Sandell Morse’s work has appeared in numerous publications including, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Ascent. Her essay, “Brown Leather Satchel,” won second place in the 2015 Tiferet nonfiction contest, while “Hiding” was a notable essay listed in Best American Essays 2013, and “Houses” was nominated for Best of the Net 2014 and a Pushcart Prize. Other awards come from Press 53, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, among others. She has been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Morse holds an MA in English with a concentration in fiction writing from the University of New Hampshire and an MALS with a concentration in the humanities from Dartmouth College. Morse serves on the boards of The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. She is an avid skier, hiker and dog lover, and she lives and writes on the coast of Maine. Her website is: sandellmorse.com
I’d been hiking Mount Willard, a small outcropping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Clouds hung low; rain threatened. I hiked often and always alone, but not in rain if I could help it. The few hikers I’d seen were all heading down as I headed up. Still, I lingered at the top, standing inside white mist. I loved the stillness of these peaks, the timeless quality of the air. Solid rock under my feet. A couple emerged from the trail. No longer alone, I headed down.
Near the end of the trail, I stopped at a narrow, shallow stream. A crowd had gathered. I saw immediately they were ultra-Orthodox Jews, men with peyot, side locks, wearing yarmulkes, black trousers, long sleeved white shirts and slippery leather-soled shoes, women in long skirts and long sleeved blouses, buttoned high at their necks. The children’s clothing mimicked the adults’ dress, all on a hot damp August day. Groups of Orthodox Jews were a common sight in these mountains. In Bethlehem, a nearby town, an inn on the main street uses Hebrew letters and advertises kosher food, and certain motels provide rooms for prayer. Truly, Bethlehem with its concentration of ultra-Orthodox is an anomaly in northern New Hampshire, and this has been the case for generations.
I surmised two young families in this group, along with a patriarch. Perhaps a grown brother and sister, now with children of their own, their father, and their spouses. I counted eight children. A little girl with pigtails gave me a big smile. Then, she stared. At what? My wrinkled face? My bare arms? The open neck of my shirt? I was an older woman hiking alone, and suddenly, I was aware of how she must see me, immodest and out of place. I looked away.
In the middle of the stream, his feet planted on rocks, a young father held his young son’s hand. The father had flung a towel around his shoulders, and the way he wore it, well, it looked like a tallit, prayer shawl. The boy, a child about four, tottered. Watching intently, the grandfather called encouragement. “Good. Very good.”
As the child’s foot reached for a wet log, I gasped. The grandfather looked my way. Then, I blurted. “Oh, that will be slippery.”
But the older man had already stepped forward to reach for the child’s hand. Then, turning to me, he said, “I’m sorry we are keeping you.”
His tone was warm, his face soft and kind. I wanted to declare my kinship, to say to him, “I’m Jewish like you.”
But I wasn’t Jewish like him or like the women in his group. That week, the ultra-Orthodox had been in the news, a show on “This American Life” about an Orthodox takeover of a school board in East Ramapo, New York. True, the board was elected, democratically, but those elected and running a public school district were Hassidim who sent their children to private Jewish schools, and they had bankrupted the public schools, dramatically. Another article in the New York Times cited an Orthodox population boom in all of New York, city and state, particularly among Hassidim whose stands on abortion, on the role of women, and on Middle East politics were generally conservative and offensive to my ardent liberal principals. I try to be fair-minded, but I have trouble mustering understanding for any closed community.
If I offered my hand in friendship to this kind man, he would recoil. I’d had just such an experience in Jerusalem years ago, and, now, at the stream, memory rose from a hidden fold of my brain. I was once again a Jewish woman in my mid fifties, ignorant of the Orthodox prohibition against touch, and offering my hand to a young Orthodox man. He held his arms tightly to his sides and stepped back. My fingers hung in the soft air. I lowered my hand, lowered my gaze, and I felt ashamed. I didn’t know why.
I am the kind of Jew who chooses her rituals as if selecting from a smorgasbord. I light candles on Friday night—but not always. I fast on Yom Kippur—usually. I don’t belong to a synagogue. Yet, in the past I have belonged, depending on whether or not I liked the rabbi. I may belong again. Who knows? I prepare a Passover Seder for family and friends—religiously.
The Torah does not forbid a handshake, a rabbi friend of mine said. The prohibition comes from rabbinic tradition, which is commentary. This rule of a man not touching a woman who is not his wife was meant to protect him from his Yetzer HaRa, evil inclination or base animal instinct. The interdiction is against men, but I was the one who felt shame that day in Jerusalem—as if something in my essence had been tainted. This shifting of blame from perpetrator to victim was an old story. My father used to tell me to come home before dark. I must not be late. If I found myself alone in the dark—well, whatever happened to me would be, he said, “Your own damn fault.” Those words, “whatever happened,” were code for rape. My fault. Bad. Evil.
At the stream, the grandfather let go of the child’s hand. He and I were of a certain age, both grandparents, both concerned about that child. Was it the grandmother in me who wanted kinship with this group? The Jew in me? The grandfather nodded as if to thank me, a second time. He really was a nice man. This time, I was the one holding my arms closely at my sides. I didn’t want to. I wanted to extend my hand in amity, but sometimes, life does not give us a choice.
The children bounded off, the adults following. I lifted my eyes from their backs and watched the stream, clear shallow water skimming the rocks where the child had stepped. I looked at the sky, still promising rain. In two deft steps, I hopped across.