The Willful Child

When I was 5 years old the teacher at the kindergarten in Bnei Brak said: Anyone who looks up at the sky when Hashem is peeking down from the clouds and sees Him, will die on the spot.

1. I was looking for a place to get a manicure and pedicure, and stopped outside a shop on a busy street. A couple was sitting out front. They looked very much alike - round and plump with smooth, broad faces. In a plastic basket at their feet lay a baby who looked much like both of them. Behind them, through the glass, I saw a black sink with a cradle for the neck, scissors and combs, a handheld blow-dryer and, hanging on the walls, blown-up photos of Russian pop stars. I decided to go in. I found that they'd immigrated from one of the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union; that despite their young age they had three daughters and a son - the baby here with them now; that they live in a provincial town and that one of the big pictures on the wall was a specially commissioned portrait of their eldest daughter, her smooth black hair standing out against the blue background.

The mother of the family did her work with skill. With her skimpy clothes that clung to her rolls of soft flesh and her brassy, dyed hair, she seemed to me very brave. Aliyah, I think, is not so very different from emigration or becoming a refugee. I want to help by coming here regularly. I tell her my grandfather was Russian. She asks if I speak the language. The father is smoking outside and rocking the baby. A girl with a Christopher Robin haircut enters the shop. Her eyebrows are arched. No more than 11, she resembles her sister on the wall in her facial features, but their expressions are not the same. This one's a witch, says her mother. The girl holds out a bag filled with the groceries she was sent to buy, and her mother asks her to mind the baby. She obeys. I wink at her. She winks back. I decide to return to this place.

2. The mother looks at me. Her cheeks glow with health. She's a young woman. Her Hebrew is sharp. The conversation rambles on to the topic of love's travails, and then she tells me she read in the paper about a dead woman who came back to life. I think this is nonsense but say nothing. I ask her how things are going and she sighs. The young girl fights with her sisters, doesn't clean up or help at home and causes trouble at school, so she's decided to send her away to a boarding school, a religious one would be best - you don't pay too much there - and this way it will be quieter at home. She went there to visit a few days ago, to see the place for herself, and the conditions are very good - three girls to a room, vacations and lunch, the teachers are religious women who dress modestly, and the lessons are very good because the girl will learn a profession, and they've already applied to the municipality and received permission.

A week later I see the girl with the Christopher Robin haircut crossing a busy street, holding a plastic bag. In the bag is a carton of milk. I watch her cross without hesitation, striding purposefully toward the beauty shop, smiling to herself. Looking at her, I know I won't go back to see her mother again. I can't bear the thought that there's nothing I can do for this girl.

3. Every week, the yard of the building where I live fills up with girls from the Bais Yaakov school. Their teachers march them here to observe the blooming garden, to see the almond tree blossoming on Tu Bishvat, the grapefruit tree in winter, and the flowers and grass the rest of the time. The girls, in their blue uniforms and long sleeves, chat quietly. Sometimes I see two or three standing close together and leaning on one another, holding hands. When I was 5 years old the blonde-wigged teacher at the girls' kindergarten in Bnei Brak said: Anyone who looks up at the sky when Hashem is peeking down from the clouds and sees Him, will die on the spot. Every time we went outside to the yard, I looked up. I didn't believe her and I wasn't afraid.