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Escape From the Holy Shtetl

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“I smoke a joint months ago and that gives them the right to take my daughter away?” Gitty moaned. An hour later, she was in a Nanuet headshop full of skull-shaped bongs and Day-Glo Bob Marley posters looking for a shampoo her rebel friends said might help her beat the test. “Nettles and sassafras,” Gitty read haltingly from the list of unfamiliar ingredients. “This is never going to work.”

Gitty’s test came up positive, as she knew it would. But contrary to Daniel Schwartz’s prediction, she is not sunk. Not yet. But court dates take time, something Gitty does not have. She knew Yoely, with his get from the rabbinical court, had remarried. Soon he’d be starting a new family. As daughter of Chaim, stepdaughter of Avrum, Gitty knew what that meant. Soon, very possibly, Esther Miriam would become nothing more than an afterthought, the bad memory of her ex-husband’s first, terribly failed marriage. She’d be the older stepsister charged with the care of her younger, favored siblings, a drudge cleaning between the floorboards for weeks before each Passover, someone who saw beautiful rainbows and felt only dread. This was the ultimate nightmare: Esther Miriam married off at age 17, bearing a dozen children to an indifferent KJ guy she’d never love. From Gitty’s point of view, there could be no worse next chapter in the New York Jewish generational saga that began with Matty and Carol Feinman.

Meanwhile, Gitty is trying to “be normal.” Mostly she’s been looking for a job, which is difficult since, like most KJ dropouts, she has no GED and few skills. She’s checked the lower-Manhattan restaurants, hoping to catch on as a waitress, but has no experience. “Even in the diner they want experience,” she says. The fact is, even if she ate dim sum for the first time and pronounced it “totally trayf, totally good,” Gitty’s expertise in non-kugel cuisine is spotty. The other day, she had to ask what a lobster was. Her best employment prospects seem to be as a home aide for the elderly, a field where fluent Yiddish can be a major plus. This is not considered a thrilling option by Gitty, who fancies herself more in the line of an actress or fashion designer.

But she’s doing her best to “remain positive.” Recently, her beloved younger brother, Sruli, came to New York from Toronto, where he received a scholarship to art school after fleeing KJ. They stayed at Matty and Carol Feinman’s house and went to the Met. Little by little, Gitty has been filling in what she calls “my cluelessness.” The other day, dialing through my iPod, Gitty said, “Oh, Billie Holiday. My grandmother loves Billie Holiday.” A moment later, when “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” punched up on the box, Gitty said, “Wow, Billie Holiday is a woman?”

As the case drags on, some of Gitty’s friends have attempted to console her, saying she’ll have more babies and the pain she feels over Esther Miriam will go away. “I hear that and I want to punch in the face of those people,” she says.

Gitty knows nothing will ever be right without Esther Miriam. A couple weeks ago, after the usual hassle, Yoely agreed to let Gitty see Esther Miriam at Deborah’s house. Gitty arrived to find the Barbie dolls she’d bought Esther Miriam wrapped in duct tape.

“They were idols, my parents said,” Gitty recounted. “Then Esther Miriam started to sing, so they called the rabbi about the halachas about whether men could hear the voice of a 4-year-old.”

A few days later, Gitty was in Williamsburg, but not the Satmar Williamsburg. Red baseball hat on her head, looking good in a grayish T-shirt with cutoff sleeves, she was in a Brazilian restaurant under the Williamsburg Bridge, eating some fish stew she never knew existed before. Recalling the details of her weekend, she said, “I must have a head made out of metal not to go crazy from all this.”

Then Gitty’s cell phone rang. It was Esther Miriam. The call was court-ordered, ruled by the Orange County judge after hearing that Yoely’s family refused to pick up when Gitty called to talk to her daughter.

“Mommy,” came the high-pitched voice, audible even with the J train rumbling on overhead. “Esther Miriam!” Gitty replied. When Esther Miriam asked when she would see her mother again, Gitty brushed a stray tear from her eye and said, “Soon … very soon.”


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