Late Night with Jenny Lerner

I promised I’d call her the next evening, but I never did. For five days, I felt guilty, but what could I do? To make the commitment to call Jenny Lerner is like signing on to a weekend of aerobics; you really want it — the challenge, the learning opportunities — but when the time comes, you take a rain check. Jenny talks and talks, rails against injustices, sings songs or reads from the Torah. Conversations go on for hours, and if one doesn’t insist that it’s time to go — my house is burning down, Jenny; sorry, gotta hang up — she can go on until dawn. She’s got that kind of energy. I have a family to take care of; sometimes it’s weeks before I can call. She has other friends, yes, but, basically, Jenny is like so many other lonely, older people in this city — she could drop dead one day, and no one would know.

When I suggest she live with someone else, she cries out, “God forbid, I would kill myself!”

Jenny Lerner, my 4-foot-4-inch friend, bent by years of osteoporosis and bad shoes, with the sad eyes and impish grin of a devil, will turn 87 on Aug. 21. Most people who meet her are immediately drawn by her quick wit and deep understanding of history. But Jenny can say things that hurt too, like salt on a wound. When I first ran into her after a long absence, she let me know how disappointed she was in my marriage to a non-Jew — not only a non-Jew, but an American Indian as well. “Life is too short,” she said. “You shouldn’t sacrifice yourself. Marriage should be smooth, not difficult.” Of course, I didn’t go along with her, but I didn’t totally discount her advice either. Jenny, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, is no Emily Post, but she does know a thing or two about marriage.

Jenny’s first marriage took place behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, where she lived with her husband, and his mother and sister, above what used to be the family jewelry store. When problems arose with her mother-in-law, Jenny warned her husband to intervene or she would move out, which she eventually did. She had expected the separation to be temporary, but, in the summer of 1942, Jenny’s husband was rounded up at Umpslag Platz and deported to Triblinka, where he later perished.

After the war, Jenny met her second husband at a health clinic, where he proposed the same day. They emigrated to Israel, following thousands of Jews out of Poland, and settled in Tel Aviv. After some years, Jenny wanted a child, but her husband was sterile. As a nurse, she was acquainted with all the latest medical technologies, but when she proposed artificial insemination, her husband said no: “I don’t want a bastard living in my house,” he told her. And in Jenny fashion, she countered, “And I don’t want a bastard living in my house!” and kicked him out.

Jenny’s third marriage lasted only six weeks — he was an outcast, a “nogoodnik,” is all she’ll say. After a rabbinic divorce, Jenny suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a Jewish asylum in upstate New York, where she cried for what seemed like 10 lifetimes over all the misery and heartache she had seen. “Some days I have regrets,” Jenny once confessed, “but other days, I say, ‘What the heck, I’m better off alone.'”

For all of her many friends — and she has many — the condition that still haunts Jenny is that of being worse off than an orphan. “Orphans at least, the parents die,” she said. “But my mother and father were taken from me!” She cannot speak about her parents, who died at the hands of the Germans and Ukrainians, without crying. “My father was beaten to death by the Ukrainians. When my mother got the body, she couldn’t recognize him, he was just beaten into pieces…. My mother was buried alive [by German soldiers] in the countryside where I was born. My sisters died there too….” Every day, she relives their deaths and those of others who died during the war. “Surely, God has kept me here for a purpose,” Jenny said, lamenting, although she does not presume to know what that purpose is.

I often wonder myself what mysterious purpose pulls me toward Jenny. I first met her 12 years ago in the ladies’ locker room of the Hollywood YMCA, when I was pregnant with my first child. When she saw that I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, she wanted to know right away about the father, my plans for the wedding, what my parents thought. We stayed in touch, maintaining a friendship that has not been always easy to keep. Sometimes when I’ve been visiting at her small, crowded apartment in Hollywood, I’ve stood, one foot in the doorway, one foot in the hall, yearning to go home, but not being able to leave. From the doorway, I look at her tiny, bent frame, her neatly combed hair, the look of anticipation on her face, and I feel guilty; how can I leave her? How can I go on to my life, with all its petty problems, knowing what she has been through? But with the other foot, I am running — running to get away, running from the interminable presence of pain, running to my own life: I really must go and put the kids to bed, finish the laundry, tell my husband of today’s calamities. But later, maybe it’s a day or a month, I call, and it is there, in those late-night conversations, that Jenny serves as an unbreakable link to my history, to being Jewish, and to my own 85- and 87-year-old parents, who may not have suffered under the Nazis, but whose lives (and subsequently mine) were forever changed by the war.

Like any good friendship, ours is always changing and always surprising. The other night when I complained about my husband working long hours, Jenny jumped to his defense: “Put on some lipstick, look nice for him when he comes home. Do you have a dress?” she said. Over the years, Jenny has softened considerably toward my husband, telling me how much she loves him for raising our children Jewish. Given that I have now been married longer than her three marriages together, perhaps, she reasons, all any marriage needs, whether it be Jewish or mixed, is some time — the one thing Jenny never had. And though I will never be able to make up for her loss, I will be there to listen when she advises: “Sweetheart, be kind and decent. Believe in God. Take care of one another as much as you can.”