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The Rebbetzin Danced by Lisa A. Sturm

The Rebbetzin Danced by Lisa A. Sturm

Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014

Shira twisted her long, chestnut ponytail several times before pinning it to the top of her head and tugging on a silky human-hair wig. As she rushed to apply some eyeliner and mascara using the mirror above the bedroom dresser, her husband, Rabbi Eli Hertzberg, elbowed in front of her to grab his black fedora.

“I might be home late tonight,” he said as he adjusted his hat to just the right angle to accent his strong cheekbones and coffee bean eyes. “I’m meeting with one of the congregants— something about problems with his wife. Do you think you could stop at Levine’s shop and pick up the books I ordered on your way to teach?”

“Oh… I’ll have to get them tomorrow,” Shira said, rolling gloss over her lips. “I’m doing something for my thirtieth birthday. It’s today, you know—May third.”

Eli was shoving his wallet and breath mints into the pockets of his suit jacket. “I know what day it is, Shiraleh, but I told you Reb Braviskin said that you should only celebrate on your Hebrew birthday, since that’s the day that has holiness for you. We’ll celebrate it next week, alright?” His eyes twinkled at her for a moment before he departed. From the hallway he called back, “Rivkie is going to need a new diaper before you leave!”

Shira sighed and shouted to her five children, “Everyone, get your shoes on! Rivkie, come here, sweetie!”

As she entered the living room of her modest three-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, she found her two oldest boys wrestling on the mud-colored area rug. “Enough! That’s how you get holes in your pants!” She pulled them apart and scooped up her 2-year-old. “Here you are, Rivkie. Abba says we need a quick change.”

A half hour later, after dropping off her three older children at their Jewish day school and her two youngest at a playgroup, Shira followed a line of women clad in leggings and sleeveless exercise tops into the Flatbush Jewish Community Center gymnasium. She stood near the bleachers, biting her lips and scanning the room, before taking a deep breath and making her way to the back row of the class, behind all the women in skin-tight garb. Four other Orthodox ladies, wearing skirts, long sleeves, and well-styled wigs, joined her. These frum women greeted her with warm smiles, happy to have someone new from their community in the group.

Soon the room filled with music. The instructor, a muscular man named Milo with a charcoal ponytail and intense eyes, began rocking his hips to the steady drumming of a Native American song, and the class copied his fluid movements. As the music shifted to pop and then salsa, the instructor called out the steps and demonstrated them with the delicate precision of a trained dancer. At times Shira struggled to follow until Milo stood directly in front of her and began modeling the footwork for her benefit.

She looked at him just long enough to catch on, but then focused elsewhere, so as not to be distracted by his seductive movements. She had never before seen a man dressed in fitted pants that outlined his body’s shape so completely, and she had never seen a man dance with such sensuality. She was at once exhilarated and bewildered, drawn to him and guilty. She could think of no chumra from the Talmud that prohibited her watching Milo dance, and yet something about it felt wrong.

But when he returned to the front of the gym, she was able to let go of her inhibitions, following the others while embracing the choreography in her own way. Shira moved with grace, recalling the Jewish dances of an adolescence spent weaving her way closer to God. A long-forgotten emotion began rising in her chest—an ache to move outside herself, to be uninhibited, to be free.

From some recess of her mind came the memory of dancing with her older sisters in their bedroom; back when they were Helene, Beth, and Shari, before her Orthodox community’s shift to the right had prompted them to use only their Hebrew names: Chaya, Batya, and Shira. That was when girls in their community were still allowed to wear pants, hold hands with boys, and sing and dance in public. No one knew exactly why the change had occurred, but many speculated it had to do with the group’s most pious members going into teaching, and then instructing their students to uphold the more stringent religious practices. Others pointed to the Rabbinic leaders, who were constantly making new rulings to keep the young people “in the fold.”

I’m happy with my current life. There’s nothing I really miss. This is what she told herself. She repeated it like a mantra when the local rabbis outlawed televisions, Facebook, and the majority of the Internet. And she repeated it again when she had to give up riding her bicycle and singing at her Shabbos table because these things were now considered immodest. There was little that she felt she couldn’t live without—that was trueuntil now, until Milo helped her find something she didn’t realize she’d lost.

When the class concluded, Shira went to retrieve her sweater and pocketbook on the bleachers. While fishing for her car keys, the instructor approached. “You did great! You must have studied dance.” He flashed a shrewd smile.

“Some ballet—a long time ago.” She was taken aback by his proximity, his strong gaze.

“Well, it definitely shows. Your movements are beautiful; really beautiful.”

She felt her flushed face turn a deeper crimson and was relieved when he turned from her to greet another student.

Shira began to attend the dance class on a regular basis. She found herself longing for it, anticipating the moment when Milo would facilitate escape from her demanding life. As weeks and months passed, and after much coaxing by Milo, Shira no longer stood in the back, and once she was in the gym, she no longer wore her denim skirt and long-sleeved polo. She had graduated to the front row of the class and sported loose, black dance pants and a skin-tight, three-quarter-sleeve top. She had taken to leaving her wig at home and instead tied colorful bandanas around her dark hair. When the class performed deep squats, Milo did not hesitate to place his hand on Shira’s upper thigh and press her down lower, and he felt free to grab her ankle and raise it up higher during leg lifts.

Over time her body toned, her posture improved, and even her unfitted clothing seemed to hang sensually from her shapely body. When she was alone in the car, Shira would now tune the radio to one of the top-forty stations and roll her shoulders in rhythm to the music. Occasionally, even in her living room, she’d practice dance sequences when only her youngest children were at home.

Often her thoughts drifted to Milo, who seemed so healthy and open-minded. How different he was from her husband, whose years of study had stooped his shoulders and frozen his brow with furrows, and whose study of Jewish law had sharpened, but somehow also narrowed his mind. In the years since he had accepted the role as spiritual leader of Ahavas Torah, Rabbi Hertzberg had less time for his wife and begged her indulgence while he worked at strengthening his burgeoning congregation.

Shira had replied, “Of course, Eli, I understand completely. You have my full support.” But she couldn’t quite make herself sit with him as he ate his late dinner or wait up for him when he was out past ten at night lecturing. Her dancing had also awakened in her a new sensuality, and though Eli appreciated this added dimension in their marriage, he didn’t always have the energy to respond in kind. And so the Rebbetzin danced on.

On that fateful Monday in September, she should have noticed the furtive signals on the faces of the frum women in the class. If only Shira had sensed their fear, things might have ended differently. But she was focused on Milo’s dark eyes and smooth skin, and his violet T-shirt that seemed more vibrant than any color she had previously seen. In the black-and-white world in which she lived, he was a rainbow reflecting light in a gray mist, separating everything out into its true colors. He stood just inches from her with his thumb on her hipbone and his forefinger on her lowest rib, stretching them apart to illustrate how Pilates would lengthen her spine. It was at that moment that her husband’s black suit and white dress shirt came into her line of vision.

“Excuse me,” he said, brushing Milo’s hand off his wife.

The religious women let out a communal gasp and their heads cocked slightly forward in the hopes of hearing what the rabbi from Avenue J might say next. Shira hustled over to her folded clothing on the bleachers, tugged on her skirt, and slipped into her blouse, while avoiding her husband’s outraged eyes.

“So this is how you stay so thin.” His whisper was hot against her face. “Very nice: modest dress, a good grasp of the prohibition against touching, a true display of what is appropriate for a bas Torah.”

Milo approached Rabbi Hertzberg with a pleasant smile. “I don’t mean to interfere,” he began, “but if there’s any problem here, I can assure you that I’m a professional.”

“A professional what?” asked the rabbi with disgust.

“My sole interest is in your wife’s health and well being,” Milo responded, baffled.

“Yes, I saw the way your hands were expressing your concern for her well being. I’ll thank you to mind your own business—shagetz!”

“Eli!” Shira hoped Milo would not know that the word shagetz was also used to describe a kind of insect.

“Hurry up and get your shoes on,” said Eli through clenched teeth.

Shira did as she was told and followed her husband out of the gym. Once seated next to him in their minivan, she asked, “Who spoke to you? What was said?”

“Who didn’t speak?” Eli’s hands flew into the air. “That would be the better question! Once I started to inquire, everyone had something to say. It seems that I was the only one who didn’t know what was going on! How was that possible? Mrs. Teitlebaum next door says she hears that kind of ‘jungle music’ coming out of our house in the late afternoon, and on several occasions she’s seen you dancing—inappropriately, I might add—in our living room in front of our children! Two men in my evening Talmud class mentioned in confidence that they had seen you moving seductively in our van while driving the kids to school, and then someone else told me that his wife saw you here flirting with this shagetz, scantily clad, his hands all over you, and now I see it’s true! Is it because of him, Shira? Is it because of him that you’ve polluted our children’s minds with filth from the radio? Tell me, Shira, what other sins have you committed with this man?”

Shira looked at her hands, now clenched tightly together in her lap, and muttered, “There’s nothing other than what you saw. There’s nothing else to say.”

“No, Shira, there is plenty to say. The community is talking about you now, and this could mean the end for us! Do you realize that? You could have ruined us! Who will trust a rabbi with an out-of-control wife? Who will want to send their daughters to be taught by you? Who will trust me with their sons’ education?”

The rabbi took a deep breath. “And let me ask you something else: Who will want their children to marry into a family with such rumors? Perhaps they’ll say you were temporarily deranged. This would be the best scenario. Do you understand? The best! Our sons won’t be accepted to the best yeshivas, our daughters may be rejected from seminary. Don’t you see what your foolishness has done? I don’t get it—who are you, Shira?”

Tears were sliding down her face into her lap as she sat in the echo of his accusations. “You ask who I am, as if I’m someone different from the person you married—but I’m not. Do you think that it’s easy for me? Do you think that caring for the children and running a household, basically alone because you’re out every night, and teaching as well—do you think my life is easy? I’m not some tzadakis,incapable of a lapse in judgement or even a small lapse in faith, and if you choose to hold me up to such a standard, then don’t be surprised if you’re disappointed. And if someone doesn’t want to marry our children because their mother wore pants to a dance class, then nishkefelach, who needs them? I don’t want to teach my children that an occasional misstep in public will ruin their lives. Is that the message you want to send?”

“No, it’s not. But it’s precisely what I want to teach my wife, because that is the reality. That is the harsh reality for a rabbi and a teacher in Brooklyn. If you make mistakes like this, your reputation is lost.”

“Oh, but that little spectacle in the gym, in front of all those women—that’ll help your reputation?”

“Listen to me! You are my wife!” Eli clenched and released his jaw several times. “And I need you!” His confession hung over them in the hot car. “Do you think I could have done any of this without you? Now, with this craziness—you weaken me. You weaken all of us.” He paused before allowing his next words to escape. “I need to know—are you having a relationship with this man?”

“No,” she answered without looking at him.

“Do you want to have a relationship with him?”

Shira’s eyes found his and her lips pursed in a bitter smile. “Now why would I be interested in doing that, when I have all my physical and emotional needs met by you?”

They sat together in silence for several minutes before Eli drove them home. Nothing more was said on the matter, and very few words were exchanged between them during the next days.

As Eli predicted, the rumor mill was quick to churn out the story of Shira’s “affair” with Milo. With several witnesses to the dramatic scene at the gym, it was only a matter of days before the tale passed from mouth to ear and reached Chana Leah Shapiro, the principal of the Bais Leah High School for Girls where Shira taught English. She asked Rebbetzin Hertzberg to meet with her and questioned her about the affair.

“Yes,” Shira confessed to the principal, she had dressed immodestly in the gym. “No,” there was no truth to the allegation of a relationship with her instructor. “Yes,” she would do everything in her power to prevent such rumors in the future.

For several weeks, Shira left the apartment only when necessary and tried to avoid the communal gaze. She and Eli fumbled for words as they spoke across the Shabbos table or over an occasional glass of iced tea in the kitchen, and Shira ceased all dancing. The High Holidays came and went with great solemnity, and the holiday of Succos, which was normally filled with joy, passed with muted celebration. Rabbi Hertzberg spent the majority of his evenings at the synagogue or study hall, and the older children, sensing a problem in the home, made excuses to play at friends’ houses.

Four weeks after the incident at the gymnasium, the holiday of Simchas Torah arrived. On that night all three of the Torahs were lifted from the synagogue’s ark and carried out into the street—pressed tightly against the breasts of the strongest men as they danced in the center of a stomping male circle, their voices raised in song.

The group of twenty or so ladies who had come down the steep steps from the women’s section stood leaning against the wall of the brick building, taking vicarious pleasure in the sight of leather soles meeting asphalt and arms waving wildly. Rebbetzin Hertzberg stood at the edge of the crowd with the other women, occasionally clapping her hands. She couldn’t help but recall the Simchas Torah celebrations of her youth: the click of the women’s heels on the pavement, the firm grasp of her sisters’ fingers against her palms, the high-pitched women’s voices complementing the men’s just a few feet away.

Shira sent her children home with a babysitter and watched with longing as the men danced on, placing their arms around one another and closing their eyes as they sang from their hearts, praising God. Rebbetzin Hertzberg watched until she could take no more, until her arms and legs began to move independently and in defiance of logic. “Come on!” her voice urged as she reached out her hand to the woman standing next to her. “Come on, let’s go! We’re going to dance!”

The women hesitated, a few walked away, but the majority linked hands and began to move, slowly picking up speed and adding the small hops and kicks familiar from their wedding days. The Rebbetzin was the first one to begin singing aloud, her soprano a clear octave above the men. She sang out in Hebrew, “Bring us back to you, Lord, and we will repent: renew our days as of old.” The other women’s voices joined with hers, blending in subtle harmony with the men.

The women’s circle was not immediately noticed. It wasn’t until Rabbi Hertzberg moved away from the other men and stood wiping the moisture from his brow that he realized the women’s transgressions, his eyes widening in disbelief. He located his wife in the center of the circle, clearly the leader, and he felt as if his heart might break. He listened for a moment and recognized the rich tone of her voice. The humiliation traveled from his chest up through his neck and to his cheeks. There was no way to stop it—the damage was done.

Tears gathered in his eyes. Eli knew that the community would support him if he chose to divorce Shira. Perhaps he could remarry, have more children with a younger wife; there were many possibilities for his future, but as he considered them, Shira caught his eye once more. She was now gazing skyward, as if she were asking something of God that she didn’t think he was likely to grant. Her movements reminded him of the very first time he saw her. It was at a retreat, and like now, she was dancing with the women, her graceful motion and soulful eyes seeming to lift her up off the floor, up above the sea of women around her, until in a room of two hundred, he saw only her. The billow of her burgundy skirt, her lips bent into a subtle smile, and the way she raised her face as if she was having a private audience with the Holy One, all this told him exactly who she was.

And here she was before him still, her intense joy infusing the women’s circle with energy. She could reach devekus—an elevated spiritual plane—just by raising her voice or moving her body—as if God’s presence rested in some recess of her being, some hollow of her limbs that glided effortlessly through the air.

When he approached the edge of the women’s circle, it came to an abrupt halt. Her hazel eyes shifted, caught his, and she came to him. “Shira,” he leaned closer, “I’m not well. Could you help me home?”

As they made their way to the apartment, they were serenaded by sounds of other Jews rejoicing, other circles of men raising their voices, filling the Brooklyn sky. Once alone in their bedroom, Shira glanced at Eli and saw on his face the earnest look that often appeared while studying a difficult passage of Talmud. “Eli,” she began, “I’m so sorry, I just…”

His raised hand quieted her, and then his hands were on hers, drawing her down next to him. He placed his trembling lips against her forehead, her cheek, her mouth.

She rested her head against his chest, breathing in the aroma of his starched shirt and soap, but then sat up straight again. “You’re not really sick, are you?”

He looked sheepish and glanced at the floor.

“But you’re missing the Hakafos, the dancing! You should go back!”

“Yes, it’s important, and tomorrow I’ll be the Hatan Torah, the bridegroom to the Torah. But tonight…tonight is different. Tonight I’ll be the Hatan Shira. They’ll finish up without me, and I’ll have the rest of the year to make up for it, and when I stand before the Holy One next Yom Kippur, I’ll admit this as one of my sins, along with neglecting my wife.” He exhaled, resolute. “Hopefully both God and my wife will find their way toward forgiveness.” He caressed the center of her palm, as if he had just discovered the mystery of the delicate lines that ran across it.

“Oh, God, Eli… I know I shouldn’t have…” As his fingers touched her neck, exploring her ivory skin with feather lightness, she lost her words.

“I’m going to look for a position out of town. I hear about them from time to time.”

“You think we have to move—because of me? Don’t say that.”

He wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her in closer. “Not because of you Shiraleh—for you. We’ll find someplace where you can be…”

“What? Hidden?” She slid out of his grasp.

“No. The last word of that sentence is—you. We’ll find someplace where you can be you.”

Shira gazed at Eli for a moment, “Really, Eli? You’d leave your congregation? You’d leave Brooklyn?”

Before he had a chance to complete his nod, Shira was reaching for her wig, and in one movement, tugged the hairpiece off and tossed it on the dresser, releasing her long tresses to cascade down her back.

Then he undressed her, taking in the full beauty of her sculpted form for the first time. For a moment Eli thought well of Milo, who had transformed his wife into a work of art. Later that night, beneath the gentle drizzle on the roof shingles, they fell into slumber with tangled limbs, the melody of others praising God dancing through their dreams.

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