Black lives don’t just matter. For some of us, their influence is profound, shaping our understanding of ourselves as individuals -– and our place in American society. When I came to Los Angeles from Israel at the age of seven, reuniting with my dad after my parents separated, I also met my stepmom Pasha for the first time. At the airport, she hung out in the background, taking pictures of us, and when I asked her about that moment years later, she said she’d wanted to give us space – and, also, that she wasn’t sure how it would be for a white kid to suddenly have a Black mom.
Pasha was only partly right. My attention was certainly fixed on my father, whom I hadn’t seen for a year, but I was just as conscious of her, wondering what she was like and whether we’d get along. But I wasn’t looking at her skin. As a child of ex-Soviet parents growing up in Israel, I knew kids of every shade, and Pasha didn’t look particularly unusual. But she was different in other ways – including how she negotiated her surroundings – and I quickly realized that, now that I was in America and had a lot of cultural catching up to do, I needed a guide. Pasha became my mentor – and what she told me about her personal life remains more real to me than most things I learned in history.
Pasha never hid the difficult parts of her past. She talked about growing up as a little Black girl during the segregation era, and though she identified as Black, she was actually of mixed heritage: her father’s parents were African American and Indigenous American, and her mother’s were Egyptian, which is how she got her exotic name.
Pasha grew up with a physically and emotionally abusive mother. Her father, with whom she was close later in life, had moved to Alaska and worked as a mechanic. In high school, she met a counselor who, having witnessed her mother’s violent tendencies in private, advised Pasha to quit school and lie about her age to get a job and an apartment – anything, she said, to get out of the house.
Pasha left – and ended up waiting tables at a diner in Hollywood. It was there, she told me, that she met older Yiddish-speaking women who worked in the kitchen – and who, as she remembered, were always talking and laughing. She never understood what they said, she told me, but she was always grateful for how good they were to her.
When she was eighteen, Pasha moved to Alaska to start her life over. She first helped her father at the mechanic’s shop. Later she became a guide, taking hikers into the mountains – on horseback in the summer and on sleds in the winter. She also worked on oil rigs, and later as a chef.
In the mid-1980s, she decided to go back to Los Angeles and try her luck as a blues singer. She had an antique watch that needed to be fixed, and she brought it to the old jewelry store she remembered from her childhood – Stromberg’s Jewelers – on Hollywood Boulevard. The jewelry store hadn’t belonged to our family, but it was for sale when my dad moved to Los Angeles, and, seeing it as an auspicious sign, he bought it with a partner. What they hadn’t realized was that, in the mid-80s, the corner of Hollywood and Wilcox was then a major distribution point for heroin and no one there was interested in antique watches or jewelry – except Pasha.
Pasha and my dad were married for four years, and I entered the picture in the middle of that time. She and I soon became best friends. When kids from school followed me home, yelling and cursing, she told me to turn around and curse right back at them. When the bullying got worse, she bought me a silver pentagram from a tattoo shop and told me to tell them I was a devil worshipper. At some point, we took a black T-shirt and painted a bright yellow outline of a hand in the middle, filling in the middle finger in bright red. The teachers never noticed the real message – but the kids did. The bullying stopped. In this way, and many others, Pasha taught me never to back down and to embrace my difference. She herself never waited for things to work themselves out. She was always looking for creative ways to stand up for herself.
The kids with whom I went to school were mostly Spanish-speaking children of immigrants, afraid of the police or immigration services and constantly living under threat of light-skinned people. To them, I was just a white kid who’d infiltrated their space. But that was not how I saw myself. I was a Jew, I was born in the Middle East, and my stepmom was Black. None of this had anything to do with white America.
One of the first movies Pasha ever showed me was “The Jerk.” Steve Martin, playing a white kid raised by Black parents, is told by his mother that he was found on the porch and cries out, “You mean I’m gonna stay this color?!” Pasha and I used to say that line other to each other often – and we laughed out loud every time.
I was ten when Pasha decided to give up trying to be a blues singer and moved back to Alaska. She and my father parted as friends, and every summer I spent a month visiting her. She lived in a log cabin on her father’s property next to his trailer, just off a dirt road near the small town of Kenai. We went on a lot of adventures together, and no matter where we ended up, she always introduced me as her son.
I’m still in regular touch with Pasha. She sends me words of wisdom that give me strength. Last year, when I sent her an essay I’d published on race and repair, she wrote back: “Dear Dave, like we used to say in the sixties, stay Black brother, Amen. Your pal, P.” I replied: “Trying to keep you proud – even though it looks like I’m gonna stay this color.”
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem. He recently published his second critical study, IDIOT LOVE and the Elements of Intimacy (Palgrave Macmillan), and more of his work can be found at www.davidstromberg.com.