The Forty-niners

 

 

The Forty-niners

By Marianne Langner Zeitlin

 

 

Among American, Canadian, and British expatriates in Israel, it’s the custom to give the year of their immigration when introduced. “I came in sixty-seven just before the Six Day War and never left,” says one. “Seventy-eight here,” says another.
So when Shoshana and David proudly proclaim “We’re forty-niners,” a round of WOWS follow and hats are tipped in homage.
“Yes,” Shoshana always adds, in case anybody doesn’t get the connection with the American west, “and we struck gold here too.”
“You call that gold?” David asks, with a roll of the eyes. “Maybe a little anthracite, when we were lucky.”
 
Being a forty-niner didn’t used to be that unusual, Shoshana reflected as she added some brandy-soaked raisins to the dough for the challahs. But lately, with the deaths of Azaria and Batsheva within three months of each other, in addition to those of so many others of Kibbutz Hayigal in recent years, it had become so. To be a survivor, it would seem, had become in and of itself an achievement. A lifetime achievement, as it were.
Maybe I should get an award?
            She sprinkled a little more flour on the mound, and turned it first one way, then another, to knead it well.
Who would ever have thought that the nebesh Canadiansshe of the chronic backache and he of the perpetual outbreaks of impetigowould be among the last holdouts?
The children and the grandchildren, and lately, keyn ayn hore, even the great-grandchildren, were always urging her to write her autobiography. When it came to family lore, she knew they all considered her Clearinghouse Central. You want to know when and where so-and-so was born, got married, had children, went into the army, bla bla bla, go ask Ima/Savta/Savta G’dola. Especially Rachel, her oldest great-granddaughter, all of sixteen now and with all the requisite sass that comes with that age, especially among Sabras. Plenty sweet inside if you dig hard enough, but a prickly pear nevertheless.
“You always say time waits for nobody,” she’d thrown up at her after the Selichot service the previous Saturday night. “You’ve got to write your memoirs.”
“My memoirs,” Shoshana mimicked, “no less. Maybe a new War and Peace too?”
I’m serious, Savta,” Rachel said, her entire being bristling. “Why don’t you?” Several other great-grandchildren overheard her and moved closer to back her up.
“Okay, you want serious, I’ll give you serious. For starters” She drew a long breath, searching for a suitable escape clause. “What’s so special about my life to justify such a project? No long-lost twin sister that I know of, no fortune left by an unknown ancestor, no murders, no evil stepmother. On a fine day, once upon a time in olden times, your great-grandfather and I decided to come here. How did we do it? By guess and by gosh. Just like thousands of others. But what can I say that hasn’t been said again and again by my betters? What could I possibly write?”
Rachel cocked her head and glared at her. “Plenty! You’ve just got to set your mind to it. Think how much it would mean to us. It’s our history too. You can write it in longhand and I’ll type it on the computer. Don’t put it off any longer. It’s now or never.”
They all ganged up and chimed in, her progeny with the signature hazel eyes, dollops of her DNA in every cell. With their Yes, Savta, why don’t you? and Why can’t you? coming at her every which way––half of them not even knowing what they were talking about––they gave her no quarter.
The only way she could appease them was to promise at least “to think about it.”
Giving the dough one last flour sprinkling and rolling for good measure, she put it into a large plastic bowl, covered it with a towel, and placed it on top of the warm stove.
Time now to let it rise.
 
Kibbutz Hayigal was one of the fifty kibbutzim established in the banner year of 1949 following the re-establishment of the State of Israel. What a difference it was from the kibbutz-in-waiting in Toronto called Emunah, a block from Shoshana’s home, to which as a teenager she would head every evening after supper, gulping her dessert on the way. Emunah consisted of a group of eighteen future émigrés––most of whom had day jobs in the garment industry on Spadina Avenue––living communally in a seedy old Victorian mansion.
How she’d relish the stories she first heard there of the migration of pogrom-scarred Jews to their ancestral homeland. Stories of barefoot people channeling streams of water from the Kinneret to the vegetable fields, of the founding of a score of settlements in the Negev in a single Yom Kippur day, of the reestablishment of the ethics of equality and fraternity on the very soil which had given it root. And soaring over, and above all, was the fervent hope that the renaissance of this blighted piece of real estate was the first step on its way to becoming one day a Light Unto the Nations.
If only the duration would be over already, she would moan, the duration being World War II, and they’d all finally be able to immigrate to Palestine. Jews were on the run everywhere, despised and unwanted––who knew or wanted to know what was happening to them and what was in store for them? Not that she hadn’t already personally experienced what it meant to be Jewish, albeit trivial by comparison to what was going on elsewhere––genteel, as compared with lethal, antisemitism. At the start of every school year, sure as clockwork, after she was absent for the High Holidays, suddenly she––an honour student––could do no right for teachers for whom previously she could do no wrong. Palestine, at least, was one place on earth to which Jews could feel they had a right to belong and to hell with the British and their infamous White Paper restricting Jewish immigration at the very time they needed it most.
It was a take-up-arms-against-a-sea-of-troubles time, if there ever was one, as one of the Emunah speakers put it. Do-it-yourself justice was the only way.
This sudden obsession of hers didn’t sit well with her parents––the Ostrovicher Rebbe and Rebetzin––despite their own grudging admiration for these would-be pioneers, grudging because in their view the land of Israel could only be reclaimed under the aegis of the coming Messiah. When they’d point this out to her, she’d argue one day, “I can’t wait that long,” and “Hashem helps those who help themselves,” the next. They’d yell and shake their heads at such blasphemy, and predict she’d soon tire of this latest foolishness as she had with similar onslaughts so many times before.
            But foolishness it wasn’t, and she knew it from the start, much as she regretted the pain it inflicted and would continue to inflict on her parents. She’d seen through their ill-camouflaged fragility long enough to handle them with care––great care––with tragedy prevention her main goal. But what was she to do? An only child, much of their hopes and dreams centered on her. First of all was the brilliant match on which they’d set their hearts for her with Avraham, the scion of the Melcher, a similarly renowned Rebbe.
What did it matter that, unbeknownst to them, her own heart was set on David––the only child of a tailor who was one of her father’s Hasidim––who also made the almost daily pilgrimage to Emunah to soak up some of its transplanted Gileadian balm.
And it had been set on him ever since that day, way back in the fifth grade, during a ruler fight. Typical of her confounded luck, her teacher, Mr. Tomaino, one of the turncoats who had it in for her ever since the Jewish holidays, walked into the classroom just in time for the ruler she’d flipped to hit his shoulder. “Who did this?” he snarled, flexing the nostrils in his aquiline nose as he bent to retrieve it. Her gut tightened and she squared her jaw as he studied each one of them from left to right and back again.
“I could, of course, check whose ruler is missing. But I’ve a better idea.” Cradling the ruler between his two palms menacingly, he announced: “Everybody will be kept after school until the one responsible for this outrage confesses.”
In the sudden silence, her heart pounded so hard she was certain he could hear it. As she braced herself to stand up, David, who sat in the row in front of her, beat her to it, standing broadly to block her from view and forestall her response. “I did it,” he said, “I’m responsible.”
And he never recanted, not even when Mr. Tomaino pulled him by an ear to the front of the classroom, made him place his hands on his desk, and then banged down on his knuckles so hard that the ruler broke.
Was it any wonder that, teary-eyed, she fell in love with him on the spot for life?
 
Of none of this, of course, did her parents have a clue. They lived in their world, she in hers. In her world she was called Rose––in school and on the playground where she was the sought-after captain of a girls’ softball team; in her parents’ world she was Raizele, and after secular school dutifully, if reluctantly, went to Hebrew school for another two endless hours. Nor was she ever immune to the jibes and catcalls that would follow her bearded father when he walked down the street beside her in his Orthodox regalia (black hat, Prince Albert coat, curly sideburns, the works). If he was aware of them, or of the noxious mixture of rage, humiliation, and helplessness they evoked in her, he never let on, just kept going.
Her parents had a kind of childish trustfulness which they never outgrew, and she neither could nor wanted to change this. Already they had begun to look to her for guidance in practical matters––a preternatural role reversal––for she could speak English and they couldn’t. How could she deprive them of their illusions? How could she not look out for them? She might as well strip them of their overcoats in a Toronto blizzard. Because of her surprising—and late blooming––penchant for learning Torah (which assuaged her father’s disappointment at not producing a son who would one day inherit his dynastic mantle), nothing less was expected of her than to be a Judith or a Deborah, saviors of their people, or perhaps even a Bruriah, who was said to have learned three hundred Jewish laws in one day. As her father always said: Why, Raizele, not? You’re an Ostrovicher, aren’t you? That this penchant was more on literary and academic rather than theological grounds (not to mention Raizele’sdesire to hone her Hebrew-speaking skills), he never guessed.
In any case, her penchant now lay elsewhere. When her parents realized they couldn’t dismiss her interest in Emunah as nonsense that easily, they began to refer to it as a fever, one that would soon subside. They took the same tack when they finally intuited her feelings about David.
But she knew it wasn’t a fever, or, if it were, it was one no inoculation could have prevented nor any medicine quell. Not after she and David began to spend the long Sabbath afternoons at Emunah sitting next to each other on the beat-up old chesterfield, the pressure of his thigh against hers, listening to different speakers give lectures about every aspect of kibbutz life: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
“Your ability,” David whispered, “my need.”
“The opposite is true,” she whispered back.
And her need, please Hashem, was simply this: that she and he each be one of their number, that they be free to go out in the fields at dawn, work in the kitchen, work in the schoolroom, be part of the clean-up detail, be part of the security detail, live every aspect at once and forever. No longer was she Rose, no longer was she Raizele; now her name was translated to the Hebrew version: Shoshana.
Oh the sense of endless time they had then, time to fritter away, time to burn, time for the war to end, time for David and her to make a life of their own choosing, time to reconcile their parents to their choice, time to finally put the promise of endless possibilities into action. For three years she hugged these thoughts to herself like a precious cashmere sweater which was soft to the touch and gave warmth to the soul. The speakers would sometimes chide them for being too unrealistic and told harrowing stories of droughts and crop failures: Palestine, they’d insist, was no picnic.
She and David, all youthful hubris and indignation, said nuts to such warnings. Said David: “We know it’s no picnic, even a picnic’s no picnic. ” Said she: “There’s ants, there’s mosquitoes, and at any moment there might be rain.”
They were young, they were strong, they knew better, it was springtime. Neither doomsayers nor homegrown bigots could take that away from them.
Besides which, hadn’t Theodor Herzl promised: If you will it, it is no dream?
 
In order to allow the yeast adequate time to leaven the heavy dough mixture, one mustn’t rush. Let it breathe. Be patient. Shoshana had learned that dictum early on. When she was eleven years old, after having struck out repeatedly in a softball game, she practiced hitting the ball with a bat all by herself in the privacy of her backyard until wham! she walloped the ball, connected, connected, and connected again. Ready, aim, fire. Smack, smack, smack.
Patience, she used to tell the children, reciting the old saw: Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, seldom found in woman, never found in man. How they’d laugh, pretend outrage, poke her in the shoulder. After awhile, it became a family joke and they’d recite it in unison themselves. She even heard their children, in broken English, repeat it.
An hour later, Shoshana removed the towel from the bowl. The dough had breathed all right, almost doubled in size. Now what she had to do was smack, smack, smack it down.
 
When her parents learned about David’s and her plans, the reaction was even worse than she’d foreseen. Her father’s favorite maxim, Say little and do much, which hitherto had epitomized him well, was forgotten.
“Israel can only be redeemed by the Messiah, anything else is sacrilege,” he cried, and who was she to dispute this? Without let-up, the rampage continued for days, his usually warm eyes piercing her like chips of ice. “With the Melcher’s son at least you might have children who would follow our tradition. With that empty-headed, free-thinker David, nothing––”
“He’s not empty-headed! How can you say that? And he’s not a free thinker! Just because he’s not a Talmud scholar? You hardly know him. He was always first in class, all through school. And now at the university too.” She reached for his hand but he pulled it away. “Tata, please try to understand. I love David and he loves me. Would you really want me to marry somebody else under the circumstances? It’s a new world out there. The war’s over. I know I’m right.”
“Look who knows she’s right!”He lifted his eyes heavenward as if seeking cosmic…Consensus? Verification? Intervention?  Who knew what?
“Woe is me! I smell the stench of betrayal here, and from my one and only child.” Pressing his fingers to his forehead, he cried: “A dark day! What have Mama and I done to deserve this? We haven’t suffered enough already? How much is enough? How can you be so wrong? That’s what comes from your new world. Gottenyu, why am I so accursed?”
Never before had this usually soft-spoken father used such language with her. Bursting into tears, she ran out of the room.
No comfort from her mother, either. On her ashen face was the same look she had when she’d finally learned for certain the fate of her family, after they were rounded up in their shulin Komarne on Yom Kippur and sent to Auschwitz. Little need for her to spell out her pain. Her only child was abandoning her as she had once abandoned her mother. And look what had happened to her.
Eventually they accepted the inevitable. What other choices did they have? Shoshana and David were going to join Kibbutz Hayigalin the upper Galilee,which the pioneers from Emunah had helped to establish, and nothing was going to change that. The fact that it was an Orthodox kibbutz did little to lessen the heartbreak.
Small wonder, Shoshana thought, as she gave the dough yet another vigorous swat, that after these momentous capitulations, they accepted her rebellion against wearing a wig after marriage with hardly a squawk. Her declaration of independence, her mother called it disdainfully, but knowing how she suffered from headaches through the years from wearing her sheitl, Shoshana suspected that in her heart of hearts she may have envied, if not admired, her. She was just trying to lend support to her husband who sat resignedly at the kitchen table, shaking his head sadly as if he couldn’t process yet another blow.
Not that her stance on this matter could have been unexpected. Years before she’d already figured out that the custom had no religious significance. “Jewish purdah,” she’d called it (another term she’d picked up from a speaker at Emunah), and her father became quiet, very quiet. How could he argue with his intractable daughter? All he finally said was,
“Continuity matters. Some things you take on faith. You’ll feel differently about it when you’re older.” To offer any specious justifications now would be futile and he knew it.
The saving grace for David was the fact that his father was a loyal Ostrovicher Hasid. After a brief formal engagement, Shoshana and David were married al fresco in traditional Ostrovicher style in the courtyard of the synagogue so Hashem could shed unobstructed blessings on them from above. At the close of the sheva brokhes parties a week later, the mood turned somber. To survive the parting at the train station, the two sets of parents had convinced themselves that this move was temporary, and their only children would return after they “came to their senses.” But her mother had her doubts. “Oh my child, my baby,she kept repeating, half choking on sobs, “who knows if I’ll ever see you again?” She held her so tight her father had to intervene so Shoshana wouldn’t miss her train.
A day later, after the overnight train trip from Toronto, they embarked on the S. S. Groote Beer in New York harbor. Sounding two farewell blasts, the ship gracefully steamed past the Statue of Liberty, gulls soaring overhead. Arms intertwined, Shoshana and David huddled together at the rail. So much sea and sky, so many goose bumps . . .
Slowly the new world receded and they were well on their way to the old.
The very, very old.
But to what was now, in the middle years of the twentieth century, the newly reestablished State of Israel.
 
Two hours later, after the second rising, Shoshana upended the mixing bowl, placed the mound again on the slab of floured marble, divided it into two portions, wrapped them each in plastic, and placed them into the refrigerator to firm up.
 
She and David had had to firm up too, adopting the ubiquitous “Y’hiyeh tov (“Everything will be okay”) or Ein Breira (“No alternative”) that were the Israeli responses to just about everything.
As they’d been forewarned, this having to learn farming from scratch while battling sand fly fever more often than not was no picnic. She could still feel blisters in her hands and dirt under her fingernails, remembering the long days in the sun pulling out rocks and planting cucumbers and eggplants, with armed kibbutzniks on constant patrol because of the frequent attacks by local Arabs. Meals ensued consisting of twenty-eight different ways to cook eggplant along with twenty-eight different ways to pickle cucumbers. And then came dessert, the feasting on the t'marim that flourished everywhere because of an earlier pioneer’s foresight in hauling ten date palms from Turkey and painstakingly planting the saplings in the fertile soil.
David was a tractor driver for several years; then became general secretary of the kibbutz, one of whose jobs was to inform kibbutz parents of the death of a child in wartime. As he personally was to learn himself much later, Y’hyeh tov didn’t work then. Neither did Ain Braira.
What could?
After their own children started coming, six in all during the first twelve years, Shoshana’s cooking skills were put to use and she worked mostly in the kitchen. The children! How to begin to encompass six different macrocosms? Six different galaxies? First there was Shlomo, the walking encyclopedia, whose studiousness was reminiscent of that of her father. Then came the twins Rena and Tovah, identical in looks but opposites in just about everything else (but heaven help anybody who came between them). Barely a year later came her otherworldly Ari, who wrote a prize-winning poem at twelve titled “Why Do They Hate Us So,” the last two lines of which, seared in her memory, were Live and let live! / Why not? Two years later came Yitzhak, now a big-shot general in the army, putting to great use the strategic skills he honed as the kibbutz chess whiz. And lastly came Ruthie, the caboose––around whose big brown eyes and toothy smile laughter and cheer were in the very air. The fact that she came five years after Shoshana had been told she’d never conceive again made her all the more miraculous.
Although she and David sometimes disagreed with the child-rearing methods of the collective (they fought and succeeded in establishing more private time with the children), they were nonetheless grateful. Bringing up six children on their own would have been much more difficult.
Did they ever regret the decision reached on that far-off chesterfield at Kibbutz Emunahin Toronto so many years before?
How could they?
Any hardship was mitigated by the ruach nefesh––the tranquility of the soul––that came with just being there, not only residing in, but helping to build up, their promised and longed-for land.
Besides, all work and no play, kibbutz life wasn’t. Every Friday came the peace that accompanied the arrival of the Sabbath Queen and the traditional Sabbath feast, consisting of whatever vegetables were harvested that week. Where on earth could a day of rest be more welcome? Saturday nights brought havdalah ceremonies with music and dance to escort the departing Sabbath Queen in style. Shoshana played on a piano that her father’s congregation donated to the kibbutz, David on his violin, Batsheva on the flute, Azaria on the clarinet, and the children took turns on different instruments: bongo drums, castanets, recorders, handmade maracas, and egg shakers.
At one such festivity––the memory of which she particularly cherished––after a visiting ensemble played Schubert’s Trout Quintet, David began to hum the “Forelle” song in the fourth movement, others followed, and before long they’d made a four-part round of it, the whole chevreh joining in. Then they pushed the chairs to the side, David took her hand, and with the children forming the inner circles, began to dance the hora late into the night––artza alinu, artza alinu, artza ali-i-nu
Nobody had the heart to remind them that they’d all have to be up before dawn to pick the tons of tomatoes that had suddenly ripened that day.
 
Her mother’s worry that she wouldn’t ever see Shoshana again proved to be unfounded. She came and stayed on the kibbutz to help her whenever she gave birth. But that didn’t stop her from repeating the same plaints of “I’ll never see you again” each time they parted.
Shoshana took one of the plastic-wrapped mounds of dough from the refrigerator, and said a blessing over it.After dividing it into six balls, she elongated them to make six ropes, thick on one end and thin on the other.
Time was when she’d have sixty mounds to deal with, enough challahs for the whole kibbutz. But she’d learned the process well, standing across the table from her mother, watching as she’d start pinching the tops of the coils together and moving the right strand over two others and vice versa.
“I love making round challahs,” Mama said, as she wound them carefully. “Only for Rosh Hashanah––the roundness a symbol of hope for a peaceful new year. A sweet and round year, please Hashem, let it be.”
She’d try to do likewise but, all thumbs, never could get the coils to lie as smoothly as her mother could. “You’re doing fine, my child,” Mama would say, “just tuck the thin sides under the thick ones and give them a good pinch to seal them.”
Before long she learned to give good pinches.
 
For fifteen years they stayed on the kibbutz. They would have stayed there forever, but when their youngest was three, Shoshana’s father, finally accepting that they would never return to Toronto, decided (to her mother’s delight and, no doubt, unceasing nagging) to move to Israel too. A precondition was co-opting David to help with the practicalities of this venture. Already a sizable number of Ostrovicher Hasidim were living in Jerusalem and for years had entreated their Rebbe to join them. Although he never altered his belief that Israel could only be legitimate when redeemed by the Messiah, he once did concede to her wryly, “It doesn’t hurt to be closer at hand when the time comes.”
When he announced his intention, several of his Hasidim in Toronto, among them David’s parents, followed suit, making his arrival with his large entourage at Lod Airport a glorious occasion. “If you only knew how I dreamed he would come one day,” old Mr. Kupsov, who was one of the first Ostrovicher Hasidim to make aliyah, said. As her father alit from the plane bedecked in his prayer shawl, Mr. Kupsov took out a shofar which had been concealed under his jacket, lifted it to his lips, and blew three short notes followed by a long note—the tekiah gedolah––to greet him.
David’s many years of administrative duties as general secretary in the kibbutz were soon transposed to those of synagogue sexton.Thus, from the old warehouse they bought in Ein Kerem, was the Ostrovicher beys medresh in Jerusalem born. At her father’s behest, and with David overseeing the multitudinous details, the interior became a fair re-creation of the synagogue in Toronto, complete with a center bimah, a balcony for the women, and the enchanting wall frescoes over the Torah ark exhorting onlookers to be swift as a deer and strong as a lion.
“You can’t improve on it,” the Rebbe said hoarsely when it was completed, “why try?” In the basement they replicated the kitchen and mikveh, but David, being prescient, insisted they double the size of the social hall, accurately foreseeing future needs.
For Shoshana and David, their many years of yearning to raise their children on their own now came to pass. “Be careful what you wish for,” they sometimes joked ruefully, as the burden of raising, feeding, parenting, and schooling six rambunctious children––ranging in ages from three to fourteen––in a three-bedroom apartment filled to the brim, suddenly fell on their shoulders. For real, as their first-born, Shlomo, would put it. The years of kibbutz discipline served them well––bathroom times were scheduled, as were household chores.
It helped that they lived in the same apartment building as the two sets of parents—providing them with built-in babysitters––and the new synagogue was only a block away.
 
Those early years in Israel, Shoshana thought, as she took the remaining mound of dough from the refrigerator, somehow seemed longer then.
Everything speeded up in the intervening forty-six years since her parents’ aliyah, each year shorter than the preceding one. All of a sudden it was the nineties. All of a sudden a new millennium. All of a sudden the aughts. “I don’t reckon in years anymore,” David recently said to a friend, “not even decades. It’s by half-centuries now.”
Memories careened toward her: the growing up of the children, the illnesses, the graduations, the marriages (some of the matches heaven-sent, some less so), the all-consuming dread as each child went off for their army stint, the death of her second-born son Ari on the last day of the Yom Kippur War, his burial on Mt. Herzl, the ambushes of grief when least expected, the concealment of said grief, lest it contaminate the others, the continuing nightmares when she would scream, “Watch out, watch out,” trying to pull Ari back from the mine, always trying to pull Ari back from the mine.
“Don’t go there,” David would whisper, grabbing her wrists as if to infuse her with his strength. “Where is safe anymore?”
And then came the death of her mother in 1984.
But she wouldn’t go there either.
A year later it was her father’s turn, but not before he designated Shlomo as the new Rebbe, the Ostrovicher mantle skipping a generation but now firmly resting on the shoulders of her oldest son. Just before breathing his last, he took her hand and, without opening his eyes, said,
“Right you weren’t, Shoshana. But wrong you weren’t either.”
Shoshana sprinkled some flour on her hands so they wouldn’t stick to the dough as she began to repeat the coiling process for the second challah.
After the children began marrying, for awhile David would get fifteen pounds of beef and each Friday would make enough cholent for the whole family for the Sabbath in three humungous pots. “It’s how I get rid of all my frustrations,” he’d say as he chopped all the vegetables by hand in pre-food-processor days. But even that he had to give up when the grandchildren began marrying and the great-grandchildren began to arrive. A whole ball team, he’d quip. And how about the softball team? she’d quipped back. Then two ball teams, then a whole major league.
Being superstitious, they’d stopped counting.
            Taking two lightly oiled cookie sheets, Shoshana placed the challahs on them and brushed the tops with egg wash. “There,” she said out loud, taking a handful of poppy seeds to sprinkle on top. When the doorbell suddenly rang, she was so startled the seeds fell from her hand.
Hastily she sponged them up and dried her hands. With the kitchen in its usual pre-holiday balagan, all she needed now was visitors. When she opened the door, nobody was there, but a large manila envelope lay at her feet. She looked left and right down the hallway, but not a soul was in sight. Picking up the envelope, she tore open the flap.
Inside a note was attached to a loose leaf notebook.
            Dearest Savta,
            It’s now or never. Happy New Year!
Seriously,
Rachel
On the first page of the notebook, SHOSHANA was printed in large type. Underneath, in slightly smaller type: THE EARLY YEARS: 1930 TO 1949.
Shoshana took off her glasses, wiped them on her apron and put them back on.
Foolishness, just plain foolishness.
What could she possibly write about?
A life, a life she had lived. Didn’t everybody? Biblical exhortations to be fruitful and multiply she and David took very seriously. Didn’t everybody? What could be more precious than the ability to give life? They’d been lucky, that was all.
Except, of course, when they weren’t.
After she checked the temperature in the oven and set the timer, she placed the laden sheets side by side on the top rack.
When she went to retrieve the notebook in the foyer, the flecked mirror above the console framed a face with haunted eyes and whitened skin. Ever since she’d had cataracts removed from her eyes, she could see much more clearly. The upside: reds were redder and blues were bluer; the downside: whole networks of hitherto unseen wrinkles were now visible before her in the mirror. Well, I’ve earned them. It was a saying she often repeated now.
Some hair had fallen loose from her headscarf and she tucked them back into place. Although her daughters didn’t wear wigs after their marriages, most of her granddaughters did. They insisted it was a measure of their love for their spouses. She shook her head and shrugged. Go figure. How could she argue against that?
Okay Tata, have the last laugh. You’ve earned it, too.
 
Forty-five minutes later, the recurring miracle: two luscious golden round challahs emerged from the oven between Shoshana’s oven mitts.
To accommodate the whole family, their holiday dinner that night would be in the synagogue’s social hall. Every family would be bringing their own challahs. Even as her mother had taught her, she’d taught her children and they’d taught their children: the history of balabatishkeit in a nutshell. Not that any of them made challahs anymore, what with their availability in every bakery and market in the land. But for her it wouldn’t be Yom Tov without personally performing this ritual.
After placing the loaves on a cooling rack, she bent over them to breathe in their honey scent deeply. Challas, it is said, represent the manna that fell from heaven when the Israelites roamed the desert for forty years searching for Israel.
A sweet and round year, please Hashem, let it be.
Shoshana felt a sharp pain in her arthritic hip, straightened up, and put her hands on her back for support. In the shower she let the hot water pour over her, removing the kinks, and washing her hair. In her mind’s eye, as she toweled herself and put on her holiday white caftan, THE EARLY YEARS, 1930 to 1949, in Rachel’s meticulous print, kept revolving.
A new year was soon to start . . . days of awe . . . the whole rigmarole of existence poised once again for another turn around the track.
Adjusting her glasses, she went to her desk, picked up the notebook. Where to begin? She picked up her pen and wrote:
Kibbutz Hayigal was one of the fifty kibbutzim established in the banner year of 1949 following the re-establishment of the State of Israel.
 
 
 
Copyright© Marianne Langner Zeitlin 2011
 
 
Marianne Langner Zeitlin is the author of two novels, Mira’s Passage (Dell), and Next of Kin (Zephyr Press), which won a City of Toronto Book Award, as well as numerous short stories, essays, articles and dramatic works. Recent stories have appeared in Passager, Aethlon, and Scribblers on the Roof. Her novel, Motherless Child will be published in April 2012 by Zephyr Press. Through her long professional career, she has worked as a journalist, book critic, public relations director, and manager of an orchestra. She lives in Rochester, New York.


 

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