Ged and God
As time passed, Ged got used to being alone with Dr. Fein. She was definitely Jewish but she seemed somehow so not, with her cropped hair and beaded necklaces, her elegant clothing in light velvets and delicate flowery fragrance, so different from his mother’s moist smell of fried fish and little children. He had been afraid that he would fall in love with her, indeed, that he would fall in love with every woman he met, after being so long deprived—but there was something a little cool, a little distant about her that dampened any such emotion.
The first time she asked how he was feeling, he had flung out his arms in a wide gesture and exclaimed: “Feel? I feel like dancing! With your books! I want to do a waltz with every single one!”
She smiled slightly at his exuberance, without showing her teeth. “Why?”
He pointed to the books on her shelf. “Did you ever imagine a world where you would not be permitted to read any of these? Not a single one?”
She gave his question serious consideration. “No, I never did.”
“It is as if someone would dictate to you what you can eat, all the time.” Ged rambled happily for an hour about books and what he was learning from them. It took several sessions before he was willing to talk about something else, to admit more difficult feelings—such as his steady guilt at wasting time on non-Torah subjects. He confessed: “We’re wired to think at every spare moment, ‘Why am I not learning Torah?’” Even there, in her office, his hand fumbled at the small tractate of Mishnah he kept in his pocket. Sometimes he took it out, touching its smooth cover. But when she asked what he was thinking, he replaced it and changed the subject.
Over the course of their next meetings, he spun the story of his past. The migraines he had suffered, the sense of suffocation, the unbearable pressure to get married though barely nineteen. All the rumors about his absences from yeshivah, his sense of being followed when he went to the Israel Museum to look at old artifacts, or to the rusty shed near the yeshivah where he kept his secular books locked up. His paranoia when the neighborhood kids squinted small, curious eyes at him and giggled when he came home to Bnei Brak for Shabbat.
“How could they know?” he said bitterly. “Did the news reach them all the way from Jerusalem? So many eyes, so many gossiping mouths. Don’t they have anything better to do?”
He saw again his father’s silent anger, and his mother’s red-rimmed eyes as she pleaded with him. How could he have become such a wicked boy, have broken the rules? He was ruining his good name and the family’s, destroying his sisters’ shidduch prospects—and for what? Some stupid books full of goyishe narishkeit?
“They had a lot of children and were very busy. I’d always been quiet, so they left me alone to sit reading in my room. ‘This one, he’s my Torah boy,’ my mother would tell guests. My father would say, ‘He’s a quiet one, but don’t be deceived—he’s a cistern that retains every drop. He’ll end up a great rabbi, we’re sure.’ Then all of a sudden I became more trouble than any of them. My mother became unable to leave the house without a nosy neighbor expressing some kind of sympathy over her troubles. I was so angry. The sympathy was killing her.”
“Uh-huh,” said Dr. Fein.
“I didn’t mean to hurt her, Doctor. I just wanted to know what was outside the yeshivah’s walls.”
The talks with his Rosh Yeshivah were particularly hard, for Ged had always revered him. “Do not be seduced by this world,” the elderly man would say in his Polish-accented Yiddish, his hand resting lightly on some old volume. “It says in Ethics of the Fathers, ‘He who stops his Torah learning to praise the beauty of a tree is liable to death.’ A Jew’s eyes are not his own, Ged. It is written in the Shema, ‘Do not be enticed after your heart and your eyes.’ You know all this, I shouldn’t need to remind you.”
Or: “My child, once a man starts looking at women, at the world, he will never stop until he has descended to the pit of hell. Not for nothing do we keep our eyes downcast when we walk. Keep your nose inside the Torah. Its sweet scent will guard you. The Torah’s rules are our only true security.”
After these talks Ged’s guilt had burned in his gut, but he did not stop reading, or walking, or looking. His desires were so strong that eventually they had brought him here, to this new strange life, and now he could finally satisfy his thirst to look at many new things. Yet he still missed his parents and the neighborhood with its cramped buildings. The old rituals, the old books. Even now, free in New York with no one peering over his shoulder, he went every Friday at sunset into a kind of funk, creeping under his blanket till nightfall, ashamed that the Sabbath Queen should see him fallen so low.
Dr. Fein wrote on a yellow pad. Her handwriting was large and she was constantly starting a fresh sheet. She asked numerous questions about his parents and his childhood. Since he loved books, she suggested some she thought might be helpful to him, for example, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. Ged read it, intrigued by the transitions it contained and by the unusual religious personality at its center. Something in it spoke of his own life. “But Siddhartha was never normal,” he said, returning the book to Dr. Fein’s bookshelf. “Even in the end. He became a strange old man who understood the river but not his own son.”
“OK. So what about Zionism? Zionism is how the Jews became normal,” Dr. Fein proposed. “Today’s Israeli is a citizen of the world.”
“No!” he said. “No labels or ideologies for me! Just normal! Just human!”
Week after week, Ged found himself sitting on the white leather sofa and lamenting his failure.
“Yes, OK, I’ve cut off my peyos, I wear jeans, I look entirely modern. Yet still when I see the people walking next to me on the street, I know I’m different. Superior.” He pointed at himself. “Look at me, I don’t study Talmud, I read goyish books, I haven’t prayed since I left Israel. I’m actually the worst kind of sinner, for I know the law! Yet because my mind still contains all the Torah I learned, I feel holier-than-them. It’s disgusting, yet I can’t help myself.” A knot of saliva clumped in his throat. “For example….” He stopped.
“Go on,” she prodded.
“Well, when I look at you, a loud voice in my head says you are not a real Jew. Your beliefs about God are—” He blushed, and turned his face to the wall.
“Speak your mind. Please.”
“OK. I think they’re ridiculous. You’ve sullied them with modern ideas, convenient ideas. You have no clue what the Torah is. You’ve never spent entire nights poring over every word as if it’s a love letter from God.”
He was both relieved and perturbed to see that she appeared unmoved. Her voice steady, she asked, “And how do you feel about God?”
He hesitated. “Oh—Him? Just before I left I informed Him that I don’t believe in Him anymore, so He should leave me alone.”
She kept a straight face. “And what was the reply?”
“The usual. Silence.” He laughed a cynical laugh. “But we have a concept in the Talmud—shtiko kehoydo’o. Silence is agreement. So He agrees.”
Now she smiled. His hands twisted in his pockets.
“Do you honestly no longer believe in God?” she probed.
“No. I know He exists. But I’ve lost Him, I can’t read Him the way I used to. It feels like He’s stepped out of my life.” Ged felt dizzy, as if an abyss had opened up beneath him. “You stop learning Torah, you cut the line.”
Her sympathetic smile was small comfort.
A month after his arrival, Ged found work in a deli on the Lower East Side. He liked the people he worked with—Lyle, Maria, Denzel. He listened carefully to their conversations and tried to imitate their slang. He liked that they did not pry into his background or his peculiar English or ask why he never ate the deli food. He learned that normal people weren’t as curious as he was. They weren’t always poking into every nook to see what it contained. Normality. Ged circled the subject, attacking it with the gusto he had once saved for the ancient books. What was it? Where was it to be found?
“Man, you in the wrong city!” chuckled Denzel. “Normal? Ain’t no one in this place in their right mind! You gotta go someplace else! Go to Illinois!”
But Ged still searched, in restaurants, theaters, clubs and parks, book in hand, always trying to blend in. He walked through Central Park, the Upper West Side, Wall Street. Christopher Street, Harlem, Chinatown, the Village. He went further afield, to Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut. Looking, always looking. He did not go to Crown Heights or Washington Heights, Williamsburg or Monsey.
It made him happy just to walk by people, to observe them while not being noticed himself. Though he wore a watch, sometimes he even asked them the time, just to hear their commonplace replies—no startle in their faces, no black reflecting in their eyes. He forced himself to overcome his shyness and strike up conversations with strangers on park benches. He would ask them, “What is the meaning of your life?” Many refused to take him seriously, labeling him another New York weirdo. But he was amazed at the answers of the few who did, which often seemed to go round and round like a dreidel and then flop, without leading anywhere. He tried to fathom their passions but rarely did he discover someone whose way of seeing the world truly intrigued him.
Only when he met artists, writers, philosophy students did he finally feel some kindred spirit. He had coffees with them, talking for many hours at a stretch. But when they invited him to a party, he would stand at the side, reading a book, feeling gauche and different, avoiding the women who tried to strike up conversation and refusing to return their flirting glances. The music seemed very loud and the people silly. Parties did not seem to be as much fun as when described in books, and he stopped going and stayed at home.
For a while he did not mind his isolation. He was delighted with the rent-controlled studio apartment he had been lucky enough to sublet on East 7th Street. Though it was tiny and had only one sink, he was used to small houses, and at least he finally had his own space after a lifetime of congested sharing. He was content to sit at home on the old sofa, reveling in the silence, listening to the dripping faucet, the roaring traffic, for long minutes on end, or turning on the TV and witnessing the lives there, learning the slang, spending time on this activity that seemed of such importance to Americans.
But eventually loneliness set in. The two tractates of Talmud he had brought with him as souvenirs of the old life glared at him from their shelf, their crumbling covers covered in dust. He found himself desperate to escape them, and stumbled out into the streets, following religious Jews with his eyes as they passed quickly down the street, hunching into their black coats to escape his fierce gaze. “They don’t recognize me!” he thought in amazement. “They’re afraid of me!” But the thought did not make him glad.
“It’s so different from home!” Ged observed to Dr. Fein. “Here you can look at anything you want—jewels, clothes, women’s bodies. But most of it is not yours, and never will be, so you’re left thirsting after it. By us, we only look at what is ours. We look at a woman only when our parents have decided she is suitable to marry. We look into the Torah and it is ours. We look at what we love, and we love it by looking.”
Dr. Fein scribbled something down on a pad. “Have you noticed,” she asked, “that you still say ‘we’?”
– – –
The New York seasons flowed into each other and months turned to years. Ged was still seeing Dr. Fein. She had helped him understand a lot more about his childhood and emotional patterns, but now the sessions just felt depressing and unproductive. Weary of threshing through his past and complaining about his present, Ged sat shrugging in frustrated silence. He refused to answer any of Dr. Fein’s questions. Finally, she steepled her hands together and said:
“Ged, I think it’s time to take a new tack. I’d like to go back to the waters you mentioned when we first started therapy. Tell me about the haunting waters.”
Ged blinked. He looked down for a long time, and finally said, “What do you think of when I say the word ‘sea’?” He looked up quickly and found her watching him with cool eyes. They had a clear sheen to them. However frustrated he was, he always found his reflection in them.
“I think calm, still, blue…,” she suggested.
“No!” he said. “No!”
Dr. Fein waited. She could wait forever, it seemed, never moving her eyes from his. “Tell me, Ged,” she said gently.
“Dr. Fein,” he whispered. “I dream of the sea.”
“What do you dream, Ged?”
The mighty sea, the killing sea, rushing into pores and open doors. Filthy and brown, roaring and snorting into buildings, closets, nostrils, lungs.
Hands reach out and are rammed backwards; heads tumble over legs.
Waterlogged screams, below the surface.
Ged’s eyes brimmed with salt water. “The sea fills every corner.”
Dr. Fein continued to nudge Ged, like a tide pushing at a sandbank. “You’re holding back. Tell me more about the dreams. The dreams of the sea.”
Eventually something snapped inside him.
“You’re the shrink!” he cried. “You tell me, Dr. Fein! Where is the sea in me?” He raised his fist as if to strike the table, but seeing his arm reflected in the mirror behind her, lowered it slowly. She was only a woman. She had learned no Torah. What could he expect?
– – –
He began to hate the inside of her office, and skipped weeks sometimes; but still he kept coming. He knew there was something else to unravel, but could not allow himself to go near that place. That could only come when he was ready. No shortcuts.
One day, as Ged sat in silence, his forehead knotted and sweaty, and Dr. Fein looking worn out from trying to drag words from him by force, he looked up and observed: “I’ve just noticed—your eyes change color from time to time.”
“Yes. Sometimes they’re green, like mine, and sometimes more of a blue. I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on this till now,” he said, aggravated. “After all, they never leave my face. Even when you reach for your pen. That at least I noticed at the start.”
“Does it make you uncomfortable?”
Ged shrugged his shoulders, like a child.
“What does that mean?”
“It means yes—no—I like it and don’t like it all at the same time. It’s confusing.”
Dr. Fein smiled her widest smile. He knew by now that this signaled that they had hit upon some subterranean layer of his psyche. Ged suddenly felt a wall of emotion dissolving in him and closed his eyes to keep from falling apart. He still felt her eyes upon him, and the walls continued to crumble and fall inside him. He felt great fear and great hope simultaneously. It was time to tell her, at last. The words came gushing out, as if some small boy inside him had removed his finger from a dyke.
“It all started when I went to an internet café. December 2004, in Jerusalem. It was a Wednesday. I had discovered Google that year—my way of learning about the world. As the Google website loaded, I saw under the search bar: Ways to help with tsunami relief. I didn’t know what a tsunami was. I clicked on it and discovered that four days before, thousands of people had died. I had not known, sitting in my cocoon of a yeshivah while the world flowed by outside. I was not sure where Thailand was, had never even heard of Sri Lanka. I felt so ashamed.”
Ged recalled the pictures of the splintwoods and arms sticking up from the rubble, and the people running, some still smiling as if it was a joke. Blurred faces frozen in their final flight.
“When I finally got up to pay, I said to the boy behind the counter, ‘Did you hear about the disaster in Asia?’ ‘Of course, what do you think?’ the boy said scornfully. ‘Everyone knows about it. My mom’s friend from work is missing. She was in Ko Phi Phi.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Do you have anyone missing?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘My family don’t go to places like Thailand.’ I saw his face darken, and he turned away, back to his magazine. I said, ‘It’s terrible, isn’t it?’ trying to get him to look at me again, but he just nodded and read on.”
“Then I had the strangest urge to hit him, so he would look up.”
“No, of course not! I’ve never hit anyone in my life.” Ged tossed his head. “But I knew he hated me. I was not of his world.”
“People inhabit lots of different worlds,” said Dr. Fein. “I am not of that boy’s world either.”
“You’re missing the point!”
“OK.” Her eyebrows rose marginally, but otherwise she did not react. “So tell me the point.”
“The point is that I began to understand that I was different from everyone. I fit in nowhere.”
He told her the rest of the story. He remembered everything clearly, even small details.
Walking in through the yeshivah door, he had said urgently to his friends: “Did you hear about the tsunami?”
“The what?” Layzer had said.
“The Asian tidal wave that just killed thousands of people!”
“Oh, yes,” said Osher, Layzer’s study partner. “Entire countries smashed up and washed away, mamish.” He brought his fist down emphatically on his shtender.
“I can’t believe I didn’t hear about it till now.” Ged sat down heavily.
“Nu, G’dalyoh, what’s the big deal?” Layzer smiled his boyish smile. “Millions of people die all the time. Earthquakes, disease, drought. Yemei hayenu hevel, our lives are like a breath.”
Another young man, Akiva, leaned forward on his shtender toward them. “It’s min hashamayim, all those people lying on their beaches, wasting their lives, bittul zman, their bodies uncovered for everyone to see, total pritzus! What could be more obvious than that? Just like Sodom! Wiped out in one big bang.” He made a sweeping motion with his hand.
“Just like the flood in Noah’s time,” said Osher. “Washing away the corruption, for a clean start.”
The pictures of wreckage, shells of houses and mounds of debris burned in Ged’s mind. He could not imagine anything less like a clean start. He said softly: “Many innocent people have just lost their lives. Good, simple people.”
Layzer shrugged his slim shoulders. Osher suggested: “So maybe it was because of our sins, not theirs. We’re the ones who have to be good, we Yidden.”
Ged was not sure he liked that idea any better than the previous one.
“You’re right, it’s a terrible, terrible thing. And did you hear,” Akiva rushed on eagerly, “it was all predicted in Yirmiyahu?” He pulled out a Bible and opened it at Jeremiah. “Here, chapter 51. If you look at verse 39, the letters at the end spell out tsunami. Then only three verses later it says The sea has come up upon Babylon; she is covered with the multitude of waves. Isn’t that amazing?”
Ged felt sick. “Babylon isn’t Thailand,” he muttered. “Babylon is Iraq. Don’t you know anything?”
They paused. Osher looked at him, head cocked. “OK G’dalyoh, OK,” he said. He turned to Layzer: “Nu, let’s get back to the daf, we’re wasting time.” He picked up the book and his voice rose in the yeshivah melody as he read the Aramaic:
—So we learned that looking over into a neighbor’s plot is not considered a substantial damage. Comes along Rabbi Nachman, and says….
Ged stood up, yanked on his black hat and walked out, overhearing Layzer’s puzzled comment as he left: “What’s with him lately? He’s acting meshuggeh.”
“I spent the next day in bed,” Ged told Dr. Fein. “I didn’t pray or lay tefillin. I saw myself tossing, tumbling, dying—for it was myself in that sea, my brothers, my own human flesh. That was when I first dreamed of the waters. Foul and green, rushing through rooms and houses and gardens. There were no people in my dreams, only waters, engulfing all, I don’t know why. When anyone came in I pretended to be asleep. I left my room only once in forty-eight hours, to buy newspapers, for the updates.” Ged told her that he had not gone to the mikveh before sundown on Friday. He had not even showered. But when the Sabbath siren sounded, as if by some automated reflex, he threw back his blanket and, smelling of sweat, his peyos greasy, put on his long black robe—bekishe—and tied it with his gartel. He went down to the yeshivah for evening prayers. His mind blurry, he walked into the old, large book-filled room, with the verse inscribed above the door: How I love Your Torah; the whole day long it is my conversation. He picked up a dilapidated prayer book, as the first words of the afternoon service reverberated on the men’s lips:
“Ashrei yoshvei beysecho—happy are those who dwell in Thy house.” But the words caught in his throat; he could not continue. He swayed dumbly as everyone else prayed, clapping in devotion in the Hasidic fashion. He had felt this feeling before, after visiting the Holocaust Museum, or on hearing of soldiers killed or buses blown up. But he had never yet been so paralyzed. When he finally awoke from his stupor, the afternoon prayer was long over, and the hundred or so men in the room were chanting together from the Friday night service. Ged felt as if he had never really heard the words before:
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters, the God of glory thunders.
The Lord is upon many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful. The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The Lord sits enthroned at the flood, and the Lord sits enthroned as King forever.
“Master of the Universe!” cried Ged soundlessly. “You created our weaknesses, so please hide Your eyes! For if You persist in judging us this harshly, not one amongst us shall live!”
– – –
“So that’s why I fled to Manhattan,” said Ged, squirming slightly on the white sofa. “I didn’t want to sit in God’s house any longer. I wanted to be out in the world. Next time death visited, I would know before a teenager at the internet café did.”
The psychologist leaned her face on her hand. “Ged, there’s enough death where you come from. A Jew just has to toss a coin to hit death, and especially in Israel. Why come searching for it here?”
He tutted in that uniquely Israeli way that says You really don’t understand. “I didn’t come searching for death! I came searching for life.”
She looked at him intently. She reminded him of the Jerusalem cats, staring at him with their scrutinizing eyes from the tops of walls and garbage cans.
“So, do you think God watched as those people drowned?”
He shrugged in annoyance. “What do I know of God’s ways?”
“Well, do you feel God is watching you now?”
“I don’t know. I hope not.”
“Do you think of your rabbis and friends at yeshivah?”
“Do you wonder if they think of you?”
“Who cares?!” he said brusquely.
She paused. “And your mother?”
He bristled. “Of course my mother thinks about me! If you had any children you wouldn’t ask such a stupid question.”
Dr. Fein said quietly, “I have two children.”
He felt shocked. All this time he had never known. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed. But seriously, it was a stupid question.”
She replied patiently: “That’s what we therapists do. We ask stupid questions.”
After this, Ged began feeling more and more oppressed by the therapy. He earned barely enough for rent and food, and the cost of therapy meant that he could not afford to study or travel as he wished. He told Dr. Fein he needed a break. She appeared flustered.
“Ged, don’t run away. You’re finally making real progress.”
“Just a break.”
“If you’re planning to end therapy, we need to create closure.”
“No, just a break.”
She reluctantly agreed.
But the break stretched itself out and he made no contact for a long while. Dr. Fein called a couple of times and left messages requesting him to come in just once more so that they could work through what had happened, say a proper goodbye. But he always returned the calls in the middle of the night so as to get the answering machine: “I got your message. I’ll be back soon.”
– – –
Ged found himself dialing Dr. Fein’s number with a shaking hand. “I need to talk to you,” he said. “My dreams are killing me.”
– – –
She had hung up a new painting and her hair was now cropped very short. Otherwise everything was the same.
“So,” said Dr. Fein. “How can I help you?”
“My God!” Ged cried, without preamble. “They just won’t leave me alone! I grieved the tsunami, I mourned it, I changed my life. So why am I still dreaming about the sea? It’s driving me insane!”
Calmly she said, “Close your eyes. Think of the sea. Think of waves, think of water. What’s your association?”
“Water? Water is….” Ged closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
His eyes snapped open.
She said carefully, “What about Torah?”
Ged recited from the recesses of his memory:
“Just as water has no taste except to the thirsty, so too, Torah is best appreciated through great toil and yearning.
Just as water restores the soul, so does the Torah.
Just as water is cleansing, the words of Torah are purifying.
Water is a great equalizer. No matter your station or class, all can drink water; thus too a scholar should not be ashamed to say to a simpleton, ‘Teach me a chapter, a verse or a letter.’”
Dr. Fein looked expectantly at Ged. He was stunned. What had the Torah to do with dreadful brutal waves crashing onto innocent fishermen and holidaymakers? The Torah was beautiful, it was ancient, it was a love letter, a guide.
“The Torah,” he said slowly. “It fills every corner.”
His heart constricted, and his voice broke.
“And there’s no space…for me.”
She nodded, as if she had been waiting for a long time for him to say this. Tears surged in Ged’s eyes. He pulled out the little tractate and riffled through its pages. He desperately wanted to send it sailing violently across the shiny desk, to have it crash satisfyingly against the wall, its pages crumpling in all directions. In his imagination he saw himself doing it. He could almost feel the exact neuron pathways that would send the signals to his hands. But his hands remained in his lap, his fingers inserted between the pages, his thumb stroking the cover.
Dr. Fein sat very still.
After a minute, he closed the book, raised it to his lips, and kissed it gently. His breath clouded its green cover. “Please,” he whispered, though it was unclear whom he was addressing, “please, please, please.”
Under the gaze of Dr. Fein’s blue-green eyes, Ged wept.
– – –
On the plane back to Israel, Ged took out of his jacket pocket a small, well-thumbed card and opened it:
It was a privilege to meet you, and to witness your search for the truth.
Remember: “Water can support a boat, or overturn it” (Shakespeare, Richard III).
Stay in touch
With warm wishes
Dr. Dawn R. Fein
He arranged a blanket around his knees and, covering his eyes with his right hand as if saying the Shema prayer, sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Note: This story was excerpted and slightly modified from The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing (Yotzeret Publishing, 2014) by Yael Unterman
Yael Unterman is a graduate of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. Her stories, reviews and poetry have appeared in JewishFiction .net, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post and others. She is the author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim, 2009), a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards. She has also just published a short story collection, The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing, with Yotzeret Publishing.