Excerpt from Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen. Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Rosen. Published in September, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
SOMEONE WAS DYING.
Deborah felt it in her chest. She felt it along her spine. She felt it, though she could not have explained how, in her womb. The feeling stirred her out of half sleep. She opened her eyes. The shades were drawn but a blue light had begun to seep in around the edges. It was 6 a.m.
Now would be a good time to hear a voice. She would like to have been called. Deborah! Deborah! But it no longer happened that way, if it ever had. Deborah smiled at herself for a childhood fantasy that had never left her. The window glowed. She heard the flop of The New York Times against her front door. The newspaper delivery boy—actually a middle-aged black woman; Deborah had spied on her once through the peephole—stood in the open elevator and flung the papers, as if dealing a giant pack of cards. After a sleepless night Deborah found the sound reassuring, a town crier's reminder that the world was still there. Lately, there had been a lot of sleepless nights.
The strange sensation darkened her again, an inner shadow. Someone was dying. She tried to think who it might be. William who had emphysema and couldn't talk but whose hand she often held. The old woman on the eighth floor nobody came to see who had given her a recipe for sponge cake. Frank the trumpet player with AIDS for whom the complex cocktail no longer worked. That poor baby in the neonatal ICU, baby Emily the nurses called her, who had been born with a hole in her heart. Deborahshuddered at the memory of the tiny blue child. Angry Caroline with ovarian cancer, scarcely older than she herself was. That might explain the strange sympathetic sensation nestled in her own belly. She rested a hand there but her body told her nothing.
Somehow, she didn't think it was any of these. Of course, someone was always dying. It didn't have to be someone you knew. Visiting a hospital regularly you learned that pretty quickly.
She should make herself a cup of coffee and start the day. The newspaper was waiting for her. Reuben, when they had been together, all but heard the Times crying on the doorstep like an abandoned child. He would bring it into bed. Deborah could never look at the paper first thing in the morning. Though she was keenly attuned to the world's sorrows, internal matters always concerned her more.
Deborah decided to pray. She had promised herself that she would pray more regularly. She rose and stretched. She was wearing a T-shirt and nothing else. She stepped into a pair of underpants. It didn't seem right to stand bare-assed before God, though of course everyone was supposed to be naked before Him. Not that she thought of God as a seeing presence. Or a Him. Still, she slipped on a pair of red running shorts over the underpants. Barefoot, she padded across the wood floor and removed a large zippered velvet envelope from her top drawer. She left a smaller velvet envelope behind.
While she was up she shut off the air conditioner. It had been in the high eighties the past few days but Deborah hated the artificial cool. There was something dishonest about it, though this was the kind of observation that drove Reuben—who had bought the air conditioner for her—crazy. She always imagined that the heat was still lurking somewhere in the room, hidden behind an invisible veil of refrigerated air. If you exerted yourself only slightly you felt hot and realized that the whole thing was a kind of physical illusion. This belief was, in Reuben's words, a pantheistic delusion. But Reuben was gone, though his machine lived on, sucking life out of the room in his absence.
Deborah's grandfather had been surprisingly tall; she was reminded of this as she unfurled his large prayer shawl, ivory white with bold zebra stripes of black. Though she was five foot six inches tall, when she raised the shawl over her head she was completely shrouded. She loved the feeling of being wrapped, hidden away inside the soft armor of her grandfather's tallis. In the meditation she now recited, God was described as robed in light. Deborah held the ends of the prayer shawl together above her head and felt, for a moment, blissfully cocooned.
When Reuben had seen her in her tallis for the first time he had called her a transvestite. Remembering it now, she burned with shame and indignation. He had pretended it was a joke and flashed her his gleaming, bearded smile, but she could see the disgust in his eyes. He had nothing against women praying, he told her, but why did they have to pray dressed like men?
Reuben was Orthodox. Of course he had slept with her anyway—not, she felt sure, the only one of the 613 commandments he had violated, but perhaps the one he most easily discounted. He had shown more anxiety about the state of her kitchen—the morning after, she'd found him sifting through the silverware to make sure that she indeed had a set for milk and a set for meat.
Deborah lowered the tallis so that the strip of gold embroidery lay behind her slender neck; she gathered up the extra material on either side and threw it over her shoulders, doubling the great square of striped cloth back on itself so that she wore it like a cape. The tassels hung down in front and behind.
It annoyed her to be thinking of Reuben now, in her moment of prayer, with his ortho-arrogant awkwardness, his air of entitlement and insecurity. Modern Orthodox men were macho sissies. He wasn't the first one she'd dated. They expected to inherit the earth but they had a nagging, inborn fear that they might be driven from it first. In this respect they weren't quite American, and Deborah supposed it was this mild foreignness, coupled with her own weakness for ritual rigor, that had drawn her to them in the first place. She had met Reuben in his synagogue, not hers. She herself must have held a certain exotic appeal for him—a Reform woman rabbi. She must not have seemed quite American either, or quite Jewish.
She resented terms like Orthodox and Reform—they seemed a substitute for the inner state. Did she have a Reform soul? She didn't feel that way, especially draped in her grandfather's tallis. Reuben can kiss my Reform rabbinical cross-dressing ass. She hurled herself into Ma Tovu—How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob—her heart pounding, trying to recapture the tented pleasure of the moment before. But it wasn't until she had blazed through Adon Olam and Yigdal—containing Maimonides's thirteen principles of Judaism, beginning with the existence of God and ending with the resurrection of the dead—that she settled down.
Deborah loved the praise part of prayer. In rabbinic school there had always been students who wrestled with praise and took a what-has-he-done-for-me-lately attitude toward God, an attitude of human entitlement and anger. Deborah had never understood this.
To praise God made her feel whole and she recited Birkot Hashachar with a schoolgirl's relish: Blessed are you God who gives sight to the blind; blessed are you God who clothes the naked; blessed are you God who did not make me a slave. She was using her grandmother's little prayer book, which made no apologies for blessed are you God who did not make me a woman. Deborah skipped that blessing and recited the female alternative, Blessed are you God who made me according to his will.
She found her groove and raced along, fast but focused, gathering the four tassels of her tallis in her right hand when she came to the "Shema and her Blessings" so that she could kiss them every time she uttered the word tzitzit—And you shall look on them and remember the commandments, and not be seduced by the desires of the heart of the eye . . .
By the time she got to the Amida she had forgotten the distress of the morning and was moving smoothly along ancient verbal tracks of praise and petition. One of her liturgy professors had spoken of prayer in the language of sports. You break through the wall, he said, and you're no longer thinking, I'm running, I'm running, you're simply running. It's a beautiful state. She felt that way now. She entered the Amida almost before she knew it, bowing and bending and feeling the words alive inside her.
But then the persistent whisper in her blood distracted her. Again she thought, Someone is dying. Was it the hospital getting to her at last? Her sister, Rachel, had been telling her that she spent too much time there, which, considering the fact that Rachel was a doctor, was laughable. Though she was spending more and more of her time among the sick. She'd begun visiting congregants but had found herself spending time with other patients, too, Jews and non-Jews, old people and babies alike. Rabbi Zwieback, the senior rabbi, was only too happy to give her hospital detail, and for the past two years half her salary was paid by a grant that supported ministering to the sick.
Deborah had found in the hospital an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a soldier might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war. That in the thick of battle—bullets whizzing around his head, comrades falling, death undeniable, life its brightest and most immediate and most perishable—his inner state has finally found its outer expression. In the hospital Deborah found not fear but, oddly, a kind of peace.
Not that she had abandoned her other responsibilities. This very Sunday she would be performing a wedding. Now that was scary. Deborah had met with the couple twice and it seemed clear they weren't ready for marriage. Janet was only twenty-four and had already broken off the engagement once, during which time she had briefly returned to an earlier, non-Jewish boyfriend. Deborah felt this woman was still torn but, a pleaser by nature, she had reconciled because she could not bear to assert herself in a lasting way. Deborah had heard only a tiny piece of this story from Janet when they had spoken on the phone and had imagined she would learn more, but with her fiancé beside her the woman said almost nothing. The man, Rick, a tax attorney (Deborah tried not to hold his profession or his goatee against him) did most of the talking, and he did it in a controlling way Deborah resented.
"We've had some times" Rick had said, "but we've worked through them. We're ready to make the leap."
He kept on talking without pause, about what kind of service they wanted and about his father who had died and about how Janet's sister would be playing the flute. He left Deborah no opening so she had cut him off abruptly.
"Have the invitations already gone out?" she'd asked, more harshly than she'd intended. Tact was never her strong suit and when she was agitated or annoyed it went out the window. Man and wife-to-be had both looked at her in surprise. But she had persisted—she blushed at the memory of it. "I understand there have been some problems with . . . fidelity."
At last Rick, waking from his stupor, had snapped at her, "We both have therapists. We're not looking for another one."
No, dickhead, Deborah thought, you want a spiritual caterer to hand you your wedding on a tray. But she retreated. Janet had given her no support, saying only, "We're very comfortable now," several times. Comfortable? Deborah had wanted to scream: Do you love him? What about that other guy? Don't use religion as an excuse. Marry for love! But she had held her tongue. They did seem comfortable. It was she herself who wasn't comfortable these days. Weddings had become difficult. As a rule she loved them, standing at the center of the white ceremony, a figure of almost magical authority, braiding two lives together. The Talmud said the world was a wedding. But was it one for her? She was thirty and single. She felt more profoundly alone than she ever had in her life.
Deborah caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror on the back of her closet, a young woman wearing an old man's prayer shawl. Her bare legs came out the bottom. She should shave them before the wedding. Still, they were nice legs, though slightly knock-kneed. She adjusted her stance and almost turned to see her behind in the mirror but caught herself. She realized to her astonishment that she was still praying, her lips on automatic. She was impressed with herself and perturbed at the same time. So she knew the Amida by heart! Or at least her lips did. This did not altogether gratify her. When she swam laps she believed that if her mind wandered too much, she wasn't really exercising. It was one thing to break through the wall—it was another thing to leave the building. She drove her mind back to the prayers. Oh Lord, guard my lips from speaking falsehood and my tongue from speaking guile . . . Let my soul be as dust before you. She finished the Amida, took three steps backward, turned her body to the left and right, bowed, and stood straight again.
The room, in the absence of air-conditioning, had begun to grow warm. Deborah yawned. "Dear God, forgive my distractions," she murmured. More and more she was given to spontaneous prayer, something she had picked up in the hospital from a Baptist minister.
There was no danger of your mind wandering when you spoke directly to God. The ice broken, she added, "Please don't let me be alone."
Was she praying for a man now? Or was it God she wanted?
fs20 She sensed the mysterious presence again in the room. A sort of tiptoeing shadow. She often her father, dead now fifteen years, with her, but that was a kind of inner glow. This felt different, stranger. God? The Angel of Death? Or only her overactive imagination?
She did not really believe in God as a physical being and yet she knew, too, that if a voice called out to her she would answer, without hesitation, "Here I am!" And she felt that mysterious things were always happening, and, what is more, on the verge of happening. She was constantly encountering, if not God, then at least the outer garment of God. A few days before, she had seen an elderly man on Broadway, copper bearded and stooped but neatly dressed in a seersucker suit, swaying over his own untied shoelaces. He was wearing running shoes, an incongruous but not uncommon fashion choice for Upper West Side elderly. The laces of both shoes were untied and he seemed incapable of bending over enough to get to them or of deciding which shoe to tie first. Without asking permission, Deborah had knelt down and tied them both. The humble gesture had flooded her with joy. It was the joy of kneeling down, erasing herself for a moment in an act of kindness. She'd felt astonishingly alive at that instant, as if she had been created for just such a purpose.
Deborah was no longer praying. Her mind was merely wandering. "Sorry," she said aloud. Her own voice startled her. Talking to yourself? she thought, and then quickly added, Or are You there?
Deborah smiled inwardly. Are you There God? It's Me, Margaret had been one of her favorite books when she was eleven. After four years of a very good college, five years of seminary, two and a half years as an assistant rabbi, after reading Maimonides and Kierkegaard and Heschel and Buber, had she come no further? But why be embarrassed—the psalmist himself asked such questions; he simply put them more gracefully. Oh Lord, how long will you turn your face from me? Oh Lord, answer me. Are you there, God? It's me, King David.
Deborah began to sing a verse of Psalm 116. It was not the prescribed psalm for that day but by this time she had given up on the prayer book. Psalm 116 was one of her favorites—she recited it often with patients in the hospital and the most stirring of its verses had been set to music.
li0Ana Adonai, Ana Adonai, kee ani avdecha. Deborah had a beautiful voice and loved to sing. She swayed as she sang, her soft, pure voice filling the room and soothing her. Her mind felt free again. Tears came to her eyes—not tears of sadness, precisely, but something deeper and at the same time less personal than ordinary sadness. They were tears of an unknown emotion, an unfathomable longing. They were tears of prayer. Deborah cried a lot, in many situations. It didn't bother her, though Rabbi Zwieback still looked at her in alarm when, midway through a service, she would stand up to announce a page number, her cheeks shining.
The prayer shawl slipped off one shoulder and hung over her like a toga, but Deborah didn't notice. She had shut her grandmother's little prayer book and held it against her breast as she sang, in Hebrew, her eyes closed swaying. Answer me, Lord, answer me, for I am your servant, the son of your handmaid.
The psalm's male point of view did not bother her. She had never cared about making prayers gender neutral. The soul knew no gender. The words were intended for her. She wished to be God's Servant. She felt a keen, delicious ache in her heart as she sang the verse over and over, lulling herself with the words and music. She stood in the warmth of the brightening room, swaying and singing.
Answer me, God. Answer me.