The Way Back
By Tehila Lieberman | 29/10/2009
Flying to New York, I feel like a time traveler. I look around at the other passengers, going or returning for pleasure, perhaps a few for business. We are fellow travelers in body only.
Not for me the New York of the theatre, or of the long sleek avenues, or of museums or even shopping. The New York I visit, while not Chasidic, is its own kind of shtetl. A section of Brooklyn in which one enters a time warp. A distillation to one way of living, to a world where one encounters only one's kind. Its inhabitants stroll up and down the main avenue on their errands like in a small village, greeting each other on either side of the Korean fruit stands, or on line at Chiffon's bakery. The women pull the hands of their pale, dawdling children. They don't see the others – the Korean shopkeepers, the African American children with their mother, the Puerto Rican couple, the Italian teenagers passing in a boisterous group. They are thinking about what they will cook for Shabbos. When they return home, the light is gone and many of their husbands are home from work and are silently facing east, praying Ma'ariv, the evening prayer.
“It must have taken a lot of courage,” friends have said, “to crawl out of that world.” “That world,” two innocent words that contain, cupped like two small hands, the whole of my childhood. The magnificent moments, the difficult moments, the slowly growing certainty that I was not of their world. That difficult as it might be, I had to leave and find my own place. How to explain the lack of air? A world that circled in on itself, wove its own logic, built its own fences? How to explain, too, what I lost when I left?
The short flight from Boston to New York is like a flight into the eye of a hurricane. My lovely, worldly, wildly diverse neighborhood and community in Cambridge, Massachusetts dissolves like a chimera, as if it had no substance.
The plane descends into a thick cluster of clouds, begins to rumble and shake, the sky invisible on either side. Just a soft whiteness blotting out the world. I find myself holding my breath as that whiteness outside the window pulls me slowly backward into memory. In the memory that rises, I am surrounded on all sides by the white folds of my father's tallit. I am around seven or eight, young enough to still be allowed into the province of men in an orthodox synagogue. My father, the Rabbi, summons me to him as he always does when the Cantor announces Birchat Kohanim and I run, released from the women's section, to the storm of men gathering in the center of the sanctuary.
Under the cover of my father's tallit, his hands on my head, I rock as he rocks, enter the trance of his prayer. I know that from the outside, all that is visible is a sea of tallitim swaying, the white, uncertain motion of ghosts. But within, as was whispered about the ancient Holy of Holies, I can feel the rumble of the earth beneath us, know the urgency of the sky opening briefly and the tendrils of my father's prayers curling upward in a reverse gravity.
In the white cave of my father's tallit, I can imagine clearly what I had just learned in school – that on Yom Kippur, the high priest, having prepared himself for weeks – entered, terrified, the holy sanctuary where no man could accompany or save him. With great care, he would let the tip of his sash trail under the large door so that the public, forbidden from entering this room, would be able to retrieve his body should he not survive this encounter. Then he would face a reckoning with more than his senses could muster, his white robes shivering in anticipation as he asked for absolution for the sins of his tribe, the large squares of his urim vetumim almost electrocuting him with the light they were refracting.
The memory stops there as if it had encountered a wall. It drops off into an abyss, disconnected from whatever followed.
Instead, what I remember next is how at thirteen or fourteen, watching my father take his place among the men, I had understood – as my mother silently placed a siddur in my lap, pointed to the words as if they could substitute – that I would no longer be able to know certain truths from within. That instead of coming into an age of privilege, leaving girlhood, I had had to relinquish my passkey.
I was no longer welcome under the tallit, and the rituals, once these pulsing enigmatic entities, alive in and of themselves, were just a collection of motions and prayers that turned to me their impenetrable shell - that never again let me glimpse the soft belly of their life, the fever of their pulse. I saw men bowing, the Torah scrolls held high in pride, the palm fronds bending wistfully in every direction, the ark of the covenant closing with a snap.
We are already over New York. It sprawls out for miles beneath us as we begin our slow and gentle descent. I can no longer avoid thinking about why I am here, about the ritual I am about to attend. The wedding of my sister who I have not seen in five years, who has stopped speaking to me because my life choices have so departed from what was proscribed by our upbringing. Because the man I married was not Jewish, the stepchild I have parented is not Jewish, my own son is, but is still so foreign to them with his lack of tribal fears and hatreds.
I wonder who I will see, what I will feel. How I will protect myself from the stares and accusations. From the vortex of emotions sure to arise. Because I have insisted on remaining with my uncertainty – my palms open to the world – my life more than once knocked and thrown against the rocks. Still I have refused to climb back into the walled fortress of this world. How will I mingle, for even an evening, among all of these people who choose to see me as lost – who don't understand that I accept the bruises and uncertainty to have the richness and complexity that is the world.
The plane dips its left wing and I feel as if it is bowing respectfully to the powerful city below us. I can feel the old fears beginning to rise. The memories of all the other visits. Of all the times I'd needed to censor stories, censor my language, my very existence. Of all the times I'd struggled to hold on to the conviction that my choices were valid and real, despite my family's refusal to look at them. Even now my husband and son are not invited, their existence denied in public by my parents so that I had debated whether to even come to the wedding without them. The members of my family, I decide, are magicians. They have spent their lives rendering the invisible, visible; and years rendering the concrete and vital lives of my husband and son, vapor, an illusion, a secret just between us.
The plane lowers itself like a graceful heron into this large and complicated city. I step into a cab that, after a few minutes, begins speeding unambivalently toward Brooklyn. The cab flies down the Grand Central Parkway, then the BQE, then turns onto the Prospect Expressway. Before I know it, the walls of the Prospect Expressway are receding and the cab is slowing for the familiar lights of Ocean Parkway. As we crawl forward, light by light, I am surrounded by the visual palette of my childhood – men in dark frock coats and black hats hurrying to or from synagogue, their gaze cast downward, lest it accidentally graze the form of a woman. Some old couples strolling slowly, some modern orthodox young men talking all at once, their knitted yalmukahs identifying their credo of living in both the religious and secular worlds. A few women, their hair modestly covered, are pushing baby carriages overflowing with kids.
In the midst of all this, as we are stopped at a red light, I see a young girl swerve through this tableau on an orange skateboard. Her long braids fly in the wind, her clothes are bright pink, a shock of exuberance. And I begin to laugh to myself thinking, Who is to say that the others have a monopoly on joy, on God, on how to live in this world? And what I realize then, like a gift from this wonderful girl, is that all along I have been accepting their premise – that because of the choices I had made, I had lost my right to the bounty of my childhood, renounced what had been my birthright. That without taking on the lifestyle, the shared norms and practices, I could never again touch the magic.
Who said that needed to be true?
The cab turns off of Ocean Parkway and moves past red brick private homes with white doors and small tended lawns from which large trees swoon and reach practically across the street. As we move softly through the shaded streets, past the homes of people
I had once known, past the doors I had once entered and exited smoothly, I am beginning to know what I want to do. I want to return this time as if it is my right. To stop contracting or camouflaging myself, or agreeing to be even partly invisible. I want to say “You can't do this – sever a child without severing a part of yourself. You can't remove someone's oxygen and call it love. You can't tell a person you love that their choices will bring them misery. That you will guard over that misery day and night until their spirit is broken.”
I want to say “Enough. Am I or am I not a part of you? You have said all these years that the choice is mine, but really you are the ones who whispered “exile.” You are the ones who murmured “shiva.” You are the ones who look past me as if I've already dissolved.”
And then I want to turn this trip into a retrieval mission, an archaeological dig for some of what got lost, for some memories from when I'd understood the magic, when I'd been allowed, briefly, close to the mystery. To close my eyes and as I once had entered the billowing tent of the tallit, enter now the shimmering temple of the wedding ritual. Disappear into the milling crowd, close my eyes to better hear the undulations of the ceremony's seven blessings, take in the seven revolutions of the bride.
I want to grow aware – not of the chatter around me, or of the prayers being chanted or song – but of two souls yearning toward each other after an infinite separation. I want to look up and for the briefest moment, see above the bride and groom, an archway, half Jerusalem stone, half light. I want to sieve through the crowd until I can sense, as I had as a child, an anonymous and mysterious presence among the dancers encircling the bride and groom, a frenzy of potential trying to squeeze itself into a vessel of limbs. I want to take myself back. Before I could imagine the cruelty of the tribe, before the threats of excommunication, the silences and the treachery. I want – and the words catch in my throat – to finally forgive myself. Forgive myself my wounds, the places that were amputated, the places that still bleed. Forgive myself for not having taken an easier path. For having grown foreign to those who loved me, for having loved so hard, for having wanted more than what people could give. For still wanting.
Then a silence. Complete. Profound. Only the sound of my breath.
The rabbis were right, I think, about the power of naming. Name something and it rises into itself, full bodied, strong. Name something correctly and its weapons falls clanging to the floor, its danger transformed. Name something and its taste comes to your mouth. Blood. Forgiveness. God.
The taxi slows, then pulls up in front of the wedding hall where a man is weaving flowers around the pillars at the entrance. Through the half-open door, I glimpse my father and a handful of men in the lobby rocking silently back and forth as they pray the afternoon prayer.
I step out of the taxi and walk up the path. As I do, I see my sister in her long white dress approaching my father who is concluding his prayers. He turns toward her and lays his hands on her head and quietly, privately blesses her with what I imagine are all of his gathered hopes and prayers. I wait until they are done and she turns without seeing me and disappears down a long hallway. My father looks up and sees me in the doorway, and despite everything, his eyes light up with an earlier joy as I step forward to receive my blessing.