the tzaddik’s dollar — 1.1.4

The rebbe sighed frequently when he thought of the enigma of his daughter the so-called Yesodite, but in the end he felt that this too must surely be exactly as it should, and that Vavah, too, must needs be perfect in every way, and that any fault in her lay primarily in his own blindness and ignorance of the will of the Divine.

In this way, Vavah became, by the time she was twelve, a child of low expectations, or perhaps a child of no expectations at all.

She was a mistake, a mistaken experiment, and he could not look her in the eye for all his guilt.  And so, the rebbe was not terribly surprised, despite his shock, that he should later discover his third daughter to be a rather mannish girl, built like a tree trunk, and far worse than that.  She was, he had overheard Hochmah, his eldest, Sophie whisper to her twin Binah, a secret admirer of some medieval French Catholic named inauspiciously “John Dark” rather than one of the great heroes of her own people.

Did you hear that chortle from way on high? And then the godly snort?

Once, years ago, I spotted Vavah from afar practicing a solitary form of martial art way out in the meadow, aiming her thrusts at the Uriel Tree.  I had been sitting in the corner of my father’s library daydreaming out the side window when I was supposed to be studying chumash.  After that strange vision, I started to follow her from time to time.  She used what appeared to be one of Binah’s missing broomsticks with the straw end of the broom cut off, and another shorter stick which looked like she had fashioned herself into a homemade wooden sword of sorts.  She appeared to me not sullen at all but entirely Other, upright, quiet and proud. Intent. Silent and formal and deep. As if in conversation or meditation with some kind of higher force not known inside our house, and sparring with a tangible regal, yet wholly invisible foe.

Hear the Almighty nod in approval.  Surely my own imagination. You can’t hear such things, can you?

There appeared to be mutually understood rules of engagement.  She would bow—a sin, of course, if our sainted father had found her—and with each pointed strike she looked so deadly calm, so serious, so alert, accomplished, serene and filled with joy.  These thoughts occurred to me as I watched her from afar.  I could be wrong of course.

It was a strange vision out my father’s library window, and may well have been no more than the angle of the sun’s rays shifting deceptively through the fog.  But in that moment when I raised my eyes from that dreary sacred text of wrath and retribution, I saw Vavah as a luminous faraway figure, with light streaming silkily around her.  So how could I have seen her expression at such distance and such weather?  More likely it was that I could feel her, feel her calm, her focused intent, feel, if not her joy, then at least her relief at being left alone upon the heath.  Perhaps it was our kinship, our destiny, the awful tie that bound us all.  Or maybe it was I who had had a real live vision?  Maybe she was not there at all.  Maybe it was just too much chumash at one sitting.

Worse still for the rebbe, I think, than the unseen, unknown antics up by the Uriel Tree that evening was that Vavah could not be accounted for in the house most nights.  Our revered father did not inquire.  It was not his domain.

At sixteen, Vavah had taken it upon herself to learn somehow to drive an automobile and had actually gotten official validation from the State of her competence in this regard.  She had received a letter one day from said State itself, ripped open the envelope, and waving the shiny little card with the State Seal embossed over her own picture, her mouth stretching widely and her big brown eyes crinkling wildly at their outward edges.  Sophie grabbed the license from Vavah, reaffirming the announcement and thus making it official under the rebbe’s own roof.  She ran up and gave Vavah a hug around the middle, and looked mama straight in the eye.

 “Be proud!” Sophie said, with Binah transmitting her silent approval by her side.

 “She got in the ninetieth percentile,” Sophie said, reading from the score upon the written exam portion of the test that Vavah showed her.

 “Her body is big enough,” replied the tzaddik’s wife, perhaps misunderstanding.  Ah, the saintly mother of them all.

“What?” the girls said together, rather taken aback, although they should have known what was coming.  Vavah cringed in preparation.

 “Her body is big enough—I wouldn’t want it should go to her head as well,” the tzaddik’s wife replied in explanation.

The beaming smile had disappeared from Vavah’s face even before their mother’s words had finished flying out of her Old World mouth.  She should never have allowed Sophie to voice a call for pride!  Pride was not for the likes of her, nor for that matter, for any of the rebbe’s daughters.  Nor in fact, she thought with satisfaction, for the rebbe’s son, wherever he may be.

Vavah grabbed her driver’s license from Sophie and clambered up the narrow steps, taking them two at a time, up to the sororal loft.

 “Be proud?” she said to herself, “I’ve learned that one too well!”  And she fell herself into the comforter covers, still fully dressed—in trousers, I might add—and one of her father’s old vests worn over one of his big old white button-down shirts.  Such shame! She buried her head and her body shook but refused to shed a tear.  No, she fell instead into a deep exhausted sleep, her ordeal over, or this one anyway.  She could drive!  And then she had had to pay the price for it.  But she could drive!  Another miracle.

She became quickly enough the sole driver of the old clunker vehicle that one of the rebbe’s admirers had donated for his convenience.  But the tzaddik long had claimed his preference for walking on foot in the fresh air, no matter what the weather.  The truth was, no one had ever seen him actually drive this or any other car at all.  But now, the rebbe’s vehicle was getting plenty of exercise, both day and night.  And funny, it tended to be Sarah, gracious mother of them all, who now sent Vavah off on missions to somewhere-in-the-city in which surely must be found some ingredient from the Old Country, spice or implement that might remind her of her long lost North African mountain home.

There was that one time, however, when Vavah was still sixteen that she went to papa for some money for her trip into town.  They were standing in front of the giant fireplace in the front room, behind the dining table, so it must have been just after dinner, I’m not quite sure.  And he took a dollar out his pocket and held it over his head, his eyes gleaming, just gleaming!

Vavah reached.

The tzaddik lifted the dollar higher, as high as he could.  We turned to watch the spectacle.  Something we had never seen before.  Our dear papa seemed somehow—impossibly—menacing, larger than life, and in this moment certainly he outsized Vavah.  He was a giant looming. And she in desperation reaching.  Her sainted mother had just sent her on an imperative chore in town.

“Look at her!” the rebbe cried, soliciting witnesses to her greed.  “Look at her!”

And his gleaming hazel eyes said it all.

“Look how much she wants it!”  And he put the dollar back in his pocket.

And we all stood there, stood there unmoving.  The only sound the sound of the front door slamming.

And that was the last time Vavah ever asked anyone for anything.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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