She wore daring attire, lost herself in forbidden books and chafed under the stringent religious dictates imposed on women. She read voraciously. In the mornings, before the family woke up, seated erect on a kitchen chair, she took pleasure in her books. Books that were never placed openly on the table or on a shelf, but were hidden.
Israeli author Yehudit Rotem and her extraordinary story about leaving the ultra-Orthodox world
She wore daring attire, lost herself in forbidden books and chafed under the stringent religious dictates imposed on women. Upon publication of her ninth book, Yehudit Rotem talks about her story with her daughter, Haaretz’s Tamar Rotem.
By Tamar Rotem • Ha'aretz
As a child I never saw my mother writing. Who can write books when you have seven children underfoot? I think the lack of “a room of her own” − as described by Virginia Woolf − in both the concrete and spiritual sense, caused her to refrain from writing altogether. My mother refused even to jot down grocery lists or notes for school in the morning. Only rarely, when we pleaded with her, did she tear off a little piece of newspaper on which she’d scribble something, which in any case we couldn’t give to the grocer or the teacher because we were too embarrassed. But she read voraciously. In the mornings, before the family woke up, seated erect on a kitchen chair, she took pleasure in her books. Books that were never placed openly on the table or on a shelf, but were hidden in the closet when she finished reading.
My mother was not like the other mothers. I don’t recall her being immersed in prayer. She kept away from the synagogue. This was especially noticeable on the High Holy Days. An early childhood memory recalls her at Rosh Hashanah, sitting on the floor in the corner of the room, weeping into her prayer book. Today she does permit herself to visit the synagogue once more, during the Kol Nidre prayer on Yom Kippur or to read from the Book of Psalms. But that happens entirely out of her love of the ancient language and connection to Jewish culture − not out of love of God.
She never recited the Shema prayer with us or sent us to do the ritual hand washing before a meal. Nor did she instruct us how to sit properly. Such petty matters were my father’s department (“Put your feet down!”). You would never catch her going to the grocery store or carrying shopping bags. That’s how she became the “prima donna” of the grocery store delivery boys, who worshiped her. She never devoted much time to preparing or eating food, and still doesn’t. Cooking, like doing the laundry and cleaning, was a necessary evil, to be finished quickly before moving on to the really important things. Usually spiritual things. Of course, she put pots of food on the stove, cut vegetables for salad (“like in a restaurant,” she would declare, when we complained about the overly large pieces), ironed and sewed buttons, and mended socks. There was no choice with so many mouths to feed, children to dress and worn-out socks.
I vaguely remember that once when I was a child she baked cakes (poppy-seed yeast cakes) for Shabbat. On the other hand, she studied and also excelled at buying and matching clothes. The whole clothing issue has been a serious matter in our family for several generations, comparable only to the big deal we made of books. Piles of books were purchased for every birthday and given to us after finding the afikoman at the Passover seder, but my mother still frequently took us to the central library in Bnei Brak. Until the fanatics burned it down in the 1980s. And every evening before we went to sleep, she read stories in installments to all of us − from eldest to youngest.
Her appearance was also entirely different from that of my friends’ mothers. My mother looked at least 10 years younger than they did, if not more: slender, made-up, daring. When my mother walked along the streets of Bnei Brak, people would turn their heads. Local residents were simply amazed at how she looked in a dress with a tight-fitting belt and a long-haired wig. Not at all modest. As a teenager, of course, I did not see my mother’s unusual appearance as an advantage. And I certainly didn’t think she was “cool”; that was a word I didn’t know at the time.
Just when she began her great revolt − at the height of which she registered to study at the Open University; went out to work, in the end even taking her daughters with her; and got divorced and left ultra-Orthodox society − I, the eldest, was galloping in the opposite direction.
For a little while, during the period when I was a silent witness to the great drama of her life, I tried to get along with my teachers at the Beit Yaakov school for ultra-Orthodox girls. I observed my mother with curiosity mingled with great fear and wondered: What was she doing to herself, and to us.
Piqued by curiosity, I discovered deep inside the clothes closet Hebrew translations of books with ostensibly innocent names. Like “My Mother/My Self” by Nancy Friday. Or thick volumes called “The Golden Notebook,” by Doris Lessing, or “Passages,” by Gail Sheehy, and so on. When I leafed through them to see what they were about, I felt the words would burn me − and I really did get burned. Picture me at the time, a grim-faced Beit Yaakov girl, naive, my hair pulled back in a braid, a thick challah-like plait, so that no stray curl escaped. From the heights of the religious superiority that I had just acquired, I scorned her and her books. But the forbidden volumes made an indelible impression on me. To this day I remember the jackets of each and every one of them in living color.
It is hard to comprehend how a woman from Bnei Brak, from a good Haredi family, immerses herself in feminist literature of the period, or even knows of its existence. When I recently asked my mother how it happened, she didn’t remember. Whatever the case, for her these books were like a ladder planted in the ground with its top reaching the sky − and she climbed it, rung after rung, on the way to her freedom. I was 16-years-old when my father burned them along with the university textbooks, in a large bonfire in our backyard.
Time to ‘ripen’
After she “crossed the boundaries” and started a revolution unprecedented in our community, it was clear she needed time to “ripen”: to bring to the light of day the words and stories percolating inside her. First she wrote commentaries on Jewish culture from a personal point of view in the women’s magazine At. Then, as she put it, “the spring opened up.” Since then she has been writing incessantly: novels, articles, children’s books and even biographies that people ask her to write.
Now her ninth book, “Matai Tavo Elai?” (“When Will You Come to Me?”), is being published by Kinneret (in Hebrew). The title doesn’t come from a text message sent by one of the participants in the television reality series “Meusharot” (“The Riches,” about wealthy women), to which my mother is addicted, but, amazingly, from the Book of Psalms.
The landscapes of Berlin serve as background for the new novel. About a year and a half ago, my mother was invited by the German government to spend a month as a writer-in-residence on the banks of Lake Wannsee.
My daughter and I hopped over for a visit. My mother didn’t join our tours of the city; she preferred to seclude herself in her room and to write feverishly. When it comes to writing, my mother is an industrious ant − a “manual laborer” of words and meanings. I envy her diligence and her output. Maybe she’s compensating for years of refraining from writing.
The novel tells the story of the ultra-Orthodox woman Shulamit who leaves Israel with her husband, against her will, in order to work in a Jewish old people’s home in Berlin. The couple, who belong to the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, have become mired in debt as a result of their children’s weddings and hope to repay it by working: she as a house mother and he as a rabbi and cantor on the High Holy Days. But in Germany their relationship hits the rocks. While Shulamit opens up to the world around her, her husband is seized by anxiety. He is scared mainly by what the transition to German life is doing to his wife, and without prior warning returns to Israel. Rifts that had begun much earlier, between the woman who yearns for beauty and new ideas, and her husband − a fusty religious fanatic who strictly adheres to the letter of the halakha (Jewish religious law) − become wider. I won’t reveal whether the story has a happy ending.
I read more between the lines than within the lines of my mother’s books. In the protagonist Shulamit in this latest work, I immediately found my mother’s alter ego: She reminded me of my mother mainly in her emotional abundance. I especially liked Lily, Shulamit’s mother, whose extravagant figure, in her silk robes and turbans, reminded me of my maternal grandmother. My grandmother was an example of missed opportunities, and I was happy my mother had endowed this character with another dimension and happier life. Lily reclaims her youth for a short time in old age, compensating herself for an entire life that had been lost to her. The relationship between the elderly mother and her daughter are the center of the novel, along with the problematic relationship with the husband, and the hesitant relationship between Shulamit and the good German doctor, Ulrich.
Through the story of Shulamit I became aware of a subterranean drama, of whose existence I had been unaware, with respect to Haredi couples’ relationships. No child can really know about his parents’ marital relationship, although sometimes he will notice gestures, demonstrations of affection or anger. But his parents’ relationship is totally unknown to a Haredi child. In this society, the relationship between husband and wife is one of the most concealed of all things, confined to the most private sphere.
Because I left the Haredi world in my youth, I was not privy to the secrets of ishut (conjugal relations) and its built-in preoccupation with the laws of niddah (concerning women’s impurity) and immersion in the mikveh, the ritual bath.
“Young men and women find out those secrets only when they enter ‘the order,’ on the eve of their marriage,” explains my mother. Only after I finished reading did I realize that the name of her book, “When Will You Come to Me,” is a double entendre. In biblical Hebrew “to come” can also be a euphemism for having sexual relations. In order to understand the fine points of the couple’s relationship in the book, you have to understand the hidden practice that is an integral part of it. According to Jewish law, when a woman is menstruating she is niddah. In other words, impure and sexually forbidden to her husband. From the day she stops menstruating she has to count seven “clean” days and then immerse herself in a mikveh. Starting from the night of the immersion, she is pure and permitted to have sex with her husband.
Through the thoughts and dilemmas of the main character, the book clearly deals with the tension between the formal and the personal, and with the conflict between halakha and emotion, in a religious woman who does not choose the easy way out, by repression. Shulamit’s disgust at the constant preoccupation of her husband and the entire society concerning the most intimate part of her, her menstrual blood, is discussed in great detail.
At the height of the novel she becomes sick and tired, not only of her husband’s questions as to whether she has gone to the mikveh, but even of the visit to the mikveh. When her feelings for her husband grow increasingly sour, she postpones the immersion – although she risks being declared a “rebellious wife” according to halakha, which can be grounds for divorce. But she has already made a free choice and is willing to pay the price.
Often, as someone who writes about the Haredi community − and especially about its women − I have received signals from my mother about her harshly critical feelings on the subject. She didn’t speak about it openly, but apparently her anger gradually accumulated, like a lump in the throat, until she decided to vent it. And when she did, it was no-holds-barred.
Why did you decide to write about a subject that is so sensitive and hushed up in Haredi society?
Yehudit: “In my first book, ‘Distant Sisters: The Women I Left Behind,’ which documented Haredi society, I wrote about the subject [of niddah] cautiously. I felt like I was walking on eggshells, if you know what I mean. Afterward I mentioned it indirectly in several of my books.
“This time I felt a need to return to the subject, to speak about it without concealing anything. On the one hand people talk about it in secret, as though about the epitome of modesty − and on the other hand there are posters in the streets of Bnei Brak advertising rabbis who lecture on the laws of purity. What do they know about women, about their feelings? It infuriates me. As someone who writes about that world, I can’t omit such a significant thing. But on the other hand, it also frightens me to write about it.”
What is the source of your fear?
“From the day that you begin to develop any awareness, they pile guilt on you. This is an intimate matter, and it’s as though I’m pulling aside the curtain and the screen, and invading an intimate space. Niddah and the laws governing marital relations are actually the most precious thing to Haredi society − the thing they hold most sacred and the most basic thing in their lives. They believe that the Jewish people owe their continuity to their observance of the laws of purity. When you’re inside that society you lock yourself into a built-in framework called ‘purity’; those who don’t are automatically less holy and pure.
“In the book Shulamit doesn’t want to know about sexual relations until the last moment. She finds the entire issue threatening and unnatural, because it’s not part of the fabric of everyday life, in which there is no contact between men and women. It’s a complex business, full of contradictions.”
How did you feel about those contradictions when you were married?
“I didn’t know about those halakhot [dictates] before my marriage, but it intimidated me. First they educate you not to go out with boys, and not to hang out with them, and then when you get engaged they tell you not to touch him or look him in the eye. And suddenly at night you have to do it. Before my marriage I thought it was death. That dying is preferable.
“There’s something dissonant about it. Even in the fact that women are forced to leave the house in the evening to immerse themselves in the mikveh, which is an activity that is liable to expose them to everyone (they know not only when you go, but when you have relations with your husband). And therefore an effort is made to conceal leaving the house from girlfriends, sisters, from the children.
“I can’t really say that I accepted that. But the scare tactics they use! That [if you don’t go to the mikveh] the children will turn out to be defective, that if you deviate in the slightest from this thing, you’re bringing down destruction. You don’t dare to think differently, because, after all, you’re educated in Beit Yaakov to think that women don’t understand anything. That the men received the Torah and they teach us the way.
“I was insulted by this attitude toward me as a niddah, a forbidden woman. Today I don’t believe I was the only one disturbed by it. But there wasn’t a single female friend with whom I felt I could talk, without her running to her husband or to the mashgiah (the spiritual supervisor), and in the end they would give me a bad name. I felt abnormal. Am I the only one bothered by the fact that nothing will be put into my hands [by a man] because I’m impure − that the baby won’t be taken from my hands when I’m ‘forbidden’? Was I the only one who felt hurt when my husband separated the beds on the wedding night immediately after the act? That can’t be. It’s simply something that people don’t talk about. Maybe now the talk has become more open, but it’s still forbidden to criticize the system.”
Religious women talk about immersion in the mikveh as though it were the most wonderful thing in the world. In general they describe observing the laws of niddah as a surefire recipe for love.
“Forbidden, niddah. Those words in themselves are an insult, in my opinion. When they tell you that you are niddah and impure because of blood that ‘emerges from your source’ − shouldn’t you be insulted? Blood is the source of life. Without that blood you can’t bring children into the world. The purest and most natural thing in the world, because of it you’re impure. There are women who find justification for that. Look, two weeks a month they don’t have to be preoccupied with the whole issue of sexual relations. They can read books in bed. In general, Haredi women glorify the entire issue. They’ll say that the prohibition two weeks every month causes a sense of renewal. One of my interviewees in ‘Distant Sisters’ told me that it’s like getting married again every month. She got divorced in the end.
“You’ve just given birth and your husband is not allowed to say ‘mazal tov’ with a kiss and a hug. He has to keep his distance. He is not allowed to touch you with affection. When you sit at the table you have to place on it a hatzitza, a sign of separation. A hatzitza has to be something that doesn’t belong on the table. A watch, for example, not a plate. Anything that will remind you of your rejected, impure, excluded status. There are people who may be able to accept things better than I do. I have only my own life, and that’s what I tell about. And in any case, I was never like everyone else.”
My mother was never like everyone else. I think that her rebelliousness from childhood was actually a natural and normal reaction to the chronic discord in her life. She was born to parents who didn’t understand her and her needs, and grew up in a society that sanctifies uniformity, and has no place for individualism and creativity. At 18 she fled from the circumstances of her life − only to marry the wrong person.
Her parents were Holocaust survivors from Hungary who had become impoverished. Thanks to their “pedigree” − my grandfather was the head of Agudath Israel youth movement in Budapest − my grandparents and their daughters, my mother, aged 2, and her younger sister, were rescued in 1944, via a train organized by Dr. Israel Kastner. They thought they were free, but they arrived at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp where they stayed for seven months. Afterward they continued to a way station in Switzerland, and in the end they immigrated to Israel.
They didn’t adapt to life in Israel. “Everything was contrary to their expectations,” my mother recalls. “My father sent money [for the family] to Israel that ended up in other hands. He had to start from nothing, and was very bitter.” At first he was proud of Yehudit, for her excellent command of Hebrew, while they could barely speak, she says. When guests came to the house, he would wake her up and put her in front of the guests to recite her poems, which were published in the children’s newspapers of the time. But then the family moved to Bnei Brak, and everything changed.
“At first we lived in Givat Shmuel, in a small house with fruit trees, and an orchard opposite us. I would sit there in a little spot under an orange tree, and didn’t go back until they called me to come home,” my mother recalls.
The transition was sharp and traumatic. In the nondescript and unlovely city, in the strict Zichron Meir neighborhood at the foot of the renowned Ponovezh Yeshiva, they did not exactly welcome a girl wearing short gym pants. “They registered me for Beit Yaakov, which looked like a barracks, with grim-faced teachers who immediately forbade me to read.”
Those teachers will appear in a more advanced stage of the plot, when they also become my teachers. My mother does have a good word to say for “the teacher Bracha,” who taught her everything she knows about grammar and Hebrew. And that’s no small thing. That same Bracha used to scold me and tell me I wasn’t as good a student of Hebrew as my mother.
My mother used to get books in the home of her girlfriend, the Wallersteiners. “It was a family of Yekkes [German Jews]) who taught me the meaning of art and culture, and gave me books to read,” she says. “In the Histadrut House, too, the librarians understood that I was one of those girls who has to read, and gave me three to four books each time. I used to read while walking home, but other girls reported me to the principal, and they called my father to reprimand him about his rebellious daughter. That created a great rift between us.”
My mother’s life story is part of the history of the growing extremism in Haredi society. “In my class they began to force the girls to wear long stockings. As I grew up, more and more restrictions were added. The indoctrination of girls to study at the teacher’s seminary − so that as teachers they could support their yeshiva-student husbands − began then,” she explains.
“I remember the day [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion came to visit the Hazon Ish [leading rabbinical authority Rabbi Avroham Yeshaya Karelitz], and the entire city was in a tizzy. We all ran to the home of the Hazon Ish, which was a small and rickety house.”
At that fateful meeting the two leaders agreed that yeshiva students would not be drafted into the army, and that studying Torah would be their profession. Toward the end of elementary school they started to pressure my mother to register for Rabbi Avraham Wolf’s seminary. He was the same rabbi who had offered the Hazon Ish to promote the education of girls, so that they would agree to support the men. And so, as Menachem Friedman, the expert on Haredi society, explains, the “learning society” was established thanks to the collaborative effort of the Hazon Ish and Rabbi Wolf.
‘A tough breed’
But my mother, who rolled down her socks after school and would even sneak into the movies, decided that this destiny was not for her. Contrary to her father’s wishes, she went and registered herself in a Haredi girls’ high school that was quite liberal due to the very fact that they did matriculation there. Her father exploded with fury.
“My father, who admired Torah scholars and had a tendency toward extremism, began to study every day in a Lithuanian-style kollel (a yeshiva for married men),” she says. “He grew a beard and brought home new stringent rules. Somehow the rumor spread that I wanted to study in that school, and all kinds of rabbis came to the house − even Rabbi Wolf − to convince me to study at the seminary.”
At the age of 13 she went on foot from Bnei Brak to the high school in Ramat Gan (she didn’t have the money for a bus ticket): “A handsome bearded man opened the door and asked ‘Child, what do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to register for the school.’ He asked, ‘Where’s your father?’ I told him, ‘He doesn’t want me to study here.’ ‘No. I asked where he’s from,’ he explained. I replied that he was from Hungary. He said: ‘Oh, so that’s the real reason.’ He meant to say that Hungarian fathers are a tough breed. That was the principal I admired, Shaul Lustig. It was an expensive private school, but I got scholarships. All those years, for every little thing I did my father threatened to take me out of the school,” continues my mother.
At the end of 11th grade he really did take her out. Meanwhile the prohibitions continued, against going to a youth movement, for example. She went in secret, and when she declared that she would do National Service, there was uproar.
“I had my pride. I left the school and completed a matriculation certificate and a teaching certificate in external exams, and because I didn’t want to live at my parents’ expense, I began teaching at the age of 17.” She used to take several buses to her job in the immigrant neighborhood of Azaria in the Ramle area. During that same period she met my father
“He saw me at a wedding and sent messengers to me. My parents weren’t enthusiastic at first. But one day I came home from school on the motorcycle of a handsome guy who taught with me. He was Mizrahi [of Middle Eastern origin], and my Hungarian parents panicked and decided immediately that I had better get engaged. I was engaged for an entire year. I regretted it, but was afraid to break my promise. They warned me that breaking an engagement is worse than divorce, so I got married.”
I don’t understand. After all, you rebelled all the time. You went by yourself to register for a high school where they didn’t teach you how to support a yeshiva student. You could have studied at the university. So why did you marry a yeshiva student?
“I wanted to get married to leave my problematic home. But I didn’t really understand what it meant to be the wife of a yeshiva student. And on the other hand, who could I have married? Boyfriends from the Bnei Akiva or Ezra [religious] youth movements were out of the question. And boys of the type my father wanted − Haredi men who worked − had all been educated in the yeshivas.
“I was a very ideological girl, with values, and I aspired to a spiritual world. In the evenings my husband would explain the [Haredi] system and the way to me, and I was naive and wanted to accept God’s kingship. After all, as a young woman you want to admire and worship your husband. He portrayed himself and the yeshiva students as spiritually elevated, and said the world would collapse if the voice of Torah was silenced for a moment. And you, the woman, had the supreme privilege of ‘contributing’ to the achievement of these lofty goals by your actions.
“My father forced his theocratic world on me. I told myself that as a Hungarian Jew who hadn’t studied enough, he hadn’t acquired the right hashkafa (religious viewpoint), but if I married a yeshiva student he would explain it to me. I thought there was some secret there that only I didn’t understand.”
My parents moved to a small community in the northern part of the country called Rekhasim. On top of the hill sits the Knesset Hizkiyahu yeshiva, which was the center of the lives of the yeshiva students’ families.
“It was a wonderful community,” my mother recalls. “I had wonderful friends there and the rabbi’s wife, the widow Hannah, who ran the yeshiva, really adopted me. I used accompany her to the yeshiva kitchen and help her. I liked the life there. I became friends with wonderful couples and women ... They had a phonograph and I had records. I used to bring my records, and we would both sit and listen to classical music together. Everyone knew that I read books. The mashgiah told my husband, ‘I heard that your wife reads books. She’s liable to think that life is like in the books.’”
Until the age of about 12 I didn’t know that my mother had given birth to two more girls who died tragically. Yaeli [the eldest] was born before me and Racheli was born after me. Of course I heard the rumors; Haredi society was like a small village at the time, and everyone knew about the tragedies. And what they didn’t tell me, I figured out in my own mind. Only when I grew up did my mother begin to tell what had happened. Later she wrote about it at the end of the book “Kria’a” (“Mourning”), her most autobiographical novel. In almost all her books there are dead children.
“Until Yaeli was born I wasn’t happy. Your father would observe a ‘speech fast’ (refrained from talking) every Monday and Thursday, and from the beginning of Elul (the month before Rosh Hashanah) until after Yom Kippur. During the High Holy Days he wasn’t home. Yaeli’s birth was compensation for everything I was missing. For me the child was light, sun, air, life. I didn’t need anything. Until everything went wrong.”
On Rosh Hashanah, when everyone was praying in the yeshiva, my mother entered the synagogue to hear the blowing of the shofar − one of the only commandments that women are obligated to observe. Outside older girls watched over the babies in their cribs. Yaeli, almost a year old, put her head between the bars of the crib and suffocated. My father was spending the holiday in another yeshiva. My mother ran from the top of the hill to the village below, with the lifeless baby in her arms. A yeshiva student was with her. Someone took them to the hospital in Haifa, where the baby was pronounced dead.
The second tragedy, the death of Racheli, happened when I was 18-months-old. I have no memories of it, and even when details of the first accident became quite clear, the fog was not lifted over the circumstances of the second.
“The second disaster could have been prevented. I begged your father not to leave me. But he insisted on going to the kollel. There were no neighbors in the building, there was no telephone, there was a storm outside and there was nobody to call. I was alone. The child turned blue and died in my arms. I thought that if it happened to me again, I wouldn’t survive. But it happened. And I remained alive in spite of it.”
My mother used to say that after her tragedies, she wanted to continue having children to compensate for what she’d lost. That’s how she got to seven children [six girls and one boy]. But she also did this in the context of a society that had begun to adopt high birth rates as an ideology. To this day, when it comes to the number of children a family has, my mother is not as critical as on other subjects.
“After the Holocaust most of the families in Bnei Brak had few children,” she recalls. “Only a few had big families, and they were looked down on. My mother didn’t allow me to become friendly with girls from such homes, because ‘their house is probably not clean enough.’ In Rekhasim I discovered the beauty of large families and I liked the idea.
“Among the Haredim it became an ideology, for religious and demographic reasons. I had nothing to do with that. My pregnancies and births were easy. For me, they were the only outlet for creativity, self-fulfillment, compensation for emotional deprivation. I was happy with every pregnancy. I believe that the same is true of many women. Today women understand better than we did that it’s hard to raise children. We were the first generation of redemption − or slavery.
“I’m glad to have had the experience of many children. That’s my advantage. That enables you, when you start at a young age, to get to the cycles of life on time. To be a young grandmother. When my grandchildren get married I’ll have great-grandchildren. I’m curious to know what that will be like.
“I think that the number of children shouldn’t be determined by social affiliation. If a successful and loving couple knows how to raise children, why shouldn’t they have a lot of them? But when it’s done because of halakhic coercion rather than by choice, it makes me sad and angry.”
‘Rending and mending’
My parents often moved, but for most of our lives we lived in Bnei Brak. My mother continued to be the same rebellious child, even when she had children. Sometimes she skipped parent-teacher meetings (“You’re good girls. I don’t have time to wait in line”). Mainly she objected to the exaggerated preoccupation with modesty. She didn’t feel she had to account to anyone. Certainly not to the teachers she used to have.
One day when I was in second grade, I came to school in such a short skirt that the teacher exploded. She immediately sent me out, but made sure to go home with me to reprimand my mother, whom she knew very well. When my teacher and I arrived at the house, it was morning and my mother was probably busy feeding her babies. When she heard the knock on the door she opened it only a fraction. “Yes?” she asked my teacher suspiciously, without noticing me; if she did, she didn’t express any surprise. The teacher began to preach: How could you send her in such a short skirt? “What do you want?” my mother asked. “After all, she’s wearing stockings. She’s not naked.” And she slammed the door.
She wasn’t such a heroine when it came to her relationship with my father. She shed a lot of tears to convince him that I should learn to play the piano, or that I should attend the seminary in Tel Aviv instead of the one in Bnei Brak, which is stricter. I was also witness to her despair when she discovered, more than once, that he hadn’t left her any money to buy bread and milk; because she didn’t work and only raised the children, she was totally dependent on him financially.
The main character in my mother’s story, Shulamit, also undergoes a major change. But I’m more interested to learn when the heroism began to erupt from the woman I know and remember − the one who lay in her bed during large parts of my childhood, with her eyes as weak as those of the biblical Leah, as it were.
“It was a process,” my mother explains. “I became sickly when I arrived in Bnei Brak. I started to have stomach aches, I lost weight. I didn’t want that life. When everyone went to kindergarten and school and I had time for myself, I started to feel the pain of a missed opportunity. I read ‘Anna Karenina’ and identified with her. In the book ‘House of Women’ I read about the despair of women in the suburbs and understood them. At every stage in my life I found the book that suited me at the time. The books shook me up. When I read ‘Passages’ I felt that I was part of a huge movement of people who make major changes in their lives. I was ‘inside’ the passage.”
“Time doesn’t dull ...,” says my mother finally, leaving half a sentence in the air, while we are eating vegetable soup. My sister Noa is filming us during the conversation, for a movie about the major rift in the family after my parents’ divorce. But in spite of the presence of the camera, we somehow manage to achieve an understanding that is beyond words. There is far less than a generation between me and my mother. And, after all, she and I were there together, during a long chapter in the complex script of her life.
My sister, who is almost 10 years my junior, wants to know before she puts away the camera whether writing leads to healing.
“Every writer writes out of a wound,” replies my mother. “I didn’t invent that. I don’t think the rift will disappear. It’s an endless process of rending and mending.”
[Hat Tip: Dr. Rofeh-Filosof.]