Driving home later that night, Chava’s hands were still shaking. She had seen so many things that were new to her, eaten delicious food at the local deli, and gotten a small taste of what life looked like for religious Jews. But the craziest part—more so than driving two hours away just to watch people live their daily lives—was what happened at the end. And even crazier—the fact that she said yes.
After leaving the bakery, Chava had turned around in circles, looking for something to fix her gaze on, something that would help her. Her eyes had come to rest on a storefront filled with books. She made a beeline for the door. If there was any place in this whole town that could help her at that moment, it was a bookstore.
Inside the bookstore felt different than other bookstores Chava had visited. It was quiet, as many bookstores were, but it was more than that. The people perusing the shelves didn’t look like they were just looking for the next summer read. They looked like they were searching for life-saving waters, their fingers trailing along leather-bound titles in Hebrew like they were prized possessions.
Repressing a shiver, Chava made her way to the front desk, where she had to hit a bell before a young girl who seemed to be around her age appeared. There was a split second when each inspected the other. Chava quickly noted that this girl was wearing a collared shirt that she had buttoned up to the top button with a black skirt that covered her knees, and a braid that wrapped around her shoulder to rest on her collar. The girl, Chava was sure, must have noticed Chava’s short sleeve, low-necked shirt and denim jeans. She was already used to being looked at after walking around town, and tried to ignore it.
“Can I help you find something?” The girl asked.
Now, finally in the place she felt had answers, Chava had no idea what to say.
The girl stared, and Chava stared back. She genuinely had no idea what she was doing or where she was going with any of this.
“I was looking for some answers about something,” Chava said. “About a chuppah.” That seemed to be the best place to start. “I thought maybe you could help?”
The girl nodded. “Are you doing a project for school?”
“Do people do that?”
The girl raised an eyebrow, and Chava blushed. She knew she sounded stupid. But now she was also feeling cheated. She knew her high school had never taught her anything about religious Judaism.
“Sometimes people come in from local high schools. They do projects on different religions.”
“I’m just looking to research something on my own.”
“About a chuppah, you said?”
“Yes.” Chava tapped her fingers on the counter, trying not to seem as out of place as she was. While she was standing there, a man came to the counter with three red leather-bound volumes with red speckled print on the edges. He was wearing a white shirt and a black jacket with what looked like long strings hanging from his waist. And on his head—Chava couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She had seen a few of them on the street, but this was the first time one was standing right next to her, one she could actually talk to.
“Excuse me, but you’re wearing a black hat.”
The man had been exchanging money with the girl behind the counter, and they both stopped and looked at her. Chava felt her cheeks begin to burn.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I just—it’s just—this is the hat that my father wore—I mean, I saw this picture of my parents, and my father was wearing a hat just like that, and I’ve never seen one like that before, and my parents aren’t religious or anything, I mean, we don’t do anything at all—and I just—your hat…” Chava forced herself to stop before she embarrassed herself beyond rescue.
The man, whose eyes had gotten rounder as she spoke, cleared his throat.
“A lot of us wear these hats,” he said.
The silence between the three of them was palpable.
“I didn’t know,” Chava said.
“Let me show you around the shop,” the girl behind the desk said.
The man nodded to Chava. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he said. He took the books the girl had bagged for him and left.
“What’s your name?” the girl behind the desk asked.
“I’m Ava,” Chava said.
“Ava,” the girl said. “I’m Shoshana. This is my father’s store. I don’t usually work here, but my brother is sick, so I’m filling in for him.”
“Nice to meet you,” Chava said.
“So you’re doing a bit more than just research on a chuppah, it sounds like.”
Chava let out a little laugh. “I guess it is more than that, yeah. But I don’t even know where to start.”
Shoshana nodded. “Maybe we can start in the English section.” She led Chava over to a few shelves stacked from floor to ceiling with books. Chava was amazed.
“I could stay here all day,” she said, “there is so much.”
“Well you might want to start slow,” Shoshana said, but Chava was barely listening. She was seeing entire sets of books on the topics she had seen online. Whole volumes on the Sabbath, the festivals—there was just so much.
“Is there a book on hats?” Chava said.
Shoshana laughed. “I’m sorry—” She said, quickly covering her mouth and suppressing the giggles. “No books on hats, no. The black hat is very normal. Everyone here wears them. There wouldn’t be a book on it.”
“What’s tz—tzn—what’s that?” Chava pointed to a book with a weirdly spelled word in it, and Shoshana took it down from the shelf.
“Tznius,” she said. Chava tried to repeat the pronunciation in her mind.
“What is that?” Chava examined the book in Shoshana’s hands. Shoshana began to answer her, but Chava cut her off. “Hey—look! That’s my name!”
“What’s your name?”
“That!” Chava pointed to the author’s name, embossed on the bottom front cover. It said Chava Stein. “That’s my name.” she said again.
“Chava is your name?” Shoshana asked. She was looking at Chava strangely.
“Well I’m not good at pronouncing it—but yeah that sounds right, the way you said it.”
Shoshana was still staring at her.
“Oh—my parents call me Ava. I usually go by Ava because I can’t pronounce my name. I mean, nobody can, really.”
Shoshana tapped her fingers a few times against the back cover of the book and then replaced it.
“Chava,” she said. “Ch. Like you’re trying to cough something up.”
Chava tried it a few times, and Shoshana nodded encouragingly.
“Do you mind if I call you Chava, instead of Ava?” Shoshana asked.
“Sure,” Chava said. She had turned back to look at the books again, but she could feel Shoshana still looking at her.
“I have a better idea,” Shoshana said. “If you really want to learn more about Judaism.”
Chava turned to her expectantly, and Shoshana smiled brightly.
“I want you to come to us for Shabbos.”
• • •
Chava smiled now, thinking about Shoshana, but it also made her stomach drop. Going to a random person’s house, and staying overnight there? What if she was murdered? Kidnapped? Her parents would never agree, and that meant she would have to ask Evie to lie for her. Which meant that she would have to explain a little bit of what was going on to Evie.
Chava pushed the thought aside. She still felt weird about her last conversation with Evie, and didn’t know how she was going to tell her about everything she was doing. Instead, Chava thought more about Shoshana, and the books in the store. She had purchased one book on the basics of Judaism, and one book entirely about the Sabbath, since she was soon going to experience one for the first time.
“Shabbos,” she said out loud. Shoshana had taught her how to pronounce it. The word felt foreign on her tongue. “Sha-a-b-b-o-s,” Chava said again.
Shoshana had explained that she would need to arrive on Friday before sunset, and that she would stay overnight at Shoshana’s house and leave Saturday night after nightfall. She explained briefly how they didn’t use electricity on Shabbos. Chava shrugged. It seemed weird, but if that’s what they wanted to do, that was fine. Anyway, she wasn’t interested in putting on long skirts and kerchiefs and not using electricity. She just wanted to know a bit more about what Jews did. And maybe then she could understand what had happened to her parents.
She knew it was crazy. She knew without a doubt that what she was doing was insane. But there was a drive within her to explore what this all meant. She had a whole week to plan for her trip to Shoshana’s house for Shabbos, and she was going to make the most of it.
When Chava arrived home, her father was still awake, sitting in the living room.
“You’re home a bit late,” he said.
Chava shrugged. “It’s Sunday and it’s summer. I don’t have anything else to do.”
“Want to come sit?” Her father gestured to the couch.
Chava hesitated, if only because her father often talked much less than her mother, and she was sure that her mother had told her father about their argument.
She stepped into the living room and sat on the arm of the couch.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Mom told me a little about your conversation,” he said. Chava nodded.
“I want you to know that we have raised you in the best way we can,” he said. Chava drew a pattern in the carpet with the tip of her shoe. “We made the best decisions we could to make sure you would have the best life possible.”
“Okay,” Chava said. What did he expect her to say?
Her father patted her on the arm. “So we won’t have any more questions about this, right?”
Chava blinked and looked up at her father. “Questions about what?” she asked.
“About any of this stuff.”
“Like, your chuppah?”
Chava’s father’s cleared his throat. “About any of this stuff.”
For a second, Chava remembered everything she had seen in the town, and then of Shoshana’s words: I want you to come to us for Shabbos.
“Of course not,” Chava said. “No more questions.”
No more questions, she thought. Only answers.
to be continued…