And Is It Too Late Now to Learn Hebrew

This is a semi-autobiographical story about disconnection from my cultural heritage. It is also about disconnection from family and from myself. The story comes from a collection I am working on, which looks at teenage experience.

When my father was busy dying on the third floor of the North Middlesex, Edmonton, he said I could ask him anything I wanted. I wanted to know if he was about to stop existing like a tap turned off, but I didn’t want to upset him, so I asked if I could get him more tea. He said they put the milk in at the same time as the bag, which makes it weak like dishwater and anyway it tastes mostly of Styrofoam. Which didn’t make any sense because the cups from the vending machines were paper. 

He only bothered complaining about the tea because that’s what Mum always did. I looked at the cup of cold tea waiting pointlessly on the side table, next to the wilted yellow roses she had shoved in a plastic jug with the plant food packet still Sellotaped to the stems. Next to her roses was a wizened geranium cutting I’d encouraged in a jar of water then settled in compost while intensely bored and avoiding homework over half term. But the root could never get a hold of the soil. His geranium was also dying. 

I remember a loud pigeon on the guttering outside the window by his bed. Puffed up and cooing. My dad said the poor guy was only trying to impress the ladies. When Dad came back from visiting his friend Saul in Arizona, he used to tell me about tiny hummingbirds competing for the biggest flowers. ‘The little bastards beat the crap out of each other!’ That always made him smile. 

I wanted to ask him about being a kid during the war, but it didn’t seem like the right time to remind him of the Holocaust. He wasn’t strictly in the war—his father and other relatives made a fortunate exit from Hungary in the ’20s, before he was born. I asked if he thought Mum was stuck on the Victoria Line again. He said, ‘Probably. Just a little late.’ There should have been more to say about it, but there wasn’t. 

An old man in the next bed was breathing like his lungs were filling up. Between painful breaths he was trying to sing what sounded like a children’s song in Chinese. 

My dad said, ‘When I met your mother, I was crazy. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.’ My face went hot. I watched the pigeon outside getting right up in the lady’s beak. I wanted a cigarette badly but couldn’t smoke anywhere outside the hospital in case Mum came and saw me. 

My dad pulled himself up a little bit and reached painfully for the cold tea. He was looking into the cup. ‘When I took your mother back to the States for Sonny’s wedding, my uncle Adolf asked me what was I doing marrying another non-Jew. But Aunt Ester set him straight, ‘You? Adolf? What do you know about marriage?’ Adolf didn’t marry till late. When his wife got sick, they said, he never visited her in hospital.’ Dad smiled at his hands. ‘Ester was smart like you.’ 

I looked at him for a second. His eyes were bloodshot; his lips wet with cold tea. Some was running down his chin. I wanted to say, Please! Don’t die yet. 

He said, ‘You’ll be alright,’ then reached out carefully, wincing, and put down the cup, spilling nothing. He asked if maybe I could get him some coffee. From downstairs. Or even, somewhere else. You don’t have to put milk, he told me again, if it’s real coffee. I had money from Mum, so there was finally something I could do for him. But I didn’t want to leave in case he died while I was queueing for an Americano. He was the kind of person who’d wait for everyone to leave before dying. 

He made a little noise of pain when he slid down the bed, and I was thinking how I’d never met any of those relatives he talked about back in the States. They were long gone before I was even born—their jokes and memories of life in the Old Country. I said I’d get him some coffee. 

With a cup of coffee in his hand, he was a whole being again. There was a future in the coffee. I was afraid it might burn him. Some had spilled on my hand in the lift and left a painful red mark. A nurse came to help him sit up. He called her sweetheart so she couldn’t pretend he was a child. She took the cold tea away with a look on her face like he was a bad smell. 

I pulled a petal off a rose and sat in the hard chair. He said, ‘You’ll be alright, kid.’ He was talking about himself dying of cancer when I was still so young. ‘You’ve had a harder time than most.’ It was dusk. The pigeons had gone somewhere more private. The man in the next bed had stopped crooning and gasping, though his chest still sounded like a blocked drain. At least—in the fading light—the skeletal outline of his profile was peaceful. 

My dad lowered his voice. ‘Try to work harder at school and don’t go places without telling your mother. It worries her.’ He put the cup down beside the geranium and smoothed the sheet over his legs. Somewhere an alarm was going off. Someone died. I didn’t tell him about being suspended for falling asleep in German after getting wasted at lunch. German verbs always make me feel sleepy anyway. But when they woke me up, I’d wet myself in the lesson. A slowly expanding river ran under the desks. They didn’t need to suspend me. Mrs. Kateck said the weeks off would give me time to rest and re-think my behaviour. She thought she was being nice. I wanted to tell her to re-think her own fucking behaviour. 

My dad was whispering. His throat suddenly slightly blocked. ‘It’s a pity I never taught you any Hebrew.’ 

I shouldn’t have got annoyed. ‘But we aren’t even Jewish! We never went to any synagogue.’ 

He ignored me. ‘I’d like a Hebrew Bible to read now. Maybe you could find the hospital rabbi for me and ask. There must be one. A lot of old Jews die in North London.’ He turned over his leathery hands like there might be a message written in the lines. I nodded and looked about as if a rabbi would pop out from behind the blue curtain across the ward. Dad had been reading a Hebrew Bible at home recently—holding it right up close to his face—as if he might find part of himself lost inside those empty square letters. If I could read Hebrew, maybe I’d find something there, too. 

I wanted to ask if he thought he would see God when he died. 

I made my voice respectful. ‘Why didn’t you raise me Jewish?’

He reached for the coffee. It was too far. ‘Your mother wouldn’t have liked it.’ 

But he was the one who made fun of the priest and the neat stack of baked beans tins every harvest festival. He was the reason why in Year Five I drew the speech bubble out of Jesus’ mouth saying, ‘Peter. Peter, I can see your house from here…’ They stapled that to the Easter display before some parent noticed and complained so they had to take it down. I nodded as if that was all Mum’s fault. Closed my eyes and tried to imagine the old Jews back in America switching between Yiddish and Hungarian to keep secrets from the children, listening to news of the war with warm wind blowing through the open windows of their safe American apartments. I passed him his coffee. 

I wanted to say I would learn Hebrew. But it was too late for that. I wanted to pray with him instead of walking about the miserable corridors asking nurses if they’d seen any rabbis anywhere. There was a nondescript multi-faith prayer room—I’d gone past it with Mum on the way to the café. No one was ever in there. My father’s eyes went out of focus. He allowed his head to rest and gently lowered his arm. The expression of intense pain on his face sent a shiver through me. I snatched the cup. 

I was thirsty, but his roses had all the water. 

Nothing actually changes when somebody’s dying. Though a part of your brain expects the whole world to break in half at least for a minute. 

When a nurse switched on the lights, it was suddenly apparent we’d been sitting in the dark. One decaying yellow petal dropped onto the filmy surface of my father’s coffee. He slept. Relaxed, but breathing with effort. I willed him not to die yet. I was still trying to figure out what I needed to ask him.

Hannah Glickstein lives and works in Stroud, England. She used to be an English teacher and is now a counselor for young people. Whilst teaching, she self-published graphic stories about a skeleton called Skinny Bill. Her writing has appeared in non-fiction publications, including Huffington Post, The Catholic Herald and Spectator Schools. Her stories have been published by Platform for Prose, Litro, Bristol Noir, The Corvus Review and with Stroud Short Stories. She was once shortlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize. Her ambition is to write compelling novels, when she can find time. You can read some of her writing at hannahglickstein.blog.