A Heart Made of Branchesbydr_mabeuse©
Out in front of the Dov Y'Isroel farmhouse grew a big burning bush, and that's where Elly would go and have her cigarette after she'd helped prepare dinner and before she'd sit down with the rest of the women to eat. It was kind of a joke—a burning bush being what God of course had spoken to Moses from out in the wilderness, but this burning bush was so called because in the autumn its leaves turned flame red, although by now, in December just before Hanukkah, it was totally bare. Elly stood there against the house and within the embrace of the crooked bare branches and smoked and sometimes watched the vans full of visitors arrive to share the evening meal. She wasn't supposed to smoke where the guests could see her because that ruined the illusion of strict Jewishness Dov Y'Isroel liked to project, but really, the Jewishness was just that—an illusion. In reality, when the guests weren't there the residents fought and smoked and disagreed about every little rule and observance and Elly, who'd trained to be a rabbi for almost a year before dropping out and joining this commune, knew more law than most of the residents did so no one dared give her any grief. She could argue with the best of them and didn't mind doing so. And if any of the guests minded seeing one of the cooks standing outside in her apron smoking in the dead of winter, they didn't say anything. They continued to come in droves, and their money kept Dov Y'Isroel afloat and gratifyingly in the black.
From her post under the burning bush on the top of the small hill Dov Y'Isroel sat on, she could see down the snow-sprinkled fields and the whole countryside looked like one of the quilts she worked on with the other women, a study in white and gray and brown, sober and tranquil and regular under the leaden skies, the stillness broken now and then by a flight of rooks or sparrows sweeping like a wave of surf from one copse of trees to another. The cigarette tasted good after the steam of the house, the silence sounded good after the din of voices and clatter of pans. Snatches of Hebrew prayer and verses of Torah ran through her head and now, in the eerie quiet of early winter sunset over the rolling Indian-haunted hills of southwestern Wisconsin, sometimes in the distance she would see beams of sun breaking through the heavy overcast, staining the undersides of the clouds golden orange and red and though she knew that heaven was just a metaphor and not a place above the clouds, and though she hated herself for responding to the corny cliché of light beams streaming through the clouds like God's searchlight, the sight still moved her.
It made her horny too, made her thoughts turn to visions of sex and of a man's hands and mouth on her lips and breasts, holding her wrists down and having her. Sex was a gift of God too and a lot more definite than He Himself was, He being a hypothetical construct it had been necessary to create to pretty much keep from going mad back before science, but totally irrelevant and maybe even destructive today.
Well, maybe the kind of sex Elly wanted wasn't a gift of God—that was yet to be determined—but sex itself was, of that there was no doubt. Even the sages of the first century had said so and written in down in the Talmud, the holy writings upon which all of Judaism was based. Whether being tied up and fucked was considered a gift of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, as far as she knew that was permitted, and Elly was very well-educated in Torah, but tradition advised that she still ask a rabbi, and in this case that meant David or Benjamin, the eldest members of Dov Y'Isroel, and so far she really hadn't been able to get up the nerve. As far as she was concerned, they were a couple of narrs or well-meaning fools.
She might though. She'd gone six moths without any sex now but what her own hand supplied, and one of these days she just might be desperate enough and buzzed enough on shabbes wine to ask. After all, asking questions, doubting God, that was the basis of Judaism too.
She turned to watch a van pull up the drive to the farmhouse, right opposite where she was standing, and as she did, she caught sight of a pattern made in the twisting branches of the burning bush. It was a heart, an absolutely perfect outline of a valentine heart, amazing in its symmetry, as big as she could make with her two fists, and it was made of two separate branches, one in front of another. She only had to move her head and the heart disappeared, but while she kept her head in the right place, the heart was so obvious it looked like the bush had been cut just to produce it. The branches that formed it were even of such a thickness that, with the perspective she had, they appeared to be one continuous line.
And even more incredible, refocusing her eyes, there was an arrow that pierced the heart made of an unnaturally straight branch father back. It pierced the heart from upper left to lower right; a few remaining leaves even serving as the fletching on the arrow. It was absolutely freakish, almost a miracle, and Elly felt goose bumps on her arms, as most people do when faced with the miraculous. She looked around for someone to tell but there were only the old people getting out of the van and she couldn't really tell them. She laughed. No one would ever believe her. A heart of branches! It was just a coincidence. What else could it be?
Or was that why God had originally chosen a dumb thing like a burning bush to reveal Himself to Moses in the wilderness in the first place, instead of using something grand and more fitting to the Master of the Universe? Because he knew something big would scare the shit out of Moses and send him running, whereas with the bush, Moses would just say, "Wow! Look at that! A burning bush that isn't consumed! That's pretty weird. I'd better go check this out!"
Elly had often wondered about God's preference for small, funky miracles: a plague of flies? Frogs? Boils? What kind of God curses his enemies with zits?
Maybe it was an omen. Maybe this burning bush was an omen as well?
As if. She believed in God about as much as He believed in her.
She turned her eyes to this new group getting out of the van. They were from a schul in the city, a study group in a synagogue, and they were a mixed lot of conservatives and liberals, some with the big black hats or shtremls and side locks, some clean shaven in jeans, all trying to reconnect to their Jewishness, whatever it was. She watched for the driver to get out because that would be Max Shavitz, the young, supposed wildly charismatic leader of the group, very learned, they said, especially in Kabbalah—a kind of Jewish mysticism—and very controversial. Some called him rabbi or honored teacher, and some called him apikoyros or non-believer—heretic. Elly was eager to get a look at him. David and the others had been talking about him for weeks, treating his visit like a great coup for the farm-commune, and Muriel and Sheila had talked about how sexy and attractive he was—and unattached.
Elly wondered if he could possibly be as good-looking as the coatless, lightly bearded man who got out of the back of the van, his long black hair shot with gray, helping an older man down onto the walk. He had the head of a lion, the eyes of an eagle, the shoulders of a bull, and when he'd helped the old man down he stopped and put the man's hat on his head and turned around and smiled a smile that just about melted the snow. He looked like King David come again. He had that air of command. He saw Elly standing in the embrace of the burning bush and smoking, and he smiled at her too, an understanding, mischievous smile, and her heart just seemed to turn into paste under the warmth of that smile. It turned all gluey and stuck to him just like that.
And of course, as if on cue the old man straightened the hat on his head and looked at this human Seraphim and said, "Thank you, Max."
It was indeed as if a voice had spoke to her from the wilderness but it was not from the burning bush. It was from the vicinity of the Ford. She remembered what the voice had said to Moses: "Remove thy shoes for the ground on which you stand is holy ground."
No, she wouldn't do that, but her nipples hardened, and not from the cold.
Dov Y'Isroel Farm was an anomaly—a working model commune that didn't work but did. It was supposed to be self-sufficient and wasn't; was supposed to live by the laws of the Torah and didn't; was supposed to be perfectly Jewish when no one could decide what that meant; and so it was twelve things to the twelve people who lives there, eight men and five women, which added up to thirteen, because they couldn't even decide on who really lived there or what "living there" meant, so they counted that as fourteen and counted the men as ten so they could have a minyon or quorum for prayers of at least ten men as the law demanded. They argued endlessly over the endless laws and rituals of Judaism, and some kept kosher while others didn't according to some who did. Four of the men prepared their meals separately to avoid contaminating their plates with non-kosher foods; four were vegetarians.
There are 613 commandments in the Torah, what the Jews call the first five books of the Old Testament. All the commentaries on the Torah and the commentaries on the commentaries and the commentaries on the commentaries on the commentaries comprise the Talmud which Jews study to learn how to be good Jews, but what they understand and how they understand it is up to each individual Jew, so disagreements and arguments among them are as common as feathers in a henhouse. That's fine. Jews love to argue. That's why they make such good lawyers.
The idea for Dov Y'Isroel was originally was to form a religious kibbutz on American soil, but that hadn't worked out because farming was harder work than they'd thought and didn't leave much time for the long sessions of study and argument the leaders, David Kaminsky and Benny Manuel with wives Muriel Sparks and Sheila Grossman, loved so much, so they'd switched over to raising organic eggs and herbs and vegetables for the specialty market and, along with what they made from renting themselves out as a living museum of Yiddishkeit or Jewishness, they made a go of it. But no one was fooling themselves except the four founders. It was show-biz Jewishness. They adjusted their level of show to fit the tourists who came out to have dinner with them, and they paid the shokhet or kosher slaughterer in Chicago good money for their supply of frozen meat. They kept kosher for the guests, but it was kosher by law, not kosher by the heart as it was supposed to be. And now, at Hanukkah, business was brisk. Vans pulled up bringing visitors for lunch and dinner and sometimes after dinner as well for latkes, the potato pancakes that were the traditional Hanukkah treat.
And meanwhile, kosher wasn't the only thing that ran wild in the hearts of the residents of Dov Y'Isroel. Calling on the powers of the Creator and the supernatural also opened the doors to other unseen influences. God isn't the only thing that lives in the human heart, even the Talmud concedes that. There are hosts of angels, some from heaven, some from the lower regions. There are feelings and desires, wishes and dreams and half-formed urges. Man is formed in God's image and so God must have these desires too, Elly though.
Does God have sexual urges? According to Talmud, it's a fair question to ask. Since coming to live on the farm she'd seen the leaves fall in the autumn, the moon rise at night and shift from new to full, the sun come up in the east and burn the haze off the corn then sink into the purple west and she thought He must have sexual urges, these must all be sexual urges. Certainly she felt them as such, the things she felt inside when she contemplated them seemed sexual, and now, with Hanukkah here, with lighting the lights that gleamed with feeble but brave insistence against the great immensity of darkness she felt it even more. There was sexuality in the dark and the light, and she had no doubt that it was the Hanukkah lights that had set her spirit alive with the need for sex, like she was the darkness and a man would set the match to her that would fill her with illumination.
Desire was everywhere and almost visible, sweeping like the clouds of birds that shifted by the farm in the afternoon dusk, visible in the ropes that Elly had hung from the rafters in the barn just because she liked them there, because she liked to tie her wrist up in them when she went out to cut organic herbs for the dinner and pretend that she'd been captured by a handsome man of good manners and evil intent who would force his light upon her.
Her reveries were disturbed by a shaft of light as Muriel stuck her head out the door wreathed in a cloud of steam from within that smelled of chicken soup and home-made bread and potato pancakes frying, the very smells of Yiddish heaven.
"There you are, Elly! Can you give us a hand? There's been an accident."
"Sure. What's up?" Elly dropped the cigarette and crushed it out in the dirt. There was no snow near the house, just winter-blue shadows. The heat of the place kept the snow at bay, at least this early in the year. Later, in the depths of winter, the drifts would pile up against the very walls and they'd be under siege.
"Oh, nothing really. Esther just dropped a tureen of soup in the kitchen. We need someone to serve while we get it cleaned up, that's all."
Elly had cooked so she didn't have to serve, that was the unwritten rule, but an emergency was an emergency.
"No problem." She was getting cold anyhow. Making herself tough it out without a coat was her way of punishing herself for smoking in the first place and she would have forced herself to stay outside until she started shaking with cold normally, so this was a reprieve.
She walked inside and the warmth and kitchen steam enveloped her in a welcoming embrace. The farm had six kids and the Max's group had brought some unspecified number as well, and Hanukkah always made things feel heimish or homey, like a big family get-together, with the candles and lights and the kids all excited, the adults a bit schickered on the wine, so Elly liked it. Besides, she was curious to get a closer look at Max Shavitz, if he wasn't in the library arguing with David and Benny, and he wasn't. He was seated at the long table, at the very end, and he hadn't been served yet. His plate was empty and Benny was leaning across the table and talking his ear off about something, his hand gesturing earnestly, palm open, while David was leaning back in his chair holding a prayer book and reciting some benediction—always something to bless—and the kids were chasing each other around and under the table.
A man without food was close to a sin as far as Elly was concerned and she swooped into the kitchen and filled a bowl with soup and thick home-made noodles and got a roll and immediately set it down in front of Max who turned and looked up at her and gave her that smile again but different this time, a remarkable smile as if he knew her, recognized her, had known her for years. It seemed to go right through her and meet her in some place private where she was quite surprised to be accosted. It was a place not far from where her sexual secrets lived.
She was already in the midst of turning away from Max and heading back towards the kitchen when she got this smile and so she could only field it on the fly, awkwardly and inexpertly, tucking it next to her heart and taking it with her into the kitchen where she could at last examine it in private, quite bewildered and beside herself when she got a good look at it.
"My God!" she said to herself after she had separated his handsomeness out from the rest of the smile and still found herself with quite a handful. "How does that man know me like this?"
In the kitchen Esther and Muriel were down on their knees sponging up the last of the spilled chicken soup and Elly immediately fell to her knees and took the sponge from Muriel and said, "I'll sponge, you serve. I have to think!" and it Muriel took only a moment to look at her to understand what had happened, or to understand that a man was involved and that the man was almost certainly Max Shavitz.
"Oy!" Muriel said. "Nu? Already? It's true what they say about him? Come on Esther. Help me serve. Elly's got problems."
Elly sponged up the spilled soup and squeezed the sponge into a big pot. She was thinking, "Kabbalah masters can develop an extra soul with which they can travel about and meet other souls. Maybe he's met me like that?"
Sponge, sponge, sponge. Squeeeeze
Immediately that was followed by the usual thought: Come on, Elaine Greengau. You don't really believe a word of this crap, do you? You go along with it because you're very, very good at it and because there's an underlying esthetic that appeals to you, but to actually subscribe to the ontological reality of God or the veracity of scripture is nonsense and you know it. Life is random, meaningless, futile, and mostly painful. It's all superstition and that's why you left seminary.
Sponge, sponge, sponge. Squeeeeeze.
Yes, but if you want to get laid, stay with it for a while longer. Just put away your doubts for a bit.
Muriel and Esther began the precise, controlled, panicked rushing back and forth that comprised dinner service at Dov Y'Isroel while Elly poured the pot full of ruined soup down the drain and washed out the sponge. Now that her moment of faith and doubt had passed, washed away by a flood of sexual hormones, she went to the kitchen door and opened it and peeked out, only to see Max Shavitz leaning forward in his chair and staring directly at her, or rather, staring directly at the kitchen door at which, until a scant second before, there had been no Elly. Her eyes met his through the wavering column of heat coming off a stand of Hanukkah candles, and she was reminded of the way the sages described the nearest man could possibly hope to come to getting a glimpse of God—that the entire universe we knew was nothing but the reflection of His shimmer.
Max Shavitz was that handsome. He shimmered. The air shimmered around him with some sort of sexual magnetism, and yet there was a kindness or softness around him that said he didn't take himself all that seriously. A laugh was never far away, and what did they say? A man's wisdom is in his laugh. The domes of his shoulders were like crowns of muscle. His waist was lean, his ass was powerful and built for thrusting. His head was like an artist's conception of chokhmah, that Kabbalistic sephirah of wisdom, joined with its reflection binah, understanding, and yet both of these were alloyed with a lustiness she could sense or really taste in that sensual lower lip, ripe and insolent as Cupid's. Max Shavitz would not be too kind in his passion but would take like a lion or like a wolf, never spilling a drop of blood. No—he would take like a man, just like Elly dreamed of being taken, tied helpless to her bed and slowly undressed and laid bare before those eyes, those knowing, seeking eyes, stripped of her pride, stripped of her self-control, stripped of her very identity till she was no more than an object made for the satisfying of his desires—her breasts made for his mouth, her cunt made for his cock, her arms and legs made to hold that lean and sinewy body as he pounded against her like the hammer of desire.
Elly quickly plated some pot roast and potatoes for the family-style service and wiped up the spilled grease with a towel. This wasn't her job. She'd cooked the pot roast and peeled the potatoes and she didn't have to serve but she didn't care anymore. Yes she did care. She cared a lot.