Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My Mother the Architect

This article is reposted from the HBI Blog of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute 

by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash
author of The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq's Last Jews

On October 18th, I spoke at the Iraqi Synagogue in Queens to celebrate the publication of my book, The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews. There were at least 70 people in attendance, and after reading a passage from the book in which I describe being interrogated by prison officers when I was nine years old—looking for a recording device with which to accuse me of espionage, they tore apart a doll my father had given me—I pulled the broken doll out of a plastic bag and showed her to them.

When I’d finished speaking, I asked if anyone had questions. A hand went up in the front row; it belonged to my mother, who is 81 years old. “Don’t just bring out your doll,” she said. “Tell them what we didn’t take with us. Tell them what we had to leave behind.”

Shamash's mother, on a Baghdady rooftop
You see, we did not leave Iraq because we wanted to. We left Iraq because we had been persecuted there, for our Judaism, and when we left we were not allowed to take anything except for a few suitcases packed as though we were only going on vacation. Who takes photo albums on vacation? Who takes rugs, or heirloom furniture acquired over generations, or—in my mother’s case—her most precious jewelry? No one. So we left ours behind in Baghdad, because if the authorities had come across any evidence of our intending to flee forever, they would have arrested us again.

My mother got married when she was eighteen. It was an arranged marriage, to a man 24 years older. She had been coloring in a notebook with Iraq’s young King Ghazi on the cover when she was called downstairs to be introduced to her groom. The detour in life lasted much longer than she’d anticipated.

She still talks about the dormant architect in her, the unfulfilled desire to pursue a desire. It wasn’t just her marriage that derailed her: it was also our exile, which threw her dreams an even greater distance away.

Mehandeesa, she will occasionally still say, with a sigh. I wanted to be an architect. Only two years after we fled Baghdad and had settled as refugees in Amsterdam, my father died of a heart attack. Now my mother was widowed, in a strange country, with four children in tow. How would it ever be possible now to fulfill her dreams of designing the arc of liberty?

How I wonder what her style might have been, what bridge she might have built! But then, who would have told me all those bedtime stories, and analyzed my dreams? In Amsterdam, we lived largely in a vacuum. For Mama, the focus was on survival, on providing for her family. Her role as a mother was intensified, in a sense. There was no room for being what the Westerners call a Supermom. Even though she was. She is. She decorated my spirit. She built bridges no one can see.

Shamash and her mother upon arrival in Holland
I remember when she came home from the first day of a potential job that our Dutch social worker had arranged for her. It was as if someone had died. This was shortly after my father had passed away. The social worker had told her that it would be good for her to get out for a few hours a day, to have a purpose, but it wasn’t clear to Mama until she arrived that the job was as a cleaning woman. When she got home, her mood was as if Papa had passed away all over again. She could never even mention that dusty day again. It was if she were in mourning—mourning for her potential.

Today, Mama lives near me, in Queens, where I have a husband, a dentistry practice, and five children of my own. I see clearly now that my having a family and a profession (two professions, if you count writing) is a well-rounded existence that was robbed from her. It was robbed from her like our life in Iraq was robbed from us, like our rugs and furniture and baby pictures and menorah and jewelry were all robbed from us, by anti-Semitism. It was difficult for me, being a child in a strange country, going to a school full of children who looked nothing like me and spoke a different language. But still, compared to my mother, I have enjoyed the express lane in life. When you are derailed as she was—when life is not architecture school but instead learning a new language at 40, familiarizing yourself with new soil, new hurdles, digging deep for courage and chutzpah you didn’t know you had, as though you’d arrived ex nihilo—suddenly it’s too late for your turn, your chance to celebrate your own G-d-given potential.

Or maybe she fulfilled her potential in a different way, building intangible things, through her inspiring nature and her children.

The anatomy my mother was sketching the day she met my father was left unfinished, but she did have time to color in the heart. And the handwriting in that notebook is beautiful, the envy of every high school girl today. She was on her way to liberation and choices. But that was only in the beginning. The beginning is always like this, my mother often says. Hopeful. Still now, when she visits my home, she makes little suggestions as to where I should position my furniture, or she comments on a window’s aspect, its light, the house’s location on the block. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. “Min el sharq illah el gharb,” my mother says with a sigh. They used to tell me I was good with design.

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash is the author of The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq’s Last Jews, the most recent book in the HBI Series on Jewish Women. She serves on the board of the World Organization of Jews from Iraq and owns her own dental practice in New York City where she resides with her husband and five children.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

HOLIDAY SALE! 30% Off Select Titles

The season of giving and—let's face it—getting is upon us again, and UPNE is perfectly delighted to be offering a special deal on a dozen of our most popular books from the past year and beyond. Treat yourself and those you love who love reading, why don't you, and pick up these books at 30% off, only at Use promo code WWH30E at checkout. (Sale goes through January 15, 2016.)

Meeting Tom Brady: One Man's Quest for Truth, Enlightenment, and a Simple Game of Catch with the Patriots Quarterback 
by Richard J. King

"Meeting Tom Brady should occupy a spot next to Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes on every thinking sports fan's bookshelf."—Sean Glennon, author of Tom Brady vs. the NFL

A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks 
by Stewart Gordon

"From dugout canoes dating to 6000 BC down to 2013, when a modern cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy, Gordon lucidly shows how maritime activities reflect the ever-increasing pace of globalization."—Richard M. Eaton, University of Arizona

Baby You're a Rich Man: Suing the Beatles for Fun and Profit
by Stan Soocher

"Soocher's cast of mobbed-up producers, cut-out shilling managers, and opera-composing judges reads like Elmore Leonard in the Sky with Diamonds."—Steven Lee Beeber, author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's" A Secret History of Jewish Punk
Dirt: A Love Story 
edited by Barbara Richardson

36 artists, scientists, and renowned writers go wild about the virtues, pleasure, and importance of dirt. Essayists include Vandana Shiva, Peter Heller, Janisse Ray, Bernd Heinrich, Linda Hogan, Wes Jackson, BK Loren, and others. With a foreword by Pam Houston.

The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball 
by Bob Katz

"Katz is a talented writer who provides a vivid account of a world not seen by college basketballs fan. He show the referees' complete dedication to the art of working a game.—Chicago Tribune

Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler 
 by Oliver Hilmes

"Alma's incredible life, the contrasting aspects of her powerful nature, her burning passions, the fierce jealousies and dislikes she aroused in others, make for a fascinating tale that is very well told by Hilmes."
—Henry-Louis de la Grange, biographer of Gustav Mahler
Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food 
by Laura Silver

"A whimsical, mouthwatering, and edifying odyssey through New York neighborhoods and beyond."—Sam Roberts, New York Times

And check out 6 Reasons a Knish is Better than a Bagel!

The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy
by Paula Shoyer

"Amaretto cookies, challah beer bread pudding with caramel sauce, and chocolate babka are among the delectable desserts featured in this beautifully illustrated cookbook."—Jewish Book World

Ice Ship: The Epic Voyage of the Polar Adventurer Fram
by Charles W. Johnson

"As splendidly composed a biography of the magnificent vessel Fram as it is a portrait of the courageous men who sailed her into the daunting arctic."—Howard Norman, author of Next Life Might Be Kinder

Victura: The Kennedys, a Sailboat, and the Sea 
by James W. Graham

"This wonderfully written book takes a well-worn subject—the Kennedys—and gives it as fresh a gust as the sailors on the sturdy, little Victura must have felt a thousand times off the Nantucket shore."—Richard D. Mahoney, author of Sons & Brothers

The Court-Martial of Paul Revere: A Son of Liberty and America's Forgotten Military Disaster 
by Michael M. Greenburg

"The most fascinating book that I have read in a long while. This is not the Paul Revere that you thought you knew. This Revere is pugnacious, snarky, maybe underhanded, and despite the verdict in his court-martial a poor military officer."—John Ferling, author of Jefferson & Hamilton
The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq's Last Jews
by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash

"Shamash's writing beautifully communicates the confusion, imagination, and resilience that she experienced as a child from the trauma, displacement, and possibility of immigration, all caused by anti-Semitism. She weaves her story so well that the reader truly feels what the author has lived."—Jewish Book World