RUTHIE HAS NO IDEA WHAT TO SAY to anyone about anything. She can’t think of a single person to confide in.
This kind of thing happened to other women with other husbands. Maybe in the movies. Never to anyone she knows personally. Her husband’s partner, Levitz said there was talk in the antique business about Nate and this tall, blonde, Sabina Stein, The thought of people she doesn’t even really know wallowing luxuriously in her misfortune makes her feel dizzy. A wave of panic rises up from the pit of her stomach, tensing her jaw, till her teeth hurt. She feels as if she could sweep through the apartment, knocking down every last piece of bric-a-brac, smearing the remains of last night’s dinner into the wall-to-wall carpeting. But then the fire fizzles out. She curls up in a ball like a sick cat and waits for new kindling. And it comes, Nate and Sabina on Central Park West eating chestnuts out of the same bag, Nate and Sabina at Parke-Bernet looking over the lots, Morrison telling Weisberg, Weisberg telling Borowsky. Borowsky telling Levitz. And Levitz serving it to her on a Meissen platter, steaming and malodorous.
She decides to get in the tub, running the water as hot as she can stand it. The steam fills the small bathroom till she can no longer see her puffy eyes when she looks in the mirror. Strange how the women in the Bronx when she was a girl, the very Orthodox old country women, would go to the mikveh to cleanse themselves, removing their wigs and going back to the Flood, almost bald like babies. How other women, rich, pampered women, would go to spas in Switzerland to be packed in mud, wrapped in scalding towels and finally hosed down. All because something or someone made them feel dirty.
Lying back in the tub and closing her eyes, Ruthie thinks about Nate. Sometimes, even now after more than twenty years, she finds herself looking at him and wondering who the hell he is. The earthy organic odor mixed with shaving cream that rises off his bed linens. The used handkerchiefs rolled into balls he keeps in his pants pockets as if Kleenex had never been invented. His sentimentality. You thought you knew someone after twenty-two years of serving him his orange juice and picking out his ties, but you didn’t know anything.
There was a story she heard once about a woman whose husband turned out to be one of those men who exposed themselves in bus stations. They had a nice house in Westchester, a couple of kids. One night when the guy was supposed to be out at a lodge meeting, the doorbell rings and its him in the company of a cop. The cop says to this woman, “Do you know this man?” She says, “of course. It’s my husband.” “Well, your husband waved his flag at a young girl down at the Greyhound terminal,” he says. Imagine.
Ruthie is beginning to feel faint. With effort, she hoists herself out of the tub and bends over to pull out the plug, watching a layer of her flesh gurgle into the drain. Where did it go exactly? Very democratic, modern plumbing. Promiscuous even, how bits of your skin would mingle with bits of skin from people in 12E and 7E and 3E, all the way down to the basement where the handyman conspired with the furnace.
Drying herself off, her first impulse is to go to bed, but even Ruthie feels this gesture is too overplayed, too dime novel at two in the afternoon. She settles on the living room couch, pulling a light cover up to her neck and slipping easily into sleep. But the dreams that come are the ones that always seem to appear during afternoon naps, feistier and more troubling than normal nighttime dreams. She’s sitting shivah, but no one seems to know who’s dead. Great numbers of people are coming and going, paying their respects and bearing cake. Ruthie has never seen so much cake in her life. Schnecken and mandelbrot, nut cake and chocolate cake. Some of it arrives in white cardboard bakery boxes tied with string. Some of it comes laid out on pressed glass cake plates, slightly less symmetrical than the store bought. Out of politeness, she samples each one, eating and eating, all the while wondering why she’s sitting shivah and who’s dead. Then, a woman she doesn’t recognize comes in. This woman has no cake. She’s very tall, very straight and very blonde. In the dream, the woman has a Jewish name, Selma Halpern, but she doesn’t look like any Jewish person you ever saw. Strictly Yankee, with a steely elegance. While this Halpern introduces herself and expresses her condolences, Ruthie happens to glance over at the other side of the room where she sees that her little David, about seven years old and all done up in his going-to-funerals- and-bar-mitzvahs sports jacket, has managed to plaster the entire front of his shirt and tie with chocolate icing.
When she wakes up, Ruthie feels like the dream, the icing, has schmutzed up the inside of her head where you can’t wash. The only way to get in there with the vacuum, with that little attachment they give you for getting into cobwebby corners, would be to tell somebody else about h, but she doesn’t have anyone. No sister. Her mother in the nursing home on Long Island, hobbling along in the misperception that Rumania in the eighties of the last century has more reality than yesterday’s lunch. Her friends were good for canasta and committees, but personal crises outside the normal range from weight gain to losing your domestic help? Not likely. The only thing she can think of, and this was a very unusual thought, is prayer.
On the face of it, the idea has possibilities. To begin with God would presumably not laugh at you behind your back, or talk about you to His friends. Ruthie imagines a bunch of old men with chicken legs and bloated bellies gossiping in the shvitz. He was supposed to be a good listener The problem is how to find Him, how to get in touch. Ruthie has always felt a little queasy around God, as if she has never been properly introduced. He was like an uncle who lived in another city, who everyone made a big fuss over when he came for yontiff but who still seemed like a stranger. To begin with, He always drank schnapps and smoked cigars with the men while the women washed the dishes. Ruthie remembered the interminable hours as a little girl sitting behind the mehitza in shul where you couldn’t see anything or hear anything except the women whispering. It was like the colored in the back of the bus down South.
After a while, she gave up on Him. If He didn’t have the common courtesy to come back and say hello, she could do very nicely without Him. Nate certainly agreed with her on that point. After they were married and had their boys, Ruthie started cooking beef stroganoff, pushing her mother deeper and deeper into the recesses of the apartment until the old lady was left lighting shabbos candles by herself in her bedroom overlooking the trash cans in the alley. Ruthie sent her mother back to the back of the bus.
Still, every year before she went to the Home, the old lady would traipse uptown to the Orthodox shul for yontiff, sitting alone among women she didn’t really know. And this was the really strange part. Ruthie, not in God’s inner circle by a long shot, barely even recognizing Him from one holiday visit to the next, always went to High Holiday services as well. Not to the Orthodox with her mother. No. She went, also alone, to another more modern synagogue where the husbands and wives sat together in good suits and furs and she sat with the widows in the back.
This year on Rosh Hashanah, she stands by herself, clutching her secret fear as if she might lose it in the noisy and exuberant crowd outside the temple. There is much hugging among the women and backslapping among the men. Linkages of blood and marriage, neighborhood, school and business deal weave them into a tangled skein that will never unravel. Or so they think. And yet, there are among them isolated oddities. A shellshocked veteran of the Korean War. A woman with one wonderful story about her service with the Red Cross in North Africa. And Ruthie. In this vast throng, the Red Cross woman has somehow already found her and launched into a lengthy monologue about the exigencies and romance of desert life. Before she even gets inside the sanctuary, Ruthie’s yontiff resolve to see the good in other people has suffered a setback. She slips into the ladies’ room and waits for the woman to be seated before settling herself on the other side of the aisle and removing the mahzor from the rack in front of her. For the first time in memory, she feels a hunger for the prayers. Not for God, not for all these strangers camped around her, but for the cadence of the language, the meaningless sound itself.
The old rabbi, Schlossman, a white haired patriarch with a judgmental, prophet-of-doom style, had died of a massive coronary on Purim during the reading of the megillah. There was so much tumult from the noisemakers and general carousing that no one heard him cry out. The congregation was in shock. Committees of wise men and major donors were formed to consider the situation. At first, the tone of the meetings was lugubrious as befit the tragic circumstances. But after a while, people began to admit that Schlossman had been something of a heavy. Who needed a rabbi who was always pointing a finger? It was decided that the new rabbi should be cut from a softer cloth. More compliant. He should be learned, but not too learned. After all, this was Broadway, not Bratslav.
The man they finally chose, Stuart Zelnick, a small, unprepossessing individual of about thirty-five, now stands before them and leads them in the morning blessings.
Baruch atah adonoy elohenu melekh ha ‘olam
ha ‘notayn I ‘yaayf koach.
We offer praise to You, O Lord our God,
King of the Universe,
For giving strength to those who are weary.
And a great weariness settles over Ruth Ginzburg. Summer slipcovers yet to be cleaned. Dinners to cook stretching into eternity. Shop, cook, wash dishes, empty trash and begin again. Shop, cook, wash, trash. Always trying to keep things interesting. Avoiding tedium was exhausting. Maybe that’s what happened to Nathan. He fell into the deep well of tedium.
Zelnick continues through the introductory part of the service. He has a pleasant voice that meanders around in the High Holiday nusach, the melody, like a boy on a familiar path through the forest. He knows its ups and downs, its modulations and repetitions. Even though it’s very early, a drone bass of snoring and a counterpoint of coughing accompany the chant. A woman in green silk sitting two rows in front of Ruthie struggles to support a very old man who keeps giggling lewdly and slumping onto her shoulder.
Yis-gadal v ‘yis-kadash sh ‘mey raba
Anticipating the mourner’s kaddish, Ruthie is swept back thirty years to the time of her father’s death, a scene she revisits only in synagogue and even then with great difficulty. Her father and her uncle Sam supplied merchandise to the peddlers who traveled the miserable back roads down South before they were replaced by the Sears Roebuck catalog. Because of Ruthie’s father, the women of Biloxi did not go without ribbon, nor did they suffer for want of a thimble. But all this commerce collapsed in the panic of ’07, also the year of Ruth Salkin Ginzburg’s birth. From then on, David Salkin was wretched, stopping short of beating his wife and children, but still managing to terrify them. Their life with him an elaborate, inescapable web of rules, threats and punishments. Ruthie tries to remember one gentle moment, one act of unnecessary generosity she could associate with her father, but cannot retrieve a single loving memory. Not a doll. Not a hug. Not a smile. All she can remember, this year as always, is the fear.
Zelnick, the little pisher, moves on to Psahn 34. So far, so good. There’s a certain appealing frailty in the baby rabbi with his poor eyesight and translucent skin. He doesn’t pounce on you with robust righteousness like Schlossman. If anything, he seems withdrawn, in retreat from judgment.
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted.
He helps those who are crushed in spirit.
Crushed. Like walnuts in a grinder, boiled potatoes mashed. Like dough stretched and tortured by the rolling pin. Shop, cook, wash, trash. That’s one side of it, the repetition, Ruthie is thinking, instead of reading the prayerbook. But the other side, the crushed, mashed, tortured side is that nothing stays the same. You have to crack eggs to make an omelet. The congregation rises for the barchu. Ruthic beginning to warm to the new rabbi, hi fact, she’s feeling altogether quite warm. She has an odd sensation during ahavah rabah that a gentle shower is raining down on her, that maybe there’s someone she can lean on like the old man is leaning on his daughter in the green silk dress.
Ahavah rabah ahavtanu adonov elohaynu
Hemkih gedolah v ‘tayrah
With abounding love have You loved us. Lord our God;
great and overflowing tenderness have You shown us.
During the long amidah, five hundred people standing in place, rocking, mumbling, turning pages, sneezing, praying, she tries to remain in this warm cocoon, but it’s difficult. The amidak is not for the faint of heart. But the best part is coming soon. It won’t be long before they take the Torah out of the ark.
Hyman Broverman, the president of the congregation and a player in misses’ sportswear with a showroom on Seventh Avenue, is called to the bimah. The anemic Zelnick and the sharpie Broverman, well-known for having God on his side at the track and the craps table, stand before the open ark. Three magnificent scrolls, covered in embroidered satin, their silver finials gleaming, line up expectantly in the alcove. The rabbi removes the largest one dressed in white and hands it to Broverman who carries the Torah down the steps off the bimah and around the sanctuary, up and down the aisles, for the congregants to touch. Watch where you’re going, Broverman. Don’t drop the Torah. Don’t let the Hag touch the ground. There is a tremendous, vaguely idolatrous, fervor in the crowd as hundreds of people scramble over one another to get to the holy book. People kissing their prayer-books, then grazing the end of the book along the scroll as it passes by, like pilgrims touching a reliquary. Finally, Broverman completes his rounds and brings the scroll back up to the rabbi who unrolls the parchment and prepares to read.
First aliyah: Joel Greenbaum, an orthodontist, purveyor of pain and indebtedness, recites the blessing.
God fulfills His promise and sees to it that Sarah hears a child to Abraham in his old age. They name the child Isaac and circumcise him on the eighth day.
Second aliyah: Norman Levitan, a youngish widower and alleged ladies’ man, is called up.
Abraham is one hundred years old when Isaac is born. Sarah laughs at the thought of the two of them becomii^g parents at such an advanced age. Abraham stages a great feast on the day that Isaac is weaned.
Third aliyah: Jack Finkel stumbles over the fJebrew. Finkel, an attorney with Polaroid, is despised but also loved for being the schniuck that didn’t have the balls to buy company stock before it went through the roof.
Sarah tells Abraham to exile the slave-womcui Hagar and the son of Abraham and Hagar, Ishmael. so thai the boy doesn V share in Isaac’s inheritance. God tells Abraham to do so because it is through Isaac that Abraham’s line will be continued.
Ruthic looks around the great marble sanctuary and sees hundreds of women in their seats. Women who have borne children and women who have not been so fortunate. Women whose husbands have died on them, leaving them alone, without enough to live on and without being hot commodities like the widower, Levitan. The whole story was about women. This Sarah, barren well into old age, finally giving birth to a son. clawing and scraping, scheming to preserve his place in the family. This Hagar, also the mother of a son, willfully cast out of her home by the boy’s father and his God. And on the bimah, only men, touching the Torah, praying over the cracking parchment.
Fourth aliyah: The woman in green silk nudges the old man, Martin Stransky, and helps him to his feet. Zelnick comes down and leads Stransky up to the Torah for what they both know is the last time.
Abraham gives Hagar some bread and a skin of water, placing them over her shoulder, together with her child, and sends her away. She wanders in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba until the water tims out. Then she leaves the baby under a bush and sits down at a distance so she doesn’t have to watch the child die.
Now, the glare of the desert sun is beating down on Ruthie’s head. Turning to look in all directions, she sees nothing but moonscape. There is nothing that will sustain her. No food. No water. No friend. She trudges forward in no particular direction, each step a drain on her meager resources, sand gathering in the corners of her eyes. A scavenger’s banquet. Ruth Ginzburg has been cast out by her husband. She has fallen onto the floor between the rows of seats during the morning service on Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Beth Shalom, the House of Peace.
Susie Kaufman of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, has conducted groups in spiritual autobiography in which participants are invited to consider their own life experience as the source of their spirituality. She has been published in the magazine America.