Malka, bored in class while her teacher drones on about kashering pots and pans. She’s vaguely aware that Rebbetzin Kraemer has written a blessing on the chalkboard, but her hand feels too heavy to drag pen across notebook. The air in the room is stiff.
Later, at lunch, she’s off-sorts. It’s Chicken Pattie day; the cafeteria-smell is fried, pungent. Light from the windows gives the binful of mayonnaise an eerie-white cast. Malka wonders if it would glow in the dark.
She’s suddenly sick of wearing long sleeves, Jerusalem is already hot, but she hasn’t worn short sleeves since she was eight years old, running through Prospect Park with her brothers. Obviously at seventeen that’s not an option any more—it’s much easier to imagine being eight again than to think of wearing short sleeves now.
She sits down on the bench at her table. Everything feels super-real, like the room has suddenly changed colors. Things seem wrong. Dvori is talking about the skirt she bought the day before in Tel Aviv. It’s made of the same fabric as those new hip-hop pants. Tamara’s passing around rugelach that her mother just mailed in a care package from Flatbush. Malka’s a different colon She wants to reconnect the wires, but isn’t sure how. Trying very hard to use normal-voice, she interrupts:
“Why do we do mitzvos?”
Everyone stares at her
“No, I mean really. Why?”
Sarah rolls her eyes, annoyed.
Everyone else is just puzzled.
Chaviva looks the most upset.
“Malka!” Chaviva can’t keep the shock out of her voice. “You know. Because HaShem wants us to. Period.” That last word sounded a little shaky.
Questions that have never existed suddenly fly from Malka’s mouth. She’s not aware of articulated thoughts riding from her brain to her larynx and out; it’s as if they’re born on her tongue and take flight before she even knows they’re there.
“If HaShem hates idolatry, why doesn’t He just wipe it out? If someone doesn’t know they’re Jewish, will they be punished for breaking Shabbos? Do devout Buddhists face Divine Judgement?”
Sarah’s now officially pissed. “Shut up already!”
Tamara’s always been the most patient. “Malka, you know the goyim aren’t HaShem’s concern. That He gave us His 613 Commandments to help bring Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. And that HaShem rewards after death based on Torah, mitzvos and gimilus…”
“Acts of lovingkindness. I know.” None of this is exactly news. But this time somehow it doesn’t sound right.
Rochel pipes in. “Which is why you have to keep track of how many mitzvos you do.”
“Shut up, Rochel! You don’t count mitzvos like they’re calories!”
“Yeah, she counts the calories more carefully.”
“Whatever, Dvori. Like you’re not gonna go puke your lunch in the bathroom as soon as we’re done.”
“Shut up!” Now Dvori’s blushing, trying her best not to cry. “As if I’m the only one here who does that, whatever.”
The conversation carries away, like a boat following the riven IMalka, at the edge of the table, watches the water pipes on the ceiling. She’d never noticed them before. They’re big and thick and dark: metal reeds, porters of secrets. Suddenly they’re the most real things in the room. The talk of the women around her seems to rise and fade away, like music.
She’s standing outside looking at a tree when Rabbi Goldfleish approaches. (Sarah and Dvori, under the pretense of being worried, had decided to rat Malka out.) He stands close enough that his shadow falls across her line of vision. The tree is medium-sized. Its roots suckle the earth and pull life all the way up and then out through the leaves. Amazing. She can see it breathing; she can see a halo of energy pulsing out from the green, like a cloud. Almost like a pillar of smoke, but lighter somehow.
Rabbi Goldfleish clears his throat.
Now she turns her head.
“How are you doing?” He furrows his brow in concern. This is his cares-about-the-students-face.
“Okay.” Perhaps this will send him away so she can look more at the tree.
“Really?” Brow-furrow. “Some of the girls have told me that you’ve had a few questions lately.”
More softly (concern-voice,) “Would you like to discuss them with me?”
“Not really.” She’s a bit puzzled. There’s a man here with a close-cropped beard, a black suede yarmulke, a white shirt and black pants. All the men she knows wear the same clothes, though not all of them trim their beards. But the women all wear different clothes. This suddenly seems odd. She watches his mouth move open and closed, and tries to concentrate on the meanings of the words. They slide into the air and then evaporate: powdery sound.
“.. .and things we’ve been trying to teach you here at Midreshet Chayill. Your parents sent you here, to our Holy Land, to learn what it means to be a Jew, what it means to live a life of Torah and obeying HaShem’s commandments. Arc you finding your classes difficult, Malka?”
He’s looking at her intently. He’s just asked a question, it seems.
Well, then, maybe they “re too easy?
Maybe we should move you out of the siddur class and into Rabbi Kellerman’s ethics class? There’s a lot to learn about the prayerbook, but if you’d like a change I could approve it. Of course you’ve got to stay in Practical Halakha; you’re doing some very important work there. You’ll need all of that learning when you’re running your very own Jewish household, not so long from now.”
He says these last words in a candy-tantalizing voice; this line of reasoning never fails to bring girls back.
This is the part where the girl sniffles, bucks up, and decides to go fix her hair before study group. Rabbi Goldfleish starts to feel relieved in anticipation of her response.
Malka looks at him. She doesn’t say anything. This man, with his open-mouth-closing-mouth seems so silly and strange. She doesn’t feel like talking. She walks away.
Rabbi Goldfleish, having already resolved the issue in his head, just stands there dumbly. It takes him a minute to realize that something different had just happened in real life.
Nighttime. Malka in pajamas puts on her sneakers and grabs a sweater. It’s not really so late; there’s a card game going on in the lounge and she can hear Shira talking loudly in half-Hebrcw-half-English on the phone down the hall. The tile floor is a wide white sea, the stairs down push against her feet one-two one-two. Malka puts her keys in the pocket of her sweater and walks out.
The air is cool and long. Malka closes her eyes and inhales a sweet night lungful. A slow, low cricket-sound rises gently, dissipating as it lifts. She looks around for a moment, thinking about the bus; she could easily get on the rickety stark-lit 4-Aleph into town. Sit on its orange-brown seats, watch the city swim by. Hear time roll. Collect disapproving glances from haredim who don’t believe that unmarried girls should wear pajamas on the bus.
She could probably get on the bus, walk around Ben Yehuda street, hear sounds and see people. There would be a few tourists, a lot of secular Israelis drinking beer. Laughter, lightness. And music! The klezmer guy playing for coins in Zion Square, and rows of jazz up on the Russian Compound. Even maybe a rock band. There would be blood pushing through capillaries, proteins broken down and absorbed, neurons exploding electric charges. Cells reproducing, millions at a time.
Malka squats down to retrieve a long stick. She places her hand on the cool soil for a moment— she closes her eyes and feels the electron-hum of earth buzz into her skin and up. It’s thick, sort of a tickling flow. She concentrates on sending her own atoms downward in exchange.
Tamping the ground she stands, stick in hand, and walks to the side of the dormitory building. Holding the stick high in the air, posed on tip-toe, she catches the bottom rung of the fire escape and tugs. The ladder rattles down; Malka drops the stick and begins to climb. Sarah and Ayelet in the second floor window are wearing foamy green mud-masks and eating potato chips. They don’t see her walk by or hike up the third floor ladder to the roof
She sits down. From the top of the building she can see all the way north to the Old City. Against hidden floodlights the white old stones gleam like compressed clouds. They hover over the hills, almost in the sky.
Against the slick blueblack the tiny stars begin, imperceptibly, to quake. Malka opens her hands to them, feels the light flow into her veins and through. She does not know her own thoughts. Everything melts.
Malka rambles the hall while everyone else is in class. She hears Rebbetzin Kraemer ask, “Even before HaShem leads the Israelites into our Holy Land, He knows that they will sin. Why, then, does He bring them forth?” Things glow: chalk-on-chalkboards, the checkered floor, Rabbi Baer’s yarmulke while he talks. The fold-out table by the stairs. Posters for the Shavuos cheesecake-baking party. She thimbles airily until reaching the library and enters as if compelled by force. The books simmer and beckon.
She pulls out a tractate (only there as reference for the rabbis, not intended for the light-headed girls to study) and opens a page. “What is twilight? Said R. Tanhuma: [It is] like a drop of blood balanced on the edge of a sword; the drop divides itself up on either side of the edge—such is twilight.” Malka for a moment becomes a drop of blood balanced on a sword. She reads, “it has been taught in the name of R. Joshua: The thickness of the sky is about two finger-breaths.” Malka becomes two finger breadths.
She flips several pages. “A harp was hanging before David’s window, and at night a northerly wind would blow, fanning it, and it would play of itself.” Malka becomes a warm northerly wind: happy to bless, silvery and bringing-forth.
She arrives for Gemara in room 203. Malka’s not actually in the class; only the advanced students who might become teachers are permitted to study the Talmud. Even they, though, don’t learn these texts the way the boys at Yeshivat ha-Derech do, poring over each page line by line and arguing about the commentaries; Rabbi Mendel just explains the ideas. She sits in the back and listens to the older girls talk.
“…and then she said, ‘if he’s going to the Rochevet’s for Shabbos I’ll just have to see if I can get invited somewhere else.’ Can you even believe that?”
“Whatever, that’s so not cool. Especially after what she said to me last week, y’know?”
“Hey, what are you wearing to Dina and Dovid’s wedding?
Do you know yet?”
“I don’t know, but I think Aryeh Burg is gonna be there.”
“No way! How come Dina didn’t tell me that?”
Rabbi Mendel walks in, sits down, and opens his book.
“Which is greater,” he asks, “learning Torah or doing mitzvos?” Without pausing—and clearly disinterested in the class’ opinions—he answers. “Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azariah says in Avot of Rabbi Nathan chapter 22, ‘If there is no learning in Torah there is no proper conduct. If there is no proper conduct, there is no learning in Torah. As it is quoted in Jeremiah 17:8, ‘He shall be….”
Nobody is paying attention.
Malka watches the lips twist in different shapes. Their motion is attached to the expulsion of words: they spin and fly, coasting on wings. She wonders if she can maybe hear them tinkle. She giggles inwardly.
The woman behind her begins to whisper to the woman on her left about Aryeh Burg.
Rabbi Mendel intones: “…neither shall cease from yielding fruit.’ There is in fact a later parable from the Baal Shem Tov concerning the same principle. That is, if there is thick ice which later becomes thin, the rivers may overcome the ice and flow over it, but the ice remains firm. If, however, the ice is thin, and not firm, it follows that the ice was not strong to begin with….”
Something in the room shatters, but none of the enrolled students hear. They don’t notice that Malka has flowered out from her seat and, as though she were not a full-sized human at all, as though she were a hologram or a strange evaporation— a cartoon beyond rules—jumped into the viscous pages of book. That as they gossip she pulses among the letters, swims through and among the pulp bounded only by neat rows of ink telling stories. That she has become four cubits of consecration: black fire on white fire. Rabbi Mendel himself does not see the book radiate a strange unearthly warmth. Inside the legal volume Malka cartwheels and slides, climbs from taxation and stolen candles to the bracha for rainbows. She swings from the words as if they were tree-limbs in the park.
The classroom is empty by the time Malka returns. While she hurricaned with Babylonian sages they moved on to another class, or to dinner. Rabbi Mendel left the tractate behind, on the desk; she does not know why and it does not matter. Things glow and the alphabet spills dripping from her lips. When she touches her hand to the mezzuzah on the doorframe, something begins to lift.
Danya Ruttenberg is the editor of Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press) and recently completed her first novel, The Medieval Body. She is currently a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.