Aluminum butterfly

I was still in middle school when Sara Levin got a scholarship to Harvard, or Stanford, or MIT. Sara’s scholarship was an open secret, but only after — and maybe because — she turned it down.

When Sara’s father, Dr. Levin, was the cantor in shul, he bellowed the prayers in his distinctly American accent. “Oseh Shalom Bimromav,” he brayed while taking the three steps back at the end of the amidah. His broad shoulders, wrapped in a Talis, dipped to the right and left as is the custom; his overgrown brown beard stabbed the air as he dipped forward. His gartel, the fringed fabric belt Hasidic men wear, wound around his black frock coat, accentuated his oval girth while he swayed.

Afterwards, around the Shabbat table, we would mock him. For the hardness of his American Rs, for the eagerness with which he took the podium, for how loud and assuming he was, how large; so unlike the slight, yiddish-speaking men like my father who lived in perpetual indecision, like they were still surprised to be here in Detroit and not the shtetl.

Dr. Levin was not a doctor. He had gone to college, and rumor was he was very smart, mad-scientist smart. Rumor was he had invented the little aluminum butterfly on soda cans and beer cans. Rumor had it, he’d never gotten the credit he deserved for inventing the can-opening mechanism, now as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola. The college that had bestowed upon him the title of doctor had taken the credit, and the royalties, for his invention.

That was why he lived in a house in Oak Park with his wife and four kids, in between 9 Mile, the Hasidic enclave where we lived among our gentile neighbors, and 10 Mile, where the rest of the orthodox Jewish community congregated.

Like her family, Sara was larger than us and more obviously American, two things that seemed related in my mind. I thought unkindly that she turned down the scholarship to prove that she was one of us.

I knew I was supposed to celebrate her sacrifice, but I could not. I knew that I should feel guilty for being disappointed for her, but I did not. I felt instead a very distinct and very powerful feeling of loss, even though it wasn’t mine.

Mostly, I was jealous. Because I would never get the chance to turn down a free ride to Harvard, or Stanford, to MIT. I would never get the chance to know if I could.

Sara Levin went to seminary and married my cousin. She moved to Australia and had twins, and many more children after that.

I went to a jazz concert last night, and while I listened I played with the aluminum butterfly on the can of Bad Seed Cider in my hands. It was in the back room of a Brooklyn bar, among friends and musicians, and after a few turns, the butterfly came free in my hands. While the music played and the Bad Seed Cider filled my head with lightness, I remembered Sara Levin and Dr. Levin’s prayers and thought about how gray his beard must be now.

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