Yom Kippur Kielbasa
By Victor Uszerowicz
I always believed there was a god. Who but a god could decree that Zisha the Powerful, the circus strongman from my town of Lakhva, who could bend rails with his fingers and snap chains with a chomp of his teeth, should die inside a barn on a bed of straw from the bite of a muskrat? Who but a god could cause a man to pass away while waiting for his supper, only to be called back from death by his wife, who screamed his name and slapped his face until he opened his eyes, and said he was famished, and she served him his meal? Who could avert his face from millions while allowing millions more to survive but a god?
I thank God that I remember my Yiddish, for in English this would be difficult for me to express. Even behind the electric wire, in sleeping quarters that fostered only nightmares, I believed. I believed enough to pray at the latrine on the longest, coldest night of my life. I prayed that if I lived to see life, real life, again, I would tell everyone that even at that dark, frigid hour I had believed.
So you see I believe, then as now, with a grocery store, a fifth floor apartment, a wife and a son. My son would laugh if I tried to say all this in English. At least he would laugh; as a child he was ashamed of how I spoke. But two words he said I pronounced perfectly – I believe. And I had struck an agreement at that dark hour that I was obligated to live up to, an agreement to show that I believe.
I do not don special garments or have my wife keep kosher. There are other ways to demonstrate belief. I extend credit to customers until their welfare checks arrive. I keep a skullcap tucked above the sun visor and pray in the car before I drive to work. You must be thinking: he prays in a car and not in a temple? I answer you this way: if a concentration camp could be my home for four years, then a car could be my place of worship.
I keep my store open seven days a week. You would not be prying to ask: on Rosh Hashanah too? Yes, but I believe I am forgiven. After all, the store is located in Brownsville. Some call the neighborhood a ghetto. So for whom am I closing? Besides, my customers need me. Do you think Royal Farms or Pathmark would extend credit to them? But Yom Kippur is a different story. On Yom Kippur I stay closed. I never unlock the store on that day.
So, you want to know why.
In the spring after we first moved from a cramped bungalow in Sheepshead Bay to our apartment in Brighton Beach, I developed an infection of the ear. The symptoms were painful, of course, accompanied by a ringing that at times would change into what sounded like sorrowful voices. These voices chased me to a family doctor.
This doctor, short in stature with a pinched face, used part of his single family home as an office. He sat me on a gurney and peered into my head. He tsked repeatedly and remarked that I must be strong to be walking around with an ear like that.
“Not strong like Zisha.”
The little American doctor patted my shoulder and administered a dose of penicillin. He opened a glass cabinet and gave me a vial of the pink pills.
Overnight a rash erupted across my body, and by morning my skin burned like the devil in his basement of hell burns sinners.
“It must run its course,” he said in his perfect English concerning what he claimed was an allergic reaction to the medication, when I and my wife this time rushed back to his house on 2nd Street. Baths and balms offered marginal relief. At night, when the itch seemed to worsen, my wife had to more than once hold me back from leaping out of the window, which seemed at the time the most effective remedy.
The doctor, however, had been correct; by summer the skin condition passed. I was left with brown spots on my skin, like decals Americans stick on their vehicles of the places they have visited. Despite that I thanked God profusely. Yom Kippur came in the fall and like any other day I opened my store, though I had parked my automobile away from our apartment building so none of the Jewish neighbors would see me breaking Jewish law on this day of days. They had enough gossip on their dinner plates and didn’t need another ladleful of it.
Business that day at the grocery store was slow, as if my own customers were marking the holy day. That night, after dinner, sitting by the television, I felt the rash returning. My skin again turned red. The burning sensation had resumed.
I went to the same window I had wanted to plunge from. With a skullcap I had taken from a bedroom drawer and held so it wouldn’t fly off, I looked at the pale stars and asked for forgiveness. I offered to make a pact with God – help me, and I will never again conduct business on Yom Kippur. My wife screamed. She called to my son – your father is jumping! He hugged me around the ankles. I explained that I wasn’t jumping, that I was praying. Look, I showed him, can you see that star whirling? That means, little boy, my prayer has been answered.
In the morning, the rash was gone. Unbelievable? Well, yes. However, a new problem eventually would confront me: what would I do on Yom Kippur? Go to temple? With God I had already settled on that count. Fast? Believe me, I had fasted enough in my life. My stomach had been empty enough already.
I let the thought drift from my mind like a bottle that’s thrown into the ocean floats from the shore. The planet rotated and revolved and Yom Kippur a year later tapped me again on the shoulder. It would be a day off for me now, a holiday, one I thought I would make special. I had in mind to drive to Manhattan, to a Polish enclave on the Lower East Side, a place with open stores run by gentiles where a few of the other Brooklyn grocers from the homeland visited when they wanted to escape the rituals of the high holy days.
My wife complained. You should be praying today.
I pray in the car every day, I replied.
Not just pray, she countered. Repent.
Repent? There are those still alive--they should drop dead--who should be repenting. Not me.
Then go to give thanks.
I give thanks everyday, I told her. I do not need to enter a temple to give thanks.
She relented. I dressed up nicely, for it was a special day, and went to the cellar of the apartment building and out the back door. I had again, like the year before, parked a few blocks away so no one from the building would notice and clear their throats to talk.
How light the traffic is in New York on a Jewish holiday! Even the traffic lights cooperated with ballet-like synchronicity. I drove along Ocean Parkway, past beautifully dressed Jewish families walking to their temples. Black or blue were their suits and dresses, with splashes of white and green and red on the children. The entrances to the synagogues seemed to swallow them whole. As for me, I felt not a pinprick of guilt about what I was doing, for I had made an agreement. And I too was dressed well.
Across the Williamsburg Bridge my Oldsmobile rumbled. Katz’s Deli on East Houston Street was, of course, closed, as quiet as a funeral home without a service. All the other Jewish establishments I drove past were similarly silent. I parked by the row of Polish stores. There was no need to search for coins for the parking meter; the New York City Department of Transportation is very accommodating to the Jews on our holidays. Hearing the sharp, guttural sound of Yiddish wafting from one of the stores, I knew that I had found my acquaintances.
They were surprised to see me, for I had a reputation of keeping my store open on Yom Kippur. We spoke of business, who had opened a new store, who had moved to Long Island or Westchester, who had passed away. I mentioned my infection.
A table was set up for us, five Jewish shopkeepers not keeping shop, and we were brought seltzer and glasses and a loaf of bread and knives and two pieces of Polish kielbasa. We finished everything and asked for more.
“The war has been over for fifteen years,” said our Polish host. “Why are you still so hungry?”
“We’ll be famished for the rest of our lives!” I offered. “Bring more kielbasa. And bread!”
We needed more than one bottle of seltzer to help digest all the kielbasa we ate. We dusted off the table and Schmuelick took out from his sport jacket a deck of cards. We played rummy, we gambled, we lost or we won, and we felt satisfied.
It got late. A golden New York Jewish holiday sunset filled the sky. We paid our bill, left a good tip, and walked to our automobiles. As I turned the Dynamic 88 onto the F.D.R. Drive, I felt something wasn’t right. My kishkes were burning. Even worse the highway looked like it was bending where I knew it to be straight. I never felt such nausea. Taxicabs honked. They looked like beasts in the rear view mirror.
I exited at South Street and pulled alongside the East River. Dizzy and perspiring, I rolled down the front windows but received no relief. The Brooklyn Bridge seemed to sway, the Statue of Liberty ready to collapse.
The taste of kielbasa in my throat was choking me. This is it, I believed. My life taken by Polish meat. I would not again see my family. Who would open the store tomorrow?
The setting sun burned my eyes and I lowered the visor. Onto my lap plopped my skullcap. A sign. I placed it on my head and prayed for forgiveness, for a chance to rectify the wrong I had obviously committed.
Eventually the bridge ceased to sway. I observed the vessels on the river. A tugboat left behind it an expanding wake. The lady statue in the water reaffirmed its calmness and solidity. The nausea ebbed and the whirling sensation ceased, as if I had just finished a Coney Island amusement ride. I removed myself from the car, reached into the river and wet my face. Yes, I washed myself with water from the East River, and it was as refreshing as the liquid from a mountain lake.
The drive home was – how shall I describe it? How good does life feel when you’ve been called back from death? I did not tell my wife about what had happened. Why cause her to worry over something that had already passed? All I can say is that the glass of tea she prepared for me when I asked her to was clear and hot and sweet, the best I had ever consumed.
Did this incident change my life? I think you know me by now. My life is the same, but my diet has changed. Ah, of course, you must be thinking, he no longer eats kielbasa. You, my friend, are partially correct. I still do, but never, never on Yom Kippur.
Copyright © Victor Uszerowicz 2010
Victor Uszerowicz grew up in Brighton Beach, New York, where writing came as naturally as riding the roller coasters and Ferris wheels of Coney Island. Makes a living as an English professor at Miami Dade College in Miami. Working on a collection of short stories and contemporary version of Voltaire's Candide. Lives with his wife and daughter in Ft. Lauderdale.