Her first outing after having risen from her convalescent cot was to attend her mother’s funeral. Still muzzy and unsteady on her feet, bundled in a beaver shawl that covered her desolate head, Jocheved was astonished at how many mourners were gathered at the gravesite. This was especially surprising given that Basha Puah’s burial followed so hard upon the heels of her husband’s, to say nothing of her reputation as an incurable shrew. But in death both Salo, the working stiff, and his joyless widow were transformed respectively into hero and helpmate, the wife so devoted she was unable to endure the cruel demise of her spouse. It was a story worthy of the improbable tales that Salo had told his young daughter long ago in the arctic environment of the icehouse. The morning of the funeral had dawned blustery and overcast, the ground still hard in the cemetery behind the textile factory walls, but here and there a crocus had broken through the crust of the earth. Having been so long away from the natural world, Jocheved almost resented how it persisted without her, squeezing the clod of dirt she was meant to drop into her mother’s grave until it crumbled in her palm and was scattered by the wind. After the ceremony the mourners, some of whom were strapping teamsters and bare-boned yeshivah scholars, escorted the girl back to Zabludeve Street. They were solicitous of her frailty, protective of her personal safety; and letting her guard down, Jocheved felt that, for the daughter of her parents, there would always be a place in the ghetto. Perhaps she might yet revive the halcyon satisfactions of her ice-making enterprise. But as the teamsters crowded about her with a brazen forwardness and the scholars kept their distance as if from a contagion, the girl remembered the shame that could never be erased, let alone the lingering danger. She was appalled by her selfishness, that her grief over her own corruption should have displaced, if only momentarily, the grief for her family, for whose deaths she was in large part responsible.
In Jocheved’s absence old Shulamith had dusted and cleaned the cellar, having removed (no doubt as her due) some of the luxury items—the Tuscan bronze egg beater, the enameled douche pan—that the girl had lavished on her mother in more prosperous times. May they serve the old ganef well, thought Jocheved, noting that in exchange for what she’d taken the woman had also contributed, beyond her labors, some pot cheese and a bottle of schnapps for the guests. The stench of the cheese helped neutralize the stench of sickness and death that still pervaded those recessed rooms. After the chalk-faced men of the Chevra Kadisha had finished saying Kaddish, the guests departed and Jocheved was finally alone. Utterly spent, she slumped onto a wooden stool, laid her head on a noodle board, and slept a while, dreaming of a despondent child with wings too heavy to flap. When she awoke she heaved a ragged sigh, got slowly to her feet, and took down the large copper kneading trough that hung from a ceiling beam. Since the apartment’s single mirror was turned to the wall, she gazed at her distorted reflection in the trough’s tarnished surface and saw only a ghost gazing back at her. Having already ritually torn the pongee collar of her mourning dress, the only store-bought frock in her wardrobe, she tugged at the lapel until she’d ripped the bodice from her shoulders. Then with both hands she tore the cambric corset cover underneath, wrestling herself out of her ravaged garments until she stood naked and shivering on the cold flags of the cellar floor. Further compelled by the tattoo of her pounding heart, the girl located her mother’s teak sewing box, extracted from it a pair of tailor’s shears, and with only the ill-defined reflection in the copper pot to guide her hand, she clipped off her mane of crow-black hair. Thus shorn, she flung the pot and kicked at the fallen hair that encircled her, releasing a sob that collapsed her chest as would a wrecking ball. This was her sorry state when the door to the hallway scraped open and Shulamith, midwife, rootworker, and sometime enema lady, crept in.
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.