“So, you’re just, like, sleeping at a stranger’s house?”
“I know,” Chava said. “I know.”
Evie began to giggle, and Chava groaned and put her face in her hands.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
“I mean—” Evie paused, and Chava looked up at her. They both started laughing. “I’m not going to say that what’s happening with your parents isn’t also crazy,” Evie said.
They were sitting in Starbucks in the Commons, waiting for art class to start. Evie was still laughing over the whipped topping of her drink, which she was stirring with a straw.
“It really is crazy,” she said.
“I know,” Chava said. “I feel like a spy. Like I’m in the FBI.”
Evie snorted. “The Mystery of the Name, starring Ava Borden.”
“Chava,” Chava said. She tried to pronounce the first letter properly, but it came out sounding like a gag and a cough.
“Honestly,” Chava said, “I just really want to know who this Yaakov person is.”
“It’s kind of scary. Like who knows what our parents did with their lives before we existed.”
“Well, don’t you expect them to just—I don’t know—tell us?”
Evie was quiet for a moment. They both stirred their drinks. Evie’s parents had always been the more easy-going ones, the ones who were warm, welcoming, and open about their ideas, hopes, dreams, and especially their past. Chava’s parents had been the uptight ones, the ones who needed two weeks notice before she and Evie had a playdate or a sleepover, the ones who didn’t let her go out with Evie because she needed to study for her SATs. Evie didn’t have to worry about family secrets.
“So you’re going to stay by these strangers,” Evie said again.
Chava nodded. “I know her name, at least. They seem nice.”
“I don’t get it; this is just something that Jews do?”
“Honestly? I don’t know.”
Evie sipped the last of her drink and threw out the cup. “I mean, how much of this Jewish stuff are you going to do?”
Chava took a big sip of her drink and swished it around her mouth. Evie had listened with rapt attention to everything Chava had told her about the picture, the gown and the hat, and the note to the mystery man. She had nodded the entire time Chava talked about the Jewish town, but she had also shifted uncomfortably when Chava had started to talk about her Jewish background. Really religious people were bigoted, she had said.
Chava shrugged. “I just want to know more about my background. Shouldn’t I?”
“I just don’t know if you’re going to like being around them,” Evie said. “I’ve never heard good things about super religious people. They’re kind of weird, and they really don’t like outsiders.”
“Everyone I’ve met so far has been really nice. I just don’t want to be in the dark anymore. About anything.”
“I know,” Evie said. “I just don’t want you to become a crazy person and move to a compound in Utah or something.”
They both laughed. “I don’t think that will happen,” Chava said. “These people are normal. I’m excited.”
“Good,” Evie said. They began walking towards the art class. “I’m glad you found something that’s meaningful,” Evie said.
Chava nodded. Evie knew how much she had struggled with the idea of going to college. And Chava knew Evie was having ideas of her own.
“How is planning for the Europe trip going?” Chava asked.
“It’s going,” Evie said. “I’ve only planned one leg so far. It’s a lot of work.” She smiled at Chava. “You’re still invited,” she said.
“I know,” Chava said. “And I’m still not going.” The last time they had spoken about this, Chava had felt a confusion that bordered on desperation, a heavy burden chaining her to the basement of her house, and the picture of her parents. Now that she had made progress, now that she had made connections with real life Jews, and would have the opportunity to decode her parents’ past, she no longer felt so bleak. She felt like she would soon be in the light.
They walked up the stairs to the studio together.
• • •
On Friday afternoon, Chava said goodbye to her parents, assuring them she would be at Evie’s the whole weekend, and then started her car and drove in the other direction. She called Evie to make sure she remembered the plan. They had decided that Chava would come back to Evie’s place on Saturday night so they could discuss everything that had happened. Chava smiled just thinking about it. She shifted her leg as she drove, feeling uncomfortable in the skirt, since she almost never wore them, but glad that she had found one in the back of her closet so she wouldn’t stand out quite so much. She had also found a cute blouse with see-through sleeves. It was still summer and she didn’t want to be boiling, so she figured this was a good compromise.
Chava hadn’t spoken to Shoshana all week, but had gotten a text from her last night with her address and the time she was supposed to get there. Chava glanced at her GPS and was glad to see she had plenty of time. As she drove, she thought about the different things she had read in her Shabbos book about resting, and being a day for G-d. She had never thought much about G-d before. She didn’t know what she thought now, either. The book talked a lot about G-d. She had gone through all the sections about the creation of the world, and the creation of the Shabbos day, and how resting was achieved through abstaining from creative works. It helped make a little of what Shoshana had told her make more sense. There was a lot she definitely still did not understand, and a lot of the book she had skipped because it was too dense. But she was glad she had some baseline of knowledge going into it.
As she approached the town and drove down the main street, she marveled at the fact that the sidewalks were empty. All of the bustling stores she had seen last week were closed. But it was still at least an hour before sunset. Why did they all have to close so early?
As she turned into Shoshana’s neighborhood she saw a few young girls dressed in fancy outfits walking down the sidewalk hand-in-hand. She slowed down to look for the right number, and as she pulled up close to the curb next to number 52 she saw Shoshana coming down the driveway towards her, waving.
“You made it!” Shoshana said as Chava locked her car and swung her backpack over her shoulder. They smiled at each other. Shoshana’s hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail, and instead of her collar and pleats, she was wearing a tailored dress with a sparkling necklace. Chava immediately felt underdressed.
“You look really nice,” Chava said.
“Thank you.” Shoshana opened a side door to her house. “We like to wear our best clothes for Shabbos, in honor of the day.”
Chava nodded. She thought she had read about that somewhere in her book. “Oh,” she said, not fully realizing she was talking out loud. “I meant to buy you flowers. The book said something about flowers.”
Shoshana smiled. “That’s so kind of you! Don’t worry about it. My father always buys flowers anyway. We’re happy to just have you as a guest.” Shoshana opened another door, this time to a bedroom.
“You can put your stuff down here,” she said. “The bathroom is to your right. When you’re ready you can come downstairs, and I’ll introduce you to my family.”
Chava thanked her, and when Shoshana left the room and closed the door behind her, Chava dumped her bag on the bed and went to the bathroom to look at herself in the mirror. She had thought she’d found a good outfit, but now she thought Shoshana looked a lot fancier than she did. Chava turned from side to side, examining her skirt. It was definitely cute, but she was regretting not looking longer for something more formal. Chava shrugged, brushed out her hair a little bit, and then dropped her phone into the pocket of her skirt. She took out her toiletries and arranged them in the bathroom. She was standing there, staring at her toothbrush, unsure why she was hesitating to go downstairs. She tried to breathe in deeply.
“It’s okay,” she said to herself. Shoshana was perfectly nice. There was no reason why the rest of her family shouldn’t be the same. Chava closed her eyes briefly, and then forced herself out the bedroom door. She walked down the dark hallway towards the staircase, and as she descended, she began to hear voices.
“Where did you meet this girl again?” A male voice asked.
“In the bookstore, I told you.” That was Shoshana’s voice. Chava stopped just before they would be able to see her.
The same male voice laughed. “Shoshana wants to be mekarev her.”
“Hush, Yosef.” A female voice spoke up. “Shoshana brought a nice girl over for Shabbos, and we are happy to have her as a guest.”
Chava shook her head, not knowing what “mekarev” meant. Were they laughing at her? Because she wasn’t religious? She remembered Evie’s warning about religious people being bigoted. But they were a nice family, she was sure. She reached the end of the staircase, and a woman with a kerchief on her head, Shoshana, and two young boys stood looking at her.
“Welcome!” The woman with the kerchief came to embrace her, and Chava couldn’t help smiling back at her warmth. “We’re so happy to have you for Shabbos. These are some of my children—this is Shoshana, as you know. These are my twins, Yosef and David.”
“Nice to meet you,” Shoshana said. “Thank you so much for having me.”
“Of course,” Shoshana’s mother said. “We couldn’t be happier.”
The Shoshana and her mother stood there smiling at her, and the boys seemed like they were holding back laughs. Chava cared less about what they thought now that she saw how much younger they were than her.
“My name is Ava,” Chava began.
“Chava,” Shoshana said quickly. “Her name is actually Chava. Isn’t that crazy?”
Shoshana’s mother nodded, while looking sideways at Shoshana. She turned her attention back to the kitchen, where she had been preparing a salad. “Boys,” she said while beginning to chop an onion, “please go upstairs and prepare for shul. Shoshana, can you set the table please?”
The boys moved away and up the stairs, and Shoshana headed for a china cabinet behind the dining room table, which was adjacent to the kitchen. Chava began to follow her, but Shoshana’s mother stopped her.
“Please,” she said, “you’re a guest. You don’t need to help.”
Chava muttered a thanks, but felt awkward watching Shoshana set out the dishes. “I’ve never done Shabbos before,” she said.
“It’s a very special time,” Shoshana’s mother said. “We’ll try to show you—”
“This must be Chava!”
Chava turned to see a man in a suit and a hat, much like her father had worn in his wedding picture, coming down the stairs. He headed directly for a small table near the dining room table, where he began to set up a candelabra with oil and wicks.
“Nice to meet you,” Chava said.
“Where did you get a name like that?” He said.
Chava opened her mouth to answer, but Shoshana’s brothers both came running down the stairs at that moment, dressed identically to their father.
“Ready for shul?” He asked. He exchanged some words with his wife, and then as soon as they had appeared, they all were gone through the front door. Chava blinked.
Shoshana’s mother smiled. “I’m going to go change, and then we can talk.”
Chava turned to Shoshana, feeling slightly overwhelmed.
“Where did all the men go?”
“What is shul?”
“Oh, right, sorry—that’s synagogue. You know, like temple?”
“Oh okay.” Chava nodded.
“Have you ever been to temple before?” Shoshana asked.
Chava shook her head, and felt her cheeks beginning to turn red. She looked away, and her eye caught a painting of a brick wall and men with furry hats and long coats standing in front of it.
“What’s this?” She asked.
“That’s the Kotel.”
Chava turned to face her. “What’s the—the Kotel?”
Shoshana blinked. “The Kotel, you know. The Kotel.”
Chava shook her head, feeling her cheeks heat up yet again. “I’m sorry, I don’t know—”
“Oh, I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I never did this before.”
“I mean, I’ve never really interacted with someone who wasn’t religious.”
Chava let out an awkward, involuntary laugh. Was she some kind of freak to her? “Well, I’ve never really interacted with someone who was religious, to be honest.”
The two girls smiled uncertainly at each other, and Chava didn’t know whether to be offended or find it funny.
Shoshana’s mother came down the stairs, this time without the kerchief and a different dress. Chava didn’t know why she was suddenly showing her hair when she wasn’t showing it before, but after that conversation with Shoshana, she wasn’t going to ask.
“I’m going to light the Shabbos candles now,” Shoshana’s mother said. She approached the candelabra that Shoshana’s father had set up, and Chava followed close behind her as she struck a match, lit each wick, waved her hands three times, and covered her eyes. Chava remembered reading about the Shabbos candles, but she had never seen oil candles before. She watched Shoshana’s mother sway back and forth over her candles. She had read about how women lit candles on Shabbos and how it held special power.
“Are you praying now?” Chava asked. As soon as she spoke, Shoshana shushed her and pulled her away.
“You shouldn’t talk to her while she is praying,” Shoshana said. “It could be distracting.”
“Oh,” Chava said. “Sorry,” She moved away and sat on the couch. How many other things would she do wrong? How many other awkward questions would she ask? She glanced at her watch. She had only been here for two hours. Would the whole stay be this way? Chava vaguely considered asking if she could leave after dinner.
She sat on the couch while Shoshana and her mother talked to her, her stomach rumbling, hardly following the conversation and wondering when dinner would start. Why did they have to wait so long? How long was temple going to take and how far away was it? She stared at their empty fire place, smashing her hands together in her lap. How was this helping her learn anything at all?
All of the sudden the front door burst open with loud greetings and a little bit of singing. The table was immediately crowded and the men began to sing in what Chava assumed was Hebrew. She waiting patiently by her chair, wondering why nobody was sitting, until their song, which seemed to last forever, finally ended. Shoshana’s father went around the table touching the heads of each of his children and muttering words above them. Was this some kind of ritual? It looked completely bizarre. Chava tried to keep her facial expression normal, but inside her stomach began to tighten up. Her time was being wasted by these crazy people, who were making her wash her hands with no soap in order to eat bread, and kept whispering to her that she was doing something wrong. She wasn’t sitting. She was sitting. She was talking. She wasn’t talking. Chava had no idea what they wanted from here. What she did know was that she had made a mistake. She wasn’t going to learn anything about her parents by sitting here. What had she been thinking?
“So Chava, how did you become interested in Judaism?”
Chava looked up. Shoshana’s father had asked the question while they all munched on the bread, which Chava grudgingly admitted was very good.
“My parents have this picture from their wedding,” she said, “where they all kind of look like you.”
“Look like us?”
Shoshana cut in. “Chava told me that her father has a black hat—”
Suddenly, Shoshana went silent. The entire family trained their eyes on Chava. Shoshana’s mother’s eyes went wide, and one of her brother’s mouths fell open.
Chava’s phone was ringing loudly in her pocket.
to be continued…