The toilet paper is the last straw. I’ve been doing my best to be patient, accepting. But when Steph points out a package of flimsy tissues and asks me to use that and not tear toilet paper from the roll, I lose it.
As I rant, her face is forbearing but firm. She holds her pile of folded laundry perfectly steady. My tirade is just a fraction of the pre-Shabbat uproar of tantrums, whistling kettle, beeping microwave, high-volume radio, chair-dragging, clinking plates and silverware that fill my big sister’s small apartment. I take a deep breath in the middle of a loud sentence.
Itay, Steph’s five-year-old (number four of six) walks out of the boys’ room and stares at me. I put my hand on the lintel of the bathroom door ‒ to steady my spirit more than to hold up my body. Maybe I should leave before the rules kick in. But where would I go? Back home to Mom would be worse. Back on the road?
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Of course. It’s your place. I get it. It’s a rule.”
Steph smiles, hugs me, then holds me by the shoulders and looks at me like she used to when I’d come home from school with holes in my jeans that Mom hadn’t yet seen.
“Little sis. I love you.”
Itay reaches up between us to see who will respond first. I pick him up and give him a squeeze.
“Can I just have on record that I think, that of all the Shabbat rules you’ve so carefully laid out and explained over the last hour, this is the most ridiculous?”
“Shir?” Dov’s tenor voice sounds from the kids’ room. Shir is what everyone here in Jerusalem calls Steph. “Can you come a minute? Bruria is having a wardrobe crisis.”
“Just a minute. I’m in the middle…” Steph replies as she disappears into her and Dov’s room with the laundry. Itay pushes my cheek to get my attention.
“Why don’t you like Shabbat?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say to him quite honestly. “I haven’t tried it yet.”
I’ve been trekking for two years to have adventures, learn about the world, meet interesting people and have sex that my mother will never know about, but mostly because that’s what Steph did when she was my age, six years ago, instead of going to college. I’m not ashamed to say that, up until now, I’ve molded my life after hers. Why be ashamed when you have a big sister who has lived a near-perfect life, or did, as far as I can see, until she ended up in Jerusalem? Why not follow in her footsteps? But not this far.
Like her, I started in India, went south to Sri Lanka, then north to Kashmir and Nepal, then continued into Tibet and China and Mongolia, then south again to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. I found companions and lovers and parted from them; walked endless dusty roads; took time off in ashrams and monasteries Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist; learned the rudiments of several languages and of ancient and modern philosophies; saw things my mother never dreamed of and would not agree to look at if they came her way. And then, after more than two years on the road, I flew from Bangkok to Israel because that is what Steph had done and this is where she has been ever since. Mom hates Dov, by the way.
She sent me five long emails from there, about a kibbutz she lived on for a while, an army officer she loved for a time, books she read. The fourth one, written while she was hiking the northern part of the Israel Trail, offered a brief sketch of Dov and a photo was attached ‒ stubble on sun-red skin and watery brown eyes peering out from under a ragged, drab wide-brimmed cloth hat, a Russian-style shirt revealing a hairy chest, long bare legs and sandals. Dov, she said, was from Chicago and was on break from studies in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, not one of those Chabad ones, she stressed, an open place where they didn’t force anything on you. By the fifth letter, she was in Jerusalem, enrolled in the same school. The next letter announced their engagement and the wedding was three months later, in early January. Mom didn’t smile the whole ceremony. I was in ninth grade.
Dov takes Bruria and the two older children to synagogue. Steph nurses the baby and reads a story about the Torah portion to Itay and Neria. The candles, two lit by Steph and two more that I had wanted to avoid but which I lit after Itay again asked me why I don’t like Shabbat, burn on a shelf in the corner where the dining room table is already set. My cell phone is out of hearing range, stuffed into a pocket of my pack. Itay and Neria work on a puzzle together, rather than fighting as they usually do. It is the first really quiet moment since my arrival three days ago.
Steph shoulders and burps the baby.
I screw up my courage. “Can I ask you a question?” Then we both laugh because I sound just like Mom.
“Do you really believe in God?”
She hesitates and begins to speak, but I want to clarify myself.
“I don’t mean some philosophical idea, I mean a God who actually hears you when you pray, who looks out for you, who cares that you don’t tear toilet paper, even along the perforation, between 18 minutes before sundown on Friday and the appearance of three stars in a visible section of the sky on Saturday night? Do you feel that a God like that is with you now? All the time?”
She moves the baby to her other breast. “Sometimes God is there and sometimes it isn’t,” she says. “When it’s there I believe and when it’s not, I don’t.”
“What’s the relation?” I press her. “How often is He there and how often is He not?”
She looks past me, in thought. “I felt it first walking with Dov on the trail. A few times here and there when I studied. At the wedding. In the hospital when each child was born. Most Friday nights, at this moment, after candle-lighting, when it’s quiet, for a minute or two.”
“And it’s all worth it, all these rules, to have a God you don’t believe in most of the time?”
Shouts outside the door. It bursts open and the kids run in, followed by Dov. He grins at me, then goes over to Steph to kiss her and the baby. He’s careful not to touch me, but in his gaze there is a brotherly embrace I feel nevertheless.
“Let’s sit down,” he says. “I’m famished.”
In Sri Lanka, a Buddhist monk (an American, from Albuquerque, but he had lived there for many years) explained to me that we are deluded in thinking that that we live in time, that our experiences five years ago, one year ago, five minutes ago, are connected, and will also be connected to the experiences we will have tomorrow. We believe they are connected because we think they all happen to the same person, the thing that we see as ourselves, but that is a fallacy. There is no person to connect those experiences, and the Buddha’s epiphany came when he understood that it is this illusion that causes all suffering. Here is the fallacy of Hindu ritual, he hotly asserted (for he had been a Hindu for a time before becoming a Buddhist). He denounced a Hindu teacher named Adi Shankara for claiming that ritual is essential to overcoming ego. On the contrary, ritual perpetuates the illusion of selfhood. The person who rejects the concept of the self will experience suffering no more. But will we experience happiness? I asked. He said that the ultimate joy is freedom from pain. But who enjoys that joy? I was actually too embarrassed to ask him that question, but it bothered me even as I tried to learn to meditate and allow my soul to break free of my body and the world around me. I wrote to Steph to ask her, for she had spent time in this same monastery and she was the type who would ask. Why, she wondered, were the Buddhists so afraid of suffering? Wasn’t some trouble, even anguish, a price worth paying to know joy?
“What’s wrong?” Steph asks in alarm when I emerge from the bathroom. I went after the salatim; Dov had gone to read Neria a bedtime story and we had some time before the main course.
“I tore the toilet paper,” I confess. “I forgot. It was just instinct.”
Steph giggles. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“If it was Mom’s rule I’d get a tongue-lashing.”
“Mom’s rules were made to be broken. Remember the one about turning the water off when we soaped ourselves? She’d listen outside the bathroom door.”
We have a laugh and tell the kids about some of the other rules we’d had to put up with when we were their age. They grimace and make up ridiculous rules of their own; it turns into a game.
Dov comes back and sits in his place, exhausted. I go with Steph to help get the main dishes off the hotplate and onto the table. As we arrange serving spoons in the dishes, I ask her, softly: “Isn’t it like you’re replacing one set of rules for another? Instead of Mom, you have Shabbat? All I want is not to have any rules at all.”
Steph thinks a minute. “What do you think Mom hates more? You not having any rules or me having different ones?”
By this time, we are at the table. Dov serves; he gives me way too much.
For a few weeks, in Mongolia, I shared a yurt with a smooth-skinned, long-haired Greek boy who looked like he was 16 but was actually 30. He sang as he made love to me and claimed to have no memories of his childhood. He had been on the road for many years, he did not know how long. He took each day as it came, he said; he was a roamer who needed no home and wanted no attachments. He was so insistent he was happy that I wasn’t convinced. You must have a mother, you must remember her, I said. He said he did not. Perhaps he had had a mother, of course he did, he admitted, but as far as he was concerned, she did not exist. She must have been horrible, I said. What did she do? He shrugged. She was fine, he said. A mother, like all the others. But he did not believe in mothers any more.
“Aunt Caroline doesn’t like Shabbat,” Itay announces to his father. The other kids laugh. Itay is insulted. To prove his case, he turns to me. “You don’t, right?”
“Well, I’ve only had a little of it,” I say. “But so far, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.”
Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is now available as an e-book, paperback, and hardback on Amazon and all other vendors. Click here for purchase links and more information.
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