Words of the Week, II

A second “helping” of Words of the Week because I haven’t been able to forget this passage since reading it—a section in Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Bird,” a short story in last week’s issue of The New Yorker.

Maybe current events have something to do with that.


“What’s this?” Martin asked. “What are you reading there?”

“A book about 9/11. Who caused it.”

Martin grabbed it, thumbed the pages. “Where’d you get it?”

“From Amazon. With my birthday gift card.”

“Hmm. Do you believe it?”

“What do you mean? It’s true.”

“What’s true?”

“That the Jews caused 9/11 and they all stayed home that day so they wouldn’t get killed.”

Martin excused Lester. Told him to skedaddle and, yes, it was O.K. to watch TV, even though watching time hadn’t started yet. Just go, go.

“O.K., Jonah,” he whispered. “Jonah, stop. This is not O.K. Not at all O.K. First of all, Jonah, you have to listen to me. This is insane. This is a book by an insane person.”

“You know him?”

“No, I don’t know him. I don’t have to. Listen to me, you know that we’re Jewish, right? You, me, Mom, Lester. We’re Jewish.”

“Not really.”

“What do you mean, not really?”

“You don’t go to synagogue. You don’t seem to worship. You never talk about it.”

“That’s not all that matters.”

“Last month was Yom Kippur and you didn’t fast. You didn’t go to services. You don’t ever say Happy New Year on Rosh Hashanah.”

“Those are rituals. You don’t need to observe them to be part of the faith.”

“But do you know anything about it?”


“No, being Jewish. Do you know what it means and what you’re supposed to believe and how you’re supposed to act?”

“I do, yes. I have a pretty good idea.”

“Then tell me.”


“What? I’m just wondering how you can call yourself Jewish.”

“How? Are you fucking kidding me?”

He needed to walk away before he did something.

“O.K., Jonah, it’s actually really simple. I’ll tell you how. Because everyone else in the world would call me Jewish. With no debate. None. Because of my parents and their parents, and their parents, including whoever got turned to dust in the war. Zayde Anshel’s whole family. You walk by their picture every day in the hall. Do you think you’re not related to them? And because I was called a kike in junior high school, and high school, and college, and probably beyond that, right up to this fucking day. And because if they started rounding up Jews again they’d take one look at our name and they’d know. And that’s you, too, mister. They would come for us and kill us. O.K.? You.”

He was shaking his fist in his son’s face. Just old-school shouting. He wanted to do more. He wanted to tear something apart. There was no safe way to behave right now.

“They would kill you. And you’d be dead. You’d die.”

“Martin?” Rachel said. “What’s going on?”

Of course. There she was. Lurking. He had no idea how long she’d been standing there, what she’d heard.

Martin wasn’t done. Jonah seemed fascinated, his eyes wide as his father ranted.

“Even if you said that you hated Jews, too, and that Jews were evil and caused all the suffering in the world, they would look at you and know for sure that you were Jewish, for sure! Buddy, champ, mister”—just spitting these names at his son—“because only a Jew, they would say, only a Jew would betray his own people like that.”


Read the full story in The New Yorker. This is just one small piece of what makes it so memorable.

But it’s certainly the most “Jewish” piece.

2 thoughts on “Words of the Week, II

  1. I read the story after you tweeted about it. That was a really strange story. I kept expecting it to turn into an actual horror story, with the creepy flat-affect-plus-subtle-threats-to-parents thing passing to the second, younger son, and then it just didn’t. By the end, the parents just need to suck it up because the kid’s freaky behavior isn’t going away, meanwhile their marriage is crumbling and the whole thing was rather depressing.

    (And it wasn’t PG rated, which isn’t their problem, but not my preference.)

    But some of the writing was outstanding. The part you highlighted spoke to me, and a couple other spots here and there. (Like the moments when the big brother is taking care of his little brother, but I kept thinking, “Is he training little bro to turn on their parents while he gets him ready for school?” and I got all freaked out.)

    I kept thinking: something is going on here, but I’m not getting it.

    Occasionally, I have moments like this when reading literary fiction. And then I go back to reading a sci-fi novel.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Becca, I think you’re right that the creepiness is subtle, but I do think it’s there. I kind of wondered how much “worse” things might get in the years to come. And I also agree that the multiple f-bombs aren’t necessarily to my own style, but, yes, not the author’s/magazine’s problem.

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