Sylvie, the battered rebbetzin

September 19, 2010 at 10:07 PM 6 comments

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One of the most broken people in my neighborhood is the wife of an orthodox rabbi. I first met Sylvie* at the Seton Park playground when she was the mother of two little boys, a gorgeous one who resembled his father, and a sharp-featured one who looked like her. Sylvie gave up a career as a house builder to become the rabbi’s wife. She had loved her work, but bringing children into the world and supporting her husband’s mission amounted to a higher calling.

Sylvie was curious about my personal history. She wanted to know how I had come to be a single mother of a thirteen-month-old boy. Without revealing more than I wanted to, I told her I had been overly optimistic about making a life with somebody who in no way was my love match. Sylvie studied me — my looks, my story — for a couple of weeks and arrived at an analysis. In Yiddish she said, “Di bist arahngefaln in a grib.” You fell into a hole.

At about the same time, Mrs. Sussman, an elderly tenant in my apartment building, made a more acute diagnosis of my situation when she said, “Somewhere along the road, you took a wrong turn.”

Mrs. Sussman hit the mark because she assumed rightly that I had played an active part in making a bad marriage. Sylvie’s observation made less sense to me because it suggested that fate had mapped out my future and I stumbled into it blindly.

Sylvie had not gotten married until she was in her thirties, a highly irregular situation for a woman from a religious Brooklyn community. When I knew her, she already had a matronly figure, made all the dowdier by an outdated bouffant sheytl, or ritual wig, she wore to cover her shaved head. In the twenty-two years since I met her, Sylvie has never worn a different sheytl, even as all the other sheytl-wearing women in the neighborhood have acquired several in the same period. This specimen of fake coiffure, along with the shipwrecked expression on Sylvie’s face, makes her look closer to eighty than fifty-five, which is about how old she must be by now. In fact, the eighty-something women I know, including my mother, look younger and healthier than Sylvie does.

Sylvie and I used to chat whenever we ran into each other. She could not disguise the pity she felt for my being a divorcee. The tone in her voice said that despite my youth and nice looks, no man would ever marry me because I was damaged goods. I did not take offense. In the world Sylvie came from, women were taught to think like that.

I had never known anybody personally who wore a sheytl, and I was glad to see that Jews from different backgrounds could be friends. Sylvie must have felt the same way because she invited my son and me to lunch. Yet when I left her apartment, I had to tamp down a feeling of disgust that had nothing to do with the tasty potato kugel she had served us: Sylvie’s apartment was chaotic, with toys and cracker boxes strewn helter-skelter. The walls were so filthy that they looked smeared with newsprint, and who knows, maybe something even worse.

That’s Sylvie flying across the room

With each passing week, I found Sylvie to be a little creepier. She was beginning to wear more and more pancake make-up of the sort that historians say left an inch-deep residue on Elizabeth I’s face by the time the good English queen died. I noticed too that Sylvie was starting to stare past me. When I said hello to her now, I felt as if I was standing at the edge of a canyon and shouting to a stick figure down below. Before long, Sylvie was practically catatonic. It is a testament to my own sense of failure that I believed Sylvie decided it was just too socially problematic for her to befriend a divorcee.

As these things go, Gerry, another Seton Park mother, lived directly below Sylvie’s apartment. Whenever I visited Gerry, I would hear the sound of a heavy object thudding against the walls or landing with a thump on the floor.

“That’s Sylvie,” Gerry said.

How odd. I didn’t remember Sylvie being particularly klutzy.

“I mean that’s Sylvie flying across the room,” Gerry explained. “Her husband beats her.”

Whenever I would pass Sylvie’s husband, the bearded, be-hatted rabbi, in the street, he never made eye contact with me. I assumed he was pious in the extreme and had trained himself to look away from anybody who wasn’t his wife. Was his blank face a way of hiding his brutality in plain sight?

“I don’t know what to do,” Gerry said. “I’ve thought of calling the police.”

Gerry did not call the police and nobody else did either.

She fell into a grave

I still see Sylvie in the neighborhood, especially before Shabbat when she shuffles from store to store dragging a wire mesh cart behind her. She wears that muskrat-looking peruke on her head and goes about in stained dirndl skirts, dark cloth stockings and shoes that could double as slippers. She is always alone. The sons have not walked beside her since those old days at Seton Park. I used to see them ambling along with their father. They would be yukking it up as if the rabbi was just a normal dad and they were normal young men, one handsome, one plain, sometimes donned in black velvet yarmulkes, sometimes in black hats. Perhaps they have moved on and gotten married themselves. A terrifying thought.

Lately I have recalled that the Yiddish sentiment Sylvie shared with me — Di bist arahngefaln in a grib — and I realize that it also means, “You fell into a grave.” It turns out that Sylvie was really talking about herself.

I will never understand how a woman who once built houses and lived by her wits into her thirties got buried alive while I had enough grit to climb out of my marital grave before it could change me into a ghost.

All I know is that when life wants to pull you under, you had better fight your fate. And you might have to fight alone, because people are going to hear you fall and they will just keep walking.

Related link: Center Against Domestic Violence

* All names in this post have been fictionalized.

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Entry filed under: Apartments, Bookpod, Family, Judaism, New York City, Religion, Rentals, Tenants. Tags: , , , , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara Bennett  |  September 20, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    That is so incredibly sad. Maybe you could find a few groups that might help her. The only person I can think of off hand who she might be willing to reach out to is Chani Gerter:

  • 2. Sara Bennett  |  September 20, 2010 at 3:14 PM


    • 3. Bookpod  |  September 20, 2010 at 5:45 PM

      I wanted to include some links to battered women’s resources. Thanks for sending this one.

  • 4. anotherfalsestart  |  September 21, 2010 at 3:36 PM

    This is so sad. I have many links for resources if you want them. I think the biggest issuse is the battered woman not being strong enought to call for help and the people who hear the situation not assisting by calling for her. One girl hear me screaming for help and did nothing. When I called the police, I hung up after my husband told me he would take our daughter. When the police called back I convinced them not to come. The law todays says they have to come and check it out to make sure everyone is ok.

  • 5. anotherfalsestart  |  September 21, 2010 at 3:50 PM
    The National Domestic Violence Hotline
    American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence Pro Bono Directory
    National District Attorney Association
    Women Take Back the Night
    California Partnership to End Domestic Violence
    National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
    Directory of Crime Victims Assistance and compensation programs
    Victims of Crime Resource

  • 6. letter4everyone  |  October 14, 2010 at 6:36 AM

    so so sad, hindsight is 20/20. Easy after the fact to say ‘I should have called the police, i should have done something’. Thankyou for posting this, now all who read it know: if u know its happening, take action, speak up, speak out, someones life may depend on it.


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