I wake up with a start, cold sweat on my skin, a startled scream choked off by returning consciousness. Only a dream. Only a dream….
The next morning at breakfast, my mother glances at me, and looks again with concern. “It happened again, didn’t it? The dream. You look….”
She doesn’t say it this time, but I’ve heard her say it before, when she thought I was out of hearing: “haunted.”
Haunted. A ghost haunting my own body. These aren’t my hands—the fingernails clean and trimmed, the creases barely there, clear of the soot and ash that I know was there when….
When what? I grasp after the fleeting memory, needing something to hold onto, to give substance to the reality that I know was there behind my eyes—eyes that now behold their own alien hands, uncomprehending.
The years pass, and I grow used to the dislocations and interruptions. The dreams remain. I never really grow used to them, but I learn to live with the nightly intrusions of that other reality. By now I’m old enough to know that they aren’t real, that they represent some distorted version of reality which, thankfully, exists only in my own perverse imagination. Such things could never happen in real life—a comfort, even when I come to doubt my own sanity. For what sane person could ever imagine such things?
High school. My English Lit teacher offers us a choice of books, and my choice is made from avoidance. Whatever I read, it will not be The Diary of a Young Girl. Before long I’ve learned what sections of the library to avoid, what words must not be spoken or even heard. I’ve learned when to leave a conversation, even in mid-sentence. My life is lived in the gaps between the avoidances. And still the nightmares persist, but now I’ve begun to have an inkling, never completely acknowledged, that they portray something beyond the perverse imagination of a frightened child. I come to acknowledge what I knew all along—the people in the dreams are all adults, and so am I.
But the nightmare is only a nightmare. In waking reality there is a life to be lived. Friends, family, a passion for astronomy, and a love of horseback riding in the country. I set up shop as a horse trainer—a teenaged girl’s dream job. I figure I’ll learn the business on the fly, and so I do. And then the job of a lifetime comes my way: at 14 years old, I’m given the task of getting a prize-winning Appaloosa stallion in shape for the Stock Show. And so begins a weekly trek out to the farm where Lord Orion holds court, a drive that is pleasant enough even without the fairy-tale destination. I revel in the power of the ancient Caddy that my mother bought me as a learner car (“bigger is safer!” she said.) . I’m still a year away from being eligible for a learner’s permit, so I avoid the main highways, choosing instead back roads and farm extensions—and so I gain a renewed appreciation for the unsung beauty of the Texas hill country.
And then one day, my drive in the country brings me face to face with my unremembered past. An old farmhouse, its ancient timbers silvered by time, stands amidst cattails and leafless pecan trees at a bend in the road, a haunted house out of the best stories. Surely such a drive-by delight deserves some music appropriate to its faded glory; perhaps something on the classical station. I flip through the channels… and stop.
A melody from beyond any dream or nightmare flows from the old Caddy’s excellent sound system. I am in the place from before the nightmares. My hand caresses salt sea, chasing tiny fish as waves stain my rolled-up trousers and a woman’s voice sings of loves lost or never won. Too soon, the music ends. A perky voice chimes in over the last notes, unforgivably spoiling the mood, bringing me back to the smell of pecan trees and the Texas springtime. “That’s all for this week’s Jewish Music Hall. Join us Tuesday for our annual fundraising drive. Come out and show your support!”
Numbly, I memorize the number to call to volunteer. I have to find the name of that song! Some part of me was stolen, somewhere, some time, and that song is a clue. And so Tuesday morning finds me in Dallas, having braved the perils of the Texas Highway Patrol in pursuit of a song. I make new friends, some of whom invite me to visit the new Jewish community center in Fort Worth. “But I’m not Jewish,” I say.
Or maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m simply too overwhelmed to say anything at all. Nonetheless, I begin to read and to question: “I’m not Jewish, am I?” More reading, and the answer seems to be: “Yes, perhaps I am, after all.” Something deep inside breathes a sigh of relief, a murmur of resignation, a hint of sorrow and fear… and a hope so shocking in its raw pain that it must be shut out completely. But another Voice whispers quietly in my ear: “Welcome home! I’ve missed you.”
The orthodox conversion, two years down the line, will be merely the rubber stamp on a choice never really made at all. And so I set out on a treasure hunt, to find that missing part of myself stolen by something, somewhere… and hidden in a song. I travel to Europe and find where the story ended: a desolate field, the buildings from my nightly ramblings, revealed in all their sordid reality. I retreat inside myself, cowering in the tour bus. “Take me home,” I whisper, knowing that in this place, no prayers are answered.
But now, finally, there is an answering voice: “Come home!”
The next summer finds me in Israel. On the bus to the Western Wall, I again hear the song from my youth, and something in my soul dances, soars to the heavens, and plummets in blind despair at love betrayed. Bewildered, I journey on. My travels take me to a Shabbat dinner hosted by a rabbi who teaches at a local seminary. Together with a dozen young people from all over the world, I celebrate Shabbat as it’s meant to be celebrated, with wine and song and stories. Before I know it, I am speaking of my hopes and fears freely before this crowd of strangers.
“Would you three be willing to come back after Havdalah to help me with a project?” The rabbi’s question is innocuous, even friendly, but something in me cringes: I have revealed far more than I should have. Whatever happens next, I brought it on myself. And so, after Havdalah I present myself at the rabbi’s house. The Shabbat table is now cleared of food and cheer. The room seems darker, more somber, as I trail after the other two guests to an inner room and sit down in the rabbi’s study.
He produces an index file, pulls a card from a stack, and asks a few questions. “When did you first realize…? How did you know…? Why did you decide to make Israel your home?” And we answer, each of us, in halting, bewildered wonderment at the miracle that your lives have become. None of us is unaware that we are living, breathing miracles: witnesses to a promise made long ago and now kept, living receptacles of memories we could not have lived.
Three cards, covered front and back with the rabbi’s tiny handwriting. One by one they vanish into the index file. The memory of a similar card, filled with neat German handwriting, disappearing into the flames…. A card for a card. A life for a life.
“Are all of those cards filled with such stories?” Who is it that worked up the courage to ask? I, or one of my fellow travelers, now recognized as kindred in some unspoken adventure?
“Yes,” says the rabbi. “You see, at the yeshiva we get a lot of people passing through. Some come for a week or a month. Others stay and learn and raise families. And every year, we get a few who describe their journeys much as you three did last night—vague dreams or nightmares seldom recalled, a sense of completing someone else’s life. Let’s just say that I know why you—why people like you—are here.”
“These cards….” He trails off. He looks at each of us in turn, and then, in a voice filled with wonder, he says: “We, in our day… we are living through T’chiat HaMetim, the revival of the dead….
“And I am keeping a record.”