MANKE: Do you want to, Rivkele? Yes? Do you want to?
RIVKELE: (Nods:) Yes, yes.
- God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch
When Sara returned to her childhood shul in Westchester County ostensibly because her dad was being honored with an aliyah, everything was as it used to be. There was the wooden table on which lay a basket of kippot and a stack of flyers in case you wanted to learn more about Israeli bonds, and a different stack of Men’s Club newsletters, in case you wanted a safe space to be cis but in a kosher way. Everyone was a familiar face but older and the kids were no longer kids, and had long since moved away. The only real change, at least at the doorway, was a brightly colored poster affirming that this was an LGBTQ+ welcoming space.
Sara reflexively reached for her tallis bag and remembered that it was hundreds of miles away because she’d been worried that if she wore it she wouldn’t pass. Miriam, her girlfriend, comfortingly squeezed her hand.
Many old women who had in many small ways helped raise Sara, whether as Hebrew School teachers or as family friends, wanted to tell her that she’d chosen a beautiful name. We can gloss over exactly who said what because it doesn’t matter, and what does matter is that Sara remembered that these were the same women who had circulated the news throughout the shul that Sara had been caught by her parents wearing a dress. Sara had talked to Hashem and she was at peace with the fact that she was never going to forgive her parents or these ladies for her shitty childhood, including the part where her mom kibbitzed with these ladies all about the dress, and Sara, and Sara in the dress, during kiddush of all places.
Sara was lost in thought and almost missed Miriam saying, “Hey, can we talk?”
They went outside and took off their masks. (As if they needed anything more to mark them as outsiders! May Hashem spare all those in need of giving up from debilitating lifelong disability, amen.)
“What’s up?” Sara said, breathing in the crisp October air.
“They’re all talking to you,” Miriam said.
“We knew it was going to be like this,” Sara said.
“Yeah, we did,” Miriam said tightly, “and it still sucks.”
Sara and Miriam had been childhood best friends and it would be too simplistic to say that the shul could only stomach one trans woman and more accurate to say that everyone had already chosen to dislike Miriam when she was quite young. No one in the congregation could reconcile their impulse to loudly welcome Sara back home with the quiet belief that Miriam had always been a bad influence on Sara.
Miriam had in fact been that bad. One time she was so mad about something, it doesn’t matter what it was, that she knocked over one of the bookshelves containing the siddurim and then kicked at the bent books on the floor and screamed until she finally got attention. And who could forget the time that Miriam had taken a menorah up to the roof and played with the matches and nearly set the building on fire. Everyone knew it was Sara who had procured the supplies—less people knew that Sara was also on the roof that night—but Sara was quiet. When the world was too overwhelming or too threatening, Sara used to get quiet and hide and Miriam used to act up, and that made all the difference. As a child, Miriam had gone out of her way to make an enemy of each of these ladies complimenting Sara on her hair, and their husbands too and she remembered each and every act with clarity and fondness, because the alternative would be to forget it altogether. Oh, and who could forget the times when the other children had snubbed her or poured soda on her head, her head with the kippah her aunt had made her, because let’s face it Miriam was kind of a fag and a short and weak one at that. What about Miriam’s bar mitzvah where a group of five acapella guys sang because you can’t play instruments on Shabbos and all the kids ignored them and ignored Miriam and ignored each other? As to the question of who could forget Miriam’s Birthright experience, and what happened that one time, when the IDF soldier had entered her tent in the Negev and Miriam had said no but it happened anyway—well, no one remembered that. Because everybody knew that the American Jews slept with the IDF soldiers on Birthright because it was in Israel’s interest to convince them that the local young adult population was athletic and fertile and accessible, and it was absurd that Miriam hadn’t wanted it. And now no one knew it except Miriam. The IDF woman had probably forgotten too.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Sara said. “Fuck them. They’re not why we’re here.”
Miriam’s parents weren’t present—they’d moved to Toronto—and if they had been there, Miriam would never have returned to the shul. She wanted what Sara wanted, she wanted to do this in ways that by definition defied language, but this wasn’t her idea. It was Emily’s. You know, Sara and Miriam’s girlfriend? The one that, by mutual agreement between the three of them, Sara’s parents didn’t have to know about. Nonetheless, it was Emily, in absentia, who had been scrolling through Sara’s childhood synagogue’s website and it was Emily who’d told them that the congregation was going to bury a damaged Torah scroll in November.
“Was it you?” Sara had teased Miriam.
“God, I wish,” Miriam had growled. Her voice was deep, much deeper than Sara’s, especially when recalling her youth.
And then Emily had said: “Where do you think they’ll put the Torah before they bury it?”
Everything about this synagogue made Miriam feel like she’d been stuffed into a clown cannon and was about to be launched into dissociation-space—she was already beginning to daydream insane shit like tearing down the Israeli flag on the bima that everyone was pretending not to worship and taking off her clothes and wearing the flag like a sackcloth, crying, announcing to everyone that she had repented and relented, she’d even grow a beard again—insane shit!—or maybe cut her girlfriend’s incredibly hot hair that everyone was complimenting with a pair of scissors—everything about this synagogue made her feel like that except that the janitor keys were where they used to be. And when they were in her hand, they felt cool, and soothing. At one point they started locking the storage closet because Miriam, specifically and no one else, kept stealing stuff from there (and occasionally fucking Sara in the closet too, which meant that sometimes the items on the shelf on the right-hand wall were vigorously jostled). In any case, Miriam by that time knew where to find the keys but she became less bold, always being sure to rearrange things as they’d been prior to her opening the door, lest this too be taken from her.
Miriam returned to the sanctuary, where Sara was waiting for her, just in time to hear Sara’s dad chant Torah. It was Parshat Lech Lecha and there’s a lot going on in this parsha—this is where we first meet Abram and Sarai—but the pertinent verse was
And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.”
“Because,” Sara’s dad had said over the phone, voice full of emotion, “I just think it’s so beautiful that there’s a verse in the Torah where God grants a new name, your name, to her, the first Sarah. I mean to say… She didn’t used to be Sarah… And then she was.”
“There’s Tanakh for each and every occasion, dad,” Sara had replied.
“There’s no need to be sarcastic,” her mom said, “your father is trying.”
Sara didn’t know what to say because she never knew what to say to that, or how to square that her dad had hit her when—well, it doesn’t really matter why, does it, the point is he did that, more than once. Sara had never known what to say or how she was supposed to react to the hostile world around her, so she hadn’t, she had squandered years in hiding, except when she was with Miriam. She knew that as long as she could grow up to be a husband she’d probably be ok in the end, and yet somehow, no matter how many Magic: The Gathering cards she traded with the boys during kiddush, that fate seemed out of reach. It was Miriam who had known how to react, Miriam who had vented and screamed about Sara’s parents on her behalf when they were alone, despite all the shit Miriam was going through at her own home, and that’s probably how Sara first fell in love with her.
So when Sara was starting to feel paralyzed with indecision and a foreboding sense that this, the whole trip and the whole plan, this was a big mistake, it was Miriam who swiped the keys from the office and Miriam who glanced at her, as her father continued to chant, to signal that the keys were in her purse and it was time to move on to step two.
If an entire synagogue mistreated you, what do you think it would deserve?
When Sara’s father was done, Sara hugged him and told him yasher koach, and all the family’s friends openly wept at the sight. Then Sara indicated that she and Miriam needed to use the bathroom, and everyone got out of their way, but as the two women left, all the cis grew silent all at once and all thought, just for a brief moment, that if Sara and Miriam took a piss in the women’s room, it would make them all feel a little uncomfortable.
They went down the stairs to the basement to the youth lounge. No one was there because the teen service had ended about ten minutes ago. There were still unstacked chairs and candy wrappers on the floor. The air was cool like it had always been, though maybe more mildewy. The wall to the right had the same ugly mural as before, a scene of muscular teenage kibbutzniks planting trees (did you know that the JNF planted trees on top of the ruins of Palestinian villages? Sara hadn’t known that either). On the far wall was the door to the storage closet. Sara and Miriam remembered fucking in the youth lounge one time when the storage closet had felt too confining. It had been in the evening. Miriam had gotten them in because she’d learned the code to the burglar alarm system. Sara had been too scared of getting caught to enjoy anything but over time they told and retold the story to each other until it became the best moment of Sara’s teenage years and it still got her hard thinking about how Miriam had felt in her arms that night. When they’d met Emily she’d wanted to hear all of the details of their shockingly sexual past and Sara relished in bragging about how Miriam had held her against that terrible kibbutznik mural and she’d compared Miriam’s own muscles to the ones on the wall and she’d felt safe and absolutely overcome by desire.
The storage closet was more than a janitorial closet. It was large enough that it probably could’ve been a second youth room but it wasn’t allowed, probably something to do with fire safety regulations, so now it was just an especially cavernous closet. It had been divided in two, with cleaning supplies in one half, and miscellaneous old Judaica in the other. Today, that latter half was stacks of old siddurim that were too worn out to be used and would soon be buried—and, yes, there it was, the damaged Torah scroll. It was torn in half. One half was on one wooden spindle and the other half on the other.
Miriam closed the door to the storage closet, plunging them into darkness, and started to take out her phone to see by, but then Sara’s hands were on her chest and Sara’s lips were on her lips, and Sara breathed into her ear, “The longer one.” The longer half-scroll, she meant, which happened to be most of Vayikra through Devarim.
They were touching each other and grabbing each other’s asses and suddenly they absolutely had to undress but they absolutely had to grab the scroll, and they felt frenzied, torn like the scroll between one want and the other.
Sara grasped Miriam’s hand and pulled it away from her cock and guided it to the scroll. They each placed a hand on the Torah, which nearly no Jew, save the Torah scribes themselves, has ever done.
Miriam stroked the parchment like it had tits. “It’s rougher than I imagined,” she whispered.
With reverence—it must be stressed here that all of this was done with reverence, for they knew in the deepest portions of their souls that they were interfacing directly with God, even Miriam knew this despite being an avowed atheist, and Sara conceptualized this act as a fulfillment of the desires of the mystical divine feminine while Miriam conceptualized it as a bodily need that she’d had ever since the Rabbi had told her that she didn’t act like a Jew—they unwound a portion of the scroll on the floor and Miriam lay on the Torah scroll on her back and Sarah grinded on her from above and kissed her and whispered secret names that only they knew, the truly secret names that not even Emily knew.
“Fuck,” Miriam said, suddenly tensing. “Fuck, I think I forgot it.”
“Ssshhh,” Sara said. She had remembered to pack the vibrator and she’d already taken it out of her purse, and she gave it to Miriam. “What do you want?” she whispered.
“Hold me down,” Miriam said.
Sara pressed Miriam into the Torah scroll with one hand and choked her with the other while Miriam writhed on black fire written on white fire and pressed the vibrator onto her cock.
Miriam rarely came during sex but she was determined to this time. Sara squeezed her neck harder and a dribble of cum squeezed out of Miriam’s dick and onto the scroll. “I love you,” Miriam gasped, to Sara and to whomever, “I love you, I love you.”
They switched positions and Miriam sucked Sara’s cock but Sara didn’t come. Sara’s phone buzzed to alert them that kiddush was almost over and the janitors would be returning soon. They got up, dressed, kissed, laughed, and rewound the Torah scroll as best as they could and propped it back on the wall. Miriam locked the door behind them and threw the keys into the middle of the room. If anyone noticed that someone had broken into the closet, let them think it was one of the teens.
They rejoined Sara’s parents as kiddush was ending. “There you are!” Sara’s dad said, too excited to notice the sheen of sweat on his daughter’s brow. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
Sara hugged him again and said, “I’m so proud of you. I’m so moved that you chose to honor me.”
Then the four of them—mom, dad, Sara, and Miriam—left the synagogue and walked back to Sara’s home. Sara’s parents went upstairs to their room to take their afternoon nap. Sara and Miriam went to Sara’s first-floor childhood bedroom, which was now a guest room. They lay down side by side on the guest bed.
“I remember what you told me about Birthright,” Sara said quietly. “About the IDF woman. You did tell me about it. I don’t know if you remember telling me about it but I’ve always remembered. I just wanted you to know that.”
“Oh,” Miriam said.
“Is it OK that I said that?” Sara said.
“Yeah, it’s OK,” Miriam said.
After a minute or so had passed, Miriam said, “I do think about her a lot.”
“Yeah?” Sara said.
“Sometimes I wonder what she’s doing,” Miriam said.
“What do you think she’s doing?” Sara asked.
“Davening,” Miriam said, “with her family.”
 Translation from A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Texts From the First Century to 1969 edited by Noam Sienna.
 Genesis 17:15, Jewish Study Bible translation.
Esther Alter is an trans anti-Zionist Jewish game short story writer, game designer, and open source software developer. Her fiction has been published in Baffling Magazine, khōréō, and the print anthology Luminescent Machinations. Her games can be found on Steam and itch.io. Her website is https://subalterngames.com. Follow her on Mastodon @ firstname.lastname@example.org. Esther recommends Jewish Voice for Peace.