Next Year in Jerusalem
My mother-in-law beckons me down the hall. “Come here,” she says, indicating that I should follow her around the corner. Instead, I hover near the door to the party room, where the activity is still going on––girls laughing and dancing, clinking their finger cymbals and shaking their hip-tied coin skirts. They tease the bride and foist compliments on her, feeding her honey-dipped pastries and sweet white wine.
“It will just take a minute,” says my mother-in-law. We are together in Israel, her home. She leads me into the mikveh room, which is small and windowless, white stone surrounding a dipping pool, a short flight of stairs leading into the water. The round room is steamy and would be serene if I wasn’t in there with my mother-in-law. A half hour earlier, the bride slipped into a white terrycloth robe and allowed herself to be sung and danced into this room by her female family and friends. At the door, they left her. Alone with the female attendant, she removed her robe and descended the stairs and stepped naked into the pool where she submerged her entire body underwater three times and recited the blessings and after that she was reborn or pure or something like that and ready to be married.
Before my own wedding, I’d performed the same ritual, but the experience was very different for me in Ohio. I went by myself. The building and the mikveh attendant were very quiet. No one danced me down the hall or whooped or yodeled or catcalled from the other side of the door while I was inside the water. After, there was no one to feed me candy or sticky pastries. When my mother-in-law learned of my plan to go by myself, she was very upset. “Won’t you be lonely?” she said. She thought it might be a bad omen for me to go by myself, that maybe if I was lonely on this day I would be lonely forever, and this loneliness was particularly concerning because the mystical power of the mikveh was so specifically linked to childbearing. How might the loneliness translate? Would I be lonely as a mother? “A terrible thing,” said my mother-in-law, “for a mother to be lonely.” Or maybe my children would be the lonely ones. Or maybe––this was even worse, so bad it almost could not be spoken––maybe I would be lonely in the sense that I would not have any children at all. Maybe I would be lonely in this life.
“Pooh pooh,” said my mother-in-law, “I should not have said it, should not have thought it.” She looked at the sky. “I did not mean it as a curse.”
“I’ll be fine,” I told her. “I prefer to go alone.” I thought that the party she was describing sounded embarrassing, that a person from a different culture, as I was, could not possibly tolerate it. Now I see I was wrong. The bride Meirav is like the queen of the world. She is celebrated, adored, the opposite of lonely.
My mother-in-law puts her hand on my hip, pressing me toward the pool. “Put your foot in the water.”
“Excuse me?” I say.
“After a new bride has been in the water––before anyone else has submerged in that water––you put in your foot and it will bring good blessing, good luck.” She stares me down. I don’t seem to have a choice. I take my foot out of my sandal. I put my foot in the water, which is warm as a bath. I take my foot out. There is no towel, so I shake off the water and put my damp foot back in the sandal.
“Now eat this,” she says. She is holding a hard candy without a wrapper. She puts the candy in my mouth and then she tells me that the candy was the first thing Meirav put into her mouth after she stepped out of the mikveh and that it will also bring me blessings and luck. She kisses my cheeks. She presses her hands to my shoulders and the sides of my head. She blesses me to please, please have a child soon, to bring my husband many sons.
“Sons?” I say.
“Daughters, too,” she says and kisses my forehead. I want to rub at the spot where her lips touched. I want to spit out the candy. Instead, I swallow it, the lump of it painful as it travels down my throat. My mother-in-law Rina is a beautiful woman, slim and youthful and simply young––my husband is her oldest child and she had him when she was only eighteen years old. “Let’s go,” I say, and we walk out of the room and back to the lobby where Meirav has changed out of her robe and into a short yellow dress. She has long wet hair and bare tanned skin and she is glowing. Her own mother has left to prepare a celebratory dinner, but Meirav could be Rina’s daughter as well. They have the same dark hair and almond-shaped eyes. Rina has blown out her hair into movie star waves. She is wearing a black, fitted dress that dips to a V and hits above the knee. She is the opposite of me, with her narrow hips and long skinny legs and full, impressive bust. I am sure she looked lovely through all of her pregnancies.
As for myself, though it is too soon to tell, I do not believe that I will look lovely. Already, I can feel my loveliness slipping away.
The sister Gal should have been at the mikveh party. To explain, Rina says Gal could not take the extra time away from the army. The look on her face makes it obvious that there is more to the story.
We pack up the few extra pastries and Meirav goes off with her family. Rina and I go back to the apartment, where Dov, my husband, has been hanging out with his two brothers and father, playing cards around the dining room table, cracking sunflower seeds with their teeth, drinking grape soda, and taking shots of the sweet anise-flavored liqueur I used to like but find repulsive now I am pregnant.
Immediately, they start dismantling their little picnic––throwing out the plastic cups, dumping the bowl of shells, returning the seeds to the cabinet. My husband’s father sprays down the table and wipes it off with paper towels. He folds down the extra leaf on the table and pushes in the chairs very neat and tight.
“Sunflower seeds?” Rina says as she walks through the door. She is scanning the floor for shells. “Haven’t I told you to eat those outside?”
“Hello, hello,” says my father-in-law. As he greets us, he is straightening chairs, friendly wrinkles around his eyes. He is a nice man, the owner of a falafel stand which is little more than a kitchen and wide steel counter for serving customers with no indoor seating or bathroom, though he does have a couple of plastic tables and chairs with umbrellas that he takes out and sets up every morning and puts away every night. He has had periods when he’s hired a worker for busy days or times of day, but he claims to prefer working alone. It is hard to find good workers, he says. Even if things start out well, at some point there is always conflict and abused trust––arguments over the shortcuts they take with the food or the way they treat the customers, the days they close up early or show up late, the supplies they stuff in their pockets when they think no one is looking. Is he paranoid? I can’t tell. It is disappointing that I can’t actually talk to him about it. Because of the language difference, our relationship is inevitably strained, our communication consisting of a lot of smiling and head-nodding which makes us seem dopey and unintelligent to each other.
In normal circumstances, I understand, he doesn’t spend much time at home. He is always at work, keeping his falafel stand open late. When it’s really late, he’ll step out from behind the counter to sit at one of his plastic tables, sharing food and drink and conversation with his late-night customers. According to Dov, this was the case from his earliest childhood. He thought his father might be a spy. At some point, he figured out that his father just didn’t want to be at home.
When I met Dov, his family was far away, on the other side of an ocean, like a figment of our imaginations. In my imagination, I have to say, they were very wonderful, in a Mediterranean sort of way, gathering together to eat plentiful lunches of fish and fresh tomatoes on their shaded patio, then retiring indoors to rest from the afternoon heat. I first met them a couple days before the wedding, and I did notice a change in Dov when they came into town, but I couldn’t be entirely certain as to the origins of the change. Was it wedding jitters? It had not been wedding jitters. On the plane to Israel, Dov struggled not to puke. He asked if I wanted to get off, to not go. As soon as we landed, his left hand started to shake uncontrollably. I hadn’t known that was something his