I was unable to read the hundreds of letters, written in Yiddish by Uncle Moyshe to my mother. Through them, she got to know all the details of his life, though they hadn’t seen each other even once since he arrived at a displaced persons’ camp in Stuttgart after the war and decided to convert to Christianity. She only heard of his conversion after the fact. God loves the goyim, he wrote succinctly, I’ve seen it all over Italy. At the smallest church in the smallest village, I could tell that God loves them, not us. My mother, who was an atheist, said you can’t judge people who came from there, having survived the horror. As far as she was concerned, he could be a Buddhist monk with a shaved head and meditate in a cave for twenty years, as long as he was alive.
Mom and Moyshe had light blue eyes. I, unfortunately, did not inherit them. She rejected his repeated offers to visit him in America. She explained her resistance through her illness, her fear of the ocean, and later, of flying. He abstained from visiting Israel, despite its holy stature.
He’s afraid to come here, Mom said. It could shake his new faith and he is happy the way he is. He’s found peace and quiet serving as a priest at the Church of Santa Maria or whatever her name is. He’s like a king there. Moyshe, she told me, led a flock of over a thousand people. He gave sermons, delivered lectures, married young couples, preparing them for married life and whatnot. She kept calling him Moyshe, as he was called back home, though he specifically wrote to her that in his new country he was referred to as Pastor Morris.
One day, Uncle Moyshe surprised me with a personal letter, in which he invited me to visit him in Connecticut, America, “to discuss your baby.” It was obvious Mom had a hand in this. The letter didn’t just happen to arrive only days after I gave in to Amos’s pressure, went to Tel Hashomer Hospital and set a date for the operation. I had to pull over at the big intersection outside the hospital, get out of the car, take deep breaths to calm the beating of my heart. Amos always thought the problem was that I was too nervous. Let go, he said. Don’t be so nervous, Dr. Fried said as well. Relax, each of the two senior doctors said in turn as they sent gloved fingers deep inside my barren body, which stiffened at their touch, refusing to cooperate, growing tight, locking them out.
I should have guessed that Mom would do anything in her power to dissuade me from having the operation. She would never let any doctor, no matter how experienced, cleave a bleeding slit in her daughter’s belly. It’s not that she didn’t believe in modern medicine or in the impressive developments in gynecological procedures, but to let someone rummage inside her daughter’s “business” was out of the question. When I told her I’d be under anesthesia, she said, “You sweet fool, you understand nothing. They’ll open you up and you’ll wake up to a huge hole in the middle of your body, and a life-long scar.”
I couldn’t explain, even to myself, how I felt during those days. When I closed my eyes and focused I could feel my ovaries and fallopian tubes floating freely in the dark fluid of my abdomen, unhinged, not knowing how to gather into one coordinated system that could produce a pregnancy. I wasn’t scared of the pain or the anesthesia, nor of the scar. My biggest fear was that the doctors, competent as they may be, wouldn’t understand how things were meant to be constructed inside of me and would put me back together the wrong way.
Go see Uncle Moyshe, Mom said, surprising me with a new approach. Talk to him. I knew Mom talked to Moyshe about everything. I knew he wasn’t happy I had married Amos. She needs a handsome, uncomplicated goy, he wrote her. A Jewish groom, and a soldier no less, is nothing but trouble. He wanted to talk. But discuss a baby with a priest?
He’s meshugane, my brother, Mom said. (I knew this didn’t mean actually crazy, just a little nutty). But he’s no idiot.
Amos was deployed with his unit. Over a bad phone connection and under Mom’s coercion, I told him about Moyshe’s invitation, without specifying its purpose. To my surprise, he wished me a safe trip and said great, you’ll have a little adventure before your operation. And don’t worry, I’m really far from the border and they aren’t going to send me in.
The British Airways flight was almost empty. I opened the newspaper and read the headline: “Israel Prepares for the Yom Kippur Fast.” To the left was a black-and-white photo of the huge demonstration at Malkey Israel Square, with the caption: “Begin and Sharon Go Home, called thousands of demonstrators in Tel Aviv, demanding an inquiry into the slaughter.” On one of the inside pages, I was surprised to find that the first in-vitro Israeli baby had been born. Her parents had tried to conceive unsuccessfully for nine years, and now, what joy.
It wasn’t hard to recognize Uncle Moyshe among the airport crowd. His resemblance to Mom was greater in life than in the photos. Her blue eyes, her wide hands. As was the style for American men at the time, he wore a plaid jacket and his hair was slicked back. He smelled strongly of aftershave.
You’re not dressed like a priest, I said.
He laughed. What did you think I’d be wearing, a brown cassock with a rope? I’m not a monk, I’m a pastor. His English sounded like Yiddish, and here and there he dropped in some Ashkenazi Hebrew.
According to my calculations, it was already Yom Kippur, but of course that made no difference to Uncle Moyshe. We rode in his Buick through tall, dense woods. Uncle Moyshe never stopped talking. He commented on the state of Jewish residents in every town we passed through. Not surprisingly, he had nothing kind to say about any of them. This town has a Jewish community of close to four hundred, he said. I know their rabbi, a complete idiot. Or: the rabbi in this town, heaven help him, he can hardly walk, because of his hernia. Then he burst out laughing and asked if Mom had told me the joke about the guy with the hernia who wanted to marry the girl with the flat feet. But just as he was in the middle of telling the joke we drove into a city whose streets were wide and clean and almost devoid of cars. The low houses were surrounded by manicured lawns that reached almost all the way to the road. He stopped by a light-gray wooden house and said, in Hebrew, we’re home. He gestured to the left part of the house, the part he lived in, outside of which the lawn was less tended and the path was flanked by low bushes, as opposed to the colorful row of flowers on the right. You know why the grass is always greener on the other side? he asked. But before I could answer, he put my suitcase in front of the door on the right, his neighbor’s, knocked, and called to me, come, it’s here.
The door opened and he called out: Claire, look! Here is my niece. A young woman wearing shorts stepped outside and hugged Uncle Moyshe happily. She said, hey Morris, what took you so long?
This is Claire’s house, Uncle Moyshe told me. You’ll stay with her. She’s a good friend. By the way, you know the story about the priest’s neighbor –
Claire said, not now Morris, no jokes right now.
He quieted down and walked inside.
Claire shook my hand and smiled broadly. She was tall and wide and her wavy hair looked like she had just pulled out the rollers, unnaturally curly. She had freckles like a redhead, but she wasn’t a redhead. A tall man jumped up from a soft leather sofa in the living room, pulled a t-shirt over his half-naked body and approached us.
Tom, said Claire. My boyfriend.
He shook my hand with long fingers, and I smelled cigarettes and beer and something else I didn’t recognize, but which I found pleasant. When he looked up at me, I saw that his eyes were blue too, though darker than Mom’s and Uncle Moyshe’s.
Claire took my suitcase up to the second floor, in spite of my protests. She had strong hands, and as I followed her up the stairs, I sensed that all her limbs were completely in sync. I wanted to be like her, so together. When we returned to the living room, Uncle Moyshe was having a beer with Tom and Tom was smoking a cigarette. Moyshe was finishing up a joke. He turned to me and asked, you know the one about the priest who wants to study the Talmud?
I know it, I said.
Your mother told you, huh?
It’s not a very flattering to priests, I said.
Yes. Moyshe laughed. The priest turns out to be an idiot. What can you do? It’s a Jewish joke. He stood up without finishing the joke and suggested he and I go out to eat, though Claire said she had food at home. We won’t trouble you on the very first night, he said.
When we returned, late that evening, I opened the door to Claire’s house and entered quietly, not wanting to wake her up. The television was on in the living room. I caught a glimpse of Claire’s head resting on Tom’s shoulder and her bare foot on top of his legs, which sprawled on the low coffee table covered with empty beer bottles. The ashtray beside them was full.
In the morning, Uncle Moyshe waited for me outside Claire’s door. He locked the door to his own house and said, today we’re going to take a little trip.
Aren’t you going to show me your place, I asked, glancing at his door.
Uncle Moyshe seemed surprised by my direct approach. Maybe later, he said.
I shouldn’t have asked.
After we drove for almost half an hour along the river, Uncle Moyshe turned towards the state capital. Thirty-two universities in one city, he boasted. Even Mark Twain thought it was exceptional.
He parked near a big, red castle. You’re about to enter the oldest museum in the United States, he said. And there’s one picture here that you have to see in order to understand.
Understand what? I asked.
But he was already darting quickly from hall to hall, ignoring masterpieces right and left. He stopped in front of a dark, rather small picture and called out, this is Caravaggio! Look at it and tell me what you see. Don’t read the caption, don’t cheat.
I came closer to the dark image and tried to absorb its details – somebody leaning down to support somebody else, a prone figure by a river, surrounded by vegetation.
It isn’t just “somebody,” said Uncle Moyshe. It’s an angel. And it isn’t just a “prone figure,” it’s Saint Francis. That’s what they call him here, but in Italy he’s called Francesco. A brown cassock tied with rope, that’s his signature outfit. If you look closely into the darkest parts of the picture, you’ll find other monks dressed just like him.
He’s dead, I said. I looked at Uncle Moyshe.
No, he said. His eyes are closed because he’s in ecstasy. Spiritual ecstasy. The angel is holding his entire body with one hand. Try holding someone like that sometime. It’s impossible.
He’s lighter, because of the ecstasy, I said.
Certainly, but also because he’s giving in completely. He has no free will. He’s letting the angel hold him and call the shots for him. Complete faith. That’s the way, he said. He turned to face me. There were tears in his eyes. That’s the way I held Leizer in the snow, when I knew he was already dead. But Leizer was heavy. He was dead, and Saint Francis is alive. So alive.
When I came here after the war, he said, I had no job. So what did I do on Saturdays? I went to the museum. Suddenly I saw this picture. I knew nothing of Christian art, but this picture told me I had made the right decision. The peace in that face, it’s the kind of peace only goyim have. You’ll never see such calm in Jewish eyes. That’s what I was looking for.
He was silent on the way back. He didn’t tell one joke.
The next day he took me to his church – a light wooden house, only slightly broader and taller than the other houses in town. Adjacent to it were a pointy bell tower and a tall tree. On a wide sign at the entrance, large letters spelled out the church’s hours of activity. In smaller print it said: “God is still talking, and we listen and join in. You’re welcome to join us too.”
You know the difference between Jesus and an oil painting? Uncle Moyshe asked as we walked through the narrow doorway and into the church. Before I could even turn around, he’d already answered with a peal of laughter: you only use one nail to hang an oil painting!
You even joke about Jesus, I said.
There’s nothing in this world you can’t laugh about, he said. Suddenly he became more serious than he’d been since we met. Without a sense of humor, we would have killed ourselves over there. Those who stopped laughing died. And you know where they told the most jokes?
It’s beautiful here, I said, running my hand over the back of a cool, smooth pew, looking at the paintings that adorned the high walls.
We crossed the main hall, walking between the two sections of seats, and stepped into a side room he called “my office.” The first thing I noticed was a giant corkboard that took up a considerable part of the wall. It was covered with colorful photos, each featuring a happy couple holding a child, most of them dark-skinned or black.
Who are these families? I asked.
This is my flock. The holy flock, he said. I help them become parents.
If this is what you had in mind, I said, you shouldn’t have wasted your money on my plane ticket.
I know, he said. I know you don’t want to adopt. You want your own child. Don’t worry, nobody is going to force you.
I glanced at the photo albums on his desk.
Take a look, he said.
The albums were filled with pictures of elegant women in swimsuits, before a backdrop of beautiful homes. Do you hold beauty pageants here? I asked.
These are surrogate mothers, he explained. Women who have a baby for you.
For me? If it’s her child, that’s the same as adoption.
It’s not entirely her own. The doctor uses your husband’s sperm.
That’s when it hit me. Claire. That was the plan. This entire trip was intended to introduce me to Claire. And who would make a better surrogate mother than Claire? Young, strong, beautiful, and most importantly – a friend, trustworthy. She’d carry my baby. That’s why he wanted me to stay with her rather than him. I was such a fool not to realize it from the very beginning. And what about Amos, I thought. He had to agree to impregnate Claire, a woman he didn’t even know.
My refusal of any possible option Moyshe might raise began forming itself right then and there. I felt my mother like a shadow behind him. The idea that they had planned all this behind my back felt just as intrusive as the operation my mother was working so hard to prevent.
After mass and a sermon given by Uncle Moyshe, we went home. To my surprise, Claire invited me to go out with her and Tom. I didn’t mention what I’d discovered that day. Instead I joined them on their nightly prowl, our first of many.
Claire, Tom and I laughed a lot during those nights. In the daytime, Tom barely met my eyes, but at night, under the influence of alcohol, he transformed. He was wild, jovial, tearfully funny. His dark blue eyes appeared black and bottomless.
The night before my flight back to Israel, we stayed out late. When we returned home, I collapsed, exhausted, on the living room sofa. When I opened my eyes, the room was dark, and Tom was all around me, clinging to my body, pushing his way onto the sofa, whose outlines were unclear. His alcohol-laden breath was in my neck and his smell, which I’d only caught whiffs of before, was thick and present, a warm, deep smell I’d never known. I was enveloped in his skin. He was just my size. What are we doing, I asked limply, unable and unwilling to move. What we need to do, he answered, searching my body like a moth, simultaneously light and heavy, knowing everything about me, as if he knew me from a past life. I was at ease. My body was asleep on the inside, calm and collected. I was awake, but my heart slumbered. There was nothing around me but the echoes of our breaths. I was weightless. A light wind blew through me, making my body hollow and entirely relaxed. I was carried on warm, dark waves, the image of Saint Francis floating beside me, his wide-open eyes staring at me like two clear mirrors. His peace poured into mine. My entire body relaxed at the touch of Tom’s warm fingers. There was something so sweet about those moments that I wanted to sink into them and never come up for air again.
I was awakened by a soft touch on my shoulder. The room was flooded with light. Morning. I didn’t want to open my eyes. It isn’t him, I thought, it isn’t his touch. Claire was sitting at the edge of the sofa, running soft hands over my head and shoulders. She brought her face near mine and said quietly, wake up, you have a flight today. Wake up.
I had a dream, I said, barely pronouncing the words.
It wasn’t a dream, Claire said. She smiled and kept caressing me.
What happened, I asked.
What needed to happen, she said. It was as if they’d coordinated their answers.
Uncle Moyshe came over that afternoon to drive me to the airport. Tom was nowhere to be seen, and I didn’t dare ask about him. Uncle Moyshe seemed happy. On the way to the airport, he decided to tell me the joke about the priest who wanted to study the Talmud after all, and I didn’t cut him off to remind him I already knew it.
I’m sorry the plan you and Mom had didn’t work out, I said when we parted.
Everything is for the best, he said in Hebrew. Hakol le’tova. He hugged me, his eyes filled with tears.
Mom was waiting for me at the Tel Aviv Airport. She wanted to know everything.
What did you think of Claire? she asked.
You know about Claire?
His neighbor, she said. He’s written to me about her.
Do you know about Tom, too?
Tom? Mom asked. Who’s Tom?
A month after I got back, Dr. Fried asked me to come in for a general checkup, as is customary before surgery.
No need, I said. My body’s fine. Everything worked out.
How did that happen? asked Dr. Fried.
Mom sent me to see her brother in America and he cured me.
Is he a doctor? asked Dr. Fried.
Though there are many appealing elements in Rachel Shalita’s story The Ecstasy of Saint Francis—blind faith, modern science versus old-fashioned beliefs, and the Jewish inability to let go—the one that spoke to me most was the question of a woman’s physical and spiritual wholeness in a world designed and ruled by men. The female body is in constant struggle between its innate desire to feel freely, to enjoy itself fully, liberated and deliberate, and its fear of not being accepted for what it is, of being irreparably changed, “corrected” in an unnatural way.
The unnamed protagonist of Shalita’s story defines her fear of undergoing a gynecological operation intended to fix a fertility issue by stating that the doctors, competent as they may be, might not be able to put her back together properly. She is confident that she cannot be understood by male hands and male minds. She insists on keeping her body in her own hands. This same risk may be the reason she is having difficulty conceiving – the body’s fight against a foreign inhabitant which would force her to give herself over completely.
Reading Shalita’s story, I was reminded of a flash fiction piece I wrote some years back, about a young woman participating in a magic trick in which her body is sawed and divided between three boxes. The magician refuses the woman’s whispered wish to be put back together without the middle part – the one containing her reproductive system. As she lies, split apart between the boxes, her head explains that anything intrinsically feminine about her is a mistake, an unnatural organ, and that she would be happier, and more beautiful, if she could give that part of herself up. In my work, a seemingly whole woman who feels broken is asking a man to fix her. In Shalita’s, a seemingly broken woman fears that which men call “fixing.”
Though opposite, the two premises seem to complement each other. It is the question of whether to fight against a world that is deterred and confused by women, or whether to try and play the game from a different angle. These ideas drew me in.
As I delved deeper, I was fascinated by the connections Shalita draws between questions of sexuality, freedom of heart and mind, and the choice to convert one’s faith. In her piece, Judaism is symbolized by a physical and spiritual clinging to the past, a pain that never goes away, causing those feeling it to become stuck in place, unable to overcome disaster. Christianity, on the other hand, is portrayed as much freer and more animalistic, allowing for a natural and flowing body and mind connection.
While this view of Christianity was new to me, looking back into the past is a state of mind that I myself have often equated with being Jewish: an irrevocable sadness, recognizable somewhere in the back of the eyes. But not until reading The Ecstasy of Saint Francis have I considered it as a facet of femininity as well: the irrevocable, endless and anxious sadness of the Jewish woman.
Rachel Shalita is an art education professor at Hamidrasha – the art education faculty of Beit Berl College. She is the author of Visual Literacy in Action and Dialogue with Contemporary Art, both published by The Mofet Institute. Her play, Rochke, was staged as part of Beit Lessin Theatre’s 2008 Festival for first-time playwrights. Her plays Childhood and The Queen were staged as part of Tzavta Theatre’s short plays festival in 2009-2010. Her short story An Iron Heart received special mention in Haaretz Newspaper’s 2011 Annual Short Story Contest. Her first novel, Sisters Sisters, will come out in 2014.
Yardenne Greenspan has an MFA in Fiction and Literary Translation from Columbia University. In 2011 she received the American Literary Translators’ Association Fellowship. Her translation of Some Day, by Shemi Zarhin, was chosen for World Literature Today’s list of notable translations for 2013. Yardenne’s translation projects include The Sequoia Children by Gon Ben Ari; Tel Aviv Noir, a short story anthology forthcoming from Akashic Books; The Doctor’s Option by Nahum Werbin; Time to Begin by Vered Schnabel; The Kid Who Loved Dynasty and Wrote a Soap by Kobi Ovadia, Mother by Aner Shalev and Petty Business by Yirmi Pinkus.