The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman Page B

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Authors: Joshua Max Feldman
Philadelphia in which she’d been raised; she won a Brochstein Medal for her translations of Yiddish poetry. And perhaps most powerfully—there was among the family a collective reverence for thought, for academics, for scholarship. For Judith, the obligation to study had been inextricable from her idea of what it meant to be a Jew. The Jews, she was taught, were the Chosen People—and this was not a guarantee of exceptionalism but instead an obligation to carry on a tradition that included the articulation of monotheism, the founding of many of the world’s great philosophies, the invention of psychotherapy, and the discovery of relative physics. Her most profound moments of religious feeling came not in temple, but rather when she would be in her bedroom working on a paper or problem set, and hear her father typing away in his study; hear her mother gently, quietly reciting verse. Then Judith would feel—would feel she knew—that God was real, imminently real, and they were all a part of something much larger than themselves.
    But again, as an adult, Judith didn’t think much about such memories—and if she did, her attention soon returned to the Hirst or Koons she had been charged with buying at auction; she would maybe hold before the work a fabric swatch from a curtain—try to envision it all.
    *   *   *
    By the time Judith began high school, her parents—despite being so strictly proud of her—sometimes did worry about their daughter, who appeared to them so profoundly studious, maybe to the exclusion of other things she might have been. She had a couple of friends going back to elementary school but could not be called popular; there was a boyfriend for a few months during her junior year, but they had immediately recognized that he was hopelessly overmatched beside their daughter (indeed, literally so, as Judith was three inches taller). And while they were not lying when they told her how beautiful they thought she was—inside and out—neither did they claim that this beauty was of a conventional kind.
    Judith herself recognized she had pulled a few of the least desirable cards from her parents’ combined genetic deck. She had her father’s long, lanky frame, but without the unexpected grace that made him a good dancer at weddings. She had her mother’s proud beak of a nose, but without the delicacy of eyes and mouth that had once induced Hunter S. Thompson to drunkenly proposition her at a party in the early seventies. (She declined, or so she said.) Least fortunately of all, Judith had inherited the hair of David’s mother—what the girls in B’nai B’rith Girls cheerfully referred to as her Jewfro: jet-black, Brillo coarse, antigravitational in its growth. Judith and Hannah tried innumerable strategies over the years to tame it—involving the use of dozens of different conditioners, wide-toothed combs of various compositions, mornings of flat ironing, an entire summer of professional straightening—but ultimately concluded there was simply nothing to be done. For all of high school and college and for her year of graduate school, Judith wore her hair in two slablike waves, separated by a side part.
    But Judith was not an overly self-conscious teenager. She did have uncomfortable moments of visualizing herself as she walked down the hall at school: the tallest in her class, with a gangling gait, elbows and knees more prominent than breasts. But she tempered her awareness that she was a somewhat odd-looking young woman with the confidence that there was something compelling in this oddness—in the stark contrast of her pale skin and her black hair, in the small round mole just below her left eye. If this unconventional look was not to be appreciated now, she had faith it would be someday. Besides, half the indisputably beautiful girls at Gustav’s were anorexic. Literally none of the teenage girls she

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