Daily Life in the Messianic Era
“Are you lost?” The girl stood in the doorway of a wooden shack near the canal.
Herman stopped. “No. But did you see an old lady pass by?”
“With a black lace scarf on her head? I saw her. I know everybody here in Bay Village, and I could tell right away she was a stranger, not somebody from the neighborhood,” the girl walked up to Herman as she spoke. She appeared to be about twenty. Her hair blew into her face.
“And where did she go from here?” Herman asked.
“Over there, on the other side of the canal. But there’s no bridge here. We must go this way.” She accompanied him to where the canal ended, several hundred yards up, near a wide road that ran from Brooklyn to the ocean.
“Aren’t you from the candy store on Avenue U? Aren’t you Mr. Herman?” she said, suddenly. He looked at her in surprise. She continued, “My name’s Maureen. Maureen O’Brien. You wouldn’t know me, but I know the store from the old days when I went to high school. There was a gang of us.”
They were on the other side of the canal now. The streets were narrow and sandy, and the wooden huts seemed bleached, surrounded by bushes and little trees. Herman thought it looked very much like a small town in the Old Country. “The old lady must have smelled it!” he marveled aloud.
“Is the old lady lost?” the girl asked.
“Yes. . . .”
“Where was she going?”
“Back home, I guess.”
“Here? Or do you mean to Manhattan Beach? Did you use to live there?”
Herman was silent as they kept walking toward the ocean. The girl led the way, and Herman concentrated his gaze on her swinging legs. Suddenly he spoke. “It wasn’t Manhattan Beach she wanted to get to . . . to her home is ‘back home’—the Old Country. . . .”
The girl turned her head. “What do you mean? You’re kidding!”
“No. every once in a while she sets out for the Old Country, Europe, where she came from.”
“On foot? Over the ocean?”
“She’s quite old, and a little . . . not all there,” Herman explained. “She’s my wife’s mother, and every once in a while she disappears from the house. Sometimes days pass before we find her.”
The girl’s face became thoughtful. “I understand. There are times when I’d like to run away, too. To Hollywood!” She laughed.
They stood for a while in silence at the edge of the surf and then they walked back and turned right, toward the hills, rising on the other side of the road that led to the dunes. “Have you ever walked here before?” the girl said. “I always imagined Ireland looks something like this. My father once disappeared, for a long time. We found out he had gone off to Ireland. He fought against the British for Free Ireland.”
“For free Ireland?” Her last words, on the instant, had reawakened in him all the self-doubts, fantasies, and guilt feelings that had been wearying him for months. “For Free Ireland?” he repeated.
“Yes. that’s why they called my father The Fighting Irishman in Bay Village,” again her laugh rang out.
“And he never got in touch with you?”
“How could he? They were all underground. The Movement was secret.”
“Of course,” Herman said. “That’s the way it is in Palestine. Underground.”
The girl, mindful of their search for the old lady, moved ahead, surveying the whole area.
“What about your mother?” Herman shouted. But she had evidently forgotten what they had been talking about. “What about her?” she called back.
“What did she do all those years . . . when your father was away in Ireland?”
“Oh, that! . . . she went to work. That was long ago.”
Herman barely kept up. He was deep in thought. What would Sylvia do? And little Michael? The store? . . . But there are volunteers! There are American boys sailing the refugee ships. . . .
The girl had stopped at the crest of a rise, and now she turned and gestured excitedly. Herman ran toward her. “Who is that over there? Isn’t that her?” she asked.
Below them was the bent figure of a woman, on a rock near an inlet of the ocean. Her body swayed gently back and forth. Her black scarf fluttered in the breeze.
“That’s her,” Herman said. They ran down the slope.
“Look, she’s reading a book!” the girl lowered her voice as they approached the old lady.
“It’s probably the Woman’s Bible,” said . “Every time she runs away she takes her old Woman’s Bible with her.”
“What’s her name?”
“Sonya . . . Sonya Gottlieb. People call her Mrs. Sonya.” Soon they were so close to the old lady that they could hear her sing-song intonation.
She seemed to be chanting a melody that had neither begining nor end. She was not aware that they stood directly behind her. She was back home, it was the eve of Passover, she was chanting the homily of the sages concerning the meaning of chametz and matzoh, the unleavened and the leavened, for the holiday:
And ye shall observe the purity of the matzoh. The commentators have developed at length the inner meaning of the idea of unleavened and leavened foods. And the gist of their words is that leavened foods refers to the Will to Evil, matzoh to the Will to Good. For, just as dough rises and leavens when it is sour, so the Will to Evil, which is a sour agent, causes the body to rise and turn sour. But matzoh, not being a sour dough, cannot be puffed up. Hence, it refers to the Will to Good, which moderates all human lusts and tames pride that would raise itself above God and man.
And our searching out of the leavened food, the practice of sweeping the leavened food on the eve of Passover out from wherever in the home it may be found, teaches us that we must scrutinize every part of our body where sin might attach itself. For example, we must scrutinize our mouths to sweep out of them all nasty gossip . . .
Herman touched her arm, “Mamma!”
The old lady raised her head and gazed at him in amazement. “Hershele. . .” she said. “Do you see how the little lake has swollen? The eve of Passover it turns into an ocean! We must fetch the vessels and scour and purify them here.”
“It’s late, Mamma. Let’s go home.”
“Yes, we’ll go soon. I’ll be through in a moment.” She bent over her book again. The girl put her mouth close to Herman’s ear. “What did she say to you?” she whispered.
“She’s far away.”
“Back in the Old Country. . . .”
A gust of wind had turned the pages in the old lady’s book and she could not find her place. She became confused, and read snatches here and there, riffling the pages.
“God said, ‘I have sworn to give you the land of Israel for your inheritance.’ Rabbi Bechaya says . . . ‘Not a single locust remained in the land of Egypt, for even the locusts that the Egyptians had salted away for food revived and flew off, in order that the Egyptians might have no joy of them. . .’ And God set a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night before the host of Israel to light the way through the desert to Canaan. . . .”
The girl cautiously looked over the old lady’s shoulder. She saw the strange markings in the book. Again she whispered to Herman, “What is she reading?”
“Now she’s even farther away than she she was before.”
“In the Bible. In Egypt . . . In Canaan.”
“‘And I shall give ye bread from heaven.’ For they made bread out of the manna, and the manna was like coriander seed, and it was white, and as sweet as honey. . . .”
Herman enjoyed the girl’s astonishment. “Now she’s wandering in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land, and she’s eating manna from heaven,” he explained.
“Holy Jesus!” the girl cried out.
The exclamation in the strange tongue startled the old lady out of the Exodus. She raised her head and became aware of the stranger. With a look of amazement on her face, she examined her from head to foot: copper hair, fair skin, tight blue sweater, dark blue jeans.
“What is she doing there, the shickseh? Has she come to milk the cow?” Herman smiled down at her. “Yes,” he said.
The old lady’s voice was emphatic. “See to it that she uses the milk pail for Passover. The Passover earthen jars are in the cellar.”
“All right,” Herman promised his mother in-law and smiled at Maureen.
At dawn, immediately after opening the store, Herman untied the bundles of morning papers. In the gray light he read the headlines: “Jews in Palestine Proclaim Independent State—Seven Arab States Declare War.” He filled the silex with water and coffee, lit the gas, and returned to his newspaper. Seven Arab countries had declared war against the young state: Egypt, Syria, Trans-Jordan, Lebanon . . . Iraq . . . Saudi Arabia . . . Yemen. . . . Where on earth is Yemen? Brigades of the Arab Legion . . . are rolling rapidly toward Jerusalem. . . .
He glanced at the maps in the paper. In his imagination the land looked like the wild country around Bay Village: hills, valleys, swamps, dunes. Where is Jerusalem? Up there on the hill Maureen was standing. “They call him the Fighting Irishman,” she had said about her father. Since their first meeting six weeks before, when she came back to the store with him and the old lady, she had not shown up. He had half thought of dropping in at Bay Village and looking for her there.
Soon the early morning parade of familiar faces began with workers who had to punch the clock in Manhattan and Queens. Then office workers hurried in, mostly girls, and salesmen toting their large suitcases of samples. There were always some housewives, out early to catch department store bargains.
The first one to appear was the old lady. She came in from her room behind the store, and went upstairs to her morning ritual of water poured over her hands, a murmured prayer, a bite to eat. Then she reappeared in the store. She took a quick look around. “What is that light in the corner burning for? It’s already broad daylight!” she said. “What are we, Rockefellers?”
From the room above the store came the sound of Michael’s high-pitched voice and quick child’s steps. Sylvia appeared, and busied herself behind the counter. Her husband needed help—always a dreamer! Around ten o’clock, the neighbors and business people from nearby strolled in for the morning paper or refreshing glass of seltzer. Today they all stood around with an air of excitement.
“America has recognized Israel, everything will be O.K.” Mr. Berg, from the shoe store across the street, assured everyone.
“If forty-nine countries have voted for a Jewish state, the world is still a world, not a jungle,” someone else remarked, alluding to the UN decision.
“Who said it’s a jungle?”
“What about the Arabs?”
“Looks like the Egyptians have forgotten the ten plagues, huh?”
“I’m telling you, people, it’s the Time of the Messiah!”
Old Sonya Gottlieb sat on a chair in the sun in front of the door. Had the Messianic Age come at last? There had been talk of it in her shul. When the Messiah came, the ram’s horn would sound, the dead would rise from their graves. Her Mendel, may he rest in peace, would rise too, and he and she and all the Jews would cross over a bridge of paper to the Land of Israel. But first off, Mendel would drop into the store for a glass of plain seltzer. On hot days it would bring him back to life. And after, they would go with all the other Jews to Israel. But on the other hand what’s the hurry? How about the store? Just get up and rush off? How hard they worked to build up a little business! The Messiah would wait a while longer—does he have any other business, the Messiah?
A cool wind blew into Avenue U from the ocean. The trees on the corner rustled quietly. It was a long time since Mendel had had his favorite “plain seltzer.” . . . The bridge would be longer than the Brooklyn Bridge, but it would be all of paper. . . . She fell into a doze, and when she awakened it was to hear Mr. Dickman saying from the store, “If you just happened to have a thousand shares of General Motors, Herman! That would be even a better business than a candy store!”
“What is a candy store? A candy store is a penny business!” sighed Mrs. Sonya. “Still, kreplach in a dream are a dream—not kreplach.”
Early in the afternoon, Mrs. Kaplan came in, as was her habit, to read the exciting serials in Sonya’s Morning Journal. Oh, my, the things she read there! All about the lovely Queen Esther, and the famous philosopher, Nathan the Wise, and about the jealous brothers who sold poor Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and about Princess Veronica, who had a love affair with that scoundrel Titus (may his memory be blotted out!); and how Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, the Righteous, and how he escaped from her hands, and how the gangster, Al Capone, and his crony, Dillinger, had broken out of jail in Chicago. Why even Mendel, peace to his soul, had maintained while he was alive that Mrs. Kaplan had a head on her shoulders, and Sonya Gottlieb rejoiced to see her. Here at last was someone you could talk to.
“What do you think of the news?” she demanded of Mrs. Kaplan.
“You mean about the Jewish state?”
“Of course, it’s a great thing, the Messianic Age, as they say. But it’s really not news!”
“Why not news?”
“Because in Lakewood they knew it already a long time ago!”
Twice yearly, at Passover and Rosh Hashanah, Mrs. Kaplan and her husband Sam, “the cutter,” made a pilgrimage to Lakewood, to the Cedars Hotel. Their children, American-born, well off, loving, wanted their father to retire. But Sam refused. Why, said he, should he retire? There is time, he said. Soon, he said, he will be able to retire from the union, and have his check respectfully mailed to him home. So the children persuaded Sam to go with Mamma to Lake-wood, at their expense, for the two holiday seasons. And Mrs. Kaplan, the rest of the year, kept describing the marvels of that resort. Until well into the summer she lingered over the previous Passover, and from August on she commenced with the High Holy Days, which were practically upon us.
“How did they know in Lakewood about the Jewish state?” asked old Sonya Gottlieb.
“You’re questioning Lakewood? Why, all the biggest people—the newspapermen, the actors, the politicians—they all spend their vacations in Lakewood, and they all stay at the Cedars. You should have been there last time. . . .”
As the ladies sat in front, sunning themselves and talking, the life of the store went on. Herman waited on the customers, Sylvia took care of placing the orders with the salesmen—could you rely on Herman in such things? His head was in the clouds, Sylvia said repeatedly, without rancor. Now everyone had paused to comfort Michael, who had come in crying, with a bruised bloody knee. Sylvia, harassed, scolded, and comforted in the same breath.
Mrs. Kaplan had raised her head from the Morning journal and “The Mysteries of the Temple of Babylon.” She offered her advice: “Do you know what I think, Sylvia? If you’d listen to me, you’d get somebody to take care of Michael several hours a day, a girl. Can you tear yourself in ten pieces?”
“Who can afford even a high school girl these days?” Sylvia argued.
“A candy store is a penny business,” old Sonya Gottlieb sighed.
Herman, standing behind the counter, thought of Maureen. She had gotten along so well with Michael that evening, when she had come back with him and the old lady. Sylvia had grown exhausted waiting and, seeing her mother safe, had suddenly burst into sobs. Maureen had spontaneously taken over Michael, washing and feeding him. She read him a bedtime story. But where was she now, Maureen?
Although it was not yet hot, a fair crowd filled the store in the early evening hours. Monotonously, and like an echo of past summers, the orders sounded in Herman’s ears: “A plate of ice cream!” “An ice cream soda—black and white!” “A coke!” Around nine o’clock the store started to empty. Sylvia, looking dull, went up to go to bed. Herman half-dozed behind the counter. It was eleven o’clock when he roused himself. It was time to close. As he reached to put out the last light, he heard a soft rattling at the door. He turned, and saw a silhouette against the barred glass. He recognized Maureen, and walked to the door to reopen it.
“I was baby-sitting in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop in. Am I too late?”
Maureen speedily made herself at home in the candy store. At first she dropped in for only a few hours a day, mostly late afternoons. She helped out at all sorts of odd jobs, and went with Michael to Marine Park. Before anyone knew how it happened, she was keeping longer hours, waiting on customers in the evenings, serving ice cream sodas, selling cigarettes and newspapers. Soon she was trusted with the cash register.
Old Mrs. Gottlieb looked on the girl’s progress in the store with approval. “In the house of the Rabbi, even the Gentile servant girl may pass on religious questions,” she thought to herself. But Herman? Herman was not one of those men who have a fit whenever they see a pretty girl. Naturally, you don’t open the door to the devil and invite him in, as the saying goes. But on the other hand, if your fate is to drown, you’ll drown in a spoonful of water, and it doesn’t have to be a blond shickseh, either.
Sylvia was at first distrustful and rather cold. It wasn’t that she minded having Maureen around the house, helping with Michael or lending a hand in the kitchen. But in the business? Who is she? Does anybody know anything about her? Other doubts assailed Sylvia, the secret doubts which the heart fails to tell the lips. Herman was still a young man, not even thirty, and Maureen in her tight slacks and her clinging sweater, with disheveled hair—it’s the way Mama says, Sylvia thought: “Don’t crawl into a sickbed when your head doesn’t ache.”
True, herman never had been much of a hand at those things. Sylvia knew him from way back. And then after they were married—when, actually, has there even been enough time? For Herman was up early every morning, while it was still dark. And at night, when the store was finally closed, it was late. They watched the store in shifts evenings. Coming upstairs after her shift, she would find him dead to the world. Still later. when his shift was done, she was dozing off, or if not dozing, too tired. Still, before they could look around, she had had Michael, and she would have liked a second. But she preferred to wait. First, they ought to set themselves up, new furniture, a television set, then think about a proper apartment, eventually a house of their own. How long were they to live over the store? And she had to carry the whole burden of their future on her shoulders. Herman worked in harness, that was all he was capable of. She knew her Herman. Still, the way Mama says, “When a lion sleeps, let him sleep.”
“God will help,” sighed Mrs. Kaplan.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Gottlieb, “but as the saying is, ‘If only God would help until he helps!’”
The two women were sitting together in front of the store. It was the beginning of fall and the tree on the corner was starting to turn gold. Single leaves fluttered down in the wind.
Mrs. Kaplan was talking politics. “You think Israel couldn’t handle them? One at a time she could take care of: she’d take care of Egypt in a hurry, and she’d teach the Syrians a lesson they would tell their children about unto the tenth generation. But they are seven countries, the Arabs—seven of them!”
Mrs. Gottlieb agreed. “As they say, ‘Only one God and so many enemies!’”
“Do you mean it’s only the Arabs? It’s not only the Arabs! Didn’t you read the paper?”
The papers? But they were already in the month of Elul, and early every morning the shofar was blown; even a fish in the water would tremble. Every free minute Mrs. Gottlieb would look into her Woman’s Bible. Of what use were the papers to her? . . .
Mrs. Kaplan even read the editorials. Now she launched out into international politics. “It isn’t only the Arabs, you understand, it’s more—it’s high politics: Russia, America, England. You know, there are only two that have any say in the world, our America and Russia, and each wants to be the boss—do you get it, Mrs. Sonya—and Israel is in the middle.”
Mrs. Sonya nodded her head: an old story, nothing new. From all eternity it had been like this. Does she need to read the papers for this? It’s written in the Woman’s Bible: “And it was in the time of Ahasuerus. . . . This Ahasuerus was one of the ten kings who ruled over all the world and will still rule. Here they are: the first is the King of Kings, The Holy One, Blessed be He, His Kingdom should soon come again for us! The second is Nimrod, the third is Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, the fourth is Solomon, King of Israel, the fifth is Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, the sixth is Ahasuerus, the seventh is Alexander, the King of Greece, the eighth is the King of Rome, the ninth is the King Messiah, the tenth will be the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, we hope that His Kingdom will soon come for us. . . .”
“Mrs. Sonya, are you sleeping?”
The voice of Sarah Kaplan woke her from her daydream. She startled and reaised her head: “Who is sleeping? I’m sleeping? I’m not sleeping!”
Mrs. Kaplan sighed. “Ach, maybe, as they say, it’s the time of the Messiah, but still one doesn’t get any younger. You know what I think? You too should drop in at Lakewood for a few weeks, and rest your bones at the Cedars. We are going this year for three weeks, until after Succoth, if God is willing. What should I tell you?—Well, Rosh Hashanah is a real Holy Day there: there’s a regular shul, they blow the shofar. . . .”
Mrs. Sonya let her head fall. She half listened and half saw hazy images that emerged from her memory. Yes, it’s already the month of Elul, and they’re blowing the shofar. People are going to the graves of their forefathers. The Old Cemetery is in the courtyard and there are three synagogues around it, the old one, the new one, and the wooden shul with the turrets. But in the Old Cemetery there are only the graves of those long dead. Now they go up Synagogue Street to the New Cemetery. Women stand by the graves and speak aloud to their dead, unburdening their hearts. “Merciful God, Who art in Heaven, give rest to the soul of. . .” intones the cantor.
“. . . but Succoth is the time of entertainment,” it is Sarah Kaplan’s voice now continuing. “Then they bring talent to the Cedars from the Yiddish theater world in New York: singers, actors, all kinds of comedians. They sing ‘The Wheels Turn and the Years Go,’ it tugs at your heart, and they tell such funny stories to make you burst with laughter. . . .”
. . . And here is the barracks of the volunteer firemen, Mrs. Sonya murmured to herself. Near the pond in the middle of the market, where they used to put plays on, “Reisele, the Shohet’s Daughter,” and “The Sale of Joseph.” Schmerl, the tailor, would dress up like a woman and play Potiphar’s wife and Queen Esther, and Ahasuerus would clap a sheepskin on his chin for a beard.
“. . . The lake and the woods,” Mrs. Kaplan continued enthusaistically. “They stuff you at the Cedars with the tastiest dishes, especially on Succoth: borscht with marrowbones, gefilte fish, stuffed derma, stuffed neck. Then comes the chicken, fried, boiled, as one wishes. You think you are finished? Now they start with the meat! A fine piece of potted chuck, boiled flanken. . . . So what to do after such a meal? After such a meal, you go out for a walk in the woods surrounding the lake. It’s not for nothing that Lake-wood is called Lakewood. It’s a real lake, and a real wood!”
“Yassidoveh!” thinks Mrs. Sonya, and she sees the lake near her home town, and the thick woods around it. At the end of spring they go out in small groups to gather berries, and in the fall they pick nuts from the trees, filberts and big walnuts. The shore of the lake is overgrown with dark thickets, reeds and pussy willows, and willow trees grow there too. At the very edge of the lake stands the mill, a water mill. The water flows over the wheel and turns the millstones. Reb Shmuel, the miller, has three daughters, and they have a stepmother, a cross-eyed woman, Reb Shmuel’s second wife. Nearby, in the hamlet, a stork is standing on a high tree; he stands on one foot.
“Then, in the afternoon, you take a nap, and toward evening, toward suppertime, you walk around the lake again,” continued Mrs. Kaplan.
“And the mill?” asked Mrs. Gottlieb.
“The water mill near the pond. . . .”
“What in the world are you talking about? What pond? And how can there be a water mill in Lakewood? There are no water mills in America. In America, the mills all run by electricity. You are dreaming.”
“Yes, yes . . . electricity. . .” murmured Mrs. Gottlieb. She shook off her daydream, lifted her head, and looked around with amazed eyes.
“It’s a good thing we made a reservation at the Cedars in plenty of time,” said Mrs. Kaplan. “On the eve of a Holy Day there’s such a rush you couldn’t get a room for a thousand dollars!”
“It’s good you reminded me,” said Mrs. Gottlieb. “I have not reserved my ticket at the shul. I’ll go this afternoon to the shul. Between the afternoon prayer and the evening prayer, the shammes will not fail to be there.”
The shammes was in the basement of the shul, waiting for a minyan for the afternoon prayer. Upstairs, on the first floor, sat four elderly men. They also waited for the minyan. The shammes welcomed Mrs. Gottlieb heartily, almost as if she could help make the minyan. “I was thinking of you. I was thinking Mrs. Gottlieb will drop in any day,” and he placed a chair for her.
“Thank you,” she said, and sat down. “Only a short way, it seems, but the feet get tired. You have, I suppose so, left a ticket for me?”
“What a question!” He took out a notebook from a table drawer. “What location will you take this year?”
“As usual. High. In the gallery.”
The shammes placed a mark on the seating plan. “I’ll bring the ticket to your house.”
“Good,” said Mrs. Gottlieb. She understood. At the same time he would bring her a bottle of Mount Carmel wine. It was part of his business to sell Mount Carmel wine for the holidays. He was also a teacher in a religious school.
“And how do they treat you in America?” Mrs. Gottlieb asked.
“One makes a living. Thanks to God. I don’t complain.” During how he had lived through the seven places of hell, how the Nazi killers had murdered the Jews in the Old Country. He talked willingly, and as she listened, she wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Come in more often,” he said.
More and more gold appeared in the green foliage of the trees, and a cooler wind blew from the bays in South Marine Park. The shammes brought the ticket and the bottle of Mount Carmel wine. Mrs. Gottlieb invited him to sit and drink a cup of coffee. As he lifted his cup, his sleeve fell back and a number was visible—ciphers burned into the flesh. He spoke of the destruction of his town, and Mrs. Gottlieb visualized her own town of Lipsk, destroyed: they take the old rabbi first, and ten citizens, important citizens and plain Jews—Yankel Zak, Moshe Leib the grain merchant from the market, Moshe Gershels the coachman, Gabriel the smith, and Benjamin the capmaker—they take them on the road to Yassidoveh and shoot them near an open ditch; they throw child and father into the old Russian monastery; they deport them in sealed trains; concentration camps; gas chambers. She heard the words of the shammes and knew they were true. Yet she knew also Lipsk was standing in its place: with the rabbi, the important citizens from the market, the tailors, the shoemakers, the blacksmith, the coachmen. And when the shammes left, she walked into her room, put the ticket in the table drawer, took the Woman’s Bible and went upstairs.
She poured water on her hands and went to sit at the window with her book. She glanced down at the street and, as if she were looking down from the women’s balcony in the shul, she seemed to see below her the congregation of Lipsk, sitting in the old synagogue and reciting “Lamentations.” The worshippers sat, without shoes, on the floor, rocking back and forth, and wailing over the destruction of the Temple:
And he hath burned in Jacob like a
Which devoureth round about.
He hath bent his bow like an enemy . . .
The youth and the old man lie
On the ground in the streets;
My virgins and my young men
Are fallen by the sword;
Thou hast allowed the enemy to slay them
in the day of Thine anger;
Thou, God, hast allowed the slaughter
Later in the afternoon, Maureen appeared. Maureen enjoyed calling the old lady Mrs. Sonya, and the two often found themselves alone in the upstairs apartment. One word leading to another, they would end up talking about higher matters, about the world and God. Mrs. Sonya was struck with amazement; imagine, a Gentile girl who knew all the stories in the Woman’s Bible! Apparently they believed in the patriarchs and matriarchs, too: Father Abraham, Father Isaac, Father Jacob, Mother Rachel. The only thing was, they had changed the names a little.
Why, Maureen even knew about Joseph the Righteous. Only she called him Saint Joseph. So it would seem that the old Italian barber, Joe the Bookie, was named after Joseph the Righteous! Was it for that that he ran away from Potiphar’s wife and languished in jail the best years of his life, poor thing? It would be interesting to find out whether Maureen knew the story about Potiphar’s wife, too, and how she had tried to seduce Joseph the Righteous. But it was not seemly to talk to Maureen about such things—she was still too young. But who could tell? . . . As they say, “An experienced bride gets down on her back by herself.”
In the evening, an odd suspicion occurred to Mrs. Gottlieb. She came into the store unexpectedly and found Herman alone with Maureen. They were doing nothing, God forbid, but the moment she entered, a sudden silence fell, and a look passed between them. Mrs. Sonya stared distrustfully: what business did Herman have with her? The figure of Potiphar’s wife rose before Mrs. Sonya, holding the torn hem of Joseph’s coat in her hand.
And now that she was reminded of Potiphar’s wife, Mrs. Sonya’s thoughts bore her off to the land of Egypt. At first she found reasons to excuse the poor sinful woman: her husband must have been something of a fool—a eunuch, after all! . . . But was Joseph responsible for her Potiphar being a eunuch? Listen here, woman: if your husband’s no good to you, divorce him and be done! And if you must take yourself a lover, why pick on Joseph the Righteous? Take some healthy prizefighter, a fat Italian, some janitor, or a six-foot-tall Irishman, a street cleaner. But no, just anyone wouldn’t do! She had to have Joseph the Righteous! . . .
Very soon Maureen left. Mrs. Sonya remained in the store a while longer. She wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk with Herman. But he was lost in his newspaper. What could he be reading about? But what kind of dealings was he having with that blond Gentile girl? All at once, Mrs. Sonya felt lonely and old. She went into her room, and, as she turned down the quilt and fluffed up her pillows, she recited the bed-time prayer with devotion. But, though Michael would be at her right side and Gabriel at her left, Uriel and Raphael, she would still be alone, all alone in an alien world.
When she opened her eyes again, the four walls of her room were still shrouded in darkness. She caught a light rustle in the adjacent room and lifted her head. Muffled steps were moving about in the candy store. A door creaked, opened, and shut. It must be the shammes waking folks up for the Penitential Prayers. Her Mendel had already left. But how could he have left for the Penitential Prayers when he was dead? she wondered. It was the Messianic Age, she decided; that was it. King Solomon’s Throne had been sent from the White House to the Land of Israel, where they would soon be rebuilding the Holy Temple, and then the King Messiah would reign over the whole world. And when the Messiah came, a great ram’s horn would blow: Tu-tu! The Great Alarm blown in shul on the Days of Awe! And the dead would rise from their graves. . . .
The sound of the ram’s horn roused Mrs. Sonya from her sleep. If they were blowing the ram’s horn, that was a sign that it was the month of Elul, and time to pay your respects to your dead in the graveyard.
She rose and lit the small night lamp by her bed. A meager light flickered, odd shadows danced on the walls. Slowly and carefully, she dressed. How to find the way there? The main thing was to get to Lake-wood first. Lakewood was where the pond was. Once she got to Lakewood, she knew the way; on one side of the pond grew bulrushes and reeds, on the other stood the water mill. The water fell down the sluices to turn the arms of the mill. Then she must take the left-hand path, past the farmhands’ cottages, past the Russian Church monastery. Or ought she perhaps take the path through the fields? It was shorter. Then you took the path leading to the bathhouse street. There was a stream flowing on the right, and the bathhouse stood on the left. The chimney of the bathhouse was pouring smoke. Shmerel, the bath man with the wooden foot, had probably lighted the oven—all the Jews visit the bathhouse on the eve of the High Holy Days. Why, there was Gabriel the blacksmith’s cottage; he had been a widower for eight years, and they were talking up a betrothal between him and a certain widow from Suchowolie. Across the way Moshe Gershels, the coachman, lived with his five sons. Who was it who lived in the green house with the balcony? That must be Benjamin the capmaker, who has to travel around from fair to fair all the year, poor fellow! And here’s the bridge already, and the market on the other side. In the distance you can see the shul courtyard with the three synagogues clustered around it: the new house of study, the old house of study, and the wooden shul with the turrets.
But she must not forget to take along her copy of the Woman’s Bible! Here is the ticket! . . . But what would she need a ticket for? The Lipsk people worshipped without having to buy tickets. Well, you never know. . . . Look here, she’ll need some change, too. There’s a long table in the shul anteroom with a line of good-will offering plates on it; one for Rabbi Mayer the Miracle Worker, one for the Hostel of Righteousness Society, one for the Society of Visitors of the Sick, one for the Bridal Fund Society, one for the Talmudic Academies Fund, and one for the Poor Folks Alms Society. . . .
The market place is dark, the surrounding houses are locked, their shutters barred. The shammes walks from house to house, his stick knocking against the cobblestones of the street. His knuckles rap against the barred shutters. “To Penitential Prayers! All Jews, to Penitential Prayers!”
The ram’s horn was, perhaps, the shofar of Messiah, but the steps—that was Herman and Maureen who also ran away, together, the same night.