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The Maiden of Brooklyn

Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox

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Anna Shteynshleyger, City of Destiny (Seascape)

Anna Shteynshleyger, City of Destiny (Seascape), 2004-2009. (Courtesy of the artist.)

In the turmoil immediately following her mother’s death, the soul still in its unsettled and agitated wandering state, neither in this world nor the next, Tema’s father assigned to her, their only child, the interim task of sitting guard over the body, which by the strictest law must not be left alone for even one second until it is pinned down under the weight of the earth and can cause no more harm.

Tema was eleven years old at the time, and what horrified her above all was not the waxen pallor of the still uncovered face of the corpse, or the fumes of liquefying organic matter already diffusing into the room, or even this cold stranger’s obstinate refusal to respond when Tema addressed her so politely. It was the open mouth, hanging down slack, like a dog’s—that was simply unbearable. Tema tried to slam that mouth shut, shoving the chin upward with the palms of her own hands, but it was hopeless—it just dropped down again and slung there, revealing everything, the deepest and most private secrets of the family.

She looked around the room—it was her parents’ bedroom—for a cord or a belt to strap around the face and hoist up that jaw no matter how unseemly and ridiculous such a contraption would be, like a gauze bandage wrapping for a toothache in an old-fashioned slapstick farce. There on top of the bureau, as always, her mother’s collection of three head-shaped wooden wig blocks were positioned on their stands—one for her everyday sheitel, one for her Sabbath and holidays sheitel, and one for her fanciest, most expensive sheitel reserved for very special occasions such as weddings. In a playful mood one evening a year or two earlier, as Tema was engaged in a favorite pastime, watching her mother getting dressed to go out—attending especially to how her mother, as if she were completely alone and unobserved, leaned forward with utter concentration toward the mirror to apply the red viscous clown gash of her lipstick and then blotted it on a tissue, sending up a stale spit odor mixed with the oversweet artificial fragrance of the lipstick’s perfume and the crushing smell of her mother’s impenetrable unhappiness that would nearly ruin Tema for life—on one of those evenings when she was once again keeping her mother company during this eternally fascinating feminine ritual, Tema had taped a photograph of her mother’s face to the front of each of the three heads on the wig stands, indulging the creative license of a child’s capricious arts and crafts project. Her mother had never taken down those pictures, and now her three faces were staring back at Tema from the wooden heads on their stems on top of the chest of drawers. The special-occasions head was alarmingly bald, its wig on duty on the unresponsive woman they claimed was her mother lying there on that bed with her mouth hanging open like a dog.

From this mannequin on the bed, Tema’s eyes moved to the nightstand, where she noted once again her mother’s favorite book, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the Modern Library hardcover edition translated by Constance Garnett—a very fat volume, nearly one thousand pages long. This is what Tema took to wedge under that chin and prop it up, succeeding at last to clamp shut that mouth with the moist scarlet rim of the lipstick that had exposed the fleshy tongue, the teeth packed with gold fillings, the obscenely dangling pink uvula—until her father, Reb Berel Bavli, strode back into the room, accompanied by the professional shomer who had been hired to take over body guarding duty from Tema, to escort the remains and recite the chapters of Psalms through all the stages from transferal to the funeral home to awaiting burial after the ritual cleansing away of all earthly nonsense and artifice including wigs, makeup, and jewelry, the purification with poured water, the dressing in plain white shrouds for the grave. With barely a glance at Tema or her mother, in a kind of backhanded stroke as if in passing without breaking his stride, Reb Berish flicked the book out from under his late wife’s chin, releasing the jaw to flop right down again and cast open the mouth in that imbecile expression. To Tema, the drop was audible. Reb Berish just shook his head. “At least you didn’t stick in there a holy book with God’s name,” he said. “Forty days you would have to fast.”

***

It is true that she could have used the Tanakh on the nightstand on her father’s side of the two pushed-together beds for this purpose, to elevate her mother’s chin and seal her lips, since it was more or less the same thickness and heft as the Tolstoy, but the presence of the divine name on its pages and especially the unmentionable Tetragrammaton between its covers rendered it unthinkable, even to one as young as Tema was then, to defile such a holy volume by contact with the dead. The Hebrew Bible was a book you just did not fool around with. You did not deface it, you did not underline in it, you did not scribble comments or exclamation points or question marks in its margins or doodles or drawings of idealized girls’ faces and fantasy hairdos during the numbingly boring bible and prophets classes, and if by some misfortune it fell on the floor you picked it up reverentially and kissed it in the hope of the unforgiving author’s forgiveness.

Nevertheless, though Tema exploited only the work of a mere mortal to prop up her mother’s face and restore it from the face of a dog, she still undertook over the course of the following year of mourning a series of mortifications of the flesh, including fasting from food and drink every Monday and Thursday when the Torah is read in the synagogue, and also a ta’anit dibbur, fasting from speech all week excluding Sunday after school, when she would take two trains and a bus out to her mother’s grave plot still unmarked with a stone in the Old Montefiore cemetery in Queens and pour out her heart like water lashing her mother’s face.

On top of that, she privately undertook several additional personal corrections, including sleeping with rocks packed in her pillowcase like Jacob Our Father in Beit El on his flight from his brother Esau to Haran, as well as the Tikkun Hazot, awaking at midnight every night and sitting barefoot on the cold floor of her locked room in a rent nightgown to mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile from Jerusalem for our sins almost two millennia ago. She also recited the Tikkun Ha’Klali, the ten psalms specified by the holy Rav Nakhman of Bratslav, and often for good measure she would even recite the entire book of Psalms, all one hundred and fifty of them, as well as immerse herself three hundred and ten times in her improvised mikva, which consisted of the bathtub filled with ice-cold water. All of these mortifications she undertook to repair the damage she had inflicted on her spiritual core when, while lying in bed awake, she could not in her weakness resist the temptation to explore herself in a place she could only think of as “down there,” somewhere on an uncharted map like the South Pole, or, while asleep, when she had no control over her thoughts or actions, she would be assaulted by a dream that she could never remember but that would startle her into consciousness with spasms of shocking intensity—spasms so powerful and so unlike anything else she had ever experienced that she wondered why human beings did not occupy themselves with trying to reproduce this sensation every minute of every day and night, but, at the same time, she understood without having to be told that, whatever this was, it could only be a sin, religion had surely been invented to keep this thing under control.

***

Now and then over the course of that year, someone would take her father aside in the synagogue or in one of the stores on Thirteenth Avenue to remark that Tema looked like she was losing too much weight or that Tema had become “such a quiet girl.” Reb Berel Bavli would simply absorb these presumably well-meant bulletins regarding the troubling changes in his daughter and shrug his shoulders, putting out both of his large hands with their meaty palms upward in a wordless gesture that translated, What do you expect? The girl just lost her mother.

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Shmooster says:

This story consists essentially of the author venting her bile, expressing her hostility to observant Judaism, and, presumably, getting herself off thereby. Yes, sexual abuse is a problem in the Orthodox community, as it is in virtually every community. This piece adds nothing of value to the meaningful dialogue now going on within the community itself, and it is full of caricatures. All that’s missing is the hole in the sheet.

muddled and depressing. really, not only is the subject dark & disturbed; the writing is unclear and rambling, rather like listening to a dementia patient.

ClooJew says:

Is this writer actually Orthodox? “Forty days you would have to fast”? No one Orthodox actually talks like that anymore. Why does every young, Jewish writer think he/she’s Isaac Bashevis Singer. Besides it’s not even accurate. You don’t fast for misusing a Chumash.

Ach, what’s the point in complaining, though. I agree with the first two comments.

Shmooster says:

Sorry to disappoint, Cloo, but Tova Reich is not by any stretch a “young” writer. (Good luck finding any biographical information on her.)

I’d like to take this opportunity to throw a question out there: Anybody know of an instance where Orthodox Jews have left the face of the deceased uncovered before burial (aside from during the taharah, of course)? How about the body being left on a bed, as opposed to being placed, covered, on the floor? No? Me neither.

I found this interesting but largely unreadable. Is there an editor in the house?

herbcaen says:

It would be interesting to write a companion story about sexual abuse in a reform family, or a non-Jewish family, I guess not-it is too commonplace

reader says:

“presumably, getting herself off thereby”: the decision to write about rape is not an invitation to verbal abuse. Please participate in more of that meaningful dialogue.

Shmooster says:

I can discern no motivation for writing this story, if not to heap written abuse on Orthodox Judaism while indulging in some really disturbing fantasies, sexual and otherwise. The most serious problem is that those not particularly knowledgeable will read the author’s portrayal of Orthodoxy and mistakenly assume that it is accurate.

For a novel that has contributed in a meaningful way to the dialogue about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, read “Hush,” by Eishes Chayil.

For more biographical information on Tova Reich, please refer to her profile at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, where she was a Fellow last year: http://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/people/tova-reich

From that profile: “Tova Reich is the author of My Holocaust: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2007),The Jewish War: A Novel (Pantheon Books, 1995), Master of the Return(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), and Mara: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978). Her stories have appeared in AGNI, the Atlantic,Commentary, Conjunctions, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere and have been included in several anthologies. She has contributed essays and book reviews to the New Leader, the New Republic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wilson Quarterly, and other publications. … Among the prizes she has received for her writing are the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award and the National Magazine Award for fiction.”

Shmooster says:

Yes, that is her literary biography, and that’s all you’ll find. When and where was she born? Where has she lived? Was she ever married? Children? How was she raised? (It is clear from her photo that she’s not what one would call a “young Jewish writer.”)

I agree that the story is very disturbing but it is well written. Its a long time since I read Singer and I agree that its in his style.

This seems relevant http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/books/review/Margolick-t.html?pagewanted=all

It does seem that Ms Reich’s writing is intended to be disturbing and is aimed at a radical, rather than a particularly Jewish audience.

Natan79 says:

No it’s not. Reform dudes are not as sex-crazed and sex-repressed as the Orthodox. The Orthodox have the sexual repression found in Arab countries.

Shmooster says:

Thanks for the pop psychology. Natan79 . . .

Shmooster says:

As you can see from other comments, Jonathan, reasonable people can differ on whether the piece is well written.

Point taken regarding her Holocaust book. I think it’s clear that, among other things, she’s looking to be provocative and to piss people off. Sarah Silverman does that, too — but when she does it, it’s actually funny (sometimes, at least).

On the other hand, Reich’s depiction of Rabbi Schmeltzer and his actions could have been written by Julius Streicher.

Yes, its a cheap way to score points.

Baba_Metzia says:

It’s very sad that you are not able to afford your Thorazine.

ripping apart the motivations of a woman who is writing about her trauma- reveals very petty and cruel motivation on your part. Honestly-how insecure are you that you will tear down a woman that has been through so much? I want to see what happens to her and how she deals with this. Attempting to discrediting a rape victim? Classy. Really classy

rosa99@walla.com says:

to ms. reich, please redirect your verbal output to the toilet. that is where excrement belongs. or buried in the dirt outside the encampment by hand with a small shovel. feh.

Shmooster says:

Does the author say somewhere that this story is about her own trauma? If she does, please point it out.

Natan79 says:

I think you’re an idiot. Tova Reich is a real writer. It probably bothers you that she exposes Orthodox sexual abuse.

Natan79 says:

Not at all. I met people like that in Israel. They lectured me on how to be a jew while I was a soldier and they refused to be, You see, they had holy things to do.

Natan79 says:

It’s very sad that you are an authoritarian imbecile, shithead.

Natan79 says:

It’s not pop psychology. Direct observation.

Natan79 says:

Yeah, it must be tough to read about sexual abuse. Better to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Natan79 says:

Asking Shmooster for meaningful dialogue is like asking a pig to play the violin.

Shmooster says:

Whoa! Sure did not see THAT coming! So how many times in all were you raped by these rabbis?

Shmooster says:

Thanks for saving me the time of making you look foolish in public. You’re doing a fine job on your own. Carry on!

Shmooster says:

Such a comfort to know there are mature people like you defending the country, Natan79.

Yes, we have some rabbis like that here in Brooklyn. They build phony school dormitories to evade zoning regulations, they run horrible nursing homes, and they participate in rackets. Holy as Hell!

Sometimes they even get caught. Not often enough.

I just bought her book. Jewish radical, me. Lived briefly in Israel as a child. They threw rocks if you drove on Shabbat.

She was born in 1942 in the US. Her family were from a long line of rabbis on both sides. She married and has 3 children. She has written a lot during her long life. Here is the link: http://books.google.com/books?id=X3HN2tYhR0cC&pg=PA305&lpg=PA305&dq=tova+reich+biography&source=bl&ots=0QqGhjpfT_&sig=8Q6RhyE8qmjxuItOkjKCypjQKas&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TameUfDtDvW84AORq4DIBw&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=tova%20reich%20biography&f=false

Shmooster says:

Thanks much for posting that link. Interesting reading. I wonder why the information is so hard to find (I gave it my best shot on Google).

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The Maiden of Brooklyn

Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox