Overview of the Story
Daniel introduces Sara to the enigmatic Rabbi Lev and she is transformed. When Rabbi Lev establishes an ultra-orthodox Chassidic Jewish community in the Blue Mountains, Sara and Daniel are the first to join. What drives them to abandon their modern Sydney lives to obey ancient laws and traditions? Five years on, as the community celebrates its first wedding, youthful euphoria has given way to fanaticism and repression. At the reception, the men drink heavily and dance ecstatically, separate from the women. Sara has a shocking revelation that forces her to question everything: her marriage, her faith, and her future.
The men dance
Some throw their arms around each other, making tight heaving circles, their heads almost touching, their legs shuffling, the circles moving around and around, a black and white kaleidoscope. Others weave a long snaking line through the spaces in between; man after man, his damp waist cupped by the warm hands of another, beneath his own palms the incongruous softness of the next man’s belly. At the snake’s head, an elfin man with a wild beard and curling side-locks takes loping steps, throws his head back, lifts his eyes heavenward, and yells his prayers directly to the Almighty.
The sweat drips from their hot faces, pooling on the uneven parquetry floor. A man slips, the smooth soles of his black shoes sliding awkwardly, and is hoisted back into step by the man on either side, the circle continuing without pause, around and around, faster and faster, until the men become a blur, a single pulsing entity in a frenzied dance of worship.
Daniel and Menachem dance together in the centre, facing one another, each gripping the other’s forearms, so tightly that the skin around is drained of blood. They spin; fast; first with small scuffling steps; then jumping, their bodies leaning outward, only the steady pull of the other keeping each from falling. Their white cotton shirts are sodden, pasted onto them, the light and shade of their torsos visible to me across the room. Their breath is heavy; their chests heaving; their mouths gulping in air.
The other men are drawn to them. They stop their dancing to stand watching, leaning over at the waist to recover, but keeping their faces raised, their eyes fixed on them. So palpably intense is their connection, so clear is their exclusion of all others, that no one dare enter their circle until finally, laughing, Menachem breaks away, and they stagger backwards, teetering on their heels before regaining their balance. Then the crowd moves in and swallows them up.
Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei pri ha-gafen.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Sunday 19 December 2015, 6.15 AM
I feel his breath first—a faint warm whisper on my cheek. I brush the spot with the side of my hand as if it is a mosquito. Then there is the sound of it, struggling through his nostrils, which are plugged still from a lingering cold. Who but a child of mine catches a cold in the height of summer?
I force my eyelids open. What a sight rewards me! There he stands, beside the bed, stepping from one foot to the other, naked, and flicking his penis from hand to hand. I could eat him up; such is the wave of love that swells inside me. The feeling is mutual. He beams at my awakening; reflects back my adoration. There is nothing so magnificent than to be the centre of his universe, the object of his devotion.
I should tell him to stop his touching. I should insist he put on his pyjamas. He’s almost four; not a baby anymore. Chani says it’s never too early to teach modesty and self-discipline. Daniel says it will help him resist the fierce animal urges that come later. But I am tired. I can’t face a battle this early in the morning, before coffee even. Besides, when I forbid Yossi to do something, he grins and does it more. Surely it isn’t so bad to hold him close before facing the day, naked though he is.
He waits. It is important to him that we stick to the established procedure. I shuffle over, lift the edge of the bed covers, give the slightest nod, and he clambers eagerly up, grabbing hold of the fitted sheet and pulling himself onto the mattress, and then wriggling in beside me, placing his narrow face, his delicate features so close to mine that our noses almost touch. I smell last night’s frankfurters on his tongue.
I close my eyes, mouth the words silently: ‘Modeh anee . . .’
‘Imma, my penis is standing up.’ Yossi rubs himself against my thigh. I move my leg away, shocked, although it’s not the first time, and I know we are alone, that Daniel has risen from his bed before dawn to daven shacharit in the living room. I pull my nightdress down over my legs. I will make him wear pyjamas from now on, no matter how fierce the battle.
‘Imma, can I tell you a secret?’
I lean my ear to his mouth, keeping our bodies apart. ‘Lefanecha melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bee.’ I try to invoke the Almighty, but Yossi’s warm wet breath in my ear is distracting. He cups a hand over my lobe and whispers loudly.
‘Imma, I love you so much. I love you to the moon and back one thousand million fifty eighty three times.’ He leans back, lowers his face, and wipes his nose vigorously back and forth on the sheet, leaving a glistening streak of snot.
‘Nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha.’ Done! ‘Shayneh yingle, I love you to the moon and back ten hundred million times’, I say.
He narrows his eyes, straining to calculate the distance of my love. I can resist no longer. I reach my arm around his body, bring him close, feel the bones of his rib cage jutting through his skin; there is not an inch of fat on him. I squeeze him, kiss his cheek again and again, the softest kisses, my loosely puckered lips barely touching his skin, angel kisses we call them. I reach down, cup the heel of his foot in the palm of my hand, so small yet perfectly formed, the skin baby smooth. He lies still for barely a moment, then pulls my arm off, and rubs madly at his cheek.
‘Ich, I only like giving kisses, I don’t like getting kisses.’
I want to pin him down and kiss him a hundred times more. Instead, I roll back, assume a serious expression.
‘Oh, I forgot. I’m sorry.’
We look at each other, our brows furrowed. Chaya cries out in the next room. Yossi sits up; cocks his ear.
‘Oh, Chaya is awake. Shall I go and get her?’
Does his sweetness have no end?
‘Yes please.’ He turns to go. ‘Oh, but first we must thank Hashem for waking us up; and wash our hands.’
I pull the sheets to his waist—not ideal but modest enough—and we say the blessing slowly, in Hebrew, his words coming less than a second after mine. Soon he will recite it alone.
‘Modeh anee lefanecha melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bee nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha.’
‘We’re thanking Hashem for returning our soul to our bodies after our sleep. We’re bringing Hashem into our day’, I say.
He nods solemnly, slides over the side of the bed, dangling momentarily before dropping to the floor. He stands before the two-handed plastic cup and bowl I keep on the bedside table, looks up at me expectantly. I smile and he carefully picks up the cup with his left hand, pours a little of the water over his right hand and into the bowl one, two, three times, transfers the cup to his right hand, repeats the process on his left hand, then silently holds the cup out to me. He watches as I perform the ritual, holds his finger to his lips as I have done many times before, and together we walk in silence to the bathroom. I stand back as he relieves himself, reminding him to do it as Daniel insists he must, without touching his penis, though I will clean most of it off the floor later. We wash our hands, splash water on our faces, take a sip of water from the other cup I keep there, rinsing our mouths, and then repeat the ritual washing of our hands, this time saying the blessing. We go back to the bedroom and recite the Shema, quickly because Chaya’s gurgle is now a whine, and soon will be a roar, sitting together on the edge of the bed, closing our eyes and then shielding them a second time with our right hand: ‘Shema Israel adonai aloheinu adonai ehad’. Hear O Israel: God is our Lord, God is one.
There was a time when I opened my eyes to discover my reality transformed, bathed in the golden light, the oneness, the everything-ness of God. Today, I see the black mark across the wall, the clothes strewn on the floor, the fleshiness of my fingers as I bring my hand—a mother’s hand, its skin dry and raw from endless hand washing, the nails short, dull grey beneath the rims—back down to my lap.
Chaya is shrieking now; competing admirably with the raucous calls of the sulphur-crested cockatoos in the eucalypts outside.
‘Go and get her my ketzele.’
Yossi runs the short distance to his and Chaya’s room, while I fall back onto the bed and close my aching eyes. It was after 11 when I returned from the main house last night. Even as I hurriedly prepared for bed—unbuttoning my shirt, stepping out of my skirt, pulling my nightdress over my head, brushing my teeth—I knew I wouldn’t sleep. I was wired stiff with tension still when I finally lay down. When I closed my eyes, I was back in the room from which I’d just fled, and the whole dreadful scene played on repeat for the next five hours, until Yossi came.
I hear Chaya squeal with delight as Yossi enters their room, the knocking together of wood as he expertly releases and lowers the side of her cot, the unzipping of her sleeping bag. It is blue-striped; it was his not long ago. He will carefully lift her out, staggering backwards under her weight, hugging her tightly to his chest—she resting her cheek adoringly against him—before letting her wriggle down his body until her feet reach the carpet. They will be here in a moment.
We pass Daniel on our way to the kitchen, standing as usual in the far corner of the living room, in front of the small wooden side table, looking out through the window onto the lawn, the gravel driveway, which meanders down and around the grassy slope to the main house, and the immense blue green valley beyond. His rangy body is shrouded by the loose folds of his prayer shawl. The white fabric cradles the back of his head, makes rolling hills of light and shade down his back; its wispy tassels tickle his shins. He is framed by first sunlight. It will be warming his face, as it had mine in the early days, when I too had stood in that spot, my favourite patch of our little cottage, when I too had looked out on that view and felt the certainty of God’s hand in it, before two young children made taking this time to pray impossible for me.
We watch as he bows back and forth from the waist, over and over, urgently, obsessively. I know his face without seeing it: eyes scrunched tight behind his rimless glasses, forehead creased with longing, pale thin lips, mostly covered by his beard, moving quickly, murmuring the ancient devotions by rote. He lifts his long hands to the ceiling, and I see the leather straps of his tefillin winding down his left forearm, around his hand and middle finger, boldly black against his freckled skin. He leans back and gazes upwards, twists from side to side, then pounds his chest with his right fist, slowly, repetitively, powerfully enough that I can hear it, drumming the rhythm of his heart beneath. He reaches forward to take his siddur from the table top, and buries his face in its pages. What is he searching for so desperately? I turn away. Is it a sin to be jealous of God?
I lead the children to the kitchen.
The Author: Lisa Emanuel
Born in New Zealand, Lisa studied law and political science in Wellington, Jerusalem and Sydney. She has worked in the NSW Parliament, as a Federal Court Judge’s Associate, as a Competition Lawyer in private practice, and in marketing and communications. She lives in Sydney with her husband and three children.
To contact the author email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +61 (0)403 857 528.