This story is the second-place winner of the 2014 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2014 stories were judged by bestselling author Alice Hoffman. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Hoffman and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
Leib’s brother was named Michael, after Michael Faraday, creator of the balloon and author of the work The Chemical History of the Candle. Faraday was a prominent chemist and physicist during the mid-1800s, and Leib’s father—a balloonist during the week, an aspiring inventor on weekends—found Mr. Faraday’s biography and rubbery inventions encouraging in both his personal and professional life. That Leib was annoyed at his dad’s ability to quote Faraday at any moment didn’t stop his dad from muttering phrases attributed to the late creator of balloons. Artie Jablin could be found, after filling a balloon with the exact amount of helium, muttering such things as: The lecturer should give the audience full reason to believe that all his powers have been exerted for their pleasure and instruction.
Or he’d quote Faraday after receiving some bad news, like the time his dad had filled, tied and ribboned 800 pink and teal balloons for the Schiff bat mitzvah only to find that 13-year-old Naomi Schiff preferred purple and gray, and no, Mr. Abraham Schiff was NOT going to cover the cost of the pink and teal balloons: You’ll sell them to some other kid, Jablin.
Leib’s dad muttered a Faraday quote after hanging up the phone with Mr. Schiff: The important thing is to know how to take all things quietly. Leib wished his dad would have told Mr. Schiff to fuck off. But Artie Jablin simply wasn’t that type of man. He was ethical.
The pink and teal balloons had nowhere to go. Never before had such a large order been cancelled after the balloons had been filled. Leib and his dad discussed several options: pop, donate or release.
Artie just shrugged. “Do whatever you want with them, son.”
Forty-five minutes later, after managing to shove 800 pink and teal balloons into the delivery truck, Leib pulled out of their parking lot, his destination unknown. He drove around and around, the sun long since set in Youngstown, the temperature dropping, the balloons without a home. He made his way up Belmont Avenue, past the factories and smoke stacks, the industrial landscape beautiful only at night, the yellow haze of the overhead lights masking the manmade ugliness of enormous parking lots and dirty metal. He listened to music. Smoked a cigarette left by his father, an uncommitted smoker. Not addicted as much as enamored. Eventually, Leib drove to the parking lot of Temple Emet v’Emunah.
The synagogue parking lot was empty. He pulled the van into the row reserved for rabbis—three large spaces coveted by many in the community. Leib’s dad often muttered that he should have his own space given how many times he delivered balloons. Artie had been here earlier today, arranging the new color combo and tying purple strings to chairs in the social hall. Time lost on the Schiff family. Money lost.
Leib opened the back of the truck. Its accordion-style door let out a large steely fart. A neighborhood dog barked back. The balloons danced with the rush of fresh air, inching their way out toward the sky. Leib looked up and around. The mid-October moonlight illuminated tree limbs and evergreens, a clear evening that smelled of winter. He grabbed the first of many, releasing them into the air, watching them disappear into the darkest upper limits of the night sky. Several caught in the branches above the sanctuary. Leib watched as they struggled to break away, but they were far too tangled, their strings snaked and committed. Leib surveyed the back of the truck. Half remained. Not nearly as ethical as his father, Leib pulled the van onto the grass and underneath a row of old elms. Trees he learned about in Sunday school. Trees that had been there since the beginning of Youngstown. Big stately branches that the Jewish artisans, at the request of the Jewish elders, incorporated into the stained glass windows in the sanctuary.
Leib checked his watch. It was almost midnight. His mother would be worried. He climbed back into the truck and hurried the remaining balloons into the darkness, their ascent into the small elm forest bumpy and complicated, each jockeying for a spot, some pushing, others acquiescing, and in the end, nearly 800 pink and teal balloons reflected the moonlight and lit up the parking lot and the green grass and to Leib, the entire universe.
The following morning, as Leib slept soundly in his bedroom approximately ten blocks away from the scene of the crime, 13-year-old Naomi Schiff stared at the trees, watched the balloons as they bobbled in the breeze, hopeful that they would release themselves before her father noticed, hopeful that her father simply wouldn’t notice the hundreds of bright latex spheres hanging among the branches, hopeful that she wouldn’t get blamed. Because her bat mitzvah would be ruined if her dad yelled at her, and all that Naomi Schiff wanted was to have a quiet morning where everybody was on their best behavior, including her somewhat excitable, often rude, usually abrasive, generally mean-spirited father who took her musings at the dinner table last week a bit too seriously since all she really said was that she didn’t like pink and teal very much and she’d prefer a different color and when he asked what color she said somewhat non-committedly, “You know, maybe purple and gray?” because that was the color of the new Nike sneakers her best friend Louise was wearing and the colors were really pretty wonderful together.
But then, in a bit of a huff, her father got up from the table and called a man on the phone and demanded new balloons and Naomi tried to wave to her dad from the kitchen table and let him know with sign language that she really didn’t care what color the balloons were and it’s not that important that he should yell because there’s so much yelling and she’s not sure how to make it stop and now she was sure that she was going to be yelled at again so she ran to the elm trees and jumped her highest to grab a few strings but she wasn’t very tall this Naomi Schiff and in the meantime her new black shoes got covered with dirt and the parking lot had started to fill and there really wasn’t anything to do except pray that the man on the phone who changed the order was a nice man and that he wouldn’t really have done such a thing to make her father so mad. But she knew better.
One day in school a kid told her that everybody hated her father and there’s no bigger burden to bear than the hatred of your own parents by other people and it was the first time she understood the phrase that she had heard on the television recently something about THIS IS MY CROSS TO CARRY. Naomi imagined a big cross on her back and a crown of thorns on top of her head and she took that cross and that crown and scurried around the side of the synagogue to the front entrance where she visited the bathroom and wiped her shoes and grabbed her tallit bag from her school cubby and found her way to the bimah. She didn’t move again until the end of the service and by then everybody knew about the Jablin Balloon Episode and if there was ever a manhunt to have they would have strung this Jablin man up on a noose and left his eyes to the birds and his bowels to the wild boars.
When Leib heard the balloons-in-the-trees report from his friend, Aaron Seligman, a member of the Kol Zimra Cantorial Chorus who arrived early with the Schiff family to review the service outline and was therefore one of the first to witness the spectacle and also knew that Leib had to be the Jablin party responsible for releasing the balloons, Leib listened approvingly, pleased with the pandemonium that ensued, in particular, the report about Mr. Schiff shouting—at nobody in particular—to Shit Me Now and I’ll Be Fucked. Leib nodded his head. Approved of a man who would undoubtedly disagree with balloonist Michael Faraday’s assessment of the world. Mr. Schiff, it was clear, never took anything quietly.
When Leib was little, his dad would squeeze next to him on his twin bed at night and tell him stories about the earliest Aztec balloons sculpted from animal intestines, or about how light and magnetic force were essential in the creation of the helium balloon. But Leib preferred hearing about the balloon orders and the everyday tasks at the shop. “Who called today? Any black balloon orders? How much money did you make?” More often than not, Leib would steer the conversation, and in particular ask his dad to discuss the color combinations that people requested. Artie Jablin, hopeful that his son would spend his teen years driving the delivery van and eventually take over the balloon business, reported that the organizers of the 5k Walk for Pancreatic Cancer chose bright blue and yellow for the registration tables. The nurses at Whispering Pines Geriatric Facility decided that green and purple was best for Volunteer Appreciation Week. The zookeepers at the Warren Zoo and Aquarium ordered 500 sparkly pink and brown balloons to welcome twin baby baboons born to MayMay, the first baboon in captivity to give birth to multiples. Leib would listen carefully. He imagined the combinations of balloons and considered the faulty decisions of those ordering and how he would guide them differently if he was the person answering the phone, taking the orders.
When Leib got a bit older and moved into middle school, he focused on learning the more advanced names of the particular balloon colors. He moved on from pink, brown and silver to refer to balloons by orchid, seagreen, slateblue and lavenderblush. He knew the difference between palegoldenrodyellow and lightgoldenrodyellow and their respective RGB values. Intrigued by this more creative and scientific approach, Leib called balloon companies around the country and tried to order an entirely new set of balloons for Jablin’s Balloon Shop. They would offer what nobody else in all of Northeastern Ohio could offer—sophisticated balloons with rich color schemes to match any event, any décor. Exactly 44 phone calls placed, and with each, he heard similar responses: “No sir, we have no balloons by that color. No. No papaya-colored balloons. No peach either. Mandarin sorbet? What the—no, sir. Just orange.”
Leib never knew how to speak of his brother, Michael, in part because Leib wasn’t sure about the actual status of his sibling relationship (if a sibling dies before your birth, are you actually brothers?) and in part because Leib was unsure if he should speak of his brother in past or present terms (did he ever even have a brother? Or does he currently have a brother, and that brother died?). Since Leib had never met Michael, and since Michael died before Leib was born, some could argue that Leib and Michael weren’t ever really brothers. Because (in Leib’s limited understanding of brothers), to be a sibling assumes certain things: 1. That you’ve met. 2. That you’ve shared a bedroom. 3. That you’ve loved one another. And since Leib had done none of these things (at least not in real time), sometimes Leib decided that he didn’t have a brother. No siblings whatsoever. Nope—none to speak of. And since Leib had spent a good portion of his waking life trying to figure out how to speak of Michael to friends or teachers or strangers, one would assume he’d always use the correct verb tense. But the truth was, Leib had tried but could never make the words come out right.
His parents hadn’t helped clarify this confusing array of jumbled thoughts. Leib’s kindergarten registration was more about his mother’s sadness than the excitement of her boy starting school. Didi Jablin stood at the registration table and dabbed her eyes and mumbled apologies about seasonal allergies. Leib clung to her coat, his fingers wrapped tightly around the fabric. He was unable to answer the simple questions the teachers had asked.
“Can you count to ten?” the first woman asked.
Leib blinked and looked down.
“Honey, can you count to ten?” she asked again.
Didi nudged her son gently. “Answer her, sweetie.”
Leib dug his hand into his mom’s coat pocket, digging for lint and other things to examine.
“Yes, he can count to ten,” Didi finally responded for him.
“We need to hear him talk,” the school nurse responded. By now, all staff at all registration tables were watching.
Didi grabbed her son’s elbow and hissed in his ear, “Tell them you can talk.”
Leib shook his head and started to cry.
“Honey, c’mon. Crying isn’t talking. If you don’t show them you can talk, we can’t send you to school.”
Leib shook his head and curled up underneath the table. The school nurse remained patient, unlike Leib’s mom, who dragged him out first by his hair, then by his foot, digging her fingernails into his shin.
“Stop it, you’re hurting me,” Leib cried, which prompted his mother to scream at the ladies behind the table, “See, he can talk! Are you happy now?” Didi and Leib departed quickly, holding hands and crying, each dragging the other along.
Afterward, his mother spent hours on the phone. She recounted the experience over and over again. Leib sat at the kitchen table and munched popcorn and drank apple juice. Looked through a book or played with a stuffed animal. Listened to his mom as she whispered to Aunt Martha, to Uncle Benny, to her best friend Karen: “I just didn’t know what to write, how many children to circle. One? Two?”
Leib’s mom only started having children at age 42. She had birthed new mathematical calculations in her late 20s and early 30s, then focused on publications and tenure, until finally, she turned to her husband one evening in bed and told him to throw away the condoms.
Seven months later, Michael arrived prematurely. He had a host of medical complications, most of which gradually resolved themselves, while others—like poor lung development and asthma—escalated. Michael wheezed and coughed through the entirety of his short life. He refused to sit quietly or stay inside. The climate of Northeast Ohio made it worse with freezing winters followed by bright yellow pollen in the spring and high humidity in the summers. September brought leaves, and leaves brought dust and mold. Michael would race around while his mother raked piles. He attacked the leaves and tossed them into the air. Afterward, the family would spend hours in the bathroom with the ventilator. His little lungs clogged with microbes that nobody could see.
Michael slept more than average, sometimes remaining asleep for 14 hours at a time, but this was normal, the doctors had said, for children with severe asthma and lung malfunctions.
When Michael climbed into their bed one October evening, at three years and six months of age, Artie and Didi of course made space for him, but were mildly surprised by his presence, since he rarely joined them in bed, his own nocturnal habits like those of a thick bear deep in a cave. He hibernated every night as if his lair were tucked deep underground. Didi and Artie slept through the night. They knew that their solid eight hours, without interruption from a small child needing comfort or milk, was as abnormal as their son’s lung development.
Michael gently nuzzled his head against his mother’s breast. He wrapped his arm around the big belly that housed Leib. Michael made little bear cub noises as they all fell back to sleep. At dawn, Artie and Didi woke and kissed Michael’s sweet cheeks, careful not to disturb him. Then they went downstairs to make their first pot of coffee and read the Youngstown Vindicator. They waited for Michael to join them for breakfast, but when he didn’t come downstairs by mid-morning, Didi returned to her bedroom to nuzzle her warm boy awake.
She climbed into her side of the bed and rubbed his back. His penguin pajamas were damp and cold, as if he’d been outside to check the weather. He wasn’t snoring. In fact, he was so quiet that Didi leaned down to listen to his breath, and when she turned his little face towards hers, she saw that his eyes were open. But they weren’t looking at her. They were staring, like a stuffed bear that stares out into the world but doesn’t see. She leaned down to kiss his lips. They didn’t kiss back. She pulled him close and bit his ear, thinking that all he needed was a little pain and shock to wake up. Wake up, she whispered. Wake up Wake up Wake up. It’s time for breakfast. Michael. Listen to me. Stop staring at the ceiling. It’s time to visit the bathroom and come downstairs and eat some yogurt. She held him like that for a few minutes, and when he didn’t listen, when he didn’t cooperate and when he refused to wake up and stop staring, Didi began to scream.
She screamed so loudly that her husband dropped his coffee mug all over the kitchen floor, shards scattering into hundreds of pieces, the mess a concern but his wife’s screams a much greater concern. He leapt up the stairs. Raced down the hallway to their bedroom. Found his wife on the floor with their first child, cradling him, screaming into his face.
“Didi,” Artie shouted, “you’re going to hurt his eardrums. Stop screaming in his face.” But when he got closer, when he looked down from above, he saw that Michael’s face had turned a soft pale blue, the color of a pool in summertime, or the horizon at dawn. It was beautiful. It was only when he saw his son’s eyes, staring at the ceiling, looking empty, that a scream came up from deep inside his throat, merging with Didi’s noises and creating one loud wail, causing the next-door neighbor to open her front door, listen for a moment, assess the pitch and tone and location of the screams.
After several seconds, this neighbor of 22 years, a reliable woman who collected her late husband’s pension and rarely left the neighborhood, located the noise based on her well-trained ear for her own personal radius and retrieved the Jablin front door key from the keychain that held the bounty of neighborhood keys. She entered the house and pulled herself up the stairs, locating the family on the floor, next to the bed. She tore the three of them apart, unsure, at first, of what was happening, for it looked as if parents were wrestling with child, smothering, pushing a small boy deep into the fibers of the carpet.
But then she saw a limp and quiet child. His mother kissing his face and crying his name, “Michael. My Michael. Come back, Michael. Come back.” This quiet neighbor, who walked dogs and watered plants and kept an eye on the mailman and the delivery trucks, did what she knew was best. She spent a few minutes rubbing backs and wiping tears and occasionally also screaming and then finally called 911. She met the ambulance in the driveway with a warning of what was inside: dead little boy, hysterical parents, a pregnant mother. Artie carried the small body to the back of the ambulance, his wife crumpled by the sink in the kitchen, holding her big belly, the shards of coffee mug digging into her legs. Didi spent the rest of her pregnancy in bed, disinterested in math theories, her garden or her husband. When she did eventually push Leib out, just five months after her first son Michael died, she pushed him with such anger and force that Leib’s wee little body shot to the left of the doctor’s hands and landed with a soft thud on the floor. Artie quickly picked him up and handed him back to his wife, who kissed him and nursed him and cried tears that dropped on little Leib’s face. She named him Leonard, after her mother Lillian, utilizing the letter L, the letter closest to the letter M, which would always remind her of her first child.
Leib wondered and mused at different points during his teenage years—did his dad utter a Faraday quote while arranging the funeral? Was the creator of the balloon evoked when his older brother was placed in the ground? The important thing is to know how to take all things quietly.
In addition to getting the words jumbled about his sibling situation for most of his life, Leib was also unable to articulate his love for Michael. He thought that sometimes he loved this older sibling, this child that also emerged from his mother’s womb. Leib would cry from missing a boy who could have been his twin. Their photos at two years of age sat perched on the living room mantle. Didi Jablin had dressed Leib in the same outfit that Michael had worn for his photo shoot, and so the boys sat together, smiling and looking out at their parents.
Leib wanted clarity on what his love for his dead brother accomplished. Did it give his life meaning or keep him on the dark side, pining for a sibling who he should probably just forget? He wondered if he had any right to mourn a child he never even knew. Years later, in Jerusalem, Leib would revisit these questions after years of forgetting. He would ask the rabbis about the Mourner’s Kaddish. “Ah,” they’d say, stroking their beards, “a most impressive dilemma.” Impressive dilemmas were a favorite among Jerusalem rabbis. But Leib needed proper instructions: Do I say Kaddish for a brother I never met? Is he my brother? Was he my brother? Somebody please tell me how to think about Michael. The rabbi’s wife would finally come to the rescue, pointing to Rashi’s reference on how to read Torah. All is eternal. All has come before and all will come after. There is no beginning or middle or end. “So yes,” she would tell Leib. “He was your brother. He is your brother. He will always be your brother.”
None of the other kids in his Hebrew school classroom or neighborhood gang was without siblings. Nobody else was considered an “only child”—an identity that Leib absorbed most acutely when he was around families with large numbers of children, like Timmy Shaeffer, a rich boy in the neighborhood whose dad went skiing in the Alps every Christmas and left Timmy home with his mother and four sisters. Timmy once shared with Leib a key piece of information one needed to survive an avalanche. “My dad told me to cup your hands over your mouth, like this,” Timmy said, bringing his fingers to his face and surrounding his lips with his hands, leaving a space for air. “That way,” a muffled Timmy went on, “you can get air circulating while the dogs come for you.”
When Leib’s bar mitzvah class learned of the mass graves of the Ukraine, of places like Babi Yar, of huge ravines, majestic fertile valleys with woods all around, large enough to house thousands of bodies, Leib developed an elaborate survival plan for their family. Even though the students learned quite explicitly that absolutely nobody lived, that all who lined up and marched to the ravine and undressed and stood in a row were shot dead with a machine gun, and quite unexpectedly at that, nobody, and this is the part Leib couldn’t really comprehend, nobody knew what was happening. The wind was loud. They wore their finest clothing. They dropped their suitcases by the side of the road for the porter to fetch! As if this were a cruise ship and they were off for vacation. Twenty-three thousand in one day. The facts were all too obscene, and so Leib simply wouldn’t allow himself or his family to be among the dead.
With heavy shovels in their hands, standing deep in the forest, trees hovering above and hundreds of people milling about, Leib showed his older brother, his mother and his father how to cup their hands over their faces to keep the air circulating. “Then,” he whispered, out of range of the SS, “we’ll pretend to get shot, and fall over into the grave.” His dad gave him the thumbs up, his mother smiled approvingly. His older brother began digging, head down. “After they’ve covered us with dirt, we’ll wait a few hours and dig ourselves out.”
“With what?” Michael asked, over his shoulder.
“I’ve got a broken bottle in my pocket.”
A soldier approached. “Shut up! No talking! Shovels in!”
Leib began to sweat, worried that he’d get shot before carrying out his brilliant plan. Everybody picked up their shovels, dug little holes, then bigger holes, until a massive space in the ground opened up and huge piles of dirt lined the edge. Children played on the mounds, laughing as their feet and legs sunk into the soft soil. They pulled each other out. Stood on the edge of the great expanse and waved to one another from across the huge ravine. Parents told them to step back. Don’t get too close. You might fall in.
Then bullets exploded and bodies started dropping. Children first, their parents next. Leib jumped in, faked a fall, dove down as if he was eager to touch the bottom of a swimming pool. He landed on his belly and opened one eye to see his mom and dad nearby. They all winked at each other—a sign they had survived the first part of the plan.
Leib opened the other eye to locate Michael. Strained to recognize the bodies surrounding him. Leib barely found his brother’s face among the piles of squirming almost-corpses. Michael’s eyes were closed, his arms twisted and broken. He’s not following my instructions. A foul taste rose in Leib’s throat. He kept looking at Michael’s face, willing his eyes to open, thinking that maybe he was just taking a rest, maybe he was tired from all the digging, maybe Michael wanted to close his eyes and imagine a better spot to play dead, like their bedroom at home, a great place to play all sorts of elaborate games like freeze-mime and circus star. But soon, blood trickled from Michael’s nose and dirt fell down upon his cheeks and hair, and with a thunk thunk, another person fell, a young woman, her face quiet, her eyes closed too, her body burying Michael in the Ukrainian soil of their ancestors.
It was difficult to assess time from the depths of a bloody pit. The screaming had faded. The dirt weighed down heavily on Leib and his parents. The soil almost crushed their chests, making it hard to breathe, yet they followed Leib’s meticulous avalanche safety instructions, which gave them all just enough air to survive. When it seemed, from their dirt-ensconced space beneath the surface of the earth that the soldiers and their dogs had departed, Leib and his parents began digging. Leib with his broken piece of bottle. Didi and Artie with their fingers. The dirt was soft and loose, loamy and rich. In just moments, they reached the surface and emerged—dirty, tired and victorious. But Michael was missing, and while they started as four, they ended as three, and their tears at the edge of the covered expanse, under the night sky, dropped deep into the pit, watering the earth, a most unsuspecting partner in the death of millions.
There was no rest from the Holocaust. The teachers at Temple Emet v’Emunah in Youngstown, Ohio, never took a break, and thus neither did Leib. It was as if nothing else existed in the Jewish canon. Years later, Leib would find an entire country had emerged from this one event in history, but never once during his many years of Sunday morning study did he hear its name mentioned.
His obsession with the Holocaust meant that all visitors to the house were enlisted to play morbid versions of hide-and-seek where children were dragged from their spots with hands tied. Toy guns stuck deep into rib cages. Leib would carry a train whistle in his pocket. Blow it and shout to his cousins, his friends, whoever would listen: All aboard! First stop: Dachau! Next stop: Bergen Belsen! Final stop: Auschwitz!
Other games involved paper and pencils, fill-in-the-blanks, questions to answer, some Multiple Choice, others Circle the Correct Answer, while others were Yes or No, True or False. Leib spent hours at the kitchen table with his notebook, page after page of exam questions for his cousins Rebecca and Jason and Henry.
Would you share a bunk with your mother, father or sibling? __________
Would you prefer to be gassed or shot? __________
Where would you hide? __________
What would you pack in your suitcase? __________
Who in your family would survive the camps? ____________
True or False: Your mother would choose you over your sibling.
True or False: Grandma and Grandpa would be shot immediately.
Yes or No: You would eat the lice for protein.
Yes or No: You would live inside a ditch to survive.
Yes or No: You would share your bread.
Yes or No: You would live with a group of nuns.
Leib did this for several months, adding to the notebook, creating games, questions, theories about survival, who and why. He preferred this to his regular schoolwork. These puzzles and questions were far more interesting than the algebra his sixth-grade teacher assigned. If he were graded on his Holocaust notebook, he’d likely get an A.
One cold winter day of his 12th year, after the Sunday school class learned about looting and stolen art, Leib began his search. First he slipped on his Nazi glasses. Part 3D, part infrared, part magnifying, part x-ray. These glasses allowed Leib to see the world as a Nazi would—with super-keen eyesight to know who’s a Jew, where they’re hiding and what loot they’ve got tucked away in all the secret spots. His glasses were thick and clicky, with different lenses to adjust, depending on the object in his field of vision: one click and all Jews glowed green, two clicks and expensive items burned bright red, three clicks and the hiding places and secret passageways emerged, blackish-blue like an x-ray. He’d practiced his clicking noise all afternoon, his tongue sounding like the sound of the metal click on the instruments in the eye doctor’s office.
Most of Sunday afternoon and evening was spent with 12-year-old Leib sneaking about the house, clicking his tongue, turning lights on and off, squeezing behind large pieces of furniture and covering himself with old, musty woolen jackets from the hall closet. At one point, his father got concerned, for after 45 minutes of total silence (the clicking had ended) and there was no sign of his son, Artie grew frightened that Leib had suffocated in the crawl space above the bathroom. But Leib was simply sitting on the oversized chair in the living room, doodling on a notepad, mapping out the inner workings of his glasses.
If our house were looted, what would they take? Hands on his hips, Leib surveyed the first floor of their home. Unlike the wealthier Jewish homes of Youngstown, where oil paintings and tea sets and diamond jewelry decorated all surfaces, passed down from generation to generation, l’dor v’dor, You shall pass on the key to the safe deposit box, Leib’s home was filled with mathematical textbooks, rusty helium machines, pilled blankets and chipped dishware. It was remarkable to Leib, after reading about and discussing the plunder, that their home contained nothing of value. Nothing but Jews. In a Youngstown deportation, the Nazis would look around and see a landscape of beige belongings set against taupe wallpaper. Leib wished his house would merit a Nazi sneaking back to steal something. He dreamed of a Nazi who always kept his eye on the paintings and the furnishings, all while screaming orders to vacate, while sneaking around looking for the hiding children, while opening the dishwasher to see if a small boy was tucked away, while opening the closet door in search of a young girl, all the while assessing what to take for his wife, his own children, his supervisor, his neighbor. Yes, Leib wanted a worthy house. That after the terror of deportation, the screams of fear, the stench of sweat, the wetting of pants, the tears and the vomit, Leib wanted a house that the Nazis would come back to.
That Sunday night, hours after religious school had ended, Leib walked quietly through the rooms of his home, assessing the belongings. He sized up the pictures on the wall. Fondled the bedding. Inspected the trinkets on the bookshelves and the figurines on the mantel. He overturned objects and looked for fancy signatures and places of origin. Made in China. Made in Hong Kong. Made in Indonesia. Leib didn’t know much about expensive artwork and valuable sculpture, but he knew just enough. Enough that the cheap items purchased from suburban shops in Northeastern Ohio wouldn’t merit a plunder. No, this wasn’t the kind of house, Leib realized, that the Nazis would fight over.
He visited the coffee table in the living room. Never once used for coffee, or for entertaining, it sat as a shrine to the two boys. Leib’s baby pictures alongside Michael’s, the two looking like twins, Leib wishing he could bring that brother back to life. With a magical incantation, a wand made of gold and glitter, Leib would pull Michael from the picture frame. His head would emerge first, as from the womb, his torso following, until finally his shoes (little white sneakers) would stand him firmly upon the living room carpet. Leib has practiced what he’d say, should his brother magically appear before him. “Good evening, my brother” (this imagining of bringing Michael back to life always happened in darkness), “and welcome back to your home. My name is Lenny, but most call me Leib. I’m your younger brother.” Leib would bow. Deeply from the waist, in the manner of a knight before his king. Leib would then offer golem Michael a snack and invite him to play, sometimes bringing a plate of cookies to the coffee table, other times, his Star Wars figurines.
But tonight, in his quest for bounty, he brought neither wand nor cookies nor Princess Leia to the table. Instead, he studied the edges of the picture frames, trying to determine if real gold was etched inside the silver. He scraped his fingernail over the top of his own frames—class pictures, family portraits, a photo of him at the beach—and found what he suspected, based on the evidence throughout the rest of the house. He moved on.
Several moments later, his mother found him rummaging around her underwear drawer. “Lenny, what are you looking for?” She stood over his small frame, rubbing his back as he shoved her panties and brassieres back into their spots.
“Mom, do we have any family jewels? Things like emeralds or diamonds or rubies? Gold that Grammy and Pop Pop left us?” He moved toward the closet, ready to ransack his father’s sweater collection to discover small boxes filled with shiny, sacred family heirlooms. “Mr. Kaplan told us today about the Nazis seizing the family jewels.” Leib turned to face his mother. “Do we have any?”
She laughed. “It depends on what you consider a family jewel.”
“Look, Mom. I need to know. What do we have and where is it kept?”
Leib’s mom sat down on her bed. She looked around her home, the pictures of Michael and Leib, small Hummels and colorful pottery and many, many books. How did she explain to her son that fancy jewelry didn’t matter? How did she explain to him that they’d always just gotten by, that they’d always just get by and that they’d probably never be a family of wealth and material objects and fancy things? Didi took off her diamond engagement ring and her wedding band and asked Leib to sit down next to her. “This will be yours, one day. To share with whomever you choose. Or to wear around your neck. Or even to sell if you get into a tough spot.”
“That’s it?” Leib asked. “That’s not enough.”
“Enough for what?” she wanted to know.
Leib didn’t answer.
“Enough for what, sweetie. I asked you a question.”
He saw how his mom’s face fell, how her lips got all scrunched and tight. He leaned into her arm and rested his head against her soft cotton sweater, smelling her sleeve. He gently placed the rings back on her finger, turned them around and around again. “Nothing, Mom. Forget it.”
She hugged him and kissed the top of his head. “You’re my most prized possession, Lenny. And I know you’ll only understand when you have kids of your own.”
Leib left his parents’ bedroom. Eager to locate something in his house worth stealing, he’d look through the basement boxes tomorrow. Because Leib was certain, in fact he believed it with all his heart, that the hidden contents of his house would join together to form a map. And this map would spell out his journey of purpose and place in a world where all seemed lost.