What If God Were One of Us

A wonderful day was drawing to a close, and I headed towards the Culver line elevated with my French actor friend, our hearts and minds full to the bursting. Rafy and I suffer from the same delicious exile, secular Jews entranced by Yiddish. The two of us never tire of crossing and re-crossing the border, hopping over the fence into a land where our precious language is spoken, that of the frum, the pious Hasidim.

The F train’s platform at New Utrecht Avenue and 55th Street in Borough Park marks the pale of settlement, separating the sacred from the profane. Upstairs past the turnstile, the gateway yawns: the world at large, one of bedevilment and limitless impurity. Downstairs the streets are filled with modesty. Every face, each look acknowledges an assumed shared belief. We walked and walked and felt we belonged, perchance numbered among the blessed.

All day, Rafy and I had fressed, sampling a linguistic smorgasbord, chewing the gristle and gnawing the bones, sucking out the sweet marrow of crossing cultures. We’d helped ourselves to seconds and thirds. In and out of bookstores and bakeries, asking directions, riding the private buses, we bathed in accents, soaked in the trop, the beautiful cantillation of Ashkenazic Jews, masses of black-clothed men, each one more astonished than the next at our fluency with their daily tongue. The simplest interchange was a snatch of opera: Yiddish, to us, sounds like tone-filled Chinese. It isn’t spoken, it’s sung.

With an excess of manners and obvious gusto, we consumed what was offered, never pushing it when our questions were ignored. It was a day of turning the tables, the avant garde theater director and I as rara avis, trying not to be pigeon holed. Now two 50-something Jewish language junkies stood sated and happy, eyeing the distance, a train over Jordan on its way home. Despite the good meal, there might just be room for a bit of dessert. Though we knew it not, our portion would be double, served up in the F train’s silvered dining cars.

We stood shivering on the wind-swept trackside with unaccustomed patience that January evening, unknowing, uncaring when our train would arrive. Our mission had been a successful one, encountering and interacting with Hasidic men with whom we shared so little, but whose gentle consideration of our simple needs left us feeling splashed with kindness. Now we knew we had to go. Sadness turned our hearts quiet, our lips made still. Cold air bit our faces with regret.

Weekday evenings on the Manhattan-bound F train are sparsely attended, so Rafy and I had plenty of room to stretch out and recover. Like deep-sea divers avoiding the bends, we breathed in and out, decompressing as we started our journey, wondering if the cramps would hit. But as luck would have it so had we: one stop later the doors whooshed open. A lovely young woman roller bladed aboard. Black stockings covered her calves above her skates, and her trim body was snugly fit with colorful thrift shop finds. Atop her getup the girl sported a fuzzy knitted winter hat, multicolor aviator style, its strings dangling beside two plump pink cheeks. A vacant gaze shone from her dark eyes as she sat across from us. Dressed not quite tsniesdik, not totally piously, the girl herself was a border-crossing study: though covered and compliant from head to toe she’d shunned orthodox drabness. Something else obviously was brewing inside her.

The train jolted onward as Rafy and I continued our quiet conversation, paying our fellow traveler little mind. But suddenly, a beautiful volley broke the sound barrier in the car. We both startled as a gorgeous melody seized our souls, the words unintelligible, but the tune overwhelming. Rafy and I looked about, uncertain from where the eerie notes came, reluctant to pierce the girl’s veil of modesty. Violation of two of God’s commandments held dear by the orthodox was surely at risk. Kol Isha prohibits a man from listening to a woman sing. The temptation to sin after tasting of just that bit of a strange woman’s soul is held to be dangerous. Right behind follows shomer n’giyeh: the prohibition against touching a woman who is not related to a man by blood or marriage. Our merely making eye contact would have risked transgression of this second imprecation, bringing shame to an innocent.

We did as little as we could manage, sideways glances, taking readings. Sure enough, the girl was singing, her eyes raised in a beatific stare across the car, aimed at no one but invisible Him. Like the ersatz foreign language that the rock vocalists in Cirque du Soleil productions employ, her words sounded familiar but indiscernible. Was it Hebrew, perhaps Aramaic? Even Arabic flew through my mind, and speaking in tongues was definitely possible. Her virginal plainsong filled the car, rocking us, thrilling us, hurling us homeward. Rafy and I felt our souls, slowly breathing as we silently exhaled.

Down the car a commotion erupted. We dared not look. In a thick Chinese accent, a lunatic was losing it, over and over. I’m gonna KILL you, motherfucker ! I’m gonna PUSH THE BUTTON… No one moved, and our blood ran cold. Though the threat seemed aimed at no one in particular, I had to ask the obvious question: How could the girl’s song have brought this about?

Even the teenagers across the aisle averted their glances, knowing that this time it was no game. But the girl’s song kept coming from a face so peaceful you’d think she was in heaven, miles apart from our danger-packed Bedlam. Her words became clearer, and then I knew. I spied a prayer book plucked from her pocket. Well-thumbed, tattered, a constant companion: indeed I’d heard Hebrew, perhaps they were psalms. It was definitely time for evening prayers. Though offered gratis, and part of her habit, in the space of a minute, her voice worked its wonder, overcoming the force of evil. The crazy calmed down, and we rode on in peace. Rafy and I looked deep in each other’s eyes, silent but knowing what we had seen.

I sat in a dream, warmed up inside. It had been a perfect day. Once again I’d seen the heart of things, listened carefully, detected the presence of the shekhineh, the almighty amidst an unexpected chaos. I was the me I wanted to be, and Rafy had cottoned to that self-same boy. Two lovers we’d been, crossing the border, hand in hand, seeking and finding, adorning our minds. Two terminally ill epiphiles, we’d hungrily gobbled strange men’s diction, stuffing our faces, frosting our minds.

Our car-mate’s sweet songs, her own composition, sealed a shining, golden day. Mine to keep, now mine to hold. The stops rolled on, past Donner and Blitzen, into the heart of the modern-day world. Open and shut: step away from the doors, our minds got ready for the vulgate’s attack. Finally, the 4th Street stop. The steel doors threw open, and off she rolled, our beautiful muse, headed whereto. Grace departed, but I stayed seated, blessed beyond what words can express. I might have been dreaming; perhaps I was sleeping, but the last sound I heard was her calling my name…

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