Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)
I am the progeny of refugees with thick accents who passed on a heritage of the gloom of war and the promise of peace. They had the self-assurance that came from having survived and the mistrust of having had to.
My mother’s family fled Berlin for Jerusalem when Hitler came to power. My father’s family escaped Vienna for Haifa in the days following its Kristallnacht. Soon after Israel’s War of Independence, my father contracted polio and was shipped off to New York for medical care. That’s where my mother met him, as she was in New York City visiting friends and relatives. And there they stayed.
And there I grew up, in a place where no one could pronounce my name and no one considered me American. To them, I was Israeli even though I was more focused on why they killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I wanted to know why Newark was burning. I was worried that the war in Vietnam would still be going on when I reached draft age.
When it was time for me to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, I had little interest. Why would I want to celebrate a God who allowed the Holocaust, a God who looked away as my father got polio and became confined to a wheelchair?
The thing is, while we were not remotely observant, my parents were proudly Jewish, and we marked the holidays at home. About our table were family and friends, most of whom also had their own stories of survival and persistence, who came to discuss and debate the meaning of those holy days, and not just recite pages in order to get to the food.
From an early age, Biblical stories drew me in. The writers offered different points of view, were comfortable with contradictions and highlighted that most of life resided in uncertainty. The opening chapters had two very different tellings of creation. It only took a few pages to encounter the first lie, quickly followed by the first murder. Brothers did not fare well. The stories were not simplistic or dogmatic. Context mattered.
The more I read, the more these texts resonated with me and helped me make sense of a senseless world. Increasingly, I felt connected to the Jewish story, if not the Jewish God. And that was how I knew I was going to follow through with my Bar Mitzvah. The Tribe had survived for thousands of years and countless attempts to get rid of it. Who was I to mess with a streak?
I remain strengthened by listening to and retelling these stories, even when they are not easy to hear or easy to repeat. And I am proud to add my story to our shared history.
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Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, is set in NYC during the 1960s and is told by teenager, Zach, a first-generation son of Holocaust survivors, and NY Mets fan, who becomes obsessed with the Vietnam War and with finding an escape route for his family for when he believes the US will round up and incarcerate its Jews. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default. More info at elanbarnehama.com, Escape Route, available now