I Will Write the Eulogies For All My Friends
by Royee Zvi Atedgi
At least one of them will be read at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park. It’s the only synagogue ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and has been called “a startling, translucent, modernist evocation of an ancient temple, transposed to a Philadelphia suburb.” It’ll likely happen on a Saturday—after the mourner’s kaddish and selected psalms—sometime between noon and two. Afterwards, a bagel platter and lukewarm whitefish. Caviar not as luxury but as custom, picked up at the NetCost of the Greater Northeast along with loaves of seeded rye. Outside, the sidewalks will be lined with old, distended trees. Blue street signs that are both emblematic of an arrival in Cheltenham and an exodus from North Philadelphia will introduce the start of suburban Pennsylvania. Farther up in Abington, the signs will be red. The family will ask me to eulogize Vladimir because their English isn’t so good and because they will remember a time when I was a published writer of at least some minimal merit. Vladimir will have died of a severe hemorrhage, a consequence of cirrhosis, a general consequence of familial alcoholism and perpetuation of a Russian doom. “You write about Vladimir,” they’ll say in that Russian flatness that sounds like a demand and a question simultaneously. And so I’ll get to the tough work of grappling with memory, of digging up the good times and soaking in them. I’ll paint with a brush that has nearly dried up the many instances of us playing basketball in the park, teaching a prude like me how to drink vodka dutifully (shot, rye bread, shot, rye bread), our confessions to one another about our Jewish-American lives, as well as imagining the lives that might have been had our parents never left their respective countries. I’ll relate in particular one story that he told me about his childhood in Nizhny. How he and his friend Ilya were playing outside one day when a car drove by with some older boys in it. The car reversed, parked, and four teenagers jumped out. The word ‘Jews’, even though it had been whispered, carried through the crisp Russian air as if it had been said through a megaphone. Both of them ran, but Vladimir—overweight and uncoordinated at that young age—could not keep up. They caught up to him in no time and beat him. When I asked him how they knew he was Jewish, Vladimir had told me that Jewish families and rabbis who were willing to risk arrest or suffer hostilities in order to maintain the traditions that had kept them going as a people in the Diaspora had their sons circumcised in secret. But when a rabbi accused of performing circumcisions was caught and arrested, the names of the families he serviced typically came out—which was recorded by the government and the hospital and disseminated by the gossip of the townspeople to the neighborhood kids, who delivered unto Vladimir and other Jewish boys the childhood equivalent of constant torture. To be a Jew in Soviet Russia’s Nizhny...
Of course, I’ll spare the embarrassing stories. I will still be his friend after all, even in death. There will be nothing mentioned about the temporary tattoo of the Star of David that had seemed to him the ultimate rebellion back when—on the boardwalk in Sea Isle—he had gotten it on his arm and then, in a panic, mistook it as permanent when it would not immediately wash off. Nor will there be any mention of his or my proclivity for shiksas. Oh, the daydreams we had had after school about our American goddesses, the Golden Calves of our junior-high years with their blonde hair, light eyes, and delicate names—Annabelle, Christina, Elizabeth, Penelope. Definitely no Ruths or Deborahs. If our parents had wanted us to daydream about Ruths and Deborahs they’d have abandoned the pipe dream of America for the supposed dream realized in Israel. But that was the trade-off: only a handful of Jewish girls and boys in our suburban class of 800, but a life under no immediate threat. Having omitted it from the final draft of the eulogy, and just for the sake of a private remembrance, I’ll look back on the time we’d stayed up late at night with the spare beers from a barbeque held in Vladimir’s parents’ absence. Two girls—two of the many shiksas we had fawned over in the hallways—stayed behind, wanting to stay the night. We could barely contain ourselves. For two awkward, sex-illiterate Jewish boys, the feeling of striking it rich. They would love us as we would love them and to hell with our parents’ expectations of marrying Jewish! We set up the basement almost as quickly as we had abandoned the concept of an historical duty—erecting makeshift beds from the shabby couches, drunk on beer and the fantasy of being in such close proximity to these girls with their perfectly proportioned noses and histories devoid of victimization. We wanted so desperately to feel something other than the feeling of being other. Why we thought this was how to go about it I’ll chalk up to the preoccupation of one’s salad days. I slept with one and Vladimir the other. We kissed them and said very little, feeling our way across their waspy dimensions in the dark like two blind men trying to decipher what made them them and us us. As if by sleeping with them we could be one of them. Or if we couldn’t be one of them, we could convince them that we were not as advertised. Well, but then there was Madoff which made it only more difficult. Before that, there was ‘The Passion’. All of this material no good for a eulogy.
Being one of my only Jewish friends, and given that I’ll be eulogizing him in perhaps the most widely recognized synagogue in the United States, I’ll play up the Judaism—though what it will mean to me by then I have no idea.
I’ll write about how my parents were thrilled when we met in eighth grade performing arts. That they were insistently glad Vladimir was Jewish baffled me—it was as if by simply being Jewish he was good at heart. A Jewish boy like me. Immigrant family settled in Northeast Philadelphia just like us. Moved to the suburbs for the academic betterment of their sons. A nice Jewish boy. The stereotype actually worth living up to. Never bloodied his knuckles on anybody’s teeth. Used his words to get out of fights even after puberty had done the work of shedding the weight to reveal a dominating frame. The both of us, allergic to violence. The both of us, like our parents, perplexed at the violence and thrill-seeking pervading everything the middle-class goyim in our neighborhood did on the weekends: hunting animals, setting off fireworks, playing tackle football without protection, riding motorbikes without helmets, riding motorbikes period, souping up their cars, buying guns, letting their children around guns. In my father’s linguistic fumbling—just a bunch of ‘hilla-billies’. The pride in their faces as they taught their sons to shoot. This was all beyond our parents, who could not, after so much turmoil, allow their sons to forget it or resolve it by purchasing a pistol. The only dangerous exploit Vladimir and I could fathom would be to show up at home after school with a C+ paper.
Yes, for us it had been intellect—not might—that saw us through our adolescence.
When we learned—as every minority Jewish child in a majority Protestant suburb inevitably learns—that the Jews killed Jesus, it was the scholastic compulsion to get to the bottom of how such a thing could have happened that somewhat alleviated the gravity of the charge. Jews killing? Jews killing another Jew? The first time we heard the accusation of Christ-killer leveled at us from the other end of the park where the neighborhood boys were playing football, we rushed to the library and pored over all the history books we could find that would reveal to us either the error in their accusation or the error in the presumptions we had made about the benignity of our own people.
“Okay, so technically Pilate ordered the crucifixion because the Jews didn’t have the power to.”
“Well that’s that,” I said. “I don’t need any more evidence than that.”
“Hold on, but wait,” Vladimir insisted. “It says here that he washed his hands and told them, basically, ‘this is on you’. He was pressured into it by the crowd and couldn’t bring himself to continue.”
“So what? The buck stopped at the Romans. They ordered the execution. Forget biblical peer-pressure. And besides, it’s irrelevant. You can’t blame the descendants for the original misdeed—if we are to go so far as to call it that. You don’t go around blaming today’s Germans for the horror of yesterday’s Germans, do you?”
“Well that goes without saying,” Vladimir said. “All I was pointing out was that maybe there’s some truth to the charge. Maybe we were at fault, at least a little bit. The Jewish high priests in Jerusalem wanted him to pay for being a renegade Jew. Says so right here.”
I looked over his shoulder at the tiny mounds of text and then—amused, frustrated, a little tired and religiously over-stimulated, I began to burst out laughing.
“Well would you look at that,” I said. “Jesus, the first self-hating Jew...”
Vladimir’s light-hearted laughter, so self-effacing and aware, merged together with mine in the middle of that empty library—laughter that had its origins not in self-hate but in intermittent self-doubt, laughter that belied the solemn task of educating ourselves about the genesis of Jew-hatred—until both the librarian’s glare and the seriousness of our pursuit quieted us into another examination of the books.
“Look, look here,” I said, pointing to a passage in one of the many scattered books open on the table. “The Second Vatican Council, okay? Back in the 60’s they absolved the Jews of any wrongdoing.”
“Sure, the Jews as a collection of people, not the individual Jews who were present at the trial and crucifixion or the high priests—that’s what this Flannery guy is saying. That they went out of their way—”
“Vladimir, look here, look what the Catholics under Paul VI said. The charge can be made neither ‘against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today’. Doesn’t that settle it for you? I mean, that’s the Pope and everything.” And then I took a pen and underlined then alive to punctuate the message while obliviously defacing library property.
For the most part, that settled it for Vladimir. But when we went back to the park the next day to present to the neighborhood boys what we had learned about Jewish culpability or, rather, a lack thereof, they laughed in our faces and condemned us as Christ-killers once again. So much for intellect. Then again, who needs intellect when you’ve got the benefit of brute objectivity?
Well, I’ll write about that and about some of the non-religious stuff, too. I’ll try on purpose to write funny material, even though the funeral will be a sobering reminder of my own expediting death. And sometimes I think it’s crazy. I think, okay, so this won’t happen for another forty years at the least. I won’t actually be writing eulogies for my friends until they’re gone, so why put it down now? Why even think about it or imagine it? How misanthropic and morbid. How unbelievably sad. I can’t say that I don’t agree, but these are the relationships that can change the trajectory of a life. And in trying to understand how I’ve gotten here, I have to examine the roots, of which Vladimir is a most substantial one. He would laugh at all of this aggrandizement through the shakes already developing in his hands.
With the eulogy ended, I’ll sit down after yielding the podium to the cantor, and, basking in the wooly-gold light pouring into the temple, I’ll remember a thing I had forgotten to say.