I hold the green plastic basket like a blockade between us. I won’t reach out. We’re not allowed to touch, I know that. But I could whisper to him. I could speak so quietly nobody else in the grocery store hears. Nobody else will know. I could protect us both.
I see you, my words will say. And you will see me and my heart beats quickly at the thought of even the thinnest, most gossamer thread of connection.
Do it. Say it. Use those words like they are a cipher to a secret code. Speak the language. Let them know who you are.
I am also a Jew. There are so few of us here.
But now, there are more. Two hundred members of the exiled cult, Lev Tahor, have quietly come to town.
When the glaciers retreated from this area 15,000 years ago, they left behind prairie grassland atop rich soil that now yields to acre after acre of corn, soybean, and tomato farms. Even right in the middle of what locals call a city and I call a very small town, you don’t have to go far to come across a farm. There is a cornfield across the two-lane road from my children’s school. There are soybeans growing seven houses away from where we live.
In the winter, the wind, unhindered by structures or trees, whips across barren fields, churning up snow and dirt. Some days this causes near-whiteout conditions, forcing authorities to close adjacent roads until the vortex subsides.
When the Jews retreated from this area in the 1960s and ’70s, they were a small but prosperous population; a merchant class displaced by department stores and the large, brutalist-style mall built on the busiest corner of the once-quaint downtown.
It’s unclear how any Jews at all ended up in this rural town, our role as bankers and shopkeepers the same as it ever was. Historically banned in the old country from owning land, we never learned to work it. Instead, we provided the farmers with the things they couldn’t grow, like clothes. And money.
Today, the Jews are almost all gone and the mall is for sale. It stands nearly empty. The escalator has been broken for months.
“We’re very fond of you people,” a relative of my husband said to me shortly after we had moved here. Despite… the words always imply. I thought she meant Torontonians. “We go to Israel quite often.” I nodded and walked away. Later, I rebuffed her proposal that I join her bible study group. She wanted me to offer the Jewish point of view. “I don’t have it,” I said. “That’s not the kind of Jew I am.”
I was not the kind of Jew that a member of Lev Tahor was. A cloistered Haredi sect founded by Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor broke away from other ultra-orthodox communities in Israel in the 1980s, intent on following fundamental ideologies so austere that the group fled to America, claiming they could not return to Israel without the risk of religious persecution.
Lev Tahor does not believe in Zionism, but it does arrange marriage for girls that have barely reached the age of consent.
When I was 22 and working in the dining room of a kibbutz in Israel, I considered the kind of Jew I was. When you are 22 and far away from home, you consider very little and also everything deeply.
That same year, Shlomo Helbrans and his Lev Tahor followers were running a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, established upon Helbrans’ release from prison. He had served two years after being convicted of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy.
Helbrans was deported back to Israel and I finally left the kibbutz to go home.
Fifteen years later, thanks to fate and financial considerations, Lev Tahor and I were both living in the same small town in southwestern Ontario and I was moved, once again, to consider the kind of Jew I was.
Nearly every group of people has a word that means outsider. Some of these words are used to offend, some merely to differentiate. If someone spits at your feet when they say it, you know the intention. It is a more difficult distinction to make when the words are said politely.
“They are to Judaism what Branch Davidians are to Christianity,” I say by way of explanation, though I don’t know if that’s true. David Koresh seemed charismatic. He liked music.
“They’re not like the rest of us,” I say to the group of people around my table, who are not like the rest of us either.
I refused to shun them, refused to denounce their claim to Judaism even as I knew Lev Tahor would mine. Me, married to a goy, an other, following none of the rules, intentionally raising my girls without god in their life, an intention I thought would make them better global citizens. Even in the eyes of less extreme sects, I no longer had the right to call myself a good Jew.
But here in this conservative small Ontario town, I am the unknown, I am the other, and now Lev Tahor is as well, and tribalism means we are curves in the same circle and prejudice means we are all alike anyway.
One night, I lay in bed next to my husband, who knew my thoughts by the way my body shifted. “This isn’t what I meant when I said I wished there were more Jewish people here.”
His hand squeezed mine under the covers.
The only time I ever saw the women in Lev Tahor, it was through the window of my car. They were walking in a clutch on number 40 Highway and in their dark burqas, billowing and blown in the punishingly cold wind, they were indistinguishable except by height. A sudden gust forced snow off the field the women were walking alongside of, veiling them in a temporary blizzard. Their shrouds seemed to be floating through the snowstorm ominously devoid of human structure, like black ghosts.
The women were likely on their way back to King’s Gate, a low-rent complex with a high-esteem name where the group had taken up residence. King’s Gate sits beyond the big box stores on the lonely northern edge of town, an unexpected enclave of single-story white homes sitting squat against the treeless, flat landscape. The stark apartments were usually populated by recently divorced dads and recovering alcoholics who had lost their license but could still be seen riding in and out of the complex and around town on their e-bikes.
These tenants were Lev Tahor’s first vocal and alarm-raising critics, and they made a big show of moving out of King’s Gate as soon as the black ghosts moved in. Perhaps it was gratifying to discover a population even more maligned than they were.
Lev Tahor was soon highly feared in town.
Mothers in schoolyards declared they would no longer let their children play outside unsupervised. Others took to Facebook to make their outrage known. Some talked of the group’s notoriety and the accusations levied against them but at first it was simply damning enough that they had arrived without warning and dressed in strange, dark clothes and went about their lives without one thought to the discomfort it shed on the townspeople.
I wondered how fond of these people my husband’s relative would be.
I have taken my habit of pointing out Jews in pop culture to the next level. I can’t let one pass without claiming them.
“She’s Jewish,” I say to my husband as Rachel Weisz appears on my screen. Paul Rudd, Julia Garner, Liev Schreiber. All members of the tribe. We share something ancient and unbreakable. Mah nishmah, I whisper to the screen. What’s up, my sister; my brother?
As the weeks go by, Lev Tahor gains their own celebrity status in town. People note sightings and keep tabs on their whereabouts.
Quebec officials try to enforce a youth court order to remove the children of Lev Tahor from their family homes. Ontario social services investigates but finds no evidence that warrants placing the children in foster care. A few locals come to the defense of the sect; a small rally, ostensibly in support of human rights, is organized even as global Jewish organizations speak out against Lev Tahor’s fundamentalism and alleged practices that may border on abuse.
Our local Member of Parliament, an evangelical Christian and father of eight, meets with the group’s public spokesperson, then tells the press that the saga is not a political concern before saying that it would be discussed behind closed doors.
Hanukkah arrives and I make latkes with applesauce. We light the menorah, spin the dreidels, and joke about sanctioned gambling. My gentile husband wins the pile of chocolate coins. The next week, the Christmas tree goes up and I don’t let my kids help decorate it because I want it to be pretty. Grandma is Santa, I have told them since they were little.
The town stops talking about Lev Tahor because it is time to talk about people saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. A local bakery holds their annual tradition of welcoming a Santa’s helper in blackface to hand out sweets to all the smiling children.
On Christmas Day, my name seems to have been omitted from the hat and there is no Secret Santa present thrust in my direction. Only my husband notices and nods at the bottle of wine he has just unwrapped. We’ll share, this action says. I smile and exclaim at the bounty at my children’s feet.
I did not have a bat mitzvah, that ritual at age 13 that reflects admittance into Jewish adult life, responsibility and, in the suburb where I grew up, the size of your parents’ savings account.
During the festivities, the bat mitzvah girl or bar mitzvah boy is lavished with gifts: envelopes filled with cash in denominations of lucky $18, enough to begin a solid college fund; chunky Star of David necklaces for the boys and rings with their first initial engraved in delicate scroll for the girls. The jewelry was often a gift of honor given by a close aunt or cherished family friend; someone whose place it was to bestow good wishes and future heirlooms.
I danced at all of my friends’ parties, marveled at the rooms filled with food and relatives. Each was more impressive than the last: photo booths and candy-laden tables and temporary tattooists and celebrity look-alikes. And mothers with perfectly coiffed hair and fathers with associates with which to shake hands. These kinds of parents were as peripheral to my reality as the ceremonial prayers that preceded the party. I recognized them as common to my tribe but something that would remain always out of my reach. That’s not the kind of Jew I was. At the end of the night, my dad would pick me up and we’d go home, where my mother was sitting on the couch watching the news with rollers in her hair.
On the cold, snowy morning of my thirteenth birthday, my three best girlfriends presented me with a little box. Inside was a delicate gold ring, my initial engraved on it. It was too big, and I was too ashamed to ask to have it sized properly. I lost it and grew up without the only symbol of Jewish adulthood ever bestowed upon me.
Lev Tahor left town as quickly and quietly as they had arrived ten months earlier. They would move again and again in the next few years until Shlomo Helbrans drowned while performing a ritualistic cleansing in a river in Mexico. The fate of the group is uncertain.
My eldest daughter turned thirteen and we took a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The mall is still for sale. I am still here.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Bart