A Different Person

In Amman, giant Pepsi cans rotate on the roofs of bus stations, Kellogg’s corn flakes line the market shelves, and I can buy Neutrogena soap in a mall.

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”

Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”

The Bridge

In Amman, giant Pepsi cans rotate on the roofs of bus stations, Kellogg’s corn flakes line the market shelves, and I can buy Neutrogena soap in a mall. I can taste homemade ice cream in a hundred different flavors—mango, chocolate, lemon, strawberry, coconut. After traveling for several weeks in the eastern stretches of Turkey and then down through Syria, I find such things decadent, almost hallucinatory. My boyfriend, Keith, and I have a room on the roof of Hotel Bader, where duct tape crisscrosses the windows. The city—enormous and chaotic—hums outside our door. From its highest buildings, they say, you can see the lights of Jerusalem.

It’s July 1994, and the Gaza Strip and Jericho have just been given Palestinian self-rule. Yasir Arafat plans to set foot in the occupied territories for the first time in over 20 years. His trip to Jericho has been postponed, rescheduled several times, is still pending. The Jordan Times reports shootings in the old city of Jerusalem, a buildup of hostility in Jericho. Tanks are roaming the streets, and the border between Jordan and the West Bank has been closed several times.

I was raised Jewish and even gave myself a homemade version of a bat mitzvah at the age of 21, but for the past several years, I’ve felt Judaism has little or nothing to do with me. Sure, I attended High Holiday services every so often and traveled home for the annual Hanukkah rites, lighting the menorah with a pleasure that seemed spiritual. But I never identified myself as Jewish in any sense that would necessitate a pilgrimage to this particular holy land. In fact, I thought Keith and I, when we left his home in Turkey, were headed toward Greece for a romantic holiday in the islands. But the lure of the unknown, and stories from returning travelers, led us to Syria and now, finally, to Jordan, a hand’s-breadth away from what my family deemed the promised land.

Before entering Syria, Keith bought me a brass wedding ring, a prop. He bargained a street merchant down to 30 cents, then slipped the ring on my grimy finger. “It won’t last forever,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant—the ring or this “marriage”—but the gesture turned him amorous. He wrapped his arm around me as we trekked uphill to the bus station. All through our journey, I’ve been polishing the ring with my thumb to give it the aspect of gold. We both know that this trip will be the last one we’ll take together; at the end of it, we’ll separate for the final time. He’ll return to Turkey, where he teaches English; I’ll return to Seattle alone.

My wedding ring is not the only fabrication: On the visa form, I identified myself as a married, Christian teacher, traveling only for the purposes of tourism. Only later did I fully comprehend that to put down “Jewish” might have barred us from the country; only later did I know that a Jewish woman who finds her way to Israel via Arab lands will be an ambivalent tourist, indeed. At the time, I acted only from the instinct that told me I could no longer travel as myself.

Now that we’re in Jordan, only a few miles from the border, my desire to see Jerusalem has become irrational, one that feels like hunger. I keep turning toward what I think is Jerusalem; I can almost feel the tug on my chest. I know I’ll never be this close again. How would I explain to my parents or my one surviving grandfather that I had traveled merrily through Syria, a country they’d always known as “enemy,” and enjoyed hospitality I’d never before encountered— eating five-course meals in the houses of friendly Syrians, visiting mosques and praying along with Muslim worshippers, happily munching shawarma in the street bazaars, and barely paying for a thing because the Syrians insisted on giving us everything for free? How could I explain that I had veered away just a few miles short of the country of “my” people, a country my grandfather would have given anything to see?

But I’m not really an adventurous traveler. And the news reports make me nervous. Keith is the adventurous one: He thought nothing of leaving home to go to Turkey and teach English. He’s got a traveler’s body, lean and flexible, able to sleep for hours in a cramped bus seat. He picks up languages easily and chats with whoever sits beside him, his hand always extended in a friendly handshake. People give him gifts without provocation. Me, I tend to remain silent, wary, turning my face away when someone approaches.

To get more information about the situation in Israel, we visit the American embassy, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Amman. It looks like a Marriott hotel, with ochre tiles in the courtyard, picture windows, an art gallery, air-conditioning. A jeep with a revolving machine gun patrols outside the fence. Inside, we sit in the waiting room with an expatriate who claims to be an advisor to the royal family in Saudi Arabia. He peers at us through thick, grease-coated glasses, clutching a well-worn file in his hands.

Bulletins dated a week earlier urge travelers to use extreme caution and to cross the border only if necessary. “So does that mean we shouldn’t go?” Keith asks the woman behind the glass.

She shrugs. It’s up to us, she says. The situation is always changing.

We linger awhile in the air-conditioning, undecided, studying the black-and-white photographs of ancient Arab women, Bedouins riding camels, wide-eyed Jordanian children.

“You’re safe with me,” Keith says.

“I know. But what if you get sick? What if you get hit by a car?”

He picks up my hand. On this hand I’m wearing the wedding ring, scratched and dull, and he twists it around my finger.

“If I get hit by a car,” Keith says, “you would become a different person.”

I know what he means. He means that we make choices—in travel, in relationships. The way we stand in relation to the world is not static but governed by decisions we make moment to moment. I’ve chosen to be afraid, because I know Keith will act unafraid and strong. I’ve allowed myself to be shy, because I know Keith will make friends for us. I have chosen to be silent, because I know Keith will collect the words we need to know.

“I promise,” he says, “not to get us into anything dangerous. First sign of trouble and we’re out of there.”

The King Hussein bridge out of Jordan was closed yesterday, but today, the taxi driver tells us, it’s bound to be open. Arafat passed through Gaza; in response, a riot erupted at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem—a mob of right-wing Jews threw stones, breaking most of the windows of the Arab-owned shops lining Nablus Road. Curfews have been imposed. I pack our crossing permit—a piece of paper with 17 names typed on it in English and Arabic, along with a few official purple stamps—in my money belt. On this list, our names are misspelled and crossed out and typed again; we’re in the company of people like Suleiman Hassan and Robin Alexander, Raghda Abumalour and Lisa Korris.

This permit is not the same as an exit visa. According to the Jordanians, we are still in Jordan when we cross to the West Bank. According to the Israelis, we are in Israel, and they will stamp us in. Officially, we’ll be in two countries at once.


Our first night in Jerusalem, and we’re staying inside the walls of the old city, in a hostel above the Arab bazaar. Keith has a craving for beer. It’s dark out, but not too late, about eight. We go down the steps and out into the night.

The bazaar is empty and dark, all the stalls shut behind steel doors. No lights. Not a sound. The shadowy alley stretches out for a hundred yards before us, then abruptly turns a corner. It’s as if the bazaar never existed; not even the smell of falafel remains. The Arabs have vanished as if vaporized. The silence is thick, menacing. The damp street smells faintly of wet clay.

We hesitate a moment. “Is it safe?”

“Who knows?”

We start walking in the direction of Damascus Gate. We heard there was a riot last night in the courtyard outside the gate. Some people told us they watched it from the balcony of their hostel: crowds of Israelis throwing stones and shattering shop windows, the Palestinians held at bay by the guns of the Israeli soldiers.

A group of Palestinian boys appears around the bend, wearing jeans and T-shirts, herded by six Israeli soldiers. I flatten myself against a wall, and the group jostles past, the boys sticking their chests out, strutting, and the soldiers trotting after them, silent, their guns held in the position of fire. As they pass us, one of the soldiers does a quick turn on his heel, sweeping the nose of his rifle in an arc across the alleyway.

Soldiers are everywhere, but an Arab man walks calmly by, holding an infant in his arms. The steps up to the gate are lit slightly by the moon, but we must turn a corner before heading outside the wall, a corner dark even in the day, now pitch black. Two soldiers peer down from the wall into the courtyard, their guns at the ready under their arms.

I want to be a different person. I want to be able to walk through my fear and stroll up those steps and outside the walled city, find a six-pack of beer and drink it in our room, laughing. I want to experience this crazy night in Jerusalem. But I am a Jewish girl who grew up in the comfortable suburbs of Los Angeles. I have never heard a mortar round, a bomb or a gunshot. Fear contracts the muscles in my arms, my legs. I lean back against a wall and, in a shaky voice, I remind Keith of his promise.

“I know,” he says, gazing longingly toward the gate. So we turn and go back to our hostel. We go up on the roof and see Jerusalem spread out beneath us: drawing the eye, the Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed is said to have placed his last step before ascending to Heaven; the Western Wall, site of the Jewish Temple built by Solomon and destroyed by the Romans; and beyond, the garden of Gethsemane, with the Russian Orthodox Church domes rising through the olive trees, where Jesus is said to have preached love to his disciples. To the south, we see Mount Zion, where Mary is said to have left the earth and where King David may have been buried. Behind us, the spires rise from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the many sites claimed to be Jesus’ tomb.

Strands of electric wires and telephone lines weave a net across the roofs of the old city. We hear a shot, and then another, in the alley below us. A couple of shouts, then nothing.

From this distance the city is beautiful, the way a memory is beautiful, stripped of the mundane details of survival. From here, like a framed perspective in a film, I can see how the Western Wall is common with the Temple Mount; on one side, the Jews whisper to God and mourn their history; on the other side, Muslim women and children sit gazing into a peaceful garden. The same wall rises between them, implacable.


Keith and I have moved to Cairo Hostel, in the Arab section just outside Damascus Gate. Most of the clientele are young British travelers on their way to or from Egypt, strands of their hair wrapped in bright blue and yellow yarn.

Keith and I have a room and a balcony to ourselves, and we sit there in the mornings, eating yogurt and corn flakes bought from the grocer next door, sipping our filtered coffee. I bring home Jewish pastries from the market, layered crescents of butter and chocolate and cinnamon. We eat pickled herring and cream cheese on chewy flat bread and scoop out chunks of smoked salmon from plastic takeout containers. We eat latkes stuffed in a pita with french fries, and falafel with minted yogurt. We eat Arabic pizza with egg and tomato on top.

On the bulletin board, notices for various events and tours flutter in the drafts. One of them reads, “Do you want to visit a Palestinian Refugee Camp? Get the real story?” There are a lot of exclamation marks on this poster, and declarations written in red.

Complicated arrangements are made. We pass through two police checkpoints to get there. Our guide, a chunky Palestinian man named Mohammed, shows the police an orange card, and the soldiers peer into the van and wave us ahead. Mohammed says, “Those checkpoints are now illegal, since the peace agreement. We are supposed to be able to come and go freely But they do it anyway.” He speaks in fast, clipped English; he sits perched on the edge of his seat in the van, swiveling his head right and left, scanning the countryside.

“Why?” someone asks.

“Because they want to keep things difficult for the Palestinians.”

I’m not sure what I expected; the word camp brought to mind images of tattered canvas tents, women cooking over open fires, goats tethered to scrawny trees. But we park opposite a barbed-wire fence, 20 feet tall, equipped with a complicated system of revolving, barred gates. Behind this fence, I can see about a square mile of crude, white buildings resembling concrete bunkers, with crumbling stairways attached to the outside walls, TV antennae jutting up crookedly from the roofs. On the other side of the street, there’s a wasteland—bombed-out craters, scorched rocks, a few houses reduced to rubble. “The Israelis did that,” Mohammed says, “to eliminate any hiding places.”

We pass through the revolving gate one by one. It’s heavy and hard to turn, and as I pass through, I can see nothing but a blur of wire fencing all around. A claustrophobic prickle rises through my spine and into the back of my neck. I feel a gun aimed between my eyes, but no soldiers are in sight.

We begin walking up a hill, a straggly bunch of tourists wearing an odd collection of clothing: flowered skirts, fuchsia stretch pants, big T-shirts, hiking boots, Tevas, sneakers. We pass very few people on the street. Those we see do not smile at us; they retreat into their doorways and watch. Beside us, an open sewage channel dribbles muddy water, and three small children run past us, kicking a soccer ball. Some men peer at us from a rooftop; they are watching a soccer game on television. We pass a small shop and a falafel vendor.

Mohammed steers us into a house with an improvised portico, a few scraggly plants in containers, a cage with two songbirds up under the eaves. I don’t know if I’m imagining a sense of furtiveness; I don’t know if what we’re doing is illegal. I do know that I feel like hiding my Jewish identity once again, as I did in Syria and Jordan. There are no windows in the sitting room, and we squish together onto a couch, a few chairs, some pillows on the floor. A young man disappears and returns a moment later with tall glasses of 7-Up on a tray.

As soon as we are comfortable, Mohammed begins talking about the history of the refugee camps. He talks about the massacres of1947 that scared the Palestinians out of their homes and into flight. He talks about the indifference and racism of the other Arab nations. He talks about the generations of Palestinians who have grown up in the camps, some never venturing out because they can’t get the right permit. He gestures to the young man sitting beside him, pensive in his chair.

“He has never been to Jerusalem,” Mohammed says, “never seen the Temple Mount. He is 21 years old. He lives seven miles from the holiest place in his religion. But he doesn’t have a permit; he cannot get one, and so he cannot go. The Israeli police may pick up and arrest a Palestinian for no reason; they can detain him for one year without charging him. Once you are arrested and released, you must show up at the parole office every day for a year. Sometimes they keep you waiting at this office all day. And so you lose your job. Without your job, you lose your work permit.”

Mohammed lectures to us from a torn easy chair, his eyes flashing behind his glasses. He tells us that during the Gulf War, many Palestinians went up on their roofs and cheered the scud missiles, the enemy planes. They didn’t care that the bombs could destroy them, too. The Israeli army responded by placing restrictions. No one could go onto a roof for eight months. “Eight months,” Mohammed says, waving his arms. “This is a culture that lives on the roof. In this heat, the buildings become sweat boxes. They eat their dinner on the roof; they watch television on the roof; they drink their tea on the roof. But anyone caught on a roof during this time would be arrested.”

A girl in a long, flowered dress scoots to the edge of the couch and starts to ask a question, but Mohammed is speaking quickly now. “The Israelis are systematically destroying the economy of the Arab quarter in the old city. You have seen how dirty the Arab quarter is; you have seen how crowded; you have seen how there are no lights; you have seen how the streets can be evacuated at the orders of the police.” He speaks breathlessly and goes on to tell us how the Jewish quarter is clean, spacious, well-lit, because this part of the city has been allotted sweepers and street cleaners and gardeners. There are no such services in the Arab quarter. He tells us they don’t want tourists to go there to spend their money. The tourist brochures, in fact, warn people away from the souks. “Now they are talking about building a tunnel from West Jerusalem to the Wailing Wall,” he tells us, “so that the tourists and the Jews can bypass the Arab quarter altogether.”

“Don’t the Israelis have a historical claim to Palestine?” the girl finally asks.

Mohammed shakes his head. “Just as strong as the Palestinians’,” he says. “It depends on which story you choose to believe.”

“What about the partition agreement in 1947?” a boy interjects. “The Palestinians could have had their own state then. They rejected it.”

“We would not have been safe in such a state. We didn’t know how history would turn out. We didn’t know we would be massacred in our homes. Hindsight is a luxury, my friend.”

The interview is over. The young man who brought us 7-Up hasn’t said a word, and we’re ushered out of his home and back the way we came. We’ve been here about an hour. We head down the muddy street to the exit.

At the fence, two boys try to push their bikes through the heavy turnstiles. They’re about 10 years old. The bikes are fat-tired and awkward, but the boys know how to do it. They have a system worked out. It just takes a little time.

The Guns

On Friday, Keith and I shower and put on the best clothes in our backpacks and head toward the Wailing Wall. At the wall, giddiness fills the air like a party. A group of men dances backward, singing, their arms looped together. Our escort to Shabbat dinner is supposed to be a short man in saddle shoes. I finally spy the shoes, glaring white in the mass of black wingtips and sneakers. It takes nearly an hour to sort out the groups, who’s going where. “Are you with Goldblume?” “No, I’m with Katz.”

A rumor passes through our group; a woman turns to us and says, “I hear we have to go through Damascus Gate. I thought we were never supposed to go there.”

We get to the rabbi’s house, a small apartment in a well-groomed complex of buildings. The small room is already packed with people, and as we enter, the rabbi calls for his wife to bring more chairs. He looks like the rabbi at my childhood temple, a large man with an archaic smile on his lips, a beard, big, meaty hands. He enlists several men to carry a sofa outside to make room for more tables, more chairs. There must be close to 60 people sitting shoulder to shoulder in the room. Beyond their heads I can see the wall-length shelves of books, a phalanx of flickering candles, and silk wall hangings reading Shalom. I could be in my cousin Murray’s house in Van Nuys, the family assembling for Passover. Somehow we find places to sit at a table, and someone offers Keith a yarmulke and a bobby pin.

The rabbi’s wife is a small woman with glowing cheeks, carrying a baby at her hip. She pushes a bulky white scarf around on her head as she bustles between kitchen and dining room. I find out later that she is my age, 35, and has 10 children. Every Shabbat they host a dinner like this, never knowing how many people will show. “It’s what I do,” she says, smiling. “It’s my way of giving back a little.” She and her husband are from Brooklyn, near where my mother grew up.

Finally we are ready to begin. Then a few more diners bustle through the door. They are settlers from Gaza, and they carry automatic rifles and rounds of extra ammunition. Chairs are found for them; the guns are passed from hand to hand over the table to rest against the wall.

“I’m sorry,” the rabbi begins. “I apologize for the crowded conditions here. One of you has already left because he did not feel comfortable in my house. I may never see this person again. I wish him well. I feel terrible, and I apologize for any discomfort.”

We begin a collective murmur of protest, but he silences us with his hand and begins the prayer over the bread. Three enormous challahs sit under embroidered white cloths at the center of the table. He cuts them with swift expertise, sawing first in half crosswise, then cutting through the whole length, then chopping up into chunks. We wait patiently for the bread as it’s passed around the table. We ladle gefilte fish onto our plates, and carrots and roast chicken. The platters keep appearing and bottles of soda water and grape juice.

As the food circles the tables, Rabbi Goldblume sits back in his chair, a child on either side, a child in his lap, and begins to tell us a story. “This is the beginning of the month of Av,” he says. “A dark month for the Jewish people. A month of mourning. It was in the month of Av that the temple was destroyed. It was also in this month that Aaron died. And who was Aaron? Aaron was the older brother of Moses.”

I remember the tomb of Aaron beckoning from the mountain in Jordan, the tiny flash of white adobe in the sun. “We don’t hear about Aaron so much,” the rabbi continues, “because Moses was such a big shot. But was Aaron jealous of his brother’s success? No, he was not a jealous man. Aaron was a peacemaker. He would go to both parties in a disagreement; he would tell a little white lie to each one, and everyone would be satisfied. His death signaled an end to the harmony among the different peoples of the world.”

The rabbi tells us the custom in his household at Shabbat is for everyone to tell something about themselves, to offer a little bit of wisdom. “I may never see you again,” he says, spreading his arms wide, “and I want to connect the faces and the names. I want to remember you. But one thing I ask: Please, no politics. If politics is the most important knowledge you have to offer, please, tonight, give us the second-most important knowledge you have.”

So we begin to eat, and the voices emerge from around the room, some telling complex Talmudic stories, some offering just a fragment of their personal history. One young man tells us the story of his sister, who has just begun treatments for skin cancer. His moral: Stay out of the sun. The rabbi, who remains in constant motion throughout the meal—dishing out food for his children, comforting the child in his lap, filling glasses—listens carefully to everyone and says thank you before moving on.

After about 45 minutes, it’s Keith’s turn. He sits forward in his chair. “I want to say that where we have traveled in Syria and Jordan,” I feel a prickle of suspicion rise in the room, “we encountered wonderful acts of generosity and a true desire for peace. And the hospitality offered to us here tonight makes me think that peace may truly be possible.” The rabbi thanks him quickly and turns to me.

I have a little speech planned, something about how I cried when I first passed through the gates of the old city, how I had never imagined the place itself would have such an effect on me. But I also want to say something about how complicated these emotions are, that there have been no easy epiphanies, no aspect of this trip that hasn’t forced me to face my own ambivalent ties to Judaism. But now that all eyes are on me, none of it seems to make much sense. I look at the boys with the yarmulkes bobby-pinned to their heads, at the rabbi’s wife, who has stopped a moment in her work to listen to what I have to say. And all I can blurt out is, “I am the first person in my family to make it to Jerusalem. And I didn’t really plan to come here at all.”

The room is silent; my heart pounds in my ears. The rabbi thanks me and goes on to the person on my right, a woman who has divorced her husband in order to make her home in Israel.

By the time we finish, it’s after midnight. “Where are you staying?” someone asks me.

“At Cairo Hostel.”


“Near Damascus Gate.”

He gestures toward the settlers from Gaza, who are clipping on their ammunition. These men speak to no one; they are pale and gaunt, their movements quick. “You better go back with these guys,” he says. “They’re loaded.”

I know the Jews who live in Jerusalem have reason to be afraid. I know I would not walk through the Arab sections alone, with a yarmulke on my head, in the dark. I know I’m afraid of the Palestinian boys who walk down the street in front of our hostel, smashing bottles against the wall. But I don’t know if the guns act as protection or as instruments of provocation.

“I feel safer without the guns,” I finally answer, and he turns away with a shrug.

Flowering Judas

Jericho. We take a shared taxi through the desert, passing vast areas cordoned off by barbed wire, behind them shanties made of plywood, and dirty canvas tents. “Refugee camps,” one of the other passengers tells us, a Jordanian woman who works for the World Bank. She’s on assignment to help work out the financial troubles of the fledgling Palestinian government.

“That must be difficult,” Keith says, meaning it must be difficult for a people who have been without a government so long to suddenly find themselves in charge.

“Yes,” she answers. “Appointments mean nothing to them. I can never find anyone in.”

We take a winding road down into a river valley and arrive in the green oasis town, which displays vivid remnants of Arafat’s visit the day before, a visit without incident. Sophisticated graffiti splashes across every wall: murals of Arafat bursting triumphantly through a barbed-wire fence, holding the two ends in his fists; lurid portraits of Arafat in full military dress, in glossy reds, yellows and khaki green. Hundreds of Palestinian flags flutter from wires strung across the main square.

The first thing I notice is how our shoulders relax as we step into the square. I feel as though we’re back in Syria, grinning happily at everyone we meet. Two Palestinian policemen, unarmed, stand nonchalantly on the corner, smiling. “Welcome,” they say. They shake Keith’s hand.

“Are you happy?” Keith asks.

They laugh. “Yes, we are very happy,” they say.

We wander through the town, and we sit and eat some ice cream in the shade. We take a snapshot of an immense flowering Judas tree, its red petals almost obliterating the green leaves. Keith leans down and picks a bright sticker out of the gutter; it’s the NBC peacock, fallen from the camera of a news team following Arafat.

I feel oddly safe in Jericho. I don’t want to go back to Jerusalem. I don’t want to bear the responsibility, the history or the sorrow that being a Jew in Jerusalem demands.

The Mezuzah

It’s our last night together in Jerusalem. Keith flies back to Turkey tomorrow, and I’ll leave the next day, flying to London and then home. On the roof of our hostel, some kids play guitar, while around us the lights of the city brighten. It’s warm; it’s the desert, the night air silky with Bible stories and miracles. Right across the street, they say, Jesus rose from the tomb. I have a picture of Keith emerging from the cave, waving among the onlookers.

In my Jewish Youth House days, many of my friends made pilgrimages to Israel, took group tours that led them in safety and comfort through the old city, to a stay on a kibbutz, to a float in the Dead Sea. They came home glowing with Zionist fervor, souvenir yarmulkes in hand. Their faith, in those days, seemed wonderfully simple, something I admired and coveted for my own. Now I wonder what I would think if I had come to Israel without passing through Syria and Jordan first. I wonder if I would feel content with Jerusalem, a good Jewish girl with all her roots firmly in place.

The kids on the roof of Cairo Hostel are playing “Guinevere,” and I want to dance. For a moment Keith and I waltz awkwardly in place, then sway for a few moments, looking at the view. “Guinevere had green eyes,” a young man croons off-key, “like you, baby, like you.” I think of being alone here for a day and automatically start to plan all my movements—through the Arab quarter, where I’ll try to bargain for souvenirs, to the Western Wall, where I will bow my head against the stone and pray. I won’t be too frightened because I’ll know my way around. I’ll know where I can go and where I cannot. I’ll buy my grandfather a handmade yarmulke in threads of blue and white. I’ll buy my parents a mezuzah—I’ve already seen it—a thin, silver case decorated with vines, but I don’t know where to buy the parchment, the tiny piece of scripture that slips inside. The shopkeeper in the old city insists this scroll must be written fresh, by a rabbi, on the right kind of paper, with the right kind of ink. It must be checked by a rabbi every three years to make sure it’s still kosher. When I asked her why, she shrugged and rolled her eyes. She said, “These things are a mystery.”

She couldn’t tell me where to buy the parchment. “Just go to your rabbi,” she said, waving me away. I dared not tell her I have no rabbi, and neither do my parents. I’ll end up giving it to them without the scroll inside; they’ll tack it up to the doorsill of their house, empty, except for good intent.

Keith and I go downstairs to our room with the arched windows, the palms outside rustling in the wind. I take off the fake wedding ring and stand a minute at the window, Keith waiting in the bed behind me. The ring has left a faint discoloration on my finger, and I feel light without it, light in a way that could signal either liberation or terror. Already I’m drawn into the flow of departure: the bus starting up, the twisted lanes of passport control, the last glimpse of a head as it turns away. Already I feel like a different person, but what exactly has changed, I could never tell you for sure.

About the Author

Brenda Miller

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, including An Earlier Life, which received the Washington State Book Award for Memoir. Her latest book, A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form (2021), is available from University of Michigan Press.

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