Photo: Shlomo Narinsky, NLI
The Summer House
By Dvora Baron
Translated from Hebrew by Zeva Shapiro
Chana was ten years old when her father, the rabbi, following his doctor’s advice, moved to a summer house in the woods that belonged to Yutka, the landowner.
It was the merchant Baruch Bren, the rabbi’s admirer, who had rented the summer house from the mad squire and arranged for a wagon to take the family there. For Chana, a gate seemed to open in the horizon that enclosed the village, admitting her into a world both shaded by greenery and steeped in full sunlight.
They followed a country road. On one side was the river Ivsha, whose willowy banks provided young branches for Sukkot; on the other side, on land belonging to the Countess, windmills waved their wings like pointers until the wagon moved into a dim stretch of road, covered by a tangle of leaves astir with chirping, whistling, the motion of wings. This was the pine grove at the entrance to the woods. As the day began to decline, the rabbi and his driver alighted from the wagon, and, wrapped in the glow of sunset like a prayer shawl, they stood under a tree to pray.
The summer house, after mezuzot were affixed to its doorposts and kosher dishes brought into its kitchen, became Jewish. It even assumed an air of sanctity when, as a result of the rabbi’s efforts, a Torah scroll was brought from the adjacent village and some of the summer people formed a minyan.
Those who walked here, each one with his own malady, yet dressed in Shabbat clothes, were Jews from the neighboring villages. After a sleepless night in their rustic cabins, they found relief in pouring out their hearts to God at sunrise.
For the nights were difficult. The singing forest, seemingly gracious by day and promising a cure, darkened with the coming of night, becoming hostile and filled with stifling air so that the people, as if responding to a soothing drug that had lost its power, were once again aware of their pain, and their hearts fell.
Once, Chana heard even the rabbi, who always bore his suffering with a smile, sighing hopelessly into the darkness. At the same time, and from another corner, came a smothered sound, choked and distorted. She understood that this was her mother, swallowing her tears in secret.
Berl Zishes, who ran the dairy in the neighboring village, was among those who came to early morning prayers. He was a pathetic fellow, a ne’er-do-well whom the local people called Berke or Bertze, in a derisive tone. But when the rabbi addressed him, he always added the title Reb to his name. Whenever they crossed paths in the woods, he would anticipate his greeting and, sometimes, after the morning prayers, he would engage him in light conversation. “What’s new with you, Reb Ber?” he would ask brightly, elevating him in an instant from his humble position. The man’s back, seemingly bowed by the burden of scorn, became straight and his stance more steady, as if from added inner weight. His very height – so it appeared to Chana – was increased.
After this, with great trepidation, he would place his tallit and tefillin on the shelf (next to the rabbi’s books!) and then, contentedly, make the rounds of the summer people with his wares.
He brought in his dairy products twice a day. All other essentials were supplied by the storekeepers of Psotzena, a nearby village on the shores of the Neiman, that was sinking in the sand.
One day, when the baker’s boy was late, Chana’s mother sent her to his shop on the outskirts of the village to buy bread. She went past the bridge, all the way to the edge of the village, but she never reached the bakery because she began to sink into the sand. She saw she was close to the building, and moved toward it without advancing, as if in a nightmare. In later years, this experience was a symbol of all those goals which, however much she strived and strained to attain them, remained almost always beyond her.
On occasion, the old merchant, Baruch Bren, came to see the rabbi. He would close his warehouse in the late morning and go the depot at the outskirts of the village. If there was no carriage there, he would walk.
Every day, seeing that the rabbi’s seat in the village synagogue was empty and that someone else was dealing with community affairs in his place, his longings became more intense.
Also, while engaged in his studies, many questions arose and there was no one to resolve them. In one of his letters to the rabbi, he even alluded to this fact, in Rabbi Akiva’s words: “I have many small coins but no way to exchange them for larger ones...”
When he came to visit, Chana’s mother added noodle pudding to the afternoon meal, for she knew from his wife, Eydele, that he was fond of this dish. After the meal, the rabbi and his guest would go out to the grassy path between the trees, wandering at times as far as the hills at the boundary of the Countess’ land. Words like those that passed between them had never been heard before in that ancient forest.
The old man was burdened by weighty issues; the rabbi grasped them deftly, responding and resolving them with alacrity. His answers were succinct, sharply reasoned, revealing all that was hidden, simplifying the complex, making everything clear and transparent. The light of Torah shone there in the dimness of the path and its reflection rested on the face of the old merchant, who was divested of his worldly aspect and transformed.
King Saul, when he fell in with the band of prophets, must have been similarly inspired.
They finally reached the edge of the forest that bordered the lands of the Countess. The old man, after checking his watch, departed hastily, hoping to catch the afternoon prayers in the village. Chana had been trailing behind them, but now she could walk with her father, who was feeling light-hearted after the conversation with his good friend.
Every now and then, his eyes, accustomed to the fine print of Rashi and the other commentators, detected the berries that were hidden in deep foliage, and he helped Chana pick them.
The cloud of dignity that enveloped the rabbi when he was in public seemed to disperse itself. He became worldly, more practical and accessible. Once, when the dairy shelf in the kitchen broke, it was the rabbi who fixed it. He set a nail in the wood and pounded it with a hammer, as anyone would.
One morning, hearing his wife complain that the water barrel was empty (one of Yutka’s boys brought water from the estate every day), he told her that he knew of a spring of pure water in the hills at the edge of the forest, which he could show her. She took a container and set out with him, bewilderment adding a glow to her beauty. (The wind kept blowing the kerchief off her head, revealing an abundance of splendid hair.) Chana watched in amazement: this was the first time that she saw her father and mother, rabbi and wife, walking together.
Yutka’s estate was like a world within a world, which, because of his menacing dog, Nero, no stranger could approach. This giant dog never barked, he merely growled, his roar resounding like thunder throughout the yard, blocking every entry.
The summer people knew what went on in the estate only from tales told by Toibe, the dairyman’s daughter, who lived there and had even been inside the palace where she helped with the cleaning. It was she who first saw the push button lights, automatic musical instruments, and the countless rooms of the palace, and that, with all this, Mistress Anda would seek a deserted pantry or storeroom in which to weep after a “scene” with her mad husband.
There were two daughters. One, Yadviga, was beautiful and her father’s favorite. The other, Zusya, sickly and charmless, had her mother’s sympathy. The dresses that were made for her surpassed her sister’s both in quality and elegance. But whatever Yadviga wore seemed to suit her and was even enhanced by her beauty, whereas Zusya’s clothes looked faded and hung like sacks.
Chana once saw the older girl, Yadviga, at the edge of the woods with her father and Dr. Pavlovsky, the rabbi’s doctor. Exhausted by the heat, she was sitting beside a pine tree, leaning on its trunk. The proud squire, usually agitated and irritable, was fanning her with a fern. His manner was restrained, devoted, totally paternal. The doctor, who, by Toibe’s account, was “crazy about the girl” paced back and forth anxiously. It was his turn to be agitated and irritable; he was, obviously, not in his right mind.
One evening, during a family celebration, Chana had the chance to look through the window and observe both girls. They sat together amiably in the blinding light, dressed in equally elegant clothes on this occasion. But it was Yadviga, the older sister, who was invited to dance, again and again.
Before she had time to recover from one whirl, she had another invitation. The young men were tremulous, submissive, imploring, as if their souls were invested in the request for a dance. In the entire crowd, Chana may have been the only one who sensed how crushing this was to the younger sister, how they wounded her with their smiles. And yet, to her surprise, no one protested.
She was not yet aware that people’s hearts are hardened to such offenses and, for this reason, these offenses are seldom challenged.
The dance was held in the old palace, outside of the estate, where fear of the dog did not prevail. Toibe had invited a few of the young girls from the summer houses to come along. Chana’s mother had said to her sadly: “Go with them and you’ll see what is happening there.”
The intent of these words was: You, yourself, cannot expect happiness in life. But go and enjoy what is given to others.
For lo, autumn had come and the forest had darkened, no longer promising anything. Her mother’s hopes, like the summer house in a violent storm, were beginning to crumble.
Only too soon a day came when her mother, who had learned such restraint, cried openly, before everyone’s eyes. And Chana, as had been predicted, did not, from then on, truly know any joy.