His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Seven

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 7. Enjoy!

Chapter Seven

IMG_1197Mrs. Freiburg lived with her son and daughter-in-law on a quiet street that intersected 13th Avenue, the main shopping street of the area. Their cavernous new house stood on a lot that once held two houses joined by a common wall. Like many of the Jews in this neighborhood, they had torn down a structure that once contained four modest apartments and rebuilt to accommodate the needs of one large, wealthy family.   As families in Borough Park continued to expand, more and more houses were being torn down and rebuilt. As if the double-parked cars did not make it difficult enough, each block had multiple construction projects going on at any given time, making the narrow streets even harder to maneuver. I drove around the block several times until I finally found a parking spot.

There was something odd about the streets here, with enormous, expensive houses going up next to humble multi-family homes and neglected apartment buildings. Unlike other run-down areas, people who could afford to move out were choosing to stay. Jews who lived a traditional lifestyle had fewer choices about where to live. They had to be within walking distance of their synagogue, since driving cars was prohibited on Shabbat. And Borough Park was a full-service neighborhood for observant Jews, with its kosher restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, and butchers, its wig shops, religious bookstores, its schools and synagogues. In Borough Park, you could leave your car for free at a meter on Saturdays, but not on Sundays, a reversal of the usual New York City parking regulations. Sunday was the big shopping day here, when Jews from all over the tri-state area packed the streets looking for kosher groceries and delicacies, deals on clothing and shoes, and religious items and books. Luckily it was a Tuesday; otherwise parking would have been absolutely impossible.

As I walked from the car to Mrs. Freiburg’s house, I had a strange feeling, like someone was watching me. I didn’t know how to explain the feeling, which up until that moment I thought only happened in books. I reassured myself with the thought that even though I had taken care to wear a long skirt to this meeting, it was still clear that I was not from this community. I was probably just providing someone with a glimpse of otherness. Still, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling.

I turned to go up the few steps leading to the Freiburg’s door, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a young man. He was dressed like most of the other men in the neighborhood, in a black suit and white shirt, with a black hat on his head and a full beard. More than that I couldn’t make out. There was certainly nothing exceptional about him, or about his presence on the street behind me. Except that as I turned to get a better look at him, he lifted his head and looked at me right in the eye. I was able to see enough under the brim of his hat to detect a scowl and a flash of anger in his eyes. Having made eye contact, he quickly averted his head and hurried away down the street. The glance unnerved me; I knew that these men did not normally make eye contact with women, certainly not with outsiders, and certainly not on purpose.

Before I could think more about who he was and what his look meant, a young woman opened the door. She motioned for me to come in, not meeting my eyes. Since her head was averted, it was hard to see what she looked like, other than that she was dark and young, probably in her early twenties. She wore a highly tailored brown wool dress and dark brown stockings. Her hair was pulled back in a large gold-colored clip at the back.

“You’re here to see Mrs. Freiburg?” she asked, though it sounded more like a statement than a question. “Mrs. Marcus, yes?”

“Yes,” I answered, though technically I was Ms. Marcus, not having taken my husband’s last name. Mrs. Marcus was my mother. Whatever.

“Come with me.”

She led me down the narrow hallway into the living room, a spacious but spare room decorated in white and gold. On one wall there were what I took to be family photographs. Besides the photographs, the only other decoration was a large painting of a Chasidic rabbi, though I couldn’t identify which one. My education hadn’t progressed that far yet.   The bookshelf was full of dark, hardcovered books with gold writing that looked to my untrained eye to be Hebrew but could have been Yiddish. The room was attractive, yet somewhat lacking in personality.

I was expecting a frail, old woman, still in bed recovering from surgery. Mrs. Freiburg, however, sat in a gold brocade easy chair, looking very well indeed. She was a good-looking woman in her mid-seventies, her champagne colored hair perfectly coifed and her blue knit sweater and skirt set sufficiently modest but obviously well-made and expensive. I assumed the hair was a wig, but what did I know? For the most part, all I knew was some second-hand information and lots of stereotypes. It was amazing that I had spent most of my life ten minutes away from this Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park yet except for an occasional excursion over here to buy kosher-for-Passover cakes, a babka for Shabbat, or the annual lulav-and-etrog-buying trip, I had virtually nothing to do with it or with the people who lived here.

Mrs. Freiburg welcomed me warmly, as if I myself might have been a long-lost relative. After the introductions were conducted and I took a seat on the couch across from her, Mrs. Freiburg offered me a choice of teas. There must be a conspiracy to deny me coffee, I thought to myself, as I politely opted for mint. She turned to the younger woman, who had stood in the doorway during the introductions, and instructed her to prepare the tea.

“That’s my granddaughter, Rivkie,” she said, as soon as the young woman left the room. “I am so lucky to be living here with my grandchildren around me. Shmuel has nine children, each of them a blessing. Do you have children?”

“Yes,” I answered, grateful for the choice of an opening topic. “My daughter Hannah is four and my son Caleb is two.”

“Wonderful ages, wonderful. And I am sure they are blessings to you. I myself have three children. In those days, who could have nine children! So many children died young, never mind being able to feed so many mouths. But here in America, anything is possible. And my son, thank God, is a good provider. He owns an electronics store here in the neighborhood together with my middle son, Nachum. Such a good business. I don’t understand half the things they sell, but they do a good business. He has a good head, Shmuel. Mail order, people from all over the country they write to him, on the computer. My third son Aaron, also he has a good head. But not for business. He’s the scholar. That’s Aaron who studies with your Rabbi Springer. A nice fellow, a good neshama. Rabbi Springer has been here a few times for Shabbos. ”

“All boys,” I commented inanely, not sure how to get around to the subject I was here to discuss.

A dark shadow passed over her face. She sighed. “I had a girl too. My first-born. Rina. They got her. We were on our way to freedom, so close to the border. But they got Rina. I saw the whole thing. A mother should never know from that. She was only a baby.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said softly. “I apologize, I didn’t realize–”

“No, no,” she said, warmly. “It’s important to remember. And it’s part of the story you came to hear. The boys, they were born here, once we were safe.”

At that moment Rivkie came back into the room, carrying a tray. “Come, Rivkie. Meet our guest.”

Rivkie approached us and set the tray down on the table. “Hello,” she said stiffly, still not meeting my eyes.

When Rivkie left the room, Mrs. Freiberg poured us each a cup of tea and offered me a cookie, which I accepted.

“I apologize that Rivkie was less than welcoming,” she said, sighing. “You see, this is complicated for us. I agreed to see you out of respect for Rabbi Springer, who has been a good friend to my son and has been a guest of this family many times, and who is a mensch. But not all my family is in agreement that I should speak to you.”

“I’m sorry to put you in an uncomfortable position,” I said.

“No, don’t worry, there are some nice things about being the family matriarch. And the rebbe said it was all right. Still, well, you know, people can be stubborn.”

“May I ask what the issue is?”

Mrs. Freiburg opened her mouth to speak, paused, and closed her mouth. She looked down at her fingers and sighed. Then she looked up at me again with a determined look in her eyes. “There are memories some of us don’t want to bring up again. Memories that are best forgotten. Things we learned about people we would rather forget. Sometimes, in desperate circumstances, the best that is in us comes out, and sometimes the worst. It was a tragedy what happened to the Halizchers. Some think it is best to leave their memories undisturbed, to remember only the good and not question what happened. And some are still angry, even so many years later. So to talk among ourselves, that is one thing. But to talk to someone not from among us, well, that is something else. We do not do it often, or easily. But the rebbe said it would be best to talk to you. It may upset an old man to know that he is not part of that family, but if your research does help you find his long-lost brother, then truly a mitzvah has been done. The rebbe has a caring heart. If there is good to be done, he believes it should be done.”

“May I ask, who is this rebbe you’re speaking about?”

“Yes, yes, of course you may ask. My husband, alav hashalom, was not raised in a Halizcher household. His family were Naidover Chasidim. Like the Halizchers, the Naidovers were for the most part destroyed in the war. But a remnant survived, or got out beforehand, like us. After the war we rebuilt and grew once again. It was a beautiful thing, the rebuilding of the Naidovers. I have always missed some aspects of being a Halizcher, but it was really not a choice, since first of all my husband was a Naidover, and anyway there were no more Halizchers. You see, the Naidover rebbe, zikaron livracha, got out just in time, and made it to Eretz Yisroel, where he died. His son became the next rebbe. We are small compared to some of the other groups of Chasidim, but we are growing all the time. There were some very difficult years, much darkness, and hope was a luxury, but here we are.”

“I appreciate your willingness to talk to me. I understand that this may be difficult.”

“Yes. But that is my choice. I made it, and my family will have to respect that. Besides, I’m a sick old woman. Who can say no to me?” She laughed. “You see, there are some nice things about getting old. Sometimes I get my way.”

I smiled back at her. I had a feeling she often got her way.

“So let us begin. I understand you’re doing genealogical research for someone who thinks he might be related to the Halizcher rebbe, zikaron livracha. It’s funny, for so long American Jews tried to run away from their roots, and now everyone can’t wait to find them again.”

“His granddaughter is my client, actually,” I explained. “This is supposed to be a surprise, so I can’t ask him questions myself. It makes my research more complicated, but interesting. So first I’m trying to learn about the Halizchers themselves.”

“Interesting it may be, but fruitless. You see, it’s impossible that anyone from the family survived.”

“You’re probably right, but you never know. There was so much confusion during those years, I understand. And miracles happened.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “Miracles certainly did happen. I will tell you what I can, and who knows.”

She folded her hands in her lap and took a deep breath. “I was born in a shtetl near Halizch. My parents were followers of the Halizcher rebbe. He was a good man, he was known far and wide for his compassion and his wisdom. People came to him with their problems, there was no lack of problems, and he would offer hope, and remind people to find the joy in life. It was said that just a glance from him could cure a broken heart. The glass was always half full, you know what I mean? To everything there was a silver lining. He had a loud but melodic, sing-songy kind of voice, and a big beautiful smile. He was a scholar, but it was said that even moreso his grandson was a scholar.

“This grandson was the son of the rebbe’s daughter, Basya. He had four daughters, and he loved them all. Never a word passed his lips about not having a son. Even that he turned in to a positive, he would say, ach, what son-in-laws God would sent to him, what a gift to have daughters. There was Ruchel, the eldest, then Basya, then Sura, then Chaya Esther. Ruchel and Basya married brothers, Yitzhak and Nossen Shlomo Gelberman. Sura and Chaya Esther never had a chance to marry, poor souls. Chaya Esther was the baby, the child of her parents’ old age. Such a beauty, only a young girl when the war began. She never got to grow up. Ruchel too was a sad story, despite the rebbe’s optimism. Yitzhak was a chasid at first, a wonderful scholar, but he got introduced to other ideas that turned his head. He became a Zionist, and left for Palestine with Ruchel when I was still a young girl. I barely remember her, though one thing I do remember is that everyone used to joke how Ruchel and Yitzhak looked so much alike. They both had flaming red hair, like it was on fire. Like they were on fire with the idea of Zionism.

“Once, twice, a letter came from them, life was very difficult there for them, and then that was all. It was assumed that they died. They were never heard from again, as far as I know. It was so painful for the rebbe and his wife. No one knew how to comfort them.

“What did help was that Basya and Nossen Shlomo had two sons. There were more, but they died as babies, which was not uncommon then. But those two were like miracles from the Almighty. One more beautiful than the other, and smart, so smart. Which was good, because there were some doubts about Nossen Shlomo. A mensch, he was a mensch, yes, but it became clear that he was not the right material to be the next rebbe. He was a quiet man, reserved, shy, nothing special as a scholar. He was a devout man, a true chasid, righteous and devoted to God, devoted to his father-in-law, but… But. You know? A follower.

“The sons were Leib Mendel and Yaakov Chaim. They were both a little bit younger than I, so they must have been born around 1926, 1927. They were close in age. Very competitive, as children can be, but good boys. And Leib, the Chasidim said the light of Torah shone from his eyes. They were like two little princes, the boys. The rebbe’s grandsons! How he adored them. Leib was brilliant. Before he even became bar mitzvah he was giving discourses on Talmud and Torah, explicating fine points that even scholars didn’t understand. He was a gifted speaker, and people would come to listen to his words of Torah. But his singing, oh his singing. The rebbe loved to have the boy sing in his beautiful, clear voice, it was like it reached right up to heaven. Nothing could bring joy into the hearts of the Halizcher Chasidim like the boy Leib’s singing. Shabbos with the Halizchers was something special. Seudat shlishi, the last meal before the end of Shabbat, oh, the stories that were shared, the songs that were sung.” She sighed. “But he never became bar mitzvah. He never grew up, he never became the next rebbe. Such a tragedy.”

“What exactly happened?” I asked. “I’ve only heard bits and pieces.”

“The Holy One acts in ways we don’t always understand. We were rounded up and taken to the ghetto in 1941. I was already married by then and my husband found a way out for us. I hated to leave my parents and my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t know what to do. But I wanted to grab any chance I had to live, and for my baby to live. I went to the rebbe and I asked him what to do. He told me to stay. He said that we belonged in Poland, that it was our home. America was the treifa medina. America was not a place for Jews, it just ate them up and spit them out, that we would lose our Judaism there. That whatever happened, it was in God’s hands. I left anyway, with a heavy heart that has never healed. It was not easy for me to go against the rebbe’s advice. It was not easy for me to leave my family. I never saw any of them again. My mama. My papa. My sister Yehudis. My baby brother Aaroneleh.

“But more than anything, I remember those piercing blue eyes of the rebbe’s when he told me stay. I have never seen eyes like that again. The only one in his family who had those eyes was the grandson Leib. Not any of the daughters, though Chaya Esther had blue eyes they were not the same deep blue, and not Yankeleh. Just the rebbe, and Leib. They were eyes that ached when you ached, cried when you cried, yet never gave up hope, never succumbed to despair. They were like deep wells of compassion, love, and faith. I remember looking at his eyes that day. I thought I saw a tear slide down his cheek as he spoke to me, but I couldn’t be sure. Once I realized that I wouldn’t listen to his advice, I couldn’t look him in the eye again. I looked away as he continued to speak to me, feeling like I was betraying him. I will always ask myself if that is why my baby Rina died, was that my punishment? And yet, I survived, and here I am, with my family. You see? There are things I don’t understand. Many, many Chasidim died there in Poland, including all my family, even my little nephews, while some Jews survived. Some rabbis encouraged their people to get out. Some encouraged them even to fight back, to join the partisans. But not the Halizcher rebbe. He died in Treblinka, doing good and helping others until the moment he died, it is said. It is said that he died smiling, singing to God a song of rejoicing. But they all died, and that was the end of the Halizchers.

“The grandson could have been saved, the Halizchers offered the rebbe their money and somehow got the boy a visa, but the rebbe chose another path. It would have shown a lack of faith in God, perhaps. Perhaps he thought that the best way to fight back was spiritual resistance, to support his people by showing how strong his faith was. He was put in an impossible situation by his Chasidim, you see, because if he had accepted their money and the visa, it would have shown them that his faith was less than perfect.”

“So you don’t blame him for what he did?’

“Blame him, no. It is not for me to judge such a man. Could it have turned out differently? Yes, of course. Could my family have survived? Who knows? We barely did, my husband and I, and we were young and healthy. But one cannot ask those questions about that time. What happened, happened. For a reason, though we don’t understand the reason. It’s not for us to question, just to keep doing good and believing. That we are here today shows that despite the lives lost, we won. Our belief in God conquered in the end, you see,” she said, with a wry smile. “The Halizchers did not survive, as a group, true, but enough of us did so that we could replant ourselves here in America, and in other places around the world. We are stronger than ever, and growing all the time. More and more Jews are coming back to Judaism. Every day we are closer to yamot ha-Mashiach, the days of the Messiah.”

She seemed so sure, but for my own peace of mind, I just had to ask. “And you’re absolutely sure, there’s no way any of them could have survived. Not Leib, and not Yankeleh?”

“No, it’s impossible,” she answered. “Impossible.” She was distracted momentarily by something behind me. When she turned back, she looked down as she spoke, not meeting my eyes.

“But how can you be so sure?” I asked.

“We would have known,” she answered. She looked up at me again, but it was as if a curtain had been pulled over her eyes. The small measure of familiarity and trust that had grown during our conversation vanished. Her animated warmth was gone. Suddenly I sat before her as a complete stranger. I didn’t understand what had just happened. I thought I had been sensitive and polite. Had my questions been too insistent? Had the conversation been too emotional? What invisible boundary did I cross? “We would have known. Such a thing would not have been able to happen without anyone knowing. We would have known.”

Before I could think how to respond to this statement, or the sudden chill in the room, I heard movement behind me. A bearded young man in traditional Chasidic garb walked over to Mrs. Freiburg and put his hands on the back of her chair.

“It’s time for you to rest now, Bubbe,” he said.

“This is my grandson, Arieh,” Mrs. Freiburg said. “Arieh, this is my visitor, Mrs. Marcus.”

He looked at me, nodded, then quickly looked away. I was startled to realize that he looked just like the man who had been behind me on the street. But of course it was so easy to get the men here mixed up, as they all dressed in a manner indistinguishable to an outsider like me. There wasn’t anything that would make him stand out in this neighborhood, except for the slightly menacing look on his face. He looked brooding and angry, and it felt like his concern for his grandmother might have something more to do with getting her to stop talking to me than making sure she didn’t tax herself. Even Mrs. Freiburg seemed uncomfortable around him, and I wondered how long he had been standing in the doorway listening to our conversation.

“Thank you so much for your help,” I said, as I got up. “I’m sorry if it was difficult for you.”

“No, no, thank you for coming and spending time with an old lady,” she said graciously. “If there is anything else I can do —”

Arieh placed his hands on his grandmother’s shoulders, effectively cutting her off mid-sentence. “I will walk you to the door.”

Without touching me, he hurried me out of the room and to the door. As I stood in the hallway putting on my jacket, he spoke.

“I hope you got what you needed. My grandmother is a generous woman who cannot say no, not even to sharing her nightmares. But I must ask you not to come back and not to call her again. It is too much for her. Talking about her life before she came to America gives her bad dreams that don’t go away even in the day. We must not let her dwell on those years. She is too frail.” He opened the door to let me out. “I thank you in advance for respecting this. And I also must tell you that you are barking up the wrong tree. You will not find anything useful for your research here. Many assimilated American Jews who know nothing about Chasidism, or even anything about being Jews, long for a connection to their Jewish past. If they find a photograph of a Chasid in the family album, they think they must be related to some glorious Chasidic dynasty. It is all just dreams, just fantasy, nothing more. If they were truly related, they would know, because they would still be part of their community.”

I knew he wanted me to leave, but I couldn’t let his last comment get by me without a comment. I turned back to him. “Do you mean to say that if somewhere in the family tree an ancestor was a Chasid but left Chasidism, that person has no right to claim a common heritage? Or do you mean that no one from Chasidic roots ever left Chasidism? You can’t really believe either of those things.”

Arieh looked out to the street beyond me, as if I did not exist. “Good-bye, Mrs. Marcus,” he said. “It is time to go home.”

About that he was right. It was time to go home, time to go back to my own family, my own neighborhood, and my own bad dreams.

***

The smell of garlic and olive oil filled the kitchen. Ronit was at the sink, rinsing broccoli. Borough Park was only ten minutes away, but I felt like I had just returned from a trip to a country where I didn’t know the language or understand the culture. Usually went I went to Borough Park I returned with a warm nostalgic feeling, like I had just dropped in on my family’s past. I would stroll 13th Avenue like a time-traveling tourist, benignly soaking up the atmosphere, looking at the elegant but modestly dressed women with their large, well turned-out families, pushing double carriages and strollers, all the girls or all the boys in a family often dressed in different sizes of the same outfit, older sisters pushing strollers or holding the hands of little boys in pigtails who had not yet received their first haircuts. I would make my purchases, enjoying the superficial, fleeting connection to a life that might have been mine if my ancestors had made different choices. Today, though, nothing about Borough Park felt benign. I left the Freiburg’s house with an unsettled, apprehensive feeling. Arieh Freiburg had stood at the door as I walked to my car, giving me the distinct impression that he wanted to make sure I really left.

Caleb jumped up when he saw me come in, and grabbed me around the legs. Hannah was on the couch, looking at a book. She would pay attention to me when she was good and ready, but Caleb was already excitedly recounting the details of his afternoon. There would be time to go down to my office after they had gone to bed.

“Hi,” said Ronit, starting to steam the broccoli. Her wavy brown hair fell over her shoulder and she swung it back out of the way while she worked. “You’re early. Did everything go okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” I answered, trying to unwrap Caleb from my torso so that I could take off my jacket and set down my bag. “I was in Borough Park. Interesting experience.”

“Oy, they’re nuts,” Ronit said. For Ronit, everything about Judaism was black and white. Anyone religious was nuts, and anyone secular was normal. Orthodox and Chasidic were the same for her, there were no gradations and no contours. She had never encountered liberal Judaism before coming to the United States, and still didn’t know quite what to make of it. Never having met a woman rabbi, she was fascinated by Leah, though not enough to ever come to synagogue with us. “No really, they’re nuts. They just do whatever the rebbe tells them. They don’t think for themselves. They’re very simple-minded, weak people who need all those rules to help them live their lives, because they can’t think for themselves. The rebbe tells them to vote one way, they do it. At election time they fly over to Israel from Brooklyn and elect the most right-wing, religious candidates, then fly home to Brooklyn.” Her eyes flashed with intensity as she spoke. “They should stay here and mind their own business. We don’t need them or their votes.”

“That’s not true.   The woman I saw today was definitely not someone who is either simple-minded or unable to make her own decisions. You can’t judge like that, Ronit.”

She smiled. “I know, I know. What do Israelis know about American Judaism. Right? Anyway, Simon called, he’ll be home around nine. He’s at a client’s, but you can get him on his cell phone. I did a few loads of laundry – everything is folded on top of the dryer. I’m going to finish up dinner, and then Shuki and I are going to see a movie.”

“Ah, the joys of being young and childless. Thanks so much.” Never mind Simon, what would I do without Ronit in my life?   “Ronit, you are the best!”

She shrugged, embarrassed by my effusiveness, and bent down to hug Caleb, who was now busy sliding magnets under the refrigerator. “The best for the best!”

I sat with the kids while they ate their dinner and told me about their day. As I cut up apples for their dessert, Hannah regaled us with information about the different kinds of apples in the world — Macintoshes, Delicious, Jonathans, Macouns, Granny Smiths, Empires — and the differences between them. Her class was doing a unit that was strangely entitled “Cows and Apples” – the joys of sending children to a progressive school with a creative curriculum. She was excited about next week’s class trip to an apple orchard, and ran to get the note that she had brought home.

“Please, Mommy, please come with us. They need some parents to come. Please, please!” she cried.

“I’ll try my best. It would be fun, sweetie,” I answered reassuringly, trying to figure out how I was going to fit a day of apple picking in to my schedule.   If Hannah wanted me to go, I had to find a way to swing it. Another good reason why fictional P.I.’s never had any children — they wouldn’t have been able to take a day off for class trips. After bathtime it was time for dinosaur stories and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, followed by hugs, kisses, more hugs and kisses, and some stern good-nights. At last I was free to go downstairs, where I threw myself on the couch. Just five minutes for myself, before I got up to set the table dinner, round two.

Although what I knew about Chasidic life held little appeal for me, there were certainly things I could appreciate. I liked the idea that Rabbi Springer had spoken about, of the blurring of the distinction between “holy” and “profane,” of recognizing the sanctity and miraculousness of everyday life. I had been struggling lately with the question of what it meant to raise ethical children, and how to teach the children about what is sacred in life.

When I brooded over questions like these, Simon tended to think I had too much time on my hands. He was raised in a Yiddish-speaking, Workman’s Circle socialist family, where religion was the opiate of the masses, something that educated people left behind as soon as possible. I, on the other hand, had been raised in a moderately observant family that had belonged to a Conservative synagogue until the rabbi took another position and the board refused to interview any women for the job. In protest, my parents dropped their membership and joined a Reform synagogue, where they have been happy members ever since. When Simon and I had first discussed moving in together, he reluctantly agreed to keep shellfish and pork out of the house, and when we got married he agreed to join a synagogue. Since then, while he still complained that I took it too seriously, he had discovered that there were many worthwhile aspects to the Judaism that his parents had rejected wholesale. Over the eight years of our marriage we had achieved a comfortable balance of observance and had created holiday traditions that felt both connected to the tradition and at the same time wholly ours.

And yet, there was something surprisingly attractive about this world I was starting to learn more about, in which the rules were set for you, and in which certain questions weren’t asked. It must feel very safe and comforting to be part of a community like those the Chasidim created. But then I thought of Arieh Freiburg, and a chill crept up my spine. The questions I had asked were innocent enough, though granted perhaps painful. My purpose in going had certainly been harmless. So why had Arieh been so antagonistic? Why had my presence and my questions been threatening? What else was going on that I didn’t understand?

I heard the door open, and Simon walked in, interrupting my thoughts. After he took off his tie and washed up, we sat down to eat, and I filled him in on the day’s events.

Simon expertly twirled his pasta around the fork, then held the fork in midair. “Abby,” he said in exasperation.   “Are you sure this case is a good idea? It sounds like there are things going on here that may be bigger than you realize. And you don’t even know who this Sarah Gelberman really is. For all you know, she could be some nefarious criminal.”

I laughed. “Simon, really, she’s a kid. Granted, she may not have told me everything, but she’s not dangerous. And I’m sure Arieh Freiburg is just suspicious of all outsiders. I probably made him uncomfortable because I’m clearly not one of them, and a woman to boot. They’re taught not to deal with women who are not related to them.”

“Really? And you know that because…” Simon answered, the pasta still uneaten on his fork. “The truth is, you have no idea. You have no idea who this Sarah Gelberman really is, and you have no idea what the deal is with this Arieh Freiburg. They’re not all just the nice old-world Jews from Sholom Aleichem stories. They’re people too, and some of them may even be bad guys.”

I was in no mood for a lecture. “Simon, come on. I’m not a babe in the woods you need to protect. I think you’re getting me confused with Hannah.   Eat before your food gets cold.” I helped myself to more wine, and replenished Simon’s glass while I was at it.

“Abby, I care about you. Okay? I’m just concerned. You know nothing about Sarah Gelberman, and you know nothing about the Chasidim. You’re jumping in to a whole world you don’t know, a world very different than your own.”

“Different, yes, but they’re Jews, for God’s sake Simon, different than us, but more like us than not.”

“Are you sure about that? Are you really willing to say we have more in common with the Chasidim than we do with our non-Jewish colleagues and friends, people who live in the same world we do, who went to the same schools and live in the same neighborhoods? Can you really say that we have more in common with the Chasidim, just because we both happen to call ourselves Jews? We’re practically two different religions.”

“No, I don’t agree. It’s just two different ways of getting to the same point.”

“Which is?”

“Which is, living as good ethical people, trying to figure out what we’re here on this earth to do, and hoping for a better future.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Where’s your natural cynicism? Not that I have anything against them, but I sure don’t have anything in common with them.”

“Maybe not, but in Nazi Germany, both you and they would have been rounded and put into concentration camps together just because you were Jews. Hitler didn’t care whether you wore a kippa, or a streimel, or went bareheaded.”

Simon put down his wineglass and looked at me, shaking his head. “No need to get dramatic, Abby. Just promise me you’ll do what you can to find out more about Sarah Gelberman. Okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll do my best.”

We ate in companionable silence for a few moments. I could tell from the furrows in Simon’s forehead, and the way his eyebrows were going up and down, that he still had more to say on the subject but was trying to control himself.

Finally, he said, “I hope you realize that this guy may not even be remotely connected to anything Chasidic. It may have just been his romanticized fantasy of what an authentic Jewish past would look like, something to make the grandchildren proud of their roots. You have to consider this.”

“Consider it considered,” I answered. “Now let’s change the subject. Want to go to Altoona, Pennsylvania this weekend?”

Simon looked at me quizzically, his mouth full of pasta. “Oh, no, Abby. What’s in Altoona?”

“I hear it’s got some great tourist attractions. Haven’t you always wanted to see the Horseshoe Curve? Caleb and Hannah would love it. And it would be beautiful at this time of the year. Think farm stands, fresh cider, apples, pumpkins —”

Having chewed and swallowed, Simon interrupted me. “Altoona, Pennsylvania is about six hours from here. That would be a fun car ride with the kids, and really worth it just to get the same cider and pumpkins we could buy at any farm stand in a sixty mile radius of New York City, not to mention at the Greenmarket in Grand Army Plaza, and not to mention at the Coop itself. Yes, I’d like to see Horseshoe Curve, but not badly enough to drive six hours to get there, otherwise I would already have done so. So out with it, woman, what’s in Altoona?”

“Sarah Gelberman told me her grandfather retired to Winter Park, Florida, after having lived in New York City for years before that. I found a man —”

Simon interrupted me. “Wait, that’s the mystery right there! What’s he doing living in Winter Park? Jews don’t retire there. That’s in yenevelt, the middle of nowhere. Jews retire to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, maybe Sarasota, but not Winter Park. Something’s not right.”

“As I was saying,” I continued archly, “I found a man by that name living in Winter Park, but he never lived in New York. He lived in Altoona.”

“No way, Abby, no way. No. This is insane. You seriously want to drive six hours, with a two year old and a four year old, just to find out, just to find out what exactly? That maybe a man by this name, who may or may not be the grandfather of someone who may or may not be named Sarah Gelberman, once lived there. That’s crazy. What about the internet?”

“The internet isn’t good for everything. For the information I need now, I need to talk to real people, not a computer. I need casual conversation. I need to go to services at the local synagogue. And we need to leave very early in the morning on Friday so that I can get there before the county clerk leaves for the day.”

“No. No. No way. Sorry, Abby. You know I want to be supportive, but this does not sound like a reasonable plan. I have a lot going on at work, and I can’t take off Friday. This one is just a no. Go by yourself, take the train, rent a car, but no, sorry, we’re not going. End of conversation.   Okay?”

“Okay.”

Simon and I finished the meal amicably, talking about the kids and Simon’s day at work. I opted not to go down to my office until the morning, though I did manage to place one crucial phone call before Simon and I retired early. We sat in bed together watching N.Y.P.D. Blue and then turned out the lights to focus on more pleasant matters.

The next morning I made reservations for two adults and two children at the Altoona Day’s Inn.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Six

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 6. Enjoy!

Chapter Six

IMG_2493New York knows how to do libraries. The resources that are available for free, for anyone who wants, are staggering. The Internet, as wonderful as it is, has not yet replaced the role of the libraries in my life. The libraries of New York are my home away from home. There are specialized branch libraries for dance, music, black culture, and business, not to mention libraries where you can find the latest mystery novel. But the main reading room in the New York Public library on Fifth Avenue is one of my favorite places in the world. The big airy room, with its rows of oversized polished wooden tables, green reading lamps, ceiling murals and comfortable chairs is pretty close to heaven on earth. I am still awed each time I enter and look at all the different people sitting earnestly at the tables, reading, writing, and going through the stacks of books in front of them. I always wonder how many books and articles and theses are being written right before my very eyes. Hats off to those 19th century philanthropists who had the foresight to build these buildings and endow the public library system. And it’s not only Manhattan. In Brooklyn we have our very own network of libraries. I am lucky enough to live right near the awe-inspiring Grand Army Plaza library, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Across the street from Prospect Park, around the corner from the elegant Brooklyn Museum, bordering the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, and facing Brooklyn’s reproduction of Paris’ Arc D’Triumphe, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is a grand and majestic building. After ascending the stairs to the entrance, you encounter inlaid marble floors in the oversize lobby. Every time I visit I am reminded of descriptions of ancient temples, and I don’t think the reference is coincidental. Surely the library was built as a temple of knowledge. It was the public libraries, along with the city’s once exemplary public school system and city public university system, which allowed generations of immigrants and the children of immigrants to rise into the middle class. However, as I walked out in the glare of daylight with seven of the books on Chasidism that Rabbi Springer had recommended in my backpack, I had to smile. Because the knowledge being worshipped by the planners of the library was most certainly the classical knowledge of Western civilization, Greek, and Latin, mathematics and Shakespeare, and not the history of groups of Eastern European Jews who dressed in odd clothing, spoke Yiddish, and clung stubbornly to their particularism even as Enlightenment spread across Europe.

Walking down the steps, I stopped to watch a group passing in front of me along Eastern Parkway. There were about eight of them, dressed in modestly long blue plaid skirts, light blue long sleeve shirts, dark tights, and sneakers. Clearly they were wearing a school uniform, but it wasn’t Catholic school. This group of girls was all white, and almost all had dark shoulder length hair with the exception of one red-head and one dirty-blond. Though they talked and laughed with each other, they spoke quietly and acted in a manner that seemed designed to not call attention to themselves, different from the way most young teenagers behaved in public. I watched them as they continued down the street towards the Botanic Gardens. They were almost certainly Chassidic, and probably from Crown Heights, a neighborhood very close to Park Slope in actual distance but otherwise worlds away.

Despite its proximity, I had never actually ventured in to the neighborhood dominated by the Lubavitchers, the followers of the late Chassidic Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. Like me, they were Jews, but in some ways they felt like another species altogether. As an outsider, their Judaism looked foreign, so different than what I was familiar with. Their world seemed insular, closed off from modernity, and limiting, especially for women. But I realized that there was a great deal I didn’t know about who and what they were, what motivated them to make the choice to live by ancient values that the world around them had abandoned. This group of girls looked so different than their non-Chasidic peers, with their chaste long skirts and sleeves and noticeable lack of anything resembling popular culture on their persons.

Then I had to laugh at myself. Here I was pretending to myself that I was a big-time modern woman, with an important career, yet in reality I was under-employed in a non-career job of my own fabrication that I was able to do during the hours that my kids were either in pre-school, with a baby-sitter, or asleep. So much for a brave new world. When I was younger I fantasized about doing something exciting, like being a spy or private eye. I saw myself changing identities, keeping secrets, and working on the side of truth and justice. Instead, I grew up, went to grad school, got married, and started a career that got put on the back burner once I had kids. If I ever wrote a mystery novel, I would make my character childless. It’s very convenient to be a P.I. when your hours are your own. I probably shared as much in common with the women those girls would grow up to be as I did with my college classmates who had delayed having children in favor of their careers.

First I finished up the paperwork and billing for a small job I had done for Bird, another member of The Committee. Bird was a lawyer and often sent work my way. This was an easy job for me, but the results were not going to be easy for Bird’s client. She had asked me to track down a long-lost cousin of the client who was left an inheritance by the client’s late father. On his deathbed the father had made the son promise that he would find the cousin and make sure he received the inheritance. Proud to show off my research skills, I succeeded in tracking down the young man. He was living on an organic garlic farm in California. Only in the end, the client wished I hadn’t done such a good job, since it turned out that the inheritance included an admission of paternity from the late father, along with a great deal of money and stocks. Great way to meet a new brother.

The easiest thing would have been to just call Sarah Gelberman’s grandfather and talk to him. But this was supposed to be a surprise. That meant that there was a great deal of basic information I didn’t have. Sarah had provided me with her grandfather’s date of birth and approximate date of arrival to the United States. According to what she had told me, her grandfather, Jack Gelberman, arrived at the age of 18 in 1947. She said that he had been in a concentration camp, but she didn’t know what happened to him between Liberation and 1947. He didn’t like to talk about it. Sarah had told me that he had lived in New York for many years, but currently resided in Florida. Vu den, as my grandmother would say, where else? He had one son named Nathan, who, if he was really related to the Halizcher Rebbe, would have been named after Nossen Shlomo Gelberman, who married Yosef Yehudah’s daughter, and would therefore have been his father.

I got up from my desk and went to the dry erase board on the wall. It was time to make a tentative family tree, despite all the blanks. Sarah Gelberman (b. 1981), Nathan Gelberman (b. 1955), Jack Gelberman (b.1929). Then I drew a dotted line from Jack to Nossen Shlomo, and put the symbol for woman next to his name, for the wife who was, for the time being, nameless. From her I made a line to Yosef Yehudah, born 1879 according to one of the books I had checked out from the library. Nossen was certainly old enough to be Jack’s father. Was it was possible that Jack’s real name was Yankeleh? Yankeleh was a Yiddish diminutive for Yaakov, the Hebrew version of Jacob. Jack was sometimes short for Jacob. It wasn’t such a stretch. The next time I talked to Sarah Gelberman I would ask. In one of the books recommended by Rabbi Springer I had read that Nossen had a son named Yaakov Chaim. And interestingly enough, the social security information I had requested on-line about Jack Gelberman in Florida had come through, and that had him recorded as Jacob H. Gelberman. The “H” could very well stand for Chaim, since in English Chaim could be just as easily spelled Haim, or even Hayyim. Transliteration was a subjective art. Then again, his middle name could simply be Howard, or Hugh, or Humphrey.

The information led me to another on-line business that allowed me, again for a price, to request credit information on Jacob H. Gelberman. The point of the exercise was to get information about prior employers and residences, which could lead me to information that would be useful in trying to create his family tree. That information had just come in, and was staring at me from my computer screen. The problem was, as opposed to what Sarah had told me, this Jacob H. Gelberman never lived in New York City. Before moving to Florida, he had lived in only one other place in the United States, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he was employed for many years by the Altoona Board of Education. Either there was mistake, or Sarah had been less than straightforward with me. It made no sense to me why she would lie, nor did it make sense why she wouldn’t have told me where her grandfather lived before retiring in Florida. If this Jacob H. Gelberman was the same man, then her father would been born and raised in Altoona. It was time for Sarah Gelberman to resurface and answer some questions.

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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Some Good (Audio) Books – Summer 2015 Edition

I’ve been doing a lot of long distance driving lately. It’s not my favorite activity, and I’ve been getting bored of the usual music and podcast combo that generally keeps me engaged enough to get where I’m going. So I decided to try a new method and listen to some books I wouldn’t actually take the time to read. Memoirs sounded like the perfect fit.

I would normally argue that there’s no difference between a book you read and a book you listen to, but five audiobooks later I’m changing my tune.  Just like ebooks allow for certain capabilities not possible in a printed book (i.e. embedded links or, yes, audio), the same is true for an audiobook.  Done well, and in particular when read by the writer, an audiobook can provide a unique experience.

I decided to go with memoirs because I love stories about people – what makes them tick, what made them who they are, what they care about, why they care about it, how they become who they are. There’s always something to learn from hearing someone reflect back on their life. And what a bunch I chose – two actor/comedians, one writer, another actor, and one singer-songwriter. All famous people with public personas.  Listening to their stories of self was like being intimately immersed in these five very different people, or at least, the parts of their stories that they chose to share publicly.

So here is a review of my recent reading, or, well, listening, experiences.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

51xednLHwiL._SL150_This book has interested me for a while, but truthfully, never enough to make me actually want to take the time to read it. But listening to it while driving to western Pennsylvania and back was definitely a worthwhile experience. We all know Tina Fey is wickedly funny and smart. Bossypants showed off both these part of Fey, and filled in a lot of her background along the way – how she got to be the Tina Fey we know and love. She shares some information about her formative years, and talks about the experiences that have mattered to her. There’s some delicious behind-the-scenes discussion about her time at SNL and 30 Rock. Her descriptions of the ways that sketches got created, and what she and her colleagues found to be funny and why offered great insights into comedy. The best was when she discussed the experience of creating her version of Sarah Palin. Other moments are poignant, like when she talks about being a mother, or passionate like when she talks about being a woman in comedy, or complex, like when she talks about body image issues. Her intelligence and drive to succeed shine strongly through her narrative. The best part though is that she narrates the audiobook herself, and, you know, she’s  Tina Fey. When you listen to this audiobook you get 5 hours and 35 solid minutes of Tina Fey talking to you. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

512QYi8RoLL._SL150_Naturally, after listening to Tina Fey recount her adventures at Second City and then SNL, the next audiobook choice had to be her friend and colleague, Amy Poehler.  Yes Please, thankfully narrated by Poehler herself, was definitely the perfect companion book. Poehler lets loose a little more than Fey does, inviting guest speakers to read and talk as part of the audiobook experience, and being, at times, not entirely diplomatic about her opinions (and that is not criticism – bring it on!). Her parents have a few cameo appearances, as does Seth Meyers and a few others. She really had fun with the concept of doing an audiobook and it was appreciated by this listener. It was fun to hear another perspective on some of the same events that Fey narrated in her book. Again, as in Bossypants, I really enjoyed hear Poehler talk about being a woman in comedy – with lessons easily applicable to other fields – and what got her to where she is today. She talked about her childhood and family, about her marriage and her children, letting us listeners in just enough to make us relate to her and to care.  It’s hard to imagine that this loosely stitched together collection of often wonderfully irreverent anecdotes would have held up well as a regular book, but in audio format it was a great way to get across a bunch of highways in upstate NY and back home again.

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

41z0LNwINUL._SL300_I was sure this one was going to be a home run. Keret is a great writer, and how exciting to get to learn more about Keret the person. And it is indeed a great book qua book – audio or not. Keret’s signature quirky humor is in evidence, and it’s even more powerful when he’s writing about his own life and not just a fictional one. In his typical terse style he shares glimpses of his childhood, his teenage years, his marriage, his son, his parents, and his career.  He is the child of Holocaust survivors, a fact which greatly shaped who he is, and a cynical, conflicted Jewish Israeli who both loves his country and struggles with its legacy. The slices of his life that he shares may be framed in short chapters, but they are dense in their complex mix of the mundane and the profound.  This memoir seems like a great collection of short stories until you remember that he’s actually talking about his own life. The only disappointment, and it is a significant one in an audiobook, is that Keret did not narrate the book himself.  That may be too much to expect given that it’s a translation, but the narrator was not properly prepped in Hebrew pronunciation. Each place name or expression that he mangled was a jarring disruption in an otherwise captivating story.  This is a powerful memoir, but given the narration should probably be best experienced as a good old regular read and not as an audiobook.

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming

51jAVEiZFEL._SL300_This gets top marks in this batch of books.  It is, first of all, a seriously good memoir. Though it could have used a little editing (sorry, I can’t help it) it is a compelling story and wonderfully told. This isn’t just a “how I became the great and famous me” kind of narrative. Instead, using a construct of “then” and “now” episodes, he contrasts events in his childhood with an ongoing story in his adult life, both of which revolve around his sense of self and identity. The bonus is that Cumming narrates the book himself and oh – that voice!  That accent! He’s a fine actor and he knows how to use his voice to great affect to tell his story.  And what a story.  There are two mysteries at the heart of this book, one about himself in relationship to his abusive father, and one about his elusive and absent grandfather. The two parallel tracks work together beautifully, so that at times it was possible to forget that this was the story of a famous actor and to just experience a compelling tale of love and abuse, acceptance and anger, coming of age, and coming into one’s own.

A Natural Woman: A Memoir by Carole King

51s1b3hLFNL._SL300_I am a huge fan of Carole King. I was raised on her music by my parents who identified with her scrappy Brooklyn, Jewish background. She even went to the same high school as my father. I have all her albums, including “Really Rosie,” and loved the broadway show based on her life story. But the book is disappointing. Her story itself is interesting, as in “nice Jewish girl makes good” and her experience in the music industry, especially in the early years of rock and roll, is fascinating.  There are some great details along the way, like the fact that she was a freshman at Queens College with two other Jewish kids who also liked to sing named Artie Garfunkel and Paul Simon. She certainly had admirable amounts of pluck, chutzpah, and self-confidence that got her far.  And to be fair, the story she tells isn’t all one of happiness and success – she is open about some of the painful details of her life.  But Beautiful is in serious need of a strong editorial hand, or a better ghost writer. It is cliched and way too long, and even the interesting parts are so poorly written that they come out sounding trite. And as much as I love King’s singing voice – and there are some highlight moments throughout where she breaks into song by way of illustration – this is one case where the author does no favor to the listener by narrating her own story.

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part 1, Chapter Five

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 5. Enjoy!

Chapter Five

IMG_0592I stretched and rolled over. Another day, another dollar, or at least a good attempt. But not yet, not just yet. I couldn’t face getting up just yet. I pulled the blanket over my face. A few more minutes…

A large, heavy moving object landed on my stomach. “Morning, Mommy,” declared Hannah. “Time to get up!” She peeled the blanket back from my face and kissed my cheeks, ears, and nose. “Up, up, up! Mommy, Mommy, up, it’s morning.”

“So it is, so it is Hannah-girl. I’m getting up. Just give me a minute. I have to tickle someone first.” My hand shot out from the blanket and reached for her stomach. She jumped off me, onto Simon. He groaned.

“Is it Monday?” he asked sleepily.

“Yup, Daddy, it’s time to get up. Can I have waffles for breakfast?”

I sat up and brushed my hair off my face. “Okay. Hannah, go get dressed. I’ll be downstairs in a few minutes. Come Simon, let’s get going.” I gave him a little shake. Mornings were always a negotiation between us, who would go downstairs first and serve breakfast, and who would get to take a shower before coming down. I envied the families I saw on television, where the mother always managed to be neatly dressed and ready before everyone else, standing happily wide awake in her spic and span kitchen, serving breakfast, making everyone lunch, and then kissing each family member good-bye as they left for work or boarded the school bus. Never mind that she then probably went upstairs and downed Prozac. Never mind that those mothers didn’t seem to have lives or careers of their own. Never mind that in Brooklyn our kids didn’t go to school in school buses. Never mind all of that—I never felt that I measured up to that paradigm of motherhood perfection.

Simon moaned again. “Got that meeting. Can’t be late,” he croaked in a sleep-thickened voice. Simon was not a morning person.

I sighed. “Okay. Jump into the shower. I’ll go make breakfast.” I was wearing an oversize t-shirt, but that wasn’t going to make it. I got out of the warm bed, pulled on the nearest pair of sweatpants, and pushed my feet into clogs. “Let’s go, bugaboo,” I said to Hannah. “Come on Simon, get yourself up. Tea is as good as brewing already.”

I headed down to the kitchen. Caleb was apparently still asleep, but I knew he would make his own way down as soon as he woke up. The sun was streaming through the kitchen windows, making the granite counters glow. The kitchen looked warm and welcoming and cozy, despite the detritus of last night’s dinner that hadn’t gotten completely cleaned up. I popped some waffles into the toaster and put up the kettle for Simon’s tea. I prepared a bowl of grapes and cantaloupe for the kids, and for myself, my morning favorite, plain nonfat yogurt with granola, raisins and half a banana.

Hannah rushed in and jumped onto her stool at the counter. Today must be a special day—she wore orange, red, and yellow striped tights, a green velour dress, and her pink hi-top sneakers. Around her neck she wore two strands of shiny plastic beads, one purple, one gold, that my mother-in-law had sent her from a New Year’s Eve gala she had attended last year. Her curls were going in every possible direction. She was an original, my daughter.

“So what’s the big event?” I asked, taking the waffles out of the toaster.

“Today is club day,” she replied. “Zoё and I have a club, and today we’re inviting other people to join. So we decided to dress up to show how nice it is to be in our club. You know, so people will understand about our club.”

“What kind of club is this?” I asked.

“You know, a club people join. That kind. Then we’re all in a club together.”

“Hmm.” I gave Hannah her waffle and a glass of milk, and took a seat across from her. “But you’re not going to exclude anyone, right? You know, that could really hurt someone’s feelings if you didn’t let them join the club.”

Hannah sighed, deeply injured by my complete lack of faith in her. “Oh Mom, of course I know that. Anyone can join our club. Even Bad Jason. But he’ll say it’s dumb and he won’t want to join.”

We ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, concentrating on our breakfast. The day ahead of me was going to require some careful juggling. Hannah needed to be picked up from preschool, and Caleb had his Mommy-and-Me music class this morning at the synagogue. Hannah was going to a birthday party in the afternoon, and I had to stop and buy a birthday present. There were very few fruits and vegetables left in the fridge, so I had to go to the Coop at some point. I had hoped to be able to take Caleb to the park in the afternoon after his nap, but I wanted to find time to get some work done. There were phone calls to make, e-mail to send, and websites to visit.

Simon came downstairs, showered, shaved, dressed and ready to meet the world. He carried Caleb, still half asleep, in one arm and his briefcase in his other hand. “Look who I found!” he announced.

In the short time since I’d left Simon upstairs, he had gotten himself ready to face the world. He was a good-looking guy, with close-cropped dark hair that emphasized his big, brown eyes, thick eyebrows, dramatic cheekbones, and mouth just slightly too big for his long face. He was starting to lose the battle against a receding hairline, but as I often told him, it just made him look more handsome and dignified. Tall and on the verge of being gangly, he still had the same build as when we first met, and it made him look younger and more athletic than he really was.

Noticing me looking at him, he smiled. “My tie okay?”

I nodded. “Just fine. Good choice with that shirt.”

Caleb suddenly gained full consciousness and bounded out of Simon’s arms. “Mommy!” he yelled, jumping into my lap and just as quickly abandoning me for a stool.

And so begins another day.   For several minutes there was peace and calm as everyone ate their breakfast and continued to emerge into full wakefulness. The morning sunlight filled the kitchen with a warm, golden glow. Now that I was wide awake, I was excited to start the new week. Yesterday had been a mellow day. We had guiltily popped in a video for the kids when they woke up at seven, and had gone back to bed for an extra hour and a half. We had gone out for brunch and then taken the kids to see a puppet show. We hadn’t done any errands, and although I was going to be paying the price for that all week long, it had made for a low-stress day. I hadn’t even gone down to my office to work. It felt great to be a family. I loved them all so much that when I really stopped to think about it, it scared me how much. On Shabbat Leah had given a sermon about noticing everyday miracles, and it was at moments like this that I could understand what she was talking about. This was a miraculous moment, this calm, happy breakfast we shared as a family on a beautiful fall morning. My children were miracles, and so was my marriage. I couldn’t imagine what it would have felt like to have lived through the times I was now researching, when families were uprooted and torn apart, when people were tortured and killed simply because they were Jews. What would I do if God forbid, as my grandmother would say, I ever lived through times like those? Would I insist that we stay together as a family, no matter what, or would I find a way to save my children, even if it meant sending them away?

It was hard for me to imagine having the kind of faith in God that the Halizcher rebbe seemed to have had, and I wondered if he later regretted his decision. My family was already here when World War II broke out. But at about age nine or ten, I went through a period when I read everything I could get my hands on about the Holocaust. Having been safely born in Brooklyn, I was fascinated by what the Jews had gone through in Europe. I devoured books like When Hitler Stole Pink Blanket, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Upstairs Room until I started having so many nightmares that my mother decided I should take a break and read Caddie Woodlawn and Little Women instead.

Simon’s hand on my shoulder brought me back to the present. “I have to get going,” he said. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I answered, smiling at him. “I was just thinking that your tie is actually crooked, come to think of it.”

“Believe me, I know what you’re really thinking,” he answered, smiling back. “You think I don’t know, huh? You’ve got all the symptoms of being totally caught up in work. Just remember, it’s only work.”

I laughed. “And you’re one to talk.”

“Well, it takes one to know one. I’ll see you tonight, probably around seven. I’ll try not to be later than that. Can you pick up my drycleaning?”

“Okay,” I answered, making a mental note to add that to the day’s rounds.

“And remember to call the dentist to make an appointment for Hannah.”

“Okay.”

“And if you get a chance, I think we’re low on diapers.”

“Okay. I’ll do my best. I do have to get some work done today too.” As I spoke, I noticed that something in the room stank. I wrinkled my nose.

“Yeah, Caleb needs to be changed,” Simon said, and kissed me goodbye. He hugged the kids, grabbed his jacket and briefcase, and headed out. “Have a good day. Good luck with the research.” The door closed and he was gone, his tie still crooked.

I sighed again. One dirty diaper to change, dirty dishes to do, and I still had to take a shower, get dressed, and get Hannah to school. Just then Caleb lunged for a piece of cantaloupe and knocked over Hannah’s glass of milk. The milk ran across the counter, down Hannah’s dress, and onto the floor.

Hannah screamed. Caleb wailed.

I grabbed a towel and wiped up the milk while Hannah and Caleb threw accusations back and forth. With one hand, I extricated Caleb from his stool, despite his complaints that he hadn’t yet finished eating. With the other, I pulled Hannah out of her soaking wet dress.   That I managed to get anything at all done, that I managed to have a functioning brain with which to think, that was the real miracle.

 ***

When I called Rabbi Springer’s office in the morning, I was lucky enough to actually reach him. When he heard what I wanted to talk to him about, he asked me to meet him for coffee at 3:30. As he was about to go out of town, it was now, or wait two weeks. Getting there meant re-adjusting my schedule, but thankfully Ronit was flexible.

I got out of the subway at Broadway Lafayette and walked up Broadway, observing the crowd. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm, and the street was full of people wearing black. There were black-clad NYU film students, artist-mothers in black leggings wearing black picking up children in black Gap jeans from school on their way home to their white lofts, and cigarette-smoking high school students in black Doc Marten’s, a group of high-fashion Italian tourists eating ice cream in expensive black designer-wear. Not a lot of business people walking around at this hour of the afternoon. I felt conspicuous in my purple sweater, but at least my pants were black.

I turned on to West Fourth Street, following Leah’s directions. Except for the blue flag proclaiming “Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion” that fluttered in the entrance to the building, there was nothing conspicuous about the rabbinic seminary. The modern red-brick building looked like the NYU buildings surrounding it, another anonymous academic space. The only thing that gave some hint that something different went on here was the little bit of stained glass from the seminary’s chapel that jutted out of the corner of the building.

As I approached the building, I could see a small man with a full head of gray curls. That had to be Rabbi Springer. Rabbinic students were entering and leaving the building behind him, nodding reverentially as they passed. The students looked clean-cut and well-scrubbed. There was probably not a pierced nostril among them, another thing that would make them stand out among the NYU students in the neighboring buildings. It still made me laugh to think that Leah actually went to rabbinic school and became a rabbi. In fact, she’s a great rabbi. She liked to do things her own way, which had made me think that rabbinic school might not be for her. But she had sailed through it, winning prizes in Hebrew and Bible and Homiletics. For some reason that neither she nor I understood, it was only with men that her ability to succeed was severely challenged.

“Rabbi Springer,” I said, putting out my hand. “Abby Marcus.”

He was, as I’d already observed, a small man, but rather broad and muscular. Leah had told me that his other passion, next to Chasidism, was Karate. Seeing him, I could believe it. His clear eyes and ruddy cheeks radiated good health, his handshake was strong and firm, and his broad smile indicated a sincere eagerness to make my acquaintance. His gray curls bobbed up and down as he enthusiastically shook my hand. In the middle of the curls was a small, blue knit kippa with flowers and doves embroidered around the edges. It would have been hard for a casual observer to pigeonhole him but the jacket, with its elbow-patches, was a dead giveaway that he was an academic.

“Nice to meet you, Abby Marcus,” he said in reply, smiling. “Which will it be? Caffenation or a nice glass of wheat grass and beet juice? What’s your vice? Pleasure or health?”

I sensed that he would have preferred the wheat grass, but since he had offered a choice, I was going for the caffeine. We walked around the corner to the nearest Starbucks, where I ordered a double expresso. My intuition about the rabbi’s own preferences was confirmed when he ordered a cup of steamed soymilk. I didn’t actually know you could steam that stuff. I insisted on paying, since, after all, he was doing me a favor, and we sat down at a back corner table. I proceeded to tell him about my encounter with Sarah Gelberman and subsequent research into the Halizcher Chasidim.

“I like puzzles, and good stories, and it sounds like you may have both here,” he said, sipping his soymilk. “I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Halizchers, the tragic way that a proud dynasty came to a tragic end. You know, I assume, that the world of the miraculous is an important element in Chasidism, especially the branch that the Halizchers were part of. Of course, anything is possible, but for one of the direct descendants to be alive today would certainly verge on the miraculous. Then again, that would be quite fitting.”

“I realize that it could just be an old man’s fantasy,” I said, “but my job is to determine if that is the case or not. This requires genealogical research, but I also need to find out more about the Halizchers. It isn’t a matter of pure research and documentation. I’ve learned that there are a lot of dead-ends in genealogy, but if I have a good sense of context, I can often find other avenues for information that weren’t obvious. Does that make sense?”

Rabbi Springer smiled. “Absolutely. I’m a big believer in reading between the lines myself.”

I smiled back. “Great. But I don’t know much about Chasidism in general, and certainly not much about the Halizchers. I don’t really know where to begin. I need a crash course.”

He swallowed some more of his soymilk and cleared his throat. “Here’s the short version. Chasidism was founded by Israel Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. It was a populist movement within Judaism, a way to make Judaism accessible and meaningful to the masses. Not everyone can be, or should be, a Talmud scholar. Chasidism came along and said that was okay. Not that Talmud wasn’t of critical importance, but that it wasn’t the only way to connect to God. In some sense, it was like an early reform movement. Chasidism emphasized joy, prayer, and meditation. It allowed room for the nonrational, the mystical, the mysterious.   The Baal Shem Tov was first of all a healer and a miracle worker. In fact there is a debate among scholars right now about whether or not those legends about the Baal Shem Tov that portray him as a simple man of the people were true at all or were simply fostered to help him gain popularity. There is a minority of scholars, myself included, who think there’s a possibility that he may have been more educated than is generally believed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are others who believe he was actually illiterate. In any case, as Chasidism spread through parts of Eastern Europe, suddenly poor, miserable rural Jews, just barely eking out existences between one anti-Semitic act to another, were dancing and singing and even having divine visions. They were experiencing moments of ecstasy, losing themselves in prayer and letting go of their reality. It was powerful stuff. Gave birth to many incredible stories, and songs, and melodies. And of course very threatening to other Jews, who hated them and tried at every turn to stop the spread of Chasidism. Jew against Jew is not just a 20th century phenomenon.

“The rebbe became an almost exalted figure in Chasidism, a saint. The rebbe was thought to have special powers of communication with God. The Besht was the first, and after him, his students kept it going. Eventually, there were many groups of Chasidim, each with their own different outlook. Some of the groups came to truly hate and vilify each other. From the outside they may look alike, but I’m sure you know of the fighting that goes on even today between the Satmars and the Lubavich in Brooklyn. But I’m getting ahead of myself.”

I paused in my notetaking, my need to understand outweighing my fear of sounding ignorant. “It sounds cultish.”

“Yes, in a way, in the sense that it grew on the strength of charismatic leaders. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t today, a cult. It gave people some hope, a sense of optimism, a reason to keep going. Yet it was within the confines of traditional, Torah-based Judaism. It was just another interpretation of what it meant to serve God.”

“What does that mean, ‘Torah-based Judaism’? From your description, Chasidism sounds like it might have been less strict than traditional Judaism, more forgiving of ritual lapses with its emphasis on joy. Yet today us non-traditional Jews look at the Chasidim and see the far end of the spectrum. For us they’re the strict Jews, the very religious.”

Rabbi Springer smiled. “Yes and no. Strictly observant, yes, absolutely. But from the perspective of joy, not as a burden.   So many people think that Chasidism is just extreme Orthodoxy, the most religious on the scale of religiosity, but that’s not it at all. In some ways, the Chasidim are part of the world of the ultra-Orthodox, or the Haredim. But they are not by themselves on that side of the spectrum. There are many Haredim who are not Chasidic. It’s not like the more Orthodox you get, the closer you get to Chasidism. For the Chasidim, the idea was that one prayed with joy, that one kept the mitzvot joyfully. It was thought that with every mitzvah that was kept, we would be one step closer to the day when the Messiah would come. That’s why today you see the Lubavich, who are the most involved in issues of Outreach, doing things like mitzvah tanks and stopping people on the street to lay tefillin or telling women how and when to light candles. They fervently believe that the mitzvot that all Jews do count, and bring us yet another step closer to the coming of the Messiah. Does that make sense?”

I frowned. “Maybe. I feel in over my head.”

“Well, you’ll do some follow-up reading. Don’t worry about getting it all. People spend their lives trying to understand this. And even myself, while I learn from and am inspired by Chasidut, I myself am an outsider. After all, I’m a Reform rabbi, and an academic, who has happened to make the study of Chasidism my field. I may be a Chasid in my heart, but to them, I’m just a voyeuristic academic. If you ask someone who is Chasidic how you can learn about Chasidism, and what books to read, you’ll be told that no book can really do it justice, that you have to live it, day in and day out. Every book written by an ‘outsider’ misrepresents them, and books by insiders, no offense, you’d never understand.   But more on books later. Let’s talk about the Halizchers.

“They were based in Halizch, hence the name. As I’m sure you know already, Halizch was a little shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, sometimes in Russia, sometimes in Poland. I’m sure you also know it no longer exists, having been wiped off the maps by the Nazis. The Chasidic groups are like branches from a tree. Sometimes sons or son-in-laws or grandsons take over and become the next rebbe. Sometimes it’s a distinguished student, though generally only in the case where there is no capable son or son-in-law. And sometimes a new branch begins, and a student becomes the rebbe of his own group. Now, the first Halizcher rebbe was Leib Mendel, born in 1855, who had been a student of Yoel Shlomo, who had been a student of Yisrael Eliezer haLevi, who had been a student of Dov Baer, otherwise known as the Maggid of Mezritch, who had inherited the mantle of leadership from the Besht himself. It was Leib Mendel who moved the center of Yoel Shlomo’s group to Halizch after his teacher’s death, thinking that life might be better there for the Jews. Leib Mendel was succeeded by his son, Yosef Yehudah, but you see, Yosef Yehudah had only daughters.

“It was a problem,” he continued, “Because there was no son to take over. Three of them died in the Holocaust, two of them before they were even old enough to marry. But before that, the other two married two brothers, which was much more common than today by the way, one of whom was Nossen Shlomo Gelberman. From what I’ve gathered, it was understood that the mantle of leadership would pass through his line when the time came.   Apparently he was no great scholar, no great leader, nothing like his father-in-law, and certainly nothing like his grandfather-in-law, but there you are. Maybe he would have grown into greatness if he hadn’t been killed in Treblinka, in 1942. But he died when he was only around 35, and that was it. The last of the bunch.”

I tried to absorb all the information, but there was so much of it. I hoped that I wasn’t going to miss something crucial. I had noticed, though, that Rabbi Springer used the name Gelberman, so maybe my client was really connected to these people somehow.

“And what about any children he might have had?” I asked.

“Yes, yes.   That’s an interesting footnote to the story. Nossen had two sons, Leib Mendel, named after the great-grandfather of course, and Yankeleh. Leib, who was the younger son, was just a boy, but had already developed quite a reputation as a scholar and a charismatic leader. It was fairly clear that he was being trained by his grandfather to take over one day, maybe even in place of his father. Sometimes leadership skips a generation, if the generation in between is weak and the elder generation can live long enough to wait it out. But both boys died, along with Nossen, in Treblinka in 1942. You mentioned over the phone that Leah already told you that story, so you know that while at least one boy could have been saved, no one was, and they all died. And that was the end of the Halizcher Chasidism, for all intents and purposes. What a terrible shame. The Halizchers went to great trouble to arrange a visa and safe passage for the boy. All their hopes were pinned on his survival, so that there might be a leader for them someday.”

He sighed. “That’s pretty much it. But don’t forget that I am a rabbi and a professor, and that being the case, I’m going to recommend some books and give you homework as promised. What I have told you here only scratches the surface, and if you are anything like your friend Leah, then I am sure that you don’t like easy answers. It sounds to me like an interesting puzzle and one worth solving.”

Rabbi Springer reached into the inside pocket of his tweed blazer and pulled out a reading list. “These are books that will give you a good introduction to the history of Chasidism, the main players, so to speak, and a bit more of an idea of what’s it all about.” He handed me the reading list and I took a quick look while he continued to speak. “I’m happy to help you as much as I can, but my only condition is that you must keep me informed. This is too interesting not to know how it turns out eventually.”

“I promise,” I said.

“Good. Now for more homework,” he continued. “I am going to send you to see a friend of mine. Well, his mother. There is a man in Borough Park who is kind enough to let me study with him from time to him. His mother, Mrs. Shaina Freiburg, grew up in Halizch. Her family were Halizcher Chasidim. She is worth talking to. You never know what byway leads to what new road. She is a lovely woman, and it will be a mitzah for you to go visit her as she is recovering from hip surgery. I spoke to her already, and she is willing to meet with you.”

I wasn’t sure how productive that meeting was going to be, but who was I to doubt? I thanked Rabbi Springer for his help. “Before we leave, though,” I asked, like a good student, “I see that on the reading list there is nothing here actually written by the Baal Shem Tov. Is there anything among his writings that is translated into English, something accessible but central to his ideas? Or do you think that his ideas are not accessible enough? I’d love to read anything, just to get even a vague idea of the man who began all of this.”

“Oh, no, that’s not possible,” said Rabbi Springer. “You see, the Besht left no original writings.”

 

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series: Part 1, Chapter Four

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 4. Enjoy!

IMG_2475The saxophonist and the clarinetist were going at it, playing away at breakneck speed.   The fiddler joined in, showing off her virtuosity. Their bodies swayed back and forth to the music as the singer belted out her song. The concert hall filled with the raucous, earthy sounds of Yiddish wedding music. People got up from their seats, clapping their hands to the beat. Simon looked at me and smiled, his big brown eyes lighting up with delight. Klezmer was Simon’s favorite music — he said it spoke to his soul. These were the songs he remembered from his childhood, growing up surrounded by Yiddish-speaking grandparents and great-aunts and uncles. So this year for his birthday I got us tickets to see the Klezimites, a band of young, hip American Jews who had discovered a dormant passion for Yiddish and Yiddish music. The band members looked as downtown as you could get, with their black jeans, high top sneakers and multicultural caps, but they definitely had old Eastern European souls.

Looking around at the audience, I marveled at what a funny creature the New York Jewish community was. The concert was taking place after sundown on a Saturday night, so as not to exclude or offend any traditionally observant Jews. And there were indeed some in the audience, as evidenced by the kippot sprinkled here and there, and the few women with covered hair.   Some of the older audience members nodded along and smiled nostalgically like they really knew all the words. But the majority of the audience was young people, in their twenties and thirties, who, like me, had discovered klezmer music as adults. I had grown up with some Yiddish expressions mixed in with standard English, but certainly no real Yiddish substance and no Yiddish culture. Here we were, paying money to come hear the music that our grandparents had loved but that our parents had rejected as old-fashioned and embarrassingly unsophisticated. As the Jewish community aged, Yiddish was supposed to be a dying language and Yiddish culture replaced by homegrown American Jewish culture and Israeli imports. Yet Yiddish was experiencing a revival of sorts among young Jews, who were studying it in universities and in summer programs, and who were infusing Yiddish music with new life.   Ronit, our Israeli au pair, could not understand the attraction to this music at all. For her, Yiddish was the past, the European ghetto from which Jews had escaped. Whenever we played a klezmer CD at home, she would cringe, then politely apologize.

The band was playing a slower song now, and the audience got resettled in their seats. I didn’t understand the words, but the melody and the sound of the language was calm and comforting. At the end of the song, the clarinetist explained that the song was about a mother reassuring a child that everything will be all right, that no harm will come. Then he introduced the next song, a Yiddish poem that the band had set to music. The poem described a town in Poland, where everything was beautiful in the spring when the flowers came out after the long barren winter. The author of the poem had died in Treblinka, and the song was dedicated to the poet. The audience was suddenly still as the hauntingly beautiful song filled the hall. The vocalist sang in a deep, throaty voice that reached right into my gut and filled my eyes with tears. Sensing my change in mood, Simon squeezed my hand.

As the band sang, I thought again about my new mystery client, Sarah Gelberman. The poet and so many others had died, but some had survived and went on to build new lives. Sarah Gelberman was an example of the strange new world miracles that resulted from the upheaval of the war. A fully modern American descendant of a renowned Chasidic leader who, like the author of the poem, died in Treblinka. But the story that Leah had recounted bothered me. If Leah was right, and experience had taught me that she usually was, then there was something important Sarah Gelberman wasn’t telling me. But on the other hand, lots of strange stories came out of the Holocaust during the years right after the war. Rumors and miracles abounded. There were South American sightings of those said to have died in the camps. Elijah the prophet was said to have visited those in the camps and gave them messages of hope. Spouses and siblings were joyously reunited. Others who suposedely survived never surfaced again. Even now, long-mourned relatives were still turning up after many years, alive and well. And from a time of such chaos and crisis, how could it have been otherwise? So maybe the rebbe’s grandson had in fact survived. What proof was there that he had really died? Were there any witnesses? I pulled my notebook and pen out of my bag, trying to do so without Simon noticing so that he wouldn’t chide me about always having my mind on work. While the band played their mournful tunes, I wrote down as many questions as I could think of. Some I needed to ask Sarah Gelberman, when and if she got in touch again. And some needed good, solid research in order to get answered.   It was time to get moving on my new case.

 ***

When we got home, Ronit was sitting on the couch fast asleep, a book open on her lap. Simon gently shook her shoulder to wake her up. She jumped up, embarrassed, and reported on the evening. The kids had gone to bed calmly and happily. The last time she had checked on them, Caleb was on the floor on top of his blanket, at the foot of Hannah’s bed. We thanked her, and she went down to her apartment. Simon put the kettle on to make some tea, and I went upstairs to peek into their bedroom. Caleb had moved and was now curled up at the foot of Hannah’s bed. He was such a faithful puppy; he adored his big sister. I just hoped that someday Hannah would appreciate him, and more than that, I hoped that they would always be close.

When I came back downstairs, Simon was sitting at the counter. He had a mug of tea ready for me. I was dying to run downstairs and get to work, even though it was almost midnight. But I knew Simon was looking forward to a nice, relaxed night together upstairs. Making me a mug of steaming herb tea was one of Simon’s classic romantic overtures. I was actually an unrepentant coffee drinker, but Simon knew me well enough to know that while I love the taste of coffee, part of the reason I drank coffee was to stay awake. When he didn’t want me to stay awake too long at night immersed in my work, he would make me a cup of tea. I looked at the mug and I looked at Simon, and we both laughed. We knew each other so well at this point that we both knew exactly what was the other was thinking. Simon sighed.

“All right, Abby, all right,” he said. “I saw you scribbling away in that notebook of yours at the concert. I know that if I invited you upstairs right now, you might go through the motions, but your mind would be somewhere in Eastern Europe.”

I immediately felt guilty, as Simon’s main complaint in our marriage was that I never made enough time for our relationship. But my main complaint was that he wasn’t realistic about what our life was like now that we had two children. No other parents of young children I knew had any time for their relationships. Forget sexual fantasies — for most mothers of young children the best fantasy of all was a good night’s sleep.

“I just have some questions I want to get answered. Then I’ll lay it aside and call it a day. Okay?” I replied, looking into those deep brown eyes that had made me fall in love with him way back when.

He nodded. “What can I do? A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. Just promise me that if I fall asleep, you’ll wake me up.”

I agreed, and he leaned over and gave me a long, sweet kiss, reminding me why it might be worth it to not work too long. Then he got up, and taking his mug, went upstairs. I took my tea, and went off in the other direction, down to my office.

 ***

I could access my office two ways. During the day, when the kids were home, I would say good-bye, walk out the front door, go down the stoop, and re-enter the house through the ground floor entrance. But at night, I used the internal staircase that connected the ground floor with the rest of the house. When the house was originally built in 1864, the ground floor was the kitchen and the servants’ quarters. Now my office occupied the front half, and the back half formed a small apartment where Ronit and her boyfriend Shuki currently lived, rent-free. Though we missed the rental income, this arrangement greatly reduced our childcare costs.

In the dim light of the hallway, I unlocked my office door and entered. The light from the answering machine flashed red. I pressed the button to listen to the messages, and Leah’s voice floated into the quiet room. “Listen, I was thinking about your question, and I have someone you should speak to. His name is Rabbi Springer. He’s one of the foremost scholars on the history of Chasidism. Eccentric guy, but brilliant. He knows a lot more than I do about the Halizcher Rebbe. I studied with him in rabbinic school, so feel free to use my name. Good luck, and let me know what happens.” She proceeded to leave me his phone number.

Tomorrow I would call Rabbi Springer. In the meantime, it was time to lay out a game plan. I sat at my desk and made lists on index cards. I scribbled down ideas and drew arrows. On other index cards I wrote questions. Next in line was the computer. There were people I would need to wait until tomorrow to contact by phone, but no one ever sleeps in cyberspace.

I don’t like wild-goose chases, and I had my suspicions about Sarah Gelberman. There were facts to be verified. I went to whitepages.com and first checked New York City. There were a few Gelbermans, but no Sarah Gelberman was listed anywhere in the five boroughs.   There could be a lot of good reasons that she wasn’t listed. She could live in one of the New York suburbs, anywhere in the tri-state area really, and could have still easily made her way to me. She could be a college-student in the area, and wouldn’t be listed if she lived in a dorm. She could be sharing an apartment with friends, and the phone could simply not be in her name. She could be living at home, and the phone could be listed in her parents’ names. Or, she could have an unlisted phone number. I chastised myself for letting her go without leaving me her contact information. For possible future reference, I printed out a list of all the Gelbermans with New York City phone listing, just in case, but I was already frustrated that I hadn’t easily found her.

Next I checked for any Jack Gelbermans. There were none listed in New York City, though there were two J. Gelbermans, a Jeremy, and a Jill.   I directed the search to Winter Park, Florida, and bingo – there it was! Jack Gelberman, just where Sarah had told me he lived. Well, at least she told me the truth about that. I printed out that listing as well.

With that information, I was able to go to another site and request the social security number of Jack Gelberman. The Social Security Administration wouldn’t give out that information on people who were alive, but there were private companies who weren’t obligated to play by the rules of the Federal Government. I had an account with one of these companies; they were quick and reliable, if not entirely ethical.   All I had to do was give them someone’s name, address, and agree to have $24.95 charged to my VISA bill. Twenty-four hours later, I would have the number. I wasn’t sure I’d want someone to be able to get a hold of my social security number so easily, but I was glad I was able to get the information I needed.

Then it was time for Jewgensearch.com, a genealogy website.   One of the amazing features of Jewgensearch.com was that it allowed users direct access to an on-line genealogical database. This database had actually been created by the Mormons, for whom genealogy has a strong religious component. Many Jews were able to research their family trees courtesy of the Mormons, who were working on creating an enormous database of everyone who was living or had ever lived. However, they had not yet managed to include absolutely everyone, and I was unable to find Gelbermans who seemed to be related to my new client.

A search of Chasidic-related websites proved to not be much more fruitful. I did not uncover anything about the Halizcher Rebbe, though I did learn a little bit about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. If the Halizcher Rebbe had been even a quarter as charismatic as the Baal Shem Tov, he must have been quite a man. I became entranced by a website dealing with the miraculous healing powers of the Baal Shem Tov and when I next glanced at the clock it was 2:30. Turning off my computer, I stacked up my pile of index cards and went upstairs to wake Simon.

[To be continued…]

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Another Kind of Normal: A Personal Reflection on the Marriage Equality Ruling

Larry and BrianOne of the first things I did after getting the New York Times text alert about the Supreme Court Marriage Equality decision was to call my cousin Larry. It was an instinctive reaction. No matter that I was navigating my way to Newark Airport to make a flight, and that I had to call work to launch our prepared response to the ruling – my first thought was to call Larry.

In 1980, when I was a senior in high school and he was a sophomore in college, Larry and his family were visiting me and my family in St. Petersburg, Florida over Christmas break.  We went out to a bar one night (I was only 16 but the drinking age then was 18, not 21, so whatever…). It was a memorable night. We sat at the top of a hotel on the beach in a weird revolving bar. Car lights twinkled below us as the bar moved on its axis. And Larry came out to me.

I don’t remember his words, but I remember their power. I remember feeling honored that he had told me, like he had just entrusted me with a fragile piece of himself. I remember hearing the pain in his telling. And I remember thinking that whatever his actual words were, he had essentially asked me to be on his team for whatever lay ahead. Neither one of us yet had the language for this in 1980, but later I would come to understand that he had asked me to be an ally.

I was sixteen at the time but he was not the first person to have come out to me, and he would not be the last.  The first time had happened months before when a beautiful boy I met in a summer program confessed that he actually just wanted to be friends, because he really preferred boys to girls.  My heart was broken for a day or two but healed quickly, and a close friendship developed.

In the hyper-liberal part of Brooklyn where I had been raised, homosexuality was a visible part of the landscape. Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, the neighborhoods of my childhood, were havens for writers and those seeking sexual freedom from the 1930’s on, and the intertwined literary and gay histories were still in evidence during the gentrifying 1970’s in which I grew up.  (Fun fact: Thomas Wolfe wrote “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” while living on my childhood block in 1935).

Growing up in my house, in that neighborhood, gay was just another kind of normal. My pediatrician was gay. One of my friends had two moms (even though it did admittedly take me a while to figure that one out – at age 5 I didn’t understand why the mommy and her friend shared a bed). My parent’s next door neighbors, on their block of restored 19th century carriage houses, were a gay couple who regularly came over for dinner with my parents.  The couple whose backyard was opposite my parents were also a gay couple, one of whom came over sometimes in the evening to give us all haircuts.  A number of the teachers in my school were gay, including one of my favorite teachers who I once ran into and had a friendly chat with as he was leaving a gay bar in the West Village. For the sake of history I would like to think it was Stonewall – it was definitely on that block – but that particular detail might just be too good to be true.  In any case, all of this is to say that in my albeit unusual Brooklyn childhood, gay wasn’t “other” – gay was my neighbors, my doctor, my teachers, my friend’s parents, my cousin, my friends.

When I was asked, years later, to step in at the last minute as rabbi in Fire Island Pines for the high holy days, a primarily gay community, it felt like home. Creating a life filled with people of different sexual identities has just been the way it is, a comfortable way to live.  Being an advocate for gay rights has always felt natural and right, the honorable, ethical thing to do. As a Jew and as a rabbi, it has felt like a moral imperative and like the living out of my Jewish values of according dignity to all, and the deep belief that all are created in the image of God.

None of this is to say that I’ve always gotten it quite right. There’s been lots of learning along the way.   But I have always tried to show up in ways that matter in both my personal and professional lives.

As a rabbi this has meant marrying gay couples well before it was legal, or enabling the legal marriage of a couple who had already been together for 42 years, or changing language in liturgical and ritual publications to create inclusivity and healing, or making sure that illustrations in books for children depict a wide range of types of families, or being part of a group attending a death so that a beloved gay elder did not pass out of this world alone.

And when New York State legalized gay marriage and Larry asked me to officiate at his wedding to the most wonderful man several years ago, I could not have been more happy and overwhelmed with emotion.

Yes, I know that the fight for LGBTQ rights is not over just because the Supreme Court has legalized marriage equality. My young adult children have challenged me about my excitement over the ruling, arguing that we shouldn’t be so excited because there’s still so much work to do. They’re right that there is certainly much work left to do to bring about full equality, and much hate, fear, and discrimination still to overcome. The rainbowizing of Facebook profile pictures by tens of millions, both gay and straight, doesn’t mean the battle is over.  All of this is true.  But this is an amazing moment, a formerly incomprehensible achievement.  It may have seemed inevitable to those born into an era in which every tv show seems to have at least one gay character and tumblrs exist of cute same-sex prom photos, but this moment was unimaginable thirty-five years ago when Larry came out to me. It was unimaginable twenty-five years ago, and perhaps even ten years ago.  Massachusetts, the first state to do so, only legalized marriage in 2004.  It’s ok to pause, take a deep breath, and appreciate how far we’ve come before we get back to work.

IMG_1894In a text last Friday morning, a little while after learning about the Supreme Court decision, Larry and I remembered that night years ago in that weird bar on St. Pete Beach. I asked him: Imagine if someone had told our teenage selves that someday I would legally officiate at your legal wedding to your wonderful legal husband, under a chuppah, with your friends and family in attendance. We could not have comprehended that reality in 1980. But how much pain would that knowledge have wiped away? How much doubt, how much shame, how much self-destructive behavior, for so many? It is truly incredible how much change has happened just in the course of our adulthoods.

Because of my parents’ example of acceptance and openness, because of the school I went to and the neighborhood in which I grew up, because of the people I was lucky enough to meet in high school and college and on into adulthood, gayness has always been woven into the fabric of my life as another kind of normal. Because of the Jewish community I grew up in, and the rabbinate that I’m a part of, acceptance, tolerance, and equality have been framed as core sacred values, ideals of holiness. And now, with this victory, hopefully that will begin to be true everywhere, for everyone. We know that there are still rights to be fought for and minds to be changed.  But with this Supreme Court decision we have taken a huge leap forward into a new normal, not just for those of us who grew up in the rarified air of 1970’s liberal Brooklyn, and not just within the ethical framework of Reform Judaism, but all over this country, in states blue and red, in homes of every faith, stripe, and color of the rainbow.

 

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series: Part 1, Chapter Three

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 3. Enjoy!

Chapter Three

IMG_1597Later that afternoon I closed my office door behind me, locked it, and went upstairs to retrieve Caleb. He was perched on an overturned plastic tub, building a tower out of blocks.

“Look, Mommy,” he called when he saw me walk into the room, and promptly lost his balance and fell onto the floor. Being Caleb, he got right up and came running to me. If it had been Hannah, I’d be applying band-aids and kisses. Having two children was a fascinating experiment in human behavior and development – put two children in the same family with the same set of parents, same household, same environment, and watch how two completely different personalities emerge.

I told Ronit, who was washing up from Caleb’s snack of peanut butter and banana on rice cakes, that I would take him with me and go pick up Hannah from school. Ronit had to get to a class she was taking at NYU. Caleb and I hunted for his Yankees jacket, and jacket in hand, we set out for Shaarei Shalom, the synagogue in which Hannah’s preschool was housed. Just like the old Jewish joke, there was the synagogue we belonged to, and the synagogue we didn’t belong to. We didn’t belong to Shaarei Shalom, though we gladly sent Hannah to their wonderful, nurturing preschool. But we felt that as a synagogue, it was too big and impersonal, so instead we belonged to Bet Haverim, a smaller, funkier synagogue. Besides, the rabbi at Bet Haverim, Leah, was one of my best friends. Good thing we lived in this part of the world, and more specifically, in this part of Brooklyn, where we had our choice of synagogues.

There’s a little bit of everything in Brooklyn. No place is a better reminder of that than at the South Brooklyn Food Coop. Simon and I work there for three hours a month in order to buy, at just a little above wholesale, gorgeous organic fruits and vegetables, and a great selection of natural foods. Despite what it sounds like, the Coop is no leftover sixties earthy-crunchy thing. The members of the coop run the whole gamut of possibility. Every possible race, nationality, religion, agre group, and sexual orientation is represented, grandparents and just-out-of-college graduates, hipsters, the suit-clad Wall Streeters and the flowing-scarf artists, families who come with the mini-van from New Jersey and load it with apple juice, all-natural lunch box snacks, and frozen free-range organic chicken nuggets, the woman who dresses only in white and can’t be touched by any other human, the anti-irradiated food lobby, and the raw food enthusiasts who buy wheatgrass and carrots in ten pound bags. The selection of food represents the diversity of the members and of Brooklyn as a whole, from the organic kosher chicken to the masala curry, from the tomatillos to the kale, and the humus (the coop’s best selling product) to the lowfat coconut milk and the Jamaican jerk sauce. Simon and I love the coop, though we also love to hate it. One of the down sides is that some people seem to think that being a member allows them the right to tell any other member what they think about their purchases. My friend Bird, who is most definitely not a member of the coop, loves to call it “The People’s Republic of Brooklyn,” and she’s not totally wrong. I almost quit the day the member doing checkout rang up my jars of organic all-natural baby food and self-righteously proceeded to tell me that it would be much cheaper and better for my baby and for the earth if I made my own baby food. In my I-have-two-small-children-in-diapers-and-haven’t-slept-through-the-night-in-two-and-a-half-years exhaustion, I almost hit him over the head with the nearest available frying pan (the coop also sells household goods). But lucky for both of us, I was too worn out, so instead I just invited him over to cook for me. He declined.

Caleb and I held hands as we walked, while I pushed the empty stroller with my free hand. Caleb filled me in on his morning, which had apparently been quite eventful. He and his friend Jeremy built had sand tunnels in the sandbox at the park, and their dinosaurs had quite a time romping through the tunnels. Although he uses a pacifier at bedtime and still rarely sleeps through the night, anyone who meets Caleb in the daytime would think that he is a very mature two year old. He has an enormous vocabulary and never stops talking. Some of my friends with sons his age are worrying that their sons may never say more than “car” or “big.” I, on the other hand, often wonder when Caleb will stop to take a breath. Time spent with him, while absolutely delightful, is filled with non-stop whys (“Mommy, why is wood brown?”) and did-you-knows (“Mommy, did you know that triceratops had three horns?”) and how-comes (“Mommy, how come that lady is wearing a hat?”).

As we walked and Caleb talked, I tried to listen to him while simeulatneously making a mental list at the same time. I spend much of my time unsuccessfully trying to multi-task. I needed to think about what jobs I still had to complete, and how far along I was in the process of each. There were bills to be submitted to clients, a deed to property in upstate New York that needed to be located, there was food to be bought at the coop, an address in Chicago to be clarified, I needed to catch Hannah’s friend Zoë’s babysitter to set up a playdate, and dinner to be cooked. Did Agent 007 ever worry about dinner or playdates? Maybe, but he never had to cook the dinner, and his schedule didn’t revolve around the social lives of four year olds. In any case, this new job that had just come my way couldn’t have been timed better. I was jumpy and unsettled when there was no big project looming on my horizon, and this one promised to be quite big indeed.   When I was in between jobs, Simon always encouraged me to write a book, because he knew how crazy I got without something to sink my teeth into. My kids certainly kept me busy, and I loved being with them, but I needed a balance of interesting work and time with the kids to stay sane. I looked forward to telling Simon about this new job tonight over dinner. In the meantime, I’d worry about what to make for dinner. And when I had some spare time, I would start doing some research about Chasidic dynasties and their genealogies.

***

It was many hours until I had some quiet time to myself again. After the kids and I unloaded the food from the Coop and put it away, always a project in and of itself, it was time for an art project. Once the glitter-glue, pom-poms and tissue paper were back on the shelf, hands were washed, and the table was cleaned off, it was time to cook dinner. I wanted to get to work, and was unjustifiably annoyed that neither Ronit nor Simon was here to help out, but of course the reason I had chosen this kind of work was so that I could spend time with my kids.   I stood facing the sink, my hands poised above the bowl of salad, and looked out the window into the backyard below. If I had been focusing, I would have seen just how badly the garden needed care, and just how at home our neighbor’s cat was becoming in our yard. Instead, my mind was thousands of miles away, mentally searching through birth and death documents somewhere in Eastern Europe and making lists of questions I would need to ask. It wasn’t until Hannah tugged at my sleeve that I realized I was tossing the salad into a pulpy mess.

After dinner, and after cleaning quarts of tomato sauce off of Caleb and Hannah, I bathed the kids, put them in pajamas, and let them play in their tent for half an hour before story-time. Each floor of our house is long and narrow, with windows in the front and the back. The house, which was built in 1864, still has its original moldings and what real estate ads call WBFP, or working brick fireplaces. But our pride and joy are the fifteen-foot ceilings on the parlor level. This main floor, where our kitchen is housed, is one big open space front to back, though there are pocket doors that can slide out when we’re being formal, which is never. Most of the time the living room and dining room, which make up the rest of the main floor, is one big playroom. Currently, there was a tent in the middle of the living room, which the kids found enormously delightful. Since the mortgage payments on this old rambling brownstone eats up a big chunk on our income, and whatever is left over goes to childcare and preschool tuition, we haven’t invested a lot in furnishing it. So there was plenty of room for a tent in our living room.

While the kids played, I called Leah. Leah is one of a group of friends that Simon affectionately calls The Committee. There are six of us in The Committee. We met as bewildered freshmen at a small New England college that had just begun to admit women, trying to make sense of a place in which men would throw up publicly in the dorm hallways after parties and where women would throw up privately in bathroom stalls after meals. During one particularly bad party in the dorm common room, we found each other upstairs, like refugees from the same homeland. Escaping the offensively loud music, the stench of stale beer, and the behavior of drunk, horny eighteen year old boys, we came together in the room that Leah and I shared. Some brilliant person in the dean’s office had decided that Leah and I, two nerdy urban Jewish girls, would make great roommates, and despite the typecasting, they were right. We met Emma, who lived upstairs with a roommate who spent most of her time doing bong hits, at a Hillel bar-be-que, and Emma introduced us to Meg, who lived in the room next to her. Bird lived down the hall from us in a corner single, and she brought Lucy, who was in the same section of Freshman English. That night we connected so immediately and tightly as a group that it was incredible we had only just met. For the next three years, we lived together, first in sophomore suite, and then off campus in a rambling, decrepit house. And even now, involved as we were in our separate adult lives, five out of the six of us had wound up in New York City and managed to get together relatively frequently. We had individual friendships with each other, and some links were stronger than others, but the whole was definitely more than the sum of our parts. At many points along the way, and not just during my horrible freshman year, I thought of them as my sisters, my role models, my teachers, and occasionally my lifelines.

I dialed Leah’s private line and she answered right away. My lucky day.

“Hey sweetness,” I said. “How are you?”

“Hey Abby,” she answered. “I thought this might be someone else.”

“Thanks a lot. Not only do I not know about this ‘someone else,’ but then you have to rub my face in it by telling me you don’t want to talk to me?”

Leah laughed her deep, throaty laugh.“Yeah, you know me, Miss Congeniality. I met someone last night at a lecture. He asked for my number and I gave him this one.”

“Yeah, since no one knows this number except me and your mother, your brother, and your 25 best friends. Anyway, sorry to disappoint.”   Leah had one phoneline at home that she allowed congregants to call her on. She carefully screened those calls, and triaged which ones she really needed to answer from home and which could wait until she was back at her office. Since she worked night and day and almost never took time away from her job, when she did, she guarded her privacy seriously.   Then she had another phone line, with a number she released to almost no one, and this phone she picked up when it rang. I was one of the lucky few who knew the number.   And now so did some guy she just met.“Don’t worry, he’ll call,” I said to make her feel better. For someone so bright and successful in the rest of her life, her love life, as she was always telling me, was a train wreck.

She sighed. “Or not. So what’s up?”

I proceeded to tell her about the young woman who had come to my office that afternoon. Leah had done some research on Eastern European Chasidic rabbis in rabbinic school. She recommended background reading, and promised to bring a some books to our next get together in a few days time. We started to say our good-byes, but then Leah paused.

“You know, Abs, to the best of my knowledge, there were no survivors of the Halizcher dynasty.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean I’m pretty sure that after the Holocaust, there were no survivors, no one to carry on the line. It was a very big deal for the followers of the Halizcher Rebbe. Remember that in those communities, leadership passed from father to son, or in the case of no sons, possibly to a son-in-law. It wasn’t like today where communities do searches and interview rabbis. In that world, rebbes arose and gathered followers, and it generally continued on within the family, generation after generation. It’s still like that among the Chasidic groups today. The Lubavitchers are in crisis because their rebbe died without an apparent heir. He had no sons, no children at all, so not even any sons-in-law or grandsons, and he hadn’t named any one else to be the next leader.”

I sighed. “Well, maybe you have him mixed up with someone else. It’s hard to keep them all straight. There were so many Chasidic rebbes at that time.”

“No, Abby,” she replied. “I’ll check for you, but I seem to remember that specifically, because there’s a story that goes with it. I don’t remember the details, but basically the reason that there are no longer any Halizcher Chasidim today is because there were no survivors from the family after the war. See, after the war, those who survived had nowhere to go. They couldn’t go home of course, because their homes no longer existed. All those Polish villages were Judenrein, rid of Jews. Their property, and their homes, had been taken by Poles. Some groups of Chasidim saw what was coming and had gone to America or Canada. Some even went to Shanghai. But the Halizcher Rebbe, the son of Leib of Halizch, the guy you’re talking about, insisted that he and his followers stay in Europe to show their faith in God. They believed that God would take care of them. His father had recently died and all the power had just passed to him, and he probably needed to prove that he could be a strong leader. Instead of packing, they prayed. The Halizcher Chasidim tried to convince their rebbe to send at least his grandson to America, since apparently it was understood that he would be the next rebbe, to smuggle him out if necessary, but to keep him safe, because while they wanted to trust in their rebbe, they were terrified at what they heard was happening to the Jews. They were willing to stay in Europe themselves and follow the example of their rebbe, waiting for a miracle, but they wanted his grandson safe in America as a kind of insurance policy, so that should something happen to their rebbe during the war, they would have another rebbe waiting in the wings. And so they actually sold whatever little jewelry, gold and silver they owned, and remember, these were mostly poor people, and they brought the money to the rebbe and begged him to send his grandson to America.”

“That’s crazy. They would be willing to risk their own lives, and the lives of their children, but they wanted to save the life of the rebbe’s grandson?”

“Right. You have to remember that for the Chasidim, their rabbi wasn’t just a man, but a direct intermediary with God, a tzaddik, one of the righteous ones. But the rebbe wouldn’t send his grandson away. Maybe he felt it would have made him look weak. Maybe he really believed that a miracle would happen. And also, he had no sons, only four daughters, and of those, only two were married. One son-in-law rejected Chasidism. And the other, the father of that particular grandson, well, everyone knew he wasn’t rebbe-material. So his followers begged him to send away his grandson, the heir apparent, but he refused. Neither he, his wife, nor any of his children or grandchildren survived. They all died in Treblinka. And at the end, those few followers who did survive began to fight among themselves. Some argued that the rebbe had a good reason, though one they couldn’t understand, for not saving his family or even his grandson. They figured that they just weren’t wise enough to understand the reason. Others were angry that he had not made sure there would be someone to carry on the line. One man professed that he was the intended next leader, but no one listened to him. Some were bitter that the rebbe had advised them to stay in Europe when they might have had a chance to leave, and felt that ultimately he had abandoned them. Many were disillusioned and felt that not only had the rebbe let them down, but that God let them down. And so they drifted apart, and went their separate ways. Some joined other Chasidic groups. Some abandoned Chasidism altogether. That was, more or less, the end of the Halizcher dynasty, and the Halizcher Chasidim.”

“Hummm,” I said, chewing on the end of a pencil. “Okay, so I confess I don’t get it. Either your memory is wrong, or this woman heard a story which is wrong, or she’s not who she says she is.”

“My memory is not wrong,” Leah said in her usual confident manner. “If I were you, I’d get back in touch with the woman, and tell her what I just told you. The whole thing sounds like an old man’s fantasy. Break it to her gently. Tell her there are other ways she can do something special for her grandfather.”

I sighed. “Now that sounds easy and sensible, but of course, I don’t have a way to get in touch with her.” There was nothing I could do but sit and wait for her to contact me again. I was sure she would, and I was also sure that we would have a very interesting conversation when we did talk again.

 ***

Caleb was fast asleep but Hannah was still raring to go. I lay with her in bed, looking up at the glow-in-the-dark solar system on the ceiling above. This was my favorite time of the day, when the house and the kids were quiet and calm. Perched on the edge of the day just ending, we could look back on the day and towards the next. It was a time to take a deep breath and remember what really mattered – to remember how much I loved my kids, to forget about the dishes piled up the sink, the invoices to be mailed, the lack of cash in the bank. At this time of the day my kids and I came back together and reconnected. After the threats of brush-your-teeth-now-because-I-said-so and choose-pajamas-right-now and stop-teasing-your-brother, bedtime was a time to regroup and end the evening on a good note. My kids became younger at bedtime, the posturing of the day was shed and at nighttime they became sweet kittens who wanted to curl against me for comfort and assurance before they entered the world of sleep and dreams.

Our bedtime routine had to be followed exactly the same way each night.   After getting into pajamas and settling down, it was time to choose a story. Each child got to make a choice. Sometimes, if I was in a very generous mood, they even got to make a third, joint choice. Caleb had recently been stuck in a dinosaur rut — night after night we had been reading dinosaur books. Before that, it had been Edward and the Pirates for about eighteen nights running. But then again, I had already memorized The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and Madeline. So what was one more? Hannah and I were in the middle of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was I enjoying re-reading for the first time since my own childhood.

After the story it was lights out. Each child would get a turn to be rocked in the rocking chair, while I sang a lullaby. Even though Hannah was four, she still asked to be rocked. I dreaded the day I was no longer able to rock my kids. Then there was a minute or two of hugs and kisses with each child separately in their own bed, while they said a prayer and told me whatever was on their mind. Sometimes those few minutes were the most important part of the whole day. It was a time to give voice to hidden fears, embarrassments, and disappointments of the day, as well as to share secrets and dreams about tomorrow. On nights when I was out of town or worked late, it was those few minutes alone with each child that I missed the most. I could spend the whole day with them, and never really know what was on their minds until then.

After the last round of hugs and kisses and glasses of water and admonishments to lie down and sleep, I would put on a tape and leave the room. At the moment, the kids’ favorite tape was a BBC recording of Winnie the Pooh. Listening to that tape, they would drift into sleep. But on this particular night, Caleb had fallen asleep while I rocked him, the victim of too many rounds of Superhero derbies at the park. So I grabbed the opportunity to spend a few minutes of uninterrupted time with Hannah. Hannah was a complicated child, given to mood swings and stubbornness and passionate outbursts of both delight and disgust. I knew that when she grew up, she was going to be a fascinating adult, the kind I would want to be friends with, but raising her was quite a job. Simon and I called Hannah The Lawyer, because she could talk herself out of or into anything. If we set down a rule, she would find the loophole, leaving Simon and I gazing at each other over her head as we tried not to laugh.

Even though I missed Simon’s presence on those nights that he worked late, it also made bedtime easier. Because I was the calm parent and Simon the fun, roughhousing parent, bedtime without Simon was a much calmer affair.   So I’m not some macho P.I., slugging down a pint in a flophouse somewhere. Sometimes I crave the excitement, the adrenaline rush that those fictional P.I.’s get chasing down their cases. I envy them their ability to eat what they want, when they want, and with whom they want, to keep their own hours and have as many quirks as their editors will allow. But then again, they’re fictional, and I love putting my very real kids to bed.

           ***

After the kids were settled and I brought Hannah her last cup of water, I went downstairs to warm up dinner. Ronit, who was almost as good a cook as she was a baby-sitter, had made stir-fried vegetables and tofu in a ginger-peanut sauce that smelled divine. I turned the heat on under the pan and reheated the rice in the microwave. Then I took out plates, and glanced at the clock. Simon should be walking up the stoop and in the door any minute now. I was looking forward to going over the day’s events with him. I knew he would enjoy hearing about my new client, and not only because he would be glad that I had a paying client. I thought the story would fascinate him, especially when he heard the piece that Leah had contributed.

As I set the table, I allowed myself to wonder if Sarah Gelberman was for real. She seemed genuine and sincere. And yet something was wrong with one of the stories I had heard today, either hers or Leah’s. If she wasn’t on the level, what could her motivation possibly be? Suddenly I stood still, the napkins I’d been about to place on the table clutched in my hand. Leah had told me about the large sum of money that the Halizcher Chasidim had given their rebbe in order to ensure that his grandson got to safety. She had told me how the rebbe refused, and how he and his wife, his children and grandchildren were killed in the camps. But what she hadn’t mentioned was what happened to the money. And if there was one thing I knew all too well, it was that money was the biggest reason there was for people to lie, cheat, steal, and create false identities.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part I: Chapter Two

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, I suggest that you start at the beginning). Here is Part I, Chapter 2. Enjoy! 

Chapter Two

IMG_2514Summer was already a fond but distant memory in the family photo album. The High Holy Days had come and gone. Senator Joseph Lieberman had recently become the first Jew to be nominated for high office, providing Jews with much food for thought and giving rabbis everywhere a surfeit of sermon ideas. New York was in the midst of an intense and ugly senatorial race, the mayor had prostrate cancer and a lady-friend who marched with him in the Columbus Day parade, and the Yankees and Mets were playing the first subway series in forty-four years. Miles away, the possibility for peace had come and gone, and war threatened to break out any day in the Middle East.

Despite all that, it was a quiet autumn morning in Brooklyn. Outside my office, the leaves in the backyard hadn’t started to turn yet, and the garden still looked like summer. The one straggly rose bush that had bothered to flower was top heavy with huge pink blooms. School thankfully had begun, and Hannah was safely stowed away in pre-K until three o’clock. Caleb was at the park with Ronit, the babysitter. The house was empty, the sink was clean, the laundry was done, and there was nothing domestic that needed my urgent attention. I turned my thoughts to my files, which sorely needed some care.I had a bad habit of taking out files, searching through them, and then putting them aside to search through more files, never putting away the discarded files. When I’m rich and famous, I’ll hire a personal secretary. In the meantime, I reorganize my desk and my files every few weeks, or whenever business is slow.

I had just completed a job for someone who wanted to find out the name of the ship on which his grandparents had come over from Portugal. He was preparing a surprise for their 60th anniversary. I managed to find out the name of the ship and get him the manifest of passengers and even a photograph of the ship. He was very pleased and had given me a check right away. There it was, balanced against the stapler. As I straightened the desk, I reminded myself to deposit it in our checking account so that it could go right back out of the account in the form of a check to Hannah’s preschool.

All night I had had a recurring anxiety dream that I went to my job in an office, sat at my desk, and couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be doing. On good days I was happy with the choices I had made. But then there were days like today when I got frustrated, and in my frustration let myself give in to that ugliest of emotions—envy. I was envious of the mothers at the preschool who had serious, important careers, expensive suits, and business-trips that took them out of town to hotels where they could order room service and have someone clean up after them. What happened to my great ambitions, my plans to do something important? I hadn’t finished my PhD, I didn’t have a title before my name, and I didn’t make enough money. I hadn’t published a novel, written a screenplay, discovered the cure for AIDS, or launched a business. But I liked what I was doing. Some of the projects that came my way were actually interesting. The research was fun, and challenging. And I loved having time for my kids. I had made a choice. But the truth was I was not only envious of the working moms, I was also envious of the full-time moms who were always there after school, in the playground, and at the mommy-and-me classes. No way to win, either way.

I sighed and stretched my legs. Too much self-reflection can be a dangerous thing. Thinking of Hannah’s preschool and those moms reminded me that there was also a phone call I needed to return. Last spring, in a fit of generosity, I had donated five hours of my professional expertise to the fund-raising auction at Hannah’s school. The woman who “purchased” my services had left a message on my machine last night. I had met her several times and didn’t feel like dealing with her, but I convinced myself to call and get it over with.

I called, and it turned out that she wanted me to go undercover and get evidence, graphic photographs and all, that her husband was having an affair. I explained that that was not my line of work, but that if she wanted me to do some historical research, genealogy, or to trace missing documents, I’d be happy to oblige. She said she would think about it, but I could tell from her tone of voice that she was already writing the whole thing off as an unfortunate waste of money. As we were graciously saying our good-byes, the doorbell rang.

I went to answer, assuming it was either the meter reader or Ronit back from the park with Caleb. Instead, I found a nervous young woman. I was sure I had never seen her before, because she was surely someone I would have remembered. Despite her obvious nervousness, she was beautiful in a striking and unusual way. Her hair was the brightest red hair I had ever seen, her eyes a deep, liquid blue. Her porcelain skin was flawless, making the gold stud in her left nostril appear particularly prominent. She was of medium height but strong and athletic-looking, and despite her apparent youth had a presence about her, like someone usually at ease with herself and only at a temporary loss. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and clutched a piece of paper with an address scribbled on it, which made me think at first that she must be a student looking for an apartment to rent who had come to the wrong address. But before I could re-direct her, she addressed me by name.

“Hi, are you Abby Marcus?” she asked hesitantly. “Have I come to the right place?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Can I help you?”

“Do you mind if I come in? You were recommended to me by someone who thought you could help me. May I?”

My clients never just drop in. Most of my friends don’t even drop in, this being New York and all of us having highly over-scheduled lives. Plus Simon would have a fit if he knew that I was letting a perfect stranger into my office when no one else was even in the building. But she was a young woman, practically just a kid, and she looked perfectly harmless. I should have known right away that her stopping by in person was only the first of many things that would be unusual in this job.

I cleared away Hannah’s crayons and coloring books, and sat her on my couch while I took the adjacent chair.

“I really need help,” she began.

“Well, let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “You know who I am, but I have no idea who you are.”

She cleared her throat, paused, and began to speak rapidly. “My name is Sarah, Sarah Gelberman. I’m trying to do some genealogical research, but I’m running into a lot of roadblocks, because I’m not a pro and I don’t know what I’m doing. I hear that you are really good at it, so I want to know if you can help. Plus I’m busy. So if you could help, that would be great. I don’t have a lot of time. How much do you charge?”

“Well, Sarah, let’s slow down and talk first about what you’re looking for. Where is your family from?” I reached for a pad and pen, ready to listen.

She began to tell me, still in the same halting manner, that her grandfather Jack was having an important birthday in January, and the grandchildren wanted to present him with a family tree. She had heard stories that her grandfather was the great-grandson of the great Chasidic rabbi Leib of Halizch, known as the Halizcher Rebbe, and she wanted to know if I could definitively deny or confirm that rumor. As she spoke, she played with her hair and adjusted and readjusted her legs, looking ill at ease on my comfortable couch. When I asked her if it would break her grandfather’s heart to find that the rumor was not true, and was it worth doing so, she insisted that the family would love knowing one way or another. I wasn’t sure she was right, because having worked in this business long enough I knew that people greatly treasured their stories of grand rabbinic or royal lines, no matter how fabricated they were. But when she told me that the other goal of her search was to find, if he was still alive, her grandfather’s brother, from whom he had been separated in Europe in 1945 following Liberation, I was hooked. I’m a sucker for happy endings, and I knew that if anyone could find the brother or his descendants, I could do it. We agreed on a price, which appeared to be no object to her. She unfolded a creased envelope, counted out the full amount in cash as a retainer, and departed, leaving me with a file of some basic information with which I could begin my search.

After she left, I laughed to myself. What a funny place is this world of late 20th century America, I thought. I was just talking to a young woman who may be the great-great-great-great granddaughter of the Halizcher Rebbe, who sat on my couch dressed in jeans and Nikes with a gold stud in her nose. Then several important things occurred to me at once. One, I had no way of getting in touch with her. The piece of paper on which I had asked her to provide her contact information was gone, and somehow I doubted she had taken it with her accidentally. Two, she had never told me who recommended me to her. Three, her story, which was fairly standard and unexceptional, in no way explained her extreme nervousness, or why she would not have wanted to leave me her phone number or address. Little did I know just how much she had to be nervous about.

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part I: Chapter One

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand.  Here is Part I, Chapter 1. Enjoy! More to come. 

Part I

IMG_0487The Internet makes everything so easy. It’s criminal how easy it is. All the information is right there. People don’t even realize it. The most intimate information is there, if you know how to find it. All I had to do was put in her name, and put in his name, and put in the name of the town, and voila, there it was, right there for me, more details than I knew what to do with. Like some kind of divine intervention. Like playing God. Even better actually. Because everybody thinks that no one controls the Internet. Everybody thinks it’s just a jungle of information. But it can be controlled if you know how to use it. Just like people. People are so easy to control if you how to do it. If you have the right information. And I do. Just like God, I can make them jump, I can make them sing, I can make them move, I can make them run. I can make them feel safe or I can make them feel threatened, terrified. He thought he was God, he knew what to tell them to do. But he was wrong. They all died, and it was his fault. And those who managed somehow not to die were still damaged. That’s how I wound up like this, a man without a past, a man without a family. Imagine what it would have been like if the Internet was invented back then. The history of the world would have been completely different. The right people would have gotten the right information. It wouldn’t have been possible to ignore the truth. It wouldn’t have been possible to ignore the cries.

But that’s in the past. This is about the future. I can’t change the past, but I can act now to change the future. I can control it because I have information, I have power. Even God can’t do this. It’s up to me. It’s all in my hands. I’m going to set it right. I’m going to make sure it can’t happen again. He couldn’t do it then, but I can. Now.  

Chapter One

I walked in, threw my bag on the floor, and turned on the light. Everything was just as I had left it.   Piles of papers and folders covered the desk, my black sweater hung over the back of the chair, and a half-full coffee cup balanced on a pile of books dangerously close to my laptop. The afghan on the couch lay draped across the arm and trailed down the floor, where one corner served as a parking lot for matchbox cars, tractors, and Batmobiles. The light on the answering machine blinked furiously.

What a mess. While I’d been gone it would have been nice if the offices gnomes could have paid a visit and cleaned the place up. Would have been nice too if they could have done some filing. But no, no sign of those ever elusive gnomes. Then again, it was nice to open a door and not have to worry that some lunatic was waiting to grab me.

Home sweet home. I threw myself on the couch, put my hands behind my head, and stared up the ceiling. What a case it had been. Tough. Dangerous. Complicated. And I had done it. I had untangled the mystery. Of course, not by myself. And not without complications. Still, damn I’m good, I thought to myself, and smiled.

Abby Marcus, P.I. Nice to meet you.   That sounds good. Well, okay, I’m not a P.I., but I did always want to be one. That was my fantasy growing up. I wanted to either be a P.I. or a spy. In college I thought briefly about joining the CIA or the FBI. That’s what comes from watching too much Get Smart as a kid. It was the shoe phone that did it. Not the gun in the pool stick, no, the shoe phone. Of course, who needs all those pretend gadgets today? It’s the year 2000 – we have devices that are better than any television, so when we’re at the baseball game we don’t have to miss our favorite soap operas. We have phones that fit in our pockets, and are better than any camera. Anyone can order sophisticated spy equipment over the Internet. So who needs Agent 86 and his paraphernalia?

I’ll start again. I’m actually Abby Marcus, freelance researcher. I’m thirty-something, getting closer every day to forty-something. When I look in the mirror, I can see one or two gray hairs, but it’s not too bad. Most people think I’m younger than I am, which I’ve found is often an asset in my line of work. I’m on the short side, to be honest, and could be in better shape than I am, but that’s life. Having two kids hasn’t helped my figure any. Maybe next year.

I live in Brooklyn, New York. Park Slope to be exact. We, being my husband Simon and I, along with our progeny, Hannah and Caleb, live in a brownstone three blocks away from Prospect Park, which by the way is bigger than Central Park. We Brooklynites are very proud of our borough. Along with the best cheesecake and great micro-brewery beer, Brooklyn also boasts the largest member-owned and operated food coop in the United States, of which we are longtime members. In fact, my grandmother can’t believe it, but Brooklyn is in the middle of a renaissance. It’s actually become a cool place to live. People are even saying it’s become more expensive to buy a place in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, but I wouldn’t know – we bought our brownstone a long time ago.

We live in the two middle floors of our brownstone, which we were lucky to buy before real estate went crazy. Even with Simon’s salary as co-owner of a firm that makes its money providing financial data, and the small amount of money that my research jobs bring in, we’d never be able to buy this house today.   We have a part-time tenant who happens to be my grandmother living on the top floor during the warm months when she’s not in Florida. The ground level floor is divided in half, with the front half a small apartment where our babysitter lives with her boyfriend rent free, and in the back is my office, looking out on the yard. Having space for a live-in babysitter has been a brilliant stroke of luck. My parents are not around to help, because they are busy chasing their long-deferred dreams. Since my father retired from his practice and my mother’s new-found career as a travel writer has taken off, they are away more often than not and don’t have time for babysitting.

And speaking of the kids, Hannah is four, and Caleb is two. Which gets me back to the freelance researcher thing. I never did become a P.I. or a spy.   I went to college, where I studied literature and art, and then to grad school. I worked for art magazines doing photo editing and research, and worked on my Ph.D on the history of photography. With all that school, I became pretty good at research and at writing, so I started taking on freelance research jobs to help pay the bills. First it was pretty basic stuff, going to the library – this was before Google changed the world – for some professor and collecting data, or tracking down an obscure fact. That turned into tracking down obscure books. Then it became tracking down obscure people. Well, I got very good at not leaving any stone untouched, and people I didn’t know started calling and asking me to find things for them – names, numbers, people, objects. Most people don’t realize how much you can do with the Internet, libraries and some basic knowledge about how to get people to say more than they mean to. Now don’t get me wrong, I have never done anything seriously illegal or immoral. No, I’ve actually helped a lot of people locate lost relatives, track down old high school sweethearts, and find biological parents. Along the way, I’ve become sort of a specialist in genealogical research.

When I got pregnant with Hannah, I took a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program. I couldn’t think straight anymore about theory. I decided to devote more time to my research business, to see if I could make a living at it. It’s a perfect job for me, since I can work at home and make my own hours. Most of the time I love what I do, and feel incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to create a career for myself. And in some ways, with a little imagination, it’s not all that different from being a P.I. or a spy. It’s been fun, challenging, and it pays a small fraction of our bills. I like the puzzles my cases present, and I love arriving at solutions and answers. There’s a bit of a letdown when I’m done with a case, although not for too long because there’s always another one waiting for my attention.

But nothing I had done up to now had prepared me for this case.

[To be continued….]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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Good Books: Summer 2015 Edition

Summer is here and it’s time to read.  Here’s a round up of some recent good books, mostly fiction and, as an added bonus, one memoir. None are exactly beach novels, but they’re all worth a read. Enjoy!

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt
UnknownThis novel is at the top of this list for a reason. It is a coming-of-age story about a fourteen year old, June, who has a very special relationship with her gay uncle. The story takes place in the mid-80’s and her uncle Finn, a famous painter, is dying of AIDS.  When Finn dies and she begins to grieve her loss, family secrets begin to shake loose. In the process, she develops secrets of her own, including a growing friendship with Finn’s hidden boyfriend, Toby, who her family labels as a murderer for infecting Finn with AIDS.  The many strands to this tale are interwoven beautifully as June deals with the loss of Finn, her strained relationship with her older sister Greta, her feelings of both anger and love for Toby, and all the attendant struggles of growing up.  The depiction of how AIDS was viewed in the 80’s rings all too true.  There is also an interesting and wonderful Oscar Wilde-like strand of this novel which involves a portrait that Finn has painted of June and Greta.  The painting is the linchpin upon which the whole story hangs, as it too develops and changes along with June and Greta.  Brunt’s homage to Dorian Gray is an outstanding element in this smart, tender, and moving novel.

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay 

Unknown-1A girl named Moth is at the center of this work of historical fiction. Called Moth by a now-absent father and raised by a Gypsy fortune-telling mother on New York’s Lower East Side during the post-Civil War era, she is born into a life of extreme poverty and want.  One day she is sold into servitude by her mother and taken to work uptown for a wealthy but cruel woman. Moth is the kind of plucky heroine that these types of books needs to stay interesting, and she is indeed wily and resourceful. She soon finds herself in training to become a prostitute, at a time when syphilis is ravaging New York City and men of means are on the prowl for young girls who can provide them with the “virgin cure”.  Moth grows up quickly as she figures out what she needs to do to survive, and without providing any spoilers, survive she does.  McKay has done a good bit of research about this era, and her insights into life on the Lower East Side, women’s lives, women’s healthcare, and some historical figures, especially a female physician committed to women’s health, make this a worthwhile read. The fact that this physician is based on McKay’s actual great-great-grandmother adds a little extra flavor to this dish that, while tasty, could use a little more depth.

After Birth by Elisa Albert 

Unknown-2Where to start with this one? For one, if you are a woman and aren’t sure if you want to have a child, don’t read this novel yet. But if you have had a child, or are the partner of someone who has birthed, absolutely read this book. It would be easy to say that this is book is about postpartum depression but it’s so much more than that.  The protagonist at the center of this searing depiction of birth and early motherhood is Ari, who is an isolated, lonely, and depressed new mother.  She lives in Vermont with her husband, an academic, where she has few acquaintances and essentially no friends. She loves her son, Walker, but feels horribly alone in the post-birthing experience. Albert is brutal in her condemnation of the medicalization of birth, the way in which modern medicine disempowers women and disconnects them from their own bodies, and how Western society has disabled the tradition of women mothering one another through the transitions of birthing, breast-feeding, and child raising. One of Ari’s contentions is that c-sections are a form of rape perpetrated upon women by the medical establishment.  As a two-time c-section birther, and even though I know that way more c-sections are performed than are medically necessary, some of this felt uncomfortable and even extreme. But that is part of the power of this difficult novel. Albert has masterfully written a character who is not “nice,” who does not conform to societal expectations, who is angry and grieving and far from the soft-focus stock image of new motherhood. Her body is unfamiliar, her scar throbs, and her breasts have taken on a life of their own. (Those particular depictions are oh so resonant!). Having had the experience of birthing taken out of her power, she feels out of control and can’t find a way back to ownership of her body or of her life.  No one understands her and what she’s going through, not even her husband. She is desperately alone and the idea of ending her life is never far from her mind. And then she makes a friend, another new mother, who is surprisingly in worse shape than she is.  Through that friendship, and that friend’s new baby, she regains some control and comes back from the edge.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Unknown-3Cody Epstein knows how to tell a good story. Her characters are always richly drawn and fully realized, and the situations into which she places them are always well researched and ring true.  This novel is no exception. Told from several different perspectives and spanning several generations, this an epic story of the war in the Pacific during World War II.  The main character is a young Japanese girl, Yoshi, who life is radically changed when American bombers rain napalm down on her city.  The other strands of this story all connect through Yoshi but stand on their own as part of the legacy of destruction and pain caused by war, including Cam, the pilot of one of the American bomber planes, Anton, an architect who is caught up in the war despite himself, and Billy, who is posted in Japan following the war.  It is Yoshi who connects all the other characters and perspectives in this compelling tale of war, loss, secrets, and identity. The details of each character’s outer and inner lives are wonderfully drawn and pull you right in – this could definitely one of those books you can’t put down until it’s way, way after lights out.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman 

Unknown-5This book sat on my reading list for a long time before I finally dove in and read it. I’m so glad I did. This novel takes place in Rome, and involves the private lives of reporters and editors at an English language newspaper on the verge of extinction. Each of the characters, from the editor in chief to the obituary writer, to a stringer in Cairo is a tale unto themselves. They are struggling to keep the paper afloat as the world of publishing changes swiftly around them, and as control of the paper shifts to a new publisher. The details about each person’s life seems just right, with enough provided to bring each one fully to life. There are unexpected twists, a good dose of snark, and great insights into the relationships they have with each other. Humor is mixed in with sadness, cynicism fights with idealism, and despair and anxiety are laced with hope.  This novel is robust and vivid, artfully drawn against the romantic backdrop of Rome and full of all the attendant elements related to news paper publishing in the 21st century. This was a deeply satisfying read.

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

Unknown-4There has been a spate of memoirs over the last few years by people who have left the world of Hasidism. I admit to having a mild and inexplicable obsession with these memoirs, and yes, I’m sure there is something voyeuristic to my interest in them. But this memoir by Deen is different. Deen, who had been part of the world of the New Square Skverers, left as an adult in his mid-thirties, not his early twenties as others have done. This is not a vivid expose of sexual misdeeds or brutality (though there are some disturbing depictions of corporal punishment in educational settings).  There are depictions of faith-based violence and vigilante behavior, but while Deen comes to oppose this and see it as a very negative form of behavioral control, he also writes honestly of having been part of it at one point. This is all to say that he has not written a black and white, me versus them kind of memoir.  He also clearly want to protect certain relationships he has with people in the Hasidic world, and so he stays away, for the most part, from the kind of salacious details which might most interest outsiders already prone to be critical of the Hasidic world.  This is not to say that he shows fondness for the world he left – he is very critical of their brand of thought control, the substandard education provided within the community, and the ways in which they subvert the legal system. As an outsider who has read a lot on this topic, it is still shocking for me to learn (or have confirmed) that most adults in the community can barely read or write in English, and have no math skills – this is part of the way in which the community “protects” its members from the outside world, or isolates them and disables them from participating in that world.  He is critical too of the ways in which poverty is built into their way of life, again “protecting” them from the outside world. But there is a great deal of nuance and struggle here, along with deep pain. He is not, for the most part, writing about the world which he chose for himself for some period of time, but rather about his very deep struggle to make sense of meaning and faith within a world in which questions were discouraged and the rebbe had ultimate power over every aspect of life.  This is a tale of his own rebellion against that power, and his long journey to gain knowledge and free his mind.  He writes beautifully about his thirst for education, his dangerous questions about belief, his passion for ideas, and his need to find a supportive community. Though his choices caused him a great deal of pain, especially in regard to his children, this memoir is a testament to the need to fight for one’s own truth in the face of extreme pressure to conform to destructive communal norms.

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