Bears and Jews

Bears and Jews

The phone rings in the cottage: an unwelcome sound on a sweet summer day. I grouch my way up from a nap and stomp over to the big, cumbersome, cord-bound phone. The owner of the cottage, a very old friend, doesn’t do cordless anything up here. The harsh clangor of the phone can be heard down on the beach, but I’m the only one inside. That phone is tolling for me. But who could it be? Someone calling from work? Unlikely. Our 19-year-old son reporting a police raid on our Toronto home after an all-night beer bash in the backyard that a hundred wild guests crashed because word got out to every teenager in the city? Unlikely. I hope. My mother? Likeliest. I pick up the receiver and grumble a hello. It’s my mother. Despite my telephonic phobias we manage to have a surprisingly peaceable conversation — something about her not knowing where I’d put our dog’s arthritis medicine — and, as we say goodbye, she makes me laugh. "Have you run into," says this Romanian Jewish survivor of the war, "any bears or anti-Semites?" I laugh, and admit that no, this summer, here on the bright shores of Lac Roddick, outside the village of Bouchette, Quebec, in the middle of the Gatineau Valley, there’s been a distinct dearth of both bears and anti-Semites.

Her question was rooted in family history. A few summers ago, when my father was still well enough to make the trip, my parents had driven up to visit us. It was a highlight — as anybody who has had an attack of cabin fever would know — to drive up to Maniwaki to visit the Thursday morning flea market. It has fishing gear, Miracle Car Wax, old tools, T-shirts with Che/Tupac/Elvis, French country-and-western cassettes, black velvet paintings, and fresh fruit. My mother and father had just bought some wild blueberries when another customer stepped up to the table. He ordered a basket of blueberries, but found the price a little high. The farmwoman, probably tired from picking the damn things, wasn’t in a mood to bargain. The man finally muttered, in his good Gatineau accent, "Eh bien, don’t be a Jew!"

I doubt that he had ever met a Jew in his whole life. Call me naive, but I also doubt that his soul was deeply tainted by the foul corruption of bigotry. It was probably just a turn of phrase. But I have absolutely no doubt that in his worst nightmares he hadn’t imagined that one day he’d spout that ignorant expression standing next to a Jewish French professor who had survived the Holocaust in Romania. My mother, all five feet three of her, turned to this unfortunate citoyen and chastised him in her impeccable French: "Monsieur, vous ?tes raciste! I am a Jew, and I was in the war. You are wrong to speak in this way!"

This must rank as one of the great coincidences in the sordid history of racism. What are the chances a dumb comment is made unwittingly at the very elbow of a member of the insulted race, and that said ambassador of a disparaged people can summon — ? l’improviste — such eloquent, courtly fury to dispatch the perpetrator? The man slunk away abashed, disappearing in the crowd but immortalized in our family legends.

So that’s why it made sense for her to ask about anti-Semites. But what about the bears? A few years ago we did see a bear on the mile-long dirt road that leads to the cottage. Then we made the idiotic mistake of mentioning it to her. Never, my friends, never tell a mother (Jewish or no, I suspect it works across all races and religions) you’ve seen a bear. The cottage is already, in her imagination, a minefield of potential disasters. Poison ivy, drowning, tornado, rabid foxes, snakebite, drowning, bees and wasps, escaped prisoners, chainsaws: They start to sound like the plagues we name at Passover, but a holiday version of them. Now add bears. Ever since we told her, every time we head north she implores us to be careful about the huge, ferocious, possibly anti-
Semitic bears. She probably pictures them popping off the flimsy roof of the cottage and scooping us up like so many soggy fries in a container of (at least kosher) poutine (a classic Canadian dish of potatoes, cheese, and sauce).

But behind the bears of her overactive imagination are other terrors, and these, unfortunately, she saw with her own eyes. She grew up as a girl in the war. She remembers hiding from the fascist police, the dreaded greenshirts who were as brutal as the German gestapo, as they hunted down Jews. She remembers being bombed, first by the Allied planes returning from the oil fields of Ploestie, then by the Nazis trying to destroy Bucharest before the Red Army arrived. She remembers rushing down a street looking for a doctor for her sick mother as a German fighter strafed her. She also remembers a Russian officer’s coming in the middle of the night for a billet. By the grace of God, the officer turned out to be Jewish. Her mother, raising a 16-year-old girl alone after her father was exiled by the fascists, called out, "Come, my darling, don’t be afraid. He’s one of our brothers. You will be safe." She has seen more violence than I can ever imagine, hidden from machine guns and the malice of her fellow-citizens, struggled as a refugee in the new world, carried the weight of a troubled epoch on her slight shoulders. She can deal with anti-Semites in a Maniwaki flea market, and, if she ever met our bears (oops, I meant "bear"), I suspect my mother would walk out of the woods first. Phone call over, it’s time to swim over to the yellow boat a half mile away. Yes, yes — with a flotation device tied to my trunks.

Dan Yashinsky, an internationally known storyteller, is the author of "Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-first Century" (Knopf Canada).

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