Monday, August 29, 2011

The Essence of My Being reprinted from Horizons Magazine

I was sitting by myself in the opulent wedding hall when the woman made her way to the table. Smiling, she sat down next to me. I began to feel insecure. When I had left my home in the Golan three hours earlier the babysitter had oohed and aahed over the dress I had sewn and I had felt fantastic. Now I suddenly felt dowdy. This woman’s dress was made of cream-colored silk, and the bodice had fine embroidery on it. Both hands, as well as her neck, were full of jewelry, a contrast to my plain wedding band and simple chain.
“Hi, I’m Linda Sterngart,” she drawled, “from Boston. And who are you?’
“Boston?” I repeated stupidly.
“Well, I was born in Atlanta, but I moved to Boston after I got married.”
“Oh,” I laughed somewhat nervously. “I guess that’s how you know Gittel.”
“That’s right, honey. We go to the same shul, and I was just thrilled that her son’s wedding coincided with our trip to Israel.”
“That’s really nice. My name is Sima Bryman.”
“How do you know Gittel?”
“We were neighbors in Los Angeles.”
“That must have been over ten years ago! You’ve kept in touch all this time?”
I nodded. “We were really good friends.”
“So you planned your trip around the wedding?”
“What?” At first I didn’t understand what the woman meant. It always irritates me when someone thinks I’m a tourist. “Oh, no, we live in Israel now.” 
“Well, isn’t that nice,” the woman gushed, twirling the ringlets of her wig. “Do you like it here?”
Again I nodded. Of course I liked it.
“So tell me, do you do anything?”
I stared at her. In my mind I reviewed all the things I had done that day. None of it was too exciting. I managed to get five children up and out to school on time. The baby stayed home with me and she was a handful. There were two loads of laundry to my credit, as well as a pot of soup, a casserole, and a cake for a neighbor’s Kiddush. While I gave the baby a bottle, I read part of the parsha; and while she ate her carrots, I talked to a friend on the telephone. We took a walk to the nearby store, and I stocked up on groceries. All in all, I felt that I had accomplished a lot, but as I contemplated the woman’s question, I decided she would probably not consider it “anything”.
Now, normally I’m a nice person and I try to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible, but this woman brought out a contrary streak in me. Maybe it was because I was exhausted from the three-hour bus ride, or perhaps because I felt let down that Gittel was too busy with the bride to spend much time with me. Whatever the reason, I answered with sarcasm in my voice.
“No, I don’t do anything. I just sit around all day.”
Was it my imagination, or did the woman blush? Should I ask her if she did anything? From the looks of her she probably ran some “yuppie” business. Before I could ask, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to find one of my former students smiling down at me. An excited conversation in Hebrew followed, in which she told me that she was the kallah’s cousin and that she was engaged and would be getting married in two months’ time. As I hugged her, I felt the woman’s eyes on me and remembered some manners.  
“Uh, Linda, this is Sigi, a cousin of the bride.”
“I’m pleased to meet you.” Sigi’s English was a bit stilted.
Linda gave a charming smile. “I’m pleased to meet you, too. I told my husband, when we planned our trip, that I wanted to meet some real Israelis, and now I’ve met two. How do you two know each other?”
“She be my teacher many years ago. Oh, my mother, she want me.” Sigi smiled and was gone.
“I thought you said you didn’t do anything.” Linda’s voice was puzzled, not accusing. “You’re a teacher?”
“Well,” it was my turn to blush, “not really. I teach some pottery classes at the community center in Katzrin. It’s only a couple of hours a week.” My voice trailed off.
“You’re still a teacher,” the woman insisted.
“I guess so,” I had to agree. “But it isn’t the essence of my being.”
“The essence of your being?”
“Pottery is just a small part of my life. I guess if I’d put six or eight hours a day into it I’d say I was a potter, but I don’t and I’m not.”
 I sipped my drink as the woman thought over what I had said.
“So what do you consider the essence of your being?”
Before I could respond, two women came to the table, obviously mother and daughter. There was something quite familiar about the older woman but I couldn’t place her. Linda immediately took charge, introduced herself, and pointed to me.
“This is Simi. She knew Gittel from Los Angeles, and now she lives in Israel.
“Yes,” the older woman smiled warmly. “I remember when Sima made aliyah.
I stared harder at the woman, and she laughed. “You don’t remember me?”
“Mrs. Kramer! I cried. Then I turned to her daughter. “This can’t be Ruthie!”
Both Ruth and her mother nodded their heads, their eyes aglow.
I turned to Linda. “These people lived down the street from me. I used to bayysit Ruthie and her brothers. I want to hear about everyone!”
Suddenly I was no longer tired. Someone I knew had come to the wedding. Mrs. Kramer was full of news about people I used to know, and she enjoyed telling it as much as I enjoyed hearing it. Still feeling sheepish about embarrassing Linda, I made a point to include her in the conversation.
“Mommy,” Ruthie interrupted. “There’s Mrs. Cohen I was telling you about. Can you come meet her, please?”
“We’ll be back soon.” Her mother rose, and Linda and I were left alone again.
“Is this your first visit to Israel?” I asked.
Linda nodded and began to describe the various tours they had already been on. She spoke like a typical tourist, until she mentioned Rachel’s tomb. Then her face glowed, and I believe there were tears in her eyes as she spoke.
“I remember learning that Rachel was buried in Bethlehem so she could plead for the children of Israel when they were forced out of the land. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to visit her tomb, but the tour guide told us it was too dangerous. But I was determined, and we did go yesterday. I’m so glad we did. I was so touched to see the women there pouring out their hearts to their Maker.”
In spite of myself I was touched by her description and told her so. “Friends of ours had a baby girl and they had the naming party there.”
“That’s lovely,” Linda sighed and changed the subject. “Could you tell me about where you live?”
Like most people I enjoy talking about myself and my community. I did my best to describe the moshav and the beautiful area surrounding it. I told her how my husband loved working with the goats, and I tolerated doing the office bookkeeping. For the children, I explained, the rural environment was the best place to grow up.
“Do you have a large family?”
“Six children, bli ayin hara. And you?” I asked automatically.
Linda bit her lip and smiled. “That’s a hard question for me to answer.” She lowered her eyes and spoke softly. “Our only son died of leukemia five and a half months ago.”
Linda kept her eyes lowered and she did not see the tears in mine. “How horrible for you.”
Linda raised her eyes and gave me a tight smile. “Yes, it is horrible.”
“Your days must seem so long.”
“I try to keep busy, and I volunteer a lot of hours for the Cancer Society, as well as for the synagogue and the school where my son learned.”
Linda gave a deep sigh. “We really thought he was going to make it until the very end.” Now that she had brought up the subject, Linda seemed eager to speak of her son’s illness. She spoke at length of the first diagnosis, the second and third opinions, the various trips to specialists, homeopathic doctors, even quacks. There were the countless prayers sent with anyone visiting Israel, with instructions to slip the envelope between the cracks of the Kotel. Her son’s classmates organized Tehillim sessions for his recovery and visiting schedules, and through it all, her son had kept their spirits up with his unfailing optimism.
“The nurses couldn’t believe all the pain he endured with a smile.” Linda sighed again. She described all the different treatments he received, the horror of his death, the comfort they had been given while sitting shiva.
But then we had to get up and start our lives all over again. That’s the reason for our trip here.”
I gave her a questioning look.
“Throughout his illness our lives were on hold. I stopped teaching, and my husband neglected his practice. We related to our friends only in terms of our son’s illness. Once he died no one really knew how to act with us; they treated us with kid gloves, and that wasn’t healthy. Plus we’re concerned about ourselves. Statistics say that many couples who lose a child get divorced, and we don’t want that to happen.”
“Of course not,” I agreed, feeling inadequate, not knowing what to say.
“I don’t know why I’m rambling on like this.” Linda smiled, embarrassed. “You’re the first person I’ve met since we left home that I’ve told any of this to.”
“It’s okay. Really.”
“We needed to get away from everything and take a good look at our lives.” Linda pulled at her wig self-consciously. “We’ve made some changes. I just started covering my hair, and my husband has committed himself to finding time to learn daily. We’re thinking of moving to Israel.”
“That’s wonderful.” I spoke warmly. Maybe they’ll have another child, a sabra.
As if she had read my thoughts, Linda spoke quietly. “There’s no chance for any more children. I’ve had a number of miscarriages and stillborns.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said in a small voice. And not just for all Linda had been through but for misjudging her so.
“I know you are,” she said in her quiet voice, and I wondered if she had read my mind.
“Maybe,” I offered tentatively, “you’d like to visit the moshav while you’re here.”
“That would be lovely.”
Suddenly the music changed, and we realized it was time for the chupah. As we stood and made our way outside, Linda turned to me.
“By the way,” she asked. “What do you consider the ‘essence of your being’?”
“That I’m a Jewish woman, of course.”
“A Jewish woman.” Linda nodded. “I like that.”
As the two of us stood side by side, the ceremony started, and the young kallah began her journey into the world of the Jewish woman.     

 Shul: synagogue
Kiddush: literally the blessing over wine, here it refer to a social gathering after morning services on Shabbat
Parsha: weekly Torah portion
Kallah: bride

bli ayin hara: phrase to ward off the evil eye
Tehillim: psalms

shiva: seven days of mourning

sabra: native-born Israeli
moshav: collective settlement  

chupah: marriage canopy/service

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