Jews Pray­ing in the Syn­a­gogue on Yom Kip­pur (Mau­rycy Got­tlieb) via Wiki­me­dia Commons

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 moved from Guatemala to the Unit­ed States at the age of ten and attend­ed school in South Flori­da and North Car­oli­na. The recip­i­ent of a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship, Roger Cail­lois Prize, and José María de Pere­da Prize for the Short Nov­el, he is the author of two pre­vi­ous nov­els pub­lished in Eng­lish: The Pol­ish Box­er, a New York Times Edi­tors’ Choice selec­tion and final­ist for the Inter­na­tion­al Lati­no Book Award, and Monastery, longlist­ed for the Best Trans­lat­ed Book Award.