By Rena Rossner
Aunt Masha was furious when Uncle Eli, a furniture seller by profession, spilled wine on the white tablecloth while praising the sturdiness of his table. “Only as sturdy as the mind of the man who sits at it,” she admonished, taking his silver wine goblet away, and mopping up the spill with her napkin, as the lights of the Shabbat candles shimmered in her eyes.
But Uncle Eli wasn’t bothered. He didn’t reproach her or answer back. He just smiled, reached for the bottle of his homemade sweet wine and poured some into his water glass. No matter that the wine was diluted. He lifted his glass and winked at me across the table conspiratorially. “L’chaim!” he said, and downed the contents of the glass. His daughter, Raizel, tried hard to hide her giggle across the table, and his son, Hirschel, the talmid chochom of the family, looked up from his sefer, cleared his throat and stuck his nose back into Rav Yisroel Salanter’s discourses on piety.
Uncle Eli used to teach me how to make kosher origami animals by the dozen out of butcher paper (God forbid Masha should ever see a traif animal in the house) and when I was little I would play with the spirals of wood that fell off the intricately carved animal-shaped wooden mezuzah cases he used to make. They always looked like corkscrew pig-tails to me, but I never told him that. I don’t think he ever sold any of those cases. He would place the little white bundles of animal parchment, snug as babies in their coffins, into the hollows of those cases, and they would rock like cradles when he put them down. Then he would line them up on his work desk like they were in some bestial nursery, and he’d go back to refinishing table surfaces and fixing broken wooden legs.
He was not a tall man, but he was stately in his own way. He always reminded me of a Torah scroll—wide around the middle and wound up tightly inside, composed, with legs as wide as tree stumps, his wiry silver hair like a crown atop his head. He would hum all the time: as he worked in his workshop, at the Shabbat table, over breakfast. High Holy day melodies, cantorial chants, Hasidic marching tunes, and secular opera songs he would twist into niggunim.
We all lived under the tyrannical rule of Aunt Masha. She made a martyr out of Uncle Eli, with her bland meals, so steeped in tradition there was no room for flavor. Though every light had to be off unless it was pitch black outside to save on electricity, she was always cold, and so the house was always hot enough to boil a chicken. That’s what I think we all felt like sometimes: like eggs waiting to hatch. Chicks under the heating lamp of her gaze.
One day, Uncle Eli moved up into the attic. He never came back down, except for meals, to go to work at his furniture store, and to go to synagogue. And no amount of screaming on Aunt Masha’s part would bring him down again. She boxed up his things with string, tied knots into the fringes of his tzitzit and tallitot, his shoelaces, tiny strangleholds on his books, his clothes. She made us all carry these knotted things up to him and leave them at the foot of the attic stairs, like offerings. By morning they were gone. Absorbed up into the maw of the attic.
I lived there because my parents were separated. I don’t know if my parents ever actually divorced. The shame of separation in the community was enough. They couldn’t bear to dignify all the condemnation with an actual divorce. My memories of them are vague. Lots of crying and accusations of taking God’s name in vain. Doors that constantly slammed in my mind, not allowing me to see past elusive glimpses of my father on his knees, my mother curled up into a ball on the bed, not moving. The way she stared at walls as though she could see through them. My father, wrapping the leather tefillin straps so tight around his bulging arms I thought they would leave permanent marks from the strain as he swayed and prayed, eyes shut tight to everything around him: the ringing phone, the doorbell, his toast burning in the kitchen, the keening of the kettle, me.
I think I was four when they brought me here. To my aunt and uncle’s house on Eastland Avenue in Rochester, New York. I remember my mother’s hair was uncovered; it hung long and dark like curtains, obscuring her face. And my father’s black hat was askew. When he bent down to kiss me, his hat blew off from the wind, and he raced after it as it sailed down the street with the red and gold leaves.
Raizel thinks my mother went off to be a dancer. Even though Raizel was younger than I was when I came to live with her parents, she remembers my mother being beautiful, long and lean, graceful.
Aunt Masha, on the other hand, we were certain, never danced. Though she ran every charity ball in the community, and organized every Chinese tzedaka auction. She was on the synagogue’s committee, the sisterhood’s luncheon brigade, and the school’s PTA. She was the mikveh lady, a greater rebbetzin than the rebbetzin herself, and everybody’s confidante—or at least that’s what she made us think. In truth, I think people were afraid not to tell her things, that she would ferret out the truth anyway with her uncompromising gaze. She always knew who should sit with whom, what color scheme the tables should be set with according to the season, which donors should be approached. She managed to make everything lavish while maintaining her own strict austerity. Never once did her hair peek out of her short brown wig. Never once was a button on her white silk shirt undone. Her skin-colored knee highs never had runs in them, and I don’t think I ever saw her without lipstick on.
Raizel was expected to conform to the same degree of austerity. Long dark hair always in tight braids, her dresses always long-sleeved. Blue uniform shirts always buttoned up to the top, skirts long, but never too long, fingernails cut and buffed, no jewelry. But she could never mold Raizel in the same way that she got her chopped liver to take on the form of a perfect Jewish star.
A tiny thing, with hair that went every which way, at three years old, Raizel took care of me. She was younger than I was, but she was the only one who dried my tears with the blanket she carried with her at all times, tucked under her arm. She would takemy hand in her small pudgy right one (all the while, never taking her left thumb out of her mouth for even an instant). Raizel always found her way into everything that was prohibited— much to Aunt Masha’s dismay. When we were younger, she’d paint with Aunt Masha’s makeup, parade around the house in her heels, beads and scarves, trailing them in the mud of the backyard and leaving them scattered about the grass. Expensive jewelry became fairy tributes, and bottles of perfume would nurture roots in the hope that they’d grow to produce fragrant fruit. She climbed trees, tearing her white knit stockings, and played elaborate hide-and-seek games in the woods behind the house, dressed in Masha’s best table linens. I never knew when and how she managed to steal those things. But she was always slipping between everyone’s fingers, and then getting smacked across the face by Masha’s fat, stubby ring-bedecked hands. “Upstairs!” Masha would cry, pointing an immaculately lacquered fingernail at the stairwell, as her other hand trembled with unspent rage.
I loved Raizel like a brother would love his sister, but I also loved her with the pathological love of the unattainable. My collusion in her schemes earned me condemnation at the dinner table. Admonitions to pass the salt, reprimands for putting my finger too deeply into the salad bowl as I passed it. Aunt Masha knew I loved Raizel in a way she never could.
The talmid chochom was a different story. I remember the day that Masha hired the town’s greatest Talmud teacher as a private tutor. Hirschel was eleven. She combed his hair and hand-buttoned his starched white shirt. Untangled the fringes of his tzitzit so they hung just so. And clipped his kippa to his head herself, with bobby pins, black velvet icing on the white cake of his head. Hirschel was thin and pale, always with his nose in some holy book or another. He never went outside. At school, he would sit and study while the other boys kicked around a ball in the parking lot—what passed as a sports field at our private ultra-Orthodox Jewish day school. Housed in an old converted apartment building, it had barely enough parking for its residents then, let alone a sports field for a hundred pimply pre-teen boys now.
Hirschel was going to be a rosh yeshiva, a talmid chochom of his generation, a rabbi, words that made Aunt Masha’s eyes sparkle like black gems when she pronounced them like blessings over Hirschel’s head. She was nervous as she waited that morning for the arrival of the esteemed Talmud teacher. Playing with the buttons on her lacy white blouse, smoothing the pleats in her tailored burgundy skirt. She had shined all the silver, set the table with one of the tablecloths that had somehow survived Raizel’s raids. There were carnations in a vase at the center of the table—a luxury she never afforded herself even on Shabbat and the holidays. She had even delayed Uncle Eli downstairs with the promise of a cup of tea and a chocolate, if he would shake the teacher’s hand on his way to synagogue.
When Rav Nosson arrived, he had his hand duly shaken by Uncle Eli before Masha shooed Eli away and ushered the rabbi into the dining room. Masha poured the esteemed rabbi a glass of strong sweet tea and placed before him an array of chocolate and pieces of her sponge-cake (which resembled the finest foam mattress you could buy). She started saying, “Ever since he was a little boy he was a tzaddik,” looking fondly over at Hirschel, only to be shushed by the great rabbi himself, who said he was eager for the lesson to begin. Raizel and I laughed so hard, hiding behind the French doors that opened up into the living room, that we had to run out to the backyard to catch our breath and avoid a spanking.
Masha went off to the kitchen to prepare supper, but only after patting Hirschel on his head, tucking her pudgy hands under his chin, and forcing him to look into her eyes. And she said in a tone that was either affected tenderness or sugar-coated threat, “You will pay attention like you always do.” And then, with what may or may not have been a kiss on his forehead, she was off to make her nightly assemblage of bland roasted chicken and overcooked potatoes sprinkled with never-enough paprika. It varied in its blandness only according to her mood: bland, slightly mild, insipid, or utterly and completely tasteless.
We peeked in from the outside, hiding in the thick hedge of crisply shaped bushes that bordered the front window of the house. The rabbi removed a huge stack of yellowing papers from a manila folder—pages of handwritten text that looked like chicken scratch on the page. And the tall brown leather books of law were piled next to Hirschel like giant bars of chocolate. I suppose it smarted a bit that there was no talk of him teaching me as well; I was barely six months away from my bar mitzvah and I had been preparing only by the good graces of a schoolteacher who took pity on me. Raizel knew that those books and the learning contained within them would never be hers, so elusive and forbidden were they that they may as well have been made of chocolate. But at the time I was just happy to have more time to conspire with her.
Then the front door of the house opened. “Raizel!” Masha called. “Where is that girl?”
Raizel raised her fingers to her lips and we snuck around the house the other way. “Raizel?” we heard again as Masha scanned the street, nervously wiping her fingers on her yellow apron.
Raizel crept up quietly behind Aunt Masha and tapped her on the back. Masha let out a yelp and raised a hand towel, as though to whack it at Raizel’s head, but then thought better of it, glancing at what was still going on in the dining room.
“Come with me, you devilish child,” she said, putting her hand firmly on Raizel’s and dragging her to the kitchen, where she smoothed her hair with water and swabbed at Raizel’s cheeks, rubbing them raw and pinching them pink.
“I want to properly introduce you to Rav Nosson,” Aunt Masha said, spitting into the hand towel she held and dabbing at a stain on Raizel’s blouse.
“You’re impossible, you know that?” she grimaced, then shrugged her shoulders and looked up at the kitchen ceiling as though saying to God, “You gave this to me, please tell me what I am supposed to do now.”
She gave Raizel a shove and, teapot in hand, marched her toward the dining room. At the threshold of the room, she handed Raizel the teapot. “Go pour him some tea and let me do all the talking, and for God’s sake do NOT spill any,” Masha said through teeth she had clenched into a smile.
“Rav Nosson,” Masha grinned sweetly, “more tea?”
He cleared his throat and held out his teacup, barely looking up from the books that he and Hirschel were absorbed in.
“This is my unmarried daughter, Raizel,” Masha announced, causing Raizel’s face to go as white as one of the ghosts she played at being in the woods. I saw Raizel’s hands shake as she poured the tea. Rav Nosson looked up long enough to find the teacup handle, long enough to lock eyes with Raizel and nod. Raizel turned on her heel and walked out of the dining room as fast as she could manage, dumped the contents of the teapot down the drain, and ran up to her room and slammed the door.
Aunt Masha watched her go, and then apologized with a shake of her head, saying, “So much homework that girl has, it’s hard to pry her away from her studies.”
From that moment on I hated Rav Nosson. I swore I would apply myself to my studies even without an expensive private Talmud tutor, if only to be able someday to be worthy of Raizel and able to save her from this fate which I was sure she saw as worse than death.
I wanted to hide. So I went to the only place I knew that nobody would ever look for me. I climbed up into Uncle Eli’s attic and hid in the corner amidst the pig-tail shavings and the dust. When Uncle Eli came back from synagogue he didn’t seem surprised to see me there. He handed me some butcher paper, a block of wood and a knife. And when Aunt Masha knocked to indicate his plate of food was at the foot of the door, he ate half and then wordlessly passed the plate to me.
I found out later that Rav Nosson stayed for supper. Something he started doing every night that he tutored Hirschel. After that I felt obligated to be there for Raizel, as some sort of shield, another male presence at the table. Though watching the way he looked at her, his stolen glances, made my stomach turn. Raizel, to her credit, did nothing to encourage him. Complaining about her homework and her teachers, like any normal girl. Slouching at the table, slurping her soup. And she knew that Masha would never admonish her in front of Rav Nosson. I think that in a perverse way she started to enjoy those meals.
One night after a supper that had been particularly horrible, Aunt Masha fawning over Rav Nosson like he was the next Messiah, ingratiating Raizel to him by having her serve him, pour for him, wait on him, coddle him, it was more than I could take. I excused myself with a stomach ache and escaped to the asylum of Uncle Eli’s loft. He didn’t seem to mind my presence and it was the one place I knew Masha would never find me. I was shocked to find the door open soon after. I drew my knees to my chest and hid in the corner, on the floor where I had already been sitting. I had been constructing caravans of animal carvings and sand dunes of shavings like some macabre reenactment of the flight of the Jews from Egypt—an animal Exodus. But it was Raizel who came through the door. She sat next to me. I could see the tears that streaked her cheeks. She looked at my handiwork and smiled, immediately tracing paths between the dunes with her fingers, still wet from doing dishes, and wordlessly rearranging some of the animals around a forlorn dune.
We started meeting there often. Always by chance, but with an unspoken understanding of when it was necessary—when Aunt Masha’s tyranny had stepped over into the gulf of the extreme. Uncle Eli never touched or moved our little empires. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai— in miniature—attended by the animal hordes, the parting of the sea of shavings, a bestial Jenga-like reenactment of the Tower of Babel that left us breathless with laughter as the animals toppled again and again. I’m sure now you could say something about the fact that there were no people in Uncle Eli’s carvings, something not just about graven images, which were of course forbidden, but something about beasts of burden and anthropomorphism. At the time, to us, they were just toys—an escape—something to while away our time away with, in the same way that Uncle Eli whittled away the wood.
Uncle Eli’s furniture store was his other sanctuary, and I started going there after school to escape both Masha’s tyranny and Rav Nosson’s insidious presence in the house. I first stopped there just to have a place to go. I would sit and do my homework in the back of the shop. But soon, thank God, Uncle Eli’s business was successful enough that he started asking me to help him out, not in so many words, of course. He just handed me a duster as though he knew I’d know what to do with it, or a soft cloth and a bottle of orange oil. Soon he’d beckon me over by giving me a nail, and point to where I should place it so he could drive it in. He’d guide me to feel a rough patch of wood and then slip sandpaper between my fingers. I learned how to treat wood with more care than anyone ever treated the people in my life, and those lessons became ingrained in the patterns of my fingerprints like knots in wood.
My bar mitzvah was so mild an affair that I can’t really distinguish it from a regular Shabbat at the synagogue: I read from the Torah (Mazel Tov!), we drank sweet wine and ate honey cake, egg salad on Tam Tam crackers, herring speared on toothpicks, a big sponge cake with my name (but which could have been any name) written in cursive chocolate over the white mounds of margarine-flavored frosting. It was marked for me only by the deep disappointment of the fact that neither of my parents showed up, and that I was now man enough to properly start helping in the shop. Minding the cash, assisting customers on the shop floor, sweeping up and even helping lacquer and varnish finished pieces in the back.
One day I brought Raizel with me after school. I waited for her at the corner bus stop near the girls’ school, hiding behind a tree until I saw her braids and the lazy step of her feet, which no more wanted to rush home than she did. “Raizy!” I whispered as loud as I dared. She turned her head and grinned when she saw me, bade her friends goodbye, and said she’d walk home. She turned in my direction and began to walk in the direction of home, knowing full well I would follow when she turned the corner out of sight.
“Come with me to your father’s store,” I suggested. “I know he can use the help. You could learn how to do stuff. You know, get out of the house a bit.” Be with me, was what I didn’t say. Her eyes danced and we walked so fast we almost ran. Uncle Eli kissed her forehead and embraced her when we walked in the door. Clearly as happy to see her as I had been to have thought of the plan.
From that day on, Raizel and I helped out in the store every day after school. We would do our homework together— even help each other—out and then do everything in the store so that Uncle Eli could put his feet up and carve more kosher animal mezuzah cases for his collection. And he must have gathered up the courage to speak to Masha about how much we helped, because she never said a word. Either that or she was happy to see us gone, so she could lavish her attention on the talmid chochom and Rav Nosson every day.
Uncle Eli let us do everything. He never watched us, never admonished us. I loved him like a father, like a grandfather, like a friend. He was a saint, even though there are no saints in Judaism. Why he stayed with my Aunt Masha, what he got out of that relationship, I still don’t know. But in my teen years his store was an Eden of furniture polish and sofa cushions, of laughter and grins, and we would play hide-and-seek amidst the monoliths of shaped wood just as we once did in the woods— a grown-up kind of forest now.
Uncle Eli grew lighter as a result. Happier. More like the feathers that he used to stuff some of the special-order pillows that he made. He was cheery as we sat around the Rosh Hashana table of my fifteenth year and said our blessings for a sweet New Year over apples dipped in honey. Aunt Masha became older, though, and more bitter. I swear her mouth puckered at the taste of the honey.
No matter how hard Hirschel studied, and no matter how much money she lavished on his private tutor, Hirschel never seemed to advance to the top of the class at the yeshiva, like she wanted him to. But he was content with his books and his lot in life.
And as was bound to happen, because I swore it would when I was four years old, I fell deeper and deeper in love with the budding Raizel. She wore one long braid nowdown her back, her hair resembling deep dark chocolate now, and curves began to poke through her staid clothes. Nipple buds, hips, shoulders, thighs. To her credit, Masha tried to keep us under her watchful eye as much as she could and in the most cautious way possible. She put out decks of cards, checkers and a chess game on the dining room table on Shabbat afternoons. She encouraged Raizel to invite friends over, encouraged me to go off to the afternoon boys’ learning groups in the neighborhood.
Raizel and I preferred to stay in, playing cards, running chess and checkers tournaments, our fingers casually brushing by mistake, and then, on purpose. My leg grazing hers by accident as I shifted in my chair, then casually, a toe that was no accident at all. Raizel never moved her leg away; she’d meet my eyes with a challenge. We were both so completely aware of our sexuality, yet completely unaware of what it meant. There was no sex education in either of our ultra-Orthodox day schools. Certainly no birds-and--bees conversations at home, or even amongst friends. We were doing what felt natural, what felt good, but what we still somehow knew was in the realm of the forbidden.
When Uncle Eli would go to the bathroom at the shop—and he would spend ages in there—we would try out sofa cushions in the back of the shop, listening carefully for the bell over the front door, and feeling through the material of one another’s clothes like we’d never felt any fabric finer. We had no manual other than what we felt, no knowledge of sex or love, of lust or consequences. We had the warmth that came between us like an electric blanket—and the sensations in our bodies blooming like cherry-filled chocolates. Forbidden, yet oh so sweet.
I don’t know if Raizel really loved me, or if I enabled her to go against convention. To rebel in little ways that were very big, but as yet undetected. In those fumblings in the dark of the furniture store workshop, I would undo the buttons of her starched blue button-down top and run my fingers under her training bra, rolling her nipples in my fingers like glass marbles. I think it was a game to her. To see how far I would dare to go, and then, in an instant, she’d peck my cheek, button up her shirt and march off to the cash and busy herself with tallying up register receipts or smoothing couch cushions.
But just when I thought I had gone too far and she’d never let me touch her again, she would grab my hand the second there was nobody in the store and place it on one of her round buttocks or in between her thighs—and squeeze it there. And I would follow her back to the storeroom like a lost puppy and lift her skirt and follow where she led, feel her warm thighs through her cotton tights, her underwear line like a dare.
One night, after helping Uncle Eli close up shop and walking with him towards synagogue for the evening’s Maariv prayers, instead of following him into the shul, I motioned for Raizel to follow me. We took a walk in the park as the sun set, following it to the other side of town. We walked hand-in-hand when nobody was looking. Got ice cream at a non-kosher parlor and ducked into a movie theater. I guess it was a date, but we didn’t see it like that. I think it was a slice of normality, a flavor of “real life”—of things we’d only heard about but never seen.
There was a romance movie on, I don’t remember much, my hands were all over Raizel— sneaking into every crevice of her clothes where skin was accessible, rolling down her tights and touching her naked flesh with trembling inexperienced fingers, tasting her in the most animalistic way I knew how, moved only by instinct. By pure desire.
Raizel paid me no attention, she was watching the first movie she’d ever seen, she shifted in her seat to accommodate my ministering, and she moved and let out little whimpers and sighs, her mouth parted, her eyes glazed, but it was the movie she saw, not me. And when it was over she rolled up her tights, straightened her skirt and her blouse and her hair, kissed me on the lips, and we walked home in the darkness hand-in-hand.
Aunt Masha was waiting in the living room. We were so high on life and love and the rush of the forbidden that we forgot to steal in through a window or even to unlink our hands. She took one look at us and threw a prayer book at me. It cut my forehead open and I bled onto its pages.
“You!” she screamed. “I take you into my house like an orphan—and this is how you treat me?” And then she slapped Raizel with a force that made Raizel gasp and double over in pain.
“I’d tell you both to pack and leave my house this instant if it wasn’t for what the community would say, and the reputation and ruin it would bring upon my house. Upstairs. Now. Both of you. And if you so much as even look at each other ever again, I will make sure you both wish you’d never been born.”
She followed us up the stairs and took a key out of her pocket. She locked Raizel in. And then she spat at my feet.
After that, Aunt Masha lurked in the corners of that house like a spider. She was everywhere. Our indiscretion had given her life new purpose. She’d pretend to be cleaning out a pantry, or dusting a closet, re-organizing linens, polishing the brass railing on the stairs, but really she’d be listening. You could tell by how she cocked her head. It was manic, almost. She crept around the house in stockinged feet for the first time in her life. She inspected peeling wallpaper, chipped paint, threadbare patches of carpeting, but really she was watching and waiting.
Raizel had to stop helping at the furniture store. Masha made her help around the house, in the kitchen. And she locked her in every night. I heard Raizel’s tears at night through the flimsy wall that separated our rooms. I dreamt of digging a tunnel between them, of cutting a secret passageway and hiding it behind a bookcase, but I shared a room with the talmid chochom who, even though he slept soundly, would be likely to hear any loud noise of destruction. I didn’t sleep well at night. Listening to Raizel, then guiltily thinking about that night at the movies, then relieving that guilt on the sheets of my bed.
One night, in the middle of the night, after I had heard Raizel scream and pound against the door until her knuckles were surely sore and she had worn herself and her vocal cords out from exhaustion, I opened the window to my room, and poked my head out, carefully, quietly, so as not to wake Hirschel. I saw that there might be just enough of a ledge for me to negotiate my way to Raizel’s window. I closed my eyes and said a prayer of protection, “May God protect me from all harm,” and climbed out into the night. I rapped at her window, barely holding on to the ledge with the tips of my fingers and the balls of my toes. “Raizel!” I whispered, though I doubted she could hear me through the glass panes.
In an instant she was up and at the window. Letting me in. Hugging me like a sister. I cupped her face in my hand, saw she was crying. Kissed away her tears.
“I’m sorry, Raizy. I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she whispered, putting a finger over my lips to silence me. “It’s my fault as much as it’s yours,” she insisted.
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about running away, but . . . where would I go?”
“Well, now I can visit you at night. Would you like that? Would that make you happy?”
She nodded sadly.
“Then I will, Raizy. I’ll visit every night like this. I can bring you things, too. What do you want? What can I get you?”
“I’d love a cup of tea.”
And so I crept back along the ledge. Back into my room. Downstairs into the kitchen where, soon enough, I was joined by Aunt Masha, who then went back to sleep when I told her that I had a sore throat and couldn’t sleep. Of course she did not offer to make me tea or give me medicine. Just a huff, and she was back upstairs to her solitary bed.
I climbed back through my window, across the ledge of the roof, and into the arms of Raizel, who was waiting for me. I managed to spill only small amounts of tea, and was certain it wouldn’t even be hot anymore. But Raizel drank it gratefully. She closed her eyes and savored the warmth against her throat, sore from all the crying. I knew. She didn’t need to tell me. I heard her every night.
“Promise you’ll visit again?” she said when she was done.
I took back the teacup and kissed her forehead. “I swear.”
She jumped into my arms so fast I barely caught her, and I nearly dropped the teacup. And she kissed me. On the mouth. My heart beat so fast I could barely move my lips, and then it was over and she grinned and crawled back under the covers and said, “You can go now. Thank you.”
And I whispered back, my voice hoarse, “Thank you.”
Aunt Masha hired a woman, a young girl, just out of seminary, to teach Raizel. They went upstairs together after school every day. Sequestered in her room. I wondered what they talked about.
Masha stared at the door like a hungry wolf when they were in there. What could they possibly be learning together? I knew I couldn’t ask. I would never know the answer. Girl stuff?
At night, Raizel just said, “This and that, you know, stuff about being a Bas Yisroel, ‘a true and virtuous daughter of Israel.’” Raizel said this in an affected accent and made a face. We laughed. “She’s nice. Her name is Hindy.”
I couldn’t get more out of her than that.
Masha started making more festive meals, putting her shoes back on, and she stopped creeping around the house, inspecting. She had hushed conversations in the kitchen with Hindy. With the doors closed, they drank tea and ate sponge cake and conspired.
My birthday came and went and there were no presents. Nobody even remembered. I treated myself to ice cream one day after work at the furniture shop. Walked through the park with nothing but my memories. I bought Raizy a book, a romance novel, something racy and forbidden, a bag of candies that I wasn’t sure were kosher. A gold necklace with a heart charm.
When I climbed in through the window that night, she’d remembered! She had a little party all set up—with a chocolate cake she said Hindy had made for her, that she’d hidden away for two days, and a bottle of juice she’d saved from school. It was the saddest, most wonderful birthday party I’d ever had. I gave her my presents.
“You’re not supposed to be bringing me presents on your birthday, silly,” she said, but I could tell she was pleased.
She wrinkled her nose at the romance novel, but hid it under her bed. “I’m supposed to be repenting. Thinking about God. That’s what Hindy says. She brought me this book: The Path of the Righteous. I’m not sure that the romance novel is allowed.”
“Keep it. Just in case you change your mind.”
She nodded, looking sad. She gave me a package. Inside was a small book of Tehillim, leather bound and blue. It had my name on it. Tears stood in my eyes.
“Let me guess—Hindy?”
She nodded again. “She says to pour your heart out to God, and say these psalms whenever you are confused, whenever you feel like straying off the path. You should try it. I’m not sure it works, but she’s been saying them with me.”
“Thank you,” I said, and leaned over to kiss her, but she shied away.
“Let me guess,” I say, “Hindy?”
She started to cry. I leaned over, wiped away her tears, and kissed her anyway. She kissed me back.
“Don’t let her kill the spark of light inside you,” I said, when I came up for air. “It’s too precious to me. There are lots of ways to be.”
“She’s teaching me about light,” Raizel explained, then shook her head as if to clear her thoughts.
She leaned forward, kissed me again. “You should go.”
It was around that time that my father came to visit. With no advance warning. One day he just showed up at the door. I’m not sure Aunt Masha recognized him. And before she even let him, in she ran up all the stairs in the house calling, “Eli! Eli! You have to come right now. Eli! You won’t believe who’s here, Eli!” And then we heard her pounding on the attic door.
I stood opposite my father. The light from the kitchen made his face look yellow, eerie and glowing in the night.
“Who are you?” I asked, even though I knew the answer in my gut.
“Your father,” he said, staring at the front step of the house.
“You missed my bar mitzvah.” It was all I could think to say.
“I know,” he responded.
And then there was tea and sponge cake in the kitchen, not even the dining room. And whispers that I was not invited to hear, but I knew concerned my future. The word yeshiva was mentioned many times, and I knew they didn’t mean the local school.
I wanted to climb through the window of my room and into Raizel’s, but I was afraid they would look for me. I sat at the top of the stairs. And then she was there. Her hand on my back.
“Shhh. . . .”
“How did you get here?”
“Through the window. Who’s here?”
I put my hand over her mouth. “Shhh!!!”
“Oh my gosh. I want to see what he looks like!” She started to creep down the stairs.
“Raizy, no! If they see you . . .”
“Oh, okay. You’re right, I guess.” She shrugged her shoulders.
“What are they talking about?” She sat back down next to me and put her head on my shoulder.
“My future.” I sighed.
“What do you mean?”
“I think they want to send me away. To yeshiva.”
Her hand went over her mouth. “No! They can’t! I won’t let them!”
“Shhhhh!” I admonished again. “I don’t think there is anything that either one of us can do.”
“I’ll die without you.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I will,” she pouted.
“You have Hindy now!” I taunted.
She punched my arm.
“You’d better go back.”
“Yeah, I know.” She kissed me, brazenly, on the lips. My eyes darted to the kitchen door.
“Let’s escape tonight. Come in the middle of the night and we’ll run away together.”
“Where would we go?”
“We can just go run in the woods for a bit, I dunno. Get some fresh air.”
“Okay. I’ll come.”
She went back through my bedroom door. Hirschel was out late, studying with Rav Nosson at the synagogue.
When they called me into the kitchen to tell me my fate, the decision had already been made to send me off to boarding school—to a yeshiva in Monsey, New York.
“Who will help Uncle Eli in the shop?” was all I could think to say.
But Uncle Eli just smiled and patted me on the shoulder, as if he was touched that I even thought of him at all.
Aunt Masha said, “It’s for the best; certainly you must understand that. You father will be paying for it, and after all these years of the financial strain of feeding and clothing you, it seems only fitting and right. You can still come back here in the summers,” she sighed, “seeing as you have nowhere else to go.” This with a glare at my father who didn’t meet anybody’s eyes.
He gave me a stiff hug. “Be good. I’ll come to get you at the end of the summer.” And he was off without even a kiss.
I looked at Aunt Masha and she smiled.
Raizy and I stole away that night.Through our windows, we climbed down the side of the house and jumped down into the soft grass of the backyard. We held hands and ran free in the woods behind the house. Played hide-and-seek silently through the trees. We stopped only to kiss. I laid her down on the ground, the leaves and grass were still warm from the hot summer sun. We stared up at the stars through the leaves of the trees. I tried not to let her see my tears.
I burned for her that summer. We didn’t escape every night. It was too risky. But when we did, she was like liquid fire in my arms. My hands in her hair. My hands under her long cotton nightgown; she didn’t wear panties at night. But it was decent. The touch was not sexual so much as elemental. Necessary.
“I’ve been reading that romance novel,” she told me one night.
“Despite The Path of the Righteous?” I taunted.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Do you think people really make love like that?”
“You know, like in the book, silly.”
“Um . . . I didn’t read it.”
“You, what? Ugh. You’re impossible.”
“Tell me about it.”
I could see that she was blushing, even in the moonlight.
“I don’t know. Men and women. Both completely naked. Flesh on flesh. All heat and passion and lust. Kissing, stroking. I never knew before, but did you know that men actually enter inside a woman? I had no idea. I wonder if it even feels good.”
I was too scared to say what I was thinking—we could try—so I settled for, “I don’t know. It sounds good to me,” and chuckled.
She punched my arm. And then I was on top of her, kissing and feeling her with a passion and energy I’d never known before. She responded to my every move, my every caress.
“Do you want to try?” I asked, breathless, my arms on either side of her head, my body matching hers limb for limb.
“No. Not tonight.”
She rolled out from under me and was up and running through the trees.
I watched her go. The only thing I tried to catch was my breath.
What we didn’t know was that Hirschel watched us in the slivers of moonlight that fell from the sky above his window. What I didn’t know was that Raizel kept a diary under her bed, together with the romance novel I’d given her. And Hirschel, with the best intentions, finally felt he had to say something. To do something. And in a move uncharacteristic of him, he actually spoke to Aunt Masha, begging forgiveness for the roaming of his eyes, both from her and from God, and told her what he’d seen.
Masha rained every curse known to man down upon his head, and he shrank from her words as if they were blows. Then she rained both blows and curses on Raizel. For me, she didn’t even have words, just sheer contempt. I was no better than a rat, a skunk, a demon, a whole list of non-kosher animals which I was sure had never passed between her lips before, and I knew they never would..
She called my father. Told him he had to take me away immediately. In my father’s eyes, that meant five days hence.
Raizy was locked in for good. Her room stripped. Her journal found, then torn to shreds and burned in the garbage can in the backyard, where every year we burned the hametz before Passover. Her windows were bolted shut from the outside.
I heard her cry and rage at night, I heard her scratch at the walls with her nails, pound at the door with her fists, try to break the glass of the window. All in vain. And I sat in my room, helpless, because I didn’t know what to do.
My father came to take me away. I was already packed. I had started packing on that first night, when I couldn’t sleep because of Raizel’s cries and the sounds my own heart made, almost imperceptible in comparison, soft and smothered. He drove me wordlessly to Monsey. Five hours in the car and nothing to say. I asked questions silently. Where is my mother? Where are you? What do you do for a living? Where do you live? Why can’t I come stay with you? Why did you leave me? Do you hate me? Do you hate yourself? And they were answered by the drone of the car tires on the road and the hum of the interstate wind on the windows.
The yeshiva was brown. Reddish brown on the outside, and inside all we studied was brown—leather-bound books of Talmud, and we prayed from brown prayer books. Brown tile floor, brown wooden beds, brownish meat and chicken in brownish gravy. I suppose there was a lot of black and white as well. Black pants, white shirts, black shoes, white socks, black hats, white fringes of tzitzit swaying to the beat of our prayer rhythms, our learning chants. Black letters on white paper. Black fire burning white hot inside me. Missing her.
We learned about forbidden nocturnal emissions, about the sin of spilling seed in vain. The things every good Orthodox teenager needs to know: wicked thoughts, roaming eyes, unclean hands that need to be ritually washed and cleansed from immodest touch—three times on one hand, three times on the other, every time you touch your naked flesh. I tried. But if I didn’t think about Raizel at night in bed as I gazed up at the ceiling, and my hands roamed beneath the blanket, she’d haunt my dreams at night. And all those sins of emission would spit themselves out onto my sheets as I slept.
I didn’t care that my sheets grew wet and cold from want of her, then crusty. I had no choice. I welcomed my impure thoughts like talismans, my dreams like imaginary amulets I could swing above my bed for protection from ascetic harm. She was a symbol of everything good that had ever happened to me, and I just could not bring myself to repent what seemed as natural as breathing.
There could be no letters, I knew that. Certainly no phone calls. All I had were my dreams, and the hope that when I stared up at the splinters of sky I could see through the trees out the window of the yeshiva dorms, that she dreamed of me, too.
When I came back home the next summer, Raizel had changed. She was up at the break of dawn to pray, her hair was cut short, shoulder length, and she wore it swept up into a perfect ponytail, with clips holding down every errant strand. She wore pearl earrings, shoes with a bit of a heel. When I walked in she only looked at my shoes, said, “Welcome home,” with her head modestly bowed, and then was out the door.
Aunt Masha sent me to the basement which she had cleared out in my absence and made up with a pull-out couch, an old mustard-yellow rug, a lamp, a small bookshelf.
“Hirschel needs his own room now,” she offered by way of explanation, but I knew what she meant. I was a roach. I was the mildew that clung to her family in the same way it clung to the walls of the damp basement she confined me to. What choice did I have?
Raizel still learned with Hindy, but they also went out together now. Shopping. Visiting the sick, babysitting together for a family with seven children whose mother was bedridden with a high-risk twin pregnancy. Raizel started helping Uncle Eli in the shop again. She was never home.
I suffered in that basement. Alone. With nothing to keep me company but the books Aunt Masha had put down there: the Bible, the Talmud, The Duties of the Heart, The Gates of Repentance, The Way of God, The Accounting of the Soul. But I had nothing to account for. Only love. And I refused to repent for what my heart felt.
One Sunday afternoon I was alone in the house. Not that it mattered. I still kept myself sequestered in the basement. Except for the days I spent studying in the Beis Medrash, learning Talmud, and the three times per day that I was at the synagogue, praying. What else was there to do?
When I was home I would lie on my back and stare at the mildew on the ceiling. Sometimes I’d thumb the pages of those books, but I found that there was nothing in those pages that had any relevance to my life. I’d try to dream about the future, but it was just a big moldy gray wall. A wife? Children? These things I was supposed to aspire to, to yearn for. But I couldn’t see past interminable black letters of Talmud, and Raizel’s face which would appear to me behind the letters—an optical illusion.
Uncle Eli was at his furniture shop. Aunt Masha was at some charity committee meeting. Raizel was out with Hindy or one of her other new friends from school whom she sometimes chattered on about at supper: Shaindy, Chaya, Rochel, Gitty, Bracha—I don’t remember anymore—they all sounded the same.
Then there was a knock at the door to my little dungeon. I was startled out of my mold-induced reverie.
“Come in!” I called.
It was Raizel.
I sat up on the pull-out bed.
“Raizy?” My voice cracked. “What are you doing here?”
She put her finger to her lips and closed the door behind her.
She ran down the steps and into my arms.
My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t breathe.
“I miss you,” she whispered, and in an instant we were kissing.
“Wait, Raizy.” I tried to catch my breath, to ask, but she was relentless. Kissing me as though it would be the last time, the only time.
I let her kiss me. I kissed back. I closed my eyes and hoped it wasn’t a dream.
My hands on her breasts—buds that had grown into blossoms. Roses, like her name.
“Raizel,” I groaned.
“Please.” She looked at me and started unbuttoning her blouse. “I’m getting engaged to Rav Nosson next week. Once. Just once, let me feel.”
I choked back a sob of shock, of despair. “You can’t . . .”
“It’s not my choice to make.”
“That’s wrong. You can say no. You have rights.”
“She’d just find someone else for me. It makes no difference.”
“Run away with me.”
“Where would we go? Please,” she pleaded, “help me. Just this once. Like the book.”
With tears in my eyes, I nodded. I sat down with her on the bed. She finished unbuttoning her blouse. I undid the knot of her hair. And she was mine. All mine. Blood of my blood. Flesh of my flesh. Our own private mildewed Eden. And I felt no remorse.
I don’t know if I was any good, I don’t know if I did it like the movies, like that romance novel I bought her but never read, but it was what we had, and it was all innocence and dust. The valleys of her body opened up to me like the paths we carved as children between those dunes of wood shavings, but I was the animal crossing the sea, receiving the Torah at Sinai, falling from the Babel tower, at a loss for words in any language.
Afterwards, she got up and dressed wordlessly. Pulled up her pink panties. Snapped on her white cotton bra. Rolled up her thick, white knee-socks. Like a ritual. I wanted to say some kind of incantation, a blessing, a spell—something to keep her whole. To stay that moment, imprison it in a snow-globe—to catch the Raizel who had just been in my arms and keep her frozen there—snowflakes falling around her like glitter. Shake her up, set her down again, and know that the snow would fall, and settle, just so.
She was crying.
“Are you okay?” I sat up in bed, covered only by a sheet. “Come here.” I reached out my arms.
She sat down. I wiped away her tears. “Did I hurt you? Oh God. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “Thank you.” She mouthed the words but no sound came out.
And then she turned and walked away. I watched her go. Heard the sound of her navy pumps on the stairs. The sound echoed in my mind for hours. I didn’t move.
The L’chaim was three days later. Bottles of schnapps in the house. Elegant cherry-topped cakes from the local bakery. Raizel and all of her friends giggling in the living room, surrounded by serious wig-clad mothers and grandmothers and all of Aunt Masha’s charity types. Me and Hirschel in the dining room with all the men. Rav Nosson at the table being plied with shot glass after shot glass and blessing after blessing. Countless murmurs of “What a match!” “B’shert!” “It was meant to be!” “Mazal Tov!” and, “You should be blessed to build a house together!” “Full of Torah and children!” “Many children!”
And I smiled and drank and toasted and the alcohol burned a knot in my gut. There are some battles we cannot fight. Wars we cannot wage. I let the alcohol lay siege to my brain.
The wedding was set for three months hence. A December wedding—Chanukah time—when the lights of the menorah attempt to combat the dark of winter nights.
Raizel was kept busy with preparations. Wedding dress fittings, registry choices, kallah classes to instruct brides in the arts of Jewish love and family purity. I didn’t see or speak to her. And then summer was over. It was time for me to go back to yeshiva. The night before I left, there was a soft knock at the basement door. My heart leapt up the stairs, but when I got there—all that was there was a note.
I’ve missed my period.
There is nothing I can do.
I must repent and hope for a miracle.
God is punishing me for my sin.
It’s all my fault.
Pray for me.
I dropped to the basement steps and the note fluttered out of my trembling fingers. I cried for hours. I thought of ten thousand different ways I could take her away with me. Help her. Save her. Change something. Anything. But I felt hopeless. Useless. Worthless. I knew she couldn’t choose me even if she tried.
I hung my head and went back to the yeshiva the next morning. And I did the only thing I I could think of doing. I prayed. Because that’s what we’re told we’re supposed to do. I cried out to God in my anger and my pain. Beseeched Him. Pleaded with Him. Said the entire book of Tehillim every day—each psalm like a battle cry. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed for a miscarriage.
What I didn’t know then was that Raizel was engaged in her own fierce conflict. She waged war on her soul. Everyone else took it for piety: fasting, praying, crying out to God for salvation— her ardent desire for a healthy marriage—a happy marriage—a home filled with children—a life filled with Torah and mitzvos.
But in her room, alone, it was a Yom Kippur of the mind. Raizel pronounced the “al cheit” prayers and beat her breast—above her heart— until she was permanently bruised. She fasted, refused to eat, and while everyone else thought it was vanity and nerves, she was really trying to still fit into her wedding dress.
She started preparing for her pre-wedding night mikve ritual two months in advance. Scrubbing her heels with a pumice stone. Inspecting her body for blemishes and rubbing every freckle raw to remove all impurities. She cut and filed and cleaned and picked at her nails until they were more red than pink, more skin than nail. They bled and she bandaged them tight to stop the bleeding—cutting off circulation, but needing to staunch the blood for that, too, was forbidden.
She combed through her hair so many times with a lice comb that her hair grew thin. Lifeless. She washed and scrubbed and soaped and cleaned. But still no blood came where it really mattered. And she harbored her secret inside her—a knot of flesh and bone.
And Aunt Masha? I suppose she was proud. Perhaps she had done those same things as a young bride—or wished she had. I didn’t know. I only found out later. From Hindy, from Raizel’s friends. From Hirschel, who saw everything but kept silent, for what did he know of women’s ways?
They found her three nights before the wedding. She had stolen the key to the mikve from Aunt Masha’s key chain. She went alone. In the middle of the night. Took her wedding dress with her. Laid it out like a shroud on the couch in the bridal room. The small swell of her stomach only just visible when they found her, face down in the water.
She had scrawled a verse on the white tiles in red lipstick—the only extravagance she allowed herself before she took the plunge. It was from the Kabbalistic Rosh Hashana Tashlich prayer—which we say as we empty our pockets of the sinful breadcrumbs we harbor there and pray the fish will grow fat with our failures. “And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” Her long black hair was the only thing still moving in the filtered tide of the mikve’s living sea.