The Scarlet Letter Aleph


We were in training, to be wives and PTA presidents. At the yeshiva high school I attended, there were 18 girls in all, and classes were regularly interrupted for mother-daughter luncheon preparations, for pizza sales, for an ill-fated song-and-dance performance entitled Destiny: An Inspirational Evening of Song and Dance for the Women of Memphis. (And oh, let me tell you, it was.) We had a follow-up event, a fashion show modeling modest garb from Loehmans, also for women only. The boys in the school, all three of them, were forbidden creatures to be gaped at from afar, in accordance with the school rules. We lived by these rules, and also by the dress code. Safety pins were kept in the office to fasten shut an offending slit. We could “rent” a skirt if ours was deemed too short. We could be sent home for those infractions that could not be so easily repaired.

The day was divided into two, secular subjects in the morning, Judaic studies in the afternoon, and rarely did the two ever meet. In the afternoon, we learned law above all else. In grade school, we’d covered the more riveting narratives of Genesis and Exodus, skipping over those parts that were too salacious for our young ears, and by high school, we’d arrived at the more legalistic later Torah portions. The books of the prophets were ripe with human drama, but in our classes, those were often boiled down to the moral lessons to be learned. David did not sin with Batsheva, I remember one teacher insisting, and as she taught us a commentator’s legalistic explanation for this, I felt the intensity of her need to restore whatever had threatened to come undone. Even as I parroted back these explanations, memorized the rules with the best of them, I quietly wondered what was wrong with me that I wanted to read between the lines for a narrative that was meatier, juicier, more tainted as well.

In the morning, the laws didn’t rest as heavily; they were less a presence in our lives. We stumbled into school in our get-ups of jeans skirts over long underwear, arriving as late as we wanted, under the illusion that there were no rules or none we had to follow, because what could the teachers do, get the whole school in trouble? We had classes in math, science, history, and for me, English, best of all. My English teacher was a poet, a dreamer, a renegade spirit blessedly out of place in this school. I loved this man. In his class, we didn’t read the Jewish novels—I’m not sure I knew there was such a thing as a Jewish novel because the line dividing our day would have kept those two words apart as well. That divide existed in me as well; in that English class I felt alive, awake in a way that I didn’t all afternoon when some part of my mind, and my self, shut itself off.

Somewhere during one of those high school years, I read The Scarlet Letter. Here was blustery New England; here were other people’s rules which were so strict that they made my own seem giddily free-spirited. The distance from that world to mine: here was escape. Suddenly I could be here and yet not here. It didn’t matter, at least not quite as much, that I was in a school of 18 girls, six in my class, most of whom I’d known since nursery school; it didn’t matter as much that I was already feeling an exhilarating, terrifying restlessness and curiosity that I tried to hide as best I could.

But I have to think that I loved this book not just for its distance  to my world but also for its proximity. Hester Prynne, I felt like I knew her. Here, finally, was the experience of someone living inside such strict laws, bound by them, marked by them. Here, in no uncertain terms, was the punishment for sin. When Hester wears the embroidered A on her chest, “every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact implied, and even expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere.” Yet, as anguished as she feels by this treatment, Hester’s sin doesn’t diminish her but rather, it almost sustains her, expanding her capacity for understanding. “She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sins in other hearts.” Marked as a sinner, cast out from communal life, she can now peer past the protestations of piety into the private compartments of other people’s hearts. Upon passing a revered minister or magistrate, “the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb.” Or upon passing “a young maiden,” “the electric thrill would give her warning—Behold, Hester, here is a companion.”

Hester is right to shudder at this newfound ability to recognize other people’s sins. Along with this ability to see, to really see, comes a loss of faith, and this, Hawthorne declares, is “ever one of the saddest results of sin.” Yet, this knowledge also opens up the possibility for human compassion and extraordinary empathy, a fact which even the stern townspeople come to begrudgingly appreciate about her as she tends to the sick and aids the poor. “The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able.” Hester knows that she is not alone in her sin; perhaps in looking at her, the townspeople know that neither are they alone in theirs.

When I finished reading The Scarlet Letter, I wrote the mandatory book report on it, which I was young enough to turn in to my teacher in a folder I decorated with a red felt A, trimmed in gold ric-rac. I was only at the very beginning of my own religious questioning, only at the beginning of my own awareness of the more complicated stories lurking behind the protestations of infallible piety that I heard all around me. But I think that even then, I was also old enough to understand sin and fear and communal norms, old enough to understand the danger of standing out and the fact that women paid the price. I was old enough to wonder if revelation really did take place in the sky, if sin could eat you alive, if the community always spoke the word of God.