“The Rabbi’s Wife” by Robin Black
Stories written in the present tense carry with them an energy and an immediacy. The story unfolds for the characters at the same moment that it’s revealing itself to the reader. There’s a marvelous intimacy in that, in the way that the reader is drawn into the story. The loss, of course, is that of retrospection: the ability of the narrator or character to look back in time and understand the relevance and importance of the events in the story. Stories that use the present tense with intent—where the choice of the tense echoes the content of the story—are enormously satisfying.
In “The Rabbi’s Wife,” originally published in Five Chapters, Robin Black uses the present tense as she describes a woman spending her afternoon at the funeral and shiva of her closest friend. Death begins and ends this story, and it is on every page, almost in every paragraph. Death is the end of the present moment, after all, and so to use the present tense—to keep us and the characters alive—is such a wonderful way of reflecting the themes of the story. And, in the story, the third-person narrator finally makes an important decision that will impact her future. The present tense allows us to be in that moment with her, when she comes to the realization, and the story is so sharp and resonant, in part due to that craft choice that Black has made.
How many funerals over the years?
She couldn’t say. The rabbi’s wife loses count. People have no idea how constant death is. They think it’s an event. It’s not. It’s life. The rabbi’s wife knows—because she is the one whose dinner plans are always tentative, hinging on the health, the well-being, and finally on the deaths of others. She is the one whose children learn to roll their eyes when their parents must again go out at night—Just an hour, not even, everything’s on the counter, it only needs to be reheated. And then there are the funeral outfits. One for summer, one for winter. Simple skirts, sensible shoes. Though she doesn’t always go to the funerals. More often, she goes to shiva in her nondescript clothes, her face ready to register a concerned look, a genuinely concerned look. But ready too to fade into the background. The great man’s wife.
The rabbi’s wife. She isn’t always quite there. Even when she’s there.
At Myra Feldman’s graveside funeral, rainy, as cemeteries so often seem to be, Hannah stays toward the back of the crowd, under an enormous umbrella, her coat collar turned high.
Still, her presence makes a ripple. She can feel it, sees heads turn with news of Hannah Kahlman, there, almost hiding. Looking older? Not really. She has lost weight, started wearing a little makeup again. She’s been exercising regularly. She looks better than she did three years ago, when the endlessness of Ben’s illness—the seeming endlessness—had aged and battered her.
The news goes around. Hannah Kahlman, looking well for a woman nearing seventy. Looking like a woman you might notice on the street. Somehow more vivid than she ever seemed before. Looking good.
But she sees something else in their eyes as well: a little anger. The jilted flock. She stopped going to funerals and shivas after Ben died. She stopped going to synagogue, too—maybe to no one’s surprise. For all that she’d learned to say the right things when required, for all that she truly loved a handful of them, she doubts she ever convinced many that she was there for any reason beyond her unshakable attachment to a man who happened to have become a rabbi—much to her surprise, when they were companionable young marrieds, graduate students in psychology, non-believers, free-thinkers, as they used to be called. What a betrayal it had seemed! You believe in God? In God?
And what a long time ago it all was.
She didn’t even show up for his yahrzeit.
She sees it there. But the rain keeps anyone from speaking much. They all line up to shovel dirt, even Hannah. For Myra she will do what she always did for Ben. For Myra, she will follow the rules.
The mourners hurry to their cars, many driving through the rain to the home of the bereaved. It will be Hannah’s first shiva call in nearly three years.
It was a genuine betrayal, she understands, to be the rabbi’s widow and abandon the congregation. She should have been there on the High Holidays, occasional Friday nights, if only so they could hold a single hand of hers in two of theirs and tell her how much he is missed, how she must come for dinner one night to hear the story of what a comfort he was two decades before, or even just two years before, when he himself was first ill, what wisdom, what strength. How—and this part would be whispered—the new man, they can barely call him the rabbi, he doesn’t hold a candle. . .
She didn’t do it. She couldn’t do it. She had shared her living husband with them all. Her dead husband was for her, alone. And he wasn’t the rabbi anymore. He was Ben. The man with whom she had lived for four decades, raised three children, watched movies, played tennis. Gone skinny dipping. Argued. Made love. The psychology student whose fascinations were limited to the human realm. The husband who wasn’t viewed by hundreds as a kind of demi-god; who hadn’t yet discovered in himself a desire to be so viewed.
That was the man she needed to mourn.
And maybe this was her real betrayal—not of them, but of him. The role he so loved, this calling of his. She stripped it off him in his death. Selfish of her maybe, to take it all away from him. Except that Ben was beyond being hurt. And she was the one who had to heal.
It’s still part of her being, she discovers, the shiva atmosphere; and she is practically family in Myra’s home. She busies herself in the kitchen, consolidates trays of sandwiches as they empty, replenishes the food on the dining room table, makes rounds with a trash bag for paper plates and Styrofoam cups. Brings a glass of water to Myra’s shell-shocked husband, Jack. Pours scotch for Myra’s son, recently divorced, now down a wife and a mother. The wife in love with a neighbor. Myra, dead of a coronary from out of nowhere.
Oh, the heart, the heart! The human heart! Beating or still, how it loves to betray.
Hannah has the human heart on her mind.
She has been dating Douglas for only eight months. Only that. This is what she tells herself as she buzzes through Myra’s home. Only eight months. What is eight months? As she tidies Myra’s kitchen, ties another bag of trash. She has been asking herself this question for days. What kind of time is that? Months? If you’re still counting a romance in months, it’s as flimsy as a stage set, knock it down, slink away, take the midnight train out of town.
Myra understood that. Myra who was her rock, her confidante through the two years it took Ben to suffer his way into oblivion. Eight months, Myra! My husband took longer to die than I’ve known this man!
The house still feels like her. Forty-eight hours ago, she was alive here. Her laundry is in the hampers. Half a yogurt she started, in the fridge. Every room scattered with the unfinished business of Myra’s finished life.
“Just be done with it, Hannah,” Myra said, only three days ago. “Just pull the damned Band-Aid off.”
About half the people at the shiva are connected to the synagogue somehow. Most are friendly—at least superficially. A few are not. “You’ve certainly been keeping yourself busy,” a woman whose name Hannah doesn’t remember says to her—an accusation. “I wasn’t even sure you were still in town.” An obvious lie.
“You look well,” is all Hannah says in response, smiling a little, looking off as if called elsewhere, touching the woman’s arm, walking away.
The rabbi’s wife still lurks in her somewhere.
She hasn’t expected to see Sara, the disgraced former daughter-in-law. But as she watches Sara greet Scott, the man she left, and then her former father-in-law, Hannah realizes they must have known she would be there—with the toddler granddaughter in tow. There’s no surprise in their expressions, only weariness, and also some tears. Sara adored Myra. It’s all over her face. And Myra adored Sara. A dentist, of all things. A small woman with a huge sense of fun. The two of them traveled together once a year, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Myra never said, not in so many words, she’s too good for my son; but Hannah knows what she thought.
“I don’t exactly get it,” Myra would say. And then, when Sara left him, “I get it. I shouldn’t say that, I know. But I do.”
What holds people together?
The question is a pressing one. And a familiar one as well.
The summer Ben told Hannah he wanted to be a rabbi, they fought so hard it was as if they were breaking each other’s bones with words. A season of skeletal shattering, they said terrible things to one another, called each other unspeakable names, rehearsed the idea of hate between them; but ultimately could not make it work, could not make their fractured selves refuse to heal.
At the end of those weeks, exhausted, they sat at opposite sides of their kitchen table, staged for negotiation. After the battles, come the terms. Surrender. She felt it. She was surrendering—because she simply couldn’t imagine life without him. And she couldn’t talk him out of this calling that he heard, wasn’t even sure she wanted to anymore. It was so clearly what he needed to do with his life.
But she would never pretend to believe—or even to observe. If they were to stay together it had to be on those terms. She would be an atheist rebitzin, she said—sputtering the word like a tasteless joke. She would get t-shirts with Atheist printed on them. Their disagreement would be a public thing. And it would be a private thing as well. Their children, should they ever arrive, would understand that their mother did not believe in God, couldn’t stand organized religion. “Otherwise, you’re asking me to live a lie.”
He looked surprised, just for a moment, as though it had never occurred to him that she would have a public stance; and she thought, this is it, this is the bone that stays broken; but then he said, “I would never ask that of you. I love you, Hannah. Of course you shouldn’t lie.” He shook his head. “I don’t even understand what you’re talking about. That makes no sense.”
“Belief in magical beings makes no sense.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” he said. “Now what?”
It wasn’t a real question.
“Myra adored you, you know,” Hannah says.
“You’re the only one who’ll say so.” Sara has joined her in the kitchen. Hannah is brewing coffee, endless coffee. Sara is rinsing silverware for the dishwasher. Scullery chores for the displaced and the disgraced.
“Not that I blame them,” Sara says. “God, I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“It’s terrible when it’s sudden. And also terrible when it’s not.”
They don’t say much for a while after that. And soon they are running out of tasks, excuses to stay in Myra’s kitchen which neither woman wants to leave. Finally, Hannah asks Sara how it is all going—a euphemism, but Sara knows what she means. The question transforms her face. Happiness.
“I hate myself for it sometimes. But then I don’t. I can’t. Scott and I. . . we were never. . .”
“No,” Hannah says. “I can see.”
“What about you?” Sara turns the faucet off and the room is suddenly vast with quiet. “Are you. . .? Did you ever. . .?”
“Yes,” Hannah says. “There was someone, there is, I suppose, but. . . I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
“You must miss Rabbi Ben.”
“I do.” It’s true. “That never stops.”
Another guest walks in, a young man Hannah doesn’t know. “I’m on a hunt for coffee,” he says. “Oh, hi, Sara.” Hannah decides he’s a friend of Scott’s. The chill. The disdain. She tells him she will bring the coffee in. She touches Sara’s sagging shoulder as she leaves.
Stationed by the table of food, Hannah smiles and nods as people stop to take a cookie, pour a drink. It’s distracting, amusing, to remember what Myra privately felt about each one. The ones whose facelifts she mocked. The ones whose children she disliked. The one whose husband she slept with, just once, a long time ago. Myra had been ruthless in her way—as Ben was too.
Not Douglas, though. Douglas is not ruthless at all. He’s a genial man. A gentle being. She sensed that right away when they met—where else?—at the party of a mutual friend, a neighbor not a congregant, who couldn’t believe that for all the decades she had known them both, and of course their respective, newlyish deceased spouses, they had never met one another. Couldn’t believe it. Truly. Refused to believe it. So that she, a silver-haired, uber-stylish painter, absurdly named Jammy, stood between them for some minutes listing event after event that had taken place in the ‘70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, and on and on, her face a map of incredulity, her voice bordering on incensed. “It’s impossible that you weren’t both here for Joel’s retirement bash. . .”
But no. Only Hannah had been there for that one. And only Douglas for the second daughter’s first wedding. And only Hannah for any of the graduation parties. And only Douglas for the Thanksgiving two years before—the one he and his wife attended because she was too ill to make a dinner in their home. The one the mere mention of which lit a momentary spark of pain on his face, like a single, telltale frame of a film.
“It just isn’t possible,” Jammy said.
But Hannah shook her head and Douglas said, “I don’t know what to say.” And they exchanged a conspiratorial look. Jammy was being ridiculous. Jammy tended to be ridiculous. For all that she looked so chic. They could agree on that, silently, and then not so silently when she finally gave up and moved on to other guests.
“Well, that’s Jammy for you,” Douglas said. “Admirably stubborn.”
“Stubborn, anyway,” Hannah said. “And admirable too, I suppose. Though I’m not sure about the combination. . .”
She liked that his smile lingered longest in his eyes.
And she liked that he had no idea then who—and what—her husband had been. Did she like that he wasn’t Jewish? No. She wouldn’t go that far. Not at all. But she did like that he had never heard the word rebitzin. And she liked that he dismissed belief in god in all of eight words. “I’m afraid I’ve never felt inclined toward faith.”
Hannah watches Sara emerge from the kitchen to face the scorn of the room, then freeze, in obvious need of rescue.
“How long will you stay?” Hannah asks, as she approaches. “This can’t be easy for you.”
“No, it’s not easy. Not easy leaving either, though. And Adele. . .” She looks at her daughter on Jack’s lap. “She’s going to kick a fit when I try to pry her away.”
“I give you a lot of credit for showing up.”
But Sara shrugs it off. “She was a mother to me. I was so afraid they wouldn’t include me. I couldn’t have stood that.” She looks at Hannah. “So, you and this man? It’s definitely doomed?”
“I think so. Yes.” Sara’s compass is set to romance, Hannah notes. Even here, even on this day. She wants to talk about love.
“So, not serious?” Sarah asks.
“I like spending time with him,” Hannah says.
And that’s it. The simplicity is stunning. The pleasure of his company. No complications. No fight they’ve been having for a hundred and fifty years, no grudges destined to cycle back into conversation. No expectations. No history. She never wondered whether or not he’d been a good husband to his wife—Marie, whose cancer took her breath away with breathtaking speed. He probably had been a fine husband, whatever that meant. But it never mattered much to Hannah. It was pleasant to be with him. That was enough. He solved the problem of loneliness. Not the problem of missing Ben. But the other problem. The life of empty rooms and tables for one. The silence of widowhood. The celibacy of solitude. “He’s good company.”
“But not. . .”
Hannah shakes her head. “No. Not.”
“I guess you just know,” Sara says. “Or anyway, you know when it’s wrong.”
“Well, that’s surely true.”
“With Nathaniel, I feel like myself. I never felt like myself with Scott.”
“I’m happy for you,” Hannah says, though her mind is already elsewhere. With whom has she felt most like herself? Part of loving Ben meant accepting a kind of amputation of self, an exorcism of self. Moving her lips to prayers in which she didn’t believe. What could be more a sign of lost self than that? The great argument, the crashing symphonic background to their love, had been this question of self. The negation of her self. The primacy of his. She could strip him of his sanctity at the threshold of their home, hand him the garbage to take out, suggest he unclog the toilet like any human husband might; but in the end, there were no t-shirts that said Atheist, no public declarations of her sentiments about organized religion. The children were raised to be observant, still lighting Friday night candles in their own homes.
And with Douglas?
Her relationship with Douglas has had a light, comic tone from the start, from Jammy’s absurd introduction on forward. She felt it on their first few dates when she spoke too loudly—because Ben had been a little deaf. Not only in his older years, but always, since a virus in infancy. And so Hannah would catch herself raising her voice to Douglas, enunciating too clearly, though she never did with anybody else. It wasn’t as if she gossiped with Myra at high decibel levels, or bellowed at her children. But then none of them had slipped into the chair across from hers at dinner, the seat beside hers at the movies. None of them held her hand, lay beside her in her bed. And the shouting, the exaggerated articulation, so much a necessary part of being Ben’s wife, had become something from a sitcom with Douglas.
As had the way waiters took them for a married couple from their first date on. Mistaken identities—a comic trope. She always felt the impulse to apologize to Douglas for their mistake. She could feel the words rising to her lips: Sorry about that.
Or, more likely, SORRY ABOUT THAT!
And the audience roars.
“Strangely,” Hannah says. “I think I felt most like myself with Myra. There was nothing I had to hide from her. No part of me she found . . .difficult. Or inconvenient.”
Sara’s eyes fill with tears. “That’s just how I felt,” she says, as Hannah puts her arm around her. “I felt loved.”
“Oh, you were, Sara. You were very, very loved.”
It’s so tempting to think that Sara will understand—as Myra did. There is something in the way Myra approved of Sara leaving Scott, in the way Myra believed Hannah should break with Douglas, that makes it easy to assume that Sara will therefore understand Hannah’s plight. Some sort of transitive property of compassion. But Sara’s youth weighs against this notion. Her earnestness. Her innocence—for all that she’s left her husband for an adulterous love, she still reeks of innocence.
“So how long have you been seeing this man?” Sara asks, as if following Hannah’s thoughts. She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Only eight months,” Hannah says. “Not so long.”
“That’s funny. I only knew Nathaniel for six months when. . . when I told Scott. When I was sure. That seemed like a long time.”
“Well, maybe it isn’t really about time,” Hannah says. But in fact it seems now to be all about time. She was with Ben for nearly four decades. With Douglas for eight months. Both were given two years at diagnosis. These numbers tumble continually through her thoughts. “I’m not in love with him,” Hannah says. “Not the way I have to be.”
“And he is with you?”
Hannah thinks. “I don’t know,” she says. “He used to enjoy me, I’m sure. Now he needs me.”
“Oh, I can’t stand needy men.” Sara rolls her eyes, makes an irritated face. “I shouldn’t say it here, but Scott is like a big infant. Me, me, me.”
“Well, his mother agreed, I think. So, it’s probably okay to say it here. As long as you say it quietly.”
Another wave of visitors pours through the front door. They have umbrellas and wet coats. “I should help,” Hannah says, and walks toward the vestibule, but then turns instead and slips up the stairs.
She has never been in Myra’s bedroom before. Why should she have been? But she finds it familiar nonetheless. It smells like Myra. It looks like Myra—bright colors and clutter. Decisive. Hurried. The mirror on the dresser is covered, like all in the house, a silver pillow case shimmied down it like a tight-fitting dress.
Hannah sits on the little armchair beside Myra’s bed. Myra and Jack’s bed. Jack’s bed.
It has been a hell of a week. Not even a week.
Douglas told her over the phone, only six days ago. Only six days. His lungs—one lung. There would be surgery. Radiation. Chemotherapy.
“Oh, dear God,” she said.
And then, immediately, they began speaking a language they both knew all too well. Protocol. Trials. It was like discovering they were both fluent in Japanese. Or Russian. Or death. Truly, death.
I don’t want this.
Hannah thought it the moment she put down the phone.
I don’t want this.
With Ben, the same phrase had nestled in her belly like an undesired, bad-seed child. I don’t want this. Don’t want Ben to be dying. Don’t want to say goodbye. Don’t want to know how our story ends. Don’t want to be alone, extricated from this difficult, complicated love. I don’t want this. Don’t want us to be mortal beings. Don’t want any part of it, this terrible, wicked system.
But now, with Douglas: I don’t want this.
It was different.
She’d called Myra.
“Douglas has cancer,” she said at the sound of Myra’s voice. “Lung.”
“Shit,” Myra said.
“They’re talking a couple of years. Chemo. All of it. I just don’t think . . . I don’t want to do this again. I can’t. And it’s only eight months, Myra. It’s only a few months. . .Is this my job now? Because we dated for a few months?”
“No, Hannah. It is not.” Without a moment’s hesitation. “Listen to me. He’s a perfectly nice man, but you do not owe him this. His children are there. He has children.”
“Ben would say. . .”
“Ben? Ben would be saying a prayer. That’s what Ben would say. Words to God.”
“Not only that. That isn’t fair.”
“Okay, so maybe Ben would say this is selfish. Hannah, I’m saying it’s time for you to be selfish.”
“I feel bad for him. I do. I just can’t. . . Those two years before. You were there. You know. But it was Ben. I barely know this man.”
“You have to tell him, Hannah. You just have to say it. You aren’t that person. Not for him. You aren’t his wife.”
But Myra had been wrong there—about marriage. That wasn’t it. Because Hannah would have done it for Myra. Just like she did for Ben. She would have nursed her through however many years.
It wasn’t about marriage. And it wasn’t about sex—which Hannah knows will be another loss, as of now. The sex which she had feared would be somehow unpleasant; Douglas, an old man she didn’t know in his youth; her own body a soft distortion of itself. And most strange, of course, a lover who wasn’t Ben. But then it had felt oddly not odd at all. Maybe because Douglas was physically so different from Ben who was close to her size, and whose body had felt light on her own. The greater weight of Douglas, the way his arms, legs, head, all extended beyond her had somehow forged a new, unfamiliar space, a shelter into which she, the old tired she, could disappear.
“Get it over with,” Myra said. “The fact that you were sleeping together doesn’t indenture you to him.”
Only a week ago. Not even. And then every day for five days, “What are you waiting for, Hannah? You can give him some time, but not too much. Or you’ll never walk away. I know you.”
How clear it had been to Myra—as so much was clear to her. Myra and Ben. Both filled with certainty. Both somehow larger, more powerful people than Hannah had ever felt herself to be. Larger than life, Hannah always thought about them both.
But then Myra hadn’t even made it to the hospital. “She’s gone, Hannah. . . she’s gone. . .” Jack broke the news, more bad news coming over the phone.
It’s too simple to use such things to argue against worshipping a god, Hannah knows. That Myra should die in an instant; Douglas face a grueling death, mistakenly trusting that Hannah will be by his side throughout; this man who never felt inclined toward faith, not knowing yet how misplaced his faith is now.
Reverse them, Hannah realizes, and she becomes a woman she would much rather be: Shocked by the sudden death of a man she’s been seeing for only eight months. Devoted to her long-dying friend.
“It isn’t our job to understand,” Ben would say.
“It better not be,” she would respond. “Because none of it makes any sense.”
An indignant wail rises from downstairs. The unmistakable, inconsolable howl of a child who has been told it’s time to leave.
Hannah stands to go say her goodbyes. So much sadness. And so much more to come.
“Don’t give me the old arguments,” Ben would say. “Don’t insult me with questions about life being unfair. You think I didn’t know life was unfair when I started to believe? Life is unfair. You think that’s an argument against God? I think it’s an argument for God.”
But this she knows: There is no God.
And there is no putting off what she must do; and no Myra to pin her own decision on. Life is indeed unfair. Soon she will conspire in the cruelty it brings. But first she can go downstairs and give Sara the warm hug no one else in Myra’s home will give to her. An easy kindness for this terrible day.
And then Hannah will leave as well.
Douglas is waiting for her at his house. “I’m not much up for funerals,” he said, when the time was set. “I hate to let you down, but I just don’t think that I can bear. . .”
“I wouldn’t ask it of you. Of course not. Please don’t worry.”
“But you’ll come afterward?” She assured him that she would.
And so she shall.
The wailing from below has turned to sobs. Reassuring adult voices are in the mix. Everything will be all right. Everything will be all right. Hannah can’t hear the words, but the message is clear.
It’s hard to leave this room, she finds, though she knows that she must. She inhales the air around her, thick still with the scent of her friend, deep, deep breaths, as if she might carry it, as if it were fuel to propel her through what comes next.
When she passes the covered mirror sitting on the dresser’s top, for all that she has spent so many years resenting custom, the rabbi’s wife is grateful to be spared a glimpse of her newly ruthless self.
“The Rabbi’s Wife” was originally published in Five Chapters in April, 2014.
ROBIN BLACK’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and named a Best Book of 2010 by numerous publications, including the Irish Times. Her novel, Life Drawing, was longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Impac Dublin Literature Prize, and the Folio Prize. Her fiction has been translated into Italian, French, German, and Dutch. Her most recent book is, Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing And Life Collide. Robin’s work can be found in such publications as One Story, The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, Southern Review, The Rumpus, O. Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler UK, and numerous anthologies, including The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. I (Norton) and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. Robin lives with her husband in Philadelphia and teaches in the Rutgers-Camden MFA Program.