May 29, 2018
“Start with one ball,” I told her. “Just toss it from hand to hand.”
Her name was Grace, though she didn’t have much. The only reason she could give for showing up at our SOPWETT meeting was an inexplicable whim, an itch for something new. She confessed she could barely catch a beach ball. She tripped on one of Halpern’s juggling clubs within ten seconds of walking into the room and I swear, if Ezra were still shomer negiah and hadn’t reached out an arm to catch her, she would have broken a bone.
It’s easy to picture. There we were, the four of us, in the bright, high-ceilinged practice room in the Performing Arts building that we reserve each week. Four Jewish boys throwing stuff in the air, heads tilted up, sweat shining on our foreheads, joking about classes and movies over the techno music pulsing from a laptop on the floor, when this slender Korean girl walks into the room with a serious frown on her face and looks at me, of all people, and says she wants to learn how to juggle. She didn’t have to be superhumanly clumsy to be the cutest girl on campus right then.
“Bring any balls?” Halpern had asked her. I could have hit him. Ezra and Gabe tried to hide smiles.
“No,” she said, with a perfectly straight face. “I didn’t expect there to be a shortage.”
Halpern grinned. “I think you’ll fit right into SOPWETT. Josh, I nominate you.”
That was pretty generous of him. He did have a girlfriend, but still.
I stole glances at her face as I taught her. One ball first, then two. When she insisted, I showed her how to do three, though she hadn’t caught two balls in a row more than half a dozen times. I held off giving her too many helpful hints; I had a vague idea that she might not come back if she got it too quickly.
“All right, bitches,” said Halpern after a while, rubbing a powerful forearm, “show me some passing.”
Harry Halpern is our king. As Jewish-looking as they come, Halpern, though his mother is a hot blond atheist Catholic. He had a Bar Mitzvah and went to Hebrew school as a kid, but nowadays he’d order a cheeseburger with bacon and a milkshake on Yom Kippur just to spite you. He’s our clubs man. He can do three-up pirouettes with five clubs, which makes the rest of us look like beginners.
Grace backed into a corner near the door to keep practicing while the rest of us paired up. Two-person juggling, otherwise known as passing, is one of the things we do best at SOPWETT. Arms up, and down, and: one, two, three, four, pass, two, three, four, pass, two, three, four, pass, two, three, four…
I was conscious of Grace’s eyes on me. I dropped a throw from Ezra. Bending to pick it up, I pretended not to notice her.
As we raised our arms to start passing again, Ezra made the smallest motion, nudging his nose with his fingertip. I read the message, subtly brushed the hanging booger away from my nose, and waited for the all-clear. He nodded. This is how you know who your real friends are.
Aside from being my roommate, Ezra is also our secretary. He sends out the emails over the listhost announcing “The Next Sacred Conclave of the Projectile-Possessed,” signed in Gothic font by The Honorable Sir Juggleworth McClubbinshaw, Esq. and generally containing ten to twenty spelling mistakes.
Ezra grew up in an Orthodox family but slipped off the path because, as a video-game-loving dyslexic math genius, he felt slightly out of place in the community. Plus, the prohibition on touching girls started getting on his nerves. Now he’s one of these challah-and-Manischewitz Jews; if Halpern spends Yom Kippur laughing at everyone who’s fasting, Ezra spends it playing Halo with some guys in our room but makes sure to come with me to the break-fast at the end, for the bagels. You have to respect him because, even though reading still gives him a headache, that never gets in the way of his twisted creative mind. He writes dystopian sci-fi novels for fun, this guy—though I’ve always suspected the worlds he invents are really the one he grew up in.
To some people, it might be surprising that, from the beginning, all four of us in SOPWETT were Jewish. But the campus Hillel is washed up. The last of the old donors cut the strings last year. No more free dinners on Friday nights, no more free Passover seders, no more illustrious speakers or artists-in-residence. The only free stuff remaining nowadays, aside from the Orthodox services that Gabe goes to, is monthly board-game night and Tuesday-morning yoga. I think that’s why SOPWETT grew from Halpern’s crazy idea into an unofficial Jewish social group. You don’t mean to, but you end up hanging around with other Jews. My dad says it’s a survival instinct bred into our genes over millennia of persecution. If you don’t have a fully functioning Hillel, the community forms elsewhere.
The point being, we’re probably the only Jewish juggling club in the Midwest. Which explains the second unexpected appearance at SOPWETT that afternoon.
“Can I help you?” Halpern said to the man in the doorway. He was wearing a suit, a black hat, and a neat black beard.
“Is this the Society of People Who Enjoy Throwing Things?”
“It is indeed,” said Halpern, with an obliging smile. “Crazy parties are our specialty, but we also have an interest in balls.”
The man said nothing. His sharp eyes simply moved on, as though he were used to ignoring things, and found Gabe, the only one of us with a kippah on his head. “This is a Jewish club?”
I looked over at Grace. She was staring at the man from her corner a few yards away. When she caught my eye she blushed a little and went back to butchering the cascade pattern.
“No,” said Gabe. “But the four of us are Jewish.”
The man turned and beckoned to someone in the hallway behind him. A kid, maybe twelve years old, stepped inside. Black hair under a black kippah. White tzitzit hanging out from under a crisp white button-down shirt. Black shoes. Ghostly white skin. He looked at us for a moment before taking in the chaos of colors and shapes strewn across the floor, like the wreckage of a Dr. Seuss town hit by a tornado. His eyes roved over the juggling props for a long time, hungrily, and I had this sudden, ridiculous vision of his entire world in black and white, like the photographs of the old country in my grandfather’s album that I’d brought back to campus with me at the beginning of the year.
“My son wants juggling lessons,” said the man.
There was a silence just long enough for me to see the blank look on Ezra’s face, and Halpern’s, and Gabe’s.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
I heard one of them stifle a laugh. I realized I had no idea what I had just volunteered for.
“What’s your name?” said the man.
“Rabbi Freedenberg,” he said, shaking my hand. He thought for a moment. “Shua,” he said, turning to his son, “why don’t you juggle for Josh Lipman for a minute. Maybe he can give you some tips.”
The kid stepped forward, his face bright. I saw him notice Grace—the slightest rise of his eyebrows—but then he turned back to me. I handed him three juggling balls. He took a deep breath, narrowed his eyes, and started juggling.
“Not bad,” I said. He had the motions right, but he was wobbly. After about twelve catches, he dropped a ball.
“You’re throwing forward,” I said, “not straight up. That’s why you keep running after the balls. Here, stand there, facing the wall. Try juggling now.”
Within two minutes his throws started to straighten. His face was flushed with the thrill of progress; I congratulated him. I turned to his father to see if I’d passed the test yet.
“You know Rabbi Kravitz?” he said after a moment.
“Sure,” I said. He was the Chabad rabbi just off campus.
Rabbi Freedenberg inclined his head. “You go to events there much?”
“I went to Hillel for the High Holidays,” I said. “But last year I went to Chabad for Purim and Simchat Torah. I went home for the seders.”
I was sharply aware of Grace listening again; my words sounded strange to my own ears.
For the first time, Rabbi Freedenberg’s face relaxed. “An old friend of mine from Atlanta,” he said. “Apparently a bit of a juggler himself.” He said the word juggler like it was a synonym for nutcase. “He came to visit over Rosh Hashanah and started teaching Shua how to juggle. Then he gives him a belated Bar Mitzvah gift, a check, he tells me it’s for a couple of juggling lessons, nothing else. So what can I do?”
“It’s a great skill to have,” I said. “Develops your hand-eye coordination and your left-brain/right-brain connections, plus when you’re stressed for whatever reason, it’s really—”
“Ach,” said Rabbi Freedenberg, waving a hand. “I understand it’s a hit at weddings.”
“Well. Yeah, maybe.”
“With God’s will, my oldest daughter is getting married in two months.”
“Mazel tov,” I said.
He nodded again, his face creasing into the slightest smile. “Can you have him ready with a performance? He wants this very much.”
“Yeah, definitely, two months is plenty of time.”
“You can come to us? We live up in Oak Grove.”
“One hour weekly, no more,” he said. “Correct? This will not take time from his studies, you understand?”
“Good. Call me to arrange.”
Shua smiled at me for the first time, a look of intense relief on his face. I wondered what else he wanted, what other knowledge he craved but couldn’t gain. Then the man pressed a business card into my hand, turned his son around, and walked out.
I noticed Grace watching me again as Ezra and I picked up our clubs. It wasn’t like I generally tried to hide my Jewishness from people, but I don’t know. I felt like I had exposed some part of me to her, something raw and private, before I was ready to.
“Thanks for taking one for the team,” Gabe said.
“Yeah,” said Ezra, looking at the doorway. “That could be rough.”
Shua was short for Yehoshua—Hebrew for Joshua. We basically had the same name. Shua made sure to point this out the moment I set down my juggling bag on the basement floor. “If you put your name together with mine, they make Joshua.” Then he looked annoyed. “Except there’s an extra S and H.” Suddenly he put a finger to his lips and whispered, “Shhh. We overlap with sh.”
I laughed. He went red, grinning, like he wasn’t used to people appreciating his odd little jokes.
“Here,” I said, holding out three yellow juggling balls.
“Wait,” he said. He went over to a small desk in a corner, pulled out a wooden chair, and dragged it across the carpet. Then he stood on it and lifted off the one picture hanging on the wall: a large painting of an elderly rabbi in his study. He carried it very gently into an adjoining room, then came back, empty-handed.
“All right, now we’re safe.”
He took the balls and started juggling.
“Nice,” I said. “You aren’t throwing forward anymore.” But his throws were still inconsistent. He dropped one and grimaced.
“I think you’re getting out of rhythm because you aren’t throwing to the same height. Always throw to eye level.”
Gradually, his throws evened out. But he was still dropping after maybe twenty throws.
“Here, look,” I said. I grabbed three more balls from my bag and started juggling. It’s amazing, the way it feels so natural, the continuousness of it. Every throw—caught. Every risk taken, every crisis averted. A cycle you could keep up forever.
“How do you do it?” Shua whined.
“It’s about control. Steadiness. Just keep throwing and catching, don’t make any big motions. You have to stop thinking about each ball. That’s when you’ll get in the zone. The pattern has to be part of you, not something you think about anymore—like, I don’t know, saying the Sh’ma.”
“What? That’s not how you say the Sh’ma. You’re supposed to concentrate on every word. That’s when you remind yourself about your relationship with God.”
“Oh, right. Bad example,” I said quickly, as though the warm confidence he said it with didn’t startle or intimidate me at all.
“It should be like brushing your teeth,” he offered. “You don’t think about each tooth.”
That must have helped, because twenty minutes later, he’d gotten it.
“I’m in the zone!” he cried. He kept juggling and juggling and juggling until a movement at the stairs distracted him and he dropped.
“Dina!” he groaned.
A girl, maybe nineteen, was coming down the stairs toward us. Her long skirt swished gently. There was something timid in the way she carried herself—consciously, almost proudly timid. Tzniyut: the rules of modesty. It made me uncomfortable.
“This is Josh Lipman,” said Shua. “He’s really good at juggling.”
“Hi,” I said. “Mazel tov?”
She nodded, smiled, her face coloring a bit. She set down a tray with some cinnamon rugelach and two mugs full of milk. One was branded with a Hebrew quote from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Bar Mitzvah gift from my little sister Baila,” said Shua proudly, picking up the branded mug and taking a drink.
“Want to see Shua juggle some more?” I asked Dina.
She smiled again and shook her head. “I want it to be a surprise at the wedding.”
We watched her climb the stairs, skirt swishing, thin ankles revealed, then concealed. I wondered if anyone besides her mother had ever told her she was beautiful.
Shua leaned toward me when she was gone. “Can I ask you something?”
“What’s it like, at the university?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, you have classes, right? But there are girls.”
“Oh.” I could hear kids laughing and screaming somewhere upstairs, and someone moving around in the kitchen. “I like it. You get another perspective, when there are girls in your class.” I had no idea what I was saying. It’s not like I’d ever been in a class without girls.
“Do people make out and stuff?”
I blushed, which made me feel ridiculous. “Not in class,” I said. “Come on. Let’s see you throw behind the back now.”
I didn’t see Grace again until the next SOPWETT meeting. We had let her take three balls home and she told us she’d been practicing, but she still sucked.
“So what does it mean to be Jewish?” she asked me halfway through practice. She was like that—abrupt, weirdly sincere. She was an English major; she liked pondering questions that started with “what does it mean to.” Her family was Christian, she said, though it had never really sat well with her. They came from a small town, and she’d never met a Jew until college.
“Um,” I said, and paused.
“Okay, well there was this guy named Rabbi Hillel, like two thousand years ago. Someone asked him the same question, more or less, and he had to answer while standing on one foot, or something like that.”
“What, so it was supposed to be like a one-word answer?”
“No, Grace, not everyone’s as klutzy as you. It was based on a line from the Torah, the Old Testament. The Golden Rule, basically.”
She thought for a minute, frowning. “I like that. But—”
“I know. There’s like a million important rules and customs besides that.” I fidgeted with a juggling ball, tossing it from hand to hand. “A teacher was telling me about that once. She said it’s like a birthday present. The wrapping is as important as the gift inside.”
That seemed to startle her. But after a long time, she smiled. “Wow,” she said, “that makes sense,” and I thought I had escaped. Then she added, “But can’t you tell me what you think? Not what your teacher or someone two thousand years ago thought?”
There was such an earnest look on her face, such concentration. I nodded and said I would think about it some more, give her a good answer another time. And I really intended to. But right then, I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to tell her what had really come to mind—the day of my grandfather’s funeral that summer. The first clump of dirt on the coffin: I saw it, dropped there like a period from God’s pen. The rabbi chanted incomprehensible metaphors in a fragile melody that practically quivered with age, and I watched my father crying. In a moment like that, you can’t not think about your turn, when it’s your father in the ground, and how you’ll surely cry—and what’s worse, about your unborn children, how they’ll suffer when it’s you in the box—and then even worse than that, envisioning them in the box, their blank faces, and your grandchildren crying, and I thought, I must be crazy, why am I thinking about my children’s funerals, and why do I need to know that a rabbi will be there, droning these same meaningless words.
Grace picked up the juggling balls again.
First throw, second throw, third throw—eyes darting everywhere, hands flying—first drop, second drop, third drop. I loved how frustrated she got. I took her hands in mine and showed her the small circular motion they should make. Reminded her to throw each ball only when the previous one hung motionless at its peak, about to fall. Tried to tell her with every word and every touch and every glance that I had already memorized the deep black of her eyes, the exact arc of her smile, the unaccountable lightness of her fingers. But she was paying such fierce attention to my instructions that, at the time, I didn’t think she noticed.
Even then, as early as that, I had the distinct sense of teetering on the edge of something, like when you hike along a ridge and you can feel the pull of empty space beside you. Gravity is attraction, after all.
If she were Jewish, I would lose myself to her. This I knew beyond doubt. I would fall like a chick out of a nest in love with her, whirling, tumbling, the wind rushing up against my face.
But she wasn’t. So I won’t.
Shua had been begging me to take him back to juggling club. At last I managed to convince Rabbi Freedenberg, by telling him that Shua had to watch six-ball passing if he wanted to learn how to do it with me. That was how I ended up picking Shua up in the afternoon and riding with him on the bus back to campus.
“Damn,” said Halpern, when he saw Shua juggle. Shua’s pale face went instantly red.
“Virgin ears,” I hissed.
“Oops,” said Halpern with a grin.
Grace had been practicing like crazy that week. I told myself that she wanted to impress me, and I actually think that was true. She could juggle for real now.
I felt her watching, as usual, as I taught Shua how to pass. “Every fourth ball across to me,” I said to him. “For now, it’ll always be a throw with your right hand.”
“What, you think I would throw it with my wrong hand?” he said.
I laughed. It wasn’t that the joke was funny, it was just him in his kippah saying it. I loved this kid.
I caught Grace smiling too, and when we looked away from each other again, it felt like we had shared something weirdly intimate.
“Way to go,” Ezra muttered to me at the end of practice, after Gabe and Halpern had left. We were staring at Grace and Shua, who were passing six balls. They laughed when a ball hit Grace in the forehead. She glanced over at me and grinned.
Ezra gave me the slightest punch on the shoulder, threw his backpack on his back, and walked out.
The last golden rays of sun were angling through the windows of the room when Rabbi Freedenberg came in.
“Grace, Rabbi Freedenberg,” I said.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, reaching out a hand. I cringed. He smiled tightly, nodding, and didn’t take it. I should have told her he’d be shomer negiah.
“She’s just one of the people in our juggling club,” I said.
“Mazel tov,” she said to him suddenly, surprising me. She had learned from Shua. “About your daughter.”
He nodded again. “Thank you.”
Afterwards, when we were packing up, she put a hand on my arm.
“Just one of the people in our juggling club?” she whispered, looking me right in the eyes. The room had darkened now. “Just?”
I tried to kiss her, to save myself from having to answer.
To my surprise, she responded. One of Halpern’s juggling clubs rolled across the floor. Soon we were against a wall.
I felt a tilting sensation, like the very beginning of a fall. I no longer knew what I wanted, but somewhere in my mind I knew it was too late to explain. Too late to explain how real it is, three thousand years of history, as real as the fingers grazing my neck. Too late to explain that my heart, this living, pounding heart, was on a leash held by everyone I couldn’t disappoint, the dead and the yet-to-be-born, whose breath I felt on my face even as hers washed over me.
“Reverse cascade,” I said. Shua complied.
“Columns,” I said next. Again he shifted tricks, two balls rising and falling together, the third thrown separately up the middle.
“Behind the back now, every third throw…Now let’s see Mills’ Mess…All right, now the Jewish trick.”
He laughed and switched to Rubenstein’s Revenge, a tangled whirl of hand motions that he’d mastered only the day before.
He was brilliant.
It was our last lesson before the wedding. His transitions were seamless now. He had even started to come up with slight modifications, making the tricks his own, and stringing them together in ways I’d never thought of.
Shua was only allowed one hour of practice a day, since his father brought him to the shul to study Talmud with the older boys each afternoon, now that he was thirteen. But down there in the basement, with the painting of the rabbi hidden away in the adjoining room, Shua had whispered to me that he’d started sneaking out of bed.
“One in the morning!” he told me, his eyes wide and shining, his mouth open as if he couldn’t believe it himself. “I come down here and practice over the sofa, so it doesn’t wake them up when I drop.”
I had punched his shoulder, grinning back, but I was wary of encouraging him too much.
“You’re better than Ezra,” I said now, as we finished our last round of passing. Shua took a gulp of Coke from his Pirkei Avot mug and collapsed onto the sofa, red in the face. “He’s the one I always pass with at the club,” I added.
“What about your girlfriend, though?” said Shua. “She’s pretty good.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“You’re always looking at each other.”
“Trust me, it’s not like that.”
He shrugged. For a while he looked up at me, his chest still heaving. “My dad does conversions, you know.”
I stared at him. In my head, I was screaming, I wouldn’t ask her to convert to this crazy faith any more than I’d be willing to convert to hers. Then I just laughed.
“Thanks,” I said. “If I ever have a non-Jewish girlfriend, I’ll keep that in mind.”
He smiled at me again, a little sadly perhaps, but he might have been already thinking of something else.
“We are going to rock this wedding,” he said suddenly, and finished the rest of his Coke.
Friday night, Halpern threw a party at his apartment. Gabe was furious because it was on Shabbat, but Halpern said everyone else preferred Friday to Saturday, so Gabe could go suck some gefilte-fish balls. The Hillel house was just across the street, anyway, so he could drop in after services.
Grace and I stood near the wall, trying to tear our eyes away from the spectacle of Halpern and Ezra juggling six beers in the center of the living room. Being close to her was normal now. I had started waiting for her after classes. I read short stories that she had to read for homework so we could talk about them. I had told her a few things about Judaism, the differences between Shua’s level of observance and mine; she soaked up the information with something more than polite interest. She told me about Korean music, her high school crushes, her parents’ conservatism, her discomfort in church. I had met her friends, some Korean, some not, and they all thought we were adorable. We probably were. I hugged her a lot, like some storybook boyfriend, because part of me insisted that the more perfect we were, the more acceptable this whole thing would become.
Grace didn’t like to drink much (“It makes me clumsy,” she said, and we laughed). Still, we were both a little tipsy when we slipped out of the apartment, not for privacy so much as fresh air. We stepped into the chilly autumn night, slid into a bench under a tree.
With the faintest beat of music behind us, and the silent silhouette of the Hillel house, lights on in one or two windows, beyond the fence in front of us, we could have been sitting in a locked room, both protected and trapped.
“I think it’s nice that we have different religions,” she said, looking at the Hillel house.
“It’s like, we can learn so much from each other. I feel like I’m already a broader-minded person just from knowing you. I mean, that sounds patronizing maybe. But I mean it.”
“I know,” I said, and brushed the hair from her face. Felt my whole body shiver at the touch of her cheek. Tried to ignore the inexplicable fear bubbling up inside me.
“Isn’t that what love is?” she said quietly. It was the first time either of us had used that word aloud. I felt it hanging like a magical juggling ball in the air between us, solid yet weightless, floating down in slow motion. “When you can feel the way the other person is making you into a different person, I mean a better person than you were?”
“Yeah, maybe that’s it,” I said. I didn’t feel like a better person. I felt like the exact same person, and worse because of that. It was impossible to tell her that my mind would never be broadened, that I wouldn’t let it. Words I had never spoken echoed in my head: I will only marry a Jew. And the response she would never give: That’s hideous. Cultic. Barbaric.
“Do you believe in God?”
“Oh, come on.”
“What? It’s a perfectly reasonable question.”
“I don’t know.”
“If you had to answer.”
“All right.” I thought for a moment. “You know what they say in Yiddish? I think?”
“Are you going to use someone else’s words again?”
“Yeah, but they really apply here.”
“I don’t believe in God, but don’t tell him I said that.”
She laughed and nestled closer to me. After a long time she said, “Well, I keep thinking about this. The best I’ve been able to come up with is, I think God is fate.”
“You want to elaborate on that?”
“Fate. I mean, it’s just this sense I get sometimes, that something bigger is going on, you know what I mean? Not like something else is controlling us, not like that. Just that sort of…grandeur or something, the way things happen? It’s beautiful sometimes, the way everyone is out there with their own life, moving across the planet on their own little path, like imagine each person is a paintbrush leaving a trail, and mostly the lines never touch, but sometimes they do, and keep going just like before, except sometimes strange things happen, people meet,
She stopped. I could tell she was blushing from the way she looked down. I realized that she was giving me the most precious gift, that she was baring some corner of her soul to me. It was terrifying.
Why do you have to make this even harder for me than it already is?
“You know what?” she said. “Tomorrow. I want to go to Jewish services.” There was excitement in her voice now, as though she thought I would somehow be happy about this.
I brought Ezra along. I literally dragged him out of his bed at nine in the morning and threw him some semi-decent clothes. He hadn’t been to services in three years, plus he was a bit hung over, but I somehow couldn’t contemplate going to synagogue with only Grace.
Ezra kept getting text messages throughout the service. Mostly it was Halpern, who was obviously still drunk. When we stood, Grace stood perfectly straight, ignoring the occasional stares, with this look of pondering concentration—her English-major-question look—frozen on her face. I was sure she wanted me to explain things to her, like why the men wear those weird prayer shawls, or why it’s okay for the babies to cry and the parents to stand at the back chatting while the lady up on the bima chants whole paragraphs of holy scripture. But she never asked me, and I didn’t feel like talking. She talked more to the young married couples seated near us who reached out and shook her hand.
That week’s Torah reading was the portion with Jacob and the angel—the fight in the darkness by the rushing stream, arms locked together, and the wound, and Jacob’s new name, Israel, he who wrestles with God. Grace followed along in the English, her mouth moving as she read. She turned the thin pages of the chumash with a delicacy that seemed exaggerated to me. I couldn’t concentrate on the story at all.
A few minutes later, when the cantor marched around the room holding the Torah, wrapped in its purple velvet cover and draped with silver ornaments, everyone leaned out to touch it and then kiss their fingers. Grace saw me do it and followed suit. That’s right, you kiss that giant scroll of animal hide, I thought, as her fingers met her lips, cautiously, as though she were tasting batter. This terrible, irrational bitterness was welling up inside me. Though part of me knew it was unfair to her, I hated the way she watched me all the time, looking for cues or just trying to figure me out or something, and thinking I didn’t notice. I wanted to stare into her beautiful, dispassionate eyes and yell: This is important to me, okay? I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to explain it, it just is! I can kiss the Torah if I want to!
The cantor made it back to the bima and set the Torah down on its shelf in the ark. And then everyone was singing Etz Chayim, my favorite Hebrew hymn, and something just cracked inside me. It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it. She would never, ever understand that soaring feeling, that elusive longing, that warm sadness and love that filled me as I stood there in the middle of a whole room singing. And all those who cling to it find happiness.
Ezra’s phone buzzed again. He didn’t check it. There was a solemnity in his eyes that I had never seen before. I felt myself nudge closer to him as I sang and as he mouthed the words, both of us swept up in something we could not name. Show us the way back to you, God. Renew our days as of old.
The wedding was the next day, a Sunday. It awed me. Not because it was so holy and traditional or something, but because it was so joyous. Shua’s sister was a vision of purity in her wedding dress, even more beautiful because of how chaste it was, and you just knew that today, for once, she had spent hours on her appearance, that she’d had an Orthodox woman do her hair and her delicate makeup while she sat there in a chair amidst the gossip, blushing and shivering and perhaps only now and then letting her thoughts flicker to the momentousness of what would happen in the darkness that night. The groom, a short thin boy with glasses, looked happier standing there under the wedding canopy than just about anyone I’d ever seen; his face literally glowed. And I couldn’t help but feel a tug of something inside me when Rabbi Freedenberg, his eyes glistening, talked about building a house of Torah, of mitzvos, of reverence for God, of true love and harmony and peace.
You’d think that men and women dancing separately would put a damper on things, but it didn’t. Circles and circles, endlessly spinning. Little kids running around the synagogue’s social hall; grandparents and great-grandparents clapping in time from their seats. So much wine, too. Shua and I, next to each other in the men’s hora, sweaty hands locked together, laughing from sheer giddiness. And the klezmer band pounding out lilting bulgars and freylachs and a few songs Jews everywhere sing: Kol sasson ve-kol simcha, kol chatan ve-kol kalah—the sound of joy and happiness is the sound of groom and bride.
And then, at last, it was time. Everyone was seated, forks and knives clattering. Shua walked up to the front of the dance floor.
“I just want to say, mazel tov Dina and Avi,” he began. His voice was a little shaky. “And a big thank-you to Josh Lipman for giving me juggling lessons. I hope you enjoy the show.”
A few people looked at me and smiled.
Shua cupped three balls in one palm and tossed them up in the air with a flourish. In perfect time, he caught one in his left hand, caught one in his right hand, left one hanging in midair—and slid right into the cascade pattern. There was applause and he’d barely even started yet.
As Shua’s act built up, I glanced over at Rabbi Freedenberg. He wasn’t smiling, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Shua. No one could. The juggling balls—one red, one yellow, one green—flashed through that room like messengers from another world, but messengers of what exactly I couldn’t have said.
Then I caught Shua’s eye and stood up. From the bag on the floor he tossed me three balls and we slipped into the basic passing pattern the way we might have slipped into conversation. Applause again. I saw a photographer frantically backing up to get a wider angle. Slowly, we moved toward the climax. Still juggling, we walked toward each other, around each other, until we were standing back to back, looking up, trading balls over our heads. I felt Shua’s kippah sliding downward until it balanced between his head and my back, and I laughed. The balls traced a canopy over us, our symbolic gift to the bride and groom, and the whole room seemed to breathe in at once, from recognition and from the beauty of it, and I had rarely felt so close to happiness. But for some reason, when the applause rose and rose and kept going, I found my eyes pulled downward. For a fraction of a second I looked straight out the window behind the tables. Grace was there. I saw her hands against the glass, her eyes wide, her jeans, her sweatshirt.
I dropped three balls in a row.
Shua kept juggling, waiting for me to get back into the pattern. But I couldn’t. I was swept up in that moment by a wild fury. I picked up one of the balls and might have hurled it at the window—except my hand rescued me and simply dropped it on the floor again.
We must have wrapped up somehow and taken a bow, because I was back in my seat and dessert was being served, and no one was asking who the face was at the window. Probably, no one had noticed.
I pushed back my chair and walked outside. I had to make sure I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
She was there. Not crouching at the window, but sitting on the curb. I could tell by her face that she hadn’t realized I’d nearly chucked a ball at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “You guys were amazing. I didn’t mean to mess you up.”
“What were you thinking?” I was standing over her.
“I just wanted to see. I wanted to see what it was like, a Jewish wedding.”
“You mean—you were watching the whole time?”
“I couldn’t see everything. I loved it, though. It was beautiful.”
“You just—” I was shaking my head. “You were—”
“What, Josh? What? I wanted to see! Is that so crazy? I knew it was too much to ask to actually come with you like any normal girl does to her boyfriend’s events! They’re crazy when it comes to women, haven’t you noticed? Especially ones who don’t look like them!”
“Don’t call them crazy.”
“What, haven’t you been saying that? Shomer negiah and tzniyut and everything!”
“I never called them crazy, I don’t ever want to hear you say that, okay?” Somehow, I was yelling.
There was something hard and cold in her face, but I saw the love shining through the cracks like light, and that was when I wilted, collapsed next to her on the curb, when I finally saw what a terrible thing I had done to her, and knew this could go no further. It was over, it had to be, and I didn’t know if it was a relief that it felt like a tragedy or a tragedy that it felt like a relief.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, my eyes stinging.
“You think I can never understand,” she said quietly. “You think this has to stop.”
I looked up at her. For a strange moment I was overcome by simple gratefulness, that she had spared me from having to say it, and that she didn’t seem to hate me for it.
But then she was shaking her head. “What if I told you that I think I want one of those canopies one day?”
“What?” I said. It didn’t register.
“What if I were to tell you that yesterday, at the synagogue, the service moved me too? Would you believe me if I said it felt…personal to me too, Josh? Could you?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I spoke to people there,” she went on, almost frantically. “I looked around. Do you know what I could see? So many people there, they’re conflicted in some small way, they’re struggling. They all love something about being there and don’t know why, or think it makes no sense. You too. It’s so alive because of that, see what I mean? I love that—I love that about you. Don’t you see? I want that. I want to be wrapped up in that, push up against it, I want to be part of that bigness and the aliveness and complexity of it and figure out why I think it’s so powerful and why I want it and why I love you like this, do you get that? It’s not just that I want to understand you, even if you think I never can—what if I want to understand me?”
She was holding my face between her hands now, so I couldn’t look away. Her black eyes seemed deeper than ever, full of an urgent, searching intensity; maybe I hardly knew her. Could she really be serious? I could already feel the tremors of the great uprooting and reshuffling that would have to happen within me, if she was telling the truth, if she wasn’t just trying to keep us together. How long would it last? How far would she really go? Wild visions of a not-so-distant future were crowding into my head—the doubt that I could already taste, seeping into every song shared in the synagogue, every Hebrew syllable uttered, the very names of the children we might have—the doubt woven like a thread into the shining rope that bound us together. Staggering, to imagine the trust it would take, and the love. Who could have foreseen it might come to this—this, by any logical measure, the best possible outcome?
Inside, the music had resumed; around us, red and yellow leaves floated downward. I pulled her close, as though I could protect her from something, but the something was me, or maybe herself, and she wrapped her arms around me even more tightly, almost violently, as though the uncertainty and the guilt and the pain were a part of me that she wanted to possess.
“God, Josh,” she whispered, when she saw me crying. It sounded like she was trying to introduce us.