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Fallout: Chapter 2

Now this, Annie thought, was interesting. “Is your family Jewish?” Annie asked. “With the name Burton....”


February 7, 1964

Moe sat at the men’s table in the Hotel dining room, happily downing the favorite foods of his childhood, which had been lovingly prepared by Mrs. Horn, the hotel’s aging cook.

Annie and Marjorie walked into the room. Seeing his suitcase still in Marjorie’s hand, Moe jumped up and raced toward them. “I’m so sorry.” He smiled. “I was so excited to be home, I forgot all about it.”

“No big deal,” Marjorie answered. “Gee, it sure smells great in here.”

“Won’t you join us?” Moe asked politely.

Annie shot a dubious glance at her brother, half-amused, half-puzzled. This girl with the flaming red hair certainly didn’t fit into the Hotel’s quiet, sedate, almost shtetl-like atmosphere. What would the residents think of this oddly dressed, boisterous girl?

But after Moey’s invitation, she had no choice. “Yes,” she said, her smile just a little forced, “please come and sit next to me.”

Within minutes Marjorie was devouring the blintzes and marveling at the creamed herring.


arjorie kept up a running conversation with Annie, who asked her some polite questions, without much real interest. Yes, Marjorie lived at home, and yes, she sometimes helped her father out when he needed errands to be run, especially if she could drive his red Mustang, and yes, her father was the head of a large publishing company, and yes, she went to college, but no, she hated it and had much more interesting plans for the future.

Stopping to catch her breath and grab another piece of herring, Marjorie picked up a seltzer bottle on the table and sprayed some into her glass. “My grandmother used to use these to make something she called a ‘shpritzer.’” She laughed. “And she also made her own herring.”

Now this, Annie thought, was interesting. “Is your family Jewish?” Annie asked. “With the name Burton....”

“Nah, that’s not our real name.” Marjorie laughed, spraying some more seltzer into her cup. “My grandparents got that when they came to America from Lithuania. Their real name was something hard to pronounce and they liked the sound of Burton.”

“Lithuania? That’s where my father came from,” Annie said. “Do you know where they lived?”

“Some little hole-in-the-wall town that no one ever heard of. I don’t remember exactly. Sounds something like valley, valet—”

“Valiokei! Your family comes from Valiokei?”

“Yup, that’s it. My great-grandpa was the rabbi there. Not much of a job, from what I hear.”

Annie’s cheeks grew almost as red as Marjorie’s hair.

This girl. This silly, impulsive, ultra-modern girl — a great-grandchild of the Valioker Rav?

“If you’re not in a rush to leave, Marjorie,” Annie said, “when we finish eating, I think my father would like to talk to you.”

The meal in the hotel dining room came to a delicious end, with coffee, tea, and the most heavenly apple strudel Marjorie had ever tasted, and then Papa, Annie, Moe, and their still-chattering guest walked into the parlor.

Though it was just a “pintele,” a tiny dot on a world map, the town of Valiokei in Lita had loomed large in the Freed family life. Before the War, it was from Valiokei that the envelopes would arrive, with Moey grabbing the odd-looking stamps bearing pictures of knights on horses or strange bearded men for his stamp collection, while Annie waited anxiously for Papa to read the crabbed Yiddish writing. These letters, from Papa’s mother and sister, were the only ties Annie had to her extended family, and as a child she loved hearing the news of births and marriages of unknown cousins, of a distant cousin going off to yeshivah, or a visit to the village by a highly placed Lithuanian official.

Papa had been a young man when he’d left his birthplace and, characteristically, he did not speak often about his shtetl childhood. Occasionally, though, on a Friday evening after the seudah, with the candles burning low, he would talk about “der Tatteh,” his father, Yoinason, and Reb Yoinason’s unusual relationship with the family of Rav Dovid, Rav of Valiokei: “Der Roiteh Rav.”


hildren — and sometimes their parents, too — called your great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, the ‘Roiteh Rav’ — the ‘Red Rabbi’ — because of the color of his hair,” Yeruchum told Marjorie.

Marjorie shook her thick red mane. “I guess I take after him, at least in that.” She laughed. “Mother and Father like to say I have auburn hair, but really, it’s just red. Like the ‘Red Rabbi!’”

Yeruchum ignored the interruption. “His name was Rav Dovid Briskman. I remember him well. A small man, a giant of the spirit. My father ztz”l, Reb Yoinason, was born just a few weeks after Rav Dovid. His mother, my grandmother, died even before my father’s bris. My grandfather was tzebruchen.”

Usually Marjorie had little or no patience for talking about the past — the present, after all, was so much more interesting. But something about this narrative gripped her; maybe the idea of her rabbi ancestor sharing her hair color….

“What’s tzebrooken?” she asked curiously.

“It’s Yiddish, it means he was completely broken up. He had other children, too, a houseful of them, and he could not face raising a newborn. Your great-great-grandmother, the ‘Roiteh Rav’s’ mother, offered to take in the baby, to feed and raise him together with one-month-old Dovid. Even after the baby was old enough to go back home to his own family, young Yoinason spent most of his time at the Rav’s house. Dovid and Yoinason everyone called them, and they were like brothers.”

Annie broke in. “And my twin boys are named for them, David and Jonathan.”

“Twins! Far out! How old are they?” Without waiting for an answer, Marjorie turned again to the rabbi sitting so solemnly in front of her. “So you remember my great-grandfather?”

“Certainly.” Yeruchum’s calm and even tones made an interesting contrast to Marjorie’s voice, lilting and melodious, with an edge of unstoppable laughter. “Your great-grandfather, Reb Dovid, was my father’s best friend, like an uncle to me. He became the rebbe upon his father’s death. A tzaddik, a scholar, a wonderful man.”

“And did you know my Grandpop Morrie?”

Yeruchum paused. Marjorie was not usually sensitive to feelings, but even she could feel something darken in what had been a pleasant, convivial atmosphere. Her grandfather would have been about this rabbi’s age. What a riot if this rabbi had fought with her grandfather over some toy when they were kids!

“Uh… yes. Yes, a little. But… we lost touch when he moved to America. Is he… is he still alive?”

“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “He died when I was a baby. And what a cutie I was, too! But my pop sometimes talks about him. Grandpop Morrie was the one who founded our family’s publishing house,” she added, turning to Moe.

Yeruchum had been speaking in a quiet voice, but now his words came out almost in a whisper. Marjorie had to bend forward to hear him.

“Miss Burton, perhaps you would join us here in the hotel for the Sabbath. You can experience an authentic Shabbos… like the one your great-grandfather would have enjoyed.” He turned to Annie. “I’m sure we can find Miss Burton a room.”

The group plunged into silence. Yeruchum was obviously lost in thoughts of the past, and Annie and Moe were too surprised by their father’s unexpected invitation to this young and secular girl to say anything.

Marjorie looked around her, at the parlor with its slightly shabby overstuffed chairs, at the sofa with its cracked leather and hints of stuffing peeking out at the corners. Even though they’d finished eating, mouthwatering smells were wafting out of the kitchen, and the sound of people chatting was overlaid by a man’s voice singing in a strange language something that sounded like opera.

A weird place, this hotel. Mind-blowing. And as different from her own luxurious suburban home as two places could be.

So very different….

There was a glint in her eyes that her father would have recognized. Marjorie was hatching a plan.


hen Marjorie was four years old, she decided to join her friends in the brand-new magical box where Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry lived. She wanted to share adventures with all these funny black-and-white talking animals. Taking the little plastic hammer that was one of her favorite toys, she banged as hard as she could on the back of the box that had been delivered to her home just the day before.

“Marjorie Burton, what in the world are you doing!” Mother said sternly, as she walked into the room. “You can thank your lucky stars you haven’t broken our new television set!”

As happened very often, little Marjorie was banished to her room. But instead of meditating on her sins, she spent her prison sentence (“now go to your room until dinner!”) contemplating the idea of a “lucky star.”

In the years since, Marjorie’s faith in her “lucky star” had grown. And now, sitting in the Freed Hotel, Marjorie wondered: Was it coincidence that had sent her to this odd place?

Or was it her lucky star?

She shook off the memories and looked directly at Yeruchum.

“Thanks loads. That would be so cool. I’d love to stay for the Sabbath.”

“You want to do WHAT?”

Holding the public telephone’s receiver as far as she could, Marjorie rolled her eyes. Life was about experiences, not explanations. How cool it would be if Mother and Father understood that.

But they did not understand that obvious truth, and so explanations there had to be. In the resigned tone of a parent explaining something to a slow-witted child, she told her mother about Yeruchum Freed’s invitation and how it would have seemed impolite to refuse and how they’d discovered the family connection and did she know her great-grandfather was called the “Red Rabbi” and in this place the men and women sit separately and—

Long experience with her daughter had taught Alice Burton that the only way to stop the flood of words was to rudely break in. “But they’re odd people, Marjorie. Rabbis? Hassidim? They eat kosher, for heaven’s sakes”

“Yes, Mother, and the food here is really good. I can learn a lot from their cook.”

A sigh. “Okay, Marjorie, stay for their Sabbath. You’re going to be incredibly bored.”

Marjorie took a deep breath. Here was the tricky part. “Well, actually, um, I would like to stay a few more days. I want to find out more about our family history.” Before her mother could interrupt with the usual  objections and complaints, she hurried on. “And you know, Father wants to make a good impression on this Rabbi Moses Freed, get the best terms in the contract negotiations, and this will give me a chance to speak with him, so it will be good for the business, and I don’t have classes ’til Tuesday morning, and I have really nothing much to do, and….”

As always, under the verbal onslaught Mrs. Burton surrendered. Yes, Marjorie could stay. Yes, they would drop off some clothing for her Sunday morning. And Marjorie, be careful when you drive back home. And make sure you say thank you. And remember, Father wants this deal to go through so don’t get into any arguments with anyone. And be sure to call every day just to check in.

Trying to conceal the triumph in her voice, Marjorie agreed quickly to everything her mother had asked.

Once again, Marjorie had gotten what she wanted.

And what she wanted, right now — for reasons that would have shocked her parents — she wanted, no, she needed, to stay at the Freed Hotel.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 846)

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