Winner of the National Jewish Book Award of 1979.
Violence shattered her golden world, and Leah's journey began...
It swept her from the burning villages of old Russia to the tenements of New York, from the glittering showrooms of Paris to the settlements of war-torn Israel. It brought her marriage to a man who yearned for her sweet, denied love - and passion for a man who yearned only for danger. It gave her a son born of shame, and a daughter born to destiny. It tested her love in the shadow of the Depression and the hell of the Nazi fury...
And then Leah's journey brought her home.
Aaron Goldfeder glanced nervously around the crowded synagogue, the silk of the new prayer shawl his father had given him that morning cool against his neck. Nervously he fingered its fringes and felt in his pocket for the crisp folded pages of his speech. He mouthed the morning prayers dutifully while the incantations of the prophetic reading, which would be his responsibility during the service, trilled through his mind. Next to him his father intoned the prayers without looking at the prayer book, swaying to the intoned cadence with the habit of centuries.
“God, full of mercy,” David Goldfeder’s strong voice rang out and Aaron thought of how his father had stared moodily at the newspaper that very morning, somberly studying a picture of Hitler’s brownshirted troops striding toward the Reichstag.
“Now they are marching. Soon they’ll be killing. Leah, we must write again to your family. They must leave Europe.”
“David, David, Hitler’s in Germany. My family is in Russia.” Leah had been disinterested, all her concentration focused on feeding Michael without letting him soil the light-blue outfit which Mollie had knit for the bar mitzvah.
“His river of blood will cross Europe,” David replied bitterly.
But now, in synagogue, his voice rose to full strength. “God of compassion and healing,” he sang, and Aaron wondered how his father who predicted rivers of blood could pray to a God of compassion.
In the pews behind Aaron the congregation murmured and swayed and he heard his sister Rebecca’s giggle through the yellowing gauze curtain that separated the men from the women in this small seaside synagogue. He was grateful for the thin gossamer barrier because it shielded him from his mother’s eyes, from the worried sweep of her deep stare that settled upon him, sometimes for minutes at a time. What was there about him, after all, that caused his own mother to focus on him with fear and bewilderment? When he was a small boy, absorbed in a game of chess or blocks, he would suddenly feel her eyes heavy on his bent back, as though her stare were possessed of visceral strength. He would continue to play, pretending that she was not there, studying his every motion and gesture. Sometimes in his sleep he felt her eyes upon him and wakened to find her staring down at him, a naked question puzzling her own dark eyes.
Once, months ago, he had asked his father about it, choosing a moment when David Goldfeder had laid his heavy medical texts aside for a moment and was carefully filling a pipe.
“Papa,” the boy said hesitantly, carefully choosing the words he had mentally rehearsed, “sometimes Mama stares at me in such a funny way. Sometimes I think she doesn’t even like me.”
He could not look at his father but stared at the patterned rug, relieved that he had thrust the thought from his mind, allowed the words to be heard.
But David Goldfeder had not been shocked. He had looked thoughtfully at the boy who had always been just a bit too thin, whose coppery curls burned brightly on days of sunlight and gleamed with burnished splendor even in the grim light of winter. David reached out with a gentle finger and affectionately traced the line of freckles that ran from Aaron’s nose to the crease of his green eyes which had always been too serious for a child.
“Your mama likes you—she loves you. It is just that she has had a hard life. Many bad things, terrible things happened to her, and sometimes people who have suffered have moods and feel sad when they remember too much. Perhaps when she looks at you like that, she is thinking of Yaakov, the man who gave you life, just as I have given you love. Such a memory may make her sad. You are a big boy, Aaron, with a big heart. Try to understand your mother.”
David’s dark eyes caressed the boy and he placed an arm in brief embrace about Aaron’s shoulders. But his own answer did not satisfy him. He too had felt the brooding wondering of Leah’s gaze as she looked at her son.
Aaron turned now and looked about the synagogue, smiling shyly at the familiar faces of those who had assembled to pay tribute to his passage into manhood. There were the old boarders who had shared his childhood—Label Katz the hatter, and little Mr. Morgenstern whose trimming store had kept Aaron provided with wooden spools to be fashioned into miniature soldiers or building blocks. Morgenstern’s wife Pearl, another former boarder, sat with his mother in the women’s section. Pearl had been a thin young woman, her pale skin almost colorless and her voice so soft that the other girls, especially Masha who had gone to California after his aunt Mollie had come from Europe, taunted her and asked her to repeat everything. But the woman who had kissed him that morning was portly, with packets of flesh dangling from her arms, and her small eyes were almost lost in the small mounds of pink flesh which were her cheeks. One child toddled at her side, she held an infant in her arms, and her body curved with the fullness of a new pregnancy. The Morgensterns had arrived in a large maroon Chevrolet car and she had announced in a loud voice that Mr. Morgenstern was doing well, very well. The small shopkeeper seemed to have grown even smaller but his new suit was well cut and his feet were encased in shoes of burnished leather that captured the morning sunlight.
Just behind Mr. Morgenstern, Aaron saw Charles Ferguson, who taught art at the Irvington Settlement House and who had never come to visit the apartment on Eldridge Street without bringing Aaron a book, knowing with mysterious accuracy just when Aaron’s interest had drifted from the Hardy boys to Robert Louis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe. Mr. Ferguson wore a beard now, a smooth blond growth threaded with silver, which he stroked now and again. Aaron touched his own chin and was comforted by the small, almost imperceptible hint of fuzz that met his exploring fingers.
David Goldfeder touched the boy’s wrist lightly, fondly, motioning him to pay attention to the services. The cantor, a small, wizened man from whom a powerful tenor voice sprang forth with amazing strength, was summoning the bar mitzvah boy with the vibrant ancient melody to which all the men in the congregation had responded in their time.
“Let Aaron, the son of David ben Levi, of the tribe of Levi, approach the Torah. Behold how the son of the holy Commandments, the bar mitzvah, is summoned!” The cantillation rang with the strength of centuries and Aaron Goldfeder rose and slowly ascended the platform.
He stood for a moment before the open Torah scroll and watched its graceful bright-black letters dance before him, almost leaping upward from the yellowed sheet of parchment. The sun poured in from the window beyond the ark and settled on his bright hair. Crowned with warmth, he lifted the fringes of his prayer shawl, kissed them, and placed them on a corner of the open scroll. Softly at first he chanted the blessing over the Torah and then his voice rose in new strength as he sang the prophetic portion he had rehearsed week after week in the cantor’s tiny office, with its pervasive odor of throat lozenges and camphored ceremonial garments.
His voice gathered strength and he sang the words of the prophet Amos: “Seek good and not evil that ye may live—thus spake the Lord of Hosts…”
The congregation sighed and the boy continued: “Hate the evil and love the good…” but before he could continue with the Prophet’s exhortation, his throat rebelled. The voice which moments before had been the sweet tones of a boy had suddenly erupted into the depth of a man’s tremulous tenor, and it was in the voice of a man that Aaron Goldfeder sang the concluding verse: “It may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.”
The boy’s face was red and there was a murmuring and chuckling throughout the congregation. The cantor patted him approvingly on his shoulder. It often happened, in the family of Israel, that a child’s voice became that of a man on the Sabbath of his bar mitzvah, and it was considered good luck. David Goldfeder, his face glowing with pride, ascended the platform, embraced his son, and together they concluded the service.
In the women’s section, Leah sat quietly, Michael at last asleep on her lap, and acknowledged the flow of “Mazal tovs” that rippled around her. She was swathed in a sweet serenity that had settled upon her as Aaron’s voice trembled into manhood. The timbre of his new voice was a familiar echo that carried her back across the years to that distant day in Odessa when Yaakov had stood beside her beneath the wedding canopy and lifted his voice to sing the marriage vows.
“Behold thou art consecrated unto me according to the laws of Moses and of Israel,” he had sung to her as they stood sheltered beneath the outstretched prayer shawl.
Now she was hearing that voice again, and she lifted a corner of the gauze curtain so that she might see her son’s bright hair, burnished amber in light as his father’s had been on their wedding morning. Familiar, too, was the curve of his back in the new navy-blue suit. Finally, in the moment of his new manhood, she had unraveled the mystery of his conception.