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Reyzl Grace
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When the words came back to me

What Clara offered was Hebrew lessons in exchange for babysitting. But what she gave me was a place that felt like home

Eich Efshar Shelo

Jane Bordeaux
Words and Music: Doron Talmon

* * *

My 5-year-old has gone to bed with an extra story, asking – yet again – to hear me tell the revolt of the Maccabees and the cleansing of the Temple, to show him on the globe where Jerusalem is, to remind him how Jews all over the world will be lighting candles in their windows soon. He’s aglow himself, insisting he’s too excited to sleep until sleep takes him anyway and leaves me with a messy kitchen, a menorah on the table in the breakfast nook, and his final question: “Are we Jews?”

It’s not the first time he’s asked, nor the first time that heavy eyelids – or an arriving school bus, or a thousand other interruptions – have spared me from answering. Nothing, however, spares me from standing alone with the question in the kitchen at night, scrubbing at the counter as if the right reply might just be under a spot of ketchup.

This is the night Jane Bordeaux comes into my life.

In the time of the prophets, signs came from God. In the time of social media, they come from “the algorithm,” and a search history is as good as Gideon’s fleece. The algorithm knows I’ve liked country-infused alt-rock since I discovered Nina Persson as a teenager. It also knows that, over the twenty years since then, I’ve clicked every NPR story about Israel, looked up the text for lighting the Hanukkah candles most years, ordered more Manischewitz than the average American (i.e., a value greater than zero), and, in the last six months, googled the CV of every Reform rabbi in Minnesota.

This is presumably how it’s decided that, when the album I’m listening to on YouTube ends, I want to hear an Israeli woman sing a song that starts “Like a stubborn fisherman with a net made of holes / On a tiny wooden boat that’s rocking on stormy waters / You did not give up… ” The algorithm doesn’t know why I’m holding the net, or why it’s so full of holes that I can’t understand the opening lines of the song.

I’m wiping down the countertops. Doron Talmon is singing:

Kmo tzedafa al chol shneshtefa el hachof b’li breira…

I’m at my little brother’s sixth birthday party, standing with my mother and a stranger at our kitchen counter while the children take whacks at a piñata on the other side of the screen door. The stranger is Clara Levy – a Sephardi rabbanit with keen eyes, a wealth of stories about growing up in Israel, and two small children running her ragged. I’m a 13-year-old with an unused passport, no words for being queer yet, and two parents who voted for Reagan and have strong ideas about their “son’s” future. What Clara and I have in common is a talent for languages and a sense that there has to be somewhere in this world you can go to be yourself, and so she offers me a deal. If I watch her kids, she will teach me a new language, and she says something else – I don’t know what. It’s the first time I ever hear Hebrew, and I understand nothing.

Kvar vitarti kimat amarti no’ash…

The song is still playing, but I’ve stopped scrubbing. It’s been twenty years, and I still understand nothing. I am ashamed.

I’m standing in Clara’s kitchen now; it’s where I spend most of my time after walking the kids home from school. Here, no one chides me for “walking like a girl.” Every afternoon, I read the kids stories and teach them chess, stay for dinner. At the table, no one comments on the “limpness” of my wrists. Clara keeps NPR on low at all hours of the day and shares her running commentary on current events. She peeks outside through the curtains in the winter and laughs, enjoying the expression on my face when she tells me they once shut down the entire Israeli highway system for a half-inch of snow.

This is where I feel seen – feel heard. It’s been two years since the last time she had to laughingly tap the back of my head for trying to write left to right. I’m reading the children’s books and the backs of the dust jackets on her shelves. I’m reading some Torah, too – not at the bima, but I’m in synagogue with the family every week, singing Lechah Dodi to the slightly different melody only Clara seems to use. We’re on our way there now, and I’m helping her wrangle the kids as she shouts her reminders at them and at me in the same Hebrew. “Eema,” I start to answer, and then perhaps I blush a bit. She certainly smiles. I do, too, but more bashfully. “Can I call you that? I guess the kids are rubbing off on me.” Of course I can. Of course.

Doron Talmon’s voice is on low, but somehow still seems to fill the darkened kitchen as I sit on the clean part of the counter.

Eich efshar shelo l’hitahev b’kha

I don’t want to be sixteen and suddenly find out that we’re moving. I don’t want to spend the next two years living out of a motorhome, one state after another, losing touch with everyone I know. Losing myself. But that’s where I am, and that’s what I do, and I’ve lost it all.

Eich efshar… How is it possible…

On the album cover, it looks like summer, but out my window, it’s dark and cold. Out the window it’s twenty years of Hanukkahs – the ones I kept well, and the ones when I lined some candles up on a plate at the last minute, and the ones that passed in darkness while I doubted they were mine to keep, conscious that even if my Eema let me call her Eema, it wouldn’t be enough for the rabbis to let me read the words “our ancestors” and mean them. I’m not Jewish, just a kid who once could speak some Hebrew in some place that felt like home.

I don’t answer my son’s question because I can’t bear to say the answer is no, even though I know it is, and yet… he’s lit a menorah, he’s found the afikomen, he’s drained the grape juice on Friday nights before I ever got a sip, because that is all I have to give of what I – who haven’t spoken to my parents in years – understand other people to mean by “family.” I whispered the Shema in his ear when he was born and taught him to make hamentashen when he could reach the counter where I’m sitting, because… because…

Eich efshar shelo… How is it possible not to…

It’s the last chorus. The song is ending and I’m unconsciously mouthing the words along with Doron, eich efshar, until my eyes fly open and I leap off the edge of the counter, slapping at the keyboard to pause and repeat before the song can get away.

Words are coming back to me, taking shape and weight in my mouth as they do, and the lyrics begin to emerge like the surface of a highway under a half-inch snowfall when the wind kicks up. I flap an R at the end of efshar, and the spot on the back of my head where Clara used to tap out her reminders tingles. I can hear her laugh, and when I start the song on repeat yet again, I find the ר – the resh – in my throat and realize it has been there the whole time.

Memories are difficult things, especially when they are fragmented. We find ourselves wondering if our hearts are pierced with shards that have become a part of us, or if our hands are simply full of the broken pieces of things that, for a time, we were given to hold. Either way, sometimes we try to pull them out, sometimes we try to hold them in, and sometimes we are too afraid of getting cut to try either one for a very long time. My hands brace the counter and I take my seat again, close my eyes, focus. I’m trying to pin down the last words of the refrain, letting it circle me again and again.

Over Doron’s voice is mine, and under mine is Clara’s, and all of it is Hebrew.

כמו צדפה על חול שנשטפה אל החוף בלי ברירה…
כבר ויתרתי כמעט אמרתי נואש…
איך אפשר שלא להתאהב בך?

Like a clam on the sand washed ashore against its will…
I’d given up – nearly lost all hope…
How could I not fall in love with you?

It will take two more years to get me and my son officially to the mikveh, but long before that, he will ask his question once again – “Are we Jews?” And this time, I will not hesitate, and I will not be ashamed. “כן,” I will tell him simply, smiling the same satisfied smile my Eema wore when I had learned a lesson particularly well. “Yes, we are.”

This essay is part of ‘That Song,’ a collection of writings about that one Israeli song that rocked someone’s world. Click here to find more ‘That Song’ essays.
Questions or comments? Contact noahjefron@gmail.com

About the Author
Reyzl Grace is a trans poet, essayist, translator, and librarian working in English, Yiddish, Russian, and (when she remembers the words)Hebrew. She is an editor for Psaltery & Lyre and Cordella Magazine, as well as a past Pushcart nominee and contributor to various literary journals. She has never been to Israel but hopes, one day, to make it to a Jane Bordeaux concert. You can find more of her work at reyzlgrace.com and on Twitter @reyzlgrace.
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