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The Maiden of Brooklyn

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

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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.

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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