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2015 Flash Fiction Challenge - Entry 1

Challenge: Write a romance in 1,000 words or less, set in an aquarium, and include a jalapeño pepper. Result:


Synopsis A young couple, rebelling against the strict rules of their religious community, go on a date to the Warsaw Zoo in 1937. Despite the risk, they become engaged while visiting the aquarium exhibit.


Since it was imperative that no one in their community see them together, Malka and Shmuel decided to meet at the Warsaw Zoo. According to the secular Jewish newspaper Shmuel secretly read, an aquarium was the zoo’s newest exhibit. “It will be fun to see fish that will not become dinner,” he said. She added that if they saw anyone they knew, those people couldn’t report them without admitting they had been in a place that wasn’t halakhic. It would be perfect.

Malka’s heart thumped when she saw Shmuel at the entrance gate. Tall, with brown curly hair, sparse eyebrows, and a pointed nose, she could not imagine anyone more handsome. Only recently had he shaved off his bushy beard, and she yearned to run her fingertips over his naked chin. She flushed, then shook her head slightly, willing the impure thoughts out.

He noticed her and smiled. “Hello Malka,” he said, and his cheeks reddened. “You look lovely.”

She swooned. “I borrowed this dress from my friend,” she said. It was purple, with short sleeves and a scoop neck. Her mother would have a heart attack if she saw her dressed so immodestly.

Shyly, Shmuel took her hand. The heat from his sweaty palm seemed to run up her arm, spreading to her neck and chest. Malka tried to concentrate on the animals as they passed the Monkey House, Polar Bear Run, Hippopotamus House, Seal Pool, and Elephant House, but his skin against hers was distracting. They were Adam and Eve in a miniature garden of Eden. She smiled. He grinned back.

Finally, they reached the aquarium. It was dark and cool, with large tanks lining the walls. Another couple huddled at a display across the square room. Malka tiptoed to a glass façade filled with tiny blue fish. For a few minutes, she watched them swim to and fro as if they had no cares. “If only we could float away with them,” she said.

Shmuel looked at her with anxious eyes. “I don’t know how this will work,” he stammered, and her heart plunged to her feet. She should have known this was too good to go on. She closed her eyes and leaned against the glass. How could she go back to her previous life, now that she had seen the wider world and tasted love?

Shmuel continued, “I’ve been thinking… I don’t want to be without you, Malka. Ever. I’ve only known you for a year, but it has been the best year of my life. You make me look at the world in a new way.” She opened her eyes and blinked a few times to focus. From under his bangs, Shmuel stared at her. He took a deep breath. “I think we should get married.”

“Married?” Malka repeated. She was not sure she had heard him correctly.

His face fell. “I thought you’d be happy,” he said so quietly she strained to hear him.

Malka grabbed his hand. “Of course I’m happy! Here I thought you were going to end our relationship, but instead my wildest dreams have come true! Yes, of course I will marry you!”

Shmuel reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a small box. “An engagement present!”

Malka pulled the red velvet ribbon off the box. She would have loved to give it to her younger sister to wear in her hair, but of course everyone would demand to know where she got it. Why did things have to be so complicated? With an inaudible sigh, she stuffed it in her pocket and opened the box. Inside was a thin gold necklace with a small heart-shaped locket. She looked up at Shmuel, uncertain of what to say. No one had ever given her something so valuable. “It’s beautiful,” she said in a whisper. “Thank you.”

His head bobbed with excitement. “See, I wanted to get you something, but I knew no one could know about it until we figure out how to tell our families the good news. This is perfect because it will stay hidden under your blouse, close to your heart.”

Malka embraced him and kissed his cheek. She longed to kiss his lips, but the Hasid in her was too embarrassed. What if that couple saw them, even if they didn’t know who she was? She didn’t want anyone to think she had loose morals. It was sort of funny, when she thought about it. When they were married, she hoped she would feel free to show affection to him in public, just like other women she passed in the streets did with their men.

Shmuel was no less prudish, so he held her in his arms just a moment longer than he felt comfortable because this was a special occasion. They remained holding hands as the other couple approached to see the blue fish.

“Did you hear that Trotsky is in Mexico now?” the man said.

“No! What’s he doing there?” his companion replied.

He gestured at the tank. “Enjoying his freedom, watching colorful fish, eating spicy food, and plotting the defeat of Stalin with a jalapeño pepper,” he said. They laughed, then looked cautiously at Malka and Shmuel before hurrying out of the building.

Baruch Hashem! It’ll be hard enough to explain our engagement as it is. All we need on top of this is to be arrested as communist conspirators,” Shmuel muttered.

“Think of it this way: We are beshert. If our families disown us, we can also flee to Mexico, enjoy our freedom, watch the fish, eat spicy food, and learn what this dangerous pepper is. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

Shmuel squeezed her hand. “It could always be worse.”

Laughing, they moved from tank to tank in the aquarium, studying the fish. The details of their plan they would work out later. Now it was time to be happy together.



Grandma Bernice

This is my grandmother, Bernice (Kolichman) Cohen in South Haven, MI on her 19th birthday. I particularly like this picture today because she passed away earlier this morning, a few months shy of her 91st birthday. Even at the end, she was just like the spunky woman in this photo. My grandmother had a difficult childhood. Her mother was nine months pregnant with what would have been my grandmother's second sibling when she caught the flu and died. The fetus died, too. Her father, an immigrant from Kishniev, Moldova, eventually was sent to a sanitarium. When he recovered, he married a woman who did not treat my grandmother and her brother well. Then her father died, too, and her stepmother cast my granny and great uncle out. They lived with different cousins, forging a close bond. (I guess that's the silver lining.)

The cousins called themselves the Nisht Mit Allem Club, which is Yiddish for "Not All There." (I always forget that my grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish - or as she said, Jewish - because she was born in America, unlike my father's parents, and so I always thought of her as my American, English-speaking only grandma.) The Nisht Mit Allem Club, though, is a good insight into who she was. She had a rocking sense of humor, often a ribald one. Once, my mom told me, she went to visit my mom at the school she taught it. When my mother introduced Granny to the principal, my granny asked if he liked fruit. "Sure," the prinicipal said. My granny smiled. "Then take a bite of my ass - it's a peach!" she replied.

My sister and I spent a lot of time with our grandma when we were kids. Running a few simple errands - going to the bank, post office, and grocery store - turned into an all day adventure. Most kids do not look forward to going to the eye doctor, but our annual visit was always exciting for me. We picked Grandma up early in the morning, drove to the Skokie Swift, and took the L downtown. After we each had our eyes inspected, we had lunch at the Marquette restaurant. This may have been where I uncovered my unfortunate love of cheesecake. (Even if Grandma did not introduce me to that treat, she definitely got me hooked on root beer, but I digress...) Once we returned during rush hour, and the trains were packed. My (maybe) five foot tall granny elbowed past hordes of people and smushed us onto the packed train. Later, my mom described her with wonder as "brutal - just brutal."

She wasn't brutal, though, when she took us to Marshall Field's for lunch every year and then bought us Easter baskets. My bubby disapproved, but I couldn't understand why. It wasn't until I made a Catholic friend at 4th grade that I learned that Easter was actually a Christian holiday! With Granny, I just thought it involved cute bunnies, fuzzy chicks, and a lot of chocolate. She was fun like that.

Grandma was also super fun at Cubs games. Whether we were all the way up in the nose bleed seats along the 3rd baseline during the epic 1984 season, cheering for the Cubs with all the camp groups, or just a few rows behind the dugout, where she yelled "I love you (insert name of Cubs player here)," we had an awesome time.

In 1995, Granny came with my mom and bubby to visit me in New York. Needless to say, adventures were had! The best night, hands down, was when the fire alarm went off in my dorm, and my friends and I descended on their hotel room. We ate cookies, and of course, Grandma had everyone busting up with her jokes.

The thing about Grandma, though, is that she didn't just love me, Dana, and my cousin. Any of our friends who didn't have grandparents were "adopted" by her. When my friend Nancy heard that Granny had passed, she said that she always loved Granny's sense of humor. My friend Julie, her voice cracking, said she was the sweetest woman in the world - much nicer than her own grandmother. My mom's former student Rachel said she was a real classy lady (although this makes me wonder a bit if Rachel is confusing her for someone else...). Dana's friend Sara said, "Your Grandma was wonderful. She will be missed."

She is. She already is.



The Lulav of Hostility

For the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, it is a mitzvah (good deed) to waive a lulav (branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; i.e. - a big bundle of leaves and branches) and etrog (special type of citrus fruit) in six directions (east, south, west, north, above and below) each day for seven days. When I was a kid in Hebrew school, we did this. I have not done it in ages. However, in New York City at this time of year, it is very common to see groups of young Chabad Hasidic men wandering around with lulavs and etrogs. They approach random people on the street (generally those with white skin, brown hair, and brown eyes, or those with larger noses). "Are you Jewish?" they will ask.

Generally, people ignore them or mumble no. The proselytizers usually let those people pass, as there are many people on the street to stop and single out as potentially Jewish. Once in a while, someone will say yes, and they will ask that person if he or she wants to engage in the mitzvah of shaking the lulav and etrog. If the person says yes, they help them, which is nice. If they say no, they let the person move on.

I was not surprised during rush hour yesterday evening to find a particularly sweaty Chabadnik on the subway, holding his lulav tightly. I figured he was heading home after a hard day of work. It turned out that he was not done with his outreach. In this case, people didn't have anywhere to go, and he didn't take no for an answer.

I watched for a few minutes as he harassed a woman standing near me after she made the mistake of admitting that she was Jewish.

"Do you want to shake the lulav?" he asked.

"No," she said. Her facial expression was very clear that she wanted him to go away.

"But it's a mitzvah. You need to shake the lulav."

"I don't want to," she said again. And again. Because he kept asking her, until he finally gave up and moved on to an Asian guy.

"Are you Jewish?" the sweaty beard asked.

Asian guy wisely said no. Then Chabad looked at me. I knew that I would be nasty if he asked me, and I knew that he would ask me.

"Are you Jewish?" he asked. He seemed somewhat desperate.

"Yes, I'm Jewish," I said, "and no, I do not want to shake your lulav. Get it away from me." I wanted to laugh after I said it because it sounded so loaded with innuendo. This did not stop him from trying to shove it in my face.

"But it's a mitzvah to shake it."

"How is pushing people to shake a lulav against their will a mitzvah? Doesn't that seem wrong?" I said. OK, I kind of yelled. I was pretty annoyed.

"I'm not pushing anyone," he said.

"Then why are you bothering me? I said I don't want to touch your lulav. Stop asking me and get away."

He made a face at me, and moved a bit down the subway car. It was decently crowded so he couldn't go very far. I heard him harassing another person, insisting that he had to shake the lulav because it was a mitzvah.

A few minutes later, the subway came to my stop. The Hasid was now near the door, clutching his lulav like a weapon of destruction. As I moved passed him to exit the train, we made eye contact.

"Happy Sukkas," he said in a nasty tone.

"Chag sameach," I sneered at him.