Leather keychain and wallet, with keys

On Meaning

By D.S. Waldman
Terrain.org 12th Annual Contest in Nonfiction Finalist

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There’s this archetype in the Jewish community: the if not self-denying, then self-destroying Jew.

1. Suppose this were an account of facts and events. Of memories, mine and borrowed. Suppose I were to say, as though it were a confession, folding then unfolding my napkin as I spoke, that I am both Jewish and not; that, when prompted, I check that box on the form, the application—despite never having gone to temple. I’m obsessed with what I am, with what I can never be.

2. Suppose you’re a kid—ten, maybe 12—and you’re walking down the sidewalk, passing the local park when, without warning, you’re struck in the side of the head with what you’re sure must’ve been an errantly kicked soccer ball. Your cheek stings, and your ear is ringing a little. Turning, you see, snickering some 20 yards away, the culprit behind what you quickly realize was a not-at-all-errant kick. You were the target. And you have no idea why.

3. Suppose that, to a ten maybe 12 year-old, is what overt anti-Semitism feels like.

4. It took quite a long time, growing up, for me to realize that I even was Jewish—that I am Jewish. I say realize but, thinking about it now, a realization usually happens from within, a sort of organic unfolding that leads, eventually, to some new awareness or understanding—the whole leaping from a bathtub, Eureka! sorta thing. My Jewishness, on the other hand, or at least my awareness of my being Jewish, was thrust upon me by outside forces. Middle school boys, namely, who, by the time sixth grade rolled around, had for whatever reason become suddenly aware of, and maybe obsessed with, difference. Boys whose last names—Van Meter… Wilhite… Boone—harkened back to a colonial, pre-war America that was not, as far as I’m aware, yet home to any Jews, at least not in numbers that would constitute a community, or even a demographic.

5. Ever see Inglourious Basterds?—the Christoph Waltz monologue in the French farmhouse.

6. It was the usual, and not so clever, assortment of slurs—Kike J-ni**er J-boy Jewnose—along with chilling jokes and turns of phrase that had largely to do with trains to Auschwitz, gas chambers, and, somehow less offensive, Jewish stinginess.

7. I tried, to present-day-me’s disappointment, to deny their claims—to deny being Jewish. But Waldman is a conspicuous last name in the South, and it was shared, to middle-school-me’s annoyance, by one of the only other Jewish families at the school. I was stuck.

5. Consider for a moment, the world
              a rat lives in. It’s a hostile world indeed
                         If a rat were to scamper through your
     front door right now, would you greet it
                         with hostility?

8. It’s understandable, and perhaps necessary, at this point to wonder why or how it took until middle school for such a reckoning to take place, for a Jew to know they are a Jew. But that story really isn’t mine. Or, if it is, only in a distant, ripple-across-water kind of way.

9. Central Kentucky, known these days mostly for its bourbon, basketball, and thoroughbred horse racing, was where, over a century ago, my great grandparents—Marvin and Ruth Linker—settled after fleeing Poland. The name Linker, common among Polish Jews, proved to be problematic for that very reason—it’s identifiably Jewish. And so, like countless other Jewish families who’d fled to the states, Marvin and Ruth changed their name, opting for the ethnically ambiguous (and distinctly German) surname I carry: Waldman. Woodsman. Man of the forest.

10. I learned the meaning of my surname in high school, around the same time I became infatuated with camping, spending days, sometimes weeks at a time in the backcountry, rock climbing and eating variations of pasta with powdered cheese. None of it, none of the many nights sleeping among old oaks and cold, wrinkling streams, made me feel any more—or less—Jewish.

5. I assume you don’t share the same animosity
                           with squirrels that you do
with rats, do you?

11. It chills me, still—my father’s earliest memory, recounted only recently to me, of Hanukkah. It was 1955 in Louisville, and he was six. They—my grandparents, my father, and his three older siblings—were at home, a single-story house behind the pharmacy my grandpa, also a Marvin, ran. They were eating latkes and lamb with mint and rosemary when, outside, a truck pulled up in front of the house, headlights bright through the front window, horn blaring.

It’s not the brick that gives me chills, nor the swastika.

12. It was like that for a moment, bright and deafening, until, in an eruption of glass and wood slats, the window burst. On the ground, a jagged–white swastika scratched into its face, lay an otherwise clean, red brick.

13. It’s not the brick that gives me chills, nor the swastika. Frankly, neither surprises me all that much—this was a neighborhood that, throughout the 50s and 60s, saw people of color lynched, the local synagogue burned to the ground. No, it was how, when my grandmother and uncle Terry got up to sweep the glass, Grandpa raised his hand. Sit, he told them, we’re going to finish our lamb… then we’ll clean up.

14. I think it was Lessing who said, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason, or you have nothing to lose.”

15. Imagine the December air, blowing dark and cold into the room, making the thin, white curtains dance.

13. There’s this archetype in the Jewish community, especially prevalent across middle America and the South: the if not self-hating, then self-denying Jew.

16. I wrote a poem about the whole thing. Hanukkah. The brick. It begins—and because it’s a pantoum, ends—with the words Things were different for us then… I haven’t decided, yet, how true I think that is.

17. Consider Sigmund Freud, an Austrian Jew whose work and research around the id, ego, and dream interpretation made him internationally renowned and, now, the one name any of us likely, if prompted, would associate with psychology or psychotherapy. In his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud recounts a story his father told him, once, when Freud was young:

“When I was a young man,” his father said, “I went for a walk one Saturday in the streets of your birthplace (Vienna); I was well dressed, and had a new fur cap on my head. A Christian came up to me and with a single blow knocked off my cap into the mud and shouted: ‘Jew! Get off the pavement!’”

18. When Freud, startled, asked what his father did in return, he replied, “I went into the roadway and picked up my cap.”

16. Things were different for us then, is how, with
            the rustiness of a memory long-silenced,
            grandpa begins the story—we were
careful then to not let them know who we were,

—Then there was the time, early high school, after arguing at length with my sister over some probably inconsequential thing—who got to take the car out, maybe, or whose turn it was to mop the bathroom floor—when I called her Jewnose. My father, I recall, was in the next room, unquestionably within earshot. I remember how he said nothing, how he didn’t lay a hand on me—and how I wished, almost immediately, that he had.

19. Just reread Everything is Illuminated. Fuck.

20. The whole “Jews will not replace us” thing in Charlottesville—it was scary, yeah, but thinking about it for a while, I was eventually smiling. Look around—Wall Street… Hollywood…—haven’t we, already?

21. My big brother, Matty, ever the rabble-rouser, was “on his last strike” for most of middle school. One day, partway through eighth grade, having swiped a bass drum mallet from the band room, Matty crept up behind his classmate Sam—again, one of the few other Jews at the school—and hit the kid so hard in the ass, he made him cry. That, at long last, was strike three.

16. or what. The rustiness of memory, a window
            shattered from the outside. A brick on the floor.
            —we’d been careful… how did they know who we were?
            A symbol we all know, scratched with a knife

22. My parents asked a friend of theirs, a high school math teacher, to tutor Matty through the end of the school year, which she agreed to do. And so my brother was ready, come fall, to start high school. They sent him—wait for it—to the local Catholic school, where, during orientation, a guy named Father Jim made my brother disavow his ethnic and spiritual inheritance. This was in 2000, mind you, not 1955.

23. He got kicked out of that school too, though for different reasons, which had largely to do with smoking on campus and, unrelated, sleeping (and, I heard, snoring audibly) during class. Father Jim, to my mother, described my brother as “a big, untrainable bear.”

16. —thin, white lines on a red brick—and thrown from outside.
            It was December and we’d been eating dinner,
            knives scratching through lamb, across white plates,
            when, outside, a car stopped, horn blaring.

24. He did eventually graduate, on his third try, from high school, and went on to college where, based on surreal SAT scores, he was on nearly a full ride. But perhaps for the sake of continuity, only a semester into freshman year, Matty was expelled. Booze. Drugs. Not going to class. His last, last strike.

13. There’s this archetype in the Jewish community: the if not self-denying, then self-destroying Jew.

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
    – Nietzsche

25. He was 28 when he died. More or less drank himself to death.

19. But it’s not the entire story… I realized this when I first tried to whisper a secret and couldn’t, or whistle a tune without instilling fear in the hearts of those within 100 yards, when my coworkers at the flower mill pleaded with me to lower my voice, because, Who can think with you shouting like that? To which I asked, AM I REALLY SHOUTING?

26. Now consider Victor Frankl, who, before being rounded up, separated from his family, tattooed with a prison number and sent to Auschwitz, was a practicing psychologist in Vienna. He’d just completed a draft of what he considered at the time to be his life’s work, a book outlining a new, groundbreaking method of psychotherapy—with years of research to justify it—which he kept on him, sewed into the lining of his clothes, while he was transported to the camps.

16. It was Hanukkah. They were eating dinner
            when, window bursting, the night rushed cold into
            the house. A car speeding off, horn blaring.
            And no one got up, says grandpa, we just ate

27. It was taken from him, of course, and destroyed—what, after losing everything, had given him a far-off shimmer of, if not hope, then meaning. A reason to endure. To remain, despite a reality’s-worth of evidence to the contrary, human.

28. In 1959, some 14 years after his release from Auschwitz, Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning, the first half of which, with a haunting and distant clarity, recounts his three years as a prisoner. The second half, resurrecting his life‘s work that was lost during the war, presents and explains his therapeutic doctrine, which he called Logotherapy.

29. Derived from the Greeklogos, which denotes “meaning,” Logotherapy represented a splitting off from the widely-accepted Freudian school of thought, which held that pleasureis the primary driving force in humans. To Frankl, though, if a human can find meaning in an experience—say, watching your mother, brother, and pregnant wife, together, being gassed in a public shower—they can endure it.

16. with winter rushing through the burst window
            and the world knowing, then, exactly who they were,
            no one got up. We finished the lamb first, then
            I swept up the glass—things were different for us then.

30. Throughout the book, Frankl returns often to these words from Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

31. Suppose for a moment that the small details and sensory experiences of your day—the slow gurgle of the coffee pot, started by a lover as you wake; or, later, the ascending surprise in your mother’s voice when, after several weeks of radio silence, you’ve called just to say hi—weren’t enough to justify being here, living, right now on earth. Suppose that, for you to go on breathing, it all had to mean something—the rich stink of the dark roast; the faintly Southern way your mother says, “I’m justso glad you cawled…”

32. To achieve meaning, says Frankl, one must transcend pleasure by doing something that “points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself… by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love.” While he was in the same concentration camp as his father, Frankl managed to obtain morphine to ease his father’s pain and stayed by his side during his dying days.

33. My father and I, for reasons that may or may not extend beyond the shared confines of our Jewishness, spent most of my 20s estranged from one another. When Matty died in the fall of 2014, we were several years into this silent chasm. Seeing one another at the funeral—held, yes, in a large, plain church—we shared a brief and clumsy embrace. No one deserves to lose a son, I whispered.

13. There’s this archetype in the Jewish community: the Jew who insists there are archetypes unique to the Jewish community.

34. Nor a brother, he whispered back.

35. I have since wondered, if we’d held his service at the local synagogue, how many people would have come—would folks at the synagogue have allowed us to play Joe Cocker’s With a little help from my friends through the loudspeakers while people filed melancholy out of the aisles, like we did?

36. Five years passed before my father and I spoke again—I, living in Southern California, he back in Kentucky. And it was me who broke the silence. I’d been hiking along the Ventura River, walking alone, as I did most days, in the liminal dustiness between chaparral and riverbottom, when, feeling my hand brush against the empty pocket of my shorts, I realized I’d lost something.

19. Mother asked about you yesterday. She said, “And what about the troublemaking Jew?” I informed her that you were not troublemaking, but a good person, and that you are not a Jew with a largesize J, but a jew, like Albert Einstein or Jerry Seinfeld.

37. By 2014, nearly a decade removed from his last foray into higher education, Matty, to all outward appearances, had gotten it together. He’d been holding down a job at the local lumberyard and was in the homestretch of the grueling, months-long training required to become an EMT. Three days a week at the yard, broken up by 24-hour shifts in the back of an ambulance, riding through the Appalachian epicenter of our country’s opioid crisis. Many of them were dead on arrival, others he watched, their bodies refusing the narcan, dying limp and often anonymous on the stretcher in front of him.

38. Frankl joked that, in contrast to Freud‘s and Adler’s “depth psychology,” which emphasized an individual’s past and their unconscious instincts and desires, he himself practiced “height psychology,” focusing on a person’s future, their conscious decisions and actions. He championed the application of effort, technique, acceptance of limitations, and wise decisions. A tragic optimism his was, or so it was eventually labeled.

19. (You have ghosts?)
            (Of course I have ghosts.)
            (What are your ghosts like?)
            (They are on the insides of the lids of my eyes.)

It really doesn’t matter how it happened—my brother died there, alone in the hospital.

39. Matty had begun drinking again. According to the nurse my brother talked to at the hospital—he checked himself in, complaining of sharp stomach pain, the overwhelming sense that something was wrong, something inside him—it was anywhere between 12 and 24 beers a night. He could do that. The booze. A hard, blank sleep. Then up at five to fill orders of white oak two-by-fours for the local contractors.

40. It really doesn’t matter how it happened—my brother died there, alone in the hospital. The only one of us near enough to drive and be there with the body: my father.

19. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks—when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain—that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.

4l. I’d hoped, in some distant and unspoken way, that when I went into my dead brother’s apartment—he was a spare-under-the-doormat guy—I would find evidence of his hidden Judaio-spiritual life. Though, I didn’t really know what that would look like. My grandmother had, nailed into the door frame of her apartment, a narrow block of decorated wood. It might’ve had a Star of David burned into it. Ritually, every time she passed in or out of the apartment, she’d kiss her knuckled index finger and, reaching almost as high as she could— she was 4’11”— transfer the kiss to the small wooden block. It’s the most Jewish thing I’d seen at close range. And my brother had nothing like it hanging on his door frame.

42. Instead, delicately skirting the splayed, grease-damp pizza boxes, nearly vibrating with small insects, I found the following:
—On a bedside table, his work keys, dangling from which was a leather tag, worn smooth and faded at the edges, and plated with engraved copper: Matthew. We’d each gotten one of these when we turned 16—mostly, I think, an encouraging and not so subtle nudge towards getting our own cars (we each learned to drive in the same ‘92 Volvo four-door). I took the leather tag from his keychain and slipped it onto mine.
—Also on the bedside table, almost missable in the mess of keys, was a small pewter pendant embossed with the face and clasped hands of the Catholic Saint Dymphna. I took that too. On the back, an inscription—though I cannot, for the life of me, remember where I put the thing, and so don’t know any more what it says.
—A heavy slab of wood—maybe two feet by five feet—planed, but unvarnished, cherry. A deep, reddish-brown, the bark still intact along one of its edges. I have it, now, in my garage, and continue telling myself I’m going to make it into a coffee table.

19. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?

43. It’s the leather tag that, five years later, walking along the Ventura River—red-tailed hawk, high and silent overhead… sparrows chittering in the sagebrush—I realized I’d lost. Actually, I lost all of my keys, looped as they were onto one heavy keychain. But I was inconsolable over Matty’s leather tag. It was something about how worn it was, how often he had handled it, that, for those years after his death, made me feel connected to him in a way that transcended the esoteric connection we all supposedly have to the dead. Every day I was holding and fidgeting with the same piece of leather that he, every day, had carried… dropped into the center consul cupholder… flung onto his nightstand. And I lost it. I lost him. All over again.

44. Frankl: Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for. Perhaps he boarded a trolley, traveled out to the home which he had seen for years in his mind, and only in his mind, and pressed the bell, just as he had longed to do in thousands of dreams, only to find that the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again.

45. I couldn’t tell you why I called my father that day. In retrospect, it might’ve had to do with needing the ear of someone who both knew Matty and, having known him, also knew the loss of him, the shape in the air my brother left behind, which would never, by anyone or -thing, be filled.

46. Freud: While the poet, as he unravels the past, brings to light the guilt of Oedipus, he is at the same time compelling us to recognize our own inner minds, in which those same impulses, though suppressed, are still to be found.

47. And so, lying on the floor of my studio apartment, having called a friend to pick me up at the trailhead—I had not, thank God, lost my phone—I dialed the old number, just a few digits off from mine. “Daniel?” said a voice so familiar, so unchanged it startled me, “Are you okay?”



D.S. WaldmanD.S. Waldman is a Marsh-Rebelo scholar at San Diego State University. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Narrative, Georgia Review, and Poetry Northwest. Learn more at www.dswaldman.com.

Read D.S. Waldman’s Letter to America poem, “Self-Portrait, Remotely,” also appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Aris-Tect Group, courtesy Shutterstock.

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