Crossing the Street

crossingthestreet

Recounting a friendship that opened a window into the world of religious girls and their limited choices.

by Talia Carner

The non-fiction essay below served as the inspiration for the author’s upcoming novel Jerusalem Maiden (HarperCollins, June 2011)

I had been playing hop-scotch for an hour with Deena, a 16-year-old Orthodox girl who lived across the street from my grandmother in central Tel-Aviv. The summer heat scorched the sidewalk and baked the asphalt in the street. Deena shook her calf-length skirt to cool her stockinged legs and tried in vain to blow into the top of her neck-to-wrist blouse. A year younger than she, I drank water from the faucet in the yard and splashed water on my prepubescent exposed midriff above my short shorts.

My friend cupped water near her mouth and asked, “Will you come to my wedding?”

Even though I assumed she meant light years away, the notion of marriage had never crossed my mind.
“You’re getting married? Seriously?”

She shrugged, her eyes downcast. “Tuesday.”

From the entrance to the wedding hall, I could see hundreds of bearded men in the Hasidic garb of black hats and long, belted coats. An usher blocked my way and directed me to the women’s hall, where the ceiling was lower and the harsh fluorescent lights made the panels on the wall look like Formica. Holding glasses of orange and grape juice, women in long modest dresses and head covers eyed my white-and-red mini suit with disapproval. I pushed my way through a cloud of fruity and sour smells and hordes of children running about until I reached a throne chair.

There was Deena, crying.

She didn’t just weep. She wailed aloud, her words garbled by the cotton handkerchiefs with which her mother and another woman dabbed her face. “Shhhhhh, Shhhhhh,” they repeated, but their tones suggested they were ready to stuff a handkerchief into her mouth.

I was about to approach her, when a woman yanked my arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” She tossed a glance at my exposed legs. “Don’t contaminate the bride.”

I gulped and took a step back. There was something else strange about Deena I couldn’t pinpoint from under the veil pulled back over her head, until it dawned on me: She was wearing a wig. Her thick black braid had been cut, never again to present a temptation to men.

I watched with horror as more women surrounded Deena, speaking to her in Yiddish, their tones ranging from comfort to indignation. Her hysterical crying continued unabated. Finally, they pulled her to her feet. From the main hall, the men’s singing crescendoed as if preparing for the messiah’s arrival. I could just decipher the line calling for the bride and the groom. “Yavo’ u ha’ chatan ve ha’ kala.”

Carried by the wave of women, I was herded through a narrow passage into the back of the main hall. Moments later, squeezed against a wall, I managed to climb a chair.

The field of chanting and dancing black hats parted like the Red Sea. There walked a gangly, tall teenage boy, led by two men, all three dressed in satin black coats and hard-rimmed black hats. Unlike the men’s chest-length, untrimmed beards, the boy’s meager, curly facial hair had barely begun to sprout. His Adam’s apple bobbed behind a sheet of skin in his long neck, and his eyes were wide with fear.

The men’s chanting was suddenly disrupted by Deena’s screams. “No! No! No! I don’t want to!”

I turned to see her mother and another ample-bosomed woman, each twice Deena’s size, propping the veiled bride on both sides like bookends, forcing her down the aisle. Her crying continued throughout the ceremony. The rabbi stopped twice and ordered someone to give the bride red wine to calm her nerves.

Horrified, I ran to the bathroom and threw up.

A year before, when I had entered high school, I chose to commute to a French school instead of walking two blocks to the local high school.

On the first day, I was surprised to see Leah at the bus stop. Tall, blue-eyed, with pretty strawberry-blonde hair, Leah was the daughter of a wealthy family that owned Israel’s largest sweets-and-chocolate company. They were modern Orthodox; Leah’s father and younger brother dressed in European clothes and only wore skullcaps. Although she lived just a block away from me, on the same double tree-lined boulevard, we had never talked. Leah attended an all-girls religious school and never mixed with our neighborhood youth. Whenever she left the house, her mother watched her from their second-floor terrace. Leah seemed to be surrounded as much by her religious upbringing as by her family’s money.

Now, hidden from her mother’s view by the trees, Leah gushed as if she’d known me for years. “Are you too going to Alliance Française? I’m so happy! It will be wonderful to have a friend so close!”

She did not stop chattering throughout the 45-minute ride, during recess, and on the drive back. She was giddy with excitement at having convinced her parents to let her attend a secular school and anxious to befriend my secular girlfriends. Could I invite them over as soon as we returned from school? Hanging out in my room, she asked me to teach her how to tease her hair and listened ceaselessly to “forbidden music” —the Top Ten recorded on my suitcase-size Grundig reel-to-reel player.

On our fourth day of school, when I came by her house in the morning, her mother stood on the terrace. “Leah will be transferred back to her school,” she announced.

Leah stood behind her, silent, her eyes swollen and her nose red.

The following Saturday morning, I saw her in the boulevard with a group of religious girls after synagogue services. Dressed in their Shabbat best, they sat on a bench and kissed their prayer books. Leah did not return my wave.

She rarely acknowledged me in the ensuing years, even as I traded my Alliance Française uniform for a military uniform. On Friday nights, when I teetered on high heels in a pencil dress next to my boyfriend on our way to a party, I sometimes caught a glimpse of her watching me from the lonely darkness of her terrace, unlit throughout the Shabbat. Her longing to join me was palpable through the less than 30 feet separating us.

However, eventually she must have won another battle with her parents: a religious girl who was not obligated to serve in the army, at age 18 she left for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to live away from home.

The reason for their capitulation became apparent when I arrived at the university after serving two-year in Israel Defense Force. Beautiful Leah was beginning her third year. She had already dated the heir to the country’s largest hotel chain. When he broke the relationship, she dated another heir.

Alas, by the end of her final year, she was not engaged to an heir. Then, within days of graduation, she married a particularly swarthy and hairy young man from a wealthy Jerusalemite Sepharadi family, a match I guessed her Ashkenazi family viewed as a compromise on the grandest scale. Still a student, I was dating a close friend of that Sepharadi family and attended a couple of their china-and-gold laden Shabbat dinners. Polite and demure, Leah never acknowledged our acquaintance. And when someone at the table made the connection, asking about our growing up on the same boulevard where both our parents still lived, she brushed it off.

Watching her, I recalled Deena at her wedding and wondered about the painful struggles Leah was covering behind her patrician demeanor. There was no sign of the animated girl who chattered on the bus to school, buoyant by the prospects of starting a new life. Her desire to break away from her parents’ control merely eight years before was still vivid in my mind, and I ached at the realization of how little freedom she had gained in the intervening years.

Several years later, a mother of two boys, Leah walked into a hotel owned by her former boyfriend’s family. She paid for a room and locked the door.

Her body was found the following day by the cleaning crew.

These two friendships with religious girls pressed into a life with few choices framed my perception of my grandmother’s life 90 years ago. In her youth, the absence of electricity under the backward Ottoman rule meant that no news or outside influences reached the insular Jewish community, helping it to further isolate its girls. An elite society of scholars, the ultra-Orthodox community viewed the dancing and singing simpleton Hassids with derision. Instead, they prepared themselves for the messiah’s arrival through austerity, suffering, and diligent studying, while assigning 12- to 14-year-old girls the responsibility of supporting the Talmudic and biblical scholars through marriage. Teenage girls were thus burdened with the daunting task of saving the world’s Jewry.

What if my feisty and artistically talented grandmother had bolted to follow her heart instead? What if Deena had run away, or Leah taken more time to find her way? While writing my grandmother’s fictional alternate life as a Jerusalem Maiden, I also commemorated later-day Deena and Leah who couldn’t or wouldn’t break away.

About the Author

Talia Carner
Author Talia Carner lives in New York. Her next novel, Jerusalem Maiden, will be published in June 2011 by HarperCollins. www.TaliaCarner.com

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