Upsherin (Yiddish, lit. “shear off”) is a haircutting ceremony observed by a wide cross-section of Jews and is particularly popular in Haredi Jewish communities. It is typically held when a boy turns three years old. (Wikipedia)
Payos are the (often curled) sidelocks worn by some Orthodox men. Tzitzis are the fringes that hang from a four-corned undershirt (tallis katan, or “small prayershawl”) worn by observant Jewish men. Boys traditionally receive their first tzitzis at the time of their upsherin.
On the morning of Yossi Mandelbaum’s third birthday, his mother woke with a killer headache. Leah had been dreaming of sinking her teeth into a ripe pear, and of watching whales swim in the sky, weaving their improbably graceful heft between strings of comet tail. She sighed to remember the smooth arc of their bodies, but cringed as the pain drummed on her skull. Even the dull light dribbling feebly through the Venetian blinds in her bedroom caused her eyeballs to burn, and the left side of her head to thunder. Yossi had found his way to his mother’s bed long before dawn and now lay nestled against her soft belly, his thumb plugging his mouth, his long blond curls spilling loose over the blue floral sheets. Leah shielded her eyes with one hand and reached with the other to stroke the wilderness of his hair. Yossi was her darling, her favorite among all of her children, although she would never have admitted to loving him more than the others. It had taken twelve years of trying, and five older sisters, before she’d finally given birth to a son. She’d been dreading his upsherin, knowing that she would mourn the loss of his long hair, which now reached almost to the small of his back. She didn’t have quite as much anxiety about it as she’d had over his bris, but almost. Almost.
Yossi rustled, and the motion roused Leah’s nausea. She groaned as the child climbed her, his little knees digging into her thighs, her belly. His full weight was a ballast that held Leah in this world. She hated that in a way, the banality of it. The stereotype of it, the cloying Jewish mother. All its saintedness and lack of surprise. The adoration of the son. But she felt it, she did, and knew that it was more than a metaphor when she thought of his weight pinning her to the earth. The truth was visceral, and her viscera knew: Without my Yossi, I would float away.
Yossi pressed his little bunny nose into the folds of Leah’s neck. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. She pinched his tuchus and his fat little legs. She whispered into his ear, finding it hidden in his mess of curls. Are you ready to get your big boy haircut today?
I get a lollipop he said, the words slippery and spilling out around his thumb. The reverence in his tone was sweet, and so funny, although Leah succeeded in keeping her laugh caged in her chest. She gave a solemn nod. His eyes sparkled with anticipation. His joy tickled the back of Leah’s neck and made her toes wriggle.
Yes, you get a lollipop while you sit nice and still to get your haircut.
Don’t worrrry about it said Esty Tendler as she smeared a knifeful of cream cheese across the top of a halved sesame seed bagel. You’ll love his little payos. You’ll see, he’ll be adorable.
Oh and the little tzitzis! Rivvie Rabanowitz cooed, pulling two bottles of orange juice, one neck in each fist, from Leah’s refrigerator.
I know, I know Leah said. I love how the fringes are so long on tiny boys! It’s so cute. And I know his payos will be sweet, too. It’s just, you know, his hair is so beautiful, he’s just so—
Her voice crackled.
Oh now, don’t cry Rivvie said, leaving the juice on the countertop and easing her big soft arms around Leah’s shoulders.
Hey, it’s okay added Esty. He’s not a baby anymore. That’s hard.
Leah nodded and sniffed. Did I tell you we have Batman tzitzis? He’s going to love it. Yehuda got fabric markers and drew the Bat Signal on it. He did such a good job, it looks like it’s from a store, just perfect.
Your husband the artist! Esty said. This I can’t wait to see!
Leah sat on the closed toilet lid in the downstairs half bath. She’d taken four Tylenol when she’d gotten out of bed, but her headache was creeping back. What she wouldn’t give to have a nice pear. Ah, but the nausea was back when she thought of the fruit. Thrumming skull, roiling belly. There was a soft knock at the door.
You all right in there, Ima?
It was Leah’s eldest, her daughter Yael.
I’m feeling a little sick Leah managed. She flushed the toilet. The water rushed under her and the pipes clanged. I’ll be out in a minute.
Leah remembered when she first laid eyes on Yossi. The midwife almost hadn’t made it there in time to catch him. Yehuda had been pacing in the hallway with his phone in hand, chomping at the bit, ready to call for an ambulance. After five previous births, Leah thought she’d known what to expect, but Yossi’s emergence was like nothing she’d ever experienced. Yossi was a fireball, and when Yossi decided it was time for his much-longed-for appearance, he didn’t waste a split second. The entire labor, from the amazingly audible loud pop of his amniotic sac breaking and that first dull pull through the small of Leah’s back, to the final triumphant push that hurtled Yossi’s finely formed soft skull into the midwife’s latexed hands, took exactly a mere hour and forty-five minutes. Sarah Silver from next door had abandoned her kitchen mid-kugel when Yehuda had come banging on her door begging for help. Leah was on her knees on the bedroom carpet, gripping Sarah’s shoulders so hard that the poor woman would bruise later, yelling out That’s crowning! I know what crowning feels like! when the midwife came bustling through the front door of the house. Leah could hear her snapping on the surgical gloves as she took the stairs two steps at a time.
The funny thing was, Leah was almost disappointed that she didn’t bear Yossi in that room all by herself. She was certainly thankful for Sarah Silver’s support, and she was happy that Yehuda could feel like he was helping. The midwife had been shocked when Leah first informed her that her husband would not actually be present in the room for the baby’s birth. She’d never attended for a religious Jewish family, and Leah could tell that although she was tolerant of their plans she didn’t wholeheartedly approve. Leah had always liked having childbirth remain a woman-only event. She loved being surrounded by that feminine energy, she loved that it was a deep and gorgeous mystery of which Yehuda could have no portion. the act of creation, was something that was hers alone. Or almost alone. That was the ember that smoldered in her, that near-wish that she could have done it unattended. She imagined that she would have been just fine. She imagined that it would have been glorious, her face luminous like Moshe on top of Sinai. She imagined it would be like that, climbing the mountain alone to meet God face-to-face.
Leah checked her wig in the bathroom mirror, straightened her dark wing of bangs. She smoothed her dress over her hips. It was a very flattering new dress. Long sleeved green velvet, with just the right amount of cling, and a beautiful white lace collar and matching cuffs. She’d got it for 30 percent off, too. Leah smiled at her reflection, and she realized just then how much she looked like a lady from a Marc Chagall painting. Her dress, her dark bobbed wig. She could be a figure in his Paris, among flowers, or aloft over his Russia, green velvet trailing in her wake. Leah laughed. What a thing.
Rabbi Hirsch kept it short and sweet, Baruch Hashem, thank God, because the crowd in Leah’s living room was unbelievable. The whole of Congregation Beth Israel must have been crammed in there. Leah was having trouble breathing. The Rabbi talked a little Torah, then said a bit about how a boy leaves his babyhood behind, leaves the world of mothers for the world of men and mitzvot and learning. Leah pursed her lips and kept quiet. She and Yehuda took the first snips, passing the scissors between them, as Yossi sat in his booster seat happily sucking on a bright red lollipop. His lips were stained, and the blond curls tumbled down his back and fell to the cloth Leah had spread on the floor beneath him. She felt very light-headed, and her thighs were trembling as she handed the scissors off to the first guest in line. She crumpled into a folding chair and sat beside Yossi as each person took their turn at his head, dropping coins or stuffing tightly folded bills into the tzedakah box he balanced on his lap. Leah closed her eyes.
When she opened them, Yehuda was murmuring the blessing for tzitzis, and slipping the garment over a small boy’s shorn head. Yehuda was placing a kippah atop that head. The boy was reaching for one of the aleph-bet cookies that Leah had baked, dipping it into the small dish of honey that sat on the cookie platter, and shoving the sweetness of Torah learning into his smiling scarlet mouth. This child, this giggling boy with golden payos, was eating the cookies she’d baked for Yossi. He was sitting in Yossi’s booster, wearing Yossi’s suit, beaming over the Bat Signal Yehuda had painted for his son, her precious boychik.
Leah sprang to her feet, gasping for air. Yossi! she shrieked. Yossi, where are you?
The room was dark, but Leah could feel the closeness and warmth of the women around her, smoothing her blankets and breathing softly. One of them, smelling like talcum powder, pressed a cool wet washcloth to her forehead and brushed damp ringlets of hair back from her cheeks. Leah could remember the ripple of laughter passing through the crowd as she called for Yossi. The laughter had turned sour, curdled to frightened whispers as the guests realized her frantic question was no joke. And then she had fallen, the faces around her fading to black.
There were murmurs now, and her tongue was thick in her mouth as she tried to murmur back, asking for her boy. She could hear the vague clatter of post-party clean-up through the closed bedroom door. The rush of water into the kitchen sink, the stacking of plates and clearing of glasses from the tabletops. Cool fingers laced between her own as her voice creaked, her lips dry. She curled herself to sit upright, and somebody brought water to her mouth. She felt the cold of it all the way down her throat, felt the cold of it pool in her stomach.
Leah, how are you feeling? a voice asked. Maybe Rivvie. Leah’s head was still fuzzy. It was hard to tell who flanked her.
What happened? she managed. What happened to Yossi?
Hands brushed her shoulders, her leg.
Yossi is fine, Leah. Yossi is just fine. He’s adorable, as always.
That boy Leah sputtered that boy was not my Yossi.
They led the boy in, lighting the lamp at Leah’s bedside. His short golden hair shined. His eyes were scared. He twisted his new tzitzis between his little fingers nervously.
Your ima is not feeling so well, Yossi. But she wants to see your handsome face. That will help her feel better, won’t it, Leah?
The boy shuffled forward. He reached out and touched the edge of the bedspread.
Leah could plainly see this was not her son.
Is this some kind of joke? she asked. It isn’t funny. Not at all.
This is craziness! Yehuda boomed. Leah had not even noticed him standing there, framed by the light of the hallway. His eyes were burning with anger, and Leah blinked at him hopelessly. The image of him swam, distorted by her tears. He strode into the darkened quiet of the room and snatched up the boy from her bedside in one swift and purposeful motion.
She just needs more rest one of the women shouted.
She needs a doctor Yehuda said, turning his back. The boy clung to Yehuda’s shoulder tightly and let out a thin wail. It didn’t sound like Yossi at all. Yehuda and the boy disappeared into the light, and Leah closed her eyes again. Somebody switched off the lamp. There was more whispering. Leah slept.
It was the middle of the night when Leah woke again. The house was silent. She didn’t sense the presence of anybody else in the bedroom. She considered it and figured that Yehuda must be sleeping on the couch. No doubt he’d made an appointment for her to see Dr. Bloch in the morning. She would have to find Yossi before then. Before the dawn came and brought with it the bustle and noise. In the quiet dark, Leah’s head felt clear. There was no more pain. She crept from the bedroom and down the hall, through the kitchen. Everything from the party had been cleaned up nicely. The house was in perfect order. The only thing missing was Leah’s sweet baby. As she’d expected, Yehuda was stretched out on the unfolded sofa bed, his long legs dangling from the edge. There was a hole in one of his socks, his big toe protruding. Leah would have to remember to mend that.
The night was warm. Leah was still wearing her green velvet dress and didn’t need a jacket. She walked along the pavement quickly, her eyes darting from house to house, hoping to catch a glimpse of Yossi at play on one of the neighbors’ stoops or peeking out from behind one of the hedges. But there was no sign of him. The maple leaves were just beginning to come loose from their branches, and the moon was just a sliver. Another month, and it would be Rosh Hashana. Yossi loved the raisins in the holiday challah. He loved the apples dipped in honey, and the sweet carrot tzimmes. Leah called out his name softly as she turned the corner onto Belvedere Street. She scanned the trees that lined the curb. Yossi was just learning to climb trees, just getting good at pulling himself up by grasping the lowest branches. Sometimes, walking home from shul on Shabbos, she and the rest of the family would stop and wait at nearly every maple along the way, giving Yossi a chance to show off his new skills. He was better at it every week. But Yossi was not in any of the trees this night.
Leah saw a small, dark object on the pavement ahead of her, half a block away. She broke into a run and scooped the item from the concrete. It was a small boy’s yarmulke, lost. Blue, with silver trim and tiny teddy bears. She couldn’t remember Yossi having a yarmulke like this one, but maybe it had been a gift today? She rubbed the satin lining between her fingers while her mind raced. It could certainly belong to Yossi. She ran, clutching the yarmulke to her breast.
She’d gone two more blocks, her neck twisting in every direction, her eyes glazed with panic, before she realized she was definitely headed toward the playground at the end of Belvedere. Of course. Of course Yossi would run there. It was one of his most favorite places. He loved to swing on the swings and slide on the slide. He loved to roll in the pine needles and chase the ducks around the perimeter of the pond.
Leah’s heart dropped. No. No, not the pond. She screamed Yossi’s name and kept on screaming it, again and again, as she ran, even faster than before. She didn’t even notice the lights popping on in windows up and down the street. She didn’t notice that her wig fell from her head, landing in the soft grass like a bird’s nest fallen from an overhanging branch. She ran bareheaded and shrieking, thinking only of Yossi, only of holding him safe in her arms again.
Leah was on the little wooden footbridge when they found her. She had collapsed, still clutching the little blue yarmulke tightly. The pond glimmered in the dark, rippling with the tiniest of waves. She sobbed into Esty Tendler’s arms.
He’s drowned. I know it. He ran off and drowned and nobody even searched.
No, no dear Leah Rivvie whispered. Yossi is well. Yossi is safe.
You are so very confused Sarah Silver assured her, stroking her head.
Esty slipped Leah’s lost wig back on and straightened it. She wiped at Leah’s tears but they kept coming.
Sarah pried the yarmulke from Leah’s grip. This belongs to my Mendy she said. He lost it today when he was out playing stickball. She tucked it into the pocket of her housecoat and reached for Leah’s hands.
Leah pulled away. She pulled away from them all.
I’m alone she said. I’m all alone without my Yossi.
No, no Rivvie said. You’re not alone, Leah.
I am Leah said. I am alone. Without the weight of a baby to hold me down . . .
You’ll float away finished Sarah.
There was a deep moment of silence between the women.
Then the sound of footsteps on the bridge. They turned to look, and saw that it was more of the neighborhood ladies, women in their nightdresses, their unwigged heads bound up in terry cloth turbans and bright fringed scarves, slippers on their feet. Miriam Brownstein, a kind old bubbe who made the best rugelach, was standing in the center of the crowd, holding the boy in her arms. He was wearing footie pajamas, the ones that had been Yossi’s favorite. White with little pirates all over, and pirate ships, too. Yossi used to point and say X! X marks the spot, Ima!
The boy’s shorn blond hair was messy with sleep, the curls of his payos askew. His head rested on Miriam’s shoulder. His thumb was planted firmly between his red lips. The woman walked him over to where Leah was sprawled on the wooden planks. She knelt down beside her.
Leah, please Miriam said softly. Hold your son.
Leah took the boy in her arms. She touched his mussed hair and stroked his cheek. She lay back on the planks of the bridge and held him against her tightly. His head slid into a perfect fit between her breasts. The boy sighed in his sleep. His thumb slipped from his mouth, and his little hand reached for Leah’s neck. His grasp was moist and gentle.
He was sweet and soft and warm. But he wasn’t Yossi.
The weight was just not the same. It was barely perceptible, but this boy was lighter. The difference was so slight, just the weight of a little golden hair.
The women gasped as Leah’s back lifted from the bridge and hovered there, just inches above. Miriam took the boy back quickly, held him with her big safe rugelach-making hands, as Leah continued to rise, tears spilling like strange diamonds. She floated above the gathered mothers, in her green Chagall dress, her body a wisp, a curl of painted colors. She drifted, moving over the neighborhood, all the little houses in the dark below her and the moon a silver splinter stuck into the sky above. The women ran after her, their chins pointed up and their arms outstretched.
They scrambled up the curbside trees, their nightgowns and housecoats hitched, revealing their rosy knees. Branches snagged their tichels and turbans, and their hair tumbled loose among the maple leaves, blond and brown and copper. They climbed high, and threw their hands out into the swirling sky for Leah.
Leah rippled and spun. She called out to them, her voice ringing like a bell. I’ve got to go!
No, no! the women called back, a chorus of bells rising to meet hers. We will keep you!
Leah saw Esty and Rivvie and Sarah, and the other balabustas, stretching themselves on tiptoes in the trees to reach her. She saw Miriam Brownstein cradling the sleeping child in her arms on Belvedere Street, petting his head softly and whispering into his ear as she looked up at Leah sailing above. The poor motherless boy.
Leah held out her hand.
They reeled her in, out of the sky. They piled their soft bodies over her, weighting her with their limbs and bellies and breasts. They kissed her eyelids and they held her hands.
Hold me down Leah whispered. Yes, hold me here.
Anna Lea Jancewicz lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where she homeschools her children and haunts the public libraries. She is an editor for Cease, Cows and her writing has appeared at the Barrelhouse blog, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Sundog Lit, WhiskeyPaper, and many other venues. Her flash fiction “Marriage” was chosen for The Best Small Fictions 2015. Say it: Yahnt-SEV-ich. More at annajancewicz.com.
At: “Lace Collar” by Ani King