________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number 15 . . . . September 22, 1995

The Primrose Path

Carol Matas.
Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1995.
152pp, paper, $9.95.
ISBN 0-921368-55-0

Chapter Two

New Girl in Town

I sit in my new house, listening to the clock tick. I feel completely lost. Bewildered. How could this have happened? One minute Baba was dead. The next week Dad came home and said he'd been offered a job teaching at a community college down East. A steady paycheck. Teaching art and art administration. Good salary, but even better hours. And with Baba gone and his family living down East and Mom's sister down there too -- why not move? Nothing to keep us here. Unless Mom's job? But no, Mom said she could get a library job anywhere and it was all decided, except no one asked me. But I told them. I told them I wasn't going. I'd stay with Rachel's family. I wasn't moving. Start grade nine, high school, in a completely strange place? No way.

But here I am. Sitting in a strange house, no friends, thousands of miles away from Rachel, school about to start in two days. And I find out, just today, that Mom has enrolled me, not in public school, but in the Hebrew school just down the street. Has she gone crazy? The school is attached to a synagogue and my mother says Kaddish there. That's the prayer for the dead. My mother asked Rabbi Wienberg how often she should say it. He told her every weekend would be fine, it didn't have to be every day. But she wants to do it every day and she does.

I just got into town today. I did put my foot down and refuse to come before summer was over. Rachel and I went to B'nai B'rith camp together and had a great time. Mom, Dad, and Jordan have been here since the beginning of August.

I've unpacked my clothes and I've looked at the blank walls in my room for long enough. I decide to go down to the synagogue and check it out. Mom is there with Jordan.

It is the end of August but really hot. I walk down the long block of small red brick houses. Mom said they bought in this area because it's the shortest commute to Dad's work. I reach the one-storey, red brick building at the end of our block. I pull open the glass door and move into the blissful cool of the air-conditioned foyer. I find this heat unbearable -- it's six pm and still thirty degrees. I look around. The foyer is empty. Straight ahead are stairs leading both up and down and I can see doors off the hallways. Just to my left are four wooden doors. I try the first one. I open it just a crack and hear the sounds of prayers before I see anything. I open it more.

The first thing I notice is my mother standing all alone on the right side of the sanctuary. My eyes turn to follow the sound of the chanting. On the left side are around fifteen men, half of them dressed in black hats and suits, the others dressed in regular suits, some with their jackets off. They are swaying back and forth reciting the prayers very fast. Between where my mother stands and the men is a wooden barrier topped with green plastic plants. In the centre at the front is the Bimah, the ark which holds the Torah, and a few seats. I notice the carpet is red, the wooden benches covered with bright blue cushions. A very young black-suited man faces the other men, leading them in the prayers. I back out before I am noticed, turn and flee out of the synagogue into the heat. I leave the small red brick building behind and hurry home. I bang into the kitchen, sit at the table, and wait.

Finally my mother walks in.

I leap up, all my anger exploding.

"Mother, in case you haven't noticed, that's an Orthodox synagogue. You didn't tell me it was Orthodox. This is a nightmare. I'm not going there.


She glares back at me, very annoyed, as she lifts Jordan out of his stroller and puts him on the floor.

"Now just a minute, young lady, don't you use that tone of voice with me! Dad and I will decide where you go to school and that's that." Then she sits down at the table and smiles. "Come on honey, calm down. What's the problem?"

"Are you kidding? What's the problem? I want to go to a regular school!"

"Look, Debbie," she says, getting that "firm" tone in her voice, "you and Rachel were so busy with your skiing and your NFTY last year that your school work suffered badly. Even if you consider a C plus average adequate, your dad and I do not. This school is supposed to be one of the top academic schools in the city. The grade nine class is also the oldest class at the school and you'll be able to continue with these kids right until university."

"But it's little. It's a little dinky school. I thought it was going to be a big school with thousands of kids and a swimming pool. And even then I didn't want to go. I just want to go to regular school. I'll meet Jewish kids if I join NFTY. Where's the closest Reform temple? Aren't we going to join a temple?"

Mom pauses. "Well, I don't know. I don't mind this one for now. I know it's Orthodox but it's close and it's easy for me to say Kaddish every day this way. The nearest Reform temple is a half-hour drive away."

I get up and begin to pace.

"But why do I have to go to school here?"

"Well, it's the teaching. The Rabbi himself will be your home-room teacher. He's brilliant and I've heard he's the best teacher in the city."

Then something else occurs to me. "Is the school mixed?" I demand.

I mean, I know that no boy would ever want to go out with me -- I'm too tall, my hair is a homely dull brown, and I have boring brown eyes to match. I'm so shy I know I'd never ask anyone out but if it's an all girls' school I won't even have the smallest chance. By grade nine everyone back home is dating.

"Yes, dear, I told you they're very progressive. Mixed classes, Hebrew studies and religious studies in the morning, English in the afternoon."

"But what do I need all those religious and Jewish studies for?" I protest."I've had my bat mitzvah, I've gone to night school, I know all about Chanukkah and Passover and Rosh Hashanah. This is just crazy. I don't want to go to some small Orthodox weird place."

"Debbie, don't worry. It's just a good school. And the Jewish studies won't hurt. It's good to know all you can -- then, when you grow up, you can make an informed choice about what kind of a Jew you want to be."

"Well, I'd rather be taking French," I mutter. "Do me a lot more good when I try to find work."

Why hadn't Mom asked me about the school before enrolling me? She could have checked out the different schools with me. It wasn't like her. Not at all. This Rabbi must have made the school sound really great.

"Anyway," I add, "don't you feel weird praying in a place where men and women are separated?"

I mean, I know my mother is this major feminist so I can't quite figure this out. And Baba would never have allowed it.

"Well, it was hard to get used to at first, still is, frankly. But it is close and the Rabbi has just been fabulous. He came to call," she explains,"when we were here signing the house papers. The people we bought the house from were members of his congregation. They'd told him about Baba. So he came, asked me to come and pray any time at his synagogue. I was surprised. I told him I thought women didn't usually do that in an Orthodox synagogue. He said women were always welcome." She pauses. "Of course it feels strange being the only one there, usually, but it is awfully handy and he's been terrific. You'll change your mind once you get to know him."

I stalk into my bedroom and throw myself on my bed. I feel miserable. I have one good friend who is now thousands of miles away, and the chances of my making any more aren't good -- I'm too shy and I just clam up when people speak to me. And who knows what the kids at this school are like. A bunch of religious nuts probably. I realize that I've never actually been in an Orthodox synagogue before today. Why couldn't we at least join a Reform temple so I could be in the NFTY group? Still, Mom was right about me getting involved with NFTY -- maybe she thinks I'll have an easier time in a small school because I'm so shy. But she doesn't want to say that and hurt my feelings.

Maybe I should pull a Rachel, throw a tantrum and just refuse to go. Rachel always gets her way -- she just has to throw a big enough fit. It's not my style though. I hate scenes. When Mom and Dad were fighting I just ran for cover. I tried throwing a fit about the move and it didn't get me anywhere. I suppose I could try the school for one week and if it's awful I'll put my foot down and just refuse to go.

When the first day of school arrives I feel so sick I can barely get out of bed. The heatwave continues. It'll be thirty-five degrees by noon and now, at eight in the morning, it's already twenty-five degrees. Our house is air-conditioned but the second you get outside you melt. The combination of heat and humidity is so bad you feel like you're in a steam bath. I worried all weekend about what to wear, trying on everything I own two million times, and finally decided on belted khaki shorts, a khaki short-sleeved shirt, and sandals. I put my hair in a French braid and let the braid hang down my back. I look in the mirror. I'm too fat. Baba was right. Dad says I'm the perfect weight for my height, but I'm really big boned so I'll never have that skinny frail look. It's not fair. I want that skinny frail look! I can't eat a thing. It's 8:05 and I'm completely ready. I just pace around the house for half an hour. Dad tries to talk to me and I just ask him how he can agree with Mom about this school.

"She was so revved up about it," he replies. "She's been going to the Rabbi's office almost every day over the summer to talk about Baba and her death. He's been a comfort to her. She took Baba's death very hard, you know."

Well, I can understand that going to talk to this guy makes her feel better -- after all, Rabbi Wienberg really helped me when I went to see him. But why can't she do that and leave me out of it? I could still go to regular school.

"She convinced me it would really help your marks," Dad continues. "But if it's too strict and too Orthodox, Debbie, I'll talk to her, and you'll go somewhere else. I'm a little uncomfortable about it myself, quite frankly."

Well, that makes me feel a bit better. Like it's not a jail sentence or something.

Finally I walk into the heat, and drag myself down our street to the school. The school bus has just arrived and kids are tumbling out of it and racing into the building. There is a cement deck in the front where some young boys are playing ball, and then the two sets of glass doors. These are open and parents and kids of all ages are talking and greeting each other and babbling and I just feel like shrinking away into a blob and disappearing. How am I going to walk into the classroom? Also, there's something not quite right, but in all the confusion I can't put my finger on what it is. I manage to find the office which is up a set of steps and the secretary calls the vice-principal who is an older woman with curly white hair. She takes me to my home room. I walk in and there is a group of about eight girls standing in a small circle talking and laughing. The vice-principal, Mrs. Lacy, leads me to them and introduces me but I can't catch their names, I'm too nervous. And now, the thing that was nagging at me when I first arrived hits me and I realize why I felt things looked a bit strange. I am the only girl in shorts. Not only do I feel like disappearing but I can feel myself turning beet red. I blush at the drop of a hat and I also break out into hives all over my face, they look like little pimples, when I get really nervous. And now I am really upset. Why didn't Mom warn me? All the girls are wearing skirts which reach at least mid-calf and most of them have their arms covered too. The boys are standing in another corner and some of them are wearing shorts. I'm really confused.

I am also mortified, upset, and slightly revolted. I mean, I feel stupid being the only girl dressed this way but I think they are even more stupid to be dressed the way they are. Don't they fry in this heat, all covered up like that? And why? Isn't this the nineties? We aren't living in some little Russian village any more. And if the boys can wear shorts, why can't the girls?

The bell rings and jolts me out of one moment of panic into another. Where do I sit? What do I do? A very tall man, wearing a black, pinstriped, three-piece suit, walks into the room. He has curly black hair, blue eyes, and is clean shaven. Quickly he scans the room, the blue eyes landing directly on me. His face lights up and he gives me this incredibly warm smile -- I can't help but realize how handsome he is.

"You must be Debbie."

I nod.

"Have you met the others?"

I nod again.

He takes my hand, which shocks me and embarrasses me even more -- no teacher back home would ever do that! He leads me to a desk, his hand warm and dry in mine, and says, "I'm Rabbi Werner. I'll put you here right beside Mara and Rebecca."

I sink into my seat, happy to be able to sit down, hoping to fade into the woodwork. He turns and I notice that his kipah is bobby-pinned on each side so it won't fall off. The boys in the class have done the same thing. I think it's strange that no one has invented a kipah that will stay on all by itself -- maybe one that has Velcro which sticks to the hair or something. And then I notice that one boy hasn't used bobby-pins and I realize that his kipah is probably stuck on his head with Velcro and this thought is so silly and I am so nervous that I burst out in a sort of giggly snort before I can stop myself. The girls turn and stare. The Rabbi seems not to hear and soon has grabbed everyone's attention away from me. Thank God. He starts fooling around with the girls, telling jokes, hugging them, teasing them. I'm too frazzled to really hear the conversation, it's all going by too quickly for me to catch. The girls are all screaming with laughter. The boys are basically hanging around on their side of the room, trying to look cool. Still, I think some of them look like they'd like to be included.

Rabbi Werner is the grade nine Hebrew teacher, principal of the school, and head Rabbi of the congregation. Must be a busy guy.

The class sits down and he perches on the edge of his desk.

"First a little joke," he smiles, and he gives me a wink. I can feel myself blush.

"Mrs. Levi rushed to the door of her son's room, banged on it, and yelled, `Norman, Norman, get up, its late!'

"Her son muttered through his sleep, `I don't wanna get up.'

"Mrs. Levi rushed into the room and shook him. `Norman, you have to get up -- get washed, get dressed, eat, go to school!'

" `I don't wanna go to school,' Norman objected.

" `Norman!' his mother said, clasping her hands over her mouth in dismay, `What's gotten into you? How can you not want to go to school?'

" `I hate school!' Norman replied. `The teachers despise me. The kids call me "four-eyes." They make fun of the way I talk. They throw spitballs at me! They put nails on my chair. They --'

" `Norman, stop this at once. You have to go to school.'

" `Why!'

" `Well, there are two good reasons. One, you're forty years old --'

" `Oh Mom.'

" `And two, you're the principal!' ''

The whole class bursts into roars of laughter, me included. And after a good laugh, I feel much better. This guy doesn't seem so bad after all. Certainly nothing like the strict, serious, rigid kind of person I imagined an Orthodox rabbi-principal would be like.

He's laughing along with us. Now he claps his hands and starts to talk enthusiastically about what we'll be studying this year.

He has a nice voice, not low, even a little high, but very warm and he's just full of energy. Although I was determined to hate every moment, I can feel my resolve weakening a bit.

"We will start the year," he announces, "with Genesis. We'll begin at the beginning. The story of Adam and Chavah," he launches right in, "is the most misunderstood story of all time. You see, Adam was really a being who incorporated both male and female. In order to create two separate beings, Hashem figuratively took a rib from this being and created man and woman. They are different but equal. Two halves of a whole."

It takes me a second to realize that Chavah must be Eve's Hebrew name and that the Rabbi uses Hashem for God. Still, his voice is compelling, his manner relaxed, and for a moment I forget to be self-conscious, I forget it's my first hour at a new school and I get interested. I've never heard this interpretation before. Besides, I was sure Orthodox men didn't view woman as their equals. Why else aren't Orthodox women allowed to read from the Torah? So to hear him say this really surprises me.

One of the girls next to me puts up her hand.

"Yes, Rebecca?" says the Rabbi.

"Rabbi Werner," Rebecca says, "if women are so equal, can you explain why boys thank God every morning in their prayers for not having been born female?"

Do they do that? I think. That's just disgusting. Also, I'm very surprised that one of these girls should ask such a question. Don't they just accept everything they are taught?

"Women," Rabbi Werner answers, "have a special spiritual station. They are so superior they don't have to pray. Men on the other hand are commanded to pray three times a day because they need more spiritual guidance. A man thanks Hashem he is not a woman as a positive affirmation of being a man and being allowed to pray. Not because women are less important."

"Debbie," he says to me, and my heart leaps into my throat. He's not going to single me out, is he? He couldn't.

"Do you know what Chavah first said to Adam?" He looks at me with his bright blue eyes.

Everyone is staring at me. I can't speak. I can feel my hives popping out, again. How can he call on me on the first day? I don't know what to think, I don't know anything about any of this. All I know is how much I don't know. I manage a small shrug.

" `After we eat the apple, Adam, we're going to do what?' "

Everyone is laughing. I am so panicked that at first I don't realize he's just joking with me. Finally I manage a big grin, the relief I feel is incredible. He didn't expect an answer. Thank goodness I didn't try some big long explanation.

He turns to a girl with brown hair, pretty plain -- I hate her dress, something out of the middle ages.

"Sarah, do you think women aren't treated equally in Orthodox Judaism?"

"Well," Sarah replies, with no embarrassment or hesitation, "my mother says it's wonderful to be treated with respect. I think so too."

"Yeah but," Rebecca calls out, "if we get so much respect why can't we carry the Torah? Or read from it?"

My question exactly.

"The answer is not in your inferiority," the Rabbi answers, "but in male weakness. A man shouldn't hear a woman's voice in song or his thoughts might stray from prayer."

Much to my surprise, Rebecca hoots with laughter at his answer.

I expect him to get annoyed, but instead he grins happily at Rebecca.

"We are the weaker sex," he says with a wink.

Rebecca flushes. The girls giggle. I'm not sure what's going on. Some kind of inside joke? I glance at the boys. They try to get involved.

"Weaker sex. Sure, Rabbi. Not us," they protest in their most macho voices. Everyone starts shouting to each other across the room. Rabbi Werner claps his hands.

"Class! Class!"

Suddenly he's talking to me again.

"You see, Debbie, equality is more than the way things seem on the surface. It's how the society functions in reality, day to day.

"Well, Debbie, just look at the girls in this class and see who talks the most and who runs the class and you'll see that girls here aren't afraid to speak up. They may dress differently than those at public school but they're ten times more confident and assertive than the girls there."

The girls meanwhile are glowing from all the praise. The discussion lasts until the end of the period. I am so busy being impressed with the girls and their questions that I hardly notice the boys -- they just fade into the background. I do have a look to see if there are any cute ones. One or two seem OKAY but there aren't any real hunks or anything. Anyway, I like Rabbi Werner, a lot. The discussion is really fun and interesting. He tells wonderful stories so that one moment you can hear a pin drop in class, the next the whole class is laughing uproariously.

Finally he wraps up the discussion and says to Rebecca, "Rebecca, did you hear about this really pretty girl who suffered from hay fever?" Everyone laughs, as Rebecca blows her nose right on cue.

"Anyway, on her way out to a very fancy dinner party this girl figured she would need at least two handkerchiefs to get through the evening -- she tucked one into her sleeve and the extra one into the bodice of her dress.

"At dinner, having used up one handkerchief, she reached into her bosom for the other. She searched about for it with no success until she became aware that all conversation had ceased and everyone was staring at her.

" `Excuse me!' " she exclaimed, " `but I know I had two when I arrived.' "

Everyone in the class squeals with laughter, including Rebecca who blows her nose loudly, flushes, and grins at the Rabbi. The boys, of course, really laugh that one up. I feel a little weird about it -- I mean, it's not the kind of joke you'd expect a rabbi to tell, but no one else in the class seems the least bit uncomfortable. Boy, don't tell me I'm more of a prude than these Orthodox kids. That would be too bizarre!

Is it possible that school could actually be fun? Even interesting? Maybe Mom wasn't so stupid after all

The Primrose Path is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to places, events, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364