Read an Excerpt
MY FATHER, RABBI SHAUL KAPLAN, was a short, stiff-shouldered man with flat, sad eyes and a high forehead that faded into a bald pate. Like all Yeshivish men, he dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and black fedora. When we picked through the laundry heap, looking for clean underwear, we would find his sleeveless undershirts and his worn boxers, translucent from too many washes.
There were eventually eleven of us: Goldy, Shaindy, Elisha, Chumi, me, Deena, Mordy, Boorie Tzvi, Dov, Yanky, Miriam. We were each two years apart. We had big brown eyes, olive skin, pixie chins, and wildly distinct personalities.
We called our father “Tatte.” Because we were Yeshivish, we didn’t speak a fluent Yiddish, like the Hasidim did, but our English was sprinkled with a few words in that language, when English could not do justice to a concept.
My father had called his own father “Dad,” but as a child I was not critical enough to reflect on the discrepancy between the little I knew of his history and his insistence that our way of life had always been as it was.
• • •
Our three-story home sat on the bottom of a hilly street in a quiet, residential area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Thursday morning, a few hours before Passover would begin, I was standing in my favorite spot: behind the open kitchen door, where my mother hung my father’s clean shirts that were waiting to be ironed. All of his shirts were white, collared, and button-down, but they were not all the same. Some had a checked pattern of shiny white-on-white thread. Some were transparent with wear. Most, however, had hard stays inserted into the collar, two sharp, oblong pieces of cardboard on either side of the neck. My favorite activity at age nine was to stand behind the open door, right index finger thrust backward in my mouth, sucking hard, left hand on a collar stay. I’d run my thumb and finger around the edge, bend the cardboard, relishing the dig of the pointed end into the fleshy part of my thumb, and flip the stay while it was still in its pocket. My father, busy with prayer, teaching, lecturing, and counseling, was rarely home. As with God, I treasured him through his rare artifacts.
As the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the largest semi-Orthodox synagogue in western Pennsylvania, my father devoted his life to bringing his congregants closer to God by urging them to leave their Modern Orthodox ways and embrace God’s true will: the Yeshivish lifestyle. At this, he was successful. Over the years, congregants exchanged knit kippas for black hats, and delicate hair doilies for heavy wigs.
Our house sat kitty-corner to the synagogue, so in the summer, with the windows of the sanctuary cantilevered ajar and our small bathroom window open, I could hear Kaddish while sitting on the toilet. Whenever this happened, I’d have to clap my hands over my ears. As an observant Jew, you could not hear Kaddish and not respond, “May his great Name be blessed forever and ever,” but you also could not speak of God in the bathroom.
Men prayed in the synagogue three times a day, but women went only on Saturday and holiday mornings, and, even then, their attendance was not required. So while my father spoke to God from a cherrywood throne beside the holy ark, overlooking a thousand pews, my mother murmured quick morning prayers hidden behind the kitchen door. I was unusual as a child in that I preferred to sneak away on Friday night to sway along to the songs that welcomed the Shabbos. I loved to feel goose bumps prickle my arms as the languorous “Lecha Dodi” changed halfway into a rollicking tune, almost as much as I loved that moment when the service ended and the room emptied and I could walk through the men’s section as if God’s home was my own. I would wait on the side as my father put away his holy books and offered some last words of guidance to his congregants. My shy stance declared that I belonged to the rabbi and, therefore, to God.
• • •
That morning, before Passover, I stood sucking my finger, fiddling with my father’s collars, tucked out of the way, as my two younger brothers chased each other up and down the stairs belting out, “Tamid tamid tamid tamid tamid b’simcha,” and two of my older sisters had a showdown over a new library book. It was a special day, and not just because of the approaching holiday. This was the day my father went to the video store.
Television and movie theaters were forbidden in our Yeshivish community, but before Passover, my father, an otherwise unyielding man, would relent and rent a few classic movies. They would keep us glued to the borrowed VCR in the attic, freeing my mother to whip together pans of tongue and roasted chickens and brownies and waves of crispy meringues, which she’d ice with thick mocha cream and adorn with strawberry slices.
I sucked my finger until the skin wrinkled, waiting for my father to return from the synagogue.
Please, HaShem, I silently prayed to God. Please let Tatte choose me.
When my father finally came home, he headed to the kitchen to talk to my mother. Elisha, my thirteen-year-old brother, home for Passover from his yeshiva in Chicago, bounded in after him, beckoning to me and to my seven-year-old sister, Deena, to join him in the hallway.
“Guess what!” Elisha whispered. Deena and I huddled in. “You’re not going to believe this! The butcher, he—he—” With our attention captured, Elisha paused dramatically to fix his yarmulke, which was sliding off his curly hair. Deena and I glanced curiously at each other.
A week before, just after Elisha had arrived home, he had passed on the juicy information that the butcher, a man as tall as a door and fat, too, had yelled at my father in the synagogue, angry about some ruling my father had made. Because he got to hang out with the men, Elisha always overheard the best gossip. We all agreed that the butcher must be crazy. Most of my father’s congregants worshipped him, sometimes speaking to him in the third person and always using a tone of respect.
“The butcher,” Elisha continued, his eyes wide, looking from Deena to me and back to Deena. “His wife found him dead, completely, totally, absolutely naked on their bathroom floor. The butcher is dead.”
Elisha grinned, nodding his head slowly. In shocked silence, Deena and I pondered the strength of God’s swift and brutal judgment on my father’s behalf.
My father passed us, and the three of us guiltily drifted apart. He reached for his hat, which was resting on a mountain of books. I scanned his face, looking for some sign of God’s mighty anger in his features, but my father’s eyes were peaceful, his calm lips buried in the hairs of his beard.
“Who do you want me to take, Mamme?” he called to my mother as he adjusted his hat.
The video store! I had forgotten!
Elisha, Deena, and I sidled up to him, our eyes silently begging: Please, pick me. Even in our desperation, we didn’t get too close to my father.
“Pick whoever,” my mother answered. Streaks of blood ran over her hands as she removed the innards from the chickens piled before her. She rested her pregnant belly against the countertop, swiping at her cheek with her shoulder.
“Leah, do you want to come?” my father asked. “You’re ready?”
I nodded. My throat was too thick with pride to answer.
“Get good ones this time!” Deena instructed. “Tatte’s favorite!” she added accusingly, in a hiss.
“Get the Abbott and Costello with the bases!” Elisha commanded.
Their requests floated past me as I stumbled to catch up with my father, who was striding toward the station wagon.
• • •
At Sun Video, I stared longingly at the forbidden pinks and purples of the new Disney blockbusters while my father asked me if I wanted an Abbott and Costello comedy or Kidnapped. I did not know that my father had grown up on these classic movies. I only knew that the more modern a thing, the more promiscuous, the more suspect. Non-Jews believed that they were descended from monkeys and so every generation forward was better than the last, but we knew that our ancestors had received the Torah from God, so every new generation was reduced in holiness.
“Kidnapped,” I told him.
• • •
A few hours later, I met Davie on-screen. A brave Scottish boy, he raced over the highlands escaping the bad guys, who marched ominously down the hills. Maybe it was his relentless courage. Maybe it was his blond curls and square jaw. Maybe it was just the right boy at the right time. It was instant love.
• • •
My mother stopped by my bed that night, as she always did, her pregnant body sinking into the mattress. Every year of my childhood, she was either pregnant or nursing a new baby.
“Did you say Shema?” she asked.
“Well then, close your eyes and say good night. Sleep tight. I loo loo, Leah, I loo loo.” She brushed her cool fingers down the side of my face.
“Loo loo,” a child’s attempt at the words “love you,” was the only way that sentiment was expressed between mortals in our house. My parents were not literate in the language of human emotion. Love was gleaned from the tone of my mother’s voice or the softness of her eyes. When I was very young, she and my father would sometimes call me “Leahchke,” and there were volumes of affection to sustain me in that generous diminutive. My father was more effusive. Every Friday night, after blessing the children, he would place one careful kiss on the top of each of our heads. Sometimes, as rarely and spontaneously as a sun shower, he would pause behind my chair and gift my head with an unearned kiss.
• • •
After my mother left my bedroom, I nestled into my pillowcase, with its smell of sweat and honey, fantasizing: It was my eighteenth birthday. A knock at the door. In came the movie star Davie, dressed in a black hat and dark suit.
“I’m Jewish,” he tells my father. “I became religious, and I’ve spent the past ten years studying the Torah day and night, and now I want to marry your daughter Leah.”
I would never be allowed to marry a lowly returnee to Judaism, but in my fantasy, Davie’s lineage didn’t matter. The sleeves of my wedding dress would be as big as basketballs. “You look gorgeous,” everyone would say. In the years that followed, Davie would love me, Leah Kaplan, the way I loved only God: more than anyone in the world, forever and always.
THERE WERE FEW PROSPECTS IN PITTSBURGH for a Yeshivish teenager approaching the age of marriage, so at sixteen, my oldest sister, Goldy, dropped out of high school to go to the prestigious Manchester Seminary, in England. While Pittsburgh had a few hundred Modern Orthodox Jews, a few dozen Lubavitch Hasidic families, and about fifteen Yeshivish families, Manchester had enough Yeshivish people to fill multiple schools and dozens of synagogues. Its seminary attracted hundreds of top Yeshivish girls from all over the world. Because England offered an abbreviated high school system, the seminary enrolled girls as young as sixteen. The sooner in, the quicker out, the faster a girl could move from her father’s home to her husband’s.
A few weeks after Goldy left, we leaned our curly heads around the tape recorder, shouting hellos to her in England. When she came home for Passover, we ran through the airport to meet her. “Bazooka gum is kosher!” Deena shrieked, reaching Goldy first, exploding with excitement at this recent piece of good news.
I wanted to be that missed. I made up my mind that I would do exactly what Goldy had done. When I was sixteen, I, too, would go to Manchester Seminary, and hopefully I would be as successful as she soon was: a marriage shortly after she graduated and a baby each following year.
Initially, my parents supported my plan, but as my adolescence unfolded, they changed their tune.
The first problem arose when I objected to my father’s use of the word shvartze.
“‘African American,’ please,” I begged.
“Shvartze just means ‘black’,” he chided me. “Blacks aren’t like other non-Jews. They live like animals.” His understanding of God’s will was vastly different from that of his own father, a rabbi who had marched with black preachers in the 1960s, demanding civil rights.
Then there was the issue of several new brothers-in-law, who wrapped my father in conversations in Hebrew and Aramaic that I, as a girl, could not understand. I was used to my father sharing his wisdom in English at the Shabbos table, meeting my eyes whenever he spoke.
Now my brothers-in-law sat beside my father at holiday meals. “Can you repeat that in English?” I would ask loudly from the end of the table. My sisters rolled their eyes at my immodesty.
“Someone wants attention,” Deena frequently snickered.
Concerned about the corrupting influence of my classmates in Pittsburgh, my parents decided that I would leave Pennsylvania a year earlier than we had originally planned. After tenth grade I would move in with my Aunt Fraidy and Uncle Vrumi in Manchester, where I would attend the stringent local Bais Yaakov high school. And then I’d be back on course: Manchester Seminary, marriage, children, grandchildren, the World to Come.
• • •
When it was time to leave for the bus that would take me to the airport in New York, I ran after my suitcase as I slid it down the stairs. My mother wagged a black snow cap in my face as I kneeled to tie my sneakers. “You have to wear this hat!” she insisted. “I’ll be too worried about you traveling alone. I don’t want anyone starting trouble with you.”
“It’s an old lady’s hat!” I grabbed my suitcase and tugged it to the door, where my father was waiting, keys in hand. I hoped that if I could get the suitcase out to the porch, my mother would give up on the hat and focus on saying good-bye and telling me how much she was going to miss me.
“A hat is not going to make me invisible,” I protested. “I won’t talk to anyone, I promise, I’ll be so so safe.”
“Just wear it,” my father said. “You’re not going to be harmed, anyhow. You’re friends with black people, aren’t you?”
I watched him stride down the driveway to the car, my mouth agape at his insult. I had complained about the racism rampant in Yeshivish communities, but I was not so perverted as to be friends with non-Jews.
A playful wind blew at my ponytail, lifting my hair off my neck. “You better go on,” my mother said, finally giving up on the hat. “Have a safe trip.”
• • •
Manchester was gray and wet. Through a steady cold drizzle, I took in my new neighborhood: a religious suburban enclave of low brick homes and small green lawns. The Manchester Bais Yaakov was housed in a decrepit mansion on the far side of the highway at the edge of town, a twenty-minute walk from the heart of the community. I learned my way around the high school and around my cousins, my shyness cloaking me in nervous silence as I navigated my new surroundings.
Night came early in England, and by December, it was already pitch-dark when Jewish Ethics finished, at five. The school day done, I had my backpack in one hand, coat in the other, as I waited behind the crowd filing out of the classroom.
“Hey, Leah, one sec,” Shalamit Kohn called over the noisy chatter and the howling wind shaking the windows in their frames.
I froze. The few times my classmates had called my name over the past few months, it had usually come with a singsong “teacher’s pet!”
“DoyouwannacomeoverforShabboslunch?” Shalamit asked, stuffing three words into the space for one. A tall girl with skin the color of weak tea, she wasn’t one of the popular girls; she was a brainiac from one of the few families that straddled the line between Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish ideologies. Still, she was miles above an introverted American transplant in the social hierarchy.
I nodded yes, too many times, my chin wobbling in nervous excitement.
• • •
The Kohns lived a few blocks away from my cousins. Their house was dark and warm, the lazy English sun barely penetrating the heavy curtains. That Saturday, Shalamit was wearing a scandalously casual turtleneck, so snug the ridge of her spine lifted the back. Her plaid skirt was much more stylish than mine, puddling on the floor when she stood and flying up in small waves as she walked. She introduced her mother and her two younger sisters, quiet girls with bangs in their eyes. Moments later, Dr. Kohn and her older brother, Naftali, came home from prayers.
“Good Shabbos to you,” Naftali said to me. He lounged in a dining room chair, chin up, kippa hanging off his hair like a parachute. Gorgeous eyes, I thought. And those candy-pink lips. Is he actually talking to me, his little sister’s classmate? A girl? I hadn’t spoken to an unmarried boy who I wasn’t related to since I was a kid. Once I’d entered my teens, my future marriage prospects would have been automatically downgraded if I’d been caught talking to a boy.
“G-g-good Shabbos,” I managed to stutter back.
Dr. Kohn raced through the blessings for the wine and the bread. Over gefilte fish, Naftali brandished his fork and knife, trying to stir up an argument.
“Women should be allowed to study Talmud,” he said, invoking a debate that split the Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox communities.
“Hush.” Dr. Kohn shook his head. Though he had a doctorate, he was not as ideologically removed as his son.
“There is no valid reason not to allow it,” Naftali insisted.
Dr. Kohn launched into a lengthy refutation, explaining why women could not learn those particular texts. “‘A woman’s wisdom is only in her spinning wheel,’” he quoted. “The sages say that if a man teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he teaches her obscenities. A woman’s brain cannot handle Talmud.” Naftali leaned back in his chair, arms folded, lips curled in amusement as his father continued. “Rav Eliezer says that it is better that the words of the Torah are burned rather than given to women!”
My heart thudded in my chest as I fumbled with my fork. Accepting, at least intellectually, the unyielding limits on women that I had been raised with, I wasn’t interested in the argument. I was watching Naftali.
Yeshivish girls were not permitted to talk to boys. We were not allowed even to think of them. Since adolescence had arrived, my desire had roiled within, getting larger in the small container of my skin. My feelings were intensified and distorted in their repression. Nearly every boy I saw became a swoon-worthy Prince Charming.
But I always held back. In Pennsylvania, when Mark Haviv had winked at me on Egret Boulevard, I’d whispered psalms to slow my heartbeat. I was the Yeshivish one. I was the rabbi’s daughter. I was the one admonishing my classmates to stop meeting boys behind the bakery. I was the one begging them to forget about some actor named Rad Pitt. I was the one imploring them to turn their hearts and minds to God.
But in Manchester, where there were thousands of Yeshivish Jews, I was no longer God’s special emissary. No one was monitoring me as I watched Naftali across the Kohns’ Shabbos table.
Naftali turned to Shalamit and me. “What do you think, girls? Want to learn Gemara?”
My fingers went numb. My knife bounced on the table before flying to the carpet. Learn Gemara, I thought, the ancient books of Talmudic law and lore that men studied in yeshiva? I’d learn advanced astrophysics in Cantonese if Naftali wanted me to.
“Don’t be stupid,” Shalamit spit out, blowing her lips in annoyance. “I have enough on my plate at school.”
• • •
As I was on my way out, later that afternoon, Naftali said good-bye.
“Good to meet you, Leah.” He studied me with his head cocked, kippa sliding off his hair. A fleck of white frosting clung to his lip. “She’s a quiet one, isn’t she?” he said to his sister.
“I’m not quiet,” I managed to squeak out. “I just like listening.”
“Well, that’s a rare skill,” he said. I beamed at his approval.
• • •
I did not know anyone my own age who had gone frei—literally, free. But I knew what happened to those who did. Sinning might seem like all bright lights and loud music, but being free had all the fun of a crazy carnival Tilt-A-Whirl—you’d be hurling in the gutter in no time. I had heard stories about those who left our Yeshivish community. They wound up drug addicts, prostitutes, or dead.
But I’m not going frei, I reassured myself as I scribbled hearts in my diary. I’m not wearing pants. I’m not breaking Shabbos. I’m just having some feelings.
A week later, I returned to the Kohns’ for another Friday night meal. I planned to disguise my hunger in a costume of spiritual yearning. Oh, Naftali, but what about the prohibition on women touching Torah scrolls? Doesn’t that point to a firm boundary? I had rehearsed it all in my head. My mind was troubled. My soul hung in the balance. God would have to excuse me for speaking to a boy.
I wore my other Shabbos outfit, a blue suit. The jacket was tight under my armpits and the stitching on the hem was coming loose, but the material was the same color as Naftali’s eyes.
When I got to the Kohns’, Naftali was there, along with a guy from his Zionist youth group named Jacob. Jacob’s red plaid sweater signaled that he was even less religious than Naftali.
The concentration of testosterone in the room made me giddy. All through the meal I gripped my fork and knife, a smile plastered on my face as I swiveled my head, following Naftali, Jacob, and Dr. Kohn as they talked of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies toward Israeli settlers.
After dinner I was shocked when Shalamit joined the boys in the living room, plopping herself down on the velvet couch.
“Do you want to play cards?” Naftali asked. “Fifty-two pickup!” He laughed, tossing the pack in the air. Shalamit rolled her eyes.
“All right, all right,” he said. “Let’s play blackjack.”
My parents forbade cards, but I was too excited to care. We sat cross-legged on the balding carpet as Jacob and Naftali taught me the game. As Jacob dealt everyone a hand, the boys laughed about people they knew and some football team and their youth group.
“Do—do you go to college also?” I managed to choke out in Jacob’s direction after I won my first round.
“I’m finishing sixth form,” he said. “I’m thinking about going to yeshiva in Israel next year, defer university.”
I felt a stab of triumph. Even a boy as irreligious as Jacob, a boy going to college, was going to go to yeshiva.
“Are you going to university?” Naftali asked, dealing out more cards. Both of our hands touched the same card for a single magical moment.
“N-no—” I stammered, jerking my fingers back. “Of course not—we don’t believe in”—I stumbled over the British phrasing—“uni—university.” College boys and girls mixed and spent their time studying wasteful and immoral ideas. I had recited this speech to my classmates back in Pennsylvania many times. Life on this earth was short, and every moment measured, judged, and precious. What person on their deathbed regretted that they had not written one more college paper or work memo? Doing God’s will, keeping his commandments, and taking care of one’s family was what mattered most. Especially for a woman. The outside world, with its short skirts and wolf-whistling men, demeaned women. What could be more beautiful than the sight of a mother lighting Shabbos candles, her children gathered at her side? College was a distraction, an invitation to a corrupt world that would only belittle a woman and seduce a man.
Naftali shrugged. “I don’t see what’s wrong with it,” he said. “You can go to university and be religious. I do. Of course, you have to be smart enough,” he ribbed. “Is she smart enough, Shalamit?”
“Yes, you dummy, she’s smart,” Shalamit said. I loved how outspoken she was, how quick to defend me.
“You don’t want a career?” Jacob asked. “You want to be one of those women pushing a pram with a million babies, jumping when their husband says jump?”
“Jump!” Naftali ordered. From his seated position, Jacob gave himself a wobbly little push off the floor, his eyes rolled back in his head. We all laughed.
What Jacob had described was what I had always wanted more than anything else, but I suddenly felt ashamed of it.
“What about your mother?” Naftali asked. “Do you want to live the life that she’s lived? What’s she like?”
I had never tried to describe my mother. Like the Shabbos or the sky, Mamme was an immovable force woven into the reality of the world. I didn’t know how old she was—my parents kept that information sacred, as part of their distant, godly personas—but I did know that she’d been born in Leeds. Her father had died when she was twelve, and her mother had suffered a nervous breakdown. My mother had come to America for a match, looking to escape gossip about her broken family. My father occasionally retold the story of how, on one of their arranged dates, my mother had insisted that she wasn’t hungry, but after he’d dropped her off, he had watched her enter a bakery and devour a sweet pastry. By the time I knew her, my mother was a plump and quiet woman, taciturn when annoyed. She could gaze out the window, big eyes wide, overcome by God’s awesomeness in a brilliant sunset, but she could also drag a wailing child up two flights of stairs, her carefully filed long nails digging into their arm.
“Well, she’s always busy,” I said finally. “She cooks and bakes a lot. And my father works very hard, so she takes care of him.”
“So basically,” Naftali said, flipping his thumb over the tops of his cards, “she has no sense of self. Her life is about serving her husband and kids.”
I thought of my mother rushing from the kitchen to the dining room to serve my father dinner, listening intently and laughing at his jokes. “Ask Tatte,” she always told us when we had difficult questions. Once, some women had asked her to give a lecture on being a Jewish woman. She had asked my father to write her speech.
With sudden clarity, I saw how different my mother’s life was from the exalted Jewish woman archetype I had been taught about.
“I don’t want to be like that,” I said.
“That’s obvious,” Naftali said. “You’re asking questions. Hell, you’ve probably always felt different. Wouldn’t you say that you want something different than what you were raised with?”
“When I get older,” I told them. “When I get married and I’m away from my parents, I’ll figure out how to be more independent.”
Naftali dismissed this idea. A married Yeshivish woman had no wiggle room.
He was right. A few years back, Mrs. Blaumberg, one of the few Yeshivish women in Pittsburgh, had started wearing one of those half wigs, her own bangs showing in the front. Upon marriage, Yeshivish women wore wigs and snoods to cover their hair, which instantly became sexual, forbidden to be seen by anyone besides their husbands. The rabbis permitted a married woman to allow an inch or two of hair to show without Heavenly punishment, but that was a leniency for when one’s snood accidently slipped back. For Mrs. Blaumberg to show her full bangs was to publically flout the law. Then she started taking acting classes at the Jewish Community Center. The Blaumberg kids were doomed. They’d never be able to marry normal people.
I had always sympathized with the children, but now, sitting on the floor of the Kohns’ living room, I realized that Mrs. Blaumberg was just a girl grown up. A girl who may have felt apart from her world but was now trapped in a life she no longer wanted.
• • •
Fervently believing in the intellectual inferiority of my sex, I had never tried to develop critical opinions on my own, but now Naftali’s voice echoed in my mind.
“University is a devil’s playground,” my philosophy teacher railed.
Naftali wouldn’t think so, I retorted silently.
“The Flenkers brought a television into their home,” my uncle murmured to my aunt. “Don’t let the girls visit their children.”
You’re such a small-minded man, I thought. Naftali would never react like that.
“Some of you are wearing socks,” my modesty teacher lectured. “I can see flashes of the skin of your calves. You should all be wearing tights! God is sickened by your bare legs.”
Well, not Naftali’s God, I thought.
• • •
In the weeks that followed, I looked forward to seeing Naftali after Shabbos meals at the Kohns’ or when we crossed paths in the home’s hallways. I noted every time he glanced at me, weighing every word he said as if it were Scripture itself.
Shalamit began to get frustrated by my not-so-subtle hankerings for her brother, so I devised a plan to connect with him without Shalamit knowing.
I wrote a letter, cramming round little words into double rows on each line: Are there some college degrees that are less problematic, religiously, than others? And what do you think of religious people serving in the Israeli army?
I slipped him the note one day in the hallway outside Shalamit’s bedroom. Naftali took it and folded it in his hand. “Do you need me to reply?” he asked.
I tried not to grin. “Oh, please. Yes. Thank you.”
“How will I get my reply to you?”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“How about I’ll put it under your doormat?” he said.
How romantic, I thought.
Every morning, when I left my cousins’ house, I stopped to tie my shoelaces on the front porch, shielding my hand with my stooped body as I rolled back the mat. Naftali didn’t reply to all of the letters I slid under his bedroom door, but occasionally there was a white envelope waiting for me.
I pored over his responses, trying to pick out slivers of affection from our philosophical discussions. Would I kiss him, I wondered as I lay in bed. If he lowered his face to mine and took my chin in his hand and closed his eyes and came toward me?
There was a hierarchy of sins: gossip, chutzpah, and anger were wrong but tolerated. Talking to boys was wrong and unforgivable. But they are all sins, I rationalized. I’ll never gossip again if Naftali kisses me. I wondered if God might accept that exchange, weigh the severity of forbidden touch against all the transgressions I would not commit. Of course, I hoped Naftali would marry me. Despite the fact that he was not Yeshivish. He would fall in love with me, and we would convince my parents to allow the match. Otherwise, I would have to keep my crush a secret for the rest of my life.
• • •
One Sunday afternoon, out for a walk, I glimpsed Naftali farther down the block. After double-checking that there was no one watching, I ran to his side.
“Hi, Naftali. How are you?”
“Fine, baruch HaShem.”
You’ve got to seize the moment, I thought. When are you ever going to have an opportunity like this again? I summoned all my courage.
“I really like you,” I said. “Would you—would you hold my hand?” My Modern Orthodox classmates back in Pittsburgh had confessed to me that they did this—held hands, kissed, hugged, made out with boys. I hadn’t understood the mechanics of the more extreme sins, but I knew how to hold hands.
Naftali raised his eyebrows, jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “You’re too young for me, Leah,” he said. “And I’m shomer negiah.”
Shomer negiah. Even though he believed in women’s rights and college and the state of Israel, he kept the laws that forbade an unmarried man and woman from touching.
• • •
One evening when I was twelve or thirteen, I’d been washing dishes when Uncle Tzuki, my mother’s brother who was visiting from Chicago, stopped in the empty kitchen.
“Your walk is prust,” he said to me. I froze, my hand clutching the plate I was rinsing, the hot water burning my fingers. Uncle Tzuki shook his head, eyes on the floor, long beard wagging. “You need to watch yourself,” he said gently and walked away.
Prust? Prust meant “vulgar, slutty.” Even the word prust had to be dealt with gingerly, like dog poop on your shoe. How could a walk be prust? It was one more thing to add to the list.
In shul, I worshipped behind wooden partitions, cut off from the men and the cantor and the rituals of Jewish life. A thousand times my mother had yelled at me for letting my skirt creep up my legs when I sat on the couch. A thousand times I had hushed my singing voice because I might be overheard by a passing boy. Modesty was a thick wall intended to keep a man’s monster at bay (women harbored no such creature). I was taught that if I relinquished my reserve for even a second, if the slightest hint of temptation slipped out, any male in my presence would transform into a rapacious barbarian. And here I was, offering my bare hand to a man, giving it to him straight out, and he was turning away.
But I wasn’t ready to unravel my world with this loose thread. Instead, I cringed with shame. I must be repulsive, I must be fat, I thought. Maybe I smelled bad.
• • •
That Friday night, still smarting from Naftali’s rejection, I sat in the Kohns’ living room after Shabbos dinner, smiling and chatting as if nothing was wrong. Dr. and Mrs. Kohn went to bed early. The Kohns were not as Yeshivish as my family, so perhaps they saw nothing wrong in my sitting on their couch, late in the evening, talking with their daughter and their son. The hours passed. Shalamit’s younger sisters put down their card game in the kitchen and went to sleep. Eventually, Shalamit also went to bed, rolling her eyes at my obvious romantic desperation.
I knew I should leave. Being alone with Naftali while everyone slept was forbidden. But I couldn’t relinquish this opportunity. Maybe he regretted having rejected me. Maybe he’d apologize and declare his love.
Naftali had been sitting next to me on the couch, his kippa hanging forward to graze his eyebrows. Suddenly, he swung around and put a pillow in my lap. He lay down on the pillow. The weight of his head sank through the feather innards to press against my thighs.
“You’re shomer negiah,” I yelped. The air sucked out of my lungs.
“We’re not touching,” he said with a shrug. The movement of his shoulders was a shock across my legs.
Indeed, we were not. The pillow was a barrier between our bodies. I looked down at his eyes, at the five o’clock shadow on his square chin. I ached to kiss him.
“I can see up your nose,” he said, bugging his eyes. “I can see all the way up into your brain!” He sat up abruptly and stretched, yawning, bending back till his shirt popped out of his pants. “Good night,” he said. “I’m zonked out of my mind.” He went upstairs to bed. I headed home to my small, cold room at the top of the stairs in my cousins’ house.
That night I couldn’t stop feeling the pressure of Naftali’s heavy head against my legs. Hours passed, but I couldn’t slow my racing heart. I tossed and turned, flipping my pillow over, wrestling with the covers, willing my mind to release me into the dark. As my thoughts began to fragment and stretch with exhaustion, a fear descended on my body.