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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 3, Part 4

Wanted by the authorities, the twins head off to the Promised Land

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Illustration by Paul Rogers

Between working and dreaming, Salo was unaware of his sons’ political activities. On those infrequent occasions when he saw them, he could only marvel at how much they had grown; he admired them for having turned into some rare new breed of Jew, no longer anemic and long-suffering but muscular and purposeful, while Basha Puah grumbled that they were becoming so gentile she wondered if they were still circumcised. She couldn’t help but hear the news that percolated throughout the marketplace: There was a failed revolution in Russia, and dozens of Lodz citizens sympathetic to the insurrectionists had built barricades and been wounded in clashes with the police; after which both Polish and Jewish youths, sentenced without trial, had begun to vanish from the city streets by the score. Then all of a sudden the twins came in from the cold; they were back in the cellar, looking over their shoulders, stuffing clothes into canvas knapsacks and informing their mother and baby sister that they were off to found a Jewish state in Palestine. They referred to Zion as if it might have been their original home, which they’d have argued that in a sense it was. For the opiate of religion they of course had little patience, their reasons for going having nothing to do with “holy” lands; nothing was sacred in this unjust world, they contended, but the human will. Full of the zeal of their righteous new ideology, they neglected to say that they were wanted by the authorities.

Basha Puah marched to the icehouse to fetch her husband, insisting—when she’d managed to pry him loose from his post (an increasingly difficult operation due to his stiffening joints)—that he do something to prevent the boys from leaving. But Salo was perplexed; hardly conscious of the passage of so many complacent years, he still thought of the twins as impish little pishers incapable of serious mischief. As for their newly minted ideals, their father never presumed to discourage them, though he wondered why anyone would want to go elsewhere when life was so unquestionably headquartered right there in Lodz.

“Yachneh, Yoyneh,” he appealed, “I mean, Yoyneh, Yachneh. What return? You were born in the Balut, which may I remind you rhymes with galut—the Diaspora. What business have Jews got in Jerusalem?”

But when it became apparent that there was no dissuading them, Salo, to his wife’s profound vexation, fell to regarding his husky sons as figures of romance and grew excited at the prospect of their formidable journey. Before they left, though, they must first come to the icehouse: He had something to show them; and if only to get him off their backs, the twins promised to stop by Pisgat’s on their way to the Promised Land. But arrangements had to be made, smugglers of human beings to be contacted, old gambling markers called in to gather money for bribes—all this while Salo waited in vain in his far corner of the cooling room beside the aged cedar casket. In the end, instead of his sons in their broad-belted tunics and visored caps, the watchman was visited by the police in their helmets like blackened lamp chimneys, who bullied him to no avail with questions and threats. In time the twins sent back letters from Palestine, recounting Herculean labors. They were formal epistles written by scribes to be read aloud by scribes (“To our esteemed and virtuous parents, long life!”), standard propagandistic accounts of draining swamps and irrigating deserts that bloomed with date palms and tamarind, of triumphant battles with mosquitoes and hostile Bedouin tribes. While his wife dismissed these chronicles as pure fabrication, Salo thrilled to their letters as if his intrepid boys had entered the pages of The Book of Legends itself. But the letters, sporadic at best, eventually ceased to come at all, and Basha Puah, eyes brimming with tears she refused to acknowledge, raged against her husband with an unprecedented vitriol for having lost their sons.

Meanwhile Jocheved had grown apace, her vibrant presence a perpetual reminder to her mother that the twins were gone. Still, Basha Puah was relatively frugal with her rebukes to the girl, who was after all an obedient daughter and a help in the market, her comely figure and natural charm an abiding inducement to commerce. But though she spent her days at her mother’s side hondling with the wives and rolling dough for kreplach, Jocheved was finally her papa’s girl. It was she that brought to the icehouse in the evenings his covered dish of lukewarm pupiklekh and sat beside him on melon crates in the arctic cold while he ate. Though she had grown too old for them, Salo continued to regale her with the stories he’d told her when she was a child: preposterous tales of his pitched battles with the ice pirates who raided Pisgat’s repository (which, please God, was deadly quiet at night), of his adventures and narrow escapes on the long and arduous road from Boibicz to Lodz. The stories often had a soporific effect on the teller, who sometimes nodded off, and Jocheved was amused at how her heavy-lidded papa’s narratives sedated him like self-inflicted lullabies. They created such an air of unreality in the lamplit chill that the first time Jocheved lifted the lid of the casket while Salo dozed, the frozen rebbe seemed no more authentic to the girl than her father’s extravagant tales.

“Our family has been elected,” Salo once solemnly informed her, meaning they were chosen to be stewards of a sacred trust he would reveal to her when the time came. (The time came shortly after the twins’ departure, but by then Jocheved had long since preempted the revelation.) “Elected to what?” the girl had replied, brushing crumbs from her father’s beard—because, didn’t her family live in an unrelieved penury due to the universal injustices that her absconded brothers had made the girl so keenly aware of?

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.

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Alex Chilton says:

Mr. Stern, you make me cry like a baby.

Ellen says:

I’m enjoying every installment. The language is as rich and thick as the cholent my mother used to make.

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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 3, Part 4

Wanted by the authorities, the twins head off to the Promised Land
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