The driver faces him, trying to get inside, but Tatte doesn’t even notice, his eyes are on the carriage, on her and Emmy
Everything is the same. And everything is different.
There’s the mud. The minute she climbs out of the carriage, her boots are covered in a sticky layer. The new day is just beginning, and in the dim morning light, she looks up and down the street. It’s not that they have stopped in a puddle. It’s just that there are no cobblestones, and it is winter, and this is how it always is, or was. Funny that she does not remember it.
“Boots can be cleaned,” she calls behind her to Emmy, as her daughter steps down from the carriage.
Then there is the cold. In Prague, the air is softer, damper. Here it is sharp like jagged ice. Just across from the village, fields shine white with frost; it looks like they have arrived in another world. Maybe they have traveled as far as the moon. She holds her arms around herself for warmth and drinks in the scene, greedy eyes, greedy heart.
Home. She is home.
The creak of a door. She looks around; her old neighbor, off to daven neitz. He looks up at them with curiosity, then continues on his way, head dipped, lips already moving in prayer. Doubtless, he is making his way to the shul with the corrugated metal roof; they were so proud of it when it was built, only to realize that the sound of the rain was deafening, drowning out even the loudest shaliach tzibbur.
The horses paw the ground, ready for a drink. The driver jumps into the mud and with a grunt, unstraps their trunks, hauling them down.
“Not on the mud,” Emmy screeches.
The driver rocks for a second, staggering under the weight, unsure of what to do. Hannah points toward the house and he staggers up the path.
It’s all a blur. The door opens; Tatte stands, gaping. The driver faces him, trying to get inside, but Tatte doesn’t even notice, his eyes are on the carriage, on her and Emmy.
Then he blinks and finally sees the red face, the trunk. He moves to the side, but the door is too narrow. He will need to step back into the house, if only to let the driver set down the trunk, but he will not do so, for fear that she and Emmy will disappear.
He stumbles backward, then runs forward toward them. He stops a foot away, and raises both hands above his head, as if he is drawing down a stream of light from the heavens. The newborn sun hits his fingers so they seem to glow, and Tatte bellows into the rising sun: “Yevarechecha Hashem v’yishmarecha…”
Wolf’s forehead creases as he bends over the page. He looks up at Felix. “How is this?” He clears his throat. “Your brethren in Vienna appeal to you in their time of need.”
Felix nods. “Continue.”
“Please, open your hands to the orphans and widows of the recent Ringtheater fire.”
Felix taps his pencil on the table and thinks. “More drama.”
“Fire has destroyed their families. Help rebuild.”
“Hmmm.” Wolf nods his head. “Better. It has drama. But we need something more personal.”
“You can help rebuild?”
Wolf offers him a rare smile. “Perfect.”
He corrects the text and then pulls himself up to make himself a hot drink. “I don’t know why they are appealing in Prague when Vienna is full of Jewish ladies dripping with diamonds.” He shakes his head.
Felix shrugs. “Many of us have relatives in Vienna. It is only right that we take care of our own.”
Wolf looks up. “Who do you have in Vienna?”
Felix shrugs. “My father grew up there, and my grandparents still live there. When Papa heard about it, he was deeply shaken.”
“Of course. He plays in a theater.”
“Not only that. His parents were there just the previous night. The opening night of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. They wouldn’t miss a new opera.”
Wolf clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Terrible story. One bumbling mistake after the other. The gas lights were not lit carefully enough, so the props caught fire. The iron fire curtain around the stage, which could have stopped the fire from spreading, was not dropped. The managers panicked and shut off the gas, which meant that the lamps were extinguished and everyone was plunged into darkness. Then the fire engines arrived, and the ladders were too short to reach the people stuck on the balcony. People began to jump, crushing the people beneath them. Eventually, a safety net was bought, and the people began to jump down from the balcony, into the safety net. Women with emeralds in their hair, gold around their wrists, flinging themselves off into safety.”
Felix swallows. It makes him suddenly worried for his father. The concert hall is his second home, what would he do without it? At least Mama will not see the appeal, nor the pictures of the gutted theater.
“Still no final count of the dead?”
“The estimates are around 400 Yidden. Maybe 200 goyim.” He points to the stack of other newspapers reporting the tragedy. “Trust the theater to be filled with Yidden. If they’d stayed at home with their children and their families and their pianos and books, they’d have been saved. As it is, there are countless orphans. There’ll be almanos, too, and probably agunos, if they can’t identify the bodies. Terrible, terrible.”
Felix cocks his head to the side, considering. “You don’t really mean that do you? About the theaters, and staying home?”
Wolf gives an elaborate shrug.
“This is what we Jews do,” says Felix. “Oh, it is beautiful and uplifting and enriching and soulful. But also, the opera, the concert halls, the galleries, the evenings with promising poets — it’s the way in. It’s our ticket to the bourgeoisie, which is also our ticket out of the shtetls. Out of poverty and powerlessness.” He thinks, suddenly, of Chasya. “It’s not even 20 years since Jews were given the status of full citizens of the Austrian Empire. This is the path to acceptance.”
Wolf pours himself a glass of tea and drinks. He always does that — drinks his tea straight from the boil, even when it must burn him. “That is what you say. Some would say the pathway is politics. And all those chassidim in Galicia and Hungary, they shrug their shoulders and say, why do we need this anyway? If there is oppression, it is message from G-d that we must pray harder for Mashiach.”
The argument sits uneasily with Felix. Turn the University of Prague upside down, and half the students are Jews. In Berlin and Vienna, the numbers are higher. “There have always been Jews involved in music, poetry, grammar, philosophy. Look at Maimonides the doctor. Abraham Ibn Ezra the grammarian.”
Wolf chuckles and Felix tenses. “Maimonides wasn’t a doctor. Oh, he was a doctor all right. But that was a side thing, like your writing Hans and Bertha. He was a scholar. He was a devout Jew. All the other things — the poetry, the music, they were just more channels in their service of G-d.” He sniffs. “I don’t think that these people today are using Kultur to become better Jews.”
“But isn’t being a better person, a more developed human, part of being a good Jew?”
“Yes and no.”
Wolf puts down his cup and stomps over to the printing press. He flips open the side and examines the ink. Felix is uncomfortable with the argument, but more, he is curious. Wolf is not an intellectual, but he has an earthy, practical intelligence.
“A good goy — what does he do? He tries to be a good man. Solicitous of his wife, kind to his children, honest in business. Turn the other cheek, love thy neighbor, all of it. But a Jew — he brings G-d into the world.”
Felix stares. In Prague, no one knows how much of a Jew anyone else is. Wolf does not look like the G-d-fearing type, but maybe he pegged him all wrong. “Is that what you’re doing?”
Wolf nods vigorously.
Felix opens last week’s paper, and points at an advertisement. Attention, menfolk. This hair restoring cream will reverse baldness and you will look twenty years younger. “This is bringing G-d into the world? Taking money for scams?”
Wolf turns red and Felix wonders, what is the propriety of talking this way to one’s boss. They say you don’t talk politics with your landlord, or you’ll never get a lease. But no one told him not to talk theology with his boss. One day, when he has a son, he’ll write him a book of rules that will help him get around the world without making all the mistakes that seem to dog him.
“Listen, Felix,” There’s an edge to Wolf’s voice. “There’s G-d and there’s making a living.”
He turns the pages. Another advertisement catches his eye.
Opportunity: Immigration certificate! Accommodation! Job Guarantee!
If you have a daughter between the ages of 16 and 22, she may be eligible to be a domestic help worker in a foreign country. Acceptance by personal interview only.
There’s an address at the end, and a Yiddish translation. Felix reads it, and something niggles.
“What is this?” Felix asks.
Wolf shrugs. “How should I know?”
“It’s your newspaper.”
“The gentleman wrote to me, enclosing payment and text. What more do you want from me?”
Felix shakes his head. “Something about it… bothers me.”
Wolf folds his arms. “That’s because you have a sister. And you come from a place of privilege. You don’t like to think about the fact that there are girls with no dowry, with aging parents, with no work apart from a little embroidery. It’s that or become a cleaner. And most homes don’t want a Jewish girl. Ergo, no money.” He gives an elaborate sigh. “Now, will you get on with your work?”
Felix sits down at his desk and picks up his pen.
He sucks the lid. “Would you send your daughter — or your sister — to a foreign country?”
Wolf slaps him on the back. He is pushed forward and his pen stabs the paper. “Wake up, Felix,” he says. “You yourself wrote about what’s happening in the Pale. Villages burned down and Jews left with nothing. Nothing. Not that they had much to begin with. For them, an opportunity like this might be Heaven-sent. One less mouth to feed. A girl who won’t just become an aging spinster.”
Felix nods. He begins his work, a piece about the oceans of the world, made interesting enough that privileged boys and girls will want to read about it. If the poor get hold of it, they may roll it into cigarettes. Put it onto a fire for a few extra seconds of heat.
He begins to write: There are seven oceans of the world.
He looks at it again, and scrubs it out.
Have you ever seen the sea? He begins again. Better.
He finds the ink blot, made earlier. With a few deft strokes, it becomes a boat, rocking on the waves. Uncle Schneur was at the sea, not so long ago, seeing his Aunt Becca on the boat that would take her to Turkey. No dowry. No jobs. Elderly parents. Sent overseas.
But that’s not comparing like with like. Becca went to teach, to set up a school for poor Jews.
Sent overseas. A young woman, alone.
He bites his lip and continues to write. Did you ever wonder how much water the sea contains?
The man minding the stall has no teeth. Becca looks at him, then down at the hundreds of tiny glass bottles spread out. The lack of teeth could be a good sign or a bad sign. It could be that all of the herbal potions he sells are not efficacious enough to enable him to chew on a crust of bread. Or, it could be a good sign. That they have kept him to such a ripe old age, that he could have lost his teeth many times over, yet he can still come to the market to peddle his wares.
“I need something for lice,” she says. This morning, she went to the school building and pored over the dictionaries. Lice. Bitler.
She tries the Arabic. “Qamal.”
He shakes his head.
No wonder. A shtetl girl, grown up on Yiddish, educated in Paris, and living in Ottoman Turkey, trying to speak Arabic. Not much hope for authentic enunciation.
She looks at him, stares at all the bottles and picks both hands up toward her hair. She pretends to scratch, wildly.
The man throws his head back and chuckles. He whips up one of the bottles and hands it to her. She looks. There is no label. No instructions. No point in asking him for instructions. She shall just have to experiment. She pays, pockets the bottle, and heads back toward the home of Rahel, her little charge.
This was the easy part.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 698)
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