Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr; Wikipedia
Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr; Wikipedia

A Holy Fool

Tablet Original Fiction: A Jewish heretic wants to read—literature

Avital Chizhik
July 15, 2016
Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr; Wikipedia
Tablet Magazine; original images: Flickr; Wikipedia

She had killed him right there, on that soft October afternoon at the Sabbath table, still littered with the remains of a decadent dessert. With a purse of her lips, an apologetic smile, her eyes twinkling and then a laugh.

“I won’t read it, unless it teaches me a Jewish value.”

Yosef Steinberg watches his daughter purse her lips. He shakes his head. “But artwork, literature, there is value in it! You can relate, experience, learn empathy.” He is standing there, holding the hardcover Dostoevsky, hand extended toward his daughter.

She holds up another book: In the Footsteps of Greatness. Gold-embossed letters. The back cover is sprinkled with words: “inspiring,” “sacrifice,” “Torah giant.” A biography of a sage. “This—teaches me to relate, experience, learn empathy,” she says with measure, triumphantly. “This Rav was an amazing person. He sat with the poor, he learned all day and night, his wife had to beg him to come home to eat before he returned to the house of study.”

Steinberg pushes his glasses up his nose, passes his hand over his short beard. He knows he ought to go to sleep; soon it will be the time for the afternoon prayer, and all chances of a cozy Sabbath nap will soon disappear along with the sun.

He watches this thing, his daughter. Is she really a product of his and Sheryl’s? Sheryl, that bright-eyed girl he had married, intelligent. Not the smartest girl in the class, certainly, but he was never the smartest, either. No, they were just normal, smart, hard-working, book lovers.

And this daughter, something in her eyes—she laughs too easily, too quickly. He watches her, her feet folded under her like a schoolgirl. She keeps flicking her wig’s bangs away from her eyes. She snacks on candies, jelly beans, and gummy bears, the kinds of things he’d bring back from the marketplace of Jerusalem, with the same voraciousness that she did as a child. A wife, a mother? This little thing? This little thing with a squeaking voice, whom a year ago he had led to the wedding canopy?

Sheryl was different—she had had some sort of dignity about her; her shoulders were straighter, perhaps. Her head held higher. But his daughter, his youngest girl, her head is—he thinks of the Talmudic phrase and shudders as soon as it pops into his mind. Daatan kalah. A woman is light-headed. How terrible of him, to assume that a woman’s head is light, after all his hard work—he, the father of three girls whom he implored to pursue higher education, the father of five boys whom he and his wife worked so hard to inculcate with respect for women—and then to think this of his own daughter?

But just look at her. Something in her eyes—they are bright with levity but dull with something else, and he can’t figure out what. Is it because she knows nothing else? Prayer is mandated twice a day for her, and now that she’s a mother, not really at all, and perhaps she has never thought of the prayer’s actual meaning? She has never spoken with a Gentile beyond the Lord & Taylor saleswoman, the mailman, the grocer.

Her English is peppered with strange words and structures that his grammar teacher would have surely corrected. His generation was different, after all; religion was an exciting and passionate affair for them, tinged with the accents of European refugee teachers, practiced in small schoolrooms, worn with pride on the streets of Brooklyn as the radio blared about Israeli victories in faraway Jerusalem.

His daughter had never been frivolous as a child. She had been studious, a reader. But now, her conversations, her interests, were forgotten. She laughed nervously every time the conversation turned away from community gossip and childcare, as if she had entered a foreign country and didn’t know exactly how to function there. And her wig—

She wears a wig now around the house, but he knows it is a newlywed thing. It’s a simple wig, not too natural-looking like the way the women on the other side of town wear it, not too long either, God forbid. Her makeup, whatever remained of what she put on before the Sabbath yesterday, is bare on her doll-like skin. She dresses even more modestly than she did as an unmarried girl; being married and thus a woman (not a girl anymore) requires looser sweaters, looser pleated skirts, anonymous flat shoes, everything dark-colored.

But it isn’t the clothing he considers now. It’s the way she holds herself. The way she has been taught to be simple.

She had been his hope; ever since she was small, he thought he had seen something in her different from the other children, something of his own—after all, it was his literature coursework at Brooklyn College back in the day that brought him to love texts, whether Tolstoy or the Talmud. He had double-majored in college, in Russian literature and Judaic studies, before going back to yeshiva for his rabbinic ordination—there was something that drew him to Dostoevsky, in particular. There were months of obsession with Crime and Punishment—the moment he finished reading it, he began reading it again. His professor suggested he consider a graduate degree in Russian classics, but his heart was in the Talmud, his soul too. And with time, the other rabbis on the rabbinic council forgave him for having a secular education. “It was a different time then,” they chuckle among themselves, shrugging.

The change for his daughter began in high school, when she came home once with a book from the school library, and told her parents that their suggestion to read Gone with the Wind was inappropriate. Instead, she brought home rabbinic biographies, the occasional biography of a holy woman, novels about female friends in Lakewood who survive cancer together because of kind deeds they had done in their youth. And it continued throughout seminary, Touro College, where she sprinted into dating and marriage. She was a prized young woman on the matchmaking market from a good, down-to-earth, respectable family who lived in just the right neighborhood and sent their children to the right schools.

“Meir and I don’t read that, we choose not to,” she says simply, staring straight ahead. “We are much happier this way.”

“You are missing out on God’s greatest gifts,” Steinberg grows more serious. “By reading, by studying these works, you can dwell on God’s greatness as a creator.”

“Maybe. But that’s only for great people, who can handle it,” she explains just as seriously. “When I choose a book, I first look on the inside cover, to see which haskama was given—which rabbi wrote a letter to approve of the book’s publication. It’s a kosher certification, for my mind.”

He is silent.

“And of course,” she smiles, eyes growing wide as if she’s about to tell a joke, “I’m not even talking about TV. But secular books are, seriously, just like television. You bring it in the house, and then anything goes. And I can’t have my children growing up with that.”

“Oh, come on—you’ve got to be kidding me!” he is shouting now. “Dostoevsky isn’t ‘anything goes’!” He shakes his head; he had tried.

The infant is crying in the other room. His daughter jumps up. “I don’t want him to wake up Meir,” she says and rushes out.

Perhaps she is right. What do I know? He thinks back to the old days. His mother did not cover her hair in the house, only when she left it. Television, they watched it—I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, The Ed Sullivan Show. But of course those shows were different, things were different then. And music was different too. When the children were small, he would drop them off at school and as soon as they left the car, he would turn on Bob Dylan.

And his Sheryl: They had not met through a matchmaker, though the children, of course, don’t know that. They don’t know that their parents had simply met through friends; two groups of young people on a Sabbath afternoon, boys and girls mixed, at an innocent get-together at someone’s home. Things are different now, things are separate.

He thinks back to those times with Sheryl—her eyes, her dresses, which then showed the promise of her elbows, the way he had secretly held her hand for the first time after the engagement party. And he blushes, remembering. His children would be embarrassed if they knew.

Nu, literature, he shakes his head. That’s what it brings: forbidden thoughts. She’s right, my holy shtetl daughter. Better to stay safe.

He rises from his chair and makes his way to the bedroom, to Sheryl. She is reading in bed. She saves the non-Jewish books for the bedroom. In the living room, she reads the religious women’s magazine they receive once a week, the one with no pictures of women but just photographs of men or cartoon drawings of mothers in housewear. She sometimes tries the complicated recipes there, but mostly reads the advice columns aloud to him: “ ‘Dear Gittel, We are struggling to pay the bills, I work as much as I can with four small children, but my husband really wants to stay to learn Torah full-time in yeshiva. We fight all the time now…’ ”

He watches his wife’s soft eyes and the hard lines around them. Still large, still dark, still beautiful. Her headscarf a simple black, a house scarf. She has many drawers of scarves, several wigs too, but she somehow always returns to this black scarf with a tie in the back. He doesn’t mind. He likes seeing her temples, her cheekbones, the faint wisps at the nape of her neck which escape the scarf. His Sabbath Queen, in royal garments, a Shabbos robe with a velvet sash.

“Don’t bother, Yossi,” she reaches out to him, touches his shoulder gently. “Don’t make their lives more difficult. Let them live.”

“But they’re not living!” He says it too quickly, too loudly, and then retracts his words. “I mean, don’t get me wrong—they are living, but they don’t see color, they live in black and white.”

She sighs and turns her face to the ceiling. “We chose this for them. It was our decision to let this happen. And you’re making things too complicated for them, do you understand?”

He is quiet. They hear their daughter’s soothing voice in the next room.

A pause. “Dovid is so big already.” His wife says. “He will be a happy child. Dostoevsky or not.”

He doesn’t have time for a nap. Twenty minutes later, he is putting on his jacket and hat and out the door. Outside, men and boys walk in animated groups on their way to synagogue.

“There must be a way,” he thinks to himself as he settles into a measured pace. “What have I raised? It’s impossible, my own children, foreign to me.”

“Rabbi Steinberg!”

A shout from behind him. It’s Meyerson, the one in real estate, a board-member of the rabbinic council, his children are the most expensive on the marriage market. Steinberg smiles politely. The men shake hands and walk together.

“Just got back from London last night,” Meyerson says proudly. “Had business there, so I took the wife for a few days as a treat.”

“How wonderful!” Steinberg says. “I haven’t been there in years.”

“Yeah, it was nice to get away.” Meyerson leans in closer and lowers his voice, grinning. His breath smells of good scotch. “Don’t tell anyone, but I took Rivka to the Globe Theater,” he winks. “You can’t not go to the theater when you’re in London, you know…” Meyerson adjusts his hat. “All right, I’m off to the Rothberg minyan, Gut Shabbes Rav Steinberg.” The men shake hands again and part ways.

If I had gone into business, I could have lived like Meyerson, Steinberg thinks to himself. Do what you want, go to the theater, no one bothers you, as long as you send a nice check to the local yeshiva.

A crazy idea comes to Steinberg as he enters the synagogue and sees the rabbi standing, having an animated conversation with another congregant.

“Rav Polansky, gut shabbos!” Steinberg musters his courage to greet the rabbi with gusto. The other congregant moves away respectfully.

“Gut shabbos, Rabbi Steinberg, how are you?” Polansky smiles warmly.

“Fantastic, thank God!” Steinberg almost shouts, shaking the rabbi’s hand. “Rabbi, I have a question for you—I know this sounds crazy, but what do you think about securing rabbinic approbations for secular books?”

“Secular books?” The rabbi echoes, laughs and then claps Steinberg’s back.

“No, really,” Steinberg says quietly now. “What if I were to bring you a list of books— classics, literature, I promise they will be appropriate—and we’ll reach out to the great rabbis for haskamos? It will raise our community tremendously on an educational level.”

Polansky lowers his eyes nervously. “I don’t know, Rabbi Steinberg, it’s very complicated. I’m not sure, it would depend on the book, on the writer, the publisher.”

“But I’m talking about high-level books, rabbi. The best writers, the purest language, only the classics, books that a hundred years old, or more.”

Polansky sighs. “Well, we would have to make a committee, I would have to bring this to the board.Who would be reading these books? Are they for children, adults? At what age would we allow people to read secular books?”

And then Steinberg bursts: “Tell me, how much money will it cost for the rabbis to agree? What if I find funding? Not to speak of money on shabbos, of course.”

Polansky is no longer smiling. All he says is: “I shall have to think about it, Steinberg.”

“Give it some thought, let me know,” Steinberg says and wishes him a gut shabbos.

And then from behind him, he hears Polansky walking after him: “Rabbi Steinberg, on second thought, I don’t think it’s a question for me. You really have to see a posek, a big rabbi, for this one. … I’m sorry, I’m afraid I cannot help you. I understand you, but listen, it’s a system beyond me. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

The pre-prayer lesson begins. The sky is already purple through the tall synagogue windows.

Gut shabbes, gut shabbes. A young yeshiva student begins his lesson on Laws, the intricacies, traditions, the acrobatics of Talmudic language: “But on the other hand, in case of doubt, when we have a double doubt, we do as follows … why? because we are careful in this.”

Steinberg is not listening. His mind is racing: Perhaps his yeshiva rebbe, the elderly one, who could barely speak now? Yes, yes, he thinks, settling back into his seat.

He imagines going to his yeshiva rebbe, already bedridden in a hospital on Ocean Parkway.

“Ah, you were always a clever student,” the rebbe would smile weakly and shrug. “I know, things were different then, but listen, it’s very complicated. … You know what happens, one book leads to another. The people are not ready for this. … I’m sorry, I’m afraid I cannot help you. It’s a system beyond me. There is nothing I can do about it.”

That is what would happen. He knows that. He can envision it clearly. But for this, for Dostoevsky, and for Cervantes and James and Fitzgerald too, he would travel to Jerusalem. He will find the Greats and sit down with them and explain to them why he so desperately needs that letter of approval.

He sits down and begins planning the meeting with a great rabbi. His eyes are drooping, the prayer book is tottering on his hands, he feels his head nodding.

He will come to Jerusalem, to a yeshiva office, and when he comes to the office door—and there he enters—and there is God himself, sitting at the desk.

And what would happen if Yosef Steinberg would sit down and pour his heart out to his merciful creator, describe to him the pains of Raskolnikov, the fascinating questions that arise, and how fitting they are with the turmoil of Job, the guilt of Cain, the obsessions of Absalom, how much they may potentially teach the religious person, how there is nothing inappropriate in the book in character, he swears—really, it’s quite clean, and even educational—and nu, yes, Dostoevsky was an anti-Semite, but if the rebellious sons of Korah were wicked how are we permitted to read the Psalms attributed to them too, ah?

God, nods slowly, with measure.

“Listen, Steinberg, this is a complicated question,” he says with a sigh. “I understand you, but it’s a system beyond me. There is nothing I can do about it.”

Avital Chizhik is a writer living in New York City and a frequent contributor to Haaretz.