My husband was incredibly devoted to his father – visiting weekly or more, through the long and convoluted fade from consciousness to hallucinations, halting speech, and his father’s raucous time travel, to eventual immobility, frozen speech, and the occasional searing stare of his father’s piercing, very dark blue eyes; my husband, who has been mourning his father’s diminishment and anticipating his death for the decade-plus since his Dad got sick; my husband, who looks so much like his father that an ancient rabbi at a wedding once pinched his fingers closed, jabbed the pinch at both men, and said, “like one drop of water” – my husband, once his father was dead and quickly buried, wanted his father’s hat.
My father-in-law lived most of his life, until the nursing home years, in the land of the hat, in a part of Brooklyn where reading the code of a man’s hat reveals the man’s present and his history. Jews who trace their roots to Bobov favor one style, Litvaks another; Bialystokers, a third, all visible in the height of a crown, the tilt of a brim, even whether the hat is worn square on the head or tipped back, above the forehead, like the oval frame of a 19th-century portrait. Style and bearing may vary, but color is universal: All hats are black. And in this land, my father in law wore gray. Borsalino. A fine, handmade Italian hat, soft and dove-gray, with a cantilevered brim and a small, speckled guinea hen feather in its grosgrain band. He wore it every day; it was as much a part of him as his talis or his large-lensed, rimless glasses. My husband wanted The Hat.
The hat? I said, once the burial was over and the uncles had had a good shot of Scotch and a few deli sandwiches. The hat might be long gone; he’s been in the nursing home for nearly five years.
The hat, my husband said. I don’t want anything else – but oh, man, I’d love to have that hat.
So, The Hat. I was going in. I was going to Midwood, to an ultra-Orthodox enclave in the hyper-observant heart of Jewish Brooklyn. I was infiltrating a shiva minyan, a spy in the opposing camp: My husband’s father had died, and the surviving family – the second family, who had replaced and displaced my husband and his brother as the center of their father’s universe – was sitting together, in the week-long practice of mourning that requires a family ‘sit’ for a week, all day and into the evening, in a shared house, where visitors come to console the living and honor the deceased, of blessed memory, as the saying goes.
Shiva minyanim are observed every day in every Jewish community in the world, and this minyan was like millions of others. There was a widow, children, grandchildren; friends, an extended community and concerned friends of friends. For seven days, the mourners sat shoeless on low chairs or stools, never rising to greet guests, taking their meals together, praying (in this case) three times a day, men only, in the ancient prayer tradition, capped with Kaddish, the prayer for the dead that doesn’t mention death or the afterlife. The women whisper Psalms, bodies rocking gently, lips moving, the flutter of their tissue-paper pages louder than their breathing.
Even though this minyan was essentially like the millions of others being ‘sat’ around the world that soggy March week, it was different. Unique, in fact. It was the minyan for my father-in-law – my husband’s father – but neither of his biological children were there. (They, the two ‘real’ sons, were sitting “by” their Uncle Harvey, in the ancient Brooklyn location – they and the brothers of the dead man flatly refused to sit with the second family in Midwood, which included the grieving and it must be said relieved widow and the six adult children the couple raised, over time, in the years since the dead man, very much alive, left his first wife and married his first cousin (now, the widow), thirty years before his death.) She brought three children to their marriage from her own failed first; together, they adopted three more.
Thirty years later, the time had come to bury and mourn my husband’s father. And as is often the case in matters familial, there was more than one reason to visit the other family’s minyan. I wanted to stay connected to one of the children, and of course, thought it best to rise above the craziness of the funeral – the competing family factions, the rambling eulogies that didn’t mention the dead man’s actual children or the reality of his first family, the years of slights and insults and offenses, actual and perceived, that set both sides of the families at literal odds across the open grave – the dead man’s brothers and sons on one side of the yawning ditch, the fervent, swayin’-and-prayin’ Second Family, trailing spouses and black-clad, saucer-eyed flocks of children, on the other. At the grave, awful things were said, sharp and mean looks shot and found their marks. Whatever bitterness there was, my husband’s father was a grandfather to my children, his memory deserved the formal respect of a shiva call.
I drove to Avenue M, checked my Jewish-lady drag: Ankle-length black skirt, boots, long sleeves, silk sweater, all covered up, stem to stern, neck to ankles. I nearly passed for Orthodox. (Still, no wig, and no hat, either. Busted!)
I parked, climbed the flight of carpeted stairs to the widow’s half of the two-family house she shared. I knew better than to ring the bell – it’s not done during shiva, the door is left slightly ajar so there’s no fuss, no welcome. I pushed in the wooden door and stepped into Enemy Camp.
There they sat, in an ellipse of low chairs – mourners are forbidden from sitting on conventional chairs, lest they place themselves physically above other people or spiritually above the loss that’s forced them into shiva. So there they sat, in stockinged feet; mourners leave the world for the week of shiva, and who needs shoes if you’re don’t step outside, into the daily muck that defines everyday life? There they sat. Shocked. And there I stood, unsure, out of place, but over the threshold and in the room. There was no turning back.
Helen, the widow said. You’re here.
Helen, said one daughter, you’re here. Her sister tugged at the edge of her wig, a proper married woman who covers her hair, and parrot-echoed her sister.
Helen, she said, you’re here.
But the way she said it – with the stress on the second word, not the third – carried an implicit challenge: you’re here, she said, and the implicit “why?” hung in the air, unspoken but obvious in her raised brow and the broken conversations all around the mourners’ ellipse.
Not exactly the warmest of hellos, you see. This, too, was entirely consistent. The widow was the type of woman you didn’t cross. At the shiva, I was on her turf. I couldn’t turn heel and go and yet, I wasn’t much welcome, either.
Which I anticipated; I had brought a box of clementines with me from a local, kosher store – gifts of food are expected at shiva minyanim. To smooth the awkwardness, I said, I’ll put these in the kitchen, and walked around the gathered group. As I left the room, I heard whispers at my back.
One brother followed me into the kitchen, full of questions about the Other Minyan: Were they praying three times a day? Who was there? Did the rabbi come? Yes, many people, yes, I answered. The second brother trailed the first. Did my husband know I was here? Would he come? What were people saying, there, about the Midwood shiva? About the second family? About the funeral, their rabbi, the speeches at the service? These questions I ignored, as I made my way back into the living room, to take a seat within the mourning circle. Another small silence, less awkward, met me once I sat.
Then the most miniature of small talk began; the various children, their various plans, my father, his health, my mother-in-law (the widow’s one-time rival), her health, etc. Next, the Flatbush interrogation: Were my children learning Hebrew? What happened at my son’s bar mitzvah? Would my daughter, headed to Israel for a year, learn in Hebrew or in English? Where would she live? All that was missing was the hot, bright overhead light, I was in the Orthodox hotseat.
After my interview, another round of silence. I stood up, to go speak with the widow, who had gotten up herself to sift through the day’s mail – an oddly pedestrian, worldly act in this shiva universe, but she had always been relentlessly practical, and why would human nature change in widowhood? In her way, she had begun her widowhood five years earlier, when she sent her husband to the nursing home, and found herself too busy, what with 21 grandchildren and one great-grand, to visit.
After she put him in the nursing home, my husband’s father never spoke to his wife again. Not another word. She complained of it to anyone who would listen, he never seemed even to see her there.
I smoothed my skirt flat as I waited for her to notice me; in this situation, you don’t start the conversation, you wait until you’re invited in.
It’s good you’re here, she said to me, setting down a ConEd bill.
I thought I should come, I said.
A pause; she leafed through a few envelopes with cellophane address windows. Her eyes were flat. She read the mail.
I heard the front door open and shut behind me as new visitors arrived, but didn’t turn to see them.
I wonder, I asked, can I ask you a question?
What? She said, distracted. What did you say?
Can I ask you a question, about a hat?
What hat? She said, letters in her hand.
His hat, I said, the gray one he always wore. That Borsalino; is it around, still? If it was, I knew my husband would be glad of it. Did she have it?
A hat? What hat? She said, puzzled. Her eyes looked big, magnified through her glasses. She looked old, her skin soft as fabric fell in folds around her mouth, her blue eyes rheumy and slow to focus.
Oh, she said, as the memory of The Hat surfaced. I haven’t had one of his hats in ages.
Ok, I said, I just thought if you had one, it would be good. It would be really welcome.
No, she said, No hats, we gave it all away years ago, when he went to the home. (As if he went of his own volition. She put him there; he had no choice, and she never asked his sons.)
That at least made sense; we all knew once she put him into the nursing home he would never come out, not alive at least. He would never need The Hat again, or his good overcoat, or his gray flannel suits. So no, there was no hat.
No big deal, I said, no problem. It’s no big deal.
She flipped through a catalog and a grocery-store sale circular, set them on the desk. I looked outside. The sky was the color of black-edged potato skins that had been sitting too long in the sink; heavy with the threat of rain.
I can give you something else, she said, a minute later. What do you want?
I don’t want anything, I said, I just thought if there was a hat, it would be great.
No, no hat, not any more. I’ll give you something else.
No, it’s not necessary – and not now, we can talk about it another time, later.
OK, she said. Ok. It’s good you’re here.
Thank you, I said. I’m glad I came. And in that moment, I wasn’t lying.
I hadn’t told my husband I was going to Their shiva minyan. He didn’t need to know. If I got The Hat, I would tell him – but if they were awful to me, or mean about him, which was entirely possible, he didn’t need to know it. I went on my own. I didn’t tell my children, either, just left the house in the afternoon and drove off.
The widow and I went back to the oval of chatting mourners. The conversation had turned to a coming trip to Israel, photos swapped around, oddly mundane given that they’d buried their adoptive father not 36 hours earlier. I listened to the hum and drone. It was close in the room; I’d done what I came to do, and there was no hat. No hat; too bad. I’d failed.
I still had the other shiva minyan to visit, a good hour’s drive away. I got up and began to make my goodbyes.
Wait, said the widow, as I went round the group, kissing the women on the cheek, pointedly not making any physical contact with the men – religious practice forbids skin-to-skin contact between opposite-sex adults who aren’t relatives or actually married. In fact, I was, at that moment, a walking mass of pollution, an ‘unclean,’ menstruating woman.
Ok, I said, I’m waiting, no problem, as the widow said to wait again. She had gone into the dining room, rummaging through a bookshelf and banging a wooden cupboard door open, then closed.
Come here, she said, I have something for you.
It’s not necessary, I said, please don’t worry.
But I don’t have the hat, she said.
It’s not a problem, I said.
Here, she said, Take this, and pushed a battered plastic shopping bag across the rounded edge of the dining room table to me. The bag slid across the table’s plastic cover; even in death, the good linens were covered with a clear, wash-and-wipe defense.
I took the bag and opened the handles; inside was something blue and velvet, with fringe.
It’s his talis, she said, for his son. I want him to have it.
I didn’t speak. I couldn’t.
His talis and his t’filin, she continued, He should have it. He’s the only one who should have it, no one else.
The prayer shawl and the phylacteries, the garments of my father-in-law’s daily prayer life, laid like so much laundry in the bag, now in my hands. He had worn these every day for decades; nothing else was so intimately connected with my father-in-law’s life, over the weeks and months and years.
I didn’t know what to say. Finally, Thank you, thank you so much.
He should have something, she said. He is his son.
Yes, I said, he is.
I closed the handles, felt the salt-sting in my eyes, and looked at the widow, who had never shown me a kindness, who had come to us without scruple for money, for help, putting her own children far ahead of her husband’s sons in her calculus – because they didn’t matter, not in her mind. What counted, to her, were her kids and her grandchildren, and the rest of the world could go to hell. She was a ferocious advocate and a fearless adversary, and we – my husband, me, our kids – were in the ‘rest of the world’ portion of the human population. Her sudden, overwhelming show of humanity steamrollered me mute.
I took the talis bag and left the apartment, half-worried she would change her mind and take it back. I felt like a thief, an imposter, a devious impersonator: I had gotten up in my Orthodox drag to enter their world. But look what I had come away with! No hat, no – but a treasure, skin-intimate evidence of a life lived, within the blue-velvet pouch and the age-yellowed folds of white silk.
So the widow, the widow had one last surprise. The widow, who we had always said was without a single good bone in her body, had one, after all. One good bone – one generous, heartfelt gesture – one enormous recognition of the son’s goodness and dedication, and his sorrow. We will never see her again; my husband is done with her, and because I am his wife, I am, too. But she gave him a gift that defies understanding, that encompasses an empathy and compassion I long believed eluded her, and one that makes my adventures in Orthodoxy wholly, and completely, worthwhile.
Days later, I told my husband about going to the minyan and asking for The Hat.
Did you get it? he asked, all of a sudden hopeful – he’d have liked to have it, that was clear.
No, I said, there are no hats anymore. She gave them away.
Figures, he said, she would. But I wish she still had a hat.
She gave me this, though – I said, passing him the velvet bag that held his father’s talis.
This, she said, is for you.
He took the soft bundle in his hands as if it was sharp glass, afraid of a weight that wasn’t part of the fabric. He held it away from his body, then close, then in a crumpled-chest embrace. He didn’t speak for a long time.