‘When a woman has her regular flow of blood,
the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and everyone who touches her will be unclean until evening.’
A MONTH BEFORE they left for Australia, just after Gorbachev was elected and her father had succumbed to another of his depressions, Lora got her period. It was summer, and the dacha they were staying in was sultry – blossoming, buzzing, overflowing with ripe bees, yellow cherries and warm sunflowers. As she lay in a rotting wooden shed, Lora felt like an exaggeration of the life outside. Her flesh too was buzzing, over-ripe. Her body was expanding against her will, pouring from the inside out, and she could do nothing, not even get up. There was no control, just those awful cramps in her lower belly.
Nadia came in without knocking, carrying her sweaty, fat body. She towered above to inspect the sheets; lowered her face to sniff. ‘Congratulations, dochenka! God bless you. Finally you’ve got...eto delo, this thing...’
This thing: her mother, once a lecturer in linguistics, couldn’t even properly name what Lora had. Since God had come into their lives Nadia had lost her university job, and along with it her rich vocabulary, ridding herself of such obscene words as ‘menstruation’. However, due to habits from her previous life, or perhaps because of the shortage of washing machines in Odessa, Nadia still washed her bloodstained underwear, large as sailcloth, at the kitchen sink. The air would smell of the sea – all fish and rotting seaweed. Nadia’s body would flood their tiny apartment for days till the end of her menstruation, always marked by her brief disappearance to perform mikvah, the female cleansing ritual. Only then, when Nadia was no longer impure and a risk to her husband, would her parents’ single beds be rejoined. Only then would Lora’s appetite return.
‘A Jewish woman,’ Nadia had recently told Lora at the bloody sink, ‘is the keeper of a family’s purity.’ She raised her wet finger. ‘The health of the husband and children depends solely on the woman.’
But Lora didn’t want that responsibility, didn’t want eto delo, that curse, that red river that would soon flush her out of childhood to become a woman like her mother – to hide her cropped hair under thick headscarves, to smell of exhaustion and kosher salami. Didn’t want her underwear displayed in the kitchen sink.
Nadia handed her some cotton rags: ‘Put them in your trusi, panties.’ Lora felt sick at the sound of the word; in her mother’s mouth it too sounded filthy. Lora spotted some corn stuck between Nadia’s teeth. If only she could erase that cocky smile from her mother’s fat, fat face! She decided to never walk out of that shed again.
THE PROBLEM WITH God is that you can never get rid of Him completely. At nineteen, when Lora left her parents’ Melbourne home for Sydney, she’d assumed that was it. She roasted pork and partied hard on Shabbat nights. It took her a while to stop waiting for a heavenly punishment which never arrived.
But God has a tendency to re-emerge throughout life’s turning points. Here is Lora, at twenty-seven, in the house of one of His representatives.
‘She won’t take my name, Rabbi,’ Adam, her husband-to-be, complains jokingly. Lora pokes him in the ribs.
‘Know what? I don’t blame her,’ the Rabbi, in his twenties and looking like Keanu Reeves with a beard and a black hat, tries hard to entertain them. Not even feminism puts him off. Perhaps he has decided to repackage faith to draw the crowds back to his diminishing synagogue. ‘Listen, Adam, if I had a Russian surname, I wouldn’t change it either. There is something about these sounds: Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky...’ Rabbi Keanu rolls his Latino-intense eyes upward.
They’d chosen him not just for his artistic aspirations, but also because he didn’t bother to ask whether the wedding’s catering would be kosher. If only her mother understood such lightness. When lighting all six Shabbat candles with a single match, as Orthodox law requires, Nadia would tighten her lips into a pale thread and hold her breath. Perhaps she suspected God was looming over her shoulder, rating the virtuosity of her fingers.
‘One more thing,’ the Rabbi tells them. ‘I can only marry you guys if Lora does mikvah. You know, before her wedding the bride has to immerse herself in a pool.’
‘Yes, yes, I know – I went to Beth Rivka,’ Lora cuts in impatiently. All those tormented years of religious schooling: he shouldn’t think he’s speaking to a novice. In fact, her education on purity laws had begun even earlier.
The first public place Lora got to know in Melbourne was the mikvah house. Her father, overwhelmed by their new Australian life in a housing commission flat, had sunk into his mood, as Nadia called it. Refusing to take his medication, for days he lay flat on an iron bed donated by the Jewish Council. Lora had to accompany her mother to register with the local mikvah house.
They walked for about fifteen minutes along Alma Road. Lora liked the discreetness of this quiet, leafy street, so different from Odessa’s wild sidewalks punctuated by open gutters and people escaping the claustrophobia of their stuffy apartments ridden with bedbugs, extending onto the street all their intimacies. Only Lora’s family kept to their apartment and the secrecy of their ‘anti-Soviet prayers’, as the solemn KGB official called their Jewish rituals just before her mother lost her job.
The mikvah house was neat, with wooden floors. It was supervised by an older Polish rebbetzin, a rabbi’s wife, who spoke to them in good but abrupt Russian while looking intently through the French doors of her office onto a garden brimming with white lilies, as though that tiny, groomed piece of land contained the secrets of feminine purity.
The rebbetzin showed Nadia a small, pristine cloth: ‘You wrap this around your finger. Don’t worry – it’s very soft. Then you...insssert it.’
Her mother listened silently, as though she was a newcomer not only to Australia but also to religion. It was assumed by local Jews that all Russian-Jewish migrants were ignorant of biblical traditions. Why didn’t her mother tell this woman she knew the stuff? Why was she always so meek around everyone here? Lora felt sick.
‘Then you puuull it out and check it for stains. You do it every night the week after your period has finished, to be sure you’ve stopped bleeding before you do the mikvah. Every night you insssert and puuull.’
To emphasise her message, the rebbetzin formed a circle with her left thumb and index finger, wriggled the cloth deep into the hole, then sharply withdrew it and brought it to her spectacled nose. Nadia watched her with the resignation of a rabbit hypnotised by a python.
The rebbetzin paused for another thoughtful examination of her garden. ‘If the stain is brown like this’ – she pointed at a terracotta pot – ‘then you’re still impure. Understand?’ She moved closer to Nadia. ‘So you have to again insssert the finger...oh, pardon me, the cloth.’ She snuck a quick glance at Lora.
‘If it’s pale yellow’ – she pointed at her tea roses – ‘then it’s just the usual discharge.’
‘But if you’re not sure, meydale’ – the rebbetzin gave Nadia her first smile – ‘you can drop the cloth in our mailbox, and the rabbi will check it. You know’ – she leaned over in a confidential manner, probably taken by Nadia’s apparent admiration – ‘at least seventy per cent of the enquiries my husband receives are to do with this stuff.’
Lora imagined the rebbetzin’s husband seated on a plastic chair in their garden with a pile of envelopes on his lap. Squinting at the sun, he would open them with a paperknife, puuull out brown and yellow cloths, press them tight to his nose, roll his eyes up with pleasure and write on each cloth with red ink: pure...impure...pure...impure...
‘Stop giggling.’ Nadia nudged Lora with an elbow.
‘Never mind, meydale, never mind. She’s too young to understand,’ the rebbetzin murmured. As they left, she brushed a finger over Nadia’s cheek: ‘You’ll see – when you come out of the mikvah it’ll have all been worth it. You’ll hear the angels singing.’
And then, though perhaps her memory is playing tricks on her, Lora remembers seeing Nadia quickly wiping her eyes.
RATHER THAN BEING impressed with the Orthodox upbringing Lora once endured, the rabbi seems somewhat disappointed. Perhaps he’s wondering how such a respectable institution as Beth Rivka managed to produce this blue-nailed, big-mouthed creature whose tight jeans won’t let you overlook even the smallest curve of her flesh. To lighten the atmosphere, he tries a sexy wink: ‘Unfortunately, lovely Lora, the rabbinical requirement is that even talmidot hahamot, clever students of the Bible, like yourself, have to attend a bridal lesson with the mikvah house supervisor the day before the immersion, to discuss how to do this properly. But don’t worry – Rebbetzin Goldman is an easygoing chick, used to secular brides. With her – how do you count in Russian? – raz, dva, tri and you’re done! Horosho?’
Soon, Lora thinks, he’ll break into the kazachok. Are things really that bad in the religion market? She should have insisted on a civil marriage.
Adam smiles at her tensely. With all these memories flooding back, selfishly she has forgotten about him. She can’t cancel, can’t do this to him.
Adam, who grew up in Redfern, had no idea he was a Jew until a schoolmate pointed it out to him while breaking his front tooth. She understands why all this Jewish wedding business is such a big deal for him. In his place she’d probably be seduced too by the hope of finally belonging somewhere. Still, Lora hopes his recent talk of ‘going back to his roots’ and ‘digging inside his Jewish soul’ is merely a passing phase. From her experience, when people start all this spiritual gardening, they risk weeding out their own selves in the process. Her parents come to mind again. In Odessa, she watched them discard their opera records, their copies of the classics. She watched her once-shapely mother expand with challah bread, with babies, with worries. Eventually Nadia reached the size of their neighbour Dusya, the one who called them bloody Yidsbehind their backs.
She writes down the address of the mikvah house.
TO BE FAIR, lately God isn’t the only one who has been getting on Lora’s nerves. During a lecture on French feminism it dawns on her that Sky Smith, the gender studies lecturer, reminds her of one of the Beth Rivka teachers, Mrs Leibowitz. The similarity isn’t external: Sky Smith isn’t into wigs. The strident urgency in her professorial voice – as though the lecturer’s very existence depends on the rightness of her words – brings back the memories.
‘A w-o-m-a-n,’ Sky Smith announces to the world, or rather to the bunch of angry-looking women in their twenties, ‘is al-ways se-ve-ral.’
Once, after morning prayer, Lora had asked Mrs Leibowitz: ‘In men’s prayers they say “blessed are you for not making me a woman”. So why should women worship God too? Obviously, he doesn’t think much of them.’
‘It’s actually not true, Lora.’ Mrs Leibowitz spoke to her very slowly, even though by then Lora had mastered English. ‘Judaism considers women to be more spiritual than men. This is why we must keep only three mitzvas: light Shabbat candles, bake challah and keep the purity laws. See, men merely thank Hashem for making them work harder, for giving them six hundred and thirteen mitzvas to keep.’
‘But that doesn’t make sense,’ Lora ventured. ‘If women are more spiritual, then they should thank God for not making them men.’
‘What did they teach you in Russia?’ Mrs Leibowitz sighed and got up, summoning everyone back into class.
‘Men have always criticised us for our inconsistencies of thought, for our moodiness,’ Sky Smith trills. ‘But I say our contradictory nature is our strength. Our thinking is as complex as the layers of our vaginas, far more sophisticated than the simplistic male logic that reflects the structure of the penis.’
The realisation that it is not just the rabbis and rebbetzins who desire to reduce her to her biology, but also her adopted spiritual mothers, makes Lora’s stomach ache. She observes the fervent scribbling of her so-called peers. Was her independent thinking limited to the years at Beth Rivka? She gathers her books and leaves the lecture theatre.
AT HOME, ADAM doesn’t look her in the eye: ‘Honey, listen...your mother called. She’s coming tomorrow to join you at the bridal lesson...Hey, don’t be cross with me. Not my fault!’
Lora sinks, tight-lipped, into the sofa.
‘What is it with you? You’re so moody lately. Is it this mikvah business? You know, I looked it up on the internet. At least you get to have a swim.’ He smiles at Lora.
‘A swim. Do you know that I’ll be walking to the ritual pool naked? The supervisor will be watching me from her post above, like some fucking prison guard! Her job is to make sure I’m totally immersed. I can’t hold onto the pool walls for support, have to squat like a frog under the water. She’ll even check my nails for dirt, so that nothing separates my body from the water. Get the humiliation?’
‘I see...but, honey, less than an hour and finito la commedia!’
Finito la commedia. All this spiritual gardening and still he’ll never be able to understand the tragicomedy of her past.
‘Time isn’t the point! Do you think I left Balaclava just to end up being controlled like its women?’
She doesn’t add ‘like my mother’.
UNACCUSTOMED TO SYDNEY’S hot spring, Nadia waits for Lora at the airport red and damp, clutching numerous plastic bags. Never having had the money for leisurely travels, Nadia hasn’t acquired a taste for suitcases. Her wavy blond wig makes her look like a fat Barbra Streisand. How misplaced she seems outside Balaclava’s enclave of immigrants and religious Jews, Lora thinks. A Babel of accents, with its ubiquitous synagogues, kosher butchers and cramped gift shops selling Israeli jewellery, that neighbourhood framed Nadia perfectly. But under the metallic shadows of Sydney’s airport complex, with its gigantic posters of beauties in lingerie, and its business-suited women and teenage hipsters, Nadia appears grotesque.
There is too much of her mother in the car. Whenever Lora changes gear, she bumps Nadia’s thigh or arm. Her VW Beetle has no air conditioning, and on their way to the mikvah house the sun melts their bodies like ice-cream until they merge. The stomach pain returns. Lora craves a stop – to get out, disentangle herself.
But then there is the rare luxury of having Nadia to herself, detached from the busyness of her life in Balaclava with her husband and Lora’s younger brothers. Perhaps when they’ve finished with the mikvah she’ll convince her mother to do something out of her character – something leisurely, like going to watch the waves on Bondi Beach.
These days her mother doesn’t like the sea much, but when Lora was a child they used to sunbathe in Shevchenko Park, which framed Odessa’s sea border with Turkey. She and Nadia had matching pink bikinis then. They never talk about those days. Maybe today they can indulge in some reminiscing?
But Nadia has different conversational preferences: ‘Dochenka, my bride-to-be, finally you’re becoming a real woman! You’re making me so happy. So happy...’ Her face hardens into a mask of victory. Does she think that she has lived to see the taming of her shrew daughter?
‘A real woman...What is a woman, mama? Who has the monopoly on this word?’ This is what she should have told Sky Smith, but the right words always come to her too late.
Nadia smiles and shakes her head: ‘I thought you were an adult, but you’re still such a silly little girl.’ She pats Lora’s head.
Lora brakes at an intersection, letting a high-heeled transvestite sashay past.
‘What an elegant woman,’ Nadia says. ‘You should dress like this lady. Why is it always jeans, jeans? Is that what your feminists teach you?’ Her mother pronounces the word ‘feminists’ with distaste. ‘Did you have to put on these horrible men’s clothes even today? You’d do anything to upset me, wouldn’t you?’
‘I swear to G...I mean, I wasn’t even thinking...’
‘Don’t swear! Jews never swear. You weren’t thinking...Well, this is exactly what I mean. You never think about your mother.’
Lora tightens her palms around the steering wheel, blue nails sinking into her own flesh.
REBBETZIN MINA GOLDMAN leads the kind of life that can be displayed neatly, framed with gold and silver. While waiting in her living room – a temple dedicated to the accumulation of sensible furniture – Lora and Nadia familiarise themselves with highlights of the rebbetzin’s biography: school graduation, wedding, obligatory visit to Jerusalem, children. In every photo the rebbetzin’s long face, decorated with Swarowski earrings, beams with the healthy satisfaction of a woman who knows how to get things right.
This sense of righteousness, the privilege of the religious, apparently never benefited her mother. Forever the nervous migrant, Nadia clutches her tattered brown handbag to her chest. Her threadbare sneakers are pressed hard into the floor, as though digging a hole into which she wishes to disappear. Lora feels the familiar clot in her throat. She aches to embrace her mother, shake her, lead her out of this house into the sunshine, buy her kosher ice-cream.
‘Lorachka’ – her mother reverts to Russian – ‘make sure you listen to the lesson carefully and write down all the instructions.’
BY THE TIME Mina Goldman turns up, Lora has already developed a sense of intimacy towards her. She is somewhat disappointed by the rebbetzin’s Anglo-Saxon reserve.
‘So.’ Mina Goldman gets straight to the point. ‘When did your period last finish?’
‘Eight days ago,’ Lora lies. She can’t remember.
‘Goodie. Okey-dokey. Let’s make a time for the mikvah. Is tomorrow night good?’
‘Of course,’ Nadia says.
‘Fine, then. Now let me show you the place.’
They walk through a maze of little hallways and shining bathrooms with folded towels and cotton balls, into a warm, spotless room with Dutch-tiled walls. The place smells of lavender. Despite herself, Lora feels pampered, as though she is visiting an expensive beauty parlour. They pause before a square pool of azure water.
‘So, here we are! Okey-dokey?’
‘How beautiful,’ Nadia says. Her honey-coloured eyes, still agile, sparkle. Absentmindedly she touches the nearby pile of towels; her fingers are lost in their softness.
The rebbetzin ignores her. ‘Lora, don’t forget to bring your own hairbrush. And a donation of your choice.’
‘Thank you.’ Lora turns towards the door.
‘Excuse me.’ Nadia lingers hesitantly. ‘Is that all? I thought, Rebbetzin Goldman, you’d be teaching Lorachka about the ceremony.’
Mina Goldman flashes a look at her wristwatch. ‘Really, it’s a piece of cake. Lora doesn’t even need to memorise the prayer.’ She points at a sign opposite the pool: ‘It’s all written clearly there.’
‘One immersion will do.’
‘No, no!’ Nadia wrings her hands with their bitten fingernails. ‘Rebbetzin, she has to do it properly. It’s very important. She’s really not as ignorant of tradition as she appears. Despite the jeans. Her father and I...we gave her a proper education.’
Rebbetzin Goldman stares at Nadia as though she sees her for the first time, perhaps surprised at her proper British accent, the sort that Russian universities cultivate.
‘Fine.’ She drops her cheerful tone. ‘In that case -’
Lora cuts her off, turning to Nadia, red-faced like her: ‘Listen, it’s not your wedding. It’s mine. Mine! You stop interfering, or I’m cancelling everything now.’
They walk out in silence.
‘MAMA, GET IN the car.’
Nadia, with her stooped back to Lora, won’t move.
‘Look, I’m sorry. You know, I’m doing this Jewish wedding not just for Adam – I want you to be happy.’ She touches her mother’s shoulder, reflecting on this revelation, which is news to her too.
Her mother finally turns towards her. She bites her lip. ‘Really?’
‘Forgive me for being such a nuisance, dochenka,’ Nadia says, quietly. ‘You probably think I’m meshugana. Our rabbi in Odessa, even he thought I was crazy.’
Nadia leans on the Beetle with atypical frivolity, as though memories are luring her away from a lifetime of acquired earnestness. ‘He said God didn’t want me to risk my life, pikuah nefesh. No other Jewish woman in Odessa would go to Shevchenko Park. At night criminals went there to buy contraband from the patrol soldiers watching the border. Sometimes in the morning there were dead bodies.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘But I had to make sure you and your brothers didn’t get...See, your father’s moods can be hereditary. And it was worth it. You’re all healthy.’
‘I just don’t get you, mama.’
‘The KGB, eventually they closed the Odessky mikvah house. They wanted to control the Jews – but not me! See, Lorachka, women are strong. Stronger than men. That’s why we don’t need to do as many mitzvahs as men. Every month I went to Shevchenko Park. It had to be seawater for a proper mikvah.’
‘You never told me.’
‘You were asleep. The trick was to get to the water exactly at one am, when the soldiers took their break, and finish before they got back. Because if they mistook us for deserters, they’d shoot us. Your father and I, we had to walk through the park very quietly. In winter your father would fill your brother’s baby bottle with vodka, to warm me after the immersions.’
Lora remembers those wintry nights in Odessa. The air was so hard you could cut it like a cake; even the red-nosed drunks crawled away from the icy gutters to sleep on porches. And to think of her parents, dragging their feet in the snow, all the way to Shevchenko Park...
‘Your father would look out for the guards while I undressed. See, I learned to discipline my mind, clear it of fear. I prayed while I took my clothes off.’
‘In winter I was never sure whether I’d come out of the sea alive. Your poor father, he wanted to join me in the water. But I didn’t let him. If we both died, who would look after you? Often there were icicles floating on the water. I trained myself to focus on your father’s voice as he counted my immersions: raz...dva...tri. I managed to hear him clearly, even among the gunshots. But, you know, not even once did I hear the angels singing.’
AT SEVEN ON the dot Lora and Nadia are waiting in the mikvah house reception. Lora, in a proper long skirt, sits attached to her mother at the hip, just as in her childhood. Her body feels heavy, it aches, but she is determined to proceed with the ritual.
On the wall opposite them looms a large, Santa-Claus-bearded portrait of Rabbi Lubavitch. In Odessa male portraits of a similar size accompanied Lora’s every step: Lenin smiled at her in the classroom, Khrushchev gazed at her kindly in the local cinema, while Brezhnev would greet her from the mural in their neighbourhood. She grew so accustomed to this paternal companionship that in her first months in Melbourne she sketched those dear faces from memory. When Nadia found the drawings she tore them into little pieces: ‘You shall not make yourself an idol!’ But later, at university, Lora did make new ones, this time female.
At least Nadia had the guts to stand by her beliefs. In her place, would Lora have gone to Shevchenko Park? But perhaps it was time to brush aside all these lofty matters – Judaism, Communism, Feminism, any other isms that had always invaded her family’s life.
Mina Goldman floats towards them, a richly adorned tourist boat: ‘Come with me, Lora, but be careful. The floor is slippery and we aren’t insured.’
Lora aches to give her the finger, but doesn’t. For Nadia’s sake. She kisses her mother’s cheek and gets up.
As she proceeds to the fragrant maze, Lora can no longer ignore the uncomfortable sensation at the bottom of her belly. She feels the familiar trickle wetting her panties. True to her distaste for paying close attention to the female genitals, Lora has never bothered to record her period’s timelines, allowing her biology to surprise her each month. The rabbinical worries about unruly female bodies might not have been for nothing. Here is the end to her Jewish wedding before it has even begun.
As the bleeding intensifies, words desert her. All Lora feels like doing is giggling loudly, unselfconsciously, just as she once did in that mikvah house, the first public place she’d got acquainted with in Melbourne.