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A Kopek in the Dust follows Abe as he maneuvers his way through life and achieves his American dream as an academic ...
A Kopek in the Dust follows Abe as he maneuvers his way through life and achieves his American dream as an academic physicist. Even so, he struggles to find a spiritual identity that is compatible with both his commitment to reason and his loyalty to his Jewish heritage. In his search, he finds a sustaining spirituality rooted in the natural world and strengthened by a great and tender love and his links to a Unitarian congregation and its minister.
As Abe's journey unfolds against the backdrop of the often tragic history of the first half of the twentieth century, he discovers some surprising connections to his roots in Europe. Multifaceted, this historical novel narrates an immigrant tale, provides a reflection on religion, gives a view of the physicist's world, and tells a love story.
There it was. It was a bright spark in the road leading from the synagogue through the village. Or was it a trick of the eye? Perhaps it was from a shard of broken glass that caught the morning sun on a bright Sabbath day in October.
Why not a piece of glass? The men who stream from the tavern late Friday afternoons when it closes before sundown are not known for their steadiness or for always remembering to leave their beer mugs at the table. I can almost picture one of them. He is a robust man who tends his cheeses from early morning each day except the Sabbath. He stubs his toe. He goes flying into the path. The mug shatters. His companions help him up. They all laugh and help him gather the broken pieces of glass; he will pay the tavern keeper for the mug when he can. For now the man must dust himself off and hurry home. There he will hug each of the children in turn starting with youngest, then give his red faced wife a little squeeze. He will wash his hands and face and comb his beard before hurrying off to the synagogue for Friday evening prayers. But in the path in front of the tavern he will leave that shard of glass that was sparkling in the morning sunshine.
But perhaps it had been otherwise. I am seven years old—going on eight—and curious. And I don't accept easy explanations. I was on my way home from the synagogue but I stopped to examine the place where the glint of light had caught my eye. Looking closely, I saw something metallic protruding from the dust. Pushing aside the dirt with my toe, it was revealed. A shiny kopek! So that is what that loutish man spilling in the dust had left behind.
With this treasure in my pocket the possibilities would be endless. Mr. Shafransky's store has a box of new pencils each costing a kopek, painted all yellow with a pink eraser fastened with a metal band to the top—like the tsar's bald head in his crown. Wouldn't that be a prize possession at the school! Vastly superior to those little stubby pencils that Shafransky the grocer gives us boys when they become too short to rest above his ear.
Father, before he left home to find us a new place to live, said I was much too curious. But I guess that is okay because he also said that I am studious. At least he always seemed to mention that when there was a visitor at our house. Perhaps this is all true. But at the moment on that Saturday morning I was mostly hungry. And it made me think about the grocer—the same man who grudgingly gives us the grimy pencil stubs. He also had a fresh supply of halvah of two kinds. There was a plain variety the color of heavy cream that sparkled with sugary dew when the light hit it just so. He also had a new kind with streaks of chocolate running through it, making it like the marble altar I had seen when I and the other boys peeped into the church window that the Polish people used on the other end of the town. And a kopek? A kopek would buy enough halvah for a nice treat after school with enough left over for a bedtime snack as well.
But this was only a tempting dream of a store-bought treat which Mother provided only on very special occasions. I could imagine the sweet taste of halvah, the texture of the flaky surface melting on the tongue, but there was a central problem. My dilemma was that on the Sabbath it is strictly forbidden to handle money. Even a kopek. It could not be spent. It could not be received. In fact, it could not be touched. Even a kopek! Who had made such a rule? Perhaps it was God. Perhaps some grand rabbi somewhere in Warsaw had made that rule. If it were a matter of life or death I would have hoped that this grand rabbi might have allowed an exception. But here in Wizna, far from the notice of the great rabbi but always under the gaze of God, to touch that coin in the dust would have been a sin.
Especially on this Saturday morning in October sin was not far from mind. My older brother Duv—he was, for the time being the "man" of the family—had brought me to the synagogue for the morning. The men and most of the boys assembled all day in the sanctuary, a room even bigger than our schoolroom. On a small balcony above us some of the older women and a few of the girls crowded together. A great flood of light poured through the windows but it was chilly, being too early in the season to hire Mr.
Kowalski to light a fire in the stove. The older men stood bobbing and swaying and reading from the prayer books. They recited in Hebrew, a foreign language that made me wonder how much the men understood of what they were saying. The younger boys sat and stood with the men and often daydreamed. Only when the Holy Ark was opened and the scrolls appeared, and the men kissed the fringes of their prayer shawls and transferred their blessings to the "book", did we pay attention. The scrolls appeared from the hiding place like royalty emerging from their palace—adorned in embroidered velvet and silver jewelry. It was like God was let into the room.
But apart from this interlude of the weekly reading from the Torah scrolls, it is only when the rabbi gathers the young boys during an interlude in the prayers that Saturday mornings come alive. While the men take their tea at the samovar that bubbles in the vestibule just outside the sanctuary the rabbi often tells us stories from the Holy Book. Often they are about obedience to God. Today we heard again how the serpent tempted Eve—how Eve forgot about the rules and brought shame and pain to all of us. He told us how it was not for us to question the rules that were laid down, nor to blame the "serpent." We were to honor God and God would honor us. Why didn't Eve know this? The ladies I knew understood the rules better than anyone.
I was daydreaming about Eve and the serpent—about whether Eve wore at least a babushka and whether the serpent was like the black snake that my friend Jacob and I once captured in a bucket down by river—when Duv reminded me that it was nearly noontime. It was the time that most of us young boys are dismissed to go home and help our mothers.
And soon I was facing a "serpent" of my own, that tempting kopek in the dust! It would be gone by the evening. It could not remain for long in the road covered only with a thin layer of dirt. Everyone and anyone could claim it. But the rule remained: money must not be handled on the Sabbath. I nudged the kopek with the toe of my shoe. Surely this was not handling the coin. I gave it a little kick. The coin rolled and tumbled a short way down the path A few more kicks and the coin was in the road beside the baker's shop.
That was when Jacob caught up with me. Jacob is my classmate whose little house is next to ours. I put my foot down on the coin and stood there waiting for him to come up to me. He had not seen my prize. Jacob is shorter than me and a little chubby. He is like a coiled spring. I often noticed how he clenched and unclenched his hands or shifted from one foot to the other.
He presented me with his irrepressible grin. "Race you home," he said.
"No," I replied. "No games allowed on the Shabbas. You know that."
"Racing is not a game." Jacob maintained his friendly grin despite his remonstrations. "Games are only for fun. Getting home is allowed—unless it's on the back of Kowalski's wagon—and the sooner the better."
I was not sure whether perhaps Jacob was right. But I was obstinate. "Someone always wins a race," I said. "It's a game."
We stood there for some little while, each the arbiter of our own position. I resisted the thought that perhaps Jacob had the better case. But surely two boys racing through the village on a Sabbath morning was more likely to raise eyebrows than would a small boy scuffling up the dust on his way home from the synagogue. Eventually Jacob, with his baffling knack for simultaneous exasperation and good cheer, moved on, leaving me still standing on my secret.
It was obvious that Jacob was in a hurry to get home and pretty soon he was almost out of sight. I continued my arduous journey, blocking out the thought that perhaps kicking along a coin was kind of a game. God was busy listening to the men in the synagogue and, besides, I was breaking no rules. Or perhaps God was testing me to see if I could capitalize on my good fortune without desecrating the Holy Day.
After a few minutes the coin and I turned off the main road down towards the river among the Jewish houses. Now the going was more difficult. The dust lay more softly than in the main street where it was packed firmly by the coming and going of carts delivering goods to the shops, or by the wagons bringing in the peasants and their produce on market days. Here and there in front the houses lining the back street were knots of children, still young enough to be allowed to play outside on the Sabbath. Not wanting to arouse their curiosity, I took to the alleyways.
The houses in our part of the village are hardly like the large and handsome ones clustered near the church close to the market square. Here, a few of the houses are separated from the street by small yards hemmed in by rough fences of unpainted boards. It seemed to me as if these fences were held upright as if more by the will of God than by any visible support. But the boards might keep a wandering chicken from scratching up the beans planted alongside the front walls in the springtime. Now the brown and yellow remnants of the beanstalks quivered on the strings that tethered them to the windowsills. But most of the houses reach right to the road, just as does our own. Were it not for an old bed sheet that Mother has hung over the front window any passerby could see into our front room where all of the children sleep, except little Sari.
Alongside an alleyway I noticed that the lady of one of the houses had used flour sacking for curtains in the windows that faced the path. This caught my interest and momentarily I turned my attention from the coin in the middle of the path. The building was neither better nor worse than our own house. On the wall facing the street the seams between the boards were hidden by ochre colored stucco, but the back walls were rough, unpainted and weathered boards laid horizontally in uneven rows. If this part of the house was like ours, it is where the cook stove is located and where the family gathers, especially on cold evenings, to eat and pray. It would also be where the mother and father sleep. At our house Mother has already begun to patch for the winter some of the cracks between the boards where some of the wads of paper or cloth have fallen out. The owner of this other house had begun laying down a store of firewood—old tree branches and unwanted scraps from the sawmill just upstream on the river. An iron bathing tub had been moved to the back steps to make room for this wood.
I resumed my mission. Just before I reached our own house, I stopped at the one that belonged to the family of Jacob's older cousin Ruchel. Her house lay near where the river bends away from the town. A copse of trees separates the buildings from the flourmill on the water's edge. Ruchel's father, Jacob's uncle Gorodetsky works at the mill. I see him now and then delivering sacks of flour to the bakery and to Shafransky's store. I looked for the place on the wall where the bear had paid them a visit last fall. Sure enough, on a back wall a new board had been nailed into place higher than I can reach. It was a crooked piece of wood but just the right shape to fill the space among the other boards. Mr. Gorodetsky must have found it among the discarded wood alongside the sawmill.
The incident of the bear occurred after I had gone to bed, but I recall that I was wakened briefly by shouting and noise at the time. The next afternoon my brother Duv and my older sister Celia were fairly bursting with the story Ruchel had told them at school. The Gorodetskys were in the main room of their house preparing to go to bed when they heard an awful sound on the wall where Ruchel's mother was laying out bedclothes on the pallet where the parents slept. Ruchel said the wall was shaking and there was a loud scratching sound. Then there was a snorting and grunting and when they looked up the snout of the bear was poking through a hole in the wall above the bed. Mrs. Gorodetsky screamed at the beast but it only poked its nose further and further through the opening between the boards. It was not until Ruchel threw the iron stew pot at it that the bear decided it was time to leave in a hurry. Just last month I heard Mother discussing this event with Jacob's mother, Yetta.
"So why did this bear decide to visit the Gorodetskys?" Mother asked. "It's been a long time since I heard of a bear crossing from the other side of the river." The two women were sitting in the sun just outside the kitchen door. Mother was peeling potatoes for the latkes she had promised me she would make for dinner. Jacob and I were kneeling in the dirt a short distance away pretending to be concentrating on a game of marbles.
"Who knows?" Yetta replied. She sipped from the glass of hot tea Mother had brought to her. Small beads of sweat formed on her forehead. "But this was a big, bold one, I can tell you," she went on. "I can hardly reach the place where it poked its ugly nose in. I suppose it was looking to make a den in the woods just across from the house. It didn't help that my sister had cooked up big pot of chicken stew for the Shabbas. The smell of that coming from the hole in the wall would be enough to interest any bear."
"So how come Gorodetsky had a big hole in the wall?" Mother wanted to know. "Above the bed yet!"
"No need to tell me about it. My sister has told that schlemiel of a husband to do something about it more times than I know. In the winter sometimes the rags she pushes into the hole fall out and she has to shake off the snow from the quilt in the morning. But thanks to Ruchel that bear learned a good lesson. It made such a noise when she hit its nose with the stew pot. You know some of the men came out with the constable and his gun the next day to look for the beast, but it must have gone back across the river."
Mother stood up holding the pot of potatoes in front of her on her way into the kitchen. "That Ruchel! Some strong girl! Did you ever see her toss bags of flour from the wagon for her father? And what about him? What was Gorodetsky doing during this commotion?"
Yetta looked up. "As far I know he was praying. It was as if he didn't notice that the bear was tearing down the house."
"Praying that the bear would go away, maybe?"
Yetta pursed her lips as she thought about it. "I'm not sure, but knowing him I suppose he was again thanking God to be among His Chosen People."
Mother bent down to look directly at Yetta's face. She lowered her voice and said, "I don't know about that, but I can tell you this. That night Gorodetsky was among the bear's chosen people!"
I grinned to myself at the recollection as I continued to move my kopek down the alleyway. Shortly the coin reached our doorstep and was finally slid beneath the doormat and out of sight. And there it remained hidden until the shops reopened on Monday.
I purchased the halvah just after school, and while it was true to its promise of heavenly sweetness, a certain unease of heart came with it. The rabbi had told us of the manna that came from heaven and fed the children of Israel. He read from "the book" that it was "like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey." But, as the rabbi cautioned us, the people of Israel remained discomforted. Somewhere out there lay the Promised Land and the people had yet to prove themselves deserving.
We are now well on our journey to a new home in America and I am thinking about how it all began. It seems so long ago that we left the village, but brother Duv has reminded me that it has been not even two days. It began in the dark, early morning on a cold spring day much like today.
For days neighbor ladies had come to call, one by one, to say goodbye. Mother would make a pot of tea and they would talk for a while. Most of the time Mother would have a gift for the neighbor, familiar things that she said we could not take with us. Sometimes she held each of these things—pots and pans, a feather duster, clothes or shoes, an oil lamp—and looked at it a long time before she carefully put the item in the corner of the room awaiting the visit. Once I saw her eyes water as she laid down a little blue blanket that I remember was my favorite when I was very small.
It was a cold spring morning on the day before we left that Jacob's mother Yetta came. Yetta is a cheerful and energetic, red-faced woman. She is taller than most of the village women, but she is not stout. Celia says she is younger than Mother, but not much. I like it when Aunt Yetta, as I call her, visits.
Excerpted from A Kopek in the Dust by Arnold D. Pickar Copyright © 2012 by Arnold D. Pickar. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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