By Cathy Rosoff
In 1942, 25 year-old Dov Miller was a Hasidic rabbi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A brilliant studious man whose passion for Judaism translated into a dynamic style that gave him a small, but ultra-devoted congregation and whose extremely flat feet had exempted him from the draft; he was considered a good catch by the parents of 18 year-old Rebecca Rothstein. Or rather, he was considered a good catch by David Rothstein. His mother, Sarah, was not so sure, but said nothing. It wasn’t her place.
In 1943, Devorah was born. In 1944, Judith. In 1945, Leah. When Magda, was born in 1946, Dov began to wonder if God was not punishing him for some sin that he was unaware of having committed by refusing to give him even a single son. So when Rebecca informed him she was pregnant a mere three months after giving birth to Abigail, he decided to devote himself more fully to God, so that God might reward him with a son at last. How might he do this? By devoting every ounce of himself to prayer and the study of the Torah. He could not do this with a congregation, however. It was too diverting. So he became part of a subculture of Hasid males who devoted their lives to such endeavors. His wife kindly begged him not to do this, not when she was pregnant. How would they live? She knew the answer to this, but still asked it all the same.
They would do what other Hasid couples in such situations did. She would go to work, likely teaching at an Orthodox girl’s school, and the community would donate whatever they could to help supplement her income, proffering everything from home-cooked food, to their children’s outgrown clothes, to money. They would be, in fact, glad to do this. They wouldn’t pity her. They might even envy her. In their world, Dov’s planned profession would place him in a position of high esteem. People would be all too glad to help support him.
And so this is what happened.
Rebecca was aghast when the doctor told her she had just bore a healthy baby girl. But as she held Abigail in her arms under her husband’s dead gaze, she had second thoughts. Though he had never told her, or anyone else, of his reasons for leaving his congregation in favor of study, she knew them. Now he might finally see the futility of his motives and resume paid work.
He, too, began to wonder if his regimen of study and prayer was not futile. Had he simply spent too little time on it to reap its rewards?
He realized he was wrong in 1948 when Rebecca had a miscarriage. Yes, he had applied himself to this course of study for nearly a year, but how many hours a day? He began practicing 11 hours daily, excluding meals and services. He rarely went to sleep before midnight, nor slept more than five hours a night.
Soon, he started skipping a meal a day, sometimes two so immersed in what he now thought of as his “reflections.” Never a pound overweight, his clothes began to hang off of him. When his 8 months-pregnant wife told him that some in the community were whispering that he might be ill, he wondered if he should give up and try to get hired back at his old synagogue. Over the next month, wondering had started to become planning.
And then Elias was born.
When Rebecca saw her husband’s overjoyed face as he took their son in his arms she thought, it’s over.
When her husband looked into his newborn son’s face, he thought, it’s only just begun.
Why should he treat God so cheaply? Withdrawing from Him just as He had rewarded him?
Elias grew into a child of not only unusual intelligence, but attractiveness. Tall and slim, with high cheekbones, caramel-colored skin and glistening jet-hued hair and eyes, he had an aristocratic feline beauty that caused adults to stare at him as he walked down the street. For a long time, he thought of these gifts as a curse. Were he some dummy, even had he an average intellect, his father would have probably given up on trying to turn him into a brilliant religious scholar. As it was, his brains only made his father more unrelenting, not only forbidding any diverting social life, but sporadically beating him when he felt he was not giving his studies full effort. His beauty largely seemed to have a frustrating pointlessness to it. He was, indeed, aware that it probably contributed, along with his gender and higher status within the household, to the fawning child-prince way his mother and sisters treated him, treatment he considered resentfully entitled to since they were rewarded for their lower positions by normal lives and bruise-free skin. However, he knew it would not help him acquire a more desirable wife. For that he would need to acquire more financial security than that held of his father, who seemed determine to fight to the death for that not to happen.
When he was 13, his oldest sister Devorah married a man named Adam Levy who came from a well-off family who had their own import-export business. His father, David, the business’ owner, was a slightly pudgy jovial man who seemed to sprout sunshine from his round pink face. At one Shabbat dinner, after noticing how much interest he had in his business, David laughed and slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Slow down, you’re too young, you’ll have to wait until I can hire you on.” He was joking, but both Elias and his father took him quite seriously, causing his father to see him as his first real threat and for Elias to see him as his first ray of hope.
About a month after the Shabbat dinner he and his father were discussing the Holocaust and Elias told him that one element of the theory he held about it – shared by a contingent of Orthodox Jews – confused him. If it was God’s punishment of the Jews for turning their backs on Orthodoxy – then why were so many of the Holocaust’s victims Orthodox Jews?
For the first time in his life, his father hit him with a closed fist – in the throat.
As he coughed breathlessly, Elias hated his father more than he ever had, but he had to bite his lip to stop himself from smiling.
After that, the more defiant he got the more he beat him and the more he beat him the more defiant he got. Yet Elias, never ever, failed to do what he was told. He merely obeyed with the angry smiling-eyed obedience of a prisoner who thinks he is superior to his jailers and is just waiting for the day to shank them and escape.
When Elias was sixteen, his mother developed lupus. She was still able to teach for a couple of more years, until her illness reduced her to working part-time on the kindergarten level. His father was forced to go back to work as a rabbi. He had planned for Elias to receive a full scholarship to attend a beis medrash, a school that taught Torah studies at an undergraduate level, but his son had seen to it that he only received a partial scholarship. And he wasn’t about to let his son use his mother’s illness as an excuse not to go and take up David Levy’s impertinent offer of a job with his business. (He had suspected, not entirely wrongly, that Elias was somewhat relieved by his mother’s misfortune because he sensed it might provide him with precisely this type of opportunity.)
However, within a year her condition deteriorated to the point that she could no longer work and soon medical bills they couldn’t pay began piling up. So at 19, when David asked again Elias to work for him, he permitted him to say yes.
Elias was thrilled to accept the offer and thrilled to do the work itself. It turned out he was quite a shrewd businessman. However, he loathed the greater exposure it gave him to the non-Orthodox world. Not because he loathed the world he saw, but because he loathed that this world saw him. He hated traveling on the subway every day, feeling staring eyes on him, hearing indecipherable whispered words. And he hated it even more once he got to work. His job was in Harlem. It would have been bad enough had he not had to hear the more-than-occasional jeers when he walked the four blocks back and forth to and from the subway, and avert his eyes from the frequent silent hostile stares, but once he got to work he had to contend with the men who worked in the warehouse and drove the trucks.
As for the world he saw, he only loathed the desire it bred in him. It was as if he had been locked in a closet his whole life and was now finally being let out into the sunshine, only to have to return every night and weekend. Yet still, he had his weekdays out in the sun in this place of glittering decadent freedom. Where people walked down the street and could view numerous shops with tempting sweets and savories and just walk in and buy them without checking whether they were kosher or not. A place where men could view brazenly bareheaded bare-armed women and look them in the eye and even shake their hand. A place where teenagers walked out of films hand-in-hand and even kissed right out on the street.
One day, David sent him on an errand in midtown involving some paperwork a new client needed to sign. He had been instructed that he was a “real whale,” name Mordechai Grossman, who owned a chain of upscale department stores called Forsythe and Frost.
The New York City Forsythe and Frost looked like a blown-up version of the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. The interior was bathed in velvet, silk, and marble colored shades of cotton candy pink and lemon drop yellow so fetching and sugary-sweet that it actually almost beckoned Elias to rip pieces of it and eat pieces of it. The salespeople were so attractive that at first he didn’t think they were even real and couldn’t distinguish the still silent ones from the mannequins. His eyes catching sight of a ballerina-bodied ice blonde poured into a nude sheath, they raced away from her when she smiled at him like a pair of roaches retreating from the beam of a flashlight.
Mordechai Grossman was a balding overweight man who appeared to be about 6’3, though he was in reality only five eleven. His eyes smiled even when he didn’t and his voice was like a cup of strong coffee doused with milk and sugar – robust and energizing but warm and sweet. He immediately told him to call him Morty and gestured toward one of the airy-light pastel-hued French macaroons on a silver dish on his desk.
“Would you like one- they’re shipped directly from Par-Oh, I’m sorry, they’re not kosher – I apologize for my foolishness. I’m a Reform Jew – a total pagan.”
“Not at all. I would certainly indulge if I could. They look quite tasty.”
In fact they looked more than tasty, they were actually making him salivate. Like an animal. A starving animal.
As he went through the papers, he excused himself to take a call, apologetically explaining it was quite important and would only take a few minutes. At some point, while on the call, he turned his back to him to search for some papers. Elias didn’t even realize the cookie was in his mouth until he saw Mr. Grossman staring at him. After a second, he gave him a smile and a wink and continued his phone conversation.
Over the next few months he came to have a lot of contact with Mr. Grossman, or Morty, as he insisted on being called. Morty seemed genuinely impressed by his business acumen and constantly joked with David about his desire to steal him away from him. Yet it was not just a business bond that was being formed, but also a personal one.
He learned that 18 years ago, during a storm, he was driving with his 7 year-old son Aaron and 5 year-old daughter Irene when he got into an accident that only temporarily injured himself and his daughter but killed his son, who had removed the seatbelt he always hated to wear. His daughter began struggling in school, progressively so as the years went on. Some considered her lazy, others, simply of “low intelligence” and they didn’t always hide these views from her. The kids even began to catch on and she began being taunted with nicknames like Dummy and Dunce. Finding solace in food, she eventually was anointed with another one: Fatty.
Thinking it might help the friendless girl, he bought her a puppy for her ninth birthday and another for her tenth and a cat for her eleventh and at the age of twelve she added a canary and a parrot to her menagerie. She lost weight, but only enough to shrink from fat to extremely chubby and seemed to lose all interest in people, seeming frighteningly content to spend all her time with her pets. She even begged him and his wife to let her take in a stray dog and cat she saw wandering through their neighborhood. His wife Sylvia was horrified, but he bribed her with the promise of an extremely expensive piece of jewelry he had previously refused her to get her to agree. At the age of fifteen, she was finally diagnosed with severe dyslexia, which not only made reading and writing, but also processing information, extremely difficult. A mere year after the term “learning disabled” had even entered the education lexicon, there was little help for someone like her, even with all his money, and her advanced age made things even worse as early intervention was so key.
Once she told him in high school that she might want to become a veterinarian and he had to swallow a lump in his throat. She would be lucky if she would become a housewife. In addition to her weight, she was saddled with painful shyness and had developed a terrible acne condition. At the age of 23, the acne had been replaced with a scattering of scars and pockmarks, but the 50 excess pounds and social awkwardness remained. She had a job she enjoyed that he had gotten her working at an animal shelter, where she had developed a friendship with an equally quiet and unattractive coworker named Harriet, but she had never even had had a boyfriend and still lived with him at home.
At the mention of his home, a tiny electric spark prickled his brain as he imaged what it might look like. He would get to find out when, six months after first meeting him, Morty invited him to his Long Island mansion, whose interior and exterior looked like a huge human-sized version of an opulent Victorian doll house. When he first met his daughter he was a little shocked. She had the button nose, huge long-lashed eyes and the thick glossy hair of the dolls he had spied in the toy section of Forsythe and Frost. When she said hello to him, she did so in a voice so prettily high-pitched, he could have imagined it coming out one of them were they to come to life. When she extended her hand to shake it, he did not take it. But before he could explain to her why, her mother, a slightly pump heavily bejeweled pineapple blonde lightly snapped. “Remember what we told you? They don’t shake women’s hands.”
The painful awkwardness at dinner gradually shrunk afterwards as she showed him her menagerie and told him something about each animal. She had four dogs, two cats, and four exotic birds. Though she seemed most enthusiastic about the dogs, he was most drawn to the birds. Not merely because of birds themselves, but also their cages, which were almost as dazzlingly ornate in their beauty.
Morty continued to invite him to dinner at his home every couple of weeks or so. As he had with the first dinner, he successfully pulled the wool over his father’s and David’s eyes by telling his father he was working overtime for David and telling David he was doing work for Morty – a ruse Morty was all-to-willing to help him keep afloat. After a few months of this, he began to fear it was only a matter of time before he got caught. One night, however, after the women had retired and he was waiting for Morty to take him to the train station as he always did on these nights, Morty asked him if he could not get home a bit later. He had something to talk to him about. He took him into his study where he poured him a 50-year old scotch and lit for him a Cuban cigar.
A week later, Elias, clean-shaven and pais-free in a suit bought for him by Morty, married Irene in the Grossman’s reform rabbi’s chambers, he was installed in an executive position at Forsythe and Frost, and his father, and therefore his whole family by default, had disowned him.
As he said, “I do,” the premonition came over him on him that he would never see any of them again. His brain felt clouded, heavy, the fog only lifting as a euphoric chill ran through his body. Looking at Irene and feeling for the first time an inkling of sexual desire for her, he gave her first kiss.
Eleven months later Irene gave birth to eight-pound baby boy. They named him Jonah.
Cathy Rosoff fiction has been published in Blue Lake Review, Unlikely 2.0, The Write Room and The Stone Hobo. Her novel ‘Feral Little Gods’ passed through the first round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and has been excerpted in The Write Room and The Stone Hobo. The excerpt in the latter publication was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City.
This piece is excerpted from Cathy Rosoff’s forthcoming novel, ‘Ravensbone’.