Shevirat Ha-Kelim

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Shevirat Ha-Kelim (1)

Twenty hours on the train, stopping in Chicago along the way to Penn Station, Ruthie was sleepless, staring out the window with her book closed in her lap, senses piqued as she drew closer, watching the midwest pass by in a streaming blur behind thick layers of glass, taking no notice of the throng of sweaty passengers and their screaming children. A force propelled her onward, and she was defenseless to its frenzied urging.

Ruthie descended into Penn Station, thrown into the deluge, the motley crowd , and in a haze of delirium found her way to a yellow cab that seemed to be waiting for her, waiting for a harried styleless girl, who despite the trance-like air about her possessed a calm resoluteness, a strength of purpose. The cab driver pulled out into the traffic and gracefully maneuvered the car toward Crown Heights.

When the cab pulled up to her destination, 770 Eastern Parkway, Ruthie’s eyes were wide with wonder. Red brick towered over her, exuding authority and ancient magic. Like Dorothy entering Oz, the world revived, dizzying technicolor even in its seedy grime, the black-clad Hasids, somehow more alive than anyone she had ever seen before, the women in their sheitel and the men’s hanging tzitzis and thick glossy payos, fur hats which were living extensions of their bodies.

Between right and left the bride approaches. Ruthie was home.

At 770, in a voice barely louder than a whisper, Ruthie asked after the Rappaports, Efraim and Chaya, old family friends who she knew lived in the area, who might at least give her a hot meal after a long journey, and perhaps help her settle in her new life. She was given their address and vague directions from an elderly red-faced man wearing a rekel two sizes too big, and walked along the filthy streets until she found the numbers matching those she had committed to memory.

Chaya Rappaport opened the door with shock on her face and when Ruthie spoke, her voice quivering with barely-contained passion, Chaya soothed her, nodding as Ruthie explained what had driven her there, the higher force pushing her toward her true self, knowing her parents wouldn’t understand this compulsion, let alone this higher self, the shechina urging her toward the great mysteries of life.

“Of course you are welcome in our home, Ruth. But I know your parents, and they must be worried sick,” Chaya’s voice was sweet as honey.

“Please don’t call my mother. Please. She’ll never allow this. I can’t go back there. I can’t go back,” Ruthie pleaded.

Chaya took Ruthie’s hand in her own and squeezed, both women knowing that Chaya, a mother herself, could never keep Ruthie’s secret.

In the two days between Chaya’s phone call and her parents’ flight to Laguardia, Ruthie watched the women as they prayed behind the mechitza, hidden from view, the scent of the mens’ sweat and unwashed clothing penetrating the closed, windowless rooms, the melodic Hebrew and Yiddish resounding their idyllic poetry, inhabiting the space like it had a soul of its own, a body with a soul, soft-edged body heaving and reeling, the delirious ecstasy of the farbrengen, the Lubavitchers gathered together listening to the rebbe speak. Among the women, invisible and wordless, the rebbe’s words seeped into Ruthie like the first rain after a long drought.

Body hidden beneath swathes of fabric, rough against her skin, Ruthie felt freer under these restrictions than she ever had before. There was no place, among these women, for the style or expression or uniqueness her mother longed for her accentuate. Here she was a creature of God, and she opened up to the world like a bride on her wedding night. She would serve only God. God and the Rebbe. God, the Rebbe, and perhaps, some day, if she chose, she would serve a husband, faceless and nameless.

It was precisely this hidden world of women that gave space for Ruthie to feel for the first time the expansive, infinite power of her femininity. Erotic strength, the eroticism of true faith. It was as though concealing all the trappings of her femininity – the sensuality of her thick raven hair, the softness of her breasts and hips, the seismic force between her legs – is what gave it power.

When Paul and Edie arrived, they were frantic, wringing their hands. How could they have raised such a reckless daughter? Where had they gone wrong with Ruthie? Sammy was well-adjusted, such a normal, healthy boy, getting into the kind of trouble any average American teenager would, playing ball, carousing with the other boys, outgoing and popular, nothing like his sister. Still a girl, Ruthie was, and stealing money from her kid brother, running away like she did, right under their noses.

Edie held her daughter in her arms and squeezed until the life seemed to slip out of her and Ruthie’s limp body hung precariously against the older woman’s slight frame. Chaya and Efraim stood awkwardly in the door, their three small children hiding behind the folds of Chaya’s skirt.

When the plane took off, revving engines and pointing west, Ruthie sobbed violently, as though she was watching her lover die.

“What is the matter with you, Ruthie?” her mother asked, more sharply than she had intended

“Let her alone, Edith. Ruthie needs to rest,” her father chided softly.

The Katzes were kind people. Good people. But still, being good and kind did not mean they would ever understand. Their own immigrant parents, following the promise of America, high on their hopes of the toiling boiling melting pot, had been programmed to accept the surface, the myth. They spoke Yiddish at home but never told their children what the words meant. Yiddish was for adult conversations. It was for the past. And so Paul and Edie were raised in the spirit of suppression, of obscurity and the arm’s length. Respect tradition, they taught them, but don’t ever question it.

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Managing Editor of Jewrotica, Emma moonlights as a librarian. She also writes Jewish horoscopes, short stories, essays and a supernatural noir novella.