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Sharp Tongued Women

I come from a line of sharp tongued women. They did not really live in the faded, silent, monochrome world of those old photographs. Life was not all frozen solemnity but quite the contrary. Behind the placid group portraits there must have lurked immense tension -- what with the closeness of all those cousins.

They would have had bustling homes on bustling streets filled with pungent smells and laughing children. And the feelings run deep and close to the surface at once: Love, pride, faith, devotion, envy, weariness, frustration, fear, hunger...

When there is food, there is never a shortage of mouths to feed and we work like slaves in the kitchen, making the children help and feeding them a little because the men always pray at table - at our beautiful table full of steaming plates -- until the meal is nearly cold. This is to show God that we willingly sacrifice the comforts of our flesh for the goodness of our souls. We say: Show thanks for the food by eating and enjoying already. We were not put here to starve; we have work to do and we need strength to do it. When you join the angels you can pray all day.
I come from a line of sharp tongued women -- sharp of tongue and soft of shape. They taunted their men with those sharp tongues to show them that they too could be witty and wise. And they ate all they wanted, when the table was full, so as to tempt with round womanly folds, and to give thanks for life simply by living it...
After all, we are daughters of Sarah, Mother of Nations. The vessels and bearers of faith and race, we are blessed in our natural state. No flesh must we sacrifice. God might require of Abraham the blood of the ram or the foreskin of the son, but before Mothers of Nations, who have bled and birthed and bled with moon and tide and season, God is humbled by Its own perfection. We keep the Holy Days and Festivals in our homes because we are keepers of the Moon. Men and God attempt to know one another through negotiations and examinations. Mothers of nations participate in the perfection of existence and experience the wholeness of God's work. This is our prayer.
I come from a line of sharp tongued, indomitable women, and pious, disciplined, dominating men. In the house of many rooms where my dreams take place, I hear their voices raised in cheerful gossip, or murmuring their prayers, or in bursts of half-suppressed quarreling or love-making. From room to room I look for them. Waking, I find I am them.
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from ANCESTRAL NOTES, A Family Dream Journal
© 1994, Zelda Leah Gatuskin


The Dance Of The Matriarchs

This dance of mine is not of the furniture filled parlors
Of Russian immigrants
(Imagine bric-a-brac, tsatskes, flying about
Shattering into many pieces
Sent aloft by my spinning veils and skirts and arms thrown wide)
No, this is a dance to be danced upon hard packed earth -
In open air -
By blazing firelight or beneath blistering sun
I can see my ancestors sitting around a fire under an ancient sky
Exploding with stars
They beat drums and play pipes
While aunts, cousins and grandmothers' grandmothers
Dance with me
She presides, the Matriarch
We converse
Yes, we have all had this dream
This dream which was once a memory?
Dance and dream; if it pleases you, call the dream Memory
It pleases me; and what shall I call the dance?
Some say sleep is a man who throws sand in our eyes
But I say
Sleep is a woman who dances
And every rustle of her folds of silk
And every jingle of her jewelry
Is a constellation of thoughts that swirl and undulate
Until there are so many that the mind is overwhelmed
And only dreams can contain them

Who is this dream dancer?
For me she is the spirit that links all of the women of my line
And she brings them to me as I sleep
So they may share the joys and sorrows that shaped their lives
And ultimately mine
For there is much unfinished business among my women
(Among all women)
Love inadequately expressed
Children unborn or too soon deceased
Anger denied
Work uncompleted
Wisdom rejected

Water permeates my dreams
Still waters and flowing waters
Baths, pools, ponds, streams, rivers, oceans
Often the tame water lies within or beside the wild water
A swimming pool within a sea
Like the steady heart of an obedient wife
Within the tempestuous soul of a goddess
What water shall I swim in?
The pool is safe, steady, known
The sea is black or pure blue, limitless, throbbing with life
The horizon alternately smiles and frowns beyond the waves
The pool has walls
I could be crushed against them

The sea has no end
I might be lost within it

Water permeates my dreams
Secret messages from women who came before
Seep into my pores
Wet me through with desire
Shake me with fear
Strangle me with rage
And the one who dances
Is counting out a universe of possibilities
With the soles of her feet
And another with her clapping hands
And another with the arch of her eyebrows

We are joined as one within the dream dancer's dance
The women of my line and I
For our nightly debate
Shall we swim or not?
Shall we go here or there?
Shall we wear these clothes or those?
Shall we love this man or another?
Shall we eat or fast?
Shall we run or fight?
Objects fall from the sky
Buildings crumble
Animals speak
And the waters beckon, beckon

It doesn't matter where you swim
The waters of life are contained within

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Excerpts List
from ANCESTRAL NOTES, A Family Dream Journal
© 1994, Zelda Leah Gatuskin


Introduction - The War Is On TV
January 17, 1991 

     The war is on TV.  What a show.  Col. Sam Dickens, US Air
Force (ret.) and Gen. Edward Meyer (former army chief of staff)
take calls and chat with Larry King on CNN during lulls in the
bombing.  Richard Roth, reporting from Tel Aviv, likes to refer
to Israel as "the Jewish State."  Is he some kind of militant
Zionist, posing as respectable CNN reporter?  Or is he just
tactfully reminding us that the reason Israel is Saddam Hussein's
first and favorite target is that it is the Jewish State?  This
brings up a lot of old stuff for me...  Ancient stuff.  Millennia
     How can humans have such short memories and yet such long
memories?  I was watching the kids march down and up Central
Avenue today protesting the war.  Huhm!  What do they know about
marching?  I marched.  At the tender age of thirteen I marched
down Pennsylvania Avenue to express my conviction that war is
wrong; war is always wrong.  I knew a very little about Vietnam. 
I know a little more now.  Thanks to TV, I know a lot more about
what's going on in Iraq and Kuwait.  But it doesn't matter about
the details when you know, you just know, that all war is wrong,
all killing is wrong, all lying is wrong, that letting people
starve and live in the streets is wrong... I watched the kids
marching down and up Central.  They were not all kids.  
     Dan Rather is "letting roll" the first pictures out of Tel
Aviv tonight.  The bombed-out neighborhood is panned and we are
assured that the casualties have been very light.  The camera
lingers over the white feathered corpse of a chicken.  This is
followed by headlines nicely encapsulating tonight's news:
     Oh, our memories are so short and so long.  One day I was
wearing patched bell bottoms and a tee shirt emblazoned with the
word Peace as I was rocked and rolled along Pennsylvania Avenue
in a mash of fully integrated humanity, all of us knowing,
KNOWING, what was right and what was wrong and what would never
happen again once We entered the inner sanctums of power.  But
then we forgot; I forgot.  I got busy growing up, going to
college, falling in love, working, making art, dancing...  I
forgot.  Twenty years have gone by and the kids marching down and
up Central make me almost remember, but it seems so long ago. 
What should I have been remembering these twenty years?  What was
it we were supposed to do?  I can't remember.  I just know we
didn't do it.  
     Only my long memory is functioning now.  The one that creeps
back into the genes.  The old long memory of life sweetened by
threat.  A memory that says there are things worth dying for, and
sometimes you have to lie and steal and cheat too.  "It's
survival," the memory says, "it's Us."  And I see my ancestors
stretching back and back through time, all of our ancestors.  A
long chain of dead souls, generation after generation, linked arm
to arm, reaching toward us - the living, the present - while our
long arm-to-arm chain reaches into the future, pulls away from
them...  But eventually we all die, and fall back into their arms
gratefully and gather ourselves up and take our place in their
chain and reach, reach out to the living saying, "Remember,
     "We spin along," my ancestors remind me, "and lucky we do. 
Look at all of us -- only in Zion might we all walk the earth
     In Zion, in Israel.  In Palestine.  Oh, these are old, old
memories.  The memories that wars are made of.  
January 17, 1994

     This is where Ancestral Notes started, with the Persian Gulf
War.  It made something snap.  It was like that recurring dream I
have, where I suddenly realize I have not been attending classes
for a certain subject and I now have to take the exam.  I'd had a
lot of questions when I was younger, about family, religion, and
society, about war, peace, and politics.  Some of them were just
too hard or too painful; some actually seemed irrelevant.  The
war woke me up.  I really had been skipping class for about
twenty years...
     A week into the Gulf War, Harry Willson of Amador Publishers
called to express interest in a novel I had written.  By March,
The Time Dancer was on its way to publication and I had adopted a
new last name, Gatuskin.  That is, I had decided to reclaim a
family name from three generations back and put it in print on
the cover of a book.  My hope was (and is) that some long-lost
relative might find me and tell me about the mysterious Gatuskin
line.  I had by then already started dabbling in genealogical
     Now my folks were doubly pleased, I had become an author and
taken an interest in the family history.  My grandmother said,
"you have taken the name of a very fine man; and I know he's up
there somewhere smiling down at you."  I knew that too.  And as I
delved further into all branches of the family, I began to sense
the presence of an entire array of ancestral spirits.  As I
charted their names and read about the places and times in which
they lived, as I pumped relatives for memories and information,
their voices began to speak to me and through me.  
     Still, I do not know if it was really I who summoned these
spirits, or the times.  The Gulf War came and went, leaving tens
of thousands of brown-skinned people dead.  Forget romanticism
about Israel, forget the flag-waving, yellow-ribboned patriotism
of the victors; this looked like genocide to me.  Then, a year
later, an "orphan bus" screamed across the headlines.  It was
carrying children out of war-torn Sarajevo.  Today, that city
bears some striking similarities to the Warsaw Ghetto.  This was
how we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, with
"racial cleansing" in the Balkans.  
     This past year has brought Israel and its Arab neighbors
into the headlines again.  An historic handshake, a promise of
peace -- while at every juncture one group or another, or all,
beat the old refrains of hostility and mistrust.  As of this
writing, peace in the Middle East remains elusive; war still
rages in Bosnia.  Racial hatred is prevalent throughout the
world, familiar as an old friend and as hard to cast out.  Here
at home, we have recently learned of our own country's
unconscionable human experiments with plutonium in the aftermath
of World War II; our neighborhoods are plagued by violence; and
an earthquake in Los Angeles this very day reminds us of how
tenuous is the security we take for granted.  
     Surely the ancestors have always been with me, as have been
the threats and heartaches that often seem far removed from the
life of comfort I am so privileged to lead.  I had only to sleep,
to dream, then to wake to recognition of my inheritance. 
Ancestral Notes, the book, has reached its conclusion, but the
process is ongoing.  Every dire headline resonates with lessons
from the past and implications for the future.  I make my way
through a world of accelerating change with the weight of an
ancestral hand on my shoulder.  It comforts, it prods, it grips. 
Whenever I feel small and alone and unable to make sense of
life's convulsions, it draws me back through the classrooms,
libraries and museums of my dreams, to the textbook of genetic
memory.  From the shadowy late-night lectures of ancestral
spirits spring surprising moments of clarity.
from ANCESTRAL NOTES, A Family Dream Journal
© 1994, Zelda Leah Gatuskin

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