Excerpted from Mourning by Eduardo Halfon, and translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn.
The following scene comes from that mysterious and wonderful space that lies somewhere between my memories of childhood and fiction.
I was still hungry, still1 looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth2, when the rabbi at the Plantation3 synagogue stopped right in front of me. He was a handsome man, with dark skin and green eyes. He looked like he was boiling in his long white satin robe. He was holding a thin silver rod whose tip was a miniature hand, its index finger extended, pointing.4 My two grandfathers stood.
The rabbi said something to them gravely, his face bathed in sweat. I didn’t know if I should stand as well, so I remained seated, looking up at them, hearing how mygrandfathers began whispering names and numbers to the rabbi. One of my grandfathers would say a name and the rabbi would repeat that name and then my grandfather would say a number and the rabbi would repeat that number. And on like that. Names and numbers. One of my grandfathers, then the other. And the rabbi was taking note of it all. Masha5, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then he said a number. Myriam6, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. Shmuel7, whispered my Polish grandfather, and then said another number. Bela8, whispered my Lebanese grandfather, and then said another number. I was a little frightened. I understood nothing. Perhaps because of my grandfathers’ whispering, it all seemed part of a secret or forbidden ceremony. I turned and was about to ask my father what was going on, but he shouted at me with his eyes and so I thought better of it and kept quiet. My grandparents continued standing, continued whispering names and numbers, and more names and numbers, and then, amid all that whispering, I clearly heard my Lebanese grandfather pronounce the name Salomón.9
The prayer finally ended. We all went out into the lobby, where there was a long table with crackers and cookies and orange juice and coffee, to break the fast. The kids, no longer in jackets and ties, were running all over. The adults were hardly speaking. My father told me to eat slowly, to eat very little.10 I had a powdery cookie11 in my hand and was taking small bites when Iasked my father in English why my grandfathers had told the rabbi all those names. With some trouble, my father explained to me in Spanish that that was the prayer to honor the memory of the dead. Yizkor, it’s called, he said. And the numbers they were saying? I asked. Tzedakah, he said. Donations, he said. A certain amount of money for the name of each of the dead, hesaid, and immediately I formed a commercial idea of the entire affair, understood that each name had its price. And how do you know how much each name costs? I asked my father, but he simply made a weary face and took a sip of coffee. I kept nibbling the cookie. Names of dead family members? I asked, and after a silence he said yes, but also dead friends, and dead soldiers, and the dead six million, and that number, for a Jew, even a Jew who’s just a boy, needed no further explanation. Also the name of your brother Salomón, then, the one who drowned in the lake? I knew I was asking an illicit, even dangerous question.12 But I was thirteen now, I was all man now, I fasted now, I was now allowed to ask adults questions. My father observed me for a few seconds and I thought he was about to start crying. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he stammered, and left me alone with my cookie.
1 Still. This one word is important here. Not just hungry, but still hungry. Not just looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth, but still looking up at my grandfather’s false teeth. In the book, there’s a first part to this scene in the synagogue, before a long ellipsis of eight or ten pages, where the narrator goes on a trip to Germany and Poland. An ellipsis sparked by the sight of the grandfather’s false teeth. The word “still”, then, works as a way back for the reader after that long trip. A re-entry point to the synagogue and the hunger.
2 “It had never occurred to me that on his arrival in Guatemala in 1946, when he was barely twenty-five years old, after the war, after being prisoner in several concentration camps, my Polish grandfather had already lost all of his teeth.” Mourning, p. 89
3 “My parents, after selling our house, had left us at my grandparents’ and traveled to the United States to find a new house, to buy furniture, to enroll us in school, to get everything there ready for the move. A temporary move, my parents insisted, just until the whole political situation here improved. What political situation? I didn’t fully understand what they meant by the whole political situation of the country, despite having become used to falling asleep to the sound of bombs and gunfire; and despite the rubble I’d seen with a friend on the land behind my grandparents’ house, rubble that had been the Spanish embassy, my friend explained, after it was burned down with white phosphorus by government forces, killing thirty-seven employees and peasants who were inside; and despite the fighting between the army and some guerillas right in front of my school, in Colonia Vista Hermosa, which kept us students locked in the gym the entire day. Nor did I fully understand how it could be a temporary move if my parents had already sold and emptied our house. It was the summer of ’81. I was about to turn ten years old.” Mourning, p. 73
4 Called a Yad, or Torah pointer, it ensures that the parchment of the Torah is not touched during the reading. Not required, but considered a hidur mitzvah, an embellishment of the commandment. As a child, I saw that long silver rod almost as a wand, and its wielder as a sorcerer.
5 My Polish grandfather’s mother. She was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
6 My Egyptian grandmother’s mother. Although she died in Lima, Peru, she’s buried in Jerusalem, where she was born.
7 My Polish grandfather’s father, a tailor by trade. He was part of the last shipment of Jews from the Lodz ghetto. Probably killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
8 My Lebanese grandfather’s mother. Died suddenly during their exodus from Beirut to France, when my grandfather was a teenager. Buried somewhere in Corsica.
9 “His name was Salomón. He died when he was five years old, drowned in Lake Amatitlán. That’s what they told me when I was a boy, in Guatemala. That my father’s older brother, my grandparents’ firstborn, who would have been my uncle Salomón, had drowned in Lake Amatitlán in an accident, when he was the same age as me, and that they’d never found his body. We used to spend every weekend at my grandparents’ house on the lakeshore, and I couldn’t look at that water without imagining the lifeless body of Salomón suddenly appearing. I always imagined him pale and naked, and always floating facedown by the old wooden dock. My brother and I had even invented a secret prayer, which we’d whisper on the dock — and which I can still recall — before diving into the lake. As if it were a kind of magic spell. As if to banish the ghost of the boy Salomón, in case the ghost of the boy Salomón was still swimming around. I didn’t know the details of the accident, nor did I dare to ask. No one in the family talked about Salomón. No one even spoke his name.” Mourning, p. 69
10 The idea here is that, after a long fast, it’s better not to eat too much or too quickly in order to give the body time to readjust. We usually had a light snack at the synagogue, and then a heavier meal at home a few hours later.
11 These sweet, powdery Lebanese cookies are called ghraybehs. There was always a jar filled with them in my grandmother’s cupboard. They seem to punctuate and sweeten the moments and memories of my childhood. Almost like sporadic drops of rose water.
12 This is the first memory I have of intentionally wanting to know more about the death of my father’s brother, Salomón, or Solly, as my grandmother called her first-born.
Excerpt from Mourning. Copyright © 2018 by Eduardo Halfon, translation copyright © 2018 by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Eduardo Halfon was born in Guatemala in 1971. His latest book, Mourning, was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, and won the International Latino Book Award and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, a distinction presented annually to a writer whose fiction is considered to have significance for American Jews.