I first told the story of my “Match of Faith” many years ago. But I did not tell the part about the curse. It took almost 26 years to be able to do so.
I shamefully confess, I have wished others harm.
My husband Avraham is always astonished at the fact that I dare actually express what I’m thinking – let alone think it at all. The cold, embarrassing truth is that I do think things like, “What the heck! Look at her cushy life. And mine is so hard! How does this even make sense?!” Or, “Oh yeah! My fiftieth birthday and you couldn’t acknowledge the invitation till after the party ‘cos you never intended on showing?! Inner circle friend? Not anymore! Don’t expect me to be part of your life!” As if the loss is all hers and not mine.
Stuff like that.
But of course, there are darker thoughts too. Like the ones I had have about the landlord who loaded cell towers on the roof, illegally hiked rent because he knew the locals were desperate for quarters, and allowed his Armenian super to paint the elevator the colors of his national flag. The clincher is personal. (Isn’t it always?) He refused to give us a bigger apartment after we complained about the rats and roaches. I was young! And naïve! I didn’t know you curry favor with landlords and supers! Regardless of the fact that I likely have to thank him for withholding all those bigger spaces and hastening our exit, there’re many times I had have to hold myself from not praying he lands up living in a studio joint with a landlord as nasty as he is!
I could tell you I don’t curse others because I was cursed – but that wouldn’t be true.”
Not pretty, the inside of my mind.
The truth, thank G-d, is that, despite Avremel’s dismay at my expression of such ignoble feelings as resentment, jealousy and anger, he knows me better. He knows I don’t really wish the landlord harm G-d forbid.
I catch myself.
I catch myself not only because of the Talmudic teaching “Better to be amongst those who are cursed than those who curse.” And not only because I want a good life for myself and loved ones. Or because I am embarrassed lest others become privy to my ego and inner menagerie. I may not be scheduling coffee at Starbucks with the gal I’ve got a grievance with but I catch myself because I know another person’s suffering does nothing to heal our world. More deeply, I do it because I’m realizing I don’t know why life goes down the way it does and that there really, truly, really is a bigger picture and that G-d really, truly, really does have a handle on the whole deal. And deeper still, I catch myself because G-d doesn’t want me to wish bad on others. Even when a part of me is selfishly, shamefully seething.
I could tell you I don’t curse others because I was cursed – but that wouldn’t be true. I mean, it is true that I was cursed. It’s just not why I myself work on not invoking harm through my words.
Finding Room for More than One
I used to meet a woman at shul each week. She was curt in the kind of way that makes you think it’s just in your mind and you’re being overly sensitive. One day, some weeks after having given birth to my twins, I spoke at an event where she was a participant. At the end of the seventh month I had become allergic to my own pregnancy and survived by miracle. Now, two months later, my skin was still green from liver damage and I was thin enough to make women who want to look like Twiggy green with envy. Concentrating took effort. After my talk the woman from shul came toward the podium. I swallowed my trepidation.
“I want to apologize,” she said.
I looked at her. Concentrating took effort.
“For all the times I’ve been rude to you” she continued. “I know you tried. I saw you as…Well, seeing you now and knowing what happened…I’m sorry.”
It took my having nearly died and being profoundly vulnerable for her to be able to find a place in our common world for me that didn’t threaten her.”
It took my having nearly died and being profoundly vulnerable for her to be able to find a place in our common world for me that didn’t threaten her. That said, she never cursed me. She simply resented me for taking up too much space. She’s right of course. I do. I’m working on it. At the same time, I cannot but allow room for her to work on discovering that the world has ample place for both of us to be happy and successful and purposeful and all the other blessed states we wish on ourselves and loved ones. But no, it definitely wasn’t her.
I don’t know who the person is. Have no clue in fact. And I don’t care to find out. It is similar to my decision not to look in the eyes of the man who attacked me at the entrance to my parents’ home. I wanted to have no memory of his face. It’s something like that with her. I must have known her personally. But I don’t want to know she’s the one. It’s been too long for that. Almost three decades.
The Bar of Soap
Years ago when I wrote up the story of how I met my husband, I left out the curse. I’m not sure why I can tell this part of the story now. Maybe it’s that twenty six years have created enough distance. Maybe it is that I’m old enough to be able to admit, “I loved another man” without feeling I am betraying my marriage. There issomething seemingly sacrilegious in admitting that fact even twenty six years of hours and days later. Life is subtle. I hold many parts and differing truths within my heart at any given moment. That must be it…my ability to not be embarrassed of the fact that I loved him all those years ago and even after he was gone.
Ten days before our wedding left little time to adjust to my new reality. Though would a year’s notice have made it easier? It was a very difficult loss. He was an extraordinary person.
It was so bitter and so sweet to have him that close, to finally be in those empty arms.”
I still have a bar of soap Yehoshua used. I found it sorting through his belongings alone in an apartment that belonged to a friend who’d gone upstate with her husband for the summer. There was also a cardigan, the faint smell of his body still in its armpits. Both were profoundly evocative of him. Alone in the dark I held the sweater and soap to my face. I wrapped the arms of the cardigan around the back of my neck and breathed. I imagined the touch I’d never felt and spoke with him and wept. It was so bitter and so sweet to have him that close, to finally be in those empty arms. Almost a year later, cleaning for Pesach, I came across the soap. I removed it from the plastic bag and moved my fingers very slowly over the bar as if across his face. Its fragrance brought back the smell of him in the car the first time we met as he, in his remarkable blend of mastery and innocence, sang a song from an opera; and the faint smell of him beside me on the bench in Prospect Park with a backdrop of spring and succulent grass when he proposed.
Over the years, I came to look forward to the few minutes with Yehoshua during my annual cleaning. With time the soap lost it fragrance. I’d have to rub it, then rub it harder, then scratch into it to release the smell. How strange that a bar of soap could afford me the chance to be with him a little. Mostly I have spent those few minutes each year alone with Yehoshua. Only rarely do I wonder if she ever wonders about what had happened or how hard the loss of him was.
“After a fire comes wealth,” I was told. And so, with my trousseau in ashes, I optimistically went out and bought a lottery ticket.
“How will they notify me if I win?” I thought as I left the corner café.
Wealth is a state of mind. I have learned that by experience. “Who is truly wealthy?” the sages ask. “The person who is happy with their lot.” I’ll tell you this…money’s a lot easier to come by than wealth! That cliché about making lemonade from the lemons life throws at you? I don’t even like lemonade!
As with his passing, her words came as a shock that flowed through my body. I was sitting on the bed playing my messages from one of those big black machines we used before cell phones. Remember how we used to press the Forward and Rewind and Delete and Save buttons? Looking back I was naïve to the point of foolish as I skimmed through them. It had just never occurred to me that someone would hate me as much as she seemed to. Amidst the “hello’s” and “love ya” or “caallll me!” messages – was hers.
Now I’m certain it was all nonsense. That ‘warning’ was from someone stricken with jealousy.”
“SheMOWnuah!” she hissed, “You lying…Wait till…” I must breathe now even as I write. Twenty one words and eons of ill will. At first I was in shock and then I was afraid. Each replay opened a new awareness of how much someone could not bear my happiness.
My go-to call was Eli. Rabbi Eli as his students call him. The person who had made my match and whom I have been privileged to receive wise guidance from as I walk this lifetime.
“Oy,” he cried. “I am so relieved!”
“Relieved! We didn’t tell you but Shterna, Bronya and I have been getting calls from someone. Supposedly to warn you that Yehoshua is gay. But she wouldn’t give her name. Something was fishy. So I flew in to New York and met with him. Shimona, I sat with him. He’s not gay. But inside, can’t be helped, one still has the faintest doubt. I didn’t know whether to tell you or not. We decided no. Now I’m certain it was all nonsense. That ‘warning’ was from someone stricken with jealousy. Go ahead and prepare for your wedding in happiness and peace.”
Weeks earlier, on the Sunday we had announced our engagement, the Rebbe had responded to my request for a blessing for our marriage with the words, “May G‑d Almighty bless you to hear good news all the days of your life.” As Rabbi Silberstein spoke to me now, that blessing rose to the surface of my mind like a plant to the surface of water. It floated there ever so briefly and then in silence sank back. I almost didn’t notice it.
I could tell it differently but this is the way it went down.
Two days before my scheduled departure to South Africa for our marriage, I still didn’t have my ticket. When it arrived in the mail that Friday at noon I excitedly called my mom to say, “No worries. The ticket arrived!”
My grandmother picked up.
“Bubby, I have it! The ticket arrived!” I cried.
She was silent.
“Oh my! It must be Shabbos at you,” I said. “I’m sorry. Didn’t realize it was so late. Tell mom I love her and I’ll see you all on Sunday!”
I hung up.
What I didn’t know is that my mother already knew about the accident. Having lit candles, she was standing in the entrance vestibule mouthing to my grandmother to not say a word.
Later she would tell me, “As I was bathing for Shabbat, a dirge kept going through my mind. I couldn’t make sense of it. When the call came in about Yehoshua, I had minutes to candle lighting. I couldn’t bear the thought of telling you in a rush and you all alone and then having to leave you in midair with all that pain until Sunday. I had to leave it to G-d to reveal the facts to you the way He thought fit.”
The moment I put down the phone, I was the most alone I had ever been.”
As it turns out, she wasn’t the only one who had difficulty telling me. Yehoshua’s learning partner met me in the bank but although he intimated something was wrong, he couldn’t tell me what. Neither would the dorm mother, when we got there. Nor my teacher Shterna to whom I was sent for the answer. Even Eli couldn’t say the actual words.
“Eli, how is he?” I asked half an hour after leaving the bank.
“Eli, will there be a wedding?” I asked.
“No,” he choked.
I sat down at the top of Shterna’s stairs. The moment I put down the phone, I was the most alone I had ever been. The kitchen was empty behind me and the stairs seemed to stretch like a canyon before me. So this was my wealth. I would not see him again. The loneliness felt like it would rip my body in two. I looked up at the ceiling and a deep cry lifted from my heart and rose through my throat and out into the space above the canyon staircase.
In that lonely and grief filled stairwell, I did for a moment think of the phone message. I was quite certain she didn’t know yet. But she would soon. Would she be happy? I was, after all, not going to marry Yeshoshua. Would she feel guilty? That somehow her jealous intent had killed him? I certainly didn’t think so! I felt then, and still do, a pity for her. How to live with having a wish like that realized. And never being able to definitively say, “It was not my doing” even though she could not possibly have cut his life shorter by even a moment. That doubt. Maybe the thought never occurred to her. In the event it did, I have often wanted her to know I feel no malice. Quite the contrary, her words serve as a signpost for me that G-d’s remarkable world is abundant enough for all of us.
I guess her words did change my life and the fire brought me wealth after all.