Chava pushed her chair away from the table and stood up, retrieving her phone from her pocket.
“So sorry,” she said as the eyes of each member of Shoshana’s family followed her. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Chava skipped out of the room to the back of the kitchen, where she accepted the call and lifted it to her ear with a great sense of relief.
“Evie,” she said. “You have no idea what I’ve been going through.”
Evie laughed. “I’m glad I could save you,” she said. “You’ve been there for a few hours already, so I thought I would call.”
“Evie,” Chava said. “Evie, Evie, you have no idea. I’m so glad you called.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“It’s just—” Chava fell into one of the kitchen table chairs and leaned her head against her hand. “I don’t know what I thought I would get out of this. I don’t know why I thought this was the way to do it. I need answers about my family, not religious craziness.”
“You thought learning about Judaism would lead you to your family.”
“I know,” Chava said. “But it just doesn’t seem like it.” Chava sighed. “What do I do now? Where do I go from here?”
“I would stick out the night.”
Evie laughed again. “Did you want me to tell you to leave?”
Chava drew a pattern on the top of the wooden table. “Maybe,” she said, chuckling.
“I think you should stay. Learn as much as you can. Be aggressive and ask lots of questions. Then you can come home, and you never have to do it again.”
Chava nodded to herself. “I wish you were here,” she said.
“Maybe next time,” Evie said.
They hung up, and Chava put her phone back in her pocket, stood up, and stretched her arms above her head. She knew she needed to go back into that room. She knew these people were trying their best to be hospitable to her, even if it wasn’t exactly working. She needed to try to make the best of this. Chava smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt, and then marched back into the dining room. It was silent, all members of the family clinking their spoons against the sides of their soup bowls, which Chava guessed had been served while she was gone. There was a bowl on her plate too, with a giant yellow ball floating in the middle of the soup.
Shoshana looked up at her as she sat down.
“We don’t use cell phones on Shabbos—”
“I know,” Chava said. She began to eat her soup, and Shoshana seemed to shrink back from her. “What is this?” Chava asked, poking her spoon at the yellow ball.
“That’s a matza ball,” Shoshana’s mother said.
“It’s a traditional Jewish food. We make it with eggs and spices and matza meal, which is made from a special type of unleavened bread called matza that we use on a holiday called Passover.”
Chava nodded, satisfied with what she felt was the first full answer she had gotten from anyone today, and dipped her spoon into the matza ball. “It’s good,” she said.
Shoshana’s mother nodded and smiled at her. Chava smiled back, feeling that the only person willing to go the extra mile at the table tonight was Shoshana’s mother. She decided to direct her questions to her.
“So you know other people with my name?” Chava asked.
“Of course,” Shoshana’s mother said. “It’s very common.”
“I never knew how to pronounce it,” Chava said. “My parents call me Ava.”
“Were you adopted?” Shoshana’s father asked.
Chava blinked rapidly. “What? No—no. No, I’m not.” She quickly searched through her memory and confirmed that she had seen her birth certificate in person when she had gotten her driver’s license. Her heart rate began to decrease.
There was a short break in the conversation while Shoshana and her mother collected the soup bowls and then proceeded to serve the main courses. Everything looked and smelled delicious, from beautiful salads to what looked like potato casserole, from roasted chicken and sweet-smelling brisket to green beans and slivered almonds. Chava helped pass the food around the table, impressed at how gorgeous the display was and how amazing the food tasted.
Shoshana’s brothers began a conversation among themselves, and Shoshana’s mother scooted her chair closer to Chava.
“So tell me more about how you ended up at my Shabbos table.”
“I wanted to learn more about Judaism,” Chava said, “because I discovered that there was a time in my parents’ lives when they were more involved in Judaism than they are now. I came here looking to learn a little bit, and I met Shoshana in the bookstore.”
Shoshana hadn’t spoken since the cell phone incident, but was nodding as Chava spoke.
“You’re from near here?” Shoshana asked.
“No,” Chava said. “A few towns over. About two hours. Parkland.”
Shoshana’s mother’s fork slipped against her plate and made a loud, high-pitched squeal that reverberated across the room.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She quietly moved some potato casserole onto her plate, and Shoshana slid her eyes away from her mother, who was pushing food around her plate, and back towards Chava.
“I can’t imagine finding out something like that about my family,” Shoshana said. “It must be a crazy journey for you.”
“It is,” Chava said. “It brought me here.”
Shoshana blinked and hesitated, looking at Chava from under her eyelashes, and then Chava broke into a smile, and both girls laughed.
“Have you lived in—Parkland all your life?” Shoshana’s mother asked.
“Yeah, born and raised. I just graduated from Parkland North High School.”
“You were born there?” Shoshana’s mother asked. She lifted her eyes from her plate and looked into Chava’s eyes.
For the second time that night, Chava’s birth certificate rose to mind. She had been born in Parkland, as far as she knew—everyone in her circle of friends had been. The town was on the smaller side, and most families didn’t stray very far from the city limits, raising generations of children there. She had always assumed that she had been born at Parkshore Hospital, as had all of her friends. But now that she thought of it, her birthplace had been the one thing on her birth certificate that hadn’t fit. She had never asked her parents about it, because they never answered questions, and she had forgotten about it until right now.
She looked at Shoshana’s mother, who was staring back at her, and the incredibly uneasy feeling that the woman knew what Chava was thinking crept up her back.
“I guess—” Chava swallowed. “I guess you’re right, I technically wasn’t born there. I was born in a hospital closer to the city.”
“Where all of my children were born,” Shoshana’s mother said.
“It’s a big hospital, I guess,” Chava said.
Shoshana’s mother said nothing more on the subject, and while they ate dessert, Shoshana explained to Chava what would happen next, including a grace after meals. In the morning, she said, they usually went to the synagogue that was a few minutes’ walking distance from their house.
“Won’t I look weird?” Chava said.
“You can borrow something from me,” Shoshana said. Chava nodded. The family around her began singing. Shoshana gave her a little booklet with Hebrew printed on one side and English on the other, which she opened to a page somewhere in the middle. Chava pretended to follow along, but really she just traced the outline of the unfamiliar blocky letters with her finger, wondering which of those letters might spell out her name. They sang for longer than she had expected, and then they all dissolved into weird, quiet whispers. Chava drummed her fingers on the table, stared around at all the art on the walls, and studied the curls in Shoshana’s mother’s hair and the reflections of the candlelight against the wall. After what seemed like a long time, Shoshana finally put down her little pamphlet and took Chava’s arm.
“We can clear the table later,” she said. She took Chava to her room, where the lights were all off, and Chava remembered that they didn’t use any electricity and would have to keep the lights off if they wanted to sleep. Shoshana rotated a small wooden pillar sitting atop her desk until she revealed a lightbulb that was already on, which gently illuminated parts of the room.
“Let’s find you something to wear!”
- • •
Later that night, after having returned with Shoshana to the kitchen for some late-night brownies and then being handed a pile of skirts and shirts to take back with her, Chava lay in her room staring up at the ceiling, the clothes piled on the dresser. Not so long ago, on the day after her high school graduation, she had also lain on a bed and stared at the ceiling. But that had been back home, in her own room, not in some strange Orthodox Jewish person’s house. So much had changed. Chava flipped onto her stomach and idly scrolled through pages on her phone. She thought about calling Evie, but didn’t know what else to say. Her experience after the phone incident hadn’t been quite as bad. Shoshana had gotten better, and Shoshana’s mother was certainly nice.
Chava rolled over again. Shoshana’s mother. There was something weird about the way she had looked at Chava, the way she had spoken to her. Chava didn’t know what it was, but it felt like somehow Shoshana’s mother knew her.
Chava shuddered. She hopped out of bed, turned off the lights, and then climbed under the covers. In the dark, she wondered again about her birth certificate and why she had never asked about the hospital.
• • •
In the morning, Chava was woken up by a knock on her door. It was much later than she had expected, and she tried to dress quickly, throwing on one of Shoshana’s skirts and shirts at random. As she was leaving her room to meet Shoshana, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. She paused briefly at the door, swishing the calf-length skirt against her leg and touching the high-necked collar with her fingertips. She shook her head as she descended the staircase. What kind of crazy show was she putting on? The material of the collar felt stiff against her skin, and she was acutely aware of how frumpy she looked in a skirt this long. She wished she had put on her own clothing, because no matter how much of an outsider she would have felt in her sheer-sleeved shirt, she felt even more of an outsider in Shoshana’s clothing. Now she was both an outsider and a pretender.
The walk to synagogue with Shoshana and her mother was quiet. It was a sunny and breezy morning, and they crossed paths with several other women who were walking towards the same small square building, its flat roof topped with a dome. They entered the main doors of the synagogue and then continued up a side flight of stairs to a balcony, where Chava could see the men on the floor below through a thin, white veil. She had not read anything in her book about men and women being separated, and she immediately felt awkward. Shoshana gave her a book, again with Hebrew on one side and English on the other, and again pointed out the page. Chava zoned out. She leaned forward and pushed the veil aside so she could examine what the men were doing, but she wasn’t able to see them. Their heads were all covered with white shawls. Chava leaned back and shook her head. Were they all crazy?
After sitting, bored out of her mind, for multiple hours, including at least half an hour of a rabbi’s speech that she barely understood, all of the women filed downstairs to what Chava assumed was some sort of reception. A ring of girls Shoshana’s age filed in around her, and Chava stood off to the side, watching the scene. Shoshana and her friends, covered in elegant but very conservative clothing, stood about six feet away from a group of young men who looked about the same age and who all wore formal black suits and black hats. The two groups seemed totally unaware of each other. Chava shook her head. Evie wouldn’t believe her eyes. How was it possible that this community, with so many strange rules and customs, existed only two hours away from where she grew up, with what she had always believed was normal and universal?
Chava turned. A woman with red hair was smiling at her.
“Hello,” Chava said.
“Welcome,” the woman said. “You’re visiting?”
“Yes,” Chava said. She waved her hand towards Shoshana and her group of friends. “I’m visiting with Shoshana.”
“Very nice. And—”
“Miriam.” Shoshana’s mother had approached them from behind Chava’s shoulder. Chava shifted to make room for her. “This is Chava. She’s visiting us for Shabbos. Shoshana invited her. Chava is from Parkland.”
Miriam blinked. There was a split-second pause, so quick that Chava almost thought she imagined it, where the two women stared at each other.
“So—so nice,” Miriam said. “So nice.”
“Isn’t it nice?” Shoshana’s mother said.
Chava looked between the two women, who were both staring back at her. She swallowed, unsure of what was happening.
“Thank you for showing me all of this,” Chava said.
Miriam reached out and took her hand. She looked into Chava’s eyes. “We’re very glad to have you, Chava,” Miriam said. She squeezed Chava’s hand, and then moved away. Chava cradled that hand in the crook of her elbow, feeling chills down her back. She looked at Shoshana’s mother out of the corner of her eye and could feel that she was still staring back at her.
Chava was staring straight ahead, trying to assess Shoshana’s mother with her peripheral vision without letting her know she was looking. She didn’t realize that the woman was speaking to her until she was standing directly in front of her.
“Esther Borden? I never thought I’d see you again.”
Chava immediately refocused her eyes, and for a brief second she saw a short, stout woman with black hair who was frantically searching her face, before strong arms grasped her own forearms and forcibly pulled her away.
Shoshana’s mother was dragging Chava away from the woman, who was still standing there, calling for Esther.
“We’re going home,” Shoshana’s mother said.
“Borden is my last name,” Chava said. She said it much more to herself than to anyone else. She let herself be dragged out of the reception room. She was completely shaken. Who was Esther Borden?
to be continued…