“The only remaining member of the Newman family, old Ruth: mother of four, grandmother of seven, and great grandmother of twelve, all, all in other countries across the globe: was confined to a wheelchair. As they continued on their walk, the Boxes worried about Mrs Newman, alone in that house, old and infirm. They decided to telephone her once they got home, and ask if they could help in any way. Her number was in the directory, the only Newman left in Bulawayo…. ‘Please get off the line? Off! Get off! I vunt for to shpeak mit my son, the doctor!’ Ruth’s Yiddish accent was never far below the surface. Her husband, Paul Newman, had met and married her in Vienna, in 1934, and brought her back to the family home in Bulawayo, where the family had flourished until the late nineteen sixties when they began to feel threatened by the Schwartzen and, one by one, left. Only Ruth and her husband, Paul, stayed on, Ruth in Number 43 and Paul in the Jewish cemetery at Athlone. The remainder and the remains.” (John Eppel, “The Keys,” White Man Crawling)
Walking out of the university’s guesthouse one Saturday afternoon, I took a turn around the leafy, shady suburb of Khumalo. Not the Suburbs, which is another neighbourhood altogether, closer to the city center. At the end of the road, I hooked a right, and caught a Star of David out of the corner of my eye. Stirring stained glass, stars of David and menorahs, vines and olive leaves, all rendered in translucent, backlit glass. A long building, its roof rising to a central spine. Out houses, former servants’ quarters, a few pieces of laundry flapping on lines. Not a synagogue, anymore. I wonder how synagogues are decommissioned: are they boarded up, shut up, left, without a parting prayer? Or does the space need to be closed somehow, spiritually? Not a synagogue now, but a police station. Do you say the Kaddish for a space?
My grandmother worked for decades at the doctors’ building at Touro, the Jewish hospital in New Orleans. She was the nurse for a series of kind and generous doctors. When Leonard Bernstein visited New Orleans, he paid a visit to my grandmother’s boss for a check-up and check-in, monitoring his guttering lungs, blood oxygen levels. She was a devout Catholic, but felt at ease amongst people of any earnest faith. I wondered if she knew he was gay, too, a Communist of the old guard? Other, othered. Other of an other. Another.
In New York City, I always lived in Jewish neighbourhoods. When I moved to Brooklyn sight unseen, the only place I could afford was on St. John’s Place, in Crown Heights. Crown Heights, that storied battle-ground between orthodox Jewish families and black and West Indian families, coexisting uneasily since the neighbourhood erupted into violent riots in 1991, after Guyanese children were killed by the motorcade of the Chabad spiritual leader. The neighbourhood bore the fissures of the divide – there were blocks, like mine, that were black West Indian, the homes of public school teachers and the Trinidadian middle class. Other blocks had fallen into urban disrepair; and other blocks teemed with apartment buildings full of Jewish families. The life in the neighbourhood was West Indian, and every September there was a raucous West Indian Day parade. I could stand on the roof of my brownstone, amidst the herbs and vegetables planted in zinc tubs by my roommate, and look out to the screaming, singing, laughing river of Guyanese, Trinis, Barbadians surging down the street, belting out the latest island hits, hands hlding polystyrene containers of pigeon peas and jerk chicken and dripping roti. I packed up my wagon when the house broke up and rents soared – Geo to another house in Brooklyn, Catherine to the deserts of Arizona, myself to Washington Heights.
After Crown Heights, Washington Heights in Manhattan, another long-standing Jewish neighbourhood that existed inside, next to, among the Dominican families that had filled the neighbourhood in the 1960s and 1970s, creating generations of Heights-born Dominican families that filled the streets with the clack clack of dominoes slammed on tables, cigar shops where paterfamilias sat and shot the shit, blowing clouds of smoke onto Broadway. In the midst, Jewish mothers formed walking clubs, pumping their black-clad arms up and down the streets, gossiping and taking the air; the shul teeming with serious-seeming young men in hats and ringlets, all black all year round, shouting to each other in Hebrew for the basketball that they lobbed gracefully toward the hoop, unencumbered by their stiff jackets and tucked-in white dress shirts. Many of the buildings’ elevators, went automatic on Saturday, climbing up and down between the floors, stopping at each one each time. The 190th St A train stop had an grandfathered elevator operator, a black woman who carved out the corner near the panel with an improvised desk, pushing buttons up and down, earbuds in to cut the loud ambient buzz of the grinding gears. Saturdays were a marvel, and street-level apartments filled the neighbourhood with laughter and talk and prayer. Every year the rent on my studio went up $50 a month, and what was once reasonable was increasingly in line with a city determined to price working and middle classes out of its preserves.
Both of these experiences clashed with the strident and aggressive Black Israelites who set up shop on 34th St, in front of the Herald Square Macy’s, belting imprecations and thrusting out pamphlets. They seemed to belong to nowhere, not to the contact zones in the neighbourhoods I lived in, but rather flew in as though from outer space, to deliver dire warnings of sinfulness and forgotten apocryphal similitudes
In both places, I was a minority in minority enclaves, and a harbinger of the gentrification to come. While I lived in each place, it was, to bourgeois eyes, rough around the edges. “Food deserts,” bereft of adequate grocery stores. Awkward admixtures of check cashing places, and bullet-proofed Chinese takeout stores, bodegas stocked with beer, and soda, and cigarettes. By the time I left Crown Heights four years later, a Starbucks had sprung up two subway stops down at the frontier of white, twenty-something development. When I left Washington Heights, rents were soaring, the last “affordable” neighbourhood in Manhattan, “discovered” by white gentrifiers who had read the half-dozen piece in the Times extolling its convenience and “culture.”
Gentrification is just colonialism in softer terms. But how to understand the spaces that are lapped over time by successive waves of displaced peoples?
My friends the Schklars have folded me into the fabric of the young Jewish community of Chattanooga. Josh, with his facility with languages, is quickly becoming fluent in Hebrew, and their Sabbaths are observed, Friday night dinners with the lighting of candles and prayer. Bethany, the daughter of Christian missionaries, is delightedly entangled, and recently confessed she was converting. Would that be weird, I asked? To have gone from an evangelical Christian youth to observant Judaism? Not really, she said; after all, almost all of their friends were Jewish, and the good parts of faith are just good, any way you slice them.
At their parties, I chat with the gregarious emissaries of Israel, sent abroad to foster community and ties to the homeland. I jive with the goofy Sarah Brook, dry and funny and warm, and rib her like a little sister. I meet pragmatic and amused young Jewish people who have gotten quite used to explaining the differences in their faith to the church-going, Sunday-observant Christians that people our hills and mountains. Chattanooga is the “Most Bible-Minded City in America,” but that doesn’t mean they understand all of the People of The Book. Josh has stories from his work as a physical therapist, asked to be a cultural middleman for the occasional Jewish guest, explaining why the pained old man couldn’t be touched by a female nurse, or the significance of the prayer tassles peeking out from the bottom of his shirt. Their babby Noah is doted upon by all, was showered with onesies with Jewish themes, given a block table with cutouts of Hebrew letters.
In the middle of Bulawayo is another synagogue, announcing its presence with buttresses adorned with Stars of David in granite relief. It is now a roiling Pentecostal church, broadcasting its prayers into the streets with crackling loudspeakers, pastors warbling and bellowing, congregants shout-singing its praise.
Jane says that the board of the hospice she worked for was populated with most of the last community of Jews here in Bulawayo. When their synagogue caught fire, they rallied the troops and allies and sent them running, to put out the flames with bucket brigades.
In Kabul, on Flower Street, if you looked up in the right block, you would see a stone lintel with a carefully carved Star of David. A Star of David in Kabul. I asked around about it, and heard the story of the Last Two Jews in Kabul. Through the turbulent nineties and early oughts, each would hold services on the Sabbath, on the downlow, for themselves and any transplant that found themselves there on a tour. Their story is a wry allegory of Judaism’s penchant for minor disagreements; it was explained that the last two Jews were mortal enemies, having disagreed over some trifling interpretation of the Torah, nothing that should have caused an irreparable rift. They lived across the street from each other on this charmingly narrow alley populated with dusty antique stores filled with lapis lazuli, rusting 19th century artifacts, and roman coins. When one died, the other grudgingly gave a service, the only person qualified to do so. When he died, not long before I came in 2013, I wondered who might say the Kaddish for him.
I met Zandele at the Book Café to see her art – beautiful brightly-coloured techno-organic abstractions out of which peeked the merest shadows of heads, bodies, hills, breasts. Her bubbly son Nathaniel was with her; he had just gotten out of school for the week, on a Tuesday. His school uniform charmed, stern short pants and ironed button-down adorned with an embroidered menorah. A menorah, I asked her? Is there a Jewish school here?
Yes, she explained. It was long-established, a good private school amongst long-established Catholic schools once peopled with nuns slapping knuckles with rulers.
And is the curriculum Jewish? Are there any Jews here in Bulawayo?
There were two left, she said; she knew them by name, as did every parent at the school. They felt protective of the Last Two Jews in Bulawayo, their last lifeline to the faith that animated their school.
And is the curriculum Jewish?
It is Rosh Hashanah, she said, reminding me of the Jewish new year that always felt like the real new year to me. My life had for decades been charted against the fall-spring axis of collegiate semesters, the sweaty, saddening summers of waiting for the cycle to restart. When I taught at CUNY in New York, I learned to follow the high holy days: school was cancelled for the most important, and for the minor, I got used to announcing that students would be excused only if they asked to be so in advance, the onus on them. L'shanah tovah.
There are a lot of seventh-day Adventists here, she said, so they share a Sabbath, which is convenient. There used to be Jewish teachers here when I was younger, she explained, but they were all gone now.
So do the children learn Jewish history and culture?
Ye-es, she said, to an extent. It was now mostly boiled down to the Big Things, like the holy days ad Chanukah, the Sabbath and services.
Wow, I marvelled.
One of the last two Jews is about to give birth, she said, an event to which the whole school looked forward to. The children asked, Was it time yet? Had the child come? And the parents clubbed together to give a shower. They were waiting for continuity. Bated breath.
I flashed back to a few days prior, when from the second story of the bus to Gweru, I peered down and double-taked. There were two gentlemen in the front seats of a car, greying hair tucked under flat-brimmed black hats, grey beards grazing their chest, grey ringlets dropping in front of ears.
I think I saw them, I said! The fathers, anyway, in a small Japanese car puttering up Robert Mugabe Avenue.
Philoni, giving me my first walking tour of downtown, explained, “The Indian stores, man. They stick around. Even after 2008, they were still there. The Lebanese left when the economy crashed, but the Indians stayed. If they leave, we should all leave, because that’s the End Times.”
Down the road from the old synagogue in Khumalo, now police station, is the Hindu Cultural Center, not always the Hindu Cultural Center, but adorned now with an Om, set on generous grounds, with signs that proclaim “No Alcohol,” and v-divergent driveways that braid around a hexagonal building. It serves the Indian families that run towns in shop, importing goods from wholesalers in Kenyan ports. I don’t see cars there, driving past in the morning on the way to the university. But the gates stand open, welcoming all and sundry.
Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.