Here I Am


Here I Am

By Gail Pasternack


Aaron stood at Gemma’s bedroom door, listening to her giggle. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard his daughter laugh.
“I like this one,” Ilana said.
Ilana had a sexy voice. A warm alto. It reminded Aaron of a DJ he used to listen to on the radio as a child. He couldn’t remember the DJ’s name. 
He entered the cheery yellow room. Gemma and Ilana sat among the purple pillows and stuffed tree frogs on the bed, looking at Gemma’s tablet. Gemma wore a lavender nightgown that matched her blanket.
“Sorry that took so long,” Aaron said. “My client had lots of questions.”
Ilana wrinkled her nose. “On a Saturday evening?”
“He just saw the floor plans.” Aaron shrugged. “Nature of my work.”
“Nature of your clients,” Ilana said.
“That, too.” Aaron sank into Gemma’s desk chair.
“Look what we found.” Gemma held up her tablet so he could see a photo of a chameleon. 
Aaron rubbed his neck. “Your mother is not going to let you have him as a pet.”
“Dad!” Gemma rolled her eyes, which made her look more like a teenager than an eight-year-old girl. “Why would I want him as a pet? He’s a wild animal.”
Aaron fought the urge to wince at her tone. Just a few weeks ago, when he and Ilana had taken Gemma to the Bronx Zoo, Gemma had hopped alongside them and chattered all day like the little girl she was. It’d been delightful. Days like that had become rare since Gemma had skipped the second and third grades. Her behavior often ping-ponged between that of a young girl and that of an adolescent. Aaron could see how stressful it was for her to attend classes with older children. He never should have allowed the school to accelerate her.
“He’s our next model,” Ilana said, snapping Aaron out of his thoughts. “We’re going to draw him.”
Ilana smiled. It took Aaron’s breath away. Normally she wore her hair pinned up. That night it was loose. Soft, black curls framed her face, accentuating her fair skin. A contrast to her bright floral dress.
Gemma looked at the photo. “He’ll be hard to draw.”
“We can do it.” Ilana took the tablet from Gemma. “I love his punim.”
Gemma tilted her head to one side. “What’s a—"
Punim is Yiddish for face,” Aaron said.
Gemma placed a bright blue stuffed frog on her lap. “School’s closed Monday. My teacher says it’s the Jewish New Year.” She stroked the frog’s plush back. “Is that true, Dad?”
He shifted in his seat. “Yes.
“I forgot that New York schools closed for our High Holy Days.” Ilana laid the tablet flat on her lap. “Monday is Rosh Hashana. It’s the spiritual New Year. It begins what we call the Days of Awe, which end at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.”
Gemma turned to Ilana. “How is it celebrated?”
“No one’s ever asked me that. Most people don’t…” Ilana shook her head. “Never mind.” She looked at Aaron. “Want to answer?”
“You go ahead.”
Ilana crossed her legs. “It’s a time of reflection, when we consider where we’ve failed and how we want to improve ourselves.” 
Gemma scrunched her face. “Sounds hard.”
“I think it’s beautiful. ” Ilana stroked Gemma’s ponytail. “We attend services and sing prayers. The music is moving.”
“You think so, Dad?” 
No, he didn’t. Gemma didn’t have to see his repulsion, though. Not while she was gazing at him with her green eyes wide and innocent.
“It’s time for bed, sweetie.”
Ilana touched the tablet screen. “I bookmarked the page. We’ll draw him in the morning.” She jumped off the bed and placed the tablet on the nightstand.
“Dad.” Gemma hugged her stuffed frog. “Can I go to services with you on Monday?”
Aaron shook his head. “You know the arrangement between your mother and me. You and I can only spend time together on the weekends.” 
Gemma’s face darkened. “If you don’t want me to…”
“She can come to services tomorrow night.” Ilana smiled at Gemma. “Jewish holidays start the night before, and evening services are nice.”
Aaron’s cheeks warmed and it took all he had to keep his composure. He kissed Gemma’s forehead. “Don’t stay up too late reading.” 
Aaron led Ilana out onto the terrace. A breeze crossed the Hudson River, bringing the scent of salt water mixed with ship diesel. 
Ilana waited for the door to close. “Was that wrong of me?”
Aaron leaned against the railing and gazed out over lower Manhattan. “The Empire State building is entirely white tonight. I keep meaning to look up what the different colors mean.”
“It was Gemma’s idea. I was just… Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.” 
“She enjoys being with you. It’s nice seeing her happy."
Ilana gazed at the Empire State building. “You’re good at hiding your emotions. You don’t have to, you know. If I stepped over a line, tell me.”
“Her mother will have a fit,” Aaron said. “The only holiday Nicole likes is Christmas. The rest she says is nonsense.”
“You’re afraid she’ll get angry if Gemma goes to services?”
“Nicole gets mad about everything I do.” Aaron leaned his back against the railing. “Thing is, I haven’t been to services since my mother died.”
Ilana touched his shoulder. “I promise to mind my own business from now on.”
A car horn blared from the street far below. 
“Gemma wants to go. We should,” Aaron said.
Ilana slipped in front of him. “Are you afraid attending services will remind you of how much you miss your mother?”
“I hated services. My mother loved them, but” 
He gazed into Ilana’s dark eyes. She seemed to be pleading with him to stop hiding behind a mask of composure.
“The cancer made my mother so sick in the end. How could there be this benevolent deity out there when people as kind as my mother suffer?”
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” Ilana caressed his arms. “My rabbi talks about that a lot.”
He snorted. “And what is his answer?”
Ilana shook her head. “He doesn’t have one. He says Judaism isn’t about answers. It’s about questions.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “I suspect services with my Renewal congregation will be nothing like the services you went to as a child. Let’s take Gemma tomorrow night.”
Aaron pressed his forehead against Ilana’s. “I suppose Nicole doesn’t need to know. It’s not like Gemma will tell her.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Ilana said.
Aaron wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her into a hug. Her hair smelled of coconut, a delicious scent, but it couldn’t improve the stench of religious services. 
Holding her tight, he forced the thought from his head. He couldn’t back out. 
The cab rolled to a stop in front of a fitness center. Aaron paid the cabbie and got out. No synagogue in sight. “Thought we came to pray, not exercise.” 
He’d meant it as a joke, but no one laughed.
“This way.” Ilana took Gemma’s hand and gestured for Aaron to follow.
Ilana wore an off-white dress and a wool shawl, a different look from the black leather jacket and mini skirt she often wore. Her dress flowed behind her as she glided down the sidewalk. While her usual downtown look showed off her glorious legs, this outfit did wonders for her graceful movement. She stopped in front of the building next to the
fitness center. 
Aaron read the sign on the door. “It’s a church, not a synagogue.”
“Today it’s a church full of Jews,” Ilana said.
She smiled at the security guard and led them into a lobby full of people. Some of the men wore suits like Aaron, but many wore plain T-shirts and khakis. When Aaron was a child, no one dressed casually for Rosh Hashana. Ilana had said this congregation was different. Still, this mode of dress seemed wrong to him.
A frizzy-haired woman with tattooed arms ran up to Ilana and hugged her. She smiled at Aaron and kneeled to get eye level with Gemma. “Shana tova!”
Gemma looked up at Aaron and Ilana. “What does that mean?”
Ilana stroked Gemma’s hair. “It means Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year,” Gemma said to the frizzy-haired woman.
The woman smiled and left them to greet a group of new arrivals.    
Aaron pulled a blue velvet yarmulke out of his pocket. He passed his thumb over the date stamped inside: the date of his bar mitzvah. His mother had had a bunch made as gifts for the guests. He put his yarmulke on his head.
“Can I get one?” Gemma asked. “They have a basket of some over there.”
“No, sweetie,” Aaron said. “Only men” 
A woman wearing a brocade yarmulke walked past them. Aaron had never seen a woman wear a yarmulke before. Ilana wasn’t wearing one, nor were most of the women in the lobby, but clearly he didn’t know the rules in this congregation.
“Only people over thirteen wear them,” Ilana said.
Gemma pouted. “That’s not fair.”
Aaron was debating how to respond when a six-foot-tall woman charged towards them. 
“There you are!” She enveloped Ilana in a hug, and Ilana disappeared in the folds of the woman’s pink dress. “I was afraid you were in an accident.” The woman released Ilana and clasped Aaron’s hand. She wore rings on every finger, and her long nails were painted pink. “You must be that architect with designs on my niece.” 
Ilana blushed. “Aaron, this is Daniella, my aunt.”
Aaron looked past Daniella’s prominent Adam’s apple and up into her beautifully made-up face. “Happy New Year.”
“Dark hair today?” Ilana asked.
Daniella ran her hand through her chocolate-brown curls. “Seemed more appropriate for the holiday than my usual blonde bombshell wigs.” She kneeled down to Gemma’s level and smiled. “You must be Gemma. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Shana tova.” Gemma reached for Daniella’s hand.
Daniella took Gemma’s hand in both of hers. “Shana tova, my dear.” She stood and linked arms with Aaron. “Let’s get seats before this place fills to the rafters.” 
She strode across the lobby like a model stomping the catwalk. Aaron had to adjust his steps to keep up. She led him down a flight of stairs into the sanctuary. They emerged into a white-walled space with wooden benches. If it hadn’t been for the wall hangings and tablecloths with Jewish symbols, Aaron would have mistaken it for a school auditorium. On the stage, behind the podium, stood a tall wooden box with carvings of tree branches. The Ark of the Torah. 
A warmth spread from Aaron’s core to his fingertips. What the… Where’d that come from? The Torah meant nothing to him. It had meant something to his mother, though.
Daniella led him to a bench up front.
Ooh,” Gemma said. “Aren’t those drums something?”
Aaron followed Gemma’s gaze to a cluster of musicians next to the podium: a guitarist, a stand-up bassist, and a drummer with African and Middle Eastern percussion instruments clustered around him.
“Is that a djembe?” Aaron asked.
“Wait until you hear him play it.” Ilana leaned against him. “A little different from the instrumentation at your childhood congregation?”
“You could say that, since we didn’t have any.”
People settled in their seats when the guitarist started to play. A woman stood next to the guitarist and sang. 
She sounded like Joni Mitchell. Aaron’s chest tightened. His mother had loved Joni Mitchell. Being at services without her seemed wrong. Ilana slipped her hand into Aaron’s as if she’d sensed his melancholy. He entwined his fingers with hers. 
A small boy picked up a shaker and started to play. He was no musician, just a child fooling around, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. The rabbi stroked the boy’s hair. When the child tired of the shaker, he left it to run around with other children. When Aaron was young, the congregation would’ve gone ballistic if he’d run around like these children during services—especially Aaron’s father, who hated children disrupting his peace and quiet. But the people here seemed pleased to see the children happy.
Gemma showed no interest in joining the other children. She sat next to him, tapping her foot in time to the music. He’d no idea she loved music so much.

The rabbi announced a page number from the prayer book. Aaron’s eyes skated over the page, and memories of Hebrew school flooded back. His dyslexic brain had made learning how to read Hebrew impossible. If he’d been taught what the words meant, then maybe his brain could have processed the language. He’d asked many times why they couldn’t learn the meanings of words. His teacher never answered, and the other students had teased him for being so stupid. In the end, he stopped talking and struggled in silence. When the time came for his bar mitzvah, he’d memorized his Torah portion so he wouldn’t have to read it.
He closed his prayer book and listened to the congregation sing. Each song—or prayer, rather—led into the next. It felt more like a concert than a religious service. He didn’t recognize the tunes, but his spirit sailed on the gentle waves of song.
The music stopped and everyone stood. The rabbi announced the page for the Amidah, the silent prayer. Aaron left his book closed, so Ilana leaned over so he could see the page number. He opened his book, tried to read the Hebrew, couldn’t get past the first few words, and gave up. He reached a line in English that read: You bring to life what once was dead. His jaw tightened. There was no life after death. His mother was dead. She was not coming back.
He continued to read until he reached the section asking for peace. Nice thought, but praying for peace never worked. It certainly hadn’t worked for his great-aunt and other relatives who’d died in Europe in World War II.
He felt alone in his cynicism. Everyone around him exuded a peaceful bliss. Ilana’s face shone, and Daniella, whose lips moved as she read, seemed to savor each syllable. Even Gemma was engrossed in the prayer. 
One by one, the congregants sat when they finished praying. Aaron hadn’t finished reading, but he closed his book and sat down, too.
Music filled the room again. Daniella sprang to her feet and held her hand out. Ilana shook her head, so Daniella took Gemma’s hand and danced with her out into the aisle. A long line of hand-holding congregants formed, and Daniella led them in the hora around the sanctuary. Despite her size, she was light on her feet and outdanced everyone. Gemma laughed as she danced with Daniella and the others. 
Ilana snuggled against Aaron. “Gemma seems to be enjoying herself.”
“Thanks to you.” He kissed her hand.
When the music stopped, everyone returned to their seats, including the musicians. The rabbi stood at the bimah and waited for quiet. Time for a sermon.
Endless sermons—the bane of Aaron’s youth. The worst sermons had gone on about the importance of following the Jewish laws. So many religious laws had made no sense to him, nor had he ever heard good reasons for following them.
Ilana leaned against him. Her soft hair rubbed against his cheek.
He would have to hide his anger from her once the rabbi began to speak. He wouldn’t ruin this experience for her or Gemma. He came here for them, not himself.
The rabbi told a story about when he, as a college student, had gone on a vacation with friends to Israel. His conversational style and use of vocal dynamics drew Aaron into the story. By the time the rabbi described getting separated from his friends, Aaron dreaded what would come next. He could only imagine how frightening getting lost in a country where you could barely speak the language would be. 
While Aaron wondered how he would’ve handled it, the rabbi transitioned to talking about Adam after he’d eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and when Adonai asked Adam, “Ayeka, where are you?” 
Aaron had never understood why an omniscient deity would need to ask, but the rabbi didn’t address that. Instead he talked about how Adam responded with, “I heard you. I was scared, and I hid.” 
The rabbi went on to say how we all hide, and how hiding hurts. It hurts us, and it hurts those we hide from. He said that our healing begins when we stop hiding, when we say “Hineni, here I am.”
Stop hiding? 
Aaron couldn’t. His mask of composure is what allowed him to survive. It’s what
prevented him from yelling at unreasonable clients or fighting with his ex-wife.
Though it hadn’t saved his marriage with her. The calmer he had pretended to be, the more angry she’d gotten with him.
The last words he’d ever spoken in anger were to his father, shortly after his mother’s death. He’d screamed at him for ruining her life. That was the last time his father had ever spoken to him.
Aaron watched Ilana and Gemma listen attentively to the rabbi. He couldn’t tell his daughter how vulnerable he felt. But if he didn’t admit it to Ilana, he risked losing her.
Ilana,” Aaron said when the rabbi’s sermon ended.
She looked at him. Her expression was soft and serene.
Tell her you’re scared. The words didn’t come out.
Wrinkles of concern formed around her eyes. “You okay?”
“Nice service.” He wanted to say more but couldn’t.
She stroked his cheek. “Thank you for coming. I know this was hard for you.”
He shrugged. “I’m here.”
“That’s the first step.” She smiled. She had such a beautiful smile.
The musicians picked their instruments and played. Aaron let the music seep into him. He had no idea if he would ever fully embrace his religion. He’d probably always wrestle with it, but he had to admit it was a part of him. He reached for Gemma’s and Ilana’s hands. Accepting all the parts of himself without suppressing them wouldn’t be easy. But he didn’t have to do it alone.


Copyright © Gail Pasternack 2021

Gail Pasternack is passionate about wisdom stories that spark laughter, insight and a fresh perspective. Gail’s story, “Asmodai in Portland,” was published by Reclaiming Judaism Press in the New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family anthology. In March 2021, her travel essay about cocktail bars in London and Paris was published in Wanderlust Journal. Devoted to helping writers, Gail has served on the Willamette Writers Board of Directors since 2015 and as president since 2019. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a masters from Columbia University, and is an ordained Maggidah. Gail and her husband reside in Portland, Oregon.

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