Miri, Who Charms

Miri, Who Charms by Joanne Greenberg

From girlhood through middle age, Rachel and Miri—two Jewish women living in Colorado—struggle to sustain a complex, often competitive friendship despite the challenges that arise over many decades. Miri's young daughter, Tamar, initially appears to offer the long-time friends a link that will strengthen their uneasy bond. But when Tamar develops a passion for a dangerous sport even before the girl reaches puberty, Rachel and Miri's friendship faces a test more severe than any the women have ever experienced.

  • ISBN: 1-932727-09-4
  • Price: $16.95 (paper)

Read an Excerpt


We’re off Coal Creek Canyon, on a mountain road that’s not familiar to me. In daylight, I might trace the turns we’re taking, but it’s night, and this police car has its windows tinted, making it even more difficult to see. I thought anxiety was supposed to sharpen the senses. Mine are dulled; I keep sinking away into blurred thought or sharp memory. Miri’s sitting beside me, saying nothing. We’re going to the place the rescuers have found, the cave where Miri’s daughter and Miri’s lover are lost or trapped or hurt or dead.

Now and then the officer—his name is Escobar—talks into his radio and hears crackle talk that seems to tell him that noth­ing more has been found. I think, stupidly, Can they search at night? and then I realize how tired I must be. The cave is darker than any nighttime darkness blessed by moon or snow or stars or the reflected glow of city lights. The anxiety blossoms into panic and I have to breathe and count the breaths to try to still it.

The trip so far has taken almost an hour. The roads are dwin­dling to trails. I let my mind go where it has wanted to go since we left Boulder long ago.


My girlhood couldn’t have been as magical as I  remember it. I see Miri and  me when we were six and ten and seven­teen, standing together bathed in the iridescent light of Denver’s summer mornings. We’re excited, planning an adventure, laughing, walking between our houses, or up in Miri’s attic, on long, mellow autumn afternoons. I see us escaping, sharing secrets, winking at each other over the heads of parents, relatives, teachers, rabbis, congregations. Even when I come on the objective facts of those years, they dim before the joy of my private reality. I was ten when Adolf Eichmann was taken for trial in Jerusalem and Mrs. Pinsker and the Moshow­itzes went to Israel to testify. I was in the synagogue when Mr. Moshowitz, after his return, stood up during the mourner’s Kaddish and began to howl, “They made me remember!” until people moved close and two of them guided him away and walked with him. There were wars at home, constant and bitter. My mother and father weren’t peaceful people. My sisters and I can recall years-long wrangles they had, and skirmishes between Mama and me, and battles each against all. I’ve packaged all that into a few donnybrooks of screaming and rage: The Shoes Fight, The Store Fight. These epic sieges were always drained of their anguish, eased, lightened by my escapes to Miri’s house, two blocks away, where there was peace, blessed peace. Sometimes I ran, even crying, to Ada Mordecai’s welcoming kitchen for Miri, glad to see me and full of diverting plans. When I couldn’t escape, I could imagine being with her upstairs in the attic we had claimed as ours, lying on sleeping bags we’d put up there, to talk and as we grew into teenagers to listen to music and paint our toenails revolting colors.

“We both need boyfriends.” 

“Why? All the boys in our class are dumb.”

“Because, Rachel, boys have to pay for things. They have to take you places and buy you things.”

“But who would want to spend any time with them? All they talk about is sports. All they want to do is brag.”

“We’ll be together. We can talk to each other while they play and brag, but they’ll have to take us out.”

It was our friendship that gave me the idea of myself as privi­leged, bright, the possessor of a golden childhood. I needed the confidence born of that idea to fight my way into college and to persevere in the work I do now. Miri was never good at reflec­tion. I want to number the days, as the Psalmist says, so I can understand how we brought this dangerous moment on our­selves. Then I might fix the mistake I made and get some height over what I feel for Miri now.

She was always beautiful and still is, a dark, vivid woman with long, shining black hair that she cut only last month. She looked like Scheherazade, and by the time she was twelve or thirteen, she had begun to have the beautiful body that made the boys choke up and go mute with yearning. I could have envied her then, but I never did—the difference between us was too great. My hair was the crimped, wavy mass that later would be called “Jewish Afro.” I was taller, heavier than she, and clumsier. I had freckles on a skin that burned red in summer. People said I had a “nice face.” When a girl is fourteen, a nice face is the last kind of face she wants.

We equate beauty with goodness. We can’t help imagining our­selves living different lives if only we were beautiful.

Miri was a virtual only child. She had three brothers, but they were all a good deal older than she and only her brother Dan was still at home. In those days, I had a crush on him, because he was beautiful, too. I used to dream about him when I was nine and ten, as my lover or husband, but I think that what I really wanted was to be adopted into their family and have Dan as a brother. When we were fourteen, he was drafted and went to Vietnam, and came back darker, more practical, intent on marriage, chil­dren, and forgetting. He did all of that, marrying a very pious girl and moving to Israel with her. He’s a rabbi now, more observant than Hillel the sage. He sent Miri a picture of himself with wife and kids. I didn’t recognize him.

Miri’s father was Rabbi Ezekiel Mordecai, a biblical scholar and writer. He was one of those men who are deeply respected by the Jewish community not for what they do but for what they represent. He lacked what are now called “social skills”—he had little patience with the trivial details of daily life and a short attention span for his family, except for Miri, whose smile warmed his whole being, whose word made the morning. I see it now as a kind of idolatry; then I saw it as only her due.

“The more I read my newspaper, the sadder I get,” he would tell us. “It’s not only the outside world—our own people are bringing shame. Sing me the song you learned, Mirele, and take the pain away.”

Even when he was annoyed, he never blew, like my father, into red-faced rage, pounding the table in answer to the scream­ing dramatics of my mother. His hands would come up and he would murmur, “Tohu va’ vohu,” helplessly, referring to the chaos God found in the universe before He gave it order. Then he would sigh, rise, and disappear into his study, emerging when a meal was ready or it was time to go to the synagogue. As angry as he got, Miri could always soften his eyes. “This idiot thinks he is an editor. What’s the state of Jewish learning if this king of intellect allows such an article in his publication? Mirele, say the poem you learned,” or, “Mirele, sit for a while.” He was always courteous to me. He loved me because his Mirele loved me. In their strictly observant home, I saw only the quiet, the peace. I could always get past Rabbi Mordecai’s polite exasperation or delicate scorn. 

My house rang and shuddered, and not only because of my par­ents. I had two sisters who were angry also. Someone was always banging, calling, screaming; someone was always practicing bitter and hostile housework, slamming pots and pans, vacuuming like combat or raging up or down the stairs. My mother shouted, moaned, cried aloud to God. She even ironed noisily. Miri’s house stood for me like an oasis, decorous and quiet. Our house was small, cramped, low-ceilinged, so that the noise of living rang around our ears. Someone was always barricaded in the bathroom; someone was al­ways pounding on the bathroom door. The Mordecais lived in a big house in the heart of West Denver, the old Jewish neighborhood which was vibrant with life in those years, before the dribble of Jewish people to East Denver became a flood. We lived two blocks from the Mordecais, but in a poorer area, nearer the noise and bustle of Colfax Avenue.

I’ve barely included Miri’s mother, Ada Mordecai. That hurts because it’s so typical. She was the hub of the house. When a wheel shoots sparks of life, or throws mud, no one notices the hub, where all the energy is concentrated, ego-effacing, efficient. At the time we were growing up, she was the consummate mother to Miri and to me. “Sweetheart, don’t worry.” She would hand me beets to peel or cabbage to shred. “Your mother yells at you because you’re important to her. Do people yell when they don’t care?” 

“You don’t yell.”

“I’m not a yeller. God made all kinds, and some don’t fit together so well. We can’t blame God. The world needs all kinds. How we fit together shouldn’t have to be His headache. Grate these fine.”

The three Mordecai sons had all gone to religious school and, after that, to the yeshiva for a strict religious education, but by the time Miri came along, the money had run out, and so she joined me at public school. There were enough Jewish kids there in those days to all but close the doors for the High Holy Days.

Miri’s glow was not only for our neighborhood, for Rabbi Mordecai and Ada and our little congregation. The teachers loved her. “Miriam, would you take this note to Mrs. Creevy in the third-grade room?” “Miriam, take Ronnie’s mother to the library—here’s his coat.” “We can let Miriam be the announcer in our pageant.”  

Surprisingly, there was no envy, or none I saw. The kids liked her and took her superiority as natural, and they accepted me as her best friend—but that not without envy, sometimes, a look or a word here and there.

The result of our American education was that Miri and I were more assimilated than her brothers. We ate up Colorado history, proud of the early Jewish presence in the state. The adventures of Otto Mears and other Jewish pioneers made us feel we belonged—Old Family, aristocrats of a tough, stand-up lineage. We forgot that a goodly number of these pioneers were “lungers,” people who came west with the TB they hoped our clear, high air would cure. We were freer than the kids who went to religious school, less frightened of the life that was going on so energetically outside the enclosed piety of our neighbor­hood. When we were seven, eight, and nine, we traded food for forbidden comic books, which we took up to “our” attic, where we devoured them, and later, the romances that Mrs. Shrager, who lived next door to my house, read and sold to me for a nickel a copy. At twelve, we began to find ways to sneak out of Miri’s house, and out of the neighborhood altogether.

“I want to go to the movies.”

“How can you? It’s Shabbat.” 

“That’s when I want to go. It’s impossible on a school day. Sunday, I clean my room and Mama takes me shopping, or we cook. After lunch on Shabbat, their guard is down. Papa eats, naps, or is in shul. Mama reads or has a nap. They don’t care if they see me or not. Sunday, you work in the store. It has to be Shabbat, Rachel, and it has to be downtown, away from here.”

A trip to a local movie would be impossible. The neighbor­hood houses had mostly closed by then, but to be seen going into or coming out of the ones remaining would have resulted in uproar. A bus went downtown, but we couldn’t be seen riding, either.

“I have a plan, 'Chelle. I’ve been thinking it up and I’m sure it’ll work. Every week, we do a mitzvah—visiting the sick. We take trays of cookies to the old-age home, the one on Colfax.”

“This gets us to the movies?”

“Don’t be slow, 'Chelle. We go in. We give out the cookies. We take fifteen minutes, tops. Good-bye and we’re out the door, and we have an alibi for the whole four hours between lunch and supper.”

“Number two. Money. Where?”

“Get your father to pay you for working in the store.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Bottles, then, deposit bottles.”

“All right, but what about the cookie trays? We can’t go downtown holding cookie trays.” 

“Brighten up, 'Chelle. We leave them. I pick them up on my way home from school on Monday.” 

The plan, of course, required Ada Mordecai’s enthusiastic co-operation. I cringe now when I think how eagerly she embraced it, giving her full attention and approval, buying the ingredients, helping us with the work of baking every week. I never realized until this moment what an imposition that request must have been. The cookies had to be made on Friday so as to be still fresh on Shabbat, when baking was forbidden. The Jewish housewife’s busiest day is Friday, with cleaning, cooking, and baking for her own family celebration. Miri and I, oblivious to all that and the kitchen mess we made, got three full trays from her every week. We worked a scam that elicited praise from everyone for our virtue and charity. The deception was compounded as we entered the overheated, airless nursing-home world. They loved us. Withered arms reached out to us. Veined hands clutched at us in love. “Look, Rose, Bessie, Leah—here they are, the darlings. Come in; we’ve been waiting for you.” “Sweethearts, a blessing, and here are all the cookies.” “It’s Reb Mordecai’s youngest—yes—what’s your name again—Miriam—and her friend. Who are you, sweetheart—Rachel, yes, I remember.” Miri would respond with a big hug, even to the ones who drooled, which I couldn’t make myself do. We delivered the cookies, stayed four minutes to be admired, and a minute after that we were out the doors and out of sight. The residents in the home were often too far gone to realize how perfunctory our visits were. They were always tremu­lously glad to see us and forgot us as we stood there. We only dimly realized our betrayal of them, or, if we did, forgot it as they forgot us, even as we were so eagerly awaited.  

In those days, returning pop bottles for deposit was the traditional source of kid income. Miri got an allowance, but I roamed the neighborhood through the week and knocked on the doors of childless couples for the two-cent empties. I usually made enough for a child’s ticket at afternoon prices in second-run theaters. When I couldn’t raise the price of a ticket, Miri would raid the Rabbi’s coat pockets for his change. We saw movies, dozens of them. We went to the arcades and the new shopping malls that were opening all over town. We were back before dark, our piety proven, pretentious, and phony.

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