Walking Through the Past Into New Motherhood

A new mother struggles to make sense of intergenerational trauma, biological memory and the guilty privilege of passing as white even though she is Jewish.

Jessica Friedmann | Things That Helped | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2018 | 36 minutes (9,972 words)

Every morning, my father goes for an hour’s walk before work. This is the ritual that starts the day. When I come down to the kitchen for breakfast he is just getting home, and the dog precedes him through the door, pattering around, looking for a sunny patch, while my dad dumps the shrink-wrapped tube of the newspaper on the kitchen table. Often it is damp with condensation, but when I peel the wrapping off, the newsprint itself is dry.

Depending on the season, my sisters and I wear identical pale blue knee socks with our school uniforms, or itchy, dark gray tights. Dad’s early-morning outfit is unvaried; tracksuit pants, a T-shirt, sneakers, and a jumper tied around his waist, disguising or reinforcing the back brace he wears on cold mornings. His back injury is one of the reasons for his walking, and for the careful, constant stretches he does. After dinner, he leaves the table and rolls his knees from side to side upon the floor.

As a child, I have no clear idea of what a disk is, or what it means to “slip” one or two or three. In my mind, my father’s spine is like a Jenga tower, with pieces sticking out precipitously, ready to bring the entire structure down. In fact, his spine is not too dissimilar now to a stack of blocks — bone on bone with nothing to cushion each vertebra. He teases his mother about the fact that she is shrinking, but he is not as tall as he was.

***

Every now and then, on a High Holiday or when someone has died, my father gets up early to accompany his father to shul, walking there, of course, because on these occasions you don’t drive. I don’t know what kind of tricky political maneuvering has gotten him to this point, or what strings have been pulled, but these mornings come as a kind of détente in an ongoing tussle over Dad’s lack of faith. He himself disclaimed religion years and years ago, but neither of his parents really accept that he no longer believes in God; or if they do, they believe that his defection is too late; he has already been bar mitzvahed, and that is that.

My dad keeps a few yarmulkes in a drawer in the hallway console, between misplaced golf tees and a set of spare keys. When I accompany my grandmother, Nagyi, to shul myself on odd occasions, I sit with her on the women’s balcony, something that must have been brought over from the old country, because in the early ’90s, who segregates men and women? Only the most conservative, but I don’t have any idea of the fault lines yet between Orthodox and Progressive, Hasidic and Reform. In my grandparents’ neighborhood, girls wear wigs and long black skirts, but Nagyi disdains them for their showiness. There are ways and ways to be a good conservative Jew.

On High Holidays, the main ways are prayer and food. Inevitably we three girls will arrive tetchy from being bundled into our “good” clothes and then sitting around afraid to mark them. We have Peter Pan collars edged with lace, and large velvet headbands holding back our glossy hair. We are keyed up, too, with the awareness of something special happening, but unable to read all the currents of the evening, the ebbs and flows.

Depending on the holiday, Papa’s intonement of Hebrew is either brief or on-and-on-and-on. Dad jokes that all Jewish holidays boil down to “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” but I scrupulously study the English text in the Haggadah, trying to make sense of it, or at least match the English words to the Hebrew rhythm. Some aspect of me feels that I ought to find this language resonant, or at least imbued with meaning, but it goes over my head, and the meal is reduced to a pantomime. We play a children’s pantomime, too, toward the end, hiding a piece of matzo for my grandfather to studiously not find, and bargaining its release for a net of gold chocolate coins.

At some point I ask Dad why he left the shul, and he tells it very simply: that he went every Saturday until he was 17 years old, when he raised a scriptural question from the day’s sermon with his father; that Papa told him very firmly not to question the rabbi, and since that point my father has had no faith. There is a horror around that quashing of spirit that is too great for my child’s mind to take in, and I put it away, unaware that it has tangled in my mind with a budding supposition — that Jews can get in trouble if they ask too many questions.

***

Questions are my lifeblood; I cannot live without them. As my legs grow longer I like to join Dad in the morning, prowling the suburbs before the sun comes up. It takes me a while to wake up all the way, but I love the feeling of the wind brisking up my cheeks as we cross the bridge into Richmond. As we head over the river we can see rowers out in pairs or single sculls, seagulls perched on the garbage traps, long snaky strands of gold light rippling with the flow of the water.

Often we walk in silence, the dog trotting at my father’s side. The sky turns pink and crisp in the autumn, and balloons go up over the city. When we talk, I bounce my newly forming philosophical quandaries o my father, who enjoys them. “How do I know that the color I see as green is the same color that you see as green?” I ask, and for the next 20 minutes we are down a path that is comprised half of classical philosophies of subjectivity, and half of how the eye actually perceives color as a lens. It amazes me that there are wavelengths of light — all around me and going through me — that I cannot detect at all.

Every term, we carry our school reports to our grandparents’ house, and they read over them and congratulate us, and my grandfather solemnly hands to each of us an envelope of cash. The money embarrasses me, but the pride I enjoy. I know how much it means to him to see us do well; he left school at 14 himself, to help his parents in their shop, in the country town my grandmother would later live in and loathe. He was the second eldest and survived the Holocaust with five of his siblings — six out of nine. They were the largest group of siblings to survive; I think there is a certificate somewhere.

The fact of this is somewhere in the background, also squashed, also repressed. When I come across Jewish children in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or Number the Stars, I am careful not to invest too much of myself into them. It is easier to be Laura Ingalls Wilder or Emily of New Moon, or Jo March, with her independence and her comically small head. I tear through everything the junior school library has to offer, then get special permission to visit the senior school library for books.

Nagyi and Papa come to our end-of-year assemblies; they are faithful attendees of our recitals and ballet concerts. Dad watches the unbending of his father with astonishment. When I miss a mark in a spelling test, he shakes his head with mock dismay.

“You know when I was your age, if I brought home a test with a mark of ninety-six, my father would say, ‘What happened to the other four points?’”

I laugh, trying not to show how much I mind those few missed marks. I hear the conversations between my teachers, and I know that some of the work I am given is different, harder. The word potential is used cautiously; I begin to realize that I have a great deal of potential. But the thinly veiled excitement behind the phrase is a compliment I haven’t yet earned. I am expected to do something with this potential; I am supposed to live up to it; there is no telling how far I will go.

My parents pick up on and try to assuage my anxiety. “I don’t care if you want to be a garbage collector,” says Dad, “just as long as you are the best garbage collector you can be.”

Later I find that this is a mantra in all migrant households, and one that my friends trot out when we are telling the stories of where we came from. The best you can be echoes around the back of my skull, a lone refrain until I abandon my homework one night as mostly done, good enough. Dad looks at me over the top of his newspaper when I say as much out loud.

“There is no such thing,” he says, “as ‘good enough.’”

My mother is horrified to overhear this, but Dad looks me in the eye, and I know exactly what he means.

***

The school that my sisters and I attend is the junior school sister of a single-sex private institution. It doesn’t occur to me to find a school comprising only women and girls odd; at home Dad often groans jokingly of being outnumbered, though he wanted six girls initially.

We are here in part because of my mother’s hairy legs. As a teenage girl, she tells me later, she deliberately lagged to the back of cross-country running groups so that the older boys would not see her legs. She didn’t want us ever not to be swift; she didn’t want us to sabotage our chances, to feel the shame of exposure. She tells me about the incinerators in the girls’ toilets at her senior school; how girls were required to burn their bulky sanitary pads, and any girl bleeding was identifiable from the plume of smoke emerging above her toilet stall, announcing her like the election of a new pope. Later, on her teaching rounds, she gritted her teeth as boys pushed their way to the new computers at the expense of their female peers, and were rewarded with attention and opportunity for it.

That we can have and be anything we want is borne out by our parents, who, if they are not old money, are migrants or the children of migrants; our mothers and fathers, but mostly our fathers, started out with nothing, and look at them now. In the playground there is no feeling of racial consciousness; though I don’t know the term model minority yet, that is what we are, we migrant daughters of Jewish and Chinese and Indian doctors and lawyers.

My race education is of its place and time, which will make me blush as an adult when I understand what this means. I am sure we do learn about Indigenous Australians, whom we call Aborigines, sometime during primary school; I am sure that I make a poster presentation. I know that at some point we learn about bush tucker, and place tiny native-pepper berries on our tongues, and squirm and giggle at the thought of eating witchetty grubs. We all have enough food at home; we cannot imagine that anyone, by necessity or choice, would eat a bug.

We also learn that Captain Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770, that he and Joseph Banks staked a claim on Botany Bay and then the nation began; that from then on colonies sprang up, and convicts worked through their indenture, and the Gold Rush brought prosperity, and sheep and wheat and opals brought even more. We do not learn about the Frontier Wars, or if we do, they are not named as such, and the losses of life are downplayed. If we learn about the referendum to repeal Section 127 of the Constitution, reading In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted, it is as a footnote to history, not something that I, or anyone else, has ever made a diorama about.

There is also, pervasively, the Holocaust. It seems to permeate the entirety of our classes, later on, in History and in English, as the scale of World War II is pressed upon us again and again. We read Livia Bitton-Jackson’s book Elli, and it doesn’t escape me that Elli’s surname is the same as mine; that we are both fourteen. I read it once, put it down, and move on to other things. I don’t want to dwell on this book, or on the immensity of its subject.

One image sticks with me vividly, though: girls marching naked toward Auschwitz, one of them bleeding freely down her thighs, and Elli’s sudden realization that she might one day be as embarrassed and exposed as that. In a girls’ school, pads and tampons are batted around the bathrooms with nonchalance. They are wrapped in bright colors, and girls read out the trivia printed on their hygiene stickers from behind the stall doors.

The girls who are not the daughters of migrants have long sleek ponytails and suntanned legs. A few years earlier, they passed around a copy of Bridge to Terebithia, highly prized because it made them cry so much. It is not a crime to be sentimental, but when we are given a creative writing exercise — to produce an account of life in Auschwitz and Dachau — I feel my gorge rising on a hot tide of panic. I do not have the language to explain, even to myself, how sick I feel about these girls indulging in the so sad sadness of life within a camp, even in fiction, even for a minute.

I think about writing a letter to my teacher explaining this, but I don’t. It doesn’t occur to me to simply not do the work; I am too much of a Goody Two-shoes, a perfect student, a suck. And I know that I will have to face what happened in Hungary and Germany and Poland at some point, so I tell myself I am being mature and write the piece. And I get full marks, and I do not wallow and I do not inch. But later, when I have learned the language of appropriation and thanatourism and the concept of trauma porn, I will wish that I had not been such a coward, and that instead I had simply told my English teacher to fuck off.

***

More and more I come to value the time spent walking in the morning before school. At 16 I am in my final year of school, and so, unlike my friends, I don’t rush out and get my license straightaway. The thought of learning to drive, on top of the schoolwork that is piling up, feels like too much pressure, too much stress.

I am still intent on following my father, who is a dentist, into some kind of medical field, preferably surgery — from a young age I have been fascinated with the workings of the body — and so I immerse myself in chemistry and mathematical methods, the latter of which I loathe. I like chemistry for its acceptance of ambiguity, its stoichiometric equations that acknowledge that no state of matter is ever truly fixed.

Our early-morning walks take us past a little row of shops, where Dad and I slow our pace to navigate around the café tables that have been placed out for the early rush and shoppers coming out of the bakery clutching loaves of bread. A few years of after-school work at Bakers Delight have inured me to the smell of hot bread in the morning; it is a smell I miss, a comfort smell. At one shop front, I sneak a quick glance at a pair of shoes in the window. They are at sandals with an open back, with metal hoops and disks of black leather arcing over the top of the foot. They look like something Kate Bush would wear.

When I get my results, I let out a whoop, and then sit for a moment, looking at the computer screen. I have slept until noon to safely ignore the phone calls of curious family, and I know that my parents must be dying of tension in the other room, where they are respecting my distance while I find out whether or not I’ve got the marks I need. I have missed out on a place in medicine by one point, but I feel curiously light having had the decision made for me, and deeply content about my impending entry into arts.

I tell my parents my score, and they hug me and ring my grandparents, and later in the day, Dad presents me with a box. In it are the Kate Bush shoes. I know that secretly he would like to mark the occasion by giving me a car, but these shoes are much, much dearer to me. I hadn’t realized that he’d been watching each morning when I paused at the shop window to admire them and say hello.

***

In the first year of my arts degree, uniforms left behind forever, an older girl in my art history class takes me under her wing, and my life opens up in a way I have longed for, inchoately, for as long as I have known. Summer evenings pass in cheap apartments above shops, playing records on a machine bought at Vinnies and smoking on the roof, or in tiny paved back gardens, sitting on upturned milk crates between the back door and the dunny. I go to a fancy-dress party dressed as Annie Hall and fall in love with a lean, dark-haired boy in the corner, his brown eyes glowing over the light of his cigarette. I leave our conversation to go to the loo, unclipping my father’s borrowed suspenders.

“Absolutely not,” my friend hisses while I’m away. “She’s 17 years old.” But a year later I am half living at his house, waking up lazily and putting the stovetop espresso on while his housemates go to Tabet’s for cheese-and-spinach pies. We watch Betty Blue and play backgammon in the morning, clean up haphazardly, take cups of tea out into the backyard with the newspaper or an old copy of Heat. When his Deleuze reading group comes over, I head out the back and read fashion magazines. I already know my position on Deleuze.

It is here that I read Monkey Grip for the first time, and feel a faint marvel of clairsentience at Helen Garner’s prose. So I haven’t dreamed up this life out of whole cloth; it exists, it has existed before me and without me, and was waiting for me to come and inhabit it, to walk the very same streets I am now walking, and argue over ethics and love and sex, and obsessively write. I curl up on Tom’s ratty old couch with my feet in a pair of his socks, the heels coming up past the back of my ankles, and scrawl poems on the backs of old envelopes as my mind flies far above the plum trees and the washing line.

***

As I am growing older, my grandparents grow older, too. For years Nagyi has been abetting Papa as he slowly declines into what will be confirmed, later, as dementia. She is so canny, and her personality so forceful, that if any of us suspect that she is covering for him, we keep it to ourselves. The role of neurotic, fussy Jewish mother — and grandmother — is culturally prevalent; she leans into it hard. Another joke of my father’s: “A Jewish mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. He comes down to breakfast the next day wearing one of them and she says, ‘What, you didn’t like the other one?’”

At Seder we still play out the ritual of hiding the matzo, though in increasingly obvious hiding places, and increasingly it becomes obvious that he genuinely cannot find it. We all love this man: the strength of his back, his too-strong hands, his ability to fold laundry impeccably, a relic of his days in schmatte. I love him achingly, although for a long time now I have understood the undercurrents of earlier years; my mother’s tension headaches; the things that were said when my father married out. When my mother offered to convert, Dad threw a fit; his parents would accept her as she was, or not at all. But it put us, as children, in a precarious situation.

Papa’s memories, long repressed, begin to come to the surface. Nagyi has made an oral history for a friend’s daughter’s PhD, but now I steel myself to interview her, for my first book chapter, a published work; I think, mistakenly, that I can do the work of honoring this chapter of her life in five thousand words, over two afternoons. I want it out of my system, where it has taken up residence like a ghost. It is not my story; but it is in my body, it is in my blood.

Nagyi’s sister Ann joins us, and the two of them prompt each other, speaking rapidly in Magyar. What I learn has already come out in dribs and drabs, in offhand comments over the years. That the bodies were piled so high that after a while these piles began to seem ordinary. That they stitched gold stars to their lapels and slept bone-weary and cold on cots in the “good” ghetto, and were not lined up and shot into the Danube, and were not raped, they stress, not by the Hungarians, not by the Germans, and not by the Americans, who, in their jubilation and recklessness, may have been the cruelest of all.

Papa, though, has never spoken of the war. I only have the barest outlines: a Russian labor camp; the fact that his sister died in Auschwitz, that he has never said her name. He is gentle with our dog, but gets skittish when he hears him growling; I see him cringe almost imperceptibly, a reflex that goes against everything he knows about Alex’s fierce allegiance to all members of our family. A labor camp, dogs, and the fact that there are virtually no Jews left in Kisvárda today; these are the dots I try not to connect.

***

My life out in the world is everything I want it to be, but sometimes my child self catches up to me, anxious, nauseous, wanting so badly to please. I try to ignore this sense of being doubled, being always followed by a sadness I can’t explain. If my childhood was happy, and it so very often was, then how did the sadness get in?

There is no room in the story of a richly nourished and nurtured childhood for this sadness. There is no explaining why, even as a very young child, I am sometimes paralyzed in the night by a wash of loneliness so powerful that by morning I have buried it deep within me. The child psychologists I see, usually for only three or four sessions and only every two or three years, find nothing wrong with me other than a tendency to worry and the usual signs of giftedness. I am enrolled in extension programs, my parents hoping, I think, to burn off some of this anxiety through intellectual stimulation, in the same way puppies exhaust themselves into contentedness at the dog park.

Nobody at this time mentions the concept of intergenerational trauma, much less epigenetic history. Somewhere in California, Mike’s father is working on the supercomputer that will finally map the genome. DNA is an exciting new frontier, but its applications are still thought of as physical, not psychological. It is only as an adult that I encounter the idea of histones — those protective, elegant proteins cushioning the gene — and the research that demonstrates methylation and histone modification altering the behavior and memory of laboratory mice.

There is a famous experiment involving mice that were trained to fear the scent of acetophenone, a compound associated with the smell of cherries, by being given electric shocks. Their pups and even their grandpups were introduced to this smell after they were born, and showed a marked trauma reaction, having never experienced an electric shock or smelled or seen a cherry. I think about this a lot.

In human behavioral studies, the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors — the largest study population easily available to Western researchers — have been found to be demonstrably more resilient or, on the contrary, more vulnerable to stress than others. There is “a chemical coating upon [our] chromosomes, which would represent a kind of biological memory of what the parents experienced,”1 one researcher writes, and I wonder again at this doubling: What makes some become more resilient, some less?

I do not tell any of my child psychologists about the fact that I see ghosts; they disappear in the daytime, and I feel foolish for having believed in them. But sometimes late at night, in the space between waking and sleeping, I am seized with fear, terrified to move my arms or legs; my skin becomes hot, my heart beats erratically, and I become hypervigilant, because I am sure that I can feel a cool breeze on my face, or a presence in the room. It is not sleep paralysis, which I learn about later, because I can move my limbs, I am simply too scared to, and my mouth tastes like bitter almonds as the fear slowly ebbs away.

In my late teens, there are days when I can barely leave the house for thinking about the world; days when I stand paralyzed in the kitchen doorway for half an hour, unable to eat because the choice between toast and muesli is fraught, and something catastrophic will happen if I’m wrong. I no longer open the mail and the electricity to our sharehouse is cut off; the ghosts have become internalized now, they are dybbukim. I can no longer see them, but they still have the terrifying ability to grab me, without warning, and hold me in stasis.

I am 18, 19, 20, and I have still not learned to drive. My grandmother learned at the age of 46, I tell myself, there is no rush, I have plenty of time. On my long legs, I stalk vast swaths of the inner north, trying to exhaust myself on the nights I cannot sleep. The truth is I am petrified of getting behind the wheel; of the strength and power of a ton of metal beneath the touch of my hands and feet, of the compulsion I can feel when I’m only imagining driving to swing the wheel, drive too fast, cause a crash deliberately. I am not safe and I can’t feel safe. And so the soles of my feet get worn and tough, pacing and mapping the suburbs under dim electric lights.

***

To my grandfather, education is a priority above nearly everything else. Part of it, I am sure, comes from the fact that, due to his family’s poverty, he never got to pursue a higher education. Part of the thirst for knowledge undoubtedly comes, too, from the Jewish requirement to study and learn from the Torah; from the long, five-thousand-year-rich Jewish oral-history tradition that kept the faith alive under multiple occupancies, Europe and Africa over.

Knowledge, for the Jew, is spiritual; hunger for knowledge is spiritual. This is as close to any religious tenet that I absolutely believe.

But there is knowledge and there is knowledge. It is true that some things seem permanently etched somewhere inside me, often forgotten for years and then retrieved out of nowhere: the sound of Nina Simone singing “Break Down and Let It All Out”; the fairy tales I absently tell Owen; my father’s shoelaces, looping around each other as Olivia stealthily ties them together at his feet. He is sitting in his spot on the old brown leather couch, its arm worn thin over a deadly wooden block that is ready to catch you on the side of the hip as you fling yourself into the chair. The footy is on and Dad is reading a newspaper—he claims he can read and watch at the same time. At his right is a glass of scotch and an opaque white plastic Tupperware container, a cylinder that is labeled with the word ALMONDS in text that is wearing faint. Olivia ties his shoelaces together and then sneaks off, holding her mirth in, as one of us other girls flops across Dad’s shoulder and reaches for the remote.

I can remember this; it is vivid and clear as day, but my brain is already busy working, dismantling the memory, peopling it with alternating sisters or changing out clothes. Is it the mustard or the red-and-blue-striped jumper he is wearing? Is Alex, our beautiful big schnauzer, flopped at his feet? And what is it he’s shouting at the television? It is probably a variant of “Round the neck!” or “Come on, umpire!” or “That’s gotta be 50!” — phrases of pure ocker that slip out from time to time from a place of deep assimilation.

It always makes me laugh to hear them, though I know he has earned the right to call the umpire a bloody white maggot. When he stands around the barbecue with my mother’s brothers-in-law and says things like “Strewth!” and “Kenoath!” I know he is hamming it up, but it is also a proof of something: an affection and warmth that broaches difference; a shibboleth of belonging.

I do not want to take these things away from him. I can feel my mind always picking away at something, unbuilding and reconstructing it. It is the only way I know. Knowledge for me does not mean facts, and a thing is never done and dusted, and constantly questioning is exhausting, but I cannot turn my mind off. I am as tiny as a quark or an atom; if something appears to be solid, I still slip right through it, and it is hard to settle comfortably into ever staying in one place.

***

It doesn’t escape my attention that everyone in Monkey Grip is white, or that at the parties I go to, few people didn’t go to private school. We may have pissed off away from the values of our parents, but we are still, inescapably, products of our environments.

I settle down to write my thesis and try to come to grips with some of it, the morass of existence, searching the work of four poets for some link between the violence in their work, the fractures of their language, and their attitude to the land for some clue that will prove illuminating, and settle some of my anxieties. I am trying to resolve the settler-colonial problem, by myself, in a poetry thesis that no one will read. The poets I examine are settler-colonial or migrant; including Indigenous poetries will blow out my word limit by three or four times, but I still loathe myself for this exclusion.

When I visit my parents’ house my dad and I resume our conversations, which over the years have become arguments, pitched battles, as I move away from his particular worldview. In moments of quiet, we are still each other’s best friends. Walking together, sitting and reading, there is a current owing between us that comes of a mutual love and understanding of who we are aside from our thoughts.

But neither of us is the kind to bite their tongue, and the arguments, left off, will always be resumed. He thinks I am a Pinko-Commie-Greenie bleeding heart, and I say of course I am, that that is the heart’s function, to pump blood, to power the whole machine through its bleeding. He baits me persistently, and my sisters sink into their chairs as we begin, quietly at first and then with raised voices, to go over and over ground that neither of us will cede.

What infuriates me the most about these debates is that I can never seem to win. My father, with his scientist’s ability to learn by rote, has a vast storehouse of facts that sound extremely dubious but that I can’t refute with analysis, which is my strongest tool; his reach is vast, there are statistics to back up everything. I still cannot memorize a phone number, or quickly add up a bill. I get lost amid a wash of numbers I am sure are being construed wrongly, and cannot seem to right them.

I know, intellectually, that it is better to be stymied at every turn by someone you love and respect than by someone you loathe and fear. There is never any nastiness in these arguments, but still they get beneath my skin.

“Look,” my dad says, “there have always been fluctuations in climate. Look at the Ice Age. When you say ‘the hottest June’ on record, yeah, well, we’ve only been keeping records for a hundred years! It’s hubris to believe that humans can change the climate.”

“Jesus! It’s hubris to believe we haven’t!”

When I get to the point of hollering, my mum steps in. This isn’t rhetorical, I think wildly, this is really happening. I cannot stop thinking about the melting ice caps, or a teenager standing in line in the hot sun on Nauru, waiting for hours for a single tampon while the blood trickles down her leg. My grandparents walking through a field to get to the border, bribing a Russian guard in the dead of night.

One of my father’s mantras is “There are no new jokes, just new audiences.” Another is “Never spoil a good story with the truth.” The two of them, together, seem to form an unassailable fortress. Another favorite saying, when we were children, and blocking the television: “Honey, you’re a pain, but not a pane of glass.” Sometimes at dinner, I do feel like a pane of glass. The things that are so self-evident to me, the things I fight for, believe to be compellingly true, fade away to hazy transparency at his unwillingness to budge.

***

It is not just the climate, it is not just asylum seekers, it is not just gay marriage — for which Dad deploys reasoned arguments based on respecting the official process by which he himself came as a refugee, and for further entrenching a division of church and state. I can hurl ideology at my father as much as I want, but it won’t sway him over, and I cannot resolve the party lines that are drawn within my body, through the fact of my being.

It is the whiteness, precarious and volatile. It is the Jewishness, to which I am officially denied a claim but with which I identify so strongly, in memory and in blood. It is the fact of my dad having married out, having never taught me Magyar, though I pestered him to as a child. It is the fact of an assimilation so rapid and successful that within a generation, for the most part, we have forgotten that Ashkenazi Jews ever were anything but white. In America and Australia and Britain, we have left behind the fact of being “ethnic,” blending so successfully with the general population that we are no more noticeable than flies.

I read about William Cooper in one of Gary Foley’s papers,2 a historical figure I had never heard of before; a Yorta Yorta man who saw Europe’s Jews as kindred:

In November 1938, throughout Germany a major Nazi pogrom was conducted against the Jewish community. This notorious event was dubbed kristallnacht and signalled a dramatic upsurge of violence […] Less than one month later, on December 6th 1938, on the other side of the world, a Victorian Aboriginal man, William Cooper, led a deputation of Kooris from the Australian Aborigines League, in a visit to the German Consulate in Melbourne where they attempted to present a resolution “condemning the persecution of Jews and Christians in Germany.” The Consul-General, Dr. R.W. Drechsler, refused them admittance.

Like the Jews, Indigenous Australians were rounded up, incarcerated, subjected to eugenic experimentation — though the latter came, for Indigenous people, not at the hands of a single demonic figure like Mengele, but through a state-sponsored program of child removal designed to rescue the light-skinned and breed out the rest.

In the way in which you learn about something for the first time, only to have it arise again almost immediately, I hear through a Jewish friend about a playwright, Elise Hearst, who is writing about this incident. It is being co-authored by one of Cooper’s descendants, Andrea James, and swiftly turns from a period piece to a metafiction; the threads are so entangled between James and Hearst, and the relationship so complex, that the two women wind up onstage as actors, re-enacting the fraught lines between them; their bloodlines, the history of their ancestors, the stories they carry in their skin.

When the play is staged, I cannot make it, but I listen to excerpts on the radio thirstily. I have never heard anything like this before, and yet it seems deeply familiar, as though dredged out of my body and my brain. It is comic, it can’t help being comic, as when Andrea, lightly fictionalized, confronts Elise about the fact that a white actor is playing a Tamil ancestor:

ANDREA: First all you white people nearly exterminate us, then when there are virtually no roles left for black people on stage and TV, you want to take our roles, too!

ELISE: I’m not a white person!

ANDREA: Aren’t you?

ELISE: No! I’m Jewish, I didn’t do that stuff to your people. In fact I empathize with your suffering. Didn’t you see me in that last scene getting hurled into a garage, beaten and degraded?3

I’m not a white person. Aren’t you? In Hungary, where István the First declared that to become Catholic was to become part of Europe, and where Jews and pagans were ostracized, uncoupled from national identity by their refusal to convert, we weren’t white; in the beginning decades of the 20th century, where race and ethnicity were entangled in a hundred different ways, we weren’t white. Under Hitler’s fictitious and cynical categorizations of the Jews as a race, bound by eugenic claims that would be “substantiated” in horror, we weren’t Aryan, we weren’t citizens, we weren’t white.

But when the boat carrying my grandparents and my father crossed the equator, and the hemispheres shifted beneath the waves, a transmutation took place, one that rippled like a tide from the banks of Australia’s shores and back toward them again: “not-white” became, in policy and thought, a less pressing category than “not-black.” In this way, we took our assimilation from visible contrast to a much, much darker race, one that did not yet have full recognition under the law, as European émigrés immediately were granted. To be European became geographic, not ideological; almost as soon as we stepped upon the shores, we became cosmopolitan and the persecution ceased.

If white guilt, as Eula Biss writes,4 stems from the same root as white debt, then the debt I think about is not the small one: the debt we owe William Cooper for extending us the recognition of our humanity, when he himself was denied it by government, was not even let into the building to present his petition, in fact. What I think about is the far, far greater indebtedness we bear, as Ashkenazis, to all of those with black and brown and Asian skins. Because whether we think of ourselves as white or not, and whether or not we desire the privileges and protections of that whiteness, we could only have obtained its protections while the nation’s punitive racial agenda was bearing down elsewhere.

The small debt, to an extent, has been repaid. There is a history of Jewish involvement in the fight for Indigenous rights of which we can justly be proud. But I inch when I think of the thousands of years for which the Jews existed successfully as a diaspora, and the ease by which that diaspora has displaced others in order to survive, not heeding, or deliberately repressing, the damage. To open our schmatte factories and to educate our children, to live safely without fear of persecution, we have taken land that is not ours to take, broken spiritual ties, severed connections to country that can never be restored.

And whether or not it was done in innocence, it makes me burn with shame. I carry that shame in my body, next to my father’s stroppy agnosticism and my grandmother’s survivor’s guilt. I feel it when I think of everything I have gained from assimilation, and everything others have lost. It is the question beneath the question, a plea for absolution. I empathize with your suffering. Didn’t you see me suffering, too?

***

That Jews are reputed to be neurotic, possibly epigenetically, that we are paranoid, that we suffer from persecution complexes, is easy to understand. We have always packed up quietly and left in the night, melting away into the darkness before the bread has had a chance to rise.

Buts the paranoia cuts both ways. Because of our rapid assimilation, because of our ability to mimic and impersonate — the Jews in Hollywood, the Jews in comedy — we could be anyone, anywhere. At the root of countless conspiracy theories we are there, secretly, controlling the media or America or the banks. Like a potato creeper taken for jasmine, or a tomato mischaracterized as a vegetable when really it is a fruit; to be Jewish is to be a simulacrum, so near to the thing itself that you are indistinguishable until somebody looks too close.

After Owen is born, and as I sink swiftly into depression, and am no longer fooling anybody, I walk all over Footscray, pushing the baby and narrating my steps, as suggested by the hospital psychologist; it is supposed to ground you to say the things you are doing at the moment that you are doing them, to narrow your scope to the immediacy of voice and breath. What I think about instead is the land as it must have been just a whisper ago, before the boat carrying my father arrived, before the boat carrying my mother’s ancestors arrived. I wonder what songlines I am tracing as I walk around the river, comforting myself with the fact that I am not fit to carry them anyway, and envy the pakeha women at the park, white New Zealanders, for their casual naming of things to their children: paihamu, rakiraki, kikorangi.

I pace the river alone in part because I have no mothers’ group. When Owen is born, I attend fortnightly health checks with the maternal and child health nurse, making sure that he is okay, although increasingly she turns her attention toward me, using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), a set of screening questions that gives a rudimentary idea of whether a patient is suffering or not.

The nurse apologizes for the fact that there is no mothers’ group currently available, though I have no actual desire to attend one.

“Usually we would be able to put you in touch with some new mums in your suburb,” she says, “but there haven’t been that many Caucasian women giving birth lately . . .”

And seeing my bewildered look: “The Ethiopian women usually organize theirs at church. And the Vietnamese and Chinese women have their own support systems in place.”

These closed systems segregate us into small parcels — mothers and babies coping with fundamentally similar circumstances in sometimes radically different ways. I wonder about these other mothers as I see them walking toward me in the park, most often with their babies covered by screens or light blankets draped over the front of their prams. The Vietnamese mothers in particular seem paranoid about the sun, barely letting it fall on their babies’ skin. I get told off by an old man outside the market for taking Owen for a five-minute walk to the pharmacy in full view of the sky.

Are these women like me, are they swiftly sinking, too? I do not ask and I do not have the language to ask; in my plummeting state I cannot seem to get my voice to reach beyond the surface of my skin.

***

When I later try to figure it out, there is no clear answer to be found. Cross-cultural studies on the subject are only just coming into being, qualitative research admitted into the study of women’s experiences after years of being considered “fringe.” Anthropological findings from the early ’80s seemed to determine that postpartum mental illness is a Western issue only; that the postpartum rituals of other countries, built around succoring and honoring the mother and newborn child, successfully inured them from disease. But more recent studies suggest that these results came from the fact that non-Western women don’t often conceptualize postpartum sadness and fear as being medical rather than cultural.

The EPDS questionnaire I fill in at the maternal and child health nurse’s office seems so far to be the best study tool cross-culturally, with its ten weighted questions of behavior and mood:

I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things:

  • As much as I always could
  • Not quite as much now
  • Definitely not so much now
  • Not at all

            I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong; I have felt scared or panicky for no good reason; I have been so unhappy I have had trouble sleeping.

When the questionnaire is translated into other languages, the responses across study populations are remarkably stable; conservatively, at least one woman in ten scores highly enough on this questionnaire to be considered seriously depressed cross-culturally, with the figure rising to about one in seven when self-reporting is conducted in Western nations. I think about all the women I see walking around Footscray, and the women who would have been forcibly removed from this land once, and their descendants, and wonder how they are coping and whether there is a language for their suffering.

I read Dana Jack, on the self-silencing behavior that comes with severe depression. To the nexus of selfhood and social pressure, she brings the brunt of feminist thought to bear:

Self-silencing is prescribed by norms, values, and images dictating what women are “supposed” to be like: pleasing, unselfish, loving. As I listened to the inner dialogues of depressed women, I heard self-monitoring and negative self- evaluation in arguments between the “I” (a voice of the self) and the “Over-Eye” (the cultural, moralistic voice that condemns the self for departing from culturally prescribed “shoulds”). The imperatives of the Over-Eye regarding women’s goodness are strengthened by the social reality of women’s subordination . . . Inwardly, they experienced anger and confusion while outwardly presenting a pleasing, compliant self trying to live up to cultural standards of a good woman in the midst of fraying relationships, violence, and lives that were falling apart.5

In the time that I am sick, nobody tells me that I am a bad mother. Nobody tells me that my history of depression means that I should never have risked having a child, though I overhear friends talking about the fact that they don’t want their children inheriting their genes, their own illnesses, and I wonder what it says about me that I took this risk so blithely.

I am lucky, if wanting to die is lucky, that my illness is culturally sanctioned by the Over-Eye; it is not just that I am culturally, acceptedly neurotic, but that my face is the face of the suffering women’s canon. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Winona Ryder in Girl Interrupted: the tragic and creative white woman is such a well-known figure that our fragility and need for protection is automatically assumed — I know walking out over a ledge that there will most likely be somebody there to catch me.

I know this isn’t the case for everybody, and I know how few resources there are out there. I know that others need this help as much or more, but I have long ago lost the ability to feel shame about my choices. I have my white skin, my eyes that are green from crying, my polished middle-class vocabulary, and my nice home and healthy white child. My whiteness is a tool in my arsenal and I use it for all that it is worth, because it is one of the things that gets me sympathy and attention, and, ultimately, the means to stay alive.

At the same time, I can’t stop thinking about these other women, the ones who don’t have recourse to benign stereotypes, only harmful ones, who are supposed to be better at suffering, or more accustomed to it, anyway. There are women for whom the Over-Eye is judgmental and pervasive, the result of political, physical, and social marginalization that is very present and very real; women who are rightly wary of doctors, whose families expect their constant strength or whose priests simply ask them for more faith in God. And I wonder how they cope and how their children cope.

When I think of these women, I do not wish to speak for them, or over them. I do not wish to speak on behalf of these women, whose communities close ranks around them protectively, who wander by the river with their heads full of clouds or dreams. It is just that the problem goes so far, it spreads so wide. And I feel that at least part of my life’s work is to bear witness.

***

If I try to unravel what became of my Judaism, I can follow the threads back to adolescence, the time when my parents steer me away from it the most.

“We wanted to keep you away from the poetry of it,” my mother says years later, though I can’t remember in what context. For what she and my father intend, it is smart. We always have a Christmas tree and a menorah, an Easter and Seder, and they tell us tolerantly that we can choose what we want to be when we grow up. But all along there is the Father Christmas problem. If you grow up believing in God and are never disabused, that is one thing; but how can you choose to believe if He has never been in your heart?

My Jewish psychiatrist nearly falls out of his chair laughing when I ask him about this. “You don’t have to believe in God!” he says. “Of course you can be a secular Jew.”

I am in my late 20s, and it is almost the very first time I have heard the term. With all of my busy analyzing and unpicking and deconstructing, it has still never occurred to me that some of the things I learned before I knew what they meant were wrong.

Mostly I long for the consolation of a foundational good act. A bar or bat mitzvah is essentially this — an agreement with the community and God to obey law, which is knowledge, and to be responsible for your actions; to perform mitzvoth — good deeds — in order to enrich the community and prepare the world for a more holy day. It is also your responsibility to atone, on Yom Kippur; without a dedicated day of atonement I find I get wrapped up in grieving, with a sense of furious helplessness, the things my white skin and good education and enough money represent.

There is no such thing as “good enough,” I suspect, because “good enough” is a state of grace. I don’t know if I will ever stop feeling as though I am a double agent. That is the privilege of passing; it makes you invisible. In Australia, far from the rest of the world, it can feel like an academic argument, but I look at the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Poland, and the voters who rally behind American presidential candidates with white supremacist slogans and tattoos,6 and know that I might not be able to hide in plain sight forever. And I wonder whether the fact that I can and that I do makes me cowardly, or craven, or just pragmatic, and tired of arguing.

***

Today is Rosh Hashanah, and I think of my grandfather, lightly, as I walk through the blossoming backstreets. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, marks the day Papa died, after a long slow week in which we all gathered around him. Today, front yards are over owing with bloom, little buds trusting that the thin warmth of early September sunshine will strengthen and nourish their transition into flowers.

I have trouble remembering the actual date of Papa’s death; the Jewish holidays oat, they are not stable signifiers. I try to learn the turn of the year by the natural world. Here in Kulin country, Melbourne, the year hinges on the turn of the seven seasons, and the two overlapping seasons of food and fire. Iuk (eel); Waring (wombat); Guling (orchid); Poorneet (tadpole); Buath Gurru (grass-flowering season); kangaroo apple; Biderap (dry season).7 There are life cycles that are closely observed, times of scarcity and of abundance. It seems infinitely more sensible than our imported calendar year, with its public holidays for Christmas and Easter, horse races and football matches.

The law says that any branch overhanging a boundary is a common good; it is the rule of summer harvests in the inner suburbs. For years, Mike thought that I was brazenly stealing lemons and pomegranates from our neighbors, not understanding how the system worked. Now I gather armfuls of the natives that have presaged the blossoms in their confidence. I take a sprig here, a sprig there. By the time I arrive home, my arms are over owing with wax and prickly wattle.

Before my grandparents bought their house, its land had been part of a large, sprawling orchard. Deep root systems connected the earth between their backyard and the neighboring yeshiva. Now my mother is making over the garden in rambling color, overwriting its history, once again, with olive trees, a fig, kitchen herbs, and a jacaranda.

Those growths and overgrowths are a wind blowing a few fragments of sand across the surface of a rock, nothing more. In the long view of history, I know that I am an ant, and this thought is oddly comforting. But of course, it’s just a theory that time travels in one direction, or “travels” at all. It’s funny how linked the language of the passage of time is with the idea of heading elsewhere, journeying, meandering — how shot through with the logics of motion.

I find, too, that to write about walking is to come across all kinds of metaphors involving feet and shoes. A lot of them are to do with independence: to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps, for example, or to stand on your own two feet. Others have to do with empathy: to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or walk a mile in them. But the one I keep coming back to embodies the ambiguity and ambivalence of my own position, with its undertones of split allegiance. It is that I have a foot in both camps.

When I open my computer after getting home, I find an op-ed an American rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, has written for The Washington Post, adapted from his Rosh Hashanah sermon. In it, he calls on Jews to abandon their whiteness, having gained everything from it, in order to be representative of a God invested in equality and tolerance. I am struck not just by the extreme clarity of the message, but by his positioning of the feeling of living in an existential border territory as being innate to the work of being a Jew:

Through the centuries, our moments of power have been all too fleeting. Mostly, our hope has been to be tolerated. From our place at the periphery, we have responded always with the ability to critique injustice, to adopt the cause of the oppressed, to envision a better and more just world. Even in times when we participated fully in non-Jewish societies, we always knew that we stood with one foot in the mainstream, and one foot outside.8

It is idealistic, but it is the kind of idealism I clutch on to, in order to keep myself and my treacherous body in check. As I get older, I think sometimes about finding a Progressive congregation, perhaps with a radical feminist rabbi, someone to talk to about this feeling of always encompassing division of some kind. I want my son to grow up feeling Jewish, whatever that is; but not the unwavering Orthodoxy of my grandfather, nor Dad’s symmetrical intolerance of its excesses.

I want Owen to grow up with a sense of being something other than male and white, not just for political reasons but because there is something else, innate to me, that I still struggle to express. I want him to sit at a Seder table waiting nervously to stumble his Hebrew and ask the four questions, and to learn that our bread is flat because, fleeing as slaves, there was no time for it to rise; that we eat bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery; that we dip our food in salt water, then honey, to symbolize the replacement of our tears with gratitude for the sweetness of our freedom; that we recline on our cushions because we can do so — we are free.

Because Dad is so contrary, he has named himself as a grandfather not Papa, but Opa. “A German name!” says my grandmother in disgust. “It’s what Greeks say as they smash their plates,” he tells her in response. Occasionally we still take walks together, him pushing Owen along briskly to set the pace. Our conversations are more mellow now that I have a child, and now that he has seen me go to a place of sheer helplessness, where I am not equipped with stinging barbs or witty replies. There are still small barbs — things don’t change entirely — but they are little barbs of love that bind me to his side.

On the days I work, I take Owen to my parents’ place, and he and my mum romp and play, and often visit Nagyi in her small flat. After her own fall, she moved out of the house, which my parents are renovating so that she can return when the day comes, with a chair to take her up and down the stairs. Owen learns to walk more or less in the corridors of Sheridan Hall, leaning on Nagyi’s Zimmer frame for support as he stumbles over his feet.

Mum sends me proof-of-life photos during the day. When Dad gets home he sits in his customary place on the couch, and Owen wiggles up beside him. From time to time I receive a photo of them sitting side by side, Dad eating his almonds and reading the paper, Owen “reading” a book of his own. In the background, I know, at a low hum, the footy is on. Owen snuggles into Dad, into the softness of one of his old, ratty jumpers, and I know exactly what scent he will be breathing in, as I know the scent of my son’s milky head. It is the same jumper Dad used to wear in the mornings at least 25 years ago. It is more or less disintegrating into threads now, but no one can convince him to throw it out.

* * *

From The Things That Helped: On Postpartum Depression by Jessica Friedmann, published by FSG Originals on April 10, 2018.  © 2018 by Jessica Friedmann. All rights reserved.

A longer version of this essay appears in Friedmann’s collection, under the title “Walking.”

***

[1] Kellerman NP. “Epigenetic Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: Can Nightmares be Inherited?” Israeli Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences 2013, 50(1):33–9.

[2] Foley, Gary. “Australia and the Holocaust: a Koori Perspective.” The Power of Whiteness and Other Essays. Aboriginal Studies Occasional Paper (1). Melbourne: Centre for Indigenous Education, University of Melbourne, 1999.

[3RN Books and Arts. “New Play explores Aboriginal and Jewish Experience.” Segment presented by Michael Cath- cart, May 11, 2016.

[4] Biss, Eula. “White Debt: Reckoning What Is Owed — and Can Never be Repaid — for Racial Privilege.” New York Times Magazine, December 2, 2015.

[5] Jack, Dana Crowley, and Ali, Alishia (eds). Silencing the Self Across Cultures: Depression and Gender in the Social World. London: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[6] The Australian edition of this book went to print around the time of Trump’s inauguration; I am looking at these words, six months later, in order to make revisions for an American readership, and reading at the same time in the news about synagogue services in Texas that have gone underground for fear of neo-Nazi attack. In fact, we do not say “neo-Nazi” anymore; the armies of Trump-styled white men who have assembled in the streets of Charlottesville are named as Nazis, nothing less. It is Rosh Hashanah today, and I am trying to navigate a world in which White Supremacists chant “Jews will not replace us!” as they attempt to beat the shit out of black bodies in full daylight, aware that there will be no consequences.

While the anti-Semitic rhetoric and hatred has come out of hiding, and while it is almost a relief to put an end to the gaslighting, the feeling of paranoia, it is still overwhelmingly black bodies that are most directly affected by physical and structural violence, even when it is our name that is being invoked. The situation for non-Ashkenazi Jews, black Jews, and the Mizrahi and people of color must be almost unbearable. I don’t want to see what the next month brings, let alone the New Year — but I have baked an apple cake anyway, and let my son lick the spoon — and hope that all of us can have a moment of peace, of rest, before the onslaught begins again. L’shanah tova to anyone reading this endnote, and may the work of our next year be an attempt to disentangle ourselves from a hierarchy that offers us only conditional acceptance, and to throw ourselves into a social justice in which black lives matter.

[7] I learned of these cycles as an adult, and immediately wondered why I hadn’t known about them as a child. Owen will have better knowledge, though: the Bureau of Meteorology has been incorporating Indigenous Weather Knowledge into its forecasts since 2002, and now gives information on a dozen weather systems around the country.

[8] Steinlauf, Gil. “Jews in America Struggled for Decades to Become White. Now We Must Give Up Whiteness to Fight Racism.” The Washington Post, September 22, 2015.