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Third story in the Magid family chronicles. Helen Magid and her brother Pinkas Kahn have taken different paths in life. Now they are on a park bench and hashing it all out.
"You're early, Pinkas," says Helen Magid. Helen is sitting as straight as she can on a bench in Griffith Park. Her bright red hair and posture belong to a younger woman, but the wrinkles on her face and the sadness in her eyes betray her age.
"I wouldn't know, I didn't keep track of time, Hulda." Pinkas Kahn is a small man with straight posture as well, though his age and health makes him walk slowly. He is in a simple dark suit and a fedora. It is of a modern cut and not hanging off unlike some Orthodox men, Hulda thinks. Wisps of graying light brown hair still peek under the hat and pepper the now-gray beard. The blue threads of the tallith still shows too. He sits down next to Helen as carefully as he walks.
"You still insist on calling me Hulda? I changed my name to Helen."
"To God and me, you are still Hulda."
"Well, yes," she says waving her right hand.
She then blinks. "You need glasses now?"
"Lately. My eyes aren't as strong as they used to be. Perhaps I should retire soon."
"Retire? Then who will inscribe the Torah scrolls of New York?"
"What of it? Accuracy is more important than my pride; the younger soferim will continue for me. I am not worried."
"And what will you do about expenses?"
"The children are gone, Elisheva does well enough until she retires, and we have savings. I need so little at my age: a sunny window, a book and one of those odd sodas Joseph is drinking. I think today his favorite is cream soda. I like it."
Helen nods. "I should get one next time. How are your children?"
"Good. Perplexing, though. Oz is running for borough counsel. He says there has someone to draw a middle ground between the newcomers and the residents. I think the Hasidim call them 'artists.' Not all of them are what I'd call artists, but it is a small detail. Not to mention that the Hasidim do not agree on which rebbe they should follow, but they agree that they cannot trust Oz. He has a difficult task. I don't know. He means well, and he is right, but with all that campaigning and debating, how will he study? At his wife and kids are helping." He takes a deep breath and adjusts his hat. "Ilana is still in Haifa, and Baruch HaShem, still well. That trinket maker she works for is getting double orders. I do wish she'd take some time to be social. She is a nice girl, but not so young anymore."
"Lots of women wait for marriage." Especially when the love of their life is a woman, thinks Helen. He doesn't know, and Helen was surprised when she checked up on Ilana long distance. How will her little frum brother take it? That is Ilana to consider, thinks Helen.
"I know," Pinkas answers,"but this is much."
"How are Joseph and Chaiya?"
"Joseph wants to be that silly David Blaine, Baines, whatever, and starve himself. Batshua tells him to starve himself on Yom Kippur and find his own magic tricks. He celebrated his bar mitzvah two weeks ago."
Helen nods. "That's right. I am sorry I couldn't have been there, but I was doing a signing for Our Lady of the Angels.
"No trouble. Oz and Batshua had a nice small party. Chaiya is in rehearsals for a one-act play."
Helen shrugs, satisifed that he told enough of his family. "Did you fly all right? You find your hotel room?"
"I found it, thank you. Elisheva is still exhausted, so I let her sleep late."
Helen nods. Their glances at each other are furtive, like strangers rather than siblings. Maybe that is true. Helen is in gray skirt, white blouse, tan hose and gray jacket. She is modest for California, but it was still not how the women around her dressed. Maybe Elisheva would dress like that work, but with a skirt to her calves rather than her knees and thicker hose. Batshua, Oz's wife, well, she dressed for comfort, in jeans and long sleeve shirts, but in long dresses in the house.
"Hulda, how are your children?"
She doesn't look forward to the question, but she is not going to dodge it.
"Jacob is fine. He has finished a score and is excited about the shower and the wedding. Bill is in pre-production for a movie. Odette, still a production assistant, and the poor girl is disappointed with the men in LA. Alia will be graduating from high school in a few weeks."
"She is going to Columbia, right?"
"You remembered, Pinkas. Yes, for the writing program. Simonne is still in Paris and has a radio show in between his own scores. Sunyata, well, he has a bit part in that action movie, while Lydia just signed for the second season of her show."
"Is Bill in that cult still?"
"He is only taking courses with the Waveologists, he is not--"
"But your grandson is. You hear what they are accused of in France: Marseilles gangsters and money laundering. Most people of faith stay away from that, and their leaders would not want to do that. It's almost as bad if Sunyata was in Hamas."
"Isn't that much?"
"Yes, that comparison was in poor taste, he isn't like that poor interpreter fellow wanted by the FBI. I am concerned for his safety and his ethics and yes, maybe even his soul. I know you don't like to hear that. From what Jacob and Bill call my family, maybe they don't either."
"They call my family cultists behind my back."
"Oh, Pinkas, you should just talk to Jacob. I am sure he will happy to say it to your face."
"So they are still unhappy with my last meeting with you?"
"After Shmuel's shiva, well, yes. That wasnít enough for you. You told me in Yiddish like a coward. "
"I was just telling the truth."
"Sure. You're right. I am a witch. You were the one who inscribed the family tree, so you helped a witch. You deserve a burning as well."
"I did it out of love. I did because I wanted you to have something from my hands, not for your twisted needs."
"How is what I am doing different from the miracle workers, the mystics, and the receivers?"
"There is a difference, Hulda. Their powers come from their obedience, from intense contemplation, from their love of God. You are not taking care of your family because they are your relations and you love them. You are taking power from something else entirely; you are enforcing your will on the universe through your family. You cannot ask for something and expect to give nothing in return."
"Are you saying I do not love them?Ē
"I certainly am not saying that, Huldaó"
"I spend hours studying this collection of scholars and laborers, I've tracked down shtlel records, and the Polish Embassy knows me by name. Just about everyone on both sides of the family knows me as the woman with the nosy questions. Call that nothing?"
"That is not what I am talking about."
"Iíve seen it when Shmuel turned thirteen. You stared at him after he would leave with Papa for study, after Papa had a long day at the docks. You seemed so angry. So, I took a moment to look closer, and I realized it was more than that. It was envy, like you wanted to be there, do more."
Helen shakes her head. "Oh but I did all I was asked to. I baked bread, lit candles, and raised children, boys even."
"That's the minimum for you. Somewhere, somewhere you thought being Jewish was just what you said. You didn't want it."
"Oh, come on, I am not ashamed--"
"Hulda, some questions for you. I am as full of them as you were; we haven't talked in a long time. You sent them to Hebrew School, yes?"
"How many times did you let them go outside rather than do Hebrew because 'it didn't matter?' Did you ever complain about not having enough time because of their lessons? After they were thirteen, did you encourage them to take more classes, to learn more about their religion and yours?"
"I certainly didn't need my sons to be rabbis."
"Our father was never a rabbi. He woke up at dawn for the cable cars, worked at the docks until sunset, ate dinner and then studied until midnight. He was a dockworker, but still learned all he can."
"I didn't want that life for my sons, Pinkas."
"So you didn't want your sons to be scholars."
"I know that you wished you were there studying with Papa and Shmuel, but you felt you never could. So, you didn't push them to do more, to learn their duties as Jewish men. You didn't see why it was so important, they were already Jewish anyway through you, and anyway, why should they be somewhere you felt you never could go, and do something you felt you never could?"
"For a scholar, you are certainly quick with accusations.Ē
"Hulda, Iím sorry.Ē
"You're accusing me of sabotaging my sonsí religious education. I did what I could, but I had work, they had school. It--it seemed easier. I did complain about Hebrew School, my boys may have heard me, but it was nothing I meant to do. My Albert, God rest his soul, was the one who decided which synagogue we all went to."
She continues, louder and more tense, "I had no idea what boys were to learn! I didnít know much: I knew charms to get a husband; I knew not to touch Albert that time of the month; I knew how to persuade people; I knew how to pray and how much to give for donations; I knew how to smooth arguments and clean up for the holidays; and I knew how to make Shabbos, excuse me, Shabbat dinner, bake challah and light candles. Albert picked the synagogue; I didnít know what to look for. I taught my boys what I could. I taught them to be honest, to restrain yourself so you have the larger things. I taught them not to always to cut people down; they do not always listen, but I tried. I taught them to listen and try to understand the other person. I taught my boys prayer because it has helped me, if only to have space to think of a solution. I taught them if you loved someone, you support them and stick by them. Whatever I did not know, I figured that Hebrew School would teach them. I complained about the tight schedule: William was on softball and Jacob had his science experiments. I did let them play and hold off on Hebrew. Albert wanted them to get good grades so they can get good jobs. He wanted us to be like everyone else, and I saw no reason why we shouldnít. You know why I went for magick? I was afraid I would never survive in the outside world. I did care, I wanted my sons safe. I wanted my family to do well. All of them, your children and the children you may not realize are there."
Helen sighs. "So, if I am so horrible, and I will guess you are not happy about who Jacob is marrying, why are you here?"
"No matter what, I do not refuse to attend a celebration, and Jacob is celebrating being married to, what is it, Maria--"
"Yes, Moira, I apologize, I read names more than say them, and even if I will not attend the ceremony, I can at least be there for the wedding shower. Whatever my feelings on who Jacob marries, what her religion is, or your life has nothing to do with what is still a happy occasion."
After a short silence, Pinkas says, "After all that, you didnít turn out like everyone else?"
Helen shakes her head. "Not at all. Bill worked so many jobs I cannot keep track, but he doesnít mind. Jacob makes music. They raised decent children. You have every right not to like where Sunyata is going, but he is going out of the desire to help and improve himself. I cannot fault him."
She sits up and straightens her skirt. "I managed, Pinkas. They may live in ways you don't approve of, but they are still good men. Their children are good people. Iím sorry if you donít think that they are good Jews. Iím sorry that you donít think that Iím a good Jew. I never understood the rituals and never felt anyone would tell me anyway."
"Hulda, as I see it, the rituals, the prayers, the mitzvot are not there to confuse people. They are there to connect us to the God we introduced to the others. They are there to help us be better human beings, Jewish or not. I'm talking to my son more about his studies, when he can get to them. The world changes, but it still needs wisdom."
"Bill and Jacob may not listen to you."
Pinkas sighs. "I remember when your family would visit me and Papa on Protero Hill, before I went to New York to study. You had two small boys and a husband who didn't know what to do with us solemn and serious men. Bill and Jacob would fidget, squirm and fuss. They never really got better. When they got older, when I join Papa on holiday dinners, they would look confused as their father and crane their necks to go outside."
Helen folds her hands in her lap, remember that the only time she ever saw her father for more than a moment was Shabbat. He was so focused on the blessings, and all she wanted as a girl was a glance at the man Shmuel and Pinkas would speak so highly. When she was older, before she went to teacher's college, Shabbat was a brief reprieve between the arguments over going so far away to study instead of getting married to a boy Papa knows.
She remembers screaming at him. 'This is America, Papa, and this is the nineteen fifties. I want a modern house, I want my own money, I want to know something other than cooking and raising children, I want to pick the man I want to marry, and I want to be away from you!' She feels somehow sad for the harsh words for a man she always regarded as a mystery and his equally mysterious studies.
Helen considers the teenager Hulda, who will marry a young man (quiet, red-haired, studying to be a teacher after he is discharged from the Army, Jewish and running away from the past like she was), change her name to more euphonious Helen, spend three years as an Army wife, teach troubled teenagers. She will also raise two sons who will defy her quiet aspirations for them, of good grades and a good job. Maybe Pinkas thought that was sabotage out of envy, but Pinkas and Hulda know they weren't interested anyway. We all survived, regardless, she thinks with a smile.
"Maybe it was all too strange, too, all too grown up for them, I don't know. Maybe--"
"Maybe we all what we thought was right. Maybe now we can do better," Pinkas answers.
Pinkas leaned back against the chair. He is built like Papa, Hulda observes.
He is short, but compact rather than slender with broad shoulders and barrel chest. Even with his life of study, his arms are lean. But then, she thinks with a smile, those Torah scrolls and old tomes are heavy.
"I look forward to talking to your children," Pinkas finally says. "They are adults now, and I've been putting it off long enough, because of distance and fear, really. I feared I would as harsh to them as I was to you."
"Since we are in a chatty mood, Pinkas, how did you know I used magick?"
"It was a week or so before Shmuel passed on, Shabbat. Oz and Ilana had come home from school and they were straightening their rooms. I was washing the floor."
Hulda raises her eyebrow. Pinkas shakes his head, and says "I enjoy doing chores for Shabbat. Elisheva works and it makes the day more peaceful for her. It also gives me space to think of thorny problems."
"I didn't know."
"Well, no matter. Suddenly, I start falling in love with the broom. Tenderly caressing it like it was Elisheva. I didn't know what happened and forgot about it."
"The Amoromancer gigolo who tried to pull a fast one on me, I punted his spell on one of the relatives . . .oh, go on, Pinkas."
"It wasn't until I saw you at Shmuel's shiva that I knew. You had," Pinkas says as he adjusts his fedora, "you had this look on your face. You looked like a cat watching a mouse before you catch it. I saw the family tree you asked me to inscribe hanging on your wall. I saw the trees overlaying the family tree and I knew. If Shmuel knew what I knew, he would have been better at talking to you. Leah never knew and didn't care to know, so it was up to me. When the seven days were finished, I didn't need to be silent for Shmuel's sake."
"I remember. I remember Jacob was a young man with his own band and an adopted girl and Bill was about to move back to Paris with Juliette. We argued, Bill took his sons out of the room and Virginia took Odette, he was married to her then. Jacob wasn't sure whether to get away or tell you off. When you said that in Yiddish . . .Jacob may not know much of it, but he looked like he wanted to punch you."
"I did say some things."
"The strength and honor of our family, yiches, I don't like to mix my Yiddish with my English, but well, you talked about how it important it was. How I was disgracing it by my actions. 'You're a witch, Hulda. I don't know about us, scholars often disagree on these matters, but at least the goyim give them exactly what they deserve. They burn their witches.'" She looked at him, her hazel eyes heavier and sadder than he had ever seen.
"I made you breakfast as a boy, I read you stories when you were sick, and I watched you until the women who took care of you came back from work. I was there for all of you when Mama died. Did you really want me dead?"
"Hulda, I was harsh. I wanted you to return to God, to return to the religion we were raised in, not to use some strange disconnected magick."
"My magick is connected to our family."
"There are things bigger than our family. There is a Presence bigger than our family. He is the true source of wisdom and sustenance."
She leans against the bench, saying nothing.
Pinkas finally says, "Did you think you wouldn't work if you were observant? Batshua works. Ahuva doesn't now, but she did up to when she found out she was pregnant."
"Batshua and Ahuva are young women compared to me. All the women around me were always cooking and having children crawl all over them."
"You're a bright woman. You went to teacher's college, you went to different countries, and you base all your opinions of religion solely on what you saw as a little girl?"
"And Papa. He never talked to me. He didn't answer my questions. ĎYou don't need to know what you don't have to do,í he said. All I had to do was light candles, bake bread and bear children. It was like only the men at the yeshiva were fit to talk to. My father thought they were the only humans."
Helen swallows hard. "When Shmuel and you turned thirteen, then Papa deigned to talk to you. Leah, I don't think Leah minded, she had enough on her mind with trade school and boys courting her. Flight attendant was the perfect job for her. Me? I had to find . . ."
"More than that, Pinkas. Purpose. I wanted a husband, I wanted babies, but I wanted something else that I couldn't talk to Papa about. Or Mama after I was nine."
Pinkas nods. Their mother died when he was two and she was nine.
"Maybe it was obvious from birth. I was born before my time, after all."
Pinkas laughs. "You see being born cesarean as that?"
"Perhaps I do. There is one thing I do not understand."
"Did you see signs of how I felt before?"
"I knew. I knew when you left for teacher's college after my bar mitzvah. While the men were shaking my hand, jumping into friendly debate and offering me cake and whiskey, you just stood there. Like you wish you could join, but didn't know how. Then, your face changed."
Helen leans to listen more. "At first, you tried to look happy for me. When you thought no one was looking, you looked sad. Then you looked . . . enraged. I tried to grab you, to ask what is wrong, but then I was grabbed for more cake and another midrash. I looked as you walk away, reasoning I couldn't be rude to my father's friends and there was enough time to talk to you. The next morning, you left for college."
Pinkas puts his hand on Helen's shoulder. "Forgive me. I was too young and too caught up in celebration. When I tried to steer you away from your path, I was too harsh, forgetting your isolation."
Helen looks down, blinking away tears. She then laughs. "Oh, Pinkas, I am perfectly capable of leading myself astray. I, I don't know. I don't know what to do now. You are not so powerful to--"
He looks at her, pained. Helen takes a good look at her brother's eyes. If you look close enough, you can see that his eyes are a dark blue that can be mistaken for black. When Pinkas is looking at you, it is intense enough to make Helen want to turn her head away.
"If you can lead yourself astray, you find your way back."
"My sons are good. They could be better, and I think I am in need of the most improvement." She leans to Pinkas. "You think I need improvement?"
Pinkas sighs, "If you want to die in your anger and envy, well, I cannot stop you. You can make changes or accept what cannot be changed."
"I don't know how to change and I don't want to accept."
"You'll find your answer."
She stares at her folded hands. She doesnít believe himóeveryone in the end is related to each other, family is allóbut she is willing to try. "Perhaps before the wedding planning takes too much of my time--Jacob and Moira wanted to do all of it, but I volunteered to get some place for the reception. I'll talk to a rabbi. Maybe even after the wedding. I was busy being a teacher, wife and mother. Now I am alone, I have time to think."
She tilts her head. "We don't have much time now. First Mama, Papa, Shmuel and then Leah."
"Leah was taken before her time by those accursed, truly cursed terrorists. If only she stayed an extra day--that day is long past. Perhaps other September 11ths will not hurt so much."
"Leah wasn't much older than you, Pinkas."
The white noise of cars and birds closes space between conversations.
Helen, once Hulda, looks at her younger brother, once a boy, now a sofer. Her
eyes are sadder, and she thinks tears may fall soon.
"Two down, two to go, Pinkas," Helen whispers. Pinkas said nothing.
Tara | profile | Jul 03, 04 | 7:25 am
Very cool, I like the blend of Jewish culture with the UA-verse...