November 16, 2018

Who By Fire: A Yom Kippur Story

I remember when I was as a child on Yom Kippur, holding my mother’s hand and squinting at her prayer book:

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst …
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

That prayer scared the daylights out of me. What kind of schoolyard bully was God to let some people perish by fire and others be exalted?

The author in 2001.

Chandra Levy disappeared the summer I was 21. A Jewish girl from California, Levy was an intern for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was having an affair with an older, married congressman when she disappeared on May 1, 2001. I remember the date because it was the summer I worked on a ranch, fell in love and had my portrait painted on the front of a Mexican restaurant. 

The ranch was nestled up in the Sierra Nevada, outside of Kern County. It was a paradise of sweet red dust, cows and lush stalks of corn — and that sagy, dry smell I cannot name but which brought me to tears when I recognized it years later in the mountains of Provence, France. 

Kernville, then as now, was a small town that thrived on tourists fishing and rafting the Kern River’s glorious rush of rapids and rocks. The town consisted mainly of a supermarket doubling as a bait-and-tackle shop, a laundromat, a gas station, a bar with a bunch of slow-blinking cowboys, and a 1950s-style diner with a jukebox. 

You didn’t expect a wide variety of eateries in a place like Kernville, so our little group of ranch workers was excited to discover El Sombrero. Wild cactus and gravel surrounded its entrance. Not much traffic passed by except the occasional pickup truck. Inside, rainbow-colored piñatas, wide-brimmed hats, portraits of Mexican saints and the Virgin of Guadalupe, and pictures of soccer stars lined the walls. We were smitten. 

“It was on a day off in town that I picked up a newspaper and saw Levy’s face on the front page. … I stared at her face a long time. She looked like me.” 

Every week we would troop in glistening and dirty, radiant with youth, and Arturo the owner would give us each a loud, smacking kiss. We were none too clean but he loved us. We would order piping-hot plates of chimichangas and enchiladas with green sauce. The flautas, nachos, guacamole and Corona beers were always on the house. While we waited for our meals, I’d take out my guitar and sing, and under the table the boy I loved would put his bare foot on mine. Sometimes all six of us would wail together. We never asked permission. We just brazenly burst into song without wondering whether they’d kick us out. 

I don’t have the words to describe just how swoon-worthy the food was, except to say it was magical. It melted in a certain way on your tongue, into an explosion of celebration in your mouth. On the other hand, maybe anything would have tasted so good, famished as we were from working and sleeping outside on the ranch, with sun and earth and sweat on our skin, and — in my case — from being in love. But to this day it remains the best Mexican food I have eaten, better than some damn fine meals in Mexico City, Houston and East Los Angeles. 

It was on a day off in town that I picked up a newspaper and saw Levy’s face on the front page. She had one of those Old World faces, a wild tangle of curls and weary eyes. I stared at her face a long time. She looked like me. 

At El Sombrero that day, Arturo had been drinking. When we left, he breathed into my ear with beery breath that he was going to paint me on the front wall outside. He wanted a life-size mural of me playing my guitar. He asked if I had a photo he could give to an artist. I figured he would be too drunk to do anything with it, but I gave him one anyway. 

When we returned a week later, there I was, in sparkling technicolor under the El Sombrero sign at the front entrance, holding my guitar, wearing a purple dress and cowboy boots. I had become the official El Sombrero Girl. 

“‘Why in the hell is the missing intern painted on the front of a Mexican restaurant in Kern freaking county?’”

We all burst out laughing, and my friends slapped me on the back and said, “Guuurrrl, you’re famous!”

We went in and sat at our favorite table, and that’s when the woman in the back leapt up. 

“Steven!” she said to her friend. “That’s her! That’s the missing intern!” 

She was blond and about 40, with a red face. Maybe she was sunburned from too much river-rafting, maybe she was drunk, but either way, she was pointing a finger at me. 

“I’m not missing,” I smiled.

“You are the missing girl,” she insisted.

“My name is Sara.” 

“Your name is Chandra. I’d know your face anywhere. I seen it in the paper. Is that you painted out front? Steven, did I not just say to you, ‘Why in the hell is the missing intern painted on the front of a Mexican restaurant in Kern freaking county?’ ” 

Last August, I visited Kernville. I was nervous, the way you get nervous when meeting an ex for coffee. But it looked and felt just the same — the cactus by the roadside, the laundromat, the gas station, the same market doubling as a bait-and-tackle shop amid the still, blazing-hot air. Time seemed to have stood still on the Kern, even if for me it had not. I am a woman now, and have had a whole life of joys and tears and failures and successes and other loves. 

With a hushed awe, I went into the supermarket-bait-and-tackle as if I was entering an ancient holy site. The woman at the cash register had a wizened face and a long silver braid. 

Hershkowitz outside El Sombrero.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you remember a Mexican restaurant from a long time ago? It was called El Sombrero?” 

“Sure. Went out of business 15 years ago. Used to have a mural on the front of a girl playing guitar.” 

A lump appeared in my throat. I did not tell her that the girl was me. “Is the mural still there?” 

“Nope, the new owners painted over it.” 

I smiled and thanked her and blinked back tears. The summer of 2001 was such a long time ago. 

Sept. 11 knocked Chandra Levy off the front pages. The nation’s extraordinary grief shoved one family tragedy aside. Maybe that was a tiny blessing — the Levy family could go into Rosh Hashanah out of the public eye, left to grieve and wonder in peace. 

Levy’s remains were found in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park in May 2002. 

Who by water, and who by fire. 

Levy’s family will soon mark their 18th High Holy Days without their beautiful daughter. And the girl whom a Kernville stranger once insisted was Chandra Levy is not a girl anymore, but still has the same wild tangle of curls and is still singing up a storm and still eating chimichangas and would still like to know why some of us get to stay and some don’t.


Sara Hershkowitz is an opera singer, writer, activist and teacher. Born in Los Angeles, she currently divides her time between Berlin and L.A.