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.



Mourner's Kaddish for My Grandfather's Relatives

It is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and I lit a Yahrzeit (memorial) candle for my grandfather's relatives and said the Mourner's Kaddish for:

Pesha Rajsman Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei raba b'alma di-v'ra Doba Srodogora chirutei, v'yamlich malchutei b'chayeichon Beila Srodogora uvyomeichon uvchayei d'chol beit yisrael, ba'agala Tema nee Rajsman and her unknown husband and children uvizman kariv, v'im'ru: "amen." Estera nee Rajsman and her unknown husband and children Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varach l'alam ul'almei almaya. Aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives whose first names I don't even know Yitbarach v'yishtabach, v'yitpa'ar v'yitromam

I can only say the Mourner's Kaddish for them in a group because I don't know when or where they died. v'yitnaseh, v'yithadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei Because there is no one else left to say it. d'kud'sha, b'rich hu, Because even though I never knew them, I keenly felt their absence. l'eila min-kol-birchata v'shirata, tushb'chata Because they were loved by someone I loved dearly. v'nechemata da'amiran b'alma, v'im'ru: "amen." Because his loss was so enormous, he could never bring himself to speak of them. Y'hei shlama raba min-sh'maya v'chayim aleinu Because they are lost among so many others v'al-kol-yisrael, v'im'ru: "amen."

Because I don't want them to be forgotten Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol-yisrael, v'imru: "amen."



The Passover Story, Minus Charleton Heston

For those who may be unfamiliar with the story of Passover, it originated around the time when the Jews were slaves in Babylonia. Everyone was upset and lo, a Babylonian myth about a baby fetched out of the water (“Moses” is not Hebrew in origin and means brought from the water) who goes on to free his people from bondage was adopted into the story we all know and love today. I know that is not what people are generally taught, but so it goes. Anyway, the saga begins many generations before, when Jacob brings all the mispocha down to Egypt where his son Joseph, interpreter of dreams, has become a viceroy. Things are good for a while, but as it always seems to go with the Jews, eventually the leaders sour on us and we are enslaved. Still, the pharaoh is freaking out about an uprising, so he decides that all Jewish baby boys have to be killed. Moses’s mom, Yocheved, saves him by putting him in a basket in the river where the Pharaoh’s barren daughter will find him, take him as her own, and hire Yocheved to nurse him. (Very clever plan!) Years later, Moses observes an overseer beating a Jewish slave. In defending the slave, he goes overboard and kills the Egyptian. So he does what any prince who killed someone on accident would do and ran away so he wouldn’t have to account for his actions. While he’s wondering the desert, a burning bush starts chatting him up. The Bible says nothing about hallucinations, though, because supposedly God wants to have a heart-to-heart and what better way to get a dude’s attention that to set a bush afire and talk through it? (Some might prefer other sorts of talking bush, but I digress.)

The bush/God tells Moses to go back to Egypt and demand that pharaoh free the Jews. (If Egypt was anything like NYC, it was being grossly overdeveloped, so this would be good for the Egyptians from a planning perspective as well. I’m just saying.) Instead of saying, “What the fuck?”, Moses goes back to Egypt as commanded. Pharaoh is not at all into the plan (he’s sort of like Donald Trump and likes big ugly luxury buildings), so Moses says that God will fuck them up. Pharaoh’s like, “Whatev.”

Then the first plague arrives. God turns all the Egyptians’ water into blood. (This is worse than the current drought in California.) It reeks. So Pharaoh says to get the fuck out as long as the smell goes away. Yay! The Jews rejoice. The blood turns back into water. Pharaoh is all George W. Bush then and renegs on his promise, leading to the next plague. After the first plague ends and Pharaoh revokes his promise to let the Israelites leave Egypt, Moses and his brother Aaron bring a second plague upon the land. Suddenly, everything is crawling with frogs. They hop into bed with the Egyptians, shower with them, and join them for dinner at fancy restaurants. The worst part was that the croakers would not shut the fuck up. Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, day and night. Even if the Egyptians did not believe they could get warts from the hoppers (since everyone knows that toads brings warts, geez!), the noise is unbelievable. Pharaoh’s court magicians could not get rid of them, so he finally agrees to let the Jews go so long as Moses gets those green fucks out as well. Moses is like, “Right on. Just pick the time, and our God will shut the frogs up.” At the appointed time, all the frogs die. I assume that the en masse deaths and subsequent decaying frog bodies stank as bad as when the water turned to blood. Maybe that’s why Pharaoh changes his mind about letting the Jews abandon their positions as slaves.

Now God is pissed. If the shenanigans with blood and frogs didn’t convince this Pharaoh shithead to let his peeps go, God must unveil something really gross. So Aaron is instructed to stretch out his staff and strike the dust. The dust become lice. As one might imagine, there is a lot of dust in a desert. If you’ve ever had even a mild case of lice (as I did in 2nd grade), you know how unpleasant this is. Imagine a desert made of lice. Even though I think I read somewhere that ancient Egyptians were big into body hair removal (maybe even the original perpetrators of shaved snatch – we should really call Brazilian waxes Ancient Egyptian Exposed Cooter; I could be remembering wrong though), this was not cool. In fact, the Biblical scholar known as Wikipedia asserts that, “This plague killed the most people by far; bugs covered bodies in everyplace that you could not even touch.” Yes, I am itching as I write this. Pharaoh must have been really fucking miserable (or maybe this is what made the Egyptians hate body hair, huh?), as he again agrees to let the Jews go.

Basically, after Pharaoh renegs on letting the Jews leave once the lice were removed from their crotches, they are followed around by swarms of flies. At that point, I suspect they regretted having the frogs (plague 2) killed off, as the fly population would have been greatly reduced by the presence of hungry frogs. But, too late! Hindsight is 20/20. Of course, the Egyptians hate it when flies swarm them everywhere (I picture it sort of like Pig Pen, surrounded by a cloud), so Pharaoh says the Jews could take off if the flies are withdrawn. The flies went wherever plagues of flies go when they are called away, but Pharaoh changes his mind again. So God fucks with the cattle, giving them a “very grievous murrain.” I kind of feel bad for all the horses, camels, oxen, sheep, and asses that die as a result. What did they have to do with this dispute? Nada. Just innocent victims in a battle of wills. It’s always the bystanders that get screwed the worst, I tell you.

After five plagues came and went, you’d think that Pharaoh would have figured out that more were on the way if he didn’t let the Jews leave Egypt, but I think we all know that it is really really hard to cut slave labor loose once you get used to it. One might note that these conditions still exist around the world today – from sweatshop basements and brothels in New York City to the indentured construction workers building skyscrapers in Dubai – but that is far more serious than I want to be, given that the sixth plague is boils. But I duly note that injustice continues without divine intervention. So after the “very grievous murrain” fucks with the Egyptian livestock but Pharaoh still refuses to free the Jews, God tells Aaron to throw some soot around. The dirt led to boils infesting the skin of the Egyptians and whatever livestock hadn’t been fucked up by the “very grievous murrain.” (When I was growing up, my grandparents used Haggadahs at our abbreviated Passover Seders that they somehow got free from Maxwell House coffee. These books also had some very graphic depictions on the plagues, and I was always transfixed by the boils. They were drawn as ginormous lumps leaking pus off a guy’s arm. It was hard to eat gefilte fish after looking at something like that.) My guess is that there weren’t enough sterile needles in ancient Egypt to properly lance all the pus-infested boils, so Pharaoh gives in and says the Jews can leave. Once the boils are gone and everyone is comfortable in their 800 thread count Egyptian cotton robes, of course he changes his mind.

That’s when the hail starts. “Eh, what’s the big deal about hail?” one might wonder. The Maxwell House coffee Haggadah indicated that this hail was mixed with flames, so that fire and ice rained down upon the Egyptians. The crops and whatever livestock still managed to survive were badly damaged. I partly wonder how the hail did not melt from the heat of the fire and then douse the fire, but whatever. That is why it is a miracle.

Next comes a plague of locusts. The locusts destroy any crops that somehow managed to remain after frogs, flies, murrain, and all sorts of other nasty shit decimated the land. People were probably not so impressed by the locusts for that reason as well. If anyone had consulted me on what the 8th plague should have been, I’d have chosen bedbugs. Bedbugs are evil, evil, evil fuckers. There’s a plague of them in NYC now. Again, I wonder what we’re doing that we are so afflicted.

After the locusts’ darkness was recalled, the next plague was darkness. (This strikes me as silly: In the previous plague, supposedly so many locusts swarmed Egypt that the bugs cast a shadow over the land. How is darkness supposed to follow that? It was already dark.) Apparently, however, this darkness was heavier, and Egyptians are physically weighed down by it. According to Wikipedia, the darkness was a direct smackdown on the sun god Ra. It was dark for three days. These people would probably not do well in Scandinavian countries or Alaska in winter if they couldn’t make it through a mere three days of darkness. I hear the vampires love it, though.

The 10th and final plague involves killing all first-born sons, including that of animals. (Once again, totally innocent bystanders.) The Angel of Death roams the towns of Egypt, sparing no one. Except for those who had been warned in advance. Those people (the Jews) marked their doors with lamb’s blood, and the Angel of Death passed over. I guess he is not down with lamb’s blood.

Once the Egyptians suffered, Pharaoh calls Moses in and tells him to get everyone the fuck out of there. So they pack their shit up as fast as they could. This does not allow their delicious bread to rise, so their descendants are condemned to eat matzoh during Passover to show that we still feel the pain. Long story short, the Jews vamanos, and Pharaoh, back to his fickle self, changes his mind. He sends his army to bring them back. The Jews arrive at the Red Sea and despair because we are good divers (evidenced by Mark Spitz) but not good swimmers (Phelps? Not Jewish). God tells them to stop whining and creates a path for them to cross through the Red Sea. Yay! The Egyptians follow. I picture a bad game of “Red Rover,” with the Jews on the far side of the Sea linking hands and yelling, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Pharaoh come over.” The fool charges at the line, and whoops! God closes the sea back up and everyone drowns.

Which will bring me to my final point: anyone who says that God loves life and therefore is against abortion clearly has not read the Bible.