“If one required to divorce his wife refuses to do so, then the Jewish court, in all places and in all eras, administers lashes until he says, I want [to divorce], and he writes the ghet, and it is a valid ghet.” (Rambam, Laws of Divorce 2:20)
For reasons that made a certain amount of sense at the time and afterwards none, Mechel schlugged a fellow bokhur. He wound up, laid the kid out, stomped on the thigh. The kid didn’t get up and Mechel, somewhat in awe of himself, stood over him, not knowing what to do where to go, until he was summoned to the rosh yeshiva, chastised, expelled. He walked home in the September warmth and waited for his father, waited to be patsched. In this world there is cause and effect, reward and punishment. Keep balanced your spiritual accounting.
Mechel was patsched not often but often enough that he and his father knew the routine — to the kitchen and Mechel, more annoyed than humiliated, legs apart an easy distance, palms on the table or back of a chair, and his father, more annoyed than upset, would deliver a few ceremonially swift swats to the tuchus, quick and efficient, an obligation fulfilled and done away with.
But his father came home and this time was different. Not in the kitchen but in the den; his father’s face and movement conveying not annoyance but dark, dark resignation. His father on the corduroy armchair and Mechel over his knees, even though Mechel, at sixteen, was the taller and heavier. His father said Mechel, then his voice tightened and crumbled into a sigh. Mechel’s upper arms burned; parts of him shook. His father raised an open palm, high, with apparent effort, as if his arm weighed so much, as if this duty were too much to bear but a duty it was still. Mechel’s father muttered something Mechel could not hear and then the hand dropped — due more to gravity than muscle, it felt — while Mechel’s father looked away towards maybe the silver cabinet.
Afterwards Mechel and his parents sat at the dining room table. His mother spoke hard harsh words and then began to cry; Mechel’s father, with only slow words and soft noises, quieted and comforted her. He then turned to Mechel and spoke in a low grave tone about responsibility, about life and decisions and afterlife. He spoke about how Mechel, their only child, their miracle child, was embarrassing his parents, was killing them. When Mechel’s father stopped speaking Mechel only nodded. In the thick quiet Mechel’s mother forced back a sob, then retreated upstairs. Mechel and Mechel’s father stayed at the table, listened to her heavy steps above, her shutting the door. His father stood and with the back of his hand struck Mechel’s cheek.
So for you no more yeshiva, his father said. He told Mechel that he and the rabbis had spoken, and they’d decided that what Mechel was meant for was not yeshiva, that what was in Mechel was not Torah learning but something else. Like the midrashic would-be murderer who turns to shekhitah, the trick with your destiny is not to deny but to bend.
Mechel waited outside his house. A battered two-door yellow Cavalier, license plate ETROG, pulled up and the window quivered down and the driver said, Mechel? So nu? Makh a schnell and let’s go.
Mechel’s new boss drove with one hand and out of his other hand’s fist ate walnuts. He seemed to be around forty, though Mechel could not say for sure — he was babyfaced, balding, and very dirty. His white shirt and black pants were creased, stained, shiny in a way they were not supposed to be; he looked not unlike the nebakhs who haunted the shuls and pizza places. He wore large beige plastic glasses, the style favored by the chasids who insisted on style-less glasses, and his beard was sparse and long and ruled his face, it fluttered and flattened as they drove open-windowed through Borough Park, drove between rows of unlooked-after houses moated by dead lawns full of children’s things. They turned off 13th. Mechel noticed the carphone. Mechel had seen a few, not many. Black with white rubber buttons and long coiled tail. Mechel asked, For what do you use the phone?
The man ignored the question and fished out with his tongue the last couple walnuts inside his massive fist. Then he spoke: Yea, it’s good, it’s nice, meet you, pleasure, I’m Yakov and better introductions maybe we’ll do in a little bit later. Now, he said, in the back. In the back what? In the back, yea? the bat. Mechel twisted, looked behind him. The back of the car was full of trash. On the bench and in the wells were piles of discard and crap: candy wrappers, empty seltzer bottles, mounds of shreds of paper, and a silver portable television set, badly hidden. Jutting out of the debris like a wayward pipe was a dull blue wooden baseball bat, which Mechel took and held out to Yakov. No, yea?, for you. You hold the bat. The car was too small and the bat too wide for Mechel to lay it on his lap — he stood it upright between his legs, fat end to the floor, knees pinching it secure.
Let me ask you, you can drive? Yakov asked.
Nu you should learn. And babka you like?
Yea, I like babka.
And do you know any schvartzes? These guys are so afraid of schvartzes.
Mechel paused, as if mentally running through everyone he knew to see if any were, in fact, schvartzes.
They stopped in front a dilapidated brown-brick townhouse on the geographical and ethnic fringes of Borough Park, where Mechel had never really been.
Yakov opened the car door but stayed in the car. So, yea?, what do you need to know, he said, you need to know this schmuck’s name? is Yossi. The wife is Rivi. We’re here because Yossi won’t give a ghet to Rivi. Yea?, so what’s going to happen? we knock on the door and khap a schmooze with Yossi. Mechel nodded. You want I should come with you? What I want, yea?, is you stand with the bat a little bit back, far so you’re not part of the meeting but close also so that he knows you’re with me. Stand in a spot that’s good, I’ll show you, and hold the baseball bat, don’t talk, don’t move, don’t do thinking, don’t do anything. Yea?, it’s easy. Don’t do anything but it’s very good if you look like you might do something. Yea? you khap? Mechel nodded.
Good, Yakov said. Yakov got out of the car; Mechel got out of the car. Mechel saw how enormous Yakov was: he was a mountain, a giant, bigger even than Mechel. Beside Yakov, the small yellow car looked like a circus car. He motioned for Mechel to follow him. Some steps from the stoop Yakov stopped and indicated that that was where Mechel should stand. Mechel stood, excited and obedient. Yakov climbed the stairs and knocked. Almost immediately the door opened: a sweaty man, clearly a Yid, clearly a heimish Yid — he wore gym shorts and a t-shirt but he had on a black velvet yarmulke and had a loose, scholarly physique. Yakov and this man didn’t shake hands and he didn’t invite Yakov in, he just stood in the doorway, unshod heel propping open the door behind him. Yakov towered over the man; Yakov’s stomach was large and high enough that it gently and rhythmically bumped the man’s chest as Yakov spoke. Four days you have to give the ghet, Yakov said.
Four days what until?
Yakov nodded in the direction of Mechel, who held lightly the bat against his shoulder. Yakov took a step backwards, spread four fingers, then turned around and walked down the steps and past Mechel, who followed him into the car. More than four days, Mechel asked, I would hit him?
No, Yakov said. But yea?, that you wouldn’t hit him he doesn’t know. He thinks maybe you will. Sometimes it happens, that we have to hit. Very rare. It is the decision of Reb Shmarya, a holy and brilliant man who is the man in charge, he tells us what to do when to do it, how far we should go, when to back off, what should be the offer and what should be the threat; this Reb Shmarya, Yakov said, he’s the boss and he’s holy and, yea?, you know?, we should call him right now. Yakov, flushed and inspired, pushed buttons on the carphone. The call was picked up on the first ring; the carphone’s loudspeaker was loud but slushy:
Shalom aleichem Reb Shmarya, I have someone new who today is the first day is helping and I wanted to tell you and ask also if maybe —
Yankel yes I understand, the voice said, but please! remember! when I need to speak to you I will call you. You can call in an emergency only. Don’t call again.
The connection ended and Yakov, cheeks pinked by shame, said, A holy man. Maybe a prophet.
Mechel knew about agunahs, had learned in yeshiva about agunahs. Come and hear: If let’s say a man doesn’t give his wife a ghet, he doesn’t give it for who knows what reason, maybe there was a war and he’s missing and probably he died but no one knows for sure he died, no one saw him die, or maybe he’s alive and he refuses to give it — and only if the ghet is given, if husband gives it to wife, does it count, it can’t be mandated — then what happens? what happens is: the wife is an agunah and what is an agunah? it’s that she is stuck, is trapped, she can’t get remarried, she is still legally his wife. That’s the halakha, those are the rules and nothing can anyone do about it. But when it happens, Mechel knew, it’s very tragic, the wife’s life stops, she can’t move on she can’t let go, everyone feels rakhmones for her and anger at him. You can’t abuse Hashem’s rules. Mechel had heard the whispered censure of these men. His mother in particular, when she learned about yet another agunah in the community, would be distraught. Nebakh! she’d cry. Why is nobody doing anything? The rabbonim, Mechel’s father would say, the rabbonim are taking care of it.
So that’d be Yakov, the rabbonim had Yakov and Yakov took care of it. Yakov’s job was to scare, intimidate, threaten these husbands into giving the ghet. Also Mechel’s job, now.
Here was the process. On the first visit Yakov would say to the husband something along the lines of: You have to give the ghet, it’s time, you have to, you don’t have a choice. To let it be known that the case was known and being administered to. Reb Shmarya, via the mouth of Yakov (and now also the body of Mechel) announcing his presence and hinting at his long reach. For these opening visits Mechel stood still and silent and without weapon. The implication of violence was buried deep, but it was still there, Yakov and Mechel cut very large figures.
If the case progressed, if still the husband refused, then Reb Shmarya would attempt to pay them off. Amounts ranged. Five thousand dollars to the schmuck married to the sofer’s daughter, quarter million to the husband of the daughter of the real estate gvir. There were other forms of compensation, also. A debt wipe, a mortgage bought and forgiven.
For those wealthy or vindictive enough to be unswayed by money, they leveraged. Good shidduchim, right schools, proper yeshivas, seats and aliyahs at shul, businesses, availability of wedding halls — the levers of communal pressure Reb Shmarya threatened to pull. To Mechel, this coordination of forces, the control from afar, the machinations, leveraging, connections, favors advanced and repaid, tit for tats and under the tables — it was Hashemesque.
And then? if that didn’t work? Then the threat of violence became explicit. This was Mechel holding the bat. Sometimes they would touch schmucks in ways that didn’t hurt — grip the shoulder, grasp the wrist — but suggested it would be easy and perhaps even enjoyable, that they could, wanted to, but were — for now — restraining themselves.
And if that didn’t work? Yakov claimed that the next step was to follow through on the threats but Mechel wasn’t sure: a month in with Yakov it had never gotten that far. Mechel asked but Yakov hated the theoretical. What Reb Shmarya says is what we do, is all he would say.
Reb Shmarya called with instructions every morning between 8:50 and 8:54, and this he did without a clock, claimed Yakov, no reminder, no shamash’s tap at the door. Reb Shmarya leads his life so organized and so holy that for him it’s natural to do things at the right time exactly. He taught me. Chaos is unholy. Order is holy. But you know what is the holiest? Precision.
One day he was late. He was never late but then one day he was late. Nine o’clock and the phone didn’t ring and then ten o’clock and the phone didn’t ring. Yakov, agitated, fidgety, drove in purposeless loops and tried not to but kept glancing at the carphone, begged it silently. What happened to Reb Shmarya, Yakov asked the windshield, what happened where is he. Maybe you call him, Mechel offered. No it’s not an emergency, Yakov said, I can’t call, he said I can’t. Maybe he forgot? no, Reb Shmarya doesn’t forget.
At last at twelve thirty the phone rang and Yakov, happily startled, grabbed the receiver and held it to his ear. Reb Shmarya spoke at length. Mechel could not hear words only the spikes of static but the effect of the words he could see on Yakov’s face — his cheeks went up, his eyes narrowed, his beard twitched. Was Yakov angry? No. Maybe. Yakov pushed out the beginning of a kvetchy protest — “But Rebbe” — but was again cut off. Yakov listened and said Yea and Yea and Of course Rebbe and then replaced the phone in its cradle. He made a U and headed down 12th.
Mechel held in his questions, Yakov was in his own gloomy world, they drove a couple of blocks, Mechel’s curiosity won out:
So yea where we going?
Where we going? Where do you think we’re going. To visit a schmuck. That’s the job, where he says we should go we go.
I should know anything before? Anything I should do? Maybe you want me to say something?
No you don’t do anything.
What are you going to say? Is it to give him money? How much money? Or money we’re not up to yet? So I should know what’s coming.
For this one it doesn’t matter.
Because he’s so rich? he’s a big bigshot?
This one you’ve already been to before?
A lot of times or not so many times maybe one or two times?
Yakov shrugged and didn’t answer and parked in front a small squat brick building with a cement yard enclosed by a chain-link fence. It was a cheder. The building betrayed no life; nothing in there stirred. They waited in silence ten minutes and then like a flashflood eighty maybe ninety boys rushed from the building into the yard and, as if choreographed, instantly formed smushed overlapping games. Six rebbes in worn weekday suits came out behind them and formed around the yard a loose ring of supervision.
Yakov mumbled Let’s go and they got out of the car. But Yakov made no move towards the building, he just stood there. Mechel stood on his side of the car but after a minute felt silly and walked around and stood beside Yakov.
Presently one rebbe abandoned his post and walked towards them and What’s this, Mechel thought, he’s coming to us? The boys remained frantic and oblivious.
The man was unusually tall — taller, even, than Yakov — but he was very thin, with curved ears and a round nose and a short wishy beard. Mechel thought he resembled a little bit a houseplant. He did not seem surprised or scared or annoyed, and Mechel half marveled and half raged at the impropriety.
He and Yakov greeted each other with cold familiarity. His name was Meir. Yakov didn’t open with any spiel and after an empty beat Meir said, So nu, you came here to say to me something? So say it. Yakov said, There is more money, more than what we talked before. Meir grinned.
Ah ah ah so still we’re talking about money! And what is the heilege Reb Shmarya offering me today? I am curious.
He wants that I should ask you your price, he wants to know how much is your price.
Price? No price. He knows this already.
Meir I don’t understand! (Yakov, agitated, was now going off-script, Mechel understood: Yakov had been given narrow instructions and was overstepping. Yakov calm yourself, Mechel said silently. Take control.) Take the money, why not take the money? You’ll be a rich man.
A rich man? I should care, now, about being a rich man? I take the money and then all of it from the beginning becomes about the money!
What does it matter, now, what it’s about? Let us put it away.
I say already it’s put away. Everything is as it should be. She has what she wants, no? And I have? I have my life to worry about — I never imagined this would be my life but I will live this life.
She is suffering, Meir.
Suffering? She deserves to die. Let her suffer. It is good for her. Suffer now and avoid far worse in the world to come.
With that Meir returned to his post; Yakov and Mechel got back in the Etrog and drove off. A few minutes later Reb Shmarya called; Yakov left it on speaker; Reb Shmarya asked:
Nothing was different.
Did he show you anger?
Did he, Mechel wondered.
Did you get angry?
No, Rebbe. Like you told me.
Did you, Mechel wondered.
Mechel, Reb Shmarya said — are you there?
Mechel, startled — Reb Shmarya very rarely addressed him — said Yea?
Did you say anything?
Good. And so you saw Meir get angry?
Mechel looked at Yakov who looked only forward. Yea, Mechel said.
And you saw Yankel stay calm?
Rebbe, Yakov said, did she do it?
Reb Shmarya was silent a long time before he said: Did you see her do it?
I too did not see her do it. Are there witnesses? Also no. So the question of whether she did it is a question between her and shamayim.
Reb Shmarya ended the call and Yakov confided (without — Mechel was certain — Reb Shmarya’s permission) to Mechel that Meir’s wife was a zonah. She had been with a goy. A goy? Mechel was incredulous. Can’t be. Everyone knows, Yakov said, everyone is saying it. You should know too. Mechel said, So it’s true? Everyone is saying, Yakov said. But Reb Shmarya said it wasn’t true. He said he didn’t see it and he said there’s no witnesses. There is the true of halacha and there is the true of what everyone knows. This and this are not the same thing, yea?
If it was true then who was the goy? Mechel could not believe such a thing had happened but even more he could not conceive how there had been an opportunity in the first place.
The goy? everyone knows but no one knows for sure. Everyone has a different story. I heard the goy was the plumber. I heard also he was the carpenter. Also, telephone man. I heard Dena’s father had a brother who married a shiksa and the goy was a cousin. The goy was her doctor. Or a schvartze, or a waiter, I don’t know.
And for us what does it mean?
For us what does it mean what?
Still she gets her ghet?
Yes, Reb Shmarya says yes.
But in this matter they were powerless. Meir refused and there was little they had with what to compel him. He didn’t want money. They had no leverage. No carrot and no stick. Not because Meir didn’t have what to lose but because Reb Shmarya only had power insofar as the community empowered him, and in this case the community uniformly refused to grant him that power. Meir was the victim, he should be the one punished? No, Dena was the sinner, Meir was the victim. Dena suffers because of her actions, no one else’s. Thus Reb Shmarya was neutered.
Mechel began asking Yakov if they would hit him. If we don’t have anything else then we have to do what we have to do, no?
Yakov would answer every time that it wasn’t his decision to make. But Mechel could see that even with the idea Yakov struggled. Yakov hated Meir but Yakov did not hit, said he did not hit, from a place of anger or hate; the hitting was not punishment or quarrel, it was correction, it was forcing the crooked straight, it was in fact an operation of a spiritual nature. But Meir? was Meir in need of correction? was he spiritually misaligned? did he deserve it? he doesn’t, I don’t know. A zonah. Can you imagine.
Reb Shmarya called and spat out an address. Come now, he wheezed.
The door opened before they could knock and here Mechel at last saw the person of Reb Shmarya. He was a very fat very short man with a flat wooly beard and a long velvet-accented jacket that fit his soft round body like a tablecloth. He locked the door behind them. It was dark inside: the curtains were drawn, only a single lamp was on. On the couch was a woman, in disarray, distraught; Mechel knew immediately this was Dena. Reb Shmarya sat down in the too-narrow armchair, his fatty jacketed sides bunching up flowing over, and instructed Yakov and Mechel to sit. They hesitated — the only open seats were on the two-person couch, which Dena was in the middle of — then sat on either side of her. Mechel made himself as compact as he could, legs together, hands on knees.
Reb Shmarya did not look at Dena. Yakov also did not look at her. Mechel was not supposed to look at Dena but could not help himself. Her eyes were closed and her head pitched forward; Mechel kept looking. Her long loose skirt made a gentle valley of her lap, then flowed down and over her legs and into a puddle of fabric; Mechel kept looking. From her tichel escaped tendrils of dark blonde hair and her white blouse was loose and open two or three buttons past tznius. Mechel saw somewhere a curve heave, then retreat, and his imagination unfastened. Large goyish hands pawing Dena’s body. Not two hands, but twenty, a hundred, a thousand goyish hands stroking pinching consuming her body.
A silence settled, and Reb Shmarya — his gaze in the direction of Dena but missing purposefully by three, four feet — declared: Yakov and Mechel will follow Meir. Wherever he goes they will go too. Dena betrayed no reaction. Reb Shmarya turned to Yakov. Do you understand?
But we know already where he is, Yakov said.
That’s not enough, Reb Shmarya said. Make him ashamed! Add weight to his sin!
Dena canopied her face with her hands, and began to shake, sending cascades of ripples down the black fabric of her skirt. The men sat and looked for something to look at. Then she spoke, voice muffled by her hands: When I leave the house they watch me. They stare, they talk, they point. Someone is going to kill me, I feel it.
No, Reb Shmarya said. No one will hurt you. I will give you Yakov’s phone number. You will call if you need them. They will keep you safe.
Yakov raised an arm and said Reb Shmarya but Reb Shmarya shushed him, then stood and ushered Yakov and Mechel out the house and onto the stoop.
What do you want to say? Say it to me here.
Following him, Yakov said, it won’t change his mind.
I’ve been hearing things. Is what I’m asking now, is the point to convince Meir? No. It is to protect Dena. I want you to watch Meir. And I want that he should know you’re watching.
Mechel said, You’ve been hearing what? Yakov stared at Mechel, astonished that he’d ask such a question.
People have motivations, Reb Shmarya said. They always find their motivations.
Meir wouldn’t, Yakov said.
How do you know? Mechel asked.
Maybe yes maybe no, Reb Shmarya said. Maybe him but maybe someone else. But even if someone else then they would need his permission. Follow him, watch him.
They followed Meir. Seven o’clock, when Meir left his house — they were already parked out in front. They made no effort to hide themselves, the operation was hardly clandestine, Reb Shmarya wanted their presence blared. Meir drove to shul and they drove right behind him. He davened near the front, they davened a couple rows behind. Afterwards he learned for twenty minutes while they stood and sipped coffee and watched, these two bulky shul sentinels. He does this for us, Yakov asked, or you think he did it even before? I think both are true, Mechel said. Then back to their respective cars and to the cheder. After Meir went inside they waited, as per Reb Shmarya’s instructions, the entire day in the Etrog, until cheder was out. Seven hours. If you have to go to the bathroom you walk down the block to the restaurants. If you want something to eat or to drink you send Mechel. Yakov was miserable. What was making him miserable was his incomprehension. We can’t even see him, he said. We don’t know who’s coming into the cheder. We don’t know who he’s meeting with. We don’t know who he’s talking with on the telephone. What’s the point of staying here all day, we can’t even see him. Mechel however understood what Reb Shmarya had tasked them with. It wasn’t about watching Meir, it was about being seen by Meir. Throughout the day Meir (Mechel knew this because how could it be any other way?) pulled back the blinds to look out the window to see if the battered yellow car was still there; each time, it was; each time, they were there; each time, Dena was not alone.
Evenings mirrored the mornings. After cheder Meir drove to shul for mincha, then back home. Sometimes he stopped to pick up groceries; they’d follow him down the aisles.
How did Meir respond? In general, Meir pretended as if Mechel and Yakov did not exist.
But also not so simple: if Meir pretended as if Mechel and Yakov did not exist it was still true that he relished their attention. He soaked it up. He made no effort to lose them. In fact you could say he performed his life for them. He allowed himself to be on full display. As if to say: Come and see with whom the community sympathizes. Because everywhere he went he was treated like a wounded soldier. Embraces, invitations, well-wishes, pledges of support and promises of homemade dinners — in short, solidarity with him and fury at the enemy. In shul and on the street, in the shops and supermarkets, Mechel and Yakov stood within earshot of the rage: that Dena should do what she did and get away with it, without punishment, without consequence.
Yakov and Mechel were noticed; of course they were — two enormous men following Meir like deranged pets. They were seen as Dena’s protectors, and vilified for it. Women shot them looks of disgust and men sneered. Many were moved to say something to Yakov and Mechel, to chastise and berate — but Meir flicked his hand and shook his head and cut it short. Not out of sympathy, but as a display of power. They will eat you alive, the gesture said, if I but let go of the leash.
Only once were they really confronted. This happened outside the cheder. Meir was inside, all the children were inside. A rebbe came out of the building and knocked on the car window. Don’t open the window, Mechel advised. You don’t have to talk to him. Yakov, bored and miserable, lowered the window and the rabbi leaned over to talk to their faces. You side with the zonah, he said. Why? They didn’t answer. The rebbe continued: You understand the depravity of what she did? It’s a shame, if only there were still a sanhedrin! if only there were someone, a tzaddik like Pinchas!, brave and holy enough to do what has to be done!
The rebbe went back into the building. Yakov was furious; Mechel knew well the signs — Yakov’s anger was legible in his body, on his face. Mechel said, We have to make that this is over, no? What can be done, Yakov said, I don’t know, Reb Shmarya I know has a plan. But I don’t know. Gently Mechel suggested: maybe if they roughed Meir up, even a little, not too much, they could end this. We don’t have anything to give and we don’t have anything to take away, Mechel said. But we can make it so we do. Yakov, for the thousandth time, said it wasn’t his decision to make.
The carphone rang. It was towards the end of another interminable day outside the cheder. A listless Yakov let it ring and Mechel watched him let it ring and said, You going to answer? Yakov didn’t respond. Mechel was somewhere between concerned and curious. He had never seen anything less than the snappiest obeisance from Yakov towards Reb Shmarya. Mechel said, I’m going to answer him yea? Yakov said, What does he have to say that we don’t know? Mechel decided to hear in that an acquiescence and pushed the button and said Hallo. But on the other end was not the nasal voice of Reb Shmarya but the hysterical sobs of — Dena, it could only be Dena. Help, she whimpered. Please help. They stared at the phone and Yakov had nothing to say and Mechel had nothing to say. Dena’s pleas went uninterrupted and unanswered. Please. Please help.
Yea, Mechel finally said. We’ll help you. We are coming, soon as possible.
Thank you, Dena said.
Yes, Mechel said, and ended the call.
What do you think what we should do, Yakov said.
What do you mean? We should go —
We need permission —
So we call!
Yakov nodded and began dialing, then paused — It’s an emergency?
Mechel assured him that it was.
Within the hour they and Reb Shmarya were in Dena’s living room. Dena was no longer crying. She sat on the sofa, again in the middle, clutching on her lap a balled up blanket. Her hair was wholly covered, tikhel forward, beyond the hairline, no spills of hair. In a dipping voice she told them — what happened — but she was hard to understand — she trailed off — her voice dropped — she elided and got confused and broke down in tears — they asked her to start again, they asked her to repeat, they asked her to explain and clarify — and it took many fractured tellings for them to be told:
Two men knocked on Dena’s door. She didn’t open the door, she looked at them through the peephole. They were schnorrers, they looked like schnorrers, they said they were collecting for Ohel Chaya or Ohel Leah or something like this. An organization in Israel, they said. For widows and orphans. Please, have rakhmones, they said, even a few dollars. Still she didn’t open the door. She had nothing to give and she didn’t want to say no to their faces. Through the door she said, My husband isn’t home, I don’t have any money, please come back later. But they insisted, they didn’t go away, they knocked and insisted. Please, even a few dollars. Even one dollar! A mother is dying! A mother in Yerushalayim is dying! her bills, you can’t imagine! her children, she has five beautiful kinderlacht! the husband is dead already — two years he’s been dead, hit by a car. Already these kids what they have been through. Don’t let them become orphans. Even one dollar can help save a life. Dena, her heart breaking, opened the door and asked the men to wait while she went upstairs and found a few dollars. Thank you, they said. Tizkeh l’mitzvos. When she came back downstairs the door was closed and the schnorrers were in the kitchen. What were the schnorrers doing in her kitchen? They weren’t schnorrers. Sit, they commanded. They stayed standing. Sit, they said. Here, Dena said, refusing to comprehend, here is some money, I found some money. Take it. Sit, they said. Dena sat. The two men stood on either side of her. You’re a zonah, they said. Dena didn’t respond. She tried not to look at them, she did not want to see the expressions on their faces, she did not want to see the righteousness and certainty she knew they felt. The taller one pulled from his pocket a bottle of pills and put it on the table. He said, these pills, you see?, when we leave, here is what you will do: get into your bed and swallow all the pills. If you swallow less than all the pills it will be unpleasant but if you swallow all the pills it will be painless. It’s what you deserve, the shorter one said. It is what has to happen, the tall one said. Do you understand? Dena didn’t respond and he repeated the question: Do you understand? Do you understand what you have to do? Dena said yes, she understands. Good, they said, and they left the pills on the table and left.
Reb Shmarya asked her if she had called the police. She shook her head. Just the number you gave me. Reb Shmarya grunted. Good, he said. It would be, what a chillul hashem it would be. And the pills — where are the pills?
I didn’t touch them, Dena said. I didn’t dare.
Reb Shmarya instructed Mechel to flush the pills. In the kitchen Mechel found the bottle on an otherwise empty table, brought it to the bathroom. He dropped the pills one by one in the toilet, then flushed. Would it have counted as murder, he asked himself. Complicated question.
When he returned to the living room, Reb Shmarya informed him of the decision that had been reached: Dena would not stay here tonight — she is terrified — and Mechel and Yakov will stay here tonight — because if those men come back I want to know who they are. Why is she terrified, Mechel thought to himself. They didn’t hurt her.
Dena packed a bag and left with Reb Shmarya. Mechel and Yakov were alone in the house, uneasy and unsure how to be in the space. For a couple hours they stayed in the living room — it felt more permissive there — and talked of the usual nothing. It turned evening. Yakov wondered aloud if he should get food and Mechel cautioned him against it. They might come back, Mechel said, though they both knew it wasn’t true. Yakov announced he was going to sleep and took off his shoes and laid himself out on the sofa.
Mechel sat for a while then went upstairs and without quite planning to entered Dena’s bedroom. Here was her smell, certainly. Her things. He touched her bed and dresser, ran his fingers on the linens, on the surfaces and knobs and pillows, but he did not open the drawers, he did not unmake the bed. He lay down on the floor beside the bed and stayed there until he fell into a half-sleep. He thought or dreamed about certain rituals. Pounding a breast in atonement. Burning a mouth with maror. Circumcision and a fingertip of wine. Eat the ashes. Tie your tefillin.
He woke up startled, disoriented, then went to the living room and stood over Yakov, this giant squeezed onto the sofa, this miserable cramped figure. Yakov wasn’t moving but Mechel knew he was awake.
I know what we have to do, Mechel said.
We have to do it ourselves.
What do you mean?
Without Reb Shmarya.
No. No. What? I don’t do anything without Reb Shmarya. He is my rebbe. I don’t always understand but I don’t have to understand.
Do you love him?
You would do anything he says?
You would do anything to protect him?
Then this you have to do.
Yakov still didn’t understand or refused to understand and so Mechel crouched down and explained it to him. Reb Shmarya can’t persuade Meir. Because Reb Shmarya doesn’t have power. He has no authority. But we have the power. We can solve this problem for him. It is what Reb Shmarya wants, Yakov. Some wants can’t be spoken. Some desires can’t be articulated even to their bearer. But this is what he wants. He wants freedom from this. You can free him. Meir’s fear will free all of us.
Yakov didn’t respond and Mechel retreated to the kitchen, then back to Dena’s room. He fell asleep on her bed, in his clothes. Before dawn he was awakened by Yakov’s hand — gentle, surprisingly gentle — on his shoulder.
They drove to a house Mechel didn’t recognize and parked in the driveway beside a white minivan. The sun was just coming up, gilding the van, the sky, Mechel’s thoughts. Yakov seemed newly determined. The world had new momentum, a staleness had broken. Against the garage stood a man teasing and twirling his tzitzit like lover’s hair. Smirking, the man exchanged with Yakov car keys. Mechel and Yakov drove off in the van, leaving the Etrog in the driveway.
You learn how to drive yet? Yakov asked.
You’re asking do I have my license?
I’m asking do you know how to drive.
I know — ? I know what this pedal does and what that pedal does and the wheel is the wheel.
They drove through an unclenching Borough Park and pulled up in front of Meir’s house and waited. As they’d done every morning the past few weeks but this morning, when Meir exited his door Mechel and Yakov exited theirs. No plan had been set, no instructions given, but nonetheless Mechel felt perfectly in sync with Yakov. He could see Yakov’s will and intentions. Meir was a couple paces away from his car when they intercepted him. He saw them coming and, true to form, gave nothing away, showed no surprise, even as they grabbed him — disgusting, Mechel thought, this man’s calmness, it masks a gross evil — and forced him — maddeningly he offered no resistance — into the back of the van. From his pocket Yakov pulled out a pair of handcuffs and locked Meir’s hands behind his back. Mechel sat in the back, beside Meir, between Meir and the door. Yakov slid the door shut and climbed into the driver’s seat and sped off.
Yakov accelerated onto the BQE.
Meir was quiet, even now. He still hadn’t said a word. His jacket’s shoulders were pushed up and out, making him seem diminutive, childlike. He didn’t seem at all afraid; he just stared blankly at the back of Yakov’s head.
This, Yakov said, we can end now. I can turn the car around and drop you off at the cheder and we’ll never come to you again. It’s easy. It’s so easy. It’s so easy. Why — Yakov slammed the steering wheel with his palm — can’t you let this be easy?
Whose will do you believe you are fulfilling here today, Meir said. Then his head dropped, chin onto chest, the pose of a martyr. Mechel was incensed at Meir’s obstinacy, at his new silence.
Yakov exited the highway onto the wide industrial streets of Queens and turned into an unmarked driveway, pulled up to a sturdy yellow gate. He spoke into a box and the gate receded, swallowed by the wall, and Yakov drove through. Inside was a massive lot, empty, boxed in by warehouses. It was as desolate as any place Mechel had ever been — ten blocks wide and ten blocks long, at least: a concrete desert.
Yakov drove to the center of the lot, middle of this flat gray expanse, stopped the car. He got out, leaving his door open, and walked around and slid open the side-door and beckoned Mechel to get out: Yakov took Mechel’s place, next to Meir, and Mechel took his, in the driver’s seat.
What I should do, Mechel asked. Where are we going?
Nowhere. Make big slow circles. Keep the speed the same.
Mechel put the car into gear and began driving a large slow circle. Yakov told him to drive a little faster. Like this? Mechel asked, concentrating mightily. Like this is good. Stay like this until I say. Mechel imagined his foot a statue’s, no give or twitch.
There was a sudden loud rush of air — Yakov had opened the door. In the rearview mirror Mechel could see a slice of asphalt incandescence. Eyes darting mirror to in front to mirror, Mechel watched in snatches as Yakov forced Meir onto the floor, onto his stomach, and pull-dragged him forward so that his head was outside the van. Mechel wondered if Yakov was planning to close the door on Meir’s head, a horizontal guillotine. But that couldn’t be it — the car wouldn’t have to be moving if so. Yakov said something to Meir but whatever it was Mechel could not hear, it was too loud.
Yakov shouted to Mechel to go slower. Mechel slowed the car down. Slower!, Yakov shouted. Mechel brought the speed down to a few miles an hour. Yakov pulled and dragged Meir further — up until his sternum was outside the vehicle.
Yakov grabbed Meir’s peyos like reins, and dipped Meir’s head towards the moving ground; then pulled him back up, so that his back was arced, and said something — again Mechel could not hear — and dipped again, then brought back up. Mechel turned in his seat to see but dared not take his eyes off the road for long — Meir’s face looked undamaged.
What will you do, Yakov said. Mechel was driving slow enough to hear.
Nothing, Meir said. No.
Yakov pushed Meir’s head down, pulled it back up. Mechel turned to see. On Meir’s nose was a missing oval of skin.
And now? have you changed your mind? Yakov said.
No. How dare —
Yakov pushed the head back down, and held it there. Mechel slowed down, maybe out of mercy, maybe because he wanted to be able to hear.
Accompanying image courtesy of Sara Erenthal.