Chapter 1

I see the small town in which I was born. It is majestic and beautifully built. Łaskarzew is located some seventy kilometers from Warsaw, roughly halfway between the capital and Lublin. The town has a central square, bordered on all four sides by two-story red-brick buildings. The town’s broad sidewalks, edged with ornamental trees, crisscross the town. Two streets leading to nearby villages and towns extend from three of the square’s four corners. The fourth corner, where the church stands, has only a single street, which winds its way out of town for about a kilometer and a half through fields to the train station on the Warsaw-Lublin line. The town is surrounded by pastureland. To the north, there is also a pine forest, housing both the Jewish and Christian cemeteries. Past the pines, the forest turns deciduous and develops a thick undergrowth. South of the town flows the Promnik, a tributary of the mighty Wisła , Poland’s longest river.

The town was home to some five hundred Jewish families and twice as many Christian ones. My father came from a large family. My grandfather had six sisters and brothers, and his wife – my grandmother – also had a brother and sister in town. All were blessed with children and grandchildren, so that my family tree was made up of dozens of households and hundreds of individuals. They were all rooted deeply in the town. Most had shops and made their living trading with the townspeople and the surrounding villages. On Tuesdays – market-day – villagers from all around would stream into town to sell their produce and buy various goods.

Like many others in the family, my parents had a small department store where they sold food and storage bins for coal and wood. My father was a religiously observant Jew, but his interests were varied. He used to read all sorts of books, both in Yiddish and Polish, and from time to time, also looked at books in Esperanto, a language he had learned as a youth.

Most hours of the day found my father in the store, from early in the morning until late at night, as was customary in the town. When customer traffic thinned out, in the intervals between one customer and the next, he would take out a book from under the counter and immerse himself in the life of the mind, until the bell hanging from the front door would tinkle and jar him back into his humdrum routine:

On cold winter nights

in the unheated shop

on a dark side street

the wind raging outside,

not a living soul is out.

Hours pass, no customers enter,

but still the shop doesn’t close

as the rivals stay open.

I’m sitting next to my father. I’m afraid of falling asleep. The horror stories the older boys at heider have told are vivid in my mind. The bigger kids have heard stories about attacks and murders of entire Jewish families, and these are reported in the press almost daily. My father has also read about them and is aware of them, but he tries to protect me, hide the truth from me, and downplay the ghastliness. He seats me on the counter and tells me children’s stories. He reads me a lovely fairytale and his low voice calms me, makes me forget the anxiety that otherwise grips me. Slowly I start to identify with the heroes of the story and envision myself traveling through enchanted lands. My eyes close. When the new day breaks, I awaken in my warm bed and I’m again filled with energy, looking forward to the adventures and games awaiting me at school.

Not so on Friday nights. The shop is closed. The ceramic stove at home diffuses a delightful warmth. The table in the living room is covered with a white cloth; the silver candlesticks hold the burning Sabbath candles. The family has finished the festive evening meal and the house is full of guests. My beautifully dressed mother serves light refreshments. My sister, older than me by three years, helps out, her face beaming with happiness. My father, dressed in his Sabbath best, a skullcap on his head, reads some Sholem Aleichem [1] stories out loud. The house is filled with the sanctity of the Sabbath. I sit in a corner, listening raptly to my father’s lilting voice, eagerly hanging on to his every word. Pleasure and contentment fill my body and soul.

On the Sabbath day, the morning prayer service at the synagogue is followed by lunch and a nap. Afterward I accompany my mother as she visits relatives. Oh the bliss! It’s not only the pastries and cookies and sweets I’m served: the main thing is the chance to play with my cousins who, like me, have joined their parents making family calls. And if my luck really holds out and I get to see my cousin Rachelka – well, then, my happiness knows no bounds.

Rachelka is a second cousin my own age. She has blond hair and blue eyes. For some reason, a particular memory of Rachelka in a little white dress with blue polka dots and with a blue ribbon entwined in her tiny braids, stands out. We were always together, as if two sides of a coin. When it’s nice outside, we play hide-and-go-seek. She hides and I seek. I seek, but can’t find her because Rachelka is spirited and fast. She finds hiding places that no one else ever has. I, for one, would certainly never have dared to hide where she does. She climbs a ladder to an attic, or enters a locked storage shed through an open window she then closes from the inside. It’s only when I’m on the verge of completely giving up and I stop looking for her that she suddenly emerges, a cry of victory on her lips. I’m embarrassed by my failure. Offended, I quit the game and go to the neighbor’s yard. There, among the poplars, I peek through a hole in the fence and feel jealous when Rachelka continues to play with the other kids. She pretends she couldn’t care less, that my sadness can’t touch her. I feel like crying, but then I hear the rustle of light steps. I sit and wait for Rachelka to sneak up behind my back, cover my eyes with her hands, and make me guess, “Who’s there?” I go through the names of all the other kids who were playing in order to vary the routine of the game and postpone its end. As my head is embraced by her arms the touch of her fingers pleases me. I finally say her name, whereupon she sits down next to me and tries to appease me.

“All right, then. Tell me a story. Nobody tells stories like you…” she begs. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for and the stories have already come together in my mind.

“Once upon a time there was a little princess. She had blue eyes and blond braids with blue ribbons entwined in them…”

When accompanying my mother to visit her friend Sarah, I sit on the floor and play with blocks. Boy – can they talk! They go on and on. But at some point I start to listen. You hear a lot of interesting things this way.

Once I heard my mother saying to her friend that she wants to tell her something clever I did. Immediately, I’m all ears. In my innocence, I think she’s going to speak about a fantastic trick my friend and I came up with. We’d tie a string to an old wallet, put the wallet out as bait for a passersby, and cover the string with earth. Then we’d hide behind the bushes and wait for someone to stop and bend down to pick up “the find”, whereupon we’d yank the string back, run away quickly, laughing uproariously. But it soon becomes clear that I’m wrong. Mother hasn’t changed her mind about that particular trick and is still incapable of appreciating it. It seems she persists in thinking it’s inappropriate for well-brought up children.

This is how I came to the conclusion that parents always get it wrong.

So what does she consider clever? Apparently, it’s what I said to the fishmonger’s wife, who also happens to be a relative. One day I ran into her and she asked me why my mother hadn’t stopped in to buy fish for the Sabbath. Instead of telling her the truth – that a farmer had given my mother a great bargain on carp – I told her that, instead of carp, my mother had made the fish course out of the kippers we sold at our own store.

So that’s what my mother considers clever. If you ask me, it’s not at all clever. Even a baby knows it’s stupid to upset an aunt who hands out nuts to all the kids when we visit her during the Passover and Sukkot [2] holidays. First, we like to play with the nuts, and then, after the game is done, we crack the shells and feast on the yummy tidbits inside.

So would I go ruin it all for a little bit of fish? Besides, I’m always being told it’s forbidden to lie and that liars are punished by God. It makes me wonder if this rule doesn’t apply to fish. Go figure when it’s permitted and when it’s not…

I started heider when I was around four. Our schedule consisted mostly of play with a little bit of learning. We used to learn in small groups based on age and our ability to concentrate and understand. When one group is learning, the other groups are busy playing different games. The older boys teach the little ones all the games and, they in turn, pass this sacred knowledge on to even younger kids, so the tradition of play is passed from one generation to the next. The games weren’t always fun; some were downright upsetting, especially when we were still considered little and the bigger boys picked on us. When we played with nuts, marbles or buttons – lo and behold! – older guys would somehow always win and clean us out. But time was on our side, because when we grew up and studied the games more closely, especially the tricks, we found ways to protect what was ours. Sometimes we even won. When a new crop of children arrived, they were the new kids to fleece.

Aside from losing my precious assets, I had something else on my mind in those years. But the problem was solved thanks to my friend Pinhas, who had earned the nickname “Pinny the Bastard.” Why bastard? Nobody knew, just as nobody knew how anybody got stuck with any nickname. Every boy had one; without it, he was incomplete. In any case, Pinny the Bastard came to my side. It all started when Moshe the Baker decided to build his bakery in – of all places! – the middle of our playground.

There was an empty lot next to our heider where we played ball in our spare time. Well, not exactly “ball.” We didn’t have one, so we used bits of wood instead. A kid would throw a stick to the kid standing in the goal. He would then bat the small stick away with a bigger stick and try to send it flying far away. The kid who managed to snatch it would toss it towards the goal. If it fell a few feet from the goal, it would be his turn to man the goal and bat the stick away. It was a fun game, but there was a catch. Any time a stick would whack one of the bakery’s windows and shatter the glass, Moshe the Baker would immediately run outside to chase me, snatch the cap off my head, and present it to my father as evidence that I was to blame for the broken pane. The demand for damages would follow. Even if I hadn’t been playing, my hat would end up in Moshe’s hand, because the baker knew that his best chances of reimbursement lay with my father.

One time, ironically, his own son, Yankele – called Yankele the Fool, who also went to heider with us, broke the window. He threw the stick right at his dad’s bakery. As usual, the outraged baker ran outside, grabbed my cap, and went to my father. He swore on God’s name that, with his own eyes, he had seen me breaking his window. Nothing I said about it having been Yankele made any difference. Go argue with a Jew who swears on God’s name: you wouldn’t dare call him a liar. For the sake of peace and good neighborly relations, my father shrugged bitterly once again and paid to have the window replaced.

I couldn’t get over it. How could a Jew lie, swear falsely in God’s name, just to save himself a little bit of money? How was he not ashamed of accusing me, knowing I’d done nothing wrong? I wanted revenge, but had no idea how to get it. I discussed the matter with Pinny the Bastard who, after some careful thought, had an idea. And when Pinny makes plans, you can trust him with your life. Because he’s a born leader, no kid dares go against him.

So Pinny set the rules for the next game. “Now we’re playing lottery! And here’s what we do. We take a hat from one of the kids and put scraps of paper in it; half the scraps are white and the other half are brown. The kids who draw white scraps are the losers and have to pay buttons to the kids who draw brown scraps.”

So this time of course, it’s Yankele the Fool who has to give up his hat; Yankele, the son of Moshe the Baker. We put all the scraps of paper in his hat. In the meantime, as we’re all engrossed in the game, Pinny throws a stick through one of the bakery’s side windows. He starts to shout, telling all the kids to run. The kids scatter every which way, including me, holding Yankele’s hat in my hand. At this point, as I’m running, I stuff my own cap under my shirt and put Yankele’s hat on my head. Then I slow down. As expected, Moshe the Baker, in hot pursuit, catches up to me and without as much as a by-your-leave snatches the cap off my head. I keep my back to him on purpose, hunch down and burrow into my overcoat, covering my face with a coattail. He won’t be able to say for sure who I am. As soon as Moshe has the cap in hand, I run like a frightened dybbuk [3], taking a shortcut through people’s backyards and enter my house through the back door. I take up my position behind the curtains. I peek out into the front yard and see Moshe the Baker stomping up to my father’s shop, no doubt intending to demand reimbursement for the broken window. This is the right moment for me to stroll in nonchalantly, wearing my own cap, and deny the accusation. I stand behind the counter, next to my father. I take the hat and turn it from left to right and from right to left. With utmost confidence, I finally identify it as the cap belonging to none other than Yankele the Fool, Moshe the Baker’s own son. I see the baker go pale. Apparently he too has now recognized his son’s cap. He loses his confidence. He grows confused and starts stammering out an apology. My father takes advantage of the opportunity to take him to task, saying it’s not nice to accuse the boy (that is, me) all the time without trying to ascertain the real culprit. Moshe the Baker, his head hanging low, makes his disgraceful exit from the store.

I gleefully tell Pinny the story. From that time onwards, I am free to play as I wish without any interference.

Whatever time was left over after playing was spent learning. Generally, the studies didn’t present me with any particular difficulty. The little we learned I absorbed right away. The stories from the Torah had always fascinated me. On more than one occasion, I continued to read on my own out of curiosity. I didn’t have the patience to wait for the rabbi to continue the story the next day.

On the Sabbath, when my father quizzed me on the weekly Torah portion, I was filled with pride. I’d see my mother stop her own reading, listen and take pleasure in hearing me read from the Torah, translate the Hebrew text and explain it, even using Rashi’s commentary [4].

After winter’s end, with the coming of spring and summer, on the Sabbath and Jewish festivals, I would join my parents as they wandered through the forest, or relaxed on the grass growing along the riverbank. There, we’d run into our aunts and uncles, who lovingly fussed over us, their contented children. Time passed peacefully. We kids would run around splashing water on one another, or build sandcastles and little pools for the tadpoles we fished out of the river with our hankies.

Many of my friends hung out there too, but in my memory the figure of Rachelka stands high above everyone else. She appears before me, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes angry or unsure. She’s standing above me, looking at a game I’m engrossed in: building sand barriers around an ants’ nest under a tree in the forest. I’m making it difficult for the ants to transport the cake crumbs I’ve crumbled for them. Every time I give them a larger crumb, I ramp up the level of difficulty. I’m transfixed by their hard work and how they manage to overcome the hurdles and drag the food back to their nest.

Rachelka takes no interest in the world of ants. She tries to draw me away, but I’m immersed in the crumbs making their way into the nest. Rachelka doesn’t give up easily. When she fails to persuade me with words, she uses inducements. She shows me the little purse her parents have bought her as a holiday gift with a comb and a small mirror in it. According to her, the comb and mirror are for me. I stare at the comb and lose interest in the ants.

I offer to undo Rachelka’s braids. She consents. I comb the hair that sweeps past her neck and onto her shoulders. From the ribbons that were entwined in her braids, I make a crown to fit her petite head. Then I pick asters and daisies to decorate the crown. Because a princess must have a crown and Rachelka loves being a princess, especially the princess in my stories.

When the crown is perfect and her head is bedecked, I lead her to a golden chariot harnessed to six white horses and we set out on a journey through the forest. The forest is full of strange animals, including wild beasts. Now we hear the distant roar of a lion and then the howling of wolves. The howls are growing closer; the nickering horses become nervous as they sense the approaching pack. There’s no need to urge them on, because they start a frantic gallop. The chariot sways wildly from side to side; it’s creaking, straining, close to coming apart. The horses panic and we lose all control. They continue their frenzied motion, the wolves at their heels. My princess is scared, her face pale, though she insists she’s not afraid, sure that I have a magic spell that will save the day. Her grip on my hand is hard so that she won’t be thrown from the carriage. The situation is dire: the wolves are ready to pounce and tear at the horses. The tension peaks: the horses rear up, the carriage is lifted in the air and overturns and we spill out onto the forest floor.

Rachelka presses up against me. A light, pleasant shiver runs through her body. Entwined, we both tremble a little. And then I decide that the moment is right: I remove the magic flute from my pocket and play the magic tune. When it spreads through the forest, all the animals settle down. The wolves turn aside and make way for the horses which stop their mad gallop. The wind whistling through the treetops blends with the melody. The birds join in the singing and an all-encompassing choir accompanies the magic flute. The whole forest is singing now, the song reaching from one end to the other. This is how everyone knows that the princess is passing through.

It’s been close to a year since I last played with Rachelka. I’ve stopped accompanying my mother on her Sabbath rounds lest I run into my cousin. I don’t go where she might see me. I take detours around her house so that I won’t bump into her. If I see her approaching at a distance, I quickly run down an alley, leaving her no time to call out my name. And it’s all because of Motke the Clown, whom I fear to death. Don’t get me wrong. Motke isn’t violent or strong; he doesn’t threaten or hit. No, no. On the contrary, everyone hits him: his parents, the teacher at heider and the other kids. He’s tall, but skinny like a stick. He couldn’t make a muscle if his life depended on it. But he runs fast and can climb like a cat. If you try to chase him, he slips out of your grasp and just like that, climbs up a balcony pole, hops onto a woodshed roof, and from there runs to the edge of the roof and hoists himself up. Now he’s on the roof itself where he crawls on all fours to the topmost gable. He stops at the very edge of the roof and stands up. It’s the only place he feels safe because no one will follow him up there. Motke stands tall, grasps his coattails and holds them out like wings, waggling them and calling out, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” His imitation of a rooster is perfect. When we hear the call, we all gather on the ground and look up at him. It seems as if, any second now, the wind is going to knock him off his perch, but he holds his ground and laughs at us all. Well, if laughter were it, that would be one thing, but once he starts his imitations all you can do is pray that you won’t be his next victim.

Sometimes, when we’re playing in the lot as usual, Motke suddenly descends the stairs without bending his knees, his head tilted forwards. He shrugs his shoulders, furrows his brow, scratches his chin, and you see the teacher right there in front of you, or at least his identical twin. A second later, he shrieks in the teacher’s high-pitched voice, “You little imps!” and everyone rolls on the ground, trying to hold their laughter in.

Motke the Clown picks on boys who play with girls. Woe is me if he finds out I’ve been playing with Rachelka. He won’t say a thing, but it’s enough for him to exaggerate some movement of yours for everyone to burst out laughing. I can’t take the risk, which is why I flee the house when Rachelka and her mother come to visit. My heart longs for her, but I can’t embarrass myself in front of her and tell her our games are over because I’m afraid of Motke the Clown. My world is dust and ashes. She’s the only one who appreciates my stories and inhabits them. When the story is sad, Rachelka is sad, and when the story is happy, I see how her eyes and face shine with joy. If in the course of my story I manage to outwit someone or score some victory, she claps her hands and jumps up and down with delight.

I walk about dejectedly. I don’t dare approach my cousin. Especially tough are the days leading up to Tisha B’av [5]. The teacher is telling us about the siege on Jerusalem; the fall of the walls, the destruction of the city and the Temple, the thousands of dead and tens of thousands of survivors being led into captivity in chains, only to be thrust into colosseums to fight wild beasts with their bare hands. They suffer every kind of agony to the sound of the laughter of their enemies sitting in the seats above them, as they are devoured. At night, I wake up from nightmares and tremble in fear, pull the blanket up over my head, lie down and continue to think about the teacher’s stories.

“How great it would be if the ending were different,” I think, and imagine a battle in which the victory goes to the defenders. In my imagination, the enemy armies are pushed back and defeated. They scatter every which way and the defenders are in pursuit. But my heart is not in it. I’m uneasy. I try to remember why: Motke the Clown, of course. This time I see him chasing Rachelka and forcing her onto the roof. I try to save her and hold her tight. He’s pulling her one hand while I’m pulling on the other, calling for help and not leaving her.

“Oh Hershela! Let go of the blanket. Mamale’s right here. Don’t be afraid. It was just a bad dream. Come, come.” I let go of the blanket and sit up in bed. My mother embraces me and strokes my head until I’ve calmed down and start dozing off. She then lays me down and arranges the blanket around me just so. She asks, “Son, what were you dreaming?” I’m sleepy. I turn onto my side and say nothing. I tell my dreams only to Rachelka, because only she can feel the sensation, express the wonder, and ask me to tell her more and more, as much as my imagination can produce. And only she will praise each and every story when it ends.

It’s the day before Tisha B’av. My friends and I are searching for cow parsnips, which produce burrs. We collect them to throw into the beards of the men walking to synagogue at night for the recitation of the Book of Lamentations. These burrs catch in their beards and get all tangled up. It is only with extreme patience that these little sticky pellets can be teased out and even when taking great care, several beard-hairs get yanked out. The custom evolved to make the mourners lament the loss of the Temples in Jerusalem even more acutely. My friends and I chase the men and throw the burrs at them until sunset, until we forget all about the mourning. When it turns dark outside, I head home. The house is dark. On this night, no lights are turned on. Only a single candle flickers in a corner, as it does in other Jewish households.

I’m thirsty from running, but I don’t drink. Tisha B’av is a fast day and even children participate in it. It’s true that kids get a break – we only fast from sunset until the following morning. In the evening, my father takes me to my grandfather’s synagogue. The mourning is palpable. We remove our shoes and sit down on the benches that have been turned on their side, so that we’re sitting very close to the floor. I look at the men’s faces: how sad they look, how gloomy their eyes. Each has withdrawn into his own thoughts; there’s no conversation. From time to time someone lets out a whisper or a sigh, which is followed by more silence. Until the cantor begins chanting the Book of Lamentations with a breaking voice: “How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people…” The cantor reads a verse and the men repeat it in a murmur; many choke back sobs. No lamp is lit here either. The candles held in front of the books to illuminate the text create long shadows that flicker on the walls.

The heavy sadness intensifies my yearning for Rachelka. I feel around for my shoes, pick them up, and go out in my socks. I sit down on a bench in the yard, put my shoes back on and look at the stars dotting the sky. My feet lead me to Rachelka’s house. I hang around outside for a bit. I’m ashamed to enter. But despite the dark, Rachelka sees me. She comes out and, without saying a word, takes my hand and leads me indoors. We climb to the second story in silence, Rachelka leading the way. I think, “How did she notice me in the dark? No one else saw me, only she. Her heart must have felt my sadness.”

We sneak into her room and sit down in the dark on the floor, our backs leaning against the wall. In a whisper, I start telling her all I learned in heider about this day of mourning. Rachelka leans her head against my shoulder. I play with her hair and feel the tears wetting her face. “Would you like me to change the story a little and make it a little less sad?” I ask.

“Sure!” She’s happy at the thought. This time, the story is better. I spin it out the way I imagined it that night when I lay awake in bed. I describe the victory of the defenders over the armies besieging the city, and how those defeated armies flee and scatter every which way. The crowds emerge from their homes in song and dance and the Levites accompany the festivities with their harps. The jubilant sounds of the trumpets and shofars [6] , announcing the victory over the enemy, can be heard for miles. The hills surrounding Jerusalem echo and transmit the news of the deliverance throughout the land.

When I’m done, Rachelka exclaims, “But why didn’t you tell me your story to begin with?! It’s a thousand times nicer than your teacher’s version.” Both of us know the truth, but my story has comforted her a bit. And, as additional comfort, I tell her what I heard my mother say,

“People say that during one of his campaigns of conquest, Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, came to a remote village. By coincidence, it was the eve of Tisha B’av. The synagogue was filled with Jews in mourning reading the Book of Lamentations. The emperor wanted to know what was going on, so the community elders explained to him that the Jews were mourning the loss of Jerusalem and the exile of their people. The emperor asked, ‘When did all this happen?’ They answered, ‘Two thousand years ago.’

Napoleon was dumbfounded. He thought a moment, then spoke: ‘When a nation, after so many generations, mourns the exile from its land and the loss of its independence, there is no doubt in my mind that it will return to its home and once again live there as a free people.’”

Rachelka heaved a sigh of relief. “I’ve missed your stories so much.” I felt my face grow red and was happy that the room was dark so she couldn’t see me blush. Still, I wasn’t brave enough to admit to her that it was only because of Motke the Clown that I’d avoided her.

A short while later we were able to meet daily again. Both Rachelka and I were registered to attend the first grade at the elementary school. Fate placed us in the same school and the same class, even though the town had two schools and several classes per grade. We sat next to one another in class and played together at recess.

My daily routine changes. In the morning, I’m at school. At the end of the school day, I go home to eat lunch. Afterwards I attend heider for three or four hours, and only then am I free to do my homework. Therefore, I have little spare time except for short school vacations, the long summer vacation and the Jewish holidays. At heider everything goes on as usual even during school vacations, at least in the afternoons. The mornings are free for playing with old friends and new ones from school. At the same time, I almost always make sure to meet up with Rachelka.

We called our meeting places by names only we knew. If we decided to meet next to “The Thick Tree,” it meant a certain bend in the river where an especially thick tree spread its enormous top to shade a large part of the lawn going down to the water. At that particular spot, the water was delightful – neither too deep nor too shallow. We’d bathe there and then dry off in the sun, or play in the shade of the enormous tree.

I had learned to swim a bit and tried to teach Rachelka. I’d hold her up in my arms and direct her feet to kick. I also showed her how one could swim on one’s back. “You just have to put your head in the water to a little above the ears and move your hands around. You’ll see how you float.” She agrees on condition that I support her from below to make sure she doesn’t drown. From time to time I let my hand sink. She panics and grabs me around the neck. I take advantage of the opportunity to hug her tight. We leave the water. I run and she gives chase. I run around the tree and she tries to catch me, until neither of us can catch our breath. I throw myself onto the grass and pull her down next to me. We sit together quietly. I help her up, both of us feeling we’ve transgressed in some way. We look at one another and burst out laughing.

Another meeting place was “The Twins,” which lay in the forest. The Twins were two pines growing from the same trunk. At about two feet off the ground the branches grew horizontally in opposite directions, creating a sort of natural bench. Then, six or seven feet apart, the trunks straightened up and grew like two separate trees. We’d meet here early in the morning in the spring to hike in the forest, breathe in the scent of the flowers and the fresh air, and talk and play.

One spring morning, as the early birds are just starting to chirp, I’m already in the forest, at The Twins, waiting for Rachelka. She appears wearing a white dress, a blue ribbon circling her head and a light breeze ruffling her hair. In the pale morning light it looks as if a golden halo hovers over her. Her eyes, so enchantingly beautiful, are casting around for me. To me she looks like an angel descended from heaven and rising with the first rays of the sun. It also seems that I, too, am growing wings and they are lifting me ever higher. I’m flying! And Rachelka is flying next to me, though her voice seems to be coming from afar, “Herschele, what happened to you? Don’t you recognize me? Why are you looking at me like that?”

I rouse myself and answer: “Rachelka – how can you say ‘don’t you recognize me’ if I see an angel in you?”

I had a close friend named Moishele. We went to the same elementary school and spent much time together outside of school as well. Moishele, like me, was a chubby boy. His eyes and curly hair were coal black. He was always well dressed – neat and clean at all times. He doesn’t stand out in class and at recess he’s mostly off by himself. Shy and modest, he sits in silence and doesn’t raise his hand even though he knows the answers. When he is called to the board he grows flustered. Suddenly he becomes confused and makes a mistake, but before long he catches his error and fixes it before the teacher reprimands him. He’s careful about doing his homework. His notebooks are tidy and his answers correct. His dictations and exams always earn excellent marks.

We didn’t hit it off right away. At first we didn’t find one another especially interesting, until one day on our way home, we both fell into a trap sprung by bullies. As they attacked, we defended ourselves as well as we could; we got beaten up, but we also got in some licks of our own. We both emerged smarting and bruised, our clothing mud-covered and torn. We looked at one another. He motioned dismissively with his hand and said, “It’s too bad we didn’t do any better, but even so they’ve learned their lesson. Now they know not to start up with us again.” When we neared his house, Moishele invited me in to wash up and scrape off the worst of the mud.

His mother, a young, short, thin woman, looked like a teenager. Her son didn’t take after her. The only thing he inherited was her black curly hair, which fell playfully across her face. When she saw us she took fright and interrogated us closely about our wounds. Once it was clear that the damage was all superficial she calmed down. She put a basin on a bench in the yard, poured some water in, brought out a bar of soap, and told us to wash up. She helped me clean my clothes. She even found a safety pin to temporarily hold my shirt together. After helping her son clean up, she called us inside and asked me to stay a while because she wanted us to have some of the pie she’d baked for the Sabbath.

Their house consisted of a single room divided into two by curtains pieced together from old bits of cloth prettily printed with checks and circles in cheerful colors. The living room was on one side of the curtain and the family bedroom on the other. A wide bed was covered by a white sheet and there was a bunk bed for the kids. The furniture was made of simple planed pine board. Another curtain, a twin of the large one, separated the bunk bed from the parents’ bed.

To the right of the entrance, in the corner, there was a built-in cooktop. Shelves holding orderly stacks of plates, glasses and mugs bracketed it on both sides. On the right, under the shelves, was a box covered with a wooden platform: this was the kitchen table. The pots and pans were inside the box. To the left of the entrance, under the window, there was a low table strewn with working materials: wooden dowels, bits of leather, thread and other shoemaking needs. There were two wooden stools next to the table, their seats made of woven leather strips. The middle of the room was occupied by the dining table flanked by two benches. There were two portraits on the wall: one showed a man with a white beard, the other depicted a woman. They apparently were the mother’s parents because it was possible to make out similar facial features.

Moishele’s mother is really nice. She seats us at the table with a warm smile, pours water into the kettle and puts it on the cooktop to boil. She puts several pieces of pie on a plate and urges us to eat while we wait for the water to boil for tea.

In the meantime, a little boy of three or so bursts into the house, sits down next to Moishele, and directs an unbroken stream of questions his way, “Why is your sleeve torn? Why are you blue under your eye? Who scratched your face?” He doesn’t wait for an answer before spitting out the next query.

“Stop asking so many questions!” his mother says. “Take a piece of pie and go play outside. Can’t you see Moishele has a friend here? Leave him in peace. He’ll tell you everything later on.” But Moishele’s younger brother doesn’t move from the table.

He looks at me and says, “Oh, I know! I can tell you were fighting; boy-oh-boy, what a fight!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. If you want to stick around, then keep quiet or I’ll kick you out of here,” Moishele warns.

His mother serves us tea. We sip it at leisure and gobble down the pie. Suddenly, the little boy yells out with glee, “Tata’s here!” He hops down from the bench and runs outside. His mother also goes out to meet her husband. I turn around and see a solid, muscular man holding his wife under her arms, lifting her off her feet, and spinning her around as if she was a little girl.

“Stop it, Yitzhakel, you’re embarrassing me. We have a guest in the house.” He pays her no attention, only embraces her and glows with joy. The little boy clings to them. His mother holds him in her arms while her husband lifts a full sack bound around the middle off the ground. The family then enters the house.

I stand up. I intend to leave so as not to get in the way, but Moishele’s father stops me. He sits down next to us, looks at us in astonishment, and says, “So, you’ve already gotten into a fight. Who decorated you like this?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, and says, “It doesn’t matter. I can see nothing really happened to you. Just don’t give up easily. For every blow you take, dole out two.”

Moishele’s little brother has used the opportunity to open the sack. The father starts emptying the contents onto the table. In smaller bags are various staples: wheat flour, pearl barley, buckwheat, cheese, butter, fruits and vegetables. He opens a bag containing fruit and gives each child an apple. For me he picks out an especially shiny one. He turns to his wife and says, “And you, my girl – you think I forgot?! For you, my one and only love, I’ve brought a piece of sheep’s cheese. The taste of paradise, I tell you!” He takes out a large, dark loaf of bread, cuts several slices, spreads butter on them and tops them with pieces of cheese. The first he gives to his wife, “Have a taste, my beauty, the joy of my heart. May God be blessed for having made you my wife and the mother of my children.”

“Yitzhakel, you’re embarrassing me again,” she says, though in her voice you can hear the sound of happiness.

From that day on, Moishele and I became fast friends. I visited him frequently. His parents were always considerate and calm. His father, Yitzhak, was happy in his lot. He’d sit at his work table wearing a blue apron, his sleeves rolled up, a skullcap on his head and hum a tune in time to his work. He’d tap in a nail, sew a stitch, patch, add soles, polish and shine. He clearly enjoyed his craft. His wife, Sarale, would clean, cook, wash and mend. Everything was clean and bright. Both were content and good-hearted.

I became a fixture at their house. I’d do homework with Moishele and speak with his parents. They were very open with me, sometime even sharing their wishes and dreams.

When Yitzhak leaves the house to wander through the villages to return shoes he has mended and collect others for fixing, Sarale grows sad and asks her sons to pray to God. “Ask the Blessed One Be He that Tata come back safely, because the times have changed.”

[1]Pen-name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich (1859 Ukraine-1916 New York), a leading Yiddish author and playwright. The musical Fiddler on the Roof is based on his stories about Tevye the milkman.
[2]A major Jewish festival observed in early autumn. It both commemorates the sheltering of the Israelites in the wilderness and celebrates the summer crops.
[3]In Jewish mythology, a dybbuk (literally “something that clings”) is a malicious spirit – the dislocated soul of a dead person – that enters an unsuspecting victim and takes possession of it.
[4]Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105), a French rabbi, wrote a commentary on the Talmud and the Hebrew Bible. His commentary on the Five Books of Moses has long been considered the essential companion for any study at any level, drawing as it does on the breadth of Midrashic, Talmudic and Aggadic literature. It was accepted as authoritative by all Jewish communities already in his own lifetime.
[5]The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av is a fast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. It occurs in either July or August.
[6]A shofar, typically a ram’s horn, is blown to produce a loud sound and is used in the Rosh Hashanah service.