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BATSHEVA APPEARED IN OUR lives on a Friday afternoon as we were getting ready for Shabbos. It was inappropriate that she moved in when she did. Not that there was any religious prohibition against it, but it wasn't something we would have done. Fridays were set aside to prepare for Shabbos, and on the day Batsheva arrived, we were picking up our children from day camp, frying up chickens and doing laundry, the list of last-minute tasks growing as sundown approached. Even in the summer, when Shabbos started close to eight o'clock, there was never enough time to get ready. Each week, when the last glimpses of sun were fading behind the trees, we looked around our spotless houses, smelled the freshly cooked food, and felt a sense of wonder that once again we had finished in time.
We had heard that someone new was moving in, that the Liebmans had finally rented their house to a nice Jewish family as they had hoped to. This is who we were expecting any day now, a husband, a wife, a few children. We had begun speculating: Would the wife want to join the Sisterhood, the Ladies Auxiliary, the Donor Luncheon Committee? And whose carpool would they be in? It was the end of June and car pools for the upcoming school year were already being finalized.
When Batsheva drove down the street in a dustywhite car piled high with luggage, her windows rolled down and loud music from a radio station we never listened to pouring out, it didn't occur to us that she might be the new neighbor we had been waiting for. We assumed that this woman had taken a wrong turn, that she was cruising through our neighborhood in search of some other one. On our streets we were used to seeing station wagons or minivans able to transport our many children, our bags of groceries, our mounds of dry cleaning.
But she slowed as she approached the Liebmans' house and leaned her head out the window to check the address. She pulled into the driveway, her brakes squealing as she stopped. She honked several times, as if expecting someone to run out and welcome her. But no one came out, and instead, veiled behind our curtains, we watched her get out of the car, raise her hands over her head and stretch out her thin body. She turned to stare at the street, her eyes moving from house to house, drinking us in slowly like hot tea.
Who knows what she saw when she first looked around. We had lived here so long that it's difficult to imagine seeing it fresh. The shul and school stand in the middle of our neighborhood, and our houses circle around them in homage to what is most important. Our winding streets are quiet, peaceful. The branches of dogwoods, white-budded magnolias and thick oaks curve over the roads in a green canopy, painting a leaf-patterned shield in the sky. The houses, mostly ranch style, large and sprawling, are situated at comfortable distances from each other. The lawns are well kept, the bushes are trimmed, and bright-colored flowers line the brick pathways that lead to our front doors.
Right away we knew Batsheva wasn't one of us. What stood out most was her white-blond hair. She left it loose and it was long, all the way down her back. Her green eyes leapt out at us and her face glistened with sweat. Her features were small and even, her cheeks were carefully sculpted, pale skin stretched tightly across bone. But her lips were full, curving upward like an archer's bow. It was also her clothes that caught our attention. She didn't dress the way we did, in loose skirts and modest necklines that hid our curved female bodies, shaping them into soft masses. Her white, short-sleeved shirt clung too tightly to her chest. The gauzy fabric of her purple skirt, the hem of it trimmed with fringes, swished when she walked, and we could almost see the trace of her legs beneath. And she wore a silver anklet with shiny blue beads and brown leather sandals with thin straps that crisscrossed in tight angles across her skin.
She went around to the other side of the car, opened the door, and out came a barefoot little girl in a yellow sundress. Ayala's face was smudged with chocolate and her hands looked sticky. Something about this little girl's face made us need to look again: on first glance we had seen the face of an adult even though our eyes were telling us it was a child no more than five years old. Her hair was a few shades lighter than Batsheva's and hung in wisps across her forehead and reached her chin. Her eyes had a ghostly quality, giving the impression that no one was behind them. And her skin was so pale we could almost see past it to the blue veins below.
Ayala went to sit on the lawn, which had turned brown and stiff that summer from the lack of rain. She picked the dandelions that had been growing wildly for months and pulled up pieces of grass, splitting the blades with her fingernails, waiting for her mother in a way our children never did; if we kept them waiting for five minutes, they were sure to pull at our skirts and whine. But Ayala was in no hurry. She was perfectly content to just sit there.
Batsheva turned her attention to unpacking. The top of her car was covered by a green tarp, protecting a collection of items tied so precariously to her luggage rack it was a wonder the whole thing hadn't toppled off miles back. She tried to undo the tarp, a job we would have left to our husbands. Every few seconds, she shook her head and let out a choice word. Finally she loosened it and unloaded milk crates, shopping bags and suitcases onto the driveway. Sticking out from the top of a bag we caught a glimpse of paintbrushes tied together with a red ribbon. In the bottom of a milk crate, we detected tubes of paint in all different colors and sizes. And we made note of a shopping bag overflowing with books, a partially opened box of colored candles.
Batsheva took a single key from her purse and unlocked the front door. The house had been cleared out months before when Joseph Liebman was transferred to his computer company's headquarters in Atlanta. The day they moved, the whole neighborhood had come out to tell Joseph and Estie and their two children good-bye. We had hated to see them goJoseph was born here, at the same Baptist Hospital as many of us, and he had never lived anywhere else. Estie had been a member of the Ladies Auxiliary Executive Board, vice president of decorations, and it was a shame to lose such a hard worker.
Once inside, Batsheva poked her head around the corner for a quick look at the living room. It was empty, but when it was filled with the Liebmans' furniture, it had been one of the prettiest rooms in town: brocade couches with matching chairs, an oak breakfront, and two Persian rugs. The rest of the house was the same, lavishly decorated, not a thing out of place; how Estie managed that, with two kids, none of us knew. Without taking a closer look, Batsheva left the house and carried their things up the driveway, creating a pile in the entrance hall that threatened to topple with each addition.
When she finished, she went over to her daughter and hugged her. Then she took her hand and they walked up the driveway. Ayala turned back to look longingly at Rena Reinhard's three children playing under a sprinkler on the far corner lawn and at the Zuckerman's puppy making its way up the street. When they reached the door, Batsheva lifted Ayala to kiss the wooden mezuzah on the doorpost that the Liebmans had left behind. Perhaps the Liebmans had forgotten about it or maybe they assumed the next occupants would be Jewish as well. Batsheva and Ayala turned around for one last look at the street. Then they went inside and closed the door behind them.
IN the hours between Batsheva's arrival and the beginning of Shabbos, there was a flurry of phone calls. Arlene Salzman thought this woman looked familiar: where had she seen her before? Bracha Reinhard, Rena Reinhard's youngest daughter, claimed (falsely, it turned outa week later she admitted to making up the story) that she was passing by on her bike when Batsheva called out to her by name; only when Bracha turned around she had disappeared. And Mrs. Irving Levy, her body swelling with curiosity, said she had half a mind to walk across the street, knock on Batsheva's door and ask who exactly she was.
"And that's just what I'll do," Mrs. Levy decided, when her curiosity had reached the point where she could no longer stand it. She fluffed her auburn hair (dyed, but who would dare say anything publicly about that?), straightened her already crisp clothing and filled a basket with food for Shabboschallahs, a fried chicken, two kugels, and a dish of her famous hush puppies.
Mrs. Levy made it her business to be our eyes and ears, the supplier of all information and news. Her job would be easy this timeshe had the good fortune to live directly across the street from Batsheva. She walked over and knocked on the front door, but there was no answer. Mrs. Levy couldn't begin to guess where Batsheva had gone, and she certainly couldn't imagine how she could have left the house without being noticed. Perhaps Batsheva was hiding inside; perhaps she had something to be afraid of. Determined to discover what exactly was going on, Mrs. Levy knocked again, louder this time.
When there was still no answer, Mrs. Levy sighed. "It just goes to show you, doesn't it? You try to do something nice for someone and this is what happens," she said to herself. Filled with the frustration of those who go out of their way to be generous, Mrs. Levy set the basket by the door and was about to start down the driveway when she heard something.
"Wait a minute," Batsheva was calling from inside. "I'm coming."
Batsheva opened the door wearing a white silk bathrobe. When she saw Mrs. Levy standing there with her most welcoming smile, she looked nervous, not sure what to make of this visit.
"Well hello there," Mrs. Levy said. "I thought for sure y'all had already run off somewhere. But you just moved in here, so I couldn't imagine where you'd go. Anyhow, I was watching you move in, and I thought to myself that there's no way this woman is going to have time to cook, seeing as you barely made it here before Shabbos. So I thought I'd bring by some food."
Batsheva stepped out onto the front porch, not caring that she was in her bathrobe and that anyone passing by could see her. She smiled at Mrs. Levy, and when she introduced herself, she shook Mrs. Levy's hand, like two men at a business meeting; this was something certainly not done here.
"That's so nice of you. You didn't even know my name and you brought all this food over," Batsheva exclaimed.
Mrs. Levy smiled modestly as she acknowledged the compliment. It was nice of her, she admitted, but then, she did consider herself something of a one-person welcome wagon. And as long as she was here, she decided to ask a few questions; no sense letting this good deed of hers go unrewarded.
"Tell me, Batsheva is that what you said your name was?what brings you down to Memphis? It's not every day that new people come along."
"I've always wanted to be part of a small, close-knit community," Batsheva said. "I had always heard what a nice place this was and thought that it would be good for us. And now I see I was right."
"Yes, you were," Mrs. Levy said. "In fact, we pride ourselves on our good ol' fashioned southern hospitality. But you didn't pick Memphis out of a hat, did you? You must have known someone from here."
"I did know someone who used to live here," Batsheva said but didn't elaborate, leaving Mrs. Levy to figure out whom she had meant. She began running through her mental list of everyone who had lived in Memphis at one time or another. Her concentration was interrupted though when Batsheva stuck her head inside the house and called to her daughter.
"Ayala, come see what we have for Shabbos," she said.
Ayala ran to the door in nothing but her underwear, and Batsheva laughed.
"I was about to give her a bath when I heard you knocking," she explained.
Mrs. Levy didn't see what there was to laugh about. Nakedness, even in children, was nothing to take lightly. Ayala shyly stole glances at Mrs. Levy but didn't say a word, and Mrs. Levy swelled with feeling for this little girl. Her own children and grandchildren were, inexplicably, living out of town and it was nice to see a child who needed a little love and care.
"This nice woman brought us over a basket of food. See all the good things we're going to eat for Shabbos?" Batsheva said.
Ayala poked through the basket. She didn't say anything, but she looked so excited to see the food that Mrs. Levy began to wonder if she was getting the homemade nourishment all children need. But there would be time to deal with that. For now, her mission was to find out all she could about Batsheva.
"Anyhow, as you were saying," Mrs. Levy prompted, hoping to subtly return Batsheva to her point about whom she had known from Memphis.
"Was I saying something? I don't remember." Batsheva laughed. "Maybe the heat is affecting me. It's hot as hell out here."
This Batsheva was certainly mysterious, Mrs. Levy decided, not to mention indiscreet with her language, especially in front of a child. God only knew what kinds of things she said when no one was around. But best to let the conversation flow and sooner or later she would find out the other pieces of this puzzle.
"It's always like this in the summer, hot as blazes. Each day I think it's the hottest day we've had and then I wake up the next day and it's even hotter," Mrs. Levy said.
"I can't believe I've let you stand out here sweating and haven't invited you in. Come, let me get you something to drink," Batsheva said.
"No, that's okay. You look like you have your hands full already and I'm sure the house is plenty messy." As much as Mrs. Levy would have welcomed the opportunity to find out more about this woman, it was getting close to Shabbos. "The last thing you need right now is visitors."
"Are you sure? It's so nice of you to come over. It's the least I can do."
"Another time. I have cooking to finish up and I'm sure you have some getting ready to do yourself."
They said good-bye and Mrs. Levy hurried home. There was just enough time to make a phone call or two before sundown.
"I only talked to her for a few minutes so it's hard to say anything for sure," Mrs. Levy reported to her best friend and closest confidante, Helen Shayowitz. "But something about her didn't seem right. I can't put my finger on what it was, but I'm telling you, there was something not right about her."
"Really," Helen said. Being the first to hear the news was one advantage of her friendship with Mrs. Levy. She was constantly amazed by Mrs. Levy's ability to find out about anything going on in Memphis. After years of experience, Helen had learned to trust her opinion without question.
"First of all, she came to the door in a bathrobe. And she practically ran down the driveway in it. You would think she didn't care who saw her. I tried to find out who she was but she was evasive very, very evasive. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if she's running from something messy." Off the top of her head, Mrs. Levy could think of several scandals that had begun this way. "Then there's the question of why Ayala looked like she hadn't seen homemade food in ages. And the poor child was running around half-naked, like she was living in the wild."
"None of this is surprising," Helen agreed; she always made a point of backing up what Mrs. Levy said, even if she didn't one hundred percent agree. Here though, she had to admit, Mrs. Levy's assessment was right on target. "She doesn't look like your average good mother."
"No, she certainly doesn't. Women like that don't have the time to put into their children." Mrs. Levy was about to expound on all the ways these modern mothers hurt their children when her chicken noodle soup began boiling over. She had to run; there was only time for one final comment.
"Mark my words, Helen. This is going to be a situation to watch out for."
The news of Mrs. Levy's visit spread through the neighborhood. Helen Shayowitz called Tziporah Newburger who called Becky Feldman who conference-called Arlene Salzman and Rena Reinhard, who each called Leanna Zuckerman and Naomi Eisenberg and Jocelyn Shanzer. Even though we were rushing around doing last-minute vacuuming and dish-washing, we knew, in no time, what Mrs. Levy had learned about Batsheva. Our houses were connected by a telephone wire that stretched through our yards, a switchboard underground and all its lights ablaze.
AT sundown, we lit Shabbos candles in our silver candelabras one candle for each member of our familiesand a calm settled over the neighborhood. Cars were parked, televisions were shut off, phones stopped ringing. Children came indoors, men dressed and went to synagogue. We put on flowing skirts, silk blouses and fresh makeup. Our weeks waited for Fridays. We were commanded to set the Sabbath apart and make it holy. We have clothing we wear only on Shabbos, china dishes, sterling silverware, and crystal goblets that are only for Shabbos. We don't turn lights on or off, don't listen to music, go to work, use our ovens, our telephones, our cars. We reserve the day for God and for family, spending those twenty-five hours between Friday's sundown and Saturday's dusk in a peaceful pattern of prayers, meals, and relaxation. The outside world vanishes, even if only for that one day.
Alone in our houses, we waited for our husbands and children to come home from shul. We could have gone to shul if we wanted; there were always a few wives dotting the women's section. But three hours of shul on Shabbos morning was plenty. And we weren't obligated to go. That was only required of men; we could fulfill our religious obligations at home. We preferred the quiet of our houses. It was the only time that nothing pulled at us, no meetings to attend, no phone calls to make. After the frenzy that filled each Friday afternoon, we loved to sit back, put our feet up and relax.
We took out our siddurs to say the prayers welcoming Shabbos. During the week, it was difficult to make time for the morning prayers, let alone the afternoon and evening ones. We would intend to daven, we would open our siddurs, but one chore or another always pulled us away. The phone would ring, a child would cry, our thoughts would drift to the dry-cleaning we had to pick up, the toothpaste we needed to buy. Even when we managed to say the prayers, we rushed through them, attributing no more meaning to these words than if we were reciting the Memphis phone book.
But on Shabbos it was easier. We felt as if we were standing before God. We thanked Him for giving us this day of rest and praised Him for the beauty of creation. Most of all, we prayed for our families. Springing from the square black letters, we saw the faces of the children, husbands and parents we loved. We closed our eyes, the well-being of the world in our hands.
Even though we davened alone, we always sang the lecha dodi out loud: Come my beloved to greet the bride, let us welcome the Sabbath spirit. We invited the Shabbos bride into our houses and imagined her flying in through our windows, sheathed in a white organza dress, the light from our Shabbos candles dancing across it. Her hair, crowned with a wreath of freshly cut roses, sparkled in the light. The words flew from our mouths and escaped out of our houses, forming a chorus of prayer rising to heaven.
When our husbands and children returned from shul, we moved to our dining rooms to begin our Shabbos meals. Gathered around our tables, we sang the shalom aleichem welcoming God and his angels into our homes. This song reminded us of the story we had been told when we were children. Every Friday night, two angels, one good and one bad, follow the men home from shul. As each man enters his house, the angels peer inside. If the table is set for Shabbos, the white tablecloth spread in front of a smiling family, the good angel will be happy and bless them by saying, "May your house have a Shabbos like this every week." And the bad angel will have no choice but to say Amen. But if there are no Shabbos candles burning, if like every other night, the television blares and the phone rings, the bad angel will smile and say that the house should have a Shabbos like this every week. And the good angel will have to hang his head, hold back his tears and say Amen. If we closed our eyes, we could see those two angels looking in our windows, the good one bestowing his blessing upon us.
Next we sang the aishet chayil: A woman of valor who can find? Her value is higher than pearls. Her husband's heart depends on her and he shall lack no fortune. As we took in our husbands' thankful faces, we felt appreciated like no other time. We didn't mind doing the housework, but still, a little gratitude was nice. Then our husbands placed their hands on our children's heads and blessed them: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh, like Sarah, Rivka, Rochel and Leah, may He bless you and keep you. They recited the kiddush over the full cups of red wine, blessing God who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Then we went into our kitchens and washed our hands with two cupfuls of water on each loosely clenched fist and didn't speak until our husbands recited the hamotzi and we bit into pieces of the braided challahs.
During the first courses we had prepared, we tried our best not to talk about Batsheva. We didn't want to engage in needless gossip, at least not at the Shabbos table. Instead, we talked about Shira Feldman, Becky Feldman's seventeen-year-old daughter, who had once again been spotted wearing a scandalously short skirt. We mentioned the fact that Yocheved Abraham, already twenty-nine, had returned home from New York without finding a husband. She was so picky, no one was ever good enough for her, and she was no beauty either. And, God help us, the news that Rachel Ann Berkowitz's little boy had come down with chicken pox. Surely that meant an epidemic was imminent. Any day now our children might be covered with the telltale red spots.
But by the time we brought out the chickens, salads, and kugels we had spent all day making, we couldn't stop ourselves from mentioning Batsheva. We had held our mouths for long enough and our curiosity bubbled over like boiling pots of water.
Over fried chicken, green bean almondine, and black-eyed peas, Helen Shayowitz leaned forward to share her news with her two sons, their wives and her grandchildren. After first hearing about Batsheva from Mrs. Levy, Helen had made a few phone calls of her own and had found out something that Mrs. Levy hadn't been able to uncover. She was proud of this coup. It proved that she was not simply Mrs. Levy's right-hand woman; she could be an eyes and ears all on her own.
How she found out her information was a little roundabout, but that didn't matter; news was news. Helen's brother David lives in West Memphis, Arkansas, and is no longer religious, but no one (at Helen's request) speaks about that anymore. It's a long story, but suffice it to say that he went to a secular college and that was the end of that. Anyway, he works for the same computer company as Joseph Liebman and they had happened to speak a few days earlier. The conversation came round to Memphis, and Joseph mentioned that they had finally rented the house.
"I suppose Joseph thought to tell David about the house because he knows I live here," Helen explained. "But you know David. He couldn't remember anything about this woman, only that she's from up north somewhere."
Helen shook her head. What was the point of finding out that the house was rented but not getting information about this newcomer? It was like driving all the way to the grocery and forgetting to buy milk. But Helen did get the one other piece of information David was able to recall. The woman who was renting the Liebmans' house had a connection here. She had been married to someone from Memphis.
UP the street, Edith Shapiro was eating at the Newburgers' house, which she often did since her husband died. Tziporah Newburger had given her a standing invitation. When other people extended invitations, Edith never knew if they were being sincere; she assumed they didn't really want a sad old lady around. Only Tziporah seemed to really mean it. She had invited her not once, not twice but three times until finally Edith had accepted. Tziporah's mother was Edith's husband's third cousin, and that made it easier; being related was, after all, the most important thing there was, and Edith was determined to cling to any branch of her dwindling family tree. And now, after a few months, the Newburgers' living room was her second home. Edith had even grown used to Tziporah's nervous demeanor, to the plastic tablecloths Tziporah spread over her good linen ones, the paper plates she relied on, and the chaos of so many children screaming, running around, knocking things over.
After the youngest kids had been put to bed, tucked in once and then twice, it was finally possible for Edith to reveal what she knew. She felt it was her obligation as a guest to always come equipped with some interesting topic of conversation and a nice bottle of grape juice; that way, the Newburgers wouldn't grow tired of her company.
"This afternoon," Edith said and paused dramatically, "I spoke to my cousin Jeanette who lives in New Jersey, and I happened to mention that a woman with a little girl had moved in."
Wasn't this a coincidence, but a few weeks before, Jeanette had run into Barbara Jacobs, who used to live in Memphis. They were in line at a kosher bakery in New Jersey, and at the time Barbara was looking after her only granddaughter. Her son, Benjamin, had died in a terrible car accident two years before and this little girl was all she had left of him. Jeanette overheard the child a sweet, blond-haired little girl talking about the new place she and her mother were moving, somewhere far away. When Jeanette leaned closer, trying to pick out a fresh chocolate babka, she swore she heard the word Memphis. Jeanette's ears perked up and though she didn't ask she didn't want to appear nosy she was quite certain the word was Memphis.
According to what Edith and Tziporah pieced together, the girl in the bakery must have been Ayala how many blond-haired little girls could be moving to Memphis in such a short period of time? And if this was true, then Barbara Jacobs must have been Batsheva's mother-in-law, Batsheva having been married to her son, Benjamin. Edith and Tziporah nodded in satisfaction. Everything was starting to make sense.
AT the Levy household, Mrs. Levy had information which would confirm Edith and Tziporah's hypothesis. As usual, Mrs. Levy had a crowd for dinner; she preferred cooking for big groups and that night, the Berners and the Reinhards had been invited. Mrs. Levy always served buffet style. She enjoyed spreading out a meal on her best serving pieces, the pickles and olives arranged just so, the brisket carved and decorated with sprigs of parsley, the cherry noodle kugel set out on a bed of lettuce so that the colors contrasted with the right amount of drama. And then the excitement of the guests seeing the food all at once. It was more creative; it turned cooking and serving into an art.
Once everyone had piled food on their plates and returned to their seats, Mrs. Levy cleared her throat, making sure she had everyone's undivided attention. At the other end of the table, her husband, Irving, smiled. He was used to her taking control, and he loved seeing her shine like this, all eyes on her as if she were a movie star.
"Something strange happened last week at the Ladies' Night Out Supperette," she began. "The Supperette itself was lovely the food was delicious and the decorations were perfect. But ..."
At the time, Mrs. Levy hadn't known what to make of it, but after her visit to Batsheva that afternoon, it snapped into place. At the Supperette right after the smoked salmon quiches the Rabbi's wife, Mimi Rubin, started asking how the Jacobs were doing, wondering if anyone had spoken to them since Benjamin died, if anyone remembered where Benjamin's wife was from.
"It's not like Mimi to go around gossiping. But then I realized that she must know something the rest of us didn't," Mrs. Levy explained.
Not one to hold her tongue, she had come right out and asked Mimi why she was so curious. But Mimi said she had been thinking about them, that was all.
"I didn't buy that. Not for a minute. I didn't know why she was asking, I just knew there had to be a reason. And now I know what that is," Mrs. Levy said. According to her now well-documented theory, Batsheva was the Jacobs' former daughter-in-law and she had no doubt called the Rabbi and inquired about the community before moving in. Mimi must have known Batsheva was coming, even if the rest of us didn't. It was common, Mrs. Levy knew, to do this, but obviously there were special circumstances at play here. Batsheva was hardly the usual newcomer, hardly someone who had selected this community because she was a good match for it. Mimi must have been doing a little background work, trying to get the whole story, so she could keep an eye out for this woman.
Mrs. Levy was filled with the satisfaction of once again being able to detect any piece of news, as if she were a seismograph sensitive to every shift in the community. She rose to serve dessert. This week she had gone all out: individual lemon mousse freezes with a pareve whipped-cream topping, in addition to her famous peach pie and her mother's apple spice upside-down cake.
THESE pieces of information about Batsheva and her daughter stirred our memories and at each of our tables we began putting them in order. Jocelyn Shanzer remembered that many years after the Jacobs moved away from Memphis, Benjamin had become engaged to a non-Jewish girl that he met in New York. His family had tried to hush up the news. There were no announcements or photographs of the happy couple in the Jewish newspapers, no engagement parties or phone calls to old friends. Of course we heard about it anyway and knew that even though she was converting, the Jacobs were heartbroken. We too hadn't been sure what to make of the wedding, whether we should be happy for Benjamin or if this was a sign that he was no longer religious, her conversion only an appeasement for his parents.
Doreen Sheinberg recalled that we hadn't called or sent mazel toy cards with glass bowls or crock pots as engagement gifts. It was a small wedding, only their immediate families and a few friends. We weren't offended that we hadn't been invited, even though we had invited them to all our weddings and bar mitzvahs. After that, it was harder to keep in touch. We heard little about the Jacobs until Mrs. Levy got a phone call one morning with the bad news: Benjamin and his wife and small daughter (whose birth we hadn't heard about) were driving in the Catskill Mountains, a weekend vacation. It was raining, and up there the roads are dark, the turns sharp and the edges steep. Benjamin was killed instantly, but his wife and daughter escaped unharmed.
Since then, we hadn't heard much about Benjamin's wife and daughter. We had eventually stopped wondering about them and assumed that they had stopped being religious. Now that her connection to Judaism was gone, she would have returned to her family and her people. Eating our desserts, we shook our heads and drew the only possible conclusion: the woman who had moved into our neighborhood was Benjamin Jacobs's wife, scooped up by some cyclone and deposited here for God knows what reason. This feeling of wonder added a new spice to our Shabbos meals, an extra pinch of excitement.
That night no one saw Batsheva. The crickets chirped in muffled tones, the only sounds on our streets. It hadn't cooled off and the air was full from the relentless heat and humidity. Every once in a while, a shadow passed behind Batsheva's windows, then vanished from sight. A few times, we saw a hand move aside the curtain, revealing the hazy outline of a face. As the night wore on, our houses went dark, our automatic timers switching off our lights one by one. But Batsheva's house was still and her lights burned the whole night like a lonely beacon calling out from the middle of our neighborhood.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel opens with an almost pastoral description of Memphis's Jewish neighborhood, typologically evoking a "city on the hill" image. How do the themes that imbue this first scene set the tone for the rest of the book?
2. Find a passage in which a Jewish ceremony is described. In what ways does Mirvis show the myriad, even contradictory, meanings that it contains for each of its participants?
3. The use of the first-person plural pronoun for the narrative voice emphasizes the collective, uniform nature of the community. The story is told not by any one member of the community but by a chorus. How does Mirvis play with this voice to emphasize moments of dissension or doubt? At what points is the voice the least omniscient?
4. What did you make of the seeming role reversal between mothers and daughters, with the mothers portrayed as naïve and the daughters as more perceptive and worldly?
5. What do you think will happen after the end of the novel? Will Batsheva stay? To what extent will she be integrated, if at all?
6. How do you imagine Ayala to be five or ten years after the end of the novel?
7. This book, with its independent, proud heroine, could be read alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (even down to the strange apparitions in the sky). How do they both explore issues of tradition, tolerance, belief, individuality, and forgiveness? In what important ways do they diverge?
8. What characters did you identify with most? Was it always Batsheva?
9. Do you think Yosef's doubt about Judaism predated Batsheva's arrival? Or did it grow out of their conversations?
10. Was there ever a point where you agreed with those who thought that Batsheva had "crossed the line"?
11. How and where does Mirvis blur the division between religious faith and small-town provincialism?
12. Do you think it is possible to carve out a space for individualism within an orthodoxy? Is what Batsheva attempts even possible or, in the end, do you have to choose one over the other? (Perhaps think of other storiesVoltaire's Candide, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Henry James's Daisy Millerin which someone presents a challenge to an established order.).
13. What do you make of the vision in the sky that ends the novel? How can it be read along with the opening scene of the novel?