Spinning, Washing, Pouring, Making, Serving
By Adina Siperman
Tamara poised her pen over a blank piece of paper. She pulsated with a mixture of excitement and anxiety and she wasn’t going to let Menachem’s nervous flittering a foot away take this from her. Tamara had waited for these blissful days since she was a little girl. Of course she had pictured her groom bluer eyed and perhaps a little broader through the shoulders, but there was still time for Menachem to undergo a growth spurt. Tamara’s sister, Hannah’s husband Hillel, grew a full foot after their wedding. There was hope for Menachem.
Tamara looked over at him as he feverishly read through a tractate. His beard was sparse in some areas on his cheeks and his kipa sat slanted over his already thinning hair. Beads of sweat ran down his temples and over his patches of acne. But his nose was straight and his hands were strong. Tamara suspected that Menachem would get better looking as he grew older, since, as youth was fleeting, they would know one another longer in old age.
Menachem turned to Tamara with a face of worry, “You don’t have your period right now, do you?”
She looked him straight in the eyes and took a moment to consider how to answer. Did she show her displeasure in his question or simply answer it? Since last night she’d had a nagging fear in her core that Menachem could call off the wedding.
Tamara hadn’t intended to cause this rift between them. But last night, when Menachem came to visit with her family, she couldn’t stop thinking about all the changes that this marriage would bring. And it wasn’t the day-to-day ones — the moving out of her childhood apartment, leaving her siblings or having a husband to care for. It was the romantic changes, the sexual ones. Other than her brothers and her father, Tamara could not remember ever touching a boy. No holding hands with boys in the yeshiva down the street or giving or receiving hugs. She couldn’t imagine how a caressing touch would feel. She wanted so badly to know what a kiss was like.
She’d seen a video on the internet that her older cousin Miriam had shown her years ago. It was of a blond woman and a big, muscly man kissing with their mouths wide open and their tongues swirling around. The man was pulling on the woman’s hair, and she was moaning. It looked more painful than pleasurable.
As Menachem and her father spoke about this week’s Torah portion, Tamara found herself fixating on Menachem’s thin lips with the light shadow of a mustache above them. After their marriage ceremony, while all their wedding guests were eating hors d’oeuvres and congratulating their parents, Tamara and Menachem were to go into the seclusion room to break their fast and be alone for the first time as man and wife. Tamara wondered if, during their first kiss, she was supposed to moan and pant like the woman in the movie. Would Menachem know that the moaning was part of it? Wouldn’t the guests hear?
After Tamara’s parents said good night to Menachem, Tamara slipped after him on his walk to the elevator. Seeing her in the empty hallway, he fidgeted. Though they weren’t supposed to be alone together, Tamara slid into the elevator as the door closed. In two weeks they would be married. What did three minutes alone now matter in the grand scheme of their lives?
“Tamara, I could have found my own way out of the building. My cousin lives on the sixth floor,” Menachem said.
“I know,” Tamara said shyly. “I just, I wanted to know if . . .”
Before she could stop herself, Tamara pinned her body to Menachem’s and kissed him full on the lips. She inserted her tongue into his mouth and felt his tense tongue against hers. Her first thought was that it was like a piece of warm herring. He didn’t reach for her hair or put his arms around her. Instead, he backed against the elevator wall, trying to pull away. When the doors opened, he ran out of the building without looking at her or saying goodbye.
This evening when they met for the class, Menachem said nothing about last night. He barely made eye contact with Tamara and this question about her period marked the first time he spoke to her all night.
“No, I don’t,” she said flatly.
Menachem exhaled a breath that he had been holding. “It’s not good, but it could be worse,” he muttered to himself and turned back to the open book in front of him.
“Are you going to pay attention when she starts again?”
Menachem nodded, but she wasn’t sure if it was to her or to the rabbinical decrees on the pages in front of him.
Tamara looked around the cramped and muggy classroom. This group was different than she had expected. Being in the middle of Jerusalem, she had imagined young, religious couples she would meet and instantly bond with over caterers and kiddushim. There was supposed to be excitement in the air, all the couples oozing with anticipation at the prospect of finally marrying their betrothed. Rather, there was a restlessness echoing from the tapping flip-flops against chair legs and a resentful groan aimed at the instructor every time she asked them to turn a page in their booklets. The people in this yeshiva classroom on a hot Tuesday night in August seemed bitter at having to take these government-mandated marriage classes, while the butterflies in Tamara’s stomach flittered every time the instructor said the word kalla. It was finally her turn to be the bride!
The couple sitting across from her was probably ten years older than she was, and though he wore a kipa and she a skirt covering her knees, there was little modesty being observed. Their clothes had a sheen and a crispness that forced Tamara to inspect every belt, every bracelet. They spoke to one another quickly in French and they laughed over something he showed her on his phone. Tamara watched the way the girl leaned over the boy’s arm and held it, their shoulders touching as they peered at the screen.
Crammed into the children’s school seats, across the room, the voices of a couple had started to get louder. The woman rubbed at her pregnant belly as her fiancé scrolled through his phone a few seats away and barked, “Well, there’s not much we can do about it now, is there?”
Tamara looked the man over, trying to place where she knew him from. His bare arm covered in faded, bleeding tattoos confirmed that he wasn’t from anywhere within the eight blocks surrounding her neighbourhood. Was he the bus driver on the 10A?
“Please, Ehud, let’s just go. I can’t take this heat,” the woman hissed at him.
“No, no, no. You’re going to have to wait a little longer for us to get this form signed,” he said. He picked up the form that all the couples had at their desks and waved it in her direction. “How long did I have to wait for you?”
Was he from the post office on Yaffo Street?
“Not here, please. Let’s just go,” the pregnant woman pleaded.
“In the first three months you were too stunned to act. I yelled and I stamped my feet and I looked up prices of flights to Cyprus. But no, you didn’t want to face reality. You didn’t want to have to tell your father that you were carrying the cucumber man’s baby.”
A smile crept across Tamara’s face. That was it! He was the guy who sold produce at Mahane Yehuda, the one who rattled the change container to the tune of Yerusalayim Shel Zahav and called out passersby to sing along with him. Once, when she’d been alone, Tamara had sung the words “Behold I am a violin for all your songs” along with him. He’d tossed a free pomegranate at her with a smile and a wink.
The woman heaved herself out of her small plastic chair. “I’m going. That’s it.”
By now, all of the class, except for Menachem, had put down their phones, crossword puzzles and magazines to give full attention to the drama that was developing in front of them.
Ehud pried his eyes off his phone screen and said, “Where you going, Tzafi? How would you even get home? Sit down and finish this class. You wanted the traditional Jewish wedding; you’re going to have to play by these penguins’ rules.” Ehud tossed his phone on the desk. “This shit is so fucked up. Look at where we are, look who we’re surrounded by. Look at this one.” He motioned across the room to Tamara.
The class turned to look at her. Tamara blushed and averted her eyes, waiting for him to continue.
“This beautiful girl is marrying this rocking penguin. What kind of divine justice is that? She’s going to have to cut her long hair and wave goodbye to her slim waist and thank her Lord that she was paired with a great and noble scholar.”
The class stared at Tamara whose face was burning hot. She scribbled her soon-to-be-married name onto her piece of paper, praying for Hashem to open the ground and swallow her up, or at least that Menachem would stand up and defend her. But there were only so many of her prayers that He could answer.
Sensing a sudden silence, Menachem peered up from his book and looked at all eyes on him. “What? Are we done?”
“Done?” Ehud laughed. “This is just the beginning of our long and blissfully happy marriages, my little penguin.”
Menachem turned to Tamara for an explanation, but she only glanced quickly at him and turned back to stare at her piece of paper. Again, Menachem scanned the room at all the strangers looking at him. Not knowing how to react, he shrugged and went back to studying his book.
The instructor came back into the room, scratching at her lopsided wig. “Oh, so quiet in here? Are you in rapture with the beauty of the great rebbes’ edicts towards marriage or is it the stifling heat? I chose to believe the former, and let’s just entirely ignore the latter.”
The instructor removed a handkerchief from the pocket of her long skirt and dabbed at her moist forehead. The bangs on her wig shot straight out from her wet temples at an angle. Tamara stroked her own damp hair and twirled a curl around her finger.
It was the part of getting married that she dreaded the most. It was the part her mother had teased her about since she was a kid. “Silly little Tamarale,” she’d say as she rolled out the matzah balls, cleaved the chicken or nursed the youngest baby. “She’s going to have to choose between her beautiful hair and getting married. I wouldn’t be surprised if she chose her hair.”
Tamara had every intention of following each and every edict decreed in the Torah and the Talmud and all the rabbinical writings pertaining to marriage. She wanted to be a good and observant wife to Menachem. And if it meant hiding her most beloved feature under a head covering, to show the world that she was taken and that she was modest, she would do it. But he would have to understand that it would be trying at first; or at least she hoped that he would. Would he? Could he even understand the importance that her hair held? He didn’t seem to live in a world of earthly emotions, only scholarly reflections.
“By now we’ve spoken somewhat indirectly about the afterlife,” the instructor continued as the class shifted in their seats. “All these laws that we’re following about marriage and modesty and menstrual cycles — they are being tallied in that big book in the sky.” She pointed heavenwards. “But for what, you ask? How do I know that these sometimes annoying, seemingly arbitrary, often taxing laws that we follow to the letter are even worthwhile? What is this afterlife?”
“I know what it is,” Ehud muttered under his breath. “It’s nine o’clock — when this class is done.”
Chuckles scattered across the room.
“You,” the teacher pointed at Ehud. “You with all the drawings on your body. I’m happy you said that, because, you know, you’re entirely correct. You’re taking the past experience of having endured something cumbersome but something that is ultimately worthwhile and knowing that there is salvation at the end of it. You’re sitting in this stifling classroom listening to an old woman go on and on about laws that you don’t have any intention of keeping.
“And you’re missing the big football game, or your friends are all at the bar, or your mom made your favourite dish for dinner tonight. And yet,” she raised her finger to punctuate her point, “you’re here because you know that it’s worthwhile. You know that sitting here means that you get that signature on your form and that means that you get to marry your love. You’re using a priori knowledge to justify this boredom and this sacrifice to yourself. And that’s okay,” she said, smiling. “That’s good. We — the Rabbinical Council of Israel — are happy that you’re here. We hope that something today works for your marriage tomorrow.”
“Well, I’m happy I could be of service,” Ehud said with a softness in his voice that he had not used all evening.
Tamara smiled to herself at the chutzpah of this teacher. She wasn’t just a quiet housewife concealed behind her husband. Though she showed to the world, with her covered hair and circumspect modesty, that she was spoken for by a man, she was allowed to use her voice to show her personality, to show herself.
Tamara turned to Menachem to see if he had witnessed the woman she would like to become. But he he’d not listened to any of it. His eyes continued to scan the pages of the book in front of him. Then he suddenly turned to look at her.
“Tamara,” he whispered. “Would you say that you derived pleasure last night? Was it an action with the intention of a pleasurable experience?”
Tamara had to again weigh her response to his question. Of course a kiss was an action with the intention of a pleasurable experience. Was that not the only purpose a kiss was supposed to serve? Kissing was not for baby-making. It was simply for pleasure.
“Sssh. Please, not now. I’m listening,” she whispered back.
“Now, my decorated friend, what’s your name?” the instructor asked.
“Ehud,” she repeated with respect, nodding her head in approval. “You’re named after a very brave and very capable man. Are you left-handed?”
Ehud laughed, “No.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Now, Ehud, I appreciate very much your philosophy that what you endure today will pay off tomorrow in the afterlife. It’s how many of us operate, is it not? However, I have to quibble with your notion of afterlife. It’s not wrong per se, but it’s not entirely correct. By using afterlife, you’re saying that the next part is not life. It’s something other than life. When, in truth, it is,” she said and clenched her fists to emphasize her point. “It’s not after life, it’s the very continuation of life. Life never ends. It’s just gets higher and higher.”
“How do you know that?” Ehud asked. “Just from what it says in these books?”
“I’m happy you asked, Ehud. In fact, the Torah says very little about the world to come.”
“Because you know, Tamara,” Menachem whispered, “if what happened yesterday is considered a pleasure act, it’s a punishable sin. The Rambam says that those who approach a forbidden sexual partner are those who spread depraved abhorrence.”
“But let’s not look to the holy books to show us the way when we can plainly see the way ourselves,” the instructor continued. “I think that we can all agree that a fetus in the womb has a state of consciousness. It exists and thinks and dreams, just as we do. But all it knows is the womb. Sure, it may hear sounds of the world to come and it may feel the warmth of its mother’s hands on the outside of the belly, but it is not aware of the reality about to be bestowed upon it.”
“But, if you really think about it,” Menachem whispered. “I don’t think that we can consider what happened last night a pleasurable act. I didn’t derive pleasure from it. And I don’t think that you could have, right?”
“And then comes that fateful day when the fetus is thrust from the only existence that it’s ever known and it becomes a baby who’s introduced to this whole world that we’re presently a part of. This new world — this new living — is not an afterlife. It’s a continuation of life. A higher level of consciousness. And, just like when we were fetuses in the womb, today we experience little glimmers of the world to come. Of what’s waiting for us on the other side. Of what we are on the cusp of experiencing.”
“Tamara? Did you? Could you have derived pleasure from that kiss?”
Tamara turned to look to Menachem. “No,” she said flatly, “I did not.”