In 1990, Lev Raphael published Dancing on Tisha B’Av, a collection of short fiction that wove together Jewish and gay themes. He has since followed up his award-winning debut with two dozen more books—novels, essays, mysteries, and memoirs, often focusing on life as a child of Holocaust survivors. To mark the 25th anniversary of Raphael’s groundbreaking debut, we present that book’s title story.
Brenda was already used to the men, sitting on the other side of the chest-high wooden mehitzah that separated them from the women, saying that they needed one more “person” to make the minyan while she and sometimes as many as six other women might be there. Like now, suspended in summer boredom, their conversation as heavy with heat as the sluggish flies whispering past in the small gray-walled shul on the musty ground floor of the Jewish Center. Sometimes they all waited half an hour before continuing with services, for a man, any man, to be tenth. It amused her that even the dimmest specimens counted when she didn’t—shabby unshowered men who shouted rather than sang and read Hebrew as if each line were the horizon blurred by heat; yawning men whose great round gasps for air seemed their profoundest prayers; men who sneeringly hissed game scores (and had to be hushed) to show how immune they were to the ark, to anything Jewish and sacred.
Sometimes, on the other side, her brother Nat corrected them and said, “Man. You mean another man.” And she smiled at his embarrassment for her.
Though raised Conservative, she had come to like the Orthodox service. Here the purpose was prayer, not socializing, showing off Judaic knowledge, filling the shul, or even getting away from the kids for a morning: People sometimes joked, but the service itself was serious. At the faculty-dominated shuls in their university town the persistent chitchat and laughter were like the desperate assertion of rationality and control in the face of what was mysterious—as if to let go, to be silent and feel, would be an admission of nakedness and shame.
“Too many PhDs,” was Nat’s comment, and she, a graduate student in history, had felt accused. A junior, Nat had been attending the Orthodox services for two years, and his commitment was as fierce and sullen as the clutch of a baby’s hand on a stolen toy.
Nat went out now to practice his Torah portion in another room. Thin, with the twitching walk of a jerky marionette, and that pale and narrow face, he seemed a genetic rebuke to their handsome family, a warning that all gifts were uncertain. As a boy, he’d been aloof, watchful, building castles out of blocks and bricks, pretending to be powerful, a knight. He never cried, never apologized. Spanking him was pointless, scolding absurd. The little mean eyes just shut inside, his face grew stupid and closed.
“Red tsu a vant!” their father would shout in Yiddish (“Talk to a wall!”), uneasily admiring the stubborn boy. The stocky pharmacist would peer down at Nat, hands clenched, as if wishing they were equals and could fight.
Nat was sullen and silent until he went into theater in high school, stunning Brenda with his intensity as Tom in The Glass Menagerie. He had felt, to her, more maimed by life than the girl playing Laura. Onstage, his walk, his thin face were larger, more compelling; his authority was beautiful. It had been the same here at State the few times he did a show.
What did their parents think?
Their mother said, “He takes makeup very well, it doesn’t look like him.”
His father, when he didn’t fall asleep in the darkened auditorium, smirked, “Sure … here he can act—so what? Try Broadway!”
They were just as supportive of Nat’s slow move to Orthodoxy, his father shaking his head. “What I gave him isn’t enough—he has to go to fremdeh menshen, strangers, to be a Jew.” And their mother wondered if Nat would be allowed to touch any woman he wasn’t married to, and was he going to Israel to throw stones at cars that drove on Saturday?
How much this all affected Nat, Brenda didn’t know. He had always refused to acknowledge successes as well as failure, living, she thought, in stubborn exile, unreachable, untouched.
Nat had learned to tie his shoes too early, was too neat and alphabetical in his approach to life. It was as if saying “First things first” and making points in conversation by clutching successive fingers could order and control the world. He read Torah in a dry triumphant chant as if the letters piled around him in tribute. He was a vegetarian and drank only mineral water and herb teas. He ran seven miles a day, even in the winter. He loved men.
Brenda had known this, known something, for too long. When she was sixteen and Nat eleven, she found a folder in his pile of Life, Car & Driver, and Reader’s Digest, crammed with pages sliced from magazines, all ads. They were men whose exquisite eyes and hands and hair, whose tough hard bodies shot one hopeless accusation after another: You are not beautiful—you never will be. Nat had distilled this terrible poison from harmless magazines.
It was that year Brenda found an open notebook on his desk in which he’d written out pages of new names for himself, first and last, a parade of loathing.
And worse, because she was worried, she saw too much. She noticed that her mother’s closet door would often be closed when her mother—who always left it open—was out for an afternoon and Nat had been alone. It was their stale family joke: her mother and closets, cabinets, drawers.
“Yes,” her father would growl. “Let everything in the breadbox see what’s happening in the kitchen they shouldn’t get lonely.”
At first, she thought that Nat was just snooping in that rich confusion, as she had done years before. But then, allowing herself no vision of what she suspected, Brenda set little traps for him: a purse hung just so, a dress belt folded under. And she learned that Nat did something with Mom’s clothes: put them on? pretended he was beautiful, like her? What did plucking earrings from the shiny madness in her mother’s jewel box mean to him?
Before these discoveries, Nat had been annoying to her, or unimportant, or sometimes, unexpectedly cute. Suddenly, he was dangerous, unknown. In the next years, she’d wait for Nat’s oddities to burst from the neutral box of his silence like trick paper snakes, but he was only more sullen, blighting family dinners like the suspicion of a pitiless disease. Her father gave up cursing and her mother shrugged, as if Nat were a strange country she’d never been able to find on a globe. When her mother did talk about Nat, she had the brisk bored sound of a librarian stating facts that anyone could check.
“He doesn’t have wet dreams,” her mother announced, folding laundry in the basement. “I’ve checked his sheets, Bren.”
Brenda, nineteen then, tried to think of something adequate to her surprise.
And when Nat was in high school: “Bren, why doesn’t he date more? I think he’s afraid of sex. Your father said he blushed when they talked about condoms.”
“Wait till eleven,” a man on the other side was saying now. “We always wait.”
“Forget it.” That was Nat. “I called this week and no one’s in town.” He listed all his calls.
She knew that Nat was right; the Orthodox minyan drew on a very small group of Jews, and strangers rarely joined them. The women behind her stirred the pages of their prayer books as if scanning merchandise in a dull catalog. They were mostly the bleak girlfriends of men who ran the minyan, wearing artless, dowdy plain clothes and talking after services about movies or food. She imagined they would welcome marriage and the children who would release them from regular attendance. She thought of them as The Widows, because though in their mid-twenties, they already seemed isolated, like survivors of historic loss.
Around her, the heat, spread by a weak ceiling fan, settled like a film of soot or car exhaust her light dress, sandals, and short hair didn’t help her feel cool.
“Brenda, you look very nice today.”
Clark, the law student who looked like Al Pacino and thought he was Bruce Springsteen, hung over the mehitzah. He was from Bloomfield Hills, and always talked to her with the smugness she remembered in adolescent cliques, as if his good looks and hers bound them in undeniable complicity.
Before she could say anything, Nat was, back at the door, bleating, “Goot shabbos!”
At the chipped bookcase with the prayer books and Bibles stood a tall muscular tanned man who looked thirty to her, blue-eyed, with thick close-trimmed mustache and beard that seemed very black above the tan summer suit and white shirt. He slipped a prayer shawl from the wooden stand, covered his head with it as he said the blessing, and found a seat up near the front of the men’s side, shaking hands, nodding, After finding out the man’s Hebrew name (for when he’d be called up), Nat marched to the lectern.
It was a blessing to be the tenth man, she thought, as services continued with unexpected excitement. They sang and chanted like forty people, not fourteen. When there wasn’t a minyan and the Torah had to stay in its plainly curtained ark, she felt a fierce longing to see it borne around the shul to be touched with prayer books, prayer shawl fringes, or kissed like a bride as some of the men did.
When the stranger, Moshe Leib ben Shimon haLevi, Mark, was called to the Torah for the second blessing, he loomed over the lectern like a dark memorial in a way that dried her throat; his back seemed broad and forbidding. But his voice was sweet, smooth, rising and falling with the self-indulgent sadness of a Russian folk song. He sight-read the first portion without a mistake. They were all impressed.
Nat, always well prepared, read badly today. He made mistakes even she could catch, and it was painful watching him struggle with easy words. The silver pointer in his hand usually paced serenely along each squarish path of Hebrew, but now it was as listless as an uninspired divining rod. She looked away from him, from her Bible. Nat would probably tell people after services that he was tired, and because he never read poorly, no one would doubt him. She hoped.
What did people say about him? Could they tell?
“He should date more” —that was his mother’s verdict. Mrs. Klein often mentioned friends’ daughters to Nat at holiday dinners as if genially passing a liqueur, but to Brenda she had recently said, “Is he gay?”
Her father had said nothing directly or indirectly to Brenda; if it concerned him that Nat had hardly dated, he probably classed that with Nat’s habitual stubbornness. Besides, she imagined her father sneering, “With that punim, that face, who would want him?”
For Brenda, Nat was Coronado discovering the Seven Cities of El Dorado everywhere—in the pumping bare thighs of bikers on campus, the ripe curves of jeans-tight butts, the heavy twin swells of runners’ chests under cool molding cotton—flash after flash of heaven—sent gold in hundreds of men around campus. But he was a Coronado without armor, without guides, troops, provisions, maps, or even a commission. He had only his hunger.
She never spoke about this with Nat, never asked about dates or parties, had no idea what his life was like. Nat lived in his dorm and she in her apartment in town, with the huge ecstatically landscaped campus between them. They had lunch sometimes, she phoned him, they met at services and occasionally drove home to Southfield together, but she seldom mentioned that her brother was “up at school.”
She was ashamed.
In her freshman year, back at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, on her coed floor, there had been a lovely dark-haired boy named Tom who did up his single room with Japanese fans, silk scarves, and other gentle souvenirs of summers abroad. Cool, quiet, musical, literate, he was the eye of a storm: doors banged, voices hushed and growled, or cracked with laughter, and the jocks on their floor simmered like guard dogs on maddening chains. One morning, a camping ax was found buried in Tom’s door, the handle chalked, for clarity, “Faggot Die.” Tom moved off campus, and that was what she feared for Nat—violence in the night, a scandal.
Having drifted away during the Torah reading, she didn’t reenter the service, but stood and sat with everyone and prayed aloud mechanically as if she were in an educational filmstrip, each action large and stiff. Mark, the stranger, had asked to do the last part of the service, and his Hebrew was fluent in the thick summer air.
On the way out after the last hymn, Mark wished her Shabbat Shalom.
“You read well,” she said as they milled at the table set with kiddush wine and cakes in the little social hall.
And then Nat was there, grinning, his pale face spattered with excitement. After blessing the wine, Nat pulled Mark aside to talk about the next week’s Torah portion.
Helen, Clark’s cousin, bore down on Brenda. With her thin ugly legs and heavy shifting hips and rear, she resembled a pack mule struggling up a hill.
“Gut shabbos,” Helen murmured, round face doleful, as if she was passing on unpleasant gossip. “Isn’t he terrific?”
“Uh-huh. What a spa.”
“Spa … ”
”Sure, he works out … look at his chest, those shoulders. Yum.”
Brenda watched them; Mark with the cool, one-dimensional beauty of a brass rubbing, Nat grasping at him with a sickly smile. She ate a dry piece of pound cake.
There were at least a thousand Jewish students on campus, but hardly any came to the Orthodox minyan, which was a mix of graduate students, one or two shabby faculty members, and several university staffers. Mark’s arrival was welcome, Brenda knew, because he could take some of the burden of leading services from Clark and Nat and the others who sometimes felt like, prisoners of their obligations. An assistant to the Registrar, Mark spoke little about himself, but seemed to have for Nat the impact of an analyst whose silence and concern at last permit an entrance to oneself. Nat told Brenda that he talked about his acting, his Russian and French classes, his desire to enter the foreign service, about everything. He was like a child dragging pretty treasures from pockets, under the bed, from drawers, to entertain, attract, possess a fascinating friend.
Brenda saw in Nat, for the first time, a resemblance to their mother. Generally, Mrs. Klein was like an antiques dealer displaying a find—herself—with chic reverence. She was slim, wide-eyed, fashionable even in a bathrobe, especially in a bathrobe whose rough folds set her off like a pretty girl’s plain best friend. But sometimes their mother emerged from this haze of self-absorption to talk with merciless charm to strangers or her children’s “little friends.” She asked them endless unimportant questions until they found themselves like flood victims forced onto the roof of their self-possession, praying for the waters to subside.
Brenda saw Nat talking with that intensity to Mark one Sunday afternoon two weeks after that first Shabbat, at a restaurant in town, saw him through the wide front window, face twisted and alive, fingers plucking at a sugar packet. Mark sat deeply back from him, sky-blue tennis shirt open at a dense-haired throat, heavy fine arms crossed, a smile, some kind of smile nestled in the mustache and the beard. Mark was not just passively beautiful, she realized as she hurried on to buy her Times at the chain bookstore down the block, not a man to merely watch, admire, but warm, receptive, inviting. It was the lush curves of shoulders, chest, the gleaming hair and beard, the hard-lined nose and high cheekbones, the paintable mouth.
Not her type at all, too dramatic, too intense. The men she dated were at most “cute,” and their ideas about Third World debt or German reunification gave them more color than the way they walked or dressed or were.
“They don’t scare you,” Nat had concluded, and it was too obvious for her to deny.
Mark and Nat started running together at the high school track near her apartment, like a boy and his puppy eager to show off how fast it moved. Mark’s legs were hairy and dark, strong admonitions to the pale, weak.
They’d stop at her place afterward for water, to towel off, talking about the weather and their wind, old injuries. Mark spoke even then as if emerging from a past that wasn’t his but something he had learned, borrowed details of a spy. He sat on the floor, back against her gray-green sofa bed, heavy legs out, relaxed, holding the tumbler to his face and neck. Nat looked wild and flustered, as if he couldn’t decide whether to yell or leap or cry.
In late July, when the whole estate settled into a heat wave that seemed as inexorable as lava sweeping down a barren slope, Nat made an announcement to her one Friday afternoon.
“Mark has the use of a place on the lake, near Saugatuck, and he invited me to go next Saturday night after Shabbat and spend a day or two at the beach.” Nat’s face was so surly that she saw him as a boy again, daring their parents with his refusal to eat beans, or wash his hair, or turn from the television.
“Does he know you’re in love with him?”
Nat gave her a liar’s grin, stalling. “What?”
She looked down at her cool plate of deviled eggs, potato salad, tabouli, as if the food were an exhibit in a museum case, proof of customs stranger than one’s own.
She felt guilty now, tight-eyed. “If he’s not gay, he’s being very cruel.”
Watching Nat lean away as if the sprigged tablecloth were dangerous somehow, she understood how strong soft people really were—they could retreat across vast plains of silence, disappear.
“I wrote him a poem,” Nat brought out heavily, a pauper facing his last, most precious coin. And when he turned away, she jerked from her chair to crouch by her brother, hold him and ease the ugliness of tears.
Mark called after Nat was gone, to invite himself over that evening. From Nat, she’d learned that he and Mark had spent many nights together since the first Shabbat in June, at Mark’s apartment near the university and then the one he moved to in a nearby town.
Mark wore white jeans, Top-Siders, and a white Lacoste, as if to show her he was normal, American, no threat. But sitting in her small cramped living room, he looked like a model posed in an unlikely spot to throw his beauty into high relief.
They drank coffee.
“I was married,” Mark offered. “Nat didn’t say? In New York. We split up two years ago; I moved to Philadelphia, then here.” He nodded like an old man in a rocker whose every motion confirms a memory.
She wished, in the quiet, for a clock that chimed, a noisy refrigerator, dogs outside, something to ease the tension in her neck and hands. She imagined her parents there: Dad scornful, incensed; Mom peering at Mark with distaste, curious, purring, “But he’s handsome, don’t you think?” Closing her eyes, Brenda saw the ax saying “Faggot Die” like the afterimage of a too-bright bulb.
Nat had pursued Mark, she knew, even if Nat didn’t, so there was no blame for her to spatter on the canvas of Mark’s silence.
“What about AIDS?” she asked.
“I’ve been tested. I’m okay. And Nat was a virgin.”
“How about people seeing you at the Lake, or in town?”
“It’s not a secret for me being gay.”
“But Nat’s only twenty-one.” She rose to bring the coffeepot to them. “It could destroy him.”
She asked about the house on Lake Michigan two hours away, and Mark described the drive there, the beach. While he spoke, a thought crossed her mind with brazen clarity: even though she felt warmer to Nat after his crying confession, she didn’t love him, still, and feared what people would say about her more than what might happen to Nat. I’m like Mom, she thought. Cold.
The weekend was fabulous, Nat raved, returning with color, some new clothes, and a haircut that made him subtly more attractive.
“He wants to take me to Paris next year!” Nat crowed.
“On his salary?”
“He has friends there.”
Friends, she thought.
At services, Nat sat next to Mark, the fringes of their prayer shawls touching, perhaps, beneath their chairs. Nat had coolly talked about Mark’s divorce to most people there, had reported it with enough vagueness and somber gaps to make it seem a tragedy of some kind, a wound too open to discuss. “That’s why he came to Michigan,” Nat would conclude, delighted with his subterfuge. He could’ve been a child pretending there were dragons in the dark that only he could slay.
“Mark doesn’t like me talking like that,” Nat smirked.
Did she? Did she like any of it? When she wasn’t plowing through the book list for her last comprehensive in September, she wondered what she felt. Mark was apparently kind to Nat, and luckily not one of those bitchy homosexuals whose standards were as vigilant and high as satellites, but he was real, and puzzling.
“What do you see in Nat?” she asked one noon in town, where she’d come across Mark waiting to cross a street to campus. He frowned and she felt exposed, her lack of understanding, her contempt as clear to him as diamonds on blue velvet.
“He’s very shy,” Mark said. “I like to make him smile.”
She remembered Nat years ago, little, awash in bedclothes, small eyes tight with disapproval as their mother brought tea, sat on the edge of the bed holding the saucer in one hand, bringing the cup to his lips and back in a steady hypnotic beat, meanwhile telling him a complicated silly story to get him to smile.
Mark and Nat started spending less time with her after she asked Mark that question, as if she, a bumbling parent, had mortified a group of teens by trying to be sincere. Mark was busy helping Nat prepare for Tisha B’Av, the late summer Ninth of Av fast, teaching him Lamentations. She didn’t like the fast memorializing the Temple’s destruction by the Romans, which reading Josephus’s Jewish Wars had made more awful to her. The slaughter, the terrible thirst, starvation, and ruin were all too real for her, too historic, harbingers of camps and numbered arms. At least Mark and Nat, leading the services, would have something to do to keep them from falling into the past—or so she felt.
Her parents were even less sympathetic to Tisha B’Av; they liked the more decorative holidays, like Passover and Chanukah, and suffered through the High Holy Days as if paying stiffly for their pleasure later in the year.
Less than a week before Tisha B’Av, Helen’s grocery cart pulled up next to hers at one of the mammoth vegetable counters in the town’s largest market.
“Is your brother a fag?” Helen shot, and the two women feeling tomatoes nearby glared up at them. “Because I saw him coming out of Bangles downtown last Saturday, and honey, he was drunk. Mark, too—what a waste!”
Rigid, Brenda imagined a dump truck dropping tons of potatoes on Helen, sealing her away forever.
Helen grinned, looking like a grotesque carnival target. With more strength than she knew was in her legs and arms, Brenda moved her cart away and down the aisle, then left, as if the metal burned, and hurried out to her car. Getting in, she thought of flight, retreat no one would ever find her, hear from her again. But starting the Chevette seemed to drain the panic through her hand into the key and she drove out along the interstate to Mark’s apartment complex ten minutes away.
“You moron! Why’d you go there!”
“I wanted to dance,” he said, sitting down, untouched by her distress. “So did Nat. I love dancing with him. He’s beautiful then, the way he moves, his eyes—”
Brenda flushed. She had only seen Nat dance at wedding receptions, and then he had seemed to her stiff, embarrassed, dancing only because he had to. She didn’t know him at all, she thought dully.
“I hate it, I hate thinking about the two of you together. I don’t understand what it means.”
“Do you have to?” asked Mark.
“Don’t be so cool.”
“I’m thirty-five,” he said. “What should I be?”
She felt inflamed by her father’s angry pounding voice, but didn’t know the words to destroy Mark.
“Well,” Mark said, “how about a drink?”
“Yes,” she said. “I will.”
He joined her on the beige pillow-backed sofa that was as neutral and expensive-looking as everything there—prints, cushions, lamps.
“You know it doesn’t bother me now,” Mark began. “But for years I thought God would get me, like Aaron’s sons when they offer up ‘strange fire’ and get zapped? My best friend all through school, from way back, was gay, too—in college he told his rabbi about us and got sent to Israel.”
“Did it help?”
“Well, he got married.”
“Was he like Nat?”
“Nobody’s like Nat.”
One point for you, she thought, and asked for another drink.
Nat showed up just then and she tried to tell him about Helen. Nat said he didn’t care, and they went off to the best Szechuan restaurant in the county for a lavish dinner. Later, they drank at a bar like witnesses of an accident, desperate to blur the vision of that crash, the blood and smoke. Nat wouldn’t discuss what had happened; each time she tried to bring it up, he looked away.
Two days later, Brenda came to Shabbat services late, right before the Torah reading, and everyone was up, jabbering, flushed. Clark stood at the lectern, his back to the ark, as pale as Nat and Mark, who faced him from the narrow aisle between the men’s chairs and the mehitzah.
“Get out,” Clark was saying. “I won’t let you touch that Torah. My grandfather donated it.”
“You’re crazy,” Mark said.
Brenda wavered at the door, disgusted by the ugly atmosphere of children squashing worms to make them writhe, exploding frogs with firecrackers.
“Come on,” Mark said, slipping off his prayer shawl, jamming it into the gold-embroidered red velvet bag. Mark smiled relief when he saw her, squeezed her hand. White-faced, Nat followed, and Brenda was surprised that he didn’t forget on the way out to touch the mezuzah on the doorpost and bring the fingers back to his lips. No one speaking, they drove away in Mark’s Volvo to his apartment, as if speeding on the road could strip away that scene.
Upstairs, Mark dumped his blazer on a chair, wrenched off his tie to sit with an arm around Nat, who was still pale and silent. Mark said, “I didn’t think it would happen. They need us, it’s our minyan, too.”
“Technically,” Brenda said, “it’s not my minyan.” But no one smiled.
“We’ll move,” Nat finally said. “We’ll go to New York!” Mark smoothed Nat’s stringy hair with such gentleness that Brenda felt unexpectedly released. Their closeness warmed her like a Vermeer, rich with circumstantial life.
Tisha B’Av was the next night and they made plans to attend at one of the faculty shuls. Leaving, she surprised herself by kissing both of them.
Nat didn’t call her that night and she hardly slept, awash with a sort of amazement that the children they had been had grown to see such ugliness. She longed in her restless bed for escape, for some wild romantic lover, a Czech perhaps, a refugee musician who’d fled, in ’68, whose loss was larger than her own, a nation’s freedom instead of a woman’s pride. He would have an accent, she decided sleepily, imagining herself in a sleek black dress, and have a mustache a bit like Mark’s …
Mark was alone when he arrived Sunday evening. “Nat isn’t coming. He went out.”
“Bangles. To get drunk. To dance. He’s furious.” Mark smoothed down his gray silk tie, looking much too calm.
“He’s dancing on Tisha B’Av?” She sat at the dinette table, more confused now than ever.
Mark pressed his hands to the back of his neck, massaging, stretching. “He had this dream last night, that he was swimming far from shore and there were sharks. He woke us both up. Shouting. He couldn’t get away.”
Brenda could feel her dress sticking to her back despite the air conditioning. “What if he sleeps with someone? He’ll get herpes, he’ll get AIDS!”
Mark eyed her steadily. “I think he’ll just dance.”
She followed Mark out to his car, and on the drive to the faculty shul, Brenda knew she was feeling the wrong things. She should be understanding, compassionate now, not think that Nat was doing something ugly and vindictive, desecrating the fast day that he believed was solemn and holy. She should be happy for him, happy that he knew who he was, what he wanted, could feel his feelings, had found Mark—all of that.
She could hear her father snapping out the contemptuous Yiddish phrase for when two things had absolutely no connection: Abi geret. Says who?
As they pulled into the temple’s parking lot, Mark asked, “You okay?”
She wasn’t. What she wanted now was to slip out of the past months as if they were only a rented hot and gaudy costume she could finally return.
What she wanted more than anything on this burning night of Tisha B’Av was to forget.
Reprinted by permission of the author, Copyright ©1985 ©1988 Lev Raphael.
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