Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Sin of Silence: A Short Story (Fiction)

I killed my daughter-in-law. I didn't mean to and it wasn't because I didn't like her. I loved her. We were never one of those mother and daughter-in-law cliches. In fact, whenever I listened to Megillah Rut I always thought my relationship with Bracha was very similar to the one Naomi had with Rut. I guess, like they say in the stories, I should begin at the beginning.

didn't always live in Israel. I grew up in Chicago and when I finished high school my parents sent me to Israel for a year in seminary like almost all the other girls. Unlike the other girls, though, I did not return to America at the end of the year. Rather, I stayed on for a second year. Then I met my husband. He was originally from Los Angeles and like me came for a year to learn and never went back. 

We joined a cooperative community in the Negev and I loved it. It was quite a change from Chicago and even from Jerusalem, but I loved the tranquility. We were only fifty families then and I felt as if each of them were part of my extended family. We joined in each other’s joys and shared our sorrows. Even though I, of course, did not sit shiva when my grandmother died, many of my friends came to the house to extend their sympathy. And when each of our children was born all the women looked after me. They gave me special treatment since my mother was miles away. Even when she was able to come after the births she was too jet-lagged to be much help the first week.

My husband, Shimon, was in charge of the tourism in the area and by default I became the English teacher for the girls in our regional grammar school. As our town and the nearby communities grew so did my teaching load. So when the Levi family moved in I was thrilled. Shifra Levi was one of those friendly people who know how to establish rapport with almost everyone. The fact that both her father and grandfather were famous rabbis did not make her stand-offish at all, rather the opposite. I liked her right away but, even more important, Mr. Levi was an English teacher and he was able to take over half my workload.

By that time I had five children and plenty of work to do at home. My oldest, Mindy, was almost Bat Mitzvah, but there is a limit to how much one can ask a not-quite twelve-year-old to do. Besides, Mindy had a tendency to be, as my father called it when I was growing up, a Sarah Heartburn, and she let me know whenever she thought she might be overworked. It was a relief to give up some of my classes, especially seventh grade. That’s when the pressure was on for good grades in order to be accepted into the right high school.

To Shimon’s and my relief Mindy did get accepted into the high school of her choice. She was in her last year when she decided she wanted to become a social worker. To my mind it was a perfect career choice for her. My Mindy had always been sensitive to other’s needs and looked for ways to help out. The whole time she was learning in college we were constantly hosting girls without family in Israel for guests. She did her field work at one of the nearby villages and the families she worked with did not have enough words of praise for her. So when Shifra Levi had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized Mindy’s reaction was totally out of character. She outright refused to do anything to help the family. And when I mentioned inviting Mr. Levi and his children for Shabbat lunch she went wild.

“If you invite them I’m going away for Shabbat and I’m taking Rena and Nava with me!”

“Just where do you think you are going to take your little sisters for Shabbat?” I asked.  

“To one of my friends! Anywhere but here! Anywhere where he won’t be!”

“Who?” My calm voice belied the tension of her words gave me.

“Mr. Levi! I can’t stand him!”

Even for a Sarah Heartburn my daughter was out of control. I took her hand and led her to the sofa.

“You don’t like Mr. Levi?”

“I hate him!” She shrieked sounding more like a ten-year-old than someone almost twenty.

Fortunately only the two of us were in the house. I struggled with my memories. Mr. Levi had never complained about my daughter as a student. Her grades had been good. What could be the problem? A stab of fear shot through my stomach.

“Tell me about it.” I reached out and put my arm around her. She took a deep breath. 

“One day he told me to stay after class. He wanted to talk to me about my paper. So I stayed and he touched me where he shouldn’t.”

She began crying and I felt myself struggling to breathe. I put my second arm around her and, thankfully, she returned my hug.

“I told him to take his hand off me and he did,” she sniffled. “I told him if he ever touched me again I would tell you.”

“Why didn’t you tell me anyway?” I asked softly.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t believe me,” she whispered.

That felt as if she had thrown cold water in my face. “I’ll always believe,” I spoke resolutely. “Are you sure that is all he did to you?”

She nodded. “It was a long time ago but I don’t want him in this house when my sisters or I are here.”

She had made her point. I was no longer interested in having the Levis over. How, I wondered, would I be able to face him the following day at work? The mind is good at rationalizations, though. In the beginning I watched Mr. Levi closely but saw no signs of any untoward behavior. There were no whispers of complaints anywhere in the school. After a while I reminded myself that Mindy did tend to be overly dramatic. Perhaps she had just blown an accidental touch way out of proportion?

Two years passed and Mindy was finally engaged. As we went over the guest list she saw the Levis name in the maybe column. Shifra had been home from the hospital over a year. Despite everything, I still tried to be a friend to her. She would be hurt if not invited. Mindy had absolutely no understanding for my concern.

“If you invite Mr. Levi to my wedding there will be no wedding. I will go to the Rabbanute to get married.”
Her voice was resolute and I believed her.

“He’s an evil man, Mommy. Who knows what he did to other girls?”

“You think he touched others?” It was hard to keep my voice steady.

Mindy nodded. I struggled to breathe normally.

“Maybe we should go to the Rav to talk about this?”

Mindy shook her head. “I called the police about it last year. They said once seven years have passed there is nothing they can do. It was nine years ago.” She gave a hopeless shrug. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” I whispered. A little voice nagged at me to worry about the other girls Mr. Levi might have hurt but I didn’t think there was anything I could do without Mindy’s cooperation. After all, according to my misunderstanding of lashon hora laws, I couldn’t tell over something I did not know first-hand even if it was to help someone.

I crossed the Levis off the list and prayed that Shifra would think we were making a small wedding. It did not take long to get caught up in all the plans and festivities. Mindy’s complaints about Mr. Levi went to the back of my mind where they stayed for a long, long time.

If life had been busy when we had five unmarried children it became totally hectic after the wedding. There was the first grandchild and then our oldest son got married. The two girls followed shortly afterwards and it seemed as we were going from birth to birth, happiness to happiness. Our thankfulness to HaShem knew no bounds. Mindy was pregnant with her fifth child when she suggested Bracha, one of the secretaries at work, for her youngest brother.     

Bracha was from a nearby village and had learned at our school. She had been my student when she was in fifth and sixth grade and I remembered her sweet smile.  She still had her sweet smile but ever so often her eyes became clouded with an unfathomable sadness. I assumed it was because her mother had died two years earlier and resolved to mother her as much as she would let me.

To my joy she allowed me to become close to her. She and my son were married and moved into a little house just a block from us. I was right there like a real mother when their first two boys were born. It was when she was pregnant with their daughter that I decided to take early retirement. I would supplement my pension with private tutoring. Shimon would cut his hours and we would take advantage of our golden years and travel, see old friends, and, of course, babysit.

Ayala was a colicky baby and I was thankful I had retired. I spent many hours walking her so that her mother could get some much needed sleep during the day. Still, with all my help Bracha had a hard time getting back to herself. I was concerned about post-partum depression but she brushed off my concerns. Mindy also had an eye on her sister-in-law and gave her some good suggestions. Bracha perked up some and when at six months Ayala began sleeping a full eleven hours at night Bracha returned to her old self.
Relieved, Shimon and I decided we could begin planning the trip to America we had been talking about for several years. Ever since our parents died we had not been back and there were still relatives we wanted to see. I was going over the packing list one evening when there was a knock at the door.

The Rav, the doctor, and one of the social workers stood on my front porch. It was clear they did not have good news and the social worker caught me as my knees buckled. She gently told me that Bracha had been in an accident. She had been driving home from her father, fallen asleep at the wheel, the car flipped over several times, and she had died instantly without suffering. They wanted Shimon and me to be with them when they told our son.

No mother should ever go through what I went through. Not only did I lose a beloved daughter-in-law, my son lost his wife and my grandchildren their mother. Their pain was my pain but I had to be strong for them.
And I was. I spent the whole week of shiva there doing what had to be done. It was after my son came back from the cemetery on the seventh day, though, that he told me the truth. We were alone in the house and his words turned my world upside down. With tears in his eyes he told me that the car accident was not an accident. Bracha had left him a note, a suicide note.

Horrified I could find no words, none of comfort, none of understanding, none of reassurance. My arms were heavy as I wrapped them around him.

“Why?” I finally whispered. “You two seemed so happy.”

Now the tears flowed down his face. “She suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. She had had a terrible trauma…” He could not continue.

“Losing her mother?” I offered gently.

My son shook his head and struggled to regain control.

“She had been molested by a teacher when she was young.”

At that point I cried out. I wanted to be strong for him but I felt as if I had been stabbed in the heart. Pulse racing I was able to ask only two words. “What teacher?”

“She never told me. I didn’t even know until she went for counseling after Ayala was born. She had kept it hidden for years.”

“Does the Rav know?’ I finally asked.

“He knows that Bracha left a note but he said that she probably had regret as soon as she went flying off the road and it wasn’t a real suicide.”

“No,” I shook my head. “Does he know about the abuse?”

My son just shook his head.

I spoke to the Rav. He told me that the policeman made a mistake. There is no statute of limitations on child abuse. He’s investigating Mr. Levy and the whole matter. I pray he can save more children from being hurt. It’s too late for my Bracha but it is not too late for others. Oh, if only I had spoken to the Rav years ago.

Shiva: seven days of mourning
Rabbanute: Rabbinical offices
lashon hora: literally evil tongue, refers to gossip and slander


Batya said...

important post

Ester said...

Thank you. Please pass it on.

Toby Klein Greenwald said...

Thank you for posting this incredibly important story.

Ester said...

Toby, thank you for sharing it on facebook.

Esser Agaroth said...

This post has been included in this week's edition of the Haveil Havalim Jewish-Israeli Blog Round-up!

Shimona from the Palace said...

This is an extremely important story.
Over the course of my legal career, I prosecuted a couple of sexual abuse cases within the orthodox community, and I heard, first hand from the victims, how difficult it was for them to come forward and about the pressure that was exerted upon them and their families, not to testify before the "secular" courts. Thank goodness they did have the courage to speak out and, hopefully, save other potential victims. I hope this post will make clear to your readers how keeping silent can sometimes kill.

Ester said...

Shimona, if it even helps one person I will be grateful.

Unknown said...

What an important story to tell. You should see about posting it elsewhere!

Ester said...

Esther, you are right. I am looking into it. In the meantime, please pass it on to others. Thank you!