Novels, Short stories, Uncategorized

A Day Only for You

By Beatrix Koch

A Day Only for You

“Indeed, a twenty-year-old can dance the night away while his grandmother tires after a few minutes. But man was not created to dance for hours on end. Man was created to make life on earth purer, brighter, and holier than it was before he came…”  Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson

I.   

As soon as she saw the elegant envelope in the mail box, she knew that it must be about the prize. She was going to receive an award for her life’s work, as she had already learned from an email a month ago. Taking the elevator to the top floor, she stared into the mirrors on the sides of the walls at the envelope in her hand. They had been renting the big loft apartment since her two boys started studying at the Yeshiva boarding school. Her husband Gavriel was not at home, he was attending a biotechnology conference in Europe. As the elevator’s door opened softly, she entered the living room and placed the envelope on the bookshelf with all the art albums. She was not in a hurry to open it, so as not to break the magic of the festive moment. She stepped to the balcony door, looked over the marvelous city, and then took a few photos. Just like she did every morning and evening.

She opened her laptop and looked for the email from the Pulitzer Committee.  They had asked for a short movie about her life, which would be presented at the award ceremony. Looking for old photos and movies from the years before they moved to New York City, she found some pictures of Budapest, where their wedding took place. She closed her eyes and imagined what the movie would look like using these photos: the mystical Central European world must be in black and white. She couldn’t imagine Budapest in color, even in her childhood dreams everything was in black and white.

What no movie could tell was how she first met Gavriel. They had met in the main hall of the University of Technology in Budapest. She was walking up the century-old, shabby red stairs, counting them as always. Tamás, her boyfriend, noticed her and waved. He was talking to someone who stood with his back to her. When he turned around, she felt as if she had been struck by lightning.  That moment she knew that she was not meant to be with Tamás, that they never truly belonged to each other.

Gavriel was Tamás’s best friend from high school. He invited them both to visit him in New York, where he was studying. They did so during a hot summer and she wished she would never have to return to Europe, not without Gavriel. He lived alone in a small apartment, the rooms cluttered with his books. Loving him was like a stolen gift. Every single touch, smile and eye-contact was filled with electricity. Their feelings and emotions were so passionate that they couldn’t really hide them from Tamás, even though they tried. When they said goodbye to each other at the airport, Gavro embraced her so intensely that she understood how desperately he loved her.

A few months later Gavro travelled to Budapest to renew a permit for the USA. He called her on the day he arrived and they met in a downtown bistro, the “Tejivó”. Gavriel bought them two coffee mélanges with cream on top.  She watched him through her lashes as he stirred his coffee, noticing how quickly the cream melted away. Instead of drinking it, he just looked at her intently. He stretched his hand out to hold hers.

“I wanted to see you so badly, I missed you. New York is so empty without you. I know, it may sound strange but I have been in love with you from the very first moment I saw you.” Gavro sounded very serious. “I wanted to see you and hear that you love me too.”

Despite it feeling like they had seen each other only yesterday, months had passed since last seeing each other.

“I love you too Gavro, I have probably from the moment I saw you at the university with Tamás. Something happened this summer, and I couldn’t and won’t forget you. I broke up with Tamás immediately after coming back.” Gavro smiled, and she could see how sure he was about her response. But then his face turned tense and he was quiet for a while before breaking the silence with a little nervousness in his voice.

“Maybe you remember, I told you about my visit to the Lubavitch center.”

She nodded, she had wondered, after he mentioned it on their last call, why it was so important for him.

“I want to join this Jewish community and I would love it if you would join with me. If you don’t mind, I will tell you a few things about my childhood and I hope that you will understand my motivations afterwards.”

II.

She didn’t mind. Those moments matured their attraction towards each other into a strong and irrefragable bond.

“I did not know for a long time that my father’s family was Jewish, he never mentioned it to me. Surprisingly, when I turned thirteen, he told me that I needed to have a Bar Mitzvah. He took me to the Rabbi at the Dohány Street synagogue. The building looked like a palace from ‘One thousand and one nights’ amongst the old grey houses with its many colors, and the golden towers rising above its surroundings. Approaching from the side, I saw a tree with silver leaves in the garden. The whole scene with the synagogue and the mysterious morning sunshine was so unrealistic. I did not realize at first that what I saw was a monument. As I stepped closer I saw that the leaves were made from metal and names were written on them. The names of Jews that had died in the Shoah, as my father told me. The whole garden was a graveyard. We spent hours with the Rabbi, who was preparing me for the Bar Mitzvah. Actually, it was much better than I had expected. After that day, my father told me much more about his Ashkenazi Jewish family. He was born after the war and my grandfather did not tell him too much about his origins.”

She learned that Gavro’s family survived the Holocaust because his grandparents were still in the Ghetto when the war ended in Budapest. The relatives who lived in the countryside were not so lucky and never returned from the death camps.

While listening, she imagined Gavro’s father as a young man in 1960’s Budapest in the middle of the cold war, and she understood why the family wasn’t too religious. It was not clever to stand out from the grey mass. Gavro was an only child, his father a doctor and his mother a lawyer. They lived in the “Lipótváros”, in a big apartment that Gavro`s father inherited. Their home was filled with souvenirs the parents bought during their trips.

In the 1980’s a whole family were not allowed to travel together to a Western country, so Gavro stayed with his maternal grandparents on the Buda side of the city when his parents travelled. As a little child, he could already feel the unexpressed but very real tension between the Jewish boy from downtown and the bourgeois catholic girl from Buda. Gavro loved both worlds. He loved the Pest side with the enormous Basilica and the Danube. From the riverside, the view to the Buda side with the castle and the terraced streets of the “Víziváros” was beautiful.  Visits on the Buda side were mostly on weekends and during summer holidays.  After the Bar Mitzvah, Gavro was more aware that he had a part in his soul which was hidden from his friends and even more from his grandparents. And as the years went by, he felt that he belonged more to his father’s family and the sunny weekends on the Buda side became more and more shallow.

She just loved the way Gavro spoke about his childhood and was not prepared when he suddenly changed the topic and began to talk about the Lubavitch community and how he had found his faith there.

“I used to read books about Judaism, and we also have relatives in Israel whom we visited with my father” continued Gavro. “But still, some of the orthodox Jews were convinced that I was not really Jewish, even though I had my Bar Mitzvah. The worst part was that I couldn’t fit into the non-religious world any more. I visited a Lubavitchi Rabbi in New York and he told me a very simple parable about why I had the right to live a life based on the Torah. He told me that in the ancient Israel, every citizen lived on a particular piece of land inherited from their ancestors. If somebody sold the land, in the year of Jubilee, the ownership of the land reverted to the original owner. A Jew cannot escape their birth right, whether it is a piece of land or their spiritual inheritance. A man with Jewish inheritance can deny his religion and the Torah, and he can leave his faith, but the Torah will never leave him. Instead, the Torah will return to him. If he rejects it again and again, the Torah will return to his children, and his descendants.” Gavro paused and looked into her eyes.

“And this child is you, isn’t it?” she asked Gavro as she understood the logic and beauty of how he found his faith again.

“Yes, this child was me. Perhaps you know that in Judaism the origin of the mother is what counts. So, for me with only a Jewish father, I had to face a greater challenge than if I was born to a Jewish mother. It is good though, as I have the freedom to decide whether I want to or don’t want to fulfill my mission. Judaism became natural to me, when I listen to Jewish prayers, I feel like my soul has returned home”.

Gavro was silent as he knew that everything he had said was very serious and that it would force her to make a decision. She was also speechless, as Gavro shared his most intimate secrets with her and she found herself unable to respond. She loved Gavro the way he was. And she knew Gavro wanted her to follow him in his faith. She glanced gently at Gavro.

“Gavro, thank you for telling me. I need you to give me some time to think about it all”.

III.

What she needed was time, indeed. This year was her final year at university and she had to finish her thesis. She was her doing diploma work at the architectural faculty; she spent a lot of time drawing, making sketches. During the hours of design, her thoughts were always with Gavro. The sketches and the lines seemed to bring life to their common future.

After this chat in the “Tejivó,” they met a lot. Wherever they walked or when they were sitting in a cafe or resting on a bench, the words were inexhaustible between them. As they planned their future, they felt that it was the most fantastic thing that they could share with each other.

One of their dates was at the “Gerbaude” confectionery, Gavro was already sitting on the terrace when she arrived. He took a little blue jewelry box out of his pocket, put it on the table between them. There was a silver swan engraved on the top of the box.

“Open it, it is yours” he said softly, looking at her.
She smoothed the velvety blue material, the soft, shiny silver surface on the swan. She opened it slowly, it clicked as it opened. The box contained a ring of silver, polished, with a crystal embedded in it. She looked amazed at Gavro.

Gavro smiled at her, and asked: “Will you marry me?”

She was surprised, but overwhelmed by his love.

“Yes, yes, I will!”

“Please let me put it on your finger.  When I come back in the summer, we can get married.” He put the ring on her finger and she gazed at the sparkling crystal.

She was looking forward to the day when they could finally marry and it was hard to bear his absence. But his absence also gave space for her own feelings and made place for her faith.

When her conversion began everything was so exciting, but the process was long. Being Jewish means belonging to an ancient culture.

During visits to orthodox rabbis and counsellors, they returned to the obstacles and difficulties again and again. They explained how difficult it is to live as a Jew, as if they wanted to talk her out of the conversion. From the rabbis’ side it was like a test, because they wanted to be sure that a truly Jewish soul was living in her.

 “You may now be magically affected by everything you learn about the Jewish religion, because you don’t have the burden and inheritance that people born as Jews have,” said the wife of the rabbi in Budapest on one occasion.

Finally, the long-awaited sentence that made the breakthrough and opened the way to her conversion was said:

“If you feel you want to become Jewish, even after multiple objections, you have to take care of it seriously,” said her counsellor.

From the outside, everyone thought that she had given up her life for Gavro and they doubted her conversion was sincere. In the Lubavitch community, however, they did not question her motives. Faith and the beloved man belonged to each other.

She picked up photos of Hanna and Eszter, her two friends, from the year when she waited for Gavro. They lived together in an apartment in Buda for almost a year, close to the “Gesztenyéskert”, a big park with chestnut trees. They often walked there, talking.

 “You must know, your soul hasn’t really become Jewish, you have always been a Jew,” said Eszter one day in the park, while enjoying the rays of the setting sun. “No one has converted, nothing has changed, the spark of faith has always been in you, you just didn’t know for a long time. You were looking for your own path, which eventually led you to Judaism.”

She asked Eszter why she had turned back to her roots. “During my childhood my family did not talk about being Jewish, I only learned about my Jewish inheritance after primary school. When I was in high school, everyone in the classroom knew who was Jewish among us. Some of our classmates were explicitly hostile to this topic. After one unpleasant conversation, I ran home overwhelmed. My mother asked me why I was so upset. After telling her, she sat down beside me and told me the story of my grandmother’s escape.”

As she was listening to Eszter, she could imagine the story unfolding in front of her like a movie.

“My mother was only three years old when she and her younger sister were left alone at home. Their Mom, who was expecting her third baby, went away. They didn’t know where and for how long she’d stay away. The truth was that their mother, Relli, was looking for her own mother in the Ghetto where many Jewish people lived. When she arrived, the guard let her in. Everything looked so strange and she was upset. She found her mother and her relatives there and stayed with them for a while. They did not know that they’d say goodbye to each other forever. They did not know that Relli’s children would miss one half of the family forever. There would be no grandmother, aunt, cousin in their lives. The policeman didn’t want to release Relli from the Ghetto anymore. There was a doctor among the people who helped Relli escape. ‘You should say that your birth pains have begun, they will let you go to the hospital.’ The advice worked well, Relli went to the hospital where she was finally safe. From there she returned home to her daughters.” Eszter held her breath for a moment, but then continued the story.

“My mother told me later that she remembered her Grandmother well. Her Grandma was a dressmaker and lived in the country, in a little house where one could always hear the clicking sounds of the sewing machine. When she left, my mother was crying. Her Grandma said, ‘I’ll get you a Pindurka doll’ which was a fairytale figure in a storybook that my mother loved. She never got it.”

The story was both beautiful and sad, and it was strange to think about how many untold family stories would never be written.

IV.

She had grown up in the countryside, in a lovely town where the mountain hugged the city from the north. Her parents were both teachers in the local high school, she and her sister were often taken out for hikes and they often climbed up in the narrow forest ways together. She can still smell the forest, the fresh breath of pine trees, when she thinks about it. 

Their house was filled with antique furniture and books. Everything was about books, teaching and private students, who rang politely, came in, sat down and studied with her parents for hours. She was so jealous of these lessons because her parents behaved in a completely different way with the students. She never heard them speak to her the way they did to them.

Sometimes she felt that if she and her sister had not been born, their parents would have lived the same way: in the late years of socialism, embedded in solid civilian elegance, escaping to the tower of knowledge, with a good glass of wine and a high-quality book.

As she later heard, it was well-known among the students that their parents didn’t want children. She asked her mother, the night before she went to college, if it was true. Her mother looked at her surprised as if she had seen a shadow; obviously she never thought the children would hear it.

“Your Dad always wished for kids, I wasn’t sure if I could be a good mother. Then your father convinced me that I wouldn’t have to do anything, he would take on everything that was discouraging me from raising children. That’s how he and his parents helped me and I could live for teaching, of course with the blessing that I had two wonderful daughters.” Her mother looked at her apologetically as if she wanted to take a full life with her glance.  She hugged her mother for long, strongly, because she didn’t know what to say. She was a wanted-not-wanted child, rather her father’s daughter than her mother’s.

Her family was not religious, but she went to church from time to time, when her friends were singing in choirs. One of her most beautiful concert experiences was connected to a synagogue. In their city there was a choir competition, and it was not possible to go anywhere on the streets that summer without bumping into people from foreign choirs, they were singing everywhere. The streets flooded from the heat of the mediterranean city and the mystery of the music itself. She and her friend were walking when they noticed that the synagogue with the iron fence, which had been dead quiet at other times, was now full of life.

They arrived just in time to get inside through the huge, solid wooden door that stood open now. The cool air stream, the excited expectation and the magic melody of the vocals that finally intoned in perfect harmony, made the moment unforgettable.

V.

On the wedding day, her hair was supposed to be cut off . One by one, her hair covered the floor around her, she was staring at an alien face in the mirror and shaved hair on the ground. Eszter put the wig on her head and adjusted it, she looked almost the same again though she still felt deprived of something.

She loved her own rich, healthy, soft hair, which she always liked wearing in different styles. Until now, she hadn’t wanted to think about the time she would have to shave it. She knew it was a religious duty. Even though she listened to the Rebbetzin several times, she could not feel excited about this duty.

A woman’s hair radiates blessing outward,” she heard the explanations, “but if she covers her hair, she protects herself and her family. And then the blessing remains on her and her family.” This explanation was interesting, but she couldn’t identify with it completely.

Another interpretation was that female hair carries a sensitive force that can only be revealed to the husband’s eyes. She liked this theory much better because it created a totally special world, for only two people, Gavro and her. “Covering your hair is the strongest symbol of belonging to your husband,” she remembered the words of the Rebbetzin.

She graduated from university and after three months of waiting, they both got ther visas and could go back to New York. The district where they moved to in New York had long been a residential area for the Lubavitch Jews. It was a city in the city, both a closed and expanded world. She was an outsider, because nothing bound her there yet, but being a stranger gave her excatly the safety she needed. She didn’t have to explain things, people didn’t look at her curiously on the streets like in Budapest. Old friends didn’t question her.

Gavro suggested that she should go to the Chabad Center, where she could find programs. She registered for a seminar titled “The essence of Chabad’s faith.

“Faith cannot be learned or discovered. Much more precisely: it must be revealed. Faith in the Eternal is not a logical decision that man makes.” She heard the words as she was approaching the half-open door. The rabbi who spoke was still relatively young, with a large, thick beard darkly framing his face, his eyes smiling as he spoke to the young people in the room. She took a seat quietly so as not to disturb the rabbi presenting.

Next to the rabbi sat a woman who was watching the rabbi intently, and occasionally her gaze would fix on the audience. The woman, as she soon learned, was the wife of the rabbi. At the end of the performance, the woman came to her, and introduced herself. When it turned out that it was her first time in the Chabad Center, the Rebbetzin invited her over to her home where they could talk comfortably.

Rachel was just as youthful at home as she had seemed before, but now it was easier for her to believe that she was a mother. The smallest girl was always with her, in her arms.

“I had to find my own way,” said Rachel, “maybe it sounds weird, but I felt like I found myself when I accepted myself. It is sometimes painful if we stay alone in this search. I like the word ‘Mitzvah’, which means not only to be obedient and compliant with the rules, but it also includes everyone’s own calling, and the connection with the Eternal. If you look at it this way, you can always look forward to the purpose and not the task.”

The words just spoke to her. In her life, she looked at everything as a task. But photography helped her speak the language she wanted most.

VI.

The Pulitzer Prize Committee wrote in the email: “Your interesting and remarkable life story lead us to invite you to make a short film for the evening of the Celebration, from which we can all get to know you more.

She glanced into the distance. “My interesting life? Everything was about Gavro, I did everything for him. If it wasn’t for Gavro, then this letter would not be here either,” she thought.

How did her passion for photography begin? They lived in New York for a long time, Gavro was very busy and she wanted to do something meaningful. Their neighbor’s daughter was the first one she photographed. And then she visited the Hasidic Quarter, knocked at bookstores, shops, synagogues, and asked if she was allowed to photograph their objects, clothes and business. And of course, the people themselves. The faces, like a written letter, reflected their stories. Since then it has been a part of her life.

She searched for the very first photos. She took the box full of photos that she hadn’t digitized yet, photographs from everyday life: accessories, wigs, headscarves, long-sleeved blouses, skirts.

After she had photographed the Hassidic Quarter in New York, one of the pictures was placed on the front page of a famous magazine, capturing a young woman as she directed the flame of Sabbath evening candlelight towards herself. The woman made the traditional circular motion, both hands shuddering slightly, therefore the blurry hands created a veil in front of her face, her eyes are closed. She likes this picture the most because she always experiences the magic of the Sabbath when she looks at it.

Good photography needs a good eye, you have to catch the moment and be a good observer. You have to see the lights and the shadows. Sometimes you just watch and hold your breath back to understand what is in front of you. Perhaps this was the reason why she sometimes noticed the unspoken thoughts on people’s faces.

After a while, Rachel offered her a job at the school, to teach visual arts to girls.

“When these little girls come to school on the first day, they are full of dreams and plans. I like watching them when they talk, draw and write down what they would like to do after school on project days, what kind of life they imagine. They have so many fantastic plans! But with our traditions, we can dash the dreams slowly. That’s why I am glad that you can show them a hiding place in their rigorous rules of life, through which they might find their lost imagination once again.”

Actually, she was not a teacher and had never taught before. Rachel’s words were shocking because she felt the same for the little girls when she glanced into their eyes. Sometimes, when the lens caught their dreamy gaze or wide open eyes, she knew that she was recording a moment in their lives that contained much more than what they would ever show to the adults.

VII.

That year, when she started teaching, was the hardest time in her relationship with Gavro. They lived in a suburban area in a big house which was empty for most of the day; the kids were in school, Gavro worked. At this time Gavro changed jobs, but he was not satisfied with the new one. He applied for new jobs, was interviewed, traveled, all at a high cost. He was uncertain about his future and his career. He became quiet, introverted and was not interested in family life. She tried to shake him at first; they talked for hours about what kind of a future they wanted together. But the words always fell back in the exact place where they started the conversation.

Then something happened that pushed them out of this estrangement. Gavriel got a new job – a job that had always been his dream. He changed within days; he was full of joy again. She and the kids got him back. They moved to the city near the Lubavitch center. Rachel told her later that she saw the need of a new commitment to each other.

“The All Mighty made a man and a woman in marriage with a covenant that is similar to the three ropes that are already strong in themselves. The ropes seem to be strong while they are new, but as the years go by, they wear out, and some threads break. We will not notice this until the three ropes are twisted anew. When our human efforts seem to be pointless, this rope is still strong. I had a hard time in my life, when I didn’t feel the triple rope, and I didn’t even approach the Eternal, I couldn’t take the first steps. But the All Mighty took his steps towards me, even when I felt so miserable”.

She blushed as she listened to Rachel. Indeed, their connection seemed to be stronger than ever before. Sometimes she felt they were given a new opportunity from the Eternal to fall in love again. She learned something else during this hard time, discovered something about how it felt when Gavro wasn’t really part of her life.

She was looking for some Klezmer music when she remembered what it was like when she first heard this music. Gavro and she went to a Klezmer evening in Budapest. The sounds of the violin, accordion and the clarinet created an ancient, deep mysterious atmosphere, filling the air with waves of joy and sadness. This music can’t exist without tears, the tears of sadness and of hope.

This day was a whole day without Gavro, tomorrow he would be here and they would open the letter together. One day alone, one day only for her. She finished the film as it turned to evening. The evening descended in such a special way in the city tonight, dressed in scattered lights. There were orange, purple and yellow lights on the walls of the houses. She heard sounds from the hallway, the door opened. It was Gavro, tired from the long flight. He had caught the earlier flight.

Big thanks to Candice Mitchell for the editing

All rights reserved

Photo credit: Diana Polekhina, free stock photo

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