Sunday, April 20, 2014

Memories of My Saba

by Anna Shneiderman

October 27, 1996

Above the living room couch in my father's apartment hangs a painting of a couple engaged in a passionate, loving embrace. Beautifully imprecise brush strokes portray the love between these two characters in dark, muted browns and grays. The features on their faces are primeval, almost Neanderthal. The lines forming the bodies of the man and woman merge sensuously, making the distinction between them ambiguous. As a young child, I would gaze at the painting, trying to work out if it represented one or two figures. This melting of faces and the dark background create a feeling of ancestral pre-history emanating from the scene. The figures look like they have just been created from the dust of chaos beyond the outline of their bodies. I always imagined them as Adam and Eve; the first lovers.

This familiar piece of art used to hang in my grandparents apartment in New York City. In their living room cluttered with books and papers, the amorous painting was unusual. In a house ruled by intellect, the ancient lovers seemed to remind its inhabitants of the power of emotions.

Seeing the painting evokes one of my strongest childhood memories: After driving with my parents and sister for five hours, we finally arrive at my grandparents Chelsea apartment building in New York City. We pile into an elevator which whisks us to the fifteenth floor, where we knock on the door of apartment 15D. After a few seconds, the door opens to a warm gushing of kisses and Yiddish from my Sabta. After the customary, Annale, youve grown so much! I am ushered into the living room where my Saba is writing intently. He pinches my cheek with an affectionate grip just short of painful, and barks in an accent rich with experience, Who are you?

This was not a confused, curious inquiry from a diseased mind, but a tough existential challenge which required a thoughtful response. My grandfathers question might seem a strange and intimidating one to ask a five-year-old, but I was not surprised at all. In fact, all along the New Jersey turnpike, I had been wrestling with this very question. I knew from experience that when we reached our destination I would have to define and defend my existence in this world. I never gave him the same answer twice. Each time I saw my Saba, my childs brain concocted a different response to his fundamental and unanswerable question, so that over the years I stockpiled a multitude of ways of thinking about myself. From a very early age, this mentor of mine challenged me to think in a sophisticated, analytical way.

My grandfather taught me an appreciation for the past and a passion for the present. He instilled in me an understanding of my familys roots in eastern Europe and a reminder of my Jewish identity. Every time I saw my Saba, he told me a different story about some stage of his incredibly full life, which included a childhood in provincial Poland, a career as a young reporter in Paris, the loss of his family to the Nazis, and a successful, journalistic tenure in New York. He covered such events as the Spanish Civil War, the opening of the United Nations and the conception of the state of Israel. Fluent in eight languages, he wrote for papers in almost as many, but his favorite language was Yiddish, his mother tongue. His powerful passion for his work constantly amazed me. After hours of silent and intense thought, I saw fires ignite in his eyes when an idea for a new story finally crystallized. Following this moment of revelation, his dedication to his work bordered on obsession, sometimes preventing him from appreciating the joy of a family occasion. My Saba looked to the past with reverence, to the present with passion, but to the future with cynicism.

During the last few years of his life, my grandfathers aging body found it harder to do the work his fully functional mind so loved. As his ability to write declined, he lost his way of connecting to the past and the present, and was left with only his pessimism toward the future. Prompted by a question from my sister, however, our Saba replied that the soul does not exist on its own, but is created by the memories others hold of a person after his death. My grandfather wanted his loved ones to create his soul by remembering him long after his death. My grandfathers soul lives on in me through his repeated challenge, who are you? which continues to echo in my head.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother closed up their New York apartment and scattered their possessions among the family. Happily, the lovers ended up in my living room. The painting brings me back to those telling moments in the apartment when my Saba challenged my intellect with his question. The presence of the lovers behind him added a caring element to his inquiry. The sensuous image reminds me of an emotional side of my grandfather that was seldom seen in his busy, intellectual life. I see my grandparents in the wise faces of the lovers. They were once lovers, as were their parents, and their parents, all the way back to Adam and Eve.