Roy's Jewish Problem A Story
We lived in a Jewish Students’ Co-op upstate, in a gray fussy house that shifted every night like an old dog trying to be comfortable. Downstairs there was a big kitchen, a toilet, living room, and TV room full of refugee furniture donated by parents, community members (the better stuff went to the Hillel Foundation’s co-op), and even our landlord. Upstairs there were five small bedrooms with doors marked by Shalom signs and some Israeli postcards. We all shared the one large bathroom and it always seemed crowded: someone showering, someone spitting toothpaste into the sink, someone else desperate for aspirin.
I said it was a Jewish co-op, and it was, but not much more. We were all from New York or the Island and not really into reading anything heavier than the counterculture Jewish Almanac, and that in the john. Some people called us the Hillel annex, but we weren’t connected more than going down the street to their brand-new building for deli lunches and films sometimes. We were Jewish and we were students and we cooperated—paid our bills on time, cooked and ate together, shoveled our snow, raked our leaves, and always bagged our garbage.
Then Ilana told me who was coming to interview for the fall opening: Roy Lichtenberger.
“Well at least it’s not Blair,” she smirked. “Or Dudley.”
We met him in the TV room. Ilana, blonde and self-conscious, draped herself on the couch like an afghan, to show off her legs. Ruth, small, dark, and suspicious, was primed with a tightly-held pad and two pens “in case.” Jesse, in his red running shorts and sleeveless T-shirt, was trying to stay awake. He kept strange hours and always seemed to be coming in from the track on campus. We used to joke that his major was Comparative Marathons.
Roy looked nervous, maybe even excited. He was short, gray-eyed, with a dark heavy beard and mustache that made him seem much older than a senior, but he was only twenty-one like the rest of us. He had a swimmer’s build and I realized he was probably handsome when Ilana, wanting a better look, sat up in stages to avoid being obvious. Ilana used to say that men either had “potential” or “possibilities.” I guess Roy had both. Even Ruth relaxed some.
We introduced ourselves.
“I want to be Jewish,” Roy announced after thanking us for having him over.
“Aren’t you?” Jesse asked.
“Not enough. I want to feel it—I want to do Jewish things.”
“We’ve got lots of Jewish dishes to wash,” Ilana drawled and Ruth frowned at her.
“I’m the secretary.” Ruth took over, filling Roy in on every household detail imaginable. She would’ve made a great committee.
Anyway, Ruth was explaining the intricacies of garbage collection for the second time when Ilana cut in: “‘Let’s order a pizza.”
“You don’t keep kosher?” Roy asked.
I confessed we’d given it up.
“They keep kosher at Hillel,” Jesse pointed out, but we all knew that Hillel had no vacancies.
Pizza and soda opened things up. We talked about our programs—Roy was in psychology—and what we liked doing in town and our favorite restaurants in New York. Roy surprised us all by saying he hated New York. I was tempted to ask what his problem was.
“You hate it?” Jesse paused in mid-slice to figure that one out.
“The city scares me.” Roy’s eyes were wide, honest—it was no joke, obviously.
“But you grew up there? You live there?” Ruth had to check her grasp of the facts.
Ilana eyed Roy over the rim of her Coke can and in the unexpected silence her swallowing was loud and embarrassing. She blushed.
It turned out that Roy was the only one of us who had ever been mugged and had a car stolen and been pickpocketed on Fifth Avenue in the Christmas rush.
“That’s pretty heavy,” Jesse sympathized. “So Roy, you ever been kidnapped?”
We took him in, of course. Ruth thought he was “serious”; Ilana thought he was “cute”; Jesse thought he was “intense but okay”; and, well, I thought he was in trouble. I wasn’t sure why I felt sorry for Roy, but I did. The eyes looking out of that strong bearded face were very sad. Jewish eyes, maybe. My mom said a Polish lady once told her all Jews had the same quiet fear in their eyes, as though they were waiting for things to go wrong.
Roy moved his stuff in from his dorm and took over Laura’s room, the one with the smallest windows, facing north. None of us had liked Laura—she was a Jewish American Princess, so we were glad when she took a year abroad to improve her French.
Roy moved in three weeks before classes started, and since his room was next to mine I got to know him first, and maybe last, too. He wasn’t very social; he listened a lot, watched us as if he were hungry. We weren’t really interesting, though, or very bright, but I guess we were Jewish and that was the point.
On his shelves were rows and rows of psychology paperbacks: Horney, Freud of course, lots of Jung, Rogers, Adler, Sullivan, Fromm, Laing (he had a couple of copies of Madness and the Family). There was also poetry, mostly contemporary American stuff. When he saw me looking for something else, a novel or I don’t know what, he said, “I don’t need anything more.”
There wasn’t much to look at in his room, typical student posters and knickknacks, but over his desk hung a black-and-white photograph framed in lucite that I knew I didn’t want to get close to, but couldn’t avoid. At the back of it was a wooden tower, barbed wire, and on a path parallel to that a double file of men in those camp uniforms, the striped ones, being led and followed by guards with machine guns. There were also guard dogs. It was a work detail and it could have been any concentration camp—it was every camp, really.
Roy was sitting on his bed when I turned away from the photograph. He said, “I keep that because my father could be in there. You never know.”
I sat down, feeling that sick curiosity I’m ashamed of.
“Your dad was in a camp?”
Roy nodded. “Treblinka.”
“That was one of the worst,” I offered, and when Roy smiled I felt stupid.
“Your mom too?” I asked. I knew survivors tended to marry each other.
“She was in Auschwitz.”
Picturing her numbered arm, I wanted to leave, but his voice was so quiet I sat at his desk as if I’d been ordered.
“I guess you’ve read that stuff about survivors’ children?”
He had, but didn’t find most of it applicable to him. We talked a little more but I had to make dinner and he said he needed to write some letters.
When I told the others, Ilana looked upset, Ruth fidgeted with the newspaper, and Jesse seemed more awake than I’d ever seen him.
Roy fit right into the co-op; he was a good cook, never left dishes for other people or wet towels greasing the sink, seemed to enjoy shopping and watching TV with us. Roy fit in, took the fifth space in the co-op, but he didn’t claim it, shape it to fit him.
He merged with the group in a few weeks without becoming a member of it.
“Do you think he likes us?” Ilana asked me one evening when Roy was at a class.
Jesse, clanking and scrubbing dishes in the sink, shrugged. “You mean does he like you?”
“I like him,” Ruth said primly, fussing with leftovers and Tupperware. “He’s very quiet.”
“Too quiet,” Ilana decided. “Maybe he thinks we’re—” She settled onto one of the barstools at the counter.
Ruth shut the fridge. “What?”
“Maybe he thinks we’re not Jewish enough,” Ilana brought out carefully, as if placing tiles on a Scrabble board. When no one commented, she rushed on, “I mean, are we?”
I asked Ilana how Jewish was enough, but even I knew that wasn’t an honest question.
We dried the dishes and moved to the TV room. Small, carpeted in red, curtained in blue, with a fat, exhausted-looking blue couch, it was the center of our living in that house. There, with the comforting presence of the huge scarred color set, we drew in on ourselves, as if in contradiction to the TV screen that could connect us with millions, or maybe it made reflection easier somehow, it’s hard to say. We didn’t watch much actually, but read there, relaxed, waited for things to happen.
Jesse now pulled a New Yorker from a pile of magazines on the floor and stretched out with his back to the wall to read the ads for—as he put it—“fur goblets and that kind of thing.”
“What are you worried about?” Ruth asked, looking for a dust rag.
Ilana shrugged and sat next to me.
I’d known her for two years now (we were both English majors) and she’d never done anything more Jewish than talk about Israel like everyone else did and make jokes about “us” and “them,” but even those were so casual I’m sure she didn’t believe there was a real difference.
We all read for a while and Ruth, small and intent behind her pump-spray Pledge, cleaned around us.
That evening in the TV room, that silent evening in which we only spoke to read bits of articles aloud, we all seemed to be asking Ilana’s question: how Jewish were we?
I’d never seen Jesse with a yarmulke before and the Saturday afternoon he appeared upstairs in a suit I wanted to laugh, he looked so respectable. He plopped onto my bed.
“I went to services at Hillel with Roy. You know he’s never been? No Bar Mitzvah. He’s like one of those kids, you know, the ones that are lost in forests and come out not speaking anything, like animals?”
“That kind, yeah.” Jesse seemed as much surprised by his own wordiness as by Roy’s past.
“Did he go to any kind of school?”
“No. He’s teaching himself Hebrew, but he couldn’t figure out the prayer book.”
I said it was good that the Birnbaum prayer book, the Orthodox one, had so many footnotes.
“When they opened the Ark I thought he was going to get on his knees or something.”
“He’s never been to shul?”
“No—and he liked it more than I do. I explained what was going on and he kind of ate it all up.” Jesse grinned. “I know it and he feels it—put us together you’ve got one good Jew.”
Jesse seemed to like teaching Roy about the service and they went every Saturday after that. Roy didn’t talk about his “conversion” but I found him in the TV room a few times with a black yarmulke on his head, reading the prayer book he’d borrowed from Hillel.
“Listen,” he said once, reading first in fumbling Hebrew and then in English: “‘True and certain, established and enduring, right and steadfast, beloved and gracious, pleasant and sweet, revered and glorious, correct and acceptable, good and beautiful is this faith to us forever and ever.’”
His voice was soft, reverential, as if the words were healing him. I felt a sharp ache for the sense of discovery and wonder Roy had.
“I’ve read books about Judaism,” he said, “but now I’m doing it.”
“Why now?” I asked and Roy looked down at the prayer book. “You’ll think this is dumb,” he said, “but I found a copy of The Dybbuk in a used bookstore and it was a whole different world I didn’t know anything about. And when I thought about it, I saw I didn’t have any Jewish friends, never dated Jewish girls. Maybe I didn’t even like Jews.”
He glanced up, eyes pained and defiant, expecting criticism, I guess, but ready to counter it, or try. “I didn’t really know any Jews. I probably didn’t want to.”
It was at times like these that Roy seemed most alien to me, most foreign to how I lived and thought, yet something in the core of me responded to him, as if he were the voice of a darkness I had no suspicion existed. Maybe my living in the co-op was a way of masking my lack of involvement. I didn’t read Jewish books except for Woody Allen, didn’t do anything particularly Jewish. It embarrassed me when Roy would ask questions I didn’t have answers for. I lent him books like Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism and stuff I’d gotten for Hanukkah, but that was so little compared to what he needed. I didn’t have much information and I had less spirit.
I went back down to Queens for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but we only listened to Kol Nidre on the radio from Temple Emanu-El, didn’t fast or do more than see family. Ruth and Jesse both lived in Babylon and belonged to the same congregation and they did go to services, but only on Yom Kippur. Ilana, who stayed at school, didn’t tell us what she did. Roy went to Hillel by himself and fasted for the first time in his life. He said it was “exciting” and that he almost cried during Kol Nidre.
We all sort of ignored Sukkot and Simhat Torah.
“At least Roy’s not crazy,” Ilana confided to me unexpectedly one Wednesday night when we were cleaning the kitchen. Her face was red and blotchy from bending over the steaming soapy pail and shoving the heavy mop across the worn linoleum. I was attacking the stove.
“I mean, he’s not a potential Hasid or anything.”
I scraped away with a knife at spilled coffee under a burner. “Do you think we should try keeping kosher again?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve been reading about it.”
Ilana looked up, curious.
I explained I’d read about the kashrut laws at the Hillel library. I’d never bothered before with the reasons behind them and I liked the interpretation that explained them in terms of putting limits on oneself, learning spiritual discipline. I talked too long, I think, because Ilana smiled.
“I’ve been reading about how Reform Judaism began,” she said. “I got some books from the library. I wonder what Ruth is up to?”
We found that out at dinner the next night. Ruth sat down chattering about Martin Buber. Someone had lent her I and Thou.
“I wish I understood him,” Roy said, and Ruth frowned, embarrassed either because she now suspected she didn’t understand or because she didn’t want us to think she was bragging.
Jesse cleared his throat, pushed his plate away. “Since I’m cooking Friday, let’s have a Shabbat dinner. How about it?”
“With candles?” Ilana asked, pleased.
“Would we have to say grace—I mean bentsh—after?” Roy looked nervous.
Jesse assured him we could do what we wanted—either say the grace after meals, or not. “But you can borrow one of the booklets from Hillel—a ‘bentsher’—if you want to learn.”
That night I heard Roy whistling “Adon Olam” in his room and it didn’t seem ridiculous. On Friday we were all excited. Ruth lit the candles, Jesse blessed the wine, we all washed, and Roy said Ha-motzi, the grace before meals. His hands shook as he placed them on the hallah Ilana had baked that morning, but his voice was clear and strong: “Baruch ata Adonai, Elohaynu melech ha-olam, ha-motzi le-chem min ha-arets. Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who bringest forth bread from the earth.”
The English had never sounded so beautiful to me before, like prayer and not just translation, and when Roy cut the five slices of hallah, salted them, ate from one and passed the others to us, I wanted to clap his back and hug him.
We were all high, talked nonstop, except for Roy. He seemed dazed, as if he’d passed some kind of boundary he was afraid would hold him back.
We all sat up late in Roy’s room telling stories about high school, past loves, drunk on our own confidences (though Roy mostly listened). Even Ruth relaxed. When the others drifted off to bed, I stayed. I felt so proud of Roy, wished he were my brother. I may even have said that; I can’t remember.
With his eyes half-closed, Roy explained what had really brought him to the co-op. It was a combination of anti-Semitic hassling in the dorm, a growing fear of his own ignorance (someone had asked him to explain Shavuot and he couldn’t), and his sister marrying an Italian Catholic.
“I hated their Christmas tree. My sister kept staring at me, waiting for a comment, but I didn’t say anything. And I didn’t go back.”
“What did your folks think?”
Roy shook his head. “My mother hates Tony, thinks he’s an ‘animal,’ and my dad won’t talk. They went to the wedding but they looked sick. They never gave us much, so what could they expect?”
Roy’s bitterness was too deep.
“Did your folks talk about the war much?”
“It’s a blank.”
I almost thought he was going to cry but he smiled suddenly. “I know you can’t make up for what you’ve missed.” He waved at his rows of psych books. “I know you have to give up thinking everything’ll be happy-happy and move past it—”
“To what?” I felt upset now.
I went to shul the next morning with Ilana, Jesse, and Roy, watched Roy kiss the fringed prayer shawl and put it on, shake hands, and scatter “Gut Shabbeses” as if he’d always come there.
I felt like the outsider, the service bored me. I read the English translation when I wasn’t singing in Hebrew, stared out the window at some of the girls, watched Roy’s contentment and grace with envy. Did it take deprivation to make all this meaningful?
Roy was called to the Torah and recited the blessings as if he were a much older man; the Hebrew gave his voice richness and authority.
“He’s good,” I whispered to Jesse, who beamed like a shy parent.
Afterward, I saw Roy talking to a short, plump girl who was as dark and curly-haired as he was, and as good-looking in her own way.
“That’s Shelley Peres,” Ilana informed me. “She’s a real go-getter: Young Zionist, teaches Sunday school, head of some coalition. Her dad’s on the Hillel board. She’s Sephardi—half.”
I had guessed that.
Roy went back for Shabbat lunch to Shelley’s and we three grinned at him.
Because midterms were coming up, the house was very quiet and meals went quickly. Ruth holed up in the library and Jesse stayed in his department building most of the time. Ilana was in and out, involved in study groups, so I pretty much had the co-op to myself, which was good because I have trouble reading if there’s more than street noise. We were lucky to live on a street away from Main and Fraternity Row; the worst noise would be dogs at night sometimes, daring each other from behind locked doors or gates, their barks echoing off the silence. It’s funny I needed it to be quiet, because I grew up in Queens under a flight path to Kennedy airport and our house had the shakes a couple of times a day. Living in a college town had got me used to less noise, less hassle all around. It was easier to study, easier to concentrate on things because there weren’t as many distractions.
After midterms Roy started spending all his time with Shelley. All his time; they saw every campus movie, lunched together, studied together, went biking, went out for walks. She did the talking when they were together, and Roy drank it in. Shelley had gone to Jewish summer camps, spent a year in Israel on a kibbutz, knew Hebrew and Yiddish, read the Jerusalem Post and a half-dozen Jewish publications, belonged to enough organizations to fill a small office building.
None of us liked her. She knew too much. She talked too much. At dinner in the co-op, any Jewish topic brought out the lecturer in her. She’d wave a fork and jab words at us as if we were hopelessly stupid.
Roy thought she was wonderful.
One night in a blaze of rhetoric about Jewish contributions to world something or other, Shelley spat a few times as she spoke. I glanced at Ilana; we winked.
After that dinner, we called Shelley “Old Faithful” and even Ruth and Jesse managed a few spiteful remarks now and then, but we never let Roy know, not that it would’ve mattered. He had plunged into Shelley, into her life, her concerns, her activities and opinions as if he wanted to be her. It was unpleasant; it was not love or even devotion. Roy’s incredible commitment to Shelley scared me, made me see that the void in him must’ve been enormous. I’d run into them holding hands or with arms locked in town, on campus, Shelley hot with explanation, Roy attentive, open, submissive almost. I felt shut out.
We started adding the grace after meals to all our Shabbat dinners and even Ruth came to services, but our new-found observance did not really include Roy. We missed him.
A few weeks before Hanukkah and finals, Shelley came over very late one night. Through the thin old walls I heard murmuring, heard the pop of a champagne cork and then, after a silence, the radio, just loud enough to filter out other sounds. I read myself to sleep the way I sometimes do; Faulkner always works.
Not much later, I awoke when the front door slammed and a car started up, drove away. A few minutes after Roy knocked and asked if he could come in.
I pulled on my robe, called “yes,” and turned on the desk lamp.
He was just wearing gym shorts and seemed so blank that I reached for the Dewar’s under my desk, poured him a shot. He sat in my armchair, silent, eyes down, drank two shots before he said, “I’m all right.”
I didn’t believe him. I pulled my desk chair closer and sat near him. I couldn’t tell what was wrong, but he felt sick to me, feverish. His beard seemed very dark against his pale pale skin. It was cold in my room so I got him a shirt, but he just stared at it, held it in his lap.
“Have you ever had trouble in bed, with a girl?”
“Sometimes.” I flushed. “If I’m nervous.”
“Not me—never. Until Shelley. We keep trying, but I can’t.”
I thought of all his psychology books next door.
“I’ve never been to bed with a Jewish girl,” he said. And then, “I’m not circumcised. My folks were afraid. Lots of Jews were caught in the war just by that. . . .”
I told him that I’d read about Leonard Woolf seeing a photograph in 1937 of storm troopers dragging along a Jew with his fly ripped open, and bystanders laughing. I didn’t add that Woolf had stored poison for himself and Virginia in the event of a German invasion of England.
I reached for the Dewar’s but Roy waved it away, plucking at the shirt. He told me how he’d gone to a mostly Jewish elementary school and aways felt embarrassed at the urinals; how guys made jokes about him in the showers in junior high, one classmate leaving a pair of scissors on his desk and telling everyone; how he’d always felt like an outsider among Jews, isolated from history, the past.
“I couldn’t tell anyone,” he said. “Talk about it.”
“Does it really matter?”
He looked right at me, eyes terrible, dead. “You don’t understand, do you?” He tossed the shirt onto my desk, went back to his room.
The next morning, Roy had an early class and in the kitchen I reported our conversation.
Ruth frowned. “Wasn’t that personal?”
“He’s our friend.”
Jesse agreed with me.
Ilana stirred her instant oatmeal. “Does that mean he shouldn’t be counted in a minyan, or get called to the Torah—even if his mother is Jewish?”
None of us was really sure whether he could be counted in a minyan.
“Some women like it better,” Ruth dropped, and when we all looked at her, she said, “That’s what I read. . . .”
No one smiled.
I saw Shelley in the Student Union cafeteria that afternoon and she waved me over.
“You seen Roy?” she asked.
“Not today.” I piled my down parka over hers on the third chair and sat opposite her. Shelley was prettier than I remembered, with a fresh round face I could picture in an Ivory commercial.
“Do you know what happened?”
She seemed relieved and sat back from the small square table, shoulders loose in a gold cashmere sweater. Fiddling with her empty styrofoam cup, twirling it in one hand, she said, “I got him the name of a good therapist at the counseling center, but he won’t go. I don’t know what else to do.”
Briefly I felt I was back in high school where people’s feelings were never expressed directly, but relayed, filtered through friends. Shelley wasn’t asking anything of me, though. She was simply stumped.
“Can’t he just go to a doctor, or find, you know, a mohel to do it?”
She smiled. “I thought English majors could spot symbols a mile away.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Everything he’s ashamed of, maybe? I don’t know.”
She seemed so much more human to me then, open, concerned, that I could imagine getting to know her, feeling comfortable with her Jewish knowledge and experience.
We talked a bit about finals and winter vacation plans. When I got back to the co-op to help Ruth with dinner, Roy had already loaded most of his things and driven down to New York.
“He wouldn’t talk to me,” Ruth said. “I tried.”
“He’s coming back?”
She shrugged, stirring the rice.
“But the term’s not over.”
“He can take incompletes.”