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Biblefest

By Melissa Pheterson

She didn’t have a prayer of finding a decent seat for  “Jesus in History: Jewish Firebrand or Gentile Savior?” but Hannah could not leave the toilet in the hotel room she shared with her father at the Radisson. She wiped her forehead with a can of Ginger Ale, the only thing she’d ever pilfered from a mini-bar. Her pants were folded neatly over the edge of the tub; the band of her underwear choked her thighs. She found that if she sipped the Ginger-Ale, then touched the can to her forehead, then mouthed, “Please, no bleeding,” then took another sip, her nausea and anxiety ebbed slightly.

Her father had already left their room to attend “Quo Vadis? Journeys of Faith and Digs of Glory,” promising to compare notes at the afternoon snack. Hannah excelled at taking notes, capturing even the most rapid-fire PowerPoint slides with efficient shorthand and a commitment to promptly typing up the pages, which Dr. Neufeld filed in a manila folder titled, “Biblical Archaeology University.” For three years, they’d attended BAU BibleFest as father and daughter, in a tradition older than her marriage, receiving the latest briefings on excavations in the Middle East, artifacts billed as “dramatic discoveries” dug up from strata silted by centuries – a silver dinar with the bust of Hadrian, agate stones etched with cuneiform, jugs and oil lamps and seals, silver daggers, the slingshot David may have flung at Goliath – all magnified upon slide projectors in ballrooms at cushy hotels on the Eastern Seaboard. It was a way for her father to indulge his hobby, to meet the scholars who’d written the books in his library of Judaica, to ask thoughtful questions that bespoke his erudition without having to face his fears of boarding an airplane, or the discomfort of eating pitas and humus on the hard dirt floor of a pit. It was also a way for him and Hannah to strike up friendly dialogue with Christians about Jesus, whose life and times were often illuminated by the era’s archaeological booty. Dr. Neufeld was sure they could find common ground in mutual admiration of Christ.

Hannah’s husband, Brian, had shaken his head from the couch as she packed. “So you’re going all the way to Boston to learn about ancient cults of sheep-fuckers,” he’d said, through a mouthful of sushi.

“Jewish antiquity,” she’d corrected him.

He’d shrugged, clipping a dollop of wasabi with his chopsticks. “Same thing.”

“You could come,” she’d lied, knowing he gave her father a headache.

“No, thanks.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“You could bow out, you know. You’re always complaining how tired you are.”

To Brian, Hannah had insisted that she attended merely as a student of literature and history, to see how the unearthed coins and weaponry bore out the details of Biblical lore, to admire the Bible’s well-crafted stories without probing the question of whether they were authored by divine or human hand. She had been a Comp Lit major in college, after all; and since it hadn’t qualified her for any meaningful jobs, she might as well put it to use somewhere. But when she met her father on the ACELA, Hannah waxed more zealously about the Truth and Beauty of the Bible, reassuring both of them that she was still devoted (to him, to God) despite carrying in her womb the seed of an atheistic idler.

“How is the prince of procrastination, the sultan of sloth, the emir of excuses?” Dr. Neufeld had asked, but with a chuckle, tickled by his way with words.

 “Probably on the couch, reading Twitter feeds.” She rolled her eyes, flashed a pretty smile. Two years ago, Brian had quit his law job to enroll in a PhD program.

“Twitter. Not a big repository of American political history, last time I checked.” They’d laughed together, his gloved hand patting her own. “Too bad he’s missing out on our conference. He’d really make a fine Talmudic scholar.”

After precisely 20 sips, she could pull up her underwear and fasten her Ann Taylor pantsuit, which grew ever more constricting. She had missed the Jesus talk, but managed to find a seat for the next session, “Mary: Immaculate Virgin or Nice Jewish Girl?”, as though the two were mutually exclusive.

Still nursing her drink, she pulled out the notepad imprinted with the logo of her father’s practice. She prided herself on transcribing not only the lecturer’s points, but their metaphors and pithy turns of phrase. The lecturer, a compact woman with gray hair in a severe buzz cut, handed her a sheet of paper that highlighted the discrepancy between the Hebrew Bible’s verse of Isaiah (“Behold, the young girl shall conceive”) and the Greek translation that changed “young girl” to “virgin,” spawning the mythos that changed the world.

“The church father Proclus,” said the lecturer, whipping her red laser point across the wall, “saw the ‘mystery of the Virgin’ everywhere in the Old Testament. She is the ark in whose cabin sleeps the spiritual Noah. She is the ladder of Jacob by which God descended to earth. She is the burning bush ablaze with the fire of Divinity, the Red Sea unharmed after the passage of Israel.”

Hannah wrote quickly, pressing into the pad to distract herself from the urge to throw up.

After the Q&A, Hannah met her father in the lobby, at a table stocked with sugar wafers and sodas and packets of Swiss Miss. Dr. Neufeld stood in a pressed hounds-tooth blazer sipping a mug of hot cocoa, nodding at a stocky man in jeans and a flannel shirt, jowly face stippled with gray stubble.

“I totally get it,” he was saying. “Risking your life in battle for a buddy.”

“Like David and Jonathan!” Dr. Neufeld cried.

“I guess,” said the man, shrugging, and bared corn-yellow teeth as he cracked a cookie with his teeth. “I’m talking about ’Nam.”

Hannah took a wafer and chewed it gingerly, each crumble thrown into the fire pit of her gut.

“Should I take another?” she asked.

“Sure,” said her father. “You’re entitled. In more ways than one.”  For now, he referred to her pregnancy only obliquely.

“I don’t want to seem greedy,” she said. She stuffed her hands in her pockets, tried to concentrate on the scrolled design of the carpet rather than on her queasiness.

“I need air,” she whispered.

“Would you like to go for…smoothies?” he asked, trying out the word, assuming it was the kind of thing his daughter liked to drink. 

“Okay.”

They skirted the clusters of conference-goers: two nuns, black habits tenting around thick bodies, exchanging pleasantries with three women with brown hair going silver at the ends, like sheaves of wheat blasted by frost. They nodded at their friends, BibleFest regulars from Westchester with whom they’d gone to dinner the night before at Smith and Wollensky. At last, they reached the revolving door, where her father pretended to get stuck, circling haplessly. It was part of his shtick.

 Patiently, indulgently, Hannah let the cold blast numb her chest as she waited for him, and they walked down the block to the glowing Starbucks logo in a mall of glass pyramids piled upon each other. Dr. Neufeld held open the door for his daughter, gently patting her rear end.

“Do you have smoothies?” he asked the teenaged, Asian barista with purple tips in his hair.

The scrawny teen took a puff of air that sent his bangs skittering across his forehead. He called out the question to an unseen co-worker, who yelled they should check back in June.

“I’m due in June!” Hannah wanted to blurt, but her father felt it was bad luck to announce pregnancy in the first trimester. Why give yourself a keina hura, he said. As a result, Hannah could not give a satisfactory answer when her boss – a patrician, childless woman in her sixties – asked why she was so pale, and so often late to work. And so she had lost her job two weeks ago.

“What do you have that’s no-caffeine, not herbal, not hot, not milky?” she asked.  The milk might have expired; you couldn’t be too careful.

The kid shrugged.

She settled for a Rice Krispies treat studded with tiny M&Ms. Her father slid a twenty across the counter, and the boy coughed all over the change. “Don’t touch that,” Dr. Neufeld said. He pinched the bills between his forefinger and thumb, slid them into the billfold of his wallet.

By the time they returned to the Radisson, she had only sticky fingers to show for her treat. The meeting coordinator, Marisa, intercepted father and daughter at the elevator bank. She was tall and willowy, with a pinched nose and full blonde hair. “Dr. Neufeld, if you’re not comfortable eating at the banquet, you and your daughter are welcome to eat at the Chabad down the block free of charge,” she said. “We’re letting our Jewish attendees know.”

Hannah knew her father would never set foot in the Chabad-Lubavitch center: cold chicken served with grubby hands, metal folding chairs that scraped the scratched floor, the bedlam of screeching children and gruff men. He liked ambiance, bone china, patterned carpet. “We’re just kosher-style, quasi-kosher,” he assured Marisa. “The banquet will be fine.”

In their junior suite – with a view of the Public Garden, as her father had requested – Hannah lingered in front of the toilet. “Please, no bleeding,” she murmured, and tugged her Hanes. Unbroken white, thank goodness. This had become ritual for the past month, ever since her first ultrasound had shown only a yolk sac; they’d rushed to have it done too early, uncertain of the date of conception.

“Come back in four weeks,” the technician had said.

Hannah had walked to her apartment in the rain, racked with cramps, dejected at the anticlimactic ending to the week. They had called her parents and her in-laws to fill them in, anyway. Her mother-in-law had said she was going to the yarn store to knit a bunting. Her mother had said she’d discuss the results with Hannah’s father. She had called back later that evening, warning Hannah and Brian not to get too excited. “At this stage of the game, Daddy says it’s too close to call.”

“So am I still pregnant?” Hannah had asked.

“Wait and see,” her mother had said, as Brian shouted from the kitchen: “Of course you’re still pregnant. Jesus Christ! No wonder you’re always a nervous wreck. You need to stop talking to them.” But she couldn’t. Family feuds were his style, not hers.

Stepping out of the bathroom, Hannah saw her father had his cell phone to his ear. “How does she feel?” Hannah heard her mother’s voice lance through the receiver. “Feed her crackers.”

“Caw, caw,” said Hannah, flopping on the bed as her mother said something Hannah didn’t catch.

 “She looks great. Of course she does,” said her father. He paused. “Okay. Hold on.” Hannah shook her head, cowering behind a pillow. Speaking with her mother always agitated her stomach. But Dr. Neufeld merely opened the night table, slid a pad from beneath the Holy Bible, and began to take dictation. “Mmm-hmm. Okay. Yep. See you next time,” he said, taking the phone off his ear and peering at it to determine how to disconnect.

“Red button,” Hannah told him. Her father’s rabbi had encouraged him to say “I love you” to his wife more often, but it didn’t come naturally to him. She picked up the list he had made:

No Caesar salad

Chunk light tuna only

No papaya

Meat well-done (no prime rib)

No mousse

No poinsettias (poisonous)

“I assume this is food I can’t have,” she said. “What’s a poinsettia?”

“You know, those red plants they put out at Christmastime.” It was the week before Thanksgiving.

“In case I was seized by a craving for shrubs?”

Her father chuckled. “Just stay away from the leaves.”

Hannah propped a pad upon Gideon’s Bible and made another list, titled,

Misconceptions of Judaism:

Harsh rule

Xenophobic

Vengeful god

We killed Christ

Her father bent to look over her shoulder. “I wish they’d all realize,” he said, “that Jesus was a Roman political criminal tried on the Roman cross. So his body had vanished after two days – so do my socks every time I do laundry!” He guffawed.

“You haven’t done laundry in years, Dad.” She paused. “So, why are they so polite to us? You’d think they’d have residual anger.”

“They believe we preserve something essential, some flame of the old-time religion, until such time as Jesus sees fit to come back. Some Christians call Jews the ‘desk’ of God’s word.”

“I feel like a desk,” she said, rubbing her belly, but her father looked away. He didn’t want to speak of the baby till Hannah’s doctor picked up a heartbeat. It was still too early.

She decided to help her father personally dispel these notions by being pleasant, lighthearted, inclusive, empathic, and solicitous at tonight’s banquet, much the way she’d tried to rouse Brian from his atheism by playing the adoring ingénue, angelic and patient yet always up for sex: the heaven-sent Madonna/whore who’d redeemed his crumbling life and enabled him to quit therapy and stop sleeping in till 4 on weekends. It hadn’t worked, but perhaps a healthy baby would kindle in him the revelation she couldn’t.

She remembered to call him, then. “Hello,” he said, pleasantly. “I just poured myself a glass of port.” He had recently acquired the airs, if not the income, of an endowed professor. When he went to class he wore a polo shirt and tweed blazer, which inevitably became streaked with hot sauce after lunch. “How’s Boston?” he asked.

 “Really, really interesting! From an academic perspective, I mean. But I’m still having trouble with food. At Smith and Wollensky they carved a chicken tableside and I almost fainted.”

“That had to be fun.”

The man who’d unwittingly tortured her with poultry was Mark, a lanky math teacher with a rumbly baritone and dark beard. They’d gone out with him and Stephen, a sour-faced banker who, upon meeting Hannah at this same conference three years ago, had urged her to call his eligible son in Montreal; and she had, taking it as an edict ordained by God; but of course, neither had wanted to cross the border to meet the other.

When the waiter wheeled out the chicken, Hannah feared she might either throw up or faint, and she was just as nervous about what the men would think as she was that either would come to pass. Mark, she knew, had made an avocation of collecting Jewish memorabilia, from coins to Sandy Koufax’s autographed jersey. Ignoring the waiter and his carving knife, he had passed around the table a photo of two sculptures, both women. One wore a tiara and gripped in one hand a chalice, in the other a phallic crucifix, a halo floating behind her head; the other held a broken staff, a snake wrapped around her head.

Ecclesia et Sinagoga,” he’d said. “Symbolic figures of church and synagogue. On the Notre Dame Cathedral, no less. Smack in the middle of Paris.”

Hannah held it before her eyes to avoid looking at the meat. “So – what does it mean? Jews are blind to the power of Jesus?” she’d asked.

“Precisely.”

“And this shiksa is supposed to be Miss Universe or something?” The men had laughed, prying loose ever so slightly the grip of her nausea.

 “No wonder all the nice Jewish boys marry them,” she’d said. She could joke about it now that she was married, pregnant. The chuckles had tickled her ears like bubbles of Champagne, like aerated Ginger-Ale.

The evening’s banquet featured a Q &A session with a panel of religious scholars and archaeologists. There was a raffle, plus a contest to see who could write the best caption to a cartoon showing two shepherds staring up at a cloud spewing burgers.

“Oh, Hannah,” said her father. “You’re great at captions. You’ll win for sure.”

The guy from the coffee break waved as they entered the hall, in the same lumberjack shirt and baggy corduroys he’d worn that afternoon. “Name’s Gary,” he said. “From Lawn Guy Land.”

Dr. Neufeld nodded. “Much obliged.” He took his daughter’s arm and steered her toward a table with two seats open. But then one man rose to get an autograph, and Gary squeezed into the vacant chair. “Seek and ye shall find!” he said.

Her father was introducing her around the table. “And this is my lovely daughter, Hannah.” He always introduced her as lovely. She wasn’t sure whether to extend her hand or curtsy to the tall man sitting upright in his seat, wearing a herringbone blazer and ivory shirt. His pale blue eyes were pressed into wrinkled lids, and his skin was a fine bisque streaked ever so faintly with capillaries. “Dr. Owen Thorpe,” he said, bowing his head and kissing her hand. “You are lovely, indeed. I see the way you take notes so diligently in the sessions. This is my wife, Eugenia.” She had white hair and coral lipstick streaked upon her puckered mouth.

“Thank you,” Hannah said, bowing a little. Jews are the desks of Christians, she remembered,keeping the Word alive.

“Whoa,” Gary said as Hannah spackled a hard roll with a chilled square of butter. “You’ve got some appetite for a little goil, as my poppa used to say.” He paused. “Of blessed memory.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she murmured, reflexively.

Her father, she could tell, was scripting conversation in his head to impress upon Dr. Thorpe that Jews were simpatico, scholars and gentlemen, not vaudevillian buffoons who didn’t shave or shower. She remembered her father talking over the picket fence with their neighbor, a born-again Scottish evangelical preacher. “Jim, I love Jesus,” he had said. “He was a great rabbi and a sage man. Notice I said ‘man.’” She hoped he would not use the same line tonight: “Hannah and I – we love Jesus.” She was not sure if she loved Jesus. And she knew Brian would scoff at all her father’s efforts: “If he really cared about being Jewish, he would have gone to Chabad.”

When the waiter placed a Caesar salad in front of Hannah, her father looked up and said, sharply: “She’ll have something else.” 

Dr. Thorpe blinked.

Lest he propagate a “hovering Jewish parent” stereotype, Dr. Neufeld changed the subject. “Doctor, did you know Hannah was named after a woman in your Old Testament, our Torah?”

Gary coughed wetly into his fist. “We call our rabbi’s sermons Torah Snore-ah,” he said. “Because they’re so friggin’ boring.”

“Ma’am?” said the waiter, plunking down a martini glass with prawns hooked over the side. “I brought you shrimp cocktail. Would you like tartar sauce?”

“No, thanks.”

Dr. Neufeld hadn’t noticed. “Matter of fact,” he was saying, “the first Christians were quite observant Jews. Did you attend the lecture on ‘The Historical Jesus’?”

“I did.” Dr. Thorpe speared a crouton with his fork.

“After Jesus’ death,” said Dr. Neufeld, “these ‘Jewish Christians’ adhered to all our customs – the Sabbath, the festivals, the laws of kashrut.”

Hannah looked at the shrimp and felt her throat tingle, her mouth foam. Would her father object? Anyway, it wasn’t for her; she was just a desk, a vessel. Her baby needed it, somehow, and who was she to question?

Dr. Neufeld cleared his throat. “The reason Jews keep kosher is not, as commonly believed, to ward off trichinosis or other infections. It was to affirm their heritage of remaining separate, apart: holy people, chosen by God.”

The shrimp slid easily down her throat, arousing no seething protest of bile, and she raised her head to see Gary smirking at her.

Last April, home for Passover, she’d been walking in her parents’ neighborhood when her name, called out, arrested her on the pavement. It was Jim, clipping his hedges.

“Shalom Aleichem,” he’d said. “It’s Easter Sunday tomorrow. And the first night of Passover.”

“Yes.” Hannah kicked a pebble with the tip of her tennis shoe. “Jesus celebrated Passover.”

“Sure did! Jesus’ glory is foretold in your Tanakh, you know. Micah. Isaiah. They all prophesied his existence.”

“Like hell,” she wanted to say, but kept silent. Love thy neighbor. It was in Leviticus and Jesus had repeated it in the gospels. What if her father had a terrible accident and found himself at Jim’s mercy? Would he call 911 to keep a Jew alive?

“Micah says the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem,” Jim had said. “Isaiah said he’d be born to a virgin. He foretold the Suffering Servant! A son who would be called Mighty God! Rejected, condemned, but the savior of mankind.”

“Hmm,” she’d said, hating herself. Twenty-seven years of faith, now wilting in the puny crucible of some preacher spouting off while puttering in his garden?

“Go, run home and see for yourself. Micah and Isaiah.” He’d begun to crank his hose reel. “Aleichem Shalom.”

She’d turned and walked home, trying not to run, feeling as though she’d narrowly escaped a tarring and feathering. Her neck hairs stood erect, flinching at every dust particle in the air.

Immediately she’d reported it to her father, who stood with his back to her pouring boiling water into the sink to cleanse the kitchen for Passover. It was the only time he did any housework all year.

Dr. Neufeld had set the glass kettle on the stove, scratched his head with his blue oven mitt, and given an excited little jump. “Okay. Jim wants to bring Isaiah into this? We’ll bring Isaiah into this!” He’d extended the oven mitt into the air. “‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.’ Isaiah 44. Go ring his bell and say you’ve found a ringing endorsement of monotheism he might not have found with his Jesus lens.” But she knew her father had been joking. And she hadn’t dared to set foot outside. She felt as though the village green, with its gazebo and American flag and the elms strung with colored lights in December, was now hostile to her, foreign. If she’d known Brian at the time, he could have joined her father in gleefully disputing Jim’s case behind closed doors: Who are your witnesses? Where’s your evidence? Would your visions pass a peer review? 

“What is your specialty, Dr. Thorpe?” her father now asked.

“Obstetrics,” he said.

“You don’t say!” said Gary. “Did you go to the lecture on Mary’s OB exam?”

“I believe he refers to the Proto-Gospel of James,” said Hannah’s father to his salad plate. He looked like he wanted to crawl under the table.

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, so Mary’s literally getting an OB exam in the stirrups, or whatever they used back then, because these women say no way in hell she’s a virgin. So the midwife reaches up into her, you know,” he coughed, “and then her fingers get burned because the fire of God is in her belly.”

“The burning bush,” Hannah said, with a girlish giggle.

Just then, dinner arrived: salmon, whipped potatoes, lanky green beans. Hannah heard her father breathe a sigh of relief, having mentally cross-checked the items with her mother’s list. She yearned to lay her head in his lap, and remembered how in her childhood he’d come home from work, hung up his lab coat in the mud room, changed into his plaid pajamas and bathrobe, and then read the books she was assigned at school so he could discuss them with her. He was the one who paid her rent now, who had allowed her and Brian to move out of their first apartment. He had come to help her move, to take her out for five-course dinners so she could eat again, breathe again, ovulate again. But it was an uneasy trinity, one in which the center could not hold. The next week at Thanksgiving dinner her in-laws’ cat would spring loose from the basement, and her father would gather her in his arms and rush her out to his Lexus while heaping curses upon Brian and his family.

“Salmon eat shrimp, you know,” announced Gary. “It’s how they get pink. So, sweetie, you’re not the only thing at this table who’s eaten traife tonight.”

Hannah shifted. Was this all a trial to expose her for what she was, feigning holiness but succumbing to her primal impulses, like a pagan? Her father cleared his throat, looking pained.

“Oh, well, where’s the sacrifice of keeping kosher if you never know what you’re missing?” Hannah chimed in, cheeks burning, parroting Brian. “And why should we pick and choose, anyway? I’m sure this blouse is mixed fibers.” With her right hand, she plucked her neckline in what she hoped was a fetching way.

Her father’s lips folded into each other, paling at the corners.

“Hey, look,” said Gary, reaching over Hannah’s plate for the cut-glass pitcher of water. “The conference head asked me if I wanted to go to Chabad. I guess I could’ve said yes. But personally, I wouldn’t feed the shit they eat to my dog. You gotta be good to yourself. Plus the banquet was pre-paid.”

Silence. The clink of silverware, the stirring of ice. Hannah checked her program for the title of the keynote speech: “James, Brother of Jesus? The Game-Changing Secret of the Ossuaries.”

“Well, Hannah,” Dr. Thorpe said, finally. “A lovely heroine of the Old Testament.”

“Yes, yes!” said Dr. Neufeld, sawing his green beans in half.

“Oh, yeah,” said Gary. “She prayed for a baby and the priest thought she was drunk, or off her meds, or something.”

“She was the first woman who approached God, and not vice versa, about getting pregnant,” Hannah said. “She struck a deal so the baby would serve God for his whole life.” Not that we’re all wheeler-dealers, she amended silently.

“Samuel,” said Dr. Neufeld. “Asked of the Lord. Literally: And God heard.”

“I like that name,” she said.

“Me too,” her father said. He leaned over to her and whispered: “It would look very nice inscribed on a little baseball bat, like the kind they sell in Cooperstown.” This was the first time he’d spoken about a future that contained a baby.

She suspected the baby was conceived on Yom Kippur, the holiest and most abstemious day of the year. She had stayed home from work and attended Yom Kippur Yoga, run by the Jewish Students’ Organization, but the pretentious Shal…ommm had only made her laugh. Under-dressed for temple in her gym clothes, she’d come home to Brian and let him have his way. But she’d only done it because her father had told her, some weeks earlier, that her new short haircut was beautiful, and that she looked like a real woman now who was ready to be a mom.

Please, if it’s a boy, inscribe him in the book of life anyway, despite his ill-fated origins.Maybe he’d take after her father anyway, become a doctor, a reader of Torah, someone who went out and accomplished things. Her father, who always made sure she ordered her steak well-done (“burnt,” Brian sniffed) and gave her enough money to live in a luxury rental, padding her bank account and her belly.

The very day she’d tested positive on the First Response, she and Brian had begun discussing the wisdom of her finding another job. Brian had convinced Hannah that he, not she, should be the one to apply for the university’s Parental Relief benefits system. “I get six months paid, you get eight weeks paid, and we make about the same,” he’d said. “Do the math.” Hannah had a secret plan to breast-feed the baby so often that returning to work was impossible. She would pit her body against her husband’s mind.

The conference organizer rose from his seat on the stage to tap the microphone and announce the winning ticket. They weren’t raffling off any actual antiquities, but the winnerwould receive a mug and a gift subscription to BibleFest magazine. As the numbers were read, Hannah saw them unfold across her ticket like a prophecy foretold.

“It’s me!” she cried, squeezing her father’s hand.

“Yup,” said Gary, “we’re the chosen ones.” With her other hand, she slapped him high-five and jumped up to retrieve her mug.

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