1927 Fourteenth Street is still, a stage before the actors have taken their places, before the audience has been admitted. No one sits at an open window to catch a vagrant breeze. No one lounges on a stoop for a late summer gossip about Babe Ruth’s record-breaking season.
So no one sees a tall young woman, head erect, dressed all in black, making her way with prideful carriage along the sidewalk. No one wonders at how, despite the muggy August night, she shivers in her tightly clutched shawl.
The shouts emerging from the etched glass doorway of one of the small burgher brownstones - shouts of “madwoman” and “witch” - dissipate unheard on the damp, empty night. A heavy door slams.
Midway down the block, the tall young woman lifts her unfashionably long skirts and breaks into a run, running fast, like someone pursued, or in pursuit, east and south, towards the crowded, noisome immigrant quarters of the city.
If there were onlookers, persons of particularly credulous natures, they might believe they see the very air part before her; a sooty mist, parting and then swirling behind, in a wake of spinning dust devils.
But on this late Saturday night in August, the good citizens of 14th Street don’t fan themselves at open windows or socialise on stoops, their trouser legs rolled to the knees. No one sees. No one hears.
When Rachel was born, the midwife tied a crisp red ribbon to her blanket to ward off the attentions of the evil eye. One could never be too careful.
In those days, women knew that spirits were everywhere. They danced along Clinton Street and spun like dervishes through the tenements of Hester and Rivington. Spirits flowed along the gutters of Cherry and Henry, Broome and Delancey.
Men might accuse their wives of being superstitious, silly. But women understood things that men never saw. No one, for example, accused Rabbi Meyer’s second wife of poor housekeeping when her Friday fire failed to last long enough to cook the sabbath stew, although it happened again and again. Among the congregation, the rabbi and his family were regular Saturday supper guests. Clearly, it was the rabbi’s first wife, who died of the influenza, up to mischief.
And what, if not spirits, did people mean when they said that Weiss’s son Schmuel took after his great uncle Emmanuel? Wasn’t Manny dead of drink and bad habits a good five years before Schmuel was even born?
It was all very well for men to have their endless conversations with God, but one had only to look around to realise that God was frequently too busy to listen. Where would the world be if women didn’t tend to the practical magic?
So, there were formulae to be whispered, glasses to be overturned, pinches of salt to be thrown for every piece of dropped cutlery, itchy nose, misplaced shoe. Every newborn babe wore a spot of red, a bit of yarn or a sprig of ribbon, in its bunting, to distract untoward attentions.
Once Rachel’s eldest sister Sarah had taken the baby for a bit of fresh air. Sgt. O’Halloran had stopped to admire Rachel and her pretty brown eyes. He had been shocked to see Sarah slap the baby’s face and spit on the ground. Even a 10-year-old child knew about the evil eye. Later, when Sarah told her mother about this unanticipated jinx, Sophie had reassured her. The evil eye does not bother about Irish policemen who don’t know any better, she said. Still, she lit an extra memorial candle that night, reasoning that, amongst five thousand years of relations, it must have been someone’s anniversary and it never hurt to have a little help from the other side.
It was widely understood that spirits were neither evil nor benevolent. And every household had a few; you cannot be a wandering people for millennia without taking your restless ancestors with you from one place to the next. However, as a tall tree attracts more lightening in a dense forest, some people attracted spirit company and spirit mischief more readily than others. How else to explain the blacksmith’s misfortune? A gentle man who gave credit without expectation of payment and looked after his evil-tempered mother until she died; he was a mainstay of the synagogue and so soft-hearted that he gave more than he could afford to every good cause. But, when he finally married, a crowd of malice descended on his household. His pretty wife was barren and almost as foul-tempered as his mother had been. There was the fire that burned down his stable and killed two horses. And then, with his livelihood in ruins and his nagging wife telling anyone who would listen that she could have done better, six cousins from Minsk turned up on his doorstep and had to be fed.
Then again, there was the extraordinary abandon of Muttel the Shoemaker’s prayers; a man so quiet and modest you could look straight at him and forget he was there. Saturday mornings in schul, the women watched him, through the lace curtain that secluded them, being tossed like a madman in every direction while the other men rocked quietly together. What legions of petitioners did his piety draw forth?
From the beginning, Rachel was one of these people, a lightning rod for spirits. Most infants give their mothers a few months of sleepless nights. As far as Sophie could tell, Rachel never learned to sleep through the night. She woke before dawn to talk. As the youngest of six children in a multilingual household, there were so many words to practice. English from her brothers and sisters, Yiddish, of course, some German that Jacob lapsed into when he was being pompous. Sophie even thought she heard a few of Rosa’s incomprehensible Rumanian curses. Rosa, married to Sophie’s younger brother Abie, looked after the baby when Sophie worked.
In the hours before dawn, Sophie lay awake listening to her baby’s animated conversations with her toes, her fingers, the air, a stuffed toy that little Sarah had made...and others. Once, she was so certain that the baby had said, “Bubbie Ruchel wants flowers,” that she woke Jacob to tell him. He groaned and rolled over, muttering that a child of eight months does not say such things. Nevertheless, later that day, Sophie took housekeeping money to buy flowers for her mother’s grave. Jacob was furious. People didn’t do such things, he said. Flowers were for gentiles and other pagans who worshipped their dead. But Sophie felt oddly peaceful after she had done it. Her mother had always missed her flower garden.
Poor Sophie, sleepless baby or not, she had to rise early every morning to feed her other children before going out to cook for strangers.
It couldn’t be helped. Sophie’s skill in the kitchen had been the salvation of the family. In the old country, perhaps, it was a great honour to be married to a scholar. Sophie’s father, the gravedigger, had thought so, making room for Jacob in his home when her two brothers left to earn their passage to America.
When Jacob Isaacson, an itinerant scholar, came to town to dispute with the local rabbi, Sophie’s father was the only villager who had a spare bed. He must have thought it a miracle when the scholar took a shine to his only daughter. Big, plain and without a dowry, Sophie, at 24, was well established as a spinster. And to have a respected scholar in your household, well, besides the honour of such a son-in-law, the gifts from grateful students could not be ignored.
Jacob, for his part, was ready to settle. The town was full of young boys of an age to be taught scripture and men eager to argue Talmud with someone new. Sophie was sturdy and sensible, used to living on little. If people said her mother was a little bit strange, well, what did that matter. In these small shtetls, unschooled people said a lot of foolish things. And Sophie could cook. A man who lives for The Law and eats well besides is truly blessed.
Life in the village was relatively peaceful. Shtetl Jews had little that anybody else wanted. As long as one kept business with one’s gentile neighbours to a minimum and stayed indoors when they were drunk, a pious man could live well enough. Jacob would have been happy to stay. But the grave digger’s sons were not the first to leave for America, and they wouldn’t be the last. Every year, the number of students dwindled. Without students, a teacher cannot eat.
When Sophie’s father died, Jacob had little choice but to pack up his family, which now included his widowed mother-in-law and his three children and join the westward march.
For Jacob, America was Sodom and Gomorrah and the Whore of Babylon, bundled up in one and spewing sin in all directions. It was a place where the people lived like goyem, where they forgot where they came from and what life was really for. In the old country, Jacob believed, a man worked to eat, ate to live and lived to pray. Few of his neighbours, people who had struggled for a miserable living, keeping their heads down and making no trouble, careful not to call attention to themselves, especially during Easter, shared Jacob’s rosy nostalgia. Scholars, who spend their days and many nights in the scented holiness of the schul, have little contact with the hard realities. Jacob’s wisdom didn’t buy bread.
Here, in the new world, making money seemed to Jacob to be the whole point of life. All around him, people worked to get ahead, to be American. Whole families worked, men, women and children, to earn the mythical American Dream. And what was this American Dream? As far as he could tell, from the cheap illustrated journals he finally banned from his house, it was largely made up of white enamelled ice boxes, electrified irons, horseless carriages and scandalously immodest clothes.
In such an atmosphere, how could he persuade people that their sons should study The Law for the absolute pleasure of daily contact with the mind of God? He was too stiff-necked to do it, and few families could spare the money for such a luxury at any rate. Rabbi Meyer sent him students preparing for Bar Mitzvah. As soon as they took their turn at Torah and said their speech in the synagogue, they were gone. A few parents paid him to teach their children to read Hebrew so they could read the socialist Forward, which you read backward because it was printed in Yiddish. There was no living for a family man in these things.
In fact, for Jacob, there was no living of any kind in America. He was too frail and soft for labour. Sophie’s brother tried to get him a job at the Post Office but, even after several years, his English was too poor. When he tried to speak to Americans, he could feel the scorn of eyes that saw him as an ignorant fool. This was too much for Jacob’s dignity. Eventually, he stopped trying.
In the end, it was Sophie’s strudels and dumplings and fragrant stews that saved them all.
Just up Rivington Street, a Bialystoker named Kandel ran a small delicatessen. He sold salamis and meats that he spiced and cured himself. His wife made marinated herrings and, in the back, he kept a wooden barrel of sour pickles in garlicky brine. Sophie loved the smell of the place. She noticed, too, that people often ate what they bought before they took it home. “Wait a bissel, Kandel,” they’d say as he wrapped their purchase in crisp waxed paper. “Leave me a piece out, so I’ll see if it has any taste.”
“My grandmother’s taste, I’ll give you,” he would snap. But then he would throw in a bit extra for the sampling.
One side of the shop was lined with shelves of cans and bottles. A travelling salesman from Battle Creek had persuaded Kandel that every modern grocer was stocking these convenient foods. The wave of the future, he said. But nobody wanted expensive goyesha food they couldn’t examine and smell. The cans were dusty and their labels were beginning to fade. Sophie convinced Kandel that if he pulled out the shelves, he could set up a nice little counter and people would come for a snack, maybe even a meal. She also convinced him, with a plate of her stuffed cabbage, to give her a job.
Within a year, the little counter had turned into a cafe. Sophie fed workmen, peddlers and schmoozers all day and then went home to feed her own.
Now pride is a great waster of time and energy, but Sophie was no fool. She understood that for her husband, pride and self-respect were inseparable. She also understood the value of a peaceful household. Whatever she did in the world outside, in their home, Jacob was king. And, as might be expected of the king of such a diminished kingdom, he ruled like a tyrant. If outside his door the world was on its way to the Wrath of God, he, like Lot, would be the One Just Man. Under his roof, Tradition and The Law would be observed to the letter. It never crossed his mind that after a while it was more Sophie’s roof than his. To be fair, such a radical idea never occurred to Sophie either.
By the time Rachel arrived, Sophie had borne eight children, one still at birth and a second taken by whooping cough when he was six months old. Rachel came into a world only recently saddened by the death of Sophie’s mother, Ruchel. Still, a birth so soon after a death was meant to be a mitzvah, a blessing. The child was named for her grandmother, as Tradition dictated, and welcomed into an extended family of sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles. She was the youngest and the last, the pet of them all.
On Third Avenue, a fashionable young couple amble, hand in hand. They have been to an open-air dance in Washington Square and their festive clothes glow in the yellow orange wash of the street lights. The young man swings his cream linen jacket carelessly over his shoulder. The girl shakes her head when she laughs, a deliberate mannerism to make her cream and yellow hair ribbons bounce and rustle.
For some blocks now, the young man has been trying to steal a kiss, but every time he thinks he might, the girl pulls away and skips ahead.
When Rachel rounds the corner, they can hardly ignore her. Even in New York, a woman holding up her skirts and sprinting through the streets is an odd sight. But a shabbily dressed woman running through this district at such a late hour is probably a matter best left alone. Besides, the boy has eyes only for his flirtatious companion. And as for the girl, she is pressed by more amusing concerns. It is a fine summer night; she has been to a party; she is wearing the most perfect yellow kid dancing slippers in New York, and she has been teasing her young man mercilessly for the better part of five city blocks.
They step aside to make way for the madwoman and, as they do so, Rachel and the girl look each other full in the face. The glance is merely passing but the young girl cannot help being moved, astonishingly so. Quickly, she looks away, embarrassed and stricken. For just that instant, she believes she has seen the purest, most profound loneliness imaginable; hungry loneliness, endless, dark and insatiable. It pulls at her, draws her remorselessly, the way a dream phantom tears you from the safety of your bed to wake you in a crumpled heap on the floor, unable to give voice to your night terrors. The girl imagines she must break away or be consumed.
Searching for a rescuer, or perhaps merely a distraction, her eyes settle upon the puzzled, still eager, young man. She throws herself into his arms, clings to him, buries her face in his chest. Her delicate arms grip him like a drowner. The young man can scarcely believe his luck.