Soles and Souls
By Danielle Resh
I hear you are quite an adept seamstress…”
Leora Baum nodded, staring at the steaming tea and the small plate of cookies she had baked, as was customary for arranged meetings with potential grooms. Almost every week now seemed to bring a new proposal by the matchmaker. It seemed there was an endless supply of eligible young men in Kryshenshok, despite the fact that the town was a mere speck in the Kingdom of Poland. They were all the same: acclaimed as the greatest Torah scholars, whose families were dying for them to marry the daughter of the late head of the yeshiva. But they were all the same: awkward, shy, asking her stilted questions about what business she planned to run after the first year of marriage, how many kids she wished to have, and how she planned to manage the household.
“Yes, I sell my textiles at the weekly market. Baruch Hashem, thank God, business has been good.”
She should consider herself fortunate, she knew. At twenty-three years old, she was already a gray braid, an old bride. It was only because of her late father’s status that she was still desirable at all. But the arranged meetings were becoming repetitive and exhausting; it was becoming more and more difficult to imagine that they would ever end in a marriage.
“Well, you know what they say: ‘Love is good, but it’s good with bread,’” the young man quipped as Leora forced a smile onto her face.
Her father. Sixteen years and sixty-seven days had passed since her father had gone to the World to Come, and she missed him every single day. Seven years as the only child, before her brother was born, had made her and her father nearly inseparable. In the evenings, she would sit cross-legged by his feet, enthralled as he spun stories of sages and rabbis of old. Through these stories, she visited the dusty hills of Jerusalem, heard the thunder of the study halls filled with partnered learning. She heard of men who were so close to God they could argue with Him, and He would consider their objections. Sometimes her father would tell stories in the Talmudic cadence, emphasizing his points the way the men in the yeshiva would do in order to accentuate the sentences. Those cadences became her lullabies.
On nights when sleep evaded her, her father would sit on the edge of her mattress and teach her the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, until she could read entire verses in her father’s chumash. When her father was teaching her, time slowed; it no longer moved merely backward and forward, but rather each moment struck deeper.
“You are my little tzadeikes, my righteous girl.” Her father would squeeze her close. “My talmid chacham.” He would chuckle at this term for Torah scholar, granted only to the most learned, not even bothering to change the word from the masculine form to the female one — for no such term was available for girls.
But everyone else thought differently.
“A scholar wants a woman of the household, not a woman of the yeshiva,” her mother would scold when she would find Leora once again reading instead of doing her chores. Loathe to disappoint her, Leora would put down her books and dutifully join her mother in work.
“The yeshiva is quite a place,” her suitor was telling her now, twirling his sideburns. “I could spend all of my time there, if my mother didn’t send my sisters to drag me out.”
“I wish I could experience it,” she ventured.
“Oh, I don’t think you would be interested in the type of learning we do there, with the loud arguments between study partners and all. A nice, quiet girl like you wouldn’t like it.” He popped a cookie into his mouth.
Leora turned away, biting her lip. I bet I would, she wished to say. But what was the use?
“Besides, some rabbinic authorities hold that teaching women Talmud is like teaching them frivolity,” he added, swallowing his last bite. “So. Will you continue to run your textile business out of the household once you marry?”
As the conversation droned on, she forced down her disappointment, hoping that one day, someone might ask her not just how many children she would like to have or how she would build her household’s financial base, but about the thoughts that fascinated her mind.
The Fink Family Shoe Factory was a dank cave that reeked of dust and leather, once filled with people who were now just memories. Avi Fink twisted the interior leather of the shoe before him. He imagined all of the fathers tucking in all of their sons, chanting the bedtime prayers with them, blowing out the candles and settling them to sleep. The memory of laughter sounded and quickly dissipated, just an empty echo inside hollow walls. Four winters ago, he had buried his two sons from the terrible sickness, the Blue Death, which had swept the town. His wife had fallen not long afterwards.
At least he still had his shoes. Over twenty years of fixing shoes, and the work still made him content. The shop had belonged long ago to his great-grandfather, and to his grandfather, and then to Avi’s own father, for his short life. Shoemaking was not the only tradition Avi had learned here. His father’s Talmud had sat next to his collection of pliers, pincers, wood handle, awls, nail pullers, and mallets. Jewish laws wound around his father’s brain as tightly as heels to soles.
“You must always remove the insole before inserting the heel patch.” His father would point to a pair of loafers for Avi to study, motioning for his son to retrieve his tools. “Now, show me what you learned in cheder. When one reaps the harvest of his land, what measurement must one leave for the widow and the poor?”
He still used his father’s tools, though they had rusted long ago. How quickly thirty years could pass. The memory of his father’s death was just as vivid and painful as if it had happened yesterday. Those were the days of the November Uprising, when the Poles surrounding Kryshenshok had led an insurrection against the Tsar’s imperial control. Avi had been in the shop with his father, putting away all their tools from the day, when they heard the shouts. It had all happened so quickly. One minute, they heard the gruff Polish voices, women’s cries in the street, the slamming of doors, and the next, the shoe shop’s glass window was shattering, men were tumbling in with knives in their hands, and his father was shoving him towards the back of the shop. “Go! Hide!”
He could still hear the ruffians’ curses (“Loyalists! Jewish swine!”), the impact of boots against his father’s gut, the pitiful sound of his father’s pleas—“You can take all I have. Take it, take it. There’s nothing more here. I have nothing to give you” — as he curled his ten-year-old self into a ball under the table, praying for it all to end. And then it did, too quickly. There was the echo of boots thumping away, then a sickening silence. The last memory he had of that day was his father’s face, bruised and swollen, and his crooked frame twitching unconsciously on the floor.
If only he had stepped out, distracted them. If only he had grabbed the knife his father kept in the back of the toolshed, approached the men from behind. If only he had hurled a tool at them — something, anything. Instead, he had cowered under the table, covering his ears and eyes, while his father was slaughtered like a dog. It was no wonder the Almighty had later punished him, extracting payment for his passivity by taking away his wife and teenage sons.
Weakness had followed him all his life, with suffering on its heels. Sometimes he felt he was just drifting through this world, stealing breaths and stealing time. When he passed, would anyone even recognize his absence?
The matchmaker had long prodded him to consider another wife, but all of the matches she suggested were unfit: either lame, cross-eyed, or too young. That’s what he told himself, at least — that there was some unsolvable problem with all of them. But somewhere deeper, a different insecurity brewed: that he was the curse, the cause for all of his sorrows; that he was bound to condemn those he loved to loss. The rawest fear whispered from the depths of his hollow stomach: that his well of deficiencies would not dry at the appearance of a fresh new woman, but rather swallow them both.
“Etz chayim hi l’machazikim ba… It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it,” Leora hummed as she walked along the dirt roads. The congregation sang those words every time they took the Torah out of the ark where it was kept. Every time, she felt the urge to grab it from the rabbi’s hands, roll it open, glimpse its words, see its living words with her own eyes.
But they would not understand. They would not understand how her soul burned to be close to the Torah’s words, how when she read her father’s chumash at home, her mind stilled and her heart tuned in, and she felt as though she had a direct line with God. So she resisted the urge.
She swung the door open to the shoemaker’s shop, holding her brother’s fraying shoes in her hand, only to find it empty. The shoemaker must have been out on an errand. No matter. The quiet of the shop was a needed reprieve to her mother’s voice, the matchmaker’s voice, all those voices that demanded of her, expected of her. Why should a girl need to have knowledge like that? they all thought. If only she had been born a boy…
Leora stepped over to the worktable in the back of the room and picked up a silver hook. She had never had occasion to enter a shoemaker’s shop before; her mother tried to make every piece of clothing last as long as possible, refraining from taking in shoes until the soles were literally ripping from the body. Alone in this space, Leora found herself intrigued. Next to the hook was a cloth laid across a book. Delicately, she moved aside the cloth and ran her hand over the cover. It was a copy of the chumash. She flipped to the page where she had left off in her father’s copy, nearly forgetting that this one did not belong to her. Her eyes scanned the words, the holy book so captivating her that she did not even hear the door opening.
He said it like a question, as though he were the intruder. His glasses perched hesitantly on his nose; they, too, were unsure of their place.
She jumped back, startled. She had seen the shoemaker occasionally, rushing around town as though he were running through all his responsibilities in his mind. She had heard whispers of the tragedies that had befallen him. But now she was surprised to see the innocence of his warm brown eyes, light-hearted and curious, as he walked to the other side of the table, unfazed by her snooping. He leaned over the book, careful to keep a measure of distance between them. The buttons of his rough checkered vest caught the light.
“Ki Teitzei… that is a difficult one. Full of many halachos…”
She blushed and opened her mouth, embarrassed at being caught leafing through his books, studying Torah like a man would, but the words she needed refused to arrive.
“You are able to read it?”
When she dared lift her eyes to his, he did not look surprised or disapproving, only impressed. She nodded.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked. “I much prefer the parshiyot that focus on the stories of the Patriarchs. It is more difficult to stay engaged while reading lists of laws.”
What did she think? The question was so unfamiliar that she barely believed she had heard him correctly. “E-excuse me…?”
“What do you think? Of the parsha?”
Immediately a rush of insights that she had for so long yearned to share rushed to her lips. Her heart raced. The thoughts bubbled, pushing one another to reach the surface. She sputtered. “Well, I-I… I enjoy reading the lists of practical laws. They are harder to connect to, sure, but the extra work that it takes to understand them is what makes them enjoyable. Why can we not plow fields with an ox and donkey together? Why may we not wear mixtures of wool and linen? These laws that the Torah gives us without stating the reasoning behind them may seem like meaningless details, but it is often in that struggle to understand where we find God.” Her voice sounded small to her own ears. She looked away, suddenly shy of sharing her thoughts.
“Hmm. I never thought about it like that.” He nodded. “So what do you think is the deeper reason for those laws? Why not plow with an ox and donkey, or wear a mixture of wool and linen?”
She swallowed, nodding along with him as she pondered. “Perhaps there are some things in this world which should not go together. Sometimes we need to preserve boundaries.”
As soon as she’d said it, she regretted it, as its relevance became clear. What was she doing here, the daughter of a prestigious rabbi, discussing Torah with a shoemaker who must have been nearly twice her age? Such things were not done in Kryshenshok. It was not proper for an unmarried man and an unmarried woman to be alone for longer than necessary.
The shoemaker cleared his throat and turned from her. “So. How may I help you?”
“My brother’s shoes. They are broken.” She dropped the shoes on the table in front of him.
He slipped his glasses further down the bridge of his nose and turned one of the shoes over slowly in his hands. “These are very old…”
She paused for a moment, debating. “They belonged to my father.”
She swore she could hear the sound of a bubble puncturing, a small pop. There was not a person in town who did not know of her father, and of the early death which had befallen him.
“I see,” he said, placing the shoes on his working table and arranging the tools beside them. “In a week, I will have them back to you. Sooner, maybe.”
“Thank you.” She turned to the door, embarrassed that she had engaged in such extended conversation with him.
The door shut behind her, and the air particles dropped like an exhale.
Alone in his shop in the approaching dusk, Avi picked up the shoes the rabbi’s daughter had brought. He cradled them in his hands for a moment, remembering the rabbi who had once filled them, the son who was now taking his place. An image of the young woman from that morning flashed in his mind: dark braid following the slender curve of her neck as she bent to look at his books, the small curve of her bodice silhouetted against the filtering light. She read with such concentration that Avi had almost felt compelled to walk away. What stirred behind those intelligent hazel eyes?
A man was obligated to teach his son Torah, as it was said in the Shema: “You shall teach them [the words of Torah] to your children, speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road.” But he had no son left to teach, no one left to whom to pass on the glorious teachings and his love for them.
He thought back to the piles of books in his home, books that had belonged to his sons, and that had remained untouched since they passed.
Perhaps it was time for those books to be opened again.
The old book smelled of must, but it spoke to Leora a sort of lust. When she held it, she felt the secrets of the world pressing into her palm, a harrowing record of lives past, of links forming a long, long chain, all the way back to Moses, maybe even Abraham.
Mishneh Torah: Sefer Hamadah — TheBook of Knowledge.
She flipped the pages. She had heard of the book: her father and the men who used to sit at their Shabbostable used to quote it. It was a guide to Jewish law, written by the great Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the RaMBaM. When she had initially found the book in the box with the mended shoes, her first instinct had been to return to the shoemaker’s shop; surely, he had dropped it in there by mistake. Soon she realized it could not have been an accident. She smiled. He had heard her that day in the shop — he had really heard her.
Transmission of the Oral Law …
As she struggled to decipher the text, she was transported back to those nights studying the Hebrew letters with her father. The world melted around her and congealed into a singular focus. She was no longer the unmarried girl whose father had died; she was no longer bound to her chores or to her daughterly role; she was just a student, ready to hear God’s words. Her mind felt hungry, open.
The whole Torah was written by Moses our Master… but the commandment, which is the oral explanation of the Torah, he did not reduce to writing, but he charged the Elders and Joshua and the rest of all Israel concerning its observance…
The book continued to list the chain of tradition, from Moses, to Joshua, to the Elders, and so on, to men throughout history. Now she was becoming a link in that chain. The thought brought both a thrill and a fear. Was she meant to be here? Was this what the Almighty wished of her? She was expected to spend her time elsewhere, toiling to support her mother, to help her mother support her brother, so that he could become a scholar, so that he could do what she was attempting at this very moment. He, and not her. Yet even though she was sure that the women of Kryshenshok would not approve, she did not want to let go of this connection, this access to a higher world.
She swallowed her doubts and kept reading, but the language was lofty and difficult to decipher. Frustration escaped her like steam. She could not do this alone.
When she entered the shoe shop, the shoemaker was standing with his back to her. She placed his book on the table.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
The shoemaker turned and looked down at his hands. His glasses fell to the bridge of his nose. “It is yours to keep.”
She stared at the book, mustering her courage. What was so subversive about her passion for Torah? Why shouldn’t she learn?
“I cannot do this on my own.” She glanced at him nervously. “I… I need a learning partner.”
He slowly placed down the cloth he had been using to clean the shoe on the table, and pushed his glasses higher onto his nose as his gentle eyes met hers.
“And the walls of the academy inclined to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked them… and they did not fall because of the honor of Rabbi Yehoshua, and they did not stand because of Rabbi Eliezer, and they are still inclining and standing.”
The rabbi’s daughter looked up at him with wonderment as he read the Talmudic story, her elbows perched on the table. Avi rocked forward in his chair, shifting his gaze away from her. What business did he have looking at a young woman like that?
“‘…If the law is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven.A heavenly voice went forth and said, ‘What is it for you with Rabbi Eliezer, since the law is like him in every place?’ Rabbi Yehoshua stood up on his feet and said, ‘It is not in Heaven…’”
Her eyes widened, and Avi tried to still his twitching foot.
“The Midrash asks, ‘What was the Holy One doing at that time?’ He laughed and smiled and said, ‘My sons have defeated me. My sons have defeated me.’”
The Oven of Akhnai — it was one of the first stories yeshiva students learned, about how the reign of Torah lived not among the angels, unreachable, but among the people — in their mouths, their hands, their hearts. The story proved that the responsibility fell on everyday human beings to learn, interpret, and live the Torah. It was not in the book he had given her but in the Talmud, which was traditionally reserved for men to learn, yet Avi had chosen this story specifically for her. He had hoped it would encourage her. Maybe in some subtle way it would convey his eagerness to hear her thoughts — a more modest way than telling her directly.
The rabbi’s daughter leaned back in her chair. Avi could see the gears churning in her mind as she looked up at the ceiling, her blouse crinkling against her slender neck. Here they sat as equals, partners. It was delightful, but dangerous. The Sages had ruled against one-on-one interactions between those of opposite sexes precisely because they could lead to the kinds of thoughts he was trying so hard at this moment to suppress. What would his wife have thought if she knew he was taking note of another woman only a few years after her death? And one with such yichus, such status in the community, so above him? It was a fantasy, and such thoughts were forbidden.
“But is there not danger in following the majority? Perhaps there is merit to Rabbi Eliezer’s point of view,” she offered, and he found himself pondering.
“That’s very interesting. What do you think is his merit?”
Her face lit up whenever he asked a question, and as she shared her thoughts, he resolved to ask her opinion more often, both because he wished to listen to her answer and in order to see the beauty of her excitement. He yearned to ask her more personal questions: What did she dream of? What did she hope for herself? For her family? For her future? But just as he’d nearly worked up the nerve to shift the conversation, she stood up.
“I must go.”
He stuttered, searching for what had made her leap out of her chair so suddenly, almost as if she had anticipated his desire and did not like it. “Is your mother expecting you at home?”
She nodded grimly. “We have a meeting… with…” — she looked as though she wanted to avoid the subject — “another family.”
“Oh.” Avi crossed his arms. She was a woman of marriageable age. Of course her mother would be arranging meetings with eligible men.
“I wish I did not.” She stepped closer, then seemed to think better of it, and clasped her hands behind her back. “I wish I could stay here, learning with you.”
She was not his, should not be his. She had known enough sorrow, and sorrow always attached itself to him. But he could not stop himself from asking, “Tomorrow, may we meet again?”
And he could not still his excitement when her voice, laced with joy, responded, “Yes.”
“So… umm…” The young man in front of her — was it Heschel? Hillel? She could not even remember — stared at the floor, tapping his foot in uneven beats. He looked like one of the baby goats she took out to pasture, awkward in their bodies, unsure of their place.
She pursed her lips tight and picked up the kettle. “Would you care for some tea?”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded, seemingly grateful for the break of silence.
She would rather remain a gray braid than sit through another dozen meetings like this. Desperate for distraction, her mind wandered back to her learning with the shoemaker. In her mind she repeated what they had learned earlier that evening. Rabbi Yehoshua stood up on his feet and said, “It is not in Heaven.” The Sages likened the Torah to water, and now she knew why: she felt it, rushing through her veins, invigorating her.
With the young men the matchmaker sent, conversations always felt forced. But despite her fear that someone would find out what she was doing, sitting with the shoemaker just felt easy. She thought of the way he pushed his glasses onto the bridge of his nose when he was pondering a question, the way he nodded as she read, encouraging her to continue. Though a different man now sat in front of her, with greasy black locks and pocked skin, it was the image of the shoemaker’s kind eyes that refused to dissipate in her mind. She swallowed hard as she pushed back the thought: Maybe it was more than just the lessons she was so enjoying.
Once, as a little girl, she had overheard her father tell one of his students: “The inside of one’s head should be an interesting place to spend one’s time.” Now she wondered: What if one could find that interesting place in someone else’s head? There was only so much that one individual could know, but to be in constant conversation with someone whose knowledge reached realms she could never dream of, who could share all that he knew — was that not even greater than all one could do on one’s own?
What would her mother think if she knew how she had been spending her time? What would her father have thought? Would he be proud that she was learning? Or ashamed of the way she was doing it, clandestinely — alone with a man, a widower —and a shoemaker at that!
Beyond the doubts, beyond the judgements, there was one fact she did not question: The shoemaker’s mind would be an interesting place to spend her time.
“That is all. That is the end of the chapter.”
Unlike last time, when she had rushed out of the shop as soon as they had finished reading, the rabbi’s daughter stayed seated, drumming her fingers on the table.
“How did you learn so much?” she asked finally, turning her hazel eyes to him. “I mean, I imagine you probably left yeshiva at an early age to apprentice. How are you so learned?”
Avi smiled. The image filled his mind of his father with his Talmud open on the worktable as he sanded a pair of shoes. “My father taught me. He was not just a shoemaker. He was also a scholar.”
Leora cast down her eyes, as though considering. “And what became of him, may I ask?”
Avi grimaced. The ache surged within him, threatening to surface. “He was killed in a riot against the tsar.” Even now, it was hard to choke the words out. “I was ten years old. It happened right over there.” He pointed, studying a wrinkle on his thumb. He could feel her watching him. “It was my fault,” he whispered. “I could have stopped them. I should have stopped them.”
He could not look up at her; he could not meet her eyes. The silence stagnated in the air.
“My father taught me, too.”
“What?” Avi lifted his head.
“You were surprised that I knew how to read. It’s because of my father. He taught me.” She paused, fidgeting with a strand of her shawl. “When I was little, I thought maybe the reason he died was because he had taught me against the community’s custom. Perhaps God did not approve of it, and He took my father away, because of me…” she trailed off. “But the more I thought, the more I realized that sometimes tragedy just happens. And there is no reason — at least, not one that we may see. The Almighty is not against me. He is not striking me down. He is there with me, comforting me. That, I truly believe.”
He kept his words inside, but now, where the memory of his guilt had once clogged him, there was a sudden rush of tenderness, a gratitude so strong it nearly knocked him back. He looked at her again. Between them lingered the souls of those they had loved, those they had lost. The two of them sat bathed in silence, together in their loneliness.
“You know,” he ventured. “I always knew you as the rabbi’s daughter.”
She tilted her head, waiting.
“I do not even know your first name.”
Avi chuckled. It was silly, absurd almost, that it had taken this long. After they had learned together, after what they had just shared. Perhaps, he thought, they both feared that offering each other’s names would create too much intimacy — as though their conversations had not already done so.
“Leora,” she smiled.
“Avi,” he returned. And he opened the book to the next page.