Sometimes I find myself choking on silence, and I fear all my thoughts must come out or I’ll simply burst, the unsaid gushing out and drowning us all. I sit quietly while they tell me how to live, but I have a million reasons why what they’re saying simply won’t work for me. I’m different. It’s too late for me to be saved.
Outside the sun is setting, another magnificent sunburst against white stone, as though the sun never gets tired of setting over Jerusalem, as though the night is reluctant to simply dismiss the display.
My name is Laney according to my parents. Around here it’s Leah. It’s gotten so I don’t answer to anything lately. I stare out the window and wonder why neither name fits, the first too small and confining, the second ridiculously large, a name for dressing-up. How can you introduce yourself as a Biblical figure when you’re not even sure she existed, and anyway you have nothing in common?
I gather my sketchpad into my bag, thinking about how to sketch light, when Debbie yanks my arm and pulls me back to myself. “Le-ah!” she says, “Stop dreaming.” Debbie is five foot two, with a mass of blond curls and a dimple. She gets away with murder because of that dimple. Sometimes when I’m mad, I imagine drawing that dimple as a toad, which will just hop off her face leaving her dimple-less like the rest of us. I love Debbie. She’s practical and funny and isn’t weighed down by her own thoughts.
“What’s up Deb? How was milk, meat and mechitzas?”
“It was okay. Let’s go out for Chinese food, huh? I’ve had enough of Rabbis for a while.”
I pick up my mug and take it to the kitchen to wash out the day’s coffee residue. All day I fight falling asleep, and at night my thoughts run endlessly, wondering what will happen to my life after this year, wondering what will happen to us who live between worlds.
Debbie and I frequently walk after classes. I push her and myself further and further, as though after a point all my questioning will simply drop back in exhaustion.
Of course Debbie isn’t walking with me for this reason. Debbie is fighting those ten pounds, which try to creep into your thighs once they’re safely hidden under a long skirt.
Debbie is so normal. I already see her married and living in Har Nof, tucking her curls into an adorable hat, something with a flower. Even as she complains to me each night, I see her sleeves getting longer.
She’s complaining now, as we head out to our little school, which is really just an ordinary apartment with a sign on the door. Keren Ohr. That’s what they call it. In my mind I call it the black hole.
“How can I just start keeping all these laws now when everyone will think I’m a freak back home? Around here it’s so natural to keep mitzvahs, but in San Jose nobody keeps kosher, not even the Rabbi.”
“Don’t think about it Deb. Think about what you think is right. Do you really think you should be keeping mitzvahs?”
“Well the Torah’s forever, right? If it was true then, it’s true now. But it’s so confusing. How come nobody except the Orthodox seems to think this way?”
“I don’t know, Deb. I don’t even understand how picking out your socks on Shabbos can be an aveirah.”
“Oh that’s borer (separation)Lainey. You can only choose what you need. You can’t take out what you don’t need in order to get it.”
“Like G-d cares!”
“G-d cares, Lainey.” Deb’s eyes are wide. She’s got the message. G-d cares.
“That’s what I don’t get. Everything we learn seems so mundane. We talk about holiness, and then we learn how to check rice for bugs.”
“Eating a bug is seven aveiras!”
“I don’t know how you get your faith, Deb. How can you just believe what they tell us?”
“I don’t.” Debbie pauses and we wait in silence. The wind cries like a voice in prayer. “But when I ask questions I listen carefully to the answers. And they seem to make sense. More sense than reading the Bible like it’s literature or something.”
“All I know is I’m hungry. I can’t wait for some wanton soup.”
“And egg rolls.”
We enter the restaurant and for the first time in a week we are exposed to people who are not religious, or not busy becoming religious. In Jerusalem, reality is contained in thousands of bubbles hovering next to each other without touching. I can spend a month without meeting anyone not engrossed in the search for spirituality. And then all of a sudden I’ll slip like Alice through a trapdoor, and there’s this other world with everyone intent on adding money to their bank accounts and titles to their names. As an artist I’m not really part of this world. My mother cried when I majored in fine arts. My father said nothing. I’ve got this great drawing of her suffering, and his stoicism as they bravely coped with the tragedy of discovering their daughter was an artist. I figure if I become frum (religious) it won’t faze them. They’ll just nod when I tell them, as if it all makes sense now; they knew I was slightly off all along. My brother, of course, is a stockbroker. He’ll probably have two point two kids and a summer home.
The waiter comes to take our orders. He has a small kippa (skullcap) perched on his head, out of the way, not interfering. All of our teachers have black keepot, to go with their black and white wardrobes. It’s like living in a world where all the men are penguins. In contrast the women swarm like tropical birds. How can people think the women are oppressed when they’re the only ones allowed to wear purple?
I realize he is waiting for my order, so I order quickly, wanton soup and egg rolls. I haven’t even read the menu. As an artist I get too hooked up on the details. The waiter takes away our menus and Debbie gives a melodramatic sigh.
“Something on your mind, Deb?”
“How do I know if I should start dating, Lainey? I’m so unsettled, it seems so unfair to drag someone else into all this turmoil.”
“I guess it depends on whether you know where you’re heading. If you know you’re heading to Har Nof but you’re not ready to pack yet, start dating. But if you’re still choosing between Har Nof and Tel Aviv, that’s already not fair.”
“Well there’s this guy that’s been mentioned to me. But dating here is so intense. After three dates people expect you to decide. I can’t decide what to wear until I change clothes at least six times. How can I know who to marry?”
“So wait. If he’s your beschert (intended) he’ll wait too.”
Debbie smiles suddenly. “That’s right, huh. He can’t get away.”
Secretly I’m relieved. I’m not ready for Debbie to start dating.
“It was a long time before I stopped running away and started being frum.” Sarah eyes me gently as we relax on her sofa Shabbos afternoon. “Maybe you’re still running away Lainey?”
“How can I be running away? I sit in classes all day long about G-d.”
“I know your body is in class. But your heart Lainey. If it’s closed it doesn’t matter what anyone says.”
“I don’t know Sarah. I just don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything. It’s like I go all cold inside if someone mentions G-d.”
Sarah waits for me to continue but I can’t explain it. A part of me is frozen. Sometimes I dream I am walking barefoot across a frozen sea at night. Completely alone I can see for miles across the flat surface. I am working on painting this dream and although I am halfway finished I am no closer to understanding it.
“Sarah, when did you know you’d stay here? When did you know that this is what you wanted?”
“This.” I motion to her apartment with my hand. The walls are white and only decorated by illustrated prayers and bible verses. Her Ketubah (marriage contract) hangs on the wall opposite us. It’s a very different apartment than the one we shared as roommates in New York University.
“Your life is so Jewish, Sarah. It doesn’t even have a little curry flavor to it. It’s all chicken soup and matzah balls.”
Sarah laughs. “Nu Lainey, don’t you like matzah balls?” No, I know what you mean. When did I know? After a year I went home for the summer and I went to the Met, you know. To see the mummies. I used to go there all the time and imagine I heard them whispering. They were so ancient, and had seen so much of the world. But when I went there this time I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear the whispers. They just suddenly looked empty and dead to me. Then I went to Rabbi Sacks for Shabbos. I slept over and I slept in his study. He’s got this great old seforim (Jewish texts) collection. In the middle of the night I heard the whispers. I realized that they were coming from the seforim. That’s when I knew. Motzei Shabbos I told my parents I am making aliyah. Three weeks later I was back in seminary with all my slits sewn up.”
“Wow Sarah. And do you still hear it?”
Sarah laughs and tries to look mysterious, which is hard for someone who has so many freckles.
“Did you ever feel like it’s too late for you?”
“All the time Lainey. About once a minute. Just ignore it. Anyway, are you staying for Seudas Shilisit (third meal on Shabbat)? I’ve got to start preparing.”
“No thanks. I’m walking to the Kotel with some friends from Keren Ohr.”
“That’s a long walk from Har Nof.”
“We take the bus back. It’s free Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night, after Shabbat).”
“Ok Lainey. Good Shabbos. Thanks for coming.”
“Good Shabbos Sarah.” I leave Sarah’s house and walk quickly back to the dorm, trying not to think about my fingers itching. If I go too long without drawing they itch. Shabbos is hard.
At the dorm, everyone is waiting in Shabbos clothes and tennis shoes. Some girls go every week, but this is the first time I am going. I’m not much of a davener (pray-er), and I never saw how a stone wall is going to help me. But Debbie talked me into it. She can’t believe I’ve been here six months and I’ve never been to the Kotel. Debbie, of course, goes every Motzei Shabbos.
The air is cool and brisk as we walk, and I wish I had brought a sweater. It gets so cold here so fast. I’m still not used to it. By the time we hit Rechov Yaffo I’m freezing and I’m starting to regret coming. Town looks so funny, all the shops closed and deserted. More like a ghost town than the city center. We go through Jaffa Gate and wind our way through the old city until suddenly we’re at the top of a huge staircase.
After a few steps I get my first view of the Kotel, and in spite of myself I’m impressed. It’s not just a wall. It’s majestic. At the Kotel, we split up as everyone goes off to daven. I walk by myself up to the wall, place my palms against it and lean in, until it’s holding me up. “Speak to me,” I whisper, “Speak to me.” And suddenly I am crying. I’m not running away from becoming frum like Sarah thinks. I’m running away from the emptiness that threatens to engulf me if I don’t become frum. It’s cold out there on the lake. If I don’t figure how to get off, I know I’ll freeze up too.
I wipe my eyes with my sleeve and back away from the wall guiltily. What just happened? What emptiness? Where did those thoughts come from? I think of the painting and my dream. I’m always all alone in the dream, trapped on the sea under the spotlight of the moon.
Calm down, I tell myself. My breathing is coming fast, in puffs like I’ve been running. I walk backwards across the plaza and sit on the stone bench facing it. Did it? Did it speak to me?
Eventually I am joined by the others as the sun sets and darkness takes over. We wait for three stars, say Boruch HaMavdil (the shortened blessing that can allow you to do work until havdalah is recited at the end of Shabbat) and head for the bus stop. There are five of us, so when the bus comes I push them into the seat for foursomes and take the seat behind them. “I’ve got to see this view,” I tell them, “Everyone says it’s fantastic.” I mean somebody must say that, I tell myself; it’s not impossible. I stare out of the window as the Old City recedes behind us, and we travel a curving road around its perimeter to the Sultan’s Pool. Did it speak to me?
That night I dream I am lying in bed and blackbirds are flying in a circle over me, just under the ceiling. The room is crowded with doctors, rabbis and family members, asking, “Will she be alright?” Suddenly one of the blackbirds swoops down and enters me. I wake with a start in my dream bed and everyone disappears. I get up, leave the room, and enter my parent’s home. My mother is there. I start to daven but she grabs my arm. “Lainey,” she says, “I won’t love you if I’m not the only one.” I wake up then for real and even though I can still hear my mother’s disturbing words, I am calm, enclosed in darkness and a sense of peace. I feel that something has shifted and for the first time I understand that I needed to come here, to Keren Ohr in Jerusalem, in order to face myself.
Sunday I take the day off from Keren Ohr to get this dream on canvas. By nightfall a ghost of my own self lies before me on the canvas. Above my head blackbirds circle, with one just beginning its dive. In the corner of the canvas, my parent’s living room is taking form, and another shadow of myself is standing there.
I paint late into the night, willing my dream into the reality of the canvas. When I finally fall into bed, I fall into deep dreamless sleep.
The next morning Rabbi Smith calls me into his office. “Are you feeling better Leah?”
“I wasn’t sick yesterday; I was painting.” Rabbi Smith waits to see if I will continue. When I don’t, he asks in that same gentle manner, “Are you enjoying yourself here Leah?” Perhaps he thinks this is a simple question, but I find his question impossible to answer, as though he is a sphinx confronting me with a riddle.
“Rabbi Smith, how do you know if Hashem is speaking to you?” If Rabbi Smith notices that I have suddenly changed topics, he doesn’t let on. Instead he answers, “It’s what you might call intuition, as though you are speaking to yourself, only calmer and wiser. Do you have any other questions Leah?”
“No, thank you.” I get up to leave, and as I make my way out of his office, I catch a reflection of him in the window. He is wearing a slightly puzzled expression, and stroking his beard thoughtfully.
At lunch Debbie is bursting with questions. “Why did Rabbi Smith want to talk to you Lainey?” I concentrate on picking apart my bureka. “It’s not what you think Deb. It’s not a shidduch (match). He just wondered how I like it here.” Debbie eyes my ruined bureka as she munches a carrot thoughtfully. “How do you like it here?” I move on to the greasy potatoes and try to avoid her question. “Come on Deb, you don’t need me to answer that.”
But Debbie won’t be put off. “Lainey,” she says, “We’re all wondering. You don’t seem to be absorbing what you’re learning.” I look Debbie straight in the eye. “People absorb in different ways Deb. We’re not all automatons.” And with that I pointedly get up and bring my dish to the kitchen. I don’t see Debbie for afternoon classes, and by evening she seems very careful and apologetic, but I can’t get her words out of my mind because they are so similar to what Sarah said to me: “If your heart is closed, it doesn’t matter what anyone says.” How can my heart be closed when my dreams are so vivid and intense? Also my sister Megan seems so close to me here, though I haven’t thought about her in years. I was ten when Megan disappeared. The police searched for her, but eventually they just shook their heads. “We’re very sorry Ma’am. We’ve done all we can.”
After Megan left, life changed, as though someone repainted our family with less light and deeper shadows. One day my mother silently packed up all Megan’s photos, and even my closest friends in high school and college never knew I had an older sister who was so funny she could make you laugh until tears streamed down your face. Even Sarah doesn’t know about Megan. I’d thought I’d gotten over losing her, but recently I read that Yaakov mourned Yosef for twenty-two years because we never get over mourning for the living. I know about that, mourning for the living. It’s a different type of mourning than we do for the dead. I see Megan packing a bag, taking a last look around our house, and heading out to the greyhound bus station, where she boards a bus and rides through faceless American towns. Sometimes when I’m riding an egged bus, the utter foreignness reminds me of how she must have felt, traveling miles from home.
Maybe my heart is more closed, because Megan is taking up that space for herself.
In class, I sketch birds and ships, anything that moves and carries a person far away. I can barely focus on what the rabbis are saying. I have to get away.
The rain beats steadily on the bus windows, erasing the outside world entirely, so all that remains is the bus itself and its steady plodding towards Sefat. It’s as though the world has ceased to exist, and all that remains is a handful of strangers riding to a city that will surely be washed away by the time we arrive.
I try to shake the rain from my mind and imagine Debbie getting my note.
Be back in a week or so.
Debbie will turn the small note over in her hands and study it carefully, as though information can be drawn out of the creases of the paper itself. She won’t understand this sudden pilgrimage. Debbie never goes anywhere without a guidebook and an itinerary. But she’ll chalk it up to an artist’s fancy – the sudden need to travel in winter, when normal folk are cuddled up in their armchair with a good book.
Debbie will explain to the others that inspiration has drawn me to Sefat, and take explicit notes for me in all the classes we share. She’ll gather extra copies of the handouts and record their course-names and the dates on which they were received, meticulously, like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter. All this will be stored in a folder marked “Lainey” which she will hand me the day I get back. I’ll thank her, and put the whole thing in genizah (burial of sacred writings) at my first opportunity.
I’m pulled from my thoughts back into the reality of the bus pulling into the terminal. I gather my stuff together, and depart from the bus, focused on the challenge of finding a place to stay. I hadn’t really thought this far ahead when I left Jerusalem. I was so busy leaving, I didn’t have any energy left to focus on where I was going. I have a name of a hostel one of the students at Keren Ohr once stayed in, but she couldn’t remember the address. Luckily Sefat is a small town, and the clerk recognizes the hostel, and is able to point me in the right direction.
By the time I arrive at the hostel, I am soaked through to the bone. I drop my stuff in my spartan room and head for the shower. As soon as it clears up, I intend to head for the artist’s quarter, and lose myself in the anonymity of a new city, where nobody knows me and nobody expects me to become anything.
Sefat is wonderful, filled with mysticism and blue doors. The colors, textures, and sounds of Sefat are completely different from those in Jerusalem. But after the initial intoxicating rush of having escaped, a heady three day high, I find myself even more troubled by questions here in Sefat than in Keren Ohr. I have too much time for my own thoughts, and not even the tranquilizing distraction of Debbie’s end of the day chatter.
On the fourth day I am sitting in a café, drinking a latte, and lazily sketching the passersby, when suddenly I see what surely must be a figment of my imagination. Anne, Megan’s best friend from high school, with a colorful tichel (scarf) covering her hair, and a very pregnant belly, is strolling past the café. It must be a sign of loneliness, imagining the very feminist Anne now frum and here in Sefat, but then she turns and looks at me, and I see she recognizes me too, although she still hasn’t placed me. Anne lifts a hand in a slight wave, probably intending to carry on, but I jump up and run to her. I am not about to let her get away, not when she might have information about Megan.
“Anne, it’s me. Lainey.”
“Lainey?!” Anne pulls me toward her into a tight hug, and I feel the pressure of the life inside her. “What are you doing here Lainey?”
“I’m here for a year. I am based in Jerusalem, but I took off for a few days to come to Sefat. And you?”
“Well, I’m married.” Anne gestures to her stomach and laughs, that same laugh I used to hear behind the closed door of Megan’s room, when I was too young to be taken into their confidence. And by the time I was old enough, it was too late, Megan was gone, and she’d taken her secrets with her.
“Anne it’s so great to see you.” I keep my hand on her arm, where I’ve left it since our hug.
“You too Lainey. Why don’t you come home with me, and we can swap stories and catch up.”
I gather my sketchpad and follow Anne home. I’d follow her anywhere if I thought it would lead me to Megan. “Don’t get your hopes up Lainey.” I caution myself. “It’s not like she’s been hiding her in the broom cupboard all these years.”
I spend the afternoon with Anne, who now goes by Tikvah, lounging on the couch and catching up. She tells me how she came to be frum, but all the time I am waiting for the moment I can ask her about Megan. Finally Anne/Tikvah sighs. “Go ahead and ask me Lainey. You want to know about Megan.” For a moment I am out again on the frozen lake of my dream. Beneath me I feel the ice under my feet cracking, and I start to shake.
“What happened Tikvah? Where did she go?”
“Lainey, she joined a cult. At the beginning, I used to visit her to try and convince her to leave, to come home, but she started refusing to see me. I haven’t seen her in years. I don’t know where they’ve gone. They move around all the time.”
I start to cry and Anne holds me, as around us evening deepens into shadows. Finally Anne puts me to bed in her guest room, where eventually I cry myself to sleep. I dream I am out on the lake again, only now the ice is cracked in places, and beneath the water I can see Megan, but there is no way I can reach her without drowning myself.
In the morning Anne fixes me breakfast. “Keep in touch Lainey.”
“Yeah okay. I’ll come back and see you again.”
“Here take this Lainey. I found it for you last night.” I take the photo she presses into my hand. It’s a picture of Megan, with her head shaved, sitting cross-legged on a bare floor. Her eyes, deep green pools, are bottomless. She is not smiling. I know at once that wherever my sister is, she’s not laughing anymore.
I make my way back to the hostel, pack up my stuff, and go back to the bus station, where I catch a bus for Jerusalem. As the bus winds down the mountains around Sefat, I feel myself becoming lighter and lighter. Light as air, light as laughter.
“I am going home Megan.” I whisper. “Please come home too.”
Tzippora Price is a writer and a child & family therapist. She made aliya eleven years ago, and lives with her family in Ramat Beit Shemesh, where she works in private practice. She also works in the children’s division of The Family Institute in Har Nof, Jerusalem. Her articles and fiction have appeared in Connections, Hamodia, Horizons, Natural Jewish Parenting, and Yated Ne’aman. In addition, she teaches workshops in creative writing, and theraputic journal writing.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.