“Is the Garden of Eden so small that it can only fit in your Mama and Papa, your brother Schneur, and the cheder melamed?”
"Felix declared, rather theatrically, that thus passes an upside-down year,” Ernst comments. He flexes his fingers. He is tired from the concert, but buoyed by the evening. New Year’s eve.
Hannah smiles. “I know. He is quite proud of himself. Wolf loved it. 1881. Turn the number around, whether back to front or upside down, and the numbers stay the same.”
“But it has been an upside-down year for our family, has it not?”
They are sitting in the dressing rooms of the concert hall. Soon, Ernst will retie his bowtie, smooth his palm over his hair, and join the rest of the orchestra for a post-concert toast, a New Year’s Eve tradition. Another tradition: Hannah attends the concert, claps proudly during the standing ovation, and then goes backstage to congratulate her husband.
The backstage part is a trial. Hannah dreads navigating the backstage labyrinth, fears she will be lost forever and be found decades later by some flautist who, devastated by an off note, runs blindly into the depths of the theater and stumbles upon a pile of bones.
But for now, they sit cozily in his dressing room. The violin case is still open and the wood glows red in the gaslight.
“1881. It has been an upside-down year for our family.”
She cocks her head to the side, ready to hear.
Of course, she has her own opinion of this year. Last week, she had unscrewed her fountain pen and composed a card for Dr. Werther. She hopes he has received it, the post at this time of year is sluggish. Last year… she shudders. She hopes she has come to a place of more serenity now.
“Well, you were away for a while.”
He still only alludes to her time in the sanatorium, although there is not a day when she does not draw on what she learned there. Sometimes, she reaches into the carved wooden trunk in their bedroom and draws out a sheaf of paintings. Every day, they had to draw a self-portrait. They were allowed to choose pencils or charcoal or watercolor. There could spend all day on it, or just ten minutes. They could add props: the women were particularly fond of adding mirrors, most of which were just washed-out gray, showing no reflection at all.
Once, she asked Dr. Werther about the strange exercise.
When you are a young girl of marriageable age, he had said, you look at yourself in the mirror through the eyes of a stranger, only thinking of how others see you. And when you are a child, you use the eyes of a parent. Women at your stage, they look at themselves through the eyes of their husband, or the women in shul, or society. It is time, do you not think, that you form your own impression of yourself?
There were mornings when the self-portrait was a chore to rush through, so she could walk in the garden and gaze at the apples growing into ripeness. But there were mornings she spent an hour or two on the portrait, and surprised herself. She drew herself with a direct, steady gaze. She sketched herself as an old woman, and wondered if she resembled her mother or her father. Once, she drew herself holding the shattered fragments of Ernst’s broken violin, a strange smile on her face. Mostly, she felt she simply drew herself into being.
She blinks, takes another sip of the wine she has brought from home. Strains of a sentimental song enter the room. “And Felix moved into journalism,” she says, reflecting.
Ernst frowns. “Yes. Well, a life of scholarship is not for everyone. It does go against the grain, however, that he simply abandoned his studies when he was already so far in.”
“It would have been nice to have a herr doktor in the family. Your parents would have appreciated it.”
He nods, sips, but the comment doesn’t touch him. They have grown, Hannah realizes. She continues the roundup of their little family. And Emmy?”
Ernst grimaces. “Perhaps Felix is right. An upside-down year. She was on track to make a prestigious match. And now all she cares about is tracking down missing people.”
She is hurt. “Not just anyone. My sister. Perla.”
“Yes, of course.” He shakes his head and gives a deep sigh. “Who would have known that raising children could be so worrisome? She seems… unsettled. Troubled. Searching for something.”
“Yes. Beyond Perla. I only pray that this coming year, we find out what that thing is.” He is silent for a minute, pensive. “I wonder if Sarah would be able to help.”
“Sarah?” Something hardens inside her. Since their argument, she has not been in touch with Sarah.
“Yes. Sarah and her lists.”
They have always poked gentle fun at Sarah, who sees the world as an extension of her living room. If she could whip her servants into shape, and her husband, and even her children — why not try her tactics on the entire Prague community?
“Sarah would be able to find Emmy some employment, above and beyond looking through ancient newspapers for mention of traveling freak shows.”
Here and there, Hannah sits beside her daughter to help her at the task. At first, she had simply scanned headlines, but then Emmy realized that her mother had been looking at the news, instead of the advertisements, and had made Hannah redo all five newspapers she had already checked.
She bites her lip. “I’ve had a falling-out with Sarah,” she admits.
“Oh? That is not like you.”
“Well, what happened?”
She looks at Ernst, the blue eyes now framed with tiny creases. She never trusted him quite enough, even though he has always proven himself. Her heart twists with regret. How long has she painted him as a villain when he is a good man, wanting only the best for her and her family, but simply limited in what he could give them? A new year. 1882.
“I asked her about Emmy.”
“And… well, it is complicated. She accused me of caring more about the law than about my fellow Jew.”
“I do not understand.”
Hannah sighs. “Do you want the story in its entirety?”
She explains. The chazir bones in the cholent. How she had been shocked, and Sarah had defended herself, saying she had not contravened Jewish law. It was more than that. Sarah’s words still sting: You tell me that Emmy is frivolous. Empty. Well. See how your boneless cholent filled her up
It hurts just to tell the story. “I’m hurt, true. But worse than the ham bone is that she’s taking a no and twisting it into a yes. It’s one thing if people say, I care not about the no, but…” she trails off.
He listens carefully. “There’s something in this which lacks integrity.”
She nods, quickly. “I don’t trust her.”
“But do we not all have faults? Present company excluded, of course. Why can you not simply invite her for afternoon tea and smooth things over?”
“She embodies the traits of community, lovingkindness, charity. And yet, because of a few bones, you are rejecting her?”
“It is not just the bones. It’s the insult, she tore away at who I am.”
“Because that’s what you did to her. You told her that all her life’s work doesn’t count, because she dared add a treif bone to a good, warm, nutritious stew.” He leans over and plucks the G-string. They sit in silence. “Hannah, may I ask you something?”
“Do you really condemn people if they do not keep the letter of the law?”
She opens her mouth and closes it again. His violin. Leil Shabbos and they bentsh and she clears away the dishes from the Shabbos meal, and he walks over here — not taking a carriage — and performs on the violin he now cradles in his hands. No is yes. Yes is no.
“I try not to condemn, no. But is there something amiss, yes.”
Ernst is sobered. “After all this time.”
Her fingers clutch each other, and she wishes that she, too, had a violin to hold.
She’s twisted up in a circle of confusion and regret.
“And what of me? Can you look past the fact that I do not always conform with tradition and say, ‘This is my husband and he is a man whom I admire, whom I love’?”
“Of course I admire you—”
“I thought things would be different. I thought that—”
“You would change me?”
She hangs her head, not daring to look him in the eye. “Yes.”
“So you look at me and see your own failure? Your failure to shape me in your image. As if you were G-d, creating the first man. ‘In my image I shall create him.’ ” He gives a long, low laugh. “See, I also know how to quote the Bible. Although I may not read Tzena U’rena.” He looks away. “And the children?”
“I do not know.” Going home had relieved her of that particular fantasy. How many children grew up and ran off to the life of a freethinker in Warsaw or Berlin or went East to spin revolutionary ideas? Nothing was the same as it used to be.
Tears fill her eyes and choke her throat. Oh, where has this honesty brought her to?
To all the wrong places.
Ernst stands up and paces the room. “And how do you think it feels to always live in the shadow of your disappointment? And to know that no matter how I may try to make you happy, I will always have failed before I began?”
A sob rises, she takes a deep breath and chokes it down.
“My parents — they think of music as a showpiece. It’s a sign of cultured taste. Table talk.” He turns to face her. “It fits into their persona, the lifestyle that they have chosen of fashion and style. Vienna. And I did not choose that. For me, music wasn’t simply dinner fare. It was a way of touching and exploring and expressing the higher self. The soul, if you will.
“And yet, you do not acknowledge that. You do not see that I rejected Vienna and its fashion and gossip. I chose a life of the spirit. But because I am forced to play on Shabbos, you see none of this.”
He shakes his head. “I agree with Sarah. It is hard to live with someone who judges in such harsh terms. Is the Garden of Eden so small that it can only fit in your Mama and Papa, your brother Schneur, and the cheder melamed? Does G-d not look not only at our deeds, but our intentions, our history, our desires?”
She does not know. But the sob has frozen inside her and she cannot move. How confident she has always been: These are the people we can eat with, and those people we politely refuse. Those people are like us — but what was us?
And surely, there were plenty of commands that she did not know about, nor keep. She touches her fingers to her head. While she was visiting, Mama told her that her hat was too small, and that not enough of her hair was covered. That was news to her, that it was not enough simply to wear a hat, but that the hat had to be a certain size. She still had not had time to order larger-brimmed hats, and every morning pins on her hat with a feeling of uncertainty.
But surely, none of this fell into the category of doing something that was actually wrong? And if she was wrong, did she not say Tehillim and techinos and light the Shabbos candles and sincerely daven that the Eibeshter watch over her family? Her head is heavy. It is so heavy she can hardly hold it up.
“Why can’t you let G-d be Judge and Jury, if that is the role He decides to take, and simply live, unknowing, celebrating all that is good and noble where you see it?”
His words hit her. Not to abandon right and wrong. But to surrender to not knowing, not judging. Is that even possible?
He picks up his violin. “You told me, before you left to visit your parents, that I should not confine myself to Bach and Mozart.”
“Well, here is a composition.”
He lifts his violin and plucks the D string, adjusts it slightly, and picks up his bow.
Hannah takes a deep breath and tries to concentrate on the music. The melody climbs, falls, and slows. Ernst’s eyes are closed, his whole being vibrates with the theme that begins to emerge. Two low notes, followed by a longer; an interval of what — a fifth, maybe? She recognizes it, but the melody continues, until it returns to the theme, playing it again, then transposing to a higher key.
It’s there, on her lips, almost…
Yisgadel v’yiskadash Shemei Rabba.
It hits her somewhere in the region of her heart, which squeezes suddenly, and the tears which have been stuck behind her eyelids begin to fall. The violin continues its journey, spiraling off onto the E-string, filling in the pauses between the words that fill her mind. But each time, they return to the first phrase, the mourning dirge, that battle to find G-d’s goodness and greatness in a world filled with death.
When he is finished, Ernst puts down the violin. Her hands shake, and the tears still fall freely.
“What are you mourning?” she asks.
He shrugs. “Perhaps the year that has passed. Perhaps the fact that there will be some parts of you and me that neither of us will be able to understand.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 709)
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