Earlier this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote about a passage that didn’t make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. She will be sharing deleted scenes from the novel all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Yesterday’s post—the first in my mini-series on Stuff Left Out — described a passage I deleted from the original manuscript of my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, after a copy editor discovered a serious chronological error. Today, I’m going to share with you a scene that was cut for a different reason.
The excised passage, reprinted below, opened with ten-year-old Zach Levy and his mother, Rivka, arriving at the dentist’s office for his annual checkup. (You need to know that Rivka, a profoundly traumatized Holocaust survivor, was a renowned pediatrician in Krakow before the war.)
His mother took the only empty chair in the waiting room and idly thumbed through a copy of Woman’s Day while Zach, transfixed, planted himself before the broad, brightly-lit aquarium, gazing at the skittering rainbow-colored fish.
A blue and yellow striped loner glided across the tank’s glass wall. “That’s a Pomacanthis imperator,” Rivka said, suddenly materializing at Zach’s side. “The pretty red fish are Betta splendens. And that one” — she pointed to a silver creature with a long speckled tail — is a Poecilia reticulatus.”
Zach stared at his mother in disbelief. “Since when do you know so much about tropical fish?”
“I had an aquarium once.” Her voice was one tone above a whisper, her glance hooked to the silvery fish.
“Yes. In my waiting room. A doctor’s office can be frightening to children. Fish calms their anxiety.”
Amazed to actually be exchanging this many words with his dour and taciturn mother, Zach tried to keep the conversation going. “Which one’s your favorite, Mama?”
“The Carassius auratus,” Rivka replied, softly, nodding at a plain white fish with a huge red knob sticking up from its head.
The boy frowned at the disfigured specimen but feigned enthusiasm. ““That’s mine, too, Mama. It’s so…so unusual!” In truth, the electric blue fish was his favorite.
A few months later, when Rivka was troubled by an impacted wisdom tooth, they returned to the dentist’s office only to find on a ledge beside the aquarium a tower of plastic containers and a mesh net. Taped to the glass tank was a note in block letters: MOVING TO NEW OFFICE ON FRIDAY. HELP YOURSELF. ONE FISH PER PATIENT.
Zach grabbed the net. “I’ll get the blue one!” he exclaimed before he could censor himself.
Rivka shook her head.
He corrected himself. “Sorry, Mama. I’ll get the white one.” He corrected himself, thinking, if she likes it, I’ll learn to like it, but as he dipped the net into the luminous water, Rivka grabbed his arm.
“No fish,” she said, firmly. “Jews don’t need pets. It’s hard enough for us to take care of ourselves.”
He begged her to reconsider but once she’d made up her mind, he knew there was no arguing with Rivka. They left the dentist’s office empty-handed.
I wrote that scene to underscore the distance between young Zach and his refugee mother. Also to remind the reader that Rivka, a broken casualty of Nazi brutality, once had a medical practice and, witness her knowledge of fish species, other scientific interests; she wasn’t always the semi-comatose woman we meet in this book.
However, on second and third reading, the scene rang false. Rivka may have been my invention but as I wrote her into being, she made it clear to me that she was not the sort of woman who, merely at the sight of an aquarium, would emerge from the chrysalis of her anguish reciting the Latin names of tropical fish.
Which is why the scene in the dentist’s waiting room ended up on the cutting room floor.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. And if you’re in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book on Wednesday, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81−82 St) in Manhattan.
- Essays: On Writing, Publishing, and Promoting
- Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin
Co-founder of Ms. magazine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a nationally acclaimed writer, activist, and public speaker. The author of twelve books, her articles and essays have appeared widely. She is a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Ms. Foundation for Women; a past president of the Authors Guild and the recipient of numerous honors and awards.