Preserving History

In Persis Knobbe’s sweet, semi-autobiogrpahical short story, “Highlights,” Morris, an octogenarian, describes his exodus from the oppressive old country, on the holiday that commemorates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Egypt for Morris, who is closely based on Knobbe’s late father, Morris, is the shtetl where the Gentiles released vicious dogs on the Jews each Passover. Morris recalls seders in the crude house where his mother smoothed the dirt floor with rags for the holiday. He also recalls the proposal of marriage and the shif’s carte, the steamship ticket for New York that arrived for his sister, Ziporah, one Pesach. A ticket out of the ghetto.

He and the other siblings followed Ziporah to the new world, in twos and threes, but the Goldina Medina turned out to be exile of another sort, Morris laments. The family’s Jewishness has declined with each generation, and the seder loses authenticity as the Haggadah is abridged with orange neon highlighter pen.

San Francisco author Knobbe, whose “Morris stories” will be performed as part of Sally Shore’s New Short Fiction Series at the Beverly Hills Library next week, is named for her aunt Ziporah, who led the family exodus. Before she was born, her parents commissioned a novelist uncle to find a name that was similar to Ziporah’s nickname, Perzi. He came up with Persis, the name of Martha Washington’s mother and a character from Mark Twain.

Knobbe wasn’t a born writer, however. She didn’t start writing fiction until she was in her mid-50s, after she discovered a boxful of family vignettes that had been written by her late mother. Knobbe, who once studied theater at UCLA and worked for a time at an office job, tried to turn the sketches into a cohesive story, but instead ended up writing her own “thinly disguised fiction” about the family.

In “Here I Am,” a published anthology alongside stories by Cynthia Ozick and Elie Wiesel, Knobbe describes growing up in the not-very-Jewish Richmond district of San Francisco, where she sang in church choirs and strove to be a “carbon copy” of her Gentile classmates. In “The Nose-Fixer,” Knobbe’s alter-ego invents a home remedy for her hated profile.

By the time her character re-appears in “Highlights,” she has made peace with her family and her Judaism. During the family seder, she checks the stock pot and reflects that she will make Pesach “until my daughter takes over or someone’s daughter takes over because this family is going to do Passover as long as the civilized world allows.”

For information about the Knobbe spoken-word performance, April 11, 1 p.m., $5, call (310) 288-2201.