Digging to China

by Roslyn Bernstein (New York, NY)

Summer 1951

We wore aluminum dog tags with our religion stamped on them, so that a stranger would know where to bury us after an atom bomb attack. It was the fifties, a time when television was just beginning to appear in the East End. We lived in the West End, near our Lady of the Benevolent Sacred Heart Church, a wooden building with beige stucco walls and a stained glass window of Christ on the cross facing the Atlantic Ocean.

We were the outsiders, longing to belong, the only kids on the block who had never been inside the church, although we often stood by the heavy oak door peering in. Jewish girls didn’t attend Sacred Heart Church and they most definitely did not go to the Sisters of Charity School.

Joanne and I lived on the same block and we ate lunch together every day at school, unwrapping the silver foil on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a table far from the other girls. Her father, Arthur, was a lawyer who was proud to be an atheist. Her mother lit Friday night candles, but never went to synagogue.

My parents ate clam fritters on Friday night. They sent me to the neighborhood elementary school, where green paper Christmas trees adorned the classroom doors and where a torn blue and gold Chanukah menorah was taped carelessly in one corner. Joanne and I knew the words to “Silent Night” although our mothers forbad us from singing Jesus’ name. Just mouth the lyrics, our mothers said. Never, never say them.

But I never listened. I sang “Silent Night” at the top of my voice, raising my volume when I came to the words, “Holy Infant So Tender and Mild.” After all, it was forbidden. I envied Patricia Everson, the blonde girl who sat in front of me. She was always crossing herself. “Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on me,” she said before she did every long division problem. “Lord Jesus help me,” she whispered as she stood before the class and tried in vain to spell the names of the Indian tribes in New York State.

Joanne and I often talked about the bomb. She was sure that it would strike New England, where the Boston Tea Party had taken place.

“Boston is a more revolutionary place than New York,” she told me, as we sat in the wet sand, looking for jingle shells. We had studied the American Revolution two years earlier. Now, we were deep into the Cold War and Communism. I was sure that Russia was going to drop a big bomb somewhere and that we would all disappear into a mushroom cloud of smoke.

She argued with me incessantly but there was no dissuading me from this grim vision. I read the newspapers that my father brought home every evening—The World Telegram, The Evening Sun, The Journal American. I’d sit on my front porch, swatting flies, and turning the pages.

My favorite was The Journal American, a paper that included a daily editorial on the woes of communism. “Listen to this, Joanne,” I said one day as I pulled a scrap of newspaper from my beach bag and began reading the bold headline: “The Bomb is Ticking. Do You Hear It?”

Joanne shook her head. “Don’t believe everything you read,” she said. Her voice was loud and dramatic. I continued reading: “If we don’t take any action, it will explode on our hallowed soil.” “That means on our beach,” I said. “Soil means sand.”

“I’m not scared,” she said. “It’s all propaganda. They want us to be frightened.”

I twisted my dog tag as she spoke, feeling the raised letter J for Jewish that was stamped above my name. Then, I crumpled the clipping into a ball and threw it into the water.  It landed on the crest of a wave, and disappeared into the dark surf.

Born in Brooklyn, Roslyn Bernstein moved to Long Beach, New York in 1948.  A poet and journalist, she has been a professor of Journalism and Creative Writing at Baruch College, CUNY, since 1974. She earned a BA at Brandeis University and a MA and Ph.D. at New York University, and has served as the director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program at Baruch College since it was established in 1998.

This excerpt from “Digging to China” in Boardwalk Stories by Roslyn Bernstein is reprinted with permission of the author and her publisher, Blue Eft Press (www.blueeftpress.com).

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

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