Chapter 7 – The Bad Jewish Wife

October 25, 2011

There was a tree in the orchard, larger than the others; no blossoms adorned it. It bore no fruit. It towered above the surrounding arboreal splendor, whose froth of pink and white promise shivered in the breeze; frivolous springtime bridesmaids surrounded the aging groom in whose grey arms she sat. Sturdy branches spiraled around a scarred trunk, some so low they touched the ground; low enough for fairly small children and one pregnant woman to climb. She sat high enough in the branches to be safely hidden, for who in their right mind would look upwards for a pregnant woman? She perched, immobile. Only her hair stirred. The soft air, alive with singing insects, buzzing wasps and the perfume of a Cote de Azur afternoon dried the moisture on her face and between her legs.

She leaned her back against the trunk and rested one hand on her huge belly.

Hidden, hidden. She longed to stay invisible forever, never to be found by the two visiting mothers, the three older children, the au pair (missing for two days already), and the husband, who only stopped lusting after the au pair when he got up close enough to observe that she was not attractive. (“She’s not even pretty,” he complained, impervious as usual, to any lack of discretion or sensitivity.) She wanted to sit there until the hoped-for son slid out from between her legs, red, healthy, and above all, male.

After two daughters, nothing less would be countenanced. Her first son did not count. He was not the husband’s. The little boy’s beauty did not endear him to the patriarch who would have preferred a virgin-bride. As it was, he made do with “damaged goods” and insisted on a male heir to justify the union.

Theirs was never a marriage made in heaven. Made in acquiescence, it was the reluctant solution to a third unwanted pregnancy. When persistent lust continued to reign over moral misgiving, (she did not meet his standards for a “Good Jewish Wife”) he followed the advice of his teacher and mentor, a gentle and sweet Hassidic rabbi, and married her. Ungrateful to the core, she resisted the advice of the sweet Hassidic. “If you cannot wear a sheytl, could you at least cut your hair?” Rebellious and resentful, she attended Sabbath dinner at the rabbinical table, and smugly observed the pious and genuinely virtuous man fight the desire to covertly glance at the forbidden temptation cascading down her back.

She hated herself for not wanting another daughter. She loved her daughters. They were smart and beautiful; the elder withdrawn and thoughtful, solemnly wrapped herself in a prayer shawl and davened at her father’s side each morning, swaying to and fro like a miniature Yentl; the younger was round and pretty and stubbornly individual.

She did not want another pregnancy, ever. She just wanted to honor her debt, the price of this reluctant marriage and shed the shackles of obligation.

The child within kicked strongly, as if to remind her of its presence. She did not spend time communicating with it; patting her belly and talking softly, like other white mothers-to be. Her role-models were the African women of her childhood who carried their children, before and after birth effortlessly, going about their work; the child an extension of their own body. For this reason she refused drugs when giving birth and refused to curtail her activities beforehand. She still gave a weekly dance class in Marseilles, guiltily ignoring the fact that the students stood at the barre with the hyper-extended spines of a pregnant woman, in unconscious mimicry of her own posture.

The laughter of the children behind the house changed to anguished wails when the older girl, who had spent the afternoon learning to ride a bicycle with her accustomed focus — stubbornly refusing the help of anxious adults — fell into a rose bush. Heart thumping, she started to climb down from her perch, but saw, in the distance the determined little figure, red-faced and tear-streaked, climb straight back onto the borrowed bike and fiercely pedal her way around the rose-garden. Wobbly circles slowly smoothed out into increasingly confident forward progress. How many times had that little girl triumphed over her gender? From the time she could walk she seemed to sense her father’s desire for a first-born son, and did her best to fill the role. The child’s paternal grandmother’s first words, on gazing down on the new-born had been; “Pity it’s a girl–oh well, as long as it’s healthy.” Her next words–to the mother–were, “Funny, you still look fat!” Nonetheless, she overcame her gender-bias and adored the little girls with possessive ferocity. Her hatred for the unseemly wife never abated an iota.

When the wild colors of sunset streaked across the sky, and dusk leaked in around the trees, the woman laboriously descended, leaning out from straightened arms in order to maintain a safe distance between her belly and the trunk. Taking the last deep inhalations of blessed solitude, she headed for the house. The tall white walls shimmered faintly in the darkening distance. Lights gleamed sporadically on the third floor where the family waited for her to come and prepare the evening meal.


Over the next weeks her mother left with her son, the au pair resurfaced and the husband left for Paris; it was nineteen sixty eight and he was loath to miss all the excitement of the student riots.

At the Marseilles airport, the little boy stopped at the foot of the portable stairs and turned around to look back at her. His huge brown eyes were blameless. He turned, and holding onto his grandmother’s hand, climbed up into the waiting aircraft.

The next day saw the return of the Dutch au pair. On her day off she had accepted a ride with three young men from Bandol. Once out in the country the youths had demanded sex, and when she refused, had unceremoniously abandoned her on a dark and lonely road. A cruising police car had found her and brought her back to the station in Cassis. Sobbing, she described how one of the officers had entered the room in the back where she was resting on a narrow couch and fumbled at her breasts. “They are all pigs.” She hiccupped, “Now, now I understand why these filthy French have bidets in their houses. God! In Holland you can only see that in a bordello! Ya, ya–it’s because they are all pigs!”

Before leaving for Paris the husband testily demanded that she maintain peace with his mother. She wondered if he would return for her confinement. He had also been in Paris at the time of her second daughter’s birth, and truthfully, it had been a relief. Her dance partner had taken her to the nursing home at the onset of labor. Because of the relatively happy time she had experienced in his absence, the girl had been born perennially joyful. A prettier child was hard to find. Luminous with happiness, she laughed and bounced her way through life. If her sister was her father’s child, she was left to her mother to be cuddled and kissed. While her serious older sibling draped herself in her father’s tevilit, she adorned herself with strings of beads and fashioned hair ornaments out of shiny objects.

Peace with the husband’s mother was more of a shaky truce, and did not last for long. She awakened on market day with sporadic contractions, too early and too irregular to be the onset of labor. But irritating and tiring, all the same. The dubious companionship of the mother-in-law who hated her was more of an irritant than a help, and to complicate matters, the au pair announced that she had her period and was in too much distress to carry heavy baskets. Nevertheless, the marketing had to be done, and the grandmother held the hands of the little girls on the walk down the hill. The market was held in the village square, surrounded by chestnut trees, which provided dappled shadows and blessed shade to the stalls below. Rich perfumes of ripe fruits and vegetables mingled with the slightly rank odor of hanging game, the earthy notes of mushrooms, the sharp tones of herbs; thyme and rosemary, tarragon, oregano, sage; all bound with the shifting breath of salt-sea air. She wandered through the cool corridors between the vendors, the little girls and the grandmother trailing behind. She ignored the stream of advice from the older woman who had something to say about each and every purchase, but would be of little help in the final preparation. She strolled from stall to stall filling her baskets with supplies, distracted from her habitual pleasure in the colors and aromas of produce that seemed ready to burst with juice and life. Her belly felt equally ready to burst, heavy and aching and the occasional cramps stopped her in her tracks and had her faintly sweating.

Purchases accomplished, the little group set off back up the hill to the estate where they were renting the upper floor of the main house of a vineyard, owned by the resident family since the fourteenth century. The younger children of the family were all grown with families of their own and wished for some responsible presence on the property. They habitually rented portion of the house to visiting professors at the nearby Institute of Scientific Research, enabling them to safely leave their elderly parents in the spacious apartment on the ground floor.

Encumbered by the loads of purchases, she focused on the dusty path up to the estate. The shouts of vendors from the town square mingled with the high sweet peal of bells as the village church spilled families and countless diminutive black-clad widows out into the glaring sunshine. The whine of her mother-in-law’s voice melded with the Sunday clamor into an incomprehensible cacophony. Exasperated and panting, she stopped in her tracks and turned on her nagging nemesis. “For God’ sake,” she exploded, “Give me a break. I’m having contractions and–”

“The only reason you are pregnant–” hissed, in a rush of venom “is because he–”

The sentence remained unfinished; her hand landed in a mighty slap over the old bitch’s ear.

There was a roaring in her own ears, and she had an out-of-body moment punctured by the shocked gasps and “Ooh la-la’s” of sympathetic old ladies as they rallied to the defense of one of their own.

“I’ll tell him!” screamed the injured one. “I’ll tell him that I never touched you!”

“Go ahead. Turn the other cheek and I’ll slap that too!” Remorseless, she clumped up the hill, the old woman clutching her ear and sobbing, the little girls speechless.

She had slipped into the boulangerie on the way out of the square. Unnoticed, she secreted a rich chocolate truffle among the loaves of bread. Back at the house she squeezed past the au pair who was haunting the corridors in pale hormonal misery, and locked herself in the bathroom. Sitting on the edge of the notorious bidet; elated, guilty about excluding the little girls, she stuck her finger into the goo and licked sweet solace in solitary greed.

A couple of hysterical phone calls from his mother brought a disgruntled and sulky husband back from Paris. The tiresome wife had “ruined everything.” From then on the old woman scuttled behind the couch or the nearest piece of furniture and cowered pathetically every time the wife entered the room, pleading “Don’t hit me–don’t hit me!” in martyred whimpers, clawed hand pressed to the side of her head. She claimed from that day on to be deafened in her left ear.

“Why don’t you go to the doctor?” asked the daughter-in-law.

“Oy, oy–what will I tell him?” keened the victim.

“Tell him your daughter-in-law hit you,” snapped the unrepentant one.


From the darkening clouds of familial dysfunction emerged a ray of light. The injured matriarch, reduced to a cowering old lady, could no longer rely on large pieces of furniture to shield her from the unpredictable viciousness of her mad daughter-in-law, and decided to put the Atlantic between them. Back to Cape Town and eternal loneliness; half-deaf, unwanted, unloved, unappreciated and sadly abused. The daughter-in-law heaved a huge sigh of relief as perhaps (who knows?) did the husband, for he immediately disappeared back into that haven of justifiable distance provided by serious mathematical research. In blessed peace the remaining days of her pregnancy were spent mornings and evenings with the little girls, and afternoons, while the little one napped and the older one went to the beach with the au pair, downstairs in the cool, shadowed apartment of the owners. Here she conversed with the elegant old lady, discussing Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Proust and Madame’s great-grandmother, who had been a friend of Marie Antoinette. The anecdotes were fascinating. The funniest, recited with relish by her descendant, was of the ancient courtier’s demise. Surrounded by sobbing relatives, she allegedly raised her head from the pillows of her death bed and snapped “Taisez-vous, je suis encore la!” (Be quiet, I’m still here!”)

With the old man, she shared the couch in front of the huge color TV, learning French from the magnificently rolled r’s of Mireille Mathieu who daily warbled her way into his heart, the French singer who actually sang on key. During the commercial breaks the old roué would ply her with champagne from his cellars, lady fingers and whispered declarations of earnest desire, pinching her arm or cheek to convince her of his sincerity and vigor. His wife would walk in on them, shake her head and sigh; “Zut–les hommes. Tous pareils!” In any language: all men are the same.

For the birth she was in the care of the old lady’s youngest brother, chief gynecologist at the hospital in Marseilles. As usual, her labor was short and fierce. In the blinding whiteness of the tiled room, she sucked huge breaths of the offered oxygen, the pain red and roaring around her head and down her thighs. Oxygen, not anesthesia–this is what she craved, more energy, not less pain. The pain was proof of what she could endure and of what she was capable, proof that she was stronger than anything life could offer. Here was something that annihilated with vengeance the passive role she had assumed in this hollow marriage, all the pathetic yearning for love that would never be given. She needed to endure in silence this agony, just to prove that she existed. She heard the cries of other laboring women and wondered how they could waste energy screaming, when every ounce of her strength was needed; whole and intrepid, vibrating with blood and life and purpose, at the very center of this existential maelstrom, pushing this boy out into the world. The very table on which she lay vibrated against the tile floor, humming with the motor of intent that drove her.

Later that day the old lady visited, sitting at the side of her bed for as long as she could endure it.

“Forgive me,” she whispered, “but I cannot stay”. After sixty years the memories of childbirth were still unendurable. As she turned to go, she paused and looked back.

“My brother says you are very courageous.”

So where was her courage in her marriage? Was all her courage spent just in the enduring of it?

Because the child was a boy the husband brought her a gift, something he had not done when the girls were born. A bar of Toblerone.

The following morning a young Algerian woman was placed in the next bed. The girl panted and moaned and sobbed in the throes of labor. Her mother sat ringing her hands in helpless misery, dark patches of sweat staining her armpits. Fearful as the daughter, her cries were added to the pitiful lament.  Leaving her baby sleeping in the little glass-fronted anteroom at the side of her bed, the Jewish wife crept across the space between the beds and sat down beside the girl. She gently eased her onto her side and rubbed her back as the contractions came. She remained there, soothing and massaging until the orderlies came to wheel the girl into the delivery room.

Be the time the evening meal was served, the Algerian girl was back in her bed, pale and subdued. Her baby was still in the nursery. All three women gazed in silence at the muted television where the nightly news was airing. A thin, hesitant youth of around twenty entered the room and stood wordlessly at the foot of his young wife’s bed. His mother-in-law hissed at him in Arabic. Then she grabbed the husband’s arm, whipped the covers off the girl, and furiously pointed to the place between her daughter’s legs.

The young man’s spine arched and the blood left his face. His eyes swam as he sucked air and reared away from the bloody battlefield that had once been his comfort and bliss, just as the voices on the muted television rose to an agitated babble and Robert Kennedy fell to an assassin’s bullet. Across the room in the small black box, men in grey suits hustled and swirled in momentary confusion and the Algerian mother-in-law, still pointing, cried in triumph:

“Regardez bien!”

For the next two days the Jewish wife tried not to love her son too much; this incarnate soul who had arrived with the right appendage would belong to the husband and his mother. Oh, she was ready to “love him”, but not to be in love, subject to the overwhelming thrall that infuses the mother of a newborn. She wanted distance before severance could cut her heart. Her resolution lasted until the third day, when it melted, obliterated by tenderness when his mouth sucked and her womb contracted and her heart squeezed.

On the eighth day, her son was ritually mutilated, in strict accordance with the law:

“You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.”

Genesis 17: 11-12

According to the esteemed Howard Eilberg-Schwartz:

“Circumcision coincides with the end of a boy’s impurity caused by the mother’s blood at birth. The entrance of the male into the covenant thus occurs with his transition from female blood to male blood. The contrast between circumcision and the blood of birthing not only reflects the differences between the genders but it interprets them. Women’s blood is contaminating; men’s blood has the power to create covenant.”

But at this moment she was oblivious to the commands of the Torah, or the wisdom of learned men.

She sat in her bed and heard the cries of her son in the next room. Her womb squeezed painfully, her breasts were hot and feverish and agonizing needles shot through them as her milk ran down her ribs and pooled in the crease between her thighs. Her tears joined the flow and by the time the hiccupping infant was returned to her, milk and tears and blood had her clothes plastered to her flesh.

A bearded man, a stranger, tallit around his shoulders, came into the room and stood at the foot of the bed. His disapproving gaze raked her, his voice mildly contemptuous:

“Why do you cry? This is a mitzvah. A good Jewish wife would rejoice. The child feels practically no pain.”

“How do you know?” she wanted to ask.

The little boy’s pitiful hiccups continued to wrack his frame well into the evening, even as he slept. There was too much blood. Every time she changed his diapers and his dressings there was too much blood. The males dismissed her obvious hysteria, but after several more days, there was still too much blood.

“We must do something. This is not normal.” She told the husband.


“What do you mean ‘no’?”

“According to the Talmud, nothing must be done.”

“What do you mean ‘nothing must be done’?” By this time she was practically screaming.

“Survival of the fittest!” This in smug, righteous tones.

At this she decided to scream in earnest. Experience had taught her that emotion–any emotion–would wear him down. Excess emotion would undo him.

He agreed to consult the Rabbi.

The next day he told her to get dressed, and prepare the infant. They were going into Marseilles to visit a moyel.

It was only June but the day was hot and sticky. The dark chambers of the moyel were stuffy. There was little furniture in the room, just a narrow bed, covered in a white sheet.

She entered the room with the baby. The husband backed out of the door in unseemly haste, turned and rushed out without a word.

The old man was stooped and smelled of musty sweat. He seemed to be in his late seventies. His hands shook, and he looked indirectly at her as he ordered her to undress the boy and lay him on the bed. To her horror she watched him thread a needle with trembling fingers. The child was given no anesthesia, not even the spoonful of wine that was given at the ritual circumcision. He told her to hold the child still. In spite of her strength, her determination to shield him from unnecessary pain, the child managed, in his agony, to push his tiny, twelve-day-old body from one end of the bed to the other as the trembling old man sewed his penis.

At the end, they were all soaked in sweat. She wrapped the child and held him against her. The old man looked at her.

“You are very cool for a mother,” he chided.

“One of us in here needs to be cool.”

She turned and left. On the way down the stairs she opened her bodice and pressed the sobbing baby to her breast.

Her husband was nowhere to be seen. She closed the door behind her and sat on the stone steps that led to the street. The baby was sucking now in desperate gulps. She finally felt exhaustion wash over her in waves of dizziness. She did not know how long she sat there in the harsh sunlight, naked to the waist, breathing shallowly, her cheek pressed to the top of the child’s head. A passing woman, sleek and elegant, stopped, reached into her purse, then pressed some coins into her palm.

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2 Responses

  1. Jennifer StaceOctober 27, 2011 @ 6:43 amReply

    Thank you Joan…. tough stuff!!!

  2. Such beautiful and intriguing writing Joan. Your words and writing skills are so very you.
    I could feel the pain and the futility you experienced of being an extraordinary and
    brilliant artist-Goddess-woman-mother living in this small minded world. Dear Sister spirit,
    may you find all the success and joy of your creation you deserve.

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