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Flash Reprint: Lori Sambol Brody’s “Kaddish”

Kaddish

Lori Sambol Brody

 

I am my grandmother tonight. I sit at the foot of the Passover table, where she used to sit; I've coiled my hair into the same loose bun she wore. And I have a piece of bread hidden in my lap. My mother sits across from me, brown hair wispy over her face, her hands spread on the table as if to embrace the platter stacked with matzos.

She looks at me warily. As do the others.

I pull out the piece of bread.

I have to tell you, my grandmother said, the week before she died. Her hair, still blonde, spread on the pillow like light haloing a candle. I have to tell you about the bread.

The bread I pull out is just a small piece of yolk-yellowed challah. Not that big. But my mother pushes back her chair and stands up, "Don't you dare take a bite of that, Ruth. I thought we were through with this when your grandmother died." "You're ruining Passover for your mother," my father yells. My brothers snicker, jabbing each other with sharp elbows. The candle on the sideboard -- for remembrance, for my grandmother - gleams calmly in its clear glass.

My mother pushed me off the train carrying us from Brno to Teresienstadt into a field of sunflowers. You had to go through the fields to get to the camp in those days. She saw them and just shoved me. Her hands felt like a bruise on my back. I guess she thought I'd be safe there. Perhaps she thought that I, the oldest child, would be saved on this, the first day of Passover. Perhaps it was because of my blonde hair.

Every Passover, my grandmother ate bread before the first Seder; she would never answer my mother's angry "Why?"

But last year, she didn't eat bread at Passover - or anything at all. She lay in bed, ricocheting between the present and the past. Time spiraled, always repeated, always coming around. I paused at the seder's beginning, hoping she'd run from the back bedroom with her bread. Her absence was a sharp rifle shot, cutting through my skin.

I ran. The soldiers on the train shot at me but I ran. I tore through the sunflowers. The flower's faces turned toward the sunlight. Pollen streaked yellow across my skirt.

At the edge of the field, the soldier waited for me. Sun glinted off the barrel of his gun. I closed my eyes. Thinking that it's better to face death with closed eyes. I was your age.

My mother now say, "You don't need to do this."

But I do.

There was no shot. Just a scream so high-pitched that I thought it was a woman's and the soldier bent like a puppet on the ground. Above him - not a man, but a giant, wearing clothes too small and torn, skin dark, his hair like weeds.

My mother had told me too many folktales for me not to know what he was. The Golem came close and fire burned in his eyes. He smelled like the river mud he was made from. I wasn't scared; he'd been made for me. The skin of his face was silk-soft under my palm. He held his index finger to his lips, demanding quiet, perhaps, or secrecy.

He tore the yellow star from my jacket and pushed me in the direction of Prague. His hands left stains of mud.

I went alone to the graveyard today. She hasn't been dead long enough for a gravestone to be set; at the cemetery, I left a pebble on the ground. The soil smelled rank and moist, like a riverbed after the water's stopped running. I felt her slip away from me, tried to catch hold. A shadow moved behind the graves.

So I take a bite of the challah. My mother's mouth rounds as she draws out the vowel in my name.

No one would know me in Prague. I had blond hair; I could pass. It was an early morning when I stood on the banks of the Vltava. I stole loaves of stale bread and ate them by the river. Breaking off the mold. Even though it was Passover, I would now have to learn a different life.

Swans paddled in circles at my feet.

I never told anyone; they would call me crazy. But I was alive, and there were stains of mud.

I have to tell you, my grandmother said. The Talmud says our first duty is to survive. I was pushed. And I could pass.

She touched my hair, as blonde as hers. Matka, she murmured.

I take another bite of bread. I chew until it becomes dough. I chew until the bread turns back into what it was made of.

 

Note: First published in New Orleans Review, Winter 1998, vol. 24, numbers 3 & 4


 

Author's Note

I meant to write a novel. It was, as I envisioned it, about a woman who discovers she is Jewish and her grandparents survived Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. In September 1997, I quit my job and traveled to Eastern Europe, in part to research the novel. I went to Prague, Theresienstadt, Krakow, and Auschwitz, then traveled through Romania. I visited ghettos and Jewish museums and synagogues and flea markets where people sold Torah pointers and mezuzahs.

I detailed the trip to Theresienstadt in my journal. It looked like a regular town: a bar, a restaurant with a Tarzan movie playing on the TV, an antique shop. In the fortress: the cell of Gavrilo Princip, who killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and started WWI, the wall against which three prisoners were shot for trying to escape, claustrophobic tunnels. The tour guide asked us to observe a minute of silence in honor of the death of Princess Di, as the entire country was doing. On the bus back to Prague, I noticed fields of sunflowers, dying, flowers facing the ground.

After I returned to L.A., I took my first writing workshop with Rachel Resnick. She was big on the class writing what she called "short shorts" - she believed that it was easier to publish these in journals, which at the time were all print. I wrote "Kaddish" for her workshop, pulling details from my visit to Theresienstadt, my favorite holiday (Passover), and my grandmother's recent death. In the first draft, I didn't alternate between the grandmother's voice and Ruth's voice. I merely had all of Ruth's story on the front end, and the grandmother's story on the back end. (Or vice versa, I can't recall.) When I read the story at the workshop, Rachel suggested I interweave the voices. I took a scissor and cut up a hard copy of the story at what I thought were proper points, and then rearranged the physical pieces on the floor like a puzzle. And rearranged again.

So, long story short, I meant to write a novel, but instead I wrote a flash. And that was fine.

 

FlashWriterBrody.jpgLori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Tin House Flash Fridays, The Rumpus, WhiskeyPaper, alice blue review, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.

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