PART TWO: THE GLASS MOUNTAIN
CHAPTER 20: IN THE COUNTRY OF THE WISE
It was night when I arrived in Israel. My first clear memory from there is of standing beside a wall telephone in Ben Gurion Airport, dialing the number of the Diaspora Yeshiva.
I had chosen the Diaspora Yeshiva because, from the brochures I had studied in Madison, it seemed somehow the most spiritual. I’d had a premonitory flash of something significant in the mailbox on the day the brochure from Diaspora arrived. I had written to Diaspora that I would be coming.
The telephone rang and rang. There was no answer.
But there was someone looking out for me: one of a group of young people who were also coming to study in Jerusalem. We must have gotten talking in the customs line, and I seem to recall his expressing skepticism when I said I was going to Diaspora. When I stood back from the telephone, perplexed, he said, “Why don’t you come to Brovender’s with us?” Rabbi Haim Brovender was head of Yeshivat Ha-Mivtar, whose companion school for women was Michlelet Bruria. I could stay overnight at Bruria and see what I wanted to do in the morning.
The sherut, the airport taxi, climbed slowly throught the soft, warm night toward Jerusalem. We came at last to a large junction. In the glare of the streetlights I noticed a building, the roof of which was oddly shaped; it had a wavy profile. Like everything else in Israel, from the airport on, it looked a bit gray and run-down. This, I later learned, was the Rav Kook Institute. Shortly after that the sherut turned up into a maze of streets lined with three- and four-story apartment buildings, all built of the same stone that showed gray in the streetlights, and stopped at the corner of Ben-Tsion Street. The other young woman, Basha Lea, and I got out, and the young men helped us to carry our bags up to the apartment of the head of the women’s yeshiva, Rabbi Haim T.. He and his wife Cynthia greeted us pleasantly, and Cynthia made up our beds on the living room floor, which like virtually every floor in Israel consisted of squares of terrazzo made from chips of the yellowish-white dolomite known as “Jerusalem stone.” Tomorrow we could move to one of the apartments across the street that served as dormitories.
I woke up early the next morning to children getting ready for school and sunlight filtering through the small holes in the trisim, the metal shades, already lowered to keep out the August sun whose intensity made itself felt despite the dimness. At breakfast I made the acquaintance of lebben, the watery yoghurt that is an Israeli staple. Basha Lea and Cynthia were soon deep in a discussion of the practicalities of Israeli life. Bashi, a small dark woman with a plain, intense face, was from New York, already engaged, and planning to make aliyah. (“Aliyah,” or “ascent,” is the standard term for immigration to Israel.) Cynthia was a robust young woman with blond hair that sometimes escaped from beneath her headscarf. She and her husband, also from the United States, had made aliyah some years previously, and were still struggling with the mortgage and the problem of finding an apartment large enough for their growing family.
On my first day in Jerusalem, Basha Lea and I moved to one of the dormitory apartments across the street. Like several other yeshivot that I visited, Bruria did not have a building of its own but operated out of rented apartments. The room in which we were lodged was furnished with an aron or large wooden cabinet (there did not seem to be a built-in closet in all Israel), two narrow beds with flat wire springs, and perhaps a small table. The bed was not firm enough for my back, but a board was found, and with this the three-inch foam mattress was quite comfortable. (A thin foam mattress on a board proved to be the cure for the backache which an “extra firm” American mattress had not relieved.) I was welcome to stay there while making up my mind where to study.
For a week or two, then, I went around talking to various people, trying to make that decision, which felt momentous and difficult. Perhaps I was hoping for an unambiguous “sign” to be shown to me. But as to the “signs” that had given me so much comfort, and occasional guidance, one of the rabbis I talked to during this process heard me out and shook his head. He mentioned the passage in Genesis where Eliezer of Damascus asks for a sign to tell him if Rivkah is Isaac's predestined mate. He said that in general, asking for a sign is assur, forbidden. He quoted a Talmudic saying: "The way one wants to go is the way one is led." I had guessed that my Orthodox conversion called into question everything on which I had based my life; it seemed that the trial had begun.
In those days yeshiva studies in the Orthodox community of Jerusalem were very informal. Room, board and tuition were free. There were no semesters, and courses did not begin or end. One might be studying “Chumash (Pentateuch) with Meforshim (commentators),” or “Jewish philosophy” (Maimonides, Nachmanides), or halakhah (ritual laws) or the prayerbook, but there was no attempt to give an overview; you just learned whatever piece was being taught at the time. The word for lesson, “shi’ur,” means basically a unit of measurement, a certain quantity. A tablespoon of Torah. There were no examinations. Students were lodged six or eight to an apartment, two or three to a room, and meals were served in another apartment. On the Sabbath there might be a meal or two at the yeshiva, but generally students were assigned as guests to families in the neighborhood or sometimes farther away.
The yeshivot that I visited were of the kind called “ba’al teshuvah yeshivot.” Their main purpose was to gather young “returnees” and not only teach them Torah, but integrate them into the Orthodox way of life. This included making shidduchim, helping the students to find marriage partners. There were yeshivot that were mainly for Israelis and others where nearly everyone was from an English-speaking background.
All of these yeshivot were Orthodox, but there were shades and nuances, corresponding to the gradations within the Orthodox world. Michlelet Bruria was a “modern Orthodox” yeshiva in Kiryat Moshe, a mixed religious and non-religious neighborhood. Bruria prided itself on giving women the opportunity to study Talmud. To the “left” of Bruria was Pardes, where not only did women study Talmud, but men and women studied together. In the modern Orthodox milieu men wore colored shirts and slacks and knitted kippot (skullcaps), often with fanciful designs; women’s skirts were below their knees and blouses covered the collarbone, but short sleeves were occasionally seen, and married women wore headscarves that did not always cover the hair completely, or might even go bareheaded. To the “right” of Bruria was Neve Yerushalayim, located in Bayit Vegan, the central part of which was predominantly “black.” “Black” meant that the men wore black suits and black hats, even on the hottest summer days. Indoors the hat might be removed to reveal a plain black skullcap. The women wore long sleeves, and married women’s hair had to be completely covered, either with a headscarf or a wig. There were “blacker” neighborhoods than Bayit Vegan, like the famous Mea Shearim, but these neighborhoods did not host baal teshuvah yeshivas. At Neve Yerushalayim women did not study Talmud. And then there was Diaspora Yeshiva, which was in a category by itself.
So which yeshiva should I attend? It seemed that Bruria or Pardes would have been the logical place. Pardes was not only liberal in letting women study Talmud with men, but it seemed interested in its students’ individual interests. Before coming to Jerusalem I had filled out their application, which asked a lot of good questions. Among other things it asked the applicant to talk about a favorite film. At Bruria, I took to Rabbi T. immediately. He was a slender young man with dark hair, a narrow face with a mouth that turned up readily, and dark eyes that shot off sparks of humor. One could discuss things with him.
It was the T.s' eldest son whom I saw careening along Ben Tsion Street on his bike, tsitsit flying, singing one of the innumerable musical settings of "Hallelu-kah" (and being careful to give the Divine Name an altered pronunciation, as one must when not praying).
I had a discussion with Rabbi T. about science. The Orthodox tradition has various ways of dealing with it. One is to regard the laws of nature as a shvu’ah, an oath, on the part of the Creator. G-d has promised, so to speak, to go on doing things in certain fixed ways. But the laws of nature as well as the occasional miracles are expressions of the will of G-d. Rabbi T. tried gently to hold me back from subjecting myself to Orthodox piety at its most extreme. I remember him as a man of good will, and hope that other students have better justified his generosity and openness.
Over the next week or so, I looked around the English-speaking yeshivot, listened to classes, spoke with the teachers. I finally got Diaspora Yeshiva on the phone, made an appointment, and went to see the rabbinical couple who ran it. But the place put me off by the particular quality of its run-downness, in which a shtetl carelessness about material appearances seemed to merge with the ex-hippie insouciance of the students. Then, too, the rosh yeshiva's wife asked me personal questions, and when it came out that I had no intention of marrying, she said that this was very un-Jewish. It did not sound as if they would be flexible even for a moment. A few years later, two of the families I got to know best turned out to have been formed at Diaspora; but at that moment it was not for me. At Neve Yerushalayim, however, it seemed as though I would at least be given more time.
Neve Yerushalayim was the largest of the schools I visited. I can recall ten or fifteen teachers. Not all the students were ba 'a lot teshuva; many came from religious neighborhoods in New York. There was also an Israeli section where classes were given in Hebrew. There was a housemother, Mrs. R., a woman in middle age with a beautiful serene face beneath a gleaming auburn sheytel. Her apartment was rather dark, and as usual in Bayit Vegan the decor was mainly formed by the shelves of sforim (religious books) with the gilt lettering on their spines; still an atmosphere of order and graciousness reigned there. Once I heard her speaking with her husband in Yiddish, which I half understood. The place gave me a feeling somewhat like my grandmother's house. The depth of time. Mrs. R. was known to make shidduchim for the students. I could imagine that with her it was a real art. I told her my story and she listened, as though accepting. From her, at least, there would be no pressure.
The life of the school was interwoven with the life of the neighborhood, Bayit Vegan, which is a rather special place, perhaps in part because of its physical layout. You approach it via Herzl Boulevard, one main arteries of western Jerusalem. The bus climbs as the land falls away to the right, so that you look away over a long valley. You get out at the top and turn left onto Rechov haPisgah (Summit Street), which runs along the top of the hill; the other streets are laid out around it. The central part of the neighborhood, as said, was virtually all frum, though on one of the lower, outer streets, Rechov Uzziel, I did know a couple of households in which the wife did not cover her hair, and on a street beneath that lived the Singers who were not frum at all. On Shabbat the entrance from Herzl Boulevard, where traffic continued to flow though much thinned, was barricaded. Pedestrian traffic took over. It made me think of that moment years before at the Children’s Zoo when the people had gathered to watch the figures emerge from the clock and go back in again. All up and down Rechov Hapisgah the residents would stroll, men in black suits and black hats, women in frilly dresses, children dressed in miniature replicas of their parents’ costumes, greeting each other, while in the background prayers could be heard from one or more of the synagogues in the neighborhood. There was one large, imposing synagogue, the “Gra” (named for “Gaon Rabbi Eliezer,” the sage of Vilna; the great teachers are often referred to acronymically). But there were also many “shtieblach” tucked away among the apartment buildings and revealed to the outsider only by the sounds that issued from them. It seemed a different world, a world self-contained and innocent.
Another thing that caught my attention at Neve Yerushalayim was that there were several students named Esther. Since my conversion I had not met anyone else by that name.
For about a week I was the scene of a wrenching conflict, as my head said “Bruria,” and my heart “Neve.” They had never been so sharply at odds before. Eventually I decided – for the time being – for Neve. Rabbi T. saw me off graciously, indicating that the door remained open.
As at other road-forks in the past, I can see that the road not taken would not necessarily have been a dead end. Had I gone to Bruria from the start, I might have made a serious beginning in a milieu where I would have had a chance of finding a niche. Though I had started late as a Torah scholar, I might, with application, have become a senior student, a student teacher, a teacher, within a few years. Eventually I might have been recognized as a scholar and been able to say a word or two. Rabbi T. had said that though I would never be the kind of scholar whose authority derives from massive erudition, there was also a place in the tradition for the one whose intuition seizes on the significant detail. That I did not take this chance – it was offered to me more than once – may have been the greatest mistake of my life. As I think about it now, I can only ascribe my failure to grasp this opportunity to a self-destructive impulse that I did not learn to criticize quite soon enough. Though perhaps “self-destructive” is too negative a characterization; one could also call it an instinctive wariness of niche-finding, a compulsion to remain outside fixed frameworks, to return to the “uncarved block” as the Tao has it. Without that impulse, whatever it was, I would never have been drawn to Plath and then to Celan. And without Celan I would probably never have become Jewish. And becoming Jewish had been, as I trust the reader has gathered, not untraumatic.But if my experience at Neve came at a high price, still it was something of value.
As I think about those few months at Neve, the memories crowd in on me. What should I tell first? The experience was so incredibly rich and varied. There were worlds within worlds in the circle of those streets.
Begin with the classes, the ostensible reason why I was there. I had many teachers. One rabbi, who lived in the neighborhood, taught basic halakhah for returnees. Certain things were familiar to me from my Conservative training. Rabbi L. and Rabbi F. were, like many Conservative rabbis, “orthoprax”: they kept kosher strictly and did not drive or phone on Shabbat. But in Bayit Vegan, as in Orthodox communities everywhere, halakha was a kind of science. Every possible contingency had been provided for and written down somewhere. For instance, the rabbi who taught us halakha told us, not without a touch of humor, that if we forgot to say the proper brakhah (blessing) before putting a piece of food, we should if possible remove the food from our mouths and say the blessing before putting it back!
This kind of thing did not bother me. I found it quite logical, and followed the new detailed prescriptions as best I could. Though naturally a bit slipshod in my ways (the Taoist component, again), I had always liked structure (and throughout the ‘sixties and ‘seventies had sustained a constant barrage of criticism for this). I guess people are often a bit paradoxical about order and structure. Some of the housewives whose homes I visited in Bayit Vegan kept neat, clean homes; others emphatically did not, though scrupulous about kashrut. Neatness was optional in Bayit Vegan; kashrut was a requirement. And it was in Bayit Vegan that I heard a story about a husband and wife who had been separated over Shabbat during one of the times of turbulence in Europe. Neither knew where the other was. After Shabbat they were reunited, and the first question the husband asked the wife was: “Did you light candles?” Lighting the Shabbat candles is one of the few positive ritual obligations incumbent on the Jewish woman. If a woman misses lighting on Shabbat, she must ever after light an extra candle. I thought that in the wife’s place I would have liked my husband to be worried about me rather than the Shabbat candles; at the same time, I understood that the life of the community is in these practices. Failing to light the candles (of course they are understood to represent the soul) is like opening a vein.
Then, too, I had long understood that halakha (“the Law”) represents to Orthodox Jews something quite different from what Christians are led to think by St. Paul’s strictures. Living according to halakhah is like writing in sonnet form, which seems restrictive from the outside, and yet you find that you can say what you want to say in it. Already in Madison I had learned the term “simchat mitsvah” (joy in fulfilling a commandment). The “Law” is not just kept in order to placate a Deity whose punishments are feared; it is rather treasured as a token of relationship with the Creator. The commandments are a way of “sanctifying” mundane actions, giving them significance.
A non-Orthodox poet and scientist whom I met through a Neve connection – Haim Sokolik, of blessed memory – said once that living the Orthodox way of life was like living inside a great poem. A teacher at Neve (was it the same one who taught us halakha?) quoted us a Yiddish saying: “Men darf leben mitn tsaytn (one must live with the times).” He interpreted this as meaning not “keep up with progress,” but “live with the times of the festivals in the Jewish year.” With each holiday – at Neve I experienced Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Chanukah – there are certain spiritual experiences associated. The holidays build on each other, they form a “cycle” that is not just seasonal. Tish’a b’Av, the Ninth of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple, is succeeded by seven weeks of preparation for Rosh Hashanah, which commemorates the creation of the world. The time around Rosh Hashanah, up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is supposed to be a time for introspection and fixing whatever is broken in one’s own life. Then comes Sukkot, the one time when people are actually commanded to be joyful. Building these shelters (which do not keep out the rain) is understood as an expression of trust in the Deity and a preparation for the Messianic Age. There is an inner coherency, symbolized by the fact that each of the major holidays – as well as Shabbat prayers – is referred to as a “remembrance of the going forth from Egypt.”
The Orthodox way of life has an “organic” unity, in which the rituals seem interwoven with the biological texture. Among the songs that are traditionally sung at the end of the Passover seder, there is a cumulative number song where One is G-d, two are the tablets, three the patriarchs, four the matriarchs, six the orders of the Mishnah, seven the days of the week, eight the days of circumcision, nine the months of birth... From within the tradition, all of these things can come to seem equally natural and equally G-d-given.
At Neve I experienced how quickly a person immersed in a community whose way of life has an inner consistency, can come to see the world through that community’s eyes. After I had lived three months in Bayit Vegan, the sight of an older woman with uncovered hair began to bother me! I well understood those who, immersing themselves in the community for good, had adopted its world-view simply and completely.
Moreover, at Neve I was privileged to know a number of people whose families had always been Orthodox, for whom the tradition was inseparable from their ancestral memories. That, of course, formed part of my painful love for this milieu. I could see into it yet feared I would never be able to merge completely with it, because my own ancestral memories were at best analogous. For instance, I could think of the selling of Grandma Macksoud’s house as something like the destruction of the Temple. But I could not expect those around me to share that memory.
And yet in a strange way I did feel at home there. One day on a street in Bayit Vegan I saw some yellow honeysuckle, like the honeysuckle I remembered from the suburb of Washington, D.C. where we lived when I was five. I remembered being shown how to pull off a blossom and suck the drop of the nectar from the base of the little tube. The honeysuckle in Madison was of a different species, without sweetness. I picked one blossom and sucked the nectar, half expecting the kind of “Proustian” experience where the surroundings of the adult fade out and the world of childhood with its fresh sensations is suddenly present again. But nothing of the kind happened. The present was more real than that past. I felt that I was bound to Jerusalem more than to any other place where I had lived.
At Neve there was a moral discipline by which I felt constantly challenged. I recall one woman teacher, a rebbetsin I guess, telling us how to decide whether a given action is right or not. "If you hear yourself thinking, ‘I want to do this,’ it's probably wrong. If you think to yourself, ‘You should do this,’ it's probably right." In the library at Neve I found a copy of a book called Rejoice O Youth!, by Avigdor Miller, which someone had urged me to read. It was not an agreeable book but a rather stern lecture on the duty to feel cheerful and grateful since G-d had created us and had told us exactly how to live so as to be happy. The author suggested that the tendency of many young men to give way to sadness was due to maternaloverindulgence! I had always regarded my tendency to melancholy as a sign of sensitivity, and of course the book made me think of Celan too. One of the rabbis at the school, I'll call him Rabbi S., said to me one morning, when I stated that I was not in the mood for this or that, "Moods are assur (forbidden)." He was a small young man, with a broad yet fine- featured face, a high forehead. He may have given a course on mussar (morality); I remember his explaining that people are judged in the heavenly court not by whether they lied, stole, etc., but on whether or not they did their best given their particular challenges. Thus someone brought up by good parents who stole would be judged harshly, whereas someone brought up among murderers who only stole would be considered meritorious. The mussar movement, especially, had made morality a kind of science. There is a book by Rabbi Selig Pliskin, Love Thy Neighbor, which explains in great detail how the commandment to love one’s neighbor is to be observed in innumerable situations, all carefully classified. The tzaddikim were by and large not simply pious men, but people who had mastered this system of morality so as to apply it correctly, like playing an instrument.
There was one rebbetzin, Rebbetzin H., who was very popular because of her intelligence, aura of strength, and down-to-earth humor. She was from New York, and about my age; she had become a ba ' alat teshuva some years ago, she lived in Mea Shearim with her husband and a large number of children, eight or ten, the oldest of whom was almost bat mitzvah. She was tall, with large eyes and strong features, and always wore a longish, slightly disheveled brown sheytel, so that a certain '60's air clung to her. Despite our very different lives, and her greater self-confidence, I felt that we were somehow alike. She was very definite about turning her back on Western culture. However, I showed her my translation of Celan's "Psalm," which I had written out from memory, and she said thoughtfully that the line from Psalms "Then our mouths shall be full of laughter" has been interpreted to mean that when we are finally shown who the righteous were, there will be some surprises. During Sukkot I ate one meal at her home. It was one of those Orthodox dwellings that are almost completely bare, and untidy into the bargain, as though to show complete contempt for gashmius (physicality). But at the end of the afternoon, with the late rays slanting through the sukkah, her husband played the accordion in the sukkah and sang a mournful, beautiful song that I have never heard before or since. "Indeed I am like a wall, Pure as the sun..." It was a song in which the Congregation of Israel complains to her Beloved of her trials and their separation.
Rebbetzin H. taught a course on the prayerbook. I remember only one detail, about the first blessing of the Amidah, the daily prayer: "G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob." Rebbetzin Heller said that when you said "G-d of Abraham," you were supposed to think of the sefirah of hesed (lovingkindness, abundance ), as Abraham embodied this quality. When you said "G-d of Isaac," you were supposed to think of the opposite quality, gevurah (literally "power," but interpreted to mean "self-restraint," as in "Who is powerful? He who controls his inclination.") With "God of Jacob" you were supposed to think of tiferet (beauty) which is a combination of abundance and restraint, as Jacob represents this balance. This was typical of the way traditional texts were studied in that environment. Perspectives opened up behind each word.
During my time at Neve I lived at two different apartments. In the first apartment, I was put in a large room with two other students. One of my roommates was a young girl named Brocha (Blessing), from the Bronx. She told me her English name was Bernice. Her mother had thought of calling her Beatrice, but concluded that for purposes of yelling out the window, Bernice was better! I think she had studied mathematics. She was sandy-haired, with a pleasantly husky voice, and very funny. I remember her telling me about borer (selection), one of the kinds of action that must not be done on Shabbat. For the commandment of Shabbat rest is, again, not simple; it is interpreted to mean abstention from one of the 39 categories of tasks that were involved in the building of the Tabernacle, which was analogous to the creation of the world. Borer was especially difficult to abstain from, Bernice said. Go through your closet and pick out a dress to wear, and "you've done it again."
I got settled at Neve during Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. It is supposed to be a time of introspection, a time of drawing nearer to the Creator in preparation for the Days of Awe. The name Elul was analyzed for us as an acronym of a phrase from the Song of Songs, ani le-dodi ve-dodi li ( 1 am my beloved's and my beloved is mine ). Each morning at prayers the shofar would be blown once, as a reminder. I never went to morning prayers on weekdays, but you could hear the shofars from the synagogues in the neighborhood. One morning as I stood before the washroom sink, thinking about Elul and whether I should really change my life, a shofar sounded from a nearby shul, and the light over where the mirror would have been – only there was no mirror, because the Orthodox don't put mirrors on walls -- blinked.
Of course, I had already changed my life, and pretty drastically. But one thing I had not considered doing, namely asking for a shidduch. I agonized over this question a good deal, considering that it was almost moot. I was thirty-eight, perhaps the oldest student at Neve, and it is questionable whether I could still have had children. Stories were told of women who became Orthodox at a still later age and married and had a child or two; but there were also, as I was to learn, quite a few older single women who would never find anyone despite the best efforts of the matchmakers. Any eligible men would have plenty of choices without my entering the pool.
And yet there was a voice in my head that kept saying to me that having now become an Orthodox Jew I should be prepared to make a completely new start. Someone told me at Neve that I was, according to halakha, no longer even related to my family of birth! Still less, then, should the entirely imaginary tie to Celan hold me back from at least seeking to build a Jewish home. If I thought that I had made a vow, it is possible, by going to three rabbis, to obtain release from a vow; the Days of Awe were considered an especially appropriate time for doing this. In the event I never took this step, nor did any of those who urged me to seek a shidduch ever mention a specific person. If there had been anyone for me I rather think he would have found me out, as Celan had done through Politzer; I might have simply relied on Providence, since it had shown itself capable of deciding this sort of thing. But it suited me in those years to agonize over the decision (or non-decision) and to talk to various people about it. I suspect now that although consciously I thought of the release from my vow as a possible "ought," there must also have been a strong desire to break loose and rejoin the human race. After all, I had hormones like everyone else.
And the air at Neve Yerushalayim was thick with hormones. Most of the students were in their twenties, and were looking to get married as well as to acquire learning.
The same had been true, of course, at the secular university, where it was often said that the female students were working toward their Mrs. degree. But there the pursuit of matrimony had been regarded with a trace of scorn, and it was always necessary to pretend to be thinking of no such thing. I had hated the manipulativeness of this, and had fantasized now and then about my father just picking out a nice graduate student for me. Here it was aboveboard. And moreover, I gathered that our opposite numbers, the yeshiva bochers, were likewise openly seeking partners, rather than trying to avoid being "caught," because in the Orthodox world an unmarried man is considered incomplete. Most of the ba' a lot teshuvah, battered veterans of the sexual revolution, were at Neve mainly for that reason. I was not so very different from them.
Or perhaps that is after all too prosaic. In these struggles and consultations there was an element of wanting my situation to be recognized. I hoped that here, where there was at the same time so much spirituality and so much eros, my case would be understood. I hoped that there was somewhere a Kabbalist who could read the sign on my forehead, who could understand what G-d had done this time and call it good.
One day my roommates decided to go to Mea Shearim to see a tsadeket whose name was Esther. She was an older woman who had been diagnosed with cancer and had vowed that if she recovered she would devote the rest of her life to distributing charity. One brought her a small contribution and could then also ask her advice. I went with them, taking with me the antique gilt locket.
Esther C. lived in one of those dark, dingy buildings, those uncompromisingly bare apartments, that made no concessions to the visual. She herself was an elderly, somewhat heavyset woman in a faded house dress, with a tight white headscarf, as plain as her dwelling. She projected a plain, earthy common sense. Her English and my Hebrew were about equally halting. But somehow I managed to tell her my story and show her the picture. Looking at that face, she frowned and shook her head. "He has a high forehead. That is the sign of a big seychel (mind). But he is not a good person." And at another point: "He make you big compliment! That's why you like him!" One other thing she said was, "I go the way of our mothers, Sarah and Rachel and Leah and Rivkah. I know what is at the end of that road. I do not know what is at the end of your road. Perhaps a pit."
Presently I left with the others, not expecting to return. Not that what she said had offended me; about Celan’s character I had my own opinion, and as to my own motives and probable fate, the reservations she had voiced were my constant companions. My roommates did go back to her a few weeks later. They reported that she had asked them to bring me again, as she thought I might be a tsadeket. And three and a half years later I met her by chance in the Mahane Yehuda market. Strangely enough I was with my parents at the time; it was during my father’s one visit to the country. She urged me to come and see her and I said I would, but I never did. It still gnaws at my conscience. I try, ordinarily, not to break my word, to respond to anyone who thinks they may have any use for me. And perhaps she would have understood, perhaps she would have been able to help me. It was not the only door that I was to miss in Jerusalem.
There was – how could it have been otherwise – much in the Neve environment that alienated me. I did not like the way some women were treated by their husbands. (So, in the non-Orthodox world, all women are treated well by their husbands?) I didn't like the rule against kol isha, women singing before men; that completely cut off my favorite channel of communication. I could put up with the details of halakha, could even admire the precision, but there would come a point when I felt that it became obsessive, or that people were assuming that G-d was the kind of martinet who gave people orders just to see them jump. Sometimes it seemed a world all black and white, from which color had been forever banished. I admired the intelligence that was being honed, but if we were supposed to be serving G-d, why not direct some of that intelligence toward the solution of real-world problems, the economy, the ecology? A couple of yeshiva bochers I met at one of the homes that invited me for Shabbat said they had asked that question too, but the rabbis said it was not possible in this time. I did not like what was called emunat chachamim, the belief that whatever the sages decree is wise. I did not like it when one rabbi. interpreted the saying in Pirkei Avot "Who is wise? He who learns from every person" to mean "every Torah scholar," since only Torah scholars knew anything. I did not like it when a brilliant young rabbi whose shiurim had some poetic quality was accused of apikorsus, or deviant views. I did not like it when people seemed to be trying with all their might to "believe six impossible things before breakfast." If G-d gave us brains, why should piety entail the humiliation of reason? I mistrusted the view expressed by the Rambam (Maimonides) that we are not meant to understand the reasons for the commandments but to do them because G-d said so. For, said Maimonides, if we concentrate on finding reasons for the commandments then we may also fall to questioning them. I did not like the categorical rejection of Western literature, or Western Jewish writers (1 quickly learned that one did not mention Buber's Tales of the Hasidim.) I did not like the interpretation of the Holocaust as a punishment for assimilation. What with all that attracted me to Neve, and all that repelled me, I sometimes felt as if my head was caught between two clashing cymbals.
I almost went back to Bruria after Rosh Hashanah. But then one evening I was speaking with a fellow-student, a young woman named Michal. She was slight, darkhaired, with features that were both delicate and somehow boyish. She had thought of becoming a writer. At one point in our conversation she looked at me and said thoughtfully, "I can see a man around you, a dark man. Not dark in the sense of evil. Sad, more." I did not leave, not then.
But not long afterward, I began to write again. I had come to Jerusalem without any of my writings, as though intending to start from scratch, and just sit and learn. It might have been better if I could have made this a firm resolve, and held to it. After all, throughout most of graduate school I had written almost nothing. Not believing I would write, scarcely trusting my own reactions, I had absorbed the congenial and the uncongenial alike, unconsciously waiting for the moment when what I had absorbed would begin sorting itself out and shaping itself into a body of understanding. One of the legends of the Talmud was that Rabbi Akiba became a great Torah scholar after starting at the age of forty. But perhaps he did not have a previous education, of which he would have had to empty himself in order to start over. It was not long before I wrote “Invitation” out from memory and began to show it to people. And then I wrote an essay proposing another version of the Small World School of Poetry – a yeshiva for women, with The Web of What Is Written worked into the curriculum! I showed this to a number of fellow-students and teachers, went to visit a couple of rabbis outside the school who had the reputation of being open to innovations. Not surprisingly, the reaction was skeptical. I persisted until I felt myself losing energy. It was then that I began to write c.
The title “c” was meant to refer to Celan’s initial, to the etymological meaning of his first name, and to the speed of light, the universal constant by which other velocities in the universe are measured. (Someone I had read while revising The Web of What Is Written had said that the image of the grandmother was the “universal constant” in Proust’s Recherche.) The work was subtitled “Autoanalysis of a Golem,” and this title had also been in my mind for a while. Although a tongue-in-cheek reference to Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi was intended, this subtitle was also meant to suggest a main thesis of the book, namely that the personality of the writer was the creation of another writer.
I had tried several more times to tell the story of my encounter with Celan, only to break off. It did not seem to take shape. I could not find the right voice and tone. The Midwest, Radcliffe, Berkeley, the hippies I had hung out with, the Jews I had been drawn toward, as well as various writers, had each given me (borrower of styles that I was) a different voice. I would start out writing in one of these voices, and then it would start to feel inauthentic. In c I more or less settled for an imitation of Rilke, the Rilke of Malte Laurids Brigge. c opens with my going into Nadine's room in the Seattle commune house in the light of sunset and writing that poem, "At Evening," that was so much in Nadine's style. After about four pages, doubtful whether I should go on, I showed it to Michal. She liked it; I went on. This time it seemed to flow, it seemed to take shape. Perhaps the reason it took shape was that I had a sort of dialogue partner in mind, namely the Bayit Vegan community, few of whom would ever read it, but I wanted to explain to them (to their image in my mind) why I didn't simply merge with the community and do what was expected of me. I had at least the feeling that this community existed, that it cared.
In c the reminiscences – they occur in an order that is at first associative, then more and more chronological – are interspersed with journal entries about conversations in Jerusalem. Early in c there is an account of an evening in Mea Shearim, where a woman I'll call Rachel, whom I had known in Madison, was learning. Rachel had been part of the Small World for a while, but unfortunately had fallen in love with Greg J., who had not reciprocated. Then she had left Madison, and now she had become completely observant and was studying in Mea Shearim. She had spoken to me of Rabbi S. and offered to take me with her to learn with him. We walked downhill with buildings on one side and rubble on the other, till we came to a house built on so steep a slope that we had to cross from the street ot the street-level floor on a walkway, as if the place were surrounded by a moat. Rabbi S. came out to meet us, a thin man in a black sweater, with a thin gray-and-black beard and a delighted smile, surrounded by four small boys whom he instructed to "give Shalom" to Rachel and me. They held out their hands, squirming and giggling – the only male hands that were offered to me in the religious world. We went into the typically austere main room and sat around the table. He serve us soup with vegetables and noodles, and instructed us on how first to say the blessing for the noodles, then for the vegetables and finally for the soup itself. The lesson was supposed to be about the Chumash, but he seemed in no hurry to open the Chumashim; he wanted to know who the new person was. A poet? Did I have any poems with me? I had the "Invitation" and Rachel also had a poem (a song ofpraise to Jerusalem), and he read them aloud, explaining them as he went and looking at us for confirmation. And it seemed to me that he understood the poem very well, that he wanted what I wanted. Then I talked to him about the Small World, but this was less successful. Rabbi S. explained gently that the sort of intellectual community ofwomen that I was seeking to create was not possible in the framework of the observant community, where the woman was expected to marry and become a "help meet" to her husband.
We talked for a while longer, and then Rabbi S. accompanied us across the moat. Rachel said that she had given up hope of becoming a tsadeket. Rabbi S. said that as a young man he had wanted to be a tsaddik, but then he had given that up and just tried to enjoy life. "And it turns out I don't enjoy anything except Torah. W ell- hardly anything." I thought of going back to see Rabbi S. but never did. Rachel and I lost touch; the last I heard ofher she was married and living in Bnei Brak.
As a change from studies, Neve now and then organized tiyyulim, or excursions to significant places in the country. I have fragmentary memories of the tomb of the prophet Samuel, and Rachel's tomb, and a fuller memory of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron: a vast dark hall with three huge, draped tombs, as of superhuman beings spaced out along its floor. There was also a tiyyul to archaeological sites in the Judean Hills. We saw a massive stone press, for olives I believe, and the Pool of Gibeon, which was a great hole in the ground with a spiral ramp winding around the sides. Looking down into this pit, at the bottom of which the residents of Gibeon had once drawn their water, I was visited by that melancholy awe of past times which ti me, as a geologist’s daughter, still came to me more readily than the “intention” toward G-d that we were supposed to be seeking in prayer.
And sometime in October I went on a tiyyul to Mount Sinai. This tiyyul was organized by Michlelet Bruria, but they let me come along. I knew it was a chance that would not return, for Israel had already promised to give the Sinai back to Egypt. The leaders of the group emphasized that Mount Sinai is not a sacred place for Jews, since the "Shekhinah" (i.e. the Divine Presence, in the pre-Kabbalistic meaning of the term) did not remain on Mount Sinai, but traveled with Israel in the tabernacle until it found a permanent dwelling in the Temple.
We began our climb up Mount Sinai before dawn. I noticed that the moon was a thin, tilted crescent, as one sees it on top of mosques. A few minutes after sumise, we reached the top. On the highest rock, another group of tourists were opening their tins of sardines. There was a small Christian chapel, which was locked and an abandoned mosque, which was open, but when we looked in we quickly drew back, for someone was sitting there, apparently in meditation. But then, as we were standing by the door and our guide was explaining something, a woman from another group came up and banged the door. We all said "Sssh!", but the attention of the person in there had been attracted, for a moment later the door opened from within and the person inside emerged.
She was a rather tall lady, dressed entirely in white; what could be seen of her hair beneath the shawl thrown over her head was blond, parted in the middle; in her face were both beauty and character. She was smiling in a way that reminded me of the lady in that dream I'd had in the spring of 1968, but she put a finger to her lips and did not speak. A sheet of paper enclosed in plastic which she handed to us by way of explanation said that she came to Mount Sinai once a year to pray for a week on behalf of all the world religions -- not that they should merge together, but that they should respect one another, and the followers of each should come to do G-d's will in their own way. A schedule of prayers was given -- one day for Christianity , one for Judaism, etc. At the end the date of departure was given. A young man who had come with his wife on the tour pointed to the word "Departure" and the, inquiringly, at the sky. With a hint ofwryness in her smile she pointed downwards. Shortlyafterward, she went back inside. Later it struck me that the Arabic name of the peak (Jebel Musa, "Moses' mountain") contains the Latin word from which "muse" is derived. I felt as though, paying a call on Mount Sinai, I had found the Shekhinah (in the Kabbalistic sense!) at home after all.
After that experience I began saying regularly, before going to sleep at night, a prayer that I had written in 1976.
Most holy Lady of the Universe, may Thou and all Thy names be honored. Thou art the daughter of history, conceived in pain, and Thou art the mother of the Coming World, the world ofjoy. As the form of the human body is to its elements, so art Thou to humankind. Thou art the Indwelling Presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, and none honors him that does not honor Thee. Thou art understanding, thou art Judgment, Thou art Law; Wisdom, Love and Mercy grow where Thou walkest in peace; Thou delightest in beauty, helpfulness and honor. Thou openest our ears to the complaint of the wronged, and our eyes to the jewel that lies in the dust; Thou turnest the hearts of those that love Thee toward each other; Thou dost wisely order and moderately and justly distribute the things of this world. In Thine own time Thou givest dreams, insights, oracles, songs and visions to those who call on Thee in truth, and Thou dost also illumine silence with the radiance of truth. O may my days be a service to Thy oneness, my nights a dream of Thy redemption, by the will of the Holy One, blessed be He. Blessed art Thou, O Lady, who givest us the insight to see Thee in all places and to follow Thee. May I honor Thee in aIl ways, and may my heart always remain open to Thy words of admonition, from whence ever they may come.
One day someone told me about Rav Gedaliah Koenig, who was a revered teacher among the Breslover Hasidim. The Breslover Hasidim are followers of Rabbi Nachman ofBreslov. If Hasidism is the most "poetic" movement in Judaism, Rabbi Nachman was the most "poetic" of the Hasidic masters. Part of his teaching consisted of long fables that are like fairy tales, and he encouraged his followers to pray in their own words. So I translated the above prayer into Hebrew, as best I could, and went to Mea Shearim to show it to Rav Gedaliah.
Rav Gedaliah' s house had no number. It stood in the middle of a large courtyard;
as one stepped in from the street through the archway carved with Stars of David the light from the kitchen shone as though far away. The room in which we spoke was square; the window niche revealed walls four feet think. The walls were painted with a faded design like wallpaper, and the paint was peeling in spots. Along the walls were bookcases with glass fronts, three lumpy day-beds covered with identical reddish-brown spreads, a playpen with an infant sleeping in it; on one of the bookcases stood a clock in a plain wooded case, which struck with a loud metallic sound every quarter-hour. The light in the room was what my mother would have considered bad for reading. In the middle of the room was a long table, which must have served for the Shabbos meal as well as study.
I found myself thinking contrapuntally of Nadine's house, equally contemptuous of the canons of wealth, and yet so reverent of the possibilities of matter. Rav Gedaliah was a tall man in a gray caftan, with gray sidecurls and a benign expression. His voice was balanced, quiet; he spoke in Hebrew, but slowly and with carefully chosen words, so that I understood. I showed him the prayer. He seemed untroubled by the address to the feminine aspect of the Deity, but did say it was not correct to call the Shekhinah the "daughter of History," since she existed before time was. He also said that the Shekhinah (that is, Malkhut) was not Understanding but the daughter of Understanding.
I nodded, though afterwards I could not bring myself to change these phrases. In my mind the phrase "daughter of history" referred to the fact that the mysticism of the Kabbalah flowered after the horrors of the Crusades and the Inquisition, and Celan's poetry after the Holocaust. And later in in the conversation Rav Gedaliah said that the source of our present political troubles was the separation between Binah (intellect) and Malkhut (government). So, and since I have heard that Binah is sometimes called "the upper Shekhinah," might it not be helpful to unite them in prayer? But my Hebrew was not good enough to say this.
I did try to tell him the story of my encounter with Celan, and shortly afterwards I wrote down a translation of what he said in reply:
"You must not think about the 'tragedy.' If he despaired, it was because his senses were stopped up, he could not perceive the truth. The whole world is one great song; there is no tragedy. It is good that you understood enough to come in under the wings of the Shekhina; that is the main thing. The six million who went to their deaths in the Holocaust, they knew that G-d is ruler of this world. There is no despair."
And I wrote down my own reaction: "The quiet, which had stood at his shoulder while he spoke, went about its business, clearing away whatever I might have found to answer. No, it was impossible to sit in this room and not believe in G-d, and there was no despair, anywhere in the world. Except in my heart." Kindly though Rav Gedaliah had spoken, and permissive though he had been as to the channel through which I wished to approach the Deity , I understood him as saying that Celan and I had no message for him.
Like other writing projects, c gathered momentum, until I felt less and less able to tear myself away from it, to go to shiurim, to enter into the Torah world. Eventually I would choose to retreat from that world into the inner world that c projected.
But the tie to the Torah world did not break off altogether, for I had found some real friends there. Rabbi Dr. S., before taking leave of me in Milwaukee, had given me the telephone number of his daughter and son-in-law in Jerusalem, and they would continue to invite me for Shabbat at their apartment in Rechavia until I left in 1990, always very gracious and tolerant. Their home was in the modern Orthodox style, modest yet neat and aesthetically arranged, with Judaic pictures and art objects. Theirs was a home in which Judaism and the best of Western culture were truly at peace. But at Neve, too, I made some connections that survived my deviations.
Neve had moved me to another apartment, right on Rechov ha-Pisgah, again with five or six other students. It was with that apartment that I associate my first Jerusalem winter. It rains a lot in Jerusalem, but it seldom freezes, and the houses are built mainly with the summer heat in mind. In the apartment on Rechov Ha-Pisgah there were radiators, but they were only on for a few hours each day beginning at 4:00 in the afternoon. I would sit by the radiator waiting for it to come on. Despite this I did not catch cold that winter, as I did in subsequent years. In this apartment my roommate was Mindy. She was from New York, twenty-seven years old, with artistic and philosophical leanings and a countercultural background. I could talk with her about my reservations, and she understood them, though for her own part she was determined to submerge herself in the community, to marry and have children and live a traditional life, since nothing else had worked out. Mindy was doing some typing for a rabbi who lived in Sanhedriya Murchevet, and one day she said to me, "You ought to meet the man I work for. You and he would have something in common!" She mentioned me to the Faiers and gave me their number, and I called and got an invitation for Shabbat.
The Faiers lived then in Sanhedriya Murchevet, another very religious neighborhood in the form of a circle. They lived near the entrance to the neighborhood, in another of those apartment houses built on the side of a steep hill and connected by bridges to the street. Zvi was one of the few men in the neighborhood who wore sport coats rather than the uniform black suit. They had three boys and three girls - a fourth girl was to be added - all with very distinct personalities, which their parents lovingly cultivated.
When we first met, Zvi was in his late forties. He was born in Poland to an Orthodox family; the language of the home was Yiddish, and Yiddish folksongs still delight him. The family lived near the Russian border, and his father took the family into Russia just ahead of the Nazis. In the war years they suffered great hardships, and two of Zvi's brothers died. After the war they found their way to Canada, where Zvi enrolled in an Orthodox yeshiva. But he was drawn to science and, without abandoning his Talmudic studies, became a physicist. While studying for his advanced degree at the University of Chicago he met Chaya, who had grown up in an Orthodox family in the Chicago area and studied education. The Six Days' War affected Zvi powerfully and caused him to write a poem in Yiddish which (as I realized only lately) probably deserves to be a classic; it has rhyme and meter and is, as they say, gevaltig. A few years later the Faiers made aliyah. Zvi worked mainly as a translator of religious texts into English. He had translated an important nineteenth-century commentator, the Malbim. But he was also part of an intellectual world of Orthodox scientists who sought to reconcile their science with a traditional belief in the Torah. And he also read secular literature. His closest friend was Harry (Haim) Sokolik, a physicist from the Soviet Union, unfortunately afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Haim was not Orthodox, but he knew more about English literature than I did or probably ever shall. He loved Lewis Carroll, and wrote poetic parables. Zvi also wrote poems in English, though these were short and in free verse. Zvi and Chaim had combined some of their writings in a book, Burnt Offering, which was signed "Zvi-Haim." The common denominator was the search for a "unified reality." Zvi was patient with radical ideas, indeed eager to hear them. I think he may have been the one who told me ofNiels Bohr's words in dismissing a theory: "Not crazy enough." Over the years, Zvi and I have never run out of things to say to each other. And Chaya too has listened to me - as she listens to everyone - with understanding. More than anyone else, they helped me to feel connected to the Torah and to the traditional way of life. And through them I met Ephraim and Chaya Devorah, Shabtai and Helen.
And while in Bayit Vegan I was also privileged to meet Karin P. and her mother, Mrs. Y., who had survived Bergen-Belsen. They were among the last representatives of the German Orthodox community, whose leading authority , Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, had done his best to reconcile Orthodoxy with citizenship in a nineteenth-century Western society. Mrs. Y. was then in her eighties, shrewed, humorous, devout and at the same time unintimidated by extremism. Speaking of the young men in Mea Shearim who harrassed bare-armed women, she recalled the advice of an old-school rabbi to his students: "Kuk avek (look away)." Karin spoke of a relative who had made an "ethical will" that contained the sentence: "When dealing with human beings one must sometimes let five be an even number ." Mrs. Y. had composed a little song for the end of the Sabbath which I still sing after Havdalah; to hear it you would not imagine that the singers ever had a care in the world.
It was from Karin that I learned about the darker side of Friedrich Weinreb, whose book on the book of Esther had so influenced me: during the Holocaust he was accused of defrauding his fellow-victims with promises that he could buy them exemptions from deportation. Karin, a survivor who had been deported from Holland to Bergen-Belsen, and had the information from another member of the Dutch-Jewish community. The accusation was never definitely proved against Weinreb, who claimed that he had been himself deceived. But the suspicion made the whole path by which I had come to Judaism appear all the darker and more dubious. Karin remained my friend for several years, always understanding of my struggles, though firmly convinced that I was taking the wrong path. I stood in awe of her dignity. She became almost my guilty conscience. Yet I could not change.
Late in the year, I went to Bnei Brak, to spend the Sabbath with a couple to whom, in c, I gave the names Yocheved and Avram. I think Rebbetsin H. made the connection between us, thinking that Yocheved and I were kindred spirits.
Their apartment was neat, clean, colorless. Menorot, a copper plaque saying "Shalom," a photograph of the Chazon Ish, one of the stricter halakhic authorities of the last generation. They were about my age, Avram perhaps a few years older, and they had been married for a year; it was Yocheved 's first marriage, while Avram had children and grandchildren from a former marriage. Avram, an engineer, made his living by installing a device that connected the user's lights and electrical appliances to a battery instead of to the municipal electric plant. This was employed on Shabbat to avoid using electricity produced by Jews in violation of Shabbat. He was a tall, stoutish man with a simple way of speaking, but at the noon meal he translated a passage by Rabbi Jacob Asher added a few comments of his own that were both keen and subtle. Yocheved taught English in an Orthodox girls' school. Like me, she was a convert and had an interesting pre-history, and so she was sympathetic when I and another visitor, Hulda, talked about feeling restless at Neve – unenthusiastic about the learning offered us, and yet offended when teachers implied that our learning, beyond what we would need in order to keep a good Jewish home, was of secondary importance. Yocheved said that among her pupils she rarely saw a spark of intellectual excitement. While the boys received intensive intellectual training - "by the age of twenty they're real geniuses" the girls were taught Bible, the laws that apply to women, and certain aspects of morality such as avoidance of malicious gossip, practice of charity, and doing without luxuries. They were taught to keep good homes and raise another generation like themselves. Religious women, said Yocheved, had little time for anything else anyway. She had several friends who came to Orthodoxy as mature women; all said the same things: But, said Yocheved, what made it difficult was just ego. She could remember how nice it was when everything she said was clever. But she had not found anything out there that she wanted to live for. Brown rice and meditation? The communes, that had all fallen apart from an excess of individualism? The demonstrations, the political organizations – what had all that led to?
Yes, I said, but there was something people had not given themselves time to see. They had given up too easily. Over dinner I recited "Invitation." When I had done, Avram teased: "But can you make gefilte fish?" At which Yocheved, Hulda, and I pounced on him. After the meal he left for a sholem zachar, one of several kinds of celebration that welcome a male child to the world. Before he left he said to me, "You should study the parsha of the week, about Shifra and Puah - how they saved the male children." And then, with his hand on his heart and a puzzled expression: "I have to think about that poem. No one ever said a poem to me before. It hurt me, you know?"
After he left the conversation continued. Yocheved was critical of my imagining that I could teach anything at this point. Could I compare myself to – she named a woman from Bnei Brak who had recently given a lecture on teaching girls to do without luxuries. This woman's presence was such that people listened and did what she said. It was no use to talk about saving the world, about ecology, about communication with non-Jewish society; better to trust in G-d and do the right thing in the sphere of one's own life. The people in Bnei Brak had a real community. When anybody was in trouble, the others would help. The city of course had officials, elected in the usual way, but in fact it was under the direction of the spiritual leaders, the rabbis, who told the officials what to do. The terrible sociological problems one finds in families in the United States were next to nonexistent here. Yocheved also talked about her former life, perhaps more than she had for some time. Toward the end of the visit she said: "I feel as though it wasn't me that did all these things - it was a fictional character." We spoke of Rebbetsin H.'s children; Yocheved and Hulda discussed the each child’s characteristics and named their favorites. I said, "I like Rachel." The eldest child, a bit sullen at times, who read a lot and seemed to need solitude. It was the first time anyone had mentioned her. There was a pause, and then Yocheved said, "I guess she bothers me because I see so much of myself in her." "Yeah," said Hulda. Rachel's mother had once said the same thing to me.
We talked about science and midrash. Yocheved said that a lot of science was just an enormous structure people were putting in the way of the recognition that G-d exists. Geology, for instance, all those layers that are supposed to prove the earth is millions of years old. They don't find all those layers anywhere on the planet, it's just something the geologists patched together. I said she was telling that to the wrong person, as my father was a geologist and an honest man. And speaking of putting structures between oneself and reality, what about Midrash, as presently employed in the religious community? What about being asked to believe, not only that A vraham received the angels, but that he served them three calves' tongues in mustard and that one of the calves, when he was chasing it, led him to the cave where Adam and Eve lay buried? Where was the line between truth and fantasy? Where was objective reality?
Hadn't Rabbi Hirsch said that to assert the literal authority of Midrashim was to put faith to a severe and unnecessary test? Yocheved said it wasn't enough to find one rabbinic authority who agreed with you, you had to listen to all the rabbis, and today the gedolim, the great ones, say the Midrashim are to be believed literally.
I showed Yocheved Celan's "Count the Almonds." She read it, looked up, and said, "There are some like that. I don't know what to tell you." After Havdalah, as we were getting ready to leave, Avram asked in a tone of serious concern whether I would take a shidduch if one came along. I said no. He said, "But that's not Jewish!" I said that according to an article written by the rabib who converted me, women are not positively obligated to marry. They said that one cannot simply read something and draw one's own conclusions. One has to go to a rav and take his advice. I said that I felt this was a personal decision. They said that was not Jewish either. I said that I was committed not to marry. They said that on converting I had gotten a completely clean slate. "Whatever happened to you in the past – it's dead." They told of people who had lost their fist families in the Holocaust, come to Israel, married again, started a new life. By not having children I was destroying future generations. "Judaism holds on to what gives life, not to what gives death." Then A vraham asked me very solemnly whether I was sure it wasn't just a case of "sour grapes": I had wanted to get married for a long time, and hadn't succeeded, and then had said to myself that I didn't want it and now pride was keeping me from letting go of that. I said no, it was something else, and then it really was time to leave. Yocheved said I was welcome to come back any time. But I never did.
It wasn't that I was offended by the bluntness of their questions. On the contrary, I was touched that they cared. In my youth no one had cared whether I got married and had children or not. Avraham's last question was a fair one. And most of what Yocheved had said about the world from which we came was true. The question would continue to haunt me whether it was right to hold on to a promise made in the language of a world without faith.
Throughout that year I kept thinking about the Red Cow. This has to be a cow that has never borne a yoke. The cow is slaughtered and then burned, and the ashes are used for purification. But the odd thing is that the person who slaughters the cow and burns the ashes becomes ritually impure. Much ink has been spilt over this paradox. But to me it seemed pretty clear. I was the Red Cow. I, my consciousness, the truths I was able to see, had to be suppressed, in order for the way of life which these people called truth – and it struck me, indeed, as truer than any other way of life I had seen – to come into being. Yocheved and Hulda and Rebbetsin H. had made the sacrifices. I couldn't.
In January I set out to find a different yeshiva. I spent a week or two at Machon Meir, in Kiryat Moshe. Machon Meir was the women' s school attached to the Rav Kook yeshiva. Classes there were given in Hebrew. I could now manage to catch the gist ofwhat was being said, but perhaps not enough, and the philosophy of the institution, insofar as I understood it, did not attract me.
Rabbi S., in Milwaukee, had urged me to study Rav Kook, and soon after my arrival I had tried to find a teacher who would guide me through his writings. Someone in the Frenchspeaking community had directed me to a certain teacher, and I had gone to see him. He was a combination of modern Orthodoxy and a kind of French intellectualism which I have always found rather chilling. I tried to talk to him about my history, and he asked if I had read Cervantes. He said many crazy people came to Jerusalem because they thought they can realize their fantasies there; not that I seemed crazy to him, but I was in that tradition. As to Rav Kook, he told me to read Orot (Lights). I bought a copy of the book, but found Rav Kook's style impenetrable, and did not feel like going back to that teacher for explanations.
I managed at some point during the year to speak with someone in the Rav Kook Yeshiva, a beautiful, sensitive-looking man who reminded me of the pictures of Rav Kook himself. But he was not interested in pursuing Rav Kook's suggestions about poetry. I tried to tell him about Celan, and his reaction was, "So, he made a contribution to German culture?" From various people in that sector of the community, I gathered that what had happened was that Rav Kook's son and successor, Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, had taken the movement in quite a different direction. Rav Zvi Y ehuda's efforts were focused on the settlements, and the emphasis of the movement was now very nationalistic. At various later times during my years in Israel I tried to make contact with the followers of Rav Kook, and to learn something about his teaching, but never got very far.
And so, late in January or perhaps early in February, I found myself back at Michlelet Bruria, enrolled in Talmud classes. There must have been other classes as well, but it is the Talmud classes that have left a memory, albeit a vague one. I think the tractate we were studying was Baba Kama, the first part of Nezikim (Damages). The instructor would translate it for us, and then we would discuss it with our "chevruta," or study partner. The discussion generally centered on some point of halakha which had to be decided by the subtle logic known as pilpul (literally "pepper").
Unfortunately, I was not really drawn to this form of study. The only parts of the Talmud that interested me were the aggadot -- legends or anecdotes -- that occur as digressions in the legal discussion. When Zvi tried to get me interested in a Talmudic passage he was studying, the result was the same. I could never follow the abstract reasoning very far; it would always seem to turn a corner, and I would stand looking this way and that. Perhaps it really is a gender difference. Some of the other Bruria students seemed to take to the Talmud more readily than I did, but I never noticed the enthusiastic absorption that it seemed to inspire in men.
The world of Bruria was a narrower world than that of Neve -- most of the people in it were young American ba'alot teshuva- and I found fewer connections there. There was no one like Michal or Rebbetsin H., with whom I had felt an instantaneous and profound chord of sympathy, although for part of my time at Bruria I roomed with Bashi, my companion on that first ride from the airport, a very intelligent person with whom I could discuss anything. Also, I was befriended by Tamar J., a brilliant, highly-cultured woman who taught Rambam, and spent many Shabbatot at her home. But after a few weeks I began to spend less and less time on classes and more and more on the writing of c. Eventually I stopped going to classes altogether. Rabbi T. let me stay on, I guess in the hope that once I had gotten it out of my system I would return to Torah learning and settle down.
If I have one major regret about my life, it is that I did not choose to go through the door that was opened for me in Jerusalem that year. It is hard not to be impatient, looking back, with that person who thought she could have everything her own way! If only I had had more faith in what had directed me to the Torah world; ifonly I had reflected that, after all, such understanding of literature as I had attained had required years of silent apprenticeship, and surely the Torah world could ask no less of me! It is deeply mortifying to think of what I might have attained with more patience and humility. But it is only now, in writing these memoirs, that I have realized this.
Before Passover I went to see a well-known woman mystic, to whom one of Michal G.'s addresses led me. She was, I believe, observant, but many of her students were not. Her actual name was Beatrice but, like me, she did not use it; she was known as Colette. She was of North African origin, and her apartment had a North African decor, with a lot of that cloth that has little mirrors sewed onto it. Like Mona' s gallery, it was a total environment, it enveloped you. She had studied a great many forms of psychology and incorporated them into her teaching; among other things she had studied physiognomy, and told me that a high, domed forehead and slightly-protruding, heavy-lidded eyes were features often found in poets. (Like Rilke. But of course one can recall poets who did not look like that at all.) On this occasion she told me about the spiritual exercises she was having her students do for Passover, a holiday which I had always associated with Celan, because it came around the time of his death, and specailly since I had learned that his Hebrew name was Pesach. Colette said that Passover, especially the Passover sacrifice itself, signifies the leap of faith, the salto mortale, from life through death into life again. Therefore, in one of her exercises she had her students imaginatively, or psychically, experience death: the object was to feel the agonies of death, yet at the same time a great internal calm. The second exercise was to see oneself taking leave of the person one loves best, for the good of that person.
Something gave the most awful twist inside me; I said, “That must be a great deal harder.”
For several days I kept thinking: is it possible that I am in some way harming Celan by refusing to let go of his memory? Am I refusing life, making his message a message of death rather than life, and so hampering his spirit in the next world? But for whichever of all the reasons I recited to myself along with their counterarguments – what mortal knows the ultimate ground of his or her decision? – I could not make the leap.
At the beginning of the summer I decided that I would make aliyah, but would not pursue yeshiva studies. Instead I would live in an absorption center for a while. How I envisaged my life after that, I’m not sure. I went back to Madison to spend the summer with my parents, dispose of most of my possessions, and set my literary affairs in order.
For three months I saw little of the world beyond the yard of my parents’ house, and the farm. I did not go back to Beth Israel because to do so would have entailed driving on Shabbat. During those months I typed up the poems and shorter prose pieces that I had written in Madison since the completion of Heartlines, into a manuscript called Ears of Grain, which was divided into three sections: “In My Own Country,” “A Convert’s Tale,” and “Soul’s Errands.” This was meant to form the third member of the larger trilogy that also included In the Blackened Rose/Clarifications/Snow-Wreath and Heartlines: My Transparent City: The Journal of a Serious Woman. The whole was entitled The Labors of Echo: A Novel without a Narrator. In addition, I put together a selection of my poems, called Alien Earth, and also an anthology – My Albigensians – of the poems I had collected in the ‘70's, mostly from acquaintances. Deborah’s poems were in there, and my brother Don’s poem about waking on the farm, and the poems of Greg J. and Greg E.
Then I went back to Israel, to a one-room apartment at the absorption center in Kiryat Yovel.