Grandma Tova

 

Grandma Tova

By Eric Gabriel Lehman

 

Joel Meyerson pushes open the door, anxious when his grandmother doesn’t answer his knock. “Grandma?”
 
“Don’t shout.” She’s in a dress and stockings, and wears makeup and a gold bracelet, nicely put together as always for what she calls their rendezvouses. But she’s lying down. The curtains are drawn, and the place feels close as a sickroom, even with air conditioning.
 
“What’s the matter?” He’s never found her in bed like this. It’s better than her traipsing down the hall in panties and bra, which happened after an overzealous dosing of anti-anxiety meds not that long ago. “You didn’t come to the door.” He’s part anxious, part irritated.
 
“I was thinking,” she says in a voice folded over itself. She takes up no more space than a large family pet. He wonders whether she has somehow shrunk since leaving her large South Beach condo for a single room with kitchenette and bathroom equipped with emergency pull cord and grab bars in the North Bronx Jewish Home. She might be the only person Joel knows who makes do with an apartment smaller than his. He’s reassured to see water on for the milky Lipton tea she will serve in glasses. There’s a plate waiting for the Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies he knows she likes, even though she is supposed to watch her sugar. He’ll listen as she complains about fellow geezers who couldn’t play a decent game of canasta if it killed them.
 
“Are you feeling all right?”
 
 “I’m feeling. Sit.”
 
He pulls a chair close to her bed. She is eighty-five or eighty-six, depending on the document. Once her husband died, she savored her widow’s life by the condo pool, enjoying sugary churros bought from an old Mexican lady’s cart, her legs turning nut-brown in the sun and her face freckled like a young girl’s. Now she’s on her back, the last of his grandparents.
 
“Take off your coat like you’re pretending to stay. What’s new?”
 
He leaves next week for two months in Europe. More specifically, he is going to West Germany, and to Berlin, Wall and all, since this is 1988. He jumped at the chance when a singer-friend with a string of gigs needed a piano accompanist, since it meant 1) getting away from a sweaty, fire-cracker-prone East Village summer; 2) getting away from his heatbox of a tenement apartment; and, perhaps, hopefully, mercifully 3) getting laid. Mentioning a trip to a place like Germany requires planning, strategy, and/or an outright lie. “You look tired.”
 
“I couldn’t sleep. Dreams I had like you wouldn’t believe.”
 
Joel asks what kind of dreams.
 
“Who remembers?”
 
“About Poland?”
 
“You think I would dream about such a place, may it never have a good day? What did I tell you about crossing your legs like a girl when you sit?”
 
He reminds himself that this is her way of paying attention.
 
“Come to think of it, maybe I do remember my dream. It was the day I left the shtetl.” As if to refresh her memory, she glances above her kitchen table, at the small picture of the beloved brother she left behind. It is the room’s sole adornment, culled from the many wedding and bar mitzvah pictures in their silver and gold-tone frames once crowding an entire wall in her Florida condo. When his grandmother moved, she asked Joel’s mother to help herself to the assortment, which included her wedding portrait. This one alone came with her. The man on the wall—Joel always forgets his very Jewish-sounding name—looks to be in his early twenties, with a trim mustache and goatee instead of the unappealing clump of beard Joel associates with shtetl Jewry. He wears no yarmulke. The picture’s lower half has been torn away along the belt line, lending what remains of him an air of poignant survival. Joel has always found the man’s sensitive, sepia face and dark eyes handsome. Once while she dozed, he took the photograph off the wall for a closer look and discovered a swirl of handwritten Yiddish fading on the cardboard backing that he copied for someone of his grandmother’s vintage who lived in his building to translate. To my dearest Tova, My poor heart begs for forgiveness, even if I will never deserve it. It struck him as excessive, coming from a brother, but then his family rarely held back. What terrible thing did this brother do to require her forgiveness? Disagree with her? Why did he alone make it to the Bronx? Today might not be the day to ask, not with the issue of Germany looming.
 
He has seen the picture dozens of times, but today he wonders what the man might look like without clothes. He’s nothing like those pale-faced Orthodox Jewish ciphers from Williamsburg or Borough Park whom he encounters on the train, soft and shapeless below their standard issue black pants and limp white shirts. He has wondered how they bear showering, forced to confront their own threatening flesh, freighted with temptation. Such men dance with other men at weddings and spend hours with other men poring over the musings of a hoary, belly-scratching male God resembling their fathers and grandfathers, whom they fear and seek to appease. But not this one, clean-shaven and modern, whose intelligent eyes mark him as one freed of ancient dogma.
 
“Pay attention!”
 
“So you left the shtetl,” Joel says to mask his daydreaming.
 
Her story is repeated word for word like prayers recited during the New Year service. After years of antisemitic attacks, the local goyim finally make good on their threat to burn down the shtetl’s synagogue. Her family decides that their youngest should have a better life in Eretz Yisroel, the Promised Land, so her mother packs up clothing, food, and a pair of Sabbath candlesticks. She makes the girl sew the money her father gave her for her passage into her coat. The road is dangerous, but does that stop her? She shivers in the cold (or sweats in the heat: Joel has heard all variations), ready to fend off men jumping out of the bushes ready to do who knew what to her. Against the odds she makes it to Warsaw, where a distant relative introduces her to a young man looking for a wife. They marry and take a train to Hamburg, where their ship sails to America. She alone in her family will escape the Nazis, may God blacken their memory. The story ends with a sigh and a pause long enough for Joel to appreciate that if it weren’t for her, he and his family wouldn’t be living the good life in America. So easy they have it, all because of her. The old candlesticks atop the mini refrigerator bear silent witness to her tale, as does the picture, although, unlike the candlesticks, the picture is never, ever mentioned.
 
“Go see what I had to carry, a young girl like me.” She motions to the candlesticks.
 
He groans while lifting one like a dumbbell.
 
“Stop making fun.”
 
“Good thing that picture wasn’t so heavy.”
 
“Since when do you know from how heavy it is?”
 
“I mean, it doesn’t look that heavy.” Good save, he thinks. “So, what about the dream?”
 
“Someone tried to stop me. He wanted me to go back. I gave him a push with my suitcase and ran.”
 
“Your father, maybe?”
 
“Are you crazy? Why would my father do such a thing?” She rarely distinguishes between disagreement and argument.
 
“Was it someone from the shtetl?” Its sibilant-rich name is too complicated to remember. The whole shtetl thing escapes him: Jews milking cows, cobbling shoes and growing cabbage, as if in some Eastern European Li’l Abner. Where he comes from, Jews eat pastrami sandwiches or take the D train to Alexander’s. With their books, their card games, and their children in braces, Jews always struck him as a thoroughly indoor people. Israelis with their beaches and sunshine? They seemed more Italian than Jewish.
 
“Was it him?” Joel points to the picture of her brother.
 
“Who him?”
 
“The person who tried to stop you.”
 
She shakes her head, which can mean no or enough already or who wants to know?
 
These monthly visits began sometime after a slip on the Florida condo’s bathroom floor fractured her pelvis and forced her move back to New York. Joel resisted his mother’s persistent urging to visit his grandmother. For one thing, he wasn’t convinced the old girl liked him,, especially after he’d turned twenty-five without getting married. She’d never been the doting, spoiling grandma type; more a no-nonsense, hand-me-down clearinghouse, assigning him camphor-scented cast-offs from Joel’s older, more athletic cousin, whose clothing made him feel scrawny. All his grandparents were from the Old Country and sounded like it, but her accent was by far the strongest, her Eastern European gruffness concentrated. Joel’s sister had always been his grandmother’s clear favorite, although that changed once she dropped out of college and took off for California to live with a non-Jew, who—even if she eventually married him—remained a non-Jew, and worse, gave her a grandson named Thomas. Joel, on the other hand, not only spent a dutiful summer on a kibbutz, finished college and went on to earn a master’s degree, but was a high school teacher with a pension, all of which bumped his sister from her number-one spot.
 
Your grandmother isn’t going to be around forever, you know. His mother played the Jewish mortality card shamelessly.She reminded him of Dr. Goodstein scaring all in Joel’s Hebrew school class with accounts of the Angel of Death fluttering close to the Jews again and again: Pharaoh, Haman, Ferdinand and Isabella, blood libels, pogroms, and of course, the big H — always the big H, especially the big H. In every generation there are those who would annihilate us, the Passover Haggadah warned with all the melodrama of 1950s television. When he could no longer put off the trek to the Bronx, he felt a lump in his throat as the northbound elevated train curved above the South Bronx, whose once sturdy brick apartment buildings and synagogues served huddled Jewish masses yearning to breathe free, join the ILGWU, open a dry goods store and/or attend City College, and were now ghostly mounds of rubble. He felt as if he’d come too late.
 
“Did I ever tell you about the time I went swimming in nothing but my bloomers?”
 
This is new.
 
She’d planned to forage mushrooms in the forest, just outside the town, but it was summer and hot, and the river tempted. No one was around, so she unlaced her boots, slipped from her dress, and waded in. “The men got to swim there, where it was nice and deep, not in the puddle they left for the women and girls upstream. I was floating on my back, looking at the sky, when I noticed Mendel watching me, Mendel the tanner’s son who wasn’t all there. He didn’t stop, even when I yelled, so I got out and stomped his way in my dripping bloomers. You should have seen him run.”
 
“Weren’t you afraid he would tell?”
 
“And admit he’d looked at a woman?”
 
Joel peeks at his watch. It is nearly time to call a man named Edgar, whom he’d met the week before, to confirm whether they would be getting together later that evening. Joel had just cried his eyes out at the end of Gallipoli and headed over to the nearest bar, in need of company. Edgar had seen the same movie, with the puffy eyes to prove it. “That Mel Gibson,” he said, the password for their newly founded secret society. Joel flirted by asking whose crest was sewn onto Edgar’s blazer. Edgar responded with a wrinkle of his mustache, a sign of amusement or irritation, Joel couldn’t tell which, saying “R.H. Macy’s.” They chatted long enough for both of them to finish their Chardonnays. Joel was trying to gauge his compatibility with someone who wore tweed blazers and whose mustache might feel like a pipe cleaner during a kiss, when Edgar said he had to be off. Joel suggested meeting up, deciding that handsome Edgar would be nice to mail postcards to or call from a foreign phone booth. But Edgar had seemed vague.
 
“Maybe it was Grandpa Albert jumping you. In the dream, I mean.”
 
“I wouldn’t put it past him.”
 
“Do you remember when you met?”
 
“When he was still nice.”
 
His grandfather had collapsed in the condo’s elevator, head hitting the emergency button, which stalled the elevator and rendered him inaccessible for a good ten minutes. A second elevator might have meant someone reaching him sooner, it was thought, but after the funeral Joel’s grandmother was heard to say that one elevator had been plenty.
 
“Is it true he hit you?”
 
“Your mother told you that?”
 
 “Did he?”
 
“Once. Maybe more than once. Once he pushed me against the dresser. Does that count?”
 
“Why did you marry him?”
 
“You think I knew he would hit me? Stop making me do all the talking. You never told me what’s going on with you.”
 
I may or may not be meeting someone named Edgar later this evening. He has a mustache and wears tweed blazers but otherwise seems quite nice. His mother has asked him not to mention anything about what she terms his “lifestyle” to his grandmother. “Don’t flaunt,” was how she put it. Grandma Tova was old, after all. As if getting wind of Joel’s dating history might hurt more than being pushed against a dresser. He was also pretty sure his grandmother knew what was what. He remembers her livening up one of his grandfather’s particularly long, mumbled Haggadah passages by turning to Joel and  regaling him  about Uncle Phillip, her brother-in-law, who took off for San Francisco the day after Joel’s grandfather called him a faygele.
 
Oh, and next week I happen to be going to…Germany.
 
In the end he says only, “I got a job in Europe.”
 
“I thought you already had a job.”
 
“It’s just for the summer. When school is out.”
 
“So, you need the money?” She possesses the alchemist’s magic for transforming good news into bad.
 
He is miffed at her not asking more about the job, which is playing the piano in a night club. “In Hamburg, where the Beatles played,” he’s been telling his friends, who are envious of a paid vacation in Europe. But how to tell his Europe-hating, Poland-loathing, and Germany-despising grandmother?
 
He’s not sure how to feel about it himself. He’d already booked his fight before it sank in that he was headed to the land of Arbeit Macht Frei. The last time in Europe, he’d made sure his Eurail pass took him around the black hole of the Bundesrepublik. Even touring through German-speaking Basel felt too close for comfort, where at any time the Beast to the north threatened to burst through Switzerland’s flimsy border. History notwithstanding, he has told himself that hating a country of over eighty million people, many under the age of forty, is unreasonable. Macht is in the third person singular, he recalls from his second-hand German for Beginners to block further dire thoughts. Arbeit, although missing its identifying article, is feminine. German is not only the language of Hitler, Goebbels and Göring, but Brahms, the Weimar Republic and Kraftwerk. Sample sentences in his grammar book describe Germans riding the subway in Hamburg or shopping along KuDamm in Berlin, not taking over Europe. David, an American, asks for directions to Munich’s main station, implying that someone so named—he’s not only from America but from New York, for God’s sake—is welcome in the new Germany. Still: it’s Deutschland.
 
“Do you still remember any Polish?”
 
“The day I left that terrible place I swore I’d never speak it again.”
 
His mother had told him that one day an old woman bumped into her on Fulton Avenue in Brooklyn, offered a breathy Przepraszam! without thinking, and soon they were jabbering away as if in the middle Warsaw.
 
“Maybe living in Poland wouldn’t be so bad,” he says, inserting some light-hearted provocation. “There’s borscht and Chopin.”
 
“Borscht? You would have been dead.”
 
“But say Hitler never came. You and your brother could have stayed in the shtetl with all those mushrooms.”
 
“Then you wouldn’t be here, Mr. Smart Aleck.”
 
“If you’d stayed, I would have had a different mother and father. I would have had a different name, too. I would be someone else. I could have been a girl—”
 
“You remember his name?” She cuts his little game short with a sharp gesture toward the picture. She knows Joel always forgets.
 
He studies the man’s face. Maybe a mustache could work. As if the man approves of Joel’s assessment, he seems to whisper his name, which Joel repeats in triumph, moistening the guttural for some shtetl authenticity.
 
Her sidelong glance suspects collusion. “Yechiel,” she repeats, as if to improve on his pronunciation.
 
“Why didn’t Yechiel go away with you?”
 
“Why didn’t he?”
 
There is surely a classy Latin name for questions repeated as fatalistic inevitability, rendering them either unanswerable or hinting at something larger and inevitably sadder  the Jewish equivalent of karma, perhaps.
 
“I begged him. I pleaded. In America we could have a new life, I told him. He was determined to go to Berlin. He said people went to America to make money, but he was a socialist.”
 
“Berlin?” Joel perks up. He hopes to crash there with the friend of a friend. Berlin was David Bowie and Liza Minelli. It was Christopher Isherwood and men in smoky bars. The smoking part was unfortunate, but that was the Old World for you. A thought occurs to him. “So Yechiel gave you his picture to take along?”
 
“Why are you interested in him all of a sudden?”
 
“You had it with the candlesticks?”
 
“Go make tea, will you?”
 
He feels her glare at his back as he takes a box from the cupboard over the sink and places a tea bag in each of the two glasses in the drying rack, along with a spoon. The photograph didn’t get to America by itself, so why be coy?
 
“Help me, will you?” She holds up an arm for him to guide her to her chair. “That’s good,” she exhales as he eases her down.

He arranges his chair beside hers and when the water comes to a boil, fills each glass. “Shebreshin!” His sudden recollection of the shtetl’s tongue-twister of a name elicits no more than a weary nod. He adds milk, sets the cookies onto the plate, as she would.
 
“So where in that hellhole Europe are you going?”
 
He waits for her to start sipping or nibbling on a cookie, anything to distract her, but she fastens all her attention on him. “I’ll be playing in a small theater,” he says. “A friend of mine is a singer.”
 
“Music they have in America, too, no? Also theaters, I understand.” She watches him sit down. “I leave behind my whole family to get away from that Jew-hating place and what do you do? You go back. So where in Europe, if I may ask?”
 
“Germany.”
 
Her face turns to stone. She looks at her glass but not at him.
 
“Yechiel wanted to go to Germany, didn’t he?”
 
“Enough already about Yechiel!”
 
“It’s only for a couple of weeks.”
 
“Very nice." She lifts her glass. “You’re going to the land of our exterminators.”
 
Today he and his singer friend spoke long-distance to the owner of the night club, who was sad because her cat had run away the day before. “That was a long time ago.”
 
“You’re defending them?”
 
Okay, Joel thinks. Time to play hardball. “How come Yechiel asked for your forgiveness?”
 
The tea she’s just sipped gets spat out. A hot curl of fluid stings Joel’s hand.
 
“Fuck!” He blows onto his skin.
 
“Such a mouth on you. Who told you to look?”
 
Joel says he was curious.
 
“It’s none of your business.”
 
“It’s just an old picture.”
 
“Maybe I’m curious about you, Mr. Germany. Why are you going there?”
 
“I told you. I got work there. It sounds like fun.”
 
“Auschwitz you think is fun?”
 
“I was just wondering why Yechiel—”
 
“And I was wondering what happened that night you stayed by us in Florida.” Her voice tightens like a rubber band.
 
“What does one thing have to do with another?”
 
He’d been with friends in Key West and knew his mother would want him to stop off to see his grandparents in Miami before catching his plane to New York.
 
“You barely got there before heading out. We saw you maybe an hour the whole time.”
 
He recalls a cab ride to a really loud disco, then going with people he’d met to someone’s apartment knee-deep in shag carpeting. The evening ended in a motel with a stranger and then a nervous phone call explaining that he was spending the night with a college friend.
 
“So where were you?”
 
“I’ll tell you if you tell me.”
 
“Tell you what?”
 
Joel points to Yechiel’s picture. “All about him.”
 
 
The Sabbath candlesticks Blumeh persuaded her to take along are heavy. God is a burden. Tova would prefer not to think about God, but she is alone on the road leading out of Shebreshin. She hopes God won’t let anyone find the money sewn into her jacket that she needs for her ship’s passage to America. Zamosc is a good twenty kilometers away. A train to Warsaw leaves that evening. She will stay in the city with the cousin of her brother-in-law, a childless widow, a freethinker.
 
She carries her sewing things, since she will work as a seamstress to pay the woman in Warsaw for her trouble.
 
It is Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, so there are no horse carts, which is why she must walk the whole way to Zamosc. Gentiles drink on their Sabbath. They confess their sins and imagine their God encouraging them to avenge the death of Jesus Christ. She imagines what Spinoza would have to say about such a God, who didn’t lift a finger to save either his precious son or the shtetl’s synagogue when the Gentiles decided to burn it. This Christian God can’t be the same as hers, but if there is only one, which is true? Neither, Yechiel would say. Yechiel, who claims neither to need, nor believe in, God. Yechiel, the reason she must go away.
 
She carries Yechiel’s picture but doesn’t know it yet.
 
She thinks about Albert, the man she will meet in Warsaw, a carpenter who seeks to escape the Czar’s army by going to America. Immigration officers in New York look more favorably on married men, it is rumored, so he seeks a wife. She hopes they will learn to love each other. He is a Jew. Carpenters always earn a living. She is prepared to be grateful to him but doesn’t know whether she will love him. It is no time to think about love. Love has only caused trouble.
 
Blumeh’s house is up ahead. Her older sister Blumeh married a man who sold fruit and vegetables from a cart. He was orphaned while not yet old enough to be called to the Torah. People said God would reward his loneliness with a good wife. Her precious Blumeleh, a reward, like some prized goat. She ceased being pretty after three children. Once she sang in her lovely voice, but her husband considered it unseemly.
 
She carries food her mother prepared, thinking her youngest daughter was headed to the Jewish Agency in Warsaw, where one filled out papers for Palestine. Her mother had told Tova she felt blessed when she was born, like old Sarah in the Bible, too happy to have felt pain. Tova cannot believe this. There is nothing harder than being a woman. No wonder Jewish men wake each morning with gratitude to God on their lips.
 
She carries one other thing: Yechiel’s child.
 
“Spinoza’s teacher felt that God is the all, but the all is not God,” Yechiel said.
 
“That doesn’t quite go with what we are supposed to believe,” Tova answered.
 
“Depends on one’s definition of God, doesn’t it?”
 
“How many are there?”
 
“Depends on who is doing the defining.”
 
They met one Sabbath afternoon in winter when she tried walking on the frozen river.
 
The shtetl dozing after a heavy, midday meal left Tova restless. She sought escape from the house; she was old enough to understand her father’s big-bellied sigh that didn’t quite mask her mother’s tiny, sharp cries behind their closed door. Did he love her? Did she love him? Did she have a choice? God urged men to be intimate with their wives on the Sabbath, but what did the wives want? Marriage commingled shame, force, and pleasure unequally among married people. How irresponsible of God to so doom half his creations. It all began before marriage, of course; boys who were barely whiskered eyed her, their mouths set in resentment for her inflaming them. The dairyman found a reason to palm her backside as she accepted his can of milk in the morning. At least the Sabbath kept men and boys inside, allowing her to walk unmolested.
 
The river’s blue-black ice was as shiny as the stove after its Sabbath polish. Cold air slicked her face, daring her to step across the frozen water. Her timid boots allowed her only mincing steps toward the middle. She’d floated on her back at this very spot the summer before, certain that a generous God wouldn’t deride her state of undress, until he sent that horrible boy to ogle her. Just then the charred synagogue’s cluster of broken timbers, resembling a party of stooped mourners, seemed punishment for God’s cruelty. Yet the ruin made her pity Him, since destroying anything cherished was cruel. She had begun walking toward the synagogue when the ice cracked. Later, bundled in her mother’s blankets, she wondered how Yechiel had reached the river so quickly.
 
“You conducted a little experiment,” he said, supporting her dripping frame as they retraced her footsteps up the snowy bank. Had he been observing her the whole time, waiting until she fell in? “You are a true child of the Enlightenment,” he said, over the chattering of her teeth to comfort her, knowing she couldn’t have understood what he meant. He was several years older, the son of the shtetl’s wealthiest man. One day he’d stopped wearing a kipah, shaved his ear locks and beard, and no longer prayed in the synagogue. Everyone whispered about him, but never too loudly, on account of his father’s wealth.
 
She thanked God she was out of danger.
 
“People need God because they’re afraid of the dark,” he replied, as if she’d asked his opinion.
 
“Without God, people lacked morals,” she said, as they turned into her street.
 
“They lacked them anyway,” he answered. “And the world needed reason far more than any God.”
 
She was glad when they reached her house. The idea of a Godless world swirled like the nothingness preceding creation. She was eager to escape not only his ideas but his alarmingly pleasant grip, and she avoided his dark eyes as she headed inside and closed the door.
 
One warm Shabbos afternoon several weeks later, she sat in the charred synagogue. The mindless torching had left it as frail as a pencil drawing. Maybe burning a synagogue wasn’t so different from a dairyman forcing his hand on a woman, both the perversion of human nature. Were people doomed to remain slaves to their emotions? Yechiel stepped out from behind a tree.
 
“You again,” she said, annoyed at her shattered calm.
 
“You’re not supposed to sit in the men’s section,” he said, smiling.
 
She thanked him for rescuing her. Then she turned away, hoping he’d go. Instead, he stepped forward. “I have something for you.” He produced a volume with a title in German. She opened it to a picture of a man whose goatee and mustache resembled Yechiel’s.
 
“Spinoza said God and nature were one,” he said.
 
She tried reading a line written in the foreign language but gave up. “Did this Spinoza expect her to worship leaves?” she said, returning the book. “You don’t believe, do you?”
 
“Only in what my mind understands,” he said.
 
“Human understanding is limited,” she said.
 
“That’s what your God wants you to believe,” he said.
 
Next Sabbath she debated returning to the ruined synagogue, fearing that know-it-all might be there. Her parents had quarreled; the chulent was burnt, her father said. Her mother took his plate away without a word in her own defense. Would she submit to him later? She hoped her mother wouldn’t, but the door closed behind them as always. She stepped off the porch, feeling as weightless as when the ice broke beneath her. The houses she passed, each with its ruling father, seemed complicit in her mother’s suffering. She was still fuming when she spotted Yechiel in the synagogue.
 
“That Spinoza of yours was a heretic,” she blurted at him. “He was excommunicated!”
 
Yechiel asked her how she knew. She had asked her sister, who’d asked her husband, who’d asked the rabbi.
 
“What do you expect?” he said. “People fear freedom.”
 
Tova thought of her mother.
 
“Listen to this,” he said, then read aloud from the book. The German sounded like Yiddish hammered brittle. “Spinoza speaks of a person’s longing guided by reason,” he summarized when finished. “Imagine jealousy, hatred, and ill-will—rank desire—subject to rational thought. Such irrational rage destroyed this synagogue, for example,” he said.
 
She was so surprised to hear her thoughts echoed that she barely noticed him taking her hand to the book and straightening a finger at the text like the silver pointer used to read the Torah scroll. “The love of God is a supreme achievement and a source of happiness,” he continued in a lowered voice, “even if such love doesn’t guarantee God’s love in return.”
 
She pulled away. “Your Spinoza makes God sound cruel.”
 
“Not cruel,” he corrected, “but too infinite to be constrained by earthly concerns. He wants us to be like him, free enough to determine the course of our lives.”
 
“You talk a lot of God for a freethinker,” she said.
 
He gestured to the ruins around them. “God was never here, but here.” He touched a temple. “Let’s be genossen. Let’s be comrades in reason. I plan to enroll in Berlin’s Humboldt University. Germany allows women to study. Come with me. Poland is primitive, Catholic.”
 
She shook her head. Beis Yaakov schools permitted girls to learn both Torah and worldly subjects. But a university? Berlin? Her mother peered down from the charred women’s gallery, wearing a fearful expression. He offered the book once more and she took it, hurrying away.
 
She didn’t return to the synagogue the following week or the week after. She stayed away a month to avoid him and his rational God and his Berlin. The days grew warm. She slept with the book beneath her bed without ever looking at it until the night she did. Her eyes fell on a passage that she read aloud until the German softened, nearly Yiddish. He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his emotions loves God. God was in effect the product of reason; goodness had to stem from rational thought. She had denied her feelings for Yechiel, sure they were sinful, but Spinoza assured her that rational thoughts could never be sinful. She lay on her back as she’d floated on the river, the book placed on her stomach, Yechiel’s voice spilling forth from around her.
 
When Tova failed to come home after the Havdalah light was extinguished, as Shabbos faded and the skies grew dark, Blumeh went to the old synagogue, where hours before, Yechiel’s mouth had touched Tova’s and his body had pressed against hers. It was where Tova had led them to the bimah as if they were to marry, to the altar miraculously spared burning, where men alone were permitted to read the word of God, and there she settled them. She felt his breath against her neck and she grasped his shoulders, all the while her cries of pleasure rose, unconstrained by the synagogue’s broken beams. When all was done, she looked past Yechiel’s flushed face to where Spinoza’s rational God smiled down through branches beginning to bud, the sky alive with creatures the same God that had created and bid fly. Blumeh found her, asleep long after the frightened Yechiel had fled.
 
She stops to eat her mother’s pickles and cherries, salty and sweet battling on her tongue. She reaches into the bag for the bread and herring but pulls out something small and thin and wrapped in paper: his picture, a studio photograph, slipped into a paper mount. He has followed her there as he followed her to the river and to the synagogue. Her hands burn. She tears the picture in half and hurls it into the trees, furious at Blumeh for letting him give her this. In all likelihood it is his money sewn into her jacket and not her father’s, as she had been told.
 
She is about to continue walking when she runs into the woods for his picture.
 
 
The room sighs when she falls silent, as if it has been listening in. Joel looks away from his grandmother, disheveled on the rotting bimah. She takes a cookie and bites down, showering her dress with crumbs.
 
“How come he’s up there on the wall?”
 
“How come,” she repeats, back in Jewish cryptic mode. 
 
“Grandpa never knew?”
 
“I never knew what he knew.” She brushes crumbs away like unpleasant memories.
 
“And the baby?”
 
“I lost it. In Warsaw. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it was him.”
 
“Who him?”
 
“In the dream. Stopping me from leaving the shtetl. If I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t have married your grandfather.”
 
“Do you really think you might ever have gone with him? Yechiel, I mean.”
 
She finds another crumb to brush away instead of answering.
 
“You loved him, right?”
 
She starts crying, softly, barely more than breathing, worried someone might hear. She puts her face into her hands and it’s a while until she stops. “Now if you’ll excuse me.” He gets up to help her, but she heads to the bathroom alone. The door clicks shut.
 
“Grandma?”
 
She doesn’t answer.
 
“Don’t lock it.” Once she fell and he’d had to go in: stockings rolled down to her ankles, watery thighs, the sharp smell.
 
“So who’s locking anything?”
 
His grandfather had to have known she was damaged goods. It had made it easier to treat her the way he did, knowing she had no choice. Joel imagines her beside her violent boor of a husband in a narrow bed in Brooklyn, yearning for Yechiel.
 
He listens for any sounds from the bathroom. “You all right in there?”
 
“Sha. The whole world doesn’t have to know where I am.”
 
“Do you mind if I make a call?”
 
“Only if it’s local.”
 
He dials, aware of his grandmother mere feet away. I’m from Gallipoli, he rehearses his opening. The movie, not the place. Edgar picks up. Joel whispers his name. “From Julius,” he adds.
 
“Julius? I don’t know anyone named—”
 
“Can you get me a roll maybe?” his grandmother says through the bathroom door.
 
From Julius.” Joel cups the phone. “Where do you keep them?”
 
“Under the kitchen sink.” 
 
“We met last week, remember?”
 
“You were the one didn’t like my blazer,” Edgar says.
 
Joel can’t tell whether or not he’s joking.
 
“Hurry up, will you?”
 
 Joel considers offering to call back but doesn’t want to give Edgar an excuse to bail. “Hold on.” He sets the receiver onto the bed. The small space beneath the sink is crammed with health and beauty aids, much of it packaged in pink. How many bottles of shampoo does she need? Will someone her age live long enough to use it up? Or does she buy as much as possible, determined to need it? Enough steel wool to scour the George Washington Bridge, along with dishwashing liquid sufficient to clean her two cups and plates for the next decade. He remembers his mother talking about his grandmother boiling pots of water back in Brooklyn to trick neighbors into thinking she had enough to eat. Deeper in, he encounters a continental shelf of skin creams and bath oil, then hits his head as he retreats. “Fuck!”
 
“What’s going on out there?”
 
Joel grabs the receiver. “Edgar?” He speaks to the snarl of a dial tone. He throws the receiver onto the cradle, dives back beneath the sink and locates the toilet paper behind a skyline of laundry detergent boxes.
 
“Here.” He thrusts the roll into a crack of the bathroom door but doesn’t feel her taking it. He listens, knocks. He thinks he hears…snoring? “Grandma?” When he hears nothing, he pulls the emergency cord.
 
A knock startles him, followed by a key in the door. “Everything all right here?” An olive-skinned woman in a powder-blue smock and matching pants, a stethoscope around her neck, shiny hair pulled into a tight bun, stands in the doorway.
“It’s nothing.” Joel’s grandmother glares at him as she emerges from the bathroom. “This is my grandson, Carmen,” she says to explain the false alarm.
 
“Who were you speaking to before, if I may ask?” she says after the woman leaves.
 
“Nobody.” Which is true as things now stand. “How come you were so quiet in there? You scared me.”
 
“You scare easy. Are you hungry?”
 
If he’d had plans for the evening he would be on his way out, but he doesn’t. “Yes.”
 
She pulls on an apron and opens a can of something that she pours into a pot. She takes out a loaf of sliced rye bread and sets the little table with a soup bowl, a spoon, and a napkin. She watches him eat the mushroom barley soup, black pepper prickling his tongue.
 
“I wasn’t born yesterday, you know,” she says.
 
“His name was Edgar.” The pepper pricks Joel’s tongue. He nods at the picture.
 
“So?”
 
“He married a Polish girl. A goy. Blumeh wrote me. His father threw him out, the two left, and no one heard from them again. Just like the rest of my family. Eat.”
 
“You and Grandpa Albert survived.”
 
“He gambled and went with women. He never had a nice word to say to me until after his coffee in the morning and even then I couldn’t count on it. But he stayed and made sure there was food on the table. And I’m alive.”
 
“Delicious,” Joel says when he’s finished eating.
 
“Not as good as what I used to make, am I right?”

         

Copyright © Eric Gabriel Lehman 2022

Eric Gabriel Lehman has published novels, short stories, and essays. His work has appeared in the New York TimesBrooklyn RailRaritan, and elsewhere. He teaches at Queens College/CUNY in New York, where he lives.



 

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