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The Maiden of Brooklyn

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

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Miss Pupko gave Tema a lacerating glance. Between the two of them, there was a long-standing entrenched tension. The teacher was exceedingly aware that Tema conducted her own private study of Tanakh and had even memorized entire books, including such long ones as Isaiah and Psalms, to the point that you could just spit out one word and this strange girl could supply the entire sentence that encased it complete with chapter and verse citation. Who would ever marry such a freak, and motherless besides? She was like some kind of illui, a prodigy who had mastered the complete Talmud, except that an illui was an honored category reserved exclusively for boys—in a girl such precocious flashes of brilliance were simply bizarre and superfluous and disturbing, there wasn’t even an accepted feminine form for the term. Miss Pupko felt in her heart that Tema had nothing but contempt for her knowledge of the scripture, and she was keenly wounded. Tema regarded herself as too good for this review, Miss Pupko thought bitterly, there was nothing she could learn from it, that was why she had stayed out of the room so long, doing her business, whatever it was, in the toilet or wherever.

“Tema Bavli,” Miss Pupko bellowed, “Read!”

Slowly and deliberately Tema turned back toward the stifling, puberty-laced interior of the room from staring outside through the grimy window down into the street where she had been observing Rabbi Manis Schmeltzer opening the door to his car illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant, removing the clergy sign from the windshield, flipping the sign along with his black fedora hat onto the front passenger seat, cupping his black velvet yarmulke and readjusting it on his head, hoisting the tail of his glossy black kaftan in order to slide his haunches more comfortably into the driver’s seat—and then she pictured him jiggling his hindquarters, easing them into the bowl of the seat with a palpable sense of well-being, and jutting his chin forward toward the rearview mirror, drawing back his lips and baring his teeth like a primate to examine them proprietarily before inserting his key into the ignition and setting forth with a roar. Tema gazed at Miss Pupko in complete confusion. “Aha, so you weren’t paying attention,” the teacher said. “You don’t even know the place.”

***

When school ended, Tema walked to the subway station intending to make her way home to purge herself in privacy, to brush her teeth thoroughly and rinse out her mouth, to stand under the shower for as long as possible before someone started banging on the door. But since it was a Sunday, with no secular instruction, late afternoon in early summer but still daylight, Tema went instead in the other direction almost without being fully aware of her movements or that she had made any particular decision at all, and she boarded the train that would take her to the second train that would take her to the bus that would bring her to the Old Montefiore cemetery in Queens where, once, her mother could always be found waiting to listen to everything.

But ever since the stone had been unveiled over her mother’s grave, a slab of granite with the minimal inscription entirely in Hebrew from right to left—name, date of birth and death in accordance with the Jewish calendar linked by a minus sign, and the generic double-edged one-size-fits-all compliment for females from the book of Proverbs, A Woman of Valor Who Can Find—Tema’s visits had grown more and more infrequent. Her mother was no longer there, no longer nearby, she was packed away, sealed off, she no longer cared. And this was what Tema also felt now as she approached the grave in the twilight with the darkness beginning to descend, her mother moving even farther away from her to a cold point in the distance.

“Mama, Mama!” Tema began screaming into that distance, her cries bouncing from headstone to headstone in the cemetery emptied of all other living beings. She bent down to gather a handful of pebbles and small rocks and granite and marble chips that had cracked off the gravestones, but instead of setting them down on her mother’s grave as a sign that she had come by to visit, she began throwing them, pelting her mother’s monument with missile after missile. Horrified by her actions, Tema broke out in sobs, “I’m sorry, Mama, I’m sorry!”—and she fell down on the plot as if splayed on her mother’s body with her arms hugging its headstone, crying so hard, crying like she used to cry when she was a little girl, her entire body heaving until the breath seemed to be sucked out of her and all her moisture drained, and she swooned, collapsed from sheer physical depletion.

She woke up in the pitch dark and began staggering around the cemetery like the abandoned children Hansel and Gretel in the Black Forest fairytale, only at least they had each other whereas she was entirely alone, utterly lost and with no bearings at all as to where she was in the world, groping in the darkness until she fell partway into an open grave awaiting its dead the next morning, grasping onto one of the two mounds of soft, freshly dug up earth that rose on either side. This is where she was found at dawn by the caretaker of the cemetery making his first rounds. For the remaining weeks of that school year Tema was sick in her bed. She never took the final exam on the second book of Samuel for the prophets class or in any other subject for that matter, and they didn’t bother with makeup tests either since, as the principal Rabbi Manis Schmeltzer himself so wisely pointed out, “Who are we kidding? Let’s face it, it really doesn’t make a difference one way or the other in the overall life schedule of these girls.”

During the first stage of her illness Tema barely responded at all. But after about a week she returned from wherever she had been; she recognized that she was completely altered, that she had undergone an event terrible and undeniable, that she had given up one form of bondage in exchange for being bound to something else—she would never be free. She had come back from the dead with secrets, with forbidden knowledge, weighed down by a calling. The first person she saw when she opened her eyes was Frumie sitting with legs apart on a chair at the bedside in her pink chenille bathrobe stretched taut and pulled open to expose a patch of the great smooth mound of her pregnant belly with a dark line trailing downward from the plug of her navel. “Oh my God, why did you leave me?” Tema cried out, and her voice came up as if from below—deeper, riper, the voice of the blood of her mother crying out to her from the ground. Frumie’s head sank low over her belly, her hair tightly bound up in a married woman’s headscarf. “I’m sorry, Frumie, I don’t mean to hurt you,” Tema said. “Such a life is just not meant for me.”

“The Maiden of Brooklyn” is excerpted and adapted from Tova Reich’s latest novel, One Hundred Philistine Foreskins, to be published by Counterpoint in March.

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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

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