Allie Zenwirth | Longreads | October 2018 | 13 minutes (3,360 words)
During the short break between prayers on Rosh Hashanah, a month after Shia transferred to my school, his father passed me on his way out to the bathroom. I was leaning my butt on a folded chair. He said: “You and Shia are study partners, right?”
I said yes.
He said something positive. It might have been “Shia likes it,” or simply that we were doing a good job. I went red in the face and looked away. He left.
For a few weeks after that I kept thinking “What an honor it must be that his father spoke to me.” Now it makes me cringe. It wasn’t a natural thought. It felt like someone had told me this was the proper response. So, I made myself think that.
Whenever I think of him my heart feels like it’s slowly being heaved up and down.
In camp on Friday nights, after the prayer and after we ate our meal, we were supposed to go to Tish, where we would participate in the Rebbeh’s meal — we would watch the Rebbeh eat, hear him talk, and we would sing — for a few hours. When the Rebbeh wasn’t in camp, his brother-in-law, the Rav, would lead the Tish. Since I was a Rachmoonis Case, a problem case, I was given a waiver and I didn’t have to go to Tish.
Instead, I would quickly eat the meal and go to the bunkhouse, and I would lie in bed and read the Chasidic magazines my parents would send by mail each week.
Shia liked going to Tish. It was where he thrived. Afterwards, he would hang out for a few hours with older students from school. I would wake up when he got back to the bunkhouse at around 3 or 4 a.m.. He would walk in with his skin glazed with energy. He would stand next to our bunkbed, his head reaching me at the top of it. I’d look at him. He’d share snippets of things that transpired while I had been asleep. Then he would rush into the bathroom to change into his pajamas.
The first time I noticed Shia plays over in my mind like the color-treated images used in the opening credits of movies of a blissful child running through a meadow giggling.
The first time I noticed him plays over in my mind like the color-treated images used in the opening credits of movies of a blissful child running through a meadow giggling. I can’t remember how old we were. We must have been 10 or 11. We were sitting on a coach bus, towards the rear. He stood on his hard-foam-covered seat and talked with the kids behind him with a jumpy animation.
During, Sikis, a holiday in the fall, a time when we thank god for having kept us safe in the desert for 40 years, the community organized a trip for us kids at an amusement park that had been exclusively rented for the day by the Ultra-Orthodox. We prayed for two hours on the roof of the Shihl, in the brightly lit Sikeh. The air was filled with the musky smell of the bamboo used to make the Sechach of the Sikeh and the leaves used in the Liliv. We were led outside. It was hot. The Coach buses were there waiting for us, glinting in the sun. All of us kids were in our white shirts. We were handed snack bags and led to the coach buses. I went up the bus’s steps and sat down towards the rear. There I saw him.
When bored during the prayers in Shihl I would look at him. This went on for about two or three years. He sat a row ahead and a column to the right of me. He lived in Williamsburg, but his father was an ardent supporter of the Rebbeh, so they always came to Borough Park, where I lived, on holidays.
Junior high came.
I was quiet with nervousness on the first day. I didn’t know what to expect of the curriculum and the teachers. Our grade had two parallel classes and they were mixing up who was in which class. They posted a sheet of paper on the wall, listing the students who were assigned to class A or B. I looked through my class list. In it there was his name, Shia Lefkovitch.
He transferred because his father wanted him to be in our school now, in his formative years.
I kept glancing at him during class. I asked him if he wanted to be my Chavreesa, my study partner, as soon as we had a break. We would typically spend an hour-and-a-half studying with a partner during classes. I wanted it to be him. He said yes.
We would sit across from each other arguing about the Gamureh, the Talmud portion, we were learning in class. We would constantly interrupt the people sitting next to the bookshelves, looking for books to answer our questions and to see which of our theories were correct. When we were done with the class material, we started our own learning projects, tackling Misechtis, tractates, on our own. Then we talked about everything — gossip, magazine ads, current events, politics. He was originally for Gingrich and I for Romney, then I became the Gingrich fan and he the Romney fan. We would sit and eat together.
We’d walk home together. The air would be filled with the exhausts of cars. Sometimes we would dance around puddles. I would go with him to the Williamsburg-Borough Park Bus. The landscape would change from residential homes to big buildings. Sometimes we would just miss the bus. We would comment on people who passed us, even though we were supposed to walk with our eyes to the ground and our glasses off.
We would play chess together during lunch and sometimes during class, with my tiny chessboard on the floor between our desks, while we discreetly made our moves. He won two-thirds of the time. We thought about writing a novel together. Occasionally our Maggid Shiur, our teacher, would stop his prancing around the room, standing at either of our desks with his hand outstretched, coming to confiscate a note we’d passed, sometimes written in code.
In summer camp, a neighboring bunkbed was close to mine. I didn’t like the person on top. I thought he was a slob, acted like a child. His pillow had the habit of pushing itself onto my bed. I couldn’t stand that. So, while he was sleeping or trying to fall asleep I pushed it back onto his bed. He was lying on the pillow, so in moving it completely over onto his bed, I woke him up.
He started pinching me. I started throwing my limbs at him. We began to fight.
Lying on the bed below me, Shia laughed.
I loved his clothes, the way he fiddled with his hands, the way he would bite his lip, his high forehead, the fact that his body language corresponded to the shifting thoughts in his head, his handwriting, his gait, the endless amount of scrap paper in his pockets. And I loved the scent of his sweat that I smelled once when we were dancing.
Once in camp, we decided to go into the woods together, which was forbidden. I was hoping it would be exciting.
When you said “Shia,” everyone knew who you were talking about. There were always crowds around him.
In camp, before we fell asleep, we would fool around. I don’t remember exactly what we did. I think I would put my arm down over the railing. I would move it around trying to avoid capture. He would try and catch it. I think I would shake the bed, he would punch my mattress up. And I think we would compete verbally in a flirty manner. I don’t remember exactly.
I wanted to be able to get along with people the way he did; I wanted to be as smart, as verbally eloquent, and to look as good. But mostly I was jealous of the others who hung around him. I wanted him to be mine and mine alone.
I have trouble describing his personality because he is a noun; he is a Shia. It was as if he had received a secret copy of the instructions for life that had hidden secrets written into its margins. His tales were awesome. You got the sense that they were a teeny bit embellished but that they were inherently true. And it was amazing to watch him in a dull situation. Like a mouse stuck in a cage desperate to escape he would crawl around the edges trying to find his way out. And he always did. He would doodle, look something up in a Sefer, find someone to talk to, or find treasures, like a hidden seltzer bottle.
He loved telling jokes.
He was a troublemaker. He would doodle in the middle of class, come late to the prayers. But more antically, he would take a foam coffee cup, break it into pieces then secretly drop the pieces on someone else’s hat. He would take a post-it note and put in on someone’s back. He would steal up to someone during prayers, and he would slowly begin to untie their Gartel, the rope you tie around your waist when you pray. I don’t think he ever did anything to me; if he did I didn’t notice.
A classmate complained to me once about him, saying that he was rude. But I didn’t think he was rude. He didn’t engage in his antics out of meanness, he just had the urge to make the world as interesting as possible.
When I realized that we wouldn’t write our novel together, the standard Chasidic novel, about an evil gentile out to kill all the Jews, I decided to write it alone, by myself. When I finished writing the first chapter, I handed him a copy and asked him to read it and tell me what he thought. After he read it I asked him again to tell me what he thought. He laughed. I asked him why he was laughing. He wouldn’t tell me.
I would share with him everything that was going on in my life, my “troubles” with my parents, my feelings, and what happened to me. He didn’t comment much but I believed he understood what was going on, so I didn’t need him to say anything.
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He, on the other hand, did not really share much. He did share what happened in his life — he talked about his adventures traveling from Williamsburg to Borough Park — there were a lot of them. He talked about his family, about his youngest uncle, his grandfather, and sometimes his sister, but he never shared what he felt.
One day, in our first year of high school we were supposed to take the morning off from school so we could go collecting money for out sect, in Shihlen, synagogues. I asked if he wanted to go with me. He said yes. We met up the next morning at around 6 a.m., on a shihl on 56th St. between 17th and 18th Avenue. We got into the thrill of collecting money and encountering weird individuals, realizing that back at school, class was already starting but acting like we didn’t know what time it was. We came late to class.
The novel we were going to write had a similar storyline to the Chasidic novels, the only books we were allowed to read. It involved: Christopher Columbus being a hidden Jew hiding his identity from the Spanish Inquisition; a frustrated male college student in Alabama who didn’t know he was Jewish; a secret organization out to kill all the Jews; Jewish people having a unique mutation in their DNA which would make them the only target of the secret organization’s infection; Christopher Columbus burying a cure for the mutation in one of the Caribbean islands; the frustrated college student being a descendant of Christopher Columbus; the frustrated male college student figuring out that he was Jewish; finding the cure to the infection; him stopping the virus; and him realizing that God exists and becoming a Chasid.
Later, when we were 16, I was no longer enrolled in the sect’s school, so in order to spend time together, I would meet him for lunch, and we would “learn” — we talked.
We were born on the same day. When our birthday was approaching I kept thinking about what present to give him. Since I was a Rachmunis Case I was allowed to read more secular books. I loved Tintin, a graphic novel series about an orange-haired-globe-faced adventurer. I wanted Shia to read it too. So one day after Shachris, the morning prayer, I went over to our Maggid Sheer, our teacher, and asked him if it was ok for me to give it to Shia as a birthday present. He said he’s not sure Shia’s father would appreciate that.
Once in camp, we decided to go into the woods together, which was forbidden. I was hoping it would be exciting.
I didn’t get him anything in the end. Instead, I wrote a note during class wishing him happy birthday. He wrote back something clever, I don’t remember what, but essentially it meant happy birthday to you, too.
I began to copy him. I began doodling in the middle of class, I tied my Gartel the way he did. I’d never enjoyed eating meat, but when he told me about his disgust for it I stopped cold turkey. Whenever we talked about gross things, he would make a face and say the subject made him feel like “jelly,” which is a word I adopted into my lexicon.
In the beginning of high school, he had a Williamsburg accent, but he was embarrassed by it. A month into the semester it was gone. He was self-conscious of the slight balding of his hair. I didn’t mind it. And he would get defensive whenever anyone said that he was named Shia after the Rebbeh of Gibnitz. He would shoot back that he wasn’t named after him, he was named after a grandfather who’d had the same name. He was not a Gibnitz’er he was a Bobov’er.
Someone who I thought was pesky would come over to us and say that Shia and I were “twins.” That bothered me. it drew attention to the fact that there were feelings involved and that we weren’t simply friends. I was also unclear about how Shia saw us, whether he felt the same way I did, or if he saw us as plain friends. Therefore, I didn’t want him to be weirded out and spend less time with me. And I didn’t like the label “twins.” That sounded too platonic. I wanted him to be my boyfriend.
What happened to us once I left:
For a few months after I got to Sarah Lawrence I didn’t contact him. Then I missed him so I wrote him a letter:
Hi. Two things can happen: I can obsess on my opening line for an hour or I can just start writing. I choose the latter. We haven’t spoken in so long. I miss our time together. There are so many things I want to ask and say. Would you want to meet?
He called me two days later at the number I gave him. He said the letter made him cry. He also told me that it was a good coincidence I contacted him then since he had just gotten engaged to the daughter of a person he used to make fun of.
The engagement process began at around the time we were 18. I have not experienced the engagement process since I left the fold shortly after I turned 18. But I gathered from others what the process must have been like for him. His parents would have given a Shadchan, a matchmaker, a resume. Typically, resumes include: personality, schools one went to, rabbinic heritage, parents’ occupations, a headshot, and references. The Shadchan would have matched him with a believed-to-be compatible girl. His parents would have researched her. His mother might have stalked her. If his parents approved of the match, he and the girl would meet for about a half-an-hour in one of their dining rooms while the parents would be waiting in the kitchen. After the meeting he would have been able to say no, but only if he had a strong objection. The clock would have been ticking, because past 21 or 22, his chances of getting married and not being an outsider would go down by 90 percent. He probably didn’t meet more than four or five girls.
On the phone he told me the opener he’d used when he met his first girl: “A patient about to go under surgery tells his surgeon ‘Doctor, I’m nervous. This is my first time having surgery.’
The surgeon replies ‘Don’t worry It’s my first time too.’”
He got engaged when we were 19, in January of 2017. When he got engaged he would have been taught that there is such a thing as sex by his Chassan Teacher, his groom teacher. The concept of kissing was left out. He was likely instructed that he could touch his wife’s breasts and circle them three times after he had intercourse.
We talked for a while on the phone in 45-minute bursts until shortly before his wedding in September of that year. He would call from — or I would call — the payphone at the Yeshiveh —- that was the only to reach him. The payphone was in the hallway, next to the coffee maker, and the bathroom. People would always be passing him as he would talk and he would stop to answer them. “Really?!” “That’s Crazy.” “The bus leaves when?” Sometimes he would fill me in: “You hear what’s going on here? Azik is getting engaged!”
One night we talked on the phone while I was outside of my college library, walking back and forth on the road next to the wretched-looking childcare center. I told him. “I’m trans.”
The light from the lampposts was blurry and drifting in the air.
“Again, I would totally understand if this would change things between us.”;
“I’m trying to think. You know what you’re doing is unchangeable, right?”
“What are you gonna do when people stop supporting trans people.”
“I don’t know, it’s what I need to do.”
I dragged my Nike sneakers through the dirt and grass outside the library.
“What are you gonna do after-after?”‘
“You mean after I die?”
“Well, at this point I’m not sure there is a god anymore, but either way, it’s either transitioning or I kill myself. I can’t live like this.”
One night we talked on the phone while I was outside of my college library. I told him. ‘I’m trans.’
His voice became like it always did when he felt me, “Uhmm Hmmm.”
I had a sex with him in a dream. I wrote the following “poem” afterwards:
I’ve been waiting for you forever
I think we should do this
You’re unsure how to
And neither do I
Your trembling fingers remove my shirt
My skin becomes a tongue
Its taste buds jumping with adrenaline
You lie me down gently
I bring you down with me
Colorful energy surrounds my hand (what the heck does this mean?)
I bring yours towards my breast
I begin the action
Then you take over
You subsume me
Two weeks before his wedding I mailed him a five-page version of this essay that ended with:
I miss him dearly.
I’ll do anything to be together with him.
I really, really want you Shia.
We haven’t spoken since.
We once went to the Mikvah, the purification center, at the same time. In the Mikvah we would get undressed take a shower then dunk in the holy water. When you enter the Mikvah you are not supposed to look at anyone, you are supposed to keep your eyes glued to the ground. But I looked at him. I loved his body.
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Editor: Sari Botton