One Good Deed, And Another
By G. Evelyn Lampart
My brother persuaded me to see his chiropractor, a moonlighting musician, who performed at Jewish weddings. I was depressed. Simon said that I needed to get my mind and body in harmony. The chiropractor had years of experience and was versatile.
“He knows how to make people happy,” Simon said. “His flute playing bridges the gap between the body and the soul.”
The chiropractor didn’t ask questions. My brother must have told him that I was sad, or depressed, or even suicidal. And that I was single, twenty-three years old, no longer working, collecting unemployment insurance, and not looking. And of course that I was no longer frum.
The bearded man instructed me to lie down on a table. I did. He draped a white sheet over my body and my face. I sensed him standing over me and muttering that I was a weed in my family’s garden that had to be ripped out.
“Give me back my life, gonif,” I shouted as I threw off the sheet and fled into the waiting room.
Simon was sitting alone, quietly leafing through a copy of Prevention magazine. I rushed past him and out the front door. He raced after me onto the porch and grabbed my arm.
“Where are you going?”
“You’re hurting!” I said, and struggled to twist free of his grasp. “Your quack called me a weed. He wants to bury me covered with a white cotton sheet. Like a shroud, Simon. A shroud!”
The chiropractor appeared and stood like a sentinel on the porch of his Brooklyn brick detached house, flanked with trees. He leaned over the concrete ledge and called out to Simon: “Your sister needs a vitamin supplement. Vitamin 29. Sold over the counter in any drugstore.” He turned to go back inside, and hesitated. “Take care,” he added.
Simon relaxed his grip on my upper arm. I broke loose and ran. The words I’m sorry resounded in my head. I couldn’t tell if he was apologizing or if I was hearing voices.
He caught up with me. “You’re too sensitive. You don’t have to analyze everything.”
Analysis was appreciated for the study of Judaic texts like the Talmud. Simon was immersed in studying me, and committed to lifting my spirits. If my brother and I were in a study group, I would have excelled. We weren’t, though. My role in provincial Judaism was to get married. Simon’s was to marry. He was considered a late bloomer at twenty-seven. And I was labeled desperate at twenty-three.
“He’s not going to bury you, Dinah. All he did was to prescribe a multi-vitamin, for goodness sake,” Simon said. “You aren’t a weed, and we don’t have a garden.”
Simon left for California right after his college graduation. He was twenty-one years old.
“You don’t have to go,” I said. We were sitting at the dinette table after our parents fell asleep. It was late spring and I opened the windows for the breezes to sweep into the room. Simon was explaining what the song “Tambourine Man” meant to him. I understood. I felt the longing too — for Simon not to leave me behind. Or for Simon to take me with him.
“Remember when you taught me how to swim in the mountains when we were young?” I asked.
“I don’t know how to swim. How could I possibly teach you?”
“With tubes. Inner tubes.”
He didn’t know what they were. “Impossible. I wouldn’t even step into a mixed pool. How old were you anyway?” Simon asked.
“What would a nine-year-old remember?”
“I remember,” I told him. “You were thirteen. A bar mitzvah. You were beaten by your father because you went into the pool. Mixed swimming. Why do you think you need to go to California?”
I reminded him about the gash my father had made with his nails on my neck when he found a pack of cigarettes in my woven hippie bag from Greenwich Village. And that Simon had advised me after that to keep my neck covered. He said no one would ever know. And so no one ever knew what I was hiding, except for Simon.
“I need you,” I said. “To protect me.”
“And what does swimming have to do with anything?”
“I was afraid of drowning, Simon.”
“So now you know how to swim.”
“I’m not talking about swimming!”
“I told you.”
“You won’t drown, Dinah.” My brother looked aghast. “You know how to swim. And I don’t.”
“You’re running away because you can’t stand up to our father. You’re hiding your gashes.”
Our father died, and Simon returned. He was more observant than before and returned to Orthodoxy. He didn’t chastise me for not being religious. For not keeping kosher. For not honoring the Sabbath. For being depressed. He didn’t ask why; he knew. Gradually he stepped into the role of helper, leading me through a labyrinth of healers. He had a purpose. And I was noncommittal.
Simon suggested another healer. A mystic. “No hands-on stuff.” he said. “That was a mistake. This Rav is from Yerushalayim. An older man. Disciples flock to him.”
Rav Abarbar was holding forth in a local shul. He spoke through an interpreter. The old man with distant eyes from a distant land asked me if I was supposed to get married. I didn’t know what he meant. Everyone was supposed to get married. I said, Yes, I was supposed to get married.
Simon had walked away and the Rav called him back. They spoke through a translator. The old man gave Simon a packet of herbs with instructions that I brew a tea to drink every morning. And he would see me again on Friday. He was staying in Boro Park. I wanted Simon to go with me. He told me not to worry.
“Just go,” he said. “You need to.”
When I had been part of an Orthodox crowd, on the fringes of the community, I knew Boro Park as a sanctuary of kosher Pizza parlors. I easily located the Rav in a small basement apartment on a tree-lined street that resembled all the other side streets in Boro Park. He answered the door and ushered me into a small kitchen. A pile of polyester pants lay on a table, along with sewing needles, threads, large scissors, and small scissors.
The mystic pantomimed that he wanted me to hem the three dark navy pants. It was a cloudy day and the light in the basement kitchen was dim. I sat down on a low bench close to the window and hunched over the trousers. I had nothing better to do. Every day was the face of a clock staring at me as I lay supine on my couch. Time had no minutes, no hours, no hands – just numbers. Time was a circle, hanging on a wall, and flat, like my mood. Still, I would get up and put on my blue cotton dress, the one I always wore, to be seen by the healers Simon advertised as the panacea for my depression.
The old man left me alone in the kitchen. I slid a door shut on my heart and threaded a needle. I ignored the ache in my core clamoring that the rabbi was a fake. I shortened the hems on six legs of the pants as he had asked of me. It was a mitzvah, a good deed, and he was profuse with smiles for my neat work and even stitches. That would have been sufficient, but he led me into a larger room with sunnier windows. A man appeared and the Rav disappeared into a shadowy room. He left me with the stranger, a middle-aged man. The translator.
“Rabbi Abarbar would like you here. This night. Shabbat,” he said. His English was hesitant. A generic smile, similar to the mystic’s, outlined his lips.
“Where would I sleep?” I wondered out loud.
“On the floor with all the students.” He stood next to me in profile, and motioned to the burnt orange carpet on the floor. There was no furniture in the room. “We sleep here.”
I was polite as I made my way out of the room through the kitchen and up to the street for shelter. Hungry, I turned onto Thirteenth Avenue and ate a slice of kosher pizza the way I used to, because generations of tradition loomed over me.
Simon described another seer that I should meet. He may have even been a Kabbalist. A Hasid for sure. For a blessing, nothing more. Simon promised.
“He has esoteric powers, they say. He is a student of psychology, familiar with current trends, and he is sensitive. He’ll get your dark side, Dinah. And he could revive your feminine. They say that he’s a miracle worker.”
“Sounds more like the leader of a cult,” I said. “What’s his beat? ‘Revive my feminine!’ You mean cover my hair with a stylish wig? And cover my collarbone, my elbows, and my knees? Marry so I can braid and bake chalah on Fridays? Like a real woman?”
“Give him a chance. He was in India. He studied Eastern mysticism.”
“Why don’t you go see him if you think he’s so fascinating?”
“Maybe I will. We’ll see.”
“Is he married?”
“Very married, with three children.”
“How do you know?”
“I read this article in a progressive magazine. An interview. By a skeptic. I saved it for you.”
I didn’t want to meet, or be met by, any more bizarre personalities in the healing circuit. My brother, though, was enthusiastic about every redeemer he discovered. Helping me, his discontented sister, was constructive for him. Simon had begun to recognize his own value as a substitute teacher in the middle schools he was assigned to. He had a purpose, and his presence was necessary. His mission to help me was helping him. If I consented to his whims, I could accrue good merits. I wished for a better karma.
“I don’t have to read the article. Do you know where the sensitive seer lives?”
Reb Binyamin was tall, gaunt, and dark. I recognized him. Years before at the wedding of a distant cousin, he’d stood on the outer circle of women dancing. We were wild and exuberant, rejoicing with the fever of fulfilling the purpose of life. Binyamin’s lank body was visible, as if draped over the frenzied unrestrained movements. I thought he was cute in a haunted way that appealed to me. I met his eyes for a moment. He looked away. He wasn’t supposed to be watching women dancing.
Reb Binyamin looked like a shadow of his former self. Taller and thinner, like a twisted havdala candle that separates the holy from the profane at the conclusion of the Sabbath, before the wick is ignited.
“Ben. Ben Lewin,” Simon said. “I remember you. The yeshiva in Far Rockaway.”
“So long ago. And you, Shimon, left after a month. So sudden. The Rebbe was worried. He tried to contact you. “
“I left New York.”
“Rebbe Morgenstern reached out to your father. He blamed the Rebbe for your leaving the yeshiva. For leaving New York.”
“I went to California.”
“And is your father still angry?”
“And so you returned?”
Simon shrugged his shoulders. “It’s almost time for Mincha,” he said, looking over my head. “I don’t want to be a distraction for you, Dinah. I’ll just wait down here and daven.”
I didn’t want to be left alone with the man who seemed familiar but was a stranger. It was four-thirty on a late spring afternoon. Too early for Mincha. I cast my brother a searching look.
“You told me you wanted a visit, Simon.”
“I can wait,” he said, and took out a worn siddur with a frayed cover from his back pack. The bar mitzvah present from our father when he’d turned thirteen.
“Shimon, I see that you are still searching,” Reb Binyamin said.
Who was my brother Shimon? A puzzle. I reflected on his appearance. He looked shorter than I remembered. Unkempt. Drab olive carpenter pants with the pockets bulging. A black beret with specks of lint covering his head. A heavy backpack strapped to his shoulders. His eyes were a magnet drawing in debris from his past and mine.
“Not me. My sister is.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“I’ll wait,” Simon said. “I’ll wait right here for you, Din.”
“Then throw in a Mincha prayer for me,” I said.
Reb Binyamin beckoned me to follow him. “My wife is upstairs, with the children. You’ll be fine.”
We walked up a narrow flight of wooden stairs. He planted a kiss with the fingers of his right hand to his lips and onto the mezuzah nailed to the right door post, inscribed with the prayer of devotion that God is One before welcoming me into his home. The second floor apartment of the stucco house was meager. A tattered linoleum floor. A Formica kitchen table. Mismatched chairs. Pictures drawn with crayons on the refrigerator door. And an ornate Shabbescandelabra planted in the center of the table on a Wednesday afternoon. Was it there after the Sabbath or before the Sabbath? I wondered if the holiness of the day of rest would never end, or ever begin.
Reb Binyamin referred to high-pitched sounds emanating from behind a closed door. “You hear the children playing? Without a television. Do you like children, Dina’leh?” he asked, saying my name as if I were a beloved, or his little girl. I wondered what else my brother had told him about me, in addition to my name, when he scheduled the visit.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know,” I whispered.
A woman appeared. Binyamin’s wife. She was considerably shorter than her husband and held herself as if tall, with perfect posture.
“My wife,” he said.
“Will you sit?” she asked. “Please.”
Reb Binyamin raised his arm and removed his yarmulke an inch to replace it firmly back on his head. “Leah,” he whispered.
She readjusted the dark scarf wound round her head to tuck in a few stray strands of hair that had escaped.
“Sit with us?” I asked.
“We’re going into the back room,” Reb Binyamin said.
”I will be here,” Leah said to her husband. She then swiveled, and opened the shut door where their children were sequestered.
Reb Binyamin beckoned me into a small room off the kitchen. His study. Stacks of books that I recognized as seforim, holy books, were crammed into a bookcase. He sat down, and I sat down. He peered at me. I looked back.
“Dina’leh,” he enjoined me, as if I were still that little girl. “Tell me then, what is it that you are missing?”
“My brother, Simon. He really wanted to see you. This was his idea.”
“For you, Dina’leh.”
I corrected him. “My name is Dinah.”
“Yes. Dinah. Your name is Dinah.”
He stood up and shut the door.
I got up to open the door a few inches. Reb Binyamin didn’t comment on my action.
“Where did you hang out?” Reb Binyamin asked. “Who were your friends? And Shimon? His friends?”
“Why did you shut the door?”
“Privacy,” he said. “For your sake.”
“So you don’t have to be ashamed.”
Reb rested his chin in clasped hands and waited. I wanted to leave. I had left the door open. Reb Binyamin was solemn and attentive to my silence. His question lingered. I didn’t want to tell him anything.
“Sin,” he said. The word for a sin in Hebrew that he delineated meant that I was missing the mark. That I had fallen off the track and missed my purpose in life.
“But,” he said, “one good deed can lead to another. There is the path.” His voice rose. “Dina’leh… listen. And one misdeed leads to more. You have a choice. You always have a choice.”
“This is my brother’s idea. I didn’t want to see you.” I took a deep breath and exhaled.
His eyes flickered toward the ceiling, and the twisted locks of hair hanging over his ears looked straggly.
“What did your brother promise you?”
“A blessing. That’s all. That your spirituality is secular. And your secularity is spiritual.”
“I see that the shekhina resides in you. The sacred feminine presence. So holy. The visitation of God in the physical plane. In woman. In you, Dinah. I will pray that you won’t feel stuck and can flow in the right direction.”
Reb Binyamin went over to the window. He turned his face toward the sky, the eastern sky. He began to rock back and forth and sideways. Shuckling. Reb Binyamin was praying. He swayed in a swirling cocoon of devotion. I felt traces of affection and arousal and the temptation of easily sublimating to his will. I had to leave the room with the fervor of Binyamin’s prayer on my behalf. I was ashamed for his transgressions, alone with a strange woman. From the kitchen I heard pots clanging. I slipped out of the study and gingerly left the door ajar.
Reb Binyamin’s wife was in the kitchen, moving from the stove to the refrigerator to the table.
“Your name is Leah?”
She nodded. “Yours?”
“I’m Dinah. Let me help you.”
“In the kitchen?” she asked, as she stirred a large pot with a wooden spoon.
“I used to cook a lot. I can peel and chop. Also wash dishes.”
“It’s not necessary. I peeled and I chopped.” She placed a cover over the pot, lowered the flame to simmer, and turned toward me.
“So why are you here, Dinah?” she asked.
I began to tell her. The guilt. About a married man. And his wife. About my brother. My smothering depression, and following my brother from one healer to another to save me because I didn’t know what else to do for myself. I was guilty. I floundered with a married man. With sex. I had hoped for absolution for my old ways when Simon came back, where the path was prescribed, life a simple diagram. Commandments. Prescriptions. Do this. Don’t do that. Redemption. Superstition. A rabbit’s foot. Lucky dice. But I wasn’t a gambler.
Leah listened and frowned.
“I was hitchhiking.” Her voice took a dip, a whisper, and then rose. “I shouldn’t have been. I shouldn’t have …” She stopped, and continued. “I had no plans for a family. I had to run away. Single men. Married men. All men. I went to India. Ben was in India. We met. I didn’t know that I was running away from myself.” Leah’s voice rose and grew sharper. I saw vivid images in my mind with her words. “I had to trust someone. So it was Ben. In a foreign land, in my own language, to a man who listened.”
We were standing face to face in the small kitchen space. Leah trembled, and threw the long wooden spoon still in her hand into the sink.
“I was a hitchhiker too,” I said. “Any car. Any door. Any driver.”
“That is all it ought to be, a hitch in a car. You get in because you want to go somewhere. And when you get there, wherever, good or not so good, you should step out of the hitchhike. Remember. You get out. You got out, Dinah. The car has driven off.”
The twisted cords wrapped around my abdomen began to loosen.
“I have children,” Leah said. “You see? You don’t have to if it’s not for you.”
She looked down at the floor, and withdrew a few strands of light brown hair from beneath the scarf on her head. Looking up, she smiled and took my hand in hers briefly. She stepped away and opened the shut door where her children played.
“Kimen kinder,” she said in Yiddish. “This is Dinah.”
“Is she Jewish?” the taller of two little girls asked as they came out to meet me.
I was wearing a jeans skirt and a leotard, not my navy-blue dress that would have been proper attire for visiting a rabbi.
“Of course she is Jewish,” a boy, who appeared slightly older, said. “The girls who come to see Tatee are Jewish — but not Jewish enough.”
“I’m Jewish enough,” I said.
“And you’re too Jewish to believe in amulets, crystals, herbs, vitamin supplements, or turning into a seamstress for a quick fix,” Leah said.
“You lost your way.” Reb Binyamin appeared, his eyes luminous. His skin had taken on a rosy hue, and he seemed to hover over us like the wispy filaments of a candle. “But you aren’t lost. You’re good.” He handed me a book.
“More books, Ben?” Leah asked. “Let me see.”
“Pirkei Avot.” I held the tome in my hands, as I read the title in translation: “Visions of the Fathers.”
“Fathers! If only it were that simple.” Leah laughed. “And the mothers? Don’t we have visions? The text states plainly that a man shouldn’t engage in talking with his wife. Not talk to his wife? To me? Then who? About life and death, children. money... Or do they mean small talk like this pot of vegetable soup?”
Reb Binyamin blushed. “Right. But the power of the feminine is so holy, so holy, it is not for ordinary men to trifle with. So the sages were aware of the dangers and put up barriers. To honor and respect. For preservation.”
“I chose to open the door you shut, Reb Binyamin,” I said. “I was the one. I stood up. A separation. And I walked out.”
Reb Binyamin faltered.
“So Pirkei Avot is not for you,” Leah said. “Your brother more likely. He sends you here and there, and who knows where next? And he left you. Wouldn’t come up one flight of stairs.”
“Simon said he would wait for me.”
“I saw him step off the porch,” Reb Binyamin said softly.
“You can go now, Dinah. You can go on with your life.” I heard Leah’s voice. Or Ben Lewin’s. I was uncertain.
The sun was setting. The atmosphere was shifting. Stripes of tertiary colors like blank lines I could write on were reverberating across the sky. I felt the peace of an erev Shabbes taking form.
“Shimon won’t go far.” I heard them say with one voice.. ?
Leah’s hug was warm and steady. Reb Binyamin leaned over to silently caress the heads of the children.
Simon was waiting for me under the elevated subway tracks at Eighteenth Avenue.
“I was worried. What happened up there? You took so long.”
“I met his wife and his children. A loving family.”
“If you like, I think Reb Binyamin will meet with you,” I said.
“Binyamin? No way. Ben. Ben Lewin! He gets a gold star, the brown noser. I remember. I don’t need to see him. Judgmental and nosey. What did he tell you?”
“They told me to keep going on with my life.”
“That’s all? I could have told you that.”
“But you didn’t. Permission. I needed permission.”
“Listen to me, Dinah. I heard about a secular healer. A therapist. He isn’t observant. In the city, near Union Square. His very own son was in a cult and this Dr. Feinberg was successful in reaching him and bringing him back.”
I backed away from my brother, afraid he would grab me again.
“Din, you can’t give up!”
“I’m not giving up. I am going to go on with my life,” I said softly.
I walked up the subway stairs. The wooden planks on the outdoor platform were rumbling. A train was arriving.
“Hey, Simon,” I turned around, and called down to my brother.
“I’ll go with you. If you want me to, I’ll go with you to any doctor!”
I don’t know if Simon heard me. He was pacing under the elevated F train, a silhouetted figure shadowed by the flickering sun. The train sped into the station. I stepped aside as passengers hurried out. The doors of the subway car remained open as I entered and located a vacant window seat.