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The Choice

by Araham Makofsky

Reuben, the quiet, gentle Talmudic scholar, screamed aloud his disbelief. "You did what, Rochel? You have a date? And it's on the Sabbath? Are you crazy? I can't believe it!"

His sister, as tall as Reuben, her hair streaked with the gray of early middle age, did not look at him, but she stood her ground and repeated the remark that had caused the furious outburst.

"I have a date. And, yes, it is on Friday night. My friend, Tom, and I are going out to eat, and after that, we are going to a concert."

Then she added, "You will have to choose. You can eat with Shmuel and his family that night, or I will prepare the supper and you can eat it here. Tom is coming at 5:30; that's when I will leave."

Reuben's body shook. He sat down, elbows on the table, hands covering his face, his body swaying as he moaned in prayer. May the Lord forgive Rochel. Please, A-donai, forgive Rochel.

*       *       *       *

She knew how hard it would be for her brothers to understand what she was doing, much less to accept it. Since their mother died, 25 years ago, when Reuben was 10 and Shmuel was 13, their big sister had been a mother to them, even more so than the woman Reuben remembered calling Mama. Their mother had been sick before Reuben was born, and had been unable to care for her children. Rochel watched over them, fed them, guided them in their schoolwork, cared for them when they were sick. She had arranged the preparations for bar-mitzvah, and all that needed to be done for that crowning event of their childhood.

In a physical sense, Papa stayed around for some years after his wife died. He went to work each weekday, came home to eat, and spent his free time in the synagogue. What he expected from Rochel was that she take care of his needs, and look after the children - to whom he rarely spoke. After he finally left this world, none of the children could say truthfully that they missed him.

When Rochel first met Tom, a strong feeling gripped her. She could not understand it, and she struggled to make sense of the agitation she felt in mind and body. A chance thought about a close friend of college days, dispelled the mystery.

The bond that she had felt with that friend was one of her most nostalgic memories. In their freshman year, when Rochel and Sylvia discovered how alike their interests were, they became inseparable on campus. They tried to take the same classes, joined the same clubs, ate lunch together. It was different, however, on evenings and weekends when there were no classes. Sylvia wanted to go to plays, concerts, lectures, but Rochel was rarely free to join her. She was needed at home, Papa said. She appealed to her mother, who sympathized with her; still, she had to have Papa's permission.

One day, toward the end of the freshman year, her friend proposed a double date. Sylvia had met a boy she liked, and he suggested that each bring a friend for a Sunday afternoon concert. Eager to accept, Rochel reasoned that on a Sunday she would be needed least around the house. She agreed to go, gambling that, somehow, she could persuade her father. Uneasy about a face-to-face confrontation, she begged her mother to talk to papa, and mama said she would.

It was a wonderful afternoon. Her date's name was Dave; he was tall, attractive, loved music, and was obviously interested in her. After the concert, they all had coffee and dessert in a caféteria. Dave insisted on accompanying her to her door, leaving only after asking for a date for the following weekend.

She was floating on a cloud when she entered the apartment, but she came back to earth quickly. Her father stood there, enraged. You deserted your sick mother and little brothers to go out and have a good time! There was no one to prepare dinner for us, so no one has eaten. How dare you go out without my permission, you, you…

"Sha, Sha, Hershel," Mama intervened, "I gave her permission. Rochel is a good daughter and she can't stay home all the time. You should have told me you were hungry. "Turning to Rochel, she said, "Your brothers are playing downstairs. Tell them to come up, and then help me prepare the food."

Dave telephoned later that evening to confirm the date, but she told him she was needed at home. The following week he tried again, saying that he had tickets for a play. She struggled to compose her constricted throat and hold back her tears, as she declined his offer. She did not hear from him again. What hurt even more, was that Sylvia gradually freed herself from the close bond of their friendship. During the rest of their college years, they nodded only in casual greeting.

*       *       *       *

As the years went by after Mama's death, Rochel followed in the tradition of the observant Jewish housewife. She conformed to all the rules and ritual of the kashruth in preparing food for her father and brothers. In her earlier years, she had at times wondered why a focus on dishes, pots, and taboo foods were vital in a relationship with Adoshem. In the days of togetherness with Sylvia, she had even followed her friend's lead in the school cafeteria, and bought forbidden food. Before her first bite into a ham sandwich, she had uttered a silent plea to be forgiven; after that, she never gave it a second thought.

Early on, she recognized who was the guiding force behind her commitment to the tradition. As new tasks and problems arose for the family, she asked herself, what would Mama do? Rochel lit the candles and said the blessing on Sabbath eve, took the boys to services-or made sure that they were motivated to go on their own. And as time went on, she found comfort, even pleasure, in the structure this provided in her daily life.

When Shmuel was about to enter college, she suddenly realized that another transition was in the making. In a few years, both brothers would not need a mother's care, and should be fending for themselves. Rabbi Siegel, a friend of her late father, spoke to her about it.

"You are an inspiration for all the people who know you. I don't know what would have happened to your family, if you had not taken charge. But your brothers are already young men. Have you considered what you will do when they leave home?"

"I hadn't given it any thought," said Rochel, startled by his comment. "I'm sure that I'll find something to do."

"Have you ever had in mind," the rabbi persisted, "that you might start your own family, maybe get married?"

"What are you driving at?" she asked, taken aback by his intrusion into her affairs.

"I have known you for many years, and your father was my good friend, so I want to help. There are many single men of your age who attend the shul, and I thought maybe you might consider…"

"Rabbi," she said trying to control her anger, "thank you for your interest, but I intend to be the judge of what I will be doing."

Offended though she was by the Rabbi's suggestion, she later admitted to herself, that she ought to have a plan. To begin with, she had to think about money. Papa left them a small legacy; she had managed it carefully, but it would soon be gone. There were also social security benefits for the boys ever since Papa died, and that would continue until they finished college.

Rochel was confident that having an adequate income would be the least of her worries. With her college degree, she needed only a few courses to be eligible to take the teaching exam. By the time Reuben began his college studies, she was already teaching English to middle school classes, at a school near her home.

As for the other question raised by the rabbi, she ruled out having any plan about marriage or children. She had felt, too briefly, the stirrings of love in her youth. She sensed that there could be a recurrence of that emotion as she, with a self-indulgent smile, recalled Mrs. Browning's phrase, If God choose.

When Shmuel finished college, he soon found a job as an engineer. He did not remain in the household long. While at school he had built close bonds with some classmates who were part of the Lubavitcher religious group. He did his homework with them, often ate with them, and attended their services.

"I need to tell you," he said, apologetically, to Rochel and Reuben, "I want to live in their community. I love both of you, and I wish you would come there too. For me, it is the group that I know will be at the center of my life."

"I'm happy that you've found a people and a place that you love," Rochel said. "At this point, I am not ready to join a community. Maybe I'll see it your way in the future, but not now." Turning to Reuben," How do you feel about it?" she asked. "And, please, don't be worried about leaving me alone. Just say what is in your heart."

Reuben sat there silently, collecting his thoughts. His sister and brother knew that this was how he dealt with questions, pondering them for all the possible consequences of alternative answers.

"I understand why you want to do this," directing his remark to his brother, "but I feel as Rochel does. I am in the midst of my Talmud studies, and I am not sure that the Lubavitchers will lead me where I want to be. Wherever you go, I will visit with you, and I will learn and benefit from your new knowledge."

After Shmuel left the home, life continued on in what seemed to be a peaceful procession. Reuben undertook graduate studies in religion and Judaism; and when he completed his doctorate, he was invited to join the faculty as an instructor in Jewish Studies. One element of his way of life troubled Rochel- he had no women friends. When she thought about it, she could not recall that he had ever gone out on a date with a woman. In his college years, she had on several occasions asked him why it was so: Are you afraid of a woman? Are you just not interested in a woman's company? And then she decided she had to ask what truly bothered her: Are you just interested in men?

At first, he did not seem to understand what she meant by her last remark. When he did, his face reddened. He took a long time in answering.

"You are wrong to think that I am a homosexual. I have never had a romantic, or sexual feeling about a man. I have not had that feeling about a woman either." Then he smiled. "I don't want to embarrass you, but I want to be honest. I think of you as the model of the woman with whom I would like to spend the rest of my life. Until I find her, I can't think of any better arrangement than I have right now."

"How will you find her if you don't look?" Rochel asked. Then a thought occurred to her. "Would you like me to find a matchmaker?"

This time Reuben laughed heartily. "Stop worrying. It's not a big deal. The Lord will help me when I'm ready."

Although her brother was unwilling to explore new relationships, Rochel had been weighing that step on her own behalf, and Reuben's remark that he saw her as a model for a life partner, pushed her to come to a decision. She did not want to be her brother's "model". There were too many unwelcome meanings in that term.

Several months before her talk with Reuben, she had gone to the school library to check on an assignment she wanted to give to a class. Her subject for several sessions was going to be the Harlem Renaissance, and she needed to know what books or articles would be available. There was a new librarian in charge. His name was Tom Morgan, and in a quick glance upon first meeting him, she noted that he was fairly tall, apparently about her age, and eager to help.

She was pleased that he showed easy familiarity with the writers and subject matter.

"We don't have any books about that period, but a number of encyclopedias offer a good review, and I can give you a list of the best references. We have several volumes of the leading poets- Hughes, McKay, Cullen and some others. There are about five copies of Hurston novels. We also have books dealing with black artists of the period. I can make up a list of all the available material and send it to you tomorrow." He stopped for a moment, seemingly abstracted, and then stared at her, as though seeing her for the first time. His words now were spoken quickly, earnestly. "I am really happy to meet you, Ms Steinberg. Please forgive me for also saying how delighted I am that you include this great event in your course."

As Rochel thought about this encounter and many subsequent talks in the weeks that followed, she realized she had built an intellectual bond with Tom that rivaled her association with Sylvia. Early contacts in the lunch room were unplanned, but after several one-to-one meetings with him, she had a sense of colleagues staring and talking about them. At first that bothered her, but then her fighting spirit rose in protest. Why should I worry what people might think? Am I afraid that my father will find out? That thought amused her.

In their early sessions, they talked about school matters. They soon tired of the subject, moved eagerly to their intellectual interests, and then progressed, without realizing it, to personal history.

Tom had lived for many years with his mother, who was widowed when Tom was a teenager. There were no other children; and when the mother became ill shortly after Tom completed his degree in library science, he decided to remain in his family household, while pursuing his career. He spoke with great pride of his mother's determined attempts to keep up with friends and many interests, and her equally resolute efforts to avoid burdening her son with responsibility for her care.

Several weeks passed before Tom broached the idea of a Friday evening together. The orchestra had a good program that evening; and since friends of his mother often visited that night, he would be free to go. How would it be for her?

It was going to be a full evening: they would have dinner together before the concert, and he would pick her up at her place. Rochel's long-suppressed resentment against all the years of self-denial reached fever pitch. Her agreement with the idea was quick and enthusiastic. While giving her consent, she could envisage the havoc it would create in her family. She realized that Tom ought to be prepared for what might happen when he arrived at her home.

"You know about my brothers and our religious traditions. I have already told Reuben that you and I are friends. I do not know how my brother will react when he learns that I am going out on a Friday evening. I can't say whether he will be there when you come; and, if he is there, whether he will greet you cordially."

" If anything will embarrass you about my coming to your home," Tom said, "we could meet elsewhere. I want to know Reuben and Shmuel. They both sound like great people, and maybe someday they will be my friends." "The first meeting is the most unpredictable," she replied. "I hope this will be a pleasant one, but I can't be sure."

When Rochel came home from work on Thursday afternoon, there was a note from Reuben, saying that he was going to stay at his brother's home through the weekend. She was disappointed, and angry. Even if he disapproved of the date, wasn't he interested in meeting her friend?

When Tom arrived for their Friday program, he made no mention of her brother's absence. She saw that he looked intently, from a distance, at various art objects and bookcases along the walls of the living room but seemed to be afraid to approach them. She promised herself that if and when she ever invited him for dinner, she would let him explore the home's possessions freely.

The evening was glorious. Tom had asked her about food preferences, and she chose a middle-eastern menu. The restaurant was small and simple in décor; the waiter was friendly and attentive, and the food was a delight. Some of the dishes were familiar to her; she had served them, kosher style, when she cooked for the family. She told this to Tom, and added with a smile, that she ought to ask the cook for lessons in how to prepare such delicacies. The concert was a supreme success. To Rochel, the soloist in the Mozart piano concerto reached both interpretive and technical heights in his performance. She compared this with her recorded music of pieces played by the orchestra and vowed that she had to hear more live performances than she had allowed herself in the past.

"I hope you liked this evening as much as I did," Tom said, as he brought her to her apartment door. "Please, Rochel, let's do this again."

"I loved every minute of it," she replied. Suddenly, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. They stood together, motionless for a few moments. Rochel entered her apartment, and closed the door quickly. On Saturday, she decided to walk to her brother's home. She wanted to time her arrival so that the family would have returned from the morning service, and eaten their noontime meal. It was a pleasant spring day, with many people out to enjoy the burgeoning greenery and the sights of the area. She was oblivious to all of this. Her thoughts still struggled, as they had all night long, with the events of her evening with Tom.

What do I want my relationship with him to be? Should it stay the way it has been- good friends at school, and an occasional evening out together? Am I interested in more intimacy? Do I want to marry him? How will my brothers feel about this? I have no doubt about the answer to that. And what does Tom want?

She still had no answers by the time she arrived at her brother's home. Shmuel responded to her knock on the door, opened it wide for her to enter, but did not speak. Chana, his wife, did not answer Rochel's greeting. Reuben was sitting in a rocking chair, and staring out the window. She smiled, bitterly, as she recognized what the scene brought to mind. They were sitting shivah; they were burying her. It occurred to her that she ought to say they had forgotten to cover the mirror. Ignoring the other two, she tapped Reuben on the shoulder. "Come, brother," she said, "let's go home."

He looked up at her. "Do I have a home?" he asked.

"Yes. You have a home with me."

Reuben got up from the chair, walked into the other room, and came out with his coat and a small bag. He walked over to Chana and his brother, and spoke to them quietly. Rochel stood in the doorway, and waited for him. She did not say a word to the others as Reuben walked out of the room with her.

Walking toward home, Rochel sensed that a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She knew where she was heading. She looked at the solemn, drawn face of her brother and felt she had to put some lightness into his heart.

"Don't you want to know what happened last night?" She asked.

"Should I know?" her brother said, with a bewildered expression.

"It was a glorious concert. You know we have these records at home, and they're good to listen to. But a live performance with a wonderful soloist and orchestra.. what a difference. Reuben," she added, emphatically, "you and I have to go to concerts."

"You and I?" His voice was excited.

" Yes, you and I. We'll see."

The telephone rang later that evening, but no one picked up the phone. It was Tom's recorded voice, asking her to call. Tom phoned again on Sunday afternoon. In neither instance did Rochel return the call.

On Monday, Tom was waiting at the door of her home room when she arrived at school.

"Have I done some terrible thing?" he asked, with great emotion. "Please tell me what's happening."

"You have done nothing wrong," she said, her eyes averted. "This is how it will have to be." She walked into the room, shutting the door behind her.

A letter from him came to her home a day later. She tore it up, without reading it. At the end of the semester, she wrote a letter to the Personnel Department at the Board of Education, asking to be transferred to another school in the fall. Her request was granted.


from the May 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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