A Meandering, Sometimes Agonizing Path

“Do you have kids?” Aviva asked, dipping her bread into the soup at our lunch in Jerusalem.

It made sense, I suppose, that she would want to know. We hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years, and women just seem to ask each other these things. It’s an innocent, perhaps, nonchalant inquiry, I guess, because you either have them or you don’t. But the question always strikes me as odd–one of those moments when something private suddenly becomes uncomfortably public.

Mismatched teal and orange chairs accompanied the square pale wood tables at the vegan restaurant where we had agreed to meet. I got there before Aviva, who was running a few minutes late, she texted, because she had to take a bus, then the Jerusalem tram that rolls down Jaffa Road, and was running behind schedule. Aviva and I met at Hebrew University in 1992. We were the same age, both earning our master’s degrees in English Literature. Now it was winter, 2018, and I had a couple weeks off from the high school where I was teaching English. I hadn’t been back to Israel in a few years. My husband and I had recently separated, I wanted to get far away from Chicago, so I thought it was a good time for a visit.

While I waited for Aviva, I watched two men next to me. They sat near an old space heater with metal coils hot and red that enabled their pita bread to stay warm. Two extension cords–a fire hazard–to be sure, made it possible for the heater to be in the middle of the restaurant. The two guys would break off a piece, scoop up some hummus, and put the rest of the bread back on the heater until their next bite.

Earlier, on my way to our lunch, I meandered around Jerusalem, on old twisty and cobblestone roads, down Ben Yehuda and Yoel Solomon Streets, past galleries and cafes, to the vegan restaurant Aviva suggested near Kikar Tzion (Zion Square) just off Jaffa Road. I was a bit disoriented. Jerusalem had changed. East Jerusalem was more seamlessly connected to West Jerusalem–a strategic move on Israel’s part, I was convinced. Upscale jewelry stores and baby clothes boutiques had replaced old dingy bars where expats used to hang out. New limestone construction stood next to older stone buildings, trying to emulate that both had always been there. Of course, I had changed, too. I had come far to get away from my current life in Chicago but being back in Jerusalem also made me remember things from long ago as I walked on the cobblestones of the city.

The restaurant is on the original location of a pub I frequented in the evenings after my graduate seminars when I lived in Jerusalem in my 20s. The walls inside the bar were drizzled with gunshots from 1948, I was told, when Israel became a state. The bar was square-shaped and dark and smelled of cigarette smoke and stale beer, and I drank too many White Russians there–a cocktail made of vodka, coffee liqueur and cream. “It tastes like Bailey’s!” I used to joke with the guys I met there. The bartender’s name–he was Russian, too–fittingly, was Israel. It was impossible to see any remaining clue that the hipster-grungy vegan restaurant where I was meeting Aviva was once the site of the bar– the only thing it had retained was its square structural shape and a few ghosts.

While I waited, I watched the two men eat their hummus and warm their pita on the space heater with the metal coils. When Aviva arrived, she looked very much like she did when we were in our 20s, a bohemian from Greenwich Village–stylish, urban, thin. She wore a brown corduroy skirt with zig-zagged patches, a black turtleneck sweater and dark brown ankle boots with light brown laces. The only difference I noticed, besides some aging in both of our faces, was the funky green hat she wore to cover her hair, the customary tradition in Orthodox Judaism indicating a woman is married. She was living in Ramot, the mostly Orthodox Jewish settlement about seven miles outside Jerusalem. She calls the West Bank “Judea and Samaria,” a nod to the Biblical reference that the land belongs to the Jews. She said the settlement isn’t really a settlement, but more like a suburb of Jerusalem. “It’s our land, anyway,” she told me at lunch that day, like she had told me decades earlier. “God promised it to us.”

Aviva had always been Orthodox. She knew who she was and what she wanted. My life has been much different. While I have a very strong Jewish identity, I am mostly secular, had married a Buddhist, and was now separated. I was also Zionist, and had dreamed, when I was younger, of studying in Israel someday. Later, I would abandon the ideology we shared and would become more disillusioned by Israel’s policies. When we were in grad school, Aviva lived on a famous street in Jerusalem, Sheshet HaYamim, (Six Days), a road named for the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries. Like most of the street names in Jerusalem, this one represented a crucial turn in Israel’s history, the war in which Israel acquired the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem–a Zionist nod to winning the war. Sheshet HaYamim was a beautiful street lined with limestone homes and big trees between the French Hill and Ramat Eshkol neighborhoods. It was her father’s house; he was a prominent Rabbi who split his time between Jerusalem and their other home in Manhattan. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with Jewish texts crowded every room. In the dining room, a chunky, long wooden table where the family held its Shabbat dinners took up most of the space.

The first class Aviva and I were in together at Hebrew University in 1992 was our William Faulkner/Toni Morrison course. Aviva was petite, unassuming, and outspoken in all the classes we took together. We would talk for hours about how we preferred Shakespeare’s tragedies to his comedies, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, our favorites. In our Critical Literary Theory class, we agreed with Hegel’s insistence that art must serve man’s inner life for it to be meaningful and with Kant’s claim that poetry is the freest and highest form of art. “I admire that Hurston didn’t want to have children,” she said once in our Zora Neale Hurston class after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, “because she knew it would take her away from her writing and other things she wanted to accomplish in her life.”

At lunch that day in Jerusalem, we ate hummus, and also tofu curry and sweet potato soup and, in addition to the pita, the homemade thick multi-grain bread that dripped and thickened as we dipped it in the soup, the bread she was eating when she asked me if I had kids. Aviva said she’d been thinking about getting back to painting, something she used to do before she got married. She was teaching English part-time at a few colleges in the area, and then she laughed, saying, “What else would either of us have done with our English degrees than teach?” When she told me she has six kids, I almost gagged on the multi-grain bread I was chewing. “You know us Orthodox always have a ton of children,” she laughed, and then said, “But wait, get this.” I waited. “Two of them voted for Trump,” she said, as though she knew how outrageous it sounded. It wasn’t all that strange, though, we both knew, given that she lived in Ramot. Many Orthodox Jews in Israel voted for Trump in 2016.

The two men who had been warming their pita on the heater had left.

Before I answered Aviva’s question, I thought about the hysterectomy I had on November 8, 2016. The only reason I was grateful the surgery was on Election Day was for the drugs I got for the pain. On the way back from the hospital, the anesthesia not yet worn off, Hillary signs everywhere passed me in a blur. Later that night, once home and on the couch in a semi-comfortable position, my husband and I watched the polls as it became clearer Trump would win. “Can I have one of your Vicodin,” he asked me, “this is looking bad.” In the morning, we were both in a fog, and I could barely walk. I watched the clock in four-hour increments with anticipation for when I could have another pill. It remained unclear to me whether my pain was coming more from my physical discomfort or the ominous feeling of what was to come after the election. Likely, it was both, the privacy of the hysterectomy had coincided with the most public of national events.

Several fibroids had grown in the walls of my uterus and needed to be removed. “They’re the size of oranges, not quite cantaloupes,” the doctor told me, months before the surgery, “but give it time and they will be.” I was forty-six at the time, and had decided years before not to have children, so the hysterectomy, while scary, wasn’t devastating. Even so, I felt a twinge deep inside, an internal pinch, when the nurse explained why I had to give a urine sample the morning of the surgery. “Just in case you’re pregnant,” she said. My physical body was about to experience a finality with something my emotions had accepted years before, my organs catching up with my mind.

My reasons for not having kids are far less interesting to me today at 50 than they were at 40. Ten years ago I would have admitted that I was grieving the loss, that I had missed out on a crucial rite of passage known to the majority of women, that I think I would have parented well, or I’d wonder what kind of kid I might have had, the friends I might have made with other parents, whether I’d adopt if I couldn’t have my own. But once I hit 44, the window about closed, it just didn’t really matter anymore. I had simply filled my life with other things. When Aviva asked me that day at lunch if I had kids, it had been three years since my surgery and I really hadn’t thought about it much. “But maybe your child would have been his generation’s Moses or Gandhi,” a Rabbi friend once said to me, in defense of having kids during difficult times. When I was young, I thought I would have several, like my mother did. “You need to have three,” she once told me, “so at least one will help you when you’re old.”

Now that I’m older–and wondering, at times, who will care for me down the road, especially if my husband and I don’t reconcile–I don’t feel the need to apologize for not having kids like I used to, or to provide a defensive retort of why it’s OK not to. Mine isn’t a unique story. I just didn’t have them. I suppose one could argue that I lacked intention when I was younger, that I didn’t put myself in situations where I’d meet someone I’d want to marry until I was 38 when I met my husband–unlike Aviva, who was dating furiously in her early 20s, determined to get married and have kids. I did, however, feel enormous pressure to have children when I was younger–or to want to have children. The rhetoric was drilled into me even more by having a father who was also a pediatrician, the penultimate in a child-rearing profession. (I did confess once, though, to a friend who also doesn’t have kids that I was curious what it would have felt like to be pregnant. “I’ve thought about that, too,” she admitted, “but I think you could emulate that feeling with drugs.”) I was nonetheless relieved when I realized other women were out there without kids who had felt pressure, too. Most women “are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth,” Meghan Daum writes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. “Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or Californians,” she confesses, “we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.”

While the fits and starts of my life that led me not to have children were, at times, agonizing, it often seemed more tragic to others than to me. Parents I knew looked at me strangely. “What exactly do you do on the weekends?” a colleague at the high school I teach at asked me once, after questioning if I had children. “Do you have kids?” another asked me directly when I was new to the school. Before I could answer, she said with a wide, almost feverish smile, “No judgment if you don’t!” At age 40, two weeks after I got married, another colleague cornered me in the school hallway, looking worried. It was 8:05am, just a few minutes before first period began, I was about to begin teaching Othello, and she asked frantically what I was going to do about kids, now that I had “gotten married so late.” At age 46, a neighbor my age with a wife and two sons who lived, as I did, in a third-floor apartment, asked me on a Saturday night when I was sitting on my deck reading why I wasn’t out dancing at the clubs. I told him I was tired and getting old, like him.

“No,” I answered Aviva. “I don’t have kids.” Though she was simply asking about my life, I felt that the question of children so often opens a woman’s private life for public inspection. A waitress came to clear our plates. Outside the clouds were becoming gray. It was almost late-afternoon. It looked like it might rain. We had been sitting for a couple hours and the time had gone by fast.

“Sometimes I think I’d give up a couple kids to have created a couple good paintings,” she joked, tossing her head back laughing. I got a glimpse of her light brown hair under her green hat.

“What’s your husband like?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “let’s just say I married him for the end.” I must have looked like I didn’t understand.

“I mean, we’re not that close now, but he’s the guy who will take me to the hospital at the end of my life when I’m dying. I married him for that. For the end. And, of course, for the children. He’ll be the one to take me when I need chemo.”

“Do you have cancer?” I asked.

“Not yet,” she said.

Aviva’s mother had died of breast cancer a couple years before we met. She died on Shabbat. Aviva was in the house on Sheshet HaYamim Street with her entire family after just being with their mother, she has six siblings, who was nearby at Hadassah Hospital. Since her family didn’t use the phone on the Sabbath, the hospital agreed to call when her mother died. The signal would be two rings, then they’d drop the call, and then they’d call back and let the phone ring just once. That’s how the family would know she died. “I named my fifth child after her,” Aviva said.

One night in 1994 Aviva and I sat up late in her bed. She had invited me for Shabbat dinner with her family. After a loud evening of singing Hebrew songs and eating lemon chicken and talking about big and small things, we went upstairs. She wanted to show me a piece of paper she called her “dating list.” The list had four columns: the name of the guy she had the date with; where they met; how long the date was; and how it went. “I’m up to 24,” she told me. Then she leaned over to me in her bed and confessed how sexy she thought it was that Orthodox wives covered their hair in public. She described it as something private and sacred, and when she said she thought it was sexy, I thought it was sexy, too. I imagined Aviva, a virgin at the time, on top of her future husband, slowly taking off some stylish hat (funky green?), her long, light brown hair falling onto his face as she moved.

Orthodox Judaism, indeed, Aviva’s predictable path, was so far removed from my life in Jerusalem it had become exotic to me. At the same time, because Aviva knew she was on a single trajectory to get married to an Orthodox man and have kids, my life of drinking in bars with non-Jewish men who didn’t commit seemed foreign to her. I had recently fallen deeply in love with an Armenian Christian, Tavit, who lived in Jerusalem’s Old City, a man I met at the pub and knew I’d never marry. We dated for two years, right up until the night I left Jerusalem for Chicago after finishing my studies. Looking back now, it seems unlikely that Tavit and I would have dated or that Aviva and I even became friends. But literature had bonded Aviva and me, and it had also made us different, too, for it was there, in fiction, where Aviva could experience alternative life-styles and ambiguity, whereas I had tried to emulate it in real-life.

I didn’t stay over Shabbat evening at Aviva’s because I was meeting Tavit later, where I’d hang out at a bar in East Jerusalem with his Armenian and Palestinian friends in a neighborhood in Jerusalem that wasn’t Jewish at all, where no one observed Shabbat. Walking down Sheshet HaYamim street to meet him later that night, the quiet and dark seemed to emanate a sense of privacy as though out of respect for Shabbat. As I walked on the limestone sidewalk, I wondered what it might feel like to be Orthodox, to be part of a tight community, to not stray from the norm, to have only my husband see my hair. Once in a while I heard people handling dishes, the sounds of families who had shared a meal together. I made my way down to the Old City, through the Jaffa Gate into the Jewish Quarter to the Armenian Quarter to meet Tavit at the crowded, loud bar. There, too, I wondered what it might have been like to be Armenian and be with Tavit as his Armenian wife and be part of another tight community, though I knew that would never happen. Instead, I stood on the stone street alone for just a moment before entering, one foot in each world. The reality, of course, was that I belonged to neither. I knew I’d return to Chicago after completing my master’s degree, say goodbye to Tavit and Aviva, but after living abroad for several years, I’d have trouble fitting in anywhere once I returned.

Outside the vegan restaurant, it had become cloudy. In the winter, Jerusalem is wet and windy. It was time to go. When we left, an old Orthodox man rode past us on his bike with a shower cap covering his fedora hat. Rain must be in the forecast, Aviva said, as the man went by. I told her I’d walk her back to the tram on Jaffa Road.

All of a sudden, as we stood on the corner of Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street, about to say goodbye, Aviva said enthusiastically, “Oh, I forgot to tell you my idea for a short story.”

I wanted to hear it. It would delay us a few minutes. I was feeling sad about leaving her. The tram stopped near where we were standing. “I’ll get the next one,” Aviva said. An Orthodox couple searched for their tickets before boarding the train. An old Arab man carrying three plastic bags of food walked by. Aviva began to tell me her idea.

“The story is about an Orthodox woman, a painter, who is preparing for her gallery opening. It’s her first. She’s gotten a cool space in an art gallery on King David Street, just over there around the corner.” She pointed behind her towards the expensively-posh street.

“Right there, in the middle of downtown. Well, the Orthodox woman has six kids, see, and her painting life has been stifled for the last fifteen years. But with four of the kids older now, she’s been dabbling a bit when her husband is at work. It’s small canvases at first, and then in their spare room downstairs, she’s started to paint on larger ones.”

“What kinds of things does she paint?” I asked her.

“Well, that’s the thing,” she said. Her voice lowered a bit. She leaned in closer towards me.

“Do you know what a bedikah is?” she asked. I didn’t.

“A bedikah is what an Orthodox woman does to check if she still has her period. You know Hebrew, Liz, the word bedikah comes from the verb ‘to check.’ Well, when the woman thinks her period is ending, she takes a bedikah cloth, wraps it around her finger, and sticks it up there to check if there is any blood. If there isn’t, then she can have sex with her husband again, since she’s considered clean. But if the cloth has some blood on it, she has to do it again every day until there’s nothing on it.”

“You mean she has to finger herself?” I asked.

“Basically, yes,” Aviva said, smiling.

A few weeks after my hysterectomy, I began pelvic floor physical therapy to strengthen the muscles that had become weak as a result of the surgery. My physical therapist, Sarah, a 40-year old woman who liked to tell me about her online dating experiences, “Most of the guys are such losers”, taught me to use a therawand, a plastic device that looks remarkably like a sex toy. It’s used internally to loosen tight muscles in the pelvic floor.

“Where do you buy the cloths to do the bedika?” I asked Aviva.

“Oh, that’s easy,” she answered, “you can order them on Amazon.”

Another tram ambled down Jaffa Road. It started to drizzle. Aviva opened her umbrella and we both stood under it.

“Let me get back to my short story idea,” she said, “because you’re probably wondering what bedika has to do with painting.” My right shoulder started to get wet; we didn’t both fit fully under the umbrella.

“So the woman has been painting for a while in this spare room, see, and she gets this wild idea. She wants to paint canvases of bedikah cloths. Like what the cloth looks like when you pull your finger out and open the material and see if there is blood. Every time you do it, it looks different, like the way you wrap it around your finger, the shade of the pink or red blood, the folds of the cloth. Large, huge canvases she wants to paint. She starts with a couple small canvases and paints these rose-colored swirls, the way it looks when you take your finger out and open the cloth.

“But then she gets so into it that she buys all these bright colors of paint–orange, turquoise, yellow, tons of different greens and blues, purples and pinks, and starts painting on large canvases, using different sized paint brushes so she can really focus on accurately painting the folds of the bedikah cloth when it’s wrapped around the finger. After a few months she has about twenty of these canvases, all different colors, all symbolic expressions of the bedika–one of the most private acts for a woman.

“She hasn’t told anyone. One evening in particular, when it’s the time of the month for her to do the bedikah check, she props one foot on the toilet, her husband asleep in their bedroom nearby, and she pulls out the cloth. It’s a light pink, and she’s sure she’s made that color pink before on her palette downstairs in the spare room.

“Well, one day, she’s walking in downtown Jerusalem on King David Street, you know, where all those art galleries are. She goes into one of them, a small storefront, and recognizes the owner from a mom’s group she was in when her oldest was born. It’d been about twenty years since they had seen each other. They’re talking about their kids, of course, and then she asks the gallery owner, she can’t believe it just comes out so easily, if she might display her art. She describes it only as abstract images, not a representation of the bedikah, and pulls out some photos of a few paintings on her phone and shows the woman, who says she loves the colors, and that they seem to be linked thematically, though in an abstract way.

“Another month goes by. It’s the night of the art opening. She’s got about eighteen paintings displayed in the space. She’s told her friends and family about the art exhibit, but she hasn’t said specifically that they’re paintings of the bedikah cloths. Her husband brings their kids. An hour before the exhibit, she wrapped a white bedikah cloth around her finger and did the manual check, fingering herself. The cloth was white. She was clean.

“The woman had spent weeks preparing for the exhibit, making decisions like which colors should be next to each other, how high each painting should be hung, where the light should hit each painting. On opening night, she wore a gray dress with black boots, wanting to be sure her outfit didn’t take away from the bright colors of the paintings that hung all over the room. She didn’t wear earrings. Her green hat was tilted just a bit.

“People began coming into the gallery, walking around. It didn’t seem like anyone knew what the paintings were of, but they appreciated the abstract shapes and colors. When her husband showed up with the kids, she could tell he was proud of her. She watched him closely as he moved around the room, one eye on the kids and one on the paintings. Then, about a half hour later, she’s pretty sure she caught his eye right at the moment when he figured out what she had painted. He looked at one painting, then another, then looked back, and all of a sudden she could see something click in his mind. He made the connection. He looked at her, and she at him, and she stood still, waiting to see his reaction.

“She had made a private ritual public,” Aviva told me, her eyes widening as another tram went by. “She had taken one of the most intimate rituals that exists within the Orthodox community and splayed it on the wall for everyone to see. Her husband was surrounded by a rainbow of cloths that represented a woman’s private life, walls of them, all different sizes, staring at him, saying, among many things, that the cloths had developed a kind of intimacy with his wife. All this went on as his wife without earrings in a gray dress watched him.

Once again, Aviva and I diverged: she relished bringing something personal and private into the public, whereas I preferred more privacy about my personal choices.

“Isn’t that a crazy story?” she said, laughing. We were soaked from the rain.

“But then what happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged her shoulders. That’s all I have.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What does the husband do?”

“I don’t know,” she repeated. “I haven’t figured that out.”

Aviva checked her watch. “I’ve got to go, I’m late!” she announced, and kissed me on the cheek. “By the way,” she whispered privately, winking as she was about to board the tram, “that story isn’t about me.” She waved to me as the doors shut in front of her.

I watched her walk towards a seat on the tram, watched the tram as it moved her back to the West Bank, back to Ramot, back to the husband she had married for the end. Aviva, who couldn’t figure out an ending for the fictional story, was sure of the ending of her real-life one. I was annoyed and also fascinated by the lack of finality in her story, and even more disturbed by the certainty of her real one. In a few days I’d return to Chicago, unsure of what my ending would be, wondering if perhaps the difference between a fictional and real story didn’t even matter after all, all the private moments that make up a trajectory of a life. I tried not to think about it.

*****

Liz Shulman’s writing has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Los Angeles Review, Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine, The Smart Set, Tablet Magazine, the journal Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, among others. She is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.