by Sh. Miler (Los Angeles)
Translated by Tina Lunson
1. The First Journey Out
The Talmud teacher was only in the village for three semesters. Shleyme Mordkhe no longer wanted to be a partner. The parents took him out of the village, no one was going to make a respectable person our of Yosl anyway, and for Simkhe, the one God knows the truth, an elementary instructor was enough for him. Shleyme Mordkhe wanted that of course but… Old Yankl was waging a war with his daughter: She should drive him into the town! She complained: How could anyone do that? Take a little child and drive him away to a strange place.
A Talmud pupil is a little child to you?
But where will he eat, and sleep; who will take care of him?
She will turn him over to the yeshive and he will have what to eat, a cot to sleep on and will become a mentsh.
He will become a mentsh in the yeshive? He will get covered with lice!
Here old Yankl got angry. So, turn him over to Ivan to be a shepherd to oversee hogs…
My terrible fortune, Etel answered to that. She knew her father was right. Indeed, what would Avrom do in the village without a tutor? She began to patch Avrom's shirts, darn his socks, knitted another pair of taliskotns to change into, and prepared her child to travel off to the yeshive. The elder wanted to take him, but here the daughter was stubborn she would take him. In one trip she could bring back some merchandise for her socalled little shop. The elder had to give in.
When Karney drove up to the house Etel was in a black dress, on her head was a wig and on the wig an embroidered hat, and Avrom was dressed up in a new Passover suit, ready to travel. The mother had instructed Rokhl that whoever brought a debt she should not borrow even if it became
inflated; told her to take care of the cow, and pulled Avremele along: Come, my child, say your goodbyes, and we'll go.
Travel in good health, his grandfather leaned down to him, his beard and whiskers in Avremele's face. This was the first time in his life his got a kiss from his grandfather. His arms wove around his grandfather's neck, not letting go.
Nu, nu, travel well, grumbled the grandfather, happy at his grandson's arms and straightening up. Rokhl approached shyly, and held her hands out to her brother. So, say goodbye, the mother hurried Avremele. He took a step closer to his sister. The children looked at each other from under their brows and after a while fell onto each other with a wail.
Nu, quiet my child, I will bring you a present.
Weeping with a quiet, trembling whine Rokhl stood by the wagon where her brother was seated and the harder she tried not to cry the harder her body shook.
Be well! Be well! the mother called out, turning her face away. Avremele's lips were trembling. The wagon moved. Tears poured from Rokhl's eyes, a wail burst out. Old Yankl touched her and took her by the little hand.
Quiet now, don't cry silly child, what are you crying for? He is going to study. Sobbing, she went back into the house with her grandfather. At the threshold she looked out. The wagon was gone.
Passing the last crucifix at the edge of own, Karney crossed himself and cracked the whip over the horse.
Avremele was silent, looking at the fields on both sides. So many fields, there seemed no end to them. Who knows how long we will be traveling. Here is a forest, a deep forest probably, robbers will attack us.
When will we be in the town?
Yes, just another two hours.
The wagon started to bounce and bang around terribly. The horses began going faster, Karney adjusted himself in his straw seat, straightened his lambskin hat; the mother held on to her scarf on both sides of her face. This was already the highway. After a few viorsts they would be in town. Avrom saw poles with wires on top, with white knobs on top. One pole after another and the wires hanging above.
There were no wires in the village.
What are these wires?
One can tap out telegrams through the wires.
How does one tap out telegrams?
Now you are being annoying! Sit still.
Avrom sits and his eyes wander from the wires to the wagon. From the wagon to people who are coming towards them. Everything is different from in the village. The nonJews are wearing different hats. The wagons are different too, and it seemed to him that every nonJew who drove past them looked at their wagon with a smile. Roofs appear, red, green. Now they are already
in the town. Such fine houses, especially the roofs, not one straw roof. And so many churches! Already passed three churches.
Where is the yeshive?
In the low part.
And where is the low part?
When you get there you will see.
Is this the yeshive?
This is an inn. The mother quipped, and turned to Karney telling him where he should drive, what he should take, then taking Avremele by the hand: Come!
He took himself down the steps, jumping down them. So many steps! He looked back up, he wanted to go up and then go down again. Someone gave him a shove.
Why are you standing there like a lump of clay?
Where do the stairs go?
You can see. They go under.
Is this the low part?
As you see!
And what's up there?
Master of the universe! What does this child want from me? Come, this is the yeshive.
A long narrow room. Long tables on both sides, long benches, and sitting on the benches by the tables, standing at the shtenders, boys were rocking and studying in a singing voice. One was walking around with an open Talmud on his forearms, and opposite him one was curling a peye, neither was looking where he was going yet somehow they did not collide.
A few pupils raised their eyes from the Talmud pages, glanced at the woman entering with a child and went back to study. Etel was standing, she looked at one table, a second, straightened the scarf on her head and approached the edge of a table.
Can you tell me where the roshyeshive is?
The pupil silently indicated with his hand. When Etel and Avrom set off in that direction he looked after them.
A small Jew with a dark, shiny face, pitchblack hair, deep blue eyes and reddish eyelashes, from under whose shtreyml a blue velvet yarmulke could be seen slipping toward his neck, dressed in a wide satin frockcoat that was so long that one could hardly see the toes of this shoes, called out to Avrom.
What is your name, young man?
Avrom was stunned by this.
Young man? Etel answered, Avrom.
And how old are you?
Ten years, may he be well, answered Etel.
The small, dark little Jew the roshyeshive took Avremele by the chin, pulled his head up. Can you study anything?
Avreml shook his head, freed his chin from the Jew's fingers, and hung his head.
What have you studied? asked the roshyeshive sternly.
Bava metsiye, a story fell from Avrom's mouth.
And can you read it?
Avreml looked at the roshyeshive, not knowing how to answer. The roshyeshive took a step. Avreml noticed that the roshyeshive limped, no, he dragged one foot after him. He did not have time to think about the footdragging. His mother took the opportunity to straighten the cap on his head and he heard as she whispered into his ear, Why don't you answer when someone asks you? This is the head of the yeshive. Avreml could not speak he was a cripple, the roshyeshive, when he saw him with two Talmud volumes. He was confused.
The roshyeshive considered a page, looked around here. Interruptred, Avrom gave a surprised look at it.
Can you read this? the roshyeshive smiled. And this? He took up the second volume. He had not studied this with the rebi. Try it yourself. He probably meant with a reader. Right? The order of damages, the goring ox.
How long did he already study Talmud?
Three terms, the mother answered.
You will have to have a mate, the roshyeshive said to Avremele. With a mate you will probably be able to study.
A mate? Etel asked.
Yes, a mate from the older table who can go over the lesson with him.
So then, if he needs it.
The roshyeshive called Hershl Pritsker. You will be his studymate.
The mate said, So be it.
I mean… Etel started to stammer, turning to the mate and to the roshyeshive, Does it cost something?
Five rubles a term.
With all due respect, Rebi, but, I mean, I wanted to ask what about food, and a bed?
The gabay will soon take care of that, said the roshyeshive, dragging his foot as he moved away with a kind of dancing gait.
Come, I will show you now, the studymate suggested.
The mate, Hershl Pritsker, a short, broadboned lad with dark tobaccocolored hair, a coppercolored face with a small, sparse honeycolored beard and a long kapote, from the back of which one could see boots with wide turnedover tops, took Etel and Avrom under his supervision.
They need [eating] days and a cot, he told Yeshaye Asher the gabay, indicating Etel and her child. Yeshaye Asher looked them over.
Nu, good, so, you can get days, you can get a bed, everything is set up. Five gildens for the days and a half ruble for the bed.
Etel went toward the door and before the door she took out a knotted kerchief: from one knot she took silver coins and gave them to Yeshaye Asher, and from the second knot took five gildens and gave that to Hershl Pritsker, for him to attend to Avrom's study.
Of course, of course! He accompanied them to the door.
Exhausted, Avreml left the yeshive and went back to the inn. There he ate supper. He was occupied with just one word: yeshive, yeshive. And with that word in his thoughts he went to sleep.
His mother woke him up. Eat some breakfast, we'll go to the yeshive. I still have to pay and drive home.
Fresh city bagels. He broke one up in curiosity, ate it, chewing it with pleasure. Meanwhile his mother packed his things and talked:
You should change your shirt every week! Do you hear? And wash your hair.
With a piece of unswallowed food still in his mouth, Avreml stopped chewing, tears began to pour, and he wept out loud.
What are you crying for, what a cry out of a clear blue sky!
I don't want to! Don't go away!
Silly child! What do you mean don't go back? And Rokhl? Your grandfather? Yeshaye Asher will give you food, provide you with a bed, you will be a good boy, you will study, you will be God willing grow up, be a rov. Finish eating and come.
I don't want to!
What don't you want? If you put on such a show they will throw you out. Now, quiet, my child. See? She took out five tenkopeck coins tied them into a kerchief. So, you will have this to buy a bagel, an apple, a pear. Be careful you don't lose it. With another corner of the kerchief she wiped his eyes, straightened his cap on his head, buttoned his jacket.
Come, my little son, and she took him to the yeshive.
There she sought out his studymate and handed over her son's belongings.
Take care of him, please. He is my one and only.
Hershl Pritsker took the bundle and waited. The mother bent down to give her son a kiss.
Be a good child, obey the rebi and your friend and don't run around. Be well, my son! Another kiss, longer than the first, and she pulled herself away from him. She took out a handkerchief but she did not turn around again. Avreml was standing there, saw his mother's shoulders; saw her go out, and could not move a foot to run after her, could not open his mouth to cry out Mama! There was something in his throat.
Come! His friend Hershl took him by the hand.
2. Days and Nights
Seven days, seven tables. Yeshaye Asher took Avrom into a house:
This is the yeshive boy. He will eat with you on Tuesdays. After exchanging a few words with the housewife he left.
The woman regarded Avrom.
Nu, go wash yourself.
Avrom did not know where one had to go to wash, and could not move from the spot.
Here is the water laver. She guided him to the vestibule. He washed, wiped his hands with a damp towel. Meanwhile the woman set the kitchen table, laid out a knife, a fork, bread, set out salt in a bowl. Avrom recited the blessing.
Steam rose from the bowl of gruel that the woman set on the table. Avrom sensed the smell of pumkin oil, which assaulted his nose and made him queasy. He drew up a half spoonful, sipped it, and laid the spoon down, looking to see if the woman saw it, took another sip and ate a lot of bread to swallow the taste of the fat in the gruel, and laid down the spoon.
Why aren't you eating?
I'm not hungry, Avrom stammered.
The woman punitively took the bowl away, mumbled something and served a small piece of meat with beans.
Avrom cut the meat into small pieces. A little girl ran in. Seeing a stranger at the table, she hurried to her mother and grabbed her dress and asked, Mama, who is that?
A yeshivenik. Let go! She pulled her dress from the child's little hands, came to the table, cut two large pieces of bread from the whole loaf and pulled a fourkopeck piece out of some back pocket. Please! I don't have anything to put on the bread, you can buy something at the market.
Walking back to the yeshive Avrom looked around on every side, to recognize the houses, the shops, to see if this was the way back to the yeshive. And at first he did not find the way. Using his eyes, using his feet, he sought, felt and touched the way back to the yeshive.
Arriving, his friend Hershl Pritsker asked what had taken him so long.
Where is your day, on what street?
On what street? He did not know.
Then how did you find it?
I walked a long time with the telegraph poles until I got back.
The first table had just begun the Talmud volume Kidushin. In the morning Rov Tuvye read the lesson for the pupils. Standing leaning on a shtender he studied the text in a quiet, modest voice as if he were studying alone. Thus the pupils heard it precisely. Avrom also heard the rebi reciting the lesson, but he heard only words, sounds, the words did not penetrate his mind, he was completely occupied with seeing the rebi. Such a handsome Jew. Grey hair. Covered with the yarmulke. He exhibited a high forehead with angles, and his peyes were
like little bottles. The rebi put one finger inside a peye and curled it. Avrom did not hear the study. Someone dropped a book. The rebi looked around at the faces of all the pupils and caught Avrom's look, and settled on Avrom's face. Avrom lowered his eyes to the book. After the lesson the rebi took him aside.
What is your name, boy?
Avrom. He pronounced the answer so easily, nothing like with the roshyeshive, who had said young man. He preferred the rebi.
Do you have a studymate? asked the rebi. I will tell him to begin at the beginning with you. And if you do not know something, do not be shy, and come to me to ask about it.
The rebi gave him a little pinch on the cheek and went back to his glass of tea. Avrom gazed at the rebi from behind his forehead, saw his cheeks on their bones; right under the eyes were reddishbrown spots like strawberries, and the forehead white, bluish, like thin milk. Such a beautiful forehead. Such big temples. He must be able to learn well. He loved the rebi. He read so quietly, so well.
After a while Avrom felt a tug at his stomach, as if with tongs. He closed the Talmud and stood at the edge of the table. The man from Zdulbanov went by and he bought a piece of herring from him. You will want tea, he told him. Go in to Sore here in the courtyard. Do you have a teapot? You can buy boiling water and steep your own tea. You don't have? You can drink it there. Tea with sugar is a kopeck a glass.
Avrom ate bread with herring and drank the tea. The herring was tasty, the tea burned his lips and throat, he drank it with pleasure, he was a growup, eating and drinking a pot of tea like anyone else, a grownup. But sleep! Where would he sleep? He went to look for Shaye Asher. Very busy, he hardly caught up to him. Shaye Asher stood still, his twisted walking stick with the round knob raised a little. Avreml was startled. Ah, you! The youngest one! I do not yet have a cot for you. Meanwhile you will have to sleep in the yeshive.
Avrom was wondering where one would sleep in the yeshive, there was no sign of a bed anywhere. Later he saw boys sleeping on straw mattresses in the courtyard, with quilts with the stuffing coming out and old overcoats. All this was rolled out on the tables, the Talmud volumes pushed aside, the beds spread out and one undressed. Avrom found nothing in the courtyard to lie on or to cover himself with. He took off his jacket and vest to make a headrest on a bench; he was embarrassed to take his trousers off and lay on the bench with them on, covered half of his head with his cap and tried to go to sleep. His hipbone began to complain. He turned over to the other side, and that bone also began to complain so he lay on his back and covered his face. Sleep did not come to his eyes.
Floating before his closed eyes were his grandfather, Rokhele, his mother, the house, the street, there he stood outside his house, outdoors in the warmth and light…here it is so cold, so hard…
He fell asleep crying. He was sitting on the outdoor earthen bench with his grandfather. Gentile girls walk from the field singing, they recognize him and say Come, Avremke, we'll give you some kernals. He wants to get up. His grandfather grabs him by the hand. Where are you going? and sits him back down. He realized, when his eyes sensed a void, he should figure out where he was and then grasped that he was in the yeshive. Sleeping on a bench, but it seemed to him that the whole room was turned around and he could not reach the door to get out. A melody wafted over to him. V'am t'motsi lomer… The young man from Harodok was celebrating a night of study. The singing drilled into his ears, tore his eyes open. He sat up on the bench: before his eyes a wave of shimmering light, a shadow rocked itself. It was a draw, it remained a question: was the shadow singing? He straightened up and put his hands behind him.
Avrom lay back down. He studied the entire night, the Harodok man. And when does he sleep? He studies day and night. One has to study a lot. He had so far studied very little. And he decided to study as long as it took to know everything. He touched his chest. There were the five coins his mother had left him, they were here and he would guard them so that no one would steal them. He went back to sleep.
3. A Greeting from the Village
Karney stood in the door of the yeshive. Under one arm he held an overstuffed sack; in the other hand he held his hat. If he had had a third hand he would have crossed himself when coming into a holy house a Jewish one but nonetheless holy. In respect for the Jewish holy house he bowed to the first yeshivenik he saw and ask where Avromke was.
The yeshivenik set his eyes on him, shrugged his shoulders, called after someone, and a gentileyiddish conversation enused in which it finally turned out that hthe goy was looking for the mizinkl. That is what they called Avrom, the youngest one. Mizinkl.
Avrom recognized Karney among the yeshive boys, he broke free and fell on him, his face rubbing on Karney's coat and on as much of him as his arms could reach around. Karney petted him on his cap.
Your mother sent you a gift. And he put down the bundle, took Avrom's face, cheering him up. But you have grown up, Avromke! You're a big boy, you'll soon be a rabin, right?
Avrom turned his gaze from the bundle, shy about opening it
to see what was in there, ashamed that Karney, a goy, had come to see him in the yeshive, and so wanting to see what his mother had sent, to be talking with Karney, sitting on his knee as he used to do in winter at home.
How is my mother, my grandfather, Rokhke?
They are all well. Lisa had a calf, a beautiful calf, just like the mother, a fine calf. Your mother says that she will raise it, a little heifer.
And when are you going back?
Later today. I came to the fair. Your mother asked me to bring you a letter.
Avrom regarded the long room, not finding any corner to talk with Karney. He took him into the courtyard, sat him behind the pantry; then he opened the bundle, pulling out of it a round piece of butter wrapped in a damp cloth, then a cloth with green leaves, the butter still hard and carved with a spoon, almost holes. He quickly broke off a piece of the threecornered cheese, popped it into his mouth, closed his eyes and chewed with his teeth and lips. A packet of tea, a paper bag of sugar, cookies, little cakes. He offered Karney a cookie.
God protect you! Look what his mother sent for him!
But how about some tea with the snacks?
Yes to that, a glass of tea, no Russian would refuse it.
Avrom took Karney to Sore in the tea room, got a large tin teapot of hot water, brewed the tea that his mother had sent, laid out some blocks of sugar and a few cookies. Karney poured the tea into a bowl, blew on it until there were little waves on the tea, bit off small pieces of sugar and drank.
Do you have a guest? jested Shimshon Kolker, a yeshivenik who spent more time sitting with Sore in the tearoom than studying a Talmud.
Yes, my mother sent cookies and other things with him. Would you like a cookie?
Shimshon Kolker held the cookie in front of his mouth with the tips of two fingers, assessing whether this was a real Jewish cookie with sugar and cinnamon, then swallowed a big bite of cookie and eyed the bundle: What else is in there? When Avrom moved away with the ink and pen, Shimshon went behind him to crawl into the sack. Karney had just finished sipping his tea and raised his head to pour himself a second. When he saw Shimshon by the sack What's going on? Shimshon gave a start and both his hands trembled from the sack and he spit out some words: A swinish goy, and he will go away emptyhanded.
When Avrom came back, Karney indicated the sack to him and said Hide it, son!
As you see, answered Karney. Avrom glanced at the boys, comprehending that something had happened, but did not ask any more.
It was the first time in his life he had written to his mother and he wrote not one but two letters.
My dear beloved mother! First I can report that I am thank God well, please God may I hear the same from you, omeyn. Secondly I want to let you know that the sack with the butter, cheese, cookies, cakes and tea and sugar were very well received and I thank you very much for those, but you do not need to send me more because I have an eating day every day. I also have a good bed. I lack nothing. And how is Rokhl? And Lisa, Karney told me, had a calf, you must not sell it, I want to see it. From me your faithful son, Avrom
And to his grandfather: My dear respected elder, honorable Yankev, light of Israel: First I can report that I am thank God well and whole, please God may I hear the same from you, omeyn. Secondly be informed that I have learned almost all of Kidushin and will soon begin Gitin, and I do not have a study mate any more as I can study on my own. I learn ten pages of Talmud on my own every week. Every Thursday I observe an allnight study session and the rebi says that God willing I will probably move over to the second table next term, to study Talmud with commentaries. From me your grandson Avrom
Old Yankev considered his grandson's letter, put on his glasses, looked at the letter from top to bottom, then shook his head and held the letter far from his eyes, turned to one side, another, then slowly folded it, hid it in the breast pocket of his shirt where his big wallet once used to lie, picked up his cane and went out to find Meyshe the ritual slaughterer who would be able to read the letter from his grandson.
When the grandson came home for the Days of Awe and, as usual wanted to help him take his boots off before going to sleep, the old man tried to push him away. Leave it, I will do it myself. But he did not want to. Good to be a grandfather, a grandson, a Talmud bokher, Talmud with commentators, a Talmud scholar pulling his boots off. That was how it was. On shabes he sat listening to him, heard how his grandson sang the Talmud verses out so nicely, pronounced so smoothly, did not stumble; he changed his gaze from his grandson to Meyshe the slaughterer, Nu, what do you say, ha, does he know? A good nature, Meyshe decided. A sharp mind. With God's help he will grow to be great in the nation. And, as was customary, was asked to serve at the head of the table.
At the third meal the grandfather's melody was so sad, but so gentle, so sweet. Saying the blessings, old Yankl did not understand what he said. The evening of a person's life flowed together with the shabes evening, life was going away and a heartfelt plea was carried in the sad chant. Master of the Universe! Give me just another shabes. Let me live to see a Jew and before the gates of the Garden of Eden, or protect, God, from gehena, before they light the lights… let me be among Jews…oy, sweet father!
This time it was hard for old Yankl to travel for the Days of Awe. When
she let him take the child. To go with him to the studyhouse. But she was the mother after all. The old one went to town himself for the Days of Awe, and the mother looked at her son, heard him studying. Growing up, no evil eye, already as tall as Rokhl. And his hair was starting to curl into locks. He had her hair, it had gotten darker too, but hers a little paler. She brought him a glass of milk: Please, my son, drink. It just came from the cow, it's still warm. The son did the mother a favor and sipped it with barely open lips from the glass. To your health, the mother wished. Maybe another glass?
I do not want any milk! the son threw back.
Well, so, be quiet, the mother urged her son. For the mother a son, for the sister a big brother. She was really older than he, but he was bigger. The sister stood and looked at him and pleaded with her eyes, Come, please tell me about the big city.
And the bigger brother told her about the big city. What wonderful things there. Rokhl looked at her big brother with respect, but she had her village. She would show him her village, maybe go out to pick Kolnidrey pears. She would call Yosl Shleyme Mordkhe's too. And Avrom went with Rokhl and Yosl to pick Kolnidrey pears and lay lazily in the hay. He got to know Yuzik, kissed the calf and nevertheless studied a page of Talmud every day. He prayed three times a day, blessed and read the shema. And on the eve on Roshhashone, when he went to shul with his mother and sister at Meyshe the ritual slaughterer's house, a growing Jew went to ask God, to plead for a good year. Coming home from shul he made kidush. He saw tears in his mother's eyes but she did not cry, her heart was simply overwhelmed with delight. This holiday she did not lack a male in the house, her son led the table.
He would fast on Yonkiper. Do you even lay tefilin yet? That is nothing. Go on, silly, you are still too young. He was not too young. His mother smiled. Fast, fast. You will see, I will fast the whole day. He confided his secret to Rokhl.He would not even come home to sleep, he would spend the night in the shul.
Meyshe the ritual slaughterer's hall a long, large room that was the village shul on shabosim un yonteyvim could in no way be made to look like a shul, even if all Dubrovke had prayed there; but people padded the earthen floor with hay, and placed boxes with wax candles in them on the tables, benches and windows, and the hall became a holy place. Not only the floor, but the walls and the ceiling were covered too, not with hay but with smokesoft, shadowgreen rugs for the soft dimness in the shul. The reddish flames of the wax candles sway, illuminating them, and that makes the dimness deeper, thicker, dreadful. Not one straw moves from its place, a candle is afraid to make a snap, Ruler of the Universe
Father of Mercy and Forgiveness… From the women's shul a second room with a door open to the men's one already heard weeping, a lament, and children were serious. Taleysim stopp moving, the women's shul also gets quieter, one woman still so distinct in her quiet weeping. When the woman wiped her eyes one could hear the last gasp, then quiet.
The stillness trembles, candle flames waver. God knows the place…God knows the community… Only the ritual slaughterer, the cantor, recites kolnidrey. He doesn't have much of a voice, he is a prayerleader, with a plaintive voice. But the kolnidrey melody is conquered and he sings. Stammers a little. The congregation cannot be content with just listening, and they mumble beneath him. The second time they say it too, and at the third time the cantor is completely superfluous. By mayriv all the dams break, the men sing strongly and sweetly, oy, u'b'kheyn ken pakhdekha… The women weep out loud, an oy, sweet father bursts out and we hear not just the al kheyt but also the clap of fists on chests. Then from wailing the praying becomes soft, heartfelt, one pleads but to a good father, a God of mercy and compassion.
Awe, fear, pain, repentance, regret, dread, pleading, hope waves on which the congregation rocks, and not not only is it good to hope, sweet to plead, it is even good to feel sinful and clap out the al kheyt.
For Avremele it was good to pray, as he had forgotten that he was alone in shul, without his grandfather, without his mother. Only when she put her head through the doorway to the men's side, weeping, looking for her child, did he realize, dear mother, that she wanted him to go home and he did not want to, he wanted to stay, to recite the shir ha'yikhud and psalms.
Silly, everyone is going home now. Not everyone, he wants to stay.
Come, my son, you can pray at home. Rokhl shuffled near him. She rubbed against him like a kitten. He went home unwillingly.
After the warmth of the shul home was so cold and so hard, quiet. The only candle that was burning, the one that would burn the entire twentyfour hour period, spread a little light and warmth. By the light of that candle Avrom sat reciting psalms, the shir ha'yikhud. He would sit there the whole night, a watchman. All the seed of Jacob serve for God loves.
Oy woe and trouble! Oy, a trouble, something evil. A painful woe and evil spun, reeled, drew nearer. Avreml became silent, and listened. A hand touched a doorknob outside. Mama! he screamed.
Etel ran out of the alcove barefoot. Rokhl was holding on to her.
The door opened, a human figure wrapped in a shawl was leaning over at the threshold.
Frume Leye! Frume Leye! God is with you! What happened? Avrom, Rokhl, a little water.
Oy, vey iz mir! She pushed the glass of water away from her lips.
Oy, a calamity for me! She just ran off with the gentile boy! With that outburst she pushed out her last resistence and she fell, and Etel barely caught her. He husband Gedalye the shoemaker ran up and stood still with his mouth open, looked at his wife and slowly lowered his head.
At kolnidrey their only daughter, Gitl, a girl of nineteen, had run off with Mikal the gentile from Lipovke. Etel tried to comfort, Where did you learn this? Maybe… Maybe…
She ran away! Dark and empty are my years, Frume Leye more croaked than spoke, Along with everything from the house, the bed linens, to the last thread. What do I do, how do you start? Save my child! Gedalye, why are you standing there? Why? She did not finish, but ended with a wail.
Go, Avrom, call in Zeydl! his mother ordered.
Avrom jumped up. Fear fell over him. He had fear not only of going out across the threshold, he was even afraid to tell his mother that he was afraid. He threw himself outside and with eyes that could not see where, he ran as fast as his feet would carry him and banged on Zeydl's door with his whole body.
Zeydl harnessed the horse and wagon Meyshe the ritual slaughterer allowed it Frume Leye climbed into the wagon and late at night they drove out to the priest's house to rescue the daughter.
Avreml could no longer recite the shirha'yikhud. He lay in his grandfather's bed with the covers over his head. He tried but could not sleep, in his ears Frume Leye's screams still rang. Now she was on her way. On yonkiper, converting, what is converting?
During u'netana teykif in shul they heard a sob, a wail that shot out from all the other weeping. Everyone looked, and saw Gedalye the shoemaker standing up. One could not see any face. But it seemed it was Gedalye the shoemaker. Ayanu, someone said. Gedalye did not cry out loud again. The body under the talis jerked. The body moved. With the talis over the eyes he went to the door. He remained sitting by the door with his back against the wall, his head lowered, not speaking a word. Then at ne'ile when the cantor said, Oy, oy, open the gate for us, there was a cry He's fainted! He fainted!
Someone held a little bottle under Gedalye's nose. He waved it away with his
hand, picked himself up and with his talis over his head set out over the village toward home.
Late in the evening, when everyone was sleeping a peaceful sleep from having pled for a good inscription in the book of life, Frume Leye arrived home by wagon.
You? Gedalye asked, hearing someone open the door and quickly got up, in the dark?
The voices of man and wife, homey, known for many years, clashed in an unfriendly way in the darkness. Frume Leye lit the oil lamp. Shadows leapt into the room. Gedalye's look stabbed into the shadows, he wanted to read on his wife's face the report that she brought. Frume Leye silently took the box of sand from the burnedout soulcandle and it seemed to Gedalye that she had taken on rancor. So tell me already! Have you become mute?
Frume Leye remained standing with the box of sand in her hand. What do you want me to tell you do you see? Frume Leye took a step, set the box of sand on the ground. Gedalye's eyes followed her movements.
Not permitted! said Frume Leye as if talking to the box of sand and, straightening herself, she now spoke to her husband. He was standing at the door with an axe, he called up the dogs… I barely reached the priest, I fell at his feet…and he says, ‘A sinful Jewess like you must thank God that one soul will be saved.’ A fire in his intestines, a strange death to him!
The paralysis in which Gedalye had sat since he came home from praying eventually went away. His whole body trembled. His hands gripped the edge of the table. One hand pulled free and tore at his collar. But in his throat were no words. Rather, his throat was so dry that he literally felt the skin inside. He turned to the water barrel , drew a draft and , drinking to the bottom, he tossed the cup aside. Sweat attacked him. His whole body was loose. And he dropped off.
Wash your hands, go eat. His hands trembled. Nevertheless Frume Leye laid out the yonkiper night khale, set out a plate with cold slices from the kapeyre chicken. But when she began to eat the food stuck in her throat, a cough and a sob pushed out, she could not swallow the bite, and she could not produce a sound. She gagged with her mouth open and her hands and fingers clawed the air. Gedalye brought a cup of water. Take it! Frume Leye took the cup with both hands, but could not bring it to her mouth and when Gedalye took the cup and brought it to Frume Leye's mouth, Drink, drink! Frume Leye got control, drank, at first a short swallow, then swallowed greedily until she pushed the cup away from herself and Gedalye sat back down.
Man and wife sat and sat in silence. Quiet. So quiet that not only did they hear the movements of their jaws, but also the burning of the oil lamp on the table. Shadows danced before their eyes and a green snake crawled over the house and whispered, Shmad! Apostasy! Converted!
4. Slippery Ice
The thin mud underfoot, shiny, grey and slippery as slime, that spattered everyone's trousers, dresses, overcoats and undercoats, was frozen together with frost and hard clumps of earth, over which was spread a soft, flourfine snow; wintery cold days and sharp, severe nights.
Avrom did not like the night in summer. When it got dark he lay down to sleep. Except when there was allnight study. Winter evenings were long, one could study into the night. Outdoors a biting frost or even a blizzard but in the yeshive it was warm from the heating stove, from the lamps and the candles, from those studying. Said Abi, said Raba, beys Shamay is constrictive, beys Hilel permitting…and in the end a draw. It remains a difficult question. Avrom studies, swimming in the sea of Talmud. Great waves, heavy, strong, inundate him, not suited to his strength, but he does not go under, he swims; comes an even larger wave and tricks his mind he knits his forehead and swims out of it.
Avrom is a swimmer. In view of swimming on shabes he would have to bathe in a river of fire in the world to come, and swim there so he heard a magid say. But the tendency toward evil overcame him when he was near to the river and he went under, went to ritually immerse himself and swam. So went a whole summer, even the nine days, bathing himself at the red stone, the dead stone, in the small yadiki and the large yadiki, at the bathing sheds by the shore where his day found him. He sinned; sinned badly. So that now, in the winter, he swims in the sea of Talmud. He studies with desire, with heat. Studies all day into the evening, goes home to the Tshernobil prayer room where he stays behind the oven. There he meets with all the Jews who sit and study, and tell stories.
The gleam of the eternal light sparkles in the darkness, drops of water from the handwashing stand measure the night, calling out over the night's stillness. A rustle, a touch. That must be in the women's section. Avrom lies back, the whole shul sways with every heartbeat and he trembles from the stories that he has heard. And now be begs God without words: have pity, protect me, I want to do penance, to learn, to pray with intent.
He prays with the first minyen. Outside the day is grey. Frozen Jews, sleepy, snuggle up to the warm tiles, warm their hands, their shoulders, brush against one another, get wet, recite the first morning prayers, throw lots of words around: A biting frost! It burns! He, Shimen the ritual slaughterer Fayerberg, does not stand by the oven, does not warm himself, does not talk about the frost. Coming in, walking stick in hand, talis under his arm,
he gives the mezuze a kiss and goes to his seat with a step that tells not of sleep, cold or warm, not that he just crawled out of bed, not that he came out of a house, he is in the Tshernobil prayer house in his seat inherited from his father and grandfather. But no one inherits from him, it is his son's yortsayt, Mordkhe Zev. He did not go to his son's funeral. He does stand for the yortsayt. He drinks a brandy. Someone expresses the wish that the soul will have an aliye, a call to Torah, and Shimen is silent.
Walking back to the yeshive Avrom sees boys in little grey linen uniforms, black knapsacks of books on their shoulders, some carrying steel ice skates thrown over the shoulder, some of them skating by themselves; skating to school. Akh, how they let themselves loose, a right foot, and a left foot, let loose, standing upright, stretched out and riding. If only he could skate. He would learn how.
One who forgets the study house is comtemptible. Avrom caught himself he was sinning. A fleeting vision. Should he decide to do penance? He'd go to the yeshive and… skate. He quickened his pace: study, study.
Rebi Tuvye had already recited the lesson and was walking around the yeshive, he curled a peye, looked around, caught Avron's glance. Do you want to ask something? I do have a question. Rebi Tuvye leaned over him, spoke, looked at Avremele. Avreml was startled. Rebi…, color suffused his face.
What is it, my child?
Rebi, may one skate?
Skating, my child, Rebi Tuvye began modestly, is a goyeshe custom. It is written in the Torah that we do not follow those customs. Jewish children must study. For their sins a lot of Jewish children skate. Even on shabes, but those are sinful souls, lost sheep, they do not know what they are dong, may God take pity on them. You, my child, are a kosher Jewish boy, you must sit by Torah and service. And if the inclination of evil comes to you, convincing you to do wrong, do as the Talmud says: the commentator Rebi Yishmael says, the children of the people who forget the study house are contemptible. So study my child, do you see?
He shuffled the pages of the book. You will find everything in here, study on. Rebi Tuvye gave him a light pinch on the cheek and stood up from the table.
Avrom looked after the Rebi. How quietly he spoke and how well. A good rebi. He wanted to obey him, he wanted to study, study a lot. In the afternoon he studied very well.
…He was very learned, brilliant! Grew into a genius. At fifteen years he was an expert in Talmud and Jewish law. But God will protect and save lest an evil spirit leap in…
Where did you hear that? asked a Jew who had just come in. One hand was already on the oven tile, and with the other he unwound the scarf from his neck.
The speaker flashed an angry look, about Reb Shimen's…only son, a pity to see. He said kadish so I thought that… Well, what can you do? May God preserve us, if it was destined…
No one knows to this day what he died of, said the newcomer
as he sat on the bench by the stove with one thigh, gradually working in so that the others would have to shove over.
What do you mean, no one knows? How could they not know. Children in their cribs know what of. It was a winter night. Just like today. He was sitting in the prayer house. Right here, supposedly studying the laws of kosher un treyf, but under the book he had forbidden literature, may God protect us, and he was soon caught in the deed; some other nonbelievers like him were sitting with him and they discussed the immortality of the soul. He had a sharp mind, he demonstrated with evidence from Aristotle and even from RaMBaM not to mention them in the same breath, and knew Torah forward and backward, he could come up with anything he wanted to; and that there was no immortality of the soul you die, are buried, and that's that. The body, anyway, but the soul about the soul he would speculate and philosophize; the soul was in everything but everything in the world, there is no world to come. They said, you know what, if you are so sure that there is no immortality of the soul, that the dead do not go out of their graves, show us. Here is a box of matches. Go lay these on Reb Meyshe's grave right now, and when you come back we will believe you.
How will we know that he really went there? another asked.
Don't worry, I will not trick you, he answered. He took the box of matches and left. They sat and waited an hour, two hours, the cemetery was outside of town but so long! Any way what's the point of the story, they waited until dawn and nothing. When they saw that he did not come, they understood that something was wrong. They went off to the cemetery. They arrived at Reb Meyshe's grave and the box of matches was lying there, and a little further on lay he. They tried to revive him, rubbed him with snow, tried various kinds of cures and just barely revived him. What, then? He was silent. They took him home. The father found out about the matter, and drove him out of the house. What's the point. A month went by and he fell into a depression. He did not utter a word and around Purim he died. Suffered like a criminal at his death. When the ritual washing was performed they found signs of fingers under his foot. See? When he was getting ready to go they cut off his foot, and that was that. So here you have your Aristotle and your apostasy and your denial of the immortality of the soul.
What more do you want? We had a young rascal who felt the desire to smoke a cigarette on shabes in Pinkhas's crypt. They found the cigarette there but no trace of him.
Stories about the cemetery, miracles and marvels, but Avrom really heard only the first story about Mordkhe Zev, Shimen the ritual slaughterer's son. It was today that he saw Shimen for the first time. A rigorous man. And his son? One who had to fear and died because of it. A shame that he had not seen him when he was
alive. An apostate who did not believe in the immortality of the soul or the world to come. In the yeshive one learned only Talmud, not even scripture was allowed. But in the Talmud it does not state whether the dead go out of the grave. Rather in psalms it says clearly, the dead do not praise the Lord. He would have to ask Rebi Tuvye.
The Rebi confirmed it. There is a Garden of Eden, and a gehenum. The Rebi's answer did not suffice for Avrom. Avrom rummaged the bookshelves of the Tshernobil prayer house, not only in the large Talmud volumes but among the small booklets: commentators, collections of writings, the Mussar beginnings of wisdom. He saw gehenum. But why did the boys in the uniforms not have any fear? And Gitl the apostate, why did she not die in the church at her conversion?
Fever. Days when Avrom studied with desire, with heat, practiced allnight study; days when he recited Talmud as one recites the ashrey. Shabes was very bad. He did not go to the yeshive, he prayed in the kloyz. While praying he saw boys playing outdoors. After praying, after eating, more boys playing, all playing. All the boys could, but not he. Yeshivenik! He was a yeshivenik and he was determined to go home for Peysakh and not to come back any more.
His sister told him all the news of the village. Yosl Shleyme Mordkhe's had already started to lay tfilin, Shifre Khane Keyle's had gotten sick and in a secretive tone Gitl the convert was here in the village with Mikal, she was pregnant, she would soon have a baby. Frume Sore had fallen ill with consumption; the local doctor said she would not last long. Avrom did not repay her with news from the big city. He was silent. His mother looked at him as though he were starving and she wanted to take care of him, he should eat better but he did not want to eat. To spite her he would leave, go back to the yeshive.
There was tumult in the yeshive. The boy from Kisiline and the boy from Luhine had been caught at what, Avrom did not know. He only heard that the roshyeshive would no longer permit the Kililiner up to read and they asked the Luhiner what month he was in.
Where did the Roshyeshive pop up from? Come here, you rascal you! The Rosh yeshive held Avrom's chin and slapped him with his small hand, six times on the right cheek and six times on the left. Finished with Avrom he called the Luhiner to him. He did not slap him. He did not seen Avrom any more. Not staying, sent out of the yeshive. The Kisiliner had completed his fasts and got his eating days back so said the yeshive boys. And he had not gotten any answers to the questions about him. And Rebi Tuvye, such a good rebi died. No more Rebi, dead. No one to ask. He would not study here any more. He wanted to run away. The boy from Horodok had been denied his eating days. The yeshive boys whispered among themselves. Avrom caught pieces of things people said… was soon to receive ordination… someone was caught with illegal literature under his Talmud.
Avrom had seen the Horodoker for himself. There he stood by the shtender, observing his practice more than any one else and he was caught with illegal literature, just like that other one, Mordkhe Zev the ritual slaughterer's son. Where was he? Denied his eating days, thrown out, he wanted to see him and ask, is there a world to come? A God, and how do you see Him?
Avrom studied without inspiration. He knew the lesson, but not from studying it so much. What was ten pages of Talmud for him in a week? In two hours of study he learned the two pages. And the days were long summer days. Walking back to the yeshive from dinner he stopped why hurry? Meanwhile he could go to Rov Mikhele's shul where Shmuelikl the crazy man held forth. Shmuelikl ran around over the street, and Rov Mikhele's shul was his home. It was said that at one time he could learn very well. Shmuelikl! I'll give you a candy, tell me a story.
Margerite! Go to hell, sang Shmuelikl and his face creased in laughter, he opened his unbuttoned shirt and looked inside. Avrom nudged him. Shmuelikl! Here is a candy, here! Shmuelik's fingeres grabbed the candy and threw it into his mouth with the wrapper and chewed. Avrom leaned over to him, Shmuelikl, tell me, is there a world to come?
Margeritke, go to hell!
Better now to go to bahe. The river calls. He bathes during the week and shabes. Avrom swims. His goal the other side of the river. Swim across. He begins with a crawl, works hard with his legs, but he knows that half his back is visible, someone could see him swimming! And the clothes he laid out, dry, not a sprinkle of water. He goes over to a rock, protects himself by swimming quietly, not moving his legs, it is still far to the shore. Someone is swimming from the other direction. Mizinkl! On shabes! He raises his head, looks. It is: the Horodoker!
Avrom squirms in his nakedness, fearing he will report him, but nevertheless looks at the Horodoker. How different he looks naked, without clothes and also without…peyes. Avrom shivers, he cannot get to his clothes to get dressed.
Don't worry, I won't report you. Don't be afraid. Get dressed. You're cold.
Avrom pulled on his shirt, but did not turn it around so the front was in the back or his head was in a sleeve and he trembled, shivered in the cold and also was afraid the Horodoker would leave, disappear. The Horodoker sat, sifting sand through his fingers, raised his eyes and regarded Avrom.
Are you still going to yeshive? Avrom answered him with a nod of his head.
What's your name? Close to two years under the same roof and never dared to ask, what's you name, your name?
My name is Mayer, Mayer Berman, said the Horodoker and stretched out his hand. Avrom, stammering, blushing, almost bursting out with Why did they…?
Because I was swimming on shabes.
Offended, Avrom looked up with one eye at Mayer.
I laugh only…, Mayer answered, I laugh because…you wouldn't understand.
I will understand! I know… I…
What do you know?
I know, I want to know, I want…Tell me, in the books that you were reading…Tell me, is there a God or not?
Mayer Berman stopped measuring the sand. He looked at the mizinkl, saw that he had grown, yet still a child and he was asking already. Avrom was standing still and getting angry.
And you must know this now? Mayer asked. Touching him. Get dressed! Let's go!
5. The Ice Floes Melt
Elul. The Jewish village is depressed. Frume Leye, Gedalye the shoemaker's wife, is dying. The local doctor has done all he could. They brought in Doctor Tsaytlin, who asked angrily, why did you bring me to a corpse? He took the fifteen rubles a ruble a viorst and drove away, leaving Frume Leye to her husband Gedalye the shoemaker; the neighbor Etel; the neighbor Zeydl and all the other Jews of the village to do right by her.
Etel sits, Zeydl comes in, and Shleyme Mordkhe, they speak in murmurs, sitting quietly: Why is she still lurking around the house? And with the bastard in her arms! May she burn up.
Frume Leye's face flamed with the last of her life's fire. She moistened her lips with her tongue, their color of beaten iron, rolled her eyes toward the door, closed them, rolled her head around on the pillow, sank. After a while she sat up with a wild look, croaked Out! Get away from me! and fell back onto the pillow.
They did not let her in. Only late in the evening, when Frume Leye was already laid out with her feet toward the door, two candles by her head, the door flew open and Gitl the apostate, a shawl over her shoulders, the kerchief on her head askew, burst into the house, with a wind that blew on the candles. The flames wavered, and before anyone had the time to say a word Gitl fell on her dead mother and they heard Maaama!
Out! Out of the house! Apos,,,
The word remained stuck in the throat. Fingers dug in long thick hair, tearing, pulling. The dead body was pulled along, tipping over a candlestick. Zeydl picked up the candlestick, put out the flame, held Gedalye, took hold of Gitl's arm, a moan as he got hold of a braid, and with the other hand he got her around the neck, pushed her to the door, opened it and shoved Gitl outside. He quickly closed the door.
From the other side of the door could be heard sobbing: Mama! Mamaniu!
Drive her away! Drrive her away! Gedaly croaked, I will… It became quiet outside. No human weeping could be heard, but the distinct howling of a dog, a long, drawnout howl.
Nu, what a night! God in heaven! Etel said quietly to herself.
You go home, Zeydl said quietly to her. I will sit with him through the night. I will send for Karney first thing in the morning.
They laid Frume Leye out on an opensided wagon bedded with straw, covered her. Gedalye the shoemaker sat next to Karney, not a word from the bystanders. Karney pulled on the reins without even making a sound to the horses. The wagon moved, bringing a Jewish corpse to a Jewish grave.
Driving past the cross, Karney took off his hat and crossed himself. A gentile woman with an oxbow with two empty pails walked by. Karney spit and urged the horses on. Going over the bridge Karney saw a peasant woman running. He spit again and grumbled, Tfoo, a kholera, two women… and cracked the whip over the horses.
The bells of the church started ringing violently. A fire so early. A shawl and a kerchief were found near the river. Mikola recognized the shawl and the kerchief. Someone took the lid of a kneading trough, laid a loaf of bread on it, stuck a lit candle in the bread and set it afloat. The lid stopped. There she lay. Men got into the water, dove, came up emptyhanded. They spread a net. A group of men pulled the net in, then unrolled the net Gitl the apostate. However many Jews there were at the shore, they promptly distanced themselves. No one went to the village that day. They were afraid that they would embalm her. They did not embalm her, did not even let her lie for three days. The next day around lunch time, when Gedalye the shoemaker was traveling back into the village from the grave, he met the funeral procession. Karney stopped the horses, took off his hat, crossed himself. Gedalye also took off his hat, looked at the clothes. He did not see anything other than the clothes.
The elder achieved his goal. Etel sold out her shop. There was not much to sell. Half a sack of flour, an opened bottle of gas, a little dried fish, a few pounds of sugar, the scale and no more store. Old Yankl sold the tavern and everything in the house, except the clock with the gilded face and the chains and weights he did not sell, that would be useful; and the holy books he gave back to the study house. And Yankl of Dubovke, along with his daughter and grandchildren, became city people, residents of Zvhil.
For old Yankl the center of the city was the shul. He
rented an apartment tiny near the shul, the Tshernobil kloyz. He had lived in the village for more than sixty years, measuring out whisky into halfpints, and selling; but all that was no more than a prelude. His real life begins now, in the Tshernobil kloyz. Hasidim, to whom he was until now a villager, took him in as an equal; his gift, his few holy books, they accepted with honor, and in honor of the gift they seated him in a chair and drank a toast, wishing him a long life. Even Avrom got a pinch on the cheek. A fine boy, a fine grandson he had, Mr. Yankl.
That fine boy did not find a place, however. He was in a tight place. He did not have eating days, he slept at home, in the same bed as his grandfather, a softer bed than the studyhouse bench. He would rather sleep at the Tshernobil kloyz than with his grandfather. But he could not steal that from his grandfather so now he was stuck with him in the same bed.
Avrom did not want to steal. When his grandfather asked him: When are you going to start going to yeshive, Avrom answered with lowered eyes: I'm going soon. Grandfather: So? Avrom did not answer. His grandfather took his chin in two fingers, turned his head around, looked straight at him: Why are you not going to the yeshive? I don't want to go to yeshive anymore. I don't have to go to yeshive, I can study in the kloyz, and become a reader.
A compromise from Avrom's side, but grandfather conceded, trusting that his grandson was a son of Torah, was already studying by himself in the kloyz, and there was a Talmud on his shtender. There was a Talmud on the shtender, but inside the shtender were An Error on the Path of Life and Hypocrite, and during the day when no one was there Error found its way over the open Talmud and Avrom gobbled up the words, reading furtively and fast. If someone came in he studied aloud . In the evening he sat with his grandfather by the oven, listened to stories about him, the Tshernobiler, and the Makarover and Trisker rebis. After that he went home and slept with him in one bed.
Three generation, two worlds lay in that bed. Avrom wrapped the quilt around himself; the grandfather was also careful not to touch the child as it was very narrow. In the morning when the grandfather did not find any handwashing water, he sighed and went to wash and walk to prayers, looking to see if Avrom was coming in too. He did not come. He had a question for someone: where is Avrom?
What do you say? His mother was surprised. He wasn't in shul?
He said that he was going to shul.
He goes every day. Be proud of him.
A barmitsve just a moment ago and already a goy. God in heaven…
Where was he! What an apostate! Go figure, do something. Where is he? I will flog him, I will whip him.
They did flog him, first the mother then the grandfather, until the mother
felt sorry for him and practically pulled him out of the grandfather's hands.
Get out of the house! grandfather shouted, shaking with anger.
Avrom was not afraid of his grandfather's shouting, nevertheless he fled from the house. He ran to the Horodoker, to Berman, and told him everything though not about the slaps. Avrom thought that he had fled the house forever, he would never see his grandfather again, or mother, he would go out into the world, and send Rokhl a ticket so that she could come to join him.
Was he lost to everyone? Avrom returned home. He quietly ate what his mother served him and slept once again in grandfather's bed but in the morning did not go to shul. Grandfather did not shout or hit anymore, he was silent. His rounded shoulders became more so, his head sank even lower, he was more bowed over. At night he did not come home to sleep, he stayed in the kloyz. He went home for supper, was lost in thought during aftermeal blessings then recited them quickly and then went right back to the studyhouse. He did not come home during the week any more. Rokhl took him hot meals in the kloyz, and waited while he ate. Once as he handed her back the pot and the spoon, he patted her. Shabes he ate at home. Avrom went to shul with him, and grandfather was silent.
His age settled on him like a thick gloomy cloud. He became smaller, his hands trembled, he could barely get the spoon to his mouth. One day after Purim when that happened he sent the food back. Grandfather did not want to eat, was the relayed message. Etel grabbed her shawl, ran to the kloyz and found him sitting and dreaming.
Are you unwell? Go home. Lie down. Maybe I'll call the doctor?
Who sent for you?
Etel stood and looked at him. He did not look back. She put the shawl over her chest, sighed and, dejected, went back to the shop.
Friday he came home, took a shirt, went to the public bath. Shabes he went to the kloyz, did not taste any food at the table, recited the bread blessing and no more. After havdole he went to bed. Sunday morning he put on talis un tfiln but did not feel well while praying so lay down in bed again.
Call a doctor! Go get Khayim the beadle!
He recited the confession before death, and asked Etel to get out the clothes. He regarded them. Nu, thank God, at least he would die in his own takhrikhim. And a quick labor…
Come here Avremeniu! Come here, my child! Take the tfilin out of the talis bag. See? Those tfiln I inherited from my father, may he rest in peace, and he also inherited them. Respectable Jews prayed in those tfiln, I am leaving them to you, just promise me, give me your hand, that you will pray in them, be a Jew.
Tears appeared in the eyes of the dying old man, and his throat constricted. Avrom poured out tears, he could feel the life go out of his grandfather's hand. The old man let go of Avrom's hand, looked at his daughter. The mother held Avrom around the neck, and with the other arm she pulled Rokhl over to her father. The little one tore away from her, crying out loud. The old man made a wave with his hand: Let her go, let…
Avrom saw how they took his grandfather out of the bed, laid him out on the floor. He was so small, so thin. The Burial Society sent him out of the house: Go, you are not permitted to see this, you are a kohen. So he sat outside, watched a woman, saw a man, wagons, he saw and did not see, before his eyes was the image of his grandfather lying on the floor. A corpse, dead. And an hour earlier he had spoken to him, begging him to pray in the tfilin. Now dead. Where indeed does life come from, the soul? Immortality of the soul. That of which he had been certain no soul, no world to come, was now in the face of death, the first death that he had seen so close, so peaceful, he was once again unclear. A curtain descended before his eyes. What is behind the curtain? After the burial the Burial Society drank whisky l'khaim, l'khayim! May the soul be called up to the Torah. Death and life, buried, and the soul gets an aliye. No, there is no soul, yet he said kadish for that same soul. A day or two he went to shul, then kadish reciting became boring.
Why aren't you going to say kadish? his mother demanded.
I already said, already said it. Was it worth the effort to drudge for children, to be miserable and devastated, to die, to not even say kadish.
I went to shul today! What do you want from me?
Tell me another one, how you went to shul today. Go, little Ivan, go, get out of my sight.
Avrom got out of his mother's sight to the iron bridge. He stood there for hours. He heard and saw how the ice split up, how the river opened up. One piece of ice had split. Three ends. The wide side with the two ends lay across, one piece breaks off, the breaker dunks under, disappears; heavy bluish water chases, streams. A new piece of ice, blue, clear, transparent, hesitates, more pieces of ice arrive, one crawls over the other, the pieces of ice are no longer cold, frozen pieces but white bears from the Arctic Sea, and the water waving, are whips that chase and drive: make way!
Avrom stood there the whole day, observing the ice floes and he became fearful in a good way. A piece of ice remained lodged in his heart and stayed there in silent terrifying expectation, if the piece of ice fell his heart gave a leap, began beating faster. One really huge floe floated peacefully, comfortably, allowing itself to be driven by the water,
and he wanted to sit atop it, be carried off on it over rivers and seas, to someplace out in the larger world.
6. The thread Breaks
Day in, day out, he fought with his mother. She would cry, Be a shoemaker, be one! What have you visited on my head?
He spitefully answered, So. Have you given Rokhl to a poor tailor, why not give me up for a shoemaker?
She cried, bewailing her bitter fortune. Because of the drudgery, because of the devastation and darkening of her life, that her child should grow up to be a goy, should she speak against it? Oy, her hard, bitter fate!
You've already burst into tears, Avrom grumbled and left. He could not bear her crying. What was she crying about? He could bear her curses, but not her crying.
Every day he decided to travel to Zshitomir, or Kiev, eat bread and water, study, study, take the exams, enroll at a university as a student, he could already see himself in the student cap; he was sure his head was the head of a student.
Every day Avrom put on the tfilin. While sitting in the tfilin he read a book for as long as the praying should take and afterwards crawled out for a bite to eat. He prayed that year for a year's time, praying through all of Tolstoy, until one morning during the Days of Awe when even a fish trembles in the water Avrom was rolling up the straps. He pulled on the thin straps and one broke off. The strap became just a simple strip of leather and the tfilin? Just two little boxes. Inside? With the box for the arm still on the muscle of his left arm he took a knife, cut through the sinew: his heart pounded as when he had gone thru the pockets of his mother's dress that was hanging up. He opened the box and took out a small piece of parchment: and you shall bind them as a sign on your hands and as frontlets between your eyes.
His thought process stumbled over this word. Frontlets, what was that? This thought was interrupted when his mother came in. He winced, started to push the little parchment back into the box and shoved the open knife into his pocket.
So this is how you pray, hah? his mother asked and coming closer, seeing the open tfilin for the head she asked in horror, What is this, what have you done?
I am looking it over to be sure it is not corrupted.
The mother looked at him with such pentup rage that it seemed to him that she would slap his face. He resisted the look. He saw how her eyes became darker, moister, her hands started to shake. She turned around, did not speak a word and left the alcove.
Avrom stood where she had left him, his own arrogance
paralyzed him. His head burned. He put the tfilin away and left the alcove not eating the food prepared, and went out into the street.
He wandered around the whole day. He went to the river. The water was dark blue, cold, heavy and so clear, transparent. He threw a stone, saw how it sank, had no desire to throw stones, to skip them on the water. A cold angry river. He came up the steps, went to the market square and, for the single coin in his pocket, bought apples from an orchardist, eating in the middle of the market. Seeing in the distance a yeshivenik in a ¬kapote and peyes he turned around, ducked into a side lane, walked to the city park. He walked without picking up his feet, shuffling through the mud, sat on one bench, then another, until the street lamps were lit. He walked home. His mother did not ask where he had been the whole day, gave him food and he swallowed it greedily. The food did not stop the fermenting inside. Rokhl asked him something, he slapped her, she responded with a pinch and with a wail Mamma!
Don't bother him! the mother said, and the him come out so sharp that Rokhl shot him a look and became silent.
The clear autumn days stayed silent, the early evenings secretive, the evenings very quiet, stern, cold, depressing.
And he began to try to tell her about his need to travel, but did not start. So the days went. Each day he felt he lost something. Yet he still wanted to go away for a year, he had wanted it til now.
His eye fell on a box of tea, a nice box, a simple strong box. The top had a little keyhole, it was a though it were made for him, all of his things, books, would fit inside. Do you need this box, Mamma? No, why?
Tell me. Nothing, he answered. In the morning he found a key someplace and closed it, hurting a few fingers. He began packing as a trial when his mother was not looking, books on the bottom, shirts on top and that was it. Until his mother asked with contempt, Why are you fussing over that box like a chicken over a roost?
I'm going away!
The mother looked at him, Where are you going, dear little son of mine?
Her mocking tone made him angry, the anger gave him courage. To Zshitomir for myself. All right?
Give a greeting to your Aunt Fradl.
I'm not going to Aunt Fradl.
To whom are you going, to the governor?
To no one.
Meanwhile she was the stronger one and he gave in. I am going to study.
What, there is no Torah for you here?
Ah, you don't know… His voice was a voice that was changing. The wave of a hand,
the pinched face at Ah, you don't know! suddenly opened her eyes. How he had changed! How like his father he was. I don't know the confession. What does a mother know? A mother knows only toil, plowing with her nose to the ground, being miserable. And for whom? For what?
She did not mock him anymore, she gave in, he had won. She patched all his shirts, darned all his socks, made him promise he would not throw away any torn socks but send them home and she would mend them. Before he left she baked cookies, little cakes. He grimaced, did not want them, she packed them and said prophetically, You shouldn't faint for your mother's cookies and not have any. Everything is packed, we can lock it. The mother offered the tfilin. Take them with you.
He glanced at her. She managed to say, My son, do me a favor. Remember, my child, you are Jewish, act like a Jew, be a Jew. But if you are a goy, it's… She could not finish.
Close to his departure she told him for the umpteenth time how he should meet Aunt Fradl, to protect the box and the five rubles which she had knitted into a camisole pouch, and for God's sake write her a letter. At the stagecoach she grabbed him, kissed his cheeks, eyes and mouth; her have a safe trip melted into tears. Rokhl's eyes were mute. With teary eyes the mother saw to it that her child was seated in the stagecoach; she was bent and aged. Leading Rokhl by the hand as though she were a fiveyearold, she went back home to her nowempty alcove.
7. A Window in the World
The stagecoach is a new sort of wagon for Avrom. A strange wagon. Such high wheels, such heavy horses, and the wagon is a covered wagon with a real roof; you do not sit across the breadth but along the length, a lamp hangs from the ceiling and it is light. Everyone could see his neighbor clearly. Then pne neighbor shouted out, What, are you travelling too?
I recognize you, and we met through having a conversation.
As I told you, one cannot stop this stagecoach.
Anyway if it doesn't stop, don't forget, that today is not as it was yesterday.
What is today but a crazy world?
If only. You have convinced me. Do you know Dovid Leybtse? He traveled from Sokolov from the fair, the entire way nothing, then outside of Lubtshitsh, aha! Stopped, took on til the last cent. It's a miracle he came out alive. He even knows who. And when he knows what's what, does he report it? It didn't like to.
A strange Jew you are, if Dovid Leybtshe traveled by stagecoach.
No, ha? So what is he talking about? But I tell you that one cannot stop the stagecoach. Move over a little!
Avrom pulled himself longwise, made himself thinner and
pressed even close to the wall, losing any division between him and the Jew who aksed him to move over a little. He had gotten to hate the Jew because of his voice. If only they would be attacked by robbers who stopped the stagecoach so that they could mock that man.
Where are you traveling to?
That's not your business, answered Avrom curtly.
What?! You impertinent one! I have a grandchild the same as you.
The not your business had just jumped out, and Avrom was so pleased at the effect that his heart pounded. When the Jew gathered his coattails and pushed away from him a little he almost burst out laughing but was quiet.
May you have a good year! the Jew turned to another of his neighbors. Such an impudent one, that one. Who is he? Do you know him?
The neighbor leaned over to that one. Who knows them?
Difficult. The Jew opened his jacket, took out some tobacco, cigarette paper, and smoked. Someone else started smoking, then a third. In the rolls of smoke roiled the fear that they would stop the stagecoach. And in that fear people spoke of frightening stories.
The stagecoach had stopped. Avrom jerked, and rubbed his eyes. Passengers were standing bent over in the coach, singly, creakingly, crawling out of the stagecoach and making a tumult, dragging bags. Avrom also got out. A large courtyard paved with large stones, full of stagecoaches, wagons and horses. Jews in short coats girded with green and red belts, lambskin hats and high boots were shouting hoarsely but resoundingly, swearing and cursing in Jewish and gentile languages. Passengers bustling, carrying satchels, valises, bags. Avrom started looking for his box and realized that the box was flying down from the stagecoach. The box did not shatter, it just lay off to one side. Avrom looked up at the people who had hurled his box down so. He picked it up and began carrying it in front of him, feeling it was too heavy put it down and deliberated. A coachman approached, and pulled on the box. Where are to traveling to? Noplace! Avrom snapped, pulling the box back, and went off to find Aunt Fradl.
He set the box aside, wiped away the sweat, regarded the door and finally pulled on the bell and quickly regretted that, with the box, he could not easily just run away. He heard steps and the door opened, he saw a human form.
Does Fradl live here, are you…?
I am Fradl, and who are you. Oy, I could swear you are Avrom's boy. And before Avrom had time to confirm it, she was already holding his head in her hands and kissing him. He had not expected such recognition. He stood there shyly. He did not know where to direct his eyes, did not dare to move.
So, why are you standing there? Come in. How is your mother, how is…what is your sister's name? Rokhl, yes, Rokhl, I forgot. It's been so long, and how are you? Avrom? I did not even get to attend your bris, vey iz mir. You're probably hungry, Avremele? You won't have eaten anything. Do you want to eat, or do you want to go pray first? I heard you were growing up to be a rov. A doctor? Nu, go to the table, don't be shy, eat.
He ate fresh bagels with butter and tea and his anger toward his aunt Fradl for her rov remark, and his dislike of the aunt in general went away with the warmth of eating, drinking. Being full also made his tongue looser, and he told her that he had come to study.
In a gimnazie?
No, with a teacher.
And eating, sleeping, shoes, a shirt? I would take you in with me but you can see, this is our entire apartment.
Aunt Fradl's apartment a tiny kitchen with an alcove, like his mother's alcove called up a strange thought for Avrom: In a village the houses look small from the outside, so inside is roomy, but in the city the houses are large but narrow inside. The bigger the town, the bigger the houses, and the more tight on the inside.
Avrom lifted his eyes to his aunt, wanting to read how many people were here, he did not even know how large her household was.
During the day there is no problem, Zelde and Esterke go off to work. I'm sorry, they are modest, but when night comes we almost push out the walls.
With his aunt's wave of the hand he saw what was there and also what was not there any bed for him.
I'll give lessons.
Do you intend to give lessons? His aunt looked at him. You're already talking about giving lessons. How old are you, Avrom?
Fifteen years, he said.
Fifteen years? the aunt repeated with wonder and a sigh. Was it already fifteen years since her brother had died? So tell me, Avremenyu, do you know enough? I know you know Yiddish, if only all Jewish children knew Yiddish, but Russian?
Hearing that her nephew had already gone through four classes, her face lit up. Her brother's child. An accomplished child.
You know what Avrom, I can give you one lesson already. My children want to learn. Zelda not so much, but Esterke, what a head. She is fainting to learn, she wants to learn, she has a good head. But to go hire a teacher, it's her entire earnings. But now one of our own…
He already had a pupil. Avrom smiled to himself. It looked like a free one, so he understood from his aunt's talk. Now, all he lacked was an apartment, a corner someplace where he could sleep and study. He was on his way.
Avrom did not have any acquaintances. He had an address for one
Feldman, an unmatriculated student. He was not sure whether Feldman would concern himself with him, but he was glad to get out of his aunt's house. He felt older than he had been inclined to think about himself; for the first time he had a sharp feeling that some things repeated in his life, but he was encouraged yeshive, that was the past, now would be different. Learning, studying he had one pupil already, an amusing thought.
8. Blood Calls
Lurye sat in the room, glanced at the new arrival and asked, So, what, ‘srezali’?
The tone of the last word tore through Avrom. He looked at his teacher, perceived a smile, and the smile, the tone jabbed so sharply, even sharper than the failure at the exam. He could not bring forth a word.
Well, why are you hanging your head so? Has heaven fallen in?
Avrom sat on the edge of a bench. Heaven had not fallen in, but…
You, why are your laughing at me?
Lurye turned his head at the question, his look remained resting on Avrom.
I am not laughing at you, but you are laughable, you all, with your learning, with your failures. Tell me, please, he took a seat straddling a bench, with his chest to the wall, and moved a little closer to Avrom, what are you studying for?
Avrom looked at him in wonderment. What was he studying for? He had never heard the question posed so nakedly. What does ‘for what’ mean? He began to study at age three. So, yes, praying, the Pentateuch, verses, Talmud, that was all study. In tossing aside the Talmud he had not tossed away study, he simply went from one kind of study to another. Certainly he had thought about becoming a student, going to university…
Do you want to be a doctor? The irony in Lurye's tone was dipped in his hatred for the word doctor that in Avrom's head belonged to the word rov. His mother had wanted, and grandfather wanted, for him to become a rov. Later she shifted over to doctor. Rov or doctor, he hated them both. No, not a doctor, he answered tersely.
Really? Not a doctor? Now Lurye was surprised, his thumb poised by his sidewhiskers, his eyes questioning, but not severe. What then?
I have studied, answered Avrom. Could he now reveal to Lurye the sense of this study, of his whole life until now? He could only glance at his teacher, tell him, It's easy to laugh when you know, but it is hard for me…
The teacher did not laugh. The crease that ran over his forehead from the bridge of his nose to his hairline was more deeply etched, and his thick eyebrows bristled.
So, you say, you have studied. Ordinary study. That is good. But if so, tell me please, why have you fallen so far down that you fail the exam? Do you know less today than you knew yesterday in that time? What subject did you fail? Geography? What did you not know in geography? What did they ask you?
On what degree does Zshitomir lie?
On what degree is Zshitomir? Zshitomir! Lurye sprang up from the bench, laughing. I would also fail. On my word, I do not know what degree Zshitomir is on. Here, he said, looking at the wall where a large map was hung. Lurye drew with his finger from the dot of Zshitomir to the degree marker and showed him, see it? There it is! And smiled.
Avrom could tell him that during the exam, when they asked that question, his eyes were literally crawling across the floor to the map on the wall, stealing to Zshitomir, to the degree. But the teacher turned his head from the map and spoke to himself, Lovko! A dog! A failure!
And to Avrom he said, And what do you think you are going to do now?
Now I will go home for a while, Avrom answered, depressed.
Home? The word sounded very unhomelike.
I… My mother lives in Dubrovke. I received a letter that my sister is sick.
Your sister is sick?
The question came out with such concern, so homey. Avrom wanted to ask, do you have a sister, a mother? Did your mother marry a second time?
Mother… Zeydl… the letter that he had received My only son…and they know that Rokhl has become lethargic, she is very feeble, may the one God have mercy on us, so I ask you my son, come here quickly… Zeydl had written the letter. Zeydl, his… He would not travel home! He had screamed to himself when he first read the letter. He read it a second time, a third time. Very feeble, may the one God have mercy. He would go. That mix of feelings, thoughts, rose up again, a spur in his eyes, he cried to himself. He bit his upper lip. I came to meet you to return your books and ask if perhaps you could give me a few books to read there. I will return them.
Books? Lurye repeated, as if about some strange thing, and went to the bookshelf in the corner, to the sofa, stayed there. Here are a couple of books. Read them over. He looked at Avrom as he read the names of the writers Belinski, Mikhailovski, Lavrov and handed them over. You won't find out what degree Zshitomir is on, but you can
find out other things, maybe just as important, he smiled. Take this too. Beltov. But how will you carry them, on the trip? Here you go, please, put them on your chest, inside your shirt. Is your passport ready? And you can carry these openly, but carry them just as if you were going to gimnazie, understand? And as you are reading there in the village, see that they do not fall into foreign hands. And if you come back…
I will bring them all back, Avrom hurried to assure him.
Well, good, said Lurye, and it sounded like you interrupted me. Not about bringing the books back, I wanted to say, so be it.
He reached out a hand, and looked at Avrom. To seeing you again!
At the door Avom felt his hand on his shoulder. There was something fatherlike in that touch, Avrom was warmer from it and also sadder. Outside he adjusted the books to carry them better, flashed a look at someone who noticed him, looked back at him, reminded himself to walk in a gimnazie gait, pushed the books under his shirt with his elbows and walked with his head high; then as he walked going slower, haltingly, his head falling, Rokhele feeble. Mamma… Zeydl… He would not go. Ester brought him the letter from his mother, watched him as he read it, asked if he was going home, he must say goodbye to her. He went to his Aunt Fradl. He would not go! He left.
The cross at the entrance to the village, and the cloth over the cross said: this is Dobrovke, where you were born and grew up. Here is the street, here are the little houses with the straw roofs. Here is the bridge as usual with broken boards. Here is the tavern, the grandfather… The mother, Rokhele, Zeydl, here is Zeydl's house…
His mother grabbed him around, kissed him, cried, let him go then grabbed him again. The kissing, the hugging was so impetuous that he was shocked by it, as from the hugging. Rokhele, for whom he had traveled home, was out of her senses, but what happened to their mother? Was this the mother who cursed him, hit him? When had his mother kissed him so? She cried often, but her crying was something else. His mother let him go. He wanted to have a good look at her, but Zeydl was holding his hand, smiling at him.
Grown up, keyn a'hore! Become a young man! You've already grown a beard! That was Zeydl whose knee he often sat on, pulling his copper beard, that very Zeydl was now his… What should he call him? His eyes wandered over Zeydl, his mother, the room.
Rokhele is in the alcove, his mother replied to his searching look and let him in. Avrom went to her and with each step his heart beat faster. Entering the alcove his eyes were struck
by Rokhele's head of ruined hair, a whole flight of hair! He jumped her face was smaller.
Rokhele raised her arm, reached out her hand and said Avremele!
He took her hand, was going to lean over her, give her a kiss, but stopped himself feeling that his eyes would spill over, and lowered his head to her hand. She felt his fingers in his hair, then the full palm of her hand as she left in resting on his head. She did not see, not…crying. He held back the tears, lifted his head, and peered at Rokhele. How pale she is, almost transparent, and her eyes so sharp, peaked. The paleness of her face was shocking, the brightness of her eyes was striking, the gentle smile illuminated her face like a light behind a thin porcelain vase. Her smile also softened her look.
How are you? she asked in a hoarse voice. The sandiness in her voice sawed into his ears. Not her voice. Yet she had asked it, asked him how he was.
I? As you see, how are you?
As you see…
Her smile at as you see was not the earlier gentle smile, the words sounded ironic, the smile was pitiful and the weak wave of her hand was really helpless.
Sit! she said and turned her head to look for a bench.
Avremele you should go eat go eat. Your are probably hungry. Avrom caught his mother's tone, her look, and agreed that he was hungry and rose from the bed backwards. He saw his mother wipe Rokhl's forehead, saw how Rokhl still followed him with her eyes. Such sharp eyes, and so pleading. He wanted to stay there with her, sit, look at her, talk with her, yet, he had to leave the alcove.
Zeydl was not in the front room when Avrom and his mother came out of the alcove and as soon as their eyes met one another's she said in a flustered tone, What a sentence! What a sentence! Who can put it right? She seemed to be such a healthy child, she had a cough from time to time, but if such a misfortune was predestined…
Avrom gave her a questioning look. What happened?
She got a cold, it was in autumn. Not long after you left. Started sneezing, coughing. She went to bed, I gave her raspberries to sweat it out, castor oil, she stayed in bed for a few days. When she was better she went back to work, but her cough didn't go away, a dry cough. She went to the country doctor, he gave her a little medicine, she supposedly got better, but whenever it rained, snowed, she coughed again and I could see that the child was in decline, she was degenerating. I went with her to Torgovets. He examined her well, and started asking questions about what she did, what I do, what her father did, what did he
die of? What did he die of! He went out like a light. He walked around til the last minute.
There was something secretive in his mother's talk, in her quiet tears. He had often heard his mother tell about his childhood illnesses, how she had toiled over him with the measles, the pox, but she never mentioned his father's illness, death, only when she would hit him, shouting at him, and accompanying the slaps with shouting that he was the spitting image of his father. In all of her talk he perceived a hatred of his father and he had no inkling of the father that he had never seen, no idea how he looked, but he loved that father and did not love her. Now hearing how his mother spoke about his father and the tenderness in her talk, so sad, that his heart became softer. He turned to her, also quietly weeping along with her.
'Could it be that she inherited it?' Torgovets asked me. He wasn't sure. Am I healthy? Let's hope that she can be. In any case she had to quit her sewing job, and move out of the city. I told him we had always lived in the village until coming here. I told him what drove us into the city. Go right back to the village! He told me to give her good food, have her drink milk and get a lot of rest. You had gone, Zeydl came, I told him. So. I moved us here, thinking here in the fresh air, milk enough to bath in, eggs, butter, and in the first few months she became another person. Her cheeks filled out, her color became healthier, like anyone else, but it meant nothing. Anyway the doctor was even intimidated. But a misfortune was predestined. Before peysakh she got another cold. I did everything I could, I gave raspberries for her stomach, thought it would pass. A day, two days, I saw that the chld was feverish. I called the local doctor. Well, what does an untrained goy know? Zeydl hitched the horses to the wagon and ran off to Torgovets. He came, took a look, quickly said that it was a lung inflammation and began to fuss over her as over his own daughter. Listen, he is a kindhearted person, a prince, not a doctor. At first he thought that he would go right back, later he settled in and said he would stay the night. ‘I'll sleep right here, near her bed’ he indicated, did not even allow me to make a cot for him, and so he could be attentive to her he sat up with her the whole night. In the morning he called for the country doctor, instructed what he should do, and made me promise I would look after her, she is very sick, and so, if she gets worse we should promptly send a wagon for him and he would come. And do you think he would take any money? A groshen he wouldn't take. I pressed it into his hand, he wouldn't accept it. He was angry, ‘You cannot pay. Hold on to it, it will be put to use.' He attended to her. He left, the country doctor came every day, the fever went down, she improved, then she started gradually declining, I thought that she would make it through. That was just
three weeks ago. Three? Yes, yesterday was three weeks, from three weeks Thursday she suddenly collapsed, and she lonst some blood. Do you hear, my son, I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. I thought she would drown. And here was Zeydl in the village, no one was in the house, I was afraid to leave her alone. Anyway, I ran over to Yavdokha, and she sent for the country doctor. He sent her right off to the prince on his estate to get ice from the icehouse, and meanwhile I put cold cloths on her. Until Yavdokha came back with the ice, until Zedl came back from the village, I thought that I would die along with her. Zeydl came back, and went straight out to get Torgovets. He brought him. He brought him at night and he sat with her the whole night and into the day. Before he left he said to me, ‘Take good care of her, she is a very sick person!’ I understood. Nevertheless I asked him, ‘How is she? What can one do?’ He said, ‘There is nothing one can do for her, one can only hope. Look in on her, coddle her, and the point is give her everything she wants.’
And now today it's already the fourth week. Once she took to bed I had to write to you. I didn't want her to write, to tell you the good news. But she kept asking, have you written? Why haven't you? Are you feeling more energetic? Oy, my son, what I've been through, what I have suffered! It would be othing if only…but… here is Zeydl. I'll go get the table ready. We can all eat. You can go in to her in a minute. Wait, I will look in, she often naps for a while.
The mother tiptoed toward the alcove, looked and whispered, I think she's fallen asleep, and went into the kitchen. Avrom could not hold himself back. Walking on cat's feet he went to his sister in the alcove. He saw her weakness, the closed eyelids, the long eyelashes, and had a fright she is dead! He permitted himself to approach her, shake her, she shrieked! Had he heard his interior scream? She opened her eyes, gave a bewildered look around, and when she recognized him she asked with a smile, Have you eaten already?
Mother is preparing the table.
Go eat, she acted like an older sister giving him advice, but pulled on his hand. He went back and sat on the bed beside her.
I? You should also eat.
Ha, eat? Mama will bring something. How are you doing there? Have you learned a lot?
He wanted to answer her, tell her, but he could not tear his eyes from her face, his thoughts followed his eyes, his mouth hesitated. Instead of telling about himself, and study, he gave her greetings from their aunt and the children. Ester came up in talking about the children, and he became muddled and fell silent.
Have I disturbed your study? she guiltily asked.
You? Disturb me?
I asked Mama to write for you to come. I wanted to see you.
Dampness fogged the look in her eyes. Her hand gave a weak tug on his hand. He laid his second hand on hers. You have not disturbed me, Rokhele. He lowered his eyes, and was silent. He would not tell her about his failing the exam. He would tell her something good, happy, yes, something happy.
I also wanted to see you. I wanted to come for peysakh. Remember how we got soaked on erev peysakh washing the bread troughs? I fell in, got my boots full of water, you took them off and lay them out to dry in the sun, the boots and the socks? Remember?
Rokhele's smile, her eyes, said, Of course I remember.
And how we baked matse. I played with the barelykneaded dough, you rolled out a little matse for me, a tiny thing. Rokhele's smile became happier, encouraging him on.
And do you remember when the cow calved, in the winter, it was such a little calf it couldn't stand on its feet, and we took it into the house, remember?
Rokhl remembered this too, he saw this in her eyes, her smile. Not only did she remember, she took pleasure from it. So they were two children, playing mother and father. He played with him, Give the child a some covers! She did not like how he had done it, she pushed him aside, he was angry, threw the child, she pulled his hair.
They heard their mother's footsteps. She brought in food for Rokhele, and to him she said Go, my child, your food is on the table, and touched him. He left his sister's alcove.
Gotenyu! Why have you punished me so? Why have you punished me? This was the weeping question that the mother repeated for hundreds of times after they had carried her daughter out of the house, until she had no more strength to cry.
Avrom awoke at dawn to his mother's shrill scream. He sprang from bed, ran to Rokhele's alcove, saw his mother leaning over Rokhele's bed and Rokhele…dead. The waxen color of her face, the pointy nose, the stiffness of her face screamed into his face: dead! Nevertheless it could not penetrate his head. Is this death then? Such calm, such a deep calm on her face. And he had just spoken with her! He had sat by her bed the whole evening. He had cut up paper and made a kind of lampshade for the glass chimney of the small lamp and sat and talk by its dim light; he told her about his life, his study, about the town. Small things, silly things, although he
saw, he felt in the touch of her hand, that she wanted him to talk, she wanted to hear him, and he had talked, talked until he felt that she was dreaming. He had sat for a while, looking at her, seeing that she was really sleeping he had quietly left the alcove. Is she sleeping now? Went out like a light, echoed in his head, his mothers telling about his father's death. Went out like a light. What had burned out here? She lay there still, his sister. When he had seen her taken out of bed he realized how little was left of his sister, her body childlike, one could pick her up and carry her in one's arms.
They came to carry her out, lay her on the wagon I won't allow it! I will not allow you to take her! My child! My child! She fell on the dead body, her previous bloodcurdling voices were choked into a dull roar. My child, my child. Her whole body roared, shaking convulsively.
Zeydl pulled the mother from the dead body, took her by the shoulder, led her away a few steps and said to Avrom, Take care of your mother, and he quickly jumped up on the wagon. The wagon pulled away. Drove off. Simkhe Mordkhe and a few other Jews and women left the house quietly, weeping, and the house was left empty, bare, and that emptiness bore the mothers wailing. He led her to her bed, sat her down, took her head in both his hands, rocked the upper part of her body from one side to the other, a weeping without tears, without a sound; this did not go on for long. He separated his hands and her head began to fall to the side rail of the bed and then the fall was repeated. Quickly, quickly, her head rose from the side rail and fell, lifted and fell.
Avom placed his hand between the side rail and his mother's head. Her head fell on his hand, so with his other hand he turned her head and did not allow it to fall again, and her head remained laying on his chest, his ear hearing My child! My child! Was she calling Rokhele? Was she talking to him? He had never sat so close to his mother before, never held her head on his chest, not felt such closeness with her. His hand smoothed her hair, he could feel the twitching of her shoulders quiet down. Slowly he directed her head from his chest to her pillow. He thought she was napping and got up from the bed.
His mother was not dreaming. Burying her head in the pillow she sighed and screamed chokingly Gotenyu! Why have you punished me like this? She made herself heard.
Gotenyu! God! He already did not believe in God. He did not want to say kadish for his grandfather, he had only tried on his grandfather's tfiln. No, he did not
believe in God now, not in a God who punished for ice skating, or for swimming on shabes. For not praying. He had asked Berman, the man from Horodok, if there was a God; at first he laughed, but later explained that there was no God, the earth, the sun, the stars, everything revolved with a sense, an order. He listened to Berman's talk, listened and was astonished. After that he also read books and now knew that how the earth, the stars, were created; he was no longer surprised at the order that ruled in the heavens, among the stars, everything worked like a clock. And who wound that clock? That he did not know, but he did know that it was not any god. A few years later when Lurye asked him a question: Don't you believe in any gods? He answered with certainty, there is no God. But did he believe in some devil? That question perplexed him and shook his certainty. Lurye also gave him books to read, books about beliefs, about superstitions. He discovered about not only the Jewish God, but also about other gods, peoples, learned about traditions other than those he knew from the Bible, from Talmud. He had learned a lot, had discovered a lot, but what more did he know today than before?
Gotenyu, why have you punished me like this?
How can a God who takes an eighteen yearold daughter from a mother, still be called Gotenyu? He also asked Why? Where was the sense in that death? There is no sense, none! Gotenyu!
Perhaps he was guilty for Rokhele's death? Not his grandfather, but indeed him, Avrom. It was because of him that grandfather was driven to the city, maybe if Rokhele had stayed in the village, as the doctor had said… He had also said that it could have been inherited. What kind of illness is it, that can be inherited? What kind of person was he? A person who did not know his father, not even a picture of him! He never missed him but that was unfortunate. Said Rov Yokhanan, happy it is for them who do not know their parents. He had never understood that. What does the happiness come from? His mother. Does the mother who lies now on the bed, cries and complaians to God, is that the same mother that he had known until now, until two weeks ago? His mother cried before, too. Almost every argument with his grandfather was accompanied by tears, not only was he not bothered by them, he resented them. His mother in his earlier childhood years was a screamer, a slapper, a crier. Afterwards she became the home. The mother whose house he slept in, ate in. When he traveled away, the yeshive felt like home, his mother the foodgiver. Now, since he had come here, by Rokhele's bed, today, when Rokhele died, his mother is a very different person. There is one sorrow, one love between him, her and Rokhele.
Zeydl came back late in the evening, nevertheless he thought to
run to a few Jews, to bring them for a minion. Shleyme Mordkhe, a few other neighbors, all came, and in the halfdarkness they recited a sad happy are those who sit in Your house. The mother sat and quietly swayed as though she were praying too. Avrom heard the praying, saw the praying men in the shadows. It seemed to him that he was seeing all this from a far distance. What relevance did it have to hom, to Rokhele. When it came to reciting kadish, and several sets of eyes called him over so, say kadish! it felt as though they were forcing him to do something he did not want to do. He kadish? His hesitation lasted only the blink of an eye but in that blink the house became full of silence, waiting. He perceived his mother's eyes wander to him, and he took a step to the lectern, to the bench by the sofa, and he heard the words yisgadal v'yiskadash… His mother burst out in a fresh lament, a lament that threw a silence over the minion of Jews. The stillness pressed on Avrom's eyes. His mothers weeping began to gurgle in his throat too. Quickly, quickly, finish the kadish, don't burst into tears. He finished the kadish, and walking away from the lectern the thought struck him go back! Another kadish, another… Go back! Get away from here!!!
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