Time passed. Now and then a message from my father on my machine. I didn’t call back. The annual high holidays came and went and I still didn’t call, couldn’t. Then my youngest sister’s triplets came of age. I’d visited at NYU Hospital the morning after they were born and promised to attend their bar mitzvah. Thirteen years later, I drove south to Monsey, NY, for the celebration.
It was a day before Passover, and with homes scrubbed and scoured free of all risen bread, the event was catered, beautifully. The girls and their mother wore lovely burgundy, with matching shoes. The boys were newly dressed in Hasidic little-man outfits: shiny new bekishes and velveteen hats. There was dancing, photos, videos. This was my baby sister’s first grown up family simcha, and she was deliriously happy.
In the men’s section, the bar mitzvah boys each recited and explicated select passages. My 79-year-old father listened with joy. He also sent word through my eldest sister, asking that I visit with him for a few minutes before departing. She delivered the message, then kept watch. So my father and I sat, facing each other, in a corridor of the venue.
I miss you, he said. How have you been? Why won’t you visit your old father? Come home already.
I looked at him, older, whiter, his body heavier, his under eyes baggier, but still the dark skin, the elegant face. I wished him mazel tov, then didn’t know what to say, where to start, why start. This wasn’t the place or time, and what was the point anyway?
He wasn’t a man with whom you could make light conversation. He liked talking about what he called “life purpose.” He would begin with suggestions that I move home, study Jewish texts, wear my mother’s clothes, promising joy, pure happiness. If I cited my work, the teaching, writing, he would silence me by calling it a waste of time, non-Jewish work for non-Jewish souls, completely worthless.
I came to understand his bias at an early age: Whatever I did with or for him was worthwhile; what I did for myself or by myself had no value. This was the way it had always been. Worthy work was organizing his files, baking the Passover matzo, polishing the silver for the holiday, addressing and stamping the envelopes for the mass mailings to promote his books. Creative work belonged to the male; woman was helpmeet, in the supportive role. When in my early twenties, I went looking for my first entry-level job, I discovered that the so-called modern world of the 1980s operated the same way. Every interview included a test to see how fast I could type. A quick survey indicates that men didn’t undergo such tests, were not even taught to type.
There is more, a history, examples of abusive attempts to retain control, sometimes funny in the retelling, always frightening to experience. The time my father tried to scare me off getting my driver’s license by pushing the bench seat of his old Chevy wagon back, so I couldn’t reach the brake or gas pedal. He bugged my private phone, Richard Nixon style, to listen in to late-night conversations with my first boyfriend. He hired a private (Hasidic) detective to follow me around on campus, at the library, to the CVS counter where I went to fill a prescription for birth control. He called on an old friend of his to take pictures of me picnicking at Lake Sebago with a boyfriend, for which I was called a whore. More recently: The day before pub date of my fourth novel, the phone rang, I saw the caller ID, and in a celebratory mood, picked up and told him my happy news. By the time I hung up, I was near tears. Nothing new had happened, my father had once again dismissed my work, but I was vulnerable, anxious, praying that this book would succeed and get me a contract for my next one. These personal experiences add up to what every woman knows: that the patriarchy harbors a deep distrust of the female, that misogyny is built into the system organized by men. The insight that male violence against women emerges from a fear of powerlessness, a loss of control, doesn’t change the experience.
My father’s funeral was the occasion of my next visit home. I got the call late Friday. He was unconscious, at Suffern hospital. A stroke or a cardiac arrest. He passed later that evening, on the Sabbath, and the funeral was scheduled for Saturday, before midnight. Per ritual, each of his five daughters had a few private moments with her father before the eulogy, to silently say goodbye, ask forgiveness, request heavenly assistance, final moments. My eldest sister sobbed uncontrollably. As second daughter, I went next, but my tears didn’t come and mourning my father’s departure, I also mourned my hardened heart.
What final thoughts did I have for my father? In heaven, if there was a heaven, I hoped he would recognize his errors, the self-serving hierarchy he’d lived by. Forgiveness? I didn’t ask for it. If he were asking, I would have granted it readily. He didn’t make the world we live in. He was a man of his time and place, flawed sure, but better than most. His achievements were admirable: He had started over in a new country, in a strange language, with nothing, and built a tiny empire.
Later that evening, someone said Lonna Kin had attended. This interested me. I wished I’d seen her, watched her face, asked how she felt. My brother said she approached him to say she knew our father meant well, did what he believed in. It would have been easier for her, I thought, to talk to one of us, the daughters in the women’s section, where she must’ve been. She had gone out of her way to speak to my brother instead, and this act felt revealing. A creature of the patriarchy, she put her faith in male agency, male above female. Unlike me, she dressed and lived this orthodoxy, raised and educated her children in the fold. Though she had defied the court, taken her story public, made her point, she had no intention of emancipating herself, or not entirely. Perhaps she was seeking to change this world from within, perhaps this was the more effective method. Or she was wise enough not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water, an old proverb someone had once quoted regarding my life choices.
These days I readily acknowledge that my orthodox sisters who have stayed in the fold live happier, fuller lives, surrounded by children and grandchildren. They are also accomplished in various ways, working in and out of the home, earning livings, returning home to cook, taking pleasure in the cleverness of their children, in good food, fine fashion, and devoted helpful husbands. Do I regret the choices I made? That would be about as useful as regretting inescapable fate. My eldest sister attempted a partial return, though of course that proved impossible: She is not the person she was when she left.
And yet. I had defied my first fate, the one I was destined for by birth. I’d chosen secular life, attended college, then graduate school.
About this first fate: I was not yet twelve when we were packing again for a summer and fall in Jerusalem. Each of us had a suitcase with our own name on it. We could choose which clothes and books to pack, and these were necessarily limited as the suitcases were small. We would be responsible for these suitcases, making sure they got on and off the plane, that we collected the right one off the carousel on arrival. Our mother was good at organizing our large family for these journeys, starting with our first one when I was five, when we crossed the stormy Mediterranean on a French ship, then the blue Atlantic on the Queen Mary, a drawn out voyage to accommodate our mother’s fear of flying. She dressed us all alike for easy spotting: navy pleated skirts or pants, white shirts, satin bows in the girls’ hair, polished ankle high shoes, very Fanny & Alexander.
Our suitcases were packed and lined up at the back entrance to the house when a hurricane flooded the basement and the bottoms got wet. We had to haul them back up the stairs, unzip to dry them. To add to the chaos, an El Al agent called the day before our scheduled flight to inform us they were canceling our reservation because we had double booked for six children and one parent. There would be no refund, she said.
This was a costly penalty. My father collected the paperwork and got on the phone to prove he had not double booked. As it happened some of the names on the second booking matched, but not all.
The next day at the airport, in the departure hall, we got to meet the other family: The mother whose name was Tova (Hebrew for Gitel, our mother’s name), in long black middle parted hair and bell bottom jeans, the children in shorts and mini skirts. There was a Pnina, my Hebrew name. Also a Sarah and a Moshe, but no Maryem or Nachum or Levi. Still there were six children, all about our ages. I couldn’t take my eyes off this mother and this Pnina. I didn’t yet know the word for fate, but I comprehended that with only a tiny twist in the — was it God’s? — plan, I could’ve had the good fortune to belong to this prettier modern mother, to this cooler Abraham family.
I didn’t see a father. Perhaps they were traveling without him, as we were. Our father was staying behind, we understood, to travel more freely than he could when we were home. He would spend a month or more in Buenos Aires with Moshe Ber Beck, an old friend from his yeshiva days, he would stop in Mexico, then LA. He hoped to raise funds and build big — a congregation complete with a synagogue and mikva, a matzo oven for Passover, classrooms and a dormitory. There would be a flat roof for a sukkah. My sister and I asked for a pool where we could be the lifeguards. He smiled and nodded. Maybe a pool too, he said. Unlike our mother, a realist who scoffed at lofty dreams, my father entertained all ideas, high ambitions, imagination, thinking big, especially when it came to real estate. This was something he’d learned from his own father, who had purchased and farmed acreage in Romania, and whose WWII experience informed him that land was the only secure investment. This grandfather had returned to Romania after the war, stayed until he could get something for some of his properties, then purchased agricultural land in Israel. His example encouraged my father to buy the parcels in America and build. I too seem to have heeded this advice and spent the advance on my first novel on a little upstate NY farmhouse with red barns. Describing it to my father, I mentioned the cows that appeared at my window one morning as I sat writing. You would like this place, I said.
How many acres do you have? He asked and advised building as many houses as permitted, collect rent, a steady income.
If I wanted neighbors, I explained, I would have stayed in NYC.
We clearly didn’t share values or aesthetics, and yet. Though he didn’t like where my dreams had led, he had taught me to dream.
Pearl Abraham is the author of, most recently, Animal Voices, Mineral Hum: Stories, American Taliban, and The Seventh Beggar. Her work in progress is titled Der Tateh.