In the Garden
By Carol Westreich Solomon
So I’m just coming out of Shoshanna’s kitchen with a platter of roasted chicken, when all of a sudden—like out of nowhere—Yitzhak appears. I notice that his beard is quivering a bit and that his face is flushed, like he’s been standing in the hot kitchen with me. But he hasn’t been there—because I’ve been there alone, loading up the chicken to serve from Shoshanna’s new automatic Shabbos-timed oven. And then Yitzhak just appears like magic.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Yitzhak. He’s Shoshanna’s brother, studying at the local yeshiva. In training to be some sort of rabbi or maybe a Hebrew teacher. And he’s great with her kids—plays games with them, runs around the backyard with them. So whenever he’s around—which is often on holidays—he gives me lots of breaks from the day-to-day nannying.
But he is coming at me in a way that gives me the creeps. He is leaning in, like he’s going to kiss me or something, like the guys used to do at the bars. Which would have been okay if I hadn’t given up men six months ago. And if I weren’t a Christian (or a goy, as the Orthodox Jews call it). And if touching a woman, let alone kissing a woman, wasn’t forbidden of Orthodox men unless they are married to the woman and it isn’t her time of the month. I know about all this forbidden stuff because Shoshanna has taught me a lot since I first came to work for her about twelve months ago, after Ryan shot himself over me. (But that’s a whole other story!)
Anyhow. . . so here’s Yitzhak leaning in on me, with the platter of chicken all that’s separating him from me, and Shoshanna and all the rest of the family are laughing and talking in the dining room not more than four feet away. And I feel his beard tickling my cheek as he whispers in my ear, “I need to see you outside near the garage after dinner. Maybe when you take the garbage out.” He’s so close I can smell the gefilte fish on his breath.
And then, I don’t know what makes me say it, I actually say, “Okay.”
“Okay?” What am I thinking? All Shoshanna needs to do is see me playing around with Yitzhak by the garbage cans and—
All right, I admit it. There is something in that beard of his, a full beard of red hair, very unusual for an Orthodox Jew, that lights my fire. And I guess I am wondering what it might be like to be kissed by Holy Lips that spend all day, every day praying to G-d and talking about G-d. Like maybe those lips could heal me or something.
So dinner moves kind of slow, like all of a sudden everyone needs seconds of the chicken and the potato kugel. And I keep thinking about the garbage. Even the four older girls seem content to sit at the table and talk with their grandparents. Finally, it’s time to bench (that’s Jewish talk for praying after the meal), so Shoshanna asks me to take baby Sara upstairs and get her ready for bed. By the time I get the baby settled after all the excitement and sing her a song or two, the table has already been cleared and Shoshanna’s mother is ready to take the garbage outside.
So I say, “Here, Mrs. Rosenberg, let me do that.” And she says, “No, Adele, dear, I think Shoshanna needs you to put the rest of the girls to bed. I’ll take care of the garbage.”
I feel Yitzhak’s eyes staring at the diamond stud in my nose as his mother interrupts our plans. I couldn’t look him in the eye, for fear everyone would feel the electricity shooting back and forth between us. So I take the four older girls upstairs to supervise their bedtime, while Yitzhak says his goodbyes and begins the long walk back to his yeshiva.
So I don’t see Yitzhak for the rest of the holiday. He’s busy praying with the other guys at the yeshiva. And I’m busy supervising the kids and helping out in the kitchen, so I try not to think about him and his red beard.
One of the big deals on the Jewish New Year is to walk to a nearby body of water and dump bread crumbs in it. Those crumbs are supposedly your sins that you are throwing away, and you’re starting all over with a clean slate. The girls get really excited about the crumb thing, like it’s one of the highlights of the whole holiday.
Shoshanna, who’s only twenty-nine but looks like she’s forty-five, is really tired because the baby Sara was up all night, and she wants to take a nap. So she asks me to help out her parents and her husband by walking with the girls to the nearby creek for the special sin service. I make sure to dress in a Jewish way that won’t embarrass Shoshanna. I always wear a long skirt at her house, even though at home I’m more likely to be in skinny jeans. But sometimes I wear t-shirts when I’m doing my nannying, especially when it’s hot outside. Shoshanna explained to me once that the Orthodox women cover their elbows . . . as if elbows could really turn on some guy. But I don’t want to upset the apple cart, so I put on my white peasant blouse that covers my elbows. I know that I’m not supposed to show cleavage, so I pull the draw-string at the top real tight so that only a little skin at the top of my chest shows. Then for good measure, I ask Shoshanna if I can borrow a shawl to hide more of the skin. Of course, she says yes. As I wrap the shawl around my shoulders, the fragrance of Shoshanna’s soap and baby formula make me feel as if Shoshanna is hugging me.
“Do I look Orthodox enough?” I ask her.
“Well...” She pauses. “Orthodox women don’t usually have purple streaks in their hair, a diamondstud in their nose, and turquoise fingernail polish. But other than that, I guess you look about as Orthodox as possible—without a complete makeover.”
We both laugh. Shoshanna’s great that way. She doesn’t expect me to go the whole Orthodox route. After all, I’m not a member of the family or a member of the tribe. I’m just the nanny. So long as I don’t offend others by saying the kinds of things a regular college girl might say to her friends or dress like I would at my own house, she’s okay with me as I am. When we’re home together without her husband and without any guests—like her parents or brother—we can have regular girl talk about the guys whose lives I’ve ruined. It’s like I’m some kind of foreigner, and she’s interviewing me for a magazine article or something. She told me I shouldn’t blame myself for Ryan having a mad crush on me and shooting himself over it. And she said it wasn’t my fault that my first boyfriend soured on women and got himself a boyfriend after he dumped me. It was his sin, not mine, she said. I wish I could believe her.
Anyhow . . . I walk with her parents and her husband and the four older girls to the creek with our pockets stuffed with bread crumbs. Then we get to the creek and walk across the little wooden footbridge to the other side to join their rabbi and the other people from their Jewish church (shul, they call it). I expect to see a large, flowing stream beneath its whiny wooden slats, but all I see is a trickle of water carving a snake-like path in the dust and rocks coating the stream bed. The rabbi says a few prayers, and we all pretend that there’s much more water flowing in the stream and throw in our bread crumbs. Most of the bread crumbs stick to the rocks. But no one says a thing. They’re too busy thinking about all the things they did wrong last year and won’t do again this year.
I have too many things I did wrong to think that this trickle of water could wash them away. First, there was my father’s motorcycle accident when he raced off in a hurry after I slammed the door and said I was leaving the house forever (which, of course, I didn’t do). Then there were all the bad things I said about my father, which I shouldn’t have done, because—after all—he’s the only parent I ever had. But I was super mad about the motorcycle accident because I had to drop out of college to help him run his shop. And then there was the Ryan thing: shooting himself in the mouth. Which, of course, I blame myself for—even though I didn’t have a clue he was going nuts over me.
Still, I say a few silent prayers in English and throw all my bread crumbs in the water. Then I hug the four girls and tell them how much I love them and how good they are. Leah, the next-to-youngest, throws her arms around my legs and announces in a loud three-year-old voice, “You’re the best nanny EVER!!!!”
When we get back to Shoshanna’s house, a special Jewish thingy attached to the door frame (they call it a mezuzah) reminds me that this is a Jewish house, as if houses could have religion. In the entrance way, framed pictures of generations of her family protect the house—the men mostly bearded with different hats or beanies on their heads, and the women with their hair covered by scarves or weird hair that looks like wigs or dead cats. The bronze candlesticks on the dining room table, which last night held the flickering candles, now stand guard over Shoshanna’s home.
Upstairs Shoshanna is singing to Sara. I peek into the baby’s room and watch Shoshanna, eyes puffy with sleepiness, hold Sara on her shoulder as she sings a Jewish lullaby. With each rock of the chair, Shoshanna pats Sara softly. Sara’s eyes are closed, but one of her tiny hands holds onto a long strand of Shoshanna’s red wig hair. Then the rocking and the singing stop, and Shoshanna gently releases Sara’s grasp of her hair and shifts Sara to her arms. She puts her lips to Sara’s forehead, maybe to test for fever, maybe to exorcise whatever demons kept her up all night.
I wish I were in Shoshanna’s arms with her lips on my forehead.
After dark, at the end of the holiday, I get to spend a couple of days with my father, something I am not looking forward to. Dad isn’t big on this Jewish nanny gig. He wants me to come back and work at his copy shop, which makes me want to puke since Ryan, who shot himself, used to work there.
So on Saturday night, the minute I walk up the stoop into our narrow, gray-block row house, he’s on me already. “Del,” he says in his gruff, beer-filled voice, “Del, enough of this Jewish nanny job. You’re becoming one of them with all their fancy talk. Next thing you know they’ll turn you into your mother who fell in love with her Jewish professors.”
So I say, “Dad, Shoshanna isn’t anything like my mother.”
And he says, “How would you know?”
And I don’t say anything because I know he’s right. When I was born, she left me at the hospital, and that was that.
Then he adds, for good measure, “She cared about every damn crying baby in the world except her own!”
There is nothing of my mother in my father’s house except me. No pictures, no letters, no stories.
Before we can get into another big blow-up, I lug my overnight bag into my room and hunker down for another solo Saturday night. Before I gave up men, I would go out to a bar on a Saturday night. But not anymore.
My only company is the huge posters of my favorite singers Adele and Lady Gaga that I tacked up last year to cover the fading wallpaper. My backpack, half-filled with the books and art supplies from my interrupted year of college, rests against the closet, exactly where I tossed it the day my dad got so banged up in the motorcycle accident.
I hear my father’s friends gathering in the living room, joking, drinking, watching the Orioles game on TV. I used to like hanging with them, too, but I’m not up to their Jew jokes.
So I listen to music and take out my sketchbook, the only thing I still use from my college classes. Before I know it, I’m drawing a long oval face and making a beard with fast, short strokes. Next I add some round eyes, circling them over and over to make them deep, dark eyes that are talking to me. Then I sketch some soft curls peeking beneath a large, black beanie, what those Orthodox call a yamaka. I spend the most time on the lips to keep them holy, not like the lips of some movie star.
Only two days until I go back to Shoshanna’s home.
Shoshanna’s bloated, ginger-colored cat hisses as I open the door and walk into the near empty house. When the girls are home from school, the cat purrs and rubs against their legs. But even though I spend most of my waking hours sharing Shoshanna’s house with the cat, and I make sure everyday that the cat’s dish is filled with food and water, the cat still hisses nonstop whenever we’re in a room together. Maybe she smells bacon on my clothes.
Suddenly, in the middle of the cat’s hissy fit, Shoshanna yells down from the upstairs: “Adele, is that you? I’m glad you’re early! Leah’s running a high fever, and I’ve got to take her to the doctor’s.”
Before you know it, Shoshanna has loaded up Leah in her car seat and left me with a list of errands to do with the baby before she returns. I put Sara in her stroller and set off for the kosher market and the bagel shop, both about a five-block walk from Shoshanna’s home. The crispness of autumn promises the same new beginnings as the sin ceremony at the stream. So I sing some of my favorite songs to Sara as I walk, making sure to leave out any bad words that might upset Shoshanna. Sara does her funny burp giggle, and I laugh back at her, and she burp giggles again. And before I’ve finished my third song, we’re at the market where I pick up six jars of organic kosher baby food and then head for my favorite spot in the strip mall—the bagel store—to pick up a couple dozen bagels.
The yeasty smell of fresh-baked bagels mixes with the fragrance of hot coffee and smoked fish. Young Orthodox mothers with their scarves wrapped around their heads sit sipping their steaming morning coffee while their snot-nosed toddlers chase after each other between the tables. A few grandmother types (bubbes, Shoshanna calls them) sample breakfast from each other’s paper plates. As I place my order, I catch a glimpse of a couple of yeshiva guys just finishing their breakfasts. I can tell because they are wearing white dress shirts and black pants and have those special prayer strings hanging from their pants.
“Adele, Adele!” What do you know? It’s Yitzhak. “Adele, come bring Sara to meet my study partner,” he calls out to me.
So what can I do? After I get my bagels, I roll Sara over to the table. And Yitzhak announces, “Dovie, this is my sister’s baby. Isn’t she cute? And this is her nanny, Adele.”
I stick out my hand to shake Dovie’s hand, then pull my hand back fast when I see his hand still at his side and remember that touching is forbidden. “Shalom,” I say, trying to sound officially Jewish.
“Nice to meet you, Adele, and Sara, of course.” Then he turns toward Yitzhak, realizing we have exhausted our conversation, and says, “I have a 9:30 class at the yeshiva. Want me to give you a ride back now?”
“Thanks, Dovie, but I want to play with Sara. I’ll walk back. My class doesn’t start until ten.” Dovie rolls his eyes at Yitzhak, like he’s talking in some sort of code, but Yitzhak is too busy tickling Sara to see. So before you know it, I’m sitting in Dovie’s seat, watching Yitzhak bounce Sara on his knees and noticing a spray of bagel crumbs caught near the top of his red beard. I resist the urge to brush them off, then catch Yitzhak watching me watching his beard. Speechless—for the first time in my life—I point at my chin and scrape away imaginary crumbs.
“Oh, not again! The trials and tribulations of a beard!” He brushes them away—at least most of them—but I don’t have the nerve to tell him about the lingering crumbs.
“So why do you wear a beard if it’s a food catcher?”
“Because it’s who I am.” Then Yitzhak pauses and taps his hair.
“What?” I ask.
“Your hair. Why do you have a purple streak in your hair? I never saw a girl in person with a purple streak.”
“Because it’s who I am.”
We both laugh, and the bubbes at the next table give us a stare down.
“Can I walk with you?” He puts Sara in the stroller and starts pushing before I can answer. I trail after the two of them with one large bag of bagels over each wrist. He’s taking us on a path I don’t know, behind the strip mall, then behind the public library, into an overgrown garden where there are a couple of benches and a plaque that reads “In Memory of Robert Goldman.” The trees, laced with amber and russet leaves, form a canopy against the cloudless azure sky.
So my breath is coming kinda fast, almost like a pant—maybe because we were walking so fast as if Yitzhak was avoiding someone, or maybe because I see Yitzhak sitting on the bench and motioning for me to sit down, too. So I sit down . . . but not directly next to him. I’m careful to sit on the exact opposite end of the bench so there won’t be any misunderstanding. Then he leans over and removes Sara from her stroller and holds her on his lap again, so she comes between us just like the chicken platter in the kitchen. And he bounces her up and down and sings some Jewish song that they sing after dinner on the Jewish Sabbath—Shabbos, they call it. Then, just when I think it’s safe to breathe normally, Yitzhak turns to me and says, “You’re a special person, Adele.”
“Oh?” I ask, not knowing in what way he means that word “special.”
“You come from a different world, but you fit in so well with my sister and the girls. They all love you, like you’re family—mishpocha.”
“And I love them, too. Mishpocha,” I repeat.
“But you’re special in other ways, too. Like how interested you are in our Jewish life. The other nannies just went their own ways and did what they had to. But you ask questions and seem to be genuinely interested and try to do everything the exact right way.”
“So,” he asks, taking a very deep, very long breath. “So, how much do you know about being Jewish?”
“Just what I’ve learned from Shoshanna.” Then, for reasons I’ll never understand, I add, “You know, my mother is Jewish.”
Suddenly, his dark brown eyes look like they’re ready to pop out from his head and a red flush overtakes his face. “Your mother is Jewish? Shoshanna never told me that.”
“Yes, I just learned about it this past Saturday night when I was home with my father. I never knew my mother because she left me in the hospital. And now I find out she’s Jewish!”
He starts to smile, like he’s just won the lottery, and he bounces Sara a few extra times on his lap. Then, just as he’s about to talk, Sara spits up milk vomit on the sleeve of his dress shirt, and he shouts, “Oy!” and fusses at the mess with his one free hand.
I start to hand him a burp cloth from the diaper bag, but I’m afraid of touching his hand. So I hold real tight to the corner to the cloth and wave the other end of it in his direction, which he grasps quickly. Then he puts Sara back in the stroller, so that he won’t touch me if he passes her directly to me, and focuses on removing the spit-up from his shirt.
“I’m so sorry, Yitzhak. I wish I could help you, but I’m afraid to touch you.”
“Ah, Adele, that’s what I love so much about you—how you respect a religion that isn’t even yours. And now I know why! Because even though you didn’t directly know it, it is your religion!”
“Yes, didn’t you know that according to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish? No matter how you were raised.”
Now my heart is beating really hard. I can feel it trying to bust through my t-shirt. While he finishes cleaning himself up, I reach for Sara and wipe her face and clean up the front of her top, then kiss her head for good measure. Then I look up and see Yitzhak looking directly at me.
“You’re a beautiful girl, Adele. Inside and out. A beautiful Jewish girl.”
“Thank you, Yitzhak. You’re a good guy, yourself.”
Then, just when I think it can’t get any hotter, he says, “So, Adele, have you ever thought about living as a Jew, like an Orthodox Jew, like Shoshanna?”
“Not really. I mean—I didn’t know until just recently that my mother is Jewish. And I never really knew that meant I was Jewish, too. So I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Will you think about it, Adele? Think real hard?”
Then he reaches down to the ground and picks up a golden leaf and holds it to his Holy Lips and kisses it. Then he puts the leaf down on the bench between us and waits.
I stare at his face. I see how his pale, lightly freckled skin looks so much like Shoshanna’s skin and how his red beard, still bearing a few bagel crumbs, matches the color of the hair on Shoshanna’s wig. I see his dark brown eyes reaching out to my eyes.
So I pick up the golden leaf and press it to my lips and kiss it. And my heart busts through and my eyes mist up. And I see his eyes misting, too, as I put the leaf back on the bench between us.
“So,” he says, as if some decision has been made. “So we’ll talk again, after you’ve had some time to think. Maybe next Shabbos when you’re cleaning up after dinner.”
Then Yitzhak heads off to his class with a special bounce in his step, and I head home, with the bags of bagels on my arms and Sara babbling in her stroller. Only this time, I’m humming the same Jewish songs Yitzhak just sang instead of the songs on my MP3 player. And I’m thinking about sitting at Shoshanna’s table, next to Yitzhak, bouncing our own baby on my knees while some other college dropout—a new nanny—loads up the food in the kitchen to serve to our whole mishpocha. And I’m imagining Yitzhak’s Holy Lips kissing me good night and kissing me good morning and kissing me good Shabbos. And I see Shoshanna and me dishing in her baby’s room, and she’s teaching me all the things I need to know about being a good mother—besides the diapering and burping stuff that I already know.
“I’m Jewish,” I say to myself. And each time I say those words, they become truer.
Now here’s the part of the story that gets really unbelievable.
When I get back to Shoshanna’s house, the front door’s wide open, and Shoshanna is standing there, taking up the whole entrance way with her body and an overflowing cardboard box and an overnight bag.
“Go,” she says.
“Go where? I already got your stuff at the market and the bagel shop. How’s Leah?”
“Go home, where you came from. Go there and don’t ever come crawling here again.”
Then she yanks the stroller from my hands and removes Sara, holding her baby against her breasts.
“I said, go,” she repeats, then kicks the box and the battered overnight bag that I recognize as mine.
“Shoshanna, I don’t understand. I did everything you wanted me to do.”
“I know about you and Yitzhak. You’re running after him.”
“Shoshanna, I’m not running after Yitzhak. We like each other. We’re friends.”
“Orthodox Jewish men don’t become friends with nannies who are goys. They are looking for Jewish women to make a Jewish home.”
“But I’m Jewish, too, sort of. . . .”
“Don’t lie. You’re no Jew. And even if you were, you’ve been with men and done things nice Jewish girls don’t do.”
And I’m starting to cry, and Sara begins to cry, too, because of our loud voices. And I see Leah peeking out of the upstairs window, waving at me.
“Shoshanna, we’re family—mishpocha. You . . . the girls. . . I love you all.”
She spits on the front step—once, twice, three times. Some of her spit sprays on my shirt.
“You aren’t family. You’re an employee—now fired. Here are your things. Go.”
And my crying is coming so fast and my throat is closing up, but somehow I choke out, “Can I . . . say goodbye. . . to Leah?”
“No. And don’t try to call here. And don’t call Yitzhak at the yeshiva. I put the money I owe you in the box with your junk. Now get out before I call my husband.”
Then she slams the door, leaving me staring at an empty stroller and all the things I had kept in my room at her home, all the things that had said I lived here.
I load my stuff in the trunk of my rusty Kia, parked at the front curb. As I sit in the driver’s seat unable to move, I imagine Yitzhak getting a call from Shoshanna, telling him I’m gone. His gentle face with his freckled pale skin flushes. He is unable to say a word as she warns him to stay away from me. I imagine Yitzhak with his flaming red beard—his food catcher—praying extra hard, to wash off all the dirt I have spilled on him. The golden leaf, the russet canopy, the overgrown garden—now remind him of our almost-sin.
I look up at Leah’s window. The shade has been pulled.
After about ten minutes, when the sobs have stopped, I can finally breathe well enough to start my car. Without thinking about where I’m headed, I drive four blocks to the wooden bridge over the nearly empty stream bed where we tossed our bread crumbs just a few days earlier. I rush down the bumpy slope, stumbling on a large rock and tearing a jagged scar in my skirt. Struggling to regain my footing, I stagger across loose pebbles and razor weeds and moldy bread crumbs that litter the steep incline.
I fall again, just two feet shy of the stream, then crawl hand over hand, covered in dirt. Flattening my hands in the trickle of water, I soak up whatever wetness I can, then rub it on my t-shirt where Shoshanna sprayed her spit. And on the arms that held Sara and dared to love her like my own. And on the purple streak in my hair that tempted Yitzhak.
Then I thrust my face into the wetness, sucking the water through the mouth that lied about my mother and that shared the golden leaf with the man with the Holy Lips.
Copyright © Carol Westreich Solomon 2013
Carol Westreich Solomon has returned to her first love—creative writing—after years of exploring literature and writing with high school students in Montgomery County, Maryland. As the lead consultant of Carol Solomon and Associates, she previously taught writing in business and government settings in Washington, D.C. Her non-fiction work has been published in the Washington Post, the English Journal, the Government Executive, and Seltzer. Ms. Solomon is a current member of the DCJCC Writers Group.