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Fiction // Roots

Hirschman, unwilling to bend, was refusing to participate. A lifelong agnostic, and proud of it, he’d managed for 82 years to not observe a single of his people’s canonical festivals except in its breach, and he had no intention of starting now. It was his father’s way before him, and his father’s father’s, and now it was his.

He ate bread on Passover, went to the track on Yom Kippur, and, since childhood, had miraculously avoided the trappings of this one, the relentlessly marketed Jewish Christmas when boys and girls with names like Cohen and Levy were commanded to ignore the country’s love affair with eggnog and fruitcake in favor of oily potato dishes invented by starving peasants in Galicia. Not that the so-called historic origins of the holiday were any better, Hirschman liked to remind himself, the ancient Maccabee brothers a posse of religious fanatics who killed any fellow Jew who didn’t agree with them and their visions of a theocracy that, to Hirschman’s lights, wasn’t all that different from the Taliban’s or an ayatollah’s Iran.

But now Hirschman’s octogenarian resolve was being shaken at its root like a flimsy pine grasped around the trunk by a gorilla, threatened to be loosened of its footings by the least likely person on the planet: his daughter.

The daughter! Need Hirschman even think about all that he and his long dead wife had endured because of Wendy? A list a mile long and everything a man of his years had once read about on screaming covers of Time. Drugs, abortions, political arrests, the FBI knocking on their door, serial boyfriends, some, apparently, if briefly, quasi-spousal. A list so predictable that, decades back, Hirschman stopped looking to the telephone for news of Wendy’s life and simply bought the magazines. And now this daughter was turning 50—50! almost as old as Hirschman!—and trying for respectable, with a regular job and ladies’ suits and a six-month-old marriage to an actual husband, a long-faced man named Ronald who drove a Ford. A daughter who was now beseeching Hirschman to come over and light Hanukkah candles with Ronald’s even longer-faced 13-year-old son where Hirschman could—in Wendy’s painfully submissive pleading—rediscover his “roots.”

“Roots?” Hirschman declaimed on the extension in the bedroom where he’d been soaking his feet in Epsom Salts. Of all his bodily parts, Hirschman’s feet were, hands down, his least attractive. Frieda used to say they were Satanic, with sharp yellow nails that curled under and toes bonily misshapen like the beckoning fingers of a fairy tale witch. Hirschman had come to view his feet as a separate part of his being, the workhorses of his body, the sad, ugly oxen pulling the plow.

“What roots?” he said, splashing lightly in the chipped plastic dish bin he’d rescued from a neighbor’s trash. Hirschman was not merely an agnostic but a frugal agnostic, platforms that seemed to him not unrelated, for what was dogma if not the lavishing of excessive belief on the wholly unnecessary, not to mention unprovable? “They were thieves, my ancestors. Crooks. They stole from their business partners and screwed their customers. They came here from Russia like the British went to Australia, as ex-cons, fleeing. What do you think, everyone had a father like Bashevis Singer’s with his saintly rabbinical court? Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof?”

A long sigh. Wendy’s forbearance. Her father was old and ornery, the sigh said to the reliably choleric Ronald, who was probably hovering in the middle distance drinking a glass of low-fat milk. Or jingling his car keys. Hirschman had seen the man maybe half a dozen times despite the geographical proximity, fifteen Queens blocks between them, and always he was playing with those keys. Hirschman didn’t know what his son-in-law did for a living and was afraid to ask.

“Look,” Hirschman said, feeling sorry for his daughter, the walleyed Ronald no doubt lurking darkly, the reputedly brainy son hanging his oversized head, weighted down with too many compound thoughts. “You don’t want to connect with these roots, believe me. Liars and cheats, and on your mother’s side, no better.” Though Hirschman had no idea who stretched up Frieda’s family tree. Maybe they were saints. More likely they were deli wholesalers, skimming the profits like his wife used to skim the fat off the chicken soup. With a little too much zeal.

“Anyway, what’s this talk about roots?” he said and immediately regretted it. He could see the magazine covers already. The Return to Religion: The New Tribalism. He liked it better when Wendy was insolent and yelled “Death to the pigs!” at a couple of off-duty cops having a cup of coffee at a local diner before Frieda pulled her away.

“Is it because he isn’t your grandson?” Wendy ventured. “Your own flesh and blood.”

“Who?” Hirschman said, lifting his pruney feet, now pale and tender, and letting them down onto the stiff towel. They rested there like two tired mules.

“Who?” Wendy said. “Jason, of course.”

Jason. Who must be the key jingler’s boy. Hirschman didn’t remember the child’s name. He could say he had a bad memory but it wasn’t true. He was just a bad man. He loved Wendy, but with all the human appendages she’d accumulated over the years and then lopped off like so much spring pruning, it had been hard to keep track.

“Ah, the boy,” Hirschman said. “Of course not. I’d be equally disinterested if he were the fruit of your own loins.”

“Oh God, Dad, do you have to put it that way? Fruit of the loins?”

“What? Fruit? Loins? What should I say? Issue?”

“Oh, never mind. I just thought….” His feet were dry. He slipped them into his lined slippers, his one indulgence: sheepskin outside, soft fur inside. Two warm caves. They made his bestial extensions feel at home. The same extensions that had gone through life frightening locker- room attendants and lifeguards and—dare he think of it?—women after Frieda. There had been only a few and never with the lights on. “I just thought,” Wendy was saying. “You know. A family thing. A few songs. Not that I know any, but Ronald does. So I just thought, well…”

And then he heard it. In those pauses. The hopeless giving-up. Pre-emptive despair. She was trying to make a go of it. Trading in the last boyfriend, the final contestant in a decades-long parade of unwashed ponytails with no jobs who, now deep into middle age, were still pretending unemployment was a matter of principle and mouthing bromides even Emma Goldman had stopped believing in. This was Wendy’s chance, a last lunge to capture a normal life, with the dull office clothes, the steady job, the regular if rigid husband, the stab at motherhood which, thank God, was only part-time, she’d whispered to Hirschman outside City Hall before the marriage ceremony. A boy, 13 years old, what the hell would she do with him? Fortunately the child’s mother was a jackhammer who had no intention of divvying up custody. Ronald had only old-fashioned father’s visitation rights on weekends and one night in the middle of the week.

And now here was his daughter asking for something. She hadn’t asked him for anything in 35 years except to get out of the way. Or to post bail.

The boy was at the house with his homemade menorah from Hebrew School concocted out of a strip of metal and a row of clumsily glued-on washers from a discount plumbing supply store. “So I just thought,” Wendy again sighed, discouraged. “Maybe if you could come over for a little while…”

Hirschman moved his toes in the soft cushioning. His shoes, those cruel prisons, sat in wait by the closet door.

“OK, OK, I’ll come over.” Because who cared if Hirschman believed or not? If the candles slid into their plumbers’ leftovers in silence or in song, with a blessing or a sneer? After 82 years, he had made his point. The big cheese in the sky certainly wouldn’t care. If he even existed.

 

The boy was as Hirschman remembered. Bookish, slightly surly, sour-looking. He mumbled a subterranean greeting from a remote region of his larynx and vanished.

“Hello, Stanley,” Ronald murmured. There was never a question of calling Hirschman Dad because who was anyone kidding? Hirschman would no sooner be Ronald’s father than Ronald’s dead father would be Hirschman’s buddy, the older man, whose name Hirschman had forgotten, once some sort of higher-up in the city’s Department of Education. Self-satisfied and smug—Hirschman had asked around—the type who’d look down on the less educated Hirschman, a veteran of 60 years in the oily trenches of the garment business. Anyway, Hirschman was too old to take on anybody else as progeny. If Ronald ever started calling him Pop, he’d correct him in a withering instant.

“Take your coat, Dad?” Wendy said, fluttering to the door. Who was this nervous woman with painted fingernails and gray wool slacks and a death-pallor beige cardigan and anxious trill in her voice, prim little pearl things in her ears like a schoolmarm’s sweater buttons? He liked her better when she was foul-mouthed and getting arrested.

He shed his outerwear, stamped his shoes to release the city’s slush onto the mat, and shuffled inside. The aroma of frying oil rushed at him, a reminder of Bronx kitchens 75 years past, toothless old ladies smiling and offering him glasses of spinach soup.

“Where’s Jason?” Wendy asked her husband.

“I don’t know. He’s driving me nuts,” Ronald said and strode off in search.

“Problem with the boy?” Hirschman asked his daughter, who had somehow sprouted an apron.

“Nothing out of the ordinary,” she sighed, pulling out a kitchen chair for him. “Half an hour ago, he couldn’t wait for you to get here. Now he’s disappeared.” She glanced around, looking, Hirschman was certain, for a cigarette. She’d given up the habit upon meeting the clean-living Ronald. Hirschman wished he had one to sneak to her. “I’m probably not handling him all that well. I don’t know how to be strict. Consistent. Ronald says he needs consistency.”

Unkind thoughts leapt to Hirschman’s mind, preparing to light onto his tongue and release their trenchant substance into the overheated room. Hirschman heroically held them at bay.

“Teenagers,” Wendy said, sinking into a chair opposite. “They’re difficult, you know?” and Hirschman nodded. No irony? Didn’t she remember? What kind of adolescent did she think she’d been? Nancy Drew? Patty Hearst before the machine guns?

He was rescued from offering useless opiates—He’ll grow out of it. Worry when he’s 35—when the boy shuffled in, followed by his irritable father.

“So, shall we light?” Wendy said too brightly, bounding up, and then Hirschman knew: a problem in the marriage. Wendy had told him she’d known Ronald only two months—a matchmaking service on the computer—before they’d decided to wed. She’d have skipped the legalities but Ronald said it was necessary because of the boy. There’d been enough trouble weighing on the child because of his mother, who’d been nasty, terrible, vicious about turning him against his father, and Ronald couldn’t afford another ounce of ammunition in her arsenal.

The boy shrugged, eyeing Hirschman suspiciously. Wendy set up the candles, alternating blue and red and white in a patriotic display. Her husband struck a match, lit the chief candle that lit all the others, then handed it to his son, who dutifully complied. Ronald, solo, droned the blessings. Again Hirschman controlled himself. The last time he’d heard such a recitation was in the hospital a few weeks before Frieda died. Some busybody from Chabad insisted on dropping in on all the patients with Jewish last names to deliver tinfoil menorahs, candles and instructions. Frieda’s roommate, a Mrs. Schwartz dying of lung cancer, had joyfully welcomed the visit. From behind the partition, Hirschman and Frieda had to listen to the Hasid’s chanting, but when the man slid the curtain aside and stepped into Frieda’s half of the room, Hirschman yelled at him to go away and take his implements of fundamentalism with him.

Now Hirschman felt a heat rising in the back of his neck as his son-in-law concluded the rituals. Ronald was precise, exacting, no words left out, he explained. When you do things, you have to do them right. Which called to mind what Wendy had told Hirschman about the Ford. Ronald was devoted to his automobile. Each weekend, he passionately washed it and waxed it and wouldn’t let Wendy drive it. It needed to be kept pristine, perfect. The boy glanced around the dining room in expectation. Hirschman followed his gaze. Wrapped packages on a side table, the telltale blue and white paper: Hallmark reaping an equal opportunity profit.

“All right! Everyone ready for latkes?”

Wendy was trying too hard. Which meant Ronald had something going on, something on the side. Hirschman had a nose for such things. Soon Ronald would be fishing for excuses. He’d say Wendy was a bad stepmother. Or, worse, a bad Jew.

“Delicious,” Hirschman pronounced, heaping on the sour cream. “You take only applesauce?” he asked his silent son-in-law.

“Cholesterol, Stanley. Most of us are careful. At our age.” He looked at his son’s plate. A snowy pyramid. “Sour cream is for the young. And foolish.”

“So I guess I’m young.” Hirschman sipped his ginger ale. “Shall I tell you about our forebears?” he asked the boy.

Jason looked up from his plate. “Your what?”

“Forebears. Would you like to know about my ancestors? My roots?”

The boy shrugged and resumed shoveling in his food.

“This is what holidays are for,” Hirschman said. “To connect with tradition.”

The air was heavy, cooking oil mixed with dread and the scent of looming divorce. Hirschman wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Here’s one. A relative in Poland named Yankel. The original Ponzi schemer. He sold shares in a lumber business. So-called shares. You gave him your zlotkes, or whatever the currency was, for a weight of wood, and for half again more money he gave you the right to collect an equal amount of wood when your first supply ran out. This included milling, planing, curing, delivery, everything. A great deal. Too good to pass up. He criss-crossed the countryside, cleaning up.

“But eventually people starting calling in their chits. They wanted their second delivery. No dice. He didn’t have the lumber, and he didn’t have the money to buy it. He’d spent everything on keeping up with the original orders and skimming to make himself rich. He high-tailed it to a boat to America and vanished. A millionaire. Which was no small change in 1902.” Hirschman tapped the table, triumphant. “This is one of my more stellar relations.”

The child was open-mouthed. Finally he said, “How did you ever hear this story, then? If he vanished?”

Hirschman pointed to the boy. “Smart thinking. He couldn’t resist boasting. It was his downfall. He died under suspicious circumstances.”

“I never heard that story, Dad,” Wendy said.

“There’s a lot about our family you don’t know.”

“Did you have more relatives like him?” Jason asked.

“Sure. My grandfather, for instance. Now, he was really something.”

Ronald stood up, began to collect the plates.

“What’re you doing?” Hirschman asked.

“Clearing the table.”

“I’m telling a story here.”

“That’s okay. I’m just cleaning up.”

“Sit down,” Hirschman said. “I’m not finished.”

Jason glanced at his father. Wendy looked at her husband. Ronald sat down.

“My grandfather,” Hirschman said, turning back to the boy, “worked in a tavern. In Ukraine. Part of Russia. But he had sticky fingers. He couldn’t help lifting some of the cash. A lot of the cash. When the tavern owner found out, he had to make a quick getaway. He sent his wife and three small children to Canada and went into hiding. When he arrived in Montreal eight years later, my father had no idea who he was. Neither did anybody else. Because he’d changed his name, took one from somebody who’d died, got a new hair color, a little facial rearranging, not exactly expert plastic surgery in those days but enough to do the trick. And, to complete the picture, he showed up with an entirely new family. New wife, new children. First case of identity theft ever documented.”

Wendy burst out laughing. “Where do you get these from?” she said.

“What? It’s true.” The boy was watching them. “My father told me.” He held up a hand. “Scout’s honor. His father maintained two separate families till the day he died. They lived on the same street. Everyone pretended there had been two brothers and that one had died young and that the surviving brother was helping the widow and children. For years my father thought the others were his cousins.”

“Who did your grandfather live with?”

“Technically his first family—my father and his mother and brothers. But he spent a lot of nights down the street.”

“Cool,” Jason said.

Ronald drummed his fingers.

“Can we have the presents now?” Jason said.

“Sure,” Wendy said and began moving the gifts to the couch. The boy followed. Ronald got up to clear the plates. Hirschman brought his into the kitchen.

“What was that all about, Stanley?” Ronald said. “That was the most ridiculous bullshit I’ve ever heard. And I don’t especially appreciate my kid hearing about these kinds of things.”

“Lighten up, Ron. Anyway, there’s a moral to these stories.”

Ronald piled the plates in the sink. “Oh? What’s that? Crime pays? Bigamy is fun?”

“No. You can run but you can’t hide. That’s the moral. If you’re screwing around and want out of the marriage, fine. But don’t make my daughter feel like a lousy stepmother or a bad Jew.”

Ronald wheeled around. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s written all over you. You’re a bum in a fancy suit. She should have stayed with her long-haired anarchist. He had a big mouth but he kept his pants zipped.”

 

What Wendy wanted to know was how he’d picked it up so fast. Practically before he’d gotten inside the house.

“Instinct. And experience.”

“You cheated on Mom?” She leaned across the formica and lowered her voice so the other diner patrons wouldn’t hear, even though Frieda had been dead 25 years.

“No. But half my friends cheated on their wives. This was the dress business, remember. Models, buyers, they expected it. I was the exception.”

“But he seemed to be so not the type. So…” She trailed off.

“Straight-laced? Fussy? It’s always the ones you least suspect.”

“I’m scared, Dad. I’m 50 and I’m alone.”

“So? I’m 82 and I’m alone.”

“But you had Mom.”

“And you had Ronald. And Pierre and Max and all the others. Tempus fugit but that doesn’t mean it fugits and leaves you with nothing.”

The waitress brought their hamburgers. “So where will you go?” Hirschman asked, assembling his meal. Tomato, onion, cole slaw, pickle, all of it went inside the bun. Wendy had told him she didn’t want to stay in the house another minute. Too many bad feelings and all of Ronald’s belongings. Plus those drab awful clothes he’d wanted her to wear. Replicas of his first wife’s wardrobe, she now realized, but two sizes smaller. He’d wanted to remake his ex and then reject her so he’d come out on the winning end this time. “You can stay with me,” Hirschman said. “Call it temporary if that will help.”

“That’s okay, Dad. I have a job. I’ll find another place. We finally like each other. Why spoil a good thing?”

 

Yet something rankled. How could Ronald get away with it? He’d hurt Wendy. This offended Hirschman’s principles. His father, his grandfather, all his bold forebears: they wouldn’t have hesitated.

He made a plan.

He drove to the house and parked across the street, then opened his trunk, took out the big four-pronged lug wrench. His son-in-law’s car, the beloved Ford, sleek and beetle black in the driveway, gleamed in the afternoon light. Unwilling to risk scratches, Ronald took the bus to work, even though, Wendy said, the office—on the other side of Queens, insurance underwriting; why was Hirschman not surprised?—had free parking. The street was quiet, even the dogs watching from the windows were quiet. Hirschman approached the vehicle. It looked like a police cruiser, a limousine, a hearse. It shone like a jewel and this amazed Hirschman: Here lived a man who washed and waxed and polished an automobile each week, caressing it like a woman.

He moved to the rear of the car and brought the wrench down onto the back bumper. Nothing. He applied the tool to the fender. A slight but satisfying indentation.

“What’re you doing?”

In the doorway, the boy. He came outside in his school clothes.

“You’ll catch cold,” Hirschman said. “Go get a jacket.”

“What are you doing with my father’s car?”

Hirschman looked at the lug wrench. “I’m returning this. I thought the trunk would be open. Your father said he’d leave the trunk open.”

“No. He’d never leave the trunk open.”

Hirschman shrugged. “Well, I thought that’s what he said.”

The boy hugged himself, cold. “I’d open it for you, but I’m not allowed. I can’t touch the car. My father won’t let me.”

“I’ll take this home then,” Hirschman said, lifting the tool. “I’ll bring it back another time.”

The boy was considering. “Well, maybe I should open it. Just this once. Then you don’t have to make the trip again.”

“No, don’t do that,” Hirschman said, because Ronald would see the dent and blame the child. Better Ronald should wonder if it was some cosmic punishment. Or hear from the child that Hirschman had come by, and put two and two together.

“How’s Wendy?” Jason said while Hirschman put the lug wrench into his own trunk.

“She’s okay. What are you doing here by yourself?”

“I come to my dad’s on Wednesdays. But he doesn’t get home from work until seven.” Jason looked at the house. “Want to come in?” Then he added, “I won’t tell my father.”

Jason made him tea and showed him his room. On his desk were papers he’d printed off the Internet about Leopold and Loeb.

“You know who they were?” Jason asked.

“Of course. Everyone knows who they were. Two rich kids from Chicago who wanted to commit the perfect crime. Killed another kid on purpose. Clarence Darrow was their lawyer. Argued against the death penalty, very famous oration. Before my time.”

“1924. They were geniuses but they failed.” The boy moved the papers around. “My dad is upset that I’m reading about them. But their case was amazing. I try to tell him that not all famous Jews were baseball players or Supreme Court judges. Some of them were criminals. Notorious ones.”

“Absolutely,” Hirschman said. “And good ones. Smart ones. Right up to Madoff.”

“I hadn’t thought about that. There’s a whole tradition of Jewish crooks.”

Hirschman pointed at the boy. “You bet there is. And they’re your roots too. My family, all those thieves and con men.”

“But Wendy isn’t biologically connected to me,” Jason said, and seemed more than a little sad when he said it.

“Doesn’t matter. It can be your pedigree also.”

“How? We aren’t related.”

“So steal it,” Hirschman said. “Who’s to know? You want to give yourself a lineage? Then give yourself a lineage.”

The boy let him out the front door. As Hirschman neared the behemoth shining in the wintry light, he took his own car key from his pocket and, when Jason couldn’t see him, held it against the paint, holding it fast as he walked from the rear door to the front bumper, making an unbroken line like the mark of Cain: a straight line across the killer’s forehead so that the whole world would see and know what he had done.

 

I heard you visited Jason,” Wendy said on the phone three days later.

“Is that a crime?”

“No. Though vandalizing Ronald’s car might be.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

 

Two weeks later, Jason called. He’d been researching Jewish gangsters and had some questions. Could he come over to Hirschman’s place and pick his brain?

“Does your father know you’re calling me?”

“No.”

“How would he react if you told him?”

“Bad. He doesn’t like you.”

“Good. Come on over.”

The kid had done his homework. The list was impressive. Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Longy Zwillman, Mickey Cohen, Dutch Schultz. Tough guys involved with the numbers rackets, prostitution, loan sharking, gambling; some got into bootlegging, others had funneled money to the Irgun. Jason’s parents, both Ronald and the boy’s jackhammer mother, were worried about his interest in Jewish lowlifes, he told Hirschman. It was one of the few things they could agree on. They were mounting a campaign to make him stop.

“Stop what?” Hirschman said. “Thinking? Reading?” He had put out cookies and a short glass of schnapps for the boy. “How can they do that?”

“They’re threatening to send me to therapy. They’re saying I’m adjusting poorly to the breakup of Wendy and my dad. Acting out.”

Hirschman waved this away like a cloud of gnats. “Ach, that’s nothing. Intimidation. Oldest tactic in the book. Radicals never let that stop them, union organizers never let that stop them.”

The boy was unconvinced. “I need a counter-strategy.”

Hirschman watched him devour the cookies. He hadn’t touched the schnapps. “Tell them you’ll be glad to go because then you’ll have the chance to tell the shrink all about them. About the fights and the name-calling, anything you heard. And anything you care to make up. A whole delightfully sordid history.”

The boy smiled, wads of mashed cookie dough between his teeth.

“You want something else to drink?” Hirschman said, and got up to get him a glass of orange juice. He was wearing his cushy slippers.

“What’s that?” Jason was pointing to the dish bin on the floor.

“Your father tends to his car. I tend to my oxen. This is what men do.”

 

Wendy had found a nice apartment six blocks from Hirschman’s and was dating a man she met at a demonstration.

“What kind of demonstration?” Hirschman asked over his pastrami sandwich.

“In the city. In front of the old Helmsley Palace. Against the exploitation of the housekeeping staff. No one else will do the work they do, but the hotel management treats them like dirt.”

A week later, while soaking his feet, he saw the back of Wendy’s head on TV. The demonstration was on the news; a melee had broken out. One of the protesters heckled the mayor of New York as he tried to get into the hotel to meet with a delegation from management; later, from his hospital bed, the mayor with two broken ribs said he’d gone to persuade them to meet the workers’ demands or risk being shut down. But all the demonstrators heard was meeting with management, and things got out of control.

Five hours later, Hirschman, in his tight shoes, was in a taxi with Wendy leaving the police station with a receipt for bail in his hand. There was no mention of a new boyfriend.

“I’m getting too old for this,” Wendy said, staring out the window. “There was no joy in riding in the patrol car to the precinct. I didn’t feel like yelling at the cops. They were just overworked guys, most younger than me, trying to do their jobs and get home to their families in one piece.” She turned to Hirschman. “One of the demonstrators started everything. I think he provoked on purpose so he’d get on the news, one of those angry kids all hot to trot and thinking he knows everything.” She looked out the window again. “Nothing’s ever really black and white, is it?”

“You’re not thinking of going back to Ronald, are you?”

“He’s been calling.”

“Perhaps resist?”

“Jason’s been pushing for it.”

“It’s your life.”

“Exactly.”

 

The new arrangement, she told Hirschman, had conditions. Of course fidelity was required, as was asking for her forgiveness. Ronald swore he was through trying to punish all women for the behavior of his first wife. Therapy would be involved, not for Jason but for Ronald. Also, the car: He needed to be willing to share. And to stop simonizing and buffing. Three months trial. Then they’d reassess.

Jason, Wendy reported over her split pea soup, was overjoyed. He had grown attached to her, she said. The feeling was mutual. He mattered to Wendy with a force that surprised her. At 50, she didn’t want to walk away from that.

“I’m happy for you,” Hirschman said, wrapping up the other half of his salami sandwich. His feet were calling; they needed a soak. The first whiffs of spring always caused problems. The change in temperature, the pollen: aches and pains came out of hiding, as if they’d been hibernating in his metatarsals. He too liked the boy. If the father had to come along, a package deal, he’d learn to live with it.

“They’re pushing for you to come to a seder,” Wendy said. “I told them it wasn’t likely. That four hours singing about drowning Pharaoh’s army was a lot to ask. You don’t have to say yes; we have neighbors we can invite.”

“Good. I’ll see the boy another time.”

“Oh, you certainly will. He’s become quite interested in famous Jewish criminals. Did you know that? Ronald is worried, but I tell him to chill, that it’s age-appropriate. And a good sign. Jason’s thinking big picture, right and wrong, developing a sense of justice.”

Hirschman sipped his cream soda. The kid was a natural, a chip off the old, if purloined, block. He watched his daughter, whose sweater, he noticed, was an electric pink set off by a pair of enormous earrings in the shape of silverware.

“I’m telling you, Dad, the kid is on to something. A passion ignited,” Wendy said, working the soup. “He also wants to hear more about your crooked ancestors.” She looked up at him. “Assuming any of it’s true.”

Hirschman smiled. If she were an agnostic—and maybe she was; it was something they ought to discuss sometime—she’d know that whether the stories were provable or not was irrelevant. It was your choice whether or not to believe.

She bent over the soup, a miniature spoon dangling from her earlobe.

“Does it matter?” he said.

 

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Joan Leegant is the author of a novel, Wherever You Go, and a story collection, An Hour in Paradise, which won the Winship/PEN New England Book Award, the Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. She divides her time between Boston and Tel Aviv, where she teaches at Bar-Ilan University.

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Joan Leegant’s story, “Roots,” is the first-place winner of the 2011 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to provide recognition to writers of Jewish short fiction, a legacy that includes writers as varied as Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick. The 2011 stories were judged by Walter Mosley, the best-selling author of Devil in a Blue Dress and the rest of the Easy Rawlins mysteries. Moment thanks Walter Mosley, the Karma Foundation and all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. The deadline for the 2012 contest is December 31, 2012. Please visit momentmag.com for official rules and guidelines.

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About Joan Leegant

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