Volume 1, Issue 3 (October 2007 / Cheshvan 5768)
Article 6/10


The Ceiling
By Dalia Rosenfeld


Abstract: A Jewish American woman reminisces over a lost college relationship with an Israeli musician.  Reconnecting with him forces her to confront her own identity and the fragile Jewish existence she is trying to create for herself and her family in the Diaspora


I

At odd moments of the day, Noa would stop what she was doing and remember him. First his face would appear, stamped in the air before her like one of the Most Wanted figures in the post office, and then his name under her breath, uttered once before being pocketed away for future use.  Lior.  In the evening, when the children were in bed and her husband lay curled up with a book on the living room couch, Noa would remember a little more, trying to recall how her life had been changed by him, and whether contacting him again after all these years would give the false impression that the life she was now leading had somehow fallen short of her expectations, when in fact it had surpassed them in every possible way.

Her husband urged her not to waste her time.

Noa was not a great cook, but better than most of her friends.  At least twice a month, she and Alan extended invitations and people came, sometimes with bottles of wine tucked under their arms and sometimes with nothing but hungry stomachs and mouths that didn’t stop moving all night.  With the hope of conversation worthy of the food she had prepared, Noa brought up topics she had read about in the newspaper that week and waited for someone to expand on them, to offer the insights she had missed from skimming the black print while shaping sticky batter into matzo balls, and unable to turn the page.

They always said the same stupid things.

Afterwards, in bed with Alan, Noa scolded her husband for being too passive, for never joining in a discussion when he was most needed, at the moment when the topic turned to the Middle East and the little country of Israel that took up no more than a speck of the entire region.  Noa felt that if someone said something out of line, pursuing a diagnosis for a sickness that did not exist outside his own head, it would be within her right as the host to ask that person to leave.  She was sure that one day these friends would see the Jewish state the way she did, as a speck and not a splinter.  But in the meantime, she hoped her husband would come to her aid before she ended up saying something stupid herself. 

“Jews feel that they always have to be right,” Alan said, turning off the light and snuggling up.  “So if much of the world thinks they are wrong, they will internalize the accusation by pointing a finger in the same direction as the others.”

“Why not at the others?” Noa had just finished reading the autobiography of Golda Meir.  The paperback print was tiny, but she read until her eyes gave out, blinked, then read some more.

“Because Jews want to be loved, not hated.”

Noa slid closer to her husband.  They hadn't made love all week.  “Let’s get some new friends,” she suggested, losing her fingers in the jungle of Alan’s chest.  “Before we end up hating our old ones.”

Alan switched the light back on and threw the covers off his wife before pulling her toward him.  For him, seeing was believing.  “Tonight, I don’t need any friends at all,” he replied.

The next morning, cradling a cup of tea, the kids off at school and Alan at work, Noa saw him in her mind’s eye, his image rising with the Lemon Zinger steam, to be absorbed in one small breath.  Her relationship with Lior had been brief but embattled, lasting all of ten days, ten long years ago.  The son of child survivors, he was at turns withdrawn and expansive, consumed with the will to live life to its fullest while seldom leaving the piano that took up most of his dormitory room.  Until he met Noa.  Noa understood Lior’s complex nature as if she had been born in its shadow, a dark stain that followed her wherever she went.  But unlike Lior, she was master of her own fate.  Without even the slightest effort, she knew how to pin down the shadows and bring on the sun.  Lior watched her and wanted her, and Noa, for ten brief days, concentrated on his deep black eyes--eyes that for the first twelve years of his life had awakened every morning to the Judaean hills overlooking Jerusalem--and wanted him back.

She Googled him first, and was pleased when his name popped up on the screen.  Lior was in Ohio, a professor of composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, only a half hour’s drive from where they had first met, in the halls of the Oberlin conservatory.  A mutual friend had invited them both to his violin recital, and both, arriving late, were obliged to stand in the hallway for the duration of the first movement.

II

She Googled him, and then e-mailed him with her number.  She knew she would not have to wait long to hear his voice, and hoped the years gone by had not conspired to hide who he was or where he came from.

Alan came home with the kids and the family sat down for dinner, an angel hair pasta clumped together from overcooking, with hastily chopped tomatoes and mushrooms clinging to the sides.  Noa apologized, then described her day to Alan down to the most important detail.  “When Lior tried to ingratiate himself with his dormmates down the hall, that was the last straw for me.  He left his piano to sit in their room all day, listening to music blasting from loudspeakers placed directly in front of an open door.  Nobody in the whole dorm dared to complain.  Jason and Anthony let Lior stay but rolled their eyes the minute they saw him come, cracked jokes about him while he was there, and worst of all, insisted on calling Lior Lee.  For them, as for so many of their left-of-Lenin comrades that Oberlin cultivated, acknowledging his name was only one step away from acknowledging the country of its origin.  They were that fucked up.”  
“Noa.”

It was all right; the kids weren’t listening.  When Noa spoke in paragraphs, they tended to tune out.

“And that’s why you ended things?  Because of two obnoxious party animals?” Alan wanted to make sure to get the story right, even though, in the final analysis, the subtext was probably sex.  He knew his good listening skills were one of the reasons Noa had married him.

“Yes, when they started sending Lior out for beers and Chinese food, half the time without money.  He thought they were his best buddies, and I couldn’t stand seeing him being taken advantage of in this perverse way.  When he declined the pork egg rolls that came with the food, they thought it was a riot.  It didn’t matter that they wouldn’t go near them either, being vegetarians.  They only wanted to shame Lior into shedding his identity so that they could feel better about preserving their own.  ‘Oh come on, man.  Stop pretending,’ they told him.  To them, that’s what being a Jew was all about.  Pretending.  Fooling the world into believing the Jew had a permanent place in it at the same time that it tried to make him disappear.”

Alan nodded.  He didn’t need to do more than that to show that he essentially understood.  The older of the two children, Avi, was listening now.  “Mama, tell us about the king you went to school with.  Remember?”

By school, Avi meant college.  By king, he meant the son of a king, which would be even more exciting to conjure up once Noa corrected him.

“At Oberlin, I lived in the same building as the son of the king of Tonga,” Noa explained.  She could not recall his name now, or even where Tonga was anymore. “Not the king himself, sweetie.”

Avi’s eyes widened, as if he were hearing this fact for the first time, which evidently was not the case, though Noa could not remember bringing it up before. “Did he wear a crown?”

She hated to correct him again.  “Sweetheart, he was the son of the king, not the actual king.  Just like you are Papa’s son, and don’t wear the same clothing that he wears, like a necktie or big shiny shoes.”

At these words, Alan smiled.  Did he know what was coming next?

“But Mama, when we have Shabbat, Papa wears a kipa and so do I.  Did the boy you went to school with wear a crown on Shabbat?”

Noa watched as Alan picked up Avi and swung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.  He was offering her an escape route, an opportunity to answer the question later, once she had figured out what exactly it was.  Soon Avi would be giggling too hard to even remember.

“It’s fun to wear a kipa on Shabbat, isn’t it?” Noa scooped up little Nava from her high chair and the four of them went upstairs to get ready for bed.  She thought this was as good an answer as any, or maybe, considering the conversation that had preceded the question, the best one of all.

In bed that night Alan said, “Remind me why you have Lior on your brain?”

For a moment, Noa felt ashamed; Alan always knew when she was hiding something.  If he pressed her, she would admit that there had been more to the break-up than Jason and Anthony, that after them there were other, even worse experiences, like the Jewish student group that had learned Lior was the son of survivors, and asked him to speak about it.  Lior wanted no part of it, but Noa nagged and nagged until he gave in.  She was sure this opportunity for self-analysis would be a defining moment for him, and for everyone else in the room, who would see in Lior’s penetrating eyes not only the future of the Jewish people, but the past as well.  Like Noa did.

It was not until they arrived that the group revealed, by handing out Palestinian flag pins to everyone who walked through the door, the organization they represented, and introduced Lior to the co-speaker of the evening, a female student from the Jabaliyah refugee camp in Gaza.

Noa grabbed Lior’s hand, even though he knew better than to extend it.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she intervened, yelling at Josh Levine, the organizer of the event.  Before this evening, she had never met him.

Josh looked at her as if she were a neighbor he had grown up with and moved far away from years ago.  “I’m not sure what you’re asking me,” he replied, fingering the fringes of the kafiyeh around his neck.  As he spoke, another member of the group pinned a microphone to the co-speaker’s shirt pocket and led her to the center of the room.

“She’s not asking you anything.  She’s telling you,” Lior informed his host softly, before exiting the hall with Noa in tow.  It had been a defining moment for them after all, but not the kind Noa had hoped for.

“Lior was strong, but I made him feel weak,” she offered to Alan by way of reply.  “I think after all this time, he deserves to know that.”

III

All that week, heavy rains swept through town, forcing their way through the flashing of the new roof Noa had put on only a month ago, and keeping her at home when she would rather have been out, sitting in a cafe with her editing work piled in front of her, the pages scarred with red ink.  It took three calls to the roofer’s cell phone before she was finally able to reach him, and by then a brown stain was starting to spread across the ceiling in Avi’s room, right above the dresser that he always dreamt about at night, in the guise of a terrifying monster threatening to open its giant drawers and swallow him up.

Jose was apologetic, and promised to fix the flashing the moment the weather cleared up.  “By Thursday at the latest, Mrs. Berman.  That dormer was a tricky one, even for me.  And I’ve been in this business for fifteen years.”

“I just hope the ceiling in my son’s room won’t cave in before then,” Noa gave voice to her fears, knowing it would have been better to keep them to herself.  Next, she would have to tell Jose about the monster and the dreams, to make him understand the kind of situation they were dealing with.  It was hard enough to get her son to sleep at night without the prospect of plaster falling onto his head.

“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Berman,” Jose assured her.  “We’ll take care of the problem for you just as soon as we can.”

Alan came home for lunch at the same time every day, even in the rain.  Now that he had tenure, he could afford to take such luxuries, while his poor, unpublished junior colleagues struggled to make their spouses understand the nature of their profession: fixed hours for a few years, and then the freedom never to work again.  In all her years of editing, Noa had not read a single word her husband had written.  He was his own best critic, able to throw away ten pages with the push of a button if that’s what was called for, and demography--his field in sociology--was in any case more numbers than words, at least in Noa’s mind.  Alan had never told her otherwise.

The telephone rang while she was chopping onions for a soup.  If Alan didn’t want to brave the downpour, she would understand.  Just getting to the parking lot would be a challenge, not to mention trying to keep the sun roof closed in the car.  They had bought it used, at a price too good to be true, and weren’t surprised when it gave them a thousand dollar’s worth of trouble a week after they took it home.

“Hello?”

“Shalom, Noa.”

If she kept the conversation short, she could still have the soup ready in time for lunch.  “Hello, Lior.”  His voice was lower, as if struck by a second puberty sometime in the last ten years.  She wondered if hers sounded different too.  “I thought talking made more sense than writing, since we never wrote to each other before, and I’m not exactly in need of a pen pal.”

The question could not have fallen more naturally into place:  “Then what are you in need of?”

Noa should have guessed that there were old wounds left, and that she would be expected to tend to them now, even after all this time.  She had forgotten how vulnerable Lior was to any suggestion of human warmth, never having received it from the people who should have been doling it out--parents, friends, the teachers who must have seen how the odds were stacked against him, and still did nothing to help.  That certainly could explain his coldness now.

“I thought you might be in Israel,” Noa heard herself say.  She shrugged and shook her head in the confused way of someone who momentarily had lost her bearings.
Lior chuckled, or snorted; Noa hoped it was a chuckle.  “And I thought you might be.  Why aren’t you in Israel, Noa?  After all we went through, the least I deserve is some overseas static in my ear.  Maybe I could record it and incorporate it into my next composition.  I don’t play piano any more, you know.”

Noa did not know this, and a lot of other things, it suddenly seemed.  “What do you compose for?” she asked, wondering if she was phrasing the question correctly.  Then: “Why did you give it up, Lior?”

“It had nothing to do with you,” Lior assured her.  He must have sensed the insecurity in her voice, the mea culpa rising to its surface.  “I just gave it up, stam, the way you gave me up, and switched to strings.  What is your husband’s name?”

In her e-mail, she had not mentioned she was married, but Lior probably assumed that she was, just as she assumed that he was not.  “My husband?  Alan.  He’s coming home for lunch in a few minutes, so I can’t talk for too long.”

“Alan.”  Lior offered another snort; she was sure it had also been a snort before, and not a chuckle.  “The way you switched to Alan.”  He had needed the name to complete the sequence.  “That is how I switched to strings.”

The rain was still coming down in sheets when Alan walked into the kitchen, dripping from head to toe.  On the stove sat an empty pot, and next to it half an onion, still waiting to be chopped.

Noa was not cruel; she would let Lior say what he needed to say before hanging up and turning the pantry upside down for some instant miso.  In a series of hand gestures, she tried to sum up the situation to her husband, and then sent him upstairs to change his clothing with a final flick of the wrist. 

He always took the path of least resistance.

“I did not give you up for anybody else.”  Noa wanted this fact to be as clear to Lior as it was to her.  “I gave you up because outside of your room, you always stood a head shorter than inside.  Do you remember the things we did when we were alone?”

She quickly corrected herself.  “The things we did that were not physical?”

Lior remembered, but not in the same way.  “You thought that by speaking Hebrew together and listening to Israeli music, you could turn me into a man, but you were wrong.  I could never be a man in your eyes, because to you I was always only a Jew.”

Noa couldn’t believe her ears.  It was blasphemy, plain and simple.  Lior had loved speaking Hebrew with her, and singing the songs she had learned while sitting around a campfire on Kibbutz Ketura, where she spent half a year after high school picking dates and melons.  “You’ve got it all wrong, Lior.  To me you were a man because you were a Jew, and not just a Jew, but an Israeli Jew, the manliest of all Jews.”  Noa hoped her words were not being recorded.  She knew how silly they must have sounded, no matter how axiomatic she felt they were.  “But the moment you opened your door, you tried to hide this fact in your hunched shoulders, and suddenly you were neither man nor Jew, but a piece of clay waiting for a sharp fingernail.  And not a Golem, Lior.”

Noa did not know how much of what she was saying she actually believed.  Ten  years ago, seeing her boyfriend mistreated by his dorm-mates, she had given Lior an ultimatum:  Stand up for yourself, or we’re through.  And instead of standing, he slouched, even when Noa sent him down the hall with a CD of Matti Caspi in his hand.  “Tell them he’s won every Oscar Israel has to offer, and see if they put it on.  If they don’t, tell them to go fuck themselves.”

But Lior wouldn’t do it, and Noa was too timid to take the CD over herself.  If nothing else, that was what the ten days of their relationship revealed.

“You wanted me to fight for you, not for myself,” Lior declared, as sure of himself as she had ever heard him.  “To be the Sabra it said I was on my passport, and not the Diaspora Jew I had become.”

It was time to heal the wounds.  “Do you remember our aborted evening with Josh Levine?” Noa asked.  The very name made her heart race.

“Of course,” Lior said.  “We held hands the whole way home, and the next day we were history.”

That was not how she remembered it.  “We honored history that evening, Lior.  Josh Levine wanted to distort it, but you refused, and I was so proud of you.”

“Proud of me?”  A final snort, and the conversation was coming to a close.  “You berated me for not raising my voice and making a scene, the same way you berated me for not defending myself against Jason and Anthony.  Do you make the same kinds of demands on your husband that you made on me?  Wait, let me guess.  Your friends are all like you, so there’s no need.”

Noa laughed out loud, a bitter, dry-throated laugh aimed only at herself.  “In this respect, you and my husband are cut from the same cloth,” she said, suddenly wishing she had a rotary phone so she could wind the cord around her fingers for comfort.  Or long, curly hair like her mother.  “And as for my friends, I don’t know why I bother with a single one of them.”

IV

The following Friday, Noa stood in the kitchen as soon as the kids left for school,  vowing not to leave it until the three course meal she had planned was well enough underway so that if the phone rang or unexpected visitors knocked on the door, she would be able to have something to show for herself before attending to others.

Also, they were having guests again.

With slight variations, Noa always prepared the same Shabbat meal: matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, chicken, challah, and two or three different salads to go with it.  The children loved the challah--the only part of the meal that was not homemade--and hated everything else, even the matzo balls, which were as light as air when she remembered to add the seltzer.  She hoped it was just a matter of time before their palates made the adjustment from peanut butter sandwich lunches to Jewish soul food dinners once a week.  Nava was already starting to show signs of progress with the hummus--usually one of the three salads--as long as there were pickles to go with it.  And if he knew what was for dessert ahead of time, Avi could manage to swallow a bite or two of the gefilte fish without gagging.

“Why don’t you just let the kids eat what they want to?” Noa had been asked this question so many times, she had lost count.  A request for plain noodles for little Benny or Zoe usually came afterwards, and each time Noa gave in to it, she swore it would be the last.

“Being a Jew is not about doing what you want to,” her answer was always the same.  “It’s about doing what Jews do.  And eating what Jews eat.”  She hoped it was provocative enough to get a good discussion going, but often it only led to more requests.

“If we forced gefilte fish down Sarah’s throat in the name of Jewish continuity, she would call it quits right then and there.”

“Jonah knows that he’s Jewish, because we tell him.”

“If you think about it, there’s really no such thing as Jewish food.”

“Noa, do you have any string cheese?”

Once, Alan tried to lighten things up a little.  “The truth is, Noa loves gefilte fish but hates herring.   We’ve never had it in the house,” he said, revealing a fact that laid bare the contradictions involved in just about any conversation about Jewishness. 

“What’s herring, Mama?” Avi’s eyes lit up at the mysterious word.

“I want some,” Nava demanded.

After the guests had left, Noa waited for Alan to apologize before consolidating the leftovers--of which there were more that night than usual--and putting them into Tupperware.

“Why didn’t you come to my defense instead of joining in the attack?” She knew Alan thought she had gotten herself in too deep, and was only trying to jump in to help pull her out.  But there were other ways he could have done that, like complimenting the food on the table.  No one even seemed to notice that during the course of the conversation, Avi had eaten an entire matzo ball.  And they were the big Galizianer kind, not the little Litvak ones her mother always talked about with disdain.

“You seemed to be holding your own pretty well,” Alan said.  The kids were shouting at him from the top of the stairs to come up and read them a book.  “Debbie and Elissa are just jealous because their kids are such lousy eaters.  That’s what it all boils down to, not how much gefilte fish it takes to make you a Jew.”

Noa nodded.  She didn’t have the strength to argue anymore, least of all with her husband, who always claimed to be on her side.

“Maybe it’s time we get some herring in the house,” Noa said, worrying that it was already too late for Avi.  He was almost six.  “Everything we do for the children now will help define who they are later.”

Alan started up the stairs, and the shouting stopped.  “In that case, let’s stick to the gefilte fish and the matzo ball soup.  If it was good enough for you growing up, it will  be good enough for Avi and Nava, too.”

Noa shook her head but let him go.  “There was always herring in our house, even if I never ate it,” she said.

V

The table was set for eight, and eight people were sitting around it, four with kipas on their heads, and the other four their wives.   Avi and Jonah were up in the attic, building a spaceship out of cardboard boxes, while Nava and Zoe contented themselves with paper and crayons, displaying clear preferences for the various shades of reds and yellows in the box by fighting over each one of them.

For most of the evening, the conversation was as light and airy as the matzo balls that had comprised the first course.  The guests paired off by profession, the two doctors in the room lamenting the ever-rising costs of malpractice insurance, and the five remaining professors competing for the worst student story, with Alan in the lead for the young woman in his class the previous semester who had plagiarized not only the entire twenty pages of her paper, but the name of the author as well.  Noa sat on the floor with Nava and Zoe and tried her hand at a bouquet of spring flowers.  Alan had forgotten to pick some up after work for the second Shabbat in a row, and the vase stood conspicuously by the window, serving no other purpose than to show off its emptiness.

“I just finished reading Golda Meir’s autobiography,” Noa finally broke the monotony.  “It made me feel that I’ve been living in the wrong place all my life.”

She could not identify who groaned first.

“Isn’t the book called ‘My Life’, meaning Golda’s?”

“Yes.”  Every Jew had seen the book, if not read it.

 “Then what does it have to do with yours?”

 “And where is the right place to live, in Hebron, with the Uzi-wielding rabbis tripping over their beards?”

“Or maybe in Greater Jerusalem--a city which has never deserved that title less in over 3,000 years?”

Noa let the attacks roll off her guests’ tongues, one at a time.  Attacks about the settlements and the checkpoints; about the religious monopoly on marriage and divorce; about the exclusionary nature of  "Hatikvah," the desperation of the Palestinians, and the blindness of the Jews towards anyone’s suffering but their own.  She let them keep coming until there was nothing more to attack but the very existence of the country which she loved but chose not to live in.

“With all due respect to Golda, the Zionist dream has gone bad because it was never good to begin with,” Gary tried to sum it up in a nutshell.  “Like all isms.  I’m not saying that Israel has to go anywhere now that it’s here.  But would I have voted for its establishment fifty years ago?  Not if America had been smart enough to open its doors and let the Jews in.  That was a mistake Roosevelt never should have made.”

Noa looked at Gary, and then at all her other guests, as if seeing them for the first time and not having any idea who they were.  She had made the same mistake as Roosevelt tonight, but by keeping her door open instead of closed.  It was her turn to speak now, but where to begin?  If Lior were here, he would tell her to put on the Matti Caspi CD, and crank up the volume.

Noa turned to Alan, her husband the sociologist.  Maybe for once, he could help her, tell the people in her house all the things that never needed to be said between them.  Wasn’t that why it was so hard for her?  Because it meant having to explain why she breathed?

Alan kept quiet, but in her mind Noa forced him to talk while she cleared the table.  He talked while she put on the tea kettle and cut the cake into slices; he talked while she spooned the compote into bowls.  And while he talked, Noa took a moment to stop what she was doing and remember someone she thought she had long forgotten.  It was not Lior who had never been master of his own fate, but Noa herself, because she had never known what her fate was, only what it was not; and it was not the fate of the people sitting around her dining room table.

At Oberlin, Noa had been invited by a woman named Goldstein to join a Yiddish club she was trying to organize.  She accepted, only to learn the reason for its existence: to protest the Hebrew classes offered by the college, Hebrew being the language of the oppressor.  Yiddish, as dead as the Jews who had once spoken it, could never be a threat to anyone.

Noa went upstairs to check on the children.  Before she reached the attic, she noticed the strangest thing:  the rain had stopped, but the stain on Avi’s ceiling continued to spread.  How could that be?  Noa called the kids down for dessert, and made a mental note to ask Jose in the morning.

About the Author
Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in such journals as Atlantic Unbound, Tikkun, Midstream, and Shenandoah. She currently lives with her family in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is completing her first novel, set in Israel.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2007