The thing people never understood about Delilah was that she always considered herself the victim of a painfully disadvantaged childhood, something that mystified her hardworking, upwardly mobile parents. There were few who knew how deeply she mourned her endless humiliations: winter clothes chosen from picked-over reduced racks in January sales instead of shiny new in autumn; a sweet sixteen celebrated in a bowling alley instead of in a hotel with a live band; Passover seders at home prepared by her sweating mother instead of in the dining room of exclusive resorts; summers lying on the public beach instead of trips to Israel and Europe. A childhood of last year’s Nikes, drugstore sunglasses, fifteen-dollar haircuts, and do-it-yourself French manicures whose white line was always crooked. . . .
On the rare occasions that she sat in self-judgment, such as before the Yom Kippur fast, she never felt these longings marked her as selfish, materialistic, or shallow. On the contrary, she considered herself an idealist, someone focused on the really important things in life: true happiness, true love. As she saw it, she was simply being honest with herself. And someone who “really loved her” would be the kind of person who would stop at nothing to help her overcome the trauma of her youth, her mother’s cheap fashion accessories—those fake pearls, those nine-karat gold amethyst rings. Someone who “really loved her” would understand and appreciate how profoundly she needed a house, not an apartment, preferably with a swimming pool, in addition to business-class jaunts to five-star resorts in the Caribbean and Hawaii.
She felt this way despite all the best efforts of our synagogue and schooling to convince us of the fleeting worth of material things, as opposed to the eternal reward—in this life and the next—of spiritual attainments.
In general, Delilah’s relationship to religion was somewhat complex. She wasn’t a natural rebel. She actually loved the elaborate meals, the dressing up for the synagogue, the socializing afterward. On the other hand, she absolutely refused to accept the fact that bearded rabbis had the right to decide for her how long her skirts and sleeves would be, what she could and couldn’t read, or watch on TV or in the movies, or what kind of dates she could have (i.e., serious ones, leading to early marriages, as opposed to frivolous recreational ones like riding roller coasters in Playland).
Like most people, she snipped and tugged and restitched her religion to make it a more comfortable fit. She didn’t feel guilty about this. Why should she, she told herself, when the rabbis themselves had done a good deal of tailoring? Take the relationship between the sexes. On the one hand, the Bible taught that men and women were both created in God’s image as equals, but on the other, Jewish law was male chauvinist in the extreme, notwithstanding millennia of rabbinical apologetics to disprove the obvious.
Men were the leaders, high priests, rabbis, judges. While rabbis claimed that they were simply expounding on eternal laws derived from God-given sacred texts, the laws always seemed to come out to the men’s advantage. For example, sitting shiva. During the seven days of mourning for a parent, wife, or child, rabbinical law said a man wasn’t permitted to do anything; he had to be served and taken care of. But if a woman was sitting shiva—surprise!—the same law said she was allowed to get up and wash the floor and cook dinner.
Despite these feelings, Delilah never considered herself a feminist, refusing to join those of us who railed against being banned from donning a prayer shawl and phylacteries or from learning Talmud. She’d just roll her eyes and yawn. “That’s all I need. More religious obligations.”
The biblical heroines she admired were not the tough, powerful matriarchs, but Esther, who’d soaked in precious bath oils for six months, mesmerizing the king and becoming queen of Persia; and Abigail, who sent war-weary King David camel-loads of food and drink, thereby giving her tightfisted husband, Nabal, a fatal heart attack, thus leaving herself rich and free to marry David, which she was only too happy to do. To Delilah’s thinking, these were stories with a deeply spiritual message for women.
Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir bored her. Equal wages were all right, but it was better if your husband earned enough so that you never, ever had to work if you didn’t want to. Truth be told, her vision of the perfect world would have been a party in Gone with the Wind where women wore ball gowns to barbecues and men brought them plates of delicious food; a place where all women had to do was smile and be pretty and men fell all over themselves to please and amuse them.
All through high school, Delilah was in training for this role. If only you could have seen her then: those manicured toenails with the red polish so carefully applied, those tanned slim thighs, the blond hair braided in cornrows with turquoise beads, the tiny bathing suit like two slashes of color, the eyes that flashed at you like tanzanite, deep blue flecked with gold. She was so deliciously slim, so adorably sexy, it made you stop and stare, the way one stares at a flashy lightning storm or a gaudy tropical sunset. And she knew it.
How could she not? Men and boys flocked around her, and she giggled and flirted indiscriminately with all of them, even the young Puerto Rican janitors hired to clean the floors and bathrooms of the Hebrew Academy of Cedar Heights.
“Everyone does exactly as they please,” she’d say cryptically, tossing her head. “Even the ones who parade around showing off their holiness with all those head coverings and fringed garments, yarmulkes and wigs. Secretly, they also do exactly what they want and find excuses afterward.” When we protested mildly, she told us to grow up.
While we had all more or less decided by the end of high school what we wanted to be, Delilah remained vague. Her mother wanted her to take some education courses and become a teacher. But something as small and unimaginative as that wouldn’t suit her at all, she said. Besides, she didn’t like the outfits or the hair and makeup that went with it. You couldn’t get away with much in front of a class full of yeshiva kids with a rabbi/principal peeking in on you every few hours. And what if the kids asked you questions, let’s say, about the Resurrection of the Dead? Or if the Messiah was coming? She knew she was supposed to believe with perfect faith, but honestly, she had never been able to get her head around such ideas. What, would they come out of their graves, like in The Night of the Living Dead? Or like that mangled factory-worker who comes knocking on his parents’ door in The Monkey’s Curse?
And this Messiah. Did he know he was the Messiah? A person is born, gets toilet trained, eats hamburgers, and then—what, finds out he’s going to bring peace to the world and change all human life as we know it? Would it be like Moses and the burning bush, where you are just minding your own business trying to keep the sheep from falling off a cliff when God suddenly calls your name and gives you your assignment? But then, how could you tell it was true and you weren’t just another candidate for lithium?
She could always be a public school teacher, she supposed. But everyone knew the Teachers’ Union stuck new teachers in hellholes in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, places where a white Jewish blonde getting into a new car was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. She tried to envision herself like Michelle Pfeiffer in that movie where she gets all the drug-addicted Puerto Ricans to become honor students because she’s so tough, but kind and she really, really believes in them. But she couldn’t imagine working in a public school and not wearing pants, which the rabbis absolutely forbade and which she still hadn’t figured a way around. Michelle could never have worked those miracles in a skirt with all that sitting up on the desk with her legs crossed.
The decision to enroll at Bernstein Women’s College, affiliated with the well-known Bernstein Rabbinical College, had been made after long discussions with friends and counselors. Although the tuition was thousands of dollars a year and she could have gone to any city college for free, she was advised by all that she wouldn’t like city colleges. They were too big, too impersonal, full of public high school riffraff. There was no social life. The bottom line was she was afraid to venture out, despite her bravado, from the sheltered yeshiva day school environment she had known, to face the real world, where her new sophistication would be laughed at by hip young New Yorkers who slept together and indulged in drugs and all kinds of other perversions she could only just imagine with equal parts loathing and envy.
But there was one thing you had to give Bernstein, the one true incontrovertible fact which made all those student loans a worthwhile investment: it was turning out to be one, long shidduch date.
Everyone was a matchmaker: the girls, the teachers, the teacher’s cousins, the girls’ cousins. It was the official bride pool for Bernstein Rabbinical College as well as Yeshiva University, with its well-regarded medical and law school, a fact well-known to all the parents shouldering the burden of their daughters’ unjustified and outlandish tuition.
Many of the girls were out-of-towners from tiny Jewish communities where available religious Jewish men were either under ten or over forty. Enrolling at Bernstein rescued them from horrible Young Israel weekends in Catskill hotels and being relentlessly pursued by the proverbial kosher butcher from Milwaukee: over thirty, overweight, and oversexed. Here, in a relaxed and respectable atmosphere, every Ruchie could find her Moishe. And vice versa.
The out-of-towners were usually the sheltered daughters of rabbis, pretty and sweet and innocent, with very little dating experience. Most of them had endured at least a year of long-distance courtships in which relatives and friends and professionals had found matches for them in places like Monsey, Brooklyn, or Baltimore. The dates arranged necessitated expensive cross-country plane trips, a situation that understandably left most of them languishing in solitary gloom on Saturday nights. When they moved into the dorms at Bernstein, they thought they’d died and gone to heaven.
In contrast, the native New Yorkers, used to a plethora of possibilities, found the fix-ups from Bernstein and Yeshiva University left much to be desired. Most of the guys were short and pale and wore glasses. They showed up dressed like they were on their way to a Rabbinical Council of America convention. Moreover, most were victims of severe rabbinical brainwashing on the subject of physical contact with the opposite sex outside of marriage. The negiah, or “touching” laws, were basically one loud NO! NOT ANYPLACE, ANY TIME, ANY BODY PART, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! This left some of the young men severely challenged on this subject, making Delilah feel as if she had a rare communicable disease. Even the most adventurous managed little more than casually stretching an arm out onto the back of her subway seat.
Gee, that was a thrill.
Some, at least, had looked normal enough: a crocheted skullcap, a nice sweater over an open-collared shirt. There was one universal problem, though. Anyone willing to be fixed up was almost always someone who couldn’t find a date on his own. And for good reason.
Delilah kept on going, though, always allowing herself to be persuaded by the hard or soft sell of the people who were setting her up, that this one “was different.” And why shouldn’t she trust them? After all, they had nothing to gain from making her miserable. In fact, most of them were involved in matchmaking because they considered it a good deed. Indeed, there is a widely held belief among religious Jews that achieving three successful matches earns one a free entry pass to the best neighborhoods in the World to Come.
The system in Bernstein worked this way: The guys would come into the dorm lobby and give their name and the name of the girl they were taking out to the housemother, who would then call up to the girl’s room, announcing him. The girl would then come down to the lobby and tell the housemother the name of the boy. Sometimes, seeing the girl who spoke his name, the boy would sit perfectly still until he could quietly slip out the front door.
It was quite a show. When she had nothing better to do on a Saturday night, Delilah delighted in hanging around the lobby to watch. Which is how she got involved with Yitzie Polinsky.
The boy was striking: tall and very slim, with broad shoulders and thick rock-star hair that fell adorably over his eyes. He wore a dark skullcap that melted right in and was hardly noticeable at all. His jeans were faded in all the right places, and to top it off he had on a black turtleneck and a kind of bomber jacket of brown leather.
You could tell the housemother didn’t approve at all. But when he gave her his name, her eyes lit up: the son of the very famous Rabbi Menachem Polinsky of Crown Heights. The housemother pushed her reading glasses to the top of her gray wig, looked him over again, lips pursed, and then shrugged. Allowances had to be made. She called up to the girl.
Delilah recognized her name: Penina Gwertzman, a cute little out-of-towner from Kansas or some other impossibly goyish place. Petite, with long dark hair and an ample figure, she was from a very religious family and had been carefully brought up. Yitzie wasn’t her type at all. He was Delilah’s type.
She watched as Yitzie’s eyes took in Penina’s body in long, slow strokes. Satisfied, he smiled and got up, sauntering over to her, his hands in his pockets. The nearer he got, the more Penina tugged nervously at her long pleated skirt, as if willing it to grow a few more inches.
Copyright © 2007 by Naomi Ragen. All rights reserved.