Memoirs of a False Messiah
by Pamela Becker
Genre: Women's Fiction
MiMi knows she is meant for something greater. She has a God-given mission. This belief, together with tragedy, moves her from the mixed-religion home of her early childhood to Orthodox Judaism in her teens, to the establishment and development of her cult in the Israeli desert. MiMi draws from the women in her life, in the Bible, and in other ancient texts, weaving modern and biblical dilemmas, as she shapes a truly unique place for her followers and herself. When her life and utopian community grow more turbulent and even violent, she questions her mission.
Deeply affecting and thought-provoking, Memoirs of a False Messiah is the richly told story of a woman's struggle to find her place in a world reluctant to accept her.
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I had my first vision at three.
One night, as I slept, I saw myself as a grown woman, surrounded by lions standing on hind legs growling at me, a wall of fire glowering behind me. The only way out was a rope that descended from above but was attached to nothing. I climbed it; my thighs rubbed raw from its roughness, my feet bloody where the lions nicked them with their teeth, my robes flaming, making me unbearably hot until I dropped the garments below and continued climbing higher. “MiMi, it’s okay,” my father’s voice broke through the dream, and I opened my eyes. He sat on the edge of my bed and patted the damp bangs away from my forehead. His thick black hair was messy, and he wore only an undershirt and boxer shorts. His eyes, blue with specks of gold, momentarily disappeared in the shadows of his face and I could feel him shivering in my small room. To my father - I told him what happened, watching his eyebrows join with concern - this was a bad dream brought on by an overactive imagination and normal childhood fears. But to me, the dream signified much more. The next day, after I found scratch marks on the bottoms of my feet, I asked my father to write down the details of my dream as I explained them to him. I put that piece of paper in a special paper-mâché jewelry box I was given on my birthday. I had recently learned to read from a record of songs based on Bible stories. I can’t imagine who might have given me such an album. My father was a fallen Orthodox Jew, disowned by his family when he married my non-Jewish mother. I’m surprised that not only was the record ever brought into my parents’ home but that it remained. With a babysitter's help, I mastered the kiddie record player. I played the Bible song record, and sitting on my knees in my bedroom, followed the lyrics printed in large letters on the back of the album cover. The first song was about Daniel and the Lions’ Den. I don’t recall how the words go anymore but the drawing on the album cover of a small boy standing alone, surrounded by angry, vicious lions, frightened me. I would close my eyes as I listened to the song and imagined myself in the den. After the night I had my vision, my parents paid more careful attention to my education. The Bible record disappeared and was replaced with one of fairy tales, of helpless beautiful girls saved at the last minute by their handsome princes. I commented that the princesses’ parents didn’t take good care of them, and soon that record disappeared too. My father took to setting me on his lap, and we read the newspaper together. In the family room, the television off and all my toys put away for the evening, I would sound out the headlines, and he would read me the articles. That’s one of the happiest memories of my childhood, reading the paper with my father, stumbling over words like "inflation," sitting on his lap, my bright orange cotton-covered legs over his heavy blue jeans. I remember staring at his toenails, which were always a little too long and thick and thinking how powerful my father was. And how safe I was sitting on his lap. That’s one of the nasty tricks of childhood: the illusion of security. I don’t have those kinds of memories about my mother. She worried about my eating the right foods and growing at the correct rate. Born small and underweight, like a raisin under a gray blanket in my black and white baby photos, I looked sunken until I hit puberty, no matter what she fed me or in what quantity. My mother, though, never looked sunken, even in her worst moods. Her skin always looked tan, her features sharp and her gray eyes clear. Her thin frame managed enough curves to keep her from appearing too skinny. She decorated my bedroom with yellow wood furniture and carpeting that turned brown by the doorway. The wallpaper was striped yellow and green. No flowers. No pink. A gender-neutral haven for me in my formative years. Her own room was decorated with hefty wood, dark wool afghans, and a shaggy brown rug. Nothing too feminine. That's how she dressed, too. Her clothes in muted colors looked serious. Her high, defined cheekbones and sturdy chin seemed to cooperate in denying any femininity. She had no time for makeup or time-consuming hairstyles, but I could tell by the way strangers looked at her that she was an attractive woman. My mother had movement. People stared at the way she walked or lifted an object or how the wind blew her blond hair across her face. When she carried her coffee mug to her thin lips, you couldn’t help but watch the mug’s path, the curl of her fingers around the handle, the purse of her lips as she blew inside to cool the hot brown stuff. She was beautiful when she was in motion. But when she was still, her hair settled on her neck, her gray eyes darkened, and her hands looked bony and long. She described herself as very Shiksa-looking, which I thought was my religion until years later I asked the librarian for a book on Shiksa-ism and she set me straight. My dad, on the other hand, was all dark - hair, eyebrows and the stubble on his face that emerged by lunchtime. In a picture of a trip to the beach that sat in a wooden frame on the bookshelf, the black curls on his legs, arms, and even hands contrasted sharply against the light down on my mother and me. I had a friend Tracey who lived across the street. My mother and I would go over there together. While the grown-ups drank coffee and ate cake, Tracey and I played with girlie toys that I usually had no access to at home: Barbies with all the accessories; dolls that wet their pants or regrew their hair after haircuts; and jewelry making kits that produced clunky pink bracelets and rings. I knew I was supposed to look down on such gender-specific toys, which made playing with them that much more fun. Besides, Tracey did anything I told her to. I controlled our games. Tracey’s mom, Chrissy, would get down on her knees and show us how to mix and match Barbie’s clothes, and then she’d grab Tracey and rub her tummy until she laughed. When she tickled me too, I would giggle while my mom remained in her chair, her hot coffee still in her hand, looking down at us smiling. Then she would ask Tracey to show me her books. By the time I started nursery school, I could read the Golden Book series to the other kids. I remember having confidence way back then of my power over my peers. They sat around me in a semi-circle and listened quietly as I read, their eyes on me, not the pictures. The teachers told my parents that I showed promise and moved me to pre-kindergarten. My father taught me numbers, and soon I was adding. My mother would put me in the cart when she went grocery shopping, and by the time I was five, I would add the prices for her. Of course, I made mistakes, and remember crying because the decimal point that came between the dollar and the cents sides baffled me. When I went to kindergarten, my mother went back to work full-time. She started to complain to my father that he had to help around the house more. They spent Sundays doing laundry, cleaning the house and having grown-up time, while I played at Tracey’s. At her Catholic school, she could only wear blue, gray or white clothes, and so we played dress up in the most outlandish outfits. Chrissy would find us, trapped on the high bathtub rim from where we had tried to see ourselves in the mirror. She would peel off the layers of the odd clothes, leaving us in Tracey’s ballet uniforms that we wore during these games, and sit us down at the kitchen table with milk, cookies, paper and a box of 144 crayons that astounded me by its opportunities. Tracey drew pictures of us in our outfits, the heads, hands, and feet always too big. I sketched tall women with blond hair falling from the sky into the mouths of flames. With over twenty shades of orange and red to work with, I tried to perfect the fire each time. My mother refused to tape the pictures on the refrigerator, so I kept them in a pile in my desk drawer. Sometimes, I stood in the kitchen doorway watching my mother and my dad make dinner. My mother would cry as my father held her against his chest for what seemed like a long time, or until something on the stove started smoking. They were about the same height, about 5’9”, and she stooped a little when he cradled her head in his neck, her arms around his shoulders, his hands gripping each other at the small of her back. I could see my father’s face through strands of my mom’s blond hair, the shadow of a beard showing, his teeth biting his lower lip and his eyes focused on me. I hated that look of helplessness on my father’s face and my mother’s weakness for causing it. No one knew for sure what made her so sad as if it was some outside, uncontrollable, indiscernible force. The years passed, and as I grew bigger, my mother cried more and more frequently. She started missing dinner once and then twice a week for mysterious appointments. She would come home after I was already in my room for the night, and I heard the pouring of coffee and my parents’ low voices in the kitchen until I fell asleep. On those nights my father and I ate simple dinners of spaghetti and salad. He’d ask me questions about school and draw diagrams and word problems to show why subtraction was important, and what ancient history has to do with today. I loved those evenings so much; I secretly hoped my mother would have her appointments every night.
Memoirs of a False Messiah is Pamela Becker's debut novel. Originally from New York, she has enjoyed a long career as a marketing executive and consultant for some of Israel's leading technology companies. After she was widowed with three small children, Pamela co-founded and remains the active chairperson of the Israeli charity Jeremy's Circle, which supports children coping with cancer treatment or cancer loss in their immediate families. A graduate of the Writing Seminars program at the Johns Hopkins University and the Arad Arts Project artist residency program in Israel, she earned an MBA from Tel Aviv University. Pamela lives with her husband and their five children in Tel Aviv.
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