A Time to Remember

Wisenberg's Passover is more personal than historic.
Marc Pokempner

Nobody believes Sandi Wisenberg when she says she's from Texas. She is a liberal, a writer and -- perhaps most relevant -- a Jew. New York, they guess. New York would make sense: the Promised Land of gefilte fish and kreplach, where half the population seems to have curly hair and brown eyes like Sandi's, where people said oy vey long before Seinfeld taught the phrase to Middle America.

Or if not New York, then maybe Chicago. Sandi lives there now and feels at home, but she doesn't consider herself "from" Chicago. She didn't grow up with the Maxwell Street market, or kosher bakeries so common that they specialize in either dairy or meat, but never both. Sandi grew up in '60s Houston, a land without even a kosher deli.

In Europe, nobody even believes she's American. Where were your parents born? they ask.


The Sweetheart Is In: Stories by S.L. Wisenberg is published by Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. To read other works, go to www.slwisenberg.com.

Texas and Mississippi, she says.

What about your grandparents?

Eastern Europe. Lithuania. Moldova.

Only then do the Europeans seem satisfied. Only then do they feel they know her place.

Sandi wrote about those exchanges in an essay, "The Language of Heimatlos." Heimat is German for "homeland." In the late '30s, Hitler expelled thousands of Polish-born Jews from Germany, and Poland refused to take them back. They were heimatlos. "Without a place to belong," Sandi wrote. "Defined by what you don't have."

Sandi was born in Houston, and when she was in second grade, her family moved from Knollwood Village to Meyerland, then a brand-new subdivision, practically a new frontier. Their ranch house backed onto empty lots full of grasshoppers and rabbits.

She grew up surrounded by new things: Westbury Square, the freeways, the Astrodome, the Galleria. NASA was a big deal, but she never visited it.

In '74 she went to Northwestern University and found that she loved Chicago. The people and buildings seemed stable, weighty, knowable. They had a history.

She still returns to Houston every year for Passover, a holiday of remembrance. When she drives around the city, she remembers things that have disappeared. The downtown Neiman-Marcus, where she once took a class in beauty and fashion. The Purple Cow, which served purple ice cream. Kiddie Wonderland, with its swaybacked ponies.

She dislikes the slick Rice Village.

Driving past a Blockbuster, she says, "I remember when they didn't have videos."

Driving past Ninfa's, she says, "I remember when there wasn't a Ninfa's."

She says, "I sound like an old person."

When Sandi was a kid, her father's side of the family gathered at their house for Passover. It was a big group, sometimes rowdy, full of cousins and uncles and aunts. They teased Sandi about getting drunk off the traditional four glasses of wine. It was one of their traditions.

Her father always led the seder, which varied from year to year. He was an emcee type, comfortable with public speaking. Everyone took turns reading the Haggadah, the story of Passover, of the Jews' exodus from Egypt. Sometimes he led them in the song "Chad Gadya," an allegory about the Jews' unlikely survival. He sang it like a football cheer.

In college Sandi asked to lead the seder alongside her father. It was a startling request, a '70s feminist statement, but her father seemed glad. They planned the celebration together, Xeroxing readings they liked and pasting them in the order they liked.

From then on, most years they led the seder together.

Sandi loved her father, but she never entirely understood him.

She can list facts about him. He was born in Mississippi and moved with his parents to Houston in the '30s. His father, Sandi's grandfather, started an insurance company, and when Sandi's father was in high school, he went to work in the family business. He stayed for the rest of his career.

But what was his life like before she was born? What did he think privately? What did he do day to day? "Do you ever really know your parents?" she asks.

In '90 he seemed suddenly old. He was in good health and still worked, but every now and then he'd forget a word, and she'd worry. On a visit, she drove him around Houston and tape-recorded his recollections. She felt that she knew him better. But she did not feel that she knew him entirely.

Sandi has just published The Sweetheart Is In, a collection of short stories. Many of them follow a family that resembles her own: Jewish, in Meyerland, in the '40s and '50s and '60s.

The family is, of course, fictional. The father she writes about in "The Liberator" is not her own father. The daughter who narrates the story is not Sandi.

But there is something of Sandi in the narrator. Sandi says that when she wrote the story, she was projecting her own fears that her father might become senile. And her narrator was trying hard to imagine her father's life, to know her own slippery past.

Sandi's father was never senile. He died a year after she tape-recorded his memories. A brain aneurysm, a sudden death.

Her mother said the kaddish for him, reciting the mourner's prayer twice a day for 11 months. She is a conservative Jew; Sandi's Judaism is more complicated, cultural but not religious. She teaches a class called "Writing Your Jewish Identity," and in a way, that's what Sandi often does with her own writing: She figures out what it means to be who she is.

She said the prayer for her father a few times, but not twice a day, not for 11 months. Now she thinks that wasn't enough.

Since his death, she returns to Houston at Passover and leads the seder by herself. A holiday of remembrance, in a city of forgetting.

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