Red Bird Rising
Becca drops her announcement into the conversation casually. “So… I met someone and it’s looking pretty serious so far.”
She is sitting at a long table in the party room of the Hasidic shteeble near her childhood home, the small synagogue that her parents, creatures of habit that they are, still attend. Her father prays in the old shul three times a day but also likes to schmooze politics and business with the men; her mother attends services on Shabbos and holidays and finds some measure of peace murmuring psalms from her tattered Tehillim. Becca is surrounded by the smells of her youth: the tang of gefilte fish, the must of yellowing tomes and the mildew of unwashed woolen prayer shawls, and by family members and their various extensions: sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews. Her parents. They are gathered to celebrate the bris of Becca’s sister’s first grandson. (Becca still has difficulty wrapping her head around the fact that she is, at age thirty-two, attending the circumcision feast of her great-nephew!)
Becca believes she’d murmured her news privately to the sister sitting nearest her, and so is taken aback by the silence that greets her pronouncement. Becca’s father eyes her mistrustfully.
Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
During the course of the evening, Becca’s family learns her new boyfriend’s name (Paul); what he does for a living (attorney); that yes, he most certainly is Jewish even with a name like that (and the grandson of Auschwitz survivors—because that little nugget tends to seal in authenticity like nothing else); that they met on JDate, and yes, that means she dates online which means on a computer, yes exactly that kind of crazy meshugas; that he’d grown up strictly Orthodox frum and attended yeshiva just like Becca and now no longer considers himself observant.
Just like Becca.
The family is unprepared for this last revelation. It is one of those glaring truths of which everyone is acutely aware but works really hard to ignore.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca answers her youngest sister’s call apprehensively. The caller ID flashes “Sara Leah” but she knows her other three sisters are conferencing in. The group call begins as an intervention of sorts.
“Bec, we’re calling because we all agree” (something new there, Becca muses) “that you’re intent on making Mommy and Tatty ill.” (Nothing new there. Surprise, surprise.)
The sisters all begin to talk over one another. Becca, pacing in the galley kitchen of the apartment she shares with her new fiancé Paul and her two-nights-a-week-and-every-other-weekend son Ari, puts the call on speaker and lets Paul listen in. It’s easier than trying to find the words to explain her family’s dysfunction, the unclouded contempt that erupts from them when faced with the agnosticism of one of their own. Their voices are jumbled, and all four are shouting over one another in a loud bid to be heard first. Angry fragments filter through the speakerphone: “…frumkeit means nothing…” “…not observant, unbelievable…” “…what about Ari…” “…what kind of example for your son…” “…a shiksa now…” “…marrying a goy…” “…killing us slowly…” “…a shanda, shameful…” and so on.
The message becomes clear: Becca is self-centered and arrogant. Becca is difficult and ungrateful. Becca is a terrible daughter and an even worse mother who thinks of no one but herself. Becca must surely be on drugs because why else would she behave this way. Becca is responsible for their parents’ anxiety, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. Becca is to blame for the inordinate amount of time their mother spends on a therapist’s couch and for the startling amount of silver in their father’s beard. Becca is single-handedly hammering the final nail into his coffin.
“We thought you should know how we all feel. And just so this doesn’t come as a surprise, we thought it only right to tell you that Tatty called each of us separately and forbade us to come to your wedding.”
In a remote recess of Becca’s reeling brain she is able to think, Forbade you? Are you nine or are you all married women with husbands and kids and mortgages? Actually, scratch the mortgage part—all her sisters are still dependent on their father’s financial support because their husbands are “learning,” i.e., warming a bench in a yeshiva for young married men and not making a living, and their families are hard pressed to make ends meet on a teacher’s or secretary’s salary. So yes, it actually makes perfect sense to Becca that each sister has branded herself Tatty’s champion and waves his banner furiously before the charge.
And in a separate corner of her mind lurks her ultimate fear: Now that Paul’s seen my hideous skeletons, he’ll run for the hills.
Years of practice have made Becca adept at compartmentalizing her thoughts and keeping them hidden deep.
* * *
Some weeks later.
Becca is called in for a parent-teacher conference. It is an unusual time for a conference, given that her middle-school son is nearing the end of a remarkably productive school year, all things considered. This is a golden son, a hard-fought-and-lost son, a son who’d been unceremoniously dropped back into Becca’s life by his indifferent father who’d swiftly lost interest in the daily grind of parenting. A son who remains the epicenter of his mother’s existence. This is Ari, whose response to Becca’s cautious coming-out of the religion closet had been a flustered, “You mean like, you eat like, pork and stuff?” and “You mean, like you drive on Shabbos, like in a car? Things like that?” He’d briefly mulled over this new version of his mother before regaining his composure, then hugged her and said, “I’ve never seen you as happy as you are with Paul. So that’s the most important thing to me, Ma. That you’re happy.” This is Ari, whose teacher now wishes to speak most urgently with Becca.
Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do.
Rabbi Goldblatt is waiting for her in the yeshiva’s office, surrounded by black-hatted teenage boys all talking with their hands, all talking at once, ritual fringed tzitzis swaying from their belts. He shoos them out of the room and waves her into a chair opposite him.
“I hope you don’t mind the hasty nature of this meeting, Rebecca—may I call you Rebecca? …As I mentioned on the phone, there is no need to worry about Ari, he’s doing just fine. He’s not aware that I’ve called you in.” He hesitates.
Becca’s anxiety trickles down her back into the waistband of her skirt. She manages a cautious half smile. “Please. I’m listening.”
Rabbi Goldblatt seems a decent sort. This past year, all of their interactions on behalf of her boy had revealed a sympathetic person whose emotional intelligence, to Becca’s surprise and relief, consistently matched his scholarly aptitude. Today, however, the rabbi seems discomfited.
“Someone came to visit me recently. Um, this is awkward to say the least.” He clears his throat. “It was your father. Ari’s grandfather.” Becca feels her windpipe closing. Rabbi Goldblatt continues haltingly.
“He seemed to think it his urgent duty to warn me. To warn me that Ari’s continued exposure to you, his mother, would be catastrophic for the boy’s spiritual health.” He stops, catching Becca’s eye. She believes she sees compassion brimming in him.
“It was a highly unusual conversation. Quite difficult. But I imagine it’s far more difficult for you to hear this than it was for me. Shall I continue?”
Becca nods silently, adrift. She listens as if from a distance.
“Your father told me things I had no right to hear. Things about you. Things… I did not need to know. He felt he was safeguarding his grandchild by exposing you, or should I say branding you as an unfit mother. He…well, he believes you’re corrupting your son. He said your home is not kosher, and—actually he said quite vociferously that…that you blatantly desecrate—that you’re mechalel Shabbos…” Rabbi Goldblatt exhales quickly, clearly unsettled by his role in this particular play.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart.
“Listen, Rebecca. I know you as Ari’s mother. You’ve always shown yourself to be a mensch, a good person, a good mother…even so, it’s none of my business, you see? I’m not the judge of you.
Rabbi Goldblatt’s forehead is shiny with sweat, with the effort of playing referee in the midst of a melee. “Your father,” he resumes loudly, “is portraying his own daughter as a shiksa who doesn’t deserve to raise her own son! I’m sorry, but none of this is my business, first of all, and second of all,” the rabbi pauses, the energy gone from him. “I just—I just think you deserve to know what’s going on behind your back.”
Maybe his voice trails off or maybe Becca stops listening. Between one heartbeat and the next Becca feels the blood drain from her cheeks; breathing is something she suddenly needs to remember how to do. Clouds of déjà vu settle in her memory. Her father, she is forced to admit, is indeed capable of such cruelty. Her father, her Tevye, who rails against the rebellion of a daughter. Her father, her not-Tevye, her father who is unable to eventually come around, like Tevye, to tolerate what he cannot control. In the name of God, religion, and faith, Becca’s father takes no prisoners.
* * *
Some years earlier.
Becca is not Becca yet. She is still Rivky, still a slender eight, still eleven and whip-smart, still a coltish fourteen, still fearful of her father, of rabbis, of Yom Kippur the awesome Day of Judgment, of enumerating all the myriad sins of the year that’s passed and klopping al chayt, beating her chest with a closed fist as she recites rivers of tears in shul, her youthful back bent to the sorrow and guilt of one much, much older and hardened to the world.
She is still Rivky, she is twenty-two, and she is leaving her young husband. She wants to explore the outside and change her name and wear blue jeans and fling the shaitel from her head and grow her own hair back and inhabit the world fully, and the only way to do this is through divorce. Rivky expects an angry husband, a husband who will marshal the resources of family and community to keep her home, keep her covered, keep her hidden, keep her obedient. But she is unprepared for the summons to her father’s office. She is unprepared to be peppered with questions, with accusations, from bearded big-bellied men sitting, watching, hovering from their seats in a semi-circle as Rivky, unprepared, stands before them, trembling and terrified and stripped naked in front of the questions, the questions, the insinuations of slut, the censure, the sins.
Rivky floats away from her body, her body that stands like a target. She watches herself from afar.
“Where did you go late at night last week? Who were you with?” Rivky worries a thread at her hem and sees her skirt unraveling, unraveling, until there is no more skirt…
“Do you go to the movies in secret? Do you check out filthy goyish books from the library?” Rivky breathes in the light as the sleeves of her jacket slip off her arms…
“Do you spoil your holy body with treif food from treif restaurants?” Rivky’s shaitel, made of someone else’s hair, slides back from her head, exposing the uneven shaved stubble on her scalp, and drops whispering to the floor…
“Do you corrupt your soul with indecent goyish music? Do you turn on the lights on Shabbos?” Rivky watches her blouse fall from her shoulders and gather in soft folds at her feet…
“Do you dip in the mikvah after you menstruate to be permitted to your husband? As the Torah commands?” Rivky’s opaque tights are suddenly sheer, showing her legs…
“Are you a lesbian? Are you an adulteress? Have you had forbidden relations outside of the sanctity of your marriage?” Rivky’s bra and panties are visible to all the men in the room. She is undressed, she is visible, to all the men in the room.
And so the bearded men, her father’s friends, her father sitting amongst them, decide that Rivky is unfit to mother her toddler son, because every month she insists on wearing tampons while going for her Shabbos walks which, her concerned husband worries, could be construed as carrying, which could be interpreted as violating the laws of the holy Sabbath. They consider her unfit because she was once seen stepping out of a McDonald’s (a McDonald’s!!!) with a cup of coffee, which could only mean she was blatantly flouting the laws of kashrus. They deem her unfit because she’d recently attended a nursery school orientation for her son, after which the menahel hastily phoned her father to say he was very sorry to do this to a man who is such a pillar of the community, BUT. Your daughter, the mother of the little boy Ari, does not belong in our school. The young woman is immodest, her wig is long. The young woman stands out, her skirts are modish. The young woman is noticeable, indecorous, visible.
The tribunal of bearded men is not yet done with Rivky. They decide as well that she must leave the community and that it is best for Rivky’s husband to raise the boy. Never mind that each of these men has a separate feud, over money or shul politics, with Rivky’s husband. Still. He is the one best suited, they believe, to raise Ari up as a respectable member of the Hasidic community. Much like themselves.
Rivky loves to read Victorian novels and in this pursuit often bumps up against phrases that describe various ways one may suffer from, or actually die of, a broken heart. In this moment, listening to the panel of rabbis sitting in judgment of her, deciding her fate—in this moment, facing the loss of her child, her family, her friends, all of life as she knows it—only in this moment does Rivky understand “broken heart.” She pushes the shame and the rage and the humiliation down, down into a deep place where she will try to forget, and be forgiven.
It is decided. Rivky becomes outcast.
Rivky becomes Becca.
* * *
Becoming Becca means leave-taking, means reinventing, means self-immolating. Becca means to fight her way out of her rigid, glistening chrysalis. She digests the worm that is her self and from the soup she pulls her eyes, newly sighted, and wings, antennae. Becoming Becca means flying, means running, means rounding corner after cutting corner, means slamming. Slamming doors that shut fast on the past and open up to poetry and song. She wrenches words from somewhere deep. Words explode onto her page, words burst from her lips. Words buried in vaults, words hidden in hollows of shame, words that air the soil of secrets to the cleansing light of day. Words that reignite her mother’s distress, her father’s wrath, her sisters’ rage, disappointment and dishonor all around. Becca writes lyrics to rap songs, staccato punches that reverberate with anger, sorrow, truth. She writes poems of anguish and celebration. She slams in dark dodgy East Village basements. She writes torch songs that fuse the fiction of her imagination and the reality of her torn, almost beautiful life. She sings in Bowery lounges that stink of beer and the press of flesh. She sings, she tests her brand new wings. She writes. She writes like she’s running out of time, like she’s Alexander Hamilton reimagining her country from the ground zero up. Becca builds a world. She puts the pieces of the broken one back together. She is mother. She is partner. She is nightingale. She is red bird rising, leaving ashes at her feet.
* * *
Sometime here and now.
Becca knows enough about fetal ultrasounds to note the absence of a tiny heartbeat. She is almost seven weeks pregnant, or she was, until this morning’s bloody flush in the toilet. The doctor explains to Becca and Paul about gestational sacs and embryonic poles and fetal viability and then schedules a D&C. He leaves and softly closes the door to the examination room to give them space to begin the grieving process. It is three months before their wedding; it is Ari’s twelfth birthday; it is the day after Yom Kippur.
Becca thinks that the timing of her miscarriage, exactly a year before her son’s bar mitzvah and directly following the Day of Atonement, is significant. She is wracked with grief and guilt. She begins to venture down the rabbit hole. Maybe her family is right. Maybe she truly is unfit for motherhood. See, she cannot even sustain a viable pregnancy after leaving her roots behind. Maybe she is indeed uprooted, unmoored, a waif in the wind at the mercy of the elements, with no Torah, no tradition, to anchor her. Becca resolves to visit her father to make amends, but she is paralyzed by fear. She is in no shape to be in the same room as her father, let alone confront him. Paul steps up.
“Why don’t I meet with him? You know, man to man. I can make him see how special you are, I can convince him that he’s missing out on his own family.”
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch.
Becca starts to interrupt him—“He’ll eat you alive!” but Paul calms her.
“I don’t have a history with him like you do. He doesn’t affect me the same way. I’m sure he’ll come around to me.” Becca is comforted by this proposal. Paul is good in the living room, like Jerry Maguire; he has a gift for getting people to buy what he’s selling. She is heartened by the notion that Paul’s natural dignity, his reasonable lawyer’s mien, his cool head, will prevail.
Within a few days, Paul meets with his future father-in-law in Becca’s childhood living room. They talk. (Or, as Paul recounts to Becca afterward, Tatty talks and Paul takes a beating.) To every one of Paul’s explanations of misunderstanding, to each of his protestations of innocence, to all of his avowals of Becca’s virtue, her gutzkeit, Becca’s father puts forth arguments of ancient Talmudic law, imagining justice being meted out as if they are living in the Second Temple era, as if Paul is actually a Gentile and not, in fact, a Jew born and bred.
“If we were living during the time of the Beis Hamikdosh, do you know Rivky would be sentenced to death by skilah! Yes, stoning—don’t look so shocked. Because she’s like the Gemara describes, a ben soyrer umoyreh, a rebellious child. Doesn’t heed her parents’ discipline. And because she’s mechalel Shabbes. And as her father, I would be responsible for being the first to push her off the cliff!”
“You know Paul, you seem like a nice person, but—maybe not such a good yid, you know… And for the life of me I can’t understand why you would want to marry Rivky—but in any event I’m not permitted to allow you sit at my Shabbes table, because then the wine would be considered yayin nesech, tainted, contaminated.”
Paul notices he is being lectured. He is highly educated in Talmudic law from his own yeshiva days and recognizes the fallacies inherent in the arguments so passionately put to him by Becca’s father. But this is beside the point.
Eventually the Holocaust makes an appearance and wraps up the session. “It’s not enough about our families—Rivky’s grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins… It’s not enough how we suffered at the hands of the Nazis? People died because they refused to give up Shabbes, my parents in the camps didn’t give themselves a heter, an exemption, to eat treif, they didn’t allow themselves to make excuses to eat non-kosher…and they had the biggest excuse of all! And my own daughter? Who I had such high hopes for? Mein eigene tochter, she turns her back. Such beeshes heaped on our heads… Such humiliation. Mommy and I can’t talk to our neighbors, we mamesh can’t even walk in the street…”
And practically in the same breath: “But I’m always ready to forgive her. I’m waiting for Rivky to come to her senses and leave all this foolishness—all these shtisim behind. Tell her I’m waiting for her to come back and be part of the mishpucha again. If she behaves the way she’s supposed to, the way she was taught. She knows—she was raised in my house! She knows exactly what needs to be done. The basics. Nu, genik shoyn mit di narishkeit. This madness has gone on long enough. Tell her I’m waiting.”
At this last, Paul silently thanks whatever angel of a filter he possesses for not allowing the news of Becca’s miscarriage (and of course, her illicit pre-marital pregnancy) to escape him today. But this is beside the point as well. The point is Becca and Paul now recognize they must sever ties with her delusional parent if they intend to fashion a healthy life for themselves and their future family.
* * *
Some weeks before Becca marries Paul.
Becca glances at the handwritten sign in Hebrew and Yiddish announcing this is a house of mourning. She gently eases open the door to the women’s entrance and steps inside. Her old friend Ruchi, now a prominent rabbi’s wife herself, sits in a low chair close to the ground, her head bound with a black satin tichel wrapped tightly, revealing the one-inch band of synthetic hair that is her shpitzel, her blouse torn at the neck to reveal a modest black shell. Ruchi is surrounded by her mother the rebbetzin and her sisters, all sitting in similar low chairs. All their blouses are torn. All their heads are bound. There is a steady murmur of women’s voices, women who are there to comfort the bereaved among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, as the traditional blessing says.
Becca and Ruchi have a long history of laughter, secrets, tears, and hushed whispers. Back when Becca still answered to Rivky and Ruchi’s close-shaven scalp still sprouted brunette strands, the two were inseparable on summer nights out on Ruchi’s parents’ back porch. Their favorite game was “What If,” a rich springboard for their delirious girlish fantasies and dreams. “What If” encompassed boys, periods, high school, goyim, parents, clothes, music, hair, and weddings and marriage (specifically, the cost-benefit ratio of the freedom of marriage to the requisite post-ceremony shearing of the kallah’s bridal hair). Many a moonlit night they passed in pursuit of these faraway notions. Ruchi remains one of the precious few who loves Rivky and Becca equally, as if they are same person. Ruchi loves Becca without looking over her shoulder to worry who’s watching them walk together down the street. Ruchi loves Becca regardless of her bare head, her exposed arms, the obvious immodesty of her wardrobe. Ruchi is able to love Becca even though their paths have diverged because Ruchi possesses an extraordinary and uncommon sense of self, a self that was forged together with Becca in the fires of adolescence and stoked into a pillar of strength by a father capable of loving her. Now, Becca returns to the friend she never lost, as radically different from each other as they appear, to console Ruchi as she sits shiva for her father.
While he was alive Ruchi’s father had been the rav of the little shul on the corner, the very shul where the family now sits shiva for their lost father, where the congregation mourns their lost leader. Every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rivky/Becca would feel transformed from her insides out, listening to the rav pour his soul into the davening, his prayers, she imagined vividly, rending the heavens, bypassing the angels, landing directly at Hashem’s throne. The rav was the only human being she’d ever known who could lift her neshama, her soul, out of its earthly confines and allow her spirit to soar. The High Holy Days in Ruchi’s father’s shteeble were, for Rivky back then, the height of religious ecstasy. There was no sin she could commit that would not be forgiven, no good will she could not achieve.
But that was then.
Now, Ruchi implores Becca with tears of love for her gone father, for her precious friend: “Becca. It’s time to make amends with your father. He won’t be around forever. Take a look around you—we are sitting shiva for a man we thought had so much more time. Time will cheat you, Becca. Forgive him.”
* * *
Ruchi’s words, their weight. Her pale tear-streaked skin and puffy pink eyes. Her sudden orphan status. All of it, swirling around in the vortex of Becca’s head. She begins to see her father, mortal and limited and not forever for this earth. She imagines him, still and silent and stone-cold, the lone inhabitant of a plain pine box. Her heart skips; she catches a breath. Becca forgets, briefly, his stance on the status of her sinner’s soul. She discounts, fleetingly, the cruelty of his discipline. She ignores, for the moment, his intractability. Becca scours the very depths of her conscience, her spirit, her perceptions of a daughter’s fidelity. After some emotional wrangling with Paul—who, after all, had been on the receiving end of a mere fraction of the whole, and admittedly tries his very best to appreciate the enormity of his fiancée’s misgivings, her ambiguity, her doubt—after arguing and shouting about pride and family and death and ego and being right and the thickness of blood, Becca ultimately secures Paul’s blessing and she finds herself, two weeks before their wedding day, at the entrance to the shteeble where her father prays. The men’s entrance. She swallows a steadying breath and pushes open the door to face a wall of white fringed talleisim, swaying and murmuring. Becca searches the front of the room and notices her father’s distinctive stoop, shrouded, swaying, his face obscured by the ceremonial silver atara wrapped across his forehead, the hum in the room and the rhythm of his swinging prayer shawl almost hypnotic in the stifling heat of the old beis medrash.
Becca gathers her courage. Her voice rings out: “Tatty!”
An abrupt hush. Dozens of tallis-draped men turn to stare in shock at the intrusion, at the woman in their sacrosanct midst. At the front of the room, directly facing the ark containing the holy Torah scrolls, a stooped figure swathed in a yellowing prayer shawl straightens perceptibly. Tatty tosses his tallis imperially over his shoulder and stands like a crowned king, the embroidered silver atara loosely framing the top of his head, the black box of his phylacteries strapped regally to his forehead, the second box of tefillin wrapped tightly around his left bicep, the straps digging deep into his left forearm, marking him indelibly as a man, an observant man, a man of God. Becca, habitually relegated to the world of women across the mechitzah, the opaque divider that separates the sexes, has rarely, if ever, witnessed the glory that is her father in prayer. She gasps at the sight of this king. All it takes is this moment and his silent scowl, and Becca’s resolute intentions threaten to fall away; she is in danger of shrinking back into the little girl she’d fitfully outgrown, the little girl at the mercy of a hostile world. She is in danger of becoming once again the wayward, dissolute, impossible daughter, the intrusion, the disturbance in her father’s carefully ordered, regulated kingdom.
He opens his mouth to rebuke her. He speaks, but the words that spill from him, white-tipped with rage, crash against the sheer rock face that is the backbone of his daughter. And Becca—Becca listens, she listens, finally she listens and she heeds, after years of being told, admonished, scolded to listen, listen to elders, listen to men, listen and obey, listen, follow, observe and heed heed heed the words thrown at her, finally Becca listens to her father and what she hears sounds like a eulogy for a girl named Rivky whose small corpse lies battered, dashed from the cliff.
Tatty speaks, but Becca looks past him, past his harsh words, past his glare, past the anger he spits in her direction. She looks past the crowd of gaping men swathed in traditional prayer shawls, past the men wrapped in the suffocation of ancient things, past the men murmuring their astonishment, their strangled displeasure, past the overheated, overwrought, smothering room lined with antique tomes and threadbare siddurim, worn prayer books that had seen their share of human misery… Becca looks further, ahead, past the motes of dust swimming in banners of sudden sunlight and sees the room renewed, rows of chairs now seated with elegant wedding guests, the fashionable women chattering, glittering, the tuxedoed men smiling, nodding, the dust motes sprouting colored wings like fluttering butterflies. She sees her mother, for years torn into atoms of anguish between her husband and child, their twinned tenaciousness. Becca sees her mother there in the new room, dressed in funereal black yes, her rheumy eyes rimmed with the ghosts of many tears, yes, all of that yes, but there, there leaning on her grandson Ari’s shoulder, waiting to embrace her daughter as Becca stands, beatific, with her new husband Paul under the chuppah, luminous in white beneath the marriage canopy. Becca looks past, and peers closely at her future. She believes she can see the faint flicker of flaming red wings shimmering at her back.