|Oct/Nov 2010 Nonfiction|
She was the Queen of First Graders, and I wasn't invited to her birthday party.
"It must be a mistake," she said, tossing her blonde curls out of her eyes. "My mother must have forgotten to send you an invitation."
"Her mother is Polish. They are all anti-Semites. Ask your father," declared my mother when I got home. I never questioned the anti-Semitism radar of either of my parents, both concentration camp survivors. They settled on this little farm, all they knew how to do, which made me the only Jew in a rural public school, missing classes for mysterious Jewish holidays and having invisible frizzy hair compared to the smooth tresses of my classmates.
My mother relented and, while driving me to the party, reminded me of the laws of kashruth, which I already knew by heart.
I arrived in a party dress. Everyone else was wearing shorts and laughing.
"Oh, didn't you know it was casual?" said the Queen Mother.
"She didn't get an invitation, remember," said her daughter.
"Oh, right. It got lost in the mail."
And I was marched up to the Queen's quarters to dress in some of her soft, pink shorts.
After that, I maintained my dignity until it was time to eat. I chose to eat the hot dogs and abstain from the dairy cake and ice cream, proud of myself that I remembered the rule of separation between milk and dairy. Everyone thought it odd that a child would refuse birthday cake and ice cream, but I just claimed I was full.
On the way home, the first thing my mother asked was, "What did you eat there?"
"Only hot dogs and no dairy."
"You what?" she hissed at my image in the rear view mirror. "Trayf hotdogs? Made of pig? How could you be so stupid?"
"We eat hot dogs at home," I mumbled.
"Kosher hot dogs, made of kosher beef. Goyisheh hot dogs are made of pig. Pfeh!"
My mother's eyes narrowed, as if she were witnessing her daughter transforming into a Pig Girl, like some errant child in a Grimm's fairy tale.
My pride in remembering the Milk and Meat Rule withered under the shame of forgetting the inexplicable Law of Rumination, which prohibited ingesting pigs because they failed to regurgitate and chew cud like cows. The frankfurter oozed inside my Jewish flesh, congealing into lard. I wished I could undo my sin, vomit, go back in time, or just bury myself in soil for several days like my mother did to silverware that had been contaminated by both meat and milk. I often noticed knives, forks, and spoons stuck randomly into houseplant pots when the dirt in the garden was frozen.
"Bury me up to my neck," I thought. "So the soil can suck out my impurities. So I can rise like a seedling anew. Make me kosher," I prayed to God.
Aloud, I apologized over and over, though never enough to quell the rage that simmered beneath my mother's tidy surface. Her daughter was a senseless chicken, a fool from Chelm, not intelligent enough to master the essential rituals by which Orthodox Jews all over the world had lived for centuries, back where she grew up in Eastern Europe, except when imprisoned.
"In the camps we ate whatever garbage they gave us." This according to my mother. "We had no choice." But I had eaten pig with gusto at an anti-Semite's table. Somehow this had to be undone. Burial in soil was all I could imagine.
At dusk, I took out all my dolls and snipped their hair off, like I had heard had been done before the gas chambers. I hid the dolls way in the back of my closet like my father had hidden himself in a hayloft after escaping Auschwitz. I marched the box of hair to a corner of my father's flower garden and buried it.
Day after day, I distracted myself from my contaminated state by watching for signs of life in my father's flower garden, something other than his zinnias and marigolds. For while burying the locks of hair and marking the graves with some of my favorite things—a marble, a dreidle, an old penny—I had initiated a counting ritual. Seven days passed. Then 18, the Hebrew number for life. Religiously significant numbers. But still no hairs took root. Yet I could not stop counting the days, for fear of triggering a calamity.
Every morning I recited the prayer Modeh Ani, always adding a heartfelt thanks to God for awakening me in Faraway Farm and not in Auschwitz. Then I would check the graves, well into fall. While my father harvested the seeds of his marigolds and zinnias, certain they would grow again next year, my graves lay fallow. I prayed that after some magical number of days, perhaps in the millions, a perfect miniature girl, a golem mud-child with a pristine soul, would emerge from the soil, like Thumbelina who grew from a seed of chicken feed planted by a childless woman. I hoped for a creature far purer than me, perhaps with the soul of one of my mother's lost siblings, to finally bring to my bereaved parents the comfort I knew I could never provide.