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A Parable is Related

It had been the girl’s mother’s idea, after consulting mystics and holy sages, to procure a wedding gown before finding her a groom.


It is a meritorious act, Sara, her mother assured.


We are told that Bella had done all that was required to have her daughter successfully married, though the order of attempts is disputed—Bella had sent the girl to the most proper of religious schools in Jerusalem, worn the correct style of wig, attended ladies’ breakfasts, never repeated a Sabbath dress, and encouraged her daughters to visit the sick on Sunday afternoons. And with time, according to various sources, her attempts grew more desperate—forty days of prayer at the Wall, sages paid to invoke the merit of the family’s maternal line when reciting Psalms, kabbalists consulted about constellations and energies, eighteen sheqels paid to Hasidic women in Mea Shearim squalor to pour boiling tar into a pot and thus save Sara from others’ evil eyes and from the girl’s painful solitude.


This was how things had been done There, back in the place they had come from, in the Carpathian Mountains, in the Time Before Forgetfulness and Red Flags and the Tanks in Red Square: A girl without a husband must prove her faith that she would find one.


And thus a campaign began to ensure Sara’s marital happiness. Under no circumstance would the girl be permitted to sit by the corner of the table, lest she be cursed with a seven-year wait for her wedding day; every wine glass spilled on a Sabbath tablecloth was quickly marked as a sign of blessing; at every circumcision and betrothal party, she was handed toffees, kushai kushai, eat, eat, some sweetness in your mouth will bring you the sweetness of marriage. As every girl from her high school class married, one by one, wearing long-sleeved satin gowns with tall collars, each wedding held in the same hall and with that same ancient orchestra, Sara increasingly received sad nods. Soon by you, they crooned.


It is said that her entire life, the girl had been lavished with exaggerated praise: nannies and grandmothers would cry out as she walked by, Lucky is the man who makes her his bride! Yet here she was, twenty-one, and there was something unfinished about her, the way her head remained uncovered, no headscarf, no wig. What was so puzzling to us was that the girl was seemingly fine material for a wife.  If Isaac the bakery owner’s daughter had found a husband that didn’t mind her bleary eyes and irritating lisp, and even her loudmouthed classmate Shifra, despite her ceaseless gossiping, was married, and to a diamonds salesman no less, surely Sara could somewhere find a husband who would be enamored by her peacock-colored eyes. The girl had been matched with plenty of bachelors, and one after another she’d shyly shake her head, no, it’s not it, and then return to the pages of her book. Even mothers of prospective grooms were not completely averse to the notion of Sara as a daughter-in-law: a reaction which was rare, as most mothers disapproved of most girls categorically. But this girl seemed kind enough, despite her love of reading; a daughter of Israel raised by simple parents to be a woman of valor, a wife who would resemble merchant ships, dressed in fine linens and purple honor, a mother who would arise while it is still night and open her mouth in wisdom, her words tumbling out like pearls.


“If you wanted to, you could be long married with two children,” Bella would tell her offhand, jotting down the number of a mother who knew a rabbi who knew of someone. It had become a constant occupation, a flurry of files, phone numbers, emails with enumerated references and small passport photos of a nineteen-year-old Sara, powdered and hair curled.


The word that the community used for girls of this sort was, of course, whispered, and even her mother wouldn’t hear it outright from the gossips, yet she knew it was being said. Particular. Spoiled. Some commentaries have even interpreted particular to mean arrogant. “She thinks she’s above our sons,” Naomi the podiatrist’s wife said aloud one Friday afternoon at the butcher’s, to which the cashier girl and even the rabbi’s wife nodded. “Who does she think she is, some mythical beauty? And the daughter of a teacher, at that! As if her father were a millionaire!”


It must also be mentioned that we couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to Bella’s other girls, the four of them; they were undoubtedly afraid that soon their turn would come and Sara would still be single. What then? To ask for her permission to start dating, while she is yet unmarried? Of course she’ll give us her blessing to date; but what if we get engaged before she does? She can’t keep us single, too, just because she’being, ah, particular.


And so Sara found herself one dreary morning in a dressmaker’s basement office in the neighborhood of Geulah, for the sake of a meritorious act.


“Heaven would see our faith in God that the girl would marry one day, and then send the right man,” Bella said. The girl had nodded in response, wearily, letting them take her by the hand to the seamstress for fittings and debates over designs (beading? ruffles? princess gown or simpler a-line?). She invited her younger sisters to join, hoping they would bring some comic relief as she stood in front of a mirror in a white gown and tried to giggle with them. Bella sat on a stool, radiating with light, as commentaries would later describe her. “I think the high-collar would be very elegant,” she said to the dressmaker. “What do you think, Sara?”


“Yes,” the girl said coolly. “That would be nice, but please, the sleeves should be halfway past the elbows, not any longer.” She’d get hot while dancing. There’s no reason to have unnecessary fabric, she explained as she looked out the small basement window.



And when word came that the son of a wealthy man of a far away city—of Antwerp, no less—had looked into Sara’s resume, through an American matchmaker, Bella went as pale as the fabric they had consulted over.


It was a well-known secret, of course, that the expensive son of the diamond seller had inquired himself, that very bachelor who was famed for having gone out with over two hundred young women and still not found a bride. But many of us had suspected it to happen, because having a wedding dress made in the name of Faith is no simple business.


“He is the top of the Neman yeshiva, a brilliant student,” Bella whispered, sitting at the table across from her daughter one evening over tea. “And his parents, respected in the best of homes…who are we, to be considered by a family like that?” She glanced around the dining room, which she’d no doubt have to get freshly painted before hosting the future in-laws. “Sara, do you understand what this means?”


It was a fluke, of course, that the family was even considering a girl like Sara.


And of course the girl understood what it meant. If she went out with this yeshiva student, she’d be obliged to him, would have to wait for the moment in which he’d decide to cast her off. She, of course, could never dare to reject the boy, as she had done with every other young man until now, and if she did, the entire world’s eyes would question her angrily.  And if he did indeed desire her, she would have to marry him— there was no alternative.


But the thought of imminent marriage scared Sara, and she pushed it away. After all, she didn’t like her wedding gown very much, and it would need more tailoring until she’d like it, a project which might take longer than one month of courtship and another three of engagement—and anyways, didn’t that kabbalist which her mother dragged her to last year, didn’t she say that she wouldn’t be married for at least another year? Better not to fight destiny.


“He probably wants a rabbi’s daughter, or someone wealthy at least,” the girl reportedly said, setting her tea cup down.


But Bella did not hear her daughter any more; she was already making phone inquiries.


A month later a date was set.


She wore a deep blue blouse carefully selected to highlight her eyes, kitten heels; when she looked in the mirror for the last time before stepping out, she was almost startled by her eyes’ color. Something moved her to tears—she tried taking a deep breath and saw that her eyes only grew more blue. She didn’t want to go, she insisted in the very last moments, as her parents and sisters watched her put on her jacket. That preceding Sabbath she had trembled so much that she was unable to eat the food.


Just look beautiful tonight, that’s all you have to do, Mrs. Hart the matchmaker had told her, according to most versions.


And he? Sara asked without thinking. Mustn’t he also look handsome?


No, no. That is your job, the matchmaker said, laughing throatily into the phone, a secret smile of relief, for now, finally, she had clearly found a match for the unmatchable, and one of them the son of this wealthy house-holder of a far-away city! Two of the most notoriously particular people to match, and she had managed to come up with this innovation so cleverly, a wedding was surely destined. Listen, Sara, I don’t know you, but your name was mentioned so here I am letting you have a go at this, and let me tell you, this guy is a prince, every family wants him for a son-in-law, you’re lucky you’re getting even one date, and he’s even excited about you, so you should feel blessed. Listen, I’ll tell you the truth, he just wants a girl who is smart and put-together. “Put-together,” ahem, that means beautiful, you understand?


The yeshiva student came fifteen minutes late. Well, he wasn’t exactly the lanky and stuttering yeshiva student we had all imagined: Leah, the next-door neighbor and wife of the pharmaceuticals businessman, later informed us that the boy was clean-shaven, black-haired, very tall (by our standards, at least), in a tailored suit of course, a black Italian-made hat.


“How are you?” he had asked as Sara approached him and as he opened the car door for her. His Hebrew had a slight accent.


“Good, thank God.” What a silly question, she thought. We’re complete strangers—why would it matter how I’m doing now, as opposed to yesterday? Though perhaps it was a test to see if she invoked the Divine in her response. Thank God. And you?


He must have sensed the girl’s nervousness, because immediately he began asking her questions, gently, about details which he had had his investigators procure for him. She was surprised, pleasantly—how did he know that she loved Edith Wharton, that she insisted on playing only Chopin on the piano, and absolutely no Bach? And that she knew the Song of Songs by heart? What would a yeshiva student know of these things?


He surprised her again, as they later walked along the promenade overlooking Jerusalem’s twinkling hills, when he told her of the very Places she was told about as a child, that dark Europe of demons, as if he was singing back to her the secret lullabies of her childhood: toy-like streets, gothic palaces overlooking rivers, little magical bridges. He told her he found her purity and passions—what a combination!—exciting. And now, now they were talking over each other, there were too many verses and politics and opinions to discuss.


It is said that at two in the morning, they stood outside her house and he turned to her with a smile that was later described as “teasing” though other versions say “nervous.


“I had such a wonderful time tonight,” he said. “I want to see you again. Tell me, Sara, what are we going to do about this?”


She laughed, in shock. Had he just invited her out again, without consulting the matchmaker? She was speechless.


“Okay,” she said softly, just like her grandmother had taught her. Slushai menya, make a man think that you agree with everything he’s saying. You’ll spend the rest of your life disagreeing with him—at least in the beginning be peaceable.


Their evenings took them to hotel lobbies, then to strolls through parks. Despite his reputation, she found him surprisingly humble in front of her, at times too cautious, well-read though not a reader of literature—he was much more comfortable in the jungles of Aramaic.


Later, she would tell her girlfriends about her evenings, slightly breathless, and her friends would exchange glances. I don’t want to part from him in the evenings, and I can’t hold his gaze always and sometimes have to turn away. Though I shouldn’t get swayed by a man’s showing interest, of course. Just because he’s looking at me in that way doesn’t mean anything—any man can give any woman that look and lavish her with praise and attention. It’s not like he’s the first or the last, right?


We knew exactly where and how long each date went, naturally. We knew that the young student was in no way frugal in his courtship, each evening taking her to the center of the city; we looked on enviously as Sara would come home late, entering the small house with lit-up eyes and swaying from exhaustion. Over a Sabbath table once, Zissel, the wife of the computer programmer, expressed wonder that it had gone this far; what would a diamond-seller’s son like him want from a difficult child like her? It won’t last long, just watch.


Whoever thought of the match is brilliant, remarked Miriam, the wife of the local steakhouse owner, to Bella as they gathered their younger children from school one afternoon. Bella brushed it off with a nervous smile, spitting under her breath like they did Back There to ward off the evil eye.



And it was that the gown was almost finished, earlier than Sara had expected. Adina the seamstress had not let any of us see her hard work, under strict orders from Bella, but her assistant Zahava told her mother who then informed us that surely even Queen Esther did not own a more resplendent gown than the one that Adina the seamstress was making for Bella’s daughter. Even Sara seemed satisfied, after all of her tireless adjustments. Perhaps she didn’t care any more; it was plain to all of us that all she could think about was the warmth she felt when she caught him looking at her.


But you must watch out for the evil eye from others, her mother would warn her. Everyone else wishes they had a boy like this for their daughter—you must hold on tight until you get engaged. Tread carefully, daughter.


At the office in the city, the other girls whispered and peeked over cubicle walls, hoping to catch Sara daydreaming, and then grew disappointed to see her concentrating on her work. When she went to the grocery, she suddenly felt eyes; people were watching her. Had her skirt ridden up to expose her knees, her face powder worn off? What if she was seen exchanging pleasantries with the neighbor’s son—what then? And what if someone told him that she was seen with a slightly uncovered collarbone? She found herself running always, back into the house or into the car, afraid of whoever might be watching and would slander her modesty. Somehow, everything had become a possibility for disaster. A get-together with friends, a street crossing, a bus ride—anything could happen under the evil eye.


We are told that on the following date she came in a gray silk blouse, her eyes the color of vapor; the young man was surprised by her quietness that night. “Are you all right?” he asked, as they entered the hotel lobby where they were meeting.


Yes, yes, I’m sorry, it’s just been a long day.


But she was immersed in thought, ambushes of feeling, wonderments, what if, and that gown, and those evil eyes—she had to watch out, there was such a thing, an evil eye, of course there was. Negative energies, subconscious but exceedingly powerful. Hide your face, your pictures, your good news, your successes. Lower your head lest someone hate you for your goodness and bring evil upon yourself and even upon your family. Your house, your health, your blue eyes. Everything was in danger.


He was studying the menu now, and she could only think, eyes, watch your eyes: be wary, eyes eyes eyes everywhere, black eyes that the gypsies used to extol, that the peasants used to sing ballads about. Eyes which could know your innermost thoughts, glares which could burn through even the most beautiful of silks and chiffons. Even the woods of Rabbi Nahman’s stories were not thick enough to protect her, she thought, remembering the mystical fairytales her father would tell her as a child, or so we are told. Maybe she’d trek across the thousand Mountains that were outside another thousand mountains to the caves of the east and there beg the king of demons to release her from the many many eyes that now pursued her. Why do those Hasidic tales never include God? Where does He hide, among this madness of eyes and woods?


They ordered sushi and iced coffees, the waiter later confirmed to us. The young suitor assured Sara that he was comfortable with the silence, that it was a sign of a good match if the two could sit together quietly.


But while he leaned back against the park bench later that night, watching her from a small distance, she found herself paralyzed by that very silence, terrified by the heated distance joining them, or perhaps by some turmoil inside which he would never know, this electricity that was her own doing, she knew, something in her eyes that had spurred his eyes to look at her like this, a silence in which she heard, turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me.



After these things, four weeks after that first turquoise night, Bella picked up the finished gown. “The dressmaker told me to bring it back in case it needs anything else, but I think it’s simply perfect.” She stood in the living room, fingering the fall of the fabric from the waistline.


Sara nodded, setting down her hair iron (she was going out that night), yes yes, here, let me hang it in the closet. The two went upstairs together, carrying the gown in its layered garment bag, her mother leading and Sara carrying the end carefully, dutifully, like some funeral procession. They placed the dress in the front of Sara’s closet.


Her mother breathed deeply as they looked at it.


“We prayed and yearned for your wedding day, for so long,” she whispered, shaking her head.


And it came to be that Sara was not wrapped in mysterious silence that night, to the yeshiva student’s relief; she had sworn to herself to stop thinking about evil eyes, and about that wedding gown in her closet, which had now become a dybbuk, a demon, in her mind, and instead she was laughing, smiling, crossing her legs, looking out dreamily from the rooftop bar where they sat. He watched her and asked her shyly if she’d mind if he’d meet her parents: she looked up at him suddenly, and he noticed that tonight her eyes flickered from blue-green to the silver color of her skirt. She laughed.


When he drove her home that night, he said they ought to speak seriously, and in stilted syllables explained that he enamored (his exact wording has also been disputed, see commentaries below), behold thou art fair, yet something was holding him back. And when she turned to him, she saw that his dark eyes were now moist. Something in her (did this now make her a woman?) wanted to reach across and stroke his cheek, to console this boy-man with the same tenderness of Ruth the Moabite; he continued to weep silently, and with her hands folded in her lap, she waited in vain for him to continue speaking.


Leah, the next-door neighbor and the wife of the pharmaceuticals businessman, later informed us that Sara did not stay long in the car, and that from the limited view from Leah’s living room window, the girl exited the car after what looked like a brief conversation.


What puzzled us most was that the match seemed faultless; no one could understand the young man’s sudden change of spirit, and no one dared entertain the thought that it may have been the girl who had broken it off. Who are we to know of God’s mysterious ways? Shulamith the Bible teacher’s wife threw up her hands. Children these days, they’re so spoiled that they’re afraid of marriage.


Well, her family lineage was nothing special, noted Raizy, the high-end wedding planner.


Yes, said Zissel with a smirk. It made no sense.


He must have heard reports about her skirt length, said Yehudis, the school principal. She was not particularly careful.

Sharon, the divorcee who lived across the street, vowed that she had seen Bella’s daughter talking to the neighbors’ son. There’s something coquettish about that girl, the way she laughs, it’s too airy.


It was said that Bella took the news the hardest. According to reports which were later reluctantly confirmed by Sara’s sisters in school, Sara had gracefully sauntered into the house that night, smiled to her anxious parents and exclaimed how utterly exhausted she was and what a lovely night she had had and that she was off to bed—and it was only the next morning when the girl had casually informed her mother that she and the young man would no longer be seeing each other, and that Bella quickly canceled the Sabbath guests and took to her bed.


That evening, we are told, Sara rearranged her closet.


The young man, in the meantime, disappeared. In the days that followed, reports trickled in, sightings of him in an airport terminal a few weeks later, just before the beginning of the fall semester; his family confirmed that he had left for another yeshiva, hoping the streets and hills of another place, one that was truly far, far away, would help him find order.


That Friday, the local bakery was abuzz with discussion. No other girl, of a hundred prospective brides, had ever made this boy go crazy. To book a ticket, flee the country? Like a film! We weren’t so worried about the failure of the match; instead, as we returned to our children and our houses strewn with toys and our husbands whom we’d have to greet that evening like Sabbath queens, we each secretly wondered at Bella’s daughter and at her forgotten dress. We thought about her as we sat at our Sabbath tables, listening to our husbands drone on, singing about our valor and our righteous kindness as they fell asleep at the table.


Additional testimonies were given as to the young man’s distraught behavior. We are told that he called his friends and teachers depressed, muttering something about how he couldn’t he couldn’t he couldn’t, a girl like that is indecipherable, harder than any tractate he’d ever learned, a tractate without commentaries and without a conclusion, just one long passage of gaps and disputes and contradictions. Something about her silver eyes, like silent doves—What, I don’t understand you, his parents would ask over the dining room table. Please explain, what’s a silver dove? His father told the frustrated matchmaker to give his son some time, perhaps recommend another girl, someone simpler, someone wealthy this time, please.


The matchmaker called Sara and, breaking away from her own norms, did not seek to take the boy’s side. Listen, who needs this prince? I have another one for you in the meantime. This one’s a lawyer.


The girl wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m busy,” she said simply, suppressing a yawn as she waited for the elevator in her office building.


You have to prove to God that you’re trying. Give me a reason why you won’t give this one a try, the matchmaker exclaimed.


Reason? Sara thought. Reasons are, obviously, irrelevant here.


We were given various accounts, and there was even a dispute as to which was more accurate: There were sightings of the young yeshiva student in America, going from sage’s study to synagogue to library, each time coming out shaken and pale, swaying as if in the midst of the silent meditation. Then, upon his return, he was seen again in restaurants, each time with a different girl, dull-eyed perhaps but certainly with brighter smiles. He’ll forget her one day, said Chana, wife of the cantor, after Sabbath services one morning.


Now it came to pass that Sara decided that waiting was useless, a waste of time and sleep and thinking-energy.

We are told that she waited for her mother to leave for the grocery store, and then picked up and took the wedding gown to the community’s free-loan fund, which was housed in the synagogue basement, and donated that ivory masterpiece for impoverished (yet clearly more fortunate) brides. That week, of course, we busied ourselves driving to the synagogue basement to admire the handiwork on the sleeves, the delicate bodice and the long train of the skirt—each of us, even Zissel, wife of the computer programmer, found an excuse to stop by—and we were too excited by the prospect of finally seeing that legendary dress to even notice the awkward vapor-eyed child who stood praying in the back of the women’s balcony. 


Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a writer living in New York City. Previously, she was the Life editor at the Forward, and a reporter for Haaretz. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Vox, Foreign Policy, Vogue, and Salon, among others.