Chava wasn’t stupid; she knew she was Jewish, but that’s about all she knew. The only thing her parents had ever told her about being Jewish was that her name was pronounced like the “ch” in Chanuka. But because they had never celebrated Chanuka, the only thing she knew about the holiday was what she had seen in supermarkets around December time, when they sold cards with little menorahs and dreidels on them. She also knew that a holiday called Passover happened in the spring, because they sold cards then too. That’s all she knew. Her parents never talked about much other than work and politics, and neither of them were home enough to even do that very often. They didn’t take many family trips. Her mother was a partner in an international law firm and often made trips overseas for business, and her father owned his own medical practice. The only thing they had ever seemed to care about was getting ahead at work. Talking to their daughter about religion, Chava was sure, was the last thing on their minds.
But Chava had a computer, so early Sunday morning, she opened her laptop and began to read. She first did some cursory searches on the internet for things like “Judasim,” and “Religious Jews,” but she found so many hits and so many confusing articles that she wasn’t sure where to turn. Instead, she narrowed her search to online books and put in the same search terms, hoping to find some basic information in an introductory book. She thought maybe she could learn more about what a chuppah was and what it symbolized. It struck her that she had studied the major religions of the world in high school, but that she still knew nothing practical about her own religion. Chava wasn’t surprised; as far as she knew, there weren’t that many Jewish people where she lived. She thought that maybe there were some other Jewish students in her high school class, but nobody had ever mentioned it. It had never been important to them.
Chava found some online books and opened the first one to the table of contents, hoping to see something about marriage, and was instantly overwhelmed by the amount of options. Circumcision. The Sabbath Day. The Festivals. The Laws of Keeping Kosher.
Blinking quickly, Chava switched to the section on lifecycles, including marriage, birth, and death, and started reading the introduction to the chapter. She read for several pages, before closing the tab on her computer and rubbing her palms into her eyes. Only some of what she was reading made sense to her. She felt like she was only scraping the tip of a very large iceberg. Her understanding of her heritage was so slight that she didn’t even know how to measure how much she didn’t know.
But there had to be answers. There had to be someone, somewhere, who knew something about Jews, even if it wasn’t here in her small town. Chava tapped her fingers on her keyboard and then typed in “Orthodox Jewish community.” If she was going to figure out what her parents were hiding, she was going to do it right.
The results that came back were mostly Wikipedia articles talking about orthodox communities in America, but one website, she noticed, talked about restaurants that were kosher. After a quick side search on the meaning of the word “kosher”, Chava decided that any town that had a kosher restaurant probably also had religious Jews. She searched for a kosher restaurant near her, and the closest one seemed to be about two and a half hours away.
It only took her a minute to decide.
• • •
In the car, Chava thought about all of the chapters in the books she had found online. She had never known how much there was to being Jewish. Actually, she had never known anything about being Jewish at all. Every time she passed an unfamiliar town sign and started to lose her resolve, she reminded herself that there was a black hat and a wedding gown sitting in her basement, and she needed to get answers. She didn’t know exactly how she would answer her questions or what she might discover, but she knew she needed to do it.
When she arrived in the town, Chava pulled her car into the closest parallel parking spot and got out, sliding her sunglasses down over her face and locking her car. As soon as her eyes adjusted to the light, she felt awkward. Not only was she two and a half hours away from home, by herself, but apparently she stood out, a lot. She knew she would stand out for asking basic questions, but she never thought she would stand out for wearing pants and short sleeves. As she stood on the curb and looked down the length of the street, she saw dozens of women coming in and out of shops, all wearing long skirts and long sleeves, and some with scarves on their heads. Didn’t they realize it was summertime? Chava didn’t remember reading about this in the book. Why were they all dressed like that?
Chava swallowed and reminded herself again of what sat in the basement. She stuffed her keys in her pocket and began to walk down the street. She tried not to feel stupid. She tried not to think that driving two and a half hours to a town full of strangers because of a picture in her basement was insane.
Chava began walking, but she also pulled out her phone and called Evie.
“I’m driving to my aunt’s house,” Evie said. “What’s up?”
“I’m—” Chava stopped. “I’m just taking a walk,” she said after a moment. She was walking, but down the street in a strange town with strange people.
“You okay?” Evie asked.
Chava stopped before each storefront to gaze at the strange words written on the windows and look inside the stores. Sheitals. Kosher. Shabbos. Minyan. Some windows were written in Hebrew. Her chest began to fill with anxiety. What if she got lost? Would anyone help her?
Chava realized she hadn’t responded. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah I’m here.”
“I asked if you were okay,” Evie said.
Chava was staring at her reflection in a store window. Beyond her face, silver candelabras and elaborate silver cups and goblets stood on display on glass shelves. She stared through her own reflected eyes at the Hebrew words etched into one of the silver plates.
“Did you know my family is Jewish?” Chava asked.
There was a pause. “I guess,” Evie said.
Chava traced her finger around the outline of the unfamiliar words on the silver plate. A whole store, she thought, just for silver cups? What did they do with silver cups?
“Are any of our other friends Jewish?” Chava asked. It seemed suddenly completely crazy to her that there was an entire town dedicated to Jewish things. What did being Jewish mean? Did they really need an entire town for it? Weren’t Jews just like everyone else? If it was such a big thing, why didn’t she know about it before?
“I don’t think so,” Evie said. There was another pause. Chava heard the engine of Evie’s car in the background. “Why are you asking?”
“I don’t know,” Chava said. “I was just thinking about it.” She pulled herself away from her reflection and the silver store. She walked down the street past two women in headscarves. She shook her head. Why headscarves? “You know?” She said, half to herself. “I’m Jewish.”
“Yeah,” Evie said. “And?”
Chava paused in the middle of the sidewalk. I’m Jewish, she thought. And? What did it actually mean to her, that she was Jewish? She was Jewish—and what?
She had absolutely no idea.
“I don’t know,” Chava whispered.
“Okay,” Evie said. She sounded uncertain. “Does this have anything to do with what happened in art class?” Evie said.
“No,” Chava said.
Evie knew she was lying. They didn’t lie to each other. But Chava’s heart was still beating unevenly at Evie’s question, and the fact that she didn’t have an answer. Not knowing was terrifying. She was on the verge of throwing her entire life into a question about a dress in her basement, and she had no idea why. What was she doing?
“I’m at my aunt’s house,” Evie said.
Chava blinked. “See you on Tuesday at class?” She said.
There was a pause, but Chava was too distracted to notice.
“See you then,” Evie said.
Chava stuck her phone in her pocket, still standing right in the middle of the sidewalk, people passing her on either side.
I’m Jewish, she thought again. And? She knew it meant something. Didn’t it?
Chava shook her head and forced herself to stop thinking about it. It was true that she didn’t know what she was doing, or why. But here she was, in this strange town. And the only thing she could do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.
• • •
Chava wandered around the town for a few hours, observing streets and storefronts, sitting in a park, and watching people. As the late afternoon began, girls more or less her age started to appear on the streets, in long pleated skirts and collared shirts that all matched. She wondered if they were coming from school, and maybe they got out later than she did? They looked like school uniforms. She wondered what kind of school made you wear pleats and collars. She had never seen anything like it. Young mothers were walking with their children, many with strollers. She didn’t see many men, and wondered about that too. She was just trying to take in as many sights as possible.
After spending quite a bit of time in the park, Chava sat up from the bench and stretched. It was getting late, and she wanted to find some food. On her way back towards the main part of town, she passed the window of a bakery that exhibited divine-looking pastries that were rolled up with chocolate and had a shiny glaze. She pushed open the door.
The smell inside the bakery was incredible. Chava looked around at the middle school-aged girls in pleated skirts and stockings sitting at a table near the window, eating chocolate pastries. There were two women in headscarves waiting at the register to purchase browned, braided breads. She browsed the shelves with vast trays of chocolate, cinnamon, and sugary desserts. A box of black and white cookies caught her eye. She brought it up to the counter and waited behind the two women. As she listened to them, she realized that not only did they dress like they were from another world, but they also spoke a language that hardly made sense to her. It was hard for her to piece together the conversation.
“They’re making sheva brachos by Esther this Shabbos,” the first lady said to her friend. Chava thought she had seen the word “Shabbos” written on a store window, but she didn’t know what it meant.
“That’s so nice,” the second lady said. “It really was a beautiful chasunah.”
“I was only able to make it to the badeken,” the first lady said. “But I’ll stop by the sheva brachos for sure.”
Chava wanted to interrupt. She wanted to say, excuse me, but I’m Jewish too! She felt wildly excluded, like these women were purposely making up words she wouldn’t know just to prove to her that she didn’t belong. She had to hold her tongue as they checked out to keep herself from shouting at them. When she finally made it up to the counter and the old lady with a kerchief asked her what she wanted, Chava found herself dumbstruck. Now finally faced with a real-live orthodox Jew, Chava had no idea what to say. In the last five hours she had seen and experienced a way of life she had never imagined, and she felt like she was swimming much too far out at sea.
The old lady took the cookies from her hand, smiled, and began to ring them up. She was saying something, but Chava wasn’t listening. She was just watching the lady move. In Chava’s mind, very religious people always seemed like they lived in far-away places with ancient practices, like the Amish in Pennsylvania. But here this lady was, here all these people were, standing before her, and Chava didn’t know how to process any of it.
“I’m Jewish,” she finally said. It came out as a whisper. The old lady smiled again and handed her the cookies.
“Enjoy,” she said. Chava took the bag and wanted to say more, but the lady was already waiting on the next customer. Chava stepped quickly away, feeling at once more comfortable and more uncomfortable. She didn’t know why those words had come out of her mouth. She didn’t know what to feel anymore. She left the store quickly. As she walked down the street, she was no longer interested in aimlessly wandering the town. She was here for answers. She wasn’t here for chocolates. She wanted to know what this all meant. She wanted to know who she was.
She wanted to know who Chava was.
to be continued…