By Spencer Wise
This young woman comes out of the Park Slope Food Co-op pushing her cart. We stand there in our neon vests, hoping she won’t ask for help. It’s July and it’s hot.
The guys next to me—Ramone and someone else—they’re finishing up their weekly work shifts too. We don’t get paid. We just get to shop here and act a little righteous about it. I joined to meet women, let’s just be honest, and I suspect a lot of others did as well. It hasn’t panned out. Most of the women who need my help with their groceries are around sixty and want to talk about frozen chickens, how they lost three cases during the blackout because the people with power refused to make room in their freezers, not even their own parents made room, no one made room, and that’s the kind of world we’re leaving you with, young man, a world where no one takes your goddamn chickens. That’s what I’m used to hearing.
But now it’s mid-afternoon and we’re schvitzing, dreaming of swimming pools, when out comes this woman. My coworkers take one look at her overfilled cart and slide-step back.
Not that it makes any difference. She’s heading straight for me the whole time. Wearing black clunkers and thick grey tights and a full-sleeve, high-collar blouse. She’s orthodox. That’s obvious. And honestly I don’t think twice. I’m on autopilot, head down, about to reach for her groceries when she pushes her cart right up to my belt buckle and says, “Gut Shabbos.” Then I stop. I look up. She’s gorgeous.
Her head is covered with a snood, but a few fly-aways of ash-blond hair have slipped out. Not a trace of makeup. Her blue eyes shimmer in the hazy sunlight, wide lips, and this full round face—beautiful, untouchable. That’s the irony. I can’t buy a look from a woman in Brooklyn, and then out of nowhere this lady almost spears me with her grocery cart and I lift my head and she’s a Hasid.
The potato sack couture almost makes her unattractive, but I’m sure that’s good by her. That’s how she carries herself. Like she has an armoire of snoods and no regrets. A way of wrapping things up tight and forgetting about them.
I’m in a Red Sox hat and jeans; I could be anything, anyone. I mean nothing’s giving me away. Yet somehow she’s sure enough about me to come right up and wish me a good Shabbat. I didn’t even remember today is Friday until she said that.
There’s a correct response, I assume. The way you’d say Aleichem Shaloif someone greets you Shalom Aleichem. Something like this. My father would know. For sure he would know, and he’d be ashamed that I don’t.
Because even though I’m twenty-seven, I’m only about six in Jewish years. I kept being held back in Hebrew school until one day I got stuck in the child-sized desk. When I stood up, the desk rose with me, cinched to my waist, ringed around me like a life buoy.
The rabbi said, “God’s trying everything in his power to keep you here.”
The kids around me were still swigging apple juice and cheering for mini black and white cookies while I was out back smoking in the culvert with the woman who’d once taught me how to make a menorah out of dried macaroni and lentils.
The rabbi called me into his office. He had a bushy orange beard. “Nothing more can be done,” he said. “Leonard, you’re still singing the alphabet song with children. You almost have a moustache. It’s disturbing, frankly. You know I adore your family. I’m afraid, sometimes, in rare cases, there’s no hope.”
That was the only time I liked him. The moment he gave up on me. After years of fighting and lectures, he let me go.
Now I can’t just ignore this beautiful Hasid. I can’t pretend I didn’t hear. My father does that shit—he’s reading the paper, I’m the only other human being in the room, and he acts like he doesn’t hear me. I answer to everything. Bub, Buddy, Bro. Makes me an easy mark for the crazies on the street. I got a bad habit of listening.
For some reason, I want to speak back to her in Hebrew, I’m not sure why. But I’m drawing a blank.
So I say, “And to you as well.”
It looks like maybe she’s about to laugh, but she presses her fist to her lips and coughs. I follow her eyes down to the groceries.
“Let me get those,” I say, lifting her bags from the cart. I follow her up Union street, embarrassed. Who talks like that? Oh, milady, a good day to you as well.
We flag a taxi, knock on the trunk. The driver pops it open, and I start loading.
My father never could accept it. He called all around the North Shore but not a single rabbi would bar mitzvah me unless I could read Hebrew. Transliteration didn’t count. He tried to bribe them with donations. Nothing worked. I could hear him yelling to my grandmother over the phone, “The moron’s illiterate!”
So I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. It doesn’t matter to me, let’s be clear about that. To my father, it’s a sin. He’s ashamed. I’m not. I’ve never believed in God. I’m only ashamed that at twenty-seven I still haven’t found anything to replace him with.
Today is Dad’s birthday. He turns seventy. A biggie. That’s what I’ll say to him later on the phone. Something stupid like that. It’s a biggie. In place of everything I want to say.
I slam the taxi trunk closed.
“All set,” I say, and face her. I shake out the bottom of my shirt. It’s muggy as a Turkish-bath. Thunder rumbles low in the distance. Gun-metal sky.
“I appreciate it,” she says. Then she smiles. No extra meaning. A polite smile of thanks.
I don’t want her to leave just yet, so I say, “You’re new? To the co-op.”
“Joined last month.” She fans herself with her hand.
“What’s your work crew?” I ask.
“They asked me to paint over the graffiti in the bathroom. I walked in and walked right back out. The words.” She stops and blushes. “So now they have me scraping gum off the tile with a putty knife.”
“You get used it,” I say.
“I don’t know. I’ve been bad. Very bad. Skipped a lot of shifts.”
“You got to be careful,” I say. “You’ll get suspended. Cast into co-op purgatory.”
Another plain smile. Looks rehearsed. She folds her arms, hands clasped in front like she’s protecting her groin from a penalty kick. So what she says next surprises me. “Why don’t you join me and my husband for Shabbat tonight. At our apartment. Please. It would be an honor.”
For a moment, I’m touched. It’s a little weird, but thoughtful. Maybe she can tell I live alone.
She digs inside her handbag while talking about dinner—she makes a brisket, people say it’s the best they’ve had, I should come and decide for myself—and then, from her bag, she removes a business card. It’s just her address and name. Masha Fleishman.
She points. “I’m Masha.”
“I’m Leonard,” I say.
Then I figure it out. She wants to convert me. She’s Hasidic, that’s what they do. Of course that’s why she came straight up to me. She had a goal in mind. Convert the bad Jew. They lure you in with promises of brisket. Maybe you’ve renounced God, but you can’t deny brisket. Once you’re inside, they start proselytizing. Join us. Join our cult. Because that’s what it is—a cult.
I try to visualize the scene. I’m picturing her husband, eighteen aunts and cousins, babies crying, a two-hour service. And Masha. Beautiful, unattainable, untouchable Masha—I ache for her across the table while I’m telling Uncle Schlomo how I’m twenty-seven, living alone, and he’ll say something brilliant like, You ever wonder why you’re alone?
No. I couldn’t bear a moment of it.
“That’s generous,” I say. “But my Dad’s in town. It’s his birthday. Seventy. A biggie. We got dinner plans in the city.”
She nods. I feel a little badly about lying.
“Next Friday, maybe?” she asks. “Eighteen minutes before sunset. That’s when Shabbat must start.”
Must start. Eighteen minutes before sunset. Or what? I want to ask.
She opens the taxi door, and I can see the swell of her breasts as she climbs inside. I look away. Her shame is my shame.
I watch her cab pull off. I tell myself to forget her. But I don’t. I can’t. When I get out at five, as sidewalk cafés fill and the street chokes with people, I’m looking for her. Which makes no sense, I realize. I’m looking at all the women in Park Slope as if I’m going to see her face in the crowd at a café or brushing past me on the sidewalk, and the faces keep coming, hundreds at a time, all somehow resembling her, some part of her. It keeps happening. For a fraction of a second I see her and my mouth opens to stop this stranger who is not Masha at all but some woman on her way home from work at whom I’m about to yell, Gut Shabbos.
I live in a studio on Bergen. Very small. The bathroom has no door. The landlord said, you want one so bad, buy it yourself. So I hung wooden hippie beads.
I strip down to my boxers and stand in front of the A/C unit eating a banana. I eat four bananas a day. That’s the life of a bachelor.
It’s 6pm. I’d love to meet Nate out for a beer, but he’s got a kid now. Married. And I haven’t set aside the time to make new friends.
I putz around, cleaning, postponing calling my father. We haven’t spoken in probably four months. That’s normal for us. I drink a glass of wine. I drink a second glass of wine. I dial, wish him happy birthday.
“Thank you, thank you,” he says on the phone. “You still liking your job?”
“It’s fine,” I say.
“Your mother’s not home.”
“That’s okay. I called for you.”
“I got this bad cough. I never coughed like this before. I don’t know what to do. Constant coughing. Maybe I’ll call Dr. Jin. Can’t sleep, can’t do anything. Seems like one thing after another. The hip, the cough. I’m getting down. Crazy. I don’t know.”
The last time I tried to talk to him about the whole bar mitzvah thing was a few years back. We were in Salem, eating donuts on the pier like we did when I was eight years old, watching the boats in the harbor. Back then, my [WS2] [MOU3] father dreamed of owning a broad beam catboat. I always thought it was a pretty WASPy-ass dream for such a holy Jew.
I said, “Why? Why did you let such a small, silly thing split us apart.”
He looked at the boats, chewed his lip.
“Talk,” I said. “Please.”
“Why should I talk?” he said. “You made me look like an idiot in front of the whole congregation. They didn’t call me for aliyah anymore. I waited to hear my name, but they called Ron Baylin. They called Steve Bloomsack. Bloomsack—a Levite who used to wash my hands before prayer with a little bowl and towel—he was called to the Torah before me. They put me out in the cold. Because of you. No one would associate with me. I wasn’t a leader anymore. How could I? How can I lead when I can’t get my own son to obey me. My only child. So talk? What can I say to somebody who isn’t interested in his own people?”
I wiped my eyes with the back of my wrist.
“What about forgiveness?”
“Ask for it.”
“I’m asking you right now.”
“I’m the wrong guy.”
The Rabbi was right: sometimes it’s hopeless.
“Leonard,” he said. “It’s between you and God. The book of life is sealed. You lost your place in heaven.”
Water sloshed against the pier. Burnt pilings and rolling waves gathered in the mouths of the seagulls.
We’re still on the phone.
“Are you happy at least?” he asks.
What do I say to that? I want to tell him how a few months back, after my own birthday, I picked up the phone and called Birthright Israel. I don’t even know why. This cramped studio apartment, the subway, my cubicle—suffocating. I imagined some giant plane with a Star of David painted on the side dropping a rope ladder down to my fire escape and airlifting me out of Brooklyn. The lady at Birthright said, “Honey, it’s only the trip of a lifetime. Don’t be surprised if you come back engaged. Bring plenty of sunscreen.” On and on, until she said, “One last question: how old are you?”
“Twenty-seven,” I said.
The phone went silent.
“Oh, dear,” she said, in this tiny voice. The cutoff, it turns out, is twenty-six.
I said there must be a cushion, wiggle room. “I don’t understand,” I said. “At twenty-seven you just give up on us? It’s called Birthright. It’s in the name. It’s my birthright.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re too late.”
I think this might make Dad happy to hear about—the fact I tried. But I don’t say anything. It would only confirm what he believes: they wouldn’t take me back. Even when I raised my arms and surrendered, they don’t want me anymore.
“I’m happy,” I say to him on the phone.
“Good. We’re going to Friday services now. Your favorite. I’m kidding. Take care, Leonard. Thanks for calling. I mean it.”
He hangs up.
And I think: He’s getting old. I could take the Acela train tomorrow and be there in the morning. I could go and help, maybe. Make him feel like he’s not so alone in this world. But it’s not my problem. I made my choice. I’m sitting here in my apartment and I’m fine.
I pat my own cheek with my hand. Like he would. You’re trouble, kid. A few soft slaps. I hold my palm against my face. It’s my own hand, of course. It’s not like being touched by another person.
And only then do I feel his absence. Something missing. I pick my jeans up off the floor and fish into the side pocket for the white card with Masha’s address. How bad could it be? A little arm-wringing. Maybe it would do me some good. I’ll smile, nod my head. Get a great meal out of it. Divine brisket. When’s the last time? That’s what I’m thinking as I put on my nice slacks and a button down. Wet my hair. I could use some tradition.
Masha lives in a greystone across from the museum. The orthodox boy roller-skating in tight circles inside the vestibule opens the door for me. I say hi. He’s got peyos, the long traditional sideburns, and a worn Yankees cap. Maybe he’s one of Masha’s kids. You see all those Hasidic women gathered outside the Brooklyn museum with their strollers. Go forth and multiply, God said, and they took it to heart. I figure Masha’s no different. Three or four kids at least.
Masha’s in the same outfit from this afternoon. She says, “Leonard. Everything okay?”
“Dad wasn’t feeling well,” I say. “We postponed. I thought I’d come by, if that’s still alright. I would have called, but there’s no number on the card.”
She waves me in. It’s one of these railroad apartments where I can see all the rooms right away. There’s no one else here. I’m expecting to trip over a kid’s baseball bat. But no noise, no toys. Nothing.
She’s smiling at me.
“Where is everyone?”
“It’s only me and my husband.”
Only the husband isn’t here from the looks of it.
She reads my confusion. “He’s at my in-laws,” she adds. “His mother’s sick. Called last minute.”
I don’t know much about Hasidic women, but I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be alone with one.
“I can go, if you’d like. Sorry I didn’t buzz. The boy roller-skating let me in. I thought he might be your son.”
She shakes her head.
A small wooden table is set up with candles. Goblet of wine. Challah. In the kitchen, two of everything. Two sinks. Two microwaves. Two ovens. I know it’s a Kosher thing, to keep the dairy separate from the meat. But I’ve never seen it in person. Seems like a pain in the ass, especially in such a small kitchen.
She tracks my eyes. I smile politely and then she leads me into the living room. Bare little room with a bookcase and desk. She points to the couch against the wall. I sit. She’s still standing, wringing her hands. She inhales sharply.
“You sure you don’t want me to go?”
“No, no. She says. Stay for Shabbat. My husband sends his apologies.”
She turns her head to the fireplace. It’s not a working fireplace. On the mantle there’s a photograph of Masha and her husband. She’s smiling. He’s a stonewall with glasses and nose. Full orthodox garb. He looks agitated by the inconvenience of having to take a picture. It’s costing him valuable hours of Hebraic study.
Masha looks at the photo. “Next time, the two of you will meet.”
“Of course,” I say. She sits down in the simple wooden chair across from me. She’s quiet. I point to the photo. “He looks very serious.”
“That’s what God wants,” she says.
“His studies are very important. Everything for him is spiritual.” She folds her hands in her lap and smiles. “He’d read all night if I didn’t take the prayer book out of his hands and say, Enough. Sleep. There’s tomorrow. I say, Look up, listen to me, one day you’ll read yourself blind. He’s thirty and already squints at the pages.”
She laughs like it’s funny. The hardness in her breaks a little.
“Things are missing of course,” she continues, “but this is normal. We have no children. Not yet. The Rabbi says it takes time, and sometimes it’s not meant to happen. Sometimes God calls upon us for a different purpose.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be. I work part time at Kohl’s. Not every woman works. Plenty to be grateful for.”
She straightens, turns to the window. “Almost sundown.”
I follow her to the kitchen. She hands me the matchbook. I strike it, the flame hisses alive. I touch the tip of the first candle, angling the match. The wick glows and the grey smoke begins to rise. I light the second candle. I put the match before my lips and blow it out.
Masha circles her hands around the flame three times, covers her eyes with her fingers. She recites the prayer in Hebrew. I don’t close my eyes. I don’t recall the words. But the sad tempo—this I remember. The rise and fall of her voice, a slow and gentle pulse. And I can feel the warmth coming off her shoulder beside me. I’m emptied into dim light, hearing her breath. It’s nice, the stillness. The nicest thing I’ve felt in a long time.
“Can we sit before dinner?” she asks after blessing the challah and wine. “Give my husband a little more time. Maybe he’ll call.”
We return to the living room, sit in the same spots as before. Then, sure enough, she leans forward and says, “Leonard, I believe every soul is sent down to this earth for a purpose.”
I knew it was coming. Business before brisket.
“You feel lost,” she says softly. “You’ve drifted.” She sounds like my father. “It’s possible to change.”
“I know where you’re headed, and I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but I’m not interested. It isn’t for me. Too many rules. Too much obligation.”
“It’s God’s will.” Her voice wavers a little. “It’s not our place to pick and choose.”
“I thought we have free will. The Jews believe that.”
“We do. Our will is God’s will. That’s the only choice. No more cravings or desires.”
“What’s so bad about cravings and desires?”
“Sin,” she hushes. “You must repent.”
“Nah,” I say. “I don’t feel guilty about anything. My father’s always saying that too—repent or lose my place in heaven. Out of the good book, into the bad.”
“I can help,” she says, wringing her hands. “Let me help. You have to open your heart.”
“It’s open. I can’t get it more open.”
She’s staring me in the eyes.
For a moment, I picture walking through the front door of my house back in Haverhill. I’m in black wool coat, a fur hat. Beard and peyos. My father is wide-eyed, speechless. I say, “Shalom Dad.”
Her eyes are huge. “You must keep praying.”
“I don’t want to be rude, but what’s God going to do?”
She pauses. Looks at me real serious. “You really don’t believe in anything?”
She leans back in her chair and turns toward the window.
“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” I say. “You’re right. For you. It works for you. I’m jealous. You got it all figured out.”
And I do like this about her. I’m not bullshitting. There’s no hiding, no shame.
I say, “I can tell you’re happy here. You got a good honest husband.” I don’t say he’s a drip, which is the truth. “And you got it figured out.”
She’s still looking out the window thinking whatever she’s thinking. I’m not sure she hears me. Then she snaps back from wherever she was.
She says, “I’m not saying there aren’t times,” and then pauses. “You know. When I wonder.”
“Sure,” I say.
She swallows hard, glances down at her watch. “Are you hungry?”
“What about your husband?”
“By now he would’ve called.”
She’s looking at me.
I picture her at peace with all her sinks. Brisket, gefilte fish, a man who might come home. I’m not buying it. I doubt he’s even at their in-laws. I bet he’s gone a lot.
When I glance back, there she is, eyes still fixed on me, like she might kick over the coffee table and say, “Enough’s enough. Take me, heathen Jew!” and rip her blouse open.
Her face tenses. She clears her throat. Then she stands. She walks over to the closet and opens the door. She pulls the rope cord and a naked bulb lights up. As she rises on her tip-toes, her feet come out of her canvas flats, her insteps wrinkled and white, the heels almost orange.
She pushes aside some shopping bags on the top shelf. I ask if I can help, but she doesn’t answer. She spins a box toward her, catches it before it falls. A wig box. A tall octagonal lavender box. It’s no secret that Hasidic women wear wigs.
She sets it down on the floor and kneels before it, sitting back on her heels. She brings her hands forward to the box lid and pauses. She looks over at me, a faint trembling on her face, this flicker of doubt, and then she returns to the box.
She screws off the lid in three half-turns and sets it to the side. Very deliberate. From my seat, I can see the white tissue paper inside. She leans in. She carefully folds back the tissue. She’s focused.
When she glances up at me again, there’s no shrinking. She returns to the task. Her hands go forward. Resolved. She lifts out a tank-top, green, silky, and sets it in her lap.
She makes two fists, unclenches. She lifts out a pair of jeans like she’s cradling an antique plate.
“Vera Wang. Modern fit,” she says. “That’s what they call it.”
She folds the legs neatly in her lap, flattens them with her hand. She removes a pair of espadrille heels.
She stands. Holding the outfit and shoes against her chest, she looks at me hesitantly, like she might talk herself out of it. She retreats down the hall and I hear a door close.
I should go. I should rush out the door before she comes back.
I hear heels knock hardwood. I straighten in my seat.
“Don’t laugh,” she says, hidden behind the hall corner. I promise. She says, “Okay. Before I chicken out.”
Then she steps out from behind the wall. In the mint-green ruffled tank-top. Jeans and heels. Her arms are bare. Her throat. Her ash blond hair loose and light, falling to her shoulders. A lipstick—the palest peach.
“Your face,” she says. “It’s that bad? Immodest. I know. The jeans are too tight.”
“No, not immodest at all. It’s all very classy.”
“The lipstick’s too much? Some of the women at Kohl’s are really—I don’t look cheap? Because it’s not. None of this was.”
“I don’t know clothes,” I tell her, “but I can see it’s all very expensive. It looks terrific.”
“I see women—real modern women. Tailored suits. Cream-colored slacks. Two-button linen blazer. Heels to heaven. Marvelous. I ring them up. Day after day. Torture. I couldn’t take it any longer. This was only the second outfit I tried on. Can you believe that? I knew what would look good on me. I knew what was me.”
“Modern fit,” I say.
She clumsily spins. Facing me again, she juts out her hip and sets her hand on her waist. Then blushes. She looks down at herself like she can’t believe she just did that. She crosses her arms over her chest and sits.
Her eyes go to wig box on the floor. “He’d never look there. Or anywhere.” She leans forward and whispers. “I do this alone. Okay, okay, once I showed Trudy at work.” She’s talking fast. “But never like this. Never in front of a man.”
“If you’re worried about me telling—I don’t know anybody.”
She nods and leans back. I’m looking at the soft hollow of her throat, her pale lipstick.
She asks me to put on music. Her cellphone is blocked. She only gets a few whitelisted pages and apps. I take out my iPhone.
“Not too loud,” she says. “Neighbor
I don’t know what she likes, so I leave it to chance. She might get anything from Enya to Eazy-E. Let God decide. I hit shuffle. The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet. Not a disaster.
Eyes closed, head angled, her face smooths out into this peaceful expression. She seems relaxed. Comfortable. She hums along. Her head falls back, but not for me to kiss her neck. When the song ends, she thanks me. I can tell she means it. I can see I’ve misread things. It’s not about sex.
I’m feeling brave, so I say, “Hey, if there’s a book for the good and a book for the wicked, what about a third book? For us. The ones in-between.”
She smiles. “A third book?” She chuckles. Stares at me for a moment. Then she glances down at her watch. “We should eat. If you’re still hungry.”
I tell her I’m okay, actually. What I really want to do is take a nice long walk.
She nods. I know she can’t leave the house on the Sabbath, but she says, “You go ahead,” like she’s choosing not to join. I play along. I ask if she’s sure. She’s sure. So we stand.
She peers out the peephole for a second. She unbolts the door and opens it.
I’m about to slip out when she says, “Thank you.”
I thank her back.
Then I’m skipping down the stairs, feeling good. I think about sliding down the bannister. I’m light. Relieved.
I heave open the brass doors and spill out into the warm summer evening. The street’s thronged with people coming and going. I make my way down Eastern Parkway with my hands in my pockets thinking about Masha in skinny jeans and espadrilles sitting by the window, humming the Stones.
I have to push down the urge to call my father and tell him I’m on my way home from Masha’s Shabbat dinner. Tried, at least. But what’s there to say? That I’m content with my decisions, but I’m still desperate to please him. That as much as I want to be a good Jewish son, any half decent Rabbi will tell you that in certain hopeless cases it’s better to let go.
Spencer Wise, author of The Emperor of Shoes (HarperCollins), has also contributed work to Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, and The New Ohio Review He is an assistant professor at Augusta University in Augusta, GA.