By Joshua Van De Riet
And he said to her, “Give me now a little water to drink, for I am thirsty”; and she opened the flask of milk and gave him to drink, and covered him. (Judges 4:19)
Chaya Silverman froze as Judge McGuiness prepared to deliver the verdict in the State of New York vs. Nehemiah Goldstein. Chaya’s face was pensive as tears carved streaks of mascara down her cheeks. Chaya had long brown hair and a soft face. Her skin was pale from a life lived indoors. She wore a sweater which extended to her wrists and an ankle length skirt, in accordance with Chassidic custom.
The Kings County Superior Court looked unsophisticated and square. The ceiling was covered with flickering, unnatural florescent lights and splintering tile. The heater was dysfunctional, and the heavy air pressed in on Chaya. Every breath was an effort. The moldy stench of the courtroom stuck to her clothes. Chaya was parched. She understood how her tongue could “cleave to the roof” of her mouth. The benches for onlookers creaked loudly when they adjusted themselves. Paintings of judges hung from the courtroom’s off-white walls.
Rabbi Nehemiah Goldstein appeared confident at the defense table. He was short and overweight. His hair and beard were both gray except for a black streak which escaped beneath his chin. He wore a black velvet yarmulke. Small corkscrewed side-locks were tucked behind his ears. Throughout the trial, Rabbi Goldstein had darted glances at Chaya. Every time Rabbi Goldstein’s eyes met Chaya’s, she felt powerless. Every night I dream that I want to scream, but nothing comes out, Chaya thought, and every day the nightmare is real.
Chaya’s knees rattled as she stood to listen to the ruling. Her hands trembled. She extracted a picture of her family from her pocket, taken in her bedroom when she was a child. She carried the picture to remind herself of life before Rabbi Goldstein. In the photograph, she could see the ceiling, speckled with glow-in-the-dark stars, a gift from her secular cousins. Arranged in constellations, the stars had spurred a family argument over whether displaying celestial beings constituted idol worship.
Chaya’s room was different from those of most teenage girls. Instead of pictures of boy bands, she had hung a picture of the Rebbe from the rust-colored walls. The Rebbe was the supreme spiritual leader of her community. Chaya’s closet overflowed with uninteresting hand-me-down clothes, for which form followed a single function: modesty. To the left of her closet sat an old cherry desk. The desk was broad and too big for her room. A nail stuck out diagonally from one of the desk’s legs and caused a high-pitched creak every time Chaya bore down against it. When Chaya pressed down with her pencil, as she tried to write in her journal, the desk’s creaking interrupted her thoughts. Eventually, the creaking stopped her from writing in her journal altogether. She had one window, which looked down on the Rebbe’s house. The Rebbe’s home looked like a Picasso. It was built in the federal style of architecture and was awkwardly squished together to fit into its urban surroundings.
“Has the jury arrived at a verdict?” Judge McGuiness asked.
“It has,” said the presiding juror.
God, we are all being judged, Chaya thought. At every moment, our actions are being scrutinized, aren’t they? If You weren’t watching in judgment, maybe this wouldn’t matter.
The sky outside the courtroom changed colors. Clouds were hanging over the courthouse in a tumult of blue and gray. The courthouse was surrounded by narrow homes. Each row house rose into the sky, attempting to compensate for its narrow architecture. Chaya hated her dilapidated home. She hated the paper-thin walls and moldy carpets. She hated the lack of privacy.
Chaya cringed at night when she was awakened by her parents arguing. She arose and pressed her ear against the wall.
“Yaakov, come to bed.” Chaya had heard her mother say. Her father was completely still at his desk, poring over a religious text.
“Not now, Malka, I am studying,” her father had said. It hurt Chaya to be reminded of her mother’s rank in the religious hierarchy.
“Yaakov, I want you to notice me.” Chaya imagines her father silently rocking back and forth, engrossed, pretending to ignore her mother. “Yaakov —”
“Malka! Do you think that I should stop doing what I was put on this earth to do in order to quiet your desires?”
“‘I shall surely go with you,’” Chaya heard her father read aloud from his text, “‘but your glory will not be on the way which you go, for into the hand of a woman will the Lord deliver Sisera.’ Don‘t you realize we are all being judged by the Almighty?” Yaakov asked. Chaya lay down on her bed and took refuge under her pillow from the argument. She hoped that God would give her a man who loved her.
The bailiff retrieved the verdict sheet from the presiding juror and handed it to Judge McGuiness. The judge looked aristocratic on the bench. He smoothed thin strands of gray and black hair over the top of his head. He pushed his square bifocals to the end of his nose.
“In the matter of State of New York vs. Nehemiah Goldstein, after a trial by jury, this court finds the Defendant, Nehemiah Goldstein, not guilty.”
Chaya felt the weight of the courtroom press against her chest.
“What does that mean?” she asked the Kings County district attorney, Frank Hynes.
“It means we lost,” he said.
“What do you mean we lost? How could we lose? They don’t believe me?” Chaya asked.
“Our courts aren‘t concerned about what is true; they are concerned about what I can prove,” Hynes said.
How could this happen? Chaya thought. How could they not see what happened? How could a just God let this happen?
Chaya began to shake uncontrollably. Her father’s face contorted, as he tried to contain his emotions. He ripped his shirt as if in mourning, and fell into his wife’s arms.
Her father wore a black suit with a white shirt every day. The plainness of his clothes intensified his efforts to be a zealous person. He was slight, but when he talked about the things closest to his heart, he became dynamic and persuasive. When he was inspired, he rocked back and forth. His skin was pale, and his almond-shaped eyes sunk slightly into his face. He had never once shaved. To tame his beard, he wound it under his chin and used a bobby pin to keep it in place. Chaya remembered the softness in his voice when he would sing songs to her to help her fall asleep. She remembered him praying on Rosh Hashana the year his mother had passed away. He cried deeply into his prayer shawl. He had never once considered the possibility that God wasn’t listening.
If God listens, how could this happen? Chaya thought, considering the verdict. A personal God, a God who loves us could never let this happen.
Doubting Jewish belief was not new to Chaya. She had always criticized her father’s willingness to believe. “I don‘t think I believe in God,” Chaya had announced at the entryway to the kitchen, where, one evening, her mother was preparing dinner.
“Please, I don‘t want to have this conversation right now” said her mother as she gathered the ingredients for chalah and turned up the fire under some chicken soup simmering on the stove.
“Why are you avoiding the topic? You never answer my questions!”
“Zvi, come downstairs and have supper,” her mother shouted to Chaya’s brother. To Chaya she said, “Don’t talk like this when your father gets home. You know how he gets.”
“Stop evading the question. Why should I believe in God?”
“Zvi, get down here now!” Her mother beat her egg whites more rapidly. “Heaven forbid you should really think what you are saying, Chaya.”
“If God is so great, why do such horrible things happen to good people?”
“Can I have ice cream?” Zvi asked, entering the kitchen. He was oblivious to his sister and spent most of his home life shuffling through the baseball cards his Uncle Murray had bought him. Every year for Chanukah, Uncle Murray would bring Zvi a brand new set of cards.
“After supper. Listen, Chaya, God loves you and the world is complicated, and so bad things happen.”
“But, if God loves us, whydoesHe let bad things happen to us?”
“Nu? Can I have ice cream now?” Zvi asked, this time poking his mother’s hip.
“Chaya, all you have to do is have emunah.”
“What does that mean anyway: ‘Have emunah, have faith’? Have some soup, Chaya. Have some kugel, Chaya. Have a little faith, Chaya.”
“Don‘t be so crude. Remember: ‘Respect your parents,’ Chaya. Or don’t they teach that anymore?”
Chaya’s father walked into the room. He slowly took off his hat and jacket. He picked up the mail and went through each letter methodically.
“I am not being crude!” Chaya shouted. Her voice was louder, to be sure her father heard.
“Show your mother some respect, Chaya!” he snapped.
“So teach me how to believe!” Chaya retorted.
“Don‘t ask so many questions, Chaya! Jewish girls shouldn't ask so many questions!” Then, noticeably more calm, he said, “Listen, Chaya, we think you should go see Rabbi Goldstein.”
“Why? Do you think I am crazy?”
“Maybe he can teach you how to believe.” her father said.
Now Chaya and her family left the courthouse and walked into a crowd of accusers. The sea of humanity reminded her of the crowds that gather before the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jewish holy days. She pulled her jacket over her head to deflect the insults and cold rain which began to fall. Chaya’s neighborhood was home to West Indians and Jews, creating a cacophony of Rasta and Yiddish. She leaned her body forward to right herself against the wind.
Maybe if I don’t fight the wind, it will carry me off to some beautiful place, Chaya thought. The wind kicked up old newspapers and fast-food debris.
“Moser!” someone in the crowd shouted. Isn‘t it fascinating, Chaya thought, that the Hebrew word for someone who turns information over to the authorities, moser, is so close to the Hebrew word for tradition, mesora. Chaya lowered her head and got in her parents’ Volvo, parked at the entrance of the courthouse.
Chaya gazed pensively out the window as her father drove the Volvo to Frank Hynes’ office to briefly discuss the results of the trial. She had first told her parents about therapy with Rabbi Goldstein while driving to her cousin’s wedding. They had asked and she couldn’t hold back any longer. She told her parents Rabbi Goldstein’s office was furnished with imposing shelves, filled entirely with holy books. He decorated the walls with pictures of the Rebbe and of some of his “patients” from the past.
“Each one of them reminds me of how important my job is,” Rabbi Goldstein had noted when Chaya asked about the girls. Chaya had never been alone with a man other than her father. She’d felt totally exposed as Rabbi Goldstein shut the door behind her. “We must ensure total confidentiality here, my darling,” he’d said.
Chaya had felt claustrophobic in his office. The truth was, she’d felt guilty after their sessions. She liked getting attention from Rabbi Goldstein. She liked the way he looked at her. She wished other men looked at her that way. “I was told my whole life not to even speak to boys, but I liked having someone pay attention to me,” Chaya told her parents. “I got up every day, and I did what I was told, but when I was with Nehemiah, I told him everything. I didn’t have to think about whether Jewish girls were allowed to think what I was thinking. I feel like what happened is my fault.”
Now Chaya noticed Frank Hynes standing at the entrance of an imposing building, waiting to lead the Silvermans to his office. Hynes looked more like a firefighter than an attorney. He was husky, with thin gray hair and a brown beard. He led the Silverman’s to his office on the 15th floor. The building was the same unoriginal, functional style as the courthouse. Chaya was afraid she might forget her way out of the labyrinth of stairs, hallways and hidden rooms.
“What does all of this mean?” Chaya asked, as she sat down in Hynes’ office.
“It means he is going to walk free today,” Hynes said.
“That just can’t be!”
“This is hard to hear. It’s horrible, but we can’t win what we can’t prove.” He turned to her parents. “Chaya waited months before she came to the police. There was no physical evidence whatsoever. It was Chaya’s word against Rabbi Goldstein’s, and we have the burden of proving his word was wrong.”
“What do you mean the burden? Chaya wasn’t lying! I don’t know what any of this means,” Mr. Silverman said.
“Mr. Silverman, please stay calm. After what happened, Chaya went to you. Instead of to the police. Instead of going to the police, you went to your Rebbe. In response, all the Rebbe did was ask Rabbi Goldstein to stop counseling girls. It was simply impossible to convince the jury,” Hynes said.
“We usually don’t go to the police in our community; we try to take care of ourselves. That is the way it has always been,” Mr. Silverman said.
“Unfortunately,” Hynes said, “that is not good enough for a jury.”
Chaya and her mother held hands as they left Hynes’ office. On the walk home, only Mrs. Silverman spoke. She commented on the weather, but no one listened.
The next morning, Chaya sat in her desk chair, completely exhausted. The desk creaked as she laid her weight against it. She placed her face into her arms and pressed as hard as she could. Her wool sweater wicked away her tears. She tried to breathe deeply but couldn’t. Panic overtook her as she tried to take in air. Each breath required all of her strength. Her chest felt caved in, as though she had been struck by an unknowable force.
“Chaya, honey, talk to me,” her mother said as she inched into the room. Chaya wanted to respond, but was silent.
Since the trial started, every night I have the same dream, Chaya thought. I am sitting in the kitchen with Zvi, he is talking about something, but I can’t understand his voice. Then, someone I can’t see walks into the kitchen, grabs me and yanks me out of the house.
“Yaakov, please come here, Chaya won’t speak to me,” her mother called.
I try to scream, Chaya thought, but nothing comes out of my mouth. I gasp for air as I am dragged away and try to scream again but nothing happens. Then, suddenly, my teeth start falling out of my mouth as I am being carried away, and, finally, my hair comes out. I don’t know what it means exactly. God, what does this mean?
Mr. Silverman finally emerged and followed his wife into Chaya’s room. The two of them sat on Chaya’s bed. They looked severe.
“Chaya, nothing good will come out of crying,” said her father. Chaya yearned for someone to comfort her with their touch. “Chaya, God has a reason for everything.”
Chaya shook uncontrollably and then screamed, “Don’t you give me that bullshit!”
“Chaya! Jewish girls shouldn’t speak like that!” her father retorted.
“I don’t give a shit. I don’t care what Jewish girls are supposed to do. I don’t care what Jewish girls are supposed to think. I don’t want you to tell me what I am supposed to feel!”
“Please, Chaya, stay calm. God must have wanted all — ” her father said.
“Listen to me. A just God could not have wanted this to happen to me. A God who is involved in my life, whose outstretched arm took us from the land of Egypt, could not have wanted this.” Chaya steeled herself for her parent’s response but none came. She continued, “I went to you when this happened to me. I went to the Rebbe. I went to God. I went to the police. I went to court and I was humiliated, and you all failed me!” Chaya moved back and forth, as if she were praying.
“Chaya, darling, please believe me. Things will get better,” her father said.
“Get out!” Chaya responded as she pounded her fist against her desk. She noticed Zvi had been watching the whole time. I hope Zvi can see what their God really wants, Chaya thought.
Chaya’s parents took their only son and left the room. Her father’s head hung low; his chin pressed against his chest. Chaya could hear their footsteps against the noisy wooden floor. The Brooklyn row house moaned from the old cast iron radiator, plumbing system and aging wooden floors. The sounds of the house had always bothered Chaya. It sounds like the grunts of some strange animal, she thought, something not of this earth. Something unnatural.
Chaya raised her head from the desk. She scanned her room and noticed her clothes strewn about. Her eyes, now completely clear, focused on her sweaters and skirts. Everything I own exists to shut me up, Chaya thought. Every sweater, every skirt covers me and hides me from myself. I am engulfed by their version of what I should be.
She grabbed her backpack and shook out the contents on the floor. She stuffed a pair of scissors in the bag. She thrust as many clothes as she could into the bag as though she were harvesting the contents of her life. She placed her backpack on her desk and shoved her skirts and sweaters into the bag until it burst, and the zipper started to fail. She inched out of her bedroom with her backpack. Finally, she ripped the loose nail out of the desk and the creaking stopped. She placed the nail in her bag. Her mind raced to find an excuse to leave. She walked toward the kitchen and took a deep breath.
“Chaya, darling, where are you going?” her mother asked.
“I need to go to study,” she said to her parents. Then looking at her father, she added, “Remember what it says, Aba? ‘I shall surely go with you, but your glory will not be on the way which you go, for into the hand of a woman will the Lord deliver Sisera.’ I think I should go study the holy books. Tonight there is a study group for girls in my class.”
Satisfied with Chaya’s response, Mr. Silverman said, “Okay, Chaya, be careful.”
Chaya smiled wryly and told her parents she loved them, and on her way out of the house, she surreptitiously took her father’s wallet from his coat and placed it in her backpack. She raced down the street and neared an isolated alleyway. Her heart skipped with excitement. She entered the alleyway and walked towards a steel barrel emitting flames which kept the homeless warm. Chaya felt the heat of the flames. She took off her backpack. One article of clothing at a time she set to flames. Her fingers were blackened with soot. She continued until every item of clothing she could fit into her backpack had been reduced to ash. And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, I will no longer curse the earth because of Man, for the imagination of Man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done.
Chaya took a step away from the steel barrel and extracted the pair of scissors. The sky darkened and clouds hid the sun. A frigid breeze flowed through the alley. The flames flickered, still fueled by her clothes. She laughed as she grabbed a fistful of her flowing brown hair. She snipped long sections of it. Her hair mixed with the ice, snow and rain on the pavement. In a burst of newness, she walked towards the street. She didn’t recognize her reflection on the window of a parked car. She stopped and turned toward it and noticed, as she traced her outline with her index finger, that the lines of her body were curved and distorted in the window. Chaya had shied away from self-examination in the past.
She remembered being a child, sitting legs crossed in front of a canvas. She’d loved to paint, but her parents disapproved. Chaya would assuage her father’s judgment with the occasional painting of the Rebbe. The pure white of the canvas intimidated her, she did not want to ruin it, but on that night the time was short. My parents will be home soon, she thought. Now is the time to paint. She enjoyed being alone. As an older sister, she did not have many moments to herself, but tonight, she could do as she pleased. Her parents were at a parent-teacher conference, and her little brother, Zvi, was with a friend, so Chaya had resolved to paint. In isolation, she could liberate herself from their guilt. I will paint me, she thought.
She’d raced downstairs, across creaky wooden floors, to snatch a mirror. She set up the mirror next to her canvas, to compare and contrast her reflection to the painting. The house was utterly silent. She remembered her grandmother saying to her, as a child, “I hate a quiet house, little Chayale. I am only comfortable with the sound of children.” She gazed at herself in judgment. Each imperfection and every bump or shape the magazines said she shouldn’t have seemed to grow, the longer she looked at the mirror. In her perfect lonesomeness, she undressed and gazed at her naked body. I can’t be happy in this body, she thought. She raised her paintbrush into the air like a sword and came down against the canvas furiously. She whipped the brush back and forth, smearing black and dark blue until the painting had lost all its resemblance to her.
Now Chaya turned up Eastern Parkway, and walked hastily towards Rabbi Goldstein’s office. She noticed a clothing store she had seen countless times – one she would often walk past, where non-Jewish girls would joke with each other and try on clothing. She’d envied their freedom. Chaya now inched inside the store. Blood rushed to her face as she was enveloped by the cloud of perfume and pop music rattling on the store speakers. The clothing store was forbidden. She slowly ran her fingers through the skirts and dresses. She was comforted by the softness of the synthetic materials. She started to tap her foot to the music; it was deep and the bass reverberated through her body.
“Can I help you find something?” the store clerk asked. Chaya was startled, as if she’d been caught lying. She unintentionally held her breath and took a step back.
“Look, I am just trying to help. Are you okay?”
“Sorry, I was just startled. I have never been in a place like this.” Chaya said.
“No kidding,” said the clerk. Chaya blushed and took another step back. “Honey, I didn’t mean to upset you. Let me show you something I think would look great on you, okay?” The clerk had unnaturally dark hair and wore black eyeliner. Her ear lobes had been gouged, with dark plates stretching them wider. She wore a tank top and ripped jeans, and her voice sounded like she smoked. Her fingernails were black, and a long colorful tattoo of a snake was draped across her right arm.
But despite the clerk’s outward appearance, Chaya felt comforted. She doesn’t expect anything from me, Chaya thought. She can do anything she wants to do; she is not trapped inside her body.
Chaya nodded and the clerk led her through the store, which had a poster of Jimi Hendrix on the wall, and belts, studded with spikes, hung below long silver earrings with crosses. Chaya perused the clothing and grabbed a mini-skirt and tank top. She rushed to the dressing room and changed.
“You look beautiful,” the clerk said.
Chaya struggled to hold back tears. She paid with the money in her father’s wallet, then thanked the clerk and raced towards Rabbi Goldstein’s office. This will be the last time I ever have to walk down these unfamiliar streets; the last time I ever go to Rabbi Goldstein’s office, Chaya thought.
For their first meeting, Chaya had had trouble finding Rabbi Goldstein’s office. Rabbi Goldstein had an unmarked office on the third floor of a brownstone in a residential zone, but people in this section of Brooklyn rarely took offense to such violations of law. The wind had picked up and cold droplets of rain began to fall at an angle. Chaya was relieved to see Rabbi Goldstein’s building. The creaky staircase leading up to the office was unkempt. The walls were covered in graffiti that Chaya didn’t understand and the sandpaper-like skids which once lined the stairs had been ripped off. She hesitated to grab the staircase handle, which had doubtless been touched by a thousand people without being cleaned. Rabbi Goldstein welcomed Chaya into his office, offered her something to drink and sat down.
“Well, little Chayale” he said. “For this therapy to work, I need to know everything about you. Your fears, desires, struggles and joys. Tell me about yourself.”
“I was born at Brooklyn Hospital Center.”
“Tell me more. I want to know everything about you.”
“I don’t know. I went to Bais Yaakov School for Girls and here I am.” She fidgeted with her hands looking for the right answer.
“I want to know more, tell me every detail. Do you ever think about boys?”
“When I was young, my parents would take me to Manhattan and we would go to the park. I remember my father was so present back then. My mother didn’t work. She stayed with us and watched over everything I did when I was younger. After Zvi, my brother, was born, I just became my mother’s helper. I was told to clean up after him, even after he was able to clean up for himself. Ever since Zvi was born, he was all my parents cared about.”
“Good. Next week, I want you to continue opening up.”
Chaya walked, at this moment, towards Rabbi Goldstein’s office, in the otherwise unoccupied building. She retrieved the nail from her backpack and walked towards his door.
“Is someone there?” he asked.
“It’s me, Chaya.”
“Chaya? What are you doing here?” Rabbi Goldstein asked. He walked into the hallway and saw Chaya, but didn’t recognize her at first. He raised his voice. “What do you want — to get me in trouble? You have no business being here! What did you do to your hair? And these clothes Chaya — they are not modest!”
“Wait, Nehemiah. Before you get angry. I came here to apologize.” She walked closer to him and signaled towards his office.
“To apologize?” Rabbi Goldstein asked. “I thought this would happen. Come into my office. I knew you enjoyed every moment you spent with me.” He sat down behind his desk. “So, my darling, what did you want to say?”
Chaya walked behind Rabbi Goldstein’s desk and softly placed her hand on his shoulder. She moved her hips sensually as she drew closer. “I wanted to say I am sorry for everything I made you do to me.”
Chaya leaned forward and kissed Rabbi Goldstein as she slowly tightened her fist around the nail. She drew her head back from his and looked deeply into his eyes. She took a deep breath and collected her energy. Then Chaya plunged the nail into Rabbi Goldstein’s temple. Into the hand of a woman, Chaya thought, will the Lord deliver Sisera.