We all look for symmetry. It’s so satisfying. Not just in art or nature. In life. For instance, when I was a young married woman I swam too far from shore and was caught up in a riptide. I would have drowned had not a friend who was swimming nearby pulled me in, gasping and choking and holding on to him for dear life, truly. Five years later at a swimming pool with friends, I took my eyes off my four-year-old son for just a second. The next thing I knew, he was being pulled out of the water by his friend who was half a year older and a burly kid whose father was my original rescuer. Makes you think. Suppose I hadn’t been in danger of drowning, would my boy have been saved? This is what those academics call counterfactual thinking.
My father had three brothers (four, really, but more about that later). All of them went into the motion picture business in the 1920s after they emigrated from Turkey, one by one. Two worked on the east coast, two on the west. The east coast had my dad (distribution) and my uncle Leon, the youngest brother (optical effects laboratory). On the west coast, ladies and gentlemen, my uncle Ely (publicity) and uncle Harry (laboratory and subtitling). Is there a Hand here, setting up a pattern? Which leads us to
My grandmother, Nona, believed in spells and magic like the other Sephardic women in her village in Turkey, and like her Armenian and Greek and Turkish neighbors. My grandfather, a learned man and a lay rabbi, was often sent to consult the local fortune teller at his wife’s behest. There were spells for everything, from melancholia to money troubles and the envy of neighbors. Almonds inscribed with Hebrew prayers in tiny letters were put under their children’s pillows to keep them from harm. Nona wore a belt of garlic cloves around her waist, for luck.
I walk defiantly under ladders. But I do touch my tongue with the tip of my finger and dry it on my neck, three times, whenever I’m startled by a loud noise. That’s what my mother did.
Love problems? Take a hair of your loved one, thread it through a needle and put it at his threshold. Recite a prayer three times and the loved one will reciprocate. Or write your beloved’s name on parchment, which you’ll burn to inspire warm feelings.
Was Uncle Nissim (my dad’s fourth brother) poisoned by his Armenian lover? Or did he die in a car accident in Argentina where he traveled to find work? Nona believed that the woman poisoned him. It was his punishment for taking up with a Christian woman.
If you go to a wedding, be sure to shed some tears in order to fool Satan into thinking it’s a sad occasion. Is that why I always cry at weddings? Doesn’t everybody?
A sure cure for headache: Wrap a kerchief around some potato slices sprinkled with coffee grounds. Wrap the kerchief around the head, making sure the contents are touching the forehead and temples. An alternative is to dampen a handkerchief with raki (arak, ouzo) and apply. Nona could outdrink all the men in her family.
Change the name of an ailing child to confuse the angel of death, who will not be able to find him.
Serious illness called for molten lead. Picture the patient on a table, over which a sheet is being held taut by the four corners. While these women (it’s always women) wait patiently and perhaps nervously, molten lead is poured into a pot of cold water held firmly (!) above the sheet. The resultant crags and valleys in the pot are interpreted by a wise woman, usually a neighbor – my mother would never presume to have that knowledge though she claimed infallibility in other domains.
My measles were cured by an exorcism against the evil eye, performed by my mother when I was six. There are strictures against revealing the words of the incantation. I might be struck down if I do so. Is there a curse on anyone who does, like the curse on anyone opening Tutankhamen’s tomb? All those hapless archaeologists, dying under mysterious circumstances. I’d like to break that hold. Let’s just say the evil eye incantation has something to do with the prophet Elijah walking down a country road and carrying three keys: one to open, one to close, and one to chase away the evil eye. The words are a jumble of Hebrew and Ladino. That’s all I remember.
There’s a Goya etching that shows a witch who looks exactly like my mother. No surprise there. Until the Inquisition forced them out, my ancestors lived in Spain.
My maternal grandfather moved from Izmir, Turkey, to Alexandria to work for Singer Sewing Machines around 1900, and that’s where my mother was born. He was also an inveterate gambler, but he did teach my maternal grandmother how to read, a rarity for a woman in those days. Elderly female relatives often told me that reading can make you crazy. Depends on what you read.
I may be descended from Elijah de Vidas, a 16th-century Kabbalist who lived in Safed (then Palestine), the site of a renaissance in Jewish mystical life. In 1575 he wrote a treatise on morals for the general public that included a section on anger management. Meek and mild, my father talked about beating graffiti writers on the head “with a big stick.” He and Theodore Roosevelt. He trembled before his bosses at the office but at home, watch out for Tyrannosaurus Rex!
The Safed mystics like my ancestor advocated the avoidance of spite, envy, pride, and malice. They also taught humility, and modesty. My mother, she of the Goya etching, never lost an opportunity to enumerate her talents and virtues. She’d burst into song in the most inappropriate place (supermarket). She ran a virtual salon and held many parties for hordes of people who worshipped her.
It’s entirely possible that I’m the reincarnation of – or at the very least descended from – the twelve-year-old girl, Inez something, who lived in Estremadura, Spain, in the 15th century and predicted the coming of the messiah. Reprisals took place. I could have told them it was all nonsense and we’re still waiting. Like some religious people who are waiting for a pure red heifer to appear before the Third Temple can be rebuilt in Jerusalem, which will pave the way for the messiah. The heifer has to be of a uniform color – no black or white hairs, please – and must never have been yoked. Its ashes (for the poor creature has to be sacrificed) will be used in the purification ritual. But according to our new Bible, i.e. Wikipedia, the red heifer is a biological anomaly. So there are no miracles, friends.
But maybe now that they’ve found the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, the physicists will save us because they’ll have discovered the secret of the universe. I personally think that chocolate will save us.
Let’s get back to my elusive uncle Nissim, who died in Argentina. Nona, his mother, swore to the veracity of the poisoning story. My father knew for a certainty that his brother was killed in 1923 in an auto accident. Maybe, to accommodate both versions, we can assume that he had a jealous Armenian mistress who fed him poison which led him to lose control of his car, which crashed.
Was my mother really tricked into marrying my father? On a visit to Alexandria to see relatives, he regaled her with stories about life in New York City where he had been living and working for ten years. My dad fell crazy in love with her and wrote to her every day after his return to New York. She decided to visit America, just out of curiosity – then she’d return home. Her parents sanctioned the trip since she would be staying with family. It was a thirty-day voyage and she had the time of her life, dancing the nights away with the ship’s officers.
In New York she was put up with my dad’s family – his mother (Nona), his father, a sister and one of his brothers. Of course my dad proposed marriage and, according to her, claimed that the civil ceremony at City Hall he dragged her to was just a formality, a necessary one in case she decided to remain in the U.S. as the wife of an American citizen, which he was by now. She considered that they were not really married since no rabbi had performed the ceremony and they certainly could not live as man and wife. Just as well, since life in New York was extremely dull for her, with him at work every day and his relatives hovering over her. She would go home to Alexandria, to the bosom of her family. But – and this was the coup de grâce – my father claimed that would not be possible unless they got a divorce. Next to committing a crime, divorce was high on the list of sins in my family. So my mother had no choice. The traditional ceremony took place, this time before a bona fide rabbi. Her version, her recollections.
She took me to Egypt when I was a year and a half, leaving me with whoever was available on shipboard for babysitting while she again went dancing every night in the casino. I think I recall propelling myself around the deck in what they called a kiddy-car, but who knows if I’m imagining this or not. In any case, I know that my dad, being a straight arrow, would never have tried to fool her or anyone. He was honest to a fault. Is she to be believed? She had a gift for fabrication that lasted her whole life.
My dad had a crooked front tooth and he was high-strung, nervous and impatient. Like yours truly. Mom had a passion for cooking. She developed osteoporosis and a belly as she aged, both, alas, replicated in me. She once tried to teach me belly dancing, which she performed quite creditably, but only in front of other females or me. Unfortunately I didn’t inherit that talent but I have passed on the cooking gene to another generation.
Her brother, my uncle, hired a belly dancer to entertain the guests at his daughter’s wedding, shocking the Indian groom’s parents, just in from Mumbai.
We speak or spoke Ladino, the language of the Spanish Jews. In California, you hear a lot of Spanish and many street signs and town names are Spanish. We had the east coast and the west coast and felt at home in both. My father and his brothers divided up the country between them. Our culture of superstition entered the modern era via Hollywood, a place of make-believe. We had a rich fantasy life outside of the movies. My brother believed we were descended from Christopher Columbus. After the Inquisition expelled us from Spain we kept the language.
I did see an auto da fé but that was in the opera Don Carlo. My parents were distant relatives. Their common ancestor was Elijah de Vidas. Tainted blood? Am I infected?
Great news! The Spanish government has issued a declaration that confers Spanish citizenship on the descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Restitution. The law of return for us. Hola! Mi pais. Donde esta … (I’m a little rusty.) But stand in the Plaza Maimonides in Cordova, as I did, where there is a statue of the sage. I felt the vibe, the link, the familiarity of the place. Or did I want to feel all that and did I just talk myself into it? They say that some people who visit Jerusalem experience a kind of madness, a mystic seizure.
I could get dual citizenship. Part of me Spanish, part American. A lovely symmetry … if I decide to go through with it.
Author's CommentI never paid much attention to how my family history affected me until recently – part of a growing urge to impose order on messy reality. But the family stories and events refused to conform to a pattern. My life was a mixture of discordant and conflicting elements, so I just allowed myself to skip from one subject to another in what I hope was a logical fashion. That was the only approach that seemed to make sense.