Nicole Broder

Each Thursday I bake plaited loaves of challa bread, thereby creating a holy union between flour, yeast, sugar, water, a little salt and some oil. It’s one of those sweltering, airless days in the month of Av, when you want to stay inside the cool of the air conditioning, when I notice that the sieve I use to check for bugs in the flour has a hole the size of a shekel coin. In spite of the unbearable weather, we’ll need to go out and buy a new one. There is no choice.

Ushering the children out of our building into the airless street below, I carry the baby in my arms and deposit her in the stroller that we store under the stairwell on the ground floor. The sun is harsh and unforgiving, and two-year-old Moishie struggles with the steep uphill slope, his sticky fingers pulling on the long tartan skirt brushing my calves as he lugs himself along. I shake him off and continue to push the stroller, following behind Chaya Leah and Shaina, who are chanting playground poems as they skip in front of us.

Shepherding my herd past leering groups of illegal Arab workers across the stony dirt path leading to the old chicken shed, which now serves as a hardware store, I notice a pair of middle-aged women in baseball caps. Their t-shirts are soaked in perspiration as they jog past me, exchanging friendly banter. I offer a silent prayer up to G-d to send them a revelation, to make them understand the sinfulness of their skimpy attire, which reveals every bulge of their athletic bodies, as the sun beats down on my starched long-sleeved cotton blouse.

At first, I don’t even notice the shadowy figure approach me. I glance up to see the thinly veiled face of another woman uncomfortably close to mine. She stares at me suspiciously, eye-to-eye, shoulders thrown back under a large black hooded shawl. “Praise be to you, modest Daughter of Israel. May G-d bestow many blessings on your children,” she begins.

“Amen,” I reply hastily.

She pushes a peach-collared flyer into my hand, babbling something about the role of the Jewish mother being imperative to the success and good health of her husband and children. She is gesticulating with square hands, nails clipped short. She wants me to come to a meeting at ten o’clock tomorrow morning in Jerusalem. My reward will be limitless, both here and in the World to Come, she assures me. I shake my head emphatically but her stare follows me into the store. I toss the paper into my handbag amongst two clean diapers, half a packet of baby wipes, a dusty pacifier, a few stale pieces of Bamba, a small tan leather purse—a gift from Yossel following one of my monthly ritual immersions at the mikveh, the ritual bath—and my worn book of Tehillim, its pages dog-eared and yellowing.


It’s 6 o’clock in the evening, and I’m sitting on a rickety wooden chair in the front room of my apartment, as I braid Chaya Leah’s damp, unruly locks. She has just finished showering. Shivering, she stands in front of me, her skinny arms holding on to the bristly, white towel wrapped around her waif-like body. I twist a cheap elastic band around the split ends of her single braid, then firmly direct her towards the bedroom that she shares with her three younger siblings. Shaina is next in line. My lips utter words of Tehillim as I reach for another elastic band and hear the shower curtain being drawn along the railing, and the tap restarting its tepid trickle.

The corner of the crumpled flyer taunts me from my handbag. An image of the woman I met earlier today appears in front of me, beckoning me to follow her to a place which is surely my destiny. I cannot help but envy the steps she has taken to attain the highest possible level of purity. Her footsteps wait alluringly ahead of me. And then suddenly, a different image: It’s Yossel, my husband, the palm of his hand raised towards me, imitating the red and white STOP sign that litters the roads. He gives me one of his looks and I recall his criticism of these women who don those black cloaks, thereby segregating themselves from society, these women who believe that by becoming invisible, they are carrying out the letter of the law, preventing pious men from becoming distracted and aroused. I know that if I mention it, he will prohibit me from attending the meeting tomorrow. I am being pulled back and forth between the two images like a puppet on a string, trying to hear the true voice within me, finding my own way forward, attempting not to be swayed by either one. I ask myself what I really want, hoping that the answer will jump out at me from the Tehillim.


The next morning I find myself in a crowded hall of the Keter Malchut School in Jerusalem’s Geula neighbourhood. I take in my surroundings with keen but suspicious interest. The sounds of young girls chanting biblical passages in neighbouring classrooms are reassuring. I am surrounded by women, all of whom are clad in the same big, black, shapeless shawls that cloak them from head to toe with only their eyes peeping through thin slats. I learn that Rabbanit Bracha Ben-Izri is the woman who approached me yesterday. She is standing in the centre of the circle of seated women. All are spellbound by her singsong tone. I get the gist of what she’s saying. Tznius. Modesty. That word again. Is this word to become the essence of my existence? I wonder.

“Yes,” she says, reading my thoughts. “Judaism’s all about female modesty. Nothing else matters.”

“And the punishments for those who don’t? No.” She wags her forefinger in an exaggerated motion. “You don’t want to know about the punishments. A hundred and fifty years ago, all women dressed like us, and there were no diseases in the world, no marital disputes. Children were cherubic. Next time you go to the supermarket, I challenge you to open your eyes and stare! Look at the sorry state of the world we’re living in. Allow yourselves to be shocked. It is our responsibility to bring back those golden days of old.”

Her speech flows softly to the rhythm of a lullaby, soothing me. It strikes me that, under the cloak, she might even be beautiful. Only a few minutes pass before I am swaying in unison with the audience, sucked into an invisible vacuum. Every fibber of my being is alert, like a rose whose petals slowly start peeling away from its tightly closed bud. Her voice remains low and pleasant throughout, but I have the uncanny feeling that she has lured me here to ridicule me, that she knows some secret that even I do not know.

The séance peters out. Across the crowded room, her eyes stare into mine.

“Penina Tova, welcome to our group. Are you ready now to enter G-d’s group of pious women, who have taken it upon themselves to restore modesty to the material world?” she asks, looking at me through slatted eyes.

I nod hesitatingly, too shy to vocalize my answer, in case they can tell just how desperate I am. I need to belong. I haven’t belonged anywhere for a lifetime of twenty-seven long years. Not to a place, not to a group, not to my roots, not even to my husband or my children and certainly not to G-d. Only to myself have I belonged. Like flour, before it is used to sanctify G-d’s name, bereft of purpose.


A misfit. That’s what they used to call me in school. When we played hide-and-seek, they would forget to look for me and I would spend my entire breaktime waiting to be found

The names they called me as the years passed may have changed, but their meaning was always the same. Weirdo. Rebel. Extremist. They booted me out from their carpeted homes of Hampstead Garden Suburb, from their privileged marriages, their gossip about one another, their fake hairdos and their Cambridge degrees in law, accountancy, history and medicine. And I, tired of trying so hard to fit in, simply let them. I became even weirder, seeking out the company of drug dealers, junkies, punks and skinheads and a lifestyle that was in their eyes, a symptom of my failures. I got my left buttock tattooed just above its signature dimple and suffered piercings in my belly button, nose and tongue. While other girls my age were grooming their identities in the mirrors of Jerusalem seminaries, I discovered mine in Mumbai.

That’s where I met Joe. Right there in the decrepit hovels amongst a babble of Hebrew, English, Marathi, Hindi and another whole host of Indian dialects. Joe was a Londoner too, from an unaffiliated Jewish home in Croydon, across the river, in the southern part of the city. We connected instantly, not only because of the proximity of our roots but rather because of the jolts of electricity that passed between us. Two lost souls, we found each other in a haze of Ganja, as well as a concoction of drugs whose names I don’t know to this day. Almost penniless, we survived for ten months, amidst an international assortment of hippies and odd-bods. Like wild birds of prey, we flew from shelter to shelter, warming each other with our needy bodies and thirsty souls. It was an idyllic, hand-to-mouth existence, with no past and no future.

“Mum, it’s me, Paula,” I said, biting my lower lip, when I called home for the first time in the three and a half months since I’d left British soil. “Don’t worry, I’m OK. Yes, I’m in India. Really? You didn’t get my postcards? Mummy…please…please stop crying…”

I phoned my parents just twice more in that period of time, not leaving them an address or a phone number for the simple reason that I had none. I had left them Sam, my younger brother, to fulfil all their hopes and dreams, to continue the route that we had been raised to follow against the backdrop of their incessant fighting and mixed messages. Soft moans slipping out from the gap under their bedroom door in the middle of the night contrasted sharply to harsh, unforgiving words slung across the entrance hall before my dad inevitably stormed out the house the next morning, slamming the front door behind him, leaving my mum in tears.

As far as I was concerned, Sam could go ahead and marry a girl from a good Jewish family and be fruitful and keep all the laws and rules I was happy to reject. They could rot in their world of convention, for all I cared. Joe filled the void that I had always felt, and he became my entire life. I conceived and we were ecstatic. This baby would provide me with the unconditional love I’d been yearning for. But I scoffed at the idea of medical supervision, adamantly rejecting the advice of the volunteers at the shelter for the homeless. My abdomen swelled alongside my anticipation at the life I was bringing into my world.

And subsequently shrivelled when I lost the baby in the eighth month of my pregnancy.

Lying on our regulation bed, Joe was looking at me helplessly, He reached out to me, but I rolled over, frightened that his touch would take me back to his sweet caresses over the skin stretched tight over my belly, to his hope to feel a kick from the foetus within. Wordlessly, I rose and left the room, and found myself drawing shapes in the courtyard gravel as I sat cross-legged under a warm blanket of pain.


Gut Shabbos.” A New York accent floated up the path in the guise of an angel. The kind face of a youngish, ginger-bearded man peered into my bloodshot eyes, as if searching for a flicker of recognition.

“Good Shabbos,” I heard myself answering in a voice echoing a forgotten past.

“Come join us. I am Yehoshua. My wife, Chani, has spent all day cooking the tastiest roast chicken this side of the Indian Ocean. Come, be our Shabbos guest.” His face seemed sincere. I called Joe’s name. Our arms linked, we followed our Pied Piper past crowds of wizened vagabonds and underfed children to a five-storied house, in the Colaba district, so out of place on this road lined mainly with apartment blocks. Affixed to the door was a bronze sign: NARIMAN HOUSE. We spent the evening in the company of thirty tourists ranging from businessmen to street people to travellers, all grateful for the warm hospitality of Chani and Yehoshua Spalter, the emissaries sent over from Israel to run the Chabad Headquarters in Mumbai. Their hearts were filled with purpose, and their pleasure was obvious in their desire to provide a place for communal prayer, an opportunity to celebrate the holidays, but most importantly, a taste of home for their wandering Jewish brethren.

I filled up on Chani’s chicken soup with bite-sized kreplach, golden roast chicken, potato kugel and apple crumble, the tastes of which transported me back to my childhood home. With the humming of the familiar tune to Psalm 126, Shir Hama’alot, I felt tears rolling freely down my cheeks and I didn’t attempt to stop them, allowing myself for the first time in days the opportunity to grieve, for my heart to let go of all the pain welling up inside it. All heads turned towards the head of the table as Rav Yehoshua gave an explanation for the poetic words we had just sung.

Hazor’im b’dim’a b’rina yiktzoru—Those who sow their seeds with tears will reap in gladness,” he said, his eyes full of love for the message he was about to impart to us. “The seeds of Israel’s spiritual mission may become drenched in tears of unbearable suffering, but the crop, the eventual harvest of righteousness and truth, will be reaped in joy.”

His words shot straight in my direction. Was he throwing me a rope across a treacherous river, urging me to grab hold of it so he could pull me to the bank of safety? How many times had I recited those words, I thought, never once caring for their meaning, just swallowing them whole so I could escape the tension around our Shabbat table and immerse myself in a book read by the glow of the bedside lamp that stayed on for the entirety of the holiest, loneliest day of the week? They suddenly beckoned to me, stretching out their arms, offering a promise.

That night I had a dream. Joe and I flew on the wings of an eagle to a desert, an oasis, where nobody knew us, where we looked different, wore clothes that didn’t resemble the frayed denim shorts and skimpy vests that we lived in over there, and we were known by foreign names. Staring at the peeling paint on the ceiling, I waited for Joe to wake up.

“Let’s start again,” I said in a soft but hopeful voice. “Somewhere else. I need you in my life, just not here.”

For the next five months, we occupied separate rooms at Nariman House. I became a full-time nanny to little Simcha, our hosts’ newborn son, and, when I could, I helped in the kitchen where Chani peeled countless sacks of potatoes, cucumbers and carrots in preparation for the huge meals that she cooked for virtual strangers. Joe became familiar with Biblical Hebrew alongside Jewish texts, laws and customs taught to him by Rav Yehoshua, and he worked long hours in the Judaica gift shop adjacent to the house.

The physical distance between us enforced by Jewish law widened, giving our souls a chance to breathe again, to heal until the time when we both felt ready to make a lifelong commitment to each other. Though this time, I was determined that it would not be in the shade of drugged unconsciousness, but fully awake, understanding that this time, with G-d’s blessing, we could walk a solid path to our future.

We managed to scrape enough money together to afford two one-way flights to Tel Aviv. The Spalters had arranged for us to move into a halfway Chabad house in the ancient city of Safed for six months, where we were transformed into Yossel and Penina Tova. A chuppa consisting of four poles and a colourful prayer shawl billowed out over the rambling Galilee, enchanting an overjoyed chorus of black hats and silky, custom-made wigs. I circled him, focusing on the slanting cheekbones that I loved so much, with the caution of a woman meeting her old boyfriend for the first time in years. We bore little resemblance to the Joe and Paula whose worldly possessions had filled two cloth rucksacks a year ago. Layer upon layer of white tulle hid my feminine curves as Yossel, his face beaming in its love, hope and pride, slipped a simple gold band over my finger to signify that our lives together would know no beginning and no end.

Our bodies reunited, but this time around with an immense amount of trepidation, for we now knew the taste of sorrow that could strike at any moment—the way it once had when we were looking the other way. Our lovemaking was far more careful than before. I had to remind myself that there was now a third partner in our union, in the form of G-d Himself, and there were rules to be adhered to, including sometimes up to fifteen days each month when we would have to refrain from all types of physical contact while I was considered impure.

Yossel delved deeper and deeper into his books, spending longer hours at the Kollel in steamy Talmudic discussions with like-minded men, while I took care of our apartment. There was no money for luxury as we lived on a meagre monthly stipend from the Kollel, but we didn’t mind. We had everything we needed. At first, he would join me for a home-cooked lunch each day, and we would sit together, sharing our views on our new community and talking about whether we should join the Toldos Aharon sect of Chassidim. I would listen quietly, nodding encouragement to show my agreement. Over the last couple of months Yossel had been taken by one of our neighbours to three shiurim, classes by their spiritual leader Rabbi Dovid Kohn, and was intrigued by his philosophical and intelligent insight.

Their stringent views on modesty meant that Yossel would have to wear a white-and-grey-striped coat during the week but a golden bekishe, caftan, and a heavy fur streimel, hat, on Shabbat, but we agreed that it was a small price to pay for acceptance into such a prestigious sect. As for me, I would need to shave my head completely and wear a tight-fitting non-coloured scarf, bandaging my scalp at all times. I wondered about that moment when my locks would fall to the ground as the hairdresser would go about her job mercilessly with an electric shaver. Would I cry? Or would I keep my eyes closed, only daring to open them once the scarf was tied safely around my head? Years ago, when I was still in high school, I had heard that it is prohibited for even the walls of one’s bedroom to see the bare head of a woman. I remember being horrified. But the years had transformed my opinions. My nature had been hardened with the passing of time. I could do this.

Most of the residents in our building were followers of Toldos Aharon, and so, after three months of discussion, we braved the change. After all, we agreed that we had already come so far in our search for spirituality; there was no reason not to progress any further. Our heightened level of commitment was welcomed by the community, and Yossel moved to a different Kollel, where he became so involved that he stopped coming home for lunch, and I was left alone from morning to night, running errands, shopping, cooking and keeping busy with my domestic duties. There was no time for friends, and, anyway, the women of Toldos Aharon didn’t like to waste time on idle chatter, in case it led to slander or gossip, Heaven forbid.

I fell pregnant for the second time just after we made this change, and I was thrilled to have a break from those days of separation in the nine months that followed, during which Yossel and I regained the heightened level of intimacy that we had once known. We threw a modest kiddush and raised glasses of sweet wine to welcome into our lives Chaya Leah, who, we were convinced, brought with her the ultimate seal of approval from above. As three more children followed over the next six years, I focused on raising my brood. I found that I was so tired that I often experienced drastic mood swings, which meant that even on the days when a physical relationship was permitted to us, I had to force myself to comply. Perhaps as an angry reaction, Yossel engrossed himself more in the Kollel world, meaning even more time away from our young family.

By the time our seventh wedding anniversary arrived, the impression that I had merely turned into a vessel to provide him with nourishing meals and a succession of children, while he holed himself up outside our home for hours upon hours each day, gnawed at my heart.

Just as halacha demands that flour be sifted through the constraints of a tightly woven sieve, I too have been pushed through a narrow path of purity making me fit for a life of strict adherence to G-d’s laws.

Sinfully, I look forward to those days of separation, when I’m free of the pressure of physical interaction with Yossel. I always feel defiled, unworthy of his attention, when, just moments after our lovemaking, he jumps from our bed and rushes to the bathroom, eager to perform a ritual washing of his hands, thereby removing every trace of me. I long for Joe, who used to hold me tight until I drifted off to sleep in his embrace.


The hooded figure in the center of the room taps her heel on the hard, tiled floor, awaiting my answer. Although I am certain that I have nodded my consent, she seems not to have noticed. She stares at my eager expression and holds out a folded black piece of cloth, as if she is telling me that she understands my loneliness, my humiliation, that I am not alone. I stumble nervously towards her, certain that the thudding of my heart can be heard by all those present, feeling the heat of at least fifty pairs of eyes, knowing that my face is surely flushed, as if on fire. I shake the material loose to the floor. The Rabbanit helps me pull it over my clothes and my scarf. She hands me a prayer book, open at the page with the blessing for new garments. The sea of menacing, dark waves rises to a peak, and the room brims with anticipation.

“Blessed are You, our G-d, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season,” I read, trembling under all the layers that conceal me.


Nicole Broder has been living in Israel for nineteen years. She has written fiction and nonfiction for the last ten of them and has had articles published in the Jerusalem Post. Nicole has a blog on the Times of Israel news website. She is currently studying towards an MA in the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan. Nicole lives in Beit Shemesh with her husband, Danny, and their six children.




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