Sunday, October 7, 2012

Trials of a Super-Taster

            I sit with friends in a plushy alcove at a restaurant. A halogen light beams into the center flower over a white tablecloth. I place my order, smiling at the waiter. “No lemon, no black pepper or chili, not even as garnish,” I say. “But please tell the chef to use all other flavors.” That should cover all my bases. I love the taste of cilantro, sage, cinnamon or rosemary that together with textures—from crunchy to smooth—create a concert of my senses. I admire the chef who orchestrates ingredients to perform a melody of sensual pleasures. But fresh lemon wrecks my mouth. Upon touch, small blisters pop up on my tongue and gums. They dissipate within the hour, but not before they ruin my meal. Black pepper and hot spices blow off the top of my skull, or at least that is how it feels from the inside.
            “She’s allergic,” my husband adds.   
            When my food arrives, though, three slices of lemon flank the fish. A network of black dots covers the macadamia crust of my 3”-size piece of fish that is listed at $35. My battle-worn mouth contracts reflexively.
            “That’s only garnish,” the waiter explains when I remind him of my food sensitivities.
            Why is it that I am the one to apologize when I must send the dish back?
            The rest of my dinner companions are half way through their food when mine reappears, this time as a dish deserving the “Best of Hospital” honor. That sprig of rosemary that had so proudly hailed from the top of the previous serving is no more. Ditto for the patches of sauce that had lain artistically on the rim of the original plate. The chef is angry with me, I can tell. The fish lies lumpy, as unappetizing as the lampshade over the pale halo that now filters through the fish’s translucent tissues. Last weekend at another restaurant it was the lamb chop’s second coming that must have been laundered in the washing machine, and with my favorite mint jelly MIA.
            These past few years, Northeast chefs have adopted the culinary spice repertoire of the Southwest. And while my dinner companions range from those who bask in the hot burning sensation to those who admit they’d rather taste the original ingredients, unmasked by jalapeño, I do not have the luxury of tolerating piquant or acidic foods.
            More frequently now, I’ve I become the eccentric complainer at the dinner table. In more restaurants, over more frequently spiced-up dishes, I must publicly detail to the waiter yet again my food allergies. More often, I must seem to my dinner companions as a spoiled brat—or a bitch. But topping it is the chef’s resentment when required to redo my order. I am starving, but the chef lets me know that my audacity deserves no more than IV drip sustenance.
            In my youth, my days passed in relative tranquility until Saturday. Then, my encounter with my grandmother’s salad became my family’s undoing. Sunday through Friday, my mother’s salad traveled from my plate to my stomach uneventfully. But come Saturday, at my grandmother’s, I would refuse to bite into the lettuce. At the sight of her own mother’s quivering lips, my mother would leap over the rituals of warning, begging or coaxing and would revoke my radio privileges for the week.
            The thought of missing Wednesday night with its Top Ten sent me into a fit that was instantaneously met with banishment to the other room. From there I could hear words spoken aloud, predicting my future spinsterhood. Who would ever marry a girl this difficult, stubborn and capricious? I sat alone, wallowing in misery. Because of a few leaves of lettuce I would be relegated to a lifelong of knitting sweaters for all my future nieces and nephews.
            The mystery of my problem was unveiled in the early 90s, well into my  adulthood. A Yale researcher identified the likes of me as “Super-tasters.” With that diagnosis, years of private frustrations and public family feuds came to a halt. Aha! The innocent lemon my grandmother used in her dressing was responsible for my family’s weekly crisis. I sent copies of the report to everyone who had witnessed meal fiascoes in which I had starred. A super-taster, the article explained, had a tongue in which the taste buds were clustered in far greater numbers than in the rest of the population’s, causing the owner of that special tongue to feel flavors at up to four times the rate of “non-tasters” at the opposite end of the bell curve. Most people were otherwise clustered in the center bubble.
            Voila. Now I could also reveal to my hostesses why I didn’t finish that piece of chocolate cake (I tasted her Equal), why I sneaked to the kitchen for a stainless steel soup spoon (I tasted the silver polish,) why I passed on those green peas everyone adored (I tasted the original tin can.) Finally there was an explanation to why I sprinkled sugar on my tongue at the political fund-raising dinner (sugar molecules diffuse jalapeno’s.)
            So now I know, but what good does it do me? Waiters still don’t listen, and when they do, chefs ignore their instructions. While the word “allergy” increasingly sets a three-fire alarm in more restaurants, the chef and staff take it too far. The interpret “black pepper” as “any green or red pepper,” “Chili” as any spice. On the other hand, when I recently ordered the forever-safe chicken soup—without bothering to add a warning—it put my mouth on fire. Whoever guessed that chicken soup had become a Mexican feast?
            Three out of five times I send my dish back to the kitchen, and an irascible chef punishes my impudence with his blandest versions of food, letting me know that if I don’t like his recipe, I’d better dine elsewhere. While I managed to beat the prediction of spinsterhood, thirty years later I still come across no less capricious than in the scenes at my grandmother’s home.
            What’s there to do? I order tea with a scrumptious dessert to fill my empty stomach, to soothe the blisters on both my mouth—and my ego.
            Novelist Talia Carner lives in New York. Her novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, (HarperCollins 2011)  depicts the struggle of an Orthodox Jewish woman in the early 1900s against her society’s religious dictates. Check .



Saturday, September 8, 2012

Baby Production Unlimited?

A crack baby
[Note: I wrote this essay a decade ago. My views have not changed. In these pre-election days, I cannot identify with either party’s views—which is why I am a registered Independent.]

            Recently, a lawyer from Illinois wrote in The New York Times about a woman who gave birth to 13 children, six of whom where born with cocaine in their systems, three with syphilis, and four were HIV positive. At least one of the children was beaten to death by the mother’s boyfriend. Others were physically abused and tortured.
            Promptly ruling out sterilization of the mother, the lawyer argued for the need to protect the unborn—two views I do not share. 
            Yet, I curiously found myself siding with him in his outrage that this woman—ill equipped to deal with life, her body, her emotions, and her addictions—is permitted to produce children as long as her body is capable of beginning the process of pregnancy and continues with little awareness on her part until a baby is born.
            Liberals in our society see any imposed meddling in the process of pregnancy a challenge to the woman’s civil rights. Blocking her ovary-production after two, three—or even six—children is unacceptable to them. What I find interesting here is that a conservative man such as the lawyer who wrote the piece joined the liberals in the same conclusion, albeit reaching it from a different angle.
            I believe that these children should not be permitted to be born. By allowing them to come into the world, we as a society midwife them into unimaginable misery. Passively, we stand powerless as more babies are dropped into our arms and become our responsibility via the myriad services they require from us. Helpless, we face staggering costs that devour our resources and trump other priorities. We assume the cost of lifelong medical care, foster care, and special education—all of which fail to raise the needle on their happiness meter.
            If this mother’s children reach maturity—which they often do due to medical care that is denied children of more functional families—they are likely to engage in violence and crime, often against us. We raise them in our midst only to endanger our own safety. We must engage more law enforcement personnel, prisons, security systems, legal defense and social workers. We pay for rehabilitation programs (for the criminals—not the victims) that are most likely to fail.
            While we are busy taking care of this mother’s children, she will continue to send more sick babies our way. She does not mean to do it. It happens to her. It happens to her body. She is ravished by illness. She has no way to control her destiny because her mind is fuzzy in a confused soup of drugs.
            Why not take a stand and say “No more!” Why not sterilize her?
            As a feminist who supports a woman’s right to her body and to choose abortion if she and her doctor agree, as a person disgusted by the notion that any citizen—including a bartender—is allowed to tell a pregnant woman that she may not drink alcohol, my boundaries are clear: Society ends where my skin begins.
            But what about the reverse situation? What about a case when a woman’s body abuses and exploits society? Where do I draw the line between the right of a woman to her body and my right to protect and defend myself and my resources against the consequences of her irresponsible actions?
            Where does liberalism start and conservatism begin?
            There are times we must cross the line, times when we must be allowed to stop the process of pregnancy before it begins. We are not placing a chastity belt on the woman--she can still have sex. We are not tying her down and removing a kidney to be donated to one who needs it. Irreversible sterilization needs not be the first step. We can start with enforcing birth control such as the five-year Norplant II (or its newest version.) It will give the mother a chance to clean her body from drugs, to get her act together, and to show responsibility toward the children she has already borne. Sterilization may be the answer if the first program fails.
            “Three Strikes” has been the buzz word for repeat offenders. We can stand up to other kinds of offenders and in the process save thousands of children the misery of being born.

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Author Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, (HarperCollins, 2011) is set at the end of the Ottoman Empire rule of the Holy Land.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Rather than write my own blog, I give the space to a brave Israeli who expresses both his outrage and courage in the face of the recent terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, an attack that killed seven Israelis and wounded 36 others.  

By Ami Baram*: 

Dear Friends,
             Can you imagine getting onto a plane , flying to a beautiful country where the people are nice and friendly , thinking that you are on your way to a relaxing vacation , go through security , which has become the norm around the globe, throwing out your water bottle that you forgot in your bag before passing security and trying to drink the last drops of it at the last second and eventually feeling safe.
            You arrive at your destination in one of Europe’s promising and growing countries , you are with friends that have been with you since childhood, school and army and have seen tragedy all your lives , together. You are with your loved ones, the ones you want to spend the rest of your lives with , holding each other , watching your children grow and have families of their own.
            Then it happens.
            Reality sets in.
            A deviate of mankind, with the guidance of evil itself, feels he has to end the lives of all of those people , who were picked because of who they are , and from where they come. He feels he has to do something , because he believes that he will be stopping so called injustices , which he truly believes Israel commits on a daily basis or he just believes he is on a true mission to end Israel????
            By killing and mutilating Israeli citizens on vacation he surely will bring down the entire Israeli Nation, he believes.!!
            He believes that it will produce fear in our hearts , that we will not wander the world , looking for time off from the troubles within Israel, that we will fear getting onto a plane , visiting cities around the world, because they , the deviates , will be waiting for us and when possible kill us.
            Well , I have one message to his mentors, since he is no longer alive.
            You do not scare us, we can endure pain and sorrow forever. We, with our friends (‘we’) who are on the right side of mankind will persevere. We will look you in the eye and hold you accountable for the atrocities that you have caused , and are planning to cause. We will be there when you show up , armed and ready to fight and defeat you. We will also not wait for you to come to us , we will learn of your plans and stop you before you even make your first move.
            True, you will succeed in some of your acts of terror, and we will lose loved ones as we have in the past, but for those loved ones , we will hunt you down and it will be you who will have fear in your hearts , it will be you who will fear to step out of your home , knowing that at any given time , your end will come.
            I wish that all of us would be able to wander the world freely, with no worries, being able to get on a plane with no need for security, to go to a movie and not be worried that someone will start shooting at us, just to be.
            But reality is different, and we all need to acknowledge that these times are difficult ones, which will bring us together because only together can we defeat the deviates who try to harm us and our families.
            I received a call from a father of a young girl player who will be traveling soon for tournaments and he was concerned about the security after the terrorist attack in Bulgaria. I thought to myself , before answering how do I calm his nerves, what do I say that will relieve him of this fear for his daughters life.
            I asked him, if there was an attack in Israel how many days would you keep your daughter at home. He bravely said , I wouldn't! He realized why I asked that question and said , she will be going , I just want to know that we are aware of the dangers, and I said we are. End of conversation.
            My friends, you all hang in there, trust yourselves, believe in yourselves and remember we are in this together , so we are stronger than any bomb , shooter or evil that comes our way.
            Your friend

* Chicago-born, Israeli attorney, Ami Baram, is a son of Holocaust survivors. A Major [Ret.] in the Israeli Police Force and a star athlete, Ami represented Israel at international sports competitions as a champion Javelin thrower and now holds key positions in both domestic and international sports and security leadership.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Sole of a Shopper

This week I shopped for three “must-have”s: a car, a computer, and a pair of sneakers.
            Researching a new car was simple. Searching various websites by the simple selection of number of doors and the color gave me a preliminary list. Adding the budget—and out popped a few cars. I weeded out those that failed to meet my Number One request that the passenger seat is endowed with every single adjustment as the driver’s. This is a deal breaker for me, since when my husband drives me around, I am relegated to the passenger seat. But it’s my car, where it is one place where I can choose not to be considered a second-class citizen.
            Only two cars matched my specification. At the first showroom, I sniffed the inside of the car for that delicious leather aroma, took out the car for a spin, signed a few papers, and became the official owner.
            Finding a notebook computer was a more demanding task, requiring me to refresh my terminology of as RAM and Megahertz, and understand what the number of pixels on my screen meant. I got the hang of it as I perused through several catalogues and sorted the models that matched my budget. Then I called online companies and got my deal—sight unseen, a free case included. The computer arrived in a box the next afternoon.
            Buying sneakers, though, demoted me to the class of dimwits. “Do you cross-train?” the salesman standing in front of a wall of sneakers asked me, and in the same breath produced a shoe whose top was crisscrossed by a straining pink mesh that reminded me of my late grandmother’s corset. 
            Cross-train. I mulled over the new term until I remembered someone at the gym where I take Pilates (barefoot) mentioning a cross-training machine. “No,” I shook my head. “But I’m size eight, medium.” Surely he’d appreciate an easy-to-fit customer.
            Unimpressed by my helpfulness, he pulled down another pair. “Do you need the sneakers for jogging? Walking on the treadmill?” He pointed at an air-bubble, like that in a plumb-ruler, set in the back of the heel.
            I thought of my nature walks—in the woods, by rivulets and on rocky inclines. How would I keep the air bubble centered? And if I did, how would I see it? “I just need sneakers.” I pointed to a white-and-blue pair that looked benign enough. “What about these?”
            “Do you do aerobics or jazz?”
                        “Yes, I dance.”
                        He drew my attention to the fact that the sole of the sneaker was broader than the top part, which would add balance if I did aerobics.
                        “But I won’t be able to pivot in a jazz routine.”
                        For that, he showed me a split-bottom, where the heel and toe parts were not connected. I could see all the large stones getting caught in the space should I walked on the graveled walkway, let alone in nature.
            He turned to a Lucite display, where, like a trophy, stood a sneaker whose 2-inch bottom seemed to have been made from stalagmites and stalactites meeting halfway, leaving miniature caves. “Shock absorbers,” he said.
            The caves seemed like a perfect refuge for small cockroaches or little snakes. “Too much sneaker,” I said.
            He turned away from the display in obvious dismissal of that option for me; I was undeserving of that special marvel of human engineering.
            Trying to save face I offered, “I have a high arch.”
            His eyes searched the ceiling and his brows crinkled as he considered that new obstacle. Then his gaze traveled back to the selection on the wall, and he pulled down a sneaker. He flexed it lengthwise and widthwise, explaining the technology involved in designing an arch support. I was grateful that at the car showroom no one had suggested I crawl underneath the axel for an engineering lesson.
            The salesman compared this Eighth-Wonder of shoe engineered against a more cushioned shoe, which would provide a better spring.
            If I were jumping hoops, that is. In my compassion toward the salesman, I scoured my brain to give him something to work with. “I’m planning to ride a bike.” Well, I used to, and they say I’d never forget.
            He handed me a single shoe with Day-Glo strips at the back and sides. Like a chef waiting to hear praise of his Banana Flambée, he watched me with eager eyes. Not knowing what to do with the shoe balanced in my hand—sniffing it as I did in the car seemed awkward—I weighed it in my palm. “It’s heavy,” I said.
            He pointed at the strips. “Reflectors. Good for riding after dusk.”
            “I need a pair that would be nothing special, you know, for everything.”
            It was no use. I would have to throw my own lot with good faith. I yanked a shoe off the wall. It had no mesh, or bubbles, or caves, or glow-in-the-dark features. The heel did not extend out. The gentle-looking sole would allow some toe-pointing. The stitching was a bit fancy, and purple-and-yellow combination was not my favorite color scheme, but this simple Neanderthal model, from times before shoe technology had become a university degree, seemed right. “What about these? How much?”
            “A hundred and twenty dollars.”
            I left the store sneakerless. At least I have a car and a computer.
              Author Talia Carner's next novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, (HarperCollins, 2011.) Please check my website at

Sunday, April 29, 2012

My mother, Reviva Yoffe (Lederberg), 1924-2012

Rivka. Riva. Reviva.
            Three versions of her name, each reflecting the progress my mother made in her rich, events-filled, and creative life. She never stood still; there was always a development to the next stage. 
            You’ve all known my mother as an artist whose tiny brushes created magnificent concerts of colors, shapes, emotions and movements in paintings that often jumped at the viewer with stories crying to be told. She’s sold literary thousands of paintings in her life. She remembered each one of them as one remembers each child.
            But most people may not know that my mother’s life’s adventures began when, right out of high school, she was recruited into the first graduating class of Wingate Institute! There, she was trained not only as a gym teacher, but also as a Haganah commander. The latter included Kapap—krav panim el panim—and crossing a zip line over a wadi. Years later, when my family was a member of the Country Club, she still performed headstands on a high beam.
            When economic necessity and fashion conjoint in the 1950s, she wove hundreds of straw handbags and hats in one summer, making them the latest fashion in Tel-Aviv—the first manifestation of her artistic talent and incredible innate marketing savvy.

            At her time, the only acceptable office position for a woman was to be a secretary. Yet her efficiency and cut-to-the-chase approach vaulted her to become the de facto manager of a branch of Shell Oil and Appliances. Several years later, with entrepreneurial spirit, she left her job to open a collection agency for this same former employer. The Tel-Aviv courthouse became my mother’s oyster. She knew her way around dark, long corridors and dusty filerooms. Everyone, from judges to file clerks, was her friend. In the evenings, she handed papers for my attorney father to sign. 
            Some time in between those early careers, my mother and I went through a horrific trauma that sealed our bond and brought out my mother’s hidden talent as a detective: During her divorce from my biological father, he kidnapped me and my sister Odelia and hid us for a very long time. With resourcefulness and courage my mother scouted Israel from north to south, checking every second-grade classroom—until she found me. For the rest of her life my mother pursued detective work to face adversity. Street-smart, she was unafraid to take on the president of a bank who had made a mistake but refused to correct it, or to challenge the DMV for a speeding ticket was wrongfully attributed to my sister.
            She was strong and courageous, and was undeterred by either closed doors or bureaucracy or high fences hiding the leaves of a mulberry tree that provided nourishment to her growing colony of silk worms.
            When most Tel-Aviv apartments were painted beige or drab gray, my mother had our walls in Rothschild Blvd. painted in  bright red, pulsating blue, and lemon yellow.
            She was vain and sensuous when she danced around the house wearing wide, billowing skirts. She loved flowers, especially tulips, and in my youth took me on long nature walks to admire them, never forgetting the crickets or the frogs. A good story-teller, over a lifetime she regaled me with stories of her youth until our last days and hours together.
            My mother was unlike any woman I knew, her presence strong and ever-lasting. Luckily, what will remain for future generations are her many paintings to testify to the vibrant, resourceful, intelligent, engaging, and life-affirming woman that she had been.
            I was blessed to be the daughter of a multi-talented and energetic Riva.

Reviva Yoffe, 2002 


Saturday, April 21, 2012


On a highway, Israelis stop their cars and stand next to them in honor of the fallen soldiers in its many wars for survival

          Ernest Hemingway said that each person is a product of the landscape of both his native land and his adoptive land.
          I feel the power of the statement as I glance at the car-clock and register that it is almost eleven o'clock. I squeeze my rented Mazda into a parking space in front of a beauty parlor when the melancholic music playing on the national radio since yesterday’s evening is abruptly cut. A siren pierces the Tel-Aviv skies. A long, sharp, straight B Minor shrill joins the echo of dozens of others, and together they weave a thick, pulsating blanket that holds the city in its demanding urgency.
          The signal for the moment of silence in honor of the men and women killed in the battles of Israel marks Memorial Day.
          My car is still lopsided against the sidewalk like a novocained grin. I fling the door open and jump out and stand at attention. As if in a surreal Medieval fable, I am reminded of the sleep curse cast upon a kingdom, where the citizens all fall asleep at the same instant, wherever they are: at the cooking pot, on the milking bench, by the water well.
          Across the street in the schoolyard, a group of soccer players is frozen into stillness as the ball continues its slow roll. The boys' expressions are solemn. No snickering, no sneak elbowing. Up and down the street, cars have stopped. Their owners are standing still outside the open doors. Through the beauty shop window I see the hairdresser standing erect. Two customers have ejected themselves from the bubbles of hair dryers and are glued to the spots where their feet have landed.
          Strangers to one another, we stand united by the images floating on the projection screens of our minds. We see fresh faces, taut bodies, eager eyes, optimistic smiles--men who are no longer with us. Carved in time, the dead remain forever young.
          I lower my head and allow a wave of sorrow for the soldiers I once knew to wash over me. Amiram, my high school classmate, with a mischievous grin, was fearless. The first to go, he was my first devastating loss, and got more tears than I had imagined my eyes could store. Asher will forever remain the tall, blond, and freckled fifteen-year-old I was in love with, and who, across the classroom, shyly let me know that he shared those feelings. The last time I bumped into him, we were both riding the city bus in military uniform, his a paratrooper officer’s. Asher inquired whether I still had the same boyfriend, and after my nod, rushed off at the next stop. Uri, with laughing green eyes, at twenty-eight loved the theater and, in between piloting warplanes, dove into the lecture halls at the university, accumulating credits in literature. He waited patiently for my improbable marriage to dissolve. When I finally separated, I learned that he had been killed three weeks before.
          The sirens continue to reverberate in the endless, open Memorial Day
sky, where nothing stops their piercing sound. I don't want the moment to pass; I want to stay with the young men who populate my world of "what ifs."
          I look around at the contemporary high-rises with colorful awnings and the artistically paved sidewalks. The gardens in the front yards of the buildings and in the street islands are that of fire: Birds of Paradise encircled by roses in red, orange, pink, and yellow. Yet, the fragrance that reaches my nostrils is soft. Rosemary and lavender.
          The breeze strokes the tree tops, nudging us all back to life. Unlike the citizens of the cursed kingdom who wake up unchanged and instantaneously resume life, the citizens of Israel, although they unfreeze to keep on walking, driving cars, playing ball, and blow-drying hair, will never wake up from the curse of the cutouts left by the disappearance of young lives.
And young lives are continuing to be claimed. The men I once knew and loved are being replaced by the sons of my friends. It never stops, however much we want it to.
          Next week, across the ocean, I will be back at my other land, whose landscape is comforting, undemanding. Its soil never blackmailed me for the blood of such as Amiram, Asher, and Uri. In three weeks, when Memorial Day will be celebrated in my adoptive land, only those whose losses are direct will remember the cemeteries. For the others, the day will be marked by baton-twirling parades, super sales at Macy's, and barbeques at the beaches.

Talia Carner’s recent novel is JERUSALEM MAIDEN. Please check

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Novelist's Hopes

Today I received a request from Chicken Soup for Writers to submit an inspirational, motivational story. Examining some of my old essays about my hopes and aspirations earlier on in my writing career, I came across the piece below. I wrote it in 1999 upon completing PUPPET CHILD and typing the magic words, "THE END."  To my consternation, I realized that my life as an author was just beginning:

Copyright 1999 © Talia Carner

You've cut your wrists and bled all over the keyboard--for five years.
You’ve revised/overhauled the story thirty times. Edited eighty times.
You've sent hundreds of queries to agents.
Clumps of hair are missing from your scalp as rejections pour in. 
The noose of a rope is dangling from the ceiling just in case.
An agent working out of his jail cell (see ACLU v. Justice Department) agrees to represent you.
Your agent locates a Christian publisher in Pittsburgh, specializing in His Word, who says he'll read your manuscript.
The Christian publisher will reconsider your book if you make the protagonist go to church on Sunday and restore her virginity.
You do all that and then some.
You spend $42 at Kinko for each copy and $26 for mailing, round trip (they insist you include a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope.)
Two years go by. Your agent retired on royalties she’d made from other authors.
After sending fifty queries, you manage to get a new agent. You opt for a young, hungry one.
Twenty publishers later ($68 x 20=$1,360 in printing and mailing), your book is sold.
You frame the $1,000 check. (You can afford not to cash it; soon, you'll be a millionaire many times over.)
You accost that famous author at her locker room in the health club (you threaten to yank that towel away) and get a blurb for the back cover of your book.
You throw a party, and buy a gold pair of shoes to go with the champagne.
You purchase 300 copies (the publisher gives you a discount) to mail to reviewers and policy-makers.
You open a web site for all your future fans.

Your local book store buys two copies. Ditto the book store in your mother's town.
Your book is on the shelf! Hurray!
Then you discover it has the expiration date of YOGURT!

Whatever made me think books were forever?

P.S. The heart-wrenching suspense PUPPET CHILD was published in 2002. In the ten years that have passed, I learned that a well-written book that tells a story never told before can make it a decade past the three-week bookstore shelf-life. In fact, PUPPET CHILD was selected in "The Top Ten Best First Novels 2002" ( and then launched a law that became the platform for two State Senatorial candidates. While I’ve published two novels since, PUPPET CHILD is still selling every week—mostly in digital format—and readers have a great reading experience!
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Author Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN—inspired by her grandmother’s untapped artistic genius—is the story of a young woman’s struggle between passion and faith. .

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Heart Father

Yitzhak Yoffe & Talia
[Note: Today, St Patrick's Day, is actually the 21st anniversary of my father's passing. As I light the "yortzeit" candle, I share with you our story.]

          My friend blew out the candles on her birthday cake. She was about to blow the ninth, the good luck one for next year, when someone tapped my shoulder and said that my mother was outside. I wanted to see the last candle blown out, because not blowing the good-luck one was bad luck, but I rushed out. My mother must have found a ride to the village outside Tel-Aviv where, since the divorce last year, I lived with a family that wasn't mine.
          It was a warm Saturday morning, one of those winter days when the woolen plaid pants and bright red sweater—my party outfit until I would outgrow all possible alterations—itched. But in winter you wore wool or caught pneumonia.
          In the bright sun, my mother stood next to a black Rover and a hatted man. She wore a flowing new skirt and was laughing, not like before, when my father had made her cry a lot. I hated him because he beat me if I forgot to brush my teeth. It was so much better not to be frightened any more.
          I buried my face in my mother’s skirt. Everything about her smelled like warm flowers.
          Frogs croaked in the scattered puddles and water holes. If we weren't dressed in our Sabbath best my mother would have suggested we chase the frogs or count their babies.
          I lifted my head. The man with the hat looked at me with interest. His smile created twin crescent-shaped creases that reached his gray eyes. He handed me a wooden box and I thanked him politely. My mother was shopping for a new husband, and I wanted him to know that the deal included a good kid.
          His smile widened. He had the largest, kindest eyes.
          "Open it." He pointed to the box.
          It was filled with an assortment of pencils, coloring pens, an eraser and a pencil-sharpener—each tucked in its own little pocket. No one in school owned a collection like this. And it wasn't even my birthday!
          I hated hugging people. I had to pretend to like hugging my birth father, a man I addressed only by his first name. Yet, wrapping my arms around this stranger's waist was easy. I breathed his lemon after-shave mingled with the smell of mothball in his tweed jacket.
          When I pulled away, he continued to examine my face. "I told your mother I must meet you."
          She giggled. "He had me climb up to the attic to bring down the photo albums."
          I no longer wanted to go back to the birthday party. I sat on the car hood and was careful not to swing my legs and chip the paint. I must have been difficult to talk to because in those post-divorce months I stuttered. I also wet my bed and had low grades in school.
          From across the field, the muffled hum of cars and trucks on the Tel-Aviv-Haifa Road reached us. It did not drown the calm, rich voice of this man who addressed me as though I were an adult. We started talking, and it was years before we stopped. He knew a lot of interesting things, like how Coca Cola was concocted by a pharmacist, and how a pearl was created inside an oyster. And I had lots of questions to ask.
          How could my mother resist this man's proposal of marriage? This forty-year-old bachelor must have fallen in love with her, but I was certain he wanted me for a daughter. He was a genie who popped into my life to save me.
          It was common knowledge that genies masked themselves as ordinary humans, so it was no surprise that mine was disguised as a Dad. But he was the real thing, I was certain, with baby blue chiffon dress and a magic wand with sparkling stars twittering around its top. It was all a matter of catching my genie at a moment she'd be dropping her guard. So I began spying on my new father during my weekend visits in their new home. I peeked at him in his sleep, spied on him when he got the morning paper, watched him while he sorted his stamp collection, and stood riveted while he clipped his toenails. All I caught was an ordinary man with eyes bathed in love.
          I wanted to come home. Permanently, not wait until the end of the school year.
          "Only four months," my mother said. "By then, your room will be ready."
          After the tenant evacuated the extra bedroom in my new father’s apartment, it was painted in every shade of pastel. The historical Tel-Aviv building was located on a divided, wide boulevard, shaded by huge sycamore trees bent with age and disease and flanked by two thoroughfares in which five bus lines made noise and puffed clouds of gray gas. The place looked cheerless and dark in the unrelenting rain the first time I went to visit. But I didn't care. It was home and that was where I wished to be. Summer was too far away.
          One day after school, instead of taking the bus back to the family that gave me food and shelter, I climbed onto the bus heading in the other direction. I had saved my allowance to pay for the ticket. It did not occur to me to be afraid; I was going to see my new father at his law office.
          Tel-Aviv central station was a ten-block area crammed with shops, warehouses and small factories. The streets teemed with buses, vendors' carts, beggars and shoppers—many people to ask for directions. I began to walk. I did not get lost, and some hours after I had left school, my father's secretary showed me in.
          I fell into his arms. "I want to stay with you," I sobbed.
          He did not scold me. Nor did he tell me that the police had been searching for me. Not until years later did he reveal that he had sat at his desk, staring at the phone, waiting for news of me.
          Instead, he took my hand. "Let's go home. Don't you want to see Mommy?"
          "She'll send me back. Will you talk to her?"
          He nodded. We became one front.
          One evening, several months after I had moved in, I hung about in the living room, observing my father on a ladder as he changed light bulbs in the chandelier. It was a chance to peek under the hem of his gabardine pants. Maybe this time I'd see the genie’s ballerina legs.
          I gathered the courage to say the magic word. "May I call you 'Daddy’?” I finally blurted.
          "Of course." From his height, his face lit up with an inner glow. "You're my daughter, aren't you?"
          "Abba." I rolled the word off my tongue. "Daddy." Then I skipped around his ladder, letting this sweet word scatter all around us, like marbles. "Abba. Abba. Abba." A genie could be anything she wanted to be. Even a Daddy.
          We developed little rituals, ours alone. In the mornings we walked together—I to my new school and he to his office. When we parted in the corner closest to school, I kissed him good-bye, hoping other kids would notice. In the evenings, he tucked me in bed and sat down for our "Question Corner." I loved listening to his rich, educated language when he told me how, as a child in Leningrad, his mother had bought him one section of an orange for his birthday. I loved hearing how his two older sisters got rid of their pestering baby brother by kissing him until he escaped. Were there families where people kissed instead of yelled?
          I stopped stuttering and I no longer wet my bed. Even though the city school was more demanding than the rural one I had left, I soon climbed close to the top of my class. My father rarely praised my high grades—he had expected nothing less, and soon, neither did I.
          My sister—his first natural child—was born when I was fourteen. He must have been delighted, but by then I was oblivious to my home life. Boys, the telephone, and Elvis Presley vied for my attention. Yet, my father and I continued our "Question Corner" with talks about distant planets or the unique pregnancy of the male seahorse.
          That was the time he showed me his poetry notebooks—two full volumes he had written when he had been young. The poems, in his small, neat handwriting, were beautiful, and he let me keep the notebooks for a while.
          I was sixteen when he tried to adopt me, but my birth father whom I rarely saw, refused to sign the papers.
          "Bureaucracy," my heart father said. "It doesn't matter."
          "It matters to me." Forever I cringe when asked for my maiden name. I lie.
          It’s decades later. My sister hands me a piece of paper. Section, lot, aisle, row, and finally, a grave number.
          The marble slab squeezed between thousands of similar impersonal ones, represents the small, unimportant life people live—except when they figure as large as my father had in mine. I am about to place the flowers on the white stone, when I know that this is not the place to mourn him.
          I drive to the prosperous suburb, once a village, where decades ago I left a classmate’s birthday party. The eight-lane highway has long claimed the field where I once sat on the hood of the Rover.
          It is here, in the second lane of the highway, at the spot where my little legs in itchy wool pants tried not to swing while talking to the hatted man with kind, gray eyes, that I raise my arm to spread the flowers. With trucks and cars speeding by, the grave for my memories of my father, for our shared life, lies under the asphalt.
# # #

Author Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN— inspired by her grandmother’s untapped artistic genius—is the story of a young woman’s struggle between passion and faith. .

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Unorthodox," a memoir by Deborah Feldman

An examination of an insular world is best described by an insider--especially one who's never felt she belonged in this world, yet was pinned to its dogmas and unbending religious fanaticism.

Deborah Feldman's difficult upbringing was clouded and severely compromised by the absence of her parents: Her borderline mentally disabled father had been matched to marry an impoverished yet intelligent teenager from a distant community, who took off shortly after Deborah was born to fend for herself and to get education and a life. As a result, the young Deborah was abandoned into the care of her grandparents, loving but bound to austerity both by religious norms and personal histories as Holocaust survivors.

What should have amazed me (but didn't) when reading Deborah Feldman's "Unorthodox," was how little had changed in that world set in Brooklyn, NY, from 100 years ago in a similar ultra-Orthodox society in Jerusalem, yet how much had.... In my research into the lives of women in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire rule of the Holy Land, I found women living in a highly restrictive Jewish religious society marked on the outside by its adherence to exaggerately modest clothing (and head-shaving for married women,) and subject to decrees, rules, male-dominant religious hierarchy and strict social expectations that forced the public into every private domain. Then and now, every transgression was watched closely by others, and manifestations of individuality cut at the bud. The difference was that in Jerusalem of the time, women suffered the lack of personal freedoms underpinned by shortages, plagues and pestilence with more stoic acceptance--even spiritual exuberance--because they had a mission: suffering and "building a home" in the holy city helped hasten the messiah's arrival and thus bring salvation to world Jewry. Not so in Feldman's milieu in the Satmar community in Brooklyn, just within sight of the Manhattan skyline. There was no apparent spiritual foundation to justify the imposition of extreme strict norms of conduct and of education that was no more than indoctrination to further stave off outside influences. At least it was not apparent to Feldman, nor instilled in girls and women relegated to the back of the synagogue and (then and now) excluded from active participation in religious services.

A free spirit, open-minded, intelligent Deborah suffered both from low social standing as a result of her dubious parentage and from emotional detachment that often accompanies parentless children. In the close-knit society of a few city blocks, she forever felt as an outcast. Her grandparents fed her well and clothed her in hand-me downs from her cousins, and loved her in their own distracted ways. And unlike the ceaseless labor often imposed on girls in large Satmar families, the grandparents made little physical demands of Deborah: her help in her grandmother's housecleaning and long days in the kitchen seemed more voluntary rather than forced. Society's total control came into young Deborah's life in the form of an aunt who made all important life decisions for her, control that baffled the young Deborah, yet was understandable in the absence of parents, the aunt's qualifications as the principal of the local girls' school, and the need to help the grandparents handle the unexpected gift of raising a grandchild long after their own children had left home. The glaring problem in this aunt-niece relationship was the fact that the aunt never became a parent figure, and the short time little Deborah had lived in her home among her cousins was a miserable experience for the girl. While the aunt didn't seem resentful of the added responsibility, the young Deborah hated the woman's ever-present authority that made no allowance for the girl's wants and individuality.

I had learned in my research that in old Jerusalem, where there was no running water, sanitation or electricity, girls were kept illiterate, which further isolated the already insular Jewish females so they could be married off soon after puberty. In the Satmar community one-hundred years later, though, all girls were educated--albeit in truncated programs that shunned English and offered a stilted religious world view via distorted facts (e.g., the Satmar believe that Jews should not create their own state until the messiah's arrival, and therefore object to Israel's existence.) Luckily for Deborah, there were public libraries available, and when she dared explore the world beyond her street, it was only a few subway stops from Manhattan.

Those freedoms took enormous courage, yet were available within a stone-throw away. If we stop to consider hundreds of million of women living today in Muslim societies that oppress and subjugate them in the name of religion, the hopelessness of their situations is evident as schools, accessible public libraries, piped music at discount clothing stores, subways where women need not be chaperoned by men, and colleges that offer scholarships are simply not available.

Once married at seventeen, Ms. Feldman learned to drive, owned a car, and in time, was able to enroll in college. As horrifically we view the notion of being married off as a teenager to a man she had met only once pre-engagement, and stepping into a marriage that turned out to be doomed by incompatibility, at the beginning the new bride embraced it all. She loved her new status, the adulation she was receiving during the engagement period, and the shower of new clothes, household gifts and furniture when her parsimonious grandfather's purse suddenly opened. Most importantly, marriage offered Deborah the chance to move away with her husband to a suburb where other young Orthodox families breathed a more relaxed atmosphere and Deborah enjoyed the loosening of the community's tight hold on her soul. When she decided to enroll in college, the question of child care of her baby never seems to come up as a problem.

At the end, it seemed that Deborah was never truly religious. She never fully bought into the doctrine and practices embraced by many other Satmars. Eventually, she found her comfort zone in secular Jewish living. This is not a fact her former community seems willing to accept as glimpsed by the vicious attacks on her. It is sad--and expected--that the one who self-expelled from the bonds of fanaticism would be considered a traitor by those who had shown her little compassion when she was living in their midst. There is never room for individual wants or personal freedoms within a fundamentalist religious society that reveres itself exactly for being what it is.

Author Talia Carner's latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, is set in the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire rule of the Holy Land.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"Empty Chairs" --A short story for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year's theme is the millions of CHILDREN murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. These children did not just perish due to hunger or natural disasters, but as a result of cruel and deliberate acts of killing!

I was ten years old when my mother was the class mother on a one-day trip to Jerusalem and Dora got her first period.

My mom didn’t tell me. Dora did, a couple of days later, assuming that my mom had. In the separate building that housed the school lavatory, Dora also wanted to show me her new special belt that held the pad, which she was supposed to wash every day. The whole thing was just too gross. I fled.

Throughout the next two years, weird and mysterious things were happening around Dora. Not awesome, but rather repulsive, like the curious importance she gave the gigantic mounds that filled the front of her dress, and her seeking the boys’ attention, which I so dreaded.

The boys' after-school hangout had shifted from the schoolyard to the front of Dora's apartment building, where the branches of an aged, massive sycamore allowed them to climb up closer to Dora’s perch on the third floor. On my daily trek with Sarah, Bella and Debbie to the private library off Allenby Street, where, for a monthly fee, we took out three books each day, we would spot Dora at her window. Her pretty face with warm brown eyes was framed by light brown curls, and she smiled easily even without a good reason. If the boys weren't around, Dora walked with us to the library although she rarely even read the one book a week from the school library while the four of us would often finish a book on our walk back home.

For a long time, Dora wasn't even the subject of discussion among us four. Whatever was taking place around her dwelled in the periphery of my consciousness, but had I been interested, I wouldn’t have known what questions to ask. My three friends had begun to bud, and Debbie's mother badgered her not to stoop and to let her buy her a bra. We had perused the drawings in the midwifing book my grandmother had brought from Russia in 1920 and had been horrified to discover what we really had “down there.” Yet none of it had anything to do with the way Dora pushed out her large breasts or with the boys, all a head shorter than she, acting crazy, punching and hitting one another just to show off, but looking like idiots.

In fifth grade, on the nurse's day off, I tore a ligament in my ankle. I sat in class, whimpering until the teacher could no longer ignore it and sent Dora with me to the Red Star of David emergency room. I couldn’t hobble the four blocks, so Dora carried me on her back. After the doctor bandaged my leg and ordered home rest, she carried me uphill on Mazeh Street all the way home. Her sweat was tangy and full-bodied, like an adult’s.

A couple of weeks later, when she invited me to come to her home to play, I couldn’t refuse. It would have been rotten of me.

Dora's mother had blue numbers tattooed on her forearm. She was a handsome woman, older than everyone else's mom, her hair coiffed, her yellow dress tailored, and she smelled clean in the heat of summer. She was so different from my Israeli-born mom who, like me, wore her dark hair in a waist-long braid, walked around in blue shorts and Biblical sandals, and who favored industrial soap for our bedtime shower.

Dora’s mother said something in German to Dora, and Dora led me to their dining room. Their furniture--heavy, dark, and smelling of lemon and wax--was the kind salvaged from Europe. The inlaid-wood table was so shiny that I could see my reflection in it. Dora's mother gave us cloth napkins trimmed in lace and served us tea in a silver set and home-baked butter cookies that were the best I had ever tasted.

After her mother had left the room, Dora pointed to the corpulent buffet, made of the same shiny, grainy wood as the dining table. Above it hung a framed beveled mirror. On top of the buffet were two framed photographs, one of a woman with a boy and a girl, and one of a man with a younger set of a boy and a girl. Although the boys in both pictures wore knee-long dark pants held up with suspenders and their hair was plastered to their foreheads as if still wet, they weren't the same boy. The older girl was blonde. The younger one was just a toddler, with a huge bow on top of her brown hair. Her pretty eyes looking into the camera reminded me of Dora's.

“My parents' families before the war,” Dora whispered.

My stomach lurched as it caught the implication. I had seen photographs of Jews being rounded up, of cattle cars, of barbed wire, of gas chambers. Bella's dad from Poland and Debbie's mom from Rumania had lived through the Holocaust. But the photos they had in their homes were of young people and grown ups, not of little kids.

Dora went on. “Then my parents met and made me. To make up for the kids they’d lost.”

I busied myself with the tea. I thought it wasn’t polite to keep staring at the dead children.

We moved to Dora’s corner room, which had large windows and was filled with dolls dressed in real clothes. An armoire had as many board games as a store. The pink bedspread matched the curtains. As I explored Dora’s treasures, I couldn't take my mind off her four siblings. Dead brothers and sisters she had never met. I thought it must be very sad to live in this home. I tried to imagine that my sister had been born before me and had been gassed or hurled against a wall, her scalp smashed. It made me want to cry.

Otherwise, the whole afternoon was a drag. I beat Dora easily in the board games. We practiced our flute lessons, and she was okay, but got bored. When playing with dolls, she agreed too quickly with my plots, never offering a new idea. Dora was so unlike Sarah, Bella, and Debbie with whom I could stage plays and then serialize them for weeks. It was like playing alone, so I finally just ignored her as she sat cross-legged on her bed and watched me dress and undress her dolls while I made up stories.

The boys' interest in Dora climbed up a notch when she started showing them her bra. One by one, she took them behind the lavatory. I knew about it because she told me and once even asked whether I, too, wanted to see it. I was incredulous at her stupidity. I didn't want to laugh at her because of her dead siblings and how sad it was to have to make up for their loss, but neither did I want to have anything to do with her.

In March, when she turned twelve, her mother sent pretty hand-written invitations to her Bat-Mitzvah the following Tuesday. It was to be a small dinner for Dora's “best friends.”

Tuesday was a school day, but since it was the day when, during Creation, God had said twice that the day had been “good,” it was all right to have a party. But I was mortified to be considered among Dora's best friends. Sarah, Bella, or Debbie surely weren’t her friends; they no longer allowed Dora to walk with us to the library, because the boys would follow and taunt us. Besides, there was something contaminating about associating with Dora. People might think that I, too, was the kind of girl who showed the boys my bra—or would do so when I needed one, that is. I had discovered that the females in my family all wore “falsies.” With the twin almonds I was growing, I wasn’t about to break this tradition.

I wondered who were the other girls who had been invited to Dora’s party. Probably the ones living behind Dora’s building in the next block, which was zoned for the other neighborhood school. I wished I hadn't been invited. Unlike Sarah, Bella and Debbie, who thought boys were disgusting, these other girls might think I was Dora’s friend. That I was like her.

But after the trip on her back to the emergency room, I couldn’t refuse the invitation. I thought about those butter cookies.

My mom gave me money to buy a set of handkerchiefs folded in a flat cardboard box under clear plastic. I drew a picture of Dora carrying me on her back. I rhymed birthday wishes that all her dreams would come true so she wouldn’t be blue. I starched and ironed my mint-colored organza dress with the black velvet bow. Along with my patent leather Mary-Jane shoes and white socks, no one would think I wore a bra or had dirty pads. No one would think that I took boys behind the lavatory to show them anything.

Dora was dressed in a red Tyrolean dress, the section below her chest crisscrossed with a thin cord. The cloth of a white blouse underneath was gathered over her cleavage and was embarrassingly stretched wide over her ample breasts. Below the full, embroidered skirt, the one-inch heels did nothing to make Dora look taller than wider.

I felt like a fraud as I handed her the present and nodded politely to her mother. I wanted to find the opportunity to explain that this was a mistake because I wasn’t Dora's “best friend,” or even “a friend.” But then I glimpsed the dining room and felt as if I had stepped into a fairy tale.

The table was open to its full length and covered with a white tablecloth. It was set with silver candelabras and silver finger bowls and silver napkin holders and multiples of silver forks, knives and spoons. There was a bouquet of red roses in the center. The first course was already waiting in each of the plates, half a grapefruit sectioned and topped with a cherry. On a teacart, crystal glasses of lemonade with mint leaves were ready. Another flower arrangement sat on the buffet, where silver serving platters awaited the food. The smells coming from the kitchen were foreign and delicious and made saliva gather in my mouth.

The pictures of the dead children remained in their spots, untouched, old-world with their foreign clothes and hair, the sepia-color pinning them to those bad times less than twenty years earlier, when the Nazis exterminated Jews like cockroaches.

Dora's father, a big man with a broad face and neat wisps of white hair and kind brown eyes like Dora's, was meticulous in his movements as he placed the needle of a gramophone on the record. Classical notes poured into the room, the kind that old people went to listen at concerts, the kind I heard on neighbors’ late-night radio.

I tugged at the black velvet bow of my dress. Dora's mother gave me a glass of lemonade and invited me to sit down on the sofa in the adjacent living room. For the occasion, the two double doors were opened to combine the two rooms into one. I obeyed, and Dora came to sit next to me. We didn’t speak. Her father said something in German, and she replied, her tone polite like to a teacher, so unlike the easy tone I used at home. I sipped my lemonade while examining a glass cabinet that contained magnificent porcelain figurines. Their faces were angelic, with tiny, pointed noses, their hands graceful, the tilts of their necks delicate. I was awed by the beautiful, flowing dresses with porcelain lace petticoats. Princes with rapture in their eyes wooed the princesses, kneeling or striking princely poses. I put down my empty glass on the coaster, rose up, and stood fixated in front of the display.

“This princess strolls out to the woods, following the enchanting sound of gurgling water,” I said, pointing at two of the figures.

“There’s no woods.’

“Pretend woods,” I said, and went on. “She's sitting by the spring and she doesn't know that the shepherd in the clearing is really a cursed prince. When the wizard who hates him will try to cast a spell on the princess, this dog will bark to alert the prince, and the prince will draw his sword and fight the wizard—”

“And the dog will pee on her shoes,” Dora added.

I was mortified. I couldn’t bear the thought of ruining that delicate stroke of muted red on the tiny feet. “No. These are satin shoes,” I said with exasperation.

What was the use? Standing quietly, filled with rapture, I went on weaving new stories in my head, the music filling the room blending them into wonderful pictures.

I forgot about Dora until she spoke behind me. “Maybe no one will come.”

I turned, and my first thought was that I was the only one stupid enough to come to her party. Then I felt anger about the way Dora had brought it all upon herself and how she now involved me. But then I saw the tears in her eyes and felt bad. I felt pity for this big girl who towered over me but who wanted to be my friend. Pity for this girl whose life both at home and at school I couldn’t comprehend. I wanted to ask about the girls who went to the other school and were supposed to be here, but I wasn’t sure if I should.

“Are Sarah, Bella, and Debbie coming?” Dora asked me.

I swallowed. “I didn't know you invited them.”

Dora kept looking down at me, her gaze pleading. I felt so small, so uncomfortable with the power she handed me. I shrugged and kept my shoulders high up in a gesture of helplessness. I wished I could just leave.

The record had ended for the third or fourth time. Dora’s father changed it once more. Her mother peeked out the window again and again. They spoke in German. She gave me another glass of lemonade. Her skin was as translucent as the figurines’, and I realized that I had never before met anyone who had escaped the Israeli sun. We waited.

Dora began to cry, a soft, silent weeping. Her father stroked her hair. Her mother's lips tightened into a line as she stepped into the kitchen and closed the door. With all that lemonade in me, I wanted to pee badly, but dared not move. Dora went on weeping.

Finally, her mother came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with steaming food. Dora's father lit the candles in the candelabra. I sat down in the dining room, Dora’s parents at both ends, Dora and me facing each other at the center. On either side, three chairs separated Dora's parents and us. Twelve girls who hadn't shown up.

The four dead children looked straight at me. Grave, foreign children. Murdered by the Nazis. I wished I had thought of grabbing Dora’s seat first. She had known to avoid looking at them.

I examined all those utensils and wondered which one to pick first. My friends and I had read a manners book for when we would be invited to dine at a palace. We practiced with whatever was left from the set my father had inherited from his mother and which my mom hated because it was stupid to polish silver when we had stainless steel. Now I forgot everything the book had said except that it was very important not to make a mistake, so I watched Dora lift the outside fork and hold it in her left hand as she ate the grapefruit. I did the same, although it was difficult to eat with my left.

My bladder could hold no more. My face hot, I excused myself and went to the bathroom, certain that it was impolite and now they were talking about me in German. I wished that at least one other girl had come. But when I returned to the table, Dora’s mother was bringing more food from the kitchen and she smiled at me kindly.

The other dishes tasted as good as they smelled. I ate everything Dora's mother put on my plate, making sure to thank her each time, to dab my mouth with the lacy cloth napkin in between bites. I wanted to be good, to make up for the absence of the twelve others, to make up for the sorrow of the four dead children.

The last record Dora's father had changed ended. This time he didn't get up. The record went on turning, obedient in its soft, rhythmic hum, but the needle whimpered. The scratching gave me goose bumps. No one moved to do anything about it. I hugged myself and rubbed the skin of my arms. The twelve empty chairs and the untouched place settings gaped at me. Suddenly, Dora's father dropped his face in his hands. Dora’s mother said something, but he only shook his head. There was some strange trembling to his shoulders. Dora's mother bit her lips, her face contorted. I lowered my gaze into my fingers, not knowing where else to look. Then there was this odd sound in the room, like a choked moan, and I looked up to see Dora’s mother rush back into the kitchen.

I shifted in my seat. The four dead children in the photographs were silent. I wondered how old the oldest had been when they killed him. I was sorry that Dora was not the kind of child who could make up for the loss. She was a woman in a Tyrolean girl’s dress. At least her parents didn’t know what she did with the boys.

Dora’s father still didn’t move. His scalp between wisps of white hair shone. A guttural croak tore out of him. My first introduction to unbearable grief bore down on me. I wanted to cry with them, but I had no right since the Nazis hadn’t killed anyone in my family.

Dora just looked down, her fingers twisting and knotting the napkin in her lap.

For a split second I wanted to offer myself to them as their child. It was a stupid idea. I slid off my chair. My throat was constricted. “Thank you very much. The food was delicious,” I managed to say, even though I was leaving before dessert, before the birthday cake, possibly losing out on those butter cookies.

Neither one answered. I didn’t knock on the kitchen door to say good-bye to Dora’s mother before I left, although it was impolite not to thank the hostess.

Dora’s family—the dead and the living—walked with me all the way home.

EMPTY CHAIRS was published in Midstream, April 2002 and in Lynx Eye, September 2002, and was selected for THE BEST JEWISH WRITING 2002, John Wiley & Son, (published in Fall 2003 and received a special mention in the Jerusalem Post, 2004)

For more short stories, essays and articles by novelist Talia Carner, please check

Update 20015: Following the interest in this story, I wrote the novel HOTEL MOSCOW, (HarperCollins 2015,) featuring a protagonist who is a Second-Generation daughter of Holocaust survivors, but who tries to get away from this legacy. Only when she travels to Russia shortly after the fall of communism and faces anti-Semitism does she come to grips with it.