Painting by Claudia Smalley
by Moshe Schulman
Eli and Rachel sit in the back seat of a taxi cab. Eli by the window, Rachel the other. The cab driver looks at them through the rear-view mirror. What is wrong with these two? he wonders. This is what is wrong with these two: It's their wedding night and they're taking a cab home. The fare paid by Rachel's father. The two of them sitting separate from each other, not talking.
This is going to be a long marriage.
Issue #34 soundtrack: Black Books "The Big Idea"
Eli is scared. He knows tonight is the night he has to lay with his wife, Rachel, who's a virgin. It's not just the fact that she's a virgin that scares him. It's also because she's a girl, a woman! Even after all the marriage classes with Rabbi Feld and all the tutorials, Eli still believes, Hashem, God will strike him down for touching a woman (having sex!) even though he was taught the commandment his whole life to be fruitful and multiply.
But what Eli didn't know until the night before the wedding was that he'd have to put himself inside of Rachel. Eli didn't know what inside of Rachel meant, and when Rabbi Feld explained it to him, he ran to the bathroom, threw up, and fainted.
Eli unbuttons the top button on his brand new silver-striped suit and tips his black fedora hat to the back of his head. He's uncomfortable, hot, and sweating from the summer heat coming through the taxi's open windows. You were lucky if you ever got a taxi with a working air conditioner in that town. That morning Eli shaved and trimmed his beard carefully with the new shaver he got as a wedding present from his father. He also cleaned his black-rimmed glasses extra diligently with a tissue. He wanted to look his best for his wife to be.
Rachel sits still in her wedding dress, thinking about the new wig she'll have to wear, now that she's a married woman. A wig customized just for her. Days before the wedding, Rachel went to the mikvah, the ritual bath, to purify herself, as is the custom among the Ultra Orthodox. Naked, in the mikvah dressing room, Rachel cut her finger and toe nails. Any intrusion between her, the rain water, and God is prohibited. A witness, Mrs. Rosen, an old teacher from school, watched as she dunked her body in and drifted under, completely covered by the water. When Rachel emerged, Mrs. Rosen inspected her body. “Kosher!,” she yelled, satisfied by what she saw.
Rachel was definitely ready.
The taxi cab stops in front of a ranch-styled house on Homestead Lane. There's a short pathway leading to the front door, but it's not the pathway that Eli and Rachel will walk. Their path is on the side of the house which leads to another door. That door leads to a renovated staircase to Rachel and Eli's home: an attic. An attic just big enough for the essentials: A bedroom, small kitchen and enough wall space for a bookshelf in a tiny living area where Eli will put all of his seforim, Hebrew books from yeshiva and wedding presents. They'll have to share the bathroom with their neighbor, the Selinger's, another newlywed couple who also live in the attic, but on the other side of the house. Below them lives their Hasidic landlord Mr. Halpern who has eleven children.
In the bedroom, Eli paces while Rachel sits on the bed watching Eli walk back and forth, twirling his peyos, side-curls, with his fingers. Then Eli leaves the room and heads straight to the bookshelf.
“What's wrong?” Rachel asks a moment later, standing in the bedroom doorway.
“Not now, Rachel, not now," Eli answers, sitting on the floor against the bookshelf, his head buried in a book, studying.
This is going to be a long marriage.
Eli and Rachel have only known each other for three weeks. Well, really, only three days out of those three weeks. They went on three dates. They were set up by a shadchin, a matchmaker from their community. They were both eighteen. Their parents knew it was time.
On the first date, Eli and Rachel walked around a lake at a local park for two hours without looking at each other. Looks don't matter, their teachers taught them. It's what is on the inside that will make a good chasan, groom, and kallah, bride. They talked about their families and what schools they studied in. On their second date they met in the lobby of a hotel. This time they faced each other with the coffee table separating them. They discussed what was most important in a marriage according to their teachers and parents: How much Torah Eli would study and how many children Rachel would have. Things were going well. At least Rachel and Eli both made it seem that way when their parents questioned them after getting home. They both knew they didn't have much of a choice. This was the path set out for them. This was tradition. On the third date they met at a local kosher cafe, ate marble cake and sipped on chocolate milk. They even shared a laugh. Things were going really well. Their parents thought so, too. And the next day they were engaged to be married the following month.
Tradition is a quick process.
It was never supposed to be like this, Rachel thought, as she lay under the covers in her nightgown. It would never happen to her. Get set up and be forced to marry a guy she would barely know. She thought she would be one of those who got away. One of those who would begin a new life outside of the community. When her mother told her there was a boy interested, she wanted to say no, argue back. But when she opened her mouth, nothing came out. All that came to mind was what she was taught at a young age–– to respect and obey your parents. Rachel knew if she didn't she'd be ex-communicated and mourned for. She would be homeless and not have any resources for support on the outside. So she gave in. The only hope in the back of her mind was that the boy would be the right one. Maybe he wanted to get away too.
In the morning, Rachel finds Eli asleep on the floor near the bookshelf, with his thumb in his mouth. Rachel feels bad. She doesn't want Eli to feel so scared. So cautious of everything in life, but most importantly, her. She is his wife. He is supposed to be comfortable with her. Is she even comfortable with him? She thinks.
Rachel puts up four pieces of toast in their new toaster they got as a gift from Eli's Aunt, hard boils two eggs, and pours two cups of orange juice.
The noise wakes Eli.
“I'm making breakfast,” Rachel says.
“Thank you, Rachel, but not now. I need to daven, pray first," and Eli gets up, grabs his morning bag, which contains his tefillin, phylacteries, and prayer shawl and rushes out of the apartment.
Rachel eats alone at the small kitchen table. She wonders if Eli will ever come around. If she even wants him to. A baby from the first floor starts crying as a couple of the older children run around yelling. Rachel can hear the mother trying to calm everyone down. Rachel knows she's expected to have children. She knows she's expected to be a model orthodox Jewish wife. A good example for the community. But as she sits at that kitchen table, in that attic, married to a husband who's scared to look at her, talk to her, or touch her, she begins to wonder if she made a mistake. If being ex-communicated would have been better.
Weeks turn into months and nothing changes with Eli, between them. The distant relationship. The lonely breakfasts. The landlord's children crying and their mother trying to quiet them down. The pressure to be a model wife and portray an image Rachel is not sure if she's capable of doing honestly. It's all the same.
One afternoon, while Eli is out studying again, Rachel paces the bedroom, crying, contemplating what to do next. This is what she'll do next: pack a suitcase of clothing that will last a week, basic toiletries, a bag of pretzels, a box of animal crackers, some cash that she got as wedding gifts, and she'll leave.
That afternoon Rachel walks down the street, pulling her rolling suitcase behind her, not knowing where she'll go but wherever it is, she knows it will be different. It has to be, she convinces herself. And as she nears the end of the street, Rachel sees Eli walking toward her, confused.
"Where you going?" Eli asks.
"Not now, Eli, not now," Rachel answers, and continues walking.
This is going to be a short marriage.
Moshe Schulman was raised in the Ultra Orthodox Jewish town of Monsey, New York, and when he was eight days old, was given a blessing at his bris to become the next great rabbi of his generation. But at the age of 16, Moshe decided to leave his community and blessing behind to create a new life in the secular world. His non-fiction work has been published in WORDS and at The Rumpus. His essay “The Wise One” was featured at Sweet: Actors Read Writers in New York City. He’s been a featured reader at In The Flesh, Mixer, and the Franklin Park Reading Series in New York City. He’s been a participant at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Tin House Writers Workshop, and was the recipient of scholarships in non-fiction to the Bear River Writers Conference and to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He lives in New York City and is at work on his first book, a memoir, about leaving his community. Visit Moshe online at mosheschulman.com.
Claudia Smalley has shown work at the Polish Museum of America and been mentioned in publications such as the Chicago Reader, CBS Chicago, Business News Daily, and La Republica (L’Espresso), an Italian newspaper. She earned a bachelor's degree in Industrial Design and Art History as well as a dual-MBA degree in Marketing and General Management from the University of Illinois Champaign. View more of her work online at HOBO Art Lab and claudiasmalley.com.
Black Books is a five-piece unsigned band from Austin, TX, named one of "Ten Locals To Watch in 2011" by the Austin Chronicle. Band members Ross Gilfillan (drums/vocals), Meg Gilfillan (keyboards), Kevin Butler (guitar/producer), Mike Parker (bass), and Clarke Curtis (synth/artwork) grew up together, but only started making music their moody mix of dream pop and southern rock last year. Look for Black Books' debut full-length this Fall, and visit them online at blackbooksmusic.com or blackbooksband.blogspot.com.