take only one step inside before reaching the counter. The available space the size of a small stall shower allowed only one other person. Something covered every inch. This was not a place for the claustrophobic. I wondered how this vibrant, vivacious people person could lock himself away in this closet for over 30 years. His life force was so expansive. But he didn't seem to mind. Perhaps, as a child of the Holocaust, he felt safe here, behind these locks. However, he seemed to know everyone there, and I could imagine him flitting like a butterfly from one place to another, perhaps not spending much prolonged time here. Or maybe he relished this cramped sanctuary and saw only the comforting numbness of endless jeweler's tasks, not the overwhelming accumulation. He and his daughter shared this love of collecting. So did Papa. So do I. This unwillingness to part with anything, as if it were sacred, no matter the effort, if any, it took to acquire it. Reflecting another life filled with loss. The Holocaust.
He held an object wrapped in paper and plastic while we talked. I held still, trying not to show my impatience, but also because there was nowhere else to stand. Steering the conversation around to what I came for, he finally unwrapped the menorah as he told me the story again. It emerged both plain and elegant
and middle Eastern a simple design with a hint of scrolling carved out of one piece of dulled brass. So old it had no candle holders only oil troughs. A tiny hole at the top was big enough for a very small candle. This candle is the one used to light the others and is called a shamash.
He handed it to me, a reverse transaction. I could feel my grandfather's hands on the menorah and his feet where I stood. Ancient eyes were on me.
That night, my husband and I put all the menorahs we had on the dining room table. Turning down the lights, we placed Papa's menorah first in line. I then lit a shamash in it and then used that shamash to light all the other shamashes in all the other menorahs, down the family tree. The room illuminated why we were here. And it felt good to prove Papa wrong.
from the December 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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