by Cindy Rizzo
The story of three teens, members of the first generation to come of age after the United States splits into two countries, continues.
When tragedy strikes Judith Braverman in the God Fearing States, Dani Fine is determined to leave the safety of home in the United Progressive Regions and once again sneak across the border to join Judith and the new Minyan of Resistance. She’s also eager to find out if the attraction she and Judith shared during their first meeting is still between them.
Impatient for some visible act of defiance, Jeffrey Schwartz is worried that the Minyan is more focused on prayer than on actual resistance. But when the GFS president, running in a close re-election campaign against a self-proclaimed “Christian white supremacist,” vows to step up the government’s actions against the country’s Jews, the Minyan makes its move.
Nothing that’s come before can prepare Judith, Dani and Jeffrey for the challenges they now face as their futures appear more and more uncertain.
The Border Crosser is the second book in the highly praised Split Series.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"In this second book of The Split Trilogy, Dani Fine makes a daring decision to once again cross the border into the God Fearing States to be with Judith Braverman, the girl whose kisses she can't stop thinking about. As danger mounts for Judith and her community, Dani stays to join the Resistance. But what can a group of queer teens and their friends do to stop a powerful government intent on eliminating those it sees as a threat to their fundamentalist Christian nation?"
After decades of increasing polarization, the United States of America became ungovernable and split itself into two nations. Each state joined one of the new countries—the God Fearing States of America (GFS), a majority white Christian conservative nation; and the United Progressive Regions of America (UPR), a majority non-white, liberal nation.
All except Ohio, which was divided in two.
South Ohio, God Fearing States
“I thought weddings were supposed to be joyous,” my friend Isaac Leventhal mumbles quietly as he walks by me at the reception.
“Not this one,” I respond as I look around at the synagogue’s social hall crowded with round tables of ten, each filled with most of the important people of our Orthodox Jewish community smiling and enjoying their time at the wedding of two of the most evil people in existence—Yetta Freundlich, my classmate at Kushner Academy for Girls, and Simeon Rausch, the son of our turncoat city councilman, who supports every horrible new action of our government designed to isolate and confine the Jews of Cincinnati.
Isaac doubles back and whispers in my ear. “Lots of bad souls?” He’s referring to my gift of being able to see souls, or neshamot1, of some but not all people.
What was once a secret known only to a few is now common knowledge among the network of Minyans2 of Resistance, independent communities of prayer and action that have sprung up throughout the God Fearing States.
“More than I can usually see in one place,” I tell him. “I’ve spent most of the time looking down or to the side.”
The oozing green stuff inside those blackened souls of Yetta and Simeon standing under the chuppah3 is making me feel like my stomach is leaping up into my throat and is about to be expelled through my mouth. At one point when I looked at some members of their families and saw the same thing, I stopped making eye contact with anyone.
Well, except for thirteen-year-old Naomi Blau, one of the only members of our First Minyan of Resistance to attend this wedding of the hateful couple, Yetta and Simeon. But every time I try to get a fix on Naomi’s neshamah, I see something unusual. The first time I looked, which was during a meeting of our minyan, her soul shimmered like fading fireworks, similar to other good souls. But lately I see instead a dark gray wall, the color of a slate roof, with a faint light behind it. Today, the light seems only slightly brighter but still hidden behind the gray.
Focusing on the mystery of Naomi’s soul, normally an inscrutable puzzle that would frustrate me, has instead been a welcome diversion. It would have been much easier to get through this horrible wedding if Hannah Goldwyn and Jeffrey Schwartz, my two best friends, were here to distract me with their snarky remarks. But Hannah’s family declined the invitation, using their weekly commitment to volunteer at a soup kitchen as a convenient excuse, since none of them wanted to attend; and Jeffrey’s family, who campaigned for Simeon’s father’s opponent in the city council election, wasn’t invited. Had he been here, I could easily imagine Jeffrey shaking his head every time the look on my face registered disgust from seeing another evil soul.
“SJ,” he’d say, using his nickname for me, Super Jew, a sarcastic reference to the fact that I use my art as a means to express my devotion to Judaism, “you need to stop looking at these people. Why not stare at Hannah or Isaac or me—though I know I’m not much to look at.” I’ve decided the reason Jeffrey belittles himself is because he likely thinks it hurts less than when someone else does it. As his close friend, this habit of his is as frustrating to me as his teasing about the fact that I am so devoted to my faith that I use the craft of papercutting to create art that celebrates Jewish holidays, symbols, and scenes from the Torah4.
I can see him sitting at a table, his plate piled high with food, complaining that the meat is too overcooked as he shovels another forkful into his mouth.
Hannah would grab me by the arm and lead me to the ladies’ room where she would check to make sure we are alone and then spend the next few minutes on an angry tear about Yetta, Simeon, and their families, calling them Jewish traitors who’ve aligned themselves with an evil government, an attitude shared by only a few in our community.
“They’re kapos5, Judith, plain and simple,” she’d say. “Can’t you just see them leading us all into cattle cars and beating those of us who refuse?” Then, without missing a beat, she’d soften and get this dreamy look on her face, her eyes half-lidded, hands on her chest, fingers interlaced. “Isn’t Isaac amazing? So intelligent and sensitive. I had to stop myself from running into his arms when we arrived. I’m so glad we can be physically close in our real minyan.”
Both Hannah and I have broken through the no-touch boundary our community imposes on people of the opposite sex outside their immediate families. But Hannah’s shows of affection with Isaac have a romantic purpose that is lacking between Jeffrey and me. Ours is more like brother and sister, though on more of an equal footing than when I hug my little brother, Morty.
Feeling alone at this wedding without my friends, I am relegated to sitting next to my mother for the ceremony, enduring her endless sighs of happiness at seeing two members of our Orthodox Jewish community joined together, and grimacing at her whispered comments that it won’t be long before I’ll be the one standing under a chuppah. It’s not difficult to guess who she imagines me with since most of the adults here already assume I’ll be marrying Jeffrey. Out of necessity, he and I have agreed to neither confirm nor deny these assumptions. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s just too dangerous to let anyone outside our minyan know that Jeffrey is gay and that I am…I don’t really know. Still figuring it out, is the best I can lay claim to. Though it’s been months since my first and only kiss, which was with another girl, I still have no idea about anything more. I mean, how much does that kiss even count when it only happened because a mysterious force greater than both of us pushed us together? I admit that once we did kiss, I just wanted to stay close to her with our arms wrapped around each other and her soft lips pressing on mine. Plus, there was that warmth that radiated throughout every cell of my body when her soul with its many shades of blue appeared to me, a feeling that returns whenever I think about her, and once again I yearn for that closeness.
According to Dvorah Kuriel, a member of our minyan who has the gift of prophesy like her famous father, this girl, Dani Fine, is my bashert, my chosen one. And while I know it isn’t wise to disbelieve Dvorah, I wonder how meaningful this pronouncement can be. After all, Dani lives over the border in North Ohio, a state in the United Progressive Regions, which while only one hundred miles away, may as well be one hundred thousand. We’ve only met that one time when we kissed and since then we’ve exchanged short, secret messages through codes embedded in my papercuts and in the holograms she emails that are hidden behind a set of secret keystrokes.
I wonder if all over the world there are people who live separated from their basherts by oceans and borders, who will never know the kind of intense connection I felt with Dani for those precious few moments when we met.
Now, once again seated next to my mother at the wedding reception, my jumpy stomach hasn’t quieted since I took that first and only look at the bride and groom. I stare down at the plate a waiter has placed in front of me. It’s a fleishig wedding with meat entree choices of chicken, brisket, or prime rib. The Freundlichs have pulled out all the stops, determined to show that their precious daughter, the dreaded Yetta, who has always used her posse of followers to exclude people like me and Hannah who are deemed inferior, is worthy enough to join the Rausch family.
I excuse myself from the table, still unable to eat and wanting to avoid my mother’s inevitable questions. I’m sure if Jeffrey had been here, he would have gladly eaten my dinner in addition to his own. That boy can certainly put away whatever food is placed in front of him, though he prefers what we call milchig or dairy meals over courses of beef and chicken that are served at fleishig dinners like this one.
It’s when I begin to wander around the social hall trying not to look too conspicuous and avoiding coming face-to-face with the evil souls that I run into Isaac, and he quickly shares his opinion about this dismal wedding. Like me, he doesn’t want to be here, but we are still young enough at seventeen to have to go with our parents to these types of events.
After our short exchange, Isaac rushes past me and I turn to follow, figuring that tagging along after him is preferable to having to listen to my mother heap praise on the Rausch family.
I follow Isaac out of the social hall where the reception is in full swing, with a klezmer band playing some kind of mournful tune very fitting to the occasion. I’m hoping he’s not on his way to the men’s room, which would just be embarrassing with me on his heels. But instead, he turns a corner and heads up the stairway to the first floor of the synagogue. When I hesitate at the bottom of the stairs and look up at his receding figure, I’m surprised that he motions for me to follow, an arm waving me forward. Up until that moment, I had no idea he knew I was there.
At the top of the first landing, he turns and whispers, “I need a witness,” then heads to the right to continue his ascent. I follow quickly, wondering just what it is he wants me to see.
When I get to the first floor, I spot him entering the corridor that leads to the rabbi’s study. He must be going to see his father. But why in the middle of this wedding?
Sure enough, he enters the study, closing the dark wooden door with its frosted glass window, the words Rabbi Yehuda Leventhal etched in gold.
Immediately I hear raised voices and can recognize the rabbi’s deep baritone and the high-pitched wail of his wife. Isaac’s voice occupies the middle ground, more measured with an emotional emphasis that helps me decipher some of his words.
“My decision is final,” I hear him say. “I am not attending that seminary.”
The Rebbetzin6 is practically screeching, “It’s that girl, that Hannah Goldwyn! All this started when you took up with her.”
Isaac’s calm voice doesn’t allow me to hear his exact words, but I know he is defending Hannah.
“So just what do you intend to do when you graduate this year? Become a bum like that Solly Herschel you admire so much?” That’s the raised voice of the rabbi talking about Solly, a member of our minyan, who ran for city council against Simeon’s father.
I know Isaac has been pushed beyond his limit. First they attack Hannah and now Solly, the man who’s taught Isaac to defend himself so he doesn’t wind up beaten to a pulp again by the red-hatted God Fearing Boys, a gang responsible for dozens of attacks against Jews and who always escape punishment by the police.
“I’d be only too proud to wind up like Solly who fights for justice,” he shouts, his tone defiant. “And, if she’ll have me, Hannah and I will have a wedding that will be a true celebration, not like this travesty downstairs.”
The Rebbetzin is sobbing. I hear a loud bam and wonder if the Rabbi is going to start throwing books at Isaac. Instead, he bellows so that I can hear every word.
“Get out! Get out. You are no son of mine. From today, you get nothing more from me. Leave my house, leave my shul7. I have other sons who listen.”
My body tightens and there’s a lump in my throat at the finality of those words. My hands are shaking.
There’s another bam, and again I don’t know which of them is expressing their anger. I just hope no one is getting hurt, especially since Isaac now has the ability to knock his father to the floor.
“Gladly,” shouts Isaac over his mother’s keening. “You are no holy man to me. I’ll be gone by sundown.”
With that, the door swings wide open with a force that slams it against the wall. I do my best not to be seen by the two people who remain in the study. Isaac rushes into the hallway, his body bent forward, his hands tightly fisted. When the door closes, I run down to catch up and find him in an empty Hebrew School classroom, seated at the teacher’s desk, elbows on the wooden surface, head in his hands. I hear him sniffling and see his head bobbing up and down. He is crying softly.
I go to him and whisper his name, my hand lightly on his shoulder. In the next moment he is standing and folds himself into me, his head buried between my shoulder and neck. He’s clutching me, sobbing.
It is the first time we’ve touched, but this is no occasion to worry about tradition or ancient rabbinic proscriptions. I hold him just like I’ve held Jeffrey when he told me he was gay and then later confessed the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Simeon Rausch.
After a few minutes, Isaac gently pulls away.
“Thanks Judith,” he says. “For…” and he gestures toward the hallway, “for all of this.”
“I’m glad I could be here for you, especially since Hannah and Jeffrey couldn’t.”
He nods and is silent while I hand him some tissues I’ve pulled from a box on the teacher’s desk. I wait while he puts himself together, unsure if he wants to talk about what just happened in his father’s study or if he isn’t ready to deal with it. I remember that right after kissing Dani, I was unable to speak about it for weeks despite Jeffrey’s constant prodding.
Isaac adjusts his posture so he’s standing straight and resolute, his chin tilted up, tears gone from his cheeks, which are still a light shade of pink.
“I need to go get my things and figure out where I can live.”
“I can come with you and help.”
“No, Judith, I’ve asked enough of you already. I’ll be okay.” He breathes in audibly and sighs. “This showdown with my parents has been a long time coming. Figures it would finally happen during this day when so much evil is present in the synagogue.”
I nod. “You’re sure?”
His hand is on my forearm, “Yes, you’re a good friend, Judith, a valuable comrade in our resistance. Just, when you get a chance, let Hannah and Jeffrey know and tell them I’ll be in touch soon when I have a plan.”
A few minutes later I find myself once again seated next to my mother. Her eyes closed and her head shaking, she tells me, “They took your plate away, Judith. But they’re setting up the dessert buffet, so at least you can eat a little something.”
I nod silently, just to satisfy her. There’s no hunger that could make me eat a crumb from this wedding of evil.