“the boy i didn’t kiss was wearing olive green and had dusty boots, and a gun across his lap. he was eating a popsicle.
i could smell it as it dripped on the ground – grape. It smelled like summer and picnics and ants.
we ate sunflower seeds
“you have one in your teeth,” he told me.
(i blushed a lot back then – i still do when i’m lucky.)
his english was better than my hebrew, but we mostly talked in smiles, and lowered eyes.
i was shy back then.
i still am, sometimes.
“if you want and you give me your address maybe i can write to you sometime,” he said.
this was back then – when you had to really think about getting paper and a pen, an envelope and a stamp.
before whatsapp and emojis and selfies and sexting.
he would send me paper flowers. that was his thing. he drew them in the margins of the letters. and paper flowers last forever – i still have them somewhere in storage. they don’t need light.
i would write all in lower-case because that was my thing.
and back home around the sabbath table, my grampa would ask “have you heard from your soldier.”
he loved that there was this boy – a soldier! a defender of israel! writing to me. and one day i wrote to him – the soldier! defender of israel! – and asked in purple ink “would you write to my grandpa, too?”
and he did.
my grampa loved that letter from a boy in olive green who defended israel, who made it possible for his granddaughter to walk the streets with a big old jewish star necklace, a luxury he had never known even in chicago, he was afraid. even in la — my grampa the jew never wore a yarmulke.
‘there are people who will always hate us,” he said. “pass the pepper.” and he’d layer his chicken soup with it until all of us around the table would sneeze.
that was his judaism.
“yours is israel,” he said. “make it good.”
the letter is long gone – when we leave our notes in the western wall, and when they fall, someone comes and picks them up and they are buried in a cemetery, on holy ground. this letter was no less sacred to my grampa – but it’s gone. if my grampa had been buried, perhaps the letter, too, buried with him.
he was cremated. and the the letter is gone.
theres no one here who knew my grampa – the man with the gleam in his eye, who knew all the prayers and insisted on them, but believed only in strength and chicken soup and klezmer music and poker nights with the boys and dirty jokes in yiddish.
and that makes me sad because my grampa is my judaism. reppin the shtetl and west rogers park, and the clarinet and black pepper. that my grampa and that’s also me.
and then because life is long, i get a message here: “do you remember me? we used to write to each other when i was in the army. are you living here? how’s your grampa?”
i remember. the boy i never kissed. the popsicle and the sunflower seeds, and that first seed of knowing that this is where i want to be – inspired by that longing, and what my grampa said about my connection to my people: “yours is in israel — make it good.”
and for the first time, these worlds entwine in real time – my shtetl, and my israel, like the roots of two flowers growing just outside my door, in everything i am, and way beyond the margins.