I’ve never met another Baru. When we were growing up, no one knew how to pronounce it. People would call the house looking for Mr. Barn or Mrs. Barv. When I spell it for people, they typically express some surprise. And comment, “Oh, it’s so easy. Just like it sounds.” I’m not sure what they are expecting.
With the advent of the internet and Facebook, my sample size for finding people, places and things with my name has grown to the billions. The most common references to the name Baru are from Indonesia. Baru is also a word in Indonesian; it translates to “new.” Occasionally, you come across the name in odd places. Two friends sent me a picture once of them in front of a restaurant called Baru in the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico. There’s a Hacienda Baru in Costa Rica. I’ve even recently discovered a Baru nut. Each of these discoveries gives me a jolt of excitement. It’s that particular jolt we all get when we hear our own name, but intensified because it’s so rare for me to hear my name and always seems to come in such unexpected places. I suppose this jolt explains the allure of fame. But, though they’re exciting, these discoveries aren’t illuminating. I’m not Latino. I’m not Indonesian. My grandfather was a Ukrainian Jew.
My Grandpa Stanley was born in 1908 in the region of Russia that would become the Ukraine. When he was six, Russia entered the first World War. His little town would have been emptied of men, until it fell behind the German front in 1918. His dad, in fact, was one of the five million men that served in the Russian army and one of the two million that died. He was shot in the leg. The skin around that wound became tense, shiny, and sunburn red. Days later, rose-colored tendrils streamed up from that pocket of pus, carrying bacteria into his bloodstream. Shock ensued, followed quickly by death.
After my great-grandfather’s death, when my grandpa was ten years old, the same age as my sons right now, his mother sent him to live with his aunt and uncle. His aunt and uncle were deeply religious, and the plan was for him to travel with them to Palestine and become a rabbi. They fled with the retreating German army.
In Warsaw they waited for their visas. His aunt and uncle were apparently very strict. He never really explained what they did to him, but either it was very punitive or he was fearless and headstrong because he ran away. My grandpa was certainly headstrong. This was a man who only sold his bar after nearly losing his life in the process of protecting it. The bar he owned was in downtown Muskegon, a working-class town on the east coast of Lake Michigan. The clientele at his bar was supposedly pretty rough. In the mid-1950s, the city wanted to buy his property as part of an improvement project. A parking garage? A mall? Who knows? Anyway, he refused. One night, someone attacked him from behind with a razor blade, nearly cutting his carotid artery. My grandfather had seen the glint of light off metal and had turned back around at the last second. This saved his life and allowed him to subdue the man with the help of his bouncer, Cadillac. Though Cadillac was six foot six and was often pictured in a pinstripe, double-breasted suit, he was not the true enforcer when there was trouble. My Grandpa Stanley, at five feet five inches, was the real muscle. After this attack, though, my grandpa was hospitalized for a long time. He understood this as a message and, at his wife’s urging, finally sold the business. This ferocious independence would not have done well in a strict authoritarian household, so I’m not surprised that he wanted to run away.
The fact that he had the chutzpahi to actually leave when he was merely twelve is shocking. He travelled by train, riding beneath them. There was a small ledge under the train that you could squeeze onto. You’d lie there surrounded by the wheels thundering, the chunk of the train’s pis-tons shaking deep in your chest, watching the ground whistle by beneath you and, at your destina-tion, wait for a chance to sneak away without being caught. My grandpa, one of thousands of soot-covered orphans wandering through the countryside of postwar Europe, travelled from Warsaw, through Western Poland, Germany, and Belgium, to Paris. That’s eight hundred and fifty miles through what must have been a hellscape of cratered buildings, refugees, sorrow and deprivation. I don’t know how they fed themselves, where they slept or how they communicated.
In Paris, he ended up in an orphanage and was able to contact his parents. They put him in touch with a family member in the States who would sponsor him—a distant uncle that lived in Chicago. My grandpa claimed that he never changed his last name during his travels. Maybe, there was, in fact, a large community of Baru, who were simply decimated in the war and the violent, anti-Semitic pogroms that followed—a prelude to what would happen to scores of names during the Holocaust twenty-five years later. The documents that we have from the orphanage in Paris do spell his name Baru, but I’ve always thought that it is more likely that the name was changed. Perhaps Baru is a franco-fication of Baruch, a softening of the harsh, guttural ending of the Hebrew word for “Blessed.” Maybe the name was a truncated version of something longer, more complicated, and more clearly Ukranian; something like Barushkovskiy. Maybe it was a common Ukranian Jewish name less clearly related to the final product, a name like Bursztyn. Possibly, as he went from country to country, he changed it slightly, working to adjust it to new ears. In this scenario he would have slowly squeezed it, twisted it, and cut it until he made it to that orphanage in Paris and the ultimate touches were applied. Most likely, he didn’t have any choice in the matter and these changes were simply made for him.
The bris is a bizarre practice. The idea of throwing a party eight days after delivering a baby is, honestly, cruel. Buying food, setting up serving ware, sending out announcements, finding a mohel (pronounced “moyel”) to perform the rite, all on no sleep and maximum anxiety. It’s absurd. Not only are you heaping this stress on during the fog of newborn parenthood, you’re doing it so a group of friends and family can watch someone take a scalpel to your child’s penis.
You’ve become newly responsible for keeping a very small and remarkably helpless being alive. He’s so dependent on you that when you take off his clothes, his red little body begins to shiver. Now, you welcome all of these people into your home. You have some bagels, smoked fish, fruit salad. You shmooze and make small talk. You haven’t been outside of your house in eight days and now, you’re surrounded by people and talking about the weather.
When the mohel is ready, you call the group together and walk into the operating theater—your living room. The operating table, a card table with a sky blue chux laid atop one of the pillows from your bed, is set up in the center of the room. The mohel wears a surgical mask over his nose and mouth with his enormous, frizzled gray beard pouring out from beneath. You all solemnly observe. We are gathered here today to stare at this boy’s penis and pray that he is not disfigured for life. We will bear witness to the medical malpractice should it occur.
Then the ceremony begins. You hand your son, your tiny, helpless son, to a loved one, someone you have honored with the role of Kvatterinii. She takes your son into the room where your friends and family are gathered, waiting. The room is now silent. You see your mom’s eyes glistening with tears. Your dad is sitting at the head of the operating table, a beaming smile on his face. As your son is placed before your father, he reaches out to comfort the restless little boy. He places a cloth dipped in red wine into your son’s mouth, and the boy calms as he settles into one of the few things he knows to be true at this early stage: sucking. It’s over quickly, and the mohel places your son into your arms. The feel of him in your arms is already familiar. Warmth, comfort and joy fill your chest. As the mohel prays and speaks your son’s Hebrew name to the group, welcoming him, officially and for the first time, to the people you love most, it is hard not to swell with pride and feel the sharp barb of gathering tears.
I was only five when my Grandpa Jakey died, so I remember very little of him. By all accounts, he was an intense, intellectual man. He was the kind of guy who would read the Sunday New York Times from front page to last, clip out articles, and send them to friends and family. He was the kind of guy who wrote letters to grandchildren who couldn’t yet read.
He was a voracious learner. Everyone says that, if he’d had different opportunities and been able to attend college, he would have been a professor. He imparted this love of learning to his children with an iron fist. No after school jobs, no frivolous distractions. My mom used to have my uncle stand watch at the window while she watched American Bandstand. When Grandpa would turn the corner on his way home from his daily walk, they’d turn off the TV and scamper up to their bedrooms. My uncle had to hide his Beatles magazines under his mattress.
His convictions ran beyond education. He never bought anything German. He would never pay the extra charges for long-distance calls when he used Ma Bell pay phones—they’d refused to hire a relative because he was Jewish. Despite this dogmatic perspective on anti-Semitic acts, he didn’t believe in organized religion and never joined a temple. He was also a man of routine, so committed to it that my uncle, and his childhood friends, can still recite it: undress, shower, powder, dinner (alone), walk (no matter the weather). Every weekend of the summer, when they went to the beach at Far Rockaway, he would find a spot away from their group of friends. He would only join them after he’d read his paper and taken his swim. .
Though he was steely and rigid in thought and habit, he had smiling eyes that shine through old photos. Joy seems to emanate from his face—the gleaming, bald pate, the cheeks, round like ping pong balls. His hugs were of the wraparound type, even for my Grandpa Stanley, who was the kind of guy who owned a blackjack to protect himself at work and was almost never caught smiling in a photo.
At the age of forty-five, Jakey had his first heart attack. He was a “cardiac cripple” for the remaining sixteen years of his life. My mom had already left the house for college by that time. In fact, she was on a youth biking trip in Europe when he had the event. She wasn’t told until she came home. My Uncle Peter, who was seven years her junior, grew up under the shroud of his illness. He and my grandma were on constant vigil to not do anything that might cause a fatal emotional outburst. The anxiety was so heavy at one point that my grandma went to see a doctor because she couldn’t swallow. You can imagine that, with a man of my grandpa’s character, the opportunities to anger, disappoint, frustrate or otherwise cause his vessels to constrict and his heart to pound were many. Using butter and salt on your corn on the cob would result in an eruption of anger: “Don’t you know you come from a family with heart disease?!”
Jakey died the year after he and Grandma moved to Florida for retirement. She never remarried or even had a relationship that I’m aware of during the twenty-nine years that she lived after his death.
People say that Grandma was a different person when Jakey was alive. People say that she didn’t have the commanding presence and the sense of humor that she had after his death. I find it hard to imagine. I mean, as a teenager in Brooklyn, Grandma and two friends went to audition for a dance competition—a 1930s version of American Idol with Jackie Gleason as judge. He complimented her legs! Their household generated a woman, my mom, who left the city to attend college and went on to move to Michigan (where the hell is that?) on her own. In their tight-knit, Jewish community in Flushing, Queens, people didn’t go away for school, especially women. These types of behaviors were, of course, ruthlessly enforced with a rampant, well-oiled gossip mill. The ladies would drone, “How could you send Lois away?” Grandma would simply tell them that they thought it was a “good thing.” She reminded people, neither softly nor politely, to keep to their own business when Uncle Peter began to grow his hair out and fell in with a hippie crowd. “Who asked you?” she’d retort when they made these comments. She was the person who bought Peter the Beatles magazines. She was the person who stood by him as he dove more deeply into the counterculture. She defended him, even when Jakey couldn’t understand.
Most years, Grandma would make her migration up from Florida to stay with us in Michigan for a couple of weeks in the summer. She would sit at the kitchen table, kibbutzing with whoever came through. She’d tell us stories about the “girls” in the subdivision where she lived. Their Mah Jongg games…competitive enough that Shirley would hide the “two bam” in an attempt to cheat her way to a victory. Grandma, of course, caught Shirley at it and called her out. She’d talk about the men in their little community and complain about the little wet spots on their pants after they came out of the bathroom.
If I walked into the kitchen while she was holding court, she would often yell, “Joshie! Get me a bah-ul of selt-zah, would ya?” After I turned four, I don’t think anyone else ever called me “Joshie." Grandma called me Joshie well into my teens, maybe my twenties. With her New York accent, the first syllable would cut through the air with its nasal, upward inflection. The emphasis would be on the second syllable. Even as a teen the name “Joshie" made me smile. I’d look over to see her spread out in her chair. “A ‘bah-ul’?” I’d say with a grin, “What’s a ‘bah-ul,’ Grandma?”
She’d roll her eyes, turn her head, and wave a hand at me. “Oh, gey kaken!iii” she’d say with an exasperated half-smile.
After the bris, when the mohel had presented my son and given his Hebrew name, Shmuel ben Yoel, my parents and I were in the kitchen. My mom flitted about, cleaning, as my dad and I picked at remnants of the food.
“So, you named him Shmuel?!”
“Yeah, Shmuel.” I said, a piece of rugelach halfway to my mouth. “After Grandpa Stanley.”
“That’s not his name!”
“What? I thought…you said…his name was Shmuel. Wasn’t it? I told you that’s what we were going to call him!”
“That’s his Yiddish name. The name he had when he came over on the boat. His Hebrew name was Altar Tzvi,” he said, breaking into a smile. “I think I was in a bit of a daze…I must have misunderstood you.”
Unfortunately, these types of “misunderstandings” are common with my dad since he lost his hear-ing in one ear fifteen years ago. He’s the kind of person who has that dangerous mixture of pride and affability that will result in a smile and an agreeable nod rather than an admission that he’s missed eighty-five percent of what you just said.
“You’re kidding. Is that bad? That’s still a Hebrew name, though, right?” I said, looking from my dad to my mom and back.
“Yes. It’s Hebrew. Samuel. It’s Hebrew for Samuel. Little Shmuely,” he added amidst a giggle.
“What’s my name?”
My dad paused. “Lo! What’s Josh’s Hebrew name? Is it Yoel?”
My mom, standing just behind my dad drying her hands at the sink, said, “I think that’s right. Let me look at my files.”
My mom teetered into the office and sat down at her desk. She opened up her drawer of files and promptly pulled out the folder with my name on it.
“Yep, Yoel ben Dovid,” she called out.
“How do we not know these things?” I remarked.
“How many times in your life do you use these things? Your bris..., your bar mitzvah. When else would you use it?” He thought for a moment then asked, “Wasn’t it on your ketubahiv?”
“Oh yeah. It was.” I said. “And that was only three years ago.”