& Final Essay
Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (New York, 1975)
Chapter 1: Hester Street
I had just begun to peel the potatoes for dinner when my oldest sister Bessie came in, her eyes far away and very tired. She dropped on the bench by the sink and turned her head to the wall.
One look at her, and I knew she had not yet found work. I went on peeling the potatoes, but I no more knew what my hands were doing. I felt only the dark hurt of her weary eyes.
I was about ten years old then. But from always it was heavy on my heart the worries for the house as if I was mother. I knew that the landlord came that morning hollering for the rent. And the whole family were hanging on Bessie's neck for her wages. Unless she got work soon, we'd be thrown in the street to shame and to laughter for the whole world.
I already saw all our things kicked out on the sidewalk like a pile of junk. A plate of pennies like a beggar's hand reaching out of our bunch of rags. Each sigh of pity from the passers-by, each penny thrown into the plate was another stab into our burning shame.
Laughter and light footsteps broke in upon my dark thoughts. I heard the door open.
"Give a look only on these roses for my hat," cried Mashah, running over to the looking glass over the sink. With excited fingers she pinned pink paper roses under the brim. Then, putting on her hat again, she stood herself before the cracked, flystained mirror and turned her head first on this side and then on the other side, laughing to herself with the pleasure of how grand her hat was. "Like a lady from Fifth Avenue I look, and for only ten cents, from a pushcart on Hester Street."
Again the door opened, and with dragging feet my third sister Fania came in. Bessie roused herself from the bench and asked, "Nu, Any luck with you?"
"Half the shops are closed," replied Fania. "They say the work can't start till they got a new president. And in one place, in a shirt factory, where they had a sign, 'Girls Wanted,' there was such a crowd of us tearing the clothes from our bodies and scratching out each other's eyes in the mad pushings to get in first, that they had to call two fat policemen with thick clubs to make them stand still on a line for their turn. And after we waited for hours and hours, only two girls were taken."
Mashah looked up from the mirror.
"Didn't I tell you not to be such a yok and kill yourself pushing on a line a mile long, when the shop itself couldn't hold those that were already on the doorstep? All the time that you were wasting yourself waiting to get in, I walled myself through the stores, to look for a trimming for my hat."
"You heartless thing!" cried Bessie. "No wonder Father named you 'Empty Head.' Here you go to look for work, and you come back with pink roses for your doll face."
Undisturbed by the bitter words, Mashah finished the last stitch and then hung up her hat carefully over the door.
"I'm going to hear the free music in the park tonight," she laughed to herself, with the pleasure before her, "and these pink roses on my hat to match out my pink calico will make me look just like the picture on the magazine cover."
Bessie rushed over to Mashah's fancy pink hat as if to tear it to pieces, but instead, she tore her own old hat from her head, flung it on the floor, and kicked it under the stove.
Mashah pushed up her shoulders and turned back to the mirror, taking the hairpins carefully from her long golden hair and fixing it in different ways. "It ain't my fault if the shops are closed. If I take my lunch money for something pretty that I got to have, it don't hurt you none."
Worry or care of any kind could never get itself into Mashah's empty head. Although she lived in the same dirt and trouble with us, nothing ever bothered her.
Everywhere Mashah went men followed her with melting looks. And these melting looks in men's eyes were like something to eat and something to drink to her. So that she could go without her lunch money to buy pretty things for herself, and not starve like the rest of us.
She was no more one of us than the painted lady looking down from the calendar on the wall. Father's preaching and Mother's cursing no more bothered her than the far-away noise from the outside street.
When Mashah walked in the street in her everyday work dress that was cut from the same goods and bought from the same pushcart like the rest of us, it looked different on her. Her clothes were always so new and fresh, without the least little wrinkle, like the dressed-up doll lady from the show window of the grandest department store. Like from a born queen it shined from her. The pride in her beautiful face, in her golden hair, lifted her head like a diamond crown.
Mashah worked when she had work; but the minute she got home, she was always busy with her beauty, either retrimming her hat, or pressing her white collar, or washing and brushing her golden hair. She lived in the pleasure she got from her beautiful face, as Father lived in his Holy Torah.
Mashah kept part of her clothes in a soapbox under the bed. Everything in it was wrapped around with newspapers to keep the dirt out. She was so smart in keeping her things in perfect order that she could push out her box from under the bed in the middle of the dark night and know exactly where to put her hand to find her thin lace collar, or her handkerchief, or even her little beauty pin for the neck of her shirtwaist.
High up with a hanger, on a nail nearly to the ceiling, so that nobody's dirty hands should touch it, hung Mashah's white starched petticoat, and over it her pink calico; and all around them, an old sheet was tacked about with safety pins so she could tell if anybody touched it.
It was like a law in the house that nobody dared touch Mashah's things, no more than they dared touch Father's Hebrew books, or Mother's precious Jar of jelly which she always kept ready for company, even in the blackest times, when we ourselves had nothing to eat.
Mashah came home with stories that in rich people's homes they had silver knives and forks, separate, for each person. And new-ironed tablecloths and napkins every time they ate on them. And rich people had marble bathtubs in their own houses, with running hot and cold water all day and night long so they could take a bath any time they felt like it, instead of having to stand on a line before the public bath-house, as we had to do when we wanted a bath for the holidays. But these millionaire things were so far over our heads that they were like fairy tales.
That time when Mashah had work hemming towels in an uptown house, she came home with another new-rich idea, another money-spending thing, which she said she had to have. She told us that by those Americans, everybody in the family had a toothbrush and a separate towel for himself, "not like by us, where we use one torn piece of a shirt for the whole family, wiping the dirt from one face on to another."
"Empty-head!" cried Mother. "You don't own the dirt under their doorstep and you want to play the lady."
But when the day for the wages came, Mashah quietly went to the Five and Ten Cent Store and bought, not only a toothbrush and a separate towel for herself, but even a separate piece of soap.
Mother tore her hair when she found that Mashah made a leak of thirty cents in wages where every cent had been counted out. But Mashah went on brushing her teeth with her new brush and wiping her face with her new towel. And from that day, the sight of her toothbrush on the shelf and her white, fancy towel by itself on the wall was like a sign to us all, that Mashah had no heart, no feelings, that millionaire things willed themselves in her empty head, while the rest of us were wearing out our brains for only a bite in the mouth.
As Mother opened the door and saw all my sisters home, the market basket fell from her limp arm.
"Still yet no work?" She wrung her hands. "Six hungry mouths to feed and no wages coming in." She pointed to her empty basket. "They don't want to trust me any more. Not the grocer, not the butcher. And the landlady is tearing from me my flesh, hollering for the rent."
Hopelessly, she threw down her shawl and turned to me. "Did you put the potatoes on to boil?" Then her eyes caught sight of the peelings I had left in the sink.
"Gazlin! Bandit!" her cry broke through the house. She picked up the peelings and shook them before my eyes. "You'd think potatoes grow free in the street. I eat out my heart, running from pushcart to pushcart, only to bargain down a penny on five pounds, and you cut away my flesh like a murderer."
I felt so guilty for wasting away so much good eating, I had to do something to show Mother how sorry I was. It used to be my work to go out early, every morning, while it was yet dark, and hunt through ash cans for unburned pieces of coal, and search through empty lots for pieces of wood. But that morning, I had refused to do it anymore. It made me feel like a beggar and thief when anybody saw me.
"I'd sooner go to work in a shop," I cried.
"Who'll give you work when you're so thin and small, like a dried-out herring!"
"But I'm not going to let them loon down on me like dirt, picking people's ashes." And I cried and cried, so that Mother couldn't make me do it.
But now, I quietly took the pail in my hand and slipped out. I didn't care if the whole world looked on me. I was going to bring that coal to Mother even if it killed me.
"You've got to do it! You've got to!"" I kept talking to myself as I dug my hand into the ashes. "I'm not a thief. I'm not a thief. It's only dirt to them. And it's a fire to us. Let them laugh at me." And I did not return home till my pail was full of coal.
It was now time for dinner. I was throwing the rags and things from the table to the window, on the bed, over the chairs, or any place where there was room for them. So much junk we had in our house that everybody put everything on the table. It was either to eat on the floor, or for me the job of cleaning off the junk pile three times a day. The school teacher's rule, "A place for everything, and everything in its place," was no good for us because there weren't enough places.
As the kitchen was packed with furniture, so the front room was packed with Father's books. They were on the shelf, on the table, on the window sill, and in soapboxes lined up against the wall.
When we came to America, instead of taking along feather beds, and the samovar, and the brass pots and pans, like other people, Father made us carry his books. When Mother begged only to take along her pot for gefulte fish, and the two feather beds that were handed down to her from her grandmother for her wedding presents, Father wouldn't let her.
"Woman"" Father said, laughing into her eyes. "What for will you need old feather beds? Don't you know it's always summer in America? And in the new golden country, where milk and honey flows free in the streets, you'll have new golden dishes to cook in, and not weigh yourself down with your old pots and pans. But my books, my holy books always were, and always will be, the light of the world. You'll see yet how all America will come to my feet to learn."
No one was allowed to put their things in Father's room, any more than they were allowed to use Mashah's hanger.
Of course, we all knew that if God had given Mother a son, Father would have permitted a man child to share with him his best room in the house. A boy could say prayers after his father's death— that kept the father's soul alive forever. Always Father was throwing up to Mother that she had borne him no son to be an honour to his days and to say prayers for him when he died.
The prayers of his daughters didn't count because God didn't listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men. Women could get into Heaven because they were wives and daughters of men. Women had no brains for the study of God's Torah, but they could be the servants of men who studied the Torah. Only if they cooked for the men, and washed for the men, and didn't nag or curse the men out of their homes; only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into Heaven with the men to wait on them there.
And so, since men were the only people who counted with God, Father not only had the best room for himself, for his study and prayers, but also the best eating of the house. The fat from the soup and the top from the milk went always to him.
Mother had just put the soup pot and plates for dinner on the table, when Father came in.
At the first look on Mother's face he saw how she was boiling, ready to burst, so instead of waiting for her to begin her hollering, he started:
"Woman! when will you stop darkening the house with your worries ?"
"When I'll have a man who does the worrying. Does it ever enter your head that the rent was not paid the second month? That today we're eating the last loaf of bread that the grocer trusted me?" Mother tried to squeeze the hard, stale loaf that nobody would buy for cash. "You're so busy working for Heaven that I have to suffer here such bitter hell."
We sat down to the table. With watering mouths and glistening eyes we watched Mother skimming off every bit of fat from the top soup into Father's big plate, leaving for us only the thin, watery part. We watched Father bite into the sour pickle which was special for him only; and waited, trembling with hunger, for our portion. Father made his prayer, thanking God for the food. Then he said to Mother:
"What is there to worry about, as long as we have enough to keep the breath in our bodies? But the real food is God's Holy Torah." He shook her gently by the shoulder, and smiled down at her. At Father's touch Mother's sad face turned into smiles. His kind look was like the sun shining on' her.
"Shenah!" he called her by her first name, to show her he was feeling good. "I'll tell you a story that will cure you of all your worldly cares."
All faces fumed to Father. Eyes widened, necks stretched, ears strained not to miss a word. The meal was forgotten as he began:
"Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa was a starving, poor man who had to live on next to nothing. Once, his wife complained: 'We're so good, so pious, you give up nights and days in the study of the Holy Torah. Then why don't God provide for you at least enough to eat ?' . . . 'Riches you want ?' said Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa. 'All right, woman. You shall have your wish.' . . That very evening he went out into the fields to pray. Soon the heavens opened, and a Hand reached down to him and gave him a big chunk of gold. He brought it to his wife, and said: 'Go buy with this all the luxuries of the earth.' . . . She was so happy, as she began planning all she would buy next day. Then she fell asleep. And in her dream, she saw herself and her husband sitting with all the saints in Heaven. Each couple had a golden table between themselves. When the Good Angel put down for them their wine, their table shook so that half of it was spilled. Then she noticed that their table had a leg missing, and that is why it was so shaky. And the Good Angel explained to her that the chunk of gold that her husband had given her the night before was the missing leg of their table. As soon as she woke up, she begged her husband to pray to God to take back the gold he had given them. . . . 'I'll be happy and thankful to live in poverty, as long as I know that our reward will be complete in Heaven."'
Mother licked up Father's every little word, like honey. Her eyes followed his shining eyes as he talked.
" Nu, Shenah ? " He wagged his head. " Do you want gold on earth, or wine of Heaven?"
"I'm only a sinful woman," Mother breathed, gazing up at him. Her fingers stole a touch of his hand, as if he were the king of the world. "God be praised for the little we have. I'm willing to give up all my earthly needs for the wine of Heaven with you. But, Moisheh"—she nudged him by the sleeve— "God gave us children. They have a life to live yet, here, on earth. Girls have to get married. People point their fingers on me -- a daughter, twenty-five years already, and not married yet. And no dowry to help her get married."
"Woman! Stay in your place!" His strong hand pushed her away from him. "You're smart enough to bargain with the fish-peddler. But I'm the head of this family. I give my daughters brains enough to marry when their time comes, without the worries of a 'dowry."
"Nu, you're the head of the family." Mother's voice rose in anger. "But what will you do if your books are thrown in the street?"
At the mention of his books, Father looked up quickly.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Take your things out from the front room to the kitchen, so I could rent your room to boarders. If we don't pay up the rent very soon, we'll all be in the street."
"I have to have a room for my books. Where will I put them?"
"I'll push my things out from under the bed. And you can pile up your books in the window to the top, because nothing but darkness comes through that window, anyway. I'll do anything, work the nails off my fingers, only to be free from the worry for rent.'
" But where will I have quiet for my studies in this crowded kitchen? I have to be alone in a room to think with God."
"Only millionaires can be alone in America. By Zalmon the fish-peddler, they're squeezed together, twelve people, in one kitchen. The bedroom and the front room his wife rents out to boarders. If I could cook their suppers for them, I could even earn yet a few cents from their eating."
"Woman, have your way. Take in your boarders, only to have peace in the house."
The next day, Mother and I moved Father's table and his chair with a back, and a cushion to sit on, into the kitchen.
We scrubbed the front room as for a holiday. Even the windows were washed. We pasted down the floppy wall paper, and on the worst part of the wall, where the plaster was cracked and full of holes, we hung up calendars and pictures from the Sunday newspapers.
Mother sent me to Muhmenkeh, the herring woman on the corner, for the loan of a feather bed. She came along to help me carry it.
"Long years on you" cried Mother, as she took the feather bed from Muhmenkeh's arm.
"Long years and good luck on us all!" Muhmenkeh answered.
Muhmenkeh worked as hard for the pennies as anybody on the block. But her heart was big with giving all the time from the little she had. She didn't have the scared, worried look that pinched and squeezed the blood out of the faces of the poor. It breathed from her the feeling of plenty, as if she had Rockefeller's millions to give away.
"You could charge your boarders twice as much for the sleeping, if you give them a bed with springs, instead of putting the feather bed on the floor," said Muhmenkeh.
"Don't I know that a bed with a spring is a good thing? But you have to have money for it."
"I got an old spring in the basement. I'll give it to you."
"But the spring needs a bed with feet."
"Do as I done. Put the spring over four empty herring pails and you'll have a bed fit for the president. Now put a board over the potato barrel, and a clean newspaper over that, and you'll have a table. All you need yet is a soapbox for a chair, and you'll have a furnished room complete."
Muhmenkeh's bent old body tottered around on her lame foot, as she helped us. Even Mother forgot for a while her worries, so like a healing medicine was Muhmenkeh's sunshine.
"Ach!" sighed Mother, looking about the furnished room complete, "God should only send a man for Bessie, to marry herself in good luck."
"Here's your chance to get a man for her without the worry for a dowry. If God is good, he might yet send you a rich boarder—"
From the kitchen came Father's voice chanting:
" When the poor seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I, the Lord, will hear them. I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them."
Mother put her hand over Muhmenkeh's mouth to stop her talking. Silent, breathless, we peeked in through the open crack in the door. The black satin skullcap tipped on the side of his head set off his red hair and his long red beard. And his ragged satin coat from Europe made him look as if he just stepped out of the Bible. His eyes were raised to God. His two white hands on either side of the book, his whole body swaying with his song:
"And I will bring the blind by a way that they know not; I will lead them in paths that they hare not known; I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them and not forsake them."
Mother's face lost all earthly worries. Forgotten were beds, mattresses, boarders, and dowries. Father's holiness filled her eyes with light.
"Is there any music on earth like this?" Mother whispered to Muhmenkeh.
"Who would ever dream that in America, where everything is only business and business, in such a lost corner as Hester Street lives such a fine, such a pure, silken soul as Reb Smolinsky?"
"If he was only so fit for this world, like he is fit for Heaven, then I wouldn't have to dry, out the marrow from my head worrying for the rent."
His voice flowed into us deeper and deeper. We couldn't help ourselves. We were singing with him:
"Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains; for the Lord hath comforted his people!"
Suddenly, it grew dark before our eyes. The collector lady from the landlord! We did not hear her till she banged open the door. Her hard eyes glared at Father.
"My rent!"" she cried, waving her thick diamond fingers before Father's face. But he didn't see her or hear her. He went on chanting:
"Awake! Awake! Put on strength, O arm of the Lord: Awake, as in ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not he that hath cut Rahab and wounded the dragon?"
"Schnorrer!" shrieked the landlady, her fat face red with rage. "My rent!""
Father blinked his eyes and stared at the woman with a far-off look.. "What is it? What do you went?"
"Don't you know me? Haven't I come often enough? My rent! My rent! My rent I want!""
"Oh-h, your rent?" Father met her angry glare with an innocent smile of surprise. "Your rent? As soon as the girls get work, we'll pay you out, little by little."
"Pay me out, little by littler! The cheek of those dirty immigrants! A fool I was, giving them a chance another month."
"But we haven't the money." His voice was kind and gentle, as hers was rough and loud.
"Why haven't you the money for rent?" she shouted.
"The girls have been out of work." Father's innocent look was not of this earth.
"Hear him only! The dirty do-nothing! Go to work yourself! Stop singing prayers. Then you'll have money for rent!"" She took one step towards him and shut his book with such anger that it fell at her feet.
Little red threads burned out of Father's eyes. He rose slowly, but quicker than lightning flashed his hand. A scream broke through the air. Before we had breath enough to stop him, Father slapped the landlady on one cheek, then on the other, till the blood rushed from her nose.
"You painted piece of flesh!" cried Father. "I'll teach you respect for the Holy Torah!"
Screaming, the landlady rushed out, her face dripping blood as she ran. Before we knew what or where, she came back with two policemen. In front of our dumb eyes we saw Father handcuffed, like a thief, and taken away to the station house.
Bessie and Fania came home still without work. When they heard that Father was arrested it was as though their heads were knocked off.
Into this thick sadness, Mashah came, beautiful and smiling, like a doll from a show window. She hung up her hat with its pink roses on her nail on the wall, and before she had time to give a look at her things in the box, to see that nobody had touched them, she rushed over to the mirror, and with her smile of pleasure in herself, she said:
"A man in the place where I was looking for work asked to take me home. And when I wouldn't let him, still he followed me. The freshness of these men! I can't walk the street without a million eyes after me."
Silence and gloom were her only answer. Mashah stopped talking; turning from the mirror, for the first time gave a look at us.
"What happened? It's like a funeral in the house."
"The landlord's collector lady was here and "
"Well? What of it?"
"She was hollering for the rent."
"Then why didn't they pay her the rent?" asked the innocent doll face. " Don't everybody pay rent ?
Mother began to scream and knock her head with her fists. "A stone ! An empty-headed, brainless stone I had for a child. My own daughter, living in the same house with us, asking, 'Why did the landlady come? Why don't they pay her the rent [. . .]" Not listening to Mother's cursing and screaming, Mashah looked about for something to eat. The stove was cold. No food was on the table.
"Why ain't there something to eat ? I'm starved."
Then Mashah caught sight of two quarters on the table that Muhmenkeh had left when she came to comfort us.
"What should I buy
for supper?" Mashah asked, reaching for the money.
Before she could get to the quarters, I leaped to the table and seized one of them.
"Mammeh!" I begged. "Let me only go out to peddle with something. I got to bring in money if nobody is working."
"Woe is me!" Mother cried. "How can I stand it? An empty-head on one side and a craziness on the other side."
"Nobody is working and we got to eat," I kept begging. "If I could only peddle with something I could bring in money."
"Let me alone. Crazy-head. No wonder your father named you 'Blut-und-Eisen.' When she begins to want a thing, there is no rest, no let-up till she gets it. It wills itself in you to play peddler and waste away the last few cents we got."
"As long as we're not working," said Bessie, "whatever Sara will earn will be something. Even only a few cents will buy a loaf of bread."
Without waiting for Mother to say yes, I ran out with the quarter in my hand. I saw Mashah go to a pushcart of frankfurters. But I, with my quarter, ran straight to Muhmenkeh.
"I got to do something," I yelled like a fire engine. "Nobody is working by us. Nobody! Nobody! What should I buy to sell quick to earn money?"
Muhmenkeh thought for a minute, then said, "I got some old herring left in the bottom of this barrel. They're a little bit squashed, but they ain't spoiled yet, and you'll be able to sell them cheap because I'll give them to you for nothing."
"No—no! I'm no beggar!" I cried. "I want to go into business like a person. I must buy what I got to sell." And I held up the same quarter that Muhmenkeh had given Mother.
"Good luck on you, little heart!" Muhmenkeh's old eyes smiled into mine. "Go, make yourself for a person. Pick yourself out twenty-five herring at a penny apiece. You can easy sell them at two cents, and maybe the ones that ain't squeezed for three cents.
On the corner of the most crowded part of Hester Street I stood myself with my pail of herring.
"Herring! Herring! A bargain in the world! Pick them out yourself. Two cents apiece."
My voice was like dynamite. Louder than all the pushcart peddlers, louder than all the hollering noises of bargaining and selling, I cried out my herring with all the burning fire of my ten old years. So loud was my yelling, for my little size, that people stopped to look at me. And more came to see what the others were looking at.
"Give only a look on the saleslady," laughed a big fat woman with a full basket.
"Also a person," laughed another, "also fighting already for the bite in the mouth."
"How old are you, little skinny bones ? Ain't your father working ? "
I didn't hear. I couldn't listen to their smartness. I was burning up inside me with my herring to sell. Nothing was before me but the hunger in our house, and no bread for the next meal if I didn't sell the herring. No longer like a fire engine, but like a houseful of hungry mouths my heart cried, " Herring —herring! Two cents apiece!"
First one woman bought. And then another and another. Some women didn't even stop to pick out the herring, but let me wrap it up for them in the newspaper, without even a look if it was squashed or not. And before the day was over my last herring was sold. I counted my greasy fifty pennies. Twenty-five cents profit. Richer than Rockefeller, I felt.
I was always saying to myself, if I ever had a quarter or a half dollar in my hand, I'd run away from home and never look on our dirty house again. But now I was so happy with my money, I didn't think of running away, I only wanted to show them what I could do and give it away to them.
It began singing in my heart, the music of the whole Hester Street. The pushcart peddlers yelling their goods, the noisy playing of children in the gutter, the women pushing and shoving each other with their market baskets—all that was only hollering noise before melted over me like a new beautiful song.
It began dancing before my eyes, the twenty-five herring that earned me my twenty-five cents. It lifted me in the air, my happiness. I couldn't help it. It began dancing under my feet. And I couldn't stop myself. I danced into our kitchen. And throwing the fifty pennies, like a shower of gold, into my mother's lap, I cried, "Now, will you yet call me crazy-head? Give only a look what 'Blood-and-iron' has done."
Chapter 20: Hugo Seelig
The windows of my classroom faced the same crowded street where seventeen years ago I started out my career selling herring. The same tenements with fire escapes full of pillows and feather beds. The same wizened, tawny-faced organ-grinder mechanically turning out songs that were all the music I knew of in my childhood. How intoxicating were those old tunes of the hurdy-gurdy! I'd leave my basket of herring in the middle of the sidewalk, forget all my cares, and leap into the dance with that wild abandon of the children of the poor.
But more even than the music of the hurdy-gurdy was the inspiring sight of the teacher as she passed the street. How thrilled I felt if I could brush by Teacher's skirt and look up into her face as she passed me. If I was lucky enough to win a glance or a smile from that superior creature, how happy I felt for the rest of the day! I had it ingrained in me from my father, this exalted reverence for the teacher.
Now I was the teacher. Why didn't I feel as I had supposed this superior creature felt? Why had I not the wings to fly with ? Where was the vision lost ? The goal was here. Why was I so silent, so empty! All labour now—and so far from the light. I longed for the close, human touch of life again. My job was to teach—to feed hungry children. How could I give them milk when my own breasts were empty?
Maybe after all my puffing myself up that I was smarter, more self-sufficient than the rest of the world —wasn't Father right ? He always preached, a woman alone couldn't enter Heaven. "It says in the Torah: A woman without a man is less than nothing. No life on earth, no hope of Heaven."
Not one of the teachers around me had kept the glamour. They were just peddling their little bit of education for a living, the same as any pushcart peddler.
But no. There was one in this school who was what I had dreamed a teacher to be -- the principal, Mr. Hugo Seelig. He had kept that living thing, that flame, that I used to worship as a child. And yet he had none of the aloof dignity of a superior. He was just plain human. When he entered a classroom sunlight filled the place.
How had he created that big spirit around him? What a long way I had to go yet before I could become so wholly absorbed in my work as he. The youngest, dirtiest child in the lowest grade he treated with the same courtesy and serious attention as he gave to the head of the department.
One of Mr. Seelig's special hobbies was English pronunciation, and since I was new to the work, he would come in sometimes to see how I was getting on. My children used to murder the language as I did when I was a child of Hester Street. And I wanted to give them that better speech that the teachers in college had tried to knock into me.
Sometimes my task seemed almost hopeless. There was Aby Zuker, the brightest eleven-year-old boy in my class of fifty. He had the neighbourhood habit of ending almost every sentence with "ain't it." For his special home work I had given him a sentence with the words "isn't it" to be written a hundred times. The next morning he brought it back and with a shining face declared, "I got it all right now, Teacher! Ain't it ? "
"Oh, Aby!" I cried. "And you want to be a lawyer! Don't you know the judges will laugh you out of court if you plead your case with 'ain't it'?"
Poor Aby! His little fingers scratched his mop of red curls in puzzlement. From his drooping figure I turned, laughing, to the class.
"Now, children, let's see how perfectly we can pronounce the words we went over yesterday."
On the board I wrote, S-I-N-G.
"Aby! Pronounce this word."
"Sing-gha," said Aby.
"Sing," I corrected.
"Sing-gha," came from Aby again.
" Rosy Stein, you can do better. Show our lawyer how to speak. Make a sentence with the word 'sing."'
"The boids sing-gha."
"Rosy, say bird."
"Boid," repeated small Rosy with great distinctness. " Boid."
"Wrong still," I laughed. "Children, how do you pronounce this ?" And I wrote hastily on the board, OIL.
"Earl," cried the class, triumphantly.
"You know how to make the right sounds for these words, but you put them in the opposite places." And I began to drill them in pronunciation. In the middle of the chorus, I heard a little chuckle. I turned to see Mr. Seelig himself, who had quietly entered the room and stood enjoying the performance. I returned his smile and went right on.
"You try it again, Rosy. The birds sing-gg."
"Sing," corrected Mr. Seelig, softly.
There it was. I was slipping back into the vernacular myself. In my embarrassment, I tried again and failed. He watched me as I blundered on. The next moment he was close beside me, the tips of his cool fingers on my throat. "Keep those muscles still until you have stopped. Now say it again," he commanded. And I turned pupil myself and pronounced the word correctly.
As he was leaving the room he turned to me with great gentleness and said, "When you dismiss the class, will you step into my office? I must see you."
The door closed. I tried to go on with the work, but my mind kept going round and round the one thought, "I'm going to see him at three. What has he to say to me? Was something wrong with my work? And yet he seemed pleased and so gentle."
His face. The features -- all fineness and strength. The keen, kind, gray eyes. A Jewish face, and yet none of the greedy eagerness of Hester Street any more. It was the face of a dreamer, set free in the new air of America. Not like Father with his eyes on the past, but a dreamer who had found his work among us of the East Side.
For the next hour I was more rattle-brained than my worst children. How could I come down to geography and spelling ? I kept looking at the clock, counting the minutes to three. The bell rang. Thank God! It was time to dismiss the class. I took a quick look at myself in the mirror, powdered my face, straightened my hair, and hurried to Mr. Seelig's office.
The moment I stepped into the room I was brought to my senses by the cold, business-like atmosphere. Mr. Seelig rose from his chair. Gravely, without even a word of greeting, he handed me an opened letter. "Perhaps you had better read this." And this is what I read:
To the Mr. Principal, school for the public.
I want you to know about Sara Smolinsky who lets her own father starve and no rent. So he should be thrown in the street to shame and to laughter for the whole world. Is it not a disgrace for the schools from America that you have a teacher learning the children who is such a mean stingy to her own blood? If you have the fear of God in your heart, you will yourself see that at least half her wages should go to her poor old father who is a smarter man as she is a teacher.
Every drop of blood seemed to leave my heart. My first impulse was to cry out to him, "It's falser. All falser" and pour out to him the whole story of my wretched life. But I simply stood there trembling like a guilty thing. How could I ever make clear to him my father? The blackness upon me was like the last gasp of drowning. . . . It's the end. He despises me. He'll send me from his school.
Mr. Seelig must have seen how I stood crushed with shame. For when I looked up, his head was turned. He was busy reading papers on his desk, as if he had forgotten that I was there.
I fled from the room. Did he call me? I thought he spoke my name. But I had no strength to turn and look at him. My hate for Father, which Mother's death had softened, boiled up in me like poison. Never would I look at him or his wife again. A blackmailer—a blood-sucker—that's what she was! This disgrace which they had heaped on me was the bottom end. I wanted to tear the roots of my father out of my flesh and bones, force my heart and brain to blot him out of my soul. But through that night of suffering, even hate bled out of me. I was a ruined thing without purpose -- without hope. I was no more.
The next day was lead. Mechanically, I dragged my feet to school. Mechanically, I went through the routine of the class work. But the children were so much dead wood in front of me. What I was saying to them, or what they were answering, made no difference. I was so tired, I saw nothing, heard nothing, and yet what was left of me was waiting for the worst to happen—condemned to lose my job -- my life condemned by him.
Three o'clock came. The blow had not yet fallen. Today, at least, I could get back to my little place and hide myself from my shame. The children seemed to crawl out of the room instead of running as usual. Aby Zucker and Rosy Stein lingered with questions about their home work. It was as if they were trying to spite my misery.
At last they were all out. And yet I had no energy to move. I stood paralyzed, waiting. . . . Suddenly, my breath stopped! There! Mr. Seelig. I felt him come in and I couldn't look up.... Let him dismiss me. I was dead anyway. . .. After a moment, I dared lift my eyes. Why, he was smiling!
"I have a compliment for you. Mrs. Stein says that Rosy is a changed girl since she has been in your class."
I just couldn't speak. It was all I could do to meet his eyes. That dreadful letter! He seemed to have forgotten all about it. He was still my friend. We walked out of the building together. At the street corner he turned to me.
"Do you take the L or car?" he asked.
"I usually walk home."
"So do I," he smiled. "I think we go in the same direction."
We fell into step and for many blocks not a word passed between us. I only felt an enveloping friendliness going out of his heart to mine. A sudden commotion! Wild shrieks jerked us out of ourselves to the street around us. A little boy who ran madly into the middle of the street for his rolling marble was caught in the crowding traffic. Mr. Seelig and I rushed over in one breath and dragged him almost from under the wheels of a racing truck.Before we could get to the curb, a woman, weeping and laughing hysterically, snatched the child from us.
"Gazlin ! Murderer! How you blacken me my days!" she cried, shaking and cuffing him. "Tatter-iu! Only to get rid of this devil once for all!" It was some moments before we could rescue the child from the animal fury of the mother.
And afterwards we became aware that we had gripped each other's hands fiercely. Something in what happened had drawn us suddenly together. We were too filled for small talk the rest of the way, and before we knew it we had reached Thirtieth Street and stood before my house.
"We've arrived. I think both of us deserve some tea after our exciting adventure."
I fairly ran in my joy and rushed to my room a whole flight of stairs ahead of him to see that everything was in order. I snatched up the stockings and wash I had drying on the radiator and threw them in the basket. All excitement, I opened the door and showed off my room for the first time. My plain room that I loved, how would it look to another? Anxiously, I watched him as he looked slowly around. "How beautiful and empty!" he cried.
I sighed with happiness. "Years ago, I vowed to myself that if I could ever tear myself out of the dirt I'd have only clean emptiness."
He nodded understandingly. How great it felt to break my long loneliness and warm up my home with another presence. I lit the lamp under the tea kettle for the first time for two instead of one.
"I like your nice dishes," he said, as we sat down.
"Because I live alone, I must have my table beautiful. It's company."
We got to talking about ourselves, our families, the Old World from which we came. To our surprise we found that our beginnings were the same. We came from the same government in Poland, from villages only a few miles apart. Our families had uprooted themselves from the same land and adventured out to the New World.
For a moment we looked at each other, breathless with the wonderful discovery. "Landsleute countrymen" we cried, in one voice, our hands reaching out to each other.
"What do you remember of Poland?" he asked, in a low voice.
"Nothing—nothing at all. Back of me, it's like black night."
"I remember a little," he said. "The mud hut where we lived, the cows, the chickens, and all of us living in one room. I remember the dark, rainy morning we started on our journey, how the whole village, old and young, turned out to say good-bye. When we came to the seaport, I couldn't eat their bread, because it had no salt. We thought we should starve going to America. But as soon as we got on the ship, they gave us so much that first meal that we couldn't touch another bite for days."
After that, all differences dropped away We talked one language. We had sprung from one soil.
"How strangely things work out," I said, with a new feeling of familiarity. "You got this blackmailing letter. And yet here we are born friends."
"Why shouldn't we be? You and I, we are of one blood."
We fell into a silence. All the secret places of my heart opened at the moment. And then the whole story of my life poured itself out of me to him. Father, Mother, my sisters. And Father's wife' with her greed for diamond earrings. As I talked my whole dark past dropped away from me. Such a sense of release! Now I could go on and on—I could never again be lonely.
"I understood everything the moment I read that letter," he said. "It's queer, how people get to know one another. That mean letter, instead of turning me against you, drew me to you. I knew you weren't that kind. As for your father, I know just the kind of an old Jew he is. After all, it's from him that you got the iron for the fight you had to make to be what you are now."
I looked at him in wide wonder. "What a mind reader you are! You understand not only me but even my father whom you've never yet seen. He used to call me 'Blut-und-Eisen."'
And then I told him of the hard heart. How I had to cut out everything soft in my life only to survive. He took hold of both my hands. "You hard! You've got the fibre of a strong, live spruce tree that grows in strength the more it's knocked about by the wind. When men go to sea they set the spruce for their mast."
We had lost all sense of time and it was dusk when he rose to go.
"Next time when we are together we must spend it outdoors," he said, "and try to remember more about Poland."
Next time! So there was going
to be a next time, my heart rejoiced! I
stood looking at his chair feeling him still in the room for hours after, and
my last feeling as I closed my eyes was: I'm no longer alone. I'm no longer
In the early morning when I swept my broom halted at Hugo Seelig's muddy footprint. He leaped up at me out of that spot on the floor. I felt again his voice, I saw again his eyes as he looked at me "You and I—we are of one blood."
Chapter 21: Man Born of Woman
One day, three months later, I walked out of school. It was a cold, drizzling rain, but my heart sang with the gladness of sunshine. That night Hugo was coming to have dinner with me. Why were my years of lonely struggle unlit by the hope that I might some day be as happy as I was now ? Why did I ever feel cheated and robbed of the life that more fortunate girls seemed to have ? And here I had so much more than my heart could hold!
But as I walked along through Hester Street toward the Third Avenue L, my joy hurt like guilt. Lines upon lines of pushcart peddlers were crouching in the rain. Backs bent, hands in their sleeves, ears under their collars, grimy faces squeezed into frozen masks. They were like animals helpless against the cold, pitiless weather.
Wasn't there some way that I could divide my joy with these shivering pushcart peddlers, grubbing for pennies in the rain? I felt like Carnegie and Rockefeller trying to give away the millions they could not spend. Why was my happiness so hard to be enjoyed? I felt like one sitting down to a meal while all the people around him were howling hungry. I felt as if all the beauty of the world that ever was ached in me to pour itself out on the people around. I felt like the sun so afire with life that it can't help but shine on the whole world—the just and the unjust alike.
A longing to see Father came over me. What had happened to him in all those months? I could stifle my conscience no longer. Wife or no wife, I had to see what I could do for him. Even his wife I could not hate any more. For after all, it was her blackmailing letter that had opened Hugo's eyes to me.
Poor women! Poor people of Hester Street ! With new pity I looked at them. I hurried on, but the verve of my winged walk was dulled by the thick, shuffling tread of those who walked beside me. My own shoulders, that I always held so straight, sagged because of the bowed backs that hemmed me in.
The sadness of it chilled the glow I usually felt when I got to my peaceful room. Hugo's red roses on my table almost I could have wept for them. So full and rich with lovely colour, so heartlessly perfect, so shamelessly beautiful that it hurt to look at them. I didn't want them if they were only for me. I leaned out of the open window and saw the city as it lay below me, sharp and black and grimy. The smoke of those houses kept rising sullenly, until I couldn't help but breathe the soot of that far-reaching tragedy below.
Ach! You—with your always guilty conscience! Why can 't you be happy when you're lucky enough to have a little respite of happiness? Why do you have to make yourself so miserable because for the first time in your life you know a little bit of love? Fool! Get yourself dressed.
I threw off my dark school dress and put on my new challis. I turned to the mirror. How becoming was that soft green with that touch of rose embroidery. How well it suited my pale skin and dark hair that I learned to braid so becomingly around my head! I hope Hugo will like it.
The telephone rang. It was Hugo, telling me that he was held up by the Board of Education meeting and asking me to join him at Orloff's Cafe on East Broadway.
So happy I was in a moment. Forgotten were the sorrows of the world. How could I most quickly get to him? I ran to the car. But when I got off at Grand Street, I was blocked by the usual jam of evening traffic. I stood impatiently on the corner with a crowd of people, waiting for the policeman to stop the stream of trucks and taxis. As his whistle sounded and we rushed for the other side, I was shoved against an old man with a tray of chewing gum. The sudden impact knocked his wares out of his hands. In spite of my excited haste to get to Hugo, I stopped to help the old man pick up the rolling packages. With my fresh handkerchief, I wiped the mud from each piece and dropped it back into his tray.
"Thank you, lady!"
At the sound of that voice, my heart leaped as though a red-hot knife had been thrust into it. The old man's face was half hidden in the collar of his shabby coat, his bony fingers trembled as he recovered his soiled stock. But I knew that face, those hands.
" Father! You—you—here ? "
He fell back against the door and stared at me, the sorrows of the whole world in his tragic eyes
"Well—well," he jerked out, his teeth clacking together with the cold. "Let the world see the shame —the shame that my daughters heaped on me. What's an old father to heartless American children? Have they any religion? Any fear of God? Do they know what it means, 'Honour thy father'? What else can I do to support myself and her? She drove me out to bring her in money."
"You let that woman boss you?" I burst out, furiously.
"Have I children like other people's children who carry their father like a crown on their heads? Have they provided for me as God-fearing children provide for an old father? With all I have done for my daughters—the morals I soaked into them, the religion I preached into them from the day they were born —yet they leave me in my old age, as they left King Lear—broken—forgotten.... God! What have I sinned to come to this? I, Reb Smolinsky—down among the pushcarts."
How changed he was! How old and suffering! He, the master—with the stoop of poverty on his back! And I had been so happy!
He began to cough, shivering with the cold. "His days are counted," my heart cried. Who would nurse him and watch over him? That woman? Mother's dying eyes rose before me. Her last words, " Be good to Father. I leave him in his old age, when he needs me most. Helpless as a child he is." I looked at Father with Mother's eyes. I saw in him only the child who needed mothering—who must be protected from the hard cruelties of the world.
"Come," I said, fighting back the tears. "It's raining hard. Let's better go."
"Where? Where shall I go? In your house shall I got"
"I'll take you home. I'll see that you get what you need."
I took his arm and led him away. He trembled against me as we trudged along. When I looked into his face, his eyes were half closed and his lips blue. He did not speak. He walked on, in silence, proud as ever.
At his door I stopped. All visions of doing things for him were checked by that door. That woman! How I dreaded facing her! But he needs me! To hell with my feelings. He needs me!
I opened the door with determination and walked in. Thank God! She was not around! I could help him. He sank back weakly in his chair, and he let me take off his wet shoes and the torn rags of stockings that clung to his old feet.
Supporting himself on me, he staggered to the bed. As I tucked the covers around him, I felt the shrunken bones where once the rounded flesh had been. How he had wasted since Mother had died! How neglected he looked! How helpless! He's like a poor orphan with a stepmother. I had hated him. But where was that hate now? Whom else had he in this world if not me? How could I leave him in his need ?
Tears strained in my throat as I bent over him, offering him some hot tea. But he pushed away the glass, muttering deliriously. In a panic, I left him and ran for the doctor. . . . How could I have hated him and tried to blot him out of my life? Can I hate my arm, my hand that is part of me? Can a tree hate the roots from which it sprang? Deeper than love, deeper than pity, is that oneness of the flesh that's in him and in me. Who gave me the fire, the passion, to push myself up from the dirt? If I grow, if I rise, if I ever amount to something, is it not his spirit burning in me? . . .
When I returned, the woman was there. She met me with hostile daggers in her eyes and a shower of reproaches.
"Now, when your father is already dying. Now you come to him," she shouted. "When weeks and months passed and we were starving, you did not come near. Now, when he has only a few hours to live, now you come, dear, kind, good-hearted, dutiful daughter."
I paid no attention to her but went to Father's bedside. He was burning with fever, groaning end gasping for breath.
"And what'll become of me now that he's dying?" she began to howl at the top of her voice.
The doctor came and examined him. As I saw him sitting by the bed, I realized that he was the same doctor who had attended to Mother. I recalled the day when he had advised her to have her foot amputated. Mother's dying eyes. The gray, cold face in the coffin. Through fogs of fear I struggled to think how best to take care of Father. Should I hire a nurse or get a leave of absence from school ? But the woman's howling lamentations would not let me think.
"What has God against me?" she wailed. "What sin have I done? Haven't I always been a good woman, an honest woman, a virtuous woman ? Haven't I nursed my first husband to his grave? Haven't I done all my duties to him, my second husband ? God! My God! Why is it coming to me to be a widow the second time?"
The doctor stopped her impatiently. "This is no time for noise," he said. " If you want your husband to get well, give him quiet."
It was not necessary to get a nurse, he thought, or even for me to be absent from school. The woman could wait on him the first part of the day, and I could take my turn in the afternoon and evening. The minute school was over, next day, I rushed back.
"Your father is worse," his wife greeted me. "He refuses to take his medicine. Maybe he can't swallow anymore. He's an old man. And it's his end."
In her eyes I seemed to see a look of secret triumph. "Soon," those eyes said, "he'll die and I'll have his lodge money to marry again." Shuddering, I turned from her and hurried over to Father.
Yes. He was worse. His eyes were closed. His cheeks burning.
"Father!" I stroked his hot hand, gently. "You must take this medicine. It will take away your fever and stop your cough."
His dull eyes opened and gazed up at me pitifully.
"I'll take it from you. Only stay with me," he begged. "I'm afraid to take the medicine from her. She might do something." His fingers closed on my arm to pull me nearer to him. But the strength had gone from that dominating hand. In weakness and helplessness the poor flesh clung desperately to me. "I'm all alone," he whispered. "She isn't like Mother. She's only waiting for my death."
A cough shook him. He groaned with pain. At the sound of his voice, she hurried out of the kitchen."Where does it hurt you? Are you feeling worse?" she asked.
"No. No. I'm better."
In her presence he tried to control his groans and hide his pain. He even struggled to sit up. His hand clutched at the bosom of my dress. "Bring me my book," he whispered. I brought it to him. His feeble fingers caressed the worn, yellowed pages of his beloved book of Job. With his last strength, his faded eyes strained to drink in the words that were his life.
Anxiety and lack of sleep had exhausted me. And in spite of myself, I dozed off at the foot of his bed. Then through the haze of semi-consciousness, I heard the woman pleading, slyly, "Tell me only, where do you keep your lodge papers? Is there any one who owes you money? Maybe you got yet insurance on your life? "
"Leave me alone," his faint voice reached me. "I breathe yet."
"But you're in God's hands. You can't tell what may happen to you the next minute. Don't forget it, you're a very sick man, and very old. You haven't the strength to fight a sickness like a younger man."
In a flash I was awake and on my feet. Never again while Father was alive would I leave him alone with her. Hugo quickly got me a leave of absence from school. Night and day, until he was well, I stayed in that house with my father. Day by day, I won his confidence and a sort of dependent affection. His old talkativeness returned. He told me legends of the Bible and explained the wisdom of the Torah. In more intimate moments he told me of his unhappiness with his wife.
"The sages of the Talmud said, a man has a right to divorce his wife if she don't salt him his soup to his taste. And mine is guilty of worse offences. She's selfish and wants to live for herself, instead of living only for her husband.... I thought if I'd marry a young one, she'd have strength to work for me," he went on. " But she only wants pleasure and luxuries of the flesh. So maybe it would be better for me to go to an Old Men's Home where I could spend my last days in peace instead of living with a false wife who reminds me always that I'm old."
To please him, I went next day to the Old Men's Home. It was a beautiful building, but the moment I entered, the loveless, inhuman, institutional atmosphere struck me like a blow. They showed me the place. Clean. Cold. Choking with orderliness. Beds all in a row, spotless, creaseless, like beds in an orphan asylum. I saw groups of old men sitting lifelessly on hard, wooden benches.
"How much better off they are here than living by themselves," said the official, rubbing his hands "They eat only food that's best for them, and their meals and their sleep are at regular hours. It's like a sanitarium for their last days."
But the very things the man praised up to me made me shudder. No. This institutional prison was not for my Father. Never would I allow him to have his will broken in such a place. He who all his life had his own way must continue to have it to the end of his days.
If he wanted to leave his wife, let him go to board somewhere where he can have his own room, his books around him, free to come and go as he wishes. Here, in this prison, were rules and regulations that he could never endure. My father would never stoop to ask permission to go out and to report when he got back. He would never obey the iron rule not to upset his bed all day long. He would want to go to bed or get up at any time of day or night, as he pleased. He should have a place that suited him. And not with his wife.
I came back to Father's house. As I opened the door, I could not believe my eyes. There was his wife on her knees, putting on his shoes for him. She was lacing them patiently and making the double knots, just as he dictated. I watched her with wide eyes. This was something new. It took me a minute or two to take it all in. I suddenly realized that this woman I hated was necessary to him. He could not live alone in a boarding house any more than in the Old Men's Home. He needed a wife to wait on him. It came to me that if we tried not to hate her, to be a little kind to her, maybe she would be more faithful to Father.
I followed her into
the kitchen and put ten dollars into her hand. "I'm going to give you this
each week, and I'll see that my sisters should give you
ten dollars more regularly. Only take good care of Father."
Her eyes glowed with gladness as she seized the bills. "Sure," she said. "If I only get enough money in my hands, I know how to live good. You think I want him to die? Is it nice for me to bury already my second husband? But how could we live, if you children had no hearts""
She became a new person, as the money came to her regularly. In a very few months the coveted earrings appeared in her thick ears. She got what she wanted in this world. A gloating look of smiling satisfaction came into her face. As she waddled with her basket to the market, she tossed her head coquettishly from side to side, showing off the glittering earrings to the passers-by.
Soon we all began to visit Father's house and met his wife without hostility. We tried to make up with presents for the lack of real, warm friendliness that we could not feel. Once I brought her a box of fruit for the New Year holiday. And in return, she made me taste her apple strudel. At that moment most of the old hostility vanished from my heart. Next time I came with Hugo.
"Father, this is Mr. Seelig," I said, watching to see how the two would take to each other.
Father shook hands and scrutinized him inquisitively. "Mr. Seelig? From where do you comet"
"Warsher Gubernic a long time ago," Hugo added, with a smile.
"And your parents with you here? By what do you work?"
"Mr. Seelig is a principal of a school," I interposed.
"So—a principal!" Father shook hands again with new respect. "Do they pay you good?"
"Well," sighed Hugo, getting into Father's spirit, "I make a living. But I'm not smart enough yet. And I came to ask you, would you care to teach me Hebrew?"
"Hebrew? An American young man, a principal, and wants to learn Hebrew? And you want me to teach you?"
"If a learned man like you would care to take a beginner like me."
Father leaned back in his chair. The old dream look came back into his glowing eyes. "Listen to me, Mr. Seelig—young man! I want you to know I don't trust much American young men. They're all deniers of God. One day is the same to them as another. Ask them the difference between a plain Monday and the Sabbath and they'll gape at you."
His eyes grew soft
and moist. He looked most gratefully from Hugo toward me. "I thought that
in America we were all lost. Jewishness is no Jewishness. Children are
no children. Respect for fathers does not exist. And yet my own daughter
who is not a Jewess and not a gentile brings me a
young man—and whom? An American. And for what? To learn Hebrew. From whom? From me. Lord of the Universe, you never forsake your faithful ones."
His old eyes widened with a glance of sudden understanding and he looked from Hugo to me and from me back to Hugo. "Even my daughter with the hard heart has come to learn that the words of our Holy Torah are the only words of life. These words were true ages and ages ago and will yet be true for ages and ages to come. Our forefathers have said, 'A woman without a man is less than nothing. A woman without a man can never enter Heaven."'
The old pride flamed up in his face. "Woman!" he called, ecstatically, to his wife. "Show only this American young man all my holy books in the bedroom."
Hugo's eyes sought mine. With a look of awe, he followed the woman to the other room.
Delighted with the outcome I turned to Father. "Aren't you glad," I whispered, "that you didn't go to a home, or a lonely room in a boarding house? Here you have your books, and all the comforts of your own house, and her, ready to wait on you."
He wagged his head for a silent moment; then, an unbeaten fierceness came into his eyes. "Yes," he sighed, ruefully. "It's like living in a beautiful garden with a snake in it. Never will I finish out my days with that woman! Can fire and water live together? Neither can a man of God live with a cow, an Ishah Rah."
With his every word my high spirits sank. My breathing spell of happiness was over. Just as I was beginning to feel safe and free to go on to a new life with Hugo, the old burden dragged me back by the hair. Was there no place in the whole world for Father? My home, must I give it up to him? But with him there, it would not be home for me. I suddenly realized that I had come back to where I had started twenty years ago when I began my fight for freedom. But in my rebellious youth, I thought I could escape by running away. And now I realized that the shadow of the burden was always following me, and here I stood face to face with it again.
"Father!" I ventured, hesitatingly. "Would you care to live with me?"
He looked at me, and in that look I felt the full force of his unbending spirit. "Can a Jew and a Christian live under one roof? Have you forgotten your sacrilege, your contempt for God's law, even on the day of your mother's death? I must keep my Sabbath holy. I cannot have my eating contaminated with your carelessness." He paused. "But if you'll promise to keep sacred all that is sacred to me," he went on, in an attempt to be tolerant, "then, maybe, I'll see. I'll think it over."
I almost hated him again as I felt his tyranny— the tyranny with which he tried to crush me as a child. Then suddenly the pathos of this lonely old man pierced me. In a world where all is changed, he alone remained unchanged—as tragically isolate as the rocks. All that he had left of life was his fanatical adherence to his traditions. It was within my power to keep lighted the flickering candle of his life for him. Could I deny him this poor service? Unconsciously, my hand reached out for his. The look of bitterness faded from his face and he opened the Bible, his eternal consolation. Instantly he was transported to his other world.
Hugo returned. And Father glanced up with stern absent-mindedness from his book to bid us good-bye. I could hardly wait till we got out of the room to tell Hugo about Father.
"Of course, the old man must come with us," he exclaimed.
"Do you realize what you're saying? If he lives with us we'll lose our home."
"Not at all. Our home will the richer if your father comes with us."
I laughed at his easy enthusiasm. He talked like a Tolstoyan. So there it was, the problem before us—the pro" bleary of Father—still unsolved. In the hall, we paused, held by the sorrowfuI cadences of Father's voice.
"Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble."
The voice lowered and grew fainter till we could not hear the words any more. Still we lingered for the mere music of the fading chant. Then Hugo's grip tightened on my arm and we walked on. But I felt the shadow still there, over me. It wasn't just my father, but the generations who made my father whose weight was still upon me.