Zach pilfered an issue of New York magazine from the dentist’s waiting room and answered every ad in the “Women Seeking Men” columns that included the words “Single Jewish Female,” “SJF,” or just “Jewish.” Many women were seeking men who were “smart, funny, and financially secure.” Several described themselves as “clever and curvaceous” or “slim and spunky.” A few of the seekers he met through those listings were all those things; others deserved to be sued for false advertising. When they showed up at the appointed wine bar or cafe, Zach knew almost immediately that they were wrong for him — the brunette who came to brunch in blue eye shadow and chandelier earrings; the alarmingly skinny woman who ordered a Cobb salad and picked out the cheese; the sophisticate who said she loved jazz but looked blank when he mentioned Thelonius Monk.
After six or seven duds, Zach decided to reverse the process and write his own ad. Unsure how to describe himself and still be likable, he sought inspiration in the magazine’s “Men Seeking Women” columns:
“Venture capitalist with global interests, youthful fifty-six, seeks slender, cerebral vixen who can make me laugh, loves dogs, is mysterious, complex, and can karaoke!”
“Scott Fitzgerald searching for his Zelda. You should be witty and wear pearls to bed. Neuroses forgiven if you read Gatsby at least twice.”
“I’m easy; all you have to be is over five foot eight, under 120 lbs., down-to-earth, and rich. Divorced okay, but no kids, please.”
“You: intelligent but not pompous, attractive but not vain, affectionate but not needy. Me: brainy but not over-bearing, secure but not arrogant, sexually adventurous but not kinky.”
Zach wondered how a woman must feel reading these absurdly exacting demands, but the nervy specificity of the men’s ads emboldened him. Two hours and four heavily edited, handwritten, legal-sized pages later, he called the magazine’s classified department and dictated the following copy:
SJM, 38, lawyer, 6’1”, seeking SJF, 28–35, for permanent relationship. Me: left wing, athlete, dad of one (want more), nonobservant Jew but committed to Jewish survival. You: intelligent, sporty, family-minded, comfortably Jewish. Non- smokers only. Include letter and photo.
Listening to the ad clerk read his copy back to him, Zach had a Groucho Marx moment: he could not imagine being interested in the sort of woman who’d be interested in anyone who could write such an ad. It had no edge, nothing witty or artful, no spicy innuendos. Yet he recognized the man it described. To hell with edge, he decided. His ad was accurate. Better an empty mailbox than a fake pitch.
As any woman in the western world could have predicted, his mailbox was swamped. Professors, doctors, lawyers, a fitness instructor, a museum director, an architect, a travel consultant, even a Jewish airline pilot, they all wanted to meet Zach and have his children. He pored over every letter and photo but the packet that kept landing at the top of the pile came from a young woman with the comical name of Babka Tanenbaum, who described herself as a “performance artist.” She had enclosed a photo of herself dressed as a Hasidic man, above the caption, “Babka Channels Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.” Her costume — black coat, black hat, ear curls, tallis — couldn’t disguise the fact that she was disarmingly lovely.
Cross-dressing was the least of Babka Tanenbaum’s religious transgressions. Instead of a regulation tallis with fringes, hers ended in red ostrich feathers. She carried what looked like an etrog and lulav, ritual objects associated with the harvest holiday of Sukkot, but rather than the unblemished citron prescribed by Jewish law, her “etrog” was a misshapen grapefruit encircled by a crown of thorns. And instead of the regulation lulav, which is supposed to be composed of palm, myrtle, and willow stalks gathered into a simple sheaf, her stalks were bound in the shape of a cross. Rabbi Goldfarb would be apoplectic but Zach could not resist Babka’s introductory note:
I’m a Barnard graduate, a thirty-four-year-old recovering investment banker turned performance artist and, as you can see in the enclosed photograph, Jewish themes are central to my work. Though some consider me heretical, my quarrel is not with Judaism, only with its sanctimony and sexism.
My “Yentl” piece was inspired by the first woman ever to run for a seat on a religious council in Israel (see tallis). The way the Orthodox machers treated her (see payess), you’d have thought she was a transvestite applying for the job of Chief Rabbi. The black hats nearly crucified her (see thorns and lulav) but she won (see ostrich feathers).
I went to a yeshiva and grew up Conservadox so I know a lot about Judaism, but I prefer to express my spirituality through my art. Feel free to check out my latest performance piece this Saturday night at the Broome Street Theater at 10 p.m. No admission fee. If you like what you see, come up and introduce yourself after the show. Otherwise, you can slink out and I’ll never know I was rejected.
P.S. I want four kids.
• • •
After her performance, Babka returned wearing an Indian-style chamois dress the color of butterscotch, a silver necklace studded with turquoise stones, beaded moccasins, her hair plaited in two thick braids, hardly the average person’s idea of street clothes. Zach gave her a thumbs up.
“Your Pocahontas is even better than your Yentl.”
For the better part of an hour the two of them sat in the vacant theater passing the vodka bottle between them while Babka peppered Zach with questions that none of his countless blind dates had ever asked. Did he ever experience anti-Semitism? Cheat on an exam? Consider suicide? Zach answered each query honestly, no slick fibs or exaggerations. If she turned out to be his bashert, he wanted her to see him for the person he was. “Cheated, once, on an algebra test,” he said. “I’d been out with the mumps when the unit was taught and never made up the class.”
Thinking back to the stores on Kingsbridge Road, he shook his head, “Most of the shopkeepers in my neighborhood were refugees like my parents. How could I stiff them?”
“Anti-Semitism?” she prodded.
“A kid called Brendan Riley once threw a handful of pennies at me and shouted ‘Go fetch.’ I’d never heard the stereotype about Jews and money. Every Jew I knew was poor.”
Babka smiled, tippled the vodka bottle, was quiet for a minute, then bit her lip. “Ever want to kill yourself?”
He looked at her. “Never,” he said, firmly, then, as if his reply needed a rational justification, added, “My parents were survivors.”
Babka’s eyes widened. “No way! Mine, too. Mom, Dachau. Dad, Theresienstadt. Yours?”
Zach sighed. “Mom, Auschwitz.”
“The way I look at it,” Babka said, “being a survivor’s kid is a reason to kill yourself. Didn’t you hate being defined by your parents’ tragedies?”
“I still define myself that way,” he admitted.
She took his hand. “What do you say we move the party to my place?”
Though Babka’s one-room studio on The Bowery, a fifth floor walk-up, had a double height ceiling, its ambiance was that of a crowded, chaotic Middle Eastern souk. Kilim rugs were thrown helter-skelter across the floors and every piece of furniture — sofa, tables, chairs, hassocks, everything but the radiator — was topped by some color-saturated cloth. Yellow fabric studded with tiny mirrors draped the three windows on one wall. A huge skylight composed of long glass panels filled the slanted portion of the roof looming above a queen-sized bed that was flanked by two end tables swathed in madras material. The bed was covered by a furry throw that, in a former life, could have been a llama, and scattered along its headboard was a row of throw pillows clad in jewel-toned silks.
The decor was dazzling, but it was more like a Gypsy tent, not a Jewish home. A person couldn’t light Hanukkah candles here without singeing some schmatta, and there was no room for a toy box, much less a crib or a changing table.
Just then a door swung open and a stocky black man bounded out of the bathroom wearing only a towel.
“Yo, Babs,” he said, jauntily. “I thought I heard voices.”
“Charles, meet Zach. Old friend, new friend. Zach, Charles.” Babka toggled her thumbs at each man. She couldn’t have been more nonchalant about the encounter. The half-naked man, equally sanguine, whipped a wave in Zach’s direction before crossing the room to retrieve a large-toothed comb from the pocket of the Knicks jacket hanging over the back of a chair, then whistled his way back to the bathroom. “Charles lives in the bowels of Brooklyn and plays sax in a club down the street,” Babka explained, “so when he needs a shower between sets, he comes here. Always calls first, but if I’m not home, I’ve always told him he can use his key.”
Zach consciously decided not to be judgmental but to simply admire Babka for her generosity. Still, when she opened the louvered doors on the far wall exposing a kitchen alcove, he was relieved. He wanted her to be normal. She might have a naked man in her bathroom, but she had a sink, stove, and refrigerator like other people. She was literate enough to send-up haiku poetry and Jewish enough to quote the Talmud. They had survivor parents in common. She knew CPR. She could save their children’s lives. Wait, he told his galloping thoughts, stop getting ahead of yourself.
Charles emerged from the bathroom wearing black pants and a chartreuse shirt with the tails out. He slipped his arms into the Knicks jacket, tossed off another wave, then mimed a jazzman cradling a saxophone and played himself out the door. Zach couldn’t help but wonder how many other men had Babka Tanenbaum’s key.
“Drink?” she asked.
“Beer would be great.”
“For future reference, what’s your brand?”
Future reference. She was getting ahead of herself, too.
“Heineken, thanks.” He lowered himself into one of her overstuffed armchairs.
“Favorite time of day?” she asked.
“Sunset. You ask a lot of questions for a non-lawyer.”
“Questions save time.”
She went to the alcove and brought back two bottles of Corona, probably the last guy’s brand.
“When do I get to ask you questions?” Zach leaned back in the chair.
“Now.” A small, round ottoman that looked like a pincushion on steroids was suddenly wedged between his legs with Babka on it, her knees a few inches from his crotch. She smiled. “What do you want to know?”
Zach wanted to know everything about her, but her close proximity threw him. “What’s your greatest regret?”
“That I’m not good at sports. Same question to you; greatest regret?”
Where to begin? Zach thought. Making a huge vow when he was too young to know what he’d agreed to. Losing his marriage. Letting Anabelle go. Leaving Cleo. Having to find “the right kind of woman” rather than to simply fall in love.
“Not meeting you five years ago,” he replied, his one glib line of the night.
“Trust me,” Babka said. “Five years ago I wasn’t worth meeting.”
Zach set his Corona on the side table, took hold of Babka’s braids and gently pulled her face toward him. Her lips weren’t Cleo’s. Maybe it was too soon. He let go of her hair. “What’s with your funny name?”
“It means fir tree.” She shot him a teasing glance.
“I didn’t mean Tanenbaum.”
“Ohhh! Babka?” She laughed, exaggerating her delayed comprehension. “It’s a coffee cake.”
“I know it’s a coffee cake. My folks came from Kraków, the birthplace of babka.”
“Wrong. It originated in Russia. As an Easter cake. It took Polish Jews to add the good stuff — nuts, raisins, rum. Which reminds me: how about a rum and Coke?”
Zach said he would stick with beer. She withdrew her knees from between his legs, went to the refrigerator, pulled out a Coke, and carried it over to the bed, which puzzled him until she shoved aside the multi-colored pillows and opened a sliding panel in the headboard to reveal a hidden compartment containing about a dozen different liquors and whiskeys. Zach’s father used to keep one squat bottle of Manischewitz on the kitchen counter for Friday night kiddush and one round bottle of plum brandy, called Slivovitz, on a top shelf in the coat closet, to be tapped only for a toast on Rosh Hashana. A fifth of Slivovitz could last the Levys a decade.
If her copious supply was a shock to Zach, Babka’s intake was stunning. She’d guzzled vodka at the theater and polished off her beer while he still had half of his left in the bottle. Now, he almost had a coronary when he noted how much rum she poured in her glass of Coke. Maybe she was drinking to compensate for a secret shyness or performance anxiety. Maybe she was under pressure to pass muster with Zach whose ad, despite his efforts to the contrary, may have sounded too exacting. Or perhaps the last guy, the one who drank Corona, had recently dumped her and the booze was dulling the pain.
She sat on the edge of the mattress with her glass. “My birth certificate says Barbara but I’m told my father used to say I was sweet as babka and the nickname stuck with me. Which is more than I can say for my dad.”
Zach joined her on the llama spread and draped his arm over her shoulder. “You look sad.”
“I was remembering Wharton’s quote: ‘Life is either a tightrope or a featherbed.’”
“Which is it for you?” he asked.
Tightrope was Zach’s answer, too, but he said featherbed as a prelude to tipping her backward onto the many-colored pillows. He unbuttoned her chamois dress and thrilled when his fingers met no straps or hooks, just warm, bare skin. He glanced down at her chest. The flattering amber light from the bedside lamp did nothing to soften the impact of the tattoo inked in blue above her left nipple — a six-pointed Jewish star with the name “Tom” at its center.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms.magazine, is a writer, lecturer, social justice activist, and the author of eleven books, including Deborah, Golda and Me. This is excerpted from her new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate (The Feminist Press, 2015).