They were wed on the roadside beneath the tattered canopy of Salo’s prayer shawl by a beggared Galitzianer rabbi in exchange for a glimpse of the Boibiczer Prodigy, of whom the rabbi had heard rumors in his travels. He’d heard that the Prodigy was encased in an immense blue sapphire, and was duly disappointed. For a witness there was the rabbi’s dolt of a son, and in the absence of a goblet they made do with Salo’s mother’s silver thimble, which the groom stomped into the brittle mud with his heel. Nights on the road, the newlyweds slept wherever they could: on the splintered floor of an abandoned tollhouse, in the rafters of a sawmill with an ice-locked water wheel, and once, when they were stranded between shtetlakh, in the open wagon beside the cold casket, where they clung to each other desperate for warmth. And although Salo’s termagant bride never left off upbraiding him—“From one degradation into yet another you thrust me!”—she was pregnant by the time they reached Lodz.
The city, which he’d journeyed so long and endured so much to reach, had assumed a golden aspect in Salo’s mind. But the swarming Jewish district, called the Balut, rather than populated by saints, was a home to ragpickers, organ grinders, professional cripples, prostitutes, and thieves, to say nothing of the legion of slogging automata employed in the silk mills and dye houses that bordered the banks of the sulfurous Warta River. The smoke from the factories hung a mauve miasma over the city, collecting in the twisting lanes of the Balut, whose citizens wore its permanent fetor in the folds of their clothes. Their working children, like human bobbins unspooling, trailed home sticky threads from the cocooneries, their pockets spilling caterpillars that continued to spin fantastic Jacob’s Ladders in the attics of their dilapidated abodes. Slush steamed in the arcaded streets from the excrement of horses and the blood of the slaughtered animals that hung in shop windows or lay cloven and splayed across merchants’ stalls. Malodorous sink that the ghetto was, however, you couldn’t have proved it by Salo Frostbissen, who exulted in its carnival atmosphere, an attitude that incensed his wife all the more.
Nor was she impressed that Salo’s reputation had preceded their arrival in the Jewish quarter, where a number of pious souls had gathered hopefully about the horseless wagon. They touched their prayer shawls to the rebbe’s box, then kissed them as if the casket were a portable shrine, declaring that Salo’s having survived the journey with the rebbe intact was a miracle, proof of the tzaddik’s powers even at rest. Basha Puah, who had abused her husband throughout their travels for the bootlessness of his burden, let alone the added insult of having enlisted her assistance in conveying it, had thus far refused even to look inside the casket. Of a practical turn of mind, however, she was not above suggesting that those who wanted to take a gander might pay for the privilege. But Salo’s stubbled head was a little turned by his hero’s welcome, and while he feared that overexposure might diminish the rebbe’s sanctity, he nevertheless revealed Eliezer ben Zephyr to anyone who asked. The dividends came in any case: Zalman Pisgat, proprietor of the turreted brick icehouse in Franciszkanska Street (beside which Yosl’s was nothing, a hole-in-a-hill) requested the honor of installing the Prodigy in the bosom of his business; meanwhile the charitable members of the Refugees’ Aid Society promised to locate some “cozy little nest” for the newlyweds. For a time it seemed that the orphaned bride and groom would be treated as dignitaries, the toast of the ghetto, and Salo, still caked in the shmutz of the road, basked in their triumphant entry into Lodz: It was the storybook finale to a great adventure. But as the misery of the quarter was in no way mitigated by his advent, and its citizens’ short spans of attention were recalled to their daily woes, the son of the King of Cholera and his refrigerated tzaddik were soon forgotten, Salo’s notoriety failing to survive his first week in Lodz.
They were installed in cheap lodgings in Zabludeve Street, a windowless cellar habitation that Salo praised for its favorable comparison to his father’s grotto (it was certainly as dank and cold) and his wife cursed for the claustrophobic crypt that it was. Moreover, Zalman Pisgat’s gratitude for having been allowed the mitzvah of preserving the frozen rebbe was also short-lived. He did, however, offer Salo the position of night watchman, though not without strings attached: A portion of Salo’s wages would have to be exacted weekly to compensate for the rebbe’s storage fee. That Salo willingly acquiesced to what amounted to his indenture, that he didn’t toss the block of ice containing the holy man into the river and have done with it, were crimes Basha Puah added to the lengthening list of her husband’s infamies. Salo was himself a little disappointed that his fame had so swiftly subsided, though he chided himself for his vanity. And after a spell in Pisgat’s icehouse, dispersing shadows with a hurricane lamp as he navigated the crystal palisades under the glazed eyes of dead oxen, salmon, and hares, he was again reconciled to old Eliezer’s unending incubation. He was content to spend his nights, between tours of the hyperborean premises, sitting vigil in his role as the saint’s custodian, prepared to wait till hell itself froze over for the rebbe to hatch from his ice chrysalis.
So what if the ghetto was a pesthole in which he and his hatchet-faced bride lacked a pair of groschen to rub together, where they dined on hot water afloat with limp cabbage leaves and relieved themselves in a courtyard privy whose odor brought tears to the eyes? The Balut, in its unsleeping activity, was by Salo’s lights a tonic to all who dwelled therein. And besides, didn’t he enjoy the best of two worlds? By day he was a four-square house-holder who, with his expectant wife, fulfilled the commandment of marriage and multiplication; while at night, in retreat from the roiling streets, he was the solitary guardian of a legend that became more burnished the more it faded into memory.
Check back tomorrow for the next installment of The Frozen Rabbi. Or, to get each day’s installment of The Frozen Rabbi in your inbox, sign up for the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest, and tell your friends.