America cut down a lot of trees in the 1800s. It was a century of incredible growth. In 1800, there were about five and a half million people in the United States; by 1900 the number had grown to over seventy-six million. There were a lot of houses to be built, and factories and businesses and barns and fences. And that would take a lot of wood. Fortunately, there were plenty of forests, at least to begin with.
To service the country, there developed a very large and vigorous lumbering industry in the northeast in the early decades of the century: Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania. Of course, in 1800, the whole country was pretty much the East. There were only 16 states, and most of them hugged the Atlantic shoreline. Forests were cut down and were made into boards and planks and panels and shingles to keep up with the growing demand.
As the century moved on, the Northeast lost more of its forests and replaced them with towns and cities, and the forest industry moved south and west, especially after Horace Greeley, the famous newspaperman, reportedly told everyone to “Go West, young man!” sometime around 1835. And as part of all this, there was a steady growth of wood chopping in the forests in the middle of the country.
Which brings us to Minnesota.
Minnesota wasn’t a state during the first half of the 1800s. Settlers and pioneers of one kind or another had made their way into the wilderness beginning in the 1700s and basically chased out all of the Native Americans—who weren’t called Native Americans back then, but Indians. The early Minnesotans (before it was Minnesota) were hunters and fur traders, and as more people came in and decided to stay, there started settlements and towns, so that by 1848, the U.S. declared it the Minnesota Territory, and 11 years later, it became The State of Minnesota, 32nd state in the Union.
Okay. This is Minnesota. That big blue snaky thing is the Mississippi River, which runs all the way from Northern Minnesota near the very north of the United States (that line across the top of Minnesota is the border with Canada) all the way down the country where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It runs some 2200 miles all-in-all.
Up until 1860 or so, the Mississippi—and all the other little rivers you see running in and out of it—formed a kind of highway to take the wood and all the wood products from upper Minnesota down and through the country. There were lumber mills near the forests where the trees were hauled by wagon cut into logs and planks and other products which were loaded onto boats and barges to make their way downriver to cities where they could be sold or moved on to other cities.
This river systems up and down the Mississippi was a fabulous highway for goods of all kinds to make their way through the middle of the country, but it wasn’t perfect. The most obvious drawback was that it was only useful if you were close enough to a river to float your products. For instance, look back at the map. From the very top of the Mississippi—the blue snaky line—to the top border, where Minnesota touches Canada (That’s Ontario in the East and Manitoba in the West, but we’ll leave that for another time) is about 100 miles. That’s 100 miles of good timber, white pine trees mostly, that are too far to drag to the top of the Mississippi.
And the answer to that was the coming of railroads in the 1860s and 1870s.
You have to get an idea of how fast everything was moving then: 1860, 1870. The Civil War ended in 1865. Everybody was trying to put the country—which was badly broken—back together. They had discovered gold in California in 1848, and people were rushing across the country to try to make it rich overnight. Immigrants were moving to the United States from all over Europe, looking to build a new life in a growing country. Between 1848 and 1870, 12 more states would join the union. The idea now was to criss-cross the country with railroad lines and steam engines; and even in places without big cities, like the northern part of Minnesota, they were going to put little railroad lines in to move things in and move things out.
Needless to say, when they began to talk about bringing railroad lines up to Northern Minnesota, a number of lumber companies wanted permission to set up logging camps in the new areas so they could get started cutting down the forests before everyone else came in. There got to be loud and sometimes angry talk in the state capital of St Paul. (St. Paul had actually been name Pig’s Eye Landing until 1841. Not everyone was pleased that they had decided to change the name. Yet another story.) In early August of 1970, the Governor of Minnesota at the time, Judge Horace Austin, invited representatives of the larger lumber companies to a meeting in Duluth, a city at the very western tip of Lake Superior, which had become a boom town with the very mention that it was sure to be a main terminal of the railroad that would run through the state.
Judge Austin, the governor, was a proper and level-headed man, and the fifteen or twenty representatives of the lumber companies knew that they had not been called together to listen to some “What a lovely state is Minnesota!” speech. This was going to be about the railroad and setting up new lumber camps in the 100 miles north of the Mississippi which had never been available for lumbering before. And because these company owners and managers were mostly knowledgeable businessman, they had all done their preparation, and they had all come with financial statements and plans for building the new camps in the new open territory.
But the governor surprised them. He did not want new lumber camps. He wanted towns; he wanted cities.
“We need women and children,” said the governor.
“There ain’t no women nor children in lumber camps,” someone said.
“Women and children can’t chop down trees,” another said.
“Maybe if it was a big enough boy,” some else offered.
“Or a fat lady.”
The governor ignored them. Minnesota, he explained calmly, was growing like a stalk of wheat in the summer sun, and the state needed to develop cities in the north, not just logging camps.
“First come the logging camps,” someone said, reasonably enough. “Then the small towns come and the cities grow out of them. That’s how it works. You can’t rush that.”
“I’m going to,” said Governor Austin. “We are in competition with states and territories all around us, and if we are going to attract more investment here to build the mining industries and grow the railroads, we need cities. We need families.”
And here he paused for a minute, pretending to drink from the mug of beer at his side, but really wanting to give those in the room a minute to think about what he had said, maybe to talk it over a little.
“By September first,” he said finally, “we will open up the State Northern Lumbering Office here in Duluth, and we will start taking applications for lumber acreage. And I’m going to want to see detailed plans for a working town as part of the application if you want Minnesota to award you a section of the new forests.”
“Oh come on, Judge,” a voice called out. “How are we going to pay for that?”
And the question was immediately echoed by voice all around the room. The governor let it go on a minute and then held up his hand for quiet.
“The state treasury will help some,” he said, “but you know there’s a lot of money to be made up north right now. If you want to be part of what’s going on, you’re going to have to put in your chips to join the game.”
He let them grumble and whisper to each other again.
“Families,” he said at last. “Women and children.” And here he pointed at one of the men in the crowd. “That’s families, Eustace!” he said. “Not just two women to cook and wash the clothes.” Which got a nice laugh from the men who knew Eustace well enough to know that this would be exactly what was going through his mind.
The governor gulped down the rest of his beer, grabbed his papers and his two assistants and was gone. Most of the others stayed on a little while to trade complaints and ideas. But one of the lumbermen, Major Mike, together with the head of his Duluth office, Homer Wilmot, were heading out of the hall and toward their carriage in less than a minute.
Major Mike was Michael Chester Pennington, President and majority owner of the Minnesota Lumber and Wood Depot, one of the larger lumber companies in the state. Everyone called him Major Mike and, in fairness, he had earned the title. Minnesota, which had joined the Union just a short time before the Civil War, did more than its fair share in fighting that war. More than 2500 Minnesotans died, and many, many more were wounded. Michael Pennington was one of them. He served as a commander of the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Volunteers and lost two fingers of his left hand and most of the front of his right foot by the time the war was over. After that, most people who knew him called him Major Mike and said it with respect.
By the time Major Mike and Homer Wilmot had finished their carriage ride back to the Duluth office, Major Mike was ready to send out a series of telegrams to the company’s office in Upper New York State. He sent Homer to Western Union to wire off the telegrams he had written and then found a quiet room in his offices to smoke a long cigar and collect his thoughts. He pretty much stayed in that room for the next three days, thinking, making notes, sending telegrams, going out for the occasional meal in one of the two good restaurants which had, thankfully enough, opened up in Duluth over the last several years. And he waiting for Arthur Wilkins, his personal assistant, to make his way across the Great Lakes to Duluth from the New York office in Rochester.
When Arthur arrived at last, wearing, as always, his brown suit, brown bow tie and Derby hat, Major Mike poured two extravagant cups of coffee, made from coffee imported all the way from Vienna and brewed in a new invention called a coffee percolator. Arthur removed his derby hat, sat at the desk and sipped at his cup.
“Thank you,” he said politely. “Very nice indeed.” And then, after another sip, “And so exactly what is it that happened at your meeting, Major?”
Major Mike sat on his side of the desk and took a rather longer taste of his coffee. “Arthur,” he said, “tell me again about the Jews in Siberia.”
Now, that was a bit of jump, wasn’t it? And you are wondering how I got to Siberia, or for that matter, how anybody gets to Siberia.
Well, first of all, where is Siberia?
Siberia is an area about 4,950 miles from Duluth, Minnesota, going west through British Columbia in Canada across the Pacific Ocean and then through the Western coast of Asia and the Sea of Okhotsk. That’s about a ten-hour flight on a commercial airplane. But, of course, there were no commercial airplanes in 1870. There were no airplanes at all. They wouldn’t show up for another thirty or forty years, and an airline that would carry passengers across the ocean would not start until 1939. And it would be another ocean.
So in 1875, if you wanted to get from Duluth to Siberia, you would have to travel on the ground: railroad and wagon and horse and foot and a long trip over the ocean. And even though it was only 4,950 miles from Duluth to Siberia as the crow flies, nobody travelled by crow. You could only take the railroad where there were railroad tracks and wagons where there were roads and ships where there were ship companies.
So, in actuality, had there been a Pacific route to Siberia from Duluth would have looked like this:
Duluth to San Francisco by train, wagon and horse. San Francisco to Hong Kong by ship. (Those ships are a really interesting story. They had just started bringing Chinese workers by ship from Hong Kong to San Francisco to work on the railroads being built across the United States. Nother time.) And by train/wagon/horse/to Northeast Siberia. So in 1870, without a crow to fly on, the 4950 mile trip would actually run some 10,000 miles and could take two months or more to complete.
Which is why there was no Pacific route from Minnesota to Siberia. The onlyefficient way to travel to Siberia from Duluth was across the Atlantic: from Duluth to the port of New York; a boat trip to Europe, very possibly to Hamburg, Germany; and from there, across northern Europe by train, wagon, horse, whatever, and finally to eastern Siberia beside the Sea of Okhotsk.
That was the way to make the trip. Ships sailed across the Atlantic very often. There were more trains across Europe. The roads in northern Europe were far better and safer than travel across the Pacific and through China. (Interestingly enough, if you turn the arrows on this map in the other direction, this is pretty much the path that many, many of our grandparents and great-grandparents took when they came from Poland and Russia to the United States at the end of the 1800s. Ah, my friends! So many stories; so little time…)
So now that you know more than you may have ever wanted to about how to get to Siberia, the obvious next question is: why would you want to go to Siberia? In brief: you wouldn’t. I do not think that I would be incorrect if I said that not once in recorded history has anyone said, “Gee. I sure wish I could get to Siberia.” No one ever went on vacation to Siberia—not then, not now, not ever. Siberia is a cold, hard, brutal land. It is difficult to eke out a living of any kind, and if you manage to gather together some money, there is nothing to spend it on. Someone—it might even have been me—once described Siberia as hell built on an iceberg.
Siberia was at that time part of the Russian Empire. Russia had been ruled since the early 1600s by a Royal family named Romanoff. The king of Russia was called the Czar (sometimes spelled Tsar or Tzar, but always pronounced “Zaar.”) The Czar at the time was Alexander II. Like the many Czars before him and the few who came after him, Alexander II used Siberia as a convenient place to send criminals, people who disagreed with him and others to whom he wanted to offer a short and nasty life. There were prisons set up in Siberia, of course, and there were also towns and settlements and other places where people who were not quite prisoners but were not really wanted could be sent off and left for years at a time or forever. That particular kind of sending people without a return ticket on a trip they didn’t particularly want to take is what is known as “exile.”
About forty-five years later, in 1917, some people of Russia would revolt against the cruel Czars, and then other groups would revolt against the first group, and then everyone would kind of fight against everyone else in what would be called the Russian Civil War. Millions of people would be killed, and when it all settled down, the country would call itself The Soviet Union, among other things. (Stories. Stories. Stories. Stories.) To no one’s great surprise, after Russia became the Soviet Union, whatever government was in charge still sent people they didn’t like to prison or into exile in Siberia, which had gotten no more warm or happy than it had been under the Czars. Seventy-five years later, in 1991, the country moved things around again. It is now (if it hasn’t changed since) called the Russian Federation. Siberia is still hell on an iceberg, and whoever runs Russia still runs it as a deep-freeze for undesirables. And if you haven’t read Animal Farm yet, I’ve pretty much ruined the last line of the book for you. Sorry.
I have now answered more questions about Siberia that you had every wanted to ask—none of which of course deals the question we left you with a few pages back: what does Siberia or the Jews in it have to do with Major Mike’s plan to get land in Northern Minnesota for lumbering.
Before Major Mike became Major Mike, which is to say before the Civil War began—in fact, before Minnesota became a state, when it was still just the Minnesota Territory—Michael Chester Pennington was already a wealthy man and the President and part-owner of the Minnesota Territory Lumber Depot. Chopping down trees was a growing business in the territory, and Mike Pennington was already a very important man in the business. But, because he was a smart man, he understood that there were going to be a lot of people in the lumber business and that the really successful businesses were going to be the ones who knew how to do more than just swing an ax and get out of the way while the tree fell. There were going to be better and worse ways to run a lumber business, better and worse ways to create products, to send them to market, to sell them to customers, not just in the territory, but perhaps across the whole expanding country.
In the 1840s, you weren’t going to just sit down at your computer and look it up on the internet. Nor were there whole libraries of books to read on the subject. No, Mike Pennington knew that the best way to learn how to build a successful lumber business was to study what successful lumber businesses were doing and how they did it. So even back in the 1840s, he began to make trips to the lumber camps of the northeast, to see how they cut their trees, made their planks and boards, shipped them to markets. What were the best tools? Who were the best workers? What were the most important problems to solve? And he did his best to build his business on what he learned from everything he saw.
In the middle of the 1850s, he spent a big chunk of the company’s money—and not all the other owners were happy about it, I can tell you—sending several teams to Europe and Asia to see how the lumber industry was being run there. He had teams visiting England, Sweden, Norway, China. And one of his teams even got as far east as Siberia, and it was there that they found Der Vald.
There were a lot of lumber camps in eastern Siberia, most of them more or less like lumber camps in the rest of the world: teams of lumberjacks staying in cabins in the middle of the forest except in deep winter, going out every day to chop and strip trees and haul them back to camp. If anything, the Siberian camps were less worried about safety and the comfort of the lumberjacks than most places, but, after all, these lumberjacks hadn’t been sent to Siberia because someone was worried about keeping them happy.
The Minnesota team spent a week or two in the area, making their way from camp to camp in the forests, and then one day they walked into a camp that wasn’t a camp but a village. Streets of wooden planks were laid out neatly in a criss-cross pattern. Children were playing in the street. Women in dresses were walking here and there in small groups. Men, some with sidelocks hanging off their ears and long white fringes hanging off their shirts, led horses pulling wagons carrying stripped logs to a large storehouse. There was a school building in the town, some stores, and little wooden houses built all around. And in the middle of the town was an impressively large wooden building with a large varnished Star of David set over its front doors. If it wasn’t exactly like finding Disneyland in the middle of a swamp, it was probably as close as anyone was going to find in Eastern Siberia in the 1850s.
When the Minnesota teams returned home and gave their reports, more than a few hours was spent on the town the people there called Der Vald—which is simply Yiddish for “The Forest”—this bizarre Jewish town beyond the edge of nowhere. As a model for making money in the lumber business, it was not very useful of course. Schools cost money. Women don’t chop wood. Children both cost money and don’t chop wood. Profitable lumber camps were about getting as much wood out at the lowest cost, and the pretty little town clearly was about something else. But it was a great topic of conversation anyway.
It wasn’t something the Minnesota teams had asked the people in the town about. That was not what they had come to Siberia for, after all. They were investigating how to do a better job at making money chopping wood. And, as we said, a town filled with women and children was not about making more money chopping wood.
But we’re interested, aren’t we? I assume you are, or you would have stopped reading six or seven pages ago.
The English word “pogrom” comes from the Yiddish “pogrom.” English borrows words from a lot of languages: “cigar” is Spanish; “cookie” is Dutch; “ketchup” is Chinese. And Yiddish has contributed “bagel” and “lox” of course, and “shlep” and “kvetch” and “klutz” and so on. So “pogrom” was from the Yiddish, except it wasn’t originally Yiddish. It comes from the Russian word “pogromu” which means destruction.
A pogrom was an organized attack against a smaller group from a different religion or background, generally against Jews. The word itself was first used officially in a series of attacks in Russia against Jews in the 1880s. Those attacks were so bad that they shocked the world. Dozens of Jews were killed and many, many more were wounded and even mutilated. Homes and shops were broken into, robbed, burned. Even though the Czar and his government did not particularly care about Jews, the uproar around the world was so great that the Russian government agreed to let many Jews leave Russia to immigrate to other, safer countries. And that, friends, is when many of our grandparents and great-grandparents decided to move to America or Canada or South America or other countries. And thank you very much grandparents and great-grandparents.
But even though the word “pogrom” didn’t make its appearance until the 1880s, the practice of getting together and attacking the Jews in the town had been going on a long, long time. The first recorded attack on the local Jews happened in Alexandria, Egypt about 2,000 years ago. There were hundreds and hundreds of such attacks throughout all of world history. In fact, every country in Europe (except maybe Holland. There’s a story there too…) threw the Jews out at least a few times over the centuries. Why Jews? What do I know? As Haman told the King of Persia when he proposed a pogrom against Jews in the Book of Esther (–that one goes back like 2500 years ago, but Haman’s pogrom didn’t work out, so I guess he doesn’t get the credit for it–): “These people are spread out all over the place. Their beliefs are different from everybody else, and they don’t even follow the King’s religion. You really ought to get rid of them.” Pogroms, whatever they may have been called, more or less followed that pattern ever after that.
Anyway, about sixty years before they gave its official name, there was a pogrom in Russia. It was on the other side of the country, all the way in the west, in the city of Odessa on the Black Sea. It happened in 1821. (And there was another pogrom there in 1859, and then in 1871, and after that in 1881 and a bunch more after that. Fun place, Odessa.) Anyway, we will leave out most of the details. Only this one: Among the Jews who were killed in the pogrom were the wife and younger daughter of a Jewish tailor named Moishe. They burned his shop and his home, and he was left only with his older daughter Raizel who was eight years old. I have wondered often what kind of man Moishe the tailor was before the Odessa pogrom of 1821. Perhaps he was a happy man or perhaps a quiet man. Perhaps he had many friends or perhaps only a few. There really is no way to know. But after the pogrom, it is clear that there was only one thought in his mind. How could he protect his daughter Raizel from the next pogrom, and there was no doubt in his mind that there would be more pogroms.
When people came to comfort him during the shivah, he did not talk about his wife and daughter, whom he had loved the way a good man loves his wife and his daughter, or about his home or his little shop. He would ask only one question of everyone who came: where can we go that Raizel will be safe? And as his week of shivah went on, he came to a conclusion in his mind: he must take his daughter as far away as he could, to a place where no Jew-hater would ever come after him. Now, Moishe the tailor was not a very educated man, and when he thought of the end of the earth where no one would follow, he thought of Siberia, which was some 7,000 miles away from Odessa on the Black Sea.
The Rabbi came to see him several times during that week, and each time that Moishe the tailor spoke of wanting to move his daughter far away to be safe, the Ruv tried to talk sense to him. Seven thousand miles across Asian Russia to the coldest, hardest place on earth was no intelligent plan for being safe. But when Moishe would say to the Ruv: “Then where? Tell me where!” the Ruv had no simple answer to offer. “Stay here with us,” he would say. “Trust in God.”
But the truth was that Moishe the tailor no longer trusted in God. He had buried his wife and his little girl, and he would not wait here for the Jew-haters to come again. He needed to go some place so awful that even the Jew-haters would not follow. He did not say that to the Ruv, of course, but he did not have to. The Ruv understood; he had helped to bury more than a dozen people after the pogrom.
On the morning after the shivah, Moishe the tailor filled his small wagon with whatever supplies he could manage, put Raizel up on the driver’s seat beside him, and hitched up his small horse to begin his trip. And suddenly there were others around him. Other small wagons, other horses, other people ready to walk with them: nearly sixty people in all. Moishe was at first surprised. He had asked no one to join him. He had said only that it was what he thought he must do. But when he looked at the people coming toward him, he saw others who had lost homes and shops and family. He saw others who were as afraid to remain in Odessa as he was.
He looked around him again and said in his loudest voice, which was not very loud at all: “I do not take responsibility for you. I am not a leader. I have not asked you to come.” But that was a thing they all knew, and they nodded at him and quietly climbed on to their wagons or held the bridles of their horses to walk beside them.
And then the Ruv came out to them from the small shul and looked sadly at them all. “Go slowly and carefully,” he said. “Avoid large towns and travel at night when there may be many on the roads during the day. This journey will take you months, perhaps years. Do what you can to help each other.”
And then he said one more thing: “Halfway on your journey is Kansk. It is the last town with Jews in it that you will find. I will write to the Ruv of Kansk that you will be coming. They will expect you and help you in any way they can. The Ruv of Kansk is a great and wise man. Please listen to what he may tell you.”
And then, crying, the Ruv of Odessa gave a b’rachah to his people who were leaving and quietly went back to his shul.
The journey to Kansk, which was just about halfway to the Siberian coast, was very hard. It took more than seven months, and several people died and were buried along the way. The story of the journey is many stories, most of them difficult and bitter, and this is not the place to tell them. Perhaps one day someone will write the stories, but it is for me to do it.
Two or three days before they reached Kansk, Moishe asked one of the younger men to go ahead to the town to tell the Ruv that they would be there soon. They approached the town in the morning, but did not want to travel the road during the day, so they hid themselves some way from the road until nightfall.
Late as it was, dark as it was, many people in Kansk were in the streets waiting for them. It would be nice to say that it was all a happy kind of carnival when the Odessa Jews dragged themselves in Kansk that night, but that wouldn’t be true. They were dispirited people after seven months of hardship. Some were sick; everyone was exhausted. But the Ruv of Kansk had expected nothing else. There were several doctors in the town, and they were there to help. The Kanskers took the Odessans into their homes, family by family, and fed them and gave them beds or mats to sleep on. Within a very short time, virtually all the Odessans were having the first quiet, peaceful sleep that they had since leaving home, many so tired that they could not even manage a simple “Gott bentchen iyer,”—God bless you—before they closed their eyes.
Moishe the tailor, his daughter Raizel with him, would not eat or sleep until he could speak with the Ruv of Kansk, as the Ruv of Odessa had told him to.
“Perhaps you have gone far enough now,” said the Ruv. “This is a good place, here in Kansk. We are half a world away from Odessa, and you can have a good life here.”
Moishe nodded. “Thank you,” he said. “I understand. There may be some who will want to stay here if you will be kind enough to take them. My daughter and I will go on to Siberia with anyone who wishes to come with us.”
The Ruv accepted this and said only, “We will talk more tomorrow,” and he took Moishe and Raizel to the table where his wife had set a meal for them. When they had finished, there was a room with two beds waiting for them, and they went to sleep.
Moishe and the Odessers stayed for three days. They ate; they slept. After some shyness, the children began to play together, and the women began to talk with each other. The men who wanted had the chance to pray in a shul for the first time in more than half a year.
On their final evening there, the Ruv spoke to them all and wished them all well and told them that those who wished to stay in Kansk were more than welcome. In the end, two of the families decided to remain and, perhaps surprisingly, two of the Kansker families decided they wanted to join the journey to Siberia. Later that night, the Ruv sat down alone with Moishe the tailor. It was clear to the Ruv now that those who were going on were determined. Even knowing that Siberia would never be easy or friendly, the hope of safety was burned into their minds by everything they had seen back in Odessa.
“I can help you,” the Ruv said to Moishe.
And he told him of a man in the city of Okhutsk, the largest town on the coast. “His name is Brodsky,” said the Ruv. “If you find him and tell him that the Ruv of Kansk asks it, he will help you and your people. He will keep you safe.”
This obviously brought forth all kinds of questions, but the Ruv would not or could not answer any of them. Instead he said, “Do you speak any Russian?”
Moishe shook his head. “A little Ukranian,” he said.
“No,” said the Ruv. “You must learn enough Russian to ask in Russian to find Brodsky. And you must dress as a Russian. Cut down your beard; cut down your peyes…”
“Don’t cut them off; just cut them down. Dress like a Russian, and talk in Russian and ask around until you find Brodsky,” said the Ruv. “If you ask him in my name, he will help you. But listen: you must never ask him about himself—who he is, why he is there, why he is helping you. Nothing. Ever.”
“And this man will help us?” said Moishe the tailor.
“This man you may trust with your life,” said the Ruv. “Do whatever he tells you without question, and you will be safe. You have my promise.” And suddenly, the Ruv leaned forward and put his arms around Moishe and hugged him like a son. Moishe, who had felt no such kindness since his wife had died so long, long ago that it was like another life, found himself crying in the Ruv’s arms, unable to control himself.
“Oh, my boy—mein yungel,” the Ruv said. “I am so sorry. It is so hard. I know I know.” And Moishe hugged the Ruv and cried as though it was the last moment of tenderness he would ever know.
The second part of the journey was longer and harder than the first. They were farther north now. It was colder and rockier than the road from Odessa to Kansk. There were snows that stopped them for days and even weeks. Wagons that had to be fixed when they had no way to fix them. Five months passed, and then six and seven and eight and nine. The children suffered most; it was not easy to find enough food, and even though they gave the children first and most, they went hungry many days. Ruv Rabinovitch, a Rabbi who had been with them since Odessa, stated clearly that there was no question that they might eat whatever animals they could kill along the way, kosher or non-kosher, properly slaughtered or not. Without these animals, they certainly would not have survived.
During these months, Moishe the tailor struggled to learn enough Russian to prepare himself to find Brodsky. Chaim Tzvi, one of the men who had joined them in Kansk, knew Russian, and he worked with Moishe. The truth was that Moishe knew his Russian was never going to be very good; he could only hope it would be good enough when he needed it. So he practiced. He would sit on the wagon bench next to Raizel day after day and repeat, “Gdye ya mogoo nayti Brodskogo?”—Do you know where I can find Brodsky?—until it became a joke with Raizel who made a song out of it which she would sing to the horse pulling the wagon and then pretend to wait for it to answer.
Moishe had told his people that the Ruv of Kansk knew someone in Siberia who would help them, but he told the details only to Chaim Tzvi, his Russian tutor, so that, if something should happen to him along the way, there would be someone who would know what to do to try to contact Brodsky.
Nine months after leaving Kansk—almost seventeen months after the pogrom in Odessa—the travelers found an area about half a mile off into the forest, well surrounded by trees, a half day’s ride from the city of Okhutsk, , and they stopped there. Channa Sarah, the wife of Reuven the shoichet, had cut women’s hair since she had been a young woman, and she now gave her attention over to poor Moishe who was, in the first place, frightened enough of having to look for someone he didn’t know in a place he had never been, and had to do it in Russian! And now he had to sit in the middle of the clearing while others looked on to watch him have his beard trimmed back to stubble and his peyes which had never—never!—been cut trimmed down to sloppy wisps of hair to hide behind his ears.
Everyone checked their bags to see what clothes they had that could make Moishe the Jew look like Ivan the not-Jew. In the end, they put together an outfit of workers’ pants and a heavy cloth work shirt, old boots, a heavy, well-worn coat, and a thick, red cloth cap sitting on his head like a sagging rooster’s comb.
“Nu, Moishe,” someone called out, “so do you feel like a Russian?”
“If a Russian feels like an idiot,” he said, “then I feel like a Russian.”
A little laughter, especially from Raizel, who would never forget how silly her father had made himself look when he didn’t want to look like a Jew.
In the mid-afternoon, Moishe the Russian unhitched the horse from the wagon, put a blanket on its back and a bridle in its mouth and said goodbye to Raizel. “Goodbye Raizelle,” he said. “Mrs. Wasserman will look after you tonight. I should be back sometime tomorrow.” Raizel, who could not, of course, understand what this goodbye might mean, smiled and gave her father a kiss and a hug. “Goodbye, Tateh,” she said.
Leading his horse by the bridle, Moishe paused only briefly to remind Chaim Tzvi, “If I am not back in three days, you will go.” Chaim Tzvi nodded, and then Moishe led the horse out toward the road.
Moishe rode his horse into the town of Okhutsk after dark. He realized as he rode past the first wooden buildings that he had no idea what a Russian town would look like. In his mind somewhere, he had thought that it would be loud and drunk and angry. But it was, at least at night, a fairly neat, quiet place with new wooden buildings: houses and warehouses and offices, evenly spaced along the sides of well-smoothed dirt roads, all leading, of course, to the harbor on the Sea of Okhutsk which was the center of activity, even now at night. Moishe could not know that the town was actually fairly new. The original town of Okhutsk had grown up at least a hundred and fifty years earlier somewhat farther north along the coast line. But with larger ships now needing to dock, the old site was too narrow and too shallow, so the government had actually moved the town some fifteen years earlier to a more suitable location. That was why the building all looked so new, and the street so well planned. (In fact, as ships grew in size and came more frequently, the government would actually move Okhutsk again in about fifty years. A story for another time.)
Even as he rode into the town, Moishe could see that the city was awake closer to the water. Streetlights were lit, and a number of ships moored at the docks had lights burning where cargo was being moved on or off or other work was being done on board. And there were a few stores: taverns and restaurants mostly, still lit along the streets beside the docks.
Moishe had always assumed—not because of what the Ruv of Kansk had said, but more perhaps from what he had not said—that he would have to start looking for Brodsky in one of the taverns. He realized now that this had been an assumption with very little real basis, but that had been how he had pictured the search in his mind, and he was so scared now actually being in a Russian town that he could not think clearly enough to change his plans. And so he rode his horse, trying not to ride too fast or too slow, to one of the taverns at the end of the streets. There were other horses tied to the long post outside, and Moishe fumbled with the reins, tying it to the post, and hoped nobody saw how badly he did it. His biggest fear was that he would do something wrong that every Russian was born knowing how to do, and someone would point him out and scream, “Look at him! He ties his horse like a Jew!”
He had practiced walking into a place filled with Russians. He must walk slowly, but not awkwardly, and when he spoke, he must speak with a deeper voice as though he was a Russian who was always sure of himself. There were a number of men sitting and drinking at small tables in the room and several more standing at a small counter on the other side of the room. Nobody paid much attention to Moishe when he came in, although he has sure that they were all staring at him out of the corners of their eyes. He made his way to the counter, and the bartender behind the counter looked up at him.
“Dah?” he said.
Moishe said the sentence he had been practicing now for months. He lowered his voice to sound Russian and tough, but in his mind, he heard the sentence in Raizel’s sing-song, and he was sure that he sounded like a foghorn. But the bartended didn’t seem to care.
“Dvei . . . . “ he said, and motioned to the right. Moishe was sure of the “dvei,” which means “two,” but he was not sure what came after it. It was “two something” to the right. Two what? Two doors? Two streets? Two miles? Two potatoes? Well, he certainly wasn’t going to ask again.
“Spaseeba,” Moishe said in his foghorn voice, and walked—not too quickly—back out into the street.
He untied his horse and decided to walk. If it was two doors or two streets, it would make sense to walk. Besides, he looked his most not-Russian trying to get up on a horse.
It was not two doors. Two doors to the right was a closed warehouse and beyond that one or two houses and closed buildings. But two streets down, there was another tavern, its lamps burning. Moishe tied up the horse and went inside. This one was a little larger, but its set-up was pretty much the same: men drinking at tables, others standing at a rather longer counter.
“Dah?” said the bartender.
Moishe said his line again, trying not to sound like a foghorn again, but, if anything it sounded worse.
The bartender looked at him for a minute, and then said: “Why?” in Russian.
Moishe racked his brain. He had prepared for that question, but he had to find the right answer. He had also prepared an answer for “Where do you come from?” and “How long have you been on the road?” Giving the wrong answer would be a very bad thing, he was sure.
But he paused only a few seconds. “I have a message for him,” he said in Russian.
The bartender though it over and then walked from behind the counter to a door at the other side of the room. He went in and closed the door behind him. One or two of the men drinking at the counter turned to look at Moishe now, and trying not to look nervous, he stared straight ahead at a bottle of vodka on a shelf behind the counter. It seemed to him like several hours until the door opened and the bartender came out although it was probably more like thirty seconds. Moishe looked at the bartender, and the bartender motioned him to come through the open door.
He had found Brodsky. Needless to say, the fact that he had accomplished this much of his mission made him only more terrified, and he forgot not to walk like a Jew as he made his way to the open door and then through it. The bartender closed the door behind him, and Moishe was in the other room.
There were five or six men in the small room, but there was no question which one was Brodsky. He was not especially tall, but he was as wide as a barn, all bone and muscle. The other men around him stood always at some distance from him. He was the chief, the important man in the center. There was no question about it.
“You have a message for me?” said Brodsky in Russian.
“Dah,” said Moishe.
Brodsky looked him up and down, and Moishe felt sure that he would be dead soon. Brodsky’s eyes went to his old boots and his Russian coat and the silly rooster hat on his head, and while Brodsky tried to keep calm by finding something to focus on at the other side of the room, he could feel the sweat pouring off of his face and his hands and his chopped-off little peyes.
Brodsky motioned to the other men in the room and, except for one, they all quietly left and closed the door behind him.
There were only three of them in the room now. Brodsky took a step toward Moishe, and, in spite of himself, Moishe took a very deep not-Russian breath and waited for the end to come.
“Vaas vilstu, Reb Yid?” Brodsky said in Yiddish. “What do you want?”
Moishe’s eyes opened wide. “The Ruv in Kansk asks if you will protect us,” he said in Yiddish and in his own voice.
“How many of you are there?”
“Fifty-seven now,” said Moishe.
Brodsky nodded twice and then whispered to himself in Yiddish. “So that is the price.”
Needless to say, Moishe didn’t ask him what he meant. No one would ever ask Brodsky what he had meant, and I must tell you of all the stories I don’t know but I wish I knew, the story of that sentence is the one I would most like to know.
Brodsky sat Moishe down at a table and motioned for the remaining man in the room, his closest associate Anatoly, whom he called Tolya, to bring tea. When Moishe had calmed down enough to drink the tea, he told Brodsky about who he was and where and why they had come so far. Brodsky listened, looking over to Tolya from time to time, until the story was finished.
“All right,” he said at last. “What can you eat?”
Moishe was surprised at the question but realized all at once that he was very hungry. “Some bread,” he said. “Perhaps a carrot or something.”
“All right,” he said. “Tolya will bring you some food. You will tell him where you are camped and how to get there.”
“I don’t speak Russian,” said Moishe.
“Apparent not,” said Brodsky, “but Tolya speaks Yiddish. Tonight you will sleep in this room. Tomorrow, at first light, you will go back to your friends and wait there. Tolya will come before dark with food and water. You will give him all the money you have and follow all of his instructions. You understand me.”
“I have no questions.”
Brodsky nodded. “Good. I will come a day later for you, for all of you. ” And only then did it seem to occur to Brodsky to ask. “What is your name, Reb Yid?”
“Moishe,” he said.
Brodsky paused long enough to look closely at Moishe’s face. “You will be safe, Moishe,” he said finally. “You will all be safe. You have my word.”
And without saying anything further, Brodsky left the room.
Moishe was back with his people by early afternoon the next day. He told them about meeting Brodsky and about Brodsky’s promise that they would all be safe, although he did leave out the parts about being scared to death and about talking like a foghorn and about forgetting not to walk like a Jew.
Certainly, everyone was relieved that Moishe had found Brodsky and that Brodsky had promised to protect them as the Ruv of Kansk had said. There were mothers who laughed with their children and one or two of the men who slapped Moishe on the shoulder. But it was not all celebration. Aside from their very real exhaustion and the memories of those they had lost over both legs of the journey, there was also this: what actually had changed? This Brodsky, about whom they knew they could ask nothing, certainly sounded like a gangster or a Cossack. It wasn’t clear that he was even Jewish. They had all agreed before starting out that they would follow the advice of the Ruv of Kansk wherever it might lead, but where might it lead?. Yes, they were alive and safe for the moment, but Tolya—who seemed like less of a Jew than Brodsky—knew where to find them, and he was coming in a few hours, and he knew they had money. And what if he came with guns and Cossacks? What if it were to be Odessa again, only worse!
Moishe understood their fears. How could he not? But he tried to reassure them. The Ruv had said they could trust Brodsky. Brodsky had said that they would all be safe. He had said, “I give you my word.”
All of this proved nothing. But there were many who trusted Moishe—not because he was a natural leader because he certainly wasn’t—but because he was a good and decent man who had lost as much as any of them and had never lied to them or tried to present things as better than they were. And besides, what choice did they have anyway?
In the late afternoon, Moishe walked down to the main road, hid himself behind a tree, and waited for Tolya to come. He was, at one and the same time, worried that Tolya would come and worried that he would not. And yet he felt a certain calm as well. He had done what he could. They had reached the eastern end of Siberia. He had found Brodsky and spoken to him as the Ruv had told him. If it all fell apart now, God forbid, he would at least have done everything he could have.
That feeling of calm evaporated immediately when he heard the approach of a wagon. He peeked out from behind his tree. It was Tolya driving the wagon with three very large Russians in the back. For a very long moment, Moishe thought that perhaps he had better stay hidden behind the tree and let the wagon pass by. But what would be the point of that?
He stepped out onto the road, and Tolya stopped the wagon and motioned for Moishe to get up beside him on the seat.
“Where?” he said, and Moishe motioned a little further up the road at the space between two large trees. Tolya nodded, urged the horses forward and turned the wagon into the woods.
They all heard the wagon coming when it was still five or six minutes away, and they gathered—but not too close—where the wagon would enter the clearing. The first minutes were confusing. Yes, there was Moishe sitting on the seat alongside the driver, and he did not look worried or concerned. But there were three men—big men!—sitting in the back of the wagon who looked nothing like any Jews they had every seen.
Tolya pulled he wagon up in the middle of the clearing and motioned to the men in the back who began to climb down from the wagon. The Jews all unconsciously took a step back. The Russians then unloaded wood from the wagon and began to set up a large cooking fire. Tolya paid them no attention. Instead, he took out paper and pencil and motioned Moishe to the side.
“Tell me about your people,” he said.
Moishe looked around him. “There are Yossel and Maryam,” he began, but Tolya cut him off.
“No names,” he said. “Just age, man or woman, small, regular or fat. That’s all.”
Moishe nodded, as though that made sense to him which it certainly didn’t, and they began to work on the list. From over his shoulder, Moishe could see the Russians setting up a bridge rod over the fire, and within five minutes he smelled soup cooking and looked to see large pots hanging from the rod over the fire.
Ruv Rabinovitch walked over to Moishe quietly, but before he could say anything, Tolya turned to him and said, “New pots. Potatoes, water and some greens.”
The Ruv nodded and smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
“And the bread is just flour, water and salt.” And with that Tolya turned back to Moishe and the list.
By the time the list was finished, the soup was bubbling, and the Jews came forward with their cups and bowls. The Ruv stood first in line to demonstrate that the kashrut was not in question; then the rest lined up behind him. One of the Russians doled out the soup and another handed out the bread.
“Adank,” some of the Jews said. “Spaseeba,” said others.
Moishe and Tolya sat now at the back end of Moishe’s wagon, their feet hanging down. “Now the money,” said Tolya.
Moishe nodded and called over two of the men standing nearby to watch, so that there would be no question later as to what had happened to all their money. From inside his wagon, he opened a box and took out a black cloth bag. He emptied its contents onto the wagon floor: rubles, neatly stacked and tied together. He handed Tolya the stack. He unwrapped it, counted it, and handed about a quarter of the bills back to Moishe. “Hold on to this. We will probably need it later.”
One of the Russians brought soup and bread to the two of them at the back of the wagon. Tolya sat back against one of the side boards.
“First,” he said, “there are blankets in our wagon. Take them. It is getting colder. Next: not tomorrow, but the morning after at first light, Brodsky will come. You must all be ready to leave when he comes. Wagons packed, people ready to start moving. He will take you where you are going. It is five or six hours from here. He will tell you everything then.”
“You will not be coming?”
No,” he said. “I will be back the day after.”
Moishe nodded. “Thank you,” he said.
Tolya nodded back and then hopped out of the wagon. Within a short time, the soup was finished. The Russians unloaded the blankets from their wagon, and before dark they were gone, leaving the two new cooking pots behind them.
When the Russians had gone, the Jews gathered around Moishe, and he told them what Tolya had said, which hadn’t been very much, and what they were supposed to do. They were all more calm than they had been. The Russians had come, as Moishje had said they would. The soup was very good. There were new, heavy blankets piled up on the ground, and the word had already gotten around that the Russian had returned some of the money. For the first time in many, many months, they were daring to hope that perhaps they might be safe after all—although, of course, nobody would say that out loud. “Don’t open your mouth to the Devil.”
On the morning of the third day, the wagons were packed and the Jews were waiting in them or near them, and Brodsky rode in on a large, black horse with a heavy leather saddle, and behind him two wagons filled with Russians, boxes and bales. The Jews were afraid to speak. If ever there had been the nightmare of a Cossack in their dreams, it was this big, wide, scowling man in his heavy coat and thick black boots on this big, black horse. Some of the Jews shuddered in spite of themselves.
“You will all follow me,” he called out. “Keep up with me. Don’t talk. Keep your children quiet. My wagons will follow behind.”
And saying nothing more, he turned his horse around and moved the horse out of the camp at a slowly, steady gait. The Jewish wagons fell in line quietly, and when they had all moved off, the two Russian wagons followed.
As Tolya had told Moishe, it took about six hours. For much of it, there were roads of some kind to follow but there were also narrow paths, some of them up steep hills, which would have frightened the Jews, had they not already been more frightened of Brodsky who had come to save them. So they quietly got out of the wagons, pulled the horses from the front and pushed the wagons from the back, and got through where they had to.
In early afternoon, the black Cossack horse rode through a narrow path in a thick woods which opened into a broad expanse carved out of the forest. And in the expanse were six or seven Russians putting together small cabins and setting out plank paths for streets; and in the middle of it all a new, wide wooden platform sitting on posts that rose about two feet from the ground. The wagons rolled in behind Brodsky, and saying virtually nothing, he motioned everyone to go stand on the wooden platform. And so they did, nearly sixty of them: men, women and children. They made their way up, all quiet, and Brodsky, still sitting on his horse moved close to the platform looked for a moment at all the Jews standing on the platform.
“You are woodchoppers now,” he said finally, “and this is your home. You are standing on the floor of your new shul. Tomorrow morning, you will begin to build it.”
And that was all he had to say. Brodsky had brought in a team of Russians to stay for three months and teach the men how to chop, strip bark, split wood. By the time the Russians left, it was expected that the Jews would be able to do the work, that their wives would have undertaken various other less demanding work in the town and that the town, which the Jews called “Der Veld” which simply meant The Woods or The Forest would be on its way towards supporting itself.
Before he left that day, Brodsky had his men distribute new, strong work clothes to everyone in the town and then called out instructions to his men in a Russian that was too fast for any of the Jews to understand.
As he was about to ride out of Der Veld, almost as an afterthought he pulled Moishe to the side and spoke to him briefly.
“You will be safe here,” he said, “because no one knows you are here and no one will ever know. My men will say nothing. Your people will not leave, will not try to write letters to family, to friends. No one. And you must train those who will grow up here and live here. The Rabbi must train the next Rabbi. The Shoichet must train the next shoichet. And so on. The rest I will take care of.”
“When will we see you again?” Moishe asked.
“Never,” said Brodsky. “Everything will work through Tolya. He will be here before daylight tomorrow and will stay up here until my men are finished. And then he will come from time to time to be sure all is well.”
Moishe was more than surprised—startled actually. It was all too fast.
“What can I say. . .?” he began, but Brodsky waved it away and was on his horse and trotting out of the new town within seconds.
Tolya was indeed in the camp by sunrise. He stayed for several weeks and then returned regularly after that. Brodsky, however, they never saw again.
It was a brutally hard three months—three and half months actually—but the men learned the work and grew stronger. The woman cleaned, sewed, cooked, started little vegetable patches, and many learned to do some of the work in building houses.
So all those pages ago, when Major Mike said: “Arthur, tell me again about the Jews in Siberia,” these were the Jews in Siberia he was talking about, the ones who, fifty years before Major Mike said those words to Arthur, had first entered the clearing in the woods in Siberia to begin a new life.
I should say here that the story of how two Christians from Minnesota and a Russian Orthodox guide from Novosibirsk—none of whom spoke a word of Yiddish—would somehow lose themselves in the woods of eastern Siberia and stumble into what was, in effect, the most secret community in the entirety of the Czarist Russian Empire, is as ridiculous a story as has ever been told, and I can only apologize to you that there is no time now to tell it.
“Why?” said Arthur. (In case I’ve lost you, Arthur’s “Why?” was in response to Major Mike’s “Tell me again about the Jews in Siberia.”)
“Because,” Major Mike said with some excitement, “they are exactly what the Judge is looking for: a town with men, women and children built around logging. He is practically begging to give land and support for that community!”
“I see,” Arthur said, nodding his head slowly.
“You can find them again?”
“Yes, yes,” Arthur assured him. “The first time was an accident, but I have careful notes. I can certainly find them again.”
“So you want me to go back and get details as to how their town is set up.”
“No, of course not,” he said with some impatience. “I want you to go back and bring it to Minnesota.”
“The town,” he said. “Bring the town to Minnesota.”
“The whole town?!”
“No, just the people,” said Major Mike. “We can build the rest here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The governor wants towns,” he said. “He is going to give land and some really big tax incentives to people who bring him towns. Everyone else is going to give him ideas and reports about how to set up a town. And we . . .”
“. . .are going to bring him a town,” Arthur finished it.
“Yes. A town.”
“Why would they want to come to Minnesota?” said Arthur.
“Why would anyone not want to get out of Siberia?” said Major Mike.
And in the end, they were both right.
Arthur—who had the foresight this time to bring along a Yiddish interpreter—did indeed find Der Vald after a little wandering in the general area, and when he presented his (or Major Mike’s) idea to the community, there were many who turned it down without a moment’s thought They were very happy where they were, thank you. They had lived a life free of attacks and oppression for two generations. It was cold—well of course it was cold—but they were generally healthy. They lived a life that was as Jewish as they wanted. (There were some who wanted a little more, and others who wanted a little less. Everybody fit in just fine.) There were schools for the children; a shul; a lulav and esrog and a lot of wood to build sukkahs for sukkos; and a matzah oven for Pesach. It was, in short, a good life and a safe life as Brodsky had promised.
But there were also those who heard the name “America” and grew excited. (Nobody had ever heard of Minnesota.) The New World. Freedom. Opportunity. (“No,” Arthur told them, “there are no pogroms in America.”) And while some simply didn’t believe him, there were others whose eyes opened wide, as though they were seeing a new star suddenly shining in the sky.
So the community was split on the question of whether or not to move, which may sound like a problem but actually wasn’t. In the fifty years since the town had begun, it had grown very nicely. In the beginning, Brodsky had needed to add a few skilled people to the population: a doctor, a midwife, a teacher, several others, so he had found a small number of Jewish couples or families to add to the town. And then there had been natural growth over the fifty years: children growing up, marrying other children, having still more children.
And Brodsky—or whoever or whatever took over after Brodsky was gone—allowed a few more Jews in every now and then, usually after a pogrom in this city or that in Russia. No one ever asked from where or why; a few families would simply be brought in by one of the Russians one morning, and they would quietly become part of Der Vald without discussion or explanation. All in all, by the time Arthur and his Yiddish translator made their way back to the town in Siberia, there were more than 300 Jews living and working in Der Vald. So if the town was not exactly crowded, it was certainly full.
And perhaps what was most important, the town had been scrupulous in following Brodsky’s instruction that each generation must train the next, so that there were now several doctors, midwives, teachers in the town. There were even several Rabbis, all of whom were named Rabbi Rabinovitch, “Rabinovitch” meaning “son of the Rabbi” which most of them, though not all, actually were.
There was, then, room to weed out a little and enough key skilled workers available to supply two Jewish communities. This does not mean that arranging the move was a simple matter. Far from it. How was the Czar’s government going to approve the emigration of a town it did not even know existed, and how was Whatever Took Over from Brodsky going to be compensated for the costs involved? Here, we will spare you some superfluous details. We will just say that after some informal conversation with the Governor, some important people in Washington and Moscow, the Minnesota Lumber and Wood Depot arranged the transfer of a not-insignificant number of dollars here and rubles there, and the arrangements were made.
The Serbian Jews landed in New York in December of 1870 and loved it. It was loud and colorful and very exciting. 140 men, women and children were met by Major Mike and a number of Yiddish-speakers at the port who loaded them onto horse-drawn streetcars and showed them Manhattan. It would be great to be able to say that they got to see Jews with peyes and tzitzis walking around just like everybody else and kosher butcher stores with Yiddish on the windows, but that, unfortunately, was still fifteen or twenty years away. That would all come with the big wave of immigration of Jews from Russia and Poland, of which our traveling town of Der Vald was still about five years ahead of the rush.
No, the Jews of New York at the time were the descendants of those that had arrived in New Amsterdam more than 200 years before, largely from Germany. In 1870, the community was mostly merchant class and Reform. But Major Mike did make sure to show them the Greene Street Shul, which followed the Orthodox Ashkenazi prayer book and had only shortly before had moved from Greene Street up to 34th Street,. Of course, when they got to the building, it was too late for shacharis and too early for minchah, and it was closed, so they had to settle for appreciating a shul standing openly and proudly in the middle of non-Jewish street without actually getting to see the inside. But tourists are tourists wherever they come from, so Major Mike made sure to take them to see the Equitable Life Building which had just opened and was the tallest building in New York, rising a full seven stories and 130 feet in the air. He even arranged to take them inside so that some of the women and children could ride up and down in one of Mr. Otis’ brand-new passenger elevators.
From New York City, It took about two days by train and then wagon to reach the new camp in Minnesota. In truth, it looked remarkably like the old camp in Siberia had looked fifty years before, although, of course, these people had not seen the Siberian camp on that first day. On the other hand, these people had grown up in a logging town, and they knew far better than those earlier Jews did what they were seeing when they entered the new settlement.
And they were happy with it. The forest was strong and full, the land for the town was flat and open, at just the proper angle for water runoff. And there was place to build and to grow. There were already workers who had set up temporary tents and who had even started to do some building, but the Jews were lumberjacks and builders, and within only a few days, they had taken over much of the planning and the work.
There was a small ice house and some kosher meat piled inside it when they arrived. One of the Yiddish speakers introduced them to a Rabbi they had brought from the Milwaukee Jewish congregation to certify the kashrus of the meat to Ruv Rabinovitch and to tell him about the availability of Jewish foods and services within a few days’ travel. At that point, the Milwaukee Jewish community was not all that much larger than the new Jewish town in Minnesota, and most of them were of German and Polish background. Within twenty years, though, Milwaukee Judaism would enjoy a tremendous influx of Russian Jews and would grow to ten times its size in 1871, and would become a very convenient source of Jewish services of all kinds for the new town.
Interesting enough—at least to me—was that the Milwaukee Rabbi came that day prepared to look down on this new Rabbi from Siberia, who was only a Rabbi because his father before him had told him he was a Rabbi. He started asking Ruv Rabinovitch this question and that to show his superior knowledge and training. It was no small shock to him when Ruv Rabinovitch answered the questions with no hesitation and then proposed a few of his own which the Milwaukee Rabbi had to struggle with. And then, almost as an afterthought, Ruv Rabinovitch, showed him a collection of manuscripts: copies of the books on Jewish law written by the Rabbis Rabinovitch since the founding of Der Vald.
The books, logically enough, dealt with the particular laws and practices applicable to a small, isolated Jewish town. In time, the books, all in Yiddish, would be printed and published as “De Lernengen foon de Rabbanan Rabinovitch foon Der Vald” or The Teachings of the Rabbis Rabinovitch from Der Vald, and would have deep impact on the study of the laws of Shabbos boundaries, of plant grafting, limitations on harvesting fruit trees, and so on. One or two of the volumes, which dealt with the slaughter and koshering of kosher forest animals: deer, moose, elk and the like, actually formed the basis of a startup business in Australia in the 1950s to trap, slaughter, prepare and market kosher deer meat. The business failed, unfortunately, because the laws of protection of animals made the whole enterprise too expensive to turn a profit, which is another story worth getting into some time.
I don’t want to pretend that there weren’t some initial difficulties in setting up the town of Deerwald, Minnesota because there were. (That’s what Major Mike called it: Deerwald. It was as close as he could come to Anglicizing “Der Vald,” and it did sound kind of foresty, what with the inclusion of “deer” in the name.). We were dealing here, after all, with Orthodox Jews who had been raised with a strong taboo against saying anything about who they were and where they came from, whereas Major Mike, and especially Governor Austin, wanted to use the new town for publicity, as a showplace for how lumber towns, complete with women and children, could successfully be set up in Minnesota. But showing pictures of Jews with peyes and tsitsis flapping in the wind wasn’t exactly a promotion for the great American dream.
So everyone tread kind of carefully for the first few years. The articles they wrote and planted in the papers didn’t mention anything about Jews or Yiddish, and certainly nothing about Russia or Siberia. And the pictures of the people working the forests were all taken at a safe distance, with the men wearing wool hats and coats or jackets or sweaters.
It was important, as well, that the experienced lumberjacks of Deerwald share their knowledge with the new towns that began to be set up in the area, and their wives talk with the new wives about how women contributed to the success of the town. It took a while to convince the residence of Deerwald that this was part of what was expected of them, and, especially in the first years when English was at very much of a premium, Yiddish-English translators were a regular feature of the interactions.
Harder was establishing any kind of social relationships between Deerwald and the other towns that began to emerge. The language thing was a barrier, of course, although the kids in Deerwald were leaning English in school and it was beginning to seep into the town little by little. But it was more the religious and cultural differences. The Jews weren’t going to come to a pot luck dinner or a Friday night dance. At Major Mike’s insistence, there were some communal logging competitions and women’s weaving exhibitions, but it was all kind of forced and uncomfortable.
What finally broke the ice was a serious fire one night in the forest surrounding one of the new towns: Lincoln, it was called. There were not a lot of experienced lumberjacks in Lincoln, and the fierceness of the fire and the direction of the wind very much threatened the buildings and the people of the town. Lincoln was several miles from Deerwald, but from the smell and the height and shape of the smoke, the Deerwalders knew immediately what they were seeing. The men hooked up several wagons and raced through the forest, around the fire and into Lincoln from the other side.
Using what little English they had, hand motions, and a little physical pushing, within a short time they were working with the Lincolners to cut a fire break between the fire and the town and to set up a bucket chain from the well and a nearby stream to begin dousing the buildings closest to the fire. When that had been done, they led the Lincolners into the forest and showed them what to cut back and what to chop and where to best use the water in the buckets.
Soon the women from Deerwald came in their own wagons with medicals supplies, more empty buckets for the chain, food and blankets. They battled the fire all night, and by morning it was well enough under control that the Deerwalders could pack up and leave it for the Lincolners to finish up. Language differences notwithstanding, a connection had been made that was deeper than weaving exhibits. As the Deerwalders were loading up, one of the mothers of Lincoln who had been terrified for her children could not control her gratitude and hugged one of the men who was helping to arrange the axes and saws in the wagon. The fact that she had inadvertently chosen the Ruv was the source of no small amusement to the Deerwalders, especially to the Rebbetzin who later said that her husband turned three shades darker red than the fire had been.
Several weeks later, in cooperation with the Deerwald Ruv, the schochet and the butcher, the town of Lincoln invited their new friends for the best kosher variation of a Minnesota barbecue they could put together. And more than a few Deerwalders noted later that a little bit of meat such as they had just eaten would really spice up the Shabbos cholent. The tradition of the Kosher Barbecue carried on for a number of years, alternating between a number of towns in the area.
In the course of time, things normalized. The Jews learned English, their children and then their children’s children became more Americanized. Some of the more religious of the Jews moved to other places. Other Jews and a number of non-Jews joined the community. The introduction of steam-driven power saws in the early 1900s increased production dramatically, and a small saw mill followed about ten years later.
The town closed quietly enough in 1949. It had served its purpose well, and after several generations, the lumber town had pretty much outlived its usefulness. The area in Minnesota had been called The Chippewa Forest since about 1910. The name made no real difference in the management of Northern Minnesota. It was just one of these ironic practices of the American system: to name a local area or landmark after native peoples that had been chased out centuries before. But the town center that remained after the people left made a useful place as the home of the Ranger station for the region, and, in fact, the shul, with its Jewish Star respectfully taken down—I think it’s in the Jewish Museum in Manhattan now—became the Chippewa Park Service Administrative Building. They even put up the original town plaque on the side of the building.
I am a really old man now, as old or older than most grandfathers who are still walking around. I have been going to this shul or that all my life, and I can tell you that I have never known a shul without a candy man.
That’s not an official position: Candy Man. You don’t get elected to it or appointed by the shul Board of Directors. It just works out that there is always one man who likes seeing kids in shul and carries a pocketful or a tallis bag full of candies with him every Shabbos. And the procedure is always the same. (I’ve seen it in America and Israel and Europe and once in a little shul in Curacao, which is an island off the coast of Venezuela which once belonged to Holland. There, of course, they don’t call it a “shul,” which is a German-Yiddish word, but a “snoa” which is the Spanish-Ladino word. So many stories; so little time.) The kids come, sometime in a line, sometimes one at a time, to stand before the candy man. “Gutt Shabbos,” they say, or “Shabbat Shalom” or “Buen Shabat.” And the candy man reaches into his pocket or his tallis sack and pulls a candy or two and gives it to each child. “Gutt Shabbos” he responds or “Shabbat Shalom” or “Buen Shabat,” and the child says “Thank you very much” in whatever language, very politely, revealing a glimpse of a potential human being that may one day grow out of the little loudmouth boy or girl who had just been yelling outside or fighting with a brother or sister.
In fairness, we should note that candy men are not the only unofficial positions that are filled in every shul that ever was. There are also at least one or two unappointed grumpy men who think that a shul should be a place of great dignity where little people have no place. Ever. I have rarely seen a shul where someone nasty didn’t start yelling in the middle of the reading of Megillah at Purim because of how much fun the kids were having making noise when Haman’s name in read out. And the grump will yell out some variant or another of: “This is a shul! This is a shul! Children shouldn’t be allowed in shul on Purim!”
It might be interesting to wonder how two guys growing up in shul from the time they are children could come to two so wildly different views: one, that children should be fed candy; the other that children should be fed to alligators. Worth thinking about, no? Some other time.
In any case, in the early 1900s, the candy man in Deerwald was Uncle Velvel. He was not then an old man, maybe in his mid-40s. He was senior lumberjack in one of the best tree cutting/stripping teams in the town. He was wide and strong, of course, but a kind and patient man. He was often assigned to work with young men just reaching the age to train on a forest team because he spoke kindly and took seriously the responsibility to keep the boys safe. It was the mothers of the young men who first starting calling him Uncle Velvel, and they meant it with appreciation and no small affection. He had a number of children of his own, and he was also really an uncle. He had two brothers and a sister in the town, all of whom were married and were raising children.
In addition to supplying candy, he had other interests. He did very fine wood carving—he was one of the people who had carved the lovely railings around the bimah in shul. He also liked to help his wife work in the garden, where she grew vegetables and sometimes flowers. “It’s nice to work sometimes with smaller trees,” he would say to her.
And he was very dedicated to the shul. He tried to get to davening, on Shabbos of course, but at least several other times during the week as well, depending on his work schedule. He had a good head for learning, and he enjoyed the Ruv’s classes when he could come. Sometimes, without asking anyone or telling anyone, he would come in with his tools when the shul was empty and fix this or that squeaky bench or loose table. He was a good man in many ways.
If he had a secret desire—it maybe wasn’t so secret—it was to blow shofar on Rosh HaShannah. Shofar blowing was, like everything else in the town, a skill passed on from father to son, not simply as a family tradition but as a guarantee that the community would always have the skills it needed, like the Ruv taught his son Rabbi-ing and the doctor taught his children doctoring. I know blowing shofar isn’t on such a level of profession expertise; I mean, you put your lips on the smaller end, make a little noise and try not to spit too much, and some sound should come out of the bigger end; but, like anything else, it was one thing to do it and another thing to do it properly. How much longer is one of the three shevarim than one of the nine tru-os? If you make a mistake, do you go back to the sound you missed, the beginning of the line, the beginning of the set? These are things a shofar blower has to know. So there were families that had passed on shofar blowing from father to son and, the way things worked in Deerwald, these were the families that took care of shofar blowing on Rosh HaShannah.
To tell the truth, Velvel’s interest in blowing shofar had a lot to do with his shofar. He had one. It had been given to him by his father who had received it from his father. Most shofars we see are small and curved and made from the horn of a ram. Some say you can also use the horn of a sheep or a goat or some other kosher animals. There are Sephardi communities that use the straight horn of a North African antelope.
But Velvel’s shofar was made from the curved horn of a South African antelope called a kudu. The shofar was perhaps six-feet long, a couple of inches taller than Velvel, and was by no means easy to hold up. The kudu shofars were commonly used by the Jews in Yemen and have a deep, deep rumble that can rattle the glass in the windows. Nowadays, every Jewish book store has a box of shofars for sale: shofars of all shapes and sizes—long, short, curved, straight, twisted and little plastic shofar horns for the kids. But, in earlier days—certainly in Uncle Velvel’s grandfather’s days—virtually no one outside of Yemen had ever seen a long, twisted kudu shofar. Truth be told, Velevel wasn’t sure exactly how his grandfather got the shofar, whether he bought it or got it as a gift or what. But one thing was certain. As soon as the grandfather got it, he brought it to Ruv Rabinovitch to look at. The Ruv kept it for a few days, consulted books and sources and decided at last that it could be used in the shul for Rosh Hashanah, and he wrote an official letter to that effect—in Yiddish, of course—and gave it to the grandfather. The grandfather, you should know, prized the letter written to him—by name!—by the Ruv, and in the long, polished wooden box he built to store his shofar, he included a small drawer into which he placed the Ruv’s letter.
He never got to blow the shofar in shul. Nor did his son, Velvel’s father, nor did Velvel. Blowing shofar had been done by the same two families—one on the first day of the holiday; the other on the second—since Der Vald had been established some eighty years before, and no one, no matter how special his shofar, would have thought to ask one of the assigned shofar blowers to step aside.
You might well say that 1904 was not 1821 and, more, that the United States of America was certainly not Czarist Russia, and you would certainly be right. This was a free country and people could—and did—come and go as they wished. There were Jews who moved to Deerwald from other places, especially after the big wave of Russian Jewish immigration began in the 1880s, and Jews who moved away to seek their fortune in some other corner of the free country. If they had sat down to reason it through, they would have come to the conclusion easily enough that it was time to ease up on making sure the doctor’s kids became doctors and the tailor’s kids became tailors. And, in truth, that would happen slowly but surely as time went on. It was just that nobody ever thought to sit down and reason it through. People kind of flow along the way they always have without thinking about it much. Did you ever wonder why some men put on a useless necktie every day of their adult lives? Another story.
One of those “slowly but surely” changes happened that year, 1904. Mendel Kramov blew shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashannah, like his uncle before him (a little sideway shift there) and his grandfather before that. But he, and especially his wife Channah, enjoyed spending time in Milwaukee, which had a growing Russian Jewish community. They had made some friends there, some of whom had invited them that year to come and spend the holiday with them. When he told the Ruv that they were thinking about it, the Ruv’s first thought was: but you blow shofar! But the Ruv realized instantly that there was no reason someone else couldn’t blow shofar. “Have a wonderful Yontif, Reb Mendel,” he said.
He spoke with the Gabbai of the shul, and they decided easily enough that Uncle Velvel was a very nice man who had always wanted to blow shofar, and the arrangements were made.
As it turned out, those weeks before Rosh Hashannah were very busy for Uncle Velvel. First of all, he met with the Ruv several times each week to prepare himself for blowing shofar. This was not simply the technical questions of how long each sound should be, what exactly each blast should actually sound like, and so on. He also had to learn the gestures the Ruv would make to signify that the sound had to be done again, or the whole line, or the whole set, as well as the laws behind those gestures so that the shofar blower should understand clearly what he was being asked to do and why.
When he came for his first meeting with the Ruv, he brought with him, not the great kudu shofar, but a small ram’s horn to practice on.
“You’re not going to use your grandfather’s shofar?” said the Ruv.
“I wanted to save it for yontif,” Velvel said, a little sheepishly.
“Of course, of course,” said the Ruv.
And then there was the weather. Those of you who do not cut down trees for a living may not realize this, but lumbering is not a great job in the deep winter. And those of you who have only experienced winter in Miami or California or Jerusalem may not understand what a deep winter is in Northern Minnesota. In Northern Minnesota, the temperature can sit at near -20° F into March and six feet of snow during the winter is not unusual. So the practice was that the lumberjacks actively worked the forest until Rosh Hashannah; they cleaned up and closed down by the start of Succos, and after that, they basically stayed in the town until just before or after Pesach, depending on the weather. By 1900, Deerwald had its own saw mill, so the work over the winter was mill work: sorting, rough-cutting, edging, drying, and then shipping the finished wood whenever the trains could get through. And, of course, winter was the obvious time for doing repairs of all kinds around the town.
Rosh Hashannah came very late in 1904: the second week of October, and the autumn had been pretty mild into mid-September, so the town looked forward to a few extra weeks of harvesting wood in the forest before Rosh Hashannah. But in the second week of September, the temperature fell twenty degrees overnight and a storm no one had predicted dropped seven inches of snow by noon. It was going to be a matter, then, of working in the cold and the snow to strip the cut timber and to bring in as much of the stripped lumber as they could before the snows covered everything. And it wasn’t only the people who were caught by surprise by the change in the weather. The forest animals hadn’t felt it coming either, and they were out foraging closer to the town than they usually came. Every forest team had to carry a rifle to chase away wolves or moose or black bear that might be too intent on finding food to be scared away by the men working among the trees.
But as pressed for time as everybody was, as my grandmother used to say, “whenever Shabbos comes, it’s Shabbos.” So when the sun went down on the evening of Erev Rosh Hashannah in 1904, the Yontif candles were lit in the homes, and the men and boys who went to shul were walking through the snow under the glow of the electric street lamps, their heavy coats over their clean white shirts and new suits, their hair and beards washed and trimmed in honor of the coming of the new year.
The Ruv wore a new long black coat, and the men coming into shul walked in through the door and up to the front of the shul, to the Ruv’s chair near the bimah, to wish him a Gutt Yontif un a Gutt Yohr. The Ruv stood to shake each hand and smiled and found a good word to say to each man and each boy. As was the custom, the dark blue curtain which hung over the Aron Kodesh had been replaced by the shining white holiday curtain with the words in Hebrew from Psalms: “Blow the shofar at the time of the New Moon, at the full moon, on our solemn feast day, for this is a statute for Israel, a law of the God of Jacob.” Inside the Aron, the Torah mantles were white, as was the cover of the table where the Torah would be read: white for the purity of the New Year, like the white snow that lay now on the floor of the forest and on the streets of Deerwald.
The tune the chazzan used for mariv was the traditional tune used only on the nights of Rosh Hashannah. How old is “traditional?” Probably, it is much the same tune that European Jews have used since the time of the Maharil in the 14th Century. To the children in the shul, it was a strange tune, different certainly, but not unfamiliar, melodic in its way but a little sad at the same time. To the older people, it was a tune they had heard all their lives, two nights a year. It recalled their childhood and their parents, now gone. They hummed along with the chazzan and looked over at each other and smiled, like brothers coming home from a long year away.
When Mariv was over, the men shook hands and greeted each other with the greeting used only on the night of the New Year. “Ksivah V’chsimah tovah,” they said, and then they bundled up and walked to their homes where the candles would be burning and the smell of hot soup and roast chicken would greet them at the door. On the table waiting, they would find the wine bottle and cup, and the challah baked in the shape of a crown sitting under the challah cover beside the small pot of honey. Just before Kiddush, the parents would bless the children, one at a time: “May the Lord make you like Efraim and Menashe, like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah,” ending with a gentle kiss on the head.
The morning of the first day of Rosh Hashannah was cold, but sunny, a few flakes only, perhaps blown from the leaves of the surrounding forest, drifting down as the men went to shul. The men went early to be sure to make the minyan for first kaddish. Some brought the children with them. Other children would drift in a little later. The women of the community who did not generally come to shul, would come to hear shofar a while later, taking the time now to adjust the new dress and head scarf, perhaps a little quiet time with a daughter or a friend.
The shul itself was built like the standard European shul: a large men’s section on the first floor and a smaller woman’s balcony upstairs. The furnishings were all wood of course, benches on three sides, leaving room for a raised platform for the shulchan nearer to the eastern wall, and at the front of the room, the wide platform with the Aron Kodesh at the center.
Now, I say “benches,” and you think of those massive, heavy benches you might have seen in pictures of the old, dark shteibels in Brooklyn. But these were people who knew wood, the feel of it, the colors inside the colors. Their benches were clean and bright, stained only a little darker than the wooden floors, the whole shul made to look like part of a growing thing in the middle of a growing forest. The Aron Kodesh itself, behind the curtain, was shaped like the trunk of a great Siberian pine tree, with uneven wooden tiles and strips of many colors serving as a kind of impressionist picture of the bark. It was something staggering to see. The women’s benches upstairs were the same general shape as the men’s, but with carvings of flowers at the top edges of the side panels and a long, light green stuffed cushions running the length of the seats.
About an hour and a half after the davening had begun, they had completed the reading of the Torah, and it was time for shofar. By this time, the shul was full—the women’s section was overloaded. Women did not generally come to shul in the community; on the occasions they did come: shofar, kol nidrei, megillah, the shul had to add chairs wherever they could fit them in to handle the overload.
The Ruv came from his seat in front to stand at the side of the shulchan. Velvel, whose seat was at one side of the shul, opened up his grandfather’s tall wooden case, which stood about four inches taller than Velvel, and took out the shofar wrapped in a white cloth; and he came to stand at the shulchan, facing the Aron Kodesh, and laid the draped shofar on the right side of the shulchan. Every eye in the shul was focused on the white cloth, longer than a javelin.
The Ruv nodded, and Velvel opened the cloth and the shofar was there to see: a glistening bone, long and curved, with black stripes and white stripes. There was an audible reaction, an intake of breath, across the shul. Everyone seemed to move forward to get a better look. Women in the balcony leaned over the railing, as though being six inches closer would reveal some secret that was still hidden in the magical horn.
The Ruv pulled his tallis over his head, looked at Velvel, and klopped.
“Klop” is one of those words, like “crash” and “bang” and “squishy” (that’s actually my favorite, especially when you say it slowly and with feeling), created by its sound. In English, one would write it as “clop,” but that is a totally different word. “Clop” is the second step of a horse walking; it always follows the “clip” of the first step. But “klop,” although it may be pronounced the same, is Yiddish and has an entirely different meaning. A “klop” is the Rabbi or the Gabbai slapping the table or some other hard service to signify that it is time to start or to move on to the next step. And that was what the Ruv did now. It was time to blow shofar, the central mitzvah of Rosh Hashannah. Everyone must now focus and pay attention and let the sound of the shofar inspire each one to repentance and commitment to God.
Everyone stood up. Velvel made the two brochos before the mitzvah, and when everyone had answered “omain,” he lifted his grandfather’s shofar from the shulchan. Balancing it in the middle with his right hand, he help the small end to his lips between two fingers of his right hand. The Ruv, his finger on the place in the machzor, called for the first sound: “Tekiah,” he said.
The sound was glorious: rich and deep—yes, the windows rattled—loud, but clear and unforced, even sweet. Velvel was tempted to let the first sound go a little long, not because he had waited for three generation to blow this shofar, but because the sound was just so beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. But more than anything, he wanted to use his shofar to perform the mitzvah properly, as God had commanded it. So he stopped the tekiah at the right time and tried to keep his mind only on listening to the Ruv’s calling the sounds.
“Shevarim Tru’oh,” said the Ruv.
Three middle length blasts, followed by nine short.
And the final longer sound at the end of the first sounds.
The Ruv called the same order two more times, and with that they had completed the first set. The Ruv paused several seconds, to make a separation between the first sounds and the second, and then began calling the next set.
“Tekiah,” he called, the first sound in every line, and then proceeded through the three lines of the second set. And then another pause, and he began the third set.
Velvel blew the tekiah, each sound so beautiful, so perfect.
And then the Ruv called, “Tru’oh.”
But before Velvel could blow the tru’oh, a sound came from outside. A tekiah. An echo? Velvel thought. He had lived in Deerwald all his life, and he had never heard an echo from a shofar. But perhaps this shofar was somehow. . . ?
But no. He heard the echo again. No, not the echo. Different. Shorter? Higher pitched? That couldn’t be an echo.
Several men turned to the window to look for the sound. And then one turned around,
“Moose!” he called out. “Moose!”
Those near the window turned to look and, sure enough, there was a herd of moose, perhaps ten of them, rushing down the street towards the shul.
The idea is funny. I know that. The magnificent shofar had produced an irresistible mating call to the moose of the northern forest. But nobody laughed in the shul. A moose can weight upwards of 1,000 pounds, and ten of them charging the wooden buildings, antlers outstretched and hormones running wild, was nobody’s idea of a laughing matter.
From the platform, Velvel could just see out the window and down the street. The moose were perhaps a minute away from the entrance at the rear of the building, and Velvel forgot his shofar all at once and became the head of his forest cutting\stripping team. He pointed up toward the women’s balcony.
“Stay there!” he yelled. “Move back as close as you can to the walls!”
That was an instant evaluation. Ten moose at speed could knock down the support columns holding up the balcony, but Velvel decided that there would be enough wood in the back of the building and the long benches to slow them down before they reached the columns; but a hundred women trying to get down the narrow staircase and out the back door—directly in the path of the moose—was a much more dangerous option.
And then he said, “Throw the kids out the front windows!”
That was a lot less peculiar a command that it may sound. The front windows, one each on either side of the Aron platform, were not far off the ground, and it would move the children out of the room in the opposite direction from where the moose were charging. Several of the men jumped into action, throwing a few older, taller boys out the windows first and then passing the smaller boys through as quickly as they could.
Other men moved as many of the benches as they could against the back wall, until someone watching at the window yelled. “Out of the way! Out of the way!” And with the scraping of the benches suddenly stopped, everyone could feel the ground moving and hear the thunder of the hooves coming closer.
At almost the last moment, bizarrely, Nachum Breitowitz, who lived right across the street from the shul, climbed over several stacked benches and threw himself out the back door.
“Nachum!” the Ruv called, but it was done.
And then—as is probably not appropriate to say about Rosh Hashannah—all hell broke loose.
The moose did not even pause when they reached the building. The crashed up and through the back wall as though it were paper. Wood splintered, glass shattered. The piled benches did slow them some, mostly because they tripped over each other trying to get over the obstacles. The men ran for whatever cover they could find: behind benches near the front, along the side walls, wherever looked less suicidal than where they happened to be standing at the moment.
For reasons unknown, the Ruv had remained standing at the shulchan near the middle of the shul. Without even thinking about it, in one motion, Itzik the treetop man, scooped the Ruv up by the collar of his new shiny black coat and, skinny man that the Ruv was, threw him bodily out the front window like a sack of laundry.
Seized by panic, no doubt, Mrs. Hymowitz ran down the steps from the balcony and sought to escape the building. She managed to get through a hole in the wall near where the door had been, but she did not get much further. One of the last moose to crash into the shul, managed to catch Mrs. Hymowitz’s skirt in one of its antlers, and he dragged her back into the building she had just left. She screamed a scream which was certainly as loud, although not nearly as pretty, as the original shofar call had been just a few moments before. Whether or not it was a fortunate occurrence that Mrs. Hymowitz’s skirt ripped off of her at this point is a matter of one’s perspective. It may well have saved Mrs. Hymowitz’s life, but her dignity was forever destroyed. In 1904, in an Orthodox Jewish communities, it was unheard of for a woman—and one with two married children at that—to be running and screaming, wearing only half of her dress, her petticoat ripped up the side. Her dignity was badly enough impaired that, when it was all over, she vowed never to be seen in public by anyone ever again. It took the personal intervention of the Rebbetzin on Simchas Torah, to convince her to quietly enter shul for a short time at the end of the long davening on that day.
It was at this point, which seemed slightly longer than forever but was actually no more than two or three minutes, that Nachum came back in through the broken back wall and over the broken benches carrying a Winchester 75. In a move that could not be characterized as anything but courageous, he tried to make his way around and through the frantic animals and to the front of the shul. For a few seconds, the others lost sight of him and they were afraid that he had ended up on the floor, under the pack, but all at once, there he was in front, bleeding from his left shoulder and hopping on one leg.
He held the rifle up. Being sure to aim out the back and not up into the balcony, and fired one shot and then another. The moose stopped moving; they looked around. He fired two more shots and the moose near what had been the back door moved out into the street. Two more shots, and the herd was out of the shul and running back down the street toward the forest.
Everyone looked around. There were a few scrapes and injuries here and there. Nachum had been jabbed by the tip of a moose horn in the fleshy part of his shoulder, and there was a nasty bruise on his shin, but nothing seemed to be broken. The children outside were hauling themselves up to the back window to peer in at the devastation, but they were laughing already, especially, it must be admitted, at Mrs. Hymowitz who was still screaming and trying to hold the two sides of her ripped petticoat together.
The more senior woodsmen looked around at the structural supports in and around the building and nodded at the Ruv that it would be all right.
“Baruch Hashem,” said the Ruv. And then in Yiddish: “Let us clean the shul up and meet back here in an hour for shofar.”
And in an hour everyone was back. By that time, the broken benches, most of the back wall, various other splintered pieces had all been moved out of the shul and onto the side of the building. There was certainly less seating room in the men’s section, but everyone managed to find a place to sit or stand. The Ruv walked up to the shulchan, whose platform had lost about two thirds of its decorative railing and looked around the shul.
“It appears that we will have some work to do in here over the winter,” he said, and he smiled at his people.
He looked around again and found Uncle Velvel standing quietly in the shadows in a back corner. “Nu?” said the Ruv.
Velvel shook his head softly and held a hand up. But the Ruv would not accept it and motioned him forward until it became more embarrassing for him to remain where he was than to come forward.
He stood quietly beside the Ruv. “Perhaps,” he said as softly as he could, “someone else should blow shofar.”
“No,” said the Ruv, and he put his hand on Velvel’s shoulder. “You blow very well. Really. But perhaps it would be better if you used my shofar this time.” And he picked up his own small ram’s horn and held it out to Velvel.
He paused for a moment and then quietly took the shofar in his hand.
“You know,” said the Ruv, “that shofar had a wonderful, wonderful sound.”
Velvel nodded. “The moose thought so,” he said.
The Ruv laughed out loud, and then pulled his tallis over his head, opened the machzor to the right page, and klopped on the shulchan.
Interestingly enough, Uncle Velvel would be called upon to blow his long kudu shofar one more time. It would be twenty years later when he was certainly no longer a young man. But the unique resonance of that shofar blast would be needed to try to rescue McKinley, the Official Mascot Moose of Minnesota, who had managed in a particularly brutal winter to shuffle onto a very tentative chunk of ice that was in imminent danger of floating away from shore and into the unsteady currents of Lake Superior. But that story–especially in you are from Minnesota–you probably know already.
Copyright 2019 Gary M. Levine
PART ONE: THE SEAWIND
As for my name, you can call me what you like. How important is a name? I change my name like I change the sandals on my feet. Wear them and prize them while they’re new, and when they’ve been used too long and the gleam is worn off the leather and the stones are between your toes, just pull them off and toss them into the ditch by the side of the road. That’s a name.
And why not? Should a man be tied forever to a name he never chose and which may suit him no better than tail feathers on a fish? Not I. Yesterday I was Garnet and the day before, Thorl, and tomorrow I may take my name from the sound of the sheet flapping at the mast or the grunt of a camel stumbling over a rock.
That is my name, then, and that is who I am. A wanderer and a wayfarer. My home is wherever my feet are standing and my trade is whatever will put a meal in my mouth and a few coins in my purse.
Aha! I know how people look at me. Some wear little smiles on their faces that they are polite enough to cover with their hands. Some just laugh out loud. Here is an old braggart, they say to themselves, a silly old man who comes to sit at the fire and beg a meal with tall stories and a little dance.
Well, it’s all right. I don’t mind it if they laugh. It doesn’t bother me. I expect nothing else.
After all, there they are, most of them, sitting in their tiny corner of their tiny world, and every day they work and play and struggle and stretch, all within half a hundred steps of the beds they were born in. And each day, every one of them looks out at the mile or two of open ground he can see with his naked eye, stretches his arms wide and says to himself: “Here is the whole world, lying before me at my feet.” It’s only natural, then, for them to laugh at an old man who tells them that the world is wider than the sash on their robes.
But it is. Wide and long and high and deep. Larger by far than any of them have dared even to imagine in his most fabulous or his most terrible thoughts.
I know. I have seen more of the world than most men and done things—you may believe me!—that no one else has ever done, and even I have seen no more of the great world than a hair on the tail of a fly.
I have ridden the back of the great white eagle swooping over the northern mountain on his way to nesting cliffs, higher than the clouds. I have stood alone on the deck of a sinking warship, waves of red fire pounding att its sides, flashing like sea-spray over the railing, and all the while a thousand thousand birds above the smoke, beating their wings like drums and crying out in fear. I have slept under stars that no eyes but mine have ever seen, held in my hand a single stone more precious than the treasures of a hundred kingdoms.
And every place I have been, every step that I know, is a whole world unto itself, as different from every other world as the land is from the sea and the sea from the sky. They are all out there: worlds upon worlds that those who laugh at me have never dreamed of, each world the home of greater men and lesser men, fools and villains, the brave and the fainthearted.
From each of these worlds, from every world I have seen, I have a story to tell, stories almost without end, each of them shining as bright and as clear in my mind as the day on which it happened.
If I were sitting around the night fire now, begging for my supper from men who laugh or smile to each other as I talk, I could tell them any tale it pleased them to hear. If they said “wizards!” I could tell them of wizards; if they said “battles!” I could tell them of those as well.
But, as it is, I do not now find myself beside the night fire, the noise and the laughter of the men in my ears.
I find myself alone.
It is quiet and it is morning. My hand is resting upon the door of a small wooden house, in need of some repair, that sits at the corner of a field that is too large to be farmed by one who lives without a family.
There is a story here too, though it is not at all a story that the men around the fire would ask to hear.
Still, I have found that it is important to remember every story well because, sooner or later, I am certain to meet someone who, without knowing it, has been waiting to hear just that story and no other.
I had spent some months on a ship called the SeaWind that sailed from the westernmost island in the Western Sea. She sailed bravely, in high seas and calm, hunting the Great Blue fish that swim the open waters near the Sea Wall that marks the edge of the world. Her Master, a broad oak tree of a man with thick hair and beard of gray and black, went by the name of Master Jonan. He and his men were the most fearless sailors I had ever shipped with. They had, none of them, either wife or home but lived their lives on the sea and for the sea. The least of them could sniff the morning air and smell storms or calming or high wind three days off. They had lived on their island, which was called The Last Land, for all or most of their lives, so that it was no simple matter for me, an outsider, to find a berth among them.
“Where are you from?” Master Jonan asked me when I first came on board, seeking a place.
“From the East,” I answered him.
He laughed, a deep, thunderous laugh that served to signal the men on board who came to watch.
“The East,” he said. “Everywhere is east of Last Land.” And he laughed again, and his men with him.
“Then I am from everywhere,” I said, and he stopped laughing and raised an eyebrow at me.
“Where have you sailed, old man?” he said.
“Wherever the gods have placed the waters.”
“As much as that, have you?” he asked.
“Yes, Master Jonan,” I answered.
“The seas of the North?”
“Yes,” I said, “and of the South, both the Great South and the Lesser Horn. I have fished silver eel in the Basin of Trabor and herring and lionstail off the coast of the Greenhill.”
“And in the Distant East?”
“In the Distant East: the Saltless Sea, the Dark Sea and the Oceans of Damaron.”
Master Jonan glanced quickly at the crew members looking on, as though to say: Shall we believe all of this talk or shall we toss this old bag of wind over the side? From among the sailors, a tall man, older than most of the others, stepped forward.
“With your permission, Master Jonan,” he said, and the Master nodded at him to go on.
“I shipped out of Greenhill once, old man,” he said to me. “A long time ago it was. I remember they had a strange custom about their nets. Do you know what I mean?”
“You mean the color,” I said.
“They fish herring with red nets and lionstail with green,” I said to him. And then I asked him, “And why is that?”
The sailor looked at me.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Do you know?”
“Because their god of waters is red, and they honor him by fishing the herring with the red nets,” I told them. “But the lionstail is sacred to the god of waters. So they fish the lionstail with nets the color of the sea, so that he will not see the nets and become angry at them for stealing his lionstails.”
Master Jonan looked at the sailor. “Is that so, Bron?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Bron said again, and he wore such a wide confusion on his long face that the Master could not help himself but laugh.
“I suppose we will have to believe you then, old man,” the Master said, turning back to me. “But I think the days of your strong arms are back in the East. Are you not too old now to be climbing ropes and pulling at the oars?”
“I will race your youngest man to the top of the high mast,” I answered him, and there were more than one or two of the crew who urged the master to let me try. But though he smiled at my brazenness, my dare did not tempt him.
“A game,” he said and he shook his head. “What does a game mean here, anchored in port? The question, old man, is could you win such a race with the wind pulling you from the ropes and the ship bouncing off the waves? How would you do then, old man?”
He looked at me then, straight into my eyes, trying to read me like the lines of a chart. Who, after all, was I? If he were to give me a berth on the SeaWind, might there not come a day when an old man’s weakness could cost him his ship and his crew? I had seen it happen, and I could see in his look that he had seen it as well. His eyes were clear and, at that moment, as cold and as green as the sea.
“I suppose, Master,” I answered him, “that you will have to give me a place on board at least until the first gale if we are to find out.”
He stared into my eyes for a moment longer, and then, all at once, like a ray of light breaking out from behind a cloud, his mouth opened in a wide smile and his eyes grew warm, and he said, “I suppose we will, old man.”
And so they took me on board the SeaWind as low man in the crew. My pay was food, two blankets and half of a full share in the catch—regular pay for a new man sailing from Last Land, they said. It was less that cabin boy’s share on many of the richer docks in the east, but what did I care! I was at sea again, a hard deck, newly sanded, rolling under my feet, the salt air blowing in my nostrils and the best crew I had ever known working the ship as finely as a master engraver carving his thinnest strokes in gold.
And I was hunting the Great Blue.
Men are made noble, not by the houses they are born in nor by the thickness of the blankets they sleep under at night, but by the bravery of the enemy against whom they stand, the fierceness of the power that they will themselves to oppose. By that measure, there are none more noble that those who hunt the Great Blue of the Western Sea.
He is as long as the white whale of the North, but lighter and much faster; not the ten best oarsmen in the world with a brisk wind to help them could follow a Great Blue who had turned aside. He is the king of his waters, and when the ships lower their oarboats to hunt him, he does not run but races to fight them, to overturn their boats and to banish them from his seas. He is the bravest and fiercest of warriors, never giving up his battle as long as there is still a breath in him. Men are often hurt and sometimes killed in hunting the Blue, but they take each scar as a mark of honor and ask for no better death than to die in the hunt.
Even as far away as the distant east, the Great Blue is legend, and the saying is well known in every port where great ships sail: “At the edge of the world, the Sea Wall is the power of the gods, but the Great Blue is their glory.”
We sailed due west from the island in calm seas, and for twenty days, we learned the order of the vessel, fished for the cook’s stores and drilled in the oarboats. The Oarboat Chief was also the Master’s First Sailor, a tall, quiet man, who was called Elder. He was a hard master, little given to talk, but he knew his work well and did not take lightly the responsibility to man and train the oarboat crews.
Hour after hour, he would send the oarboats out to row first into the waves and then down them, all the while leaning motionless at he rail, watching the stroke of each man’s oar more closely than a cat eyeing a careless bird. Whose stroke would match whose? Whose would pull the oarboat into the wave in a high sea and whose would pull away? Who could be relied on to keep steady rhythm on the pull and who might falter when the Blue turned to stand?
He tried us each in different crews and even in different boats. Only when he was satisfied that he knew the right crew for every sailor did he assign us our final place in the oarboats.
This he did on a morning that set a white sky over a rougher sea than we had yet seen. He stood us middeck, the SeaWind rolling from crest to valley, oarboats lashed to their berths at the rails on either side of the deck, and Master Jonan himself standing by the wheelman on the wheel deck, looking down at us.
For each oarboat, Elder called first the name of the lanceman who would be the heart of his oarboat. It would be the lanceman who would stand forward in the boat, in his hand the long lance with the sharpened metal blade. The eight oars at his back were there only in his service, only to split the waves before the oarboat that kept the lanceman from the Great Blue. “Pull, you old women!” the lanceman would call over his shoulder. “The Blue is laughing at your feeble arms! Let me hear your groaning!”
After the lanceman, the next named of the boat crew was the First Oar. He would take the oar behind the lanceman and to his left. It would be the work of the First Oar, looking over his shoulder as he rowed, to call the stroke of the pull for the other oars as they approached the Blue and to time the lunge of the oarboat at the final rush, so that his lanceman could cast through, with a steady deck beneath his feet.
I was assigned First Oar of the third boat. As Elder called out: “Greenhill—First Oar,” I glanced at Master Jonan and fancied that I saw his eyebrow raised not more than a touch. A strange selection indeed, he must have thought. The old man for First Oar. But the oarboats were Elder’s to assign, and Master Jonan would not easily question his Oarboat Chief.
Perhaps because he saw me as the least of the First Oars, he gave me the best of the tillers. His name was Prapel, but the crew — even the other tillers — referred to him always as The Tiller. He was short and lean and of few words, but it was said that he had been a tiller when Master Janen was still a simple sailor standing his watch in the tower.
The boat crews assigned, Elder sent us out, high seas or no, to learn our boats and to sharpen the crews. The deck crew lowered the oarboats, and the crews climbed over the rails to make their way down the rope webs that hung at the sides. “Try Ring at Second Oar,” Elder said to me as I straddled the rail, and I nodded.
“Ring! Second Oar!” I called out as the men climbed into the oarboat.
“Second Oar, Grandfather,” Ring called out and he took the right seat of the first slat. He was still a young man with thick arms and a smile always on his face, but this was not his first time at the hunt, and clearly Elder thought that he might take well to training. “Going to need some help up here, grandfather?” And he laughed.
“Just try to stay with me, boy,” I said, and he laughed again.
But even more than the Second Oar, it was The Tiller I watched most closely. He took his place at the stick, and I could see him looking to see how I led the oarboat. We began to row, the water on all sides around us and the oar of each oarman finding its flow through the wave and then out. Within minutes—not more—The Tiller had learned how I moved, how my head turned and my eyes watched, and I found that he was steering where I wanted to go by these signs alone, so that he was as mindful of my thoughts as my own right arm.
I pulled slowly at first against the waves. The more experienced of the oarmen felt my pull and joined it, but the newer sailors did not yet know how to feel the pulse of a pull or its strength.
“Pull the oars with me!” I called out to my crew and gave them the count. “One and pull! One and pull! Hold at the crest! Now one and pull!”
This was the training: to begin slowly until they all learned to feel the pull of the First Oar. And when the pull had become even and steady, to vary the rhythm, change the strength of the pull. We would learn to guide our oars together, as though we were all one arm pulling one oar, bones and sinews of one strong back.
Our lanceman was a tall, wide rock of a man called Lyand. He planted his feet in the straps and centered himself behind the breastjoint of the oarboat, his long spear held high in the large hand of thick left arm. The First Oar sat to the left of the lanceman, in the first slat behind him; but before we were a few short hours at our pulling, I could see that his raised, bulging left arm made it too hard for me to see the water ahead when I turned to see behind me.
I called out to my Second Oar who sat to the right.
“Take my side!” I called. “And I take yours!”
Surprised though he was, Ring did as I instructed, and I found the change suited me well.
We rowed the waters for several hours. At the crests, I could see some of the First Oars in the other boats shouting out or waving an arm at some poor sailor struggling at his oar. Too soon, too fast, I thought. Better to see who we are and what we do.
There is nothing so alone as a small oarboat, level with the waves, making its way through the sea. We would rise high enough at the crest to glimpse one or two of the oarboats around us and then fall full down the wave into a valley, as deep and as hidden as a cave of black water. The other oarboats might be close enough to call to, but each was lost in its own ocean, as separate and as solitary as a grain of sand in a high wind. In all the world, there were only we ten—eight oars, a tiller and a lanceman—to plow a furrow through the waves that would close over behind us.
In short time, my oars were all pulling together, even in the high sea, and I could watch each of the crewmen working his oar. Ring motioned me toward the man on the sixth oar. His pull was hard but not clean, the oarhead skipping in and out of the wave like a flying fish. “Down into the wave, Jerrem!” I called to him over the thunder of the water. “Lower in! Lower in!” But the advice helped him little. He lost the rhythm of the pull and pulled against the wave rather than into it. “You! Daton!” I shouted then. “Move to the Fourth Oar in front of Jerrem! Robby, move to the Eighth!” Ring looked over to me and smiled. He understood my thought that Daton’s slow, steady stroke would serve Jerrem as anchor, as indeed it did.
In this way, I worked my crew until I was satisfied at least that we had the right man at the right oar, and only then did we take the oarboat back to the SeaWind. We were the last boat in, and both Elder and Master Jonan watched us as the oarboat was hoisted up and made fast in her place against the railing.
“First Oar sits at the left,” Elder said to me as we finished.
“Lyand throws with the left,” I said. “I will see better from the right.”
He thought for a moment and then nodded. “I have never seen it done that way,” he said and then followed the men down the ladder to the middeck below.
What good days they were, those days on the SeaWind!
To wake, even before your eyes could open, to the sigh of the sea washing against the sides; the feel of the ship as you climbed to the deck moving under your feet: a thing alive, breathing in the morning, like the sea, like the dawn, like the clouds shaken loose by the red sun rising.
To drink it all in!
And every day to voyage further yet from Last Land—farther from the last fixed moorings of all the cautious little men locked behind their solid, lifeless walls of stone and timber.
And every day closer to the Wall of the Sea, to the very End of the World!
What need of family! What need of home! This was what it was to live: to stand on the sea like the very rolling waters! Surely, this was what the gods had meant men to be!
In the first days, we spoke in the evenings—little groups gathered here and there on deck, laughing and trading stories by the light of the ocean of stars and the faint glow of the oil lamps—sailors’ stories of brave hunts and great storms, of wise captains and harmless fools, and women so beautiful that the memory of them ached inside you like the memory of your mother’s voice singing you to sleep.
But as the days passed, the stories were all told and the nights grew quiet. Men now stood at the rail, looking out at waters too dark to see, thinking, each of them, of the hunt that would soon be on us, seeing themselves in their oarboats, riding crest to valley to crest in a high sea, the voices of the lanceman and the First Oar shouting over the wind and the wave in their ears. Would they pull true? Would they hold fast when the Blue turned to stand and the First Oar called them to drive the oarboat into the belly of the great fish? These were night thoughts, even of good men, even of brave men, as the hunt grew closer. And this was the time for the Master and his First Sailor, who knew the men and who knew the hunt, to pass quietly on deck, to say a soft word or two—no more—to good men on dark nights.
At the beginning of the fourth week, I awoke to feel the sea wall under my feet. But for me and one or two others on their first hunt, everyone on board knew the feeling well, and they gathered themselves at both sides of the front deck to stare out at the western sea, even though there was nothing yet to see. It was only the small quiver of the deck—not yet a shaking or a rumbling—like the feel on the ground of a heavy wagon moving on the road ahead. We were still four days from the wall, but the thunder of the wall, higher than the highest ship’s mast, its waters crashing down at the End of the World, shook the water beneath our ship, even though we would not begin to hear the thunder itself for another day at least.
It was said that no ship could sail the waters within a day of the wall. The anger of the waters above, driven from the skies into the waters below so churned the sea to its depths that no ship could survive within a day’s sail. Stories were told of some that had tried and had been pulled apart like dry kindling in a spout .
Nor could any fish, even the Great Blue, swim within a day of the wall. Indeed, all the preparations the SeaWind had made for this hunt were to come to two or three days’ hunt within several days’ sail of the Wall. That was where the Great Blue swam, and that was where those what would hunt her must come to lower their oarboats and hurl their lances.
We lowered the boats then and spent some hours on the water. By now, each oarboat could navigate with only a glance of the lanceman and a gesture by the First Oar, but as we came closer to the sea wall, we abandoned all commands by voice; they would never be heard over the waters of the wall. So we practiced every movement and every action with no words spoken. Our oarboat crew was by now well trained, and the had earned the pride they wore as we climbed onto the SeaWind and drew our oarboat up.
Both Elder and Master Jonan had been at the rail all afternoon watching the oarboats make their way into and out of the waves, seeing which knew the waters they met and which were still not pulling at the foot of the valley and gliding over the peak of the crest. They shared words with all of the First Oars, several of the lancemen, and with one oarboat that had come dangerously close to tipping at a high crest, they had long words with all of the crew.
In the late afternoon, the First Oars examined their boats closely; the oars, the saddles, boards, rails, any weak point where the wood might crack or splinter. The lancemen gathered in a circle at the tail, laid their lances out in front of them and spent hours sharpening the heads and smoothing the poles, all the while trying to outshout the rumble of the Wall to trade tales and lies of the heaviest fish and the longest hunt. The rest moved restlessly around the deck, seeing if they could feel the coming of the Great Blue in the growing quivering under their feet or perhaps see them in the waves breaking at the horizon.
It was late in the day, the sun reaching toward the western line, when Nargin, one of the rear oars of the third boat, called the sighting from his place in the high tower of the tall mast. The wind was still fresh, and the sails slapped heavily all across the length of the deck. We could barely hear the sound of his voice calling down, but we could see his hand, pointing west. It was the signal we had waited all day to see, and we rushed to the side to see. They were still a distance away, and all I could see from the rail was a churning of the water and flashes of shining blue in and out of the water.
Not enough for me. Like a boy, I jumped into the ropes and raced my way up until I was all but in the tower with Nargin. And from there I first saw the Blue. From the top of the ropes near the tower, the run of the Blue was more than the boiling of the sea. There were 20, perhaps 30 in the run: blue fins, lighter than the blue of either the sky or the water, but shining and playing like blue fire. They cut and swirled in the waves and then disappeared just under the surface only to cut through again, a length away. Great flat tails heaved out of the sea and slapped the water, and then their heads, large, black eyes and wide mouth opened, rose up high from behind the rising wave then over and back down beneath the water so quickly that the shining blue was lost as suddenly as the drowning of a torch.
For all that I have seen, this first sight of the Great Blue: blue upon blue upon blue, the SeaWind’s sails cracking in the wind, waves beating at the boards, the thrashing of the run through the waves and, behind it all, the growling echo of the sea wall, still two days away, but growing louder by the hour—if I live longer than all the years I have so far lived, that is in my stays mind as clear as that moment itself, clearer than the face of my mother or the sound of the cry of the first child. I have lived that moment over a thousand times and will live it a thousand times more, until I die, and if the gods grant, even after that.
I was watching still when Nargin slapped me on my shoulder and pointed down at the deck. Men were starting to move toward their oarboats, oarsmen and lancemen with their long, sharpened lances held high above their heads. I began to make my way back down the web, but the sun was already tinged orange over the west, and I doubted that Elder would be sending the boats out, especially on the first hunt, so close to dark.
And so it was. By the time I reached the deck, Elder was holding the men back and calling for the First Oars of the oarboats to follow him to the back deck where the wind would not so easily blow his words away.
“Too late today,” he called out to us. “We will follow the run as well as we can through the night, and lower the oarboats at first sun.”
The First Oars nodded their understanding, and we all went to find our crews to communicate the plan as well as we could.
Most of the men stayed up on deck to watch the run until the west sky went grey. For my part, I made my way halfway up the ropes and watched from there. One of the Blue, a larger one in the front of the run, swam in patterns that caught my attention. He would turn aside to his right and disappear behind his wave; and then come forward again, turn aside again to his right and again swim under his wave. But after doing this two or three times or four, he would suddenly come forward, not through the front of his wave but over the top and to the right, to the side where an oarboat following him to the right would present its long side, where the Blue might batter or even split the side of the boat without ever coming into the range of the lance.
Elder was walking the deck below me, urging men below to food and rest. I called to him and, when he turned to see me, waved him to come up in the web with me. He came up slowly, not sure why I was calling. As he neared, I pointed out to the run of the Blue and called out to him, “watch how the big one in the front turns aside.” I pointed, and he saw my Blue and followed it for a short time with his eyes.
“Playing,” he said.
I shook my head. “No, he is preparing.”
I told him then what I was seeing and what it seemed clear to me that the Blue was doing.
“And so you would hold back from following?” he asked.
“No. We prepare as well.”
“How do you prepare?” he said. “If he comes over the wave at your side, what can you do? Your lanceman is facing forward.”
“My lanceman must be facing to the right.”
As Elder followed me down from the web to the deck, I tried to explain to him what I was thinking. If the lanceman, knowing when the Blue was going to come out over the wave, would turn to his right, his lance held steady and high would catch the Blue full-head as he came down upon us.
“Steady to the right?” Elder said.
“Yes,” I said, “but we will need another footstrap to steady him,” I said, “one to the right of the breastjoint. Lyand can then move his left foot to his right strap and the right foot to the new strap over the breastjoint.”
“And he would be facing right,” said Elder. “But the second oar would be behind his throwing arm.”
Elder knew well that in my boat, I sat behind the lanceman to the right and that I was First Oar and not second. But meaning me no disregard, his life had been spent with the First Oar sitting to the left of the lanceman and the second oar to the right, and it was a change in words he could not manage. But whatever words he used, he was right in what he said. If Lyand turned right to face the Blue coming at the side of the oarboat, his oarman to his right might well interfere with his arm.
“Yes,” I said, thinking as I spoke. “I will have to fall forward off my slat to give him room,” and Elder grunted his understanding.
Elder called Wylin who was first builder and talked him about adding a third footstrap to my oarboat.
“Oarboats have only two footstraps,” he said.
I began to try to explain why we were asking for another strap, but Elder raised a hand to me. “But you can fashion it,” he said to Wylin.
Wylin nodded. “But oarboats only have two footstraps,” he said.
“This one will have three,” said Elder.
Wylin brought up two of his men to work with him. They pulled our oarboat out its berth and set it out on deck; and I brought Lyand up from below to measure his feet for the new strap.
It was late and dark, and only a few men came up to watch the builders work and to puzzle over an oarboat with a third footstrap. Some laughed at the idea—as Wylin had said: an oarboat has only two footstraps—and I heard my name mentioned more than once in the laughter. But some looked on quietly and, like Elder, were willing to wonder what might be done that had not been done before.
We finished well after dark, working by lantern light, but I was satisfied with the work. Lyand stepped into the oarboat and moved his stance several times from forward-face, his feet in the two leftmost straps, to right-face, his feet shifted to the two rightmost straps. Back and forth, several times, and then he nodded at me and said, “This is good.”
We helped the builders reset the oarboat in its berth and then went below. Most of my oarsmen, having seen or heard what the builders had been doing to the oarboat, gathered around Lyand and me, and I tried to explain to how we were now planning to hunt our Blue at first sun. I sent them after this to get what sleep they could and then sat with Lyand and my Second Oar, Ring, to plan our hunt for the next morning.
The run moved westward during the night, and the SeaWind followed as by the light of the stars and a quarter moon. But even a slow night’s sail had brought us that much closer to the sea wall, and although it was still nearly two days’ distance, the air of the morning star rumbled louder with it than it had just those few hours before.
It was the place of the ship’s Third Sailor to pull us up from our sleeping slings in the morning by word or song or hard kick, but there was no need of him on the first morning of the hunt. Every man was up and fed and on deck waiting for the first line of the sun in the East to offer enough light to pull the oarboats down from their berths. The lancemen gathered in their own place at the back deck, sharpening their tools, adjusting their ropes, holding their lances lightly in their palms to gauge the balance and to feel the wood against their fingers.
There was a bowl of warm wax sitting over a low fire for those who might want to wax their ears. This close to the wall, and with the beating of the waves against the ship and the thrashing of the Blue that would be part of the hunt, all directions could only be given by signal in any case.
Only in Master Jonan’s cabin could any voices be understood. The master’s cabin on any ship that came this near the End of the World had to be battened with sheep’s wool and flax to hold back the roaring of the Wall. This close to it, the master found himself running to the deck to watch the hunt and then back down to the cabin to give his orders.
My oarsmen stood near me by the oarboat berth, waiting with me for the light. There were things I might have wanted to say, directions to review, but the whole of the ship was too loud and too excited for that. The words of the night before would have to suffice. Instead, I moved around my crew, slapping some on the shoulder, smiling, showing myself as eager as they were, and I tried, like them, to look like I was not at all afraid.
The first rays broke in the East, and we turned at once to the West to look at the waves nearest us. It was not yet light enough to see very much, but quick flashes of light blue shone some distance from us, like sparks of sky through dark clouds. I could not see the great Blue I had been watching the night before, but I could feel him there, with my heart and my arms, at the front of the run, waiting there for us.
Within minutes, all the oarboats were down from their berths and tethered to their lowering ropes. The lancemen came to join their crews. I took Lyand by his strong left arm and smiled at him. He, for his part, only looked at me and nodded. He glanced down at the third foot strap in our oarboat, tied to its lowering ropes on the other side of the rail, turned back to me and nodded again to say that he was ready.
Master Jonan stood by the wheelman on the half deck above the oarboat crews and waited for Elder, his First Sailor standing beside him, to signal. At first signal, we manned the lowering ropes as the Second Oar of each oarboat jumped over the rail and into his boat. At second signal, the oarboats were lowered, and, while the Second Oars pulled at the ropes of the side web to steady their oarboats, the webs were dropped, and the crews climbed down into their boats. The oarboats, now with full crew at their oars, sat low in the water.
Ring, our Second Oar, held the oarboat as tight as he could now against the side of the SeaWind while we waited for the arrows. Even more than on the deck of the SeaWind, in the oarboats the wind and the water were full of the rumble of the Sea Wall. There could only be the signals between us and the hours we had rowed together to serve us as the language of the hunt. We looked across the water, out toward the run, as we rode the swells up and down at the side of the ship. It was still too dark to single out any one Blue in the run, but the outline of the surface of the water was visible, and sometimes a surge of blue shining for an instant flickered from behind the shadow of a wave.
At last, the flame arrows flew over our heads from the deck of the SeaWind, and the oarboats set out in their order. Some of the oarboats rushed forward, faster than we, but I kept the pace strong and steady. It was not speed now, but strength that would matter. Better to be the last oarboat to reach the run if need be, but with our arms not yet strained or spent.
It was, indeed, a hard pull, and not a short one, and although the morning was still cool, the sweat was running down our arms and our backs by the time we approached the Blue. Still, the sun was higher now, and there was enough light for me to raise myself enough from my slat to find my Blue. He was where he had been the evening before: at the lead of the run. I turned to The Tiller to show him where I wanted to approach, but he had seen it already and was moving the stick to find the Blue.
I could have laughed aloud—perhaps I did, but I would have been no more able to hear myself than my oarsmen could have heard me. But I am old enough now to know in myself when I am happy. And there is no happiness like this in all the world: to know that at this very instant, there is no other place I would choose to be, and with no other companions than these, and at no other purpose—to be alive with the whole of the world waiting before me to win or to fail.
As the oarboats moved closer to the run, the Blue made ready to fight us as we did to fight them. The Blue separated from each other to break our tight group apart: to meet only one oarboat at a time and to use the wide waters, which was so much more their home than ours, to turn, to run and to attack.
The other Blue moved to the right or to the left or swam further out. But my Blue remained where he had been throughout. He would not take new waters to prepare for us. It was his water, and he would not leave it. He would wait for us to come to him.
As we neared, Lyand moved into his two front foot straps, his lance held beside him in his left hand. The Blue waited until we were just beyond the throw and then turned away from us. He moved fast enough that we would strain to catch him, but not so fast that we could not follow. I rowed harder and the oars all followed me. Slowly, we were coming closer to the throw. But as Lyand raised the lance, the Blue turned aside to his right and slipped under a wave. We followed him, over the crest, as he swam.
He did this three times, speeding up a little after each turn aside, so that we pulled harder and harder to near him.
It was all water: the waves around us, the slapping on the sides of the oarboat cracking so loud that we could not hear even the thunder of the wall; surges of water streaming down his skin as he lifted out over the water, and the sweat now covering us, dripping into our eyes and down from our beards.
And the fourth turning aside. There was something—I cannot even say what it was—perhaps a small movement of his eyes or a shutter of the fin as he turned. But I knew it was now. I turned to signal at Lyand an instant before I gave my sign to the boat, but he had seen it as well and was shifting to the side lance straps and raising his lance. I did not bother to glance at The Tiller. If I had seen it, he had seen it.
The sign now given, I pitched forward off my slat to give my lanceman his room. Ring, my Second Oar, pushed forward on his oars and the other oars all followed him. Between the forward push of the oars and the steadying of the tiller, we stopped ourselves before we turned into the crest, so as the Great Blue flew over the crest of the wave to attack the oarboat where he thought we would be, rising behind him, he came down instead beside us where we were waiting for him.
Lyand’s lance caught him fall on the side of his head, just behind his left eye. The red blood spurted on him and on us and all around him and then flowed from his head into the water and onto the oarboat. If the Blue was not dead when his head met the waves, he did not live long beyond it.
He was close enough to the oarboat when the lance hit that Lyand jumped after his lance to hang on it buried in the Blues head, to try to drive it deeper in. Lying in the oarboat in front of my slat, I could only watch the lance rope feed out, and this for only an instant, and then I was covered by the wave that all but overturned us when the Great Blue hit the water.
Several of the oarsmen washed over, and as I scrambled up from my place, the crew was in motion around me. Some were holding their oars out to the men struggling in the water. Several, led by Ring, were tying lines to the tail of the Blue to haul him back. And Lyand was hanging still onto his lance, thrusting it still further into the head of that great and beautiful blue fish, behind the eyes that were opened wide but empty.
Ours was the first kill, and the SeaWind sailed toward us, but even with the shorter row, it was a hard row back, the Blue tied behind us. Our Blue was as long as our oarboat and half again as wide, and had he not still had his last breath inside him, five oarboats could not have pulled him back to the ship. This was now our task: to bring him back before he lost his air and sank. The oarsmen all had stories of Blue who were caught too far from the ship and had sunk, some dragging their oarboats down behind them.
We were well spent and more by the time our oarboat reached the SeaWind, but it was now for the oarboat crew to join the deck crew in hauling the Blue on board and in raising him for the skinning and the stripping. While the oarboat crews had ridden out to the hunt, the deck crew had been preparing for the kill. The spice barrels had been brought up from the store and filled with seawater to mix the brine. Forward of the wheel, fires had been lit to melt the fat, and the broad rear deck had been set up to strip and stretch the skins and to slice and trim the flesh.
The ropes waited for us, hanging from the hoists on deck, to tie the Blue by its wide tail for the deck crew to haul up. As the Blue rose up over our heads and my crew climbed up the side web to take their places on deck, Ring and I brought the oarboat around to the far side where the carpenters waited.
We were the first oarboat back, and we had the whole of the carpenter crew to inspect our oarboat. By the time we had climbed the web, the oarboat had been hoisted up and overturned, the water draining out onto the deck and into the spill hollows beneath the rails. The tiller was strong and the bottom tight, but the Blue had crushed the front brace ridge and frame with a slap of its tail when it had crested the wave.
The carpenters replaced the damaged wood quickly, dowelling it into place and covering it inside and out with white tar that would hold it well enough until they could repair it more securely on the sail back to Last Land. Within a short time, the oarboat was back in the water—although we had to wait a moment for Wynin to point out the three-foot straps to his crew—before the oarboat was lowered so that and my crew joined us to climb back down web and into the boat to rejoin the hunt.
We lowered to the hunt four times that day and took a Blue each time, although none was so large as our first. On our third hunt, the Blue turned aside to his right suddenly to escape us, and Lyand made use again of his third strap to throw his lance. This time I was not expecting his shift and was knocked off my slat by the backswing of Wyland’s right arm as he threw his lance with the left. A small price for the kill.
The hunt went well that day for the SeaWind. We took twenty Blue, as much as the deck crew could handle.
One of the oarboats was badly splintered by a slash of the Blue’s tail in its death thrash. The Second Oar returned with a broken arm, and more than a few scars were won by the crew on that hunt. But the break in the arm was clean and would heal well, and the scars would become stories for the tavern when we returned. For now, the boat could only be awkwardly patched, but like all Blue ships, the SeaWind carried spare oarboats in its rack, so that the oarboat crew—with a replacement for its second oar—would be out in a fresh boat on the second day.
The Sea Wall, where the Great Blue swims, is over three week’s sail from the closest harbor, so the meat that reaches port is already cut and casked in brine and spices. Only fishermen who hunt the Blue near the Wall ever eat the meat, fresh cooked, with no taste of the salt of the brine or the sweetness of the spices. That special meal served to those who hunt the Blue had over the generations become a ceremony called The Silent Feast although the sea was far from silent this close to the Wall. It was The Silent Feast because no voices could be heard over the clamor of the waters, so that, like the hunt itself, it was held through gesture and signal alone in keeping with the traditions past on from ship to ship, from crew to crew.
And yet each ship held its Feast in its own way. On some ships, the Master served the crew; on others, the lancemen served the First Oars: all alike, but each a little different, special to its ship, but all held on the first night of the hunt, after the sun had come down.
On the SeaWind, on that first night of the hunt, a broad board was set on deck, and the whole of the crew gathered around it. Torches were lit all around, so that the other ships we could see here and there around us were like constellations across the dark waters, shining back at the stars. On the forward short end of the broad board, seats were set for Master Jonan, Elder and, as First Oar of the oarboat of the first kill, for me.
When the crew had assembled, the signal was given and the cooks brought up platters of ships’ bread, a keg of white ale brought with us for The Silent Feast, and long, wide wooden platters filled with large, steaming steaks of Great Blue, fried in its own oil. Even in the high winds, the ship tossing on the rough waters, the smell of the fresh fish, sweeter than new-killed lamb off the spit was everywhere around us.
The largest platter was set before me: First Oar of the first kill, and beside it a stack of smaller wooden plates. Other platters and plates, bowls of ship’s bread, the uncorked keg of ale and cups, were placed around the broad board, but nothing would be touched until the ceremonies were completed.
I speared the top steak, placed it on a plate and put it before Master Janen. As was the custom, he half-rose and bowed to me slightly, and I bowed in return. Master Janen then waited as I served Elder, his First Sailor, Lyand who had Lance the first kill, and Nargin who had sighted and called the run of the Blue from the tower in the high mast.
Ship custom now called for Ring, my Second Oar, to take a plate of the meat to serve the members of the oarboat crew, but I motioned him to wait this a moment, and, instead, I brought a plate to Wylin, the first carpenter, and laid it on the board before him. He looked at me with some surprise; this was not the practice on the SeaWind, but I raised three fingers at him and bowed slightly. I thought he might smile or even laugh at this, but he did not. He stood full before me, held up three fingers and bowed, his face as grave and as humble as a warrior receiving his first sword from the King. I could only try and match his earnestness and bowed deeply to him in return.
I finally then took my place at the board. Ring took his platter and served the crew and, with the ceremony now complete, Master Janen took his first bite of the seared meat before him, and the feast began. There was steak and bread for all, the keg was passed and the cups filled and refilled many times. The feasting and the speechless revelry continued until all the food was eaten, all the ale drunk, and the torches had sputtered their last, leaving the SeaWind lost in the blackness of the dark night
By sunset of the fourth day, our hunt was over. We worked half way through that night to skin and slice the Blue, cask the meat and boil the fats, and with that, the ship’s storage on the lower deck was full. We would keep sailing westward through the next day and the next night to bring us in sight of the Sea Wak before turning to home. Although the SeaWind would sail no closer than the view of the great Wall half a day’s sail on, the reward for the sail and the hunt for every member of the crew — master to cook’s boy — was to see with his own eyes the wall of crashing water, taller than five ships’ masts, boiling the water half a day’s sail east into white foam mountains that could rip the bottom out of the sturdiest ship ever built like twigs in a seaspout.
That last day’s sail westward would start us on the work that would occupy us on the sail back: washing and sanding the decks; clearing and logging the ropes and the extra sail; setting the ship’s store; marking the repairs and replacements to be made when we reached Last Land so that the SeaWind might return as quickly as it could to the hunt before the Winter drove the Blue away from the Wall for the season.
But that night I had my dream.
The next morning had us doing the first cleaningss of the deck which was wet with the blood and the fats of the Blue, oil spilled from the barrels on the front deck, the skin and bits of meat on the back deck, and wood and sawdust at the carpenters deck. It would take most of the day to clear the deck and give it a first wash and several days more to wash the deck again and again to ready it for the rough sanding.
Master Jonan walked the deck, overseeing the work, looking for jobs of repair or adjustment that could be done during the sail back to Last Land.
I worked all morning with the crew sorting the woods at the carpenter’s deck and hauling them down to storage.
The sun was near its height when I finally caught the Master’s eye and motioned that I wanted to speak with him. It was not until later in the afternoon that he nodded to me as he went below deck, and I followed him down to his cabin. The room itself was small: enough for a sleeping sling, somewhat larger and wider than those of the crew; a small, round table bolted to the floor; and one chair. When we entered, the one shutter was opened, but Master Jonan closed it before he sat in the chair, at the same time motioning me to close the door. With the door and the shutter closed, the sound was like the inside of a barrel with the rain beating down on its cover, flat and not at all clear, but at least voices could be heard.
“Greenhill?” He said
“Master,” I said. And he waited for me to speak. “My part is one half share,” I said.
“A full share,” he said.
“No, Master. I signed for a half share.”
“Yes,” he answered, “but you are worth every ounce of a full share, and I do not cheat my crew.” I have known few Masters, even honest ones, who would have said such a thing.
“Thank you, Master,” I said. “Is my share enough to buy one of the damaged oarboats?”
A strange question. It showed on his face. He thought and then said, “it may well be, but we can talk about this more on the sail home.”
“No, Master,” I said. “I had a dream last night. I am to leave the SeaWind tomorrow and to pull an oarboat through the Sea Wall.”
First he laughed and then he stopped and looked at me. It was clear in how he stared that no stranger statement had ever been made in the Master’s cabin than the one I had just said. I had thought all morning of how to tell Master Jonan what I was meant to do, but I knew that I was speaking madness, and I could find no better way to say it then as simply as I had done.
He looked at me for several long moments, having no ready answer to offer.
Finally, he drew a deep breath and said, “A dream?”
“I have never had a dream like this before,” I said.
“Thank the gods!” he said. “You have never had a dream like this before! I had a dream once that I caught three Sea Women in my net and brought them on board and into my cabin. I never had a dream like that before either.”
“But I did not wake up the next morning, throw my wife out and trade my oarboats in for a wider net.”
“No, Master,” I said.
“And I certainly will not send a crazy old man out to kill himself in one of my oarboats
I wanted to tell him then that I could not explain to him how I knew that the dream was true, only that my heart knew that it was with a certainty I had never before felt; but I could not share that feeling with him and it was not a thing which could be said in words. And so I said nothing.
“You have not seen the Sea Wall,” the Master said. “You have not watched the water bubble like a boiling pot for a half day’s sail from the End of the World. The SeaWind would be ripped apart like dry tinder three hours from the wall. An oarboat? An oarboat!…” And here his face softened and he stopped speaking for a moment. “I am sorry the Wall has driven you mad. I can only promise you that we will tie you tight to keep you from killing yourself, and I will do my best to bring you back safe to Last Land.”
He looked at me with a deep seriousness, with concern: a good master wanting to save even a madman among his crew.
And I laughed. I could not help myself. He was right of course. What could I be but a madman to try the Great Sea Wall in a little broken stick of a damaged oarboat? My laugh did nothing, I am sure, to make him think better of me.
“In my dreams,” I said at last, “the sea was calm.”
“And in my dreams,” said the Master, “I was young and handsome. Dreams are for being stupid. That is what dreams are for. But then we wake up!”
“I will not try to pass through the sea wall,” I said, “if the sea is not calm.”
“Calm?” he said, half rising from his chair. “Calm! I have seen the Sea Wall more than 200 times, boy and man. It is never calm! Water is never dry, and salt is never sweet. And the Sea Wall is never calm. Never!”
He rubbed his beard, sat himself down heavily in his chair and struggled to control himself.
“I will not take the oarboat if the sea is not calm,” I said again.
He looked at me again for a long time, and when next he spoke, he spoke more slowly and more quietly, almost too quietly to be heard in the room. “You are a good sailor, Greenhill,” he said sadly. “I am very sorry that you have chosen to go mad on my ship.”
I could only nod and say, “Yes, Master.”
The rest of that day moved slowly. There was work to do, and the crew stayed busy, but the day after the hunt, sailing toward the Sea Wall before turning for home, was always a slower day, men taking time to smoke an extra pipe or lean at the rails.
I spent the afternoon up in the ships ropes, marking the sails where they would need repair: rips at the rings or splits and wear in the foldsaround the mast. At least one of the smaller, low sails was too tattered for repair and would have to be replaced when the SeaWind returned to Harbor.
At one point I looked down at the deck and saw Master Jonan coming up from below with Elder, the First Sailor. They stopped on deck to look up at me in the ropes. With the pitching of the ship, I could not read their faces from the height of the mast, but I did not have to, to know what the Master ha d said below to Elder or what they were thinking now.
I did not expect to sleep that night. Very few did the night before reaching the Sea Wall. So close to the Wall, the noise below deck and the shaking of the ship made sleep impossible. Most, like me, stayed on deck curled up under one of the low sails to avoid the spray blowing in harder and harder from the west.
It hurt me to have lost the regard of Master Jonan, a good and honorable Master. But my dream was true. I knew it without question. Yet, what could I have said to him? I would not have believed me either: an old man with a ridiculous dream, a fool swimming with an anchor tied to his feet. And if, after all, it was only an empty dream, as he had said? It did not really bother me that the crew, hearing of my request of the Master—and hear it they would certainly—would think me mad. I had thought myself mad more than once. It was that they would think that everything we had done together: the work and the hunt, the stories and the talks at the end of the day: that all of that had been of no more meaning than the emptiness of a madman’s prattling, that they would feel that nothing we had done as crewmates had mattered at all. And in the end, I knew that it was what had mattered most.
The sun was well down now, and this close to the Wall, the sky was as closed as a black roof. In the dark—no torch would stay lit in this wind—some of us tied some loose sail against the western rail to make whatever cover we could against the gusts, and we crouched beneath it, hiding under a flapping tent on the deck. There was nothing we could see; there was the only the deep thundering of the water underneath us and the water blowing in where it found space, dripping on us from the sailcloth over our heads. That moment: the thundering beneath us and the water finding its way through the sail: something moved in my memory—it took me several moments to find it—but I did al last. It was the herding of the horses on the plains of the Southern Flatland.
Many years before—perhaps thirty, perhaps more—I had spent several years in the wide, flat land that spreads out like a broad brown ribbon at the foot of the Green Mountains, south of the cities of the midland. In the summer, we would herd the wild horses that run in small packs on the plain; and through the fall and winter, we would tame them for the saddle and the wagon and then sell them in the spring.
They were large, fierce, beautiful animals when we took them in their packs: black or gray or brown, their backs higher than most men, with hooves that could crack rock or bone without feeling it. Two or three of us working together—or four or five or six, in truth—could not have been able to capture a horse. It was, instead, a matter trapping them, of forcing them down into a narrowing between the hills and then closing them in before they could turn and run back out. We would earlier lay out feed and water in the narrow in hopes to calm then when they entered, and then we would try to chase them in and then stop the way with rocks and branches before they could make their way out.
We had followed a pack of about fifteen for several days late in the summer that year. In most packs, there were a few horses that could never be trained, too stupid or too angry to understand that when the man trains the horse, the horse trains the man to the benefit of them both. But this pack was strong. They moved well, not simple to find the next patch of sweet grass, but with purpose. We had only to watch them run to know that this was a pack that would train.
Part of this was the Front Horse of the pack. Was it that such a strong pack had chosen a stronger Front, or was it that a strong Front had takenonly such strong horses for his pack? Probably both. But The Gray was an animal to be prized. He was not entirely gray; his mane and his tail were dark black and there was a streak of a lighter gray, nearly white, that ran down his rear left foot, from flank to hoof. But we called him The Gray because we needed to name him. It would not have done to speak of him as the front horse or the gray horse. He deserved his own name, and it was as natural for us to have named him as it would have been to name a ship or a mountain. And so he was “The Gray” and the pack was “The Gray’s Pack.”
We followed the pack for some days until we found a small narrowing at the end of a long path near several grass stripes at the top of a row of hills where the pack had been grazing. For several days, we gathered up branches and rocks at the sides of the opening of the narrowing to trap the pack inside when they had run in.
During the dark of that last night, we set up the feed and water where the narrowing ended against a steep hill, and then took post. Some men hid themselves in a wide half circle around the grazing stripes, leaving the path to the narrowing open, and others placed themselves behind rocks and shrubs on the sides of the path down to the narrowing.
In the early morning, when the pack came to graze, the men on the hilltops closed the half circle quietly, surrounding the pack as closely as they could and then waited until the pack was eating peacefully on the hilltop. When the signal was given, the men on the hill ran forward waving their arms and shouting like children running from fire. This was the moment: if the pack could be startled into running down the path, away from the men on the hill, those on the sides of the path would continue the shouting and the waving down into the narrowing. But the horses were far stronger than the few men at the top of the hill, and if they would hold, all of our work would have brought us nothing.
The Gray did not run. He raised his head at the noise and looked around him at the men running toward the pack, but he did not lift a hoof or snort the air. But there were horses who were startled, who reared on their hind legs to back away from the noise and the movement. Soon, they were running down the path, and then all the others followed except for The Gray. Those of us alongside the path rushed out as the horses passed us, yelling and waving them down the path toward the narrowing.
Their running—their great, powerful hooves bursting on the ground like thunder—soon muffled any shouting we were doing, and it was now all the beating of hooves and the rumbling of the ground around us. And then, all at once, from nowhere, there was rain.
It did not begin slowly, a few drops and then more and then more. It poured on us suddenly: the men, the horses, the dirt, the rocks, lost in the thickness of the rain: the rumbling of the sky above us and the earth beneath us, and in our faces the rain and the splattering of the mud from the running of the horses. The whole of the world was the noise and the water. The horses fled down the path and into the narrowing, and as soon as the first horses were in the narrowing, the men at the mouth were closing it off with the rocks and the branches, and others were hurrying down to help them.
But I turned to look back to the hill above, and standing alone in the rain was The Gray. He had still not moved. He stood tall and straight on the hilltop, his eyes fixed on the narrowing that now held his pack behind the branches and the rocks. He stood so still that it was as though the whole world had stopped with him: the thunder was gone, and the pounding, and even the raindrops seemed anchored in the air. There was only The Gray, the center of a world that no longer moved.
It was the stillness that woke us. There was no sound anywhere, and yet we did not even notice the silence. It was only part of the stillness.
The sea is never still, it cannot be still: even on a glass sea, the ripples slap at the sides and the boards creak softly with the swell of the water. But we did not move: not the boat nor the deck nor the water. Nothing moved. We were not in the sea; we were on it, like one rock sitting on another.
We struggled to get to the rail. The deck was as hard and flat as a barren field; and after weeks at sea, there was suddenly no sway under our feet, and we moved like newborn calves not knowing what their legs were meant to do. We might have laughed at each other if we had been stepping onto the dock after a long sail, but we were at sea, and yet this was not the sea.
We were in a child’s painting. The sky was blue and the sea was green, and even the Sea Wall at the Western horizon was only strokes of green and blue, with no water falling from the sky or water churning where the Wall met he ocean. And nowhere was there a wave or a ripple or the groan of a plank or the slap of a water on wood. No cloud, no bird moved in the sky; no wind moved in the air. Our whole world was without life. The SeaWind was a child’s toy placed on top of a child’s painting. We reached the rail and hung on it, unable to understand where we were or how we had come to be here.
The few men below began now to stumble up on deck, stopping immediately to stare at the world that did not move, from the deck of the ship that did not sail.
How long we stood at the rail I cannot say. We had all pulled the wax from our ears, but the world was no less silent. Still, no one spoke. The first words came from the Master. We heard uneven footsteps coming up from below, and we turned to see the Master coming up unsteadily to join us at the rail. He, too, stood there for a long while. And then he turned to me and said, “Who are you?”
It took me a moment to understand what he was saying. Me, he was saying. It was me. I had done this. This was what I told him would happen. The sea would be still so that I could go through the Sea Wall. But I had not imagined this. How could I? No one who had ever walked the deck of a ship could have imagined this child’s painting of a dead sea.
“It was not this is my dream…” I said, but I did not sound like myself. My voice was heavy and flat.
And Master Jonan shook his head. “Dream,” he said.
As few and unclear as our words had been, the crew standing nearby at the rail had heard them, and a soft murmur spread on the deck; and without even realizing, the men began to step away from where I was standing. So I was not, after all, to be remembered as the crazy old sailor. I was to be something else: the stranger who had come onboard to stop the sea. Not a joke or a sailors’ tale, but a story to scare children, perhaps even a curse.
Master Jonan called for Wylin and told him to take some men and to bring the one of the repaired oarboats, and as these men moved unevenly toward the boat stacks, I turned to go below to gather together what few things I had. As I went, some of the crew stared at me like someone they had never seen before while others looked down at the flat deck so as not to look at my face.
There was little enough to bring up. I rolled the few things together and threw them in my seabag, and then I paused to look at the sleeping slings hanging from the underdeck, the ropes as fixed in their places as though they had been carved from wood. I touched one of ropes with my finger, and it moved as though it were a real rope hanging from the underdeck of a real ship. But nothing was real.
As I came back on deck, Wylin and two others were tying the oarboat to lowering ropes. As I walked toward them, the men who had moved closer to the oarboat to watch stepped back again, so that only Wylin and his crew were near the boat when the Master motioned for the oarboat to be lowered. As the oarboat neared the water, everyone on deck moved to the rail to watch, to watch for ripples in the water and the rocking of the boat when it touched down. But nothing moved; the oarboat lay unmoving on top of the water like a bench bolted to the floor. Still, we watched. Water must move. What is water if it does not move?
“Taking early leave, Grandfather?”
It was Ring, my Second Oar, stepping toward me with several of the oarboat crew. He wore the smile that was always on his face, strange as it was to see at this moment.
“So it seems, boy,” I said.
“It needs a few more days to dry properly,” he said, and he held out to me a seabag made of a fin of the Blue, such as a number of the crew had. “From your first Blue,” he said.
It was a large bag—it had been a large Blue—lined inside with sailcloth, a wide, colored cloth sewn on as a shoulder strap on two sides of its opening.
“We had not expected that we would have to give it to you quite so soon,” he said.
“No,” I said. And I looked at Ring and at the men of my oarboat crew, good men all. “Thank you,” I said.
“Fair winds, Grandfather,” he said, and he held my shoulder for a moment. “You were as good a First Oar as I have ever had.”
I nodded at him. “Take care of the boat, boy,” I said, and they turned and moved away from the rail.
I stuffed my small seabag into the Blue bag and put it on my shoulder, and then, before putting my leg over the side to climb down the web, I looked for a minute for the men on deck. Most of them looked at me now—my conversation with Ring, brief as it was, had at least shown that I had not turned into a demon or a madmen—but clearly none of them understood what was happening any more than I.
As I swung my leg over the rail and felt with my foot for the top rope in the web, a hand took my arm to steady me. I turned to see Elder, the First Sailor, holding my arm. We were not friends. We had spoken about the men and the oarboats as a First Sailor does with the First Oar of his boats, but we had never shared a pipe at night on deck or traded stories or laughed together. Of everyone on board, why Elder would have stepped forward to help me over the side, I did not understand. And then, as he held my arm, he leaned close to me and spoke into my ear so softly that I was not sure—I am still not sure—that I heard him correctly. “All will be well, Greenhill.”
What did that mean? But even as I raised my head up to look at him, he had let go my hand and was walking away, and there was nothing for me to do now but climb down the web to the oarboat. It felt all wrong: the boat did not sway, the web did not move; nothing was what it should have been. I knew before I stepped onto the oarboat that it would be as still and as hard as an anchor, but knowing it did not make feel more real. Without looking up, I knew that many were staring over the rail to see if the oarboat would move at all in the water when I stepped onto it, if perhaps a ripple would escape from the side. But the painted sea, the oarboat, the ship were all one great statue. Only the men in this little piece of the granite block moved at all, like ants on the sand.
I sat in the middle of the second slat and reached for the grips of the oars in their saddles. And how was I to row with the oarheads hitting against the rock of the ocean? But before my fingers could touch the wood of the grips, the oarboat was moving. It was not floating or sailing; it was not moving in the water: there was no wave before the front dart nor wake behind the backboard. Was the oarboat moving on the water or over the water? And so fast! By the time I thought to look back at the SeaWind, the ship was too far for me to see the faces clearly on the deck.
I had never moved so quickly. Not the fastest ship I had ever served, at full sail with a gale wind driving, had moved at such speed. And there was no wind. There was no motion. It could have been me at rest, and the whole of the painted world flying by me. What should have taken the best part of a day was done in minutes. I looked back at the SeaWind and it was only a few strokes of paint on the horizon of the painted sea. I turned to the front, and before me was the Great Sea Wall, the End of the World standing still and silent, a curtain taller than the sky and stretching to the North and the South until it was only a dot at the far ends of the earth.
The wall itself was water except that it did not move. It hung in the air: in ribbons, in droplets, in streams, stretching from the sky to the painted sea. I held out my hand as the dart of the oarboat moved into the Wall. The hanging water was sea-green and soft; the pieces moved when I touched them, but they were not wet. They felt like water, but they were not wet.
The oarboat moved into the Wall now, pushing the streams and the ribbons aside silently as it went. I turned back to look out from inside the curtain, and there was only the flat green of the sea and the flat blue of the sky reflecting from the edges of the pieces of water around me. And then softly at first, from the front of the oarboat there was a sound. It was water, falling, splashing gently. As I turned toward the dart of the oarboat to look, drops of water fell on my head and my face, and there was the soft thud of rain drops on the wood of the oarboat. It was a shower, a summer shower of fresh water dropping from inside the Wall. The curtain behind me remained silent and unmoving, but I was floating into falling water—moving, wet water. I held my hand out to feel the wetness, to touch it to my face, to taste it: fresh, sweet water failing inside the Sea Wall.
And then the shower of water ended as my oarboat passed through the Wall to the other side.
copyright 2002, 2017 Gary M. Levine
The family lived in a a three-story walk-up in Williamsburg, and like virtually everyone else they knew, they got by as well as they could. My grandfather, whom they called Pop, took the bus to New Utrecht Avenue downtown every day to work as a silversmith in a room full of silversmiths and was grateful to God to have the job. The oldest of the children, Issie, a few years older than my Mom, was working stock in a warehouse and brought home what he made. My mom, who was, at the time, called Laya at home at Lena in the English-speaking world, had finished high school several years before and had desperately wanted to take college courses like her friend Tillie whose father was more well-to-do. But that was not at all in the realm of possibility, so she learned bookkeeping and was working for an import-export company whose owner paid her as miserably as everyone else was paid but, she always said, treated his people with courtesy and even kindness.
Of her three younger siblings, Alex and Lil, the two youngest, were still in school, and Jenny, as I said, was dying.
The parents had come from Russia in the first decade of the century, young and newly married; four of their five children were born in the New World. Like most of the generation they belonged to, they never got much past the Yiddish they grew up with or whatever education they brought with them, but they raised children who would look at America — which, for at least the first decades of their lives, consisted of Brooklyn, occasional forays into “The City”, and once or twice a year to visit relatives in Poughkeepsie — like Columbus seeing the first strip of golden land rising to greet him on the horizon. And they, in their turn, would raise the next generation of American Jews to be professionals, musicians, academics, the occasional schoolteacher.
The religious affiliation of the immigrant parents would be more complicated to define. Jewish: certainly, but not observant. Traditional. But the meaning of all of that was different then. There was no blatantly unkosher food in the house. No one was eating out at restaurants in those days, so that was not much of an issue. Shabbes was an interesting hybrid. Pop worked half a day on Saturday — if you didn’t work Saturday, you didn’t work. But on Saturdays, he went in early and walked back from the bus stop a little after noon. He wore a cloth cap, and people on their way back from shul would give him “Gut Shabbes”, and he would respond in kind: “Gut Shabbes.” The family was waiting at home when he came in. My mom, Lena, might have gone to shul for a while to see her friends, perhaps taking Lil and Alex with her, but they would all be home and waiting for Pop when he came in. He would come in without greeting them, and they would offer him no greeting. He would simply walk through the apartment to the bathroom where Mama had drawn a bath for him. As he washed off the chemicals and the smells of his work, Mama and one or two of the children would set the table. In a few minutes, Pop would come into the kitchen in a clean white shirt and a fresh pair of pants and take his place at the head of the table, the challahs in front of him under the embroidered cover, the wine bottle and the cup waiting for him. And then Mama and the children would come to the table. They would wish each other Gut Shabbes, and sit down to the Shabbes meal.
However observant they might have thought themselves to be, they were certainly not chassidic. But beliefs and customs aside, there were understandings that went back generations from the old country that everyone knew: more than folklore or stories, there was wisdom that had lived hundreds of years and did not simply end at the European shore of the Atlantic. There was, as a part of this, the unique standing of the Chassidic Rebbe. Not all Rebbes; just some, just a few. But it was known there were Rebbes who spoke to God and were answered. There were Rebbes who, like Choni the Circle-maker in the Talmud, could call upon God and be heard. “What can we do?” the Rabbis in the Talmud said about Choni’s strange ideas and practices. “God loves him like a son.” And while there were several chassidic rebbes in New York, the real ones, the ones that might know the prayers to say that would compel God to listen, were back in der heim, tied to the shtetls and the back woods where the Baal Shem Tov had sought out the secret path to the God of the simple people.
Mama heard that such a Rebbe had come to New York. He was the latest of a chassidic dynasty that was tied to a small town in White Russia, not far from where Mama herself had been born. The Rebbe’s family name was known, son of his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather, back to the disciples of the original disciples of the Baal Shem himself. Mama had heard – everyone had heard – stories of wonders that had been done: the barren made fertile, the dying reborn, the broken made whole. And the Rebbe himself was now in New York.
It was strange how hearing this affected Mama. It had been nearly twenty-five years since she had seen the old world: her parents, her childhood friends. But hearing that a Rebbe had come brought something back to her. Perhaps a feeling, perhaps only a smell, like the Jewish end of the town on a Thursday morning when the farmers and the peasants in their old wooden wagons were in from the countryside selling their eggs, milk, chickens, crafts in the town square, the odors and sounds blending with those of the wagons and the horses and of the commotion of the townspeople coming to shop: housewives in their aprons and babushkas; men, some bearded with theirtzitzis swinging about from under their coats; young women – girls – shopping for their mothers; young men looking around. And yet with all of these smells and sounds mixing together, the air was still somehow fresh, light, cool on your face, like the last days of summer bringing new, soft winds in from the north. Perhaps, then, it was some sudden sense memory of all that which Mama felt; and even not-religious as she was, not-chassidic as she was, it suddenly mattered to her very much that the Rebbe was here. In New York. For how long? A week? Two? Three? She sought out information from those who would know: the religious women in Williamsburg who knew best the stories of the great Rebbes. Where was he? How could he be approached? What might be asked of him?
It was early on a Tuesday morning in late October. Lena had arranged to come to work several hours late that day and to work several hours longer so that she could be with Mama at 7:00 in the morning, waiting for the streetcar to take them across the Williamsburg Bridge to Essex Street on the Lower East Side. It had rained during the night, and the streets were wet with small, dark puddles dotting the street under the grey morning sky. There would be more rain today. And it was cold. Mama wore her heavy blue coat and Lena wore Mama’s brown coat. Lena was taller and considerably thinner than Mama, so the coat hung awkwardly on her shoulders and did not reach much beneath her knees, leaving several inches of her print dress showing out below the hem. Mama wore a hat, not how she usually dressed, but a woman dressed appropriately to see a Rebbe: a dress with long sleeves and high neck, stockings on the feet and a covering on the head.
The streetcar was crowded at that hour with people heading off to work, cloth coats rubbing up against cloth coats. A pleasant young man got up to give Mama a seat, and a man next to him began to rise for Lena, but she smiled at him and shook her head briefly. She had a lovely smile, and for a moment the man paused, as though not sure what the smile might mean, but she turned away to peer out of the window between the cloth coats at the tall buildings ahead in Manhattan and out of the side windows what she might see of the East River. The short ride over the river on a Tuesday morning was a small adventure to her, and even small adventures were not to be ignored. Mostly, there were just grey metal railing rushing past, but she could glimpse an occasional boat in the colorless water below. Mama, for her part, looked straight ahead and gripped the black purse in her lap, her thumbs on either side of the brass clasp that opened and closed it. Lena looked back from the window and thought to say something to Mama, but it was clear that Mama did not want to talk. She was focused on the mission of this morning.
Lena understood that there would be no stopping to look in the windows of all the stores on the street or at the bright clothes in the stands and carts that contrasted so wonderfully with the dull morning. Mama walked steadily across Delancey for several blocks and then turned up Division Street, past the Manhattan Bridge and to one of the tenements on Henry Street. The apartment was on the fourth floor of a five-story walk-up. They made their way up the stairs slowly, stopping on every floor; Mama was not young and her blood pressure was a problem. The door of the apartment where the Rebbe was to be found was open part of the way, an indication to those coming to find the right apartment, like the open door of a shiva house.
The apartment was clearly borrowed. In the front room, the table had been moved to the side, partially blocking the small kitchen, so that chairs could be set up at the sides of the room. The wide doorway to the small adjacent living room had been covered by a sheet, tacked up above as a makeshift curtain. Clearly it was here that the Rebbe was meeting with those who had come to see him.
It was only about 8:30 in the morning, but already there were six or seven people sitting on these chairs. When Mama and Lena came in, the Rebbe’s shamos, a tall chasid perhaps in his late forties came to the door and, with a brief smile, motioned them to two chairs on the other side of the room. He seemed a pleasant man, although his full beard seemed to be aging strangely, with several thick lengths of white streaking through the dark black in awkward stripes. There was a soft hiss coming from the radiator, and the steam heat rising in a room of damp cloth coats smelled uncomfortably like wet cats. When Mama and Lena had been sitting for a few minutes, their coats unbuttoned now, the shamos came back, a piece of paper in his hand, to ask why they had come and what they wished from the Rebbe.
The conversation was in Yiddish; the shamos who had travelled from the old country with the Rebbe knew no English. Mama explained that her daughter was ill and that she sought a bracha from the Rebbe. He glanced then at Lena who was doing her best not to seem to be looking at the others in the room. “Not this one,” Mama said to him in Yiddish. “Her sister.” He suggested that Mama might want to write down the sick girl’s name for the Rebbe to include in his prayer. She answered by opening her purse and showing an envelope she had. The shamos understood from this, as he was meant to, that Mama had prepared the name to give the Rebbe as well as a modest consideration to aid in the Rebbe’s work. He nodded to her and moved away to seat an elderly man who was just entering the apartment. As he left, Mama turned back the top flap of the envelope inside her purse. The envelope held a twenty dollar bill and a piece of paper with the name “Tshorna bas Soroh Devorah” written in Yiddish.
From the other side of the hanging sheet, Lena could hear voices. There were two voices, a man and a woman, speaking short sentences, and then a deeper voice — she assumed it to be the Rebbe — responding in longer sentences. She caught the occasional word, but she did not want to know what the conversation was about. She glanced at Mama and then around the room. No one was speaking; this was not a place for conversation. The only voice in the front room was of the shamos speaking briefly, almost in a whisper, asking his preliminary questions to provide information to write down on his piece of paper. Lena briefly wished to herself that she had brought a book, but no one was reading either. Everyone was quietly waiting for a turn with the Rebbe.
After several minutes, the makeshift curtain was pushed open at one corner, and a man and a woman emerged from the meeting room: a husband and wife obviously, he bearded, in black coat and black hat, she in a dark coat opened over a dark dress, a large dark hat on her head. The wife was dabbing her eyes quietly with a tissue, and the husband looked thoughtful: troubled, Lena thought. They made their way to the front door, pausing only to speak briefly with the shamos before they left.
The shamos then checked his paper and went to a young woman, her hair uncovered, sitting in a corner chair, and motioned her to go into the meeting room. She rose slowly and made her way hesitantly toward the curtain. The shamos hurried ahead of her to pull back a corner of the curtain for her to enter. When he dropped the edge of the sheet and turned back to the waiting room, the corner of the sheet did not fold back down completely but bunched up somewhat, leaving a section uncovered, so that from where Lena and Mama sat, they could see part of the meeting room.
Again, furniture had been moved to the side of the room that they could see: an old couch, two padded arm chairs. In the middle of the room, they could see a the lower part of the table and part of a chair where the young woman was taking a seat. Behind the table, they saw the Rebbe standing, at least from his chest down. He wore a long, black coat on his wide frame, and when he sat down, they could see his thick white beard moving back and forth, brushing the top of his belly as he spoke.
During the eight or ten minutes the young woman spent speaking with the Rebbe, more people came into the apartment. A group of four chasidim, older men with peyes in curls protruding from under their black hats, entered the apartment and spoke with some urgency to the shamos about needing to speak to the Rebbe right away. The shamos answered them quietly, too quietly for Lena to hear, politely but firmly, and after a few moments, the chasidim nodded and looked down at the shamos’ paper as he wrote, and then they quietly turned around and left the room.
The young girl pulled up the corner of the curtain and left the Rebbe’s room, her face calm and still. Lena watched her as she walked through the waiting room as did everyone else sitting there, each one trying to read on that face what the girl was thinking, what the girl had heard.
As the girl left, the shamos turned to motion in the next name on his list, when the Rebbe called out from behind the curtain. “Nachum!” The shamos hurried in and, after a minute, came out and walked down a narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms. Within a minute he had returned and behind him, a young woman in a long blue skirt and a blue tichel knotted at the nape of her neck. She squeezed past the table and into the kitchen where she quickly put a kettle on the stove. Within a few minutes, she squeezed past the table again, carrying a small tray with a glass of hot tea, a bowl of sugar cubes and a small plate of cookies. The shamos held open the curtain for her as she entered the room. For a minute there was quiet, and then the Rebbe’s voice shouted out: “Froy!” he called. “Du narishe froy! Kenst`du nisht afile trogn a gloz tey!”
The young woman rushed from the room, her face white, and she all but ran into the kitchen to bring a towel to clean up what had spilled. From behind the curtain, the Rebbe’s spoke to his shamos, his voice now somewhat quieter, but still quite audible to everyone in the waiting room: “Nachum, kenen`du nisht gefinen emetser vus iz nisht a nar?”
The people in the waiting room stole uncomfortable glances at each other while on the other side of the curtain, they could hear plates being moved around and the Rebbe and the shamos speaking more quietly to each other. Lena tried to see something at the corner of the curtain, but it swayed only a little where the people had entered and there was nothing much to see through the rippling corner. She did not think to look at Mama for several moments, but when she did, she found her head slumped forward, and her eyes tightly closed.
“Mama?” she said.
Mama sighed soundlessly for several seconds and then slowly opened her eyes and sat up. Mama’s eyes were wet, Lena saw, as she stood up slowly and took Lena’s hand.
“Loz unz geyn, Laya,” she said. “Dos iz nisht a Rebbe.“
Lena rose somewhat uncertainly, and still holding Mama’s hand, they left the room and walked slowly down the three flights and back out onto the street. The sun was breaking through the clouds now although the wind was still blowing cold. But Mama did not look up at the sky nor at the buildings nor anything else on the streets they passed. She walked without speaking, her eyes looking only at the ground ahead of her.
Even waiting for the streetcar, she only looked down and waited for Lena to lead her up onto the streetcar and to available seats. She stayed that way throughout the ride: her eyes focused now on the purse in her lap, her thumbs grasping the metal clasps. Not knowing what to say, Lena could only watch while drops fell silently onto the black imitation leather all the way over the bridge and back home to Brooklyn.
copyright 2012 G.M.Levine
It would have been some time in the mid-50s — I would have been eight or 10 years old — and my father was driving us around Brownsville where he had grown up and his parents still lived. It was even then an old Jewish neighborhood; by now, of course, the Jews are gone. Over the years since, it has been ghettoized, renovated, gentrified, abandoned, repurposed. I haven’t been back any place near there in more than forty years, so who knows what it looks like now. But Bristol Street sits in my mind as a long row of two-floor apartment houses. The world changes and doesn’t change, and things are what they are and also what they were.
We sat in the back seat while my father drove the long two-tone blue olds, and he pointed out this place and that place and talked about what he had done there as a kid. As usual, he talked about Chaim Berlin Yeshiva where he had gone to school. Since he hadn’t come over from Poland until he was already Junior High age, and he always talked about Boys’ High, from which he proudly remembered some high school Spanish and the school anthem, his time in Chaim Berlin must have been classes after school every day and all day Sunday. When I grew up in the 50s, the frum world was yeshiva ketanoh and day schools, but when my dad came over in the early 20s, I guess they put together what they put together.
The neighborhood tour turned to school yards and empty lots he had played in and then to the jobs he had held before and after school. He dwelled, as always, on the teddy bear factory where he had figured out an innovative way to turn the teddy bears over on the assembly line so the second arm could be sewn on faster, and, being paid by the piece, he had made a killing, and I wondered as I always did what a killing in pennies would look like.
But that particular day, we passed by a few of the old shtieblach that had been there forever, and for the first time, he mentioned when Rav Asher Dov had come over to Brownsville from Ostroleka—Ostrelenki they called the town in Yiddish—their home shtetl about a hundred miles from Warsaw.
“I was in high school,” he said, “and of course, I worked all summer: this place and that place, sometimes in the Butcher Store. But for a few weeks in the mornings that summer, my father had me take Rav Asher Dov around.”
It was a new name to us. “Who was that?” I said.
“He was a relative…of my mother’s, I think…and the family sent him over to see if he wanted to move to Brooklyn from the shtetl. Some of my mother’s family was already over—you know my cousin Paul Bronrot—and they were looking to see who could make a go of it in New York.”
“Right,” I said. Of course, what did I know at 8 or 10 years old about trying to make a go of it in New York in the late 20s? “Take Rav Dov where?”
“Rav Asher Dov,” he corrected me. “I took him from shul to shul in the neighborhood every morning.”
“He was trying out shuls?”
“He was trying to make a living,” my Dad said.
“By going to shul?”
My father laughed. “Not by davening,” he said. “He was a talmid chochom.” And here he waved his right arm over the seat at me in the back, a symbolic swat, demonstrating his displeasure that my Rebbies at school found me sorely lacking as a potential talmid chochom.
“So what did he do?” I said.
In Dad’s mind, Rav Asher Dov just showed up in the house one day, surprising everyone. That was hardly likely of course. People didn’t simply slip over from the old country unannounced. There were arrangements and visas and guarantees and who knows what other things. But to my dad, who would have been like fifteen or sixteen at the time, caught in the whirlwind of being young and Jewish and American, somewhere between teen-slang English in the streets and Polish Yiddish at home, the arrival was certainly unanticipated. Dad came home one day, and there was this thin, tallish Polish chassid, peyes hanging from his ears and tsitsis at his sides; and, like all the Chassidic young men, he wore a long black jacket open over a white shirt buttoned to the collar. He sat at the table, a broad-brimmed black hat on the chair beside him, sipping tea from one of Bubby’s glass tea cups, talking in mile-a-minute Yiddish with Zaidy.
“Rav Asher Dov,” Zaidy said to Dad by way of introduction. And then to Dad: “You will move in with Levi, and Rav Asher Dov will sleep with the baby.”
The baby was Arky—Harry actually; I have no idea why everybody called him Arky—who was the only one of the children to be born in the New Land and would have been at least a few years older than a “baby” by then.
The introduction in the other direction was even shorter. “Chaim Pinchos,” Zaidy said, nodding to Dad.
Rav Asher Dov smiled briefly at Dad.
He was “lanky,” Dad said. “Lanky” wasn’t one of Dad’s words; it was one of Mom’s. She said that she had been “lanky” as a girl and that her brother Al who lived in California and was six-foot two was “lanky.” No one in my Dad’s family got much over five-foot-eight, so his description of Rav Asher Dov may have just been relative,
Dad’s older brother Louis was not pleased with the new arrangement. His “own room,” which had not been much bigger than a closet to begin with, was now going to have all the expanse of a phone booth; but the room shared by the girls, Sylvia and Rose, was no better, so there was not much more to be done that grumble.
And the Dad told us the story.
The very next morning, I took Rav Asher Dov to one of the shtieblach on the next block for shacharis. This wasn’t the shul Pop generally davened in. Pop was from a long line of Gerer chassidim, and they had their own place a few blocks away. Put Pop ran the local butcher store, so he made it his business to be known in all the shuls around the neighborhood. Good for business. The shammos of the shul knew more or less who I was, and, as Pop had told me, I introduced Rav Asher Dov as a relative just over from der heim, a real talmid chochom. The shammos ran the place. There was no Ruv; the little shuls didn’t have Rabbis in those days; only the big American shuls, like the Young Israel or the H.E.S. The shammos and Rav Asher Dov spoke quietly for a minute before davening, and then we went off to one of the tables to leign t’fillin. Davening was quick, maybe twenty minutes—probably a Tuesday or a Wednesday–just get through it and get out. And then most of the men rushed out to get to work or maybe to go home for a little breakfast before they took the subway into the city.
But a few of the men—maybe eight or nine—stayed after and gathered themselves at a table and opened up s’farim. Just about every shtiebel had a little shiur after davening for those who wanted it. And what they learned depended on who they had to teach and how g’lernt the men were who came…and sometimes probably on how many copies they had on hand of whatever sefer. Rav Asher Dov joined the group and opened up his copy of the sefer they gave him to wherever they were up to. Me, I stayed at the table across the room where we had davened and just watched them. For the most part, Rav Asher Dov just listened—he didn’t say much—but every now and then, he would ask a question or make a brief comment, and it was clear—even to me, and I didn’t understand much of what they were talking about—that he really knew this stuff. That it was all of it right on the tip of his tongue. And while I was watching them from my table, I noticed—I don’t know if the men did—that Rav Asher Dov never looked down at the sefer in front of him. Not once. And it was not like he had known beforehand what sefer they were learning or what they were up to or what they had been talking about. He just knew it all.
When the shiur was over, Rav Asher Dov thanked the men for letting him learn with them, and he came over to our table to get his tfillin, and we walked toward the door. On the way out, the shammos traded a few words with him and Rav Asher Dov nodded. Basically, the Shammos had just invited him to give the shiur from time to time.
And that was how we spent the first few weeks: going from shul to shul in the mornings, meeting some of the men and sitting in on the shiur after davening. And pretty much every place we went, Rav Asher Dov made a quiet, but really strong impression. And the Shammos would invite Rav Asher Dov to come back once or twice a week to give shiur. After a few shiurim, they began to pay him a little something, and in that way, he began to put together a bit of a living.
But the thing was that it didn’t matter what sefer they were learning or what level they were on. He just knew it all. G’mara, Mishna, Shulchan Oruch, Chumash—anything. I never saw anything like it. I’ve heard about people like that. They used to say that Rav Hutner knew Torah like that, and of course Rav Moshe and Rav Aron Kotler. But I never actually saw anyone like that with my own eyes. That’s probably why I remember Rav Asher Dov so clearly even after all these years. I never saw anyone who knew that much.
So within a few weeks, as I say, he had lined up a number of shuls in the neighborhood where he would learn with groups once or twice a week. And then word spread, and after I showed him around the bus routes and the subway system, he began to teach in other shuls in other neighborhoods.
When he wasn’t teaching, he was learning. Pop had as good a collection of the basic sefarim as anybody, and, of course, some of the shuls had some other stuff that Rav Asher Dov could use. But he really needed access to other sefarim, not just the standard ones. Pop suggested that the closest Yeshiva in the area—that was Chaim Berlin—would have a larger selection, and he sent me off to take him to the mashgiach in the Beis Medrash . I think Chaim Berlin might have been the only Yeshiva gedolah in Brooklyn at the time. Or maybe Torah Vodaas had opened by then. I don’t actually remember. But if it was open, it was just starting out.
So I took Rav Asher Dov to the mashgiach in the Beis Medrash. You know what a mashgiach is, yes? … No,that’s a kashrus mashgiach. “Mashgiach” just means “supervisor,” so a karshus mashgiach is checking to make sure everything is kosher, and a mashgiach in the Beis Medrash is checking that all the boys are learning and that they have the books they need. Things like that: like a librarian, maybe, but more hands on
In any case, I took Rav Asher Dov to see the the mashgiach at Chaim Berlin. They talked a little bit about the shtetlach they had come from and what Rav Asher Dov was doing in Brooklyn, as I remember, and then they talked a little bit in learning which was over my head, of course. The mashgiach making sure that the young man was worth his time. In the end, the mashgiach agreed that Rav Asher Dov could learn in the beis medrash two or three times a week, use the sefarim and so forth. But he didn’t want him to distract the boys who were learning from their chavrusos or get involved in any way with shiurim that might be going on. Rav Asher Dov was only too happy to agree, and he fit the beish medrash into his weekly schedule two afternoons and one evening a week.
Within a few months, he was teaching a shiur at Chaim Berlin two or three times a week. It’s a nice story.
Rav Asher Dov wasn’t much older than some of the young marrieds in the Beis Medrash, and, while he kept to himself as he had agreed with the Mashgiach, the other men could see how serious his learning was and the kind of sefarim he would take off the shelves to look at. They were all in a very high shiur, and they were meeting in this chavrusa during the week to prepare for their weekly shiur with one of the top rabbe’im. The rebbe expected them to come in knowing the basic gemara and the rashi and the tosfos, and they would meet to go through it all. But it was not an easy gemara, and they were having more and more trouble keeping up with it. One time, they ran across a sugya that they just couldn’t understand. They went over it this way and that, from every angle they could think of, and it just couldn’t make heads or tails of it. They asked a few of the older men they knew who were learning in the Beis Medrash, but they weren’t much help. So in desperation, they went to Rav Asher Dov and asked him if he knew the gemara. He glanced down at the page for just an instant and then said to them: “You need to look at the Ri’f.” And in a few sentences, he explained to them how the Ri’f understood the approach of the gemara.
Within a few days , the word got back to the Mashgiach, not through the boys, but through their Rebbi. He went to the mashgiach and asked who the Ruv was who had directed his boys to look at the Ri’f to prepare that sugya in the gemara. “It took me 35 years to understand that Ri’f,” the Rebbi told the mashgiach. The mashgiach reported all this to the Rosh Yeshiva, and when Rav Asher Dov came to learn in the Beis Medrash the next day, the mashgiach came over to him and told him that the Rosh Yeshiva wanted to see him.
I don’t remember who the Rosh Yeshiva was in those days. It certainly was well before Rabbi Hutner. I think it was probably even before Rabbi Shurkin, but it could have been him. I’m not sure. In any case, Rav Asher Dov was sure that the Rosh Yeshiva was going to uninvited him from the Beis Medrash for explaining the gemara—even though it was only a few words—to the boys. But instead, the Rosh Yeshiva first asked him to explain the Ri’f: how he knew it, how he understood it. And then he spent almost two hours talking in learning with Rav Asher Dov; and by the time their meeting was over, the Rosh Yeshiva had asked him to give shiur in the Yeshiva twice a week.
So by the time he had been in the country for eighteen months or two years, things were working out well for Rav Asher Dov. He was teaching in the yeshiva and had a fairly full schedule of shiurim he was giving in shuls around Brooklyn. But he was still a young man and I don’t think he had anything like a social life. I suppose Louis and I were as close to friends as he had, although he was…what?… more than ten years older than either of us for sure. And we certainly didn’t share the same interests. But he was a really nice man, and he would hang around with us sometimes just for a little while. I remember him trying to play stickball with us a few times. Terrible. Really terrible. But he would talk sometimes about how he had spent his time back in the shtetl, and he would ask us what we thought about and what we wanted to do when we grew up. Things like that; nothing very deep or important, but it was as conversational as I ever saw him get.
We asked him once to go a movie with us, but that didn’t interest him at all. He did travel over to Williamsburg and into the city, though–mostly the Lower East Side—to see other Jewish neighborhoods and what they looked like and how the Jews were living their lives in this big city, so different from the little town back home. But mostly he learned and he taught, and I thought he seemed pretty happy.
But doing as well as he did after about two years, they weren’t going to leave him alone. Mama later worried that perhaps she had pushed him too much, but it was really more or less inevitable; if it hadn’t been Mama pushing him, it would have been somebody else. Rav Asher Dov was an honestly nice human being. He was a talmid chochom; he was making a living; but he wasn’t married. They started coming out of the woodwork. He was living with us, so it was natural enough for people with daughters to come by to talk about making a shiduch…You know what a shiduch is, yes? Marriage. Right.
Some of Mama’s friends began dropping by and asking about Rav Asher Dov and talking about their daughters. All very pretty of course they said, and young and smart and so on. Mama mentioned some of this to Rav Asher Dov, and at first he just smiled and said, no, he just wanted to concentrate on his learning for now. But the women didn’t stop coming. And then they sent their husbands to Pop who passed it back to Mama; and then they got Rabbis to start calling. And it all ended up in Mama’s lap. In short, she twisted Rav Asher Dov’s arm a little bit, so he agreed to meet with several of the young women. He was very polite to them. They were all very fine young ladies, he told Mama, and one or two of them, he met with a second time.
The fact that he looked like he might be interested only increased the demand. They all kept coming: the mothers, the fathers, the Rabbis. I don’t know what would have happened in the long run, but then one day, pretty much out of nowhere, Rav Asher Dov told us that he had decided to go back home.
I don’t know what Mama and Pop thought about it; they didn’t discuss it with me, but I hadn’t seen that coming. He had settled in; he was doing well; he seemed happy. As I say, we weren’t friends or anything like that, but we spoke sometimes, and he probably knew me as well as he knew anyone, so I did ask him about it.
Why? I said. I thought you liked it here.
Oh, I do, Chaim Pinchos, he said. Everyone is very nice, and I have had the chance to learn and to study. And see a big city in America. And the winter is certainly warmer here than it is in Poland. And he smiled at that.
Then why….? I began, but he stopped me by putting a hand on my shoulder. We were walking at the time, I remember, along the street, and there was a bench in front of one the houses. Rav Asher Dov sat me down on the bench and sat down next to me.
The question is good, he said. I asked it myself. I realized that I wanted to go back home, and I asked myself why. It has been very nice here. Really. But I realized that the air was wrong.
He looked at me. You don’t understand, he said.
I don’t, I said. The air?
Every Thursday morning back home, he said, I would leave the house and walk outside to go to shul. And in the air, you could tell we were coming close to Shabbos. You could smell the wash drying on the lines outside because everyone had done the laundry on Wednesday, so they would have Thursday to shop and then to cook. And you could smell the cakes.
From the houses? I asked.
No, he said. From the bakeries. They baked the cakes to be ready by Thursday morning because they would have to spend Thursday night baking the challah, so they could sell them on Friday morning and clear the ovens out to cool them down by noon on Erev Shabbos.
Because in the afternoon, they would reheat the ovens, and the families would bring their cholents from home to stay hot in bakers’ ovens until after shul on Shabbos. Then they would stop by the bakery on their way home to bring their cholents home for Shabbos.
Their ovens were in the bakeries? I said.
Everyone had a stove at home or a fire outside so they could cook the cholent, but not everybody has an oven in the house to keep the cholent warm over Shabbos, said Rav Asher Dov, so they had to use the baker’s oven. But the point is that already on Thursday morning, on the way to shul, Shabbos was in the air all around you.
And it’s not like that here? I said.
No, Rav Asher Dov said. It’s not. I know you can’t understand this, Chaim Pinchos, because this is where you live. You’re used to the air here.
And you can’t get used to it? I said.
He raised an eyebrow. Perhaps, he said. Perhaps I could, but I don’t want to, Chaim Pinchos.
He didn’t just pack up and go, of course. He had obligations. He had to finish the year in the Yeshiva, and there were other places that he had agreed to teach. But before the summer began, he had finished what he had agreed to do, and he took the boat back to Europe to go back to the shtetl.
“So what happened to him?” I said to my father.
“Well, he went back to Poland, so I assume he must have died in the war,” Dad said.
I remember Dad saying it just like that, but I don’t remember how much I really knew what that meant when I was eight or ten. I do remember thinking to myself that it was strange that a man like Rav Asher Dov would go out and fight in a war.
At that point, my dad tuned the olds left at the corner, and he pointed out the window at a store in the middle of the block.
“Do you see that dry cleaners?” he said. “That used to be the best candy store in Brooklyn.”
Copyright 2020 Gary M. Levine
This was not something we could do every year or every other year even though none of us lived more than a day’s drive away from the folks.
Four families meant four wives and four husbands which in turn meant, at least theoretically, two sets of grandparents for each batch of grandchildren; and each set of doting grandparents wanted its fair share—and more than its fair share—of holiday time with as many grandchildren as they could gather together.
Aside from weddings, bar mitzvahs, anniversaries and other stray celebrations, the main family assembly days were holidays: Rosh HaShannah, Sukkot, Thanksgiving, and the big one: Pesach, which came with two seders and the very real possibility that people would stick around for a whole week to avoid having to go home and make their whole house pesachdik.
So getting the four of us with all the wives and all the kids back to Syracuse for a Pesach was one of those things which needed to be negotiated and planned and coordinated over the course of months and even years.
Normie, the oldest of us, and his wife Helena (accent on the first syllable, like the goddess, not on the second, like the capital of Montana) both worked in Manhattan and lived in one of the Jewish bedroom cities in Jersey. Norm was on an unlisted-partner track of the mid-sized Tax Law Firm that he had joined out of law school. Helena was a doctor, a Pediatric Neurologist, in a family of doctors; in fact, in a practice of a family of doctors. “The Doctors Wasserman,” read the gold engraving on the gold plaque on the door; and that says about all that needs to be said. She herself was actually a very sweet woman who had originally wanted to do an MA in Medieval Bible Commentary at YU and then go on to a PhD in Comparative Religion at Yale. But her father: THE Doctor Wasserman was very determined that her place was with all his other children behind the Gold Plaque with the Gold Engraving, and that was how it had worked out, not without some friction.
Irwin, who was four years younger than Normie, had never really left Syracuse. We were all spaced about four year apart, so I was born when Normie was eight and Irwin was four. About the same time I was born, Irwin came down with mumps which developed into something a lot worse; I’ve heard the word “encephalitis,” but I don’t know if that’s what it was or not. In any case, it got serious. He was in coma for several weeks. They nearly lost him. Mom was at home with Normie and a newborn, so it was Pop who spent all his time in the hospital for those weeks and by his bedside during the weeks of recuperation. In those days, Pop’s brother, Louis, was a partner in the store, so he picked up most of the slack there.
In any case, in all those weeks together, Pop and Irwin grew really close. “Nafsho keshurah b’nafsho” is the biblical phrase: their souls were tied together. Irwin spent his time after school at the store and began working the cash register before he finished grade school. He went to mincha-maariv with Pop almost every night, and when Pop was trying to drag the rest of us out of bed on Shabbos mornings, Irwin was dressed, ready, and trying to learn how to drink morning coffee.
So he never left the city. He did his BA at Syracuse U, and then an MBA while working at the store. Pop set him up an office upstairs next to his, and Irwin, in effect, became his partner, accountant and business manager. At one point, the story goes, Pop thought of changing the name of the store to Levine and Son, but Irwin said it might make the rest of us—who had no interest, I assure you, in the grocery business—feel slighted. So the name stayed Syracuse Grocery for a number of years, and then moved up to Syracuse SuperMart when Pop and Irwin decided to expand to the property next door.
Irwin married Dassi the same year I married Joyce. Mom, it must be said, fell in love with Dassi long before Irwin noticed her. Syracuse was a university town, and there were always a few single Jews looking to board with a religious family while they were at the university or, more usually, in grad school. Generally, Mom took in men; she had four boys at home after all. But a friend in New York asked her to at least meet with Dassi. She had been orphaned at an early age, Mom’s friend said, and had been passed along to various relatives until she finished high school.
With Mom and Dassi,, it was—you will pardon the cliché—love at first sight. Dassi was the daughter that Mom had never had, and Mom was the mother than Dassi had never known. They cooked together and laughed like girls, went shopping, gossiped late into the night and watched old movies on TV. It took Irwin about two years to catch up, but he and Dassi finally found each other. At their wedding, Pop said, “It’s a good thing that Irwin decided to marry her, or else Lee would have.” Irwin and Dassi bought a house about four blocks from the folks, and the Syracuse branch of the family: two generations and later three, fell rather naturally into place.
Except for Dassi and Irwin, Joyce and I were probably the most geographically available of the couples. We were close enough, about five hours away in Toronto, and we both worked in Jewish education, me as a day school teacher and Joyce at the Board of Jewish Education, so time off for Pesach was a given. It was only a matter of booking the get-together on the alternate year when we were scheduled to be at my parents rather than Joyce’s.
Ironically, the toughest of us to free up for Pesach was Joey: tougher Jewish bosses. A pulpit Rabbi got a couple of weeks in the summer and could head off here and there every now and then; but you didn’t take off Yomim Nora’im or Pesach, the big “The Relatives Are In; Show Off the Rabbi” holidays. Joey’s wife, Rebecca, was an only child, so her parents were happy enough to come up to spend holidays with them in his city outside of Brookline, but it was tough to arrange a jailbreak out of his shul and back to the hometown for Pesach.
In the end, it was more Rebecca than Joey who made it happen that year. She was the real star in his shul, and he acknowledged it happily. When we talked on the phone or got together for the occasional weekend, he would refer to her as the Rabbi and himself as the Rebbitzen. I warned him against that little “in” joke more than once: “If you ever slip and say that in front of your congregants, you could find yourself laughed out of job, Rabbi.” Which didn’t mean that he wasn’t right.
And it was—credit where it’s due—Rabbi Rebecca who had pulled off the holiday furlough for the family that Pesach. She had worked with the wife of the shul President (for “with,” read “Mrs. President had watched with growing admiration from the side”) while Rebecca had designed, organized, and run the most astonishing shul Megillah reading/Carnival/Family Purim Se’udah that anyone had ever seen in Massachusetts…or maybe anywhere else. A picture of Mrs. President standing with a group of kids in front of an inflatable castle made its way onto an inside page of one of the Boston papers. “Bouncy Purim” read the unimaginative headline. Nonetheless, letters of appreciation and no small number of donations arrived in the shul mailbox for the next two weeks.
So when Rebecca mentioned to Mrs. President that the Rabbi’s family wanted to get together for at least the first days of Pesach, Mr. President himself gave Joey a call and told him to take off the whole week if he wanted. Joey, or Rav Yehudah as they called him at work, did his due diligence; he arranged for the very popular local Hillel Rabbi to take on pulpit duties for at least the first two days and told the President that they would probably be back for the last two days of chag.
He and Rebecca moved into one of the folks’ downstairs bedrooms as usual, and Joyce and I took my old bedroom upstairs, down the hall from Mom and Pop’s room. Norman and Helena, in from New York, moved in with Irwin and Dassi. We tended to divide up that way: the two older brothers and the two younger.
As for our kids, they had their own plans. The boys—five of them, ranging in age from Irwin’s thirteen year-old, Jack, to our youngest, David—took charge of the bedrooms of Irwin’s house and proceeded to make loud and incoherent noise while tossing around whatever toys and games they could find. Meanwhile, the seven girls took the basement playroom of the folks’ house. They ranged in age from Normie’s oldest, Sharon, to Joey’s middle child, Esti. The organizer and Social Director was, as always, Normie’s second, Miriam. Sharon was her mother’s daughter, and had been studying for some unspecified high school pre-med tests since she had been ten; a sweet kid absolutely, and bright as a neon bulb, but she had “direction,” as Joyce called it, and couldn’t be bothered with social involvements. Joyce thought that “direction” was, on the whole, a good thing for kids to have. Our twelve-year old, Devorah, had more energy than direction, and David, the four-year old, was in the early stages of training for reform school. But Joyce held out some hope for Deena. “My side of the family has direction,” she had told me, and I, as I had learned to do, had nodded noncommittally.
In any case, Miriam, Normies fifteen-year-old, was not the dedicated scholar, but she was and always had been the soul and the spirit of any group she found herself in. School, youth group, camp, family get-togethers, whatever: Miriam would organize it, inject the fun into it, give it something like purpose, some might even have called it direction. “I wouldn’t mind if Devorah turned out like that,” I said to Joyce, and she nodded noncommittally.
It was Miriam who had given me the family nickname, “Unc,” which she had called me since she first began to talk. It caught on. I was called “Unc” by all the kids, not excluding my own kids when they were hanging out with their cousins. No one else got a nickname. Norm was Norm; Irwin was Irwin; Joey was Joey or Rav Yehudah. I once asked her how I got to be “Unc .”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think maybe because you are kind of easier to talk to. Maybe because you’re teacher.”
“Okay,” I said. “It seems reasonable.”
And then she said, “You must be a good teacher.”
I told Joyce this—any boost to my ego I could get. And Joyce had agreed. “You are,” she said. “Everyone says you are. I think it’s because you talk to ten-year-olds like they were fifty and to fifty-year-olds like they were ten. That’s why you are a good teacher.”
“Thank you.” I tried to sound humble.
“And that’s why you’ll probably never be a principal,” Joyce added.
“Thank you,” I said again, and here the humility came naturally. She was quite right of course, and it was a trade-off I could live with. “I never really got along with principals.”
“Yes,” she said. “I seem to remember.”
Miriam and I were scheduled to have a talk over yom tov. She had called me a week or two before to let me know that.
“Love should be enough,” she had said to me on the phone. Unfortunately, I understood the reference. We didn’t have whole-family roundtable discussions, but we all talked to each other, especially the wives, and word get back of this and that. This was a little more serious than the usual gossip, and it had been building for a while. Helena’s father, the Master and Director of the Doctors Wasserman, had decided that it was time that the family open a second office: in Washington, DC. He had held successful preliminary meetings with contacts at Johns Hopkins, and he said that a formal affiliation was all but guaranteed. And he wanted Helena and her older brother to move to Washington to run the new office.
Aside from the question of moving the kids from their schools and all the other technical intricacies, there was the central problem that Normie had no interest at all in moving. He had worked his way well up in his firm. He liked the people. He liked the work. And he was only a few years away from the partnership. He had no desire to start all over again and certainly not in the pressure cooker of Washington, DC. The tension of the situation had reached the kids to the point where Miriam, who saw it as her role to keep the world moving smoothly, had decided to get involved.
“Love should be enough,” she had said to me on the phone.
“Which love?” I had said.
“Love!” she had repeated with some impatience.
“Lots of love out there,” I had said. “Doesn’t your Mom love her parents too?”
She had paused for a moment and then exclaimed: “Sophistry!”
I couldn’t help it. I had laughed out loud. “Good word!” And I had let out a long whistle. “Where did you get that from?”
Miriam had giggled in spite of herself. “Debating Club at school,” she said.
She had stopped laughing. “I’m serious about this, Unc,” she had said.
“I realize that,” I had said. “The truth is that I don’t know a lot about what’s going on, Miri. It’s the kind of thing your father would have talked about with Irwin more than me. I’m sure your Mom has talked to Joyce a little, but Joyce wouldn’t tell me about anything. She says I’m not good at keeping things confidential.”
“Probably true,” Miriam had said.
“Probably,” I had admitted. “But as to your question: which love are you talking about?”
“Love is love!” Very defensive.
“Too easy to say that,” I had said. “Of course your Mom loves your father, but she loves her own father and mother and her children and her work. She is a dedicated mother and wife and doctor. Which of all of those should be the one “love” that should be enough?”
She hadn’t answered.
“New things happen to everybody,” I had gone on. “Good things, bad things, problems, opportunities. And when new things happen, all of those relationships we have—all of those values we live by—have to be rebalanced and reconsidered and weighed against each other.”
I had waited a few seconds.
“But you knew all that,” I had said, finally.
And I had heard Miriam sigh into the phone. “I guess so,” she had said. “That’s pretty much what Dassi said.”
“She did,” I had said.
“Pretty much what you said,” she had answered, “only in fewer word.”
“Yeah, well. . . “
“It’s okay, Unc. You’re a teacher. You can’t help yourself,” she had said with some compassion.
“Thanks for understanding.”
“Maybe we’ll talk a little more about this in Syracuse next week,” she had said then. “I think I might have an idea.”
“You’re fifteen, Miri,” I had said. “Is this really yours to get into?”
“I’m a teenager,” she had answered. “I can’t help myself.”
“Fair enough,” I had said, “but be careful.”
So that conversation was waiting for me sometime in the next few days. But it really was the kind of thing that Normie and Helena would talk through with Irwin and Dassi. They were the level-headed brothers: Normie and Irwin—the older two: the lawyer and the businessman. And Dassi really was the fount of all common sense: my mother’s daughter, if you will. Joey and I were the younger boys: the Tanach teacher with an M.A. in Creative Writing and the Pulpit Rabbi still working on his dissertation in Biblical Historiography: pleasant people to spend an evening with, but not the starting lineup of the prudent and judicious team.
The first seder was on Monday night that year. Joyce and I had come in for Shabbat, and Normie and Joey and the families had settled in by mid-day on Sunday. Mom had the kitchen more-or-less turned over by then, and after lunch on the back porch, she assembled the wives and the girls, distributed them in a several cars and they were off to shop. Stores were not generally open on Sundays in those days, but Mom’s favorite dress store was happy to open for her—and her four daughters-in-law and seven granddaughters—on the day before Pesach. For what Mom was going to spend, they would have opened at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
They were gone most of the afternoon, and when they came back, it took all twelve of them to empty the car trunks. They burst into the house behind their colored bags and boxes like floats in the Macy’s Parade, all excitement, flushed faces and a barrage of loud voices and squeals talking over each others.
Irwin was at the store—also not usually open on Sundays, but it was Erev Pesach—and Pop was home with the rest of us. The male animal children were in the back yard, alternately yelling, laughing and crying, and occasionally coming in for a band aid and a snack. Pop, Normie, Joey and I were inside doing the “day before” stuff: covering the kitchen table and the dining room table, getting the various seder wines and grape juice into the downstairs fridge, sorting out the matzah: hand shmurah; machine shmurah; merely kosher, unpacking the pesach dishes in the dining room to move into the kitchen later, and so forth.
Throughout the afternoon, we bantered back and forth about the oppression of having to work for a living, the terrors of raising children, and other family standards. Joey and I kept our work stories to the anguish of slaving for the Jewish community, no doubt to keep from putting Normie in the position to talk about his own work. Interestingly enough, Pop felt free, as usual, to make comments about school teachers and Rabbis, but he stayed off the topic of lawyers—on which he was often quite vocal—which suggested to me that either Normie had spoken with him about what was going on or, more probably, Dassi had spoken about it at length with Mom.
Our work more or less done and the Levine women and girls newly returned, we were shoved onto the living room chairs and couches and awaited the fashion show that was coming. It was—I will admit—very nice. They all, mothers and daughters alike, looked lovely in their new dresses. And they were all very happy. We oohed and aahed, and the girls blushed and giggled.
“I suppose I’m going to have to sell the store to pay for this,” Pop said with the mock sarcasm which we had all learned from him.
“No, Zeydie,” Mom said sweetly. “These are your afikomen presents for everybody.”
“What about the boys?” one of girls yelled out.
“They can share the dresses,” Pop called back without missing a beat.
General laughter. The boys heard the laughing from the outside and came running in. Within two minutes, the girls were showing off their dresses all over again, and David came running over to me and Joyce.
“I don’t want a dress, Mommy,” he yelled. “I don’t want a dress.”
Joyce was about to reassure him and I was about to tease him when Mom came by and scooped him up.
“Well, of course not, David,” she said and smiled at him. “You’re a boy. What would you do with a dress? What do you want for the afikomen?”
“Bubbie, Bubbie, I want a new tricycle,” he said. “Blue.”
“Oh that sounds wonderful,” Mom said.
“And a bell. And I could ride it in the driveway.”
“Blue?” she said.
“And I could ride it in the driveway.”
And she sat down on the couch, and he cuddled up in her lap.
“With a bell, Bubbie,” he said again. “Not a dress.”
“No, David,” Mom said. “Not a dress.”
We all hung out for a little while and then went back to our little cubicles to put away the new stuff, decompress, maybe a short nap for those of us who could escape the children. And then, back to the folks for Dad’s Deli Dinner. Pop loved to do this when we were all together. He claimed he brought in the salami and pastrami and roast beef from the best kosher meat processor in New York and the pickles directly from Guss’ on Orchard Street; and maybe he did. He was in the food business after all, and I have no doubt that he was the main supplier of just about everything kosher that made its way to Syracuse. So maybe it was all from the smoke houses of the New York masters of meat. Or maybe it was just from one of the kosher meat guys in Chicago. You couldn’t really tell with Pop’s stories; he could bullshit with the best of them.
He set up two folding tables in the backyard and covered them with platters of meat, packaged rye bread, batampte mustard bottles; bowls of pickles, cole slaw and potato salad; bottles of coke, cream soda and a few bottles of Budweiser—we weren’t really into that—and a small mountain of paper plates and plastic forks and knives. The kids fell on it like manna in the desert, and the grown-ups filled their plates with a more mature gluttony and made their way to some of the lawn chair strewn here and there.
Irwin was back by now, so his daughter Rachie stopped to outline to him the afternoon shopping booty she had amassed, and then she ran off to join Miriam and the other girls to work on a play about the four sons they were going to put at the seder the next night. Pop asked Irwin a little about how things had gone in the store on the day before Pesach, and that led Irwin to the recitation of a little dialogue with a customer looking for kosher l’pesach gefilte fish. Irwin had a really dry wit, and he manufactured these quiet, little pieces that we loved
Pop urged us on to second and thirds (“Come on, people; there’s nothing I can do with this bread tomorrow!”), and when we had really done all that we could, we cleaned it all up, set aside what was left of the bread—not all that much, really—for the fire in the morning, and split up for bedikat chametz. Normie, Joey and I had done our bediakah at home before we came, and we all had our little chametz packets wrapped up tight to throw into the fire in the morning. But the kids didn’t want to miss another search, so Normie and the family went back to Irwin’s, and Joey and I stayed at the folks for their bedikah.
We had learned through hard experience that we had to write down where all the bits of chametz were being hidden, wrapped though they were in tin foil. If we weren’t organized about it—and there had been a time or two when we hadn’t been organized about it—Pop might not be able to find all the bits and the kids who hid them wouldn’t remember where they were hidden. There had been one Pesach several years back where we had run across a well-wrapped piece of bread while we had been looking for my afikomen at the end of the seder. Pop had been something less than amused.
The chametz search went fine. Everything that was put out got picked up. With the kids around and participating, there were a few extra feathers and wooden spoons, but Pop insisted that only he was going to hold a lit candle: an intelligent decision all the adults agreed.
A little more of this and that, and we put all the kids away for the night, at least we assumed we got them all; we weren’t actually sure where everyone was supposed to be. Grandchildren really are exhausting, so Mom and Pop made an early night of it as well. Joey and Rebecca and Joyce and I found ourselves in a spookily quiet kitchen over coffee (tea for Joyce; she hates coffee). It was perhaps the most confusing night of the year to sit down for a cup of coffee. The house was no longer chametzdik…basically; and not everything was exactly pesachdik. . .yet. So we were more sure of what we couldn’t use than what we could. We ended up with pesach coffee in paper cups. (Tea for Joyce)
“You remember Chezzy Blumenthal?” Joey said.
Joyce said, “Your chavutah in Merkaz HaRav?”
“The black beard with the white stripes,” I said.
“That’s him,” said Joey.
“Working for B’nai Akiva, no?”
“Well,” said Joey. “Some of the time. He also teaches a little and does some other . . . “
“Tell me about it. The life of a Jewish community servant,” I said.
A little polite laughter.
“He’s been talking with B’nai Akiva about setting up a yeshiva program for high school grads in Israel.”
“A one year program?” I said.
“There are dozens already,” I said.
“This one would be different,” said Joey. “It would be boys and girls.”
“B’nai Akiva opening a co-ed yeshiva?”
“No, not exactly,” said Joey. And here Rebecca jumped in to clarify.
“Separate schools,” she said. “Some shared staff. Some joint programming.”
“That doesn’t sound like an easy sell,” I said.
As Joey explained it, with occasional clarifications by Rebecca, it was still some years away from the selling stage. It was, at this point, only an idea being tossed around among the educators, the administrators and the fund raisers.
The bottom line was that if it ever got off the ground, it would be a big project, and a team of Rabbi and Activities Coordinator was going to be a useful staff couple. Chezzy Blumenthal and one or two associates had been in touch with Joey and Rebecca about eventual possibilities.
“They are talking Rosh Yeshiva of the Girls’ Program,” Joey said.
“Would you be interested?” I said.
“Like a shot,” he said. “A good program, American salary, Yerushalaim.”
“A little far from the rest of us,” I said.
“That’s why God made airplanes, Gary,” he said. “And think about Mom and Pop. They are already past retirement age. Irwin has the store. They’ve got more friends in Israel than they have here.”
I nodded and then said, “Leave the grandchildren?”
“Airplanes fly in both directions, Gary,” he said criss-crossing his hands.
Joyce said to Rebecca: “And your parents?”
“We haven’t mentioned anything to them about this yet,” she said. “It’s far too early. We really don’t know if anything will come of this. But, the truth is that all my parents have are Joey and me and the children. They might consider coming with us.”
“Really?” Joyce said.
“But it’s still too early to think about any of that, Joyce,” she said. “It’s years away.”
“I understand,” said Joyce.
“And what about you two?” said Joey.
“What about us?” I said.
Joey and Rebecca passed a look between them.
“The project is going to need a rock solid administrator,” Joey said.
That was Joyce, of course. There was nothing she couldn’t put together, streamline, computerize. We all looked at her.
She actually blushed. “Oh, I don’t . . .“ She stammered a little. So cute.
“And we could probably even find something for Gary,” said Rebecca.
“Nothing too strenuous,” I said.
“There’s an opportunity here,” he said, “to do some really creative, imaginative work for someone who knows high school Jewish curriculum. That tanach material your committee worked on . . . “
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Years away.”
“Yes,” he said, “but coming.”
We refilled the cups and talked a little bit more before the conversation petered out and we headed off to bed.
“My Mom doesn’t like Israel,” Joyce said when we got into our room.
“I know,” I said. “But it really is too far away to speculate about any of this now.”
Joyce nodded. “I suppose,” she said.
The next morning was, as Erev Pesach always is, more than a little rushed. Normie was a b’chor of course, and Irwin and Joey both had b’chorim, so Pop and the four of us and a selection of the boys made it to minyan for the siyum. Rabbi Weil, who had been with the Young Israel some four or five years at that point, did a credible job on Masechet Baba Metziah, although I saw him peek out at Joey from the corner of his eye from time to time to see how the other pulpit Rabbi in the room was taking it. Joey, for his part, stayed scrupulously attentive and nodded quietly in appreciation—polite or real, I couldn’t judge—every now and then and made sure to thank Rabbi Weil after the siyum and to say appropriately respectful things.
Mom and Dassi were already setting up some cold cereals and whatever outside in the back yard when we got back, and within a pretty short time the other women and the remaining kids had wandered over to get some last chametz before the time was up. Things were well cleared and closed off by the end of eating time: like 10 o’clock or so. By then, Mom had assembled all the daughters-in-law and a few of the interested granddaughters into the kitchen, and the preparations for the night got under way.
Pop took the grandsons out near the garage, and they pulled the old oil drum out onto the driveway. Pop stuffed some crumbled newspaper into the bottom of the drum, and the kids ran all around the place, assembling twigs and branches and things that they hoped would burn well, and they pretty much filled up the rest of the drum with it. About fifteen or twenty minutes before burning time, Pop squeezed in a little barbecue starter and made a big show of lighting a long wooden match and throwing it into the drum
The flame flared up, and the boys shouted in pyromaniacal joy and ran inside to call their fathers to bring out the chametz. As I said, Normie, Joey and I had brought our meager offerings from home. Irwin’s kids had a generous bag or two they had brought from their house, and all the kids went in with Pop to take what Pop had found last night and whatever crusts and crumbs Mom had put away from the Deli Dinner. It all went into the drum, and the boys ran around to find more branches and things to fling into the drum to keep the flame going. All in all, it looked like one of the scarier scenes from Lord of the Flies. And, of course, Pop helped it along a bit by squirting in another stream or two of barbecue starter. As close as frum Jews get to fireworks.
Pop had, of course, been doing this for many years, and a number of other shul members who lived in the area came by to burn their chametz. They were largely Mom and Pop’s generation, the “grown-ups” in the shul when we had been kids. Pop took the opportunity to show us off a little bit, and it was nice to see some of these men again; community history, if you will. Of course, they weren’t all Mr. Rogers. Old Man Erdman was still Old Man Erdman: surly, bitter. He was the guy who would yell at all the children in shul to be quiet even when they were quiet. He still did, I have no doubt. But some of the men had their own sons with them, the kids we had grown up with and, on the whole, that was a nice enough reunion as well. A couple of “what are you up to?” and “are you going to be here over Yom Tov?” and we all drifted back to our own houses while the kids waited with Pop for the fire to burn down.
Mom and the wives were all in the kitchen. Mom was getting the turkey ready for the oven. Joyce had the great gravy recipe, so she was preparing vegetable with a few of the girls. There were potatoes being grated for the kugels, gefilte fish balls ready to steam in a pot, a cauldron-size pot being filled with chicken parts and veggies to ready it for the chicken soup. And more and more and more. It was a big enough kitchen in general, but this morning it was like a Betty Crocker Convention for Jews in a phone booth. Conflicting-scented steams competed with each other, and aprons and towels flapped around like so many pennants in a regatta.
Pop and his four sons moved out to the back porch to tackle the marror. He who has never seen the grinding of marror, as the Talmud never said, has not seen red faces crying in his lifetime. The Marror is the bitter stuff. We eat it twice just before the meal: once as a chunk dipped in charoset in order to sweeten it enough to eat the required minimum amount, and once right after that, shredded between two pieces of Matzah to commemorate how Hillel ate it in the time of the Beis HaMIkdash. My father’s tradition, passed through his father and his father’s father, all of whom may have been Gerer Chassidim, is that marror is horseradish: pure, solid horseradish root. This is the stuff that, when you grate it down, mix it with vinegar, salt, sugar and sweet beets, you can put maybe a few grains on a piece of gefilte fish, and even then, if you eat it too fast, your eyes will water and you may find it hard to breathe.
How much of this is one required to eat? Depending on which authority you follow, something like an ounce or an ounce and half. Solid. All at once. You can’t do it, or, to paraphrase God to Moses: a man can’t do it and live. But that was Pop’s custom, and every year he would take a solid chunk of white, freshly cut horseradish root off the seder plate in front of him, dip it in charoset—and then shake it off to make sure he hadn’t sweetened it too much—make the b’racha, and pop it in his mouth like popcorn at a movie. And he would start to chew. His face would turn orange and then red and then beet red and then . . . something else. Tears would run down his cheeks like a fifteen-year-old girl watching Gone with the Wind. He would gulp for breath, wheeze, choke, cough. Every year, growing up, we would wait for him to have a heart attack.
None of us, I hasten to add—and I mean none of us—followed Pop’s custom. There were a number of reasons for this. First of all, from the halachic standpoint, there was just no way of eating an entire required measurement of horseradish root. Even Pop never actually managed it, as close as he got to flaming crimson and smoke coming out of his ears. Any number of Rabbinic sources had made that point and suggested the much more civilized bitterness of Romaine lettuce. All of us had gone that route. We may have said that it was a halachic decision, but the real reason, of course, was that none of our wives were ever going to try to eat a piece of horseradish root or allow their husbands to try to ram it down the throats of their beloved children. But we all, one way or another, put some of the grated horseradish root with some charoset in the matzah sandwich. On the back porch, then, we took turns cutting and grating raw horseradish root on the course side of the old triangle grater. Each of us did it for as long as we could, until the fumes had us choking and wheezing and the tears were running down our faces; and then we would pass it on to the next unfortunate. In fairness, Pop took his turn with the rest of us, and, it must be said, probably stood it better than any of us—although it should be recalled that he was the guy who actually ate this stuff.
And in between his turns at the grater, he regaled us—not for the first time—with his story of Jake Scheinberg, the horseradish man.
“Irwin knows this story, of course,” Pop began, “but I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it to the rest of you before, about Jake Scheinberg.”
“Don’t think so,” said Normie, and Joey and I shook our heads and muttered “no, no,” or the like.
“So this goes back some fifteen or twenty years,” Pop said, “before we expanded the store, when Louie was still here working with me. Now, for years, we had been getting our bottled horseradish from Jake Scheinberg. He supplied much of upstate and was even brining product down to Scranton and eastern Ohio. He bought from the local farmers and had a small factory to process and bottle.”
“Jacob’s Horseradish,” Normie said.
“Right,” said Pop, and he smiled. “You remember it.”
“Oh sure,” said Normie. “The short, round bottles. Red and white.”
“Very good,” said Pop. “Red horseradish and white horseradish. That was Jake. So that year, about four weeks before Pesach, his son comes in to see me.”
“Yes. His name was . . .” and Pop paused here for a minute, maybe it was to remember the name or maybe it was because Joey, who had been doing the grinding, was having a coughing fit. He kept coughing while he moved away from the grater to get some air and motioned for me to take over.
“Myron,” said Pop. “The son’s name was Myron. He comes in to see me and asks very politely if he can speak with me. So we go up to the office—you remember the office back then was up the stairs in the loft—and we sit down, and he explains that he is now a CPA, and he has just come back to town to work with his father in the business. Very nice, I say. And then he tells me that they have decided that we need to sell their horseradish for Pesach at 28 cents a bottle. This is some seven or eight cents more than we had been selling it for, for years. That’s some jump, I say. It’s a matter of supply and demand and understanding the market, he says. So I stand up, and he stands up, and I shake his hand and say, No. No? he says. No, I say. And what will you do without horseradish for Pesach? he says. I’ll think of something, I say, and he leaves.
“Now, when I tell Louie about this, he gets very upset. Hymie, he says, we’ve got to have horseradish for Pesach. How can we not have horseradish in the store for Pesach? Don’t worry about it, I tell him. We’ll have horseradish.
“Sure enough, about a week later, Jake, the old man, comes to see me, and we go up to the office and sit down, and Jake kind of smiles a little and looks down at his shoes a little and says, So my son Myron was by to see you. Yes, I said. Last week. A good looking boy. Thank you, says Jake. He gets his looks from his mother, you know. Anyway, I understand he talked to you a little about prices this year. Yes, I say. As I recall, he did. You know, says Jake, he’s just come into the business. It will take him a little time to understand how things work. Oh sure, I say. It always takes some time. So, Jake says, there’s really no reason to raise prices this year, especially so close to Pesach. We can go back down to the usual price. Oh, that’s good, Jake, I say. I appreciate that. In fact, I don’t mind going up two cents a bottle. That’s not unreasonable. Thank you, Hymie, he says to me. Not at all, Jake. No problem. So you’ll ship me a couple of cases. Tomorrow, Hymie, he says to me. I’ll have it here tomorrow. That’s great, Jake, I say. That will be fine. The best to Henny, and send my regards to Myron.
“I tell Louie about it later in the day, and it’s like I just told him that he won the lottery. Thank God, Hymie! he says. Just great. How did you know he’d come around? Louie, I say to him, we’re his biggest customer in the state. If we’re not going to sell it, what’s he going to do with all that horseradish?”
And Pop laughed at his story, and we all tried to laugh as though we had never heard it before. Except for me. I had done as much horseradish as I could for the moment. I was the one coughing and choking, so I moved as far away from the fumes as I could get, and Pop took my place at the grater.
Lunch was the traditional Erev Pesach lunch of borscht and sour cream and some cold boiled potatoes: that is to say traditional for Pop and a few others—I have actually grown pretty fond of it. Everyone else had salads and cheese and a little ice cream to help it go down. The husbands were assigned to try to get the kids to take naps in the afternoon; the seder starts late. The wives went back into the kitchen with Mom and a few of the older girls. The naps were a bust. They always are. The younger kids were going to end up falling asleep at the seder like they always did. We ended up playing touch football in the back yard for a while and then looking for something innocuous on TV to watch for a little bit.
The men and the boys were all dressed in Yom Tov best for shul that evening. Even David had a white shirt and a new pair of long pants. “Try not to get dirty,” Joyce said to him before we left the house. “Do we have another son I don’t know about?” I said.
Shul was crowded that night. We were ten: Pop, the four of us and the boys, and we weren’t the only extended family in for Yom Tov. The Rabbi looked out over a congregation that was bursting at the seams and seemed well pleased with himself, although it should be noted that the woman’s section was more-or-less empty. All the women were at home setting the tables and putting the finishing touches on the seder preparations. I know that, in retrospect, this was a great evil and was representative of the oppression of observant Jewish woman in those unenlightened times. I would like to be able to say that all these years later, all that has changed. I would like to be able to say that.
I got tapped for Ma’ariv that night. It was not, alas, because of my excellence as a chazzan; rather, it was more a matter of what the gabbai had available. Although I can generally carry a tune if it doesn’t have to be carried too far, I was probably the least notable singing voice in the family. Irwin was a regular in the shul, though, and they could hear him any time. Normie had this great baritone, so they were saving him for T’fillas Tal in Musaf on the next day. Joey was a visiting pulpit Rabbi, and Rabbi Weil had asked him to give a D’var Torah on the second day (which means: not as elaborate as the Rabbi’s speech on the first day). So, everyone else being covered, the first night Ma’ariv was mine. That particular prayer is a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, we say Hallel on the night of Pesach which has a lot of nice tunes available. On the other hand, it is already a late night, and everyone is anxious to get home and start the seder.
As often happens, Pop helped steer me in the right direction. As I put on my Tallis to go up for Ma’ariv, Pop leaned over and said in his stage whisper: “If you can’t be good, at least be quick.”
“Thanks, Pop,” I said. “I got you.”
Coming home from shul on any Shabbos or Yom Tov is a nice moment. There are no phones or radios or TVs going. No one is running up and down and in and out. It is quiet. The candles are lit, the table is set. Everyone is together. It is a special in a way that every observant Jew understands and really can’t explain to—you should excuse me—outsiders. And if it is so on a regular Friday night, how much more so on the night of Pesach. It is not just the Shabbos table; it is the Seder table.
We walked in, dressed for shul. Even David had managed only a few grass stains on his pants and a little red stain on the collar of his white shirt from a candy someone had given him in shul. The women and girls were waiting for us, all dressed in their new Yom Tov dresses. Calls of “Good Yontif” and “Chag Same’ach,” kisses and hugs for the chag.
There is a custom to bless the children after shul. Our parents only did that on the nights of Rosh HaShannah, but the Doctors Wasserman had always blessed the children every Friday night and every Yom Tov. It was a custom that Normie liked and had carried on with his own children. We had all learned it from him, and that first night of Pesach, as soon as we came in and traded general greetings, we broke up into our family groups, and each father and mother put their hands on the head of each child and gave the blessing. And because we were all together, the children lined up, single file, oldest to youngest, in front of Mom and Pop, and they each blessed each granddaughter and grandson, one by one. Pop smiled. Mom cried. And for the rest of us who watched quietly, it was worth the price of admission.
The dining room table had more leaves than a maple tree in bloom. It stretched lengthwise from the dining room through the living room and up to the staircase near the front door. During the afternoon, the girls had made place cards, and the table waited for us when the b’rachos were done. There were six wooden chairs that came with the table. Two were armchairs: one at the head of the table for Pop; the other at the other end for Mom. The other four “official” chairs were reserved for the daughters-in-law. The folks had bought four white plastic arm chairs for the sons. Everyone else got whatever folding chairs or kitchen chair we could find around the house. And on the table in front of each chair was a haggadah and the right place card.
There was a formal seating when we were all together. Normie sat to Pop’s right, Helena beside him. Irwin and Dassi to Dad’s left. Joyce and I to Mom’s right, Joey and Rebecca to her left. The kids, on the other hand, had decided their own seating arrangements in the middle of both sides of the table.
Mom motioned us to the table. The kids all ran to the center and pounced on the table to find their place cards. David found his name written both in English and Hebrew on his card. English, he had been reading pretty much fluently since he was two. But Hebrew was still pretty new, and he ran to Joyce with his card to show her how he could read the Hebrew. Joyce expressed her joy and appreciation and then showed him that his empty chair was waiting for him between his two favorite cousins, Joey’s boys, Shmuli and Yoshi. He squealed and ran to take his chair before anyone else could get it.
Mom had put Pop’s kittel on his chair and a small pillow leaning against the left arm of his chair. By the time Pop had gotten the kittel on and adjusted himself in his chair with the “leaning” pillow on his left, everyone was pretty much settled at the table. And then, strangely it seemed to me, everything grew quiet. Nothing eerie or dramatic about it. Everyone looked around themselves at the seder table, and everything was as it should have been. There was a big seder plate in front of Pop and smaller seder plates in front of each of the men. There were piles of Hand Shmurah and Machine Shmurah. There was a setting at every place, and a glass and different-sized wine cups. Pop and I had our bottles of sugar syrup wine in front of us. Joey and Rebecca had their Sparkling Rose, Irwin his dry white, Normie and Helena that Kosher French wine none of the rest of us could stand or pronounce. And three jugs of Kedem Grape Juice equally spaced along the whole length of the table. And in the middle of the table, Mom’s candles were burning. It was like no one had anything to say because everything was perfect
For just a short moment, then, everything was still around the table, and Mom smiled and looked around her.
“Okay everyone,” Pop said at last. “Pour for the person on your left.”
And with greater or lesser success, everyone at the table ascertained what the person to the left was drinking and did their best to fill up the cup without spilling. Not all the kids managed it exactly, but there was never going to be points for neatness at a Pesach seder with 23 people ranging in age from 4 to 72.
When it looked like the first cup had been poured for everyone, Mom looked at Pop and said, “Kiddush, Chaim.”
Pop stood, picked up his cup, opened his haggadah, and waited for everyone around the table to do the same. When they had, he smiled at Mom and said: “Everybody together.”
And the seder began.
– – – – – – – – –
I did not know that my brother Norman had ever lived until I was told that he had died.
As far as I can put it together from what my mother told me, her doctor did not realize that she was pregnant when he prescribed some rather extreme medication, the effect of which was that the baby was born severely handicapped, physically and mentally. My parents then spent several years running to specialists until their doctor and their Rabbi convinced them that there was nothing that could be done and that the child would be better cared for in an institution. That there is more to this, I have no doubt, and while I have wondered often what more there might be to this story, I don’t really know any more than that.
So the baby, Norman, was institutionalized. For a while, they went to see him every Sunday until it drove my mother to something like a breakdown and, at the insistence of doctors, Rabbis, I don’t know who else, they stopped going. My father never spoke to me about it; my mother never slept a full night again for the rest of her life.
I would have been fourteen years old when Norman died. He was 21 and died in the same institution in which he had lived his life. My Mom said that he never grew or developed. I did not hear about it then, I don’t think. I believe I was sixteen or seventeen when my Mom told me about it. Or perhaps I did hear it earlier. I am not sure. My facts are not reliable; I have only what I remember from what my Mom told me, and how accurately she remembered what happened all those years later, I cannot know. And to be fair, I have no idea how accurate or how complete the doctors and the rabbis were when they spoke to her.
Norman was buried in a Jewish cemetery somewhere in the area of the institution. To the best of my knowledge, my parents never saw the grave. I found it many years later and sent my Mom a picture of it.
Irwin did not recover completely from his coma at age four. He came out of it severely epileptic and brain damaged. They labeled him “high functioning retarded” which will do for a confusing oxymoron. In those days—it would have been 1951 or 52 I guess—there was nothing in Syracuse for Irwin: no school programs, workshops, treatment centers. He was a retarded kid who occasionally had grand mal seizures which sent him flailing on the ground like the demon in a horror movie, scaring everyone around him. They tried all his life to work out a drug regimen to control the seizures. Some drugs worked for a while; most didn’t.
After a few years, my parents moved from Syracuse back to New York in hopes that the big city might have more support options available for Irwin. My Dad found himself in his mid-forties looking for work. After a few false starts, he got into the insurance business. Mom divided her time between trying to find help for Irwin; working as a medical secretary, first in a hospital and then for a psychiatrist in the city; trying to keep the family going and the world turning; and taking courses at night at Brooklyn College toward her BA.
Irwin went from this program to that. The combination of epilepsy and retardation kept him out of most mainstream programs, but Mom pushed to get him into whatever was available. Everybody thought he was a warm, wonderful boy, but nobody had a place for him for long. Finally, when he was about 18, my parents joined a group of people trying to put together a sheltered workshop program for men and women with complex handicaps. Irwin thought of the place as his own, and Mom and Pop were thrilled that they might have found a place for Irwin after all those years.
Joyce and I got married in June of 1969. About eight months later, Irwin was coming home from a movie on a Thursday evening and was hit and killed by a car as he was crossing the street. He was 25 years old. It was about a month before Pesach, and Joyce insisted that Mom and Pop come to spend Pesach with us in Syracuse where I was in grad school. They came, and, as it turned out, Joyce made Pesach for my parents virtually every year for the rest of their lives.
I have two memories of Joel. When he was a little baby, Pop was giving him a bath in the tub, and Joel was holding a wet washcloth and chomping it in his mouth and smiling. The second memory was seeing him about a year later through the hospital window a few months before he died. His face was puffed up and had blue marks on it from the chemotherapy, and I didn’t really recognize him.
All of my brothers have been dead now for more than fifty years. They never married of course. They never had children. The family around the seder table was our table: me, Joyce, our three kids, Mom and Pop. They loved my kids and my kids loved them. My folks got to watch their three grandchildren grow up, and Mom, at least, lived long enough to meet the first four of Devorah’s kids and Deena’s eldest.
But when we were sitting shiva for Irwin in my parents’ apartment in Brooklyn, my mother said to me, “I used to dream about my sons and their wives and their children sitting around the dining room table, my husband at the head and me at the other end.”
It surprises me sometimes how much my mother’s dream has come to define for me who I am and what matters to me in the world, all the things I have and all the things I have lost.
All these many years later, it seemed to me that in memory of my mother and father and to try to explain some things to my children and my grandchildren,–my brothers and the wives and children they never had should be able to sit around my parents’ seder table that never was.
Even if only once. Even if only on a piece of paper.
Copyright Gary M. Levine 2020