The Ba'al Shem's Daughter
By Glenn Gitomer
My life is an out-of-the-money call option about to expire. Time value is quickly diminishing to naught. What is left of my career at the options exchange is in a corrugated banker box I am carrying to the elevator. I am tired, confused, forgetful. Dreams are no longer confined to the realm of sleep. I shut my eyes. Vivid images appear and vanish when I try to capture them. Ruminations are of an episodic past, whether legendary or real. My future is fantasies of a time gone by and playing boogie woogie piano Wednesdays at Captain Jack’s on the Southside.
My great-great-grandmother Leya was the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Jacovitsky. Rabbi Jacovitsky was a renowned scholar and author of esoteric interpretations of the Zohar in the tradition of the Holy Ari. For fourteen hours a day, except the Sabbath, he poured over the Midrash and treatises of the great scholars and meditated on the meaning of prayers and the letters of the Tetragrammaton. Upon the publication of his seminal work, The Sefirot of Evil, he was celebrated by rebbes from Vilnius to Odessa. In the Grand Synagogue of Kiev, built with the generosity of his father-in-law Aaron Brodsky, Rabbi Jacovitsky meandered through the aisles on the Sabbath, followed by his favorite students and carrying the Torah with its gold breastplate and crown and embroidered velvet mantel. He nodded approvingly at the men who approached and touched the Torah with their kissed tallit. From the bima, he flailed his arms about as he told of being transported without the passage of time by a chariot drawn by a host of angels, half-men and half-beast, to commune with the spirit of the Great One, the Ba’al Shem Tov. “As I left his holy presence, I was bathed in the pure light of Ultimate Nothingness. I became one with the spirit of Hashem the Creator and the goodness that flowed forth.” The women in the balcony sat transfixed. The men stood and davened. Gone was the short, bespectacled Shmuel with an unkempt gray beard and drooping belly, stooping as he went about a day interrupted by his bodily functions. Before them was a blessed one, a Master of the Divine Name, the Ba’al Shem of Kiev.
It was apparent from an early age that Leya was a piano prodigy. She was drawn to piano by the age of three. By four, Leya could play by ear tunes that she had heard only once. A member of her father’s congregation came by once a week to give her lessons. Leya did not need to be coaxed to practice. The piano was her only friend. She spoke to it with her fingers, and it responded with melodies. Leya delighted in the increasing intricacy of their conversations.
Leya was nervous in the presence of her grandfather Brodsky. He was not warm and welcoming to those he did not view as his equal. His hugs were perfunctory and icy. It frightened Leya when Brodsky summoned her to a soirée attended by his coterie of the wealthy and intellectual Jews of Kiev in the finely furnished salon of his majestic home. She was directed to sit in an anteroom while the men discussed Goethe’s Faust and Kant’s pure reason and the precarious politics of Alexander the Liberator. “Wait until you are called, young lady,” Brodsky’s major domo instructed. Leya sat with her eyes closed and hands folded on her lap. To maintain composure, she concentrated on the ebbing and flowing noise of conversation punctuated with occasional bursts of laughter. The major domo tapped her on the shoulder. “Go in, young lady.” He pointed to the salon. As she walked to the piano bench, she felt assaulted by pompous glares of the Brodskys’ friends.
“Gentleman, a special treat tonight. My granddaughter will play for us Mendelssohn’s Venetian Boat Song. Leya played it well. The men reacted with polite applause and nodding smiles. Brodsky put his hand on Leya’s shoulder. “Friends, my eldest daughter Rebecca married an eminent scholar and revered rabbi, and my granddaughter is a musical genius. What greater gifts could Hashem bestow upon me? Ah, Leya, meyn kleyn Mozart meydl. They will speak of her in Vienna and Paris and London.”
Brodsky commissioned Maestro Fedor Stein to tutor the eight-year-old Leya. “Maestro, I will pay you handsomely so long as you are devoted to her training. Be honest with me about her progress.”
“That I will be, sir,” Stein responded with a slight bow of his head. “You will not be disappointed.”
Stein understood her gift the first time he heard Leya play. She was not restless or distracted. She sat erect. She was focused. She played Mozart’s Sonata No. 16 from memory and with greater discipline and emotion than any student thrice her age. After the final notes, Leya closed her eyes and sighed. Stein stared at the little girl. She will be my greatest creation. For two hours a day for three days a week for fifty weeks a year he paced and hovered over her. Stein was relentless, sparing with praise and cruel with his criticism. He accepted nothing less than perfection. Neither would Leya. For four hours a day for six days a week for fifty-two weeks a year, she practiced. Perfection left her sublimely content. Missteps felt like broken glass.
When Leya was eleven, Fedor Stein deemed her ready to be presented at the Kiev City Theater. The Maestro proudly addressed the packed theater. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to this auspicious occasion. This evening you have the honor of attending the debut of a genius, Leya Jacovitsky, the eleven-year-old granddaughter of our beloved benefactor Aaron Brodsky.” Stein lowered his arm in the direction of the great man. Brodsky rose from the first row, turned to the audience, and bowed his head to accept the applause. “And the daughter of our esteemed Rabbi Shmuel Jacovitsky.” Shmuel proudly rose. “And now, may I introduce my pupil Leya Jacovitsky to perform for you Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31.”
Leya had been groomed to play the part of an adorable scion of a cultured Kiev Jew. She walked out in a floor-length, puffed-sleeve white dress. Her light brown hair was set in braids. As she was instructed by Maestro Stein, she turned politely to the audience, curtsied, and took her seat under a spotlight on the bench to polite applause from a darkened anonymous theater. In that moment, it struck her: Why do I let myself be paraded out as the Maestro’s dancing bear to entertain pompous old men as a testament to my grandfather’s glory? I am not Fedor Stein’s creation. I am what Stein in his dreams hoped to be. I am tired of being the little girl in a white dress.
During the first movement, Leya’s long-repressed rage overtook her. She was fed up with Stein’s hovering thick breath reeking of cigars and hand tapping her thigh and incessant condescension. She resented being sold into servitude by her grandfather. These beasts have the nerve to judge me. Let them rot. To her parents she was only a possession to boast about. They could not imagine the world she lived in. Her thoughts were beyond their command. Her rage was fed by the angry pounding allegro molto of the second movement. The third movement was a portal to the abyss of Beethoven’s dark soul from which she could never return. Leya resolved that she would not go on like this. She would have no more of Fedor Stein, no more of the Ba’al Shem and his wife, no more of the Great Brodsky. She would never touch a piano again. Neither they nor it would any longer control her. They will wring nothing more from my soul.
Her performance came to a flawless end. The theater roared with applause and cries of “Bravo!” as the audience rose to its feet. She sat for a moment and trembled like a volcano about to erupt. She stood, turned to the audience, and curtsied. She ran off the stage. She didn’t answer the crowd’s pleas for her to return. She ran out of the theater and ran and ran and ran.
All night Leya sat alone on a bench by the Dnieper River. She was resolved. I’m not sure who I will be now that my piano will no longer speak to me, but I am finally free to find out. She came home at four in the morning. Rebecca screamed, “Shmuel, she’s here! Where have you been? We thought you might be dead. Why did you do this to us?”
Shmuel stormed into the room. “What is wrong with you? Your grandfather had everyone out looking for you. Rebecca, go tell your father that Leya is home now. Why, Leya, why have you chosen to destroy the pleasure of a night that we have so long anticipated?”
Leya was deaf to them. “Father, you will never understand. I will not be spoken to like that.” She ran upstairs to her room and slammed the door.
For months Leya confined herself to her room. A paralyzing emptiness set in. She spoke very little and refused to answer questions about her mood or intentions. She didn’t approach the piano which, until her City Theater performance, had defined her. She could not return to what had consumed her life and given her an identity. Her parents and grandfather had stopped caring, which was just as well. Leya no longer cared what anyone thought.She had no idea where to go from here. Only a rocky bottom would stop her free fall. She feared that she would never escape the lonely darkness.
Rabbi Jacovitsky was certain that his only child, who had been bestowed by Hashem with the gift of genius, was possessed by a dybbuk. Perhaps it was the spirit of his Uncle Lazarus the Masturbator of Minsk, that was causing Leya’s endless fits and descent into despair. He had been so proud of her special brilliance. Now he heard that she cursed her classmates and ridiculed her teachers, who dared not confront the daughter of the celebrated Ba’al Shem of Kiev and granddaughter of their patron. Leya shielded herself with contempt and insulted anyone who tried to show her kindness. These fools, they call me a spoiled brat. How dare they look at me like that? They are nothing but a bunch of ignorant clowns.
Rebecca sought Brodsky’s counsel. “I will get her a donkey. It will give her something to care for and ride around town. Maybe that will snap her out of this. I will build a small barn in your garden and keep the donkey supplied with hay. Let’s see if that works, Rebecca.”
To honor her twelfth birthday and first menstruation, Leya was presented with a donkey. She named the donkey Esau. With Esau, Leya felt for the first time the love of a sentient being. She couldn’t wait to see him in the morning. After she’d carefully groomEsau’s mane, Leya would stare into his eyes and ask, “What adventure shall we have today, Esau?”
Esau did not look away. In a soft bray he replied, “Ride me through town. We will call the tradesmen impotent cuckolds. Or maybe we’ll go down to the Dnieper where you like to skinny dip.”
“Why don’t we do both, Esau? We will have a marvelous day.”
When the Gentile boys saw Leya ride Esau on the road to the river, they scurried to hide in the woods above the riverbank and watched as Leya tied her ass to a tree. She disrobed, laid her folded clothes beside Esau, and waded into the Dnieper. She swam around and stood waist high with her feet squishing into the mud of the riverbed. The boys were motionless. They feared that if the girl knew they were there, she would cover herself and run away. Leya knew they were there. That was the whole point.
Rabbi Jacovitsky beseeched Hashem in incessant prayers deep into the night. “Please, Lord, I have devoted my every moment to your glory. Free my daughter from this wicked curse. I have become a laughingstock even as I praise your name.” Hashem heard Shmuel’s prayers but was not inclined to get involved in his worldly troubles.
Shmuel shook his sleeping wife with fire in his eyes. “She is your daughter. How could you let this happen? You must do something. She will be the ruin of me.”
“I don’t know what to do, Shmuel. I can’t take much more of it. Please just let me lie in peace for a few hours.”
“No, Rebecca. Why should you sleep while I suffer?”
As the sun rose, a solution to his problem came to Shmuel. He would arrange the marriage of his daughter to young Rabbi Mordechai Davidich, who bragged of skills as an exorcist. He would rid Leya of the dybbuk and give her a new start in the village of Lubny far from the gossips of Kiev.
Rabbi Davidich, a slender balding man with a thin beard, who deflected his eyes in the presence of women, welcomed the shidduch. He was a devoted initiate of the esoteric teachings and practices passed to him by his teacher, a disciple of Rabbi Jacovitsky. His teacher considered Rabbi Davidich a talented student and persuaded him that his ambitions would be advanced by a marriage to the daughter of a rabbi of such eminence and the granddaughter of one of the wealthiest Jews of Kiev. “And such a beauty, I have heard,” his teacher told him. Mordechai Davidich had never seen a naked woman. As hard as he tried, he could not repress the thoughts of the mysteries that would be revealed on a sacred wedding night. He was all in.
Leya needed coaxing. “Me, a rabbi’s wife? In Lubny where the peasants stand knee deep in shit? What an absurdly ugly idea,” she told Esau. “I would sooner just fade into the night.”
Shmuel was insistent. “There is no other way. You are driving me crazy. You are a disgrace to your grandfather and us. You must leave. I will lock you in your room until you consent. I will take your damn donkey to be slaughtered and fed to the serfs.”
Rebecca was gentler. “Dear, it will work out. Rabbi Davidich is a good man. He will give you a wonderful new life. It is for the best.”
Leya cried for days. She banged her head against the wall until it was bruised and bloody and she could take no more pain. Esau could not stand what Leya was doing to herself. Esau promised Leya that he would always be by her side. “It’s time for us to go, Leya,” he brayed. “We’ll make a great adventure out of it.”
In the last days of August, a month before Leya’s fourteenth birthday, Shmuel hired a carriage for the one hundred and thirty mile trip to Lubny. Esau was given the honor of helping lead the way. Leya sat with the coachman to watch over Esau, who occasionally looked back at her and gave out a gentle encouraging bray.
The marriage started badly. Leya detested Modi’s timidity and fawning deference. She felt caged and raged at a life among strangers that made no sense to her. Leya became feral and preyed upon Modi with ridicule. She brazenly flirted with unholy roughs in front of the cheder boys and teachers’ wives. Modi tried to placate her with kindness, but these efforts provoked cruelty and violence. The townsfolk pretended not to see the bloody scratches on his cheek and bruises around his eyes. Leya laughed when she overheard them call her “the meshugena who talks to a donkey.”
Modi cherished Leya as a gift from Hashem. Modi knew that to win her love he would have to exorcise the dybbuk that possessed her. He was a devoted student of the rites of exorcism. He devoured the Minhat Yehuda and Hayyim Eliyahu, but this would be the first time he would put his knowledge into practice. He prayed to Hashem for the wisdom and strength to perform this most holy task.
Rabbi Davidich summoned a minyan of his most trusted friends, all sworn to secrecy, to the shul at five in the morning. Four of Rabbi Davidich’s students gagged and dragged a sleepy Leya, dressed in her bedclothes, from her room as she squirmed and struggled. They tied her tightly to a chair in the sanctuary. The davening minyan surrounded her as Rabbi Davidich hung sacred amulets around her neck and recited prayers to Hashem pleading to rid Leya of the dybbuk. The minyan chanted the ninety-first psalm over and over. “He will deliver thee from the snare of the fowler.”
“Esau, save me from this insanity!” Leya cried, struggling to break free.
“Thou shall not be afraid of the terror by night.”
“Esau! It’s not the terror of the night that frightens me!”
“For He will give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all ways. They shall bear thee upon their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”
“Esau, please! I promise I will not stub my toes. Please make these lunatics leave me alone.”
After each recitation, the grating staccato blasts of the shofar filled the room. There was no sign of a dybbuk fleeing from any of Leya’s orifices, but Modi took Leya’s exhausted collapse after hours of this ordeal as a sign that the dybbuk must have fled. Rabbi Davidich led his wife to the mikveh, certain that its waters would restore her purity.
Rabbi Davidich oversold his skills as an exorcist. After weeks of docile resignation and sadness, Leya’s dybbuk awoke and took hold. Repeated efforts at exorcism had no greater success. On Yom Kippur, among the sins that Rabbi Davidich sought atonement for were his arrogance and false claim that Hashem bestowed upon him the power of exorcism. Hashem forgave Modi. Leya did not.
Leya gave Modi two sons and two daughters, but Leya was out of his control. The gossips of Lubny began to refer to the couple as Hosea and Gomer and whispered that their children were not of the rabbi’s seed.
One Sabbath eve in October, while the townsfolk gathered in the shul, the twenty-four-year-old Leya left Lubny, her four children, and Modi on a horse-drawn cart with Esau, a sack of her modest belongings, and a deserter from the Tsar’s army. Her children never heard from her again. Rabbi Davidich learned from a rabbi visiting from Jerusalem that Leya had fallen under the influence of Satan and was living in a commune in Palestine reputed to practice orgiastic rites.
The humiliation that Leya had caused Modi was eventually forgotten. Free of her, Rabbi Davidich earned respect for his humility and wisdom. After obtaining a get, Modi married the zaftig widow Esther, ten years his senior. She was a caring mother to his children and doting wife until his death on the eve of the turn of the century.
Sixteen years after that October Sabbath eve, Leya and Esau returned. She persuaded a Gentile family to take her in as a housekeeper on their farm near the mountains a few miles south of Lubny. She gave her name as Maria Polenka.
She was not the beautiful woman who had disappeared. Her skin had aged like a fig in the Palestine sun. Her waist and legs had thickened. Her speckled gray hair was unkempt. She had nervous obsessions, darting her tongue in spaces where teeth had been and scratching her arms until they bled. Her vanity and spirit were gone. Her mind was a tightening web of confusion. In her lucid moments, Leya was tormented by sadness and regret. Esau remained at her side and tried to comfort her.
Leya and Esau went into Lubny to find out what had become of her children. In the autumn Sabbath afternoon, she found a house where she thought she had lived with Modi and her children. She sat with Esau unnoticed for hours on the curb across the street. Young men and women, some with children, came in and out of the house. Leya could make no sense of it. She recognized no one. She wondered why the people who milled about were oblivious to her. Am I invisible? Do they think I’m possessed by a dybbuk? Maybe I am. As the sun set, Leya and Esau mumbled to each other as they returned to the farm. Their conversations no longer made sense.
On Sunday morning, Leya and Esau went hiking on familiar mountain paths. From the cliff atop a mountain, Leya looked straight out into farmland and the Sula River and a distant town. It frightened her to look down at the chasm from the edge of the cliff. She felt a force drawing her to the edge. She stepped back. She couldn’t stop looking down. She grew dizzy. Esau stood beside her. He softly brayed, “Leya, it’s time for you to fly. It will be an adventure.”
“I know. I know.”
Leya spread her arms and dove into the canyon. She flew for a moment until gravity took her down. Esau let out a loud bray that echoed through the canyon as he watched Leya fall. He took a galloping leap and followed her down.
My great-grandfather Yitzchak was the youngest of Leya’s children. He was tall and muscular and bore no resemblance to Rabbi Davidich. Yitzy did not share his brother Joseph’s patience for study. He was good with numbers and got along well with the Gentile landowners. He went into business with his father-in-law Moshe Billanoff, a money lender and speculator in grain futures. Yitzy and Lilliana had four sons and three daughters. They lived in an H-shaped one-story home on the outskirts of Lubny. My grandfather Abe told me that they had a comfortable life until the Pogrom of 1905. Cossack mobs swept through and burned Yitzy’s house to the ground. Yitzy, Lilliana, and their daughter Elena died in fire. Two sons were hacked to death as they fled the burning house. Shmuel, Avram, Bella, and Golda survived the melée. Several years later, after Avram was ordered to report as a conscript in the Tzar’s army, Shmuel and Avram left for America, where they became known around Baltimore’s Lombard Street as Sam and Abe, the Davis Boys.
Abe kept in touch with Bella and Golda for a while. They had both married and moved on with their lives in Lubny. Their sons and husbands were conscripted to defend the Homeland against the German onslaught. On October 16, 1941, the indifferent Hashem left Lubny never to return. It was about a month after the Germans captured Lubny. The Einsatzgruppen ordered the thousand five hundred Jews that remained to assemble in the outskirts of the city for resettlement. The Gentiles of Lubny shuttered their windows. At the Zasylskiy Ravine, the Jews were ordered to undress and massacred with endless machine gun fire. Abe was certain that Bella, Golda, and those of their children who were not away at war were among the bodies that the Germans had kicked and prodded to be certain they were dead. Abe told my dad that the German enlisted men obeyed the order to finish with a bullet in the skull anyone who moved, before the bodies were thrown into ditches dug at gunpoint by Russian prisoners of war, who covered them with earth. A few weeks earlier, the Einsatzgruppen in the same way had massacred thirty thousand Jews at the Babi Yar ravine outside of Kiev.
It’s Wednesday. I’m on my way to Captain Jack’s. Legend is that Bird and Monk performed there. I wish that Bubbie Leya were there to hear me play. I would give her a big hug, thank her for the gift, and tell her that I too feel drawn to the edge.