The Writer Tries to Address Her Origins

Deborah Zafer

Writer’s Note: I am fascinated by the lost Jewish East End in London. My grandparents (and those of many British Jews of my generation) grew up there in extreme poverty but also as part of a vibrant and close community. They eventually moved to wealthier suburbs but in doing so, something was lost. They were typically tight-lipped about their experiences of hardship and also about what drove their families to come to England from Eastern Europe. Trauma, loss and violence were alluded to but never really spoken of and now there’s no one to ask.

After many frustrating attempts to fictionalise this, all of which failed to do it justice, I got the idea this was because my grandparents were sabotaging me and didn’t in fact want people to know about their origins, preferring them instead to focus on the success eventually achieved. This mostly fictional piece took off from there when I imagined the everlasting conversation they might be enjoying in the world to come. It was especially important to me to capture their unique patterns of speech and humour which I don’t hear anywhere anymore.

(NB these are not my actual grandparents pictured but are in fact my great-grandparents whose formidably stern faces fit the piece well.)

Nat: You know Nell, Deborah wanted to write a story about us.

Nellie: She did Nat, she did.

Nat: She wanted to write about our lives before her mother was born. You know, the East End and all that. Why? I don’t know.

Nellie: We don’t know.

Nat: I nearly died when I heard!

Nellie: You’re already dead Nat.

Nat: Sure, sure, but you know what I mean.

Nellie: I do Nat, I do. I know what you mean.

Nat: I mean, why rake all of that business up now? What’s so good about that time that we need to revisit it eh? Writing stories about how bad our lives were in the past for people to read now. Who wants that?

Nellie: No one Nat. You’re right. There was nothing good about it. It was nothing to remember.

Nat: She was trying to find out about our parents – her great-grandparents – how they got here in the first place from over there, what made them flee. She was doing research to try and understand. She went on one of those website things they’re all using these days. As if they had any documents?! She found nothing of course. There’s nothing to find.

Nellie: Of course, there’s nothing.

Nat: And, listen to this Nell, she even went on a tour of the East End with some shmendrick tour guide to learn about our lives. There’s nothing there! What were they even looking at? Can you imagine Nell?

Nellie: I can’t Nat, I can’t. [They both laugh]. Think of them, just wondering about like a pair of shmendricks! It’s all gone now, Nat, all gone. Everything.

Nat: And good riddance to it Nell.

Nellie: Good riddance.

Nat: Although.

Nellie: Although?

Nat: There were some good times weren’t there Nell? [He gets a faraway look in his eyes and smiles at her, patting her knee].

Nellie: There were, Nat, there were. Oh, we did use to laugh something rotten.

Nat: We did Nell, we did. Oy, we used to laugh and we were never alone, not ever.

Nellie: Not ever Nat, not ever. Not then. The chance would have been a fine thing with all those sisters and brothers and cousins everywhere.

Nat: Still, it’s all gone now and she didn’t find out much, so don’t worry.

Nellie: She didn’t? That’s good. Your mother will be pleased.

Nat: She is pleased, Nell. She is. And yours also.

Nellie: Good, yes. They wouldn’t want it all to be spoken of.

[They both sit silently for a moment, as if reflecting on what their parents went through, but then, without addressing it, they move on].

Nat: They do want so much from life, these young people.

Nellie:  They do. So much, Nat. So much.

Nat: And I have to admit I never did understand those other things she’s written, not really. All those people going on about their problems and kvetching. What is all that about, eh?  But this story hasn’t turned out the way she planned.

Nellie: No, it hasn’t.

Nat: And of course, she doesn’t know why those other things she’s written about us have never been published. She just keeps sending them off, hopefully.

Nellie: She does Nat, she does. She keeps sending them off.

Nat: But, well, a little nudge here, a little push there and they seem to just disappear into the ether. Poof.

Nellie: Poof.

Nat: Not that we would intervene.

Nell: Of course we wouldn’t Nat. The dead should never intervene.

Nat: We didn’t intervene. We were never ones for intervening. Neither of us was.

[He pauses].

Although her mother might have told her something different about us.

Nellie: She might have done Nat, you’re right. Her mother always had plenty to say about us.

Nat: But, well, you know what they say, ‘people make plans and God laughs.’

Nellie: They do say that, they do Nat.

Nat: And we were good parents weren’t we Nell? We tried. We gave them everything we could. All the chances.

Nellie: We did try Nat. You were a good father. You tried your best.

Nat: I tried my best Nell and so did you. It wasn’t always easy but we tried.

Nellie: And her mother wasn’t easy. Never easy.

Nat: Neither of them was. Her mother or her uncle.

Nellie: No, neither of them. Fighting each other and us since the day they were born, they were.

Nat: Ah well, what can you do?

Nellie: Nothing Nat, you can’t do anything. You just have to keep on trying.

Nat: Maybe next time we’ll get a proper story written about us – the good bits you know. Not about all those bits we would rather forget.

Nellie: Not about that, no.

Nat: Maybe next time?

Nellie: Maybe. You can only hope.

Nat: True, Nell, true. At the end of the day, that’s is all there is. Just hope.

Deborah Zafer lives in London where she works in the public sector by day, writes by night and tends to her family and rabbit in the hours between. After many years of solitary writing, she has decided to be brave and start submitting to see what happens and join in the conversation. She can be found on Twitter @deborahzafer or at