A Way Back Home
By Keith Bloomfield
Though it was well after midnight, the sounds from the street continued to waft up between the buildings and seep through the walls into Luis' apartment. He had learned to tune-out the growl of the diesels, the squeal of air brakes and the frustrated honking of horns from vehicles so many floors below him. With little else except work to occupy his time, at night, he would lose himself in the virtual world on the computer screen in front of him.
Notes from foreign-born women anxious to make him their beau and the barristers and bank executives willing to share unclaimed millions with him was a constant amusement. They all ended in the trash. In fact, most of his email had no relevance to him and a mouse click sent them into oblivion.
That night, a heading caught his attention. "EVERYONE HAS A HISTORY," began the message in large blue letters. "Begin searching your family tree now!"
"Maybe its time for me to find out who I really am," he pondered, sipping on a cup of tea, made just as his aunt had taught him when he was a child. She liked it very strong, with a little sugar and just enough milk to turn it a creamy auburn.
Luis' family history was less of a tree and more of a stunted bush. A nice woman whom he called Tante Rae raised him after his parents had died. He was too young to remember very much. He knew that he had been born in a little village in the mountains of Argentina, before his parents had brought him to the United States. They had saved for his education and with hard-driven perseverance; he had transformed a boyhood penchant for numbers into a lucrative career in finance.
He soon discovered that the more successful he became professionally, the more isolated he became from the things that he felt mattered. He was always far too busy for friends or family. He knew that he was different from every other Fernandez in his neighborhood. Luis would stare at his reflection in the mirror. Glaring back at him was a less than complete individual. It was like a jigsaw puzzle whose image was easy to discern, despite missing several of the most essential pieces. This feeling of incompleteness gnawed at Luis from deep within his soul.
He never went to church or celebrated the same holidays as his childhood friends. The foods Tante Rae had prepared at home filled the hallways of his building with delicious aromas, so alien to his neighbors. He would frequently return from school to find women in the kitchen sampling the contents of some large pot that had been simmering on the stove since early morning. Each of them licking their spoon and nodding with approval at his Tante.
He savored the memories of how she would push the tables together to form one long expanse on which neighbors would converge to eat and sing from books that were filled with colored etchings of people from long ago.
He remembered long dark winter nights when Tante Rae had brought out her beautiful candelabro el plata. Each night, she added another slender candle to the candelabro and he watched the glow of the flames dance across the ceiling and walls while he played with the peonza his father had carved from a block of wood and painted in bright colors. He never knew what was written on each of its four sides.
Friday nights were always very special in Tante Rae's home. They would eat sparingly during the week, but Friday night was a feast. There were candles on the table and a special lace tablecloth. Tante Rae baked her wonderful round bread. She would let him slice the loaf, while she guided his hand on the sharp knife and he repeated after her words that he never understood. Then they would bite through the shiny brown crust and into the soft yellow bread. Luis has never tasted anything like it since her death, just weeks after he graduated from college.
At the bottom of his hall closet, Luis kept an old box crammed full of photographs of strange faces, stranger locales, and all of the letters and documents found in his parents' apartment. After their death, everything was transferred to Tante Rae's home for continued safekeeping. He had always meant to go through them. In light of the email, this would be a perfect time to start. He began dividing the contents of the box into separate piles. The harder he worked the more encouraged and troubled he became. He spent hours on the Internet and in the library looking for confirmation of the clues he had pieced together from the contents of the box.
Using the name of his tiny village in Argentina, he discovered a name and a phone number not far from where he lived. His hand trembled as he dialed the number and his voice quavered as he explained the reason for his call to the man who answered.
"And you have the box and its contents?" asked the man on the other end of the phone line. His accent was strangely familiar, like something Luis had heard in a dream.
"Yes," replied Luis.
"Then we need to meet!" Luis arranged to meet with him the following Sunday morning.
It was a bright, crisp November morning as Luis climbed up the stairs from the subway, balancing the photo and document filled box under his arm. He checked his bearings and walked two blocks west. The large brass numerals on the door confirmed that he had reached his destination. "How can this be?" thought Luis. "This is a Jewish temple!" Luis knew many Jews from business, but he had never been in one of their temples. Maybe the man on the phone had played a cruel trick on him. He decided that he would enter the building and try to find him.
He asked the first person that he saw and was brought to a tiny room crowded floor to ceiling with rickety metal shelves, groaning under the weight of books of all sizes and colors. Luis was directed to a man seated at a table strewn with more volumes. He approached the table and found an open area on which to lay down his burden. The man did not look up until Luis called his name. "Mr. Goldberg, we have an appointment."
Mr. Goldberg slowly stood to greet his guest. His hand shook with age, though his greeting was warm and firm. "Señor, I probably know more about you than you know about yourself. And once we look at the treasures in that box, I will wake you from a dream that you did not know you were having."
Luis was taken aback by Mr. Goldberg's cryptic greeting, but he helped him empty the box on the already cluttered table. He watched as Mr. Goldberg searched through every photograph and piece of paper, arranging them in some order known only to him, as he jotted down notes on a pad of yellow paper. The old man's eyes glazed when he looked at some of the pictures, as though he was a part of them, or as he studied an aged and stained document written in a language that was foreign to Luis.
Mr. Goldberg suddenly leaned back in his chair, removed his eyeglasses, folded them, and slid them into his shirt pocket. "I think that better introductions are now in order. I am Avram Goldberg," he said, tapping his chest with both hands. He moved his hands to Luis' shoulders. "And you are Louis Feldman, a Jew, whose family once called the Ukraine their home."
"No Mr. Goldberg. My name is Luis Fernandez!"
"No Louis. It's Feldman. The woman you called Tante Rae your aunt Rachel; she lent you her name. She was Jewish as well, though she never actually practiced our religion."
Luis sat slack jawed at this stunning revelation. Unrelated chunks of memory were drawn together to form pictures that brought sudden meaning to disassociated threads that had always lurked just below his understanding.
Avram spread his hands over the neat piles he had arranged on the table. "It's all here Louis. It's in these letters and on the backs of these pictures," he said, pointing to the neat stacks on the table in front of them. "But I wouldn't have expected that you could read Yiddish." Luis shrugged; still reeling from the news the old man had just delivered. "It's the story of a family's escape from tyranny to a new home. Do you remember Moises Ville?" Luis slowly shook his head. "Moses Town, an oasis of Judaism in the mountains of Argentina. That was your home before you came to this country." Avram picked up a photograph. "Which of these men is your father?" Luis knew the photo well and pointed to his padre. He was dressed in the same strange clothing as the other men in the photograph. "Ah, your father was a gaucho a cowboy. Most likely, he herded cattle. I am sure that it was a far cry from his vocation in Europe." Avram's hands returned to Luis' shoulders. "When your parents came to this country, they worked hard to fit in. But in so doing, they hid your heritage from you. Other than disjointed memories, what do you have Louis? Nothing. Your presence here is not a coincidence. For years, you have probably sensed that there was something missing. It was something so close that you could taste and smell it, but it was just out of your reach." Luis was nodding his head as Avram described his exact sentiments. "Come back Louis. Return to the faith you never really knew. Let the faith that you have been concealing, bubble to the surface." Tears began to fill the old man's eyes. "Ask forgiveness for the life you've led; through no fault of your own. I know how you feel. I made exactly the same trip myself. I have never looked back. You are not alone mi amigo. Yours are sins of omission, not commission. There are many of us here to help you. You need to take the first step. There is nothing that you've done wrong, but there is so much that you can do right. You don't have to make a decision right now. Think about it and when you know for certain, call me."
Luis told no one about his visit to see Avram Goldberg. The following Sunday he drove to the cemetery where his Tante Rae had been buried. Luis visited her grave frequently just after her death. In recent years, his time between visits had grown longer and longer. Several of the neighbors that had sat with them at the long table each year had made the arrangements for the funeral and the stone, which had been erected after he had ceased to visit. It had been years since his last visit and her stone was nearly obscured by the two sturdy hews that stood guard astride the tall granite headstone that marked her grave. He borrowed a hedge trimmer from a grounds keeper to cut back the shrubbery.
He worked with precision to slowly cut the branches back so that her entire name could be read. There it was right in front of him. "Rachel Fernandez," read the words carved into the stone. "Beloved sister and aunt." Right below her name, in smaller letters was engraved "Tante Rae." Luis felt a tear gently roll down his cheek. He quickly wiped it away and continued trimming. As he was finishing, he noticed a design cut deep into the face of the stone high above the inscription. Once he had cleared the branches away, he knew that everything Avram had told him was true. There on his Tante's headstone for all to see, was a six-pointed star. It was the Magen David the Shield of David. A symbol so associated with Jewry that Luis recognized it immediately. Luis could see her face in front of him. As he studied the image, he remembered that she wore a tiny star on a chain around her neck. She had said it protected her from evil.
He called Avram from his car. His pent up emotions slammed into him like a wave breaking on a rocky coast. Luis had not been a willing sinner. His greatest sin was perhaps his willingness to live for so long in ignorance of himself. "You're offering me a way back home and I want to begin the trip," he said, choking back the tears.
Avram could help him to find the identity that he had always hoped for, if not the one he expected. It had always been there for the taking, but he could not read the clues. He would begin the journey of a Baal Teshuva a master of repentance. It was a trip wrought with temptation and frustration. It demanded a commitment that Luis was not certain he had.
What did Luis know? Luis knew that it was the right path for him. It would be like an expedition to a new land. Avram explained that it would be trying and lifelong. There was so much to learn and an entirely new lifestyle for him to absorb. He had been around Jews for his entire life, but he never knew that he was one too. His life under Tante Rae's roof had shown him that he was different, but he had never been able to follow the "bread crumbs" that would lead him back to his origins. It was no wonder that he always felt uncomfortable in his skin. Luis began to cry. Avram understood that they were tears of joy and belonging. There would be pressures from old friends and new acquaintances. He would never truly know when or if he had reached his destination, but Luis was ready to become Louis.
As the Baal Shem Tov may have said: "There is nothing that can stand up before repentance." His first step was the hardest, but after he took it, he never looked back!
from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine