April 11, 2018 My Resistance, Mrs. Feinman
Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art, describes writers block as The Resistance, an anthropomorphized force that sabotages us in our pursuit of our true calling. For me, I imagine the resistance as my high school religious-studies principal Mrs. Feinman. We called her just Feinman. The name still packs a punch.
She didn’t do the typical screaming that other authoritarian boogie-men did, like Mr. Levi, who shouted maniacally while he grabbed his beard and gathered it into a bunch, released it and grabbed it with the other hand, all the while screaming about our intransigence. Not Mrs. Feinman’s style. She had a more malignant power. For her, less was more, with her words, with her wardrobe — which consisted for the most part of one roomy hunter green dress that could accommodate a complete pregnancy, beginning to end — and with the student she chose as the honoree of her coveted attention.
She would pass us in the hallway and give a bit of a wry smile that said she was too good to do more than half-acknowledge our existence, and we’d all feel a thrill of excitement. We mocked her terrific dip of synthetic wig that protruded out of a busy oral turban, but it was a laughter that ineffectively concealed our embarrassing teenage crushes. We all secretly knew the headgear accessorized her like a crown, and that made us want ever
more to be chosen by Her Highness.
One day I was called to the office. I was daydreaming in class wondering about the usual stuff, like if my brother would get engaged that day, and suddenly the teacher announced that the secretary was there to fetch me, on orders of Feinman. Thirty girls gripped their pencils and watched me clamor over the splayed briefcases. I followed the secretary into
the hallway, feeling the world turned upside down. In the small, inner office, Feinman got up from her chair, came around to the front of her desk and stood really close to me. I wasn’t one to bother with deodorant, and we could both smell my sweat.
She cocked her head to the side. “F-ureidy!” she said, as if we were warm, good buddies. “F-ureidy. A girl like you… I wanted to talk to you. Freidy. You’re in tenth grade, and still so boorish, so loud and tsiluzt at recess time…”
Because she was so much taller, and her gold buttons were at eye level, I looked down.
“But look at me, not the door.”
I looked up at her face — it was very white — and she looked deep into my eyes. I felt a tingle.
“Why would you behave like that? What’s the point?” she asked, quietly and firmly.
I shrugged. Why was I hyper and about to explode with energy when the bell went off? I couldn’t understand either. But she wanted to challenge my assumptions. Did it have to be like that? I was bright and I had a lot of friends, why did I need to behave like a boy, sweating and jumping and practicing wedding dances? It didn’t past! I nodded. She made sense. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a good person. So why wasn’t I? Why wasn’t I the teacher’s pet Sura Miriam Laufer instead of being the one hating on Sura-Miriam Laufer?
Maybe I could be a Sura-Miriam. Mrs. Feinman thought so.
I was a little foggy the rest of the day. The girls floated around me like butterflies, wanting to dip closer to me to taste my pollen. It was a foreshadowing of the respect that the Sura-Miriams of the world enjoyed. I was dizzy with the fantasy of my life being like this, in all its glory. It’s doable — what’s to stop me! I’d get more of these intoxicating audiences with Feinman. I’d grow up to be the principal’s secretary. I could see myself in a stiff bob, not the dirty-blonde unwieldy pony. I’d wear polyester blouses with long vests over them, and I’d stand in the lunchroom at the aide of Mrs. Feinman, my back straight as she’d whisper something in my ear, the two of us as powerful as politicians. All the women would tell my mother: “your daughter, oh, what a fine girl!”
It didn’t happen. I couldn’t manage the metamorphosis. Sura-Miriam blossomed into such a humorless, holier-than-thou vigilante, I could not resist the joy of calling out her hypocrisies. I didn’t want to be her, not for a half a day. I was class clown and resident adventure-planner and always in trouble, and barely made it to graduation without being kicked out. I managed to make it to marriage and motherhood, but then it all came apart. I
became the baddest of bad girls; I left the faith. “Pity!”, they now say.
I parted ways with many people and said good riddance to all the Sura-Miriams of the world without ever looking back. But Mrs. Feinman is still around, because she is my Resistance. Her voice tells me the naughtiest of things: that I could still be something else, something morally superior. Not a writer. That’s a silly business.
She comes to me only when I write. I’ve discovered a little spot in my neighborhood, among one of Pomona, New York’s many hiking trails where I can take the dog and write while he runs free. There is no Wi-Fi, there are benches, there is nature, there is quiet. The spot happens to be in a small and abandoned Letchworth-Village Cemetery. It’s good enough for me; certainly none of the dead bother me. But as soon as I run out of my last Candy Crush life and open a Word Document, Feinman comes running. She takes a taxi from my hometown (Hasidic women don’t drive) and huffs and puffs her way past me to one of the gravestones marked with a Star of David. She lights a candle from her tote bag and begins a feverish prayer over her small prayer-book.
I find her unbearably distracting, grating, infuriating. I could feel my anger fight back against the guilt she is igniting. That passive aggressive witch! After she recovers from her sanctimonious weeping, she kisses the prayer-book and starts leaving. She stops a few paces later, as if she just noticed me. She says, “Ah! Freidy, hello.”
I smile. Hello.
“How are you?”
I say I’m good. I’m not gay and she’s not attractive, but I feel myself heating up as if Magic Mike was standing over me. It doesn’t help that she’s in a rush and I’m flattered that she’s giving me the time of day.
Her face grows dark. She asks “What’s the point?”
I say nothing. The point? I don’t know. What is the purpose of torturing myself to fight against writer’s block, of trying so hard to publish? It has no purpose. It makes no sense. It is primal and irrational.
She sits down on the marble bench. On it, the words “those who shall no longer be forgotten” are inscribed. I think about this, the bench, now that has a point. Feinman tells me to look at her. The gold buttons have been replaced by less conspicuous brown ones –she’s always trying to outdo her own piety.
She still talks like a rabbi, sing-song and mournful.
“Why don’t you do something meaningful? You want to be… god forbid, not Yiddish, off, god forbid, we can’t stop you, god gave you bechira, choice -but at least, as chazal say, be a good goy… ”
She pauses. I am listening intently. “Freidy, do something noble! You could adopt a son, you could give a poor child a home! You could become a foster parent! Are you going to be another one of those harried, opportunistic OTD writers? Another nebech who is just hocus-pocusing around, an empty, goyish life, gurnisht mit nisht? You could be good. Why not start a major recycling program in the Kiryas Joel village? Now that would be noble. You’d literally
save the planet! Or do something for animals, be a mentch. They need help, Freidy. Don’t you care about the pets in the kill shelters to whom you could give your time, instead of to this meaningless airing of laundry? Am I wrong, Freidy?”
She looks into my soul as she speaks, and like before, I feel a rush of hope. To live knowing that what you do is meaningful. I feel the rush of certainty. Of course!
I decide not to write. I want to do something that is good, no grey zones. The world is too evil for me to contribute to it. I could be the secular tsedeykes, the goyish Sura-Miriam. I think of Elizabeth from the animal shelter. She is intelligent, feisty, she doesn’t bad-mouth communities, she saves dogs, and she designs jewelry. A hip hero! As Feinman asks, what’s to stop me from being her? The fantasy is enchanting: Feinman and I are standing there, working in a small kennel — just me and her and a sweet stray pit-bull who was abandoned after being exploited for her pups. Feinman watches me clean its paws and ears and check its gums. She takes my hand in between both of hers and says fiercely:
“I’m so proud of you, Sura-Miriam.”
“I’m Freidy. It’s Freidy” I remind her.
“Noo,” she smiles and pulls her wig-dip forward a bit. “No, Freidy. You’re Sura-Miriam now.”