Later that night I heard him and my mother arguing about Rabbi Adler’s act. “He did that on purpose,” my father said to my mother, who told him to keep his voice down. It was near the end of the school year, and Rabbi Adler did not return, replaced by other scary, bearded men from nightmare worlds across the sea. But still I think about why my seeing Adler’s number tattoo upset my parents so. What was he showing me, after all, but history, what had happened to people for no other reason than that they were Jewish—Jewish like me, regardless of what the rabbi thought.
I didn’t quite get the gist of my father’s reaction until many years later, after both of my parents were dead, when I went to a funeral for a great-aunt of mine. There were twelve of them in that family, eight boys and four girls. My great-aunt, past 90, was the last of them. I drove out to the cemetery for the funeral, and there they were: the headstones, one for each brother and sister, none on this earth fewer than 60 years. Their parents had bought the one-way ticket to Ellis Island in the nick of time; they’d all gotten out, not one of them had ever been sent to a death camp or had their skin turned into a lampshade by Ilse Koch. It was something to feel good about: their bones planted in the dispassionate earth of the Queens–Nassau County line.
This, I decided, was key to my father’s rage. It wasn’t as if our family was so smart. There were plenty of others way smarter than us, and they had been caught and killed. You couldn’t just call us lucky either. Dad would spend long afternoons playing blackjack in Atlantic City casinos when he was dying of kidney failure and wound up having a heart attack instead. He knew the limits of luck. The reason we had survived to thrive in our wondrous Queens Utopia transcended luck or brains. The way things worked out was beyond any accounting, not to be taken for granted but simply accepted. We were Americans, citizens of the true Promised Land. Someone like Adler had “no business” trying to infect me, the blessed son, with his misfortune.
“You don’t think this is real, do you?” I asked. “There’s only one way to find out,” said the medical examiner.
I appreciate my father for this sentiment, if indeed that was what he was thinking. No doubt, he felt he was looking out for me, saving me from the stain of the victimized past. Except now that the lampshade had arrived in my life, certain existential details could no longer be overlooked.
My first idea was to send it to a friend of a friend who works at the Museum of Natural History. My friend said he was a genius with taxidermy. Certainly he would be able to tell human skin from that of other animals. A few days later, the man called to say he couldn’t help me.
“Look,” he said. “A lot of my relatives were killed in the camps. This isn’t something I need in my life. You understand, right?”
“Yeah, sure.” It wasn’t something you were about to insist on.
I got Shiya Ribowsky’s name from a longtime NYPD detective. I was told Ribowsky worked at the medical examiner’s office, the New York City version of the morgue, was a good guy, and knew what he was talking about. “I’d be very interested to see that,” Ribowsky said when I reached him. He lived in Long Island, but today being Friday, he was in New York. Did I know that synagogue on Gramercy Park? Yes, I said. My dentist is on that block.
“I’m the chazzan there.”
“You’re the cantor? I thought you worked at the M.E.”
“I did work there. But I’ve always been a cantor. I do both.”
“A forensic cantor … That’s a trip.”
“Tell me about it.”
Now 45, but still sporting the boychik good looks to make the Hadassah ladies swoon, Shiya Ribowsky has been saying the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for more than 30 years now, ever since his debut as a boy cantor in the Orthodox synagogue his father had helped found in Flatbush during the seventies. Place this experience alongside his fifteen years in the medical examiner’s office, where 12,000 dead bodies arrive every year, and you could say that Shiya’s relationship with death is more nuanced than most, on both the spiritual and physical planes.
In the years following 9/11, more than 22,000 separate fragments of what once had been human beings arrived at the medical examiner’s office. In the beginning, the parts were bigger—sections of legs, whole hands—but gradually the pieces grew smaller, sometimes so tiny as only to be seen under a microscope. Working at the M.E.’s office then, Shiya said, “was about as close to Auschwitz as I’ll ever get, a total onslaught of death.