| Rocking Horse |

Rocking Horse: Chapter 50 

They cover their heads and they wear tzitizis and they grow their beards and they bring out their instruments to play on Shabbos


Friday afternoon, and no one has come to pick up Ernst’s violin to take it to the concert hall. Hannah has been listening out for the knock at the front door, even as she puts the chicken soup on the blech and takes the chicken out of the oven and considers whether or not five more minutes in the oven will turn light gold to dark gold, just the way Ernst likes it, or whether it would grow too dark and crispy, and will be dry by the time they eat it.

Freshly groomed for Shabbos, Ernst stops in the kitchen for his weekly sample of babka.

“Are you not playing tonight?” she asks.

He shakes his head. “Thankfully not.”

“Thankfully? This is not like you.”

He dabs the crumbs from his mouth with a linen napkin. “After last week we have some time off.”

She nods. This past week was double concerts — afternoon and evening.

“ ‘Serenade for Strings’ was a success. Good mothers jumped at the opportunity to introduce the melody to their children.” He hums a few bars and Hannah nods in recognition.

“So tonight there is no concert?”

“Tonight it is the turn of the wind section to show off their prowess.”

Relief washes over her. “I’m glad.”

He gives an ironic smile. “I am sure that you are.”

“With Raizel here, and Becca, and the children, it will be nice to linger over the Shabbos meal.”

“Yes, let us not shock the little girl any more, eh?”

Hannah stirs the cholent, a little whirlpool of barley and beans and specks of paprika, not yet bound and transformed by heat and time.

Would Raizel be shocked? Of course. Would she have to know? Emmy is not known for her reticence. It would be just like her to call out, “Play well, Papa!” as her father leaves the house. Hannah always felt wounded by her daughter’s words, wondering if she did it just to hurt her, or perhaps to show her up — if your wife will not give you her blessing, your daughter shall.

Ernst dabs his mouth again. “How long, Hannah?”

She turns to him. “Excuse me?”

“How long will they be staying?”

She studies his face. He says it without rancor, without resentment. He is a good man. But still.


They all arrived together in a flurry of traveling bags and confusion and Yiddish. Their house is not large; one of the ironies of her life is that Papa and Mama’s home in the shtetl sprawls with extra rooms and shelters and space, and her home in Prague is snug and cozy and rather tight — everywhere she looks there are people.

Chasya and the children, too, seem to be present every afternoon, and while this is good for Raizel and possibly Felix, there’s no quiet space or place.

“I’ve been waiting to talk to you,” Hannah admits. “But it has been impossible.”

“They cannot stay here forever.”

Hannah nods, agreeing to the impossibility of it. For one thing, there’s just too much emotion swirling around. There seems to be a great debate taking place between Felix and Wilhelm, which they hush up every time she comes near. If you want to know what your conscience says, she feels like telling them, consider with whom you feel comfortable sharing your plans. But she keeps her silence, simply watching and waiting.

A little later, as Hannah bentshes licht and covers her hands with her eyes, she thinks about Perla again. Is she performing this evening? Friday night is surely a busy night at the circus: the weekend has come and people want to relax and be entertained. Does she light Shabbos candles? Has she ever lit Shabbos candles? Does she remember Mama’s lighting, the glow that descended on Mama’s threadbare shawl, the way her eyes brightened so they no longer saw the cares etched into her skin?

She reaches inside the cupboard and brings down an extra candlestick and a candle, and she sets it on the tray, next to the candles she lights for Felix and Emmy. A candle for Perla. Then she thinks. Once upon a time, Mama lit candles for her and Perla and Schneur and Becca. And then the price of wax went up and candles became more expensive and there was no longer a semi-circle of light under Mama’s two Shabbos flames. She finds another candlestick for Becca and sets it next to Perla’s candle. She hesitates for a moment, and then adds another for Raizel.

Felix, Emmy, Perla, Becca, Raizel.

A candle for all of those who shelter in her home, and for the one she hopes will one day seek shelter. She lights the wicks, one by one, watches the flames grow, stretch, and settle. And Hannah prays: may their lights shine bright.



Hannah has passed through the week mechanically: one task and another task and another. She should comfort Emmy who has taken the discovery of Perla hard — it has been a jolting out of the childhood comfort of happily ever after into cold, harsh reality. But Becca is here and she has always been better with Emmy than Hannah has. In the past, she would have known jealousy, but now there is simply a lightening of that particular burden.

It’s only on Shabbos afternoon, after a long-cooked and heavy cholent that even Raizel eats with gusto, that a blanket of quiet finally falls. Hannah eschews her bed, and instead pours herself tea from the samovar and sits down on the ottoman. Peace.

Ernst sits at the Shabbos table, perusing a volume. He turns to her. “Shall we go for a walk?”

She looks up at him and smiles. She has told him the bare-bones account of what happened, but that is all they have had time for. He has played every night this week, in addition to his new project — a string quartet with some new talent.

When she had asked him why, a shadow had crossed his face. “The more baskets, the better.” She had nodded, but was privately shocked. Had his place in the orchestra become so insecure?

So now, she willingly abandons her tea and reaches for her coat and muffler.

Together, they walk along Siroka, down Listopadu, until they cross over to the promenade by the Vltava. She breathes in, and feels the tension begin to leave.

“The river has its own music,” Ernst says.

“Yes. And so does the bustle of the people.”

He inclines his head.

It is true. Hannah regards every woman who walks past and thinks, perhaps she is also nursing disappointment. Perhaps that man with the bowler hat and the drooping mustache has a son who was advancing in the army, only to take to the vodka bottle. Perhaps that woman with the large gray shawl wrapped around her is caring for her elderly mother, and this is the only time of day she is able to be alone.

They walk along the promenade, and although it is Shabbos, when they hear music wafting toward them, Ernst naturally quickens his step, the better to hear. There is the sound of footsteps on cobblestones, people chattering, a boat on the river sounds a horn. But as they draw closer, they can distinguish a violin, and also a clarinet, and a drummer, and the music weaves and dances.

“Skilled,” Ernst comments.

“Hmmm.” They are playing traditional folk songs, and a circle of people surrounds the buskers.

The melody shifts, and suddenly, she realizes that it is a song she recognizes: “U’rei vanim levanecha, shalom al Yisrael, u’rei vanim levanecha, shalom al Yisrael.”

She blinks. The wind blows cold off the river. She pulls her coat tighter around herself, and pushes her way through the crowd. Why is a group of buskers playing this tune? Where would they have learned it?

Hannah reaches the front of the crowd to see the musicians.

Three men, faded black peak caps on their heads; long, gray, threadbare coats, graying beards. One has his coat open, and she catches sight of a yellowing pair of tzitzis.

A small wooden box sits on the ground in front of them, a layer of pennies hiding the bottom.

Yidden. She looks at their faces, their shirts. They look Russian.

She heard they are leaving the country in droves. Chasya told them how mobs gather and rage, how houses are burned down, women and children dragged away. There is blood.

The clarinetist gives a flourish. The violinist’s bow saws away at his instrument, making merry for pennies, making merry for food, making merry for the sake of their families, to drive away starvation, to pay for a room that will shelter a baby, a pregnant wife.

On the holy Shabbos.

They cover their heads and they wear tzitizis and they grow their beards and they bring out their instruments to play on Shabbos.

She watches but the figures blur as tears gather in her eyes and spill down her cheeks.

How could they have crossed this line? It’s not that she is so holy. Her own husband plays his violin on Shabbos. It is just… it is the fact….

“Bitte helfen,” the men call out to her.

A little help.

It is the fact that nothing makes sense anymore.

She lifts her hands out to the side. “I have nothing. It’s the Shabbos.”

The drummer lifts his stick and bows his head, clasping his hands together and raising them to the sky. “Heaven help us,” he says.

She nods and whispers, “Heaven help us all.”

Quickly, Ernst leads her away. They are a way up the river before they find a bench where they can sit and Hannah can try to find the words. “How can we survive this, Ernst? How?”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at us. Look at us all. Tatte used to say, we are a nation of princes. But what a ragtag bunch we are. Buskers, playing Yiddishe songs on Shabbos. Perla, turned into a horsewoman.”

“What else?”

“What else? Everything. That poor child, snatched from her home and tortured. Chasya, home destroyed, family destroyed, husband killed.”

There is more she could say. Their own children, Emmy and Felix, casting around aimlessly for something to do, for some reason for life. The swirling mass of contradictions that is her own life. But she is quiet.

“Do you remember, Ernst, that night when I came backstage? New Year’s Eve. And you played me the Kaddish?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Kaddish… its comfort, the beauty of it, is that it is said by the children. Death comes, but something continues. But it feels like everything is stopping around us.” She wipes her eyes again, and the tears that have been held inside all week are finally freed. “Perla has been found, but she is still lost. And what of Emmy? What will she do now she has finished this project and has nothing to do? Throw herself into more escapades?”

There’s more she wants to say.

Will we all soon be putting ham bones into our pots of cholent? Will we all melt into the goyish nations, with their orchestras and universities?

Does G-d give up on us? Are any of us ever found?

She thinks of some of the newspaper accusations hurled against the Jews.

Killers of the Savior.

Effeminate, blood-sucking culture stealers.

Evil conscience of our modern civilization.

Who are they really? Who?

She wipes more tears away and the thoughts dapple her mind. The same Bashefer who gave them life and music is presiding over this, somehow, somewhy.

So what are they? What? She must have said the words out loud, for Ernst answers.

“Our People is saying Kaddish, a Kaddish for themselves.”

to be continued…

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 719)

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