Shmuel Pearlmutter had never looked at a woman. Yes, he had a vague recollection of what his mother looked like, since he had caught a definite glance at her stooped dotage two days earlier when she fed him soup at her apartment. But an actual woman, aside from his mother, was as familiar a sight to the Jerusalem-born chossid as the Grand Canyon. However, Shmuel had to wage a continual battle against thoughts of women—instant imaginings that would fly around him with the quiet yet persistent whine of mosquitoes he could not quite slap away without striking himself. It wasn’t an uncommon problem, but it was one for which there was only one solution, aside from leaving the tragedy and the comedy that was the life of the body and uniting his soul with the angels.
No, it wasn’t his time yet to leave this world, Shmuel thought, as he navigated his way through the confused human traffic that congested Kikar Shabbat in Mea Shearim on a Friday morning. Since no one was really sure who exactly had the right-of-way in the complex pedestrian maze, just crossing the street brought the possibility of death quite near, and so he always mumbled a spontaneous prayer at the crazed intersection. When he reached the other side of the street and made his way past stalls selling snoods for ladies, yet-to-open Torah bookstores, and takeout places doling out cartons that exhaled Shabbat delicacies, he seemed to feel a lightly perceptible embrace, a confirmation that no, he was not yet ready for death. Nor was he ready to get married. So he should stop entertaining even the merest thought of glancing at a woman. And if he was unable to get these thoughts out of his head, well then, he would force himself to visit the local shadchan, Mendel the Matchmaker, a bossy lifelong neighbor. This would be the only way to rescue his soul and mind from the gaping red jaws of transgression. In any case, that was the way he would threaten himself. It reminded him of the way his half-blind and almost completely toothless bubby used to warn his younger sister that if she didn’t hold the havdalah candle higher during the ritual marking the end of the Sabbath, she would be destined to marry a dwarf.
Shmuel had done it again, and now he had to make a run for it. He was ashamed that, only a second after G-d had saved his life while crossing the hazardous Kikar Shabbat, he had to avert his mind from the momentary desire to glance at the rear-end of a woman walking in front of him. He had no idea whether or not her rear-end was worth dragging his soul from its lofty perch down into a corrupt glance or not, because he managed to flick away this buzzing thought to look before his eyes obeyed. It required a vigilant, nimble mind to swat away such thoughts before they led his pupils to their target. He sometimes suffered insomnia and nervous exhaustion as a result, but a pure life required that the sentinel of the mind constantly be on duty.
Where Shmuel felt his failure most keenly was in avoiding the contemplation of the forbidden matter after the danger of gazing at it had already passed. Just after he had succeeded in not looking, he would wonder whether the turbaned woman pushing her infant in the second-hand stroller wore thick brown stockings, unkind to the eye, or faintly sheer black hose, which, if stretched, might betray a shade of flesh in the sunlight. Was her rear-end plump yet firm like the fat end of a ripe, blushing pear? He had only caught a glimpse of the back of her turbaned head, but he had become an expert at reconstructing the complete physique of a woman from an instant spent turning away from the sight of the back of her neck or the width of her shoulders, the way archeologists, from analyzing a single, remaining dry bone, can determine the age, approximate weight, the possible profession, and likely cause of death of those deceased a hundred years.
Shmuel had reached the door of the synagogue, fifteen minutes early for the morning prayers, when he realized the woman he had passed ten minutes ago was still on his mind. It was horrifically vivid, as if he were gazing into a mirror and saw her reflection instead of his, howling back at him, giving him a salacious and sinister wink. It hardly mattered that he did not actually look at the woman, but was accidentally confronted by the black stubble peeking from beneath her turban or her somewhat intimidating stiff back and broad shoulders. It didn’t matter that he obeyed the rabbinical injunction not to gaze at women, not even their little fingers, but he was gazing at the fantasy of the woman he had constructed in his mind. This is even worse, thought Shmuel, than if I had taken a good long look at her rear-end or her breasts, since as his rebbe taught, a sin in thought does more spiritual damage that a sin in action. Thought penetrates more deeply into the soul’s core than action. So why not actually look next time, thought Shmuel, perform the action with the eyes, since merely entertaining such ideas does more spiritual damage?
And Shmuel continued, “Why stop there?” At that moment, he was only half-certain the thoughts were merely theoretical, but was relieved that no one had yet shown up at the synagogue, as if his rushing thoughts might make noise, or even elicit a shriek from the imagined prey. “And why stop there?” Shmuel’s mind repeated, almost trancelike. “Why not grab her tuchis next time? Or one of her breasts? Why not both?” While he imagined fleeing into an alleyway after getting a quick handful of flesh encased in a fabric wrapping, his mind did not flee, but savored the imagined sensation.
“All right! This is it!” Shmuel said out loud, as his mind was transformed from that of a tuchis-grabbing fugitive on the lam in the back alleys of Mea Shearim to that of a stern cheder rebbe threatening an entire classroom of rowdy thoughts with the wave of a stick. “I will go talk to Mendel the Matchmaker after morning prayers. Only a modest wife can rescue my soul from the sewer of my mind.”
“She has to be a modest girl.” Shmuel gave careful instructions to the burly, tawny-bearded chossid who had laid out on his cluttered desk several pages of biographical data from relatives of prospective females.
“A virgin?” Mendel’s voice, which usually had a booming quality, held back its full force as if mocking the delicacy of the subject matter.
“Well of course a virgin!” Shmuel half-thundered, “Would you have me marry a prostitute?”
“Shmuel,” Mendel sighed, scratching the bald spot under his black velvet yarmulke with the kind of exasperated exhaustion that occurs when one feels he is being confronted with chronic yet premeditated stupidity. “Shmuel, you are thirty-six years old. What have you been doing for eighteen years instead of being married like any normal human being? . . . well . . . I can only assume it is because you are conversing with the angels while you are still a soul in a body, but Shmuel, at your age, how can I tell you this . . . ?”
“What are you saying,” Shmuel stood, pulling up his ascetic frame with sudden vehemence and shaking like an angry puppet on invisible strings. “I have to be content with an immodest woman? An apple that’s had a bite taken out of it already? You mean there isn’t a virtuous woman in all of Mea Shearim who will marry me?”
“Look,” continued Mendel, “Shmuel, at your age, the only women I have here are divorced or widowed.”
“Well, who says I need a wife my age!” Shmuel jumped forward. “To start a family, G-d willing, with a woman so old? Thirty-six?”
“I’ll have you know,” Mendel leaned back, his green eyes lacking the slightest trace of envy, blinking at a man whom he was convinced might not really know how babies are made, “That I get a mazal tov. My wife gave birth to our fifteenth child, bli ayin hara, no Evil Eye, five days ago. She is forty-eight years young. You’ll come to the bris if you don’t believe me. So having a wife aged thirty-six does not mean she won’t have children.”
“It’s not just children,” said Shmuel, sitting down again and pointing his finger in the air at Mendel, intent the Matchmaker would at least be forced to hear a clear instruction from him before ignoring it completely. “I want a modest woman. The most modest woman in the world.” His greyish eyes became wet and shone like coins, bathed in the dream of the soft palms of his salvation. “Not just any virgin. A woman who is as incapable of sin herself as she is of inspiring thoughts of sin in others. A woman who is so modest, that no one in the world even knows what she looks like.”
Shmuel’s words gave Mendel a start, and then he sat up, inspired with a fresh plan. “A woman who is so modest no one knows what she looks like?” Shmuel paused before saying “yes,” because he felt slightly intimidated that Mendel had suddenly and inexplicably begun taking him seriously. Mendel’s cheeks were flushed with enthusiasm under his beard. “I have the girl. She is young. Eighteen, I think. She has something, a quality, some would consider it a disadvantage, but it seems to fit what you are looking for.“
Shmuel had been through the routine of being matched up with girls who ranged from being mentally slow to faintly insane. “Is she a . . . dim bulb . . . or a bit . . . off in a dream world? Well, even if so, it’s fine as long as she behaves normally most of the time. But the most important quality,” stressed Shmuel, “is modesty.”
“Oh, she is modest all right,” said Mendel, his eyes dancing in celebration of G-d’s endlessly appropriate ways of fitting minor messes together at opportune times. “She is the Invisible Chassidishe Maidel. She is so modest, no one knows what she looks like.”
After six months of marriage, Shmuel was content. Not to say happy. Happiness was something Shmuel would never dare to aim for, and the conscious pursuit of it might perhaps lead to a step down into the quicksand of vanities, so it seemed safer to treasure the notion of contentment, as imperfect as it would always be. She kept the house clean, fed him meals at regular times, obeyed recipes scribbled down from his mother’s hand. She was never insistent about having marital relations, but never refused him. In any case, Shmuel heard no complaints. Her voice was but a whisper, and she was invisible. Completely invisible.
King Solomon wrote, “charm is deceptive, beauty is for nought.” The patriarch, Avraham, in the first years of marriage, never noticed his wife Sarah was beautiful because his righteousness made him immune to perceiving external beauty. Shmuel felt he might have gone beyond the experiences of even Solomon and Avraham, because after six months of marriage, he still had no idea what his wife looked like. Not the eye color, the shade of the stubble on her bald head which he assumed was covered with some kind of turban or kerchief. He did not know whether her fingers were thin and nimble or round and stubby. In fact, he had never laid eyes on her. Apparently, no one else had either. In Shmuel’s eyes, she was the most modest woman in the holiest neighborhood in the world, Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem.
It was a side effect of her complete invisibility that one day shattered Shmuel’s six-month-long ecstasy of mere contentment.
“Shmuel,” she whispered. “I have tried to be a good wife to you, so I must tell you something.” Shmuel sat down on his chair which was like a throne at the heart of his private kingdom. He felt certain she was going to tell him that, in a few months, she was going to give birth to his child.
“Shmuel, I have tried to be a good wife,” she repeated, “but I must confess something to you. Something that will make me more truly yours than ever before.”
Shmuel started, unaccustomed to such frank and tender words, but was curious to hear what would follow. “Go ahead.”
“As you can see, or rather, can’t see, I am entirely invisible. Incapable of being perceived by the naked eye. But . . . I am . . . ,” she paused for a second, deciding to take another approach in addressing the subject. “Shmuel, I am invisible, but have you ever wondered why you do not see any clothes?”
“Well,” Shmuel paused, feeling something ominous about the impending revelation. “I assume your clothing is invisible too.”
“You silly!” she giggled for the first time in six months of marriage, “Have you ever seen invisible stores selling invisible clothing for invisible people?”
For a moment, Shmuel recalled someone in yeshivah telling him that the goyim tell a story about an emperor who unwittingly walked the streets naked because he thought his clothing was invisible only to him, and no one had the courage to tell him, except for a small child, that he actually had no clothes on. Well, Shmuel thought, among the goyim, anything is possible, but here?
“Well, hasn’t it occurred to you that I am an invisible woman who is completely naked? You cannot see my clothing because I wear no clothing. There is no such thing as invisible clothing. I am modest to the world, since no one can see me, but for you, I am naked. Forever naked for your desire.”
Shmuel felt a feverish, ghostly hand clutch his shoulder and he pushed it away violently, running and sobbing out the door into the street. While groups of chassidic men, some with sidelocks bouncing, hurriedly made their way to the synagogue for evening prayers, Shmuel felt he was entitled to skip prayers because he decided that he was going to lose his mind right there on the street in protest against the Almighty and his apparent tolerance of every immodest thing on His Earth. First, Shmuel overturned a garbage can onto the street, and dozens of fish heads, chewed up bones, and empty cans were vomited into the path of cars. A tire ran over the head of a dead fish and caused it to spit forth its rancid juice which flew onto the front of Shmuel’s starched white shirt.
Next, Shmuel decided to scream at all who passed by that the holiest neighborhood in the world was being invaded by a silent army of invisible nude women who were making mischief and driving men into madness and sin. The pace of the parade of black suits and hats picked up only a bit. The turbaned women, encased in the fabric armor of respectability, pushed their carriages with a tad more urgency into the safety of small food stores, but the reaction was not the conflagration Shmuel had expected, and he felt the slap of their apparent lack of moral indignation.
Shmuel had the notion to start a fire, to burn flammable garbage, preferably well-dried soiled diapers, that would breathe fetid smoke into the stench of corruption that hung like an invisible curtain over the entire world. However, he had no matches, no lighter, and was pretty certain that, after his previous outburst, the man who ran the corner store and was in earshot would be reluctant to sell such items to him. Missing this one opportunity to start a fire in protest formed the sole reason he regretted never taking up smoking.
Shmuel went into the alley and hunted for a good round stone among broken, earth-colored bricks and rubble. He located one round rock, which to him, shone like a diamond. Some inhabitants of the neighborhood, when feeling particularly outraged about something or bored, were known to occasionally throw rocks at violators of the Sabbath or foreign girls wandering, lost in shorts. This time, Shmuel decided to throw the stone at the real culprit, the very G-d who created the stone and the concept of immodesty. Shmuel hurled the stone heavenward, but felt a dull thud on his head before he fell unconscious. The rock that had hit him rolled and rested beside his head as it landed hard on the cold pavement.
Shmuel awoke to warm palms caressing his temples, although he could not see the hands. He was lying on his bed, and his pores absorbed the warm scent of his wife as if she were a fragrant lotion. She kissed him and brought to life his growing desire. His pounding head made him unable to fight off arousal, to resist being pulled into the vortex of lovemaking. At last, Shmuel surrendered to the fire that was fast consuming his life, and he felt an urgent willingness to endure a dozen sentences in Gehinnom, the purification of the soul in the afterlife, for that one night, the first passionate night with his wife, Esther.
Nine months later, Esther gave birth to a son, and Shmuel saw Esther’s cheeks flush red with joy as she cradled the infant to her breast for the first time. He beheld the fragile softness of her milk pure skin, as fresh as the skin of the baby she suckled. Her smouldering amber eyes glistened with silvery tears, her lips, dewy like rose petals, called her husband’s name as if he were an urgently evoked blessing. Shmuel picked up his son, who looked exactly like his wife, who was not only visible now, but beautiful.
“But others now see that she is beautiful,” thought Shmuel, lifting his mind from an open volume of Talmud on the table as female well-wishers filled his home. They carried packages of food on both arms and, in their excitement, nearly interrupted each others’ abundant blessings for the mother and the child. No one referred to Esther’s former condition; the mother was healthy, the baby was healthy, G-d be praised, miracles do happen, especially in this era, when the Messiah will come. As long as the women could see she was in fit condition, healthy and normal now, no further questions were asked concerning her former invisibility. It is slander, lashon hara, to refer to a person’s past, in any case. Now that she was a mother, she would be the focus of their concern and helpful advice, served as generously as a Yiddishe grandmother piling potato kugel, dripping with shmaltz, onto a plate.
“May he grow to learn Torah, to the wedding canopy, to a life of good deeds,” went the endless chorus of blessings uttered by the steady stream of women, who delivered their kind if obligatory words, placed the gifts of food at the table in front of Shmuel, who, as a man, was denied a greeting out of sense of modesty, and made their way cheerfully out the door and back to their family responsibilities. The dozen plastic and foil containers of kugels, fish, chicken, and cakes nearly crowded out Shmuel and his volume of Talmud, but he refused to move. After all, it was his table, even though he was beginning to feel like a ghost haunting his own house.
“She is so beautiful.” Shmuel relished his wife’s modest blushes from across the room in a glance between the pyramids of food, a glance that seemed forbidden. “But these women also notice she is beautiful,” he thought. What if mothers and daughters should discuss Esther’s beauty in their homes? What if the tales of Esther, the woman who was so beautiful that G-d had to hide her beauty and make her invisible until she had a child and had to function in this world, would reach the ears of their husbands and sons? Then admiration among the women would turn to suspicion and fear that would spawn slanderous gossip, thought Shmuel. Now that Esther was visible, she would be vulnerable to the Evil Eye, which strikes almost everyone, according to the Talmud, and, according to bubbemeises, grandmothers’ tales, is responsible for untimely deaths, house fires, misbehavior in children, black moles on the skin, and mouse infestations.
Shmuel wanted to discuss these anxieties with Esther; Mendel the Matchmaker had advised Shmuel, on his wedding night, to have open communication with his wife for the sake of marital harmony. But every time Shmuel approached his wife, whose days and nights were now spent mainly on their satin Victorian couch nursing their newborn, he could hardly manage to get her attention. He brought her a plate of cookies and some tea and said, “Esther, I have something to say.”
“Oh, why won’t you latch onto my breast? Are you hungry, or do you just want me to pay attention to you?” Esther looked down at the baby and scolded him playfully.
At his wife’s utterance of the word “breast,” Shmuel jumped back, lest any further reference Esther might make to her breasts inflame his desire during the weeks following childbirth when he was forbidden by Torah law to be intimate with his wife. Shmuel returned to his volume of Talmud and averted his eyes and thoughts from his newly visible wife, whose entire focus was the child to whom she had given birth.
“His name in Israel will be Aaron Ben Shmuel,” the rabbi announced above the cries of the baby following his circumcision. The sandek, who had the honor of holding the baby during the ritual, handed the quivering baby to a bystander, who gave the baby a cloth dipped in red wine to suck for comfort. Aaron was passed through several pairs of hands until he reached his father, Shmuel, who clumsily grasped the small body which was now still. As Aaron sucked the wine from the cloth, his eyes were uplifted, and, for a second, the baby had the appearance of a holy mystic rapt in contemplation, before fixing his eyes on Shmuel with the silent, puzzled question: “And who are you?”
“You can grab him, you know. He isn’t made of glass.” Mendel the Matchmaker snatched the baby from Shmuel and demonstrated the correct method of infant manipulation. “They like you to grab them firmly. It makes them feel protected.” Mendel held the baby up as he would a loaf of store-bought challah, squeezing it slightly to see if the loaf of bread had not turned stale before the Sabbath. Aaron, while sucking on the wine-soaked cloth, drifted to sleep in the arms of the stranger and expert father.
“How am I ever going to know what to do with him?” Shmuel asked Mendel. “I can’t even hold him correctly.”
“You’ll learn,” said Mendel. “Trust me. I have fifteen children, bli ayin hara, no Evil Eye. If I can do it, so can you.” Mendel took a dull knife in his left hand and smeared hummus on his roll, which he awkwardly kept steady with his left forearm while holding the sleeping newborn in the the curve of his right arm.
“How will I learn?” Shmuel eyed the food on the table and decided he wasn’t hungry.
“Like we learn anything in life,” chewed Mendel. “By messing up.”
“What if I mess up the baby?” Shmuel suddenly felt irritated that Mendel was eating during the discussion and felt a desire to either grab his son from Mendel’s arms or throw Mendel’s roll across the table.
“We mess them up. It happens. Especially the oldest. That is why the Torah gives the lion’s share of the inheritance to the oldest child. As compensation for the parents’ mistakes.”
“I don’t want to do this!” Shmuel stood. “I’m going to leave!” he declared, not certain whether he meant leaving the bris to go home, leaving Mea Shearim, or leaving the world. As Shmuel rushed to the door, Mendel stood and gave him a parting gift.
“Shmuel, here,” he handed his friend the newborn. “Don’t forget your son.”
It was not the custom in Esther’s family for mothers to attend their sons’ circumcision ceremonies. Shmuel wasn’t sure whether this was to safeguard the mother’s modesty or to spare her from witnessing such a procedure on a child she had just given birth to a few days earlier. Although he was sure his house would still be filled with female relatives and guests assisting his wife, Shmuel felt a sudden urgency to speak to her. About what, he only had a vague idea. His head was rushing with burning love for her and terror for the fate of all three of them. No longer nervous about holding the baby, Shmuel ran down the street, and almost pushed a few slow, stout, turbaned women aside. He had to hurry home while the child was asleep and he could get Esther’s attention. He had to look into her eyes at a time when there would be no distractions.
Shmuel felt a sudden thud on the top of his head and saw a torrent of miniature rain pouring down the brim of his hat and soaking his beard. Laughter broke out of an open window above him, and the head of a pimply twelve-year-old boy with ginger sidelocks nearly disappeared into the apartment. Shmuel put his left hand on his head in search of the weapon and found it; the remains of a small, clear plastic bag that was the boy’s makeshift water balloon. Aaron’s eyes opened and held Shmuel in a confused gaze, since he still wasn’t sure who this dripping man was, before he cried. Now the baby was awake, and the private moment Shmuel wanted to steal away to speak with Esther was lost forever, thanks to a mindless prank. Shmuel, with his crying son in hand, ran to the entrance of the building so he could ascend the staircase and, even with only one free arm, strangle the young assailant.
“Fishel!” Mendel, who had been walking behind Shmuel, called to his son, the water balloon thrower, whose head reappeared. “You are going to be punished! Where is your mother?”
“Busy with the baby,” Fishel answered meekly. “Their fifteenth baby,” Shmuel silently recalled Mendel telling him. “Bli ayin hara. No Evil Eye.”
“This is chaos!” protested Shmuel above the cries of the infant. “Can’t your wife control that kid?!”
“Rainfall, women, and children,” Mendel laughed. “If we had any ability at all to control these things, G-d would never have given them to us as blessings.”