“I’m not going to be riding horses anymore. And I couldn’t find a way to tell you, so I didn’t. But seeing as you’re here anyway, coming to tell me about other bad choices I’m making in my life, I guess now’s the time.”
The first time I watched chassidim dance, it was on a screen.
Not a video though, and not really a dance. I stood in my kitchen and studied the mute interaction of the couple standing next to their luxury SUV in our driveway. Even with that skewed fish-eye quality of images transmitted by security cameras, it was a mime for me to parse.
She lifting her chin to indicate the thing he was wearing on his head. He removing it, slowly. Holding it. She shaking her head. He clearly undecided, head lowered, hand hovering as if to put it on again. Another firm shake of her head. He opening the car door and depositing it on the seat.
I threw a quick glance around my kitchen again. The platter of crudités ready for serving, plastic cups. Only sparkling water and vegetables, Michal had said.
Would they come up the path now?
No — she pointed downward and her husband bent to straighten something, but I couldn’t see what. His shoes, maybe. Socks? Something else went into the car.
And then the mime ended; the couple just standing still, looking up at our house.
They were probably more nervous than I was. At least we were on our turf. I quashed the unseemly fluttering in my gut, put on my hostess face and waited for the buzz of the intercom.
Eli folded his newspaper and tucked his glasses away, his slowness making me bite down on my tongue. Ponderous was the word that suddenly came to mind as he walked towards the door, a half pace in front of me. Pompous.
Don’t be like that. Smile.
Together we stood as he opened the door, together we smiled at our guests.
Eli spoke first while I made sure my smile didn’t slip throughout the awkward footwork necessary to get all of us to the dining room without any faux pas.
I studied her as much as manners would allow as I put down the crudités and opened the bottle. She was absolutely regal. The outfit she wore looked like she had been sewn into it. Straight back, confident bearing — even with the hat. A Jackie Kennedy-style pillbox. Aristocratic. I felt my smile soften.
This might work.
Michal had been impossible over the first days of Pesach. So edgy and snappish. Like the years had tumbled backward and she was a tempestuous, spirited teen again, Eli and I struggling to rein her in.
And then last night she said she had to speak to us, in private, which made me think she was about to tell us that she had stopped dating Shmuli, that it hadn’t worked out, and of course she was snappish.
I sat there on the couch with pillows and tea and tissues, ready to sympathize, wondering what had gone wrong. Such a special boy, that Shmuli. We’d all had high hopes.
Now when I thought about it, it was with the faintest sense of absurdity, remembering the tea and tissues, the supportive words I had balancing on my lips.
Michal wasn’t planning to stop dating Shmuli. She wanted us to meet his parents.
Now I looked at Shmuli’s father sitting diagonally across from Eli.
He may have returned the thing to their car, but the silk coat and big yarmulke and curly peyos were very much in evidence.
I tried not to think of those tissues and smiled politely while racking my brain for a smooth and light topic to introduce.
Hostess, hostess, Gila. Not the weather.
“So how was the drive? Was there a lot of traffic?”
And then, somehow, the stuttering start to our meeting eased into a more comfortable flow. Eli and the father fell into a discussion that sounded business related, stocks and shares and other things I didn’t care to listen to. I complimented the mother on her show-stopping outfit and discovered that she had the most charming British accent.
“I don’t think I caught your name?” I could do this. The consummate hostess. Parlor meetings, gala dinners, school board chairing, nothing fazes Gila Moss. Nothing should, not even this.
She smiled disarmingly. “I’m Breindy.”
I sounded it out in my mind. Breindy. The flow dried up.
She must have seen me floundering, despite the facade, and stepped in gracefully.
“Michal looks so much like you, those lovely green eyes.” Well. That was a sure way to warm up — or it should have been. But I was so out of my depth I couldn’t even remember where the shore was.
Michal had met Shmuli’s parents, and we had seen Shmuli a few times already. I still wasn’t clear how these were his parents, though. Even after Michal had painstakingly gone through the background details last night. Not every child has to be like his parents, that didn’t bother me. Look at Michal.
Still, this wasn’t the dream, what I had in mind for her. I thought maybe a set of parents with a child who decided he wants more than what they’ve given him, would be a good fit. Parents whose child felt that their brand of Yiddishkeit wasn’t good enough. Like our daughter.
Not me sitting in my dining room, hosting people whose life was so different from mine I didn’t know where to start.
At the periphery of my vision, Eli and Shmuli’s father were still going strong. I offered Breindy some vegetables, which she declined. Her eyes were on the mantlepiece, studying the frames I had on display.
“Can I show you some family photos?” I offered, and she nodded and pushed her chair back — a beat too quickly — which meant she was feeling as uncomfortable as I was.
And then I felt on firmer ground, pointing out uncles and grandparents and a gap-toothed Michal holding her first rosette. Breindy was interested, taking more than a perfunctory skim over Yael’s wedding photo.
I watched her, wary. Maybe there’d be a whiff of disapproval as she noticed the low cut of Aunt Shirley’s suit or Grandma’s perfectly coiffed hair.
But Breindy (Breindy!) only asked me how old Benny was at the wedding, listened to me extoll my teen’s academic and athletic prowess, then gazed at Yael and said what a beautiful kallah she was.
Clearly, she, too, could be perfectly polite.
We saw the Silvers out, demure nods all round.
Eli pushed the door shut and looked at me. I wasn’t ready to say anything yet, so I leaned forward to look at myself in the hallway mirror, flicked my sheitel back a bit.
“What did you think, Gila?”
“I’m waiting to hear what you have to say.”
I followed Eli back into the dining room where we sat down, and I reached for the untouched cucumber sticks.
He leaned his head back and stretched.
“Nice guy, this Yeedel.”
“Yeedel?” Yeedel and Breindy.
Eli tilted forward.
“Oh, yeah, and the name isn’t Silver. It’s Zilbiger.”
Shmuli Silver is really Shmeeli Zilbiger.
“Eli. Don’t you think Michal is too young to take this huge step?”
He was silent as he picked up a piece of celery and chewed slowly. If Eli was eating celery by mistake, the world was possibly heading towards combustion.
“It’s strange, I agree. It’s not what we thought Michal’s future in-laws would be like. But look, Shmuli’s nice, you can’t argue with that. And Michal seems so happy, so….” He finally noticed what he was eating and looked around to see where he could put it.
“Hiiii, I’m home!”
The door slammed and there was Michal, my beautiful, talented daughter. The enigma I’d never quite managed to crack.
There was no denying it, though, she was happy.
“So, how’d it go?” She slid onto a chair and pulled the crudités towards her. Well, at least they weren’t going to waste; it was like a cud-chewing conference. That’s one thing we have in common — we nibble when we’re stressed.
Again Eli looked at me. Again I didn’t take up the gauntlet.
“It was good, it went fine. Nice people.”
Michal looked at me, of course. She didn’t need noncommittal nothings.
I fished around for the nice things. Start with a compliment.
“She’s beautifully dressed, Michal. Wow.” Not enough.
“And what a dedicated mom she is, I was so impressed with how she spoke about her kids.”
Michal pushed the tray away.
“C’mon Mom. Be honest.”
“Did you know that she calls Shmuli Shmeeli? Shmeeli Zilbershtine?”
“It’s Zilbiger.” Coldly. “Yeah, I know. So?”
“I was just checking that you knew about it, that’s all.”
“Well, now you know I do. Is that all you have to say about Shmuli’s parents? How they pronounce their name?”
“I didn’t… I just thought you should know what his given name is; I think it’s important.” With Michal it was always like I was losing at some game; a game with hidden obstacles and rules no one shared. “I was asking a question, Michal. Why do you always think I’m going to say something bad?” I looked at Eli who shrugged and peered at the seltzer as if it was poison. Then he stood and wandered out, leaving me and Michal glaring at each other.
I had to backtrack.
“Michal, sweetie, listen. They’re great people. Really nice, I mean it. Just… I don’t know if this is such a wise move.”
“If what is such a wise move?”
“I’m just wondering. I don’t know if you’re ready for such monumental life decisions—”
She slammed her palm down on the table. The forks rattled on their plates.
“You are never going to think I’m old enough, or responsible enough. Never. Not until I change who I am — and that’s not going to happen.”
Eli reappeared behind her, clutching a glass of Coke.
“Where were you last week? Two weeks ago?” She cut me short. “When I started going out? Now you decide I’m not ready? Do you think you’re being reasonable?”
Eli drained his cup and set it down.
Already I could see her withdrawing. Stonewalling, locking us out. When she spoke, her voice took on that quality of the winding down of the thousands of arguments preceding this one.
“Yeah, whatever. I knew you wouldn’t be supportive. My whole life a fight.”
Eli finally took a stand.
“Michal, listen to me. You just threw this meeting idea at us last night, we didn’t realize you’re that serious. Play fair. Give us some time to get used to this.”
And like the thousands of arguments preceding it, Michal walked off, leaving a dense fog of disapproval behind her.
I glanced at the screen in the corner of the kitchen while peeling carrots yet again. A cat slinked past as my thoughts turned to yesterday’s mime and our predicament. Michal had spent the day sulking, and Eli seemed so blasé that I was reluctant to bring it up again before we left to my parents for a family get-together. I checked the potatoes au gratin and added ten minutes to the timer.
When I switched off the food processor, Michal was standing by the open fridge. I hadn’t heard her over the roar.
“Any leftovers from last night?”
I could feel the strain across my shoulders and up my neck, like whiplash. I would have liked to say no, wished I could, but what was the point when there was a generous portion of pot roast that wasn’t generous enough to do much with?
Michal stuck a plate into the microwave and silently poured herself a drink while she waited.
“But you’re coming to Grandma’s, right?”
She nodded just as Benny blew in, cheeks flushed under a mud smear. So tall at 16 it was a wonder any match could be fair with him as defender or goalie or whatever he’d played today.
The last Chol Hamoed game before he graduated, unbelievable.
“Sorry I’m late, Mom! We went into overtime.”
“Hi, Benny, you’ve got time for a shower. But a really quick one. And being in a rush is no excuse to not put everything in the hamper, young man.”
Benny grinned and glugged down some water, then rolled his eyes in Michal’s direction.
“Nuclear war will be breaking out, and Mom will be telling me to put my clothes in the hamper.”
She laughed easily as she pulled out her plate and made her way to the table.
“Maybe that’s more of a commentary on your messy habits than Mom repeating herself all the time.”
Benny put his glass in the sink and turned around. I saw the grin slide off his face.
“Wait. Why are you eating now? We’re going to Grandma’s for dinner.”
I kept my back to the two of them while I squeezed a lemon.
“Yeah, I know.”
“And you’re eating dinner here?” Benny wore his thoughts right on his grass-stained sleeve.
Raisins. The carrot salad could do with some raisins.
“Yep. It’s my business if I want to eat now.”
There was half a beat of silence; that was all Benny was capable of.
“You always ruin things! Why do you think you’re holier than everyone else? What do you think they’re gonna serve tonight? Chometz?” He moved toward the table and I wondered if it was time for me to stop him.
“Just grow up!”
My hands fumbled with the lid of the honey.
“I’m older than you, Ben. And I have a right to make my own decisions. Why are you making such a fuss? No one has to know, and no one will notice. Unless you stupidly draw everyone’s attention to it.”
I banged the jar down and turned so quickly, the lid went spinning onto the floor.
“That’s enough. Benny, shower. Michal, please.”
Benny stormed off, pounding upstairs and slamming the bathroom door so hard I could feel it in my teeth.
I shook the vinaigrette harder and longer than it called for until my bicep burned and my shoulder ached. But nothing ached harder than the knowledge that I could have taken each of Benny’s words and thrown them at Michal myself.
And the knowledge that Michal knew it, too.
I drove out to the riding center the day after we were all back on a post-Pesach schedule, even though the clouds piling in the corner of my vision threatened rain.
Something went squish as I got out of the car, and I looked down and saw a clod of something attach itself to my heel. Bad choice of shoes. I was not myself. Still, I was here, finding Michal on her ground so that she might be receptive. I scraped my shoes on a flat stone, snorted at the futility of it, and pushed my way through the doors into the office area.
If I closed my eyes, I was a young mom again, signing Michal up for more riding classes, more competitions. Waiting proudly as she and her horse cleared all the jumps, clapping hard enough to feel the burn in my palms hours later. Even the scent that I used to hate tickled my nostrils now with the not unpleasant reminiscence of straw and success.
“Mom?” Oh, here she was. I was unprepared to find her so quickly.
“Hi, Michal! Not back out there on Blaze yet?”
Three months after breaking her wrist, she still hadn’t gone back to recreational riding even though the physiotherapist had said she was back to normal, didn’t need more sessions. I didn’t even know what she did here anymore.
“Right. Not back out on Blaze.”
There was a challenge in her voice that I didn’t recognize, a defiance in Michal’s eyes that made me want to leave right then and there, go back home instead of running into contretemps on a topic I hadn’t prepared for.
“Aha…?” Why was I always doomed to play the opposition?
Michal dropped her gaze and looked out towards the stables and the hills beyond.
I saw her shoulders drooping, chest hitching with a sharp intake of breath. Then she snapped upright, squared her shoulders, and told me that we needed to talk.
Well. That was what I had come out for, so I nodded and let her lead me to two chairs in the corner.
“So. I won’t be riding Blaze anymore.”
“You won’t be—?” Doomed. Like an echolalic robot.
Michal rubbed her wrist. Maybe it still hurt and she was afraid to tell us? I reached my hand out to hold hers, but she pulled away and stood up.
“I’m not going to be riding horses anymore. And I couldn’t find a way to tell you, so I didn’t. But seeing as you’re here anyway, coming to tell me about other bad choices I’m making in my life, I guess now’s the time.”
I looked at my hand, still hanging in the air, and let it drop slowly. Ground yourself, Gila.
Michal looked at me and sat back down. She sometimes acted like her beloved Blaze — fiercely impervious to man and beast — but I could see that her courage was faltering now that she had delivered her unplanned speech. If only I could soothe her the way she did her horse.
I tried to take her hand again.
“Michal, I’m trying to listen. Please tell me.”
I could feel the tears in her words, even though her eyes were dry. Maybe it was good that I felt them, because it tempered my reaction.
“Horse-riding. So it’s just not who I want to be right now. Not the person I’ve been growing into. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and me breaking my wrist, well. It just made me realize I can do it.”
I kept my words inside even though they hammered at me so hard I had to press the tip of my tongue into the palate of my closed mouth.
“I looked into doing equine therapy, like my friend Naomi does — I’ve been watching her do it, and it really combines everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I can stay here, help kids learn how to ride and get the support they need, take care of the horses… see what I mean?”
Of course I saw. This wasn’t what my daughter had ever wanted to do — it was something she was convincing herself she’d always wanted to do. Big difference. But I had to work backwards. Wisely. Reminding her that the rav she had spoken to allowed her to continue riding would be an exercise in futility.
I dug my nails hard into the chair and told myself to hold my peace.
“I hear you, Michal. That sounds wonderful, working with kids. It sounds like you have it all figured out.”
I needed to go. I was not going to have it out with Michal now, here, but the temptation to shake her was making my fingers tingle. Why are you throwing your whole life away?
“I’d better get home before the storm hits,” I told her, keeping my words low and even.
Michal followed me to the car.
“I know you’re angry, Mom.”
I jammed the key into the ignition while the car door still hung open, Michal holding onto the handle as if that would make me talk.
I looked at my watch.
“Michal, please. I need to get home to put dinner up. We can talk about this later.”
I didn’t look back as she closed the door and let me reverse out of the parking lot; didn’t want to see who would break first, my proud and spirited daughter who refused comfort from the thing that had always given it to her unreservedly, or her mother who had lost grip of the reins.
I knocked on Michal’s door that night, once I had everything straight in my mind.
“I’m just finishing off here, I’ll be done in a few.” She was bent over her desk. I walked over to the shelf we had always taken such pride in. Rosettes and certificates and trophies, years of hard work and triumphs.
2010, 2011, 2012. She’d been such a happy child. Driven, determined, yes. But she loved it. Lived for the times she could go off riding, forget the world.
As much as I tried, I could never point to any specific incident in Michal’s teen years and say here. Here is where she changed. This was where our paths diverged. Was our permission to send her to such a serious seminary a mistake? Should we have stopped her in high school when she started with her refusal to eat things that didn’t meet the kashrus standards she wanted?
I shook my head slightly. Eli and I valued our children’s independence. Supported it. Encouraged it.
We knew it happened all the time — girls and boys coming home on a high after their year in Israel, wanting to change the world around them. But it’s just a stage, we told ourselves. Let her taste it, and then after a year, two years, at college or work, she’ll mellow. There was no way we could have known how different it would be with Michal.
“Okay, that’s it.” Michal snapped the lid on a highlighter and stuck it into her pen holder.
I suddenly caught sight of something that might make this easier, and carefully eased a small frame out from behind a 2014 Young Jumper Award.
Michal took the frame from me and ran her finger around the beveled edges.
“How old were you when you wrote that? Thirteen, fourteen?”
She shrugged and I leaned in to read it.
BREAKING IN by Michal Moss
It still had the power to make me catch my breath, want to cry. A proud and wild stallion. Bucking, kicking, crashing at the fence of the paddock in which he was constrained. And the denouement — a lowered head, a defeated pawing of the ground.
Broken in. Broken.
I sat on Michal’s bed and patted the cover, but she chose to sit at her desk.
“Michal, all I’m asking you to do is listen.” She put the poem down and turned her chair toward me. Arms crossed, defenses up. But she was listening.
“I know that you think we don’t understand you. And you’re an adult, you can make your own choices. You should make you own choices. That’s the way Daddy and I brought you kids up, and we’re happy for you to make your own way in life.”
“Only if my way matches your lifestyle, you mean.”
I refused to get drawn into an argument before I was done.
“We’re your parents, Michal. Every parent wants what’s best for their child. I know you don’t agree with me. I know you think that we have an agenda of some sort. Do you think we’re not proud of who you are?”
“No. You’re proud of that.” She pointed to the shelf.
“I’m proud of that because of your hard work. I’m proud of anything you do, Michal. And I want you to be happy and fulfilled and proud of your own accomplishments. That’s all.”
I stopped and she waited. This was the hard part. I told myself to pretend I was at a meeting with the school board. Be concise. Direct. Polite but firm. State your goal.
“We’ve always tried to respect your choices, Michal. Your clothes, what you eat, the places you won’t go. Even when it upset us, and yes, you’ve upset us, but we still tried our best.” I pushed away memories of slammed doors and lame excuses for Michal’s absences. Focus.
“But getting married is a lifetime commitment.”
Michal drew herself up, indignant. “It’s because of Shmuli’s parents, because they’re chassidish. All of this” — she pointed a finger at me and I felt the prod as surely as if she had poked me in the chest — “is you not wanting me to be with someone who doesn’t look exactly like you.”
Anger flooded my face; I could feel it in my cheeks. Calm, stay calm, I schooled myself as I breathed in and out oh so deliberately. The first to lose her temper would be the first out of the race.
“I have nothing against anyone, that’s a horrible thing to say, Michal. I’m the most accepting person, everyone says so. This is not about Shmuli.” Great job, Gila. Keep your cool. “But I don’t know if you can see the big picture like someone with my life experience can.” Michal slouched back down in her chair.
“This has nothing to do with anyone’s parents or background. This is about you, Michal. Now you think you’ll always do what you’re doing, now you think this is who you want to be, this is who you can be. You’re 23, it’s natural to get swept away by that idealism you’ve held onto growing up. But how far ahead have you thought this through? I’m worried! You won’t do this, and you can’t do that, and you’re shoving all that passion so deep down, so… so deep…” I pretended not to see Michal shaking her head, chafing to say something.
“What happens if all bursts out one day, too late? Why would you want to commit to a life like this? Where you can’t be free to be you?” I pointed to the frame on her desk. “You’re limiting yourself forever.” My chest tight, I stopped and took a deep breath to keep my next words from trembling like my hands.
“Michal. Please. Make your choices with a clear mind. Don’t take that awesome spirit of yours and break it.”
I stood and crossed the room. Put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
“I’m telling you this because I love you. I want you to have the best life. Promise me you’ll think about what I’ve said.”
Michal was quiet for a few moments, then she nodded.
I should have felt lighter as I closed her bedroom door, but instead I felt heavy, so heavy, a sadness pulling at my limbs so that the walk down to the kitchen seemed like a million-mile racetrack.
I spent the next couple of weeks thinking about that poem my father used to quote to me about right-of-way, about the man who was right, dead right… but still dead. Michal wore her hurt like a suit of armor; a medieval knight I couldn’t see or talk to. She had put her dating on pause and it was my fault. Under the sense of gratification that finally, finally, some words of mine had hit Michal right where I wanted them to, a layer of irritation scratched at me. Now my headstrong daughter had suddenly decided to slow down enough to hear me. Now, and not two, five years ago.
“I thought you were going to let Michal do what she wants, what she thinks is right.” Eli was disappointed, faint disapproval floating toward me like the aroma of the coffee he held.
I grasped my own mug, throat thick with the unfairness of being judged when all I was doing was protecting our daughter.
“I still feel that way.” Was it my fault Michal had decided she didn’t want to get married without our full approval? I was never good at lying.
“Well I think Shmuli is a really good, solid guy. He has so much going for him. A catch for Michal, to be honest.”
“Okay, if you really think so, how about we make a list?”
I got up and found a notepad and pen.
See? I was being fair.
“Makes Michal happy,” Eli had pulled his chair round and had his reading glasses on.
Makes Michal happy
A very nice young man
I clicked the pen open and closed, slowly, watching the nib appear and disappear.
This was the wrong way to go about it because how could I get down what was wrong when I couldn’t distill it into bald words on a blank paper?
She’s not financially independent
She hasn’t finished her degree or gotten a paying job yet
“Eli, she needs to have an income if she wants to get married!”
Eli pulled the pad towards him and removed the Cross pen from his shirt pocket.
Gila doesn’t like Shmuli’s parents
“That’s not true! They’re very nice people!”
Gila doesn’t want his parents to be Michal’s in-laws
I took the pad back and looked at what Eli had written.
“You’re not being fair.”
“I’m not being fair? Gila. I think you’re being very unreasonable. You can’t expect me to be happy with or even condone what you’ve decided when you haven’t given a single good reason for persuading Michal to be miserable.”
This is how people have heart attacks. I felt the sting so deeply that for a moment I thought my heart would stop.
“Eli. Forget the list. Let’s talk about how we got here. Michal breaks her wrist with the cinch and the saddle or whatever, it’s not important. The cast comes off, she still can’t use her hand well, so she goes to physiotherapy. I don’t take her in after the first session, so I can’t tell you when or how it happened, in the waiting room or the secretary or I-don’t-know-who introduced the idea, but she meets this nice boy who seems perfect for her. They date. It gets serious.”
Eli stuck his Cross pen and glasses back in his pocket.
“Okay, and then?”
I laid out the argument in my mind and it seemed like I was talking in a language no one else understood.
“Look, can’t you trust me on this? Michal suddenly has this new thing about not riding any more. About changing her art degree track to equine therapy so she can help children… okay that doesn’t sound wrong either, but what I’m trying to say is—”
I shook my head. All tangential.
“I value independence in our kids, Eli. We do, I told Michal that. But we can see the whole picture and Michal can’t.”
Eli looked at me, shook his head slowly.
“I don’t know which whole picture you’re looking at, Gila. Michal has been like this for years. Have you ever seen her budge from her own truth? All this time out of seminary, and she still hasn’t given an inch. She’s completing her degree, she knows where she wants to go next. When has she ever faltered, Gila? Why do you think she’ll listen to you now?”
He was silent and I couldn’t bear the sudden flash of sadness that crossed his face. “Gila, doesn’t Michal’s face make you rethink things?”
I wasn’t going to let thoughts of Michal’s face distract me, even though the image of it had wrecked my equilibrium for two weeks.
“And as for Shmuli, I have my reservations there, too,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Eli, the boy rebelled against his parents when he was younger. Maybe he’s not stable? Two youngsters are going to build their lives based on running away from their parents’ lifestyle?”
Eli clicked his tongue and stood up.
“That was years ago, Gila. A man who’s on good terms with his parents, has a decent paying job, and is well liked by his peers, is stable. Michal explained it and explained it. So he didn’t fit into yeshivah or that lifestyle.” He pulled his shoulders up and tilted his head. “Didn’t that happen to us and Michal? So what? She asked us to meet Shmuli’s parents so we could see for ourselves that they’re still involved in his life, that what we think and what they think is important to the two of them. To me, that’s stable. That’s mature, that’s adult, that’s healthy.”
I followed him as he walked into the hallway and scooped his keys out of the dish near the door.
He turned and looked at me, inscrutable.
“I want to say I understand and support your decision to mix in, Gila. But you’re seeing something that I’m not, and I still don’t understand. So if you’re sure you’re right, I’ll stay neutral. That’s all I have to say.”
Of course I was right, dead right. But as I listened to Eli’s car start up, I wondered why I was just as sad as if I were wrong.
My phone rang as I was studying my cold tea, too tired to think of what I had to do next.
“Mrs. Moss? David Wertheimer here. I’m calling about a school board issue. We’ve had a… an incident. An act of vandalism.” Benny’s school principal coughed. “When we opened up this morning, we were confronted with horrible anti-Semitic graffiti all over the outer walls of the building. Fortunately for us, unfortunately for the perpetrators, our cameras caught them.”
I massaged my eyebrows. Where is he going with this?
“We called the police. The boys who took part wore scarves over their faces, but they were stupid enough to greet another student passing by — we got his face and uniform. He’s from that parochial school across the street, it looks like we’re not just dealing with those occasional bullying incidents anymore. This graffiti has to be addressed, we can’t just ignore it.”
It was easy to slip into my brisk and efficient Gila Moss persona.
“Right, thank you for letting me know,” I responded. “We should schedule a board meeting about how to address this with the student body.”
“Actually,” Mr. Wertheimer broke in, “I spoke to Liam Kelly, he’s the principal of Cathedral Academy. We thought about hosting a joint parent and staff meeting, both schools together, and then speaking to the boys. Like an interfaith conference? We want to address this at its root, not just punish the offenders and wait for the next incident.”
I nodded to myself. That made sense.
“I’d like you to chair the meeting, Mrs. Moss. You’re a veteran parent, you’re a longtime member of the board, I think you can offer valuable perspective.”
I didn’t have much time to prepare, as Mr. Wertheimer thought it best to deal with this before the boys went home, so I made mental notes while I got ready and on the 20-minute drive.
Then I walked past the wall just as the handyman lifted the tarp away to scrub the paint, and I saw the white and red slashes for myself: language and images lifted straight out of a fascist screed. My stomach lurched.
The atmosphere in the conference room was somber. I hoped the head and staff of the Academy were taking this seriously because they understood the gravity of the situation, not because there was an open file at the police station. I let my gaze roam over faces as I did a mental head count, introduced myself and smiled briefly — short, serious, and calculated to make them want to listen.
“Prejudice,” I started, the word deliberately sharp in the quiet room, “is born of ignorance.”
I held their attention, but mine was splintered, shearing away from a persuasive speech where I laid down points in a concise and succinct fashion to a jeering goblin who mimicked my words and laughed in my face. Prejudice is born of ignorance.
I spoke and my listeners listened. They nodded as I spoke about insidious messages from an insidious media, dangerous rhetoric and impressionable young minds.
But I heard none of it. A poem, almost forgotten, suddenly stood clear in my mind.
“…to see ourselves as others see us…” Never had those words by Robert Burns held as much meaning for me as in that room where I made the case to a school board for an addition to their curriculum, to give their students an opportunity to make informed choices. To show them a way out of ignorance.
Here I was holding up a picture for everyone to see, but instead I found myself looking into a mirror to see the reflection of the wife Eli had spoken to that morning; the mother who thought she knew what was best for her daughter, a woman who couldn’t see herself as others saw her.
This is not about Shmuli. I’m the most accepting person.
Assumptions, Gila. Ignorance.
There was gentle applause, a beaming David Wertheimer, respect after a successful speech. But it was dim, obscured under layers of too many emotions to contain. I smiled and nodded and hoped my silence would be interpreted as modesty, then fled as soon as appropriate.
Once the third driver honked behind me, I pulled into an empty parking spot to think.
Random words and choppy phrases streamed through my head, a sorry reel of all the things I had seen but not observed.
I’m the most accepting person.
This is you not wanting me to go out with someone who doesn’t look exactly like you.
The shame crept up slowly, a heat in my face.
Where was I when Michal started seeing Shmuli? As fine as I would ever be with her choices, admiring the level-headed and friendly boy, man, who had impressed us from the moment we had met him.
Nothing to do with anyone’s parents or background.
But it was, it had been since I’d laid eyes on the people who had raised this level-headed and friendly young man. Pictures of a wedding divided by accented English and foreign head coverings had crowded my judgment, tainted my vision.
And just like that, I had fenced my daughter in, stamped out that passion. Broken her chance at happiness because of a prejudice I’d blinded myself against.
I shifted to drive and pulled out into the road again, this time in the direction of the stables, the desperation to speak to my daughter galloping, galloping in my chest.
The second time I watched chassidim dance, I let my heart join them.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)
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