Photo by ungvar on Adobe Stock
Divine Wanderers follows a Hasidic Jewish family through a tumultuous year in their lives in the late 1960's. Edith, the protagonist, grapples with infertility and a miscarriage, while her sister Wiktoria, endures domestic violence. After Edith's miscarriage, she decides that she no longer wishes to be a mother and will find a way to feel fulfilled that does not necessarily align with Hasidic teachings. Wiktoria finally decides to leave her abusive husband after he discovers that she has secretly been taking birth control pills because she does not wish to bring another child (especially a daughter) into a world where men can abuse their wives with no consequences. The story is an examination of what it means to be a woman of faith, as well as an individual in a society that does not necessarily value individuality.
Chapter 1

Edith fell deeper into a nightmare while her younger sister, Wiktoria, busied herself in the kitchen. The apartment was small enough that the sounds of Wiktoria’s two small children eating their breakfasts carried into the spare room where Edith slept and transformed into the soundscape of her nightmare. The clink of their cutlery on the plates became broken windows, their nonsensical babbling became the shouts of rioters in the streets. Although her memories of the pogroms that drove the family out of Poland were distant, they were not faint. The hateful graffiti that tarnished the family home, the yellow stars appearing on their neighbors’ clothes, the blessing that they’d had the means–and the foresight–to leave at the right time.

Edith never spoke of these nightmares to her sister, though Wiktoria knew they plagued her. There was no one to speak of them with. She did not wish to trouble her already overloaded sister with one more burden. But as she tossed and turned, Wiktoria heard Edith’s distress, and came to wake her. She stroked her sister’s furrowed brow with her cool hand. “Wake up,” she said gently. “Wake up, you’re having a bad dream.”

With a gasp, Edith jolted awake. Gradually, the scene of the pogrom buried itself in her mind as she took in her surroundings. “Sorry,” she breathed, her hand rising to cover her mouth.

“It’s alright. Coffee’s on. Get dressed and come have breakfast,” Wiktoria said. She left the room, her long skirt swishing as she closed the door behind her.

Once alone, Edith rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She took in her surroundings, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was here in Williamsburg, not back in Poland. With a deep breath, she looked around the room, reminding herself the war was over, that she was safe. She surveyed the room, took in the daybed on which she slept and the itchy quilt she was wrapped in. Across from her was a folding table that had been pressed into service as a desk, where Yitzhak, Wiktoria’s husband, had piled books, documents from the estate sales he handled, and other odds and ends. For some reason, he’d carelessly left his tefillin on top of a book. Edith glanced at its cover curiously, but saw that it was in English. Afraid the tefillin might fall onto the floor, she moved to pick them up, but then thought better of it. Women were not supposed to touch such things, and although she knew if it had been her own husband, Anshel’s, tefillin, he would not have minded, she also knew Yitzhak to be much stricter with Wiktoria.

She mumbled the words of Amidah, and then got dressed. In the kitchen, the children were attacking what Wiktoria called “happy toast,” which was just toast with a little cinnamon and brown sugar on it, sometimes mixed with mashed bananas. Zevi, the baby, was in his highchair looking unimpressed with the goings-on in the kitchen. Even at eleven months, he had not a single hair on his head, and he had enormously squishy cheeks, which made him look like a melancholy little mouse storing food away for the winter.

His four-year-old sister, Chani, sat beside him, a tangle of red hair and chaos. Ever her mother’s shadow, Chani had to be seated out of arm’s reach of Zevi, otherwise she tried to feed him and invariably smeared food all over his face, which only served to make him squall and create a mess for Wiktoria to clean up.

Edith shuffled into the kitchen, looking dazed and sloppy compared to her well-groomed sister. Wiktoria wore a spotless white blouse buttoned up to her neck, a gray skirt that brushed her calves, and a pale pink tichel over her hair. She gestured for Edith to sit down at the empty seat at the kitchen table. She slid a steaming mug of black coffee between Edith’s waiting hands. Edith sipped it with a weary sigh.

“It’s so hard when they’re both gone,” Wiktoria said, leaning against the wall. “But I’m glad they’ll be here in time for Shabbos.”

“So am I,” Edith replied, though this was untrue. Anshel, her husband, and Yitzhak, Wiktoria’s husband, worked for the same firm that handled estate sales. They traveled so frequently it almost felt, to Edith, as though she’d married her sister. Her eyelids drooped as she peered down at the coffee cup. With no children to mind and having just woken up, she had no reason to be so tired. But it wasn’t sleep that she needed. She felt weary down to her core, bone-tired, like there was a hole in her soul that couldn’t be repaired. She cast her eyes around the small kitchen, the cramped room that held so much warmth, such joy. She shivered. The children didn’t acknowledge her but instead continued their game. Zevi was babbling in almost-words, and Chani answered him in a made-up language that was, at least to her, utterly hilarious, as she gasped for breath between peals of laughter. Wiktoria looked on admiringly, her thin lips curled into a smile. Although she was seated closest to the children, Edith couldn’t help but feel like she was peering through a window, spying on someone else’s enviable life. She sipped the coffee and rolled her shoulders, trying to shake the nightmare.

Wiktoria squeezed Edith’s shoulder and smiled. “Want to help me braid this challah?” she said, leaning towards the refrigerator.

Edith’s face felt like it was cracking as a smile overtook it. “Yesss.” She let the word become a hiss and stretched her fingers out before her, relishing the task she was about to undertake with an almost childlike enthusiasm. Though Wiktoria surpassed her in nearly every aspect of homemaking, Edith’s nimble fingers had a knack for braiding the bread dough into perfect loaves. When Wiktoria tried to braid them, the dough turned sticky in her graceful hands, and the bread became misshapen and lumpy.

Wiktoria grinned and handed Edith two mounds of dough. Edith stretched, her left hand automatically grabbing the hem of her shirt to avoid exposing her midriff. She wore the same blouse she’d worn yesterday, a boxy, gray sheath that obscured her body’s curves, and a dark green cardigan further flattened her figure. She eagerly dug her fingers into the dough while Wiktoria looked on.

Wiktoria contemplated her plain sister. Although the two of them shared the same heart-shaped face and winsome brown eyes, Edith’s were perpetually unfocused, unlike the precise and eager gaze Wiktoria met her own life with. She watched Edith effortlessly work the dough in her fingers, her head bowed almost comically low, her tichel covering all of her hair and some of her face. She wondered what her sister must have secretly been doing wrong. There must have been something she was keeping from Wiktoria, some reason why she had not yet had any children.

 Privately, Wiktoria also thought Anshel was odd, in both his mannerisms and his speech. To her, he seemed too flexible, too soft-spoken. Her own husband, Yitzhak, though capricious, was vivacious. He didn’t simply enter a room, he commanded it. Perhaps Anshel was the same timid creature in relations with Edith as he was everywhere else. Wiktoria shook her head to banish the thoughts. How very crass to think such things. At any rate, Anshel’s passive nature gave Edith’s melancholia a soft place to land, and Wiktoria was thankful for that, as she had only so much patience for it. Of course, she loved her sister. But she didn’t think it proper to delve as deeply into despair as Edith did; she didn’t approve of the way Edith wore her sadness like a shroud. Perhaps this was the reason she and Anshel remained childless. Between his docility and her unstable nature, they were a strange couple at best.

With a sigh, Wiktoria said a silent prayer, asking Hashem to rid her of her uncharitable thoughts. She wiped her hands on her apron, and the question formed without her consent, Who else would braid the dough?

About the Author

Katherine Orfinger

Katherine Orfinger is a writer and MFA student at Rosemont College. She holds a Bachelor's in English from Stetson University. Her work has appeared in Beyond Queer Words, The Write Launch, Outrageous Fortune, You Might Need to Hear This, and others. Katherine draws inspiration from her Floridian hometown and Jewish faith. She is also passionate about ending the stigma surrounding mental health. She currently resides in Pennsylvania with her partner.