Would she understand? He doesn’t want to tell her if she will not understand
Becca looks around the room. Floor, moderately clean. Mother, teeth intact. Children playing in the corner of the room with some string. Possible danger there. First impression: average to good.
The woman, though, looks thin and exhausted.
“What is your mother-in-law’s name?” Becca asks.
“Just call her Nona.”
The woman leads her through the house to a bedroom. The old woman who sits in front of her is so wrinkled that it’s hard to make out what she might have looked like.
Becca kneels in front of the old woman. The woman does not seem to register that she’s there. Is she blind? “Nona?”
There’s a smell about her.
“Nona, I will touch your hands.” Becca reaches over and puts her own hands on those of the old woman. The woman’s hands are sticky with sweat. Becca finds a clean rag in the kitchen and dampens it. She returns to Nona and presses it against her palms, gently rubbing the rag down each finger.
“Does that feel better now?”
She is tired from a long day spent with Rahel and Diamenta, as well as a hasty meeting with the director of the boys’ school. As she kneels, a cramp spreads across the back of her legs. When she is finished sponging Nona’s hands, she gently wipes the old lady’s face and neck. Her eyes are milky white — cataracts.
Surprisingly, the work does not bother her. When she’s finished, she sits beside Nona and gently begins to hum. It’s a tune that Fortuna sings as she goes about her daily business. She has no idea of the words, but the tune, which twists and turns like the alleyways of Izmir, feels right. The woman opens her mouth and a bleat emerges. She licks her lips and Becca holds a cup to her lips. The woman drinks thirstily. How long has her mouth been parched?
Becca continues the song and now the woman opens her lips slightly and joins in. She does not carry a tune, but it’s a sound, and it’s a sound made with pleasure. When she finishes, she notices Nona’s daughter-in-law, the lady of the house, standing, watching.
“I thank you,” she says, her eyes bright with tears. “I thank you.”
When Becca finally gets home, she unscrews her fountain pen and begins composing a letter to the Director.
The community here is beginning to accept me.
However, there is much work to be done before I can think of education. Some of the women are very capable, but there are some who are overburdened with children and the elderly. To ensure future students, I must go into their homes and teach them how to clean and feed their children. To their credit, I find that these people are quick-witted and willing to learn. Often, there simply was no one to teach them.
Just write it, Becca. Just write it.
There is much groundwork to be done. I do not predict my school opening in the next—
Three months? Overly ambitious.
Six months? Perhaps. Perhaps six months will do the trick.
She picks up the pen and finishes the sentence. Six months.
Please write and advise me if this is acceptable to you.
She bites her lip and adds another line.
For I pen these words with sincere concern for the women who live here.
Leibele is playing near the fire and the Chanukah menorah is lit in the window. Ostensibly, Felix came to deliver some of Gertrude’s leftover chicken. But without Mama home, and the house cold and lonely, Felix asks if he can come inside for a few moments. Chasya looks surprised, but she steps back to let him inside, carefully propping open the door.
Felix sits down next to Leibele and admires his latest drawing.
Chasya sits down in the rocking chair and folds her arms. “So how long is it until you become Herr Doctor?”
Felix hesitates. “I do not know.”
“You have given it up?”
Felix keeps his eyes trained on Leibel’s drawing. This was not the conversation he expected. “Not given it up. Just put it on hold. No rush, as they say.”
She nods. “What is holding you back?”
Would she understand? He doesn’t want to tell her if she will not understand.
“My supervisor told me that I cannot contrast rationality with religion…” He watches her face. She has not understood. Of course not, she is an ostjude, a simple peasant.
“If you explain in plain and clear language, then maybe I can understand.” She seems to have read his thoughts.
“I was trying to find a reasonable, rational basis for religion. Permission, if you like. That religion is not just in the hands of the uneducated. It can be looked at rationally, as Maimonides did. As in, it doesn’t just have a foundation of…” He gropes for the word that will express what he wants to say yet not offend her beliefs.
She offers a word. “Nothingness?”
“Perhaps. Yes. Yes. That would do.”
For a long time, she rocks the baby, thinking. Felix shifts in his chair. He should probably leave. What’s he doing here, anyway?
“My father always said that there are two types of apikorsim. You know what that is?”
Heretics? He chooses the translation that’s more comfortable. “Freethinkers?”
“Freethinkers?” She ponders. “Are believers not free to think? If we were not free, then our choices, our mitzvos, our Shabbos would be meaningless. We may as well be malachim — or the opposite.” She thinks for a moment. “People who have thrown off their religion. Let’s use it like that.”
He nods. “I follow you.”
“So, there are two types, my father would always say.
“Those who have rational arguments against G-d. So those you can argue away. But then there are those who don’t believe because they look at the world and they see nothingness. Emptiness. Where is the Creator in the emptiness, they ask. And often, it’s not just that they see that in the world. They see emptiness in themselves.”
He is fascinated. Nothingness as transcendence, according to Wilhelm. But here is something else. Nothingness as a path to denial.
He quotes the words that Wilhelm so loves, not thinking how she will react: “Oh, you wretches who… are born for nothing, that we love a nothing, believe in nothing, work ourselves to death for nothing only that little by little we may pass over into nothing — and still I am here.”
Chasya shivers. In the cradle, the baby begins to cry and she jumps up eagerly to pick her up. She stands, rocking the baby to and fro. She repeats the last words. “And still I am here.”
“It touches you,” Felix observes.
She shrugs. “How can it not? I understand the nothingness, for I have seen it in myself. In the days and weeks after my husband—”
“And then, I arrived in this city, and all I saw was houses and people. I have never lived in the city. And it seemed every time I saw another crowd, it was telling me, there are enough people in the world, there is no use for me.”
“I don’t know.” She looks down and gurgles at the baby, who stares back with wide eyes. “I suppose that deep inside, there is something which fights for life. And not just physical safety. Being. Experiencing. A thirst for life.”
“Do you think everyone has that?”
She shakes her head. “But I think that without it, this world must be very difficult. To lose yourself is to lose G-d who believes in you.”
He stands and begins to pace, carefully looking away from her face, from those large gray eyes that seem to understand too much.
“Do you think I have lost myself?”
She shakes her head. “No. I think you have never found yourself.” She gets up and places the kettle on to boil. “Maybe where I come from it was easier. First, we weren’t goyim. We were Yidden, we acted differently, we lived differently.
“And then I am a mother. What does that mean to me? It means that my life does not belong to me. It means that I give myself over to the care and love of another.” She picks up the baby and kisses her on the forehead. “What was I saying?”
“Of course.” She stops, thinks, shakes her head. “No, we were not talking of motherhood. We were talking of who we are. Who I am.”
He looks around. “But so much of what you are saying doesn’t apply all the time. Look around. There are no goyim in this room. And what of when your children are sleeping? If you are defining yourself by the people around you, what happens when they are not there? Who are you then?”
Chasya laughs and her laughter irritates him. The question does not touch her and he doesn’t understand why. “These things become a part of you. They are imprinted on your soul, whether they are there or not.” He doesn’t know. He knows that he used to be a student and now that he no longer goes to the university and drinks beer with his friends, he is no longer a student. What about a Jew? With his mother gone, he does not bother going to shul on Shabbos. Does that mean that he is no longer a Jew? If not, then maybe going to shul is not part of the identity of a Jew. But then, what is? Chicken soup on Friday night. And if it is summer and he wants to drink fruit punch instead of chicken soup? Then what?
Wilhelm would say that being a Jew is about having a searching soul.
But there are plenty of searching souls out there. What about Wagner, the Jew hater? A quotation comes to mind: “I am fond of them, of the inferior creatures of the abyss, of those who are full of longing.” What about Marx? “The writer must earn money in order to be able to live and write, but he must by no means live and write for the purpose of making money.”
Not one to repeat to Wolf. He pays little enough as it is.
He closes his eyes to think. Why is he only thinking about these things now? If he lived in the shtetl, he would already be a family man, with a wife and two, maybe three children. But then he would not be Felix. But then what makes Felix into who he is?
She is waiting for an answer. “Well?”
“I don’t know.”
“I do. There is no nothingness here. My baby may be sleeping. I may be far from my home. My husband may have gone to a better place. But please, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Chasya, and I am a daughter of Hashem.”
He looks at her, rocking calmly in the chair that used to be his mother’s. She has nothing. She lives on charity. She has no home and no husband and no clear future. But she has something that he wants. She knows exactly who she is.
It is well after dark when Felix steps out into the old Jewish ghetto, and begins on his way home. In the windows of the homes, Chanukah lights twinkle. Most of the people here have no menorahs: they simply fill up small glass cups with a little oil and a lot of water and light a wick.
Mama is traveling home tomorrow, although Papa urged her to stay. He is glad; home is not home without her, it’s a place that is strangely cold and empty. It reminds him of her time in the Vienna sanatorium, and how Papa, had spent long hours prowling and pacing the house, only turning to his music to play long, mournful sonatas, quite unlike his usual fare of Mozart and Bach.
It is cold, but he is comfortable in his thick woolen coat. Besides, he has plenty to think about. This woman makes him think, again and again. He walks quickly through the narrow streets. There are no gas lights here, so the darkness feels suffocating, and he is suddenly eager to leave the ghetto. Not long now, just a turn or two until he is in the main thoroughfare.
Behind him are footsteps. Probably children.
But no, it is a tread that’s heavier than a child.
He takes a breath.
There are no policemen around here. They don’t come into the ghetto.
He wants to quicken his step.
His skin prickles, something at the back of his neck whispers, danger.
Felix, he orders himself, run or confront.
The footsteps are those of a man.
He counts down in his head: Three. Two. One.
Lifting both hands to shield his head, Felix spins around.
He looks. He stumbles backward.
Before him, is the man. That man who came to place an advertisement. A flash of silver. Felix jumps back. The man has a knife.
The man lunges.
Felix steps to the side, and grabs the man’s arm, twists, twist.
The knife falls to the floor.
Felix jumps forward, covers the knife with his boot.
He will have to lift it, but bending will make him vulnerable. But without the knife, he is lost, for the man is heavyset, tall, one shove with his arm and Felix would be sprawled on the cobblestones.
Felis straightens and stares the man in the eye. It is the only weapon he has left: fearlessness.
The man speaks. “What are you doing on my territory?”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 703)
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