We: my mother, brother and I, can be forgiven for not seeing the clues. For years, something haunted my father. Something that he determined could not be shared. Not with anyone. Not even us. It’s only now, years after my father’s death, with hindsight, that I can see the evidence of his obsession.
Clue #1: He must have been in his mid-sixties when he started disappearing into one of the rooms in my parents’ modest, three-bedroom rambler in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The room, which had been my brother’s bedroom when he was in high school, became my father’s study after my brother left for college. The room was small, perhaps only ten feet by ten feet, furnished with a mahogany desk that had been part of my parents’ bedroom suite, a bookcase, and a small couch on which my father often slept after he became ill.
Only my father used this room. Sometimes, I would catch a glimpse of him sitting on the couch, reading from his beloved collection of the Tales of King Arthur or a Zane Grey western. My father, a scientist and a logician, was ever a dreamer, an optimist, and a romantic who loved to escape into a world where evil was conquered; dragons were slain; and the good guys were the only ones left standing after a shootout at the OK Corral.
When he began closing the door to his little study, we might have wondered what he was doing in there. My father was a private person, but not a secretive one. Perhaps, he even locked the door. I don’t know because none of us ever tried to enter this room while he was inside.
Maybe we should have wondered how he could spend hours in there. His explanation was that he was organizing his papers. But what papers? How many could there be? How could it take so long? We teased him; mocked him; accused him of goofing off. But we never thought to investigate what he was actually doing in there.
Clue #2: One weekend afternoon, while at my parents’ house for a visit, he quizzed me on the law concerning name changes. It was actually more like a cross-examination. At the time, I was a prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s Office and I really didn’t know much about any area of the law other than criminal law. My only experience with variable names was with aliases and fugitives from justice. I answered his questions by suggesting that a person could change his name to anything. “If you wanted to be called Mickey Mouse,” I remember saying, “you could, provided that you weren’t trying to defraud creditors.” But what about your “real name?” my father asked. His question didn’t seem to make sense, so I continued to be flip, dismissive. I said something like, “Ok, Minnie Mouse then or Donald Duck, take your pick.” I expected my father to laugh. He didn’t. Instead, he looked stricken, even angry. Somehow I knew the conversation was over.
If only he had asked me the real question on his mind.
Years after my father died, I had occasion to research the law regarding name changes. Legally, changing your name is relatively easy. The process, governed by state law, usually involves filing a petition; swearing that the change is not intended to defraud creditors or law enforcement officials; advertising the intended change in one or more local papers to give interested parties an opportunity to object; paying a fee; and waiting a specified time for court approval. As I told my father, you can change your name to almost anything, provided you’re not doing so with fraudulent intent, such as trying to evade prosecution for a crime. Also, your new name can’t interfere with copyrights. So, for example, you can’t be Colonel Sanders or Jenny Craig. Additionally, trying to name yourself a numeral, a punctuation symbol, a racial slur, or a threatening or obscene word would be problematic.
But, as I would learn later, my father’s dilemma was really not about how to change his name.
Clue #3: In the basement of their house, my parents kept boxes of old photographs: sepia-toned pictures of the two of them in a rowboat in Central Park, my father bare-chested and smiling at my mother who is in a bathing suit leaning back, her arms folded around her knees; a picture of my grandmother, Ida, and my grandfather, Willie, on a wooden bench, both of them looking directly into the camera. The picture, originally black and white, has been painted so Ida’s cloth coat is green with huge black buttons and Willie wears a pale blue jacket and gray work pants. There’s a picture of my father’s brother, Ruby, and his sister Dorothy, and one of my uncle Saul in an Army uniform during his tour of duty in Italy after the War. These were old photographs, lying unsorted, mounded in shoeboxes and round, metal tins that once held cookies and fruitcakes.
After he retired, my father would frequently descend the basement stairs, saying he was going to “organize” these photographs. Though he might be gone for hours at a time, there was never any evidence that he had sorted, grouped, or arranged them in any way: no folders, no albums, no notebooks. Here again, we teased him, accusing him of using his, “I’m going to sort through the photographs” as an excuse to smoke his beloved pipe since my mother had banished smoking from the main floor of the house.
* * *
Sometime after he died, I found my father’s birth certificate in his study. It was a half-sheet of thick, yellowing paper, bearing the seal of the State of New York and certifying the birth of a baby boy, born on September 21, 1908 and named “Jacob Joseph Lebowitz.” I must have read and re-read those words several times before it sunk in. All his life my father had spelled his last name with an “i” after the “e.” All his documents had the “i”: his marriage license, his social security card, his passport, his driver’s license, my birth certificate, my brother’s birth certificate. But on his official birth certificate, my father’s name had no “i.” When, I wonder, had he discovered the discrepancy?
I have no doubt that this is what was haunting him in that small study. This is what he was brooding about down in the basement. This is why he had cross-examined me that long ago afternoon.
Learning that there may never have been two “i’s” in Leibowitz? Not really that big a deal, right? But, I’ve no doubt that, to my father, it was an extraordinarily big deal. Why? I can think of several reasons.
* * * *
Reason#1: My father, the chemist. Chemists know that every ingredient matters. Change an atom and you have a different molecule. Change a molecule and you have a different compound. Change even the minutest proportion of a formula and you have a different entity. Two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen combine to make water. But two atoms of oxygen and one of hydrogen combine to make hydrogen peroxide.
I had a choice of taking either physics or chemistry in high school for my science credit. No choice, really. Taking chemistry would please my father. Taking physics would hurt his feelings. I actually liked chemistry. There was a certain sense of mystery about it. I remember sitting in our living room, my father helping me memorize the symbols for the elements in the periodic table, a bunch of random letters, it seemed to me. “Everything in the world is in this table,” my father said. “Think of it. From only these 114 ingredients, the world is made.” Tell me there isn’t a kind of magic in that.
Even as an artist, my father was a chemist. He was an oil painter. But he didn’t just rely on his own insight and creativity. He studied the work of the artists he admired. Other people reading about Rembrandt might be interested to learn that the models he used to paint his saints and heroines were actually prostitutes and beggars living in his Amsterdam neighborhood. My father was more interested in the pigments Rembrandt combined to make the vibrant colors that characterized his work. After my father died, I found notebooks in his painting studio where he had written formulas for colors as the Old Masters might have created them: “Rembrandt gold,” “Titian blue,” and “Caravaggio red.”
At a young age I was taught the “formula” for spelling my name. There were three parts: three syllables, each of which had three letters: “Lei,” pause, “bow,” pause, “itz.” Like a chemistry experiment gone bad, my father’s birth certificate blew up that formula.
Reason #2: My father and the “truth.” My father was obsessed with truth. He was no relativist. He loved to engage in deep, philosophical discussions. Often, I was his foil or his co-conspirator. While I don’t recall ever discussing relativism versus absolutism per se, I have no doubt that, as to truth, he was an absolutist.
Once, while a teenager, I remember raising with him the question of how we could be sure that what I called red was the same thing as what he called red. We talked long into the night, on and on, ignoring my mother’s admonitions to go to sleep. “Tomorrow’s a work day and a school day,” she said. But we talked on. We talked about light rays, and color theory, and the meaning of language. I know that for him, there was a truth to red. Just as I know that for him there would have been a truth to his name.
But, what was the truth of his name? Had he lived a lie his entire life? My father would have seen the dilemma of his situation as insoluble. To correct his documents now would be to admit a lifetime of lies. Not to change his name now would be to continue that lie. Maybe he even wondered who he was if he wasn’t who he’d always thought he’d been. Maybe in sifting through all those old photographs of his family, he was looking for his “true” self.
Ironically, no one really knows what my paternal grandfather’s name really was. I only know the barebones of the story and I don’t even know if it’s true. There were, I think, three brothers – – my grandfather, Willie; a brother, Jack; and wasn’t there a third brother? How can it be that I don’t know?
The story I remember is that Willie and a brother were conscripted into the Russian Army, a place where my brother and I were always told: “Jews were cannon fodder.” I thought the story was that they deserted. But maybe they were never in the army at all. Maybe they fled Russia to avoid conscription. Many Jews did. And many changed their names, thinking that the Russian authorities would search for them, even as far away as America.
When my grandfather and his brother(s) immigrated to America, what was their name? As the family story goes, they ended up with three different ones: Leibowitz, Levovich, and Levov (So there must have been three brothers). How did that happen? Was it because the letters in the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia do not have a one to one correspondence with letters in the English alphabet? Did officials at Ellis Island decide on names based upon phonetics or a rough approximation from the Russian that appeared on the manifests of the ships that brought immigrants to our shores? I don’t know if my grandfather was even literate, so maybe anything he said was reduced to its phonetic spelling. Or maybe my ancestors feared being found by Russian authorities and lied about their true identities.
I try to imagine the scene in the Brooklyn Hospital where my father was born and his birth certificate created. My grandmother, Ida, and my grandfather, Willie, speak only a little English, their primary languages being Russian and Yiddish. Maybe the nurse tells my grandparents that they need to name the baby before going home. They have decided on a Hebrew name. But the nurse is looking to fill in an English name on my father’s birth certificate. Maybe, something gets lost in translation and unbeknownst to everyone the “i” goes missing.
Reason#3: My father and OCD. The third reason the “i” may have mattered so much to my father is, I’m reasonably certain he had an obsessive/compulsive disorder. My father was never actually diagnosed with OCD. But when I think back on his behavior, it seems to fit. His nightly ritual consisted of checking the gas jets in the kitchen and then locking the front door. No sooner had he done this then he did it again, then again. I don’t recall how many times he had to walk this circuit and perform this ritual before he could go to bed.
Checking and rechecking his birth certificate: compulsive behavior. Ruminating about the truth of his name: obsessive behavior. Round and round the problem rolled about in his head, at once insoluble and unrelenting. And he, all the while wondering who he really was.
* * *
I don’t think I care whether or not my maiden name had an “i” after the “e.” It doesn’t matter to me when the mistake was made; who made it; or even what the mistake was. Still, for some reason I find myself spending hours at my computer on the official web site of Ellis Island, searching through an enormous data base containing the names of millions of immigrants who came through there from 1892 to 1954. These records were created by volunteers, many of whom were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, whose interest in genealogy made them willing to painstakingly transcribe information from microfilm of arriving ship manifests.
I find myself looking for Willie. I try as many possible names as I can think of: Leibowitz, Lebowitz, Levov, Levovich, L’vov, Luvich, Lefkowitz, Liebowicz. I try Willie, Willy, William, W alone, and no first initial.
I have so few clues. My father was born in 1908. Ida and Willie were married in New York. Allowing some time for them to meet and for Ida to be pregnant, I don’t look at any entries after 1907. I learn that the Russian pogroms didn’t begin in earnest until 1881, so I don’t look at anything before then.
I feel as though I am working on a jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing. I twist and bend the pieces I have to force them to fit. My heart jumps when I see the name William Leibowitz who arrived at Ellis Island in 1895. I click on a link to the relevant ship manifest. It lists his home residence as Galicia. That seems to fit since I think that was once part of Tsarist Russia. His occupation is listed as “laborer.” Okay. My grandfather was a carpenter, but he could easily have learned that trade in this country. The ship was out of Liverpool. That seems a long hike from Russia, but maybe, the real problem is his age is listed as 30. Did my 16-year-old grandmother really marry a man almost twice her age?
More problematic is that I believe Willie died in 1951 and I doubt that he was anywhere near the age of 86. Of course, given the way these records were created, the possibility for error is great. Maybe William actually said he was 23. Maybe the ship’s bursar or whoever first made any record, misunderstood him. Maybe the Mormon volunteer didn’t accurately interpret the handwritten notation. Maybe the microfilm was blurry and someone saw only the number “3” and, knowing it was unlikely that a 3-year old laborer boarded a ship, the best guess became “30.”
I look up the names of ships leaving from Bremen, the port I remember being mentioned by my grandmother. I look at the transcribed ship manifests. Columns on these lists record hometown, ethnicity, age, marital status, amount of money, and destination. I see many Jews (written in these records as Hebrew) from Russia and Romania, Hungary and Belarus, places where I know they lived in shtetls and endured brutal conditions. They are mostly young, alone, and without funds. Once in a while I see an entry, “Held for investigation.” I imagine a young man or woman suffering the long journey from Eastern Europe to America, alone and penniless, fleeing persecution, arriving in a foreign land, being questioned in a foreign tongue, all within sight of the Statue of Liberty and the port of New York. Here, but not here. What became of them, I wonder.
My search feels somehow desperate and sad. It’s not about a lost “i.” It’s about a lost history. Is this feeling different from that of an adopted child? Would I feel less sad if I didn’t feel like an actor in a mini-series about the Diaspora? Would it matter if there were more generations between me and my ancestors’ arrival in this country? Some feelings feel primitive, deep in the brain, part of one’s DNA. This feeling of loss is one of them.
* * *
The literal translation of the Russian word pogrom is, “To wreak havoc.” Perhaps if the Holocaust had not dwarfed the significance of the pogroms we would know more about them.
My grandmother spent her last days in a nursing home where, suffering from dementia, she was often tied down to her bed while she raved about Nazi atrocities. Since she neither experienced nor witnessed them, at the time I thought she had conflated German soldiers with the Russian Cossacks whom she actually had seen wreak havoc on her village in Russia or Russian- occupied Poland. Or maybe, the Nazis had come to be generic bogie men for all the groups who had terrorized Jews over the centuries. Looking back on it now, I wonder if my grandmother actually knew or surmised that members of her family who remained in Eastern Europe after she left perished in the Holocaust. Or maybe she couldn’t help but fantasize about what would have happened to her and her descendants had she not escaped.
* * *
Late one cold winter day, around closing time we left Yad Vashim, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. It was cloudy and looked as though it might rain, perhaps snow. My husband, Ken, was leaning against a wall adjacent to the path that would lead us to the bottom of the hill where we could catch a taxi back to our hotel. He was reloading his camera as I continued to walk. No one else was around. Suddenly, appearing as if out of nowhere, I saw huge walls of Jerusalem stone, the building material so prevalent in Israel. Large blocks of this yellow/pink stone sat one atop another in a seemingly random display, rising at least twenty feet. Nothing but gravity was keeping these rough-cut stones of uneven size together. Etched deeply into these stones were the names of countries, cities, and villages, written in both Hebrew and English. These names were not all of uniform height. The larger names represented larger populations. Walking amid these stones, I was lost in a labyrinth, where nothing was visible except the towering stones and the sky.
I was in an exhibit known as The Valley of the Communities, 5,000 Jewish communities that were destroyed or depleted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. There are 107 walls on 2.5 acres. They are dug into the ground in a plan, roughly the shape of Central and Eastern Europe.
I learned later that the architect intended my sense of claustrophobia. The visitor is supposed to feel trapped. I felt that and much more. I felt lost, alone, unmoored. I knew that somewhere on these walls were etched the names of the communities, the shtetls, that my grandparents fled during the pogroms, destroyed some fifty years later by the Nazis.
By the time Ken found me, the sky had darkened, the wind had picked up, and I was weeping. I wept for Willie and Ida who left their parents and homes. I wept for my mother’s parents, whose names I don’t even know. I wept for the six million and the unborn millions more. I wept for the lost communities. And I wept for my father who years earlier had wandered about his house wondering who he really was.