Recap: Ruchama is reading Yonah’s journal from 1964 as part of research for her paper on the Bell Tower. In the journal, Yonah tells how he encountered anti-Semitism at school and his neighbors are forcing him to go to a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
My eyes were closing. I glanced at the clock. It was almost one in the morning and I had to get up early for class tomorrow. I closed Yonah’s journal reluctantly.
The next thing I knew, I woke to the loud buzz of my alarm clock. I looked at the time and jumped out of bed. I’d overslept. I raced to dress and then I ran downstairs. My mother was davening. The boys had left for yeshivah. The girls had been picked up for school. I davened and then made myself a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. I thought about Yonah Hartstein’s journal. I’d never realized how different life was in the 1960s in the South. There was so much prejudice.
I strolled towards Queens College. It was a crisp September morning. After the seminary classes, I headed to my journalism class; I found that I liked that class. Today, the professor said, “We will go around the room and each of you can share the subject you’re researching.” One student was researching Lincoln Center and someone else was doing the Chrysler Building.
When it was my turn, I shared, “I’m writing about the Bell Tower right here at Queens College, and I am learning a lot about the period of history in the 1960s when Freedom Summer was taking place in Mississippi.” The teacher nodded. “Yes, it sounds like your paper will be interesting. The Bell Tower is fairly new, and the story behind it should be publicized.”
A girl with white blonde hair who was seated in the back raised her hand. “There are so many other landmarks, like the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center. I think it would be wise not to stir up old bad feelings.”
The teacher said, “It’s up to Ms. Bennett. Whatever you choose is fine, as long as it’s well-researched.”
After class, the blonde-haired girl approached me. “I didn’t mean to offend ya’all, but why stir up bad feelings?”
I didn’t know what to say. It was so strange that she cared about it at all. “Please tell me why it bothers you?” I finally asked.
She said, “I should introduce myself. My name is Vivian Killen. What’s your name?”
“Ruchama Bennett,” I said.
“Ruchama? What kinda name is that?”
“It’s Hebrew,” I said.
“Oh,” she said and walked away.
Her strange expression left me with an uncomfortable feeling. Maybe I was imagining it, I mused.
I headed towards the archives to work on my research. I was surprised to see Ella, the girl I’d met at the fountain the first day. “Oh, hi. Ruchama?”
“Hi,” I whispered.
“Can I help you? I’m in charge of the archives. It’s my part-time job.”
I told her what I was researching.
“That’s such a good idea. The Bell Tower, or Clock Tower as some call it, was just built a couple of years ago and it should be written about.”
She handed me some books that had articles about the Bell Tower.
“Just use pencil here,” she instructed. “We have to preserve the documents. Let me know if you need anything copied.”
I worked for an hour and then I stood and stretched.
Ella came over to me. “I wanted to tell you about the JIS group on campus.”
“It’s Jews Inspire Souls. It’s a kiruv organization. We try to help non-affiliated Jews discover their heritage.”
“Oh,” I said.
“We’re having a meeting at the kosher cafeteria tonight at 6:30. Maybe you want to come to find out about it.”
I wasn’t sure if I did, but I felt funny saying no. “Okay.” She showed me on the map where the Kosher Caf was.
I thanked her and hurried to my next class. It was a math class. The professor shuffled into the room with a shopping cart contraption. I watched in fascination as he pulled out a pair of gloves and then he drew out a box of chalk from the cart. He began writing formulas on the board with the chalk. Then he put the chalk back and took out another box of chalk and he wrote different equations in a different color. I copied the equations. He told us to partner up with someone and try to solve the equations. Luckily, I found someone behind me and she said I could work with her. When class ended, the professor pulled out another pair of gloves and washed the board. How unusual, I mused.
I debated if I should just go straight home or go to the program Ella told me about. I decided that I would head over to the Kosher Caf just for a little while.
Ella was busy putting out drinks and cookies. I realized I was early so I helped her. We chatted as we worked. “My chasan called me last night,” she shared with me. “He’s planning a visit to New York soon. I’m so excited.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you were engaged.”
“Yes, Jeffrey is studying to be a lawyer. He’s in school in Boston. We plan to live in Israel.”
I wondered what it felt like to be engaged. When would that happen to me?
Ella interrupted my thoughts, “Ruchama, please could you stay in the front to greet people.”
Oh my, I wasn’t so comfortable being in front. Students started piling into the room. The room grew more and more crowded.
Ella stood up and called everyone to be quiet. “We have a rebbetzin from Israel coming to speak to the women tomorrow night. I need some volunteers to help me hang up flyers and to come to help set up for the program tomorrow night.”
I saw Deena Trachtenberg walk in. She smiled at me. Rabbi Weissman stood up and greeted everyone. “We have so many Jewish students right here on campus. We need to reach out to our fellow Jews and draw them in with love.” He told a d’var Torah and then he asked people to sign up to learn with beginners on a one-on-one basis. I thought about signing up, but I wasn’t sure I would have time. I had so much work to do for my classes.
Suddenly, I felt strange. It was like I saw everyone, but they didn’t look right. I knew this fuzzy feeling. It was the way I’d felt that night in the pizza shop. No, this can’t be happening. I had to get out of here fast.
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams (a novel, Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time – historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes for the community column for the Queens Jewish Link and she writes the Queens page for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivos and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.