In Italics: Excerpts from her book of poetry: “Black Bread and Tea”
Derora Bernstein’s second marriage, the wedding to Shaya Schultz, was to be the next day. She was 31 and a few weeks pregnant. It was supposed to be a bachelorette night, a girls night. Esther, my mother and Derora’s sister-in- law, as well as Atida, one of Derora’s younger twin sisters, were sleeping on the floor next to Derora’s bed. The other twin, Yedida, was sleeping in the living room. My mom can’t remember who woke up first but they could not wake Derora.
They had called for a doctor to come to the house after Derora had refused to go to the Emergency Room, telling everyone she only had a virus. The doctor diagnosed her as “hysterical,” and gave her a sedative, Seconal. An insulin dependent diabetic, she fell asleep and unable to monitor her blood sugar slipped into a coma and was dead the next day.
Sweetsugar in the blood, feeds the brain to love, feeds the brain to think, feeds the brain to sin.
Sucrose, glucose, dextrose, Fructose, sugarsugarsugar
Eat thick chocolate layered wedding cakes frosted with caramel.
By the bloodsugarstream Ye shall overflow
My mother said, “People had come to Canarsie from all over the world for the wedding. They just stayed for the funeral.”
My parents don’t remember anything about the funeral. Yedida remembers the Rabbi speaking about Derora, she remembers that there were a lot of people there and she just stood next to her father. They all remember sitting Shiva at their brownstone in Brooklyn which was still being renovated– walls missing, ceilings half built and a curtain instead of a bathroom door. Everyone was stoned and they remember lots of laughter.
But this was not a happy family, my dad’s family.
In my family people tell stories and remember Derora with scattered memories. They remember the speed at which they drove, when a cop pulled them over, fun times in California, colors of cars and models of motorcycles but not the date, or year of a wedding and a devastating funeral. They remember moments that may or may not have followed or preceded other moments in their shared lives. Having a precise sense of how things evolved in my family’s story of Derora is a puzzle. Put four of them on the phone and they laugh and tell disconnected stories that sometimes contradict each other. They will drift into moments where someone swears they paid $2 to paint a car yellow with outdoor deck paint.
Except for Derora. Derora, was the nucleus that they orbited around and who would have known the answers to all my questions.
Derora, dead 41 years, lives on, in life, poetry, memories, grief, guilt and in sorrow.
Derora had high cheekbones, hazel eyes like the rest of the four siblings with heavy eyeliner, sometimes bright red lipstick, and untamed jet, black hair down to her waist. She dressed like a hippie. She never wore a bra. She always had long hanging earrings. She wore long skirts and Dr. Scholl’s sandals with just the strap at the front. She smoked Kool menthols.
Yedida remembers brushing her hair.
I paint my lips red. PUCKER
I paint my nails red. CLAW
I wear roughed wombs on my cheeks READY
Proud as the mane of my hair
She loved to dance.
Hip out, I am thrusting that hipbone is a calling
It is not swaying it is not flirting
People thought she and her brother, my father, Shalmon – or Shelly — were twins. He was only 14 months older than her. They shared an awareness of the world that always lead to heated debates. They were both extremely analytical, questioning people and the world around them. Derora never let a chance go by to argue with Shelly and she never backed down.
Their father, Jacob, was one of the few survivors of the 1929 Hebron massacre, in which Arab gunmen killed 69 Jews. He had to identify the bodies of his young mutilated friends. He moved from Palestine to America to live with relatives. Soon afterward, he was matched with Rose, my grandmother. He was escaping “the whole orthodox thing,” says my father.
They had five children. They shared a three-bedroom apartment in the Breukelen Housing Projects in Canarsie, Brooklyn. It was a ghetto of sorts with much violence.
Jacob was an violent orthodox authoritarian in the style of, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
“We lived in the lowest income type of housing projects,” says my dad. “We didn’t have doors on the closets, where in the higher income housing projects they had.” Strict divisions of class were more rigid then and emphasized in many small ways by the New York City Housing Authority. His father worked hard manual labor, but all he really wanted to do was write.
My father Jacob, nomad and begetter of dreamers, taught me the route.
So, unrooted, I did not eat the fig.
Though my mane is feline,
I am no Lion of Judah,
No strong son of Jacob
Searching for figs
With the secrets of my naming.
All the children of the household left as soon as they could.
Derora went away to Oswego State College, where she graduated in 1965. She then bought and moved to a farm in Carpenter, Ohio, with Mickey, her first husband. They had met working with the Youth Corps in New York, both Brooklynites. He also enrolled in Ohio University to study photography. They lived on the farm while she got her MA at Ohio University in 1967.
Mickey was a Gentile and my grandfather perched himself on the window ledge of the apartment threatening to jump if she married him. He wanted Derora to come home, to help take care of the young twins and her mother. He was going to try to keep his control over the family even if it meant attempting suicide.
“He didn’t want Derora to marry a non-Jew,” my dad says. Yedida remembers him kissing their mother goodbye. Yedida remembers calling her brother since he was “the older brother.” His teenage twin sisters called him that day to say their father was going to kill himself. Their mother was already in a wheelchair with MS and could not stop him. “I don’t think he actually would have done it, jumping out the window,” says my dad but still, my dad had to pull him back inside.
After the threatened suicide my father had my grandfather committed to a psychiatric hospital where he received shock therapy. “I think it was after this incident when your dad stopped engaging with his father,” says my mom. She says that my dad begged his father not to make him admit him, not to leave him with that as an only choice. “He wasn’t going to lose his control over the family.”
He got out of the hospital and saw the circumcision papers and conversion documentation.
Mickey was determined enough to marry Derora that he got himself circumcised. My dad told him, “Don’t do it, you’re crazy.” They were married in a basement synagogue.
They write of white Satin and Silver marriage vows
We (You and Me)
in a crumbing courthouse with an open door
paid our pennies on a tarnished afternoon
The senile judge misplaced the Bible
so pretend with a frayed pamphlet that
our pretensions would root the room to religion.
“It was radical at the time,” says my dad. It wasn’t an easy time for any woman to be doing what she was doing. She was constantly trying to fight the battle of being a woman in the field she had entered.
Derora was happy to leave the city. The Ohio Alumnus book of 1968 quoted her saying, “Moving to the country has been very exciting. I love the cows and the hills, the general store, the freedom and the stars.” My father remembers visiting the general store with Derora and took photographs of the old woman who ran the store, Mrs. Howry. At the farm Derora also had a garden and a black lab named Luba.
I fleck the ground with green.
I stare With soil upon my tail.
I see with simmer to earthlife.
Yes there is in me the Yiddishe Bubushka
“So vat does that mean for us?”
In 1968 they all moved to California, my parents, Derora and Mickey, along with his my dad’s college best friend George and his wife Valerie. They went because my mom’s first cousin Carol was living out there and they were all thinking of moving there, too. They traveled by car and by motorcycle sharing vehicles and speeding across the country. They remember that the motorcycle was a Triumph 650 and the car was 1955 blue and white Oldsmobile. They remember how the motorcycle chain broke when my dad was flying down the freeway at 85 miles an hour. They bike skidded but my dad stopped it.
My parents stayed in Santa Monica with Carol, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old apartment. Derora and Mickey stayed with George and Valerie in two little cabins, or “mini houses” in Topanga. They lived next to a man with two girlfriends that was against drinking liquids who also had an Orgone Box (a box said to have healing powers) and another neighbor who was a famous dermatologist who owned his own island.
They were four young couples, figuring out their lives.
All the women got summer jobs waitressing. Derora got a job working at a restaurant called “The Broken Drum” in Santa Monica.
Because they wear their penis’ on their sleeve, they call me
BABY, SWEETIE, BABE, HONEY, BABES, CUTIE
“Thatsagirl,” they mutter through tobaccoed teeth
When I deliver their black coffee.
The owners were constantly going on about Jews and Derora quit. They didn’t realize she was Jewish. “Derora definitely didn’t let it slide as she left,” said Carol.
The men didn’t have jobs. Mickey was doing nothing. George was experimenting with transistors and my father went to the Department of Employment and wrote down that he was a “Photographer with a B.A in Philosophy.” Carol remembers all the couples making jokes at my father’s expense, “whether he was, philosophical photographer or a photographer of the philosophical.”
This was the good summer.
It did not last. Mickey sold the bike in California and went back to Ohio with Derora. George can’t remember where he went and my parents travelled to Portland. My father stayed with a friend from his days in the projects and my mother flew home.
My mom says, “Your dad drove the car back to New York in three days, driving 14 hours a day, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, Lucky Strikes. He was stopped on the highway in North Dakota for speeding, 100 miles per hour.“
“I was generally going fast,” says my dad. “He had clocked me at 90 but I had just slowed down. I only got a warning. But driving through the night was fantastic.” He also spoke to truckers that same night who said they also couldn’t stop driving since the night was so beautiful.
Back in Brooklyn their mother Rose had a stroke and was in Kings County Hospital. “We didn’t tell him his mother was in the hospital when he was driving and we didn’t tell him until he got back in fear he would kill himself trying to get home faster,” says my mom. Derora flew back home, too.
My mother is sitting in a chair and smiling.
My mother is sitting in a chair because she cannot walk
Behind the eyesockets when tears form and will not flow
The face hurts, The pain masks and there is not wetness.
My mother is smiling because she is euphoric
Emaciate and gray, she is young, she is my young mother,
She is euphorically dying.
Holds my hand with no grip
I do not want her boney fingers to let go
The subtle suckle
From which I nourish on poem.
Mickey and Derora were separated after he was caught messing around with a student at Ohio University. It didn’t seem a surprise to anyone that he had been cheating.
She went to Santa Monica again in 1971 to visit my mom’s cousin Carol with her friend Soraya and then they went on a “chick road trip,” as Carol describes it, to San Francisco.
Derora then went back alone to Ohio to teach in the English Department and “Interpretation of Drama” class and Black Literature at Ohio University, in Athens, and started the Black Studies Program there. She earned her PhD in 1973 while teaching writing. Her thesis: “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: The Journey Back to Life in the Midrash of Elie Wiesel.
When Derora got her Ph.D the sisters and my mother went out to Ohio to celebrate. My mom remembers them going out dancing “to a local joint.” It was a joyous time.
The cells exploding
With the undulation
Of careless waves
Which is direction in movement
Which is music for the urchin
The cells exploding
Yedida had just gotten her first apartment on the Upper West and she had a housewarming party. She had known Shaya, who when she met him was called Freddy, since she was 14 and she remembers going ice-skating with him. Derora was in town and came to the party.
“There was a click between Derora and Shaya, not with me, not with Atida,” said Yedida.
Eight years younger, Shaya moved to San Francisco to be with Derora. “It was the most spiritual, sexual and intellectual relationship she had ever had,” Yedida said. Derora was more in love than ever before and wanted to have a baby.
Shaya was also the reason she came back to New York. He didn’t want to live in California anymore.
They moved back to New York in the summer of 1974. She had an apartment in the West Village, 815 Greenwich street. with Shaya. He was working downtown at J&R Music World and selling pot. They were planning to marry in the coming fall. Derora, was smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and writing her book. She was excited for the wedding. She was getting her life together and even after just getting her Ph.D she was waitressing with my mother and Atida at the Spotlight Delicatessen.
It wasn’t a long engagement with Shaya. Derora knew he was bisexual but he agreed to be faithful to her. She spent $175 on her wedding dress and planned to have an Orthodox Jewish a wedding.
Yedida remembers how full of life Derora before the wedding. Then came the party, and the doctor and the funeral.
They decided to sit Shiva since they thought Derora would have wanted that.
Everyone in the family says the doctor killed Derora. No doctor should have ever sedated her.
Derora was buried in pine box in New Jersey next to her mother.
The roar of the trucks has overturned your gravestone
Sideways, you lay
In your diminutive Jewish Cemetery
Who maintains your Jewish green today?
All Ivy, so it need not be mowed.
Does an ageless Jew (perhaps a tzaddig) Visit at midnight
Pruning the lone tree, Blessing the bones, washing the stones, kissing the earth
Opening the gate
My father went after the doctor who had given Derora the Seconol. “I wanted him banished from his community like the ancient Greeks did,” says my dad. He decided to go after him legally. He wanted to sue him in what would have been the first malpractice case charging negligent homicide against a doctor. But no one could find the doctor for a few months. He died in a car crash on the FDR Drive. My father says the autopsy reported he had overdosed on Demerol.
The family did not survive Derora’s death. “Derora,” says my mom, “Was the glue to this family.”
My mom believes that the twins Yedida and Atida might never have ended up the way they did. Yedida went on a trip with their father to Israel and met her husband Avner and got married quickly and moved to Israel. Atida’s downward spiral into using heroin would probably never have never happened and she never would have married Arnie, “her piece of work husband.” Derora may have been the only person Unum, the middle brother still actually spoke to. He is diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder but most of the family believes he suffers from schizophrenia. After her death he went into a life of solitude in an Upper East Side apartment, speaking to no one in the family. My father, my mom says, became permanently sad. A few years later Shaya, after his bride-to-be’s death, started seeing men. He contracted AIDS and died.
Yedida says that sometimes a death makes a family closer but this was “like a bomb went off in the family.” The remnants were scattered.
Elie Wiesel dedicated a lecture to Derora, Yedida was the only one who went to the lecture. Derora’s friends in California got a grant from the National Endowment of the for the Arts in D.C., to publish a book of her poetry called “Black Bread and Tea” with an Introduction By Jack Hirschman, a poet and social activist. Derora was working on an anthology of writings of American Jewish women from colonial to modern times called, “The American Jewish Woman Speaks First Person.”
The word everyone uses to describe her is “alive.”
That they all agree on.
You, who wanted flame, burned
And the burning mane
All cosmetics of perfumed scent
Unmanes her hair
Danielle Rose, 25, is a documentarian, journalist, photographer, writer, storyteller, listener, painter, fine artist, activist, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, Brooklynite (born & raised)