I might have resented her, but I couldn’t. She was so careful to show me respect. Then there was her trademark ironic smile, with which she both acknowledged the indignity of my situation and expressed her confidence that I would overcome it.
She made a point of treating me and the other unmarried guest at her table like adults, subtly but effectively distinguishing us from her teen- and college-aged children. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a big deal for a couple of thirty-somethings to be accorded the dignity of grownups, but that was the reality of the milieu in which we moved. I was still an apprentice in this milieu; she, having been born into it, was a blueblood – though a democratic one.
A lifetime of paradox lay behind that ironic smile. It was her essence to strike a balance, reconcile opposites, encompass contradictions; to let the pendulum swing, knowing it would always return to its stable, unchanging center point.
* * *
Sukkot was coming up. During the week of Sukkot, observant Jews leave the comforts of home to eat and (ideally) sleep in temporary hut-like dwellings – the “sukkot” for which the festival is named. These structures are thought to recall the impermanence experienced by the Israelites during their 40-year desert sojourn.
My housemate and I, sojourners ourselves in a place that hardly felt permanent, weren’t sure what to do about a sukkah that year.
There was a balcony off Shelly’s bedroom where, theoretically, we could put up one of those prefab sukkot that are sold everywhere in Jerusalem before the holiday. We could top it off with palm branches for schach – the roofing required by Jewish law, made of unprocessed natural materials spread loosely enough to let the stars peek through. The Jerusalem Municipality in fact leaves piles of palm branches this time of year in various locations, which you can pick up free of charge. But the frame would cost money, something that Shelly and I could hardly spare. Besides, we hadn’t been housemates for long and didn’t know each other all that well: Shelly’s buoyancy and warmth hadn’t yet cracked my armor of reserve. Should we invest in a sizable shared possession that would have to be stored most of the year in our furnished rental, already cluttered with possessions left behind by the absentee landlord and an ever-changing lineup of housemates?
I don’t remember the particulars of that conversation, but I imagine that one of us said to the other:
“My life already feels provisional enough without a sukkah to remind me.”
And the other would have replied:
“How about we rethink this next year?”
The subtext being: let’s hope neither of us will be here next year.
* * *
Reaching a decision brought us some relief, but didn’t solve the problem of where to eat during the festival. Orthodox Judaism exempts women from the obligation to sit in a sukkah, but a chasm yawns between obligation and feeling. The first evening of Sukkot in particular would be hard to bear if we couldn’t find a sukkah to be in.
Reluctant but resigned, we did what other newcomers to the Jerusalem religious singles’ scene do: we signed up with a local synagogue’s hospitality service, requesting hosts for the first evening meal.
The synagogue in question, the famed Yakar, was a singles magnet – a kind of brick-and-mortar social utility for young Anglo expats in transition. The meat-market ambience and the religious exploration were two sides of the same coin: default mode for adult Orthodox Jews is to be married.
Yakar was known for the soulful tunes of its prayer service, inspired by Reb Shlomo Carlebach, the “singing rabbi” who for decades had been a Jewish outreach phenomenon. This was one of the great things about Yakar: when people asked you where you davened, you could answer “Yakar – I love the singing.” You didn’t have to say, “Yakar – I’m looking for a husband.”
We wondered who our hosts would be. Would we be dining with other, more veteran, religious singles – ones with the confidence to host others, rather than be hosted? That could boost your social life – or leave you dejected, if you were outclassed by the other talent at the table.
Alternatively, we might be hosted by a kindly retired couple, or by a more-the-merrier family with five-plus children. In those cases the social payoff would be lower, but so would the risk. You could relax, free from the need to impress other singles. On the other hand, you’d still have to tell your tedious story, account for being unmarried and thirty-something in a religious and cultural community oriented entirely toward family.
* * *
We stood outside Yakar after evening services, dressed in our holiday best, and waited for our unknown host(s) to claim us. To our surprise, we were approached by a little troupe of teenage girls. One of them drew a step or two closer than the others and made eye contact with me and Shelly, pronouncing our names interrogatively and introducing herself as “Vered.”
Inwardly bewailing whatever pintele Yid or God gene had sent me to this far corner of the planet, I stumbled along as the youngsters led me and Shelly away from Yakar.
Along the way it emerged that our hosts were actually Vered’s parents, who attended a different, more mainstream, shul but were on Yakar’s hospitality list. The gaggle of girls dwindled as each headed for her own home, until it was just Vered, Shelly and me.
Vered spoke native Hebrew with her friends and perfect American English with me and Shelly, clueing us in to her parents’ country of origin. She seemed very enthusiastic about Yakar, which she and her friends had recently “discovered.” It hurt, but I could see why the cool Anglo singles’ shul with the New Age vibe might appeal to teenagers. I realized as we plied our way along the picturesque streets of Katamon, passing the entire mosaic of Jewry that this diverse Jerusalem neighborhood had to offer, that I and my counterparts were, for these girls, a new and exotic thread in the local tapestry – a subculture to aspire to.
Twenty years on, my memories of the Barenbaum home are sketchy; we proceeded to the sukkah in the back garden almost immediately. But they’re enough to support an impression of impeccable taste, the work of a guiding female intelligence that knew how to strike just the right balance between tradition and modernity. I half-remember, half-imagine sleek leather sofas surrounding a worn but handsome Oriental rug; an ornate old dining table set off by contemporary chairs. Bookcases bursting with an eclectic assortment of religious texts and quality secular literature.
How many young and not-so-young women like me and Shelly had passed through here before, glancing furtively at all this understated elegance and thinking, yes, that’s how I’ll do it when I grow up. Will I ever grow up?
* * *
It’s said that the Israelites took a long and circuitous, rather than a short and straight, route to the Promised Land because, having been slaves for so long, they were ambivalent about freedom. “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.”
A daughter of acrimonious seventies-style divorce, would I have gone AWOL had I married earlier than I did? Would I have freaked at the first sign of conflict, run panting back to the only life I’d ever known? Ironically, the only life I’d ever known was, on the surface, “free.” I had lived the anarchy of the fractured family, the planet blasted into discrete sterile rocks hurtling through space on their own trajectories. Did I need that prolonged adolescence, that extension of the student lifestyle well into my thirties, in order to reach a higher freedom?
As a Shabbat and holiday guest, I observed a fair number of long-married couples and intact families during those religious-single years of mine. Cumulatively, these hospitable households were an education of sorts; but I don’t remember most of them in any detailed way. Why do the Barenbaums stand out? Was it because we spent the evening outside of their actual home, away from its tasteful furnishings, impressive library and beautifully diverse bric-a-brac? Did the spare surroundings of the sukkah, like a minimalist stage, focus attention on the people and their interactions? Is that why I remember the Barenbaums as an archetype – epitomizing the highly-educated yet sincerely religious Modern Orthodox to whom I aspired to belong?
* * *
Our hostess called out a greeting from the depths of the kitchen but showed herself only when everyone else had assembled around the table in the family’s sukkah. There were other children besides Vered present, younger and older. Also present was the father of the family, a middle-aged man who introduced himself as “Avi.”
Avi’s regulation white shirt was open at the collar: dignified but comfortable. I noticed his clean-shaven face, a marker of modernity and American-ness. Jewish law forbids using a razor to remove hair completely; pious men down through the ages have generally worn beards. But electric shavers make it possible to shave while still complying with the letter of the law. To me, a beard always seems to connect its wearer with an older, darker reality. By contrast, Avi’s smooth Modern-Orthodox face spoke of optimism and progress.
On his arm as he entered the sukkah was an elderly lady, obviously his mother. As he helped her to a seat, I prepared myself to observe the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law dynamic. I couldn’t help it; I had spent my entire pre-divorce childhood in the shadow of such a dynamic. But when Ilana finally joined us the old woman’s face registered nothing but quiet satisfaction.
Had her crinkly visage been as handsome, thirty years before, as that of her daughter-in-law? I concluded that she had been good-looking enough in her day; she certainly was a nicely turned-out, nattily-dressed senior. But the daughter-in-law – Ilana – was uniquely lovely. A wedding image rose in my mind: a young Ilana, glossy dark hair and vivid features lightly veiled, the center of enraptured attention; a youthful Avi beaming with pride; the mother-in-law smiling benignly at a slight distance. Was she only guardedly content in that moment, waiting to see in what hands she had placed her son? Or was she fully living the role?
Try as I might, I heard no rumbles of discontent in the interactions of the two Mrs. Barenbaums. Nor did I see, over the course of the evening, any excess of warmth, though I wouldn’t have called the relationship cold. Rather, there was a dignified accommodation, a sense of personal boundaries mutually respected.
The dignity and boundaries extended to the next generation as well. Each child in the family seemed to have staked out his or her own style, his or her way of being religious, and Ilana and Avi managed to roll with it all. This applied not just to Vered’s tentative bohemianism, but also to the eldest son, whose non-regulation shirt, barely-there kippa and actual earring marked him as downright “alternative.” It came up during the meal (perhaps Ilana pointed out an impressive side dish he’d prepared) that the young man had recently started a vegetarian restaurant with some student friends. This wasn’t rebellion per se – vegetarian and kosher are highly compatible – but it did imply rejection of the carnivorous culture in which he’d been reared, the Shabbat cholents and holiday briskets.
I scanned the parents’ faces for signs of discomfiture and, again, found nothing but acceptance; no concern that the boy might break orbit altogether in pursuit of his subversions. The pendulum would swing back.
* * *
The Modern Orthodoxy that I remember from those years (mileage may vary) was a noble balancing act. The idea was to straddle different worlds without being overwhelmed by contradiction. The Barenbaums made it look easy.
Being MO meant you could work, like Avi, as an economics professor, keeping one foot in the secular arena of policy wonkdom but the other in the traditional world of Torah learning. Reading between the lines of dinnertime banter, I understood him to be a Jewish knowledge resource for his secular colleagues, who would approach him whenever a birth, death, wedding or bar mitzvah confronted them with the limits of their Yiddishkeit. Whenever asked he would oblige with insights about an upcoming holiday. Each summer during the weeks before Tisha B’Av, when colleagues noticed his shaggy hair and newly-sprouted beard, he would patiently explain the Jewish mourning custom that kept him from cutting his hair or shaving during that period, which marked the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction.
You could, like Ilana, head a women’s legal aid clinic, advise domestic violence victims and help single mothers chase down elusive social benefits, without ever having experienced abuse or been part of an alternative family configuration. I don’t remember anything specific that she said about her work. I imagine she would have asked me and Shelly at length about our jobs, and given some details of her own in exchange – part of the adult camaraderie that she was at pains to establish with us. What lingers is the sense of her warmth, her magnetism, and the impression that her clients must have loved her, because who could not?
* * *
“So how was Yakar tonight?”
Ilana threw it out as a neutral question, but there was suppressed humor in her face. I don’t recall anyone’s answer. What I do recall are the smiles of nostalgia exchanged by Ilana and Avi. “We’ve been to a Carlebach sing-along or two in our day,” Ilana explained, locking eyes with me and Shelly in turn. “NCSY …”
The acronym roused the elder Mrs. Barenbaum. She’d been quiet during the meal (perhaps she didn’t hear well), but now she exchanged reminiscences with Ilana and Avi. I found it opaque and disheartening, this alphabet soup of American Orthodoxy – the organizations my family hadn’t belonged to, the schools I hadn’t attended. Even now, a couple of decades later and long married to a product of those acronyms, I’m easily intimidated by them.
But any pall they cast was dissipated by Ilana’s suggestion – delivered with her ironic smile – that we sing something.
The proposal caught everyone off guard. There’s a repertoire of songs for Shabbat meals, but it wasn’t Shabbat. Somehow we all blanked on songs for Sukkot. We looked around at each other dumbly, and Ilana laughed. “What, haven’t they taught you anything at Yakar? Where are all your Carlebach niggunim?” Finally she said, “Alright, here’s one. An oldie but goodie.” And she began singing Sissu v’Simchu.
And everybody smiled and joined in. Sissu v’Simchu isn’t a Sukkot song, but it’s close enough; it’s associated with the holiday of Simchat Torah that comes on the heels of Sukkot and ends the High Holiday season. It’s sung in the synagogue as congregants celebrate the end of a year’s Torah reading cycle and the start of a new cycle. Even Jews who, like me, had only minimal religious education will dimly recollect parading around with a little Simchat Torah flag, singing Sissu v’Simchu. It’s a democratic, lowest-common-denominator song. A child’s song.
I don’t remember how the evening ended. Did she press my hand, somehow conveying warmth with cool tapered fingers? Did she invite me and Shelly to come again, her ironic smile communicating a wish that things would “work out” before we could take her up on the offer?
* * *
Though I never joined them for another meal, I did see Ilana again just a few days later. In a spirit of curiosity, nostalgia and fun, she accompanied Vered to Yakar the following Shabbat morning – the Shabbat that falls during the week of Sukkot. In an elegant skirt suit, with a chic little hat perched atop her lovely head, she entered the shul’s sukkah after services for kiddush – the blessing on wine, followed by light refreshments. I wasn’t near her and didn’t speak to her – the sukkah was full to bursting and I couldn’t have approached her if I’d wanted to – but I watched her. Though just one in the crowd she seemed to be at its center, wrapped in the force field of her charisma, smiling her gently amused, ironic smile. I know Avi was there too but I can’t picture him; he didn’t command the eye. He wasn’t a woman, the living heartbeat of a Jewish family, the center that holds all in its orbit.
* * *
One afternoon a couple of weeks after the holidays, Shelly burst into the apartment with an abruptness that was unlike her. She didn’t call out her usual cheerful greeting. Her thick blonde hair looked disheveled, as though she’d been charging through the streets against a harsh wind. She ran her fingers through it distractedly, and I thought: how can a girl with such hair still be single?
She collapsed into a chair in our narrow cluttered strip of a kitchen.
“I just heard something so horrible. Ilana passed away. Our hostess on Sukkot? They went to Paris right after the holidays, he had some professional conference and she went along with him. Apparently she collapsed in the street and died of an aneurysm. Could anything be more awful?”
What I saw was the old woman, dazed and bewildered at the funeral of her beautiful daughter-in-law.
“Are they still sitting shiva?”
“No, they got up from the shiva already. Do you think we should go over there? Call?”
We considered this briefly, but concluded that it would be an imposition. The customary week of condolence visits had passed. We barely knew them; why risk upsetting them?
Such was my reasoning a few days later when I spotted Avi from a distance on Ben-Yehuda Street. Jerusalem is small enough that you can be sure of running into someone you know anytime you go downtown. But encountering Avi just then seemed more than coincidental.
I didn’t dare approach him. He didn’t notice me; his head was down. It took me a moment to be sure it was him, because of the beard.
* * *
I didn’t see Vered for a long time, perhaps a year. Maybe she stayed away from Yakar because she associated the place with those last weeks of her mother’s life? One Shabbat morning, though, she turned up. Finding myself next to her during kiddush, I gently asked after her family – regretting it immediately as I watched bleakness cloud her young sweet face.
“Everything’s changed,” she said.
* * *
Something that hasn’t changed in twenty years: during Sukkot, while sitting in our family sukkah, I remember the Barenbaums, and think of Ilana. We’re not great singers, but at some point I always hum Sissu v’Simchu to myself.
I look around gratefully at the husband and children whose existence was once an abstract aspiration. So far, conflict has been small-scale and manageable; no one has broken orbit. Yet who knows what will be? The Promised Land is rife with danger. Army service looms. You pray that all will be well, but the fact remains: family brings both stability, and terrible liability to pain.
I observe my elderly in-laws, who have joined us these last few years for the holiday. One of them is a remnant of a Jewry that passed from the world in violence. To my children, the presence of these grandparents at our sukkah table feels like a self-evident family tradition. But my in-laws, from the height of their ninety-odd years, know better. They’re aware of older, darker realities.
I look up at the schach, try to glimpse a star between its wispy slats. The promise to Avraham was that his descendants would be numerous as the stars in the sky. That might be small consolation in any individual catastrophe, but things no doubt look better when you broaden your vantage point.
Again I turn to my in-laws, study their expressions of quiet satisfaction. Liability to pain doesn’t faze them. They are happy to be in this moment, sharing a meal with family in the frail impermanent sukkah, which doubles as a mighty vehicle of memory. On balance, that is the reality that counts.
*the names of the “Barenbaum” family members were changed and a few identifying details altered, out of regard for their privacy.