It had been only 1 month after my father’s disappearance when I approached my mother about my upcoming 10th birthday.
“Ema, are you making me a party?” I innocently asked.
“No, not this year.”
This shocked me. I couldn’t recall ever not having a birthday party.
“Because this is not a happy time.”
“Why?” I innocently asked.
“Michalli, your father is missing!”
“But he’ll be back. You told me so yourself. You said he’d be back.”
“I hope…” She began to say, but then stopped herself. “Of course he’ll be back, but until then, I can’t make you a party.”
I cried so hard that night. This was the first moment I really started feeling the loss. It would take another year to feel the full extent but not having a birthday party was the start.
Of course my life that month was anything but normal. We were living on and off by my grandparents, missing school while my mother was doing her best to find my father. She had a lawyer named Bob Harris who was supposedly helping and guiding her. I was certain they would solve this and my father would be back in no time.
On the night of my 10th birthday, March 16, my sister and I were back in Far Rockaway, watching “Dirty Dancing” on video in the den. A couple of young children belonging to Izzy Whiteman, a relatively new family friend who seemed to have appeared in our lives the very week my father disappeared, were there too. I didn’t pay much attention to those kids. They were younger and a lot more wild than my sister and I. They were actually annoying, playing with our toys with their constant runny noses and I did my best to ignore them.
The movie had just begun when my mother walked in, with Rosalba and Izzy holding a chocolate cake, singing happy birthday. My sister and the kids were excited to delve into the cake. I put on a small smile, but inside felt very sad. This could not take the place of a real birthday party.
I’ll never forget the day we were introduced to Izzy. He had a long scraggly beard, a big velvet Kippah and always wore black and white with Tzitzit sticking out. He was very friendly and seemed kind but was always disheveled. We were accustomed to my Father who always dressed immaculately and was clean shaven. Izzy was definitely different.
“Kids, meet Izzy. He’s a magician.”
“Really?” I asked, deeply impressed. I never met a real magician in person.
“Hi there.” He said with a smile. His voice was very pleasant and full of energy. “Is this your monkey?” He asked, pointing to Udi who was busy eating as usual, oblivious to everything that was happening.
“Yeah.” I said proudly.
“He’s real too.” My sister had to add.
“You know, I have a lot of animals too.”
“You do?” I asked.
“Yes, one day you guys will come to my house and see them.” My mother gave him a small smile.
“I have 4 children.” He continued. “You girls will like them. I’m sure they would love to come over and play with you.”
“OK.” I shrugged.
When he left, I asked my mother why he was there. She told me that he is a nice man in the community who had offered to help us out. I didn’t understand why my mother needed help from a magician but was grateful someone in our community seemed to care. Most of my parents friends seemed to have disappeared just like my father. In retrospect this was a very unique situation for them. They were all young, in their low 30’s just like my parents. They did not know what to say or do so they chose to step back hoping my father would just reappear. There were plenty of rumors that frightened those friends. My mother at that point was engrossed in solving this and finding my father so she only spoke to those very few, her lawyer Bob Harris and Izzy, who were stepping in.
That week my mother left the country for a few weeks with her lawyer to continue the investigation. We did not understand where she was going nor did we ask. We just assumed she was looking for Abba. Later I would learn that she was in Europe investigating parts of the story she was aware of about my father’s disappearance. My father had given her information months before and was afraid for his life. My mother was on a mission to prove to the investigators that his disappearance was connected to that story. But at that point we kids were completely clueless and was told no information.
Once again, my sister and I stayed by our grandparents in Brooklyn and missed a week of school. We spent most of the days watching TV and fighting over who will sleep next to Aunt Tzippy who was only 20 years old then. My grandfather Sabba Yosef, one of the kindest men I know, treated us very well but we missed Udi and our home. We didn’t like Brooklyn and the small cramped way our relatives lived there. We were accustomed to space, a big backyard, a quiet street and open skies. We wanted to go home.
At some point my uncle Pinchas, who was 25 years old, drove us to and from TAG every day. During our absence, Morah Hymen the class principal, decided it was time to tell the class about what happened. She told our classmates to be sensitive to us. It was probably very difficult for her, since she never had to deal with this kind of situation. When I heard that my principal addressed the class about it, I felt embarrassed, but somehow got over it.
The first day back after being away for so many weeks was very difficult for me. I felt very self-conscious. One brave girl named Kayla approached me during recess.
“What happened to your father?” She asked. Suddenly all eyes were on me.
“He’s missing.” I answered.
“Why?” Kayla pushed.
“I don’t know why.” I answered. The teacher, having witnessed this exchange told the class that recess was over and everyone must sit down. I couldn’t concentrate. I felt like everyone was staring at me.
During those early months not one teacher offered me any sympathy. They didn’t know how to react and what to say so they chose to ignore the situation and go on with their usual routine.
One day my teacher Mrs. Bloomgarden took out a box filled with prizes. She was a short heavy set teacher with thick glasses and short hair. She had very large breasts which led to her secret nickname Mrs. Shaboofa (Short, boobs, fat). Yes, kids can be very mean. She had recently started a system where we would get tokens every day that we behaved and at the end of the day we could get prizes with them. One by one she lifted each prize. None of the prizes caught my eye. Also I only had 3 tokens, so I was limited.
Suddenly she pulled out a diary but not just any diary. This diary was meant for me. It was breathtaking. Pink leather, with an attached page of glittery stickers reflecting different moods. It had my name written all over it and I knew then and there that I had to have it. My ten year old self wanted it because it was pretty but my deeper soul understood that I not just wanted it, I needed it. I needed that diary to get me through what I understood was an exceptional, strange new world for me. I knew the coming months, years would be different than my peers. I knew I needed an outlet of some sort. That diary was going to be mine.
“…and this, girls, is 22 tokens.” Mts. Bloomgarden announced.
How was I to get it?
Pumped with determination to get that diary, I quickly glanced around the room, hoping to find an answer. And I did.
My eyes focused on Hanna Bloom. Hanna Bloom, the class goody-goody. I knew she must have dozens of tokens by now. And she was such a nice, sweet girl. An easy target. I needed her tokens. I passed her a note.
“Meet me in the bathroom.”
She was surprised. No one had ever passed her a note before. She nodded, paranoid that the teacher would see, and left the room.
“Hanns…” I started slowly once I had her in the bathroom. “I want to make a little deal with you.”
“Yeah?” She asked, not having a clue as to what I was about to ask of her.
I paused, trying to figure out the best way to do it.
“Can I borrow some tokens, please?”
“Why?” She Inquired.
I sighed. “You see, there is this prize that I want…” I didn’t want to tell her which one for fear that she might want it.
“Which one…” She pressed.
I groaned. What’s the difference?
“The diary.” I said, scared. I prayed she wouldn’t want it.
“Oh, that stupid thing.”
“Yes.” I answered, relieved. “Please?”
“I can’t.” She said.
“But why?” I begged.
“I’ll pay you back with tokens.” I said.
“I really can’t…”
“I’ll give you one extra…” I quickly added.
“I don’t know…” She said. I was getting to her.
“I know, I’ll give you 2 tokens a day for the rest of the year. You’ll end up with much, much more tokens than you gave me.” It was my first experience in negotiating.
“Well….” She said with hesitation.
I knew I had her. She just needed a little more pushing.
“Please!” I begged desperately. I never wanted something so badly in my entire life. I could not lose this.
“OK.” She finally said. “But you better be good and give me all the tokens you promised me.”
“Thank you!” I said relieved. I felt so happy.
During recess, my heart racing, I plunked 22 tokens on Mrs. Bloomgarden’s desk.
“Excuse me?” I said shyly.
“Yes?” She looked up annoyed and then smiled when she saw it was me. I noticed teachers doing that a lot lately.
“I’d like to buy the diary.”
“You need 22 tokens for that.” She said.
“I know. I have that.”
“You do?” She asked with doubt looking at my pile.
“Yes, I borrowed it.”
“Well then, I guess you can have it.” She smiled and took out the diary.
I held it in my hands and felt myself glow. My diary, my very own diary. I forgot about all my problems at that moment. Nothing else seemed to matter. Not my classmate’s stares, not my father being missing, not my mother being away. I couldn’t wait to go home and start to write. Although I was young, I knew that writing was the only thing that would help me through whatever was going to happen.
When I got home, I sat down in a room by myself. I chewed on my pen, trying to figure out what to write. I dated it May 20, 1986.
My name is Michal, as you might as well know. I’m in Fourth grade and I have 1 sister. Her name is Yaelli. My mother calls her baby. I also have a pet monkey. Yep! A real live one. His name is Udi, he is a squirrel monkey and he is the cutest monkey available. He is 1 ½ years old. My teachers are Morah Braun (Hebrew) and Mrs. Bloomgarden (English). Mrs. Bloomgarden gives out tokens so we can get stuff with them. She has this box where there are all different sorts of prizes and that’s the way I got you. You see, Hanna was nice and she leant me somehow 22 tokens. But there is a little deal, for the rest of the year I will give her 2 tokens a day. It’s not that bad because we only have one more month of school. All this time, we have had a lot of homework and stuff and we missed a lot of TV. But for the past week, month and months, me and my sister have been missing a lot of school and I mean A LOT! Why? Because my father is missing. Two months ago my father was missing. We asked Rabbi’s who can tell us what happened, what happened? They said he is kidnapped but we will find him. On the other hand my mother is pure Shurlock Holmes. She finds clues every…well almost every day. I am looking forward to that. I miss him a lot. Well, it’s time to do my homework, so…bye”
Little did I know that that day was the start of a lifelong habit. In the future as the years went by and my collections of diaries grew from 1 to 37 (and still counting) these books would become my saviors, my best friends and proof of my incredible story. I would store them under my mattress and then later in bins when there were too many. Through the years I took great care to preserve them and the few times one would somehow disappear, would feel as if I lost a part of me. These diaries were a symbol of how I survived. They were in fact the tool I used to survive. When I had no one to talk to, no one to understand I turned to my diaries. When I felt alone and abandoned by everyone in my life, the diaries were all I had. When events were occurring that were too big for my young mind to fully grasp, it was my diaries that heard me and seemed to guide me.
And it is my diaries that allows me to write my story with such clarity and understanding. The rest of my story will focus mainly on my survival of a very insane, scary span of time that began the day my father disappeared and found closure 19 years later when the case was finally solved. If this book was written by my mother it would be very different. It would come from an adult perspective with a lot more information about the case and what led to this tragedy. I am choosing to ignore those details, not dwell on those who were responsible (I am not interested in writing about that), and focus mainly on the effect of this tragedy on my upbringing and life. The case is now public knowledge and many books and articles have been published on it, but there has never been anything written on how it affected our day to day lives and psyche till now.