Monday, August 26, 2013

The Nachmanides Yeshiva Boy and the Girl from Allentown, PA: An Orthodox Romance-- A Bittersweet Work of Jewish Fiction

            By the time I reached my sophomore year in Nachmanides College, I was desperate for female companionship. Orthodox synagogues separate the sexes: a tall barrier known as a mechitza separates men from women; supposedly, seeing women during the davening (praying) distracts men; we are, allegedly, so inclined to illicit thoughts that we require tank-trap-sized barricades to wall off the womenfolk from our overactive libidos. The rabbinic authorities assumed, ironically, that women are free of such thoughts; they apparently had no bachelorette parties back in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the case of all-male Nachmanides University and its female counterpart, Ludomir College for Women, the rabbinic builders ordained that the former should be rooted in Cornwallis Heights, while the latter was planted in midtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw from the Empire State Building, that potent symbol of American self-assuredness. Fully half the isle of Manhattan became, in effect, the mechitza.
            Without women to distract us, therefore, we Nachmanides men channeled our energies into scholarship. Remembering that Orthodox boys and girls must meet to carry on the species, our student councils attempted to bring us together for wholesome cultural activities. One morning, before the self-appointed campus Taliban could tear them down, I was happy to see fliers advertising a joint Theatre Party, inviting both freshmen and sophomores to go down to Greenwich Village, that well-known den of hippie free love, to see the cabaret revue, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I immediately signed up: Nachmanides boys and Ludomir girls were to be paired off for the evening via a mass blind date mechanism—probably throwing all the names into a large yarmulkeh (skullcap)—and a splendid time would be guaranteed for all. We hoped.
            That was how I met Marcy Shostakovsky, the Belle of Allentown. She was a thin, pale-skinned beauty with red-gold hair and a healthy overlay of freckles; in the dim light of the Village Gate nightclub, listening to an earnest young cast sing “Timid Frieda” and “If We Only Have Love,” she appeared evanescent to the point of transparency; she hardly said a word, but that was all right: I always had enough conversation for the first three dates: after that, if the girl remained mute, the affair was over.
I had never met, let alone dated, a girl of her type. She was a Sociology major, a baalat teshuvah, or young Jewish woman who had not grown up Orthodox, but had discovered the beauties and mysteries of the faith as a senior at Allentown High, during a National Organization of Orthodox Youth Shabbos Weekend. I, on the other hand, had grown up Orthodox, and was—although I did not totally admit it to myself at the time—plotting my escape, not an easy thing to do when one is in the belly of an Orthodox university. Like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, one shift going up and the other down, in and out of Orthodoxy, we were, in some oddly fateful way, destined to meet.
            Marcy and I hit it off: she was a good listener, and I certainly had enough to say—mostly about myself, the Universe, Destiny, Love, Fate, and other overblown subject areas, as most bookish young men will. By Date Number Three, she allowed me to take her arm, but only when crossing wide New York City streets—more a gesture of safety than one of intimacy. We were inching toward that curious Orthodox social taboo known as negiah, or “touching”—a man does not touch a woman to whom he is not married; indeed, even a married man may not touch his wife during her Time of the Month, for fear of being rendered ritually impure or unclean, thereby necessitating a trip to the mikvah, or ritual bath. This prohibition creates a sexual yearning in both male and female, makes their subsequent coition even lustier, and explains the relative fertility and large number of offspring borne by the Orthodox. Don’t knock it: it works.
            Being new to Orthodox practice made Marcy more eager to embrace it in all of its ramifications; being held off by a young, Orthodox woman zealot made me burn all the more. It was not a happy experience.
            Once, on New Year’s Eve, with but a ten-dollar-bill remaining in my pocket, sitting in the darkness of a movie theatre on Broadway, watching an execrable movie musical called “A Song of Norway”—some desperate Hollywood studio’s knockoff of “The Sound of Music,” I left my errant right elbow resting on the wooden rest between our seats, my fingers dangling. Suddenly, I felt cool, slender fingers intertwining with mine—Were they Marcy’s? I did, indeed, hope so—and a warmth flooding my inner core, so long had I been denied any contact with a woman. Our relationship had moved to a Higher Level, there on Jacob’s ladder, somewhere ‘twixt heaven and earth. I hung there like one of Chagall’s dizzy rabbis, my body this way, my head on backwards.
            I had heard of those blessed, happy souls among my contemporaries, also Orthodox, who enjoyed what were called “tefillin dates” with their girlfriends—overnight liaisons involving dinner and sex, called so because the happy yeshiva boy could awaken the next morning in the arms of his lady love, after having enjoyed her premarital favors. He would then perform appropriate penance by davening with tefillin, thereby to curry favor with a beneficient Deity who might frown on his sexual activity, but excuse it for its having been followed by the morning prayers.
            This could not, alas, occur between Marcy and me: she was a dorm student, and Ludomir maidens were guarded by a phalanx of security that the President of the US might envy; I, living at home, had no privacy at all. Our intimate moments took place in deserted subway cars late at night, in the shadow of downtown office building, and sitting in darkened Greenwich Village coffeehouses, where we bent the laws of Kashrut sufficiently to allow us to drink bad espresso. Nor was I certain that I wanted to go All the Way, and I was positive that she didn’t, either.
            We did want to spend every available moment together—and Nachmanides University offered us the mitzvah (good deed, fulfillment of Torah commandment) opportunity to spend time together over Shabbos. Because Orthodox practice did not count women as part of the minyan, or prayer quorum, even a hundred, or thousand, women attending a service made no difference; ten men were necessary to “make the minyan.” It was customary for a group of us Nachmanidites to trek down to Ludomir on Friday afternoons to conduct services for the women students on Shabbos, with the schools putting us up at a local hotel.
            The school put us up at the oddly-named Latham Hotel, a fleabag off 28th St. and Madison Ave., with hot and cold running cockroaches. We were inured to such inconveniences; it was nice enough to be away from either our parents or the Nachmanides dorms for a Shabbos (where dorm counselors ran up and down the halls to ensure that errant students attended Shabbos services; to avoid them, one had to remain perfectly quiet and still in one’s dorm room), and the prospect of being the only Orthodox males amid an army of females “screwed our courage to the sticking-place,” in Shakespeare’s words.
Following a rousing dinner of overdone chicken, stony baked potato, and indifferent stringbeans in the Ludomir cafeteria, accompanied by Shabbos niggunim (Chasidic songs) sung lustily while beating on the tables, one of our number, Mutty Lovitz from Teaneck, NJ, feeling a great deal of Shabbos ruach (spirit) and not a little bit of Schapiro’s Extra-Heavy Malaga (“The Wine So Thick You Can Almost Cut It With a Knife”) was wearily climbing the stairs to his monk’s cell in the Latham Hotel, elevator travel being forbidden on the Sabbath.
            As he rounded the stairs to the second floor—the hotel management had, thoughtfully, put all of us Orthodox men and true on the third floor, making it easier to do without elevator service on Shabbos—the scent of Evening in Paris, or a knockoff thereof, assailed his chicken-laden nostrils.
            Mutty watched bemusedly as a thirtyish woman, dressed in an outfit which showed her clearly to be no Ludomir student—as he put it, “Billy, her tits were that big, I swear, and they practically touched me across the stairwell—“ sashayed across the dimly-lit stair platform, there between the fire hose case that said IN CASE OF FIRE BREAK GLASS and a window facing the airshaft.
            “Whereya goin’ Sugar?” asked the Houri of the Night.
            “Uh, back to my room,” said Mutty.
            “Wan’ some comp’ny?” asked the Houri, “My name’s Sooner—‘cuz y’all be callin’ me, sooner ‘r later.” She opened her lips into what was meant to be a smile, but which gleamed like a double-row of sharks’ teeth, causing a nervous Mutty to take a step backward.
            “Whereya goin’, Sugar?” Sooner continued, “Don’ be frightened. I’m good with you li’l Yash-EE-va boys. Onny twenty-fi’ dollahs fo’ round-the-world.”
            Mutty’s hand tightened on the pepper spray in his pocket; his groin tightened, as well.
            “Sorry, Sooner,” he said, “I, uh, I….”
            “Oh, OK,” said Sooner, “howzabou’ fifteen?”
            “You don’t understand,” said Mutty, back to the wall, moving slowly past her; the cheap perfume in his nostrils was so strong, he held his breath. “We’re not allowed—“
            “To have dates with girls like me?” asked Sooner, “Wel-ll—thass what makes it fun, ya see?”
            “No, no,” said Mutty, “we’re not allowed—to carry money. On our Sabbath. No money.”
            “Oh,” said Sooner, “Oh, OK.”
            “Sorry,” said Mutty.
            And she let him go.
            The next day, bright and early, after a quick nosh (snack) of cake and juice—bread was forbidden before praying the Morning Service on Shabbos—we boys entered the Shabtai Tsvi Memorial Auditorium of Ludomir College. The setup was ideal for our little group of ten yeshiva bochrim (scholars): a portable Holy Ark containing a Torah scroll, a reading desk, twelve chairs arranged in rows. Our island of service-leading was set off from the rest of the auditorium by incongruously white barricades at least eight feet tall, constructed of woven wood, impossible to see through, unless one had the X-Ray vision of Superman. We were to be the surrogate daveners for the Ludomir maidenly host.
            We began: it was customary for the congregation—in this case, young women all—to respond with Baruch Hoo oo’varuch Sh’mo—Blessed is He, and Blessed is His Name—when a service leader mentioned God’s Name, and add “Amen” at its end. There was also the Talmudic exhortation against women’s raising their voices too high in prayer, or singing too loudly. Accordingly, when I or another one of our little band ended a prayer, the women would respond, in a massive stage whisper—we could hear disembodied women’s voices, but the tank-trap mechitzah-barrier made it impossible to ken whence they came. Though we were the movers and shakers of the service, we were there for the express purpose of conveying the women’s prayers to the Almighty—that was the literal meaning of being a shaliach tsibur, or messenger of the congregation. I felt manipulated by unseen hands, as I opened and closed books, lifted, kissed, read and replaced the Torah, and all for the benefit of an unseen, female congregation. It was more unnerving than spiritual, as those women’s whispers floated through the air.
            As we ran the service, I mentally pictured my friends and myself as lab rats, scurrying about a gigantic Skinner Box, pressing the levers and gathering food pellets for scientists who could be heard, but not seen. I was the privileged gender in Orthodox Judaism, but my personal kavanah, or spiritual intention, mattered little; what was important was my being there as the conveyor of prayer for the dozens of young women whose voices I could make out, but not see. Even more sadly, if the fervor of those young women outdid mine, it did not matter, in the objective sense, for their spiritual qualifications were lacking: they were only women, and their overall importance in the system consisted of their ability to raise a family, bless the candles, bake a challah (or, more particularly, to separate the dough therefrom), and go to the mikvah, or ritual bath, when Jewish law required it.
            I did not ponder or bemoan my fate in those days: I was a good little Orthodox soldier, and carried out what was expected of me.
            As the weeks progressed, and Marcy and I continued to see—that was mostly what we did: see—one another, I took a major step forward in our relationship: I invited myself to her home to spend a weekend. Life was dull and predictable in New York City: we had been to all the museums, exhibitions, and Off-Off-Broadway plays our student IDs entitled us to. Perhaps I was testing the waters, and seeing how far the relationship might go. Physically, it had not gone very far, nor did I expect it to: a simple kiss on the lips was as much as I expected before dropping her off at the Ludomir dorm, after a night spent slogging from subway to subway, and through the streets of New York.
            And so it was that one Friday found the two of us on a Trailways bus, off to Allentown. I did not know what to expect; I was happy to be leaving the City, off on an adventure. I had never been to Pennsylvania before.
            Allentown was rough and gritty, but I did not mind. Marcy’s family greeted me enthusiastically; she had a younger sister; her parents, at first glance, appeared “normal,” which was my term for those who were not visibly religious. I had learned from Marcy that she had fallen in love with Orthodoxy in her senior year of high school, but that she had not succeeded in converting her family to her standard of practice; they kept a kosher home, but that was all. Mrs. Shostakovsky was a short, plump version of Marcy, and she still had some of the freckles and redgold hair that had won my heart. Mr. Shostakovsky made some sports-related jokes that I missed—I never followed sports, except for some sentimental attachment to Casey Stengel and the early years of the Mets, in particular the Old Perfessor’s lament, “Can’t anyone here play this game?” which I felt characterized a great deal of my life. I had done a bit of research, and discovered that Allentown had a Conservative shul, which was fine with me; it meant that Marcy and I could sit together during the services that we would certainly be attending that Shabbos. There was also Oscar, a cat, a fat Tabby which was very fond of Marcy.
            After settling into the basement where the family had a convertible couch, I flicked on an old radio in the corner, and heard, for the first time, Gordon Lightfoot playing “If You Could Read My Mind.” As I unpacked my Shabbos clothes, I listened to the lyrics; to this day, when I hear that song, it conjures up the experience of that weekend.
            Mrs. Shostakovsky was, luckily, a great cook. The fish course was first—the old, tried-and-true gefilte fish, which came from a jar; no surprises there. When the soup came out, I did not know what to expect: I came from a family where my Nana had a custom of boiling the chicken for soup, and afterwards plunking the same bird into the oven to roast it; by the time the carcass arrived on one’s plate, it seemed to be saying, silently, “Please eat me: I’m extremely dead.” It would be dried-out and tasteless, but, having been raised on this, I assumed that that was the way of the Jewish-chicken-cooking world.
            Mrs. Shostakovsky’s soup, on the other hand, was rich and full-bodied, and had no connection to the miserable broth both my Nana and mother used to serve to us. The only dinner item that took me aback was the vessel in which it was served. When she plunked my soup down in front of me, all I could do was stare:
            Mrs. S (defensively): Why are you staring? Haven’t you ever eaten chicken soup before?
            Me: Mrs. Shostakovsky, I’ve eaten chicken soup many times. I’ve just never eaten it out of an ashtray before.
            Mrs. S: Oh! Actually, it’s a candy dish.
            The dish in question was a beautiful piece of cut-glass crystal, certainly an odd item to be eating soup out of. What had happened during Marcy’s senior year of high school was that when Marcy had come home, full of the convert’s zeal, and announced that both she and her family must now keep kosher, Mrs. Shostakovsky had bent over backwards to fulfill her elder daughter’s wish. She had scrambled around in her cupboards, bought new plates, and consulted her rabbi to make her kitchen completely kosher. When Marcy further announced that she was bringing home a Nachmanides boy, one who also kept kosher, the poor woman was at her wit’s end to find more dishes: hence, the ashtray/candy dish. We all laughed, and enjoyed a wonderful meal.
            The next morning, I rose early, had a quick bite, and Marcy and I set out to walk to the Conservative temple. We were not surprised to be among the first ones there, and I noted the relative age of the congregants—about the same as those of my home shul. Young people do not naturally gravitate to temple attendance; it remains the province of the very young and the very old. The rabbi shook our hands gravely—Marcy managed a finger-touch before the rabbi divined her particular negiah status—and, noting that I had come into the shul already wearing a kipa (skullcap), and a knitted one at that, denoting my status as Modern Orthodox, asked me if I could prepare the haftorah, or reading from the Books of the Prophets for that service. This was not a problem for me, and I believed it would raise my status in the eyes of my girlfriend—was she my girlfriend, at this point? Which way was this relationship going? I breathed a silent prayer to the Almighty to try and help me with this one.
            The service began: it was not far different from those I had sat through in Orthodox practice, except that the rabbi prayed facing, or “at” the congregation, while in Orthodox practice, he would have faced the Ark. When my time came to chant the haftorah, I did not find it difficult; the rabbi seemed happy for the break, and congregants shook my hand. Marcy said nothing, but she cast down her eyes and smiled; that was reward enough for me.
            We returned home, chatting about the service; she touched my fingers at one point. My entire being, it seemed, was afire—was it holy fervor, or simply misplaced sexual tension? Alas, one cannot differentiate between the two, at that age. So we talked, and ate lunch, and separated to nap.
            When Shabbos ended that evening, we and the family faced the prospect of an evening in Allentown. Mr. Shostakovsky suggested that we visit the local Dairy Queen, but Marcy, uncertain as to the kashrut of its products, vetoed that idea. I myself, coming as I did from a more lax outlook regarding dairy products, was disappointed, and sided with the family; she gave me an angry look, and I relented. My relationship with the Girl of My Dreams was not worth a third-rate soft vanilla cone.
            So we sat, and looked at the TV—an old black-and-white model which flickered and was blurry. Mr. Shostakovsky began to pick idly at the recliner on which he sat; it was old, sagged, and many threads hung loosely down from it; the family cat, Oscar, was fond of using it as a scratching post. As I watched, Mr. S pulled at one thread; it unraveled until he tore it off. We all turned to watch: it was more interesting than the TV show.
            “I can take care of these threads….” Said Mr. S, and, before our eyes, took the recliner, flipped it over, and produced a disposable lighter from his pocket—he was fond of sneaking out to the back porch for a smoke. Using the lighter, he began to sear off the loose threads that dangled profusely from the bottom and sides of the chair. We all watched, bored, and yet fascinated, as the threads hissed and disappeared.
            Still, as Mr. S continued his odd, fixated search for loose threads, a little voice in the back of my head went, This isn’t right; this can’t be right… I remembered an episode in our apartment, when I was growing up—my sister, a budding scientist, had always been fond of fire. When our parents left us alone, one afternoon, she took a Chanukah menorah, despite its being March, placed it on one of the long, heavy glass trays that our mother used as a base, lit all nine candles, and marched solemnly through the living room, chanting a Funeral March. I, fearing the worst, had already loaded my water pistol at the bathroom sink. Sure enough, the glass tray splintered in half and broke from the heat; the candles and menorah crashed to the living room carpet, but a few well-placed squirts from my water pistol doused the flames.
            And now, years later, here I was again, in a similar situation, observing my girlfriend’s father, clearly a pyromaniac—only where was my water pistol? I had no water pistol.
            It was only a matter of time: one or two or a dozen loose threads spread the flame into the guts of the recliner, which began to smoke. Mrs. S, sighing over her husband’s peccadilloes—this was, apparently, not the first time that he had pulled a stunt of this nature—dialed 911. The Allentown Fire Department arrived in record time; they had no trouble finding the house; they had been there before. They dragged the old recliner onto the front porch, used their axes to cut the sad old chair to kindling and cloth, and hosed down the entire wreck thoroughly. They shook hands with all of us (except Marcy, of course), got onto the engine, and drove off in a cloud of diesel.
            It was late, and, after our misadventure, we all went to bed—but, unable to sleep, Marcy and I sat up and talked. She sat close—so close!—to me on the couch (her father had spared this piece of furniture, though it had at least as many dangling threads as had the recliner), smelling seductively of Dove Soap and Herbal Essence Shampoo, and driving me mad, as I sat there, my hand dangerously close to hers, my bitten fingernails twitching for lack of her long, cool digits—my own personal Belle Dame Sans Merci. She wore a quilted bathrobe that covered her from ankle to neck, but I could see, or, at least, imagine, that, underneath, she wore a pushup bra and silken babydoll panties—and what treasures lay beneath? I gave an inward groan: And this is why I sojourn here/ Alone and palely loitering, I thought, and my pulses beat.
            “I don’t know where we’re going,” she said to me, her redgold hair fluttering toward my nostrils as she looked at me out of those skyblue eyes.
            “What do you mean?” I asked, feeling as though I were falling down a well, and seeing only that face, all freckled cheeks, thin lips I yearned to kiss and kiss and kiss, and that body hidden within the quilted robe….
            “I don’t think you’re serious enough about your kavana (divine intent) and your chizuk emunah (grasp of faith) for me,” she said, turning sideways, so that her hand moved from the couchback to her lap.
            This was bad: this was as bad as it got. The wetburnt smell of the dead recliner blew gently through the window, open to an Allentown spring night. Somewhere in the dark, Oscar the cat burbled in his sleep. On the second floor, Marcy’s sister Penny dreamt her dreams of innocent youth. I sat in the living room, on a Thomasville knockoff sofa, in my own private Orthodox hell….
            “Will you do it?” she asked me.
            “Do what?” I asked.
            “Promise me that you’ll go back to laying tefillin. Every day. And read Tehillim, Psalms, and ask God if we should be together.” She narrowed her eyes, and smiled. Her teeth gleamed. I thought of Sooner in Mutty’s story. Sooner in the stairwell; Marcy on the couch. Tefillin, everyday for the rest of my life; except Shabbos, that is. I—I—I….
            “I’ll try,” I said.
            “Good,” she said, “That will help.”
            She did not smile; her jaw was set. Her little chin looked determined.
            “Do you love me?” I asked, “Will you call me, tomorrow night, after we get back to the City?”
            “I don’t know,” she said, “Maybe God knows. I have to ask God.”
            This was not going well. Maybe it was the Dairy Queen. Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed for it.
            “Call me,” I begged, “I’ll put on tefillin. I’ll pray hard for you, Marcy. I’ll make myself worthy of you.”
            In the corner, hanging on the wall, was one of those black-and-white cat-clocks, the kind with the goofy grin and the eyes that sway back-and-forth as the pendulum-tail swings. This one was looking at me: Can you do it, Billy? Really, really do it? You’re not fooling me, and I’m just a cat-clock. Maybe you’re fooling yourself.
            “Shut up,” I said.
            “What?” asked Marcy.
            “Nothing,” I said, “I love you.”
            “I love you,” said Marcy, but her voice sounded hollow.
            We went back to the city. I spent the next two nights staring at the big, ugly black phone that sat on my cubicle desk in my room in Jacob Frank Residence Hall. I even wrote a haiku about that damn phone:
                        Nasty one-eyed gnome
                        Humpbacked beast from hell
                        She never called back
            Not exactly a haiku.