The Skolover Queen – Margueya Novick

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Every few weeks the quiet streets of Skolover Village filled with dark coach buses wheezing their way across town, bursting with high school girls pressing their faces against the windows. These girls would take in the men and women walking on opposite sides of the street with signs in Yiddish dictating who went where. The markets were abuzz with activity in anticipation of Shabbos, the little children chanted whole passages from the Bible as they jumped rope.  Skolover Village attracted all kinds of tourism, but was particularly appealing to its fellow Orthodox Jews, whose strict observance paled in comparison to the Skolover Chassidim.

There were many stops along the typical tour of Skolover – students were eager to see the girls’ high school, as well as the home of the Rebbe, the man who spearheaded the American home of the Skolovers, which mimicked the lifestyle that dated back to Eastern Europe hundreds of years before. They would look agape at the palatial shul, with endless rows of wooden pews that accommodated the entire town. But by far the part of the trip the students enjoyed most was when Fruma Meisels would speak to them.

Fruma had a suit she liked to call her ‘speaking suit,’ a serious navy number whose long jacket hid the folds of fat that birthing eight children had created. She also draped herself with a pale pink blouse peeking out from underneath and a deep blue pillbox hat would be perched on top of her stiff brown wig. She completed the outfit with a delicate circle pin her husband, who worked in jewelry, had brought home for her. He loved sifting through the shipments to see what item he could present to his wife. Sometimes the gift was to welcome a holiday, sometimes it was simply because. “My Skolover Queen,” he would murmur as he snapped a bracelet around her wrist or clasped a necklace at the nape of her neck.

In those moments Mendel ceased to be the man stooped over with a stomach pouring from his fraying black pants. He wasn’t even the man whose beard gathered more crumbs than his lips did at dinnertime.  His posture straightened and his eyes shone whenever he gave her a present, but never more so than when he fastened the circle pin to her jacket the morning of her first speech.

“When I saw this, I thought of our town,” he said softly, fitting the sharp edge through her lapel. “These girls come expecting to see a bunch of weirdos, living such a cloistered life. You can show them how we are a circle, an endless loop of connected people, no beginning and no end.”

Fruma would wait to be introduced in the lunchroom, the young ladies’ critical eyes gazing up at her on the stage, and she would touch the circle pin and smile. Remembering Mendel’s proud eyes and the strength of the circle she lived in chased away her anxious pangs as she stood at the podium; she never spoke to a group without her token of strength.

On this otherwise quiet Wednesday, when Fruma was once again asked to address a group of Orthodox girls, she found herself thinking how every event was pretty much the same. She could see in the girls’ eyes how their rules and restrictions suddenly seemed so much lighter when listening to her. They soaked up the information as she outlined the history of the Skolover Chassidim, a group of people who believed in the joyous celebration of religion, who found pleasure in keeping the smallest detail.  There were a few gasps as she described having separate tables for men and women when guests came to the Shabbos meals. Furrowed brows as she delineated the kinds of jobs women in her community had if they worked at all – teacher, secretary, or seamstress.

“How do you date?” came the inevitable question, usually asked by a girl whose face was pretty much lost beneath her make-up.

Fruma smiled. The question popped up every time without fail. Girls could never fathom a relationship that began after marriage, not before.  “We date very differently, obviously,” she began.  “The parents do a lot of research first. They know their children better than anyone so we trust that whomever they have decided we should consider is probably a good contender.  So the boy and his parents will show up, and both sets of parents will sit in the kitchen while the girl and the boy chat to see how they feel about each other.  If all goes well, they can be engaged in half an hour!”  She watched the girls take this in, a mixture of fascination and horror playing upon their features. “What troubles you more, girls,” she asked with a wicked grin, “that the parents are so involved or that the boy doesn’t take the girl out to a fancy restaurant?”

The girls laughed, as they always did, enjoying Fruma’s willingness to relate to them.  She went on to say, “Skolovers believe that marriage is a sacred and beautiful thing. We know how they date in the outside world, and it can lead to so many complications. But in our town, where there is so much knowledge beforehand, and a strong focus of what’s important, well.” She paused. “It’s not like Hollywood, I know –“ she paused for a brief wave of shocked laughter – “but you should know, girls, very often such marriages, if you can call them that, when they are not considered to be for life, when they are based on looks, or money, or what have you – well the romance fades, the looks fade, and what are you left with?”

The questions continued as per the usual pattern – “does anyone ever leave the town?” (“Rarely – why would we, we have everything here”), “what if someone wanted to go to college?” (“It doesn’t really happen, there is no need for that and people don’t want the risks of the secular world”), and “how do men get to leave to go to work?”  Fruma smiled at that one and said with pride, “My husband, like many others, of course has to make a living, so we have special buses, just for our men, to take them to the city and back.  And, he also makes sure not to look at any women. In fact, other than myself, his mother and his sisters, he has never seen a woman.”

The girls looked at her in disbelief.  Fruma continued, “It is a special thing to know your husband has never seen anyone but you.”

There were more hands raised, more than she would have time to get to, but one in particular caught her eye. Every time she gave this speech and answered questions, there was always one. One girl who, despite the dress code enforced on these visitors out of respect for the stricter rules of modesty the Skolovers observed, looked stuffed into her button down blouse, or wore a pleated skirt that was just an inch shy of her knees.  This girl’s eyes would indubitably peek out from a mask of eye shadow, or her earrings would swing wildly against her neck.  This time the girl, perched in the back of the room, had an arm raised like a warrior. The purposeful strain and swing caused the buttons of her blouse to part, revealing the black lace of her bra. Her lips, a streak of magenta, were clamped shut in disapproval.

Fruma smiled at her and nodded. “Yes?”

“But doesn’t the Torah want us to be individuals?” she asked as if they had been having a conversation between just the two of them.  “I mean, what is the value in everyone being the same?”

“We are not all the same, of course not,” Fruma said. “I mean, so much of what we do is similar, but who we are inside is different.  Our personalities, how we think and feel… of course there are differences! But we are part of a community that believes in having one path, one Rebbe to go to with our questions, one ultimate goal. It’s not losing identity but gaining one by having such strong unity. I know who I am, what I want, what’s important. That is the greatest gift one can have, I think.”

The girl shook her head slightly, and Fruma winced. “You’re not buying it, eh?”

The others laughed, a little uneasy, but the girl’s expression remained rigid.

Fruma surprised herself by pulling at the lapel of her jacket. “My husband gave me this,” she said, and felt gratified as she saw the girls’ eyes soften at this hint of romance. “Yes, girls, men buy their wives presents here, too! Anyway, he said the circle represents how we are as a community. Maybe I like chocolate and you like vanilla, I prefer fast songs, you like slow. But that doesn’t stop just because I am also part of a circle. If anything that’s what gives me strength to continue to be myself – because I also have so much support around me, always.”

It was time for the girls to board the buses, and Fruma could almost smell the unquenched curiosity and utter fascination with the way of life she had described. Only this last girl refused to be charmed by what she had seen, and Fruma suspected she felt threatened by it somehow, annoyed that a way of life so different from hers could be seen as acceptable, let alone, possibly, preferable.

The lunchroom cleared out, teachers clapping their hands to get the girls to move faster, and Fruma felt the usual elation of a job well done. She knew the girls would be surprised to see how much she enjoyed meeting them, hearing their questions and finding the right answers. As similar as their religious practice might be – they all kept kosher, they all kept the Shabbos – she marveled at how these girls functioned in a world with Internet and television, marveled just as much as they did that she existed in one without.

Malka Goldman, the tall, thin woman who coordinated these trips, making sure the girls came when Fruma had finished teaching and didn’t need to be home yet, approached Fruma with a glowing smile.

“Excellent as always,” she said. “The girls love you.”

Fruma shrugged. “They are just surprised that I can speak English and I know there’s a thing called a radio.”

Malka laughed. “Well, I appreciate your doing it.  We are always under such scrutiny.  It does a lot for the town, having these girls understand what our community truly is and seeing it in a positive light.  Anyway, I won’t keep you, I’m sure you have a lot to do for Shabbos.”

They waved goodbye and Fruma slung her purse over her shoulder, reviewing the items on her list. She would need fish from Zevi’s, corned beef from Leizer.  Her single boys would be home this Shabbos from the local Yeshiva and craving her cinnamon babka, so she had better get a sack of flour as well.

Every day of the week Fruma did something to prepare for the Shabbos, not out of efficiency as much as anticipation. Sunday she might sew a button she noticed was coming loose on her husband’s special suit pants that he wore Friday night.  Monday she ironed the long table cloth she would drape their dining room table with, imagining it sparkling with the special china she would decorate it with.  Tuesday she would begin to invite her guests, young couples who were new to the frenzy of making Shabbos or families whose children were friendly with hers. Wednesday was for shopping, Thursday for cooking, and finally Friday was for cleaning.  All around her women were doing the same, bustling past her at the market, running to the neighbors for a missing ingredient, mopping dirt streaks off the floor.

The market was the most challenging; Skolover women did not drive, as it would be considered a breach of modesty, and so Fruma would slowly shuffle back to her house, her fingers straining to push the clumsy blue cart that struggled under the weight of her groceries.  She would mind it for a moment, then play a game to pass the time, devoting each block she walked to contemplating one of her children, listing his or her favorite toy growing up or special quality that stood out from a young age.  This Wednesday Fruma thought about her boys filling the house with their singing and boisterous energy, running up and down the stairs and making the contents of the refrigerator vanish.

As she tossed the flour and a spare bag of sugar into her cart, she noticed Breindle picking up chicken broth further down the aisle.

Vos machst du?” Fruma called out.  “How is Yanky feeling?”

Breindle waved and came closer. Her eyes were buried in dark circles.  “Yanky’s flu keeps getting worse, I’m taking him back to the doctor later.”

She motioned toward her basket. “I thought I might make him some soup.”

“The best medicine,” Fruma said with a smile. “I hope he feels better.”

Hashem should help. Oh, Avrummel tells me Mendel’s tehilim rally was well attended.”

Fruma nodded. “They had almost three hundred people, he thinks.  Imagine, all those men surrounding the Koenig house, shouting in prayer. If anything will get Shua to stop this other minyan it should be that!”

Breindle looked around her, then leaned closer to Fruma, her voice barely above a whisper. “Well, if it doesn’t work, then we might need more than just tehilim.”

Fruma raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

“I’m just saying, if someone keeps breaking the rules, then he’s asking for consequences. Ones he can’t ignore.”

There was a tight pause, then Fruma motioned to her cart. “I still have tons I need to-”

“Of course,” Breindle said, “and I have to get home to Yanky. If it’s not good at the doctor’s, we might need some tehilim ourselves.”

Fruma waved goodbye, nodding distractedly at the other women bustling around her. Breindle’s words had sent a chill through her, as she wondered what kinds of measures the people of Skolover were considering for Shua. After all, all he did was start a private minyan for a small group of men. Daring to pray outside of the community shul shouldn’t deserve such extreme measures, should it?  Years before there had been rumors that Fruma had tried to ignore, of this person sneaking out to college at night and coming home to small acts of vandalism around his property, the details of which varied from person to person.  Or the man who taught his wife to drive, or… every few years there had been someone, even Fruma’s parents and grandparents would make mention every now and then of the few people in their time who stepped outside the bounds.  Little was said, and eventually the problem was resolved, and never spoken of again.

As Fruma wove her cart through the small shopping center on Elm, she enjoyed the usual interruptions as Chassie asked her for her carrot kugel recipe while coming out of the produce store and Yitty reminded Fruma that her daughter was making a bris next week, and could she please make her signature chocolate rugelach?

After the shopping on Wednesday and the chaotic cooking on Thursday, Fruma’s home sparkled on Friday as she lit her candles, her three daughters by her side, and recited the blessing. Calmness resided over their home, the aroma of chicken soup wafting in from the kitchen and the linoleum floor glowing beneath their feet.  The girls followed their mother to the couch where they would read stories until Fruma’s husband, Mendel, came home from shul.  Fruma was tired, and after one story begged off, insisting that the girls entertain themselves while she closed her eyes. Shoshie, already in high school, was content to sit with a book or daydream on the couch, but the two youngest whined instead, poking each other and tracing lines in the carpet.  Fruma ignored them, thinking only of her feet worn from hours standing over the stove, ankles swelling from exertion.

The girls’ whining stopped as the sound of men talking began to come closer as they streamed out of the nearby shul and headed home.

“Tatty’s here! Tatty’s here!” they cried, and rushed to the door, each one eager to be the first he kissed. But the voices passed by their house and an odd silence followed the echoes as the girls, deflated, leaned against the door and then opened it to peer outside.

Strange, thought Fruma, shifting up from the couch and adjusting her wig.  Mendel would always swing through the door, head back, voice loud as he welcomed the Shabbos, then dance with his daughters and sons around the table, nearly knocking over the candelabra in the process.  She loved that moment the most, the moment when her hard work in the kitchen felt like preparation for something great, for a day when everything felt holier even if you were just sitting down to dinner.

Moments later Mendel’s footsteps could be heard outside, but they were heavy and plodding.  He merely walked in, and the girls, unsure of what to do, stood back and waited, eyes wide.  Mendel looked over at Fruma’s questioning glance, and quickly picked each girl up for a brief swing around.

“Good Shabbos,” he said to each one, punctuating this with a wet kiss on each cheek, but there was no song in his voice and a strange heaviness in his eyes.  The daughters, disappointed, left for the table while Mendel sat down next to Fruma.

“What is it?” Fruma whispered, knowing that whatever it was could not be discussed in front of the children.  “And where are the boys?”

Mendel looked over at his daughters.  “They’ll be here soon, something happened at shul tonight. Something upsetting. They went to speak to the Rebbe.”

Fruma’s eyes widened.  “Oh my gosh. What is it?”

“Shua Koenig.”

Mendel sat back, as if no more needed to be said. Fruma swallowed and nodded.

“He wasn’t in shul again tonight. Even after we warned him. After we davened on his lawn for him to stop what he’s doing!” Mendel shook his head, his soft stomach quivering with unspent anger.

“I’m sure he had a good reason –“ Fruma began, but Mendel cut her off.

“Ach! Good reason! There is no good reason!” he cried, then lowered his voice when he saw his daughters peeking from the other room. “And anyway,” he continued in a quieter tone, “I know his reason. His reason is he likes to daven somewhere else. He likes to go make a minyan in his own living room, and be different from everyone else. There’s no mitzvah in that.”

Fruma sat silently as her husband continued to rant, livid at this violation of one of the many silent rules that residents of Skolover Village were expected to keep. Daven in the same shul as everyone else, join the Rebbe’s communal meal after the families had eaten, watch the holy man eat each bite and hope to nibble on the pieces he passed around, bringing each person one step closer to him, and in doing so, one step closer to God. How else, after all, could the community be what it was; a sheltered enclave nestled deep within a crazy world with no rules. How could they continue to produce pure, innocent children who loved mitzvos and wanted to be just like their parents?  What would set them apart if not the unity that came from everyone clasping hands together in synagogue, the men on one side, the women on the other, united with a fevered faith and love of God?

Fruma had heard it all before, and had even said many of the same things just that week to the high school girls. But for some reason she felt Shua’s little transgression was different, certainly not as threatening as her husband thought. Davening at home, especially with a minyan, she reasoned silently, was surely not as bad as not davening at all?

But she said nothing, and was soon saved from having to when the boys tumbled into the house, calmed by whatever the Rebbe had dictated and eager to feast.

The four boys lined up for a kiss from Fruma and a blessing from Mendel, each boy smiling beneath his black hat that framed a face seeming to glow.

“Nu,” Fruma ventured, “what did the Rebbe say?”

The boys looked over at their father.  He shook his head and eyed them each in silence.

Chaim, the oldest there, shrugged. “Eh, nothing major, Mommy. I’m starving, let’s get started, ok?”

Fruma took a breath, then smiled back and went to the kitchen for some last items as her family began to welcome the Shabbos together in song.  The silverware she had polished lay proudly alongside the china she had received as a young bride, her eyes filled with images of a Shabbos table just like this one, like the one she grew up with, that her parents had each grown up with.

The melodies gave way to kiddush, recited by Mendel slowly and carefully as he held the silver cup of wine in a firm hand, his voice thick with passion.  Having officially invited the Shabbos in, the family washed their hands and sat in silence as Mendel raised the two golden challos Fruma had baked just that morning, made the blessing and cut slices for each of them, steam escaping from the diminishing loaf.

“So today,” Mendel began as the girls served the soup, “I’m sitting at my desk, eating the delicious lunch your mother made me, and the new man they hired looks over at me with such a look. I ask, ‘what?’ He says to me, that looks so good and he asks -” here Mendel began to laugh. “’Did you make that yourself?’”

The children burst out laughing as Fruma looked down at her plate with a smile.

“So, Tatty, I hope you told him your recipe for brisket so he can make it himself,” joked Chaim.

“I told him my wife made it, and he looked at me, stunned. Imagine, his wife works even longer hours and so this man orders lunch and sometimes has to make dinner.” Mendel shook his head as he ripped a piece of challah and dipped it into his soup.

“Is he a goy?” asked Chani as she reached for the salt.

“Not too much,” Fruma warned, holding Chani’s wrist, as Mendel said carefully, “not a goy, no, Chani, a Jew like us, but different.”

“Like the girls who Mommy speaks to?” asked Shoshie.

“More like that,” agreed Mendel.

Fruma motioned for the girls to help her clear the soup bowls. “Remember not everyone chooses to live like we do, and that’s all right, Hashem loves them just as much.”

As she began to cut the roast in the kitchen, she thought about her words, said so many times to each of her children, when their faces were pressed against the window watching a group of Jews tour the streets or when they went to a bar mitzvah and saw relatives from the outside, women who weren’t covering their hair the way the Skolovers did.  Those words had become automatic, but tonight, with Mendel’s previous anger and Breindle’s cryptic words still etched in her mind, a second voice rose up from somewhere she did not recognize that whispered, “if Hashem loves us all the same, then why do we do so much more?”

Eager to distract herself, Fruma called for Shoshie to arrange a platter of kugels.

“How was your test today?” Fruma asked as Shoshie piled broccoli kugel on top of potato on top of noodle.

“OK, I think. The matching was super easy but the questions were harder.”

Shoshie frowned at her work as she tried to alternate the flavors.  “Mommy, can we go shopping on Sunday? I have nothing to wear to shul for the winter.”

Fruma smiled, wishing the high school girls she had just spoken to could see how her daughter cared about clothing just like they did, though the styles might vary and the shopping limited to two stores in Skolover.  The fine touches Shoshie put on any platter she made for Fruma might also be a good thing to point out the next time a magenta lipped girl asks about individuality, Fruma thought with a silent laugh.

“Let’s not talk about it on Shabbos,” she reminded her gently.

Shoshie sighed but nodded, resigned, as she finished the platter and grabbed a serving fork from the drawer. “I’ll just wear what I wore last week. Who cares that I’ll be a kallah maidel soon, and everyone at shul will be eyeing me for their son!”

Fruma laughed. “Oy, Shoshie, you just started high school, can we push off the wedding talk for three years at least?”

“You know it’s going to happen, Ma, so just accept it,” she said with a smile, and took the kugel platter into the dining room, bringing it to Mendel first.

The meal ended in song and prayer, as it always did, and the men went back to shul for the Rebbe’s tisch where the whole neighborhood would be, perched on bleachers as they sang and sang until the night began to fade from the sky.

Shabbos morning, Fruma ushered her daughters into the women’s section of the shul through the separate door on the side and they stood in prayer for the greater part of three hours.  Another large meal was the center of the day, and other than some meaningful glances between Mendel and his boys, there was no more mention of Shua and his breakaway minyan.

Shabbos ended as it began, with fire, a two wick candle exploding with light as her husband said the prayer of havdalah, marking the separation between sacred and profane, the weekday and the Sabbath. He drank the wine that accompanied it, and once again danced around the table with his children as they sang of their reluctance to let this holy day slip from their grasp.  Things seemed so right again that Fruma forgot all about Shua, and Mendel’s red face as he decried the betrayal.

At around 2:00am that Saturday night, Fruma awoke to a most frightening sound, the screams of fire engines and ambulances ripping through the sleepy streets. Fire engines were not so unusual on a Friday night, when the homes were filled with candles, two for the Shabbos and one for each child born, or on Chanuka, when every husband lit a candle for each night, and the rambunctious dancing or careless jostling of the table could result in tragedy. But this was not Shabbos, and this was not Chanuka, and Fruma heard the sirens and was afraid.

Mendel awoke, and hurried out to see what had happened.  He returned soon after, and said only, “It’s the sheigetz. We can go back to sleep.”

At first Fruma thought he meant the Shabbos goy, the man who lived nearby and could be called upon in an emergency since all of the residents of Skolover kept the Shabbos and could not turn on a light that was needed, or many other things.  But Mendel would not be dismissive like that of Joe, a man who had helped Fruma when she was going into labor on a Friday night.

“Who?” she asked, and Mendel look at her with annoyance.

“That shkutz Shua. His house is on fire, he should learn a lesson from it. The Almighty Himself is telling him something, I hope he listens.”

Fruma gasped. “Is anyone hurt? Did they get out?”

“Like I know or care. People like that are hurting us, Fruma, and they should be where they belong if they don’t want to belong here.”

Mendel settled back into his bed while Fruma lay wide awake, anxious to know how Shua’s family was, and if anyone had been badly hurt. She imagined Shua’s wife, Rassie, the woman who sewed the clothing for the all-women plays the girls’ high school performed every year.  She wondered fleetingly how it came to be that she had candles lit that night, and if anyone in the community had stayed to help them.  Mendel’s even breathing beside her made it even harder to fall asleep, and she gripped the top sheet tightly, knuckles white like pale flames quivering on her hand.

A groggy Fruma awoke the next morning and feigned a need for eggs so as to speak to Breindle first thing.

As she was ushered into Breindle’s home, Fruma clutched the carton of eggs she was given and asked if Breindle had heard about the fire.

“Yes, I heard,” Breindle said, and looked at Fruma with a hard stare, as if contemplating if she should speak further.

“Do you – do you know what happened? I mean, fire late on motzei Shabbos is strange, no?”

“Not if you bring it upon yourself,” Breindle said simply. When Fruma’s eyes went from questioning to alarm, Breindle rushed to say, “So there are your eggs. Do you need anything else? I know how it is after Shabbos, you’ve run out of everything after all that cooking!”

Fruma shook her head mutely and then walked out of the house, past the familiar flower patch and the small mound of dirt where her Chani had fallen off her bike.  She hurried across the street to her house, where Mendel would soon be returning from morning prayers.

The usual routine of making eggs for her family suddenly seemed unfamiliar; checking the yolks for blood spots, whipping them with the back of a fork, adding a dash of spices at just the right time. She felt unsure if what she was making would resemble eggs at all, or even be something her family could eat.

The boys came home while the girls continued to sleep upstairs, and for once Fruma did not wake them.  She brought the eggs to the table and watched her boys with a kind of fascination as they sat down at the table, ready to eat.

“Mendel,” Fruma began, her voice sounding tiny to her ears. “Did anyone say anything about…about what happened last night?”

“Sure,” Mendel said, pouring orange juice into his glass, something Fruma usually did for him before he came home.  “Hopefully there won’t need to be any other demonstrations,” he said, looking at his boys, who nodded heartily as they raised slices of toasted challah to their lips.

“Did someone do this on purpose?” she asked her husband as he scooped more eggs onto his plate.

“Not just someone, Avrummel from the bakery,” Mendel replied.

As Fruma looked at him, he continued, “Shua needed to learn. Avrummel wasn’t looking to hurt anyone, but you know we’ve been warning the family for weeks now and they wouldn’t listen.  He just wanted to scare them.”

Fruma knew about the warnings that led up to the night of prayers on Shua’s lawn; the daughter Chava’s desk being overturned in school one day, and the teachers merely looking the other way. Or Shua’s son being kicked out of yeshiva, and needing to be tutored at home, much to the shame of the family.  Yes, there had been definite signs of the community’s displeasure at Shua’s decision to daven somewhere else, and he had not heeded.  How had Breindle put it this morning? Fruma thought, recalling, “he brought this on himself.”

As Mendel shoveled eggs into his mouth, his beard glistening with the grease and small yellow bits getting lost among the hairs, Fruma found herself twisting her napkin around and around her fingers, her knuckles tight.  Had Mendel been in bed the entire time the fire started? And what had her boys concluded with the Rebbe before they came home Friday night, the Rebbe who as of that morning remained silent on the subject?

But she could not ask this, just as much as she could not tell her husband how sick she felt inside, thinking of this poor family losing everything they had, almost losing their own children, each of them in the hospital covered with burns, all because they wanted something different.

She knew how Mendel felt about the rebellion Shua had started, and how the entire community was built upon a tacit agreement of what it meant to be part of this unit.  If you don’t like the rules, don’t live here, Mendel would say, but where could one go? How does someone leave their home and all they have ever known and try to function anywhere else?

Fruma busied herself that Sunday as she did every week, but this time with a heavy heart. She set off for the market, needing to replenish the refrigerator, but she did not play games in her mind like she typically did.  Instead she felt the sting of the weighty bags fighting her fingers as she loaded them into her cart, wincing at the red streaks forming along her palms.  She nodded briskly at the passersby, hoping they would walk on rather than insisting on the usual, pleasant chats at the edge of the aisles.

As her day progressed with trips to the cleaners and the shoemaker, Fruma’s ears caught the whispers of her neighbors – the police investigating into what was obviously arson, the community up in arms with how the media would spin the story.  Fruma hurried through her errands and watched with vacant eyes as Shoshie tried on outfits at one of the local stores.  The day inched by with aching slowness, there was only one part of her Sunday routine to look forward to:  her weekly tehilim group. It consisted of nine women congregating together each week to pray for members of the community who were ill, struggling to conceive, or otherwise suffering.  Fruma walked the three blocks to Zeesy’s house, sensing the relief that prayer would give her tonight, as the circle of women channeled their despair and confusion to pray for the Koenigs, whose eight-year-old daughter was on a respiratory machine, struggling to breathe.  For Mr. Koenig, who would not be returning to work for weeks.

Zeesy’s door was left ajar, as it frequently was, and the hush of women mouthing the ancient words as they sat on the worn couches gave Fruma a sense of calm as she silently took her place.  She reached for a slim prayer book containing a few chapters of Psalms and an updated list of names to pray for.  As Fruma looked over the list that Malka, who headed the group, had compiled, no one in the Koenig family appeared. With clear eyes each woman turned to her list of who to pray for, and Fruma looked around in wonder, seeing women who had shared recipes and secrets and shoes.

Zeesy had cooked a week’s worth of food for Fruma’s whole family when Fruma’s mother died, and Kreindel came every Thursday like clockwork to debone the fish Fruma had bought, a task she was too disgusted to do herself and too ashamed to admit to anyone else.

Fruma leaned over to Malka, who had finished the prayer book she was holding.

“Malka,” she whispered. “Did you forget the Koenig names? I don’t see them here.”

Malka eyes widened, and she looked around the rest of the room, almost frantic.

“Fruma, what are you saying?” she hissed.  She locked eyes with Fruma and then said slowly, as if speaking to a child, “We have tried to say tehilim for them, remember? It was your own husband’s rally!  Obviously even our prayers can’t help them. It would be wrong to waste our time like that.”

The room had gotten even quieter, as the other women looked up from their powder blue books and looked at Fruma with a sense of puzzlement and, ultimately, Fruma saw, shame.

“I know these women,” she thought to herself, feeling almost hysterical. “I know these women!” But Fruma began to wonder how these same women would respond if it were her own husband turning away from the community, or if it were she.

Turning to Malka, she whispered lamely, “I really have to go. I forgot I need to go over Shoshie’s homework with her.  I’ll just finish the prayers at home,” she said, and pretended not to notice the flicker in Malka’s eyes.

Grabbing her purse, Fruma escaped outside, knowing they would only talk about her now that she was gone.   She found herself almost pleased at the thought.

When the call came from Malka the next night, Fruma knew it would not be out of concern, and she was anxious when she recognized the voice. She felt a mixture of surprise, relief, and dismay when it turned out to be another request to a speak to a group of girls,  another group looking to be inspired by this little known world and re-examine their own with new eyes.  Though somewhat reassured that she had been asked, Fruma begged off, insisting she was too busy.

“Nonsense,” Malka said briskly, “it’s right when you finish your last class, and a good hour before you need to be home for the girls.”

Fruma swallowed, clutching her cordless phone tightly.  “Well, even if I can squeeze it in, maybe someone else should speak, someone who can give a better perspective.”

“A better perspective?” Malka asked slowly. “Whatever can you mean? Why, your speech has always given those girls the exact perspective we are looking for.”

Fruma paused, feeling the moment stretch between them, filled like a cloud before it rains.

“What is it?” Malka asked.  “Fruma, this is crazy, what I’m hearing.  For so many years now it’s been you, all the schools ask for you, the girls want to come back and have Shabbos with you. Is there…something wrong?”

Desperate, Fruma finally tried, “I thought maybe it’s not so tznius,” knowing that few people would argue with someone trying to be more modest and humble. “Me standing up there, showing off like that.”

Malka laughed. “Since when do we need to be more religious than the Almighty Himself? No, Fruma, the girls need a role model representing our town, and really, my dear, who better than you?”

Fruma heard an edge to Malka’s voice, and began to feel queasy.  This was not an issue to push, she knew, and finally she agreed to speak that Tuesday.  She envisioned herself wearing the same suit, the same hat, the same sensible shoes. Only one change would be there: she would not be wearing her circle pin; instead there would be only two small holes in her jacket where the pin used to be.

 

Margueya Novick has taught Advanced Placement English and Creative Writing in Orthodox girls’ schools for the last ten years.  Her work has appeared in several literary journals, and she holds an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, where she completed her thesis containing short stories about the Orthodox Jewish community.

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