The Bread of Freedom
By Lawrence E. Kurlandsky
Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21)
You shall not insult the deaf (Leviticus 19:14)
It is I who created the craftsman who blows on the coals and forges weapons suited to their purpose; I also created the destroyer to work havoc. No weapon made will prevail against you. In court you will refute every accusation. The servants of Adonai inherit all this; the reward for their righteousness is from me, says Adonai. (Isaiah 54: 16-17)
As Ephraim listened to the ebb and flow of air in and out of the boy’s chest, his own breathing relaxed as he mentally sighed, “Yes... yes, he is better.” Yesterday the crackles in the boy’s chest, like the sounds of an ice floe breaking up, bespoke the treacherous state of the child’s illness. Yesterday the choice of antibiotic treatment had been an educated guess. Ephraim’s words of hope and reassurance to the boy’s parents had seemed threadbare. Now Ephraim’s more confident demeanor and the glint in his tired eyes spoke more clearly to the parents’ hopes than his carefully chosen words, “I will be even more reassured when I know the culture results.”
As if on cue, Ephraim’s pager intruded on the moment. Recognizing the laboratory’s number and hoping David was calling with the boy’s sputum culture results, Ephraim excused himself, his cell phone summoning the number that it so often called. “David, what did you find?”
“Just as you thought, it is Serratia marcescens. Curious bug, really. It rarely causes serious infections; its red pigment is mainly a laboratory novelty. By the way, you guessed right on the best antibiotic to use.”
“David, thanks for getting back to me so quickly. This boy was born with a genetic defect in his white blood cells. They can form pus, and find, capture, and eat bacteria, but they cannot digest or kill them. His body is at the mercy of germs that our white blood cells would dispatch without even breaking a sweat. I feel so much better knowing that this boy’s infection is being properly treated and is improving as expected. Now I can go the rabbi’s seder tonight and hopefully relax. Are you going with your family?”
“Sure am, I wouldn’t miss it. By the way, I know how that boy’s white cells must feel; I’ve had matzah that was indigestible! See you and your family tonight.”
Closing his cell phone, Ephraim was thinking, “David is wrong about this so-called harmless bacterium. It has led to the deaths of more Jews than many a plague.” He returned to the boy’s room to give his parents the reassuring news. Basking in the satisfaction of a good medical decision and the family’s appreciation, he finished checking on his other patients and signed out of the hospital.
He knew he had just enough time to hurry home, shower, dress, and drive his family to the rabbi’s home. Yet, as he walked to his car, it was impossible not to revel in the arrival of spring and the beginning of Passover – the waning sun’s warmth on his face, the air redolent with possibilities, and the chartreuse patina of budding maples.
Passover seder at the home of the rabbi and his wife was an eagerly awaited event. The alchemy of their talent as gracious hosts and theatrical directors created a magical experience in which all participants, young and old, felt as though they too had been physically transported and present at the Exodus and liberated from slavery. As the seder unfolded, it was the rabbi’s custom before the Kiddush for the fourth cup of wine to ask a guest to recount a personal or family story in the spirit of Passover. The convivial seder, the three glasses of wine, and his most recent medical dilemma, reminded Ephraim of a story he had heard as a child. This is the story he proceeded to recount.
“Long ago, in another time, Mendel, my great-grandfather, lived in a village in the old country like so many others that no longer exist. His last winter there seemed unending. Purim came and went, Passover was fast approaching, and spring was nowhere to be seen. Snow continued to fall, bitterly cold winds continued to howl, and the river remained frozen. Firewood became scarce; woodcutters had to venture further and further each day into the woods, always wary of hungry wolves, and return nightly with their precious bundles.
“Mendel was deaf and mute; a childhood illness had spared his life but exacted the loss of his hearing and speech. Some thought he had been visited by the ‘evil eye’, others thought him a simple dolt, but his gentle nature, open face, and ready smile had made him an accepted member of the village. A baker by trade, his bakery provided a welcome respite from the daily routine and bitter cold of that never-ending winter. Where better to while away a long moment, warming numb hands and feet by the ovens, exchanging gossip with friends or strangers, and letting numb noses be resuscitated by the redolence of baking bread and pastries?
“A natural meeting place for the women of the village, he had gained their respect and admiration. They knew his intelligent eyes could read lips and people. They also knew their secrets were safe with him. Prohibited from a formal education, they were enchanted when he offered to teach them Morse code, a novel and seemingly supernatural way of communicating.
“A year earlier, an itinerant peddler, finding himself in the village at Passover, had stayed with Mendel for eight days, regaling him with the wondrous things he had heard and seen in his travels, including an invention called the telegraph. Invented by Samuel Morse, messages could be sent long distances by electricity through thin wires – an invisible force, through a language of dots and dashes. He had spelled Mendel's name dash dash/ dot/dash dot/dot/ dot dash dot dot. Writing out the coded alphabet on paper, he had showed Mendel that by tapping the code on a hard surface, Mendel could feel and understand the vibrations, even if he could not hear the sound. He had hung the paper on the bakery wall. Intrigued by the novelty, women who came to buy challah for Shabbat began to learn and use it, often tapping flirtatious messages on the counter, laughing at the blush it brought to Mendel’s face.
“On the other side of the village, a priest began preparations for Easter. Torch in hand, he descended the narrow stone stairs to the cold, damp storeroom of the church to inspect the recent arrival of special communion wafers. Carefully he pried off the top of the barrel. Peering inside, his eyes still adjusting to the darkness, his gaze became transfixed, and his pupils fully dilated as his body recoiled in horror at the ghastly site inside: the wafers were dotted with blood-red blotches. Yes, he had heard of this miraculous occurrence before from the priests of other villages. ‘The blood of Christ,’ gasped the priest as he crossed himself. As he knew from fellow priests, the cause was clear, and so too was the cure: rid the village of Jews. (Now we know that those red blotches were colonies of Serratia marcescens, but in those days, the world was unaware of unseen bacteria.)
“Regaining his composure, the priest hurried to the home of the magistrate and told him of his discovery and its meaning. The village must be purged of all its Jews. That is what other villages had done; it was the only solution. The magistrate did not respond immediately. His gaze focused beyond the priest while the priest stared at the smirk which had come to cross the magistrate’s face. The priest grew uncomfortable; maybe the magistrate did not believe him or thought him mad. But the magistrate’s silence, far from indicating disbelief or ridicule, reflected satisfaction as he savored the opportunity to rid the village of Jews and confiscate their possessions and properties, all with the blessing of the church. Concealing his eagerness, the magistrate reluctantly agreed with the priest. How best to accomplish this? Both knew that Passover was coming. Every Jew would be at a seder, the perfect time to trap them all.
“The magistrate, who had once been a welcomed guest at a seder, clucked with satisfaction as a plan began to take form in his mind. ‘Late in the evening,’ he said, ‘the door of every home conducting a seder will be opened to welcome the mythical prophet, Elijah. This year they will find not Elijah but our waiting men, who will rush in and finish their bloody task. For the plan to work, we must be able to identify every Jewish home.’
“The priest responded, ‘That is simple. The baker, Mendel, will soon make the special Passover bread, which every Jewish family needs. Post your men outside his bakery. When a customer comes out, especially a woman with a special loaf of bread on Fridays, your men will follow her home and mark the house.’
“And so, every day, the magistrate’s men appeared outside the bakery, silently watching the comings and goings of the customers. Although they did not go unnoticed as they followed customers home, they observed that every day the Jews seemed more relaxed and unaware of their presence. In fact, all the Jews sensed something was amiss but were glad not to be taunted, attacked, or arrested.
“One bitterly cold day, three of the magistrate’s men took refuge in the warmth of the bakery. Mendel was busy flattening, rolling, and cutting holes in the matzah dough so that it would bake rapidly without any chance to rise. While one man strolled around, the other two began to talk in low voices, never taking their eyes off Mendel.
“‘Look at that fool,’ said the first man. ‘Little does he know that his bread will be responsible for the death of all the Jews.’
“The second man replied, ‘Hah, instead of Elijah, they will be greeted by the Angel of Death.’
“‘Shut up!’ seethed the third man.
“‘Don't worry,’ said the first man, ‘he can't hear us; he’s deaf. Besides, I heard that he is an idiot. Look at him watching us with that stupid smile on his face. He can’t even knead dough without that chart on the wall over there. Come on, let’s get out of here. We have work to do.’
“But Mendel had read their lips, his smile belying the waves of nausea washing over him like an incoming tide; even a dolt could guess the meaning of the exchange. What could he do? Even if he could talk, who would believe him? And if he were believed, the ensuing panic would surely tip off the magistrate’s men and precipitate a spontaneous, savage attack. No... better to wait until the last moment. And then a plan began to take form in Mendel’s mind. The solution had been provided by the magistrate’s men; instead of poking holes in the dough, he would carve dots and dashes into the matzah before baking, which would say, Leave tonight before Elijah comes. This would then become the top matzah in each bundle. If the magistrate’s men watched, the browned dots and dashes would look no different than the markings of any other matzah.
“Finally the day arrived. The setting sun highlighted seder tables being set. As women opened the bundles of matzah, there was a brief silence and then a gasp of recognition: the top matzah looked familiar, but something was different yet understandable. Of course, it was Morse code! The message was easily deciphered, its meaning clear enough; all had observed the suspicious behavior of the magistrate’s men over the last weeks and had wondered at its meaning, suspecting sinister implications.
“Quickly packing what could be carried, rewrapping the bundles of matzah, and dressing in as much clothing as could be worn, families lit candles, took one last look at their prepared seder tables, and stepped quietly into the night. A cloud covering dimmed the light of the full moon, mercifully hiding everyone’s tearful faces. Jagged shadows silently streamed down to the bank of the frozen river. A lone leg tentatively tested the ice. One person, then another, then small groups, ventured onto the ice. That night they relived the Passover story walking across the river into a new land and a new, uncertain life.
“Meanwhile, on the other side of the village, men silently gathered and, under the cover of darkness, moved to their assigned positions. Shivering in their hiding places, the men looked longingly at the glow of fires dancing in the windows. Hours passed, but not a door was opened. Finally, unable to abide the chilly darkness any longer, one group, then another, all rushed their designated houses, silent but for the sound of shattering doors. Expecting to find and seize the inhabitants all seated at dinner, they found no one. Howls and oaths broke the stillness of the night as the folly of their plan became apparent. Enraged, men pillaged and torched the houses; the glow from the raging fires illuminated the frozen river and the last of the human glaciers receding up the far riverbank.
“Their rage spent, the mob was unable to immediately give chase. They decided to rest that night, set out at daybreak, and easily overtake the Jews. However, that night spring finally came. By morning, the river had become an ice floe, impassable on foot. The Jews had escaped.”
Ephraim went on, “Mendel’s daughter, my grandmother, was the first of our family to come to America. I owe my very existence to Mendel. Thanks for listening.”
The rabbi broke the silence. “Ephraim, thank you for sharing such a wonderful, moving story with us. It is now time to welcome Elijah to our seder.” The rabbi motioned to his son to open the front door. As the door was opened, a telegraphic tapping from outside was heard. No one moved. “Probably just a branch scraping the shingles,” someone proffered in a tentative voice. The silence broken, the fourth cup of wine was poured.