Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chapter Fourteen of Sondra's Search: Finding a lost Torah scroll can be as difficult as finding yourself.

     In the end, Patty was invited to the bat mitzvah on condition that Howie go with Sondra and Lisa when they went to Lotte’s for a week in the middle of July. Irene and Herbert were hoping for the very thing that Howie feared - that once he was away, Patty would find someone else.

    Sondra had overheard enough talks between her mother and her aunt to know that was the plan, but she did not think it was very likely to happen. She had watched Patty carefully at the oneg Shabbat. Simply dressed in a sleeveless, yellow dress that showed off her beautiful tan, Patty had spent most of the evening sitting by herself. She had not taken her eyes off Howie as he visited with guests and endured being photographed. As she watched him, she played with his ID bracelet that she wore on her left wrist. Feeling sorry for her, and against her better judgment, Sondra had finally sat down next to her.

     “Are you having a nice time?”

      Patty smiled brightly and nodded her head.

    “ I’ve never seen anything like this.”

     “Like what?”

     “A Jewish religious service, the food, Patty held up a cracker spread with chopped liver, “so many people speaking with foreign accents. My family has lived in Kansas since before the Civil War.”

    “What do they think of you being here?”  Sondra could not keep herself from asking.

     Patty pulled at a lock of her waist-length, blonde hair and twisted it around her forefinger. “They feel the same way your aunt and uncle would probably feel if I took Howie to communion with me.”

     “I’m sorry,” Sondra blushed. “I guess that was a nosy question.” To her surprise Patty laughed.

    “You just asked what everyone else wants to ask. I appreciate your being honest.”    

    Howie had joined them at that point, and although he told Sondra to stay, she saw that Patty had eyes only for her steady, so she left to help Aunt Irene pass the cake trays.

     Howie and Patty spent practically every waking moment together the following week, in preparation for their week- long separation. Howie was not at all enthusiastic about the trip to Kansas City, but knowing Patty would be by her grandmother’s for the same week made him resolve to make the best of it.

     Irene had decided to make the drive to Lotte's into a day vacation. She insisted on stopping in Topeka and taking the kids to see the state capitol building. As long as they were stopping there, Herbert had suggested that they should eat lunch at The Place. He had heard about the steak restaurant at the cattle auctions and if anyone was a good judge of a steak place, it was a cattleman. Herbert had been told The Place was totally without atmosphere, the prices were low and the food fantastic.

     Everything Herbert had been told was true. The five of them sat around a plain wooden table without a tablecloth or placemats. The menus were splattered with grease and the waitress stood impatiently, without a smile, while waiting for them to order.

     Herbert cleared his throat. "My wife would like the fillet mignon but without the bacon, the baked potato, and the salad. Lisa, you want a hamburger right?"

     Lisa nodded. "And I want French fries and coleslaw."

     Without a comment, the waitress scribbled on her pad.

     "What about you, Sondra?" her uncle asked.

     "Um, can I have the baked sole?"

     "Sondra," Herbert was irritated. "this is a streak house, not a fish restaurant…"
     "Herbert," Irene interrupted. "let the girl order what she wants."

     Herbert grunted in response. As soon as the waitress finished with the order he turned his attention to his niece.

     "Why didn't you order a steak?" he demanded.

     Sondra played with her ring and did not look at her uncle. "I don't eat meat out anymore."

     Herbert shook his head. "It's very nice you care about being Jewish, but don't carry it too far. You know," he pointed his finger at Sondra. "you need to be like Bernice. She married a nice Jewish boy, she has a kosher home, they go to a nice shul. Don't be a fanatic."

     Before Sondra could reply the drinks arrived and Aunt Irene changed the subject. Nothing more was said about Sondra's lunch choice, but she ate quietly and was rather uncomfortable as they toured the Menniger Center. Howie, sensitive to his cousin's discomfort, kept the conversation going in the back seat for the hour ride from Topeka to Kansas City. Still, Sondra was glad when Lotte’s ranch house come into view.        

     Aunt Lotte had a list of activities planned for her nieces and nephew but there was still going to be time for Sondra to see Debbie, and, she hoped, Brian and the others.

     “Can I call Debbie?” Sondra asked her aunt once Aunt Irene and Uncle Herbert had said goodbye.

     “Sure,” Aunt Lotte replied. “She was asking about you yesterday.”

     “So was Brian,” Rachel grinned and Sondra blushed.

     “You can use the phone in my room,” Aunt Lotte said. “Maybe you’ll have some privacy there.”

     Debbie was as anxious to see Sondra as Sondra was to see her.

     “My aunt has all sorts of plans for us this week,” Sondra explained. “But she said I could invite you along. Do you want to go downtown with us? We’re going to the concert at the park.”

     “No, it’s the Three Weeks.”

     “The three weeks?”

     “Never mind, I’ll explain when we get together. What are the plans for tomorrow?”

     “We’re going swimming at the JCC.”

    “Great. I’ll meet you there.”

     “You got your braces off!” Sondra shrieked when they met at the pool the following day.

    “How do you like my smile?” Debbie grinned widely.


    “Come, let’s change into our swimsuits,” Debbie led the way.

    “Is your brother here?” Sondra asked.

     “No,” Debbie replied. “He’s still in yeshiva, but even if he was home he wouldn’t be here. He doesn’t go mixed swimming.”

     “I don’t see any Afro-Americans here.” Sondra looked around.

     “Not that kind of mixed swimming,” Debbie laughed.

     “Then what?”

     “Boys and girls.” The two girls entered dressing rooms next to each other.

     “Why can’t boys and girls go swimming together?” Sondra called over the petition.

      “His rabbi told him it wasn’t modest,” Debbie called back.

     She exited the stall with a towel draped over her one-piece bathing suit. Sondra came out also wrapped in a towel. They looked at each other and laughed.

    “I feel half naked walking from here to the pool in just a swimsuit.”

    “Me too.”

     “So how come you go mixed swimming?” Sondra asked the obvious question.

     “My parents let me, so I’m not going to ask any questions,” Debbie shrugged. “Especially in this heat.”

    The girls left their towels at the side of the crowded Olympic-sized pool and jumped in the water.

    “Is everyone here Jewish?” Sondra asked amazed after swimming several laps.

    “Most of them, but not all,” Debbie shook her head.

    “That’s my cousin,” Sondra pointed to Howie who was swimming towards them.

    As he drew close he tried to dunk Sondra, who pushed him with all her might. He laughed in her face and splashed her.

    “Who’s your friend?”

    “This is Debbie.” Sondra answered and noticed Howie looking with interest at Debbie’s green eyes. Sondra’s imagination immediately began working. Suppose Howie would be interested in Debbie and he would break up with Patty? It would be wonderful. Before Sondra could begin imagining being the bridesmaid at the wedding, though, she remembered that Debbie’s parents did not let her date.

     Later, as they sat on the grass, wrapped again in their towels, Sondra asked Debbie why she hadn’t been able to go to the concert the day before.

     “It’s the three weeks before Tisha b’Av. Do you know what that is?”

     Sondra shook her head. Apparently that holiday had been left off the list her father had taught her about.

     “It’s the date that the first and second Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, were destroyed. Do you know about the Temple?”

     Sondra explained about Mr. Mane’s phone call following the Six-Day War.

     Debbie nodded. “The Beit Hamikdash was the holiest place on earth. All we have left of it is the Kotel, Western Wall.”

     “I remember the picture of the soldiers praying there.”

    Debbie nodded again. “But it’s just one wall. We need the whole Beit Hamikdash. So every year on the ninth of Av we fast and mourn for it.”

     “I thought we only fast on Yom Kippur.”
     Debbie shook her head. “Maybe reform Jews only fast on Yom Kippur, but religious Jews fast several times a year.”

      “Really?” Sondra was skeptical, but let it go. “What does all this have to do with going to a concert?”

      “Oh, for the three weeks before Tisha b’Av we’re not supposed to hear any live music.”

    “Really?” Before Sondra could ask another question someone stepped up behind her and covered her eyes with his hands.

     “Guess who?”

     Sondra pulled the hands down and turned to see Brian smiling at her. Her face lit up and she invited him and Marc to join her and Debbie. It was fun, almost like being on a double date. And later, when Marc and Debbie went back in the water, Brian really asked her for a date.

     “There’s a nice play showing at The Starlight Theatre Thursday night. Would you like to go with me?”

     “I’d love too, if it’s okay with my aunt. Which play?”

      Barefoot in the Park.”

     “Neil Simon is one of my favorite playwrights.”

      At that point Howie, straight from the pool, plopped down next to her.
     “Howie, this is Brian Cohen. Brian, this is my cousin, Howie.”

     The two boys shook hands and tried to size each other up. Howie assumed, correctly, that Brian was not very interested in sports and Brian surmised that Howie was a jock.

     “Are you a senior?” Howie asked.

     Brian shook his head. “I graduated last month. I’m going to the University of Colorado in Boulder.”

     “So, you made a decision,” Sondra commented. She sure would miss Brian when she came to Kansas City during the school year. Maybe she would look into Boulder. Bernice had told her to try to find a university where some of her friends were going.


     Sondra smiled at three of the kids from the youth group. "Come meet my cousin Howie.”

    She made the introductions as Marc and Debbie returned. One of the boys had a big bag of potato chips. He fixed his yarmulke on his head, said a blessing, and passed the bag around.

    “Where’s Miriam?” Sondra asked.

    “She doesn’t go mixed swimming either,” Debbie answered.

    “Don’t forget she’s the rabbi’s daughter,” one of the girls added.

     Howie looked at Sondra for an explanation, but she just shrugged her shoulders.

     He saw a lot of new things that afternoon. The camaraderie between Sondra’s friends was deep and it seemed to center on Jewish issues.

     “We’re having a letter-writing campaign tomorrow night, if you’d like to come,” Marc told him.

    “Letter writing for what?”
    “Soviet Jews.”

   “Yeah,” Howie answered decisively, “I’d like to come. What about you, Sondra?”

    “Of course.”

    When they entered Mr. Marcus’s home the following evening, the gang

was spread out on the living room floor with pads of paper in front of them and bowls of popcorn and Chex cereal mix scattered on the carpet. To Howie, they all looked like normal teenagers, except for the yarmulkes on the boys’ heads. They wrote for over an hour and then stopped, complaining of writer’s cramp. Brain suggested a game of charades and they played for another hour until Mrs. Marcus signaled that it was time for them to leave.

    “She just tolerates us for her husband’s sake,” Debbie whispered to Sondra on the way out. “And he’s so good to us that we don’t ever overstay our welcome.”

    “What did you think of everyone?” Sondra asked her cousin as they parted from the others and walked home.

     “They’re nice kids.” Howie nodded. “Brian told me that he plans on majoring in pre-law. I think he’s interested in you.”

    Sondra blushed and tried not to let Howie see her smile.

    “I guess your folks wouldn’t mind you dating him.”

    “He’s taking me out Thursday night.”

    “How about that,” Howie commented, happy for his cousin. They walked in a comfortable silence past several houses. There was a smell of rain in the air and occasional sparks of lightening. A summer storm was on its way.

    “Everyone wants me to break up with Patty,” Howie broke the silence.

    “You’re right,” Sondra agreed. “They would not be so worried if she wasn’t so nice. You know that.”

     “I guess that’s supposed to make me feel better.” Howie spoke ruefully. “Sondra, I really care about her a lot.”

    Sondra heard the emotion in her cousin’s voice and felt a stab of fear. It was not that unusual in Lincoln for senior couples to get married right after high school. She groped for the right thing to say.

     “Howie, you were my first friend, my best friend, and I never want to hurt you or make you mad at me.” Sondra hesitated.

    “Go on.” Howie slowed his pace.

    “You have two sides to you. The Jewish side that wants to find the Torah and visit Israel, and the other side that wants to be the captain of the football team and date the head cheerleader. They don’t really go together, at least in Lincoln, where none of the cheerleaders are Jewish.”

     “You’re the only one in the drama department who is Jewish.”

    “Don’t get angry. It’s not the same. I’ve made the Jewish things top priority. They can't be equal. And I’m not interested in dating anyone from the drama department.”

    “You were.”

    Sondra stopped and faced her cousin. “I made a mistake. My parents sending me to Kansas City was the best thing that could have happened to me. Maybe you should start coming with me when I come.”

    “Maybe,” Howie said halfheartedly. “I think it might be a little late for that, though. I really care a lot about Patty,” he repeated.

    “Have you started thinking about college?” Sondra asked.

    “Lincoln State has one of the best veterinarian schools. I might just stay at home.”

    “I suppose that’s what Patty’s planning to do, too,” Sondra said sadly.

    “Probably,” Howie admitted.

    That night, after saying the shema, which her parents had taught her to say every night before she went to sleep, Sondra prayed with all her might for something to happen to make Howie break up with Patty.

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