Jan/Feb 2020 KR OnlineFiction |

The Shabbos Goy

We were in Paris all of three weeks, my baby girl and me, when we saw our first bride. Without my cat-eye glasses, from afar she appeared even farther away; the world’s teeniest bride, like a miniature pony. Upon approach, however, it quickly became clear that she was merely a child, probably only around four or five years old, a wafting meringue with legs. The family that followed were obviously Orthodox Jews, the father’s black suit a slim elegant contrast to her pearly float, his fedora girded by a satin band, but even still, I thought: is she taking communion? Because the little girls in my neighborhood back in Brooklyn often dressed this way, in tiers, when receiving their initial Sacrament. Only when a pudgy older sister followed in an identical halo of tulle and the helium of her own high spirits, did I realize that both girls were simply members of a wedding, and that I now lived down the street from a synagogue, from which the conventionally proportioned female newlywed was at that moment making her royal exit. The doors were guarded by two telltale gendarmes, one Asian, the other African, in riot gear and sporting automatic weapons.

The next afternoon it rained, but when I took my daughter out grocery shopping—me in my plastic yellow boots, the human cupcake safe and dry in her Snugli—I spied through the silvery murk another sylph in white, exiting the sanctuary and entering a convertible parked outside the temple, glumly holding an umbrella over her veiled and golden head. Soon it was about a bride a day, a never-ending pageant of women eagerly entering the world of marriage, one I had painfully, but most willingly, left behind.

After the divorce, after I’d picked up the handsomest sperm donor I could find at a bar in Red Hook, after I’d struggled with nursing the baby while navigating the IRT from Brooklyn College (where I eventually got fired for sleeping with a student) up to Columbia (where the same transgression got no official response), after teaching eleven courses a year as an itinerant adjunct professor finally killed my love of literature and, well, my love of people in general—my old camp friend Maggie asked me to come help her liquidate her English-language bookstore. She had married a Parisian, a cute jazz musician she met on her junior year abroad, gave birth to three kids, now almost fully grown, and had lived the girlish dream. Her children spoke English with mellifluous French accents, they dressed with flair and all drank wine responsibly, and over the years when I visited I had often coveted Maggie’s life, full of books and music, thin thighs and rich desserts, unpaid bills and her husband’s girlfriends. When one of these femmes became pregnant with twins, that ended some of that. E-books undid the rest.

The bookstore, A Moveable Feast, was located in the Marais, the 3rd arrondissement, traditionally the Jewish quarter, now a mixture of the LGBT crowd, well-heeled artists, and a daily influx of shoppers, much like the Lower East Side of Manhattan or Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin—lots of trendy cafes, galleries, and stores, with a few remaining kosher bakeries, falafel and Judaica shops for the rapidly dwindling holdouts. It was tucked away in a little medieval cobblestoned plaza (which hadn’t been so great for sales, but was big on charm) and was as tiny and crammed and disordered as the last several years of Maggie’s life—and mine—so while we cataloged and boxed the stock, we often brought the stack of hardcovers outside just to make sense of them. I kept a plastic exer-saucer on hand for my daughter to spin in; it was unisex green with little stuffed dolphins affixed to the sides like carousel horses so she wouldn’t get any princessy-pink ideas; I’d scattered some fabric books to bite on along the plastic trough that encircled her, and a handful of French Cheerios (au miel et aux noix) for her to chase down. This way I kept her close by my side as I worked.

Since I’d last seen Maggie, she had grown very thin—with her red hair tied loosely back and her freckled, boney chest, she looked like a Walker Evans, a result, I’m sure, of all those cigarettes and misery—so I often stopped at the boulangerie on my way over to the store in the morning, and had an array of treats, Viennoiserie, laid out atop a mobile bookshelf to tempt her. It was only around 11 a.m., but it was unusually hot for May, global warming. I’d rolled up my sleeves and hiked up my skirt as I sorted and dusted. At some point I’d tied up my short curls into a seemingly hilarious topknot, using one of the baby’s cleaner bibs—very I Love Lucy. Maggie did a spit-take whenever she came outside to cry or order me around, which I suppose made the outfit worth it. So I wasn’t exactly in full flower when the rabbi actively did not approach me. Instead, he stood to the side and surreptitiously sorted through a pile of books. His obvious caution, plus the greed of his fingertips, the venerating holy way with which he bellied up to our merch, like he was pilfering God’s own private wet bar, proved that whether or not it was cool for the rabbi to immerse himself in secular texts, he was indeed a reader, not a civilian.

“May I help you, monsieur?” I said. I supposed it would have been kinder to have let him do his thing alone in a lonely way, but I was bored. This was an English-language bookstore and that was pretty much all my French. Monsieur. Except for “un autre verre de vin blanc, s’il vous plait” or “quel est le putain de tomate?

“No merci, madame,” he said, with a slight bow. Caught off guard and purposefully staring now at the fascinating cobblestones beneath us.

There was something familiar about him. It occurred to me that I had seen him before, so I asked, “Do you live on my street? Rue des Tournelles?”

I thought I spied a little light bulb turn on above his head right then. Whatever, he continued to glance downward, but he was somehow looking at me through his third eye. I could sense it.

“My shul,” he said. “My street.”

“My street,” I said. My game. My curiosity.

“42 Rue des Tournelles,” I said, and his neck, long and curved like an egret’s, slightly stiffened.

“No,” he said, incredulous.

“Yes,” I said, impressed by incredulity.

I noticed that the book he had been reading was poetry. Dickenson. Pain has an element of blank. It was a poem I’d tried to turn to while my marriage was disintegrating, but the words had shriveled and flown off the page like ashes. It has no future but itself. I shut the cover and returned it to the rack.

“Not that it matters, but are you Jewish?” The rabbi’s English was thick with a Yiddish/French accent. A Semitic patois.

“No,” I said. “I’m not.”

Because I was hot and lonesome and somehow perpetually furious, almost to entertain myself, I said, “Are you?”

He looked at me, startled.

“Not that it matters,” I said.

I learned later, it was something he was trained not to do: look me in the eyes that way.

His were an unearthly blue. An empyreal Caribbean hue, the shade of a sun-filled swimming pool in a magazine ad, made wavy by the perfumed pages’ highly reflective gloss. They did not belong to the topography of his face, nor to this dank and sweaty French courtyard, smelling faintly of piss and spilled wine and lined with mossy stones, mushroomy corners. In the distance I heard a splash, the entrance of a dive, the sound of my solitude being knifed aside. A cleansing spray of hope atomized up my spine. For a moment, I thought we were both going to laugh aloud. The moment passed.

“I am a superhero,” the rabbi said, with a raised eyebrow. “Disguised as an Orthodox Jew.”

He wiped at his forehead with a broad white hanky. He was young, I saw, beneath his beard. Quite a bit younger than I was. Maybe not yet thirty. He had those handsome blue eyes, but his skin was pasty under a lustrous sheen, like a piece of marzipan with a hard sugary glaze. He was wearing so many clothes and the sun was so hot, that he looked as though he might pass out. The rabbi smiled weakly. “Menorah Man,” he said, but he seemed to waver in the currents of heat that emanated from the pavement as he said it. It was almost as if he were fading from sight, but wearing wool. Which gave him shape.

“Sit, Menorah Man,” I said, gesturing toward a chair. “You look dizzy.”

He protested as he sat. But sit he did.

“Eat,” I said, and I pointed to all the goodies scary-skinny Maggie had turned down: pain au chocolat pistache, almond croissant, and those cinnamon swirly things—I forget now what they called them, something yummy “au raisin”? Escargot!

He said, “No, thank you,” but reached for the gooiest most chocolatey treat of all, a brioche that oozed molten dark-brown lava, some vanilla crème and the faintest architectural remnants of melted chips—his ruin. Before he bit in, he asked, “Is it kosher?”

“Sasha Finkelstein?” I asked, referencing the landmark Jewish bakery from which the baked goods were locally sourced. It seemed kosher.

“Sasha Finkelstein,” he said, and, as if all his problems were solved, he took a deep, satisfying bite.

We couldn’t help ourselves, the rabbi and I; we caught each other’s gaze and cracked up. That eruption of belly laughter! My daughter’s eyes widened, startled by the sound. Poor baby. It was new to her.

“So, Mr. Superhero. Any women on your squad?” I knew full well that I was flirting, but that is something that I do naturally, without thinking. Just not usually with rabbis.

“Dreidel Maidel,” said the rabbi, chewing thoughtfully. The color was returning to his cheeks, reflecting the red-gold of his damp side curls.

“Are you serious?” I said.

“It’s a serious business,” he said. “Acts of human kindness. Making mitzvoth. Hard to manage without the help of a righteous woman.”

A righteous woman. Who was that? Somebody who wasn’t a whole hell of a lot like I was. “Ah,” I said, “but you have seen right through me. She is my alter ego.”

He looked, for a moment, skeptical.

“Something needs to be done about my karma,” I said, more honestly than I’d meant to.

“Need?” he said, something in him brightening. “That implies that you would find it beneficial. . . .”

Yes, I nodded. I was in it for the benefits.

“My congregation,” said the rabbi. “We could use some assistance. This very weekend. In your very building. From a Gentile.” Again, he shook his head at the coincidence.

“Not that it matters,” he and I said, in unison.

The baby laughed. She clapped her hands. The rabbi and I laughed too.

• •

A few days later, the rabbi came again to the bookstore. Maggie and I had almost finished putting the last of the poetry paperbacks in boxes, and we had a little red wagon out front where we placed them. Thierry, her eldest and my favorite of her offspring, six feet tall now and ludicrously handsome, was to ferry by hand this precious but humble cargo across the bridge to the Ile de la Cite and then over to the Left Bank. His destination was Shakespeare & Co., one of the last English-language bookshops in Paris to endure. It was a place where print lived, wild and free, as it once had done at A Moveable Feast, and writers and readers still roamed. The bookstore was run by a young couple, so lovely and kissed by God that they didn’t need to do one more thing to improve their karma, but that did not appear to stop them. They’d offered to purchase Maggie’s remaining stock.

The rabbi was wiping his face with a hanky. “Is it that hot out?” I asked. This morning had felt cooler.

“Some hoodlums, they spit on me, as I crossed Rue de Rivoli,” he said, looking both embarrassed and upset.

“Who?” I said. “Oh my God,” I said. I picked up my bottle of Evian. “Would you like to use this to wash up?”

“Paris is getting worse and worse for us. I’ve soaped my face three times already,” he said. “But still, I feel it on my skin.”

It wasn’t like I was stupid; I knew things sucked for the Jews in France. I had eyes; I saw the swastikas painted on the Shoah Memorial when I took the baby to the Ile St. Louis for ice cream. I’d seen that video, “Walking in Paris While Jewish,” which followed a middle-aged man, wearing jeans, a sweater, and a yarmulke, traversing ten arrondisments in one day, while being cursed at, kicked, and shoved by random people he randomly passed. But now it was my very own rabbi being targeted.

Nervously, he picked up a volume off the top of the pile—he could not control his hands—and in an effort to change the subject, I supposed, offered to buy it. “I have the original at home,” he said. “I am curious about the translation.” Anna Ahkmatova’s Twenty Poems, converted into English by the poet Jane Kenyon.

“When I used to read, she was one of my sad favorites,” I said.

The rabbi stared at me with his kind blue eyes. “Used to?”

“It is too painful and annoying now,” I said. “All that useless truth and beauty.”

“Useless? For me, literature has the power to heal.” He sighed heavily here, I supposed, at the burden of a statement somewhat blasphemous. “It was Kenyon who wrote, ‘Sometimes the sound of the dog’s breathing saves my life.’”

“When I first read that poem, I ran out and adopted a puppy,” I said. Like the husband, he didn’t last long.

“What is the price?” the rabbi said, discomfited I’m sure by his confession and the weirdness of the moment, but I pooh-poohed him.

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Please, I insist. Take it as our gift.” And then as if I were a windup monkey and someone else were talking, “You’ll have to let me know if Kenyon does justice to the Russian.”

“I will,” said the rabbi, looking again at his book, ah but for that third eye. “Now, about Friday night . . .”

He took a deep breath. This spiel of his would take stamina. “Elvis Presley,” he said, which wasn’t where I expected him to start. “Martin Scorsese. American Christians, who at one point in time generously executed the services you are about to perform. According to the rules of Jewish Law, it is possible for a non-Jew to complete certain tasks, which Jews are forbidden from performing on the Sabbath, having to do with labor, using electricity, handling money. I am told when Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman were in the American Senate, Lieberman, who is shomer Shabbat, would sleep on his couch in his office before Saturday votes, and Gore would turn off the lights for him. Your general, your Colin Powell, in his youth, too, leant such a caring hand to a Jewish neighbor. He ended up fluent in Yiddish. Even the president of the United States”—here the rabbi could not wring the pride out of his gentle voice—“President Obama, did such charitable acts as a young man, with loving kindness in his heart.

“I could never have requested this of you outright—a Jew may only accept the work of a non-Jew if it is of his or her own free will and for his or her own gain. But you volunteered.”

Yes, indeed. Out of regret, existential fear, or maybe just ennui, clearly, I was ready to volunteer for anything.

He reached into his pocket for his handkerchief once more and wiped away at that indelible hateful spittle.

That next week, he said, a man and a woman were to be married in the rabbi’s shul, and the bride’s American relatives had rented a flat in my very building through the very same website that I had, Paris Ooh la la! (Please note: that exclamation mark is the company’s, not mine. I reserve my exclamation marks for important things.) As with many apartments in Paris, the outer door to the building was unlocked only by pressing a series of numbers on a matrix that then buzzed one inside. The lock itself was electric, as were the light switches I turned on by my footfalls as I ascended each stairwell landing. Since I would be entering and exiting anyway, I could safely usher the wedding guests into the interior lobby, Friday dusk through Saturday nightfall, “until three stars are visible,” the rabbi said. After that, my services no longer would be necessary.

• •

Although they arrived earlier in the week, I did not meet the Grynbaums until Friday night. The mother was a specialist in infectious diseases, the father a pediatric oncologist. They seemed less religious to me than the rabbi—the father was clean- shaven and wearing a hat. I could not tell if the mother wore a wig or not. The three teenage boys sprouted more hair on their necks then on their still-soft, steamed-bun-white cheeks. A younger girl called Sasha, maybe ten or eleven, her hair tied back in a minky braid, looked an awful lot like a Degas ballerina.

At around 11 p.m. they hollered up to me from the street, as they could not use the phone or the outside intercom. I leaned out the window in my T-shirt and sweatpants and waved. They thanked me so profusely when I came down the steps, my baby wide awake and ready to rock, and fussed over her so satisfyingly, that I practically swooned from all the attention. For so long, only Maggie had admired her.

“What a cutie-beauty,” the mama cooed.

They were New Yorkers, like me. All four children went to a private school on the Upper East Side. They were thrilled to be in Paris.

“The food,” said the mama, “the wine! We haven’t been here since Greg finished with his residency.” They had had Shabbat dinner at their relatives’ that very night and stayed out late talking. “We picked this place because it was in walking distance from my cousin,” she said. “We didn’t even think about the door code,” and then she stifled a pretty yawn.

My cue, so I pushed the wooden door aside. We entered the stairwell, ladies first. At the ground floor landing when I took a first magic step a dim little hall light switched on automatically illuminating just the next stretch of staircase up, and instead of cursing the darkness, I was suddenly grateful for the short-sightedness. The road ahead was mercifully only lit by the length of my own headlights, and as I climbed those steep stairs I thought that perhaps the move to France, however temporary, had been a smart one. I was helping Maggie. I was assisting this nice family. I was doing good.

• •

The following Thursday, the caretaker at the synagogue fell ill with appendicitis, and the rabbi stopped by the store. I was deep in the stacks in the basement, boxing up the anthologies.

The rabbi came down the steep steps carefully, to ask me how it all had gone.

“They were so lovely, those Grynbaums,” I said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

“It is warm down here, reminds me of the sanctuary, without the fans,” said the rabbi. “Too bad the caretaker won’t be there tomorrow night to turn them on.”

“Bebe and I can do it,” I said, transformed into a person with purpose.

“Bebe,” he repeated, delighted I suppose by my growing French vocabulary.

At this my daughter lifted her arms to him, and the rabbi automatically boosted her out of the playpen that I’d fashioned from dictionaries and a beat-up wooden desk I’d laid down fort-like on its side. I guess he was an old pro at picking up babies, he already had three of his own at home. He pressed his lips to her forehead and I watched her relax in his arms, returning his kisses to his nose.

“It’s been a long time since anyone but Maggie or I have held her,” I said.

“‘Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness,’” he recited.

“Kinnell,” I said. “‘Saint Francis and the Sow.’ Are you even allowed to like that poem? It’s so Catholic.”

The rabbi, shrugged. “It speaks to me,” he said.

The words suddenly came back to me and I recited too: “‘To put a hand on its brow of the flower and retell it in words and in touch, it is lovely again.’”

“We like the same things,” he said, bewildered. With one arm around my daughter, he put his other hand shyly to my brow, I suppose to remind me, too, that I was lovely. At that moment of supreme pleasure and recognition, I found my way into his and bebe’s embrace by wriggling myself inside, and then as preposterous and natural—both—into the path of each of their lips.

When eventually we shyly parted, he whispered heartrending words of apology. But I waved them off. No need. I was glad for it all, and not sorry one little bit.

• •

After that, the rabbi came to me toward the end of the day several times a week, to let me know the odds and ends of the congregation’s desires during Shabbats. I might light the pilot light of a forgetful elderly couple’s oven. I loved going on a last-minute errand to pick up a bridesmaid’s matching lipstick. If anyone needed groceries or medical supplies, I was their Dreidel Maidel, as I could handle money. When payment for my deeds was involved, it came to me in advance so that it felt like a gift instead of labor. But all of it felt to me like a gift, the payment, the work, the blessing of being able to help make a mitzvah for someone else, supporting the rabbi, being in his company.

There in my apartment, before evening services, the baby napping in the Pack ‘n Play by my bed, the courtyard’s afternoon light streaming into the bedroom, he would read to me out loud from the Russian poets—Tsvetaeva, Mandelshtam and Pushkin—in English and then in Russian, his grandmother’s native tongue. “When you’re drunk it’s so much fun— / Your stories don’t make sense. / An early fall has strung / The elms with yellow flags.” Ahkmatova wrote this for the Italian painter Modigliani, when they were lovers in Paris, their spouses out of sight and out of mind. Reading together this way was so intimate, I suppose in a sense we too were having an affair. I mean I had made a couple of passes at him, but it was a no-go. “I am married,” he’d whispered in my hair. But it didn’t really matter. Sex I could get anywhere. “I have a good wife,” he’d said. “But we married so young. . . .” In the fading white jet-stream trail of his sentence, I imagined her as a baby bride herself, like the child I first saw on Rue des Tournelles, someone beyond envy.

• •

Finally, when there was nothing at the store left to box, sell, or give away, Maggie and I decided to throw a crazy-assed goodbye party, inviting the workers, our customers, the expat writers who’d crammed the packed aisles during readings with their tiny audiences of friends and former students and local alcoholics looking for free wine. I wore a long white lacy dress I’d found during the soldes. I put my daughter in a sky-blue tutu. Maggie rocked a short skirt and a plunging neckline and stilts for heels—her twenty-some years abroad had taught her well; she looked startlingly good for someone who felt so awful, and she wisely began drinking at eleven in the morning. Soon she was dancing on that downstairs desk in those pretty red-soled Louboutins she’d purchased at Bon Marche when she gave up on paying rent—we’d brought the desk and the rest of the furniture out into the yard. Francois, Maggie’s ex, even wandered over in the afternoon and ended up playing the piano until 2 a.m.

The baby and I talked and sang and drank, and if I kissed a famously sexy British writer with the initials J. D., who was there to know or care? At around three in the morning, Francois wisely took it upon himself to walk Maggie home—she was trashed and crying, mascara spiderwebbing underneath and above her lashes. How purely his arm fit around her waist. For Maggie, there was no tomorrow; the store was gone, she and the youngest of the three kids were flying out the next day to spend the rest of the summer in the States at her family’s home in Michigan. I’d been invited, but I’d declined. The good people at Shakespeare & Co. had offered me a job as events coordinator, but I wasn’t sure if there was enough for me in Paris to stay on without my best friend. I had one week left on my sublet, so the clock was ticking, but isn’t it always ticking ticking ticking until it stops? “‘Look, just as time isn’t inside clocks, love isn’t inside bodies,’” I quoted Yehuda Amichai to myself as I watched Maggie and Francois stumble together down the cobblestones. I silently wished them both a night of good sex and no backsliding.

Most of the crowd was gone now, the wine bottles and plastic cups out in the garbage bins, the trays of food long devoured. Besides the piano, the desk that Maggie’s sons moved back inside, and some empty shelves, there wasn’t much left to steal, but I locked up the store anyway. Both J. D. and Thierry, Maggie’s boy, with cougar lust in his eyes, offered to walk the baby and me home. J. D. even drunkenly proposed to put us up for a time in London, or was it Capri? But Paris in the summer, even with all the tightened security, is an all-night party, and I was sober enough and thus sensible enough, for me at any rate, to send them both on their way, with kisses on both cheeks.

The baby was sound asleep in the Snugli as we turned up Rue de Tournelles, which was gray and empty and puddled. Parisian streets were always puddled: rain water, urine, wine. Up ahead, the entrance to the shul was locked up and blind to the street. The gendarmes had either gone home for the night or were themselves out at the clubs. I had not spent much time thinking about them, the strain or tedium of their work, what they thought about the threat to the congregation, to themselves, to their way of life. If they cared or not, if they cared desperately. It was overdue, but I thought about them then.

Up ahead across the street was the heavy wooden door of my building. On the other side, my side, was a religious man I knew.

“It’s so late,” I said.

“I was worried about you getting home,” the rabbi said. “But then I saw you brand new, in your white dress . . . like one of our own brides.” His voice flooded with relief, but it was also somber. “I’ve come to tell you that me and my family, we’re leaving. My uncle found us a congregation near him in Miami Beach. There is no safety here for the children.”

I nodded. Children come first.

“They threw garbage at Rachel on the street, with the baby in the carriage. My older boy was teased and tormented on the metro. There was a bomb threat at the school. One of the teachers was stabbed as he was walking home.”

His eyes were so sad. The world was a cracked plate, splintered and chipped, at any moment ready to break. Maybe even shatter completely.

The baby stirred against my chest. The rabbi put his open palm on her head, almost as if he were giving her a blessing. “‘Hope is a thing with feathers,’” the rabbi said. Dickenson again. Then we kissed for the second and last time, and before I had a chance to beg or thank him or even punch him in the nose, he walked away in the direction of Place des Vosges, toward his home and his apartment, I assumed, but I didn’t even know where that masked man lived.

The baby and I crossed over to our building.

I punched in the door code, but I must have forgotten the numerical sequence. So I tried again, and then again, scrambling the numbers up and casting them out, for minutes it seemed, and while I fumbled I thought, now that I am nobler, almost a righteous woman, what was next? The sky grayed and pinked and in the clear light of day, it was my baby and me, alone again, but in Paris. Beautiful, anti-Semitic, terrorist-ridden, xenophobic Paris. On the other side of the river there was a bookstore and in that bookstore there were books and work, if I wanted them.

With a whoosh, the numbers came back to me: 54321.

Duh.

I plugged them in and the door opened.

Helen Schulman is a newly minted 2019 Guggenheim Fellow. Her latest book is the novel Come With Me, which was published by Harper in November 2018. She is a professor of writing and fiction chair at The New School.