SOPHIE WAS GETTING MARRIED with flowers in her hair. She had planned for this, and here it was: Carnations. Perfect. Yael was the maid of honor, the best friend. Sophie’s father called Yael “my daughter” so many times the photographer got confused, and everyone laughed. Not the daughter! Not the sister! No. But just beautiful, just marvelous, her turn was next; why shouldn’t it be?
Yael didn’t bring her boyfriend to the wedding because he didn’t know how to talk to people. She called him her boyfriend because he called her his girlfriend, but he wasn’t really, just some guy. Younger than she was. It was fine when people were his age, in their twenties, and unformed, not really people themselves. But when they were Yael’s age it was another thing. If you didn’t talk at a party, people wondered: A stroke?
Not really a stroke.
For God’s sake, her boyfriend was always telling her, she was only thirty-seven! She was thirty-two, but this wasn’t something he always remembered.
One of Sophie’s friends from work, Noreen, had sidled up to Yael at the buffet and was now saying Yael was quite the cougar, wasn’t she. Sophie had surely given Noreen this information in confidence, both of their voices low with glee. Yael understood—at a job like Sophie’s, at a community college, sometimes you had to be hateful. Sometimes you had to gossip, but it was better to outsource. No use stirring up trouble locally. So no harm done. And anyway, Noreen, if Sophie was to be believed, was an idiot. No one, if Sophie was to be believed, liked Noreen. But Noreen was also thin, pretty, married. She had a child—so how come she was so thin?
Yael said she guessed maybe she was a cougar, wasn’t that funny.
“I can’t say I don’t envy you!” Noreen said. “I’m just boring-boring.” She pointed at her perfect, perky breasts, shimmers like trailing stars across the bodice of her otherwise just black, so-simple-I-didn’t-try dress. “I can’t believe I’m somebody’s mom,” she told Yael.
She made a face like somebody was torturing her, if being tortured was something that also made her coy and happy. “Do you have children?” Noreen asked, shaking her head to save Yael the trouble.
Yael said no, not at the moment. This was also what she said when the boyfriend’s friends asked if she wanted any pot.
“Lucky you!” Noreen said, her voice high with the strain of lying.
She had an improbably earnest husband. “It’s so wonderful to meet you,” he said, shaking Yael’s hand slowly, as if overcome with gladness and awe. And what did she do, he wanted to know.
Yael was a professional stranger. She’d left New York for Madison, a college town where jobs like this were not only possible but plentiful.
“Madison?” Noreen asked. “The avenue?”
Yael was pretty sure it was an attempt at a joke. Or maybe it was an insult.
Anyway, Yael explained, in Madison, Wisconsin—not at all New York, but yes, New York was of course the best place to be—she worked for a psychologist who studied infant attachment issues. The psychologist’s name was Ellen, but what she insisted upon was Cricket. It was a Wasp thing, as best as Yael could make out. Yael’s job was to come into a room after the infant’s mother had left. She would walk over to the baby, or not walk over. Smile, or not smile. Yael’s ultimate career goal was to get to the bottom of why some men thought it was okay for them to kill their wives, but infant psychology was a start. If you looked at it through the right lens and also maybe squinted.
She switched jobs too often, her own mother thought. Thought and said out loud, often, unprompted. Her mother had liked it better when she was a journalist. (Journalist was her mother’s word. Yael had been a glorified PR person.) Her mother liked it better when Yael lived in New York. What was so wrong with New York, she was always asking.
“How marvelous,” said Noreen’s husband now.
Noreen put her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “And him?” she said. “He’s a house-husband.”
Noreen’s husband grinned. “She wanted a wife,” he said, his hand on his heart like a little boy pledging his allegiance to the country in which he’d been fortunate enough to be born.
“Don’t we all?” Noreen said.
And Yael laughed. But she wanted a husband. She would be the wife, chicken and potatoes nestled in her oven, lace satchels of potpourri in the drawers. She herself sagging and sallow and busy, too tired always, resentment husking her voice and elongating her vowels. She’d created this image in her early twenties to frighten herself, but it had turned into something she wanted.
There was dancing, but Yael didn’t really dance. She didn’t have the boyfriend with whom to dance. The appetizer was beautiful and complicated, little sailboats of lettuce into which bright beads of caviar were stowed, garnished with root vegetables shaved into ribbons. She didn’t eat the appetizer, but she did eat the fish, when it came, separating each pink scale, studying the silver underbelly revealed. She was on a diet she’d made up herself. The rules of the game were, she could eat anything she wanted so long as it tasted terrible to her.
And then the wedding was over, and even though she hadn’t really danced, blisters rose up on the backs of her heels, eager as dogs for her to notice them. Sophie appeared from the throngs who loved her, the flowers still in her hair, the bobby pins holding firm. She smelled of perfume and the sweat that was specifically Sophie’s, what Yael thought of as Sophie-sweat. Sophie looked as if happiness were a thing—an expensive cream, a spectacular light—that had been poured into her. “I love you,” she told Yael, and she hugged her.
They had always joked they’d grow old together, fill a house with incontinent strays, dogs and cats both.
“I love you more,” Yael said.
Sophie smiled, her lace like feathers lifting her as she laughed and moved to kiss her aunt, who was standing next to Yael, and then on to her sister, her other sister, now a friend Yael had never met, vanishing into all the well-wishers who had come to celebrate how much and how well she had figured out how to be loved.
The boyfriend, Brian, was waiting for Yael when she got back from New York. Madison always looked shrunken after she’d been away, the buildings laughably squat, the sky too close. Brian and Yael were living together, but only because he was, as he put it, between places. The apartment, which was really an attic divided in half, had been advertised as charming. It was the only place that would rent to her because of her dog, Bernadette Peters. In college towns, it turned out, kids routinely left their dogs to die when they graduated, a mess for the landlords. It made Yael cry to think about. She cared about dogs more than she’d ever care about people. All the children around the world starving and left to die, showing up in commercials pleading for her dollar-a-day to keep them alive? Not her problem.
Everything in the apartment, minus the books and clothing, was rented by a company that thought of everything: beds and sofas and tables, obviously, but also a decorative lamp, placemats to set a table for four, fake houseplants. It was a life ordered to go. Most people who used the company were visiting scholars who couldn’t be bothered to furnish a home for the months or so they would be in residence. But Yael wasn’t a visiting scholar; she was just a person who needed to furnish her house, but could not think of how. So she was living the life of someone from a catalogue, who dressed in sweaters that came in colors like oatmeal and ash.
Brian was smoking pot from a pipe that looked like it was made of blown glass, and which Yael sort of wanted to keep on display. She would line it up on a shelf with other blown-glass objects: a small deer, maybe. A little elephant all the way from India.
“How was?” he said. Smoke swept gently from his nostrils.
“The appetizer was nice. I ate the fish.”
“Fish sticks,” he said. “Frozen. Now that’s the stuff.”
His eyes were so red it looked like he’d been crying.
“Are you sad I didn’t take you?” she asked, tender as a mother.
“I’m always sad,” he told her.
They hadn’t met in a usual way. Cricket’s infant attachment center was in a suite shared by the student health service center. Brian made thrice weekly visits there for therapy with a social worker, Melinda, who was on her determined way to becoming a psychoanalyst. Brian’s sessions ended when Yael’s lunch hour began, so they were always bumping into each other in the hallway. One day he’d asked her how she liked working with Dr. Melinda. (Dr. Melinda was not a doctor; Cricket, who was a doctor, was always fuming on this account.) And Yael told him no, no; she worked down the hall. He nodded a few times. “You should try Dr. Melinda out,” he said. And right away she wanted to know him, because he wasn’t embarrassed, as she would have been. So they went for lunch, and she paid, because he didn’t have any money. “I’m still plugging away at that bachelor’s,” he explained.
Now Yael ran her fingers through his hair, which he liked because, he said, it made him feel like a cat, and which she liked because he wasn’t balding even at all. “You’re not that sad,” she told him.
He held a lighter to his pipe. “You undermine me,” he said. “Don’t undermine me. Sad is sad. Yes, people are starving in Africa. But that has no, no…bearing on it. I have every right, and it’s valid, and it’s my pain.” He took a deep drag of the pipe, perfect as a professional.
Yael told him Africa was a place she had trouble finding on a map. Meanwhile, he was taking a class called “the Ontological Problem of Colonization of the Other in the Modern World: An Overview.” “You wouldn’t believe it,” he was always telling her after his class.
He got up now and found a map, unfolded it, and pointed. “You are so smart,” Yael told him. “So smart and so sad.”
He puffed with pride like a pelican, or a little boy.
There was a man, Aaron, who came to the clinic weekly with his little boy. Aaron was a widower, his wife having died in childbirth. Yael hadn’t realized that still happened. It was either gruesome or romantic, she couldn’t decide. It could also be biblical, the descriptor that best suited Aaron, because of the yarmulke he wore, bobby pins jammed into thinning patches of hair to keep it in place. He was the only father who came to the clinic—disgusting evidence, Cricket liked to point out, of the sexist world in which they lived. Yael thought it made him seem emasculated, and this made her feel guilty, and also attracted to him.
The clinic was just meant for research—repeat visits were just redundancies—but Aaron didn’t seem to understand that. It was possible that he really was there to see Dr. Melinda and had simply gotten confused, knocked on the wrong door. But now that he was there, Cricket said she couldn’t in good conscience let him see that lying quack. Why she couldn’t refer him to a non-quack therapist was unclear. He was lonely, was Cricket’s non-explanation. It was the least they could do. So Cricket gave him a standing appointment and the standard twenty dollars for his participation.
Cricket couldn’t quite grasp how much of a Jewish coup this was. Cricket, a Wasp, believed cheap Jews existed only in dangerous, outmoded stereotypes. Yael wasn’t cheap, she pointed out. In fact, she was quite generous. Yael couldn’t bear to tell her that her father was supporting her. The life she’d ordered to go appeared monthly on his credit card bill, along with her groceries and manicures.
“Jews also don’t have horns,” Cricket told her now. They were waiting for Aaron to arrive, and had circled back to this conversation.
“Well, you know how the Orthodox men wear yarmulkes and the women wear wigs?” Yael waggled her eyebrows.
“Oh!” Cricket looked briefly horrified, then recovered. She nodded respectfully.
“I’m joking,” Yael said. She’d have liked to let Cricket wonder, but she had to say it. Otherwise there might be another Holocaust, and this one would be her fault.
It wasn’t that she actually believed this, but it also wasn’t that she didn’t believe it.
Cricket smiled like someone who’d been asked for directions to a place she’d never heard of, in a language she didn’t understand.
“It’s okay,” Yael said. “My boyfriend also doesn’t think I’m funny.”
Sophie thought she was funny, but Sophie was married now.
Cricket said she had to go prepare some paperwork, leaving Yael to sit alone in the office while she waited for Aaron and his little boy. Aaron arrived exactly on time, as he always did. The only, and so sad, explanation for this was that he came early and waited outside until the minutes perfectly aligned.
Cricket, back from her invented paperwork, took the little boy from Aaron and brought him into the room, sat him alone on a mat with age-appropriate toys that were pretty much the same as dog toys, strewn all around. Cricket left him there, and she and Aaron returned to the office, watching the little boy through a one-way glass window.
And then it was Yael’s turn to shine, starring in her role of stranger. They’d been through this so many times, though, that the little boy had come to recognize Yael, rendering the data useless. He lifted his hands to her, and she plucked him up, settling him onto her hip like a final puzzle piece clicking into place. She inhaled his powdery head. It sometimes seemed to Yael that they were torturing the little boy, and sometimes like she was his mother-for-rent.
“It’s funny,” Yael said to Aaron, after they’d completed the routine. “It’s been all this time, and I don’t even know your little boy’s name.” For confidentiality purposes, Cricket called him Baby Boy B. It hadn’t occurred to Yael to ask before, but she’d gotten to the point now, after all these weeks, where she felt like she knew this little boy, and she looked forward to him, the soft underside of his chin, the gummy, dolphin smile.
“Brian,” Aaron said.
“Hey, that’s my boyfriend’s name.” And right away she felt she shouldn’t have said that.
“Really, it’s Baruch. Brian’s the legal name. Because it can be hard for people to say the ch. My wife, I mean, she felt like he should have an English name. So people could say it. But we—I—he’s really Baruch.”
“I say this only because, it’s not that I mean to be presumptuous, but your name tag…”
“Pretty Jewy, I know,” she said.
“It’s a wonderful name,” he said. “Do you know what it means?”
And then, instead of saying of course she knew what it meant, that she’d been raised Orthodox until she was eight, that her father was still Orthodox, that she had five half-siblings, all the boys in yarmulkes, the girls in skirts, a bewigged stepmother, she said, “Nope. My parents just liked it, I guess.”
She always did this. She didn’t mean to, but whenever someone—a man, let’s be honest—wanted to explain something to her, she let him. It felt easier. It kept a conversation going.
He explained that Yael, from the Book of Judges (she knew it was called the Navi), was actually a very powerful woman, that women in the Torah—the Bible, he clarified—were actually very powerful, not subjugated at all, that was a misperception. She had defeated a terrible army general to help save the Jewish people. (This, of course, was the plot of every Jewish story, which had made memorization for tests very easy, back in the day.) Aaron neglected to mention that the biblical Yael had done this by seducing the king and then ramming a stake through his skull, his brains presumably splattering against the walls of her desert tent.
“Wow,” she said. “I never heard that before.”
“I don’t mean to presume,” he said. “But if you’d like, I can teach you. If you’d like to know more, I mean.”
“We’d have to start all the way at the beginning,” she said, for no reason she could understand.
They met in her apartment. Brian was a little jealous when she informed him of the plan, twenty minutes before Aaron was scheduled to arrive.
“I mean, who is this guy?” he said. It was a line he must have heard on TV and was now trying out, a tentative flexing of an only recently discovered muscle.
“It’s not like we’re exclusive,” Yael said.
“We live together,” he said.
“You were in between places,” she said. “Right?”
“Do you want to start paying rent?”
“Fine,” he said. “Okay.”
“To the rent?”
“He can come over. That’s fine.”
“Oh, good,” she said. “That’s very grown-up of you. And he has a baby. Maybe you could watch the baby?”
“I’m high,” he pointed out. “If you could have just told me a little sooner, I mean.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s hard being you, right?”
“It is hard,” he said. “Dr. Melinda—”
“I need to close up all the outlets,” she said. “And I think you should go to your room.”
“Our room,” he said.
What was wrong with her? “Our room,” she said. “Sorry. And bring Bernadette Peters. Jews are afraid of dogs.”
“Aren’t you a Jew?” he said.
He seemed legitimately confused, as though maybe all this time he’d misunderstood, and she, of the curly hair and Hebraic name, was actually Catholic. She didn’t understand how someone who was technically an adult could be so stupid.
“Some Jews,” she said. All right? Some Jews are afraid of dogs.”
She picked up Bernadette Peters and held her on her hip, where she fit so nicely. She let Bernadette Peters lick inside her nostril. It was disgusting, but not really that disgusting. Or not more disgusting than anything else. “Be good,” she said.
“I will,” Brian said, and she couldn’t bear to tell him she’d meant the dog.
The doorbell rang exactly as the minute hand on her watch inched onto the six and it became 5:30. On the dot. She finally understood the expression.
Aaron had brought a Hebrew workbook. No wine or anything, just the workbook. Which was fine. She had the boyfriend. The desk was in her bedroom, she explained, and that was where the boyfriend also was, so they’d have to work at the kitchen table. Was that okay?
“Of course,” he said. “It’s good your boyfriend’s here. Otherwise, it really wouldn’t be proper for me to be here, and then I’d ask if we could keep the door open. It’s a law, actually. A man can’t be alone with a woman who’s not his wife. It’s for the woman, the law. It’s so a woman should be safe.”
Yael understood how hard it was to talk about Jewish law, especially if you were a man, without apologizing. What he’d neglected to mention was that a woman who was not a man’s wife included his own siblings and, according to most rabbis, adopted children.
“We’ll start at the beginning,” he said.
“A very good place to start,” she sang.
“When you read you begin with A, B, C.”
He looked around, as if to find the answer in the floating dust particles she really should have done a better job getting rid of.
Now she was getting nervous. “When you sing, you begin with Do, Re, Mi?”
“The Sound of Music,” she said. “Never mind.”
“Oh,” he said. “I’m familiar, but Jewish, Orthodox, I mean, Orthodox men refrain from hearing women singing.”
He kept speaking, explaining the origin of the law, its attendant disputes, but Yael was tired of listening. She knew all about this law. It was the reason Yael and her mother always went to musicals alone when she was a kid, her father left at home. The idea was that men might get too attracted to the women singing—and what? Leap onto the stage and rape them? Yael and her mother used to come home and sing all the lyrics at the top of their lungs. Yael’s father was allowed to hear them sing, because the law allowed him to find his wife attractive and it assumed the best when it came to father-daughter incest. After her parents’ divorce, Yael and her mother still went to musicals, but never with the same amount of glee. They retired to their separate showers to sing.
“That’s so interesting,” she said.
“It might seem a little misogynistic, at first, but you understand, it’s really about respecting women.”
“How nice,” she said.
“And that’s what Orthodox Judaism is all about.”
“Where’s Baruch?” she said.
He looked surprised. “You’re very good with the ch sound.”
She shrugged in a way she hoped came off as modest. “I guess I’m a quick study. But it’s hit or miss, really.”
Aaron nodded. “You’ll get better.”
“And the baby’s…?”
“I got a sitter.”
“Good,” she said. It wouldn’t be nice to tell him she was disappointed. It wasn’t especially normal to be disappointed.
He opened the book. “Now, with Hebrew, it’s a little different, because it’s left to right.”
They went through some letters and sounds, Yael making sure to stumble often, to sigh and rake back her hair with her hand, gamely laughing at her mistakes, ever ready to give it another try.
He kept her at it for an hour, then told her she was doing very well for a beginner and closed the book. She asked him if he wanted water—was water kosher?—and he gave her a look that let her know she’d gone too far. “Joking!” she said.
He said yes, but in a plastic cup, please. She gave him the water. He cleared his throat. “I’m just going to recite the blessing now.”
Yael nodded with her lips together, eyes open wide. It was Cricket’s nod, meant to convey polite respect, but only thinly coating a feeling of vast superiority. To the uninitiated, it might appear to be a look of simple, unadulterated terror.
“So what brought you to Wisconsin?” Yael said, once he’d finished the routine and taken a theatrically loud gulp of water. “Not a lot of Jews here, right?”
Now he became excited, standing up, swaying a little from side to side, as though in prayer. The word for what he was doing existed only in Yiddish. He was shuckling. He clapped his hands together. “That’s why I’m here. Have you heard of Chabad?”
His job, he explained, was to build Jewish community. For all Jews. Even for Jews who were unaffiliated, like her. Especially for Jews like her, even.
He invited her for a Shabbat dinner. He said Shabbat, with a hard t, carefully, for her benefit. In real life, she knew, he pronounced it Shabbos, with a snake hiss of an s. She’d grown up with Shabbos, disdainful of the less-real Modern Orthodox Jews who insisted on the t. Had she remained Orthodox, she would have had a Bas Mitzvah, and at twelve, instead of the Bat Mitzvah her mother threw for her at thirteen.
“I’d love to,” she said. “That’s the one with the hallah bread, right?”
“Challah,” he said gently. “But yes, that’s exactly it. See? You know more than you think.”
One thing Yael was excellent at was making herself blush on cue.
After Aaron was gone, Brian came out of the room, Bernadette Peters rushing ahead, barking, triple-axeling with joy at the reunion.
“I thought you knew all that,” Brian said.
“I do,” she said. “That was really weird of me.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Do you want me to order dinner?”
“Are you still high?”
He told her he was, a little.
“Then order a lot,” she said.
Yael’s mother called. This happened every day, dysfunctionally and best not ever admitted to Cricket. Cricket, with her cardigans and pearls, probably only spoke to her own mother on a biannual basis, in a country club, the two of them laughing lightly over Jell-O molds. For Yael, though, speaking to her mother was like turning off the lights before going to bed—it was just something you did. It would be hard to fall asleep if you didn’t.
Her mother wanted to know how things were.
“Things” took on various meanings, depending on the phone call. It could mean dating a man who wasn’t Brian, getting a job that wasn’t the one she had with Cricket, moving to a place that wasn’t Wisconsin, which could be New York, Boston, DC—Yael’s pick.
“Things are fine,” Yael said. “Although….” She waited a drumroll of a few beats, and then, with a delicious flourish, “I met a Chabadnik.”
“Huh,” her mother said.
“He’s cute, also. Even with the beard. Actually, especially with the beard.”
“So this is instead of that boy?”
For a moment, Yael thought her mother might be talking about the baby.
“Brian,” Yael said. “You know what his name is. And he’s not a boy.” Though she couldn’t quite bring herself to say he was a man.
“You’re not still living together, are you?”
“We are still living together. But now I also have the Chabadnik. He’s been teaching me quite a bit.”
“Is that right?” her mother said.
“Mm-hmm. Quite a bit about my heritage. It’s more beautiful than I ever even imagined. And he’s graciously invited me to his home so that I might experience Shabbos.”
“He has a wife, I imagine.”
“The wife’s dead,” Yael said. She wasn’t going to mention the baby.
“Huh. What does your boy have to say about that?”
“My Brian doesn’t even know I’m going.”
Yael imagined herself as a sexy double-agent: woman with child-boyfriend by day, woman with widower and his child by night. The image that summoned, though, wasn’t actually at all sexy. She gave her fantasy self a dash of red lipstick and a trench coat. Better.
Yael’s mother sighed theatrically. “I just wish you would find someone nice,” she said. “Just someone who isn’t a goy and isn’t a rabbi.”
“A girl, a goy, and a rabbi. That sounds like a good setup for a joke,” Yael said.
“Keep it as a joke,” her mother said. “You don’t have to ruin your whole life just to show how much you hate me.”
“That’s not that funny.”
“I just love you,” her mother said. “When did that become a crime?”
It was about time to hang up. A few more minutes of this, and Yael would lose her self entirely. Her mother was a magician in this way. She could saw Yael right in half.
“It’s not a crime,” Yael said. “Thank you for caring.”
“I just love you,” her mother said.
“Love you, too,” Yael said. They hung up, and Yael had her self again. There it was, that thing Aaron would call the soul: on the verge of flickering out, but there.
Shabbos began at sundown, 7:29 this week because it was summer, so it was odd that Aaron’s invitation called for her to arrive at noon. It made sense when she got there. There was a vat of risen dough on the table, packets of chicken breasts defrosting on the counter, a loaf of gefilte fish wrapped in wax paper, the bare bones of what would surely turn out to be a noodle kugel. A stack of foil pans. Baruch was napping in a playpen set up in the middle of the living room, sleeping with his little diapered butt in the air, his curls damp with the ferocious sweat of baby dreaming. She kept herself from scooping him up. But she imagined the heft of him in her arms, his hot body to her chest, those damp curls pressed against her cheek, lips pursing in bleary search of a bottle.
“We’re the only ones here,” Aaron said, in lieu of hello. “So we’ll have to keep the door open.”
Yael politely pretended the subtext was not, Lest I rape you. “Sure,” she said.
“I wondered if you might want to help,” Aaron said.
Of course he did.
But she felt sorry for him, standing there in his apron, his oven beeping. “That sounds like a treat!” she said. “I’ve never helped with a Shabbat meal before.”
“Good, good,” he said. “It’s really not that difficult, once you get the hang of it. We’ll just, we can just start with braiding the challah.”
He showed her how to grab the dough, plop it onto a floured baking pan, separate it into three strands, bring those strands together. He was sloppy, but trying. She wondered who had helped him before her.
“It must be hard,” she said.
He stroked the stubble at the sides of his cheeks. “The Torah says, ‘Man is not meant to be alone.’”
But she could see that he might want to say something else, that beneath the quote, which she recognized immediately as belonging to Genesis, he might be saying, It is hard. I feel so alone. My wife is dead and I have to raise this child by myself, and I don’t think I can.
She brushed her braided challah with egg yolk. Maybe she could marry him. She could call up Sophie and say, Guess what?
All she needed him to say was, I was so worried about my son, and I met you, and I wanted so badly for him to be around you. I wanted for you not to be a stranger to him.
She would help him: “Most people don’t visit the Infant Attachment Center every week.”
Maybe just a small acknowledgment, for now. That would be enough. Just a thank you.
“Because the point of the study is for the infant to come in contact with a stranger. The baby, in Baruch’s case.” The ten-month-old, she didn’t say.
“I didn’t realize,” he said. “I had no idea.”
It was in all their promotional material.
“That’s so funny,” she said. “Because I think you signed a waiver.”
Even a gesture would be enough. A rueful smile. A softly spreading blush, beginning at the neck, brightening the ears.
“Waivers,” he said. He said it the way her father said “global warming.” Nonsense peddled by the goyim and self-hating liberal Jews, but certainly not actually applicable to him.
Aaron he looked deeply into space, addressing an imaginary congregation.
“We braid a challah to symbolize our observance of Shabbos,” he said. “It’s the woman’s job, generally speaking, because the kitchen is her domain.”
Now he looked a little panicked, diving into the old apology, transforming into every rabbi she’d ever met: “But it’s not to say. It’s, what it is is the same way that a man’s domain is studying Torah. It’s not like in the secular world. Women are so much closer to God. Each job is equally important. The woman’s role, really, it’s more important.”
He would give her nothing.
So this was who he was. There was a kind of a pleasure in understanding this, like coming across some old clothing you could box up and definitely throw away, no question. A relief. She wasn’t going to marry him, become a mother to his child, save him, piss her mother off, delight her father. She could just keep on being herself: shitty girlfriend, terrific mother to a dog.
But she did stay with him and help until all the challah was braided, each chicken cutlet braised, the kugel assembled and lovingly baked, cinnamon-specked. She slipped so easily into the role of Orthodox housewife, like some kind of inherited muscle memory. Yael could see how satisfying it was, knowing exactly who it was you were supposed to be and then going right on and becoming that person, the ding ding ding of a row of cherries in a slot machine sliding perfectly into place. And she thought of her mother, who on this Friday night would set her small table for one, the sitcom laugh track in the background coming close enough to company.
Andrew Graff talks about this story with Miriam Cohen here.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.