Get yourself a cup of coffee (iced or steaming), sit back and read my short story which appeared in Commentary Magazine, January 2015.
One Kiss, One Baby, One God
“What do you mean, impossible?” I was holding my newborn baby and looking up at my husband. “One kiss, that’s all I’m asking.”
“You’re tameh. We can’t touch.” Meir stood and stretched his long, lumberjack arms above my hospital bed and held them just there. “You can feel this hug, can’t you? And don’t announce his name until after his bris. Seven days for the creation of the physical world, eight days for the spiritual one.”
I looked at him, then at the sooty skies of Brooklyn draped across the window, and then down at our son, whom I’d already named Boaz. A name with the letter B in memory of my friend, Brad McQuiston, who had died of AIDS eight years ago. Brad was tawny, blond, lithe; Boaz was dark and tiny and smelled like moist earth.
“So, after the bris,” Meir said, “where do you want to have the pigeon hopping?”
“The pidyon haben.” He smiled, revealing the space between his two front teeth I liked touching with my tongue. “Rabbi Baruch said a woman once called it a pigeon hopping. You know, the ceremony to honor a woman’s first-born son. You don’t have another child somewhere that I don’t know about?” Meir let out a laugh but his dark eyes scorched me.
“No.” I dropped my eyes and my baby’s face was now superimposed on another baby’s face, ghostly and indistinct. I tipped my head up toward Meir and said again, louder, “No.”
Before I married Meir, I always rode my Rollerblades to work. So what happened happened one July morning, not too long after Brad had passed on. It was a 3-H morning—hazy, hot and humid—and I spotted Schoolboy on the corner of Seventh Avenue cooing at me like a lover. But I’d made a vow to Brad before he died to stop smoking weed, so I skated right past Schoolboy, turning down 28th Street where the flirty, overgrown plants and trees made me feel as if I were in a tropical jungle. At Broadway, the DON’T WALK sign flashed.
Stopped right by a wall bordering a construction site, and that was where I saw a poster advertising a mysticism class. The Hebrew letters spelling Kabbalah whisked me back to Hebrew School and the gloomy foreign teacher who gave me a Hebrew name, Shoshana, because he felt sorry for me, a Jewish American girl without a name to bind me to my people. I hadn’t been to synagogue in almost 20 years, and as I stared, I suddenly remembered my old, secret name. I decided to take the subway to Brooklyn to attend the class the following night.
Rabbi Baruch Jablonsky had a monumental nose and little brown pebble eyes. He spoke with emphasis: His words fell like large stones into a lake. I listened, my mind unraveling, and suddenly I understood that all my glittery, reckless days and nights had conveyed me here: to this classroom containing no pictures, no decorations, nothing except for a blackboard with a sign: “The one who returns from a distance is greater than the one who has always been close.”
“When are you ready for a new beginning?” the rabbi asked, not waiting for an answer from any of the dozen students. “Think of a bean. A lowly lima bean. A nothing. But put it in the ground! One dead bean creates life.”
At the next class, he invited any/all of us (he made a cut in the air resembling a slash) for Shabbos with his family. Seven children, he told us, but always room for guests. After packing my bag on Friday morning, I stood in my doorway, looking around. I’d done little to transform my apartment: I lived like a nomad in a cave. I skated to work and asked my boss, Christopher Phegly, if I could leave at five that day instead of the usual nine o’clock.
“There are dozens of other graphic designers who’d jump at the opportunity to work here,” said Phegly, a pudgy Englishman with a fold of skin hanging over his collar.
“I’ve never even—”
“—gotten your MFA,” Phegly said. “Just this time.”
“Thanks!” I walked away before he changed his mind.
“Phegly actually said you could leave?” whispered Louise, looking up at me from her computer screen, her reddish hair pinned down flat. She was also in her early 30s, unmarried, unmoored. “What did you have to do—promise you-know-what?”
“I planned my request right after his boozy lunch.”
“Brilliant,” Louise said.
When I arrived at the rabbi’s door later that afternoon, a girl who couldn’t have been more than twelve opened it, emancipating the smells of burnt toast, onions, laundry detergent. She was wearing a navy-blue long-sleeve shirt and a long navy-blue skirt. “I’m Ruth,” she said. “Not Ruthie. And you are…?”
Behind her, I saw a dining-room table was covered in white like a bridal gown. “I am…” Sweaty and exposed, I wanted to say, and painfully aware that my short yellow cotton skirt and zebra-print shirt were way off. How come Rabbi Baruch hadn’t warned us to put on appropriate attire?
“Who?” Ruth asked again.
“Jessica,” I said. “Jessica Dallis.”
“What you’re wearing…”
“I know.” I turned and walked down the stairs, the sun sinking, its thick heat still pressing on my shoulder blades, my palms, my ears. Again I remembered, from years ago, leaving the inn in Portland where I’d gone to meet my boyfriend, Terence. We’d staged a fake football game in our room—he was linebacker to my quarterback—and then made love, and right after that, he told me it was unethical. Because of his wife.
“Do you have it in your heart to forgive me, baby?” he asked as I got dressed in the dim light.
“I don’t deserve this!” I slammed the door and left the inn, but riding on the train away from Maine, I thought that maybe I did deserve this, the defeat that came with trying to beg someone to care for me. The train couldn’t reach New York fast enough.
“The only man I know who ever left his wife for another woman was your father,” my mother told me the next afternoon in her apartment—the one she’d moved to after my father had split. She was sitting in the kitchen on her favorite chair surrounded by newspapers and stock certificates.
“I came here because you were supposed to make me feel better.”
“So come back when I’m cheery,” she said, “which means I won’t see you for a while.”
“And give it all up already.” I stared down at a yellowing certificate from some uranium company. “Those papers are from 30 years ago.”
“I should let her get everything?” my mother said, and the bitterness in her eyes filled me with so much desolation that I sprung out of my seat like a rocket. I told my mother I’d pick up deli for dinner, escaping before her first vodka. Before I had to listen to the terrible crash of ice against glass.
Now I reached the steps, and Ruth ran after me, intercepting me, taking my suitcase like a bellhop. “Don’t go,” she said. “We have time before Shabbos to get you something to wear.”
She placed my bag in the hallway of her house, closed the door behind her, and led me to the sidewalk. Brooklyn was blanketed with heat, leaves curling in exhaustion, air-conditioning units dripping, condensation gathering on the bakery windows. The entire city was sweating.
We stepped down three steps into Malkie’s. The coolness in the shop was a relief. Ruth circled the clothes racks, pulling out blouses and skirts as if I were the rebellious daughter and she were the mother, the same way my mother used to shop with me, urging me into clothes I hated—as if forcing me to wear extra layers of heavy skin.
“This really is not going to work,” I said. Ignoring me, Ruth gestured toward an empty communal dressing room and closed the curtain, leaving me alone.
I reluctantly tried on a pleated brown skirt that hit the most unflattering part of my calves and a cream-colored blouse of questionable material. “You’ll see how bad this is!” I called, whisking the curtain open.
“But you look so pretty,” Ruth said.
“Yeah, sure, thanks, anyway.” I closed the curtain again.
“You can wear the clothes right out of the store!”
I stood there for a long moment, desperate and lost, looking in the mirror at this, this person staring back at me, but the idea of returning to my lonely apartment made me feel even worse.
“Shabbos is coming!” Ruth said. “Let’s go!”
I didn’t have the energy to argue. I paid for the clothes and stepped out of the shop. On the street, the strangest thing happened: Nobody looked at me twice. Rollerblading through Manhattan, I noticed that people often stopped to follow my gangly frame, my wild hair flying behind me like dark wings. But I blended in with the last-minute shoppers and the blue sky fading, the clouds turning pink, and the smooth velvety hush as the Sabbath rose all around us.
Rabbi Baruch sat at the head of the dining-room table, long as a shuffleboard court, three guys about my age clustered around him. Ruth and her five siblings sat in the middle section; I was at the other end with the rabbi’s wife, Hannah Esther, a plump, jaunty woman in a loose black caftan, a silver-threaded scarf wrapped around her head.
“This next prayer is in honor of my wife,” the rabbi said, casting an earnest glance at Hannah Esther.
I looked at the English translation in my prayer booklet—A good wife who can find? She is more precious than corals—as Hannah Esther held out a spoon and whispered, “Open up, bubbeleh,” to the baby propped in the high chair next to her.
Another prayer, then sweet red wine. The rabbi explained, “The table is our altar,” and after reciting another blessing, we ate doughy challah sprinkled with salt.
“Ruth, please watch Menachem Mendel,” Hannah Esther said, standing. Since I was the only other woman at the table, I thought it made sense to follow her through the swinging door. In the kitchen, scents of countless meals hung in the air. Knife scratches in the countertops, bibs hanging from cabinet knobs, children’s plastic dishes stacked on the table. Hannah Esther stood at the stove, dipping a long ladle into a pot of soup.
Until that moment, I hadn’t known what to do with my life—it was like staring at a blob of clay—and suddenly, I knew. I knew. “You’re only a few years older than me and you have all this,” I said.
“That’s why I love having guests, because they remind me of all I’ve been given,” Hannah Esther said, arching her plucked eyebrows upwards, as if God was overhead, like a ceiling sconce. “Sometimes I get so caught up in the everyday that I forget.”
One of the boys ran in and a smaller kid chased him, yelling, “Yehuda stole my challah!”
“I did not!” the bigger boy said, both of them dressed like miniature men in white button-down shirts and black pants.
“Guys, enough! Run back as fast as you can and you’ll be the first to get soup!” Hannah Esther smiled at me, dimples blossoming in her cheeks.
After the soup, I brought out platters of broiled chicken, overcooked string beans (“Oops, I forgot about them,” whispered Hannah Esther), and boiled potatoes. The baby was whimpering and Hannah Esther ate quickly, and when the baby really got going with his operatic wails, she picked him up, took one last bite of chicken, and opened the prayer book. I watched her mouth the prayers in an undertone like a bus going up a familiar road. She nodded at her husband, then me, and disappeared upstairs.
“An amazing snowy story I’ve got to tell you on a summer night,” Rabbi Baruch said, wiping his shaggy moustache and beard with his napkin. “About a rebbe who brought wood to an old, sick woman somewhere in the Old Country. Brought the wood, and the woman said, ‘But, rebbe, I have no money to pay you now.’
‘Don’t worry,’ the rebbe said. ‘I’m willing to trust you. And if I am willing to trust you, someone who is frail and weak’” The rabbi turned in my direction. “Then you can trust God who is almighty and everlasting.”
The next morning, I found Hannah Esther in the kitchen feeding the baby while Ruth sat at the table, chewing a pink candy bracelet around her wrist.
“Don’t you go to synagogue?” I asked Hannah Esther after I poured myself a cup of tea.
“By the time I get everyone dressed…” she laughed. “I don’t have to find God there when He’s everywhere. But Ruth can take you.”
We left the house. It was another 3-H day, but this time with muggy thrown in, and the streets were quiet. When Ruth and I reached the synagogue, we climbed the stairs to the women’s balcony. The men were praying down below, and a curtain blocked our view. I might as well have been in an elevator shaft.
“We can’t see anything,” I said.
“There’s nothing to see.” Ruth took another bite of her candy bracelet. A few women were praying, some were whispering, and when a girl next to Ruth yanked on her pigtail, Ruth elbowed her back.
I reached for a tattered prayer book, some of its pages torn out and then stuck back in, making it look like a telephone book. I stared at the Hebrew letters, recognizing the Shin resembling a deity with three arms raised and ready for an embrace. I wasn’t sure what the words meant, but I could read them, my mouth shaping the soothing sounds.
A murmur rippled through the crowd below; then came loud clapping and stomping.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Ruth shrugged. “A rabbi or something.”
Voices swelled all around me, the sounds grew louder, and I suddenly felt so alone. Nobody in that whole place could ever understand all the empty moments, the mistakes, and the regrets of my life. I looked out the window, the sky a woolen smudge. The men were singing—na, na, na, na, na—and I thought of how Rabbi Baruch had said that only Moses had ever seen the face of God. I shut my eyes tight. I expected to find darkness, but instead I saw fireworks on the back of my eyelids, and bands of white light beckoning me, taking me in. Not letting me go.
‘Three stars out!’ shouted one of the boys, running into the house the following night. “Three stars!”
All afternoon, I’d played Rummikub with Ruth and some of the other kids while Hannah Esther rested and took care of her baby. Time was fluid, meandering, and soon after twilight wandered in and night followed, Rabbi Baruch returned from synagogue and lit a blue-and-white braided candle.
“Hold the candle as high as you want your husband to be,” Rabbi Baruch told me, as all the lights in the room went dark.
I lifted the candle like a torch and in the dusky light, one broad face with nightwalker’s eyes stared back at me.
A prayer was said, a silver filigree box passed around, and as I brought the box up to my nose, I breathed in the smell of cloves and looked at that pillar of a man. Like that time the sun came up after I’d danced all night with Brad. We were high on mushrooms and he hadn’t yet been diagnosed with AIDS and we made love on the roof of his apartment building—that one time because it was right after the Terence fiasco and he had just broken up with his boyfriend, too—and I’d watched the dawn unfolding, feeling as if I could melt into the orange fusion of the sun. Right now I had the same feeling. My body had been snapped in two and radiance poured in.
The candle was extinguished, the lights went on, and the guy appeared next to me, asking in a quiet voice if he could walk me home.
“It would be a very long walk back to Manhattan,” I said. “And I have a suitcase.”
He smiled, the space between his front teeth revealing itself. “Coffee, then. We’ll go around here, then I’ll take you home.”
I said ‘Liz Shein.’ He said “Rick Gottlieb.”
We were playing Jewish Geography—he grew up one town over from me on Long Island—as we walked to Coney Island Avenue, shopkeepers heaving up metal shutters and lights going on, one by one.
Then Meir told me his real name. “I used to be Matt,” he said.
“I’m Jessica,” I said. “I’ve always been Jessica.”
“Don’t you have a Hebrew name?”
“Shoshana.” I told Meir about my Hebrew School teacher, and how I’d asked my mother why she hadn’t given me a Hebrew name: She said the whole idea was backwards.
“But Shoshana’s a nice name.”
“Maybe for someone born around here,” I said as a pregnant woman pushing a stroller with three kids sitting in a row like a commuter train passed by. Heat clung to the evening, and a fine layer of perspiration beads clung to my upper lip, above the pink lipstick I’d carefully applied before I left the rabbi’s house. “But I never experienced Shabbos before. The way Rabbi Baruch sang that song to his wife—and so many kids.” I pushed away the memory of a nameless baby who might have been Brad’s or Terence’s, I wasn’t sure which, and a deep sense of grief rolled through me.
But Meir didn’t notice. “And the way they counted stars,” he said, opening the door for me at Tammy’s Pastry Shop.
The place was old-timey, with ten tables and background muzak suitable for an ice-skating rink. We ordered two teas and decided to share a Napoleon, which the bald waiter called a crème-shnit.
Meir told me that after studying music at Oberlin, he took a backpacking trip through India. “I spent a month meditating in an ashram,” he said. “I thought I’d stay but it didn’t feel right. I came back and started working in a plant store that sold hydroponic equipment in Williamsburg. The religious guys turned me off until six months ago when a friend introduced me to Rabbi Baruch. That first Shabbos at his house, I was hooked. I couldn’t go back to my old life. I quit my job. I’m studying now. I feel like I finally have the boots I need to climb the mountain.”
“Hannah Esther is really nice but she doesn’t look like she’s climbing any mountain.”
“You have a soul that needs stretching.” Meir stared at me as if he saw something I could not see inside myself. My heart beat fast against my chest.
“What’s your story?” he asked, after our order came.
I told him how my father had left my mother in—literally—one day when I was in tenth grade. I got off the school bus, walked into my house, and saw the empty spaces on the walls: Gone were my father’s law degree, his college diploma, and his favorite paintings. Gone were the books he was reading for his adult-ed philosophy class (it turned out he had fallen in love with another budding philosopher), his golf clubs, and his chess set.
“I’d never do that to my wife and kids,” Meir said, and I was so moved that I reached for his arm and accidentally knocked over his tea, spilling it on my new skirt.
“Waiter!” Meir’s hand shot up. “Could you bring us something to wipe up the mess?”
“You have more than enough napkins,” the waiter said.
“But they’re for…” Meir paused. “My friend here!”
“You want to be a nudge, be a nudge!” the waiter said. “Your father was probably a nudge, his father before that, from generation to generation—”
“We don’t need the whole spiel!” Meir said, his voice so loud that the coffee shop stopped for a moment. But Meir didn’t care—he held my eye.
After he paid the bill, we rode the subway, our knees rattling against each other’s. It started to drizzle as we walked along 28th Street. The plants and flowers and trees were packed away, Schoolboy had vanished, and the city lay tranquil, stationary; only some insects chased one another in the flannel light coming off the street lamps.
At my building, Meir climbed the five flights to my apartment with me. I opened the door and stopped: I could feel the force field vibrating between us.
“I don’t believe in physical relationships before marriage,” Meir said. “Once I had—I’m sorry to say—sex with a girl, and afterwards, I told her I wanted to buy some cigarettes. I went out, saw some of my friends and completely forgot about her—and we’d just been together. It has to be special. What about you?”
I didn’t tell him about Brad. I didn’t tell him about Terence. “How will you know it will be good between us?” I asked.
“I already know.” His eyes locked with mine. “I could tell the moment I noticed you holding the candle.”
“Not during the dinner the night before?” I asked. “I didn’t even notice you. Can you tell these aren’t the clothes I would ordinarily wear?”
“Everyone wears a uniform,” Meir said. “Punks wear one. Monks wear one. I used to look like a hippie, and now I wear black pants and a white shirt. What’s the big deal? I’m burned out from searching. Once I find what I want, I don’t let go.”
We married in Rabbi Baruch’s office two months later. We didn’t want to juggle my mother and my father and his second wife and Meir’s parents, so we asked Rabbi Baruch and two other rabbis to be our witnesses. I’d always wondered about life as a blonde: Since I had to cover my hair as a married woman anyway, I bought a wig with golden tresses. Right after the ceremony, I called my mother.
“Maid Marion gets married and can’t even invite her own mother?”
“Mom, it would have been so weird with all of you—”
“What’s weird is believing in something that doesn’t exist,” she said. “Was the way I brought you up that bad, that you had to get religious?”
“Just because I want this way of life doesn’t mean it’s your fault.”
“Not to get one dance at my daughter’s wedding?”
“We didn’t even dance,” I said.
That night, I stood in the bedroom of our new apartment. I’d been to the mikveh, the ritual bath, and Meir had pushed our new twin beds together, train tracks reunited. He pulled up my cotton nightgown, staring at my body. “I am my beloved’s,” Meir said, his lips making a damp trail down to my belly. “And my beloved is mine.”
‘Mom,’ I said, “Could you please pass me another chocolate turtle but with pecans this time?”
“I’m taking them away from you.” My mother was sitting next to my hospital bed. “He can eat all he wants.” She lifted her clouded face toward Meir, who was standing at the foot of the bed. “Me, I wear it. But it doesn’t matter anymore—who’s going to see me naked? Not your father—”
“Mom!” I glanced at Meir’s parents by the window.
“I still don’t see the draw,” Meir’s father said, his brown eyes brassy as keys, his thin lips pulled tight. “When I was growing up in Brooklyn, all I wanted was to escape from Brooklyn.”
“I don’t understand it, either,” said Meir’s mother, holding my newborn baby. She had dyed auburn hair and a pinched face. “But the baby looks just like you did, Matt.”
“It’s Meir, Ma.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “I keep trying but don’t you think it’s hard? I’ve called you Matt your whole life.”
“And you didn’t have a problem when I used to write it on your checks,” Meir’s father said.
“That was before,” Meir said.
“Like Jesus,” my mother said. “Before Converting and After Death.”
“Mom.” I stared at her. “I’m sorry, everyone, but the party’s over. I really need to rest.”
Meir stayed after they’d all left, then asked me about the ceremony for our firstborn child. I hesitated. From the nursery just down the hall, I imagined I heard babies crying: some strong, some mangled, some so tiny they could barely pump their own hearts. In my mind, my first baby appeared: Brad or Terence’s baby.
The one I had to let go.
A crinkling sound woke me three weeks later. Was Boaz wrapped in cellophane, trying to burst loose? I jumped out of bed, but he was asleep in the bassinet, his behind raised in the air like a tadpole. Meir had tied a red ribbon around the baby’s wrist to ward off the evil eye. I bent over the bassinet, folding myself all the way over, my head hovering above Boaz’s torso, checking to make sure he was still breathing.
Then I heard the scrunching again. I walked into the kitchen where Meir sat, peeling back the cellophane from inside a photo album, pulling out pictures.
“Meir!” I grabbed the album. “What are you doing? That’s mine!”
“We can’t have things like this around here,” he said. “You in that figure-skating outfit. How is our son going to find a girl from a good family when you used to look like a Rockette?”
“I was nine years old!” I held the album to my chest. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Shoshana,” Meir said. “We’re walking up this mountain together, and I want to reach the top with you.”
“I’m Jessica,” I said.
“Once I opened this door, I shut the door on my past,” Meir said. “I don’t want to be reminded. It’s too great a temptation for our kids. We have to build a fence around our new life.”
“But that doesn’t mean wiping everything away as if it never existed.” I glanced at the clock on the stove. It was 3:07 in the morning. I opened the refrigerator and stood there with the door open. I didn’t know what I wanted to eat, but even the whole cheesecake in there didn’t seem like enough.
“If you need to stop drinking,” said Meir behind me, “you pour out the Sangria, you don’t keep it around.”
“Those are photos.” I took out the cake and cut myself a generous slice. Then I sat across from Meir and opened my album, looking at a photo of Brad and me at a party somewhere downtown. I was wearing a strapless dress. I had shoulders that I used to show off in public and a cleavage that sunk deep. “You’re like my mother, Meir. She wanted me to rip up photos of my father, too, after their divorce. I didn’t do it for her, and I’m not doing it for you.”
“This was lying around on the living-room table.”
“I was looking at my old baby pictures.”
“I don’t want our son to grow up with any doubts about who he is,” said Meir. “I want him to be sure of his place on earth. I don’t want him to have to go through all the stuff I went through.”
“He still might grow up to want to play baseball—or even strip poker.”
“I should never have told you that story.” Meir’s face reddened in every spot where his beard was not.
“You know what I wish?” I said.
“Turn to God,” he said.
“I wish you’d hug me. I’m so lonely for a hug. How long do I have to wait for a hug from you?”
“Until there’s no blood, plus seven more days,” he said. “I’m never alone when I’m with God. Really with Him. What’s a hug from me compared to a hug from God?”
“I’ll hug Him after I hug you,” I said. “A little foreplay.”
“That’s not funny.”
“You’re building a brick wall.” I moved around the table and kneeled beside him. “I believe, too, but one time, can’t we just—?”
“No,” Meir said. “I’m no longer the hippie with the harmonica. If I do one thing wrong, it will be easier the next—”
“You’re scared,” I said. “That’s why you’re so rigid. I bet Rabbi Baruch has hugged Hannah Esther once or twice in emergencies, even when she’s impure.”
Meir picked up a photo of himself in a Little League uniform and ripped it in half.
“Don’t!” I pleaded. “That photo explains why I wanted to be with you. Because we understood each other.”
Meir tore the photo again.
Boaz cried out. I went into our bedroom, scooped him up, and nursed him, trying to figure out a plan. Disorganized light, then gray light, then yellow light trundled back the night. After Meir left for his job at Greenspan’s Florists, I packed a bag, dressed Boaz, and took the subway to my old office.
Everyone crowded around as I held Boaz in my arms.
“Congratulations,” Phegly said. “I see you’re not returning to work soon—and when you do, your knowledge will be outdated.”
“That’s okay, I have new knowledge about life,” I said, but Phegly had already walked away.
Louise hugged me. “You better not come back.” Then she introduced me to my replacement, a skinny girl with crimson red lipstick, who made me feel matronly and old and very fat.
“Let’s go out to lunch,” Louise whispered after the others went back to their desks.
We walked over to the Argosy. Louise sat down at our favorite table by the window, and I went to the bathroom because Boaz had started to cry. I locked the door behind me and caught my reflection, inexplicably unfamiliar, in the mirror. Instead of the Maid Marion wig, I’d decided on an artsy blue scarf, but the edges had come undone, and I tucked them back in, as if remaking a messy bed. I laid Boaz down on the diaper bag between the sink and toilet as someone knocked on the door.
“One minute!” I called, then lowered my voice. “Don’t cry, little man, it’s not so bad.” But his diaper had leaked all over his clothes, and that made me channel my mother’s voice, hissing, “Tell him if he thinks it’s bad now, it only gets worse.”
Boaz wailed as I threw his diaper in the bin and hurried him into new clothes. I somehow managed to balance him against me afterwards so I could pee and wash my hands.
“What the hell are you doing in there?” blasted a man’s voice on the other side of the door.
“I’m really sorry!” I said, opening it.
“Some of us have to work,” the man said.
I joined Louise at the table. She’d already ordered us two Greek salads. I draped a shawl over my shoulder and nursed Boaz.
“I’m so happy for you.” Louise gave my hand a squeeze by the napkin dispenser. She wore thick black eyeliner that made her pale blue eyes seem even paler.
“Are you seeing anyone?” I asked.
“Nobody special,” she said. “You’re not missing anything.”
“But I miss it,” I said quietly. “I miss the excitement. The energy. Going out after work, drinking Margaritas.”
“It was smart of you to give it all up for Manischewitz.”
“Louise,” I said, “I have to get this off my chest and I’m choosing you.”
“I’m not one of the chosen people.”
“I’m supposed to do this firstborn ceremony for Boaz next week,” I said. “But sadly, I had an abortion, which means that Boaz is not considered my firstborn, and I don’t know how to tell Meir.”
“First things first.” Louise spoke slowly, which was pretty much the way she did everything. “Who was the father?”
“Either Brad, my friend who died of AIDS, or Terence, remember? That married guy.”
“I couldn’t have kept that baby,” I said. “I hated myself so much, I couldn’t have loved the baby inside me.”
“We do such bad things to ourselves.”
“Meir doesn’t know one-tenth of the things I’ve done,” I said. “He thinks God is watching us when we’re making love.”
“God would never join a ménage à trois.”
Louise was the only one who could make me laugh when I wanted to shrivel up and die. “What exactly is that ceremony?” she asked.
“Firstborn sons were spared from the tenth plague,” I explained. “So your firstborn son is special. If you had a miscarriage or an abortion, then you can’t have the ceremony, and Meir will be so disappointed. But if I decide not to tell him and have the ceremony anyway, then I’m being irreverent about things he takes so seriously.”
“I think you should take the risk and tell him.”
“He loves the me I am now. Not the me I once was. I wish I could run away.”
My father had an apartment off Columbus Avenue, but the second wife and the new kids were there, and I didn’t want to go to my mother’s. Through the window, I watched an elderly woman reach the curb of the street. The sun struck her face and she squinted, as if stopped by a sudden, blinding question.
“You can stay at my place.” Louise picked up our lunch bill. “I’m not expecting anybody—unfortunately.”
Taxis screeched down Broadway. Sunshine, commuters, a taxi honking. I’d forgotten ordinary life: I’d forgotten it still went on. I walked uptown and Louise stayed with me, the warm air turning warmer, like soup on the stove. That made me think of Hannah Esther and I imagined what she was doing right then: burping her newest baby or bringing a beef stew to a sick neighbor or gathering her kids’ dirty socks off the floor like a farmer harvesting his crops.
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “You should get back to work.”
“I’ll tell Phegly I don’t feel well,” she said. “I haven’t played hooky in years.” She walked by my side, moving up the street, her mismatched Converse high-tops—one blue, one plaid—springing off the sidewalk in determination. We walked past a billiard shop and a church with medieval spires. The baby didn’t stir in his carrier against my chest: He was listening to my heartbeat, more familiar to him than his own.
Louise lived in her father’s old apartment on First Avenue—she’d moved back to take care of him before he died a few years ago.
“Oh, your dad’s armchair,” I said, remembering her father sitting there, glancing up from his carefully folded newspaper. On the leather seat cushion, I could almost see the impression of her father’s shadow.
“I have to get out of here,” Louise said. “It’s pathetic to live in the place you grew up. Aren’t you going to call your husband and tell him where you are?”
“I don’t know what I want. I want to see what it would be like—you know, to live on my own.”
Louise opened the door to the hall closet, containing a couple of overcoats, a pair of rain boots, an umbrella. “This is what it would be like,” she said.
We watched Star Trek reruns and, much later, ordered Chinese food, arranging the white cardboard boxes on the coffee table and opening them like presents.
“Ah, the comforting smell of vegetable lo mein,” I said, reciting a blessing before I ate.
Louise reached for a cigar box, took out some weed, and rolled a joint, slowly licking both ends. “Want some?” she asked.
“I can’t—the baby. Bad enough he’s imbibing non-kosher food through my milk. But I don’t think it would be so dangerous if you blow in my direction.”
“It takes the edge off.” Louise leaned back, dragged hard, shot the smoke my way.
I wanted to talk more but after a time, Louise’s head dropped onto her chest and her mouth fell open, revealing crooked bottom teeth I’d never noticed before.
I nursed Boaz, who lay on my chest like a warm puppy. I nodded off, too, and when he woke me, I nursed him, burped him, and held him. Yet he kept crying, so I walked back and forth in the living room, rocking him, and then I took out the small prayer book that Meir had given me. I prayed for Boaz to stop crying, for Louise to find someone, and for Meir and me—though I wasn’t sure if that meant together or apart. Finally, Boaz fell asleep and when I woke in the morning, Louise had already left. There was a note in the kitchen. “I’m sure it was someone else’s baby who kept me up all night. Ha-ha! Stay as long as you want—here’s an extra key.”
The day was 3-H minus the muggy and on the bright side. I bought coffee and a bagel and sat by the East River, watching the runners, bicyclists, and dog walkers pass by. A loose trail of puffy clouds dotted the sky. I pictured myself living alone somewhere, going to a park to meet other mothers—single mothers, divorced mothers, widows. Then I thought of my other life: rushing to finish cooking before Shabbos began, listening to Meir explain a Biblical passage to another ex-hippie with soulful eyes, and trying to pray in the noisy synagogue balcony. A barge moved up the river. I’d run out of diapers, I’d eventually have to get my things, and I didn’t want Meir to file a police report, so I took the subway to Brooklyn.
“You’re back,” Meir said as I stepped inside. “How could you have just left like that?”
I looked at his tired face, then at the late-morning sun pouring into the apartment. Stripes of light on a slant; motes of creation floating through the air. Was God inside those particles? Was God everywhere, like Hannah Esther had said? Was God anywhere?
“I was trying to clear my head.”
“And did you?”
I knew what I wanted to say. I watched as the room darkened: Clouds filled the sky, as if the sun were hiding its face above Ocean Parkway. I breathed in, out, and then spoke. “I can’t have the pidyon haben.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you at first so we could still do the ceremony, but I can’t do that to you.”
“Do you want to tell me why we can’t have it?”
I hesitated, the weight of the baby against me. Nine months carrying him inside: Outside, I couldn’t believe how heavy he was.
“You know what?” Meir’s voice softened. “Don’t tell me. In the Bible, God told Adam to name the animals. Once Adam named them, they existed. Let’s not give anything a name. What was, was. It’s over.”
“I’m really sorry.” I stared up at my husband, aware that what I had already lost was bumping against what I might lose again. “What will you tell the rabbi?”
Meir shrugged. “He always says that your wife’s honor is as dear to you as your own. I’ll say you had a miscarriage before Boaz, even if the months we’ve been married don’t add up. The rabbi understands more than you think he does.”
“And do you?”
Meir closed his eyes, his mouth moving, his lips crafting prayers, silent and indecipherable.
“I want you to love me the way you love God,” I said.
“Religion is a discipline. If you pick and choose, then it isn’t religion.”
“You give in to God. Why can’t you give in to me?”
“It’s a different love.”
“Then I better go.” I moved past him into our bedroom, pulled out a suitcase, and reached for the skirt and shirt I’d bought with Ruth, and then all the other modest clothes that possibly belonged to someone else.
Meir appeared in the doorway, watching me.
“You know what’s the worst thing?” I glanced at Meir. “Facing my mother, who’ll say, ‘I told you so.’?” I paused. “I can’t take everything with me now, so I’ll come back to get the other stuff and we’ll figure out how to divide—”
“Multiply,” Meir said.
“‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ I don’t want to divide our things.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll only take what’s mine.” I imagined standing with the suitcase and the baby and knocking on my mother’s door. She’d push the newspapers to the side of the kitchen table and say that since I was nursing the baby, she might as well nurse a drink. Each night, we’d watch TV and I’d slowly become her, lying to myself that it no longer mattered.
“Jessica, no,” Meir said. “Please, don’t go. Don’t do this. All last night, I couldn’t sleep. I had no idea where you were, it drove me crazy. When I heard the key in the door—”
“So hold me then,” I said. “Hold me while I’m still impure.”
Meir glanced at me, startled, and his eyes fell.
I stood there, waiting for my life to go either this way or that. And I was unafraid. Was that what believing in God meant? The clouds rolled off the sun like a lover who is done, done, done. At the same time, light breathed into the room like on the first day of creation, and the space within my soul deepened and widened, completely my own.
—Commentary Magazine, January 2015
Here are some of my recent articles:
WHEN WORDS DO NOT SUFFICE By DIANA BLETTER
Published: October 12, 2012
Montauk, New York
MY best friend never made it to his favorite beach this past summer — but his 20-year-old daughter, Jessica, did. She’s an orphan now, having lost her mother to multiple sclerosis when she was 11 and her father, Dave, to non-Hodgkins lymphoma this past June.
Dave’s mother was taking care of Sam, Jessica’s autistic brother, in their apartment in New York City so that Jessica, at college in Wisconsin, could go with me to Montauk. It was the beach she went to every summer with her family when her parents were still alive.
It was a glittering day. The beach was already dotted with sunbathers and as we spread out our towels, I thought how I’d known Jessica since she was born and I’d met Dave years before that. He was the brother I wished I had: smart, athletic and outrageous. One time, in our 20s, we rode the crowded, hushed elevator in Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue — Dave and I were both exchanging gifts — and I blurted out, “Dave, how could you even think I’d marry you when the ring you gave me was so small?”
I could feel the other passengers hanging onto every word. Without missing a beat, he said, “If I hadn’t spent all that money on your bail I could have bought you a bigger ring.”
“Tell me everything you remember about my Dad,” Jessica said now as I smeared sunscreen on her back.
I told Jessica some of the stories that I was sure she already knew. I’d grown up on Long Island and met Dave, who grew up in New York City, at a college preparatory program the summer we were 16.
We both returned to the same college the following year and though he majored in engineering and I was a literature major, we sometimes studied together, drinking bad coffee and pulling all-nighters, watching the sun rise in the morning. Our friendship lasted through my tall arrogant first boyfriend and his short sweet first girlfriend. It lasted through my marriage, his marriage, my kids, his kids, and the death of his wife, Laura.
And then I remembered the morning two years ago when Dave sat with me on this Montauk beach, saying he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He told me he was scared to die. That, I didn’t tell Jessica. Instead, I told her about the time Dave caught her singing in the bathtub when she was about four. He was happy to hear her until he realized she was singing, “My mother can’t walk and my brother can’t talk.”
Jessica was quiet, face down into the sand.
“You can cry,” I whispered.
“I can’t,” she said, her head buried in the crook of her arm.
After a time, we got up, walked along the shore, then jumped into the Atlantic.
“The worst thing will be when I’m back at college and I meet new people and they’ll ask me what my parents do,” Jessica said as we walked back to our towels. “I hate having to explain.”
“Maybe you can say, ‘I don’t even know,’ and laugh it off,” I said. “You’re from New York City. People in the Midwest probably think you’re weird, anyway.” She tried that a few times but she sounded like an actress awkwardly rehearsing strange lines.
We lay in the sand until late afternoon. I remembered my last conversation with Dave, when he told me he was ready to die. “Think of me,” he had said and I thought of him now as Jessica told me she wanted to scatter his ashes, alone. She had promised Dave she’d do that: it was the same thing he had done with her mother’s ashes, right there.
I left Jessica and called Dave’s mother, back home with Sam, who asked, “Did you take care of Dave?”
“Jessica’s taking care of him now,” I said. But what did that mean? How can the living ever take care of the dead? And how can we ever repay them for everything they gave us? I imagined Dave’s ashes falling on the sand, scattering like stars, poked here and there with stubborn pieces of bone.
Then I remembered how, when I’d lost my father when I was 27, an aunt hugged me and whispered, “You poor, poor child.” More than 30 years later, I could still hear the discomforting thud of those words. I’d been searching for the right thing to say to Jessica and it occurred to me now that words were useless: they were never wide enough or consoling enough to wrap around an orphan’s grief.
So when Jessica joined me, I said nothing. All I could offer her was this heartbreakingly perfect day at the beach, with the white ribbon of waves arriving on shore and then departing. Coming and going. It was everything Dave loved and he was not here with us now to see it. But he was here now forever.
This story appeared in The New York Times on what happens when two mothers send their sons to the same battle, with two very different outcomes:
Meanwhile: Two mothers, one battle
SHAVEI ZION, Israel — The other day, two mothers who had never met before stood on the Israeli side of the border that separates Israel from Lebanon.
Harriet and I were looking at a Lebanese village where our two sons fought during last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah.
My son, Shlomie, and Harriet’s son, Michael, were in the same paratrooper unit of the Israeli Army. During combat, Michael was hit by sniper fire. Shlomie, a medic, also received shrapnel wounds. He did everything he could to save Michael – but Harriet’s son died in my son’s arms.
I had never met Harriet until that day. After the war ended on August 14, I wrote a letter of condolence to her in Pennsylvania from my village in Israel’s Western Galilee. We began to correspond with each other and then, during a recent trip to Israel, she came to meet me.
We knew it was important for us to drive to the northern border, about a half-hour from my house. There we would be as close as we could get to the village where our sons – American-born Jews who had enlisted in the Israeli Army – had fought their fateful battle.
It was a bright, clear day. Except for an occasional house with shattered windows, you could not tell that a war had taken place just months before. Thousands of Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rockets had fallen around the region, yet everything was tranquil now. The sun was shining; birds sang and the air was filled with the aroma of blossoming orange trees.
Along the border, the road dipped through the green hills. We turned around a sharp bend and there, in the distance, was Aita al-Shaab, the Lebanese village where the battle had taken place. It sat on a hilltop, beyond a rolling valley. It looked so beautiful and so, well, peaceful.
Harriet got out of the car and took some photographs. Then she began to cry.
I thought of the night that my son had called to say he was about to leave for the war. After he said goodbye, I fell down on my knees by his bed and prayed. At the very same time, Harriet must have also been praying for her son.
When two mothers pray for their soldier sons during a war, does one mother’s prayer cancel out the other’s? And why does one son return and one son never comes back?
An Israeli Army jeep approached and a soldier told us we had to move on. He explained that if we stopped for too long, we could be targets for Hezbollah soldiers who might have returned to their positions just beyond the border. I said we needed a few more moments and we’d be on our way.
I then remembered Shlomie recounting that right before going into battle, he asked to borrow Michael’s knitted green kipah, his skullcap, to say the holiest Jewish prayer, “Shma Israel.” When Shlomie finished, Michael asked, “Are you ready now?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m ready.”
I looked at Harriet standing next to me. I wanted to ask, “Are you ready now?” but I knew that she would never be ready. No mother can ready herself for the loss of her child.
We gazed at the village one last time and then turned to the car. As we continued along the road, I wondered how many mothers on how many roads around the world have to take a journey like ours.
The Wall Street Journal: My Life in A Chemical War Zone
Amalia and I reached the head of the line. A guy in his 20s wearing a loose T-shirt asked for my national identity card. He punched my nine-digit identity number into his hand-held device and instantly knew just about everything about me: the names of my four kids, and my husband’s name, too.
“I find it slightly unsettling that Jews are picking up gas masks,” I said.
Amalia, who was born in America but grew up in Israel, shrugged. “It’s just part of life here,” she said.
I’d moved to Israel from New York in 1991, fueled with American optimism, hoping to work for peace among Arabs and Jews. Two decades later, here I was picking up gas masks instead. I turned to the guy behind the folding table. “Do people seem nervous picking up their masks?” I asked.
“They’re actually quite calm,” he said. “Which is unusual for Israelis.”
He handed out six gas masks. They each came in a brown cardboard box, about the size of your average shoe box, with a plastic shoulder strap. He took a permanent magic marker and wrote our names on the boxes.
“They’re even personalized,” I said. “Thanks a lot!”
During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, 30 Katyusha rockets landed all around our village. Since then, many of our neighbors have built state-of-the-art bomb shelters, large enough to house extended families for days. My family has a very small room with reinforced walls and ceilings but an ordinary window. “If bombs fall, they will come from the north, and the window faces east,” my husband, Jonny, said at the time.
With his fatalistic words again in mind, I returned the masks to the highest shelf. Then I bicycled to the Mediterranean Sea a few minutes away. Jumping into the turquoise blue water, I took it all in: the stillness, the beauty. Every day, it seems, the news brings another bloody reminder that this is an age of ruthlessness. And because terrorists glorify death, we must continue to celebrate each day the tiny victories of ordinary life.
“It was a miracle that nobody was hurt,” said Dorit Bayer, who has run the hotel with her husband, Shmuel, for more than 20 years. As soon as Mr. Bayer heard the first explosion, he herded all the residents from the dining room into the hotel’s bomb shelter. The following day, village residents were helping the hotel staff to clean up.
The explosions and the sirens were eerily reminiscent of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, when more than 30 Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah landed in our immediate vicinity. None landed within our village, although a few landed in the sea and in the sunflower fields near our house. During a lull in the bombing during that war, one of our sons rode his bicycle to watch as several sappers from the Israeli police bomb-squad came to inspect the damage. One sapper scooped up some sunflowers and said, “Wow, the rocket roasted these just right!”
Israelis are usually unflappable, but nobody is acting nonchalant right now. I dusted off our family’s gas masks in May, concerned that the civil war in Syria would spill over into our borders. Now the U.S. and its allies are considering a military response to Bashar Assad’s recent gas attacks against Syrian civilians.
“If that is what they do to their own people,” groused a friend, Yohai, “just think what they’ll do to us.”
Israelis are currently in the midst of preparing for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. But in addition to buying gifts and extra food for holiday meals, people are stocking up on supplies in case Syria or Iran retaliate against an American-led strike by attacking Israel.
But why is Israel being dragged into a conflict that has nothing to do with us? The Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, a Lebanon-based Sunni Muslim group linked to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for last week’s rocket fire. Their intent was possibly to spur Israel into entering a war against Assad.
“So, remind me again about who’s fighting whom,” I asked Jonny after last week’s attack.
“Well, the enemy of your enemy is your friend,” he said. I’ve lived in the Middle East since 1991, but I’m still as confused as ever by all the conflicts, which seem to stretch back as far as the Crusades. Jonny explained that the Brigades are Sunnis fighting against Assad, while the Shiites—such as Iran’s regime and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah—are defending him.
So since al Qaeda is fighting Assad, an avowed enemy of Israel, does that mean Israel and al Qaeda are now buddy-buddy? Hardly.
All I know is that our neighbors are cleaning out their bomb shelters and getting them ready. Reserve soldiers are being called up. Our gas masks are back on the highest shelf of our outdoor shed—out of sight but not out of mind. This week I invited some friends for dinner on Friday night. One friend RSVPed this way: “We’ll come at seven o’clock unless, of course, there’s a war.”
By DIANA BLETTER
Published: June 4, 2010
- SHAVEI ZION, ISRAEL — A few days before the Israeli flotilla disaster, I started studying Arabic. I’ve lived in the Galilee for the past 19 years and this was something I’ve always meant to do. Now, it seemed even more urgent to learn the language if I was ever to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews.
My teacher’s name is Samia but she’s actually my very good friend. Samia’s daughters are the same age as my daughters and they used to play together until, as Muslim and Jewish teenagers, they drifted apart. But Samia and I have remained close. We even started a local women’s peace group. Our friendship has survived the Intifadas, suicide bombings and growing religious extremism. During the Israel-Hezbollah 2006 War, when my oldest son, a paratrooper, was wounded in battle, she called me immediately to make sure he was all right.
Which was why, this past Tuesday morning, I didn’t think twice about riding my moped from my Jewish village to her Muslim village just across the highway for my Arabic lesson.
Samia’s family compound is on a narrow street in the heart of the village. The television flared when I walked into her apartment and she didn’t move to turn it off.
“Did you hear the news?” she asked me in Hebrew. “They attacked those ships trying to get into Gaza! They’re saying that tomorrow Israeli Arabs will start a civil war.” Then she raised her chin and made a tsk-tsk sound with her tongue. A sound of sorrow. Anger, too.
“It is terrible,” I said. Then I sat down at her kitchen table, my back to the TV. I couldn’t bear to watch the news. I wanted to work on the conjugation of Arabic verbs. To do. To go. To have. I wanted to repeat ordinary, everyday words. Pencil, desk, evening: guttural, enchanting words I’d never really be able to pronounce. I wanted Samia to joke the way she did the day before, “After our lesson, you’ll need to go to an ear, nose and throat doctor.”
But she was in no mood to joke. Her youngest daughter, Dareen, came out of her bedroom. She was on her way to study criminology at a nearby college. Samia had already made a finjan of Arabic coffee and poured some for Dareen in a disposable cup to go.
“I told Dareen that if there were any fights at the college between Arab and Jewish students she should stay quiet and not get involved,” Samia said.
I nodded. I thought of my youngest daughter, Libby, Dareen’s age, who’s volunteering this year in a distressed neighborhood in Jerusalem. My oldest daughter, Amalia, is a fitness instructor in the Israeli Army. Who knew what would happen next?
“Now it is morning,” Samia told me, pointing to a picture in my textbook of a house, some trees, the sun rising. “What time do you get up?”
“At six o’clock,” I replied in faltering Arabic. “What time do you wake up?”
“At ten o’clock,” she said. “I can’t sleep at night.”
I knew the reason. A few years before, her husband had left her. We rarely talked about it. Like politics, the subject was painful. We moved on, talking about the sun, the moon, the stars.
“What time can I come tomorrow?” I asked after an hour.
“Tomorrow isn’t good,” she said. “They’ll cancel school. There will be demonstrations.”
My heart sunk. I pictured making a mistake and riding my moped through the village. How would I ever explain that I’m just a nice Jewish girl trying to learn Arabic for peaceful reasons to people shouting and throwing stones? “Tomorrow will be dangerous for me to come?” I asked in Arabic.
“La,” she said. “Maybe not dangerous.” She pointed to a missing tooth in her mouth. “But tomorrow I have to go to the dentist.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
Sometimes in the middle of strife, anything normal and routine, even going to the dentist, seems like a very good thing.
This piece appeared in The Escapes Section of The New York Times. I researched it after arriving in Anchorage on my motorcycle about the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska and one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal Matanuska Colony Project in Palmer, Alaska:
American Journeys | Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Alaska
A Place in Time, Not All Frozen
The Matanuska Glacier is part of an accessible wilderness area about 100 miles from Anchorage, Alaska.
By DIANA BLETTER
Matanuska Glacier, Alaska — THE temperature was soaring to 75 degrees, and I was walking on ice. Around me the Matanuska Glacier, about 100 miles from Anchorage, sparkled and shimmered in the afternoon sun. The only sound was an occasional rush of cool wind sweeping down from the towering Chugach Mountains and the crunch of my crampons as I made my way up a crevasse with a group of six other trekkers.
“Stop,” Matt Windsor, our guide, suddenly said. A moulin, or shaft, had formed in the crevasse, making it too dangerous to continue. Mr. Windsor then got out his ice pick and hacked out a platform from where we could view the peril: a swirl of water plunging deep into a hole in the pastel-blue ice.
That this dense ice is so fluid and flexible is surprising, yet the Matanuska Glacier, thousands of years old, is still active, shifting and creeping along its 27-mile length each day. We made a U-turn to another path, where we reached a glacial stream and, cupping our hands, drank icy pure water that had never met a plastic bottle.
It was the first day of my three-day trip with my husband, Jonny, in and around the Matanuska Glacier. Matanuska is Alaska’s largest, most accessible glacier, which meant we wouldn’t need to fly an airplane or hike a mountain to trek across it. A rental car would get us there in less than three hours from the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage.
Like most other glaciers the Matanuska has begun to shrink, because of warming of the region. “When I look at the glacier from the air, it’s clearly retreating and thinning,” said Bruce F. Molnia, a research geologist with the United States Geological Survey, speaking by telephone. Dr. Molnia said that analysis of aerial photographs and satellite images had found that parts of the terminus of the glacier, the farthest point of ice from its start, have lost about six-tenths of a mile in the last four decades. As we began our trek, I could see the glacier’s humble retreat: where there had once been a top layer of white ice there was now an uneven field of pitch-black stones, rocks and debris.
Access to this part of the glacier is privately owned, but the rest of the glacier is managed by the state. The Matanuska-Susitna Valley — called the Mat-Su by local residents — encompasses about 24,000 square miles of mostly untapped wilderness. It is home to bears, wild sheep and goats, wolves, caribou and moose, as well as good restaurants and a variety of lodging, from campgrounds and rustic cabins to more elegant bed-and-breakfasts.
The Ahtna Athabascan people, a migratory tribe, first populated the valley thousands of years ago, following the paths of caribou and salmon, eating wild berries, squirrels and sheep. They fashioned copper tools and remained undisturbed until Russian explorers began arriving in Alaska in 1741. Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867; by 1910 some 500 American settlers had moved in, laying railroad lines, establishing homesteads and trading in fur, coal, minerals and gold.
In 1935, in the midst of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Matanuska Colony Project in Palmer, 41 miles northeast of Anchorage. Farm families living on welfare in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — 203 in all — were picked in a lottery to start anew in the Mat-Su. Each family was given 40 acres, a house and a barn for a 30-year low-interest loan of $3,000.
David Reichard Williams, architect for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, planned the colony in a Colonial Revival style. “He felt that this kind of architecture would give the settlers faith in their government, their town and the farming project,” said DeLena Johnson, executive director of the Palmer Museum of History and Art.
But the valley’s short growing season and the lack of a market made the project less viable in reality. Within three years 60 percent of the original colonists had abandoned their properties. Today one dairy farm remains from the project, but there are approximately 150 farms operating in the valley.
Wayne Bouwens, 79, whose parents moved to Palmer from Wisconsin as colony settlers, grew up on their farm with his 10 siblings. “My family was one of the few who stuck it out,” he said in the Vagabond Blues Café, a homey spot and nightspot on South Alaska Street across from Palmer’s original wooden train depot. “When we got here,” Mr. Bouwens said, “we were all on welfare, and we were all equal, which made us a closer-knit community.”
Until he retired Mr. Bouwens ran a dairy farm of his own; he is active in local civic groups, trying to retain the small-town feel of Palmer as it experiences rapid growth — its population has jumped to 8,201 in 2007 from 4,533 in 2000 — and the opening of new shops, boutiques and galleries.
The Palmer Visitor Center, in the center of town, is the perfect starting point for a stroll around the colony’s historic district. From there I walked to the Colony House Museum, a restored and refurbished 1935 farmhouse originally owned by two Colony settlers, Irene and Oscar Beylund, and now restored and refurbished with some of the family’s furniture and possessions. Gerry Keeling, 73, the museum’s director and a colony descendant, led me through small rooms that seemed frozen in time, pointing out an improvised cranberry picker made from an antifreeze can, washboards, green Depression glass plates and cans of Matanuska Maid corn from the colony’s canning factory.
“It wasn’t that hard to collect these things since people in the Great Depression never threw anything out,” Ms. Keeling said.
In the living room two other guides joined us: Wilhelmina Pedersen, who came in 1948 to teach the settlers’ children, and Arlene Benson, a colony descendant who had grown up next door to the house. “I played Monopoly many evenings right here on this living room floor,” Ms. Benson reminisced.
From the museum I continued to the Colony Inn, the former teachers’ dormitory, where Ms. Pedersen had once lived. I then walked to the defunct chicken hatchery on South Denali Street that now houses Alaskana Books, specializing in Alaskan literature, past the original trading post and across the town square, ending up at Fireside Books, an independent bookstore on South Alaska Street that has “good books and free bad coffee,” its owner, David Cheezem, said. He warned that the coffee was so thick that it had to be chewed. (Not really, but it was strong and good.)
On our last day in the valley we drove 19 miles north from Palmer along Hatcher Pass Road, following the Little Susitna River, to the Independence Mine State Historical Park. The narrow winding road was lined with lush green foliage and trees. Along the banks of the river, where milky blue water tumbled over round, gray stones were flashes of purplish pink fireweed. Our unofficial guide was an old college roommate, Mary Eldred, who came to Alaska on a whim 35 years ago and never left.
The park is the restored site of the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company’s gold-mining camp, which operated from about 1937 until 1943. We walked among the ghostly gray wooden buildings, touring the mine manager’s residence (now the visitors’ center) and the bunkhouses that once housed 200 miners, and then took a hike into the Talkeetna Mountains.
The trail led us a half-mile across high tundra; once above the tree line, we looked down at wispy clouds wrapping the craggy mountains in white ribbons. At 4,050 feet we reached Gold Cord Lake, its waters a deep, mineral-rich blue and hidden from below.
“This is what I love,” Ms. Eldred said, pointing to the far side of the lake, where Dall sheep paused on a steep precipice. “Within an hour’s drive of Anchorage and with a little bit of effort, you can get a taste of what true wilderness really is.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO DO
The Matanuska Glacier (Mile 102, Glenn Highway; 907-745-2534, matanuskaglacier.com) The glacier can be reached from the parking lot in regular walking shoes but a guided tour is recommended for the steeper parts.
Companies that offer guided tours of the glacier include Mica Guides (800-956-6422; micaguides.com) and Nova Guides (800-746-5753; novalaska.com). Our glacier trek with Mica guides was for three hours; the cost was $70 per person and the park admission.
Independence Mine State Historical Park (Hatcher Pass Road, 907-745-2827) is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. mid June to mid Sept., with guided tours. There is a $5 parking fee and a separate tour fee of $5 per person.
The Colony House Museum (316 East Elmwood Street, 907-745-1935) has free admission.
WHERE TO STAY
Sheep Mountain Lodge (Mile 113.5 Glenn Highway, Sutton, 907-745-5121;sheepmountain.com ) is 10 miles from the glacier, and has 11 cabins with mountain views. Rates are $159 to $189 with use of a hot tub and wood-fired sauna.
The Colony Inn, (325 East Elmwood Street, Palmer; 907-745-3330), is a restored New Deal-era teachers’ dormitory. Rates are $80 to $100.
The Hatcher Pass Lodge (Box 763, Palmer; 907-745-5897; hatcherpasslodge.com) has cabins with river and mountain views that start at $95. The cabins contain chemical toilets; there is a sauna and a natural rock pool and showers in the main lodge.
WHERE TO EAT
Vagabond Blues (642 South Alaska Street, Palmer, 907-745-2233) serves a soup and salad lunch for $8.24, quiche for $5.25 and homemade desserts.
Long Rifle Lodge, (Mile 102.2 Glenn Highway, Glacier View, 907-745-5151; longriflelodge.com) is ideal for a casual meal before or after a visit to the glacier. The dining room features a beautiful view of the glacier and an extensive exhibit of mounted wildlife, including a nine-foot grizzly bear. Open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the winter.
At Turkey Red (550 South Alaska Street, Palmer, 907-746-5544; turkeyredak.com) the orange sesame chicken salad served with bread baked in a stone-hearth oven is $12.
Coffee is free at Fireside Books (720 South Alaska Street, Palmer, 907-745-2665; goodbooksbadcoffee.com).
This article was written about the novel, Beaufort, and the soldiers in the last days before the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon:
Fortress of Solitude
How an antiwar novel became a best-selling solace for Israeli soldiers and their families
When his novel, If Heaven Exists, came out in 2005, Ron Leshem visited bookstores all over Israel to see how potential buyers reacted to it. “They’d pick up the book and then turn it over to read the back cover,” Leshem says. “When they realized that it was a book about Israeli soldiers stationed at Beaufort Castle during the last year of Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, they’d make a face and put it down.” But Leshem didn’t take it personally. “How much war trauma can you take? They hear so much about war on the news that they didn’t want to read a novel about it.”
Few Israelis seemed willing even to talk about the eighteen-year occupation, in which the ancient Beaufort fortress, eight miles north of the Israeli border, was strategically vital. Yet the book took off. “It first became popular among Israeli soldiers,” Leshem says. “Whenever I gave lectures, the people in the audience were predominantly soldiers who were just out of the army and young guys before their induction because the book was relevant to them.”
“Relevant” is understating the case. If Heaven Exists speaks directly to soldiers’ experience, using the blunt and gritty language of the front lines. Not only has the book garnered positive reviews from critics and respected Israeli writers like David Grossman and Meir Shalev, but it has also sold more than 130,000 copies, making it a hit of titanic proportions in Israel. During its eighteen-month stint on the best seller lists of the newspapers Haaretz and Yediot Ahronot, it held the number-one slot for nine months. You couldn’t sit on a train crowded with IDF soldiers traveling home and not find one or two of them reading it. Slowly, mothers of soldiers began reading the book to understand their sons’ army experiences. (I was one of those mothers.) In 2006, it won the Sapir Prize for Literature, the Israeli equivalent of the Booker Prize. “The reason that caused Leshem’s book to have such an impact is not the literary value of the novel,” says Maya Feldman, a book critic for Yediot Ahronot’s web site. “Its realistic content presents a chain of events that is expressed through soldiers’ words, people who were there, and not through the words of an author. Meaning, almost unprocessed. This authenticity, in my eyes, is strongly appealing.”
In March, a movie adaptation co-written by Leshem, titled Beaufort, opened in Israel to outstanding reviews. It broke box-office records in its first month of release (despite criticism from families of slain soldiers and war veterans that three of the leading actors had never served in the army), and became the nation’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Its director, Joseph Cedar, won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival. The novel will be published in the United States this month, also under the title Beaufort, and the film will open in New York City in January.
“The book provided soldiers with an outlet, a way to legitimize what they were feeling,” says Leshem over coffee at a café near his apartment in Givatayim, a Tel Aviv suburb. Slender and pale, with pensive dark eyes and a self-effacing demeanor, Leshem is thirty-one and works as Deputy Director of Programming at Israel’s Channel Two, lining up what he calls “escapist” shows like A Star Is Born. He says he did his own military service as a “pencil-pusher” in the Israeli Defense Ministry, working on behind-the-scenes preparations for the 1998 Wye peace negotiations. When he was released, he got a job reporting for Yediot Ahronot. He was sent to cover the Palestinians’ Second Intifada in the Gaza Strip in the fall of 2000, where he met the IDF soldier Rotem Yair, a commander in the Givati Brigade. “Rotem told me right out that he hated me,” says Leshem. “He said that when he was hiding in the bushes of Lebanon, I was, in his words, ‘drinking lemonade in a Tel Aviv café.’ He said I wouldn’t have even turned on the radio to see if he was okay and ‘you wouldn’t have even known if I was killed.’ Rotem hated me for not knowing.”
Leshem’s “guilt of not knowing” propelled him to persuade Rotem, who had always refused to speak to journalists, to recount his experiences. In If Heaven Exists Leshem has fictionalized him, turning him into Liraz Liberti, a dark-skinned Sephardic high school dropout, now the dispassionate but determined young commander of a team of thirteen Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The novel is written as his diary, detailing a condensed version of the actual events of the last winter of the occupation. “It’s really a book about withdrawal, not combat,” Leshem says.
At the start of the 1982 Lebanese War, a small Golani reconnaissance unit stormed and captured Beaufort Castle.
The Southern Lebanon security zone, controlled by the Israeli Army allied with the predominantly Christian South Lebanese Army, was established to prevent further rocket attacks on Israel by Hezbollah fighters who had moved into Lebanon. Soldiers at Beaufort knew the castle could become another Masada; they were sitting ducks for Hezbollah raids and mortar attacks. Alone in a medieval fortress on a lonely, vulnerable peak, cut off from their superiors at Army headquarters, they created their own culture, language, and rules. A wounded soldier is a flower; a dead soldier is a poppy. Eaten is afraid, and it is the worst thing for the unit, because it is contagious. The novel’s title comes from a saying that was written by a soldier over the doorway leading into Beaufort’s bunkers: “If heaven exists, this is what it looks like. If there’s a hell, this is what it feels like.”
Since Hezbollah soldiers often tried to storm the castle and there were constant rocket attacks, the soldiers always had to be ready for battle in less than thirty seconds—which meant sleeping in their uniforms and their boots. They couldn’t take showers or change their underwear; they took anti-diarrhea pills to avoid being caught by mortar attack while their pants were down. And every soldier knew how it felt to hold a dead man in his arms. The book captures both the intense devotion that develops among them and the propaganda that Hezbollah uses to try to break them. In one wrenching moment, the soldiers watch a Hezbollah broadcast on television that shows real footage from Israeli military cemeteries and pictures of Israeli soldiers weeping at a soldier’s funeral. “They love life, those Jews,” an announcer says in Hebrew with a Shiite accent. “We, on the other hand, love death.”
“I wanted to write an anti-war story,” Leshem says, “but it became a way for families of soldiers killed in the Second Lebanese War to cope with their grief.” The novel describes a game, What He Can’t Do Anymore, that Israeli soldiers played, a game of stories about their fallen comrades. In the first pages, the game is played about a soldier named Yonatan. “Yonatan can’t take his little brother to a movie any more. . . . He won’t be at his grandfather’s funeral, he won’t know if his sister gets married, he won’t take a piss with us from the highest peak in South America.”
Six soldiers named Yonatan were killed in the Second Lebanese War. At the war’s start, when Yonatan Hadasi, the first soldier named Yonatan, was killed, Israeli Army radio reported that the text of the What He Can’t Do Anymore passage of the book was read at Hadasi’s funeral. “Several parents of other fallen soldiers called me during the war,” Leshem says. “They told me that their son was in the middle of reading If Heaven Exists or had just finished reading it when he was killed and invited me to come to their house to meet their family.” Leshem went to pay shiva calls to these families. It was almost as if, because these soldiers were reading If Heaven Exists, they knew Leshem. And somehow, the families felt that Leshem knew their fallen sons and could bring some consolation. “Some of the families did a ‘take-off’ of my text,” Leshem says. “They rewrote a personalized version for the fallen soldier that was read during the eulogies.”
Dozens of American novels have been written by and about soldiers who served in Vietnam, but until If Heaven Exists no Israeli novel had ever been published about what happened to Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. “The Israeli Army pulled out on May 24, 2000, a Wednesday,” Leshem says. “By Friday, the word Lebanon was erased. Nobody talked about it.” His book, according to Maya Feldman, was the “first to break the silence surrounding that period.”
The book also serves as a painful reminder of how Israel has come full circle. “I thought that the withdrawal from Southern Lebanon was the right thing to do,” Leshem says. “It was an amazing chapter in Israeli history that what began as a movement of civilians, primarily mothers of soldiers, pushed the government to decide to pull out.” Yet the novel’s chillingly accurate prophecies, voiced by Liberti, about what would happen after Israel’s withdrawal seem to provide a way of understanding the growing consensus in Israel that the country is doomed to endless wars, even though it withdrew from Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip—and will most likely withdraw from the Palestinian Territories. “You don’t think Kiryat Shmona will be bombarded again?” Liberti asks on the last page of the book. “They’ll take a soldier hostage . . . bombard some northern settlement with mortar shells. . . . And when it comes, anyone who thinks a flock of IAF fighter jets is capable of taking care of the job from the air is going to learn there’s no replacing foot soldiers. We’ll march in there.”
In July 2006, ten months after If Heaven Exists was published, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Then the Second Lebanese War broke out. Hezbollah shelled Kiryat Shmona and the entire north of Israel (including the village where my family and I live). Israel’s Air Force bombed Hezbollah targets, and soon foot soldiers returned to South Lebanon to engage in house-to-house fighting. Israelis have a reputation for being resilient—hard, even—and rightly so. Sometimes it feels as if the country chokes its sorrow in a numbing silence. But as Liberti says in the book, “I’m sane, don’t worry. I’m not shell-shocked. In our country I’m certainly not the only twenty-one-year-old who’s held a body of a friend missing a head. You could almost say it’s normal around here.”
Diana Bletter is a writer based in the Western Galilee and author of the forthcoming memoir, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle. She blogs at The Best Chapter.
Death — and life — is the topic of this article:
Only the weather doesn’t care about criticism – here’s a group of former Israeli soldiers trying to connect with people around the world.
And this is everything you always wanted to know about nose jobs:
A Bridge Too Far
How one woman lived to regret her nose job
When I was growing up in the early 1970s, there was my nose—and then there was me hidden behind it. Similar to Wilhelm Fliess—Sigmund Freud’s one-time friend who specialized in “nosology,” the idea that one’s nose was intimately tied to one’s sexuality—I believed that my prominent nose reflected the unshapeliness of my soul. Even though I lived in a New York suburb, home to thousands of Jews, I felt lonely, shy, and troubled. I thought that if I’d fix my nose, I’d fix my self.
So, at 16, I had a nose job. Apparently, it helped; right after, I found friends as well as my first serious boyfriend. Yet in the three decades since my operation, my previous nose has haunted me like the ghost limb of an amputee. I miss my old nose and I regret my decision to alter it. My new nose might be perky and far less noticeable—yet to me, it still stands out. Before, I felt like a stereotypical Jewish girl with a Jewish nose. Now, I feel like a stereotypical Jewish woman with a Jewish nose . . . job.
The connection between Jews, our noses, and our identity is very much on my mind these days because my youngest daughter, Libby Yael, 16, is the same age I was when I had my nose fixed. And—Mother Nature’s revenge—she has my old nose.
I had expected her attitude about her nose to be more positive than mine had been. After all, we live in Israel, where nose jobs are relatively uncommon, while I grew up in Great Neck—aka Rhinoplasty Central. My mother often told me that I’d look much prettier with a smaller nose; I constantly tell my daughter that she is gorgeous just as she is. But Libby doesn’t believe me. And even though I’ve shared my regrets about fixing my own nose, she tells me she’d like to fix hers.
“A man is physically and psychologically what his nose is . . . and a race can be judged and recognized by its nose,” plastic surgeon Dr. Henry J. Schireson wrote in The Jewish Transcript, a Seattle newspaper, in 1924. Even here, in Israel, a place where both Jews and Arabs are genetically prone to hefty noses, the perfect profile is petite. Famous models such as Pnina Rosenblum and Galit Gutman have noses that appear trimmed and tapered, as does the popular television newscaster Miki Haimovich. I sometimes wonder if Ehud Barak and Benyamin Netanyahu traded in their noses for right-angle, camera-friendly profiles. Their noses, oddly enough, resemble mine. While we finally have a Jewish country, we still contend with the unwieldy Jewish proboscis. To my astonishment, the nose job remains a Jewish issue.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed that nose jobs were, like sleep-away camp, just part of American Jewish adolescence. I favored unshaven legs and overalls, and might not have even thought twice about plastic surgery had it not been for my mother. After losing her father when she was five and growing up poor during the Depression, my mother saw beauty as her ticket to marrying well, a guarantee of economic security.
Unable to afford college, she worked as a dental assistant after high school, saving enough for her own rhinoplasty. She felt prettier instantly and landed a more lucrative job selling industrial aluminum to manufacturers like General Electric. (She boasts that in the early 1950s, she was the only aluminum saleswoman in the entire country.) Soon after, she married and promptly quit her job. Why wouldn’t her daughter want to follow a similar path?
Then, when I was in high school, the feminist movement exploded. Inspired by Betty Friedan, my mother went back to work—this time, selling antique jewelry. When it came to choosing a feminist look, however, she followed Gloria Steinem’s example. “We’re living in a world where beauty is very important,” my mother says now (and must have said then), “and if you can do something to make yourself more beautiful, then you should do it.”
My mother never wanted to pass herself off as a gentile. She scoffed at Jews who de-Judaized their names or converted to Christianity. Her wish for me to downsize my profile was, she claimed, purely aesthetic.
Yet rhinoplasty and Jews are linked on a deeper level. The founder of the modern nose job was a late 19th-century German Jewish plastic surgeon, Jacques Joseph. In his book, Making the Body Beautiful, Sander Gilman writes that Dr. Joseph (who was born as Jakob and wed a Christian) assumed that Jews would be better able to assimilate if their noses didn’t make them look “too Jewish.”
Since the medieval era, a big nose has always been the stereotypical feature that has symbolized Jews. A popular children’s book by Julius Streicher (publisher of Der Sturmer), published during the Nazi regime recounts how a boy named Little Karl recognizes Jews. “One can most easily tell a Jew by his nose,” the boy says. “The Jewish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the number six. We call it the Jewish six.” Later in the story, a girl looks at a Jewish man and exclaims that in the middle of his “devil’s face” is “a huge crooked nose.” Even today, caricatures of bloodthirsty Jews with immense noses appear in anti-Israel political cartoons.
Western scientific literature buttressed stereotypes and prejudices and classified the “Jewish nose” as a medical deformity, a pathological condition called “nostrility,” according to a 2001 article by Beth Preminger in the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “The ‘Jewish Nose’ and Plastic Surgery.” Robert Knox, an anthropologist, stated in his 1850 book, The Races of Men, that the “Jewish nose” is “large, massive, club-shaped [and] hooked . . . three or four times larger than suits the face.” For this reason, he stated, a Jew can never be “perfectly beautiful.” Three decades later, plastic surgeon John Orlando Roe wrote in the journal The Medical Record, that, according to physiognomy, the Jewish nose symbolized the Jews’ “commercialism or desire of gain.”
Meanwhile, according to the account given by Sander Gilman, in Berlin in 1898, a patient presented himself to Dr. Joseph, complaining that his nose was “the source of considerable annoyance. Wherever he went, everybody stared at him.” Although we don’t know if the man was Jewish, Gilman presumes he was: his sense of nose-related social isolation mirrors the Jews’ position in fin-de-siecle Germany. Harry Schireson, a student of Jacques Joseph’s before immigrating to the United States wrote, “Many a Jew, especially if he belongs to the class of social climbers, anxious not to be recognized as a Jew, deplores his racial nose.”
Dr. Joseph performed his first rhinoplasty that year, cutting through the skin of the patient’s nose to whittle down the bone. The operation left a scar, however, but by 1904 he had refined his technique. Using surgical tools similar to those still in use today, Dr. Joseph performed the first intranasal nose job. After this successful operation, Dr. Joseph went on to bestow “gentile contours” to hundreds of Jewish noses. Right before his death in 1934, he performed free nasal surgeries on Jews to help them try to bypass Nazi Germany’s ever-tightening racial laws. Aesthetic rhinoplasty, then, began as a medical procedure to remedy Jewish patients’ noses. Ironically, it parallels the way psychoanalysis—born roughly at the same time and place—first arose as a cure for Jewish patients’ souls.
When I brought torn pages from Vogue with photos of noses I liked to a plastic surgeon in Manhattan in 1973, I had no idea that rhinoplasty was designed to make Jews less conspicuous. All I knew was that I tried not to turn to the side in my high school classes so that boys would not whip out my nickname, “Big Nose Bletter.” At home, I spent hours in front of the mirror, lamenting this thing in the middle of my face.
The surgeon’s office was on Park Avenue. My mother chose him because, as she put it, he “did” the nose of a friend of a friend, a top Jewish model at the time, as well as the nose of her very favorite actor, Paul Newman. After examining me for a few minutes, the doctor asserted that my nose had a bump and a fat tip and that he could reduce them both to suit my face. I was petrified to consider that I would be putting my nose in his hands, yet he seemed so self-assured that I agreed to schedule my operation in a few months’ time.
Despite my mother’s prodding, I remained ambivalent. “My feelings about my nose go back and forth,” I noted in a June 1973 diary entry. “When I look in the mirror, I see how big my nose looks and I can’t imagine living with it all my life, but I can’t imagine such a drastic change.” Then, as I jotted in my diary a few weeks later, after reading an article in Seventeen, which advised emphatically, “If anyone is considering [rhinoplasty], I say, yes, yes, yes!” I was convinced.
I had my nose fixed right before my senior year of high school. Numbed from anesthesia, half-awake and still aware, I could hear the doctor break the bone. The pounding sounded like a pile driver banging steel piles into the earth. But it did not emanate from the outside world: it came from deep within me.
Afterwards, a mummy-like bandage covered most of my face; only my swollen, black-and-blue eyes peered out. When the nurse removed the dressing, I didn’t want to look in the mirror. Instead, I closed one eye and gazed at my profile, thrilled that the bumpy ridge had been leveled.
“For the first time in my life, I feel pretty! I feel free!” I wrote in my diary, transformed. Then I ran into an old friend who hadn’t fixed her nose which was just as large as mine had been. Looking at her, I felt like a coward—and a fake. Society’s buzz had conned me into believing my nose was too big to be beautiful, and my parents had bought me a more attractive look.
I graduated high school, went to college, and then worked in New York City. For a while, I moved to Paris, where I dated a medical student from Senegal. As people stared at us—interracial couples were unusual in those days—I became painfully aware that my boyfriend could never peel off his skin. Obviously, he’d always be black. And although I felt irrevocably Jewish inside, to the outside world, I was white. I had become an invisible Jew.
But I didn’t want to be invisible, especially not among the French who, time and again, revealed their true feelings. One woman told me that Jews caused anti-Semitism because we choose to be different. On another occasion, I mistakenly assumed a man I met a man at Goldenberg’s Restaurant in the Marais was a fellow Jew. When I outed myself to him, he replied, “Aren’t you ashamed?”
Suddenly, I didn’t want to pass any more—I wanted to be in your face. I began to feel that if I couldn’t look Jewish, then at least I could act it. I returned to New York and gradually became more observant, which is another story. Ten years later, I moved to Israel.
This spring, Libby was voted “Tenth Grader of the Year” and “Best Smile” in her high school. She surfs, plays piano and soccer, and is far happier than I ever was at her age. I’ve tried to do all the right things to boost her confidence—but she is still miserable. She tells me that she feels she’s ugly because she has—in her words—a “big, crooked” nose. When I counter that her nose is special, she says that she could be a lot prettier without it.
She was chosen to join a delegation of teenagers who visited Germany this summer—yet was unsure if she wanted to go. When I asked her why, she said she was afraid that Germans would make fun of her Jewish nose. After studying the Holocaust and hearing stories from relatives and friends, she feared that Germans, despite their good intentions, might have internalized anti-Semitism—and might react negatively to Jews. Wary of being conspicuous, she suffers the very same anxiety that preoccupied Jews in Germany 100 years ago.
Nose jobs are not a rite of passage in Israel as they are in certain places in America; however, plastic surgeries (including breast and lip enlargement) are on the rise. Halachic authorities deem a nose job kosher if it can improve a person’s mental health. Still, I’m trying to talk Libby out of it. One reason is financial: With six children to put through college, my husband and I don’t have an extra few thousand to throw at elective surgery.
I’ve shared my regrets; she says she appreciates the way I’m trying to save her from the same mistake. I’ve also recounted how, a few years ago, I made an appointment with another Park Avenue plastic surgeon to see if I could get my old nose back. Unfortunately, he said he wouldn’t be able to re-enlarge my tip or replant the bump. I’m stuck with my before-and-after schnoz, but I don’t want Libby to be. Dorothy Parker quipped, after Fanny Brice’s rhinoplasty, that she’d “cut off her nose to spite her race”; I’d like to convey to my daughter that her unique features trump standardized versions of McBeauty.
Yet I understand all too well how awkward adolescence is and how shaky Libby’s self-esteem might be. As I’ve grown up, though, I realize that beauty—as well as happiness—really is an inside job. And maybe in my rush to fix my self via my nose, I missed out on learning how to stand up for what I believe in, and how to love my whole self despite what others around me say. Those are vital lessons in life—not only of bearing a Jewish nose but, simply put, of being a Jew—and that’s what I’m hoping to teach her. Illustration
This piece is about how I’ve come to learn that a shoebox isn’t always just a shoebox. It’s about living with terrorism. I wrote it before 9/11 when Americans were not yet introduced to terrorism. “I Refuse to Live in Fear”
Latest article in tabletmag.com: Being a Female Freedom Bus Rider
It was morning rush hour in Jerusalem and I boarded a crowded bus, Egged No. 56, and claimed one of the last empty seats in the front. The man in the seat next to mine turned the brim of his black hat against me and nervously tapped his fingers on the window. Two stops later, he got up and the man sitting across from me got up, too.
The bus rattled on. Women boarded the bus—but mostly through the rear door. Pregnant women, elderly women, schoolgirls cradling books, middle-aged women holding packages, fashionably dressed twentysomethings with Gucci pocketbooks, designer sunglasses, stylish wigs. They hurried through the front section toward the back of the bus, deliberately passing the empty seats near me. The men also avoided sitting there. This was once a mehadrin, or sex-segregated, bus line—struck down as illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2011—but for these riders, sex-segregation is not a thing of the past. Men still ride in the front and women in the back.
Segregated buses made a splash in the Israeli media in December 2011 when Tanya Rosenblit, 28, sat in the front of a public bus going from Ashdod to Jerusalem and refused an ultra-Orthodox man’s demand that she go to the back. The man prevented the bus from moving, enlisting his friends to join his protest. When the bus driver called a police officer, he tried to persuade Rosenblit to comply. She did not back down, and eventually the bus took off without the male passenger. “I cannot humiliate myself in order to respect someone else,” Rosenblit wrote. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and other politicians roundly condemned bus segregation.
But, though there are no more de jure segregated bus lines, many former mehadrin bus lines resolutely maintain de facto segregation. I’d volunteered to take this bus as a Freedom Rider, a volunteer group of men and women who, under the auspices of the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center, monitor the everyday implementation of bus desegregation. Since the Supreme Court ruling, hundreds of Freedom Riders have traveled on buses to demonstrate to the public that women are legally entitled to sit wherever they want. And as I rode this bus—and several others for an entire morning this month—I thought about how the segregation of women on public buses symbolizes something far greater than just a seating arrangement. It is part of the agenda set by a very small minority of extremists within Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community (which is itself a minority) to push women not only to the back of the bus—but to the back of Israeli public space. The country I love and have lived in for the past 21 years is threatened by extremists who believe that a woman’s modesty is defined by her invisibility.
“Buses are democracy at its finest—you pay your fare, you take your seat,” said Steven Beck, the IRAC director of Israel-Diaspora Relations, who was riding the bus with me, along with two other women visiting from America. Beck stood in the middle of the bus to watch passengers’ reactions; in response to a Haredi man who said that our presence in the front of the bus was a provocation, Beck said, “We’re not trying to change Haredi society; we just want to make sure that public services are accessible to everyone.”
The Egged Bus Company, the largest in Israel, began its segregated mehadrin bus lines in 1998 to lure passengers away from another bus company. After several law suits were filed by women who were harassed and beaten for refusing to go to the back of a mehadrin bus (including writer Naomi Ragen), the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed these buses. Orly Erez Likhovski, an IRAC lawyer specializing in sex discrimination cases, told me that now, “If someone tells you that the bus is mehadrin and you have to move because of your sex then it is ground for civil damages.’’
As part of the Supreme Court decision, Likhovski said, the Egged Company is required to place stickers on buses stating, “All passengers are permitted to sit wherever they choose … harassing a passenger about this matter could be considered a criminal offense.” Still, the stickers (which are sometimes removed) and the Supreme Court ruling have done little to change the facts on the ground.
They have, however, bolstered women who refuse to budge. After my first bus ride of the morning, I decided, somewhat nervously, to continue riding former mehadrin buses—alone. I waited for another bus in the heart of downtown Jerusalem and got on. When I asked the driver where I should sit, he said “in the back.” But after telling him I wanted to sit in the front, he told me to do whatever I want, just to know that “people who ride this bus want it to be half-half: men in the front and women in the back. And I don’t want to deal with any problems. I just want to focus on driving the bus.”
The Supreme Court ruling demands that drivers take proactive action to defend a woman’s decision to sit where she wants. The driver is held personally liable, which is probably why this driver would have preferred I sat in the back. Likhovski said that since the Rosenblit case, more women have come forward to sue bus drivers; she recently won a case in which a judge awarded a woman 4,000 shekels against a driver who told her to move to the back.
I took my seat in front. The next woman who boarded the bus said to me, “This is a mehadrin bus. You should go to the back.”
“There’s really no such thing as mehadrin buses anymore,” I told her. “And did you know that in the United States, American blacks used to have to sit in the back of buses?”
“That was for discrimination,” she said. “This is for modesty. It gives men more respect.”
Neta Ravid, a neuroscience doctoral student at Hebrew University who helped found the Freedom Riders Campaign after men yelled at her to go to the back of a bus traveling from Arad to Jerusalem, disagreed. “It’s not a question of modesty but of equality,” Ravid said. “Pushing women to the back leads to the idea that women should be hidden. This will have dangerous results for Israeli society.”
On my second bus loop around the city, the next bus driver told me that he’s seen husbands and wives talk to each other on cellphones from separate sections of the same bus. He told me I could sit anywhere moments before a group of Haredi teenagers boarded. “Go to the back of the bus!” One of them said to me and then added, “Ichsa,” which means disgusting.
“All passengers can sit wherever they want,” the bus driver said loudly.
I said nothing but refused to move from my seat in the front. A short while later, an older woman with two shopping bags got on.
“Go to the back,” the boys repeated.
“You can go sit in the back,” the woman said, her voice shaky. “If it’s your private car, you can tell me what to do, but this bus is for everyone.” The woman plopped herself down next to me. “I keep kosher at home, I follow the laws,” she said, telling me only her first name, Rivka, and her age, 64. “I should listen to them? They should tell me what to do?”
At the time of its ruling, the Supreme Court granted the Ministry of Transportation a one-year trial period in which women would be allowed to board former mehadrin buses through the rear door—something they are not allowed to do on regular lines. Some Haredi leaders have put up announcements urging women to insist on boarding all buses through the rear door—contradicting the court ruling—and reminding them to “obtain a monthly pass in order to board through the second door without having to pass among the men.” In fact, I’d seen several women send their sons or daughters up to the front to pay the bus fare. Likhovski, the attorney, said that the Ministry of Transportation is expected to issue its decision on whether to completely ban rear-door boarding in a matter of days.
Voluntary sex-segregation also means that husbands and wives do not—cannot—sit together. Reached by telephone, a Hasidic Orthodox woman I know, who requested anonymity for fear of communal repercussions against her children, said that when she and her husband have traveled together on buses, other passengers have screamed at them to separate. “They yelled and even spit at me, but we stayed right where we were,” she said.
“They don’t want us to do what we want,” she added. “If I’m pregnant and I don’t feel well or I want to sit with my husband wherever there’s an empty seat, then I’ll sit. I don’t care.”
“So, do you want to ride the buses again with me?” I asked.
“I have six little kids, thank God,” she said. “Maybe in a few years. Who has time to ride the buses now?”
The Huffington Post: Guess Who’s Valedictorian at Israel’s Top Medical School?
Guess who graduated first in this year’s medical school class at the Technion, Israel’s version of M.I.T.? The answer will surprise you. It’s a 27-year-old stereotype-buster: a charming, feminist, smart, open-minded and observant Islamic woman named Mais Ali-Saleh who grew up in a small village outside of Nazareth, in Israel’s Galilee.
Ali-Selah’s academic excellence not only marks her own personal achievement but also proves that contrary to propaganda spouted by proponents of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement — whose latest convert is Stephen Hawking — an academic boycott of Israel is the wrong approach to solving the Israel-Arab conflict. Moreover, it ultimately hurts the very people it claims to help. Ali-Selah put it best when she said, “An academic boycott of Israel is a passive move, and it doesn’t achieve any of its purported objectives.”
After Ali-Selah’s first class at the Technion, in Haifa, northern Israel, she was ready to call it quits. Ali-Selah had studied Hebrew from elementary school through high school but in the predominantly Arab area around Nazareth, she rarely used Hebrew and her vocabulary was limited. During Ali-Selah’s first Chemistry lecture, she couldn’t understand why her professor kept talking about malls. What did shopping malls have to do with Chemistry? She then realized the professor was speaking about moles, a standard scientific unit for measuring quantities of minute entities.
It did not take long for her to break through her limited language skills and rise to the top of her class. In fact, in 2011, she was one of eight students from around Israel who were presented with academic awards of excellence at the Knesset, Israel’s Senate.
Ali-Selah claims that her academic drive is “part genes and part family background.” After raising four children, Ali-Selah’s mother, Fahima, went back to school to complete her college education and is now studying for a PhD in education. (Ali-Selah’s father, Rohi, would have liked to continue his education but his father died when he was a high school senior and he was forced to go to work to support his younger siblings.) Ali-Selah said that the atmosphere in the village, Jaffa-Nazareth, is liberal and many of its residents encourage young women to further their education.
Ali-Selah is currently doing an Obstetrics/Gynecology residency at Carmel Hospital in Haifa. She said that in her village, Jaffa-Nazareth, she knew of only one female Arab doctor. She decided to take on the field, despite its demanding hours, because she knew that many Arab women are more comfortable going to a female doctor rather than a male. She says that in addition to her personal goals, she wants to make a contribution to Israeli-Arab society.
Aware that she is seen as a role model to other young Arab women, Ali-Selah also knows that she is breaking common misperceptions and stereotypes. “The media emphasizes negative things about Muslims and does not emphasize the positive,” Ali-Selah said. She also feels, however, that extremists are co-opting Islam and radicalizing it. Extremists within Islam are influencing people’s perceptions about Islam and women’s roles. “There is nowhere in the Koran that that states women should not study,” Ali-Selah explained. In fact, she said that the Koran emphasizes that women must learn because they are the ones to educate the children. The same is true of women’s dress. Women are supposed to dress modestly, but there are no Islamic laws stating that women need to wear long robes or cover their faces.
“If people’s socio-economic situation improves, they become more educated and enlightened,” Ali-Selah said. “Take away people’s food, and they become religious.” Her husband, Nidal Mawasi, agrees with her. Mawasi, who comes from Baqa al-Gharbiya, an Arab city in central Israel, graduated from Technion’s Medical School in 2008. They met because he was teaching her dissection course, and they are now expecting their first child.
On trips to Europe, Ali-Selah said that people she met were surprised to learn that Israeli Arabs studied engineering and medicine in Israel, and that they lived among Jews. This lack of awareness helps the BDS Movement win misguided supporters. Boycotters like Roger Waters repeat a falsehood — that Israel is an apartheid state — and deny a fundamental truth: Arabs, in particular Arab women, have more freedom, liberties and academic opportunities in Israel than in any Arab country. Yes, they do.
Rather than an academic boycott — which targets researchers who want to disseminate knowledge rather than restrict it — Ali-Selah suggests a more active stance: encouraging academic life within the Palestinian Authority and strengthening academic ties with Palestinian universities, planning joint research projects with Palestinian scientists, and admitting more Palestinian scholars to European and American universities for academic programs.
Ali-Selah said that because she did medical research, the boycott did not negatively impact her work, but sooner or later, she said that it will impinge upon academic researchers she knows, both Jews and Arabs. That’s why Stephen Hawking and others interested in advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East should focus their energies on supporting more of Israel’s success stories like Mais Ali-Selah’s, and pressuring Arab countries to emulate Israel’s academic freedoms and democracy.
Some might argue that Ali-Selah is an exception to the rule about the Arab minority in Israel. But we only have to look at President Barack Obama to remember how unusual — and important — exceptions are.
Talking to the Other
By Diana Bletter
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
SHAVEI ZION, Israel: It was a few days after the recent riots in Acre, Israel – a 10-minute drive from my house – and my youngest son and I were walking through the winding alleys of the souk in this ancient city.
There were several reasons why this was not such a smart idea. The riots pitched Arabs against Jews, the souk is predominantly Arab, and neither Ari nor I look the part.
But I wanted to go to eat humus at Said’s Restaurant, the souk’s most famous eatery. More crucially, I wanted to step over the invisible divide that has cleaved the city in two.
The riots began on Oct. 8 after Yom Kippur services had just ended. People and children were milling about on streets in Acre that had become pedestrian zones for the night. An Arab man drove through a Jewish neighborhood – witnesses say he was driving recklessly – and Jews surrounded his car and threw rocks.
Perhaps the Jews overreacted, but people were wary: Last year on Yom Kippur an Arab driver deliberately drove his vehicle through a similar crowd in a nearby town and killed a nine-year-old girl.
The latest incident left the driver unhurt but a rumor spread that he had been killed and Arab-instigated riots began. The first night, Arabs shouted “Death to the Jews,” and smashed cars and store windows. The following two nights, Jews shouted “Death to the Arabs,” and threw Molotov cocktails into several Arab homes.
As a well-seasoned peace protestor who grew up listening to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” I felt heartsick. I moved to Israel in 1991 thinking we can overcome, and yet I’m confronted daily with how much hatred and hurt there still is to overcome.
Jewish friends in Acre complain that their daughters cannot walk alone down the streets because Arab teenagers harass them (I’ve seen it happen). Arabs friends say that religious Jewish families are moving into Acre not so much for the real estate or for reconciliation but as a political move with no sensitivity toward their neighbors (I’ve seen that happen, too).
What could I do? I attended an emergency meeting of my Acre peace group consisting of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze women and we talked about rising religious extremism and fanaticism. We made plans to organize more meetings and workshops to bring both sides together. And the only other thing I could think of doing was…to eat humus.
There had been calls during the riots for Jews to boycott Arab businesses. Going to the souk, therefore, was not only a culinary outing but also an act of good will, an attempt to start the reconciliation process all over again.
As we walked through the passageway, normally crowded with noise and sounds and jostling but now eerily empty, I felt that my son Ari and I were goodwill ambassadors.
He’s also aware that people’s lives in this country are intertwined. I’ve tried to teach him and his siblings tolerance and the importance of communicating with “the other,” which is why Ari began studying Arabic. Not for use in the military (he just finished his three-year service in the Israel Defense Forces), but because he wanted to speak the language of his fellow countrymen.
So there we were, eating humus at Said’s. On an ordinary day, we’d have to wait a long while for a table but now we sat right down among Said’s diverse crowd of Arabs and Jews. Ari talked and joked in Arabic to the waiters and to Sultan, the owner’s son (who sometimes plays soccer with my oldest son and stepson), and I was kvelling over the linguistic skills of my nice American-born Jewish son.
After we left, we stepped into another store to buy a can opener. Ari spoke in Arabic to the store owner, who began searching for the opener. Then I stopped dead in my tracks.
In front of me was a map that looked like Israel with Arabic writing and the date 1948. To me, that date represents the birth of Israel, my adopted country.
But it was obvious that the map showed the land without Israel, thereby erasing our existence from reality. This wasn’t a map of nostalgia, I realized, it was a map of negation.
So there I stood listening to my son chat away with the owner who said he didn’t have a can opener but he’d be happy to order us one. I stood there trying my utmost to hold onto my naïve belief that we can work it out while feeling deep down that our predicament is far too overwhelming for a couple of well-meaning folks to tackle.
Huffington Post blog on surprising diversity in Israel:
My friend Nasra Hussein just came back from a scientific conference in Austria where she met other scientists, from places like Saudi Arabia and South Africa, who were shocked to discover that she, a Muslim Arab, was living and working with Jews in Israel. Nasra, who just received her Ph.D. under the supervision of a Jewish advisor, explained that she works at Nahariya hospital (bombed by Hezbollah during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War). The hospital staff that consists of Ethiopian Jews, Druze, Muslims, Christians and Jews.
After my conversation with Nasra, a thought came to me. I’ve lived in New York City, London and Paris. In every city, there are different ethnic neighborhoods. Paris has its African neighborhoods; New York City has its Spanish and Asian neighborhoods; London has its Arab neighborhoods. On an average day in your town or city, how many people of other religions and races do you meet?
I live in Western Galilee, Israel, home to about 1 million people, split almost 50-50 among Arabs and Jews.
The other day — an ordinary day — I got up and brought my car over to the auto repair shop in our village, owned and operated by a Muslim man, Nasser. Nasser employs about 15 people in his shop, including my friend, Jasmine (more on her in a minute), several mechanics (Muslims and Jews) and a Rumanian Christian woman who, after meeting a Muslim man studying medicine in Bucharest, married him and moved to Israel.
From there, I went to Akko — home to about 50,000 people, of whom 30 percent are Arab — to visit my friend, Janan. She was the first Druze woman in Israel (if not in the entire Middle East) to receive her Ph.D. Janan is founder of Akko Vision, a dialogue group consisting of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze women. (I’m a member of the group.) There is also a Baha’i woman. (Unlike in Iran, where the Baha’i are persecuted.) The group’s lasts initiative was a visit of women from Bethlehem.
After meeting with Janan, I went to the market in the Old City of Akko where I walked through winding, ancient alleyways, Arabic music playing, incense burning, guys smoking water pipes, the smell of coriander and fresh pita bread. I stopped to buy blue ceramic dishes made by Armenian craftsmen from a Christian couple who own one of the largest tourist shops in the Old City. I learned that there’s only one country in the Middle East with an increasing Christian population and that’s Israel. (In Iraq, Lebanon and Libya, Christians have become victims of religious persecution. There has been a spike of attacks against Christians since the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in Egypt. In Gaza, Christians face attacks daily.)
Then I called Jasmine, Nasser’s sister, who manages the auto repair shop and just found out she’s pregnant. She will get full pre-natal care — everything — via Israel’s National Insurance Program. If she’d been unable to get pregnant, she would have been able to receive treatments through government-sponsored facilities that serve all religious sectors in the country.
In the afternoon, I went to work at the Easy English Academy, where I teach English to Arab and Jewish students. One of my students is Nasra, working to polish her English. She is now furthering her research with another nurse from Ramallah, across the border in Palestine.
Finally, after dinner, I spoke to my unofficially adopted Ethiopian daughter, who has lived in Israel for about 20 years. She came to Israel with her family to avoid further religious persecution by the Ethiopian government. In Ethiopia, she knew it was time to go to school when the sun made a certain shadow off a tree and now works in an Israeli bank in computer security. She married a man whose parents are from Afghanistan and Rumania; their wedding was a wild celebration of distinct and vibrant cultures.
Diversity makes life rich. How many different people have you spoken to today?
“Buried Treasure”: First Place, Family Circle‘s Fiction Contest 2011
By Diana Bletter