A Heart Made of Branches


Elly had no appetite. Sitting next to Max gave her the illusion that they were together, and though her head told her this was a foolish and dangerous game to play, her heart ran with it. She couldn't ignore the presence of the ceremonial rope between them. It seemed like an omen, as if it were drawing them together rather than keeping them apart and she wanted to pick it up and give it to him, just wrap it around her wrists and hand it to him. Surely he'd know what to do. Though she wasn't hungry, she was drawn to the wine as if the rim of the glass were his lips, and Muriel seemed to be goading her on, pouring again and again, keeping her glass filled. The wine was thick and sweet and ruby red, the Hanukkah candles were bright with dancing yellow flames. The winter night pressed down outside like cold blue velvet. She took a bite of her latke and the crispy morsel dissolved on her tongue like something unctuous and sensual, salty with a masculine musk. It dissolved away with a taste of the earth, a memory of sin.

After dinner the children gathered at one table and played with dreidls, betting nuts and candy against one another, and Muriel and Elly jumped to their feet and started clearing away the dishes from the two tables, and so did Max, taking his own dishes into the kitchen and helping them fill the totes. He maintained the rule of silence out of respect for David and Benny, talking to Muriel, because she was a married woman and therefore safe, but not Elly, and though he held the kitchen door for her, he wouldn't look her in the eye, nor would he look at her as he handed her more dirty plates and glasses, and her heart began beating wildly as he bussed in such obvious disregard of her, paying her a kind of negative attention that began to arouse her in the strangest fashion, making her feel as if she were just too sexually charged to even look at. She felt explosive, lethal, and she toyed with the idea of touching him, of taking his hand, maybe licking it, or getting him alone in the kitchen and grabbing his cock. What would he do? Would he explode back at her, pin her arms behind her and rip her jeans open. Surely beneath these laws of no touching and no looking there were currents of insatiable, unstoppable lust and cruelty.

She stole a look at his crotch. Was he hard? Did he want her that much that just having his hand on the same plate as hers was enough to make him hard? It must be her imagination but she thought she could feel some sort of vibration through the plate, some sort of animal vitality that shook the very molecules of porcelain.

Meanwhile David was upset that his prized guest was acting like a busboy. Benny said, "Come, come, Rebbe Shavitz! You shouldn't be carrying dishes!" But Max just replied, "No, I don't mind either, and if that's the rule of this house, then I'll follow it. This is a pleasure to me and the least I can do to repay your kindness, and these lovely girls can use the help. They shouldn't be working like this. It pains me, like using flowers for straw."

"But Rebbe Shavitz, we were hoping you could give us some time for a lesson on Kabbalah," Benny said.

"It's rare that we have an expert of your stature," David added.

"To waste your time bussing dishes is a shame."

Max stopped what he was doing and looked at them. Elly was just coming into the kitchen with a tray full of plates. Max went and took hold of them. At first she didn't know what he was doing. The men didn't help the women with the dishes. The men studied, the women cooked and cleaned. That's the way it was. Max had a hold of the tray and he wouldn't let go, His hand touched hers. His hip touched hers.

"What's your name?" he asked.

In a panic, Elly looked up at David and Benny. Shocked, they looked back at her.

"This is pitiful," Max said. "You do have a name, don't you? Or do they just call 'dish girl'?"

"Elly," she said. "I'm Elaine Greengau."

"How do you do, Elaine. I'm Max Shavitz. How'd you like to show me around the farm?"

She looked back at David and Benny who were still standing stock still, their mouths hanging open.

"Sure," she said. "I'd love to. I'll get my coat."


The night wasn't black, but a deep, dark grape-jelly purple, rimed with cold, and their breath hung in the air like clouds of spun sugar as she showed him the outbuildings, the guesthouse and the greenhouses they'd built out of old windows. She was sad it was winter and that nothing was growing. She felt responsible for the deadness, and she wished she could have shown him the place wild with life and growth, the greenhouses reeking of tarragon and chervil and basil and thyme. She had her own greenhouse now too, and rosebushes she'd planted but they looked all sick and scrawny in the cold. They weren't at all the image she wanted to convey.

He didn't seem to mind, though. He hardly seemed to notice. He seemed instead to be terribly intent on listening to her. Whereas before he was all eyes, now he was all ears, asking her questions, digesting her words as if they were in deep in dialogue about Torah.

"So you were studying to be a rabbi for just a year?" he asked.

"Yes. A month shy of a year."

"What happened?"

She decided to tell him the worst. "I lost my faith. I stopped believing in God."

He didn't flinch. "It comes and goes," he said.

It comes and goes?

"The miracle is, we're here, with our little candles and our human hearts. That's the miracle. That and the things we feel for each other. The incredible complexity. "

He said that and kicked at the snow. In the moonlight he blew a breath into the air and it hung there like a cloud in the sky, a miracle of warmth in the cold. He smiled at her and his teeth gleamed white and she thought he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen. What a miracle, she thought, That we are warm things in this wilderness of cold!

That's when she decided to show him the ropes hanging in the barn. Just two ropes, three feet apart, hanging four feet off the floor.

"They're ropes," he said. "So?"

"So, I use them," she said. "I like them."

She looked at him so he had to know.

"Oh," he said as he caressed them. "Oh!"

He picked up her arm. It was the first time he'd touched her directly. He put his hand on her wrist and picked up her arm and wrapped one of the hanging ropes around it. She was wearing her big winter coat and mittens and it was about the unsexiest thing she'd ever seen but the feel of the rope taking possession of her wrist as his dark eyes looked directly into hers was like being pierced by the arrows of his will, like being fucked by his intent, and with the state she was in, it was almost more than she could stand and her body seemed to swell with excitement. She leaned forward of her own accord until he stepped forward to press his body against hers and contain her and keep her from expanding forever in that cold and wintry barn.

He grabbed hold of her other wrist and now she was caught—trapped—one wrist lashed in the rope that hung from the rafter and the other caught in his hand and with her wrists caught like that her breasts were exposed and vulnerable, his for the taking, but he ignored them now and instead took hold of her hair and pulled her head back and kissed her and it was just what she wanted, to be kissed like that. Oh, it was just what she wanted! To be kissed and taken by his rough lust in the complicated shadows of the vast space of the barn with his lips hot upon her, searing on her lips.

"Ahhh!" Her helplessness drove her wild and drove him wild as well. She was meat on the spit of desire roasting in the heat of his lust and she tried to reclaim her wrist but the rope allowed her only to swing that arm in a futile arc so she tried to move her other arm and found Max to be gratifyingly strong, holding her with adamantine male power, his hardness turning her into a swamp of cloying need. His lips were hot and the air was cold and she was steaming inside her coat and then shivering, then his free hand was down at the crotch of her jeans at the heart of her softness where she had no defense and six months of need and she felt like she might open up and bite him she needed him so much.

Max backed away. As suddenly as the madness had started, he backed away from her, let go of her wrist, smiled wryly, his eyes suddenly sharp and knowing as the devil's.

"We slip so easily from one way of being to another, and all of them are holy," he said. "All of them are holy."

Elly used her free hand to unwrap the rope. What was he saying? That he was done with her? She had to know, and without playing games.

"Say what you mean," she said. "Is it wrong? Is it a sin?"

"Of course not," he answered. "Tying knots on shabbes. Now that would be a sin. That would be work and work is forbidden. But I lashed you, just wrapped the rope around you. That's no sin. Sex is a mitzvah (blessing). It's not a sin."

She doubted that. It as beyond the bounds of marriage. These were just animal lusts. She no longer cared, but she no longer believed. She couldn't believe that he didn't care though.

"Then do me," she said, and she couldn't believe the words that came out of her own mouth

"Tomorrow night I'll come back. Then I'll 'do you'."

"Tomorrow is shabbes."


She looked at him and didn't know what to make of him. Did he believe or not? How could he be a Jew and not believe? But wasn't that what she was?

"The male and the female," he said. "Are always fighting, always struggling. They're two different words, more opposite than you imagine. We know that in Kabbalah. And do you know what the struggle is about? You think it's about mastery, about trying to subdue the other, but it's not. It's a struggle to surrender. Remember that, Elly. It's a struggle to make a bed in the other one's soul, to find a home there. It's the same thing we do with God."

She heard what he said but all she felt was bitterness that he wouldn't take her tonight. She felt the coldness of the air in the barn, the harshness of the light. She started to walk past him when he grabbed her, grabbed her arm, grabbed her and pushed her up against the wall and kissed her hard, bruising her mouth, pulling her hair to tilt her head back and reaching beneath her coat to take her possessively between the legs, squeezing her selfishly. It hurt and it felt good to be taken so callously and with such disregard for what she wanted. She struggled against him and pressed against his shoulders but he was wonderfully strong, like steel, and she was just about to give up when he let her go and stepped back.

"Let's go," he said. "I have to get my people back to town. I'll arrange things with David and Benny. I'll come out tomorrow afternoon. They've already offered me a room in the guesthouse."

Elly felt cheap and naked and absolutely on fire. She knew he was right. She wanted to be made to surrender to him. She wanted a bed in his soul. She wanted to be his pleasure, his bliss, She wanted to do whatever it took to make his eyes gleam with hunger and see the look of rapture ripped like pain across his wise and handsome face.


After Max left with his van, David and Benny were beside themselves with excitement, talking about the coup they'd scored by getting Max to come back and give them a free shabbes lecture on Kabbalah and spend the night at Dov Y'Isroel. Muriel listened with half an ear, a smile on her face, studying Elly as they loaded the dishwasher. She knew something of what had happened. While the men were jabbering she came up to Elly.

"We should put him in the guesthouse, nu? He'll want privacy."

Elly, who was staring out the window, jerked out of her reverie. "What? Oh, yes. Thank you, Muriel. I think he would. That would be very thoughtful."

"And I'll see if I can keep these schmendricks from talking his ear off all night. The lecture stops at ten. He's not really coming out here for the talmudic scholarship, is he?"

"No. Not exactly."

Muriel nodded and hung up her apron. "Leave it to me."


The next afternoon Elly was again out at the burning bush, her cooking done, a coat on this time, one eye on the road, one eye on the heart made of branches. She'd made special arrangements with Muriel so that she could eat with the other women and the seating had been arranged.

She watched the light begin to fade, watched the sparrows and rooks shift in shoals across the bleak and medieval-looking landscape as they sought a place to roost for the night. A wind came up, thin and bitter as the sun sank and snow began to fall in little pellets. Soon the wind died and the snow was falling in clumps, thick enough to stick to her eyelashes and obscure the abandoned barn across the road. It was beautiful, beautiful in a forlorn and lonely way, and as always, her thoughts turned to God, or rather to his absence.

There was a blessing for every occasion: one to be said on seeing the new moon, on taking a trip, on seeing a king, on seeing a sight of natural beauty, and she mumbled this latter now out of habit, though she knew no one heard. Who but a Jew went though with rituals when he didn't believe? It comforted her that "Israel" itself meant "Contends with God", "struggles with God." It was the only religion that did, that fought with him and argued, complained and swore at him, and even took him to trial. In the 1600's a bunch of rabbi's had called God to trial to see if he'd been irresponsible in creating a world in which there was so much suffering. Elly didn't know what the results had been, but she knew God hadn't shown up. She knew of another rabbi who'd complained that a human father who was as negligent with his children as the God of Israel was would have been thrown in jail long ago. Arguing with God was a Jewish pastime.

It grew darker and soon she'd have to go inside for the lighting of the shabbes candles, and then she saw Max's van coming up the highway and her heart rose in her chest.

"I thought you weren't coming!" she said as she ran to his window.

"How could I not? Didn't I give my word?"

She took his hand and pressed it against her breast.

"Hurry," she said, they're going to light the candles."

There were two other vans pulled up, the guests already inside and seated, but Muriel had been waiting for her and gave Elly the honor of lighting the shabbes candles on account of Max. Elly covered her head with a scarf and said the blessing in Hebrew, then lit the shabbes candles. She closed her eyes and passed her hands over the flame as if gathering the light to her; the light that comes from woman, the light that returns to her. David blessed the wine and the bread and they sat down to eat, segregated again, and again with Elly sitting next to Max, the rope between them. But this time the tension was almost unbearable. She was aware of his maleness like a perfume in the air, like a pheromonal musk. His movements, the way he used his hands, everything about him was so masculine, so possessive and full of mastery. When he tore the challah she watched how the crust crumbed and the doughy inside stretched and pulled apart like flesh, as if he were rending her own heart. The stab of his fork into the meat was sure and true and he devoured his food with a sensual pleasure that made her feel that it was she who was on his tongue.

She had dressed nice tonight, in skirt and sweater, clothes she hadn't worn in six months, and her own availability thrilled her. The topics of conversation were inane—sports mostly, basketball, of which Max knew quite a bit, though he hardly seemed interested. Under the table his thigh pressed against hers and Elly almost died.

After dinner the Hanukkah candles were lit and small gifts were handed out to the children who had come with the visitors. There was wine and schnapps and coffee and latkes, and the kids played dreidl. Elly helped clean up and Max was soon involved in conversation with David and Benjamin.

Kabbalah. The Sephiroth. Everything in the universe could be understood in terms of the ten or eleven Sephiroth or emanations of God: Kether, the crown, the highest human understanding of God, the great "I Am"; Chokhmah, intuitive wisdom, the start of the Male, or Right Hand Pillar, the Pillar of Mercy; Binah, its reflection, active understanding, the start of the female or Left Hand Pillar, or Pillar of Severity; Chesed, mercy or love, comfort, lovingkindeness, on the right hand path, paired with Geburrah, or Justice, severity, discipline on the left. Below and between these is Tiphareth, like Kether, it's of the middle path and signifies beauty and balance, perfect harmony, the place where the soul dwells. Then, on the right again is Netzach, victory or emotion, sentiment, paired with Hod, splendor or glory, which is the power of the mind on the left. Below and between these is Yesod , foundation, the seat of psychological forces, and below Yesod is Malkuth, the physical world in which we dwell.

There was an eleventh Sephirah, Daath, or some said it was the absence of a Sephirah, occurring below Chokhmah and Binah, the shadow of soul.

It is our job to understand our lives in terms of these Sephiroth, and by so doing, to climb from one world to another. This is what he told David and Benny and a few others including Elly as they sat in a small bedroom on the first floor heated by a woodstove as the snow fell silently outside. They'd heard it before, but now Max went into it in detail, explaining and expanding on the Sephiroth so that their qualities formed a grand net that could encompass every kind of event and occurrence, a kind of all-inclusive grid that would fit over life and give meaning and structure to everything that might happen, cradle to grave.

Problems with running Dov Y'Isroel's finances? Perhaps too much Chesed and not enough Gebburah, to much mercy in letting things slide and not enough rigidity, decisions made relying on Netzach rather than Hod. There were ways to find out using gematria, substituting numbers for letters and calculating their values and comparing these to the values of other words. The results were often uncanny, but sitting there, Elly had to remind herself that while the Tree of Kabbalistic Life was an awesome and fantastic structure, gematria was holy bullshit, a learned parlor game, superstition.

"Yesod is where we start from," Max said. "In the body, Yesod is the genitals, the ground of our being. Some say this is a symbolic relationship, but I say no. Its literal meaning is important too. Our sexuality is the center of our energy, our creative engine, and it's from here that we launch ourselves into the search for God, with the same passion, the same expectation of ecstasy that we launch ourselves in a search after our lover. Our esthetic sense, that physical hunger, the need to be embraced and conquer and be conquered—those are all sexual feelings and religious feelings as well, and they originate in Yesod, the well of yearning. Here we bind them, and we harness them. Here we illuminate them, and they light up the whole Tree, the ten Sephiroth and the twenty-two paths."

He had them spellbound, leaning over the desk, the diagram of the Tree of Life behind him, the snow falling gently outside the window. Hanukkah lights burned in the window, reflecting themselves back into the room in the darkness of the glass so that it seemed like there were indeed two worlds, the world of the lights inside the room, and the mysterious reflected room outside in the darkness, a world of spirit in which Elly could see herself and the men hanging in space, the snow falling through them. This is what they were, she knew, empty space, collections of atoms and molecules, tiny bundles of dumb meaningless energy that felt and had consciousness that burned in the unfeeling universe like the flames of the Hanukkah candles.

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