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Malka the Fat Girl and Coming Back to Middlebury

A shtetl girl’s struggle to find self-worth in a family and a tradition that both reject her.

Malka the Fat Girl

by Sandi Wisenberg

Finally Malka the fat girl was granted an audience with the great Rabbi H— of B—. She stood in his receiving room and raised her eyes to glance, quick as a sparrow, at his long face. It was gray, the color of a rag after dusting a very dirty room, she thought. Appalled at her own disrespect, Malka asked herself how she could allow such an image into her thoughts. “O forgive me, my Father,” her mind whispered.

“He must see me as a cow,” she thought in her contrition, “a dumb staring stupid animal, while he is a man that converses with God Himself, and who, it is said, can pierce the soul, the very heart, of all who come to him.”

Again she peeked at the tall rectangular form before her. “Rabbi,” she trembled, her skin white as the inside of a radish, “Rabbi, how can I satisfy my longing to serve God?”

“Do you know the three womanish mitzvot?” the rabbi asked brusquely. It was obvious to Malka that he felt she should not be taking up his time if she were merely ignorant. A girl could learn the three commandments from anyone, even a woman.

“Yes,” she whispered tremulously, her small voice rising from her vast body like a tiny stream of smoke from a factory chimney. “Echad, one, pinching off a piece of challah before it is baked, and burning it, as a remembrance of the sacrifices at the destroyed Temple; sh’tayim, lighting the candles, one for each member of the family, on Shabbat; and shalosh, bathing oneself in the ritual bath after the, unclean times.”

Although Malka stumbled over the Hebrew words for numbers, and barely emitted the last phrase—so embarrassed was she at the content, that the rabbi, purest of men, would know that the girl before him trailed blood once a month—she felt a flush of pride. She knew some Hebrew. Her father, after all, was a scholar—though distinguished more by diligence than by brilliance. She awaited the rabbi’s approval.

Instead, he frowned. “Why did you come to me?” he thundered, the roar in his voice seeming to emanate from the toes of his shoes. “What you have recited is all you need to know.”

At her silence, he asked her abruptly, “Are you not married?” and began to leaf through a thick book.

“I am not betrothed. I am from a poor family, and my father wants to marry me to a scholar, but there is nothing for my dowry. That is why I work all day in the dairy.”

He snapped the book shut. “Ah! The longing you feel is for a zaddik, a wise and holy man. When the matchmaker has found one for you, then may you fasten your prayers to him, then may you light the candles for your own brood, then may you use the mikva, and in the time to come, may you sit at his feet and receive the pleasures of Paradise through him.”

And then, with impatience but not unkindness, he bade her good-day.

Malka stood in the anteroom, strange clouds sweeping across her vision. Gone was the hope that had sustained her almost an entire year, since she had first conceived of this visit. What was next but to follow her own stolid shoe-prints on the dusty road back to her village? But she did not move. Just as despair had replaced hope, so now anger displaced despair. She had sought help, and had not received it from this so-called great, illustrious rabbi. “A man who calls himself holy yet acts in such a manner must, at best, be possessed by a demon!” she thought fiercely.

And in her white blindness, she grabbed for something hard and sharp, which she could hurl at the man who had not provided balm for her needy soul. Her hand found an object—perhaps a stone, perhaps a paperweight— on a cold, smooth table. But as her fingers closed around it, the rock turned soft as a pillow. A lovely smell wafted up to her. “Bread,” she thought to herself. “What sort of a rabbi leaves food lying about?” She slipped it into her apron pocket. “At least,” she smiled to herself, “I am not leaving his house empty-handed.”

Her vision cleared. She turned to leave through the thick wooden door and began the slow walk home. As Malka approached her family’s decrepit hut, her mother’s harsh words fell upon her. “Malka, why did you wander off at the very moment we needed you? My big fat cow of a daughter, we needed your capable hands to pump out the milk in our scrawny she-cattle half the size of your great fat legs. Half the size of your calves, the sight of which is enough to scare a prince and the Czar’s entire regiment.” Malka’s mother cackled like an outcast of the heavens. Malka spat over her shoulder, to ward off the Evil Eye.

But Malka was too late to fend off the devil. She had slipped Satan himself into her pocket at the rabbi’s house. The devil had stationed himself there as temptation incarnate, in the form of a piece of bread. This is how that came to be: When the rabbi’s wife baked the twin Sabbath loaves one Friday afternoon a fortnight before, she pinched off an end of dough to throw into the oven as sacrifice. Then she left the morsel on the kneading board, turning her back to it to receive the scolding of her husband over the temperature of his tea. In those few minutes, the devil entered the small lump of dough.

With one incantation, he transported his bread-self to a fine marble-topped table in the rabbi’s receiving room. With another lightning-swift curse, he transformed himself from a bit of fine white Sabbath challah dough into a piece of black workaday bread.

When the rebbetsin returned to the oven, she looked for the small pinch of challah dough. Then she surmised she must have already thrown it in the fire, blaming her confusion on her silly woman-brain. Later she noticed the black crust on the table, but, believing everything in her blessed husband’s chambers, as in God’s universe, to have a place, she had let it be. She did not exert herself in service to her husband’s receiving room. Once a week she swished a feather duster over the mahogany tables and chairs and china cabinet.

And thus, the devil-bread had waited, more than two weeks, for the elements of the rabbi’s chastisement and the supplicant’s anger to converge. Each day he had cast another spell to make his bread-self soft and fragrant and warm, as if newly baked.

Malka had forgotten about the crust until that moment, as she sat on the rickety fence marking her family’s sparse portion of rented pastureland, seeking solace from her mother’s remonstrance. She reached instinctively into her pocket, where she often kept tidbits to sweeten the bitterness of her life and to dull the constant pain of reproach. How long her life had followed this pattern, she did not know. She feared to examine the history of her own being, fearful it would reveal a tale of never-ceasing pain—and that the future would be but a repetition of the past. Her life, when she visualized its form, seemed a long tunnel that eventually curved back to its own entrance.

These thoughts infusing her feelings, Malka wrapped her slender fingers around the warm morsel and brought it unthinkingly to her tongue. But she stopped herself before the first bite. Since she had just returned (albeit disappointed, not refreshed, not infused with holiness and joy) from the presence of the rabbi, she felt an obligation to recite a b’racha, a blessing, before ingesting the crust of bread. She knew well the prayers over food—she mumbled them as her father recited them before the family meals—but she did not repeat them when she nibbled, clandestinely, while leading the cows to the field or while carting the buckets of milk over her stooped but sturdy shoulders. That she was remiss in this way was one source of her guilt and sorrow.

The reasons she did not recite the prayer before each of the seemingly endless bites were manyfold. She did not feel they were true meals in the eyes of God—they were stolen: a small apple removed carefully from the wooden barrel in the cellar, a candy traded at the market in exchange for an extra tin cup of milk drawn from her family’s supply, grains that had been set aside in the fields for collection by the landless poor. Her behavior, grown to habit, made her feel as if she were a man seeking God’s benediction before the slaughter of a cow he had stolen from his brother. “Better not pray,” she thought at these times,” and thus avoid calling God’s attention to my eating.”

Furthermore, Malka felt that these snacks extended far beyond the meals that sustained her. She did not feel right in thanking God for allowing her to feed beyond satiety.

But this time, this morsel from the house of the rabbi, called for a b’racha. The bread, after all, must contain some holiness, some vestige of God’s presence. Such bread as this must be accustomed to blessings recited in the sacred tongue, in inspired divine cadence. The least Malka the fat girl could do was offer up the ordinary b’racha over the bread.

A hope then pushed its way through her guilt. Perhaps, she thought, somehow the bread was the rabbi’s answer. Perhaps he had blessed it, just for Malka, before her arrival, and it contained the secrets of her life to be. The rabbi, perhaps, was not as cold and unfeeling as she had imagined. The crust had been sitting there, had it not? And crumbs, she felt, would not be permitted—without some higher purpose—to dishonor the anteroom of a rabbi.

So the girl addressed God, holding the morsel high in the palm of her hand. She brought it back to her face, inhaling its fragrance. She recited softly: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who makes bread grow from the earth.”

At these unexpected words, the devil felt his powers diminish. They say that God hears the prayers of everyone. That day, He heard the prayer of Malka, and He heard the prayer, emanating from the unconscious of the devil: “O Lord, Who is highest among the holy, grant me again my life with You in the heavens.”

At these words, the Lord dispatched a messenger, an angel, in the form of a beggar. He appeared, asleep in the pasturegrasses, before Malka. So startled was she that she dropped the devil-morsel. It rolled toward the foot of the dirty man. He did not awaken. “He must be hungry and worn,” Malka thought, her own particular hunger rising to join a great universal hunger which emcompassed his. “It would truly be a mitzvah, a good deed, to give this poor traveling beggar my lowly, but double-blessed crust of bread.” She placed it in his upturned hat. This caused the hat to disappear. Undaunted, she placed the bread in the man’s hand, curling his blackened fingers around it. At her touch, the angel awakened, saying, “I must now transport this devil-repentant back to the city of God.”

The girl, thinking the angel referred to her, flung herself at his feet. She did not want to die. She was fat and unhappy and ungainly but was not yet ready to leave this earth. “I love the trees,” she thought. “I love the cows, their heavy bodies on spindly legs, their patient, good-humored acceptance when I tug at their udders, the soft swish of their rope tails against the swarming beetles and dragonflies.”

The angel smiled down at Malka, saying, “I do not mean you, sister. Arise. You have redeemed yourself by giving this stolen morsel back to the kingdom of God. The Lord of Hosts is now cognizant of your hunger. He will give you the opportunity to satiate it.

“What cannot be satisfied by food may be satisfied by loved ones or by the study of the Torah. You have not been blessed with an understanding family, nor by schooling the cheder. The Lord, blessed be He, allows you, on this day, a choice. Every child, before it is born, knows the entire Torah. Upon entry into this world of man, an angel strikes forgetfulness into the mind of the infant. Men are given the opportunity to restore their stolen knowledge. Women are not. They satisfy their amnesia by bearing children, by creating homes of love and light. No one may have both, lest he explode with too many delights, like a glutton after a seven-day meal. But you, my child, have been doubly excluded— you have known neither knowledge nor love. On this day you may decide which you shall have.”

The girl’s mind leapt to the dried-out skin of her mother, her yellowed teeth and stooped back. On Shabbat, the home was not a place worthy of welcoming the Sabbath Queen. She thought of her father, remote, who trudged home each night after 10 hours in the house of study. The eyes on his otherwise dull-featured face held a glow Malka had never seen reproduced or even reflected in the eyes of her mother.

Was her mother’s life the sort that the rabbi had envisioned for her? He had advised her to find a man whose quest she could reflect. But what if the shadchen, the matchmaker, did not find her such a suitor? Or what if she did? What satisfaction would Malka gain from a husband as distant as her father?

Without hesitation, she told the angel, “I wish to study with the men.”

The angel, prepared for this response, said, “You are giving up the life of woman, the life of the family. You will have to leave your village and always be a wanderer. You will travel from one academy to the other, disguising your woman self. But you are not the first such woman scholar God has ordained. You will meet more like yourself at the crossroads, at the shabbiest rooms at drab and drafty inns, and for a moment your eyes will seek and find the same divine light, and the same loneliness. You will see mirrored, in those same dark, watchful eyes, your own longing for the communality of the woman’s bathhouse. But you should not despair. More and more young women will join the community of nomads. Finally, someday, four or five or six generations hence, these women will throw off their men’s trousers, snip off their earlocks, and proclaim to God most high and to the gathered zaddiks, that they are women, in whom God has found favor. These women, children of your great-grandnieces and daughters of your yet-unborn cousins, will be allowed a choice. They can remain in their own community of women scholars and perhaps orphans, isolated, rejoicing among their own rhythms, unacquainted with the lives of men, or they can seek to join the day-to-day struggle of life with men. “Will your sisters in spirit remain in their Eden, partaking hourly, daily, of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the juice of it dripping down their chins, their fingers growing syrupy, until their entire skins smell of that knowledge-apple?

“Will they retreat inward, as your father, as the false rabbis do, burrowing inside their Talmuds, curling inside the letters of the Commentaries, growing more deaf day by day to the wailing of their people?

“Or will that knowledge send strength coursing through their veins, strength to face the oppression from without, as it crushes the thin bare walls of the yeshivah? Will the sisters who carry your legacy stand up to the tyrants and comfort the sick and hungry and dying, answering them with prayer when they cry out for explanations for the strange, seemingly cruel ways of the Lord?”

Malka thought of the early mornings in the dairy. They seemed sweet, compared with the visions of screaming, dying Jews, begging for solace. What could, she, Malka, or her legacies offer them?

“I have changed my mind,” she was ready to tell the beggerman. “I don’t want to be a gypsyscholar. I want a home.” Her thoughts fell upon the words of the rabbi, uttered that very morning. “Why,” she challenged the traveling man, “has God now allowed women to serve Him?”

The angel smiled tiredly. He leaned back on the fence-post. “As you may well imagine,” he told Malka, “God hesitated to allow women to become leaders—not because He doubted their capacity, but because He wished to wait until He despaired of man before calling women into His service. It is with a heavy heart that He offers women the burden and honor of making the Torah their own.”

Then both Malka and the angel shared a vision, a tired, dusty one, of black-robed, smooth-skinned women-scholars, throughout the ages, trying to restore the life on earth that God had imagined in the Garden. At the idea of God Almighty, the all-powerful, the holy, reaching the end of His cunning and trust, the eyes of both Malka and the angel misted. Tears dropped onto the pasturegrass, causing flowers to spring up. And their tears fell upon the morsel of bread on the ground between them. The saltwater touched the devil, and he felt cleansed. “I am ready to re-enter God’s service,” he whispered to the angel, and they departed.

Malka, now standing, bent to pick a red flower. She tucked it out of sight, behind her ear, where she could still smell its honey and clover fragrance. She stared down at the pile of rags that the angel had left in a heap. Then she took a great breath and disrobed, pulling on the brittle material that smelled of sweat. She hitched on the angel’s rucksack, heavy with prayerbook, Talmud, quill and paper, swung his flask around her waist, and began her journey.

Sandi Wisenberg is a second-generation native Southerner and a 1983 Graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She is a reporter for the Miami Herald.

Coming Back to Middlebury
by Lyn Lifshin

now in that town
the Jewish men play
poker on Wednesday
the teacher’s fingers
smell of dill but
the chicken liver
dies in breathmints
behind his anglo
saxon name, when i
saw kike on a black
board i knew it
was me now there
are choices if the
man with the dept.
store doesn’t marry
it’s not because
his girl’s not a
Jew, one man has a
shop but it’s Indian
guess what’s in the
back room there’s
even enough for a
minyan some days
they bike up north
pleasant yamulkas
crushed like some
trojan in their
pants most have a
wife named pat or
mary or had
they sniff stuff
near the creek,
stop thinking
what it’s like to
be Jewish in a
small like i
my hands on those
dark curls near
frog alley his
hand on my ass
under damp pants
while my uncle
twists in a bed
that outlasted
his mother wakes
in a quilt from
another world be
fore the cohens
came and couldn’t
work before Jews
with names that
sounded french
came to the college
wrote music for
easter and then
left town fast