Years later, after Itzik himself has gone to his grave, his son, Nathan, knows nothing of his bitter father's childhood. When he begrudgingly goes to Poland on business, Nathan decides on a whim to visit his ancestral town. There, in Zokof, he meets the mysterious Rafael, the town's last remaining Jew, who promises to pass on all the things Itzik had failed to teach his son - about Zokof, about his faith, and about himself.
|Little, Brown and Company
|6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.96(d)
Read an Excerpt
WHEN I WENT TO MY REST IN 1905 I WAS EIGHTY-THREE AND childless, aggravated that life was done with me and that I was done with life. I turned my face from the Angel of Death and recited the Psalm of David: What do You gain by my blood if I go down to the Pit? Can the dust praise You? If God's answer was punishment for my sins or praise for my good deeds, I cannot say.
Understand, I did not call Itzik Leiber to my grave that spring night when my return to the living began. The boy had already jumped the wall of our cemetery, our House of the Living, as we call it. He was down on all fours, like an animal, looking for a place to hide. What's this? I thought.
Sleep, Freidl, sleep, I told myself. An old woman like you is entitled. What did I need with trouble? I was a year in the grave. My stone was newly laid, still unsettled in the earth. I had no visitors. In death, as in life, people kept their distance. In our town, a childless woman's place was on the outside.
And yet, from the hundreds of gravestones that could have hidden him that night, Itzik Leiber chose mine. His knees, his toes dug into the earth above me. His fingers scraped at the bird with open wings engraved on the dome of my stone. He panted and he pushed against the indentations of my inscription like an insistent child at an empty breast. Freidl Alterman, Dutiful Wife, it read there, as if this explained the marriage.
Itzik Leiber's small, skinny body smelled of fear's sweat and the staleness of hunger. But through his fingers his soul called out to me. Plain as a potato, his soul.
From the outside, he didn't look like much either. A poor boy, maybe a year past his Bar Mitzvah. He had a head the shape of an egg, the wide end on top. And kinky brown hair, twisted up like a nest. His cap was so frayed the color couldn't be described. But under the brim, the boy had a pair of eyes that could have made a younger woman blush - big, sad ovals, and eyelashes like feathers.
I remembered him, of course. In a town like ours no one was a complete stranger. Itzik the Faithless One, they called him. Faithless? I can tell you Itzik wasn't faithless that night, not when he whispered against my gravestone, his voice thin as a thread, "Help me! Please, God, help me!"
God should answer him, I thought. A child's tears reach the heavens. Listen to the boy and leave me to my rest, I prayed. But God had other ideas. Rest would not return to me. Itzik wrapped his arms around my stone, his body curled there like a helpless newborn. How could I ignore him? I wanted to cradle the petrified child, to make him safe.
In life I liked to say, God will provide. But who could imagine He would wait until after I was gone to the dead to provide me with a child? Such a joker is God.
A night wind gathered like a flock of birds around our cemetery wall and swept through the thick confusion of graves. The soft soil began to pound above me with the heavy tread of men. They were so near I could feel their boots making waves in the earth. What had he done, this Itzik of mine, to incite the Poles to come out so late at night?
Raising myself, I saw torches in their hands, murder on their faces. The faint whiff of alcohol floated over our neighbors like a demon. You never know what a Pole will do. One minute he's ready to kill you, the next he's offering to sell you apples, smiling, ingratiating, like nothing's happened. There were as many Poles in our town as there were Jews. But we never counted them among us, and they never counted us among them.
Itzik whimpered. He gripped my stone with a frenzied, furious fear. His eyes rolled toward heaven. Make them go away, he prayed. In the moonlight, his breath formed sharp white puffs that disappeared in the shadows of the gravestones.
I prayed too. God help him, I said. Give the boy's poor soul a chance to cook, to become a man.
What else could I do for him? I knew I was no dybbuk that could invade the world of the living. I had made my journey to Gehenna already and eaten salt as punishment for my pride. About this, all I can say is that at least for me it was short, not like for the worst sinners, who stay in that place eleven months, God forbid. After my time there, I returned to Zokof's cemetery to sleep with my earthly body and to wait for Judgment Day.
Itzik pulled at my gravestone so hard it fell over at his feet and broke in two. Who could have imagined that a boy's clumsiness would stir me so?
My soul tugged and beat at me. Gevalt, how it struggled to tear itself from death's sleep. Such a sensation - frightening and wonderful - the feel of it pushing upward, freeing itself from the bony cavity once softly bound by my breasts.
I asked God, Is this life or am I again in Gehenna? I never heard of such a state as I was in. But fear was not in me. When my soul was finally released from my resting place, I hung like a candle-lit wedding canopy over Itzik's unsuspecting head. In my white linen shroud, my feet bound with ribbons, I felt lovely as a bride and as proud and exhausted as a mother who had just given birth.
A tree near Moishe Sagansky's grave gave a snap. So new was I to being among the living again, I could not be certain who did this, me or God. The Poles stopped to listen; then one of them looked in my direction and began to holler, "A Jew spirit's out!" They took off. Just like that. Such a blessing that the Poles of Zokof were scared of dead Jews. If only they were so scared of live Jews, maybe we'd have had less trouble with them.
My Itzik, terrified boy, lay stiffly on the ground until silence returned. He crawled to Ruchelle Cohen's tall stone, and without so much as a glance at the carved floral candelabras engraved there, he swiped a pebble that had been placed on top by one of her children. With the loving care of a son, he laid it on top of my fallen stone, respecting my memory. Regret at my childlessness passed through me again. When Itzik rose, unsteady as a toddler, I could not help being moved by him. He held out his arms and unrolled his clenched fists. Grass fell from his fingers.
I shook with pain and thanks to God for this boy, delivered late, but maybe not too late. A child, at last. Oh, the joy I felt! My heart! He had gathered grass for me. I swept close around him, ready to receive his prayer for the redemption of my soul. I waited for the words: May her soul sprout from this place as grass sprouts from the earth. I waited, pregnant with expectation.
What came instead was a sharp, thin cry, quickly stifled, and the insult of his foot kicking apart the little mound of blades he'd dropped on my grave.
Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum