Read The Invisible Wall Online
Authors: Harry Bernstein
She may have suspected that it had something to do with Arthur, and sometimes when Lily left the house to go to one of her meetings she would peer through the window to see if Arthur were leaving too. He would not be so foolish, though, as to leave at the same time, knowing that not only she but the whole street would be watching.
Besides, Arthur was very busy these days. He had started going to the University of Manchester to study law, and we caught glimpses of him mornings hurrying to catch the tram, and coming home in the evening with his big books tucked under an arm.
My mother's fears must have been allayed as far as that was concerned, and with the new young rabbi showing an interest in Lily a new hope, another dream, must have taken possession of her. Other mothers may have had the same hope for their daughters. The competition was keen, not only on our street but up the park where the rabbi could have been certain of a rich dowry. But it was Lily he wanted, and he seemed to be making no bones about that, despite the family he could see with his own eyes and must have heard talked about by many people: a father who drank and cursed and abused his wife unlike any other Jewish father, a mother trying to make ends meet with a little bit of a shop that sold fruits and vegetables, five growing children and now another ten years after the last one, to add to the din, the quarrels, the poverty.
Who would want to get mixed up with a family like that?
It must have been whispered in his ear more than once. Yet, with all the rewards being dangled before him, he couldn't seem to look at any girl except the one in this family. True, the other girls being offered him were no great beauties, and some of them a good deal older than he. But he was no bargain when it came to looksâfrail and thin, and wispy, looking as if a strong wind could blow him overâso the joke went in the tailoring shopsâand that walk of his! He had a mincing gait that gave him a slightly effeminate look. And he had a big nose, and thick-lensed glasses through which he peered at you myopically, making you feel that he was not quite seeing you. And worst of all, he had a slight lisp.
But he was a rabbi, a man of God, and pleased everyone with his performance. He did everything that the other rabbi had doneâand for less money because he was young and unmarried and didn't need a big house or to support a family. He was brisk and efficient at his duties and delivered a sermon every Saturday.
As a rule, we used to leave promptly when the service was over. But now we remained seated while the rabbi spoke to us. It was mostly about Zionism, and Chaim Weizmann and the great pioneering work that man was doing to bring about the Jewish homeland in Palestine, and he spoke of the need for all Jewish people to make that their goal and to help the cause. He spoke passionately, with a fiery eloquence, and when he did, the frailty, the gait, even the lisp seemed to vanish. He became a giant standing before us, with eyes flashing. We listened spellbound and before he was done the old women were weeping in the gallery and the men were gripping their hands.
He was obsessed with this topic. When he was with people he could speak of nothing else. In cheder, too, he spoke to us of it, and he organized us into groups of Maccabees and sent us out to collect money for the cause from Jewish homes. He was altogether different from our other rabbi. He was young to begin withâperhaps not more than twenty-two or so, perhaps old to us but young enough. There were times indeed when he actually became one of us, and laughed and joked. Once, catching Zalmon bouncing a ball in the back row, instead of boxing his ears as the other rabbi would have done, he invited him to throw the ball to him. Then suddenly we were all having a wild game of catch right there in the cheder, with much hilarious shouting and shrieking.
In the midst of this, the tall, gaunt figure of Max Korer, the treasurer, appeared in the doorway, taking in the scene with a grim, disapproving look on his thin, gloomy face. A hush fell, and the ball rolled over toward his feet as we watched.
If the young rabbi felt embarrassed, he did not show it. He ran to pick up the ball, a smile on his face, and said cheerfully, “Come in, Mr. Korer, come in.”
“Is this how you conduct a Hebrew lesson?” Mr. Korer asked.
“Not always,” the rabbi joked. “Most of the time we are busy with our books, but for once I thought I would give their minds a rest and exercise their muscles. They will be still better Jews if they can gain some physical strength.”
The treasurer was not amused. In fact, he was furious. He turned on his heel and stamped out. Later, there was a great to-do over the matter. There was talk of sacking the young rabbi. But he had his champions, and my mother was one of them. In her shop, where the argument raged pro and con one day, she defended him loudly, her cheeks flushed.
“What do they want from him?” she demanded. “He works hard all the time, and for the little money he gets for it he is doing plenty. What if he plays ball now and then with the boys? Better that than shouting at them all the time.”
Old Mrs. Harris was inclined to agree with her. Huddled in her shawl, she adjusted the wig under it slightly, and nodded in agreement, muttering something indistinct. Mrs. Jacobs, though, threw her hands and one eye upward to heaven, and cried out, “God in heaven, what is happening to us? What is the world coming to? What kind of rabbis is God giving us?” She had been fiercely opposed to the rabbi from the start because of his lack of a beard. No rabbi could be worthy of his calling if he did not have a beard, she had maintained. Now she was more sure of it than ever. “This is a rabbi?” she asked. “What sort of a rabbi is it that does not have a beard, first of all, and second of all, spends his time playing ball in cheder with the children?”
Mrs. Mittleman had not been sure about the matter until now, but, disliking Mrs. Jacobs as she did, swung over immediately to the defenders. “So what of it?” she said, “What's wrong if he plays ball a little with the children? I have no objection. I can understand though,” she added a bit slyly, “why some might object, especially those who have a son who would like to be married.”
“What's that?” Mrs. Jacobs bridled and turned to face her, the one good eye flashing fire. “Are you perhaps talking about my son?”
“Your son?” said Mrs. Mittleman innocently, shrugging her shoulders. “I wasn't even thinking about your son. I was just saying, a lot of mothers might be jealous of the rabbi because he is young and so eligible and is getting so many offers.”
“Well, I'm not one of them,” snapped Mrs. Jacobs. “And I'll have you know my Rafael has plenty of offers.” The others avoided looking at one another, but they all wanted to laugh, knowing that the one-eyed woman was indulging in dreams. Mrs. Harris especially kept her eyes bent downward. As desperate as she was to find a match for her remaining unmarried daughters, the gawky idiot son of her neighbor was the last one she'd ever consider. But Mrs. Jacobs continued defiantly, “My Rafael doesn't have to worry. All he has to do is snap a finger and the girls would come running. He is now head presser at the shop. True, the shop has been idle for a few weeks and he is not making so much as he used to. But when things get better he will be making plenty.”
No one said anything further. As far as they were concerned, the discussion was over. They began to drift out one by one. My mother was left thinking. A week later she invited the rabbi to Friday night dinner. It was a further attempt to show her support for him. But it was time already. Others had also invited him to Friday night dinner. My mother had hesitated only because she was afraid, first, of my father, who would have to be there, and, second, of Lily and whether she would want it. She decided to take the chance without consulting either one of them first, and the rabbi accepted her invitation with alacrity.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
FRIDAY NIGHT DINNERS
were always the best of the week. They were like holiday feasts, and the whole atmosphere was festive. We came home from the synagogue into a house that smelled of chicken soup and freshly baked cakes. The table was decked out with a crisp, snow-white cloth, and set with the best dishes and cutlery. In the center, the candles burned in the shiny brass candlesticks that my mother had smuggled out of Poland. The fire glowed in the grate, with pots simmering over it.
The rabbi came home with us that Friday night, chatting cheerfully all along the way, with everyone envying us. He sniffed and sighed as we came in, rubbed his hands together briskly, and said, “Ah, what lovely smells.” He then called out, “Good Shabbos, good Shabbos!”
My father was there, a surprise to my two brothers and myself, who were unprepared for his presence. He was already seated at the table, with his head turned to one side, and if he answered the rabbi's greeting it was barely audible, and just a mutter of something. Rose and Lily did a little better, though Lily was noticeably cold and her eyes looked red and swollen, as if she had been crying.
Well, she had. My mother had had enough trouble getting my father to be there for dinner, and if it hadn't been for the new baby she might never have got him to do it. Since the baby's arrival, he had been a little easier for her to handle. As for Lily, however, she had run into a storm of protest. Outraged when she heard at the last moment that the rabbi was to be a guest for dinner, Lily had wanted to leave, had bitterly accused my mother of trying to make a match for her, had burst into a torrent of tears, and had carried on like that, to my mother's despair, until my father intervened, roaring that if she didn't shut her bloody mouth he'd shut it with his fist.
All that took place only moments before our arrival. If the rabbi sensed anything in the rather tense atmosphere, he gave no indication of it. He said a blessing before the dinner began, and then chatted cheerfully about various things, the weather, nothing of importance, just enough to make us feel at ease with him. He was never without words. He was really a personable fellow, and it was no wonder most people liked him. He directed his attention to Rose.
“I hear you are to become a dressmaker,” he said to her.
a dressmaker,” said Rose stiffly.
“Ah, I beg your pardon,” he apologized. “I thought you were still learning. What kind of shop do you work in? Is it a big one?”
“It's not a shop,” Rose said in the same stiff tone. She had difficulty speaking to people, and never looked at them when she did. She was much like my father in many respects. She had problems getting along with others, and was a loner on our street, without friends, aloof and superior. Since working in the dress shop she had also affected a haughty, artificial way of speaking that was supposed to be upper-class. She still, I am sure, lived in her dream world, but fantasized less about dukes and duchesses and lords and ladies and more about the rich women of today's world who were patrons of the dress shop where she worked. Someone had once told us that they had seen her wandering about the streets near the park, pausing every now and then to look at the fancy houses there. I have no doubt that in her mind she was living in one of them, dreaming as she walked along by herself.
It was in her fancy, would-be upper-class British voice that she answered the rabbi now. “It is an establishment, not a shop,” she said. “I work for Madame La Cossita, and we are very exclusive. Madame La Cossita accepts just a select few for her clients. Lady Bramhall is one of them.”
The rabbi tried to look properly impressed. I am sure he was not deceived, but he was polite, nodding and saying, “Ah, yes. It must be very interesting to work for a place like that.”
But then the whole effect for Rose was spoiled as my father gave a sudden, ugly little laugh, and said, “It's just a bloody shop like any other shop, except they charge ten times more and give their workers ten times less than any other shop. They're just a bloody bunch of cutthroats, and for the few farthings a week she gets from them she'd be better off staying at home.”
Rose's face froze. She sat for a moment saying nothing. Then, suddenly, abruptly, pushing her chair back with a familiar scraping sound so like his, she left the table. A few moments later we heard the door bang as she went out of the house. It was not the first time she had departed like this after a quarrel. She would wander about a bit in the dark by herself, perhaps near the park, among the houses that were lit now, many of them, with the new electric lights, and then she would return and go silently upstairs to bed.
There was a brief, awkward silence after her departure, before my mother started to apologize. The rabbi dismissed it with a wave of a hand, and said gently, “She is very young. She has a lot of pride, and there is nothing wrong with that. We are a proud people. Pride has always been a characteristic of the Jews. Someday we will really have something to be proud of, a nation of our own. What do you think?”
He addressed this last question to Lily, who had been helping my mother serve, and had just placed another dish in front of the rabbi. He had turned his head and spoken to her over his shoulder. It was the first time, too, that he had spoken to her since the greeting, though I know his eyes had been following her as she moved about the kitchen, bringing the food to the table, and taking dishes back into the scullery.
Lily, silent all this time, and evidently still hostile to the visitor, answered him rather loudly, and with an abruptness and vindictiveness that startled us and brought a worried frown to my mother's forehead. “I'd rather not think of it, if you don't mind,” she said.
“Why?” The rabbi looked a bit astonished. “Don't you want a homeland for the Jews?”
“There are too many nations already,” Lily retorted. “What do we need another one forâto divide the working class still more? The enemy of the Jews is not the Christians, it's the bosses. Instead of running away, they should stay here and fight with their fellow workers for the freedom they want. Anti-Semitism comes out of the system, like all the other evils, poverty and hunger and war and disease. If you destroy the system you destroy all those things.”