Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception.
In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres — it’s in my most recent book, The Pretty Girl — and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theatre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less, Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.
I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my pleasure. I was dispirited. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in history, before I could write the book I intended. I was also anxious to get back to the Marriott in Swiss Cottage where I was staying. My mother and young son were waiting for me, and I knew my son would be impatient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extended separation.
It was late in the day when I finally got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the elevator, I saw a man in a yarmulke holding a clipboard. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be interested by my dip into history. I saw the words Adin Steinsaltz on the man’s clipboard. Now I had another reason I felt like speaking. “He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.
“What’s that?” the man said, interested.
“Do you understand that book?” the man said abruptly.
I had actually studied the book, which attempts to explain the Jewish mystical system that is kabbalah, fairly seriously at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. “I feel like if there are 100 levels on which to get that book, after reading it twice, I managed to get to level two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kindly or not, influence the structure of the universe. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the universe, and similarly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the potential to create the world as a better or worse place.
“Well, I tell the rabbi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he introduced himself. He was Steinsaltz’s personal assistant.
I was shocked. The Steinsaltz book—and other books by Steinsaltz—had once been so important to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jewish such an Irish name. Somehow “Adin,” though I knew it was pronounced differently, made me think it would be OK after all.
It turned out that the Rabbi, who is known perhaps best for his translation of the Talmud, was speaking that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assistant said he could get me in. As exciting as this prospect sounded, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my mother. So the assistant offered something else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have coffee with him.
I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited. Later, I told Steve Stern, a Jewish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, “He’s a holy man!”
My meeting was brief. I was embarrassed by my secular self in front of the rabbi. I should have counted on not feeling quite frum enough to be meeting with him. I felt I should have a question for him, but I hadn’t prepared a question. I didn’t know what to say. He was gentle and kind, but I struggled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t so great. I ended up deciding to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had troubled me, since I reread it in preparation for taking my son to his firstPurim celebration. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that afterward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 additional men. I asked the rabbi about it. The lack of clarity in the Book of Esther bothered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Persians have permission to attack Jews on a certain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are taking advantage of that permission, when the day comes.
“Well, you’ve never been beaten,” the rabbi said.
“If you were beaten, you’d understand.”
It seemed to me that we were talking about contemporary Israel and Palestine and not ancient Jews and Persians. Later I realized we probably were. I discovered that the rabbi’s politics were far to the right of my own. The other thing the rabbi said, though I can’t remember what we were talking about that led him to these words, is that he liked children, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wisdom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love children myself.
Why am I telling these stories?
Because the meeting with the Rabbi redirected me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, anticipating my morning coffee with the rabbi.
I never wrote that book about toy theatres, the one I planned to write when I went to London. Instead, I wrote a novel, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explicit use of the Rabbi’s words about being beaten. I also wrote a story for my subsequent book, The Pretty Girl, called “A Wedding Story.” In it, a rabbi says what Steinsaltz said about children, and the character who hears his words stumbles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.
I couldn’t understand enough about the facts of the Victorian world, so I couldn’t write the novel I intended to. I couldn’t understand the Rabbi’s thinking, and so I found a story I did feel I could write. Stupidity, you could say, stopped me, and stupidity led me forward. Different kinds of stupidity. To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.
I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary school. For eight years I learned Hebrew (Modern and biblical), participated in Shabbat onegs and wrote and performed Torah-related songs and plays. I learned every Jewish prayer by heart, wore only below-the-knee skirts and painstakingly studied Talmud in Aramaic in a rabbi’s study. I was impressively Jewish. And then I went to a secular high school and, except for going to temple on the high holidays, attending Passover Seders and lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, I became unimpressively secular. It wasn’t until I met my Catholic-raised husband that I started actively observing Judaism again.
On our first date I told him that if we were to ever have kids, raising them as Jews was nonnegotiable. That’s right, our first date. Religion had come up in previous relationships and I had learned to be firm about what I wanted at the start to avoid surprises later. He nodded and said he would be comfortable with that. Ben believed in the general ritual and ethical guidance of religion even more than he believed in the specifics of his religion. Apparently the extent of two people’s religious belief can affect compatibility more than the religions themselves.
The first thing we decided to do was learn about Judaism together. We signed up for a four month Union for Reform Judaism course. I joked that I could teach it, but once it started I was surprised at how little I already knew. Reform Judaism was everything I had sifted from my Orthodox education without the orthodoxy that had felt so oppressive to me. The liberal politics, reverence for nature and inclusiveness of the community paralleled my own belief system, and Ben and I marveled at how time and again, the laws of Reform Judaism were laws we would create for ourselves if we were creating a religion from scratch. Our class was white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay and straight. We were all there, not by obligation, but by spiritual choice.
Perhaps because of my Orthodox background, I had always been dismissive of other branches of Judaism. I had also become so fixated on the technicalities of being Jewish (matrilineage, for example) that I forgot that religion is a philosophy, and we don’t automatically know or believe in a philosophy just because we’re born into it. If I had simply married another unobservant Jew, we wouldn’t have had to earn our Judaism, it would have already been part of our identities. But Ben and I worked for it, reading, debating and journaling every topic, theme and ritual, from the holidays, to the state of Israel, to the afterlife. I had always assumed that if I were to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish he would take on my religion as his own, but I never realized that in that process of learning about Reform Judaism I would take on a new religion as my own too.
The hardest thing about breaking up with the Jewish guy I dated six years ago was breaking up with his parents. I loved his parents. His parents loved me. I knew that the guy and I would never be happy together, but I also knew that I would never find another set of parents who I connected with as much as his.
That fact hit me even harder the first time I met my future in-laws. Self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool Catholics,” they told me that they had never met a single Jew until their son(my now husband) went to college in the Northeast. They’re from Nebraska. A tiny little town called Broken Bow. It’s smack in the middle of the country, about three hours from the closest synagogue.
When I first realized that Ben was the man I was going to marry, I found myself mourning the loss of the in-laws I had always wanted. His parents didn’t effortlessly understand me. They didn’t appreciate that I could speak Hebrew and a few words of Yiddish. That I had gone to a yeshiva for elementary school and to Israel on my semester abroad. They had always fantasized about a Midwestern Catholic daughter-in-law. And I got it. I wanted my in-laws to be kvetching Upper West Siders.
But now, on the other side of the wedding, I find myself on the phone with Ben’s mom, lying on the quilt she handmade for us, happy to hear her laugh. Sometimes we make small talk (what we did that week, the joke she forwarded me, the weather), but just as often we’ll confide in each other about our bad days or trade family gossip. Like my connection to Ben, what we have in common goes beyond background.
It’s funny how people influence you in ways you don’t even realize. When we go shopping, Ben’s mom looks at the label of any item of clothing she likes to make sure it’s made out of natural fiber. This means no polyester, rayon or acrylic. I do this now, compulsively. Ben’s dad often starts sentences with the word “yes.” Like, “Yes, I told him I’d be happy to help him out.” And yes, it seems I picked that one up too.
I’d like to think I’ve also rubbed off on them. Ben’s mom often ends emails with “xo,” which Ben says she picked up from me, and during meals they order “for the table,” which is something my family always does but never thought was funny until Ben’s parents laughed at the expression and started using it themselves.
Falling in love is the easiest way to make the world smaller. Nebraska used to be a meaningless square on the map, as foreign to me as a village in Africa. But I’ve been there a number of times now and think of myself as someone with Nebraskan roots. I’ve also learned about the quilting process, how to make an alcoholic beverage called Gilligan’s Island, and how to be trusting without being naive. These weren’t the in-laws I had visualized, but I can’t imagine a more wonderful pair of machatanim.