Beneath the Scarf:

Beneath the Penitent Head

by Sheina Medwed

It's a hot July day on the #40 bus. On the surface I'm an obviously religious woman on the way to the shuk. Who else would wear stockings, sleeves and a scarf practically to her nose on a day like this? The bus lurches and I nearly drop my book. But then on goes the radio, an old Beatles song. If they only knew what goes flashing through my mind. If they only knew the memories coded in my nervous system, how my heart beats faster to this music, how these words etch my brain so much deeper than the Psalms.

If anyone had told me I'd wind up this way, I would have said, you're crazy, gimme a break! If any of the astrologers, psychics, tarot card readers or crystal healers had said, "Lady, you're gonna be frum," I would have told them where they could take their perceptions. Who needed religion? I had "the god within." I had my chanting, my incense, my automatic writing, my yoga and meditation.

I laugh when I remember the time I was home visiting my parents. It was morning. My mother was preparing to leave for work. My father was adjusting to his new retirement. I was on the floor of my bedroom, cross-legged, deeply into my morning meditation. My father walked in and started talking to me. But I was in pretty far, so I couldn't answer. He ran out of the room to my mother. "Honey, what's the matter with her? She's sitting there like a kook and she won't talk to me!" My mother stuck her head in. "Oh, it's nothing. She's just meditating."

I was a universalist. And I was an ignorant Jew. I was looking and poking my nose into every spiritual practice except Judaism. I was a feminist, had done EST, given poetry readings, been through body re-alignment, analyzed my dreams, let out primal screams. I had my folk music phase, jazz phase, Irish ballad phase, Grateful Dead phase. Heard Pete Seeger on the wharf of the old South Street Seaport. Lived on the Upper West Side, worked out, flew back and forth from New York to California, was the only white person in an herbal folk healing course in South Orange, New Jersey. I ate according to the phases of the moon, jogged in the morning with the light of the sun. I chanted yogic chants, sang songs to JC, danced to Hare Krishna, went on healing retreats. I was an enlightened, "New Age" being. I was preparing for the Golden Age of Light and Peace. I even owned $500 worth of brown rice that was preserved for the Apocalypse in a mountainside community in upstate New York. I knew G-d was love. What was left to do?

Journal, 1985: I feel this intense longing inside myself. Something inside is screaming. I am so hungry spiritually that once I get a little taste I realize I've been starving since I was born. Starving and dying. When I think of the Torah, I see an endless ocean of golden light that undulates and crashes and throws waterfalls of spray. I want to dive into it, swim in it, sail on its waves, explore its subterranean nooks and crannies. I want to eat it, drink it, be submerged in its light. It is endless and eternal and it is alive....

Now is a time of cleaning out and taking in. Of suspending my self-image and self-concept. Of surrendering that which I held most precious and watching it crumble: my writing, my work as a therapist, and to some extent, because of the distance, my relationship with my family. I can bear this for a year. Then we'll see. I have no words for what I am experiencing. Now I am a vessel that is being scrubbed and cleaned.


Five years old. It was Shabbos, but she didn't know it yet. She wouldn't know it for another twenty years. She had hints. Flames of five-year-old feeling that caught her by surprise like an unexpected summer storm. Her mother always lit candles. They burned on the stove of their Bronx apartment. Then, after supper, her father would watch TV in the bedroom. A funny peace would settle on the house. She danced by the piano while her mother played "Shalom Aleichem," "Eishes Chayil" and "Yigdal." Songs whose words she didn't know. Her mother sang them in an alto voice that carried almost half a century of memories.

Her Bubie and Zadie had been religious, may they rest in peace. Orthodox, whatever that meant. Her mother said they never even touched a light on Shabbos. And Bubie got up at 4 a.m. Friday morning to light the stove, make cholent and bake challah and rugelach. Then, on Shabbos day, when they came home from shul, everyone would eat the cholent with bread and chicken fat. Bubie would sit with a kerchiefed head, in the world of her books, oblivious to the noise and song of her seven children.

Seven years old in second grade. I go home with my best friend Marlene for lunch. I loved Marlene's mother, Goldie. She had a round, soft face, with eyes like frightened fawns. She told me stories of when she grew up in Poland, how the Gentiles cut her long, brown hair, dressed her like a boy in a worker's cap and ran her through the forests to escape the Germans. I didn't know what she meant. But I listened, trying to imagine a girl of ten, with no father or mother, running through the woods. Then she served me a salami sandwich. I took one bite, got nauseous and spit it out. I opened the roll and found thick layers of butter on both sides. I didn't know why, but I couldn't eat it.

Eight. "I put my G-d before everything," her mother said, in a thunder she had never heard before. "Before my husband, before my children. If you or your sisters ever marry a non-Jew, you are no longer my children. This is no longer your home. Don't set foot in my door." Her mother, who hardly ever raised her voice, was suddenly a ball of fire. She thought the walls of the house would fall in. She didn't understand. Who was this G-d who was more important than her big brother, whom she adored? For the next few weeks, her mother prayed. Prayed and thundered. And then he came home from work at the summer camp and said, "Ma, I met someone." Silence. "She's Jewish." They were married that June.

My parents married their three older children off to Jews. With each grandchild they reaped the fruits of their labors. Just one left. Their crazy poet daughter.

"Sweetheart," she said one night, "I'm praying for a miracle. Your wedding. Let's plan it now." She took out pen and paper. She still has those notes. But there was one snag. I met him at a lecture in the place where I was studying. Kind, sensitive, a superb photographer. Interested in healing, in Tai Chi and in my mother's Jewish daughter.

I thought she didn't thunder at me because she was tired. But I found out later it was faith. He took me home to meet his parents. I walked in and saw his mother pouring milk into a pan of beef liver. But it wasn't until she asked me if we would be married by a priest that I got shaken. That night I couldn't sleep. Something snapped in my universalist insides.

I called my mother in her office that morning. "Ma, I just want you to know, I could never marry a non-Jew." I was crying.

"I know. Last night I got a transmission. I'll tell you about it when you come home."

The next time I went home, she told me the whole story. At the age of twenty-six, with three small children, my mother became ill and no one could find what was wrong. She went home to her parents in terrible pain. My Bubie's assurances that Hashem would bring her healing fell on disbelieving ears. But for some reason one night, my mother, in her pain, said, "G-d, if You heal me, I promise You all my children will marry Jews." The next day, the doctor found the problem.

"After what I went through with your brother and sisters, when it came to you, I knew it was a test. I prayed and prayed. And this is what came:

" Ring around the Rosie (her name is Rose)

Pocket full of posy

Ashes, ashes All falling down"

"Your circle is unbroken

Never to be opened to

Ashes, ashes

All falling down"

"Ring around the Rosie

Pocket full of posy

Your promise to trust me

Keeps the ring round"

"The next morning, you called me."

Within a year, I met my husband.

A friend of mine in Philadelphia, Reb Zalman Schacter, has been known to say, "When a Jew meditates long enough, he starts to burp up kneidels and kreplach." A meditation companion lent me a book on dreams and how to find your "spirit guide." Of course I ate it up and immediately embarked on this phase of my spiritual path.

One day, after my morning jog in the park, I went to the Y to clean up. Sitting outside the sauna, doing my deep breathing, I went into a half-meditation and I heard this voice inside-"Do not fear, I am with you always." I got really excited. This must be it, my spirit guide. Don't blow it! The next step in the book was to ask its name. I did. And I got this weird name. <MI>Neshamah<D>. I asked for the spelling, certain that I must have contacted an American Indian spirit.

That night, I went to visit my sister in the suburbs. She just happened to be reading this popular book on Jewish mysticism. Since it just happened to be on the table in her kitchen, I picked it up. I just happened to glance at a page that had the word "<MI>neshamah" on it. I felt myself get cold. "Loretta," I said, "you are not going to believe this one." But having been born of the same mother, she hardly flinched.

Okay, so I had a Jewish soul. So what? So it bothered me. It nagged at my insides. It tugged on the skirts of my universalist theology. I thought all the souls were the same. All one, brothers and sisters and all that stuff. But what was I going to do? Call up my mother's rabbi in the Bronx and tell him my neshamah spoke to me outside the sauna? He'd send me to Bellevue.

So I went along, singing my songs, dancing to Christian and Indian melodies, until my goyish friend's Jewish boyfriend brought us a flyer from the Center for Jewish Meditation and Healing. It was a picture of white stars against the backdrop of the black night. "Gaze into the darkness and see the light within." I tucked away the address. It was two years before I went.

With all due respect, I found it a bit dry. They were teaching how to breathe and visualize Hebrew letters. I didn't know an aleph from a bet. But the people teaching were Orthodox returnees and they had been meditators for years. The program had the stamp of approval of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, not that it mattered to me then, but I did get invited for Shabbos.

It must have been the hottest day of the year. But I came prepared not to offend anyone. I dug out a skirt, long-sleeved blouse and stockings. I even bound my hair in a clip. With deep misery and anxious anticipation, I put on this costume and drove through the scorching streets of Brooklyn.

Shabbos touched me somehow and I was mortified. My neshamah was happy, but I was not. First of all, I was so blessedly hot. I felt like the inside of a local car on 125th Street in July. Second of all, there was the "women's issue."

I had to admit, some of them were very pretty. That surprised me. But I couldn't handle all that food, all the serving and cleaning and preparation. What about the husbands? Didn't they help? Was this the Dark Ages? And what was this hair-covering business all about? I knew I could never do that. I did not understand what any of this had to do with G-d or spirituality. I could get in touch with the Source of Creation by sitting still. If it hurt, you didn't move it. If it itched, you didn't scratch. Better to fast. Better not to be married. Better to go to a mountaintop in New Mexico or India.

But what was happening here? These people were eating and drinking wine, singing, sleeping, eating again and again. And the prayers. They moved around when they prayed and they often made noise. How could you be spiritual under such oppressive conditions?

I said to myself, okay, there has to be a better way than this. I'm a Jew. I have a Jewish soul. I need to find out what this means. But I didn't spend my college years in consciousness-raising for nothing. All those courses on feminist literature, conferences, women's salons and coffee houses, sisterhood publications and past-life dreams of being an herbal healer. They were not going up in smoke after one Shabbos in Crown Heights.

And in my dream was a long table. One side women. And one side men. Everyone had a place. I walked into the room and I did not know where to sit down. I stood there thinking there is no place for me here. And woke up very uneasy.

But the next time I went to visit my parents, after they went to bed, I searched the shelves. I found the old, crumbling, black-covered prayer book and opened it up. I couldn't believe what was there. Everything I had been learning and more. My spiritual teacher had told us, "Kids, make every moment in life an opportunity for blessings. And look in the world as to how you can do service. Serve your Creator with a joyful heart and learn to greet people with a smile on your face."

And there it was, all in this old, crumbly prayer book staring me in the face. Blessings when you wake up, blessings when you eat, blessings after the bathroom, for seeing the ocean, for smelling a rose. I saw the sentence that said, "Serve G-d with joy, come before Him with exultation." And I saw "Greater is one who conquers his passions than he who conquers a city."

I was stuck. G-d had caught me at my own game. It was late into the night. My parents were sleeping. I was dumbfounded, speechless and extremely disconcerted. But one thing was for certain. If I was a spiritual person and if I valued my integrity, like it or not, I had to check this out. I cried myself to sleep.

After my neshamah popped open and I knew I was a Jew, I had to do it the hard way. Crown Heights did not see me again for almost three years, and then, for not more than a few hours. I looked everywhere. I cried my way through services at the Reform temple, went on "New Age" Jewish retreats. Gingerly walked into the Conservative temple in Highland Park once. Got invited to roving Egalitarian minyans in the neighborhood. It bothered me that my neshamah found something different in Orthodoxy. I could not get past the "woman" question.

Journal, 1985. I am feeling a little blue lately. Feeling "not okay" with myself. Down on myself for not being religious from birth. Comparing myself to people who know so much more because they were raised with it. Feeling inadequate, scared that when the time comes, I'll never be a good parent. Do I really have to know how to read Rashi in order to be a good mother? Feeling so jealous of people who know more than I do, their faces look so pure.

I need to map out baby steps for myself. To be happy about the achievement of simple things-saying the first berachah of the Amidah in Hebrew, learning the meaning of one morning blessing. Just tucking in all my hair was such a major step. Me, the free spirit who would wash her hair and let the sun and wind dry it. For goodness' sake-what am I doing to myself?

I've been squeezing myself into something very strict. Have barely touched my professional books. Plans for my master's are in the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. I have two clients. I want to feel okay with myself right now. I want to have a positive perspective on my life right now. I'm not waiting to become what I want in order to feel good about myself. I'm twenty-nine. I feel as though I've lived at least eighteen lifetimes in this short span. I am undergoing an internal rearrangement and it is very painful.

I want us to be Torah Jews. I want a Jewish head, a yiddishe kop, not a goyishe kop. Right now, I have a Jewish scarf on a goyishe head. A year part-time in yeshivah is a small taste of the depth there is to Torah. I need three to five years of learning to get a solid foundation. My husband, at least ten to fifteen. This, I see, is a lifetime affair, not a one-year exploration. How are we going to be able to pass on a legacy to our children? To be almost thirty, to acknowledge that I am in spiritual kindergarten. It's not to try to catch up. I need to absorb, to integrate, to get this into the bones and cells of my being.

We went to see Rav Scheinberg. He said stay for another year and then come to see him again. When I first saw him, I was scared. He was sitting there in the living room, this mountain of tzitzis topped by a gray beard, deep brown eyes, tefillin and tallis. Everything was going on in that house. Phones ringing, doorbells ringing, the rebbetzin bringing cooked fish and zucchini, and then someone bringing in a check, the waiting room packed with people, books and books quietly filling the air with holiness. Everything alive-all kinds of bits of life-energy gathered together in the pursuit of holiness.

I remember the last day of the Practice Management Seminar. The contract is in front of us. The whole day was about setting goals. If he signs now, we save money. But what about Jerusalem? What about learning? "I'm not signing now," he said. We went home.

Months before we were married, one night we went out for pizza. What was unusual about this night was our discussion. "I have to learn," he said. "I know nothing. I'm a Shabbos Jew, and not a very good one."

"I have to learn also," I said. "What are we going to do?"

We had no money. To stop our professions in the very beginning was frightening, to put it mildly. We were caught between worlds. We were moving into the fast lane of American values, but we were in spiritual crisis. And we prayed. "G-d, I don't know how, but let us find our way to Jerusalem."

That week, an article in my husband's professional journal appeared: "Chiropractic in Israel," by Dr. David Greenblatt, a chiropractor in Talpiot. "I must write him." But with wedding plans and moving, the article sat in the bathroom for months. A week after the wedding: "We have to make our decision now. Do I apply to graduate school, do you look to start your own practice, do I make my full workshop schedule?"

"Let me write Dr. Greenblatt."

"Forget about writing." I picked up the phone and in two minutes I had his number.

The next morning we were on our way to the Aliyah office at 515 Park Avenue. On the subway my husband said, "Boy, this is a real long shot, but might as well put the order in." There he was, in the middle of the F-train, praying that Greenblatt would be in, that he would need someone, that the hours would fit and all other specifics. I was just a bit incredulous.

What was more incredible was that the shaliach put the call through immediately. Turned out Greenblatt had been searching for an associate for the last few months. Greenblatt would even change his office hours to allow for my husband's yeshivah schedule. The shaliach, bare-headed Zionist that he was, turned to us and said, "Go. This is a sign from Heaven."

The train back was headed for Queens, but we were bound for Jerusalem.

Walking down Jaffa Road, shlepping my fruits and vegetables, I could be mortified by the outfits. But they're half-dressed, I muse to myself. And when you were sixteen in the New York summertime, were you any different? And my teenage nieces who have posters on their walls, my nephew who is king of the video games, has my heart grown so small that I care more about fabric than I do for them? How dare I have the chutzpah to think that G-d loves me because I'm covered up and sweating?

I'm a fragmented person in a fragmented time. But the fragments are precious. Prism shards of a crystal vase that span a spectrum of history when held to the light.

And this is my task: to love the bits and pieces. To place all of them in my sack. Partly broken and partly reborn, a woman travelling on the road to return. Waiting, watching, half in a dream. Impatient for the "full laughter to fill all our mouths," so hungry for the bread that has been made from joyous sheaves.

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