Lisa Radhika Kaul

I check myself in the mirror again. Oof! There’s an errant hair that’s sticking out beneath my drab grey headscarf. I try to push it back, but it cheekily slips right out. I thought Shafiq had taken care of my hair problems at the Madonna Beauty parlor in New Delhi. Evidently it wasn’t enough. I’m jet-lagged, but I need a quick and cheap fix. So I pick my way through resigned old men smoking their pipes on low stools, squabbling hawkers, brash taxi drivers, giggling school girls in hijab, and restless young men with blank eyes to the Gold Beauty Palace in east Jerusalem. I’d seen it among several others en route to Golgotha, the “other” tomb of the Holy Sepulcher that doesn’t have a hastily put together cathedral over it. I’d wondered why there were so many hairdressers in a place where all the women covered their hair.

I need a haircut, I said to the handsome Suleiman, who had somehow poured himself into a pair of faded jeans. His smile faded. “What am I going to cut?” The bevy of pouting women with luscious hair that adorned his walls seemed to inch their perfectly sculpted brows a little higher. “All of it,” I said, pulling on the inch of hair on my head. He shrugged his shoulders, and grimly committed himself to the distasteful task at hand. I egged him on until I saw the revulsion on his face, and then I asked him to stop.

Check hair. Check buttons. Eighty dernier stockings even though it is ninety degrees outside. Skirt longer than mid-calf? Closed shoes? Check pens. Notebook. Tape recorder. Is my shirt loose enough? Can I see a hint of my undergarments? Is an extra sliver of skin peeking out above my wrists? No. I’m ready to go.


I walk out of my apartment. Yossi, whose job it is to hang around the street takes a look at me and does a double-take. He’s used to seeing me in considerably lighter clothing. “What? You’re datiya?” He accuses. I don’t know what to say so I pretend I haven’t heard. “Are you religious?” He shouts. I have no choice but to answer. “No,” I say, and he looks me squarely in the eye and spits out a single word,” zona.”  My face burns with anger at being called a prostitute, but I keep my mouth shut and turn away to walk down ha Ayin Het towards the part of Jerusalem that becomes increasingly shakur, or black.

I ignore the  handsome boys of the Border Police and the dumpsters and the cats that jump out of them. I’m punctilious about avoiding stray bottles and anything unfamiliar on the street. I’ve heard enough about the first Intifada to know better. I’m hungry to take it all in, but I don’t know who might see me, and say what to whom. So I look down and mince my steps. A raft of penguins walks towards me, and in an exaggerated show of modesty I cross the street. “Penguins” is a word coined by secular Israelis for the ultra-orthodox Jewish men whose sartorial style is often limited to black and white. Sort of like the lives they live. 248 prescriptions and 365 proscriptions: 613 commandments in all.

In crossing the road, I make a faux pas: I’ve made myself visible. The onus was on the men to cross the street. I wish I would dissolve into the walls that flank the narrow pavement. But there is little chance of that happening. The walls have been made impermeable by the thick layer of posters that coat them. Posters that exhort, scold, insist, and ultimately ensure that their words be heeded.

“To women and girls who pass through our neighborhood we beg you with all our hearts. Please do not pass through our neighborhood in immodest clothes. Modest clothes include closed blouse with long sleeves, long skirt, no tight fitting clothes. Please do not distress us by disturbing the sanctity of our neighborhood and our way of life as Jews committed to G-d and his Torah.”

Sometimes housewives accidentally empty buckets of dirty water on women who bare their arms. I once made the mistake of wearing a red cardigan over my ankle length dress, and young man hissed pritse as he walked by me. Immodest woman! It takes me two months to realize that it was the eye-catching color of my cardigan that was to blame.

I enter the “market” of Meah Shearim, or a hundred gates, which is rather disappointingly enclosed only within six gates. Legend has it that it was named so because the Biblical portion of the week that the settlement was founded in contained the verse, “Isaac sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold; God had blessed him,” (Genesis 26:12). Founded in 1874 for a hundred shareholders, it was among the earliest Jewish settlements to be built outside the cramped and unhygienic quarters of the walled city of David. One hundred and fifteen years later years later it is pulsating with the sounds of young boys learning toyreh, and of men praying in the many shietblach. Silent women with tightly wound headscarves and opaque stockings wheel children in prams as they hurry with their shopping. The houses, made of stone, built around courtyards, bear mute testimony to the impossible additions made to their original structures. Right off the main market street, I enter one such courtyard, go up a set of stairs, and knock on the door. As I wait, a small sign captures my eye, ‘A Jew, not a Zionist’.

Hannah opens the door. She always looks cool, collected, and regal. Her headscarf is the exact same shade as her twin set, and her pearl earrings offset the blue of her eyes. Her iciness unnerves me, but having seen her interact with her children, I know that she’s capable of thawing. This is the fourth time I’m here to interview her father-in-law, who can’t meet me in his own home because his wife won’t allow any goyim in the house. And since the rules of modesty require that he meet me in the presence of another woman, I’m at Hannah’s house. She nods and says, “Rabbi Eizenbach is running late. You can come in and wait.”

She ushers me into a spotlessly clean dining room, and decides to chat. Ever since I interviewed her about ten months ago, or rather she interviewed me, she’s curious to learn more about me. A massive bookcase brimming with sets of religious texts and artifacts towers over us. There is a reason why the Jews are called a People of the Book. When a boy turns three his father wrests him from the warmth of his mother and wraps him in a prayer shawl lest his eyes be exposed to any impurity and immodesty and carries him to the heder, or school. Once there, the shawl is arranged on the boy’s shoulder and he is placed in the teacher’s lap. The teacher traces the first letter of the alphabet with honey and the child is encouraged to lick it. Learning the Torah should be sweet like honey. From then on, the boys spend all their waking hours learning and studying and praying. As grown men, they are encouraged to continue studying. They are supported by the community, or by their wives. It is the dream of every girl that she have the merit to marry a scholar.

Mendy, her youngest, comes home from heder. He is dressed exactly like all the other boys in the neighborhood – dark blue pants, with the white fringes of his tallis kattan hanging over the sides, checked shirt, white socks, black shoes, black velvet yarmulke that sits snugly over his close cropped hair, and golden side-curls that he twirls around. But his face is arresting and I can pick him out in a crowd. He is four, and is learning about separation. “Why is a goy sitting in our house?” he asks in Yiddish. Even though they live in Israel, Hannah and her family only speak Yiddish. They are all conversant with loishan kodesh – the holy tongue – but refuse to speak modern Hebrew which they see as a corrupt and sacrilegious enterprise. Speaking Yiddish is also one of the strategies of resistance they employ against a state they refuse to recognize. They believe that the Jews can only have a state when the messiah arrives. Until then, the Jews are supposed to accept the divine decree of exile and prepare for the messianic coming through prayer and study. I’m deflated that even a little child can see through my disguise. I can sense that Hannah is troubled by my presence in her home. How can she protect her children from the outside world, if she lets any part of it in?


“Go play!” she tells Mendy. He goes to the other room and returns laden with keys – big, small, brass, steel, skinny, stout. There are a couple hundred, and he triumphantly lays them down on the pristine plastic that covers the white tablecloth. “Shlisslen!” I say, eager to impress him with my Yiddish. What are you going to do with so many? He gives me a puzzled look, picks up a bunch and rifles through them. I picture myself plucking cherries in upstate New York. He’s in his Garden of Eden. Hannah smiles.

“Mendy collects keys, like kids collect baseball cards.” She is originally from Boro Park in New York, and likes to shock me with her “worldliness.” Her mother has just shut down her bungalow colony in the Catskills, and has brought these keys as a present for Mendy.

“What about the locks?” I ask. “Where are they?” I imagine bungalows that will remain closed forever, and doors that will have to be forced open.  A sense of disquiet engulfs me.


“Oh! He only likes to collect the keys.”

I want to ask him whether he knows where these keys belong. Doesn’t he want the locks? Doesn’t he want to be able to open closed locks? Doesn’t he want to have the power to use the keys? Does he think about the bereft bungalows? He could open an entire world if he wanted to.

Hannah senses my panic and says, “Not every key needs to have a lock.”



Goy: non-Jew; plural – goyim


All text and photographs © Lisa Radhika Kaul and humble, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lisa Radhika Kaul and humble with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




4 thoughts on “KEYS”

  1. Lisa, I read ‘Herath’ and Taut Spaces a few weeks ago and couldn’t read more because I was so moved by those accounts. I let them just swirl around inside me. I’m sorry I didn’t do so earlier. Too many banal reasons. Your writing is so YOU in every way. In its depth, nuances…observing minutely and putting into context with ease and fluidity. So accessible and profoundly human. Love to you, lots of love to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Resham si reshma, your generosity is overwhelming! Thank you! I think the nicest part of writing is getting to read my friend’s words. You are so utterly lyrical, and compelling. Much love to you too. Keep creating the magic!


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