The Maiden of Brooklyn
Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox
By the time Frumie turned seventeen her petty thefts were discovered, her face was permanently scarred, cratered and pitted in texture like the landscape of the moon and medium-rare in color, her figure had filled out, especially the womanly parts, ballooning breasts and buttocks cinched by a cartoonish small waist, a caricature of voluptuousness. A decision was made to marry her off as soon as possible while she at least had her youth. With the guidance and encouragement of the Oscwiecim rebbetzin, Reb Berel Bavli, though a bit on the older side, was presented as a suitable candidate—still vigorous and in the prime of life, extremely well-off financially and a good provider, with only one child from a previous marriage who was no longer a baby and would likely within the next few years also be married off herself. One morning, standing across the street from Beis Beinonis alongside Reb Berish as the girls were filing into the school with their books and looseleaf binders pressed to their bosoms, the rebbetzin pointed out the merchandise, confident that her client possessed an expert eye that could quickly and accurately appraise the livestock. A few days later, a deal was struck.
When Tema turned twelve, the age at which a female (who matures more quickly than the male and, it follows, more quickly becomes overripe and wilts) is legally and halakhically accountable for her own sins, Frumie was already pregnant with the first of the daughters she would produce almost each year—five by the time Tema herself left home and lost track. Though she had the opportunity to run into Frumie again several decades later and repay her in some measure for the small motherly kindnesses she had extended during their time together, including slapping Tema hard across the face to stir up the blood in her cheeks by way of cautionary congratulations when she got her first period, and supplying the sanitary pads and belt, and offering intimate guidance related to bathing and body odor and so on and so forth, she completely lost all contact with the little girls, her half sisters, to the point that, years later, when she would on occasion try to summon up their names, inexplicably they would elude her. In her mind, she would refer to them by the names of the five proto-feminist daughters of Zelophekhad— Makhla, Noa, Hagla, Milka, and Tirza—who very respectfully had stood before Moses Our Teacher and all the chieftains in the wilderness at the entrance but not inside the Tent of Meeting and collectively petitioned for their rightful parcel of land among their tribesmen of Menashe as their father, Zelophekhad, who had died for some unmentionable sin, had left no sons and heirs. Doubly punished their father Zelophekhad had been, or, more precisely, punished twice as hard—whatever this sin was that he had committed must have been in a class unto itself—punished not just with death but also with having as progeny only daughters and no sons to inherit his portion and perpetuate his name. Oh yes, said the Lord who knows everything, both text and subtext, Rightly the daughters of Zelophekhad have spoken.
Tema’s twelfth birthday roughly coincided, as it happened, with the establishment of the State of Israel. Reb Berish privately marked her passage into adulthood as he presided at the head of the Sabbath table by noting that she was the same age as Germy, the dog that belonged to the goy next door—and the average life span for a German Shepherd, for your information, was, or so he had heard, more or less the same as for the Nazi regime—twelve to thirteen years. “A very old dog, an alter cocker. Makes you think, no?” Which led to his next observation, concerning the newly established Jewish state: “We’ll know already soon what this world is coming to when the people over there in Eretz Yisroel start talking to dogs in Loshon Kodesh.” A few days later, Tema approached Germy safely locked up where he could do no harm. She looked into his demented eyes and his moronic open mouth with the tongue hanging down. “Higi’a hazman,” Tema said to the dog in the Holy Tongue. Your time’s up. And, like an executioner, she opened the gate.
Years later, when she became renowned as Ima Temima, the revered Jerusalem guru and teacher of the Hebrew Bible with thousands of followers, she would mentally flip to the image of the wild dogs in the Valley of Jezreel lapping up the blue blood and tearing the royal flesh of her beloved majestic Queen Jezebel, and she would forgive herself in some measure for opening the gate that day and liberating the Brooklyn descendent of those dogs, the wretched Germy, to go forth and almost instantly meet his fate with that wreck of a truck, its bells jingling as it clattered down the street driven by Itche the junkman. But in the months that followed the event itself, the image that gripped her was of a pulped and bloody mess in the middle of the road only moments after a brief canine burst of hope and exhilaration at having been set free. This was the image she would return to again and again in those days, like a dog returns to its own vomit, as the author of the book of Proverbs said, reportedly King Solomon.
On a Sunday morning at Beis Ziburis not long after the fateful meeting between Germy the dog and Itche the junkman, the girls were reviewing for a final exam on the second book of Samuel that they had just completed under the instruction of their prophets teacher, Miss Pupko, a sallow-faced young woman eighteen years old, recently engaged to be married, who had just graduated from the school the year before and was translating verse by verse, chapter by chapter from the Hebrew directly into Yiddish. Suddenly Tema’s daydreams were brutally interrupted by the words in chapter nine of Mephiboshet, the crippled-in-both-legs son of Jonathan, groveling before the bandit kingpin David who had just promised him a permanent seat at the royal table and restored to him all the lands of his grandfather, the crazy King Saul: “What is your servant that you have shown such regard for a dead dog like me,” Mephiboshet said, so hideously obsequious. Tema raised her hand and asked permission to leave the room, which was the only way to earn the privilege to use the toilet.
In all her years at Beis Ziburis, Tema had never once used the toilets for the purposes for which they were intended, to relieve herself—including by crying—they were too filthy and public. She exercised extreme self-control throughout the long day, she held everything in until she came home, then dashed through the house straight to the bathroom; the women of her family knew what to expect and they all gave way. Now Mephiboshet the dead dog sent Tema wandering through the halls of the dingy firetrap that was Beis Ziburis, the peeling and flaking walls, the gashed and stained linoleum, the smashed light fixtures and exposed wires, the cracked windowpanes, all of it in violation of building codes and officially condemned by municipal inspectors but considered good enough for the girls by the overseers of the school, who kept it in operation through private arrangements with elected city officials.
An exhilarating new intellectual history argues that anti-Judaism is at the heart of Western culture