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Written by Emma Morris. Emma is Jewrotica’s managing editor. This is her first fiction work on Jewrotica, and the quotes below frame and introduce today’s story.
“There is also a decided erotic aspect to the Breaking of the Vessels. The vessels, as described by Luria’s most important disciple, Chayyim Vital, are envisioned as being located in the womb of the feminine Partzuf, the Cosmic Mother, an expression of the age-old symbol of the feminine as “vessel”, “receptacle” and “container”. Further, the shattering of these vessels brings about a state of affairs in which the masculine and feminine aspects of the cosmos, which had hitherto been in a “face to face” sexual conjunction, turn their backs upon one another and become completely disjoined. The “chaos” brought about by the Shevirah (“breakage”) leads to an erotic alienation, a condition that can only be remedied through a rejoining of opposites through a renewed coniunctio of the sexes. At the same time, like the water that breaks signaling the birth of a new human life, the Breaking of the Vessels also heralds a new birth, that of a new personal and world order to be completed by man in the process of Tikkun.”
“She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered before, because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true.”
– Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
The Jews in her community adapted to blue-collar Milwaukee, fashioning themselves after the Christians with their bingo and fundraisers, storebought floral prints and public school, thriving in business and other civic matters. They channeled their energy – their ardor – into baseball, the booming rust belt and, of course, the breweries, Miller and Schlitz and all those others established by enterprising German immigrants, who were looked over, not seen as German, not exactly, and certainly not the enemy, simply because they could speak English, and perhaps more intuitively, the Milwaukee Jews could empathize with what brought them here in the first place, what must have transpired to make them hasten their escape from the old world and find refuge in America.
Her parents, Paul and Edith, ran a corner grocery store in Sherman Park, the Northwest side neighborhood Ruthie had lived in all her life. The Katzes were upstanding members of the community, the burgeoning Conservative Milwaukee dreary middle class Jewry, and Ruthie was their only daughter and eldest child. Sunday school and High Holidays. Shabbat dinner with everyone in town it seemed like. Tzedakah and bouffants. Mitzvot and miniskirts. Each day exactly the same as the last. Endless.
Whole weeks passed by without her even realizing it, interminable days that retained some of their worth and integrity by the lost hours that disappeared between the pages of her favorite books. She read Singer’s stories over and over until its pages were dog eared and tear-stained, memorizing the romantic descriptions, the streaming flights of the supernatural, the numinous fortunes and hauntings and premonitions and seances and mischievous forces. She read about the stars and planets, learning the names of constellations and the phases of the moon, far off distant places, the the moons of Jupiter and rings of Saturn, the feminine mystique of God’s kingdom, the secrets of the universe.
But Ruthie’s only respite was her dream. To live among Hassids, the whirling cosmic romance the Kabbalists spun for themselves from out of the ether, intuitive and more deeply felt than memorizing cold laws and idiom of Torah and Talmud, light years away from how she felt her love for God: an electrifying heat. Not this, this bourgeois obsession with potluck kugel and keeping up appearances. What Ruthie longed for was to dive headlong into this mystic passion that caressed her inner dimensions. The fervour of the divine, the master of the good name.
How was Ruthie, a young woman, just nineteen and coming to understand the ways of the world, to relate to this, the careful distance they put between themselves and God’s ecstatic heat, the men surviving on words alone, words without feeling, while the women cooked for days and rouged their cheeks for temple. And behind their cheeks, red with false orgasmic blush, the mystical feminine beckoning. Come, my beloved, to meet the Shabbos bride.
Ruthie, playing the good Jewish girl, the hardworking bookworm wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a smile, helping mother in the kitchen. Her mother, Edie, came from a poor family, eight kids sleeping in the same room, the same bed so the story went sometimes, and worked her way up from nothing. Edie was a self-consciously glamorous woman, always up to date with the latest fashions, so put together, flawless and glowing even at bedtime. She implored Ruthie, her only daughter, to wear lipstick, show a little leg, tweeze her eyebrows, make some effort. Edie was constantly on the alert, scheduling dates for Ruthie with boys in their congregation, nephews and second cousins and distant relations of the women in her Mahjong club, even the cantor’s son one time. And Ruthie would let the boys take her out for egg creams or to the picture show and she’d nod and smile and let them kiss her on the lips or, rarely, let them feel her up over her sweater, and then never hear from them again.
“What are you doing wrong, Ruthie? You must take an interest in these men! Encourage them to speak about themselves, their ambitions,” her mother complained. “How do you suppose you’ll you ever find a husband with this attitude of yours?”
The so-called sexual revolution was swirling around her, infusing the atmosphere with its carnal weight and frenzy, sex for sex’s sake, and most of her girl friends from high school and those from the few college courses she had taken at UW were experimenting with boys, taking the pill, showing off their bodies and behaving – or at least wanting to behave – like men. Some of the Jewish girls she’d grown up with and the bad girls at school, Catholic girls mostly, running wild and smoking cigarettes in their tight sweater sets and knee socks and thick black eyeliner.
Her parents, nonplussed if not scandalized, were inclined to take such matters as lightly as they could, kids will be kids, after all, and Ruthie and Sammy were good kids, not likely to get out of line and tarnish the family name. Ruthie would marry some wealthy intellectual, someone accomplished and kind and from a good family, and Sammy was a boy yet and there was plenty of time left for him to sow his wild oats.
Ruthie had always been a late-bloomer, and, nervous around boys had never felt comfortable in her skin, couldn’t make out where her body ended and the rest of the world began- fumbling, hands shaking, tripping over her own feet, spilling drinks, freezing like she’d been caught in the middle of some heinous act whenever spoken to directly. Ruthie never knew what to say, how to make the fierce shadow creature that lived below her skin known. If she couldn’t make it known, it would destroy her.
Only in her dream-world could Ruthie detach herself completely. She was in a different time, a different place, trembling on the threshold of something unknown, stuck in an arrested childhood that seemed so alien to her. Still wearing bobby socks, Ruthie couldn’t hear the Beatles or Elvis even without a profound jolt of alienation weighing like lead in the pit of her stomach.
And so Ruthie planned her escape, like Harry Houdini breaking free of the chains that bound her to this lifeless oppression. She had several hundred dollars saved up from her Bat Mitzvah and the summers she’d helped out at the store. Sammy, younger by three years and still coasting through high school, had money holed away somewhere. The long-suffering youngest child, ever-vigilant, waiting for any sign of turmoil, he was prepared for disaster – not so much out of concern, but as a means of self-martyrdom, an excuse to hold his foresight over the heads of the underprepared members of his family.
Late Sunday morning, her parents were at the store awaiting a shipment of sundry goods and Sammy had gone out with his friends. Jeff or Gabe or one of the other boys – Ruthie couldn’t keep them straight – had just gotten a car for his birthday and the gang was joyriding on the tree-lined roads of the prosperous neighborhoods along the lake. Ruthie stayed home, as she often did, to read her book sprawled out on the davenport, the afternoon sun shining through the curtains.
But as soon as the door shut behind Sammy, Ruthie was on her feet and up the stairs. After forty-five minutes of frantic searching, Ruthie found four hundred dollars stashed in Sammy’s old baseball glove, crumpled up into balls. She unfolded and smoothed the bills, twenties and tens and fives and a couple of fifties, and tucked them neatly in her billfold.
Buttoning her coat up to her neck, a strange calmness came over Ruthie. She closed the door, turned the key in the lock, and didn’t look back as she walked staring straight ahead all three miles to the depot, wind whipping her hair with the threat of rain.