The Firmament and the Night Doll
By Tehila Lieberman
She thinks it must be the statues of another religion, though they are not statues. They are graffitied images on a bathroom stall in what must be the ugliest bathroom in New York. The woman’s head is thrown back and the man seems to be worshiping her, on his knees. Etti doesn’t want to think about where his head is; still, she stares. “And you shall not take false idols,” runs through her head.
She ran into the bathroom because in a corner of the club, the man she’d been watching every time she came here had approached her and pulled her to dance and she had shaken her head. She had no idea how to dance and he had smiled at her and said, “One day you’re going to dance with me.” Then he bent down to kiss her, the way people did in the books on Mrs. Saltzman’s shelves, and pulled her gently towards him, and for a moment she let him, and with the brief press of his body against hers, she felt a jolt, like when she’d been shocked by the broken socket in her bedroom when she’d plugged in a new lamp. She had never let herself go this far. She had watched. She came here to watch, to try and understand. But this man had the fire of the Messiah. She saw it in his eyes, and also that he was sad as if something within him had broken and he was still dragging himself forward pretending it hadn’t. He danced like the men in the inner circle of the Rebbe, as if the light of redemption had caught him like a tornado – or perhaps the opposite, as if he was dancing away from the long, angry finger of God. His face had that transported look she’d seen in the men in her family who had been allowed to enter the inner secrets of the Zohar. They were no longer men – a supernal light filled their faces, ecstasy and fear. She saw that in this man; only, obviously, it was coming from somewhere else. He wore frayed black jeans and a black shirt, and it occurred to her, from the all the magazines she’d devoured at Mrs. Saltzman’s apartment, that he might be an artist. She broke away from him and dashed to the Ladies’ room where she stopped to catch her breath.
Before entering the club, she’d rolled up her skirt in an alley between two buildings, and pulled off her thick seamed tights. When she caught sight of her legs in a mirrored column in the club, she stared at herself.
She comes out of the Ladies’ room hoping the man hasn’t left. She catches sight of him at the bar, joking with the bartender. She comes up to him not understanding herself, as if her body were whispering “Go unto the land that I will show you.” He takes her hand and leads her into a back hallway, where he begins to kiss her gently, and it seems, somehow, she knows what to do. Then he begins to worship her body, to kiss her breasts through her clothes and, as if she has slipped through some thin veil, she is inside those electric verses she’d secretly read in Genesis 3. She sees the bright sunlight, hears the words of the wily snake. She knows suddenly how delicious it is, the minute before transgression: the earth an unearthly color, the sky pitching to hysteria, white and yellow and hushed in shock. This is what she knows as he touches her, and she marvels at the discovery that touch can open the door to knowledge. But seconds later she thinks, What are you doing? She wriggles away from him and out the door, and then runs for blocks and blocks, so that it’s lost, the inner map she’s built to the corner with the green railing that leads down to her train station. She has to retrace her steps and turn right and then left and, panting, she takes a seat on the train where she is grateful to see no Hasidim. She changes to the F train at Jay Street, and at the end of the platform hides behind a pillar, where she pulls on her tights and rolls down her skirt. From there she has ten stops to transform back into herself. Like the ten dimensions her older brother Yoel and some of his friends whisper about when they’re discussing the Kabbalah. But in the clang and hiss of the train, she returns to those long moments in the back hallway, and imagines letting the man continue, so that the stops are arriving too fast: Fort Hamilton Parkway, Church Ave, Ditmas, 18th Avenue. As she comes down the stairs from the elevated platform, she is thinking, Which world is real? Which world is God’s intention? She stops on the rusted stairs above Macdonald Avenue. Discarded papers and leaves float upward in the wind. Maybe all, she answers herself. What if it’s all?
Your imagination is not your friend, her mother has told her again and again. It is dangerous. It needs to be channeled like water to the field or else nothing good will grow from it. But what she doesn’t understand is how the others lack her hunger for knowledge, her desire to peer into the many worlds around her from which she has been taught to turn her eyes.
She is lucky to be allowed her small forays. It started when Mrs. Saltzman fell ill. Mrs. Saltzman is the mother of a renowned Talmud scholar whom the Rebbe recently sent off to head a congregation in Antwerp. With Mrs. Saltzman’s son and daughter-in-law so far away, the Rebbe needed people to look after her, and Etti’s mother had volunteered her. Mrs. Saltzman is Modern Orthodox and not Hasidic, but her son had joined the Satmar and, because of the merits of her son, the community looks after the frail woman. Her small apartment strikes Etti as strange and exotic, with its shelves and shelves of books and no man in sight. When the woman sleeps, Etti carefully picks up, and then returns, magazines and books that grab hold of her and won’t let go, and sometimes make her blush.
The evening she stumbled across the club, she was walking to the train but she was also completely absent because she was thinking about what she’d just read in a magazine she brought inside with the mail. The magazine, which was all about science – that term spoken about as if it were tref, like pork or seafood – had described a new telescope that was revealing more about something called the Big Bang. She was fascinated by the new words she was encountering: Big Bang, singularity. After she’d devoured the article, it occurred to her that she had just stumbled across how science describes the creation, and that this information illuminated the debate she’d secretly read in her brother’s notebook between the explanation put forth by Rashi and Rambam’s later interpretation about why God created light twice. The Big Bang corresponded almost exactly to Rambam’s interpretation that first all light was created, but only later organized into the sun and stars. She was so excited by what she’d just discovered, that she walked two blocks past her subway station and found herself on a block she didn’t know. At the end of the street, she glimpsed a river. In front of her was a building painted purple and black, and written in light bulbs, the word Bedazzled.
For an hour a week, after Mrs. Saltzman falls asleep, Etti steps into this other world. The music is loud and electric. People of all colors and all ages move together on a dance floor in the middle of a dimly-lit room. The walls of the room are painted black, and maybe, she thinks, she has stumbled upon the physical manifestation of Gehinom, the level of unsatisfied desire. Still the people meet her eyes, smile, and dance as if they are dancing on the very seam of happiness. It feels as if she’s put a leg over a window ledge and emerged inside a story. A story she does not yet understand, but which tantalizes her.
What strikes her first is how incredibly free everyone seems, and how they inhabit their bodies like there is no contradiction between who they are aspiring to be and this entity of flesh and blood that they’ve been granted for the journey.
The other day in class, Rebbetzin Bloch had paced, her face contorted into the anger it often wore, though they’d done nothing that Etti could see to anger her. Rebbetzin Bloch had survived Auschwitz and there were rumors that, as a girl, she’d been a subject in some of Mengele’s experiments. “That’s why she never had children,” one of the girls whispered to her one day at recess. Rebbetzin Bloch had paced up and down the rows where the girls cowered. “Here,” she roared, pointing at poor Lubka Finkel, “your animal self – and there,” she said, pointing to the air above Lubka’s head, “your spiritual self. Which will you put in service of the other?”
On her next few visits to the club, Etti searches the room, but the enigmatic man is not there. She grows aware that there’s another young woman who comes alone. She is not frum, not even likely Jewish. She smiles at Etti and Etti smiles back. One day when she enters the grimy Ladies’ room, the young woman is there, fixing her makeup. Etti watches, fascinated. While there are women in the community who wear makeup, her parents have forbidden it, and her mother remains unadorned in a dark wig too big for her face.
The woman turns to her, smiling. “Want some?”
Etti freezes. She would have to remove all traces of it before returning home. She is beginning to suspect that one day she may have to leave the community. She is too curious, too hungry to learn about what lies outside of their little world. But how will she make it outside if she isn’t willing to try things? How will she know what she should try and what she shouldn’t?
“Sure, but I don’t know how,” Etti says.
“I’ll do it,” the woman says, and brushes color onto her eyes and cheeks, and then lightly, with her finger, paints Etti’s lips, and steps back to view her work. “ Look at you,” she says. “You look like a little doll.”
The next time Etti enters the club, the man is still not there, but the woman is. When they run into each other in the Ladies’ room, the woman says, “Try this,” passing Etti a small white pill before she goes out the door. Etti stares at the little pill in her hand. There is a star etched in the center and the words Star Dust encircling it. She once heard from her brother Yoel that the Rebbe had warned them about drugs when there were rumors that a few young men in the community had taken them.
“Drugs are cheating,” the Rebbe had apparently told the crowd of young men he’d gathered into his study. “Can you arrive to some vision of the realms above? Yes. Can you understand what you’re seeing? Can you truly partake of it? You can not.”
Still – what if this would afford her a glimpse? She puts the pill in her mouth, lowers herself to the faucet, and swishes it down.
She never leaves the bathroom. She knows that the music, the bodies swaying so close together, will be too much for her. Instead, she props open the window and looks at a tiny sliver of New York in the rain. The buildings are alive, glistening and blinking at her with a thousand eyes. A deep love enters and leaves her, as if within her there is a two-way highway like the one that leads up to the mountain cottages in the summer.
So this is where the men go, she thinks. To where the broken, everyday world we are meant to repair is gone, and in its place, a glimpse of the splendor.
The next day, she is not in her body or in her mind. In school, as she tries to return to the images that sparkled in so many dimensions, Rebbetzin Bloch brings a ruler down on her hands.
“Why, Esther Malka, are you so tired? Tell us, what happened on the first and second day of creation?”
“On the second day of creation,” she begins, “God created the firmament, and it divided the waters above from the waters below.”
Rebbetzin Bloch grunts her acknowledgement. Etti should have stopped there, but why not share all she knew?
“The first day is even more interesting because God said ‘Let there be light’ but didn’t create the sun and stars until the fourth day. Rashi says – ” Then she immediately realizes her mistake. The girls are all looking down at their desks, afraid for her. But Rebbetzin Bloch stands frozen, so Etti continues. “Rashi says there’s no contradiction, because God made the sun and stars on the first day but only hung them in the sky on the fourth day. Later, Rambam has another view. He —”
Rebbetzin Bloch interrupts her. “How do you know what Rashi and the Rambam said? I will assume it is from the brilliant conversation your father and brothers hold at the Shabbos tisch and not because you are studying what you are not supposed to be studying. And what’s more, where is your tznius? Modesty means not only the length of your skirts but also the utterings of your mouth. What husband will want a wife who studies what she’s not supposed to study and who shows off?”
“But —” she begins. Rebbetzin Bloch stops her with a stare. “Esther Malka Rabinowitz, God has made you a woman. Take your place.”
But even as Rebbetzin Bloch is yelling at her, a new interpretation is rising, which takes into account both what Rashi said and what Rambam said about the two different creations of light. More thoughts are arriving and she sits transfixed. What if the firmament were not a solid dome, which of course it had not been, but was the thin veil between dimensions which rendered the higher worlds invisible to man? As if she were sitting in the seminary in Williamsburg with the men, she follows the idea like a thin, unknown path. She knows better than to share what’s occurring to her, and at recess, as the silly girls play hopscotch or sketch for one another the wedding dresses they want to wear in a year’s time or less, she leans against the fence with her notebook open and writes and writes. She sits back, pleased with her analysis. But the ideas aren’t done with her, and the ones coming now she writes down separately on a page in the middle of the notebook so that they can’t be easily found should her mother ever pry. The Big Bang, she writes, is completely consistent with the two creations of light in Genesis – the original light and the later organized light that Rambam spoke about. What’s more, the firmament, which the ancients thought was a firm dome separating the heavenly waters from the lower physical waters, could actually be the earth’s atmosphere, which she’d read about the week before in a magazine called Scientific American. She looks up, but she doesn’t see her classmates or the fenced in yard in which they play. What this means, she writes, is that there is not necessarily a contradiction between science and belief in the Kadosh Baruchu, in God.
Before Rosh Hashana, her father and brothers travel to Williamsburg for a blessing from the Rebbe. Women are not allowed inside. She writes her name on her analysis regarding the creation of light and the firmament separating the lower world from the higher dimensions in which there is increasingly less separation between the creator and the created, and she pens a request: If the Rebbe could grant her permission just to study the Tanakh. Not the Talmud, God forbid, just the holy Torah itself. She adds the promise that she will not involve anyone else. She seals her note in an envelope and asks her brother Yoel to give it to the Rebbe.
“What’s in it?” he asks.
“Nothing bad,” she responds. And her brother, who has always felt bad for her and somewhat guilty for having free access to all she wants, agrees.
When her father and brothers arrive home, her father’s face carries a mix of rage and fear. He takes her mother aside and then together they usher her into her father’s study and close the door tightly behind them. Yoel and her little brothers watch them go in, fear in their eyes.
Her mother’s face is as hard as the huge slabs of rock the road slices through on the way up to the summer colony, which functions much like Brooklyn, but with lakes the girls can’t swim in and everyone still pale and shuffling around like ghosts. And lots of goyim all around. When she goes with her mother to the kosher butcher that serves the colony, she stares at the goyishechildren in their shorts and t-shirts, their legs and arms bare and honey brown in the sun, and they stare back at her.
She turns to her father but his eyes are locked on the floor.
“What did the Rebbe say?” she asks.
“He said —” Her mother hesitates.
“He said you are the reincarnation of a brilliant but restless soul. And that we should marry you quickly.”
“But Tateh –” She turns to her father, because her mother has no ability to grant her anything. “I want to think, I want to dance close to the flame the way the men do. I want to read the Zohar. I want to learn.”
He is silent, his eyes still locked on the floor.
She continues. “Aren’t we all born wanting to transcend? We are taught that we are born aching to remember what we once knew. Why, as a woman, am I forbidden?”
Her father looks at her sadly. “I wish one of your brothers had your mind and your passion for ideas. But you will marry and you will nurture sons who, God willing, will inherit your mind, and through your direction, your tutelage, will be great scholars – perhaps even the geniuses of their generation. And you will be the humble mother of a great scholar.”
She breaks his glance and looks away.
“Etti, there is danger in the possibilities you are thinking about. They are impossible. God chose to make you a woman. Are we to defy the will of God?”
She looks up then and says, “Perhaps God is not afraid of the feminine. Isn’t He half feminine?”
Her father strides towards her, slaps her across the face, and storms from the room, but not before she sees the tears gathering in his eyes.
That night she says she needs to take care of Mrs. Saltzman, though she doesn’t. At the club, she is making her way to the back of the room, where she likes to perch on a stool and watch the dancers, when she spots him and he spots her. He is dancing with a woman in a short black skirt, but he doesn’t take his eyes off her, and when the song ends he heads over to her and grabs her hand.
“Come,” he says and leads her to a back hallway, but not before she’s seen the light around him, fuzzy and pale but warm in the dark room. In the hallway they are alone, and he lifts her up and she wraps her legs around him. He doesn’t touch her clothing but the press of him against her is making her feel the strangest hunger, and she understands that the body has its own language and that it wants what it wants, though she couldn’t have said exactly what that was. She opens her eyes to see if the strange light still clings to him, and his face is lit with joy and pleasure. He buries his head in her neck, which he kisses so passionately that his wool cap falls to the floor, and she freezes, because she has seen it: one of the payes tucked behind his ear. She recoils, and he opens his eyes. From the expression on his face, she knows he must have figured out where she too comes from. They move apart as if cleaved in two, and the line, and they knew that they were naked, comes into her head, and like Adam and Eve, she is overtaken by shame.
That night she cannot sleep, and the next morning she doesn’t want to leave her bed. With the terrible revelation in the club, all feeling is gone. And with it, hunger, thirst. She can hear her parents whispering in the kitchen, and here and there a word floats in.
“Not yet,” she hears her mother say.
“It must happen. And as soon as possible,” her father retorts.
A few days later, her mother comes into her bedroom and turns on the lamps. She’s brought hot kugel, Etti’s favorite food.
“Sit up, maidele, we are celebrating. ”
“What are we celebrating?” she asks, but her voice is dead.
“A call from the shadchan. The Rebbe thinks he has found your intended.”
“I can’t,” she says, but her mother answers firmly, “You can and you will.”
She goes to class, but she no longer offers up insights or argues with the teacher. She imagines they must think they have successfully broken her, but the hardest part is that she has broken herself.
When she comes home, her mother says, “If the Rebbe is right – and when is the Rebbe wrong? – you will be happy.”
She prepares herself for the meeting with the man being put forward for her to marry. It will be a transaction. After the wedding, she will have to embrace a man she doesn’t know. They are to meet for the first time, heavily chaperoned, in the lobby of one of the kosher hotels in Brooklyn. In the car, on the way there, she silently comes up with one condition that she will put to him, this stranger that she will have to marry. She must be free to use her mind. They can shave her head, they can have the babies, her endless toil in the kitchen – okay – but not her mind.
The man has short red hair and a red beard, and he is abundantly shy. Why not? she thinks. Does it matter? She won’t love any of them. Her uncle sits at a bit of a distance so that they can have the illusion of privacy. She removes her recent analysis about the firmament from her pocket and puts it on the table. Her uncle makes a move to stand up but instead sits frozen watching her.
The man picks it up delicately, opens it, and reads it. His pale lips lift into a smile. “Brilliant,” he says. “Is this one of your father’s analyses? What a family of minds! Please God, we will have brilliant children.”
“It’s mine,” she says and watches him go pale. As he lays her paper back on the table, his hand begins to shake like her grandfather’s when he first got Parkinson’s.
He stands up. “Please God, you will find your intended,” he says, and eyes on the ground, walks away.
They leave her alone for a week. Then her mother enters her room. “The shadchan has found him this time.”
Yeah, she wants to say, but doesn’t dare.
“You will meet him tomorrow. But the shadchan wants you to meet this man at the Rebbe’s.”
Etti sits up.“Isn’t that a bit unusual?”
“Yes, but this one isn’t any ordinary young man. They say he’s brilliant. Descended, no less, from the Baal Shem Tov on his mother’s side and from Rashi on his father’s. Can you imagine?”
“Is he kind?”
“The shadchan said he is exceptionally kind.”
“Is he generous?”
“Yes, not a miser. A miser with money can be a miser with all else.”
Her mother laughs. “And from where this wisdom, my child? Gottenyu – where did you come from? The trickster angel, Malach Melitz, dropped you in my belly.”
The next day her mother insists that she put on her prettiest dress, but nothing can bring her back to life.
They enter the Rebbe’s house in Williamsburg and the three of them take seats in front of the Rebbe, whose eyes are closed. For the first time she feels anger. Is there no path for her but to be sold into marriage? The Rebbe opens his eyes and furrows his brow as he looks at her, “V’samachta b’chelkecha,” he whispers. “And you shall be satisfied with your lot.”
The door opens and, to her surprise, in the doorway stands the man from the club, his eyes lowered as they once probably had been. They introduce him as Asher Eliyahu.
She looks from him to the Rebbe, who is smiling mischievously. Riboyno shel olam, she thinks, Lord of the Universe, does he know?
Asher takes a seat near her parents and they pepper him with questions. Under other circumstances, she would feel like a cow bartered over in the market, but this is something else. The Rebbe’s eyes are closed again and he is nodding, as if listening to a different conversation.
She can barely look at Asher. She wonders if this is what it’s like, falling in love. She wonders if the Rebbe can detect it, the force between them, as Asher sits diagonally across from her.
She gives herself up to her destiny, as if the entire universe has conspired to bring her here. Her soul returns to life and her parents seem to return to themselves, their worry for her calmed. She never returns to the club and now can’t imagine them touching again, now that they know. Instead of trying to imagine what lies ahead for her, she decides that she will let herself be swept along in the current, like branches carried on a stream or a sea of Hasidim at a farbrengen.
They are allowed a few carefully chaperoned dates. They perfect a system of passing notes back and forth through the non-Jewish waitstaff in the kosher hotel lobby where they sit over tea, the chaperone always at the next table.
The first note from him says, What a crazy, wonderful God to bring us together like this. But then it continues, You should know I am planning to leave the community. If that’s not what you want, just tell the shadchan, “No, he’s not for me,” before I fall more in love with you.
At this her breath catches, and she emits a gasp in the hotel Ladies’ room where she is reading it. Leaving with him hadn’t occurred to her. She is both terrified and thrilled, and knows she mustn’t let herself think too much because her mind will get tangled in a million thoughts and she won’t have a reply. For a moment, she sees herself in a pale yellow room with large windows and walls that hold floor-to-ceiling books, like the study in which her father keeps his Talmuds and other sacred texts; only the room is hers, the books are all hers and the windows are open and blazing with light.
We will go together,” she replies, folding the note before she can regret it, and emerging to where he waits.
“We will go on a honeymoon,” he whispers when the chaperone heads to the men’s room.
“No one in the community goes on a honeymoon,” she replies.
“I know,” he answers, “but they know we are different. They will allow this to hold us. This whole thing is so as to hold onto us. But we will go on a honeymoon and not return.”
At the next meeting, as she is heading to the Ladies’ room, a member of the hotel staff hands her an envelope. Inside are two folded pieces of paper. The first is a note from Asher which says, I’ve been doing some research. You must have some document of identification. She unfolds the second paper which says, Application for NY State ID. She skims it quickly and pens a note back to him. What is a social security number?
The next day, when everyone is out and she is supposed to be cleaning the house, she carefully opens the top drawer of her mother’s dresser, and finds the card with her social security number at the bottom of a stack of cards held together by an old rubber band. She puts everything back carefully and closes the drawer where her mother keeps all the important papers, including their current passports, should there be a pogrom, or should some soldiers try, once again, to herd them into cattle cars.
With this act, which makes it all suddenly real, fear begins to rise within her like a substance. When this happens, and it begins to happen more frequently — like when her mother spontaneously kisses the top of her head, or when she is lighting the fragile wicks of the Sabbath candles — she quells it by whispering the first verse of the Shema. She learns to compartmentalize: Here is Etti from Boro Park; on the other side of this wedding is an Etti she would have the freedom to explore with a man she might already love.
Still, when she least expects it, panic infiltrates in tiny seams. Panic dances around her like the flames of the thousands of candles lit for the missing Hungarian Jews of her family’s hometown and its surrounding cities and hamlets. Here and there a voice breaks in: You will be wandering the wilderness if you leave this world, a wilderness devoid of meaning or purpose. No longer will your actions be sacred, from waking to sleep. You will become flesh and bone, you will wander until you are dust. But if she stays, she tells herself, there will be no Etti – just a collapsed shell of a person, like her cousin Shaina who had left and then been lured back, and was now on so much medication that, when you looked into her eyes, it was hard to find her.
Her wedding to Asher is scheduled for as early a date as fits with her menstrual cycle. Her mother brings her to the mikveh and she dunks herself three times. She says the three prescribed blessings as she comes up into the air, but beneath the water she silently whispers Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.
A week before their wedding, for the first time, Asher calls her on the phone, and her mother, blushing and happy, brings her the cordless phone from the living room. She takes the phone into her room, and even into a closet, so they can talk. They plan on a last meeting in the city when she needs to go there to break in the new volunteer at Mrs. Saltzman’s, and he will be in midtown to buy a new camera.
They meet behind the dance floor where a few people sit perched at a thin extension of the bar. The first thing she notices is that the light within him is dulled, subdued. He is nervous, and begins to pull her into a fierce hug, but she stiffens because all of that belongs to who she was before she knew. He understands and retreats. Still, he looks deep into her eyes and his glisten as if he is about to cry. “Listen,” he says in English, and she understands that in the club, Yiddish would feel like as much of a breach of their bifurcated selves as a hug, “I am building a plan. I have an uncle – he left years ago. He’s an artist, a painter, and he and his wife live in New Mexico.”
He smiles. “It’s in the United States. Out west. We will start there. From there we will go to my cousin Ruchel – now Rutti – in LA.” Etti nods, this plan strange and exotic to her, and far from where the ghosts would haunt her. She finds herself saying, as they all say to everything, “Im yirtzeh Hashem,” if God decrees it, and then she blushes.
Her father is waiting for her when she comes home. He is pacing back and forth, his kittel untied, his kippah askew. “What is it, Tateh?” she asks, closing the door quietly.
He continues pacing and then stops a few feet in front of her. “When I walked up to the Rebbe’s tisch this evening, he shooed the others away, even his beloved sons, and he said to me, ‘Vas tut zich? What’s going on? Last night your grandfather came to me. Your grandfather, descended from the great Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, In his hand an invitation to a wedding, on his face a great fear.’ I said, ‘Rebbe, I have no idea.’”
Her father looks at her as he’s never looked at her, his eyes piercing and full of fear. “Esther Malka, Is there something about Asher I need to know?”
“Asher? You know everything I know. That he’s very smart and kind, and that he’s descended from the Baal Shem Tov.”
“Yes, yes, but from that fire, that pure light, deviations can occur. A spark can lift and set the wrong thing aflame; a mind on fire can be dangerous, can set in motion a set of questions that take on a life of their own. Over the centuries, we’ve seen it happen: insight, madness, hunger for things we shouldn’t touch. Some can’t contain the dance of the sparks. Some, like the vessels trying to withstand and carry the divinity within them during the creation of the world, simply shatter. What did the Rebbe see, my child?” Her father searches her face.
“There is nothing wrong with Asher,” she says, looking away. “I think the Rebbe must have seen something in me, and it’s nothing you do not know.” Lying to her father, she feels a part of her heart sever itself, like the meteors she’s read about in one of Mrs. Saltzman’s Scientific Americans. Lifeless, hard, cold — that’s what she’s becoming as she utters lies.
The day comes and they drive to the wedding hall, her brothers yammering about some teacher who will be there whom they want to avoid.
“Shhhhhhhh,” her mother implores.
Even though her brothers are annoying her, too, Etti lovingly bids them goodbye, because tonight she and Asher will stay in the apartment Asher has rented, and tomorrow they will be off. Goodbye Yoel, Yitchak, Sholem, Moishe. If she’s not careful, she will cry.
As they arrive, and her classmates and friends run up to the car to usher her in, she sees Asher entering from another door, all around him the elite of the community. What koved they have for him, she thinks,what respect.
She wants to avoid the Rebbe, which isn’t hard because he is seated deep in the men’s section. The men form a sea of black and white rolling up to him like waves.
But the Rebbe’s daughter has her eye on Etti, pulls her to dance, and herself dances with an abandon that Etti can’t muster, because she is aware suddenly that all these people have done her no wrong, yet she has spun a web of lies around them.
They seat her in the large chair meant as her throne, and the women all sit by her side, stroke her hand as if to calm her, but she can’t find her way back to her former serenity because she is suddenly confronting the enormity of their plan.
Her mother places in front of her a lace-framed page with several verses of Tehillim. She tries to concentrate on the words but she can’t.
A large wave of men is sweeping Asher forward for the badeken, the veil ceremony practiced for centuries to prevent repetition of the Biblical story of Laban tricking Jacob into marrying Leah, rather than her sister Rachel, the woman he loved. Asher is as pale as a ghost. She has imagined this moment, his long, beautiful hands lowering the veil over her face in a gesture meant to convey, among other things, that it is not her physical beauty that he is marrying, but rather the bright luminescence of her soul. But when he raises his eyes to look at her just before the thick lace comes between them, she sees, in his eyes, a wild panic.
The sea of men recedes. Asher is now on someone’s shoulders, towering above the crowd. The women help her up from her large chair, her young cousins giggle as they lift her long train. On her right, her mother holds high a long, tapered white candle, and on her left, her future mother-in-law holds one as well. Etti doesn’t know exactly how she knows, but she can tell that her mother-in-law senses something, even if she can’t fully give it form. She holds Etti’s arm a little too lightly, as if afraid to get attached.
At her mother-in-law’s instinctual reaction to danger, Etti feels a new wave of fear rising in her being. Quickly she quashes it and to keep it from rising again, she tells herself an absurd lie – that these hundreds of people are here to celebrate their love, their discovery of their other jagged half, separated from them at birth and now magically found. She tells herself that fear has no place here because she can see now the hand of God, view his handiwork. The feverish singing, the stomping, the clownish antics, are not the celebration of two people who don’t, in fact, know each other — whom the shadchan, with the Rabbi’s blessing, had seen fit to pair for the rest of their lives, whether it turned out they could stand each other or not — but rather that everyone here knew their true story and somehow rejoiced for them.
When she catches glimpses of Asher being bounced high above the mechitza and once ducking so that his head won’t hit the ceiling, when she sees his white knuckles grasping the chair, she knows that — while everyone else would see his terror as natural — the truth is that he is not finding his way through this event.
She stops looking at him, even as she is ushered up to him, her betrothed. She can feel the nerves sparking around him so intensely that she finds herself wondering if he might bolt. But if he wants to, there is no chance to, because she is circling him now under the chuppa with her mother and mother-in-law on either side. Seven mystical circles to signify the six days of creation and the holy day of rest. With each circle she weaves around him, she is tying him more intricately to their joint journey.
Finally, as she completes the seventh circle, he looks up at her and she meets his gaze. “Fest,” she whispers. “Steady,” and she thinks she can feel him calming. But something has changed. Something is wrong.
After Asher crushes the glass and the crowd roars Mazel tov, in a burst of song, they are escorted to the yichud room. There is a couch and two chairs and Asher lowers himself into one of the chairs, his face in his hands. He begins to cry.
She can hear the mashgiach pacing outside the door.
She closes her eyes and, rocking a bit back and forth on her heels, finds herself saying the Shema. The words are, “Hear o Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one,” but what she is really saying is, Please steady me, God. Don’t leave me alone.
Calm descends, rolling down her body from the top of her head to her feet. Her heart steadies. There is light on her face as if she has turned it up to the sun. She opens her eyes in wonder. God has answered her — Esther Malka, the apostate, the fallen. She will lose the community but she will not lose God.
She goes over to Asher, kisses him on the forehead.
“I can’t do it,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t expect this. I had no idea.”
“Earlier, at the chasan’s tisch, the Rebbe took me aside and said, ‘Asher, we are moving into turbulent times. I fear there will be great division ahead. You will be one of the pillars that will keep this edifice erect. I can’t say more. But I need you. I am announcing tomorrow that you will be my personal assistant.’
“Sitting there with the Rebbe,” Asher continued, “I had no way to tell you or even to seek your wisdom. But then I realized that I had to make the decision alone. It wouldn’t be fair to have you take part in it. And it grew clear to me that I couldn’t say no. Whatever is coming, he’s telling me he needs me. And I thought of my grandfather and of my great-grandfather, and knew that if I didn’t say yes, I have ended what my great-grandfather began and they will say I accomplished what Hitler couldn’t. I don’t know if I could live with that.”
“Ich farshtei,” she whispers. “I understand.” Even though she is disappointed that they will not be leaving, she says, “I will be there. I will help you.”
He looks up at her, puts his arms around her, and says, “No, Etti, you must go. You were your father’s responsibility before this. Now, according to our way of thinking, you are mine. Given who I am, there is no way out for me. But there is a place for me here. There is no place for you here. They will crush you. Let’s get to the end of the wedding. Then I will help you go.”
She doesn’t know how long she stands there. A wave of love fills her and she holds him more tightly to her. For a moment she argues with herself. What if I stay and we explore things together in secret? But even as she thinks it, she knows it’s impossible. They would ultimately be found out. And from that moment, spies would be appointed to watch their every move.
In ten minutes, they hatch their plan. She will go to his uncle and aunt’s in New Mexico. He will make sure that they meet her at the airport in Santa Fe, just as they had planned to meet the two of them. From there, when she’s ready, she will transfer to his cousin Rutti in LA. He will phone ahead.
He removes his wallet from his pants pocket and peels off eight one hundred dollar bills. She has never seen so much cash. She puts it in her purse with the State ID he arranged for her when they were going to travel together.
“But I have nothing with me,” she says.
“My aunt will have everything you need, or will help you find it.”
She just shakes her head, suddenly deeply and terribly in love.
“They will force you to divorce me,” she says seconds after it occurs to her.
“Probably, but in the meantime, you can get out.”
They make it through the wedding. She can’t eat, though people keep heaping her plate with food. She wants it all to end, and she doesn’t want it to end at all because there is a heat radiating from him, and between them, and it feels like a heat she is meant to inhabit. How can she lose what she has only just found?
She feels terrified and yet so incredibly alive, and also awed by it all, and confused, when suddenly the Rebbe stands up. He is staring at them and begins walking towards them slowly, leaning on his cane. It is too early for the Rebbe’s dance in front of the bride, so she wonders what he wants.
When she looks at Asher, his face is white. “He knows,” Asher says. “He has just seen it. Pretend to go to the Ladies’ room, grab your things from the yichud room, and go.”
But she sits frozen.
“Esther Malka Rabinowitz, go and discover the world for the two of us.” He smiles and tears up at the same time. She slips out of her seat, and everyone smiles at her as she makes her way to the yichud room. She grabs her purse and rushes down the stairs as the waiters hurry by her, trays held high with dessert. Once outside, she runs until she sees a subway station and, lifting her dress, bolts down the stairs, her long train trailing behind her.
She digs into her purse for her Metro card. New Yorkers part like the Red Sea all around her, barely giving her a glance, only a few lingering on her dress and breaking into a smile. At the turnstile she still can’t find her card. She imagines one of the drunk men she’s seen on the subway platforms coming up to her and ripping off some of the pearls sewn to the high neckline of her dress, and she turns around and climbs back up to the bustling street.
Her heart is pounding. Anything can still happen. Asher may tell them, or he may feign ignorance about her departure. There had been no time to discuss exactly what he would say when she didn’t return, but either way, whether now or an hour from now, they will find her gone.
Tongues will be wagging for months in Brooklyn. She can’t think about what this will do to her parents. These same people who came today to celebrate will fill the house to comfort her parents if they sit shiva for her. Her name will no longer be pronounced. Her name will be draped in black cloth like the mirrors. They will wash her out of their mouths. When they dip themselves in the mikveh, they will come up for air without her. They will let her drift to the bottom of the stone pool like dead skin.
It will take her a lifetime to forgive herself. But she cannot remain in this community.
She puts out her arm out to stop a cab like she’s seen people do, and one screeches to a halt just ahead of her. She picks up her long dress and train and climbs in. “John F. Kennedy Airport, American Airlines,” she reads from the paper into which Asher tucked her ticket.
The city rushes by, and for the first time she has a sense of the size of it. The unending stream of people. They pass a Hasidic man holding a boy’s hand, and her heart nearly gives out.
When they arrive at the airport, the driver takes the cash she offers and returns change which she throws into her purse. She’s never flown before and wonders what comes next. When she enters through the glass doors, she sees people in line with all sizes and shapes of suitcases. Unlike in the city, the men and women here let their gaze linger for a minute on her wedding dress, and then turn away. There is nothing to do. There was no time to change and now, even if she wanted to, she doesn’t have a change of clothes. The glass doors behind her open, and two men in uniform walk into the room and take up positions on either side of the entrance; at their feet are large German shepherds. She begins to panic. For years she’d listened to her Zaydie recount the day the Nazi soldiers and their dogs had come into the village. She runs to where she’s seen a Ladies’ room and tries to calm down. After some time, she is breathing more easily, though she has no idea what to do, when she hears her name being announced again and again. “American Airlines passenger, Esther Rabinowitz, please report to any American Airlines counter.”
Shaking, and with a glance at the soldiers who are still there, she approaches the counter. “I am Esther Rabinowitz,” she says quietly.
The woman at the counter, in an accent just like that of her cousin Basya who lives in Atlanta, says, “Did you just escape your wedding, honey?”
“Yes,” she says, “with my husband’s help.”
The woman breaks into a wide grin and, shaking her head, says, “Lordy, lordy, only in New York. Anyway, honey, your flight has boarded. They’re about to close the gate. Come, let me get you through security quickly.”
A few minutes later, she is hurrying down the metal hallway and onto the plane. Apparently her seat is near the back, and the entire plane stares at her as she comes down the aisle. A young man steps out to let her into her window seat. Between them, the empty seat that would have been Asher’s. She puts her hand on it as if to take Asher’s hand.
She has never been on a plane before and the stewardess has to tell her to buckle her seatbelt. Rain begins pelting the plane so that it feels as if they are in a tin container. But as the plane begins to back away from the gate and turn onto a runway, the rain comes to a stop. She peers out the window to see the sun, which has just emerged, glistening off the wing, and the puddles that have formed on the side of the runway.
The plane begins to whir loudly, it jerks forward and begins to move, and then it’s racing faster and faster. It lifts heavily into the air, and for the first time she looks down on the world.
As she does, the right wing tips upward and the plane begins to turn, and there on the left, is the water, like a painting, speckled with tiny points of glittering light, and on her right, only boundless sky. The wing lowers, and in the distance she can see tall buildings sparkling in the sun, reaching so high, as if aching for the sky. It is all so exquisite. Without thinking, she finds herself whispering, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaacov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.” How good are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel. She knows these aren’t the right words, but soon she will have the right words for this glistening new world.