The Converts



The Converts

By John J. Clayton



The first time Carole saw Paul carry the Torah scroll around the Brookline synagogue, while he was still in the process of converting, she was very moved; she felt it erotically. Well. Victory is always erotic, isn’t it? It was her victory. And it had been such a long time in coming. She’d grown up in Manhattan, gone to a private school more than half Jewish, become a bat mitzvah of her own volition, something she had demanded, for God knows her secular parents couldn’t have cared less. Of course, mostly it had to do with her friends, so many of whom had those expensive bat mitzvahs in downtown hotels. And when they met, she and Paul, and when they married nine years ago, religion was a bone of contention.

“If only you were Jewish! It’s really sad, Paul. Well, we’ll see.”
“I’m not going to convert, not even for you.”
For though he had a Jewish father, his mother was vaguely Episcopalian, and he—well, he was simply uninterested. Her parents didn’t care, his parents didn’t care. But Carole cared. And he—he refused to convert. He’d shrug off the idea every time she brought it up. “Don’t bully me,” he said. Was she a bully? Carole said, “No, no.” She absolutely wanted shalom bayit, peace in the home.
But look at him now! This big galumph, black curly hair just starting to recede. A handsome man, six foot two, almost two hundred pounds of mostly gym-made muscle, and the Torah scroll, a rather small one. So sweet! Holding the Sefer Torah like a baby, offering it to friends as he carried it up the aisle. How amazing! Is he crying?—my God, he is! Crying as he carries the scroll past congregants reaching out fingertips or prayer books or the fringes of their tallises to touch the scroll in its embossed velvet wrap. It means something to Paul! This is so moving, such a victory. What might it mean for their marriage?
At first, a lot. When they went home that day and took back the girls from the housekeeper, he tried to explain. “All those generations,” he said, “and then, in a single generation, my father’s generation, a break. A loss. And I felt, standing there, walking with the scroll, “Here I am,  repairing the breach. You see?”
What breach? It was only his father who was Jewish, after all. If Rabbi Mendel knew that his mother was Episcopalian, he would have never let Paul carry the scroll. Still, she had visions of Paul studying the sacred texts with Rabbi Mendel, studying and ultimately converting. Maybe they'd learn together. They'd hold hands in synagogue. They'd be a Jewish Family.
It improved their love life.
But, of course, when she thought of actually studying with him—well, she was so busy between her work at the gallery in downtown Boston and her rehearsals. She’d majored in theater at Sarah Lawrence. Her true métier was acting. After years away she was able to get leads and strong supporting roles in community theater and even professional theater at the Huntington or A.R.T. When she was in a play, if the play was reasonably appropriate and more or less understandable, Paul brought one or both girls to watch and applaud. Holding a half-time job, she had to pour all of her free time into studying a part or attending rehearsals.
Busy! One was always so busy when one had children. This was a second marriage for each of them. Paul was in his mid-forties, Carole in her late thirties. She’d wasted almost ten years with that narcissistic bastard Tim. She had brought two girls to the table—Sophie, six, and Lara, eight. The bastard Tim, utterly uninterested in them, has gone to live in San Diego. He sends an occasional check. Paul came with a teenaged son—now, after five years, finishing up at Yale. And while Paul shared equally—oh, all right, she had to admit, more than equally—what she referred to as “child care” (attending parent-teacher conferences, cheering at soccer games—and really, to be honest—she couldn’t care less who won as long as the girls were occupied—shlepping one or the other to friends’ houses or ski mountains), she often felt beleaguered. She was, after all, the one to buy them curtains and clothing and take them to doctors and take Sophie to ballet and hire and fire help.
She wanted to make something out of these children. They were such lovely raw material. But she had so little time. Now, as an actress, she has to keep herself looking young and (frankly) beautiful. She’s constantly on a diet, though she’s workout-lean. She refuses to let herself go.
Paul works in “private equity”—what that means exactly she’s never understood. Often it means he works from home; often it means he’s on the road or working in his office very late, and she’s stuck at home trying to make calls for the gallery or learn lines, while one of the girls and perhaps a friend giggle or play a video game too loudly.
Meanwhile, Paul began to attend services Saturday after Saturday. He bought a tallis and took private lessons—where did he find the time?—in prayer-book Hebrew.
Still, when she didn’t have an appointment with her personal trainer, she joined him at synagogue. She was pleased that they were recognized as a Jewish Couple, a significant couple in the congregation, pleased that he donated to the synagogue and was studying for conversion. And now, there came a lovely time, the best time in their marriage, when they were both more or less on the same page. She even prepared a seder and invited the whole mishpocha: her parents, his parents, a cousin who lived nearby.
It was boring, God knows, but kind of sweet. By the time the food could be eaten, everyone was ravenous. But the girls liked hiding the afikoman.
She was rather proud of Paul the day he went through his ritual of conversion and the day he finally came up onto the bima for his first aliya. He said the blessing, he kissed the words on the scroll, and she could see his eyes were red.
She’s also increasingly proud of herself as an actor.
Recently, she’s been learning her lines for a production of a new one-act play, Dream Children, at Playwrights’ Theater. Carole has the lead. A young woman, unable to have a baby, sculpts children out of clay, and keeping them secreted in a cupboard, imagines them into being. They fill the stage—real young actors from a local kids’ theater workshop. And slowly they take over the house, the woman’s life. Comic and pathetic at first, the children become figures from a nightmare and produce in the audience, if the play is done well, a frisson, a deep unease.
She has to move from control to dissolution.
On the Friday evening after his conversion, they light the candles and make the blessings: a blessing over the wine and a blessing over the chalah she’s bought. The girls love it. “What’s that mean?” Lara asks. And Sophie repeats, “What’s that mean?”
He’s learned the song “Shalom Aleichem.” And he reads the traditional verse from Proverbs praising one’s wife, reads it in English: “An accomplished woman who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value. . . .”
The girls giggle.
In bed he whispers, “I’m told it’s a mitzvah to make love, a husband and a wife, on Shabbat.
“Oh, my God,” she laughs. “A mitzvah, huh? So that’s an invitation, Paul?”
This was the moment, Paul thinks months later, the moment everything was in perfect balance. They were both, as she put it, on the same page of the prayer book. It moved him so much, feeling part of a people, feeling in touch with something he couldn’t speak about. He didn’t know what “holy” meant, but he knew he longed for it.
Then when did things start to go to hell?
Maybe it began with the tefillin.
One day he told her, “Rabbi Mendel thinks I’m ready to wear tefillin. He says it’s a big, big mitzvah.” He was grinning as he said this, waiting to see how she’d take it.
Tefillin? Those little black boxes they used to wear on their head and arm? Nobody wears tefillin anymore. That’s so nineteenth century.”
“Yes they do. They do. Carole? Wasn’t this your idea?”
“Well! Yes! But not to go overboard.”
Rabbi Mendel had a brother-in-law in Brooklyn who oversaw production of holy tefillin. A kind of middleman who took a small cut. The words encased were hand-inscribed by a scribe, a holy man. The hard leather boxes with the sacred words seemed a little expensive, but he could afford it.
Now most mornings he straps on tefillin the way Rabbi Mendel showed him, and prays—oh, not all the prayers, but most of the morning service. The girls think he looks funny. They ask him if they can try on the tefillin. Why not? But Carole is peeved. “Just a bit ridiculous, don’t you think?” He thinks she’s uneasy. He prays in his study with his door closed.
More and more he goes to synagogue by himself. It’s as if, having brought him into the synagogue, Carole has become bored and wants to leave him there. He goes alone—not only on Saturday but also on Tuesday mornings to a weekly minyan. And you see? Three, four other men wear tefillin. He considers changing his name to a Hebrew name—to Adam or Jacob. But he can’t think of himself as anything but Paul.
Meantime, Carole has thrown herself into the new play, Dream Children. More and more, she’s away from the house. He calls the gallery on a Friday just before sunset. She’s not there. She’s asked the owner if she could take some time off until the play opens.
He calls her cell.
“Please, Paul, I’m in the middle of rehearsal. You can do the blessings with the girls without me.”
He thinks he hears male laughter as she hangs up. Ominous.
Meanwhile, he tries to be supportive of her work. Opening night he takes Lara and Emily to see Dream Children. They know how to behave at a play. And they love watching their mother perform. “She’s not like Mommy at all!” Sophie whispers. Lara, grown up, hands folded, says, “Shhhh.” But now it’s Lara who whispers, “Look at her clothes. Mommy would never dress like that.”
But the odd thing is, the character on the stage is just like Carole. Her clothes, yes, are for a woman ten years younger, less sophisticated, more like the clothes of a graduate student. But her gestures! Tiny gestures: the way she holds her shoulders hunched against blows, that tightness around the lips. Only he’d never seen it before—not in any of her previous plays, not in her actual life, their life together. But it’s always been there. He’s sure. He’d always seen it—always; he’d simply never realized he’d been seeing it.
What is it he sees? Is it her willfulness? Something like that. Her desire to stay in control? He’s noticing the very careful way she speaks to the created children on stage, tilting her head as if she were speaking to a parrot in a cage. How similar this is to the precise, overly sweet way she speaks to Lara and Sophie offstage! And the panic in her eyes. In the play, the panic comes when the children she has sculpted take over the stage, threaten her. Oh yes, he’s seen that expression. Hasn’t he indeed! And after the play, every day now he sees it. Having seen it, he can’t not see it. When Sophie spills a spoonful of food on the table or Lara forgets to close the jam jar, Carole’s eyes turn away in the same helplessness, the same expression of victimization. Then comes the hardening around the mouth, as if she, Carole, decides to be undefeated by the mess. Then the tilt of the head and the overly sweet speech. But under the speech—chaos.
At the end of the play, the character leaves her apartment and double-locks the door. She runs, runs into a void made palpable with scrims and lighting, while the children press their noses against the window and look out. Ravenously.
After the play closes, Carole remains busy—working in the gallery, of course, attending auditions, working out, seeing friends. When she does get home, he finds it painful to look at her. Either he sees the gestures and smiles he saw when she was on stage, or he sees compensatory smiles and gestures—as if she were covering over the self he’d discovered.
“I’ve been seeing someone,” she says flatly one evening, after the girls are in bed. She carries to the couch a bottle of cognac on a silver tray and fills two crystal snifters.
More theater, he thinks. Noel Coward, he thinks, and plays along. “Yes? Whom are you seeing?”
She deliberates before she speaks, wanting, he supposes, to frame perfectly what she says. “’Whom,’ she says in parody. “I’ve been seeing James O’Donnell. That’s whom.
“Ah. Your director.”
“My director.”
“Well. We got through that little revelation in one piece,” he says, smiling. Then: “Jewish?” he asks, eyebrows raised. “Sorry,” he laughs. “Just a dig. You can’t blame me.”
“He’s becoming important to me,” she continues. “Jewish or not Jewish.”
“I’m sure.”
“It’s possibly. . . the way he sees me; that’s what’s so wonderful. Yes. It’s the way he sees me.”
He looks right into her eyes. At this moment he respects her powers of awareness. For he’s sure she’s right. He himself has little love for the woman he’s been seeing across the dinner table ever since rehearsals began. And what’s happened to her beauty? It’s as if his eyes have been damaged, his love disabled. It’s sad. He thinks of an ironic blessing: Blessed are You, Lord our God, who permits us to wreck our lives.
“Let’s give it time,” he says.
Now when he goes to services, he goes alone. He takes a workshop in chanting Torah and sometimes comes up on the bima to read from the scroll. Some of his shul buddies ask for his beautiful wife. “Busy with the kids,” he says. He feels as if he’s made a trek with her into uncharted territory, and somewhere along the way in the wilds she waved goodbye and took a taxi home. Still, he keeps going to synagogue. He needs to go, though when he’s there, he’s very sad. He wonders if they suspect. Still, he’s not the only one who comes to synagogue alone, whose spouse stays home.
In fact, at shul he meets a casual friend he knew through work. He hadn’t even known the man was Jewish. Over the following weeks they have lunch together. Arthur is in the middle of getting a divorce. He sees his eight-year-old twin boys once during the week and every other weekend. Is this my future? One evening, when Carole’s out, Paul cooks spaghetti puttanesca for Arthur and for all the children: two boys, two girls. Carole, coming home early from rehearsal, is bewildered by the company, can’t handle it after her busy day, and retreats to the bedroom.
Paul’s busier than ever with the girls. He’s always cooked most meals and done a lot of the shopping. Now he does it all. When he’s not busy, he gets lonely.
Through his work he has met some terrific women. He’s always needed to be with a woman. He looks through the contacts on his smartphone to stir his memory. He says their names aloud into the phone; emails and telephone numbers magically appear on the screen. But then he asks himself, Is this the way a good Jewish family man behaves in a crisis? He stays patient.
“I have a new play,” she says one night. “I’m playing someone a bit older, not younger. She’s Jewish, you’ll be glad to learn.”
“Why would I be glad? Same director?”
“Why? Do you think because he’s not Jewish he can’t direct a play about a Jewish family?”
“Of course not. Hmm. Tell me: Is he going to convert for you?”
“I shouldn’t tell you anything.”
Do the girls feel something’s wrong? Perhaps. He thinks so, because often lately Sophie says she’s sick and can’t go to school, though there’s nothing obviously wrong. And Lara goes off to her friend’s house every afternoon instead of bringing her friend home as she used to. Or is he being overly sensitive? He worries, worries a lot: If Carole leaves him—or if he leaves her—well, he’s not the girls’ biological father. He’ll never get shared custody, and they mean more to him than anyone but his son, more than they did when the marriage seemed firm. He can’t stand the idea of losing them. And he believes he’s better for them than Carole is.
Some evenings Carole takes the girls out for dinner. He cooks himself a little piece of salmon.
Night after night, Carole is full of grief. As an actress, she knows how to hide it from Paul. They attend a dinner party together and are polite, even gracious, with each other. But when her guard is down, the grief engulfs her. They don’t look at each other. She lies on one side of the big bed; he lies on the other. They don’t touch. She knows he’s awake just as she’s awake.
Sometimes she makes her image of Jim O’Donnell into a talisman of happiness. Long-legged, lanky, with a bony face and blue eyes, he’s completely beautiful. And such a good director. But in her saner moments she knows it’ll never be serious between them. So what am I doing? What am I doing?
Somehow the grief she feels spills over into the part she’s been asked to play. In The Rain in San Francisco she’s a Jewish mother in her forties, worried about her grown daughter, whom she suspects of sleeping around, maybe getting into drugs. And more worried about her husband, who’s been diagnosed with a brain tumor. As in Dream Children, she has to stay in control. But this time she can’t run. She has to be reliable. Rehearsing for the part, she feels stuck, oppressed. But not, this time, in chaos.
As for her director, James O’Donnell, she thinks the relationship with Jim is fading fast, has already faded. In fact, he seems more interested in the pretty young woman, a theater student at Boston U., who plays the daughter. Well, she should have known. The lovely, intense exchanges of looks when she was rehearsing Dream Children, when they’d stop for a drink or a cup of tea after rehearsal, have ended. Now it’s the graduate student he goes off with. She’s glad she hasn’t spoken to her friends about her marriage or her little affair. To do so would make the situation so final and fixed. And after all, she and Jim made love only once. Well, no—twice. Sweet enough but not life-changing. She demands indifference of herself.
She doesn’t ask Paul to bring the girls to the play. But she leaves three tickets at the box office for “her family,” just in case. And she wonders—as, in front of a mirror, she makes herself look ten years older—whether there’ll be a gap in the third row.
There isn’t. The play goes well, she thinks. It’s a terribly sad play and probably confusing for the girls, and it leaves Carole full of a residue of sadness. Afterwards, her family waits for members of the first-night audience to greet the cast, to shake hands or hug, and then Paul and the girls squeeze into her dressing room to watch her take off her makeup.
“You looked so old,” Lara tells her mother.
“Just watch,” Carole says. With cold cream, she magically takes off ten years, and with a little makeup, another five. Young and pretty again, she introduces her family to Jim; the men are polite, Paul congratulates.
It bothers her that Paul’s not more upset. How depressing!
The sadness of the role she’s playing stays with her, performance to performance. When she looks up at Paul across the breakfast table, she sees him looking at her differently. It’s a kind look. It’s a tender look—a look filled with heart. Good God! This change absolutely irritates her; she is damn well not going to satisfy his idea of a wife by staying sad. She’s not going to become a depressive, middle-aged, Jewish wife!
And remembering the characters she’s played in summer stock in plays by Noel Coward—Sybil in Private Lives, for instance—she forces herself to be cool, comic, elegant. For some days she even speaks with the hint of an upper-class English accent—the lips hardly moving, the eyebrows permanently arched. If that doesn’t turn him the hell away from the notion that she’s going to be some heartfelt Hadassah wife, what will? But how long can she keep up the Noel Coward repartee?
And really, it’s wasted effort! Will he ever stop? He keeps looking at her, looking the same way. As if she’s a Helpmate, some awful Good Jewish Wife! Oh! That Good-Jewish-Wife look! In revolt, she raises her eyebrows: again she’s the droll, clever sophisticate out of Noel Coward. Instantly she hates the role. She’s caught between roles she can’t stand, for she also hates playing—no, hates becoming—that burdened, responsible woman in San Francisco. She’s irritated with Paul, as if he is requiring her to choose between those roles. That’s not fair. She knows it’s not fair.
And after awhile, his look begins to melt her. Her eyebrows return to normal. She begins to look back at him. Remember the passion we began with! The sweetness we settled into. How did we lose that sweetness?
The Rain in San Francisco has its run, it’s over, and she still can’t get out of character. She hears it in her voice. She’s an ordinary, generous, long-suffering Jewish wife; Noel Coward has dissolved like the bubbles in standing champagne, leaving sour wine. A lump of sadness fills her chest. She sighs. The last thing she wants is to turn depressive. God forbid. Or contemplative. Who needs that? She feels panic. Like the character she played in Dream Children, she feels panic and wants to run out of the house and double lock the door behind her, but she fears the void that character rushes into.
Anyway it would be, she thinks, like surrendering the field of battle. It would be leaving not dream children, but Sophie and Lara. And it would be giving up Paul, and actually, she has to admit, she doesn’t want to give up Paul, does she? Jim, she says to herself—God, he was nothing. He was just my gesture to Paul, a move in a stupid game, my way of saying something.
The following Saturday morning, out of the blue, bringing Lara with her, she joins him at synagogue. It’s not something she planned. But her little one, Sophie, is spending the morning with her aunt, Carole’s sister. So why not? Time to get Lara acclimated to synagogue. Carole says, “Lara—come, sweetie. Get dressed in nice clothes.” They drive the few blocks to synagogue. Lara looks like a doll! Time and past time to get her into Hebrew school.
And there he is, near the front. She has to walk down the long, center aisle, everyone noticing, to sit beside him. Just look at him, the big galumph! If she didn’t know better, she’d think he’d grown up in that full-body tallis and knitted yarmulke. He sings all the prayers. With his busy schedule, when did he have time to learn? He half-shuts his eyes and rocks a little.
She can tell he’s pleased they’ve come. Of course, this absolutely annoys her; it brings the blood of self-consciousness to her cheeks. But she’s flattered, isn’t she? Yet she also wants to run away. Andshe wants to find some way to be simply herself, not any sort of character. All that. She has to fight herself not to cover up with a charming smile.
“You look so different,” he says. “Carole? You look very pretty.”
“I’m no different,” she says. “You’re seeing differently, is all.” Yet somehow she feels different, doesn’t she?
After services they take Lara to her friend’s house for the afternoon. Driving home they say nothing to each other. Carole feels shy, as if she’s alone with someone she doesn’t know. Partly it’s because Paul, too, feels shy. She wants to apologize for things, but she can’t get the words out. He pulls a kitchen chair over to her side of the table, and, sitting down, he takes her hand. Now, as if remembering her lines, she says in a musical voice—either simply providing information or being clever—“Did you know, Paul, it’s apparently a really big, big, big mitzvah to lie down with your husband on a Shabbat afternoon? So I’ve been told. Really. The phrase ‘Shabbat afternoon nap’ is apparently a well known Jewish euphemism.”
Copyright © John Clayton 2013
John J. Clayton’s fourth novel, Mitzvah Man, was published in 2011. A new collection of stories, Many Seconds into the Future, will be published winter 2013-14 with Texas Tech University Press. Wrestling with Angels: New and Collected Stories has recently been republished. His stories have appeared in Commentary, Missouri Review, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, etc., and have won prizes in O.Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His story collection Radiance was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Clayton grew up in New York City; he is Professor Emeritus of modern literature and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

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