essays kaddish in two-part harmony the rebbe's queer daughters

almighty one, rebbe zero — 1.1.3 —

The third daughter of the rebbe tended to be called (affectionately) Vavah.  It was one of those perhaps unfortunate infant names conferred upon her at long-last, after her sainted mother claimed to have witnessed her utter those long-awaited first sounds, not even words, but   —  ו  ו  ו  ו  —va-va-va-va.

That the chatty babe invoked the letter  ו  vav so insistently pleased her tzaddik father no end.  He ran into his library and offered up a prayer of thanks the moment he had heard the news.  Another miracle.

Perhaps it was overcompensation. I mean, the contrast with Binah’s deadly silence may well have accounted for the rebbe’s elation, but that, surely, was not his own understanding of the matter.  For him, it was quite simply that a child—his child—should take upon herself the divine language, uttering repetitively such a sacred upright letter as the letter vav.  This was further evidence of the attention to detail with which the Almighty favored him.

To reciprocate, the rebbe proclaimed at the child’s naming ceremony, that the girl’s appellation was to be  (of all things) Yesodite.  That she would be the  vav upon his Tree of Life. Gevalt. But the nickname Vavah stuck instead as a result perhaps of the babe’s continued emphatic repetitions of holy letter, third letter in the unspeakable name of the Almighty himself.  The name ‘Yesodite’ appeared to be both contrived and redundant, while ‘Vavah’ was clearly the genuine article.

Almighty one.  Rebbe zero.

After the birth of the twins, the rebbe was on a roll.  His conversation with the Almighty appeared to have taken on (at long last) the theme of ‘offspring’—a topic sanctified and codified in the annals of both Torah and tribal antiquity.  Not much could have stopped the rebbe by then.  His own life was beginning to feel quite suddenly like a parable hovering over the horizon. And so, he had foretold, even while his third child was still in utero, that this babe would grow to be built like a fortress, solid, tall, and strong.  The only problem being that the little vav-ling was supposed to have been the boy-child of his imagination that he was still so patiently waiting.  Nevertheless, the rebbe blessed this girl, invoking one of the teachings that the children were later to hear at least a million times:

 “Just as the  ו  vav supports the  י  yud, his king, who wears the crown, and holds his head erect and upholds his father’s laws, so too …” bla bla bla — and the rest flew enthusiastically out the rebbe’s mouth before he had quite noticed,

“so too will you, my son, be righteous, honor your mother and your father, support the head of this humble household, and obey your father’s will.

 “Zeh beni bekhori …” he continued unconsciously, before he stopped, frozen. Oops.

 “What have I done?” he implored the heavens, in shock.

For he had begun invoking upon his third-born daughter the Pidyon ha-Ben, the Redemption of the First-Born Son.  But catching his error maybe just on time, he had not completed the act of redemption.

At least, there had been no bris, and thus no binding covenant.  He gave a little chuckle and mopped his sopping brow.

There was (at least) no one to see, for he had taken the child into his library alone for the private ritual and brachah.  He had fallen too deeply inside his vision of his own progeny rather than inside the observable objective fact of what he had in fact begot.  There was no one to see all this except the One on high, who grasped the situation long before the rebbe had.

And so he hastily brought the babe out from its basket floating in a cozy sea of manuscripts and scrolls and crumbling volumes that was his library and quickly returned her to her mother’s arms.  He could not look on her for fear of what he might have done.  He ran back into the solitude of his study, slammed the solid oak door shut, and davened a spur of the moment improv Slichas, despite it being now early in the month of Iyyar—half the calendric cycle away from those particular prayers of forgiveness.

 “I am old,” he muttered to himself.  “I am way too old for this,” he said, and rounded out another set of Slichas just in case.  The Almighty merely snickered.

Yes, the poor sainted man had said it, invoked it—the Pidyon ha-Ben—in the masculine, of course, for what other way was there to do it?  Quite automatically he had allowed another nine months of expectation to overtake the empirical evidence at hand.  His anticipated, long awaited son!  Not just any son—but the son of his dreams, his hopes, and his desires—had once again turned out to be a girl. Chas v’chalilah.

The rebbe was not without premonition now, that the cosmic order of things might have taken an unprecedented turn.

He had an inkling too, that he may well have done this third daughter some great spiritual damage.  He worried that his inadvertent and highly inappropriate blessing might possibly have been worse than hubris, it might incur for her quite unintended consequences.  Or perhaps, the opposite:  mayhap his aborted prayer over the firstborn son had not been intoned quite loud enough or with enough conviction and intention to do either good or harm.  But it was folly to think in this direction: his exuberant sincerity was beyond question.

Or, he mused further, perhaps his good intentions for this infant daughter would rub off on her, and she would be a scholar at his side, despite her gender.  But somewhere deep inside himself he rejected her as thus.

At any rate, whatever would come of it, Vavah had received the old man’s blemished benediction for the first-born son all those years ago, as well as two upright virile  וו vavs to form her name.  She, even more than her elder twin sisters, had been incubated, born, and raised with an early dose of the attempted force of her father’s use of will.

What would that portend?

The fiasco of Vavah, although not widely known outside the family (except for whispering as the child began to grow), nevertheless had at least one definitive and unintended consequence.  This manifested itself not terribly long after these events.  When the time came that the rebbe’s son, his only one, did finally arrive on this planet earth ruddy and vibrant and fully formed the very next year, the rebbe sensed that it was now too late to redeem the boy properly.  The blessing, or at least part of it, had already been given.

After applying his profound intellectual acuity to the problem, the rebbe determined that Vavah unequivocally had received the full intent (at least) of his benediction, despite his not having completed the words themselves.  There was, he surmised, after analyzing methodically the model provided by the holy book, no more blessing that he could give.  The boy child he had so long awaited could not therefore be redeemed.

The boy was was not merely doomed; he could only bring on disappointment.

And when the time came, the rebbe’s wife wondered at her husband’s indifference and lack of joy at the birth of a son at last.  But we will come to that anon.

Vavah, in the meantime, grew like a weed in the fields.  She became more incomprehensible to her father each year, and yet he was sure that she was exactly what he deserved.  The rebbe continued to fret over his abortive brachah, and yearly added it to his list of sins requiring supplementary atonement.

Okay, he had made a terrible mistake in a thoughtless moment of elderly dementia.  But had it been—and he was beginning to suspect that it had indeed been—a case of a mistaken  —abra-c’dabra—  I create as I speak.  Had he unwittingly performed a magical act upon this daughter, born of his impatience for the coming of a son?

The rebbe, after extensive thought and contemplation, which was what he was best at, concluded that he could well be guilty of having brought —on impulse and without thinking of consequence—an abomination into the world.

Hubris indeed!  He beat his chest hard as he davened back and forth, and prayed incessantly that, despite his honest appraisal of the matter, that this would not be the case.  The Almighty snorted.  Their conversation together was devolving.  No longer filled with playful nuance or joy.

The rebbe could now only see this third daughter as somehow not quite right and also, surely, as not quite entirely his fault or her own.  His actions, surely, had been directed from above.  How could they not?  He was a righteous man!  Still, he beat his breast  as best he could, just in case, and watched this child grow into a stubborn, sullen, big-boned girl-child who really and truly should have been the boy he had envisioned.  For he did see in her the qualities he valued in a son—and qualities his own son did not possess.  Vavah had fortitude and strength, quick intelligence and an unfortunate independence of mind for a girl.  She lacked in the physical grace and easy domesticity of her elder sisters, and was not at all what he had had in mind as “the  ו  vav  who should uphold the  י  yud, his father.”  He wondered that he should have conjured her up at all.

 “To what purpose, Lord?” he pondered.  But there was no reply. The Almighty had walked out of the conversation.

The rebbe had known the child’s stature and her ken before her birth, but clearly had mistook her gender.  An odd sort of miracle of prescience, this, but a miracle no less.

“I am in your hands,” the rebbe declared silently, with an unfocused well-practiced gaze up to the heavens.

“These things have a life of their own.  I will not argue this one—only inquire (if I may), with acceptance, not with any expectation at all.”   But there was bitterness in his soul that could not be hidden or disguised.

And answer came there none. Not then, at least.

By 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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