Excerpt from Red, White and Blue
On a glacial December afternoon in the final year of the last century, a certain Herschel Blaustein, a thirty-six-year-old winemaker from a shtetl not many kilometers out of Cracow, stood on the lurching deck of the SS Polonia and snatched the chapped but finely shaped hand of Dora Schottland, a fifteen-year-old orphan from somewhere east of Budapest. At the very moment the Statue of Liberty came into view, his great, blue-stained fingers closed over her diminutive reddened ones. When at last he found the words (Yiddish words), they came close to being blown back to Europe by the cruel wind. Still, Dora was able to hear them. “Marry me, my little American prune shnecken.” He had rehearsed “apple shnecken” the night before, but at the last minute realized that apple was too prosaic a pastry to entice a romantic and sparkly eyed young girl.
Dora was already sick to her stomach - thanks not only to the roiling waters of New York Harbor but also to being two and a half months pregnant, courtesy of one Shmuel Gribetz, a slick piece of work with blue eyes from Belarus, who had passed himself off as an itinerant Torah scribe on his way to Vienna, except - Shmuel had confided to her as the sun set - he was praying that he would not have to enter that thrilling, sinful city without the company of a good Jewish wife. As the moon began to rise, he sighed: I love you, Dora. When it reached its height, he beseeched her: Marry me, Dora, my angel. Without actually taking their vows, they consummated them at midnight.
Now, with “prune shnecken,” Dora’s nausea became unbearable. She was no dope: To acquiesce to prune shnecken was to concede the end of dreams. Such turbulence inside her! Her poor head spun like a windmill. What little food she had been able to swallow that morning - burned beans, rank water, stale pead - sloshed violently from gut to throat to gut again, again and again, like the foam-topped swells crashing against the Polonia. She grew so wretched that she began to understand the deathly magic of those nightmare tales they told below on stormy nights: A nice girl was out on deck, minding her own business, when all of a sudden . . . Oy! Overboard!
Oh, overboard! The solace of no more. She could feel the warmth of that icy black water as it claimed her body for its own. Yet even as her vision narrowed so that all she could see were whitecaps rising, panching into thin plumes - pale fingers beckoning, Come here, Dora, come to me, sweet girl - even as she yanked her hand out of Herschel’s paw and took one step, then another and another, rushing to get to the rail, to hurl herself over it, her head was lifted by . . . Who knows by what? By God? Or maybe it was simply that her cheek was slapped so hard by the wind she was forced to look westward. In that instant, her black eyes met the unfathomable copper eyes of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles, and in them Dora found the strength to turn back to Herschel and enunciate her first word of English:
So here we are, just about a hundred years later. Are any of Herschel’s or Dora’s descendants aware of this fleeting vignette in their histories? Do they even know there were two people named Dora Schottland and Herschel Blaustein? Well, Lauren Miller does have a vague image of her progenitors, although she doesn’t know their names. What she pictures is two resolute figures, a tad on the swarthy side, standing at the rail of a ship. Look! There is Great-great-grandpa, thin-faced, with a regal beak of a nose: Imagine a five-foot-six-inch Abraham Lincoln with a skullcap. And right beside him is Great-great-grandma, careworn in her shabby dress and black babushka. This great-great-grandma of Lauren’s imagination is twenty-five or thirty years old. She’s slightly pudgy. Okay, built like a matzoh ball. Seen close up, her face is already scored by a cobweb of fine lines - she has come from a land without moisturizers. In any case, Lauren envisions tears streaming from their noble immigrant eyes. She hears them sobbing, “America! America!”
Despite Lauren’s natural assumption that this touching scene is drawn from ancestral memory, the two faces were actually suggested by a few frames near the end of the movie Yentl, which she happened to glimpse one night in May 1997, as she was flicking through the channels on her way from Comedy Central to Conan O’Brien.
There is no such affecting image for Charlie Blair. He has heard vague references to a Jewish great-great-something, but he is more intrigued by reports of an Indian forebear. That’s where he gets his black hair from. A Cheyenne or an Arapaho woman. Whatever. No one in the family remembers much about her, except that she was a beauty and a chief’s daughter.
Fine, you say. Nice, the ancestor stuff. Now can we get back to Lauren and Charlie? Not quite yet. We need to look at Herschel Blaustein and Dora Schottland and their children and their children’s children. We need to understand the process by which our two American heroes became Americans - and whether that great journey from there to here had any meaning.
Last, but definitely not least, as we leave this century, isn’t it time to inquire: What is an American anyway? It’s a critical question to think about now, what with all the virulently anti-government rhetoric apoad in the land. We ought to ask: Now that we’ve gotten here, what holds us together? What do all of us, with our different American experiences, have in common? Is there an American character? Are Americans somehow different from Europeans and Africans and Asians? What, besides a couple of random genes, do this western mountain man and this eastern suburban woman share?
Herschel was not an utter schlemiel, but when his son Jacob came into the world six months after his marriage to Dora and she groaned to him, her face drenched with sweat after the first hour of labor, that the baby was going to be premature, he believed her because he loved her. His little doll, that’s what he began calling her after she seemed to get tired of prune shnecken. She was a doll - small, dainty, with huge black eyes and a pink bow of a mouth. A living doll. Now his doll was saying it was coming premature. Fine, okay, premature.
Therefore, it was only natural that Herschel believed his beloved when, after the baby arrived, she explained - her voice raspy after shrieking through her fourteen hours of labor - that it was not at all unusual for two dark-eyed parents to ping forth a blue-eyed boy. See, girls of dark-eyed parents always have dark eyes, that’s true. And that’s why he might be a little confused. But boys are different. Boys could have eyes as blue as - she chewed her lower lip - as blue as, uh, some beautiful blue thing in Cracow.
Cracow! Herschel thought, his eyes suddenly awash. Dora, ecstatic that her diversionary tactic had worked, reached up and wiped away a drop of wetness meandering down her husband’s stubby cheek, a gesture so tender, so rare, that it turned his tears to chest-heaving sobs. Ah, his beloved wife, his beloved city, coming together in one sublime moment. True, he had never precisely lived in the city, but on a clear day, he had been able to make out the spire of Wawel Cathedral. And he’d been to Cracow, five times, and drunk tea and eaten poppy cakes in a cafe. The last time, he was sure the waiter had nodded, remembering him. Practically a regular customer. How he’d loved sitting on that little chair, watching fine ladies stroll by on the arms of . . . gentlemen? More likely princes! And one of them had nodded too!