This is an excerpt from a unpublished novel. It’s a story where 3 young adults mysteriously jump from the year 1666 to 1920, in an alternative version of our Earth. Disorientated, they try to figure out a way out Germany and to America. This is a set-up for this family’s involvement with espionage against Nazi Germany and the darker, alien forces behind the Third Reich. This section is about Tom’s conversion to Judaism which sets the path for him (and his son) to defend the “People of the Promise” against forces seeking to destroy them.
I was married to the “Sex Mother” in my neighborhood, when my boy was entering his teen years. Not that she has sex anyone but me- for Brenda is the most honorable and chaste woman I had ever met- but that she is, by far, the most attractive woman on our block, let alone in the entire city of Whittier, California.
The term “Sex Mother” is then not a means to describe an over-active proclivity, rather it embodies the dreams, aspirations, and longings of all of the boys in our then neighborhood, if not the entire city of Whittier.
And Brenda Maven, my Brenda Maven, was a “Sex Mother”.
I learned of this one day, many years ago, when I was picking up our teenage son from baseball. He was fifteen and was going, in a last ditch effort, to try his hand at sports. Soon, his plate would become filled with comic books, fencing, and learning dead languages to put aside such attempts. This was the Spring of that innocence, before he put away all such childish nonsense such as baseball, apple pie, making lots of money, and blending in with the American dream.
Before he plunged completely and without abandon into a dreamer and a duelist in the 20th Century, he was on a baseball team and my job, with our family’s Woody, was to pick up his friends and drive them from a game and drop them off at their homes.
The car was sweaty and ripe with moisture. Panting like basset hounds, this troupe of boys spit out half-sentences and partial stories dressed up as a real conversation. The thesis, I gathered, of their chatter was girls and what would happen to all of the pretty girls they knew in, say, five years time (a measurement that was the furthest they could plan at fifteen year olds).
Most of the pretty girls were to be underwear models or movie stars, no exception. Some they figured would turn fat and, for the purpose of their conversation, deemed useless. Some, or rather a few, would become mothers. Yes, mothers. And what kind of mothers would they be? Just normal, apron women. Unlike that “Sex Mother” who lived on Greenleaf.
“The ‘Sex Mother’?” Peter, my boy asked.
“Yeah,” their ring leader said and then described, quite vividly, Peter’s mom and my wife. He had my wife down to her dress measurements (although, truth be told, he inflated her bust size).
I was then struck by two minor details and one major one. First, the minors: in five years time, they expected their fifteen year old sweethearts to turn into my 40 year old wife and secondly, how did this pervert guess my wife’s waist to the inch?
These minor points of interest soon faded into the most important realization of the day, if not year: I’m married to the “Sex Mom”!
That night, I told my wife before I blew in several scattered, anxious pieces. Fully expecting my declaration of her being the “Sex Mom” to end in, well, sex, I was confused to find her quite mad. Mad, not just at me, her husband, who should have defended her honor, but at the entire gender of men. “Why should I defend your honor? Those boys were paying you the highest compliment they could come up with?”
“Wanting to sleep with me?” she asked in a shrill bark.
“The boys aren’t Jesuit Missionaries,” I said and then I added a phrase which did little from my rescue on having a night on our couch but did everything to describe the world of 1666 I came from. “Plus, not every mom is as attractive as you are, Brenda!”
I was, from that moment, cast to the pit, the doghouse, the river of Styyx for crimes worthy of being a pervert, a coward, a bad egg, a…well, a man.
Brenda didn’t know how heartfelt that admission was for me to state that not all mother’s were as attractive as Brenda. Especially, in my boyhood home of the 17th Century!
My own mother was a hag. She wasn’t the town hag, but all of her peers and friends were hags and they accepted her application for membership based upon her cronish looks, the warts on her face, the missing teeth, her disdain for education, and the fact that she never spoke but shouted throughout her life.
My mother smelled of carrots and horse dung, wearing the same dress and woolen cap she wore probably on her wedding day. Pear shaped in body, bulbous in the face: long arms, fat with lard and fearful of movement so she marched through the town like a primate. She stared at you the way a wall studies your face as opposed to you studying the wall. Blank, hollow, and angry: this is how my mother lived her days in our little village, a small suburb of the mighty Frankfurt back in the days before city’s had suburbs. She was constantly angry or scared or tired, rarely happy or pleasant or, for that matter, asleep. She rose before the Angels and was probably the one yelling at God to go bed at night. I never saw her sleep: she was always prattling around our one room apartment, yelling at me father or at the neighbors or, more often than not, the poor pedestrians passing by our clock shop.
I’m not sure why mother was so discontent, other than it most have been in vogue for the German women of the mid-17th Century.
Brenda certainly is not an angry woman. She got angry, but it was always like a train passing: a quick roll in order to clear the tracks for other activity. And Brenda with her tight fitting sweaters, her incredibly blue eyes, fiery red hair, and curves was nothing close to haggish.
As a boy, I wondered how my father survived my mother. Years later, I figured out his two secrets: he had me and he had the excuse of taking extended trips away from the house with me. After I escaped in time, I learned he died five years afterwards and my mother survived him by forty years, although she never could seem to re-marry.
He had me. All of my childhood, he had me in his clockmaker,s shop, having me working on gears and cranks and repairs. The only time he ever stood up to my mother was when she beamed with pride, saying, “He’ll run the shop someday and will make us lots of money.” My father simply told her he was to be other things and that his time in the shop was for other purposes.
My father was quiet, kind, and never sat still to have a conversation. Certainly, he talked to people…but always fiddling with something or making something or simply writing. He listened and he tinkered, with often times the thing he tinkered was worked into what he was talking about.
My quiet, kind father travelled quite a bit, which I think saved him from the row of hags that populated our tiny village. He never went far, but far enough to be gone several weeks and he always took me with him. My mother never knew truly what he did other than business, for he brought back bags of coins that was five times our gross income of the clock shop. He told me, when I was young to track his mind on the subject, never to speak of our travels to my mom or to anyone in the town. The hags need not know, he essentially said in his kind, quiet way.
Our travels took us to see the Jews.
Way back then, usury was seen as an evil and a corrupter and an immoral thing. And yet, without a loan or lend, no one could buy anything. The Jews, whom had the money and would be willing to kindly finance most ideas, were hated so much for having money and loaning it to people, they were forced to live in ghettos and small communities outside of the protection and safety of the great city states. Plus, if anyone went there to make money, they would be labeled a friend of the Jews and be forever cast off.
My dad was definitely a friend of the Jews and the ones who told me how horrible were these people were from the row of hags and old crones that populated my village. So who would you listen to: your dad or the hags?
The Jews weren’t evil. They were kind, full of laughter and music. We would spend a week in their segregated communities with a sign that almost hung “Sack us first before the city”. They drank, oh did they drink. Never drunk, mind you, but they drank as if they intended to get drunk, amassing more wine than one ingests water. They sang, strange Yiddish tunes that had built in dance moves.
All of the women were beautiful, I must say. And they all wanted to dance with me, the young little Goyam brought by his papa. The old women fed me eight square meals a day, wondering I survived being so skinny. The girls would run over to me, sneak a kiss, and hide for the rest of our visits, forever giggling. They brought us into their prayers, their readings, and their ceremonies. I didn’t understand a lick of it, but respected every second of it (a skill I currently apply to abstract art).
These were communities of magic. At night, the old men would tell the children stories about wandering Golems who drink the blood of kids who sass their parents and don’t memorize their Hebrew verses. The whole communities would turn silent on Saturdays, warding off the demons of hard work, anxiety, busyness, and commerce. And in these communities, God’s name was greatly loved and revered and never spoken.
During one of these when were returning back home, I asked my dad as he fiddled with the whip to the horse that pulled our wagon. “How do I become a Jew, dad?” I was quite young and believed anything was possible. To dash my dreams, he said that I would have to be born a Jew.
I then endeavored to make it my life’s aim to be born a Jew.
So when I left for University and was spit across time, laying naked and scared in a field that existed centuries from my previous and real time, the first things out of my mouth was not a string of profanity, as in Williams’ case. Or the cry for our girlfriend, Isodore, as was Jan’s case.
No. My first utterance was simple. “I wonder if there are any Jews around?”
Ever wake up 260 years in the future? Of course not. That’s a leading question.
I awoke on a field, a mile out from Heidelberg’s town limits. The great “A-Ha!” moment for me was when a truck, a BMW no doubt, came rolling in front of us. We stood up and I waved to this big, metal beast. Why? What else was I going to do? I was now in a new world and how do I know I might need that BMW truck as an ally further on down the timeline?
The truck honked at me, reassuring that this new world wasn’t entirely unfriendly. Then I heard William cuss again and I realized what bothered our Scottish brother so much: the three of us were stark naked.
Okay, this is what the new world is like: trucks, on their own and without coaxing from their authorities, feel free to honk a hello at naked men by the side of the road.
Not a bad, new world.
We got ourselves up and found a young couple, drinking beer on the grassy glades overlooking the city of Heidelberg. They were cuddling and quite drunk. The girl stammered something in words that reminded me of our village idiot: the grammar was a mess and the syntax was mad with the fever.
Which reminds me. I now educate young people and everyone of my co-workers moans and bitches and cries and whines about our young people’s murder of the English language. I then keep my secret: my mother tongue is 260ish years old and far superior to the bastardization of the language we call common today.
Nonetheless, the drunken couple tried to make sense out of us-three naked guys- and we tried to make sense out of them-people dressed and acting like they were from the 1920s. Suffice to say, there were social barriers.
The drunken couple didn’t mind so much. The lady asked William to sit down next to her, whereas Jan and myself enjoyed the company of the young man.
We could speak German, certainly, and the High German we knew wasn’t altogether alien to the German in the 20th Century. It helped that my father did teach me English and French, so I had a common use for those languages that was remarkably close to the dialects I’d be running into that nearer future. My dark secret while in University was that I couldn’t read German, only English, and couldn’t speak Latin or Greek. Luckily, the 20th Century didn’t demand that young people, while drunk in the meadow, had to converse exclusively in a dead language.
The young man sold radios out of his truck and, seeing our nudity, felt sorry for us and decided to give us one, along with his hat. I carried the radio, Jan wore the hat since he insisted he was the most bashful out of the three of us. We left the couple after an hour, with William getting a long and extended hug from the woman.
As we walked away, William complained about her dress and how immodest she was: wearing pants that showed the shape of her legs and hips! Didn’t she have parents? Wouldn’t people talk? He had forgotten, mostly by shock, that we were three naked men from out of time, carrying a radio and nowhere to plug it in.
We decided not to go into town, feeling that we would stand out on every cosmic level. So we remained naked: it fit our mood, our helplessness.
That night, we broke into a nearby barn and slept in the hay. About midnight, a bachelor farmer came into check in on a noise we made. Without assumption or judgment, he told us to get into his house and get some of his clothes on.
The farmer was sent from heaven. I still think he had a screw loose or was suffering from Alzheimer’s because he never once smarted over the fact that we were naked, spoke in an old tongue, or didn’t understand basic things like electricity, coffee, or canned foods.
The next morning, he fed us a breakfast of pork and beans. He said we should stay and work on his farm with his son. For the three weeks we worked, we never saw his son. He warned us that the horses were mean tempered. He had no horses. He also warned us that trolls stole your boots while you sleep at night. Looking back, my heart believes only that piece of advice.
I hate farms. My father hated farms. Now that I teach at California State University in Whittier, I am surrounded by farms and Quakers. The Quakers I don’t mind so much, but the smell of cows and their crap and the hay reminds me of that crazy man’s farm.
My mom, the hag, lived on a farm and resented that my father built and fixed clocks. She would have been aghast by our trips to the Jewish ghettos, yet she didn’t mind all of the money we brought back.
My father’s purpose was simple in these trips. Everyone hated the Jews and didn’t want to be seen around them, but they needed their money. So my father would come with half a dozen requests and broker the deals. He’d be paid a cut of the financing and bring back the loan.
Looking back, I was always surprised that we weren’t attacked by masked highwaymen or taken advantage of by any of the Jewish bankers. Never happened.
It helped that my father was a very big man. I would mention that he was a volunteer constable as means to describe his imposing stature, but in truth every male was a volunteer constable.
Simply the job meant that if you saw something illegal happen right in front of you, you said, “Hey, knock it off!” If the assailant disagreed, all of the men around you came over and gave the crook a good licking until he stopped. This form of law enforcement has stuck with me, making more sense than the 20th Century idea of Policemen who roam the streets, allowing the common citizens the freedom to ignore crimes happening in front of them.
He was a big man, but he trusted the universe and it seemed the universe felt obligated to catch up with his optimism. The Jews, for all of their bad press, never took advantage of them. Why would they? For some villages, he brought with him money for half a year’s wages. He was Father Christmas! And they treated me like one of his elves.
None of them farmed, but they all had farms and did their cooking in community. I loved that and one of the things I missed most from the ancient world were those lavish meals. But I was able to escape the farm when I was in the 17 Century, but not in the 20th Century.
We wore the son’s clothing-with the warning that the imaginary boy might want them back at any moment- and worked with the old man’s pigs. By day, we talked with the old man and learned his German. By night, we listened to our radio and picked up everything we can about this New World.
Only once did we let ourselves become overwhelmed by our situation. It was on the sixth day of our new situation, after a long and horrible day of rain and work. Jan started us all off, his anxiety becoming a contagion.
“What are we doing here?” he cried out a question we all couldn’t answer. “This world has flying machines. Steam power boats the size of my papa’s farm. Factories that make bread. And Germany is it’s own country. By the way, what is a country?”
“Something has happed,” William said coolly. “That has dramatically changed our lives. Something unexplained and without warning. We live, presently, in a situation outside of our control. And the things that led us to this situation could happen again, changing everything without our say or without warning. We don’t understand even 1/10 of this world. We may never leave this farm. And we are all but alive.” William then slowly took a long drag of his cigarette, a recent habit he had picked up.
“And all of this is supposed to make me feel better?” Jan cried.
“No,” William said in a paternal tone. “I am panicking along with you.” Suddenly, I saw inside of the Scotsman. He smoked, he mused silently and now he gave us all a guided tour of his terror.
“I have no skills, no trades, no guild memberships, and no family,” Jan continued. “How am I going to have a life here? How are you two going to make it? We might as well be thieves. Steal one of those machine guns and rob slow moving trucks on this Autobahn we hear about.”
“We might as well,” William said with a relaxed shrug. “This world is too chaotic.”
“Everything is in chaos. I hate this world. Where is Isodore?” There were tears now in Jan’s eyes. “Why didn’t she come with us? Grimmelhausen, the crazy man, died, so his body is probably still back in the cellar. But where is Isodore? Where is she?”
“She is lost to us in this darkened world of ours. She is lost. And so are we. We are doomed.”
I was in my own world at that moment, a fabulous place I spend most of my time. I was reading a book the farmer had, one of these pulp novels from America he stumbled by and decided to give it to me. It was about a man, John Carter, who woke up on without explanation on Mars and fell in love with a naked, Martian princess.
By magic, he traveled. “We live in a land of magic,” I said in the midst of their tears and crying. “And I think it’s great! My papa told me to go to school to see the world, he wouldn’t have planned for any of this. This is great.”
I then looked up from my little dime store novel and there was a such a palpable rage the next moment, I fear, could be my last. William looked as if he were to pick up an axe and strike me dead with it; Jan was going to cry me to death.
“Oh, fiddlesticks,” I said as I dog-eared the book, a skill I learned from our crazy host. “I know what this is all about. Jan is a sensible, clear-headed fellow and, because of that, he just figured out that we haven’t been falling a part as much as we should be. Yes, we’ve experienced a miracle by jumping several centuries in the future. And we’ve been all quiet calm about it. So if it helps, scream and cry and say we’re all doomed. For me, I love every second of this world. And we haven’t seen it. I mean, this farm is like the farms back in the old world. Other than a radio and going to the market, we don’t know how scary this place might be. So let’s have our ‘case of nerves’ and crisis of doubt tonight, tomorrow let’s get out into the world.”
“There’s a rather good reason why I am having my case of nerves,” Jan said and then let out a litany of everything that was wrong, often times repeating himself two or three times.
And then I realized my mistake. I was speaking facts and logic into a moment incarnate with emotion and raw fear. I do this too much with Brenda, who decides to come home and panic over the color of our family’s toast; I speak and then become the worst husband on the planet…exclusively only for three hours. Being reasonable can be it’s own death sentence while the rest of the world needs to go insane for a few minutes.
I didn’t know much about people being uncontrollably frightened and choosing to hate everything, so I continued to read while William and Jan had a dandy old time expecting a personal apocalypse to happen any second. After finishing the book, I went to sleep with the sounds of Jan sobbing and crying.
The next morning, Jan woke me up ready to work a hard day’s labor feeding pigs. And as soon as I woke up, he agreed to my plan: leave the farm and get out into the world.
There was just one problem. William was missing.
For two solid days we stuck with the farm, expecting William to return. He never did. The farmer’s cookie jar packed with his wife’s jewels had been emptied, along with a handwritten note simply reading, “Please forgive me.” And to that end, William had disappeared. Had he gone back in time? Was he with Isodore? It would take us years to learn his side of the story.
Brenda’s eyes were the first things I noticed. Almost green, but would still be registered as blue. Deep blue. They shone, I kid you not. Shone and radiated and lit up a dark room. Then I noticed her nose: slender, perfect, and slightly regal. Her hair, deep red. Then her body, the same curves and lines that inflamed the young people of Whittier was in full force in the twenty year old version of herself wearing sopping wet wool of her grey tweed.
She stood atop our library’s rolling ladder, reaching up for a book of Jewish Poems and Fables. She called down to me, “Excuse me, but is this all you have for mythology of the Jewish people?”
I couldn’t talk. The very sight of this young goddess induced me to a siren stupor, slowly turning to stone in the presence of her fragrance.
Was it love? How does one measure love, really? Lust is pretty easy: your body gives you signs, your heart feels hollow and hungry, and you turn mad for a few seconds. And lust, certainly, can exist in the same room as love. I love my wife now, certainly, and I can find myself lusting after her when I catching bending over into the kitchen’s sink or catch a flash of her freckled beasts as she gardens.
Did I go mad with lust and exclusively lust when I was at the base of our library’s ladder, looking up at her sculpted calves and high heels?
To be honest, I wasn’t making such distinctions at that moment. I didn’t care. I couldn’t think, breathe, or move. Brenda and everything of Brenda commanded all of my space and time.
“Sure we do,” Jan said from the counter, obviously not cluing in that Brenda had just come into our library. “Don’t you have a horde of Jewish myth books at your desk, Tom?”
She scampered down and seemed quite eager. “You have a horde?”
“Mee-yak-tiller-deee! Yakety-yakety! Bubble soda! Bubble soda,” I said to her immediately and confidently. No, wait. I didn’t say any of those things: I only thought them.
Instead, I said something quite supernatural and beyond my human strength. “It’s a bit of a hobby of mine, Jewish Mythology. I had some very fond and wonderful childhood memories of some Jewish communities and, well, they came alive to me when I read about Jewish myths.”
“Interesting,” she said with an invitational smirk. “I also had many childhood memories pertaining to Jewish communities that come alive, presently, by reading myth. I am a Jew and currently live in an Orthodox community.”
A Jew? Bubble-soda, bubble soda…
My exterior, however, was cool and calm. Whenever this takes place, I found it was always important to act like Robert Mitchum, even though I wouldn’t know who he was until years later. Shrug lots, shift my weight slowly from one side to another, an act slightly bored. Meanwhile, inside, bubble-soda…
“Here,” I said as slow as possible. “Let me take you to my horde.”
“No,” she said as she smoothed out her skirt with her index fingers. “Give me one book. I’ll read it and come back for another. If you would like and it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you, maybe you could share a few words on the subject. And now, what is the best and greatest book of your horde?”
I gave her a book named simple “The Golem”, written by an unknown Rabbi on the year my mother was born. It was the darkest and most peculiar of all the books. Don’t ask me why I picked the hardest book to drink down, other than it was my favorite and I, so desperately, wanted it to be her favorite too.
And it turned out to be and when I found out, a week later, I was thinking gibberish for the months following. At that moment though, she mechanically checked it out and seemed not to notice my eyes seeing her curves to the door.
When Brenda left, I shouted to only other employee of the New York City Public Library Annex #11, “Jan, I am in love!”
“Of course you are in love,” Jan said, sorting through the dewey decimal cards. “That’s why we got this gig.”
Oh wait, I jumped ahead again, didn’t I?
Everything is connected and the meeting of Brenda is connected to the disappearance of William that is connected to the German farms, which was our first 20th Century home.
How so? Working in a New York City public library was not a farm and the farthest thing from a farm Jan and I could decide. We had heard about New York City on the radio and it sounded like it was the center of everything, like our world’s Paris or Rome. We figured we needed to get over there, believing William was out of our grasp.
First we thanked the farmer for letting us live with him for a few weeks. Later, I sought to wire him some money as a means of saying thanks but he had passed away soon after our departure. For this old guy, welcoming three naked men was his last, great act of charity and looking at humanity, he did more than most with that act of compassion.
Next, we made our way to Frankfurt. We hitched a ride on a train and then traveled with a truck and, finally, made our way to the big city.
The place was overwhelming, I must admit. Jan and I were rendered mute for two days as we walked the streets, seeing how people were dressed and talked and spoke. And the noise! The modern age has brought a static so loud, so great that it drives people across the asphalt, across the sidewalks.
We made it and, the first night we arrived there, we joined the circus.
The German circus was in a pinch: they were getting ready to go New York to perform and an elephant crushed to death, hours before we arrived, two of their workers. They needed two bodies fast and they pulled us off the streets. Say, they asked us, how would you like to go to New York? New York?, sure.
That was the great miracle that got us across the Atlantic. I assumed the identity of the first worker, keeping my given name and taking his last name, Maven. Jan became Til Morgenstein, but kept his name the moment we got through the very clumsy, very disorganized port authorities.
A few months later, we were in New York with the Great German Circus. We worked for six months, learning New Yorker English and saving all of our money. We lived underneath the bleachers of the big top and, during the days, let them work us like dogs. Hard work seemed to really invigorate Jan; it tired me out, getting me to dream.
We wanted to be University students; let’s go back to school, get real jobs.
Jan didn’t want to move: scooping up Elephant crap and peanuts was steady, reliable work. Plus, they were going to shove off to Iowa soon. Didn’t I want to see Iowa?
No, not really. You see, years later I saw a film that described New York’s impression to me. It was the German film “Metropolis”. I saw it first run in the theaters and then, every other time I’ve seen the film it felt like it was always missing parts from that first release. Regardless, the movie shows a grand, exuberant view of the future with flying cars, beautiful women, machines in the shape of temples, sprawling walkways, and brilliants robots. That film was for the 20th Century folks of what the future might be; for me, New York was this futuristic city unfolding before my eyes in present tense. I didn’t need to dream of the future, I was in the future.
And I never believed that Iowa could somehow be in the world’s future: too much like the 17th Century.
So, no Jan, we’re not going to Iowa. We’re getting smart and getting jobs. We can do it. We’ve been classically trained, by the hardest schools in the history of time. Let’s now become educated.
So I got us jobs in the library, so we could be surrounded by books to read and figure out life as we were saving for school. Jan learned the art of forgery, so we doctored up our High School Diplomas and our transcripts. Jan de Willier and Tom Maven were from Texas and we soon were to be enrolled at Princeton. We had the marks! We had the papers! And, at that sad time in America’s relationship to the first World War, they were short young people.
The plan was set in motion and was running full steam until Brenda walked into our library.
“Did you see her?” I asked Jan as I hit him hard.
“Yes,” he said, still thumbing through the cards. “And the moment I heard she was Jewish, I knew she was off limits to me.”
“How kind for you to think that way of the future Mrs. Maven,” I said brightly.
Jan laughed, the kind of quiet chuckle that said heaps of things like “you’re crazy”, “I can’t believe I have to suffer with this idiot”, and, “take me now, Jesus”. I sprang up on his desk, planting my knees in a solid kneel. The desk, his desk, could support the weight of only 140 pounds and, luckily, I was only 131.
“Jan,” I shouted with my hands wild in the air. “I am in love. There will be no other girl than this dame!”
We were trying, throughout that first year of our new lives, to work in as many idioms as possible. The 20th Century was a land of jingles, idioms, and slogans: 200 hundred percent more than our little Baroque world. For that night, Brenda was a Dame and it was a title of honor.
“Tom,” he said quietly. “It’s impossible. She’s impossible. Marrying her is impossible. Stop it, let’s focus on what is possible. Girls that are possible.”
“How dare you speak to me of what is impossible? We were born 200 something years ago!”
Jan looked genuinely annoyed with me as he stopped counting his white cards. He pursed his lips as he asked, “When are you going to stop using our accidental flight through time and space as a justification for any hair-braned, illogical scheme of yours?”
“Our time expedition isn’t something one easily gets over,” I said back to him, without a pause or hiccup. “Why, my friend, is it impossible?”
“There are rules,” Jan barked back to me.
“Rules can be bent.”
“A rich and valuable tradition!”
“Jewish rules forbidding Jews to marry non-Jews.”
“Oh, says you!”
“And the Torah! Look, I didn’t make this up. Look at the Holy Book. They marry their own kind. It’s a rule, a law. And if she’s Orthodox, that kind of means she takes those Laws a lot more serious than those who dabble and trickle and flirt with the religion.”
“Perhaps she backsliden, you know? She’s spinning in a crisis of faith? You know, all that ‘Fear and whatever’ from Kierkegaard?”
“And would you respect a woman who wavers in her faith? Would you love a backslider?”
“I love her now! Respect has nothing to do with it!”
“Ah, forget about it!”
We lived in a Jewish part of New York and believed all Americans, at this point, talked like how we were carrying on. We’d see Rabbis and fruit salesman and women, all shouting at the tops of their voices, throwing their hands up in the air. We certainly didn’t want to fight with each other, but we thought that loud, public arguments was the American way of life.
Much later, when Jan came to live in Canada, he adopted a slow-speaking Albertan accent, a drawl matching more of his character. Funny, at that time, we were trying so desperately to fit in, to blend in with anyone and everyone with the base of absolute ignorance. I half-expected, any moment, a member of the time police to march in and accuse of cosmic interloping and send us back to the farms of the 17th century. Please, not the farms…
“It’s a dead cause,” Jan said. “Stick to studying. We’ve got to pay for our classes in two weeks. Keep your mind on the plow.”
The plow was the library and it was rare for Jan to call me back to work. Simply, I got the feeling that if I wasn’t lighting a million and one fires allover his world, he wouldn’t even attend a class. But he did. The boy graduated not only with a BA in Religious Studies, but a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Old Testament Literature…all in five years time.
How?, you ask.
Well, the studying was easy for us. Remember, we were Renaissance Men so our brains were trained to hold massive amounts of information, all at once, and be able to apply it quickly. We found school in the 20th Century easy because we could study in English, take in a study group, and call up most of our instructors for help: try to do that in the 17th century!
Secondly, most of what we were tested on we already knew. For Jan, he was classically trained in religion; for me, I got a PHD in Jewish Myth and Folklore with a MA in Baroque History and a BA in World History. I didn’t study these things, I had come from this field.
Thirdly, the War to End all Wars (followed by the final war of the world) had wiped out most of the men who would attend these classes. The whole school, it seemed, had quota to make of a certain number of graduates, so they lowered their standards for all of us. It was already easy, but a cake-walk for us two.
Lastly, tuition was free for us. Let me explain that marvel. The week after I met the love of my life, Brenda, we went into the registrar’s office at Princeton. We had enough for the down payment of one semester for one of us. We left it to chance for the first one of us the registrar would look at, ask, “May I help you?”, would go to school for that semester and then we’d take turns.
So we marched there and she asked Jan for his name. Crestfallen and happy for Jan, I watched as he gave her his name and she went in the back in her records room. She came back with my folder to and asked both of us for our class list.
“Excuse me?” I asked. “Only Jan is going to school.”
“Why?” she asked through her cats’ eye, wire rimmed glasses. “Both semesters are paid for. In fact, everything here in Princeton is paid for. There’s been a very large treasury given to the school with the understanding that you can get everything you need. And whatever money is left over shall be given to the library.”
“Who gave this money?”
Who knew we were here? Who was pulling the strings? Tobias died, Isodore vanished, William ran away, and the rest of our new friends were all broke. My mind turned over and turned over every possible lead for our mysterious benefactor. If anything, we were absolute nobodies. And yet, someone gave money to the school for our studies. I couldn’t move, my brain spinning the rolodex of names and nothing came up.
Luckily, Jan took the lead. “How many classes can we take? What’s the limit?”
“We recommend that first semester students take about 16 units,” she said in a rehearsed near song.
“But can take more, can’t we? 30 units? 40?”
“You can take up to 24 units.”
“Deal,” I said. “Fill us up.”
Only years later, did we find out who was our mystery benefactor but it did not come to me that day, as we registering for classes and I was caught in a stupor of wonder. In fact, we took as many classes as we could, fearing that the money might somehow run out or be withdrawn. Not a chance, for I heard only after I got my P.H.D. that they were building a small wing in the literature department with the remaining funds.
If I wasn’t walking on clouds after registry already, my fate was sealed to find Brenda, the woman Jan declared impossible for my own protection, was waiting for me back at work. She was even more radiant dry then soaked with rainwater. Her skin pink and without blemish, she glowed in the darkness of our dismal annex. She sat with my loaned book opened, waiting for me to have a quiet, gentle discussion.
We visited for a polite twenty minutes and she set up another reading date. And then another. And another.
“What kind of woman sets the appointments with men?” I asked in a cry to Jan after Brenda left. “She is the one who invites me back, she is the one who visits me. Women don’t didn’t do this in my farm town and I don’t think they do this today!”
“And Orthodox Jews don’t do that, Tom,” Jan said.
I couldn’t explain it, other than I really, really liked it.
Brenda was polite, but never shy. She told stories as often as we read them, drawing in a point or a question. When she got excited about a particular point or idea, she would gesture wildly in the air, allowing flash reveals of the skin under her blouse or skirt.
Love or lust? I was never sure. She was achingly beautiful, that’s all I knew, and she spoke about goblins, Jewish maidens, magical mid-wives, and golems with a greater knowledge than most of my professors. The University was where I got the credit for my degree; Brenda was my real teacher.
I, at first, didn’t know how to deal with this angel. Should I be the one teaching her, taking the higher vantage in our visits? No, I couldn’t. I harbored such an unbelievable secret that made me a babe in the woods that would make me slip the moment I put myself on any pedestal. Should I silent? No, she didn’t let me do that. Her Jewish world had perfected Brenda’s skill of opening new worlds with a simple question or gentle challenge. She could make the simple multi-dimensional and the seemingly complex be shrunk to a simple statement followed by a question mark.
How then, I wondered, do I talk to her? I didn’t have an answer. Instead, I just talked and wondered if I had scared her away by being simply Tom. And then, the next few days, she would return for her next scheduled appointment.
For nine months we met without breaks. One night, however, our meeting came to a head. Brenda came late, her hair tangled and it looked like she had spent hours outside in the cold, crying. After a few moments she shared that she had, in reality, spent several hours outside in the cold and the wind and she had been crying. Without any mastery of reading into the secret, hidden ways of women, I asked, “But why?”
“My father is a Rabbi, a teacher of the law for our community. We are a strict group of families whom holds the Torah is high regard. We are a Jews’ Jew, an example to the rest of the people of Israel in our regard to G-d’s laws. I have embraced my community’s beliefs, never bending or yielding to them. My world is one of Sabbaths, of special foods, of ritual, of waiting for the M-ssiah, and for communing only with my own kind.”
“Sure, sure,” I said, patting her knee. “I get all of that! I have never stopped to consider that you jumped off the train or let loose your faith in G-d or H-s people. What, then, is the problem? What’s wrong?”
At that moment, she planted the greatest and most passionately kiss I have ever received. Perhaps no had ever gotten one like that, full of hunger and pain and passion and love and need and lust. So hot, I felt my clothes come undone without any human hands. I could feel her throbbing heart beat in my mouth.
Wet and full of fire, she left me to run away, full of sobs.
She was gone and out of my life, from that point on, for a solid week. I believed, almost, that the kiss was the last I had ever seen.
My son, Peter, had received a kiss like that once. He was thirteen and in love with a girl at a summer camp. They never spoke a word to each other during the whole week and, on the Saturday she was to leave, she ran over to him and gave him a hungry kiss, to say hello and good-bye all within the same second. The boy, who stood before me in with a knapsack under his arm, looked back at me. Dumbfounded but also with the power of knowing the potential drama of every moment, looked over to me and croaked, “Yeah, dad, camp was good this week.”
Young people kiss like that; young people, as well, also run away and never return like I expected Brenda to do.
A week passed and one morning, I had a visitor. The man was Brenda’s father, a Rabbi with a beard full, hair curled in ringlets, and a stony ash coat and matching hat. His eyes burned bright blue, if possible, and there was something so angry, so full of rage by his presence that one immediately wanted to sink to one’s knees, confess every sin- real or imagined-, and beg for someone to give them mercy. His eyes straight and certain, he never looked at anything or anyone else in the library but me, bearing deep in my soul.
He looked at me and I knew what he could see: someone who wasn’t a Jew.
He sat at the other end of my big, metal desk and I still felt vulnerable for any attack from this man. “Can I help you?” I asked.
“You are not human,” the Rabbi said in a slow, steady whisper. “You are a beast of the field, a creature spawned from Cain, complete with his mark. You are a Steppenwolf, dressed up as a man. Indeed, you look like you belong in normal, human civilization but the very blood of you is animal. You are a monster, a wild animal good only for work and meat, nothing more.”
At that moment, I didn’t know how to take what he was saying to me. I still don’t, other than I have never felt more hate, more feelings of absolute condemnation than that moment. Think of singing at a wedding with your fly down and magnify that by infinity: that shame was being emitting by the Rabbi’s line of sight.
“Brenda, my only daughter, shall marry a human being. She shall have human children, free from the stink of animals and monsters she must otherwise associate with in this fallen, dark world. As we count the minutes the M-ssiah will come to clean up this mess of spiritual infidelity, we humans must keep ourselves pure. Marry your fellow monsters, breed like rabbits and mice, for all I care. Keep on making this world of our Creator one, big, stinking chicken coop. Your skin is coated with excrement and your line will continue to touch and soil creation. Fine. But stick to your own kind, leave the human race alone.
“Do we understand each other?”
I said nothing, shaking and quivering like the wild animal I believed myself to be at that moment.
The Rabbi nodded, rose, and walked out of the library, seeking to be rid of such dirty places as our library. He seemed neither angry or sad, just full of hate as if that was the sum total of his nature.
I had believed in the Jewish G-d ever since my dad took me to the ghettos. Their G-d was one who loved midnight parties, dancing, and stories. They did not see the rest of the world as monsters, but as strangers. And what do you do with strangers: give them soup, invite them in, and give them a bed. That was the G-d I believed in, yet I now suffered a crisis of doubt from meeting that Rabbi. Had J-hova changed from the 17th Century to the 20th? Certainly, his people had: the former lived outside of civilization, cast out while this community sought to exclude the outside civilization from their community.
No, the L-rd does not change; H-s people, in America, were different than the mad, dancing, pastry eating children I loved so much in Germany.
I decided, after collecting myself, that I would begin to pray to the 17th Century Jewish G-d that I knew, loved, and would serve all of my days. If H- would take me, I would offer H-m everything I had and knew. And whatever demon commanded that Rabbi, so be it! I had nothing to do with a god too weak to invite like the J-hova I was beginning to know and love.
This was little comfort to me in the wake of the certainty that Brenda was lost to me forever.
Jan quit, the moment my appointment with the Rabbi, his posture of “I told you so”. Instead, his posture was bent, broken, and hurt. I don’t know if he was matching my own sorrow, I don’t know for I have no idea how I came across during those weeks. All I know is that every time I was around Jan, I had the feeling that the Rabbi had broken him in two just like he had done to me.
Jan, after work and on the nights we weren’t stockpiling classes, would get a paint can full of booze from a speakeasy that shared our library’s building. Later, I heard the liquor was free because he said he was “fetching a pale for a good man with a bad heart”.
We would drink in silence those nights, my mind recalling her long eye-lashes or the freckles on Brenda’s wrists.
I tried to pray, using my broken Hebrew and made up things that sounded like they might have, in some strange pocket, of the Torah. I sought to memorize the Genesis and Exodus. I stopped eating pigs or fish or animals with cloven hooves. I was still a bit shaken by the whole “you are a non-Jew and an animal” speech, so I didn’t dare go to a Synagogue.
And I tried my best not to think of Brenda. Tried, really hard.
Then one night, five minutes before closing the library, Brenda charged into the library. She was dressed as a man, with slacks and shirt and coat and her long hair tucked into a fedora.
Again, she looked like she had been outside for hours, crying.
“Do you love me?” she asked in a husky, wild whisper.
“I love G-d and His precepts. Apart from that, I love you more than life itself. I would willingly be killed in order to be near you. I could never think of another woman other than you. I’ve never known love until I got to know you,” I said and I believed every word of that declaration. Weird, love and lust weren’t mixed up in that statement I said to her.
“Then follow me,” she said and ran out of the library.
Brenda is a small woman and she cut through the night like a blade, running faster than I could catch up. I bounded over trash piles, leaves, and sleeping men in that dark, frightening neighborhood.
She rounded the corner and I chased her, dodging chestnut vendors and crowds waiting for the city’s train. Finally, after she waited for me to catch up, we got to the corner and she grabbed my hand.
“Everything that is within you, keep up,” she commanded and charged into the night.
I have never run a marathon, but I believed I came close to 42k that night. I would have been weak, may have thrown up, or would have felt sick if I hadn’t held onto Brenda’s hand. We ran through parks, residential streets, markets, and skyscraper rows. We ran over sawdust of shanty towns and around ancient, stone apartment. Through New York City we traversed, never slowing down long enough to see any one place for every long.
Hours or years later, I couldn’t tell that night, we came upon a slender apartment building in between a closed department store and an orphanage. Brenda took me in as we climbed a dizzying spiral of stairs lit by an unnatural, yellow light.
In the distance, I heard the sound of either a goat crying or a man laughing: it sounded the same. Every once in a while, I’d catch a random number written in blue chalk on the walls or on a step.
We entered the only apartment that did not have a room number. She knocked seven times and the door, it appeared, opened by itself.
In the apartment, there was a woman surrounded by young children, playing and laughing and still up at midnight. I never got a look at any of their faces, assuming they were in fact children. They sounded like children or, at least, made that indiscriminant sound of children playing. All of them had numbers sown onto their shirts or jackets or dresses.
Another door opened by itself, leading to an orange-lit bedroom. Brenda turned to me, as if time was running out. “Will you marry me?” she asked with a dark light in her eyes.
“But I don’t think…” I began to stammer as I caught my breadth.
“If it was possible, would you marry me? Answer quickly, for your first response is the most important.”
My soul spoke for me, ignoring my feelings and common sense and anything else that my rattling around in my head.
“I would marry you and be your husband forever,” I said without hesitation.
She looked like she was going to cry, but the bursting of tears was interrupted by a voice. “Come,” the croak of an androgynous septuagenarian bid us to the bedroom. We came.
Entering the hot, orange light of the bedroom, I was overwhelmed by the amount of Hebrew and numbers that appeared on the wall. Incense burned, filling the room with a thousand and one scents. About a dozen cats sat, staring at us under the obedient pleasure of their mistress. The carpet crunched of used, rolled cigarettes. Several skeletal heads of goats joined in the cat audience of our arrival.
Around every piece of furniture was a thin silhouette of chalk or ceremonial, white powder- I’m not sure. The ceiling hung low unnaturally, containing feint shadows of woodland creatures. Upon every surface were opened books, all handwritten in dark red.
Coming from the bathroom was a tiny, round woman draped a thick, woolen shawl. She wore a turban and smoked a slender cigarette on the end of a classic holder. A hundred and two wrinkles twisted her face and jowls, making it appear that she spent half of her life walking on her own face. In her other hand was an opened tin of sardines she would, without warning, pass around to her cats.
“So you want to be Jewish?” she asked slowly.
“More than life itself. I want to be Jewish and I want to marry Brenda, keeping G-d’s commands for our future family.”
“More than life itself?” she asked, arching her right eyebrow ever so slightly to this prospect. “Then the cast is set. Do you believe in the G-d of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and of Moses?” Somehow, Daniel was missing from that particular list.
“Yes,” I said, my hands shaking.
“Hopefully that will be enough faith for you to survive tonight.”
“Excuse me?” I asked and that was the last thing out of my mouth.
Suddenly, her whole eyes went black and she charged at me with unnatural strength.
Before I could flinch, the old woman held a dagger and was driving it into my chest. She screamed in Hebrew as she stabbed me, again and again. I remember every blow, a pain that was so intense that I still have nothing to compare it to. She kept striking at me. I closed my eyes. Brenda was weeping. The cats were purring. Somewhere, I heard a lamb without blemish scream.
I fell to the ground, feeling my heart stop and my last breadth of life leave my body.
“Bagel?” was the first human thing I heard while I woke from a deep, dreamless sleep.
I opened my eyes to find Brenda sitting by my bedside, eating a bagel containing cream cheese and locks. The smell of fish and onion filled the air. I was hungry. Later, they told me, I had been asleep for six days and awoke on the 7th.
I lifted my head to find myself shirtless and without any wounding. I looked around the bedroom. It was daytime, so the weird orange lighting was gone and was replaced by the new dawn’s light. Gone also were the cats and the Hebrew writing and the strange numbers.
“Would you like a bagel?” the old woman asked. I said I would love one. “Good,” she said. “Welcome to the Jewish race.” I felt her oval shaped hand a top my head. “Running in your veins is the blood of Abraham, of Jacob, and of Moses. You are a child of God.”
“You took me to see a sorceress?” I asked Brenda, still half asleep.
“No sorcery,” the old woman rebuked. “This is a Holy place. A very Holy place, with the Shema above the door of this apartment. G-d is honored in this house.” I then saw her smile, her delight in the next pronouncement. “However, I do work in secret ways and one of them is way to turn an outsider into a Person of the Promise. A eruv, in some respects. Just some. I had to kill you, boy, before your blood became of Israel. You are a Holy person, a man of the covenant. You, through our secret rite, a Jew.”
“But how?” I asked, still groggy.
“A secret rite, led by me, and a hefty price paid. A ransom was met by your bride, Brenda.”
I looked over to Brenda, half-expecting her to give a money sum so great and awesome that made me quiver at that thought. Nothing like that was said. Simply, she explained. “I became dead to my family. Not figuratively, but literally. My dad, if he came into this room, wouldn’t recognize me. There’s now a veil over his eyes and my face is hidden from him. I am now a literal and cosmic orphan, through magic. I have become a secret kept from him. I now belong only to G-d.”
“And me,” I said.
“The way my secret magic is that I had to kill you,” the old woman said with a heavy regret to her words. “You must have died. And in order to come back to life, like the widow’s son from our histories, you must have had faith and you must come back Jewish. There must be a price paid, there is always a price that must be paid: that is the nature of the sacrifice. For your bride, she had to become dead to her family.
“And now, every letter written to their family will have her name missing. Every memory her parents have will be childless. Today, the sacrifice rendered was that they have lost their first born.” A small, sharp sneer formed on her face. “I hope his love is worth it. I hope he spends his entire life paying back the ransom paid.”
Thinking about this, now as a parent, my world would come to an end if I ever lost Peter. Even if he was wiped clean from my memory, I know there would be a loss, a weight made only perfect by magic not allowing me to give the departure a name. I should think most parents would be like this and being a childless couple would be hard, especially if there was some part of your memory that contained at least the shadow of a child.
Brenda’s parents were the exception. They lost Brenda that day and their time line seemed to be straighter, more on cue than when they were parents. Little affected her father’s role as Rabbi and her mother seemed every bit as angry, sour, and bitter than when they had Brenda.
Only Brenda’s aunt, the woman who truly raised her, seemed to hold a loss. Unmarried and having no children, she poured her love into Brenda. With this change, her aunt was driven to go to school and become a teacher in a boarding school.
Years later, Brenda reconnected with her over coffee. Brenda decided to keep the magical ritual a sacrifice and asked, this now stranger, to meet her at a café. As soon as the aunt saw Brenda, she wept. The first words out of her mouth were, “I remember, I remember.”
“How?” Brenda asked.
“There are things, my dear niece, stronger than magic. Secrets shall be obedient to such powers.”
The woman, I guess, waited for Brenda to work up the courage to reconnect. She was a happy woman, a life full and now was willing to share it with Brenda. For six strong years, they continued in their friendship until cancer ended the aunt’s life.
But at that moment, Brenda’s family was dead to her and there was only us, a union before G-d. Which reminded me…
“Does G-d know about my change?” I asked. “I mean, sure, I have a new set of genetics. But ultimately, H-…”
“Follow H-s laws and statutes, make perfect this change by belief and H-s character, as revealed by the Torah, shall accept the exception. I have seen man, by this rite, become full with H-s spirit, prophesying and making miracles. G-d only gives that special anointing to H-s children. You are H-s, Tom Maven.”
“And you are mine,” Brenda said, kissing my hand.