| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 27

How can I sit at the dining room table, knowing that next week Mutty’s chair will be empty?


June 1964

Mutty Levine walked into the army recruiting office, bringing his Social Security Card, driver’s license, high school diploma, and college transcripts. Most important to him, if not to Uncle Sam — he also was carrying the blessings of Mama and Dad.

The recruiter welcomed him warmly. It wasn’t every day that he met a graduate of a top college who was not frantically looking for a deferment. Even more surprising, Levine was joining up as an enlisted man rather than an officer. “I want to see the army from the ground up,” Mutty explained to him, “as a medic, with the men in the field.”

Whether he was an idealist or a fool, or a combination of both, didn’t matter much to the recruiter, who promised to get Mutty quickly through the army’s bureaucratic maze. There were exams to be taken, physical tests, reams of paperwork — but miraculously, in almost record time, Private Mordechai Levine had his orders to report to an army base in Georgia for Basic Combat Training.


will not cry.

There would be no tears on Mutty’s final Shabbos with his family. He was leaving on Sunday morning, and his last memories of Shabbos would be sweet and filled with music and divrei Torah, with the joy of family and faith.

I can’t. I mustn’t. But how?

How would she find the strength to give her son, her bechor, the final parting gift of a beautiful, laughter-filled Shabbos, when happiness seemed so far away?

How can I sit at the dining room table, knowing that next week Mutty’s chair will be empty?

A thought suddenly flew into her head. I will NOT sit at that table this Shabbos. We will spend our final Shabbos together with Papa and Moe.

At the Hotel.

In the first years after the Holocaust, the Freed Hotel had been a haven, a place of refuge for survivors of the Nazi Gehinnom, and as their numbers increased, Papa often turned to Annie for help. Though she was raising her own young family, she would always be available to assist Mrs. Horn in the kitchen, to help an orphaned girl study for her citizenship test, or to comfort a survivor on the yahrtzeit of her entire family.

And now, in a strange irony, the Freed Hotel would be her refuge as well, the place where she would find the strength she so badly needed.


he family sat together, sheltered by a mechitzah between them and the boarders’ main dining room. Annie listened, dry-eyed, to Mutty and Artie’s harmonies. Artie, she knew, was stunned, both by Mutty’s desire to join up and, perhaps even more, her unexpected sanction of his decision. Neither of them, neither Mutty nor Artie, will ever understand why I did it, will ever know what this is costing me, not until they are parents themselves.

Before they’d arrived at the hotel, Annie had made it clear to Artie that there would be no politics, no recriminations at this Shabbos table, and now Mutty’s deep and resonant baritone joined with Artie’s soaring tenor in a blend of contrasting tones that seemed to mirror their differences and yet create a poignant unity between them.

But the day was passing, too soon, too quickly. Outside, the June sun was setting, its fiery glow slashing through the sky in shades of purple and gray. The third Shabbos meal in the Freed Hotel was simple, and the family soon finished their gefilte fish with chrein, egg salad, and homemade pickles. As the sun vanished, fading into darkness, the family seemed to move closer to each other, to figuratively huddle together for warmth, for comfort. Artie and Mutty, Yeruchum and Moe sang quietly Dovid Hamelech’s immortal words: Gam ki eilech — Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid — ki Atah imadi — for You, Hashem, are with me.

Annie shivered, battling the fears welling up inside of her, willing the tears to stay hidden in her heart. I gave birth to my son, my firstborn, my Mutty, in this house. I celebrated his bris here, his bar mitzvah. And now… it’s time to let him go.

I will not be afraid. And I will not cry.


was time to say goodbye. Yeruchum and Moe had taken their leave on Motzaei Shabbos, when the family left the hotel to return home.

A night helping Mutty pack and repack; a morning serving Mutty’s favorite breakfast — pancakes dripping with maple syrup; a last-minute addition of two rolls of salami into a suitcase already crammed with canned food: The moment had come.

Even in Abe’s spacious Cadillac there wasn’t room for everyone to escort Mutty to Grand Central Station, where he would begin his journey. A blessing, really, since Annie had been dreading the moment when the train would pull away.

She stood outside their home and looked at her strapping six-foot son.

“Take care of yourself. Hashem should watch over you,” she whispered, as she held him in a tight hug.

“I will, Mama. And thank you for everything. I love you.”

He jumped into the front seat, next to his father. His sister and brothers joined him. The door slammed, and the Cadillac drove away.

And, finally, the tears came.


here,” said Perele Schwartz, giving a final spritz of hairspray onto Marjorie’s carefully combed hair. Her red mop had been teased and shaped and brushed into submission. “You look like a redheaded version of Jacqueline Kennedy.”

Marjorie giggled. “But I’ll be wearing my graduation cap this afternoon, not a pillbox hat.”

She looked affectionately at Perele, now approaching her, eyeliner in hand, to help with the makeup.

She’s been so good to me, Mrs. S. Maybe I should tell her what I’m planning?

She put the thought on hold and gazed critically at her image in the mirror. “Is that a zit coming out on my chin?”

“A little Max Factor concealer will take care of that, darling. It’s a great coverup.”

A little concealer.

A great coverup.

When she was seven years old, little Marjorie Burton learned basic arithmetic skills and improved her reading level. She could recite the Pledge of Allegiance by heart and tell you the year the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock. But her most important lesson was the one learned one boring Tuesday during class recess, when she’d snuck back upstairs to her classroom and taken out a balloon from her briefcase. It hadn’t been blown up, this pretty pink balloon, and she’d found it last week. She stuck it onto the faucet in the bathroom, filled it with water, and carefully tied a knot at the end. Holding the pretty — and now burgeoning — pink balloon, she returned to her classroom, pulled open the window, and hurled the balloon down, watching it pop with a satisfying splash and soak two unfortunate third-graders playing nearby.

The school’s principal was soon in the classroom, demanding that the culprit confess his or her sin. As she watched the principal’s face turn an interesting shade of pink, Marjorie suddenly remembered yesterday’s history lesson and Mrs. Woolf’s dramatic story about little Georgie Washington and his cherry tree.

“I cannot tell a lie!” seven-year-old Marjorie announced dramatically, standing up and throwing out her arms. “It was I who threw the water balloon!”

The principal had not embraced Marjorie and assured her that by telling the truth she was worth more than a thousand balloons, like Mrs. Woolf had said Georgie’s father did. Instead, she’d marched Marjorie to the office, where she sat for hours, eventually sending her home to face the wrath of her parents. (“Why can’t you behave more like your brother? Now go to your room, and no television for a week, young lady!”)

The lessons Marjorie Burton learned on that black day? That stories big people tell you are not always true, and you can’t always trust them. And that sometimes — it doesn’t pay to tell people things.

Whatever your plans are, it’s best to conceal them. Cover them up. Even from someone as nice as Perele Schwartz.

It would be nice to talk to Mrs. S. about stuff. But what if she tells Mother?

“Thanks a lot, Mrs. S. Gotta go now. I can’t wait to see you at the graduation tonight.”


he only part of her graduation that Marjorie really enjoyed was after all the (long and boring) speeches, when the graduates ended the ceremony in the traditional American way: flinging up their tasseled graduation caps into the sky and watching them fly down back to earth. She liked the feeling of freedom so much that she caught three of the caps as they came down and threw them back into the darkening evening sky.

The graduates milled around, congratulating each other and looking for their relatives. The entire Levine family and, of course, Mrs. Schwartz, had promised to attend. This would be the first time they would be meeting her parents after that catastrophic Purim encounter, and she wondered, with a pang of anxiety leavened with laughter, if there would be fireworks again.

Ruchele was the first to find her, pulling at the graduation gown and demanding a hug. She was followed by the rest of the family and Perele Schwartz. There was a hubbub of mazel tovs and congratulations, with Mrs. S. and — who’da thunk it? — Mrs. Levine both enveloping her in their arms.

A couple, more formally dressed than most of the crowd, walked toward them.

“Umm… you remember my mother and father.”

To her relief and just a little disappointment, the encounter went smoothly. Dr. Levine and her father shook hands and started to chat, and even Mother’s cool smile grew warmer when Perele Schwartz spoke about how proud they must be of their daughter.

“Will you be joining us at the hotel for dinner, Marjorie?” Annie Levine asked. “We’ve got some real treats waiting for you.”

“We were expecting you at home, Marjorie,” her mother said, and Marjorie could almost feel the temperature around the little group go down. “For a family” — her voice emphasized the word — “celebration.”

Perele Schwartz spoke quickly. “Of course, we should have realized. Your family will be anxious to congratulate you. Don’t you worry, Marjorie, the treats we prepared will wait.”

“But what about the present, Mama?” Ruchele interjected.

“Oh yes.” Annie Levine handed Ruchele a gift-wrapped box. “This is for you, Margie, from all of us,” Ruchele recited, clearly having been schooled in the speech. “And I made you a card that’s in there, all myself!” she added in her usual tones.

There were cordial goodbyes, and Marjorie, grasping the box, walked away with her parents.


veryone — her brother, sister-in-law, and their children — was waiting for her downstairs. But first, she just had to open that gift.

Marjorie pulled out a piece of paper and grinned. Ruchele had sent a mess of watercolors that appeared to be a portrait of her and Marjorie, with the words “I love you” spelled wrong. There was a lovely Hallmark card attached to a small ivory-colored box, signed “the Levine, Freed, and Schwartz families.” Inside, she found an elegant gold chain, with a diamond-edged charm attached. Rabbi Freed had begun to teach Marjorie to read Hebrew, and she saw immediately what the word on the charm was: “Chai” — life — in 14 karat gold.

On the very bottom of the gift package she found an envelope. Tearing it open, she saw a few handwritten lines:

Can you believe you’ve finished college?

What will you do with all that knowledge?

That’s for you to know — and us to find out

But for now, it’s time for a mazel tov shout!

Congrats! Artie (Klein) Levine

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 871)

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