In the turmoil immediately following her mother’s death, the soul still in its unsettled and agitated wandering state, neither in this world nor the next, Tema’s father assigned to her, their only child, the interim task of sitting guard over the body, which by the strictest law must not be left alone for even one second until it is pinned down under the weight of the earth and can cause no more harm.
Tema was eleven years old at the time, and what horrified her above all was not the waxen pallor of the still uncovered face of the corpse, or the fumes of liquefying organic matter already diffusing into the room, or even this cold stranger’s obstinate refusal to respond when Tema addressed her so politely. It was the open mouth, hanging down slack, like a dog’s—that was simply unbearable. Tema tried to slam that mouth shut, shoving the chin upward with the palms of her own hands, but it was hopeless—it just dropped down again and slung there, revealing everything, the deepest and most private secrets of the family.
She looked around the room—it was her parents’ bedroom—for a cord or a belt to strap around the face and hoist up that jaw no matter how unseemly and ridiculous such a contraption would be, like a gauze bandage wrapping for a toothache in an old-fashioned slapstick farce. There on top of the bureau, as always, her mother’s collection of three head-shaped wooden wig blocks were positioned on their stands—one for her everyday sheitel, one for her Sabbath and holidays sheitel, and one for her fanciest, most expensive sheitel reserved for very special occasions such as weddings. In a playful mood one evening a year or two earlier, as Tema was engaged in a favorite pastime, watching her mother getting dressed to go out—attending especially to how her mother, as if she were completely alone and unobserved, leaned forward with utter concentration toward the mirror to apply the red viscous clown gash of her lipstick and then blotted it on a tissue, sending up a stale spit odor mixed with the oversweet artificial fragrance of the lipstick’s perfume and the crushing smell of her mother’s impenetrable unhappiness that would nearly ruin Tema for life—on one of those evenings when she was once again keeping her mother company during this eternally fascinating feminine ritual, Tema had taped a photograph of her mother’s face to the front of each of the three heads on the wig stands, indulging the creative license of a child’s capricious arts and crafts project. Her mother had never taken down those pictures, and now her three faces were staring back at Tema from the wooden heads on their stems on top of the chest of drawers. The special-occasions head was alarmingly bald, its wig on duty on the unresponsive woman they claimed was her mother lying there on that bed with her mouth hanging open like a dog.
From this mannequin on the bed, Tema’s eyes moved to the nightstand, where she noted once again her mother’s favorite book, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the Modern Library hardcover edition translated by Constance Garnett—a very fat volume, nearly one thousand pages long. This is what Tema took to wedge under that chin and prop it up, succeeding at last to clamp shut that mouth with the moist scarlet rim of the lipstick that had exposed the fleshy tongue, the teeth packed with gold fillings, the obscenely dangling pink uvula—until her father, Reb Berel Bavli, strode back into the room, accompanied by the professional shomer who had been hired to take over body guarding duty from Tema, to escort the remains and recite the chapters of Psalms through all the stages from transferal to the funeral home to awaiting burial after the ritual cleansing away of all earthly nonsense and artifice including wigs, makeup, and jewelry, the purification with poured water, the dressing in plain white shrouds for the grave. With barely a glance at Tema or her mother, in a kind of backhanded stroke as if in passing without breaking his stride, Reb Berish flicked the book out from under his late wife’s chin, releasing the jaw to flop right down again and cast open the mouth in that imbecile expression. To Tema, the drop was audible. Reb Berish just shook his head. “At least you didn’t stick in there a holy book with God’s name,” he said. “Forty days you would have to fast.”
It is true that she could have used the Tanakh on the nightstand on her father’s side of the two pushed-together beds for this purpose, to elevate her mother’s chin and seal her lips, since it was more or less the same thickness and heft as the Tolstoy, but the presence of the divine name on its pages and especially the unmentionable Tetragrammaton between its covers rendered it unthinkable, even to one as young as Tema was then, to defile such a holy volume by contact with the dead. The Hebrew Bible was a book you just did not fool around with. You did not deface it, you did not underline in it, you did not scribble comments or exclamation points or question marks in its margins or doodles or drawings of idealized girls’ faces and fantasy hairdos during the numbingly boring bible and prophets classes, and if by some misfortune it fell on the floor you picked it up reverentially and kissed it in the hope of the unforgiving author’s forgiveness.
Nevertheless, though Tema exploited only the work of a mere mortal to prop up her mother’s face and restore it from the face of a dog, she still undertook over the course of the following year of mourning a series of mortifications of the flesh, including fasting from food and drink every Monday and Thursday when the Torah is read in the synagogue, and also a ta’anit dibbur, fasting from speech all week excluding Sunday after school, when she would take two trains and a bus out to her mother’s grave plot still unmarked with a stone in the Old Montefiore cemetery in Queens and pour out her heart like water lashing her mother’s face.
On top of that, she privately undertook several additional personal corrections, including sleeping with rocks packed in her pillowcase like Jacob Our Father in Beit El on his flight from his brother Esau to Haran, as well as the Tikkun Hazot, awaking at midnight every night and sitting barefoot on the cold floor of her locked room in a rent nightgown to mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile from Jerusalem for our sins almost two millennia ago. She also recited the Tikkun Ha’Klali, the ten psalms specified by the holy Rav Nakhman of Bratslav, and often for good measure she would even recite the entire book of Psalms, all one hundred and fifty of them, as well as immerse herself three hundred and ten times in her improvised mikva, which consisted of the bathtub filled with ice-cold water. All of these mortifications she undertook to repair the damage she had inflicted on her spiritual core when, while lying in bed awake, she could not in her weakness resist the temptation to explore herself in a place she could only think of as “down there,” somewhere on an uncharted map like the South Pole, or, while asleep, when she had no control over her thoughts or actions, she would be assaulted by a dream that she could never remember but that would startle her into consciousness with spasms of shocking intensity—spasms so powerful and so unlike anything else she had ever experienced that she wondered why human beings did not occupy themselves with trying to reproduce this sensation every minute of every day and night, but, at the same time, she understood without having to be told that, whatever this was, it could only be a sin, religion had surely been invented to keep this thing under control.
Now and then over the course of that year, someone would take her father aside in the synagogue or in one of the stores on Thirteenth Avenue to remark that Tema looked like she was losing too much weight or that Tema had become “such a quiet girl.” Reb Berel Bavli would simply absorb these presumably well-meant bulletins regarding the troubling changes in his daughter and shrug his shoulders, putting out both of his large hands with their meaty palms upward in a wordless gesture that translated, What do you expect? The girl just lost her mother.
For thirty days following his wife’s death, Reb Berish abstained from trimming his fiery red beard, a personal vanity he privately indulged, but Rosalie Bavli, Tema’s mother, was, after all, his second wife; his first wife he had divorced on the day after the anniversary of their tenth year of marriage when she had still failed to produce an offspring of any flavor. The woman he took shortly afterward, the woman who became Tema’s mother, was nearly fifteen years his junior, in her early thirties at the most by his reckoning when she departed this world, they were almost of different generations not to mention different sexes.
On the shloshim after her death, following the prescribed thirty days of second-stage mourning, Reb Berish bared his throat to his trusted barber for a nice beard trim, commissioned a local synagogue hanger-on to say Kaddish during prayers three times a day over the duration of the eleven months’ mourning period for his late wife, Rosalie—Rachel-Leah Bavli—who had failed to plan ahead and leave a son qualified to perform this service in her behalf, and he let it be known to everyone in his circle as well as to professional matchmakers that he was now in the market for remarriage. He also threw himself even more intensely than ever into his business, which was prospering beyond his wildest dreams, providing the most highly regarded, strictest kosher certification to meats of all kinds based on his years of experience as a shokhet, a ritual slaughterer, now employing a sizable staff of authorized personnel, butchers and overseers, and branching out to a whole range of other food products in addition to meats. The Berel Bavli logo—the double-B seal of approval, evoking the two tablets of the Ten Commandments—was worth its weight in gold, a guarantee of the highest, most trustworthy level of supervision. Of course, by the time his second wife Rosalie passed away he no longer worked hands-on, so to speak, as a shokhet, but there is no doubt that the accumulation of years he had spent standing in pools of blood cutting the throats of cattle and sheep and fowl and inspecting their entrails gave him a realistic perspective on physical mortality that extended to humans in the image of God as well not excluding women—a perspective that could not be expected of a sheltered child such as Tema assigned to sit watch beside her freshly dead mother whose mouth hung open like a dog’s.
Even so, during that first year following the death, Reb Berish took sufficient heed of the trouble signs in his daughter that were being brought to his attention with increasing frequency, and based on the advice of his rabbi, the Oscwiecim Rebbe, he took Tema out of the neighborhood girls’ school, Beis Beinonis, which was considered slightly more to the permissive side, and transferred her to Beis Ziburis off Bedford Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was reputed to be a stricter institution that kept the girls rigorously focused on what was expected of them regardless of personal problems or life situations. Reb Berish banged on the door of Tema’s bedroom one morning after he had tried to open it by turning the knob, which was how he discovered that she had installed a lock to carry out her mortifications in private, and informed her that he would be driving her to her new school in half an hour, after which she would be going there and back on her own on the subway—which was how Tema discovered that she would be switching schools.
It was also during that year before the stone was unveiled over the grave plot that Reb Berish married again without informing Tema of his intentions or even that he had been looking much less found a bride. A small, private ceremony, without music of course out of respect for the recently deceased, was held in the living room of the Oswiecim Rebbe, who officiated under a tablecloth held overhead as a huppa canopy by four old Jews dragged in from the street along with their folding shopping carts. Afterward, the rebbe’s wife pushed aside the great maroon volumes of Talmud and other books of law on the long dining room table where her husband usually presided and served some schnapps in little fluted paper cups and slices of sponge cake on napkins, and, as a special treat, because it was she who had been the successful arranger of this match, a plate of herring, each piece skewered with a toothpick topped with a brightly colored decorative cellophane frill.
Naturally, Tema was not present on that occasion. She met the new wife the next morning after her father had already gone off to shul for prayers and then onward to his business when there was a knock on her door in the wake of a tread that she could tell was not his. Tema opened the door to a woman in a pink chenille bathrobe who inquired with a heavy Eastern European accent where the linen closet was located. She needed to change the bedsheets.
Her name was Frumie Klein, she was seventeen years old, and Tema recognized her instantly as one of the older girls from Beis Beinonis known collectively as the “refugees” who were coming into the high school during that period from a black hole referred to as “over there,” where terrible but not surprising things were happening to the Jewish people too shameful to talk about but which everyone accepted in the cosmic scheme as predictable and no doubt deserved punishment for our sins against the Master of the Universe acting through his evil agent, Adolf Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out. Frumie, originally from a cosmopolitan, secular Budapest family where she had been known as Felicia, was a silent, gaunt girl of fifteen when she arrived from a displaced persons camp aboard an American troopship setting sail from Bremerhaven and was collected at the dock in New York City by distant ultra-Orthodox Boro Park relatives who regarded it as a great mitzvah that could only redound to their credit in the divine ledger to take in such an orphan, may such misfortunes as befell this poor girl never befall any of us.
Over the ensuing two years Frumie occupied herself with eating steadily mostly in secret and with stealing small change from her host family in order to buy facial creams and lotions from the drugstore to cope with a devastating case of acne, a mask of pus pimples and inflamed sores that all the ladies sitting in the balcony of the synagogue remarked was so unusual in Hungarian women, universally acclaimed for their flawless complexions and for the skincare secrets they possessed, which produced legendary cosmetics magnates female by sex and Jewish by race.
By the time Frumie turned seventeen her petty thefts were discovered, her face was permanently scarred, cratered and pitted in texture like the landscape of the moon and medium-rare in color, her figure had filled out, especially the womanly parts, ballooning breasts and buttocks cinched by a cartoonish small waist, a caricature of voluptuousness. A decision was made to marry her off as soon as possible while she at least had her youth. With the guidance and encouragement of the Oscwiecim rebbetzin, Reb Berel Bavli, though a bit on the older side, was presented as a suitable candidate—still vigorous and in the prime of life, extremely well-off financially and a good provider, with only one child from a previous marriage who was no longer a baby and would likely within the next few years also be married off herself. One morning, standing across the street from Beis Beinonis alongside Reb Berish as the girls were filing into the school with their books and looseleaf binders pressed to their bosoms, the rebbetzin pointed out the merchandise, confident that her client possessed an expert eye that could quickly and accurately appraise the livestock. A few days later, a deal was struck.
When Tema turned twelve, the age at which a female (who matures more quickly than the male and, it follows, more quickly becomes overripe and wilts) is legally and halakhically accountable for her own sins, Frumie was already pregnant with the first of the daughters she would produce almost each year—five by the time Tema herself left home and lost track. Though she had the opportunity to run into Frumie again several decades later and repay her in some measure for the small motherly kindnesses she had extended during their time together, including slapping Tema hard across the face to stir up the blood in her cheeks by way of cautionary congratulations when she got her first period, and supplying the sanitary pads and belt, and offering intimate guidance related to bathing and body odor and so on and so forth, she completely lost all contact with the little girls, her half sisters, to the point that, years later, when she would on occasion try to summon up their names, inexplicably they would elude her. In her mind, she would refer to them by the names of the five proto-feminist daughters of Zelophekhad— Makhla, Noa, Hagla, Milka, and Tirza—who very respectfully had stood before Moses Our Teacher and all the chieftains in the wilderness at the entrance but not inside the Tent of Meeting and collectively petitioned for their rightful parcel of land among their tribesmen of Menashe as their father, Zelophekhad, who had died for some unmentionable sin, had left no sons and heirs. Doubly punished their father Zelophekhad had been, or, more precisely, punished twice as hard—whatever this sin was that he had committed must have been in a class unto itself—punished not just with death but also with having as progeny only daughters and no sons to inherit his portion and perpetuate his name. Oh yes, said the Lord who knows everything, both text and subtext, Rightly the daughters of Zelophekhad have spoken.
Tema’s twelfth birthday roughly coincided, as it happened, with the establishment of the State of Israel. Reb Berish privately marked her passage into adulthood as he presided at the head of the Sabbath table by noting that she was the same age as Germy, the dog that belonged to the goy next door—and the average life span for a German Shepherd, for your information, was, or so he had heard, more or less the same as for the Nazi regime—twelve to thirteen years. “A very old dog, an alter cocker. Makes you think, no?” Which led to his next observation, concerning the newly established Jewish state: “We’ll know already soon what this world is coming to when the people over there in Eretz Yisroel start talking to dogs in Loshon Kodesh.” A few days later, Tema approached Germy safely locked up where he could do no harm. She looked into his demented eyes and his moronic open mouth with the tongue hanging down. “Higi’a hazman,” Tema said to the dog in the Holy Tongue. Your time’s up. And, like an executioner, she opened the gate.
Years later, when she became renowned as Ima Temima, the revered Jerusalem guru and teacher of the Hebrew Bible with thousands of followers, she would mentally flip to the image of the wild dogs in the Valley of Jezreel lapping up the blue blood and tearing the royal flesh of her beloved majestic Queen Jezebel, and she would forgive herself in some measure for opening the gate that day and liberating the Brooklyn descendent of those dogs, the wretched Germy, to go forth and almost instantly meet his fate with that wreck of a truck, its bells jingling as it clattered down the street driven by Itche the junkman. But in the months that followed the event itself, the image that gripped her was of a pulped and bloody mess in the middle of the road only moments after a brief canine burst of hope and exhilaration at having been set free. This was the image she would return to again and again in those days, like a dog returns to its own vomit, as the author of the book of Proverbs said, reportedly King Solomon.
On a Sunday morning at Beis Ziburis not long after the fateful meeting between Germy the dog and Itche the junkman, the girls were reviewing for a final exam on the second book of Samuel that they had just completed under the instruction of their prophets teacher, Miss Pupko, a sallow-faced young woman eighteen years old, recently engaged to be married, who had just graduated from the school the year before and was translating verse by verse, chapter by chapter from the Hebrew directly into Yiddish. Suddenly Tema’s daydreams were brutally interrupted by the words in chapter nine of Mephiboshet, the crippled-in-both-legs son of Jonathan, groveling before the bandit kingpin David who had just promised him a permanent seat at the royal table and restored to him all the lands of his grandfather, the crazy King Saul: “What is your servant that you have shown such regard for a dead dog like me,” Mephiboshet said, so hideously obsequious. Tema raised her hand and asked permission to leave the room, which was the only way to earn the privilege to use the toilet.
In all her years at Beis Ziburis, Tema had never once used the toilets for the purposes for which they were intended, to relieve herself—including by crying—they were too filthy and public. She exercised extreme self-control throughout the long day, she held everything in until she came home, then dashed through the house straight to the bathroom; the women of her family knew what to expect and they all gave way. Now Mephiboshet the dead dog sent Tema wandering through the halls of the dingy firetrap that was Beis Ziburis, the peeling and flaking walls, the gashed and stained linoleum, the smashed light fixtures and exposed wires, the cracked windowpanes, all of it in violation of building codes and officially condemned by municipal inspectors but considered good enough for the girls by the overseers of the school, who kept it in operation through private arrangements with elected city officials.
There was a door that Tema had noticed many times but never opened. This time, though, she turned the knob and went through, down the stairs into the cellar. She switched on a light and, by the grimy yellow wattage, she gazed around her, surveying the hundreds of cans of food of all kinds and sizes that filled the shelves along the walls and spilled over into great mounds and heaps on the floor. Some of the cans were fairly new, but others had torn or missing labels, the metal smashed and dented, rusted and bloated and exploded, so that even as she stood there taking all of this in she could hear toxic popping noises that caused her to turn around and come face-to-face with the principal of her school, Rabbi Manis Schmeltzer, the only male on the premises all day until four in the afternoon on weekdays when the defeated public school teachers plodded in to provide the minimum mandatory secular instruction. For some reason, the principal’s presence down there in the cellar did not surprise her in the least.
“I guess you never got around to giving those cans to the poor starving children we collected them for,” Tema said.
“Ah,” said Rabbi Schmeltzer, quoting from one of the great comic scenes of the Torah, “And the Lord opened up the mouth of the ass. And I thought you were such a quiet girl. Everybody tells me you never say a word. Who would have ever imagined you had such a fresh mouth on you?”
He laid both of his hands on top of her head as if he were about to bless her, but instead he pushed her down to the cement floor of the cellar onto her knees, even though everyone knows that a Jew may never kneel before another human being. A Jew bows down only before God, Tema had been taught, but maybe that rule applied only to men, such as Mordekhai the Jew who refused to prostrate himself before the grand vizier Haman, thereby aggravating the villain even more, rendering him nearly apoplectic, nearly bringing about the annihilation of the entire Jewish population of Persia and Mede, one hundred and twenty-seven principalities from India to Ethiopia, a death sentence that required a major knee job, with Mordekhai the court Jew’s full support and encouragement, on the part of his hot niece Hadassah/Esther to get it repealed. “This should shut you up,” Rabbi Manis Schmeltzer said. He unbuttoned the fly of his trousers and took out what he called his bris and shoved it into her mouth, which he called her pisk, and began schuckling back and forth as if he were swaying in prayer with particular concentrated kavannah and focus—all of which Tema observed with an odd detachment, as if it were happening not to her, not to Rosalie Bavli’s daughter, but to someone else, she didn’t even bother to try to raise her voice to protest in some way as even Bilaam’s ass had complained in that great comic scene in the Bible—even that donkey had dared to inquire what it had ever done to deserve this.
When he was finished with his business, Tema turned her head to the side and vomited on some corroded cans with their contents splattered and disgorged. “This will be tsvischn uns,” Rabbi Schmeltzer said as he reassumed his usual disguise. “Between us—get it? One word about this, and I will simply let it be known that you’re out of your mind, crazy, like your late mother, may she find some peace at last. You’re a smart girl, Tema Bavli, I’m sure you get my point. It will not help your marriage prospects one little iota if anyone ever hears about this, believe you me. Number one, what were you doing cutting class? Number two, what were you doing alone down here in the cellar anyways? Try to explain all that to your father and to the ladies auxiliary and to the entire congregation of Israel.”
Tema returned to the classroom, slumped, head lowered, seeking to enter as unobtrusively as possible. “Gai avek!” Miss Pupko cried out sharply in Yiddish. Jolted, Tema raised her eyes despite her ardent wish at the moment to remain invisible. Was the teacher ordering her to get out? Could the news have already spread so rapidly like a plague? But then Tema recognized this as the translation into Yiddish of the words of King David’s son Amnon to his half sister Tamar, right after he was done raping her—“Get up, Get out!” Amnon had barked to the Jewish princess Tamar, and then to his royal attendant, “Get this thing out of here and lock the door behind her.”
As Tema made her way to her desk in the back of the room and sat down, turning her head from the swampy girls’ smell of stagnant menstrual blood and underarm sweat to stare out the streaked window, Miss Pupko continued with the lesson, leaning in toward the class. “Memorize these words, girls, wear them like a seal on your heart if, heaven forbid, you are ever tempted to give in to the evil inclination. ‘And Amnon now hated her with a very terrible hatred, the hatred he hated her with was much greater than any love he had ever felt for her before.’ ”
They were up to chapter thirteen. Tema realized she had been out of the room for four chapters and look at all that had happened in the meantime. She wondered what happened to princess Tamar who, following the rape, was taken in like a casualty to her brother Absalom’s house, and two years later he exacted his revenge, setting up their half brother Amnon to be terminated. Did she take her own life from shame? Did her brother arrange to have her stoned in an honor killing for disgracing the family by letting herself be violated? The text is finished with her, except perhaps indirectly when it informs us that Absalom had three sons with names not listed, and one daughter, a beauty called Tamar. Jews name their children after dead relatives.
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.
Tova Reich is the author of The Jewish War, My Holocaust, One Hundred Philistine Foreskins, and other novels. Her most recent novel, Mother India, was a finalist in fiction for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award, and was longlisted for the South Asia Literature Prize.