At a superstore in Borough Park, Brooklyn, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel, I examined the immaculate shelves of tzedakah boxes, candlesticks, seder plates, spice boxes, wine goblets, havdallah candles, and every other piece of Jewish paraphernalia ever made in Israel or China (including a kosher version of my favorite childhood board game, Candyland). My older sister, Alyssa, had wandered off in search of challah covers and I wanted just a bit of kitsch for myself, something by which to remember this pilgrimage we’d made. Eventually I settled on a circular refrigerator magnet which reads, with a strikethrough to emphasize the point, Just Say No to Yetzer Horra. “What does yetzer horra mean?” I asked Alyssa. “Doing evil,” she said. “Cool,” I said. I am all for eliminating evil-doing.
My sister became religious six years ago, a ba’al t’shuvah, as they are called in the community (or, as our dad says, “a born again Jew”). In the most literal translation from the Hebrew, she is a “master of return.” We grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was the one who cut Hebrew school to hang out with her goth friends and listen to Eurotrash music; I was the one everyone thought might end up a rabbi, given my status as vice president of our temple’s youth group and my faithful attendance at Friday night services. But through a series of events—many Shabbat meals at a Chabad house, a six-month trip to Israel—Alyssa gradually committed herself to a religious life. Now, she was marrying another ba’al t’shuvah. She called him her beshert, her “soulmate” or “destiny.” We were in Borough Park that day to find her a wedding dress: the perfect high-necked, long-sleeved gown that didn’t look too, well, high-necked and long-sleeved.
It is only the extremely affluent of religious—or frum—families who purchase brand new gowns for their brides-to-be. The less wealthy rent gowns, but even that is still rarely done. Most often, prospective brides obtain their modest dresses at a gemach. Gemach is the Hebrew acronym for gemilut chassadim, acts of loving kindness, according to biblical standards. Once upon a time the four corners of a ready-to-be-harvested field were reserved for those without grain; today there are gemachs for money, power tools, furniture, computers, medical equipment—just about everything that might be needed in the commercial, familial, and religious spheres of a community. A gemach can be a “shop” in someone’s home, a service available via the Internet, or, most commonly, a loan that occurs when word spreads that, for instance, someone’s friend’s cousin needs a particular object.
Wedding gown gemachs often fall into the first category. They are hidden in the back of large houses or apartments, occupying makeshift closets that hold sometimes fifty or more dresses, most of them collected through donation. The women who run them do so as a service to their communities; they tend to be skilled seamstresses who, given that a single dress might be worn by dozens of brides, tailor and re-tailor garments to make them fit every imaginable shape and size (sometimes adding entirely new fabric to accommodate more ample figures). Usually, when a bride visits a gemach and selects the gown she’d like, a simple paper agreement is filled out, stating the date of the loan and sealing a promise that the borrowed item will be returned in still-wearable condition; the bride, or kallah, then pays the cost for cleaning and any materials needed to make alterations, but the dress is otherwise free of charge, hers for the day. Shortly after she wears it, the dress is returned, and back to the closet it goes—unless, of course, it’s scheduled for another wedding shortly after, in which case it is immediately re-tailored, cleaned, and sent back out.
On the morning of our dress search, it had been raining and the dresses in the first two closets we rifled through felt damp to the touch. Many of them were soiled, which did not deter my sister, and were covered in lace and beads, which did. For the sake of my fashionable mother, who had been relieved that I was accompanying my sister, I pushed our kallah along to a third home.
A woman who was easily a great-great grandmother—slightly hunchbacked, barely five feet tall—answered the door. She eyed my sister in her calf-length skirt and long-sleeved jacket, and knew immediately what we’d come for. We followed her through a dusty, cluttered foyer, into a small, unfinished room at the back of the house, empty except for a cracked full-length mirror, a tiny stool, and a score of gowns hanging in a doorless closet. The room was dark—its few windows streaked and dirty—but not dark enough to hide the ugliness of the gowns. We skipped quickly through puffy sleeves, quadruple-tiered skirts, and flashy bodices that seemed weirdly suggestive for a population concerned with modesty. Then we spotted it: a simple dress adorned at the top with white embroidered flowers and fitted to the hips, where it descended in a long, full swish of ivory embroidered with more white flowers. My sister slipped the gown on, and I caught a stale, flowery scent; its previous wearer had been heavily perfumed.
Alyssa scrutinized her appearance in the mirror. The gemach woman nodded her head. “Yes, yes. This one is very popular.” I stood behind my sister thinking of the heat she would endure in those layers of taffeta, in August. The dress was perfect, but it would be so much more perfect if they could just cut the neck down a bit and maybe make the sleeves three-quarter length. “Do you want it?” the woman asked.
My sister looked at me and then at the mirror again. “I think I do,” she said finally.
“Good. This one is called ‘Schwartz,’” the woman said. “I’ll get the papers.”
“Why ‘Schwartz’?” I asked, unable to keep myself from laughing. The name seemed to lend the dress a strange personality, as if it were the hapless central character of a mediocre novel. Of course its name would be Schwartz. Or Cohen.
“The last girl who wore it—she was Schwartz,” the woman said. “That’s how I keep track.” After my sister wore the dress, it, like her, would take on a new name.
Alyssa examined her reflection for a final moment. “So this one is beshert?” I asked. She nodded. She was already a little overheated, her cheeks flushed a deep pink, her brow beaded with sweat. And then I smiled at her. “It looks beautiful on you,” I said, because, whatever my feelings about the length of the sleeves, what really do I know about destiny?