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Tova Reich


One Hundred Philistine Foreskins (EXCERPT)

Posted: 04/22/2013 5:39 pm

Below is an excerpt from the novel One Hundred Philistine Foreskins, by Tova Reich, the author of My Holocaust and The Jewish War. It's a dark satire about a charismatic woman rabbi in Jerusalem, known as Ima Temima (Tema Bavli in her Brooklyn childhood), a brilliant teacher of the Hebrew Bible and a guru with a huge and devoted following.

The Oscwiecim Rebbe was already in place in his designated chair at the head of his dining room table in which only he was permitted to sit and which stood empty as if occupied by his ghost when he was not there to fill it. Behind him in the shadows stood his son, Kaddish, his chief shammes and right-hand man. Reb Berish, his major donor, took a seat to the rebbe's right, with Tema, Reb Berish's daughter, standing before them to their left like a defendant in the dock, and the rebbetzin, with her everyday oxblood- shoepolish-coloured wig slightly askew on her head and in her flowered housecoat with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, listening in through the open kitchen door as she continued rolling and shaping more than two hundred matzah balls for the forthcoming Sabbath's chicken soup.

Stroking philosophically his long white beard yellowed around the mouth by tobacco and tea, the rebbe mumbled a few perfunctory questions in Yiddish to Tema since he was already familiar with the main points of the case through her father and chose to avoid being troubled by probing her side of the story--her reasons for refusing to marry and her rejection of every suitable prospect. After a brief consultation with his wife, who now stood beside him mopping the sweat from her forehead with a dishrag, the rebbe announced his diagnosis that Tema was possessed by a dybbuk, the naked soul of a dead sinner condemned to wander the earth in restless torment, possibly even the girl's own mother, who had invaded the vessel of Tema's body to take refuge there. It was this dybbuk that was speaking through Tema's mouth insisting she would never get married, the rebbe explained, these were not the words and certainly not the thoughts or desires of a respectable and sensible girl like Tema Bavli herself from such an outstanding and reputable family.

It would be necessary to expel this dybbuk from the vessel of Tema's body, and since they already had her there in the room, it made perfect sense to proceed with the exorcism at once. Tema briefly considered turning and running out of the house of the Oscwiecim Rebbe to make her escape, but where could she go? She was trapped as if in a dream in which she was both actor--or acted upon--and observer. It was a Thursday evening in early winter, darkness was descending. Ten men were rounded up, trudging in from the street in their galoshes with their shopping bags, to make up a minyan. The rebbetzin turned on a lamp, and for atmosphere she lit the candles in all of her Sabbath sterling silver candlesticks, which approximated, since one is forbidden to count, the number of her children and grandchildren, close to one hundred.

She directed Tema to remove her shoes and stockings, and pointed to the chair in which Tema must sit. Pinning Tema in place for the procedure with one arm encircling her neck in a kind of headlock and the two fingers of her other hand pressing down firmly on Tema's pulse where the demon resided, the rebbetzin whispered urgently into Tema's ear, "Push! Push! Push that dybbuk out, daughter!"

At the same time, the rebbe, her husband, was stationed at Tema's bare feet, which were resting on a stool. At his wife's behest, he was holding out a bowl to catch the exiting demon while intoning Psalm ninety-one over and over again, forward and backward, for what seemed like an eternity--You who sit in the high mystery, You who rest in the shade of Shaddai--his eyes glued to Tema's big toe as it was sinful for his gaze to stray any higher up for the sign of the blood that must trickle down to mark the exit of the dybbuk.

"Shmiel," the rebbe's wife called to him from her end, "do you see anything yet?"--but the rebbe only shook his head despondently. The rebbetzin brought her mouth close to Tema's ear and hissed, "So nu, what about getting married already? We don't have all day. I have fifteen kugels to make for Shabbes!"--but Tema raised her hand, the one that was not being pressed down by the rebbetzin at the pulse, and motioned with her index finger from side to side--No.

They were dealing with an exceptionally stubborn dybbuk who was not co-operating at all, the rebbetzin indicated to her husband. A more extreme measure was now called for to finish this business. Dutifully, the rebbe gave the nod to Kaddish, who joined forces with his mother at Tema's head with a shofar clutched in his fist, which he raised to his mouth and blasted directly into Tema's ear, into the very same ear that she had plugged with a finger when the names and attributes of eligible young geniuses scouting for a rich bride were presented for her consideration. The rebbe's son Kaddish now filled that ear with a ringing so intense that Tema thought she was hearing voices, and all of the voices were chanting in chorus, No, No, No.

Excerpted with permission from Counterpoint Press. Copyright Tova Reich 2013.

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