2004 seems like such an innocent time now, for many of us. Although then it was catastrophic. And it spurred me to write one of my first essays published in an important and recognized press. I am sharing it again. My daughter is now a political maven. Almost 26 with her graduate degree in Social Work and a specialty in bereavement and end-of-life. And so it goes.
Making a Minyan in Vermont by Nina Gaby, Seal Press, 2004. Edited by Shari Macdonald Strong
I find my way to the temple, on a dark side street in Montpelier, only after driving by it several times. There is nothing, really, to distinguish it from the other buildings in this ramshackle neighborhood. My thirteen-year-old daughter rubs the frosted window on the passenger side of the car and looks out doubtfully. I had wanted to find this place, to bring her here, sooner. But since moving to Vermont three years ago, I’d let other things take precedence, triaging emotional and financial survival over issues of faith and community.
We stand on the wheelchair ramp of the temple’s porch, waiting for the doors to be opened. The cold tonight can make its way under even those coats stuffed with the highest level of powerfill.
“Let’s go home,” says my daughter.
I know what she’s thinking. The few times we went to temple in New York were large, fashionable, and bright affairs. This place, with its peeling paint and shabby storm door, looks daunting. But we have driven twenty miles through the cold, and I am trying to be cheery and positive. I want to explain to her that we have come because it is the Friday night after the presidential elections, because I am heartbroken and overwhelmed with foreboding and I am seeking vindication. Because I heard there is a woman rabbi here and I had vowed never to make my daughter sit through a male dominated religious service. Because I need to hear something that resonates with some authenticity from someone on a pulpit in antidote to the religious hypocrisy that has a stranglehold on our country tonight. Because I am homesick for better times. Because because.
But I keep it simple. “Oh come on!” I say. “It’s an experience! It’s so Vermonty.” She sighs and turns on her Game Boy.
There are fewer people in all of Vermont than lived in my hometown in New York. That makes for a very small percentage of Jews. A middle aged woman wearing a yarmulke pulls open the door, “Arav tov”, she says, “Good evening, welcome”.
One of the first things I see is that the women of this little mishmashed congregation here wear yarmulkes, the skullcaps usually reserved for males. I am impressed with this, although I won’t wear one myself. They make your hair stick out. It is bad enough, as the mother of a thirteen-year-old, to have long, gray, sticking-out hair anyway. To place a round little cap in the center of it all would guarantee that my daughter would never, ever deign to come here again.
Not long after the service begins, the rabbi scans the room. She is supported by an aluminum crutch and so tiny that she’s dwarfed by her Great Dane assist. Her own gray curls erupt from an embroidered yarmulke. She is lovely in her white dress, solid and wise despite her small stature.
She tells us that tonight’s piece will be about the Torah, about spiritual roadmaps other than those derived from the moral arrogance of the evangelical right. “But first”, she says warmly, seriously, as she adjusts herself on her crutch, the dog attentive to her every move, “we must say the kaddish, The Mourner’s Prayer, for Ellen’s mother.”
I whisper to my daughter that this prayer can traditionally be done only with a quorum of ten males, a minyan, but she hisses at me, “Mom! We are supposed to be quiet!”
“I thought there would be more people here tonight,” the rabbi says. She scans the handful of worshipers in the room. Ten of us and a baby.
Her eyes light on my daughter. “How old is she? Thirteen. Wonderful. A mitzvah! Because of your daughter, we have a minyan.”
Yes, a mitzvah, a blessing.
And in this moment, I find some of the vindication I have come here for.
The schule, or synagogue, was in Zichron Ya’akov, a tiny village that neighbored the kibbutz where I was living while studying at an Israeli ulpan—a school for learning Hebrew. I was attending “the school of life,” my grandfather said in blessing, forgiving me for not going to college. These were the first High Holy Days I was spending away from my family. I was too young and arrogant to be homesick; too innocent to recognize the frailty of these glory days in Israel, the beloved underdog of the Western world.
Tank-topped and sandaled, I walked from brilliant white sunlight into the dim schule. A gaggle of women guarding the dark vestibule threw a piece of cloth across my arms.
“Mah zeh?” What’s this? I demanded, insolent, using one the few Hebrew phrases I had learned. Shoshana, my roommate at the kibbutz, explained. I needed to be covered up so I would not distract any man from his prayers. We were also to worship in a different space from the men—a chokingly hot, overstuffed balcony.
“What bullshit!” As an eighteen-year-old woman from America, I was not prepared for gender segregation. The vulnerability I felt as the women covered my bare arms only triggered some shame at being overweight. I knew no other shame at that time. I certainly did not know the shame of simply being female.
It is my second year of art school in Jerusalem. I am living in an old Jewish quarter in a small stone house on an alley, along with my friend Jane and the family who owns the building. The interior walls are painted blue against the evil eye. A hot water tank the size of an O2 cylinder serves us all, spraying a drizzle of warm water over a standup tub two feet across and six inches high.
It is very cold in Jerusalem this winter. The ancient stones hold the chill, and the frost works its way into one’s bones. Central heating in the old sections of town is unheard of. More than anything, more than television even, we miss bathtubs. Jane and I are dying for a good long soak.
We hear that there’s a mikveh, a traditional ritual bathing pool, in a religious bathouse a block away. We cross over to the back of the building where ritual baths are held; the windows are cranked open a bit, and steam is pouring out into the night. We giggle, fully aware of the audacity of what we are about to request. We pound on a heavy green iron door. A woman with a scarf on her head opens it a crack. Jane doesn’t speak Hebrew, so it is up to me to convince this woman that she should let us rent tubs one night a week for payment in American dollars. American dollars! She opens the door a bit wider. She looks out into the alley, to the right and to the left. Come inside, quickly, she tells us.
The deep mikveh bathtubs were a luxury beyond imagination, becoming as much a ritual for us as for the Orthodox Jewish women who attended them for cleansing after their periods, so their husbands could resume marital relations. It was 1970, the height of the sexual revolution. For us, rules existed only to be deliciously broken. The contradictions only made the experience more extraordinary.
Over time, we developed a relationship with the proprietress. She told me that her daughter was studying English and wondered whether I would give her daughter lessons, teach her conversational American, in barter for the baths. Could her daughter come to our room on Abulafia Street, where we could help her with her studies?
The daughter was an earnest, dark-haired young woman—unmarried, so her head was uncovered—and while her legs and arms were carefully covered as required by the Orthodox, layered in gray and brown wool, her skirts were short, and her shoes were modern. While sedate by our standards, her affect was alert, inquisitive. She made no overt notice of the decor in our student quarters: psychedelic posters taped to the crumbling plaster walls, emptied wine bottles turned into candlesticks, ashtrays full of the butts of cheap Israeli cigarettes and the detritus of cheap Israeli hashish.
She came to us two, maybe three times over the next few weeks. We made her tea and sandwiches with peanut butter sent from home. As is the case with many who learn English in foreign countries, her grammar was far better than ours. We dealt with syntax, slang, and dialect. She informed us that she would move to America and go to college soon. Maybe medical school. Her father was unaware of this intention.
One Tuesday evening, Jane and I laughed together as we swung our tote bags, making our way over the deep stones of the road to the mikveh. There was a dry chill to the air, and the stars overhead were bright between the crammed buildings. We gossiped about classes and complained about our boyfriends.
A milky light framed the mikveh windows. But tonight, the door wouldn’t open. I yanked on the handle. I knocked quietly, then harder, the metal echoing each bang. We stood in silence, our chatter interrupted.
From inside I heard a hushed voice. I couldn’t understand it. I knocked again, lightly. Politely.
“Lech mi po,” I thought I heard. Go from here.
In Hebrew I said, “Excuse me, I don’t understand.”
The door opened a crack and the proprietress repeated herself, with an urgent “Acshav!” Now! From inside, I heard a man’s voice raised in anger, but the door closed before I could understand what he was saying.
The next week we saw the mother and daughter shopping in the nearby marketplace. When we approached them, they averted their eyes and moved on.
I remember this as I sit among the unmatched folding chairs in the little temple and ponder the fate of the proprietress’s mutinous daughter.
I glance over at my own daughter, who is studiously trying to keep up in the prayer book, lips moving with the cadence of the Kaddish chant. Good girl, I think to myself. As mad as I am at my country, I have to acknowledge this fact: Tonight, in America, she counts—even as a girl.
Later, under the low ceiling of the recreation room, we share a plastic cordial glass of dark grape juice and a hunk of Sabbath challah. The rabbi approaches and thanks us for the mitzvah as the Great Dane brushes gently against us. “You don’t know . . . ,” I start to say. She flashes a wise smile. My polite child thanks her as we zip up our parkas and make our way back out into the dark parking lot.
My daughter is not listening as I start the car. She waits for her Game Boy to boot up.
“I just want to tell you why it was so great that you were there tonight.” I am determined to clarify the whole minyan point, maybe sneak in a bit about the mikveh.
“I get it, Mom.” Her tone is verging on snotty.
We are both tired, and the car slips sideways on the icy road. I concentrate on my driving. You do what you can.
We are almost home, and the car is crawling through a sudden whiteout on our six-mile dirt road, when she mutters, “Kids should be able to vote.”
I don’t let her see how hard I am smiling.
My daughter, now sixteen, accompanied me to her last High Holy Day service before swearing off religion altogether last fall, and now she enjoys her status as the only atheist in her school. Her progressive rationales make perfect sense. She has become wise enough to know this will all change again and again.
And despite this, she is selected to write and present an essay in the Rotary Club contest. I tell her I am surprised she was chosen, since it is a very conservative organization.
“Oh, I won’t win,” she assures me, and refuses to let my husband and me attend. All she says is that she chose the topic of “The Four-Way Test,” a famous schema that the Rotarians employ to evaluate ethical decision making. I tell her I’ve never heard of it.
The day of the contest, she comes home and announces that she got second place, and that her friend Lauren won. “Lauren was really good,” she conceded, although she also explained that Lauren and the other two kids chose the more neutral topic that was offered. and that Lauren won a bunch of money. My daughter seems genuinely happy for her.
My husband was really disappointed that she wouldn’t let us go to the luncheon and hear her essay. I had been relieved, as I get pretty uncomfortable around large groups of conservatives these days, no matter how humanitarian.
“I didn’t want you to feel sorry for me when I didn’t win,” she explains.
“But why wouldn’t you win?”
Her cell phone rings, and she drops her essay notes on the table before running off. My husband grabs the paper.
“Will you look at this?” He holds up her still childish scrawl.
“What If Bush Had Used The Four-Way Test Before Invading Iraq?”
It is the title of her essay. Below it are the points of the test:
Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
Her answers are scribbled in purple pencil below. My husband and I lock eyes. We share one of those perfect moments, and then we call after her to see if she wants to go out for Mexican to celebrate.