“What kind of man do you want me to look for?” Ma asks when we’re walking. “You’ll have to rely on me to find the right one; your father has no idea.”
This is her favorite subject these days.
“Not a man like Father,” I tell her. “Not a man with a synagogue that no one needs, and who walks around not knowing what day it is.”
“No; I wouldn’t wish on anyone a man like your father,” Ma agrees. “You need iron nerves to live with a man like your father. Mine are shattered. But what did I know? I liked him. Girls today are smarter. They know more.”
Liked or loved? The Yiddish word for like is the same as for love. I wonder, is there a difference?
I say, “I need someone who gets things done, someone who’s on time.”
“Yes, a geshikter, like Mr. Lebowitz. In that family, it’s just the opposite. Mrs. Lebowitz is the slow one. Her husband is always quick, quick. The way I am.”
“I don’t want someone exactly like Mr. Lebowitz; just lively like him.”
“You’re right,” Ma says. “Your husband should have a head like your father and should be geshikt like Mr. Lebowitz.”
I don’t answer. I can think of better heads than Father’s. Heads that work more thoroughly, clearly. Heads that don’t care about hasidic dynasties. Heads too involved in Torah to worry about what people say.
Ma looks at me. “What, you don’t think your father has a good head?”
“It’s not that,” I say slowly, carefully. “I just don’t want someone like Father. I want a plain person, not a hasidic rabbi.”
Ma shakes her head. “Father will only accept a rebbishe family for his first daughter. That’s what he told the shadkhan. He says the first one is most important. The first marriage sets the pattern for the others.”
“The shadkhan?” I say. “You mean you spoke to a shadkhan? I told you I’m not interested until after I graduate. I won’t even hear of anyone before then.”
“I know, I know. But it doesn’t hurt to start feeling around. Graduation is not so far away. Chayie Brecher is already engaged. Soon there’ll be others in your class.”
“Chayie is an orphan. She needs a home. She doesn’t count.”
“The shadkhan called Father,” Ma says. “It’s better that they call than that we should have to call them. This way you know someone put him up to it. Someone’s interested.” She looks at me. “Don’t you wonder who?”
Her eyes sparkle. She’s so excited that someone called. All she wants is a married daughter; she’s excited about having a married daughter and a son-in-law. With David right after me, she’ll soon have a daughter-in-law too. Then Leah will get married; and still there will be Levi, Sarah, Aaron, and Esther.
“No, I’m not interested,” I say. “I told you already. I want to teach for at least a year before getting married. I’ve said this at least ten times. Why didn’t you tell Father to say that to the shadkhan?”
She waves her hand, making nothing I say matter. “There’s no reason to say it. Let the shadkhan do his work. A year goes quickly. I wasn’t supposed to tell you. Father said not to mention it. Maybe he was right. You go for your, interview and get the job. We’ll take care of things.”
“What, and surprise me one day when I come home? Tell me a boy’s here to see me? You better not pull any shtick like that.”
Ma laughs. “Who said anything about a boy coming to see you? It’s all talk now. The boys aren’t lining up at your door. Don’t worry. You’re not so desirable. The shadkhan said there are rumors that you’re modern; he asked what kind of stockings you wear. Father convinced him you wear the thickest seams, nothing see-through. Don’t worry. It won’t go so smoothly, it won’t be one-two-three.”
She knows how to go from one side to the other with just a snap of her fingers. First a compliment, then an insult. I don’t trust Father. I think he’s planning to pull something off. He wants to hurry me into marriage before I know what’s what. I’m only a daughter, and not one who will bring honor to this family. He wants to get to David. For David he can choose from the best.
I wear my new pale-blue mohair sweater, a long, straight gray-flannel skirt, and my black shoe-boots to my interview with Rabbi Nathan. He tells me he has two grades for me, second and sixth. He wants every teacher to teach one grade in the morning and the other in the afternoon, a full day. I was looking forward to half-days off, but I agree to teach both. There’ll be a few meetings before the summer, he says. Before everyone goes away. This will be his first year in this school, too, he says, so everything will be as new to him as to me. We’ll learn about the place together, he says.
I like him. He smokes a pipe, and every time he starts to talk, he fumbles, almost drops it, trying to take it out. Sometimes he leaves it in and talks out of the side of his mouth.
He says there will be two other English teachers, both a year older than I am, both from Beth Yaakov, a better school than mine. Based on their experience, he says, their salaries will be higher.
“You don’t drive, do you? I can pick you up and bring you back, since I’ll be driving there anyway. The first teachers’ meeting is two weeks away. The other principal wants to meet us; we’re what they call the goyishe staff.” He laughs. “I understand you know more about these hasidic people than I do. Perhaps you can help me out.”
We don’t shake hands at the end of the interview, even though it seems as if we should. I smile, and he walks me to the door of his house. I walk down the stairs stiffly, like a teacher, and, at the bottom, turn and see him still standing there, chewing on the end of his pipe watching me. He waves. “See you in two weeks,” he says.
I walk home wondering whether he shook the other teachers’ hands, whether he made an exception for me, knowing who Father is. People always act as if I am like Father. It is expected that I will be what my parents are.
At home, everyone surrounds me at the kitchen table. Father strokes my cheek the way he did when I was little. He’s happy to have me teaching in a hasidic school, even if it’s only English subjects. “Teaching is the most honored, the highest profession in the world,” he says. “It’s the job of every mother. A child learns his first lessons, his first words, even, from his mother.”
I’m not sure I like Father being so proud. I tell him two girls from modern Beth Yaakov are teaching with me. He nods, not caring. He’s thinking about what he can say to the shadkhan: my daughter teaches at the best hasidic school in the world.
Seeing Father happy pleases Ma. Leah’s excited about my becoming a teacher, imagining herself graduating and becoming a teacher too. Esther pulls her finger out of her mouth long enough to say, “Imagine if one day you become my teacher.”
“It could happen,” Ma says. “If Rachel likes teaching, she can continue doing it after she’s married. Even after she has a baby. Nowadays young women work after their first baby. They get a baby-sitter. It’s better than staying home all day, cleaning and cooking. Laundry can wait. Besides, with a husband who studies, the money has to come from somewhere.”
All this talk about me married, me with babies. As if I’m already engaged. As if it’s all happening tomorrow. Right now I have a history test to study for. I have still to graduate high school.
The shadkhan calls back and tells Father people inform him I do not wear stockings with seams. That I’ve never worn seams. Father says, “I see her every morning and evening. She’s wearing seams. I bought them for her myself. People don’t know what they’re saying.”
Ma looks at me, into me, seeing what I don’t want her to see. She walks behind Father and beckons me into the hallway.
“Tell me the truth, once and for all. What do you wear?”
I don’t answer.
“Listen, it’s too late to change anyway. Your reputation is your own. But don’t make fools of your parents. Don’t have them saying one thing when people know another.”
“I wear what I want to wear. What I feel comfortable wearing. I don’t wear seams.”
Ma takes a deep breath. “So you don’t wear seams. Do you at least wear thick stockings, stockings you can’t see through?”
I nod. “Yes, I wear opaque beige and taupe stockings.”
Ma leaves the room. I open my stocking drawer. She won’t find anything there I don’t want her to find. She’ll see two old pairs of opaque tights without seams. Maybe she’s already seen them.
Father comes into the room and closes the door behind him. He sits on the bed.
“Again you didn’t listen to your father. For years now you’ve been walking around wearing what you want and not what your father wants.”
“I told you then, I’ll never wear stockings with seams. You want stockings with seams, you wear them.” Having to tell him this makes me angry. I’m trembling. Why should a daughter wear what her father wants her to wear?
He doesn’t answer. He sits for a moment, not saying anything, and then gets up slowly and walks to the door. Before he closes the door, he turns back and says, “I’m very proud of David. The shadkhan tells me the head of his yeshiva wants him for a son-in-law.”
So that’s why Father’s in a hurry to get me married.
In the morning, I wear opaque panty hose over my sheer. I don’t have to make believe I’m wearing seams anymore. The double layer, opaque over sheer, makes my stockings look even thicker, and Ma’s satisfied.
She advises Father. “Tell the shadkhan it was your mistake. That it’s your wife who wears the seams. You’re a man; what do you know about what girls wear? Tell him she wears thick, modest stockings. No seams. Tell him the girls here don’t wear seams.”
Father keeps his head down. “Who’d want to marry a girl who lies to her own parents, tell me. We’ll have to be satisfied with whatever comes. The first that comes.”
Ma looks at me, bites her lip, and wrings her hands, to show me how bad things are. I don’t stay to listen. I can’t stand this constant talk about whom I’ll marry. No matter what I say, the talk goes on. I don’t care whom I marry. Once married, I at least won’t have to worry about it. Married, I’ll do and wear what I want. I’ll be who I am.
It’s October. I walk in from teaching, and Ma says, “The Sklars are breaking a plate tonight. Elke called to invite us.”
I sit on my bed. There were only sixteen girls in my graduating class, but every month there’s another party or wedding. And with it comes all the well-wishing: God willing, soon we’ll be celebrating yours.
Should I say, Not ever, God willing? That would cause a scandal, and then it might be never. I don’t know what I want.
“You don’t want to be one of the last ones,” Ma says, “Like that Landau girl. Who knows how her children will be?”
Henna Landau waited too long, people say. First her twin brothers were in the way, then she was too picky. The shadkhan stopped calling. Soon she turned twenty-six and had little choice. She married the only normal one in the Rosenbaum family.
“What about the girls I teach with? They’re still single.”
“So you’re comparing yourself to them now,” Ma says. “They come from modern homes. They wait longer. And remember David. We’re not going to let Rabbi Blau’s daughter go, waiting for you.”
David’s not yet seventeen, and already his engagement is all set. They’re just waiting for me. Only David knows nothing about it.
Father says, “There’s no need to tell a yeshiva boy. Why disturb his studies? If we tell him, he’ll get nervous, lose sleep. Without sleep, he won’t study.”
I wonder if David knows anything about girls and babies. About sex. Do boys in yeshiva talk about anything?”
Ma says, “If we marry him off before you, you’ll have real problems. As if you don’t have enough. The shadkhan keeps saying to forget about a rabbi’s son for you.”
“This is why you have to be careful of your reputation,” Father says, pulling his beard so hard it is no wonder it’s thin. “The Talmud says a father has a responsibility: he must give his daughter to a scholar and to a good family. It doesn’t say anything about a daughter who’s given herself a reputation, a daughter who’s made things impossible for her father, a daughter who’s better known to strangers than to her own father.”
He speaks of me the way the prophets speak of whores. As if I’ve walked the streets, invited men into my bed.
I talk to Ma privately. “I don’t need a rabbi’s son. I want someone who’ll work and earn a living. I don’t want to be poor all my life.”
She says, “Right away, as soon as you’re married, you want him to go off to work? Like some coarse factory worker? Let him study for a few years. Then, after two or three children, I can understand. I also wanted your father to get a real job, bring in a salary. But not right away.”
There’s a lot to be said for reputations. My reputation will help the shadkhan find someone for me, not for Father. How else would he know whom to bring?
Ma says, “Elke’s groom is no big deal. He’s no great scholar, and his father isn’t either. They’re plain workers and always will be.”
Father would never say this, but he thinks it, he agrees. He and Ma work together, they’re a team, with Ma as the bad tongue, as if it’s more seemly coming from a woman.
There are advantages to coming from a regular family, like Elke’s. She’s free. She doesn’t have to be a model for the community, to live for what people think and say. And they have a regular income. Her father works for a living; they don’t have to count pennies, or depend like Father on book sales and donations. They don’t have to wait for the mail, to see if there will be enough to pay for groceries. I don’t want gifts all my life. Giving feels better than getting. The Midrash says those who give, love. A wife gives to her husband and grows to love him. A mother gives life to her children and loves them. Takers never learn to love.
During the party, Elke takes me into her bedroom to show me what she’s already bought. She’s been shopping mostly in Brooklyn, where the groom is from. She shows me a Christian Dior set of sheets I’ve seen before, orange flowers on a white background. And towels to match. She also bought a set of white eyelet linens.
“I need two more,” she says. “Everyone gets married with four sets these days.”
The best thing about being engaged is shopping. A bride gets everything new, like starting life all over again. Elke’s room is full of bags. I don’t think I’ll get as much.
“Did you see him?” she asks.
“Yes. He’s so tall, and he’s handsome.” What I don’t say is that he’s not romantic. Maybe a man with a beard, a hasidic man, can never be.
Elke smiles and doesn’t say anything. She’s in love with this man she just met, like love at first sight. Will it happen to me?
On the floor is a box containing the Sanyo vacuum cleaner Ma told me about. Elke opens the box to show me. It’s a new design, beige and very shiny. Very Japanese. It looks too clean to clean with.
“It’s the lightest vacuum in the world,” Elke says. “Lift it.”
“It is light,” I say. “My mother would like it. Instead of that heavy blue Electrolux she drags around.”
“I think your mother wants it for you, not for herself,” Elke says. She opens the door to her room, still carrying the vacuum, and beckons Ma over. I look at her, a bride dressed in pale-peach chiffon, carrying a shiny beige vacuum cleaner.
Ma takes it from Elke and raises it, using one hand. “It is very pretty. And light. Like a toy. Will it last?”
Elke nods. “It has a two-year warranty, and it’s only $110. On special.” She turns to me. “You should get one now. Before it goes up.”
I don’t answer. Elke looks toward Ma, as if I am too young to understand.
“I’ll call King’s Appliances and order it,” Ma says.
A few days later, the box is on the floor in my closet. Ma paid for it out of her own money. I open it and imagine cleaning my own, very clean apartment. Elke found a place a few blocks away, and she’s starting to decorate it. I helped her paint a coffeepot pattern on the kitchen walls one night. It was fun.
Ma’s excited. She wants to start buying things and making trips to the city. She says to use my money for clothes and linens, and she and Father will pay for the rest.
“I’m not engaged yet, remember?”
“You could be. Father talked to the shadkhan yesterday.”
“What do you mean, about what? About a boy. For you.”
“I don’t want a boy. I want a man.”
Ma laughs. “You know what I mean. Anyway, how could he be a man, at your age? But the one we’re talking about is a little older. His name is Israel Mittelman.”
I look at her.
“He’s already twenty-one.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing. He’s twenty-one. You just said you want a man, yes?”
Who wants to marry a boy? But asking for a man is as good as agreeing to see one. I hear Father on the phone. They’re setting something up, and I’m letting them. It’s Elke’s apartment. I’m beginning to want things of my own. I want to live on my own. Married is the only way I can be on my own. I have to become Mrs. Someone, Mrs. Mittelman. I try the name out on paper, Mrs. Rachel Mittelman. That’s not bad. I want to fall in love, like Elke, like a woman in a novel.
It’s all set up for Saturday night at eight. The Mittelmans live in Brooklyn, and they’re taking the first bus up north after sundown.
“Everyone says the best things about this young man,” Father says. “And the family: I know the father way back from Romania; he’s a good man, and the family has always had an excellent reputation.”
For Father, knowing the family makes up for their not being rabbinical.
I’m trying not to show my excitement. I don’t want to seem eager, but I am. I’ll finally find out what it’s like, meeting a man. Ma’s excited too.
I act as if it’s no big deal. “I’m only meeting him. I’m not getting engaged.”
“What if you really like him? You’ll say no?” Ma asks.
“Everyone gets married,” Leah says every time we talk about it. “Then you can leave the dishes in the sink all day. When I’m married, we can do things together, go shopping without anyone’s permission.” She looks at me. “What? You’d rather live with Ma and Father forever?”
We’ve talked about this so much, we sound like broken records. What she says is true; I can’t live here forever. Still, I need her persuasion. I want to be, I let myself be, persuaded. I thought I’d never get married. That I’d just move into my own house and live by myself. But that can’t happen.
“Seventeen-year-old girls don’t go and live by themselves,” Leah says.
“But why not?” I ask. “Why can’t I just do what I want?”
“You know that’s not possible,” Leah says. “You always want what’s impossible. Concentrate on what you can get.”
She plans to marry a wealthy boy from Brooklyn and wear designer clothes and high heels. This is the country, and people here look it. Leah wants to be like the hasidic girls in Williamsburg, the ones who wear mascara so lightly you can hardly tell. I am sick of lightly.
Ma talks about nothing else all Shabbat. She and I go for our walk after eating, and she’s mostly too out of breath to talk. We just walk. We get along better now that I’m out of school. Maybe because I’m older. She bought me a white silk blouse with French cuffs, and on Friday we had to go and buy cuff links at the Men’s Store. No one in our family has ever worn cuff links.
On our way back we slow down and Ma says, “I’ll call Mrs. Fogel. She can send us some fine embroidered tablecloths and napkins from Montreal. Like mine. It’s cheaper there.”
“I’m not engaged yet, Ma. I’m just seeing someone. And only the first one.”
“How many do you think girls see? Ten? Twenty?”
“Ten is a lot more than one. There is an in-between.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’ll need tablecloths someday. And you’ll need some nice clothes. It’s a good thing you’ve got some money saved.”
Ma’s so excited about tonight, about having a married daughter, I finally just let her be. I’m starting to believe I’ll just get married, that this is it, that Israel Mittleman’s the one.
At sundown, Leah and Sarah offer to do the dishes and clean up so I can go right into the shower. I blow-dry my hair, straight, shoulder-length, with bangs. I put on my new blouse and a navy wool skirt. Ma helps with the cuff links. She’s wearing her green wool dress with a matching print silk kerchief.
Ma hurries Leah, Sarah, Esther, and Aaron out to a cab. They’re going to 99 Lanes on Route 59. No one’s told Ma yet that bowling is modern. We took her there once, and she swung the ball hard and clean and knocked all the pins down, even though she’d never before held a bowling ball in her hand. She and Leah have always been great at sports.
The Mittelman family arrives five minutes after eight. The grandmother and an aunt too. As if we’re having an engagement party. Ma leads them to the table in the dining room, and we all sit. Israel sits near Father. I can see him without looking straight at him. He is thin and well-groomed. His beard is perfectly combed. He wears a black hat like Father’s. And a good wool suit coat, better than Father’s. His hands are on the edge of the table, only his fingertips show, and they’re pink with pressure. I can tell he’s very nervous, and I feel sorry for him. I wonder if he’s seen any other girls. It’s harder to be the man, I think. He has to start talking.
There’s a silver bowl filled with fruit on the table and a pitcher of water. Father sits in his regular place, at the head of the table. He peels a tangerine and serves it to Mr. Mittelman. Ma quarters an apple and passes it to Mrs. Mittelman. They talk about the one-and-a-half-hour ride from Brooklyn. There’s no bus home tonight, so they’re staying over with their friends, the Kleins from Klein’s Fruit.
“Do you know them? Do you buy your fruits and vegetables there?” Mrs. Mittelman asks.
Ma nods. “For the most part.”
She looks at me and bites her lip. We’re both thinking the same thing. Too many people know about this. These meetings should be kept secret until both sides are agreed and an engagement is announced. The Mittelmans should have rented a car or taken a taxi.
Mrs. Mittelman asks about my teaching. She says one of my students is a relative of theirs, Gitty Loeb.
So the Loebs know, too.
During a moment of silence, Ma says, “Let’s leave the children alone for a few minutes.”
They make a lot of noise pushing their chairs back. Ma’s the last one out, and before she shuts the door, she smiles and winks. I wait for Israel to speak. I won’t be the first one.
“What do you do?” he asks. His teeth are perfectly white.
“I teach the second and sixth grades.”
“What do you teach them?”
“All subjects taught in English: math, literature, history, science.”
“Would you prefer teaching religious subjects?” he asks.
“No. There are plenty of girls who are good at that. I’m good at English; I like literature.”
It would help my reputation if I taught Jewish subjects. I know this is something the Mittelmans have discussed. The shadkhan called to ask Ma about it. I was sitting at the kitchen table with her, listening.
Ma rolled her eyes to indicate trouble. She said, “Rachel is smart and she likes to read, like her father. No matter how many Yiddish books we had in the house, there were never enough. For a while, my husband even considered teaching her some Talmud, but they say women shouldn’t. Anyway, it can’t hurt to marry a smart girl; think of the children.”
The way Ma talked, anyone would have thought she’d supported my reading all along.
Israel and I are talking as if neither one of us has heard anything about the other. It’s all so set up. His lips, I notice, are very pink. Not like my thick brown lips. He has small features, a small nose, and thin lips, unlike mine. He’s quiet, and I realize it’s my turn to speak.
“Which yeshiva do you go to?”
“I’m not in yeshiva anymore. I study with the older men, in the synagogue.”
I should’ve known that. He’s already twenty-one, past yeshiva age. Most boys get married at eighteen. I can’t ask, Why did you wait so long? “Do you like being out of yeshiva?”
He nods, I wait for more, for a reason. He doesn’t say anything.
“Why? What’s good about it?” I ask.
He says slowly, “I like not having to report to anyone and not being tested every week. I like coming and going like an adult.” I watch his mouth, the way his mustache spreads so straight and black above his lips.
He mentions Gitty Loeb, who told his mother about the games I have them play in class to help them memorize. He says, “Tell me the rules of the game.”
I explain the rules of Go Fish and Twister for learning body parts and colors.
He smiles. “Where do you get such good ideas?”
“From Teacher’s Magazine. I subscribe.”
“You sound like a very good teacher.”
I know he says this to flatter me. Still, it works; I am flattered.
We talk about our families. He has two brothers and one sister. He tells me his youngest brother slipped and told a friend about tonight. Before they left home the phone rang. It was the boy’s mother, calling to wish the Mittelmans a mazel tov. Israel laughs.
I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t even smile. He’s too sure of tonight. Who said anything about getting engaged?
We actually talk about the weather.
Then we’re both quiet for what seems like forever, and I push my chair back slightly as a sign that our meeting is over.
He gets up too. I walk into the kitchen, and he goes down the hall, to the boys’ room, which today serves as a living room.
I find Ma behind the kitchen door; she’s been listening in.
“Well?” she asks, her face happy and hopeful.
“Is it a yes or a no?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t send them home like that, not knowing. They came all this way. Especially the old grandmother.”
“She shouldn’t have come,” I say.
“You can’t blame her. She’s old; she wants to be at her first grandchild’s engagement. They’re expecting to break a plate tonight.”
Father walks in. “Nu? What do you say?”
“She doesn’t know,” Ma says.
“That’s not saying no,” Father says.
“I’m not giving an answer tonight,” I announce in a loud voice so the Mittelmans will hear. “I need time. Send them home.”
“Shhh,” Ma says and closes the door. “We can wait till tomorrow,” Father says, looking at Ma. I can tell he’s warning her not to push too hard. “But you’ll have to decide by tomorrow.”
I say good-night to the Mittelmans and to Israel, and just as they’re finally leaving, Leah and the kids arrive home. Sarah and Aaron are arguing loudly about who’s better at bowling.
Leah comes in. “He looks OK,” she says.
“Skinny but kind of cute. Not manly. A little like Father, don’t you think? Did you say yes?”
In books, the men are always tall and dark, or tall, strong, and blond. Not at all like Israel. He does look like Father, thin and sensitive. His hair is black, too. But his face is pale, unlike Father’s brown skin.
“That’s what I fell in love with,” Ma always says. “His dark skin like a Yemenite.”
After the Mittlemans are gone, Father prods again, “Nu? What do you say?”
“Stop asking so much, or I’ll just say no.”
“What don’t you like about him?” Father asks.
“Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s fine.”
“Do you still want to see another boy?” Ma asks. “Even though it won’t look good for you to say no to the Mittelmans. Too many people know about this. And if you see someone else, you’ll have to say yes.”
“And meet another whole family? Mothers and grandmothers? Why did they have to bring the grandmother? It’s embarrassing.”
“There’s no need to meet another family. Make this one the one. God sent you this family, a good family,” Father says, smiling and trying to catch my eye.
I don’t smile back, and look away. He’s worse than Ma. He doesn’t want to give me any choice. He wants this to happen. I could say no just to show I’m in control. But I don’t know what I want. Saying no to the Mittelmans would mean that I’d have to say yes to the next one. And who knows who the next boy will be. By then the Mittelmans will be insulted. Or Israel will get engaged to someone else. He’s older than most boys; his parents want him to get married.
And if I say no to the next one, people will say I refuse boys for no reason, like the Adler girl. Everyone was saying, Who does she think she is, a princess? She finally married a boy who’d been turned down by at least ten girls because he’s short and fat. Serves her right, people said. About me, they’d say worse.
I expect some sign from God all night. I don’t deserve it, only the most virtuous people can hope for that, but still I expect it. I fall asleep imagining being held and kissed, and I wake up feeling thrilled. I don’t remember any dreams; there’s nothing to tell me what to do. But I’m excited. I try to imagine Israel in bed with me and can’t. He’s not the type. I wonder how he would start. How does anyone start such things?
In the kitchen Ma’s at the counter. Father’s in the synagogue. The others are in school. “Should I see another man?” I ask her.
“Not if you like Israel. After your father, I refused to see anyone else. There was a Belgian boy, from a wealthy family, and I said no because I’d already made up my mind to marry your father.”
Ma had an opportunity to marry a Belgian boy, a foreigner. I’m seeing someone from regular old Brooklyn, even if he is from fancy Borough Park.
“Do you think you made the right choice?” I ask.
She looks at me, surprised. “You mean marrying your father? Of course. Look at what a beautiful family I have. Do you know how many women envy me all this?”
“What about all your complaints? You used to complain a lot. About not having enough money. About being a rabbi’s wife.”
She waves her hand, making none of that matter, and sips her coffee. “Those first years were hard; it was a hard life. Feeding, clothing, and educating seven of you.”
“You might have had it easier with a wealthy Belgian husband.”
Ma sips and swallows. “I love your father.”
Father comes home, and we eat breakfast together. We both dunk our bread in the soft-boiled egg yolk. Ma started a new diet today; she’s had her wheat germ and milk already, and now she’s on her second cup of coffee. She wants to fit into her raw-silk dress for the engagement party. She wants to look as good as thin Mrs. Mittelman, with her blond wig and her little black hat on top. Ma can never look as good in the kerchief she wears. When I’m married I’m expected to wear a wig with a hat, like Mrs. Mittelman. Father says why not do even better, wear what your mother wears. He doesn’t know that after I’m married, when he and Ma can’t tell me what to do, I won’t even wear the hat.
Ma knows. She says, “Let her wear a covered wig, and at least you’ll know she’ll stay with it. Not change after. Like Borough Park girls. They’re more concerned with how they look than with God or their parents. It’s hard to believe that after their first night with their husband they can be so hard, so unchanged, so concerned with just looks.”
As if sex with a man is supposed to make you better, softer, more religious. Ma thinks that after I’m married I’ll start wearing seams if Israel asks me.
She says, “Wait and see. Plenty of girls do. They’re in love with their husband, and he just has to ask them at the right moment and they do it. A smart boy asks right after the first night; it’s the best time to get the girl to agree.”
I plan not to change one bit. I don’t even want to wear a wig. I think if all women refused to shave and cover their heads, the rabbis would have to rethink the laws, change them. But I don’t know anyone who agrees with me.
Leah says, “That’s ridiculous. It will never happen.”
When I talk to Elke, she says, “I don’t mind shaving my hair. Everyone does it. You should be happy to get rid of yours. You’re always complaining about how fine it is.”
“I talked to Mr. Mittelman in the synagogue this morning,” Father says. “He’s very understanding. He suggests another meeting this afternoon, and if it’s yes, we can break the plate and they can take the four- or six-o’clock bus home. He says he understands a young girl wanting to be more certain.”
I like Mr. Mittelman for understanding. Still, what is there I could see better the second time around? You don’t get to know a person sitting at a table and talking or going out on a date. It takes time. It takes forgetting that you’re doing it.
Father looks at me. “So what do you say to a second time?”
“What for?” I say. “What else is there to see?”
He smiles and looks satisfied. He knows I’m interested. He reaches over and puts his hand on top of mine and says, “Then make this second meeting the engagement.”
I call Elke’s house. Her mother says she’s at her new apartment.
I walk over. She’s painting the woodwork in the bathroom. I sit on the edge of the tub and watch.
“Are you at all nervous, Elke?”
She puts her head to the side.
“I mean, how did you know he was the one you wanted? He was the only one you saw.”
“I just did,” Elke says. “He’s good-looking. And he was funny when we talked. And I knew I didn’t want him to see any other girls.”
Things seem so easy for her. I’m too serious. Elke would have laughed with Israel about the phone call before he left home, she would’ve thought it funny.
She sits back with the brush in her hand and leans against the sink. “It’s not the newest thing in the world, you know. People get engaged and married. It’s not such a big deal. Just do it. We’ll have fun being newlyweds.”
“What about love?”
“It comes after. Everyone I know says so.” We look at each other. “You think too modern,” she says. “You always did. You always did things that were too modern for your family. Too modern even for the most modern girls in our class. And you’re from a rebbishe family. Everyone in school talked about it. Even Leah thinks so. She says you just never know when to stop, that you have no limits.”
I think it’s easier for Elke because she doesn’t think about love in novels. She hates reading. She doesn’t know any tall, dark men in boots. She thinks only about the hasidic way, real life. For the first time, I see a reason not to read.
I say, “It’s not as if I’m about to get engaged. I’m just thinking about seeing him again.”
“That’s getting engaged, in hasidic families. It happens very quickly. One day you meet, the next day you’re engaged. Sometimes the same day. Just do it; you’ll have to do it sooner or later anyway.”
Elke is always ahead, a veteran. I used to think things would be different for me. That my life would be different. But it isn’t. I teach grade school like all the others. I’ll get engaged like all the others. Get married. Maybe it’s better doing things the way everyone does. You know exactly how it goes. Besides, I don’t even know what I really want to do that’s different. Or what there is to do. Even modern girls get married eventually. They just do it later. They go out on dates instead of sitting in. Then they get engaged and married. I thought there’d be more things a person could do, more choices. But there’s nothing else. People get married and start living their own lives. Married is the only way to live on my own, in my own apartment.
At four, Israel comes again. He looks exactly the same, and I wonder if he’s even changed his shirt. This time, only his father is with him. The women are waiting at the Kleins’. Maybe Ma said something.
We talk. Today he looks into my eyes, and I notice his deep-blue eyes. They’re beautiful. I don’t know how I missed them last night. I ask him where he wants to live. We’re looking at each other. I can see myself in his eyes, and I think maybe this is love.
He answers slowly. “Wherever you decide.”
I wish his answer were more definite, a name, Borough Park. I want him to take me away to another city. I want him to be strong, a man in a novel. He isn’t. But his mind is made up about one thing: he wants to be engaged to me. My reputation isn’t stopping him. My hesitation, seeing him a second time, hasn’t upset him. Maybe it’s the family I come from. He wants to marry into a rabbinical family.
“I think I want to live in Borough Park,” I tell him. “Somewhere different.”
He nods. “We can. But for the summer, we should rent an apartment here. The city empties out in the summer. My parents move out to the country. It’s not very nice there in the hot summer.”
I think that’s a good idea. I was a lifeguard last summer, and I could do it again. I could continue earning money. I tell him that, and he asks me about lifeguarding.
“You must swim very well,” he says, looking at me, admiring me.
When I come into the kitchen, Ma has that question on her face, and I know I don’t want to say no, I’m tired of saying no. I don’t wait for her to ask. I decide to trust her. I can trust her more than Father. “You think I should say yes?” I ask.
“OK, yes,” I say, thinking how easy it is to say it. Yes, yes, yes. There’s nothing else to say when you say yes.
Ma kisses me on the cheek and calls Father. He kisses me on the forehead. Mr. Mittelman telephones his wife. I call Elke, and she quickly comes over.
Ma brings out the chipped china plate she’s been saving for me, her first daughter, and wraps it in a dish towel. For some reason, we’re all standing in the kitchen.
When Mrs. Mittelman, the grandmother, and Mr. and Mrs. Klein arrive, Ma hands the plate to the old lady as an honor. She looks around slowly and lifts her hands up as if she’s too close to the ground. A plate that doesn’t break is a bad omen. If it doesn’t break, I think it will be a sign from God. A sign to say no. The plate crashes to the floor, and we hear it shatter. Everyone says mazel tov. The fathers shake hands, the mothers kiss. The Mittelmans kiss their son. The grandmother kisses her grandson, my future husband, Israel. I watch how he bends down to help her reach him. Elke hugs me. The phone rings. Everyone arrives home from school, and Leah and Sarah take turns answering and making calls. Mrs. Mittelman also gets on the phone. Aaron and Esther are underfoot.
Esther wants to know if I’m going to have a baby now. Elke explains that it takes a while. Listening to her, I remember David and Levi in yeshiva. They know nothing about this. I send Aaron to tell Leah to call them. She’s so excited, she’s calling everyone she can think of. Leah looks at me from across the room and points to her watch to indicate it’s not the right time to call. They have set hours for everything there. I wonder how long before David gets engaged, whether Father will even wait until after my wedding. I’m almost eighteen. David is already seventeen, and Father says a boy should be under the wedding canopy before he’s eighteen.
Ma unties the dish towel and hands everyone a piece of the plate. She saves the largest piece, a piece from the center, for me. It has three tiny pink flowers. Mrs. Mittelman asks if I want it set in gold as a necklace charm. We look at my piece of the plate. It’s large enough for a round or oval setting. All the brides in Brooklyn are doing it now, she says. I give it to her, and she puts it in her fancy black purse with a long strap, like younger women wear, not like Ma’s old-lady bag with handles.
Ma tells Mrs. Mittelman my ring size is five. For my engagement party, I will receive a diamond ring and a big silver vase filled with roses. That’s what Elke got. Bridal gifts conform to the latest trends, because mothers-in-law are afraid to differ. Receiving fewer or cheaper gifts could be taken as an insult. As a bride, I can expect a gift for every holiday that comes up between now and my wedding. I don’t care about any of this, but Ma says to keep my mouth shut. She received a pearl instead of a diamond ring, and she will never let anyone forget it. Grandfather said it was because he’d seen dirt under her fingernails.
“A complete lie,” Ma says. “Can you imagine me with dirty fingernails? He just needed an excuse, that stingy old man.”
Ma and Mrs. Mittelman discuss a date for the engagement party and decide on a month from now, on a Sunday, my day off from school. Ma says we’ll do it in the new synagogue next door, the women in the women’s section and the men in theirs. She explains that things are still a little raw, construction isn’t entirely finished, but it’s large enough for the party, if not the wedding, and it’s bright.
Before they all leave, Israel comes over, and Leah and Elke move away quickly. With his eyes lowered for modesty, he wishes me mazel tov and a good night. This is impressing Ma, I know. At the last minute, he looks into my face and smiles. I wonder if he’s thinking of what I’m thinking. Of us kissing. Of us in bed. I can’t imagine us together. I’m not sure what men think about. I always knew what the women in stories felt, I could understand what they felt, but I don’t know anything about men.
Mr. and Mrs. Mittelman wish me a good night; Mrs. Mittelman kisses me, then I kiss the grandmother. Mr. Mittelman bows his head and smiles. Until I’m married, Father is the only man allowed to kiss me. Then my husband.
From the kitchen window, I watch them pile into Father’s car. He’s driving them to Route 59, where the bus to New York City stops. Ma is at the front door, waving. It’s a starry dark night, the moon is full and round, at the beginning of her month. I’ll have to start keeping track of my month, count the days to my period and away from it. Husband and wife are allowed to touch each other only two weeks of the month. There are five to seven days of menstruating, a seven-day count of clean days, then the ritual bath. I have to find the right day for my wedding, before my period begins again.
In the Talmud, there are three kinds of virtuous women: girl, wife, and mother. I will be a girl for four more months.