Total Immersion A Story
“Heavenly father,” the chaplain begins. The students hush at the outdoor assembly. They bow their heads and only a slight rustling can be heard among all those children marshaled in a standing wave—first-graders at one goal post, rising seniors at the other. “On this first day of school we thank you for your many blessings,” the voice intones from the speakers rigged up on palm trees. “We thank you for Hawaii, for this campus of ours filled with flowers. We thank you for the lovely buildings of Oahu Prep. The new swimming pool, the Cochran gym. These are gifts of people who care for us and for the beauty of our learning environment. We thank you for our parents who give so much to us, for the men and women who clean the campus and tend the grounds. And for the teachers who work so hard to prepare us for the future. In Jesus Christ our prayer, amen.”
A sudden flood of students pushes Dr. Lefkowitz from behind. Her homeroom diffuses into the crowd and she is left to teach her first class. Sandra grasps her teacher’s manual tightly. It’s not that she hasn’t taught before. At Georgetown she was Head Teaching Fellow for Molière and the Comic Muse. She taught two sections a week. The only difference was those students already knew French. Looking out into the courtyard, Sandra tries to remember where they said her first class was.
The chair of the French department emerges from behind an oleander bush. A tall heavy woman, she moves with the proprietary magnificence of twenty years’ teaching experience. “Hilda,” Sandra calls. “Where is Dole Hall Annex?”
“En français. Toujours en français,” Hilda cautions jovially. “L’entrée à Dole? C’est ici.” And she rolls on, stately in her platform shoes and green print muumuu. “Bonne chance, Sandra,” she calls back.
“Bonjour, mes élèves,” Sandra greets her class of small, frightened freshmen. “Je m’appelle Dr. Lefkowitz. Je suis votre professeur de français. Comprenez-vous?”
The class stares. “Is this French I?” asks a girl with a bleached shock of hair over one eye.
When she gets home, Sandra’s husband rushes to the door to greet her. “Sandy!” Alan cries. “How was it? How did the dress go over?” Sandra sinks into his arms, exhausted. She had completely forgotten the new dress, a tropical shirtwaist they had picked out for the first day of school.
“Oh, Alan,” Sandra moans. “That woman. Hilda. What a concept! Apparently all French teachers have to speak French to each other at all times. She’s the self-appointed guardian of the oral-aural method. She goes around telling us, “Nous ne comprenons pas l’anglais.” She’s also informed me that next week it’s my turn to write up the French I test on Unit I, but my class refuses to understand what I say, so I really don’t know how I’m going to finish Unit I.”
Alan pours Sandy a Coke. “Don’t think for a minute that that woman teaches in French,” he says. “She’s probably from Iowa. You just go ahead and teach in English. You didn’t notice the bookshelves,” he adds. “They were only a hundred dollars each. And would you believe the guy who sold them to me is Israeli. Ephraim Tawil. He runs the whole business. Importing, manufacturing, and selling. He grew up in Rehovot, married an American, and came out here in the teak import business. And he gave me the name of a kosher butcher in California who can ship a quarter steer frozen—you write in the order. He leads the services for a traditional group that broke away from the temple and he wants us to come for dinner tonight.”
“That’s so sweet of him. But I can’t stay out too late. I have to be at school by 7:30.”
Alan stares. “What for?”
“Well, I was told unofficially that homeroom teachers are actually supposed to come half an hour early in case any of the kids want to talk.”
“Jesus,” says Alan, who had gone through med school swapping schedules to avoid early morning shifts.
“I mean, the school was founded by Congregationalist missionaries,” Sandra explains.
Alan rolls his eyes. “We’re not missionaries.” “But I really want to make a good impression,” Sandra says in a small voice.
The Lefkowitzes drive their new Ford to the Tawils’ house. Sandra navigates with a map of Oahu spread over her knees. They had married the year before and moved to Hawaii only a month ago. They still feel the newness, like the stiff sizing in new clothes. New car, new bookshelves, new bed, new apartment walking distance from the school so Alan can drive to the hospital. They still have to buy chairs and a table, but that will have to wait until the first pay checks come. Their pots and pans and dishes have just arrived from Washington. At Georgetown Sandra had planned to enter the diplomatic service and travel around the world. She married Alan and got halfway.
“Alan,” says Sandra, “I think we’re lost.”
Alan pulls over on Waialae Avenue. Together they study the map. “We got off the freeway too soon,” Alan says.
“Should we ask?”
“No, no. I know where to go.” Alan starts the car.
Sandra’s map blows in her face. “I never asked you about your day,” she says.
“Couple of well babies, lots of school checkups.” Alan changes lanes. “A Korean kid with a broken arm. His parents were hysterical. Somehow his friend’s truck rolled over it. Lucky he wasn’t killed.”
“Now I think we overshot,” says Sandra. “Get off here and try that thing. Wilhelmina Rise.”
The transmission purrs as they climb the steep road. Below them the city stretches out to the shore. The ocean rises, a thin band broadening as they climb the hill. Deep and startlingly blue, it circles and overwhelms the view.
The Tawils live near the crest of the rise. Their stilt house tilts rakishly over the cliff. In front of the house, Tawil’s truck stands parked on the sloping road. It looks ready to roll into the sea. A blonde woman answers the door and stares at them wordlessly, taking in Alan’s sports coat and the basket of roses Sandra holds in her arms.
“Is this the Tawils’ house?” Alan asks.
“Yes, who are you?”
“We’re the Lefkowitzes. Ephraim invited us to dinner.”
“He did? Oh, my God, this is it. This is it!” She screams into the house. Then, to Alan and Sandra, “Come in, come in. Listen, unfortunately I wasn’t told anything about this.” She leads them to a shaggy beige sofa in the living room and intercepts Ephraim as he emerges beaming welcome from the shower.
“That must be Judy, Ephrie’s wife,” Alan tells Sandra. They can hear Judy clattering pans in the kitchen. “Why do you do this?” she screams. “Why can’t you tell me you’re bringing people home? After what happened today. I can’t believe it. I just can’t.”
“It’s a surprise,” says Ephrie smoothly. “Like I always tell you—relax or you’ll never enjoy yourself.” He returns to the living room as if no time has passed and repeats his welcome.
“Maybe we should come a different night,” Sandra ventures.
“No.” Ephrie waves the thought away. “This is the perfect night. Timing could not make it better.” He takes the roses into the kitchen and tells Judy, “Here, have some flowers. You have to what-d’you-call-’em, smell the roses or they’ll pass you by. If you scream all the time, you’ll get a heart attack.”
“Can I help?” Sandra asks Judy.
“Thank you, no,” Judy answers. “I’m not really cooking. I think I’ll just put up some hot dogs. You wouldn’t believe what I went through today. And I got a $40 ticket on top of everything because my son released the brake in the truck and rolled over his friend. He breaks the kid’s arm and I get a ticket.”
“That was the one Alan treated,” exclaims Sandra. “You should be grateful. It could have been worse.”
“That’s right,” says Judy in a tense voice. “Accidents every day. But you try to keep them in the house. They’re boys. Chaos. You don’t have kids? Enjoy it now. Later you’ll watch as they tear up your house. And your husband will regress. You’ll see. He’ll become just like them.”
“We love having people,” Ephraim reassures Alan in the living room. “All the time people. In and out. That’s what I love. In Rehovot I had nine brothers growing up. Always someone in the house to fight with. Someone to talk to. That’s why I come home to an empty house I get lonely. One time they impounded an Israeli ship for debt in Honolulu harbor. I went and got permission to have the men here for dinner every night until they flew them out.”
“My God,” says Alan, “how many were there?”
“Judy!” Ephrie hollers into the kitchen. “How many what-d’you-call-’em on that boat?”
“You come here if you want to talk to me!” Judy screams back. Then, after a pause. “Twenty-four, I think, until they found girls.”
Setting the table, Sandra asks Judy, “So, you’re not Israeli?”
“God, no,” laughs Judy. “I grew up in Chicago and went on a one-year program to Israel. My parents’ worst fears were realized. It was the thrill of my life. I told them I was going to have the whole traditional Yemenite wedding. You know, with the veil with all the coins on it. Mom cried and cried. My daughter went and married a Shvartze! Of course, they all got their way in the end, and I wasn’t even consulted. We had the wedding in Chicago and before I knew it Ephrie decided we should stay in the U.S. In Israel I was a candidate for a degree in poultry science. I end up back where I started, training as a dental hygienist. You try and talk an Israeli into moving back to Israel. If I’d married an American I’d be there now.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Sandra. “I always said I’d live in France, but you can’t predict what will happen—with whom you’ll end up falling in love, who you’ll become.”
“What’s love got to do with it?” Judy scoffs.
The two couples sit down at the table and Judy calls out to the yard, “Hose down before you set foot in the house.” Screams and spraying water last several minutes and then thirteen- and ten-year-old Lavi and Namir pound up the stairs and drip across the carpet. Each takes a hot dog from the table along with handfuls of chips. “You’re wet,” Judy snaps. “And you’re behaving like animals. Dry off and then come back if you can behave like human beings.” Namir takes a Coke and Lavi snatches another bunch of chips. Provisioned, they escape to watch TV.
“So,” Ephrie announces. “We’ve got traditional services every other week.”
“That’s all?” Alan is disappointed. “How do you finish the Torah?”
“Every two years,” answers Ephrie. “Listen, I don’t ask questions, I just read.”
“But that’s absurd!” Alan protests.
“It’s a hell of a lot better than the temple,” Judy admonishes him. “You want to waste Friday night listening to Liebowitz talk about himself?”
“Why is it called the Bet Knesset Connection?” asks Sandra. “It sounds so 70′s.”
“The Gluecks chose the name when they took over,” says Judy. “They came from Miami. Terence teaches art history and Pat is an orthodontist. Her children are ugly as sin, though.”
After services at the Unitarian church, where Bet Knesset meets, the Lefkowitzes are formally introduced to the Gluecks. When Alan shakes hands he feels the smooth band of Terence’s oval carnelian ring. Pat wears a mandarin orange painted silk dress that falls in open cowl folds exposing her chest. She is a tall woman with a beak nose set off by a black lacquered straw hat with a spotted veil.
“Alan,” says Terence, “I really enjoyed your comments during the discussion.”
“Well,” Alan says defensively, “what I said wasn’t actually so original. I mean, I don’t think the notion that the serpent in Eden was a snake god is central to our tradition.”
“Of course,” Terence says soothingly. “Naturally this isn’t the kind of thing you were taught in Sunday school. It’s only when we leave Sunday school that we begin to see how subtle and subversive these texts really are. As a scholar, this kind of insight freed me to understand the Mannerist painters. I began to see the Mannerists not merely as descriptive trompe-l’oeil technicians, but as exponents of the 16th-century counterculture. Only then could I analyze Mannerism as a creative force.”
Instinctively Alan bristles. There is something in Terence that makes Alan wary. He suspects Terence only half-believes his own speeches, but at the same time he cannot stifle the horrible thought that Terence might actually trust in this swaying rhetorical structure. Terence confuses him. For Alan is the kind of doctor who decided to take up medicine not because he did so well in organic chemistry, but because he read the memoirs of Albert Schweitzer in ninth grade.
“Does the discussion part of the service always last an hour?” Sandra asks Terence’s wife.
Pat shakes off her children, who are trying to pull her toward the car. “Well,” she answers, “it depends how much people want to say. Sometimes we have to cut the service in order to finish on time. Have you met Caroline?”
Caroline wears diamonds. Fleetingly, Sandra imagines her as a composite of designer names and concepts: Giorgio, Missoni, Dior, Ferragamo. Just as suddenly, Sandra sees herself through Caroline’s eyes as some kind of non-signature generic. Unscented, hypo-allergenic, better sportswear. The vision only lasts a moment, however. Caroline has two children at Oahu Prep, an overweight husband, and a faint New England accent.
“We must get together some time,” Caroline says, extending her long, cool fingers. “The thing is, we’re doing some work on the house and we’ve all been camping out for six months in four rooms. The banyan tree grew down into the plumbing and cracked the pool, and before we knew it we had to open up the living room.”
Alan walks over to Ephraim and shakes his hand. “Y’asher koach, well done, Ephrie. You did a beautiful job. Do you think we could convince people to hold services every week?”
“Listen,” Ephrie claps his hand on Alan’s shoulder. “Like I said before, I don’t make waves, I just read. That’s all. Everybody does their own thing. You can’t change it. Some people don’t even come to shul at all.”
“Damn right,” says Judy. “That’s why we started Bet Knesset to begin with. There is no way I’ll go to the temple on Friday night. Ask my kids. Friday night is my time.”
Outside on the lawn stands a monkeypod tree with a tree house. Namir and Lavi climb from the tree house onto the church roof and won’t let Caroline’s daughter follow them. Six-year-old Jessica stamps in rage against the sturdy floorboards of the tree house. “My dad is richer than your dad,” she screams.
“So,” Lavi says, “my mom is richer than yours. Your mom doesn’t do anything.”
“Yes she does!” shrieks Jessica.
While Jessica is thinking, her father calls from the ground that it’s time to go home.
Driving back to the apartment, Alan reasons, “Well, they’re friendly people. You can’t expect the community here to duplicate the one at home. Everyone has different needs. Ephrie understands that. He’s very good at compromise. There are a lot of complications living in Hawaii.”
“And not so many options,” sighs Sandra.
All students at Oahu Prep attend mandatory ecumenical services. Thursdays at ten Sandra is assigned to chapel duty. She must take attendance for three rows of students. During the organ prelude, she passes a clipboard and each student signs opposite his xeroxed signature. Sandra has the power to issue demerits if the students talk excessively, come to chapel barefoot, or slam their hymn books. The chapel looks like a theater in the round with its egalitarian pews surrounding the altar. Chaplain Whitaker tries to speak to each person as an individual. He uses a cordless microphone and walks up and down the aisles encouraging eye contact. Even as Sandra watches her quota of restless students, she herself feels watched.
Passing the clipboard, Sandra recognizes the girl next to her as a student in her French II class. “Ginnie Corpuz,” the girl writes, shaping the tiny letters with an extra fine pen. “Nice name,” whispers Sandra. “Are you Spanish?”
Ginnie looks up with her huge, black ironic eyes. “Sometimes,” she says.
She is a strange girl. During the hymn Ginnie remains seated, writing a letter on an aerogram. Sandra hesitates to say anything. Finally, after the last chords, she whispers, “You know, it’s so dark in here, and with your tiny writing you could ruin your eyes.” As Ginnie puts her letter away, Sandra notices, surprised, that Ginnie has been writing in French. She shows so little interest in class and rarely turns in homework. The week before, during a grammar review, she sat silently without taking any notes. Then, while someone was trying to conjugate partir, Ginnie gathered her books and walked to the door. “I have cramps,” she said dramatically, and left.
“Dear friends,” says Chaplain Whitaker. “When I was in junior high school I was in love. Yes, I was in love with a freckled girl with braces on her teeth and scratches on her knees.” He waits for the appreciative laughter to die down and then enunciates intensely, “Love is the most terrible thing in the world.”
Ginnie puts her head down and closes her eyes. Sandra wishes she could do the same.
On their fifteenth anniversary, Ephrie and Judy Tawil invite everyone they know to an open house. The Tawils’ hospitality makes for a strange assortment of guests: petite dental hygienists who work with Judy, tall Samoan carpenters who work for Ephrie, old friends from the Elks Club, a man Ephrie met jogging in Kapiolani Park. The entire Bet Knesset group is invited, and most of the couples come. Three years before, in Miami, the Gluecks socialized primarily with academics and professionals, but life in Honolulu takes a different tone. Here, they find the small dinner party replaced by the luau reunion of the extended family. As active and ambitious leaders, they find their large, stratified Miami temple replaced by a tiny group in which each individual must be catered to as if he were a one-man party holding out on principle in the Israeli Knesset. And so, according to local custom, Pat Glueck leaves her spike heels at the door along with all the other pairs of shoes ranging from size-15 Adidas to three-inch rubber thongs and pink plastic toddler boots with bells on them.
Ephrie never invites parents without kids. “I’m really touched by your hospitality,” says Stan Lam-kin, giving Ephrie a bottle of wine. “I can’t remember the last time someone invited all seven of us.”
“Like I always said,” Ephrie replies, “at a party the more what-d’you-call-’em the better.”
Guests overflow from the living room out to the lanai where Ephrie has placed two aluminum kegs of beer. Below, in the yard, children shriek, pelting each other in a rotten mango fight. Ephrie sits on the couch with three Samoan men. He looks especially small as he passes his homemade hummus. “You make this? Very good for you,” compliments Luke Oangalele.
Judy passes through to refill her drink. “Yeah,” she snipes. “He doesn’t know where the stove is, but he can make hummus.” The men laugh uproariously.
When the Lefkowitzes arrive, Judy ushers Sandra into the den, where she is drinking with Pat and Caroline. “Isn’t this a little medieval?” asks Sandra. “Separate feasts for men and women.”
“Uh-huh,” says Judy. “Have a drink. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
Bewildered, Sandra sits down next to Caroline, who wears a little teddy of a cocktail dress. Pat turns up the volume on the TV. “We’re watching The Way We Were,” she tells Sandra sternly. And then turns her back to the set.
“You know,” Judy says, “I’m glad Alan finally broke down and got a few aloha shirts. The first time I saw him in that blazer I nearly died.”
“Doesn’t anyone wear jackets and ties here?” Sandra asks.
“Of course they do,” says Caroline. “They wear them to work, if they work in banks—or at funerals. Not in real life.”
“You’re right,” agrees Sandra. “Alan wore a suit to the clinic, and one of the residents asked who’d died.”
Judy rattles the ice in her drink. “You watch what Hawaii does to him,” she warns. “Ten years from now and you won’t be able to get him into shoes. Of course, Ephrie was like that to begin with. So he’s found other ways to be disgusting. Someone told me he was good-looking. That’s why I married him.”
“There you are, Sandy.” Alan walks in.
“Girl talk! Girl talk!” calls Caroline.
Alan backs away and Sandra rises to follow him, but Judy grips her arm. “We’ve got the cake in here,” she says, cutting a piece of the white, frosted cake from Leonard’s Bakery.
Sandra tries to eat the piece given to her, crumbling on a paper napkin.
“By the way, I brought you a present,” Pat tells Judy. “I have here a letter from Barbara Ruth.”
“Oh, my God, another one!” Judy squeals and Caroline tries to snatch the envelope, but Pat waves it above her head with a tipsy flourish.
“Who is she?” asks Sandra.
“Barbara Ruth Bloom, you poor child,” giggles Pat, as if the name explained everything. “‘Dear Pat,’ she reads, “‘Baruch Hashem, praise God, I am delivered of my sixth child, Barak.’”
“Jesus H. Christ,” drawls Judy.
“Will you listen?” demands Pat. “‘I called my parents and asked them once again to come to Israel and see their grandchildren, but because they felt the trip would be too strenuous, they sent a gift instead, which I distributed to the needy of Mea She’arim.’”
Pat clutches herself with laughter at the mention of Jerusalem’s most pious quarter. “You have to understand,” she gasps to Sandra, “what kind of people her parents are.”
“Ira and Shirley Bloom,” Judy explains, “live way up on Tantalus, and they’re filthy rich. They each inherited. I forget what they did. I think Ira was a lawyer, but I mean, mainly, they had this daughter they named Barbara Ruth.”
“But wait,” Caroline puts in, “you’ve got to tell about their house first. They have a house on the crest of the ridge. Spectacular. They spent a fortune. It was built for them by a New York architect and then redone to look lived in. The whole thing was a complete aggravation. Not only was it constantly remodeled—and they have my total sympathy on that—but it was always sliding down the mountain. Not sliding so you could see, but sort of inching down, sidling down, since they didn’t use a local architect and it wasn’t really entrenched in the rock. So after every rainstorm they have to spend thousands jacking the place up, redoing the retaining walls.”
“Caroline,” says Judy, “we’re talking about Barbara Ruth.”
“I know, I know,” Caroline protests. “I was setting the scene.”
“Listen, it’s my letter, would you let me tell,” Pat orders. “OK. They had one daughter, Barbara Ruth. And she worked for me as a hygienist in Miami. She was terrible, by the way. She could not be trusted to install braces without supervision. She didn’t cement well; her brackets popped off within days. She soldered the wrong wires together. Unmitigated disaster.”
“I’m confused,” says Sandra. “How did she get to Miami from Hawaii?”
“Just listen,” shushes Judy. “She grew up with these overprotective parents and then went off to the University of Miami, where she met and married a Sikh.”
“Oh my God,” Sandra laughs. “Did she convert?”
“What was he like?”
“How should I know?” asks Pat. “I never met him. This happened when she was about nineteen. She worked for me much later.”
Caroline stretches out her legs and curls her toes. Unwatched on the TV, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford meet again years later. “Well,” says Caroline, “he was about six-two not counting his turban, and he rode a phallic black motorcycle.”
“How do you know?” demands Judy.
“I’m guessing,” murmurs Caroline. “He made her feel for the first time like a whole woman.”
Pat pours herself another drink. “That’s anti-feminist crap,” she says. “We’re talking about a young woman led into an exploitative relationship and losing her identity. Becoming a Sikh, for God’s sake.”
“Oh, come on,” says Caroline. “She had a lot of fun. I lost mine to a British exchange student at Columbia. He was quite impressive. Went back and became an MP. I get all sentimental when I think about it. I feel like Nathan Hale. I only regret that I have but one. . . .”
“Shut up, Caroline. The point is, the marriage didn’t last.”
“What did her parents do?” asks Sandra.
“Paid,” says Pat. “They just kept paying. They bought her an apartment in Miami. They bought her beautiful clothes.”
“She was really homely,” adds Judy.
“But she had one beauty,” amends Caroline. “Long, uncontrollable, flaming red hair.”
“Oh, please,” Pat grimaces. “Let’s just say she had very lovely red hair which she didn’t really take care of. She never did anything with it.”
Judy ruffles her own short peroxide blonde curls. “And her face didn’t really live up to it.”
“Anyway,” Pat continues, “after her divorce she got the job with me. And she went into a deep depression. Most of my girls work for one or two years, get married, then carry on eight months into pregnancy and quit. But as they kept leaving, Barbara Ruth just stayed on and on. She never got any better at wiring either. Also, she was depressed by all these women big with child. She’d had a miscarriage by the Sikh. For which I told her she should be grateful. We’d gotten quite close by this time. Terence tried several times to fix her up with grad students at Coral Gables. In the end she decided to come back home.”
“Was she still a Sikh?” asks Sandra.
“She was in therapy,” answers Judy. “That’s when I met her. We were cleaning teeth together at Kaiser Dental Clinic. She was very, very quiet. Almost stopped talking. She would work all day and then go home to her parents. They bought her a little white Alfa Romeo and she drove it back and forth from home to work. Twenty-eight years old and that was all she did.”
“Then one Rosh Hashanah,” Caroline interrupts, “I was sitting at the temple—this was before Bet Knesset started—and Barbara Ruth walks in. Total shock.”
“Will you let me talk?” snaps Judy. “It wasn’t such a total shock. Her marriage was over. She wasn’t really a Sikh. It was a phase. She’d had some kind of quickie conversion. But now she wanted to learn. So she studied for conversion to Judaism with Rabbi Siegel. He was incredible. He said she didn’t need conversion, so they called it a confirmation ceremony, and since we didn’t have a mikveh here, she did the ritual immersion out in the waves at Sandy Beach.”
“Let me guess,” Sandra tries to join in. “She began to talk again. Her parents forgave her.” “Wrong, wrong, wrong,” declares Pat.
Judy shifts restlessly on the couch. “Just let me finish. She took a course in marine biology in the University of Hawaii extension program. And there she met Brian Akimoto.”
“He had the most beautiful body,” sighs Caroline, “slim and muscular, but not brawny. He made her feel like a woman again.”
“You never met him,” Judy points out. “He had a good build, but he was short like Ephrie. A real local type. He came from Kalihi and he was studying kelp harvesting. He was the teaching assistant in Barbara Ruth’s course. A real fisherman. He did it all: crab hunting, spear fishing. As a kid he’d worked summers on a tuna boat.”
“Meanwhile,” Caroline breaks in, “Ira and Shirley Bloom, who had been paying and paying and jacking their house up, start to feel intimations of mortality. They have one daughter, Barbara Ruth. One source of grandchildren.”
“Wait a minute,” protests Sandra. “They aren’t going to decide Brian Akimoto is suitable!”
“Of course not. I’m just trying to describe the extent of their aggravation. I mean everyone knew they were the richest unaffiliated Jews on Oahu and the temple couldn’t get a cent from them. But the thought of intermarriage and no grandchildren was driving them crazy.”
Raising her voice, Judy reclaims her story. “Brian was definitely interested. He took Barbara Ruth hiking to Hau’ula. He took her to an all-pidgin review at the Waikiki Shell. I don’t know what they saw in each other, but they fell in love.”
“Respect and trust—that was their secret,” suggests Pat.
“Loneliness. Hormones,” volunteers Caroline.
“Anyway,” Judy concludes, “she came to work every day more cheerful, more radiant. They weren’t even sleeping together.”
“How do you know?”
“I asked. She met his family. Then she forced poor Shirley and Ira to invite him to dinner. When Barbara Ruth told me how he arrived I knew he was serious. He brought a whole ulua, just caught, 28 inches from head to tail, wrapped in ti leaves. You’ve got to understand, for local people this is it. Roses mean nothing. When you get a fish, you know it’s for real. I told Barbara she’d better get ready for the big one. Listen, let me tell you about this fish. Not only did he convert to marry her. This simple local boy left Hawaii, his family, everything. You see, after Barbara had emerged from therapy and the waves at Sandy Beach she wanted a completely new life. I could see the change right away, because at the clinic she suddenly became a neat-freak. This was the girl who had received warnings about tying back her hair. Now she was sterilizing instruments every two minutes. She was a vegetarian for a while, then macrobiotic. Just from one craziness to another, like she was looking for something to be compulsive about. And finally, she settled on being Jewish. She evolved this dream—of living a totally Orthodox existence. And Brian went along. Would you believe, they moved to Mea She’arim, Brian reconverted under an Orthodox rabbi, learned Hebrew, and took the name Yehudah. Barbara Ruth cut off her hair. Right away they started having babies. Naturally, Shirley and Ira are beside themselves. ‘What have we done wrong? We gave her everything! Why did she do it? We never even sent her to Sunday School!’ Here’s their only daughter living with black hats so black they burn bus stops and throw rocks at cars driving by on Shabbat. They’re in agony and they do the only thing they know how. They send huge, huge amounts of money.”
“‘The children are well, baruch Hashem, the Lord be praised,’” Pat reads from the letter. “‘My oldest, Yael, is now nine. How blessed we are to see our children learn and grow. Yehudah is still working as a tour guide in Eilat. He is a gift to the tourist bureau with his fluent Japanese and his golden nefesh, that sweet soul of his. I often remember that day I first met him. I felt suddenly that his name, Akimoto, was an omen. The Japanese syllables spell out Hashem’s, promise—and I will raise him up—v’akim oto. How he has fulfilled this prophecy, raising up his family, elevating every act so that each is holy. For me, ours was the most beautiful seder in Mea She’arim because Yehudah led it with such love and understanding. And at Succoth, the four corners of our succah roof seem to lift toward the sky in prayer. Tears of joy fill my eyes when I think how every year on that holiday our children run in and out of the villa, carrying the silver and platters of food. I feel such an indescribable peace and happiness in simple things—lighting the Sabbath candles, looking up at the stars through the thatch of the succah, baking bread, sending money to the Girls’ Orphanage, ironing little shirts and dresses to give to the little needy children of Mea She’arim. Pat, look through the rummage sales and send me any used clothes or toys that you can find.
“‘I write this letter with a full heart, feeling that every day is a blessing, each new child a sign, one star in Hashem’s covenant. One day our people will be gathered up. Im yirtzeh Hashem, God willing, tomorrow we will welcome the messiah.
“‘My love and prayers with you,
At Oahu Prep, Sandra has given up trying to teach in French. She finds that her French class does not pick up irregular verb conjugations from pure idiomatic dialogue. She types up grammar-review sheets to supplement the green and purple “grammar tips” in the text. Sandra and her classes maintain only the thinnest shell of the oral approach. “Maintenant,” Sandra says, “we will study reflexive verbs.” And the students ask, “Pourquoi est-ce-que le verb over here instead of over there?” Sandra feels that she is cheating, but she finds that she cannot make herself understood in French. Sometimes, as she diagrams verb endings on the overhead projector or stops to replay a tape of market vendors hawking their wares, she worries that her booming department chair will enter and denounce her with French obscenities. Sandra imagines herself dismissed, crushed by Hilda’s platform shoes, smothered by the floral yardage in her idiomatic muumuu.
The Monday after the Tawils’ party, Sandra’s French II class struggles through Eugénie Grandet. Pacing the floor, Sandra listens to Candice read and translate from her heavily annotated Graded French Reader. “Il venait lui donner le bras pour descendre au déjeuner,” Candice reads. “Il la regardait d’un oeil presque bon—he looked at her with his one good eye.”
“No, Candice,” Sandra stifles laughter. “Both of his eyes were working fine. Try a less literal translation.”
“His one good eye,” Candice repeats.
“Consider the context. How does this old man feel toward the poor girl?”
“Je ne sais pas,” says Candice.
“Class, can you help us out?” Sandra waits a moment, according to ritual. Then she answers her own question. “He felt benevolent. He cast upon her un oeil presque bon, a benevolent eye. You know, class, as we move on we’re going to be reading some great literature. This is Balzac, here. This is the language of Molière, Racine, Descartes, Sartre. Let’s get out of the mindset of those first-year textbooks that gave us such insight into contemporary French grocery lists.”
The door swings open and Hilda marches in to pick up the Skiing in Québec filmstrip. “En français, ma chérie,” she hisses.
That afternoon at the French teachers’ meeting, Hilda stands and presents a reminder of the aims of the Oahu Prep modern language department. “We have an audio-visual-cultural approach,” Hilda says patiently. As Sandra has learned, English is spoken at department meetings. Hilda warms to her subject. “Literature, formal constructions, all this is important. But learning a language boils down to one thing. Oral survival skills. Authentic pronunciation, current popular constructions are imperative. How are the kids going to manage in France if they are afraid to talk? We have to keep them talking. Make them live, breathe, and dream French. Total immersion is what we’re after. Content will come. The fine points will come. I want them to sound French. I want them to go to Paris and order a beer and be mistaken for French kids.”
Honestly puzzled, Sandra asks, “But why ever would they want to be mistaken like that?”
“Alan,” Sandra calls into the other room as she dumps her purse and books on the couch. “Alan, I said something terrible today at the meeting. Does that mean I could lose my job?”
“Can’t hear you, hon.” Alan emerges from the closet carrying their folding luggage cart. “The meat came in!” he cries breathlessly. “Come down and give me a hand.”
The car is crammed with frozen kosher meat wrapped in white-paper packages. Each parcel is labeled with a grease pencil: LAMB, HAMBERG., CHIX. Sandra straps a turkey and packages of stew meat to the luggage cart. Alan follows carrying a ribeye roast. Their neighbors stare as they ride the elevator up and down, carting their frozen meat up to the tenth floor.
“Good thing we got the freezer,” Alan says. They look at their enormous Sears freezer proudly. It’s a bit out of scale for the apartment and they had to put it in outside the kitchen hall, but it does hold all the meat. “Well,” Alan sings out, “just in time. I’m starving. What’ll we have?”
“There isn’t time to thaw anything for tonight,” Sandra reminds him. She flops down and unfolds the paper, careful to keep the newsprint away from the couch. “Alan,” she says, “I don’t think my students are ever going to sound French. In Paris people will know they’re spoiled American teen-agers right away.”
“Rich tourists,” says Alan. “They’ll get preferential treatment. Who cares if they sound French?”
“Well,” Sandra sighs. “The other problem is they don’t know any French. I wish Hilda would get off my back. I just want to teach them some verbs. I wish she’d cut this cultural crap.”
“Sandy!” laughs Alan. “Is this the girl with Monet posters in her room who went around singing because she got into the Proust seminar and was going to use quiet diplomacy to make France pro-Israel?”
“Well, I may yet,” Sandra protests. “But really, Alan, do you think I’m going to lose my job?”
“No,” Alan answers roundly. “I think you’re wonderful. And I’ve always thought prep schools were fascist. You just keep your sense of humor. Tournez l’autre chic.”
“Hey, stop!” Sandra yelps. “No tickling.”
“Comment?” asks Alan.
Sandra has some difficulty taking off time for both days of Rosh Hashanah. Her dean understood completely about the first day, but he thought a second day was a bit excessive. “You know,” Dean Walker said, “we’ve had quite a few Jewish students, and none of them took two days. I guesss the kids hate to miss anything at school. Oahu Prep is a real twenty-four-hour experience. But use your judgment.”
Rosh Hashanah services run long because Bet Knesset has a translation policy. Terence stands next to Ephrie, and at intervals he reads aloud from the English.
Sandra sighs and estimates the pages left until the end. Judy glares at her sons and raises a threatening hand to Namir, who hangs upside down on his chair. “I remember your youthful devotion, the love of your bridal days,” Terence reads. “How you followed me through the wilderness, through a land unsown.”
Sandra looks at Judy and tries to imagine her raking chicken manure in Israel. “If I’d married an American I’d be there now,” she had said.
“Vahakimoti lach brit olam,” Ephrie continues, and he translates himself, “I will build up for you an eternal covenant.”
“The omen,” Caroline giggles, nudging Sandra. “Barbara Ruth’s omen, vahakimoti. See, my theory is she was lusting for Brian all along, but then she heard his name calling her in shul. ‘Akimoto.’ That was what did it. That’s why they had to go and build the land. One word, and they forgot everything their parents tried to teach them.”
Ephrie reads on, “Havain yakir li Ephraim.” His voice catches hoarsely.
“I’ll take it,” Terence says, and he declaims in the accent he acquired at Oxford: “Is it because Ephraim is my favorite son, my beloved child? As often as I speak of him—”
“I speak to him,” Ephrie bursts out. “I speak, what-d’you-call—words, anger to him.”
Terence continues smoothly, “I will remember him yet. My heart yearns for him.”
“Guts,” Ephrie corrects, voice choking. “My guts are burning up for him, but I have pity.”
Below, in the congregation, Pat leans forward and whispers to Sandra, “It’s always an ego trip for Ephrie. He breaks up every year when he reads his name in that verse.”
Ephrie catches Pat’s stage whisper and looks up, eyes red with fierce tears. “It’s not just because it’s my name,” he says.
Pat Glueck has become increasingly dissatisfied with the services at Bet Knesset. She calls for a meeting at the Shabbat Shuvah new members wine-and-cheese kiddush. “This is the Sabbath of Repentance,” she says, nibbling a sliver of goat cheese. “This is the last chance to change before Yom Kippur, right? So now maybe we should talk about where our group is heading. I think we have a quorum of concerned people.”
The Tawils and the Lefkowitzes gather around along with a few college students and a grizzled tramp who often stops by for the food after services. Pat faces the congregation and announces, “Terence and I have discussed this issue and we want to share our views with you. I come to shul to pray, not to watch a male show. I want women counted in the minyan. I want women to lead the service, to have aliyahs, and take a leadership role.”
“Aliyahs are just blessings over the Torah,” Ephrie responds. “In Rehovot we auction them off.”
“That’s barbaric,” Pat springs back. “We’re tired of taking a back seat.”
Ephrie smiles benignly. “Pat,” he proclaims, “anything you want to lead you lead. As soon as you learn Hebrew—then I take a break.”
“That’s not the issue, Ephrie, and you know it,” Pat huffs.
“Yes it is the issue,” snaps Judy. “My husband is trying to say that this group was chartered to run traditional services.”
Terence Glueck knits his brows professorially as he reminds them, “Historically we often find that, in time, traditions lose their psychological potency. Rituals become emotionally bankrupt.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” Pat breaks in, “egalitarianism is the moral crux of the Conservative movement in America.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Sandra says. “And you’re not speaking for all of us.”
Caroline speaks up suddenly. “I’m for Pat,” she says. “Egalitarianism might be fun.”
“Wait a minute,” protests Alan. “I grew up in a Conservative congregation and gender wasn’t an issue for us. I think I would be uncomfortable if. . . .”
“Uncomfortable!” Pat’s voice rises. “How do you think women feel, thrust into the audience? Always the echo in responsive readings. I want to lead. The Torah reading is the heart of the service. The aliyah is the heart of the reading. And that’s just where I’m excluded! For three years, I’ve sat here patiently. I’m not a new member. I’ve shown my commitment. Now I want this group to give a little back to me. Let’s face it. What we’ve got here is a boys’ club. This is my holy book too, and I want a piece of the action. I want to sing. I want to mourn. It’s a crime to shut me out. You are negating me. You are denying me and relegating me to second class because you think that I’m impure.”
Alan backs away from Pat’s torrential words. Behind him, the tramp loads a basket of crackers into his bag. He sips delicately from a bottle of Manischewitz. “Pat,” Alan says, “I don’t think you’re impure. I know we can resolve this. I’ve heard in some places couples go up together for aliyahs.”
Pat scoffs. “Don’t do me any favors. I don’t want half a blessing. I’m not part of Terence. I’m my own person and I want an individual leadership role. I’m telling you these services are patronizing, and I want in.”
“Pat,” Judy screams, “if you want to be a man so badly why don’t you try and grow a penis?”
Pat turns on Judy. “And if you want to live like Brochah-Ruchel, move to Mea She’arim. You laugh at her, but I think her life is what you’ve always wanted. You pretend to be liberal. Inside you’re literal and rigid. You’re afraid of change, and you want to climb into a paternalistic hole and get pregnant and follow orders every day because that’s safe.”
Judy doesn’t answer.
At the wine-and cheese table the tramp puts down his bottle. “My dear,” he confides to Pat, “I grew up in a small town.” He loses his train of thought and wanders outdoors.
Alan breaks the silence. “Whatever happens,” he urges, “let’s not break up the group we’ve got. We’re such a small community and so fragmented already. It’s so important to stay together. We can compromise—right, Ephrie?”
Ephrie sighs. “I couldn’t have women up there with me,” he says. “Not because of me—I wouldn’t leave the shul for myself. But if I stayed it would be shameful for my father’s memory.”
“If Ephrie leaves, I go too,” says one of the college students.
“You’re breaking up the minyan,” Terence accuses Ephrie.
“And you don’t care about the content of these services at all,” adds Pat. “You’re motivated by pure sentiment and emotion.”
“So are you,” Ephrie answers. “So are you.”
Sandra’s French classes make a poor showing on the departmental midterm that Hilda composed. As Sandra records her grades she sees that her students’ median score is several points lower than Hilda’s. She looks miserably at the smiling photo of Alan on the wall of her office cubicle. She wants to phone him, but he’s probably in the emergency room. In the next cubicle she hears Liz whispering to Michael about the U.S. history lesson plan. The whole faculty thinks the two are having an affair.
Sandra pulls her lunch from her desk drawer. Though she doesn’t eat the cafeteria meat, she usually takes her brown bag to the teachers’ dining hall to be sociable. Today she can’t face the other French teachers with her midterm grades. She bites into her turkey sandwich. They had opened up all the leaves on their drop-leaf table and invited the Tawils for Thanksgiving. Though it was hard to accept the break-up of Bet Knesset, she and Alan now go to Ephrie’s services on Saturday morning. Ephrie has trouble finding ten men for a minyan. The Gluecks count women. For some reason the situation reminds Sandra of her mother’s injunction: don’t take the last piece of cake; take half of what’s left. She imagines Ephrie’s new group splitting just as Bet Knesset had. Splitting like infinitely divisible cake. Scattering like crumbs.
“Mrs. Lefkowitz?” A student messenger from the office hands her a note. Heart pounding, Sandra puts down her half-eaten sandwich and walks to the dean’s office. He can’t know about the midterm grades yet, but Hilda must have complained. The courtyard seems unbearably bright. Students loll under the trees reading and talking. The sky is a cloudless, searing blue.
“Sandra!” Tim Walker hails her as she enters his office. “How’s it going?”
“Very well, thanks.” Sandra takes a seat near the dean’s Yale rolltop desk.
“Well, I know you’re busy, and I’ve got to run, so I’ll make it short. We’ve got the scores on the National Council of French Teachers’ exam, and they gave me a certificate of commendation to pass on to you as the teacher of Ginnie Corpuz who won, uh, let’s see, third place nationally. So here you are. It’s just super, the job you’re doing with the kids. Good going.”
Sandra bounds into her next class. Smiling joyously she passes back the heavily corrected midterms. She wants to congratulate the third place national champion in front of all the students, but Ginnie is absent. Sandra contents herself with trying to encourage her depressed class. “Improvement counts,” she reminds them. “You can all redeem yourselves on the final.”