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

avram and the not so barren sarah — 1.1.8

It was not that Sarah was barren—it was more, perhaps, that she had had enormous difficulty holding a child to term.  And those she had lost had all been girls and were not counted by the fathers of her lineage, nor troubled over by the master of her house.  The rebbe retreated to manuscripts and scrolls within his study.  Why think he of those the Almighty took back for himself?

And so she had mourned each one alone, as mothers are wont to do.  And they did not recede in her mind’s eye.

When finally she began to carry to full term, the results were not exactly the fulfillment of her dreams. Only the ones who had not lived appeared perfect to her critical mind, for only they could live up to her unspoken expectation. Thus she compared the living to the dead, and found the living wanting.

All of them, alive and dead, were the product of her so-called barren womb as well as her hungry imagination.  Reb Avram, which was, of course, the rebbe’s name, was indulgent, patient, and always diplomatic. So thought the world, at any rate. So thought the world, save one.

Reb Avram was a squat little man made primarily of circles and spheres.  All the daughters of Sarah’s body were meditations to him, meditations on the nature of nature.  If Sarah, from time to time, would mix the living in her mind with those that she had lost, surely she could not be faulted.  And if her temper was pointed, sharp and frequent, Reb Avram felt it was those long and barren years, and misbegotten babes that had made her so—in addition to the notorious hot headed vagaries of her people.  Understandable. And quite forgiven.

Thus, the short, rotund Reb Avram was himself, in contrast to his wife, to her shrill, he was the very model of equanimity.

He believed firmly that each of us must martyr ourselves to somebody, and was of the opinion that he—and we, the offspring of his loins—were martyr to his Sarah as due recompense for her long suffering on our behalf.  That was his word, ‘martyr.’

We all in our perversity had arrived in Sarah’s dotage, and were now, according to our sainted, sympathetic papa, a terrible burden to her mind, her body, and most of all, her soul.

“Martyr yourselves,” he would instruct. And so, of course, we did as best we could. For him. Because we loved him.

We cannot fault the sage rebbe his misconceptions, well intended as they were. He taught us well to keep the peace.

Avram and Sarah had been very much a mixed marriage of sorts.  For the rebbe’s wife was of the lineage of the Sephardim of Salonika, who had dwelled in that land for over four hundred years, and been there at both its peak and its terrifying demise.  Her family had escaped the butchery when it came, by sheer luck or strange misfortune.  Sarah’s father, the great rabbam, had been spirited out of the land of his ancestors’ Ottoman refuge after collapsing from respiratory failure in the increasingly industrialized air of that great Sephardi city. And landed in the clear mountain air of the Maghreb.

It happened thus:

The rabbam himself had written and worn amulets against his horrid asthma, but the charms had given only provisional relief.  He had tried as well the amulets of his spiritual counterparts:  Those of the neighboring Orthodox Patriarch had not worked at all, and his wheezing came close to terminal.  And so we went to his friend the imam, whose mosque and neighborhood bordered the Jewish quarter upon the other side.  The amulets of his friend the Imam had been most efficacious, and brought him through many a season.  And it was the Imam, who had contrived, at long last, to send the rabbam, in his desperate search for breath, to the clear cool air of the Maghribi Middle Atlas, west again and across the sea, where existed a community equal to their homeland in its reputation for good will between the Islamic umma and the Sephardi kehila. He took his family with him.

Besides, in this small mountain town they’d recently lost their own rabbam, who’d recently returned to his maker.  It wasn’t cosmopolitan Salonika, of course.  It was no metropolis.  It was a modest dusty mountain town, with a bubbling river flowing through its rocks, loud waterfalls, and lovely bridges.

Sarah had instantly despised it.

She longed for the grand city of her early childhood, a city constructed more and more as time went by out of the cobwebs of her faded memory and her inventive dreams.  And so it was that Sarah’s family, because of the increasing virulence of her father’s asthma and the diminishing efficacy of his Ottoman amulets, had all of them escaped the atrocities that had murdered millions, and come to sojourn in the clean Islamic air of the this small town, among the rustic Amazigh people and flocks of mountain sheep and goats, and where he, Avram himself was given her, while studying with her father.

From Avram’s point of view, in traversing from the holy land of our fathers to ancestral Spain, then eastward once more to Ottoman Salonika, then west yet again to the mountains of North Africa, Sarah’s people had accumulated more quaint folkloric practices, gratuitous superstitions, and downright schizophrenic tendencies than the rest of the Mediterranean and all of the Ashkenazim put together.   Chaval m’od, Chaval m’od.

From Sarah’s point of view, she was of course a gift and captive to her father’s will.  She, the urban beauty of this remote and rustic town!  How dare her father (no matter that it was his right), how dare he give her to his favorite pupil — and ship them both off into another foreign land.

Withholding children seemed the least that she could do to make her protest clear. But no—the Almighty wore her down, and sent his angels, and then the children they were forced to come. Another miracle.

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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