My parents kept kosher and went to Shul on the high holy days. But while my father observed most of the customs, including fasting every Yom Kippur, he was quite open about his being fundamentally an atheist. God left him in a single moment; he was 17 years old and working as a tailor’s apprentice in Hungary when he received a postcard from his parents that had no return address. It read “We are being taken away by the Germans. We don’t know where. We don’t know if we will ever see you again.” My father knew he would never see his parents again – and he didn’t. He broke down crying, and could not understand how there could exist a deity, a God, that would allow such innocence – his hard working parents who always gave whatever they had to the hungry in the neighborhood – to be rounded up abruptly from their homes and herded into cattle cars that would take them to the gates and fires of hell. At that moment, that instant, God left him, and He has been gone for him to this day. My father had until then worn long side curls called payot that was a sign of orthodox observance. After receiving that note from his parents, he cut his side locks.
Rachel Goldstein was one of my closest friends at Lincoln High School. Rachel had a religious upbringing and we used to have a lot of talks about religion. I was always struck by how passionate Rachel seemed to be about it. I usually get annoyed when people try to convince me about matters of religion, but with Rachel, I always felt that when she talked about God, talked about the meaning of keeping kosher and respecting the Sabbath, she was sharing with me a part of herself, and it did not matter that I didn’t believe in the rituals. I believed in the sincerity that shone in her open and friendly green eyes. I asked her why not drive and turn on electric lights on Saturday, the Sabbath – how could that possibly be relevant to modern life – and how, in fact, does that constitute the concept of “rest” – as God rested on the seventh day. Rachel responded that the concept of rest was philosophical and spiritual – not literal. It was actually a great deal more physical work to walk up the 13 flights to her parents’ Brighton Beach apartment on Ocean Avenue than taking the elevator – how is that “rest?” For Rachel, respecting the Sabbath, resting on the Sabbath, meant taking one day, 24 hours, where one could remove oneself from the machinations and machines of daily life, as while the elevator was a comfortable ride, countless people had to work to provide the electricity to make the elevator work, and resting on the Sabbath meant respecting the separation from anything related to work, even if the work was not one’s own. I am not observant, but I do like the concept of one day off a week – no phones, no work of any kind. The only time I really adhered to that idea was the two years I spent writing my screenplay “Interrupted,” during which I worked from 5am to 10am Monday through Friday and all day Sunday – while skipping Saturday completely. I don’t know if that was spiritual or just good discipline, but the process worked for me.
I never felt comfortable around Rachel’s parents. Her mother, Leah, was a harsh and stern figure, and it never seemed possible to look at her without noticing the grim green tattoo of numbers branded on her arm. I couldn’t help but think that Rachel’s mother wanted you to be continually reminded of her sorrowful past, wanted you to feel guilty, and that made me resent her. She was in the same barracks at Auschwitz that my mother was in. Rachel’s father, Isidore, was quiet, and kept to himself. It was mind boggling to me that Isidore had been a member of the Irgun – the underground Jewish militant group in Palestine that was responsible for blowing up the King David Hotel and other acts of sabotage against the British authorities. A militant named Isidore – how ridiculous is that? When you spoke with Isidore about anything, he would look at you and mumble something about the past, which you couldn’t quite make out, but knew had to do with some unspeakable act of horror.
In her parents’ apartment, Rachel used to read me stories from the bible, and explain the significance, the hidden meaning of the allegories – Jonah being swallowed by the whale, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. I didn’t believe the stories held any deep meaning, but it was comforting to know that she, at least, had faith in something, even if I did not. I never felt that Rachel was trying to indoctrinate me, or to convince me, and that made her special. She introduced me to her orthodox friends in Brighton Beach, and I found myself at parties in which I was the only guy not wearing a yarmulke. I never felt compelled to put one on in order to better blend in, and none of her friends ever made me feel unwelcome at their gatherings.
Rachel and I did not stay in touch after we both graduated Lincoln High. She married soon after high school and did not go to college. I was at her wedding but was not happy about her marriage. I should have been happy for her happiness – and maybe I would have, had I been convinced that her new husband would treat her well – but something about him rubbed me the wrong way. I wondered if she had the kinds of conversations with him that she had with me, the conversations of two young people with different upbringings, different values, who were genuine in their desire to get to know more of each other, although in our case as platonic friends. The wedding seemed phony, as all weddings are to me. Their joy was manufactured for the flash of the photographer’s camera, which would provide a framed frozen moment that would gather dust on a bedroom dresser for years.
I had not heard from Rachel for several years after her wedding. Then one night she called me, distraught. She had learned her husband was having an affair. He was rarely home, and she knew he went to Paradise Island for a few days with his lover, a blonde shiksa who was a paralegal at his law firm. What a piece of shit, I thought – I knew I got him right. Rachel was lonely, hurt and felt abandoned. She asked me if I would have drinks with her in Forest Hills, where she and her husband lived. I felt weird about it, but said “sure.”
We went to a Polish restaurant in Forest Hills and had pierogies and wine. Rachel surprised me when she took out a pack of Dunhill cigarettes and lit up. I rarely smoked but decided to join her – it felt rebellious and independent. She seemed more of a free spirit that night than the Rachel I had known years earlier. I felt close to her, and our rendezvous reminded me of our high school years, and of our warm, mystical talks about God and His designs. She looked as friendly and appealing as she did when she was fifteen. But she was now twenty-one – and as I studied her I wondered why I never before noticed that she was rather nice to look at. The last time I had seen Rachel, she was wearing the stiff white costume of her wedding day. Now she was wearing worn jeans with patches, sneakers and a knitted green top, which accentuated the color of her eyes.
We went to her apartment and she made a pot of tea, and we sat on the living room couch. There was something unsettling about being in an apartment that belonged to a married couple, yet something that was somehow exciting in a way I could not explain to myself or admit to myself. I asked her about her husband, and why he was such a shit. It was clear that she didn’t want to talk about him. We sipped tea, and for a long while there was silence. There was just the clinking of our cups against the saucers. Rachel looked down, and tears began to stream down her face. I felt bad for her; I knew she had been imprisoned in a home that was not a happy one. She then gathered herself, and apologized for being so morose and gloomy, and for inviting me to wallow in her cheerlessness. She said had not slept since the night before last, and was going to go to bed. It was late, and she invited me to stay over and sleep on the couch, and I accepted.
Rachel brought out some blankets, sheets and a pillow and made a comfortable bed of the couch in the living room for me. She apologized for the accommodations, and I told her she was apologizing too much, and it was not necessary. She said good night, and then went into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. I was not tired, but I undressed and settled into the couch under the sheets and blankets and lay there. I heard the distant sound of the subway and some passing cars. But most of all I heard the sound of my own breathing. I could not imagine feeling more alone than she must have felt.
After a short while, Rachel came out of her bedroom and walked over to the couch. She looked slender and somewhat silly in her pajamas that were printed with various animals – it made me think of Noah’s ark. She sat down on the couch next to me. My heart began to race, and suddenly there was no air left in my lungs. She just sat alongside me without saying a word, and stared straight ahead at nothing in particular as I lay on my back, feeling her radiant warmth beside me. I looked at the way the waves of her long brown hair settled against her animal print pajama top and found the image somehow ironic. It was startling to me that her scent had not changed at all since she was in high school and memories of her then combined and united with the sensations of the present to form a jarring, exotic reality that seemed unreal. She then turned her gaze toward me, and I looked into her sad green eyes. She got up again, brushing my hand ever so lightly with her hand as she did so – I did not know if that brush was an accident, but there are no accidents – and walked tentatively back to her bedroom, without looking back at me. She left the door to her bedroom open a crack and I heard her climb back into bed and under her covers. This was one of those times when one must make a choice. And making no choice would be a choice, too.
I got into her bed and under the covers. We lay in bed a long time without saying a word, and without touching. The sound of my breathing was now the only sound I heard. My chest tightened unbearably. Rachel was wide-awake, and her face betrayed an expression of neither sadness nor longing, but perhaps wistful inevitability. I moved next to her, and she pulled the bed covers over both of our heads. We became submerged and our bodies intertwined in our own private domain of smothering darkness, breaths and the warmth of unimaginable sweet touch and scents that converged and amplified in an intoxicating intensity.
There is only one God, Rachel had told me years ago – and God is one.
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Excerpt from a novel I have been writing called “White Sand Falling.”
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