The Greenberg Funeral
By Shmuel Nadata
1. The Ones They Touched
They had to hold the service out in Brooklyn, in this place run by goyim which had seating for fourteen hundred. There was standing room only in the back, and before long, men in shtreimels and women in sheitels were lining the hallway, clinging to separate sides, saying “Baruch dayan emes
” or else “Tch… so sad.” But also secular people, too—people who called her parents Carol and Irwin, instead of Chaya and Yitzchak. People who spoke of “condolences” and “heartfelt sympathy.” And then there were people who were not quite secular, not quite frum:
the ones who unfolded suede yarmulkes from back pockets and answered to the Kaddish, but then like thieves slipped off the yarmulkes the moment they slunk out the door. And there was someone from the governor’s office who didn’t know why he had been sent, and there was talk also of Hillary Clinton coming to the shiva.
The funeral director was a kind bald man, rotund and bare-cheeked at forty with a face like he was twenty-five and a name like Tim O’Malley. He filled an adjacent service room with the overflow crowd, and set up the microphone so the audio would carry in both rooms. Afterwards, he told his wife it had been years since he had seen a funeral with that many different kinds of people and by the end not a dry eye in the crowd.
It wasn’t just that Leah had been twenty-one, or the tutoring she had been doing through Kerev V’Yavneh (when not studying for her first year at medical school); it wasn’t just that she was beautiful and sweet and loved by both classmates and professors; it wasn’t even the tragic timing of it all, the series of increasingly optimistic indicators, which rendered her death even more of a stolen soul than it needed to be. It was that she was Leah Greenberg of the famous Greenbergs, and there was hardly a person for miles whose lives they hadn’t touched.
There were those who didn’t even know how she’d died, just that she was the second Greenberg child, though the family had made no effort to keep it a secret. The Greenbergs never had secrets, and why should they? They weren’t embarrassed by their lives. When the oldest, Moshe, needed locked-door detox (and came out looking like a goy), what did they tell the Sunday babysitter but the truth of where they were going each week to visit? And more: Chaya Greenberg was the first mother to march into Ateres Yaakov and say to the English principal, “We have a drug problem in our yeshivas and I’m sorry, one day a year of speakers doesn’t cut it.” When the principal said no, she said, “My son is back from a year in Israel addicted to heroin, and you say no?” The peer mentoring, the list of survivors in the community who could answer questions in private, the big sister program, the controversial drug testing required for extra-curriculars—all Chaya’s work.
Or when the fifth, Batyah Shana, tested into a special-needs school. Chaya was fond of saying, “God doesn’t give challenges for you to fail.” Yitchak said he should sooner build a school with his bare hands than send his daughter to public school half the week for “educational services.” And so he did. He got the Renovs, the Markowitzes, the Hertzbergs and the Flaums—all the big donors—and he said, “If not in our community, then in a public school. You have grandchildren waiting to be born.” And Yitzchak Greenberg put his own Batyah Shana on the cover of the fundraising brochure, smiling through braces, saying, “Won’t you help?”
But how could they keep anything private, really, with the open house the way they ran it? So many people sleeping and eating at 139 Cedar Lane in Woodmere that you never could guess who you’d find cooking in the kitchen on erev Shabbos each week. The transients, the ones curious about religion, the ones whose parents were out of town. And beyond their own seven children (vey iz mir, only six now, an empty bed forever), the foster kids they took in from Ohel, one after another, like their hearts were too big to say no.
Tim O’Malley couldn’t have expected such numbers that he’d need the help of his technician. Struggling to manage on his own, he pushed a wrong button. As a result, in the overflow room the audio was imperfect, crackling with static, but in a third empty room the sound was crystalline. It was this room where Rivka Malka, the fourth Greenberg child, wandered with her best friend Bailah when she had to go to the restroom because she couldn’t listen anymore to Rav Feinstein giving his hespeid. She was back one week from boarding school in Monsey—back because she’d gotten into some kind of trouble—to come home to this.
“God knows when to take,” they had said to her, all the teachers who’d phoned their sympathy, all the girls who’d called from school—all but Bailah, who had instead come back herself from Monsey for the funeral, using public transportation and her own money (which she didn’t have a lot of). Bailah knew better than to mention God at such a time to Rivka Malka. Bailah simply showed up at the door and opened her arms.
In the empty room, surrounded by rows of benches, the two girls sobbed into each other and pressed their heads together so you couldn’t tell who was crying on who.
Rivka Malka said to Bailah, “So she should come home and make up with Ima just to have her heart stop and die?”
Bailah picked apart dead petals with her fingers. A Christian funeral had been in this room before: black rose. Then suddenly they could hear Rav Feinstein’s voice coming through the speakers, perfect and true as if meant only for them, and his voice was saying, “Leah couldn’t see how beautiful she really was.”
Bailah and Rivka Malka turned their heads to locate the voice, and then, after reaching some silent understanding, they sat down on a bench, locked their fingers together—both hands—and put their heads together and cried again.
Rav Feinstein was the rabbi of their shul, but the Greenbergs were more than mere congregants to him. He had moved here from Flatbush when he was appointed rabbi, and he had taken over the shul at a time when his daughter was sick. The hospital found a match from outside the community—an Irish woman—and his daughter got better, thank God, but still: wasn’t it Chaya Greenberg who had helped organize the community’s bone marrow registry drive? Wasn’t it Yitzchak Greenberg who had helped him find a house he could afford on a rabbi’s salary with a sick daughter to take care of? Wasn’t it the Greenberg’s model son, their third, Yoni, who read the Torah portion in shul every week and gave the sermon on Youth Shabbos? The Greenbergs weren’t just congregants; they were the heart of the community. “To lose Leah,” he said—though she had in fact moved away years ago, from both the community and religion—“is to lose a piece of your own heart.”
He attended a funeral a week, as a rabbi must, and he said some things you have to say and some things you memorize and use time and again. But some things he said he must have cut his heart open to find the words; some thing you never hope to unearth in your whole life.
Then Rav Feinstein finished, and embraced Yitzchak, and sat down. It was time for the second eulogist, Rav Leventhal, to begin his hespeid. The crowd looked towards the front of the room and then the back, but nobody stood up to speak.
The problem was that Rav Leventhal was a Cohain, of the priestly class of Jews, and he couldn’t go into the same room as a dead body. This was a source of confusion for Tim O’Malley, who had never heard of such a concept before, and he vaguely disbelieved it. Rav Leventhal requested to speak from outside the building, under an awning, but Tim refused. He was worried about what the rain would do to his sound system, but more than that: pounding water and electrical wires? A funeral director has a sensible, morbid mind.
At a loss for answers, Tim told the rabbi a lie, and led him with a hand on the small of his back. “Parlor 5,” he said, “has never held a funeral. A new addition. It’s a clean room.” Really, it was the only room from which Tim knew how to rig the audio so that the microphone would broadcast into the other two rooms. They arrived by the door of the parlor and Tim gestured for the rabbi to walk inside. The rabbi was about to, but he paused when he heard a sound. Both men peeked into the room. They saw Rivka Malka hugging Bailah: an immodest moment for them to watch.
But they watched. They stood there dumbfounded, Tim O’Malley side-by-side with Rav Chaim Leventhal, staring at two young girls crying into each other’s hair. It was almost like finding lovers, it bore a certain brazen similarity to kissing, and as if faced with all the world’s sorrow and pride, the two of them looked away.
They stood in the doorway and allowed the two girls to weep for a full minute after Rav Feinstein had finished his speech.
In the back of the main room, discomfort grew. Unsure why there was a delay, people began to whisper. The word “anorexia” was circulated for the first time. So many, it turns out, had not known. They knew there had been trouble of a sort, but such a strange kind to imagine, at least in this community. Rav Feinstein hadn’t used the word in his hespeid, not directly, but the discussion of her “beauty,” and her “thinness,” and to die of a weakened heart at such an age—finally, they understood.
And so they whispered other names. It was forbidden, such gossip, but what else was there to do? “Gitah Rosensweig has it too; you could see her today and you wouldn’t recognize her from five years ago.”
“And also Lani Sonenberg’s daughter, though they moved away years ago, if you remember her.”
“And what of Tuvia Finkel, who, even though a boy, suddenly lost twenty pounds last year, and was not, to start with, a heavy person?”
“No, Tuvia Finkel is just on Atkins. I saw him in the city last week, eating a big steak at Dougie’s.”
“Uch, why should he want to diet? Thin like he is.”
At the front of the main room, the silence of a missing eulogist was nothing, was gornisht, was a drop in the well of the silence of a missing child.
Rav Leventhal broke two mitzvot on that day. First, he marched into the parlor where a dead body had been, in violation of the laws restricting a Cohain. Then he approached the two weeping girls and ran his fingers through Rivka Malka’s silken hair. Rivka Malka looked up from her embrace, saw the kindness in Chaim Leventhal’s eyes, and, full of a new hope, she leaned her head into his large hands.
Tim O’Malley couldn’t bring himself to interfere, not even to check that the microphone worked. Already, beyond the mere number of attendants, something about this funeral was strange to him, and would only grow stranger before it was done. He did not return immediately to his post by the front door. Instead he made a call from his office to his wife’s cell phone. He left a message on her voicemail to tell her that he loved her, and loved both their daughters, more than words.
The two girls stopped crying and separated from each other. To be alone—two girls in a room with one man—they knew this as a sin. To have her hair touched—a grave sin. But Rav Leventhal was not ashamed, and neither were they. The moment transcended the clarity of right and wrong. Rav Leventhal kissed Rivka’s scalp and released her head, walking quickly to the front of the room. He tapped the microphone, and, to his surprise, the tap echoed back in the same room (as well as two others). He nodded. He cleared his throat.
Staring at Rivka Malka, who could tolerate no further mention of God on that day, Rav Leventhal began, in a booming voice, “I want to tell the story of Leah Greenberg as I know it, without adornment and without commentary, because the story of this child and her beauty speaks for itself.
“I met Leah through my work at Chai Lifeline. We first spoke on the phone when she called the lifeline, after she ran away in the seventh grade, but I didn’t meet her in person until later that year when the Greenbergs invited me for Shabbos dinner.
“The first thing I saw upon entering the Greenberg home was Rivka Malka, then six, holding her baby brother Shmuli in her arms. Over my many visits to the Greenbergs in the last decade”—and here Rav Leventhal looked directly at Rivka Malka—“I can say that I’ve never gone into the home and not seen a similar sight: a child taking care of a younger child’s needs. Buttoning up a coat, feeding with a spoon, wiping a nose with a tissue. And Leah was that way, too.”
2. Chocolate Kiss
Leah was the first of the Greenberg girls, born between Moshe and Yoni. When she was born, Chaya had no qualms about admitting she had been praying for a girl.
Yitzchak said, “Okay, but I get another boy next.”
Chaya retorted, “Next? Already you’re talking about a next? You try giving birth once, just once, before you talk to me about a next.”
People who heard the Greenbergs talk for the first time often thought they were very simple folk, and perpetually engaged in a fight. But a remarkable thing: people who knew them well noticed that they never actually fought, that their decisions came from a place of deep agreement, and that they respected each other in ways richer than speech.
Leah grew up skinny, with untamable curly brown hair. Everyone said she resembled her father because of the light green eyes that changed color in the sun. She had the bone structure that all the Greenberg children had: a certain setting of the cheekbones that identified them all as part of the same clan. But everyone also saw that Leah’s most memorable facial feature belonged to no one else in her family: a smattering of freckles that looked flecked onto the bridge of her nose, as though shaken from a wet paintbrush.
Leah attended TAG, Torah Academy for Girls, which was not her first choice. She had wanted HALB, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, which was less religiously intense. The girls at HALB were allowed to watch television, to talk to boys on the phone. Of more interest to Leah, the girls at HALB could wear skirts that only covered their knees, not their ankles. Outside of school, they could wear any length of sleeves that they wanted.
Her parents argued that they had given money to TAG all those years because they wanted to keep a girls’ yeshiva in the neighborhood, not all the way out in Long Beach where it was an hour trip by bus. They didn’t want her commuting that long.
Like every yeshiva, TAG had its disciplinary folklore. For instance, there was the story of two TAG girls, twins, caught walking arm-in-arm on Central Avenue with a grown man. The next day, the Hebrew principal called them into his office and said, “I don’t want to hear of you walking like that again.” When the girls explained that the man in question was their father, the principal didn’t back down. If anything, he got angrier. He said, “I don’t want to hear of you walking like that with your father again. Touching in public. It’s not tsnius.”
The early years of Leah’s education seemed to focus on this concept, that nothing she did was ever tsnius enough. She was instructed to sit with her knees closed, to walk so as not to attract attention to herself, and, if she should drop something, for goodness sake to only bend down from the knees to pick it up, never from the waist. She was further reprimanded if she ever chewed gum, read secular magazines, was sighted wearing pants, or loitered outside a movie theater.
One of the only parts of life where Leah felt free of rules was food. She had to keep kosher, of course, but all of the food in the cafeteria was kosher, and, in fact, almost all the restaurants on Central Avenue were kosher too. Everyone she knew kept kosher, so this didn’t feel like a restriction, just a natural part of life.
Her best friend, Ruchama Scharf, was a good girl who followed all the school rules. In the seventh grade, Ruchama said to Leah during lunch one day, “It’s amazing that you can eat that much chocolate and not feel fat. If I eat even a single piece of candy, I feel fat.”
It was just a small comment. Ruchama immediately went on to talk about something else, about the Victoria’s Secret store that had caused a minor scandal by opening up on Central Avenue.
But Leah had stopped listening. She’d only heard the word “fat,” and then heard it a second time. Suddenly the Hershey’s bar in front of her seemed suspect, like a sabotage effort on the part of her mom. She excused herself from the cafeteria, went to the bathroom, and threw up into the toilet whatever portion of the chocolate bar she had consumed, as well as a significant chunk of her lunch. When Leah returned to the table, having stopped to rinse out her mouth by the fountain, she saw the half-finished chocolate bar in its wrapper, and she ate it while Ruchama spoke.
At midnight the same night, when Chaya came home from work, Leah hugged her mother mechanically, and noted how much of her mother there was to hug. Her mother’s breasts pressed against her. Her mother’s arms surrounded her in an abundance of flesh. Leah felt, for an instant, like it was her own future embracing her, constricting, and she wanted to pull free.
The rest of the week, she threw out her lunch and ate an apple. She made a big show of this to Ruchama, who couldn’t understand why Leah had gotten so weird. Why did she bring a tuna fish sandwich to school every day, only to throw it out and then sneak a chocolate bar later in the day?
There were new questions forming in Leah’s head, though she didn’t yet know how to give them voice. Shabbos came, and for dessert the Greenbergs had Zomick’s famous meltaway cake. Was there nothing less fattening? The meal itself was cholent, potato kugel, and tongue. All so greasy? So much red meat? Leah cut for herself a strawberry mango salad, and skipped the prepared food. When it came time to study Torah with her mother that afternoon, she tried to start a conversation about healthier eating habits.
“Ima,” she said, “how come you don’t go on a diet?”
Chaya said, “Leah, I’ve been on a diet half my life. I’ve done points, and I’ve done grapefruit. After Moshe, I did the cabbage soup diet and lost thirteen pounds, and gained it right back. When you were born, I even tried Weight Watchers for a month, which, you should know, tastes like tree bark.” Leah couldn’t help but laugh. “And you remember when I tried Atkins last year. Atkins, I liked. But I didn’t lose any weight.”
“Yeah, but you still ate bread when you were on Atkins. That’s not really doing the diet. It’s just eating a lot of meat.”
“Excuse me, I did not.”
“You did so. You had chalah every Shabbos.”
“So I should skip chalah on Shabbos? Leah, there’s diets and then there’s diets.”
“I’m worried about your weight, Ima.”
“I’m fine, keninah harah.”
“No, you’re not,” Leah said. “You’re really overweight.”
“So I’m overweight means you should skip meals?”
Leah said nothing. Her mother, for all her absence, was too perceptive. Leah couldn’t talk about this with her mother without risking her larger goal, even if she didn’t know yet what it was. Her stomach hurt now; she wasn’t used to being hungry.
The rest of the hour, she concentrated on their Torah learning. They were studying details of kashrut: what to do if a dairy spoon falls into a meat pot. If the pot is clay or ceramic, it has to be thrown away. If it’s glass, you might be okay after just heating the pot to a high temperature to cleanse it. In any case, you should bury the spoon in dirt for twenty-four hours, then clean it and put it in boiling water.
In their front yard, the Greenbergs probably had service for six buried in little deposits. Chaya had buried mistakes and forgot to dig them up all the time: a fork in the wrong dishwasher, a dairy ladle used accidentally with the chicken soup—everything that Chaya didn’t want to discard, but was too busy to keep track of.
It was like that, too, with Leah’s dieting question. Chaya meant to get back to it again soon. There was something troubling about her daughter’s attitude at lunch, the way she skipped the meal to eat a salad, but then had a large slice of the chocolate meltaway cake. But the next day, Chaya received a call from Ohel about a child who needed a temporary place because his parents, they found out, were abusive. Nebuch, such sorrows in the world. He was only six. How could Chaya say no to that? They could roll the cot into Yoni and Moshe’s room.
This was the year they opened the new gym on Central Avenue, with separate hours for women and men. No longer did frum women need to go to the gym in sweatpants covered by long skirts, roasting beneath the extra layers of clothing and still not entirely tsnius. No longer did frum men have to avert their eyes while they exercised, because of the way the shiksas dressed.
Leah asked for a membership, but her mother said, “What for? You’re a pencil.”
Leah knew it wasn’t true. She’d spent time in front of the mirror lately after a shower. She could pinch the extra skin above her hips, and her thighs shook a little, even with her muscles clenched. She shared a room with Rivka Malka and a boarder student named Jennifer, and Rivka Malka wanted to know why she was so often standing almost naked in front of the mirror. “Leah,” she said, “it’s not so tsnius.”
“Why not? There’s no one here.”
Rivka Malka, five years younger, admired her older sister. She still didn’t think it was tsnius to look at yourself so much in the mirror, but she didn’t care to fight.
Jennifer was thin and delicately built. She was living with them for another two weeks, and she wasn’t Jewish. Her story was a tragedy, or so Leah surmised, because Chaya never gave her any details except to “be nice to the girl, please.” Leah only knew that there was a beautiful, thin, delicate girl sharing her bedroom. They were the same age. One day when Jennifer wasn’t around, Leah tried on Jennifer’s bra (too tight, and it pinched), and Jennifer’s white khaki pants. The sensation of wearing pants, having material touching the inside of her thighs, was even odder than the tightness of the pants, and Leah hurried to slide them off.
The first month at the new gym, they gave out big discounts for people who bought a year’s membership. They were worried that they wouldn’t attract enough members to stay open. They hadn’t needed to worry. Not only Jews, but many Gentile women, too, rallied around the cause of separate workout hours. The non-Jews were amused, and learned the term: a tsnius gym. Leah wasn’t the youngest person to join, but she was the youngest Jew. She took the money from her bat mitzvah presents, which she was supposed to keep in the bank for college. She tried to get Ruchama to join with her, but Ruchama proved uninterested in exercising. “Besides, my mother would never let.”
She felt nervous and shy on her first trip. She entered in a long skirt and a long-sleeve tri-color sweater. All around her, metal bars slid up and down, gleaming. So many mirrors. Thighs opened and closed. Blonde women did sit-ups and crunches in spandex. It was another world.
Skye, the personal trainer, was amused by the overdressed wandering girl. She asked if Leah had come with parents, if she needed help. Leah jumped away, scared, but later came back and said yes, she could use a tour. “Listen,” Skye said, “I have a client coming in five minutes, but in half an hour I’m free again.” Skye stuck her finger in her mouth and pretended to gag. “My client is this sixty-year-old lady who had her first visit last week, and you’re not going to believe this. She asked why the pedals didn’t move for her when I put her on a stationary bike. Can you believe it? She didn’t think she should have to push the pedals herself when she exercised.”
Leah laughed nervously at the gossip. She had never really spoken to a non-Jew before, and it felt dangerous. Gossip was a sin. She said, shyly, that she wanted to lose weight. Skye walked a circle around her, looking at her from every angle.
“If you want my advice,” Skye said, “you should focus on your glutes.”
Leah looked confused.
Skye said, “Your butt. Your—” she tried to remember a word, which she pronounced badly—“your tuchus. One of my Jewish clients taught me that. I have lots of Jewish clients. I’m actually one-quarter Jewish.”
Leah smiled at the pronunciation effort.
Skye said, “Try those machines by the mirror. And what are you doing for your diet?”
“I don’t know yet,” Leah admitted.
“Here’s what I think. A girl your age, in good health and not overweight, you don’t need to diet too strictly. So if you want to pick a diet and be able to stick with it, make it easy on yourself. When I was your age, I picked one food, and said I could eat it no matter what. But other than that food, I stuck to the diet that I chose.”
Leah immediately knew what her food would be. It was chocolate. Skye was reaching for some printed pamphlets on a calorie-based diet when her client came in. “I’ll be around later if you need help with the machines,” Skye said.
Over the course of the next month, Skye adopted Leah more and more. Leah liked to go to the gym after English classes at school let out, at 4:45, before her mother got home. Most days, her father was teaching at the boys’ yeshiva at that hour, so she didn’t need to worry about being missed. She traded jobs with Rivka Malka, who was better at babysitting Batya Shana and the twins, and she instead made bagged lunches for everyone, which she could do late at night, and cut the salad for dinner, which wasn’t until seven o’clock. At dinner, which Yoni always ran, unless Yitzchak came home early, the routine was that everyone had to say what the highlight of their day was.
Leah learned to tell a lie. The highlight of her day, she said, was what she learned in Navi class. The highlight of her day, she said, was a little d’var torah. The actual highlight of her day was four Hershey’s kisses, given to her by Skye with a wink.
Chocolate unwrapped from silver foil—the sensation of opening it up, the anticipation. The hunger in her stomach that was with her all day, but that was strongest at that hour when she lined up the kisses in a row. Before she saw the chocolate, she could imagine them. She liked to smooth out the foil into perfect, unwrinkled squares, with the kisses still in the center. She examined the variations in the tips of them, the way the little dollops bent or stood up straight, or broke off. Then the most marvelous moment, the highlight: putting that first kiss on her tongue, closing her mouth, and seeing how long she could hold off before biting. She clenched her fists and her little body trembled with the effort.
After the first bite, the kisses went quickly. The fourth one she didn’t remember at all; mechanics and hunger took over. But still, the real highlight: the first chocolate kiss.
What can a mother do but say “eat”? And then when Leah says “no”? There was no nuance to the fight.
Chaya knew what it was earlier than she knew the name for it. Her secular world, her daytime world, had its terms: anorexia nervosa, bulimia, etc. These words didn’t have meaning in The Five Towns. All that had meaning was that Leah wasn’t eating her Shabbos meals, and from the looks of her, she wasn’t eating too well the rest of the week either.
They would sit by the table for hours, mother and daughter, trying to find out who was the more stubborn. They had the same stubborn gene. All the Greenbergs did. Ruchama was turned away from the door on Shabbos with the explanation that Leah can’t play until she finishes her schnitzel. And then Leah could not talk on the phone on Sunday nights. She could not leave the table even to do her homework until she ate at least two more bites, plus the meatballs.
One Shabbos afternoon it was a particularly difficult struggle, but still Chaya only understood that the problem was a problem of food. (In later years, she would be told by the social workers at the clinic that anorexia was often a problem which had less to do with food than with hindered independence. The patient, feeling stifled, uses food to gain control over some aspect of her life.) Chaya couldn’t relent, not even when Yitzchak said it was kidaiy. A problem of food. Food has to go in the mouth. The specifics of the struggle are too sad to explain. But Chaya got the food into Leah’s mouth.
After Havdalah and the end of Shabbos, everybody took a turn by the bathroom door, where Leah had barricaded herself. Chaya tried and Yitzchak tried. Rivka Malka said, “Leah, you shouldn’t be mad at Ima, she means well,” but got no response. Batya Shana, understanding that everyone was upset, started to cry, which then set the twins off. Even Yoni, the family peacemaker, failed. He spoke to her through the door for fifteen minutes, and in the end Leah said, “You don’t understand me. You’re perfect, Yoni. That’s your problem. You don’t understand what it’s like not to be perfect.”
Then Moshe tried. He said, “I understand not being perfect.” Moshe was in all sorts of trouble. He was a sophomore in high school, and he had already been thrown out of two yeshivas for writing bad notes about his teachers. In the first yeshiva they’d also found a notebook where he drew pornographic pictures of a naked angel, and in the second yeshiva they’d found him smoking pot, and he’d flicked his joint at the rabbi who caught him. It should only have gotten him punished, not expelled, but the rabbi claimed that his beard almost caught on fire. He said it was a violent action, an attack. Moshe said, “I totally get not being perfect in this family,” and then Leah opened the door.
She apologized to her mother. Chaya apologized back. They both wept. Leah went up to her room, to “sleep.” Moshe was sitting on her bed.
“You’re leaving,” he said. “I can tell.”
She took out a suitcase and said, “So you’re not going to stop me?”
Moshe gave her a card. Chai Lifeline. A phone number. “They won’t make you go home. That’s their policy.”
Leah pocketed the card and hugged Moshe. He smelled of the joint he had been smoking.
“My God,” he said, hugging her. “There’s nothing to you at all.”
Leah looked carefully at her brother for a long time, and then she locked the door. “You’re wrong,” she said. She started unbuttoning her top.
“What are you doing?” Moshe asked, but she shushed him. She took off her shirt, stepped out of her skirt. He tried to look away, but she took his chin and directed his gaze.
“Look,” she said, turning sideways. She modeled in front of the mirror in her underwear. “Look. You’re wrong.” She touched her thigh. She squeezed her navel. She pinched the underside of her outstretched arm. “Look how much of me there is.”
Moshe looked, as she’d insisted, but he just looked sad, and dazed, and shocked. After a minute Leah dressed, filled her suitcase, climbed out the window onto the roof of the garage, and left Moshe alone in her room.
She spent a week sleeping in an alleyway behind Central Avenue, and then returned home after being begged by Rav Leventhal from Chai. She and her mother fought and reconciled, fought and reconciled, for the next ten years. They were never close again. She was hospitalized, twice, her organs so atrophied that they started eating themselves. She never looked in the mirror and saw anything but fat. Ruchama’s word, repeated twice: fat. She never stopped eating chocolate kisses, and sometimes she would throw up afterwards, but mostly not. She went back to the gym, a few years later, and Skye looked so pale and horrified that Leah ran away before Skye could talk to her. She exercised every day for the rest of her life, with few exceptions, and on the days she couldn’t exercise, either because she was in a hospital or for other reasons, she was listless and frightened and eager to fight. She was advised, and her mother was advised, that maybe it would be best for her to leave her childhood home. Such a horrible thought to Chaya, that the “problem” was her parenting, or her religion, or her home. Chaya found the only survivor of this “problem” in the community, and Leah moved in with this woman for her senior year of high school. Leah moved away from religion in that other woman’s home, because she could, perhaps, or else because religion meant she couldn’t exercise on Yom Kippur, on Succot, on Shabbos every week. And still Leah could only see fat, the dripping arms of her mother chasing her from behind, trying to complete that embrace that would ultimately choke her. She always felt the need to run away. She finished high school and college and sometimes went months without speaking to her family. She learned secondhand that Moshe was addicted to dangerous drugs, that Batyah Shana wasn’t just “a little slow learning to speak,” like they had all said, maybe a little too hopefully. She created diets for herself all through college—diets that, at the very least, meant she was eating something, some nutrients, some vegetables, some food. She gave up on red meat, and then on all meat, and then on all traditional Jewish foods. She wrote articles that she never tried to publish about the problems with the Jewish diet. She wrote her own cookbook, Healthy Kosher Eating, which shocked the neighborhood but then sold very well in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway and as far away as Queens and Brooklyn, even though Leah didn’t keep kosher anymore. She called home just to speak to Chaya and cry. She yearned, intermittently, for the safety she’d felt on those Shabbos afternoons as a child, studying Torah with her mother. The strangest thing: she missed studying Torah. She completed her pre-med requirements and then, uncertain exactly why, she started to volunteer during her senior year of college, teaching the Hebrew alphabet to young children, Russian immigrants. She joined the Kerev V’Yavneh society so that she could teach Torah over the phone to the curious. She was admitted to Cornell Medical School. Then during her first year, she finally came home, after a decade of struggle, finally hugged her mother again, finally said, “I’m sorry for everything,” and meant it. By that point she had gotten her diet in order, though she would not eat anything unless she’d cooked and prepared it herself. For three weeks she lived at home while studying for first-semester midterms in her medical school classes, and then she died of a weakened heart, which had never recovered from the years of malnutrition, and Chaya Greenberg came home one night to find the body of her oldest daughter, and the mother who had tried to take care of the whole world had nothing left to do but break down and cry and forget to say the prayer for the dead.
3. The Final Hespeid
After Rav Leventhal’s speech, Yoni stood up. In the main room, they watched him try to speak and he couldn’t. The perfect boy, the one who could do everything, who could please everyone, who only wanted peace in the family, but he couldn’t speak. He had written out his speech and each time he tried to read the second sentence, he just started to cry. Nobody could make out what the sentence was. He had to sit down eventually. They understood this even in the rooms where they couldn’t see him. They understood that this happened even in Parlor 5, where Rav Leventhal held Rivka Malka as she cried.
“Rabbi,” she said, “I don’t believe in God anymore.”
“Shh,” he said. He knew already that she had been sent home from school for saying something like this.
She said, “I didn’t believe in Him before, and I don’t believe in Him if He would do this to Leah.”
“Shh,” he said.
“I hate Him! I hate Him! I don’t believe in Him and I hate Him.”
She held onto Chaim Leventhal in violation of everything she had ever been taught. Her best friend Bailah sat there and watched. Bailah made the moment real by bearing witness to it; the other two could never pretend it hadn’t happened, not with Bailah in the room. The three of them sat together on a bench and listened to Yoni try, and fail, to read the second sentence of his eulogy, and eventually they could only hear his crying through the microphone, and the water outside pouring down, and the shuffling of feet in other rooms full of people with wet coats on their laps. And then the fraternal twins, Yocheved and Shmuli, coming to find their missing sister, calling out her name, but Rivka Malka was lost by then in the folds of Chaim Leventhal’s suit jacket, disappearing, hoping never to return.
And then Yitzchak spoke, and he didn’t sugarcoat it. All he did was read a list of things his daughter had said to him in her final weeks at home. They all started with “Abba.”
She said, “Abba, you don’t know what it’s like to be a girl at a Shabbos meal. You have to take food onto your plate. You have to. They make you do it, whoever is hosting the meal. And you have to eat it, too, because somebody went to all that trouble to cook for Shabbos. And then if you don’t eat the dessert, you’re made to feel guilty, like you’re dieting, and you’re never supposed to admit to being on a diet. And if you do eat the dessert, you’re still made to feel guilty, but nobody says why.”
She said, “Abba, I think you and Ima are two of the best people in the whole world, but why are so many of your children in trouble?”
She said, “Abba, I love you. You were so much in the yeshiva when I was growing up, surrounded by boys. I was not allowed into the room because of the boys, and I couldn’t always tell you that when I wanted to. That I love you.”
Yitzchak didn’t do anything to try to finish his hespeid. All he cared was to remember as many words as Leah had said, because there would not be any new words.
Yitzchak was supposed to be the last to speak, but Moshe got up. Moshe was always doing things he shouldn’t, but here, too? The family held its breath.
Moshe wasn’t crying. He didn’t have notes. He looked like he had been crying all night, but his voice was unaffected when he started to speak. He said, “I remember one time when I found Leah smoking a cigarette. For years, Leah smoked constantly, needing something in her mouth because her body was desperate for food. I told her she shouldn’t smoke, and she thought I meant that she shouldn’t smoke outside, because people would see her. She said, a little bitterly, ‘Why, because I’ll be seen and it’s not tsnius?’ And I answered her, ‘No, Leah. Just because it’s not good for you.’ Leah looked so surprised when I said that. Every answer we as a community teach is about how to live according to the Torah. And maybe Leah died because we forget that some of the answers should just be about how to live.”
Then Moshe sat down next to Shmuli and Yoni, and everyone stared at the front of the room, though there was no one left to speak.
4. At the Shiva
At the shiva, the stories were not about “the Greenbergs.” They were not about Chaya and Yitzchak, Carol and Irwin. They were not about Moshe or Yoni, Rivka Malka or Batya Shana, Shmuli or Yocheved. They were only about Leah. Often, though, from the mouths of the people who came to pay their respects, they were about “the thin girl” they had briefly met.
A young man nobody knew came to the shiva to describe the thin girl who had first shown him around the halls of Queens College when he was a freshman, because he was Jewish and looked lost.
An older woman came to the shiva to tell the story of when she’d stopped by on a Friday afternoon, to ask a question of Yitzchak, who was not home, and the thin girl who was cooking in the kitchen dropped everything to talk nicely for fifteen minutes to the stranger, to try to answer her question. The older woman never forgot how special that had made her feel.
A married couple told the story of the thin girl, by that point frighteningly thin, who was at a wedding with them, and she did not feel well, and she wanted to go home early. When the couple headed home, however, the thin girl did not accept their offer of a ride, because she had not yet had a chance to dance with the bride. She stood outside, smoking, thanking them for the offer, but she repeated that she couldn’t leave the wedding until she had danced.
The shiva was observed in two separate rooms, with males and females segregated, as is proper and tsnius. But every now and then over the six days of mourning, a man stood by the entrance to the female room, to call out a story to Chaya Greenberg about her thin dead daughter, across the balcony of a space he was not permitted to enter.