By Milton Teichman
The condition he set for their getting married was that she join him in living an Orthodox Jewish life. At first, Rachel thought David’s demand unreasonable. Though she was nominally Jewish, how could she observe customs and perform rituals whose meaning she dimly understood? How could she know whether such observances resonated with her personality and values? And how could she accept a patriarchal tradition that gave secondary status to women?
At the same time, her feeling for David was deep—despite the fact that he was fifteen years her senior and less good-looking than any man she had previously been drawn to. She loved him because he was gentle, he was thoughtful, and he was eager to improve himself ethically and morally. “My philosophy of Judaism is very simple,” he said to her. “Lovingkindness is the highest wisdom.” And indeed Rachel knew no one who practiced lovingkindness as he did. Regularly, he made contributions to needy individuals in the community, always concealing his identity as giver. Regularly, he visited the sick in the Crown Heights, Brooklyn area where he lived, Jew and Gentile alike—mostly individuals whom he did not know. Compared to her first husband who, she believed, had never grown out of his adolescence, David was mature and substantial. He had built up a small computer company from scratch and lived in a modest but tidy house, all paid for. But mostly she admired him for his desire to add meaning and beauty to his life.
“I’d like you to know, Rachel, that I’m a ba’al teshuva,” he said to her shortly after they met. She had heard the phrase before, but she wasn’t sure she knew what it meant.
“It means that I’m a person who returns to Jewish observance after not caring much about it at all. It means also that I intend to change my ways for the better . . . to leave my old life behind.” He studied her face for a reaction to his words. “I’m learning to give up ‘false gods,’ if you know what I mean. I’m learning to value myself and to love other human beings—through deeds.”
He spoke to her about his “old life”—his drinking too much, his irresponsibility as worker and as husband. He spoke about the heart attack at age forty-five, which he believed he brought upon himself. And he spoke about his childhood—the loss of his parents in an auto accident, his years under the care of grandparents.
Rachel was moved by his honesty, by his opening his heart to her, and she opened her heart to him. She, too, had acted in ways she was not proud of, made foolish decisions that darkened years of her life. She told him how she married a man of little merit, a man she hardly knew, driven by sexual desire and by little more. She told of her failure to develop the artistic gifts she was endowed with, her neglect of elderly parents when they needed her.
Sharing her past with David, she realized how much they had in common. He had turned to Orthodox Judaism, and she, a secular Jew, had immersed herself for a time in Eastern mysticism in order to bring her fragmented life into some kind of harmony. Like David, she wanted a meaningful life—a life not stunted by self-absorption. She and David were not so different after all. But more than anything else, she loved him and she felt loved, and in the end she decided to agree to what at first seemed so unreasonable a request. Together, she thought, they would draw wisdom from a time-honored tradition to make their lives richer. Wasn’t it time for her at age forty to embark on a journey that could elevate her life? Wasn’t it good that David, fifteen years her senior, could be her guide?
After they were married, Rachel moved into David’s house, a small ranch-style house on a tree-lined street. Such a move, they agreed, was practical and money-saving. The house was furnished simply and tastefully. Rachel felt it reflected the quality of calm she found in David. Having Rachel as his wife, David praised the meals she prepared for him and extolled the many ways she added beautiful touches to their modest house. He left love notes with silly rhymes on the refrigerator before he left for work. He brought her a stream of small gifts—silver earrings, a silk scarf, toilet water she was fond of, bouquets of flowers. He would hold the gift behind his back as he came forward to plant a kiss on her lips. Then with a full smile he would proudly present what he held in his hands. He felt a keen pleasure seeing her look of surprise and hearing her delighted response.
“You are God’s gift to me,” she said to him on one such occasion.
“God answered my prayers,” he whispered back.
After the wedding, David suggested Rachel take a leave from her work as school nurse for the purpose of developing her creative self. Since David was doing well in his business, Rachel accepted the idea. Daily, she worked at her easel. How good it felt to get back to an activity that gave her so much satisfaction. When David returned in the evening, he loved looking at what she had painted, and he heaped praise on her efforts.
Rachel herself was amazed at the ease with which she embraced an Orthodox lifestyle. She joyfully observed the Sabbath with all its obligations and requirements. She observed the dietary laws in all their exactness. And when she was unsure of this or that detail of Orthodox observance, she would consult David. And if David was unsure of an answer, she would consult Rabbi Steinberg, the rabbi who married them. She followed all the laws of “purity” in her sexual relations with David, never veering from the rules, which included a visit to the mikva, the ritual bath, when her period ended.
“I feel that I’m bringing God into my life,” she said to David one Sabbath eve after she lit the Sabbath candles. “I never quite had that feeling before.”
Rachel went further in her Orthodox observances than David had expected. He was surprised when she began to wear long dresses that covered her shapely legs, and long sleeves that covered her well-formed arms—all in accord with Orthodox precepts regarding female modesty. And he was even more surprised, and indeed he felt a touch of disappointment when she decided to cover her long auburn hair with a wig in the manner of very Orthodox women.
“Have you ever thought of growing a beard, David?” she asked him. “Isn’t it traditional?”
“I’ve thought about it, but it’s not a tradition I’m inclined to follow. At least not yet.” With a touch of irony, he added, “My bushy head of graying hair will have to suffice.”
Rachel touched his hair gently and affectionately and adjusted his skull cap at a rakish angle. He looked at himself in the living-room mirror, glanced at her amused look, and they both had a hearty laugh.
Charity is a religious obligation in Judaism, but the charity Rachel offered at the end of each Sabbath was more than David and she could really afford. David suggested gently that she moderate her giving, but his suggestion produced little change. When he raised the matter again, she said, “You are the one, David, who helped me understand that the word tzedaka doesn’t simply mean charity. It means ‘justice’: it’s a matter of justice that those who have should share with those who have not.”
David listened to her words and thought how curious life is. Who could imagine that the request he made of Rachel would produce in him a string of ambivalent feelings?
Several months after they were married—how quickly summer and fall had passed—Rachel began to feel a longing that her love for David, her pleasure in painting, and her new-found faith could not assuage—a longing for a child of her own. She had had two miscarriages during her previous marriage and was told by her doctors that she could not have children. These facts she had shared with David before they were married. He had listened sympathetically and said, “I myself have no desire for children, so don’t feel, Rachel, that you are depriving me in any way. I’m grateful that my son Gerald is finding his way at college after some rough going.”
Before meeting David, she thought she had reconciled herself to not having a child, but the feeling of deprivation surfaced with new strength. Was it because she saw in the Orthodox neighborhood in which she now lived so many mothers wheeling baby carriages, often with one or two children trailing behind? Was it the hope that the doctors might be wrong and that with David, whom she loved, she might yet become pregnant? But as the months passed, such hopes were not realized.
I must be grateful for all that God has given me, she told herself. She tried to focus on the blessings she enjoyed, but the longing persisted. She tried to concentrate more intently on her art work, but she began to feel a sense of isolation working by herself. She thought of returning to her work as a school nurse, but full-time work seemed more now than she wished to handle. She concluded that a meaningful part-time job might bring her satisfaction. It might distract her, also, from what was becoming a preoccupation—her being childless.
“Have you thought of taking an art class where you could work alongside other painters?” David asked her.
“No, I think I’d rather have a work experience in our community where I can make a contribution.” She was not ready to share with David her feelings about being childless. Why bring a troubled note into their harmony?
After a brief search, Rachel found work as an administrative assistant in the local synagogue in which they had been married. She typed letters that Rabbi Steinberg dictated, and she made various appointments for him. She made arrangements for various functions held in the synagogue and handled miscellaneous bookkeeping tasks. She did all this with efficiency and returned a part of her modest salary to the synagogue in the form of a weekly donation. She was helping to maintain a Jewish house of worship, and this, she thought, was significant work. David, too, thought the work important, and he was pleased that Rachel found satisfaction in it.
When she typed the following short letter for Rabbi Steinberg, it was as if the sun burst through clouds:
Dear Director of Child Placement,
Thank you for informing me of the availability of two brothers, ages nine and eleven, of Orthodox parents, for placement in a foster home for ultimate adoption. I will make this information known to members of my congregation. We would like to be of assistance if we can.
Rabbi Erwin Steinberg
Why hadn’t the idea occurred to her? She and David could provide a foster home for a child, and that experience, should it be a good one, could lead to adoption. Wasn’t it a mitzva, a sacred act, to care for an orphaned child, to raise it to become a Torah-loving Jew? Meanwhile, the letter she typed filled her mind with all sorts of questions. Were the boys’ parents deceased or ill? Were there no relatives to care for the brothers? She could not wait to tell David about what was exciting her.
That evening, when dinner was over and they were still seated at the dinner table, Rachel said, “Do you remember, David, when we were talking recently about the difference between kindness and lovingkindness, and you said that a visit to a sick friend in the hospital is a kindness, but a visit to a sick stranger in the hospital is a lovingkindness?”
David nodded and smiled. He was pleased that his wife took an interest in these ethical distinctions.
“A thought came to me at work today as I was typing a letter for Rabbi Steinberg. To raise one’s own child with caring and love takes great kindness, doesn’t it?”
“Of course,” he replied. “I would think kindness is almost too pale a word for what it takes to raise a child well.”
“But to raise someone else’s child,” she continued, “a child whose parents are unable to raise it—isn’t that an act of exceptional lovingkindness?”
David took a moment to digest what she was saying. “Yes, it is. It certainly is, but why do you mention this now?”
Rachel’s face became flushed by the urgency of the request she was about to make. “Would you join me, David, in providing a foster home for a child whose parents are deceased or who are unable to care for it?”
Rachel saw the look of surprise on her husband’s face. And while he was arranging his thoughts for a response, she added, “David, this could be an extraordinary act of love that you and I could undertake together. And if all goes well, we can consider adoption.”
David looked at her with feelings which, at the moment, he could scarcely sort out. He was simultaneously proud of a wife who was so large-hearted, and at the same time he felt strangely unsettled, almost fearful. After a long silence, he said, “I would have to give it a lot of thought.” And saying this, he felt that challenges altogether new and formidable were confronting him.
Rachel excitedly told David the contents of the letter she typed for the rabbi. “I’m not suggesting these two brothers, David, but a different young child. A young child would be less demanding than an infant.” She placed her hand on his as they sat across from each other at the table. “Of course it will be a big responsibility and hard work, but there will be joy in it.” She paused and searched his face. “David, we can use some of my savings, and there will be a modest stipend from the agency. So you see there won’t be an added financial burden upon you. Of course, I would stop working and become a full-time parent.”
Rachel’s words drove David inward. He knew that his less than eager response was not what Rachel was hoping for.
“It’s not the money, Rachel. It’s that I’m going to be fifty-five soon.” He paused and looked down at the empty dinner plate. “I don’t know whether I have the stamina and the patience to be a father.” He looked up at her. “Rachel, I love the life we have together. . . . I’m contented now.”
He studied Rachel’s face for a sign of understanding. When he saw her disappointment, he said, “I know what it would mean to you . . . I do.” He got up from his chair, stared for a moment at the carpet, and then said, “I have to think it through very carefully.”
“Will it be okay, David, if I call the agency just for information? I’m not asking you to commit yourself now. I’d simply like to know how a couple qualifies as foster parents, how long it might take before a child becomes available.”
“I think it’s premature,” he said. He looked at her, raised his palms upward, and added, “Well, if that makes you feel better.”
At work the next day, Rachel contacted the adoption agency, explained her work with Rabbi Steinberg, and provided information about herself and her husband. She learned that the chances of their qualifying as foster parents were strong. There would be a year’s wait, however, before a placement would become available. Would she and her husband consider parenting two children? the social worker then asked. It would be two brothers, the boys mentioned in the letter to Rabbi Steinberg. Each was now in an Orthodox foster home, but the agency wished to place them, as soon as possible, in a single home where they could be together.
Rachel felt a strange excitement. She sat for a moment digesting the information she received on the phone. David would never agree to take two children. Better to focus on a single child, she thought, even if one had to wait a whole year. The wait would give her and David time to get used to the idea of becoming surrogate parents. But in the next instant, a year’s wait seemed to her an awfully long time. She checked the telephone directory for other agencies that placed Jewish children for adoption and learned that the wait for a child could be even longer than one year.
Meanwhile, thoughts of the two brothers preoccupied her. She could not put them out of her mind. Maybe it wouldn’t be that much more work to provide a home for two brothers. There are so many homes in which parents raise several children. And besides, could there be a more worthy undertaking than to bring brothers together in a single home where they could find comfort in each other? Wasn’t it a double mitzva?
“It’s out of the question!” David exclaimed in a volume that startled Rachel. “Two children! You can’t be serious!”
“I am serious. Think of what that would mean to the children.” She looked pleadingly at him. “When we see the good,” she added, “we have to be able to act on it. Haven’t I heard you say that many times?”
“Rachel, I want to do the right thing, but you’re idealizing me to think that I can enter into this project as fully as you can. Maybe yes, if we had married years ago. But not now, not at this time of my life. . . .”
“I’m not idealizing you, David. I know who you are. You’re more suited now to being a loving father than ever before. You’re more sensitive, more compassionate . . . more of a whole person now than before—by your own say-so.”
“But two boys, traumatized by losing parents and by living in foster homes—do you know what wounds will have to be healed, or will never be healed? Do you know what endless patience and effort will be required of foster parents? Rachel, at this time of my life, I can’t match your energy or your spirit.” He paused. “I love and admire your spirit, but I can’t equal it. . . .And something more, Rachel: We’ve been married less than a year. . . .Do you realize that? Only eight months. We’re still getting to know each other.”
“I know you very well. . . You’re a man who is an inspiration to me.”
“I’m pleased that you say so, but you mustn’t make me more than I am. I wish we had discussed the matter of having children before we married. . . . I shouldn’t have assumed you didn’t want any.”
“Okay, I won’t press you, David.”
Rachel saw how her request subdued David, made him less talkative, less cheerful. She realized she had brought a cloud between them. She wondered what happened to her sense of gratitude, her feeling of contentment. How had she become so obsessive? Three days later, while David was reading the paper in the living room one evening, she came over to him, gently put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Maybe I need to get beyond this compulsion to become a mother. It’s placing a curtain between us.” David put the newspaper down and looked up at her. “Maybe,” she continued, “I’m not grateful enough for what God has already given me. All I think about are the two boys. It’s a fantasy. I seem to be in the grip of an obsession.”
David was glad to hear this effort at objectivity on Rachel’s part. “Maybe it’s because your good heart, which is always looking for mitzvot is romanticizing being a mother to troubled children.”
Rachel felt comforted by the affectionate way David described her feelings.
David wanted to help Rachel see things clearly. “I was a troubled youngster,” he began, “and in retrospect I know what my grandparents had to deal with. I tell you I wish I had showered them with endless thanks before they died. If you knew the toil and frustration of being foster parents, you might think differently.”
“You may be right, but I can’t stop thinking that the love we have for one another can help these boys . . . that we can share our good fortune with them.”
“There’s your beautiful heart again. I think if you met these boys, had a glimpse of their deprivations and needs, you might quickly free yourself of what you call your ‘fantasy’.” Having said these words, a fresh thought occurred to him. “Yes, maybe you should meet them, just to become more realistic.”
“Do you mean that?”
He thought a moment. “Yes, because you need to come down to earth. I’ll take a morning or afternoon off from work.”
“Is it right to make an appointment for such a purpose—to bring me down to earth?”
“In this case, I think it is. You need to get clear what foster-parenting to two troubled children really means.”
Before they could meet the boys, they met with a social worker who gave them a preliminary picture of the brothers’ recent history. Their Orthodox parents, because of psychiatric problems, had severely neglected them. The school nurse at the school they attended notified the appropriate authorities that the children were being sent to school unfed and unwashed. The older boy, Jacob, then age nine, was not yet fully toilet-trained. There was evidence, she continued, of physical abuse, which led the court to terminate the parents’ custody of the children. David and Rachel hung on every word. Now and again they exchanged glances. The social worker added that the boys were now living separately in different foster homes, their second placement in two years, and were not making good adjustments. The younger, now age nine, was hyperactive; the older, age eleven, had periods of depression. Each was intelligent, but neither was doing well at school.
David thought to himself: I wasn’t wrong.
What was needed, the social worker added, was one Orthodox Jewish home for both boys, and foster parents willing to provide loving care to two difficult youngsters. If there was a good adjustment, adoption could follow.
“Would you care to meet the boys?” asked the social worker.
David and Rachel looked at each other. Rachel hesitated a moment and then nodded.
A week later, on a cold January afternoon, they were in the same room, alone with the boys. Jacob, eleven, was a light-haired chubby youngster with full lips and a lisp that blurred his speech. Joseph, age nine, was darker in complexion than his brother, slightly built, with a linear scar on his chin from some earlier fall or accident. Both were wearing skullcaps and small tallitot whose fringes were showing from under their white shirts. They responded to David’s offer of a handshake. Joseph, the younger boy, was restless, hopping from one foot to another. “Would you like to see me stand on my head?” he asked, and before getting an answer, he was doing precisely that, his upside-down face displaying a broad grin. “My brother can’t do this. He’s not as athletic as I am.”
“Idiot!” Jacob exclaimed.
Rachel and David were surprised when the older boy asked them whether they were frum, that is, Orthodox, as if he were interviewing prospective foster parents.
“Yes, we’re frum,” David said, “though in the past we were not.” He was aware that he was not wearing his skullcap.
“My brother and I are frum,” Joseph joined in, and he touched his skull cap as if to offer proof.
“Did you have a good day today?” Rachel asked Joseph.
Joseph thought a moment, his mouth slightly open. “I know when something bad happens, but I don’t know when I’ve had a good day.”
“Well, I hope nothing bad happened today,” replied Rachel.
Jacob, who until now seemed taciturn, turned to David and asked, “What if robots will be driving cars and planes in the future?”
“Well, that’s possible,” said David. “Maybe they’ll be safer drivers.”
Joseph meanwhile was running circles around the room.
“I see you’re interested in science and technology,” David added.
“I’m interested in robots and futuristic stuff.”
“That’s great! Do you like the school you’re attending?”
Jacob made a face and answered in a single word: “Boring.”
Still running around the perimeter of the room, Joseph chimed in, “So is my school boring.”
When David and Rachel were ready to say goodbye, Jacob said in a faint voice, “Thanks for visiting. I hope God—I mean Hashem—helps you find children you can love.”
David was startled and moved by these words. He felt an urge to put his arms around these two boys and draw them close. He looked at Rachel and saw she was on the verge of tears.
On the way home, she felt compelled to tell David that meeting the boys and learning about their difficulties did not weaken her desire to provide a home for them. Rather it strengthened her desire. She was more clear now than ever about her feelings: “God has led me to these boys. I beg you, David, to join me in work that is holy. ”
This all seemed to David like a dream. For an instant he entertained the thought that God was using him as an instrument to bring Rachel to these children. And if this were so, wouldn’t God give him the strength and the desire and the love he needed to care for them along with Rachel? But he could not sustain these thoughts in the face of all the logical and practical reasons that came forward to discourage him from joining her. Yet what would saying no mean for their relationship? Would he feel guilty of depriving her of what she deeply desired? Would refusal distance her from him? What kind of marriage would they have?
“I just don’t know what to say, Rachel. I just don’t have an answer.”
In the days that followed, he tried to unravel his tangled feelings. Part of him wanted to give Rachel what she wanted and needed. Had she not been willing to commit herself to what he wanted and needed in a wife—to live an Orthodox Jewish life? Was his life as a Jew truly devout if he performed only those deeds that came easily and naturally? Wasn’t it a sign of true goodness to overcome reluctance for the sake of lovingkindness?
But immediately, opposite thoughts gathered weight in his mind: his sense of being too old for fatherhood, his desire to reduce the stresses of daily life. Yes, he was a ba’al teshuva, serious and earnest in his desire to live a better life than in the past, but he was not a tzadik, a saint. To be moderate in one’s goodness, isn’t that enough? But at once he remembered a Hasidic teaching which sent him in a contrary direction: One should be moderate in all things except loving, to make up for the lack of it in the world. This seemed to settle the matter, until he thought: But what about the need to love myself? Not selfishly, of course, but to preserve God’s gifts to me of body and mind?
He oscillated between “I can” and “I can’t” so much that he feared he was not being alert enough when he drove his van. He feared he was not paying full attention when his clients spoke to him or made requests. She turned her life around for you, repeated a voice in his head, and he saw her lovely face before him and her beseeching eyes. In the end, he decided to agree to Rachel’s request.
Her joy was boundless. She could not leave off kissing and hugging him. “Are you sure, my dear? Are you sure?” she asked as she embraced him.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
When Rachel told Rabbi Steinberg about the change in their lives and how it evolved from the letter she typed for him, he heaped congratulations upon her and David. He would miss her when she left, but she could always come back to work in the synagogue if she wished to.
Because the boys had different special needs, they attended different Orthodox schools. Rachel rose early to get the boys ready and drive them to school. In the late afternoon, she picked them up and then prepared supper. There were many appointments to be kept with doctors and therapists, so it seemed that Rachel was always behind the wheel. Joseph, the younger boy, wet his bed frequently so there was the endless washing of sheets and related items. Jacob still had occasional “accidents.” When they occurred at home, David helped him to clean himself, helped him preserve some privacy, and tried to ease him through these incidents. The therapist thought the situation for both boys would improve once they felt more secure in their new home.
Most difficult was the way the boys fought with each other, constantly punching each other, and wrestling, and, in the process, overturning tables and lamps and other fragile objects. Though they were glad to be living together, they could become enraged at each other for what seemed trifles. Their conflicts, which neither parent could fully control, kept the house in a state of continual tumult and disorder. There were also tantrums when one boy or the other didn’t get what he wanted—whether it was time to watch television, a special dessert, or a delay of bedtime. These tantrums, which consisted of howling and kicking and tears, added to the household din.
David’s efforts to reason with them, to speak to them calmly and lovingly, did little to change their behavior. His efforts to discipline them—to withdraw this or that privilege—proved equally ineffective. In the synagogue as well as at home, peace for David was vanishing. The boys sat with him in the men’s section of the synagogue, Joseph on one side of him, Jacob on the other. Because their attention spans were short, they made numerous trips to the bathroom, as well as trips to survey the state of the synagogue lobby where other restless youngsters were inclined to congregate. David’s mind wandered as he looked down at the prayer book. What were the boys up to? His desire to focus on the prayers, to enjoy the poetry of the liturgy, to reflect on the meaning of his days—all that seemed no longer available to him.
When frustrations and annoyances regarding the boys were at a height, David said to himself: I must love them more! I must be more patient! He remembered a legend about King Solomon who wore a ring inscribed with four words to lift his spirits in difficult times: This too shall pass. And when hoped-for change in the behavior of the boys seemed imperceptible—when they were no less hyperactive, no less explosive with each other, no less prone to tantrums, David fell back on an ancient expression of faith: This, too, is for the good. Maybe what I’m experiencing, he said to himself, is God’s plan for me, God’s way of refining me, of making me a better person.
In the meantime, Rachel was indefatigable in the energy she expended on the boys. She was unfailing and unstinting in her attention to the needs of her foster children, remarkable in her patience. In spite of all the boys’ problems and limitations, she came to love them more and more. She asked little of them and gave of herself totally. As the months went by, the boys began to make overtures of affection toward her—Jacob with a good night kiss and a long, tight hug, and Joseph with the word Mommy. For Rachel, no satisfaction could have been greater than the sound of this word. “David,” she said, “have you noticed? They’re beginning to bond with us.” In her heart, she already knew that she would like to make these children her own.
The months passed. In the garden behind their house, the crocuses were displaying themselves. Soon she would plant petunias and marigolds. She would ask David to help her plant two or three rose bushes. Meanwhile she witnessed her husband’s malaise but knew intuitively she could not reason him into cheerfulness. He would need more time to adjust. Despite her exhaustive schedule, she prepared for him special dishes she knew he enjoyed. She made enquiries about the details of his work. Because she loved to learn from him, she asked him questions of a religious nature as she had done in the past: “What did the rabbis of old say about rearing children?” “Which did they think was stronger, the inclination in us for good or the inclination for evil?” And she carefully made time for physical intimacy. “God gave you to me, David,” she whispered in his ear while they made love.
In spite of David’s deep desire to “love them more,” he experienced a growing sense of alienation from the boys. One evening when they were asleep he said to Rachel, “I’m not doing well. I don’t know if I can go through with being a foster parent. And the idea of adoption just frightens me terribly.” It took an act of courage for him to say these words to Rachel. “I’m just not as flexible as I hoped I would be. . . Maybe there’s something unloving in my nature.”
“No, you are good, and I love you, David. Whatever I know of goodness I think I’ve learned from you.”
“You see me as better than I am. I’ve told you that before.”
“You’re too hard on yourself. You’ve done a fine job with the boys.”
As the days and weeks passed, David’s self-criticism became more and more severe. What kind of a moral hero did I pretend to be? How could I have been so foolish? From self-reproach, his thoughts turned to criticism of Rachel. She gives no thought to my needs. Why doesn’t she set limits for the boys? Why don’t I hear her say No to them? Naturally, they think I’m the bad one.
At home, David became quiet and withdrawn. When he did speak, he did so with unaccustomed formality.
“Are you okay, David?” Rachel asked one Sabbath afternoon when he returned with the boys from the synagogue. “You seem not to be yourself. Did something happen at the synagogue?”
Unable to preserve his dignified alienation, he blurted out, “The boys won’t sit still for a minute. It’s because of what’s happening at home. I simply find the situation intolerable, just intolerable!”
“What is it?”
“You’re far too permissive with the boys. I try to set limits, and you go in the opposite direction. Why don’t you say no once in a while?”
Rachel was hurt by the blanket criticism.
“I told them two weeks ago that if we saw less fighting and yelling,” he continued, “and if we didn’t need to pester them constantly to do their homework and to go to bed, we’d get them a dog.” Rachel saw his face redden and heard the mounting anger in his voice. “So what happens? A week ago, with no discussion between us, you take them to the animal shelter and they choose a dog—I hear this from Joseph today in the synagogue—and I learn that next week the animal is coming into the chaos of this house.”
David’s words stung her by their distortion. “‘Depending on your approval’, I told them. Didn’t the boys mention that?”
These words calmed him momentarily. “Okay, but what about your buying them every toy and video game they ask for because, ‘poor children, they’ve been so deprived’? Now they want their own computer. Using ours is not good enough. Why don’t I hear you say the word No? Why don’t I hear you say: ‘Jacob, Joseph, we simply can’t afford to buy you a computer’?”
Rachel had not seen David in so agitated a state. And this was the Sabbath, the day for peace. She felt unjustly criticized and strangely frightened. But she knew this was not the time to defend herself. She was glad the boys were in the back yard playing checkers on the picnic table.
David was silent for a moment in an effort to calm himself. He knew that his words were not appropriate for the Sabbath. “Things are just not working out, Rachel.” His voice was now more subdued. “I’m simply not suited for parenthood. Maybe if I were thirty-five and not fifty-five there’d be a chance. I simply cannot love them as you do.” He paused. He took deep breaths. “I reached too high, Rachel. I made a mistake.”
“Love will come, David. I know you better than you know yourself. It will come.” She wished she could ease his self-reproach. “Remember, the boys have been with us less than a year. They’ll settle down. It will get easier. And you’ll be proud of what we’ve accomplished. Have faith, David.”
“I was in paradise when there was just the two of us—when we had time to talk, to read, to study together. I was eager for the workday to end so I could rush home to you. All that has changed, Rachel. Now work is my relief.”
She moved closer to him and took his hand. “David, we’ll carve out more time to be with each other. Summer is almost here. We can send the boys to summer camp so we can have a month or two to ourselves.” She studied his face for a sign of relenting. “As for the dog, I was wrong not to tell you of the trip to the dog shelter. Please forgive me. We’ll be more united in setting limits for the boys. Just give it a little more time—out of compassion for them.”
But there was no lifting of the cloud on David’s mind and heart. In the weeks that followed, David could not pull himself out of a deepening depression. He thought of making an appointment with Rabbi Steinberg but changed his mind, partly because he felt a sense of shame. Work was no longer the solace it had become; and home, dominated by the needs and desires of the boys and by the din of their hyperactivity, seemed like a prison. Rachel knew his distress, not only by his desolate look, not only by his dwindling communication with the boys, but also by the long intervals between their coming together physically.
“Tell me how I can help you, David,” she said to him after the boys were asleep. “Let’s talk about what’s happening to us.”
“Rachel, I can no longer be a foster parent.” He was unable to look at her as he spoke. “I’m not capable of this kind of sacrifice. I’m telling you now that I can’t go through with it. . . We’ll have to notify the agency.”
When she heard these words, she felt as if the blood had been suddenly drained from her entire body. She had not expected this to be an easy exchange with her husband, but she had not expected words like these.
“Not you, of all people! This can’t be you speaking!” Her heart was beating rapidly. She felt she was not getting enough air. “Are you really willing to reject these children . . . as if they haven’t been rejected enough?” She could not withhold her mounting anger. “Have you thought—for one moment—what it would do to them to be shifted to yet another foster home, to be uprooted again, to adjust to strangers all over again?” He could not meet her fiery gaze. “Look at me at least!” she shouted. She felt like pummeling him. “And what about my feelings?” she continued. “Have you thought about that? You think you can just tear the children away from my heart and everything will return to the way it was?” She was suddenly aware that her voice might awaken the boys. She began sobbing. “So this is your compassion! This is what your piety amounts to! I can’t believe your cruelty!”
He wilted under her words. He could say nothing in his own defense.
In the days that followed there were few exchanges between them. When he was at home, he moved about the house like a spectral figure. As for Rachel, the new situation drove her inward. If she gave up the boys, how would she feel? What would that do to her relationship with David? Would she ever get over the loss? She could only think of negative answers to each of these questions, and she could only feel anger and disillusionment.
When she saw there was no more she could say or do to change matters, a resolve took shape in her mind and in her heart. If David would not join her in adopting the boys, she would try to adopt them herself. She had some funds of her own, and she would take her job back at the synagogue in order to qualify financially. The next morning she called the director of the adoption agency and explained her situation. She learned that after a divorce and after meeting certain financial requirements, she could adopt the boys as a single parent, especially since her record as a foster parent was strong.
She unburdened herself to Rabbi Steinberg. “Is my leaving David a sin?” she asked. “I’ve been torn apart by having to choose.” He told her he would enquire into Jewish law on the matter and get back to her. Soon afterward, he told her that the law was ambiguous, there were conflicting rabbinic views on situations similar to her own, and that she would have to follow the dictates of her heart. “Do you think David would want to talk to me?” he asked.
Rachel shook her head, and the rabbi understood.
A few days later, with an aching heart, she told David she could not give up the children, that as a couple they would have to go apart.
He was numbed by her words. “But I’m your husband! You took religious vows!”
“I’ve made up my mind. I can’t part with them. I’ve decided to adopt them myself.”
“You’re willing to give up what we have together? Willing to discard a marriage as if it’s some disposable thing?” He looked at her with an expression of disbelief. “I love you, Rachel.”
“I’m not leaving you because I don’t love you.”
More and more, David was consumed by anger at Rachel’s decision to leave him. Surely, her placing devotion to children not her own above her devotion and loyalty to him was sinful. Who would have expected her to act in so outrageous a manner? But soon his mind turned to his own moral shortcomings, his failure to be the kind of person he aspired to be. I reached too high. . . I really didn’t know myself. Where was my humility? Full of self-reproach, he had difficulty concentrating on his work. At night, sleep eluded him. He oscillated between anger and self-castigation.
She told him she was renting an apartment in town and would be leaving with the boys at the end of the month. She would explain the new arrangement to the boys as best she could.
On the following Sabbath, as the boys sat alongside David in the synagogue, Joseph bent toward him and asked, “Will you still be our foster-father after we move to the apartment?”
“Well, not in the same way. But I’ll visit you. Would you like me to visit you?”
Joseph nodded. Jacob, hearing the conversation, said, “You and Mom can apologize to each other the way Joseph and I apologize after we fight, and we can all live together.”
David put his arms around the boys and said, “Let’s be quiet now and follow the service.”
David accepted invitations to visit Rachel and the boys. Each time he visited he brought gifts: games and puzzles he knew the boys would enjoy, books of Jewish stories and folktales. He seldom left without placing some coins in their hands. For Rachel, he brought flowers.
She waited for a change. Maybe he simply needed more time. But the change she hoped for didn’t come. After six months, she asked for a divorce, which he reluctantly gave. One month after the divorce, the adoption of the boys became official. Joseph and Jacob were Rachel’s children.
At supper one evening, Jacob said to his mother, “We’ve been in three foster homes, and we’ve had three foster-fathers, but now that we’re adopted we don’t have any father at all.” Hearing this, Joseph added, “It would be good if we had a father to go to services with on Shabbes. All our friends sit with their fathers.”
“I know how you feel,” she said to them, “but things can always change. Look, it was winter, and now it’s spring again.”
The visits David made after the divorce only reminded him more keenly of his failure to love—his failure as a religious Jew. Because these visits were so painful, he thought that maybe he should sever his ties with Rachel and the boys. But immediately such a thought seemed to him callous. After much indecision, he decided he would not visit for a while. He would call from time to time, keep in touch by phone and see how that felt. But the biggest problem remained: How was he to overcome his sadness? How was he to feel that he was good?
Weeks passed without Rachel hearing from David. She thought of calling him, but refrained, connecting such a move with reviving a hope that no longer had a basis in reality. And then he called her.
“Are you okay, David?” she asked.
“I’m trying to do some good.”
“I’m sure you are!”
“And how are the boys?”
“Jacob has begun to prepare for his bar mitzvah. And Joseph now sings in the shul choir. They’re fine.”
“Good, tell them I think about them.”
Hearing David’s voice again, her heart went out to him, and she began to understand how high the price she paid for motherhood. Soon after the telephone call, her nights were filled with dreams: dreams of the four of them together again, of David taking the boys to Sabbath services, of David leading the Passover seder and the boys making him proud, of David answering her questions of how best to live in God’s world.
Copyright © Milton Teichman 2013
Milton Teichman, born in New York City in 1930, is Professor Emeritus of English and Jewish Studies at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York. He has written on literary subjects and on the Holocaust. He is the editor (with Sharon Leder) of Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust (Illinois University Press, 1995). He has had a parallel career as painter and sculptor and now shows his work in his own gallery on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (teichmangallery.com). Teichman's short fiction has appeared in Agada, Midstream, and Hospital Drive. He sees himself as an “emerging” fiction writer.