Sleep Tight, Ya Morons
“Are you too busy again to come with us, Hannah?” Deborah asked as they left school.
“I’m afraid I have to pass up the thrill of going three blocks out of my way to watch the boys leaving the yeshiva,” Hannah said. “Not that I don’t enjoy seeing you and the others peek through your fingers and giggle and gossip about your marriage prospects.”
“Forgive me. I should’ve known the rebbetzin-in-training would have no time for fun.” Of course Hannah wanted to be a rebbetzin. What girl didn’t? As a rabbi’s wife, perhaps the wife of a famous one, she’d have unlimited opportunities to perform tikkun olam, helping to repair the world, an obligation she considered to be Judaism’s most sacred. Rav Moscovitz would’ve been outraged had she told him her opinion, but she’d never do that. She listened to Rav Moscowitz, didn’t speak to him.
Deborah tucked an errant hair under her headscarf and pulled up her shapeless wool coat to cover her neck. Lips moving, she swayed back and forth as if davening in prayer. Hannah didn’t mind her friends teasing her for following God’s commandments. Having recently turned fifteen, soon to be introduced to her future husband, she had every reason to hope for the best as long as her sterling reputation remained untarnished.
It seemed to her that everyone, not just her friends, made fun of her. Just this morning at breakfast, she’d said, “God must love gentiles very much, He made so many of them.” Her father called her my little philosopher, and her mother sat with her elbow on her knee, fist under her chin, mimicking a famous statue. When she played with them, Hannah’s younger sisters, Rivka, Sarah, and Rebekah and her younger brother, Isaac, enjoyed laughing at her silliness. Maybe in part because she herself came from such a small family, Hannah thought five children would be the proper number for a rebbetzin who’d need time to help the members of the community and maybe even engage with the outside world.
In spite of their teasing, Hannah knew her parents loved her and liked it when she expressed her own thoughts…as long as she didn’t go too far. While there were many unbendable rules, the basic ones were clear and simple: to follow the Torah, put the needs of the community before her own desires, and honor her father, mother, and Rav Moscovitz. Leaving Deborah, Hannah headed home through familiar streets. So far the winter of 1990 had been cold and wet. Today was no exception. She pulled her headscarf tight against the wind-driven drizzle and realized she’d been singing to herself: The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy, a Yiddish lullaby she’d sung yesterday to Rivka as she tucked her in for her nap.
A man came from the other direction. She sensed him look at her. Lately men seemed to be staring at her all the time, probably her overactive imagination. She focused her gaze on the sidewalk, but not before noticing that, although he wore a yarmulke, the man didn’t have a full beard. Her father disliked the modern orthodox almost as much as he disliked reformed and conservative Jews, whom he called minim, heretics. The way he would spit out the word communicated that he considered them even worse than the Christian or atheist goyim. “We don’t dislike other people,” her mother had explained. “Our traditions and our community keep us safe and make us who we are. Those people who think it’s okay for men and women to touch in public or turn on lights on Shabbos compromise with the word of God.” She didn’t need to remind Hannah of God’s feelings about such compromisers and doubters.
Hannah had never had a conversation of more than a few dozen words with someone who wasn’t haredi, ultra-orthodox. But under the covers, with a flashlight, while her family slept, she would read decidedly un-orthodox books, even essays by Emma Goldman, a distant relative whom her family referred to rarely and then only in angry whispers. But what she wrote made sense: The most violent element in society is ignorance. And she could be funny: Every society has the criminals it deserves.
As she walked, Hannah delighted in the tiny droplets of rain that hit her face with cold little hellos, like angels brushing their wings against her skin. Yes, she was odd, but in a nice way. Or so she hoped.
The sky darkened and the droplets became full-fledged raindrops. The butcher, Mordechai Kaplan, stood in the doorway of his shop, looking out on the street, now deserted except for Hannah. His stomach seemed about to burst through his blood-splattered apron. Blood? Only small spots, but there shouldn’t have been any by the time the meat arrived at his store. The shochet must drain all blood from the carcass.
Although she’d known him for four years—a relative newcomer to the community, he’d arrived from upstate, when the community’s previous butcher died—Hannah averted her eyes, as she would with any man outside her home. But also, the way he always stared at her while he spoke to her mother seemed creepy. Yet another example of the overactive imagination Mother chided her about.
A puddle forced her to step closer to the shop, close enough to smell the rotten egg stink of bad chicken.
“Come in, warm up,” the butcher said.
She’d never do such a thing.
He stepped into the rain and looked up and down the street. Then he grabbed her wrist. Yanked her inside.
Hannah screamed. He slapped her.
“Shut your mouth!”
Squeezing her wrist so hard she thought he would break it, he locked the door with his free hand and shut the lights in the front. He dragged her past the counter and into the back room, her rubber heels squeaking along the floor. She squirmed but couldn’t escape his grip. He slammed the heavy wooden door, trapping her in the place where he cut the meat. A single bulb hanging from a frayed cord did little to illuminate the room. Cold mist wafted from the adjoining meat locker’s ajar steel door.
Her stomach clenched. She was too scared to scream, only a soft high-pitched mewl. Was he going to hang her on a hook like a side of beef?
Her gaze fixed on the knives and cleavers arrayed along the pitted wooden table, splattered circles, oblongs, and tears of blood everywhere. Dead eyes stared from a severed chicken head.
Everything went fuzzy.
He let go of her. His hands went to his belt.
She darted toward the door.
He grabbed her arm. Spun her around. Slapped her face.
“Wha-what are you going to—?”
“I said, shut up.”
He took a long glittery knife from the table and held it in front of her face. Would he slice her throat in a single motion like a schochet slaughtering an animal?
He touched the point of the knife to her neck. She trembled.
“Take off your coat.”
She shook her head. The knife-point cut her.
Still holding the knife to her neck, he unbuttoned her coat and pulled it open so it fell to the floor.
“Now your blouse.”
She couldn’t move except to shiver like on the coldest day ever.
He stuck the blade between her neck and the fabric. She felt its tip in her backbone, a tiny disgusting mouse running up and down her spine.
“Are you going to take it off, or should I cut it off?”
What would Mother say if she came home with her nice new shirt cut to ribbons?
Her hands shook. She couldn’t undo the buttons.
He slapped her. Her face felt as if it was on fire. She tasted blood. He hit her again. He stared into her eyes.
“I’m sorry I hit you, Hannah.” he said, voice soft like her uncle’s. “I don’t want to hurt you. Just do what I say and everything will be fine.” He brought the knife back to her neck, almost gentle now, like Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. “Please don’t make me hurt you.”
She undid the top button, then the next.
She didn’t want to die. She whispered, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad,” Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. The prayer a distant relative had said while being burned at the stake for refusing to renounce his religion. She took a deep breath. She had to do something, couldn’t just let him…
Hannah hit him. He laughed. She tried to scratch his face. He grabbed her hand and pushed back until her wrist started to crack. Then he punched her stomach. She doubled up. Taking a handful of her hair, he pulled her into a standing position. She shook all over.
The light from the single bulb that had seemed dim before now burned her eyes.
He held the knife an inch from her right eye.
“If you want to be able see, you’ll take your clothes off. Now!”
Tears streaming down her cheeks, she took off her blouse, then let her skirt drop to the floor. She tried to cover her chest and down there.
“Stand straight. Hands at your side. Don’t make me tell you again.”
Her teeth chattered. She had to calm herself. She tried to count the tiles on the floor, couldn’t get beyond two.
“Take off your underwear.”
She shook her head.
“Take it off!”
He nodded as if he understood, then cut her underclothes. Not all the way. Enough so they drifted to the floor like dead leaves.
“Because you’ve been good, you can leave on your shoes and knee socks.”
He untied his apron. Undid his pants.
The knives! She feinted toward the door. Pants around his ankles, he blocked her way. She darted toward the table.
He grabbed her hair, then yanked it so hard, she fell to the floor. He kicked her, knocking the air out of her. He pulled her to her feet by her hair.
“Try to run or fight me, and I’ll really hurt you.” He slapped her again.
Through tear-clouded eyes, she again looked at the knives on the table. Too far.
She didn’t move. He shoved her. She fell. Her head bonked on the floor. The butcher flopped on top of her. She bucked, not even moving him an inch. He held her shoulder and forced her legs apart. Then…
The butcher got up. Turning his side to her as if to shield his nakedness, he pulled up his pants and straightened his clothes. Hannah didn’t move. The pain seemed to be coming from far away. From somewhere above, she saw herself lying there, naked, bleeding, whimpering.
“Get dressed and stop that blubbering.”
He pulled her to her feet.
His grip loosened, and she fell. He looked at her as if she were a large clump of grease.
She couldn’t move, couldn’t even cover herself with her hands. Her life had ended. If only her brain would stop thinking. If only she could forget what happened, forget what it had been like to be Hannah.
He again pulled her to her feet, this time spreading her legs so they’d support her. She didn’t care whether she stood or fell. The shame of her nakedness enveloped her, but putting on clothes wouldn’t change that.
He picked up her underpants and brassiere with the tips of his fingers and tossed them to her.
Her hands shook so much she dropped them. He hit her again. She felt nothing beyond the awful wetness between her legs, his yuck slithering down her inner thigh.
He threw her blouse and skirt at her. Acting out of vague and distant habit, she held them to her front, covering what she could as she reached for her torn underclothes. Although he’d already seen everything, she turned her back to him. By tying a knot, she made her underpants stay in place. She pulled on her skirt and buttoned her blouse. She tried to straighten her clothes. She kept trying, brushing them with her hands, smoothing the wrinkles, pulling at the hem. They felt like they belonged to another girl. A nice girl, one who hadn’t been…
She had to go home. What would she say to her mother? What could she say? Her eyes wanted to cry. Her stomach wanted to vomit. She couldn’t do either.
He grabbed her shoulder and turned her toward him. Hand under her chin, he gently raised her head. Unable to avert her eyes, she stared into his face, the beard black with strands of white, the nose spider-webbed with broken blood vessels, the hate-filled eyes the color of boiled beef.
“No one is to know,” he said. “No one would believe you anyway. I’ve never before been with a girl from the community, so my reputation is spotless and the word of a girl…”
She held back the tears, her entire being filled with shame.
The butcher opened the door and stuck his head out. The bright light blinded her. He looked both ways, then shoved her. She skidded onto the sidewalk. The door slammed behind her, sounding angry at her for having crossed its threshold.
She could no longer restrain her sobs. Her legs wobbled. Two steps and she collapsed. She couldn’t move a muscle. The sky darkened. The air cooled, the rain became a drizzle. She lay where she’d fallen.
“Can I help?” A deep, kind voice.
She looked up. Oh, no! The homeless schvartze who’d been begging on their streets for the past few weeks. As a colored person, he didn’t belong in their neighborhood. Hands under her armpits, he gently helped her to her feet. She’d resisted, or at least tried to, when the butcher grabbed her, but now she felt limp as a rag doll.
Her coat had a big dirty gray streak from the sidewalk. Mommy would kill her.
He took off his jacket—leather, one sleeve torn, a pocket ripped—and put it around Hannah’s shoulders. She told herself she should give it back to him. But she’d stopped shivering, and anyway her arms weren’t working right.
“What happened to you?”
She bit her lip, shook her head.
“Are you hurt?”
Hannah didn’t respond. Hurt? That’s almost funny. No, Mr. Black Man. I’m dead. Well, not dead but not alive.
“Where do you live?” His right eye twitched. The left one had a bright red spot.
“Come on. One step after another.” Voice deep but soft, almost the way God would speak to a child. “You’ll feel better when you get home.”
Moving her legs caused pain …down there. When he directed her, arm around her waist, she didn’t resist. Even with her life having ended, she knew it was a sin to let a man touch her. She would never ever be able to explain why she had permitted it.
They passed women, two, four, more Hannah didn’t know. They gave her well-deserved nasty looks but avoided looking at the schvartze.
Someone, Reuben the plumber maybe—her brain had ceased to function—knocked the away man’s arm with a hard swat. The plumber spat out his words with such hate that Hannah didn’t understand them. Maybe if her brain were clearer… The schvartze seemed to shrink. He shuffled two steps back. The plumber blew his nose on a twenty-dollar bill, then tossed it at the man’s feet.
“Take this and don’t ever come back here! Understand?” He turned to Hannah. “Go straight home.”
One step. Okay. Now another. I can make it.
The two blocks to her house felt like ten.
Her hands shook so much she couldn’t fit her key into the lock. When Mommy opened the door, Hannah fell forward sobbing. Her mother held her at arms’ length.
“You let a man touch you, a schvartze yet.” She slapped her across the face, something she’d never done. “I’ve heard from three people already.”
“He was nice,” Hannah said through tears. “He helped me after—”
“Please, Mommy, please.”
“Please, what?” Voice cold as summer borscht.
Hannah shook her head. She understood that having been seen being touched by any man in public, particularly that man, would lead to this sort of reaction. She had to explain.
“Yes?” Her mother thrust her jaw forward. “I’m waiting.”
How could she say it?
“The butcher…” He voice turned horse. “Mr. Kaplan, the butcher…attacked me. He…” Hannah took a deep breath.
Mommy did the same.
Hannah pointed to the rip in her blouse.
“Why would Mordechai Kaplan do that?” Mommy’s face sagged for a second, then her eyes narrowed. “The schvartze had his arm around you. You’re wearing his jacket!”
Hannah had forgotten she had it on. She knocked it off with two violent shrugs.
Her mother had a confused look—anger, sadness, maybe pity, too. Hannah had sinned.
Shouldn’t Mommy have asked me to explain about the butcher? She must see how awful I look. No, it’s better this way. I couldn’t tell her, can’t tell anyone.
“Go to your room.” Mommy’s calm, take-charge voice. “Change your clothes, wash your face and hands, and pray. I’ll call your father. He’ll call Rav Moscovitz. I sent your brother and sisters to my parents so we won’t be disturbed.”
Rav Moscovitz? Hannah bit her lip.
“You’re going to have to tell Rav Moscovitz the truth,” Mother said.
Tell the truth? How?
As Hannah climbed the stairs, some part of herself left her body—like a soul departing a corpse—and looked down at her. She watched herself take step after step and felt only pity and not much of that.
Hannah prayed with greater intensity than she’d ever prayed before. There had to be a reason God had allowed the butcher to do what he’d done and let the schvartze touch her. Perhaps He was testing her to see if she’d take the easy path, if she knew that to lie would disrespect Him. She asked one thing of Him: to make her brave and give her tongue the power to tell Rav Moscovitz what had happened—everything, even what Mordechai Kaplan had done when he got on top of her. Rav Moscovitz would make it right. Well, not right, nothing could do that, but better. He’d make sure Mordechai Kaplan was punished.
After what seemed like hours, but had only been twenty minutes on the clock by her bed, mother called her to come downstairs.
She continued to pray as she descended the stairs.
Rav Moscovitz sprawled across the living room couch. The last time he came to their house, over a year ago, mother had cleaned the house like it was the week before Passover. Now, she hadn’t even straightened the rug. He was more than the leader of the community, far more. His grandfather had had a vision just thirty-six days before the Nazis invaded. A week later he led their congregation out of Poland, all one hundred ninety-eight of them. Their four-year harrowing journey took them, on foot, across Russia, through war-torn China to Shanghai, then huddled together in the cargo hold of a freighter first to Panama, then to Cuba. Only half the original unwanted-by-anyone group made it to Crown Heights. Now, the congregation numbered well over four hundred, all living within five blocks of each other, scrupulously following the same traditions, rules, and rituals they had in Poland.
Home an hour earlier than usual, her father sat straight and stiff in the armchair. Her mother stood in her proper place behind him. With a languid flick of his wrist, Rav Moscovitz directed Hannah to stand in the center of the rug. She obeyed, her scarf-covered head bent.
“Hannah, you allowed a man to put his arm around your waist and drape his jacket over your shoulders.” His tone conveyed on-high authority, like God speaking to her in a dream. Not like the black man’s kindly God voice, more like I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.
“He helped me.” Hannah’s voice sounded not quite like her own but not like anyone else’s either. “Mordechai Kaplan had just done…that very most terrible thing to me. I was dazed, hurt. I didn’t know what the man was doing, only that he was helping me.”
She could hardly believe how clearly and honestly she was explaining why she’d been lying in the street unable to make herself move and what the butcher had done. God heard her prayer.
“How could you not know what he was doing?” Rav Moscovitz asked, voice now so quiet she could hardly hear him.
Please God help me explain.
“Mordechai Kaplan had pulled me into his back room and…” her lips continued to move but sounds stopped passing through them. Even with God’s help, she couldn’t say more.
While she spoke father had shifted in his chair, face getting redder and redder. When she finished he turned to Rav Moscovitz. “If Mordechai did that—”
Rav Moscovitz cut him off with a raised palm. Father had squeezed his lips so tight they disappeared, replaced by a thin dark line. His eyes bulged.
“Perhaps, Hannah, the vagrant did that to you,” Rav Moscovitz said. From the corner of her eye—she would never look directly at him—Hannah saw him stroke his long white beard. She felt the stare from his dark, furious eyes bore into her. “And your brain couldn’t acknowledge that you had been attacked by a schvartze. Mordechai’s shop was nearby. Maybe you’d just seen him standing in the doorway and your mind convinced itself that Mordechai—”
“No. I told you the truth, here before God. The butcher did that horrible thing to me.” Hannah would never have believed she’d disagree with Rav Moscovitz.
He emitted a little sigh. He looked older than he had a few minutes earlier. Mother’s eyes were wide with shock. Father started toward Hannah, his hand raised ready to slap her. Rav Moscovitz shook his head. Father’s arm dropped to his side, and he sat back down.
“Mordechai is a pious and charitable man,” Rav Moscovitz said. Seeing his gaze drift away from her and his long pale hand slide in front of his nose and mouth, Hannah realized he knew what he said wasn’t true, or at least not the whole truth. “I’ll talk to him and the people who saw you on the street. Then I’ll come back here. In the meantime, don’t speak to anyone.”
Father squeezed the arms of his chair so hard his knuckles turned white. “If Mordechai did that to you, we’ll deal with him within the community.” His voice shook with anger, all the more terrifying because Hannah didn’t know if it was directed at her, the butcher, or both of them. That he was even speaking up in Rav Moscovitz presence… He turned toward Rav Moscovitz. Hannah would never have imagined that he’d look at Rav Moscovitz that way. Apparently Rav Moscovitz hadn’t either, as his head jerked back ever so slightly. She wouldn’t have noticed that before Mordechai Kaplan had… Now she noticed everything.
“I love you, Hannah.” Her father’s rage now under control, he sounded like he used to when Hannah was a little kid or when he spoke to Rivka. “Try to understand this is all very complicated. Rav Moscovitz has to deal with it in a way that is best for both you and the community.”
No way she’d ever understand; she wouldn’t even try.
“While we wait for Rav Moscovitz to return, go to your room and pray,” Mommy said, in her talking-to-Rivka voice. As if Hannah hadn’t prayed enough.
“May I do my schoolwork?”
Hannah hoped she’d draw comfort from her work. She always had, and she tried to believe that always included now.
The three adults exchanged glances, unreadable.
“This is very, very serious, Hannah,” Father said, green eyes staring the carpet. “We don’t know if you’ll be going back to school.”
Hannah couldn’t breathe. For a horrible moment, she was back on the butcher’s tiled, blood-splattered floor.
“The fewer people who know, the better. It will be hard enough to find someone to marry her,” Rav Moscovitz said.
Hannah doubled up like she’d been punched in the stomach.
Mommy walked her to the stairs. Out of the men’s line of sight, she kissed Hannah on top of her head.
“Do they believe me?” Hannah asked as they went up to the second floor.
“Y-e-s.” Three separate syllables. “I do. Your father does. I’m not sure about Rav Moscovitz. But they both know what people saw.”
“How could that be more important?”
“Your marriage prospects, your purity. Almost nothing’s more important than that.”
“If people think the schvartze forced himself on you, they’ll be more likely to believe it wasn’t your fault.” How could it be my fault? Unless… Did I do something, some little thing, to cause it? “If you blame Mordechai Kaplan, he’ll deny it, maybe accuse you of leading him on.” Mommy threw up her hands. “I’m sure you did nothing wrong, but—”
“But WHAT!” Hannah yelled, then put her hand over her mouth. She didn’t want the men downstairs to hear.
“Some people would believe him, no one would ever forget what happened, and some would always think of you as a…”
“A whore?” She’d heard men use that word.
Mommy’s head kicked back.
“That is the word they’d use, right?” Hannah asked.
Mommy held her stomach as if about to be sick, and maybe she was.
Trembling like she had when…Hannah went to the room she shared with her three younger sisters, who she knew wouldn’t be returning that night. People often commented on how beautiful she was with her red hair, big green eyes, and smooth pale skin. Smartest girl in the entire school. None of that mattered anymore. No one would marry her now. Not fair! She’d planned out her whole life.
If she lied like Rav Moscovitz wanted, maybe she could still have a normal life. She had to have faith. Rav Moscovitz and God would work it out. She had faith. Didn’t she?
Mother came in later, shoulders slumped, body stooped. Even though she’d only had five children, she looked old at thirty-two. Hannah had never noticed before.
Mother sat on her bed and stroked her back.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you when you came home. I was just so scared.” Mommy stopped stroking Hannah, hugged herself, then rested her warm hand on Hannah’s shoulder. “We’ll work this out.”
She waved Hannah’s words away. “If you accuse Mordechai Kaplan, it could end up involving the police. People outside the community might hear and they’d think…it wouldn’t be good for us. We don’t involve outsiders with our problems.” Mommy sighed. “We’ll lower our sights. No rabbinical students, but we’ll find someone suitable.”
Angry or not, Hannah needed her mother’s comfort. She hugged her. Thank God Mommy hugged her back.
“Why doesn’t anyone care what the butcher—”
“We care very much, Hannah.” Very gently Mommy covered Hannah’s mouth with her hand. Hannah felt it tremble. “But we must focus on what’s most important. Do you think the parents of a good pious boy would want their son to marry a girl who was… This has to be handled and kept quiet.”
Hannah felt sick. She couldn’t tell if Mommy believed the things she was saying. She wasn’t sure if anyone but her truly believed what they said.
“Your father will make sure Rav Moscovitz deals with the butcher without damaging the community’s reputation…or yours.”
Hannah looked into her mother’s eyes. What she saw caused a stabbing pain behind her eyes.
“One thing before Rav Moscovitz returns. Why didn’t you scream when that man put his jacket on you?”
“Mommy! I’d just been—”
A thin wail emerged from her mother’s throat.
“How can we explain it without mentioning the butcher, Hannah?”
Too angry to risk a response, Hannah bit her lips. Mother tightened hers to a thin line, the way she did when thinking hard. Hannah’s mouth tasted like iron filings. Blood. She must’ve bitten her lips extra hard.
“We need to come up with something everyone will believe,” Mommy said. “So you can start to heal.”
Hannah had been brought up to believe that the community strictly followed the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud, the word of God. But what if that wasn’t true? Then she had nothing, not even hope.
“We’ve got to get the story straight,” Mommy said.
She means crooked.
“I got it! He drugged you.” Mommy smiled. “You couldn’t help yourself or even scream or fight him off.” She stroked Hannah’s cheek. “I’ll be right back.”
Mommy returned with a hatpin. Shoulders back, her usual perfect posture. She looked younger again.
“Pull up your shirt.”
Hannah didn’t do it. She wanted to ask what Mommy had in mind but didn’t do that either. Mommy lifted her shirt and stabbed her right side.
Hannah had yelled because she’d expected the stab to hurt, but it didn’t. Mommy swabbed the little wound with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. Hannah shoved her hand away. Not hard, but she’d never done anything like that since she was little and didn’t know better.
“God doesn’t want us to lie,” Hannah said, voice quivering.
“Oh, so now you know what God wants? When I was your age I thought—”
“And when did you stop thinking?” Hannah was appalled by what had come out of her mouth and even more appalled by the realization that she’d meant it.
Her mother drew her hand back but dropped it without striking. Without another word, she left the room.
Of course Hannah would do what Rav Moscovitz told her, but… No, the primary lesson drilled into her head since she’d learned to talk was that there could not be a but. In an effort to understand why all this was happening, she tried to remember all the sins she’d committed since Yom Kippur, five months ago. All insignificant with two exceptions. She’d read a pornographic book Deborah’s bad older sister had slipped her. Reading Emma Goldman’s essays was even worse, since Hannah had done it for one of the worst reasons—curiosity, Adam’s sin. Were those two sins bad enough for God to punish her this way?
She shouldn’t compound the problem by questioning the judgment of God and Rav Moscovitz. She tiptoed into her mother’s room.
“I’m sorry for what I said to you. I… Since what happened everything feels so strange.”
“Of course it does.” Mommy looked old again. Her eyes were red. Had she been crying? Hannah wondered what upset her mother more, what had happened to Hannah or Hannah’s behavior. She stroked Hannah’s cheek. “Rav Moscovitz will return soon. Go back to your room, sweetie.”
They again took their places in the living room.
“Mordechai says he saw the man grab you,” Rav Moscovitz said. “He ran out onto the street, but the man knocked him down. I spoke to the witnesses who saw you walking with the schvartze. All say you looked dazed and were staggering.”
“He’d drugged her, stabbed her with a needle.” Mommy spoke so fast her words ran together. “I’ll show you the mark.”
Rav Moscovitz raised a long pale hand: no need for that. Good, Hannah didn’t have to lie. Not about that anyway.
“You’ll stay out of school for a week then return as if nothing had happened.” Rav Moscovitz stroked his beard. “No one will talk about it ever again. Several men from the community will find the schvartze and make sure he never comes back.”
“Make sure how?” Hannah asked, voice so wobbly she barely recognized it.
“There are many things girls and women ought not to know,” Rav Moscovitz said.
Allowing the black man to be hurt or even killed would be a sin for which Hannah could never atone.
“What would happen if I told the police what I told you?” she asked, her voice a tremulous whisper. The idea of going to the police wouldn’t have entered her head if her mother hadn’t mentioned them. She didn’t want the nice black man to be hurt.
“You know we don’t involve outsiders in our problems,” her father said.
Sure she knew, she’d only heard it a million times. That’s how we’ve survived and stayed together. Not by lying, though. Not by bearing false witness. Unless they’d done it and didn’t tell her.
“You wouldn’t do that, of course,” Rav Moscovitz said.
“If?” Hannah asked. Is there more than one way to make sure he never comes back?
Three sets of eyes bored into her, but she couldn’t stop her mind from running where it wanted to, like little children tearing toward a cliff they didn’t see, in that pornographic book she shouldn’t have read.
“Rav Moscovitz, you know best, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to a kind man who only tried to help me.”
“You don’t want?” Father shouted. “What you want doesn’t matter.” He lowered his voice. “Of course it matters, but the needs of the community and Rav Moscovitz’s decisions about what’s best for you matter more.”
Hannah had never seen her father so volatile, so mercurial. Strange thought: having secretly studied English on her own, she might’ve been the only one in the room who knew what volatile and mercurial meant.
“If you don’t obey and you tell the police, we will have no choice but to sit shiva for you,” Rav Moscovitz said.
Both her parents nodded. Nodded! Those nods cut a jagged gash through her insides.
“Shiva? Mommy and Daddy, my sisters and brother, my friends, they’d all consider me dead?” Her voice squeaked like the mouse her father caught in a trap last Shavuot.
“This is silly, honey,” her mother said. “You’re not going to disobey Rav Moscovitz.”
“But I thought you loved me.” She fought not to cry, not to sound like a stupid little kid.
“Of course we love you, dear, but as Rav Moscovitz said—”
“So, you’ll keep loving me if I lie and let a human being get…hurt.” Hannah sniffled but didn’t cry.
Mommy’s head jerked back in shock. Never in a million years would she—or Hannah for that matter—have imagined she’d speak like that in front of Rav Moscovitz.
“Rav Moscovitz is offering us a way out of our troubles.” Father curled his lip like…like the butcher.
Hannah bowed her head. What came into her mind wasn’t anything from the thousands of hours she’d spent reading Torah. It was from the pornographic book. Holden hated his school because it’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to buy a goddam Cadillac some day. Apparently it wasn’t only the world of the gentiles that was full of phonies.
“Mordechai Kaplan might do that horrible, horrible thing to other girls,” Hannah whispered, literally begging for her life. “Does the community need someone like that more than it needs me?”
Mommy looked at the wall behind Rav Moscovitz, at the engraving of the old city of Jerusalem viewed from the Mount of Olives. Father’s lips moved as if he were praying. Rav Moscovitz looked as if steam might come out of his ears any second, but he, too, didn’t make a sound. Anger transformed their faces into the faces of…strangers.
Please, God, help me find a path back. The silence continued. Anger built up inside Hannah. She stopped praying.
“Rav Moscovitz, where is it written that we should lie and bear false witness against our neighbors?” Hannah said in Hebrew, although they’d been speaking Yiddish.
“Don’t you ever speak like that to Rav Moscovitz!” Her father stepped toward her. His eyes held unshed tears. Because of what happened to me or because I shamed him in front of Rav Moscovitz?
“Hannah, I know you didn’t mean what you said. You’ve been through a lot today.” The deep formal voice Rav Moscovitz used when addressing the entire congregation. “But you must never speak to me with disrespect or presume to know better than me or your parents.”
“She’s doesn’t know what she’s saying,” Mother said, words running together again. “The drug the schvartze injected in her.”
“I know exactly what I’m saying.” Hannah looked directly at Rav Moscovitz for the first time—always before she’d looked at him with her head bent, a sign of respect—and was surprised to see a mean old man’s face. “Why is it okay to ignore God’s commandments just to protect a…” She didn’t know the word in Yiddish or Hebrew. She took a deep breath and said it in English, “To protect a rapist?”
Father slapped her.
She barely felt it.
He pulled his hand back as if he’d touched a hot oven.
Everything in the room came into precise focus, including the three strangers. Hannah and they wanted the same thing—for the world to be the way it was this morning—but that couldn’t be. Not with Hannah knowing the community’s supposed commitment to the word of God was a lie.
It wasn’t just her family casting her aside, it was God, too. None of this could be happening without Him. She’d long known a terrible secret—had she been Abraham, she’d have refused God’s command to murder his child, Isaac. Maybe God decided this made her unworthy to serve Him, unworthy to be a rabbi’s wife, unworthy for tikkun olam.
So be it. She knew what she had to do.
“May I please be excused?” she said.
“Of course, dear.” Her mother looked pale and ill.
“I shouldn’t have hit you,” her father whispered, kind and concerned, finally.
“Thank you for coming tonight, Rav Moscovitz. You are a great teacher. Please accept my apology. I’m sorrier than you can imagine. I understand now what it means to be part of a community, exactly what it means.”
Dry-eyed and calm, she went upstairs. It hurt to walk, but the pain was…of no consequence.
When everyone was asleep Hannah tiptoed out of her room, carrying nothing since she owned nothing she cared about. She slipped out the back door of the only home she’d ever had.
Like Holden Caulfield leaving Pencey in that pornographic book, she slammed the door behind her and said, “Sleep tight, ya morons.”