The Maiden of Brooklyn
Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox
There was a door that Tema had noticed many times but never opened. This time, though, she turned the knob and went through, down the stairs into the cellar. She switched on a light and, by the grimy yellow wattage, she gazed around her, surveying the hundreds of cans of food of all kinds and sizes that filled the shelves along the walls and spilled over into great mounds and heaps on the floor. Some of the cans were fairly new, but others had torn or missing labels, the metal smashed and dented, rusted and bloated and exploded, so that even as she stood there taking all of this in she could hear toxic popping noises that caused her to turn around and come face-to-face with the principal of her school, Rabbi Manis Schmeltzer, the only male on the premises all day until four in the afternoon on weekdays when the defeated public school teachers plodded in to provide the minimum mandatory secular instruction. For some reason, the principal’s presence down there in the cellar did not surprise her in the least.
“I guess you never got around to giving those cans to the poor starving children we collected them for,” Tema said.
“Ah,” said Rabbi Schmeltzer, quoting from one of the great comic scenes of the Torah, “And the Lord opened up the mouth of the ass. And I thought you were such a quiet girl. Everybody tells me you never say a word. Who would have ever imagined you had such a fresh mouth on you?”
He laid both of his hands on top of her head as if he were about to bless her, but instead he pushed her down to the cement floor of the cellar onto her knees, even though everyone knows that a Jew may never kneel before another human being. A Jew bows down only before God, Tema had been taught, but maybe that rule applied only to men, such as Mordekhai the Jew who refused to prostrate himself before the grand vizier Haman, thereby aggravating the villain even more, rendering him nearly apoplectic, nearly bringing about the annihilation of the entire Jewish population of Persia and Mede, one hundred and twenty-seven principalities from India to Ethiopia, a death sentence that required a major knee job, with Mordekhai the court Jew’s full support and encouragement, on the part of his hot niece Hadassah/Esther to get it repealed. “This should shut you up,” Rabbi Manis Schmeltzer said. He unbuttoned the fly of his trousers and took out what he called his bris and shoved it into her mouth, which he called her pisk, and began schuckling back and forth as if he were swaying in prayer with particular concentrated kavannah and focus—all of which Tema observed with an odd detachment, as if it were happening not to her, not to Rosalie Bavli’s daughter, but to someone else, she didn’t even bother to try to raise her voice to protest in some way as even Bilaam’s ass had complained in that great comic scene in the Bible—even that donkey had dared to inquire what it had ever done to deserve this.
When he was finished with his business, Tema turned her head to the side and vomited on some corroded cans with their contents splattered and disgorged. “This will be tsvischn uns,” Rabbi Schmeltzer said as he reassumed his usual disguise. “Between us—get it? One word about this, and I will simply let it be known that you’re out of your mind, crazy, like your late mother, may she find some peace at last. You’re a smart girl, Tema Bavli, I’m sure you get my point. It will not help your marriage prospects one little iota if anyone ever hears about this, believe you me. Number one, what were you doing cutting class? Number two, what were you doing alone down here in the cellar anyways? Try to explain all that to your father and to the ladies auxiliary and to the entire congregation of Israel.”
Tema returned to the classroom, slumped, head lowered, seeking to enter as unobtrusively as possible. “Gai avek!” Miss Pupko cried out sharply in Yiddish. Jolted, Tema raised her eyes despite her ardent wish at the moment to remain invisible. Was the teacher ordering her to get out? Could the news have already spread so rapidly like a plague? But then Tema recognized this as the translation into Yiddish of the words of King David’s son Amnon to his half sister Tamar, right after he was done raping her—“Get up, Get out!” Amnon had barked to the Jewish princess Tamar, and then to his royal attendant, “Get this thing out of here and lock the door behind her.”
As Tema made her way to her desk in the back of the room and sat down, turning her head from the swampy girls’ smell of stagnant menstrual blood and underarm sweat to stare out the streaked window, Miss Pupko continued with the lesson, leaning in toward the class. “Memorize these words, girls, wear them like a seal on your heart if, heaven forbid, you are ever tempted to give in to the evil inclination. ‘And Amnon now hated her with a very terrible hatred, the hatred he hated her with was much greater than any love he had ever felt for her before.’ ”
They were up to chapter thirteen. Tema realized she had been out of the room for four chapters and look at all that had happened in the meantime. She wondered what happened to princess Tamar who, following the rape, was taken in like a casualty to her brother Absalom’s house, and two years later he exacted his revenge, setting up their half brother Amnon to be terminated. Did she take her own life from shame? Did her brother arrange to have her stoned in an honor killing for disgracing the family by letting herself be violated? The text is finished with her, except perhaps indirectly when it informs us that Absalom had three sons with names not listed, and one daughter, a beauty called Tamar. Jews name their children after dead relatives.
An exhilarating new intellectual history argues that anti-Judaism is at the heart of Western culture