The Politics of Innocents |
BY SHTERNA WIRCBERG
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At the end of this story, I find myself without friends. I wish to blame politics, for it
seemed to start with a Take Back the Night Rally, but in truth, it began much earlier—when I
was still a Lubavitcher Hasid in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But as people say (at least I do)
that beginnings are always too long, feel free to skip ahead—after all, in their own lives, people
are free to skip through their memories, and what right do I have to make you sit through mine?
However, when you meet me, don’t tell me that you skipped or I will have a lesser opinion of
you. On the other hand, as I have no friends, I will not suffer from the loss of your friendship.
When I was in fifth grade my class went on a field trip to
the Museum of Natural History. It was the first time I
had been to a museum, and the only reason Bais Rivkah
Elementary School condoned it, despite the fact that the
museum was a goyische institution, was to help us learn
about the stars and galaxies G-d had created.
“There will be many inappropriate things in the
museum,” our teacher, Mrs. Lipsky, told us on the bus,“including graven images and idols. Avert your eyes until
we reach the parts that are relevant to us.” As she stood
in the aisle I tried to look at her midsection. She wore a
loose brown dress with large silver buttons, one of which
was directly over her belly. I would often stare at her to
see if I was imagining that her belly button stuck outward,
but her loose dresses made it difficult to know. My
best friend, Mimi, said she had seen it stick out and that
this meant that she was pregnant. I knew this wasn’t
true; my older sister’s stuck out and she wasn’t pregnant.
But the matter concerned me greatly, because I thought
my sister’s defect was the reason she didn’t have many
friends. “It’s babyish to make fun of that,” I said to Mimi.
She turned away and pretended to hum under her breath.
I wondered if my own belly button had popped out since
I’d checked it that morning.
Mrs. Lipsky was still talking. “There will also be
rocks that the goyim try to trick us into believing were animals that once existed. Don’t look at those either.”
Mimi was sitting next to me on the bus. She was
much taller than I and often swaggered. Unlike my parents,
who had become religious in their twenties, her
parents were third-generation Lubavitchers and allowed
Mimi to wear short socks, listen to classical music, and
go to the public library. I felt smarter than Mimi but she
knew things like how bumblebees flew and what caused
strange eruptions on mountains. Her parents were
always relaxing—“idly lounging around,” my mother
said—and I never heard her mother or father sigh.
“My brother has a book about idolaters,” Mimi said
after Mrs. Lipsky was done with her warnings,“Catholics who pray to pieces of plaster!” Not to be outdone,
I made up a detail. “Some religions pluck their eyebrows
and feed the hairs to goats. They believe ‘god’ is a
goat.” “Yeah?” she said, “There’s people who light candles
to water their crops and build castles to their G-d.”
I imagined them as I had imagined the people who built
the tower of Babel—men with huge arms and bare chests
squabbling like chickens. “The most farkakte thing,” my
father had once told my family over dinner, “was not that
they tried to build a tall enough tower to fight G-d, but
that they thought that G-d was only in the heavens.” I
was glad to be reminded otherwise. I too found it more
natural to think that G-d was in the heavens than that
He was in other places, especially the bathroom.
I had been especially prone to thinking that God
was lodged in the sky since we had begun studying
astronomy. My name, Rakiya, meant heaven, so I spent
many hours on our porch staring upwards, but had only
seen a few dusty lights. To deal with that, I planned to
buy a telescope when we won the lottery.
The museum was a circular white building that made
me feel as if I were entering a pagan sanctuary. Inside,
the floors were shiny and waxed and I imagined sliding
on them. This thought seemed irreverent in the majestic
hall. The other people waiting on line shamelessly displayed
their elbows and knees and carefully manicured
nails. They knew nothing about the fear of G-d.
While Mrs. Lipsky bought tickets for us, I looked
around the corner of the ticket booths and saw a monster.
Stretching to the ceiling, it was a pile of impossibly
long bones that started with legs double my height, and a
tail with plate-like protrusions. As I tilted my head back,
its body seemed to go up forever, until finally I saw its
tiny, hideous skull. Its arms clawed the air. It looked like
it was about to rear down, bite me open and chew my
innards like Tangy Taffy.
I had been to the Bronx Zoo several times but had
never seen a creature like this.
The rest of my classmates were staring at it as well,
looks of horror and fascination on their faces. Mimi
sidled up to me. “This is a ‘dinosaur,’” she whispered as
she read the plaque, “a bar-o-saur-us.” My teacher had
finished with the tickets and clapped her hands, “Girls!
Remember what I said, cover your eyes!” A museum
guide approached, speaking briskly and authoritatively. “Hello young ladies! You are admiring the five-story-high
Barosaurus defending its youngster from an attacking
Allosaurus. This display is the tallest free-standing
dinosaur mount in the world.” He gestured toward the
skull and prepared to continue, but Mrs. Lipsky interrupted
him. “Thank you, but we are religious Jews and do
not believe in that.” The guide pulled his suddenly wide
eyes into his head and backed away.
My teacher shepherded us out of the rotunda. Her
mouth moved in a grimace of mockery. “The goyim
believe all sorts of strange things,” she told us, “for
instance they believe that dinosaurs existed and are millions
of years old even though G-d created the universe
only 5,000 years ago.” Her features smoothed into an
expression of delight that I imagined we would all feel
once the Third Temple was built in Jerusalem.
At that moment a group of slightly older non-Jewish
students came in and stared up at the dinosaur. “It’s so
scary!” I looked at the girl who said this. She had black
hair like me and wore the same exact shoes I did. She
stood next to a boy with flaming red hair. He tried to
impress her: “Dinosaurs used to have gigantic wars with
each other and if we were around they’d kill us too.” I
guess it worked, because the girl grabbed the boy’s elbow
as she stared up in fear. I poked Mimi in the back and
saw that she too wanted to laugh. We held it in until we
had gotten farther along in the museum.
That night, I thought about the barosaurus. Its long
mysterious body still scared me, but less now that I realized
it was merely a trick. I remembered the gentile girl
in the museum and wished I could tell her that it wasn’t
real, that she had no reason to be afraid. Why did people
believe in such things? My father told me the next day
that it was because Jews have higher souls than gentiles.
Several weeks after I saw the dinosaur, the Lubavitcher
Rebbe began giving very long, dramatic, unannounced
speeches. It was the Last Generation of Exile, he
explained, which meant that it was also the First
Generation of Redemption. “Just as Moses led the Jews in
the desert for 40 years,” he said. “I have led this community
for 40 years. It is time to enter the Promised Land.”
My father explained that the Rebbe was subtly indicating
that he was Moshiach, the Messiah—a conclusion
we reached as well. The Rebbe, to whom we now began
referring as Melech HaMoshiach—King Messiah—would enter the huge synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway
and begin speaking to whatever audience happened to
be there, distributing dollars or holy books. My parents
and most other adults I knew began wearing Moshiach
beepers that would go off at any time, often very late at
night, and within minutes everyone would be out the
door, with my sister and me grumbling at having been
woken up. “You think Moshiach is going to wait until
you change out of your pajamas?” my mother said, and
instructed us to keep a holiday outfit under our pillows.
The Moshiach siren would go off as well, for the
benefit of those who didn’t have beepers. Its thin shriek
made me feel both terror and wonder. As the siren
wailed, the streets would start filling up and often we
passed Mimi’s house just as her family came out. We
would walk as fast as we could, eating from Mimi’s bag of
treats, and see our other classmates marching with their
families. Once I even found myself hurrying alongside
Mrs. Lipsky and her husband. She introduced herself to
my parents. Her voice with them was young and light, as
I’d heard it only rarely, like the time she was mocking the
When the Moshiach marches occurred at night, the
street lamps would glow like the burning bush and the
light fell across people’s faces as if they were prophesying.
Excitement overcame my sleepiness. I clung close to
my parents in the growing flood of the devout. I would
watch as the men rapidly adjusted their shirts, their
black coats flapping behind them like the wings of great
birds. Many of the women had forgotten to change into
their wigs and hastily tried to stuff stray hairs under their
scarves as they pushed a stroller with one hand and
clutched a yawning child in the other.
People would shove hard in order to be able to enter
770 and get a better spot to see the Rebbe, but out on the
street, where loudspeakers brought his pronouncements,
there was a festive sense of calm and unity. Some of the
men would start singing a wordless tune while others, like
my father, stayed in meditative silence as they tried to
clear their minds of all thoughts but the wonders of the
Rebbe. Sometimes he said to me in an awe-struck voice,“The Rebbe, the Rebbe, the Rebbe!”
To herald the Messianic era, Mitzvah Mobiles sped
through the city with boys in black hats urging secular
Jewish men to put on tefillin. Girls were not allowed in
the Mitzvah Mobiles, but I heard they had bathrooms as
well as fridges. Girls were instead bussed to various
places in Brooklyn and Manhattan and instructed to
stand on street corners and ask people, “Excuse me, are
“There are four reasons why someone would say
they’re not Jewish,” Mrs. Lipsky told us. “Either they are
really not Jewish, but this would be rare because most
people in the city are Jewish. Or they are Jewish but are
in a rush. Or they are Jewish and embarrassed. Or they
are Jewish but don’t know it.”
The pamphlet we were to press into the hands of
busy or embarrassed Jews was about lighting shabbos
candles. “Light up the world,” it said, and had a picture
of a beatific mother and daughter in front of a candelabra.“Their smiles look so innocent and peaceful,” my
mother said. She attached a pamphlet to the refrigerator
door with a magnet from Leibowitz Storm Windows.
Whenever I would talk back to my mother, she would
say, “Why can’t you be like her!” and point to the daughter
in the picture, who looked incapable of contradicting
The pictured girl, Fraydel, was in my class, and
because she was now famous, she acted snooty and tried
to hand out the most pamphlets. I suspected that she
handed them out to non-Jews, so that everyone could
see her. “I’m glad I’m not Fraydel,” I told Mimi, “I would
pop from all that extra air.” But secretly I was jealous.
Even at her most intolerable, she really did seem to be at
peace with the world. I imagined her in just a few years
as a devoted wife with three children and at least seven
more on the way. Some day she might even pose in a new
pamphlet as the blissful mother.
“Don’t stop the men,” Mrs. Lipsky told us. “I know
of one case when a woman stopped a man and instead of
influencing him in the proper direction, this particular
individual ended up throwing away her skirt and committing
sins too heinous to mention.” I wanted to ask
Mrs. Lipsky what kind of sins she meant but she was
already partnering us up on different street corners. The
streets felt cold and unyielding, far removed from the
streets I had walked on the night before as the Moshiach
As I waited on the corner I stared up at the tall
buildings around me. “I wish I worked right there,” Mimi
said, pointing to a top floor. “Yeah, right,” I said, “all they
want is money and to talk to people of the opposite sex.”
“While they take their kids to see dinosaurs!” Mimi said.“This is serious,” I scolded. “These are Jews but they’re
living like Canaanites.” I couldn’t understand how they
could be so ignorant and stupid, especially if they had
The first person to come our way was a woman in a
very short skirt out of which poked enormous thighs
with no stockings. Below her skirt, she wore military
boots so tall it seemed that with one motion she could
flatten me into a gum smudge. “No way am I asking her,”
I told Mimi, “she’s definitely not Jewish.” “Of course
she’s Jewish,” Mimi said, “why else would she try so hard to hide it?” She marched right up to the woman and I
moved back. Mimi’s body, which had always seemed
large in comparison to mine, was almost invisible beside
the woman’s. “You Jewish?” Mimi asked. The woman smiled but kept walking. “Of course I’m Jewish. One of
your pals just gave me something on the other corner, k?”
She continued on.
Mimi was triumphant. She walked up to someone
else, but the woman ignored her. I stopped an elderly
lady with a cane who looked like my grandmother and
seemed kind. “Excuse-me-are-you-Jewish?” She paused,
glared at me, and said “That’s none of your business.” I
imagined her voice grating a carrot. “Stop bothering
strangers.” I wished I were very far away.
Thankfully, an hour later Mrs. Lipsky gathered us for
the bus ride home. “Look how we’re brightening the
streets,” she said, “We’ll go every two weeks.” I did not
feel like I had brightened anything particularly. In fact, I
was so humiliated that I hoped desperately to be relieved
from this duty. Why should I have to face harsh looks just
because some Jews chose to be heathens?
I made up a special prayer in preparation for the
next outreach trip. “Please help me get all the yiddin to
become religious. Let them quit their jobs and elevate
the world so Moshiach can come and everyone smiles at
me. And plus, make a camel fall on the lady with the cane
so she’ll repent and be nice to me.”
The next week, due to a government inspection visit, my
school revamped its lunch menu to include more meat.
My mother was displeased. At a macrobiotic commune
she had lived on before she became religious, she became
committed to the view that grains, especially brown rice,
should make up the bulk of one’s diet. She also became
convinced of the evils of meat, dairy, sugar, and eggs.
“This is a good opportunity to revitalize your intestines,”
my mother said after she read the memo on the
new school lunches. She wrote a note asking if we could
be excused from eating the school food and packed a
healthy lunch for my sister and me. During lunch she and
I huddled in the back of the cafeteria, nauseated by the
smell of 400 salami sandwiches being eaten. I put my
hands over my brown bag so no one would know what
was inside. I stared at Mimi, hoping she would come join
my sister and me, but after she looked in our direction,
she began talking to the girl next to her.
I turned to my nori balls stuffed with brown rice and
umeboshi. The thin seaweed of the nori, which we would
vie over at home, now looked like dried caca. I wondered
if I could somehow apply the higher-souls theory to
explain that my sister and I were eating these strange
foods because we were better than everyone else.
I looked at my sister and saw in her eyes the humiliation
I felt. She was in seventh grade, two grades ahead
of me. “Are they the weird ones?” I asked her, “or is it us?”
“Everybody in the world thinks they’re weird,” she
said. Her voice was hard. I conceded that this may be
true but it didn’t make me feel any less of an outcast. She
brought the nori to her mouth, took a big bite and then,
with a stuffed mouth, said, “They don’t know what’s
good for them. They’ll die from that stuff.” This echoed
my mother’s more elaborate repudiation of cold cuts,
but I could tell that in a few seconds my sister would be
wiping her eyes.
When I came home from school that day my mother
was making miso soup, steamed broccoli, and buckwheat.“No one in my class has miso,” I told my mother,“and I’m not taking any more lunches to school.
Everyone looks at me like I’m growing a beard.” “When
the rest of your classmates get sick from their bad eating
habits,” she said, “you will rest secure that you had the
healthiest diet known to man. You will thank me then.”
I had heard this before, and I had secretly pitied all
the people I knew who ate meat. But now my mother’s
theory seemed suspect. If anything, I was the least
healthy of my classmates. I got out of breath the most
quickly and often had to sit on the side while other kids
threw a ball around as easily as tossing clothes on the
floor. I always had colds. Everyone would choose me
when they wanted an easy victory in arm-wrestling. Also,
we had learned in science that milk builds bones. I had
the smallest bones of anyone in my class and had broken
my wrist three times. I imagined myself in twenty years,
unable to cut my nails because my finger flesh had grown
half a foot past the end of my finger bones.
Macrobiotics, I decided, was a hoax.
My mother was still talking. “And you have to treat
your body especially well, because it is G-d’s vessel. Sugar
rots the teeth, destroys the pancreas, and causes cancer.”
My mind wandered. If she’d made such a big mistake
about food, how did I know she was right about other
things as well, such as my body being G-d’s vessel? As
soon as I thought about that one, it seemed absurd.
What would G-d need with my miserable little body?
She looked at me lovingly. “When we moved here
people thought we were lunatics for not eating brisket. I
know how it feels, believe me. But everyone on my side
of the family died young and I don’t want you to. My
mind is made up!” she said, and I was no match for this
Back in the lunchroom, my sister managed to ignore
everyone else but I was unable to stop looking at the
other children’s lunches. What had before nauseated me
now started to seem divine, wonderful, and unattainable.
I no longer tried to catch Mimi’s attention. At home I
would lock myself in the bathroom and stare at my
reflection. I looked like a despicable moth in the coat
closet, burrowing further and further into the dark
cloths so as not to be seen.
A week later I was once again relegated to a street
corner, this time with both Mimi and Fraydel. Before I
could move, they zoomed up to a woman in large hoop
earrings that looked like pieces of twisted tinfoil. “Are
you Jewish?” Mimi asked. The woman wrapped her arms
around her chest and hurried on. I felt myself blush. It
could’ve been me she was looking at contemptuously. I
saw Mimi and Fraydel as the woman must have seen
them—as slightly foolish—and she suddenly seemed to
me, except for her gaudy earrings, to be extremely reasonable.
It was silly, wasn’t it, to expect to bring
Moshiach by handing out pamphlets? Wouldn’t it make
more sense to light shabbos candles for these heathen
instead of trying to get them to do it?
I watched Mimi and Fraydel continue handing out
pamphlets. They giggled and grinned. They are, I
thought, congratulating themselves on what good
clowns they are without realizing how stupid it is to be a
I developed a new routine. When Mrs. Lipsky wasn’t
watching I would stand on the corner with the pamphlets
behind my back, pretending I was just one of the
many people waiting for the light to turn green. When I
would see her looking at me, knowing that she couldn’t
hear what I was saying, I would nod and mumble to the
passing strangers, “Have a good day.” But whenever possible
I would just hold them out mutely. Passersby would
unwittingly take them as they took fliers from the other
hander-outers standing around, with ads for glasses or
shoes. I thought of dumping some of the pamphlets into
the garbage but I envisioned a wind that would whip the
papers out of the trashcan and over to Mrs. Lipsky.
Many years later, after the Rebbe died, I left Crown
Heights and went to college. I felt bad for the ones who
remained. In one of my many recurring nightmares I was
a baby, crawling through a dark and intricately decorated
old house full of black-clad men and long-skirted women.
When I looked out the window I saw blonde children,
naked except for thin cloths around their hips and
chests, racing around, bashing into each other, screaming
out their laughter. One of the girls walked toward the
open window and I tried to smile at her, but when she
got close enough to talk to me I was now her age and
tried to hand her a pamphlet. She laughed at me. I woke
up and felt like I was suffocating.
“Are you going to deny the truth which Jews have
accepted for over three thousand years?” my father asked
me when I left. He thought I had gone insane and
offered to pay for a consultation with a very respected
rabbi. “He also knows about psychology,” he said. I didn’t
want to explain that I was leaving because I’d concluded
that it was his world, my world, that was insane.
But after several months in the secular world, I
thought of going to the college therapist for free. Having
been forbidden to talk to boys all my life, I had no idea
how to do so now, or even look them in the eye. I did not
know how to dress, for I had worn hand-me-downs that
had covered every part of my body except my hands and
head. I didn’t have TV or movie references in common
with anyone, since I had seen only videos of the Rebbe
and heard only tapes of Torah stories. In an introductory
course on politics and culture, someone compared the
president to the Wizard of Oz and everyone laughed. “The Wizard of Oz?” I asked. “You know, Dorothy . . .?”
someone said. “The Tin Man?” she continued, trying to
jog a memory I did not have. “Earth to Rakiya, wake up,”
someone else joked.
Professor Lodger asked me to stay for a minute after
class. “I’ve just finished grading the first batch of papers
and I’ve never seen anyone use the word scrame or say‘Amn’t I.’ How can I help?” “We didn’t learn how to write
papers in school,” I said. “I grew up speaking a mixture
of Hebrew, Yiddish, and English, and English was the
least important.” I told her how I wasn’t allowed to see
movies or watch TV. “Like the Amish?” she asked; but I
didn’t know who they were.
Very shortly, she had assigned herself to be my mentor
and lent me books that I should have read in high
school. I also went to the public library every week to
read children’s books to catch up. I began using the
Writing Center, too, and soon I was doing much better
in my classes.
I had decided to major in astrophysics in order to
more thoroughly study the stars that fascinated me.
Every Thursday for a couple of hours, the astrophysics
department would allow students to go up to the rooftop
observatory to use the telescope. Most times I had the
telescope to myself, and would try to locate the different
constellations. Mostly, though, I would just stare at the
bright lights, pretending that each was a person and each
constellation a community. From so far away, the peculiarities
of each star were invisible but I would try to spot
myself, to find a star that looked like it was moving from
one galaxy to another.
Professor Lodger—who now insisted that I call her
Angela—invited me to her house to discuss how I was
settling in. I told her about the latest dumb remark I’d
made in class. “It’s like being an immigrant,” she told me,“the culture shock. Often they think they’re crazy.” She described the time she had gone to France for a study-abroad
program in college. “There were all sorts of
niceties that I felt stupid for not knowing and I made all
sorts of faux pas.” She stared at the table cloth, remembering.
Her hair was very light, her eyes were very blue,
and her nose was very round.
“And then of course there’s the language. I had
taken two years of French but once I got there my
tongue became stupid. I couldn’t help myself; the wrong
words would just come. It wasn’t simply that the language
was new; it was that I was so lonely and just needed
to talk, to say anything to get people to look at me.”
She was quiet again. “That’s why it’s really important
that you meet new people. You have to stop feeling that
people won’t understand you—take a chance.”
“Sometimes when I go to the bathroom I automatically
start saying the prayer for the bowels,” I said. “Or
when someone says that they love their boyfriend or
even a movie or a book I want to tell them that it’s not
right to love anything but G-d. . . . And even though I
don’t really believe in Him any more, sometimes when
people are talking about gender roles and social forces
I’m really excited because all I know about is divine
forces, but I don’t even get half the discussion because
I’m thinking it’s the Yetzer hara that makes people
oppress each other—that’s the ‘evil inclination.’”
Angela nodded. “Critical thinking is often the first
thing to go in fundamentalist communities.” Her little
boy, who had been clanging a pot on the floor, began to
cry. She scooped him up to change his diaper. “Hey,” she
said as she went into the other room, “there’s a Take
Back the Night Rally on Thursday. You should go—a new
experience for you.” I nodded, thanked her, and left. I
wished I could just run up and hug her and tell her how
nice she was, but I still felt shy around her.
I thought about Angela’s comment about critical
thinking. I used to think my father’s thorough explication
of Biblical texts was critical thinking, even though
we didn’t have that term.
For the past month there had been posters all around
campus advertising the Take Back the Night Rally, but
not knowing what it was, I had only glanced at them as
something I might one day have time to understand, like
the posters advertising “Substance Abuse Awareness,”
“Stressed? Yoga, Feldenkreis, and Deep Breathing,” or“Confused? You Might Be Queer.” But that Thursday, I
found myself marching through the streets with hundreds
of other girls protesting sexual assault. The girls
around me chanted, “Take back the day, take back the
night, take back our bodies, take up the fight. . . .
University silence perpetuates the violence.” It was a few
minutes before I could actually make out the words but
once I did, I joined in. I had never been part of this large
a group except when the Moshiach beepers went off, and
as we walked through the darkening streets I felt as
happy as when I had rushed with my family to see the
The girl right behind me shouted loudly. The bottom
of a banner she was holding with three other girls
kept bumping against my calves. The girl to my left had
a big sign, which she carried in front of her as if she were
a bride showing off her wedding dress. The sign said,“Hey hey, ho ho, Larry Summers has to go!” This girl wasn’t
yelling, so I asked her what her poster meant. “He’s
the Harvard president who thinks women are inferior,”
she said. She was smiling and though I had never heard
of Larry Summers, I smiled back.
I was about to ask her another question but at that
moment I saw a flash and realized that someone had
taken a picture of us. I felt as if I had been caught
shoplifting. I couldn’t help but remember my younger
self, marching with my whole community. A moment
before, this memory had made me happy, but I now
remembered that the reason for the march—the expectation
that Moshiach would arrive at any moment—was
laughable. The photographer hovered on the edge of the
crowd like a big firefly. I watched him suspiciously, and I
comforted myself: there is nothing foolish about
When we returned to campus for a “speak-out,” the
street lights were turned off to foster anonymity. Student
after student recounted how she had been sexually
harassed or abused. I could stay for only a half hour
because then the observatory opened.
Up on the roof the angry words of the speakers
below made the brightness of the stars seem stale and
stupid. I remembered the years when I was younger,
when I had believed that if I just prayed hard enough, we
would win the lottery. It had not seemed at all foolish,
and I had ridiculed people who didn’t believe in prayer. I
thought of the horrible stories I had just heard at the
speak-out and suddenly wished to believe again in magic.
That weekend I went to Angela’s house. Her little boy
crawled up to me and tugged at my legs, gurgling excitedly.“He just took his first step!” Angela set a kettle to
boil and cooed to him so he’d give us an encore. I sat on
the floor beside him and he held my knee for support as
he wobbled upwards. His chubby little face strained with
the effort but once he had finally righted himself, he held
onto my shoulder tightly, his face glowing.
“No one but children can be that happy,” Angela
said. “Modern life allows no certainty. I’m scared of the
kind of world he’ll face as an adult. Things only get worse
and worse.” We were silent, watching the boy. He hovered
for another moment and then fell down with a plop.
I sat down at the table and pulled him into my lap. The
kettle whistled and Angela made tea in two enormous
black mugs, not the chipped little teacups I was used to.
When she sat back down, her face danced. “I see you
were at the rally!” she said. “You’re on the front page!”
She showed me the campus newspaper on the table. I
looked down and sure enough, there I was, but if Angela
hadn’t told me, I might not have recognized myself. The
smile on my face looked familiar—but not like me. Or at
least it wasn’t the suspicious look I imagined myself
always wearing. “You look adorable,” she said. She was
right, I thought, but that made it worse because it still
didn’t look like me. I pushed the paper to the side.
I remembered one of the questions I had about the
march. “They were protesting the president of Harvard,”
I said. “What’s wrong with him?” “He’s a sexist,” Angela
replied, putting down her mug to concentrate. “He
believes that women are inherently inferior to men and
that’s why there’re so few of them in math and science.”
“Yes!” I said. “In calculus and astrophysics classes, sometimes
I’m the only girl.” I told Angela about the absurd
higher-souls theory I had once believed. It sounded like
Summers believed that theory about men.
“It’s crazy to think it’s an innate gender difference,”
she continued. “We’ve just trained young women to be
average. We’ve trained young men to be adventurous.”
Angela went on, but I kept thinking about adventurousness.
There was nothing about sitting in a lab or even in
a rooftop observatory that seemed adventurous to me,
and the men in my science classes were timid and not
inclined to feats of heroism or even charm. Maybe I was
the only girl there because topics like calculus were often
very dry, and maybe girls who were more adventurous
than I—I thought of the leaders of the Take Back the
Night March, and the speakers—were impatient with
sitting around thinking about numbers. Or what if it was
something else? I knew that during my period, I had difficulty
with equations that were easy on other days.
Maybe it was hormones? But in that case, men and
women do have innate differences. This made more
sense than the higher-souls theory. But I used to believe
in that just as calmly as Angela believed what she did.
I didn’t figure it out, but thinking about it made my
lungs expand, as if I had just breathed in purer air.
I looked up, afraid that Angela might have seen me
doubting her, but she too was just looking up, from the
end of a sentence about gender roles. My eye landed on
my picture again and I noticed the banner that had been
bumping my legs: “No to Capitalism, No to War, I Am
Not Your Goddamned Whore!” “What’s this about?” I
asked Angela, turning the picture in her direction. “Oh,
one of them carrying the banner is Molly, another of my
best students! She’s writing a senior thesis on pacifism.
The point of the banner is that all the forms of social
injustice are connected.”
I was beginning to feel uneasy. “What about a war
that helps people?” I asked. “Wars kill people, they don’t
help them,” she pointed out. “But World War II—the
Holocaust?” I said. “FDR didn’t do a thing about the
Holocaust—he could have bombed the railroad lines to
Auschwitz and he looked the other way,” she replied.
This seemed both shocking and beside the point, since
at least the war had killed Hitler and ended the
Holocaust. I felt like I was batting around interpretations
of the Torah with my father again.
I was going to ask about the “Capitalism” part of the
banner, but as I looked at it, I caught sight of my face in
the picture again and my fingers and toes felt cold. I realized
what was familiar about it: my face had the same
angelic expression Fraydel had worn in the pamphlet on
Angela continued speaking about pacifism, her eyes
as complacent as her baby’s. I was suddenly aware of how
fragile my heart was under my ribcage. I couldn’t stand
looking at Angela or at myself for one more moment.
I excused myself, wandered out, and never went
back to Angela’s house.
I eventually got an A in her class, but in the three
weeks before the end of the semester I sat in the back
row and tried to avoid seeing the bewildered hurt on her
face when she looked in my direction. As she spoke
about how popular culture fosters complicity with capitalism,
I was mostly preoccupied with myself. Why did I
feel nauseated by the political salami Angela was serving?
And why was I the only one who was reacting that way?
Was everyone else crazy, or was it me?
Whenever I sneaked a look at the other students, I
saw nothing but Fraydel. I knew that I had been just as
dazzled by Angela’s ideas—and the ideas all around me in
college—as the other students in her class now were. I
had been, that is, before I saw the smile on my face in the
Just like my mother had said, it was an innocent
smile. Innocent of other galaxies.
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Shterna Wircberg is a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.