Call me a seder skeptic.
I’m fond of the Passover story, its message of exile and redemption. I especially like the ritual of saving a place at the table and a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah. Like Santa Claus, he is required to visit millions of homes in a single night. Opening the door for him to come in after the seder meal is a simple act of faith that often gives rise to jokes about the prophet’s massive consumption of Manischevitz.
But Elijah was probably the first victim of my growing skepticism about religion. After age six or seven, I stopped believing that he would really turn up.
Over the years, I’ve unearthed rational explanations for pretty much all of the Hagaddah’s events. I can detail the natural phenomena that likely gave rise to each of the seven plagues, marshal historical data to demonstrate that no Jews lived anywhere near Cairo at the time of Ramses II, when the Great Pyramids were built.
All this to say, I had a hard time accepting the idea that a deer guided me to my great uncle’s grave in Vienna, and that it might have been channeling my mother’s spirit.
A search for my ancestors
This happened almost exactly three years ago, in the new (est. 1917) Jewish section of the vast Friedhöf cemetery, where members of both my parents’ families had been laid to rest. Theoretically.
I sent the genealogical information to Austria in advance so that, when I got to Vienna, it would be easier to locate the graves. The task of mapping them fell to Walter Juraschek, a guide and historian with the Jewish Welcome Service. He was a genial man; we talked easily en route from central Vienna to the cemetery on the outskirts. He showed me a piece of paper that authoritatively plotted out my family plots.
But we couldn’t find any of them. The cemetery was overgrown. Many of the gravestones had been toppled. The carvings on others were indecipherable. We began to grow frustrated. It was hot and we were getting tired. We were relieved when the ordeal was almost over, when only one more relative’s grave relative was on the list to check off.
That’s when we spotted a spotted a deer in the distance, resting in the grass.
I was delighted. Deer have become so commonplace in some suburban areas that they’re considered pests, but in this cemetery of my ancestors, I had another association: Bambi, the book that my mother read to me at bedtime. She would remind me over and over that the story was written by Felix Salten, another Viennese Jew who had been forced to leave his home. She was proud of the book’s popularity, of the fact that it had been made into a movie by that icon of American entertainment, Walt Disney.
To my mother, that deer was the ultimate symbol of successful assimilation into American society.
Walter had no such nostalgic associations. Lots of deer come to the cemetery, he said.
He was soon far more impressed by this one, however.
It seems my Bambi-surrogate had not only rested in the row that we were seeking, but had been sitting at the foot of my great uncle’s grave. Walter and I looked at each other, astonished. Had the spirit of my mother guided me to her Uncle Siegmund?
But that was crazy, wasn’t it? And what did it signify?
I didn’t have time to dwell on the event. I had a full roster of activities to pursue. I decided I would contemplate what had happened in repose, when I returned to Arizona.
By then, however, the experience had faded. I didn’t try to explain it away, but neither did I marvel at it anew. I blogged about the Friedhof visit, as I did about the rest of my trip, but embedded the strange occurrence into a long post, and then more or less dismissed it.
I am about to return to Vienna — that’s another story, which I promise to tell here — so I emailed Walter, hoping we could reconnect. The cemetery was not the only place to which he had guided me, and we had gotten to be fast friends. I was nevertheless unsure that he would remember me, because that’s how I roll.
He wrote back almost immediately: “Edieleben, it would be a great pleasure for me to meet you. I am talking very often about you since we had an unique experience at the cemetery.”
I was practically in tears.
The suffix “ele” is an affectionate diminutive in many German-speaking countries. No one has called me “Ediele” since my father died, more than 40 years ago. I had never heard the addition “ben” but was assured by friends that it’s common in Yiddish, and equally affectionate.
Not only did Walter remember me fondly but the cemetery story had made a big impression on him. True, he has more occasion to revisit the site, but he seemed to embrace the special nature of the event more than I did.
Why was that?
Eschewing belief in an Old Testament deity and other trappings of organized religion is one thing, but had I left no room for any trace of spirituality in my life, for occurrences that couldn’t rationally be explained away?
Then it struck me: Maybe I had taken a message from that magical event without realizing it.
In the three years since I visited Vienna, I finally finished and published the book of my heart, a memoir that had been on the back burner for more than a decade. Maybe my mother’s spirit got me to tap into my inner Felix Salten.
- Felix Salten’s real name was “Siegmund Salzman.” Maybe that’s why I was led to uncle Siegmund’s grave, not cousin Rosa’s.
- Salten wrote a story, The Hound of Florence, that inspired another Disney film, The Shaggy Dog (1959). I too wrote a dog book.
- According to Wikipedia, “Salten is now considered to be the anonymous author of a celebrated erotic novel, Josephine Mutzenbacher: The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself.” My memoir’s title is Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All. It’s more humorous than erotic and it is not actually about a prostitute, but still…
Deers speak in mysterious ways. And so did my mother, even when she was embodied. For all her nitpicking and criticism, she also supported my hopes and dreams.
Should I be waiting, then, for Disney to buy the movie rights to my memoir — or to my dog book? Maybe Elijah will give me a sign tonight.