Blessings After Bread, Baked and Broken
By Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Leaving developmental psychology class one Thursday afternoon, his notebooks, lunch, and heavy textbooks weighing down his messenger bag pressing into his slumped right shoulder, Yehoshua heard:
“Would you like to come by my place to break bread?”
Because of the hubbub of student chatter, he wasn’t sure to whom the question was addressed. The question felt strangely disembodied, floating. But then he saw Lavender’s eyes looking directly at him. Me? He mouthed the word, his eyebrows arched in question, his index finger pointed inward at his chest. When Lavender nodded in assent, Yehoshua immediately responded “Sure!” without reflection or consideration of any kind. That phrase—“break bread”—was then au courant in certain circles on campus, ones in which Yehoshua was not a participant, but whose existence he regularly noted. Of course, these circles weren’t literally carefully-defined circles that met regularly, but rather a loose network of students who could be seen handing out flyers at main thoroughfares on campus for this or that cause, at the tables in the Student Activities Center (SAC) on student organizational recruitment day, in small groups outside theater rehearsals, and on handwritten announcements on bulletin boards heralding potluck dinners for the social justice-themed house. Yehoshua noted them, even as he never joined, despite their open invitations. Whether this was due to his own indifference or fear, Yehoshua didn’t care to investigate.
Still, “breaking bread” was not a phrase he’d heard used in his own daily life. The benediction over bread—Blessed art Thou O Lord who removes bread from the earth—was uttered every nearly every day at home, and three times on the Sabbath. Indeed a meal wasn’t truly, fully a meal without it. And if three males over the age of thirteen—a mezuman, or mini-quorum—were on hand to heighten the benediction’s overall grace, so much the better. And with his father and himself now the only males living at home, there was really only a mezuman on the Sabbath, when Yehoshua’s father invited some of the students from his yeshiva home for the meals.
And although “breaking bread” had a decidedly religious (theological?) connotation, it was not one his father ever used in daily life. What were its origins? Did it come from another faith tradition? Was it used in his own, or rather, the one in which he still largely lived? Was the essential difference between “breaking bread” and “taking bread from the earth” that the former action was essentially human and connoted fellowship and the latter was divine and predicated on God’s will alone (even if the need for bread was of the body and very human)?
These questions popped unbidden into Yehoshua’s mind as he took in the panorama of Lavender—her nearly floor-length skirt scattered with cornflowers, her cream-colored shawl, the long fringed earrings clearly visible beneath her lustrous chestnut tresses framed by two narrow braids around her face. If such flowing, floral attire could be considered polished, well then, that’s what Lavender’s was. Yehoshua always made it a point to note Lavender’s outfits, simultaneously bohemian—an earlier era’s epitome of counter-cultural—and carefully considered. Amidst the jeans and t-shirts, sweatpants and hoodies, gym shorts (and short shorts) and tank tops that predominated on campus, Lavender’s creations called out to him, slaking his innate longing for color and drama. Only today, they weren’t sitting near each other, and, given the review lecture for the impending mid-term, Yehoshua hadn’t even noticed that she was in class at all.
Throughout the semester, Yehoshua had noted that Lavender herself seemed to garner scant attention from other students. Rarely was she the recipient of a nod of greeting or included in the small cliques of conversation that formed before and after class having to do with class or parties future or past. Needless to day, these were not parties to which she was invited nor presumably (and he was presuming) ones she would have attended even if she had been.
And though a phrase such as “breaking bread” might have sounded pretentious or sanctimonious when uttered by others, it seemed almost whimsical coming from Lavender. Playful really, even though she wasn’t smiling. Was that a twinkle in her eyes? One that only he could see? Yehoshua couldn’t explain it, but he found himself unexpectedly elated, unable to contain his joy.
“Should I bring anything?” he asked.
“Just your smile, muscles, and appetite,” she responded. Yehoshua smiled blankly in return, not knowing what she was driving at with his “smile” nor his “muscles.” He rarely smiled, and with his 5’7”, 140 pound frame, his muscles were negligible indeed. Hmm. No matter. This visit to Lavender would be something for him to look forward to after the developmental psychology exam.
* * *
At dinner that evening, Yehoshua considered the bread baked by his mother, seeing it not for the first time, but certainly with renewed interest. In contrast to the Shabbas hallahs, which were double braided (small braids crowning a thickly braided base) and eggy-yellowish in hue, nah, this weekday loaf was plain and round, larger versions of the rolls that she baked for regular usage in the house. As a child, Yehoshua had been self-conscious of the tuna salad (with olive oil and only a dollop of low-fat mayonnaise) and lettuce and a tomato slice on home-baked whole wheat rolls that his mother had packed him for school. He’d envied the orange cheese slapped between two thin slices of white bread that other kids brought in. If a round loaf on Rosh ha-Shanah signified hopes for health and prosperity throughout the year, perhaps a round whole wheat loaf on a weeknight in November signified the furtherance of that hope on a minute scale in the everyday, a kind of buttressing of the annual foundation. The dough itself was whole wheat, with oats on top—rough and delicious.
After years of baking by hand, insisting that nothing could replace human handiwork form start to finish, his mother finally relented and purchased a bread machine. Their neighbor Rebetsin Shmuelevitz sang this particular model of bread machine’s praises one time too many, and Yehoshua’s father, ordinarily quite frugal, was amenable to the purchase. Yehoshua rarely noticed objections from his father when it came to matters of the belly. Especially bread for the belly. And whether by machine or divine intervention, or the lubrication of divine will by machine, Yehoshua’s father would brook no interference with his bread. Yehoshua expected the machine to be high-tech looking, with rows of buttons and gadgets. Instead, it appeared to be little more than a standard Mixmaster, with a few speeds for kneading the dough and a single unimpressive blade.
Dinner was consumed largely in silence, as it usually was. His mother had made fish cakes and cauliflower this evening. Although this was far from light fare, especially since the cakes contained flour meal, neither his mother nor Yehoshua showed any surprise when the Rebe washed and ate bread. This was what he did. His mother never ate or even sat down with them. Instead, she hovered, making sure everything was satisfying to all concerned and then clearing away the cooking pots and utensils as Yehoshua and his father ate.
Yehoshua knew his mother did eat—her ample, well-distributed girth made starvation unlikely prospect. She certainly didn’t have the bloated belly and stick skeletal frame that he’d seen in pictures of National Geographic in the doctor’s waiting rooms. But her consumption of food was not something he ever witnessed. He hesitated to consider it secretive or surreptitious. It was always a hidden, private matter, as if conducted on another plane altogether.
The Rebe never asked his wife or son how their day went nor did he entertain the question about his own. If he did speak at all, which was rare indeed, he launched into a discourse on a particular passage in a rabbinical text that he had encountered and that had interested him and would be edifying to his wife and son.
That night, as he often did in his bedroom after supper, Yehoshua spun imaginary dialogues, implausible in their enthusiasm and affection, at the family dinner table or elsewhere in the house:
“Rivke, these fishcakes are delicious! Whatever is their secret ingredient?”
“Aryeh, my darling, there’s pepper and rosemary, of course. More than that I can’t possibly reveal.”
“Mother, please tell me more about this whole wheat bread you’ve baked.”
“Certainly, my child, there’s very little to it. Here, let me show you.”
“Father, today we reviewed the Oedipus complex in developmental psychology. Yes, that’s where the son falls in love with his mother and kills his father. Freud believed this urge is present in all youth.
“My son, how fascinating. How wonderful that your university learning has taken you in one fell swoop from early to mid-twentieth century Vienna back to the classical ancients. Even though none of these beliefs are in accord with those of our Sages, may their memory be for a blessing, I am so thrilled that you are being exposed to different ideas.”
“And I’m so pleased that you’re pleased, Father. And after that, my “friend” (?) invited me to her place to break bread with her. Isn’t that picturesque, dear Father?”
Acquaintances and friends that Yehoshua met in college revealed dreams of fast cars and hot dates, admittance into this or that internship or graduate school and high scores on their LSAT exams. Yehoshua never revealed to them his dreams of dialogue between his parents and himself. Only in the dark of his bedroom did he allow himself this luxury, this strange nocturnal release. In the harsh glare of daylight, in the disappointment and disapproval that met him daily, these imagined dialogues, this dream of extended dialogue, withered invariably into oblivion.
The fact that Yehoshua attended college at all was nothing short of a minor miracle. His father wanted him to continue his yeshiva studies and study something practical such as accounting at night school if he entered the halls of the secular university at all. Of course, the Rebe’s true preference was that Yehoshua continue his religious studies after high school in bet ha-midrash until he got married and then continue studying in kolel or as a yeshiva rebe himself. His father only agreed to pay his tuition if Yehoshua daily studied Torah, Talmud, law, and ethics with him after he returned home from the university and if he daily attended morning services at a synagogue.
Yehoshua carried out his obligations of study and prayer, filled with dread, seething in resentment never spoken. He would return from classes on art history, images of Michelangelo’s David and Caravaggio’s Bacchus or Emma Goldman’s anarchist theories flitting through his mind and over his skin and be met with detailed analysis of the required height of the sukkah or the materials accepted for its covering. The distance of that move seemed far vaster than the one between Freud and the ancient Greeks.
The Rebe never questioned him on the material they were studying together in their sessions, and given Yehoshua’s vacant mien, if he was paying attention. If far from content with this compromise, the Rebe seemed at least willing to accept his son’s presence in a chair in his study as some sort of bulwark, however fragile, against potential defilement by the godlessness and “free thinking” of the university. And even if Yehoshua was often late to the sessions and was far from the most attentive of study partners, he at least kept his end of the pact by placing his body in that chair in his father’s study.
* * *
The number 38 bus was delayed. Yehoshua sat on a bench, his back resting against an advertisement promoting the services of a law firm’s special (guaranteed!) services for bankruptcy cases. He glanced anxiously at his watch every few minutes.
“Looks like this bus is taking its sweet old time. Mind if I sit next to you? ” a late middle-aged, somberly dressed yet brassily coiffed woman asked him, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Startled by someone asking him if she could sit on a bus stop bench, Yehoshua stared blankly back at her.
“I only asked because I see you’re religious. I wasn’t sure if it’d be appropriate for me to sit here. I know it’s a public place, but still … Well, my mama just taught me that it was important to respect the traditions of others, even if they aren’t your own,” she explained, as if reading his confusion and incredulity.
Usually, Yehoshua wore a newsboy or baseball cap to cover his yarmulke, not to avoid such strangely polite, almost overly solicitous conversation, but to prevent it’s opposite that occurred when his yarmulke was visible for all to see: the taunts of “Hey kike!” or the tomatoes thrown at him or the pennies tossed at his feet. Even at the university, Yehoshua wasn’t always entirely comfortable with revealing his yarmulke. Students, and occasionally professors, expected him to hold specific beliefs about God or politics (conservative), ones which he never did. And even when they got to know him and accepted that he didn’t hold such views, they still expected him to react to them, to be engaged with them in some way.
“Please sit down. Yes, yes, of course,”Yehoshua finally responded. He almost said, “The more the merrier” but then caught himself just in time. His new benchmate smiled amiably in return as she sat down on the bench. Given all that she’d already revealed, Yehoshua expected her to continue conversation with him and, to circumvent that prospect, opened a school book he’d brought with him—a biography of Mabel Dodge, the doyenne whose salon welcomed luminaries in Greenwich Village radical circles in the early years of the twentieth century—and a much welcome respite from the psychology textbooks that occupied his days.
Without benefit of earphones or a book of her own, the woman withdrew. Her face assumed a flatness, the warmth of moments ago vanished without a trace as suddenly as it had arrived. In turn, Yehoshua flipped through the book listlessly. He wasn’t able to concentrate. He kept thinking about the developmental psych. mid-term, wondering which questions he’d gotten wrong. During today’s visit, he wouldn’t mention the development psych. class to Lavender today, he decided.
The woman spotted the bus before he did and, as if there were a long line of passengers waiting with them, quickly arose to stand directly adjacent to the bus stop sign. After boarding the bus, she sat down in a row of two seats just beyond the seating reserved for the elderly, of which the window seat was occupied by an elderly gentleman with a cane. Yehoshua asked the driver if he could call out the Avenue Y stop closest to Lavender’s place. The woman looked down quickly as Yehoshua walked past her towards an empty seat by the back door of the bus.
Since this was his first time riding this bus route, Yehoshua found himself paying close attention to the streetscape. Fairly quickly, the bus left neighborhoods with which he was at least somewhat familiar into ones in which he’d never been. Here, children played stickball on the streets, not on the sidewalk or back alley or on the sides of houses as the Rebetsin always insisted to Yehoshua and his siblings. Although it was broad daylight, men loitered outside liquor stores with brown-bagged bottles and cans in their hands. Boarded-up houses appeared with regularity, the wood of the windows gaping blindly back at him. Yehoshua looked out for drug deals going down but didn’t see any. He really shouldn’t make assumptions, he told himself. Still, he was glad that it was still daylight. Just past noon, in fact.
Lavender’s apartment building had seen better days. Was the architectural design art deco? A proliferation of geometric shapes around the doorway and vaguely Egyptian motifs bordering the ceiling seemed to confirm this assessment. Yehoshua reminded himself to look up the period in one of his art history survey textbooks at home. Unclaimed yellow page telephone books piled high in the entry, and flyers for sales of weeks ago fluttered all around him. Although the smell of human urine was unexpectedly absent, a general sense of mustiness, layers of sweat, and anxiety, both mild and morphed into desperation, pervaded the vestibule.
“Lavender, it’s me. Yehoshua. I hope I’m not too early,” he called into the buzzer after dialing Lavender’s apartment code, wondering if it was working, racking his brain for a plan B if it wasn’t. Fortunately, he didn’t need to come up with one. Static gobbledygook emerged from the speaker, and then a thunderous buzzer indicated his moment of entry.
Yehoshua decided to bypass the elevator and use the spiral pink-gray marble staircase. He raced up the stairs, two at a time, his mother’s admonition to “walk, don’t run—especially on slippery smooth surfaces” echoing in his ear.
“You made it! Welcome!” Lavender positively beamed at him, standing in the doorway to her apartment as he reached it. She gestured widely for him to enter before he even said a word. Yehoshua handed her a bottle of carbonated apple cider and then followed her inside. He noticed immediately that the apartment was decorated in a minimalist manner, in stark contrast to Lavender’s sartorial sensibility.
“You’re wondering why this place is so bare, I’ll bet. Hampton insisted it be this way. He considers any decoration superfluous. ‘Clutter,’ he calls it. Oh well. So much for the lady of house getting her way,” Lavender explained, following his gaze but declining to give him a tour of the apartment. Clearly, she wasn’t too pleased with the state of her home. Yehoshua had met Hampton briefly once on campus, although he’d seen him far more often than that. With his conspicuous Afro and penchant for daishikis and African scarves, Yehoshua figured he’d be majoring in African-American studies or political science. He was surprised to learn that Hampton was a (European) continental philosophy major and was writing an honors thesis on the use of the subjunctive in Wittgenstein’s proofs. When he saw the Hampton and Lavender walking on campus hand in hand, stride with stride, he never dared to approach them. Not that he was afraid; it was just that they seemed so—if not perfect, well then, utterly contained. A universe unto themselves.
On the rectangular wooden farmhouse table before them stood a whole range of baking ingredients and implements familiar to Yehoshua from his mother’s kitchen as well as ones he hadn’t ever seen.
“I thought we’d bake a barley walnut bread. It’s my grandmother’s recipe,” Lavender said, her eyes cast downward into the bowl into which she was already whisking eggs together. For the briefest moment, Yehoshua had to repress the urge to burst into loud, uninhibited laughter. All this time—since Lavender’s invitation more than a week ago—he thought she’d invited him to “break bread.” Only she’d said “bake bread.” What a difference a consonant and a few vowels made! Instead of laughter, the slightest trace of a smile appeared on his face. Lavender was too busy mixing the ingredients together to notice.
“Can I help?” Yehoshua asked. Then seeing Lavender shake her head, he added, ”I’ve brought the biceps.” Lavender chuckled and removed a bottle of seltzer water. She poured some into two glasses and then without inquiring about Yehoshu’s preference in beverage adornments, added two ice cubes and a slice of lemon into each glass.
“Here have some seltzer. Let’s go into the living room while the dough rises,” she said, after speedily whisking and kneading the dough. He hadn’t needed his bicep power, after all.
The living room was furnished with several boxy wing chairs, a coffee table, and a stern couch—little more than a thinly padded bench—upholstered in a brown utilitarian fabric that seemed to transcend a particular era but was clearly new and little worn. And yet when he lowered himself into the couch, Yehoshua was immediately struck by how comfortable it was. He smiled, happy to be with his friend in this space, whose pragmatism seemed governed by philosophical choice (William James?), rather than the strange blend of poverty and indifference to matters of the material world that governed the styling (or lack thereof) of his own home. But then he supposed that that too was a philosophy of a sort.
“Will Hampton be joining us today?” Yehoshua asked.
“No, he had to take his elderly mother to her local NAACP chapter meeting. She’s the chapter secretary. Takes all the minutes in shorthand and then types them up at home. She retired as a secretary from the corporate world a few years back and now continues her work as a volunteer. Hampton was named after the Hampton Institute. His parents believed their roots in the Christian uplift of black people were a model in bi-racial cooperation. That one of its most famous alumni was Booker T. Washington didn’t hurt, either. Hampton always jokes, “I’m just glad they didn’t name me ‘Tuskegee.’”
At this, Yehoshua burst into laughter just a note too raucous. Lavender’s breathless, matter-of-fact recital of family history and the lingering residue of the misunderstanding around “breaking/baking bread” were making him feel a bit light-headed.
Lavender only smiled and continued, “And actually, Hampton’s brother’s name is DuBois. You guessed it—named after you know who. His mother said if they had had another boy, she would have named him Marcus and either Harriet or Sojourner if they had a girl. So all of this to say, that no, Hampton won’t be joining us today.”
“What about your own name? Do you mind my asking? It’s certainly unusual,” Yehoshua asked to end the pause that followed response to what he’d thought would be a brief explanation of Hampton’s absence.
“There’s really not that much to say about it. It’s certainly not as noble a reason as Hampton’s.” Lavender paused for a moment, setting down her iced seltzer water on a cream-colored coaster.
“My mother always loved the color purple. No, not the novel, but the color. She always wore it. After she kicked my dad out, our house was painted in various shades of it. I was really just an extension of this obsession. She was going to call me Violet or Violeta, but she thought it would be too obvious. Too harsh. So instead she called me something softer. Lavender. Isn’t that too ridiculous? “
“No, I think it’s pretty. It suits you,” Yehoshua responded.
“I was so mad by all this purple that I painted my bedroom black when I was fifteen and kept it that way until I moved out … to move in with Hampton,” she continued, not responding to Yehoshua’s interjection.
“We should check on the dough,” Lavender said, rising suddenly, collecting their empty glasses.
The dough had risen fully. Instead of braiding it, as Yehoshua’s mother did, Lavender poured the dough into a deep rectangular pan that would give the loaf its shape. Of course, nor did Lavender set aside a piece of dough to commemorate the high priest’s offering in the Temple of Jerusalem, as his mother did. The loaf pans set into the oven in what seemed to Yehoshua no more than two minutes. Instead of heading back to the living room, Lavender began to clear away the baking items into the sink. She washed them in silence and then handed them to Yehoshua to dry them. Seeking to steer the conversation to more neutral ground, Yehoshua wanted to ask her about her other psychology classes that she was taking this semester. But Lavender’s demeanor—the stiffness of her carrige, her pursed lips—cautioned him against doing so.
By the time the baking implements and ingredients were cleared away, the bread was ready. Lavender removed the loaves from the oven and then, after a brief cooling period, from the baking pans. She went to the cupboard and the refrigerator and assembled an array of jams—fig, apricot, and pear—as well as apple butter and plain butter. Yehoshua spread apple butter generously on his still-warm slice of bread. It was delicious.
“Good, right? My mother might off her rocker about colors, but she knows her bread recipes. How does this compare to your bread at home?” Lavender asked.
Yehoshua considered delineating the differences between Rosh ha-Shanah hallah and Shabbas hallah and weekday bread, but refrained from doing so. He just didn’t want to get into a discussion of his traditions and how he’d strayed from them or his home life and the inevitable comparisons with hers. So he said simply,
“Well, my mother never bakes barley walnut bread. This is amazing.”
After clearing away the stoneware plates, they returned to the living room. Yehoshua finally had time to really consider the architectural details of the room—the coved ceiling, the high baseboard, the linear woodwork.
“It’s art deco, you know,” Lavender said. “One of my favorite periods in art. Are you interested in art?”
“Actually, yes. I am. I love art deco, too. And art nouveau, too.”
“Really? Cool. Hey, I just thought of something. The art school, where I model always needs models. In fact, one of the classes I model for is looking for a male model. Would you be interested? They pay well, and it’s really not that hard. You have to stand still for twenty minutes and then you get a five minute break. Each class is about three hours long,” Lavender responded.
“Will I have to be naked? I’ve never done that,” he asked.
“Yep, you sure will. It’s for a life drawing class. Life—as in primal, elemental—on display. No hiding under the fig leaf of bourgeois propriety. But once you’ve done it, it’s not a big deal. And the students and faculty are super cool about it. Your really should give it a try. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.”
By the time Yehoshua was getting ready to leave, they had made the arrangements for him to model at an upcoming session at the art academy. Lavender reminded him to bring a bathrobe for the breaks.
* * *
The models coordinator was even thinner than Yehoshua and wore his curly black hair back in a ponytail. The effect was vaguely eighteenth century rather than rock n’ roll or hippie or mountain man. His manner was warm and welcoming, and the paperwork was minimal. Just a tax and emergency contact form. The halls they walked through to reach the classroom were crowned by high ceilings and illuminated by skylight and overhead inset lighting. Torsos of various sizes and shapes and of various materials, principally plaster and marble stood in niches and corners. When they reached the classroom, the models coordinator explained to Yehoshua that the changing room and storage closet, where he could store his clothes for the duration of the class, were in the classroom itself.
When Yehoshua arrived in the classroom, he was startled to see Lavender, wearing what looked like a kimono, on the model stand.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” he blurted out.
“What? I told you the class I modeled for was looking for a male model!” Lavender retorted. Yehoshua had thought she meant the class in general was looking for a male model not that they were looking for one for the very same session that Lavender was modeling in. He was going to say something to that effect, but he was becoming accustomed to refraining from expressing to Lavender what he was really thinking. And besides, there wasn’t any point. He had to get undressed and ready for the class.
As he emerged from the class, the instructor was walking around the class and the students were already at their easels. The instructor immediately approached him and introduced himself as Brian Lacey. He arranged them in a tableau in which they would both be facing each other. The instructor was careful to avoid touching either of the models, issuing his instructions in a professional, matter-of-fact manner. Yehoshua wondered what it feel like to have Mr. Lacey’s large hands scampering over his body or his full beard rubbing against his neck. He was startled, if not surprised, to feel drops of pre-cum forming at the tip of his penis.
“Talk about baptism by fire!” Lavender muttered with a smile to Yehoshua. Mr. Lacey may or may not have heard; he gave no indication either way. When their bodies were arranged to his liking, when Yehoshua had rubbed away, hopefully with some discretion, the pre-cum, Mr. Lacey indicated to the students that they should being drawing.
Yehoshua kept his eyes downcast and was glad Mr. Lacey didn’t insist that they be raised. Lavender’s, he noticed, were fully raised. He wondered what she was taking in. What did she see? What, if anything, of his slim, hairy limbs did she find noteworthy? Or was Lavender not seeing him at all? Was she looking through him? Tuning him out? Perhaps she was thinking about what she and Hampton would be having for dinner tonight.
Before his eyes were downcast, Yehoshua had caught a flash of Lavender’s glowing whiteness, the vast expanse of her thick tresses, her small, round breasts, with their full—dare he think—violet (!) nipples. He hadn’t meant to look, but how could he not? What a picture she made. Devoid of her flowing dresses, Lavender was even more a sight to behold. Lavender had told him that bodies of all types were welcome to model, that life drawing and painting were really about capturing the human form in all its variety. But he was certain that Lavender was sure to be in demand as a life model, both in classes and for private drawing sessions. In fact, Yehoshua assumed most of the students of both genders and the instructor had a crush on her.
But what did he know of such things? Yehoshua had never had sex with women nor had he wanted to. He’d never had sex with men, either, for that matter, no matter how much he wanted to. Oh, how he’d wanted to! And still did, of course. He knew that would never change; its immutability was the one constant in his life. In the “American Social Literature” seminar in which he was enrolled that semester, there was a student named Nathaniel. He had an unruly front forelock and the full lips and powerful torso clad variously in Irish knit sweaters and lumberjack plaid shirts and torn jeans. Yehoshua had to forcibly concentrate on the fate of Tom Joad as Nathaniel led a discussion of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath so he wouldn’t lose his train of thought. He reminded himself that he was fortunate that he could keep his eyes downcast today and away from the instructor. And yes, he would think about Dust Bowls and his mother’s bread to keep his thoughts away from Nathaniel.
“Why did you keep your eyes down?” Lavender asked him after they’d both dressed and were ready to leave the classroom. “It would have been a much stronger tableau if we were ooking directly at each other. Brian didn’t insist, but I could tell that’s what he was thinking, too.”
“I just didn’t feel comfortable doing that. It didn’t seem right,” he responded.
“But why? This is for art; there’s nothing between us? Or is there? What’s the big deal?” she persisted.
“I don’t know. No, no, of course not. Of course, there isn’t,” he muttered again, again looking down.
“I’d like to see you step out of your shell. I know it doesn’t happen overnight, but I hope life modeling will help that happen for you,” she said.
Yehoshua thanked her, and the two parted ways.
* * *
Yehoshua found himself relieved to be in Congregation Haverim Ahuvim for morning services one Thursday morning more than two weeks after the life modeling session with Lavender. He preferred to daven here rather than in the Rebe’s yeshiva. The atmosphere was more relaxed; he felt less judged here. Yehoshua’s principal shortcoming—the fact that he was clearly not en route to the Torah scholar the Rebe wanted him to be—was not so glaring here as they were in the Rebe’s yeshiva.
To avoid being called up to recite one of the blessings during the reading of the Torah portion, Yehoshua usually disappeared to the men’s room. Being called to the Torah is generally considered an honor, but Yehoshua dreaded public speaking of any kind. Even during group project presentations, he always let his group partners take the lead, content to perform most of the work “behind the scenes.” He especially dreaded reciting the blessing publicly. He felt his pronunciation was sufficiently pious, that it somehow exhibited his secular influences. He hated having all eyes upon him. Yehoshua had a hunch that Gavriel Kestenberg, the gabai, knew that he didn’t want to recite a blessing on the Torah. Yehoshua really didn’t need to hide in the men’s room for much of the Torah reading to avoid being called up. An experienced gabai could always sense such reluctantance intuitively. And having performed his duties for numerous decades, Mr. Kestenberg was nothing if not an experienced gabai. Furthermore, there were many more than the minimum ten men in attendance today, including some first-timers, so that Yehoshua knew the chances of him being called were slim to none. And indeed he wasn’t. He didn’t even edge his way from the central sanctuary to the butler’s pantry area that led to the kitchen, as he usually did. Was this progress? Yehoshua didn’t think so.
Lavender had been frosty with him since the session. Not ignoring him categorically, but distant. He knew he wasn’t imagining it. She merely acknowledged Yehoshua with a brief nod after they left developmental psych. class once. During another class, Lavender sat in a section of the classroom quite far from him, ensuring they wouldn’t have to run into each the other time. The encounter with the woman at the bus stop returned to Yehoshua. How quickly can friendliness turn into frostiness! How quickly can fabric fray, no, be torn asunder. Why had Lavender questioned him so forcefully about not looking at her during the modeling session? Surely, she didn’t care that much about the strength of the tableau. It was just a gig, in the end. There would be other sessions, other drawings. Surely, she, with the handsome philosopher boyfriend and the admiration of so many artists, didn’t want or need him to appreciate, or be engaged with her physical self. Would he ever see Lavender again after they both graduated? Or even after this semester if their class schedules didn’t coincide? Probably not. In fact, not likely at all. In the end, did he really know Lavender any better than the woman at the bus station?
And then there was the matter of his mother’s displeasure. Returning home from school one day, he knew something was wrong. She pointed out the envelope to him on the table next to the love seat where the mail was kept. He saw the institutional address clearly stated on the top left corner of the envelope with his name and address peeking through the transparent envelope window. It was clearly his paycheck from the art academy.
“How could you do this? To stand naked so that others can draw you? How could you step on everything you’ve been taught? How could you disgrace your community? Your family? How could you do this? Is it for the money? Your father would be devastated if I told him. Of course, I won’t tell him. I couldn’t do this to him.”
Yehoshua didn’t respond. He never expected an outburst like this from his mother. From his father, yes. But not from her. Besides, what could he say? It wasn’t for the money. Was it for the adventure? Something different? To please his mysterious friend who wasn’t pleased with him, in any case? Of course, he hadn’t expected to get “caught” at all. Yehoshua was careful not to mention a word of his modeling to anyone in his family or at the synagogue. He even told the models coordinator not to call his home. He thought the models coordinator told him he could pick up his paycheck from the academy at any time of his own choosing. Had Payroll Accounts not been told?
Still unable to come up with suitable mollifying words, Yehoshua mumbled his apologies and thanks to his mother’s quietly spoken “outburst” and retreated to the kitchen. He had a sudden craving for his mother’s whole bread—plain, unadorned—with a little schmear of butter. But no, not today. Grabbing an apple, he took the back staircase from the kitchen to the second floor and then another staircase from there to his bedroom on the third floor.
What a bungle he’d made of things, Yehoshua thought as the morning prayers drew to their conclusion. As they sounded out the words of the ancient liturgy less in singsong than in melody and devotion, the men around him—those he’d seen for years and those he was seeing for the first time—provided an uneasy, tenuous comfort. True, they probably wouldn’t think much of the choices he made, the actions he took. But he was here. Whether mandated by his father or not, he was needed and wanted here. They often had to wait a quarter of an hour, sometimes a half an hour, to make a minyan. Today’s bounty of men was a rare occurrence.
As he removed and wrapped his phylacteries, Yehoshua wondered if there were any organized religions that mandated nudity in places of worship. Perhaps nudity stripped away the barriers between man and God. He’d look into it once he got back to the library on campus, maybe even enroll in a comparative religion course next semester. The Rebe wouldn’t be happy about that, but Yehoshua could hide it from him.
Briefly, Yehoshua had a vision of all his fellow Haverim Ahuvim congregants in the nude and himself on the bimah recited the blessing on the Torah in the nude, his slim body proudly on display for all to see, as it had been recently at the art academy. He imagined them dancing in the nude on Shavuot, celebrating the very receipt of the Ten Commandments. This image stood in stark contrast to the Holocaust images of coerced group nudity that came to him when he thought of groups of Jews without clothes. And like that one, it had to be set aside. He’d miss his train to campus.
Perhaps Yehoshua would bake or break bread again with Lavender. Perhaps he wouldn’t. Perhaps he could bake bread with his mother, as his sister Zisl and he had once baked chocolate chip cookies together when they were very little. Perhaps the Rebetsin’s sense of betrayal would diminish. Or at least, not grow. Perhaps it wouldn’t. Perhaps the Rebe would found out about his modeling. Perhaps he wouldn’t. In this moment, not having been called to the Torah, he felt not that none of those outcomes really mattered, but that whatever happened, it would all work out somehow.
Yehoshua felt himself to be a speck in the stream that was this synagogue, in the life of his people itself. This was where he’d come to pray, to reveal himself. Not at his father’s yeshiva. But here. This aging synagogue, with its dusty chandelier missing some crucial crystals, was where God welcomed him. After removing and packing away his phylacteries, Yehoshua slipped out of the synagogue to catch the commuter train to campus. He was ready for today’s “American Social Literature” seminar and whatever the day might place in his path.
About the Author
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (www.yataub.net) is the author of the short story collection Prodigal Children in the House of G-d (2018), named a finalist for a Foreword INDIES Award in the Religious (Adult Fiction) category, and six books of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish Songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Gorczyński, was released in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize. With co-translator Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize and the 2014-2017 Modern Language Association’s Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016). His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Hamilton Stone Review, Jewrotica, Junto Magazine, Oyster River Pages, Marathon Literary Review, Second Hand Stories Podcast, and Verdad Magazine.