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This week, we are excited to present “My Laura” by Rachael Sevitt, the first short story on our Sunday Showcase. “My Laura” details the emotional and introspective experience of a single mother whose daughter undergoes religious transformation in college. After dropping out of school to study Torah and marry into an orthodox family, Laura’s mother must reconcile her own hopes for her daughter with Laura’s new sense of identity — and family.
– Rachael Sevitt
It’s hard to breathe in this stuffy hall, with its dry heating and incandescent lights that illuminate my daughter’s unfamiliar wedding guests. The women keep coming up to me, one after the other. They grab me with puffy hands, made-up faces peeking out of dark hair wraps. Their well-wishes are a barrage.
“She’s such a beautiful kallah.”
“Welcome to the family.”
I’ve never been more grateful for taking theater in college than today; there’s no way in hell I’m letting this smile drop from my face.
She does look beautiful, my Laura. Though every inch of her pale skin has been concealed by white taffeta, she is radiant.
Between my two daughters, Laura was always the sensitive one. As a little girl, she’d been most comfortable hiding behind my legs or under tables. She would stumble after Jennifer and the rest of the neighborhood kids, then run home in tears, devastated by her sister’s careless words. I remember the teenage years, hovering in her dim, sweaty bedroom, the feeling of her greasy hair under my helpless hand. I’d been as lost as she was.
How could I discipline a child whose lungs would suck all the air from my car as we lingered outside her school? Who would drift off, or scream, or hyperventilate when confronted with any hint of stress? It wasn’t like her older sister had been easy; but Jen’s sneaking out, swearing, secret parties, were all problems I expected. I’d punished Jen, sure, but I wasn’t really angry with her. I’d been even worse at her age.
I remember once, when I was sixteen or seventeen, my father noticed the regrettable tattoo on my shoulder that my twenty-something boyfriend had given me. He’d sat me down, and I knew he was angry because he hadn’t yelled. He’d quietly told me his parents had been given tattoos, the worst kind of tattoos, and it made him sick that I’d choose to defile my body like that. It was my first time being confronted with my own ego, and I’d shrunk like a cheap shirt in a dryer. The hardest thing with Jen had been frustration for passing down my own reckless nature.
Laura’s problems were not ones I’d been equipped for. These last few months, the thought has been a hurricane in my mind. What should I have done differently?
I hadn’t minded her joining Hillel in her first year of college, though I wondered what had piqued her interest in Judaism. Her first few weeks as part of the club, our weekly phone calls had been filled with excitement instead of her usual relentless trepidation. She’d jittered on about the coterie of kids she’d befriended. It was so new for me to hear Laura talk about real friends, not other sad girls she met in online chatrooms. I’d been thrilled for her.
I hadn’t really noticed how her friend group had changed, but I do remember the names at some point switching from Sarah and Ruth to Chani and Tzipporah. However, when Laura started to spend Shabbat at the orthodox Rabbi’s home rather than in the Hillel hall, maybe then, I should have said something. It just happened so fast.
Suddenly it’s spring break, Laura sat in my kitchen in a frumpy skirt, telling me she’s dropping out of school and moving to some secluded neighborhood of New York to study orthodoxy. I couldn’t tell you what I’d said. I don’t even remember breathing when she told me.
At least she did come home, eighteen months later. This new Laura was calmer, had a fuller figure, and smiled more. But she also wrapped half my non-kosher kitchen in silver foil and donated her old clothes, muttering something about finding a thrift store Jews don’t shop at so she wouldn’t make any other Jewish girl sin from wearing secondhand Levi’s. It was hard to keep track of all these new rules she inflicted upon herself. She’d had to officially convert because her Rabbis wouldn’t accept me as fully Jewish. It was fine by me. If this was her Judaism, I didn’t particularly care to be a part of it.
Everything became a first. Her first real Passover. First time making a blessing over kosher wine. One holiday, I don’t remember if it was Sukkot or Rosh Hashanah or what, she made some Facebook post, tagging her Rebbetzin and thanking her adopted family for her ‘first real holiday’.
All day, these women have been telling me things about Laura like they know her. But I don’t know this girl they keep describing. I’m nodding along as some old lady tells me a cute anecdote from when Laura babysat her grandkids in Williamsburg. I can’t picture my daughter babysitting.
I wonder how much Laura remembers about our Passover seders with her grandfather. She was only four when he died. He’d sit with one girl on each knee, wrinkled face transforming back into the kind, strong man I knew, reading them the Haggadah like a bedtime story, bringing the ancient fable to life.
Who am I to Laura these days? I have read up on it, a little. The orthodox Jews say that once someone converts, they take on a new lineage. They become like an orphan, referred to as a daughter of Abraham and Sarah. I know it’s only for rituals, but I’m learning that rituals can sting, too.
Jen and my brother Bill and me, we’ve been staying in a hotel near my future son-in-law Saadya’s rustic family home in Brooklyn. The meals have been one damned ritual after another, each of which seems to call for Laura and her new sisters-in-law, cousins-in-law, and mother-in-law to flit between the cramped kitchen and the hallowed table all night long as the men, the boys, and my new son-in-law eat, and drink, and sing.
It’s not to say the family isn’t hospitable. They’ve been showering Laura with gifts, training her how to make the food her new husband is accustomed to, making me endless cups of unidentifiable tea, shoving me into paisley printed chairs as if I’m a pensioner. Saadya’s mother is so young, maybe all of my fifty-seven years seem ancient to them.
Saadya’s grandfather does remind me in some strange way of my own father in his latter years. Though Dad escaped from Austria to California as a child, and Saadya’s grandfather was Yemen born, arriving in Brooklyn with his family from Jerusalem, they shared the kind, squint-eyed smiles, the stooped backs and sturdy words of that generation of men.
But my father had become an American. He’d married my Christian-atheist mother, raised my brother and me loosely in the Reform Temple. He was delighted by my academic career path, spent hours debating Kantian ethics with me in his dark study lined with wisdom from thinkers of all faiths. I’d grown up on beef casserole and lasagna. Now, I’m confronted with these unfamiliar tastes, flavored with strange spices that stain my fingers, and I’m just trying to adjust.
I don’t blame my new in-laws that they didn’t assimilate. I can’t claim for a second to fully comprehend their struggle as Middle Eastern Jews, especially in this country. But seeing how Saadya is with my Laura, his practical, quiet yet firm way of speaking, his undeniably masculine body language, the way all six-feet-three of him towers over her — well. It’s not quite what I pictured for my daughter.
When she became religious, I at least thought she’d choose someone a bit more like us. A left-leaning intellectual kid who just happened to wear a Kippah and eat kosher, I wouldn’t have minded that. To marry this boy, however, who has used a gun in his mandatory Israeli army service, who never learned to cook and clean with his housewife mother, who works in construction when he isn’t studying 6,000-year-old laws and accepting them as gospel — what am I supposed to do with that?
I hate that she’s making her world smaller. I worked so hard to expose my daughters to everything. I took them to documentary movies about the Big Bang, I made them puppet suffragettes, I tried my best to raise women who’d march for justice and take no shit. I know my Laura with her sweet disposition would never have become a bra-burning type. But instead, she’s becoming a wife, reducing herself to “the kallah,” a bride doomed to raise children who will legally have to go to war, because she chose someone who will force his Israeli citizenship onto my grandchildren.
Jen did confront me a few days ago.
“Mom, why did Laura come crying to me that you hate Saadya?”
“I never said that! She doesn’t think that, does she?”
“I don’t know, you tell me. Like, you haven’t exactly welcomed him.”
I reeled at the accusation. I have nothing against the boy; really, he’s been a complete gentleman the short time we’ve known each other. They don’t like to spend Shabbat at our house, but since they got engaged, he’s been coming Sunday nights for dinner, hauling a three-course meal with him each time in stacked aluminum trays, kosher Yemeni cuisine his mother probably cooked. It’s a lovely gesture, really, it is. He just sits there during the dinners, though. What am I supposed to ask him? He doesn’t intend on going to school. I certainly don’t want to talk politics, nor, thankfully, does he.
I took in Jen’s criticism and vowed to make more of an effort. She was quiet for a moment.
“You know, the four of us went out for drinks the other night.”
I sat up at that. It’s not what I expected to hear. I’d been terrified of the very thought of my daughter’s atheist girlfriend, Ronnie, and my new fundamentalist son in the same room.
“Really? To a bar?”
Jen made a noise of affirmation. “It was cute. The two of them dressed down, shared a cocktail, and we had a whole backgammon competition. It’s apparently a huge game over in Israel. Saadya told us he played a lot in the army.”
“Is that so?”
Jen’s face softened. “Mom, Laura is so happy with him. She got a bit stuttery at the start, you know how she does, and he was so sweet with her. They haven’t even held hands yet, but he managed to calm her down.
“D’you know,” she continued, glaring at me now, the nerve of this girl, “Ronnie and Saadya played air hockey for like, half an hour? They got on like a house on fire. He’s not some homophobic chauvinist, mom. At least, if he is, he would never show it. I like him. And frankly… I think you’re projecting, a bit.”
Maybe Jen had a point. It’s been a while since I had to entertain a young man, I suppose. A memory flashed across my mind then, as Jen deflected into what Ronnie was going to wear to the wedding. As she spoke, I thought of my ex-husband, my daughters’ estranged father. One night, maybe twenty years ago, I’d been so caught up grading papers that I hadn’t come back to our apartment until late. For once, he’d had to deal with feeding and bathing the kids. As we went to sleep, he’d looked right at me, his steely eyes cold, and whispered, “I think you’re a bad mother, Diane. You’re selfish, that’s your problem.”
He left us not a year after that night. It didn’t matter that I’d long realized he’d been projecting his own inability to parent onto me. His taunts still torment me. Because, deep down, I think he might have been right.
An usher sprints over to my brother, Jen, and me. We escort Laura into the small room beside where the ceremony will take place. They are going to sign the marriage contract. Or rather, Saadya signs the marriage contract, his father signs the contract, and two male witnesses who are not Laura sign the contract, then he will symbolically buy my daughter with a gold ring. Laura and Saadya are looking at each other and beaming. I bite the insides of my cheek.
We take Laura back to the bride’s bench. About fifty men chant behind Saadya as he walks over to her, both the kids crying by now, and he covers her face with a white, almost opaque veil. The only part of my daughter I can see is the crown of her head and her henna-stained palms. The whole wedding party dances in a well-practiced wave as Arabic music takes us through to the site of the ceremony, an open skied room lined with fairy lights and lanterns. My Laura has always loved lanterns. The wedding canopy is covered in her favorite flower, bluebells. It’s not traditional for a wedding and had been hard to find, but Saadya’s mother hadn’t rested until she found a supplier. The ceremony takes place in guttural Hebrew that sounds nothing like the joyful prayers I remember from Temple.
Saadya’s father is speaking but my eyes are fixed on my children. Now he’s looking at me and smiling widely, outstretching a long arm towards me. It’s like my feet are glued to the ground, and I feel conscious of my dress all of a sudden, that it’s too tight, the arms are too short, or the neckline is too low for all these black-hatted men to be staring at me. I wanted to fade into the background of this whole thing, but it’s time to be brave, like my daughters.
I put my theater smile back on my face and inch toward Saadya’s father. Laura grabs my hand fiercely. She hasn’t needed me in years, I realize. I squeeze her hand too, and my theater smile cracks open, just a little.
His voice is deep and musical, his accent thick. “Diane, Jen, and Uncle Bill, we’re so thrilled our families are coming together. We can’t wait to get to know you all over a lifetime of our children’s milestones. To learn from you and celebrate with you. May we only share in happiness and learn from our sweet children every day.”
I nod, not knowing what else to do.
“Amen,” Jen interjects for me, winking at Saadya. He laughs, head down, holding his bride’s hand for the first time in their lives. She can’t take her eyes off him.
They smash the glass. The hall erupts in joyful music and the traditional Arabic ku-lu-lu-lu-lu calls.
“Mazal Tov! Mazal Tov!”
I hug my daughter tight. I take hold of her shoulders, and her eyes, those gray eyes her father gave her, lock with mine. It’s all so bittersweet but I try to give her as much as I can. I don’t know if it’s the theater smile or my own. Somewhere along the way of pretending it’s become fixed.