In 1950's Brooklyn, sisters Rose and Pearl Weiss grow up in a loving but strict ultra-Orthodox family, never dreaming of defying their parents or their community's unbending and intrusive demands. Then, a chance meeting with a young French immigrant turns Rose's world upside down, its once bearable strictures suddenly tightening like a noose around her neck. In rebellion, she begins to live a secret life – a life that shocks her parents when it is discovered. With nowhere else to turn, and an overwhelming desire to be reconciled with those she loves, Rose tries to bow to her parents' demands that she agree to an arranged marriage. But pushed to the edge, she commits an act so unforgivable, it will exile her forever from her innocent young sister, her family, and all she has ever known.
Forty years later, pious Pearl's sheltered young daughter Rivka suddenly discovers the ugly truth about her Aunt Rose, the outcast, who has moved on to become a renowned photographer. Inspired, but nave and reckless, Rivka sets off on a dangerous adventure that will stir up the ghosts of the past, and alter the future in unimaginable ways for all involved.
Powerful, page-turning and deeply moving, Naomi Ragen's The Sisters Weiss is an unforgettable examination of loyalty and betrayal; the differences that can tear a family apart and the invisible bonds that tie them together.
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NAOMI RAGEN is the author of eight novels, including several international bestsellers, and her weekly email columns on life in the Middle East are read by thousands of subscribers worldwide. An American, she has lived in Jerusalem for the past forty years and was voted one of the three most popular authors in Israel. Her books include Sotah, The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, and The Covenant.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1956
Years later, when the terrible sins—both real and imagined—they had committed against each other had separated them seemingly forever, the sisters Weiss would remember that night very differently.
What really happened was this.
It was a Friday night. Crowded around the enormous, dark walnut dining room table that took up the entire living room were the immediate family (except for their two eldest brothers, Abraham and Mordechai, both off learning in an upstate yeshiva), a distant cousin who had just come over from Poland, and the usual pale, eager Talmud students who changed from week to week. Shining in their Sabbath finery, everyone sat up straight waiting for the meal to begin, hungrily eyeing the two large, handmade challah loaves—kneaded personally by Rebbitzin Bracha Weiss—resting in their place of honor covered by a gold-embroidered velvet cloth so as to shield them from the insult of the wine being blessed first.
Their mother, Rebbitzin Bracha Weiss, her arms filled with baby Duvid, settled Pearl, barely three, on the opposite side of the table from her in one of the big dining room chairs, although the child’s feet barely reached the edge.
“Really, Mameh…” their father, Rabbi Asher Weiss, remonstrated, shaking his head warningly. “You’re asking for trouble.”
He was a big, heavy man with a serious paunch who dressed in the black garb of the Hassidim, although he wasn’t a Hassid. But, by adopting their distinctive clothing, he felt that much closer to a holiness that secretly—and to his everlasting shame—consistently eluded him. Most importantly, he enjoyed covering himself in an outer shell that advertised to all his utter alienation from what he felt was the too-easy American lifestyle with its careless acceptance of life on earth, a life he was convinced was a heavy responsibility, a burden to be borne until he could, with thanks, relinquish it entering the World to Come.
Pearl squirmed. Ever since the baby had usurped her mother’s lap and arms, not to mention her crib, she had been indulging in strange outbursts of unpredictable behavior. Just the other day, she had absolutely refused to have her hair brushed and curled, compelling her exasperated mother to hold up scissors and threaten her with baldness.
“I can’t help it, Tateh,” Rebbitzin Weiss answered, not without her own doubts. “I just can’t squeeze her into that high chair anymore. She’s just too big. Besides, the baby is going to need it soon enough. She has to learn to behave herself sometime…”
They both looked anxiously at Pearl. But she seemed perfectly steady, perfectly content.
Walking around the table from child to child, Rabbi Weiss laid his large hands on their heads, murmuring a prayer. Rose nuzzled into them like a warm blanket of absolute love and protection: “May God make you as Rachel and Leah. May God bless you and watch over you, may His eye shine down upon you and give you peace,” he whispered, his eyes closed, his heart open. When he had thus blessed all his children, changing the prayer slightly for his sons (asking that they be blessed like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph), he slammed his open palm against the table the way a judge uses a gavel, signaling that the meal could begin.
“ Shalom Aleichem,” he sang, joined by the others, a prayer bidding farewell and thanks to the angels who had accompanied the men home from their synagogue prayers. Each verse was repeated three times, making it feel interminable, especially to the children and those whose stomachs grumbled with hunger. That was followed by Eshet Chayil mi Yimtza, “who will find a virtuous wife,” which sounded like a question but wasn’t.
Her price is far above pearls
Her husband’s heart trusts in her …
She saved for the purchase of a field and bought it
She planted a vineyard from the work of her hands.
Charm is false, and beauty is worthless.
A God-fearing woman is to be desired.
The song in her praise momentarily distracted Bracha Weiss from her worries on whether she’d flavored the chicken soup with enough salt or added enough water to the chulent to keep it from scorching overnight on the hot plate (a sojourn necessitated by religious strictures against cooking or heating food on the Sabbath). A small, satisfied smile played around her thin lips, her tired eyes lighting up. The young men joined in shyly, swaying slightly, their eyes closed as they imagined their future wives.
As the last notes faded, Rabbi Weiss lifted the crystal decanter of red wine, pouring the thick red liquid into an ornate silver wine cup given to him on his wedding day by a rich uncle who had engraved it with his own name, lest his largesse ever be forgotten. As was the custom, it was filled until several drops overflowed, running down the sides, striping the chilled, moist silver. Balancing the cup in the center of his palm, he carefully rose. Everyone immediately followed, except Pearl. Before anyone even noticed, she’d slipped out of her seat, rushing to her father’s side.
* * *
“ BARUCH…” Rabbi Weiss said, his eyes closed in concentration, swaying slightly as he chanted.
“ Baruch…” Pearl repeated.
He opened his eyes, surprised, staring down at her, then eyeing the rest of the table, especially his guests. Catching the tentative smiles that moved fleetingly across their faces, he allowed himself to exhale.
“ ATA…” he continued nervously.
“ ATA…” she repeated, louder and more insistently, intent, they all soon understood, not in participating but in taking over the ceremony. The warm smiles froze.
Had she been a boy, the scenario would have been quite different. Perhaps one of the men would have lifted him up onto a stool. Perhaps Rabbi Weiss would have allowed him to touch his arm, looking at him encouragingly, and everyone would have been delighted at this display of early saintliness on the part of a child so young and so eager to perform a religious obligation. But as it was, it was viewed as a sign of bad character and, even worse, bad upbringing, a female putting herself in front of a room full of men in a wanton and naked display of desire to be the center of attention—an anathema to any truly religious girl from a truly religious family. People sucked in their breath and wondered. Immodesty and brazenness were sure signs that Gentile blood had found its way into one’s veins.
Red bloomed in Rabbi Weiss’s pale cheeks as he sent a swift, accusing glance in his wife’s direction, then looked down at the child, shaking his head in stern warning.
“AHH … DOUGH … NOI!” Pearl shouted, oblivious, hopping from foot to foot as she claimed the spotlight, finally grabbing for the shiny magic cup filled with its delicious elixir. With a sudden, harsh movement, her father nudged her aside. Whether she grabbed his trouser legs to keep her balance, or lost it and fell heavily against him, the sudden shift caused the cup of wine to teeter sickeningly until collapsing on its side, splashing red, sticky liquid all over Reb Weiss’s elegant satin waistcoat, the white tablecloth, and, most of all, Pearl’s head.
The smack, swift and resounding, on her behind sent her howling around the table. She headed not for her mother’s fully occupied arms but for Rose. Pressing her small head into her six-year-old sister’s stomach, her short, chubby arms embracing her fiercely, she sobbed dramatically. Rose said nothing, hugging her back with all her strength. Then, she took a cloth napkin and tried to wipe down her sister’s dripping head.
“It’s forbidden on the Sabbath to use cloth!” her mother warned, giving her no other instructions.
Obediently, Rose put down the napkin and, without being told, led Pearl off to their bedroom, where they sat holding each other, rocking to and fro. “ Sha, sha shtil…” Rose whispered, until Pearl’s screams softened into sobs and then hiccups.
“Sticky hair!” the child moaned.
“It’s Shabbos. I can’t wash it. It’s not allowed.”
“STICKY HAIR!” the child wept hysterically.
“You shouldn’t have bothered Tateh during kiddush. It was very naughty,” Rose scolded.
Pearl’s cries redoubled, more indignant than pained.
“Well, if you stop crying, I’ll brush it for you,” Rose told her, even though that too was technically not allowed on the Sabbath since it was forbidden to pull out hairs. But the wide-toothed Sabbath comb would simply not do the trick, she realized, as she gently brushed the sticky purple knots from the long, blond strands, trying her best not to tug them too harshly.
“Tell me, Mamaleh,” Rose said softly, using her mother’s diminutive term of endearment for them both, “what were you trying to do?”
“To make kiddush and drink … the whole cup, like Tateh!” Pearl sobbed.
Rose put down the brush, her large, brown, intelligent eyes serious. Then, suddenly, she smiled, a small, secret smile of understanding and collusion. “You were thirsty?”
Pearl stopped crying. She nodded.
“If you let me change your wet clothes, I’ll bring you your chocolate milk. All right?”
The child nodded, sucking on her thumb.
Ever since Rose could remember, Pearl had been her special responsibility. They shared a room, the only two girls in a family with four brothers. She was an expert in preparing the drink, without which Pearl refused to go to sleep, knowing the exact ratio of cold milk and hot water to be added to the sweet chocolate powder. In addition, she knew just how to shampoo Pearl’s hair without getting soap in her eyes (she told her to look at the birds on the ceiling) as well as the exact spot that, when tickled, would send her into paroxysms of giggles, distracting her from the tantrums to which she was sadly prone.
Struggling with the buttons and zippers on her sister’s dress, Rose finally slipped the wet, cold garment down her arms and up over her head.
Pearl shivered. “Shoshi!” the child sobbed, using the family nickname, a short version of the Hebrew word “shoshana,” meaning “rose.” “Shoshi, bring pink pajamas. With the bunnies,” she demanded sleepily.
“In a minute.” Rose disappeared, returning with paper napkins, which she used to sop up the liquid still dripping down Pearl’s arms and back.
“I know. But you can’t take a bath; it’s Shabbos. Come into the bathroom, and I’ll rinse you off by the sink.”
But the water was cold. It was forbidden to use hot water on the Sabbath or to use a washcloth or sponge.
“ Gevalt! Gevalt!” Pearl screamed each time Rose cupped her hand with cold water and attempted to wipe her down, until Rose finally gave up, toweling Pearl off and bringing her pajamas. Gently, she pushed her little sister’s small limbs through the openings, finally closing the snaps. Tucking her into bed, she said: “I’m going to get you your bottle, Pearl. Just stay here and wait.” She tucked her gently into bed.
“Hungry,” Pearl said, throwing off the covers and standing up.
Rose hesitated, then took her hand and led her into the kitchen, hoping her parents wouldn’t notice. Sitting her down by the small kitchen table, Rose moved a stool over to the stove, then climbed up. Lifting the lid off the boiling pot, she felt the hot vapors scald her face. Bravely, she extracted a piece of chicken and some liquid, which she ladled into a bowl along with a carrot and some egg noodles.
“Here,” she said, carefully blowing on a spoonful, then offering it to her sister.
Pearl stubbornly clamped her lips shut. “By self!” she demanded.
Rose nudged the bowl in front of her, then handed her the spoon. “Here, take it, but eat slowly,” she warned, sitting down beside her, trying to forget about her own growling stomach.
“Oh, so there you are!” Rebbitzin Weiss exclaimed as she came into the kitchen. “You chutzpadika girl!” she exclaimed, wagging her finger and head at Pearl. “You don’t deserve any dinner! Such a thing! To interrupt your tateh in the middle of kiddush! To spill the kiddush wine all over the table!”
Pearl put down her spoon and howled into her soup.
“Oh! So now you’re crying? Vi m’bet zich ois azoi shloft men. When you make your bed, you sleep in it! Come, enough already with you tonight,” she said, scooping her up.
“But Mameh, she’s hungry!” Rose pleaded, following anxiously behind as a kicking Pearl was put down in her bed.
“Ach, she got wine stains all over your dress, too!” Rebbitzin Weiss said to Rose. “You see? You ruined your sister’s clothes and her Shabbos dinner, too! Such a naughty girl! Why can’t you be more like your sister?” she scolded Pearl, who in response suddenly stopped crying, bunching her small mouth together defiantly, her eyes slits of fury.
“Ach. What am I going to do with you? Never mind. Come already, Shoshi. Eat something.”
Reluctantly, Rose turned away, taking her place uneasily at the table. The fish and soup had already been served and cleared. She reached for the large steaming platter of chicken and roasted potatoes.
“She didn’t hear kiddush,” Shlomie Yosef pointed out. As a bar mitzvah boy in training, he was very frum.
As everyone knew, one couldn’t eat before hearing the blessing over the wine, and since everyone at the table had already heard it, no one could make it for her, as it would be taking God’s name in vain.
It was a problem all right.
“Tateh?” Bracha Weiss beseeched.
Rabbi Weiss looked out the window into the apartments of their neighbors to see whether any of them could still be joined for the blessing. But all around them, Sabbath nigunim, which preceded the final Grace After Meals that signaled the conclusion of the meal, were already being sung.
“She’ll have to make it for herself then,” he said irritably. Girls were not supposed to make kiddush for themselves, certainly not girls who were not even bat mitzvah yet, and certainly not in front of a room full of men, some of them strangers.
Refilling the silver cup, he handed it to her along with a prayer book, which he opened to the correct page, pointing to the words. Rose took the book in one hand and the moist, slippery cup in the other, steadying her trembling hands as she looked at the sparkling wine that teetered so close to the edge. She would die if she spilled a drop, she thought, panicking.
“ Baruch Ata Adonoi…” she began, slowly at first, then growing more confident. She had been learning how to read and write Hebrew since kindergarten but had never dreamed of saying kiddush on a Friday night in front of a room full of people! When she finished, a large “amen” resounded around the room.
“ Nachas.” Her father beamed, getting up and patting her on the head. “Now, take a sip, nuch!”
Just as she put the cold, smooth rim of silver to her lips, she saw Pearl standing in the hallway, watching her, a look of envy and betrayal contorting her features.
“MINE!” the child roared. “MINE, MINE.”
Copyright © 2013 by Naomi Ragen
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