Photo: Joanna Wojtera


(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Maciej Płaza

Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones


They had been in haste, that was Shira’s lasting memory of those times, those days. Two years had passed since her first blood, barely two years since the morning when her mother had noticed a stain on her night shirt, raised her eyes to whisper a short blessing, and said with affection: “Look out,” then slapped her in the face before adding: “Now you are a woman, may you always be rosy-cheeked, like blood and milk.” They had hastened, because now the blood was flowing within her in harmony with the moon, and this brought her into the sphere of both adult and sacred, mysterious matters. Her mother and father had hastened, because a daughter is indeed a gift from the Eternal, but also a burden; they had hastened, although, or maybe because, there was no lack of devout young Jews in the neighbouring towns whose family merits, whether books of responsa and moral works written by fathers who were rabbis, or the healing powers and prophetic visions of fathers who were tsaddiks, or the shtibls and yeshivas funded by fathers who were merchants, and above all the fortunes they’d amassed, had secured them seats of honor by the eastern wall of the synagogue, and from almost the time of her first blood, as if they had heard about it from somewhere, as if they had learned about it from the rising and setting of the moon, they had been sending their offers to Nachman, the Liściska matchmaker, for after all, the daughter of the saintly Reb Gershon, who as a tsaddik lived modestly, but was famous for his wisdom and righteousness, was a splendid match. They had hurried, all those rabbis, tsaddiks, and merchants, the fathers of frail boys, who had only just relaxed following their bar mitzvahs and begun to put on tefillin, only just managed to sprout their first moustache, had not yet entirely forgotten the pain in their backs and rears from the lashes of the melamed’s birch, and were already on the market for marriage.
Also in haste was the rival family that Nachman praised the most ardently, singing genuine paeans in its honour, as a matchmaker should, though in fact he was only doing it in keeping with time-honoured tradition, because Reb Gershon was well acquainted with Reb Eliezer Golan ben Akiva, a wealthy tsaddik from Zasławie, the father of six children, and when his offer came, he did not hesitate to accept it. Fourteen-year-old David must have been hastening too, Reb Eliezer’s second-to-youngest son, whom they had decided that Shira would marry. In fact the haste did not concern the wedding, which could wait, so much as the engagement, which would be harder and worse to break off than the marriage, so another two years went by before they first set eyes on one another. During this time, all she could do was imagine him, and so she did, thus conquering the impassable distance separating her from her betrothed, only a three-day journey by britzka, but also several hundred years of tradition, which forbade them to meet. She listened out for rumors from Zasławie, with flushed cheeks she tried questioning her mother, sister, and brothers, and approached visitors who came from there to ask if perhaps any of them was familiar with David, if they had seen what he looked like, heard how he spoke, and knew if he was handsome, wise, and godly. She would glance bashfully for comparison at the young Hasidic boys milling around the yard. She wore the silver ring that David had sent her, and when one of his brothers arrived, she asked him to read her the letter that came with this prenuptial gift, which must have been dictated to the Zasławie scribe, for not even a tsaddik’s son would be able to write easily in the sacred language at such a young age, and she asked again and again, until she had learned the entire letter by heart, though there wasn’t a word in it about her or him, just solemn sayings, pledges, and quotations from Shir Hashirim. All this she did, until finally her husband elect began to take shape before her yearning yet fearful eyes. She imagined his skin the color and sleekness of olive oil, his tight, springy sidelocks, his round eyes staring from under his hat, and his narrow, boyish shoulders wrapped in the black of a festive bekishe. She imagined that once they were finally standing beneath the chuppah, he would gaze at her as at a lily among thorns, an apple tree among the trees of the forest, a dove in the clefts of the rock.
There was haste when her future father-in-law and his entourage arrived in Liściska to draw up the tenaim, which was to tie the two families together with a knot of marital and material affairs, and set a date for the wedding. Reb Eliezer and Reb Gershon had hastened to drink a toast to the health of the young couple, Rebbetzin agit had hastened to shatter a pair of china plates against the floor to mark completing the agreements. David must have been in haste too; just as Shira had imagined him, in faraway Zasławie he had been imagining her figure, her eyes, her voice. There was haste, because all the signs and prophetic dreams, all the answers that both tsaddiks received from the Eternal to the questions in their prayers led them to believe that, like all the previous marriages in both families, the union of Shira and David was registered in heaven. Only the Liściska scribe Reb Symche was not in haste, as for many evenings he sat with his pens and multi-coloured inks over a sheet of parchment and wrote out the ketubah, the marriage contract, which was to join the betrothed couple forever. This ketubah came out beautifully, adorned around the rows of black letters with images of the sacred sites, a picture of the Temple, drawings of flowers and trees, doves and foxes, as flowery and colorful as the papercut mizrathat hung on the eastern wall in the main chamber of Reb Gershon’s house. But when at last two years had passed and it came to her wedding day, Shira was too overwhelmed to hear much as the ketubah was solemnly read out, and she only admired Reb Symche’s beautiful script and drawings once the din of the seven-day wedding party had gone quiet, the klezmer bands had stopped playing and left the town, and the tables set for the local poor had vanished from the streets. By then the noise of celebration was just buzzing in her head, though neither the cheers inflamed by honey, wine, and hooch, nor the frenzied wail of clarinets, concertinas, and fiddles, nor the clowning performed by the badchan, nor the choral Hasidic wailing had deafened her remembrance of the moment when a decked-out britzka harnessed to six horses entered the manor gateway amid an escort of Zasławie Hasidim, whom Reb Eliezer, by special permission of the governor, had dressed up as Cossacks, singing a wedding niggun specially composed for the occasion, with no words at all, just a thunderous yombi-yombi-yom pulsating with joy, or of the very next moment, when David, awaited and imagined for two long years, stood there before her, no less fearful and delighted than she was, shining with the black of his shoes, his silk bekishe, the fur shtreimel on his head, and the white of his stockings and his wedding kittel, and for the very first time they looked each other in the eyes. The sense of elation was stronger than the shyness, so they could not tear their gaze from one another, as with trembling fingers he lowered the veil over her face and recited the wedding speech, as the guests solemnly intoned: “Our sister, may you become thousands, the mother of thousands, of ten thousands, and may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them,” as she circled him seven times in the ritual dance, while he impatiently turned his head to follow her, and as at last, beneath the chuppah that obscured the stars of a spring evening from their view, he placed the wedding ring on her finger. At one of these moments, joyful as the most fervent prayer, she was beset by the strange, unsettling observation that the face of her betrothed was indeed as she had expected, the color and sleekness of olive oil, but that this dusky, olive tone had an overlay of whiteness, semi-transparent, but clearly visible, as if his skin were sewn from the same material as his wedding kittel or a funeral shroud. Though hardly a word of the entire ceremony remained in her mind, not even the text of the nuptial blessings, her most enduring memory was of the flawless white of the wedding attire, hers as well as his, for she was dressed in a gown that shone like the wings of a dove, and the unsettling whiteness of his skin. She also remembered sips of wine the color and sweetness of blood, the crash of glasses shattering against the ground, the trembling of her legs and heart, the quivering of both their voices, drowned in a chorus of joyful cries of “Mazel tov!,” and the look in his eyes, which said ever more clearly that he was in haste: to enter the yichud room, where for the first time they would be alone together, to reach the moment when they would break their day-long fast and sit down to golden chicken broth, when they would unwrap their wedding presents: a silver Chanukah menorah, a Seder table set, a tallis smelling of starch, the next morning, when he would wipe away her tears and comfort her as she sobbed for the loss of her hair, shorn for the first time in her life, and the day when the wedding would finally come to its end and they would live together, when they would tell each other things they did not understand, and start their communal life, adult, sacred, and mysterious.
At that point, like any girl or boy standing beneath the chuppah, she thought all this haste was not the result of human desires and decisions, or human impatience,  but of more significant causes than those of individuals: the monthly pulsating of her blood, the cycles of the religious year and the even more powerful cycles of Jewish life, greater than the life of any Jew, let alone Jewess, and that since in David’s eyes, apart from youthful shyness she perceived tremulous impatience, as if he feared that what he was being given might instantly be taken away, it only meant that David was already eager for that life, stretching before them without end, that he wanted it to be filled as soon as possible with offspring, wisdom, godliness, people’s respect, maybe wealth too, all the various goods that God’s blessing might send down to a Jew. So she was in haste too, they were both in haste. They hastened on the first Shabbat eve after the wedding celebration, and then for the next dozen, no, the next twenty or thirty nights, as in dense darkness she waited, clenching her teeth with fear, feeling the light touch of his trembling fingers, for him to be intimate with her, for the monthly cycle of her blood to couple with the cycle of a life mightier than she, for this powerful life, regulated in accordance with the sacred order, to take deeper hold of them, and they would both become its, Jewish life’s, humble servants forever. But they hastened in vain, for some reasons David could not be intimate with her, although she waited patiently. He doesn’t know how, she thought, maybe he’s afraid, and surely that was true, he was afraid, but not as she had thought at first; he wasn’t afraid of life, but of death, as she finally discovered. This was why he and his family had been in haste, as she discovered one night when he sank heavily onto the bed, then curled up beneath the quilt, racked by a fit of shivering, and in the darkness she could sense that it wasn’t the same as on previous nights, the shiver of helpless weeping, but of fever. She put a hand to his brow and felt the heat of a burning oven, then David suddenly coughed hard, and in the thin streak of moonlight that came creeping through the blinds, she saw that the white bedclothes were stained by a splash from his mouth, which when she leaped up and lit a candle, glinted ominously with the red of blood.
Less than a year later there was haste to allow him to pass on, there was haste, despite the teachings of the Talmud that hastening someone’s death is close to murder, there was haste, for although he was dying quickly, he was in torment, and it is said that the final agony is worse than the actual dying. As the Angel of Death insistently forced its way into their house, the old women recognized it in various forms—one day a vagabond with silver hair turned up with a begging bowl, another time, so they said, a black, winged shape flitted over the house at midnight, glittering with a thousand eyes—so nothing could help: none of the several doctors summoned, nor the requests, tinged with angry resentment, of both pious men to the Almighty, nor the communal fasts, nor the family prayers. Also to no avail was changing David’s name to Yosl, to mislead the messenger. On the final day his advent was heralded by Reb Gershon’s prophetic dream, the nearby cawing of a raven, and the distant, but audible, howl of a dog in the goy district, and that night too the behavior of the domestic cat, who for no visible reason raised his hackles, leaped up from his place on the bench by the kitchen stove, and darted out of the window. When at last the Angel of Death burst into the house, although to all but the dying man it was invisible, they knew that it too was in haste, for before David Yosl had fully opened his eyes wide with terror, a drop of deadly bile had dripped from the blade of the angel’s sword into his gaping mouth, which he choked on painfully, spouted blood one last time, and finally died, and all the gathered assembly had to do was to draw aside in reverent awe, for the black messenger to leave as fast as it had entered. Once it was all over there was more haste, as the Liściska funeral fraternity hastened to complete the posthumous ritual in a single day according to tradition: to wash the dead man, clothe him in a wedding kittel, whose whiteness this time was the white of mourning, wrap him in the tallis his father-in-law had given him as a wedding present, place shards on his eyes, and to the laments of the mourners that set the panes of glass shaking in the houses they passed, to escort him in a black crowd of Hasidim and townsfolk to the cemetery, known for the mollification of mortal powers as the house of life, and say Kaddish.
Meanwhile, as Shira sat shiva with the rest of the family, perching on a low stool for seven days according to the custom, in coarse clothing borrowed from her sister, without bathing or brushing her hair, lacking the strength to make a sound, and thus reciting her mourning prayers silently, just by moving her numb lips, in this endless period of mourning numbness she had the thought, which afterwards she considered over and over again, that if indeed what her father, mother, and the godliest of the godly Hasidim said was true, that whatever happened, it happened as it was meant to happen, because adult matters of life and death are sacred and mysterious, then perhaps, she told herself, all this nuptial haste had served to tie her not so much to life, Jewish life, any kind of life, as to death, which unlike life is not a Jewish thing, but universal and equal, for everyone, it occurred to her, Jew or goy, Ruthenian or Pole, even cows, goats, hens or cats die in the same way, alone and usually in torment, so perhaps the truth was that she had been married to death, that unlike her older siblings she had been sacrificed, perhaps because she was the last one, the youngest, but in fact, she told herself, she was still alive, death had not yet chosen her as it had chosen David, it was they, the living, who had given her away to death, she was still alive, only a few years had passed since her first blood, which though unclean, was still the blood of life, not like the blood that had burst from David’s mouth, the blood of death, so if it was true that life and death were two sisters, like Shira and her older sister Hadasa, surely one should love them both the same, yet she could sense that unlike her and Hadasa, those two sisters did not love each other in the least, on the contrary, they tussled in mutual hatred, so perhaps, she thought, things were entirely different from how everyone imagined, maybe the wedding haste that had taken her nowhere but to a low stool in the corner of a dark room had stumbled by itself, maybe the cycles of Jewish life were spurred on by sanctity and tradition to win the race against death, which though pacified with ingratiating words, was not the sister of anyone living, and then she thought, and considered over and over again, that there was one more life, which did not belong to anyone except her, not a Jewish or a Gentile life, but her life, Shira’s life, and she started looking for it in everything that had happened over the past year between her and David, that timid, unfortunate boy, in their mutual embarrassment, in those moments at the dead of night when he had tried in vain to become a father, though not entirely adult himself, and finally she found it, she found life in the soft touch of his fingers, in his whispers and his breathing, in the ticklish down on his face and between his legs, she found it in him, David, perhaps from the very start she had sensed that it wasn’t life but death that dwelled within him, just as his family had sensed it, and had hastened, in the short time granted him by fate, to fulfill the most important, Jewish commandment, and yet she found life in what had succeeded in occurring between them, she found the spark that had survived David and remained inside her, in her room, her bed, her hands, on her skin, a spark that was warm and moist, and when, six months after the mourning period ended, Reb Eliezer made an offer for Shira to marry his youngest son, Boaz, for it is advisable for the younger brother of a Jew who has died without heirs to take his place at his widow’s side, she did not feel fear, because she realized that during the toughest period of mourning, those seven days spent sitting on that stool in the corner with her eyes fixed on her own inner depth, she had already found and chosen other eyes for herself in that depth, and in them she had lit, like a spark, that sacred life for which she could not yet find a name, or maybe she was afraid that as soon as she uttered it, if only in her thoughts, she would commit a grievous sin, and they were his eyes, the eyes of Boaz, whom she had seen twice before now, at the wedding and after the funeral, she had kept them in her mind and would not let them go, and when at last Boaz drove up in a britzka with the wedding retinue, entered their house and stood before her to lower the veil over her face, she looked him in the eyes with her head raised and made sure that the spark was burning there, though she alone was aware of it, though it was lit by her hand alone, not his, and once they were standing beneath the chuppah, she knew what this spark, this life, was called.
As a result, Shira was not in haste. And when on the first Shabbat eve following their marriage Boaz put out the candle and came to sit on the edge of the bed, when she saw his hands shaking as he undid his shirt, she told him too, now that she’d been matured, not just by blood but also by death and the experience of mourning, mature though still a virgin, she told him: Do not be in haste. When he became intimate with her, the spark of life flared with such force that she was afraid a demon may have entered her, but no, she quickly thought through all the rites, all the signs that had been sent, and assured herself that no demon had access to her, this marriage joined her with nothing but life, adult and sacred, and thus for the first time understandable, she let life feel at home inside her, and she could tell that grace and good fortune were taking up residence within her. Once it was all over and the sheet was stained with blood again, this time the blood of life, and Boaz, a boy younger than she, began to whisper a thankful Shema Yisrael, with a damp hand she closed his mouth, as a way of telling him that now they were bound together by a vow that was even stronger than they had imagined: now they were married to life, greater than Jewish or Gentile, Ruthenian or Polish life, or any other life at all, life that stretched from the earth to the sky, to the bottom of the sea and the tops of the mountains, deep inside the heart, and the veins, and the bowels of everyone alive. She was no longer in any haste, not even to see their child, when at last she sensed, and she sensed quickly, that it was inside her, that it was growing, she just waited patiently for it to be born, matured by the trials she had been through.
Four years later, the support guaranteed by his father-in-law in the marriage contract, which allowed Boaz to devote himself fully to studying the Torah, came to an end, and he had to decide what next. During this time, every day except Shabbat, from daybreak to late at night, he had conscientiously spent hours and hours at the beth midrash, poring over the tractates of the Mishnah and the Gemara, the works of the great mystics and Kabbalists, Arizal, Ramak, and Ramhal, the books of the Zohar, midrashim, collections of responsa, lives of the Besht and other holy tsaddiks, and though he made excellent progress, though at Reb Gershon’s request he engaged in debate with rabbis visiting Liściska or itinerant maggidim, and shone with mental acuity and knowledge, at the same time, in secret from his father-in-law, he subscribed to Jewish newspapers, published in both languages, sacred and ordinary, also Russian ones, for in even greater secrecy he was learning Russian, and, in the most profound secrecy imaginable, he was corresponding with Zionists who, despite certain statements in the Torah and the Talmud that in their view forced Israel to remain in exile to the end of time, dreamed of restoring the Jewish state in Palestine. Shira did not keep him company in his studies, such matters were not appropriate for a woman, she took care of the house and the children, once a week she baked challah, made cholent and lit the Shabbat candles, but she did see those newspapers, textbooks, and letters, kept under lock and key in the desk drawers and concealed in hiding places behind the books on the shelf, things not found in any Hasidic home, and certainly not her father’s home, and she knew what they meant, so she was not surprised when one day Boaz solemnly told her: “The sacred knowledge is not enough,” and then added, as if in answer to her question: “Neither for me, nor for the Jews,” and then he announced that he planned to continue his studies, but not at the beth midrash, neither the one in Liściska or any other, in clouds of pipe smoke, fumes of hooch and honey, amid Hasidic dancing and humming, in the intoxicating yet closed circle of godliness that leads, of course, deep inside the human heart and deep inside the world, but after all, he explained to her, in this world “deep inside” meant just the same as “nowhere,” the world was not heading deep inside but forwards, and if the Jews did not get moving, if they isolated themselves from the world behind a wall of religious volumes and a chorus of prayer-house singing, the world would at best forget them, and at worst trample them. So it always has been, he explained, they have trampled us, because we are strange, no one knows better than we do how to read, how to puzzle, how to think, how to split hairs, of all the nations we are the wisest, the most thoughtful, but the only books we read are religious works and ledgers of accounts. When Shira timidly asked what in that case he intended to do, whether he would continue his studies at a yeshiva in one of the neighboring towns, he sighed and said no, not at a yeshiva, though for the Hasidim a yeshiva is a school of heresy anyway, at the yeshiva he would go on studying the Talmud, he could at most train for a rabbinical exam, but he was as eager to become a rabbi as a tsaddik. “In other words I do not want to go to a yeshiva at all,” he said, in an even quieter tone than hers, as if uttering the most hideous blasphemy, “I want to do real studies, at a Russian university.” “Goy studies,” she whispered, at which he merely nodded, rather than saying it, even in a whisper: Yes, goy studies. Shira knew what this meant, she realized that he was sure to be condemned as an apostate, he might even be excommunicated and disinherited, and she knew what it could mean for her, for their family, but Boaz was saying all this without anger or rebellion, without contrariness or disdain, but instead with the calm conviction of a young sage. Finally he added out loud, maybe to justify himself: “I do not have a calling to devote my life to studying the Scripture,” so she laid a hand on his cheek and replied that she understood, and it was true, she trusted him, she accepted his extraordinary resolution like any other gesture on his part, soft and tender, youthful, and at the same time brave and manly. Calm took precedence over fear within her, because life was burning inside her, sacred life, she could feel it not just in herself, in Boaz, and between the two of them, but she could also see it embodied in their two little sons, healthy, bright and laughing, and she knew the name of this life, which in god-fearing Jewish families was never pronounced, perhaps it was considered too sublime to be called what happened between a husband and wife, though deep in her heart Shira was sure that some passages in the Shir Hashirim, such as this one: Behold, thou art fair, my love, thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies, or this one: How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse, thy lips, O my spouse, drip as the honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue, and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon, and also this one: I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse, I have gathered my myrrh with my spice, I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk, and more obscure passages too, more piercing, though she had not yet guessed what they might portend: By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth, I sought him, but I found him not, or this one: I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone, my soul failed when he spake, I sought him, but I could not find him, I called him, but he gave me no answer, thus deep in her heart Shira was sure that these passages in Shir Hashirim, despite what was taught by the rabbis, tsaddiks, and authors of women’s prayerbooks, not only spoke of the marriage of the people of Israel with the Eternal, but also, perhaps chiefly, of what was happening within her, in Boaz, and between them, in their life, which was meant to be boundless. She knew the name of this life, and so she felt that if she said to him: “All right, if you do not want to become Reb Boaz, but a merchant or even an engineer, a doctor of medicine or of law, then I believe that God will bless you in this decision,” she felt that if she said that to him, this hot, moist life would be speaking through her. Only later on, after everything, so she named it in her heart, after everything, for in fact everything had already happened in her life, so after everything, she thought, and then considered over and over again, that nevertheless she had been wrong, that words are always wrong, that only this hot, moist life, meaning love, for that was the name it bore, which she never uttered aloud, only love could not be wrong.
They were all wrong, she thought, as for the second time in her life she sat on a low stool in the corner of the room, and that thought was as loud as a scream, desperate, perhaps blasphemous, but the life that was burning inside her, the spark, though shrunk to a pinhead, yet still bright, was telling her she had a right to this blasphemy, because anyone who had lost everything, or very nearly everything, would be forgiven everything, or very nearly everything. Those who tried to console her by saying that the Almighty, may He be blessed, had favored her with the martyrdom of twofold mourning, thus He had marked her out for inscrutable purposes, and she should accept His judgment in utter humility, were wrong. Also wrong were those who claimed that the Eternal had punished Boaz for dissenting, like those who had defied His will in the desert, by casting a golden calf and worshipping it, for whenever a Hasidic son decided to become a merchant, doctor, or engineer, what else was he doing but choosing the golden calf, and after all, they whispered venomously, as if behind her back, though she could hear their whispers clearly, he who stays at home does not wear out his boots, and that is just how an apostate ends. Wrong as well were those who rebuked the venomous by saying: Stop it, an evil tongue is worse than an evil hand, and tearfully repeated the Hasidic words of wisdom: The saying is, do not pray and do not study, as long as you do not anger the Eternal, so how, they lamented, did such a very young, devout and upright Jew anger Him? Was it merely because instead of praying, studying the Torah, singing niggunim, and one day becoming a tsaddik, sermonizing and blessing Jews in need, he preferred to learn the trade of a merchant, a doctor, or an engineer? Can it be that the Eternal sent His avenging angel to Kiev, where Boaz had gone to inquire about attending college, and, unable to find him in the big city, the impetuous angel unleashed a pogrom there, so the goy rabble could trample and club him to death, as if by chance? Could the Eternal have not said to His messenger, just as He once told him about Job, that holy man from the Land of Uz: Lo, everything he has is in thy power, but do not lay a hand on him, or perhaps this: Lo, he is in thy power, but preserve his life? No, the angel was given free rein and used it to the full. It began with a pogrom that erupted in faraway Kishinev. Two days later, it was described in minute detail, with false sympathy, by The Kievan, a newspaper that had baited the Jews for many years. There was a vast swarm of Jews in Kiev, drawn to the place on business from all over Ruthenia, heedless of the fact that for the past quarter of a century, every now and then in the cities of the Empire somebody would seize a stone, an ax, and a cudgel, growl: “Damnable Yid!” and at the head of a mob go and even the accounts, in which to his loss slovenliness, deviousness, and drunkenness were at work, and to the Jew’s profit the thrift and prudence of the eternal exile. The blacker the city became with gaberdines, kashkets and hats, the larger the crowd that thronged at the great Karpukhinsky synagogue on the Shabbat, the more Jewish merchants traded corn and dried fruit and nuts at the Rye Market, the less fire was needed to ignite a conflagration. Whenever one erupted, nobody knew where it had happened first, where the fists, sticks, and firebrands had come from, perhaps from the settlements of the working-class poor on the banks of the Dnieper, none of the Jews was sure, because for a couple of days, since the article in The Kievan had stirred the mob into action, snarling threats had been running through the city: “We shall deal with you even better than they did in Kishinev,” and the Jews, already quite familiar with such promises, and aware that they were usually fulfilled, flitted along the walls of the houses with their heads down, and anyone who could sat in hiding, not going outside at all, but waiting for the snarling to fall silent. But Boaz knew none of this, he did not live in Kiev, where Jews were constantly threatened, cursed, or dragged off to the cells on any excuse, until they learned to catch the mood swings, like changes in the weather, to sense an imminent pogrom in the air like an approaching storm. Boaz was not capable of that because this was his very first trip to the city. At close of day, he alighted from the train, and then rode, probably in a droshky, to Khreshchatyk, where Reb Chaskiel lived, his cousin, who was at odds with his Hasidic family, and with whom he was to stay for the duration of his exams. Chaskiel had promised to come and fetch him from the station, but he had not appeared, so Boaz had reached the address he’d been given on his own, no, he had not reached it, because just then the fists and cudgels had forced their way into Padol, the district inhabited by Jews, and what cudgel or fist could have resisted the temptation, seeing a stray Hasid in the middle of the street, a skinny little youth, trembling under a long bekishe, clutching a leather suitcase, his astonished eyes staring from under his hat. But they were wrong, thought Shira, those who complained that it was unjust, such as her mother. Wrong too were those who justified the Lord of the world for extending His punishing finger and pointing out poor Boaz to the Gentile mob, such as Reb Eliezer, who, obdurate in his merciless severity, could not forgive his son for wanting to be Russified and for applying to a Christian university. Also wrong were those who lamented that not just the death of Boaz, but the entire Kiev massacre, in which at least a dozen people were killed, four times as many were beaten up, several dozen houses were burned down, stalls at the Rye Market were smashed, windows in the stores and the synagogue were broken, Jews’ beards were cut off and girls were dishonored, just like the Kishinev massacre before it, yet another of the numerous pogroms that had run through the Russian and Little Russian lands like a forest fire on a torrid day ever since the Jews had been accused of the fatal attack on Tsar Alexander, though in fact of all the Russian and non-Russian rulers Alexander had been the most sympathetic to the Jews, for which they requited him with sincere reverence, so they were wrong, those who lamented that these pogroms were a sign that the Eternal had abandoned the Jews for good. So had said Reb Yakov, for instance, perhaps in a moment of weakness. But her father was wrong too, thought Shira, when on hearing Yakov speak these words, he had raised a bony finger and, shaking his beard, thundered at him that on the contrary, it was a miracle that despite so many calamities and misfortunes the Jews were still there, and indeed, it was a sign, but only of the fact that they truly were the chosen people. The tone of his voice and his raised finger alone would have sufficed to silence the debate, so Yakov had held his tongue, but Reb Gershon had gone on shouting, returning as if incidentally to Boaz, saying that if Boaz had sinned in any way, it was in refusing to take part in the Jewish mission to improve the world. And that all the greater honor was due to her, Shira, because her twofold widowhood was a sign of this most sacred mission, and of the suffering that was its inevitable price. The stern tsaddiks were wrong, always quick to judge a dissenter, and not just Reb Eliezer, for Reb Gershon too had cursed Boaz when he heard that he was planning to leave for Kiev, and what he wanted to go there for. “I don’t want a Moskal in the family!” he had shouted. “You will cease to be a Jew! Get out of my sight!” He’d wagged a finger, taking no notice of either Yakov’s calm appeals to restrain himself from uttering words that carried too much weight, or the lamentations of agit, who by turns begged her husband to forgive Boaz, and Boaz to change his mind and ask for forgiveness, nor did he heed the humble gaze of Boaz, who stood in silence with his head drooping, without at the same time nerving himself to make any gesture of apology or conciliation, nor did he notice Shira’s sobbing, or even the moment when she finally fainted at the terrible sight of her family falling apart before her very eyes. Reb Gershon was wrong. Those who thought they knew the answer were wrong. Those who helplessly admitted that they did not know it were wrong. Those who asked it at all were wrong. All of them were wrong. 

Life was not wrong, death was not wrong, tussling in mutual hatred, they were not wrong jointly and they were not wrong individually, but they spoke a language that none of the living was destined to understand, and he who judged that he did understand it incurred a penalty, in truth not always, because the word “always” was wrong too, but sometimes, according to some arcane decrees. The Scripture was wrong. Words were wrong. But Aronek and Itzok were not wrong, whenever they came home from the cheder, where they were taught those erroneous words, and ran into the yard, and Shira heard their unerring laughter, greeted them with an unerring embrace, and felt the unerring warmth or the unerring chill of their cheeks. Their eyes, their fingers, and their tears were not wrong. Those people were wrong who whispered, ever more often and more boldly as the years went by, that she would be well advised to marry again, because the children should have a father, and she was still young. Those people were wrong who then shook their heads and said that the Talmud advised against it, because even if a widow has a roof of gold over her head, she is still a widow, and a twofold widow is a katlanes, a murderess, and no betrothed could feel safe at her side. Those people were wrong who sent offers to Nachman the matchmaker, though more rarely than in the past. Those people were wrong who, at the sound of her name, crossed their fingers just in case, and hid their children behind their skirts, cape, cart, or fence whenever they saw her in town, to stop her from casting an evil spell. She, Shira, was not wrong, in her darkness, her ignorance, and her silence, because as she had once thought, and then considered over again, first of all a person learns to speak, but not until later to be silent, and only one who is silent is never wrong.

Copyright © Golem by Maciej Płaza, 2021. Published with arrangements by Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal, 2021
Translation copyright © Antonia Lloyd-Jones. The translation of this extract from Golem by Maciej Płaza was produced with the kind support of the Polish Book Institute's Sample Translations Program.

Maciej Płaza, Ph.D (the author), born in 1976, is a Polish writer and translator. He is the author of the monograph O poznaniu w twórczości Stanisława Lema (On Cognition in the Work of Stanisław Lem) and three novels: Skoruń (Sluggy), Robinson w Bolechowie (Robinson in Bolechów) and Golem, which brought him several literary awards in Poland. He is renowned for his translations of H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and Mary Shelley, and his scholarly works about Fredric Jameson, Marjorie Perloff and others.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones (the translator) has translated works by many of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists and reportage authors, as well as crime fiction, poetry and children’s books. Her translation of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by 2018 Nobel Prize laureate Olga Tokarczuk was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. For ten years she was a mentor for the Emerging Translators’ Mentorship Programme, and is a former co-chair of the UK Translators Association.


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