One of the earliest beliefs I still cling to in life is that I was born an American trapped in an Englishman’s body. That is the kind of story you manufacture about yourself when you grow up in a place like Liverpool in the 1980s. Back then, the city was apocalyptic. A rotting, dilapidated carcass in grim decline. When I first watched Mad Max, I thought the wasteland Mel Gibson braved appeared like an upgrade in comparison. When you live somewhere like Liverpool, you ask yourself a simple, yet powerful question on an almost daily basis: How on earth did I land here?
There are fewer than 3,000 Jews in Liverpool. A gaggle of doctors, accountants, and lawyers with the occasional dentist thrown into the mix for variety. Every family has some variation of a similar explanation to the above question. The tale generally begins with a great-grandparent fleeing whatever inhospitable, frigid, rotting-potato-stenched Eastern European shtetl they had tried to pass off as home, hotfooting it onto the steerage level of an ocean liner. Chased right up to the gangplank, in almost every telling, by a rabid band of Cossacks with murder on their mind. When that vessel stopped briefly to refuel along the way, their ancestors had been among the simpler-minded, dimmer ones who glimpsed the one tall building on the Liverpool skyline and believed they were staring right at New York City, their intended destination. Fatally mistaken, they disembarked and were left to eke out pennies in the English North West, rather than undoubtedly make their fortunes in that promised land filled with bounty and possibility, the United States of America.
The myth was certainly true for my family. My great-grandfather was a kosher butcher from Berdychiv, a textile town in northern Ukraine. His escape plan was rational: to flee to Chicago, Illinois. A city that made sense for a meat man, as it was the self-professed “Hog Capital of the World.” Liverpool—not so much. A paucity of clients made it hard to earn a living as a kosher-meat wholesaler. Improvisation was necessary, which ultimately meant also servicing the need for halal beef among the growing Muslim population scattered across the gloomy declining mill towns of the north of England.
Back then, Liverpool was a place large on lore, low on quality of life. In the high-rolling days of the British Empire, it had indeed been one of the world’s great port cities. In the 18th century the waterfront became a hub of the slave trade, as Liverpool-based vessels stole one and a half million Africans across the Atlantic in unimaginably cruel conditions, while the textiles, coal, guns, and steel once produced in vast quantities across the industrial north were dispatched in the opposite direction to pay for them. The banks of the River Mersey became weighed down by warehouses, commercial power, and mercantile wealth. Yet the Second World War laid waste to Britain’s industrial might, and the establishment of Europe instead of the United States as our primary trading partner stripped Liverpool of its geographical raison d’être almost overnight. The docks fell silent. The city spiraled into decline, beset by the degrading forces of unemployment, poverty, and crime, like a British Baltimore without the steamed crabs upside.
Thanks largely to the vicarious prestige cast on the city by the Beatles and its two powerhouse football teams, Liverpool remained well known around the globe despite the general decay of the surroundings, a reality accentuated by the fact that few towns boast more raconteurs, romantics, and deluded self-aggrandizers per square mile. To this day Liverpool remains defiantly proud, a city often quite literally drunk on its own sense of self. Yet no amount of romantic truth-stretching could bring back the hemorrhaging jobs or quell the sense that when you stood still on a street corner, you could witness the industrial carcass of a town actually rotting away before your eyes.
It was amid this sodden wasteland of a city with its moldy terraced housing, drab chip shops, and cheap booze houses that a handful of Jews had accidentally marooned themselves. A land with a low-grade fear hanging over it. A place as dispiriting as the sunless sky and the all-pervasive dampness you could not shake no matter how many layers of clothing you put on. Certainly, the most infertile ground to sow escape-fueled romantic dreams of freedom, acceptance, and success.
The Jews stayed put because they were exhausted and relieved and, after escaping the Russian bloodlands, had pretty low standards. Any place offering more than immediate death and destruction was an upgrade. And because adaptation is in the DNA of the Jewish people, they always attempt to make sense of the world around them.
I often wondered what early encounters between these bewildered Yiddish speakers and local Liverpudlians must have been like. One group with their spigot of broken Yiddish-inflected English, sounding like a constant moaning complaint; the other, snorting words angrily out of their nasal passages in local dialect called “Scouse” that’s so baffling, it’s as if the sentences have somehow been recorded and then replayed backward. One way or another, the new arrivals worked out how to raise their synagogues, open their delis, and break ground on their cemeteries, striking out to pursue the best Britain could offer its accidental citizens—the security of grinding their way to middle-class comfort.
That vaunted middle-class status had been attained by the time I came into the world at Broadgreen Hospital in 1970. My older brother, Nigel, was already two years old. I was given the birth name Roger. There is perhaps no greater sign that we were still a family in search of acceptance than my parents anointing us with the least Jewish names possible. Their unspoken hope was to help us fit in by choosing what they perceived to be the English-est, most Christian identities. Yet they were either too eager, oblivious, or willing to overlook that my name was also a synonym for anal sex (as in “Sir Roderick Wigbert Stourton loved to roger his butler”), and perhaps for that reason had long faded out of fashion by the time I was of schooling age. Thus, I was always the only, lonely Roger in a classroom sea of Waynes, Garys, and Jeremys, or as Liverpudlian naming conventions dictated, “Wazzas,” “Gazzas,” and “Jezzas.”
Alas, my name was the least of my challenges. As a Liverpudlian middle-class Jew, I was already an outsider in a working-class, heavily Catholic city that did not cope well with even a whiff of the other. For the first 10 years of my life, my best friend was my grandfather Samuel Polak, who lived right across the road from us with my grandmother Rita in the house they had raised my mum in. Almost every night, I would run over the moment I finished my schoolwork, and spend the evening being doted on in a house that perpetually smelled of chicken soup, honey cake, and the peculiar odor emitted by heavy velvet curtains.
My grandfather continued the family meat line, but grudgingly. I learned not to blame him after accepting an invitation to experience his job for a day. At the abattoir where he plied his trade, I watched him wander into a pen of defeated cattle and insert his fist into one unfortunate cow’s anus after another. My grandfather’s arm would thrust deep into the animal, disappearing right up to the armpit, a feat that somehow empowered him to assess the ultimate quality of the meat. With a grimace, he would slowly retrieve his limb, and murmur “Good anus” or sometimes “bad cow, that” to a silent, melancholy note-taking assistant before moving on to the next. My grandfather was an intellectually curious, quiet, dapper man. The whole ordeal seemed to make him suffer more than it did the cows.
At home, with slippers on, reclining on a throne-like mahogany and leather couch in his living room, my grandfather was altogether more content. We would play game after game of chess. Evenly matched, the two of us were a great pair. I was hungry for company. He was eager to talk about the things that really interested him. With a pot of tea and an endless supply of chocolate-covered digestives to dunk into our cups between us, we would engage in serious man talk about the important things in life: war movies, history books, and Everton Football Club. My nightly goal was to relax my grandfather sufficiently so I could coax him into telling me the stories of his life as an infantryman during the war. Startling tales about shooting at, or being shot at, by Germans, whom he referred to as “Jerries,” during the Siege of El Alamein, an experience he generally preferred to keep to himself.
But by far his favorite topic of conversation was the United States of America. Or rather, recounting random memories born of his frequent pilgrimages to the American shores. This was the destination my grandfather had repeatedly traveled to for vacations since the 1950s, an intrepid decision back in an era when British vacationers rarely ventured far from home. The way he described it, he had felt compelled to journey to those gold-paved streets his father had once dreamed of moving to, like a sockeye salmon programmed by nature to swim upstream and spawn.
These adventures started way before transatlantic flight was a regular facet of travel life. Alongside the couch, on a small matching side table on which he placed his most vital lounging items—a packet of Senior Service cigarettes, a family-sized slab of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut chocolate, and a brick-sized, primitive television remote control—was a black-and-white photograph of him bound for New York City, standing proudly beside a plucky propeller plane, refueling in some remote snow-filled airfield in Goose Bay, Labrador, or Gander, Newfoundland, clad in the same trilby hat and three-piece suit he wore to the slaughterhouse.
The instant the topic turned to America, the chess game was forgotten. My grandfather would sit back, cigarette in hand, and the tales flowed as if he had entered a fever dream. Fragments of memory from expeditions to Florida, New York, California, and all points in between would tumble out of his mouth. “Did you know in Vegas, they serve you breakfast while you play the slot machines?” he would say with an undiminished sense of astonishment. Or “In Times Square, there are diners where they refill your coffee cups the second you have finished them.” Or “Miami is a land filled with Jews, and the restaurants grill steaks that are bigger than the plate that carries them.” There were stories of plenty, of service, of perceived luxury and wonder from a land that still seemed as magical, distant, and exotic to me from the perspective of 1970s Liverpool as it had to my Cossack-fleeing ancestors at the turn of the century.
Indeed, as he spoke, many of those relatives would stare down at us from their vantage point in heavy-framed sepia-tinged photographs on the walls around the room: Formal turn-of-the-century portraits of sickly-looking groups gazing austerely at a Ukrainian photographer, or headshots of terrified-looking uniformed teenage boys who had been forcibly conscripted into the Russian army. Scattered between these heirlooms, though, was an arsenal of tourist trinkets. Once his stories had picked up a sufficient head of steam, my grandfather would incorporate them into the telling as visual aids with a dramatic flourish.
With eyes frantically scanning the room he would locate a tin tray, proclaiming “Golden Nugget Casino, Vegas,” and stab his cigarette toward it while beginning a tale about a spectacular evening spent watching Sammy Davis Jr. in concert. The pottery ashtray with “Virginia Is for Lovers” glazed into the rim could trigger a rumination about either a walk across Civil War battlefields, or a particularly unforgettable “kosher” hot dog he had procured from the snack bar. To my grandfather, these and countless other objects in his collection were no mere tchotchkes. Their importance lay in the sense memory they triggered, and he afforded them the reverence archaeologists bestow upon Stone Age relics.
Pride of place was reserved for a miniature Statue of Liberty replica made of die-cast metal, which sat on the mantel above the fireplace alongside a similar souvenir of the Empire State Building. My grandfather treated it with the pride I imagine explorer Francisco Pizarro afforded to the first potato he had sailed back from the Americas to present to the Spanish court in 1532. Such was its power that even though my grandpa carried some girth—an adorable potbelly stomach honed over many hours spent watching television on the couch—one look at Lady Liberty would compel him to spring up to his feet so we could marvel upon her together. After sweeping it off the mantel into his meaty hand, Grandpa would shunt his spectacles back onto his forehead, squint his eyes, and read the inscription on the base in a unique English accent that combined inflections of both Yiddish and Scouse. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” he’d slowly intone. “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” We would then stand together in a reverent silence. A grandparent, a grandson, and a cheap tourist souvenir, contemplative until my grandfather would inevitably whisper, “We should have lived there.”
Because of those shared moments, I loved that statue and worked to bless it with the kind of covetous gaze that let a grandparent know a grandchild wanted it for himself, an unspoken request to which my grandfather ultimately relented. But back when it was still a fixture on his fireplace, my grandfather would eventually drag himself back to the sanctuary of his couch with heavy legs. After taking out his false front teeth and placing them on his side table, he would chew meditatively on a packet of nougats in silence until he dozed off, head tilted to the left, with mouth ajar.
I would gaze at him across the chessboard with its game unfinished and wonder what he could be dreaming about in those moments.
With our evening clearly over, it was time to head home. I would locate my grandmother baking somewhere in her kitchen, kiss her goodbye, and skip across Menlove Avenue, a once grand, yet still well-trafficked road that separated my home from theirs. The central divide was pockmarked by oily puddles filled with orphaned crisp packets and crushed, empty beer cans. I trooped through them, most often in a light drizzling rain.
Once back home, I would quickly pop my head into the living room, where my family would inevitably be glued to the television. I preferred to charge upstairs into my room and voluntarily put myself to bed. After hauling a giant volume from my bookshelf, I would lie under the covers, alone with my copy of Alistair Cooke’s America, a grand, hardback tome that my grandfather had gifted me for my seventh birthday. The book traced the arc of America’s history from founding to present day. I mostly loved it because it was identical to the one my grandfather kept by his own bed.
Under the warm glow of my bedside light, I would flip through the pages, ignoring the words and feasting on the color plates. While staring at a stock photograph of an empty highway in the middle of Utah, I’d hear my grandfather’s voice from nights when we had savored the book together. “Look at that road,” he’d marvel. “Now, that’s a road.” The image titled “Bison in Montana” would remind me of him gasping “That’s a big unit,” a comment that automatically conjured images of him ill-advisedly attempting to drive his arm up the bison’s anus. Quickly turning to “Farmland in Kansas,” I could hear his voice filled with longing. “Have you ever seen such wheat, Rog?”
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