Hebrew School was basically a constant holiday. They were always filing into the Lower Sequoia Jewish Community Center's Multipurpose Room, or going to the blue picnic tables in the middle of the North Wing. Their day was divided into "secular" and "Jewish" halves, but it was 100% limned with spiritual meaning.
Right now they were in the Multipurpose Room for Simchat Torah. They were reading from the last book of the Torah and then starting up again with the first one, to show that Torah study is a circle that never ends. The Lower Sequoia Jewish Community Day School interpreted the traditions from a respectful, modern point of view, so that everyone got to read--and not just males over 13--despite the obstacles of age and gender.
Almost all the fifth-graders took the Torah reading seriously. They wanted to get good grades. More importantly, they actually wanted to be good citizens. That's why their parents had sent them to Hebrew school. The students gargled out the ancient Hebrew syllables the way a nerdy kid would say black metal lyrics to himself, while riding a bike, alone. Sean Whalen was loud, Milton Frogman was theatrical, Julia Shapiro was crisp, and Complicity S___ was intense.
Indeed, the only student who didn't seem to be trying hard was Ferdinand Eisenberg. Ferdinand read the way he always talked: in a casual, mellifluous, sing-song tone of voice, like it was all a big joke, stumbling over words, no attempt to get the accent right. Actually, his account of God's creation of Heaven and Earth sounded like song lyrics too, if the song were not black metal, but some acoustic folk ballad from the 1960s that called for nonsense sounds during the chorus.
Complicity listened to the mispronounced Hebrew. Complicity wished she looked as nice as Ferdinand. Although one of the worst Hebrew students, Ferdinand Eisenberg had the best Semitic looks in the class. Complicity wished she didn't have to wear the stiff, ugly "formal" skirt that went to her knees. She tried not to pay attention to the way this supposedly "modest," supposedly "dignified" feminine attire, in fact, subtly robbed one of dignity, by leaving a huge gap between the outside world and one's tights-encased crotch.
"And God made the beasts of the earth in their kind, and cattle in their kind, and all the crawlers on the ground in their kind..."
As Ferdinand tried to read, Complicity translated in her head the words she already knew by heart.
When it ended, they lined up and filed towards the front of the Multipurpose Room to hang up their white-and-blue prayer scarves. Complicity went last. She listened enviously to the loud remarks of the boys just ahead of her. Along with their fringed prayer scarves, they seemed to have shrugged off the pious mood of the Torah service. However, a deeper piety underlay all they said.
"My dad says we're going to have pizza after practice today," said Matthew Ruff.
"I just got GT shocks on my bike," said Sean Whalen.
"Ooooh, someone is swearing," said Milton Frogman.
"I bet I can still do the highest 'wheelie'," said Luke Powers.
"That's nothing," said Ferdinand Eisenberg suddenly. He had been back here all this time, having attached himself to the main group of boys. "I can change into the female of any species at will."
They crowded in to see what he was doing. In no time, the line broke down. The class was in a state of commotion, and, once again, Ferdinand was at the center of it all.
"That's really wrong," commented Rachel Pierce.
"What is he doing!" exclaimed Sean Whalen.
"More like, 'what is he'," amended an unknown wag. It was Milton Frogman, Annas to his Caiaphas.
"Oh my gosh, would someone please tell me what's going on?" Complicity asked, struggling to see past her classmates.
"Geveret Adi, Ferdinand is misusing his tallit!" yelled Julia Shapiro from the cacophony of outraged and excited voices.
And indeed, he was. They parted to make room for the teacher, and Complicity saw that Ferdinand had wrapped his blue-and-white fringed prayer shawl around his waist, as though it were a sexy miniskirt. He gazed at them all demurely, from between long, glossy curls of black hair. He looked surprisingly convincing as a girl. Maybe even better than an actual girl, Complicity thought. Not that she was a good judge of this.
But the tallit! Everyone got silent. Everyone looked at the Ferdinand and the teacher. Another moral crisis, out of the blue--and a big one. It was like watching a huge killer whale jump out of the water. The front row was about to get splashed.
"Ferdinand! Do you grasp the meaning of the word RESPECT," said the teacher, not as a question. Her eyes flashed with righteous anger. The teacher was from Israel, and still relatively young.
"Um, yes," said Ferdinand. He batted his long eyelashes.
"No," said the teacher. "You do not grasp the meaning of the word RESPECT," she said.
"You say that you do, that's true," she continued. "Yes, your lips are moving up and down--oh but your actions"--her voice got deeper, richer--"your actions, in their own way, they say something else, don't they?" she mused rhetorically.
"Um," said Ferdinand. "Maybe I'm not in control of my actions?" he asked hopefully. He took the prayer scarf off his waist and began to wring it casually in his hands.
Obviously, that was the exact wrong thing to say. Ferdinand always misunderstood the seriousness of the situation--or seemed to. It was hard to figure out what Ferdinand was thinking. That was why they all feared and disliked him. That is, except for Complicity.
The teacher actually yanked the ceremonial garment out from between Ferdinand's fingers, in anger and alarm.
"WRONG answer," she cried. She was so angry that rhetoric almost failed her. "Let me tell you something," she eventually managed. "NOBODY in this classroom is allowed to evade responsibility for their actions!"
The teacher let out a grim chuckle. She tried to channel her anger away from the particular student and into an impromptu lecture.
"Whether your action is wrong or right, whether you're 'in control' of it or not," she said, "every action means something--so you'd better make sure it's intentional."
"So, for example, with this!" She pointed at Ferdinand's blue-and-white scarf, which she was now holding. "Do you know how many boys and girls--children not much older than you are--perished precisely for the right to wear this three times a day?" she asked. "Yes, perished--in firestorms, in wars--in in Germany, in Syria, in Lebanon--"
She trailed off regretfully.
She told them a story about someone--a long-ago friend--who was shot at the age of nineteen, wearing the same very same blue-and-white scarf as Ferdinand had been wearing. Did Ferdinand see what a terrifying responsibility it was for him to be able to wear the tallit at all, after that? Was it still an action over which he dared to relinquish control?
She concluded in a new, sober tone, calmer but even grimmer: "And for the rest of you--for the rest of your lives, you'd better remember to keep your actions intentional. Because no matter what, Death will take you in the end."
Complete silence. Everyone stood in place.
Complicity looked at Ferdinand. He was literally twiddling his thumbs. He reminded her of Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day, except with wavy long hair and more of a tan. Ferdinand Eisenberg was the second-least popular person in the class, after Complicity herself. What Complicity felt towards him could be described as a mix of condescension and admiration that made her vaguely excited whenever she thought about it. That was what it meant to be in love with someone, she thought.
Complicity's heart started to beat faster. She tried to stand so as not to feel the fabric of her ugly tights, or hear them scrape along her legs. How could someone like herself--a lame loser, a "crawler on the ground," as that Torah quote put it--experience such a soaring emotion?
The Christians said "God is love," Complicity knew. Could being in love actually change a person? Could it make them closer to God? Then, once you were closer to God, wouldn't God give you a sign, like by making you not as much of a loser anymore?
One brave hand shot out, in the stunned Multipurpose Room.
"Excuse me, Geveret Adi?"
"What is it, Complicity," said the teacher, wearily. She regretted having said that stuff about Death.
"Well," said Complicity slowly, "Maybe what you said to Ferdinand wasn't completely fair. I mean, maybe he wasn't being disrespectful."
The teacher didn't look amused. She didn't have that interested, tolerant look she usually had when Complicity was contributing to the class. At that point, Complicity didn't care, though. Saying his name gave her confidence. She wondered if that friend who was killed looked like Ferdinand.
"I mean, it only says in the Torah that we Jews need to wear fringes on the four corners of our garments, right?" Complicity explained. "But modern clothing doesn't have four corners. That's why we have the tallit in the first place, right? It's a ceremonial garment that has four corners."
"What's your point, Complicity?" asked the teacher, trying to get the students to make a line again, trying to get them back to class without incident.
"Well, my point is, according to the law, it shouldn't matter how the tallit is worn--as long as it is worn," said Complicity, resuming her position at the end of the line. "So, why was Ferdinand being less respectful when he wore it like a skirt? Is it because a skirt is something females wear? Isn't saying that--disrespectful to women?"
She thought of the demeaning skirt she was wearing.
"And like," added Complicity, inspired, "Isn't that why we have to read the Torah over and over again, in a never-ending circle? To learn not to impose our prejudices on its laws?"
The other kids looked at Complicity with mild interest. Would there be another whale?
The teacher raised her eyebrows. A wry smile had managed to lift the gloom from her strong features.
"Well," she said. "Now I see. Complicity--you would make a good professor one day. Feminism and critical theory and Jewish Studies--ha, ha, yes, I can certainly see it now."
She ruefully shook her head.
"What you have just said is known in the academic field as 'sophistry'," she continued. "Definition? It's the deliberate misuse of your critical thinking abilities to argue against the truth you see with your eyes."
The teacher paused a moment to enjoy her definition of "sophistry."
"But really, Complicity" she continued, "There's one reason you've cheered me up, and that's because you've shown that your motives are as fundamentally good as your methods were poor. The desire to defend your colleague is the best impulse a person can have. Ferdinand, you are very lucky to have a friend like Complicity."
She motioned for everyone to move along. Complicity felt like she was walking on air. In the hallway, she was so overwhelmed with emotion that, instead of staying at the back, she ran way ahead of everyone else. She marveled at everything, saw everything in a new light. This was how she sometimes felt after a really intense Torah recitation, except better. Like God was right there. The cracks in the asphalt outside their classroom were like the cracks that her own true personality made as it broke out of its flawed, ugly, and cowardly shell. Wordless music of joy and praise burst from her soul.
"Hey, uh, Complicity," she suddenly heard a mellow, surfer-accented voice say behind her.
Surprised, Complicity turned around. It was Ferdinand!
"You're like not supposed to run in the halls ahead of everyone else," Ferdinand said.
Ferdinand had run up to catch up with here, and these were the first words he'd ever addressed to her directly. For the moment, they were alone. Everyone else was about two building lengths away. At first Complicity didn't know what to say, but then wit and words came flowing out.
"I think that YOU are the one who is not supposed to be running in the halls," she said.
"Huh?" replied Ferdinand, seeming not to see Complicity at first. "No way," he said finally. "I don't care about mortal constraints. I can run so fast that it will seem like I'm teleporting."
Once again, Complicity was taken aback at first. Then it occurred to her that other people--kids her age, anyway--were always saying things like this. Things that didn't make any sense, things that were like an unfunny joke she didn't get. Ferdinand made everyone else feel the way that everyone else made her feel, she realized.
So she said, "That is physically impossible. People can only run like that in cartoons, and even then they usually show you that something is moving, like a blur or something."
That was the right answer, Complicity guessed, because next Ferdinand said, "Hey, I like you, Complicity."
Complicity probably blushed or something.
"I mean, you're fun to talk to," Ferdinand said.
Unfortunately, before they could finish their conversation, the rest of the class caught up with them. The other kids were deep in their pious talk again, and the teacher was trying to usher them into the classroom.
Sean Whalen was repeating a joke he had heard. "Frogman, your mom is so fat that when she sits around the house she sits around the house," he said.
Milton Frogman said, "Sure, but at least she's not as ugly as your own mother. Or those two over there--the two ugliest girls in the class, ha, ha."
He motioned to Ferdinand and Complicity.
"That's dumb. What an unoriginal comeback," said Sean Whalen.
But, for Complicity, it was too late. During lunch, later that day, she tried to enjoy playing imaginative games with Ferdinand and a bunch of second-graders, but she found that it was too embarrassing. The absence of rules in his games, their disturbing focus on female domestic life, and--most importantly--their lack of clear "winners" and "losers" made her confused and uncomfortable. Weren't these exactly the kinds of games the two ugliest girls in the class would play?
So she soon stopped talking to Ferdinand. God departed from her life forever.
She somehow ended up marrying Sean Whalen, the kid who had GT shocks on his bike.
One day, she talked to him about Hebrew school. "It's funny," she said. "We all believed so intensely back then. In God, I mean. It's like when you're on hallucinogens, and you start thinking, 'Oh no, what if the walls of this room are BURSTING WITH BUGS.' And then you think that, because you can imagine exactly what the bugs will look like in totally scary ultra-precise concrete detail, that, 'oh, the bugs MUST be real, why else would I see them so vividly.' You think that the intensity of your feelings means there's something outside of you that's causing them."
"The fallacy of Descartes, I believe," said Sean Whalen.