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Yeshiva Girl Stories

Perle Besserman

Homebound publications

Independent Publisher of Contemplative Titles


Woman of Valor

F

rom very early on I wondered what it was like not to be Jewish—and a girl. I suppose it had something to do with my yeshiva, the Beth Jacob School for Girls, being across the street from Saint Constantine’s Orthodox church and the Chaim Berlin Rabbinical Seminary for Boys, and with the fact that the Rebbitzen Asher told me that I didn’t have to wrap my arms in leather plaits and pray three times a day like my father did. She said Jewish women served God by having sons and being “footstools” to their husbands in heaven after they died. I was only eight years old at the time, but I knew that I didn’t want to be anybody’s footstool. What I wanted was to be God, not just look at Him, mind you, but be Him. I think that’s what prompted me across the street that cold February day, hunched into my navy pea jacket, the wind pushing me across the parkway as if it were helping me get on with my sin. The twin gold leaf onion cupolas and rose window eyes of the church loomed over an emerging party of laughing people talking a foreign language and waving their hands in the air. I supposed they were Greek, since the sign in front of the church said so; but the people looked more like my father’s Italian labor union friends, those grizzle-faced men and their wives dressed

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in black I’d seen crossing themselves whenever they passed a church. The women in this party looked poor in their rough knitted babushkas and coarse black dresses, their mud-colored stockings ending in sensible black grandmother shoes. The boys were short and stocky, wearing hand-me-downs that were too big for them: periwinkle blue suits with thick white stripes and chunky gold key chains looped through beltless pants. Only the younger women made a show of elegance, clicking their stiletto heels on the pavement and snuggling rouged cheeks into the collars of their mouton coats. The smell of incense and flowers wafted out of the open door behind them, tempting me to draw closer. At the center of the group stood a golden-haired girl about my age, dressed in white like a bride, with a tulle veil over her face. I watched as she lifted the veil and extended her cheek for a kiss from each of the old ladies while being careful not to dirty her white patent leather mary-janes. My heart swelled; I longed to share in the mystery of this little bride of Christ. One of the men lifted the girl onto the front seat of a wood-paneled station wagon with paint-spattered ladders sticking out the back window, and the car drove off, leaving behind a cloud of exhaust fumes. The party dispersed, and I found myself alone on the sidewalk in front of the church, whose massive doors were left open despite the biting cold. Convinced that this was a sign, I took one step inside, peering into the dark, forbidden Christian stillness. It would be a sin for me to go any further. Mr. Mackler, the tutor my parents had hired to teach me Hebrew at home, had once showed me how every Hebrew letter was also a number, pointing out that the right combination of letters uttered at the right time and in the right tone of voice could make magic. But that was a dangerous thing called “Kabbalah,� something too close to black magic, sin, and a secret belief in the Christian god Jesus. For


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many weeks I had tried matching numbers and letters to create a miracle, any kind, even a sinful one. But nothing happened. Now, convinced that my letter manipulations were at last taking effect, I entered the cold gloom of the church, coughing and cupping my ear for the echo. To my left stood a stone fountain filled with water, like a birdbath, and near the door behind me there was a tiered rack of thin blue and white pamphlets, and a change box with a slot in it, like my mother’s charity box on the refrigerator at home. Only this box had a cross painted on it, and my mother’s had a white Jewish star on a field of aquamarine. Beyond the stone entrance hall a million flickering lamps for the souls of the dead hovered like cold breath in a cloud of incense. I was afraid of the shadows cast by the lamps. They reminded me of the giants fighting on my bedroom walls at night. Outside and across the seas, there was a real war going on; even at that very moment, as I was standing in the church, children were being tossed into the flames. Maybe it was my fault for questioning God. The statues in the church were mostly blue, the kind of blue you saw at Rockaway Beach in August, when it made your eyes hurt just to look up. No person could see Him and live. And gold...everything was gold in the glow of the flaming candles in their little glasses. With heart knocking, I sat down on a hard wooden bench as far from the altar as I could get, several rows behind an old woman who was kneeling, her face in her hands, her back shaking every so often with tiny sobs like hiccups. I didn’t dare move, but held my breath, trying to keep as still as I did during the air raid drills at night, when my mother hid the tiny night light under a bath towel to keep me from crying out until the ALL CLEAR! But I was gripped by a crazy urge to cry out my name, to hear it bounce back from the cavernous depths behind the altar where the Christian god lived. Some-


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times during the air raids even the tiny light was too dangerous, and my mother had to shut it off. Even the worm glow of a cigarette, my father said, could bring the bomber planes down. Those, too, had crosses painted on them—big black ones. That was probably punishment, like the punishment for looking at God in shul on Yom Kippur, when the High Priests covered their heads in their prayer shawls and wailed the ancient chants over the congregation. At that moment God walked in, and you had to keep your face hidden, because anyone who dared to look at Him would be instantly struck blind by a light stronger than a thousand suns. Anyone crazy enough to peek would have to be ready to die—brave enough to take the consequences. Maybe I was. I moved, bumping my knee against a wooden slat in the row in front of me, actually a little shelf containing a soft, leather-covered book with a purple satin ribbon for a bookmark. I picked up the book and opened it, squinting at a page covered with a strange script that I’d never seen before. Could these be the secret letters of the Kabbalah that, when properly sung, would produce a power equal to God’s? Was this the magic that gave the Christian messiah his blasphemous title: “Son of God”? The old woman rose, crossed herself, and backed out of the church, making little bows at every step. Alone with the saints in the amber darkness, the dead souls breathing everywhere around me, I closed the leather-covered book with a snap and bowed my head as I’d seen actors do in movies about miracles. Then I slid out from between the long smooth pews and tiptoed up to the altar for a closer look at the great Jewish rebel on his cross. He was made of gold, and his mouth was slightly open, like my father’s when he dozed off on the sofa on Saturday afternoons. But Jesus’s eyes were open, staring at a painted dove on the ceiling above his head. Following the vacant gaze of God’s son, I saw for the first time that the church ceiling was


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covered with birds and lambs and bearded old men and angels. It looked exactly like the last page of the Passover Haggadah, with its angry, sword-wielding Angel of Death, its fire and brimstone that awaited anyone who would cut herself off from the community of Israel. What would my father say if he knew that at the very moment he was driving to work in his car-pool with five Italian leather workers I was standing in front of a golden, blue-eyed Jesus in an empty church, instead of leading morning prayers at Beth Jacob! What would the rabbi’s wife do if she knew that—prepared to die on the spot for my sin—I was sucking in my breath, quickly crossing myself, and kneeling before Jesus just to see what would happen! It was done. I waited for death, blindness, for the church dome to crumble and fall on my head. Nothing happened. I jumped to my feet, and, with long, loping strides, skipped out of the church. Rabbi Asher, the principal of the Beth Jacob School for Girls, was a tall, stoop-shouldered man with a black pointed goatee and the eyes of a pirate. On the day I was transferred from the elementary division to the junior high mid-year class, it was he who welcomed the new girls in an auditorium smelling of ancient dry books and candle tallow. The new girls were mostly too shy to talk; they looked like little old ladies in their long-sleeved, un-ironed dresses and garter-belt-fastened stockings. They smelled sour. Rabbi Asher smelled of fresh pine, and he smiled at me in particular for being from a “modern Orthodox” home, and not from the East New York or Williamsburgh “ultra-Orthodox” ghetto. His teeth, I noticed, were as large as a horse’s, and as white and square. He spoke to the ghetto girls in Yiddish, addressing me in English. Mr. Papalnik, the English principal, stayed only long enough to be introduced and made a hasty exit as soon as he had delivered his three-minute welcome. A dapper, reddish-haired man in a banker’s suit, the English principal at Beth Jacob was busy writing his disserta-


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tion on Shakespeare at NYU and was hardly ever to be seen in his office. The school was spare and musty, its classrooms hiding Abraham, Lot, all the sinners and patriarchs in its book-filled cupboards. The auditorium, once the grand salon of the beer baron’s mansion that had been transformed into Beth Jacob, had no furniture in it at all. The only remnant of its former elegance was a massive crystal chandelier hanging from a cerulean blue ceiling, its sockets empty of bulbs. “During the week,” Rabbi Asher said, once in Yiddish and once in English, “we will use the auditorium for morning prayer, music and dance classes in Hebrew, and school assembly. On Shabbat and the High Holy Days, you will not be permitted to sit here, as it is the neighborhood temple, and this is the men’s section. You will, of course, be provided a classroom nearby which will serve as the ladies’ section.” This made the ultra-Orthodox girls squirm. One of them, a tall girl in a brown corduroy dress that came down to her ankles, said it wasn’t right for girls to be performing morning prayers in the auditorium, since unclean women dared not enter the sacred space. The rabbi delicately pointed out that since we were all not yet “of age,” we didn’t have to worry about ritual cleanliness. And that shut her up. But I, the intruder, the heretic, would have none of it. I hated the men who made the rules and pitied the girls who obeyed them. Staring out the window past the shabby portable ark, its curtain embossed with leaping lions, I stood grimacing. Rabbi Asher singled out his paragon of modern Orthodoxy. “Pnina, what’s the matter?” “Nothing. Is that yard out there our playground?” I asked, pointing to the garbage-strewn lot bordering the school. Eager to please his only modern Orthodox student, the rabbi speedily assured me that he and the board of directors


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were working very hard to turn the lot into a playground for the Beth Jacob girls, but that we would have to play indoors until they got the money together to clean it up, pave it over, and buy the equipment. The school needed money badly, he said, because, unlike public schools, we were not subsidized by the government, and private donations were hard to come by since the war. Shaking his head and looking up at the chandelier, he told us that we girls would even have to campaign for funds ourselves, carry little blue tin cups with nickel, dime, and quarter slots onto the trolleys and subway stations, tell our parents and relatives and neighborhood shopkeepers how important it was to donate as much as they could afford to keep a Jewish education alive for future generations. Even fifty cents a month was all right. Most important, he finished, piercing us with his black pirate’s eyes as he translated from Yiddish to English—most important was that we grow up to become women of valor—modest, clean-living examples of the perfection of Jewish womanhood that Beth Jacob had produced throughout the years. I used to watch Rabbi Asher rush out to his black Plymouth during lunch hour, and once even caught a glimpse of him at prayer in his office, his phylactery box perched high on his crown, eyes closed, prayer shawl draped over his stooped shoulders. He looked like a scarecrow. His wife, the Rebbitzen Asher, who taught Hebrew subjects from eight in the morning until lunch at twelve, wore a stiff reddish-brown wig, called “History Historia” —which always made me think of hysteria and fall into laughing fits—and refused to answer any questions other than those dealing with koshering dishes by putting any suspected unkosher utensils into a pot of dirt for forty-eight hours, or salting chickens on a wooden koshering board. She was funny, but I hated her. She would throw me out of class for the laughing fits, or for having a “fresh mouth” and asking he-


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retical questions. I also hated being easily distinguished on the trolley from the public school girls by my heavy blue woolen socks, navy skirt, and long-sleeved white blouse, especially in the late spring, when the public school girls wore cool-looking cap-sleeved pinafores and sandals without socks. At Beth Jacob we weren’t even permitted autograph books at the end of the school year, those puff-covered albums with glossy pink and yellow and teal pages, on which public school girls wrote things like, “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue; Sugar is Sweet, Don’t You Wish You Were Too?” Our school yearbook photograph was taken with most of the class missing, because the ultra-orthodox girls refused to sit for it, saying it was making images and idols out of the human face to be framed in a photo. (They weren’t even allowed to watch television or go to the movies!) Undaunted, Rabbi Asher just wrote “Camera Shy” in the empty spaces over their names in the yearbook. At night, under my scratchy blanket, I dreamed of Rabbi Asher in his prayer shawl, piercing through the cloth with his pirate’s eyes right into my heresy. With his arms bound in black leather plaits, the tiny leather cube filled with the terrible secret names of God on his head, the rabbi was fearsome. I trembled at the sight of him, stuffing my fist in my mouth to keep from crying out for forgiveness. When I could no longer hold back my cries, Ivanhoe would always appear to rescue me on his horse. I knew it was Ivanhoe, because he looked just like the illustrations in the book we were reading in Miss Lichtenstein’s English class. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and he wore a soldier’s uniform sprouting layers of gold stripes and buttons engraved with eagles. On his head, he wore an air raid warden’s helmet, and around his neck there hung a whistle. “All clear! All clear!” he’d call, ending the dream. It was my father who confused me about being a “modern Or-


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thodox” person. Sometimes he was a biblical sage and sometimes he was a rough-and-tumble labor union organizer who wore his shirt sleeves rolled and wouldn’t be caught dead in a tie. Unlike the fathers of the ultra-Orthodox girls in my class, he didn’t wear a beard or a big black hat, and he tucked the fringes of his little ritual apron, his tzitzith, into his trousers where they couldn’t be seen. The ultra-Orthodox girls at school said this was against the Law. But my father seemed immune to the criticism of the ultra-Orthodox; he’d created his own brand of Judaism. On Saturdays, he spent most of the day at shul, praying and studying the Torah. On Sundays, he changed into his beige twill pants and, rolling up the sleeves of an old white shirt, took my mother and me out to the Prospect Park Lake and rowed us around for hours, mesmerizing us with stories. He was mad for books, even for “anti-Semites” like Dickens, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. When I was five, he held me up at the checkout counter of the Stone Avenue Public Library, and, to prove to the doubting librarian that I deserved a card, made me read a paragraph out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales out loud. He trained me early to fight against “prejudice,” “injustice,” and what he called “the bullies” of the world. And he never talked in a voice below a shout, except in shul, during the whispering part of the service. Pointing his gnarled finger at me, looking me straight in the eye, he’d shout: “I don’t ever want to see you cry. If someone starts with you, finish it. Live only for God, justice, and knowledge, in that order.” His shouting always impressed me, even when I didn’t always understand what he meant. It was the voice of a real warrior of God talking, a Jewish Ivanhoe. One day he came home early from the leather factory where he worked as a cutter with his thumb wrapped in a bloody bandage. When my mother took a look at what was underneath, she almost fainted: the entire top of my father’s thumb


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had been sliced away by the cutting machine. Mindful of our warrior code, I stood watching without daring to blink an eye, as my mother unwound the bandage and cleaned the bloody pulp. “Just give me an ice cube,” my father shouted, rewinding the bandage and sitting down to supper. The finger bled through the gauze. By eleven that night there was so much blood that he reluctantly gave in to my mother’s pleas and went to the hospital emergency room to have the finger stitched. The nail never grew back. At night, when he would enter my room to chant “Hear O Israel” with me, he’d always end the prayer with a little lecture. There were many radical, wonderful, dangerous secrets between us, I felt, even though I only pretended to understand the long, grown-up words he was using. I especially liked it when he called me “Number One Son,” imitating Charlie Chan. It didn’t matter that the Chan number one son was an inept dummy, always getting into trouble and needing his Pop to bail him out. It was the “Number One Son” label that counted; being my father’s sidekick was even more important than being a boy like my younger brother. My father and I were spiritual detectives who would beat the devil and erase all the injustices of the world, regardless of whether I bound my arms in leather plaits or not. Still, though he carefully nurtured my independence, even my rebellion against authority, he was as rigidly conservative about “Jewish womanhood” as Rabbi Asher, insisting that my mother stay at home, keep kosher, raise the children, and sit in the ladies’ section of the synagogue, gossiping while he performed the service in a loud shout. This puzzled me, especially since it was my soft-spoken mother who was fluent in Hebrew and who had to give him the meaning of words in the Bible that he couldn’t translate. For a long time I kept my secret questions, my heresies, to myself, feeling like a


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traitor to my father’s cause. Three mornings a week, he’d wake me at dawn so that I’d have enough time to prepare for the long car trip to Beth Jacob. He fixed unusual breakfasts like lox and onion omelets or black bread and butter and hot cocoa smothered in thick fresh cream. We’d wash the dishes together silently afterward so as not to wake my mother and the new baby. On mornings when he had a few minutes to spare, he’d let me help him cook oatmeal, showing me how to stir the lumps away. I loved clasping my fingers around his on the wooden spoon handle. Warm and safe, my father’s hand promised a life of continued protection. In the faded green Oldsmobile with the great yellow cat’s eye headlights, we drove through the empty pre-rush hour streets, he reciting from the Pirkey Avoth, “Sayings of the Fathers”: “The greatest gift man can enjoy in this life is contentment with his lot.” When he dropped me off in front of the school, I didn’t remember the rabbis, or any of their words. I only remembered the sound of my father’s voice announcing his own taglines, always a little hoarse, always as if he were bracing himself to scold me in advance for some intuited ritual infringement I would perform that day. When his rigid orthodoxy outgrew his social radicalism, he could hardly address me without spouting some boring, moralistic aphorism from “our biblical sages.” I soon developed the knack of second guessing the quotations before they came out of his mouth. In time, I steeled myself against him, learned how to go deaf to his shouts while looking perfectly attentive. Convinced that I was doomed to become a wandering heretic when I grew up, I silently rejected his God. *

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Levi Snow was an upperclassman at Chaim Berlin. He was part of the “Orthodox Borough Park faction” that was not quite as


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fanatically religious as the Hasidic Williamsburgh boys who were brought to the seminary at seven-thirty every morning on a bulging orange and black school bus driven by the notorious “Charley,” a scrawny anti-Semite with a prominent Adam’s apple and watery blue eyes. Levi Snow had blue eyes, too, and blond hair, and although he had no idea that I occupied a desk across the street from him, writing his name hundreds of times on the back pages of my Hebrew Historia notebook, he spent the same days mumbling the same rote Hebrew words I did, furrowing his beautiful brow over God’s same Law. No doubt when he walked through the Sabbath-quiet streets of Borough Park with folded hands behind his back, he was the only smooth-chinned boy in his black-bearded group of friends. I saw him for the first time when he appeared at Beth Jacob with his arms full of black, oversized prayer books, a donation from the Chaim Berlin congregation to Rabbi Asher’s impromptu synagogue. I was running down the steps when he appeared in front of me. At first I was too shocked by the presence of a boy in our all-girl sanctuary to do much more than continue down the stairs. But his radiance almost knocked me over. It was as if Saint Constantine’s Jesus, my secret love, had left his station on the cross and embodied himself in flesh to confront me in person. Levi Snow didn’t notice me; he was peering nearsightedly over his stack of siddurim, gauging the breadth of each upward step so that he wouldn’t fall. We passed as strangers. But from that morning the despised Beth Jacob became my castle, its auditorium transformed into a throne room, where my fantasied knight of God would appear whenever I chose to see him. Often, after the rabbi’s wife had ordered me out of the room for talking without permission or wearing a “silly smirk” on my face, I wandered through the vacant hallways toward the magical spot on the cracked yellow marble staircase where Levi and I


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had almost brushed shoulders in passing. Starting from the top, slowly, majestically, I curtsied, proceeding downward, holding up my train with one hand, and waving jeweled white fingers in greeting to the clamoring populace awaiting my entrance in the ballroom below. Always, at the foot of the stairs, he waited for me on bent knee in full-suited armor. The Rabbi might appear, of course, asking, “What are you doing out of class, Pnina?” “I’m on an errand for Miss Lichtenstein,” I’d say, fingers crossed behind my back for lying. “Yes,” he’d answer absent-mindedly in Hebrew, before hurrying past me up the stairs to his office, or out the front door to his black Plymouth. From Nelly Polsky, whose younger brother Ruben was a fifth-grade student at Chaim Berlin, I learned that Levi Snow was fifteen, a senior destined for the rabbinate, and that he lived with his mother and father and five brothers and sisters in a red brick four-family house facing the Bobover Rebbe’s synagogue. Nelly volunteered further that Levi Snow was a Talmudic genius, an ilui, in addition to being the best cantor in the school, and, “Get this...he’s the Inter-Yeshiva Handball champ!” It was this last piece of information that prodded me into gazing upon him again in the flesh. So, on an unusually balmy day in March, Nelly and I slipped out of midmorning service, pretending we were going to the “Ladies” behind the marble staircase. Rebbitzen Asher gave us a tight-lipped nod that meant neither “Yes” nor “No,” but indicated that she was displeased at whatever it was we were up to, even if it meant following nature’s urge. Still chanting the prayers loudly after kissing our prayer books and closing them, we backed out of the auditorium with well-rehearsed expressions of religious intensity on our faces. I chose Nelly as my complicitor because she had pierced ears, a reputation for being “boy-crazy,” as well


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as for her ability to lie without cracking a smile, and because her brother Ruben was an indispensable conduit for Snowiana. Nelly and I had planned for a week just how we would walk ever so calmly out the front door and across the open parkway, taking care not to call attention to ourselves by stopping for the light on the traffic island like two public school girls on their way home to lunch. For weeks after school, we had paced the number of steps it took to get out of the building and to the corner without being seen from the auditorium windows. Still, daring and ill-reputed as we both were, Nelly and I had sweaty hands as we held to each other tightly and giggled, nearly wetting our pants. Following Ruben Polsky’s directions, we timed our exodus to coincide with the upperclassmen’s morning recess period at Chaim Berlin, when Levi-the-Fair would most likely be playing handball in the fenced yard that fronted the yeshiva at an angle, assuring its invisibility from Beth Jacob’s second-floor windows. Having been threatened with a hideous death from out of Leviticus by his sister, Ruben had sworn on his siddur that he was not relaying false information just to get us into trouble. Once we had crossed the parkway we continued to pretend that we were two public school girls casually passing by, lifting our heads and pointing our noses in the air the way public school girls did, linking arms and slowing our steps as we walked in front of the yard, our eyes riveted always on the small knot of boys playing handball against a yellow brick wall with a pink Spalding. POP. POP. POP. I could hear the smack of the ball on their palms. Then I turned a queer-angled corner that was not really a corner when you were actually in front of it, and not craning your neck from the Beth Jacob second-floor “Ladies” for a look—but it was Nelly who saw him first. According to our pre-arranged signal, she poked me in the ribs with her pinky, and there he was. Unlike the other yeshiva boys,


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Levi Snow had rolled up his long white shirtsleeves, revealing a set of muscular, suntanned arms rippling with blue veins and covered with fine golden hair. He wore light blue cotton pants, a light blue knitted skull cap embroidered with white stars, and light blue rope-soled shoes. His square, handsome face glowed golden in the heat of the sun. My heart thrummed like a motor. If only I had the Beth Jacob charity cup now to distract him with...shake the coins up and down so that he’d hear the familiar noise and look around, see me, and be “instantly smitten,” as the books said. But my charity cup had been hidden with shame out of sight, for, unlike the other girls in my class, I couldn’t bear standing at subway stations, jingling coins and singing, “Please give to the Beth Jacob School for Girls fund; please help us build our playground...” I would rather Rabbi Asher drag me through the halls by the hair in punishment, rather have been branded a miserable heretic, a defiler of Jewish womanhood, than stand on the streets begging for money. “Only love is stronger than death,” Mr. Mackler had once said, his eyes moist and dreamy. Everything about my life in the yeshiva was dreamlike, as if I were making it all up on the spot: the portable synagogue in the desert, always about to disappear in a mirage of water or be swept away in a pillar of cloud; the never-built, always-dreamed-of playground at Beth Jacob; the flaking walls of its corridors; the sour smell of the vacant auditorium; the soundless music of angels surrounding Jesus on his cross; and the boundless light of God’s angry countenance seeping through the cracks in my hard, heretic’s heart. I closed my eyes and prayed for Levi to look at me, bargained with the holy patriarchs by assuming responsibility for all the sins I knew I had accumulated for my parents until I reached the age of twelve. But Levi Snow did not stop playing handball, did not look at me even once. I hated God for His indifference,


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His sun blazing down on the exposed pavement of the yard, His punishing fire. Nelly had stopped pretending that she was a public school girl. She stood slumped, fanning herself under a mealy tree. I looked up then and saw that the name of the street on which I stood was “Saint Marks Place” —an odd name for a yeshiva to be built on, odd, like the name “Snow.” The boys played on in silent concentration, as if they weren’t playing a game at all, but meditating over the Gemarrah. Every so often one of them would call “Out!” or “Interference!” But they could not be lifted from the trance of their game by two gaping girls. Like sideline fixtures, we were as indistinguishable in the eyes of the budding rabbis as the mealy trees were from the mangy brownstones across the street. “I’m going to the candy store so it shouldn’t be a total loss,” Nelly said, breaking the spell. Still faintly dazed with heat and desire, I followed her into the hole-in-the-wall darkness of the candy store that flanked the school. Nelly bought a long sheet of purple and yellow marzipan “buttons,” two sticks of red “shoe leather” licorice, and a comic book. “Shoe leather’s not kosher,” I said. “I don’t care,” said Nelly, giving way to gluttony, and stuffing all the candy into her mouth at once. Rebbitzen Asher’s inevitable punishment would cover all our transgressions—might as well enjoy them to the limit. I paused in front of a True Confessions magazine, staring at the lurid cover featuring a girl with a peasant blouse pulled half way off her shoulders, yearning with open mouth and bulging eyes for a sharp-nosed man with tousled hair. “I Ran Off With My Mother’s Brother,” read the yellow-lettered headline. I entertained the thought of buying the magazine and sneaking it into the house for a long, forbidden read on a dull Saturday


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afternoon. Instead, I bought an orange wax mouth organ with green syrup in each of the stops, and a pair of red wax lips that I could chew when I got tired of wearing them in front of the class to make the girls laugh every time the Rebbitzen turned to face the blackboard. When we came out of the candy store, the schoolyard was empty. Without Levi Snow the sun seemed to have gone out, draining all the light from the street. “Let’s get out of here,” I said, pulling Nelly’s sleeve. “Yeah,” Nelly sighed, her mouth full of lard-based candy. As we passed Saint Constantine’s, Nelly held her nose and rolled her eyes in Jewish contempt. I started to tell her about respect for other people’s religions, to parrot my father, but I decided against telling Nelly about Christians; it was too dangerous, it might tempt me to talk about my days in the church, and that might lead to the blue-eyed Jesus, and then she’d go and tell someone, and I would be banished, turned around seven times counterclockwise and spat on by the rabbis, then thrown out of the Jewish circle of faith and left to wander the earth—homeless, marked like Cain. If Rabbi Asher found out about my secret heresies he might call my father. From now on, I decided, I’ll tell Nelly nothing. From now on, I’ll tell nobody anything at all. I sat squeezed between the dining table and the wall, waiting for my father to glare down into my face, saying, “Rebbitzen Asher called me at the shop this afternoon....” But he sat quietly, his eyes closed, mumbling the prayer over the bread. I watched the Friday night candles flicker in my grandmother’s silver candlesticks and thought of all the candles burning in the church, the candles lit in little glasses as prayers for the lost souls of the dead. I thought of how often I had gone there to pray and kneel before Jesus, and I was frozen with fear as I re-


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membered the Rebbitzen’s descriptions of banishment and the blowing out of candles, and how being cut adrift and sent to wander the earth was like being dead anyway, no longer a Jew and therefore as good as dead. I thought of how they would sit shiva, mourning in their black armbands and torn away buttons for Jewish boys and girls who had married out of the fold. And my stomach flopped over with the certainty that I would someday join that unhappy group of derelict children. Two challahs smelling of fresh crust and poppy seeds were arranged side by side under a white fringed cloth; a long tin sheet covered the stove, where a tiny blue flame burned, as it would all through the night and the next day. The smell of that little blue flame against tin remains with me still—like all Jewish smells: musty secondhand dresses on girls linked in a hora dance, the pasty fragrance of Friday night fish steamed in its own jelly, with round orange carrot tops for hats, the dry, thin, blue-lined paper of soft notebooks narrowly spaced for Hebrew writing, Rebbitzen Asher’s wig oil, snuff on Yom Kippur sprinkled over the faces of old ladies swooning with hunger in the women’s section of the synagogue behind a screen, the dried cow smell of my father’s crackly leather phylacteries, the sedge grass on the roof of the succah, where I’d clung to my father’s hand, watching for shadows and listening to the old men droning their prayers by candlelight into the hollow spaces of the grass hut. My father had told me that the roof grass was called schach, that it was like the same ancient papyrus reed growing along the banks of the Egyptian Nile. But I knew that it was really Canarsie swamp grass. I now knew that my father had made up exotic stories about Jewish history to keep me interested in his religion—as once, in his longing for a buddy, he’d called me his “Number One Son.” But that was before he gave up the union and our Prospect Park Sundays for long days of prayer and Torah study in the shul around the corner.


Perle Besserman

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“Why does your father strap his arms into those funny leather belts?” Murray Rosenblum, our next door neighbor’s son, asked me once, right in the middle of a punch ball game. “Why can’t you go to the movies on Saturday afternoons, like the rest of us?” And I had grown hot with shame, thrashed out at him with my fists, and been badly kicked and beaten by the gang of neighborhood boys I had called my friends. I sat at the Sabbath table choking down tears of shame at the memory of that beating and my permanent expulsion from the tough boys club. My father, too, seemed a sorry figure, sitting there with his eyes closed, hands folded on the table, still living in the same house, but, these days, unreachable even for stories. Why did he have to be so different from everyone else’s father? Why did he call Chinese Apples “pomegranates,” stating that each of the six-hundred-and-thirteen seeds inside stood for every good deed a Jew could perform in one lifetime? Why didn’t he have blond hair? Why was he barrel-chested and short? Maybe he was too short and too Orthodox to serve in the army; maybe that was why he, like the men with the long black beards and black hats, wasn’t drafted. Maybe it was because you weren’t supposed to shoot a gun on the Sabbath, because it was like lighting fire, and you couldn’t do that on the day God declared rest. True warriors of God never rested. Now he cut the bread, making mystical passes over it first with the long serrated knife my mother reserved for Friday nights. From the way he kept his eyes averted from me, I knew that the Rebbitzen had told him about my trip across the parkway. He could read my thoughts, knew I’d crossed myself in the church and longed to melt in Levi Snow’s golden embrace. The Rebbitzen had shrewdly called Nelly into her office first. “No, girls, one at a time, I want to see one at a time,” she’d cried in Hebrew, her gold tooth gleaming ferociously. In our excitement, Nelly and I hadn’t thought of planning matching alibis. I


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learned too late that Nelly had told the Rebbitzen she was sick and throwing up in the “Ladies,” and that I was there holding her head. The sight of that ferocious gold tooth prompted me to tell an outrageous lie. “A powerful force pulled me from my seat during the morning prayers and guided me across the street to warn the principal of Chaim Berlin of an air attack,” I said. The Rebbitzen dropped her shoulders and looked tired. “All right, Pnina. Alright.” Then, warning me of too much “emotionalism” in religion, reminding me of Saul’s prohibited visit to the witch of Endor, his punishment for his belief in magic, she dismissed me. Behind the closed door of her office, I heard her talking to my father on the telephone. “One, or two, pieces of fish?” My mother maneuvered her way around the table, a large porcelain server heaped with even rows of fish in her hands. I pointed to the smallest piece on the plate. “Can’t you answer your mother without pointing in her face? Jews aren’t supposed to point at people.” My father looked very dangerous sitting there with the saber-shaped Sabbath knife in his hands. His nose stuck out of his thin pale face, like Merlin’s in the Classic Comic I’d been reading in the bathroom on the sly. Remembering the lecture he’d given me about how Jews weren’t allowed to whistle when he’d heard me whistling Jingle Bells once, how it brought evil spirits down, I prepared myself for the worst. But he was diverted just then by Harvey Katz, the upstairs neighbor who always decided to practice playing his saxophone as we sat down to Friday night dinner. My father got up from the table and made his usual trip to the ventilator grating in the foyer near the bathroom, shouting through it at the “heathens” upstairs for “peace on a Friday night.” “Take it easy,” my mother said, touching his arm with her free hand when he returned, then spooning a rich blob of fish jelly onto his plate.


Perle Besserman

21

“S.O.B.s,” he mumbled. S-O-B spelled sob, a cry. The honking upstairs ceased. Leslie Kroll, the girl we called the “little Rebbitzen,” closed her eyes and sobbed as she prayed. Leslie Kroll and I should change places, I thought. My father would love having a daughter who closed her eyes and S-O-B’ed when she prayed, a real woman of valor instead of a heretic who whistled and pointed in her mother’s face. I could go and live behind the altar at Saint Constantine’s meanwhile, nourish myself on the sight of Levi Snow in the handball court every morning, and subsist on a steady diet of unkosher licorice. “I am talking to you!” My father’s shout cut into my scheming. “Stop sitting there, staring like a golem. Sing the zmiros with me.” No use arguing with him. I took up the familiar Hebrew words, the ancient musical refrain, my mother joining in to bolster me. Big baritone, shaky soprano, little falsetto, together, half in Hebrew, then half in Yiddish....He knew, the Rebbitzen had told him. I HATE BETH JACOB. I HATE THE REBBITZEN. Come, radiant Sabbath Queen, come and grace this Jewish home with the light from your brilliant crown....


Excerpt from Yeshiva Girl Stories by Perle Besserman  

This chapter was nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. For more information visit www.homeboundpublications.com

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