Mrs. Rothschild's Love
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Sara Aharoni
Translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan
Frankfurt am main, 1770
I stood at the open window like I do every day, my eyes seeking hesitantly, wishing to capture the image of Meir Amschel Rothschild emerging from the dusk. Ever since my father’s second refusal of the match, he has not turned up on our street. Eight long weeks have gone by since the day he appeared again in our home, standing tall, and requesting to speak to Father. He giggled with (enchanting!) apology for assuming the role of both matchmaker and match, said that his late mother and father would have certainly been happy with his choice, and announced that he loved Gutaleh (me!) and promised that she (I!) would want for nothing in his home. But Father ran his eyes over Meir’s faded coat, hesitated for a moment, and to my great sorrow turned him down again, and Meir Amschel Rothschild left our home, never to return.
I almost went to the neighbors, to see if they knew anything. Perhaps he’d decided to return to the yeshiva? Or maybe he’d been called back to work at Oppenheimer’s bank, far away in Hanover? And if one of these were true, when was he planning to return? But I was concerned that my interest would disclose my emotions, and so I locked and bolted shut the doors of my mouth.
Instead, I wandered the street, seeking my beloved.
One day, my feet carried me toward the northern gate, the Bockenheimer Gate, one of the three gates of the ghetto. His house was near the gate, at the back end of the street. My shoes wallowed in the muddy road, where the paving stops and the ground grows sticky the closer one gets to the Hinterpfann1. I stood by his mossy apartment and yard overflowing with garbage, filled with alert expectation. At the front of rear-house number 188, proudly ignoring the sight of the filth on the floor, was a new, round, colorful sign with glowing gold letters:
M.A. Rothschild—Authorized Vendor of the Court of the Venerable Landgrave2 William of Hanau-Hesse
The symbols of the Hanau and Hesse princedoms were painted on both sides of the sign.
A warm wave washed over my abdomen. Meir Rothschild, one of us, was authorized as the court vendor of the crown prince, William. Just like my father, but Meir Amschel Rothschild was a young man, twenty-six years old at most, and already a court vendor. Hanau was small, but Cassel was the capital of the larger princedom, Hesse.
Well then, Meir Amschel had not returned to the yeshiva.
I walked closer to the ground floor lobby, which housed his and his brothers Moshe and Kalman’s dark contor3. Used objects and a few wooden boxes were scattered on shelves and along the walls. Moshe, Meir’s younger brother, and Kalman, the youngest, disabled brother, were both leaned over their goods, serving customers. Moshe noticed me and raised his eyebrows with a question. I cleared my throat and pointed to an embroidered handkerchief that peeked out of a wooden box. He yanked it out and muttered, “Two florins.” I picked up the handkerchief with the small hole with one hand, and with the other fished two florins from the pocket of my dress, buried them in his outstretched hand, and hurried home, breathless, another fruitless tour under my belt.
Perhaps he’d found a partiya4 outside of the Judengasse? Perhaps in Hanover? People must appreciate his abilities there. I felt lost. How ridiculous of me to expect him to appear as usual at my window and look at me, removing his hat and bowing toward me as if nothing had ever happened.
I imagined that now that he’d installed that sign on the front of his home with the nobility symbols on it, he wouldn’t be back to ask for my hand again. Oh, God, what would I do if his heart now belonged to another, while mine was captivated by his charm?
Tears rose in my eyes, blurring the approaching image. I stared at the fan moving from side to side, and lingered on waves of self-pity. I was so miserable. What had I done to deserve this? What sin was I being punished for? I yearned for him. All I wanted was to see him, following his silent words. And he wants my presence, too. Or wanted, to be exact. I was tortured by the thought of him no longer yearning for me.
I ran my finger pads over my eyes, wiping away the dampness. I glanced distractedly at the fan, and was shocked to find that it was not a fan at all, but rather Meir Rothschild’s hat, waving in his hand. My eyes were fixed on his hat with unbidden surprise, and now that he’d noticed that I had awoken from my reveries, he bowed at me, his lips opening into a smile, his short black beard also taking part in the movement. I looked down awkwardly at my fingernails, which I now noticed had to be cleaned from a layer of spices that had made its temporary home underneath them. Inside I was jumping for joy, but my face was restrained to the point of bursting. After a few moments I found the courage to let go of my fingernails and slowly raise my head to face him.
But the street was empty.
He had vanished. A true conundrum. Had he really been there, or was it a vision of my raging imagination? I could swear it happened. I leaned my torso out the window in an attempt to follow his shrinking figure, but could see him nowhere. I stifled a shout. What a fool I was. How did I let this chance pass me by? Days upon days I stood at this window, waiting for the twinkle of his eyes, his friendly smile, and now that he was finally there, I had evaded his face and stared instead at my fingernails. Why had I clung to my damn nails so long as to make me lose my beloved?
I paced the small room, tormented by the thought that I’d missed my last chance. I must pray.
From the corner of my eye I saw my younger siblings following my route around the room. I’d been blessed with five goschwister: three sisters—fifteen-year-old Bella who was probably out with her friends, eleven-year-old Braineleh, and four-year-old Vendeleh; and two brothers—Meir Wolf, who had recently had his bar mitzvah, and six-year-old Amschel Wolf. I turned away from them, and they quickly returned to their usual endeavors, always able to make a varied ruckus: playing catch, fighting over sticks wrapped in fabric—each sister claiming exclusive ownership of the “doll”—Amschel Wolf riding Meir Wolf like a horse while waving his hands and bellowing with laughter. I drowned in my misery, allowing my feet to lead me from one wall to the next in our small room.
When I noticed Vendeleh carefully following my footsteps, I began to hear new sounds coming from our home, different than the normal noise. I immediately put an end to my pointless pacing. “Hush,” I told my siblings. They stopped their rumbling, obediently falling silent, and curiously following my instructions. Even little Vendeleh played along. I put a finger to my lips and they nodded in agreement. I approached the door quietly and opened it a crack. I listened in, never removing the warning finger from my lips.
I wasn’t dreaming. He was here. It was him. He hadn’t given up on me. He hadn’t chosen another. Father, do not turn him down. Please, kind Father, please.
Vendeleh sensed my special alertness, clung to me, and searched for my hand. I took her little, searching hand, and closed my eyes in prayer. When I opened them, I saw that Vendeleh, Meir, and Braineleh had also closed theirs. Only rambunctious little Amschel peeked intermittently around him.
“Gutaleh!” I heard Father calling me.
I jumped in place, plugging my mouth to hold in a squeal. My siblings opened their eyes all at once, gaping their mouths, turning their questioning eyes on me. Even they knew something meaningful was about to happen.
I turned to them, put my finger to my lips again, smoothed my dress, and ran a hand through my hair. I closed the door quietly behind me, and walked to the next room on tiptoes, my hands in fists.
Mama and Papa were seated in their chairs. Before them stood Meir Rothschild—tall, his narrow shoulders leaning toward them, his right hand holding his hat, and his left hand placed with (captivating) looseness on his waist. He turned toward me, his eyes meeting mine, his mouth curling in a restrained, victorious smile. I couldn’t resist his firm features. He shot me an amused, blue look, and smoothed his beard, and I wanted to get to the nearest wall and lean against it so I could stop the trembling of my knees.
We strolled down our alley for hours. The stench of filth had vanished, or perhaps merely chosen to avoid my nose. Even the sticky slime on the sides of the road was invisible to me. The constant dimness of the walled Judengasse made room for a glowing light, the light of his eyes, which illuminated my heart. Just Meir Rothschild and I, hovering above ground, passing by people, seeing their lips spreading in a smile toward us as they cleared a path, looking up at us. His hands were crossed behind his back, and mine swung alongside my body with the pace of our footsteps. Since noon our feet had tread the alley from south to north and from north to south, back and forth, and even twilight did not signal the end of our wandering.
I’d pictured these moments for days and nights, returning to them again and again, hoping and praying for them to come true. Today they have become a reality, pleasing every fiber of my being, and I feel insatiable. The combination of the feeling in my heart and the physical sensation of my body is new and wondrous to me. Is this what they call love?
His light laughter swept me away, infecting me. “The more they multiply and spread,” he repeated for the twelfth time, looking toward the horizon.
It’s been three days since my father gave the stubborn lad his permission to take my hand in marriage. He mentioned his appreciation both for Meir’s persistence in choosing his wife, and his exceptional debut in the business world. He could have listed these two qualities in reverse order—after all, the material world is the source of our sustenance. Father kept repeating that “one cannot take lightly the noble title given to this boy by the royal court. This sheds a new light on the candidate. Even the Hinterpfann’s landlord eventually granted Meir and his brothers’ request to sell them a quarter of the house.” Father was therefore convinced to give him my hand, the hand of his eldest daughter.
Hallelujah! I’m engaged! We celebrated our betrothal last night in a small gathering at my parents’ house, and today we walked together, liberating the flickering of fire between us. As early as this gathering, when my father wasn’t looking, Meir was able to tickle my ears with that same passage: “The more they multiply and spread.” A few hours ago, his eyes aflame, he interpreted it for me.
“The more your father tortured me and rejected me, the more determined I became. In fact, with each rejection I increased the quota of our anticipated happiness. In my first visit with your father I was determined to marry you. After he turned me down the first time I decided I would marry you and have five children. After he turned me down a second time I decided to marry you and have ten children: five boys and five girls, in pairs, boy-girl, boy-girl. And if he’d have turned me down again, I would have doubled the number of children once more. That is why I said, ‘the more they multiply and spread.’”
How impressive. Where did he gather such courage? Or should I call it arrogance? Where did that passage come to him from? But I mustn’t ask. I must restrain myself. It is enough that he has chosen me of all the girls of Judengasse. I watched him silently, and from within the storm roiling inside me, tried to digest the new facts of our blessed future.
He must have read my mind, for he began to explain. “This passage has been on my mind for quite some time. Look, Gutaleh, look around you.” He took the forefinger of my right hand softly, shifted it right and left along the Judengasse, and said, “Do you see this street?”
I saw nothing; so enchanted was I by the touch of his hand.
“The street,” he tried again.
I nodded, not fully fathoming his intention.
He let go of my finger and used his hands to demonstrate. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread,” he called out, raising his hands left and right. “Everything your eyes see is torture. When the first eleven Jewish families were brought here, three hundred years ago, by the order of Frederick the Great, the torture was small. Merely a separation of the Jews—‘Enemies of the Cross and Christ,’ as they were called—and the gentiles. I assume that those 102 Jews did not rejoice, having been deprived of the right to live among others. But their troubles were not so bleak. Within their isolation they were graced with a large space, enjoyed interior freedom of movement, and were able to live according to the Torah with no interruptions. But the geography has remained the same since 1442, while we have multiplied. An area planned to contain three hundred Jews now houses three thousand, crowded inside two hundred homes. Every space is filled with walls, rooms, houses upon houses. It’s become very uncomfortable, as you can plainly see.”
Meir focused his eyes on me, then looked away to the horizon. I followed every movement and every glance. I did not want to miss a thing. I felt as if he were spreading a path for me into his world, and oh, how I longed to be a part of it. So many questions were racing to the tip of my tongue, but I had to hold back, as was expected of a decent, well brought up young woman. I joined his gaze at the horizon, attempting to assess him. He seemed pleased with the curiosity he’d awakened in me.
“You know, Gutaleh, my father, may he rest in peace, took care to remove me from within the ghetto walls and send me to continue my education at the rabbinical school in Fiurda5, near Nuremberg. That is where I gained much knowledge of the Torah and the Talmud, as well as fluency in three languages—German and Hebrew as speaking languages, and Aramaic in order to interpret scripture. He expected me to become a rabbi. When my parents died, my uncle sent me to Hanover. These two different paths opened my eyes to things I could not have seen from here. In Hanover, I spent six years specializing in commerce in the Jewish bank owned by Jacob Wolf Oppenheimer. I felt filthy rich, not necessarily with funds, but with knowledge. And so I decided to return home to my younger siblings, to the place where I grew up, and run my business in Frankfurt. But upon my return home, proudly carrying my cognitive luggage, I came across a band of hoodlums who demanded that I pay my Jewish dues: ‘Jude, mach mores!’6 they shouted. What I truly owed them, I thought, were two slaps in the face, each. But they expected a different kind of respect, and I had no choice but to step aside, take off my hat, and bow.”
He stopped short. His eyes caught mine. “I had to make this gesture, bowing and removing my hat, for scoundrels. Do you see the level of torture? And that wasn’t the end of it. After letting them have their fun, I reached the ghetto gates, the iron chains and those hateful heavy wooden doors, and had to wait like a beggar for the guards to let me into my own neighborhood. You should know that none of this happens in Hanover. This inconceivable treatment—closing ghetto gates to us merely because we are Jewish—is an exclusive trait of Frankfurt.
“But this wasn’t the end of it, either. When I finally approached my house, my neighbor called, ‘Hello, Rothschild,’ reminding me that for many years Jews had been deprived of the right to a last name. People now call me by the color of the sign outside my ancestors’ home: rotes schild, red sign. I am disenfranchised in many ways. As I was about to step into my home, I saw my brothers, Moshe and Kalman, surrounded by the crates of useless rubbish they are forced to sell for a living. Gentiles enjoy the right to sell anything and do any kind of work. But us Jews are forbidden by the guilds of working all kinds of jobs or selling anything of value. Our only option is to sell used household goods and rags or work as money changers.”
I recalled the torn handkerchief his brother, Moshe, had salvaged for me.
Meir looked around with a sigh. “We’re tossed into the filth, ordered to stay here, and are then criticized for smelling like the devil. Do you see how absurd this all is?”
He wasn’t expecting an answer, which was all good and well, seeing as how I was speechless. What could I say? We lived on the same street, but my vision was limited, while he could see for miles. I was captivated by his wisdom. I’d never considered life in the ghetto in these terms before. It was clear that his departure had allowed him a different outlook.
The light went on in his eyes once more. “That is why I’ve reached an unequivocal conclusion.” A sweet smile adorned his face, and his hand rubbed his black beard. “Come, sit here, and I’ll tell you my secret.” He quickly gathered a few logs that were strewn about, smoothed them with his large hands, brought them close together, and offered me a seat. I sat down quickly, so as not to disturb his train of thought, and fixed my eyes on him. He sat beside me, his shoulder accidentally rubbing against mine before he drew away with a casual apology and continued with determination: “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread. We shall multiply our family, as well as our wealth. Our power will be in our money. A poor man is good as dead, but money carries dignity, and I plan on earning us plenty of dignity. It is a powerful thing. We shall use it to break through the walls of the ghetto and set ourselves free. It will be our revenge, the Jewish revenge, avenging all previous generations.”
I widened my eyes at him. Before I knew it, I burst out laughing. I couldn’t stop myself. “Break through the walls? Leave the ghetto? You’re out of your mind, Meir Amschel Rothschild.” I shook my head.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ll make sure it becomes a reality. Even God didn’t create the world in one day. It takes many days to make big changes. But we are destined for respect and destined for life outside the ghetto. We will leave the ghetto. Everyone will leave the ghetto.” His decisiveness was awe-inspiring. He circled the neighborhood with a quick finger and added, “Then we’ll see who’s crazy.”
I said nothing, but my head, as if possessed, continued to shake from side to side like a pendulum, refusing to partake in the fantasy.
Meir glanced at me before looking out at the horizon again. Suddenly his speech turned slow and quiet, as if emerging from the depths of his abdomen. “Gutaleh, you saw how your father changed his attitude toward me once I came across a bit of money. That is also why the gentiles will come to respect me. Then we’ll see if they dare say ‘Jude, mach mores’ to me. You’ll see. One day we’ll leave the ghetto. It will happen. If not in our time, then in the time of our children.”
I felt the air between us filling with sweetness. I was living a fairytale.
“I know what I need more than anything is freedom. I need freedom to take initiative, to find an opportunity for competition. If I plan my steps right, a combination of hard work, industriousness, and the skills I’ve acquired will take me far. I have no doubt about it. If financial success is what determines our place within society, then we must make sure we find that place in spite of our Jewish origins.”
He took my hand and helped me up. I stood before him, following his lead. He took light hold of my waist and lifted me up, spinning me around. I laughed and he laughed, until my head rose high into the air and my eyes were on the windows. I asked him to stop, and when he let go I whispered breathlessly into his ear, “People are watching.”
He glanced up and spotted heads peeking out of windows. They saw us seeing them and retreated back inside, shutting the windows behind them. An amused smile appeared on his face, while I buried my eyes in the ground. Even though I knew it was inappropriate for a man to hold his fiancée’s hand, let alone her waist, how could I have refused his touch?
“Gutaleh,” he whispered back, his breath tickling my ear, “when we leave the ghetto, we’ll be able to stroll together wherever we like without anyone watching. Now let me take you home before your father collapses with worry and regrets ever agreeing to give me your hand in marriage.”
I lay still across my bed, my eyes closed and my heart awake, its beating quickening. The rustle of my siblings’ breathing drowned in the racket in my head. My mind was so crowded. Soon, I would marry my beloved. I could still feel his hands fluttering over my hips; the tickle of his breath on my ear. The warm, pure physical proximity making my insides churn. I couldn’t catch my racing breath. An inflaming sensation of commencement surrounded me, dropping me into the burning heart of love and desire. I became acquainted with the femininity flowing through me. I yearned for his piercing eyes; coveted the touch of his hand, the flutter of his lips. Longing for his voice.
He isn’t like the other young men in the neighborhood. Something about him is different, superior. I try to comprehend what makes him so special. It must be a combination of things. A quality mixture that had imbued a single person, Meir Amschel Rothschild. First, his striking looks: his strong, tall body, his sparkling eyes, his bright face. Next, his familiarity with the great big world, and the way he ties what he’d learned in Torah and business with his firm opinions. And the dreams he weaves, the confidence he projects, the determination, the enthusiasm, the energy. And then, along with these—the tenderness and warmth, the deep blue eyes, the tickling whispers—all these enchant me. We only recently said goodbye, and already I cannot wait to see him again.
I can feel how, in our evolving relationship, he removes his shields, revealing what’s hidden beneath, and the thought is so flattering. I try to understand him. His world. His life. His thoughts.
I think the principle he’s adopted, “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread,” was inspired by losing his parents at a young age. This adversity did not merely fail to defeat him. Rather, it strengthened him, preparing him for a life of independence. A thought distilled in my mind: I am diving into my new life with the sober knowledge that a life lived with him would not be ordinary. Meir Amschel Rothschild is a riddle that will become resolved one step at a time, and I am ready for an extraordinarily adventurous future. I turn my gaze inward and see how narrow my world is compared to his, as narrow as our alley, the Judengasse. And I am certain that, thanks to him, I’ll be learning plenty about life outside the ghetto walls.
As a child, Mama used to tell me fairytales, and I liked to imagine they all took place outside the walls. When Father told me stories from the Torah, they occurred to people whose stories had gone across the walls, to great, faraway places. Now I am raring to go out into my new life.
Ten children, he told me. I put a hand on my heart and the other on my flat stomach. We would have ten children. That’s what he said, with confidence, with determination, without a blink, as if all he had to do was speak, and it would come true. And I believe that is indeed the case. I am the only partner to his plans. I am an inseparable part of the future he’s planning for us. There’s no doubt that Meir Amschel Rothschild will be a great man. And I will be the wife of a great man. His wondrous strength and power will radiate onto our children.
Papa, thank you for giving your permission before it was too late.
I let out a yawn. For the past few hours I had not let go of the memory of his hands on my hips, of thoughts of him. Dawn was threatening to rise and there was much to do. I gave myself over to the webs of sleep and curled within them. A moment before the final surrender Meir’s caressing smile appeared again, and the touch of his hands was burned into my dream.
1 The rear frying pan. After the first homes—the front homes—were built, additional ones were needed. Due to a shortage of space, these homes were built in the backyards of the front buildings, and were called “the rear frying pan”.
4 A match
6 Jew, show some respect!
6 Jew, show some respect!