No Room to Dance. (Memoir)

Article excerpt

There is a crisis in my father's nursing home: he may no longer sit in the hallway outside his room. For some time he has been chanting to passersby, from his wheelchair, "Six million Jews: five million adults, one million children--Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau, Majdanek ... shot, gassed, hung, burned."

I decide not to complain. But soon I would be asking myself, what is a shtetl Jew doing in a Christian retirement home? Several years ago, when my father was past eighty, he and my mother bought an apartment in a Christian life-care community. The choice was largely my own. The Jewish possibilities did not measure up to this retirement home, a handsome estate of buildings, well-furnished, clean, and inviting, with residents including retired teachers, musicians, physicians, administrators; original oil paintings hung on the walls. An air of gentility and refinement pervaded. Trips to plays, concerts, and museums were scheduled.

I accompanied my father to the initial interview. On the elevator to the head nurse's office, someone commented on the crowding. My father laughed and said, "There's no room to dance."

Silence.

In the waiting room, he sat twirling his hat, singing a Yiddish song to himself:

   Once I had a partner
   A Jew who couldn't live with Jews.
   When I asked him to leave
   His wife gave me a slap.
   I got mad and gave her one back.

   He had a few thousand dollars;
   Thought he was a fancy squire.
   Now he lives in New York
   Eating cold beans with pork.

   I'm happily alone.
   It's peaceful and quiet.
   I do whatever I wish,
   And dine on gefilte fish.

The nurse was brisk. "Briefly," she asked, "what is your medical history?"

My father came to life as if he had been handed a glass of hot tea with a sugar cube. "When I came to America," he began, "I couldn't pass my water. I went to see my doctor, he should rest in peace, and he said, `Bring me a sample ... not the Atlantic Ocean.' I filled a milk bottle, and a week later I came back. The doctor said, `Don't eat bananas,' and I was cured."

The nurse threw her pencil down, stood up, and left the room.

Maybe we should have left too. The nurse--and many others, as we would soon find--was at a loss to understand my father. This was a man who could come out to the head of the stairs in his nightshirt and crow, "Coo-cari-coo!" when my sister's first boyfriend was slow to leave. The medical history the nurse wanted was detachable, generic: she wasn't prepared to have it come attached to a person, a strange person, a relic of a lost culture.

Despite the incomplete medical history, my parents were approved and soon moved in.

Before long, there were problems. In the dining room, my father blew his nose at the table. He stuffed his mouth like a squirrel and drank noisily. His Jewish jokes seemed inappropriate in the Christian atmosphere. He tapped people on the shoulder when he spoke.

The neighbor across the hall, a retired university professor who had initially been inviting, stopped talking to me. Though she was sympathetic to us, she had gone to the administrator to complain about my father's social habits. Her solution to the problem was to deny my parents the use of the main dining room. The administrator objected and spoke to me sympathetically.

I wrote the neighbor a letter. I said I believed cultural diversity could be successful. I explained that as a younger man, my father had elegant Parisian dining manners--he held his fork and knife in separate hands; in Paris he had chosen to live near the Louvre, where he loved to go. I wrote that he told me, "I left Paris with a diamond stickpin in my silk tie, two bottles of Benedictine, and a wallet filled with francs. In America, I wanted to hear Mischa Elman play violin, and I walked more than twenty blocks to save the fare. Elman came out on the stage, a short, bald, fat Yidl mit a fidl and played his heart out. …