THE SIGHT OF THE GIRL’S short neck made me look away. A wide stocky neck shaped like an upturned flower pot, with no space for a string of fine pearls. I had always been proud of the slender stems on which the women in our family carried their heads. It spoke of breeding, of our long rabbinical line. But what good did it do right now? Ancient family pride was not going to help me wave away this girl’s flaws. The girl had a way of gesturing with her large hands as she spoke. And the hands themselves had the kind of reddish skin that suggested long hours of lingering in dishwater. “Not exactly your class,” Riba the matchmaker had said. Trying to hide her discomfort, she busied herself with a tiny dust mop,whisking it over the rows of toasters and blenders in the narrow room that served as her shop for small home appliances. “They are simple people,” she explained.” The husband has had a sudden business success. Manna from heaven after years and years of day-old bread. They could afford the finest new house now, but first thing first. Their biggest dream is a fine rabbinical scholar like your son for their eldest daughter.” Reuven, my son, had celebrated his twenty-first birthday in Jerusalem with his little circle of friends. Intense yeshivah boys who lived to study and practice the Talmud. Then he came home and reminded me that it was time for him to take a wife—and that it was my duty to find the right candidate for the job.
Unlike my elder son, he would not even see the girls unless I screened and approved of them. When you have found one who is at least ninety-five percent suitable, he said, then I will be ready to meet her. I did not laugh at these instructions. Reuven, I knew, had no sense of humor when it came to matters of religion. Instead, I made the telephone calls and visits to the matchmaker that finally led to the gilded lobby of a Sheraton hotel on a chilly November evening. I sat there across a little table from Lea who couldn’t find a comfortable position on the edge of a handsome English sofa. A uniformed waiter brought a tourist-style tea service, and I watched her holding a tea bag in the air, wondering whether she should drop it into her cup or into the teapot. I had a set of lines prepared, but resented having to speak them. The foisted responsibility, I felt, was too big. “How can I choose someone through your eyes?” I asked him. “You?” Reuven shook his head.” You are not doing the choosing.” He raised a long finger, on his face ill-concealed pity at my overblown self-importance, and explained patiently. “Remember, that forty days before a soul descends on earth, a match is decreed in Heaven. So you needn’t worry. G-d will guide you to the right one.” “Try to look into the girl’s soul” was the one guideline he sent me with.” If you look very closely,” he explained patiently, “you will see what’s there.” I tried. But all I saw when I peered closely into her face was that the tip of her nose flared at its end like the bulb of a spring onion. I criticized myself intensely for not being on a higher spiritual level, but judging people by their exteriors had always been a weakness of mine.
How could I tell Reuven that the lowest items on his scale of priorities—looks, worldly education, grace, sophistication—were the first things that lured me to a person? I was better off hiding from him certain sides of myself. “You understand that Reuven wants to live in Jerusalem, and only in Jerusalem?” I continued, determined to get on with the interview. I extended my hand toward her, took the sugar bag she couldn’t deal with, shook the grains down to the bottom and carefully tore open a corner. She acknowledged my help with a grateful nod. “He intends to study the Talmud his whole life,” I went on.“Whoever marries him will have to raise children and work to support him. Is this the kind of life you want?” Her eyes gave me a look that reminded me of blissful saints and martyrs in old paintings I had seen. Her skin was so pale that it seemed touched by blue. “It is exactly the life I am searching for,” she said. “I wish for someone to look up to. And I don’t mind having to work hard. G-d made me strong, and as the oldest of 12 children, I am used to work.” Looking into her eyes, I began to believe her words. Reuven’s eyes burned with the same clear flame. These two saw the same world, I realized. I sat there listening to details of her daily life, not paying much attention. I had seen her soul, I supposed, and I was sure I wouldn’t learn more about her even if I listened for another hour. So I thanked her for coming and offered her a ride home.
She helped me into my coat before putting on her own, and I started noticing again the wrong things: her sad hair, her plain perfume. I couldn’t help thinking that my son should have a prettier wife. “So how did it go?” the matchmaker asked me an hour later on the phone. “I think she should meet my son,” I told her “Yes? Meet your son? Wonderful! I knew it. I sensed that it was right.” I could almost swear that through the wire, I heard the rubbing of palms.
I DIDN’T HAVE TO TRAVEL FAR to meet Lea’s parents. They lived only fifteen minutes away from where I lived, on the outskirts of Petach Tikva, Israel. Yet the differences between her world and mine were obvious at a glance. Her home in Bnei Brak was on a street peopled with large families: A long, narrow, winding lane with run-down houses that shouldered each other unevenly like a jostling crowd, eager to watch a street fight. Here, news about vegetables on sale at the supermarket travelled with the speed of fire spreading on newspaper. A woman’s wardrobe here consisted of two types of clothes: shapeless housedresses for everyday use and densely sequined gowns dating from the last family wedding. My home was in a community of large properties, with tree-lined front gardens protecting the privacy of their owners.
Our families were small. The women shopped in Paris and Milan, visited art galleries, and talked about realizing their full potential. In winter they all flocked to St. Moritz, and in the summer they spent three weeks on private beaches in the south of France analyzing each other’s character flaws and bank accounts—lamenting how much they needed their little escapes from the hectic life in Israel. I had been one of them once. But I can take no credit for leaving their company. What happened was that my husband fell ill and our money dwindled away. One day I was one of the players on the sunny stage. The next day, I was standing by the curtain, watching the others from the side, wondering what my next part would be.
“STEPS MADE FOR SIZE SIX SHOE,” I grumbled to Reuven on the steep stairway to Lea’s apartment. Reuven didn’t answer. His glance was the sort one gives a child who talks during the services in a synagogue. I fell silent, concentrating on placing each of my pointed shoes sideways on the narrow stairs until a whiff of fish cooked in garlic invaded my nostrils. I stopped and sniffed. “The smell of Erev Shabbos in a Jewish home,” Reuven said, anticipating another comment from me. It was time for me to bite my lip again. On the first floor landing, I looked up and saw that he was praying.
Illuminated by a feeble light bulb, his lips were uttering silent words, a prayer. He climbed on, unaware of me. Following his gaunt tense frame into the shadows, I found myself praying too. Dear G-d, I sent a silent message, guide me to a wife worthy of Reuven. But my spiritual state did not last long and more prosaic thoughts got hold of me again. How dashing this son of mine could have been, I thought, without the flat black hat and the strands of beard growing uncut and uncombed on his cheeks. On the second floor, a door opened suddenly, and we stood engulfed in a flood of light and a wave of spiced steam. The Rabinowitzes, a short couple of the same height waited in the doorway, their heads nodding a brisk welcome. The husband wore a white polyester shirt. He had pink apple cheeks and dancing eyes above a wiry brown beard. The wife’s rouge had been daubed on her cheek with a heavy, unpracticed hand. Behind the Rabinowitzes, an entire wall was papered with a bright reproduction of the gardens of Versailles. From the fresh smell of glue lingering in the room, I suspected this was a last minute addition. Across from the sumptuous “gardens” was a wall lined with shelves groaning under stacks of children’s games in boxes with frayed lids. A blonde little girl with her father’s apple cheeks stood on a pile of phone books, while a Polish-speaking seamstress—pins caught between her lips—knelt in front of her, slashing chalk marks on the hem of what looked like an older sister’s coat.
Three little boys with curly sidelocks sat on the ground, absorbed in the woman’s movements, pursing their lips to blow away puffs of white chalk. They were shooed out of the room as soon as we entered, with a good-humored “this is not for small children.” “Dovid, Yehuda, Yisrael, Esther, Golda,” Lea’s mother proudly named each child on the photos decorating the wall opposite the Versailles scenery, her fingers moving toward each child as if to say that he or she was an extension of her body. The pride with which she named each child reminded me of the way women on our street enjoyed enumerating the special qualities of the diamonds they possessed. Lea entered. The high embroidered collar of her blouse had puckered into a tire-shaped lump at the base of her neck. A touch of lipstick was smeared on her smooth lower lip. Without a word, she turned to face Reuven, scrutinizing him with wide serious eyes. He examined her in return. “Perhaps the young people would like to go into the next room,” Lea’s father proposed, winking to Lea. Lea dimpled in reply and Reuven, not looking at the father, rose to follow her. Silence hung in the room. The custom was to bias neither the boy nor his parents with food.
A regrettable custom, I thought. Food would have kept our mouths busy. What did you say to people you met only a moment earlier, yet with whom you might share grandchildren before long? We sat awkwardly at the table, each of us thinking of something suitable to talk about. Weather has been terrible all week, hasn’t it? Oh, yes, awful. It means the children can’t play in the playground. We were repeating sentences of this sort, not really listening to each other. From a nearby room the voices of Reuven and Lea filtered in: no laughter, just an earnest murmur—Reuven’s low measured tone and Lea’s short concise answers. Suddenly, I had to know what they were saying to each other. It would help me guide Reuven if I knew, I convinced myself. I made an excuse and went to the bathroom. On my way back I paused behind the slightly open door. Mr. Rabinowitz was already there, eavesdropping. He grinned at me but did not budge from his post. I did not budge either. “It is only out of respect for my mother that I am dressed in this modern suit,” Reuven was saying. “But let there be no misunderstanding. Once married, I shall wear full chasidic garb.” Lea’s father and I looked at each other and went back to the table. “Isn’t he a bit dry?” Mr. Rabinowitz asked. “No,” I said. “Just extremely serious about religion.” “Ah. Well, yes, that’s good, that’s the way it should be.” Mrs. Rabinowitz glanced at her wrist watch. “An hour they are in there. I think that’s long enough.” “If they are old enough to marry,” I protested, “they are old enough to decide when they want to stop.” It was almost half an hour later before the door opened.
Reuven and Lea had the flushed faces of students coming out of a classroom after a difficult exam. The next date, if both parties agreed, would be set through the matchmaker. “So?” I asked Reuven in the car. “She has all the right values I am looking for,” he said. “Do you find her attractive, smart?” “Smart, yes. Attractive is a modern word. All I can tell you right now is that I would like to meet her once more.” I told the matchmaker that Reuven wished to see Lea again. Now that she had Reuven’s answer, Riba said, she would investigate what the girl had in mind.
ON THE NEXT DAY, I remained close to the phone. From the parting look I had seen in Lea’s eyes, I had no doubt that she liked Reuven. The matchmaker, however, did not call that evening. Nor did she call on the next. At the end of the third day, I couldn’t stand it any longer and got her on the phone. “They heard that you make movies? Cinema?” She spat the word, as if it was something impure, a piece of pork, that had accidentally found its way into her mouth. “Is it true? You make films?” They admired Reuven very much, she continued, but they want a respectable mother-in-law for their daughter. Not some odd bohemian who might bring shame to the family.
Well, I thought, I had this coming to me. Since my husband’s illness, with no distractions of shopping and vacations, I had decided to realize an old dream of mine that would yield an income: movie making for the chareidi world. I had even enrolled in a special film program in the States. That was a revolutionary step even for the women of my own crowd. Somehow, the fact had travelled out of my neighborhood. I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t very honorable, but it seemed the only way to salvage the situation. There was one truly generous, good deed that I could use as a character reference: I took care of my handicapped in-laws. Lea’s parents should know, I decided. So, under pretence that I had to speak to her, I invited Riba to my home. “My in-laws,” I introduced my senile mother-in-law in a wheelchair. My father-in-law rose to his feet, bent over the stick he leaned on. From the way Riba concealed all expression from her face, I knew that my point had registered. Sure enough, two days later she called, new respect in her voice. Reuven could meet Lea after all. Alone this time, I insisted.
Anything you wish, she replied. Reuven is my third son. He entered life struggling as though forced against his wishes to descend on earth. This was my thought when I first peered into the wizened face with the deep furrow on the brow. A swirl of three hairlines rotated on his head—a sign of rare intelligence, the rabbi who circumcised him said. His eyes were the eyes of a weary old man who had seen too much. In most other babies, the grave expression of the newborn soon gives way to eyes of innocent babyhood. But Reuven’s frown and stare never went away. For nine months Reuven remained in the hospital suffering from a rare disease that kept him close to death. His shaven head, filled with needle pricks, smelled of disinfectant and looked like a sieve. He lapsed into a coma several times, and stayed alive only because valiant doctors wanted him not to die. Once, in a moment of despair, when it seemed that Reuven was letting go of the thin string attaching him to life, I consulted a kabbalist. “An ancient soul,” the old man said pursing his wrinkled lips. His eyes were shut while he concentrated on the scrap of paper containing Reuven’s name. “He has been sent back to earth for the last time with an important mission. He will enlighten others and show them the true path.” As Reuven grew into a healthy little boy—healthy enough to rage at anything that was happening too slowly—I forgot all about this prediction. He was simply much more intense than his brother and sisters…and more impatient.
When he was four years old, the teacher told me that Reuven possessed an unusual memory. I was not overly impressed because all my children were good students. Reuven was different from my two other well-behaved children, who neatly stacked artichoke leaves on their plates, when taken out to a restaurant. His hair refused to flatten, a blue bruise from a recent fight seemed to be permanently healing on his face. “Children are like flowers in a garden,” the soft-voiced pediatrician told me when I complained about Reuven’s indifference to things that mattered to me. “There are the lilacs, the daisies, the carnations, and the dandelions. Each, with a different shape, tint and hue. It is a mistake to want all children to look and think alike. They must be allowed to dream and search, find out which flower they are. Why would you want them all to be roses?” Reuven must be a dandelion, I commented to myself. “Only when he concentrates on a page of Talmud is Reuven at peace,” his teacher told me.
And soon enough, when the time came, Reuven refused to attend the prestigious university that had accepted him. He wanted to go to a yeshivah, he informed me, where he could study the Talmud exclusively. “I don’t care if you study the life of mosquitoes,” I raged. “Graduate from the university. You have to, you’ll ruin your life if you don’t. And then later, you can study as much Talmud as you wish.” “Mother,” he said in the tone he had recently adopted—one that forgave the ignorant and made my blood boil. “All subjects, whether it is mathematics or the life of insects, can be found in the Talmud.” This conversation took place in our library, a room with two walls of filled bookshelves facing each other. One had colorful secular books, arranged by author’s name: mine. The other had nothing but tall brown leather volumes, mostly commentaries on the Talmud: his. “Look at your books,” he said pointing at my beloved collection of literature. “The authors are people gifted with words, with exquisite phrases, and little surprises of all sorts that have provided some pleasure for others. But what connection did all these words and phrases have with their actual lives? Some were drunks, drug users, even criminals.
You know yourself that many of them were egocentrics, convinced of their own genius, living on the margins of society and known in private life for exploiting everyone they supposedly loved. And how many of them committed suicide?” “The authors of my books, on the other hand,” he said, “lived for what they preached. No one in the Orthodox world would read a book written as an indulgence to one’s own muse. Behind each word in my books stands a man who worked on his character, cared for his fellow Jews and therefore earned their esteem. So tell me, why should I study the books of a gifted writer, a fine stylist, trying to make his mark in your world rather than those of a truly admirable person who simply wants to share what he has worked so hard to learn?” I didn’t have an answer. As usual, when the flag of religion was waved in front of me, I lost my tongue. I understood that I had two choices: respect Reuven’s ways or lose him. I let him put away his sports clothes and brought him the long black silk garb he asked for. I let him grow a beard and bought the requisite black felt hat. With each purchase I felt I was saying good-bye to him a little more.Still, when Reuven left for the yeshivah, I thought he might grow out of his certainties. But when he returned, he was a tall, serious young man who accompanied his few words with fine hand gestures that I had never seen before.
Although he spoke little, he sang in a voice so rich that it shook me to the core. On Shabbos, when he swayed to ancient melodies, his operatic voice spilled out into the street, often attracting a cluster of passersby. At first I searched for a suitable bride for Reuven in wealthy circles: a prominent family that could afford a scholar for a son- in-law, a match to parade in front of the noses of my friends. Reality, however, soon slapped me in the face. In the world of matching up brides with grooms, every set of parents wanted their child to climb one step up the ladder—either in the financial or in the spiritual realm. Thus, as the butcher wanted in-laws without bloodstained aprons, the philanthropist wanted a rabbi’s son—or at least the son of an even bigger philanthropist who could boast of more engraved bronze name-plates displayed at entrances of hospitals and synagogues. Therefore, even though I was sure I had a trump card in Reuven, none of the families I had in mind rushed to line up at my door. Still, Reuven’s reputation as a promising young scholar had been spreading within the yeshivah world, and after several weeks of waiting, I was invited to meet the daughter of an eminent Orthodox family in the United States. “Better buy a rough diamond than a glittering rock, I tried to convince them.” This was how Riba the matchmaker talked. She repeated to me the clever selling job she had done on the prospective bride’s parents. I swallowed my pride and thanked her for her help.
On a hot July day in New York, when the heat feels like cling wrap sticking to the body, I stopped on my way home from a week of residency at my film program to do some “bride viewing.” Still basking in the carefree atmosphere, I forgot to slip into the required persona: Reuven’s respectable mother. I was wearing a loose printed skirt and white long-sleeved T-shirt; my wig—curly from spending hours outdoors—tumbled over my forehead. It was ten in the morning. Already, the candidate had been artfully made up by professional hands. She was dressed in what could pass as simplicity to an untrained eye. The mother, however splashes of yellow swirls on the fabric of her summer suit—was decked out in matching jewelry: gold necklace, earrings, bracelet and ring, all leaf-shaped. The woman’s eyes widened when she saw me, then hardened for a moment before veiling themselves in a polite look. I had offended her by not troubling with my appearance, I realized, angry at my carelessness. I liked the girl. She had a quick smile, graceful movements, long artistic fingers and said “my brother and I” instead of “my brother and me,” at the end of one of the soft-voiced sentences that came out of her mouth. “Do you want a husband who lives to study the Talmud?” There, I had asked the all important question. “I could live with one,” she answered, fingering the antique silver earring dangling from her ear. “If he were a very special person.” The girl’s response flashed a warning light in my mind.
It was the father who coveted Reuven, a scholar for a son-in law as a gift for himself, I sensed, the way I wanted this girl to fulfill my own imagined social needs. As for the daughter, she knew she would be provided for anyway. If she liked the boy, it would make little difference what her future husband’s profession was. I tossed in my bed that night, debating the answer I would give to Riba the next day. The girl was fine and well-bred, I argued within myself. Intelligent and from a wealthy and stylish family. Let Reuven meet her at least. If they liked one another they would mold themselves to each other’s needs. Be honest, another voice within me warned. Reuven is too unique. This girl with the antique jewelry and the soft kid-leather loafers will never have any interest in his spiritual quests. She is not the partner for him. Don’t use him to bring yourself into a society that you don’t really admire and that will never admire you. I fell asleep undecided. In my dreams Reuven’s rabbi watched me with mournful eyes. I never had a chance to give my verdict to the matchmaker. “Reuven has a problem,” she announced first thing the next morning. “You are his problem. Much too modern.
An impediment toward a good match for a son like Reuven. And, plainly said, you don’t have sufficient wealth to put yourself above convention.” I didn’t answer. She was telling me the kind of truth that I did not want to hear. In my heart, however, I was glad that the choice had been taken out of my hands. After a few months of numerous propositions, rejections, new propositions and new rejections batted back and forth like balls on a tennis court, I got a phone call from Riba on a chilly November evening. “I think you are ready for the Rabinowitzes,” she declared. “They’re not fancy people. Rather simple, but warmhearted, and very devoted parents.” For months they had been after her to propose their daughter for Reuven. But she understood how people sought a match, she informed me. At first all her clients insisted on the unattainable—a sterling character, wealth, pedigree, looks—all in one person. Slowly, however, as they were brought down, peg by peg, they matured into realistic expectations. I listened quietly, too disheartened to argue or explain. She was correct in her assessment. I was ready to settle for less, but without compromising Reuven’s needs. Three times Reuven met Lea in her home in Bnei Brak.
After the second interview Reuven declared that they had much in common, enough to build a life together. “Meet another girl before you decide,” I begged. “There is this girl in London I’ve heard wonderful things about. Let’s fly over to meet her, just to have a point of comparison.” “Not necessary,” Reuven said. “Lea has all the qualities I am looking for. I see no point in going from girl to girl like a butterfly tasting the nectar of flower after flower.” “It is for a lifetime,” I pleaded. “At least see Lea once more before saying yes.” To that Reuven agreed. He went to Lea’s house for another meeting. An hour later I was called by an elated Mrs. Rabinowitz to come and drink a l’chayim. When I arrived, Lea and Reuven were already posing in front of a younger sister’s camera. “I need a photo of Reuven,” Lea said, looking at Reuven with a new mixture of adoration and possessiveness. “He will go back to yeshivah, and I won’t see him until the wedding.”I watched for Reuven’s reaction to this photo session. I knew he thought picturetaking was vain. He usually ducked his head at the last minute. This time he didn’t budge. He smiled a boyish grin, freshly borne out of his usual thin smile. “It is G-d’s will,” Reuven shrugged, replying to the question in my eyes. The following week there would be a reception, Lea’s mother informed us. She wanted to introduce Reuven to all her acquaintances. In which hall? I asked. At her home, of course, she said.
AT THE FLORIST, I chose with care a flower arrangement for Lea. From my own daughter’s engagement party two years ago, I remembered the stream of tall bouquets that poured into our apartment. I wanted the arrangement sent by Reuven to stand out from all the rest. I had worried in vain. On their street in Bnei Brak, I saw, upon entering Lea’s living room, that people sent cakes, not something as useless as flowers. Neither were there any of the tall, many-layered cakes meant to impress the eye, that one ordered from private bakers for parties in our circles. Flat cakes were on the table, bathed in chocolate, and stretched into many portions when wisely cut. Here and there were sparse bouquets sent by my acquaintances. Modest arrangements that spoke louder than words: Neither the Rabinowitzes nor I were worth a bigger investment. I understood this unwritten code and had just last week seen it working in connection with someone else. I had accompanied an acquaintance to a local maternity shop from where we were to visit two mothers with newborn babies. One was a teacher at our local primary school who had given birth to her fifth child.
The other, the daughter of a socialite, was the young mother of her firstborn. In the baby shop, my partner agonized over the gift for the younger mother. Was the three-piece outfit she had selected sufficiently impressive, or should she add a jacket to the ensemble. Add the jacket, she finally decided, beaming with benevolence. She then pointed a finger at a brassiere with matching booties and said wrap this one as well. For the other one, she explained. An unexpected rage took hold of me. I imagined the perfectly coiffed mother opening her gift, one that resembled many others piled on her bed, accepting the offering as if it were her royal due. She would return all of them to the shop, I knew, and eventually— when she found the time for it—pick up something she really liked. Meanwhile, the hard working woman in the room nearby, a woman dedicated to educating my acquaintance’s child, would be delighted with such a gift. Although it was a strain on my budget, I asked the saleslady to wrap a set of identical gifts. The booties and brassiere would go to the young mother. The four-piece set, I explained to my companion, would be perfect for a fifth child. Didn’t she think so? She moved back a step as she listened to me, her expression growing cold. I was surprised at myself. A few months earlier I would not have reacted at all, much less this way.
Now, caught between two worlds and belonging to none, I was ready to fight in a war that had suddenly moved its front lines to my doorstep. The long, narrow living room filled with animated, overweight women interrupting their chatter to pop squares of cake into their mouths. They wore bright colored synthetic dresses. Like Indians streaked with war paint, I imagined the whispers of my friends who watched them from a corner. Dressed in dark suits, considered “bon ton” for the occasion, they resembled a group of fancy waiters about to assist at a formal dinner in a private club. “You are on a diet, aren’t you?” a friend of Lea’s mother helping with the serving asked me after I turned down one more cake from the platter shoved in front of me. There was a ring of an accusation in her tone. “She watches her figure,” Lea’s mother came to my defense. “Not like us.” I could feel an undercurrent of hostility because of my thinness, as if it testified to shallow worldliness and a lack of religious belief. Furthermore, in a world where the average family consisted of ten, the fact that I had only four children made me suspect. I wasn’t renouncing my figure to populate the world with more Jewish children.
With my recently bleached teeth, my freshly blown wig and fancy black dress, I felt like the target of a bright spotlight on an otherwise dark stage. “My mother.” Mrs. Rabinowitz introduced a wizened woman with a firm handshake, carrying a brown lizard pocketbook wrapped in see-through plastic. “I have heard such wonderful things about Reuven,” she said warmly as she peeled her bag from its cover. “I thought it would rain,” she explained. “My mother has a weakness for expensive pocketbooks,” Lea’s mother said. Somewhere inside, I smiled. Were it my mother, I would be excusing away the plastic, not the expensive bag. I left Lea’s grandmother to welcome two of my neighbors hesitating at the entrance, trying hard not to notice the Versailles print on the wall. “Mazal tov.” We shook hands, and in my palm I felt the cold solitaire diamonds on their rings turned inward. Unsuitable for this place, I imagined, was their last minute decision on the staircase. “Welcome,” I greeted them. “Please, take off your coats.” “No, no,” they protested pulling their coats closer around their bodies, as if for protection.
What was it that disquieted them? Us? Guilt about our love of parties, jewels, clothes—all that was exterior? The aesthetic deficiencies of this apartment that made it embarrassing to be seen here? Or perhaps it was unbearable to be faced with life stripped down to basics: an uninterrupted merrygo-round of household chores, of laundry and dirty dishes and constant efforts to keep from drowning in chaos and noise. “Come,” I approached two of my guests. “Let me introduce you to Lea.” I gestured with my hand toward the end of the room. But the women’s eyes were riveted on a newcomer struggling out of her coat, prevented from managing it by an elastic band crossing her stomach. She tugged in various directions until two red mittens snapped out of her sleeves. “My daughter’s,” she shrugged to the astonished faces. ”I couldn’t find mine. It was either the mittens or the cold. I chose the mittens.” My guests smiled politely and moved toward the safety of their own group as if pulled by gravity. I did not insist on introducing Lea anymore. More cakes in thin foils kept arriving, passed over heads, accompanied with a good-natured exclamation. A palpable warmth exuded from these people, but it was aimed exclusively at those within the inner circle. Whether in the Petach Tikva area or the Bnei Brak area, the hum of life created a special language.
One deviation—like ordering groceries by phone, instead of selecting each personally in the Bnei Brak area, or staying at home during summer vacation in the Petach Tikva area—immediately frayed the fabric of the language, nudging a member out of the safety of the inner group. Would the Rabinowitzes, with their newfound financial success, soon find themselves slowly pushed out of their tight circle? Although they didn’t realize it yet, the Rabinowitzes had more in common with me than either of us wished. I went over to peep through the wooden partition erected as a separation between the women and the men. Reuven presided at the table, expounding on a question in the Talmud. White-bearded men inclined toward him, listening with respect, their eyes closed in concentration. “Maariv,” a man announced. Time for the evening prayer. Reuven and the others scrambled to their feet, facing the wooden screen. As my son chanted and swayed, speaking to G-d, twisting a loosened ear lock around his finger, I suddenly felt Lea standing next to me, watching with me, her hot shoulder touching mine. I tentatively put an arm around her waist. From the other side of the room, my son’s voice rose above the chants of the others. I listened intently, convinced that he was praying for me.