Eleanor Antin

Since both my parents were Marxists, naturally they were atheists. Ever since I was a little kid, I knew that God never came to our house. We never went to his. Not like the Italian kids on my block. They could never get away from him. Apparently he spied on them all the time, like Sen. McCarthy spied on us. If those kids did bad things, they got damned. That’s pretty serious stuff. They burn in Hell. And that’s not for just a couple of days. Its forever. They’ll keep burning forever and ever. Would they get all black and ashen and curl at the edges like burning paper? That part wasn’t too clear. But I was jealous of the confirmation girls. They strutted around in frilly white dresses like little brides, and when their parents weren’t looking, the boys in their shiny black suits would stick out their tongues at the Jewish kids playing ball. Later, after church, they came back and chased us off the sidewalk chanting

“Me and my friend Anee

We come from Italee,

We shina the shoes

And killa the jews

Me and my friend Anee.

So sometime back then, when I was in 2nd or maybe 3rd grade, I began to feel cheated. Who do they think they are anyway, those Italian kids! They’re dumb, too. They aren’t in the smart classes like the Jewish kids. They won’t even go to college. They’ll be workers. Though workers are good…. But they wouldn’t be the good ones. They’d be scabs, probably. They’d cross picket lines. They’d be in cahoots with the FBI. So who would be the good workers if all the Jews were in college? All I needed was a bible and I’d show them. Unfortunately, we didn’t have one in the house, not even an abridged one. We had several dictionaries though. I chose the blue Webster over the red Thorndyke. It was fatter with gold lettering on the cover and very delicate, almost transparent paper. So every Sunday morning, I put on my mother’s heels and a kerchief on my head, and hobbled around my room like a little old lady going to church. I would open the dictionary to religious words and read them aloud in a slow, serious, sonorous voice like a priest or a rebbe. I looked up at the sky a lot to make sure God was listening. First, I read the word so God would know what I was talking about. Then I read the full definition. Sometimes a short one but sometimes quite long. I read the definitions of God, Jesus, church, prayer, sermon, graveyard, whatever religious word I knew. Then I looked up at the sky, put down the book, clasped my hands to my breast and said Amen. A long drawn out sincere Amen was very important. It meant the End. Period. It closed the book. Literally, as I picked up my bible and walked out of church, meaning I walked around the room once, then went out the door, put the dictionary back in the book case in the living room and came back to my room to jump back into bed and play with my paperdolls or read a book or maybe feel myself up. Though that wasn’t such a good idea on a Sunday morning when everybody was home. My mother could come in and catch me. My family wasn’t big on privacy.

Back in the shtetel in Poland my father’s father was a famous atheist, sort of like a desperado, I think. Women covered their children’s faces when he passed in the street. So he went to America where people had more education and didn’t worry about such things. They made money instead. My father likes to tell this story. He’s proud of his father, even if he didn’t make any money in America. But my mother’s father was just the opposite. A great Hassidic wise man, Reb Shmuelmacheh with the long white beard. People came to him to solve their problems. Like the baker’s wife who wouldn’t clean the house? The baker is distraught. There are tears in his eyes. What does she do all day while he slaves over the hot ovens? Sits at the table and gorges on his food? What are you dreaming about with your head in your hands, you courveh? he shouts. Warsaw? Are you dreaming of Warsaw? Or the brother in law robbing the poor widow of her last 5 roubles? He owes it to me, that rotten husband of hers, he rages. He had no right to die. He still owes me 100 roubles. I have 9 children. They don’t have shoes on their feet. She is pulling out her hair in despair. They are hooligans, your children, she screams. Look, Reb Shmuelmacheh, my children, are they not angels? The tears run down her worn cheeks. They have only 2 pairs of shoes, 2 pairs of shoes for 5 children. It is a shanda for the Jews. Aren’t you ashamed for the Poles to see? My poor Moishe will turn over in his grave. How can you do this to your brother’s children, you stinker? I hear their voices shouting in my head, their hands imploring Reb Shmuelmacheh to translate the word of God and vindicate them. One night, when she was very small, my mother peeked inside the window of crazy Pinchuk’s house and there he was, crazy Pinchuk, lying on the kitchen table while her father shouted strange words at him. But her mother came and dragged her away. “Don’t ever tell anybody,” she whispered, slapping the little girl’s face for emphasis. “He is exorcising the bad demon in poor Pinchuk’s broken body. Now, he will go to school and read books like the other children.” “Will he do arithmetic, too?” my mother marvels. This is a mixed blessing. She won’t be able to steal poor Pinchuk’s pennies anymore when he can count them correctly. “Please be to God,” her mother says. “Please be to God!”

But god is like chocolates. He can explode gloriously in your mouth but even if you’re careful and nibble at him in small bites, sooner or later, usually sooner, he’s gone, leaving you lonely and forlorn. Some years later when I was in high school, I remember desperately falling down on my knees when I thought I was pregnant and begging god for help. I don’t remember who the father was, and maybe I didn’t even know, but when I missed a period, I was terrified the way we all used to be in those days when abortions were done in back alleys with slimey amateurs and dirty knives. Now I didn’t know anything about that really, I had never had an abortion or known anyone who had, and for all I knew you could find a decent doctor willing to help a poor girl for a hundred dollars. But that was a lot of money in those days. I certainly didn’t have it. I only got 75 cents an hour for baby sitting and I was saving for an angora sweater. My parents wouldn’t kill me but they’d yell and my mother would wring her hands and cry. Though if I worked it right, maybe I could taunt my father into hitting me and my mother would rush to protect me while I crouched on the floor protecting my face, and she would call him a brute and suddenly he was the bad one, not me. But in the end, they’d help me to get a safe abortion, I knew that, I was 16 years old, for god’s sake, but they had their own troubles and I was ashamed for them to know I wasn’t a virgin anymore. So better all around if god could help. I slipped down to the floor, scraping my knees, and clasping my hands to my chest the way I used to do in my old church days, and begged for help. Please, please, help me God and I will believe in you and not deny you anymore. I was getting carried away, crying and pleading, rather enjoying myself, when I felt a soaring passionate rush in my body and to this day its still miraculous to remember but suddenly blood started streaming down my legs and my period came back with a bang. Now that I think about it, maybe it was a miscarriage but I didn’t know about such things then, its bizarre how much we didn’t know in those days, and either way it was a miracle, my own 100% miracle. I thanked God in a rather noble grand tone, got up and cleaned myself up and inserted a sanitary napkin into my pants the way we did in those days and I kept saying, thank you God, thank you, and then I was in the midst of a moral dilemma. Big time! Every bone in my body wanted to figure it was a natural occurrence, he didn’t have anything to do with it, he never heard me, he wasn’t there, he didn’t exist, and I should just figure I was lucky, maybe I didn’t calculate the time right for my period, I never did anyway, but that seemed like such an ungrateful, almost unmannerly response. It was ungentlemanly. I had called on him and he answered. It didn’t matter whether it was him or science. You promised to believe in him, you said you wouldn’t deny him, so now that your prayer was answered, god damn it, you better believe in him. There was no other way to keep my dignity. My self respect. And for a couple of weeks, I stuck to it. But then life went on and I got busy with other things. He got further and further from the place where I was, and soon I forgot all about him. So maybe God came to me once. And it was a good thing too even if he didn’t stay so long. Like visiting my mother in the Alzheimer’s home years later. Better a short visit than none at all.

An even shorter meeting that I’ll never forget, was with this sexy guy on Macdougal Street. He was tall and handsome with black curly hair and a cute accent. He liked me, he definitely liked me. It was kismet. Turned out he was going to NYU and I was majoring in cafeteria at CCNY where my friends, the poets and artists, spent the days cutting classes and smoking over dreadful coffee. This made him laugh and he talked about his own classes, which I said I wouldn’t cut either if I had to pay such serious tuition money. And then he started complaining about the Jews in his classes. “There are so many, you can’t get away from them. I never know where to sit”. I started to laugh. This is New York City, after all. “Hey”, I said. “I’m Jewish.” He swirled to face me. “No! You’re joking.” He stared hard at me. I thought, this guy is devouring my face, he’s serious. What is this all about? “No,” I said. This was beginning to feel really weird. “No, I’m Jewish. I’ve always been Jewish.” I grinned. “And I’m not even in any of your classes.” Why wasn’t he laughing? Now that I thought about it, I couldn’t place his accent. Actually, he sounded kind of Israeli. “So where are you from?” I yelled as he ran across the street and continued walking on the other side. “I’m Egyptian,” he shouted and began to curse me. “I hate you. Israel should be blown off the map. You stole Palestine. You’re a thief. A murderer.” What was he saying? What did I have to do with Israel? “I’m not an Israeli,” I called out to him. “Can’t you tell a New York accent when you hear one?” He continued to curse me and I began to feel really weird. This guy is serious. But I gave it one more try. “Hey, calm down, I didn’t do anything to any Palestinians.” I yelled. “ I don’t even know any Palestinians. And if they’re like you, I don’t want to know any.” I still couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. In my world, politics was about the Korean War and the redbaiting of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs and that liar Whittaker Chambers and the evils of HUAC. This guy was attracted to me. I was attracted to him. What did all that stuff so very far away have to do with me? He continued yelling all the way down the street. Finally, I stopped declaring my innocence and turned around and walked back to the Figaro and ordered a cappuccino. “Hey, didn’t you just leave with that sexy guy?” the friendly waitress asked. Then, I realized I was trembling. My hand shook as I drank the coffee and I spilled some on my white blouse.

The next day I asked Comrade Stalin what had happened. Why do I feel so creepy? And angry.

He sighed. ”How many times have I told you, little Elly? The personal is always political.”

But I was still jumpy. I couldn’t be satisfied with slogans this time. “So its just that our politics are different? That coming from a different place he couldn’t care less about Sen. McCarthy and Roy Cohn? ”

”Do not disparage geography, little Elly. Geography is like class. They both cause wars.”

“But he isn’t a Palestinian. And Im not an Israeli. They aren’t even our wars.”

We wandered silently for a while. I reached for a cigarette. I was still very nervous.

“Look,” I tried to explain in more detail. “I was treated like shit by some rude creep who is a guest in my country and a guest in my city. And frankly, a guest in my neighborhood. If Mickey knew what a creep he was, he wouldn’t serve him at the Figaro. He’d throw him out. This guy could be dangerous. He looked like he wanted to kill me. He should be deported.”

“Good. You are learning.” He patted my head affectionately. “You have been insulted, dear Elly. My heart goes out to you. If you were in my country, I would send such a rogue to Siberia. He comes from a warm country. He will languish in the gulag. He will freeze to death. His heart will break in the snow. “ He shakes his head sadly. “That is the trouble with democracies. You aren’t suspicious enough. You don’t know how to protect yourselves. You let in all the riff raff.”

But I can’t stop. I’m still going at it. There’s more to this than meets the eye. Even the wise eye of Comrade Stalin. “You know what I’m most pissed about, Comrade? That I tried to explain myself. I must have sounded so apologetic. I should have told him to go fuck himself, don’t you think?”

“Little Elly, what have I told you about self expression? It is wasteful. It goes nowhere. Just report him to the authorities. They will know what to do.” He slid his finger across his throat in the age old gesture.

But I couldn’t stop. “I should have told him that my mother’s whole remaining family is in Israel. That her sisters are sabras who have lived in Haifa since the 20’s. That my cousin Amos is a colonel in the Israeli army. I hope they kill that creep.”

Comrade Stalin smiles and hugs me. “Oh, they will, little Elly. Some day. Sooner or later. This fellow will not sit still. He will not spend his afternoons drinking tea and disputing the fine points of art and history. One day, he will die earlier than he was meant to. One way or another.”