The Wanderer by Simchi Cohen

Runner-up, 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction

Two sabbath candles flickering burned almost to the end

I’m a wanderer. A wanderer with a Rabbi Problem. Sixteen years ago I left my ultra-Orthodox Jewish family: my father, the community Rabbi, my mother, his Rebbetzin, and my five younger siblings. My father would say my unbelonging is appropriately Jewish. We Jews wander, he’d say. We unJews wander too. Maybe I have weak roots. I condition twice a day. Someone tells me this wandering, weak-rooted, conditioned, Rabbi Problem state is called a cosmopolitan anachronism. I look it up.

Desert wanderer doesn’t appear to have a coherent definition. Cosmopolitan anachronism doesn’t either. This isn’t a sign, I assure myself. I don’t believe in signs. But I do know with absolute certainty that if I lose my favorite ring on the floor of a doctor’s office it will be a bad year. And when my car is broken into on my birthday and my bike is stolen a week later, I know I am right. These aren’t signs. They’re truths.

I ask the librarian for a new resource. Desert wanderer, I explain. Lost ring. She hands me a Bible.

 

For Reuben, Elitzur the son of Shedeur.

For Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai.

For Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab.

For Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zu’ar.

For Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon.

For the children of Joseph: for Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; for Manasseh, Gamliel 

       the son of Pedazur.

For Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni.

For Dan, Ahi’ezer the son of Ammishaddai.

For Asher, Pag’iel the son of Ochran.

For Gad, Eliasaph the son of De’uel.

For Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan.

 

Early census taking. Every tribe sends forth a nominee. Each nominee collects one-half shekel from every head of household and the Jews are counted by Moses in the Sinai desert. Sort of. Actually, the shekels are counted. The Jews are never counted.

I have an acutely clear memory of an elementary school teacher taking attendance. We are sitting in rows, legs neatly tucked under desks, uniform skirts at mid-calf, hair tightly bound. She is walking between the rows of desks whispering Psalms 28:9. In Hebrew, the verse has exactly ten words. The translation doesn’t equate: “Deliver Your people and bless Your heritage; tend them and exalt them forever.” Each repeated verse meant 10 students were present. We were 28 students in all. “Hoshea es amecha uvurech es nachlosecha,” she whispers. All present and accounted for. Jews are never counted, she explains. And I learn that things are counted and not counted because they matter or don’t matter. And that the uncounted count most. In high school we were older, still uniformed, still neatly tucked. We wrote term paper after term paper on biblical minutia. We memorized countless passages from Prophets and Psalms. We counted each other off for machanayim teams during recess: “not one, not two, not three.” You exist, but you don’t exist, Desert Wanderer. Pass me a half-shekel.

My Rabbi Problem counts. The days of the year tick by in solemn squares, slippery days and whole months skipping past without waving until the entire calendar starts over again with the Hebrew month of Nisan. And fifteen days later Passover plonks itself into an armchair and delicately unwraps a stick of gum. It doesn’t announce its presence. It simply arrives, ending the desert sojourn with many numerical rituals. Ten plagues. Fifteen seder courses. Four questions. Four cups of wine. Four divine promises of freedom. Six items on the seder plate. Thirteen verses of “Who Knows One.” Two Egyptian cities built by Jewish slaves.

Passover counts. It commemorates liberation. Freedom. Exodus. This biblical resource is a thesaurus. It lists God, Moses, Ancient Egypt, and slavery in chronological order. We flee to the desert around 1300 BCE with the dawning of the final plague. The Jews are instructed to paint the lintels of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb so that the Angel of Death would know which homes to pass over when inflicting the final plague: the death of the firstborn. This is not a sign. The firstborn dies and freedom ensues but these things are only as connected as a lost ring and a bad year.

Passover was always my least favorite holiday. For us, it started a month in advance with the cleaning. Every item in the house had to be scoured for any trace of leavened bread. I knelt over a bathtub scrubbing individual legos with a toothbrush. I laid contact paper over freshly bleached kitchen surfaces. I stacked carefully packed boxes of matzah on the counter. Passover meant sweeping and vacuuming and scrubbing and dusting the inside pages of every book with a tiny brush, but it also meant frozen chocolate yogurt we scraped out of plastic containers with carefully polished silver spoons and crumbled matzah with cinnamon in milk served in light pink glass bowls. It meant a trip to the 99 Cents Only store to buy rubber frogs to re-enact the ten plagues. We children would hop around the table pretending to drink blood, croaking as authentically as we could, scratching our heads and armpits for imaginary lice, and keeling over at the death of the firstborn. “Only Simchi needs to die!” my brother used to shout, ducking between chairs, “she’s the only fiiirrsstborn!” The sing-song announcement was unnecessary. My death was inevitable. The seder script was so long and intricate, I fell asleep long before the main course.

People ask me what my childhood was like and the easiest explanation is to tell them about the costume. They seem to understand the relationship between the long gray skirts, the opaque tights, the buttoned-up blouses, the tightly bound hair, and the oppression of Egyptian slavery. Even in the summer? They ask. Even in the summer. What about at the beach? Even at the beach. Did you ever wish you could just take it off? Some days it felt like it had fused itself to me, a skin that re-grew every time I shed it. I kept trying to grow new skin, I explain, in the form of jeans and of lipstick. Unbound hair. I took great care in maintaining my appearance. In pulling my long gray skirt over my skin-tight jeans, in wiping off my lipstick on a brand new tissue. In licking my finger and rubbing the glitter from in the collar of my shirt. Because, a letter from a family friend said, my husband has asked if you can dress modestly, according to Ultra Orthodox tradition, if you visit. Your nakedness is an imposition. The thicker the summer, the more the community whispered about me. I heard the voices ballooning under my skirt. Please blend in. Please blend harder. Wear a costume. Be who you are. Be who you aren’t. The skin grew back. Please remember, the whispers warned, we know your family, your Rabbi Problem, and will report back the length of your hemlines, the opaqueness of your stockings. I shed the skin. I’m sure you have some ideal costume, some perfect virgin mask with a long skirt, high neck, pale face, hair tied back, pure soul, mindless mindless shoelaces and hands folded quietly obeying please oh please the strength of the community rests in its uniformity and we hope that you of all people can understand the value of creating a community where children feel safe and unconditionally loved and insulated from the confusion of the world. The skin grew back.

This is not a sign. My pale new skin, moist and prickly, free. Liberated by the death of the firstborn. I am free to wander in the desert. Free to empty my heart into a nearby dying shrub. To bury myself in the sand or eat frozen chocolate yogurt with a tarnished spoon. Desert wanderer. Free to lounge in front of a barely oscillating fan with a pencil on a sticky Saturday morning. To be able to stroke the very back of my neck, where the hair hardly grows and feels like feathers. To be able to walk to work in a pair of jeans and an oversized sweater. To be able to fall asleep with the fan still blowing and my shoes still on. To be able to masturbate. To be able to spend copious amounts of time in the library. To be able to not feel guilty about loving Virginia Woolf. I am in love with Virginia Woolf. To be able to sojourn and saunter and amble and wander. To be able to enjoy a gin and tonic with fresh lime juice and two ice cubes alongside a peanut butter cookie on a Wednesday night. To be able to walk barefoot on the hot black pavement. To be able to peel off an old costume and grow a new skin.

Last week I purged my cloud files and found an inscrutable term paper I wrote in 2001. I was in the 11th grade, writing about Passover. The exodus wasn’t about the redemption from slavery, I wrote. It was the birth of the entire essence of the Jewish nation. Freedom and birth. The death of the firstborn is the shedding of a skin. What I actually wrote was, “Yetziyas Mitzrayim wasn’t just about the redemption from Mitzrayim itself, but rather, it was the coming about of the entire essence of Bnei Yisroel.” I showed the file to a colleague who asked if I was wearing a costume. What language am I looking at? she asked. I pointed her in the direction of a biblical resource. I felt the hem of my skirt ballooning to contain the whispers of my past.

Passover counts in questions. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why on this night do we eat unleavened bread? Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? Why on this night do we recline like kings? As children we recited the scripted questions aloud, first in Hebrew then in Yiddish. Far vos is de nacht fun pesach…

My littlest sister, Devorah, called me once not long after I had left to ask me questions. Where do I live and how many bedrooms do I have and what is my job and what do I want to be when I grow up? She wanted to be an artist. She had three pencils. When is my birthday and was I in school and had I ever held a snake and how do you spell “traveling”? I could feel her sticky fingers through the phone. I could smell her child head, musky and warm. And then I was suddenly holding her on my belly, her tiny baby body pressed up against mine breathing so quickly I was afraid she might evaporate. I was shoving her fat baby feet into impossibly small baby socks. I was promising her if she fell asleep I would always be there in the morning. Devorah. My Devorah. I was twelve when she was born and the first to hold her. My mother brought me to the birth and I watched Devorah’s mucusy head emerge and I cut her umbilical cord and knew instantly she was mine. I didn’t take my eyes off her for months. I think if I hadn’t loved her so fiercely, my leaving wouldn’t have come with so many unanswered questions, all smelling like warm child’s breath.

My mother sent a follow-up letter:

Simchi,

I must ask you not to divulge anything else to Devorah about your life that is not in accordance with Torah. It isn’t good for her to learn at this age that a person who grew up with Torah chooses to do Aveiros (sinful deeds). To top it all off, it’s you who is living like this, and you are her big sis whom she loves, adores and idolizes. If you really do love her, heed what I am asking of you and do not do any further damage.

Mommy

What happens to an unJew wandering in a desert of things that are counted and not counted? Did you think that familiarity and disconnection were mutually exclusive? They aren’t. I can count the ways. I can count the things I have forgotten. The taste of bitter herbs. The roasted shankbone. The fourth glass of wine. The strangeness of an unpainted walkway. What it feels like to be the oldest daughter in the ritual script of Passover’s four sons: the wise son, the evil son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know to ask. I am the fifth. Or the zeroth. The absent daughter. I will forget that I was a wanderer long before I was ever born into a people who have always wandered.

The US census history goes back to 1790. The earliest census only assessed freedom. Number of free White males. Number of free White females. Number of other free persons. Number of slaves. A Passover census. By 2010, the census was hungrier. It wanted information. This will be Person 1, it said. What is Person 1’s name? Please provide information. Sex, race, income, residence. People and homes. The census doesn’t ask nicely. It demands connections. Who. Where. Who are you. What is your residence. Who is your residence. What are you. I have a new obsession with hachiya persimmons, I bubble in. When they’re ripe they feel like water balloons about to burst and make the most beautiful puddings. I am familiar with a particular set of expectations having to do with the length of my sleeves and the hemlines of my skirt, the angle of my nose as I lean in on a late night to sniff the cloves my Rabbi Problem holds out beside a flickering three-wicked candle as we ceremonially say goodbye to every Sabbath and all eight days of Passover.

Meet the Contributor

Simchi CohenSimchi earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of California Los Angeles. “The Wanderer” is one essay in her current project, Undead Letters, about her life as an ex-Orthodox Jew. Her work, both essays and poetry, has appeared in Westwind, The Occidental Review, Grace Notes, Cultural Critique, Horror Studies, and Prooftexts, among others. She teaches in the English department at Harvard-Westlake School and coaches the school’s spoken word poetry team, My Word. She spends her days imparting her love of poetry and dystopian fiction to high school students and her nights wide awake.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Aaron T. Goodman

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