Dani Shapiro
September 1, 2013

Evil Tongue


1. According to the Talmud, only three sins in Jewish law are so serious they are forbidden under any circumstances, even to save a life. These are murder, idol worship, and adultery. But in many interpretations, there is a fourth sin, equal to, if not worse than, these: lashon hara—literally, “evil tongue.” It is said of one who is guilty of lashon hara that God declares, “He and I cannot exist in the same world.”

2. Here are notes I keep in the back of my old-fashioned Filofax. They are scribbled in an unlikely bright neon pink, in handwriting that looks youthful, moving across the page in buoyantly large loops. I wrote them fifteen years ago, while on the phone with my mother’s therapist. Olga. I underlined the name twice at the top of the page, as if to express my disbelief that my mother’s therapist was calling me. I read it in one sitting. Gripping, wonderful. I don’t think there’s anything in there to upset your mother. I think you were not unkind to her. Not at all. In fact, I think you were generous.

3. Olga was a therapist well known for her work with families. She’s probably dead now. She was old, even then. I’ll have to look her up. It feels suddenly important to know if she’s still out there. Olga had a thick Hungarian accent, and when she said the word generous, it sounded rich, mellifluous, comforting. If my mother’s therapist was calling to tell me that my memoir—one I had sneaked to her, in galleys, so that she could prepare my mother for its imminent arrival in bookstores—was not unkind, was in fact generous, not to mention gripping and wonderful, I should take her word for it. Shouldn’t I?

4. In Memoriam. It’s the second listing that comes up in a Google search of Olga’s name. She died last year.

5. Olga, even Olga, who is peripheral to this story, a secondary character, and not one who haunts me, is completely identifiable here. If you type Olga and family therapist into any search engine, there she’ll be. The unusual first name. The Hungarian origins. The vaunted reputation in her field. You might come across a video clip in which she described her process as “intuitive,” that she believed “the less intervention the better,” and that “people should be in charge of their own lives.” In truth, I don’t think Olga was a good therapist. She was way off-base in her assessment of my mother, who was not a mildly depressed and self-absorbed housewife, one of the “worried well,” but rather, had a borderline personality disorder with narcissistic features, which any therapist will tell you is just about the most difficult kind of patient to treat.

Olga was also wrong about my memoir, which, though not cruel, was neither kind nor generous toward my mother. Nor was she remotely on target in her prediction of my mother’s response upon reading it. Olga: “I think she’ll be fine with it.” My mother: “You’ve ruined my life.”

Does my characterization of Olga constitute lashon hara? Would it be more or less so if she were still among us? And have you noticed that I just gave my mother a very unflattering diagnosis? Narcissistic. Borderline. Who am I? Who the hell am I? The daughter. The writer. The one who remains to tell the tale. If she could, my mother would rise from her own grave to tell you these pages are full of lies. I can feel her all around me as I write, the air in my study electric with her silent protest. But in fact, I’m trying to tell the truth here. My version of it, anyway. Trying to tell the truth used to feel like enough.

6. “You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people.” Leviticus 19:16. The Hebrew word for “tale-bearer” is rakhil, which has its roots in a word meaning trader or merchant. And when it comes to lashon hara, this bearing of tales is not confined, as you might think, to slander or defamation of character. Truth, lies—it makes no difference. The Talmud tells us that the tongue itself is so dangerous that it must be hidden away behind the protective chamber of the mouth and the teeth, so that it will do no harm.

7. My mother has been dead eight years. My father has been dead twenty-five, more than half my life. There are stories buried with each of them, stories that I can’t leave alone. Like a grave-robber, I dig for the bones. Who were my parents? What worlds existed inside them? It’s not just simply that I want to know. Or rather, the act of knowing itself is not enough. I assemble the pieces, I fill in the missing ones. I research, extract, remember, imagine. The closest I can ever get to them is by writing. When my pen moves across the page, I am building an edifice, a structure where, before, there was only dust. I am erecting a monument of words, trying to breathe life back into the people I have lost.

8. Rav Yisrael Meir HaKohen—known as the Chafetz Chaim—was a sage considered by Orthodox Jews to be among the thirty-six saints who saved the world. He made a lifelong study of lashon hara, in which he expanded on the idea that death and life are in the power of the tongue. He believed that a pure and sacred tongue—the gift of responsible speech—can elevate the soul, and an irresponsible, wagging tongue can drag a person down to the lowest depths.

9. A few years ago, I received an e-mail from a man I didn’t know. He had read my memoir. He had been a close friend of my uncle’s and had known my father. He had a story to tell me, a painful, difficult story, he said. He described it as the most shocking thing he’d ever witnessed. Did I want to hear it?

10. The Talmud teaches that “a man should always incite the Good Inclination to battle the evil one” (Berachot 8). According to the Chafetz Chaim, this means that we must always be at war against the Evil Inclination. The Evil Inclination will convince a person that as long as she’s telling the truth, it’s OK. Perhaps someone deserves to be spoken of maliciously. Maybe it’s even a mitzvah to reveal a person’s misdeeds. But this is lashon hara in its most devious form.

11. Did I want to hear it? Did I? My fingers flew over the keyboard in response. Of course, I wrote to the gentleman who had appeared in my inbox, an emissary from the world of the dead, I always long to know more about my father. Please, tell me more.

12. The story, the man told me, began in 1962, the year I was born, when my father and his younger brother set out to open a brokerage firm together. My father owned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, which my grandfather had loaned him the money to buy. They weren’t kids, my father and my uncle. My father would have been forty-one, my uncle a few years younger. My uncle, Harvey, found a third partner to join them, a man named Schiffman. The firm was to be called Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman. They rented office space in the Fabrikant Building on West Forty-Seventh Street in Manhattan, in the Diamond District.

13. I feel compelled here to say: I don’t know Schiffman. I don’t even know if I’m spelling his name correctly. Quite possibly it’s Shiffman, or Shiftman. In all likelihood, Schiffman/Shiffman/Shiftman is dead. My father is dead. My Uncle Harvey is dead. Just recently, I wrote again to the man who sent me the e-mail and haven’t heard back from him. I fear he may be dead too. The Fabrikants are still a well-known name in the Diamond District, and as far as I know, their only connection to this story is that they rented office space to my father and uncle. Has this yet reached proportions of lashon hara?

14. The day before the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was scheduled to ring, announcing the opening of Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman, it was discovered that Schiffman had misrepresented himself and couldn’t come through with the investment he had promised. Word on the street was that he’d been shady in his business dealings. The bell never rang for Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman. The firm was D.O.A. The rented furniture was hauled away from the office building on Forty-Seventh Street, the assistants fired before their first day on the job. And my grandfather summoned my father and uncle to his apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of The Majestic, on Seventy-Second and Central Park West.

15. I never knew my grandfather. He died when I was nine months old. On a wall in my writing study hangs a black-and-white photograph of him, taken when he was in his fifties. He wears a crisp suit and tie, a yarmulke covering most of his bald head. A pince-nez is clipped to the bridge of his formidable nose. He has a cleft in his chin. It’s hard to tell if he’s smiling. His gaze is intense. My grandfather was a figure in his world, which is to say the moneyed, Orthodox Jewish world of Manhattan and its environs, which included Israel. He was a textiles magnate, a self-made millionaire, a philanthropist with political ties, a man of influence. When he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963, the yeshivas in downtown Manhattan and in Brooklyn closed for his funeral. According to a front page obituary in a yellowed, tattered copy of the Jewish Press, the block of East Broadway between Allen and Essex was roped off and loudspeakers were placed outside the synagogue so that the assembled crowds could hear the eulogies by the vice-mayor of Tel Aviv, among others, who compared the loss of my grandfather to all of Jewry to that of a Godel B’Yisroel—one of the greats of Israel.

16. The man accompanied my father and Uncle Harvey, he told me in his e-mail, to the apartment at The Majestic, where my grandfather was waiting for them. He described the grand formal living room with its sweeping view of Central Park, the trees, horses, and carriages, pedestrians reduced to the size of Monopoly pieces. A room I know well. My grandmother had a stroke at my grandfather’s funeral, from which she never recovered, and she lived in that apartment on Central Park West, cared for by two aides, for all the years of my childhood. When I was in college, I used to crash there when I was in the city with my friends, after partying too much.

On the day of the summons, my grandmother stood silently next to my grandfather, who began screaming at his two sons the moment they walked through the door and into the marble foyer. They did not remove their coats, but stood in the entrance to the living room with their hats in their hands. My father was pale. My uncle shook violently. For half an hour, my grandfather tore into them relentlessly in a manner—so said the now-probably-dead man—that was the most vicious display of emotional violence he had ever seen in his life. At the end of it, they turned—my father, my uncle, their friend—and left the apartment without having uttered a word.

17. Recently, at a dentist appointment, my dentist peered into my mouth with great interest. “You have something there called linea alba,” he said. “It’s a white line on either side of your tongue. It’s unusual, but not a cause for concern—you must be biting your tongue in your sleep.”

18. I have kept the yellowed newspaper clippings about my grandfather, the tributes, the letters of praise. The outpouring of sorrow over his death. I have felt, somehow, that being his granddaughter accorded me a certain safety. Unlike my mother’s father, an immigrant chicken farmer who died many years before I was born, my paternal grandfather was someone who had carved a permanent place for himself on the sides of buildings, on plaques in auditoriums. A great man. Everybody said so. The Yiddish word yichus means “pedigree,” “good blood,” or “well born.” But dig deeper, and the more subtle meaning emerges: to have yichus, one must live up to the promise of one’s family’s stature.

19. According to Rabbi Moses M. Yoshor, whose seminal biography of the Chafetz Chaim was first published in Yiddish in 1937, there is a basic principle in medicine that a discolored, unclean tongue is a symptom of some abnormal, disturbed condition of the body—the physical state. This is also true in spiritual dimensions. A tongue that is “discolored” and unclean is an indication that the internal system of the person’s spirit is not functioning properly.

20. Uncle Harvey and his wife divorced when I was thirteen, but she remained in my life, and shortly after hearing the story of Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman from my e-mail interlocutor, I met her for coffee in New York. Ruth is in her late seventies and very hard of hearing. Once we settled into a quiet corner table of a café on the Upper West Side, not far from where my grandparents had lived, I told her about the unexpected e-mail and my discovery of the story I assumed she already knew: the deceit, the closing of the firm before it ever opened, my grandfather’s fury. But when I got to the part about my father and Harvey being summoned to a meeting in my grandparents’ apartment, she stopped me, mystified. Her sound amplifier rested on the table between us, as if it were a translating device. “What meeting? I don’t know anything about a meeting.”

21. When my first memoir (indeed, I have written more than one) was published, an aunt and a few cousins never really spoke to me again. An uncle called to let me know that I had misspelled his third wife’s name and asked if it was possible to insert errata. Many relatives politely averted their gaze, as if having stumbled into an occupied bathroom by mistake. Still others were gracious and unerringly kind. But my mother? As has already been established, Olga, my mother’s therapist, thought my mother would find my book generous and—what was it? Oh, yes. Gripping and wonderful. Olga did not foresee that my memoir would become, for many of the people in my mother’s life, a Cliff’s Notes of sorts. I couldn’t have imagined it myself. Oh, the daughter has written a memoir? Everyone in her world—from her doorman to her accountant—read my book in an attempt to figure her out.

22. A famous Chasidic fable illustrates the gravity of lashon hara: a man went around his village gossiping and telling all manner of stories, with no concern about the impact of his behavior. But in time, he began to realize that his stories had hurt people, and he felt remorseful. He paid a visit to his rabbi, and asked how he could make amends. Take a feather pillow, the rabbi told him, cut it open, and spread the feathers to the wind. Simple enough. The man did as the rabbi bade him. He came back for further instructions. Now, said the rabbi, go out and collect all of the feathers and return them to the pillow. Ashamed, and without even a handful of feathers, the man returned to the rabbi once more. Your words are like feathers, the rabbi told him. Once they leave your mouth, you know not where they will go, and you can never retrieve them again.

23. As I told my aunt the story of the meeting—the screaming old man, the silent sons—her eyes filled with tears. Decades peeled away, as if the layers of a fruit, leaving only the exposed and tender core. I could see the young wife and mother she had been. Her sad, unhappy marriage. Her bitter, contentious divorce. Her fragility and shame. Her four children devastated by the shattering of their home. “That makes sense.” Her voice trembled. “I’ve never understood. But finally it makes sense.” “What?” I asked her. Something powerful was happening. I had no idea what was going on. “That night.” The words tumbled out. “Harvey tried to kill himself that night.”

24. I am a tale-bearer among my people. Rakhil—a trader, a merchant. Would it be fair to say that I’m profiting from this tale? Why the words, the endless stream of words? What if I were to tell you that the pieces of my history are jagged and sharp. Those pieces—left alone—will shred me to bits. What if I were to tell you that in assembling them I am traveling backward through time: my mother is not crazy, my father is not depressed, my aunt isn’t fragile, my uncle not suicidal. My grandfather opens his arms in an embrace of his two sons. Everyone is still alive. The story—if it is a story—always contains within it the chance of another ending.

25. That night was Uncle Harvey’s first suicide attempt, though it wouldn’t be his last. “Harvey was never the same after that,” my e-mail correspondent had written to me. “How different it might have been if his father had, instead, comforted him and offered words of support?” My grandfather never told my Aunt Ruth about the events that had taken place earlier that night. If he considered his role in what happened, he kept it to himself. Instead, he blamed her for her husband’s overpowering despair, and told her she’d better figure out how to be a better wife.

26. My grandfather was the man eulogized as a Godel B’Yisroel. The man who never missed a morning minyan. Who recited from the sefer Tehillim every morning of his life. The man whose death inspired a member of Israel’s Parliament to write, in a letter of condolence to my grandmother, that he was heartbroken and completely bewildered, that generations upon generations would be the beneficiaries of his good deeds. Yet he was the man who so violently berated his sons that it had caused one of them to make an attempt on his own life. The man who did not take responsibility for his own actions. Who allowed a fragile woman to spend most of her life believing her own culpability. He was all these things.

27. “What right do you have?” my mother used to yell at me. “How dare you?” She is here now. They all are. In my writing study, they crowd around me. Their photographs hang askew on the walls. “Tell this,” they say. “Don’t tell that.” Who are you—daughter, granddaughter, niece, cousin, wife, mother, friend, witness, bystander—the one who became the writer, the tale-bearer, the one who lays the pieces on the floor like a mosaic, a puzzle, a path through her own wilderness. The one who gets the last word. Who are you to tell our stories?

28. Yizkor—one of the most sacred prayers in the liturgy—means “to remember.” The Jewish people don’t believe in heaven or hell, but we do believe that our souls live on through memory. He of blessed memory. May his memory be a blessing. This is the language most often used about our dead. So perhaps I should leave this story alone, to exist only as a brief e-mail correspondence between an old man and a writer. After all, my grandfather was a true patriarch, Abraham to a tribe of more than forty great-grandchildren, including my own son. I am telling a tale about a dead man, told to me by a dead man. At the same time, I am holding yellowed clippings, so soft with age that the paper may crumble in my hands. Is it possible that this isn’t lashon hara, but my own form of Yizkor, of honoring the dead?

29. I went to see my dentist again. He peered into my mouth with even greater interest. With a piece of gauze, he held my tongue between his fingers, and pulled. He pressed a small mirrored instrument against the insides of both my cheeks, examining the linea alba. He was silent as he removed the instrument and made a note in my chart. “It’s gotten a bit worse, but don’t worry,” he finally said. “We see all sorts of things on the tongue. We’ll keep an eye on it. You have one of those mouths that needs to be watched.”