A dough-faced rabbi and an eyeliner-smeared sidekick met us in the airport, holding a small green sign to demarcate their purpose. My layers bunched around my leggings. After the plane ride, I didn’t give a fuck anymore. We rerouted into a bulky gray tour bus with a long, sprawling German word emblazoned on its side. It was one-thirty in the German morning. I huddled against the window seat with the least leg room, cozy and compact, prickling with defensiveness and relief as Samantha slid past me into a row farther back. The rabbi’s sidekick, Jane, counted us off: one, two, eighteen. The bus meandered through downtown Düsseldorf, which twinkled with troubadours and drunkenness. I imagined all of our luggage colliding into each other in the amorphous darkness underneath the bus.
There was nowhere to be alone.
At the hostel, we discarded our belongings next to twin-sized beds and clustered into the “entertainment room!,” decorated with Roy Lichtenstein – like drawings of women with exaggerated pouty lips and yellow blobs of abstract sky. The chairs were metal, hued in complementary shades of watermelon and rind. I was desperately tired in a way that promised no sleep. In the seat next to mine, the girl with the L‑initial necklace was trying to subtly employ her sleeve as a tissue. The TV screen shined darkly, crystalline, reflecting our airplane-stiffened bodies inching around the rabbi. He furtively licked his lips with the burgeoning of a group address.
“We have arrived,” he thundered, then cleared his throat for volume control. He told us how wonderful the trip would be; what a blessing it is for us to all be here together, studying our cultural history. In memory of our ancestors. Education, powerful, journey. Spirit. Jewish, Jewish. Stop criticizing the rabbi’s stale vocabulary, I reminded myself; this isn’t workshop. But it wasn’t just the phrasing, or the travel-funneled exhaustion — something about his delivery seemed insincere. Rehearsed. I was seeing the rabbi dismantled, in front a full-length mirror, practicing where to lay emphasis on each word, a sibilance sonata. I don’t trust you, I thought, and wanted to cry.
At graduate school, everyone I knew was an atheist. I alone was clandestine, anomalous, bound to ideas that the others considered a rite of passage to deny and weave into their narratives — at best with irony, and at worst with a brand of intellectual disdain that was predictable and monotonous but still led my stomach to windfall through my knees. Even my grandmother Joan, before she died, said that she thought all “real religious people” should be institutionalized. I did not know how to talk about God. I didn’t remember how to. Was this how to? Was believing just as much a performance as not believing?
The rabbi paused dramatically. “Now we will introduce ourselves,” he said, “and create a new community.” His wiry fingers were a cat’s cradle. “Please, go around and tell us your name, where you’re from, what you do for a living, and what compelled you to join the Jewish Young People’s Association for Remembrance and Change. Let’s begin with you,” he said, gesturing to Samantha.
“I hoped to gain greater insight about the injustice that faced my people throughout history,” Samantha reeled off in a poised, presentation-ready voice. I pushed my legs into each other until a squashed, slow pain entered my muscles. Kyle was the first person to say repression; Lauren was the first to use atrocity. No one was really listening, I consoled myself. My palms nipped with familiar clamminess. Bren made eye contact with me and held it.
“My name is Willa,” I started. “I am from New Jersey also. I study creative writing at Columbia. Um … why am I here, is that what’s next? My great-grandmother Cecilia died in the Holocaust.” Bren’s lips did something resembling a smile. “When I was eight …” I said, and then immediately regretted it because now I was going to tell this story. I couldn’t just stop. Or maybe I could make a different story. When I was eight, I decided I wanted to go to Germany and now I’m here. The end.
“When I was eight,” I said, “I had a Hebrew school teacher named Yael who got mad at me for wearing a red coat. It was winter, so a parka, I think. I really loved it. One day we were in Judaica class and she told me, if I were her daughter she would throw that coat out, and hadn’t we seen Schindler’s List? Didn’t we know what the red coat meant? And we hadn’t. She told us: that little girl died. The girl in the red coat. Yael was furious, and started talking about how irresponsible we were — our parents, that they just figured it was a history lesson but we should be talking about it, because it was going to happen again to us. Soon all of our coats would be red. She kept yelling, ‘It will happen again! It will happen again!’ And I ran straight home, you know, because it felt like the truth. Even to me, then; I was in third grade. But … it also felt like it had already happened to me. That I was carting around these repressed memories and it took a stranger to tell me what it was that kept me awake at night.”
I had been talking for too long and no one was looking at me besides Bren, and the rabbi.
“Shit,” Bren said finally. Someone shudderingly laughed.
Samantha eyed me. “You certainly have the capacity to bring down a room.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Thank you for sharing that powerful memory,” Rabbi boomed, glaring at Bren. “It was courageous.” His praise pulled like taffy, separating me even more determinedly from the group. “Courageous,” he repeated, and leaned forward to touch my hand. Do not recoil, I thought, and held my body still. I had cemented an identity for myself. The girl who knew death was coming.
Excerpted from WILLA & HESPER by Amy Feltman. Copyright © 2019 by Amy Feltman. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.