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