March 27, 2024

Jews Like Us

By Robin Reif

Photo: Steve Bennett

At nine, I can’t wear a two-piece because, according to my mother, I’m too fat. It only bothers me when she says this out loud or when my older sister sticks a fork in me and calls me “sausage,” which she did this morning at breakfast in our Rockaway summer bungalow. And so, shaped like a bee in a one-piece navy suit that my mother says is “slimming,” I shamble out with my family, armed with beach chairs, towels, and picnic baskets. My younger sisters wave plastic shovels and wear beach pails on their heads. “Like Coxey’s Army,” my father says. I don’t know what this means, but he seems to think it’s funny. 

Once we stake out a spot on the sand, I drop the blanket and thermos I carry and run into the ocean. Out of the waves pops a girl about my age, squinting at the high sun, her short curls glittering with specks of sand. Without saying much, we chase each other in and out of the water, lungs heaving, thighs burning, laughter exploding. We swim after one another, and tumble onto the wet, warm sand as gulls soar on invisible currents overhead. Delirious with joy, I am no longer fat but formless in the shimmering waves, in the ecstasy of motion and of finding a friend.

Then, my new friend’s mother appears, wide feet planted at the ocean’s edge, hands on hips, calling her to lunch. Squat, with olive skin, glasses, and a space between her front teeth, she reminds me of a turtle. In a strange accent, she calls: “Maa-shaa. Maa-shaa.” Close up, I smell the pickled herring my Uncle Isadore always eats on her breath. There are numbers in old green ink on the inside of her arm. They look like tattoos.

At my family’s messy outpost, I pick a tuna sandwich from the food caddy and fiddle with the cellophane wrapping.

“Why does Marcia’s mother have numbers on her arm?” 

“Irv,” my mother calls. “Ask your father,” she says. Have they rehearsed this? 

I repeat my question, squinting up at him. He stands, formidable with his bronzed torso and dark hair, at the edge of my towel. 

“Because she was in a camp.” He’s suddenly hoarse, like something’s caught in his throat. 

“A camp? Like Nock-A-Mixon?”

“Not like a camp that you know.”

He sees where this is heading. He’s known, from the instant the first of us was born, that the day would come when he’d have to explain to his bright, beautiful American children that the fact of Jewish birth was a death sentence at a time not long ago in a place not far away, on the other side of the ocean I’d just walked out of. 

He gives me some version of this, and I ask for some version of why. From his answer, I formulate the idea that he cannot possibly be talking about Jews like us. He’s talking about Jews like Marcia’s mother. Marcia’s mother is NOT like us. She’s shaped like a meatball. My mother, when she’s not pregnant—there are five of us by now—is slender, green-eyed, with thick, coppery hair that falls to her shoulders. Truck drivers yell, “Hey, Red,” to get her attention when she drives me to Brownies. Marcia said her father is a butcher. My father is a doctor. Marcia’s father kills animals. My father saves people. We’re nothing like them. 

I return to the shore and kick around in the foamy tide, nudging dead starfish with my big toe. When Marcia joins me again, my heart is still pinched and confused by what my father said. But once more, we crash into the waves, fly in breathless arcs trying to tag one another, and stagger to the shore, laughing all over ourselves. It’s the sound of nine-year-old girls who inhabit bodies the world has not yet scrutinized—unless you count my mother. We don’t know that on that wild beach at the close of that golden day, we’re chasing the tail end of childhood, grabbing it and holding tight.

We have such a swell time that our parents say they’ll arrange for us to play after the summer. The first play date is a sleepover at Marcia’s, since my parents have a car so they can drive me there. I’m invited for a whole weekend and am told it’s “Shabbes,” a word I know from summer camp, where it’s called “Shabbat.” It’s when we endure two hours on Saturday morning, sitting on low benches, painted war-surplus grey, where I salivate while fantasizing about the barbecue lunch that always follows. I hope there’ll be barbecue at Marcia’s Shabbes.

Her apartment, it turns out, is cold as a butcher shop. There are no curtains or carpets. The walls and floorboards—painted the palest blue—are bare. The furniture: a kitchen table and chairs, a bed in Marcia’s room with a wooden dresser and lamp. They could pack up their lives and be gone in an hour. Outside Marcia’s bedroom window, on the second floor of a four-family house, I look down on strange men with stony faces, long beards, black coats and hats etched against the ground covered in packed, dirty snow. The little bundles they carry in yellow plastic bags make them look like they’re all running away. When we spotted them in our car, my father called them Hasidim. I am still afraid of the numbers on Marcia’s mother’s arm, her accent, terrible teeth, and her big eyes behind those glasses. Marcia’s father is tall and gaunt, with white, wispy hair like feathers from a plucked duck. He, too, has numbers on his arm. 

My father drops me off, which is strange; my mother usually chauffeurs the kids. Also weird is that he stands in the kitchen and talks to Mrs. Specter for a while before he leaves. I’ve never seen him speak to any friend’s parent before, except for Harold Schwinger, Bobby’s father, a radiologist at the hospital where my father works. I don’t yet know that my father was the medical officer in one of the regiments that liberated Dachau years before I was born. The soldiers, the first to discover what had been done, had no name for what they saw. That and other awful understandings will come later.

The food at Marcia’s Shabbes is different from the food I know. I am always hungry, but I cannot eat this. The chicken looks more like a dead bird than anything my mother, who studies French cooking, makes for us; the bean stew they call “cholent” is thick as paste; and the apple cake for dessert tastes like Crisco, which I once tried eating out of the can and nearly puked. When it’s time to sleep, Marcia and I lie like sardines in her narrow bed, slaying each other by pronouncing forbidden words—penis, boobs, tushy—in goofy voices, then stifling our laughter into each other’s soft necks. 

In the morning, my mouth goes dry when she tells me that on Shabbes, we’re not allowed to watch TV, so I will miss The Flintstones and Ricochet Rabbit, which I always see on Saturdays while my parents sleep. Later, there is no barbecue; lunch is just cold chicken from last night with boiled, goose-bumpy skin. After pushing food around my plate, I’m so hungry that I eat the leftover Crisco cake, which pools at the bottom of my stomach.

On Sunday morning, more bad news. Marcia and her younger twin sisters go to Sunday school. I am left at home with her mother. Her silent father is at work. I’m relieved when Mrs. Specter wheels a flimsy cart with a small black and white TV into Marcia’s room. On the floor watching kids’ shows, I try to forget that I am homesick and that the cold is seeping in through the tired seams in Marcia’s double windows. The sky is bloated and low, the color of skim milk. New snow begins to fall. Is it also snowing inside? By the time Marcia and her sisters return, I can’t wait to eat lunch, even the kind Marcia’s mother makes.

As I hurry to the front door that weirdly opens onto the kitchen, a high-pitched whoop, like a battle cry, stops me. It’s Marcia’s mother, shrieking in a language I don’t understand. “Deh PENTS! Deh PENTS!” she cries. She’s grabbed a wooden spoon and keeps hitting Marcia right in front of me. “Deh PENTS!” She’s all splayed teeth, eyes, and muscles and looks terrified even though she’s the one that’s hitting. After each whack, she ducks as though Marcia would ever dare to hit back. I run to Marcia’s room and pace from bed to window to bed again. When the screaming finally stops, Marcia comes in, her face flushed and puffy. She’s not crying. One of the twins, she says, left the pants she wore under her skirt at school. Marcia, the oldest, didn’t realize until it was too late. Why is her mother so mad about a stupid pair of pants? I wonder. Can’t she just go back and get them? Or buy another pair? My stomach is so twisted that I’m no longer hungry. 

Marcia, in a whisper, asks if I want to do a puzzle. I say sure, though what I really want is just to go home. 

As we sit, I keep looking at my friend, waiting for her to cry, but she seems deeply absorbed in solving the puzzle. The picture on the box shows a family picnic in a green park: a smiling girl and boy, their pretty mom and handsome dad. The daughter has big blue eyes, “lustrous” hair as they say on TV, and perfectly straight bangs. I love bangs, but I can’t wear them because of my frizzy hair. Marcia has short curls with no bangs. The puzzle mom gives her daughter a piece of chocolate cake with thick, shiny icing like they show on Betty Crocker boxes, which my mother will never buy because cakes are fattening. The puzzle dad pours a glass of milk for the older brother, who has a blonde crew cut shining in the sun like a golden helmet. 

We’re almost finished when my father shows up. Through the open bedroom door, I see him in the kitchen talking to Mrs. Specter who suddenly grasps his hand, holds his palm to the side of her face, and starts to cry. He speaks softly to her. I want to run in and tell him what she did to Marcia. But they keep talking, and I keep watching this incomprehensible scene, feeling helpless. 

I will grow up and make my way in the world, far from Rockaway Beach, far from Brooklyn, and rarely think of the Specters or that grim corner of Borough Park filled with others like them, half out of their minds with grief and guilt. While overseas for work, I will visit a town just beyond damp fields shrouded by mists and a sky that reflects the darkness of a pine forest abutting to the East. I know now what I didn’t as a child: this was, for centuries, home to my father’s family, who made horseshoes and a few zlotys trading spice. They also made and ate cholent, boiled chicken and dense apple cake. 

This was, of course, before the ditch at the edge of pines that cut the sky like the teeth of a saw.


Robin Reif has written for The New York Times and McSweeney’s. Her essay “To the Woman Whose Body I Washed,” published by Off-Assignment in its “Letter to a Stranger” column, received an honorable mention in The Best American Essays 2023. She was awarded the 2023 Jeffrey E. Smith prize for nonfiction by The Missouri Review for her essay “Someone.” She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writers Seminars. Read more about her work at robinreif.com.

The author wishes to express her gratitude to Moriel Rothman-Zecher for encouraging and nurturing her first effort in a new genre.