Swimming and tsnius in a midwestern heat wave
“So can you recite their names and birthdays?” I asked Larry. It was almost dinner time again. He’d just popped the lasagna and garlic bread into the oven and was pouring lettuce out of a bag, chopping up cucumbers for a salad. A cluster of the boys were doing gymnastics on the kitchen floor, Menashe dangling upside down from twelve-year-old Akiva’s waist, Noam swinging from his back.
“Yeah, I can,” Larry said, laughing. “But when they page me at work I have them punch in their number in the birth order. Otherwise, whoever answers the phone when I call back asks the first five people he sees if they’d called me and I eventually get tired of waiting.”
He moved on to a pile of dishes in the sink. My secular friends would be envious; their purportedly egalitarian husbands don’t do half of what Larry does around the house and they have twice as much time. In addition to laundry and dishes, Larry mops the floors and does all the mending. (“Beth has never sewn on a button,” he boasted.) Every Friday afternoon, he gets down on his hands and knees and scrubs six bathroom floors to prepare for Shabbos. That domestic competence predated his piety—credit his mother, who made sure her three boys pitched in at home. At any rate, equality in housework is one thing; in the House of God it’s another. Larry’s daughters don’t attend yeshiva. They can’t study Talmud, can’t hold positions of leadership at the synagogue, can’t become rabbis or cantors. Beth’s authority at school stops at the door of the Hebrew classrooms. Women have fewer mitzvot, or commandments, to fulfill, too (supposedly because they’d conflict with the higher calling of household responsibilities). That’s why Orthodox men will tell you they thank God each morning for not making them female.
“What you don’t understand is that we may have different roles for men and women, but the wife is not inferior,” Larry told me. “Beth is not inferior. It’s a distortion of American culture to think that the person who has the greatest influence on a child’s values and development is inferior to the one who brings in the money. Men may have imposed that ideology, but the women who didn’t glorify the domestic role contributed to it, too.”
I flinched; I’d been one of those renegade women and secretly feared my miscarriage was retribution. At the same time, Larry’s perspective seemed as skewed as my own. Separate could never be equal when one half of the equation was economically dependent on the other. Housework would never be valued until men participated in it fully. I doubted that transformation was possible in a community so invested in differences.
As a treat, Beth had arranged for the kids to swim at a friend’s house, but since her nephew, Sha’uli, was visiting—and tsnius prohibited the Browns from seeing members of the opposite sex, aside from parents and siblings, in bathing suits—the girls were going to one pool with her and the boys to another with Larry. She explained this to me so deftly that it wasn’t until later I realized Sha’uli wasn’t the only concern: the Brown males couldn’t see me in a bathing suit, either.
I hadn’t brought one anyway, so I only dangled my legs in the water. In capris and a tank top, though, I was still flashing more skin than Beth. On the off chance that the husband of the couple who owned the pool might come home and catch a glimpse of her, she swam in her sheitl, a calf-length skirt, and an enormous T shirt which read, “Who Are All These Kids and Why Are They Calling Me Mom?” Of all of the customs I witnessed at the Browns, tsnius rankled me most. Nineteen-year-old Shira worked out on the treadmill in the basement wearing an ankle-length skirt and long sleeves. Even five-year-old Esther Neima covered up. “We’re taught that what’s important is the inside of a person,” Larry had told me. “So the idea is not to advertise your body. You shouldn’t neglect the outside, but if you dress to call attention only to your physicality, what does that mean?” I got the point, but to me it seemed that tsnius, like the Muslim practice of purdah, could be too easily manipulated to silence women, to bar us from public places, to force the shrouding of ankles and eyes.
A bank of thunderheads rolled in. I shifted to a lounge chair under the eaves where I wouldn’t get wet. I watched Beth shushing and coaxing, playing with and reprimanding the six children who were with us. The rising humidity made her seem far away, as if she were behind glass. I had come to respect Beth, but I’d never be at ease with her. I’d always be comparing us, wondering what it would be like to be her, flirting with the possibility then rejecting it. And I’d never really understand.
We drove home in silence. I couldn’t tell if she noticed or cared that we’d run out of things to say. I sensed, though, that she was weary of my presence. Maybe that was just me—the novelty of being around fifteen children and hundreds of arbitrary rules was beginning to wear thin. Beth flipped on a cassette of religious—themed doo-wop songs. All of the tapes in her car featured men’s voices; women’s are considered too licentious for male ears.
Rebbe tried to teach us Torah each and every day
We just closed our eyes and ears to what he had to say
Every afternoon we’d sit and watch our TV sets
Talking about the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Mets
Harrison Ford be damned—I wanted to return to the twenty-first century.
By 10:30 I couldn’t stifle my yawns. Beth noticed and offered to drive me back to my hotel. She had to go to the grocery store anyway to buy a thank-you balloon for the couple whose pool we’d used. She wanted to have it waiting at their kosher butcher shop when they arrived for work the next morning. There was still a sink full of dishes to wash, bills to pay, and boxes of trash and recycling to drag to the curb. Larry had to be at work by seven the next morning to start another sixteen-hour day. Even so, he offered to drive me to the airport.
“My flight takes off at six A.M.,” I said, shaking my head.
“That’s okay,” he said. “When do you want to leave your hotel?”
Hadassah tugged on my pants leg and I hoisted her in my arms. With her dark eyes and blonde Shirley Temple curls, she resembled the daughter I imagined Larry and I would have had if we’d married. He had noticed, too. “If I couldn’t prove that Beth was her mother,” he cracked, “I’d be suspicious.”
I held her closer, had a wild urge to cut and run. It’s not fair, I thought. Larry had fifteen children; why couldn’t I even have one? If I had done the “right” thing, followed the proscribed path, would I be a mother now? Hadassah began to squirm. I tousled her curls and—though it ripped my heart out to do it—handed her to her father. We weren’t in high school anymore; I’d made my choices.
“Larry,” I said, as I turned away. “Do me a favor. Sleep the extra hour tomorrow instead of driving me. Consider it my gift to you.”
I came home from the airport to a message from Risa, who’d called to fill me in on the pathology report from the miscarriage. “You are the last woman I want to have to tell this,” she said when we spoke. “You had something called a partial molar pregnancy.”
“It happens in about one in every thousand pregnancies,” she explained. “It’s a condition in which two sperm fertilize an egg.”
Hmm, I thought: Steven must’ve been overcompensating for that insulting semen analysis. Rather than twins, Risa continued, a fetus with too many chromosomes to survive is created as well as abnormal cells in the placenta. If any of those cells remained after the D&C, they could implant, turning into tumors that could spread and, without chemotherapy, eventually be deadly.
It was a pregnancy that could turn into cancer. Who had ever heard of such a thing?
“What are the chances that will happen?” I asked.
“I don’t know. In a full molar pregnancy the chances are about one in five. It’s not clear with a partial molar. But the way we tell is by drawing your blood every week and checking for a rise in the pregnancy hormone. If it goes up and you’re not pregnant, something’s wrong.”
“But what if I am pregnant?”
She paused. “I’m sorry. You have to use contraception for a while. If you got pregnant there’d be no way to tell if you had a tumor. And if you did develop a tumor it would be dangerous to the baby.”
I could barely speak. “How long do I have to wait?”
She paused again. “I’m going to do some research. Normally it’s a year, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that long. At least six months.”
Six months? A year? I thought about Larry and Beth—no way could this be God’s will.
“Do you want to know the sex?” Risa asked before hanging up.
“No,” I said evenly, though I felt like howling. “I don’t think so.”
When I told Steven the news, he wrapped his arms around me. He wasn’t worried, he said. “Even if we have to wait for a year to try again, that’s twelve extra months that we can enjoy being together, that we can do fun things as a couple.”
I buried my face in his neck and cried, newly grateful, after my visit to the Browns, for his touch. I felt like the luckiest unlucky woman in the world.
I didn’t connect with Larry until the next morning. He called my hotel at 10:30, his voice still thick with sleep. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I just got back from Starbucks.”
“I’m jealous.” He’d gotten home from his sixteen-hour workday at eight o’clock that morning, sat in a chair next to the dining table, and, he said, “That’s the last thing I remember.” His two-and-a half-hour siesta would be his sleep for the day; he was about to say his morning prayers, then wanted to get together. “I average fifteen or twenty hours of sleep—a week.”
“You realize,” I replied, “that would be considered a form of torture in most places.”
Larry was an emergency room doctor, working full-time in two different hospitals, often doing back-to-back shifts. Beth, meanwhile, was the principal of secular education at their kids’ Jewish day school. Most of her compensation came by way of free tuition, which at ninety-six hundred dollars a year for nine years for fifteen kids (plus summer camp) is an impressive sum. In actual cash, though, she made less than Roberta, the two youngest girls’ nanny.
By the time I walked over to the house, Beth had been gone for hours. She’d woken at five, slapped together two pans of lasagna and four loaves of garlic bread for dinner, driven the older boys to the synagogue for their morning prayers, then come home to prepare for a meeting. The older children dressed the younger ones and set them up with Cap’n Crunch and Golden Grahams (sugary cereals and junk food are almost universally kosher). By 7:45 they’d piled into the van and left.
Larry greeted me by taking a step back and clasping his hands behind him. Death is considered impure in traditional Judaism, and since menstruation represents the monthly loss of potential life, so is a woman having her period, or one who hasn’t subsequently dunked herself in the ritual bath. Since it would be rude to ask, Orthodox men err on the side of caution. They don’t touch women other than their wives and daughters. I was still bleeding from my miscarriage; I couldn’t imagine in this fragile state suffering the added insult of being forbidden to embrace my husband, to seek the comfort of his arms. Still, when Larry grinned and said, “The hug is implied,” I couldn’t help but smile back, duly disarmed.
It had been nearly ten years since we’d seen each other. He was thicker around the middle than I remembered, the curl cropped out of his hair, which, like his beard, was graying. But he had the same glinting brown eyes, the same amused smile of the boy I’d known—the one who’d once snuck a stack of LPs into Junior Congregation, slipping one under his tush each time we rose in prayer, then, his gaze piously innocent, plopping down to break it with a rude crack.
While Larry made coffee, I worked up the energy to snoop, convincing myself it was on Steven’s behalf. The Browns’ pantries were surprisingly lightly stocked, all things considered. There were a few industrial-sized items—cardboard boxes filled with packages of cookies or mac & cheese, a few jumbo jars of Jif, and some tubs of salad dressing—but most things were the same size and quantity as the ones I bought. “I’d buy more in bulk if it were up to me,” Larry explained, “but I’m not around enough. Beth is efficient, but she isn’t necessarily organized. So she’ll go to the grocery store three times in a day. And she has something like ten sets of keys, because she can never remember where she’s left them; that way she’ll happen across one if she needs it. I think she kind of has to be that way, though. Whenever she’s doing something, she’s interrupted. So she does what’s in front of her, and if she has to stop in the middle and start something else, she just does that.”
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Beth and Larry are amateurs. The greatest officially recorded number of children born to one mother is—wait for it—sixty-nine. Here’s the kicker: no one remembers the woman’s name. She’s gone down in history as “the first wife of one Feodor Vassilyev,” an eighteenth-century Russian peasant. That nameless woman had twenty-seven births, including sixteen pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quads. By the time she was done, she probably didn’t remember her own name.
I knew that five-and-a half dozen children was hardly comparable to one or two, but that story only reinforced my suspicion that motherhood made women disappear. “People with no kids think this is chaos,” Larry said. I didn’t disagree. “But it’s more settled than you think. Dressing or feeding two or three is hard, it’s relentless. But in a way we have more independence, because the older ones can change diapers, carry the babies—we have more help in the house than most people.”
“Even so,” I said, “the time, the energy—how do you even manage to make any more children?”
“It only takes fifteen times to have fifteen kids.”
“Seriously,” he repeated. “That’s not much of an exaggeration. We are very fertile.” And I’m not, I thought, imagining how much harder that would be to endure if I were part of Larry’s community.
I followed Larry to his basement office, which doubled as a storage space for bicycles. The shelves were stuffed with family photos; Hebrew texts; his old, beloved volumes of Nash and Silverstein; and a few contemporary best sellers. A collage he’d made to announce Beth’s eleventh pregnancy to his parents hung above his desk: rows of head shots of the ten existing kids followed by a sonogram. Larry’s parents, I knew, cringed at the news of each new grandchild, though over the years they’d developed a grudging tolerance. Occasionally, when I visited them in Minneapolis, one of them would joke, “It’s a good thing you didn’t marry Larry,” and we’d all laugh. Somewhere in their voices, though, was a hint of wistfulness. Maybe if Larry and I had wed, we would have moderated each other, met in the middle rather than spinning out to our respective religious extremes. Maybe by now we’d be a nice Jewish couple, living in a Midwestern suburb providing our parents with a socially acceptable three or four grandchildren. It was a comfortable dream, so much simpler than the path I’d followed—I sometimes mourned its loss myself—but it wasn’t ours.
I’ve always loved spending time with Larry’s parents. After nearly fifty years together, they are still affectionate, still enjoy each other’s company. They read the same books, travel, and attend concerts and theater. My parents are much the same, and that deep rapport was what I’d hoped for, what I cherished in my relationship with Steven. I would gladly sacrifice parenthood, I thought, before giving up any of that. Larry’s priorities were different. “Beth and I have never spent much time together,” he admitted. “We hardly saw each other before we were married, and then we had Yossi so soon after. I’ve asked her, ‘When the kids move out and we sit down to dinner, will we have anything to talk about?’”
“But don’t you miss that time?” I asked. “Wasn’t that what you expected?”
He shrugged. “You can only feel the loss of something you’ve had.”
“I just don’t get it,” I pushed. “You work eighty hours a week. You don’t see your wife and kids. You don’t take vacations. You don’t even sleep. What kind of quality of life is that?”
Larry nodded, leaning back in his char. “Two things give me pause about everything. Time and money. I use all the time I have and I’m still always behind with everything. Whenever I do one thing there’s an accounting of what I’m not doing.” He pointed to a broken electrical plate against the wall. “So am I going to fix someone’s bike, or fix that electrical plate? Am I going to clean and straighten, which could be a full-time job in this house, or am I going to take the kids to the library?
“And money. I have no idea how much it costs to keep this family afloat, but it’s definitely more than I make. But what is financial strain? We can still pay for clothes, for food. We could move to a smaller house, with three kids to a room. Stress is in the eye of the beholder.”
“You know that sounds insane,” I said.
“I know it does to you, yes,” he said. “But part of this for me is realizing we’re not in control of everything. Some people don’t use contraception and have no kids at all or, unfortunately, have difficulty.” I smiled weakly. “Other people have two children or six. If we have fifteen children, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
“And I like everything I do,” he added. “I like the kids. I like my job. By Tuesday I’ve worked as much as some people work in a whole week, but I never feel like I don’t want to be doing it. Everything is a gift from God, everything. To an outsider this all can look like a burden. But tomorrow I could have a stroke. I could have an accident. I could lose my wife, my house, my kids. So I work hard. But everything I do I find precious.”
Suddenly, Larry leapt up. “I almost forgot,” he said, and pulled out a volume by British poet Robert Service from his shelf. “Listen to this.” He read “My Prisoner,” about a World War I Tommy’s encounter with a German soldier, in a full-on cockney accent. “Isn’t that brilliant?” he asked, and without waiting for a response, launched into a second poem, “The Ballad of Sam McGee.” The swashbuckling saga wasn’t something I would’ve picked but Larry was so jazzed to share it with me. Every few lines, he would glance up eagerly, eyes shining, voice rising. Almost unconsciously, I slipped off my shoes. As I propped up my stockinged feet, I listened to my friend—I tried to hear what he was hearing.
A poster of the poem “Eishet Chayil” (“A Woman of Valor”) hangs framed on the wall of the Browns’ living room. A woman of valor, who can find? it begins. Her worth is far beyond that of rubies. It’s the traditional serenade by a groom to his bride, the song a husband sings to praise his wife at the Sabbath table. Most Jews I knew had dropped the custom long ago, considering it demeaning. It’s true, the Eishet Chayil is the original woman who does too much, staying up deep into the night and rising while it’s still dark to do for her family, denying her own needs, seeking no glory. On the other hand, our Ms. Chayil earns her own living selling cloth, farming, or acquiring real estate. She manages a household staff, gives to the needy, serves God. Rather than her looks, she’s cherished for her integrity, dignity, and wisdom. I’d always suspected the Eishet Chayil model was part of the reason that so many feminist leaders were Jews, from Betty Freidan to Gloria Steinem to Susan Faludi to Rebecca Walker.
If “Eishet Chayil” has ever come to life, though, it is in the person of Beth Brown. Shortly before my visit, a pregnant friend of hers with six children went on bed rest; Beth moved the woman’s entire family into her home for two weeks. This on top of her own fifteen children and full-time job. And I didn’t hear about it from her—Larry told me. To her it wasn’t a big deal: “I enjoy having a lot of people around” was all she would say. “There’s always something happening.” When I’d suggested that was what most people would dislike about it, Beth had only smiled. “It’s not an imposition,” she had insisted. “If our kids get sick, people are there for us, too. That’s just how it works.”
How, exactly, did it work for me? If Beth was a righteous woman, what was I? My own sense of obligation seemed shallow by comparison. Although I’d like to be the sort who whips up meals for sick friends, I rarely followed through, pleading the excuse of a busy life. Even at my most generous, I wouldn’t move someone else’s family into my home. Nor did I expect much from anyone else beyond Steven; I usually considered that to be a mark of self-sufficiency. Watching Beth, though, I began to wonder where—without children, without community—I truly belonged.
Back in my hotel room, I flipped on the TV to a flickering image of Kelly McGillis in a white lace snood. The film was Witness, the romantic thriller in which a cop played by Harrison Ford is forced to hide out among the Amish. Eventually, his derision is overcome by their simplicity and caring, he recognizes the soullessness of contemporary life. “I’m right there with you, Harrison,” I said to the screen.
Larry was wrong. I think you can feel the loss of something you’ve never had, or at least a phantom longing for it. I’d never had faith; it had sometimes buzzed toward me, as improbable as a hummingbird, only to retreat when I reached for it. Mine is a messy, inconsistent philosophy, one that is dominated by the shades of gray Larry shunned: the gun metal of agnosticism, the storm clouds of contradiction, the dove breast of ambivalence. How reassuring it must be to know precisely what was expected of you, to be free from the uncertainties of finding your own way. How consoling to feel that your miscarriage, or your infertility, or your fifteen children were God’s will. I could never do it, but sometimes I dearly wished I could.
Beth and I were repelling magnets. I was no Eishet Chayil and she was no feminist—she didn’t even expect her daughters to go to college. I would never want her life, was grateful to live in a time when it wasn’t forced upon me, and yet, to my surprise, part of me was jealous of her. Somehow she’d managed to “have it all”: a respected career, a loving husband, a warm family, a supportive community. Happiness. Could I say the same about myself?