The Magic Eightball: A Jewish Mystery – Phoebe Nir
November 22, 2022
My phone lights up. I have a new text from my aunt, a famous journalist. We haven’t spoken in a while. A cursory glance at her message is enough to let me know that the news isn’t good. I am filled with foreboding.
There are screenshots.
She has just been contacted out of the blue by a young woman whom I guess I would describe as a family friend, although I haven’t heard her name in at least a decade. I used to sit by her at the kids’ table at some of our extended family gatherings for the Jewish holidays, back before my grandfather passed away. I remember being a vaguely intimidated by her, thinking she was pretty. She must have been a few years older than me, but I’m not sure how many.
The young woman, L, has a strange question for my aunt. She wants to know if my aunt can confirm or deny whether there were magic eight balls at my bat mitzvah, and whether or not they were given out as party favors. She apologizes for what she admits is a bizarre and random question, and thanks my aunt in advance for her reply.
I am baffled.
What the fuck?
My bat mitzvah was in 2005. It was a wholesome affair, despite having been over-the-top and too expensive. It was the heyday of Gossip Girl and My Super Sweet Sixteen, and all of the Jewish families on the upper east side were throwing their twelve-year-olds MTV-style blowouts. We knew it was crazy; even at the time, my family joked that we were “keeping up with the Jonesteins.” Is that what this is about? I don’t know much about L but faintly associate her with being some kind of writer.
“lol wtf, is she trying to write something about my bat mitzvah?? So weird…” I reply.
My aunt, the famous journalist, knows the game.
“Don’t give her any info,” she advises. “Make her tell you what it’s for.”
I remain puzzled over the next few days. Why was L urgently fact checking details of an event that took place seventeen years ago? And why had she gone through my aunt instead of reaching out to me? Is she angling to critique a too-lavish bat mitzvah from the Bush era by highlighting the presence of magic eight balls? It’s all preposterous, baffling, sinister. I confer with my parents, who are unnerved. My dad immediately declares that he had never liked or trusted L. My mom recalls that L’s parents were CUNY professors, and therefore, likely, class warriors. We can’t rule out the possibility of a hit piece.
My mom is still sporadically in touch with L’s mom, at least for the purposes of sending one another holiday cards. I suggest my mom reach out to L’s mom in an email and ask what the purpose of L’s line of questioning might be. The response she gets is strange.
“Nice to hear from you! L had asked me what the provenance of an 8-ball was—I had it nestled among my houseplants—and I remembered that it was from your daughter’s bat mitzvah. Funny that she would want to reach out to you. Perhaps you remember better than I do, and you can let me know.”
I don’t know what to make of this.
“It doesn’t sound like a hit piece?” I say to my mom, and we agree to let the matter drop.
But the next day I receive an email from L directly. The subject line is “Question from a Family Friend.”
“Hope all is well – I’m assuming you remember me since you were just on an email exchange with our moms about your bat mitzvah. I was wondering if you had a few minutes to touch base on a call.”
Many thanks, and her phone number.
I take a screen shot and send it to my aunt.
“The plot thickens,” I write.
“WHAAAAAT” she replies. “I truly vote you do not respond. You owe her nothing.”
I also share the screenshot to my parents and sister in our group chat, which has lain dormant for the past several months but is now a-twitter thanks to the exciting chronicle that is unfolding.
“Oy vey,” writes my mother.
“DO NOT ENGAGE,” writes my sister.
But it’s too late. I’m hooked on the drama, and the only way out is through.
I respond to the email. I attempt to seem offhand and casual.
“Lol ofc I remember you. What’s this for?”
She replies quickly.
“Thanks. Any way you could send me a picture of the magic 8 balls at your bat mitzvah and forward me the email with my mom? I’m also happy to give you a call to explain. I know this is super strange and don’t want to waste your time.”
I send the screenshot to my aunt.
She responds, “Copy this word for word: Hi L, off the record, this is a little too strange for me, especially without a written explanation. I wish you well.”
I do as she instructs, feeling strangely powerful and dignified despite the fact that I am literally parroting someone else’s words; L hasn’t seen me in many years, and to her, I am the possessor of great knowledge, descriptions of magical toys from a party of yesteryear, faded dimly into memory and legend. I wonder how she will respond.
When I next check my email, it’s a banger:
“I just wanted to make sure I expressed that my questions are for personal reasons and any response would be shared with my sister and maybe my mom at most. I’m trying to confirm the origins of a magic 8 ball in my parents’ apartment. Would you feel comfortable sharing a picture of them from your bat mitzvah? Or maybe even just answering the below questions/confirming if the magic 8 balls at your bat mitzvah:
1. were black and white/standard size (example: https://www.amazon.com/Mattel-Games-Magic-Ball-Retro/dp/B0149MC426/ref=pd_lpo_2?pd_rd_i=B0149MC426&psc=1)?
2. were used as part of centerpieces on tables?
3. were intended for guests to take home?
This is super embarrassing but I thought maybe you’d understand given your background in therapy or maybe as a fellow grandchild of a Holocaust survivor (though obviously under completely different circumstances).”
I am shocked by this response, particularly by the seemingly dramatic invocation of the Holocaust. Clearly I was way off track with the hit piece concept, but what the hell could a magic eight ball have to do with the Holocaust?
In my mind, an Everything Is Illuminated-style fantasy begins to take shape, an intergenerational saga of treasured family heirlooms, of diamond rings swallowed and shit out and swallowed again under the noses of the guards of Auschwitz. A holy magic eight ball, blessed by the Rebbes of Budapest and L’vov, serves as a Golem, detonating like a bomb when the Nazis come knocking to conceal the hiding place of Anne Frank and Peter, her attic Romeo. It is a plastic prophet through which G-d speaks to his chosen people in their time of greatest desperation. “Adonai, why have you forsaken us?” they keen and weep, shaking their orbs with a religious fervor. The cobalt answer swims into view: “Ask again later.”
I send a screenshot of L’s email to my aunt, adding, “Now we are talking about the Holocaust.” Her reply is nearly instantaneous.
“This is really, really crazy. Maybe she was molested with the magic eight ball or something,” she writes. “You have every right to protect yourself from this craziness and not get involved.”
I am impressed by my aunt’s molestation theory, which seems poetical and also passes Occam’s razor, if any simple explanation still exists beyond a complete nervous breakdown. I mention it in the group chat to my parents and sister, who are now energetically advocating for everything short of a restraining order. I feel nervous to tell them that I’ve decided to call her, expecting to be scolded for “looking for trouble.” But I need my mom to send me the photos from my bat mitzvah album that show the magic eight balls, so that I can be prepared to help L with whatever Holocaust/therapy trauma she is attempting to exorcise. My dad calls me and I answer. I’ve been learning Hebrew for a few months, and have a flash of inspiration that I will escape censure if I speak to him in my broken Hebrew, which he (being fluent) finds endearing.
Me: Shalom, Aba [Hello, Father]
Dad: Shalom, shalom. Ma nishma im L [What’s up with L?]
Me: Ani rotza ledaber ita. Efshar she ani yechola laazor ota. [I want to talk with her. It’s possible that I can help her.]
My dad has to speak slowly and use simple words so that I can understand him; these are the rules of engagement, and I can tell that by forcing him to slow down, I’ve already managed to override a potential stress/anger response.
Dad: Ani rotze. Biglal she hi lo rotza liktov mashehu ra, at rotza laazor im efshar. [I see. Because she doesn’t want to write anything bad, you want to help if it’s possible.]
Me: Ken. Gam… Ani sakranit. Ani rotza lehavin. [Yes. Also… I am curious. I want to understand.]
Dad: Tov, ani mevin. Ha evrit shelach ze maheshu. [Good, I understand. Your Hebrew is really something.]
Me: Toda raba. Ani ohevet otcha! [Thank you very much. I love you!]
Dad: Ani ohev otach! [I love you!]
We hang up. I am touched by this sweet, simple interaction in which we are forced to communicate like children. My mom sends me the photos from my bat mitzvah album which feature the magic eight balls, as well as L’s mom, who looks beautiful laughing with my deceased grandfather, the Holocaust survivor. I smile looking at the photos, grateful to have the opportunity to reminisce about an event that I haven’t thought about in years. I’m in one of the photos too, and I look happy and healthy. Though I often recall myself as having been fat and awkward as a child, in the photo, I look cute. I stare at it for a long time, mesmerized by the past.
I email L: “Hi L, I’m still confused but I understand that this is very important for you. I’m available to talk this afternoon.”
She responds gratefully and we agree on a time. I decide that I will record the phone call just in case. I am at this point fully into my Nancy Drew LARP and excited to solve the mystery. Clearly what’s significant about the magic eight ball is some personal trauma of L’s, totally disconnected from the circumstances of my bat mitzvah. I imagine what it would be like to be raped with a magic eight ball; she had asked if they had been “standard sized.” Or maybe it had been the object of her visual focus as she had dissociated during abuse, training her eyes on its steady, unblinking blue gaze as she endured god knows what. Or maybe, I think, feeling slightly nauseated, there had been a sick, sadistic game in which her abuser had allowed random chance, as dictated by the magic eight ball, to determine what torture she would be beset with each day. I remember a scene something like that in one of my favorite plays, Scorched by Wajda Mouawad, which features a notorious Joker-esque rapist and war criminal. I feel vaguely annoyed with myself for never having realized how interesting and artistically fertile magic eight balls are, and for not having one immediately on hand to screw around with, especially as I am picking at my nails nervously in anticipation of my phone call with L.
At 4:30, she calls me. The tone of the call is immediately warm and friendly. I do my best to put her at ease, as I can hear in her voice that she is mortified, and doing her utmost to sound not-crazy. She asks how I’m doing and says kind things. She apologizes and apologizes. I tell her that I was only suspicious because I had a paranoid fear she was writing a hit piece about my jappy bat mitzvah; we laugh.
“So what’s the story?” I ask.
She tells me that it’s about a fight she had with her mother. “She’s a hoarder,” L tells me, “or at least that’s my diagnosis. She was raised by two Holocaust survivors, and it wasn’t an easy childhood.” L’s mother had a magic eight ball in her house, and L’s young son had picked it up and begun playing with it. L had remembered the magic eight ball as having been hers from childhood, so she told her son that they could take it home with him, and the son had loved the toy so much that he had begun sleeping with it in bed.
But L’s mother had been angry that they had taken the magic eight ball, claiming that it was not in fact L’s childhood toy, but was in fact a memento from my 2005 black-and-red color-schemed bat mitzvah. L’s mother had accused L of encouraging her son to steal things, and was demanding the magic eight ball be returned to her. L had reached out to my aunt and I in an attempt to discredit her mother’s origin story.
“Well, unfortunately I think your mom is right,” I tell L. “I can send you the photo of the table settings with the magic eight balls.”
“Oh,” says L, sounding crushed.
“But I’m on your side either way,” I say, attempting to reassure her. “It’s a child’s toy; if my mom had yelled at my child for finding a toy at her house and wanting to play with it, I would be really angry with her. The whole thing is sad.”
“Right,” she says. “Well, I’m sorry to waste your time.”
“No worries. It made my week,” I say honestly.
We exchange good wishes and hang up. I sit for a moment before ringing my dad.
“How’d it go?” he asks in English.
I give him the rundown.
“Oh,” he says. “That’s boring.”
I can’t help feeling slightly deflated, like I’d brought home a B on my report card when I’d promised straight As.
“It’s a little anticlimactic,” I concede. “But still. It’s a women’s story, it’s a Jewish story, it’s a story about the Holocaust, about the epigenetic mismatch between Ashkanazim and their modern American context, it’s a love story-”
“Whatever,” he cuts me off, yawning. “I’m just glad nothing really bad happened to her.”
“Me too,” I say, and it’s true, though I am bummed to miss out on the rapt audience that surely would have accompanied a horrible revelation. I already miss the energy of my nuclear family’s briefly resuscitated group chat as we circled the wagons against whatever catastrophe L had implied was a comparable threat to Hitler.
“Ani ohevet otcha,” I say.
“Love you, bye,” he says.
My aunt’s reception is more enthusiastic.
“L AND HER MOM ARE TOXICALLY ENMESHED!!” she sends me. “And the fact that it’s a magic eight ball!!!! That you could ask for help! L is literally seeking answers!!!”
She and I exchange a flurry of texts unpacking the semiotic significance of the magic eight ball as God, as Mother, as alienated Self. It is a totem sanctified by my ceremonial puberty, a fetish object representing freedom from uncertainty. We agree that my grandfather, the Holocaust survivor, who was also a Freudian analyst, would have had a field day. It’s fun, and the text convo turns sweet as we agree to make plans once she is back from her trip out of town.
As I lie awake that night, I think about the nature of family, or at least my family, a motley crew, bewildered, cramped together in a lifeboat made of love and ambivalence.
When my grandmother is eight, living with her parents as a Dutch refugee in Montreal, her nine-year-old cousin Fanny comes to join them from Europe. Fanny’s entire family has been killed by the Nazis, and she and my grandmother hate each other on sight, how they loathe sharing toys and a bedroom! Both girls were spoiled before the war and now they fight like devils; in her secret moments my grandmother wishes that Fanny had been killed, too.
Blink twice, and here we are, thriving in America, that stormy, tumultuous chapter shed like an awkward adolescence. 2005 marks my bat mitzvah, a ‘coming of age’ that clearly came too soon. How silly I had felt claiming that I had “become a woman” when I hadn’t even made it to upper school. The truth was, there had been no advancement in my maturity or social standing, none of the greater responsibilities or spiritual evolution that would accompany any true rite of passage. It had all been totally artificial and incoherent to my family, so at least we had thrown a great party. At least we could feel proud of that.
Black plastic is wrought from the oil that runs beneath Levantine desert sands.
And the questions are asked, and the future remains unknown.