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Jerusalem Interlude


Page 22 of 53


The eyes of the audience bored into Leah’s back. Shimon had singled out two husky, apple-cheeked youngsters and was grinning at them—to no avail. Dark and solemn looks were returned. Shimon preferred the Arab beggars to this.

The shutters of the downstairs flat opened a bit, then flew open with a crash. A thick-featured woman of about fifty, wearing a polka-dot scarf to frame her leathery face, scowled at the newcomers. “Oy,” she said, not quite under her breath. “If Idela were alive this would kill her.” She rubbed her cheek, frowned at the crowd behind the three newcomers, and shrugged. What can you do? He doesn’t even have a beard like a man, the shrug seemed to say. She disappeared from the window and then reappeared a second later at the door. On her arm she carried an iron ring with a single key on it.

“You must be the great-nephew of Idela Feldstein, God rest her soul.”

“Omaine,” said a voice behind Leah. “And may she not be spinning now.”

The woman with the key pronounced her name. “I am Shoshanna Reingolt. Downstairs’ neighbor to Idela Feldstein for twenty years.” The woman’s eyes widened and then narrowed as she scanned Leah’s plum-colored dress and matching shoes. “Idela told me you were coming.” She shook her head as if she could not believe it. “She told me when you came you should have the flat. She had a little money, but that was gone with the funeral, and so . . . She pushed past them and started up the creaking stairs.

Leah looked pleadingly at the kind Reverend Robbins, but he whispered, “You’re in enough trouble already without inviting a Christian pastor up for tea. I’ll wait here. Keep the party lively.”

Shimon eyed the crazily leaning steps and tested the banister. It wobbled. He wondered if it would hold his weight.

“Well, come on!” snorted the unamused Shoshanna as she inserted the key and leaned against the door until it opened with a reluctant groan.

Leah and Shimon smiled in a frozen, fearful sort of way as they climbed the stairs and entered the dark and musty little space. Leah stepped in a puddle of water just inside the door. Shimon blinked as a drop hit his face. Together, in one unified motion, they looked up at a ceiling stained from water leaks.

“Well, you’ll have to fix that!” snapped Shoshanna. “But there is a primus stove for cooking. A bed for sleeping.” She reconsidered the last comment as she compared Shimon’s size to the narrow iron cot against the wall. “You can take turns sleeping, anyway.” She sniffed. “And a rocking chair.” She pointed to a small wooden rocking chair beside the barred window.

Leah eyed the rocker—one small luxury in this room, which was more like a cell than an apartment. “How lovely,” she remarked, noting the deep patina of the wood. “It is a very fine rocking chair.”

“Yes,” barked Shoshanna. “I found your great-aunt right in that very chair. Sitting frozen in death. She was staring out the window. Oy, what a shock! A woman of her health to die like that!”

“Ah . . . ” Leah quickly looked away from the chair.

Relief! There were the shipping crates they had sent from Vienna! Some spark of elegance and beauty! The weight of disappointment was lessened a tiny bit by those friendly boxes. Elisa had helped her pack them in the days before the Nazis had come. How perfect life had been then! Oh, God! Leah prayed her unhappiness did not show on her face. All her emotion and every brave word she had uttered last night now seemed to mock her.

“Well, are you staying?” demanded the woman. “Or subletting? There is a line of people who would take a nice apartment like this, you know.”

Shimon stepped forward and took the key. “We are staying,” he said firmly. There was no chance for Leah to protest. “At least for now.” He bowed slightly at the waist. “My great-aunt wrote to me of your kindness to her.” Shimon was smiling—a miraculous smile! Did he not see the hovel they had come to? No! He was winning this horrid, iron-eyed woman over with lies about how kind she had been!

Leah turned away and stared at the box containing her china. They had china plates, but there was no table to set.

“We had to sell a few things to pay her debts. The table. It was quite nice. It sold quickly.”

Leah squeezed her eyes shut at the words. A bed for one. A kerosene stove and a rocker. The very rocker . . . She felt the room spin around her. “Shimon—” she reached out for his hand—“I . . . am . . . I feel . . . ”

There was a flurry of activity around her. Shoshanna’s voice expressed dismay. “Gottenyu! Sit down in the chair!”

“No,” Leah breathed, as she groped for the bed. Helped by Shimon, she lay down on the groaning cot and closed her eyes as she fought to control a wave of nausea. The harsh voice of Shoshanna became instantly sympathetic. “I’ll make tea,” she promised, patting Leah’s hand. “You’re expecting, maybe? Such a pale little thing. I’ll tell them you are staying.”

***

Shafts of dusty light beamed down through the high windows of the Yeshiva school classroom where Eli studied with forty other students. He sat on the end of a long bench shared by a dozen young men. Books and papers were piled high on desktops. Bookshelves rose twelve feet high on every wall of the room where Rabbi Shlomo Lebowitz led the discussion, which was of great interest to each student.

“Marriage!” declared the old man as he paced across the front of the classroom. “Who has the reference that is reflected in the Jewish wedding ceremony?”

A forest of hands sprouted up. Eli did not raise his hand. The subject made him uncomfortable, unhappy.

“Yes, Yagil!” The rabbi paused as a beam of light fell on his face like a spotlight.

Yagil, with his stooped shoulders and eyes that looked in different directions through thick spectacles, seemed the least likely to speak of marriage, but he rose to his feet. His smile blinked on and off through his straggly beard. He began to quote the law. “ ‘No man without a wife. Neither a woman without a husband. Nor both of them without God.’ Genesis Rabbah 8:9.” He was pleased with himself. He had said it correctly. Even a fellow as odd-looking as Yagil must have a wife. And somewhere there must be an odd-looking woman who would love to stand with him beneath the chuppa! Perhaps one day Yagil would be a father of a flock of little Yagils with eyes looking this way and that. As long as it was a proper Jewish ceremony!

Eli found himself feeling ill. He thought about Victoria. He knew what the Law said about marriage. This reminder frightened him for their future.

“Very good, Yagil,” intoned Rabbi Lebowitz. “Now sit.” Yagil obeyed, shrinking back to his position behind his books. “It is easier for us to prepare for a wedding ceremony than it is for us to prepare for marriage, nu?” The rabbi paused as the weight of this penetrated the minds of the students. “What is the basis for a sanctified relationship in accordance with the Law of Moses?”

Again hands shot up. “Emile, please.”

Emile, big and hairy, with a frame like an ox, stood and began to speak in his surprisingly high voice. “This is a union between a man and a woman where the precepts of the Lord are fulfilled and where the children will be raised in the atmosphere of religious faith. Marriage is not merely a legal bond. Or a bond for the gratification of physical desire or emotional . . .”

Eli could not hear the rest of the citation. He knew the answers. In an examination about marriage he would not miss even one. In a mixed marriage, the foundations of a Jewish marriage were absent. He knew this. The awareness of it kept him awake each night. It followed him into the Yeshiva and plagued his every waking thought. There were deeper matters that he had not even shared with Victoria when he spoke to her of marriage. He longed to be outside right now. He looked at the swirling flecks of dust in the light and wished that he could be caught up and swept out the window of the room.

The harsh voice of Rabbi Lebowitz interrupted his thoughts. “Eli! Eli Sachar! Are you dreaming?”

“Huh?”

“Would you answer the question for us?”

“Am I dreaming? I . . . uh . . . ”



“No. The question regarding marriages that are forbidden to you as a cohen.”

The question was like a slap in the face. The eyes of every man in the room were on him. He drew in a ragged breath. He began, “By Torah law . . . ”

“Reference?”

“Leviticus 21:6-7.”

“Correct. Not bad for a sleeping man. Continue.”

“ A cohen is forbidden to marry a divorced woman.”

“Go on.”

“One who is known to be promiscuous.”

“Yes, yes.”

“A proselyte.” Eli swallowed hard.

“There! Nu! You see how very narrow the way must be for you!” The rabbi swept a gnarled hand over the group, but Eli felt he had pointed only at him. “You may not marry a woman who converts. And who will answer why that must be?”

Eli sank down into his seat. He did not hear the rest of the day’s lesson and discussion. At the end of class, when Rabbi Lebowitz asked him if he was feeling ill, Eli answered that he had not felt well in days. This seemed to satisfy the rabbi, who wished him a speedy recovery. But Eli knew he would never recover from his heart sickness. There was no answer to this dilemma. Victoria could convert, but Eli would never be a rabbi if he married her. He would not tell her, lest she turn from him and think she did him a kindness. His heart had made his choice for him. But he simply could not think what to do next.

***

Victoria did not know what drew her through the gates of the Haram into the courtyard of the Dome of the Rock. She had simply come. Like a child searching for a lost toy, she had come here to the perfect octagon of the shrine. She paused in her steps and examined the turquoise, greens, and golds of the tile-encrusted facade.

Above the south entrance to the dome, God, the Eternal could be read in the mosaic. In the shadows beneath the arch, the words of the prophet were gracefully inscribed: He who clings to this life will lose the next one.

She gazed over the vast and empty place where thousands of the faithful came each week to bow and worship toward Mecca. Strange how very empty it seemed. Devoid of the shouts and exhortations of the Mufti, devoid of the faithful followers, the place also seemed devoid of God. She did not move forward, but lingered at the gate, lost in her thoughts. This site, the jewel of Jerusalem, no longer felt like a place she belonged. She viewed it as a tourist might. A sense of amazement touched her briefly as she scanned the green and brown marble columns and mosaics surrounding the arched windows, but the reality of an Eternal God seemed very remote to her. She was without fear of that fierce Eternal One. Without awe, she considered the faith she was leaving.

Perhaps she had always been irreverent and faithless. Had she ever really spoken to God when she touched her forehead to the ground in obedience? She had said words, but her heart had never uttered a single prayer to the Allah whose name was intertwined with the gold-leaf and mosaic of the holy place.

She shook her head at her own coldness. She did not believe. Gold and filigreed turquoise could not impress her heart. She saw here only beauty made by man.

She leaned against a column and was startled to hear a voice behind her.

“Victoria Hassan?”

She turned to see the smiling, sun-darkened face of Ram Kadar as he entered the compound. His black robes and keffiyeh billowed in the slight breeze. He looked very much as if he might fly. His black eyes shone as he fixed them on her face, and he smiled. His teeth were white and perfect. He was a handsome man, and he knew it well.

Victoria lowered her eyes and touched her forehead in salaam. “Ram Kadar.” She said his name but did not return his smile. She did not like the way he looked at her. She would not encourage him with even a hint of anything beyond simple courtesy.

“It is good to see you here. You have come to petition Allah?”

“I have come here . . . to think,” she answered truthfully.

“I have come to petition.” Kadar moved uncomfortably near to her. “I intend to take a wife soon.”

She did not look up at him. She felt his gaze sweep over her and instantly became self-conscious in her blue cotton British dress and high-heeled shoes. “Congratulations,” she muttered.

He laughed when she did not look at him. He raised his hand as if to touch her face. She flinched, and he laughed again. “Such beauty should be behind a veil. Reserved only for the pleasure of a husband, Victoria.”

“A veil will not do when one is working at the Mandate offices.” She turned and brushed past him.

“And such a body is made for bearing children,” he called after her as she hurried out the gates and into the souks of the Old City.

***

Only four china dinner plates had survived the long journey from Austria to Palestine. Leah would have grieved if it had not been for the note she found tucked into the packing crate:

My Dearest Friend,

What a joy it is for me to think that when you find this little message you will be safe in your home in Zion! And yet there is grief also that I remain here in Vienna without your face to smile at me from across the stage! My prayers go with you as I remember the words of Isaiah 52:9—“Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.”

All my love,

Elisa

Inside the envelope Elisa had placed a hundred Austrian shillings. Austrian bank notes were worthless now, of course, but the note and the cash reminded Leah once again how far God had brought them to come to this moment. Instead of tears shed over eight broken dinner plates, Leah was able to smile and thank God for the four that remained.

20

Jerusalem Welcome

“And Shoshanna thinks she must be . . . expecting . . . such a pale little thing.” Ida Sachar filled the ears of her husband and sons before she filled their plates.

“That Shoshanna! Such a yenta! She would say that Moshe was expecting if it would draw a crowd. What does she know?” Hermann Sachar chided as he spooned out potatoes onto his plate.

“So what do you think, Eli? You have seen her! Last night at the concert. Did she look like she was . . . ?” Ida pried.

Embarrassed, Eli shrugged. “She played like an angel, Mama. She wore a black dress, and I—”

“Aha! A black dress! Very slimming.” Ida’s eyes narrowed.

“They always wear black dresses when they play.” Hermann shook his head and rolled his eyes. “These women . . . as if there was not enough to talk about!”

“Shoshanna said she looked like she stepped out of a shopwindow in Beirut, or maybe Berlin. Everything matched! They have money or else why didn’t they sublet the apartment? I ask you.” Ida’s face betrayed a knowledge of such things.

Hermann lowered his chin and peered at his wife over the tops of his glasses. “First you say she is pregnant. Then she is rich. You also say she is a shiksa who certainly must not keep a kosher kitchen.” He clucked his tongue. “All this and you have never laid eyes on the woman!”

“What do men know? Oy! Why couldn’t God give me at least one daughter to talk to over the dinner table?” Ida snapped. “Pass the potatoes, Hermann. You do not understand these things.”

Hermann obeyed with disgusted amusement. “Those children,” he said under his breath.

“What?” Ida’s eyes flashed. She was ready for what was known as a discussion. This was an unusually loud conversation, which increased in volume as it changed from topic to topic until no one knew where it had started.

Eli marked the opening topic in his mind. This time the discussion was beginning with Leah and Shimon Feldstein. “Tales of the Vienna Woods,” so to speak. He and Moshe exchanged glances and ducked slightly as they proceeded with their meal.

“I said,” Hermann repeated loudly, “THOSE CHILDREN!”

“What children?”

“Those . . . what are their names? . . . the new ones. The rich pregnant ones.”

“He is n

ot pregnant! She is!”

“You yentas! How do you know such things!”

“Because we are women!”

Hermann rolled his eyes heavenward. “Thank you, God, that you made me a man.”

Ida pouted. Only one phase of the discussion. Hermann pretended that it was over. Moshe and Eli knew better.

“So what about them?” Ida asked quietly, leading Hermann along.

“About who?” Hermann looked around in mock bewilderment.

Ida roared, “THE FELDSTEINS! The children! Oy! As you call them!”

“Well then, Ida, I’ll tell you what, since you are asking me . . . a man . . . for an opinion! There they are in that little place, probably because they have no place else to go. And every yenta in the Old City is gabbing about them! But do I see the meat and potatoes of the Sachar house being shared with these strangers? Nu! They have arrived here, and old Aunt Idela is dead.”

“She is spinning in her grave at one look at those apikorosim in her flat!”

“She is too dead to spin . . . or care. But you are not!” His lip was very far out. He had the look of a man with a budding case of indigestion. He turned to Eli. “This Leah plays like an angel, eh? So! You be the angel these yentas will not be! Take the leftovers.”

“What leftovers?” Ida protested.

“And tonight we can live without your mother’s fine strudel!”

“What?” Hands crashed down on the table.

Hermann’s chin came up in defiant response. “That is my final word, Ida,” he proclaimed. “I am the papa and this is my final word. You will package the food nicely and send a kind note to these poor children. And I will be able to hold my head up in shul because”—now his fist slammed on the table—“MY WIFE IS KIND TO THE POOR AND THE STRANGER!” His eyes protruded slightly. The lower lip extended with the chin. This meant the discussion was at an end.