Promising Roads| May 23, 2023
How many times would I be forced to prove my allegiance?
Jerusalem of the expatriates, light of the earth.
Streets paved with wisdom, alight with Torah.
Bastion of great sages and aspiring young men.
City of old, catalyst for new.
Citadel of hope and yearning.
Growth and transcendence.
Mosul, Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul, 939 CE
The room is silent. Ima has come over for a visit at the most inconvenient of times. I stand, my back against the window, watching Youssef, who looks as though he has lifted his face from a water basin. Ima sits on the chair, her hands clenched.
“But Youssef, the caravan is set to leave tomorrow,” I whisper, my teeth nearly grinding my bottom lip.
My husband’s head snaps up, a look of panic upon his face. “What should I do?” He tugs his sleeve in despair.
Ima opens her mouth, her square jaw jutting the same way my husband’s does. Her son.
“Youssef,” I say quickly, eyeing Ima warily. “Have you spoken with HaRav Baruch?”
“I have not.” He lowers his head, glances at me sideways. “I— I am sorry Raayit. Truly.”
I turn to hide my disappointment. It is as I feared. Youssef has delayed going to the Rav, afraid the Rav will say he shouldn’t go. He wants to go, for himself and for me. For us.
Ima sees it, too. “You know HaRav Baruch surely would not encourage you to go against your mother’s wishes,” she says. “Yes, go to HaRav Baruch. He knows that your father was slaughtered on the roads to Baghdad. To dredge up those memories I have long tried to forget? He will tell you not to cause your mother such pain!”
I shake my head. Ima is certain of the Rav’s answer. But does she not know that for Torah it is different? Surely, HaRav Baruch will encourage Youssef to go!
I swallow the bile that has arisen. Ima is still talking, her voice pained.
“You know I am so proud that you are such a great scholar, but why can you not stay in Mosul? Is this because your wife wants you to go? Are you willing to hurt your own mother because that is what she wants?”
I clench my teeth until I feel my brain will erupt.
“I forbid you to go to Baghdad,” she continues. “If you—” She eyes me meaningfully, “If you do go, I will be forced to banish you from my property. You will have to build a home elsewhere.”
My head jerks. The impact of her words hits me squarely in my chest. A shiver passes through my insides. She would not command us to abandon our home, would she? Our home! We had been living on Ima’s estate, the one she brought into her marriage, since we were wed. Surely, she wouldn’t throw us out, abandoned to the elements? She could not be so cold-hearted. And yet, has she not threatened to do just that?
Youssef’s shoulders have slumped forward. I know his heart is in Baghdad. We’ve discussed it often; he sees himself one with the thousands of scholars sitting at the feet of Rav Saadiah, asking questions, absorbing the Gaon’s words. I cannot bear to see him now.
“Go to HaRav Baruch. We shall do as he says,” I state. I am sure that if HaRav tells him to go, Ima will relent. I crush the voice in my head that tells me otherwise, trample the sour feeling of doubt.
Youssef exhales, his shoulders still stooped. He looks aged. “I will go.” He turns on his heel, and before Ima can say anything, he has left.
The room is charged, the silence thick. Ima looks down at her hands. The brocade curtains flutter in the breeze. A sharp intake of breath. “No son of mine will go to Baghdad,” she mutters, eyes narrowed.
I bite my tongue, but the words burst forth nonetheless. “But how can he not?” I demand, my voice shrill. “Youssef has been chosen from among many to represent us, to present the community’s questions in Torah to Rav Saadiah Gaon. This is his chance at greatness! The Kallah is only twice a year. How can we deny him such honor? The ability to study Gemara?”
Ima turns her head so that every line of pain, every battle scar is now visible. She looks at me with contempt. “I have already sacrificed a husband to those roads. I will not lose a son.”
I look at her. She’s wrong. Utterly wrong. Her husband did not journey for Torah. And more, how could she do that, to think only about herself? To put her pain before her son? Before her nation? Before the Al-mighty?
I draw in my bottom lip and turn my back. I cannot allow her to see me crack.
For a moment, I think Ima will keep her peace. She does not.
“I know not why I have allowed my son to marry a daughter of Na’im, the great Karai. To think I thought you would be any different!” Her voice is unusually shrill.
I recoil, my cheeks pinched.
“You make me throw my son out to the streets!” She shakes her head. “You will break a widow’s heart. But I will do what I must. I cannot stand idle while my son walks to the gallows.”
I swallow. She is serious. If he goes, we go.
I can understand, a bit. How can she stand idle when she sees her son walk willingly to his death? But… is she going to restrain him from studying Torah? The ultimate wisdom? Because she thinks he is walking to the gallows? Will she truly take away his home because his soul thirsts to achieve greatness? She should be thriving for this! How could she think of hurting us like this? To test my limits, my love for Torah? Again?
She is prodding where it hurts most. The part that has taken so long to scab.
But Ima continues, leaving a gaping wound.
“You lack the same respect your father does, you are no better than he is.” She says it as though it were an afterthought.
How dare she? I turn away and stumble out of the room, my heart and hopes shattered.
I curl up tightly under the cover. My gnawed fingers are raw, flesh exposed. It is a childhood habit of mine. It drowned out the turmoil in my heart then, and it does so now.
Is it truly worth it? Vagrant? Like the financial outcasts? Like those not sound of mind? How long will it take to find a new home? And I will be alone! My legs shake from the chill that has overtaken me.
Is Youssef even allowed to go? Does the Torah not command that one must obey one’s parents? What is learning Torah if we don’t live it? I twist my toes in an effort to stop the shaking.
Why is Ima making it so hard? Where is her respect for the Mishnah? Isn’t this what I have strived for? Why I left home? Ima’s rejection brings it all back. A flood of memories, smells, and tears overtake me.
It had begun innocently enough. I was 14 years old, on the cusp of womanhood. I had wanted to know what they believe. It was not long before I saw the truth, before I began trying to keep real kashrut. Real Shabbat. And then Abba discovered my lessons with the Rav’s wife….
Abba brandishing his fists, his face blue with rage. He is mad at my insolence. A daughter of his should adhere to the Oral Law?! For shame! He is the most prominent Karai; defender and believer of the Written Law only! How dare I?
I am lost. Alone in a big ugly world. I have taken the big step. I have left home. I walk the streets of Arbil, dirty and hungry. I run from house to house, begging for shelter from the storm outside. The storm in my heart. I am turned away, humiliated.
How can we? They insist. To help a daughter of the B’nei Mikrah, of the Karaim?
They are afraid of Abba. He is too powerful. He has connections with the officials, it is unwise to anger him. I am told to find my way to Mosul. Abba surely would not find me there. People there can help me.
I am sick from days of wandering. My swollen feet buckle under me, and I collapse. Hours later I feel a gnarled hand on my cheek. I raise my eyes to see an old, kindly woman leaning over me.
I try to speak, but she raises a hand. “Everything will be all right, my child. You must rest.”
I live with Sitti Sarah for two full years. I am her child; she expects nothing in return. Now the time has come to give my hand in marriage.
A suggestion, a scholar. No father. But he is a good man. And most importantly, they adhere to every letter of the Torah. Written and oral.
The mother. They say she is kind, but strong-minded. It is a small price to pay for such an outstanding suggestion, surely not a deciding factor. And yet, I cannot help it. I am worried.
Sitti Sarah looks at me kindly.
“It will be good.” Her voice is assuring.
I wake to see Youssef at the foot of my bed, chewing his lip. “Ima again?” he asks, his voice pained.
I nod. My head is heavy.
A sigh tears through his throat. “I am sorry, Raayit.”
I nod again, my eyes swollen yet dry.
Coal eyes sweep over me. They pause as they encounter my hands.
“You have injured yourself. Again.”
I incline my head.
“What has HaRav Baruch said?” I inquire. It is not only to obliterate the disappointment in my husband’s eyes.
Youssef smiles softly. “He said I shall go in peace.”
My heart expands.
“However,” he continues, “I cannot leave you without a home, without a plan.” He chews his lip again. “I will stay.”
I cannot help but feel a twinge of relief. But — no. This is what I have wanted, why I left Abba’s home.
But — do I still? Can I sacrifice everything again? I screw my eyes shut.
“You must not stay here,” I resolve, drawing out every word. “I—” I close my eyes and breathe deeply. “I will find a place to live while you are gone.” My voice trembles. “I can stay with Sitti.”
Youssef stands, a sure sign of finality. “The next Kallah is in Adar. Ima may give in soon, perhaps I will go then.”
I sit up, lips quivering. Yes. Still. “Have I given up all in vain? All the humiliation, in vain? Have I aroused my father’s wrath, in vain? Have I lived with strangers for four years, in vain?” My voice is at an impossible decibel.
The question hangs in the air like a foul scent. When I continue, my voice is low. “I did it for the Mishnah. For Gemara.” I pause for emphasis. “And I will only find healing once you swim her waters, plunge her depths. Only then will you realize my dreams.”
Youssef lowers his head in the face of my passion. He is weakening.
“Go.” I plead.
“Will you be okay?” There is real worry in his eyes.
“GO!” I am standing now, too, hands on hips. “Go.” Softer. “Ima will be okay. The roads are safer now, there are fewer attacks.”
Youssef nods. “Ima is strong.”
“Too strong,” I add, my voice miserable.
Youssef looks at me. I muster a smile.
A moment of silence.
“I will go.”
Ima takes the news silently, though she stays to help me pack. I cannot look her in the eye. Does she think I am unable to pack my husband’s clothes? I fold his weekday robes along with his Shabbat robes. Ima fingers his turban, tears crowning her eyes.
“It will be okay,” I whisper. I am talking to myself. I cannot focus on her pain when mine is as great — and she is the one inflicting it upon me.
She looks at me, her eyes mere slits. “No. And you are at fault. You have turned my son against me. You traitor! It is as if you are killing him yourself.” She drops the turban in anger.
I breathe, my heart and soul at war.
It is well deserved! She is no better than a murderer herself, she intends to destroy our dreams, our life source. Murderer!
But she is a widow. How can you cause her more pain?
That is no excuse! She must know the truth!
My eyes are stinging from the injustice. The tide of words fights its way out. “I have not turned your son against you! Youssef is being guided by Daat Torah! How dare you accuse me!” My cheeks are flushed, my insides burning. “Why are you making this impossible? Should you not be encouraging me? Is this not what we stand for? Are you not proud?”
I glance at Ima; her face is set. Unreadable. The guilt begins to creep in, setting in my throat. I have been too harsh. I wait for her to speak so I can justify my words.
Youssef chooses that moment to enter. He raises a brow at my uptight stance. “I am leaving with the rise of the morning star. We are to converge in front of the Beit HaKnesset,” he announces.
I gaze at him with undisguised pride, glad for the distraction. “I shall tell Leyah to pack sufficient provisions.”
Youssef cocks his head in thanks, a smile on his lips. How I will miss him. My husband, the scholar.
Youssef beckons me to join him outside. The sun has already dipped, yet it is still sweltering.
“Raayit, I have been to Sitti Sarah.”
I stop walking and close my eyes, barely mouthing the words. “And?”
“I have informed her of our circumstances. She understands. She has aged, her eyes have dimmed. She can use your help. She is overjoyed to host you for the duration of my journey.”
I tilt my head heavenward, my stomach tightening. “What about Leyah?” I seek out the white of his eyes in the darkness.
“I fear we must let her go.” He shakes his head regretfully. “Sitti cannot host her.”
I nod. I will miss her, the friend I have found in our hired help.
“We may take her in again once we settle in a new home. I have already begun looking for land.”
Youssef is too good to me. “How will we fund this?” I cannot help but ask, worry worming its way into my limbs.
“The silk trade is doing fine. Abba’s dealings have prospered under my brother’s command. I will sell my share.”
“So. I will take you to Sitti Sarah before I depart.”
I nod, not trusting myself to speak lest my voice betray my pain.
We turn back to our home, our home that will no longer be.
Morning dawns, a ball of fire amid a symphony of colors. The first strokes upon an artist’s plank. Rebirth. Hope.
Youssef is ready.
I am ready.
He walks me to Sitti Sarah’s modest home.
“Will you be fine?” Youssef peers into my eyes. His are alight with tears. Tears of worry. Tears of joy.
“Yes,” I say, squaring my shoulders. “May He be with you.”
Youssef lowers his head. “It will be good.” He mounts his camel, waving his handkerchief in farewell.
I stand there long after he is but a speck on the horizon. I have done it again. Tears stream down my face. This is the moment. All my life… for this. My heart does not feel lighter, but it is worth it. This is my sacrifice for Him. I straighten my back when a voice breaks into my thoughts.
“You have done well, my child. You have made me proud.”
I turn around. “Sitti,” I murmur.
She stands there, a hunched figure smiling in the morning sunlight.
“Come,” she says, taking my hand. “Let us eat. You are hungry.” She leads me into the house, and I am immediately overcome with memories.
Days and nights lying in bed, defeat overwhelming me. Sitti Sarah’s strong voice asking me, commanding me, to get up. To think of the future, to pursue my dreams.
Tears spent over all I have left behind. Pangs of longing for a world that is gone.
Earnest conversations over heaping plates of spicy food. Envisioning the future, my home, where halachah would reign.
I am overwhelmed by the idealism of my younger self. The rawness, the strength. I think of the second home I left behind. The memories.
My stomach knots. It will be okay. I will settle elsewhere, bear children, build a home. It will be good.
I did it for Torah! I had come so close, I could not give in! I had done it before. Things will settle.
My chest contrasts. But I am about to bury a mother. Again. It will be the second time I am burying a living, breathing human being in my heart. In my mind. Ima is no longer the murderer.
Life has taken on a predictable rhythm. Sitti Sarah has aged. She is no longer capable of housework. It is good for me to work. I do not have to think.
The sun is merciless. It is Elul after all. I shake out the clothes I have just washed, looking for a suitable place to spread them so they will dry quickly.
I look up to see a swarthy, muscular man atop a camel. He makes his way slowly down the path.
I squint. It must be one of Sitti’s sons. I turn my back and walk toward the house when a chillingly familiar voice stops me.
I am weary, I am imagining things.
“It is you.” The man is triumphant.
I am not dreaming. I freeze, my face bloodless.
He is restless. He has already descended from his camel and comes toward me with long purposeful strides. “It is you!” he snarls. “I have found you, my wayward daughter.”
I am numb, my mind blank. I feel as though I am watching myself from above.
“You have married,” he states, eyeing my veil. “I was told you were unmarried, living a pitiful existence with an old woman in this hovel.” His eyes sweep the house, a look of disgust distorting his lips.
He looks back at me and the pile of clothes in my arms. “If you are married—” His eyes dart from me back to the house, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “Why are you living with the old woman?”
And then his face clears. “Ah. He has left you.” His smile is mocking.
My voice is frozen. I stare.
Abba looks at me, eyes hard. “You have killed my wife!” he growls. “Your mother has taken to her bed since you left. She is ebbing away.” He pauses. “You are a killer. A murderer.”
My mind is forced into action. The word echoes in my head, mocking.
Murderer, murderer, righteous murderer.
It is a song. More voices join Abba in the singing. Mother, my sisters. Ima.
There is drumming and the singing is growing louder and louder. Abba’s friends. Youssef’s father.
Murderer, murderer, righteous murderer. Shimon — Youssef’s brother. They point and sing. The crowd grows and grows, until the entire city is singing and pointing.
Abba is oblivious, although in my head he is leading the song.
“Enough of this now.” He grabs my wrist. “You will come home, heal my wife, and return to our ways. You have brought us enough shame.”
Murderer, murderer, righteous murderer!
A hand clamps down on my shoulder. I turn uncomprehendingly.
Ima. Youssef’s mother.
The singing in my head reaches a crescendo. Murderer, murderer, righteous murderer!
“You are not taking my daughter anywhere.” Her voice is a rock.
Abba’s fist clenches. “You will not tell me what to do with my daughter!” he roars. “She will pay for her cruelty. For the hearts she has shattered, for the shame she has brought us!”
Murderer, murderer, righteous murderer!
“Cruelty?” Ima’s brows are raised, an amused smile on her lips. “You don’t know my daughter. She is a warrior, a hero. She fights for her truths.”
The singing dies down until only Abba is heard. Murderer, murderer, righteous murderer!
Abba’s face is blue with unexpressed rage.
“Now leave my daughter.”
Abba stares at Ima, his eyes withering. Ima does not move.
“Go,” Ima commands.
Abba grits his teeth. “I will be back,” he mutters.
Ima finally takes her hand off my shoulder and crosses her arms over her chest.
She stands thus until Abba finally walks away. “I will be back,” he growls at me as he mounts his camel. And then he is gone.
Ima turns to me, her face blank. “You left this.” She hands me an old strand of beads.
I take it, my face inquiring. But Ima only gives me a half-smile and turns to leave.
I watch her retreating figure, and the singing in my head starts again.
This time Ima leads, and Youssef, Sitti Sarah, and all of Baghdad has joined the singing.
Hero, hero, righteous hero.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 844)
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