A Tree Falls in Boro Park
After ten years, Jerusalem had yielded no career and no man. It was time to go to the city of intense dating.
After ten years in Israel, in Jerusalem no less, where the air gave off a white light that was suffused with a kind of holiness, I left and moved back to the United States. The whole time, I'd been studying and teaching Torah. I hadn't read an American newspaper or seen a movie (except for E.T.), let alone television, in ten years. After pickling in Jewishness in Jerusalem -- the food, the politics, the religion, the people -- I sought out the most Jewish place I could find outside of Israel: Hassidic Boro Park.
When I stepped onto the El-Al plane, I felt like someone had ripped out my insides. Before I left, a rabbi had told me: The good, geshmak feeling you get from walking the streets of Israel, that's comparable to the pleasant feeling you get from a Shabbat in America. The soul-brimming-over high you get from Shabbat in Israel -- that compares to Yom Kippur in America. As for the spiritual high of Yom Kippur in Israel? For that no counterpart exists in America.
So why was I leaving? I loved it but I was going nowhere. After ten years, Jerusalem had yielded no career and no man. It was time to go to New York, the city of intense dating. I also hoped to get my MFA in fiction. Maybe America still was the land of opportunity.
Back in the U.S.A, so much had changed in the last ten years. The cars' windshields looked different, very postmodern. Store doors kept opening magnetically when I least expected them to, as my arms would grope the air in front of me, utterly befuddled at the technological advances that had occurred in my absence. When I confided to a friend that I didn't know who Indira Gandhi was, she ordered me to read the New York Times, cover to cover, for the next six weeks.
I could tell people pitied me. I had no real job, no husband, and I obviously didn't know how to dress in this community.
I was disoriented. Every time I entered a bank, I'd reach to kiss the non-existent mezuzah on the doorpost. Communism had collapsed and I had barely taken notice. My friends from yeshiva high school had gone on to become actuaries, psychologists, editors, teachers and physical therapists. Many of them were now married with children. But, I brightly reminded myself, I could decipher scores of medieval Biblical commentaries, and was so well-versed in the intricate laws of keeping kosher that I could take over any mashgiach's job in a restaurant. Yet somehow I didn't think these skills would amount to much, even here, in the most Jewish of towns, Boro Park.
I could tell people pitied me. I had no real job, no husband, and I obviously didn't know how to dress in this community, for soon after my arrival in Brooklyn, a friend kindly took me aside and explained: The clothes you wear every day in America, are those you wear for Shabbat in Israel. The clothes you wear for Shabbat in America -- you wear for a wedding in Israel. As for weddings in America, there's no such equivalent in Israel. "What about the clothes I wore every day in Israel?" I asked. "Those clothes?" she said. A look of consternation furrowed her forehead as she puzzled that one. "Ah." Her face relaxed and she answered, "Those are the clothes you take out the garbage or clean with."
Shortly after, my sister "encouraged" me to throw out my Birkenstocks and nowhere skirts that she said looked like appliance covers, and took me to buy -- yech -- suits, straight, black, synthetic blend skirts and pointy-toed shoes. Thanks to her, I blended in with the New York natives. Still, I felt like a greenhorn. Upon entering a Shop Rite, I'd instinctively show the fruit guy or the store manager the contents of my purse to check for bombs. They gave me the oddest looks. I walked down the aisles, pushing my cart along, trying to blend in, and it seemed that a tension and sweetness had been sucked out of the atmosphere, leaving only the stale stuff behind, especially when I recalled the spiritually charged air of Jerusalem. There was no buzz here. I didn't feel God's presence one whit. I tried to adjust.
Meanwhile I had to pay the bills and had no time to get my MFA. I took a job as a residence manager of a home for the developmentally disabled and was in over my head. There was no way I could make peace between the Polish cleaners, the Hungarian cook and the Jamaican caregivers, not to mention a few other warring nationalities.
As I sat in a crowded Boro Park synagogue on a particular Shabbat in June, all my misery came crashing down on me. I knew absolutely no one in that shul and the tunes and prayers failed to move me. Here, too, I couldn't intuit God's presence. I couldn't help feeling angry. No potential man or MFA could justify this vapid existence. Added to my loneliness, I had a new roommate who was a lovely person, but something wasn't clicking. (The old roommate I loved, but her basement apartment was a decrepit mess and it was unbearable.)
Brooklyn was darkest exile to me, and for lack of imagination, I blamed it all on God.
There in the Boro Park synagogue, I reached a low point. I never should've left Israel. Brooklyn was darkest exile to me, and for lack of imagination, I blamed it all on God.
During the haftorah reading, the women began talking animatedly to each other. Was this some Hassidic custom I didn't know about? If so, I hated it, and it didn't help that I had no one to talk to myself. Suddenly I put down my prayer book and exited the synagogue.
I walked down the street, shocked at myself. I'd never left in the middle of prayers before and it seemed sacrilegious. My face was wet and I couldn't tell if it was from tears or from the fact that it had just started raining. Where was I supposed to go? Back to my new, polite roommate in her immaculate apartment? At that moment a thought crossed my mind that had never surfaced before: I wanted to die. I even might have said it out loud, softly: God, let me die.
I stumbled along in the rain, turning down this street and up that one, not knowing where to go. The rain came down harder. I passed a bunch of black-knickered Hassidic children playing in a front yard, oblivious to the rain. I decided to take refuge under a huge oak tree, at least 50 feet high. There, I watched the children play tag, running, dodging, side-curls wet against their cheeks. Now and then they stopped to stare gravely at me as I stood under the oak. Even these small children knew I was a misfit who didn't belong. The rain intensified, the children ran indoors, and I stood protected under the oak tree. Even though I wanted to die, I still didn't want to get wet.
My thoughts frightened me. How could I want to die? Was life really that bad? Was I truly depressed -- or just displaced? The questions were giving me a headache. I stood under the tree and watched the early summer rain falling.
I stood five, ten, fifteen minutes, and I began to grow attached to that towering oak tree, with its profuse, leafy overhang. My back and limbs seemed to draw strength from the trunk's knots and whorls. This was my spot. I'm never leaving here, I told myself, even after the rain had subsided a bit. I thought of the prophet Jonah, how he'd been wandering dejectedly in the broiling desert, asking to die, grieving after God had favored Ninveh's penance. God made a gourd-like plant grow overhead to protect him from the elements. When a worm ate up the plant, the prophet in his distress again asked to die. And God said in effect, "Is that all it takes?" God's words in essence reduced Jonah's existential despair to -- a tantrum.
I stared up at the canopy of thick branches overhead. The rain had stopped. I felt a little better. I realized that I too had no real wish to die and was mostly having a tantrum. My self-pity and grandiosity were a little much. Things in America weren't going as well as I would've liked, and I would have to be more mature about it, I supposed. Certainly there were steps I could take to make a viable spiritual life here. I could move to a more suitable neighborhood. And there was no reason I couldn't go for my MFA in the evening at Brooklyn College.
Now, looking around me, Boro Park looked kind of pretty, all watery and green. Across the street I noticed a short, burly Hassid making his way down the sidewalk. He cast a surprised look at me there under the tree then turned his gaze away. I decided I'd visit my old roommate who lived a few blocks down 15th Avenue. Why hadn't I thought of that earlier? I pushed myself off the tree and began walking energetically down the street.
I had taken about ten steps when I heard a sharp, cracking noise.
I had taken about ten steps when I heard a sharp, cracking noise. I turned and looked back at my tree, at my spot. A huge branch, as thick as a man's torso, had severed itself from the top of the tree, and I watched it come tumbling down, crashing through the foliage, like a giraffe falling off a cliff. It hit the spot where I'd been standing less than half a minute ago. I stood still as a stone. I couldn't move. This didn't really happen, I said to myself. Uh uh. I'm imagining this.
I lifted my eyes and saw the short Hassid across the street stopped in his tracks. His eyes looked stunned. He just stood there, staring, his hands at his side, his palms outward. He'd seen me standing under the tree and now he'd seen the branch falling down from at least 50 feet high. If I hadn't moved just then I would've been crushed by it. We looked at each other across 15th Avenue. He cupped his hands around his mouth. "You have to bentsch gomel!" he shouted at me.
Dazed, I nodded. He was saying I had to recite the blessing for deliverance, for somebody who had experienced a personal miracle. This surely counted as one, and I roused myself from my shock, and continued on my way. I felt like I'd received both a smack and an embrace, God's judgment and love intertwined. As if God had heard my words and said, "Don't ever ask to die. I just might take you up on it." As if He'd judged me and I'd passed muster, but just barely. I heard that, and, "No, I'm not letting you die, Ruchama. Not yet. You still have some things you need to accomplish. I've got plans for you." I felt like I was overhearing God's thoughts about me.
It was the most extraordinary feeling. God was saying, I care enough to move a tree branch out of your way. God was intervening in my life intimately, even though I was living in chutz l'aretz. I felt the presence of God even though I was no longer living in Israel.
I had to tell my old roommate. The Hassid had been my witness but now if I didn't tell someone; it would be as if it had never happened. I was spooked. I began to run, almost slipping in a patch of rainwater. I ran faster. And now something really strange started to happen. As I rushed past, balcony doors began sliding open and children ran out onto their porches. The Hassidic children were waving at me as I flew past, smiling at me. Balcony doors were opening up the entire avenue, or so it seemed at the time, though perhaps it was just four or five doors. As dismal and unwelcoming Boro Park had seemed, now the place had transformed, washed by the rain, the children beckoning to me with waves and smiles. It was like I was seeing the soul of Boro Park. If I could adjust my vision, godliness could be discerned in most places. It was harder outside of Jerusalem but not impossible. Perhaps I would make it in America after all. I kept running.
I reached my old roommate's apartment. I pounded on the basement door until she opened it. I fell into her arms and sobbed out my story. An hour later we went to the actual site and examined the tree branch, as if to verify it had really fallen. Part lay on the grass, part on the sidewalk, and Boro Parkers stepped around it, giving it a wide berth, as if the dead branch might rise with reptilian cunning and snap them into pieces.
The next day it was gone, the flattened grass the only reminder. Later I checked out whether indeed I was required to recite the blessing for miracles and deliverance. Technically, as it turned out, I wasn't required, but what did it matter? I had experienced my own private miracle.
A week later I pointed out the tree to a guy I had started seeing. He was properly impressed. But my true satisfaction came years later, when, passing through Boro Park, I introduced my husband and children to the tree on 15th Avenue. Together, we made a L'Chaim.
This article originally appeared in World Jewish Digest.
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