The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter

by

07/12/2007

6th Ave & W 47th St, NY, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

The mysteries of 47th Street—men in oily black suits and beards the color of tar, swollen red noses and black eyes lined in soot, wiry eyebrows, faces half-hidden by coarse pepper-black hair, tallit dragging from the sweaty hems of their coats. Men with secrets. In their pockets, translucent wax paper folded and folded again like some ancient origami. Papers passed hand to hand, mouth to mouth, passed to and from my father in his pressed khaki pants and button-down shirts opened at the collar. Over six feet tall, he seemed like a giant to me. An Israeli man with black curly hair who spoke seven languages and could turn an ordinary nub of stone into a diamond.

He was the prized diamond cutter, the one every man on the street knew by name. Moty. Mordecai to the American customers with their hard, angular mouths who could not pronounce the o with its soft underbelly of w and u.

I thought he was in the CIA, the KGB, the Mossad. How else could I explain the glass rooms and monitors, the hushed men whispering to hushed men, my father writing in Hebrew, in Arabic, in secret codes and numbers I couldn’t understand? And there were the papers, the square paper pockets that seemed to hold light itself. Could I cut off a piece of my hair or pull out a tooth? Could I pull out my bones, iron my skin flat as a shirt, and slip inside the paper folds? I was invisible to the men on the street, to the merchants, to my father himself.

* * *

In Jaffa we walked the pock-marked streets, the bright white stone of the city making us squint. A city of reflections. As we walked by the docks, the city seemed to flash its teeth, daring the water and the sun. My father cried out when he saw the sign, a flier stapled to a pylon that announced the fisherman was dead. Nadav, Nadav, my father cried, muttering the name into his hands. Our last name belonged to the fisherman who had fed my father, who gave him chicken, salt, and bread, and watched over him when he was twelve and had run away. Homeless. My father’s father had already run off to Canada with another woman, abandoning his wife, two daughters, and a son. And that son never stopped wandering—Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, Marrakech, Cairo, Kinshasa, and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. A stranger wherever he went.

By the time I was twelve he had contracted Lyme disease. A sick father. A father with an enlarged heart, a father with electrical impulses eating through his skin, a father with schizophrenia and dementia. A father who had four strokes. A blind father. A paralyzed father who I will visit this summer in a nursing home in Tel Aviv. There was a father there once. And a father before him.

* * *

I remember a large rectangular fish tank filled with sapphire chips sculpted into the shape of a wave. And coming home from school one afternoon and parked in our driveway were two Citroens—one gold and one a sparkling green, each for one of my brothers—and two Jeeps for my mother and sister. Yes, the land of plenty. Of empty. A five-bedroom, colonial-style house in New Jersey with elaborately landscaped bushes and trees, an Olympic-sized pool, and a father who was never home. My father who only seemed to belong to 47th Street.

He would disappear for months or years at the time, and then there was no money, no cars, no food. My mother and I hiding on the kitchen floor when bill collectors came. My mother sending me off to friends’ houses so I could eat. My mother’s affection for Valium and staying in bed for days. Once overdosing and collapsing in the front hall, where EMT’s pumped her chest until she coughed and vomited, alive again. She had her secrets, too, and pockets full of Tic Tacs and pills. She was a first-generation Holocaust survivor. That was supposed to explain everything.

* * *

What I remember about 47th Street was being buzzed in. The maze of glass hallways and rooms I had to pass through in order to get to my father. One glass chamber after another while a monitor, placed in each chamber, stared down at me like a silt-covered eyeball in which I could see myself, nervous and disfigured, stretched impossibly wide and bloated at the middle. Panicked and beginning to hold my breath, I would arrive at my father’s office and watch him lean over his record players, those metal disks on which he set a diamond suspended by a metal arm in order to shave away part of its face—surface—facet—sheen—grace.

He surprised me once at my friend Jara’s house; I hadn’t seen him in six weeks. He pulled a black film canister out of his pocket, popped open the top, and poured a wide arc of gold dust and diamonds across a glass tabletop in the living room. He told us that gold and diamonds often are found together. We believed him.

I noticed his hands, several waxy pink holes drilled into the top of each. He claimed the scars were from the acid he used to clean stones before he cut them. Like peroxide on a wound. I listened for the sizzling, the bubbling, and wondered if he had been tortured by secret service spies, if that could explain why he left and would leave again.

* * *

47th Street ignored me. I was a child, and a girl at that. The diamond-cutter’s daughter. I traced my name in the black carbon soot that covered every surface in my father’s office while men came and left. I played with the digital scale that could measure my breath, blowing out hard while red numbers registered my presence, my absence.

Occasionally my father and I went to other offices in other buildings. We passed through familiar glass cages until we arrived at another soot-covered office. Sometimes it seemed like we were inside a diamond ourselves—a tilted world made of glass. My father would send me off to a corner with a legal pad, some pens, and a Snickers bar. And I would watch him, always his quick hands, folding, unfolding, and refolding those paper squares. I’d watch as he put the magnifier loop in his eye, a hallucinatory light on his face, as he hovered over something I couldn’t see, something remarkably precious and small nested inside the paper crease, a diamond like a prayer inside.

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§ One Response to “The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter”

  • Fred Zaltas says:

    I was a close friend of Moty and Judy back in the Bronx. Moty and I went skiing together over 50 years ago. I am 73 and in the jewelry business. I don’t know what made me think of him, except our friendship.

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