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Flip The Script: Lea Goldberg, Lady of the Castle

Today was graduation day here in Madison. For so many, it was the first day of independence, of freedom, of new lives…but for me, it was just another day. Of course, I’ve been there – twice – and I’m sincerely happy for everyone, but a part of me is a little nostalgic. So many people will be leaving Madison (and me) behind.

Life goes on, though; ironically, a feature of the bone-chilling play I read today, so here we go:

Flip The Script: Lea Goldberg, Lady of the Castle

Recap:

One night in 1949, Michael Sand and Dora Ringel find themselves in the library of a castle in Central Europe where Sand has been doing research, seeking to spend the night there rather than face the raging storm outside. Zabrodsky, the groundskeeper, initially discourages them from staying, but quickly changes his mind when Dora suggests the castle might not be the best place to spend the night. After he leaves to prepare a bedroom, Dora becomes frightened and asks Sand to leave, but before long Zabrodsky returns with the news that there is only enough room for Dora; Sand will have to stay in his own bedroom with him. Dora asks about the history of the castle (she is interested, since she works with Jewish children who were hidden in places like this during the war), and Sand asks suggestively if the castle has any ghosts or secret doors, and when Zabrodsky gets defensive, he apologizes for them, but gets more than he bargained for when Zabrodsky reveals that he is not just the castle’s groundskeeper but its resident ghost. Sand, ever the interested researcher of oddities, asks to see a cuckoo clock on the top shelf, and is told by Zabrodsky that it is broken and should not be touched. Upon Zabrodsky bidding Sand and Dora good night and Dora retiring to the next room, Sand sneaks up to the top shelf, retrieves the clock and a key, which he uses to wind the clock. It is indeed functional, and doesn’t just bring out a cuckoo, but the spirit of a young girl who screams and collapses on the floor.

In Act II, Sand tries to comfort the girl, whose screams have brought Dora back. The girl, who reveals herself to be a Jewish girl named Lena, refuses to believe Sand and Dora when they tell her that World War II is over, she is safe to come out, and “the Count” (Zabrodsky) has been denying her freedom this whole time for no reason. Lena slowly believes them, but still clutches onto an amulet, which she claims was a gift from her mother, but Sand discovers it’s a poison pill and tries to wrest it from her. Dora explains that she is a “Youth Aliya” worker, working to help children like Lena who have been hidden in Europe, and bringing them to Israel for societal rehab. Lena then turns to think that “the Count” is not her oppressor and that Dora and Sand are indeed Nazis, so she runs to get Zabrodsky but cannot make it down the stairs. She then starts to entertain the thought of leaving with them, especially when Dora discovers Lena’s last name and determines that she knows Lena’s Aunt Lisa, who is alive and well in Palestine, when Zabrodsky storms in.

And that’s when things get weird.

Act III begins with Zabrodsky entering with anger that Lena has escaped and Dora and Sand have spoiled her with news from the outside world. Lena harbors rage against Zabrodsky, who admits his lie, but he also admits his love for her and his desire to keep her safe. As he debates with Dora and Sand, the rain has stopped and Lena leans out the window, the first time it’s been opened in over two years. She then has this insane monologue about wanting to go outside and smell the rain. Dora says that she can have all that if she comes with them, but she gets scared and runs back through the secret door from whence she came. Dora and Sand scream after her, but Zabrodsky seems to snap back to reality, wondering why they’re screaming and who Lena is. He then insists that they have been the ones yelling and opening windows, and when Sand pulls back the curtain behind which Lena disappeared, there’s no secret door present. Zabrodsky then tells them that, like Sand’s earlier joke, he too joked about being a ghost and that the two of them must have had some sort of hallucination. Dora and Sand defend themselves but start to back down when they realize how silly they sound…and then Lena comes back out and nobody knows what to believe. No longer in her nightgown but rather a proper dress, Lena announces that she’s ready to go with Sand and Dora to Palestine. Zabrodsky gives her permission, and they leave him behind in the castle as the clock strikes midnight.

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אין סוף (Without End)

I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.

I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.

Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.

Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”

I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.

“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”

“Always?”

I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

“Yes,” I said, “always.”

“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”

– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30

Bubbehor La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.

We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.

What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.

This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.

To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.

My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.

I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.

My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.

Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”

With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.

Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.

Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.

Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.

Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.

Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.

I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.

La bobe

This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.