A Heart Made of Branches


She dropped the towel and went to the little bathroom off the kitchen. She looked at herself in the mirror.

She didn't normally cover her hair like an observant Jewish maiden should because she just didn't believe that crap. Only in the kitchen, and only then because it was a health regulation. She pulled the kerchief off her head now and let her brown hair tumble around her face in wild tendrils, lank from the steam but sensual and seemingly dangerous. She needed lipstick and eye make-up against the blanching heat of the kitchen but she was still a pretty girl. She was a very pretty girl, dark and seductive. Intelligent. Very intelligent. She was wearing a bra and a two-strapper and an Onion tee-shirt over that and then a rugby shirt with broad blue and green stripes, and over that an apron spattered with gravy but she recognized the curves of a woman underneath—a girl hungry for raw love and the crush of a man's hands and the pressure of his body, the flame of his own intelligence licking into her and sucking up her sweetness and changing it to something hard and hungry for him. It was that hunger she'd been feeling in the image of the small birds flying over the snow and the bare trees scratching against the leaden gray of the winter evening, of the searing light of the little Hanukkah candles straining against the dark that pressed against the ancient windows of the old farmhouse, a darkness as old as the earth. She needed that light within her. She needed to glow from within with some sort of supranatural light.

Turning away from the mirror, the image of Hebrew letters flashed by her eye, the line of a prayer. The letters flowed like the tips of flames, hysterical with meaning. She could read Hebrew as well as anyone in the house and she did of course. She studied on her own and entered into discussions with David and Benny and even John Isaacs and Lester Hammachor who'd been to seminary as well but it was all unreal to her now, all some kind of game. She was not here to perfect her Jewishness. She was hiding here, playing a game of it, a game she was very good at, waiting to see which way life would lead her. She was here recovering from religion, going through the motions after a crisis of faith led her to leave the rabbinical training her family had paid for. And what she seemed to be becoming was some sort of whore to her body, and that was all right with her—amusing in its way, even exciting—playing the scullery maid and toiling away at her obscure theophilic lusts in the wintry shadows of the farm and the barns till she got some other kind of call. And maybe this was it. Maybe this was what she'd been waiting for, this particular blue-shadowed, candle-lit Hanukkah night.

When Elly came out of the bathroom, Mark and Jason were in the kitchen making up the large platters that would be passed around the tables for the home-style service. There was little for her to do, and normally it would be time for her to take a mug of cider and wander out and watch the glow of sunset in the west as she sipped the sweet autumn taste through the cloud of fog and savored that spiritual ache that was as close as she came to religion these days, but she felt a different kind of ache now, a need for that beating of her heart and body that could only come from a man's love, delivered with the roughness that passion could give it. She wanted to be mishandled, manhandled, and by Max Shavitz. Or at least she thought so. She thought so enough that she wanted to investigate further. He was definitely worth getting a better look at, so she picked up the next full platter and when Esther came in, Elly neatly stepped into her place and picked up the tray of food and smiled sweetly and said, "I'll get it Ess. Why don't you see to the coffee?"

Esther made a mock pop-eye. "Muriel was right. You've lost your mind."

Elly backed out through the swinging door and into the cooler world of the dining room—cooler, but right into the laser beams of Max Shavitz's eyes, which picked her up like a pair of searchlights and didn't let her go. Amazing eyes, intense with a touch of humor, and yet hot enough to give her chills on her arms and make her nipples stiffen and make her throat feel tight with an excitement she couldn't swallow. She was being appraised. She knew it. In the privacy of his mind she was being undressed. She was being led about and walked, her clothes removed, her legs inspected, breasts weighed, she was being put first on her knees and then on her back and she was being fucked, her legs spread, her mouth filled with cock. He might be a rabbi, learned in Kabbalah and know the ways of the holy Sephiroth, the emanations of God, but he was a man as well and she could tell by the feel of his eyes on her that he was entirely liberal in his thoughts and she knew when she was being fucked in a man's mind's eye. And she knew he was doing it well too, enjoying her, his big cock showing her no mercy, his hands testing her thighs and finding them firm, finding her ass tight, her hips strong and fully capable of pushing back at him and giving as good as she got. She hoped he saw that in her—that she might like to be tied and broken but that she was still a dynamite piece of ass, that she would light him up on this Hanukkah as well.

For a moment she was so lost in her own thoughts of lust she forgot where she was going with the food, forgot what it was she was serving and had to look on her platter to see what she carried (pot roast and vegetables for the visitors' table), then she wove her way between the chairs, found a spot down the table a ways from Max that was missing a platter and deftly leaned in between an elderly man and woman and placed it in the empty space, feeling the weight of her breasts pressing against her bra and her shirt as she did, the sweat trickling between her tits. Her eyes glanced up to find Max's eyes sliding up to find hers, shining appreciatively, then looking away as he leaned over to ask David a question.

Was it about her? Probably not, because David kept his eyes down and nodded in understanding. She lingered a moment, cleavage showing, straightening the platter. She'd caught sight of Max's hands. They were strong, the fingers sculptural, with beautiful, almost feminine nails. A pianist's hands, or a scholar's. The kind of hands that Jacob must have had, he who wrestled with an angel. That story had always excited her, the idea of a man locked in combat with another man who represented the masculine powers of heaven, the thought of them tearing at each other's clothes. Jacob would have had hands like Max Shavitz. His eyes would have glowed the same way. He would have had that same strength of jaw, the same proud hair. His lower lip would have needed to be bitten just like Max's did.

She straightened up and turned to let him see her ass, one of her best features, high and proud as the Queen of Sheba's, even in her jeans. Muriel was watching her from the kitchen door and smiling a giant smile. Let her smile. Elly thought. Muriel hadn't been alone for six months immersed in books and cooking, studying rituals she no longer believed in. Muriel had a husband, bulvan though he might be. Elly felt more alive now than she had in half a year, and what harm was there in flirting? Hanukkah was the holiday of hope and what Elly needed now was hope. She was celebrating in her way.

She went back into the kitchen where there was some confusion now with three women handling the waitressing chores. Esther was leaning against the sink, picking thoughtfully at her thumbnail.

"Really, Elly, if you want to take my shift, I'll just go lie down. It's fine with me."

"Sure. That's fine. Suddenly I'm full of energy"

Muriel smiled knowingly and shrugged. "If that's what you want, Elly."

"Yeah. I said that's fine."

"I don't think he's all that hot, though," Esther said.

Muriel hushed her. "No one asked for your opinion about anything, Esther."

"Besides," Esther pouted. "He's not going to make a move on you. He's a guest here."

"Did you hear what I said? Elly, take out the latkes. Esther's just jealous."



Mark and Jason were staring at them, the big pans bubbling away with the latkes swimming in the hot oil, which supposedly commemorated the miracle of Hanukkah, that when the Maccabbees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, they thought they only had enough oil to light the holy lamp for one day and instead it burned for seven.

To Elly—to all of them really, though they'd never discuss it—this had always seemed like a very dubious miracle, about as cheap as you could get, on a par with a having a piece of gum whose flavor lasted an unusually long time, hardly the kind of thing you created a major holiday over, and the truth was, Hanukkah was by no means an important religious holiday on the Jewish calendar. But Jews didn't have a lot to celebrate in their mostly miserable history, so they didn't ask questions. Though Elly suspected the Jewish leaders had probably assigned a committee to find some miracle to create a winter holiday around and this was the best they could come up with, she didn't say anything.

She loaded herself with four plates of latkes, each with its complimentary applesauce and sour cream as tradition demanded and backed out through the kitchen door. The real spirit of Hanukkah was the celebration of light in the darkness of winter. That's what mattered. And it gave Jews something to do during Christmas. Christmas, if left unopposed, might have caused the conversion of untold millions of Jews just for the presents and mistletoe, such is man's devotion to religious truth.

Elly knew what Esther meant about Max's not making a move. Unfamiliar with the confused kind of Judaism the went on at Dov Y'Isroel, visitors always assumed they were strictly conservative and behaved that way, which meant absolute segregation between men and unmarried women, no speaking, no touching. A wall of tradition would stand between her and Max and how was she going to break it without coming across as a kurveh, a whore? A man could look (though he wasn't supposed to), but he couldn't touch, he couldn't speak. If she could maybe get word to David that she was interested, would he say anything to Max? But what would he say? He certainly wasn't going to play matchmaker! And Benny was even worse.

She spun out into the dining room and there he was, looking at her again, his head inclined to field David's question, no doubt on some point of Jewish mysticism, his eyes fixed on hers. Oh, he knew her! He knew her soul. He knew how she wanted to be touched, how she wanted to be kissed. He knew how she wanted to be held down in bed and bruised by a man's love, how she wanted to feel his hands on her wrists, ropes on her ankles, how she wanted to give up her pride to him, that pride that made her so lonely. She wanted a teacher and friend, someone she could respect and serve, and for that she'd pay with her body, with everything she had as a woman. Max knew it all. How he knew it, she didn't know, but he knew it.

At Max's table an old man was lighting the Hanukkah candles and already they were arguing about when to light them—after dinner or during. That one said they should have already been lit. Voices were raised, fists pounded the tables. What did they say? Two Jews, three opinions! Max sat and watched with amusement. God, he was gorgeous! He wore a tie. It made him look like a wild thing captured. He had the look of a stallion about him, and he was so far above the petty questions of David and Benny. It was only out of the goodness of his heart that he didn't shred them to ribbons. He was too polite. He kept his virility in check. She saw him through the wavering heat of the Hanukkah lights like God must have appeared to Creation.

David beckoned to her. Wine, he wanted wine. He was pointing to their cups.

Elly looked at him in confusion. Normally they had a glass of wine with shabbes supper so they could say the blessing and that was it. Now he wanted wine on Thursday? He was trying to impress Max. Wait. Now he was making drinking gestures too—holding his fingers apart as if tossing one back.

"Uh oh," Muriel was at her elbow. "He wants brandy. Do we still have brandy or did Mark get into it?"

They had Brandy. Four bottles of it from the time it was on sale at Minska's liquors. Benny had thought it would be nice if they tried what the Lubavitcher Rebbe had done with his followers in the seventeen hundreds where they'd sit around the table drinking brandy and discussing Torah. But when they'd done it at Dov Y'Isroel they'd rapidly gotten drunk and red in the face and started arguing and calling each other dumb sons of bitches and assholes.

Muriel even knew where the decanter was in the basement. She got it and washed it. She loved the decanter and it wouldn't do to show the label on the brandy, which had some industrial name like Westinghouse or Servicemaster.

"Let me," Elly asked. "Please?" She'd changed into a fresh apron, snow white, and wiped the sweat off her face and put on eye makeup and lipstick.

Muriel smiled. "Okay. Take the good tray."

They didn't have any snifters but that was all right, because that's not the way Jews drank brandy. They were Ashkenazi, or Eastern European Jews, as opposed to Sephardic, or Spanish or North African Jews, and they treated brandy as schnapps, to be tossed back as a shot, so juice glasses would do. Elly carried the tray out with the decanter and six glasses, which was all they had.

Elly approached the table from the side opposite the men and placed the tray down, not daring to meet his eyes. The candles were blazing and she felt the heat on her face. She knew he was looking at her and she prayed she wasn't blushing. She was wearing her war paint now and he surely must know why. She'd left the room in a dirty apron with no make-up and look at her now—surely he'd know why. Strangely enough, the fact that they couldn't speak and couldn't touch and weren't even supposed to look made every tiny thing that much more significant. The fact that she'd put lipstick on while Muriel was washing the decanter seemed tantamount to scrawling "FUCK ME" on her face.

She made herself look at him and as her eyes came up, his slid away, not without a lingering trace of humor that burned like a brand on her skin. He knew how foolish this all was. He wanted to look and would have if David and Benjamin hadn't been sitting there. Elly turned over three glasses, pulled the glass stopper from the decanter and poured three splashes of brandy into the glasses, pushing her breasts out as she did, as if the brandy were coming from her. Max's hand was resting on the table, right under hers, tanned, masculine. It didn't move.

Muriel slid plates of latkes down on the table where they weren't any and stepped back, looking up and down to make sure everyone was served: they were. Everyone was just about finished or was groaning in satiety, and now the waitresses could sit down and grab what they could, sitting at the woman's end of the table, marked off from the men's section with a ceremonial rope. Max had arranged for himself to be sitting next to the Great Divide and Muriel took the seat one place over, meaning that Elly would have to sit next to him, and this time she did blush, she couldn't help it. It was ridiculous. She was a grown woman and considered herself something of a sexual athlete, certainly well-experienced. The fact that she should blush from the mere idea of sitting next to a man was preposterous, but there it was. She was red as a schoolgirl. The heat she felt in her face and chest wasn't from the Hanukkah candles, warm though they were. She pulled out the chair, squeezed herself between the wall and the table.

"Sit, sit," Muriel called to her, shoving her own chair in to make room. She was eager to eat before they had to start clearing the dishes

"I'm sitting, I'm sitting, Muriel! For Christ's sake!"

The word was out before she realized it. David's jaw dropped. Benny looked at her through his thick glasses, stunned. Max stared directly at her, as shocked as the rest of them, then he covered his face with a napkin and his shoulders heaved with silent laughter.

Elly's face got even redder. "Well I'm sorry, but 'Holy Moses' doesn't quite cut it."

"Muriel, what's wrong with Elly?" By tradition, David couldn't speak to Elly since she was an unmarried woman, but he could speak to Muriel, who was his wife. The whole thing was just nonsense anyhow, this not talking to unwed women. It was positively medieval, Islamic. They didn't act this way when guests weren't here. It was all bullshit, just a show they put on.

"Nothing's wrong with Elly, okay?" Elly said. "She just put in a twelve hour shift and she's beat, that's all. She's tired."

"She shouldn't work that hard," Max said. His voice was like baritone silk. Elly wanted to roll in it and rub it against her face. "You guys kill yourselves with this show you put on. It really isn't necessary."

Benny was caught in mid swallow, Elly expected him to do a spit-take and spray the table with brandy.

"What are you talking about?" David leaned forward, offended, eager to make things right.

Max smiled and waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing. Never mind. I was kidding. It's lovely. Hanukah's a great time of year, isn't it?"

"No, what did you mean?"

"Nothing. It's just— You adhere to the letter of the law, Rebbe David. The spirit of the law? That's something else. But I'm sorry. I shouldn't be criticizing."

"You don't have to worry about me," Elly said. "I'm fine, really."

"Elly..." David warned. She had made the mistake of addressing Max when she spoke, and that wasn't allowed.

"No, forgive me," Max said. "It's your home and I'm a guest. I shouldn't have said anything and that was very rude. I apologize. I just hate to see these young women working so hard."

Elly blushed again and looked down at her hands. What was wrong with her?

"Think nothing of it. You should live and be well, Rebbe Shavitz!" David said in the stock combination toast and acceptance of apology. He raised his glass and tapped it against Max's. Benny joined in and they all drank.

"Your candles, Rebbe Shavitz! Surely you want to light them now?"

"Ah. Of course."

It was the second night of Hanukkah and there were three candles before him, one for each night and a third to light them with. He lit the third—the shammes— with a lighter, then picked it up. He said the Hebrew blessing, then in English he added, "The lights dispel the darkness and let us see. Let us pray we use the light to see what it's good for us to see, and that we use that knowledge in our mission of tikkon olam."

Tikkon olam, "repair the world", mend the perfection that was torn during creation. That's what the Kabbalah taught, that for creation to exist apart from God it had to surrender some of God's perfection. That was the price of free will, and all of humanity's job now was to repair it through acts of compassion, charity, prayer, and beauty.

As he lit the candles Elly had the uncanny feeling of being naked before him, of being entirely undressed. As he lit the first candle it was as if her apron and her shirt, her tee-shirt and undershirt and bra had all disappeared and she sat there exposed for him, and as he lit the second her jeans and panties slid from her legs and she was sitting there naked, naked before him, a woman hungry for him, his to do with as he pleased. The sensation was so vivid she couldn't believe he didn't notice. She couldn't believe everyone at the table didn't notice. She felt like her clothes were somehow invisible in the light of the three small candles. How they seemed to blaze!

There was a moment where no one moved. They all sat there staring at each other, basking in the childish delight of flame on their faces. Then Muriel fell upon her pot roast and David laughed, apropos of nothing. Max smiled and Elly remembered the saying, that when a sudden lull of silence falls over a group, an angel is flying over their heads.

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