The Greens of San Rodeo
By Allan Appel
My friend Stevie had not been home to San Rodeo in many years. We didn’t think his estrangement from his family particularly severe, no more than the rest of us who had left the West coast to come East. What made Stevie a little different was that his parents, Abe and Sarah Green, were Hebrew school
teachers. As a matter of fact, they were my teachers.
We won’t go into the quirks of fate and immigration that brought the Greens from their native Lithuanian village, but suffice it so say they must have felt very strange in the modern new school building of steel and plastic gleaming beneath tall, waving palms.
Abe was tall and gaunt with a horseshoe of white hair behind a large intelligent forehead. He still wore the old-fashioned wire-rimmed glasses that kept slipping down his nose. His wife Sarah was also thin and no matter how demure the dresses she wore, her bones always seemed to stick out at acute angles. Making arcs across the chalked-up blackboard, her long arms were lessons in anatomy themselves. They reminded us she and her husband had come to us from Europe, that far away place where people went to bed hungry and where their clothes didn’t always fit on their bodies, as ours did.
The Great Mojave Desert that surrounded San Rodeo was not the Judean Desert, yet the various cult healers, reincarnations of God, and shamans who rose up there made a bizarre yet somehow fitting setting for the Greens to teach us in Hebrew school about the prophets of the Bible, major and minor.
And there was no question this was our favorite subject. Abe and Sarah could not help but draw analogies between Gideon, Deborah, and Samuel of the Bible and whatever local religious character happened to be in vogue during any given semester. Abe would rush into the class, his right hand still trying to place his little glasses properly on the bridge of his nose, and in his left hand he would be waving the newspaper article describing the latest black mass, ritual slaying, or self-aggrandizing oracle of the new prophet. Needless to say, he used these incidents, so numerous in California, as a foil for Amos, Joel, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah who always came out looking, by comparison, very moral and very good.
Nevertheless Abe had a fascination for these stories in their own right, and there was not one he did not follow in detail in both the morning and evening papers. There were even rumors, occasionally used to taunt poor Stevie when we were kids, that Abe had been seen downtown at San Rodeo’s seediest bookstore buying up the sensational newspapers that carried the stories long after the more respectable journals had dropped them. We could never know positively, but we all thought Abe Green clipped out all the articles and took them home where he and Sarah sat up after midnight poring over different versions with the same scholarly skills they brought to studying the holy texts. Who knew for sure?
If we were misbehaving in class, the one certain way Abe could get our attention was to announce that if we finished the lesson properly, he would tell us the latest aboutCharles Manson or Sister Divine. Just as Abe knew Rashi of Troyes, Obadiah of Bartenura, and Onkelos, the Aramaic commentator on the verses of the Prophets, so he had a variety of special sources on the religious other craziness of San Rodeo and environs, of which he was our best and sole explicator.
Stevie’s mother was a considerably less passionate teacher than her husband. She seemed to adapt less to the life of San Rodeo than did her husband. There was something about her that still leaned east with the slightest desert wind, like a tree hurriedly and imperfectly transplanted. The other mothers wore floppy Palm Spring-style hats, while Sarah wore a babushkah. The skin of the other mothers browned from tennis and swimming, while Sarah’s remained white and sickly.
She taught us about the Jewish holidays and customs and how they should make us happy and joyous, yet her eyes were always glassy with tears when she spoke of them, as if she were crying for a place and time she would like to return to but could not. As she walked around the U-shaped group of tables where we sat, she touched our shoulders or patted our hair, as a gardener walks among plants. She made us feel that if she watered us enough with her tears, perhaps some semblance of Jewish observance, some aspect of Jewish life would take on us.
If we misbehaved in her class, the extreme frequency of which I still feel guilty about today, many years later, Sarah Green’s intense, staring eyes would begin to drop real tears down her cheek, her hands would turn into fists and she would walk to the doorway of the class, lean against the jamb, and stand there crying loudly until her husband, teaching down the hall, heard her and would come in to rescue his wife and plead with us to have mercy.
Yes, to Sarah it seemed quite hopeless that we strange, rebellious and distracted California children, we sprouts of the sun, as she once called us, could ever learn the blessings properly or even the correct order of the Hebrew days and months.
Once I went to Stevie’s house because his father was helping me either with preparations for bar mitzvah or on account of my latest demonstration of backwardness in Hebrew grammar. I forget exactly what, but I shall never forget that house. It was the upstairs apartment in a duplex and as soon as I entered I got a feeling of, well, darkness. The day outside was bright, but inside the hall where I stood, ceilinged with one unshaded low-watt bulb, was a long corridor of gloom.
The living room at the end of it was also shrouded. The Venetian blinds were drawn and there were heavy drapes of green damask over the windows. If we were to sit in that room to go over my lesson, all the lamps in the house would have to be turned on for light to penetrate.
The kitchen was the first room off the right of the hall. Abe came out and told me in his lightly accented English, “Please to wait here. I will shortly be with you.”
Then he went back into the kitchen and took up the argument that apparently he was having with his wife. I don’t know if he really expected me to wait in the dark and ominous living room alone, but I was drawn into the hallway. I stood. I did not move and I heard what they were saying. Sarah’s voice was hoarse.
“Home. Home. I want to go home!”she cried.
“This is home, Sara’leh. Steven is at home in the school. We have roof. We have jobs and food. What is home if not this?”
“You know this could not possibly be home.”
“For the thousandth time! Europe is out of the question. Never again.”
“Then maybe to New York? We have to leave this place. They are crazy here. They are all crazy, especially the Jews. Have you seen such a place where a bar mitzvah boy doesn’t carry the Torah under his arm, but a monster of wood, a surfboard! And here in the desert, a hundred miles from the sea! And leans it against the wall of my classroom?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What is becoming of you? More than once it happened, and what did you do about, Mr. Principal? Precious little, so this time I tell the boy to put the monstrosity out of my classroom. In the hall he says others would trip over it and break their legs. And I couldn’t deny his point. In the yard he was afraid someone would run off with it. The students argue about this, like crazy little lawyers. So in the end I let him keep it, and every pair of eyes for one whole hour was not on the book but on this hunk of wood, this idol. Have you ever heard such a thing?”
“All over the world children are children, Sarah. Here they have surfboards.”
“They are all worshippers of Ba’al, all of them. I look at their eyes and I do not see Jews in their eyes but sprites. When they are sixteen they will run off into the desert. They will rip off their clothing like these people, like wild beasts they will join a ranch, a commune. They will build altars. They will perform human sacrifices, American style, on each other, God prevent it.”
“You must calm yourself.” Abe’s voice softened into a kind of hush, but with urgency. “One of them is here, waiting outside for a lesson. We will talk later. Okay, my little one?”
“In my house, you brought one of them?”
“A student! Yes, a nice boy.”
“Don’t believe, Abe. Maybe this one is a demon, too.”
“No, this one is a friend of Steven’s.”
“Ah,” she said, but I heard her voice topple into a kind of quiet wail, a moaning kind of melody, half prayer and half self-deprecation, that I had heard before when I’d listened once outside her classroom. But now it was slow and tortured. It lasted for what seemed like a long time, while, I imagined, Abe stood there, waiting for it to end.
And then it did, and she said softly, “All right. Go.”
Abe emerged into the hall and when he didn’t see me in the living room, he turned on his heel and saw me standing in the foyer. He rubbed his hands nervously together and said, “This way. We will begin.”
The lesson was the usual private lesson Mr. Green gave, and which, from this vantage of time, still impresses me as having been excellent. But my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about what I had heard between them. It was like eavesdropping on your parents in their bedroom. I could not concentrate on the Hebrew and I gave my usual distracted and poor performance.
It was for reasons of academic mediocrity such as this that my parents withdrew me from Hebrew school right after my bar mitzvah, and I certainly didn’t fight it. Thereafter I lost contact with the Greens and with Stevie. I don’t think my leaving the school was much of a loss for the school or for our little community, because early on they had quite given up on me as the one who might grow into the light of the San Rodeo Diaspora.
The afternoon time I had previously given to Hebrew school I now devoted to sports. I played football and basketball, but found I was too light and too short for them, so I switched to swimming. I pursued this into high school. I won a varsity letter, recognition, and dates with one of the cheerleaders.
On the surface of things it seemed as if my life had changed completely. My parents saw my grades improve, they saw offers of college scholarships begin to come my way, and this allayed some of their anxiety about paying for my education. I seemed a well-adjusted happy young man on his way up, and my parents congratulated themselves on their raising me, and on their decision to terminate the Jewish studies.
All this, I suppose, was true enough. But something was wrong. I missed the Greens. I missed their dark little apartment, their lessons in prophecy, their boniness, their hunger and tears. Once I was in a meet with a neighboring school. I was swimming the crawl in the last leg of the relay and our team was considerably ahead. I had a good stroke going and a good lead and I felt clean and wonderful in the water.
However, for no reason I could think of I began to visualize little Mrs. Green crying in front of us in that classroom years before. I don’t know what brought it on, but her hands were all blue-veined, a blue as translucent as the water I was swimming through, and they were rolled into fists. She began to cry harder, and as the tears rolled down her face, my stroke began to slow. A sense of guilt and shame passed through me. I could not get the picture of her out of my mind.
I continued to swim, but it was now without purpose and desire and I would have unquestionably lost my leg of the relay, along with the race for my school, had my teammates not yelled at me until their throats became raw. Afterwards, when the coach asked me what had gone wrong, there was no way I could explain.
One hot day during the August before I went to college, my car broke down and I could not get a hitch to the garage, so finally, after an hour of waiting, the bus lumbered by and I got on the bus. A wizened man was sitting in the back row. On his lap lay three or four thick volumes. I saw immediately that this man was Mr. Green. The bus wasn’t very crowded, and although I could have stood anywhere, I made my way slowly, and perhaps a little nervously, to the back.
He was talking to another man whom I also remembered from the Hebrew school, but I couldn’t place him. Mr. Green’s glasses were thicker by now and had jet black frames. He gave me a quick appraising glance, but there was no recognition. I suppose I had grown a lot. I was tempted to say hello, but I held back, as if there were now some kind of barrier between us, perhaps so much time, that a “hello” could not have bridged it.
Instead I looked at the books on his lap. I tried not to be obvious but I guess I was. His friend looked up at me and then glanced away and continued his conversation with Mr. Green. But the bus was noisy and I could not make out what the two me were saying, no matter how close I leaned.
One of the books in Mr. Green’s lap was the Pentateuch and Commentaries. That was the book on the bottom. Lying on top of it in a dark binding with red lettering on the spine was a volume entitled Black Magic, Exorcism, Forbidden Rites, and Kabbalah. The other two books were Spinoza’s Ethics and The Complete Zohar, compiled by Moses de Leon.
When the bus lurched to make a stop, Mr. Green and his friend glanced up and caught me staring. I averted my eyes. They began to talk again, and because the bus was now stalled in traffic, this time I could hear what they were saying. It was Mr. Green’s friend whom I heard first:
“The school is not so different from when you left.”
“They built a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and a tennis court, but it still doesn’t seem to be doing the job.”
“They are very pretty, the children, but very illiterate. I have a third-year class. What they know a thimble would be too big for. Right?”
“It all changes, and of course it doesn’t,” Abe Green said in answer to his friend. I kept hoping he would say more.
“They continue to intermarry, they assimilate, no one knows the answer. Now they meet each other young. Very young. By the poolside they are already kissing and touching each other, where, when we were young, a couple married a year would still be timid. They are in love and out of love in the time it takes to get a sunburn. How are we supposed to teach them? I confess that I myself am thinking of resigning.”
“Yes. All very familiar.”
We started to move again, and the sounds of the engine and the clanging of a loose sheet of metal on the side of the bus began to drown their voices just when a question was asked to which I yearned for an answer.
“And how is Mrs. Green?”
I never found out.
I graduated and went to college. I could have gone to any number of schools, and my parents had wanted me to go to one up north which had offered a good scholarship, but their main reason was that it was close. Yet it was New York that I chose. I think that the Greens, or perhaps seeing Mr. Green on the bus that day, had made the decision for me, or at least influenced it. I wanted to make my way back to that place where they had been, to the East, to the city where at least a filament, a tendril, of uprooted Europe had stretched.
Once in New York I began to explore the streets around the college, and gradually I expanded the radius of my researches. I found plaques on the walls of buildings commemorating battles of the American Revolution, skirmishes with Native people, the arrivals of immigrants, sites of the first synagogues, first meeting houses of the Jews from Spain, Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Austria. I had hoped to find something from Lithuania, a plaque or a monument from that place that had produced the Greens and launched them like a rocket which landed, it seemed, just for me, in San Rodeo. But I could not find what I was looking for.
When it came time to choose a major in college, I shocked everyone – and even myself a little – when I chose not to become either a doctor or a lawyer but to pursue something that was new in the curriculum: Jewish studies.
My Hebrew was of course minimal, and it would have been flattering at that time even to call it primitive. But now I had desire and everything went smoothly. The obstacles were parents, especially my father, who flew in to convince me of my error over a duck dinner in Chinatown. I tried to pay for it, but he laughed me off. The world is a harsh place, he admonished, where a man needs a secure way to make a living.
Never in all our talks together had I seen him more shocked than when I answered by quoting, “The Torah is not a hoe that you should earn a living by it.” I told him I would find a way: I would teach, write; there would be jobs.
My parents were very disappointed, but after a while they reconciled themselves to my choice and resolved to try to stay close even though a continent separated us. They began to write me little news items about the Jewish community in San Rodeo, which information, up to my “conversion,” as they termed it, had never been included in their letters to me. There was not a whole lot, just mention of luncheons they occasionally went to, and a men’s club study group my father had once attended at the temple but dropped because he got bored.
My mother seemed to take a new, if sudden, interest in the lectures given by the sisterhood. And when I went to graduate school – still in Jewish studies – she got herself elected chairwoman of the program committee. She wrote me that she and the entire sisterhood were regularly “stimulated” by speakers talking on such subjects as “The New Jewish Woman,” the Jewish Defense League, and the Threat of Intermarriage. If memory serves, she even went “gaga,” as she wrote, about a lecture titled “The New Jewish Poetry.” She seemed stimulated by everything but truly interested in nothing, except me of course, for which I was and continue to be grateful. The only news I heard about the Greens was when my mother wrote that Stevie was also now in New York doing something, but she was not sure what.
In subsequent letters she sent me telephone numbers where I could try to contact Stevie if I was interested. She wrote that she had met Mr. Green in the hall after one of her functions and talked to him for fifteen minutes about what I was now studying in New York, and how much gratitude I had always expressed for his teaching, his inspiration, and so forth.
My mother, may her memory be for a blessing, had a way of simplifying and sentimentalizing everything – at least in her writing to me – so I ground my teeth when I read her letter. Had she been at Gettysburg to transcribe Lincoln’s address for posterity, that short speech would have come out very different and might never have made it into the history books.
What did Mr. Green say to her? I wrote back.
Oh, nothing, she reported. He just stood smiling quietly and said, “Yes, Yes.”
Yes, I could believe this.
Shortly afterwards, my mother wrote that she found out Mrs. Green was in a sanitarium in a place called Apple Valley at the edge of the Mojave Desert. Mrs. Green hadn’t wanted to go there, but it was the one closest to San Rodeo and her husband had insisted on it so he could visit.
I tried many times to call Stevie Green. But each time the phone was no longer in operation. I called several other numbers that my mother continued to send over the years. Temporarily out of order, disconnected, wrong number, no answer.
I went home a few times during my stay in the East but always wound up so busy with relatives that I never made the visit to Abe Green and his wife which I had intended.
Back in New York, I began to rush around trying to finish my dissertation on the social history of the Jews of Lithuania in the nineteenth century. I was on my way to the last session of my orals. My books were under my arm, in my briefcase, and, in my dreams. I had been reading so much in those months of preparation that I sometimes went without sleep for more than a day, didn’t eat properly, and occasionally got minor dizzy spells.
At the corner I waited for the light. Before I could cross Broadway, suddenly there was an overpowering smell of incense beside me, sandalwood. I turned and a man was facing me, smiling jubilantly. His head was shaved bald, he was swathed in a tangerine-colored robe, and in his long slender hands he held incense sticks and pamphlets. The man, who could have been older than me or younger – because you can’t tell too easily when there’s no hair – would not have detained my attention had there not been something in his eyes. Something also about his long angular nose.
“Hare Krishna,” he said, “May God bless you. Would you like to buy some of the Holy One’s incense?”
I took a step off the curb in the direction of the building and room where I knew that at that moment three august professors of Jewish studies were now gathering and soon would be looking at the clock above the blackboard and wondering just where their examinee was.
“I have mellow sandalwood, beautiful pine.” I pulled back my foot onto the curb. “And even more divine persimmon.”
“Stevie?” I cried.
“I have no name,” the young man said, looking down at the sidewalk. “I am born of Krishna and I am his son.”
“No, you’re not! You’re Abe and Sarah’s son!”
He looked up at me and then quickly averted his eyes. He saw someone else passing on the street in back of me, or so he seemed to indicate. He broke away from me, and strode up and said to her, “Hare Krishna, may God bless you. Would you like to buy some incense?”
I looked at my watch. “Stevie,” I called to him as he moved rapidly down the sidewalk away from me and toward the river. “Stevie! Stevie Green, is that you? What’s your phone number? Stevie! Stevie!”
He didn’t even turn around.
Had I been mistaken? Or was that really Stevie Green? Perhaps a look-alike, or perhaps I was just very tired from many sleepless hours of study. My experience with Hare Krishna people, however, had been that they were very persistent. Why had this one turned and left so quickly when I called his name?
On the following day I went up to one of them on the street, purchased their magazine, and that afternoon I called the telephone number of their temple, which was listed for Brooklyn.
“We do not give out information such as you request,” said the voice. I could almost smell incense through the wires.
“May I come down?”
“You may gladly come to pray and give homage to Krishna,” the voice said. “But we have no names here. We are all children of the Lord.”
I would have gone, but I had another session with the professors and it could not be postponed. Instead I wrote to my family and asked for news about Stevie Green.
They wrote back that no one had heard anything about him in years. They wrote, however, that Abraham Green had suddenly died. Sarah was still sick and her doctors had not allowed her to attend the funeral. The Greens by then had few friends in San Rodeo. My mother and father attended the funeral service, as did the rabbi and Mr. Green’s friend from the bus, who had also retired from the Hebrew school, and the temple provided the rest of the minyan. He was buried in the new Jewish cemetery, not fully landscaped yet, on the edge of the desert.
Stevie was not at the funeral, and although no one said anything everyone was thinking it, my parents reported that it was a great and shameful thing Stevie had done. That this gentle father, this man, everyone’s teacher, had deserved better from his only son. It was as if Stevie had disowned his own father, or else he would have been at the funeral. Either that, or he had disappeared from the face of the earth.
If that was Stevie I had seen, I wondered if his parents would have in fact preferred him to be there. Of course, I did not write this to my mother and father.