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Jerusalem Interlude


Page 28 of 53

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Eyes lit up. Women restrained from allowing excited exclamations to escape their mouths. Such a delicacy! Walnuts for the making of baklava and a thousand wondrous things! Could this Englishman mean such a thing?

Rabbi Lebowitz tugged his beard as he pretended to consider. “How many bags of walnuts, Captain Orde?”

Orde mentally calculated. Of course they could have them all. They could use them as weapons against Arabs if nothing else. Perhaps shoot a few pigeons with slingshots. “I believe there are two or three dozen gunny sacks still in the warehouse.”

“Not wormy, are they?” The old rabbi scowled cautiously.

“On my word!” Orde declared.

Another moment of hesitation, then Rabbi Lebowitz extended his hand. “A bargain, then! Five hundred pounds of milk. Twenty-five pounds of cocoa. And, God be praised . . . walnuts!”

***

Eli returned to the Jewish Quarter with his khaki clothes wadded up beneath his arm. He was smiling, relieved that there was no question of Victoria’s feeling for him. Time. That was all she needed. Her request did not frighten him.

Two young Torah schoolboys charged past him on the street as if they were being pursued. Soon it would be Shabbat. Everyone in the Quarter seemed to be rushing around to get ready for the holy day of rest!

Eli let his breath out slowly. On this Shabbat he would truly be at rest. He strolled easily through the lanes of his neighborhood. Once again his eyes were able to focus on the faces of the people, on the cluttered shops and the round-bellied merchants who hailed him as he passed. Victoria would marry him. She would convert, and though they might have to leave Jerusalem, his heart would not have to leave his people!

“Eli!” A familiar voice called his name. “Eli! Come quickly!” The rusty voice of Rabbi Lebowitz shouted all the way from the steps of Tipat Chalev. “It will be Shabbat soon and we need to move these bags of walnuts!”

Eli did not mind this interruption. He quickened his pace as the cry of distress demanded, but he felt no resentment as the rabbi waved him up the steps and into the dining room where heaps of gunny sacks were stacked almost to the vaulted ceiling.

Six other rabbinical students had likewise been hauled into the task of shifting a ton of walnuts to the basement. Eli did not ask where they had come from. Nothing surprised him anymore . . . except the fact that his own black mood had evaporated. He tossed the small bundle of clothes onto the table as Rabbi Lebowitz began shouting instructions.

“Eli! You and Yossi take that stack there, and . . . ” For a moment the voice of the rabbi faltered. He looked at the clothes and then at Eli. Confusion crossed his face. He blinked at Eli, swallowed hard, and then began again. “Yes. I was saying . . . that stack there. If we hurry we will beat Queen Shabbat before she arrives, nu, Eli?”

***

If ever Eli had been foolish, this quiet Shabbat evening was the night. The candles were lit. The prayers were recited. The meal was served. All should have been at peace in the Sachar home.

Instead, Ida Sachar sobbed uncontrollably over her plate. “Oy! Gottenyu! My own son! The pride of my life, and now he tells us he is in love with a Muslim girl! Hermann! Hermann!”

“Be still, Ida!” Hermann snapped. But she would not be silenced.

Moshe looked at his distraught parents. He shook his head and threw his napkin on the table as he stood. “So he loves her! So my brother is in love with a woman who is not born on this side of the Street of the Chain! So what?” he yelled.

Hermann’s face was purple with rage. “You be quiet also, Moshe! This does not concern you!”

Moshe defied his father. “Eli is my brother! It concerns me!”

Ida wailed and muttered, “Not one apostate son, but two! Oy! Where have I failed? What will the neighbors say?”

“Who cares what they say?” Moshe stood up, knocking his chair over.

“Go to your room!” Hermann pointed toward the stairs. “And if you do not show us respect, leave the house!”

Eli did not look up as Moshe shouted, “I’ll do better than that! I will leave Jerusalem! And Palestine! This godforsaken heap of stone! I’m going to England to study as soon as my fellowship comes through, and Eli and his wife may come with me!” He stormed from the table.

“Two sons! Oy! Has a mother ever been so cursed?” Ida moaned and blew her nose.

“I love her,” Eli said hoarsely. Why had he chosen tonight to tell them? Why had he not presented the marriage as accomplished? Ah, well, it would have been the same now or later.

“But she is not a Jew!” Ida wailed. “There are so many lovely girls in our Quarter! My grandchildren! What will the community say? And I was so proud.”

“Maybe too proud, Mama,” Eli faltered.

Hermann slammed his fist on the table. “Leave us, Ida!” he bellowed.

“You will take his part!” she cried. “Listen to yourself! You will not be strong in this! That is why it has happened! You let the traditions of the family fall apart! You let Moshe go to Hebrew University instead of Yeshiva! Now look!”

Hermann glared at his weeping wife. “Leave us.” His command was quiet, menacing.

“You will be sorry!” she shouted, running from the table and slamming every door in the house as she exited. “This is your fault! Your fault!” Her sobs echoed back down the hall from the bedroom.

For a full five minutes, Eli and his grim father sat in silence as they listened to the rise and fall of her grief.

At last Eli spoke. “You would think I died.”

Hermann sighed. All the anger had dissipated into weariness. He spoke softly now, Ida’s sobs a backdrop of grief to his words. “Do you know what your marriage to her would mean for you? For all of us? All your education, the sacrifice we have made for your schooling. It would not matter, Eli, if she converted. You would not even be fit to lead a congregation of lepers if your wife was an Arab.” He paused, then laid down his napkin and rose slowly. “Think about it. You know what it will mean. You do not need the hysteria of your mother or the anger of your father to instruct you. You already know.”

Eli nodded with a single jerk. He left his father standing in the dining room and retreated to the room he shared with Moshe.

It was semi-dark in the room, but Moshe sat in an overstuffed chair and pretended to study. He glanced up to see Eli stretch himself on his bed and turn his face to the wall. Moshe knew Eli wept only by the sound of an occasional sniff.

It seemed as if hours passed before Moshe spoke. “What will you do?”

Eli turned and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees as he stared at the khaki shirt draped over the footboard of his bed. “Can I tear out the beard of my father? As long as I am here I must not see her again.”

“But why?” Moshe tossed his book on the floor with an angry crash. “Can she not become a Jew?”

“She will never fit in. To marry her means that I turn my back on my faith and my family. You—” he searched Moshe’s face—“could no longer call me your brother.”

“Medieval nonsense!” scoffed Moshe.

“I would be dead to you. Dead.”

“Turn your back on your faith? What are you talking about? So you will not be a rabbi! What has that got to do with anything?”

“You do not understand!” Eli looked away. “There is more to this than you know! More than I can tell you!”

“But you love her!” Moshe laughed in disbelief.

“Yes!” Eli cried. “So much that today I thought—” He did not finish. He did not tell Moshe that he had declared in Christ Church that for her sake he was no longer a Jew. “We shall not speak of it again, Moshe! I have much to think about. What is right? I do not know myself any longer! Too many voices!” Tears came to him again. “The world has gone mad, and we are in the center of its destruction!” He raised a hand to stop any further words from his brother. “No, Moshe! We shall not speak of it again!”

&nb

sp; After a time the muffled sobs of Ida Sachar died away. Moshe’s breath came in the even rhythm of sleep. The moon rose over Jerusalem, outlining the city in crisp shadow. Only then did Eli get up. He stood at the window for a long time and looked toward the corner where Victoria would walk on her way to work. Then he looked toward the bell tower of Christ Church. He would not speak the deepest secrets of his heart to his family any longer. It would serve no purpose. For the sake of leaving his parents with at least one son in Moshe, Eli would not involve his brother. Moshe must not be implicated in his plan.

There in the moonlight Eli steeled himself for what he must do. He would be alone in his decision. It must be so.

25

Wedding Day

Already the wagons of Warsaw’s peddlers rumbled through the streets. The clop of horses’ hooves against the cobblestone mingled with the voices of hawking merchants and bargaining housewives.

“Who could sleep with such a racket?” Etta Lubetkin asked as she braided her thick dark hair in the early morning light.

In the mirror she could see Aaron as he quietly recited the morning prayers. He held a finger to his lips, warning her to be silent until he uttered the final Omaine!

She simply redirected her chatter to the air. “Why should I be quiet when every peddler in Warsaw is screaming in the streets?” She studied her own reflection in the mirror. She was thirty-eight. Yes, it was time for those tiny lines around her clear blue eyes. Her skin was still as fair and fresh as it had been when she was a young girl in Jerusalem. Even after giving Aaron four children, her figure still delighted him. No doubt there would be other children if the Eternal, blessed be He, was willing. Aaron was certainly willing enough. He did not seem to notice those tiny lines around her eyes.

She glanced at his reflection in the mirror. He was praying toward Jerusalem, looking very handsome beneath his prayer shawl. He was concentrating very hard. Trying not to look at his wife sitting there in her white cotton shift as she plaited her hair. She was, he often said, his greatest distraction from the things of the Almighty. Still beautiful at thirty-eight. Still as much on his mind as she had been when he had been a Yeshiva student in Jerusalem. He had married her before finishing his studies simply because without her he had been unable to think of anything but her.

And after the wedding? Aaron found that Etta offered him even more distraction and delight. At the advice of her revered father, the Rabbi Lebowitz, he had begun to thank God for Etta every time she popped into his thoughts.

This morning as the sunlight streamed through the beveled-glass window to fall in little rainbows on her skin, Aaron closed his eyes tightly as he finished his prayers. “ . . . And thank you, O Eternal, for the blessing of my wife, Omaine!”

At that, he turned and placed his strong hands on her shoulders and stooped to kiss her neck. His beard brushed her soft skin. She reached up and patted his head affectionately.

“You will be late to shul if you do not hurry,” she warned as he kissed her again.

“Why are you not like other wives?” He did not move away. “Why are you not fat and shrill and harsh with me so that I can better study the Torah and discuss the words of the great rabbis without wishing I were here with you making more little Lubetkins?”

Etta laughed. “If you want me fat and shrill, just give me more little Lubetkins too soon, and I will grant your wish. Now really! You will be late to shul. They cannot start without you.”

“Let them wait,” he whispered. “You have rainbows on your skin.”

“And what will you tell them when you are late?”

“That I was looking at rainbows.”

“But the sky is clear.”

“Then I will weep and say it rains.” He kissed her once more as he had not dared to kiss her since the baby was born. “I have missed you,” he whispered. “I will not be able to pray any prayer today except the prayer your father taught me: ‘Thank you, O Eternal, for my Etta!’ I will say it over and over and everyone will think I am meshugge!”

“You must go. You will be late.” She said the words but did not push him away.

“Send David to tell them I am sick,” he pleaded.

“A lie? You would put a lie on the lips of your son?”

Aaron smiled at his beautiful wife and pulled her toward the unmade bed. “Not a lie. Have you not read Song of Songs? ‘I am sick with love. Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.’” A lingering kiss melted her resistance. “‘The roof of thy mouth is like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.’”

Etta drew a deep breath and made one last protest. “The children. Breakfast.”

“You have nursed baby Yacov. Frau Rosen will feed Rachel, David, and Samuel.” He smiled down into her eyes. “You can tell Frau Rosen that I will allow no one to nurse me but you.”

Etta closed her eyes and savored the adoration of her husband. It had been a long time. She felt it, too. “I will send David to the shul with the message, and then I expect you to pray twice as hard tomorrow!”

He nodded obediently and released her. She threw on a robe, and fumbling with the sash, she stepped out of the room to call down the hall with the message for young David. She instructed the housekeeper about breakfast and gave strict orders that poor Rabbi Lubetkin must not be disturbed because he was sick and would not be nursed by anyone but his wife!

Frau Rosen, the plump, dour housekeeper, glared up from the foot of the stairs. As Etta finished her directives she thought she caught a hint of a smile on the old woman’s face. Had she guessed the nature of Aaron’s illness? Would she gossip at the bakery?

Etta raised her chin regally and retreated to the sanctuary of the bedchamber. She hoped that the Eternal would not see His way clear to send along another little Lubetkin today. Everyone in the neighborhood would count backward and remember that they had sent David to the shul with the message that Aaron was ill on that very day!

***

By dinnertime Aaron had recovered from his brief illness. He took his place at the head of the table and smiled benevolently at the subjects of his small domain.

Rachel, at thirteen, was the budding image of her mother at that age. Her wide blue eyes still carried the innocence and wonder she had as a tiny baby in her pram. Still she talked to the big, raw-boned cart horses of the Warsaw peddlers. Stroking the animals on the nose, she carried on conversations as her mother argued about prices of cabbages and chickens with the merchants. Rachel’s raven-black hair curled gently around her oval face. She was a young beauty. Everyone said so. She was Aaron’s firstborn and his pride and joy. Although others might disapprove, he had seen to it that the child was properly educated. She could quote the Torah as well as any boy her own age.

David, who was nine, had also inherited the cobalt blue eyes of his mother. Long lashes accented the clarity of those eyes and made him seem as though he was thinking very adult thoughts. The truth was that this serious boy was usually considering dropping a toad down the back of his sister. Aaron liked the boy. After a particularly diabolical prank and the punishment that must surely follow, Aaron was known to retreat to his own room and howl at the hilarity of David’s latest. Of course, he never let David know his true response.

Little Samuel, too, had inherited Etta’s eyes, but his features were much more like his father’s. For this reason, perhaps, Aaron favored the boy somewhat. He was not pushed quite so hard in his studies as Rachel and David had been at his age. He was not so meticulous about his belongings or his room. Mrs. Rosen still made his bed. The other children resented this fact and called him Prince Samuel.

And little Yacov—at four weeks he was still an unknown commodity. His eyes were also blue, but the women of the neighborhood believed that could still turn brown in time. He was a quiet baby. Stuffed full of his mother’s ample supply of milk, he would sleep the whole night through. Aaron described him as well mannered when he spoke of hi

m to the men of the shul.

“What?” came the incredulous reply. “Well mannered at his age! Oy! Either you are slipping him a little schnapps at night, or we have the makings of another Baal Shem Tov in our midst, nu?”

So. Perhaps this youngest Lubetkin would grow up to be another Master of the Good Name! Baal Shem Lubetkin? The thought pleased Aaron, even though the words were spoken in jest.

Aaron had no doubt that each of his four offspring would somehow grow up to honor God. They were good children. The Eternal, blessed be He, had showered blessings upon Aaron and Etta. The joy they found in each other had been enlarged through these four little lives. Aaron prayed over the meal and remembered to thank God for each of the children as well. He broke the bread and blessed it tonight with such a feeling of contentment that he was certain the Eternal could not be displeased that he had stayed home today.

From the opposite end of the table, Etta, also looking pleasantly relaxed, smiled and winked at him. “Is it not wonderful to see your papa so fit and rested after just one day, children?” A knowing look passed between husband and wife.

“I will still want to go to bed early tonight, I think,” he said, feeling genuinely tired.

Young Samuel studied his father with serious eyes. “Today at the bakery I heard Frau Rosen tell Frau Wolff and Frau Heber that what Papa has men never get over!”

At this news, Etta choked on her water while Aaron sputtered an incoherent reply and mentally took note that Etta must rebuke their housekeeper for saying such things . . . even if they were true.

“Frau Rosen!” Aaron bellowed loudly toward the kitchen. “Frau Rosen!” His voice betrayed his anger and the housekeeper emerged red-faced from the swinging door. She had heard Samuel’s revelation. She looked daggers at the little boy and bowed slightly.

“I . . . would . . . like . . . more . . . chicken,” Aaron said through slightly clenched teeth. This was enough to send the woman scurrying back to the kitchen while Etta shook her head and shrugged as if to ask: “So you thought she wouldn’t figure it out? A woman like Frau Rosen? Such a yenta!”



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