Illustration by Paul Rogers

But the truth was that, while the marital mattress sagged between its creaking slats to the earthen floor and was only a few feet from the clay stove on which the twins slept, there were opportunities enough. And though Basha Puah would hiss at Salo for disturbing her much needed sleep and complain of a woman’s travail, she never once refused her husband’s advances.

This time the child was a rosy bundle of a daughter whom they called Jocheved, and Salo basked in the undiluted light of her countenance. “Give a look,” he exclaimed, “how like the ner tamid she shines!” His wife asked him what did he know from an everlasting lamp, so rarely did he set foot inside a synagogue. This was not entirely fair: for a man who worked day and night, Salo had always kept Shabbos as best he could. If only from habit, he took the requisite ritual dip in the brackish waters of the Vlada Street mikveh and attended shul on high holidays. Deeming himself a most fortunate man, he had assembled a ragged minyan (its members as disreputable as a police lineup) to say the conventional prayers of thanksgiving at Jocheved’s birth, and again at her naming ceremony. But while the prayers were ostensibly addressed to God, Salo reserved his real gratitude for the blessed Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr. It wasn’t that he worshipped the rebbe—he wasn’t so pagan as that; but after years of lifting the casket lid to ensure the security of its contents, after staring so long at the suspended tzaddik, Salo sometimes imagined himself staring back through the tzaddik’s eyes (which remained tightly shut) at the swiftly aging watchman. Sometimes he felt as if he viewed the world from inside the block of ice, from a prismatic vantage that made everything appear lustrous and holy. Away from the icehouse, however, performing the tasks that bowed his spine and deepened the bags beneath his eyes, Salo wondered if perhaps he and the rest of the world were merely figments in the rebbe’s dream.

With the passing years rumors of tottering empires and imminent apocalypse reached even the netherworld of the Balut. The graybearded alter kuckers, as usual, predicted the advent of Messiah (waiting for whom was their principal vocation), and the worse conditions became for the Jews, the more convinced were they that Messiah’s arrival was at hand. But the young tended to read the signs differently, and many were fed up with a religion predicated on anticipation and the suffering one must endure in the protracted meantime. In cellar coffeehouses and shtibls where printing presses had replaced the ark of the Torah, they whispered sedition and conspired to carry it out. The Frostbissen twins, Yachneh and Yoyneh, were among those infected by the revolutionary fever. They had never bothered to assemble separate identities, and despite their tender years they were already sated with the stew of vices the ghetto afforded—they’d shared women with the same cavalier indiscretion with which they might have shared a bottle of contraband cognac or a wager in a game of shtuss; and now, susceptible to loftier passions, they had become enamored of the doctrines of radical change. They joined the socialist labor Bund and, barely literate themselves, distributed Marxist pamphlets on the streetcorners of the Balut. They mouthed the prevailing rhetoric, inveighing against the capitalist cockroaches among their own people. “The Jewish bosses, once they cease their blood-sucking exploitation, will be regarded as equal partners in the proletarian struggle for an independent Poland!” and so on. While they’d scarcely lifted a finger to alleviate their parents’ ceaseless toil, they now took unskilled jobs throwing silk and stirring the vats of synthetic dye in the fabric mill, where they attempted to organize the workers into unions. Their efforts and those of their comrades resulted in havoc, sparking strikes and subsequent lockouts that led to battles between protesting workers and hired thugs, to beatings at the hands of police and mass arrests, which the twins only narrowly escaped. And lately, though they had only a nodding acquaintance with their own mother tongue, they had begun to disparage Yiddish as zhargon, espousing the revival of Hebrew as the official lingua franca of the Jews.

Between working and dreaming, Salo was unaware of his sons’ political activities

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.