Undressing After Sinai – Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

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When Sore* descended from the bus, she was curious to see how the avenue had changed.   She wondered if it would be different from the avenue she had walked only six months before. It was the central artery of the neighborhood she had known all of her life, or at least one she’d thought she’d known. The shops appeared to be the same. Sore could see that at a quick glance.

The butcher shop, with its many meat options on display, was open, and the same butcher in the bloodstained apron stood behind the counter. Yes, he was the one who used to wink at Sore and always insisted on serving her himself when she was running errands for her mother. Although she never questioned her obligation to shoulder the bulk of the errands as the eldest daughter, this was one that Sore never enjoyed. Dreaded even. Maybe it was because of the raw meat, the living creature slashed into choice cut, or slab. No, it wasn’t that. She was no vegetarian. The butcher’s lear and his refusal to speak beyond the bare minimum needed for the business transaction along with the blood on his apron seemed only to heighten his lust and Sore’s revulsion. As he handed over the meat packages, Sore felt that he was drowning her in blood, in the lascivious embrace of death itself. Sore didn’t linger today before the window display.

The same grocery store was there. She almost added “Of course” in her mind, but caught herself. Sore really didn’t know how it stayed open, with the competition from the supermarket only one avenue over.   But it was the grocery store that her mother always sent her to, insisted even that she patronize. It wasn’t that her parents knew Reb Khatskl, the owner, or that he had done anything in particular to warrant such loyalty. Her mother simply said, “That’s where we’ve always gone” or “Cheaper isn’t always better.” Sore knew the produce in this grocery store wasn’t particularly fresh. The bananas and tomatoes sometimes had spots; the apples were regularly marred by brown circles and dents. If her mother noticed these, she never said a word, and Sore and her sisters knew better than to mention them. Of course, if the greens had bugs in it, they wouldn’t be permitted to eat them. But bugs had never been found. Her father always certified them as safe for consumption, checking them thoroughly before her mother made the salad or soaked the cabbage for the sauerkraut. As Sore looked over at the plate glass window of Reb Khatskl’s store, she could see the aisles of candy, even the same jelly beans and taffy ball pops that her sister Rivke used to pilfer. How she’d admired Rivke’s fleetness of hand back then.

And then there were the stores on the avenue, whose names Sore knew but that remained unremarkable to her. There was an electronics store, selling all of the latest gadgets, adorned with posters in its front window blaring warnings in Hebrew and Yiddish against the internet, with its vast wellspring of pornography and lewdness. The biblical passage “Do not turn to follow your heart and eyes” crowned the posters in oversized block font. There was the toy store, with its array of bright, cheap playthings for children of all ages. Absently, Sore thought of the gift she still wished to purchase for her sister Leye’s youngest, Dov-Ber. A rattle? A crib mobile? Something he could look up to on the way to and from sleep. There were so many other stores that Sore barely registered today, her day of return.

As she passed the glatt kosher Chinese take-out, the reason for this visit returned to Sore. Although she’d tried to convince herself that she was here for Shvues, Sore knew that that wasn’t the reason at all. Beyond the cheesecake and the blintzes and the flowers and rhododendron branches that adorned her family home, Shvues never resonated with her as did the Yomim Neroyim and the other Sholesh Regolim of Peysekh and Sukes. This was the occasion when the Bney-Yisroel officially became Am-Haseyfer.   Surely, there was no event of greater importance for her people. It was when men and boys stayed up all night to study, returning bleary-eyed but euphoric.

Sore knew that she too could have stayed up all night studying Torah and its commentaries (if not the Talmud) and that her parents probably would not have objected. Her father might even have been secretly pleased if she had done so. He was always so proud of her scholastic achievements, the glowing report cards that she never failed to bring home. But Sore never asked her father for permission to stay up on Shvues night, not wishing to find out his answer. Once Sore had slipped out to the great-aunt of her friend Mindl to watch Yentl. Perhaps like other girls in her world who had surreptitiously seen the film, she fleetingly saw herself as a scholar in drag, a veritable Barbra Streisand, if without the glorious vocal instrument. Yet just as Sore was no vegetarian neither was she a latter day Yentl. And so Shvues, with its all-night Torah study and dairy diet and limits-never-tested, always seemed a bit pale to her.

Nearing her parents’ home with the scraggly ginko tree in front of it, Sore had to admit, however reluctantly, that perhaps the Avenue hadn’t changed at all. It was she who had changed, or rather her family that was on the brink of changing forever. In just a few days Rivke would be getting married. And that was why Sore, butterflies in her belly, was back on the Avenue, now walking up the stairs leading to her parents’ rowhome. It was a change in herself, a reversion, from the woman she’d worked so hard to become, a woman without butterflies back to the sister, the daughter, perhaps even to the girl, who all lived all too uneasily with butterflies, who learned to co-exist with them, to elude the whirring of wings and the appearance of spots, the darting into diplomacy, or flight altogether.

 

*     *       *

 

Shvues had been fairly uneventful, and a bit disappointing without Leye and her family. Their absence wasn’t a surprise. Before yontef, Sore had called to tell Leye that she was back in town.  Leye said, “I won’t be coming by for an afternoon visit. Dov-Ber is colicky, and I don’t want to take any chances and leave with him with Yudi, who will be exhausted after staying up all night in any case.” Sore had been looking forward to catching up with Leye but was able to hide her disappointment over the phone.

Almost as soon as she put down her luggage on erev Shvues, Sore took over from her mother with the cheesecake, still made with the graham cracker topping and crust. Sore didn’t suggest fruit or chocolate for pizazz, the way she once did. With the blintzes, her mother would brook no assistance whatsoever. “Just get ready for yontef, mamele,” she smiled. Her father came back from the yeshiva, with a bouquet of roses, a whirl of red that he placed into the hands of his wife with a flourish, “For my queen, my one and only.” Her mother threw back her head and laughed. Only her father caused her mother to laugh that way, in certainty, in abandon.

As her father dashed back out to the mikve, Sore started vacuuming and polishing the furniture, including her father’s shtender. She used to imagine her own body, itself willowy and even boyish to this late day, hunched over the shtender late into the night after a Friday night winter meal, swaying with it to decipher a passage in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or in pleasure over Rashi’s insight on the weekly Torah portion.

The cheesecake, like the rest of the holiday fare, had turned out well. It was silky, not too sweet. Maybe her mother was right about this and everything else, Sore thought. The blintzes were exceptional, as to be expected. Her mother used almost no sugar in the cheese filling, allowing the creaminess within to come naturally to the fore. Her father had brought along some yeshiva students for each of the main Shvues meals, a bit bleary-eyed but with great enthusiasm for the homemade cooking and generous in their compliments to her mother. Sore, thinking already about her dress, as yet unpurchased, for the upcoming wedding and the eyes, including Rivke’s, that would be assessing her, skipped the dairy delights altogether. Still, their appearance and the vocal approval of her father and his yeshiva students told her that the dairy dishes were indeed the culinary highlights of the meals.

The mood at the lesser meals, when there were no students, was optimistic, hopeful even. Her mother said that the groom, Avigdor was his name, came from an erlekhe mishpokhe. They were active in some kind of import and export business. Her mother couldn’t recall exactly what it was when Sore pressed her for more information. “You could have found out more if you had come for the vort,” her mother said.

“But Ma, you know I had to do some fundraising, and we had to look at the new seminary building plans due soon after that. I just couldn’t take the time,” Sore responded to her mother’s pooh-poohing, having made the same argument to the same effect months prior.

“In any case, they’re big supporters of our yeshiva,” her father inserted.

And if Avigdor was both once divorced and quite a bit older than Rivke, well, Rivke at thirty-three was no youngster herself. Sore expertly deflected attention from what was sure to be the next topic of conversation—her own age, considerably beyond that of Rivke’s—by stating that she was so happy for her sister and looked forward to meeting the groom. Her mother’s eyes met hers in a shrewd and knowing glance.

 

*       *       *

 

The next day, after they’d cleared away the yontef dishes, Sore and her mother headed out to the dressmaker’s shop. Located on the same avenue as the supermarket never frequented by Sore and her mother, the shop catered to the varying needs of the community. Although the name of the store was The Bridal Boutique, it was really so much more. Everyone said so. The ladies from the community went there to get ready for all of their simkhes. The store had every size and style imaginable but all with low hems, long sleeves, and high necklines as mandated by rabbinical specifications. This meant the ladies didn’t have to sort through (or be tempted by) any immodest clothing. And Mrs. Silverstein, the owner, and her staff could have alterations completed in no time if warranted.

Brukhim ha-boim, Rebetsin and Sorele!” Mrs. Silverstein called out as they entered to the accompaniment of a bell chime fastened to the door. Sore shuddered at hearing the diminutive form of her name. When had she last been called that? Even her father, with his bursts of affection, hadn’t called her that in years. Although she had been dreading this shopping excursion, Sore’s arm tightened around her mother’s. Sore was grateful for her mother’s companionship; she didn’t think she could’ve faced Mrs. Silverstein alone.

The support proved to be short-lived. While her mother was drawn to the black and navy (midnight?) blue dresses, Sore was drawn to the pinks and reds. So what if she were the assistant head mistress at a women’s teachers’ seminary in the middle of the country? This was her remaining sister’s wedding, and for once she was going to let go a little.

“This pink is too young, and the red –Es past nisht. You can’t wear red to your sister’s wedding,” her mother asserted.

“Why? Rivke, of all people, won’t care. She’d love it if I did. She’d wish she could wear it,” Sore responded.

“Rivke is not the girl, I mean the woman, she once was. She fell in with some people that she shouldn’t have been with. But that was years ago. Now she’s on the right track. You’ll see.”

Sore marveled at her mother’s vague yet decidedly glib appraisal of Rivke’s thirteen years of disreputable living after dropping out of seminary. Even now, right before Rivke’s wedding, she couldn’t say that Rivke fell in with a really bad crowd. No mention of the really shady men, all seen in secret, in another borough. Of course everyone in the neighborhood found out. And no mention either of the fact that Rivke couldn’t seem to hold down a job. Even certain receptionist ones, that didn’t require clerical skills. Rivke couldn’t master transferring a telephone call or smiling at guests. God only knew what substances had fried her brain and what travails and tribulations that kept her in a state of suspicion bordering on paranoia, even to strangers coming in to a bargain basement car rental or auto shop. How Rivke would manage to smile at the camera in a few days, Sore had no idea. There was no mention of the “loans” that Rivke had begged from her mother until she stopped giving. And, of course, there was no mention of the “loans” she asked of Sore, who couldn’t stop giving. Of course she knew her mother wouldn’t mention these things. Her mother never mentioned the money she had given Rivke, and Sore never told her mother (or anyone else) of the money she had given Rivke. Sore was certain that Rivke had never paid her mother back just as she had never paid Sore back. And besides, here they were in The Bridal Boutique only a few days before Rivke’s big event. Sore hated that these unholy thoughts were clouding her mind at this juncture, but there they were.

Somewhere between the dark hues preferred by her mother and the pinks and reds that Sore wanted, they settled on some gray and lavender options. Her mother followed Sore into the dressing room, insisting that there was no point in her sitting outside on the row of velvet chairs positioned outside. “Besides you’ll need my help with the buttons and the zipper,” her mother added.

Under the fluorescent glare of the dressing room light, mother and daughter appraised the daughter’s form. Down to bra and panties. Sore was even tempted to remove those. Only she didn’t. There was no need to. The lines and curves to be assessed in relation to the dress were all too apparent. And besides, she didn’t really even need a bra. Sore wondered why she even bothered to buy them at all. Perhaps it was in homage to the occasion not unlike this one when her mother had gone with her to purchase her first bra in the city. Had her mother done the same with Rivke? With Leye? Probably not or they would have told her. Rivke would certainly have told her. Rivke, with cigarette in hand, after Beys-Yankev, laughing at the very notion of modesty, exhaling rings of smoke into the schoolyard, would have said something. Sore remembered those many afternoons, as Rivke chatted about her crisis of the moment, savoring her nicotine fix, while she, Sore, anxiously looked around, keeping an eye out for the principal or some of the gossipy girls.

“Look how flat I am. There’s nothing drooping because there’s nothing to droop.”

“Flat! Nonsense! You look gorgeous. Girls half your age would be jealous of such a figure,” her mother replied.

After Sore tried on two rather funereal numbers, they agreed on the suitability of an “ashes of rose” creation. It had some of the pink hue that Sore wanted and yet was respectable enough to earn her mother’s approval. She saw in its shade the colors that were printed on the pages of her well-thumbed edition of the Mikroyes Gedoyles she had studied for years, mastered even, dazzling her teachers over the years with her diligence and her originality. “If only … ” Mrs. Shifman had said. “If only you had been a boy,” Mrs. Frank, living up to her name, had stated. This was the same edition of the Mikroyes Gedoyles Sore had used when teaching her students and that she used now when called away from her administrative duties to deliver to the students a devar Torah or a shier-khizek. Sore had won the set as a prize for the highest grade point average in Torah study and for best overall mides.

And now, clad in this high-collared and long, very long-sleeved dress, a compromise between her mother and herself, a dress that neither of them wanted nor were particularly fond of, the thought of her Mikroyes Gedoyles somehow made this purchase palatable, worthwhile even. Worthwhile for herself, worthwhile for the vision of the three sisters, in roles they no longer knew, poised for the wedding camera’s snap. Her father had called them the Three Matriarchs, even though there were, of course, Four of Them in the Torah. Only the matriarch Rochel was absent. Her parents had insisted that they were named after deceased relatives, of course, as was the custom, as was right. It just happened that way, her mother often said.   But Sore suspected that the daughters were named after an abstract idea in her father’s imagination, a manifestation of feminine wisdom and unity. As a girl, Sore had always wondered if their fates would at least partially mirror those of the biblical Matriarchs. Would a son born to Sore in old age be brought to sacrifice? Would Rivke have two sons—one outdoorsy and hairy and … the other a man of the Book, an ish tam yoshev ohalim/a pure man, a dweller of tents? Would Leye be forced to wait for the man she loved, the one who didn’t, in the end, really love her as much as he did another? When Leye married and appeared to have found contentment (even though everyone said the heartthrob Yudi would break hers), Sore breathed an inward sigh of relief at her own chances. Perhaps Sore would escape the First Matriarch’s fate. Perhaps the Torah had loosened its grip across the millennia, after all.

Sore wished suddenly that she could chuckle with Leye over the day and this dressing room in The Bridal Boutique presided over by Mrs. Silverstein. Only it’d been so long since she could do that with Leye since Leye had married young (at the right time) and had so many children and could never find the time for her, try as she might. Leye, who was the righteous one, who had fulfilled her duty to her parents as a daughter and to the people of Israel as a woman, something that she, Sore, with her Torah and hasmodeh, had never done.

As she stared at her body, the ashes of rose dress carefully hanging on the “Must Have!” hook in the dressing room and her mother now waiting outside, Sore wondered how she would go forward in just a few days. How would she find the strength to meet the pitying stares (Im yirtseshem bay dir/With God’s will, for You, too) or the blank neutrality of the more discreet women?

And even though Sore knew that no one, let alone an assistant principal of a teachers’ seminary, should be so petty, she couldn’t help asking herself the following: How would she forget the many thousands of dollars she’d “lent” to Rivke, spent on who knows what, and never repaid, never considered important enough to be repaid or even given excuses for not repaying? How could she forgive Rivke’s ignoring all of her advice, despite repeating seeking of said advice? How could she forgive Rivke never telling her about her engagement to this man, this soon-to-be-husband, this Avigdor, with whom Rivke would share her life? How could she forgive this Avigdor for robbing her of her Rivke? Yes, the Rivke who smoked in the Beys-Yankev courtyard while Sore looked anxiously around. Yes, Rivke of the questionable judgment and the terrible choices who despite all, was her most beloved, the one closest to her, the one who listened to the triumphs of her academic prizes and the disinterested responses and outright rejections from the suitors conveyed to Sore by the shadkhonim both on the Avenue and beyond.

Opening the dressing room door, dressed now in her quotidian assistant principal’s dress and jacket, the new dress over her arm, she saw her mother waiting, but not expectantly as Sore had imagined. She was looking away, lost in reflection of her own. And as her mother finally rose towards her, offering to help carry something, at least the new dress slip, Sore knew that when the glass was shattered under the wedding canopy, she would be there, in this ashes of rose dress. She would be there in celebration of Rivke’s joy late discovered. She would be there with Leye and her brood alongside. How many children did Leye and Yudi have now? Seven? Eight? She would be there with her parents, aging, beaming. Sore would be there, with her Mikroyes Gedoyles and her next shier-khizek for the teachers’ seminary students already taking shape on the peripheries of her mind’s eye.

 

 

A Note on the Transliteration

*This name is pronounced “Soreh.” The transliteration of all names in this story follows Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation, and Migrations (Bergenfield, N.J.: Avotaynu, 2001). Editors: The name “Rochel” is used instead of “Rokhl” as found in Beider, given its widespread usage.

Yiddish words and phrases follow the system of transliteration established by the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research. Most of the words and phrases in this story are of Hebrew origin but accepted into Yiddish. For the sake of consistency, I’ve transliterated such words as Yiddish words. For example, I transliterated the Commentators’ Bible Yiddishly as Mikroyes gedoyles and not Hebraically as Miḳraʼot gedolot. My transliteration standards for such words are Weinreich, Uriel. Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictonary (New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968) and Niborski, Yitskhok. Verterbukh fun loyshn-koydesh shtamike verter in Yidish (Medem-Bibliotek, 2012).

Words accepted into English (e.g. Torah, yeshiva) are not systematically transliterated.

 

Glossary

Am-Haseyfer: the People of the Book

Beys-Yankev: also known as Bais Yaakov (“House of Jacob”), a common name for an all-girls school

Bney Yisroel: the People of Israel, the Israelites

Brukhim ha-boim: Welcome

devar Torah: an explication of a Torah passage

erev-Shvues: the eve of Pentecost

erlekhe mishpokhe: an upstanding family

Es past nisht (Yiddish): It’s not appropriate

hasmodeh: diligence

Im yirtseshem bay dir: With God’s will, for You, too

ish tam yoshev ohalim (Hebrew): a pure man who dwells in tents (in contrast to an outdoorsman)

mides: character traits

Mikroyes Gedoyles: Commentators’ Bible

mikve: ritual bath

Rebetsin (Yiddish): rabbi’s wife

shadkhonim: matchmakers

shier-khizek: inspirational sermon

Sholesh Regolim: the Pilgrimage Festivals of Tabernacles, Passover, and Pentecost

shtender (Yiddish): book stand

Shvues: Pentecost, the holiday celebrating the receipt of the Ten Commandments

simkhes: joyous occasions

vort (Yiddish): literally “word,” engagement party

Yomim Neroyim: High Holidays

yontef: holiday

 

 

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of four books of poetry, Prayers of a Heretic/Tfiles fun an apikoyres (2013), Uncle Feygele (2011), What Stillness Illuminated/Vos shtilkayt hot baloykhtn (2008), and The Insatiable Psalm (2005). Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Górczyński was released in 2014 on the Multikulti Project label (www.multikulti.com). His poems have appeared in numerous publications, including The Hamilton Stone Review, The Lake, Masque & Spectacle, Prairie Schooner, The South Carolina Review, and Wild Violet Magazine. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. Please visit his web site at www.yataub.net.
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