Where Do We Begin?

Elan Barnehama (Boston, MA)

My childhood home in New York City was within walking distance of several congregations, but my parents rarely took us to synagogue. And I was fine with that. And it wasn’t because my father wasn’t within walking distance to anything, what with him being confined to a wheelchair since getting infected by polio in Israel, ten years after his family fled Vienna, and one year after Israel became a state. His polio made mobility difficult, but it had never stopped him and my mother from going anywhere or doing anything.

We did, though, observe the Jewish holidays, rituals, and traditions with as many friends and relatives as could fit around our dining room table. Those who joined us eagerly engaged in robust conversations, lively debates, and detailed storytelling, with thick accents that seamlessly moved between Hebrew, German, and English. 

Later, when I had children of my own, I continued the tradition of skipping synagogue in favor of gatherings around our table which we expanded to capacity. I was, by then, a writer and teacher, so I did my thing which was to choose Biblical tales to retell, discuss, and  analyze the stories. But in order to teach, I had to learn. And that meant re-reading the Torah.

I started at the beginning. Or tried to. As a child, I was confused when I realized that Bereshit wasn’t read during Rosh Hashanah, even though the holiday celebrated the beginning of the year and creation. Also confusing was that Rosh Hashanah fell during the seventh month, and not the first. 

It seemed to me that those early rabbis were comfortable with inconsistencies and contradictions, with nuance and context, and that appealed to me. I mean, they put two different stories of creation right next to each other in the opening chapters of Bereshit. There were valuable lessons to be learned from each version and each sequence of creation.

So, when I began again at the beginning during Simchat Torah, I found a different translation for the beginning for Bereshit. This translation didn’t translate the word Bereshit as “in THE beginning,” but rather “in A beginning.” Several internet searches reveled that the translation of the word Bereshit had been fixed by Rashi and Ibn Ezra about a thousand years earlier, though it had not caught on everywhere. Still, it explained much. Beginnings are a constant. Sometimes they happen by choice. More often they are prompted by, well, life. 

The thing is, I’d been raised on stories of new starts as my parents and their parents had endured several demanding beginnings. And on their belief in that old Jewish proverb that stories are truer than the truth. My parents’ stories brought them to the United States, their third county and their third language, all before the end of their third decade.

My mother’s family-tree chronicled 500 years of German residence before her parents fled Berlin for Jerusalem in the fall of 1933. My father’s family, fortunate to have survived Vienna’s Kristallnacht, made their way to Haifa in the days that followed. While participating in the push to create a Jewish state, my father gave himself a new Hebrew name in honor of this beginning. But polio forced another beginning as doctors sent him to New York City for medical care that was unavailable in Israel at the time.

When I was a kid, I liked to slip out of my bedroom window onto the roof of our house in Queens. Safe in my own fortress of solitude, I replayed my day and planned for the next one with renewed optimism and possibility. 

One thing I learned from my parents’ stories was to trust not knowing. Sure, what’s ahead might be horrible and miserable. But that moment of not knowing also holds the promise of possibility, of a beginning that lies ahead.

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 and Escape Route, available now

5 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

5 responses to “Where Do We Begin?

  1. Anne Ramirez

    Well done, thought provoking! I was hoping it was a long novel, I wanted to read more…

  2. Jessica Ursell

    Elan, There’s so much I like about this essay. The idea of beginnings being a constant, and “…early rabbis [being] comfortable with inconsistencies and contradictions, with nuance and context…” appeals to me as well. The story of your parents moving to their third country and learning a third language before the end of their third decade resonates with me. My mother in her latest memoir, Aftermath: Coming of Age on Three Continents, shares her story of moving to three different countries, learning three different languages, and having three different names before the age of 16. The story of your parents learning new languages and adapting to new customs and cultures in their 30s impresses me with their resiliency. It’s hard enough facing such monumental changes when you are younger. And, of course, being younger (my mother was a young teen) poses its own distinct challenges along with the challenges that adolescence brings to everyone. I marvel at the strength and resiliency of our people and I appreciate you sharing a little bit of your background and family history in this essay.

  3. Anne Ramirez
    Thanks for reading. There is a novel: ESCAPE ROUTE. Its main character echoes this essay.
    Elan

  4. Jessica Ursell,
    Agree. The strength and resilience are admirable — qualities I aspire to.
    And also themes that permeate your writings.

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