Showing posts with label .H I D D E N H O L I N E S S. Show all posts
Showing posts with label .H I D D E N H O L I N E S S. Show all posts

Aug 8, 2019

Sheer Act of Will

I’m sitting in the shade at the Kotel (Western Wall) waiting for my friend Ruthie who’s standing stock-still, praying. In front of me are Ruthie’s sister-in-law and a woman she’s escorted to the Wall. The woman shakes my hand: she’s Sandra from somewhere Texas; it’s her first time in Israel, first prayers at the Kotel, and as one of the Bnei Noach, (a Noahide), she’s truly moved to be here.

This last part takes explaining.

Judaism not only doesn’t encourage converts, there were times and will be another when converts are not accepted at all. The Torah however puts a requirement on all non-Jews to observe seven out of the 613 mitzvot (commandments). Those who choose to observe these mitzvot are called Noahides.

Sandra has unfolded a blueprint of the Second Temple on her lap. A former sheriff’s deputy, she’s particularly interested, she says, in where the Great Court had been housed. In her twang she recites, with profound respect, the Noahide mitzvah to set up just laws and courts.

I have other interests. Does she have a horse? Where is her holster? Back in Texas does she carry a rifle on her shoulder or pack a set of pistols, one for each hand? Could we see her badge?

Sandra confides, “I managed to hang a plaque in the corner of the courthouse back home without ruffling any feathers: Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those who return to her, with righteousness.”

Her horse trots off, her holster disappears; Sandra has stirred up a two colliding memories.

Inside the old Brooklyn Federal Courthouse there was a relief of Lady Justice and an inscription, an exhortation: Justice, justice shall you pursue. It moved me. I started jury duty one Monday morning feeling I was doing something holy.

The case was this. The defendant, coolly, expensively dressed, was accused of using an ex-girlfriend as a drug mule. He had the girlfriend, mother of three of his children, conceal heroin in her person in Jamaica and fly to JFK, where he was waiting to relieve her of her burden.

The FBI was also waiting; the defendant and his mule were arrested. Why she was in prison and he was free we wouldn’t learn until after the trial. The testimony had a horrible peak. Our jury was led out of court. When we returned the girlfriend, in a pathetic prison dress, was seated in the witness box. You could hear chains clanging whenever she moved.

Five minutes of her testimony was enough to tell me that the defendant’s story (he was at the airport to meet a relative who never showed; the girlfriend had planned the drug deal all by herself) was boloney. This woman couldn’t plan her way into a parking spot. Her kids (his kids) were being raised in Jamaica by her mother; she was looking at decade in jail with no parole. She looked pitiful; the defendant looked at his watch.

Deliberations lasted three days. One of our jurors was farcical: with a roll of paper towel and bottle of blue spray she’d found under the sink she busied herself cleaning the coffee machine, the counter, the mini-fridge, the table. When she finished she’d start again, the whole time mumbling “the man ain’t guilty.” We could not get her to sit with us or explain her verdict.

One of the two male jurors, Thomas, was scary. “Cops, the Feds, the whole damn government lies.” It was because of their lies, he bellowed, that his ex-wife was granted her divorce and sole custody of their kids.

“Same thing here. The defendant ain’t guilty. The Feds,” he explained like we were dumbbells, “set him up – it’s a big damn sting.”

Jenny, a gentle spoken juror who had lost two grandsons to drugs, pulled some pretty little glass vials out of her purse and held them up for Thomas and the cleaner to see. “I found these in front of my house this morning”, she said, “you gonna tell me they were planted there?”

Thomas said “Pfffft” and turned away. The cleaner scrubbed a coffee stain, “I have said it, the man ain’t guilty.”

After it was all over, Jenny and I supported each other arm in arm on our way to the subway. I had a migraine, she was weeping. “They were biased from the get go”, she whispered, “they had no right to be on a jury.” I wanted to tell her about Lady Justice, about the inscription inside Brooklyn Federal Court, but my head was thumping; I had to concentrate on getting home without vomiting.

I come back to the present. Sandra is telling us about the High Court and the stringencies its sages took to judge without bias.

“There’s a whole list of judges who disqualified themselves because a litigant did them some tiny favor! You must know them: ‘A feather blew onto Amemar's head, and a man removed it. Amemar disqualified himself from judging his case. Samuel was walking on a bridge, and a man lent him a hand. The man had a case; Samuel disqualified himself from judging him.’

“That’s what we want! That’s what I look forward to,” Sandra sighs, “someday.”

Sandra, I see, has missed it. She hasn’t seen the scrupulousness of judges sixteen hundred years ago on display today. I share my colliding memory; my sister had a jury duty story of her own.

My sister’s defendant was a pusher charged with selling heavy drugs in front of a Brooklyn high school. The week of testimony was grueling; the week of deliberations worse. In the end however, the entire jury found the perp guilty.

After listening to my sister’s account of the trial I’d asked her what the defendant looked like.

“I don’t know,” she’d said, and shrugged. 

I was baffled. Was the guy masked? Was he behind a curtain? Was he somewhere remote? What?

“How come you don’t know what he looked like?”

My sister explained, “I didn’t look. I didn’t want to be prejudiced by his appearance.”

For one solid week, and part of another, my sister averted her eyes from the center of attention of a packed courtroom. Gluing herself to the gene pool inherited from thousands of generations of Jewish mothers, my sister willed herself to judge with righteousness.

All three women’s eyes grow wide, they ooh and ah. Ruthie knows my family is assimilated way back, so does her sister-in-law, but Sandra and I have just met.

“Your sister must be a very devout woman,” marvels Sandra.

I do not say no.

Jun 12, 2019

Hell Breaks Loose

I’m in this new building in Jerusalem to observe a Torah class for Crypto-Jews (wrongly referred to as marranos) and to see how I can help two of them with the odds and ends of daily life.

With only five minutes before class Rabbanit Raquel, who is both teacher and guidance counselor, gives me a quick lowdown on Miriam, a young Colombian woman, and her mother, Señora Lopez.

Miriam is doing brilliantly. Her mother (Raquel turns a palm up then down), not so well. She’s terrified as ever and now, she’s also bitter. You understand.”  I’m about to say I don’t understand when Miriam flies into the Rabbanit’s office. I hold my arm out stiffly for a good Anglo handshake. Miriam laughs, hugs me, and leads me by my hand to the classroom. Miriam has long loose hair and bracelets of yellow beads on her chubby wrists. The bracelets click as we rush inside.

In the back of the room at a three seat table Miriam presents me to her mother. Señora Lopez wears her hair in a noose of grey braid. Arms marshaled across her chest, she hears my name, says acidly, “Ud. viene de Nueva York” (“You come from New York”), sighs, and turns away to the desk up front where a pile of books waits with Raquel.

The Rabbanit swaps to reading glasses, bookmarks with her index finger a large tome, and looks up.

“I said last week I want questions, challenging questions. If I don’t get them, I’ll sit down in this chair and stop teaching.”

She points to a void where her chair should be. The class laughs. The class is twenty adults from Latin America, two from Spain, one kid erecting a Lego monster on the Rabbanit’s stolen chair, and me.

I have to concentrate hard as the Rabbanit teaches, in Spanish, the Purim story. Her accent is castellano, same as the professoras who taught us the language in our public high school. Each professora, and most of our class, was Jewish. One teacher, Señora Wislitzsky, took us on a class trip to a fancy Spanish restaurant on Park Avenue, where we ate the rice, shellfish, and pork sausage dish called paella. In our Jewish archdiocese of Flatbush Brooklyn, not a single kid had been taught to abstain from chowing down on that perfectly treif stuff.

Miriam passes me a candy. She takes such fervid, galloping notes our desk shakes, and her mother booms out question after question. She interacts passionately, as though the Rabbanit were discussing today’s news rather than news of nearly 2400 years ago.

“Exactly how much time is there from one part of the story to another?” asks Miriam’s mother. The Rabbanit turns to the white board behind her and bullets and dates the events.

Here’s Esther, unhappy winner of a macabre Miss World contest appalled at her prize – she’s booked to marry the boorish king of Persia. Here’s Queen Esther spilling the beans to her husband and Haman, his prime minister: she is in fact, a Jew. If Haman’s plan to destroy every last Jew goes down, so does she.

Dates are written in red, events in black. I see that Esther hid her Jewishness for five years and think “got it, let’s move on,” but this class of Crypto-Jews, in hiding for five centuries, is stunned. Miriam’s hands fall limply over her pen. Her eyes are fixed on the timeline.

Her mother smacks our desk, then like pistols, fires both index fingers at Rabbanit Raquel. “Why did Esther tell? That king,” she yells, “will bury her on fire.”

I expect the Rabbanit to laugh, to explain that Esther lives, that Purim is joyous, a real holiday. Instead, Rabbanit Raquel picks up her book, marks it with a post-it, closes it, and looks up at Miriam’s mother, “.”

When Miriam whispers to her mother, “It ends well for the Jews” her mother shoots back, “but not for us.”

We break. From a tray onto the snack room table where her mother and I have been waiting, Miriam unloads three lemon sodas and three tall glasses of ice. Her mother holds an icy glass to her forehead.

“How easy it must have been to grow up Jewish in New York” she says. There is jealousy in her voice, and menace.

“No,” I reply.

I ask Señora Lopez how she knew her family was Jewish. Her reply is animated.

“My grandmother lived with us. She spent all day Friday cleaning the house and making sure we bathed and changed into clean clothes. By the afternoon she had a pot of beans and potatoes on our hearth. I wasn’t allowed to touch it. No one was allowed to touch it. On Saturday all my aunts and cousins came for lunch. Only then did my grandmother take this special stew off the hearth and serve us.

“She never ate pork, and she never let us eat it either. In fact we ate no meat. One of my friends from school asked her if we were so poor we could only afford vegetables. My grandmother lied, ‘My belly has never been able to tolerate rich foods, so I never cook it and I never serve it.’ That way no one was suspicious when we didn’t eat pork.

“And our names.” Señora Lopez looks at her daughter. “Outside she was Maria, inside, when the family was alone, we called her Miriam.” She pauses, “A name in our family forever.”

Miriam picks up her mother’s thread. “But we didn’t know what it all meant. I started looking on the internet, and found a rabbi in Colombia. When we told him about the Shabbat stew, he grinned.”

I look around. There’s the Lego kid in his yarmulke. On the streets of Jerusalem every day I see thousands of Jews who wear fun masks on Purim, few who wear the disguises of half a millennium.

Miriam must think I’m bored; she shifts the conversation. “Tell us about New York. To go to sinagoga on Shabbat, to fast on Yom Kippur in the open, to buy matzos in a shop – it’s true, right? In New York you buy your matzos in a shop?”

I don’t know what a volcano I’m leaping into. Stupidly, I tell the women the truth.

“My family never went to sinagoga, not once; we watched TV on Yom Kippur same as every other day. But yes, you could buy matzos in the supermarket, which my mother did. We had matzos and we had bread on Passover – both.”

I tell them more. I confess honestly that I was well educated in the civil rights movement but learned about the holocaust accidentally from a TV show, which made me vomit. I tell them my beloved cousin wonders if she was given a Jewish name. Was her mother? Her father?

This all sounds ponderous to me. I want to entertain the two women with funny stories.

I tell them I had the lead part as the Easter bunny in our elementary school play. In Spanish, I sing for them Here Comes Peter Cottontail. I recall my aunt’s yummy meat and cheese lasagna and confess I still miss that forbidden mix. I tell them that at age twenty-one I made embarrassing mistakes at a renowned rabbi’s Passover Seder, the first Seder of my life.

I am about to tell them the dumb things I did at that Seder when I see that Miriam’s mother has turned the color of lava. And now it’s too late.

It’s too late to explain that’s it’s not our fault. It’s been five generations since anyone in my family knew Purim or Passover; we’re not unusual. We’re programmed to throw away what Miriam's family  has struggled to preserve.

Señora Lopez shakes her ice violently, then bangs her glass on the table and opens her mouth to speak. I brace myself. Now I know, when she does speak, hell will break loose.

Jan 17, 2019

Cycle Man

The computer store is my last stop in the mall. Two guys work here, one in a yarmulke and one not. When I enter, they’re poring over a magazine, heads together, and murmuring. I’d be concerned about their reading material except they don’t startle, or even note that I’m right in front of them, tapping my nails on the glass display. When I ask for printer ink one smacks his lips, dog ears a page, and reluctantly pulls himself away. I glance at the cover: there, glossy and inviting, a four color spread of motherboards, chargers, routers, and drives. I sit down and wait. 

A bear of a man fills the doorway. Tattoos slither from the slab of one shoulder down his arm and drop anchor at his fingers, from which a red motorcycle helmet dangles. Wild curly hair goes unchecked. I’m calculating how low the pepper spray is buried in my purse when Cycle Man pauses, touches the door’s mezuzah, and kisses his fingers.

And here I have to do a replay.

It took only seconds, but Cycle Man closed his eyes, paused with the deep concentration of a devout Jew, and slowly kissed the mezuzah.

The clerks look up and go wild, “Yossi! You’re back!”  My ink is tossed aside. The three shake hands, elbows, and engage in a kind of arm wrestle that to men in Israel must translate as, “Has it been that long? I’m very glad to see you. How are you doing?” Cycle Man, in the softest tone replies, “Thank G-d.”

I catch only some of what Cycle Man says: hospital, four months, fine, fine, Thank G-d.

The clerks remember I exist. I plunk down my credit card. The salesman bags my ink and rings me up, all the time drilling Yossi with questions rat-tat-tat-tat, when from the mall a woman wails, “Mommy, no!”

Yossi bounds out, the two sales guys follow.  A tiny Filipina caregiver is struggling to keep an old woman from slipping out of her wheel chair. The woman’s head is bare scalp and white straw; her tongue is lolling to a side. Her eyes open and close in waves, like she’s drowning. 

In a quiet voice, Yossi says something to the clerks, who pull out their phones. With three fingers of his imprinted arm Yossi palpates the side of the old woman’s neck. I’m standing right there.  On his inner arm now exposed, in the color of dusk, a tattoo of the galaxy spins toward his pulse.

A team from Magen David Adom arrives in a flash. One of the EMTs kisses Cycle Man on the top of his head, “Yossi. You’re back.”

Nov 18, 2018

Curtain Rod, Baby Blanket, Floor Tile

 Even in summer, it’s so chilly on the plaza of the Western Wall (or Kotel) at 4 AM that most of the women wear sweaters or shawls. We’re all here to catch vasikin, morning service where the standing silent prayer is said exactly at sunrise. It’s not seeing the sun that counts, vasikin is considered devotional even if it’s said in a windowless building or a dungeon or a cave, which it has been.

 It would take me ten lifetimes to move up one rung from lazy, let alone achieve devotional. But there’s a buzz here at this time that draws me. Often there’s a buzz of chitchat, before prayers begin at dawn, from the ladies who cluster near the Wall to blab while they wait. I’ve ignored them other times but this very early morning I’m a grenade ready to explode; I storm over to them and shush with a nasty hiss. They look startled.

After five minutes back in my seat I evaluate; have I acted like a sailor looking for a brawl? Maybe no, maybe yes, and this pain in the neck court martial of self-examination goes on for a while until a part of my brain that operates only in this place says, “Next time shush, but nicer.” Gently, the court martial ends. At home, it would last for days, transforming me from a single grenade to a cache.

 When one of the women who asks for charity comes to me I’m calm enough to give, and to take in her benign warmth. There’s another however who is clearly unbalanced. She pushes her hand out aggressively, and her laugh is so loud it ricochets off the stones. She wears a heavy winter coat and carries a suitcase tied with cord. When prayers start she parks herself on the small stone staircase abutting the Wall. I look up and examine her features, x-rayed by floodlights that bathe the plaza. Praying, she appears neither fanatic nor remote, but focused, and she does not miss a single amen.

 Afterwards I get coffee at the little stand behind Kotel Plaza, and drink it beside a very old man in a pilled stocking cap who has stopped to rest in a chair. He has the nut brown skin of a Jew from an Arab country, maybe Yemen, or Iraq. He declines the men who stop to ask if they can bring him a coffee. Each of these men wears a suit and carries his prayer shawl in a velvet pouch; the old man carries his in a see through plastic bag.

Two young guys, one quite tall, are talking close by. Though the tall guy is listening to his friend his eyes are on the old man, until he gives up listening and walks over to the old man’s seat, shakes his hand, then does something I’ve seen only once before. The young guy rubs his fingertips along the back of the old man’s hand then kisses his own fingers, as though he had touched not a hand, but the parchment of a Torah.

 By now it’s 7 AM and the line to enter Kotel Plaza snakes down past the Dung Gate and out to a narrow road. It’s too early for group tours but not for indie tourists. I’m on my way out, to return home, when a finely dressed couple looks up quizzically from a brochure and I’m the human in their line of sight.

They’re Swedish. They ask, in elegant English, what, exactly, can they see here. I’m wearing my ankle length denim skirt and work boots. The blazer I needed against the chill at 4 AM looks abnormal in the rising September heat. I have a Brooklyn accent I do not wish anyone to associate with holiness. I address the wife as madam, something I learned from movies. I open my mouth, hoping to sound as refined as Katherine Hepburn, and then, like a strip of film stuck in a projector, I freeze.

 What can they see here? I can’t be flippant, and tell them the Wall is a leftover, the two Temples that were alive here are gone; they can’t see nothing. I can’t get professorial about architecture or archeology; I care for neither. I cannot relay this place’s history, at least not as Clift Notes. When I point to a table with the same brochure they already have, they look disappointed, so I produce.

 I tell them the story of my friend’s six year old son, Tzvi, of South Bend Indiana. Tzvi and his mom were getting into their car when two kids stopped to tell Tzvi they were walking to Jerusalem to re-build the Temple. Tzvi appraised their collection of curtain rods, baby blankets, and floor tiles. Buckled in the car he shook his head, “They don’t have enough tiles.”

 The couple smiles wanly. “But you must understand,” explains the lady, “Children do not know what is real.”

Jul 17, 2018

Smack Myself in the Head

It’s the day before Yom Kippur. I have to see my lawyer for round two of purchasing an apartment in Israel. I’m so nervous I throw my sunglasses out with the trash. Now I’m more nervous; I pounce on a boy who’s pushed in front of me to board the bus. Kids here come first and go first. Girls understand queue decorum; I make a mental note to teach the boys.

I return from the lawyer to my rental, locate my rubber gloves, and storm out to the huge orange bin to dig out my glasses. The bin had been overflowing for weeks; last night miraculously it was emptied and my sunglasses are clearly visible, at the bottom, four feet down. There’s only one person in sight, a boy waiting for a bus. I ask him to help, thinking we’ll turn the monster over and I’ll replace its filthy contents. He smiles, jumps in, rescues my glasses, and hands them to me with a grin. I make a mental note to smack myself in the head.

Towards the end of Yom Kippur I re-enter the little synagogue. Nine year old girls are pouring their hearts. I want to tell them they have never done anything to warrant such contrition, but that would be like yelling no fire in a theater; the girls would be alarmed.

The shofar blows. There’s clapping, and singing, Next Year in Jerusalem. I get confused, and want to shout, “The bus stops right outside, why wait?” But the singing refers to Jerusalem restored. The girls file out like royalty. Outside, boys are dueling with bamboo rods ready for the roofs of Sukkot. A tiny toddler almost gets skewered. His brother catches him in his left arm, kisses his curly head, and with his right arm, duels on.