Ashley greets me at the salon desk in her soft, understated way, dressed in her usual black T-shirt and leggings, her dark hair piled into a tight pincushion on her head. The phrase ‘pleasingly plump’ was coined with her in mind. She looks 18, but I know she’s 24.

Due to complicated Covid reasons, I accidentally paid ahead for 9 treatments at this salon, and now must use them within a span of three months. I decide to forego the facials and binge instead on massages. And Ashley is a master of massage.

This will be my fourth time. Ashley and I, we have a nice rapport, or at least I think so.

“You look so nice,” she exclaims. “Your hair” she makes an hour glass gesture “… everything.”

I’m startled. Then I realize – the last three times I came in wearing a chenille snood on my head.

It’s a wig, I blurt, not wanting to get credit for locks that aren’t my own. It’s a Jewish Orthodox thing, I explain, a little self-consciously.

She makes no remark, just gestures kindly toward the massage room, and I go.

There, I discard my clothing in less than a minute, not wanting to lose a precious second of Ashley’s massage. I slip off my wig in one swoop and toss it onto the rest of my clothing. It looks like a sleeping cat nestled there. Then I jump under the blanket and call out, "I’m ready!"

Ashley enters and asks me what part of the body I want to work on this time.

This question always stymies me. Where to begin? My bum knee? My scoliotic spine? My two frozen shoulders not yet totally healed though years and years have past? I’m past 50. There’s history here. I say, “Just go wherever your fingers think best,” and she smiles, and says, “I like the way you said that.”

Unable to contain myself, I throw in, “Maybe a little extra attention to the back and the neck.” I pause. “And the skull.”

Non-irritating New Age music plays in the background. Then I shut my mouth and eyes and enter the zone of touch, of sensation. Ashley massages silently, meditatively, almost prayerfully, except when she digs her knuckle in hard at what I call the poison spots ridging my spine. She comes at me from surprising angles, using all her limbs. Elbows, forearms, chin, who knows maybe even her knee – it’s hard to tell with me facing down on the massage block. She moves intuitively as if guided not only her training but a body-wisdom. All of her is into this work, no part is elsewhere, wondering who just texted her. I wish I could be as whole-hearted, whole-bodied, in whatever I’m doing – while listening to my teen or chopping a carrot or writing a story or emptying the dishwasher.

The only part that stops me from full enjoyment is that I know at some not far off point, it will end.

Halfway into the massage, Ashley tends to go chatty, which I don’t love – it breaks the dream – but I‘ve grown to like, because I like her. There’s something pure-hearted and rare about her.

I’m mildly curious about her origins – is that the word? – but I’ve learned to ask that could be a micro-aggression.

She asks me what movies I like, and I try to drum up a few. (Haven’t seen a movie in years.)

“You’re Jewish, right?” she says, after a few minutes of quiet.

I nod, to the degree that I can with my cheeks pressed into the headrest.

“Could I ask you something?” Her voice is hesitant.

“Go ahead.” I add jokingly, “As long as I can ask you something back.”

“Sure.” She says, “Is it true that Jews don’t pay taxes because they consider their homes to be a temple?”

“What?” I twist and look over at her. I burst out laughing. It’s so preposterous, I don’t even register the hidden canard – the Jews and money jab, you know, sharp-eyed Jews fleecing the government.

“Do you really think that’s true?” I ask her, incredulous.

She says, “I’ve heard it lots of times, from a few different people. It’s like, a known thing.”

Could she be referring to “shteibels” or the shteibel phenomenon in very Orthodox areas where small prayer groups occasionally form in private homes? There must be four or five in my own community. Yes, I suppose they would be entitled to a tax break on property taxes, but that is a lot different than tax evasion. That’s a lot different than all Jews don’t pay taxes. I try to explain this.

She’s concentrating on my arms right now, maybe that’s why she doesn’t answer.

I feel sucker punched. Because if sweet Ashley thinks this, what do the others think, the less fair-minded ones, who aren’t ever going to ask if it’s true?

I plunge on, determined to clarify, “It’s true in general that rabbis, imams, priests, etc. they don’t pay the same exact taxes as the rest of us. They get breaks. It’s called parsonage.” I know about this because my father-in-law was a chaplain in the air force and rabbi, and qualified for parsonage. “But that tax break applies equally to all clergy,” I end.

She’s nodding, I can feel it in her palms. I breathe more deeply into the massage, wishing for quiet so I can re-enter the zone where all that matters is fingers against skin. But my perverse curiosity can’t let go.

“How do you suppose some people got to believing this about Jews?” I ask.

She’s pressing the heel of her wrist into the area I call my chicken wing. “Well,” she says softly, “maybe it got mixed up. Cos’ everybody knows Jews don’t pay taxes because they suffered, you know, in the Holocaust.

Photo by Ilse Orsel on Unsplash

Again I start laughing, but it comes out as a choked bark. What in the world? She doesn’t say this with even a smidgen of hint of malice, but placidly, as if stating obvious things like peaches have pits and bees sting. I feel sucker punched. Because if sweet Ashley thinks this, what do the others think, the less fair-minded ones, who aren’t ever going to ask if it’s true? The ones who already harbor hatred toward Jews, and will pounce on this canard to hate them even more.

She doesn’t know what she’s saying, I tell myself. I like Ashley too much to indict her even in my mind.

Still, there’s a slight intensity in my voice as I say, “No, the Jews don’t get extra exemptions. They have to pay taxes, same as any other group. Jews who went through the Holocaust, though, many did get money from the German government, reparations. That’s the only monetary compensation I know of.”

“Mm,” she says, now pressing into my other chicken wing.

I feel a prickliness in my throat. The New Age music is finally getting on my nerves. I don’t have the heart to be angry at Ashley. She’s just passing on what she heard. At least she wanted to know if it was true. Someone once asked a close friend of mine if she had a tail. The person who asked came from a small town and had never met a Jew before. My friend was her first Jew.

Who knows, maybe I’m Ashley’s first Jew.

Normally I shrug off these comments. I can’t go around cancelling everybody who ever said something crazy about Jews. But something feels different these days. I’m hyper alert, edgy.

I’ve started telling my son to wear a baseball cap over his kippah. Don’t be a target, I say.

In the last month, I’ve read articles about Jews getting pepper-sprayed, beaten to the point of hospitalization especially if they’re easily identifiable as Jews in their kippahs, terrorized as cars drive through Orthodox neighborhoods, with people shouting out the window, “Free Palestine! Kill the Jews! We’re gonna rape your daughters!” Youtube clips of Jews getting punched and hit with bottles while harmlessly noshing at an outdoor sushi bar, a Hassid running for his life as two cars hoisting Palestinian flags try to flatten him, the drivers screaming, Allahu Akbar!

I feel an odd shame as I watch the panicked Hassid swerve here and there to avoid the cars. To be chased and hunted down like a dog, just like in Europe, 1943. It can’t be. Not in my America that welcomed my mother and grandparents from Tunisia in the 1950s with open arms.

Actually, why do I think it’s weird? Isn’t it an old standby, this collective blaming of Jews? Old as Jesus.

It’s shudderingly weird, this blaming of all kinds of Jews everywhere, for the so-called crime of Israel defending itself against terrorist attack.

Actually, why do I think it’s weird? Isn’t it an old standby, this collective blaming of Jews? Old as Jesus.

Remember that song in Cinderella, when the prince sings, “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?”

And I wonder if they hate Jewish people because of Israel, or in their heart of hearts, do they hate Israel because it’s Jewish?

Oh please. I shake myself. Please shut up. My stomach is roiling. And here I am, getting a massage. I’m lucky. Yes, privileged. Stop the screed. Enjoy this blessing. What a waste of a massage if I let my mind go to these tortuous self-righteous places. No one is going to pepper spray me while I’m lying here.

Certainly not Ashley. Under her good hands, my body breathes and sighs, utterly relaxes. It’s not that hard to blank out the world.

And I am soothed. Ashley would never do me any harm. She is a masseuse angel. I feel goodness pouring out of her finger tips. I wish she’d never stop, but she does.

I dress, slowly this time, pensively, put on my wig, and gather my things. She gives me a bottle of water. She thanks me for the tip.

“I appreciate you,” she says in her soft-spoken real way.

Oddly, we shake hands. “I feel it,” I say back. “I know you do.”

Sadly, I also know she may be a conduit, unwittingly transmitting hatred.

Then I book another appointment and go out the door, full of dread and determination, to track down all the other people who have ideas about us.

A version of this article was originally published in P.S. I Love You