Hannah’s first husband was a dope-smoking hippie whom she’d met during her year of wandering around Israel looking for meaning. Why meaning, and why Israel? The first, because she was young and confused; the second, because she was, at least nominally, Jewish. Israel she didn’t love so much: it was too hot in the summer, and everyone argued about everything all the time. Also, despite its fabled beauty, she didn’t find it beautiful. She found it dusty, dirty, and littered. The religious inhabitants of Jerusalem looked at her as if she was covered in dog poop, or didn’t look at her at all, so much so that it was as if she didn’t exist in the flesh and therefore could be walked through, or pushed over, without a second glance. It only happened once, but once was enough for her to remember it the rest of her life, that a middle-aged woman in full holiness —attired in white head scarf, long skirt, ugly black shoes, black stockings—literally pushed her aside to claim Hannah’s place on the bus. It was the number 15. She was all dressed up to go to a party in Katamon. She doesn’t remember much about that party, only that “Sexual Healing” was playing over and over again on the stereo, and that there were lemons and figs in a bowl on the coffee table. What she did remember well, and would all her life, was the awful woman on the bus and how, after she’d pushed Hannah aside to dive for the seat that Hannah had been about to lower herself into, she stared a bullet hole straight into Hannah’s solar plexus. Her awful hands clutched a single plastic shopping bag from the drug store containing what? Candy bars? Disposable razors? A bottle of vitamin C?
And how that woman had upset her, treating her as if she weren’t even there, as if she were less important than non-existence itself, as if she were—but here Hannah ran out of comparisons and simply let herself hate the stranger who’d made her feel so deeply unseen. But that was exactly the problem to begin with, the reason that Hannah—who at that time was still going by “Helen,” the name her parents had given her at birth—had gone to Israel. Because no matter what she did or how hard she strived, she felt invisible, ghostly, flesh without substance, soul without spark. And then, as a Jew…well, it was the early nineteen seventies, when Israel still stood for something other than strife, investment opportunities, and the Iron Dome.
Hummus. That’s what they were serving in Katamon. Buckets of it, with people slurping it down like it was eggnog. Why so much hummus? Why not throw a carrot stick or two in? Funny what you remember. That woman on the bus. How dare she?
A month later she met Olam at his kibbutz in the humid region just south of the Kineret and married him. On the kibbutz, she worked in the nursery school, and he worked in the fields. He appeared at dinner smelling of sweat and lemons and at night left his scent all over her, in her hair and on her belly. It was sweet and then it was sweeter and then it wasn’t sweet at all. Olam drank too much and smoked marijuana from morning to night. What did they talk about, the then-Helen and her Jewish Brit addict hippie husband? Nothing much, she supposes. The weather. The harvest. Whether they should start a family. How brilliant and blue were his eyes! She heard years later that he’d died in an automobile accident. By then he was back in Britain, where he’d started. A late night. One too many. Headlights blinding him to what lay ahead.
But all that was later, after Helen had come back to America to try again, this time working as the receptionist to a rich Jew who, with his twin brother, ran a small investment bank. A boutique bank, that’s what they’re called now, but she didn’t think that’s what it was referred to then. You wouldn’t have been able to tell the twin brothers apart at all if it were not for the large oblong mole that clung to the inner wristbone on the one, versus the non-mole on the other. Both men were large, with large happy bellies and large pink bald heads, and made chopping motions in the air when they talked and laughed too loudly. Both were married, with lots of kids and grandkids. Where they differed was the location of their homes: the one on the Upper East Side, the other in Great Neck. Both their wives called constantly with urgent domestic messages, and both played bridge as if their lives depended on it.
Billy was the elder by three minutes, maybe four, or so they joked. The younger was Abe. It was through Abe that she ended up meeting the big rabbi, the big rabbi with all the trimmings—the long black robe, the long black beard—who looked at her with his big black eyes and said: “Your soul is crying out.” Or maybe he said: “You are lonely.” Or perhaps it was: “You are searching.” Whatever it was, it pierced her. The younger twin, Abe, lived in a modern mansion with a lot of white leather-covered furniture and terrible art. He was somehow friends with the big rabbi, who was there with his wife who later took Hannah (still Helen) aside and invited her to study. “I lead a women’s group on Wednesday nights,” the rabbi’s wife said. Then she wrote down the address and her telephone number for just in case and, squeezing Hannah’s two hands in hers, said: “Can’t hurt to try it.”
It could have been presumptuous, but somehow it wasn’t. It felt more like…someone’s mother reaching out to comfort her because her own mother was too busy with her concert touring to notice her only daughter. Her mother was a pianist of the almost-first rank, and she was often gone. When she got home she’d scoop Helen and Helen’s brother into her arms, cover them with kisses, tell them how much she missed them, reach into her luggage to find whatever presents she’d brought home for them, always wrapped pristinely in pretty papers and ribbon—a bracelet for Helen, a shiny red truck for Henry—and watch with eyes brimming over with tears as her children tore at the papers and ribbons to see whatever bit of magic their beautiful mother had brought back from the magical land of charm and beauty as a reminder that one day, if they were very lucky and worked very very hard, they too might ascend to all that—all that magic and wonder that their mother and their mother alone possessed. Little wonder that she didn’t stay home for long, that over and over again she left them in the care of their cranky, older father and the housekeeper (there were several over the years) to go flying off to Chicago or San Francisco or London—wherever Brahms and Mozart, beauty and passion, lived. Oh well. Home, with her brother and her father, was damp with depression. It lit up again only when her mother was home.
In his own way Father was kind, and what he lacked in vigor he made up for in intellectual fervor. He was a professor of religion at a good college in a good state. Which should have been enough—and was, for Helen’s mother, or at least it had been at the beginning, when Helen’s father was an academic star and Helen’s mother was just coming into her own. Not once did her father complain about his—their—lot. All he said was: “I wish your mother didn’t feel so compelled to work so much, but there you have it.” Then he’d sigh (he was a great sigher) and, as often as not, retreat into his study, a small, warm, well-appointed space at the back of the house, overlooking the garden where in spring a thousand red tulips bloomed and in winter shined with white crystalline perfection.
So it was hardly a nightmare, her childhood, and this she explained, over and over again, to whoever in her new, Jewish world asked. The rabbi’s wife, for starters. The rabbi’s wife was named Rebecca and true to her invitation, she presided over a weekly meeting of women, most of them openly searching, some of them in pain, others in bewilderment. Helen (still Helen then) didn’t know which category she herself belonged in, but she found comfort sitting among the other women in Rebecca’s cluttered living room. The room itself was modest: two worn sofas covered in worn pale orange basket weave, facing each other over a coffee table strewn with magazines and coffee mugs. Two or three unmatching easy chairs, each of them different sizes and styles, as if waiting for a visit from Goldilocks. Sometimes additional chairs were hauled in from the dining room, too.
For weeks, Helen took the C train all the way out to Rockaway Avenue and then walked the six or seven blocks to the red brick house where Rebecca and her important rabbi husband lived. Their children were grown, but now and then one of them would show up, usually with a kid or two of his or her own in tow.
In those days, Helen lived in a railroad flat just south of Union Square which her mother, still beautiful and still touring, called “a death trap” and her father, now retired, said was “cozy.” It was neither. It did however possess a kind of outré glamour: pressed tin ceiling, uneven (but original) wooden floor boards, a view of pigeons cooing on the next-door tenement’s tar roof. Wandering Jew plants hanging on hooks and trailing their green trellises from window to window. Her silk scarves and jackets in a jumble on the standing coatrack. Her books of poetry (she liked poetry) stacked into pillars on the flat’s single, low-slung table. It was warm in winter, filled with light, and she could afford it.
“Worship of self,” is what Rebecca called it. “Worship of self” didn’t mean you thought you were God. It meant you’d learned that there was no safety outside of self. That the world wasn’t reliable, or orderly, or good. That it couldn’t accommodate you. Helen didn’t think she worshipped herself in this way: hadn’t she lived in Israel for more than two years? Hadn’t she hitchhiked to the Sinai and, in college, backpacked through Europe? Even now, with her railroad flat in a neighborhood not known for being especially safe and her willingness to take the subway at night—she, a lone and young woman of average height and build—didn’t all of that show that, rather than being trapped by fear, she was in possession of a wild and passionate curiosity that in turn allowed her to fling herself into those parts of the world that lay far beyond her smugly safe (if cold) childhood? That long-ago childhood spent in that classic colonial clapboard house—white with black shutters, the old-growth hedge, the red tulips—in that small, safe, and orderly college town in upstate New York? Hadn’t she grown wings after all?
“It’s not about wings,” Rebecca said. “It’s about our utter dependence on the Divine. It’s about Divine sparks. You—me—all of us. We are divine sparks.”
Sure we are, thought Helen, thinking what everyone thinks, including the bit about the millions of divine sparks gassed in the ovens. And then onto her parents, who had watched from a distance, the evil coming to them only through radio broadcasts in well-padded homes in prosperous and unbombed America. And so her thoughts tumbled and ricocheted around in her head. Still, she liked the gatherings: the comfortable old sofas, the warmth of being included, the inquiry, the invitation—always the invitation!—to come back.
Tell me where this story is going. But of course Helen didn’t know. What she wanted and what she got became such different things that she was incapable of explaining it, even to herself. Because what she wanted was the kind of radiant glamour that her mother possessed, that she lived and exuded: a rarified air of such pure grace that only a handful of humans might possess it. Helen’s job as a receptionist at the bank wasn’t what she’d had in mind for herself, but she liked the twin brothers, who took an avuncular interest in her and teased her gently about why such a beauty like she was (she wasn’t) hadn’t already been snatched up. She didn’t tell them that until recently she had been snatched up, that that was precisely the reason why she was working as a receptionist in a small investment banking firm in Midtown instead of doing any kind of more fulfilling work in a more fulfilling, not to mention exotic, atmosphere. Kibbutz Bet Or, on the other hand, was all that, with its view of the Golan, all brown and flashing gold in the summer sunshine, its endless smell of citrus and possibility. The Jews! What couldn’t they do, now that they had a land of their own, a slender fingernail of a land hugging the Mediterranean on one side and hemmed in by those who wished to destroy it on the other? On the kibbutz, every moment was shot through with the heady thrill of knowing that at any second, and so forth and so on, God forbid. Syria lay on the other side, stewing in its juices, bitter with defeat, metastasizing grievance. In New York the Jews didn’t have any enemies.
She could have stayed on at the kibbutz, too. No one thought less of her when she and Olam were divorced. No one thought less of him either. Maybe that was the problem. That Olam stayed on, harvesting lemons, getting high, dancing in the long shadows of the cedar trees in the full moon.
How Helen met her second husband, the one she’d have children with and make a life with and buy a house with and go through cancer with and fight with and have both good and bad sex with, wasn’t through either of her bosses or Rebecca or Rebecca’s big-time rabbi husband or any of Rebecca’s married children or even any of the other women who met on Wednesday night to discuss the possibility that every single blade of grass was somehow a literal expression of God’s will:
Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.”
She didn’t buy it, but she didn’t not buy it, either. She simply didn’t get it. She wanted to get it, but she didn’t, she couldn’t. Angels. Life sparks. The great oneness of the One that was, is, and ever will be. The other women, nodding and engaged, eager to learn, to soak it all in, to have it become part of their bones and membranes.
No, it wasn’t through any of them—though several of them did indeed try, setting her up with a brother or cousin or friend-from-the-neighborhood, a series of brown-eyed, brown-haired men in search of a wife who would be happy to make a Jewish home for him. It was none of these and all of them because what happened was: she began, very tentatively at first, to go to synagogue. What she hoped to find in synagogue she didn’t know. The prayers (in Hebrew, which she understood well enough) left her cold. The up and down, the repetition, the chanting: all of it dry, boring, like sitting in math class on a beautiful spring day with all those beautiful spring things beckoning while inside you were supposed to care about algebraic variables. Sitting upstairs with the other women—because if she was going to do it, she thought, she may as well do it all the way—she was listless and friendless, lonely amidst their lively gossip. The whole thing, another failed experiment. Even her visits to Rebecca, the friends she’d made there.
She met him, this man who would become her husband, through her mother. Her mother was in town for a concert of Brahms at the Brooklyn Conservatory. Afterwards, she and her only daughter emerged from the stage door to find a heavy-set, middle-aged Jew waiting on the sidewalk. “Please,” he said. “May I ask you just one question?”
Helen’s mother, delighted as always by the interest of others, told him to ask anything he liked.
“When your fingers touch the keys—in the opening movements, for example, of the three intermezzos—what is happening inside you? In your soul?”
Something about his earnest question made Helen’s mother throw her head back and laugh. “Don’t ask me,” she said. “Ask my daughter. She’s the one who’s interested in God.”
How her mother even knew this much about her, Helen didn’t know. She only knew that when the middle-aged Jew turned his eyes on her, she felt something tug at her heart. His black eyes blinked under heavy black eyebrows. She could barely meet his eyes.
“You are your mother’s daughter,” the man said.
She was, she was no one else’s, though what was so funny—her mother was pealing with mirth—was beyond Helen’s ability to apprehend. “You are the daughter who believes in the Holy One,” the man said, and at that moment, Helen knew that to be true.
It was not an easy marriage, or even, at times, a happy one. He had children, lots of them, so many that at first Helen couldn’t keep their names straight. His first wife, the mother of his children, had kicked him out. He didn’t blame her, he said. He was a terrible husband, not much of a father, he worked too hard and for too many hours and when he came home he was bleak with black rage. Why the black rage? Because, he explained, how could a man not be black with rage when the wife by his side was not the one he wanted, because that one, the wife he’d wanted, and who’d wanted him back, was from a family that had allowed their son to grow up to be homosexual, had even allowed the young man to attend their Shabbos meals and sleep in his childhood bed. His family, having survived the war in Europe, had come to America only to abide by stricter and stricter codes of conduct, stricter and stricter standards of purity, so strict they strangled life but, such it was, and he hadn’t been able to convince them otherwise. And so the wife he had—the one he had children with—had been distasteful to him, even from the start, and though he’d tried to love her, because after all if she and he had joined under the chuppah, it followed that she was his intended, he had failed. Black moods and fits of bile had followed. “I bear her no ill will,” he said. “The fault lies entirely with me.”
David was solemn, a man who not only sought out, but needed to live inside and among others who sought holiness. And so Helen changed, first her name, and when she became Hannah, she too felt every pulse as an expression of yearning for connection to the Holy One Blessed be He. When her mother heaped scorn and criticism on Hannah and her husband, Hannah prayed. How she prayed. How the words of the ancient books by turns soothed or stimulated her. Or neither: sometimes she simply felt numb. All those words, all those Hebrew letters dancing in black block strokes on the pages of her siddur. Her husband in a black gaberdine. Her kitchen arranged by milk and meat. Her hands making Shabbos bread. Her body bearing a child and then two more. And when her husband raged at her, as he sometimes did, criticizing her for the most trivial offenses—she’d forgotten to close the car windows, or a wisp of hair had escaped from her head scarf—she thought about running away, going back to Israel, to the kibbutz, the lemon groves, the stars.
Her children grew up, and her husband sickened and then died. After the funeral, after everyone had cleared out of her house and she was alone with her children, her mother, now elderly but every bit as beautiful, with bright white hair cut like a boy’s, let herself back into the house, and, taking Hannah’s two hands in hers, said: “How I envy you.”
It was such a startlingly awful thing to say that Hannah reared back and, dropping her face into her hands, let out a terrible lowing that turned into a scream. This was so unlike Hannah that she didn’t recognize herself. But her mother, not to be put off, once again took Hannah’s hands in hers and whispered, “I devoted my entire life to music—to the glories of art—and in the end what did it bring? My children left me. My husband barely sees me. My audience has evaporated. My recordings are forgotten. But you—you have pierced the veil!”
“I just buried my husband,” Hannah said. “I’m all alone.”
“Never!” her mother cried, and then, with a flourish that reminded Hannah of her entire motherless childhood, Hannah’s mother pulled Hannah to her, holding her tight, tight.
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of seven books of fiction and non-fiction, most recently The Man Who Loved His Wife, short stories in the Yiddish tradition. Her first collection of poetry is to be published by Blue Jade Press in 2023. She is also a working painter. She and her husband have three grown children and live in Montclair, New Jersey.
C. R. Resetarits is a writer and collagist. Her collage art has appeared on the covers and in the pages of dozens of magazines and book covers.