A Taste of Mandel Bread

 


Photo: Mark Teske

A Taste of Mandel Bread

By Deborah Kotz

 

Kayla was in the zone. Hunched over her desk in her dark apartment, she breezed through the LSAT logical reasoning section with three full minutes left to answer the final question on the practice exam. She felt like she’d finally cracked the LSAT code. The exam had consumed her life for the past six months and would determine whether she got into a top 10 law school, and ultimately her future legal career. Breaking a 170 meant a potential free ride to NYU, while a 160 meant a mediocre school and $300,000 of debt. She had been denying herself walks with friends, wedding planning, and even her fiancé, to get the score she needed.
 
Logical Reasoning Section
Question 25. If a philosopher defines an action as morally right, that means it’s expected to improve the well-being of the majority of people affected by it. If it’s morally wrong, it’s expected to reduce the well-being of the majority. If the action should leave the majority unchanged, the philosopher also deems it to be morally right. The philosopher assumes which of the following?
(A) Only wrong actions would be expected to reduce the aggregate well-being of the people affected by them.
(B) No action is both right and wrong.
(C) Any action that is not morally wrong is morally right.
(D) There are actions that would be expected to leave unchanged the aggregate well-being of the people affected by them.
(E) Only right actions have good consequences.
 
Kayla circled A, slammed her exam book shut, and jumped up from the desk with a force that sent her flimsy plastic desk chair crashing backward onto the hardwood floor.
 
What would a philosopher think of her Covid wedding? If a majority of wedding-goers were expected to have improved well-being from the celebration, while a small minority were expected to get sick from a potentially deadly infection, was that morally right?
 
 If her father were alive, he’d put his arm around her shoulders, tell her not to worry, and would recite his favorite quote from the Jewish philosopher Hillel. "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” he would have said. He might then have added his own take on Hillel’s words. “If you’re comfortable going to your best friend’s hypothetical wedding, plan that same wedding for your loved ones to attend.”
 
Where did that leave her? At the moment, she didn’t have time to sift through all her uncertainties and contradictions to discern where her wedding fell on her comfort scale. She quickly headed to the bathroom and glanced at herself in the mirror, blotting concealer over the dark circles under her eyes.
 
A doorbell sounded on her laptop, which she had left on in the living room to allow her family to join their weekly Zoom meeting.
 
“Hello? Is anyone there?” Her mother, Cynthia, had logged on to the meeting. “Kayla? Marty?”
 
“Be on in a second, Mother!” she yelled, as she headed out of the bathroom and into the living room. She crossed momentarily in front of her laptop, which was perched on a wooden coffee table, to pick up her jeans that she had tossed on the floor the night before.
 
“Oh my God, you look so thin! Kayla, have you been eating?”
 
 “Yes, I’ve been eating,” Kayla said. Tiny pinpricks of light circled around her, a haze of stars twinkling in the bright afternoon light. Pain was starting to seep into her temples. The first sign of a migraine.
 
She sat on the edge of her gray Ikea couch and pulled the laptop towards her. In fact, she had started counting calories again sometime last month. Her fiancé Brian, at her insistence, had gone back to California to see his parents, allowing her more time to study. With him not around, she could get into fighting shape. Her brain functioned much more clearly on the fasting routine she’d established. She allowed herself to eat only during an eight-hour span each day: twenty carrot sticks, two pieces of avocado toast, two hard-boiled eggs, and a dozen almonds.
 
“Seriously, Kayla. You look like you dropped at least five pounds,” Cynthia said.
 
“Mom! Leave her alone!”
 
Kayla exhaled. A window had popped up with Marty’s living room bookcase in the background. Her sister’s face was turned to the left and partially off-screen. Marty was likely attending to one or both of her small children. Kayla ran her fingers through her fine blonde hair – like a baby’s, her mother liked to say – and smoothed it down. When her hair wasn’t flying off in all directions, she was told she looked like a Jewish version of Jennifer Lawrence, her blue eyes closer together than Jennifer’s and a prominent bump in the bridge of her nose.
 
“Hey guys, sorry I’m late,” she said. “I was finishing a practice exam. My schedule was screwed up because some guy started yelling at me about the mask I was wearing when I was out walking Simba.”
 
“What? He wanted you to take it off? That’s a new one,” Marty snorted.
 
“No, apparently, neck gaiters are no longer safe. Turns out, I’m spreading more COVID germs by wearing one than if I didn’t wear anything at all.”  
 
“Auntie KK! Watch this!” Marty’s four-year-old did a cartwheel in front of the screen.
 
“Fantastic, Maddie! You’re going to be a gymnast just like me,” Kayla said to her niece.
 
“But even better.” Maddie’s presence made these weekly Zoom calls almost bearable.
 
“Marty, make sure to move that glass vase. Maddie almost knocked it over,” Kayla’s mother said. Her penciled-in eyebrows were nearly grazing the top of her forehead, clear evidence of the brow lift she’d had six months earlier, right before the start of the pandemic.
 
“You know, Kayla, that guy has a point about the neck gaiter.” Marty’s gray roots became more prominent each week and now looked like marshmallow fluff smeared in her dyed brown hair. . “You really need to make sure you’re wearing the right kind of mask. New York is a disaster area.”
 
Kayla rolled her eyes and pressed her fingers to her temples. The pulsing sensation was building and about to settle in a spot just behind her right eye. “Real women don’t put down other women,” she said. She felt her cheeks warming and her heart beating faster. “I really don’t need you to mask shame me.”
 
“Seriously? ‘Real women don’t put down other women?’ Did you read that on an Instagram post?” Marty grabbed her nine-month-old son, Theo who was fussing in his Exersaucer, and she started bouncing him up and down on her knee, so hard that his head began to wobble like a bobble-head doll.
 
“Now now, ladies. Settle down. No need for a cat fight in front of Mother.” Her brother Daniel’s face popped up in a new window and the teasing tone in his voice made Kayla smile.
 
“Ah, Daniel. Nice of you to finally show up.” Cynthia said.
 
“Fashionably late as always,” Daniel said. His straight brown fringe streaked with blonde highlights trailed down one side of his face, obstructing his left eye and hitting just above his prominent cheekbones. “Hey, where’s Bubbie? Isn’t she joining, or does she have a dinner date? I heard she’s been hitting up JSwipe.”
 
“Your grandmother is having technical difficulties,” Cynthia said. Kayla watched her take a sip from a mug. “The guy who usually helps her is in quarantine. But we were just about to start talking about the we…dding.” Cynthia’s voice went up and down two notes as she held the mug in front of her. “Kayla finally found her dress. Now we’ll need to take it in another two inches because she’s not ea…ting.” Again, with the sing-song voice. Her mother harped on for a few more minutes about Kayla’s weight before Kayla cut her off.
 
“Mom, I’m fine. I just haven’t been very hungry lately. Too stressed. I don’t even know if Brian’s family is going to come. They don’t want to fly in from California.”
 
But the biggest absence would be her father’s. He wouldn’t be there. If he were on the Zoom call now, he would have silenced her mother with some kind of self-deprecating remark. “Look honey, Kayla just takes after my side. Thin runs in the family,” he might have said, while raising his shirt to show off his ribs. He had shed thirty pounds from the chemotherapy treatments right before he died three years ago. She missed his lightness and the Jewish-style humor he brought to every family gathering.

Kayla grabbed her wedding veil and plopped it on her head. “Hey, Maddie, look!” She jumped up and turned her laptop to face away from the couch to the open space in her living room. “Maybe I’ll go down the aisle like this.” She raised her arms, bent backward into a bridge, and did a slow back walkover with her veil trailing behind her, billowing into a floating cloud as she flipped over.
 
Maddie squealed in delight and tried a version of her own, falling on her backside. She promptly started crying before Marty muted the call.
 
“Actually, Kayla, we do need to finalize the guest list, at least for the A-listers who are invited in person,” Cynthia said.
 
“So the B-listers get to watch by Zoom? Fun!” Daniel said.
 
“Count me on that list,” Marty said. She frowned, and Kayla saw the prominent creases between her eyebrows.
 
“Honestly?” Kayla said.
 
“I told you. Joe and I just don’t feel comfortable. Even if you’re having only fifty people. It’s just not right.”
 
Kayla knew Marty’s husband Joe would have been fine with coming, but her sister made all the decisions for them. It was also not surprising that Marty made Kayla’s wedding all about her. Kayla hadn’t received a single shred of sympathy from her sister on how disappointing and lacking in joy it was to plan a wedding during a pandemic. She hadn’t discussed her recurring nightmare with anyone in her family, one where her grandmother, her bubbie, lay in a hospital bed, dying alone, calling for her.
 
Kayla received a notification from Zoom that the meeting was about to end and felt a surge of relief. She couldn’t deal with another argument with her sister. Visions of eloping with Brian on a windy Aruba beach danced in her head. Just the two of them, powdered sand inching between the crevices of their toes, gazing into the sunset with the lighthouse behind them.
 
“Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset, swiftly go the days,” her mother was singing. “Ah, Bubbie’s so excited about this wedding. It’s the one thing she’s looking forward to. She says she can’t wait to get out of prison for the day.”
 
*
 
Sarah Reinhardt couldn’t ignore the rattling in her chest. It sounded strange as she breathed out but was silent when she breathed in. Odd, but new? Nu? Who knew? She gets a swab stuck up her nose every week, and they keep telling her she’s fine. Maybe she’s just imagining things. What difference did it make, anyway, if she got this new plague? This Covid. She didn’t believe in it any more than she believed in the plague of people who could wipe out an entire shtetl. Nothing left; just overgrown trees. Even the brick chimneys were gone.
 
She knocked on her door and rang a buzzer. Odd that she needed to knock and ring to conjure others to enter her room. This was not what freedom in America was supposed to be, sealed in the jail cell of your apartment, served meals by people in spacesuits.
 
This one who came in now, was it her usual guy? She couldn’t make out his features, and didn’t care to, but he waved to her as he set up her TV screen, and Sarah was grateful she wouldn’t be missing the Zoom session again this week. She burbled with excitement when she saw the faces of her daughter and grandchildren.
 
“Bubbie!”
 
They called out to her, these smiling faces. Wait, where was her daughter? Ah, there she was. And there was Kayla, and Daniel, and Marty with her two cutie pies. All there. She wanted to see them all at once. The guy set it up that way. All the boxes arranged in columns and rows like the Hollywood Squares show she used to watch.
 
 “So nice to see everyone!” Sarah said.
 
“Bubbie, move the screen, we only see the top of your forehead,” said Kayla.
 
Always the same problem, but at least Sarah knew how to fix it. Her small, chubby hands gripped the monitor and tilted it toward her.
 
“There. Better,” Sarah said. “You see me now? Ah, look at my beauty, Kayla. Just stunning. The kallah maidel. Just glowing. And what about you Daniel? When are you finally going to settle down?”
 
“Well, actually, there might be someone. We’ve been on a few Zoom dates, and we’re meeting at an outdoor café tomorrow.”
 
“Wait? What? Who?” Cynthia asked, nearly tipping the mug with its teabag string wagging back and worth.
           
“You sound like a game of Clue,” Daniel said. “It’s not Mr. Green in the conservatory with the candlestick. He’s just someone I met on JSwipe. He seems nice, total hottie. Works in an art gallery in the Village, at least he did until he got furloughed.”
 
“Jewish?” Sarah asked.
 
“Yes, Bubbie. That’s why he’s on JSwipe? You know, the Jewish dating site?”
 
“Oh, that’s good,” Sarah said. “In my day, you got a swipe from your Tati if he didn’t like who you were dating. And he’d better not be a goy.”
 
“Oh, he’s not treyf. Don’t worry!” Daniel said.
 
Everyone laughed. At various times, they had all shown Sarah their dating profiles on these online sites, and she had marveled at the specific preferences and filters. Why do you need to block anyone who doesn’t have a college degree? Who has a mustache? Who doesn’t believe in composting? Her only filter, if she were on such a site, would be that he or she be a Jew.
 
“Maybe you can invite him to Kayla’s wedding?” Sarah suggested. “That way we can all meet him. Give him our own swipes.”
 
“Everyone except Marty,” Kayla said. “She’s not going.”
 
“What is this?” Sarah asked.
 
“It’s not safe,” Marty said. “It was fifty people last week, and now they’re up to one hundred guests. I’m sorry but it’s just so irresponsible. We’re Jews. We have a duty not to put other people’s lives at risk. It’s immoral.”
 
Sarah closed her eyes and held her breath for a moment. What did any of them know about morality? Would any of them had gone to her first wedding in a hidden cellar? It was one of three illegal ceremonies held that day in May in the Lodz ghetto. Reuven’s wide smile displayed his missing side molars. It was the last smile he flashed at her, right before he smashed the remnant of the wine glass stomped on by the previous groom, on the day before the bridegrooms were all deported to a labor camp in Germany. The wedding party would have been shot if they’d been caught, but everyone they invited came.
 
“A kosher Jewish wedding will never be immoral,” Sarah said.
 
“Well, they should delay at least until after the pandemic,” Marty said. “Seriously, what’s the big deal to put it off a year?”
 
“A Jewish wedding should never be delayed,” Sarah said.
 
“Okay, we’re running out of time,” Kayla said. “We need to say our goodbyes.”
 
“Until next week, my loves,” Sarah said, before her screen went black. She always had the last word on these sessions, which was as it should be.
 
*
 
It's a beautiful night, we're looking for something dumb to do. Hey baby, I think I wanna marry you.” Daniel sang the lyrics to a Bruno Mars song as he walked Franco, his Pomeranian down Central Park West. He and Kayla were walking side by side with their dogs on an overcrowded sidewalk after finishing Kayla’s dress fitting. Marty was no longer his sister’s matron of honor, so that left him at the top of the wedding totem pole.
 
He saw Kayla looking down at her phone as they waited on the corner for the light to change on 85th Street. “Shit. Almost seven. We gotta log on soon,” his sister said. They crossed the avenue and found a bench near the park’s entrance to sit and do their virtual family meeting.
 
“Girl, these Zooms are not so bad, y’know,” Daniel said, crossing his legs out in front of him. He let Franco chase after the blowing leaves as far as the retractable leash would take him. “You just can’t let the Martian get to you. She can be such a self-righteous bitch.” He and Kayla logged on to the Zoom session on their phones and waited for the others to arrive. He pushed his wireless earbuds into his ear.
 
“But what if she’s right?” Kayla asked, holding Simba on her lap. She rubbed the apricot curls of the mini poodle and hugged the dog close. “What if I do kill someone? What if I kill Bubbie?”
 
“Oh, please. Honey, Bubbie survived Auschwitz and the killing of her family and her first husband. She made it through a death march, weighing seventy-five pounds. She will survive your wedding.”  
 
“Yes, I certainly will.” And there was Bubbie on his phone. Her face popping in as if on cue, or at least half her face, until she adjusted the screen so they could see the entirety of her. His grandmother was the one who’d supported him when he’d come out as gay. Far more than Cynthia had. His traditional, old-world, European Bubbie, who always had freshly baked mandel bread waiting for him when he visited her in Flatbush. In her firm, Yiddish-accented voice, she’d spent months convincing his mother that Cynthia wasn’t going to be “shamed to hell” in her Westchester country club for having a gay son. It didn’t have to be a closely-held secret like Cynthia’s thrice-yearly Botox injections.
 
“Nu, how was your date?” Sarah asked. “Is he wedding-worthy?”
 
“Perhaps, Bubbie, perhaps. We’ll have to see, won’t we?”
 
Actually, the date couldn’t have gone better and ranked near the top of his best first dates. He kept a list. David wasn’t really Daniel’s type physically, a bit too short, and his hair so orange. But his date intrigued him because he didn’t know shit about financial derivatives or asset models like all the other analysts Daniel usually dated at the investment bank where he worked. An expert on Rothko, David was spending his months on furlough trying to create a new form of abstract painting, picking up where Rothko left off. Daniel didn’t really understand any of it, but he was drawn to the way David expressed his passion, drawing little sketches on the napkins at the outdoor restaurant where they’d brunch.

“Bubbie, we really need to think about whether you should come to my wedding,” Kayla said. “I would never forgive myself if you got sick. As much as I want you there, I just don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
 
“Sweetie, I love you. But this is not your decision, farshteyst? I will not miss your wedding. This is what I live for. Otherwise, why am I still here?”
 
“You can Zoom. It’s just like being there,” Marty said. “That’s what I’m going to do.”
 
Daniel hated the self-satisfied smile plastered on his older sister’s face. “Hi Marty, nice of you to join, but no, it’s not the same, though you can tell yourself that,” Daniel said. He had told Kayla not to let Marty push her buttons, and here he was allowing his own to be pushed.
 
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it,’ Marty said. “I feel like this family is insane. Why are you all telling a ninety-five-year-old woman that it’s okay to go to this wedding? Bubbie, you could literally die if you go! Do you really want to take that risk?”
 
“I will not live if I don’t go,” Sarah said.
 
“What? What are you talking about?” Marty asked.
 
“Enough!” Cynthia commanded. “Marty, leave your bubbie alone. She can make her own decisions.”
 
“I believe I’m old enough,” Sarah said.
 
After the Zoom call ended, Daniel looked at Kayla. “You see? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
 
His sister gave him the bird.
 
“Okay, it was bad, but there were sweet moments, too, right? Kind of like Bubbie’s mandel bread,” he said.
 
“You liked it? I thought it was hard as a rock.” She placed a squirming Simba on the pavement so he could sniff at a discarded coffee cup.
 
“It was, and it got a little stuck in my throat on the way down, but it also had that tingly cinnamon and smooth almond taste, which made it worth the effort.”
 
Daniel put his arm around his sister and drew her close. Their dogs started yapping at each other as they got tangled in each other’s leashes. He felt a certain sadness for Kayla, knowing she’d lost her anchor and had been adrift since their father died. He had tried to step in, to fill the void, keep things light and funny. But he lacked his father’s philosophical way of looking at the world that had always resonated with Kayla. He had mourned his father’s death and missed him deeply, but he chose to look forward, not back.
 
*

Cynthia could not believe her bad luck. Who has to plan their daughter’s wedding during a pandemic? What God was responsible for conjuring up such a devious way to torture a mother of the bride? And here was Kayla allowing herself to disappear again, bit by bit. She remembered once telling Kayla in high school that she looked like a concentration camp victim. That did not go over well, but it did finally convince her to go to an in-patient program, and it had helped. Kayla had gained weight and was a normal-thin all through college.
 
She’d thought they were past this. How were they not past this? Brian adored her and was supportive of her career aspirations. Kayla had excelled through Barnard and would likely get into an excellent law school. Why couldn’t things just fall neatly into place? Cynthia deserved to be a normal mother-of-the-bride, worried only about whether to have a sushi table at the smorgasbord, or complaining about the hideous teal color Kayla had chosen for the bridal party. Instead, she found herself pulled in all directions. Her mother crying to her on the phone about her need to attend this wedding above all else. Sarah didn’t care she was being threatened with eviction from the nursing home that forbade her from attending family events. Her daughter Marty wouldn’t let up about the sin Cynthia was committing in planning this wedding. Last week Marty had emailed her an article about a small wedding in Maine – sixty-two people, smaller than theirs – that had led to one hundred and seventy Covid cases and eight deaths.
 
“And counting,” Marty had written in her email. “How can the bride and groom live with themselves?”
 
All Cynthia wanted, had ever wanted, was for her family to be happy and love one another.
 
Cynthia had gotten used to living with a lot of things. A husband who died far too early in life. A son who resented her for not accepting him with open arms when he first came out as gay. A daughter who blamed her for her eating disorder because she remembers Cynthia, herself always on a diet, encouraging Kayla to diet along with her in middle school, to smooth out the love handles around her waist. It was, in fact, that stupid gymnastics coach who had thoughtlessly commented on her daughter’s emerging curves and told her to prepare herself for lower scores from judges.  And Marty found her lacking as a mother, pronouncing on more than one occasion that she was not going to raise her own kids the way she was raised.
 
None of them understood what her own childhood had been like. The nightmares she’d had every night, memories of her mother’s trauma, that her mother had never shared with her. Cynthia had had a recurring nightmare of her mother being bludgeoned by a camp guard for hiding an extra piece of stale bread in her sleeve. She guessed that this was how her mother got the ragged scar on her forehead that she never discussed. The silence around the Shabbat table as her parents sat steeping in their sadness and their stranger-in-a-strange-land hardships. No grandparents, cousins, uncles, or aunts. No one to tell her stories of how her own mother had acted as an eight-year-old.
 
Cynthia grabbed her iPad and logged onto the weekly Zoom. She did not want a repeat of last week, where her mother and Marty nearly got into a screaming match.
 
When she saw Kayla on the screen, she grabbed the fascinator that she planned to wear with her teal wedding suit, and placed it on her head. “What do you think, Kayla?”
 
“Hello, Mom. You look nice. That fascinator looks lovely. I think it will go perfectly with your outfit.”
 
“Thanks. It’s black, and the teal is just an accent, so even if it’s not the exact shade I don’t think anyone will notice.”
 
“Lovely,” Daniel said. “By the way, I’ve decided to bring David. That’s my new hombre’s name. He promised not to wear a tie that would clash with my teal cummerbund. Definite keeper.”
 
“Wonderful!” said Sarah.
 
Cynthia wondered if she could get her mother’s hair cut and styled before the wedding. Sarah’s silver-gray curls sprung outward and upward, creating a bushy halo around her face.
 
“So, we are all set, aren’t we?” Sarah said. “I have my N95, a shield-y thing for when I eat, and a spacesuit I will borrow from the maintenance guy.”
 
Daniel’s laugh was quickly cut off by a loud crash and thump, as Kayla’s empty couch emerged into view.
 
“Kayla? Kayla? You there? What happened?” Cynthia asked.
 
Brian popped onto the screen, wiping his forehead as he peered in from the side. “She’s fine, Cynthia,” he said. He flashed a quick smile which disintegrated into a grimace and his olive-colored eyes looked worried. “Looks like she just got a little light-headed and tripped.”
 
“Faint? Did she faint?” Cynthia felt sweat forming on her forehead. “She needs to eat, Brian. You need to convince her to eat!”
 
“She’ll be okay. I’m handling it,” Brian said. He was off-camera, probably helping Kayla up from the floor.
 
Cynthia wasn’t convinced that her future son-in-law could handle this on his own. “I’m calling her therapist. She needs to at least talk to someone.”
 
“It’s probably not a bad idea,” Sarah said. “Weddings can be stressful.”
 
*
 
Standing in front of a multi-paned Palladian window, in a dressing room filled with antique-style furniture that looked brand new, Kayla gazed out. She surveyed her guests who were milling about the lawn near the flowered bridal canopy. Sunlight filtered in through the window, creating a gauzy haze under her veil and a softer view of the world in front of her. Through the translucent tulle, Kayla couldn’t make out the individual guests, though she recognized Daniel’s fringe and broad shoulders, and the shorter fellow with his red curls whom he’d brought as his date. Was David his name? She enjoyed her feeling of privacy, seeing the world as if it were an impressionist painting with soft lines and no edges.
 
Maybe it was the Xanax that her therapist had prescribed, mixed with a few sips of champagne. She didn’t want to wake up from her dream-like state. She certainly didn’t want to think about Marty watching through Zoom, critiquing the guests on whether they were properly socially distancing and wearing masks.
 
She flipped her veil up when she heard a soft rap on the door to the bridal suite. Brian had come in to check on her, even though he wasn’t supposed to see her until the ceremony.
 
“Wow! You are stunning,” he said. He presented her with a small rectangular box containing a string of fresh-water pearls, each orb with an abstract shape crafted by the sea. “I know how much you wanted that Aruba beach wedding, so I am hoping this will bring a little part of the ocean to you.”
 
 Kayla sucked in her cheeks and pursed her lips together to make a fish-lips face, her special talent that always made Brian smile. She added a little extra, widening her eyes so they bulged out like the reef fish they’d seen in Aruba. He rewarded her with his cackle laugh, punctuated with a snort, and did a fish-lips face of his own – a weak effort, but he had other qualities.
 
She felt a sensation of pure joy tingling through her as he fastened the pearls around her neck. She had intended to keep her neck bare, simple, without adornment, like her dress. But the necklace was the perfect touch. Brian knew what she needed, often before she did.
 
This was the man she couldn’t wait to marry, who quieted the voice in her head that told her she didn’t deserve even fleeting moments of contentment. This voice that made her weigh herself every day, and told her she would always be a failure and a disappointment to her family. She was hearing it now, telling her she wasn’t good enough for Brian. Instead of listening and reacting, though, she examined it and then let it drift away like smoke – out through the window, beyond the wedding canopy, into the sky.
 
“Actually, this is exactly the wedding I wanted,” she said, and she meant it. The words surprised her, but right there, in that moment, she felt she was exactly where she was supposed to be. It was like tasting mandel bread, letting its hardness melt in her mouth.
 
“Mazel tov, kallah maidel! The most beautiful bride I have ever seen,” Sarah said. She was wearing an N95 mask, hunched over her walker, taking slow steps into the room, while Cynthia followed behind. “Now this is what I live for.” Sarah pulled her mask down to her neck and announced she was going to bless the bride. Kayla stooped down so her grandmother’s pudgy hands could find the top of her head.
 
“May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. May God bless you and keep you. May God’s light shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you. May you feel God’s presence within you always, and may you find peace.”
 
“Amen,” Cynthia said as she kissed the top of Kayla’s head. “Your father would be so proud. Such a gorgeous bride. So accomplished. And Brian, a perfect match. Your bashert.” Her mother had tears in her eyes as she reached over to caress Brian’s arm.
 
Kayla dabbed her mother’s cheeks with a tissue. “Mom, don’t cry. You’ll ruin your makeup. And now, look, you’ve got me tearing up.”
 
They both laughed and hugged each other.
 
“Okay, show time,” Daniel said, clapping his hands as he entered the room. “Ladies and gent, are you ready? The natives are getting restless since there’s no smorg, and they’ve run out of the canapés.”
 
Kayla hugged Brian and shooed him out of the room. Daniel looped his arm around Bubbie’s, preparing her to walk outside and down the aisle with him.
 
Kayla allowed her mother to lift her veil and arrange it gracefully in front of her face. She felt the coolness of Brian’s pearls around her neck. Her mother smelled like a mix of citrus and vanilla, her favorite Chanel No. 9 scent. Kayla remembered that scent on the cashmere sweaters her mother would wear to her gymnastic meets. It was that scent her mother wore on her torn blouse all week while sitting shiva for her father, piercing her nostrils when her mother leaned toward her as they sat greeting relatives and neighbors.
 
Standing on the threshold of the doorway, she lifted her veil momentarily to see the brick pathway laid out before her. She saw the smattering of guests sitting on both sides but couldn’t make out most of their faces behind their masks. Their seats were spaced six feet apart on the grass alone or in pairs. With more clarity, she saw the line of guests standing off to her right without masks on. Her father, dead from colon cancer, gazing at her with his lopsided smile and full head of salt’n’pepper curly hair he’d had until he went bald from the chemotherapy. Her grandmother’s siblings and their young children stood behind him. They were in black and white, unsmiling, and looked exactly as they did in the one framed photo Bubbie displayed on her teacart next to her silver candlesticks.
 

 

Would she do them justice, these ancestors? She looked at her bubbie, tottering towards the chuppah with Daniel holding her steady, as they approached the canopy of birch branches, spray roses, and eucalyptus. This is what I live for, her bubbie had said. Maybe that’s all they needed from me, Kayla thought, as she started down the aisle to join Brian under the chuppah. To live.

         

 

Copyright © Deborah Kotz 2022

Deborah Kotz spent more than two decades as a health journalist where she worked on staff at the Boston Globe and US News and World Report. She currently works as a media relations director at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. She’s enrolled at the University of Baltimore MFA program on the fiction track and occasionally contributes columns on Orthodox Judaism and feminism for the JOFA blog hosted by the New York Jewish Week. She holds an undergraduate degree from Cornell University in science communication.

 



 

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