In both PLEASE SAY KADDISH FOR ME and FROM SILT AND ASHES, Havah’s greatest ally and father figure after the murder of her own father is Rabbi Yussel Gitterman.
Although he’s blind from a bout of brain fever years before, he sees more than most. With assistance from his son, Arel, Yussel has continued to read and study the Holy Books on a daily basis. He still leads and teaches in the synagogue in Svechka, Moldova.
Yussel is immediately drawn to Havah, whose father was also a rabbi who taught his daughter more than women were allowed to know in the 1800’s.
As the father of five children Yussel has many regrets which include forcing his pregnant daughter to marry an abusive alcoholic, alienating another daughter who immigrates to America, and betrothing his only son to a woman he doesn’t love. Over the course of the novels, some of these mistakes will be resolved while others will continue to haunt him.
When I began my research for PSKFM I read many firsthand accounts from shtetls in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. One woman spoke of an uncle who lived with her family. He’d lost his sight while still in his 40’s and continued to study well into his old age. I was intrigued and from this account Yussel was born.
My earliest manuscript includes a prologue that takes place in Yussel’s early childhood. His father, Arel, is a rabbi and an artist who crafts a Hanukkah menorah that becomes a character of sorts. While it’s no longer the presence I originally intended it’s a recurring symbol of survival and will follow the family from Eastern Europe to Kansas City, Missouri.
The following story, based on my former prologue, has been published in my short story anthology THIS, THAT AND SOMETIMES THE OTHER published by High Hill Press.
A House in the Jewish Quarter
“Yussel!” Papa pounded the table with his fist. “Speak to me! A brokh tsu dir! Damn you!”
Startled, five-year-old Yussel flinched and spilled hot tea in his lap. He winced at the sting. Swallowing his moans, he stared up into his father’s rage-red face. He held his breath and waited for a spanking.
Instead, Papa whisked the boy up into his arms and tore off his clothes. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
He slathered the child’s skin with butter and wrapped soft rags around his blistering thighs.
“You’re making me meshuggenah, crazy. Won’t you please say something for me? Three words? I’d even settle for two.”
Yussel clamped his lips together and wagged his head from side to side. Why should he speak? Had the Almighty listened to him? No! Not even one word.
Papa sank into the rocking chair in a corner of the parlor, cradling the boy on his lap. Yussel laid his head on his father’s chest. Papa’s rapid thup-thup-thup heartbeat slowed to a soothing ka-thump-thump.
Tucking his finger under his son’s chin, Papa forced his head to tilt upward. His coffee-brown eyes glistened behind his spectacles. “Silence won’t bring her back. If it would, I’d cut out my own tongue.”
The boy recoiled and slid off his lap. He stomped to his bed, threw himself down and buried his face in his pillow. Papa’s gentle footfalls neared. The wardrobe door opened and shut. The mattress listed and Papa’s hand warmed Yussel’s naked back.
“I have something special to show you. I was saving it for a Hanukkah surprise but it’s only two nights away.”
Curiosity bested him, so Yussel rolled over and snatched his clothes from Papa. He dressed and watched his father disappear into the next room. Buttoning his shirt, he followed.
Papa opened the top bureau drawer. Yussel rose on tiptoe and glimpsed over the edge. It was where Mama kept her valuables—a necklace, a pair of earrings and a silver broach Papa made for her during their betrothal. These things she wore as a bride and afterward saved them for special occasions.
Papa grinned and pulled out a velvet bag the size of Yussel’s head. “Purple. Her favorite color.”
Yussel brushed his fingers over the soft cloth. His lower lip quivered. He snatched the bag and held it against his cheek. The fabric still bore her scent.
Papa’s lips stretched into a taut line. “Would you rather someone else should wear your Mama’s prized Sabbath cape? I don’t think she’d mind my cutting it up for this. You see this is a gift for her.”
He opened the bag. “The Festival of Lights, how she loved it!”
With a dramatic flourish, he set a Hanukkah menorah on the dresser. The silver shone in the afternoon light. It looked like a poplar tree with nine branches. The one on the far left was higher than the rest. It would hold the shamash, the helper candle used to light the other eight. Below the candlestick-branches and just above the trunk was an oval-shaped space. In the middle of it sat a pair of doves, breast to breast, faces turned from each other like shy lovers.
A vine with flowers twined around the trunk. On the lower curve of the oval Papa had engraved a verse from Song of Songs. Yussel skimmed his finger over the Hebrew letters.
Papa picked up the menorah and squatted beside him. “Go on, Son, read it. I know you can.”
In his mind’s ear, even after a year’s passing, Yussel could still hear her boast. “My Yosi reads better than boys twice his age. And only four he is. Someday he’ll be a rabbi like my Arel. Brilliant. Who knows? Perhaps he’s the Messiah.” In silence he bit his lower lip.
With a disappointed sigh, Papa stood and set the menorah on the dresser. He scooped the boy up into his arms. “Have it your way, I’ll read it. ‘Heenakh yafah, aynayeekh yoneem…Behold you are lovely, your eyes are like doves.’”
He pointed to the mirror. “I see her in your eyes.”
Sabbath came. As usual the day was spent in shul, the synagogue. Papa, the small congregation’s rabbi, taught the lesson.
“Judah Maccabee and his followers seized back the temple from their enemies. Talmud tells us there was only enough sacred oil in the temple menorah to burn for one day. But Adoshem made a miracle happen. The oil burned for eight days until more could be prepared.”
“Rabbi!” Mendel, the blacksmith, jumped to his feet and waved his boulder-size fist. “Where was Adoshem when my son and your wife were slaughtered in the street like cattle?”
Another man leaped from his chair, upsetting the desk in front of him. “So many times they hit my David in the head, his mind is porridge.”
Yet another cried out. “How many massacres until our miracle comes?”
Services disintegrated into a shouting match. Wives added their comments from the balcony. Husbands yelled at them to shut their mouths. Babies, awakened from morning naps, squawked their indignation.
Papa smacked the podium. “The end! Good Shabbes. Dismissed!”
Monday’s sunset heralded the first night of Hanukkah. Papa lit the candles and chanted the blessings from his frayed prayer book. “‘Blessed are you, Adoshem our Lord, King of the Universe Who has preserved our lives, caused us to persevere and enabled us to arrive at this season.’”
His voice sounded flat and hollow. Dinner tasted like sand. Dense silence settled like dust in the corners. Yussel’s ears throbbed with it.
Crawling into bed an hour later, he snuggled against his father and counted the stars through the window. Had Mama turned into one? Surely she was the brightest in the heavens.
The next morning the sweet aromas of sponge cake, frying eggs and tea woke him. Pots clattered in the kitchen. Papa still slept, one arm covering his face.
Yussel threw off the blankets and scooted off the bed. Peering around the corner, he saw a woman at the cast iron stove, her crystalline-gray eyes sparkling.
She held out her arms. “Yosi.”
He trembled and his knees chattered. Even a five-year-old knows death’s blow is final. The bag he’d clutched since Friday slipped from his sopping hand. Riveted by terror and longing, he waited for her to disappear. With his next breath he would wake up next to Papa.
She came toward him, even lovelier than he remembered. Her unlined face shone like the rose and cream colored china dishes she kept in the cupboard for Passover. She wore no kerchief to cover her head as mothers did, the way she used to. Instead her slate-black hair gleamed past her waist
He sniffed. Rose water tickled his nose. The rough floor chilled and scraped his bare feet. Never had a dream been so vivid.
Foreign to his own ears, his voice rumbled in his throat. It started as a whisper and ended with a squeal.
“Papa, Papa, Papa, come quick!”
Papa charged from the bedroom and swept Yussel up into his arms. He spun three times, laughing and shouting. “Adoshem, be thanked. My son’s found his voice.”
“Ari.” Her wisp-gentle voice lilted like a song on a cloud.
“Suri?” In mid-spin, he gasped and dropped to his knees. Yussel toppled to the floor.
She sank down beside them and gathered Yussel onto her lap. “Yes, my love.”
“What cruel trick is this?” Papa’s outstretched arms shook and his trembling fingertips reached for her cheeks. “The horses…they…they trampled you…her. You…she died in my arms.”
Grasping his hands, she kissed his palms and held them against her face. “If I’m not Suri then how do I know about the butterfly-shaped freckle on your left hip? And what about—?”
His face turned scarlet and he hissed through pursed lips. “Suri. The boy.”
Yussel wrapped his arms around her waist. She felt like Mama, warm and soft. She sounded like Mama. She even smelled like Mama. Who else could she be?
He pressed his ear against her breast and listened for the sound that used to lull him to sleep. A faint melody, like tinkling bells and whispered prayers, was all he heard. He drew a deep breath and let it out in puffs. “Where’s your heart, Mama?”
“Right here in my arms.” She brushed her hand across his legs and unwound the makeshift bandages.
The stinging ceased. He stared at his thighs and dropped open his mouth. The blisters popped and melted like bubbles in a brook.
She kissed his forehead and patted his behind. “Get dressed, Little Yosi. I need to talk to Papa.”
On the way to his room a glance over his shoulder showed his parents walking hand in hand toward their bedroom. Papa leaned over and whispered something. She giggled. The door shut behind them.
At breakfast, Papa’s cheeks glowed and his gaze never left her. “This is the best meal I’ve ever eaten.”
She returned his gaze. “How would you know, Ari? You haven’t taken a single bite.”
Yussel gulped down a second piece of sponge cake. “Wait ‘til I tell everyone Mama’s back.”
Her brows knit together, her eyes blazed and she held her index finger to her lips. “No! You mustn’t tell anyone. Not a soul, do you hear?”
Someone knocked on the front door. Papa jumped from his chair and rushed to answer. Yussel followed. A frigid gust blew through his muslin shirt. He peeked around Papa at the blacksmith.
“Rabbi, please forgive my outburst the other day.”
“Forgiven.” Papa smiled, nodded and swung the door to shut it.
Mendel slid his massive foot over the threshold. “Rebbe, please, my wife sends me to invite you to dinner this evening. To tell the truth, she wants to match you up with her cousin, Rayna.”
Yussel squeezed Papa’s knees. “But…but…what about Mama? She says—”
Papa slapped his hand over the boy’s mouth. “Thank your good wife for us, but we’ve made other plans.”
He fished a folded slip of paper from his pocket with his other hand and shoved the note into Mendel’s coat pocket so hard the man staggered backward.
“Would you pass this note to Reb Shmuel, our Yeshiva student? Tell him I’d be honored if he’d share his wisdom and knowledge in my absence this next Sabbath.”
Mendel did not seem to notice the shove or the note. He stared, open-mouthed, at Yussel. “Your son, Rabbi. He spoke!”
“Did he now? I didn’t notice. Yom tov! Good day!” Papa slammed and bolted the door.
For the next seven days, Papa and Yussel left the house only to visit the outhouse. Mama fried latkes, potato pancakes, every day. The house swelled with fragrance and laughter.
Every morning Mama and Papa emerged from the bedroom with radiant smiles. After breakfast, Papa studied the holy books with Yussel. She swayed back and forth in the rocking chair by the parlor window, humming and knitting. A huge ball of royal-blue yarn lay in the basket beside her.
On the last night of Hanukkah, the lit menorah illuminated her face. When she picked up her son and held him close, her eyes were sad.
“Goodnight, my Yosi, my heart.”
The next morning he leaped from his bed and skipped to the kitchen. Papa sat alone at the table polishing the menorah.
Yussel blinked and rubbed sleep-grit from his eyes. “Where is she?”
“The Garden of Eden.”
“Was she really Mama or was she an angel?”
Papa wrapped a blue scarf around Yussel’s neck and a matching one around his own. He kissed the yarn fringes.