by Ellen Kirschner
followed by Q&A
I liked to sit next to my father in temple. On the orange cushion in the straight-backed pew I relaxed in his assured presence. Riverdale Temple was the only place he did not get beeped.
My father was a doctor. Not just a doctor—he was The Great Doctor.
I knew because my mother told me so. She never said the words; she didn’t have to. She told me every time she unwrapped a dazzling gift from a grateful patient; every time he did not come home for dinner because he had a sick patient; every time he did come home and sat in his big green armchair with The New York Times wide in front of him, smelling of the hospital. He’d sit in the green armchair, one leg crossed over the other, a clunky Murray Space Shoe etched out from under the newsprint, glass of single-malt scotch on the rocks on the side table, brown like Dr. Pepper without the fizz, ice cubes cracking in warm liquid. He let me dip my pinky in and suck on the sweet taste that swallowed hot.
My mother admonished me: “Don’t bother Daddy, he has a sick patient.” She reproved me: “Don’t bother Daddy, he has a big case in the morning.” She reproached me: “Don’t bother Daddy, he lost a patient today.”
We were in temple for my brother’s confirmation, nothing like the Catholic ritual, rather a post-Bar Mitzvah American Reform Jewish rite. As usual I was braiding the fringe of my father’s tallis. Funny how he never stopped me, given how furious he got when I took a pen from his desk and failed to return it. Then he’d storm into my room in the back of the house at the end of a long narrow hall, right up to my desk where I sat coiled over my homework, the tread of his weighty Space Shoes pressing my stomach into a lump as he loudly demanded his pen back. “I’m sorry,” I’d whisper, to which he thundered, “Sorry isn’t enough!”
Rabbi Shulman thundered not just in English but in Hebrew, too. I rocked a bit to the pulse of the language as we responded in chorus, “v’yit ga dal, v’yit ga dosh, sh’may raba.” What it meant I didn’t know, but it surely wasn’t gibberish. It rose and fell with rhythm and melody like singing speech or spoken song. We sat in the front row. My mother had to be seen. Although we were High Holiday Jews who rarely attended other services, when we were there, she had to be sure that Rabbi Shulman, the president of the congregation and any other temple luminaries knew that we, the Kirschner family, were there. I gazed across the great stage that spanned the room, Stars and Stripes on one end, the blue and white Mogen David on the other. We had learned to sing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, in Sunday school. Between the flags of the two countries to which my allegiance was due stood the Holy Ark, the cabinet that held the sacred Torah scrolls. The doors of the Ark were shaped like giant tablets painted silver to mimic the ones of stone that God gave to Moses on top of Mt. Sinai, or at least the ones Charlton Heston held in The Ten Commandments. My father’s hospital was called Mt. Sinai, too.
Over the Ark was a large silver six-pointed star, its center a sheen of frosted blue glass: the Eternal Light. I studied the pulsing Jewish star above the Ark. As a child I had spent many hours wondering how it could be the Eternal Light. Eternal meant forever. The glow came from a light bulb. A light bulb would burn out. I concocted different scenarios. Perhaps they calculated exactly how long the light bulb would last, and then, just moments before, they quickly-switched-to-a-fresh-bulb? No. As soon as the bulb was unscrewed it would go out, and no matter how dexterous the bulb-changer, no matter how quickly and seamlessly he screwed in the new bulb, no matter how powerful a person he was—I pictured the awesome Rabbi Shulman, himself, silver hair like a mane brushed back, high forehead and thick locks, deep, long pleated sleeves of his robes swinging open like an accordion as, with a flourish, he twisted the bulb. Even if it were Rabbi Shulman himself, and not Henry, the pleasant, skinny colored man who, as superintendent of the building, was a fixture at Riverdale Temple too, the one who handed out Chanukah candles to my brother and the other kids in Hebrew School that Tuesday night in 1965 when the whole city went dark. Even if it were the ferocious, leonine Rabbi Shulman himself who changed the bulb, for a moment, at least, the light would go out.
It was Sunday, June 9, 1968. I had just graduated from Fieldston, a privileged “bohemian” prep school in Riverdale. The mystery of the Eternal Light was stored away with other childhood riddles—why my father wasn’t like the empathic doctor of Father Knows Best, why my mother wasn’t at the door to greet me after school, smoothing her ruffled apron with one hand, holding a plate of cookies in the other, instead of locked in her room unable to get out of bed.
I called it The Year of Death. It began in October 1967, when my friend Robin Sachs died. Robin’s leg had been amputated for bone cancer. Those first few months of school he hopped around the quadrangle on crutches, one pant leg folded and pinned. I knew he was dying—he knew it, too. We even talked about it. His death was no surprise, but never had I been to a funeral for someone my age.
I never got to tell him that I had a mad crush on him, even though he was a year ahead of me with a girlfriend whose shadowy hair skated loosely over her shoulders, who wore Pappagallo shoes and carried a Gucci handbag. Straight from P.S. 81 in the Bronx, how could I match her Manhattan sophistication?
Just three months later, I was in my room letting “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” drop onto my turntable for the millionth time when my friend Mimi called to tell me that our classmate, Ricki Browne, was dead. Ricki wasn’t my best friend, but we sat next to each other in math and had a lot of laughs at the teacher’s expense. I laughed at Mimi.
“This is not a joke,” she said. “Ricki was on vacation with her family in Acapulco and she drowned in the ocean.” I hung up the phone and went into a kind of seizure. I couldn’t catch my breath. Great heaves shuddered out of my body, trumpeting like the whooping cough my brother had had. My mother ran into my room, her eyes blurred with fear. “What happened? What happened?” I could barely choke out the words. “Ricki is dead. She drowned in the ocean.” My mother started shaking and ran out of the room, leaving me to drown in my own watery heaves. A few minutes later she came back and handed me a familiar glass of scotch. I drank it. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know that scotch was not a replacement for holding me and hugging me and keening on each other’s shoulders. How could I know when she had never held me or hugged me before? How did I know how to hold my own children tight as their sobs shook themselves free on my tear-wetted shoulders till their bodies relaxed, spent with grief over some small slight of childhood?
You can ask those kids of mine. My kids can tell you about 1968. They studied it in American History AP. They can tell you about the Vietnam War, but can they see the limbless soldiers and burning babies that invaded our living room on the news every night? They can tell you about the murder of Martin Luther King, but did they stand side by side, arms crossed, hands clutched, chanting “We’ll walk hand in hand?” John F. Kennedy’s assassination had been a seismic rupture, a shifting of geological plates that undermined my footing ever after. How else then to explain my dispassionate acceptance when I learned that Robert Kennedy was dead, his brains splattered over a kitchen floor in a hotel in California after a victory I was sure would lead to the presidency, end the war, sew up the racial gash like my father, the surgeon, would “close” a patient. Gone was the hope I'd read in the faces of families celebrating on TV the homecoming from war of a father, a brother, a son.
Two days after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, I was there but not present that Sunday morning in June as my brother mounted the bimah to give his Confirmation speech. By then I was blank of feeling, anaesthetized. Through dulled senses I gradually became aware of a murmur spreading along the rows of congregants like pressed pleats. My brother stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Rabbi Shulman was slumped to one side in his great armchair. His face was stone gray. The President of the Congregation ran to the Rabbi and shook him, which made him slump even more, then turned to the congregation, extended his arms in plea and just like you see in the movies cried, Is there a doctor in the house? My father tore from my side and charged up the stairs. The rest I remember in black and white, grainy, static in my ears. My father took hold of the Rabbi and laid him on his back in front of the Ark. Kneeling, back to the rows of pews, my father raised his arms high above his head and brought them down with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his might, onto the Rabbi’s chest. It made a cracking sound. My eyes wavered to the familiar symbols embedded in the mosaic around the Ark: menorah, candles, dreidle, Torah scrolls, and, my favorite, two hands spread out, thumbs and forefingers touching, framing a triangle of blessing that the Rabbi had held over my head at my own Confirmation as he chanted first in Hebrew and then in English, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Another crack as my father brought his fists down on the Rabbi’s chest. I thought I saw the organist and choir behind rows of white flowers slip off stage. The edge of my eye caught my father again, kneeling before the Rabbi’s ponderous, inert frame, raising his arms high above him in supplication, snapping them down violently onto the Rabbi’s chest. Crack! It echoed through a sanctuary, now empty as ushers had guided the congregants out, too consumed to notice the teenage girl at the foot of the stairs. A trail of gardenia from the white flowers penetrated my hardened crust, softened and perfumed it. Again and again my father raised his arms.
Again and again he brought them down with a treacherous strength that could have smashed stone tablets like the ones Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai to a people prostrate in front of idols. Crack! Down came his fisted arms charged with determination to cheat God. No pinkness returned to the Rabbi’s face, no breath entered or escaped his body. I could have felt it now, where the fragrance of gardenia had slipped in and out of me. With each blow my father’s arms bore down on the Rabbi with unnerving resolution to restore life—as he had done for all those grateful patients whose gifts cluttered our living room. He was determined to bring the Rabbi back from the clutch of Hades, King of the Underworld, god of death and the dead, god of hidden wealth of the earth, black soil, inert metals, a miserable domain from which my father strove to kidnap the Rabbi with hands of Asclepius, the first surgeon, half-god half-man, the only being able to enter the realm of Hades and return a person to life.
But the arms of The Great Doctor faltered. He was worn out. He was losing his confrontation with God this time, but still he would not give up. Once more he raised his arms, willing them with might, plunging his fists onto the Rabbi’s chest with another horrific crack. The Rabbi’s arms and legs just flopped around like the Raggedy Ann I used to drag behind me when I’d dipped my pinky in my father’s scotch.
“Ellen!” my mother hissed. She pinched my elbow.
I turned and followed her out of the sanctuary.
Ellen Kirschner’s stories have appeared in Under Our Skin and Visible Ink. The bilingual journal, Interfaces, published her illustrated essay, “Woman Reconstructed,” with her lithograph on the cover. She has written for The New York Times, Architectural Record and other publications. Ellen also creates ceramic art.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: Time Magazine called 1968 “The Year That Shaped a Generation.” As a high school senior, world events entwined with my own, ending on a remarkable note that reshaped my relationship with my country, my religion, and, most of all, my father. I have written many drafts of this story over the years. At last I feel I have done it justice, telling it so readers can experience what that 17-year-old young woman felt.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice came from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She recommends writing a “shitty first draft.” It gets me past “blank page anxiety” and gives me something concrete to work with. When my kids were in school I gave them the same advice. They loved it—or maybe they just loved hearing mom say “shitty.”
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: I start with that shitty first draft, put it aside for a while, and then come back to it, hopefully with more objectivity. I work from my internal felt sense of characters and situations in an effort to create stories that a reader can enter and experience from the inside. It helps to have a tough but kind critic when I don’t know where to go next.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: I will never convert to e-reader! I need to put my nose in a book, literally—I like the way they smell. My library is organized by subject and within that from tall to short (loosely). Many books are stacked horizontally—some by width and color—for sculptural and visual effect.