Read an Excerpt
“Yes, I understand all that!“Chaya Leah insisted, biting the pillow pressed to her chest to keep from screaming in frustration. “But what I can’t understand is how you just agree to it all! How can you just marry him!?”
Dvorah looked at her youngest sister and smiled serenely, indulgently, feeling a strange mixture of compassion and contempt. Poor Chaya Leah with her red, puffy cheeks, her red, impossible hair! I would die if I had hair like that, Dvorah mused, putting down her knitting for a moment and smoothing back her own dark, smooth, docile locks. If you tried to braid it, the hairs kept pulling out and curling up, going their own way. If you combed it back and pinned it, it bunched together and rose up like yeast. If she would only lose a little weight, though, she might be made to look presentable, or something close to. “Child,” Dvorah said imperturbably. “You don’t understand. I’m very lucky. Yaakov Klein studies in the best yeshiva. His father owns an appliance store. They’re willing to pay for half an apartment, to support us for two years while Yaakov goes on with his studies …”
“And on and on and on! …” Chaya Leah shouted, flinging aside the pillow. “While you get big blue veins on your legs and wrinkled, hard hands! Working day and night like our ima and his ima, earning a living, taking care of the house, the babies, one after the other!”
The knitting fell from the older girl’s hands and she looked up, shocked. “G-d forgive me, you sound like one of them, the chilonim,” she said with rare yet deliberate cruelty.
This comparison to the secular Jews who mocked them, who kept no Sabbath or holiday, who ate pig and shellfish, who never said a prayer or visited a synagogue, and who had probably forfeited all share in the World to Come was a sickening and shocking blow to the younger girl, as indeed it would have been to any member of Jerusalem’s haredi community, of which the girls and their family were respected and longstanding members.
Actually the term haredi—literally “those who shook from fear of G-d”—was a catchall phrase used by secularists that ignorantly lumped together many diverse and warring religious groups. It encompassed the many separate Hasidic clans, each united under their own charismatic leader and each cordially despising the other as well as their age-old opponents, the study-conscious Misnagdim. The latter heartily returned the contempt, viewing their Hasidic brethren as pathetically misguided in their blind belief in a leader and for putting prayer above study, emotion above intellect. However, there were two things that united all the groups, giving some credence to their collective title: their sincere, uncompromising adherence to the tiniest dictate of law and custom and their boundless contempt for and rejection of the secularists.
Dvorah knew she could have said nothing more damning. Yet she felt no guilt in having flung the epithet. (The child deserved it. Richly. The nerve!) Still, as a daughter of Rebbetzin Faigie and Rabbi Alter Reich, haredi Misnagdim, brought up to suppress not only every bad word, but every unkind thought, her hands shook as she took up her knitting. “Where were you brought up that you talk to me this way? May G-d forgive you!”
“Please, please. Don’t fight. I can’t stand it,” Dina interrupted softly, placing herself between her two sisters, her delicate white hands reaching out to connect the three of them. “Dvorah, how can you be so unkind? Chaya Leah, our Dvorah is almost engaged! She’s happy, baruch Hashem, G-d be blessed! Why are you doing this? Acting this way?”
Chaya Leah’s eyes brimmed hotly, but her mouth was defiant. “He is short and overweight and slurps his soup. I heard him. He is … fat!”
“Those are all petty, physical things. If you were on a higher spiritual level, a different madrega, if you’d learned more Torah instead of wasting time sneaking off to goodness knows where …” Dvorah said loftily, her head lifted, her back stiff with insult.
“She’s so young. She’ll understand when she gets older,” Dina tried.
“And more mature,” Dvorah interrupted with growing malice, her black eyes snapping with disgust. “You’ll both understand what a bridegroom is. You’ll understand what we are,” she added darkly, her ominous glance reducing the others to an uncomfortable silence.
It was a tiny room in which the three sisters sat, crowded with two bunk beds, an old hanging wardrobe of peeling light wood, and one small desk piled with books. Yet they felt themselves almost privileged. In contrast to the rest of the family, they had the roomiest bedroom in the house. Their parents shared a tiny alcove created by covering a back porch with sliding aluminum windows, and their five little brothers slept two and three in a bed in the third bedroom. The apartment was in a new building in one of those huge apartment blocks that had sprung up like mushrooms on the acres and acres of no-man’s-land incorporated into Jerusalem right after the Six Day War, buildings ten stories high with twenty-five or thirty tiny two- and three-bedroom apartments. True, the ten of them shared one bathroom, but at least it was new and indoors. Besides, they had not one but two porches overlooking Judea’s lovely rolling hills, its undulating, dark green forests. On clear days they could even see King Hussein’s unfinished summer palace, like the skeleton of a dinosaur caught in a cataclysmic change of ages.
Indeed, by the standards of Jerusalem’s haredim,, it was a most roomy and enviably comfortable home. In fact, considering their former residence in Meah Shearim—a crumbling, one-bedroom walk-up built during the Ottoman Empire, a place with rusty outdoor plumbing and a roof that wept like a mourner during the short winter rains—Rabbi Reich often viewed his new place as almost sinfully luxurious. Often he asked G-d to forgive him for his delight in it and prayed that no disaster should befall the family because of their new material luxury. Leaky roofs, broken pipes, exploding boilers, were viewed as G-d’s mercy, his way of exacting payment for sins from metal and stone rather than human flesh. Secretly he worried that the reward he had so painfully and diligently accumulated for himself in the World to Come might be badly depleted as a result, like an overdrawn bank account.
There was silence in the room. “What’s wrong with us?” Chaya Leah asked slowly, accusingly.
“You’re fourteen years old. You know nothing.”
“And you’re twenty and beautiful and intelligent and a tzdakis, a saint! You can find someone better!” Chaya Leah ran over and held her sister’s languid, smooth hands, caressing them. Dvorah shrugged her off impatiently.
It was ice cold in the room, as the heating system was run collectively and the majority of their neighbors had voted for only four hours of heat during the coldest winter months, all most could afford. All the sisters wore flannel pajamas and robes and slippers, each set handed down to them through a dizzying network of relatives and connections. The great-aunt in Milwaukee bought the clothes for her granddaughters, who in turn gave them to poorer cousins in New York, who in turn shipped them to Israel.
Until recently Dvorah had always gotten first pick. But now America’s return to short skirts and her own gain of several inches in height had resulted in most of the skirts and dresses falling shamefully shorter than midcalf, making them immodest and unwearable. But when they’d been younger, the clothes had been routed routinely from her to Dina to Chaya Leah.
They had all learned to be careful with clothes, except Chaya Leah, who knew she was the end of the line. She always looked untidy. A blouse that looked crisp and demure and sweet on Dvorah, soft and romantic on Dina, always looked unironed and loose-buttoned and messy on Chaya Leah. She was a big, strong girl who would have looked right in overalls with a hoe; the kind of woman who had drained the swamps in the Hula Valley and outlived malaria, typhoid, and Arab snipers to bear nine or ten children. The genteel pleated skirts and tucked-in blouses of Beit Yaakov Seminary for Young Women looked flimsy and painfully strained over her big bones.
Dina was her exact opposite. Petite and fragile, slim and porcelain fine, she seemed almost too delicate to be real. Everything about her seemed softly molded, like a piece of blown glass coaxed to an evanescent bubble shimmering with light, too beautiful to last. Her face was like a blooming, watered garden: a rosy, blossoming complexion, eyes of sun-reflecting, blue-green water, brows a shining arc of sun-kissed blond. It made a person smile and feel somehow lighter, warmer, just to look at her. She made people forget themselves, ordinary, busy people. Strangers would just stop and stare at her the way people sometimes do at a lovely sunset. And if modesty allowed her to look back at them, she did so with eyes that were like a newborn’s—so clear and clean somehow, without depth, but not smug or shallow. Just uncomplicated, direct and fine. Her hands and feet were tiny, almost childlike, so that it seemed almost cruel to her mother to send her on chores like carrying the heavy bags of bread and milk from the grocery. Only her hair kept her from being a raving beauty. The light blond of her childhood had darkened with adolescence into a dull, indistinct color, neither blond nor quite brown. Had she been an American girl, she would have used one of those blond highlight rinses and given herself a rich, genteel ash-blond look. But such things were unheard of among Jerusalem’s young haredi women. That and heavy makeup of any kind was considered cheap and bold. Mrs Reich often thanked G-d for Dina’s mousy hair. Too great beauty was almost a defect in the haredi world. People were suspicious of it, feeling a really beautiful girl was a danger, a pitfall, too difficult for average men to overcome. A really stunning girl had trouble finding a husband.
She was sixteen, the middle sister. The peacemaker. The peace seeker. The passions of jealousy and anger that rocked Dvorah and Chaya Leah passed over her most of the time. She had a naturally even temper and could remember only two times when she had been torn with uncontrollable passion. Once, when she was eight years old, an old man had stopped her on her way home from school to ask the way to the central bus station. He seemed as bent and fragile as the old piece of wood he leaned on as a cane. It hurt her almost physically to imagine the long walk ahead of him. She explained the road very carefully, then anxiously watched his slow progress. But a few minutes later she saw him stop and ask again, this time a group of older boys who pointed him in the opposite direction. She watched him turn and to her horror walk in the wrong direction. The boys were laughing. She stood paralyzed, unable to scream at the laughing boys, unable to protest her innocence to the old man when he passed her and sighed accusingly. She’d wanted so much to do something, to say something, to put it right, but her body wouldn’t move. She stood like that until both the boys and the old man had disappeared. Only then, in the dark, did she run crying all the way home, her fists beating her thighs in frustrated fury.
The other time was when a small clique of classmates had sent their teacher an anonymous picture of a woman with a mustache. The teacher’s face had boiled red, and she’d sat down and covered her eyes and her mouth and her mustache with her hands. Dina had cried so hard and so long that the teacher was convinced she’d sent it. The principal finally sent her to the nurse, and the nurse sent her home.
“What’s wrong with us?” Chaya Leah repeated belligerently, her face getting that bullish menace that meant more loud noises and probably Ima rushing in shocked and hurt and blaming herself for her failures in child rearing.
“Please, Dvorah, you might as well finish,” Dina begged her, prompted equally by expediency and curiosity.
Dvorah lifted her slim legs off the floor and slid them under the covers. “I might as well tell you both, even though Chaya Leah has no business thinking about these things yet. But you, Dina. You’ll be next, so you might as well know. It isn’t easy for girls like us to get married at all.”
“What! Why not?!” Chaya Leah bellowed.
“Sshhhh!” Dvorah and Dina said fiercely. “Do you want Ima in here? Do you want Aba asking us what we’re talking about?”
The very idea of their father asking them to explain themselves made their hearts freeze. You could never lie to Aba. It was like lying to G-d himself. And you could never tell him any truth that would hurt him, either. The very idea of doing the slightest thing that might fill their father’s kind blue eyes with disappointment or pain was unthinkable to the sisters.
Chaya Leah whispered: “I’m sorry. I’ll be quiet. But tell me already. I have a right to know!”
“When each of us was born, Chaim Garfinkel wrote our names down in his book, along with the names of every other boy and girl born at the same time. Now, he looks into his book and sees when one of us turns sixteen and begins to look for a match. First he looks at the boy and the boy’s family. He asks questions at the yeshiva, in the neighborhood. If the boy has a reputation as a serious student, a talmid chachem, and the family has yichoos, ancestors who were scholars, then he goes looking for the top, aleph, aleph kind of girl.”
“What kind is that?” Chaya Leah demanded.
“The kind that is first of all from a family descended from talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars. A family with a good reputation that hasn’t had any physical or mental defects anyone knows about. Then he sees the girl herself. Is she slim and pretty? Did she go to Beit Yaakov and have a good reputation there?”
“We come from a good family. On Mother’s side there was Rabbi Eliezer from Minsk, on Father’s, Rabbi Reich from Munkatsch …”
“Rabbi Eliezer from Minsk! Rabbi Reich from Munkatsch!” Dvorah mocked. “No one has ever heard of them! They didn’t write any books, they didn’t found any yeshivas.”
“They were pious people, ancestors to be proud of. You know that not everyone who earned the title of rabbi in Europe had a congregation or a yeshiva! Look at the great tzadik Chafetz Chaim. He ran a grocery store! So Rabbi Eliezer was a shoemaker, but everyone in town knew that he studied day and night. His scholarship was respected,” Chaya Leah insisted.
“I’ve heard these stories. I believed them. But there is something you don’t know. There was a woman. A great-great-great-aunt …” The eyes of the other two sisters widened. “I don’t know when she lived exactly, fifty or seventy-five years ago. It was in Poland. Her name was Sruyele. And she ran away from her fiancé.”
Chaya Leah looked blank. “Where did she go?”
Dvorah looked at Dina as if to say, I told you so. Too young! “She ran away with another man!”
“Was it on Mother’s side or Father’s?”
Dvorah exploded, “What difference does it make! She was like a sotah! She ran off with another man! She ran away and left her fiancé, her parents, behind.”
The sisters held their breath in hearing the horrible term. The sotah, a married woman suspected of adultery, was held up to public ridicule whether or not she was guilty. Her hair was uncovered, her dress ripped by the priest at the very gates of the temple. And then, if she continued to insist on her innocence, she was made to drink a potion of water and dust. If she was guilty, her stomach swelled and burst; she died in agony. If she was innocent, well, nothing happened to her. But still, the disgrace of the ordeal … !
“But how could she be like a sotah if she wasn’t even married yet?” Chaya Leah asked thoughtfully.
“It was after the tena’im, the formal engagement, had been signed.”
“What happened to her? Who did she run away with?” Dina asked, sick with apprehension. She couldn’t stand stories of people going wrong. She couldn’t bear the idea of G-d’s anger and punishment and the yawning pit of sin that lay in wait around every corner. Yet she was overwhelmed with a horrible fascination—almost ecstatic with it—so that it was strangely akin to joy.
“He was a goy, or married? Something horrible? …” Chaya Leah asked hopefully, wanting the story to reach its full potential.
“No, thank Hashem. As if it weren’t bad enough! Simply a poor local boy from the yeshiva. The boy she’d wanted to marry ever since she was a little girl. But her parents didn’t think he was right for her. He didn’t seem bright enough, ambitious enough.”
“Did she marry him, the one she loved?”
“She did, in a town where no one knew her. She even had a child. But then they all found out about the tena’im with the other and made them get a divorce.”
“How can you make people get a divorce? Who made them? Was it the Morals Patrol?” Chaya Leah continued, referring to the haredi community’s well-known vigilante group whose effective, if brutal, tactics discouraged haredim—married and unmarried, male and female, young and old—from straying down sinful paths, which included everything from adultery and child molestation to attending movies or reading secular newspapers. It was the most extreme of several such quasi police forces operating in the haredi world, and by far the most feared. However, like most police forces, average, law-abiding citizens like the Reich girls knew about them only by reputation.
“I don’t think they had such a thing back then. It was the rabbis, her father, his father. She was practically married to another. She had no right to marry until the tena’im were annulled. She would have been better off marrying and then getting a divorce. Tena’im are almost impossible to get out of.”
“Well, at least she wasn’t married. If she’d been married and run off …” The three sisters looked at each other with horror. Adultery. It was a sin too unbearable to contemplate. A sin for which there was only one appropriate punishment: death. No one questioned that.
“What happened to her?”
“They made her marry the first man, the one she was engaged to. She died young.” Dvorah returned her sisters’ incredulous stares with defiance. “I heard Ima and Aunt Simcha talking about it in whispers on Yom Kippur. It’s all true.”
“She had a child,” Dina whispered. “An innocent child left with no mother.” She was like her father. Every whiff of human misery, present or past, filled her lungs with despair. “A little boy?”
“A boy,” Dvorah confirmed. “So now you understand about us!”
The younger sisters, lost in thought, took a moment to refocus. They understood nothing. Dvorah saw it.
“This is known about our family,” she said in exasperation, defeated in her attempt at subtlety. She didn’t bother to elaborate. The girls knew what that phrase meant. It was one of those stories that had been handed down ear to ear, generation to generation, and had reached Israel. Now it was common knowledge among their very tight-knit compatriots.
“I can’t think! Let me think!” Chaya Leah pleaded. “This thing that happened—fifty, seventy-five years ago, you say?—this Surele, Sruyele—what?—is held against us?”
Dvorah nodded. “It’s part of it. It’s a taint, a black mark that spreads over our genes. No one ever forgets or forgives anything. Just as we wouldn’t if someone wanted to introduce us to a boy whose mother or grandmother had gone off and done …” She stopped, seeing Dina’s soft, pained face, and feeling a twinge of pity. “But that’s only one reason that it’s hard for us to find husbands … maybe not even the most important one. The worst part is the money. There is no money. No money at all for dowries. For any of us.”
There was a terrible moment of pained recognition. They all knew this, had known it, but had never said it out loud before.
“But money is not important. Everyone knows that! G-d doesn’t measure your worth by how much money you have!” cried Chaya Leah.
“But the family of a future husband does,” Dvorah answered with quiet bitterness. “They want brides whose fathers own businesses. Brides who have apartments already bought and paid for; apartments with three bedrooms and a refrigerator, a stove, and a washing machine. They want cars. Why do you think I’m still not married when practically every other girl in my class at Beit Yaakov already has a child or two?” Her words hung in the air like a poisonous mushroom cloud after the dropping of an atom bomb. There was devastation in the room and complete, stunned silence. “So don’t you dare say anything about fat Yaakov Klein!” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and pulled the covers over her head.
Dina put out the lights. She could hear Chaya Leah tossing defiantly in her bed, Dvorah’s soft sobbing ebb and flow and disappear into the soft breathing of sleep. But she herself could not sleep. She tried to imagine the face of her sister and Yaakov Klein’s side by side on a pillow; then she tried to envision a small child, bereft, the child of Sruyele. She tried to feel appropriately shocked and sad, yet all she could think of was Sruyele running away, her small feet tapping the icy cobblestones in the Polish village, while in the distance the pale, long face of her beloved hovered like a ghostly apparition, lighting her way down the dark, cold street. Over and over again she felt the leap from the cold pavement into the warm arms. Sruyele’s leap. It made her shiver and feel short of breath, like someone who has been crying for a long time. She took short, deep breaths which she was afraid to release. Her temples throbbed, her mind full of contradictions and a fearsome kind of pleasure. Hours into the night, she could still hear the frightened beating of the strange heart, unseen and unknown, hiding deep within her.
SOTAH. Copyright © 1992 by Naomi Ragen. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.