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The Maiden of Brooklyn

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

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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with Mordekhai the court Jew’s full support and encouragement, on the part of his hot niece Hadassah/Esther to get it repealed.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.

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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:

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

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 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:

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