By Simi Monheit
My father had a criminal record for indecent exposure. The story goes that early in their courtship my father hit upon the highly romantic notion of taking my mother boating. It appealed to both of them tremendously; they both loved water, and had, in fact, met on a boat trip.
My parents were World War II Holocaust victims. Not the gnarled, diminished survivors of concentration camps, nor the mythical heroic figures who overcame years of inconceivable horror through resistance and fortitude, yet they were still survivors in their own right. As young teens they had both been lucky to have had parents who were savvy enough to get them out of Europe in time. When he was thirteen, my father was put in charge of his eleven-year-old brothers when they boarded a Kindertransport train bound from Vienna to England. He left, not knowing if he’d ever see his parents again. My mother was eleven years old when she left Germany. After Kristallnacht, my wily grandfather sensed an opportunity and managed to slip his children through the cracks before they were fatally sealed in. He booked passage for them to the United States where they were met by strangers who introduced themselves to the lost children as their new families.
After the war, my parents led unremarkable lives, my father in the Bronx, my mother in Brooklyn. They proved that the human spirit is strong, and hope springs eternal, when they met, one magical summer afternoon on a Mizrachi-sponsored excursion, the purpose of which was to throw together young Jewish singles for a romantic cruise between Manhattan Island and Bear Mountain State Park. Shortly after, my father was determined to recreate the magic of their first encounter. When he suggested boating, it was a grand gesture, wildly romantic, and absurdly far reaching: American even, “like in the movies.” It was, to my father’s surprised delight, easily accomplished; he discovered that you could rent rowboats in Prospect Park, an unexpected oasis in the middle of Brooklyn.
He gallantly rowed to the center of that enchanting little pond, and given that it was an extremely hot day and he was proud of being an exceptionally well-built young man, he removed his shirt. I’m sure that both he and my mother were aroused by his brazen immodesty. My mother was probably slightly scandalized and utterly intrigued by this handsome, Jewish/Austrian, honorably discharged American soldier, who, like her, spoke German, Yiddish and English with equal ease. How had she stumbled upon such an unlikely combination of perfect traits? They were young; their lack of education and money didn’t matter. He was perfect.
The New York City police didn’t think so. We never heard how long my mother got to admire my father’s biceps and abs while he pulled on the oars of that rowboat. All we know is that he was pulled over, if one can be pulled over in a pond, and charged with Indecent Exposure. He may have been handcuffed. He definitely went to the police station, and there was something about a two-dollar fine, which was probably more than the boat rental had cost, and far more than he had budgeted for his date. My father would shrug his shoulders at this point in the telling. “So,” he’d explain, sheepishly, “I spent the night in jail. It wasn’t so bad. Two dollars was a lot of money.”
My father enjoyed shocking people with his improbable criminal history. Now it occurs to me that, given his past, he probably wasn’t terribly surprised by my slightly racy tendencies in high school.
Mr. Fahrbis was our principal. When I learned that he had died, fairly young, from a brain tumor, my first thought had been, “Thank God.” My second and third thoughts weren’t much kinder. He was a tall, cadaverous man with thinning hair, wisps of which stood up erratically at irregular intervals across his broad scaly scalp. His wire-framed glasses rested on a nose that erupted aggressively from the center of his face. There was no bridge between his forehead and nose; his eyeglasses perched on that sharp protruding beak where they hung over the permanent frown that framed his mouth. Behind his glasses were two pin points where eyes should have been. They offered no light or warmth; rather, they were tiny pointers to a bleak interior. His boulder-like head balanced on an elongated chin that ended with a golf ball-like mound; there was no neck on which Mr. Fahrbis’s head was mounted. He would stand slightly stooped, like a vulture, at the door of our school when the fire alarms sounded. We all knew that the drill had nothing to do with fires. At least not the kind that burned externally; they played only to Mr. Fahrbis’s sick internal flames.
Fire drills occurred on warm days so we didn’t have to bother with coats. They were early in the morning, right after we finished davening Shacharit, the morning prayer. We’d just be getting underway in our first-period classes when the alarm would sound. We’d groan and line up for the skirt inquisition, which was what the march out the door was really all about. One by one, we’d have to pass Mr. Fahrbis, disturbingly conscious of his creepy enthusiasm. We’d hold our breath when it was our turn to pass, trying to make ourselves less conspicuous, dreading his bony finger poking a selected shoulder. Once collected in a tight knot in the tiny lot outside our characterless building, we were forced to witness the persecution of the two or three girls who had been singled out of their class lines, guilty of a disgusting display of raw knee.
Mr. Fahrbis would bear down on us, requiring no bullhorn to remind us, again, that “Attendance at Yeshiva Talmudat Esther High School for Girls is an honor and privilege, not a right.” The bravest girls would mouth the familiar refrain along with him. The doomed wretches who were no longer worthy of the honor of attendance stood there, contorted, desperately trying to force their knees into contact with their skirt hems. When they hobbled past us, on their way to their lockers to collect their possessions, none of us could look at their tortured figures. Any one of us could be in their skirts.
I was relieved whenever I survived those drills but really wished I had the nerve to hike my skirt up even shorter and jump up and down in front of Mr. Fahrbis. But I never did. Instead, I relied on the elastic waist band strategy that I had devised early on in my high school career. It required a skirt with an elastic waistband, along with a top that was long enough to hide the gap that opened over your belly when you slid your skirt down to your knees. I had sewn elastic waistbands into all my skirts. It was easy; I had been around sewing machines my whole life.
My parents barely eked out a living from their custom slipcover shop. There were always swatches of material lying around our house. When I came home from school my mother was usually bent over the sewing machine that lived in my brothers’ room. I used to pester her relentlessly while she sewed, handing her pieces of material and asking for “a seam here, Mommy, now here,” until, satisfied, I would admire the masterpiece I had designed.
We were four kids, and my mother ran our house with military precision. We were messy and loud. Each of us fought for attention when we sat down to eat, insisting that our individual story was the most audience-worthy tale. My older brother usually won, but eventually each one of us had our turn, as we sat down to our meat loaf, or string meat, or fish latkes on Thursdays. In the center of the table there was always a lonely glass, filled with water and peeled carrots, meant to tide us over until dinner. We’d eat on mismatched plates and drink from octagonal glasses, their thick bottoms etched with the Candle Company Logo. Those glasses had held the yartzeit candles that had burned for twenty-four hours, honoring the anniversary of the deaths of relatives I had never known. After dinner my mother stood at the sink, wearing a housedress, apron, anklets, and funny black rubber-soled shoes, as she quizzed us from notebooks perched on the window sill above the sink, while she washed, and we dried, the dishes.
After dinner we’d separate until my father came home. My father arrived from work at all hours, and we dropped whatever we were doing to greet him. Not doing so was never an option. Sometimes it was difficult to turn away from the TV, or to drop a pencil in the middle of a math problem, but it wasn’t negotiable. The math and TV would have to wait; Daddy came first.
My father would be hanging up the hat he always wore outside, substituting it with the yarmulka he preferred to wear at home. He would be returning from “A Delivery.” My father’s life was consumed by mysterious Deliveries. It took years for me to understand that a delivery was when my father went to pin the material that could then be sewn into a slipcover, or to fit the completed slipcover onto the furniture. His work was painstakingly difficult; my father was frequently bent over a couch or chair, pins in his mouth and scissors in his hand, his cap pushed back on his head, black curls falling into soft green eyes. His jaw was strong and straight while it held its pins, and his mouth would open into a wide smile when the last pin was removed. His work was a lost and mostly unappreciated art. He learned his trade as part of the Veterans Affairs Bill after World War II; it was the only formal education he received after leaving Vienna. The war had put an abrupt end to his education.
If it was late, my father would come to our rooms, tuck us in, ask about our day, tell us about his, kiss us, and then head downstairs for dinner with my mother, who had waited to eat with him. I would strain to hear their muffled voices; whispers about parnassa (income), stories about work, and sometimes, if I was lucky, they’d speak of one of us kids.
Saturday, Shabbat, was different. We’d wear our best clothing to shul on Saturday mornings and return home to a lavish lunch feast. Lunch was always prolonged by singing. My father would bring out a tattered prayer book and start singing zemirot, ancient songs that celebrated Shabbat. My sister had inherited my father’s vocal gifts, and together they harmonized those haunting tunes. My father wore his heart on his sleeve, and bared his soul in his voice. Neighbors assembled at our house every Shabbat, our table extending longer and longer to accommodate everyone. On those long Shabbat afternoons, we weren’t in Brooklyn, we were in Poland, Germany, Austria, anywhere our families had come from, celebrating ancient and eternal customs.
After the lunch table was cleared my father and my two brothers lingered behind to “learn a little Torah.” My brothers would sit and analyze the weekly Torah portion with my dad in laborious detail. I envied their time with my dad; I longed to show my father that even though I was just a girl, I could learn Torah too. I could feel him glance towards me when he was done with my brothers, his eyes closing, ready for his Shabbat nap. I would sit there hopefully, pretending to be absorbed in whatever I was doing. “Okay, Simchick,” he would smile at me, “Let’s see what you know.” I would rush over, eager, chanting the Torah portion earnestly, but without the Talmudic references that only boys were allowed to learn.
Finally, my father would go upstairs to nap, alongside my mother. The door to their room would close, and we knew not to disturb their sacred Shabbat rest. Eventually they would emerge, smiling, rested and looking like they shared a wonderful secret we children would never figure out.
My father loved being Jewish. It defined him. It provided him, and through him, to us, a sense of purpose and trust. Once in high school I realized that the Judaism that my father had instilled in me was very different from what Mr. Fahrbis was trying to force upon us.
Ours was a Jewish all-girls school. Aside from Mr. Fahrbis, whom you simply avoided, it wasn’t an awful place. Our teachers were all idiosyncratic characters, well-meaning in their incompetence. We were introduced to the fascinating mysteries of algebra and physics and the far less captivating mysteries of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The only mysteries we were spared were biological and chemical, those of our own sexual awakening.
We shared our nondescript building with our brother school, separated by a thin wall that was meant to keep us miles apart. Having the boys' school within our sight but just beyond our reach was excruciatingly tantalizing. There was a large lawn in front of the building, bordered on either side by small concrete lots. One of those concrete areas was dedicated to our gym classes, where our only activity was to run in circles in our long skirts. The boys were on the other far-away end where they enjoyed the splendor of a basketball hoop. Their play space was firmly enclosed by a chain-link fence. A tower with an armed guard at the top would have been a fitting addition.
Predictably, there were different starting and dismissal times for our separate schools; the boys started earlier and ended later than the girls did. However, the girls had no trouble catching an earlier bus in the mornings and had even less trouble delaying their departure for a later bus or train after school. We persevered, overcame all obstacles, and succeeded in establishing an exciting social venue for ourselves, even if it was limited to bus stops and timetables.
That was how Barry and I started dating. Barry was a senior; I was a sophomore. Barry and I had been making eye contact daily, for around six months, during the short train ride between Parkside and Prospect. We never spoke, but miraculously, via a friend, a dare, and just dumb luck, we found ourselves at a movie theater, and afterwards, at a kosher pizza shop. From there, it was a short jump to a real date, pressing sweaty palms together in the liberating darkness of the air-conditioned movie theater. We bowled and shared ice cream. I waited for Barry after school, and we sat side by side on the clacking train. I assumed that our fellow commuters, with whom we had shared a subway car for the last half-year, noticed the escalation of our relationship and were happy for us. We kissed one night on the Staten Island Ferry. It was the stuff of dreams. I had a boyfriend.
At school, the boys next door grew more and more restless as the school year drew to a close. The senior boys were especially agitated. One day, they all marched out of their side of the building and stomped onto the forbidden no-man’s land of the school lawn. They chanted songs and hurled taunts towards the school. We watched from our classrooms, thrilled by their defiance. That night Barry called to tell me that the entire senior class would be cutting school the next day. He invited me to join him and spend a day together in Central Park. It was so romantic. It was so bad. It required no thought, I just said yes.
The next morning I tried to act nonchalant, certain that my pounding heart was about to give me away, as I inched towards the door on my way out. My mom reminded me to buy cottage cheese on my way home; the market near our school was the only one that carried the Weight Watchers' approved brand that she liked. This happy circumstance had provided the perfect excuse for catching the later train all year. I made myself a mental note to remember the cottage cheese on my way home from whatever glorious place I might find myself in later that day. Then, surprisingly, my Dad appeared. He was never around at breakfast. I learned that the very day that I was Not Going to School, my father Wasn’t Going to Work. He had been up all night with a terrible fever, and for the first time in history, he was taking a sick day. I had an immediate sense of foreboding, but assured myself that my dad’s sudden illness was no reason to ruin what was sure to be the most wonderful day of my life, even if I was starting to feel like a huge brick had settled into the bottom of my stomach.
I set out, the brick getting heavier and heavier. I thought about just calling the whole thing off, but I had already bragged to all my friends about the fabulous day I was about to have. I couldn’t turn back now. I just couldn’t.
I soldiered on, grateful when I saw Barry waiting for me at the designated rendezvous. He looked pale, and I wondered why I had never noticed how big his ears were, and how crooked his glasses were. It was all wrong, but we ignored that. This was our Day.
I don’t remember much of the details that followed, but I do recall that along with feeling exhilarated, and slightly sick, by the wickedness of what I was doing, I wasn’t able to shake the nagging dread I had of facing my parents once I got home. I tried to calm down when we got to Central Park, where we sat under a big tree, and, like amateur actors in a bad teenage movie, we made out. We spent a lot of time congratulating ourselves on how cool we were, convinced that everybody wished they were doing what we were doing. We definitely spent a lot of time wondering what everyone else was doing. I remember that much.
Finally it was time to leave. I couldn’t find the cottage cheese my mother liked, so I called to tell her that they were out of her brand. I felt even worse the moment I heard my mother’s voice. When I told her that the store was out of cottage cheese, she repeated exactly what I had just said, something like, “Oh, they’re out of cottage cheese. Okay.”
I hesitated, but I knew what I had to do. “Mommy, I didn’t go to school today.”
“You didn’t go to school today,” more of that weird parrot-like repetition was coming across the line, until finally, she said, emphatically, “I think you should come right home. Now.”
I got off the phone. Barry was waiting outside the phone booth.
“They know,” I told him miserably.
“No, they don’t.”
“They do, and I told my mother anyway.”
“What did you do that for?” Barry seemed genuinely bewildered, but he tried to rise to the occasion, “Do you want me to go home with you?”
I was stunned that he volunteered, but we both knew that this was between me and my parents. That ride home was the longest train ride I ever suffered through.
I trudged up the steps into my house. My mother and father were waiting for me at the kitchen table. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think they did, either. My father told me that a friend of mine, Mindy Mendlowitz, had called during the day. When my father asked why she was calling, and asked, “Isn’t she at school?” Mindy unceremoniously hung up on him. What moron does that? There’s always that one kid who wants to belong, who always says dumb things, who never catches on, but whom you let tag along because you’re so glad that you’re not that kid. Well, that kid was Mindy Mendlowitz. Then things got worse. Another, smarter friend, tried to do damage control. When Mindy came in wringing her hands telling everyone what she had just done, Chavie got right on the phone and told my dad that she was calling from home because the day before she and I had both said that we weren’t feeling well and she wondered if I was at home, too. Personally I thought that was pretty clever. But, by this time, my dad had heard enough. He called the school, told them he was my father, and asked if I was there. Could things get any worse?
I accepted The Strap, three whacks with a belt across my backside. I didn’t try to run away. I had it coming. I accepted that I was grounded. I accepted that I would never see Barry again. No punishment was enough. I went to bed, but didn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, knowing that I had to go to school the next day and face Mr. Fahrbis. The worst part was that I deserved Mr. Fahrbis, I had earned him.
I was still awake at sunrise. At school, my friends rallied around me helplessly; there was nothing they could say or do. Eventually a snot-nosed senior came to tell me to wait outside Mr. Fahrbis’s office until my father arrived. The goal was full family torture. Once someone was a known miscreant, her father had to come to redeem her. A mere mother wouldn’t do; a father was the more forbidding parent. Mr. Fahrbis forced the main breadwinner to miss a day’s work. Most of the families who sent kids to our school were like mine, immigrant survivors who struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. That they scraped and saved to send their daughters to yeshiva spoke volumes about their commitment to education and Judaism.
I sat outside that office for an eternity. I thought about my father missing another day of work, the second in a row. I thought of the deliveries that would need rescheduling. I visualized my father’s tired face when he came home. I thought of my mother and her hopeless ongoing relationship with Weight Watchers. I was sure she hated the cottage cheese she ate each morning. How could she ever lose weight when she nibbled all night until she got to eat for real with my father? I thought of the millions of Jews who had perished just for being Jewish. I thought of Yom Kippur when God sealed our fate and I was sure I wouldn’t make it through another year. Thankfully my father showed up before I could offer myself up as a human sacrifice, right there outside Mr. Fahrbis’s door.
My father looked at me. I looked at him. “I’m sorry, Daddy, I’m so sorry.”
“I know, Simchick,” was all he said. But that was enough. I was still Simchick. His Simchick.
My father sat down across from Mr. Fahrbis. My Farhbis pointed me to a chair against the blank back wall of the room. He wasn’t going to let me sit alongside my father in that cold soulless space.
I’m banished. I have to sit here and listen to whatever he’s gonna say, while he pretends like I’m not really here. He can do whatever he wants, he’s the boss. He is going to destroy me, and he is going to love it. How could I have been so stupid? Oh God, if only I could make it the day before yesterday.
“Mr. Mandell, I am sorry to have to meet with you under these circumstances.”
It was starting. I watched my father nod his acknowledgement.
“I know how much of an imposition it is for you to miss a morning of work, but situations of this magnitude demand this level of involvement.”
My father nodded again, and shrugged slightly, hands out, as if to say, “Please, go ahead. This is something we both need to address.”
“Mr. Mandell, I know this is difficult for you to hear, but your daughter is not the type of girl that we welcome as a student in our school.”
Oh God, he’s right. I am such a creep. I know it, HE knows it, and now my father has to hear it from HIM.
“She consistently breaks our rules. I cannot begin to report the number of times I have seen her with her skirt indecently hiked up about her thighs, cavorting about provocatively, displaying herself in a manner to attract the attention of the boys next door.”
What? Where is that coming from? What does that have to do with cutting class?
“I have seen your daughter run out of the school building when she thought nobody was watching. I have seen her run through the boy’s basketball court, holding her bags against her body to attract attention. I have seen her wiggling lewdly, waiting for the boys at the bus stop. I am sorry to tell you this, and I don’t want to speculate about how this will end. But this is not what we can tolerate from a yeshiva girl. ”
Daddy, NO! Don’t listen. I swear he’s making this stuff up.
I wanted to run to my father and cover his ears with my hands. My father, who spent whatever little time he had bent over the Talmud, who sang to me when I was afraid of going to school, was being reduced to this. This was my fault. I had let this happen. Because I was despicable, Mr. Fahrbis got to tell my father that he was a bad man who had raised a slut for a daughter.
I sat there, invisible in that miserable chair, a shadow forced to witness my own annihilation. I couldn’t say anything. As Mr. Fahrbis went on, warming further to his subject, my father began kneading his pants, his back stiffening. His neck tightened visibly and the tips of his ears turned pink, then a deeper shade of red.
Daddy, you don’t deserve this. I can’t bear for you to hear anything that is coming out of this evil man’s mouth.
Mr. Fahrbis was on a roll. His big forehead was all shiny and sweaty as he leaned forward in his seat and looked at my father. He rose, to give himself more height so he could look down at both of us. He wagged his finger towards me, “Your daughter is a huge disgrace,” wag, “a bad influence on others,” wag, “and NOT,” wag “what we expect,” wag “from a Talmudat Esther girl!” final wag. And with a grand flourish he slammed his hand on his desktop.
I looked at the ground, and wished myself beneath it.
Then my father started to speak. What could he possibly say? I stole a glance towards his lap and noticed that he had stopped kneading his pants. His voice wasn’t raised; he was speaking in Hebrew. He was quoting the Talmud. I sat up straighter to hear what he was saying. His voice was gentle, but there was strength and conviction in it. The very softness of it forced you to listen closer. He was saying something important. I dared to peek at Mr. Fahrbis. He looked deflated as he collapsed into his chair. He started shuffling some papers on his desk, not even bothering to look at my father. My father continued, saying how the role of an educator is to be m’karev, embracing, towards the sinner, not to be m’rachek, distancing, to someone who needs guidance. Then he quoted the pasuk, the phrase, directly, stating that anyone can teach someone who is willing to learn; a true teacher is one who enlightens the unwilling student.
I sat there, stunned, unable to make any sense of what had just happened. Then the room started vibrating. I realized, eventually, that it was me, and not the room, that was shaking. I was crying, from shame, relief, from pride at my father’s unflinching response to Mr. Fahrbis.
Looking at Mr. Fahrbis, all I saw now was a pathetic creepy guy who had to struggle to pull himself up in an attempt to counter my father’s wisdom. He droned, “Attendance at Yeshiva Talmudat Esther High School for Girls is an honor and privilege, not a right. And besides, I don’t need to look at your daughter’s knees; I have two daughters of my own whose knees I can look at.”
He looks at his daughter’s knees? He looks at my knees?
I didn’t have time to ponder this disturbing revelation because my father started talking again. I could hear a smile in my father’s voice when he said, “Maybe my daughter’s knees are nicer than your daughter’s knees.”
Then he turned around and looked me straight in the eye. I stared right back at him. “C’mon, Simchick. We’re finished here.”
Mr. Fahrbis sunk back in his seat. My father lifted my book bag and placed it on my shoulder in one graceful easy movement. Then he took my hand and walked me out of that office. Escorting me to my classroom, he stopped outside and hugged me tightly as he whispered, like he always did, “Be matzliach,” be successful. As I watched my father walk away down the hall I wondered at the depth of his wisdom. How had he learned so much? As he headed out to work, where with his touch he delivered forlorn spaces into warm, safe havens, I heard him humming a tune. I stood for a while, listening to it get softer as he turned around the corner.
Copyright © Simi Monheit 2011
Simi Monheit is a native of Brooklyn, New York, where she grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. Her educational background is in English Literature with a graduate degree in Computer Science. Like many people in the High Tech industry, she migrated west to Silicon Valley, California. When she found herself unemployed in 2009, she used her new-found freedom to write the stories that she always believed were waiting to be told. Her work has appeared in The New Vilna Review. “Decent Exposure” is Simi’s first published short story.