Marla sits alone in the sanctuary, her long face dimly illuminated by electric candles set about the room. She has arrived early for the Holocaust Remembrance Day service so as to contemplate private memories of the lost. Not that Marla can remember any specific person slain in the Holocaust, so long before her time, nor can she fathom the millions. But she can resurrect images taught by survivors: rabbis in cheder placing honey candies shaped like Hebrew letters onto the tongues of boys learning the aleph-bet; audiences at Yiddish theater; neighborhoods where, rather than violate the Sabbath by carrying from inside a house to outside, kerchiefed women handed pots of cholent through kitchen windows to those gathering in summer courtyards. So much was lost. Stolen.
She pulls out the Hertz Bible from the pew’s seatback in front of her; turns to the upcoming Sabbath portion, Kedoshim; scans the English translation until she finds the passage she’s vaguely recalled to be there, the prohibition against tattoos. How many Jewish forearms did the Nazis violate?
Marla hasn’t come to synagogue with any regularity, but today felt that she must. This morning, after setting coffee and croissants on their breakfast table, she was just reading in the newspaper about tonight’s memorial service when Billy entered the kitchen. He knelt beside her; ran slim fingers through his blond hair; pulled back the sleeve of his red pajama top to reveal something he’d hidden from her the previous night, something new on his forearm, “Marla Forever” inscribed within a heart, a tattoo.
She traced the letters with her gaze, thinking — Jews don’t get tattoos; but, Billy’s not Jewish, so what’s the problem? She looked into his eyes as he took her hand, pulled out a ring from his pajama pocket, proposed. They’d been living together for two years already, why was she surprised?
Before she could respond, he slipped the ring onto her finger, embraced her.
It was the suddenness of the proposal that shook her, his assumption of her “yes” that annoyed her, and that damn goyishe tattoo. She gently removed the ring. “Tonight’s Yom HaShoah,” she explained, showing the newspaper article. “I have to go to services, and Jews don’t do happy things, like get engaged, when in mourning.” She had no idea if this is really true, but Billy wouldn’t know the difference.
“Jeez, I’m sorry,” he said, clasping the ring in his palm. “If I’m marrying a Jew, I should learn these things. I apologize.”
“No, no,” she said. “Don’t apologize.” Please don’t. Had he not promised, repeatedly, to learn about Jewish traditions so they could raise their future children Jewish? What more did she want from him except, perhaps, answers to questions he never knew that she posed to herself: Was it possible to remain true to one’s personal strand of history while intertwining with another’s? Had ghetto walls been entirely a source of oppressive segregation, or had they also served as protective insulation?
In the sanctuary now, Marla pores over Kedoshim and, still seated, rocks with kavanah (intent) that she has never before experienced, studies the prohibitions against paganism — idol worship, child sacrifice, soothsaying, self-mutilation, marking of the flesh. Billy is Episcopalian, not pagan. And their children will be Jewish. And with Billy’s help, she’ll teach them about the Holocaust, what was stolen, about Jewish everything. And they will sit on their father’s knee and he will… proudly display the tattoo of their mother’s name? And one day the children will read Kedoshim… will she explain their father to be exempt from the Torah’s prohibitions?
She feels a hand on her shoulder, jumps. She looks up — it’s Billy.
“Okay for me to be here?” he asks.
“Of course,” she says, although quietly uncertain.
“If it’s your suffering, I need to understand,” he adds. “I need to share.”
Marla takes his hand, presses her face into his palm, so cool and comforting. She pictures herself explaining to their children the extent of Daddy’s love: “He even got a tattoo for me.” Billy moves from behind and sits beside her, takes her hand.
Others arrive in the sanctuary; soon the service begins. Prayer and song. All the while, Marla wonders what lessons their children will take from Daddy’s example of tattooed devotion, what they will learn about weighing the authority of the Torah against the power of love. She wonders what she, herself, believes.
Daniel M. Jaffe, editor of “With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction,” lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.