Green Stockings

Green Stockings[i]

By

Wendy Dickstein

 

It was a schizophrenic itinerary – first a week with her free-spirited brothers in Melbourne, followed by a sabbath in Boro Park with her Orthodox Jewish in-laws, and then a stopover in Ankara on the way back home to Jerusalem. Like the stark contrasts of the journey, Zoe, who had changed her name to Ziona, had navigated her way through many transformations in her life and she felt confident that she could handle anything.

In her suitcase, packed to travel light, were a jean skirt, a blue baseball cap, three tee shirts and a sweater for Melbourne, and a flowered scarf, an uncrushable beige summer suit, a shabbos robe and a modest wig for Boro Park. The last item caused her brothers great merriment.

“Yikes! what’s this?” shrieked Zack, lifting up the brown wig by one long strand of synthetic hair. “A dead mouse!” and he tossed it over Zoe’s head to Reuben, who jumped back in feigned horror, as Zack added, “Don’t tell me you’re actually planning to wear this thing.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?” asked Reuben, with indignant older brotherly concern.

“Do what?” asked Zoe. “It’s part of the uniform. I don’t mind it at all. In fact, it’s kind of fun, like going undercover or to a masquerade. Don’t you see, I can go in and out of character at will. It’s really rather liberating.” She didn’t elaborate that as soon as she got to Boro Park, she had to be covered up at all times, even when sleeping. This included a head covering because she was a married woman, a long-sleeved dress that draped her body from collarbone to mid-calf, accessorized with thick stockings and shoes which did not reveal any toe.

After fifteen years of living the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle she was equal to the task, though she had to admit that it occasionally still seemed unnatural to her. What she missed most was feeling the sun and the wind in her hair. For the past ten years, her hair had never seen the light of day. And sometimes, when she passed a non-kosher restaurant, she would gaze in the window curiously to catch a glimpse of what she might be missing. Still, her ten year marriage to the easy-going Moishe—who accepted her as she was and treated her as if she were an unexpected wondrous gift— was a happy one, unlike her earlier marriage to the free thinking, charismatic Pierre, who was liberal in ideology yet inflexible as a husband, and a philanderer to boot. She had fled from him and his adoring circle of students and never looked back, though he had made several efforts—born of hurt pride— to get her back. Zoe knew that Zack and Reuben remembered this well. They’d always referred to her first husband as “Pierre-who-didn’t-care”, despite his passionate avowal of fashionable causes. As for her second husband, they both liked the warm-hearted Moishe, who enjoyed their company and had not even the slightest inclination to transform them into “fruma yidden”, religious Jews. And so, even though they had to get used to his full beard and ubiquitous black skullcap and his frequent disappearances “to go daven”, they knew that he made their sister happy and welcomed him into the family in their own lopsided way. They tried to restrain themselves from making disparaging remarks about what they considered their sister’s intolerably restrictive life style; however, the wig in the suitcase had been too tempting to let pass.

                    ******

Zoe hummed to herself as she rolled her small black suitcase down the steps of the El Al office for early check-in. Once she disposed of her luggage she would be free to enjoy what little time remained of her visit to Melbourne. From the El Al office they were on their way to the Eltham community center for a performance of Aboriginal dance and music. Reuben was doing the lighting and he wanted his theatre friends to meet his sister.

When they got to the auditorium, Reuben took Zoe backstage and introduced her to the actors and musicians who were anxiously waiting for the curtain to go up. Standing there huddled together and looking rather miserable were four very brown Aboriginal men dressed in feathers and loincloths. Their thin legs and arms, chests and faces were elaborately painted with designs made from what looked like white chalk, or maybe it was white paint that had dried and gone chalky. They were barefoot and each wore a tight pair of red underpants surrounded by a cloth belt with strings and beads and feathers hanging down in a kind of skimpy skirt, with a red or brown cloth headband wrapped around the forehead from which protruded an assortment of feathers and ropes.

They looked anywhere in age from 20 to 60 and stared impassively at Zoe as they were introduced in turn as Coorain, “the wind”, Jerara, “falling water”, Adoni, “the sunset” and Miki, “the moon”, who was the oldest and obviously the leader of the group.

Reuben leaned against the pillar which held up the stage and, trying to appear nonchalant, explained that his cooperative community promoted Australian Aboriginal culture and that these Aboriginal actors and musicians were being hosted for a month and would be taken to perform at different regional centers in Victoria. As he continued to speak, His casual air fell away, and one could see that he was as excited as a little boy. “I want you to know, Sis, that preceding this trip, all of us at Monsalvat had a couple of study sessions where we sat and learned Aboriginal legends about the creation of the world, what they call the Dreamtime. I can tell you, it’s powerful stuff.”

Zoe looked at her brother. Your own tradition has some pretty powerful things to say about the creation of the world, too, she thought, but she knew that if she said anything, he would be offended and regard it as proselytizing on her part. So she alluded to her feelings obliquely by saying, “Hmm, the Aboriginal Genesis.”

Reuben raised an eyebrow warily, but several of the Monsalvat people looked up with interest.

“Wow, I’d never thought of that. That’s a cool connection,” said a red headed girl in tight brown and green tie dyed pants. “By the way, I’m Janice, and here’s the rest of our musical troupe.” She presented three blond young fellows, who sprang forward in polite Australian fashion, their right hands outstretched, as they were introduced.

Reuben interposed himself between them and his sister. “No guys, my sister is an Orthodox Jew and doesn’t shake hands with men,” Reuben began, but Zoe put her hand lightly on his arm and smiled,

“That’s okay Rube, I can shake hands with your friends”, and she grasped each hand in turn firmly. Of course Reuben was right, she generally didn’t shake hands with men, but not if this was going to cause someone to feel uncomfortable. Her rabbi agreed that this was the proper thing to do, citing the principle of darkei shalom, doing something for the sake of peace, even if seemed to stretch the halachic limits. Zoe concentrated on this thought, and then she noticed that the three of them, Colin, Charles and Roland, looked surprisingly alike with their long hair and pink shirts rolled up at the sleeves and open at the neck and tucked into corduroy trousers of varying shades of brown.

After the conversation meandered pleasantly for a few minutes, Zoe and Zack were directed to seats in the front row, which had “Reserved” stickers stuck to them. Shortly afterwards, the curtain rose and the performance began. It was called “Dreaming the Dreamtime” and the program described it as “a presentation in music and dance of Aboriginal legends about the origin of the world.”

The opening sequence featured an interlude of meditative keyboard music, which set the mood. Next, Janice stepped forward and with her thin fingers caressed the long hollow cylinder standing in the center of the stage. Then she began to speak in a clear reverent voice.

“The didgeridoo is one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. According to Aboriginal tradition, it is created out of a branch through which white ants eat their way to the center towards the sunlight, while the outer shell of the branch remains solid and protects the ants. Part of the branch then gradually dies and falls to the ground. After shaping the ends and marking the outside of the branch with one’s own special designs, the piece of wood which remains becomes the didgeridoo.
Some believe that there is a male spirit inside the didgeridoo and therefore women are not allowed to play it. Many see it as a phallic symbol. Miki is now going to play for you. Listen well, and let the didgeridoo’s energy penetrate your soul.”

Miki glided forward with a light graceful movement. Planting his feet slightly apart, he leaned in to the hollow wooden cylinder and blew several long rounded notes. The others on stage hit variously shaped pieces of wood together to make a multitude of accompanying sounds. Roland struck the bars of a small rectangular xylophone supported on belts of straw with two wooden hammers and Colin harmonized on an electric keyboard.

The music was eerie, seeping into one’s bones and reverberating on one’s nerves, creating an unearthly melancholy. Zoe was fascinated. It was like entering another realm, where words did not exist and consequently things need not be named to have a life of their own. There was something familiar about this feeling. Moving more deeply into it, she realized that this was the way she felt every Rosh Hashana when she heard the haunting sound of the shofar— the ram’s horn— that issued in the Jewish New Year. When everyone in the synagogue stood to hear the one hundred shofar blasts, she would close her eyes and slowly, deliberately breathe in the succession of notes, trying to keep them with her for as long as possible, until their echo died away and dissolved somewhere deep inside her.

Pondering the connection between these two primeval instruments, Zoe realized what it was they had in common. When the living breath is blown through the hollow branch of the didgeridoo or the hollow horn of the ram, the physical is transmuted into spirit, as the human heart cries out to its maker.

When Miki concluded his didgeridoo solo, Charles came to the front of the stage to explain the notion of jiva, seed power. “For the Aborigines, every event leaves behind it a vibrational residue in the earth, just as plants leave an image of themselves as seeds. The shape of the land, with its mountains and rivers, and its unseen vibrations, echo the events that create a particular place. Aborigines believe that the past is always alive in this way.”

Zoe attended carefully to each word. The Dreamtime story of the beginning of the world really did complement the Old Testament account of Creation. The idea that everything in the natural world has a spiritual counterpart which leaves a symbolic footprint of its creator resonated for her with significance and splendor.

Charles continued his explanation. “As it is with a seed, so is an earthly location inextricably bound up with the memory of its origin. The Aborigines call this the ‘dreaming’ of a place, and this is what constitutes the sacredness of the earth.”

Zoe knew all about this. After all, didn’t she live in Jerusalem, that most ancient of cities, whose every stone and olive tree carries memories of the past? It was remarkable how things looked so different in different corners of the earth—these strangely painted Aborigines and their uncanny music in contrast to the bearded men and wigged women of her Orthodox Jewish world— yet whose meanings seemed to echo each other at the core. Maybe that was what this journey of hers was all about. Making connections, while at the same time taking something for yourself and living it out to the full, as she was trying to do with this observant Jewish lifestyle— because it is yours by tradition. Yet knowing that beneath it all kinds of connections are possible with other lifestyles and other traditions. And don’t they enrich each other, she thought, like pieces of a huge cosmic puzzle, which appear so fragmented, yet coalesce into a seamless whole if our vision is only broad enough to see this?

Zoe knew that neither the Aborigines nor her Orthodox Jewish relatives would appreciate this kind of universalist thinking. Both were too deeply immersed in their own worlds. But for Zoe, who saw everything through a different prism because of her variegated past, this made sense. There were not too many people she could share this perception with. Even Moishe—born into the comfortable warm traditional Jewish world—thought his wife charming and whimsical, but he did not take these reflections of hers very seriously. That was all right, though, thought Zoe. My skewed perspective comes from who I am and all the places I have been. It was like seeing the world reflected through a shattered stained glass window.

Even Zoe’s Hebrew name, Ziona, was not quite conventional. It had been given to her by her first rabbi, a white bearded kabbalist from the Negev desert city of Netivot. She had gone to visit him with a friend, as an adventure. He had advised her to change her lifestyle and take on a Hebrew name. He had looked into her neshama, as he’d called it—her soul—and saw that she had a strenuous spiritual journey ahead of her and that to begin she must immerse herself in a mikve, a ritual bath, to cleanse herself of all her past misfortunes. He told her that she had a special tikkun, a mission of spiritual repair to fulfill in this world and she must begin by taking on a specifically Jewish identity. This meant changing the way she did even the most basic things, like eating, dressing, relating to time. “Begin celebrating the Sabbath,” he advised. “Eat kosher food, dress modestly.” Only then, he promised her, would her ultimate purpose would be revealed. It sounded appealingly mystical. The shipwreck of her life after Pierre had left her with a deep inner hunger, a yearning for a new direction. She had nothing to lose and so set out on this expedition, curious to find out where it would lead.

As she reminisced, the last strains of the didgeridoo died away and the performance came to an end. Enthusiastic applause filled up every corner of the auditorium. There was to be a party later that evening. Reuben would have liked her to be there, but by then Zoe would be on the plane to New York. Her visit was over. It had been a voyage back through the corridors of her discarded past life and had enabled her to reconnect with her brothers after a long absence and to celebrate the things they still had in common.

She gathered up her belongings, making sure her airline ticket and passport were at the forefront of her handbag. Then she hurried out to meet the taxi which was to convey her to the airport. She hugged Reuben and Zack, who stood beside the taxi looking sad. “Keep safe in Jerusalem, Sis. Don’t get too pious on us, and don’t forget us.” Zack’s deep voice rang out, gravelly with emotion, as he shut the taxi door with a definitive thud.

***

The flight was interminable. By the time she arrived at JFK she felt as if she had been around the entire world. Three of her husband’s nephews, whom she had never met, awaited her in the arrival hall. They were the sons of Moishe’s older sister Freyda. Their father Tuvia had insisted that they meet her at the airport as a sign of respect for their uncle and to welcome her officially into the family. Even though she and Moishe had been married for ten years, this was the first time she would be meeting the New York relatives.

Barrel, Mordechai, and Gabriel were slim, dark bearded men in their late thirties. They had eight, nine and ten children respectively, and more to be expected. They had long curled earlocks pushed behind their ears and wore dark old fashioned suits with slightly baggy trousers, sober ties and black felt fedora hats angled forward on their heads. They stood huddled in a private little group. They’d been waiting about forty minutes and used the time for a talmudic discussion. The three of them worked all day in the city— Mordechai in a travel agency, Berel in computers, Gabriel in chocolate—and they looked forward to the evenings when they could study a page of gemora together or listen to a lecture from a visiting rabbi. They lived within three blocks of each other and were accustomed to these joint learning sessions every evening.

Berel was excited about a point he wanted to emphasize. He began to sway back and forth as though in prayer. “In the third chapter of Hilchos Teshuvah, the Rambam maintains that the sounding of the shofar contains an allusion to how to have a more meaningful life. It is telling us: ‘Awake from your slumber ― examine your deeds...’ The Rambam is being practical here. He is giving us a way to make sense of something that is basically incomprehensible, directing us to look behind the appearance of things to the reality that lies within. ”

Mordechai took up the thread of his brother’s reasoning. He smoothed down his beard and chewed briefly on the end of his moustache before he spoke.

“Yes, but Rav Saadiah Gaon goes even further. He presents ten symbolic meanings for blowing shofar. The last of these reminds us that in the future a great shofar will sound to proclaim the end of days and the resurrection of the dead.”

Gedalia then quoted from memory: “Yeshayahu 18: ‘All you inhabitants of the world…when an ensign is lifted on the mountains you shall see, and when the shofar is sounded you shall hear.’ This seems to be speaking about a deeper seeing and hearing, doesn’t it? Something which transcends the physical.”

Suddenly a female voice piped up. “Yes, that is just how the Kabbalists describe Rosh Hashana. They say that it is a cosmic drama which repeats itself each year, that the world falls asleep on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and is then awakened the following morning by the sound of the shofar. They also say that the sounds of the shofar contain the whole process of creation.”

Startled, the three men turned towards the woman’s voice. There, standing before them, tottering under the weight of her oversized handbag, was a tall, smiling, middle aged woman. They’d seen photos of Uncle Moishe’s new wife and knew approximately what she looked like. Appearing suddenly like this, though, she was not quite what they had anticipated. Apart from her unexpected intrusion into their discussion, she looked a little disheveled from the long trip, her wig subtly askew.

“Shoilem aleichem,” Berel laughed, a little embarrassed. “You must be our Aunt Ziona”. She dropped her bag with a graceless thud. “I’m Berel. This is Mordechai, we call him Mutty, and this is Gabriel, Gaby.”

“Thanks for coming to meet me,” she said, comfortable in the knowledge that they would not want to shake hands with her. She smiled broadly―hoping that the warmth of her smile would compensate for the lack of a hug, God forbid, or a handshake―and directed them to the rest of her luggage, which was just coming around on the carousel. Gaby bent forward and lifted the black suitcase, with the yellow ribbon tied around its handle, off the carousel and Berel picked up the handbag from the floor, while Mutty retrieved the car keys and the parking voucher from his jacket pocket and led the way to the car.

When they got out of the wide double glass sliding doors, a blast of hot New York night summer air hit Zoe in the face, making her feel giddy and drugged after the long plane ride. But the drive over the bridge to Brooklyn sliced through the lights of New York City and her cloud of jet lag. She was suddenly very alert and ready to meet her new relatives, with all the excitement of a child who has finally been adopted after a long spell in an airless, sunless orphanage.

******

Freyda lived in the same well-worn two-storey brownstone in which she and Tuvia had raised their twelve children. Her youngest daughter Chani, with her husband Shloime and their seven children, lived upstairs, which had been converted into separate living quarters with the addition of a new kitchen and bathroom. Freyda settled her sister-in-law into the bedroom which had belonged to the older girls, Esther and Rivka, when they were still living at home. It was a long narrow room and had been newly painted about eight years ago. Later, as she lay in bed, Zoe looked around the room and tried to imagine what it would have been like growing up in a religious home like this. The framed needlepoint on the walls had been done by the girls as school projects, and beneath each frame was an accompanying class photo in a smaller frame. Esther had carefully cross-stitched a rendition of Kever Rochel in woolen threads of brown and green. Rachel’s small domed tomb was a traditional place of pilgrimage for women, and its image evoked deep emotion and faith. In the class photo, Esther and all her classmates looked out of little individual circles with serious expressions. In the center of the photo was a larger circle for their teacher, with her name, Mrs. Sara Schissel, printed underneath in spiky black letters. She gazed fondly on her girls, with a proud yet modest smile.

Rivka’s needlepoint was of a woman in a kerchief standing before a candelabra, her hands covering her eyes as she recited the blessing over the Shabbos candles with four children clustered around her. Bright rays of yellow yarn encircled the candles and the children. Rivka’s class photo revealed younger girls, all smiling. Their young teacher, Mrs. Hannah Green, looked kind and gentle and a little uncertain as she stared out of her frame.

Zoe remembered her own final high school art project. It was an elaborate painting made of mosaic tiles in a stained wood frame. Her art teacher, Howard Moss, a tall, languid, long-haired artist, on whom half of the girls in the class—including Zoe—had a crush, had encouraged them to choose a philosophical idea that was important to them and to illustrate it. Zoe had been in a dark brooding mood then and she had chosen an ancient Chinese quotation which had appealed to her sense of melancholy. She had meticulously practiced forming the Chinese characters, with the help of Louie Chan, a Chinese American classmate, until she had been able to paint them on small blue and green tiles, set above an English translation which read: “Life is despair and pain. But I am no bird and I can not fly away.” Her mother still had the painting hanging on the living room wall. If her year book photo had accompanied the project, it would have shown a soulful, dark eyed girl in a black shirt and jeans gazing wistfully at the camera.

Ziona unpacked her suitcase, kicked off her shoes and took off her wig and placed it on the white styrofoam head that sat on the bureau, beside the ceramic bowl and pitcher which she would use for negel vasser, the ritual washing of hands, as soon as she awoke tomorrow morning. She slipped into her long robe, tied the kerchief around her hair and turned back the cover on the bed.

The next day was Thursday and after prayers and a late breakfast, Freyda, who turned out to be just as Moishe had described her— warm and feisty and down-to-earth—took her sister-in-law shopping. They went to Thirteenth Avenue, Brooklyn’s famous street of bargains. Ziona loved mingling with the crowds, proud to belong to the community of Orthodox Jews walking comfortably down the street chatting to each other. It reminded her of some of the religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem and she marveled at how far she had travelled to finally feel at home, both here in Boro Park and back in Jerusalem. Her satisfaction was complete when they visited the wig store and Dafna, the Israeli saleswoman, greeted her as a landesman, a compatriot. It turned out that Dafna’s sister, Irit, also attended Ziona’s Jerusalem synagogue, Shaarei Tefila,“Gates of Prayer”, and Irit and Ziona had found seats next to each other in the women’s section during the high holidays last year. Ziona remembered her well. They had stood side by side with the rest of the congregation during the blowing of the shofar and Irit had handed Ziona a tissue with silent understanding as the tears poured down her cheeks and she’d searched through her pockets in vain for something to stem the flow.

“It’s a small world,” remarked Freyda approvingly, “olam katan.” “We’re all connected to each other in some way.”

Saturday morning as she was getting dressed for the Sabbath, Zoe congratulated herself on having made a successful transition between such different spiritual universes. She put on the beige suit and fastened the row of tiny gold buttons to the very last one. Then she slipped her single string of pearls―a gift from Moishe for their tenth anniversary―over her head, being careful not to mess up the wig, which she had sprayed with a thick mist of hairspray and combed out the morning before, since it was prohibited to use a comb on the sabbath. She looked in the mirror and saw a serene Orthodox woman gazing back at her. “Meet Mrs. Ziona Feldman,” she intoned, bowing slightly to her image. Pleased with herself, she marveled once more at how gratifying it was to be able to glide so effortlessly between the secular and the religious worlds.

She thought back lovingly to her last meeting with her brothers. Dear Rube, dear Zack, you are both so precious to me, but I had to leave you behind. It seems clear that you belong in your world, since neither of you are ready to make the journey to mine. Standing before the mirror, she thought of Reuben and his Monsalvat friends and their enthusiastic embrace of those sullen Aborigines with their imaginative Dreamtime legends. Zack, who lived his life with gentle grace and humor, had his own causes—Greenpeace and gay rights—about which he was occasionally vociferous but mostly laid back, attending demonstrations when they arose but not doing much else.

She remembered when she too had marched in demonstrations so many years ago, stepping quickly beside Pierre, trying to keep up with his long nervous gait. She recalled the adrenalin rush and the feeling of self-righteousness those demonstrations had always occasioned.

Lost in thought, she sat on the bed and rummaged in her suitcase, but couldn’t remember what she was looking for. Oh yes, stockings. There were seven pairs, four beige, two black and one green, all neatly folded. Pausing, she finally decided on the green, “You can never go wrong with a little color, can you?” She took them out of the suitcase and unrolled them smoothly up over her legs.

“Ziona, are you ready to go to shul?” Freyda called through the door. When the door swung open, she came into the room with Chani, who was five months pregnant. Behind her, six of Chani’s children spilled into the room, where they curiously examined their new relative. After Ziona had zipped up her suitcase and pushed it under the bed, she noticed that the children were giggling; the little ones openly, the older girls more discretely with their hands shielding their mouths. Freyda and Chani had unmistakable looks of horror on their faces.

She had a moment of panic. The prayer book she had taken out of the suitcase slipped from her hand and fell to the floor. She retrieved it gently and kissed its white leather spine, the customary gesture of recompense for such mishaps. “What’s wrong?” she asked, “Did something happen?”

“No, nothing happened…not yet. But something is certainly wrong. You can’t wear green stockings to shul! Not in Boro Park. That would be a shanda, a disgrace. I’m sorry, dear, but you must change them right away.”

“Oh!” It took a moment to register. “All right, then.” She laughed a small dry laugh. Then, moving with determination, she reached behind the bed and slid out the suitcase, unzipped it and extracted her thickest pair of beige stockings ― 60 denier. Before she turned around again to face her relatives, she feared she was going to be overcome by a flurry of tears. But the feeling lifted as quickly as it had come and with it the corners of her mouth curled upwards into a private, enigmatic smile.

 

 

 

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Winter 2010 Volume 7 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2010 Women in Judaism, Inc.

 

All material in the journal is subject to copyright; copyright is held by the journal except where otherwise indicated. There is to be no reproduction or distribution of contents by any means without prior permission. Contents do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors.

 



[i] Women in Judaism’s First Annual Writing Competition, Second Place winner in Short Fiction.



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