No. 1: Welcome to Fatherland

What Have I Done?

What Have I Done?

This is a picture of my father, Henry Ebel, holding me, Kathy Ebel.

Check out the look in his eyes. Those are crazy eyes, am I right? He’s glaring at me, for God’s sakes. He doesn’t know who I am or how I got there or what he did to deserve it or what the fuck he’s supposed to do about it now.

In 1970, two years after this picture was taken, my father splits. I see him occasionally until I am seven years old, and then it’s Radio Silence for the next 19 years, until I meet him again when I’m 26.

He died in 2009.

I wasn’t mentioned in his will.

By which I don’t mean “Boo-hoo, my father passed away and I got bupkus.” He didn’t acknowledge me as a next of kin whatsoever, I’m just saying is all. These facts support my interpretation of this image.  The first time I see this picture, I see it one way only.  I’m convinced it reveals a unique emotional truth.  And also, that it predicts the future.

My father was born in Berlin in 1938. He lived at Iranische Strasse 2. He fled Germany, with my grandparents and his older brother, about a year later. I know only the bullet-points of my father’s life, a generational combo-platter: Morningside Heights, Stuyvesant High School, Columbia, phi beta kappa, Ph.D, LSD, primal scream therapy.

Sure, none of us knows our fathers. But I really didn’t know mine. So from these shreds – a little ‘Punch” magazine here, a little Constant Comment tea there, a fringed suede jacket, the cover of Sgt. Pepper — I’ve hallucinated a ghostly person and a flimsy story, filtered through my hyperactive imagination, influenced by my chaotic childhood in and around New York City in the 1970’s and 80’s. I know much more about my mother’s immigrant story, and since she raised me, I’ve inflated her mythology to fill the gap left by my father’s absence. I’ve told myself I don’t really have a father, which has been easier to digest than the shards he left behind. Add a couple of decades of living on the hallucinatory fumes of this concoction and the result is a deep sense of personal disorientation.

And then one day, several months after my father’s death, I’m sitting in Video Village, the cluster of captain’s chairs arranged around a pair of monitors on a dusty, cavernous Warner Brothers sound stage in Burbank, California.

This is the set of the CBS cop show COLD CASE, where I am a staff writer overseeing my first episode for the series.    The story is about the murder of a young Russian opera star whose family defects to the United States just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She’s hot, she’s got pipes, she wants to sing American rock and roll, not the opera for which she’s been trained in a Soviet conservatory. Rejecting her father? Bucking the system? Determined to express her own voice?

It’s clear the bitch must die.

I am deep in conversation with a visiting director about something else entirely. I’m going to call him Casper Fleming. (This is not his real name.)

Casper, a talented theater and film director breaking into TV, is shadowing the director-for-hire for the duration of the shoot, and we hit it off immediately. There is something rushed and breathless about our chemistry. It’s the transplanted New Yorker thing, it’s I’m-gay-you’re-straight-let’s-fall-in-love, it’s what-are-we-doing-on-the-set-of-a-Bruckheimer-cop-show-when-we’re-both-supposed-to-be-starring-in-a-revival-of-Company. Casper and I rapidly construct a pile-up of personal and pop-cultural references and nimbly climb it.  From the top, we  survey a landscape of Sondheim lyrics, Paul Smith glasses frames, last week’s New Yorker cover, obsession with the presidential election, white anchovies, tooth bleaching, Gucci horse-bit loafers, our careers, and the offerings at craft services. Into this mix we gleefully add parallel tales of nightclubs visited in lower Manhattan between 1986 and 1992, and the freewheeling assembly of People We Have In Common that I refer to as Jewish Geography.

But when we realize that we are both First Generation, his father from Italy, mine from Germany, that’s when our bond is Crazy Glued. Of course Casper and I are destined to be here now, to change one another’s lives.

“You know,” Casper advises me, “you could probably apply for German citizenship. That’s what I did with Italy, and now I have my E.U. passport. It came in wonderfully handy when I was shooting my costume drama there.”

German citizenship.

E.U. passport.

Wonderfully handy.

So I start to poke around. And I find out about Article 116 par. 2 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz). It goes something like this:

“Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored.”

I decide to scrape up whatever documentation about my father and his family’s flight from Germany that I can.

I decide to see if Germany will have me back.

And this blog will monitor my progress.

At first, I think I won’t have anything to say, this experiment won’t count, unless the German government opens its pale, muscled arms to me.  Then I’ll move to Berlin with my family for a year or two to write a book about being the New Jewess in town. We’ll live in the Turkish quarter, become experts on the hip-hop scene, our son will go to the International School, he’ll make terrific new friends with villas in Croatia,  and memories of Bed, Bath and Beyond will fade from his mind.  I’ll get a job doing something for somebody, the heels of my pumps will click urgently on cobblestones slick with a November rain as I wrap my Burberry trench tighter against the chill of the evening and hurry home from the metro through pools of lamplight to our flat, a brown paper package of sausages and a Herald Tribune under my arm…shit, we might never even come back.

But then I realize, shit.  They might not want me back.

The Federal Republic of Germany might hold me at arm’s length, flashing those crazy eyes. “Who are you?” they might say. “How did you get here?” “What did we do to deserve this?” “What are we supposed to do about this now?”

But if I wait to have a story worth telling, I might miss the story I am standing in right now, in the middle of my life, at the edge of the country, in the foreign city I already live in.

Welcome to Fatherland.

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No. 16: Stale-Ciabatta-on-the-Sea

I’m driving through foul rush-hour traffic to Santa Monica, my mother and son in the back seat, my mother’s then-boyfriend, Arthur, riding shotgun.

It’s the visual of Los Angeles traffic that threatens to unravel me even more than its frustrated pace.  That apocalyptic view northward up the 405.  A glinting march of cars to the horizon.  Any minute the brown clouds are going to boil, the enormous spacecraft is going to appear, and all those bodies are going to emerge from their Nissans, scurry around the freeway like hopeless ants, and get vaporized.

But it’s all good.  We’re on our way to Tashlikh, being held this year at the Santa Monica beach near lifeguard station 26.

Tashlikh (pronounced TASH-licccccch) is a Jewish tradition that’s practiced at the New Year, Rosh Hashanah.  You “empty your pockets” of the sins of the previous year by symbolically tossing bread into a living body of water, in our case, the Pacific.

Sins, schmins.

For me, Tashlikh is the chance to create the transition into a new year, a new beginning.  To retire any habits of thought or behavior, any unfinished, dogged, weighty psychic business.  The live water is a powerful reminder of the cycle of life, how thoughts and experiences move through us, how we can let go into the flow of life, be carried by the flow of life, trust the motion of life to take us forward.

It’s really quite Buddhist, as most things are if you let them.

The group that’s gathered near the lifeguard station is mostly families with kids. (Subcategories include: Funky-But-Competitive Private School Moms, Matching Lesbian Moms, and Former-Brandeis-Frat Boy-Turned Super Jew-Super Dads.)  Also represented are hot young Jewish singles hoping to spawn within the next five years or so, and politically progressive empty nesters in orthopedic sandals.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, who’s brilliant, personable, inspired and really, really cute in her cuffed jeans and good sunglasses, addresses the group that’s gathered by the lifeguard station.  She speaks stirringly about the transforming power of our greatest heartbreaks and mistakes that Tashlikh offers.

Rabbi Brous suggests that as we approach the ocean with our hunks of bread, we consider three aspects of the ritual.

1)    What loose emotional ends of the past year do we need to tie up?  Is there an apology we owe? Forgiveness we must grant?

2)    What intractable emotional situations do we need to simply let go of?

3)    Do we need to forgive ourselves?

Now’s the time, people.  Kiss your stale ciabatta up to God.

I stand at the edge of the giant ocean, the gentle surf hurrying in, a fresh wind blowing as the sun slants low in the sky.  My ridiculously tan, bare-chested son frolics in his trunks, makes friends, taunts seagulls.  He’s a California kid.

I look out over the ocean and I breathe.

I now forgive myself,” I say to myself, closing my eyes, “for all the ways I’ve let fear and a reptilian anxiety to merely survive run my life.  For all the decisions I’ve made out of fear.  For confusing bluster with honesty.   For trying to “be successful” when I might have been investing in the cultivation of my voice. I forgive myself for blindly continuing the pattern of severing that runs through my family, by severing myself inwardly, creatively. I now let myself create from a new place.  I trust this place will take me somewhere new.  I trust that I can create the things in my life that I want.”

Amen to that.   I open my eyes, drink in the abundant ocean, and chuck the carbs seaward.  Feeling like a person who has lived her whole life with her face to the corner of the room, and who now turns around to observe all that space.

In the car on the way home, Arthur asks me if I have really considered and researched the implications of becoming a dual citizen.

Well, actually, no.  But I’ve pictured myself in a Burberry trench, hurrying home on a rainy street to my fabulous loft apartment in whatever Berlin neighborhood resembles Williamsburg eight years ago.  Does that count?

“It’s my impression,” Arthur continues, “that the United States government doesn’t always take kindly to people who hold dual citizenship.  If you were to get into some sort of situation overseas, you don’t know if the U.S. government might tell you you’re no longer their problem.  It could be a difficult situation.”

Dude!  Way to stomp my mellow!  I just did my annual anti-fear Jewy voodoo!  Now the image of a hash bust at my Berlin house party while I’m just trying to shake my ass to some Turkish hip-hop is seriously threatening my nougaty cloud!

“You mean like how in this country,” I bridle, “when Hurricane Katrina hits, American citizens can count on the U.S. government to help them?”

“I’m not saying I’m a huge fan of the U.S. government,” says Arthur. “I’m just suggesting for your own sake and the sake of everybody else you should really be thoughtful and consider the enormous thing you are about to do, and educate yourself before you commit.”

“I’ll look into it,” I say.

“Hello…1-900-Bad-Things-Seem-To-Keep-Happening-To-Good-Jews-dot-Gov?  Yes, hi!  It’s Kathy here.  Say.  I’m just wondering.  (This is not for me, by the way – it’s for a friend.)  So say I get dual citizenship and then something really, really, really bad happens.  Are you guys like totally gonna dick me over?  And if so, when they make the Lifetime movie about my stay in a German prison, can you help me get my script to Toni Collette?  I mean, my friend.  Sure, I can hold.”

No. 17: Twenty Questions for my Grandmother, Leaving Europe, December 14, 1938, age 25

Holland America pamphlet coverHolland America pamphlet frontispieceHolland America passenger list

No. 1) How do you know what to pack, and how much, and what to leave behind?

No. 2) Is everything packed in labeled boxes, stacked neatly in the bedrooms and along the central hallway, or do you make the beds, prepare a grocery list for weekend entertaining, crack the windows, and otherwise proceed as if you’ll be home soon?

No. 3) Do you call around to your friends in the building?  We’re going away for awhile, and I have these gorgeous bananas I hate to see go to waste, will you pop round and take them off my hands?

No. 4) Do people in your circle know that you’re leaving town, or do you hide your plan?  Do you feel guilty to have landed an 11th-hour visa?  Entitled?

No. 5) What about all your stuff?  You’ve been married two years.  Your wedding presents.  Do you sew cash into coat linings?  Stuff your safe-deposit box with silverware?

No. 6) What about the ardent notes from the boy back in Poland you’ve saved in a shoebox on the top shelf of the coat closet?  Do you toss them into the fireplace?

No. 7) And all of your stockings, your slips, your clip-on earrings, your magazine subscriptions, the sheets you just had monogrammed, the African violets on the sitting room windowsill.  Do you fret about these, or have they already ceased to exist?

No.  8 ) By what route do you travel from Berlin to Rotterdam?  What do you see on the way?  On the train, do you notice other families in transit, respectably dressed for an outing to the public gardens but seeping with alarm, clutching one another’s hands too tightly?

No. 9) As you walk the gangplank to the S.S. Statendam, your 5-month-old son in your arms, is your throat tight?  Does your heart race?  Do you dare not look around?  Or are you already beginning to breathe again?

No. 10) What is the scene like in the ship’s dining room?  Do you scan other families, mothered by young Jewish women like yourself in tweed skirt suits, in mohair dresses, in fur stoles and cloth coats, in dark lipstick, with hairpins loosened, and do you wonder Who will be my friend? Or do you take your meals in your cabin, letting your leek soup grow cold, the idea of company unbearable?

No. 11) Do you lie in your cabin bunk as your husband snores gently beside you, staring at the ceiling, eating square after square of bitter chocolate until the whole bar is gone?

No. 12)  Do you wake in the middle of the night, and see that your baby is awake, too, lying in the hammock-like bassinet that sways from a hook in the ceiling?  Quietly, quietly, do you wrap your camel-hair coat over your nightgown, and slip your feet into your loafers, and close the door quietly behind you, and marvel that your baby seems to know better than to make a peep, and make your way to the deck, and stand against the railing, and look out over the moonlit water as it surrounds you, and look down at the churning wake, piling up behind the ship like lace, and consider jumping?

No. 13) In the morning, does your husband surprise you with a hair appointment and a manicure, scheduled in the ship’s beauty parlor, and do you burst into tears?

No. 14) Do you borrow a Harper’s Bazaar from the ship’s beauty parlor, and do you slowly devour it page by page as you sprawl on your bunk as the baby naps, paying particular attention to the color advertisements since you don’t yet read or speak English? The handy six-bottle carton is for your convenience…to provide the pause that refreshes with ice-cold Coca-Cola in your home.  All the family will welcome this pure refreshment, pure as sunlight.

No. 15) Do you smoke cigarettes?

No. 16) Who is going to meet you when your ship arrives in New York?

No. 17)    Where will you go?

No. 18)    How do you figure out what to do?

No. 19)    On a scale from one-to-ten, how terrified are you?

No. 20)    Do you suddenly remember that you forgot to ask your neighbor to water your African violets?

You are 25 years old.