Sunday, January 25, 2009

Words On Stone

Words On Stone
By Samovar Lightfoot

All rights reserved
Price Communications, Inc.
P.O.Box 45228
Jerusalem, Israel 97451
1,476 words

Sammy Lightfoot’s the name I was given at my grandmother Sadie Greenstein’s insistence. She was a nice old woman. Small, plump beneath a flowered housedress, always smiling, Hadassah arms, you know, the kind that hang loose beneath biceps that were once strong and muscular from hoisting endless children and grandchildren.

I remember she made terrific brown sugar cookies. On the High Holidays she baked apple pies, dozens of them, spread out on every flat surface in the small apartment where we all lived. Six of us, in three rooms, yelling at each other when the “L” train went by not twenty yards away across Glenwood Avenue. There was always another “L” train. We didn’t know we were shouting. We’d go out to visit people and they’d tell us ‘stop yelling.’

Sadie had nearly been thrown out of the Greenstein family when she’d married my grandfather Ernie Lightfoot, a one hundred per cent Anapaho Indian, who for a while back in the 1930’s was a famous movie star. Over the years she lost contact with the New York City Greenstein clan. She’s said she had a recollection of a nephew, Phillip, but not what happened to him.

I’d become a photojournalist. Nothing big. A few jobs here and there for small magazines, lot of industrial work taking pictures of soap and fancy boxes holding hi-tech computer boards, but it was a living. Not much different from driving a bread truck, like my father. And I’d moved to Israel. That was another story. I’d lived in Jerusalem over twenty years. I’d tell people, ‘Jerusalem isn’t Israel. It’s another world. Another country.’ But Aleza, my Israeli-born wife, would shh me, saying it was bad to say that.

One of the things I guess I got from Sadie, but also from living in Israel, was a sense of history. Of family. Israel was a place you thought about history and ancestors. The whole place was filled with Abraham, Solomon, Moses: wherever you turned, history. Conflicts 3,000 years old were still the foundation stones of shooting wars. I’d decided it was important for my family, my own two children, a new branch starting in Israel, to know what their roots were.

When I was young Sadie was always preaching that everything happened for a reason. Me, I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t all chaos. According to Sadie’s way of thinking not finding her long-lost family had to be for a reason.. ‘B’shert.’ Fated.

And into this mess stepped my friend Leo, an amateur genealogist; a skinny, brainy, bald guy with hair sprouting from his ears and eyebrows like wheat before the harvest. He was in touch with a network of genealogists because he translated stuff for them. Leo spoke about six languages, read and wrote them, too, but slowly. He was a child of the Holocaust. Still he was a cheery guy. Sort of sneaky, sometimes, but what could you expect after what he’d been through?
Leo said he’d look up the family, ask around. And that’s what he did. Every once in a while I’d get a discouraging report, “No progress. This is a tough case.”

On the eve of a trip back to the States for a family wedding, Leo showed up at my Jerusalem apartment. He was like that. The bell rang and there was Leo, an envelope under his arm, his discolored teeth showing through the grin. “I think I have something,” he said, came in for the ritual Scotch, sat in the living room and pulled out a photograph of a headstone.

“Israel Ben Chaim Greenstein,HaLavi,” he said, beaming. Israel Greenstein had been Sadie’s grandfather. “The headstone’s in Brooklyn, at the Washington Cemetery,” Leo said watching me over the glass as I stared at the picture of the stone. He spoke with a slight European accent. “That’s it. I thought since anyway you’re going to New York; if you have maybe a chance, you could stop by the cemetery office. I tried, but me they won’t answer. They said. I’m not family.”

So, on a chilly fall afternoon in New York Aleza and I took the subway to Brooklyn, following a map we’d downloaded from MapQuest and printed back at the hotel. We walked into the office of the Washington Cemetery, an ancient gray wood-frame building with creaky floors.. Most of the staff was Russian, speaking English like receptionists in the Intourist hotel in Moscow. They sat behind a thick bulletproof glass window, the kind you find in a currency exchange. All they had on Israel Ben Chaim Greenstein HaLavi was the one note card with the name and where the grave was located.

“Any other Greensteins here?” I asked. The blowsy dyed-blond woman smiled, showing a gold tooth, giving us a photocopy of a map. She marked an x on the spot with a thick magic marker, looked up and said,. “Greenstein? Here, that’s like Smith.”

We made our way through the cemetery, actually a collection of cemeteries separated by fences and streets, stretching over blocks of Brooklyn. The farther you walked the older the graves. The newcomer Russians had staked out the narrow spaces parallel to the sidewalks where shiny black marble headstones stood embossed with line-drawn portraits of the deceased. Behind these new arrivals were vertical rows of graves with weathered marble headstones so worn the engraved letters were nearly invisible.

The Greenstein headstone was at the far corner of the cemetery right where the blond had said, a few rows in front of a ten-foot high rusting cyclone fence. On the other side stood a three-story yellow-brick Jewish day school, with young voices singing the ‘aleph-bes’ muffled but audible through the closed windows. A lot of the headstones were sunk crookedly into the ground, overgrown with weeds; the letters so battered by harsh New York winters, and acid rain, they disappeared in the marble.

All except for Israel Ben Chaim Greenstein HaLavi. The first think I saw was that he’d died in 1912. His black marble headstone was upright, the carved letters painted in clean white paint, a well-tended hedge over the grave.

Excited, I trotted back to the cemetery office, asked the blond to check the files, see if anyone had been paying for upkeep. Another look into the metal drawers, more shuffling of the note cards, but nope; no one was paying for anything. “Sometimes people hire private contractors, and don’t tell us,” the blond said. “They’re not supposed to, but they do.”

Back at the grave it seemed to have turned appreciably colder. The weatherman had predicted an unseasonably early snow for the New York area. I dug a notepad out of my back jeans pocket and I carefully and clearly wrote the message, giving the address and telephone number and even e-mail, explaining I was a relative. Thinking of the impending storm, I wrapped the note tightly in a used sandwich bag and placed two baseball-sized rocks on the bag to keep the message in place should a strong wind blow. Placing a stone on a Jewish grave was also a sign someone had paid their respects. I’d put on two, and a message. Sadie would have been proud.

The next morning was cold. Frost on the windows of our inexpensive no-view mid-town Manhattan hotel. I logged onto my e-mail account with my laptop lying on the kitchen table of our junior suite. We’d cleaned out Macy’s and Aleza was struggling to fit everything in our suitcases. Our plane was due to leave in a few hours.

Then I saw my friend Leo’s e-mail. It seemed to leap out at me. It was hours old. Middle of the night now in Israel. “We found him!” Leo wrote. “The nephew of your grandmother. He’s name is Phil. Now he’s in his late seventies, living in a retirement village in Florida. Changed his name to Green. I spoke to him. He was very excited to find out about you. Says he has a brother, and children, and grandchildren, and cousins. I’ll give you the phone number when you get home.”

Aleza walked in heading to the sink for a glass of water. “Don’t give them my address,” she said, after reading the e-mail. “We’ve got cousins now we don’t talk to. We don’t need any more.”

"Later, in the cab, heading for the airport, I sat looking out the window at the old cemetery flashing by on the way out to Kennedy wondering about the e-mail, if there really was a connection to the message under the rocks I'd left on the headstone. Wondering what the Phillip Greenstein cousins would say when I contacted them, which I planned to do. Fate or chaos? Or like Aleza, they might already have enough cousins."