High Holy: What I Could Not Tell You

I can see the words but I see them as her smile. Can they sing faster—the words Hebrew and solemn but they won’t push past my skin.

Before the solar year turns we’ll have kissed on Cape Cod’s edge.

Three hours south and we said goodbye and I’m here, she’s there reading poetry and I’m reading prayer—who can feel the words after a day’s fast?

Sister next to me your lips moving silent—god’s whisper—asking forgiveness we have sinned we are your nation we have sinned you our father we your children we have sinned—I turn the pages, stand when you stand

I don’t move my lips

I miss her poetry

Read beneath a weeping beech on a small path uphill. Bring her jacket because it’s October and she’ll get sick and I can’t let her get sick. Kiss me one time before—

Sister next to me turning pages hair covered my husband promises a new wig for each child. I’m shooting for one a year—I’ll hold the baby while you pound your chest and beg forgiveness.

The oldest of two sisters—don’t you want a husband? If I waited for you I’d never get married.

No, you’d never marry—could you practice life in singular? Put the baby to sleep and talk like my sister.

How are you.

Baruch Hashem. How are you.

Fine

I’m fine

Really how are you

Let me read the teeth behind your smile.

Let me hear the words your husband leaves to silence.

Can you speak in tongues like sisters speak

teshuvah

repentance

tefilah

prayer

tzedakah

charity

will repeal God’s decree

Can you speak without God’s words breaking your English?

Shachris:

I can hear the men from downstairs but I can’t see them. Maybe my faith is not as strong as belief.

Can you take the baby while I daven? Cookies in the diaper bag?

You daven, I’ll construct her face in Hebrew letters.

Shaindy my niece in diapers and stretchies and four teeth. You’re saving for her wedding and I’m saving for her grad school. You sing in sing-song Hebrew and clap her hands to the melody. Say the blessing with her on the cookie—make sure she says the bracha. I feel silly in the words Shaindy can’t repeat because they’re words and I give her the crumbling pieces she can’t chew.

We’ll decide on the Cape when she tells me

I’ve never seen Massachusetts water

and I spend two weeks singing her the way of stormy Wellfleet nights as if the tide would pull my car out to Nantucket.

Sitting in the rising water line until my shoes are two parts salt and my paper is less poetry than feed for fish but I sit until my skirt is rock-filled and I consider my seascape options.

She can pull me back from salt water.

They can’t pull me back to Hebrew.

Have you seen Ben since you’ve been back

you whisper but I pretend I’m praying—can’t hear you through my hair.

I saw him in the store with his children—she’s pregnant six months a wonder she can fast. We’ll have them for Sukkos lunch first day.

Ben. Married three years and two children.

Children with names in Yiddish—I think one rhymes with Shaindy.

Ben with blue eyes and a secret passion for the ocean.

A secret passion for

I kissed him beneath orange branches and turned when he pressed in closer

Because he’s not her

Her: with hair and lips and she says she was born in a state that’s square and in a different time zone (she’s never seen New York traffic). I’ve never seen a state once the mountains have ended.

Don’t forget her gloves her fingers painted black and gloves don’t let her knuckles touch but I’ll breathe her close and keep her fingers warm for Wellfleet photos.

I can’t help it, turning the pages faster than the praying

lean against the wall and dream of ice water in a glass

in waves around my torso around her braided

let me braid her stems in two let me.

Mother kisses Shaindy and goes to change her—you

and I alone in our chairs, on each side a woman in wig and Yom Kippur suit (white for purity) and you wear white and I wear purple

like the grapes we eat beneath the weeping beech

while I smooth the hair from her vision

you are near and she is far.

Whisper.

I can set you up with this boy. He’s going to be a rabbi—I know he’s interested.

There are things I can’t tell you.

Tell you a joke.

Make you smile.

Make her laugh into her fingers

her laughter like a flower’s blush.

I could sing you my new vocabulary but you won’t understand.

The way I phrase her.

Can we talk about you now, about your husband and how your smile comes too easy, how your words are Yiddish and hidden behind pious whispers—

Please don’t mind

my language is rough and English and can’t contain the notion of faith this prayer this prayer won’t let me sing my worship.

Even the silent Shema

Even the Amidah.

Avinu Malkeinu—our father our king forgive us we have sinned we have sinned

Yizkor. We crowd into the hall we who have not lost our parents or lovers. Ben holds his son and leans down close to his wife’s ear while inside they pray for the souls of dead loves—I turn when he nods to me and see her face must see her face without his trace of beard.

His beard on nights walking I felt something strange must be love because it’s strange and he proposed and I said yes I said maybe then I took it back because the strangeness is supposed to go away right? It’s supposed to go away if it’s love and instead it was just strange and he said I should pick out my ring which is how all the girls do it but I don’t want a ring I want his fingers and instead he gave me diamonds and

I gave it back.

You hand me the baby and find your husband. I stand alone against the wall, my head the only one uncovered my hair a dyed red your wig brown and straight and human hair your hair underneath falling out in strands.

Her hair bunned and salty on the edge of Cape Cod’s dunes we’ll go there and she’ll bind her hair in plastic clips with seaweed.

Musaf:

One hundred pages and sitting and standing with the opening of the ark—I stop after awhile and sit and stare at the wig of Mrs. Something in front of me—I knew her name once

Where could I have put it

Five kids? Husband in insurance? Five bedroom split colonial down the road son in Israel married daughter

I can’t find her name

Hair slipping from beneath her wig brown like yours and falling out in my hand when I brush it I want to brush her hair the way her husband doesn’t. Mrs. Something.

hair slipping

Ivory suit—not pure like white like—I can see right through you, confession and repentance, I can see right through you.

I will take her to New York on a day when you’re in shul, just a regular Shabbos. I’ll take her to New York and drive her to the village and we will drink coffee and eat artichoke hearts at a sidewalk cafe on Thompson

(She has never seen New York traffic)

and we’ll drive through midtown and point at the tourists and I won’t bring her home to meet you because it’s Shabbos and I don’t drive on Shabbos and we’ll drive south and drive home and I’ll call you Sunday night and ask how your weekend was—Baruch Hashem, fine fine, how was yours—good good, thanks for asking.

I’ll try to tell you, but it’ll sound like a sob and I’ll hang up before you can tell me lying.

The chazzan growing hoarse by the end of the amidah. Blessing of the kohanim and I stare at their fingers when I’m not supposed to, their socked feet by the closed ark their fingers covered by white taleisim I can’t help staring. Is their blessing going through me and into the woman in the row behind

Or do I stop the flow of holy from them to me and then send out waves that collapse their blessing words.

I’ll crouch low while I’m standing so their fingers don’t see me.

Are there words enough for you?

Is there geography enough for her?

She eats the miles while I spoon them into plastic bags for keeping.

Break:

Come, take the baby and follow me downstairs.

Mother carries Shaindy to the house for an hour’s rest and you and I sit sides touching on the front porch of the house he bought you the house with four bedrooms on a quiet street with a basketball court for the boys when there are boys and a library with sefarim for when the boys get older and room for a girl’s dollhouse.

I bring Shaindy books and bears.

He stays at shul for Daf Yomi—no rest for the pious on this day of atonement. You laugh, your laughter like a flower’s blush. You take off your wig, human hair one for each child and put on a snood that makes you look like a Smurf, he says. You rub your head.

I’m fine, stop worrying. You’re such an older sister. Baruch Hashem, just a little tired.

You’re pregnant—I can tell.

Another wig.

If I touched your arm would you pinch me back like ten years ago when we slugged it out for fun after school because there was nothing else to do nothing at all but read and do homework and if I look at another Hebrew word I’m gonna start screaming don’t say that, it’s not all that bad you just don’t get it here let me show you.

Pinch me.

Did I tell you how she sings in restaurants

except

her words are English and my tongue is not kosher and if I kiss her on a Wellfleet beach will you let me sing your daughter to sleep.

Will you let me.

Ask me again how I am because

I can’t tell you.

But will you tell me

Tell me how you are. Don’t hide words because I live in another state and don’t understand your husband’s sarcasm.

Mincha:

They read the story of Yonah and the big fish and I mean to hear it but we fall asleep on the front porch even though it’s cold in October and you’re fasting and sick because you’re pregnant and we wake too late. You change into your wig.

Come back to shul it’s almost time for

Neilah:

Ben on the way in, giving the baby to his wife who doesn’t look like me except around the forehead. She smiles at me she must know who I am but he looks away, only one greeting a day from Ben. Ben with the secret passion for the ocean.

I will take her to the shore when I would never take him, the surf of Wellfleet not meant for his weak disposition and lack of vocabulary.

I’ve put her picture into my machzor. She marks the place of Neilah and I can almost feel the weeping beech above her braids can almost taste her fevered song of

The rabbi sings Neilah fevered.

I read back over Mincha pages we missed.

Read the Torah portion:

one shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman.

You’re following along with the service. I can tell by your closed eyes and whispering lips—you believe it, what the rabbi says, every word.

An abomination.

I cannot tell you these acts I’ve committed. You would not think me worthy of your blood even though I’d open my arm over your garden to make your flowers blossom.

I can see the words but I see them as your smile.

Your unsmile.

You open your eyes and look at me looking at you daven.

You say:

it’s your last chance, it’s almost over.

You hold Shaindy and then I hold Shaindy and look at the picture in my machzor her picture under the beech and we will go to the beach before the new solar year

before the new lunar year we will talk of children and driving to Canada

I’ve never seen the Canada coast.

We will dance far apart and then together our fingers touching then our lips her skirt will twirl out and mine will catch her and we will face each other and smile lifting arms and shadowing the music on the Massachusetts shore twirling in tempo of horns and strings

twirling

like we twirled before God

before God’s whisper.

Can you whisper me the secrets of crowded city streets

Of tehilim mouthed silent before your wedding, before Shaindy’s birth.

Can you speak in tongues like sisters speak.

Twirl into me in your white and your wig.

Before the shofar

 

[This story first appeared in print in The Ne’er-Do-Well #2.]


Eve Rosenbaum is a writer and editor, currently writing and editing in Iowa. Find her on Twitter @everosenbaum