Bad Dreams in America

[creative non-fiction]

I woke in a panic. My heart racing: loud, thumping, beating in an otherwise still house— five people sleeping. I struggled a moment to make sense. Was it memory or a dream? The darkness, the shadow of moonlight, the hypnotic static of a noise machine, all assured me it was a dream. A bad dream. But it was memory too. Generational memory. Memory in my blood. Cultural memory. Because it was too familiar. I could close my eyes twenty-four hours later and still see the face of the conjured man in my dream. Dark olive skin, a short salt-and-pepper beard with matching sideburns. A black suit. A crushed black, velvet fedora hat feet from his body. He was fiction. But he was real. And he was terrified. And so was I.

I dreamed I was home, my childhood home, with my children. We are in Los Angeles and we are standing on Beverly Boulevard right by Pan Pacific Park. From my viewpoint I can see the corner of the street I grew up on, Gardner Street, as well as the synagogue I grew up going to on Beverly Boulevard. The vantage point wasn’t great, but I could make out whether or not Synagogue was over; if a crowd of men and women were spilling out onto the side walk, their clothes marking them apart, suits for the men, dresses for the women—they stand out amongst LA’s casual and hip wardrobe. I am looking for my father and husband while my children race around me, chasing each other, bickering, and then sudden squeals of laughter—it all feels so real, and I casually glance down to my right, to the corner of Gardner Street. Through a chain link fence I can see a man kicking another man who was down on the floor. He wasn’t defending himself, as if this beating was going on for quite some time. My heart is pounding, just as it was when I woke, ringing so loud my ears fill with it. The man on the ground is Jewish, I can easily see that; the other man is deep in shadow. I try screaming for help, but no sound is coming out loud enough over the busy traffic. I wave my hands madly, to signal to the throng of congregants across the street just coming out from my Synagogue. I am desperate, glancing back from the crowd making their very slow way down the sidewalk, to the man now completely limp on the floor. Next to me, my children carry on, oblivious, never asking why I am screaming, why I am flailing my arms above my head. And then when I look back over, the man on the ground is being lifted up by his attacker like a rag doll and dragged away, further down Beverly Boulevard. Away from me. Away from help. Away from dreaming. And that is when I wake.

I can’t fall back asleep. I am wide eyed, trying to catch my breath, desperate to return to the land of unconsciousness so I can somehow help this man who was being carried away to some unknown and terrible fate. The dream follows me the rest of the day like a bad odor. I see this man’s face everywhere I go. The carpool line, the supermarket, the children’s playroom, and in the dark of my daughters’ closets. I see him on the floor, his body shaking with each blow. And I am haunted. Understandably so. Of course I am. I am petrified. It’s the first time in my life that I am truly scared to be a Jew in America. And when did I ever in my wildest dreams imagine that to be a reality. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I thought we had escaped. I thought we found solace. Asylum. But something has happened recently, like the sociopolitical ground had been aerated and through those holes an evil that was lurking beneath has emerged, and it is spewing out historic levels of anti-Semitism. Each passing incident becoming more and more alarming, more and more deadly. There was a time when it wasn’t like this, when I brushed it off to ignorance or immaturity.

It’s no wonder my dream took me to both Gardner Street and Beverly Boulevard. They are not only two of the most familiar and relevant streets in my life, but they are both streets in which I experienced my first anti-Semitic verbal attacks. The first was when I was fourteen, standing in front of my home on Gardner Street, to greet my father from Synagogue on a Friday night. A car drove by and a teenager screamed out, “Heil Hitler,” half his body hanging out the front passenger window, his hand up in salute. It was the same experience again about ten years later when I was walking on the Sabbath with my husband; a car on Beverly Boulevard slowed down and the adult passengers in the car screamed out yet again, “Heil Hitler.” While both these events deeply disturbed me, they did not frighten me. But now I am thirty-three years old. In the last several months alone, Jews lost their lives while praying in Synagogue by an armed man screaming out anti-Semitic rhetoric, who came in to shoot and kill them. Then again, in another synagogue. Then again, at a kosher market. Then in the private home of a Rabbi. Then more graffiti, vandalism, Torah scrolls desecrated on the floor near broken glass windows. Is this 2020? Or is this a time warp? Are these my memories? Or could these be someone else’s, from another time, from another country? It is surreal and I am no longer disturbed; I am out right frightened.

I am hearing survivors from Nazi Germany tell us, tell us Americans, that what they are seeing here today in America is reminiscent of what they saw in Europe in 1939. As a granddaughter of survivors, I thought about the Holocaust a lot. It was a part of my identity, the same blood that runs through me ran through my murdered relatives. I often tried to put myself in that mind frame, to really absorb what it all meant, and I have always concluded I wouldn’t have survived. There would be no way. But a larger part of me believed it would never be that way for me, that it couldn’t really ever happen again. Not here, not in America. But yet, we sit at Sabbath meals with friends, we talk about the rise in anti-Semitism, we talk about our fears, about our concern for our children, and I can’t help but imagine similar conversations having taken place in the 1930s in Europe. And we all know how that story ended.

Several years back, while speaking with a close friend with no Holocaust survivor relatives, I realized this quiet fear is a common thread regardless of our personal history, for we discovered we both played the terrible mental game of Anne Frank. Who of our gentile friends would hide us if America turned against us? It sounds like dark comedy, but it wasn’t. It isn’t. We were both horrified to realize we thought about these things, even before American anti-Semitism exploded. The fear is deeply rooted, the trauma, not just genetic, but cultural, and now more than ever deeply warranted.

“Don’t worry,” my eldest daughter told her younger sister when discussing Anne Frank after she had recently read a short book about her, “these things can’t happen to us. We are safe. We live in America and Mommy and Daddy keep us safe.” And this is when fear grips me the tightest. How can I protect them? How can I keep them safe—when I cannot even reach that man in my dreams? Where did they take him? And I ask, where will they take us?

Talya Jankovits’ work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Mama, Recovering the Self, The Jewish Literary Journal, and Mutha Magazine, among others. Her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize. Her poem, “A Woman of Valor,” is featured in the 2019/2020 Eshet Hayil exhibit at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles. She holds her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters.